John Foxx interview
First of all, I’d like you to tell me what do you plan to do in your Spanish show. I’ve read you’re coming with Hannah Peel and Serafina Steer…, but, are you gonna play only Foxx & The Maths staff? New stuff? Old stuff?
We‘ll play new songs from the two Maths albums, "Interplay" and "The Shape of Things", also some "Metamatic" material and some of the songs I wrote for Ultravox. Hannah and Serafina have really made a difference –they’re so ferocious and beautiful -, everything sounds like Technicolor. We also use projections by Jonathan Barnbrook and Karborn. Jonathan is one of the best graphic artists in Britain, and he is making a film of all the songs on "Metamatic". Karborn is a young VJ who produces fascinating video work. So it’s a total immersion in noise and light.
In 2007 you made a tour playing “Metamatic”, which is something very fashionable these days: lots of people play in its integrity albums that they never played before and, generally, for larger audiences. What moved you to do this? Aren’t you afraid of nostalgic experiences?
I think we did this to reclaim the territory, since there seem to be a number of artists who were emigrating toward it. I’m not at all interested in nostalgia: it’s an illness. It’s a kind of death. Success can also become a sort of illness, because you begin to imitate yourself and therefore become ridiculous. Why should anyone attempt to imitate themselves as a young man, often a foolish young man? You have to be blind, vain and terribly insecure to do this. There is absolutely no point in looking backwards when there is still so much to investigate.
I think you and Gary Numan still feel close, but, what do you think of the evolution of the musicians and bands from your generation? Any particular case that you specially respect?
Yes. Gary has always felt exactly the same about the past: he simply wants to move on. We both feel a great urgency about the things we still need to do. I’ve always had great respect for him and his work. Very few artists can move beyond their own particular generation, and he has clearly done this , more than once. I think Simple Minds are still relevant, they have also stayed away from nostalgia. They consistently made some of the most interesting and powerful music, and Jim is a truly great lyricist, so I hope they continue. The Pet Shop Boys have been doing interesting things in theatre and film. That’s about it. Most of the others are either dead or seem content to be relegated to a particular period in the past, which is fine... if you enjoy it.
How would you react if you knew that somebody offered to change a ticket for one of your concerts for sex? (It recently happened with the sold out Kraftwerk concerts in the MOMA)
What kind of sex?
When and why did you discover Benge? What are his more important contributions to your way of making and thinking music?
Benge is from an Art school background, very like mine, so we communicate very well. Our approach is experimental. We set out to make an abstract album like Cluster or Emeralds, but the machines began to make rhythmic arpeggios and these led into songs. We simply followed what that big Moog modular system gave us. It was a true man / machine collaboration.
One of Benge’s albums, "Twenty Systems", was reviewed at the same time as one of mine. I enjoyed the purity of it, and realized he felt the same way about synthesizers: we want to discover what they can really sound like. You see, when synthesisers arrived, everyone tried to make them sound like something else, like orchestras, for instance. Then digital instruments quickly swept them away, so there was very little time to explore them properly. Then modern sound systems arrived and suddenly you could begin to hear, even feel, what these original analogue instruments could really do, but by then everyone had thrown them away. So now they have become like some lost Amazonian jungle: you hear mysterious legends of a forgotten civilisation. That is what Benge and I went to explore, and "Interplay" and "The Shape of Things" is what we managed to bring back.
What’s your opinion, in general, about digital music and mp3?
They are ingenious, original inventions. A new, much more efficient way of making, distributing and accessing music. New inventions always carry great benefits and unforeseen consequences. All kinds of music are now available instantly, and this is wonderful. The only problem is Apple now own the means of distribution. This kind of power usually brings certain problems.
I don’t know if you’ve read Simon Reynold’s “Retromania”, a book about the centrality of nostalgia in the pop culture of today. Do you agree with the idea that popular music has forgotten about looking to the future, even to the present?
Simon is one of the more perceptive commentators on the state of music, and to some degree he has a point. Yet this using of previous cultures has always occurred. It’s not necessarily connected with nostalgia. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones did this with American pop music and The Blues: they remade it according to their own desires and abilities and almost accidentally came up with something unique. Classical composers built their music on folk melodies and traditional church music. Each generation will inevitably choose elements from the past to incorporate into their music, but later they must transcend this in some way, to move beyond mere pastiche, so it becomes their own and therefore also the grammar of their particular era, or generation. It’s a necessary evolution. As Picasso said: "Bad artists copy, good artists steal".
What do you think about the current electronic scene, in general?
It’s very interesting and very much alive. I particularly like some of the things from New York and other urban areas in America: Xeno and Oaklander, Soft Moon and Matthew Dear. Crystal Castles have hybridized Electronic Dance music with punk attitude and Skrillex has repurposed every era of dance music into a new form, as if Bart Simpson got a computer. Tara Busch sings like Doris day and Karen Carpenter against a storm of wild Moogs. Clint Mansell is making marvelous music for movies such as "Moon" and "Black Swan", even David Lynch is making electronic dance records, while Emeralds are making outstandingly beautiful abstractions. This side of the Atlantic, The Knife and Robyn and Jori Hulkkonen and others are operating in a very healthy Scandinavian scene. In Britain, you have Gazelle Twin and The Horrors, with Benge and Burial and a few others on the outer edge, and a complex and fast moving dance scene, then all kinds of interesting hybrids, as different genres adopt and adapt electronics. I guess Hannah Peel and Serafina Steer would be part of that, with their beautiful, surreal and eccentric songs. It’s a very rich area, I think far richer than anything else, at the moment.
Do you like Dubstep as a new urban British kind of sound?
Oh yes. I always enjoyed real Jamaican Dub, and that Lee Perry way of making music, Dub was actually the first EBM – all modern understanding of bass comes from that music-, bass that you can feel like an erotic earthquake. Dub has recently come to mean something very electronic in Britain, and is even closer to classic Acid and 90’s Rave and Euroelectro in America, where it’s got so big that Hip Hop is feeling the pressure.
Have you watched the film “Drive”? In some ways, for me is very John Foxx: that kind of urban poetry. A man, a girl, the city…
Wasn’t that interesting? It felt like a direct illustration of some of the more violent songs – "Drive", "A Million Cars" and "From Trash", for instance. A Man, A Woman and a City: What else is there? In those three words you have almost the entire history of Cinema and modern literary fiction. Certainly all of Film Noir.
I’ve read (in another Spanish interview last year, in Rockdelux magazine) that you planned to make an album called “Electricity And Ghosts”. Have you advanced in this idea? Could you tell me anything about it?
Ah, this is a very personal project. I made it slowly, because it took me some time to understand what was happening. Several disparate things came together: I made some recordings of empty rooms overnight. There were some surprising movements and sounds. Around the same time, I was recording piano in my home. Very simple, minimal pieces. When I listened back I noticed lots of faint background sounds: someone walking upstairs, voices and passing vehicles outside, birdsong, and so on. At first I thought I had to record again, in a studio, to get rid of these extraneous sounds. But then I began to enjoy them, and realized how strange the act of recording actually is. It makes a sort of ghost of the moment, a shadow that can still be there long after we are gone. This momentary ghost will most likely live far longer than we will. Just as family photographs do. Through this, many other connections arrived. An odd fact: I learnt that almost every inventor of modern media was also interested in spiritualism, in fact the reason they began to investigate media was to see if they could communicate with the spirit world by scientific means, receiving and transmitting voices in the air. And they succeeded. These inventions became what we now know as television and radio, yet we still use the word Medium to describe them. I also began to realize that our civilisation has more ghosts than any other, yet we seem completely unaware of this. How else can you describe the way we constantly see and hear the dead moving and speaking?: Charlie Chaplin, President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Dali, Buñuel, Hitler, The two World Wars, Guernica, Dresden, Hiroshima Einstein, Warhol, Kurt Cobain, and thousands more. They haunt us, we have thousands and thousands of ghosts and they visit us in our own homes at night, every night. So, in response to some of these thoughts, I decided to leave those simple piano recordings with their background ghosts. Then I made more recordings, sometimes using the empty rooms as a sort of rhythm background. Then I found old cassettes of people I knew, talking, some of whom are no longer alive. I edited out their voices but used the incidental background sounds I discovered in these glimpses of a vanished background world. I also bought a crystal radio and tuned into some other mysterious sounds…So you end up with a surface of a domestic piano recording but underneath this is a sort of subtext or shadow of other moments, glimpses of everyday life. I like to imagine if Satie had made recordings of his works in 1900, with all the faint background sounds of his apartment and the Paris streets. How fascinating that would be to listen to now. In the end, I suppose, it’s an attempt to acknowledge and understand this infinitely mysterious act of recording for what it really is: a bizarre alliance of electricity and ghosts.
I’ve just interviewed Jim Kerr some weeks ago and he told me he was hitch-hiking around Europe when young, which is something I think you made too. He was also very into krautrock and European culture and he always has recognized the first Ultravox as one of his biggest influences. My impression is that maybe in the punk years, most British bands had a kind of insular mentality. The best ones were the ones which looked towards the Continent, that David Bowie kind of thing... I would like to know your impressions about that…
Jim is absolutely right. Like him, I hitch hiked around Europe every Summer when I was about 16 to19 years old. I went to Paris, Munich, Barcelona, Venice and into Jugoslavia. These adventures changed my attitude to life and culture completely. We saw a completely different way of life from our grey, narrow, industrial world. The desire to be connected to Europe was crucial to me - and all my work - from then on. At that time, America was such a powerful culture, but all those marvelous images and music seemed to swamp and disable our own. Most bands even sang with fake American accents when I was young. I disliked this, without quite knowing why, until I realized that this imitation implied that our own culture was inferior to the one being imitated. I must say at this point, that I’m not at all anti-American, I gained a great deal from its culture, but I was deeply curious to discover what European music might have sounded like, if this tidal wave from America had never happened. So I consciously removed The Blues, Jazz and other American elements from what I was writing and listened to Satie, Flamenco, Dub, Chanson, Bach, Vivaldi and German and French electronic and experimental music, just to see what would happen. Mixing all these elements I arrived at what I’d imagined one might hear from a neon jukebox on a Central European Motorway Service station in some parallel future. That was "Metamatic".
What do you remember of your previous concerts in Spain?
Oh, I remember them with great pleasure. You see, Spanish art was a formative influence – Picasso. Buñuel, Dali, Miro - what brilliant artists. I also enjoyed Spanish guitar and the ferocious beauty of Flamenco. Borges was one of my favourite writers (though I know he is from Buenos Aires, his culture, language and references are Spanish). When I arrived here in 1966 I came to find this country that had such a central influence on European art and culture, and I wasn’t disappointed. You have a truly unique country, completely unlike any other. Arriving again, much later, as a musician, you can imagine how pleased I was to find that some of my records had been well received.
You have released lots of music in the last years, you design, make visual projects, educational things… Would you consider yourself as a kind of modern renacentist?
I simply try to work in everything I find interesting. It’s a great luxury to be able to do this.
You have worked with people from very different generations: Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie, Steve Jansen, Mira Aroyo… How would you evaluate the evolution of synthpop since you started? And… do you think the mentality of people, of musicians, towards that music changed very much or is it basically the same?
Musicians and other artists have the same function they have always had: to live out some kind of adventure and by doing this, to transmit the real stories of our time. We often do this accidentally, out of naivety, as much as deliberately. In that sort of world, the immediate can seem to have as great a value as the long term. Of course, we’d all like to be of some long-term value, but time will be the real judge. As it is for every generation and every era.
Your favourite artist of all time?
Four: Leonardo Da Vinci, J.M.W. Turner, Picasso and Jack Kirby.
Your favourite artist of this time?
Banksy. He’s really a brilliant cartoonist. He uses walls instead of newspapers, yet his work appears across all media. Very clever. Very funny.
Which famous person would you most like to have met?
Marcel DuChamp. I would have liked to take him to London and New York, to show him how almost every modern artist is still stealing and repeating his experiments. How he would laugh.
Any musician/ band that you would specially like to produce?
A guilty pleasure?
It’s a very, very long list.
This interview was made by email on 2oth April and used for the article "El fantástico señor Foxx", published in La Luna de Metrópoli- El Mundo on 25th May.
More on John Foxx here.