The Wire February 1994: Sounding the Advance
As it’s coming up to the beginning of the end of the millennium, over the next few months The Wire will be running several pieces about music and the 21st century. Think of them as lessons for leaving the present century; music isn’t going to be the same, and you’d better be ready.
Ben Thompson meets Future Sound Of London, virtual warriors of tomorrow’s landscape
Journey with me to Future Sound Of London’s Earthbeat studio: turn right out of Dollis Hill tube station, through a rickety doorway, along a Barratt Home corridor, and it’s the first on the left.
Inside, the vibration is pristine. It was not always so. A transparent rainbow coloured plastic press release describes the ambience pre-Virgin Records cash injection: “Dead skin cells piled up until the equivalent of half a discarded (or perhaps emergent) human being clogged all physical pathways.” Now, there’s a clean bare floor, and none of the big piles of records, tapes and videos that might be found in, say, Orbital’s workplace: just a couple of screens with not quite finished computer graphics on, and lots of little red lights.
The place does not lack character, but relies upon its inhabitants to supply it. The two people who work here make as unlikely a partnership as you could wish to come across. Gary Cobain, no relation to Nirvana’s Kurt, is tall suave individual, full of not wholly ironic corporate chat about “life changing products”. Brian Dougans is smaller: an alternately dour and twinkly Scotsman with slightly pointed ears, who doesn’t mind making a cup of coffee and is happy to offer visitors a share of his herbal cigarette, but not the much more appealing packet of biscuits on a shelf in the corner.
“The romantic modernist phase of electronic music depicting science fiction futures or space missions is over (almost), despite a late surge,” it says on the see-through plastic thing. “Explorations into the great unknowns are discredited, only relevant in the most escapist sense for a world which cannot cope with complexity, chaos and strangeness of here and now.” Roll over Alex Paterson, tell Jean-Michel Jarre the news.
“It’s not a question of going to outer space,” Gary amplifies in person. “I don’t need to go to outer space: here is weird enough.”
“People don’t understand what electronic music means,” he continues, gesturing towards a big rack of gleaming metal stuff. “It means whatever is generated within this space, and in this environment we can do whatever we want. I’d have no qualms about bringing in a guitar into this environment for example, or a voice.” The new Future Sound Of London album, Lifeforms, features few such heresies, but there are ticking clocks, wind chimes, and the sound of pigeons taking off. This novelty checklist is becoming Ambient custom, but if you’re going to make music, why not make it out of the things that are around you? “It’s all about re-evaluation of your own space,” is how Gary puts it. “We play games within our space: it’s like an electronic form of masturbation,” he laughs.
The Future Sound Of London ideal is not to be so much group as a “broadcasting system”. Residents of North West London may have observed them trawling around the streets picking up sights and sounds with high quality video cameras. “The idea is that through the electronic media you can bullshit your way to a glamorous life,” Gary explains. Separating for a holiday recently, he and Brian challenged each other to take video equipment and see who could make their vacation look the swankiest. Brian won.
They might have the air of men swimming out to catch another wave, but these men are no hi-tech slackers. Since signing to Virgin on the strength of the revelatory 1992 hit single “Papua New Guinea”, and equally rewarding if less widely celebrated album Accelerator, they have been far from idle. As well as long stints on remix duty (their most recent assignment, a challenging one, to make Sylvian and Fripp listenable), Future Sound Of London have made practice records as Metropolis, done a couple of bizarre and excellent middle of the night radio shows on Kiss FM and released an intriguing proper album, Tales of Ephidrena, under the name Amorphous Androgynous. “It was meant to be a comment about how life is becoming very shapeless and sexless,” says Gary, “because everyone’s always wrapped up doing something of their own…. Well I am anyway.”
In the autumn came “Cascades”, a six-part, 30 minute single, resolutely lacking in a dance mix, which not very many people bought. A few weeks before its release Gary described it quite happily as “a statement that is probably going to fail”. Future Sound Of London like to see their task as “threatening lazy ears” so it doesn’t displease them if “people are frightened of this music that has come from dance music, but no longer is it.” What is it that sets them apart from the chummy Megadog circuit (which includes such new electronic contemporaries as Orbital, The Drum Club and Aphex Twin)? “Without being egotistical,” Gary qualifies untruthfully, “I think that the difference between us and them is that we are true futurists; we’re trying to delearn everything that we’ve learnt, the whole set of rules that grew up with dance music.”
“Papua New Guinea” was an example of the dance music mechanism in perfect working order; white label copies going to DJs who then passed an innovative dance tune on to thousands of people while bypassing most radio stations. That system is now “old hat”.
Among the alternative avenues of communication Future Sound Of London intend to swagger down are PO Box publishing – a book called The Psychology of Facelessness written by, well, I can’t remember – and film. The quest for a film deal and the acquisition of vast piles of expensive sound and sight equipment (they call it “the audio visual swindle”) seems to have been their main priority in recent months. The problem with previous attempts to illustrate the noises of tomorrow has, they say, been that “the people who are making the music haven’t been the ones making the videos,” and both Gary and Brian talk excitedly of “morph musicals” in which tree trunks and flowers grow out of their heads.
They recently decided not to participate in the Virtual Nightclub project (a multi-media CD-I launched by Phillips that recreated the inside of a nightclub via your computer terminal, and includes input from The Shamen, Mixmaster Morris and psychotropic guru Terence McKenna), though these are obviously the kind of lines they are thinking along. You can go in and choose rooms, apparently – there’s the Shamen one and presumably lots of people in polo shirts fighting and being sick in another. Why not, says the Luddite in us all, just go to an actual nightclub? The Future Sound Of London stand their ground.
“It’s all about exploring new methods of communication,” says Gary, “If I thought I was encouraging a culture where people just sit at home and only wanted to experience things through electronics, I would kill myself.” “Oh I wouldn’t,” Brian disagrees, “I quite like the idea of that – almost like paradise.”
Quite a serious argument ensues – one of many, it feels like. It’s Future Sound Of London’s contradictions that hold them together. Cobain, urbane warrior of audio visual future shock, at one point quotes Jim Morrison to the effect that “Music is your only friend.” Lifeforms is the sound of an argument, or a neighbourhood building site, banging away gently in the back of your mind. You can’t be quite sure what they’re putting up there, but when it’s finished, everything will be different and maybe better, even.
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