Bionic Bubblepunk duo HYPERBUBBLE feel “the world needs some love and good vibrations… and free stuff”, so have presented ‘Love & Bionics’.
Not content with having delivered a cosmic country covers album three years ago inspired by ‘Switched On Nashville’ called ‘Western Ware’ that put the “MOO” into Moog, the duo of Jess and Jeff DeCuir have turned their attention to a wider range of standards and obscurities arranged in their own style of Texan electro artpunk.
They succeed in their adventure by their choice of less obvious songs getting the electronic treatment.
After all, does the world really need any more modern synth reinterpretations of DEPECHE MODE, YAZOO and ULTRAVOX? But even when HYPERBUBBLE cover songs readily accepted as being of a more synthpop bent, they give them their own twist. Album opener ‘Pop Goes the World’ which was originally by MEN WITHOUT HATS gets new lyrics to introduce the duo by way of a musical manifesto. Meanwhile DEAD OR ALIVE’s ‘You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)’ is given a sombre minimal synth and vocoder treatment at half the speed which surprisingly works!
‘Theme from Shaft’ is an unexpected delight with the tune’s familiar wah-wah guitar motif transferred to bleepy sequences while the orchestrated parts are brilliantly reconfigured with synths. Then there’s a hilarious robopop take on VAN HALEN’s ‘Jamie’s Cryin’ with spoken word segments and yes, synth solos!
‘Tiny Alice’ by lesser known Michigan singer / songwriter Paul Parrish is given an acapella arrangement which sounds like the beginning of DARTS’ cover of ‘Boy From New York City’ while ‘Starship 109’ which was originally a single by the obscure Dutch fusion combo MISTRAL acts as a suitably spacey interlude between the two halves of the album.
The enjoyment factor of ‘You’re the One That I Want’ will be down to individual taste, but this lively post-modern take sums up the light-hearted irreverent nature of HYPERBUBBLE. But best of all though is a charming instrumental version of ‘Sugar Sugar’, which in some ways recalls the style of Gil Trythall’s ‘Switched On Nashville’ album.
Covering music from new wave, heavy rock, exotica, soul, folk and film, ‘Love & Bionics’ is fun and free. Love or loathe, it’s a lesson to others as to how to think outside of the box when it comes to doing cover versions using synths.
Norwegian electronic covers combo CHINESE DETECTIVES released their only album ‘Are Kisses Out Of Fashion?’ in 1999.
The brainchild of Per Aksel Lundgreen who had cut his teeth in APOPTYGMA BERZERK, the concept was to be a “SILICON TEENS of the 90s” with frantic dance beats acting as the backbone to accompany the hooks of classic synthpop.
CHINESE DETECTIVES scored a number of Scandinavian hits with songs originally made famous by YAZOO, MEN WITHOUT HATS and DIVINE.
‘Are Kisses Out Of Fashion?’ additionally featured reinterpretations of SPARKS, BRONSKI BEAT, PET SHOP BOYS and several lesser known acts while the album itself was to become something of a cult favourite, partly thanks to featuring the only officially released version of a Vince Clarke instrumental from which CHINESE DETECTIVES got their moniker.
The classic trio line-up of Per Aksel Lundgreen, Preben Bjønnes and Desirée Grandahl kindly reminisced about the making of ‘Are Kisses Out Of Fashion?’.
So what came first, your cover of ‘Chinese Detectives’ or the band concept? How did it come about?
Preben: Per Aksel suggested ‘Chinese Detectives’ as a track and name for the band.
Per Aksel: Being an avid YAZOO and Vince Clarke collector, I had obtained a live tape that I bought at a stand in Camden Market in London of the 1982 gig at The Dominion, and on that tape, the instrumental track ‘Chinese Detectives’ was included. I always loved the track, and also the name, and I really wanted to use it as a band name, so we did. Then the idea was launched to do a cover of ‘Situation’ as the “A-Side” of the single, and a cover of ‘Chinese Detectives’ as the “B-Side”. I know that the track has also been referred to as ‘China’ on early live-recordings etc, but more on that later, ha ha!
Desirée: I´m the lucky one because I didn´t have to give any of that any thought! Got it all served on a silver platter.
The track is often mistaken as being the theme for the BBC TV drama ‘The Chinese Detective’ but is actually a Vince Clarke original. How did you go about interpreting and recording it? Did Mr Clarke give his approval?
Per Aksel: The sound quality on the live tape I had wasn’t really top notch, so we had to do our best to make out all the sounds and figures being played.
There’s also a part on there where it sounds like Vince is talking on top of the track, but we never ever figured out if that was just an accident, or if it was supposed to include some spoken words. I knew at the time that all Vince Clarke material was published via Sony Music Publishing, so I wrote them a letter, inquiring about the track, and asked for permission to do a cover version of it.
I actually received a reply via fax, yes it was that long ago, and in the fax it said something like: “Sony Music Publishing and Vince Clarke hereby grant you the rights to do a cover of the before mentioned track, ‘Chinese Detectives’.”
I was gobsmacked and very very happy of course. I saved that fax for many years, and when I one day went into some boxes to find it, the print had disappeared and the fax paper was all white, ha ha! I wish I’d taken a copy of it, but hindsight is 2020, right!
Preben: Hopefully we did the track justice 🙂
Desirèe: The credit for that goes to the lads. Hopefully Mr Clarke approved and loved it.
Why did you choose ‘Situation’ as a single to debut CHINESE DETECTIVES with?
Preben: We all loved the song and especially Vince Clarke’s song writing.
Desirée: I mean, even if I didn´t do the vocals on the first single, who wouldn´t choose that iconic song with that iconic group?
Per Aksel: We’re all huge YAZOO fans, and it was one of those tracks that we felt we could do something with. It was actually in the Norwegian Dance Charts and it was on a couple of “Eurodance” type compilations here in Norway, and the single sold close to 10.000 copies at the time, so we were very very happy of course. This made us want to do more, and the record company too cheered us on.
Strangely, in Norway we were considered “Eurodance”, but in Sweden and the rest of Europe and the US, they called us a synthpop act, and I for one wanted it to sound “synthpop”, but maybe we leaned towards the “Eurodance” since that was in the charts at the time. I don’t know, but we were treated very differently in Norway and in Sweden.
In Norway, we played “dance party” festivals for 5000 people together with 2 BROTHERS ON THE 4TH FLOOR, SOLID BASE, TWENTY 4 SEVEN, 2 UNLIMITED and stuff like that, but in Sweden we played on Swedish Alternative Music Awards for 500 people together with S.P.O.C.K, IN THE NURSERY and COVENANT, so it was a strange situation, but we just went with the flow and played everywhere we were wanted really.
We also had two other guys involved at the early stage of Chinese DETECTIVES, Trond Haugerud and Lars Kristian Aasbrenn, but they both dropped off. Lars Kristian after the first single, and Trond after the second one. No particular reasons for this, they just left basically, but they did also put in a good deal of work and input before they left, so I feel it’s important to put that out there.
After your second single, a cover of MEN WITHOUT HATS ‘Where Do The Boys Go’, your first singer Kristine Ulfeng departed, what effect did that have on whether to continue with CHINESE DETECTIVES?
Preben: No effect. We already knew we wanted to make a whole album with a different voice.
Per Aksel: When we started recording the third single, ‘You Think You’re A Man’, it became evident very early that Kristine’s voice wouldn’t cut it for that track. We took the harsh decision of telling her to leave and then asked Desirée to join the band. Not our proudest moment, and it wasn’t really fair to Kristine as she was fully devoted on the two first singles, but Preben and I were young and ambitious and had huge egos, so I’ll have to blame it on that.
Desirée: It had the wonderful effect of giving me the role of the mysterious and handsome girl at the mic.
Desirée had a deeper resonance to her voice and her first single with CHINESE DETECTIVES was a cover of DIVINE’s ‘You Think You’re A Man’ in 1996; did you know that song was written by Geoffrey Deane who was the original lead singer of MODERN ROMANCE?!!? 😆
Preben: News to me 🙂
Desirée: Ooops, you got me there! Shame on me for not knowing that…
Per Aksel: All I know is that when I wrote the credits in the booklet, it said “G Deane”, but I had no idea it was the original lead singer of MODERN ROMANCE! :O
We all love a bit of HI-NRG, and especially DIVINE and Bobby O productions in general, and I really think we nailed that one! Very happy with that single to be honest! The two first ones were good too, but the sound on ‘You Think You’re A Man’ is still holding up in my opinion.
The album ‘Are Kisses Out Of Fashion?’ finally came out in 1999, had it been a challenging project to finish?
Preben: It was a labour of love, I loved every bit of it. Working in a pro-studio with Erik Wøllo was a high point for me as I have mostly worked in my own studio. We had a very nice atmosphere in the studio where we loved every song we worked on. It became a very eclectic album I think. 🙂
Desirée: On the subject of who was gonna be our label and who was gonna release it – it was a challenge. The process of making the album wasn´t all that bad. We took some time picking and agreeing on the songs, then finding the right producer and of course getting it right in the studio. I will say that there was more laughter than fights.
Per Aksel: The truth is that the album was already finished late 1996 or early 1997, I can’t remember exactly now, and at the time, the label had a bit of a dry spell and didn’t have the money to finance the printing of the album, and the third single didn’t do as well as the first one, so maybe they lost a bit of faith in us, I’m not sure.
Anyway, in 1999 I kinda pushed them to release it, as 80s sounding synthpop was returning more and more.
The first pressing of 5000 copies sold pretty quickly, so I know the label never regretted it in the end. It was the label that also paid the £3500 for the studio and recording of the album, so I was surprised that they didn’t want to try and recoup their money.
The process in Wintergarden Studio with Erik Wøllo as our co-producer really helped and lifted this record into what it became. We never could have achieved that result without Erik. His studio was in his basement, so we jokingly said we we’re recording “Downstairs At Erik’s”, ha ha! He also had a lot of cool equipment in his studio that we could use to fatten up our sound and to make the songs more diverse than they were in their original demo-form.
Stephan Groth of APOPTYGMA BERZERK had also bought a Novation Bass Station at the time, and we borrowed that for some tracks too, and it’s especially evident on ‘Hit That Perfect Beat’. I also had a Roland JX3P that we used heavily and a Yamaha TX7 that was in Erik’s studio that we used for the FM-bass lines and such.
Most of the ‘Are Kisses Out Of Fashion?’ album sounds a bit like Alison Moyet fronting a frantic Eurodance covers project, there was a distinct HI-NRG bent with tunes like ‘Hit That Perfect Beat’, ‘All You Ever Think About Is Sex’, ‘You Think You’re A Man’ and a very pacey version of ‘Johnny & Mary’? Was the club market where you were aiming CHINESE DETECTIVES?
Desirée: Oh, I love me a bit of frantic Moyet!! Seriously, I think the club market was THE market at the time, but I also think we were a little bit a head of our time. If the album had hit the club market a bit into the 2000s, I personally think we would have had an even greater success with it. The trend of picking up great tunes from the 80s didn´t really kick in until 2004-2005. Maybe we can say that we started the trend? Let´s keep that illusion.
Preben: We all love HI-NRG and especially songs produced by Bobby O. Having said that, we wanted to do our own versions of our favourite songs.
Per Aksel:Alison Moyet is probably THE BEST female voice in the world of music in my opinion, and Desirée is blessed with a serious set of pipes and a voice that is very close to Alison’s, so we felt we’d struck gold when she wanted to join us to be honest.
I’m not quite sure we went for the club market OR “Eurodance” to be honest, it was all “synthpop” to us, but looking back, I can see how the music in the charts and the new synths coming out etc flavoured our sound and the outcome of the finished result. Having had chart success in Norway with the two first singles, we were actually on Norwegian television at the Norwegian Top 20 being interviewed about the ‘Where Do The Boys Go?’ track and video, so that probably also told us that we had a shot at “this chart stuff”, but we failed to chart after that, and became more of a thing for the synthpop fans instead. That’s a good thing, because that’s where we belong anyway, ha ha!
When the album slows down a bit in the middle, the album gets very interesting with your covers of ‘Love Is Just A Word’ by SILENT CIRCLE and ‘Run For Love’ by WINDER, two acts which would have been largely unknown outside of mainland Europe, what is the story behind these?
Preben: We loved the songs. WINDER’s is an all-time favourite of mine from Denmark. I think they only did three singles and an album.
Desirée: Those two songs were kind of pushed by the lads. I thought at first that ‘Love Is Just A Word’ was too “German lighter ballad-ish”, but it grew on me really. And after doing it live, it kind of gave you that arena-effect, with people singing along and of course waving their lighters.
When the song ‘Run For Love’ came up, I wasn´t sure what to do. I felt that it was so girly and non-edgy. The fun part is though, that so many reacted to this song and really liked our version. Let´s just say that this was my “swallow the camel” moment.
Per Aksel: The WINDER track was an old “guilty pleasure” of mine, and I thought that we could do a really good job with it.
I know Desirée really didn’t like it much, but she played along, and the version we ended up with is ok I guess, but far from my favourite on the album. A lot of people seem to love this version though, which is great, but I don’t know, it’s still a bit Eurovision sounding and a bit cheesy!
‘Love Is Just A Word’ was picked as the idea of having a ballad on the album, but now that I think of it, we should have done ‘Touch In The Night’ instead. CHINESE DETECTIVES were never meant to do ballads, ha ha! I remember seeing SILENT CIRCLE performing ‘Touch In The Night’ on Peters Pop Show from Germany via Swedish Television back in the 80s, and that’s how I got turned onto the band. Their first album, ‘No 1’, is still a good album I think, a hidden gem for many, but a good synthpop album.
The album title song features something of an orchestra stab frenzy and was originally by SUDETEN CRÈCHE, a very obscure British duo. How did you hear about this song?
Preben: Per Aksel introduced us to the song and we knew immediately that we could make our mark on it.
Desirée: Why wouldn´t a bunch of nerdy electronic music people have heard about that one?
Per Aksel: Going back to me being an avid YAZOO and Vince Clarke collector, I’d heard from some other collectors that the compilation album ‘Europe In The Year Zero’ included a different version of ‘Goodbye 70s’ than the one on ‘Upstairs At Eric’s’, so I ended up getting hold of a copy of that LP.
It had a different version of ’Goodbye 70s’ indeed with some extra echoes and delays to the vocal, and it was a bit shorter with a strange fade, but still a different version. Anyway, on that same album was the band SUDETEN CRÈCHE with their track ‘Are Kisses Out Of Fashion?’.
My girlfriend at the time loved this track and had it on several mixtapes, so I knew it well, and when it came time to pick track for the album, Preben, Desirée and I wrote down our suggestions of what tracks to do covers of, and we immediately agreed that we could do something with this minimal wave classic. We also decided to use the title of the track as the title of the album, as it was very 80s sounding and cool.
In 2006 or so, I got contacted by Mark Warner from SUDETEN CRECHE who asked us about this cover, because we tried to get hold of them back in 1996, but it was impossible to find any information. So we started emailing them back and forth, and they said they really liked the version we had done. Later I was invited to be live keyboarder for SUDETEN CRECHE on a European tour they did together with OPPENHEIMER ANALYSIS and a couple of other bands, but I couldn’t accept that offer since I had other commitments at the time, but the offer itself meant a lot to me and I was really flattered by it.
Later on, after a lot of emails and a growing friendship, Mark Warner invited me to come stay with him at his house outside Bedford where he’s got a studio in his back yard, to work on some music together.
This is how I ended up doing three EPs with ROSSETTI’S COMPASS together with Mark. He wrote all the material, and I was more in on the production side of things, but we had great fun in the studio, and I got to know his lovely wife and two daughters who now just call me Uncle Per.
I visited Mark as late as January this year, and a lovely and lasting friendship has come out of doing that cover version. Who would have thought ha? Life can serve you up some wonderful things sometimes, especially when you meet great people like Mark Warner. A true friend.
You covered INDUSTRY with ‘State Of The Nation’ so the range of genres you sourced on ‘Are Kisses Out Of Fashion?’ was very varied in hindsight?
Preben: We wanted music from all over the spectrum; obscure to the big hits.
Desirée: There is and there was so much good music to choose from, in many genres. The list of songs we would have loved to put on the album was long, but I think we´re all quite happy with the once we chose. I also think that it shows that we´re influenced by many genres.
Per Aksel: ‘State Of The Nation’ to me was a “synthpop” song, and I really really liked it, and I also think we did a great version of it. There was a vocal part there at the end of the track, after the music ended that we should’ve kept though. Desirée wanted to keep it, but Preben and I voted against it, ha ha. Looking back, Desirée was right, we should’ve kept it. Wonder if I’ve still got that other version on DAT-tape somewhere. Hmmm…
What are your own personal favourites on ‘Are Kisses Out Of Fashion?’ and why?
Desirée: Oh, that´s a hard one. I should of course say ‘Situation’ but I´m not gonna say that. I just love ‘State Of The Nation’; loved the song originally and loved to sing it. ‘Are Kisses Out Of Fashion?’ and ‘All You Ever Think About Is Sex’ come in at second place. Just because ‘Are Kisses…’ became almost a completely new song when we did it and ‘All You Ever Think About Is Sex’ is a fun and theatrical song which I love.
Preben: ‘Hit That Perfect Beat’ by BRONSKI BEAT. I loved the vocals on it. And the mix still holds up. Very happy with the bassline 🙂
Per Aksel: I still think that our version of ‘I Want A Lover’ by PET SHOP BOYS is the best one, but nobody seems to agree with me! LOL! I also have a huge fondness for ‘You Think You’re A Man’, ‘Hit That Perfect Beat’ and ‘All You Ever Think About Is Sex’, great versions that differ from the original and still add something extra. I also love the energy that we managed to put into those tracks. They’re explosive in a way, and I’m very proud of what we managed to do together on those tracks! Would’ve been even better if we’d written the tracks ourselves of course, but hey, we borrowed someone else’s songwriting talent and built on that, that will have to do.
Was CHINESE DETECTIVES, like SILICON TEENS, destined to just do the one album?
Desirée: No, not really. We had plans and visions. Preben and I did our own project with POSH. We had so many ideas for our own music and CHINESE DETECTIVES was a cover project. But the intention was to make more music with CHINESE DETECTIVES as well.
Again the situation with getting a label, getting us distributed and of course the sign of the times in the music industry put a stop to more albums at the time. We do however, have some new covers done. We did some new tunes for a couple of gigs some years ago and that was great fun. So you never know, maybe we´ll be back.
Preben: I don’t think we had any plans beyond an album. Might have played it by ear.
Per Aksel: Funny you should say that! My own catch phrase / slogan was that we aimed to be a “SILICON TEENS of the 90s”! We are huge fans of the ‘Music For Parties’ album, and doing 80s tracks in the 90s before that became fashionable kinda put us in the same category at least as SILICON TEENS.
I never had plans beyond that one album back then at least. While waiting for the CHINESE DETECTIVES album to be released, Preben and Desirée continued on the side with their own project, POSH, that released a great album called ‘In Vanity We Trust’ on CD in 1999 too. That is also a great but sadly forgotten album by many. Sounds like YAZOO with a more modern sound.
CHINESE DETECTIVES reformed for Electronic Summer 2016 in Gothenburg, how was that for you?
Preben: I unfortunately had to pull out of it due to illness. But I hear it went down well 🙂
Per Aksel: That was amazing! We had a great great time, and back then it was exactly 20 years since we last played in Gothenburg, so it was a celebration and a huge kick being on stage with CHINESE DETECTIVES again in front of 600 people at The Brewhouse.
People loved it and we got so many people coming up to us after the show saying “finally I got to see you live” and stuff like that, including Hannes Malecki, the singer from WELLE: ERDBALL, who was also playing at the same festival. He confessed to being a huge fan of CHINESE DETECTIVES when I met him there, which was a very nice compliment, coming from a guy whose work I admire very very much. I have a complete collection of all the WELLE: ERDBALL CDs, so…
Desirée: Oh my Lord that was fun. I had no expectations for that gig. I thought we were forgotten and obsolete. We started the evening with our set and I thought that there would be close to no one in the audience. When the music started and I went on stage, I got a pleasant shock. The place was packed and people sang along and had a jolly good time. So did we! People were so positive and loving. That was just a blast!
Over twenty years on, how do you view the way an electronic pop cover should be done? With so much history, is going outside of the genre more preferable to achieve something different, rather than just cover say DEPECHE MODE, NEW ORDER, SOFT CELL and ERASURE, who interestingly CHINESE DETECTIVES didn’t cover?
Preben: We tried to stay away from the obvious songs. But there are millions of great songs we could have done. We have tried to do some new ones few years back. ‘The Metro’ by BERLIN was one of them. We have played it at some concerts. We also demoed ‘You Spin Me Round’ by DEAD OR ALIVE and even made an instrumental of ‘Heartbeat City’ by THE CARS. And a few others. Hopefully we will make another album in the future 🙂
Desirée: The term electronic pop is no longer obscure and for the few and nerdy. So to make an electronic pop cover today, the bar is lifted. We did go outside the electronic genre when we did our album and I think that by doing that, the songs got a new life. This, I think, is still the case. A good song is a good song in any genre. Even if it would be great fun to cover, let´s say a EURYTHMICS tune, the approach I think would be different now than it was twenty years ago. And no wonder, we´ve learned a lot in twenty years!!!
Per Aksel: We definitively tried to AVOID the “usual suspects” when picking tracks for the album. I know Desirée wanted to do both a cover of a EURYTHMICS track, and a CULTURE CLUB track, and that didn’t happen, probably because they were too big and famous or whatever. We had some strict but strange rules back then, ha ha!
The truth is that I’m usually not a big fan of cover versions myself, and it’s only a few that I really like, and I try to avoid them when other bands do covers. Strange to think of when I was in a band that did a whole album of them, right?
We had ‘Send Me An Angel’ by REAL LIFE half-finished in demo form back then, but it never came to fruition, and that’s about it I think from back then. Preben did demo some other tracks that I don’t remember right now, but we ended up with those that are on the album, and I think the selection is pretty much good. When it comes to DEPECHE MODE, we’ve had enough covers there already, haven’t we? I mean, we’ve had enough of the band itself even, so never mind covers ha ha!
Some cover versions that I do like though, are: FAIRLIGHT CHILDREN – ‘Bedsitter’, LEMONHEADS – ‘Mrs. Robinson’, APOPTYGMA BERZERK – ‘Major Tom’, WOLFSHEIM – ‘Ruby, Don’t Bring Your Love To Town”, MALARIA – ‘Lay, Lady Lay’, and BIGOD 20 – ‘Like A Prayer’.
The “perfect” cover version in my opinion though, is the one that RÖYKSOPP feat. Susanne Sundfør did of ‘Ice Machine’. Absolutely love that one!
What songs would you cover today if you were to do a new album?
Preben: BLANCMANGE – ‘Blind Vision’ or ‘Don’t Tell Me’, THE CARS – ‘Heartbeat City’, ABC – ‘Be Near Me’, JAPAN – ‘Life In Tokyo’, CRETU – ‘Samurai’, THE HUMAN LEAGUE – ‘Boys & Girls’, OMD – ‘Telegraph’, BERLIN – ‘Metro’, SECRET SERVICE – ‘Flash In The Night’, DEAD OR ALIVE – ‘Big Daddy Of The Rhythm’, CLOCKWORK ORANGE – ‘Sensation Boys’, THOMPSON TWINS – ‘In The Name Of Love’ or HEAVEN 17 – ‘Come Live With Me’. All of those would have worked I suppose!
Desirée: I’ve always wanted to do a cover of ‘Sexuality’ with Erasure, but never got around to it. Maybe the time is now?
Per Aksel: Hmmmm… THOMPSON TWINS – ‘We Are Detective’ would fit us perfectly I think, and I also agree with Preben on ‘Big Daddy Of The Rhythm’, such power and energy! Maybe we should accommodate Desirée too, and do ‘Here Comes The Rain Again’ or ‘Paint A Rumour’ by EURYTHMICS? I also would’ve picked another minimal wave track or two, like ‘Night In June’ with LINEAR MOVEMENT, or ‘All Rights Reserved’ by FRED. Great tracks, real gems that one could bring out to the masses!
That’s the best thing I think, when you can get people to discover a track they’ve never heard before through your cover version! All in all though, I’m a little fed up with covers at the moment as I told you, but I’m not going to be a killjoy.
Preben, Desirée and I live nearby each other, and if we find the time and inspiration, I don’t see why we couldn’t / shouldn’t do some more stuff together. All that without giving any promises though, ha ha!
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to CHINESE DETECTIVES
Like Sweden, as a country with a relatively small population in relation to land mass, Canada punches above its weight when it comes to its contribution to popular music.
Canada’s internationally famous artists may be Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Céline Dion, Bryan Adams and Alanis Morisette, but there have been so many more that have been far more interesting.
Canada has been a significant presence in synth from the post-punk pioneers such as NASH THE SLASH and CERAMIC HELLO, to international MTV-era hits from the likes of MEN WITHOUT HATS, TRANS-X and KON KAN, up to the present day via the mainstream profile of GRIMES, PURITY RING and CRYSTAL CASTLES. Meanwhile, it also has developed into a hub for the burgeoning sub-genre of Synthwave thanks to FM ATTACK and DANA JEAN PHOENIX.
Like in the UK with the availability of affordability of technology from Japan in particular, Canadian youngsters were taking up synthesizers. And while several were to attain cult status like RATIONAL YOUTH and PYSCHE, some such as the Winnipeg trio EUROPA were destined just to have their moment on domestic television without an official release to their name.
Today, the tradition continues with artists such as DEADMAU5, TIGA, KOISHII & HUSH, LOLA DUTRONIC and TECHNIQUES BERLIN covering a wide spectrum of electronic pop and dance music.
So here is ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s list of 25 tracks from the circuit boards of Canada, subject to a limit of one per artist moniker, presented in yearly and then alphabetical order. But notice a void in between 1990 to 2000 when it could be said that the likes of Dion, Adams and Morisette dominated the airwaves of the globe.
However, the number of electronic acts who have appeared in the 21st Century have more than made up for things.
CERAMIC HELLO Climatic Nouveaux (1980)
CERAMIC HELLO were a duo who hailed from Burlington in Ontario, formed by Brett Wickens in 1980 after leaving post-punk band SPOONS. He teamed up with Roger Humphreys who added a more classical bent to their minimal synth in the vein of JOHN FOXX and FAD GADGET. Their first release was the detached cold wave paranoia of ‘Climatic Nouveaux’. Wickens later moved to England to join Peter Saville Associates, making a major contribution to the artwork for OMD’s ‘Architecture & Morality’.
NASH THE SLASH opened for GARY NUMAN and was signed to Dindisc Records. It was during this period that he had his highest mainstream media profile with features in ‘Smash Hits’; it was with the pop mag that his best known recording in the UK came via a blue flexi-disc with an early self-produced stripped down version of ‘Swing-Shift’ sitting next to his label mates OMD’s live rendition of ‘Pretending To See The Future’. He sadly passed away in 2014.
Hailing from Montreal, ‘The Safety Dance’ was written by MEN WITHOUT HATS lead singer Ivan Doroschuk after he had been kicked out of a club for pogoing, thus it was effectively a protest song against conformity, a call for freedom of expression. it had been misinterpreted as a being about safe sex and as an anti-nuclear protest song. The bouncy almost medieval feel combined with Doroschuk’s vocals like a less doomy Andrew Eldritch to produce a huge international hit.
Hailing from Toronto and lead by Gordon Deppe, after the acclaim for the 1981 debut album ‘Stick Figure Neighbourhood’, the songs on the second ‘Arias & Symphonies’ were more European influenced. With JAPAN producer John Punter behind the desk, the title song was an perfect amalgam of prog theatrics, new wave gallop and synth pomp. SPOONS were soon to be opening for bands such as SIMPLE MINDS and THE POLICE. Today, Deppe is also the guitarist for A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS.
STRANGE ADVANCE were a Canadian new wave band formed in Vancouver, made up of Drew Arnott (keyboards, percussion, vocals), Darryl Kromm (lead vocals, guitars), and Paul Iverson (bass). Utilising synthesizers and advances in programming technology, their music was a fusion of progressive rock and MTV friendly pop that struck a chord, with the lyrical couplet “The time is right / We’ll love tonight” of ‘Love Games’ capturing the mood of times.
The stunning Martha Ladly was more than just a pretty face; she was a musician, vocalist, artist and designer. Following her stints with MARTHA & THE MUFFINS, ASSOCIATES and doing paintings for Peter Saville’s NEW ORDER sleeve artwork, she teamed up with Brett Wickens from CERAMIC HELLO on this charming pop tune which echoed THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Open Your Heart’. Peter Hook provided his distinctive melodic six-string bass while the dynamic production came from Steve Nye.
Originally released as a single by Island Records, currently unavailable
The classic RATIONAL YOUTH line-up of Tracy Howe, Bill Vorn and Kevin Komoda gained acclaim for their 1982 debut album ‘Cold War Night Life’, which became one of the biggest-selling Canadian independent albums at the time and secured a deal with Capitol Records. However, Vorn left to continue his university studies, but contributed synth programming to ‘Holiday In Bangkok’, a sinister overwrought warning about the dangers of becoming international drug mule.
Available on the album ‘Heredity’ via Capitol Records
French-born Canadian Pascal Languirand was the man behind TRANS-X, and had previously been known for his spacey progressive rock solo albums like ‘Minos’ and ‘De Harmonia Universalia’. Originally issued in French as ‘Vivre Sur Video’, this cosmic octave-shifting electronic dance tune, with additional vocals by Laurie Ann Gill, became a massive hit worldwide after being re-released in 1985 and went onto to influence Electroclash artists such as FISCHERSPOONER and MISS KITTIN.
PSYCHE are the acclaimed dark synthpop duo from Edmonton, founded by the Huss brothers Darrin and Stephen. Of the foreboding overtones of ‘The Saint Became A Lush’, “Many think the main sequence sounds like ‘Tubular Bells’ and there may be some element of that as it was used in ‘The Exorcist’ movie which my brother loved” Darrin said, “It’s also inspired by JOY DIVISION, as I was really going for the sound of a world weary preacher and channelling the voice of Ian Curtis for that.”
“Love cannot attach itself to binding ugliness” goes the theatrical horror of ‘Dig It’; formed in Vancouver by cEvin Key of IMAGES IN VOGUE and vocalist Nivek Ogre, SKINNY PUPPY are widely considered as the pioneers of industrial. ‘Dig It’ was a big favourite of NINE INCH NAILS mainman Trent Reznor and heavily influenced his own track ‘Down In It’ which appeared on ‘Pretty Hate Machine’, so much so that he later confessed he had actually sampled it!
Mitsou Annie Marie Gélinas achieved the comparatively unusual feat of having a francophone pop hit across Canada with ‘Bye Bye Mon Cowboy’. But her best tune was the saucy Fairlighted ‘Les Chinois’ from the multicultural-themed album ‘El Mundo’. Written and produced by Jean Pierre Isaac who later worked with Céline Dion, she exclaimed “Non non non c’est pas comme ça, qu’on fait l’amour, regarde les Chinois”… was she trying to make babies?
The project of Barry Harris, the KON KAN name was a play on the policy of “Canadian Content” which enforced Canadian radio station to air at least 30% domestic music. Voiced by Kevin Wynne, ‘I Beg Your Pardon’ was not just content with borrowing off NEW ORDER but inspired by ‘Pump Up The Volume’, used samples of other songs like ‘Rose Garden’, ‘Disco Nights (Rock-Freak)’ and ‘Get Up & Boogie’, as well as National Lampoon’s ‘Disco Hotline’. This mash-up became a huge international one hit wonder.
Toronto-based Jason Amm is all about “synthesizers, drum machines, fx, knobs, buttons, wires, wave, electro, acid”. But while he is now best known for his documentary film ‘I Dream Of Wires’, he has a vast catalogue of music released under the SOLVENT moniker. With gentle vocoder treatments and glorious whirring synths, ‘Wish’ set a pattern for acts like FOTONOVELA and QUIETER THAN SPIDERS to follow in the understated melodic machine pop stakes.
Toronto’s DRAGONETTE comprised of singer Martina Sorbara, producer Dan Kurtz and drummer Joel Stouffer. The acclaim for their self-released self-titled EP led to a deal with Mercury Records and a relocation to the UK. Opening shows for BASEMENT JAXX and SUGABABES, the highlight of their debut album ‘Galore’ was ‘I Get Around’ which was previewed on Planet Clique and Lucky Pierre’s ‘Robopop – The Return’ compilation. It also was used in ‘The Vampire Diaries’.
Available on the album ‘Galore’ via Mercury Records
With ‘Drive’ star Ryan Gosling being a notable FM ATTACK admirer, Shawn Ward has concocted a unique hybrid electronic sound combining Gino Soccio and Giorgio Moroder with Italo disco, French house, new wave and post-punk, all with a fine-honed musicality. From 2009’s ‘Dreamatic’ album which opened up the gates and led the way for what was to become Synthwave, ‘Sleepless Nights’ crossed arpeggios with octave lilts for an enjoyable vocoder-laced romp.
Named after a line in ‘She-Ra: Princess of Power’ and capturing a gritty lo-fi electronic sound, Toronto’s CRYSTAL CASTLES were a world apart from other modern duos with chaotic live shows that had an almost demonic energy. With Ethan Kath’s deliberately distorted synthetic goth-punk and Alice Glass’ afflicted vocal presence, ‘Suffocation’ was haunted, yet captured an understated beauty. But in October 2014, Glass announced that she was leaving to pursue a solo career amid acrimony.
Named after the goddess of light in Latvian mythology, Toronto’s AUSTRA deliver a stark, baroque form of arty electronica fuelled by the sexual tension. Like a gothic opera which successfully blended light and darkness with fragility and power, Katie Stelmanis and friends borrowed from classic DEPECHE MODE and crossed it with THE KNIFE for ‘Spellwork’, their most accessibly brilliant synthpop offering from their debut album ‘Feel It Break’.
While Claire Boucher might be now more widely known for being the girlfriend of Elon Musk, she began as the kooky Montreal sensation GRIMES, sounding like LYKKE LI fronting KRAFTWERK. Presented in a fun leftfield lady meets pop princess fusion, ‘Oblivion’ was a sumptuously infectious tune that despite the almost unintelligible vocals and weird noises, was probably the most immediate track on her ‘Visions’ album which also featured less immediate but equally enjoyable ‘Genesis’.
Behind PARALLELS is Holly Dodson and on their second long player was a lovely synthpop version of GOWAN’s 1987 rock tune ‘Moonlight Desires’. She said of her love for the song: “We hear the original version it all the time in Canada. It’s always fulfilled all the necessary criteria – incredible hooks, the moon, magic melodies, nostalgia. I just recently learned that GOWAN’s actually heard the cover… and approves!! Which is SUCH a relief haha…”
Available on the album ‘XII’ via Marigold Productions
TR/ST began as the project of Robert Alfons and AUSTRA’s Maya Postepski. Although Postepski left to return to AUSTRA, the debut ‘TRST’ made a slow burning impact as Alfons toured his “Eeyore gone goth” electro template around the world. From it, the filthy ‘Gloryhole’ was a wondrous combination of sinister portamento and hypnotic dance beats. Postepski returned to the fold for the recent double album opus ‘The Destroyer’, but Alfons still remains something of an awkward character.
Bill Leeb formed FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY in 1986 after his short stint with SKINNY PUPPY under the name Wilhelm Schroeder. With Rhys Fulber as the other long standing member, they were influenced by acts such as CABARET VOLTAIRE, PORTION CONTROL, DAF, TEST DEPT and SPK. Having integrated guitars, FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY returned to making exclusively electronic music on their fifteenth album ‘Echogenetic’, the highlight of which was ‘Killing Grounds’.
Hailing from Toronto, ELECTRIC YOUTH‘s collaboration with COLLEGE entitled ‘A Real Hero’ was included on the ‘Drive’ soundtrack’ in 2011. Their debut album ‘Innerworld’ finally came out in Autumn 2014 and one of its highlights was another collaboration, this time with ROOM8 called ‘Without You’. Echoing Aussie combo ICEHOUSE and ‘Great Southern Land’ in particular, its bridge and chorus were particularly tremendous with a nostalgic Brat Pack movie presence.
Available on the album ‘Innerworld’ via Last Gang Entertainment / Secretly Canadian
With CHVRCHES having had success borrowing PURITY RING’s electro template, the Edmonton duo’s sophomore album ‘Another Eternity’ was more focussed than its predecessor ‘Shrines’. Still utilising glitch techniques, booming bass drops and Corin Roddick’s rattling drum machine programming, ‘Begin Again’ made the most of Megan James’ sweet and dreamy voice. The pair off a major surprise by working with Katy Perry on three songs for her 2017 album ‘Witness’.
Self-described as a “Retro Synthwave Singer”, Toronto’s DANA JEAN PHOENIX isn’t a stranger to synthylicious ditties. Having moved away slightly from pure Synthwave styles, as one of the best live solo synth performers currently, she enjoys rocking out onstage with her keytar Jareth. The sparkling template of one of her most rousing numbers ‘Only One For One Night’ brought along a youthful escapism that reminisced about first loves and first disappointments.
Available on the album ‘PixelDust’ via New EmPire Entertainment
Behind the quirky avant pop of MECHA MAIKO is the talented Torontonian, Hayley Stewart. The delightfully odd ‘Apathy’ from her second album ‘Let’s!’ was an inventive oddball fusion of jazz swing Charleston, frantic techno dance beats and vibrant synthpop hooks. It showed she was not afraid to blend seemingly incongruous influences to get an end result and with a slight sprinkling of Japanese instrumentation to close, the eclectic creative cycle was complete!