When is a band not a band? When it’s one or two electronic music producers recording albums that sound like bands? The dividing line between traditional ‘bands’ and expert electronic engineers has been melting away in recent times. With the simultaneous release of three albums by ‘bands-not-bands’ METRONOMY, DEATH IN VEGAS and BEYOND THE WIZARD’S SLEEVE, DJ Mag thought it a good time to quiz these ‘band’ members about their processes and whether they are a band…
WORDS: Kristan J. Caryl
It just so happens that, in this last month or so, three albums have landed from three very different outfits that all rather defy categorisation. Each one blurs the lines between studio production and live jamming. They variously contain functional club tracks, but also proper songs; passages of home listening darkness yet also rousing anthems. They are full of clever studio effects and intricate sonic trickery, but — musically at least — could also work at a festival or in a dark warehouse with their simple but effective hooks and bubbling grooves.
So what is the difference between a band and a studio set-up? Anyone can access the technology that both rely on to make their music, so that’s not it. And in 2016, most people are as likely to be into sounds like, say, those put out by Underground Resistance as they are an album by an outfit like Radiohead. So it’s not musical styles that determine whether you set up as a band to studio collective, either.
At this point, we thought it best to ask various examples of both for their thoughts on the matter. All of the people we called — Death in Vegas, Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve and Metronomy — had very real views on whether they were or were not a band, and had some interesting thoughts on why that is so…
DEATH IN VEGAS
Richard Fearless has always been something of an outsider. Ever since he started his first band Death In Vegas at art school aged 21, it has been hard to pin it down to one sound or scene. Part-rock group, part-studio outfit, part-live performers, it is still that way almost 20 years later.
The arrival of Fearless’s latest album, ‘Transmissions’, does little to help categorise the band one way or the other. It is another outlier work of drone, dark minimal techno and EBM that was written purposefully to unsettle people and make them feel uncomfortable.
While it sure is a heavy, heady, almost oppressively atmospheric and industrial work, it also has real beauty in its elongated forms. Fearless — née Maguire — who is softly spoken, unhurried and ponderous during interview, says he has always been drawn to such styles, be it the work of artists like Diane Arbus or the sounds of bands like Throbbing Gristle.
“I am drawn to darkness,” he muses, while agreeing he is a “pretty intense” character. “I’m drawn to capturing the light in the dark, that kind of film noir thing where there is a dark element but also a striving for a broken beauty.”
Richard reports that he has, on and off, struggled with depression, and has always tried to channel that into his work. Not just a musician, but also an artist and visual artist, Fearless says this latest album is the closest he has come to interlinking all of his disciplines. Any live shows that follow the release of ‘Transmission’ will feature his own visual work, whilst he is also working on a project that takes club lighting into unusual organic settings, such as ancient forests.
This latest album wasn’t written with live performance in mind — due to how limiting that can be — but it was recorded in a live fashion after almost a year of ground work. With Fearless as the only current member of the band, the first step was to enlist the help of Sasha Grey.
This came about after the Londoner had spent time working closely with singers, actors and a boys’ choir on a musical. “I really liked the challenge of working outside my comfort zone and enjoyed the process of getting a performance out of them,” he explains. As such, not wanting a straight-up singer “who had a certain colouring,” he wanted someone more performance-based. Sasha fitted the bill, and the pair started collaborating over the internet.
Sasha was sending poems, Richard was writing the songs, and together they worked on adapting the former for the latter. He then headed out to LA where they spent a week rehearsing, and then the next three days were spent performing each track live and laying them down in one take.
It was a new way of working for Fearless who had previously written Death In Vegas albums in the studio, layering them up in a way that is not conducive to then performing the material live. It is also a technique used by the producers of the records he grew up with in the eighties — Chicago house and Detroit techno — before the days of MIDI and sequencers.
There is a sizeable gap between this and the last Death In Vegas album, largely due to the fact that Richard needed time to work out what sort of record he wanted to make. He isn't one to just go in and start mindlessly jamming or noodling away.
In fact, he had already finished a complete long-player due to be released under his own name, but the laptop it was on got nicked.
“I felt like getting burgled was a great thing,” he says down the phone, laughing gently. “It felt like a purge, and I felt that purging needed to carry on. I felt like maybe if it also happened across my fan-base, that was not a bad idea as well.”
As such, he was inspired to go with his gut, and make an album that he wanted to make with no compromises and no concessions. “I wanted to make a record that I felt re-positioned Death In Vegas as not a normal band, which is why I started it in the first place. I wanted to do something with a purist vision, rather than thinking about where it would fit or about playing it live.”
He asks to continue, keen to get something off his chest. ”When I started the band it felt like I was doing something different, pushing boundaries. With the second album, I did it again. Now I think some hardcore fans have been annoyed with this record, but that’s a good thing: you have to have people either loving something or hating it. I don't wanna make listening music that everyone’s tapping their toe to. I want to get a reaction."
Opening your album with an eleven-minute drone track sure will do that. From there, a sense of paranoia, Ballardian dystopia and menacing reverb all underpin visceral techno with haunting vocals, brooding chuggers and rumbling minimal rollers. As such, you can very much picture the environment in which the album was made: Fearless’s studio is situated in a shipping container in a sweeping turn of the Thames, with a steel factory constantly rumbling off to one side, twinkling neon lights from City Airport in the distance, and Canary Wharf and all the “aspects of London I hate, but that also inspire me” in the mid-ground.
Throughout our chat, Fearless refers to Death In Vegas as a band. He reckons he gets into a certain gear when making material under the alias that makes it so. Truth is, it seems like a perfect symphony of band and studio working processes, where he can spend hours practising, tweaking, working on arrangements on his own, then perform the thing live (after lots of setting up and testing of gear) in one take, much more like a band. “I don’t wanna just make records for Death In Vegas fans,” he says of the new approach and unfettered sound of the album. “I like the idea of reaching other audiences.”
BEYOND THE WIZARD’S SLEEVE
Musical polymaths Erol Alkan and Richard Norris first met whilst playing on the electro circuit. Norris was also a regular at Alkan’s legendary Trash night and so, he says, they soon began swapping CDs full of “old, strange, outsider records” before then deciding to do various seven-hour back-to-back DJ sets.
With a vast but shared musical background that takes in everything from krautrock to psychedelia, afro to rock, they realised many of the tracks they played needed editing to be fit for club purposes. From there they began releasing their edits, and then became in-demand remixers — or “re-animators”, as they call it — tackling the diverse likes of Tracey Thorn and The Chemical Brothers.
Back in 2008 the pair released a full collection of these re-animations, and that was it — but for the odd single. Then, in 2014, they worked together again, re-animating the whole of the (psych band) Temples album, and had so much fun it made sense to work on an album of their own. They are the classic modern example of being a band-not-band, then…
“I definitely don't think this is a band,” says Richard. “It’s a project that has come out of a love of music, rather than thinking we will write songs and go on tour.”
Erol agrees, saying that for this album to be played live would take almost as much work as making the record in the first place — given the detail, the number of collaborators and interwoven use of real instruments and plenty of studio tools.
“Our strengths are sometimes working separately, then putting our heads together and working things out,” he says, whilst both also agree that writing songs was always a core aim of the LP. “For a record that started as a DJ-based thing, it is quite traditional,” says Richard. “It’s not just full of dance tracks with one vocal line.”
And that’s clear when listening to it, because ‘The Soft Bounce’ — written mainly in Erol’s Muswell Hill studio — is, largely, a listening album, rather than a playing out album. It is filled with singable and hummable moments that have very real peaks and troughs.
Take the festival rock of opener ‘Delicious Light’, for example, or the breezy, sun-kissed pop of ‘Creation’ with its soaring lyrics and slick guitar licks — these could quite easily be played on the radio and make the charts.
Mixed in along the way are dark three-minute drone tracks, Flaming Lips-style psych efforts and downward falling indie cuts with oodles of reverb and sleazy textures.
Frankly, there are many sharp left-turns and curveballs along the way, and it is that which keeps you engaged throughout.
“We had lots of talks late into the night about the sequencing. We wanted flow, but also a real degree of ‘What the fuck!?’. There is an internal logic that ties everything together, but I can’t explain what that is,” says Richard of how they went about tying together such diverse and quite disparate strains of music into one cohesive whole.
“The flow of it alarmed me at one point,” adds Erol, who played guitar, bass and keys on the album. “Musically, no two tracks are the same, even the sound of them is very different, but after a day living with the sequencing, it struck me that should be embraced. In the end, it will always sound like you, whatever you do.”
Erol continues. “I think in these days we are far beyond a time when people only like one type of music. I just see this album as a story. The most potent bit of it, I hope, is its ability to connect with people. We wrote it for music lovers, not specific dancefloors, or iPods or festivals.”
Norris says he enjoys working with Erol because he is “hugely talented” and works in different ways to him. “He has massive attention for detail. I’m more a broad stroke kind of guy, throwing stuff at it to see what sticks. That combination works quite well.”
Erol, meanwhile, says the project works because of a shared musical DNA. “My focus is always on just making the best records possible,” he says, before admitting he is “absolutely” proud of this one.
Guests feature heavily on the album. Some of them were invited to come and work on tracks together in a collaborative fashion, others were sent backing tracks and told to do whatever took their fancy.
“They are all wildly different. Some started as a seed, some were full-blown ideas,” explains Erol. “There is no one way of working, and that’s the thing that has been great about this record, seeing the variations in how tracks can develop when you aren't technically a band.”
A roughness, rawness and realness characterises the album, and that is down to Erol preferring to work off the grid. “We went for feel, really,” he says. “There is so much you can do in a studio now that the template of band vs producers doesn’t really exist any more.
If you use your imagination, you can go beyond just staring at a screen and making blocks of colour work together. So, as a producer, I’m conscious of how drums feel and sound. Rather than them being just functional, I’m interested in how they rub up against other elements.”
Rather than touring live, Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve will embark on a bunch of DJ gigs that will find them playing the music that informed the project. Between them, they own many thousands of records, so almost anything could happen at such gigs and they promises plenty of non-standard surprises.
“The sets are a good time to play left-of-centre stuff,” Richard explains. “In Croatia last year we played everything from Can to Fela Kuti on -10, to a dance record to one of our own remixes. Pretty much everything else at the festival was a disco edit, so we had people coming up threatening to kill us, and people coming up saying they were loving it, so that balance is good.”
When Joseph Mount first started making music, he always thought he would end up being a DJ, playing and making club records. It came about when his father sold him a computer and encouraged him to make electronic music. Inspired by classic staples like LFO, Aphex Twin and Autechre, he did just that, mostly as a hobby rather than with any real masterplan.
Today, though, he is best known as the core member of Metronomy, an indie-dance band that was right at the heart of the nu-rave scene back in 2008. He has pretty much been on a near-endless tour of the world since, but for his latest album decided to put a temporary stop to that.
We call him up in a rainy Paris, where the country is on strike and the Seine continues to flood. It is there that he has lived for the last few years, and there that he has been able to take stock, look back and asses his breakthrough summer of 2008. It was a mad time, by his own admission, and one that saw him and his band-mates in demand from many quarters, on plenty of magazine covers and hailed as the hottest thing of the year.
“Life is very different, and at the same time, not very different,” says the Devon-born man in a crisp English accent. “We’re still doing music, doing the same things, but because of some success, life is a tiny bit more luxurious.”
Now a father of two young children, Joe recognises that he has real responsibilities he didn't have eight years ago, and is torn between wanting to go wild when on tour, away from home, but also wanting to relax.
He laughs heartily when asked why he has ditched his band mates (Oscar Cash, Anna Prior and Olugbenga Adelekan) for this latest album, which was written and produced by him, and him alone. The answer is that the band wanted some time off touring, though he quickly points out it is only a hiatus and not a full-time retirement.
“I think everyone, the band included, have always seen Metronomy as two different things — the live thing and the recorded thing. They are both as much Metronomy as the other, but one of them is much more me-centric.”
The band’s first album — the acid jazz and electro vibes of ‘Pip Paine (Pay The £5000 You Owe)’ — was just made by Joe and was largely instrumental. Since then, the outfit has expanded for live shows but never really been a full studio band.
“The process for writing this one was really different,” he explains. “If you are working on a record and know you are going to tour it for two years, you are eager to make the songs straight-forward to play live. It can be very detrimental to a record to record it when thinking about performing it, it sucks the studio magic out of it.
So for this one I was just very relaxed and sure of the fact that playing it live wasn’t going to be an immediate problem. There is a freedom that comes from that, which means you can do things much more spontaneously.”
The subject matter of the new songs is personal and autobiographical. It finds Joe looking back to the intense but fun times of his breakthrough year — hence it being called ‘Summer 08’ — and has him processing “the guilt at spending key moments in loved ones' lives in the back of a tour bus”, and the madness of finding himself a critical darling.
“We joke about that period and the glory days of nu-rave,” he laughs. “We were young, 25 or something, it was a really fun age and time to be involved in a scene. But it was also a more significant time than we realised, it was the beginning of where I am now. That year, 2008, I got a first proper record deal.”
Since then, the next three albums were all made in fancy major studios, but ended up leaving Joe wanting. He yearned for the naive days of that long ago summer, and wanted to make an album of upbeat bangers that were more visceral than cerebral. And he has.
‘Summer 08’ is brimming with crisp beats, wobbly synths and big vocal hooks. It is song-based and poppy, but full of dance-y electronic synthesis, is laden with effects and features Mixmaster Mike scratching on one of the tracks, which is a dream come true for Joe, but something that would never have happened on an album written for live performance.
“Ask most bands and they will be jealous of me doing this,” he reckons, sheepishly. “You have to tour so much, it’s part of being in a band, but if it was economically viable, I reckon loads of people would just do studio work.”
Why be in a band at all, then? Why not stick to making dance tunes and DJing? “I guess I’ve always played in bands, even when making electronic music. I have always been used to four people on stage, and always felt weird performing with a laptop. When you realise part of your career will involve playing live, you want to make it feel as fun and good as possible, and that ends up pushing you down this routine of playing in a more traditional band set-up — and that in turn influences the music you are writing.”
‘Summer 08’ might be a mere holiday from his usual working style, then, but it is a successful one. What’s more, it is one that proves, despite technological advances, that there is still a key and subtle difference between being in a band and being a studio outfit.
Mostly, it comes down to the natural limitations of the men and women pushing the buttons. Until we grow extra limbs, or until promoters can afford to book bands with many more members than average, the two disciplines will always likely remain divided, however slightly.
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