MIRRORS capture the intelligent aesthetics and aspirations of KRAFTWERK, JOY DIVISION and ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK.
Bringing them forward into the 21st Century, they have a denser, grittier approach for an element of aural claustrophobia that reflects their pop-noir aura. As well as releasing one of the best albums of the year so far in ‘Lights and Offerings’, they have also been impressing new audiences via prestigious support slots with GARY NUMAN, JOHN FOXX and WHITE LIES.
Now they are embarking on their first headlining tour in Germany, the spiritual homeland of electronic music. This expanded show to sees the welcome return of their debut single ‘Look At Me’ to the live set, as well as premieres for B-Side ‘Toe The Line’ and the monumental album closer ‘Secrets’.
The latter in particular showcases the ambition of the MIRRORS audio/visual experience; grainy impressionistic film projections and stark lighting soundtracked by the sharp, dynamic cacophonies of synthetic sound.
Effectively creating their own ‘Spiegelsaal’, instrumentalists Ally Young, James ‘Tate’ Arguile and Josef Page are fronted by the intense, energetic persona of vocalist James New.
With their confidence growing throughout the tour, James even performed the song’s final reprise monologue in Deutsch at Frankfurt’s Yellowstage, much to the delight of the home crowd. Just prior to their first show at Cologne’s Gebaude9, The Electricity Club were invited by James New and Ally Young to a round of Vintage Synth Trumps in a variation of the classic card game that has kept many a boy (and occasionally, girl) happy in the school playground.
While Tate sat nearby compiling MIRRORS latest tour blog, James and Ally also talked about ‘Lights and Offerings’ reception, how they are not synthpop by numbers and their use of guitars…
Ally: Well how about that? A Juno 60! *big cheers from all*
James: What are the chances?
And James has one for a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5… let’s talk about the Roland Juno 60 first because that’s one of the mainstays of your set-up isn’t it?
Ally: It is. James plays the Juno and I play not a Sequential, but a Dave Smith Prophet. It’s fully analogue with digital interfaces.
What you’ve got there is a classic synthesizer with the Juno 60 and the most up-to-date polyphonic analogue synth in the Prophet 08. When you decided to go for synthesizers as your main instrumentation, how important was it for you to use a combination of vintage and new equipment?
Ally: The reason we like all the old synthesizers is that they don’t go in tune properly, one wrong move of a button and the sound is lost forever, they’re noisy and they’re slightly unreliable…but that’s what we like, that analogue warmth.
James: The Juno for us particularly was just because for warm padded sounds like FEVER RAY-type drones, it sounds incredible; an almost ‘organy’ synth sound and for things like ‘Write Through The Night’…
James: What we tend to use the Juno for is padding out. If you think of us almost as a traditional band, Ally plays the lead parts, Tate plays the bass parts on the Moog, Josef obviously does drums and I’m sort of rhythm in all the rest of the noise *laughs*
Where did you get the Juno 60 from?
Ally: That was covered in dust in the basement of our record label’s office.
James: We asked “Can we borrow that?”
Ally: Two years later and we’ve still got it and we’re still touring it.
With the Dave Smith Prophet 08 then, what made you choose that one?
James: It does a bit of everything.
Ally: It does sound amazing. I didn’t what to buy it at first; I’m not a big fan of the digital modelling synths… if you want an analogue synthesizer sound, you’ve got to buy one. It’s part digital but the way the sound is created in the DS is totally analogue and the pretext of the Prophet is that it’s not a homage to the Prophet 5 which Dave Smith and Sequential Circuits obviously made… it’s if he never made the Prophet 5 and was going to make one now, this is what it would be.
For me, it does everything. It’s the best of both worlds, the functionality of it is amazing, the extra envelope generator etc. I used it on pretty much everything for recording and live. It’s just so versatile. A lot of the pulse sounds that we use a lot on the record are actually a Minimoog but the Prophet does them pretty closely for live.
You do get some quite amazing sounds on your solos, I’m thinking particularly of the screeching one in ‘Searching In The Wilderness’..
Ally: I knew you were going to say that, that was the Juno. A lot of them are a combination of sounds, two or three parts put through a holy amount of reverb!
‘Searching In The Wilderness’ is also the song that changed the most from its original demo to the final recording.
James: It became more MIRRORS.
James: It was a bit too light and it did remind us a lot of ‘Speak and Spell’. On the original production, it was very empty and it needed to sound like the rest of the record.
Ally: I think it’s moved away from ‘Speak and Spell’ and more into that saturated sound…
James: Melodically, maybe not…
Ally: But the actual production has much more of a darkness. In its original guise, it didn’t sit right.
James: It’s the lightest thing on the record.
Ally: But we wanted it on there, it’s a nice little mood change.
Ally: Ah, the Minimoog.
James: Actually, when we did our very first recordings where we pooled all our money to go into a studio, there was a Minimoog there. I’d personally never heard one before…we were using plug-ins because we were flat broke. And when we heard it, it was just amazing!
Ally: It’s that moment isn’t it?
James: From that moment on, we just thought “we have to use this” as the driving force for some of our tracks.
Ally: Those sort of “dum-dum-dum-dum” pulsing parts… amazing!
James: So yeah, that was the start of it, my first memory. And there’s some great pictures of us looking very excited!
What made those pulsing sounds on the beginning of ‘Fear Of Drowning’?
James: That’s actually Garageband…
Ally: It was originally, but we replaced it with the Prophet although we’re not snobs in any sense. Some of the sounds you hear on the record were from plug-ins and Garageband but it’s more about the post-production really. We’re not going to sit here and say we only use analogue gear and we only use sequencers… we don’t. If something sounds good, then it really doesn’t matter.
So can I ask, is there any guitar on the album?
Ally: There are loads!
James: It’s really distorted and low, it adds density.
Ally: I would say it’s on every track without exception, perhaps ‘Something On Your Mind’ doesn’t have any guitar.
James: It would be about the only one. We use it in a particular way; it isn’t guitar live…
Ally: It’s not Jimmy Page wiggling all over it! It’s more in an almost MY BLOODY VALENTINE sense because there are layers and layers of guitar all over the place. But we just maybe sidechain it off something strange so it’s sucking in and out a bit…
James: Exactly! And it gives it some rhythmic element as well so if you have layers and layers of guitar, you just sidechain it to a snare or vocal. Then you end up with this kind of sickly, heaving in and out which you can’t pinpoint.
Ally: That’s one of the things that is quite MIRRORS, we have a lot of these synth sounds but we have things like guitars on there to add that extra dimension.
James: The thing about it is also, having acoustic instruments gives it a live feel and that was important. It had to be visceral and real, having a couple of drums that were a bit out.
Do you think having musical backgrounds in more conventional roots actually helps your songwriting because synthesizers are still comparatively new to you as instruments; that you approach them like excited boys?
Ally: I think so. The other thing you have to bear in mind with a synthesizer is you can play a melody or a chord with one sound and it could be completely wrong.
Manipulate that sound and then suddenly, it becomes something else which you don’t really get when you’re sat round a piano or writing a song on an acoustic guitar… it is what it is. Electronic instruments, good or bad, give you that freedom to be able to play the same thing but change the sound and manipulate it so that it becomes something completely different.
James: It’s two different challenges for us in that one half of it is very much important that we get the songs right to start with. I tend to take more of a role in that initial melody and then Ally certainly has vast interest in the geeky side of recording.
Ally: Most of our songs start with the core of a song, then we just pull them apart and put them back together using electronic instruments.
Are you quite prolific with your writing?
James: It weird actually, I think I used to write much more but particularly since being in MIRRORS, I’d rather write fewer ideas and work on them for longer to make sure they’re the best versions of the song.
Ally: For the ten songs that made the album, we have ditched I’d say twenty…
James: Yeah, that’s probably quite standard.
Ally and James: YEAH!
James: We’re really pleased about that…
B-sides are a great traditional to be part of. How do these tracks emerge? Are they experiments in new directions?
Ally: They are tracks that, for whatever reason, didn’t make the record, be it for mood or that there was already a song of a similar nature on there.
James: We didn’t in a lot of cases think they were worse. Every single B-side could happily have had a place. We didn’t want it to be too self-indulgent and long. If you’ve got fifteen brilliant songs, it’s going to be an hour and forty five minutes!
Ally: No-one going to have time for that, we’re not RADIOHEAD! *laughs*
James: It’s nice that people really appreciate that we do put as much of an effort into the B-sides because it means they’ll come back to the singles.
Any particular favourite B-sides?
Ally: I think ‘Toe The Line’ probably for me personally. That was a song we didn’t really consider for the album until the very last minute and we thought “What about this? It’s actually quite good!”
James: ‘Lights And Offerings’ for me.
Ally: Yeah, I forgot about that! ‘Lights And Offerings’ was so close to making the album…
James: The reason it didn’t make it was because ‘Secrets’ did, it’s as simple as that. They come from a similar place and we didn’t want to have too many epics. With ‘Somewhere Strange’, ‘Fear Of Drowning’ and ‘Secrets’, you’ve got three lynchpin moments; we didn’t need another one of those.
Ally: We’ve always played it live, it goes down excellently.
James: It’s one of my favourite tracks of ours! ‘Broken By Silence’ as well, I like that one.
Ally: It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure…
…was that one definitely recorded as a B-side one-off to get a certain thing out of your system?
James and Ally: MAYBE!
Ally: Perhaps subconsciously.
James: We do have a habit of writing quite big melodies and choruses, we come from a poppy sort of place.
Ally: James and I normally do that, it’s Tate that reins us in! *laughs*
James: And Tate will tell you right now that he’s not a big fan of ‘Falls By Another Name’…
Tate: It’s alright… *everyone laughs*
The German bonus track ‘Visions Of You’ probably falls into that category too. I think it sounds like CHINA CRISIS if they had fully adopted synthesizers.
James: That’s another of the ones we looked at when we were making the record. The label really wanted it to be on the album and we had to put our foot down and say…
Ally: This doesn’t feel right to do this on our first record. It didn’t make it in the UK but we’re happy to release it in Germany and I think we’ve come back to it a bit.
James: It’s a very big pop song but there’s part of me that thinks it might be a little too big.
Ally: It sort of scares us almost!
Another card then?
Ally: A Moog Source
James: Korg MS10… I know about this one don’t I? *laughs*
Ally: Yeah! I’ve been looking for an MS20 for a while but they’re all quite expensive.
James: I might be right in thinking they’re quite good at making those muted guitar sounds.
Ally: There’s a track we’re working on at the moment where we’ve made an almost pizzicato string sound. It does that and it’s really lovely. I think I’d potentially invest in an MS20 for the second record mainly because I like the idea of something that’s semi-modular plus also the bass and the filter on it are amazing. It’s got the external input audio input so you can feed other audio into it and use the filter on it…
James: Oh, that’s interesting…
Maybe that’s something you could do?
James: Yeah, will definitely try *chuckles*
You’ve got a Moog Source card there but your Moog is the Little Phatty, what’s that like?
Ally: It’s good but it’s not as easy to make good sounds as the Prophet, it takes a little bit more work.
James: It’s good at what it does for live work because it basically does the bass for us.
Ally: It’s got that nice effect because it’s monophonic and it’s limiting in a good way I think. Again, some good modern features like you can connect it up to your computer and look at the sound. It’s also got a tempo synch, an arpegiator and little things like that.
Was there any reason why you got the Little Phatty rather than the Voyager?
Ally: Price mostly! The Little Phatty is £500 cheaper and if we were going to spend that much money on a synth, I think we’d probably get another Prophet to be honest, or something older.
The most unusual synth I saw your list was the Siel Cruise, where did you get that from?
Ally: eBay of course!
James: It’s good for strings, like those kind of slightly cheap NEW ORDER-like sounds… “aahh-ah-aaaah!”
Ally: Mellotrony! It’s a layer of the strings on ‘Look At Me’. But it’s not very good at doing most things! *laughs*
James: It’s just a one-trick pony and only cost a couple of hundred quid so it’s good for that particular trick.
James: It’s been really, really good. It obviously hasn’t been world beating but what we feel like we’ve achieved is a small, really loyal fanbase which is such a great place to start from. It gives us a place to go. I’ve been in bands where fans have been incredibly fickle and they move on. I really feel with MIRRORS, we’ve got something.
Ally: Yeah, not all the reviews have been positive as I’m sure you can imagine… the NME didn’t like it, but we knew they wouldn’t! But people like Artrocker, Q and Mojo, the magazines that we would read and respect gave it very positive reviews. In that sense, we were really pleased.
James: In a people sense, it’s been really lovely as well. So many nice messages from loads of old friends of mine as well, ringing up and saying “I just wanted to say it’s absolutely brilliant”.
Ally: It’s really sweet that.
How do you respond to criticism in some quarters that MIRRORS are merely “synthpop by numbers”, that you are just only recreating a specific sound from a specific era?
Ally: I’d like to quote Andy McCluskey from OMD who said in the ‘Synth Britannia’ documentary if they had been a button on a synthesizer that said hit single, he’d have pressed it more than anyone else… that button doesn’t exist! *laughs*
James: It starts with the songs and I’m very proud of them. It’s ten excellent tracks and I think it’s very diverse. But the thing is, this is our first record, people have to realise that as well. They are things that we aren’t pleased with… I think we’ve made without realising it, maybe a record that was slightly more derivative than we hoped to make. We can be honest about that!
Ally: Yes, absolutely! But I think the live show is a very different beast to the record, it has a lot more energy perhaps than can be conveyed on the album. And it’s a lot more raw and much more like a live band.
James: I’ve heard lots of people say “I wasn’t that sure about the album but with the live show, I’ve done a total 180” which is nice.
You played at Back To The Phuture supporting GARY NUMAN and JOHN FOXX, how was it for you?
Ally: We really enjoyed it. It was really nice for us to be asked to play alongside GARY NUMAN and JOHN FOXX.
James: We saw people’s responses at the end of the show.
Ally: People were very keen to buy the album and we sold out, we didn’t have enough to go round.
James: It was great; a perfect audience for us really isn’t it?
James: I had a good conversation with JOHN FOXX. Since then, I think we might be playing with him again so that’s really good. I didn’t meet GARY NUMAN but I think I wandered into his dressing room accidentally! *laughs*
What inspired you to cover ‘Something On Your Mind’, a comparatively obscure country song?
Ally: Tate and I had a couple of KAREN DALTON LPs and it was on an OPTIMO mixtape. The song is beautiful, she was something of a tortured soul and her voice is incredible. We wanted to do it and it initially wasn’t going to be on the album but the label heard it and really liked it.
James: And I wanted to sing it basically *laughs*
Ally: We were quite happy for it to go on there because our version is so different. It was very nice for us to be able to apply our aesthetic to someone else’s song.
James: I think the thing for us as well is, bearing in mind that we make electronic music all day, we get back and we won’t listen to that kind of music.
Ally: Yeah, I don’t come home and put on ‘Messages’! *laughs*
James: I think we came home, put that record on and thought it would be quite interesting to try and do something that’s entirely different to MIRRORS but bring it into that world.
So did the LAURA CANTRELL cover of ‘Look At Me’ come before or after that?
Ally: We got a really sweet message from her saying “Thank you for asking me to do it”. Her and her band locked themselves in a studio over Christmas 2009 in Nashville. She thought the song was lovely and really enjoyed the experience.
James: And again, it goes to show that they’re really good pop songs for me because it works perfectly like that and it sounds like it could be one of her singles. It shows that we write universal music…
Ally: We just present it in a slightly off-kilter manner.
How did ‘Secrets’ end up being an eleven minute, three movement epic?
James: It was fourteen to start with! The label nearly had a panic attack! *laughs*
Ally: Yeah, “we’re not putting the two big singles on there… we’re putting this on it!” *laughs*
James: I wrote the song five years ago, we wanted to make a mood change on the record didn’t we?
We wanted to make a bold statement…like it’s our debut record, you only get to do that once and we didn’t want to look back and think “we should have put that on!”. So we thought, why not? It’s got that ENO-esque bit in the middle.
It starts very big and is quite rocky in places before the mood descends into that abstract middle and the reprise just comes in, in a different version of itself.
The ambient interlude made a refreshing change from the silence before a hidden track. It was like you decided to do an ENO instead of everyone else accidentally doing JOHN CAGE after all these years…
Ally: I’m glad you think so
James: You might see a live version of that idea live *laughs*
Ally: That’s part of the reason we’re doing it. It was always going to be a bit of a challenge to do live, it’s just such a beast.
So what next for MIRRORS? What direction are you possibly going to take?
James: It won’t be that long ’til the next album, we said a year from releasing the first. So we’ve written quite a few songs already. We’re writing as a live band now, that will be the big change. It will be a more contemporary record.
Ally: Maybe a bit less busy, more stripped. To be honest we don’t know ourselves yet. This has been such a long process for us because we had a lot of the songs written before we were signed, then we re-did them and now we’re touring them again which is very enjoyable but at the same time in the back of our minds, we have new ideas that we want to put down and the way things can move forward… it’s very exciting.
James: With the live show as well, we are talking quite excitedly about a more interactive show for the second album which we haven’t had time to do where we actually incorporate the sounds from the crowd so they become actually involved in it.
MIRRORS ‘Lights and Offerings’ uses the following equipment: ARP 2600, Akai MPC1000 Production Station, Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08, Doepfer MAQ16/3 Sequencer, Kawai R50 Drum Machine, Korg MicroPreset, Moog Little Phatty, Minimoog, Memorymoog, Nord Lead 2X, Octave Cat, Roland Juno 60, Roland SH101, Roland TR808 Rhythm Composer, Roland MC202 MicroComposer, Roland SPD-S Electronic Percussion Sampling Pad, Siel Cruise.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to MIRRORS
Special thanks to Debbie Ball at Create Spark and Skint Records
‘Lights and Offerings’ is released as a CD, double vinyl LP and download by Skint Records.
MIRRORS’ suits by Gresham Blake Ltd, Brighton
Vintage Synth Trumps is a card game by GForce that features 52 classic synthesizers
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
30th April 2011, updated 17th March 2018