POLYCHRON+ is the new electro-acoustic project by veteran Italian producer Gabriele Gai with songwriter, musician and vocalist Aurelio Menichi.
To say their debut album ‘She’s Always Been There’ is something a bit different and unusual would be an understatement.
Not only does it mix electronically derived Mediterranean dance music with Tuscan folk and classical forms, it has an impressive cast of guests including Anna Domino, Blaine L. Reininger and Luc Van Lieshout from TUXEDOMOON.
It is a cultured and sophisticated album that includes the synthetic torch cabaret of ‘Alaska Drive’ sung by NicoNote and the arty jazz-inflected Italo disco of ‘Twist The Knife’ featuring crooner Alex Spalck and Luc Van Lieshout on trumpet. Standing next to them is the brilliantly understated house of ‘Lighter Than The Blue’ which sees Blaine L. Reininger not only offer his pronounced Leonard Cohen-esque baritone but also bring a virtuoso violin performance to the party.
‘Yeh-Teh’ springs a surprise with some enjoyable avant garde rapping and a snarling sample from a BBC interview with John Lydon declares “I want everything in life to be transparent… let us as human beings determine our own journey in life!”
What is contained on ‘She’s Always Been There’ is nothing but diverse, with melancholic piano assisted instrumentals like ‘Morbid Love’ and the delicate Anna Domino voiced flutey guitar ballad ‘Pocketknife’ figuring. Meanwhile ‘Gum, Le Blue Jar’ could be a reggaefied YELLO while a cover of Italian post-punk band GAZNEVADA’s ‘Tij-U-Wan’ throws in spikey rock and the influence of DEVO halfway through!
Seeded by life, disappointments and grief with cinematic reference points to the Les Disques Du Crepuscule and Crammed Records catalogue as well as Italian New Wave, ‘She’s Always Been There’ will appeal to fans of the TUXEDOMOON axis with its refined electronic base embellished by a variety of traditional instrumentation.
Essex duo Paul Hammond and Ian Cooper recently returned as ULTRAMARINE with their ‘Signals into Space’ album.
Initially part of A PRIMARY INDUSTRY, the pair have guided ULTRAMARINE on an eclectic musical pathway taking in along the way folk, acid house, Latin, jazz and techno influences.
Paul Hammond and Ian Cooper kindly spoke about their new album, their musical history together and the experience of working with SOFT MACHINE’s Robert Wyatt.
A PRIMARY INDUSTRY were quite a different musical beast to what would eventually end up as ULTRAMARINE, what made you both move on and explore different musical territories?
Ian: There was a transition rather than any kind of break musically. Some of the first ULTRAMARINE tracks were actually recorded at A PRIMARY INDUSTRY sessions, so it’s a bit muddled.
Paul: I don’t recall any deliberate change in direction between the two groups. I can’t really remember if we had a general game plan at that point, or even how we saw ourselves fitting in to the wider musical world. We were feeling our way, going from project-to-project rather than having an overall concept of what we were doing.
Who were your initial influences when you decided to put together ULTRAMARINE?
Paul: In the late ‘80s, our influences were fairly contemporary I think; we weren’t really digging that far back except for classic ambient music like Brian Eno’s Obscure label which I remember picking up on in the mid-80s. Some of the Factory artists were still an influence; DIF JUZ and the 4AD aesthetic; 23 SKIDOO, CABARET VOLTAIRE, Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound. And in particular a lot of music on the Crépuscule and Crammed labels from Brussels.
The albums that Steven Brown made with Benjamin Lew were certainly a reference point for ‘Folk’ plus TUXEDOMOON, Wim Mertens and Anna Domino.
Your debut album ‘Folk’ sounds like an act finding its feet, when you listen back to it now, what are your thoughts on it?
Ian: I look back at it fondly. We had some basic songs pulled together in the back room of a village hall in Essex and were then let loose in a Brussels studio to record with the help of a couple of great guest musicians.
Paul: It’s a slightly odd mix of styles but I like some of it a lot; particularly the more acoustic, less groove-based tracks like ‘Lobster’ and ‘Bronze Eye’. ‘Lobster’ has an interesting palette and sounds surprisingly sophisticated to me; live percussion, clarinet, accordion, bass guitar and Sequential Circuits Pro-One synth. It’s intriguing for me listening back to that record; I can’t really recall much of the thinking behind it.
There is a huge jump in progression from ‘Folk’ to ‘Every Man & Woman Is A Star’ in what was quite a short time period… what would you attribute this to?
Ian: Very simply, it was the Akai S900. Having sampling capability at home; to be able to experiment and write loop-based tracks opened new worlds of possibilities for us. We could gather ‘70s west coast musicians for an acoustic backing track and write synth melodies on top whilst never leaving the bedroom in New Cross. Almost all of the tracks on ‘Every Man…’ are based on sampled loops.
The two exceptions are ‘Stella’ and ‘Gravity’; they have earlier origins and use samples but not full bar-long rhythmic loops.
Paul: We’d used a sampler, sequencer and analogue synths in the studio on the later A PRIMARY INDUSTRY records and on ‘Folk’ so we were gradually introducing electronic instruments and treatments. We worked with an excellent engineer and co-producer around that time called Colin James (who was part of the original MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO line-up) and he introduced us to some of the technology.
A PRIMARY INDUSTRY had been a four or five-piece but reduced to just the two of us after ‘Folk’, so I think Ian and I must have made a decision to make it more machine-based then. After ‘Folk’ we released a couple of more House-like 12”s for Crépuscule and Brainiak and that was the bridge into ‘Every Man & Woman Is A Star’.
When samplers did eventually become omnipresent, many UK acts started sampling, using New Age and World Music loops which rapidly became clichéd, what is your approach when looking for loops and sounds?
Ian: In the early ‘90s, we scoured second hand record shops for interesting looking cheap albums to see what loops we could create.
These were then used as starting points for tracks. Sometimes the original samples ended up in the final track, possibly cut-up, disguised or reworked somehow, and sometimes they just got us up and running with a track and were then removed. We haven’t been so reliant on samples since ‘A User’s Guide’. If we use samples nowadays, it’s more as a textural element.
Paul: Our original approach to sampling was to deliberately use music that was very different in style to our own. We were looking for acoustic textures mainly; not so much sampling other electronic music, ambient or new age music.
There has always been large played element to ULTRAMARINE, do you sometimes end up sampling yourselves?
Paul: We don’t really sample the live elements as such but we certainly do a lot of editing and rearranging of recorded live material. On most of our albums, including ‘Signals Into Space’, we’ll record other musicians in the studio, playing in a fairly loose or improvised way, and then edit those recordings and work them into the arrangement. On ‘This Time Last Year’ and ‘Signals Into Space’, Ian and I played a lot of the parts live (synths, guitar, bass etc) and those performances formed the basis of the tracks. On ‘Signals Into Space’, we wrote some of the sax parts for Iain Ballamy and other parts are his improvisation. The approach is quite free and not really bound by any rules as to how we do or don’t treat recordings.
Moving on to the ‘United Kingdoms’ album, how did the link-up with Robert Wyatt come about?
Paul: We approached Robert through Geoff Travis at Rough Trade. We were signed to the Warners sub-label Blanco Y Negro that Geoff A&R’d and Robert was on Rough Trade at the time, so it was a pretty easy connection.
What was it like working with Wyatt?
Paul: It was a fantastic experience. We’d been into Robert’s music since his early ‘80s recordings for Rough Trade but were too young to have been familiar with his earlier work and SOFT MACHINE. We didn’t discover Kevin Ayers and the wider Canterbury Scene until the early ‘90s; a result of sample digging in secondhand shops. We bought Kevin’s album ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ and completely fell in love with it, even to the extent that we went to Majorca to try to track him down and ask him to work with us!
How did the track ‘Happy Land’ come together?
Paul: We started to develop the concept of ‘United Kingdoms’ being a kind of homage to the Canterbury Scene; Kevin Ayers and Robert in particular. While in Majorca, we were listening to the TRAFFIC song ‘John Barleycorn (Must Die)’ and had the idea of doing something similar; reusing the words of a traditional folk song. ‘Happy Land’ and the track ‘Kingdom’ came out of that.
We found the words to both songs (which were political street ballads) in the library of the English Folk Dance & Song Society at Cecil Sharp House and gave Robert the words and instrumental demos to work with. He wrote the vocal melodies and arrangements at his piano at home, playing along to our demos. We then went to a studio with him to record his vocals. He was a joy to work with; very generous and modest.
With the folk elements replaced by jazzier ones, ‘Bel Air’ was another big shift in direction, what prompted this?
Paul: With ‘Bel Air’, we wanted to do something more exotic sounding and were becoming influenced by Latin music. The working method for the two albums was the same. ‘Bel Air’ was more a shift in palette and musical references than being a big change in direction as far as we were concerned. I think ‘Bel Air’ is more adventurous and experimental in terms of production than ‘United Kingdoms’; more fluid and sensuous. We were getting more confident in the studio and ‘Bel Air’ was the first record we recorded completely on our own. It was quite a creative and transitionary period for electronic music I think; the technology was starting to become a little friendlier and programming techniques were getting more sophisticated. We were listening to more contemporary music and picking up little tips from that.
The Roland TB303 remains a reliable constant in your tracks, what made you originally use one and why are you continually inspired by it?
Paul: We originally used it hooked up with a TR808 so it was just born out of messing around with that. Our TB303 isn’t in great shape at the moment and we haven’t actually used it on the last couple of albums, although there are other synths playing those kinds of parts. In retrospect, we used it like a voice on the earlier records – it fulfils that sort of role on some tracks – sitting in the middle of the sound and carrying the main melody in quite a lyrical way.
In true KRAFTWERK style, you took a 15 year hiatus between ‘A User’s Guide’ and ‘This Time Last Year’; what caused this and did you still keep making music individually?
Ian: We’d run out of funds and had to get other work. We were very pleased with ‘A User’s Guide’ but there didn’t seem to be an audience out there for it.
After a while, Paul carried on with some solo work and started the label Real Soon. We were still meeting up and discussing what we’d like to do together musically.
This would turn out to be a way of working that was more open to improvisation and performance. The talking went on for a while before we started messing around with instruments again to see what might happen.
Paul: At the end of the ‘90s we were a bit bruised by the major label experience and weren’t enjoying the business aspect of things. After a couple of years break, I started Real Soon which focussed on the more experimental end of the House music spectrum, putting out my own projects but mainly releasing music by other artists. I did an album and a few other releases on my own but always missed the interaction of working with Ian. The label has been really fun and I’ve learnt a lot from doing that.
How was the experience of making the current album ‘Signals into Space’?
Ian: We started writing the tracks in 2016 in our old basement studio surrounded by fields near to an estuary and completed the remaining writing and recording in the following two years in a rehearsal space on a light industrial estate near a busy A-road.
The new space worked out far better than it sounds. It allowed us to get completely absorbed with the music with no distraction.
Paul: This album has been a very enjoyable experience. We’d started a particular way of writing with the previous album ‘This Time Last Year’ and developed it further for the new record. Our working method is based around us each having a small portable set-up (rather than our own studio) and around performance and improvisation. It’s much more about recording, editing and arranging than programming. It’s totally refreshed our feeling about making music I think. It’s much more instinctive and immediate than any way we’ve worked previously.
The general idea is to capture the essence of the tracks as quickly as possible and, although the arranging, final production and mixing processes are inevitably quite drawn out, the music retains a freshness for us as a result. We’ve also started working with other people again on this album and that’s been a lot of fun. We mixed the album with Andy Ramsay (STEREOLAB) who was great and seems to be on the same wavelength as us!
The vocal based tracks with Factory / Crépuscule artist Anna Domino are superb, particularly ‘Spark from Flint to Clay’; she appears to have been pretty reclusive over the last few years, how did you go about tempting her back into the studio?
Paul: We politely asked her and she said “yes”! Anna has been fantastic on this project; she gave a lot of time to it and really engaged with the tracks. We built up those particular songs with her over quite a long period so the music and vocal ideas have developed together and Anna’s lyrical themes have seeped into the album in general.
What are your favourite tracks from the album and why?
Ian: Anna’s vocal on the title track is wonderful. It’s been a very special experience listening to her vocals work their way into our music. I would also want to single out ‘Du Sud’ and ‘Sleight of Hand’. The parts for both tracks came together very quickly and are very simple. ‘Du Sud’ is one of a few tracks that started life in our old basement studio and is very evocative. I love where the vibraphone runs come in and out. Iain Ballamy’s sax on ‘Sleight of Hand’ is a single take with live effects, grabbed immediately before he had to dash off to catch a train. It’s a great performance.
Paul: I’m very attached to ‘$10 Heel’; one of the songs with Anna. It was a difficult song to put together – really tricky to arrange. One of our reference points for it was the RAINCOATS track ‘Animal Rhapsody’ which was mixed by Dennis Bovell. We wanted ‘$10 Heel’ to have the same kind of pop-dub feel, with woody percussion and delayed piano parts. The final section really gets it I think; just what we were aiming for.
You have toured as support for BJÖRK and ORBITAL, how did you find life on the road and was technology reliable for you back then?
Ian: Our first US tour was with MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO, ORBITAL and Communion DJs from New York. MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO had a great crew and they looked after our sound and set-up really well. We had way too much gear but had nothing go wrong. Well, we had a stuck MIDI-note in San Francisco and just had to reload. The audience were patient. That tour was great fun.
Paul: That tour and the BJÖRK US and European tours were wonderful, unforgettable experiences. We loved playing every night. The technology was remarkably solid actually; probably more so than it would be nowadays!
You did a recent album launch event at Sounds Of The Universe, what kind of set-up did you use for this show?
Ian: That was as stripped down as it gets. Paul had a laptop with Logic music software and a couple of small hardware synths. I had the kalimba, some loops and effects pedals. It left a lot of room for experimenting.
Paul: That wasn’t really what I’d consider to be a live set; more live-lite! When we do a full show nowadays we don’t use a laptop.
Ian and I have separate set-ups; me with a hardware sequencer / sampler, drum machine and a few analogue synths and Ian with a guitar, soft synths and a load of effects pedals and bits and pieces. We want it to be quite loose; free in terms of the arrangements and completely open to improvisation.
Are there any more live performances on the horizon?
Ian: There are a few discussions underway. We would certainly like to play live both as a duo and as part of a fuller line-up with musicians from the album.
If you could select one ULTRAMARINE track to introduce a new listener to the act, which one would you choose?
Paul: That’s difficult as there’s quite a bit of variety in what we’ve done. At this point, I’d choose ‘Breathing’ from the new album. It’s quite a simple, understated track in some ways but I think it captures a mood that we’ve had across quite a few things over the years.
Ian: I’d go for ‘Equatorial Calms’. It has multiple sections to it and is grounded in studio improvisation. It starts with a guitar and bass dream state, followed by drum machine and synths, then ending up with lo-fi soundtrack.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to ULTRAMARINE
Special thanks to James Nice at Les Disques du Crépuscule
Essex duo ULTRAMARINE are probably best known for their 1991 album ‘Every Man & Woman is a Star’.
Arguably Paul Hammond and Ian Cooper pioneered the Folktronica genre including an eventual collaboration with SOFT MACHINE’s Robert Wyatt on their 1993 ‘United Kingdoms’ album. ‘Every Man & Woman Is A Star’ melded a disparate mix of lo-fi drum machines, electric piano, jazz inflections and squelchy Roland 303s. It was a sound that on paper shouldn’t have really worked, but when it hit its peak, comfortably matched acts like THE ORB at their finest, albeit less self-indulgently.
After a fourteen year hiatus, the duo returned with a pair of singles in 2011 and this has led to ULTRAMARINE’s ‘Signals Into Space’, their first full length album since 2013’s ‘This Time Last Year’. This time around there are collaborations with vocalist Anna Domino who contributes to four tracks, plus percussionist Ric Elsworth and sax player Iain Ballamy from LOOSE TUBES.
Album opener ‘Elsewhere’ provides a dark electronic opener with an eclectic mix of twittering bird song, echoed TANGERINE DREAM-influenced sequencer part and retro analogue drum machine which has its lo-fi congas pitched up and down through the track. Ambient guitar and Juno-style synth layers work brilliantly on the piece; the only criticism is that the track ends too soon and could have quite comfortably been extended by another couple of minutes.
‘Spark from Flint to Clay’ is the first song to feature the vocals of Anna Domino and is the kind of piece that fans of AIR’s ‘Moon Safari’ and ZERO 7 will really get excited by; a Kaoss Pad manipulated 303 makes its first appearance alongside another retro 808-style drum machine and echoed guitars and vibes create a beautiful, drifting and luxuriant soundscape.
‘Breathing’ stretches to an epic 7 minutes and is the first track on the album to feature a combination of trademark off-kilter ULTRAMARINE sounds, improvisation and a far jazzier aesthetic.
‘Breathing’ is not a foreground piece, but it would provide a superb ambient accompaniment to drift along to with Ballamy’s sax providing the main musical content.
‘Arithmetic’ ups the tempo and could quite easily have appeared on ‘Every Man & Woman is a Star’; live percussion, electric piano and another 7 minute running time allows it to ebb and flow with a combo of electronics and live elements drifting in and out. Again, Anna Domino provides the main vocal hook for a song that wonderfully conjures images of far-off beaches and tropical climates.
‘If Not Now When?’ indirectly take its cues from JON & VANGELIS’ ‘State of Independence’ with a modulated Yamaha CS80-style bassline whilst ‘Equatorial Calms’ (could there be a more ULTRAMARINE song title?) evokes some distant arid and dusty landscape with heart-rate slowing sounds and cross delayed drum sounds. The album closer and title track finishes with another Anna Domino vocalled-piece; combining found sound ambience and a heartbeat pulse.
The fact that only a third of ‘Signals into Space’ feature vocals means that the album works best as “put on, zone out” work and it accomplishes that exceedingly well; once you become locked into it, it does a superb job of transporting the listener to a variety of sonic-inspired landscapes.
For those that have previously delved into the world of ULTRAMARINE, there are no radical departures, reinventions or surprises here; over 30 years Hammond and Cooper have carefully cultivated their own sound that combines their source material beautifully.
For this reason there appears no motive to deviate too far from a tried tested template and fans of the duo will welcome ‘Signals into Space’ with open arms.
James Nice is a music publisher and writer whose acclaimed 2010 book ‘Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records’ provided a detailed and objective account of the legendary label. He also worked for the prestigious Belgian label Les Disques du Crépuscule in Brussels between 1987-91.
More recently, James has resurrected Les Disques du Crépuscule along with its sister Factory Benelux offshoot as platforms to reissue a vast catalogue of experimental and artistically driven music, in addition to releasing newer material from acts such as MARSHEAUX, MARNIE and DEUX FILLES. Back in the day, Les Disques du Crépuscule and Factory Benelux operated as separate entities, although the two labels shared the same premises and staff.
Among Crépuscule’s roster were Blaine L Reininger and Winston Tong from TUXEDOMOON, ASSOCIATES instrumentalist Alan Rankine and former JOSEF K leader Paul Haig. The first music release on Crépuscule came in 1980; ‘From Brussels With Love’ was a carefully curated cassette compilation which included music from John Foxx, Bill Nelson, Harold Budd and Thomas Dolby as well as spoken recordings by Brian Eno and Richard Jobson.
Meanwhile Factory Benelux notably released the 12 inch extended remix of NEW ORDER’s ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ in 1981 and spare recordings from Factory affiliated artists such as A CERTAIN RATIO, SECTION 25, THE WAKE and THE DURUTTI COLUMN.
The latter’s beautiful instrumental ‘For Belgian Friends’ was written in honour of the two labels’ founders Michel Duval and the late Annik Honoré. James Nice kindly chatted to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about his various endeavours, past and present.
You wrote the book ‘Shadowplayers’ on the history of Factory Records. There have been several books about the label, what do you think your account gave that hadn’t been provided before?
Well, reliable facts properly researched! I did ‘Shadowplayers’ as a DVD first, in 2006, but I didn’t do the book until after Tony Wilson passed away the following year.
One of the books which influenced the approach I took was an excellent Creation Records history by Dave Cavanagh, which Alan McGee slated as the accountant’s version of Creation when it first appeared (though he changed his mind later).
I feared Tony might say the same thing about a Factory history written by me. He was more into myths and legends than truth.
I also wanted to include all the bands and artists, not just JOY DIVISION, NEW ORDER, HAPPY MONDAYS and The Hacienda; THE STOCKHOM MONSTERS have a tale to tell too. The French edition won a prize, actually. They sent me a leather jacket – which was a bit too small.
How do you see the public’s continued fascination with Factory Records?
I just glance at it in passing these days, because ‘Shadowplayers’ came out in 2010 and I’ve long since moved on. The entire story of Factory was hugely dramatic, genuine tragic in places, and populated by larger than life characters. You can’t really say the same of, for example, 4AD or Domino. I’m not sure you’ll see it repeated either, because music no longer produces the kind of revenue stream that would allow radical mavericks like Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton to build another Hacienda, and Peter Saville is a complete one-off.
Factory was a classic example of do the right thing, and the money will follow. Unfortunately, they then blew all the money on big recording projects and ill-judged property investments. Let’s leave it at that.
Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule have common roots, but were quite different entities in their original ethos?
Both labels started in 1980. Factory Benelux was intended as an outlet for spare Factory recordings, hence a lot of the early releases like ‘Shack Up’ by ACR, ‘The Plateau Phase’ by CRISPY AMBULANCE and ‘Key of Dreams’ by SECTION 25 were exclusive to FBN. As time went on it became more like a normal licensee.
Crépuscule was something else entirely – a cosmopolitan boutique label, with an international roster and aspirations to kick start some kind of art movement in Brussels. In truth Factory were a little suspicious of Crepuscule early on, although later some Crépuscule albums appeared on Factory in the UK eg Anna Domino and Wim Mertens.
You worked for Les Disques du Crépuscule back in the day and lived in Brussels for five years. What are your particular memories of that time?
Way too many to mention. A couple of days after I quit Crépuscule (an argument about a 23 SKIDOO contract, not that anyone will be interested), I took a train to Amsterdam to meet William S. Burroughs.
He was holding court in a hotel with his manager, James Grauerholz. I took along some books to sign, as well as the Burroughs album I’d released on LTM, ‘The Doctor Is On the Market’. I don’t think WSB had even seen a copy before, but he scribbled “Good Work” on it. There was another guy there who was a Lufthansa pilot by day and wrote experimental cut-up novels in his spare time. I remember thinking at the time, I’d like to be that guy.
What are the aims of Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule under your direction now?
Heritage curation, and new recordings where appropriate. Michel Duval is quite interested again, and we collaborated on the ‘Ni D’Eve, Ni D’Adam’ compilation at the end of 2015.
I really enjoyed that process, as a matter of fact. The new tracks and artists he brought to the project really added to it, and the artwork by Clou was great too.
I do a lot of boring back office stuff as well as making records, chiefly rights administration. You have to have all your ducks in a row when, for instance, Kanye West decides to sample a SECTION 25 track from 1981.
As well as reissues, Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule have released new albums by SECTION 25, MARNIE, DEUX FILLES and others. What attracted you to back these recordings?
In the case of new albums by heritage groups like SECTION 25, THE NAMES and CRISPY AMBULANCE, as long as fresh studio projects are financially viable, and the music is good, then of course we want to be involved. Any label can simply recycle back catalogue, but I like to think we’re a little more committed.
The MARNIE album came to Crépuscule because I’m a LADYTRON fan and it was a perfect fit for the label. It worked for her too as she’d successfully funded ‘Crystal World’ via Pledge Music, but was less sure about how to actually deliver the CD version.
It’s important to back new music, and I’m delighted to be releasing ‘Cold Science’ by LES PANTIES later in 2016. They’re a young band from Brussels – terrible name, but great music!
Les Disques du Crépuscule also released ‘Odyssey’ in 2014, a career spanning compilation of MARSHEAUX. What do you find appealing about their music and which are your favourite songs?
I liked MARSHEAUX anyway, even before we began Crépuscule again back in 2013. Like MARNIE, they seemed like a good fit with the label’s heritage, much of which was modern electronic pop music. The focus was on original songs though rather than covers.
The title is a riff on Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, and the idea of a chronological story, and of course the old ARP Odyssey analogue synth. I’m quite good at coming up with album titles, if I say so myself. ‘Retrofit’ by SECTION 25 is probably the best – it popped into my head while I was watching a documentary about the making of ‘Blade Runner’. Perfect for a remix / reboot album.
Yes, very clever of you. But what’s your favourite MARSHEAUX song?
Well, the ‘Ghost/Hammer’ mash-up is the one we keep putting on LDDC compilations.
You maintain a close relationship with Paul Haig. Is he one of the unsung heroes of post-punk in your opinion?
I wouldn’t say unsung because Paul’s always attracted a lot of press and remains well liked by music writers, but I suppose he’s ‘unsung’ in the sense that he never had a proper chart hit. Ironically, his most popular album – on reissue anyway – is ‘Rhythm of Life’, which was considered far too mainstream at the time.
Paul just did things his way and wasn’t prepared to jump through all the hoops required of a mainstream pop star. For a start he was – and remains – far too shy.
Since you mention post-punk in the question, I’ll take this opportunity to plug a forthcoming Paul project for later in 2016, which is a 1982-based double archive CD including his early pop material (‘Justice’, ‘Running Away’), the Sinatra-styled ‘Swing In 82’ EP, the experimental electronica cassette ‘Drama’, and loads of odd singles and sessions.
He’d just left JOSEF K but had not yet signed to Island, and I’m not sure anyone else was quite that diverse and experimental at the time. It’ll be called ‘Metamorphosis’ – another Kafka reference. Told you I was clever with titles. Paul’s quite nervous about it, I have to say!
You’ve also worked closely with Alan Rankine in his post-ASSOCIATES career?
Well, not so much me personally. Back in the 1980s, Alan was married to Belinda Pearse, who was a Crépuscule director at the time, and so for a while he pretty much became the in-house producer at the label, working with Paul Haig, Anna Domino, Winston Tong, Ludus and his own solo material.
My time at LDDC in Brussels did overlap with his, but I didn’t work on any of those projects. He did three solo albums under the auspices of Crépuscule, and some of the music is the equal of anything he did with Billy Mackenzie. Unfortunately Alan isn’t quite as good a singer, though he is a brilliant writer, arranger, producer, guitarist and keys player. The instrumentals he did for Crépuscule work best, I think. We’ve spoken a couple of times this year. Once was to return some master tapes to him, and I also suggested him as a producer / collaborator for MARNIE.
Another unsung hero of the era is Mark Reeder and the release of his remix collection ‘Collaborator’ on Factory Benelux was a fitting acknowledgement of that. What was the process like to select the tracklisting?
Hmm. We tried to avoid replicating too many tracks that were on the earlier ‘Five Point One’ collection, and having Bernard Sumner singing on quite a few of the tracks should have made it seem more like an artist album than just a compilation.
Not sure the concept really gelled though. Mark isn’t easy to label – a lot of people think he’s a DJ, which is the one thing he isn’t (but probably should be). ‘Collaborator’ is a great album and should have sold a lot more than it did. In fact Mark regularly reminds me of that!
As a label manager, how do you decide on the formats that releases will be issued in? When do you know one format will be more viable than another, eg some are CD only, others are vinyl only?
Vinyl tends to be reserved for prestige items, and / or where you can fashion an art object from it, like THE DURUTTI COLUMN album with the die-cut glasspaper sleeve, which I’ll talk about later.
The recent JOSEF K singles collection ‘It’s Kinda Funny’ was vinyl only because there have been several JOSEF K CD compilations already, and because a 12” matt board sleeve was a great way of exhibiting the original artwork by Jean-François Octave.
I still prefer CDs because the sound is better, you can fit more material on them, plus they are easier to keep in print over a long period of time. In an era of declining physical sales, the increasing fragmentation of formats isn’t too helpful, at least as far as labels are concerned.
Vinyl retains cultural clout though. Releasing albums used to be like publishing books, whereas once the market became saturated with releases, it’s kind of become degraded and often feels as if you’re just publishing magazine articles. But a vinyl album still has the heft of a book.
Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule were both known for tasteful artwork and you have maintained this aesthetic. The vinyl reissue of ‘The Return Of The Durutti Column’ had an interesting genesis?
With the Benelux reissue in 2013, the original intention was to replicate Fact 14 from 1980, with coarse sandpaper front and back and a flexi-disc.
Back then Tony Wilson was able to source 12-inch square sheets from a local company called Naylors Abrasives in Bredbury, near Stockport. They still exist, but they don’t manufacture sandpaper any more, and when I got in touch in 2012 to explain the project, they clearly thought I was a lunatic.
I’m not sure that glasspaper is even manufactured anywhere in Western Europe now. In the end we had to go to a company in China, whose minimum order was 10,000 sheets. What was a cheap and (relatively) easy package for Factory in 1980 turned out to be pretty much impossible to copy three decades later. It’s probably easier to source glasspaper in lurid colours rather than plain old beige, and the biggest rolls were only 11 inches wide. You can still source flexi-discs from one plant in the States, but they end up costing more per unit than a 12-inch vinyl album. Fortunately, however, not being able to do a straight copy served to liberate the project somewhat, so that we began to think in terms of a new edition which referenced the original, but offered something different.
The flexi became a hard vinyl 7”, which sounds far better, and we were now able to add an inner sleeve with period images and explanatory text. The 11-inch glasspaper squares took about eight months to arrive from China, and while we were twiddling our thumbs the designer, Carl Glover, came up with the idea of seating the glasspaper sheet on the front in a recessed deboss. A bit like a frame, thereby underlining the ‘art’ credentials.
Somewhat to my surprise the pressing plant in Germany agreed to assemble the finished package from start to finish, which was fortunate since I couldn’t imagine NEW ORDER agreeing to help out. I didn’t much fancy the idea of doing it myself. Like the building trade people we had to go through en route to China, the pressing plant just couldn’t understand why we’d want to release a record in a glasspaper sleeve. Someone suggested a photo of some sandpaper might be better…
Then, when the sheets finally arrived, some of the cutting was pretty rough, and the pressing plant insisted on a 3mm tolerance between each side of the sheet and the deboss. That would just look as though we’d fluffed the measurements, besides which even with a deboss, the glasspaper sheets simply stuck on the cover just didn’t have that ‘wow’ factor.
I spent a few days arguing with the plant about tolerances, and agonising generally, then decided that a die-cut would be just as impressive, with the glasspaper underneath, as if you were seeking it through a window. This scheme also overcame the issues about imperfect size and cutting of the glasspaper.
The only obvious, practical shape for the die-cut was Peter Saville’s original ‘bar chart’ logo, which appeared on the labels of most Factory releases between 1979 and 1980, Fact 14 included. It just looks right, and is also suggestive of a graphic equalizer, which I suppose is a bit Hannett. The pressing plant had already printed 2000 copies of the original inner bag though, so we had to throw those away. All the problems and changes also mean that the release date was late. Very Factory, I suppose.
The finished package looked even better than anyone dared to imagine, and housed in the polythene bag it has a fantastic 3D quality, plus the glasspaper catches the light beautifully. I was particularly delighted that Vini Reilly liked it. All the various headaches and reverses improved the design no end, and the addition of the die-cut means that you now have this unique Reid/Saville hybrid. Truly a happy accident.
Your CD reissues on Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule are known for their comprehensive sleeve notes which are written by you. What is your philosophy and style regarding this?
I tend to focus on facts, and direct quotation from the people involved.
Creative writing I leave to experts like Paul Morley, Simon Reynolds and Kevin Pierce. My notes tend to be honest rather than gushing or pseudo-academic, and that’s probably why I rarely get commissioned to write liner notes for other releases! I think the last time was an ELECTRONIC retrospective. Johnny Marr just wanted a hagiography in which everything and everyone was, like, amazing and brilliant, all the time. Buyers aren’t stupid and don’t really want that. Then again, I probably have been a bit too glass half empty at times.
What are your thoughts on modern music, particularly the synthpop and electronic variety, having worked with a number of the original pioneers?
I really like EDM, it’s probably my favourite genre for blasting out loud in the car, annoying my daughter etc; RIHANNA, MISS KITTIN, TODD TERJE, electroclash, Xenomania productions.
A lot of what Crépuscule released during the golden years – the 80s, basically – was either very poppy (Paul Haig, Anna Domino, Isabelle Antena, Kid Montana), or pretty abstract (Wim Mertens, Glenn Branca, Gavin Bryars). That’s probably why my taste in music remains similarly schizophrenic.
If you’re asking who my current / recent favourites are then its TEGAN & SARA, ROBYN, M83, some NINE INCH NAILS, and the last NEW ORDER album. That was a spectacular return to form. Hats off to them, and to Mute.
Which have been your favourite reissues or products on Les Disques du Crépuscule and Factory Benelux over the years?
I can answer that in a heartbeat. My all-time favourite LDDC album is ‘Night Air’ by Blaine L Reininger, which came out in 1984 and was his first proper solo album during the time he was absent from TUXEDOMOON.
It’s a magical album about exile in Brussels and was a key influence on my relocating to the city a couple of years later. Expertly recorded and engineered by Gareth Jones, I might add. I’d love him to tour the whole album – maybe there will be an opportunity after TUXEDOMOON are done touring ‘Half Mute’ during 2016.
My favourite FBN reissues would be the glasspaper Durutti, or the pochette 2xCD edition of ‘Always Now’ by SECTION 25. Both presented considerable challenges, and both came off.
Are there any upcoming releases on Factory Benelux or Les Disques du Crépuscule you can tell us about?
I’ve been talking to a group from Brussels called LES PANTIES for a couple of years. I love their music – poised, sophisticated cold wave, with a hint of shoegaze – they have a great aesthetic sense, and Sophie Frison is an excellent singer. We just couldn’t agree about the name though. It might work in a French speaking country, but elsewhere it sounds like a novelty band. Eventually I just gave in and collected all their singles on an album, ‘Cold Science’, which is coming out on Crépuscule in September. It’s a bit of a passion project for me, I suppose. But it’s also one in the eye for people who carp we do nothing but reissues.
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