Melody Maker 11 June 1994: Music For Narcissists
Future Sound of London are contradictory buggers. They’re state-of-the-art electronic wizards who don’t like dance music, egomaniacs who don’t like themselves. Ian Gittins meets the self-doubting sonic voyagers.
Future Sound of London are the most groundbreaking and fascinating electronic musicians today. Gary Cobain and Brian Dougan first came to our attention with the superlative “Papua New Guinea” single two years ago, but now the duo have released a thought-provoking and radical album which surpasses even that towering peak. Lifeforms, by any rational evaluation, is 1994’s Album Of The Year. It’s a beating, pulsing and frequently disturbing whole which is entirely as coherent and/or fractured as is the daily lurch through the world you fondly call your life. Future Sound Of London capture and pervert the barrage of sense-impressions which besiege you in the street, at work, in your home, and, for want of a better word, call it music.
Naturally, there’s a price to pay for such diligent and obsessive devotion to duty. Cobain and Dougan, men who admit to having 400 hours of recorded sound and visuals stored on tape, spend every day holed up in a Portakabin studio in north London. They record, edit, re-assemble, remix, argue. It’s their life. Future Sound Of London describe their sonic experiments to me with an extraordinary mix of arrogance and timidity, as if they’re never quite sure whether their work is inspirational and fantastic or utterly futile. They freely admit that they’re really not terribly well-balanced human beings.
“I used to be quite sociable,” says the louche, intimidatingly articulate Cobain, as his partner snorts and mutters in the background. “But now I’ve decided that Brian was right all along not to like people. I can’t be arsed with a social life. I’m extremely disappointed by human beings every day of my life.”
Future Sound Of London are control freaks.
They do it all their way. They dislike photograph sessions, preferring to illustrate press articles with their own stunning, Apple Mac-generated computer imagery and graphics, and they video this interview for any possible further use. Cobain would like to write all magazine articles about Future Sound Of London himself (“Because most of them make me absolutely f***ing cringe, they don’t represent us at all”). I offer to let him write this one, but then he learns about our freelance rates.
FSOL’s most recent exercise in control was to play a “live” gig from the comfort of their studio. Cobain and Dougan mixed music in the studio, turned the sounds into code and sent it down digital telephone lines to Pete Tong’s Radio 1 programme, where it was decoded and broadcasted to millions of listeners. The duo are now repeating the process on a whole range of regional stations and networks. I pass an offhand comment that the exercise could be seen as a gimmick or a scam, and the erudite, far-from-curt Cobain is livid.
“No, it makes a lot of sense. It’s electronic music finding its own context. Electronic musicians are always encouraged to go out and play live, but what’s the point? It’s f***ing boring! It’s an excellent idea to play gigs from a studio, down a phone line. Why always go the tried-and-tested routes?
“I think we’re teaching people to use their ears again. They sit at home and wonder, ‘What the f***’s going on?’ So why be cynical? Why call it a scam? It’s exciting to get two hours of an uncommunicative medium like Radio 1 and subvert it, bring about a change. Believe me, we’ve had thousands of letters from people who’ve heard our broadcasts and been extremely moved.”
Future Sound Of London freely admit that their work and ethos is riddled with contradictions. Cobain is an electronic music obsessive who hated the club explosion of five years back, regarding the dance scene as superficial and insignificant.
“I found clubbing the most unfulfilling experience of my f***ing life,” he says. “There was no depth of communication. Everybody says there was this great communal thing about hooking into people and feeling this warmth but, I’m sorry, I just never found that at all. I’d much rather sit on the Internet [a message and communication network used by computer buffs] where you can have the deepest conversations of your life.”
Dougan, spliffing and mumbling down the far end of the studio, makes one of his rare interjections: “There’s a new breed of electronic music which is all about yourself and self-questioning, not about dancing.”
How does your music – this beautiful and ever-shifting mosaic of sonic shimmers – help you re-evaluate your existence?
“It’s totally self-analytical music for narcissist,” says Cobain. “It’s brutal realism. It reflects my space so f***ing radically that it’s actually about me flaking away, falling apart and my body disintegrating into the ground.”
Gary Cobain plunges into one of the many worrying tailspins of confidence which punctuate our conversation.
“We don’t actually like what we do, right? That’s one of our f***ing contradictions. We keep telling ourselves that we’re f***ing idiots and we’re crap and what we do sucks, that it’s all been heard before. We don’t want to be pompous assholes just into avant-garde computer bullshit.
“We say we keep control of everything,” he reflects, “but do we? Maybe it’s all f***ing bullshit. All we do is edit – edit sounds, edit visuals, edit life. Maybe we’re just sophisticated critics, very good critics, who would die and fizzle away if we didn’t keep control of everything.”
Future Sound Of London make my brain hurt, but they are beyond doubt gifted and valuable operatives with extraordinary insights into the huge potentialities of electronic communication. They have two more albums waiting for release, they are going to make TV programmes (“Which will be a real mindf***”), they set themselves impossible and exacting standards – and Lifeforms is a work of genius.
So who needs friends anyway?
“The degree of control Brian and I exercise over our music and our lives is deeply unhealthy,” Cobain says. “There are a lot of negatives, and I’m thinking very hard whether I want to carry on, because this is making me really unhappy. We don’t even achieve what we’re trying to do.
“Where’s it all going to end?”
Future Sound Of London have no immediate plans to cover “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”.
Lifeforms is out now on Virgin.
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