Planet Magazine 2002: Future Sound of London, Adventures in Inner Space
Seven years after their last record – Future Sound of London – the seminal early ‘90s intelli-techno duo has resurfaced with a progtronic sound spectacular that infuses mind expanding gobbledygook psychedelia with their heralded sound collage DJ sets. It’s so heady that the dance floor nation may miss the point entirely – and the band couldn’t care less.
On this year’s best selling CD Eminem proudly proclaims, "I’ve got no time to play around with isness" – yet for Gaz Cobain and Brian Dougans, the men behind London-based Future Sound of London, the central point in life is ‘the isness’. It’s not only the title of their first new album in seven years – best described as a ‘progtronic rock cosmic psychedelic odyssey (Gaz’s words, not mine) – but their joie d’vivre, their ‘raison d’etre.
"I think this album is the sound of two guys trying to get a sense of balance. Trying to redress the balance between soul, technology, mind, and love," says Gaz Cobain, the – shall we say – more cosmically aware of the duo. He’s speaking on the phone from their London studio. Over the next hour he will pause the conversation repeatedly to reclaim his ‘balance’, call famed tantric yogi and Reagan cult scapegoat Osho ‘his lover’, tell how a rich man who is now a poor man found his center, and affirm ‘that he is willing to look like a madman’ to reclaim his inner psychedelia. Not exactly what one would expect from the duo that was once the leading light of the early ‘90s ambient movement – a band whose legendary album Lifeforms is a cold William Gibson-esque romp through brutal futurism – but certainly a recipe for what might be the most mind expanding album of the year. But India can do that to you – it changed The Beatles – and it certainly changed Gaz Cobain, or as he says, "once you’ve healed you can never really be the same."
"The brain is natural, the mind is junk" — Yogi saying
It was 1996, and the lads had just released Dead Cities, a highly lauded album that advanced ambient music into a pastiche of dub, jazz, prog, experimental, and industrial – it wasn’t really ambient anymore – yet there wasn’t a better term that anyone could figure out to describe it. Then to confuse matters even more FSOL choose to tour electronically – broadcasting mix shows over ISDN lines to clubs in sets that would come to be known as "A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble" – a pastiche of sound collages that had less to do with moving your feet than your mind. The sets were a record collector’s dream – dense, layered, and schizophrenic – and reflected their love of thrift store records and obscure bargain bin finds. Eventually Gaz even tired of this. "Music became too intellectual, for me it lost [its joy]. It was about who could be cleverest in programming – that was appealing to the mind, but not to the center," he says.
Perhaps this would be a good time to make an attempt to quantify what Gaz means by ‘center’, ‘balance’ and ‘isness’. You see, Gaz got sick… not just the flu mind you... but really sick. During his illness he began to strip away layer after layer, he stopped doing drugs, he stopped drinking, he stopped eating meat, he stopped eating refined foods… and finally he even stopped using computers (positive ions being bad for you and all). This process led him to India. He spent months meditating and fasting in what Depeche Mode might call an attempt to "get the balance right". Within time it was like he was 16 again, strumming acoustic guitar, singing gobbledygook lyrics, and collecting odd bits of phrases in his notebook.
You might ask yourself, as I did, what the hell was Brian doing all this time? He’s got bills to pay right? Well, he wasn’t really doing all that much. He became interested in pinhole photography (the results of which you can see on the cover of The Isness) and would stare at Gaz’s house and wonder. "I’d wonder where the fuck he is – wonder who the fuck he is." The only trace of Gaz was the credit card bills and mysterious acoustic tapes from India that would show up in his mailbox now and again.
When Gaz returned from the East he was a changed man. Even though he was now sleeping on an inflatable mattress in the back of their studio he was content. He had become ‘conscious’. He felt absolutely alive and vibrant in the moment. Everything became art – Gaz learned to ‘walk, breathe, shit, and make love with joy and creativity." And this he felt was not just good, but very, very good.
"People are afraid of freedom" — Osho
"I saw someone the other day," says Gaz, suddenly, "They said, ‘how did you make such a weird record when you are sooo completely straight.’ "
That person was right, The Isness is a weird record – not just an unusual aural experience – but what might be called a slowly digestible ‘psychedelic bubble’. You won’t get it on one listen; you won’t get it on two. You might not even get it on three. The band lists this album’s influences as The Beatles’ "Tomorrow Never Knows", ELO, David Bowie, Supertramp, Ananda Shankar, Miles Davis’ Panthalasa, Rolling Stones’ "2000 Light Years From Home", Mercury Rev, and Hariprasad Charurasia. And believe it or not – they are all there. Additionally, the mystic ‘isness’ of Gaz’s adventures through inner space leaves a strong imprint. There are tracks with names like "Osho" and "Guru Song" and the album’s centerpiece, the 12-minute "Galaxial Pharmeceutical", is a direct "echo" of David Bowie’s "Space Oddity" or Elton John’s "Rocket Man" – only this time we’re exploring inner rather than outer space.
Additionally the album is filled with many psychedelic hallmarks – cuckoo clocks, backwards instruments, sitars, and chirping nature sounds. Only Gaz would never call it that – "I make soul music," he says without even a hint of irony. "I make religious music. I am required to [make an album] that is a real ostentatious celebration."
Remember those notebooks Gaz had filled up with odds and sods during his travels and travails? Well those begat the first FSOL songs ever with lyrics – there are five on the The Isness. Yet while some may, as Gaz says, listen to the lyrics and say ‘what a load of rubbish’, he has pieced those lyrics together so they "absolutely imply very obliquely" what he’s talking about. What this really means is – besides "Galaxial Pharmaceutical", which I just explained – you’re on your own. Unless of course you can obliquely implicitly understand what a phrase like "she’s hiding from the yo-yo/it’s a real no-no/life with jo-jo" means. I can’t.
The Isness is a classic psychedelic head trip. A direct descendent of ‘trip the light fandango’ experiences like Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma or The Monkee’s Head. It takes little imagination to envision The Isness midnight laserium show coming to a Space Center near you! India, sitars, gurus, and meditation — oh my. What’s left besides Timothy Leary?
The listener must decide if the album is a museum piece 35 years behind the time… or the start of what Gaz calls a "healing movement". Either way you’ll be hard pressed to find another album like The Isness released in the past 30 years.
Oh, and one other thing – the lads are adamant that the album won’t be released under the moniker Future Sound of London. Just don’t tell their record company; there seems to be some disagreement. Apparently they feel an album recorded under the name of one of the band’s many pseudonyms, Amorphous Andrygynous, won’t hold the same sales cachet as "Future Sound of London’s first new album in 7 years!", as my advance sticker excitedly proclaims. Gaz couldn’t care less: "I’ve spent my whole life standing up for my right to be a free human being, to live my life as I wish even if that means I’m going to be poor – I will live making the art I want to make."
Maybe it’s all too much for the electronic music community. The deep "spirituality" has freaked out most of the interviewers from the electronic and lifestyle magazines. Understandably. Sometimes you’re not sure what to make of an artist who explains their album is called The Isness because ‘it is what life would be like if we stopped fabricating illusions of what we’d like to be in the future and holding on to the past." Or that the only time you really experience ‘the isness’ is at the moment of orgasm or death.
My question: Are people who are looking for transcendence in a pill and an endless 4/4 rhythm really going to care about "inner psychedelia, and resonating truth"? Maybe not, but for all the oddities and eccentricities that Gaz represents one hopes The Isness gets recognition both by and outside the community that spawned it. For while The Isness is an album no one would have expected from Future Sound of London, it’s also an album that no one should forget any time soon.
Perhaps it’s time for each of us ‘to get the balance right.’
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