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The word ‘iconic’ is brandished a bit too readily these days, but here we go: John Foxx truly is an iconic figure in the world of electronic and synth music. Perhaps ‘definitive’ may be even more appropriate, in that Foxx in many ways defines the history of UK electronica.
Over a career spanning almost 40 years, he was there for the initial, Numan-led assault of the electronic sound on the UK mainstream as a founding member of Ultravox, through the introspective Eno-ambience years, the melodrama and conceptualism of prog, and even the tentative first steps of UK techno and house. He continues to be a much-revered figure for anyone and everyone struck down with synth-love, particularly his groundbreaking 1980 record Metamatic and its accompanying single, the brilliant Underpass. His current project John Foxx and the Maths sees him team up with fellow synth figurehead Benge to produce Interplay, a timeless and upbeat selection of electro-pop. In anticipation of a UK tour which takes in a show at Thekla, we caught up with John to try to get to the bottom of how one of electro’s great pioneers continues to stay hungry for synth-nourishment, his mid-80s crisis of faith and his parting of ways from Ultravox.
With such a rich and long history in music, it’s hard to know where to start with you. This current project you’re working on as John Foxx and the Maths - what are the origins of that, and how is it going?
That all started up because I heard a record called Twenty Systems by a guy called Benge, which I really enjoyed because it was just synthesizers raw, just sounding like themselves. It turned out he had a studio not far from my old studio in Shoreditch so I went down there and he’s got pretty well every synthesizer ever made, so it was like kids in a toy shop. We started work straight away, and that became the album.
So it’s you two and who else who fall under the banner ‘The Maths’?
There’s Mira Arayo from Ladytron who did some vocals for us, and there’s a loose crew of people around the studio: I met Serafina Steer and Hanna Peel, who are musicians in their own right, because they were recording at the same studio. There’s quite a scene around that studio, a lot of interesting people have kind of gravitated to it from around that East London area.
And they’ll be coming out on tour with you?
Serafina and Hannah will be coming with Benge and myself, yes.
Benge is something of a cult figure isn’t he? Is he someone you’ve wanted to work with for a while?
Yes, well I’ve really liked his approach since I first heard his work. He’s truly unique.
Interplay is an impressively hooky, pop-tinged album. Is this pop sensibility always something that’s been close to your heart?
That was actually an accident, because in an odd way we set out to make an abstract sort of record, something a bit stranger sounding. The thing is though, he has this old Moog system from the 60s, a really big synthesizer system, and when you really let it rip it makes really interesting melodic, very rhythmic sounds. So these naturally turned into songs without us meaning to. It was the easiest path to take I suppose, so we took it.
How have you managed to stay hungry and creative for such a long time?
I’m glad you think I have (laughs). It’s just being enthusiastic about it, isn’t it. If you love something and it still fires you up ... every time I heard a synth or a drum machine, I still get excited, and I think if you keep that kind of naive excitement it’s easy. It’s just the same as when you see certain films or certain paintings, you just go ‘wow, that is really new and interesting’, and you want to get involved with it, you want to be there and work with the people who make those things. A lot of people tend to lose that and forget about it, and I don’t know why but I haven’t. I’m very pleased about that.
Having been a figure of influence in a movement which moves so quickly for such a long time, how do you find these constant shifts and developments in the scene?
I like it, because it keeps things fresh and new, and it’s been the basis of most music – that electronic approach – since the late 70s now, and it’s interesting because every set of people remakes it and it becomes completely different in different people’s hands. I mean, Lady Gaga sounds very different to Gary Numan, who in turn is very different to Kraftwerk. There’s a massive variety in music there, and it even reaches into places that aren’t really obvious, like heavy metal music, where the producers have taken techniques from electronic music. At the moment you’ve got a crossover with reggae music in dubstep, which is essentially synthesized reggae.
And of course technological advantages play a huge role within your area, how do you find they influence what you do?
Every time a big shift in technology comes along it totally changes things, you know, what allowed Frank Sinatra to sing quietly in from of an orchestra was technology – even something like the microphone completely changed popular music at that point. It continues to do that, there will be artists who pick up on a slight technological change and make something new out of it.
But when you make music you still use mainly analogue synths, right? You don’t use computer-generated sounds with midi-synths or anything like that?
That’s just because I love the sound of synthesizers. I don’t think they’ve explored it enough, there’s a long way to go before they can achieve what you can with a real synthesizer. That’s not nostalgia, it’s just that there’s a lot of ground to cover that hasn’t been covered yet.
There’s a real resurgence in the synth sound at the moment, particularly in America, from the likes of Com Truise. Is that something you’re aware of? Much of it seems to be imbued with a sense of nostalgia - do you think these guys are doing anything new, or just rehashing old ideas?
That is the danger point, and I’ve always said that I’m not nostalgic about things and don’t want to be. I just think, that’s finished, on with the next. There are people who are taking it to new areas, like Xeno and Oaklander for instance, who we’ve been doing some work with in New York, and they’re very interesting because they’ve got a very stripped-down approach. They use all analogue synths, but they use them in a very modern way. They’ve thrown away all the junk and the songwriting fluff and got right down to it and made something very basic and interesting. There’s another band called The Soft Moon who use guitars and synths together in a really interesting way. There’s a whole movement around New York that is sort of stripped down, electronic, distorted music that I find really exciting, and it’s all happening right now. And what’s nice is, those guys know my music. When we were in touch with them they immediately cited Metamatic, so we started working together understanding what each other were doing.
In the time you’ve been affiliated with the electronic scene, what are the most exciting things you’ve seen? Have there been things that have come up from time to time which have really blown you away?
Well yes, Gary Numan was one of them. When he came along in ’79 he was the first one to get into the charts, which were very important then, and that was the first electronic music to get mainstream attention. That was great because it opened the door for everyone else. He was a real surprise, but he’s a real original and has continued to be original since then, which I think is wonderful. I think the band that really kicked me off was the German band Neu! in 1973.
And I also heard that you found a lot of inspiration in the London house and acid scene?
Well, I just happened to be in someone’s house in Vauxhall, a guy called James Pinker who was playing this music and I just thought it was really exciting. It was all synthesizer music, but a new form of it that I’d never heard before, and it was early Detroit acid techno. That was in about 1987. I think for the first time since punk or psychedelia there was the beginnings of an underground scene again. I tend to think things die off when there’s no underground, there’s nothing interesting happening, but when an underground scene does develop, it tends to mean there’s going to be an explosion of a certain kind of music. And you just had to hear that music to know that it was going to explode into everybody’s consciousness very quickly.
So presumably that was the point where you started finding an interest in music again? Because in 1985 you quit music altogether and sold your studio. Did you really think that was it for you and music?
I really did. I was so bored with what was happening, I just hated it. It was all dull, imitation soul music, very weak and overproduced. I think there were only one or two people keeping the torch burning, The Cure and maybe Depeche Mode at some points, and there was really nothing there of interest to me so I just though that’s it, I’ll leave it alone now. There were plenty of things I wanted to get on with anyway, so I just saw it as a chance to do that.
And you moved on to prove that you could be successful in other fields too: graphic design, photography, academia. What role do these things play in your life?
I still give lectures. It’s mainly because people I was at art school with in the 60s and 70s have gone out into other art schools around England, and they ask me to come in and talk occasionally about what I do and present some ideas about media, technology, art and so on. It’s good fun, you get to meet a new generation of art students, and that’s where I came from, and it’s where all English music came from since the 60s really.
Would you say that all these thing have been informed, to some extent, by music, or vice versa?
They all work together, but I think a lot of it springs from things I learnt at art school back in the early 60s. A lot of thinking that got done then allows you to understand things that go on around you, in terms of style, technology, movements – that culture, if you like. You were given a solid grounding in that kind of environment early on. And it wasn’t highly theoretical, it was very practical, you had to get involved and alter things, so there were people like the Situationists that fascinated me, and you could apply those modes of thought to music, like Malcolm McClaren did with the Pistols. That was a Situationist exercise in effect.
Is there one moment in your career, musical or otherwise, which you look back on with real pride? Or are you someone who always looks at the next project as the most important?
I do tend to look forward rather than backwards, but I guess I really like a thing I did called Cathedral Oceans, a lot of images and music and it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child, and I’ve managed to finish it and make it complete, so I’m really proud of that, personally. It’s a very obscure piece of music and imagery, but it’s something that I loved.
And finally, I’m sure you’re sick to death of talking about it, but how do you look back at your days in Ultravox? Does it stand out as a happy time for you?
Oh yeah, I think we all learnt an awful lot very quickly. We did about 5 years of touring all around the world, and the experiences you get from that are tremendous. I mean, it takes you the rest of your life to really understand what happened.
How do you feel about the direction they took after you left? Obviously the sound changed a lot.
Essentially it was great because we all set out to have an adventure together, as you do when you’re young, and we had to part ways, but we all got what we wanted out of it at the end. I ended up being able to do my own electronic music and it gave me the platform to do that, and it gave them the platform to make hit records. Everyone involved got what they wanted out of it.
John Foxx and the Maths play Thekla on October 20th
Words: Geraint Davies