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(2001-11) Future Music

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Just a Fuckin' Idiot

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(2001-11) Future Music

PostMon Nov 25, 2013 6:08 pm

Future Music November 2001

Once the darlings of avant-garde electronica, Future Sound Of London have been pretty quiet of late. But Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans are back with a handful of releases and a radical new sound...

You may not have realised it, but Future Sound Of London recently achieved one of rock music's greatest accolades. And we're not talking about a Number 1 album, a Number 1 single, being big in Japan, cracking the US market or touring with Kylie. No, Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans actually made it into Q magazine's infamous Where Are They Now? file.
"It was," laughs Cobain, "a very Spinal Tap moment. We thought, 'God, does that mean we're finished? Maybe we should think about retiring to Scotland and taking up salmon farming for a living'. Isn't that what has-been rock stars do? I suppose, in a funny way, I was quite proud of being in there. How many bands disappear for so long that people actually start to think, 'Where have they buggered off to?'. Who knows. It may well have been all part of the big FSOL plan!

Now they are here.
Unfortunately, the truth behind the band's enforced hiatus was not quite so amusing. Garry Cobain had actually contracted mercury poisoning from silver fillings in his teeth. Various parts of his body began to malfunction and, after a 24-hour heart scan, doctors warned him that he was heading for a heart attack. Understandably, Cobain has spent much of the last five years - the band's last release was 1996's Dead Cities, which also included their biggest single to date, "We Have Explosive" - repairing the damage. He changed his diet, he travelled, he studied alternative medicines and, yes, he had those bloody fillings removed.
But it wasn't all quiet on the musical front. In fact, over the next few months, we're going to be treated to a veritable slew of FSOL releases, some new, some not so new. First, there was a recent re-release for the band's most famous single, "Papua New Guinea". Then there's a re-release of their debut album, Accelerator, complete with a second CD of "Papua New Guinea" remixes. Next up comes a sort of 'new' album's worth of "Papua New Guinea" reworkings called Translations. And finally, next year, we should see the release of a fresh set of tunes under the band's Amorphous Androgynous banner.

Cobain - who, despite the constant presence of Brian Dougans, does most of the talking - attempts to explain the current FSOL gameplan. "The re-release of "Papua New Guinea", Accelerator and the collection of "Papua New Guinea" remixes all came out on our old label, Jumpin' & Pumpin. We endorsed those releases, but we didn't have much to do with them, if you know what I mean. Translations, on the other hand, is all our own work, it contains no remixes from other people. It's actually our attempt to put "Papua New Guinea" in a context we're happy with. That single, even though everybody knows us for it, never really existed as our own body of work.
"All our other singles - things like "My Kingdom", "We Have Explosive", "Far-Out Son of Lung and the Ramblings of a Madman" - were long-form singles. They were songs that seeped out of a kind of FSOL sound aesthetic, an FSOL soundscape. So we took "Papua New Guinea" and we remixed it, we reworked it, we reinterpreted it. Call it what you will. Basically, we tried to bring "Papua New Guinea" in line with all those other singles. We tried to make it our own."
Although that does mean there are currently the best part of 20 different remixes of the song knocking around in some form or other, it has rather smartly reminded the world that FSOL are still here and they haven't quite succumbed to the lure of the Scottish trout farm. But the band's Translations project also had one other function, as Cobain explains. "Early next year, people are going to finally get to hear the radical new sound we've been working on. We've tried to make Translations a kind of stepping stone from the old FSOL to the new FSOL/Amorphous Androgynous. We're back writing proper songs, with guitars. We're dabbling in rock n roll, in psychedelia and folk. It's going to make people look at us very differently.

It's all new
Cobain seems almost evangelical when talking about this new sound. Indeed, he can't resist slipping a CD of early mixes into a nearby ghetto blaster. FM can confirm that when he says radical, he means radical. Imagine the Beatles meets the psychedelic grooves of I Monster's recent "Daydream in Blue" meets Captain Beefheart meets Mercury Rev. All delivered with that familiar FSOL electronic twist.
"Virgin Records [FSOL's label for much of the last decade] didn't get it," groans Cobain. "They told us we'd lose our fanbase if we came out with something like this. So we decided to part company. Amicably, of course. I suppose they were just playing it safe. They've had a couple of bad years, so they need some obvious pop singles. This is not obvious pop single music. There are singles on there, but this is deep, cool, very meaningful music. And we love it."
Coinciding with this new sound, the band have migrated to a new studio, christened Galaxial Pharmaceutical, right in the heart of London's ultra-hip, bohemian quarter, Hoxton. For a band who made their name as one of dance music's most cutting-edge acts, it looks decidedly old-fashioned. Admittedly, there is a Mac and a room full of analogue synths and outboard gear, but there's also a live room littered with guitars, banjos, mandolins, weird percussion toys and even a kid's drumkit.
"We were always talked about as being this state-of-the-art, super-technical band," grins Cobain, "but the ironic thing was that, up until last couple of years, we were still using the Atari 1040. In fact, I still work on that even now. People used to talk about our old studio, Earthbeat, as if it was some kind of spaceship, but if you compared it with where, say, Oasis or some indie band were recording their album at the time, it was very DIY, very punk rock.
"I think the reason we cultivated this image of being ultra-technical was not because of the equipment that we were using, but because of what we did with it. We were experimenting with audio-visual stuff, but our videos weren't the usual run-of-the-mill videos. Even so, the truth is that we've only just got Adobe Photoshop 5. We've been working on Version 3 for years.
"We also got into things like ISDN well before it became the buzzword for the club generation. We did the virtual tours, we made page 3 of The Guardian and The Observer... we were pushing the envelope. But even back then, we were looking for something else. It almost seemed to be getting too technical, too cold, too big brother.
"We could have taken that whole ISDN thing a lot further," Cobain continues. "We had the big money sponsorship deals, but it just got to the point where it didn't seem relevant anymore. And we always seemed to get so disappointed with the actual quality of the product. ISDN was never as impressive as we wanted it to be. We had a vision, but ISDN wasn't allowing us to achieve that vision. So we just stopped. We moved on. But the funny thing was, what we moved on to, was being a kind of modern, electronic folk band."

Queer as folk
Cobain is perhaps exaggerating just a wee bit when he calls the current FSOL/Amorphous Androgynous sound folk, but it's certainly a long way from the growling, ambient electronica of Dead Cities. Tracks on Translations like "Translation 4: Wooden Ships" and the banjo-flecked "Translation 6: Requiem" drop huge hints as to where Cobain and Dougans are heading with their music.
"What we're trying to achieve is that complete amalgamation of the musical and the electronic," says Cobain. "If you look at bands like Radiohead and Mercury Rev, they're beginning to ask themselves if the straight band format is really the best way the put their music across. And, increasingly, the answer is no. You need that collage, that meeting of the played and the electronic.
"When we moved to this studio," Cobain continues, "we knew we needed a live room. Almost all the new songs that we're working on now start with just me on the acoustic. And that's the subtle difference between how we worked as FSOL in the past and how we're now working now. For old FSOL songs, we would always start with the sample. We'd find an interesting bit of music or noise to use, then we'd build everything up on top of that.
"These days, we start with our own played instruments, chop them up and build from there. It's a small point, but it makes a dramatic difference to the end result. We still use things like breaks and loops, but we're just as likely to spend as much time recording and chopping up live drums. In fact, what we've been trying to do is make live drums sound like breaks. We've been investigating things like 60s compression, trying to give an otherwise ordinary sounding drum loop that little twist which can turn it into something quite extraordinary.
"We were looking for this new sound as soon as we started work on Translations," Cobain carries on, obviously on a roll. "We've built up this musical family around us: sitar players, brass sections, percussionists, string arrangers, Captain Beefheart's old guitar player. Whenever they're in town, we get them to come round to the studio and they jam for a couple of hours on whatever it is we're working on. We're not looking for the most technically gifted performances, what we're after is that sonic other-worldliness, that special something that stirs your soul.
"I don't know how to explain it. It's like trying to explain air. But give me and Brian a tape of noise or music and we'll almost always pick out the same bits. As a unit, we know what we're after." Consequently, a lot of work on Translations and the forthcoming Amorphous album was done on the Mac, chopping up and collating samples in VST.
"Technically, I suppose we could still work with the Atari and a rack of samplers," explains Cobain, "but it just got to the point where we needed the memory space to be able to download whole sections of a guitar solo and be able to work on each section quite intricately. I don't think we could really manage without VST now.
"And it wasn't just things like guitars and vocals we were chopping up. We've recorded all sorts in the live room. We had an eight-piece string section up here, a brass section, double bass, Brian on the harmonica, me playing a little toy drumkit. I suppose we did feel a bit of pressure when we had a full string section in the room, but we just did our normal thing and played around until it sounded right. Some people might go out and buy a How To Mic Up Strings book, but that's never been the FSOL style. We just wiggle things around until it gets the right vibe.
"Was it a technically perfect recording? I don't know. And, to be honest, I don't care. Like I said, we're not looking for perfection, we're just waiting for that moment when it makes your blood rush.

It takes two
Cobain pauses. Which is not something he does often. Garry Cobain, y'see, is one of those blokes who likes to talk. Seeing him and Brian Dougans sitting together, you wonder how they actually manage to get along: Cobain the confident, bearded, hairy, mile-a-minute, otherworldly, hippy health-freak; Dougans the nervous, softly-spoken, shaven-headed, down-to-earth, fag-smokin' boffin. But somehow, it seems to work. Somehow, when they get inside the studio, everything falls into place.
"We see ourselves as explorers," Cobain continues after gulping in another couple of lung's worth of air. "We're investigating anything we can get our hands on. We've discovered new DJs, new herbs, new medicines, new radio shows, new singers. In fact, I try and apply the same visionary spirit that comes out in our music to everything I do in life. If I cook, I cook with the same passion as I make music. If I'm decorating my flat, I do it with the same passion as I make music. If you're an artist, you're an artist every hour of every day." Brian Dougans just smiles.
"To go back to what we were talking about at the start of the interview," says Cobain, "and people asking where have we been for five years? We've been everywhere. And we've been busy. We've built up a body of new product that's going to take us to the next stage of FSOL's existence. We're already talking with a load of new labels but, to be honest, I'm not sure if any of them can offer us anything we can't do ourselves. The FSOL brand name is recognised all over the world. We can build on that. We are currently going through the most creative period in FSOL's entire history. And we're having a lot fun."

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