A veteran of Manchester’s influential post-punk movement, Eric Random has been making music for over 40 years and while he remains something of a cult figure, his curriculum vitae is impressive.
Eric Random’s musical journey began as a roadie for BUZZCOCKS and with their late frontman Pete Shelley, they formed THE TILLER BOYS who opened for JOY DIVISION at The Factory as emblazoned on Peter Saville’s iconic “Use Hearing Protection” FAC1 poster.
When Eric Random released his first solo record ‘That’s What I Like About Me’ in 1980, it was via BUZZCOCKS’ New Hormones label. He also appeared as a member of JELL on the ‘Some Bizzare Album’ with the track ‘I Dare Say It Will Hurt A Little’.
Meanwhile THE TILLER BOYS mutated into FREE AGENTS which led to him meeting CABARET VOLTAIRE. In 1984, with the production input of Stephen Mallinder and Richard H Kirk at their Western Works studio, Random released the alternative club favourite ‘Mad As Mankind’, a slice of soulful tabla-infused electro.
As one of THE FACTION, Random backed Nico, best known as the chanteuse of THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, on her final studio album ‘Camera Obscura’, produced by former Velvet John Cale in 1985.
Although he continued with sporadic FREE AGENTS releases produced by Martin Moscrop of A CERTAIN RATIO, by the start of the 21st Century, Eric Random had gone into hiatus.
In 2014, he made his comeback with the ‘Man Dog’ album on Austrian label Klanggalerie Records and returned to the live circuit, opening for A CERTAIN RATIO and WRANGLER, as well as performing at the 2016 Electri_City_Conference in Düsseldorf.
2019 saw Random release ‘Wire Me Up’, an excellent double album of predominantly electronic instrumentals while his new recently issued long player ‘No-Go’ develops on its dance template with a reintroduction of vocal textures, both natural and sampled as well as robotic.
Echoing FAD GADGET, NEW ORDER, CABARET VOLTAIRE and KRAFTWERK, despite the sinister if melodic nature of ‘No-Go’, a high groove factor is present within the programmed rhythmic lattice, a likely consequence of Random’s period of studying percussion in the Himalayas back in the day.
Eric Random spoke to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about ‘No-Go’ and his refocus on electronic music over the years since his return.
Having been involved in post-punk, early electronica and world music, working with people like Pete Shelley, Richard Kirk, Stephen Mallinder, Nico, John Cale and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, when you returned from hiatus in 2014, you opted to focus on electronic music, what had been the motivation?
My return to releasing music and live performance in 2014 was concentrated on a more electronic aspect. The motivation being that as I would be working as a solo artist once again, I wanted to revisit my earliest influences. Not just to rekindle my love of music from a certain era, but to take a fresh contemporary look.
Had the technology improved to the point that it was a no-brainer?
Although the influx of new technology was exciting, I also relied (and still do) on some old favourites, such as Roland, Korg and Yamaha analogue synths and drum machines.
What was your first synthesizer and what was it like to use?
The first two synths that I owned were a Korg MS10 and I also had a Crumar Trilogy. This was a huge Italian-made synth, really nice but incredibly heavy to cart around.
What equipment set-up do you opt for these days in the studio, are there any particular tools of choice?
As I mentioned earlier, when in the studio I still go to my analogue gear along with a mix of modular units also some Moog, Electron and MFB gear.
At around the same time, had you been aware that Stephen Mallinder was making a return as part of WRANGLER, did you maintain a kinship with each other over the years?
As friends for more than 40 years, we did lose touch for a while, both being off on travels in different parts of the world. Then we met up again when asked by Walter Robotka to do a ‘Double Vision’ event in Vienna. With Stephen being such an easy going guy, we took up again as though we had only just recently seen each other. He also went straight back to being an inspiration with my first taste of a WRANGLER performance.
How do you look back on those first three comeback albums ‘Man Dog’, Words Made Flesh’ and ‘Two Faced’?
I see the first three Klanggalerie albums as somewhat of a re-learning curve, not only on the technical side of recording but also in writing the kind of work I want to produce. ‘Man Dog’ being the transition between the kind of music I was making just previous, which still showed some of the ethnic and slight jazz influences to the now purely electronic.
Your recent music has featured guest singers, ethnic vocal samples, your own voice and vocoder treatments, how do you decide what suits particular tracks, if at all?
The vocals on these albums are mainly through vocoders or various effects. Not usually starting out with a definite sound in mind, sometimes a case of trial and error. Mostly working my voice into something that’s textured and sinuous.
2019’s ‘Wire Me Up’ was a primarily instrumental set and had less “vocals” than on ‘Two Faced’, had there been any particular reasons for this direction?
‘Wire Me Up’ was intentionally more instrumental orientated as it was a vinyl release for Sleepers which is a club inspired label. The song format for me seems to, not restrict but can contain the accompanying music to a degree. So purely instrumental tracks allow the different kinds of sounds to open up and expand, giving certain parts more significance.
Was ‘Systematic’ from ‘Wire Me Up’ a nod to KRAFTWERK?
My appreciation of KRAFTWERK is quite evident when listening to ‘Systematic’, but there was no actual conscious decision to pay homage.
Also from ‘Wire Me Up’, the lengthy ‘You Seem The Same’ managed to fuse colder sounds with a real groove which was an interesting contrast?
Yes, I find fusing darker emotional, more unsettling sounds that have a sense.
You opted to release ‘Wire Me Up’ on Sleepers Records, after the previous three were on Klanggalerie. But you have now returned to Klanggalerie for ‘No-Go’, so is a label still important for an independent artist of your standing?
For playing their part in keeping physical formats alive and staving off complete digitisation of the industry. This and the discomfort I feel at the thought of selling myself, even after all these years of releasing albums make labels very much important to me.
‘No-Go’ continues your pursuit of a techno-based dance direction, but although the Detroit influences are there rhythmically, your music continues to maintain a Northern Industrial vibe. So the surroundings you grow up in never really leave your psyche?
I suppose the experience of growing up in a bleak industrial city in decay that was Manchester in the 60s will be part of me forever. Along with the sense of alienation and paranoia often felt in the 70s as a teenager when on the city streets. All of which must play a part in what I still produce today.
‘Synergy’ is a great opener that signals a natural progression from ‘Wire Me Up’, had your approach altered much while making ‘No-Go’?
Compared to ‘Wire Me Up’ in which I kept to a very immediate, raw almost improvised approach which just naturally progressed. ‘No-Go’ was written with more definition of process, more sculptured and manipulated over a period of time.
The wonderfully dark and blippy demeanour to ‘Compulsion’ is like a doomy PET SHOP BOYS, how did that come together?
I can see where you’re coming from suggesting these comparisons. I first wrote it as a brooding, dark groove track. Then I had the idea to do a vocal which was less processed than my usual style, which gave it that dreamy kind of retro feel.
‘Dirt’ does do what it says on the tin with them rather gritty sounds, what were you doing to construct those?
The overall sound and texture of ‘Dirt’ comes from running a sequence into modular VCOs then feeding them through a bitrazer and delays to achieve a gritty chaotic feel.
The Sci-Fi disco of ‘Fundamental Phenomena’ has an enjoyably futuristic quality, are you a fan of those kind of books and films? Any particular ones?
Sci-Fi disco, definitely my kind of thing, I love the greats like Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison. One of my all-time favourite movies is ‘Fahrenheit 451’, watching this as a youngster on TV was a game changer.
‘What Does It Feel Like’ is a bit more unusual and goes away from the dance template of the other tracks on ‘No-Go’ with that creepy arpeggio line, had the track been inspired by anything particular?
Wanting to briefly step away from dance type rhythms, I began working on this track by experimenting with the bass sequence producing an almost uneasy feeling of imminent threat. Then added to this the excitement and chaos of the synth lines that cut across the rhythm.
Which are your own favourite tacks on ‘No-Go’?
My two personal favourites are ‘Dirt’ for its lyrical relevance and being the first thing I wrote just as the lockdown in March 2020 occurred. The other, ‘Is The Sun Up’ because it has that cold space to it and is set to strong hypnotic beats, then goes on an aggressive tangent at the end.
What’s next for you, is live work still of interest or has everything that’s been going on made you think being stuck indoors is not such a bad thing after all?
As for the future, a couple of projects that were postponed or had to be rethought due to the situation of the past year will hopefully see daylight. First of all, a track I wrote with THE POP GROUP’s Mark Stewart should see the light of day. Coming out on the Texas based label Emergency Hearts also, a track featuring a vocal trio from Mark, Stephen Mallinder and myself. As for performing again, well it’s a very uncertain. I actually had gigs in LA, SF and across Europe which were cancelled last year. Apart from the pandemic there is also the political climate and Brexit all piling on the difficulties of travelling to do gigs in Europe. We shall see.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Eric Random
Ade Fenton is the producer and techno DJ best known for his work with Gary Numan over the past fifteen years.
As well as the albums ‘Jagged’, ‘Dead Son Rising’, ‘Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)’ and ‘Savage (Songs From A Broken World)’, there has also been the collaborative soundtrack to the film ‘From Inside’ and ‘Artificial Perfect’, Fenton’s only full length long player to date on which Numan sang four tracks.
Meanwhile, Ade Fenton has also been working with Gary Numan on re-recordings of the albums ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Exile’ and ‘Pure’ which originally came out between 1994-2000. The new album ‘Intruder’ sees Fenton continue his fruitful relationship with Numan which has also previous included joint DJ sets, one notably at John Foxx’s 2010 Short Circuit event at The Roundhouse in London.
The concept of ‘Intruder’ sees Planet Earth expressing emotions of betrayal and hurt as it is attacked by responding with a virus! The songs previewed so far such as the title song, ‘I Am Screaming’ and ‘Saints & Liars’ have been threatening yet anthemic, capturing that sinister synchronicity of art projecting life!
With the release of ‘Intruder’ imminent, Ade Fenton kindly gave an in-depth interview to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about his productions past and present for the veteran electronic pioneer.
How did you come to first work with Gary Numan?
We got to know one another through a mutual friend and after an initial period where he mistook my quietness for arrogance, we started to get along very well. We were at a party at his house and he’d heard some stuff I’d been making for ‘Artificial Perfect’ and really liked it. At the time, he’d had a few production issues with ‘Jagged’ and so, slightly worse for wear, offered me the track ‘Scanner’ to work on. After a couple of weeks I delivered it to him, he loved it and we did another few. Again he really liked what I’d done and that was that. Here we are, 15 years or so later and on our fifth album together. Fairytale stuff really when you consider I grew up with posters of him all over my bedroom wall.
You were sort of working on ‘Jagged’ and your own album ‘Artificial Perfect’ simultaneously, how did you keep focus and was there ever a temptation where you might come up with an idea and think “oh, I’ll keep that for my own record!”?
It might have seemed as though there was an overlap but actually, ‘AP’ was long in the making. I’d been working on ‘AP’ on and off for ages, simultaneously managing a pretty full on DJ schedule, but what really got my juices flowing was a break up with a girl at the time. I look back on ‘AP’ now kinda hiding behind a cushion to be honest. I had little experience in writing actual songs at that point, so I really was learning on the job, but it was something I felt I really needed to do. ‘Jagged’ came a bit later, so no there was never that temptation. Even if there had been temptation, this was my first album working with Gary and I wanted to impress him, so if anything it would have been the other way around.
‘Jagged’ polarises listeners, how do you look back on it now?
Well, it will always hold a special place in my heart actually. It’s the album that really started things off for me and Gary in terms of our partnership, so I’m perhaps a bit biased. I do get why some people find it a tough listen, but it was meant to be exactly that. Gary wanted to make his heaviest record yet, so we absolutely went for it.
Interestingly, ‘Jagged’ was one of the last records that Gary mixed himself, as his ears had started to deteriorate by then, so some of the dense feel of the album is partly down to that.
With that in mind, Gary has decided that he’s going to put out another version of it at some point, which will be mixed by Nathan Boddy and myself. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference it makes working on it again all these years later.
Gary Numan was known to be going through a creative rut with the first version of ‘Splinter’ which had been intended to be a very heavy collection of tracks all running at the same mid-paced tempo, but was this concept ultimately flawed?
Good question. No, it wasn’t flawed as at the time, it was what he’d envisaged. As it panned out, ‘Splinter’ became a very personal album to Gary, telling of his story with depression, so there were obviously musical moments of extreme emotions, from the heavy and intense ‘Here In The Black’ to the despair of ‘Lost’.
So how did the return to the unreleased outtakes that had roots in previous albums and other projects happen to produce ‘Dead Son Rising’ in the interim?
As Gary has stated in his autobiography, at that time he was going through a period of depression and the anti-depressants he was taking had had a big effect on him in terms of creativity and work ethic. By this time, we’d become incredibly close both personally and professionally and so it hurt me to see one of my best mates feeling so sh*t. I’d heard some these outtakes and knew straight away that we could turn them into something very cool.
So, he just let me get on with it and eventually the tracks had developed so much, he finally sat up and took notice. At that point, it was finished pretty quickly as the creativity was back, and he was firing on all cylinders. I look back on that period with a mixture of emotions but actually, by the time the album was done, it felt like we’d created something pretty strong.
In what way do you think making ‘Dead Son Rising’ ultimately helped to clear the decks to focus on ‘Splinter’?
After the initial setbacks, Gary and I wrote and developed the songs for ‘Dead Son Rising’ jointly, so for ‘Splinter’, Gary’s mojo had returned and it was very much a Gary Numan album, with me producing his songs. His depression had, inadvertently, provided a wealth of feelings to inspire ‘Splinter’ and once he started to send me the demos, I felt he was back. Clearly, the difficulties he’d experienced in making ‘DSR’ had proved cathartic and so everything, from the ‘Splinter’ concept to the songs to the imagery, was clear in his head from day one.
‘Splinter’ eventually became an album of varying tempos with ‘Who Are You’ being a quite fast paced surprise. You love techno but it doesn’t really permeate as such into Numan’s music, or does it?
There are perhaps very subtle hints at what I used to make in my techno days, but I’ve never allowed it to become a feature of Gary’s music, that just wouldn’t be right. But, my understanding of that kind of groove certainly helps with tracks like ‘My Name Is Ruin’, ‘The Fall’ and ‘Love Hurt Bleed’ for example. The heavy kicks and basslines in those tracks certainly lean on the power that a four-to-the-floor groove can create.
With the ballad ‘Lost’, how did you manage to persuade Numan to use his voice naturally with a minimum of effects?
Lots of arguments! Well, maybe a couple. In my opinion, and certainly the position I took at the time, was that the story that song tells is exactly why Gary’s vocal should be exposed and almost naked. He’s laying it all on the line, telling us all what happened in his life, so let’s have the vocal upfront and not swathed in reverb and delay. It should sound as though Gary’s in the room with you, two feet away. I love that song, and unusually for me, I can still go back to it now and honestly say I don’t think I’d produce it any differently.
‘My Last Day’ was an appropriately apocalyptic end to ‘Splinter’, a variation on the Polymoog “vox humana” sound dominates the track, but how did you go about reconstructing your interpretation of this texture?
Cor, these are great questions. For starters, that song, as you may know, is about someone Gary knew who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Imagine knowing your last day on earth is just around the corner. Imagine knowing you won’t get to see your kids grow up.
What would your last day be like and what would you say? These are all almost unbearable questions that some people have to face. So, as a producer how do you create those feelings through music? Gary and I talked a lot about that before we made ‘My Last Day’. I found it incredibly hard to work on that song, not musically or technically, but emotionally, I was a wreck. It’s such a beautiful song, incredibly sad, yet we felt like it should have this enormous and grandiose ending.
Gary had sent me the demo with the Moog style string sound dominating the mix, so for me it was a case of building on that. The sound Gary used was a patch from Spectrasonics Omnisphere and I added my own by creating a patch on my Access Virus Ti, which I used a lot on ‘Splinter’.
The ‘Savage’ album managed to be dark and intense but the more metal elements of previous long players were dialled down this time round, had that been a conscious decision?
Kind of. It wasn’t a pre-meditated decision, but it became obvious after song two or three that this wasn’t going to be that kind of album. I remember that we worked on ‘Bed Of Thorns’ first, of which Gary’s demo had been very Middle Eastern flavoured. I don’t remember which came next, but as the demos flowed in from him, we talked about it and both agreed that this album should be predominantly electronic. The power would come from big synth bass sounds rather than thrashy guitars in the most part. Ironic and frustrating then, that we were disqualified from being number one in Billboard’s Electronic Chart for not being electronic enough. Ridiculous.
When ‘And It All Began With You’ premiered, many listening were held in their tracks, a ballad as good as anything on ‘Telekon’, how did it come together as a recording?
Yeah, it’s another beauty isn’t it. When Gary sent me the demo, it blew me away. The vocal range reminded me of Chris Isaak, so the idea was very much to compliment that by using Steve Harris to create some guitar textures which would tug at the heart strings and we achieved that using the fantastic Eventide H9.
It was then a case of keeping the other elements really subtle, from the gentle and very simple drum groove to the random apreggiated synth pattern. I’m not sure if anyone noticed but I also recorded a thunder storm and ran it through the entire duration of the track. It seemed to add a lovely texture to everything else that was going on.
‘When The World Comes Apart’ managed to combine the classic synth elements of Numan with his more industrial rock sound successfully, is it a battle in the studio to reach this kind of compromise aesthetically?
Technically, it’s not a difficult thing to achieve but the challenge is getting it to sound contemporary. As most fans know, since I started working with Gary, I’ve tried to re-introduce some of the classic Numan sounds, but I’m resolute in making sure it never sounds pastiche. So, vocals at the top of the mix, anthemic string sounds, and synth bass sounds driving the songs. I think we’ve managed to achieve a modern sound, with subtle hints towards Gary’s legacy.
‘Savage’ proved to be Numan’s most successful for years plus there were still great songs like ‘It Will End Here’ left over. Had this been a comparatively straightforward album to make compared with the others, particularly in terms of studio rapport?
‘It Will End Here’ wasn’t left over, it was written specifically for the ‘The Fallen’ EP. It was only straightforward in the sense that we completed it from start to finish in 7 or 8 months, whereas ‘Splinter’ for example, had taken around 18 months. I’m not sure whether that was down to any kind of studio rapport though.
During the making of ‘Splinter’, Gary had moved to LA, so clearly that hindered its progress. With ‘Savage’, we absolutely nailed our working process and it came together quite quickly. Over the years, we’ve obviously developed level of trust for one another, so we generally leave one another to do our thing, then come together at the crucial stages.
So is the new Gary Numan album ‘Intruder’ part of a ‘Broken’ trilogy?
No. Although ‘Intruder’ is another theme based album, it’s definitely the next step rather than an additional piece of that ‘Broken’ jigsaw. ‘Intruder’ has a different feel to it than ‘Splinter’ and ‘Savage’, the use of incredible musicians like Gorkem Sen and Elizabeth Bernholz and a slightly different approach to creating the sound palette, sets it apart from the previous two.
What were your own first synths and what are your studio tools, keyboards and software of choice these days?
Crikey, well my first ever synth was a Korg Poly 800, many, many years ago. These days my studio is a mixture of analogue and digital. My DAW of choice is Logic Pro, and has been since Logic 5 I think, which I run on a Mac Pro. I run a huge selection of software synths and FX, including Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Trilian, the full NI suite of which Reaktor and FORM are my weapons of choice, a big Arturia collection with my go to instruments being the Buchla Easel, SEM V and Pigments, U-he’s Zebra and Zebra HZ, FXpansion’s Strobe and Cypher and for software processing I use Soundtoys, Waves etc. amongst many others.
On the hardware side, I use Arturia’s fantastic PolyBrute and MiniBrute 2S, with a MatrixBrute Noir on order (yippee), Analogue Solutions Leipzig-S and Vostok Deluxe, Access Virus Ti2, Waldorf Blofeld, Elektron Analog Keys and a MFB Urzwerg Pro for step sequencing.
My MIDI controller keyboard is a NI Komplete Kontrol S61 and I also use a Maschine Mk3 for making beats. For processing, I use an Eventide Eclipse and a Sherman Filterbank. Last but certainly not least are my beloved speakers, which are the PMC 228’s.
On ‘I Am Screaming’, the classic Numan elements of electric piano and drum machine shape the intro, but there’s this new element of Turkish musician Gorkem Sen bringing a Yaybahar to the palette. The melodies of Middle Eastern music have been a feature in Numan’s music over the years in viola or software form, but what inspired using an actual traditional ethnic instrument and what were the challenges of recording it?
Gary had spotted a video on YouTube of Gorkem playing the Yaybahar and sent it to me. We were both blown away by the sound this thing was making, so I suggested getting in touch with Gorkem. It took a bit of time to sort out, but eventually Gorkem agreed to do it.
Gorkem recorded the Yaybahar at his place and sent me the stems. It was pretty straightforward and we’re eternally grateful to him for allowing us to feature his unique instrument on the album.
Elizabeth Bernholz aka GAZELLE TWIN features on the ‘Intruder’ album too and she has magnificent haunting vocal range. With everything going on, did she have to be recorded remotely? What challenges does this present to you as a producer?
She did yes. I’ve known Elizabeth for a few years now. She’s a genius and I’m a huge fan of her work and everything she creates, both sonically and visually. She recorded her vocals remotely at her studio pretty late in the day actually. That was because we were still tweaking away at the tracks and we wanted to have a clear idea of what we thought would work for her.
I’d had a chat with her prior to her recording her stuff, so she knew which direction we wanted it to take, but honestly, when she sent the vocals back for ‘The End Of Dragons’, I sat in my studio screaming “f****ccckkkkk!” very loudly. We’d made a fairly grandiose, orchestral sounding intro to the piano version of the song, but when she added her immense vocals to it, I nearly fell off my chair. I can’t thank her enough for the unique layer she’s added to the album and I hope it’s the first of many collaborations with her. Recording remotely wasn’t really a challenge with her, or with any of the other musicians on the album. It’s not like we had a choice, so we just got on with it.
Which track from ‘Intruder’ has been your favourite to work on?
Tough question, so I’m going to have to choose two. ’I Am Screaming’ and ‘The Gift’. I loved the challenge of introducing some of the elements you mentioned in a previous question to this album’s sound.
As a producer, I’m very aware that my priority is to deliver what Gary wants, not what I want.
But, because of the trust I mentioned previously, he allows me to try stuff, some of which sticks and some of which doesn’t. So, using a CR-78 and a modern take on the Roland CP30 piano sound was something I wasn’t sure Gary would go for, but running it through some heavy tape saturation and Soundtoys Decapitator gave it a lovely bite. I think I enjoyed those tracks in particular because there’s a lot of space in the verse sections to be able to experiment with sound design. Also, Gorkem’s contribution to ‘The Gift’ especially, takes it to another level altogether.
What next for you? Will there be a full length follow-up to ‘Artificial Perfect’ and are there any guest vocalists you have in mind?
I really don’t know about that. I have no desire to do a follow up, but I would like to work on some more collaborations. I’ve been working on a score for a boxing documentary called ‘In The Company Of Kings’ recently, that’s pretty much finished now so I think it’ll be a collaboration, then another Gary album.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its grateful thanks to Ade Fenton
Additional thanks to Steve Malins at Random Management
Electronic pioneer Peter Howell is best known for his period in the BBC as a member of THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP.
His most iconic piece of music is the 1980 version of the ‘Doctor Who Theme’, originally made famous by Delia Derbyshire with her electronic realisation in 1963 of a composition by Ron Grainer. Howell joined in 1974, having already recorded a number of psychedelic folk albums with John Ferdinando under various guises.
Using and abusing technology to create new sounds, for television, as well as music for ‘Doctor Who’ and other BBC programmes, Howell released the acclaimed album ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ in 1978. After The Workshop disbanded in 1998, Howell moved into academia, working as a lecturer at the National Film & Television School. Meanwhile in 2012, he published ‘Your Music on Film’, a handbook for film composers.
In 2009, Howell reunited with his former colleagues Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb and Dick Mills under the baton of The Workshop’s archivist Mark Ayers for a special concert at The Roundhouse in London. It was the first time that THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP had ever played live as a unit and interest from a whole new generation of fans was such that in 2014, they embarked on a UK tour which also included festivals such as Glastonbury, WOMAD and both Bestivals. More recently, this band of musical veterans have also performed at prestigious venues like The Science Museum, The National Portrait Gallery and The British Library.
‘Radiophonic Times’ is the new autobiography of Peter Howell, published by Obverse Books who also presented the world with ‘An Electric Storm, Delia, Daphne & The Radiophonic Workshop’ in 2014. With the ethos of The Workshop is still going strong since its formation in 1958, he kindly spoke to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about his ‘Radiophonic Times’…
What inspired you to write a book?
People had suggested someone from The Workshop ought to write a book, but I never thought I would be the person despite the fact I had written stuff previously. I was writing before I was composing, way back when I was 12!
But it was mainly because of the band stuff that came along and I thought it would be neat to do a book that was like a parallel thread of modern stuff to do with the band and historical stuff, bouncing the two off one another. It was a bit different so I gave it a try. I had to look for a publisher and Obverse have been great because I needed somebody I could talk to as I was a bit green to all this. It’s been good, I’ve enjoyed it.
Have you had formal training as a musician, what were your main instruments? There’s a photo of you with a lute!
Haha! My training is minimal, I’ve just got a fascination with all sorts of musical instruments. When I was back in Hove with my parents, I used to travel to Hayllars Music Shop in Brighton every month and they’d have something in the window that wasn’t very expensive that would make another noise.
So I’d accumulated all these different bits like a mandolin, lute, glockenspiel , all that stuff that makes noises. I got interested in doing it from the ground up, not from any training at all. John Ferdinando and I teamed up to do the ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’ album and that used all these instruments I’d gathered.
As a part of the 60s psychedelic folk scene, how aware were you of the emerging electronic music movement. Did you ever go to clubs like UFO at the time?
No, I think this gave me a qualification to be in THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP that I didn’t take any notice of anything else! I was completely oblivious to anything! *laughs*
I was just interested in making sounds and recording them. It never occurred to me I was part of anything of any genre, it’s only been after the event that John and I surprisingly discovered that we’d been labelled as “psychedelic folk”.
How did you become interested in using tape manipulation and electro acoustic sound design in music?
I was interested in producing artistic material from very clumsy machines, and they were clumsy in those days. I’ve still got my Revox down in the studio and it’s a very clunky device *laughs*
That’s what I was fascinated with… the other day, a book that I had very early on that I’m very sorry to have lost, you’d be very shocked at how old fashioned it looked, a sound recording manual produced by people like Abbey Road Studios and the like. All the machines in it looked as if they were from the Second World War with big Bakelite knobs on everything, men in very baggy trousers with turn-ups! *laughs*
It was like a bible to me, I used to look at it all the time. I was interested in the idea of producing an artistic audio something out of the most unlikely things. On ‘The Walrus & The Carpenter’ from the ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’ album, we actually used an old telephone and wired that up to record through the mouthpiece.
In those circumstances, you experiment with stuff and it’s the result of the experiment that inspires you to write the music, it’s not the other way. The more academic way of doing music is to acquire a skill and then look for a way to use it, whereas this was round the other way, acquiring a sound to see what can do with the sound to write the music. I regard it as “inside out” composing rather than “outside in”.
So all this interested to you applying for a job as a studio manager at the BBC?
Yes, that’s right. In the interview for that, I was chatting about what I was doing with my Revox and all the stuff, I think that got me the job.
How did you come to join THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP?
There was a senior studio manager who was at the mixing desk, I was the junior studio manager playing tapes and LPs. I got given tapes to play with blue leader on them… at Broadcasting House, the leader was yellow for the cues and red for the end. These tapes that had blue leader on them, the sounds were amazing! So I asked about these tapes with the blue leader on them and I was told “that’s THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP”.
By coincidence, I was doing some amateur dramatics at the BBC who had their own theatre group and while we were at The Cockpit Theatre in Paddington, somebody mentioned that they had a load of synthesizers upstairs. In those days, there was basically only one marketed synthesizer which was the EMS VCS3 and they had three of them that these days would set you back about £10,000! *laughs*
So me and this other guy played around on these synths and we did some music for the show. When somebody at the BBC heard these, they suggested that I should be in THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP. In the end, I applied for an attachment for three months and that’s how it started.
What did you think when you saw the huge EMS Synthi 100 Delaware there?
I thought “maybe I should start with the small one first”! *laughs*
It was enormous, it was the size of a Welsh dresser so I graduated to it later on. It didn’t fulfil its early promise for me I think you could say.
It was a very big device, it had a gigantic number of controls on it, some things that it did, nothing else did at all and it had a 256 note sequencer which was pretty unheard of at the time. It had this wonderful matrix switching panel which was really groundbreaking.
But the problem with the Delaware was however hard you tried, you could never really get it to make full sounds, it was a bit thin. The very front of ‘The Astronauts’ LP track is the Delaware, there’s a sequence of notes that I knew it could do well. There’s another track called ‘Secret War’ which has sounds made on the Delaware and as long as you knew what it was going to give you and not try anything else, it was absolutely wonderful. I didn’t find it was something you could use for a whole piece.
The VCS3 and AKS were loved by musicians but maybe EMS never made another synth as good as those again because the Polysynthi was horrible, it never made a decent sound no matter what knob you turned and Vince Clarke said it was “the worst sounding synth ever made”…
I think it was a mixture of a lot of things and I think it had a lot to do with the filter. When you look at subsequent synths, the quality of the filter was very important, especially one that could have a bit of drive in it for some “oomph”. Things like the Moog were known for their filters and that was probably the shortcoming of that machinery. But EMS really were groundbreaking at the time and if it did nothing else, it introduced us to the fact that here was a machine that was making sounds that you had never heard before, you genuinely hadn’t, that was the excitement of it. Now that’s impossible to say these days.
There was also the possibility of not being able to get “that sound” again!
Haha! You’re dead right there! It’s all very well for everybody to love the old days and get all nostalgic, but there’s one thing I’m not nostalgic about and that’s machinery forgetting what it was doing yesterday! These days, the ideas of memories and coming back to something to carry on working is wonderful, everybody takes it for granted. I was so paranoid at not being able to get back to the same sound again, I would either work through the night in order not to walk away from it or alternatively, make a cassette recording of me dictating all the settings so that I could come back to them, that’s where we were at! *laughs*
So I can be forgiven for being a big exponent of laptop based stuff and I’ve got some really favourite high level software that I use, this is all nirvana to what it was! *laughs*
There was this mysterious dial marked Option4??
Haha! Yes, that was on the Delware! There were no wires attached to it, it was simply so that the facial panel could look more symmetrical! *laughs*
But we did use it because there comes a point in “your tweaking of the tweaks” as it were, some people have what I call ‘finishitis’ who, through lack of experience, can’t finish… they don’t know when something has been completed, so they assume there is always something else you can do to it.
So that’s a habit that you’ve got to get of very fast if you’ve got deadlines. Some of the BBC producers loved coming across to Maida Vale because it was a trip out from Broadcasting House or Television Centre and they could put their feet up and get into doing stuff. But there comes a point when you feel like saying to them, “why don’t we give it a bit of Option4 to finish it off?”, you know! *laughs*
You were often considered to be The Workshop member who had a pop sensibility as there was a move from the more music concrete approach to straightforward synthesis. Were you still encouraged to be experimental?
Well, Paddy Kingsland definitely when I arrived at the Workshop was the person who was associated with pop and rock. His output really put electronic tune making on the map I think.
He was able to use synthesizers is such a pure and direct way that his style revolved around being tuneful as well as being electronic. If I did go in that direction, it was inspired by his work really.
As far as I was concerned and it still applies to this day, I am equally experimental and melodic. Some of the latest music on my website has got that sort of trend. You will find there is experimental stuff at the front of a track and it then crystallises into more thematic stuff.
I think it’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask how much was dictated by what the directors want, we were a service department, weren’t just toodling around and being paid for it. We needed to supply programmes with what they wanted, so you are guided by what the programme needs.
‘The Astronauts’ needed a big theme for the early space race, so that was an example of where you could be experimental in a lot of soundtracking satellites talking with one another and thematic stuff which is more melodic. All the way through, I’ve tended to try and ride both horses at once
Your work on ‘The Astronauts’ in 1978 was very Wendy Carlos meets Vangelis, did they inspire you?
I think panic was inspiring me! *laughs*
In the book, it refers to how ‘The Astronauts’ came about. I was unwisely persuaded to run a session with live musicians because there was a lot of money backing it and probably the first and last time it was available for music. It was a European-wide venture and there was money coming in from everywhere, so it was decided to spend it on musicians. It was passable, it wasn’t awful but there was nothing special about what we did.
By the time I got back to the studio upstairs, I hated every split second of it frankly. I wanted to add some synth lines and the deadline was the next day. So I started fiddling around on the ARP Odyssey and I came across a random control voltage effecting a filter at the same time as an automatic repeated note. So it was going “dah-dah-dah-dah-dah” but every time it sounds, the filter is in a different position.
I added some tape echo to it and discovered that if your tape echo was slower than you would normally expect, you could get the echo to occur after the following note. So “note1” sounds, but the echo doesn’t occur until after “note2”. So if “note1” and “note2” are “da-dah”, then it goes “da-dah-da…”. So if you progress that through to a series of runs, you get semi-quavers appearing in between the runs in an interesting galloping sort of effect. That was the basis of the track, it was genuinely experimental as far as I was concerned. I didn’t know really what was going to happen. Once I got that bassline, that was it. So using this inside-out system, once you get a sound that is strong enough, everything else follows. It’s like a blossoming flower.
Do you think that music was influential on acts like TANGERINE DREAM because they started to sound like what you did on ‘The Astronauts’ when they went off to do all that soundtrack work?
I occasionally heard stuff that I thought might have had associations, but we didn’t imagine we were connected to the outside world *laughs*
We were like inhabitants in a computer game really, existing in our bubble and we never met the public who heard our music on these programmes, we only ever met the directors of the programmes who came to us. So it was a hermit-like existence. You read a lot of people have been inspired by The Workshop but it was quite surprising to us as we were just doing our thing *laughs*
Is it true there was a rivalry between you and Paddy Kingsland at The Workshop?
Oh the rivalry was NOT on Paddy’s side at all, but it was slightly on my side! It wasn’t his fault, but I did feel I was regarded as a slightly less good Paddy Kingsland. I had ability on keyboards, it wasn’t massive and I had talent, but it was evenly spread across guitars and keyboards *laughs*
I didn’t think my keyboard side was represented enough in people’s opinion of what I could do at the BBC, so that was one of the reasons why I decided to do the ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ album, the whole of the first side of which relies quite heavily on keyboard work, not just synths but a Steinway, I went the whole hog *laughs*
If there was rivalry there, it was entirely my fault but I felt I needed to up my game a bit!.
Yes, there’s nothing like a bit of creative tension…
What are the challenges of writing incidental music compared to a theme? Did you compose to moving images, have a brief or story board?
You basically look at rough cuts of the film, story boards are no good at all and scripts aren’t much good either! When I was doing ‘Doctor Who’, one of the most disappointing things looking back is the ludicrous number of trees they cut down to make these redundant scripts that they’d send everybody, great fat ones! The pink one was the shooting script, the yellow one was the editing script, every single episode, there was another one!
And I didn’t look at any of them! What’s the point? The important thing is what’s the picture I am actually writing to. Until I got the rough cut, I didn’t waste the time of actually doing any work on it. Because I respond to the film itself, I didn’t want to fire all my ammunition too early. You need to keep your powder dry I think is the expression *laughs*
What do you remember about reworking the ‘Doctor Who Theme’? Was there a weight of responsibility?
It was tampering with an institution and I did it with a lot of trepidation. I agreed with Brian Hodgson and ‘Doctor Who’ producer John Nathan-Turner beforehand that if I and others didn’t think it was going well, we would actually shelve it and nobody would know it was even being done. So we had to be quite secretive about it. I remember when I had the bassline and one or two bits, I went to Paddy as he was doing some trials of incidental music for John Nathan-Turner and asked him “ought I to continue with this or not?”; he thought it was alright *laughs*
It gradually evolved and took me six weeks overall. I tried lots of different bits of gear in The Workshop. One of my concerns was people could meet in the pub afterwards and say “oh, I know what he was playing for that! It’s a so-and-so and it’s the third preset along”, I hated the thought of that happening. I still hate the thought of that happening to this day! *laughs*
So I went out of way to find unexpected uses of bits of gear. The CS-80 was only ever used for the bassline, nothing else. The ARP did the “oooh-wee-ooooo”, the Roland Jupiter did the middle eight with a tremolo sound because it’s got a good arpeggiator on it and so it went on, every part really was from a different place.
Some of it was quite a lot of work. For instance, towards the end of the opening theme, there is a sound that is like a Catherine Wheel, a “swoo-swooosh-schwhhh”, that was a whole session on its own. It was done with different multitrack tape using match flares and all sorts of things old style, cutting the tape up, feeding it back through echo, looping it, all the rest of it. I’d master it onto a ¼ inch stereo tape and play that onto the main multitracks. So there were bits that were like sub-contracted out to a different session and then brought back in again.
There was a lot of work involved in trying to get an organic sound environment. I was pleased that I sort of got that because it’s something that Delia Derbyshire had with her version. You’ve got to admire her with what was at her disposal, she really did invent a whole sound world for that piece. I was very keen to try and do the same thing.
One of the most difficult sounds to emulate would have been the attack of the bassline?
That’s right, if you listen to the bass on mine, it has exactly the same “gulp” sound in front of each phrase that Delia had, and I make no excuses about being inspired by what she did, because that was such a lovely effect, almost like the bass was tripping over itself. It’s not four square predictable, it’s got that “lurch” feel to it that I really liked. I did that by reverse reverb which is taking the bassline that was played accurately along the way, turning it upside down and playing it into reverb, re-recording that and turning it upside down before setting it back a tiny bit, so that you have lead-up sounds to the bass notes. That way, you’ve got this feeling of tripping over.
You’re doing all this tape manipulation stuff, but then comes the Fairlight which makes it all much easier?
Moments like that are quite pivotal. If I had been somebody who utterly loathed the idea of digital, that would have been the end of my career frankly. The way things were going, they were heading in that direction. Oh I loved it, several of us loved it too much and then Kate Bush comes along with her ‘Never For Ever’ album and I felt like never touching it again. All the Fairlight stuff was so wonderful and fabulous on that album, so that brought me up a bit short!
I realised you can’t expect to survive on one bit of gear, it’s that same as going back to the Delaware. When this wonderful new thing arrives, you think “oh my God, this is the end of life as we know it”, but it isn’t and it did add lots of very interesting things. But you have to be proportionate I think.
You demonstrated the Fairlight to school children on TV in 1982 and with its “smaller box than you’d expect for a computer”, it all’s very ‘Look Around You’… what do you remember about doing that?
It’s very twee! Whenever you do television, you realise how utterly false the whole thing is, however live it might be! Everybody is so aware of getting it right and doing it like you did it in rehearsal and all the rest, it was not my greatest hour! *laughs*
Of course that clip got spoofed with you inventing drum ‘n’ bass… *laughs*
Yes, it was nothing more than we all deserved! *laughs*
What makes it funnier now is the indifferent girl at the end obviously comes over not very keen on drum ‘n’ bass…
I didn’t find out who did it, but I became aware of it through a student, at the film school I taught at, sent me the link. But then the day after, he sent me an email apologising for sending it to me thinking I’d be terribly upset. But I told him I’d never laughed so much in my life! It was hilarious! *laughs*
Were there any instruments in The Workshop that you never got on with?
I had an arms-length relationship with the Delaware but I got on with it, but I never really went for the PPG or the Oberheim. With the PPG, you felt you were already using the Fairlight and it’s doing it better. Meanwhile similarly with the Oberheim, people were saying they were very beefy sounds and they sort of were, but I don’t think it warranted the effort for me.
But when we came onto stuff like the rack-mounted gear, something like the Yamaha TX816 which was eight DX7s in a rack was fantastic. You could do the most amazing things, sometimes playing all eight at once, some slightly detuned, all sorts of things. A lot of the Yamaha and Roland gear was generally speaking, pretty up there. I didn’t go for Akai samplers when virtually the rest of the planet was going for them, I liked the Roland library and their samplers with the standalone monitors so you had a little bit more information about what was happening, you weren’t looking through a little window all the time, it was things like that.
We were very idiosyncratic, you could find somebody in The Workshop who liked something you disliked so it really didn’t matter as each of us had our own projects, we were actually hardly collaborating at all.
How did you get on with FM synthesis programming on things like the DX7 and TX816?
John Chowning, the guy that invented FM synthesis actually game to see us. I liked it a lot but as with everything else, I liked “playing the whole room” so I didn’t like relying too heavily on one thing for total solutions, because I actually think it leads to sound a bit vanilla for me.
You use the DX7 live as your keyboard controller, what’s that triggering?
My keyboard is controlling laptop based synths that are local to me and occasionally via MIDI lines, synths that are with the others. And the same goes in reverse, it sounds ludicrously complicated but we’ve got it down now to a reasonably workable solution.
Mark Ayres is the hub, he is responsible for the timeline, the video on it, click tracks that all come out to us via Ethernet connected personalised monitors, so each of us have control of sixteen tracks just for our monitoring. It historically goes back to our concert at The Roundhouse in 2009 when we relied on The Roundhouse to provide our foldback and never again, because it was so difficult.
We realised that our sort of material is so varied that you need to be far more specific about your foldback. If you are a rock band and basically using the same line-up for most numbers, you can virtually predict whatever your set-up will be ok when you play the next thing. Not for us, we’ve got so many different sorts of material that we needed a customised way of dealing with it. That describes it roughly.
You use an Akai wind controller on stage too, are you trained in wind instruments?
It goes back to Hayllars and buying lots of instruments. I learnt recorder, penny whistle and I learnt some clarinet and flute. The fingering on the wind controller is most like the flute because you can actually choose what fingering you have, I really enjoy it. I’ve also got a Launchpad Pro matrix that I use for more sound based stuff and I play guitar as well.
How have you needed to adapt the stage set-up for touring purposes and practicalities in live shows?
One thing that came out of The Roundhouse concert for me was ways not to do it. I really didn’t like the experience, one of the things that I thought was absolutely stupid to have done was to put the synth keyboards in the way of me and the audience. You’ll see now since when we went out on tour, I had the keyboards placed sideways so that I have an open view of the audience. When I play guitar or wind controller, I am towards the audience and for me, I’m playing to somebody. At The Roundhouse, I could have been in a study somewhere, I just felt totally disconnected. So that’s one thing that I’ve appreciated doing, that’s worked and Mark has done the same so we are backed onto one another.
THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP have been performing as a live entity for some time now in the last few years. But being mature musicians, touring is not a natural thing to want to do for the first time? *laughs*
No! Cliff Jones, our manager kindly realised that we wouldn’t be sleeping in the van! *laughs*
So, the accommodation we’ve had has been quite good, it’s not the Hilton but they’re comfortable hotels. We have probably spent an inordinate amount of our earnings as a band to making sure we’re feather bedded *laughs*
Mark Ayers has mentioned that it could all be done on laptops but visually wouldn’t be very exciting for the audience?
One of the reasons I turned round and also that I’m playing different instruments was to help with the visuals. I’m not an enormous fan of the presentation style of KRAFTWERK these days, to me they look like a series of chartered accountants standing behins their laptops. So I didn’t really want that to be the way we came across.
Also, we’ve got a live drummer Kieron Pepper and that made an enormous difference right from the start… it also made it a bit more complicated but probably it ups the excitement value, certainly when we get round to doing our finale which is a very extended nine minute excursion which lands into the 1980 ‘Doctor Who Theme’ and I think that proves the value there. In fact, we have two drummers, Bob Earland who is an electronic wizard but also a drummer who was trained by Kieron so the two of them are occasionally drumming together.
There’s also the video projections?
We’ve got videos for everything bar one thing and we regard that as quite important as our audience from the word go were looking at their television so used to hearing our stuff with visuals. I think it would be quite difficult for them to suddenly have nothing but us playing on stage. So we’ve kept that in mind throughout., but it does make it a great deal harder to do, but it’s what the audience enjoy.
Mark has so many good suggestions in problem solving along the way which has been invaluable, his input has been phenomenal from the start. There have been a few ideas where I’ve been doggedly trying to get it to work and there comes a point when somebody else in the band says “why don’t we stop doing this because it’s not working?” *laughs*
For instance, using vocoder live if there’s too much coming off the drum kit, not to be recommended at all! *laughs*
You’ve influenced a whole variety of musicians, producers and DJs, who out of the more recent generation do you think best encapsulates the spirit of The Workshop?
There’s tons of stuff but I’m really bad at making mental notes of people, because part of the problem is I don’t get hooked on one person. I am full of admiration of what they are all able to do, I feel in the stuff I’m writing now, I’m just a member of their band to a certain extent.
Nobody is pretending that pioneers can carry on being so, they are the people treading the new ground and there’s fabulous stuff around. And it’s not just pure electronic stuff, it’s also production values and some things are quite extraordinary. It’s what keeps me going really, I’m fascinated by how people are achieving things. I love Tim Exile’s stuff, he’s somebody who uses technology live in a completely off-the-wall spontaneous manner, he’s helped Native Instruments develop a few plug-ins, one called Mouth which I use.
What have been your favourite pieces of work in your career?
When you ask composers what are their favourites, they may choose things they were up all night writing which means they are much more memorable.
For me, it’s often stuff people probably wouldn’t think twice about, I love what I did for a Channel 4 series called ‘Reality On the Rocks’ with Ken Campbell, the comedian trying to discover the details involved in quantum physics; in the 90s because of the producer choice internal marketing policy within the BBC, we were able to offer our services to other networks.
Obviously, I am delighted with the success of the 1980 ‘Doctor Who Theme’, because it’s been a calling card for me, I can’t possibly not mention that and it was very enjoyable to do.
‘The Astronauts’ too but we are going a long way back, there are things in the meantime that you are pleased with for different reasons. I did the title music for ‘Cardiff Singer Of The World’ for a couple of years and that was all done on glass rims, you get pleased with things for particular reasons.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Peter Howell
Additional thanks to Stuart Douglas at Obverse Books
Comprising of vocalist Aidan Casserly and musician Mike Wilson, SILVER MOON captured a musical journey in synth, indie and pop about love and life on their first album ‘Empty Rooms’ released at the end of 2020.
Aidan Casserly is best known as the man behind EMPIRE STATE HUMAN while Mike Wilson heads up Ditto TV and Playworks TV who produced the 2016 documentary film ‘You Keep Me Running Round & Round’ which looked back at the life of Irish electronic music enthusiasts as they gathered to attend the first concert in Dublin by BLANCMANGE.
Esoteric and challenging the minds of potential listeners, an eclectic range of styles sees SILVER MOON explore anything from opera to country & western for their own technologically constructed falsetto tinged art rock.
Not content with sitting on their laurels following ‘Empty Rooms’, the Irish duo now have a new EP ‘All The Stars’ with five completely new compositions with their own distinct air of poetry and theatre ready to unleash onto the public. The Irish duo chatted to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about their considered artistic ethos…
How would you describe the concept of SILVER MOON and how has it differed from your previous musical outings?
Aidan: Firstly, thank you for this opportunity to chat with you. It’s a great honour. I’ve written and produced about 40 albums since signing EMPIRE STATE HUMAN to Ninthwave records. Being an artist is my living dream, and one I always wanted to do since I was about 6. Staying creative is a major part of this lifestyle and I do something creative every day of my life. It’s a natural state of mind.
Working with Mike on SILVER MOON since July 2020, has been a joyous and natural experience. The way we work with him doing the music and me doing vocals/lyrics helps define the sound and gives it great gravitas and individuality, from my previous bands and releases as I now release under the name of SEBASTIAN & THE DREAM, with 4 albums coming over the next 12 months.
Electronic pop / acoustic / intimate and reflective piano and voice; this difference is essential, as a big part of the growing into oneself as an artist, is visualisation of an end point. I see SILVER MOON as much as I can hear it.
Mike: The concept behind SILVER MOON is really great songs created with a theatrical, maybe even an avant-garde twist with a strong identity. We’ve been exploring bold black and white imagery revisiting some of the pioneers of early film in our videos.
Two things differ from other projects:
1) ‘Freedom’: I work fulltime in the creative industry. With SILVER MOON, I am not composing, producing or responding to a client brief. It’s all ‘ours’ with no commercial pressure. That’s hugely liberating.
2) ‘Teamwork’: We are a creative team, Aidan words and vocals, while I compose and produce.
But the SILVER MOON concept is more than music, it’s cinematic. We are joined with JessB, JessM, Abbey and Oscar on the visual and digital side of the work. That visual presentation of the work is a huge part of what we are creating, and how our audience engages with us.
With being involved in several different projects, are there times when ideas blur?
Aidan: No not really. We’re both very focussed and professional in outlook and work ethic. I think the best creative people I’ve met are that way. Bluffers in this game get found out. So that important characteristic of doing rather than just talking about doing it, is such a confidence boost when collaborating.
Mike: When producing ideas do blur across things – from a new instrument, to a new piece of software – it’s like a new toy – you want to bring it out to play with everyone! Every day at work we are constantly moving from production to production – from making a pop video, to producing a show. That keeps everything fresh and on track to a deadline.
Your press release A-Z shows the breadth of your influences, is this a reaction to modern music becoming far too compartmentalised with stupid sub-genre designations like Tropical House and Footwork?
Aidan: I always felt genres were stifling and the holding on to them a really negative trait. I have released a wide range of styles and albums, as it’s what my own musical tastes are. I’m eclectic. I’ve composed films scores (‘Amityville Toybox’), written poetry books and recorded spoken albums. Yet I love electronic pop, and that particular medium has given such immense pride to me. Working with Wolfgang Flür or having a number one in the US iTunes dance charts with a cover of John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, mean a lot to me, as they break through barriers and genres. I always look forward and never backwards as a rule. It’s a shark mentality I guess.
Mike: Hahaha! I had to Google ‘Tropical House’ and ‘Footwork’! Growing up with my Mum and Dad’s records it was T-REX, next to Johnny Cash, alongside ABBA – with THE CHIEFTAINS in there too! And always The Beatles. My collection today is similar – I’ll stick on THE MURDER CAPITAL alongside SAULT. So, you are probably right, that it is some form of genre rejection – or at least calling it out. A huge part of the attraction is the variety of our influences.
You recorded much of your debut album ‘Empty Rooms’ during the pandemic, how was it having that spectre looming and did it affect the way the music was constructed?
Aidan: Funnily enough, the backdrop of the pandemic never features in any theme or lyric, so the only impact in reflection is that the use of lockdown time, was to stay creative and positive. Construction of the music came directly from Mike. At times we would discuss a type of song or indeed a lyrical theme in advance. As a guide or just to whet the appetite.
Mike: The pandemic had an impact in an unexpected way. Aidan and I never meet, or even speak – we text each other! It’s all very ‘Gen Z’! I send a backing track with basic instrumentation and scoring of a demo.
Aidan sends back the vocals, and I set about writing, arranging and producing. I rarely if ever comment on the vocals or lyrics, and similarly Aidan rarely comments on the music. We are not a conventional band. I think the pandemic and lockdown had some sort of influence on that approach.
The closing track ‘Ode To The Lost’ was inspired by an iconic piece of music… now tell the truth, did you hear this melody via Elvis Presley’s ‘GI Blues’ movie or watching the Offenbach opera ‘The Tales Of Hoffmann’?
Aidan: Truthfully, I was only aware of the classical piece. It’s a wondrous and almost essential composition. I wasn’t aware of that Elvis version. Lyrically, I wanted to create a David Lynch ambiance in words. Like you were peering over the shoulder of the writer / singer, into their most intimate moments. When Mike brought up the idea of writing a contemporary lyric to it, I was at first intimidated but soon after I felt it was a real challenge to take in both hands. Lyrically it’s one of my favourites from the debut album ‘Empty Rooms’.
Mike: Elvis of course! I love classical music, and it’s a bit of theme for our ditto TV shows to end on a big number – ‘Conte Te Partiro’ – with confetti canons! I felt a classical twist at the end of the album would round off the listening. Aidan’s original lyrics alongside those synths. Wow! On Elvis… ‘A Pocket Full Of Rainbows’ and ‘Blue Moon’ are fabulous songs, a big influence.
For your first single ‘Flames’, you mentioned NEW ORDER and Country & Western in the same breath, but that’s not as weird as it sounds as the Mancunians’ did ‘Love Vigilantes’?
Aidan: Yes it’s an odd marriage. But like the Odd Couple, its differences offer its charm. I was more aware of the musical drive in the demo Mike sent me. It was something raw and unforgiving. The flame metaphor was something that came quite quickly.
Mike: It’s back to my folks records again – Ennio Morricone sitting alongside Jean-Michel Jarre!
Which have been your own favourite songs on ‘Empty Rooms’?
Aidan: For me when I complete an album, I rarely listen back. It’s always the journey to completion that excites me. When I listen back now, I hear moments and memories. ‘Winter on Earth’, for its almost Scott Walker/Billy Mackenzie depth is a highlight. As is ‘I Dance’ which I wrote lyrically about Louise Brooks. ‘Shadows’ has a Billie Holiday impact for me. Ethereal and sad. Finally, ‘Luminous’ has the foot tapper radio hit appeal.
Mike: The title track ‘Empty Rooms’ – the first thing we wrote. It’s dramatic and contains many influences. Spanish guitar, 80s clashing drums and a bubbly acid house bass! We enjoyed the process so much we said – let’s make an album! And hey presto!
You seem to have been on a roll because you have a new EP ‘All The Stars’ of five completely new songs, were these originally intended for ‘Empty Rooms’?
Aidan: None where intended for ‘Empty Rooms’, all were written fresh. We decided to go straight into writing and recording a new EP, on the back of our live streaming event in December. It’s gave us great impetus and motivation to grab the challenge of a new EP so soon after a full album. I really think songs like ‘Gin Song’, ‘A Soldier’s House’ and ‘Sides’ are so moving and memorable. We were patient and focused and I think this approach works wonders on a song like ‘Kiss them awake’.
Mike: All new songs, with an all new composing and production approach. I wanted to really push the sound forward. For sure electronics, but there is added live basses, yet more guitars, banjo, harmonica – there is even an accordion in there!
There appears to be much more of an Americana influence on this new EP and maybe some Roy Orbison creeping in?
Aidan: I absolutely love The Big O. What an angelic and iconic singer. Where Johnny Cash wore black for the disenfranchised and disconnected, Roy Orbison sung to the human condition of melancholy. I take any references as a great, great compliment. Thank you.
I totally agree with the Americana reference. We talked about this and it’s again new territory, as I’ve always seen myself as a European style artist, so it’s been very appealing for me to add something else.
Mike: I hear that too, that’s the banjo and Gretsch! I’ve been listening to lots of Marc & The Mambas and Nick Cave too. It certainly has that feel. Musically the EP is much more coherent than the first album, the songs sit together really well.
You named yourselves after the David Sylvian song from ‘Gone To Earth’? Which is your favourite body of work involving him?
Aidan: Apart from his JAPAN catalogue I love David’s ‘Brilliant Trees’ album. The depth to which he can take the listening is inspirational and when the mood is right, he can often be otherworldly. I recently covered ‘Forbidden Colours’ for SEBASTIAN & THE DREAM, and I kept it simple, just piano and voice, and I was floored by the lyrics. Almost beyond poetry and I am a big, big lover of Petey. Neruda, Lorca, Sylvia Plath and Lord Byron are some of my favourites.
Mike: ‘Secrets Of The Beehive’ (and ‘Orpheus’ in particular). It’s a production reference point for me. David Sylvian has an uncompromising high quality bar in his creative output. Something I greatly admire. If you are going to do something make it as good as you possibly can.
How do you see the future of releasing music and how the financial aspects might develop?
Aidan: Generally for full time musicians, I think the pandemic is ripping up the rule book. It’s been a great leveller and it doesn’t care if you a million seller or a twenty seller, as music as a business is now changed forever. It’s forcing bands, record labels, promoters and venues rethink their models and many will not return to pre Covid-19 days. Once you take away the fear, you are left with resilience, and that human strength could very well save us.
Mike: A great question. I think it’s a hugely challenging and also weirdly an exciting time for artists. Live will come back. But I think releasing music and media will blur. More Bandcamp, SoundCloud, non-label supported releases. Patronage and subscription models. NFTs. There is so much innovation. Artists will stretch across media – music, film, visuals, digital. This is a transitional time. Selling music and gigging will not be a primary source of income for many artists, or indeed only how audiences will want to engage.
Who do you hope SILVER MOON might appeal to? What’s the future for you?
Aidan: Finding an audience is tough for any act, and having a great album doesn’t guarantee one. You can plug a song to death and you can approach DJs, Bloggers and music sites until you’re blue in the face. No guarantees. No definite results are offered. Once you get past hard work, focus and talent, good old fashioned good luck and right time / right place are so important.
SILVER MOON has the potential to appeal to those who like pop music to think by. Romance with a touch of melancholy and poetry. If you want some beauty and warmth then come to us. We’ll gladly offer you some.
Mike: Opportunities like this interview are really great to share our story and raise awareness, it’s really appreciated. I hope SILVER MOON appeals to folk who like thought out, well produced music, made with a sense of theatre. The singles have a pop sensibility, while the album tracks give a different flavour.
For the future… more music, more videos… I would love us to present the project in a live cinematic setting, that would be very cool.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to SILVER MOON
‘Blitzed’ is the new Sky Arts documentary about the colourful London club night attended by aspirational young people driven to escape, express and create.
It was the start of the Thatcher era and before it was infiltrated by leg warmers, deely boppers, fluffy dice, yuppies and soddin’ Pat Sharp, the clientele of The Blitz were planting the seeds that were to shape the eighth decade of the 20th Century.
With the late Steve Strange acting as its Pied Piper, these personalities who emerged from a movement that got labelled The Blitz Kids, The Cult With No Name and The New Romantics were to have a big impact on popular culture. They included costume designers Fiona Dealey and Michele Clapton, journalists Robert Elms and Dylan Jones as well as royal hat maker Stephen Jones. They tell their stories of that flamboyant period alongside the usual suspects of Rusty Egan, Boy George, Steve Dagger, Princess Julia, Gary Kemp, Marilyn, Andy Polaris, Chris Sullivan and Midge Ure.
While those not fully immersed in the history of The Blitz Club will delight in the 90 minutes of ‘Blitzed’, aficionados of New Romantic history will be disappointed to see many of the same old faces repeating variations on anecdotes told many times before. Meanwhile others will despair that music is not the main topic of discussion, although it would be fair to say that TV specials looking at key hit songs by VISAGE, ULTRAVOX, SPANDAU BALLET and CULTURE CLUB have been a plenty on Channel 5 lately…
However, some new faces do appear and Darla Jane Gilroy’s recollections of being chosen to be an extra in David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video after he graced The Blitz are delightful.
The inclusion of Elly Jackson of LA ROUX though is questionable; obviously chosen as an example of a modern day Blitz Kid because of her “Flock of Tilda Swintons” hairdo and having a No1 with the synth-driven ‘Bulletproof’ in 2009, she comes across as blissfully unaware of the long term influence of The Blitz but then she did aspire to be a folk singer as a teenager!
Another frustrating aspect of ‘Blitzed’ that could have been better researched is when David Bowie is mentioned in his position as the Godfather of The Blitz; a fair proportion of the archive footage accompanying this section is from after the club closed including his spiky-haired ‘Glass Spider’ period in 1987 and in one clip, the ‘Earthling’ period of 1997!
Reliably entertaining in ‘Blitzed’, resident DJ Rusty Egan makes some memorable and amusing observations of the time. Acting as co-consultant and providing new music for the documentary, the recently released soundtrack album additionally features period pieces by his former protégés SHOCK and RONNY as well as inspired by tracks from artists such as WE ARE BRANDO and TINY MAGNETIC PETS who he would be playing at The Blitz Club if it was still around and hadn’t closed in Spring 1981. The interconnected collection concludes with a live version of David Bowie’s ‘Where Are We Now?’ by Boy George.
Edited down from an amusing conversation that went on for nearly 4 hours, Rusty Egan chatted about the making of the ‘Blitzed’ documentary and its accompanying soundtrack.
It looks like the ‘Blitzed’ documentary has gone down well with the general public?
Yeah, it’s been very well received by the GENERAL public. But within the community of actual Blitz Kids, I put together a list of 50 or so of the most important people that went to The Blitz like John Galliano who would have been 18-19 year old students and part of the hub… I shared it online and called it “The 50 Blitz Kids Who Were Too Cool To Be In A Documentary About The Blitz”! *roars of laughter*
The quip went down well with them because they were being labelled “too cool”, it’s got a funny juxtaposition; of course, a lot of them couldn’t be squeezed into 90 minutes anyway!
So I acknowledged them by doing a video for a track called ‘Catwalk’ which is part of the ‘Blitzed’ soundtrack… I told them I wouldn’t be in the documentary unless I did the music! It was my chance to right some wrongs, the sound I was trying to get on the accompanying OST album, whether I wrote it, produced it or got someone else to do it, was not a retro album or another compilation with ‘Ashes To Ashes’ or ‘The Model’ which it easily could have been, it’s a different thing!
‘Catwalk’ appears to have the same chord progression as ‘The Model’ by KRAFTWERK?
NO! It’s the same chord progression as ‘Turn To Dust’ which Boy George sent me which I stripped down and added my sequence. So it was that music which accompanied the video footage of KRAFTWERK. But with that chord progression of ‘The Model’, you could sing 50 or so reggae or dance tunes over that…
…yeah! ‘Ride On Time’ by BLACK BOX is one!!
Well there you go!! I could probably do a mash-up of ‘The Model’ with ‘Ride On Time’! The DJ Robin Skouteris did one mixing ‘Fade To Grey’ with ‘Magic Fly’ and HURTS ‘Wonderful Life’ and even dropped PET SHOP BOYS in! He could stick the song ‘New Romantics’ by Taylor Swift with Dolly Parton and Mark Ronson in a never ending mix, unbelievable what he can do with the technology of today!
It would be fair to say people who had been more aware of The Blitz and its history have said many of the same people who were in the BBC’s ‘A Fine Romance’ 2001 documentary were in ‘Blitzed’?
When the producers said they wanted my help and said they wanted the phone numbers of Midge Ure, Boy George etc, I thought “oh, same old sh*t!” – so there was a bit of bartering, I said I’d to it if I did the music and I got paid!
Chris Payne did a piano and violin version of ‘Fade To Grey’. I thought I should put bass and drums onto that and extend it, cos you know I love an extended, and then for people like you, there’s a three and a half minute version there! *laughs*
Now, there was Chris Payne, Rusty Egan and Oscar Egan, there was no Midge Ure or Billy Currie, just us three making a version of ‘Fade To Grey’ at 105 BPM. I think it’s a good beautiful piece of music with wonderful arpeggios from Chris, low voice by me and my ex, the French speaking Belgian girl Brigitte. I am still in contact with her so I asked her to reprise it, we did as good as we could without Midge or Billy in our remake of ‘Fade To Grey’.
It’s all in my home studio, not in Abbey Road! Everybody says they’ve liked what we’ve done, that’s it! It’s not like I’ve added a rapper! I didn’t add a dance beat, I just made it clearer and louder with a middle break. It’s not like I had Abbey Road, the mixing desk of Conny Plank, Alan Parsons producing, Michael Rother on guitar and made a pile of sh*t! If I did that, you’d be right to have a go! It’s a labour of love!
Some more seasoned enthusiasts did not really find out anything new from watching ‘Blitzed’, it could have benefitted from the perspective of say, actress Eve Ferret who actually performed at The Blitz and Jacqueline Bucknell who brought David Bowie down that night…
I gave the producers a list of everyone, you know me, I’m very inclusive… Marilyn actually didn’t want to do it, I had to phone him up and told him “it’s better to be in it than not in it”… I do agree with you, but you’re discussing something I had no control over.
Overall, were you happy with how ‘Blitzed’ turned out?
NO, I LOOK FAT!
Yeah, a white shell suit is not a good look on you even if it’s Ralph Lauren!! *laughs*
They told me everyone wears black, please wear white!!!!
But yes, I’m pleased with the documentary because when was the last time fashion was intertwined with music? You don’t look at THE KILLERS and go “what are they wearing?”, they’re just a band from Las Vegas! You don’t look at NEW ORDER and go “what is Barney wearing?”, they’re not a fashionable band.
SPANDAU BALLET were very ambitious and eventually successful, but you helped them out?
Steve Strange fancied Martin Kemp so wanted to put SPANDAU BALLET on at The Blitz. But he asked me to take a look and advise them what to do, so I did!
Gary Kemp could sit there in his mansion and talk about how he knew if he jumped on that stage, he could take the scene… but he didn’t know Richard James Burgess, he didn’t know how to make a dance record, he didn’t know what a synthesizer was, he was just a young kid.
That SPANDAU BALLET comeback song ‘Once More’ in 2009, it was so bloomin’ middle of the road, it needed its own government safety film!! *laughs*
Ouch! They wanted to be pop stars, as did DURAN DURAN and DEPECHE MODE, they wanted to make pop music.
‘Blitzed’ is not a music documentary but were you surprised ‘Vienna’ only got mentioned for 15 seconds and ‘Fade To Grey’ for about 30?
I actually didn’t want them to play ‘Vienna’, I didn’t want them to play ‘Ashes To Ashes’, cos I didn’t want them playing the same songs… having that clip of Bowie doing ‘Heroes’ on ‘Top Of The Pops’ probably cost them £20,000! The labels have a chart of what songs are worth and they run it like a business, and because they go on the premise that they generally can only sell a song once, the price can be very high!
So what’s your favourite moment on ‘Blitzed’ that isn’t you?
I loved Boy George in it… y’know he could have died several times over the decades, but I saw a happy Boy George who had a whiter smile than me, happy to tell people he was a thief because he had no money and lived in a squat… thing is, Steve Strange was also a thief but lied about it! They had nothing and wanted to be wearing the latest clothes! They wanted to go clubbing every night and that cost a fortune!
Whereas although I went to borstal like in the film ‘Scum’ and I learned to survive with billiard balls in a sock to protect myself, I was always nice and said “come and stay round my house” and they would rob me sadly! Looking back at those people from 40 years ago, they are many who never made it, I could list a load of people. Y’know, it’s lovely to be an old man with my bus pass and to get my jab, having people I knew when I was 20 like Eve Ferret contacting me on a daily basis.
A lot of people don’t like me, they like Steve Strange and feel I shouldn’t be taking any of the glory on ‘Blitzed’. Even a friend of mine who I got DEPECHE MODE tickets for on the last tour wrote “it’s not all about you Rusty”… but I didn’t make the documentary, I’m just a bloke in it! I’VE GOT NO CONTROL OVER NOTHING!
Your new song ‘When We Were Young’ features prominently in ‘Blitzed’, it’s quite obviously influenced by Gina X’s ‘No GDM’ but I just wanted to say that its co-writer Zeus B Held has heard it and says he’s not going to sue you! *laughs*
Well, if he did, he wouldn’t be suing me, he’d be suing Paul Statham of B-MOVIE who came up with the music! He sent me the bassline and synthline, I put in a straight four LinnDrum beat and made it bigger. But ‘No GDM’ was a song I heard in Düsseldorf and brought in to play at The Blitz and it inspired so many people in the UK like FASHION and DEAD OR ALIVE because it was produced by Zeus B Held, ‘Nice Mover’ was another one from the album that I played.
So yes, I agree 100% that there’s a link! But the end result with the lyrics about “Tonight’s the night, we danced to Iggy, Ferry and Bolan, hey, we found love when we were young” became perfect for ‘Blitzed’.
‘When We Were Young’ manages to be retro-referencing but modern, and that’s quite a tricky thing to achieve…
You know that’s what I was trying to do, cos you kept moaning “Rusty, can you stop trying to be modern?!?” *laughs*
It’s my sound but we are in 2021 and I don’t want to be on at Rewind or Let’s Rock between Limahl and Kim Wilde! I’ll be hopefully doing Rusty Egan Presents VISAGE 1980-2021 at W-Festival in Belgium this August, performing the first two albums with Zaine Griff, Chris Payne and Dave Brookes before OMD headline on the Saturday night.
It’s is so difficult to write anything completely original! If I spoke to Ralf Hütter, he would say that to do KRAFTWERK, he had to put his blinkers on, turn everything off, turn off American Forces radio, turn off the TV with its schlager music, go into the lab at Kling Klang, be German and go into himself as to who he is!
So what was unique about the era captured in ‘Blitzed’ and why could it not really happen today?
As you know, I still go to night clubs and I went to one called The Box in Soho which I’ve been to about 20 times. It’s been going for about 7 or 8 years and is described as the “Studio 54 of today” and “The Blitz Club of today”. There are creative people in their 20s there who love Lee Bowery and Boy George, the sort of people who support LGBTQ+, would watch the Channel 4 drama series ‘It’s A Sin’ and love the music of the 80s or similar. They are creative types who can’t make a living from what they do, but might be influencers…
I met with the owners of ‘The Box’, the club started in New York and it was attended by the richest people in the city, the dot com millionaires, the “in with the in-crowd” types! They were putting on people miming to Lady Gaga songs and freak shows of people putting knitting needles through their nipples as entertainment. So it was loads of rich people throwing away money that flew in their letter box while they were asleep on their friends or so-called models on Instagram, all while the DJ is playing Kanye West!
But it sounds like a nightmare! That doesn’t interest me! So I suggested them putting on original artists and musicians, but they said they didn’t want to do it as they were making loads of money with people coming in six nights a week! Everything was about money!
The thing is, The Blitz was real, we were all broke, we were all thieves or on the dole, we were no-ones! The Box looks like The Blitz, but it’s not!
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Rusty Egan
‘Blitzed’ is available on demand via Sky
The ‘Blitzed’ soundtrack album is released by Future Music and available now via digital outlets
Rusty Egan, Zaine Griff, Chris Payne and Dave Brooks perform the music of VISAGE 1980 x 2021 at W-Festival in Belgium on Saturday 28th August 2021 – tickets are available from https://w-festival.com/en/