Electropop outfit Future Perfect share some insight into their darkpop delights…
Future Perfect have carved out their own niche in the world of electronic music via the brooding dancepop of ‘Hunter’, ‘Paradise’ and more recently ‘Fall’ – culled from their 2015 album After The Fall.
Consisting of Simon Owen and Rebecca Owen, Future Perfect have managed to combine darkpop perfection with a talent for melody and intriguing lyrical composition. Their 2010 album Dirty Little Secrets was packed with solid tunes and made for an impressive debut.
Future Perfect have also become a regular fixture on the electronic live scene and are due to make an appearance at the Silicon Dreams Festival this July. Simon Owen kindly took time out from preparing for the event to chat to The Electricity Club.
How would you describe Future Perfect’s evolution of sound?
Future Perfect’s sound has evolved greatly over the years. We actually started in 2009, so since then I’ve learned so much and with the increased availability of software synths there’s so much we can do nowadays. Plus, back then, we were still learning how to write songs.
A lot of the first album came from the leftovers of previous bands that we’d both been part of, plus I didn’t have as much equipment. I was mainly using Garageband, a few softsynths and a few bits of hardware that I had. The results of this became Dirty Little Secrets.
For the “difficult” second album, times were very very different indeed. We had both split up from our respective marriages and we were starting a relationship together. The issues surrounding all of this turmoil would go on to inform what would become Escape, which was quite an appropriate title considering our circumstances at the time. Plus, I was also taking vocal lessons to help add to our sound and to express what I was also writing songs about.
We originally received a small amount of flak for the new change in direction. We were vilified in certain quarters and lost a small percentage of our fanbase in the UK. But for what we lost at home, we gained in multiple other regions and the album also got us signed to Conzoom.
We were also thinking that the guy keyboard player and female vocalist thing had been done to death and was becoming a cliché.
I was listening to a lot of European EBM/Futurepop at the time as it really appealed to my musical sensibilities. Neither of us came from that Synth Britannia thing from the early ‘80s or had any exposure to it – and I in particular only got into electronic music around 1986 when I discovered Jean-Michel Jarre and then the Acid House/Rave/Dance Music explosion between 88-92. Prior to that, I was into everything else but electronica.
A lot of the above informed our 3rd album, After The Fall, which has a much harder feel to it and has a lot of dance music influences.
We like to shake things up between albums to keep ourselves interested and not to repeat ourselves too much. We also like each album to have its own concept or theme.
To put it in a nutshell, our sound is a mixture of Pet Shop Boys songwriting style mixed with a bit of Joy Division lyrical gloom mixed with a bit of Apoptygma Bezerk/Eisfabrik – and a bit of Jean-Michel Jarre for good measure. We’d classify ourselves as “Dark Dance” and have now crafted our own distinctive sound of catchy grooves, dance beats added to soundscape synths and layered male/female vocals. That’s Future Perfect’s sound.
You’ve augmented your lineup with the addition of Noel Canney. How does his input fit into the Future Perfect dynamic?
With regards to Noel, he’s an amazing guy. Extremely talented and has had success in his own field of Dance Music. The original idea was to have Noel playing with us in a live capacity as this would take the pressure off us both during performing. However, as he lives in Northern Ireland, this was found to be completely impractical. Noel’s contribution now is as a collaborator. He occasionally sends us over some rough incomplete demos/ideas. I take those ideas and then develop them and write a song/arrangement around them.
Examples of this are ‘Fall’ and a track from our new album called ‘Rip’, both of which are completely amazing tracks and we can’t thank him enough for his contributions and remixes.
What is Future Perfect’s typical live gear setup?
Our usual live setup consists of the good old Roland JP8000, which is still extremely versatile and sounds amazingly epic. I also bring the Access Virus C and occasionally, my EMU Emulator 2, and though it weighs a ton, it looks great onstage. I also have an onstage mixer which contains a built in Minidisc player which contains the backing sequences. I’ve had a few misses in the past with my Macbook Pro almost being smashed when taking it out live. As it’s the real heart of my studio, it’s probably wise to leave it at home.
Rebecca plays the Akai Miniak on stage as it’s a very versatile synth and I got it for pennies. Sounds great and was super cheap.
Like Parralox, you’re signed with Conzoom. Has that made a big difference to Future Perfect’s profile?
Being on Conzoom has definitely opened more doors for us that we could have ever thought possible. To have a good label behind you is essential if you really want to have more widespread exposure. We have a great relationship with Ingo Moller and allows us complete artistic freedom with the music – and that also includes the artwork.
Conzoom promotes our albums through multiple blogs, magazines and websites worldwide. We signed for a 3-album deal where we retain all digital rights and Conzoom manufactures the CDs and we take a share of those to sell as a wish. This co-operation deal suits us perfectly. Since signing with them, both albums we have put out on Conzoom have charted in the European Alternative Music charts and have been at least top 3 on the Poponaut sales charts.
Do you think music festivals such as Silicon Dreams are an important component for the electronic music scene?
I think it’s absolutely essential for the UK to have its own electronic music festivals. Events like Silicon Dreams in Liverpool and what Analoguetrash are doing in Manchester are fantastic and helps to promote the genre. I personally think that it’s been in the domain of the South for far too long and to have people promoting electronica in the North will bring more awareness to what’s on the underground electronic scene up here.
I think one of the problems electronic music has is that it’s still pigeonholed with the ‘80s. If you tell someone that you make music with synthesisers, a lot people still say “Oh, like the ‘80s? “!!!! Not withstanding the fact 95% of modern pop music is made with synths, either software or hardware or both and usually on a Macbook Pro! This typical view can be a hindrance to the scene if it wants to attract a younger audience.
Having more electronic music festivals will certainly bring an awareness of what’s happening on the different UK scenes. It seems that each region has it’s own particular take on the genre. I’ve found some southern-based bands to be more retro in their approach, taking elements from bands of the ‘80s and marrying it with a slick modern production style. Whereas the more Northern-based bands like ourselves and Promenade Cinema seem to be a bit more edgy and harsher in our sound. Not unlike the late ‘70s/early ‘80s when you had the original Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and OMD in the North and you had Gary Numan and early Depeche Mode in London. It’s the same genre, all worthwhile, but a different take on it
What does the future hold for Future Perfect?
We have quite a few gigs lined up for the year, Silicon Dreams included, and we’re in the middle of writing our 4th album.
We would really like to get out into the European circuit as well as at home as our sound is now more in the Futurepop/EBM genre as well as at home. We still have passion for music and playing live and I personally would like to get into soundtrack work in the future and we’ve both expressed an interest in writing for other people as well as ourselves. If someone had asked us back in 2009 if we’d still be making music as a duo and we’d both be married to each other in 2017, we’d have said that they were mad, but here we are…..
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Simon Owen.
Future Perfect are performing at Silicon Dreams on 8th July 2017 at Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room (tickets via http://silicondreams.org.uk/).
AIVIS get the remix treatment from Dancing With Ruby
Previously, the debut release of electronic music duo AIVIS in the form of ‘The Wilderness’ had struck a chord of sorts here. The TEC review noted the “nice use of harmonies” and the “smooth, warm feel underpinning the engaging vocals. The sparse percussion adds to the charm”.
Now the track has been given the remix treatment by fellow electropop duo Dancing With Ruby, giving the composition a whole new lease of life.
AIVIS consists of Aidan Smeaton based in Scotland, and Travis Murphy based in the US. As with many outfits, the geographical distances seem to be less of an issue when files can be swapped back and forth over the internet.
In an interview with The Pansentient League website, Aidan described the music of AIVIS as “Catchy emotional insidious glitchy electronic pop” while Travis adds “Lately I’ve been saying think of Lorde with a male vocalist and darker vocals but more instrument heavy”.
Meanwhile, Dancing With Ruby is the electropop venture that Matt Culpin embarked upon post-Northern Kind, alongside Charlie Sanderson. The results were the 2015 album In the Interest of Beasts and, more recently, the Animals + Arachnids EP.
Tunes such as ‘Dance Move Feel’ and ‘Animals’ have both an energy and a simple, captivating quality to them. This is synthpop executed with the emphasis on “pop” (Dancing With Ruby managed to get mentions in our sister site Wavegirl’s Songs Of The Year in both 2015 and 2016).
As a collaboration, this seems like an unlikely pairing, with AIVIS aiming for a more esoteric approach to electronic music, while Dancing With Ruby are firmly in Camp Electropop.
Yet this remix manages to combine the best of both outfits. The airy delights of the original are given a more robust foundation by the more upfront electropop additions. Meanwhile, Charlie’s distinctive vocal style slides in easily as a counterpoint to Aidan’s wistful voice.
This release, which also features remixes from KEYTNE and Alpine Blizzard, shows how there’s a magic to be gleaned from two distinctly different outfits pooling their talents.
An AIVIS album is already in the works which the pair describe as featuring “Hooks, hooks and more hooks!”. Meanwhile, Matt and Charlie are still writing and recording with a view to pulling together a successor to In the Interest of Beasts.
Parralox’s John von Ahlen provides some insight into the electronic outfit’s extensive career…
Based in Melbourne, Australian electropop outfit Parralox came to life in 2008. Their debut album Electricity achieved critical acclaim and paved the way for an impressive catalogue of energetic electronic pop releases, which has led to their 10th studio album Subculture.
Collaborations with the likes of Ian Burden, Ade Fenton and Marcella Detroit have all been part of the Parralox story. Meanwhile, the striking visual style and branding of the outfit is masterminded by Parralox founder John von Ahlen, giving Parralox one of the most distinctive looks of any electronic band.
Parralox are due to perform at the Silicon Dreams event this July, an electronic music festival which will pull together 6 different acts for a stunning showcase of electronic music talent.
John von Ahlen kindly set aside time from his punishing work schedule to field some questions from The Electricity Club…
Parralox have been one of the most prolific electronic music acts of recent years. Overseeing the sleeve design and videos for all the releases, remix projects, plus your stint as a radio host, how do manage to fit it all in?
Good question, I sometimes wonder the same myself! To be honest, this last year has been very challenging in terms of time management. I’ve decided to take a break from Neon Nights (my radio show) in the next grid, which means a break from August to December this year, and I’ll come back to the show in January 2018. The radio show is a large time commitment, due to the insane amount of work I put into it, such as the graphic design work that goes into the show. I approach it the same way I approach Parralox, insofar as that everything needs to be branded and planned to within an inch of its life haha!! So if you look at the web page for Neon Nights you’ll see that each show has a unique theme and cover art to go along with it.
So all of this happens in addition to my regular work in Subterrane Studio, which is focused on Parralox, but also with remixing and producing other artists. I kind of feel like I’m reaching the same point a decade ago, before I started Parralox, when I was operating Subterrane Recording Studio as my sole source of income. I was just working on so many other projects, that they took focus from what I really loved doing – my own electronic music!
To give you an example, the next single for Parralox is ‘Electric Nights’ feat Johanna, and it should have been released at the start of 2017. We have all the remixes ready, all the artwork is done. The only thing holding up the release is the film clip. We shot the film clip last year at the same time we did the photo shoot at Nik Pate’s studio, but I haven’t had the time to finish editing it. I spent the first three months of this year renovating a few of my investment properties, so that took a large chunk out of my production schedule. It’s going to take at least another month to finish the ‘Electric Nights’ film clip, and then Parralox will be back on track!
The real secret to how I work is this… when you love what you do, it’s never work! I pretty much work on Parralox 7 days a week. Even on the weekends (when I should be taking time off!!) I’ll be answering emails or updating the website and social media. But I’m not a robot, I do go on holidays sometimes!
How would you describe Parralox’s evolution of sound since your formation back in 2008?
I guess it’s a little like a tumbleweed that bounces across the countryside, and passes through many different towns along the way. We don’t stay with any one specific style for too long, but there is a common thread throughout all our music. The only way I know how to describe our sound is “electronic music”, “synthpop” or “electropop”. While we don’t have exactly the same sound as we did when we started in 2008, I guess maybe the sound has matured a little.
The first album Electricity was definitely a catharsis for me, a distillation of all my music ideas and inspirations. The latest album Subculture has a more stylised approach, in that I took a dual approach of Italodisco and then ’90s pop. I borrowed from The Human League and designated half the tracks as Red, and the other half as Blue. So you can see the first half of the album has a commercial ’90s sound and feel, while the second half is straight up Italodisco / Synthpop.
I never really think about what the “Parralox Sound” is. The reality is that our sound will always be driven by what is influencing me at that time. Meaning it’s a mix of my musical heroes from the ’80s and also the latest club sounds I’m hearing. That’s really the key to the Parralox sound, having one foot firmly stuck in the ’80s, while the other is always listening to the latest sounds and club tracks. I have zero interest in commercial pop music, and don’t listen to the radio or watch TV.
Is there one Parralox track over your impressive catalogue which you feel stands as the outfit’s signature song?
Well, I have my own opinions on what is the definitive song for Parralox, but I have to go by the feedback I receive from the public, most of which seem to think that ‘Sharper Than A Knife’ is our signature track. I guess that’s what really exposed us to a larger audience, thanks to the press we got from Perez Hilton (thanks Perez!!).
Parralox has led you to working with an impressive range of collaborators. Are there any singers or musicians that you’re keen to work with in the future?
OMG, don’t ask me those sorts of questions haha! I have a VERY long list of people I’d like to work with. I’ve already approached a few to record on the next Parralox album, and so pending time commitments (and a dash of luck) the next album is going to be mind-blowing.
What is Parralox’s typical live gear setup?
The entire sequence runs from my laptop, which runs Cubase and a shitload of VSTi’s. So what you hear on stage is exactly the same as what you’d hear if we were in the studio. Of course you need to take a few parts out to allow for some live playing. I try and mix it up and change the mix and create a new arrangement for the song, so people get to hear a new interpretation. But some songs I’m very careful to leave as close as possible to the original version, based on the feedback I get from our fans.
I usually have at least 2 or 3 synths on stage with me, plus or minus a drum machine. I always get Johanna (or whoever is performing with Parralox at the time) to play a few keyboard parts as well while I’m singing. I also spend a lot of time on the visuals and so the fans will always be treated to a lovely video projection at the same time. Parralox doesn’t have a massive live budget, so we do what we can to make the show look impressive for the audience.
Do you think music festivals such as Silicon Dreams are an important component for the electronic music scene?
Absolutely. It’s an amazing showcase of the varying styles of electronic music that are out there. Most other genres all have their own festivals and legions of fans, and those events are generally run quite professionally and give great exposure to the acts involved. I think it’s really important for events such as these to be happening, because people need to have the opportunity to experience what real electronic music and synthpop is all about.
There’s plenty of manufactured and soulless music in the Top 40, and that’s fine for the masses. But events such as this really highlight how unique electronic music really is. Parralox has performed at many Electronic Music Festivals over the years, and every single one of them has been a real privilege to be part of, both as a performing band and then as an audience member when we get to see the other bands play!
It’s also important for the continuation of this genre of music. I’m so grateful that we have promoters out there who genuinely care for the music (and the bands) and selflessly work to further the exposure of electronic music.
What does the future hold for Parralox?
I can say that it’s a shame that I only have one lifetime, because there are so many things to do, and I know I’ll never get everything done! In the short term, we will be releasing ‘Electric Nights’ feat Johanna Gervin in the next month or so, and then the follow up single to that will be ‘Paradise’ feat Marcella Detroit! Then there will be a third single taken from Subculture, most likely at the end of the year or start of the next. As always we have our annual Holiday EP/Album coming up. The next one is Holiday ’17 and I’ve already recorded a few tracks for that.
I have a huge backlog of remixes I’m slowly working my way through. I’m also producing 2 local Australian artists, one of them is Peter Wilson, and the other is an emerging new talent – Venus Virgin Tomarz. I also dabble in a bit of video production work (apart from directing all the Parralox film clips) and have done promo videos for Julia Fordham and Basia Trzetrzelewska’s album reissues, and the new trailer for Damage Control’s album.
Then of course there’s the next Parralox album that I’ve already begun writing. We are also looking at releasing some sort of 10 year Box Set for Parralox, in conjunction with conzoom Records, Ingo and I have been floating ideas for exactly what to include in it. So yeah… there’s so much to do. I’m always bursting with ideas for Parralox, it’s a wonderful feeling.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to John von Ahlen.
Parralox are performing in the UK at the following events: Silicon Dreams on 8th July 2017 at Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room (tickets via http://silicondreams.org.uk/). Synthetic City London 9th September 2017 (Tickets via www.johnnynormal.net).
A journey into space with Hannah Peel’s elderly alter ego
Hannah Peel’s musical arc continues to ascend in unusual and intriguing directions as news of her third album appears on the horizon. Having already captivated audiences with her 2016 album Awake But Always Dreaming, an album that drew on her own family experiences with dementia (see TEC review here), Peel has wasted little time in shaping up album No. 3 in the form of Mary Casio : Journey To Cassiopeia.
‘Mary Casio’ is a side project that Peel has been cultivating for some time. When a brass band commissioned Peel for a new musical project, she felt that her Mary Casio alter ego was the best face to put on it.
Drawing from her influences of electronic pioneers Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, Peel’s back story for Mary Casio is as an elderly stargazing electronic musician. Her lifelong dream is to leave her mining town home of Barnsley in South Yorkshire and journey into space via home-constructed, hand-made machines that ‘buzz and whirr’ alongside her ever-growing collection of antiquated analogue synths, which she started collecting ever since her father gave her a Casio keyboard as a child.
This combination of brass and analogue synths was originally premiered in Manchester in 2016 as Tubular Brass, which featured a performance of Mike Oldfield’s classic album performed live with a 28-piece brass band.
Mary Casio : Journey To Cassiopeia will see Peel embark on a record described as a “seven-movement odyssey composed for analogue synthesisers and full, traditional 29-piece colliery brass band”. If the idea of such disparate sounds strikes you as bizarre, then the lead track ‘Sunrise Through The Dusty Nebula’ might convince you otherwise. There’s an engaging quality to the quiet beauty in this composition. The brass instrumentation lends the track a certain romance, with chord changes that captivate the imagination.
The tracks on the album were recorded live on location in Barnsley with a complete brass ensemble and the collaboration of Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio team. The result is an emotional journey through 7 tracks, including a sample taken from a 1928 recording of Peel’s own choirboy grandfather. Through tracks with titles such as ‘Goodbye Earth’, ‘Deep Space Cluster’ and ‘The Planet Of Passed Souls’, Peel charts a story that may be Mary Casio’s actual journey, or simply a fantasy conjured up in her head.
Either way, Mary Casio : Journey To Cassiopeia is sounding like one of the more intriguing albums that 2017 has to offer – and also suggests Hannah Peel’s own musical journey is bound for the stars.
Hannah Peel has several live shows lined up for this year including:
1st July New Music Biennial & BBC Radio 3: Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia, Hull. 2nd July Solo Show at FRÜIT, Hull. 8th July Bluedot Festival: Mary Casio & Tubular Bells, Cheshire East. 9th July New Music Biennial Southbank: Mary Casio – Journey to Cassiopeia, London. 29th July WOMAD Festival: Hannah Peel & Tubular Brass, Malmesbury.
The German electronic pioneers bring their visually impressive performance to Nottingham…
“For beauty we will pay”
Never a truer word as (like the rest of the tour), these tickets immediately sold out when they went on sale last September, such is the demand to see this multi-media extravaganza. Some people/forums/blogs may think that Kraftwerk have become a pastiche of their former self, a cash cow homage to their past. I am not one of those people.
Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, easily one of my favourite concert venues for atmosphere and sound quality, didn’t disappoint tonight. Luckily I was able to get front row tickets in the stalls and it took this incredible experience to the next level.
The current line up consists of Ralf Hütter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen (as the live video technician). While Ralf may be the only original member left, the music was always so far ahead of its time that it is still futuristic and resonates in so many modern music genres. Arguably the most influential band of a lifetime?
The last time I saw the Kraftwerk 3D experience I was awaiting an eye operation so the 3D never worked for me. No problems this time around. Entering stage-right to take their places on their control podiums in their Tron-style cycling skin tight suits, the wow factor of the opening track ‘Numbers’ brought gasps from the audience as huge neon numbers zoomed in and out of the screen, followed by an undulating blanket of ‘Matrix’ style numbers which then flew back and forth to the pulsating beats.
‘Computer World’ followed, this time giving a great depth of 3D with binary code as a backdrop and a floating computer in the foreground.
Then into ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’ / ‘Home Computer’. Unfortunately, during this number, the 3D video changed to ‘Boing Boom Tschak’ / ‘Techno Pop’ leading to a few frantic moments by Falk while it was corrected. This proved that the video mixing was live and not just synched by machine, although to the casual observer it probably didn’t seem out of place. Once corrected, the colours and depth of the 3D were just astonishing – this was the sensory overload part of the evening which left you awe-inspired and breathless.
‘The Man-Machine’, those opening crystal clear notes that send a shiver down your spine, will surely go down in history, it sounded immense. “Super Human Being” never more apt.
‘Spacelab’ took us into orbit. The 3D imagery again played with our senses, as a satellite threatened to impale our eyes. It culminated in huge cheers as a 3D Google Earth image of the UK was shown with Nottingham highlighted, ultimately ending with a UFO landing outside of the concert hall. Kraftwerk had indeed landed, and the audience were eating out of the palm of their hands.
No sooner had ‘Spacelab’ finished than ‘The Model’ started to huge cheers. The UK’s best-known Kraftwerk track was performed perfectly, Ralf’s vocals monotone but wistful. Then straight into the much-covered ‘Neon Lights’ – a sweeter neon love song you will never hear. ‘Autobahn’ followed, taken for a ride on the forenamed, full of retro graphics and again performed meticulously.
Biggest surprise of the evening was ‘Airwaves’, beefed up to such an extent that initially it was only the visuals which gave it away. This version is a potentially pounding club classic and, at any other gig, the audience would have been on their feet dancing. We remained passively sat, but were dancing inside.
I waited patiently for ‘Radioactivity’, my personal favourite track, updated now to include Fukushima and a verse in Japanese. I was left with goosebumps – it was one of ‘those’ concert moments.
The cycling-obsessed ‘Tour De France’ 15-minute part of the set included ‘Tour De France’ / ‘Prologue’ / ‘Etape 1’ / ‘Chrono’ / ‘Etape 2’. While this couldn’t compete with the Manchester Velodrome performance in 2009 (when Team GB cycled around the Velodrome while the soundtrack was being played), it did bring one of the biggest cheers of the night.
‘Trans Europe Express’ / ‘Metal On Metal’ / ‘Abzug’ followed, the rhythmic pulses resonating through the brilliant acoustics at this venue. This brought the concert to a close and the Kling Klang Musikfilm logo appeared on the screen before the curtains closed.
First encore, the tongue-in-cheek ‘The Robots’, where Kraftwerk are not on stage and are replaced with actual Robots – always a highlight as they echo ‘The Man-Machine’ and move in ‘Semi Human Being’ perfect synchronicity. The curtain closes and then opens again for the second encore…
A return to Tour De France with ‘AéroDynamik’, possibly the best lighting of the neon lines of their suits – my chest vibrated with the bass from this. I felt the music. This was followed by ‘Planet Of Visions’ and then the finale of ‘Boing Boom Tschak’ / ‘Techno Pop’ / ‘Music Non-Stop’ (which we had been treated to the visuals to albeit by mistake earlier), with each member showboating in turn and then taking a spotlight bow and exit stage right until just Ralf was left.
Being this close to Ralf showed a different aspect to his reclusive nature. Lots of smiles and subtle movement to the energy of the music, which I had totally missed before, made him (just a little bit) more human. Ralf departed with an “Auf Wiedersehen” and the 2-hour experience was over.
In 1975 BBC Tomorrows World did a feature on the original line-up. That feature ended with Raymond Baxter stating “Next year, Kraftwerk hope to eliminate the keyboards altogether and create jackets with electronic lapels that can be played by touch”.
I wonder, back then, if Ralf could ever have envisioned the way they currently perform? I think he probably did, for I have listened to, and seen the future, and it is the past.
Numbers / Computer World, It’s More Fun to Compute / Home Computer / Computer Love / The Man-Machine / Spacelab / The Model / Neon Lights / Autobahn / Airwaves / Intermission / News / Geiger Counter / Radioactivity / Electric Café / Tour De France / Prologue / Etape 1 / Chrono / Etape 2 / Trans Europe Express / Metal on Metal / Abzug / The Robots / AéroDynamik / Planet Of Visions / Boing Boom Tschak / Techno Pop / Music Non-Stop
Smooth contemporary synthpop both strange and weird…
The release of the Crystal World album in 2013 demonstrated that Helen Marnie continued to display a talent for good electronic music, even while Ladytron were on an extended hiatus. As an album, it breathed a lush atmosphere that combined the electropop stylings that Marnie had crafted so well previously, but with a much more personal and emotional depth.
The gap between that album and new outing Strange Words And Weird Wars was broken only by the release of the buzzy pop of ‘Wolves’ in 2014. Instead, Marnie has spent time honing the material (written over a period of 2 years) before unleashing it on the world.
Initial previews of the album were encouraging, with the pulsing beats of ‘Alphabet Block’ showing that Marnie was switching gear for a much more pop-orientated direction than its 2013 forebear. Marnie herself described the track as “shoe-gaze electropop” and there’s certainly an immersive element to the composition. Marnie’s vocals take on a whispery sheen over a bed of layered synths and emphatic percussion and, as intro tracks go, it delivers the goods.
Marnie worked alongside Jonny Scott on the new album, who provided co-writing duties and adopted the role of producer. Scott arrived through Iain Cook (Chvrches) and being based in Glasgow (where Marnie has now relocated to from London) made a big difference to how Scott and Marine could collaborate.
Drawing comparisons with the likes of Ladyhawke and Goldfrapp, Strange Words And Weird Wars has opted for a much more electronic palette on this release, which also throws a nod or two to synthwave. Take the pop perfection on ‘Bloom’ which invites the listener to throw shapes on the dancefloor. “I’m in trouble again/in a no man’s land we’ll bloom” suggests Marnie on a track that boasts strong vocal melodies.
Meanwhile, ‘G.I.R.L.S.’ with its cheerleading chants offers up one of the strongest tracks on the album. It’s Pop with a capital ‘P’. Equally, ‘Electric Youth’ invites the listener to reflect on nights of teenage abandon on a track that has a bright, airy quality to it.
Things take a more sober mood on ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ – a much more slow-paced affair whose lyrics hint at danger. Clocking in as the album’s longest track, it’s also perhaps the only song that’s at odds with the more pop direction that the album’s aiming for.
There’s something of a more muscular crunchiness to ‘Lost Maps’, whose breezy pop is interleaved with layers of electronic effects beneath a confident vocal. For all that, the song has darker themes inspired by the refugee crisis (“survival’s not a crime”) and the idea of uncertain futures.
There’s a more languid quality to ‘Summer Boys’ whose nostalgia-seeped lyrics (“endless day of waterfalls/and drowning in their eyes”) are given a lift by the punchy power-pop percussion underpinning the track. Meanwhile, de-tuned synths lurk in the mix giving the composition a particular warmth.
Elsewhere, ‘Little Knives’ combines machine-like elements with warm pop, giving the whole affair polarising contrasts.
The album ends on a high note with the rhythmic wonder that’s ‘Heartbreak Kid’, its bass-heavy arpeggios setting the scene for the emotional punch in the vocal delivery (the lyrics of which served as inspiration for the album’s title). But it’s the melodic flourishes and arrangement that gives this track the polished pop that’s been such a central theme to the album as a whole.
Comparisons to Ladytron are somewhat inevitable, particularly as Helen Marnie’s unique vocal and style of electronic arrangements are such a vital component to the Liverpool synthpop group. But Strange Words manages to move beyond the overall style of that outfit and also builds on the foundations that Crystal World established. It’s a different album for sure, perhaps missing some of that baroque electropop that Marnie’s 2013 debut excelled at, but this is a minor quibble.
The end result is a solid album of contemporary electropop that listeners will find intelligent, engaging and yet also fun. Strange Words And Weird Wars is a continuing demonstration on why Marnie is one of electronic music’s most precious assets.
Strange Words And Weird Wars is out now on Disco Pinata.
The Mighty Mode deliver a powerful London performance…
London Stadium, Saturday 3rd June 2017
It’s a mild Saturday afternoon and I’m following a vast throng of Depeche Mode fans into the former Olympic Stadium; the setting for triumphant UK athletes such as Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis (who both enjoyed Gold Medal success in 2012). These days, the newly-named London Stadium’s current tenants are West Ham United (which, bizarrely, anagrams as ‘the new stadium’) and the impressive arena serves as the venue for Depeche Mode’s biggest ever UK show, with over 80,000 excited 40-somethings in attendance. It’s the thirteenth stop on the Global Spirit tour, which kicked off in Stockholm on the 5th May. “It will be the first time we’ve played a proper stadium here for a long time” Martin Gore tells The Guardian.
It’s my first Depeche Mode in concert since the Touring The Angel shows in 2005, and it’s only by the chance of a competition win that I find myself perched just over the halfway line, with a large merchandise stand either side of me (I sensibly pass on the chance to buy an over-priced £30 t-shirt). Support is provided by Southend-on-Sea’s resident shoegazers, The Horrors, who have released four albums to date. With no new album to promote (2014’s Luminous is their most recent), their support slot seemingly functions as a showcase for their not-wholly-original repertoire of Gothic space rock. It’s an enjoyable enough set though, albeit a little too bassy to these ears.
Anticipation builds to the Basildon rocker’s entrance. Cavalcades of beer drinkers politely edge their way past and cigarettes are seemingly sucked down to their filters before the opening bars of The Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ cascade through the stadium’s PA. It’s 8:15 and the band take to the stage, against a black backdrop that reveals a diminutive pair of marching feet that gradually increase in size. The band launch into ‘Going Backwards’, the opening track on this year’s well-received Spirit album (see TEC’s review here). Singer Dave Gahan, resplendent in black waistcoat and a red jacket, sets the tone with a series of powerful lyrical couplets: “We’re going backwards, armed with new technology,” he sings. “Going backwards, to a caveman mentality.” It’s a perfect start to the show, and the momentum is sustained with the tight, two-chord electro thrust of ‘So Much Love’; its repetitive chorus prompting the first of many singalongs amongst the enthusiastic multinational crowd.
By the time of third number ‘Barrel Of A Gun’, Gahan has shed his jacket, while Gore has strapped on his custom-built star-shaped guitar, duly grinding out the song’s dirty licks. Somewhat disappointingly, Gahan’s vocals are off-key and not even a snatch of Grandmaster Flash’s landmark hit ‘The Message’ in the coda can rescue it. Thankfully normal service is resumed on ‘A Pain That I’m Used To’. Utilising the template of the excellent ‘Jacques Lu Cont’ remix, resident multi-instrumentalist Peter Gordeno switches to bass, giving the track a fluidity missing from the album version, while Gahan visibly loosens up and cavorts the stage with a chicken-like strut.
The pace slows once more to ‘Corrupt’, a largely forgettable plodder from 2009’s Sounds Of The Universe, before a powerful version of the brooding, bona fide classic ‘In Your Room’ – in its superior album version – puts the show back on track with its spine-tingling chord changes. Gahan orchestrates the crowd to sing its key line “Will I always be here”. The crowd are firmly on side… and Gahan knows it. On ‘World In My Eyes’, an increasingly confident Gahan partakes in a series of struts, bum wiggles and crotch grabs (seriously, Dave?), before taking a somewhat undignified splat towards the back of stage. There’s a quick ear monitor adjustment off-stage and Gahan finishes the song, before exchanging smiles with a rather bemused Gore.
The Bowie-influenced ‘Cover Me’ affords Gahan the opportunity to display the more soulful side of his baritone as he ponders life on other planets (“I dreamt of us in another life/ One we’ve never reached”). The undoubted highlight of Spirit, the suitably chilling Anton Corbijn visuals provide the perfect backdrop. Gahan milks the applause as he takes a rare walk down the stage catwalk during the stunning ‘Clean’-esque climax, emitting a huge smile as the otherworldly song ends.
It’s Gore’s chance to shine next on Black Celebration’s beautiful ballad ‘A Question Of Lust’. The fragility and vulnerability in Gore’s rich and tremulous vocal (enriched by a stark piano arrangement from Gordeno), endear the crowd to the master songwriter. And, on a rare full-band version of ‘Home’, the crowd are on fine form as Gore and the rest of the band orchestrate some lovely harmonies at the end. “You are the best!” says a returning Gahan.
Spirit is further represented with a brace of tracks. Gore has hailed ‘Poison Heart’ as Gahan’s best song but, in truth, it’s a rather pedestrian effort that falls rather flat tonight. ‘Where’s The Revolution?’, fares better, with its rallying cry of “Come on people, you’re letting me down.” It’s the band’s newest anthem, perfectly pitched in today’s political climate. Whilst its studio counterpart suffers from a shambolic production, in concert it’s far more effective, and there’s thankfully a smoother transition from verse to chorus. ‘Wrong’, meanwhile, sees the band revert to a more conventional synthpop format, with its mid-tempo electro-glam fizz perfectly complementing Gore’s smart wordplay.
The arrival of ‘Everything Counts’ in the set is met with a downpour, but it doesn’t last; and nothing can dampen the crowd’s spirit as the band launch into a brilliant extended version of the politically-infused 1983 classic. Gore bashes out the song’s memorable synth motif, and the crowd respond with an enthusiastic singalong. Gore remains on keyboard duties during a faithful version of ‘Stripped’, before the band bring out the big guns once again with a supreme version of the Violator classic ‘Enjoy The Silence’. Gore effortlessly picks out the melodic riff on his Gretsch guitar, and there’s a harmonious blend of electronics and funky guitars as the track builds to its climax. The band are on fire, and their good form is consolidated with a euphoric, arm-waving finale of ‘Never Let Me Down Again’.
In the encore, Gore and Gordeno reunite once more for an emotional ‘Somebody’, before they’re joined by the rest of the band for a fine run-through of set staple ‘Walking In My Shoes’. The surprise of the night arrives courtesy of a cover of David Bowie’s ubiquitous hit “Heroes”, backdropped by a huge black flag. The band aren’t renowned for covering songs but, in terms of the history of the band, it makes total sense (fans will know that Vince Clarke invited Gahan to join the band in 1980 after seeing him perform the song during a jam session).
The two-hour plus show ends with a blistering double-header of synth rock. An extended ‘I Feel You’, replete with some bombastic drumming from Christian Eigner, is paired with the riff-heavy tour-de-force that is ‘Personal Jesus’, crowning the evening with style.
There’s a sad postscript as the rapturous fans begin to filter out of the auditorium; word soon gets round of the latest terror atrocities occurring just miles away, but it doesn’t detract from what’s been a superb show. The material from Spirit hasn’t dominated the set as I’d feared, and there was a good balance of crowd-pleasers and newer material. The visuals are interesting (if a little distracting at times – see ‘In Your Room’), and the sound is good, with plenty of clarity in the vocal mix. It’s not perfect by any means, but they’ve certainly reaffirmed my love for this great band.
Set list: Going Backwards / So Much Love / Barrel Of A Gun / A Pain That I’m Used To / Corrupt / In Your Room / World In My Eyes / Cover Me / A Question Of Lust / Home / Poison Heart / Where’s The Revolution? / Wrong / Everything Counts / Stripped / Enjoy The Silence / Never Let Me Down Again / Somebody / Walking In My Shoes / “Heroes” / I Feel You / Personal Jesus
Depeche Mode resume their UK tour in November:
November 15 – Dublin, Ireland – 3Arena
November 17 – Manchester, UK – Manchester Arena
November 19 – Birmingham, UK – Barclaycard Arena
November 22 – London, UK – O2 Arena
The eclectic electronic wonders are back with their own take on appliance with science…
If there’s one grassroots act that we’ve enjoyed in recent times, it’s Girl One And The Grease Guns. Their earlier compilation release The Strange Little Lines That Humans Draw In The Dust, demonstrated a love for ’60s girl groups along with a ‘garage punk’ aesthetic that lent the music a raw, energetic quality.
Girl One’s members maintain a cryptic quality with their identities being revealed as Sissy Space Echo, Warren Betamax, Charles Bronson Burner, Bruce LeeFax (with occasional assistance from John Cassette-vetes). Their manifesto remains true to the spirit of “causing confusion with a mixture of pure synth pop and more experimental electronic sounds”.
Now the electronic outfit’s first proper album is due for release this July. Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances continues their bid for Longest Album Title in Electronic Music (and also not a band you’d want to go up against in a game of Scrabble) with 12 brand new tracks of eclectic goodness.
The original concept for the album, which was recorded at their own studio The Glass Factory, was a triple album. However, the Girl One gang decided that wasn’t such a great idea after all – and in fact they’re not keen on the idea of albums at all (their earlier output was all via 7” vinyl singles). But the tracks that they’d accumulated just screamed out to be included on a full length album.
Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances continues the Girl One And The Grease Guns approach to writing and recording. They’ve stated that the new material mixes “pure electro-pop with more experimental, darker sounding tracks”. As a result, the album boasts pop elements on tracks such as ‘He’s A Replicant’, ‘She’s A Calculator’ and ‘Emergency (Dial 999)’. But their more experimental side is evident on the likes of ‘Telegraph Street’, ‘Mute Your Gums’ and the eerie album closer ‘(She Sits) In The Freezer’.
The new tracks were influenced by a suitably diverse range of influences, including Cabaret Voltaire, Silicon Teens, and Crash Course In Science, as well as early Depeche Mode and The Human League.
The first 50 copies will also be available in a limited edition tin box, complete with artwork by Jon Aldersea at Goldphone Creative Media. All copies sold after that will be standard CD jewel case with booklet.
Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances is released on 19th July on Next Phase : Normal Records and is available to pre-order now from the Squirrel Records website (www.squirrelrecords.co.uk)
Marsheaux return with a smooth video for a smooth tune…
One of the best surprises in contemporary electronic music has been the rise of Greek electronic duo Marsheaux. Sophie Sarigiannidou and Marianthi Melitsi have presented a stylish take on electropop ever since the release of their 2003 debut album E-Bay Queen.
In 2016 they returned with a new arsenal of songs care of Ath.Lon (see our review here). Their most recent album takes its name from a compression of Athens and London (a nod to the fact that Marianthi has relocated to London, while Sophie has stayed in Greece).
Ath.Lon was preceded by the synthpop gem that was ‘Safe Tonight’, its synth hooks demonstrating that Marsheaux continue their flair for melody and accessible pop.
Now a new video has been unveiled for another Ath.Lon cut, this time for the slow-burning ‘Now You Are Mine’. The brooding synth tones give a solid foundation for Marsheaux’s trademark whispery vocals on a particularly dreamy composition. Meanwhile, the video (shot and edited by Undo’s own George Geranios) features a pair of Marsheaux analogues in a series of artful tableaux. Again, it continues the Greek outfit’s tradition of crafting stylish visuals with polished electropop for that perfect combo.
Meanwhile, Marsheaux have also unleashed a limited edition cassette featuring 7 rejected demos from the Ath.Lon recording sessions. All previously unreleased.
As one of electropop’s most distinguished assets, Marsheaux continue to deliver the goods.
“Musically, we went through a bunch of phases – for a while it was rock opera. We were going to compose some grandiose stuff about earthquakes in Guatemala. Our ambitions had no limits.” – Paul Waaktaar-Savoy
It’s been well documented that a-ha’s huge success with ‘Take On Me’ – and subsequent album Hunting High And Low – didn’t happen overnight. Whilst the band didn’t slog it out via the conventional – and slightly clichéd – live route, they chose instead to hone their songwriting craft in the studio; using the fast-developing advances in electronic instrumentation to develop their sound.
But that’s not to say the band didn’t have any grounding at all in live performance – in truth, the three members of a-ha had all paid their dues, completing a musical apprenticeship of sorts in a number of bands.
Prior to a-ha’s official formation on Morten Harket’s 23rd birthday in September 1982, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy and Magne Furuholmen had recorded two albums as part of a four-piece combo named Bridges, including a self-financed opus titled Fakkeltog (which translates as ‘torchlight procession’). In this article we tell the story of Bridges, using archive material and some exclusive reminiscences from former members of the band.
Far from being prototype a-ha recordings, the music of Bridges owed more to the music of The Doors than the synth-pop sounds that would characterize much of the Norwegian trio’s earliest demos and album recordings. Brimming with ambition, the band’s only officially released album Fakkeltog is a surprisingly complex piece of music; split into three parts and boasting an impressive mastery of several instruments, progressive rock-like time signature shifts and lyrics inspired not just by Jim Morrison, but also Norwegian literary figures such as Gunvor Hofmo. Perhaps more importantly, the roots of many of a-ha’s songs stemmed from Bridges sessions and recordings, including ‘Take On Me’, ‘Scoundrel Days’ and ‘Soft Rains Of April’.
It would be very difficult to understate the huge influence of The Doors on the music produced by Waaktaar and Furuholmen. As key an influence as David Bowie on the ‘Blitz Kids’ of the late 1970s or Kraftwerk on electronic acts such as OMD and The Human League, much of the music of a-ha (particularly throughout the 1980s and 1990s) is permeated with Doors influences. There’s the earlier brooding numbers such as ‘Here I Stand And Face The Rain’ and ‘Soft Rains Of April’; through to the roadside drama of ‘Sycamore Leaves’ and mid-period numbers such as ‘Slender Frame’, ‘Early Morning’ and Lamb To The Slaughter’ that all imbue a Venice Beach campfire spirit. In concert the band regularly included a snatch of ‘Riders On The Storm’ during ‘Cry Wolf’.
Building Bridges (1974-1979)
Pål Waaktaar Gamst and Magne Furuholmen had become acquainted circa 1974 as near-neighbours in Manglerud, a borough that lies in the southeastern district of Oslo. Waaktaar reflected on their early meetings years later: “He was unbelievably musical, and we hit it off right from the start. He had a Dali amplifier – with a tremolo. It was the coolest thing we’ve ever heard – the first time you hear a tremolo, it’s a fantastic sound. Magne played ‘Sunshine’ by Nazareth, and we were really impressed.”
In 2013 Furuholmen told music writer Wyndham Wallace about an early encounter with Waaktaar: “I saw him perform on a third floor balcony. They were performing inside, but there was a group of people stood outside, and they’d come out and he’d put the drumsticks in the air. I think it was just a Hammond, a living room organ, and cardboard drums – a very makeshift concert – but I remember being incredibly impressed, not by the music but by the spectacle of it all.”
Both teenagers had grown up with music coursing through their veins; Furuholmen in particular. His father Kåre was a well-travelled musician, playing trumpet for the Bent Sølves Orkester, a popular six-piece jazz band. Sadly, he (and the rest of his entourage) died in an airplane crash on the way to a show in Sweden in May 1969. Bizarrely, the tragedy was witnessed by a nine-year old Morten Harket. Furuholmen told the Adresseavisen newspaper years later: “The first time I met Morten Harket, we walked home together after a party. It was a long walk, and when we had talked about the important stuff – what music we liked – we needed to find other topics of conversation. What our parents were doing, things like that. I told him that my father died in a plane crash in 1969. Morten remained completely silent for a while, before he told me that he was an eyewitness to the plane crash in Drammen… he saw the plane hit the ground.”
The teenagers had a shared love of both Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, as Waaktaar recalled during a Facebook Q&A in 2015: “When I first started playing guitar, I learned from copying old blues vinyl played on half speed. Jimi Hendrix was an early hero – Magne and I would compete who had the biggest collection of obscure bootlegs. Mind-blowing stuff. Then it was all about The Doors and Robbie Krieger who just knew exactly what each song needed and without ever over-playing.” And it probably wouldn’t have gone unnoticed that, while Jim Morrison garnered most of the attention as The Doors’ frontman and in-house poet, it was guitarist Krieger that had quietly contributed some of the band’s best songs (see ‘Light My Fire’, ‘You’re Lost Little Girl’, ‘Touch Me’, ‘Love Her Madly’, etc). Waaktaar also practised at an after-school club, playing folk songs such as ‘Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley’.
The fashions of the Sixties also had something of an effect on Waaktaar: “I wore wide bellbottoms, grew my hair long and put up Jimi Hendrix posters,” he told Tor Marcussen in The Story So Far. “At Nordstrand, the boys were all clean, crew cut kids driving around in their rich fathers’ cars. Everybody else’s style was completely alien to me, and I had no desire to become like them. I’ve always wanted to be different.” Much to his parents’ disappointment, the increasingly music-obsessed Waaktaar harboured little in the way of academic ambition (he was even nicknamed “The Guest” by his teachers due to his poor attendance record!). “They came from Northern Norway to Oslo to get an education, and had to uproot themselves from their families up there,” he recalled. “My not wanting to go to University and take the same route was a bit of a downer for them.”
Both Waaktaar and Furuholmen had been in different school bands, including Black Day and Black Sapphire, respectively. Waaktaar confirmed that the competitive streak between the pair was prevalent even at this early stage in their music career: “We were always in there together, competing to write the best songs, play the fastest guitar.” The pair initially teamed up in the band Spider Empire, with Furuholmen on vocals and guitar, before changing their name to Thala and the Layas Blues Band and then, finally, Bridges, in 1978. “During that period Magne and I went though different band names from one month to the next,” Waaktaar told The Electricity Club. During a speech in 2012, Bondi recalled the first time he met Waaktaar and Furuholmen: “I got off the bus, carrying a bass guitar – that is how I meet Magne and Paul for the first time. Two long-haired boys – or were they girls? – dressed like Jimi Hendrix. Silk flower shirts, bell-bottom pants, moccasins, long scarves, handkerchiefs – I was catapulted back to the sixties!”
There was to be a further personnel change in the new year, with Bondi’s friend – and bandmate in Essens – Erik Hagelien replacing Jan Erik Ødegård on the drum stool. Hagelien told The Electricity Club: “I had played with another Asker band for a short period where we tried out playing with two drummers,” he explained. “Viggo contacted me to ask if I would join his new band with two young enthusiasts (Magne and Paul) which I accepted. The band name Bridges was created and adopted by the four of us. Later we introduced another old friend, Jostein Nygard, on keyboards. He brought his organ, Fender electric piano and his old Minimoog which required quite some time to warm up and stabilize the oscillators.”
The band, which was known for a while as ‘The Bridges’, eventually reverted to a four-piece with Waaktaar in a dual guitar and vocal role, while Furuholmen was persuaded to take a Ray Manzarek-like position behind the keyboards; the fledgling songwriter keen on guiding the group in a Doors-like direction. Whilst not as rich in tone, Waaktaar possessed a baritone voice akin to that of Jim Morrison’s, and his rockier vocal tones would perfectly suit his later indie-pop work with Savoy during a-ha’s sabbatical in the mid-to-late 1990s. I asked Hagelien if he was as enamoured with The Doors as Waaktaar and Furuholmen. “I always said that the songs composed by Magne and Paul at that time was much influenced by The Doors,” he replies. “I believe Jimi Hendrix was important for them too, and probably also The Beatles. Magne and Paul gave me the book The Beatles: In Their Own Words for my 17th birthday. I was, and Viggo too, more of a prog rock lover, listening to artists like Rick Wakeman, ELP, Yes, Genesis and Frank Zappa. We also loved what we called ‘jazz-rock’, like Mahavishnu Orchestra. I really was a fan of the drummer Phil Collins, both in Genesis and Brand X, Carl Palmer, Billy Cobham and Terry Bozzio.”
By the time of Bridges’ formation, the well-travelled Furuholmen had moved to Asker, which was within a commutable distance from Manglerud. And it was the basement at Furuholmen’s family home in Asker, affectionately referred to as Knusla Bruk, that provided the rehearsal space for the ambitious young band during their high school years. They focused on practising original material rather than covers, while Waaktaar wrote his lyrics in English rather than his native Norwegian, later explaining that “there was no point trying to shove Norwegian down English people’s throats.”
After-school sessions were frequent and Waaktaar was beginning to stockpile a vast repertoire of songs, as Bondi later recalled: “The only homework we did during high school was what we assigned ourselves – or, more accurately, what Magne and Paul assigned one another. A new song for every practice. The result was a huge number of songs: ‘Truths Of Love’, ‘The Endless Brigade’, and so on. The list is incredibly long. Songs about dreams… songs as musical building blocks for what would later become a-ha.”
Whilst Waaktaar’s chosen career path had been met with disappointment, he certainly found an ally in his older sister Tonje who would spur him on during this period and throughout his musical career. In the Furuholmen household, Magne’s mother Lise was also a constant source of encouragement. “There was always a woman behind the band – Lise,” recalled Bondi. “With four rehearsals every week for four years, three teenaged boys not only moved into her house, they moved into her refrigerator! She also had four children of her own. We weren’t given many responsibilities, but at one of the first practises, we were sent out to the potato field! Lise is a teacher, but she never asked us if we had done our homework. It was as though she understood that something big was happening.”
Whilst music was seemingly the primary focus, occasionally the band would help each other out with their schoolwork, as Bondi fondly recalled at the a-ha Fan Convention in 2016: “We were really busy, practising four days a week actually and it was really hard to combine homework, you know, with playing. So I had some homework to do myself… and I needed to write a short story for the next day I think I was. And I said, ‘well I have a problem guys, because it’s hard to play tonight because I have homework to do for tomorrow’. And Magne said, ‘well I have one here – maybe you can use that one’. So I just took his and I got an A!”
Hagelien was also able to share some memories from this period: “Paul came all the way from Manglerud to Vollen every Friday after school,” he says. “He stayed there for the whole weekend. Viggo and myself showed up on Saturdays and Sundays. There was a 25-minute walk from Hvalstad (where Viggo and I lived in Asker) to the bus stop and another 25 minutes from the bus stop in Vollen to Magne’s house. We practised mostly every weekend and Magne’s mother always served us good food – we felt very welcome. It was a big house with a large room in the basement where we played, and my drums stood permanently. Over time I damaged the very nice and brand new wooden pine floor with my drum hardware spikes – I felt very embarrassed! Per Arne Skjeggestad, an old friend of Magne and Paul, occasionally joined us in parts of the weekends – he was following the band and took a lot of pictures.”
Bridges In Concert (1979)
Live performances were sporadic during the infancy of the band’s career and, years later, Waaktaar vividly recalled his first performance: “I started, you know, on drums, because that was the most invisible place in the band. But then songwriting suddenly reared its head, and the urge to present the songs became so strong that it literally pushed me forward to the edge of the stage. I remember the day I turned on the microphone and sang – it was a big deal for me.”
One of the band’s first live commitments was NM for Rockeband (a Norwegian ‘battle of the bands’) at Chateau Neuf in Oslo. The performance of ‘Somebody’s Going Away’ during the preliminary heat on the 11th March was, according to some sources, beset with sound problems and the band didn’t progress to the next round on the 12th (Oslo-based Broadway News prevailed as the winners at the national final in July). The following weekend the band played a private show for family and friends at Hagelien’s home in Hvalstad, and also went to the trouble of preparing a small programme for the event! This fascinating document reveals that Waaktaar was still using his original surname of Gamst, while the set list included songs such as ‘Born Between The Battles’ and ‘Imagination’. Keen to boost their profile, the ambitious band were also interviewed by local newspaper Asker og Bærum Budstikke in April. “We do not want to make it big here in Norway,” they said. “We do not want to be a new notch in the joke.”
Chateau Neuf also provided the setting for another live show, performing with several other bands as part of a programme organised by the IAB (an amateur band association) on the 27th May. According to Hagelien, the band performed well during the day-long event.
By the summer of 1979 there was a change of personnel behind the drums. Hagelien picks up the story: “Magne and Paul showed up at the family house to have a discussion. They had decided to dedicate themselves 100% to the music to become international professionals. They also had a clear view to grow abroad and not in Norway. The ultimatum they gave me was to commit to their strategy, with the consequence that I had to quit school. At that time this was not an option for me.” Replacing Hagelien wasn’t easy, but they eventually found an ideal replacement in 19-year old Øystein Jevanord. He’d already graduated from Sogn Upper Secondary School in 1977 and, in footballing parlance, was a ‘free agent’. “I was looking for an interesting band to play with,” Jevanord told The Electricity Club. “I had played drums since I was 12, had some special skills, and was open-minded to all kinds of music. I saw Bridges live at Chateau Neuf during the IAB concert, with Hagelien on drums, so I knew what they were about… and they stood out that night. A good friend of mine ripped out a small ad in Aftenposten (Norway’s biggest newspaper), and I got it a week too late. It sounded interesting, so I called them up. They had already tested two drummers – which didn’t work too well – so they invited me to Magne’s house the following weekend (15th September 1979). I remember the date because my 20th birthday was the day after. We played all night, slept over, and after breakfast we continued playing. It was magic – interesting music, very nice people. Everything matched. I was very happy and excited, and the others agreed… this was it!” I also asked him who his musical influences were: “As I said, I was open-minded and listened to all kinds of music – but mostly to music with great drummers, such as Frank Zappa, Genesis, Brand X, Yes and Santana. But I must admit that Phil Collins was my biggest influence at the time.”
One of the new line-up’s most important engagements, certainly in terms of the formation of a-ha, was a performance at Asker Gymnasium in 1979. Bondi picked up the story years later: “On the way to the concert, Terje Nøkleby – Magne’s stepfather – played a tape recording of the previous weekend’s jam session. It sounded dreadful. We were in shock – were we really that bad? We could not live with that. It became one of our best concerts ever… but, more importantly, among the audience in the hall was Morten Harket.” The future a-ha vocalist was certainly impressed by the performance: “It really stunned me when I heard them live – this was Doors music,” he told Wyndham Wallace in 2013. “All of a sudden everything changed – it stunned me, right there on the floor. ‘This is it. This is how it’s gonna happen.’ It was instant. But at the same time I knew they needed me. I had to be a part of it. That wasn’t a question for me. It wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t a problem. It was just a fact, a comfortable matter of fact. But I was not going to go after them and suggest anything. I just knew, and that was enough for me. So I left it there. For quite some time.” Harket did in fact approach Bondi about joining the band, but the timing was wrong, and the future a-ha vocalist would have to ply his trade in the band Souldier Blue for the foreseeable future. World domination had to be put on hold…
In the spring of 1980, the confident band played a show at the Dovrehallen club in Oslo, sharing the bill with a local punk rock band named Kjøtt. “The punks waltzed to Bridges’ music – we did not take that as a compliment” recalled Bondi. The show was etched in his memory as he also recalled that a few days later his ears pricked up when he received a phone call from Ole Sørli, formerly of Polydor Records. “We were in shock – this would mean a record contract! Or so we thought. Instead, he produced two black and white pictures of two teenage girls with huge sunglasses: Ingrid and Benedicte. Dollie de Luxe had just recorded their first album, and he asked if we wanted to be their backing band! We left his office, infuriated. We’d been given one of their records and, once we were out on the street again, we found out that it performed really well as a frisbee!”
“I grew up in the Sixties/ The Seventies I betrayed/ But the Eighties are mine/ You can’t take them away from me”
Following their flirtations with live performance, the next logical step was to cut a record; and fate was to play another part in the Bridges story with their choice of record producer. Svein Erichsen was both a neighbour of Furuholmen’s and a fan of The Doors (he’d seen them play at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970), and – crucially – possessed technical knowledge. “As I recall, he didn’t do much as a producer… we did that mostly ourselves,” says Jevanord. “[He was] more of a fan, and neighbour of Magne’s. Anyway, he was credited as a producer on the album because he helped us with various equipment in the period before Fakkeltog. For example, a 4-track recorder to get down the old songs Bridges had made. Mags can probably tell you more about his musical background, because I don’t know. I know he was a guitar / bass player… oh yes, he did some background vocals on a track on Fakkeltog as well.”
In the summer of 1980, the band booked recording time at a basement in an old factory in Nydalen (in Northern Oslo) that had been converted into a recording studio (named Octocon) by Tore Aarnes. “I think it was Paul that found Octocon,” says Jevanord. “Not too expensive for four young lads. And the recording conditions were okay… we didn’t have much to compare it to since this was our first time in a real studio. I just remember it was exciting and joyful to work there. Eight tracks was a lot for us then – fantastic!”
It would take the well-rehearsed band just a week to record the album, at a cost of 500 krone per day, and the sessions were long and productive. “We prepared all the arrangements at the rehearsals, so we used just four days to record the main [album]” recalls Jevanord. “The rest of the week we did the overdubs, vocals and mix. Fakkeltog was finished in one week in other words. But of course, some changes were also done here and there in the studio.” I asked Jevanord if there were any creative tensions between Waaktaar and Furuholmen at this early stage. “No, just minor, healthy disagreements all musicians experience during making good music together – four strong personalities,” he replies. “So, no, not like I’ve heard it has become in late a-ha-days!”
Waaktaar’s guitar of choice was a Gibson SG (a model favoured by Robbie Krieger), while Furuholmen’s keyboard setup included a Wasp synthesizer and a Moog Polymoog (203A) synthesizer. The Wasp synth (a favourite of Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes) was a quirky but affordable instrument that was launched by EDP (Electronic Dream Plant) in 1978, and is easily identifiable by its yellow and black colours and unconventional flat keys. The considerably more expensive Moog, meanwhile, dated back to 1975 and featured a number of presets (including harpsichord, piano and organ) and was important to the band, in that it was capable of emulating some of The Doors’ trademark sounds. One notable user of the 203A was Rick Wakeman, who’d used the instrument on some of Yes’s recordings in the late 1970s, while Gary Numan used a more affordable version of the Polymoog (the 280A) to great effect with the iconic Vox Humana preset.
The band also used some additional musicians to augment some of the songs, including strings on the beautiful ‘Vagrants’ (the 4-piece string section included Hans Morten Stensland, who later featured on a-ha’s Foot Of The Mountain album in 2009).
Though unarguably derivative in places, the resulting album is a perfect representation of where the band were at that point. What is really impressive, though, is that the album was cut by a band largely in their late teens and barely out of school (Furuholmen was just 17). Certainly the quality of the musicianship shines through – Bondi’s bass lines are melodic, while Jevanord’s drum playing is adventurous but tight (check out the album’s superb 10-minute centrepiece, ‘The Stranger’s Town’, that showcase a range of skills). But it’s the combination of Waaktaar’s inventive guitar work and Furuholmen’s broad palette of keyboard sounds that characterizes much of Fakkeltog; a sound that was more in tune with the progressive rock genre than the Punk and New Wave sounds that were coming out of the UK and the USA in the late 1970s. Norway had its own progressive rock movement, spearheaded by early ’70s acts such as Saft, Aunt Mary and Popol Ace, but it was a scene that was becoming increasingly unfashionable as the decade wore on.
Whilst Fakkeltog wasn’t quite in tune with the musical trends of the day, the band certainly weren’t alone in their affinity for The Doors’ music – acts such as The Stranglers, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Triffids were all clearly influenced by the Los Angeles rockers. It would be cruel to dismiss Fakkeltog as nothing more than a Doors tribute album, though. Certainly the spectre of the Lizard King looms large: ‘Death Of The Century’ and ‘Vagrants’, portents of Waaktaar’s favoured ballad style with a-ha, echo the mournful and melancholic side of Morrison’s baritone, while the spoken word elements of ‘Every Mortal Night’ recall ‘The WASP (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)’ from 1971. Waaktaar’s guitar playing, whilst not as effortlessly dextrous as Robbie Krieger’s, is certainly impressive and you can hear The Doors guitarist’s influence on tracks such as ‘Somebody’s Going Away’, which feature some fine blues licks.
There were some other key literary references on Fakkeltog as well: Gunvor Hofmo was a reclusive writer who lived in the Nordstrand area of Oslo, publishing several poetry collections. “She was the closest you could get to The Doors in Norway,” Waaktaar later claimed. “Early Bridges songs like ‘Guest On Earth’ were snatched straight out of her poetry collection Gjest På Jorden.” Waaktaar wasn’t alone in his admiration for the poet (who died in 1995) either – many years later, a Norwegian singer-songwriter named Susanna Wallumrød would record an entire album Jeg vil hjem til menneskene using Hofmo’s poetry.
In terms of the history of a-ha, there are two tracks that stand out: ‘May The Last Danse Be Mine’ [sic] and ‘Every Mortal Night’ both featured lyrics that were later recycled on the 1986 b-side ‘This Alone Is Love’, notably the melodic refrain “It will make my last breath pass out at dawn/ It will make my body dissolve out in the blue”. ‘May The Last Danse Be Mine’ was a track that dated back to the early days of the band, and represented a more romantic facet to Waaktaar’s writing. “That album is actually about my first real kiss,” Waaktaar later reflected. “About how at last I felt like a member of the human race. About how relieved and happy I was that it had happened – that someone wanted to be with me. About how I had grown up to the extent that I had thought it was rotten to be alone and about my disappointment when I realised how little she really was involved, but how something in me had been awakened anyway.”
The band had a novel way round of getting round the problem of presenting a three-part album across two sides of vinyl, as Bondi later recalled: “Sometimes Paul and Magne’s genius could get out of hand, such as when they decided that our first album should have three sides instead of two, with a stop-groove in the middle of one side… Very clever, but highly impractical!”
The album, which boasted a striking collage of band photos and lyrics on the front cover, was mixed by Svein Erichsen and Octocon owner Tore Aarnes. The band were confident that no major labels would show an interest in Fakkeltog, so they adopted the DIY ethos of British bands such as The Buzzcocks and released the album themselves on their own Våkenatt label (a name inspired by a Gunvor Hofmo poetry collection from 1954 titled I en våkenatt). Just 1000 copies were pressed, with the band shifting less than half of these units. I asked Jevanord what expectations the band had for the album, and how they promoted it. “Well, just the fact [we made] an album available, and get some reviews in some music papers and daily papers was fantastic – and most of them liked it,” he recalls. “All the promotion we did was to glue lots of posters all over Oslo city wherever we could, and we went around to the most popular record shops in Oslo and asked if they would like to buy some of them… some of them actually did!
By the end of 1980 the band were ensconced in Sound Art Studio in Oslo, working on the follow up to Fakkeltog. Waaktaar had also convinced his band colleagues into a change of band name from Bridges to Poem. “I believe it was Paul’s idea,” says Jevanord. “And the reason was simply to find a more catchy name before we got more well known.” With the change of name there also came a change in musical direction, with the four-piece aiming for a more commercial sound. Fakkeltog’s distillation of Doors and Prog influences had provided an ideal musical grounding for the band, and an insight into record recording and production; but the band was still taking steps to realise their musical identity. An inspired Waaktaar had penned some shorter – and more direct – new songs, which included ‘Soft Rains Of April’ and ‘The Leap’ (an embryonic version of ‘Scoundrel Days’); tracks that would eventually end up on a-ha’s sophomore album. “I recall that the songs were more fresh,” recalls Jevanord. “Simply because we made the songs in the middle of the week at rehearsals and recorded them in Sound Art studio in the weekends – three new songs every week until we had the whole new album. We had evolved as musicians as well, and Sound Art Studio was better equipped and the production was much better sounding.”
Also involved in the making of the new album was former drummer Erik Hagelien: “Paul called me later, after I left, and asked me to join a studio recording,” he recalls. “One single song, ‘Våkenatt’, which I did and enjoyed very much. I recall that Paul’s sister and her boyfriend [Erik Nygaard] was in the studio and that a slide guitar was used.”
The band’s plans were derailed when an intruder broke into the recording studio and stole both the master tapes and Bondi’s Gibson Les Paul bass guitar. A distraught Waaktaar made an appeal to the Aftenposten newspaper in January 1981: “Those tapes couldn’t possibly be of any value to the thieves… But the recordings, the unfinished album, have cost us thousands that we’ve spent on studio time and work. Those tapes are worth so much more to us than the thieves. Can’t we please get them back?” Luckily, the plea proved to be successful and the stolen items were eventually returned. Tor Marcussen, a journalist with Aftenposten at the time, would later write The Story So Far, one of the first books about the band (published in 1986).
Around this time Waaktaar and Bondi travelled to London to pick up a synth-bass but, much to Jevanord’s annoyance, the pair returned with a set of expensive Pollard Syndrums! “I didn’t like it much,” he confirms. “Simply because the synth-drums in 1980 were terrible… more of a toy than an instrument. I used the analog Syndrums, and it was just another sound – like a bad drum machine. But I used them anyway on some tracks, just to please the other guys!” Syndrums were used by some well known acts, including The Cars and Yellow Magic Orchestra, but its primitive sounds soon went out of fashion; particularly following the introduction of the Simmons company’s range of far more authentic sounding electronic drum kits in the early 1980s (showcased by artists such as Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo and Ultravox).
Intent on steering their music in an electronic direction, Waaktaar sold his Gibson guitar. He told The Electricity Club: “I traded my SG for a Roland GR-300 guitar synth for the Poem album… Missing that awesome SG though… never seen a similar one since!” Guitar synthesizers were introduced in the late 1970s and Roland’s GR-300 had been officially endorsed by The Police’s Andy Summers, and used by other artists such as King Crimson and Robert Fripp. Roland enthusiastically described the product in one of their brochures: ‘The GR-300 polyphonic guitar synthesizer has an outstanding expressing ability, being able to reproduce the subtleness of the guitar sound which cannot be obtained by a keyboard synthesizer’. Sadly it didn’t quite live up to its billing and these days the vintage instrument is, like the Syndrum, more of a collector’s piece – Waaktaar soon reverted to guitar, primarily using a Gibson ES-335. Furuholmen, meanwhile, made a far greater investment with the purchase of a new Korg synthesizer; which was to prove far more conducive to their creative aspirations.
The pair announced plans to head to London in the hope of landing a record deal, but Bondi and Jevanord didn’t share their ambitions and declined an invitation to join them. Whilst artwork for the self-titled Poem album had been designed, its release was sadly shelved following the band’s inevitable break-up. Waaktaar and Furuholmen’s alliance with Harket was just around the corner, and a song that the duo had originally rehearsed with Bridges called ‘The Juicy Fruit Song’ would later morph into ‘Take On Me’, changing their lives forever…
Scoundrel Days (the post-Bridges years)
Despite the break-up of the band, Waaktaar and Furuholmen didn’t – pardon the pun – burn their bridges. Bondi and Jevanord kept in touch with their former bandmates, and both played a part in a-ha’s career throughout the 1980s. Bondi – along with Waaktaar’s girlfriend and future wife Lauren Savoy – featured on one of the band’s Rendezvous Studio demos from 1984, an experimental instrumental named ‘Umbrella’ (aka ‘Telephone’), but his main focus during this period was studying law. He’s currently the Executive Director in the Department of Labour and Legal affairs and Competence Development at the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association. He still plays the bass and in recent years has recorded some songs for the appropriately named Guns ‘N Lawyers.
Jevanord, meanwhile, maintained a much higher musical profile and contributed to both the Scoundrel Days and Stay On These Roads albums, playing on key tracks such as ‘Cry Wolf’ and ‘The Blood That Moves The Body’. “We first did a demo version of ‘Cry Wolf’ in Oslo,” Jevanord explains. “And then some months later I was asked to come to London for a week in 1986. We started from scratch with ‘Cry Wolf’, using a drum machine on bass drum, snare and cowbell. Then I did all the cymbals and fills, using a full drum kit with lots of toms – my take took about 20 minutes to do, so the rest of the one-week session I was just present and watched! I remember that, after a couple of test takes, Paul told me to “go bananas”! And I did… that’s the take they used on the record!” On ‘Stay On These Roads’ (the title track), I just played some cymbals recorded at Rainbow Studio in Oslo. On ‘The Blood That Moves The Body’ I did the same as on ‘Cry Wolf’ the year before… not so good – more tame – but okay.”
Jevanord was also a part of a-ha’s live band in 1987: “I was simply asked,” he says, when recalling his appointment. “And I said yes! An adventure – Mike Sturgis on drums and me on percussion; Ian Wherry on keys and Leif Karsten Johansen on bass. Seventeen concerts during three weeks in Japan, two concerts in Reykjavik, Iceland, and five outdoor concerts in the south of France, all during the summer of 1987.”
For a brief period in the mid-1980s, Jevanord was a member of popular Norwegian band deLillos (he recorded two albums with them: Før Var Det Morsomt Med Sne and Suser Avgårde). He’s also played with many other acts, including Fra Lippo Lippi, Beranek, Oslo Plektrum and Michael Krohn. “Most of them no one has ever heard of!” jokes Jevanord, who is also a long-term member of the band Dog Age. “I joined them in 1991 and they’re still going. The band has made eight records, the first in 1987. When I joined the band, they had two records already out, and the first year for me with the band was live performances. It’s kind of an underground band and lo-fi – at the same time, very creative. And the band have never done something with haste, taking their time in making an album – each record in making maybe two , or sometimes three, years. Each member makes songs, so it’s quite variable music. We like to describe the music as psychedelic pop rock, as it’s mostly inspired by late ’60s and early ’70s music. Lots of fun – if you want to listen, you’ll find many of the albums on Spotify!”
Erik Hagelien, the band’s original drummer, currently works for Hans H Schive (a battery manufacturer) and still sees Bondi occasionally: “Just for fun, our first band Essens were reunited about five years ago,” he says. “I meet Viggo and the others a couple of times a year, ending up with the same yearly performance at a local reunion party. I recently bought a second hand drum kit from a famous Norwegian drummer, Thor Andreassen. Viggo hated my digital drums and forced me to take this step which I am very happy for!”
As for Tore Aarnes, the owner of Octocon Studio, his first post-Fakkeltog project (and debut release on Octocon Records), was an impressive progressive rock album by Octopus, released in 1981. Titled Thærie Wiighen, and inspired by the writings of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, this equally rare cult release featured Aarnes on keyboards and synths (a second album, Sica, remains unreleased). Other notable Octocon recordings included 1985 a-ha demos of ‘Scoundrel Days’ and ‘I’ve Been Losing You’; and ‘Dance With The World’, a synth-pop single by Aarnes (under the pseudonym Y Me) that Waaktaar had remixed.
It was confirmed earlier this year that the Poem album is finally set for a long-awaited commercial release. “I’ve just mastered the second Bridges album,” Waaktaar tells me. “And I’m surprised how good it ended up sounding, considering the age of the tape and the modest studio we used.” In the meantime, fans can look forward to a brand new Savoy album (provisionally penciled in for September).
Fakkeltog is still a highly prized collector’s item, with some copies changing hands for over £500. It was unofficially re-released by Luna Nera Records as a limited edition in 2012, but the tracks are now easily accessible via vinyl rips on YouTube, giving a fresh generation of a-ha fans the opportunity to listen to this cult favourite. I asked Waaktaar about the master tapes and a potential official reissue. “Those tapes have worn a bit over the years,” he says. “I did get a transfer of the multi-track last year. And, who knows, maybe we’ll remix this one as well one day. The album was done on 8-track and the main performance is already mixed down on two tracks so it’s limited to what you can do to restore it.”
I asked Erik Hagelien, the band’s original drummer, what he thought about Fakkeltog. “Great album, with jazz rock elements,” he says. “My favourite is ‘May The Last Danse Be Mine’, since I knew this song so well from our playlist.”
“I think it’s good music,” adds Jevanord, fondly. “And we did what we could at the time to make it feel good. We were four happy, self-taught amateurs, but with good intentions in a cheap recording studio. I think it’s good if you think about that… and we made the album in one week!”
As for a Bridges reunion, Bondi recalled talk in the early 1990s of a potential reformation: “I was contacted by Paul and he said ‘I think we should talk about [getting] together again’… and I think Paul was thinking about Bridges actually at that stage… So I took out the old LP, was listening to the songs and started to practise and I was almost there, waiting for another phone call from Paul… still waiting for it!”
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Erik Hagelien, Øystein Jevanord, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy and Viggo Bondi