The duo comprising the suave figure of crooner Erik Stein and the understated ivory virtuoso of Jon Boux issued their first album ‘Paper Wraps Rock’ in 2007. What CULT WITH NO NAME have never been short of is mood, but their artistic progression has included more expansive and electronic arrangements.
In the middle of writing and recoding the next CULT WITH NO NAME album, Erik Stein took time out to chat about their most recent works and also the conundrum of practical packaging for compact discs.
Both ‘Heir Of The Dog’ and ‘Media Burn’ appear to have gained wider traction than previous CULT WITH NO NAME, why do you think that might be?
I guess so. A lot of that will have had to do with the success of ‘Blue Velvet Revisited’, the soundtrack for the David Lynch documentary we recorded with TUXEDOMOON and John Foxx.
The wonderful thing about ‘BVR’ is that it has had at least four lives. Originally, the soundtrack was due to be released alongside the film, but delays to the film meant it was released a whole year beforehand in 2015. So, we had tonnes of press for the soundtrack, followed by another tonne of press for the film when it came out a year later.
The film had a really long life, touring festivals around the world for a year or two. Then, just as that started to fall away, The Criterion Collection reissued ‘Blue Velvet’ on Blu-Ray (inexplicably only Region 1) and included ‘Blue Velvet Revisited’ as the main extra at David Lynch’s own request. And then, just as the publicity from that started to fall away, HBO Italy licensed one of the tracks from it (‘Lumberton’) for their series ‘The New Pope’, starring Jude Law and John Malkovich. Spotify plays went through the roof, not that that ever amounts to anything apart from some nice graphs.
That’s not a conscious decision, by the way, it’s just when faced with spending a day working on music or emailing promoters, I know which I’d choose. Being relentlessly focused on recording has helped us at least be prolific, which also helps.
Would it be fair to say ‘Heir Of The Dog’ and ‘Mediaburn’ are companion albums musically?
Personally, I don’t see them that way, but if people do that’s fine of course. We actually see ‘Heir Of The Dog’ as our ‘Americana’ album. As well as having a wonderful black American singer Sirena Riley perform on it, there are a few nods stylistically. ‘Rosabelle, Believe’ is kind of disco, ‘I Don’t Fear The Reaper (Just Don’t Want To Meet Her)’ is kind of blues, ‘Of California’ is kind of gospel, and ‘All I Have is Yours (Including You)’ is kind of croonerish. All in their peculiar semi-electronic way. As an album, I think the tracks hang together better than any other album we’ve done.
‘Mediaburn’, on the other hand, is a bit more all over the place musically, but is lyrically much more thematic, not that most people pay attention to lyrics. There’s no deliberate link between the two. We tend to treat every single song completely independently from the last, sometimes to a fault. For the next album we’re trying to make more of a conscious effort to use consistent sounds.
I interviewed Paul Humphreys of OMD in his home studio once and I always remember him saying that you should start an album with a palette of sounds to draw from and restrict yourself to it. You can really hear that on OMD albums. Take ‘Junk Culture’ as an example. That album has a sound totally unique to it in terms of OMD’s discography. The problem is, I get very easily distracted. Luckily Jon Boux (the other half of CWNN) is much more consistent with his sound choices although much more freehand in how it applies it (a good thing).
I recently sent Kelli Ali the tracks for the next album and she loves it, so will be adding stuff to that too.
She really is like a third member of CWNN now and always so wonderful to hear her say such nice things about us.
I don’t want CWNN’s sound to get too ‘typecast’ but Kelli’s voice really does add something special and we complement each other well. We’ve also been helping with her excellent ‘Ghostdriver’ film and album, including some attempts at acting from yours truly. ‘Ghostdriver’ is genuinely a superb album.
With Steven Brown and Blaine L Reininger from TUXEDOMOON, I’m partly still indulging the musical fantasy of having some of my musical heroes play on our albums. It’s ridiculous really, I mean they’re friends now and we’ve recorded and released a very successful album together. Of course, that’s not to take away the vitally important contributions they make. Blaine’s violin on ‘By Air Or By Sea’ on ‘Mediaburn’ makes that track what it is. It’s funny, I’m so close to the TUXEDOMOON story now that I sometimes forget how amazing and influential their records still are and just how big a fan I was in my 20s.
We’re just carrying on a tradition from the very first album, although each album has probably got a little more electronic than the last. That’s partly to do with confidence in the technology, if I’m honest.
The piano ‘ballads‘ (none are actual ballads) are still crucially important. It’s all too easy to surrender and make a record of only electronic ‘pop’.
I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, but the extreme restrictions of piano + voice, or whatever you choose, can push you to be more creative. It certainly helps us stand out, in the quietest kind of way. It’s also worth noting that two piano ballads ‘You Know Me Better Than I Know Myself’ and ‘Swept Away’ are in the top five most popular CWNN tracks. A lot of people say ‘Swept Away’ is the best song we’ve ever written.
‘Rosabelle, Believe’ fell into that latter category, how did that come together?
Musically, it’s dead simple. I had the main riff on guitar, transposed that to synths and it went from there. It’s only three chords. Steven Brown’s sax is great on it too. It was an obvious track for him to perform on.
Lyrically, it’s an interesting one. I have quite a big interest in magic. Not occultism (I’ve really tried, but no), but the actual artistry of magic… slight of hand, chopping people in leotards in half, making things disappear, that sort of thing. Harry Houdini famously spent the final few years of his life trying to reveal mediums as fakes. He even offered up rewards for anyone that could demonstrate to him it was real. Then Houdini famously got punched in the stomach, which ultimately lead to his early death.
On his deathbed he made a pact with his wife Bess to carry on this work. He told her that if a medium claimed they were in contact with him in the afterlife during a séance that he would have a code word for her, which was ‘Rosabelle, Believe’ (‘Rosabelle’ being the name of a song they used to sing to each other). And there you have it.
Interestingly, Bess did eventually claim that a medium had successfully contacted Houdini, but it turned out it was an inside job to get and split the reward money. A sad end, really.
The music for this was a demo that Kelli had developed for her fantastic ‘Bands of Angels’ album, which we co-wrote two songs for. We loved the piece, so took the vocal and created the backing around it. It has a real COCTEAU TWINS feel to it, I think.
The title was me trying to be too clever, as usual. As ‘Heir of the Dog’ was our Americana album, I wanted a track called ‘Something, Something Blues’, like a tongue in cheek reference to Robert Johnson. As the track was just three chords, that fitted nicely with the concept too. Yves Klein did indeed create ‘The Void’ exhibition amongst many other things, but is most famous for patenting ‘International Klein Blue’, his own distinctive blue pigment. Calling the track ‘Yves Klein’s Blues’ was a pun that I just couldn’t resist.
One of the highlights of ‘Heir Of the Dog’ is ‘All I Have Is Yours (Including You)’ which has a real classic pop feel about it, but you still haven’t performed it live yet?
I know, I know. It’s a quite a long track though. For us to perform it would have to be a concert with a longer setlist time. I keep meaning to note down all the CWNN songs we have yet to perform live. There’s a whole lot of them. I’m really pleased you like it. I think it’s quite different to any other song in our catalogue.
From ‘Mediaburn’, ‘Blind Dogs For The Guides’ is a fantastic title for a song…
Thanks. The song title came first. I like it when that happens, and you can see that with bands like SPARKS. I mean, they have some of the greatest song titles in music history. I’m always aiming for that. Jon did some fantastically morose piano on this. Lyrically, it’s simply about not being able to trust what you read online.
No one knows what is real or fake anymore. To believe everything you hear is obviously ridiculous, but to dismiss everything equally dangerous and irresponsible. Is it better to be misinformed or uninformed? Answers on a postcard, please.
There’s more wordplay with ‘Fake Nudes’… despite the internet being a leveller and seemingly connecting more people, over the years it seems to have created some strange isolation bubbles don’t you think?
Absolutely. It’s really a myth that the internet brings people closer together if all it’s used for is to hide reality. People can use it to create whatever image of themselves they want to people to see. And we all do it, let’s face it. People can endlessly post things that make them appear as if they’re an outsider. Or they cannot be on social media altogether… to make themselves appear as if they’re an outsider.
‘Fake Nudes’ isn’t actually about any of that. It’s actually about the fake Melania Trump conspiracy. It’s very entertaining if you’ve not seen it. Some people believe her bodyguard doubles for her at times. I’m not a conspiracy theorist at all, but for a while I thought it might be true. I’m much less certain now though. By the way, the drum sounds on ‘Fake Nudes’ were totally inspired by ‘Scared Heart’ by OMD, which I think is an outstanding B-side.
I’ve always thought of ‘Rosabelle, Believe’ as our disco number, but I see what you mean. In many ways these are companion pieces, both have Steven Brown on sax. It had never occurred to me before. The song really is just built around a weird chord progression I played one day on synth. It’s become one of the most popular tracks on the album, which we’d never have predicted. I guess the people want CWNN to go disco! It’s quite epic in places.
It’s another bizarre CWNN lyric, bear with me. I read an article that there was a global shortage of helium gas. It’s just something that would never occur to me as a thing to happen, and most people I imagine. It set off a million puns in my head about party balloons not inflating etc, although helium has very serious medical uses, of course.
There’s more to the story in that the same article talked about huge helium reserves being found in Tanzania. So that in turn set off thoughts about how ghastly Western mining corporations will be marching into the beautiful Tanzanian landscape and completing destroying it to extract their gas. I found an incredible clip of an indigenous Tanzanian tribe reciting the bible in their own language and thought, “that’s it! What could possibly demonstrate the Western colonisation of Africa to steal its resources better than an indigenous tribe reciting the bible?” So, that is the African voice you hear.
Oh, and a song about helium has got to be a party song, right?
Is the arty synth waltz of ‘Mona’ about the lady whose image hangs in in the Louvre?
It is, but in a peculiar way, which I will come on to. The origins of the song actually go back about 10 years. It was called ‘The World is Short Staffed’ at the time (very timely). We made an attempt at it a couple of years ago, but it didn’t really work. So, I completely rewrote the lyrics and we tried again from scratch. Got there in the end.
The lyrics are actually a bit surrealist or absurdist, depending on how you look at it. The Mona Lisa is an oil painting and, as all artists know, oil paintings never quite dry. So, the song proposes that the reason the Mona Lisa’s smile is so enigmatic is because her face is melting. When Da Vinci painted it 500 years ago, she was grinning from ear to ear and in another 500 years it will be a frown. I should add that I’m not seriously proposing this, but I liked it as a totally bonkers notion.
One thing that is peculiar about the ‘Mediaburn’ album is that there are so many songs in triple time; five of them. It’s highly unusual for most bands these days, and in particular electronic ones. I’m quietly a bit proud of that. That’s another reason OMD stand apart. They even had hits with their triple time songs.
The exotic mood of ‘All This Spite (Comes At A Price)’ masks a message that is far more sinister?
We deliberately tried to go ‘electronic Chris Isaak’ on this. I’m very pleased with how it came out and Kelli’s vocals are magnificent. There’s also a bass arpeggiator in it, which reminds me a bit of how Martin Rev from Suicide plays. Another influence.
The lyrics are about people that essentially say outrageous or ridiculous things for cash, Katie Hopkins, Milo Yiannopolous, Ann Coulter, Piers Morgan etc. They have quite literally made a career out of drawing attention to themselves in a way that earns them money. I genuinely don’t think they believe half the stuff they say, but they need to feed the beast.
One thing that ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK liked was the packaging idea used for ‘Heir Of The Dog’ and ‘Mediaburn’ where the cardboard slipcase contained an alternative insert to put in a plastic jewel cases for those like us who prefer something more practical that doesn’t scratch the CD surface like those horrible vinyl replica sleeves that Mute favour and can fit in CD rack… had this been borne out of personal experience?
We always like to give people options, what can I say? I’m not a huge fan of digipacks, unless they have a nice booklet inside. The single panel digipacks you increasingly see totally sell people short, and having a package that doesn’t fit into a CD rack is highly annoying. I have well over 2000 CDs, I should know. There are some great examples, though. I’ve been massively impressed with Cherry Red’s reissue programme for THE RESIDENTS; double CD digis with a big thick booklet, loads of unseen photos, etc. Selling CDs is hard work these days, so you have to put the effort in, whatever it comes in.
I wouldn’t say that the packaging of our most recent albums is a direct attempt to right some packaging wrongs. In some ways, ours is impractical as it takes a bit of effort to actually get inside. I like packaging that you can pore over and explore. We all have memories as teenagers of buying records or CDs and looking at every detail of the cover while the album plays. I think including lyrics is important, as it’s one of the only incentives left for people to buy physical copies, sadly.
For these last few albums, we’ve been led by the brilliant Leigh from Disc-Phalanx. He really is a packaging genius. The “make your own jewel case” thing was entirely his doing. He’s recently done a whole load reissues for Björk, which speaks for itself. I was also pleased to throw some work his way as he did a bit of package design for the excellent James Nice at LTM.
Love TINY MAGNETIC PETS! It was you of course that first introduced me to Sean Quinn. We get on great, though it’s impossible not to get on with them. There is also of course a very real mutual appreciation of the music we both make.
I think TMP really stand apart. I was really happy that they invited me to help write lyrics and melody for a song for their next album. It’s called ‘Cosmonaut’s Lullaby’, a duet with Paula.
I loved the track, so it wasn’t hard to write something and luckily they were very happy with what I did. I’m really looking forward to the album. We’ve done gigs together of course, we keep mentioning about doing a tour together. One day it might even happen. I am genuinely so, so happy to see TMP to achieve the success that they have, they truly deserve it.
You recently did a track with Jochen Oberlack for his EISBERG project called ‘Moby Dick’ which was a bit different?
Again, Jochen asked me and I really liked the track he sent. I really like his music in general, it’s kind of like a harder-edged RHEINGOLD (who I think are an underrated band anyway). Brilliantly produced. The lyrics and melody came quite quickly. He was happy, I was happy. Another great person.
Has the recent spate of collaborations including those with Rusty Egan brought new approaches into CULT WITH NO NAME?
They probably have, but not consciously as such. Rusty continues to be an amazing advocate for CWNN and we’re so grateful to him. I’ve met so many people though him that have also become friends. Rusty also introduced me to Paul Tunkin who has since become our publisher.
We’ve been asked to do a couple of remixes recently, one for Kelli Ali (‘Fear of London’, which has come out) and another for a band I Iove which should be out later in the year. That has been an interesting experience as it’s not something we’ve really done before. In both cases we went massively off track and turned them into something unrecognisable. There’s also another interesting collaboration in the works, but I can’t reveal anything just yet.
More of the same, but each album is better than the last, right? Not that all bands say that, of course. I would say, as mentioned earlier, that we’ve tried to stick to a few sounds that we use across several tracks, certainly drum sound wise.
Drums always take me the longest anyway, perhaps that’s why we have so many tracks with no drums at all. I’m determined to not overcrowd the tracks, so the production is a little bit more minimal (in an electronic sense). Some tracks on ‘Mediaburn’ nearly tipped me over the edge in terms of endlessly fiddling about and adding on layer upon layer. I was absolutely sick to death of some songs by the end.
With the new album, I’m trying to not overthink it too much…or over listen. It’s working, so far. The more consistent approach to production means that I think the songs are going to hang together conceptually really well. There really are some absolute corkers on this album, even if I do say so myself. There’s dark thumping electro, epic synth ballads, Arabic grooves… something for the whole family to enjoy.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to Erik Stein
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
20th April 2020