The name of RODNEY CROMWELL is comparatively new to electronic pop music.
But the man behind the persona, Adam Cresswell is a seasoned hand, having previously released an album ‘Navigation’ as part of oddball synth duo ARTHUR & MARTHA with Alice Hubley in 2009.
But a number of personal circumstances led to ARTHUR & MARTHA disbanding. While Hubley went on to form cult indie band COSINES, Cresswell laid low, at least until 2015. He re-emerged as RODNEY CROMWELL with ‘Age Of Anxiety’, a concept album of sorts chronicling his problems with depression and anxiety that had affected his life and creative muse.
The honesty apparent in Cresswell’s dissonant vocal styling, alongside crisp electronics and acoustic instrumentation, has made ‘Age Of Anxiety’ an unexpected favourite of both critics and online radio outlets. Echoing the spectre of acts such as SECTION 25 and NEW ORDER, songs like ‘Black Dog’ and ‘You Will Struggle’ embody the album’s concept perfectly.
Ever the synth enthusiast, he accepted ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s invitation to a round of Vintage Synth Trumps.
Absolutely not… I always regarded Yamaha as people who made motorbikes! I’ve never owned a motorbike, I’ve only ever been on one once and it scared the sh*t out of me! I bought a Yamaha 4-track… when I got my student loan, I went out and spent it all on a Yamaha MTX4. And that is where I learnt to be a producer, by recording to tape.
4 tracks, it’s very limiting so you learn to be disciplined. I used to record 3 tracks and then bounce them all down to the fourth, and then start again. You’d be making a record using the same process they made ‘Sgt Pepper’ with, but you’re doing it in your own bedroom! *laughs*
Are you one who relishes equipment restrictions to provide the artistic drive?
Yes! To be honest, whenever I see a photo of people in a roomful of analogue synthesizers and loads of gear, I’m thinking “are you throwing in gear to fill a hole in your creativity!?”.
I have got 4 synths… 5 if you count the MicroKorg, which I don’t! And I’ve used them on the last three albums I’ve made, not because I’m a cheapskate but those 4 synths have become my sound. I like working within the limitations of what they can do. I say limitations, but the possibilities of just one half-decent analogue synth are almost limitless anyway! I love the fact you can plug it in, turn it on and it’s never quite the same as last time! It makes it interesting playing live with them.
I saw one of those in the music shop at the end of my road last summer.
I went in to buy a cable and there was a Jen SX1000… I was going to buy it, but my wife said “no, you’ve got enough synths in the house!” *laughs*
Next card, it’s a Moog Prodigy…
It’s a good synth, I always liked the white buttons on it but I don’t have a Prodigy, I have a Moog Rogue. They’re a bit similar in that they’re in the entry level bracket… all my synths are in the entry level bracket!
Were they like the Casiotones of their day?
That’s a bit too demeaning… my synths are a Moog Rogue, a Moog Opus3, a Korg MS-10 which is my stage synth and an ARP Quartet which has the string sound on it. I bought them all within 2 years. They all get the job done and they are my sound.
Oh, this was in the days before the internet, and you would buy whatever you saw in a shop or the small ads. My mum phoned me up one day after looking in catalogue and said “Oh, I know you’re looking for a Moog Prodigy, but this shop in Croydon says it has got a Moog”. I drove over and there on the top shelf above rows of horribly plastic digital synths was this Rogue with a chip on one key, so it looks like it’s got a broken tooth! *laughs*
They got it down and dusted it off… it was like when GARY NUMAN discovered synths, it made this massive great noise and I thought “I’ve got to have that!” – it took a month’s wages to buy the thing and that’s really where it all started for me.
So was that in your early indie phase?
Yes, I was in a band called SALOON and I took this Moog through to ARTHUR & MARTHA as well. In fact I haven’t done a gig without the Rogue since 1998 and I can’t imagine getting onstage without it, it’s part of the family. We’ve been through an awful lot together from leaving it in the road and almost losing it the first day I took it to a recording studio, to climbing down a mountain in Spain in the dead of night with it.
It’s got a dirty sub-bass all the way up to glass shattering whistles and pops. But what I most like about it is you can throw it about and bring a bit of drama to the stage performance; you can’t get out of little plastic digital synths… you know, twisting the filters, throwing the switches in an overly dramatic way.
Live though, you are a good mix of analogue and digital sequences via the laptop…
The reason we use a laptop on stage is I won’t ever work with a drummer again! Not because I have anything against drummers personally, but that whole lifting drum kits into the backs of vans… I’m too old for all that! *laughs*
Using sequencers can be a little restricting but equally, life is too short for too much freeform synth jamming, I just want to be playing pop music. I like the live thing to be controlled in terms of sequenced songs, but with the opportunity for some level of improvisation which the analogue synths bring, because they never sound the same… sometimes, I wish they were more the same, but you go with it.
A good example of your analogue / digital live mix is on ‘Black Dog’. How did the track musically come together in the studio?
I was playing with my brother’s Korg Prophecy, I hit a key and it made this pulsing sequencey noise and when I played another key, it sounded like a sequenced pattern. The song was made up by playing those sequences live… it sounded just about in time!
It reminds me of NEW ORDER and SECTION 25…
Funny you should say that! When you hit those notes and they sound a little bit like ‘Temptation’, you’re going to go with it aren’t you? *laughs*
What’s very characteristic about your sound is although you love synths, acoustic textures such as glockenspiel and melodica have always been part of your world, as well as the more traditional guitar and bass… what was your ethos behind this?
That’s a very good question… I think they just suit the mood. It’s nothing more than that, it just sounds right. I love electronics, but I like things that bring something else to it. One of the bands that switched me on back in the day was STEREOLAB, they had electronics but also glockenspiel and horns or whatever. I literally play what’s knocking about in the house. We have a glockenspiel that sounds pretty good so I use that, and I have a decent a bass guitar. I just use whatever, although there’s not much guitar on ‘Age Of Anxiety’ because I’m a terrible guitar player…
Yes, I was a bass player for 6 years; I used to play in a Peter Hooky kind of style because I wanted people to know I was a songwriter too. So much of the time I would add a melodic counterpoint on the bass to go with the vocal lines. When it came to ‘Age Of Anxiety’, I was just enjoying myself playing the bass for the first time in years… I cranked the tone knob up, whacked on a bit of chorus and it sounds like Peter Hook! I thought “Sod it! Why not?”
Considering the album is called ‘Age Of Anxiety’ and about your experiences, fronting RODNEY CROMWELL must have been a challenge. What were your coping strategies?
To be honest with you, it has been a way of me showing to myself that I am able to cope. I can stand up in front of people and perform, I’ve always been quite good at that. It’s the other things… just don’t ask me to travel to a gig through The Blackwall Tunnel. I don’t like flying either!
But I have to do it, especially if people are listening to the record and coming up to me saying “I love what you’re doing, I suffer from anxiety and it’s really helped me”; I can’t then say “don’t talk to me” and huddle up in the corner, that’s not going to help them!
It’s been a very weird year becoming a front person in a musical act. I’m a middle-aged bald guy, I’m supposed to be at the back where nobody looks at you, not at the front with people throwing their underwear! *laughs*
2009 was a very difficult period in terms of musical promotion because of the financial crash; for one people were very reticent about investing.
We had ‘Navigation’ in the can for a least a year before it came out, with labels saying they would put it out and then not committing, and we missed the boat when things like LA ROUX and LITTLE BOOTS were happening.
People didn’t know what the right model was at all, they didn’t know whether to put out vinyl, CD or downloads.
They didn’t know how to promote things, whether it should be blogs or newspapers and stuff like that. Distribution companies didn’t know what they were doing… we had two distribution companies, one doing the CD and one doing the digital! It was a very funny period! So that’s why we started our own record label Happy Robots because we got so fed up and thought we could do a better job ourselves.
Now it seems to be a bit different, in that blogs and websites are very much a big part of the model. You’re going to get a lot more traction on a specialist outlet like TEC, than a bigger general music platform or the Daily Express.
In terms of distribution, people realise there’s no money in it anymore, so let’s not be deluded about it, you don’t press 1000 copies if you’re a new artist, you press 300 and hope for the best! Do I think it’s better or worse? I don’t know!
I think things are more straightforward now in that it’s more clear cut. It’s easier to get a handle on the right thing to be doing and what isn’t.
I mean, I never thought I’d play another gig again after ARTHUR & MARTHA ended, but if I want to sell CDs, I’ve got to go out and do some gigs.
Another card? A Roland SH-2… have you ever wanted a Roland?
No, not really! I think I’m a Moog snob *sniggers*
Me and my guitarist do have Boss pedals, which are built by Roland of course… I have five of them and one Moog guitar pedal and of all those, which is the one that plays up and doesn’t work? It’s not the blooming Boss is it! Hahahahaha! So maybe Roland is the way forward for me!
‘Cassiopeia’ is a great title, did you have a Casio? How do you see them in the pantheon of accessible technology and how it changed the landscape?
I think Casios are great, I love the Casiotones. The very first RODNEY CROMWELL track which I wrote in 2002 for a ‘Lord Of The Rings’ compilation was just the MS-10 and a Casiotone. They’re great for kids as well. My kids have got a Casio, but they just hit the Autosong thing and thump it a bit…
…I think a few bands do that! *laughs*
Casiotones are really cheap in boot fairs!
You have been a strong advocate of the instrumental with tracks like ‘Baby Robot’ and ‘One Two Seven’, there’s not enough of them on albums today… discuss?
I would have loved to have done a whole instrumental album to be honest, because of that whole not putting yourself forward as the singer, but I can’t help but gravitate towards vocals, lyrics and being pop, although there’s nothing better than a really good instrumental.
With ARTHUR & MARTHA when that started, I thought we were mostly going to be instrumental, doing that ADD (N) TO X thing, sort of noisy and experimental, throwing synthesizers around all over the place.
Yes, ‘Baby Robot’ is the one track on the album that’s 100% upbeat as it is about the experience of being a father.
Some of the synth sounds even on ‘Black Dog’ are quite bright?
Yeah… the thing is, if you’re making a song about anxiety, if you’re not going to make the melodies hummable and the synths sound bright and happy, you’re just going to make a Goth record! And I don’t want to make a Goth record! *laughs*
Yes, you end up sounding like THE WAKE!
Exactly… although I like THE WAKE! *laughs*
It’s only recently since I’ve remixed other people that I’ve consciously realised that I have a formula, which is major key with an upbeat disco tempo.
The Rogue is my favourite, but the ARP Quartet gets used more these days because it does great piano melody lines as well as the big string sound. This album is probably more MS-10 than it is Rogue. The Rogue is great for live or whatever… but this question is a bit like asking “what do you like about your Black & Decker Workmate?”… the MS-10 is a really good tool, to me it’s a workhorse, and it gets the job done.
But with the Rogue, there is more of an emotional connection there… we’re special buddies who is like your best mate who you see every couple of months, you don’t need to talk to each other but you know what each other are thinking.
The synth you’ve most wanted but never had, that use could use musically as opposed to having ornamentally?
I’d love to have one of those British Synthis like the AKS, they look and sound stunning., I remember Barry 7 from ADD (N) TO X throwing one about on stage. The VCS3 is cool too, I remember SONIC BOOM playing a gig with his EXPERIMENTAL AUDIO RESEARCH project with two of those on stage, going up and down the filters, it was just noise! I used to have a T-shirt with ‘Putney’ written on it, nobody got it… apart from me. The EMS Synthi 100, DELIA DERBYSHIRE and the BBC RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP… it’s the daddy of synths, one of the greatest bits of British Engineering. I also like the Wasp and the Gnat in their black and yellow.
How was it to reunite with Alice Hubley again playing live? I understand ‘Autovia’ is now part of the set?
It was brilliant, we’ve realised what good mates we are and she’s a really good synthesist, it’s great because she hasn’t been really using analogues in the COSINES live set. A few weeks ago we thought we’d dig out ‘Autovia’. When we hit the droney groove at the end, I felt like I was in NEU! It was just the best moment, it’s great to be working with somebody who is on the same wavelength, even though she loves TAYLOR SWIFT! *laughs*
I hope it doesn’t become a retro thing… what I was trying to do with this record was to use retro gear, but use it in a forward looking way, in the same way that ‘I Feel Love’ did, it was about making records that sounded like the future. I think with that sort of instrumentation, you can still do that. But nobody has quite cracked it yet. I like the stuff that’s uplifting like CHVRCHES, but it’s about bringing enough new to the party, to bring the sound forward.
My thought is, it’s the people who are getting into CHVRCHES now, who will be inspired to make a synthesized form of music in the future…
I agree, and they’re the only band really who are at the right level to be inspiring a new generation. I really hope that happens. I think there’s a lot of good stuff going on, but we need young blood coming up and showing us old timers how it’s really done.
Vintage Synth Trumps is a card game by GForce that features 52 classic synthesizers
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
30th January 2016