INFRA VIOLET are the Brighton-based duo comprising of Beth Munroe and Toby Campen.
Adversity often fuels emotive creativity and INFRA VIOLET were a product of the worldwide lockdown. With dynamic self-production of a high standard for an independent release, their synth rock flavoured debut album ‘Dream Tether’ issued in Summer 2021 has been well received with Munroe’s heartfelt vocals being singled out for praise.
Making a lot of noise for two people, INFRA VIOLET provide a warm injection of enthusiasm whenever performing live, aided by their inherent musicality and instrumental versatility with an aim not to get trapped by on-stage computerisation.
Having just returned from the first live tour of the UK, INFRA VIOLET spoke about their musical journey so far to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK before heading back into the studio to write new material for their second album.
INFRA VIOLET have a quite eclectic musical background, how did synths become part of your sound?
Beth: It was Toby that got me into the synthwave sound, before that, I was doing my own thing as a fingerstyle guitarist / indie solo artist until Toby sent me a message at the beginning of lockdown. I loved the combinations of our sounds straight away.
Toby: My parents were big fans of new wave music so I was brought up on a lot of synth music and played piano from a young age. Although I was in a lot of rock bands prior to INFRA VIOLET, I always had a curiosity for synths and when I heard CHVRCHES’ first album, that re-ignited my love for more modern synth music. Along with growing up listening to alternative / rock adjacent acts like NINE INCH NAILS and THE PRODIGY.
What VST emulations have you particularly taken to? Is there a vintage hardware synth that you covet?
Toby: In the studio, we use a lot of the Arturia and Native Instruments emulations, I’m a big fan of the Roland Juno and Jupiter synths as you can probably hear in our music, along with the Korg Mono/Poly and MS-20. Growing up, my dad had a Yamaha DX7 and Korg M1 in the house so I have fond memories of those. Live I play a Roland JDXi, as we prefer not to rely on laptops at the moment.
The fretboard soloing that INFRA VIOLET use is perhaps more closely associated with The Blues which gives you an unusual sound?
Beth: Some of the solos might sound a bit like classic rock which comes from Blues I suppose. The tapping that you see comes from acoustic fingerstyle, playing with both hands that you might typically see on an acoustic guitar, we’ve been experimenting with moving that over into our genre on electric, with mixed results but it gives a good show.
How would you describe your creative dynamic?
Beth: We both come up with original ideas that we take to the other. The first few songs, including ‘Polaroid’, Toby just presented me with this polished track that just needed vocals. As we worked together more, I put forward tracks as well. Overall, I’m really good at starting songs, and Toby’s really good at getting them finished and actually sounding good, but our roles are pretty fluid.
From your first single ‘Polaroid’, INFRA VIOLET were quickly embraced by the synthwave community, did that surprise you?
Beth: Yeah it really did, coming from a rock / singer songwriter background, those genres are so oversaturated that there just isn’t a community there anymore. I was so blown away from the support we got right from the start, how lovely everyone was, and how interconnected the UK synthwave scene is. It feels very hopeful for the genre.
Toby: Yes it was a pleasant surprise. There are a lot of musicians in this genre putting out great music, so to be noticed quite early on in our journey was very rewarding and for our first venture into this type of music as well.
Was there a need for you to study the synthwave form as it were? Did you have any particular inspirations or acts who you looked up to?
Toby: Being children of the late 80s / early 90s, the nostalgia element of this sort of music comes quite naturally. When we started making music as a duo, we weren’t really that aware of synthwave as a genre, until people started comparing our song ‘Polaroid’ to acts like The MIDNIGHT and Dana Jean Phoenix. When I first heard these acts, that was it, I was hooked. It mixed synthpop with lots of the 80s soundtrack music I loved like ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘The Terminator’.
‘Grow’ has become your most popular track, what was its genesis and realisation?
Beth: Toby gave me the track, it was originally a lot slower and more ambient, and when talking about a lyrical brief, we both agreed it would be quite nice to have an environmental song, with both of us being environmentalists. I wrote the lyrics about how it actually feels to be in this generation and see the ecosystem and life sustainability of the planet dissolve around us, rather than getting on a soapbox about it. Over time we sped up the track and found the groove of the song, and it all came together.
Toby: From a musical standpoint this song is definitely more post punk / dark wave inspired. I’d been listening to a lot of JOY DIVISION and NEW ORDER at this point in time, along with some newer bands like PALE WAVES and KORINE. However I knew once this was given to Beth with her vocal and guitar style it would transform into something a little different. She suggested making it more upbeat and dancey which helped tackle the difficult subject matter of the lyrics.
Is the confessional of ‘Mess’ autobiographical or do you write as characters?
Beth: All of the songs come from a very personal space, and all of the stories within them are true and mine.
Toby: One thing I have always quite liked about Beth’s lyrics is they are very personal and written from life experience. Quite a few bands in our genre write fictional lyrics so if this sets us apart a little, that’s not a bad thing.
Your debut album ‘Dream Tether’ was very well received and got reviews in mainstream media, it was released in all the usual formats including cassette while the vinyl has sold out. As independent artists, how did you decide what formats to go with and how much of a gamble is it?
Beth: It was my idea to push cassette tape, as I noticed when touring as a DIY artist previously, lots of people started asking for tape, what I didn’t expect was to sell out on our cassettes as well, that was absolutely wild.
Toby: It was a bit of a gamble to do all the formats on our first album, as Beth mentioned our cassettes moved pretty quickly and as a format cassettes are having quite a resurgence right now, especially in electronic music. I think I pushed more for the vinyl as it has always been a dream of mine to put something out on vinyl and in all the bands I’ve been in over the years (going on 20 now) this is the first to do so. Due to huge backlogs in getting vinyl pressed, we went with lathe cut from a company called Lathe To The Grave who I can thoroughly recommend and this made it faster to get our run made. They were a very limited run but we might make more if there’s a demand… message us and say!
Which are your favourite songs on ‘Dream Tether’?
Beth: I like ‘Water’, it’s one of the first we wrote together, and I love the sense of power and gravitas it has, although so much of that is Toby’s production. I like ‘Run’ and ‘Mess’, my two little fingerstyle experiments as well, with the really personal lyrics they both have a nice sense of fun to them. I’m proud of all of it honestly.
Toby: It’s hard to pick as I’m also very proud of it as a body of work. ‘Grow’ will definitely always be a favourite of mine, but some of the lower key songs like ‘Radio’ and ‘Gold’ are also personal favourites because of the way they came out production wise, and also Beth’s lyrics. It’s not on this album but our new single ‘Easy’ is probably one of the songs I’m most proud of to date and it has quite a different sound.
INFRA VIOLET have taken to playing live with aplomb, but what have been the challenges in bringing your sound to the stage?
Beth: It’s definitely very different from anything I’ve known playing live before. Playing to a backing track with in-ear monitors gives a very different feeling, and there’s a lot of tech that could go wrong. Luckily Toby is there to sort the technical side, we’re still finding our feet live for sure, but it’s getting there.
Toby: Initially working out how we would perform everything was a challenge and deciding whether to sequence hardware or go the laptop route etc. In a perfect world everything would be performed as a bigger band with more musicians, but right now that’s just not logistically ideal for us. Our songs also have quite a few patch changes from start to end, with lots of different synths and samples as we write to make the songs the best they can be, then worry about live later. So we are tied to using backing tracks for now, but for me the way we perform with the main synths, guitar and vocals gives enough of a show visually and we can still be entertaining and have fun performing live.
INFRA VIOLET released an instrumental versions EP, but was there any pressure on you to do this as there is this strange line that’s been drawn between vocal and instrumental synthwave. Just taking off a vocal from a song does not necessarily make it a good instrumental track, which is why a number of synthwave instrumentals sound like someone has forgotten to sing…
Beth: I mean I definitely agree, instrumental tracks require texture, melody, and some sort of theme or build that keeps the reader engaged. If you’re going to remove the texture and melodic layer of vocals, you need to either replace it or shift the track around to accommodate the empty space and keep us interested. Toby’s a fantastic producer, and I’m lucky to find someone who knows what they’re doing and can pack the track full of these interesting sounds and textures and little harmonies and hooks that you don’t always notice at first. It’s something not everyone gets right in this genre, so I’m glad Toby can.
Toby: Agreed, I think initially we did feel the pressure to release some as instrumentals and we did actually get requests from people to do so early on. When we do release instrumentals, I’ll remix the songs to suit this format, but we haven’t released all our songs this way for the very reason that some of them would just be boring without the vocals.
But INFRA VIOLET have specifically written instrumentals and contributed ‘Nightmares’ to the soundtrack of the short ghost film ‘The Understudy’. How did that come about, did you compose to moving images and would you like to do more of this kind of commission?
Beth: Yes, we also specifically write instrumental music for film and TV, and we’d love to do more. We wrote ‘Nightmares’ which was a lot of fun writing a spooky synthwave tune with lots of heavy distorted guitars. Our instrumentals are also going to feature in the upcoming documentary ‘Cult Of VHS’ and we’re working on another horror soundtrack at the moment as well. It’s a world we’d love to get more into.
Toby: As my day job I’ve been working in film and TV as a sound designer for most of my career, so some of these opportunities have come via directors that I know. We’d definitely like to score more films as INFRA VIOLET and when we do we compose to the picture as a Hollywood composer would. In that world of film composition, I’m largely influenced by the work of composers like Geoff Barrow, Trent Reznor, John Carpenter
If you were a ‘Stranger Things’ character, who would you be most like?
Beth: I’d be Dustin, I think. He’s my fav, I relate to his clownery and silly upbeat attitude a lot.
Toby: Probably Hopper because I’m partial to a Hawaiian shirt.
So DEPECHE MODE or NINE INCH NAILS?
Beth: I would actually say DEPECHE MODE, but only marginally more my favourite, I love them both.
Toby: For me definitely NIN (if that’s an unpopular opinion) as I grew up listening to a lot of their music and although it’s maybe not audibly obvious, the work of Trent Reznor is a big influence on my music.
How supportive have your parents been in your pursuit of a music career? Have they offered any friendly advice or guidance?
Toby: Mine have been very encouraging of me being in bands. Music has been in my family for many generations, so I had piano lessons as a young child and learnt other instruments after that. My dad was also in numerous synth bands over the years – namely GREY PARADE who were on Numa Records, and you can see that recently mentioned on ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s social media! He’s given me a fair bit of music industry advice over the years and been a good sounding board for song ideas.
Beth: My dad taught me some fingerpicking acoustic guitar when I was younger, I think you can still hear echoes of that when I play now. My mum bought me my first electric guitar and CD player so I could play along to MUSE and GREEN DAY. They’ve both been very supportive of me since, and only a little disappointed I didn’t become a writer instead.
Your most recent single ‘Easy’ appears to have entered more countrified direction? So what’s in store for your next body of work?
Beth: I think people might be a bit surprised when they hear what we have in store after ‘Easy’. It didn’t occur to us ‘Easy’ sounded a bit like country, but it makes sense with the upbeat vibe and the guitars. We’re working on a few different things, and still figuring out our sound, but our next release is likely to be a lot darker and more deviant, I can’t wait to see people’s reaction.
Toby: As Beth said some of our yet to be released songs have taken us in some unexpected directions so we have some darker and lighter sounding ones in the bank. After our first album we’re now taking some time to experiment and see where we can take our sound.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to INFRA VIOLET
Just 13 months after her debut solo long player ‘Let Me Speak’, Norwich songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Gemma Cullingford will be presenting her second full-length album, ‘Tongue Tied’.
A member of acclaimed post-punk funk duo SINK YA TEETH, Gemma Cullingford’s solo career was accidental consequence of lockdown. ‘Let Me Speak’ was an autobiographical statement, stepping away from the collaborative format which began with indie band KAITO.
Using largely electronic instrumentation, ‘Let Me Speak’ steadily gained momentum by word of mouth with an unexpected snowball effect and its recent shortlisting in Loud Women’s Hercury Prize was the culmination of that acclaim. Now comes ‘Tongue Tied’, a more confident and polished follow-up that Cullingford says is “perhaps the fruits of that voyage of discovery…”, although the endearing emotions conveyed remain anxious and introspective yet joyous and defiant.
Taking a break from assembling the Dinked edition LP and CDs of ‘Tongue Tied’ with their accompanying zines and screen prints, Gemma Cullingford chatted to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about the motivations and inspirations behind the making of her new album.
Your debut album ‘Let Me Speak’ has just been shortlisted for the Loud Women Hercury Prize, how does that feel?
I feel very honoured! Cassie et al at Loud Women work so hard and do such a great job at championing female and trans artists and giving us a platform to be heard. There are a lot of great female artists out there and on the shortlist, so to be amongst them is quite something!
You released your first single with KAITO in 1998 while the debut SINK YA TEETH release came out in 2015, but there appears to have been a gap between 2006 to 2015, what was happening with you then?
I got a proper office job for the most of it, I needed some money and routine! Did a couple of bands GGGRITS and KOMIZA, decided I wanted to work in music so got some teaching qualifications and set up my own business offering ukulele lessons to primary school kids (which is still my job), dabbled in floristry and got obsessed with flowers for a couple of years.
Bass, guitar, ukulele, flute and synths is quite a wide ranging instrument portfolio, how would you describe your abilities with each?
Bass guitar will I think always be my main instrument. I feel most connected to that and when I play it on stage, it feels like an extra limb! Flute is from my childhood really. I got quite good at it but dropped it at high school for guitar, which I’m not great at as it has too many strings and frets for me. The flute is the only instrument I ever learned how to play properly with notation and music theory and stuff.
But in general I like to work things out my own way, I don’t like having to stick to rules. So although I consider myself fairly good on bass, I don’t know what the notes are or anything and wouldn’t be able to read music. Same with guitar. And with ukulele I learnt a little bit of tab but only enough to teach kids. I have no desire to progress much further on any instrument to be honest. I like working within a few restrictions. I’ve tried to play the flute live at my first ever gig but no notes would come out! I must have been breathing funny. So I’ve got rather rusty at that!
What encouraged you to take a more electronic dance direction for your solo work?
If you have a laptop with a DAW (I use Logic Pro X), you then have every instrument under the sun at your fingertips, and you don’t have to know how to play each instrument. I’ll sometimes plug my bass and guitar in but the majority of stuff is done on Logic. It can be done in my spare room, I don’t need tons of equipment, session musicians etc so it was perfect for lockdown! Also when writing both albums, I developed Rheumatoid arthritis and couldn’t play bass or guitar for a good few months, hence a lot of bass sounds are programmed. I appear to be over it now though thankfully, at least for the moment so I can play bass live again.
Has this been sort of the music you have always wanted to make, but maybe 25 years ago the technology wasn’t as portable and affordable, you haven’t been able to do it until now?
No, I’ve always made the music I’ve wanted to make regardless of the limitations I’ve had. Where there’s a will there’s a way! Electronic music just opens up so many more opportunities.
It wouldn’t surprise me if I end up going acoustic or more ‘bandy’ in the future but I don’t like to plan, so who knows what I’ll do?! (Hoping to have a bit of a break to be honest!)
You’re a SUPER FURRY ANIMALS fan so did you like Gruff Rhys’ electronic side project NEON NEON?
I must admit I never checked it out! Super Furries were very much an era of my life when I first started discovering cool music and they’ll always have a special place in my heart. But so many more discoveries followed so quickly, actually a lot of electronic music that I like now (perhaps embarrassingly), I only discovered very very recently. I was a post-punk fan followed by dreampop. But I’ve also always created music and when I’m creating, I try not to listen to other music as I don’t want to be too influenced by anything else, so I go through bouts of not listening to other music at all for months or years.
On ‘Let Me Speak’, you included a very original cover version of ‘Ode To Billie Joe’, how did that come into being?
I was making a playlist for my mum’s birthday and my boyfriend suggested ‘Ode to Billie Joe’. I’d never heard it before and was mesmerised by it. I loved the melody, the fact that it was quite a happy sounding song but the lyrics seemed quite dark. Then I read the lyrics and saw just how dark they are, and I kinda jokingly said I’d do a cover of it. And I did really quickly. It just came out! I had no idea that it was such a well-known and loved song and I’m sure to some Bobby Gentry fans think what I’ve done is sacrilegious, but there are plenty of covers of it out there!
‘Queen Bee’ was another highlight from ‘Let Me Speak’ and featured a closing instrumental synth passage that came over a bit like Gary Numan? What was your thinking?
I don’t really think when I’m writing! ‘Queen Bee’ was the first song I ever wrote on my own in the style I’ve become known for. I barely ever remember the actual writing process, but I would imagine I found a synth sound and just played whatever my fingers came out with to the drum track. It’s usually about finding a sound I like, one that speaks to me at that moment in time and then just seeing what comes out of me! There’s little to zero planning with me. I’m just not that organised. If I did have a plan, whatever I write would come out completely differently anyway.
Has the positive reception for ‘Let Me Speak’ surprised you as something of an indie music veteran? Do you have a key memory from the making of the album?
The positive reception has surprised (and delighted) me but not as an indie music veteran. The only indie music if you can call it that would her been through being in KAITO, and I still take a lot of influence from those days. Particularly the creative writing process, and approaching sounds in an experimental way. The noise comes from those days, and some of the minimalism in places does too.
I didn’t really set out to make an album, it just kinda evolved as I had a bunch of songs. I do remember it going from “I have enough songs for an album (in fact more)” to “maybe I’ll pop them on Bandcamp under an anonymous moniker?” to “I wonder if Outré would put it out digitally?” to “Outré are gonna release it on vinyl” to “I think I’ll just use my own name actually” to “It’s just a studio album though, not gonna play live” to now I have a second album out and am touring and enjoying playing live!
The new album ‘Tongue Tied’ is out on September 2nd and the title song has this glorious Walking On Thin Ice’ art disco vibe, but what was its actual inspiration, musically and lyrically?
All my songs start with the music. Lyrics aren’t really my thing. Musically I THINK it came from me taking my (B side to ‘Wide Boys’) track ‘104’ and messing around with it until I came up with something completely new. My boyfriend provided the lyrics knowing that I often get tongue tied and mince my words so he knew they’d mean something to me.
I knew I wanted it to be quite poppy so the melody I remember coming up with while singing to myself walking my dog. It’s where a few melodies have happened actually! I do love ‘Walking on Thin Ice’ and was listening to it a lot around then, so I guess it did rub off! Not intentionally though. See that’s why I try not to listen to much music when I’m writing, I soak up inspiration like a sponge but I want everything to be my own when it comes out!
‘Holding Dreams’ features a wonderful blend of icy synths, hypnotic bass and wispy vocals to a good beat, what was the genesis of this idea?
I’ve no idea! It probably just all developed round the live bass line. Again I wanted something quite catchy so this one has a double chorus which I do remember humming whilst walking my dog again.
‘Accessory’ is a bit like mutant Giorgio Moroder but where did that subtle textural guitar solo come from?
I don’t generally like guitar solos like that, too blokey for me, so I wanted to incorporate one into a song and use it and mould it to suit me and put me at ease with it.
My boyfriend suggested his friend Phil Searchfield for a guitar solo, so I sent him the drums and bass and he recorded the guitar solo from his house in Brussels. It was perfect!! And in fact I didn’t have to chop it up, I just added some delay and reverb as it fitted perfectly and just felt so right. I love it now. Job done! Aim achieved!
Where does the phrase ‘Bass Face’ come from? There appears to be some A CERTAIN RATIO funk motifs too alongside your flute?
Yeah SINK YA TEETH toured quite a lot with ACR so there’s another example of me being influenced a lot! In fact Martin Moscrop gave me some production mentoring for this album! I think ‘Bass Face’ was one of his favourites. I wanted a flute on the album somewhere to connect it with my debut album.
‘Bass Face’ was actually initially gonna be a much more stripped down instrumental on ‘Let Me Speak’, but it didn’t fit in with the rest of the album so I saved it and revisited it for ‘Tongue Tied’. The name ‘Bass Face’ occurred due to the kinda talking synth noise I use on it, which sounds to me like they’re saying “Bass Face” (they’re not. They’re not actually saying anything!), and what with bass being my instrument, I thought I’d go with it. It also conjures up images to me of funny faces bass players sometimes pull, like her from HAIM! Ha ha!
‘New Day’ has quite an unusual structure with some great synth hooks while the vocal veers between BLACK BOX RECORDER and SAINT ETIENNE?
Another one I wrote the music to years ago when I was living back at my parents’ house and wrote it in my old bedroom which we turned into a temporary studio. I couldn’t work out a top line for it for love nor money, but I started to think I wanted something delivered in a similar way to ‘West End Girls’ by PET SHOP BOYS. My boyfriend showed me a poem he’d written, and I read it to the music and it fitted! I did actually approach Neil Tennant to do the vocal on this song but he was “too busy” ha ha! You never know if you don’t try, right?
My vocal style is like that mainly because a) I’m not a strong singer and b) I get really embarrassed recording vocals and singing out loud in case my neighbours or my boyfriend can hear, so a lot of them are very whispery and gentle. If there are songs where I belt it out, then I must have had the house to myself that day!
‘No Fail’ goes fully into some deeper house vibes, which were your own favourite clubs or dance locations?
Ironically I don’t like going to dance clubs etc! I like to go to bed early and I’m a bit sensitive to noise and crowds. But I like to write music that others can dance to.
I lived in Brighton for a bit so went to a couple of dance clubs there, but I’m happier with smaller clubs after a few drinks. Anything I can play air guitar too and jump around to and get home before 1am is good for me. I don’t do much of that though, never really have! Rock ‘n’ roll!
‘Red Room’ is a highlight, there is so much going on, how was do you ensure it did not get too messy?
Thanks. Yeah I call this one my electro-glam SCISSOR SISTERS type of song. No idea how it’s not too messy, some may argue that it IS too messy! It’s another one where I wanted it to be quite ‘pop’. In fact, it started off as a ukulele song I’d written for 5 year olds, ha ha!
The ‘Tongue Tied’ album comes over as a much more confident record than ‘Let Me Speak’, do you have any particular favourite songs on the album?
Not really. It changes all the time, but I think today it’s ‘Accessory’ for that guitar part. I also enjoy singing it live as it’s so different from my other songs. It’s a bit more angry.
You are touring the album this Autumn, how are preparations coming along? What is your set up live?
Yeah just a handful of dates. I can’t wait. Headlining the Norwich Arts Centre in my home town is a dream come true. I may have some familiar faces join me on stage for that too (and possibly London) but that’s a surprise! Also having Alice Hubble as joint headline for some gigs is gonna be fun as I love her stuff so watching her is a treat for me. Then later I have Rodney Cromwell joining me for Manchester and Bristol too.
For those who may be considering coming along, what can they expect?
Expect me grinning like a loon on stage, no doubt some bad jokes and some visuals I made.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to Gemma Cullingford
Brighton Residents Records (2nd September), Norwich Arts Centre (8th September)*, Ipswich Smokehouse (9th September)*, London Dalston Shacklewell Arms (10th September)*, Manchester Talleyrand (17th September)+, Bristol Crofter’s Rights (29th October)+
*with Alice Hubble +with Rodney Cromwell
Based in Wolverhampton, the unrelated duo of Rebecca Davies and Robin Davies are YOUNG EMPRESS.
Combining synths, guitars, bass and other live instrumentation with modern technology, YOUNG EMPRESS opened their account with the strident single ‘Peacemaker’ in late 2020. Using the art of cinema as a prime influence, their sound found an audience within the Synthwave community.
The haunting arpeggiated ‘Ghosts’ maintained the standard while ‘Christine’ entered darker territory in an ode to the John Carpenter film of the same name.
The summer of 2021 saw YOUNG EMPRESS issue their best single yet in the ‘Dead Poets Society’ inspired dreamwave of ‘Eyes Closed’ as a trailer to their well-received debut long player ‘Lost Time’ on Aztec Records. But prior to the release of their first album, there was a collaboration with Zak Vortex on a moody synth laden cover of FLEETWOOD MAC’s embittered break-up anthem ‘Go Your Own Way’.
During a studio break, YOUNG EMPRESS collectively answered some questions put to them by ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about their musical ethos, the influence of visuals and the making of the ‘Lost Time’ album.
Your motto is “Drink Tab, play Robotron, listen to DURAN DURAN”, but neither of you look old enough to have drunk Tab? 😉
That’s very kind of you. We certainly drink a lot of water so perhaps that’s responsible for our youthful looks. This is a quote from ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline. We’re big fans. It’s a great read for book worms and a great watch for film lovers too.
Have you come across a real vintage arcade version of Robotron? Do you have any favourite games?
Funnily enough, we shot some scenes for our short, self-titled film ‘Young Empress’ in a local arcade that had a version of Roboton: 2048.
We both love retro games – especially Outrun – which we would love to have in our music studio. We may invest one day. Although we’d probably spend more time driving than writing music if we did.
So why DURAN DURAN over SPANDAU BALLET? 😉
Both are great! One of Bex’s favourite songs is ‘True’ by SPANDAU BALLET but DURAN DURAN has that get up and dance vibe. That would pull us to the dance floor of any family wedding disco in a heartbeat. We wouldn’t say no to either it just depends what mood we’re in.
What are the musical roots of YOUNG EMPRESS’ vocal and instrumentation format?
We gather inspiration from such a wide variety of sources. It’s not just exclusive to the electronic music scene. We are children of the 80s and loved that era of music but the 90s music played a big part in our youth too. It spans the decades for us and I think we would both agree that it was music from the 60s and 70s that encouraged our first musical awakenings. Even now we’re still open to suggestion and we love stumbling across older bands and artists that we have yet explored fully. We’ve been likened to a handful of musicians over the years but hopefully our love of both male and female vocals from the 80s helps us to create elements of a more androgynous vocal sound.
In terms of palette, where are you sourcing your sounds from? Hardware, software, vintage and traditional instruments?
A lot of our synth sounds are VST versions of retro synths, mainly Juno, Jupiter, DX7 and Moogs, but we also include aspects of live drums, sax, guitar and bass too. We are both multi-instrumentalists, so we like to keep an element of live sound in the mix of our tracks. Even when we are looping sounds and programming instruments, we still start with real live instruments and lean on them heavily in the writing and recording process. It’s a combination for sure and finding the right balance throughout.
‘Peacemaker’ has this marvellous anthemic quality which appears to recall the penultimate section of ‘Music’ by John Miles from 1975, what was the song’s genesis?
When we wrote the tracks for ‘Lost Time’, we used movies as our inspiration and often had them running on a TV screen in the background while we chucking new ideas around. ‘Peacemaker’ was written with ‘The Magnificent Seven’ playing silently and on loop. The main synth riff just kind of came out from watching the screen and playing along. It soon developed into the track you hear today and the vocals tell a narrative of the action shown in the movie.
Where did that marvellous synth solo on ‘Eyes Closed’ come from? Were there any particular influences at play?
Any of the synth solos in the tracks are played and written by Bex. Sometimes they stem from us humming ideas at each other until something sticks, but mainly it comes from her ability to write a catchy little hook. We wanted something that ran a scale and jumped between octaves. We’ve always thought that it has old school ‘Doctor Who’ vibes to it. We love the sound we chose for that one so we’re happy it’s a catchy section.
‘Ghosts’ has many different aesthetic layers and a strong lyrical message and with the sax coming in, it almost turns into QUARTERFLASH?
That’s a great reference. We haven’t heard that one before. We love a good sax solo. Bex wrote and played the sax solo for this, then we layered up everything with a session musician playing over the top. It’s one of our favourite tracks. It’s the second song we ever wrote for YOUNG EMPRESS before we even thought about making an album. It’s based on the film ‘The Sixth Sense’ which gave us a great selection of dialogue to play around – especially the tag line “we see ghosts all the time”. We had really good fun writing this one. When we could see it gaining popularity, it made us really proud. It will always be a special track for us.
Aside from the collaborations, the ‘Lost Time’ album is self-produced. As independent musicians, what do you think is in your extra 10% that has made it stand up next to the deluge of bedroom electronic-based acts that are now ten-a-penny these days?
We have always written and produced our own material. We think it’s really important to have a handle on your own sound, how it develops, how it sounds live and how you can get that across in your mix. Robin will spend hours trying to find the right sounds, FX and levels for YOUNG EMPRESS, with Bex waiting the wings, listening in the dark, co-producing from the side lines.
We also work with an amazing guy called Ryan Pinson from RML studios in Wolverhampton. He takes our mixes to the next level with production and mastering. He has honestly been the 3rd member of YOUNG EMPRESS at times, and he brings an outside ear to our tracks that we wouldn’t hear when we’re locked away on our own for days writing. You can become deaf to your own mixes when you hear them day in and day out. So we draft in trusted talent to listen and guide us forwards. That’s a really important part of the writing process for us.
How was it to work on tracks with Sunglasses Kid and Maxx Parker while aiming to maintain the continuity of ‘Lost Time’ as a body of work?
Both artists are amazing, and we feel really privileged to have worked with them on the tracks that made it to our album. We are all on the same label with Aztec Records and we reached out to Sunglasses Kid who had written a short idea for a track which he posted on Instagram. It instantly grabbed our attention so we asked if we could put vocals over the top for him. Luckily, he liked what we wrote so he agreed to let us lay guitars over the top and add it to our album tracks. He’s a great guy and a real talent on the scene, and we really admire what he’s creating.
Maxx Parker has fast become a good friend of ours and he’s an incredibly talented chap. He asked us to collaborate with him on a track called ‘Last Dance’ which appeared on his debut album ‘Outsider’, then we returned the favour and drafted him in to craft a track for ‘Lost Time’. He came back with the fundamentals of ‘It’s Always Dark’ and we instantly loved it. He understood the brief and absolutely nailed this track for us. It’s another firm favourite of ours and it’s really fun to play live too.
Your music has an impressionistic visual quality about it and you produced a short film featuring ‘Peacemaker’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Christine’ and ‘Home’, how did the story board and track selection come about?
We always wanted to make a short film and have our music be the soundtrack. We wrote the songs before we wrote the story itself. It was a collaborative project with filmmaker Anthony Davies of 12:42 Studios and Kayleigh Watson, who created a fantastic screenplay for us without the need for dialogue. A tricky task but we think she nailed it! ‘Peacemaker’, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Christine’ were written ahead of filming and helped sculpt the narrative for what we shot but ‘Home’ was written specifically for the project. All of our other tracks are inspired by movies so naturally we took our experiences of what we were filming, the actors we were working with and the story that was coming to life in front of us to bring this final song to its completion.
We took inspiration from films we loved from our childhood and mirrored scenes to give the project a nostalgic feel. The character of Death was probably the most time consuming to create. Manifesting an entity that was a physical embodiment of grief, fear and depression took a long time. We spent many hours discussing our own fears and films we were scared by as kids. All of it came together to create the final cut. It’s something that we really enjoyed doing and we will be venturing outside of the realms of song writing again in the near future so keep your eyes peeled for updates.
YOUNG EMPRESS have released an instrumental version of ‘Lost Time’, did you feel any particular pressure to do this as there’s to be this oddball elitist line that’s been drawn between vocal and instrumental synthwave. Just taking off a vocal from a song does not necessarily make it a good instrumental track, while a number of intended synthwave instrumentals sound like someone has forgotten to sing because those tracks lack hooks and themes…
I think the way we tend to look at it is our audience is quite diverse and everyone has different opinions about what they like musically, especially on the synthwave scene. There are certain gatekeepers who believe an artist’s sound should complete a tick box of dos and don’ts to meet the criteria of the genre. We aren’t necessarily out to please anyone but ourselves so when we write, so long as we enjoy what we’re creating then that’s all that matters.
We are fans of vocal driven tracks just as much as we are instrumentals, and although it should be more than just removing lyrics from a song, sometimes it takes elements of silence within a track to isolate what’s really happening in the background. You can’t always appreciate the work that goes on behind a track once vocals are over the top. It tends to become more about the lyrical hook sometimes but when you strip it back to the music beneath it can be just as enjoyable.
With our instrumental album, we just wanted to give our listeners the option to hear it with and without vocals. Beyond that, we’ve remixed our own tracks, reworked and re-envisioned them, as well as asking our peers to recreate them for us with their own spin on it. It’s all just about experimentation for us. How far can we push ourselves, how far outside of this box can we step and how can our tracks continue to evolve. The science of synthwave! We love to flex it a little. That’s the real fun.
Which are you own favourite tracks on ‘Lost Time’? How do you feel the album has been received?
We are so pleased with what we’ve created and how well it’s done in such a short space of time.
We are thrilled with the number of streams we have on the tracks, and we couldn’t ever have imagined that so many people would stumble across our music and keep us spinning but more than that, what makes all the difference to us is the feedback we get, the people who come up and chat to us at gigs, the messages they send us online. That’s really heart-warming and we appreciate everyone who gets in touch to talk to us about our music.
Its early days for us but we’re currently at 150k streams on the album and that still blows our minds! It’s all those streams that build an audience for us and a fanbase who take an interest in what we are doing. It gives us a platform to write more and progress as musicians towards whatever comes next, and we are really grateful for that opportunity.
When we perform live, Robin enjoys ‘Lost Time’ and ‘Christine’ because they are a lot of fun to play on guitar but this changes regularly. Bex likes ‘It’s Always Dark’, which was one of the last tracks we wrote for the album. It’s based on ‘The Never Ending Story’ – one of her favourite films from her childhood, and with one of the main characters being the inspiration for the band’s name (The Childlike Empress) it will always be special to both of us. We are just so happy that people are listening to our music and coming to our gigs. It’s been a really wild ride so far but we are enjoying every minute.
Which character from either ‘The Breakfast Club’ or ‘St Elmo’s Fire’ would you be and why?
We love ‘The Breakfast Club’! It was our inspiration for the track ‘Saturday’. Robin would probably associate himself with Emilio Estevez’s character Andrew. Growing up as a sensitive, sporty kid who had a lot of pressure to succeed but never really ‘belonged’ in the social circle – that seems very familiar.
Bex would like to think she’s a hybrid of more than one character. A bit nerdy like Brian, a bit of a rebel like John Bender and a bit of a weirdo like Ally Sheedy. Definitely not sporty like Andrew or a beauty queen like Claire. It’s a great film for highlighting all the awkward parts of teenage life I’m sure many of us can relate to.
If we can be anyone from ‘St Elmo’s Fire’ then we’re opting for Rob Lowe. Who wouldn’t love that beautiful face!
There was this drummer who so depressed about his timing, he threw himself behind a train… what is your favourite drummer joke? 😁
How can you tell a drummer is at your door? The knocking speeds up.
What’s next for YOUNG EMPRESS?
We have another tour coming up at the end of the year and we will be announcing dates soon. We loved hitting the road to perform this summer so why stop now! For the next run of dates we are ramping up our live performance and we have a few ideas in the making to pump everyone up. Album Two is in the making – don’t you worry! Studio time is just the best. We can’t rest – we love to write. Our sound is developing, and the ideas are rolling in already. The synths are out in full force, and we are really excited to see how this one evolves.
There will be more videos, more content across our social media platforms, more laughing and joking too and a few more surprises to announce along the way. We hope to end the year on a high and start 2023 with a bang. Watch this space!
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to YOUNG EMPRESS
You’ve heard the music, listened to the podcast, now you can read the book…
‘Electronically Yours Vol 1’ is the autobiography of Martyn Ware. From his synth innovation with THE HUMAN LEAGUE and HEAVEN 17 to productions for Tina Turner and Terence Trent D’Arby to ambient collaborations with Vince Clarke, it is the story of his humble working class origins in Sheffield, rise to acclaim and million selling records.
In between, there was his teenage friendship with former-bandmate Phil Oakey that led to the formation of THE HUMAN LEAGUE who were subsequently declared “the future of music” by David Bowie. After a Coup d’état that led to Ware leaving THE HUMAN LEAGUE, he formed BEF, a production company from which an umbrella project named HEAVEN 17 with singer Glenn Gregory and fellow League refugee Ian Craig Marsh became an international success, most notably with the huge hit single ‘Temptation’.
Ware achieved two No1 albums as the producer of ‘Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby’ in 1987 and after HEAVEN 17 went into hiatus, the sixth ERASURE album ‘I Say I Say I Say’ in 1994. The latter link up with Andy Bell and Vince Clarke eventually led to HEAVEN 17 returning to the fold as the opening act on 1997’s ‘Cowboy’ tour and becoming a favourite on the live circuit to this very day.
‘Electronically Yours Vol 1’ also allows Ware to articulate his views as a proud socialist, something he considers to be a soulful, personal and moral duty. Anyone who considers politics and music should not mix have perhaps missed the point of his music; the themes of HEAVEN 17’s first two albums ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ and ‘The Luxury Gap’ highlighted the class divide that got only wider under the government led by Margaret Thatcher.
Martyn Ware chatted candidly with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.CO.UK over a game of Vintage Synth Trumps about the history of technology, how the music industry has changed over his multi-decade career and his fruitful working relationship with Vince Clarke.
The first card is the EMS Polysynthi…
I’ve never played one of those but I’m a big fan of EMS design in general, my first band THE FUTURE featured Adi Newton who owned an EMS Synthi AKS suitcase synth. I couldn’t get any sense out of it at all but it made a fantastic racket that you couldn’t predict. The number of people I have talked to on the ‘Electronically Yours’ podcast who have talked about EMS in fond terms, it’s the one that I covet…
The EMS Polysynthi was at our college studio and it sounded horrible… I thought it was just me but then a few years ago, Vince Clarke declared it as “the worst sounding synth ever made”*laughs*
It looks nice and colourful which is generally a good sign but how weird is that? I never saw it in his studio, maybe he didn’t have it out because he didn’t like it.
Next card is a Roland SH3a…
I had one of those! This was around 1979-80, it was a very nice synth, I liked it a lot but it wasn’t as good as the modular synths that I was more familiar with. Roland were starting to move into more mass production stuff at that point and appealing to a bigger market. They were using a lot of the same components but somehow, the filter was not as extreme so the sounds were less electro-punky like I preferred at that time. They redeemed themselves with the Jupiter 4 but it was too effete, too soft.
So did it get used on ‘Reproduction’ or ‘Travelogue’?
No, it was sort of the unloved runt of the litter. I just couldn’t get it to go far enough for my taste, it was a bit safe. I think Roland toned down the extremities of the filters to make it more usable for the average Joe.
I’m always fascinated by synths that artists don’t like, I remember Billy Currie of ULTRAVOX saying his was the Prophet T8 because it cost a fortune and was nothing like the Yamaha CS80 which he’d sold it for…
Haha! We’ve all done that! We regularly sold our old synths for whatever the latest thing was, that proved to be a massive mistake as soon as we approached the FM synthesis period which I never really got on with.
So with your book, you mentioned you started it 3 years ago, is it basically a product of lockdown?
I’d been thinking about it for a while and then lockdown happened, I thought if I don’t do it now, I’m not going to do it. I’m one of those people that HAS to be doing something. If I’d had been locked inside during lockdown like in some countries, I would have gone insane. During lockdown, there were two things that I quickly determined; one was to start this autobiography. My daughter was living with us then so I employed her with the research as I can’t remember a lot of it as I never kept diaries. I’ve got a sketchy knowledge of stuff and remember individual incidents. So over three months, we did solid research using a spreadsheet with a timeline but after a month, this spreadsheet took up a whole wall!
It’s like getting your ducks in a row, you’ve got to have a cogent understanding of what was connected to what happened in what time order. It can become like David Niven’s ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ which is a series of reminiscences but I didn’t want it to feel like some old bloke’s book! Although I’m an old bloke, I wanted it to feel dynamic.
So once you’ve established the timeline correctly, you can start messing about with it or approach it from the point of view of themes. What I ended up doing was a combination of themes, chronological stuff and to break it up a bit, there are contributions from people who have been important to me throughout my career ranging from the producers I’ve worked with like Pete Walsh, Greg Walsh and Richard Manwaring to various musicians.
The final bit of the jigsaw is essentially me going through EVERY track I’ve ever recorded with BEF and HEAVEN 17 and explaining the process behind it. So for people like yourself and those who are interested in the technical and creative aspects, this will be great. I’ve never really seen that in other musical autobiographies, I was partly inspired by Peter Hook’s ‘Substance’ book so kudos to him, I’ve nicked that idea, thank you.
Your next card is the Sequential Pro-One…
Now then, this one’s interesting. I’ve never used one but I’ve played with one… when you were in the studio in the 80s, you had a budget to rent equipment and try out stuff. We were fairly happy with the synths we’d got, but from time to time, something wouldn’t be available from the hire company so they would suggest “X”, so the Pro-One was one of the things we tired. I like Sequential Circuits as manufacturers and I know Vince Clarke has one of these so I messed around with it then. The basic oscillators and filters are quite pokey so I like it from that point of view. I think it was more of a performance synth.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you favoured the Japanese manufacturers over the American ones…
I always thought with the American synths, I liked the roundness in their tone, I would have killed for a Moog Modular like Wendy Carlos or Giorgio Moroder had but I couldn’t afford it. But they were more performance oriented… I’ve never been a very good keyboard player, so it wasn’t my desire to find something that would enable me to perform in a musicianly way or to imitate a sax or oboe or whatever. I was never interested in that.
I was more into textures and from that point of view, Korg and Roland were much more on that kind of odd Japanese trip. The approach that they took to the user interface for synthesis was more theoretical. But a lot of the American manufacturers, for me, were aimed at a traditional musician, so when somebody was going into a synthesizer shop to try something out, they could easily get a sound that they were familiar with out of it. I was never keen on that, I wanted something that sounded unfamiliar, so there was a philosophical difference actually.
One time you did go down the American route was for ‘Pleasure One’ with the Emulator II…
Yes, but I’m not really counting this in with that American synth ethos because we had a Fairlight which was frankly a disappointment. We used it on ‘How Men Are’ but it was quickly superseded for me by the Emulator II. Ian Craig Marsh spent £40,000 on something that rapidly became a doorstop *laughs*
Ian was gutted when I bought the Emulator II for about £3,500 plus a magneto-optical drive with the latest CD-ROM. This was state-of-the-art, not even computers had these things apart from mainframes. So for domestic use, this was almost unheard of. We had access to this gigantic library of sounds, which today, nobody thinks twice about. Back then, it gave you an advantage and the sound out of the Emulator II was miles superior, as well as its samples. It became my workhorse for a good 4 or 5 years in productions.
Stephen Hague said the Emulator II was his bread and butter for about 5 years…
It was very elegantly designed, the people who did the sound libraries for them knew what they were doing. It was very warm sounding compared to other things.
Here’s another card, the Korg Mono/Poly…
I did fall for the whole M1 thing but after the early Korgs, between 1981-85, I didn’t buy any Korg equipment because everything Roland was coming out with was so brilliant and I didn’t see any advantage in spending a lot of money on what was essentially, not that different. I’ve played with a Korg Mono/Poly more recently and it’s fine…
You’re often thought of as a Roland man, is there an unconsciously loyalty with particular manufacturers…
I think the development process and timeline of Roland felt more cutting edge than any other manufacturer. Because we were self-identified as needing to be “cutting edge”, there didn’t seem any reason to stray from that. The Jupiter 4 was incredible, I still think it’s the best sounding traditional keyboard synth, rather than modular. The Jupiter 8 was good and ahead of its time but it didn’t sound as good as the Jupiter 4 and so on and so forth. If Roland had started falling behind in the late 80s, then I might have switched. I had a Roland S-700 series sampler which because of the converters sounded better than the Akai ones.
So with your book, was there a story you had completely forgotten about that came up in research?
Yeah, quite a few. They were amazing days in the first half of the 80s, I didn’t have a holiday for 3 years! It was that time when Virgin were making so much money from the birth of CDs that it was flooding in, so we felt we had to take advantage of this good fortune… but, while we didn’t think this money was coming out of thin air, we weren’t really fully concentrated on the fact that we’d have to pay all the recording costs back for instance. We didn’t fully recoup on HEAVEN 17 until the late 90s on the recording side.
There was one major story that I’d forgotten about, I was reminded about it by Glenn. We were recording ‘How Men Are’ at Air Studios in Oxford Circus and we were getting cabin fever. The news was full of Thatcher’s government committing a huge amount of public expenditure on cruise missiles. We were absolutely terrified like the majority of people were that we were going to be blown off the face of the planet! *laughs*
There was this idea of Mutually Assured Destruction as discussed on ‘Let’s All Make A Bomb’ from ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ and it just seemed like the whole world was going to sh*t… now that sounds familiar! Back then, we were heavily involved in the anti-nuclear movement and we’ve always been activists. One day, we just said “we’ve got to do something positive” as people we’re looking up to us as a politically motivated band…
So what happened?
I can’t remember whose idea it was. I think it was Ian’s and he said “why don’t we do a banner and put it on the top floor above Topshop on Oxford Circus as a protest?”.
We thought in our demented minds that this was a great idea so we got some canvas and painted it to say “HEAVEN 17 SAY NO CRUISE IS GOOD NEWS” with the CND logo on a 20 foot by 4 foot banner. We wanted it on the corner to get the maximum viewing on Oxford Circus but we had not really thought this through because how do you get this thing up?
There was this ledge outside the window a metre wide and I’m not that great with heights! But Glenn said “I’ll do it” while Ian was completely mad and said he WOULD do it. Meanwhile our engineer Jeremy Allom, a crackers Australian dude, said not only would he do it but would take his bike onto that metre long ledge and rode it around the outside of the building, overlooking the street with a hundred foot drop! I was like “I AM OUT!” and went home!
So Glenn, Ian and Jeremy put it up on a summer’s evening and Glenn took a polaroid… he came round my house and said “Martyn, take a look at this, it’s f*cking amazing!”… this photo is in the book by the way. I was thinking “this is great, it’s going to be in the newspapers”. But next thing in the morning, I get this phone call from Gemma Caufield, A&R co-ordinator at Virgin Records saying “YOU’VE GOT TO TAKE THE BANNER DOWN! THE POLICE ARE THREATENING TO ARREST YOU!” The owners of the building were threatening to sue us and we were given an hour to take it down… I didn’t even put it up there! *laughs*
Here’s another card, this is a fluke, a Korg 700s!!
Now you’re talking, you fixed this! So the Korg 700s, it’s the one I’m most fond of as it was the first synth I ever owned, apart from the dual stylus Stylophone I had. I’ve started taking the 700s out on tour again to play ‘Being Boiled’, the audience can’t believe what it sounds like. It’s a totally different experience to any digital synth. The solidity of the bottom end is incredible and the filters are amazing.
It had two oscillators that you could tune against each other or make them interfere using the ring modulator function, plus it’s monophonic of course, which suits me cos I’m sh*t! The filters are called “travellers” and it’s got really weird colourful switches saying things like “expand”, WTF does that mean? I know what these things do now because I know how synths work but back then, it was mysterious. It had a white noise oscillator, there’s delay and vibrato. That was used in THE FUTURE before THE HUMAN LEAGUE and I’m really fond of it, if it ever got destroyed, I would be heartbroken.
When THE HUMAN LEAGUE played at the original Marquee on Wardour Street in 1978, it was rammed and they couldn’t get any more people in, we thought we were hardcore electro-punk! I found out 6 months ago that some people got turned away because it was full… two of them were David Bowie and Iggy Pop! Fortunately Bowie came to see us later at The Nashville. We opened for Iggy later on the ‘Soldier’ tour when Glen Matlock was in his band.
When THE HUMAN LEAGUE opened for punk bands like SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES, THE STRANGLERS and PERE UBU, the audiences were initially confused but they soon came round and turned into our core support in the end. It was different time and people now seem to be more segmented in marketing terms whereas then, it was much more open.
Your ‘Electronically Yours’ With Martyn Ware podcast has gone very well, you’ve done a lot of episodes, has it got bigger than you expected?
Absolutely 100%, I did it really as a distraction over lockdown… I had about 20 or 30 people who would probably do it. I like the podcast medium and listening to audio books while walking around London. I thought “I could do that”; there was nobody really doing anything in this sector of music. The thing I like about podcasts is they are truly international, there were colleagues and friends in American who knew people who might be interested, so one thing leads to another. A friend of mine from Sheffield who was the singer in a band called SOUNDS OF BLACKNESS introduced me to Maurice Hayes who was musical director for Prince, I would never have thought about approaching these people. It’s got a life of its own now.
Are there any artists that you haven’t interviewed yet who you would like on ‘Electronically Yours’?
There’s some I’ve been chasing since the start who have said they’ll do it, but for a number of reasons, it hasn’t happened yet. The main one is Brian Eno who I know, I don’t think my career would have happened without him on every level from Roxy to his ambient stuff to his work with Bowie and Fripp etc. He’s agreed to do it but he’s so busy.
Kate Bush has turned me down for the podcast and BEF but has always been sweet, she said it’s not something she’d do, I think she’s a very delicate flower. There’s another woman Annette Peacock whose 1972 album ‘I’m The One’ I loved, I got into a long dialogue with her and she’s still doing amazing stuff in her late 70s but she wants to combine appearing on the podcast with her next release. I’d like to chat to Cosey Fanni Tutti, she said she’s happy to do it but only when she’s ready.
There’s a few who have turned me down like Kevin Rowland who’s a friend of mine but didn’t fancy doing it… some people aren’t comfortable with autobiographical long form… the other main one is Green Gartside who I’ve worked with and known for 30 years but he’s not responded.
Time for another card, and it is an ARP Axxe…
I’ve not used a lot of ARP stuff in recording terms. Vince Clarke has nearly every ARP synth on earth and duplicates of a lot of them, so I got the chance to play with them… I just think a lot of those synths sound quite similar, what would you say the characteristics of the ARP Axxe were?
The ARP Axxe is a smaller version of the ARP Odyssey, I remember when Billy Currie spoke to me, the thing he loved about the Odyssey over the Minimoog was it had sliders rather than knobs so he could almost play heavy metal on a synthesizer, it was about player controllability…
I was curious to find out what the weapon of choice was for synth-funk bands in the 70s but one day, I stumbled across a video of THE GAP BAND and they had an ARP Pro-DGX. So I started looking into it and the reason why it was the weapon of choice was it had control features like polyphonic aftertouch which other synths didn’t have. A lot of synth basslines from the period had slurs between notes using ribbon controllers, that became the funky bass synth so that’s my ARP story.
Another card and it’s the EDP Wasp…
I love the Wasp but it’s completely unusable… it’s one of the most beautifully graphic designed synths, but it sounded irritating to me, a bit like its name! It was a bit like a toy, but not in a good way.
Two more cards, this is one you wanted, an EMS Synthi AKS…
Now you’re talking, I really want one of those. If anyone wants to distort my cultural development and sell me one at a reasonable price, I am definitely up for it. I want it as a piece of design but I can’t justify it for the price it’s going for these days. It’s a thing of immense beauty, what do you think?
There was one of these at the college studio which had the EMS Polysynthi and the Roland System 100 which was the synth I took to out of all of them… I never got on with the Synthi AKS because I couldn’t get my head around it, I just wanted to make sounds straight away which you could do with the System 100…
Yes, you’ve got to know what you’re doing, the Synthi can be difficult to get it into registration with a keyboard, it’s not a simple matter of plug and play at all, what with that matrix patch bay…
With the System 100, you could almost make something out of nothing, it was like no matter what you did with it, something happened and you could make it sound like what you wanted…
As it says in the manual, “there are no illegal connections…”
So how did you discover the Roland System 100 and make it your next purchase after the Korg 700s?
That’s not true actually, I bought the 700s and Ian bought the System 100 and sequencer at the same time. So those two and a tape machine became our tools to create demos in the early days. I learnt to use it and the System 100 is fantastic as a teaching tool, it’s so clearly laid out and easy to show what happens. When I teach my students on the MA Songwriting and Production about analogue synthesis, I’ve got a digital oscilloscope that I put on the end of the output and it shows the shape of the waveform, the tones are so pure.
But the story behind my System 100 is when I produced ‘I Say I Say I Say’ for ERASURE in 1993, I had been waxing lyrical about the System 100 as Ian had sold his. Vince had one of course and two days before Christmas, there was a knock on the door and there was a bunch of boxes outside. I was thinking “what’s this?” and Vince had bought me a complete System 100 with speakers and everything! I couldn’t believe my eyes, he had been saying to me that I needed to get back to pure electronic music. Apart from being an incredibly generous gesture, it was his way of changing my cultural development back again. It’s a beautiful story.
So what was the production dynamic like between you and Vince for ‘I Say I Say I Say’?
Here’s the story, I’d never met Vince or Andy before but I was a fan and I was contacted one day out of the blue from Mute Records saying Daniel Miller would like to speak with me. I was a big fan of THE NORMAL and SILICON TEENS as well so next thing I know, Daniel who I had never spoken to before asked if I would be interested in producing the next ERASURE record. It turned out he didn’t realise I did productions and I said “I’ve done Tina Turner and Terence Trent D’Arby!”; Vince said the same thing after I met him in Amsterdam later.
I laid out a methodology that I thought would work which was fundamentally old school. Vince just wanted someone to bounce off. As I read it, him and Andy work remotely, that was certainly the case for ‘I Say I Say I Say’. It’s only when we laid toplines and backing vocals that Andy would come into the studio, most of the time, Vince was on his own. I think he got bored with being on his own and that’s why he wanted different producers. Now Vince KNOWS what he’s doing, production-wise and arrangement-wise but he needed someone as a means of randomising things a bit and to confirm that he’s moving in a different direction.
I remember with Vince when we were taking about this process and he agreed. He said “you know what Martyn, I am my own biggest fan, I just think everything I do is brilliant”… it was so disarmingly honest and it wasn’t anything to do with arrogance at all, he just knew he was the master of his craft because he had all the tools at his disposal to do exactly what he wanted, to create any sound he wanted, impersonate the effect or function of anything from guitars to bass guitars, woodwind to percussion to those aleatoric weird sounds, he could do it all at the drop of a hat. So all he needs is someone to help him organise it.
I contributed some arrangement ideas and record the vocals which he didn’t really want to get involved in, so I was the vocal specialist; I learnt about vocal stacking techniques from Greg Walsh who did ‘The Luxury Gap’, he worked with HEATWAVE and Geoff Emerick who worked with THE BEATLES. These are the dark arts that transform things from average into multi-national hits.
ERASURE had not really had that kind of producer before, in the past it was perhaps kind of more vibey electronics with Flood. There were all great producers, but it was a different approach. On one side I know all about electronics while on the other, I’m more like an old school traditional auteur producer if you like with a 70s vibe… that worked brilliantly with them I thought. Andy has since told me that as far as he’s concerned, the vocals and arrangements on ‘I Say I Say I Say’ are the best that ERASURE have ever done.
What’s your favourite track on ‘I Say I Say I Say’?
I do really like ‘Always’, we worked so hard on that. Right from the outset from the sketch before we fleshed it out and made it really something unique, it sounded like a hit. I was really thrilled when the album went to No1. They are such amazing people to work with, so creative and innovative, they are so self-effacing and open to suggestions, but they also know when the to stop; I know a lot of artists who constantly doubt themselves and aren’t happy even when it’s all done.
The story that sticks with me with Vince is when I went in the studio one day and he asked me what I thought of a track he did overnight. It sounded really good and I suggested 3 or 4 amendments in terms of sound to open out the spectral thing to make it sound bigger. I went to have a cup of tea and when I came back 20 minutes later, he had changed every single element and it was much better. It was everything! Can you imagine, the command that any person has of… he’s got like 50 synths that are all CV or gate connected in his studio, a series on MC4s that he programmes in with numbers and BBC Micro UMI which at that point he used to use as well plus Logic… this is a man who has complete command of his craft.
What are your thoughts on songwriting and production in modern synth music? This site has been criticised for not supporting enough new electronic music… I thought I was just being an old git thinking that songwriting is not as good as it used to be. But over lockdown, I listened to a lot of old stuff to lift me up and it seems to generally be true. Also with production and I don’t know if it’s because of software and DAWs, many artists are not crafting their sound anymore…
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, I can’t really add very much to that. There are many reasons for it, the workflow is entirely different now, it’s so quick to get something up to a reasonable standard… the temptation is to fall in love with that “reasonable standard”, the old thing would have been falling in love with a cassette demo. But you can take that reasonable standard and just put a topline on it and then its “OK, that’s done”. I think a lot of the time is because they don’t know…
When I teach songwriting at MA standard, there are some super talented individuals in traditional music terms but the vast majority of them who are in their 20s and don’t have the thematic or cultural context that our generation grew up with.
I love contemporary dance music and avant garde, but I’m against mediocrity. My general theory is if it doesn’t evoke any emotion in me, then I’m not that interested. If it’s exciting or people have a unique take on contemporary songwriting or instrumentals or whatever, I’m down with that. My worry is that everything is becoming more homogenised. I think a lot of it is due to following an economic model and that is a self-defeating mechanism ultimately because people chase the tail.
Honestly, some students of mine have told me “Well, I’ve watched lots of YouTube videos and I’ve done what it says and made a song with four chords and rotated it…” – they’re not doing it to be clever or lazy, they just DON’T KNOW! They’ve not studied great songwriting, they’re not paying attention to the stuff that we grew up with by default. We grew up through the main periods of some innovative artists like Kate Bush, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel etc who were always pushing the boundaries.
I’d like to think people like HEAVEN 17 and DEPECHE MODE were doing the same, but the whole landscape shifted in the late 80s towards marketing and then the whole music scene got steamrollered by the dance fraternity. I love dance music but a lot of it is a bit facile I find, it’s just too easy!
In my opinion, dance music ruined everything…
Here’s a story, when I first met Vince in 1992, he was living in a flat in Amsterdam above a small recording studio. There were these friends of his who we said hello to and what they did every day was do incremental variations on house music. At the end of the week, they would do some vinyl white labels and distribute them among the clubs in the city and see what ones were popular. Literally, they would change 10% of it and I was thinking, if this is the future of dance music, then I’m not interested.
Fortunately there are great artists at all points but what I’m saying is that economically, a lot of that oxygen was sucked up by the dance fraternity up to the 2000s, then it was given to the singer / songwriter cohorts who frankly, unless they are very good, are immensely dull. So we are here now, there is some innovative stuff going on, particularly in the hip-hop scene internationally, but it’s a problem.
I do honestly believe there is no shortage of exceptional interesting stuff as much as there ever was, it’s just harder to find, that’s all. Now there is 50 times more stuff out there than there was in the early 80s.
Recently I got a new iPad so as a test case, I thought I’d see if any idiot could knock up a reasonable sounding dance track on GarageBand… I managed it in about an hour!
I’ll tell you a funny story about GarageBand. When my son was 12 and in the Scouts, he thought he’d do some badges and one was “Creativity”. So I asked him what he was going to do and he said he was going to do something on GarageBand. He did it in 2 hours and it sounded as good as a lot of stuff that comes out now. But he was literally just doing “drag and drop” and I was thinking, this is not good. So I explained to him that if you have an easy way of doing something, the likelihood is that you’ll do that. The stuff that makes things special and engagement is the final 10%. But if you are not encouraged to get there, you don’t know what you don’t know. So that’s why we’re at where we’re at.
The final card Martyn, and it is a Multimoog, this came after the Minimoog when they were trying to be more mass market and cheaper…
Yeah, normally when that happens, the components they use aren’t as good so they don’t so sound as good and so on and so forth. Moogs generally sound great with a round bottom end, I’ve often used the virtual Moog Modular and I’ve got used to adjusting things on the screen… I’ve got f*cking hundreds of sounds…
This was something you talked to William Orbit and Richard X about in your podcast, there’s just too many options now… so when you make music now, how much of it is software versus hardware?
It’s mainly software. I do lots of stuff that’s not straightforward pop music like installations, effects and sound design so that isn’t really about performance in the sense of playing a keyboard, it’s more about assembling things that one finds interesting and engaging.
I’ve got a totally different perspective on all this stuff now since I’ve been doing Illustrious with Vince since 2000, I am much less precious about the ingredients, I am more interested in the content.
So what are your hopes and fears for the book, will there be a Volume2?
There will only be a Volume 2 if Volume1 sells *laughs*
It’s 130,000 words, that’s a lot. I’ve never written that much in my life, I never went to university so I didn’t do a dissertation or anything. It’s been really hard work but I can honestly say that I am happy with the book so that’s a tick. I’m happy with the design. I’m happy with the support I’m getting from the publishers Little Brown. I’ve recently had to read the audio book version that will bring it to life even more.
I hope to do a series of signing events and talks associated with the book. I never thought I’d ever had a physical book, it’s quite something to be an author. And I wrote every word apart from the other people’s contributions. There’s no ghost writing, if anybody doesn’t like it, that’s fine. Someone actually said to me “well, I can’t wait for this but I don’t know if I can deal with your lefty views”… err, that’s who I am mate! I’m not telling you what to think, so don’t buy it then, I don’t care! *laughs*
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its electronic thanks to Martyn Ware
MOOD TAEG are the enigmatic multi-continental / multi-cultural kosmische trio with TDK and K’ko based in Düsseldorf while Lowell Freeman resides in Shanghai.
With two remotely constructed albums ‘Exophora’ and ‘Anaphora’ released on Happy Robots Records to their name, MOOD TAEG are unsurprisingly influenced by NEU! and HARMONIA; from their debut long player, ‘2MR’ was a tribute to Michael Rother.
Their next release journeys down the well-trodden German Road of variations on a theme as KRAFTWERK did with ‘Kometenmelodie’ and NEU! offshoot LA DÜSSELDORF did with ‘Menschen’. Doing as the title suggests, ‘Anaphora Versions’ features in-house and external re-imaginings of tracks from the second MOOD TAEG album.
While the Electric Boogaloo version of ‘Pilomotor Reflex’ sees Lowell Freeman dust off a vintage Roland TR-808 in a homage to Morgan Khan’s pioneering ‘Street Sounds Electro’ compilations of yesteryear, first out of the gate is a DanKe version of ‘Happiness Fragment’ with the ‘Anaphora’ closer now shaped into a comparatively poppier template.
From Germany and China, TDK and Lowell Freeman respectively came together for a quick chat with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about their Dundeedorf ethos and five decades of NEU!
What was the idea behind ‘Happiness Fragment’, were there any particular influences behind its concept?
TDK: I’m not sure there was a concept as such but seeing as we don’t have conventional songs with lyrics, we often like to include spoken word samples that reflect our political or social views.
I remember reading Guy DeBord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ at university and it seemed to provide a good contrast to the more upbeat, even poppier, reworked version, along with feeling very apt in the social media saturated world we currently live in.
I included the Jimmy Reid (a famous Scottish trade unionist) sample for a couple of reasons. One was that it made a Scottish connection. The other reason was that it referenced a time when political discourse and political education among the working class was the norm and serious political discourse could be seen on mainstream media instead of the media-trained ghouls that exist today.
Lowell: One important concept for me was to try to progress from the first LP in ways that still follow that repetitiveness that we love from bands such as HARMONIA, but also make the tracks subtly evolve and never stay with one element for too long. ‘Happiness Fragment’ is probably the best example of that on ‘Anaphora’. I was also conscious of going for a more upbeat feel, at least in terms of sound. The LP track is also a clear nod to ‘Computerwelt’ in the last section with the pad sounds, chords and voice collage.
This neu DanKe version of ‘Happiness Fragment’ has been reworked to be more accessible?
TDK: As the DanKe suffix suggests, this was reworked by K’ko and myself and it was an attempt to take the longer album version and turn it into a track that would work well in a gig situation, especially considering that as a live band we only have two members compared to the three of the recording band.
Lowell: This DanKE version is mostly a Düsseldorf production, whereas the original has more of a Shanghai sound, so for me it feels fresh and is my favourite track on this ‘Versions’ CD. The added Jimmy Reid spoken word element is important to us and is also rather timely considering what’s happening in the UK with the rail workers and the treatment of all workers really. It will be no surprise to anyone who has heard our stuff that we are 100% behind Trade Unionism and workers having more say in their workplaces.
It’s NEU! 50, so will you be celebrating by going to any of the gigs? If you could choose a track to rework as MOOD TAEG, what would it be?
TDK: As far as we know, the only gig in Germany so far seems to be in Berlin but certainly, if they came to Düsseldorf, we would be there. In terms of choosing a track to rework, some people may say that we already did that with ‘2MR’ which bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘Hallogallo’ (haha!) I guess we would probably choose ‘Isi’ from ‘Neu! 75’ – it’s a very concise distillation of all the great NEU! elements and one of the great album openers.
Lowell: Yeah, anyone who’s listened to our first LP ‘Exophora’ knows ‘2MR’ pays homage to ‘Hallogallo’ so I think we’ve got a rework covered. If I was to do a track live, then yeah ‘Isi’ on ‘Neu! 75’ is a nice wee upbeat number.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its cosmic thanks to MOOD TAEG
The DanKe version of ‘Happiness Fragment’ is available on the usual online platforms from 8th July 2022