Future Sound of London
Text: Tim Barr
As the tube train runs out to Dollis Hill, home of Future Sound of London’s Earthbeat Studio, the bright sunshine suddenly disappears to be replaced by driving rain. The sky darkens and hailstones begin to pound the windows of the carriage. All at once, as though it had never happened the sun reappears as we pull into the station, erasing all traces of any upset in the weather. It’s a fitting metaphor. Transient, intangible, slightly unsettling, the music of FSOL shifts, changes, does things when you least expect it to. Their new album Lifeforms, three years in the making, is a journey into the interior of experimental electronics and ambient introspection. It is as far removed from the hedonistic world of dance culture as it is possible to imagine. Lifeforms is electronic listening music for the Nineties. Current reports suggest it’ll be either this generation’s Dark Side of The Moon or else remain ignored, too far ahead of its time to completely synchronise with a mass-market culture used to fast-take, instant gratification.
It wasn’t always this way. When Brian Dougans and Garry Cobain first joined forces in the mid-Eighties, it was dance music which secured their interest. Under a variety of different names, Yage, Art Science Technology, Mental Cube, Indo Tribe, Smart Systems and, of course FSOL, they went on to release records which explored the boundaries of house and techno. Their meeting with video artists Mark Maclean and Colin Scott at Manchester’s Hacienda led to the Stakker collaboration and ‘Humanoid’, an acidic techno workout driven by speeded-up breakbeats and stark, robotic samples. More than anything else, the Stakker period was responsible for firing their current enthusiasm for multimedia.
But it was the aching beauty of ‘Papua New Guinea’ which really put FSOL on the map. One of the British dance records to truly explore the vast possibilities of the new music, it prompted a major label scramble to secure the FSOL signature. Virgin, with a bid of around £200,000 emerged victorious, only to find that they had signed a band who no longer wished to be a band.
Following the Accelerator album, FSOL began reinventing themselves. They began working on various projects, including film treatments, broadcasting and computer graphics. They also set up their own label, EBV, initially to provide another outlet forcreative material, such as last year’s excellent ‘Amorphous Androgynous’ set, and through which they’re about to publish a limited edition book, full of “timeless observationist points” with “quite abstract pictures”. It’s been a busy time. Virgin, faced with a band which has become, like its music, a fluid, shifting entity, has had to be patient. Though we’ve had ‘Cascade’, a 31 minute, 50 second single, and its accompanying video, created, of course, by FSOL themselves, the band that made ‘Papua New Guinea’ have ceased to exist. Instead, FSOL are now a broadcasting system, audio-visual pioneers whose ultimate goal is to transcend the limitations and structures of contemporary creative media. Driven by a desperate desire to communication ideas, whether on record, film, book or radio show, FSOL want the future, now. Quite simply, they want everything.
Brian Dougans sighs. “I’m stoned”, he admits. The FSOL interview scenario is tried and tested to the point of becoming ritualistic. Those wishing to explore their collective psyche meet Brian and Garry in the suitably hi-tech surroundings of their studio. ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ plays endlessly on the video monitor which dominates the airy wood-paneled control room. Brian, subdued and almost nervous, paces back and forth. In contrast, Garry is confident, loquacious, breezing in with an easy arrogance which is at once intimidating and appealing. It’s a scene which has been played out many times before. Yet it isn’t contrived. Instead, it seems a natural shorthand. Quickly displaying the tensions inherent in their relationship, shading in the facets of the FSOL personality, it’s a strictly controlled introduction to their world.
Garry does most of the talking. Six months ago, he described Lifeforms as “total, confrontational ambient space music”. Since then there’s been a further period of creation, revision and editing to bring the album to its final stage. How does he view it now? “I think it’s the first electronic album which actually deserves to be an album” he answers, in a typically broad gesture. “I support all the electronic albums which are coming out at the moment because they’re a kick in the arse for all the dance stuff which is being released. But I’m getting pretty tired of that sound. Lifeforms is the best
electronic album ever made – but it sucks at the same time. I guess that’s why we’re always moving on, because we have doubts about most of our music.”
FSOL built their career in dance music. Their current stance is dismissive. “I hated house music” Garry argues. “House music came from the soul generation. But, when I first heard acid house I thought it was incredible. So we went for that sound. It was a positive thing, we learnt from it. Now dance music has become this mechanism whereby people earn their livings. There’s a whole industry based on it. Nobody wants it to change because they’re all concerned with keeping their livings intact, whatever those may be – journalists, DJs, club-owners, record shop owners, all of them. You have to deal with egos, greed and a whole kind of superstructure which has very little to do with the music itself. It’s rotten with it. So we made a conscious decision to get out of it!”
Doesn’t he feel at all guilty about biting the hand that initially fed him? “Not at all. We have to earn our living everyday. We’re concerned with creating something which is different and we risk that living every time we come in here. We’re prepared to go from a good salary to absolutely nothing because that’s what we believe in. That’s why our music has supported us. We’re not prepared to do a particular kind of thing just because that’s what easiest. We could have been a lot more secure, right down the line, because, when we signed to Virgin, they thought that we were going to be this left-of-centre dance act and yet we refused, categorically, to do dance mixes. We don’t want to use that mechanism at all. I think that the whole white label promo structure, the DJ chart mentality, the eight mix double-pack syndrome, sucks. The new mechanismm which has evolved with electronic music is a lot more genuine.”
“I’m not saying that there isn’t good dance music. What I’m objecting to is the way in which people are directly trying to use that mechanism as a set of rules for making music. From a personal point of view, every time we write something, if it’s something we’ve heard before, we move on. We basically beat ourselves up, everyday, to do what we do. It’s really self-interrogation. It’s a very difficult process to try to write new music, and I don’t think we’re succeeding. We are in some ways, but we’re still not producing the completely new music that we want to. That philosophy means that we can’t just come in here and obey a set of rules in the way that so much of the dance music which is being released at the moment does. It’s too easy and it’s lazy. We don’t want to do that.”
“One of the problems which we have with club culture, in particular, is its obsession with what’s current. It ignores the whole history of music. For the first time in five years, I’m actually understanding the greater context of music. There has been music, throughout history, which is incredibly deep and matters and means something. Our radio shows are designed to reflect that. We’ll mix an Arabic singer with a guitar band, put a dance track next to an electronic piece. We just pick and choose from different areas and it all gels together. We don’t need to play purely dance tracks to build a meaningful set. That’s a club mentality. We don’t go to clubs. We hate clubs. Yet we’ve already been proposed for a Sony broadcasting award. We get hundreds of letters from people who have listened to the shows. We’ve had eight-page letters, analysing the
whole nature of the radio thing. We don’t get that kind of response from our music, so it’s an interesting point for us.”
With a substantial investment in FSOL, how did Virgin react to these activities? “I think that we’re the first band for quite a few years to teach a major label something. The idea of a band signing for a lot of money and then saying ‘we don’t want to be a band, we actually want to be broadcasters, we want to be part of radio programmes and TV shows’ obviously surprised them. But another of the illnesses in the music industry is that the only product which they place any emphasis on is the record. Everything else is made to support that. Records are only a small part of what we do. Video and film are just as important. They’re not just promotional tools. We’ve already finished a short seven-minute piece which is computer animated. It’s a kind of non-linear film, and quite abstract, but I think it’s the kind of thing that we’re going to see a lot of with the advent of more affordable video technology.”
Is there a point where FSOL will drop music and move into visuals altogether? “I’m not sure. This is maybe just a period off. We’ve been offered three or four films and we’ve begun work on an extended piece of our own. We’ve now got access to the kind of technology which was used in the making of films like Jurassic Park, so it’s an incredibly exciting field where, I think, the true potential is only just beginning to be discovered. It’s more likely that we’ll continue to expand the audio-visual side rather than limit ourselves to one or the other. In fact, we’ve just been offered an audio-visual remix where we’ll have the opportunity to use the kind of techniques we’d use in a conventional remix on the promo footage as well. So it seems that the industry is starting to become attuned to the fact that, if you have a creative team, whether they started off in music or whatever, they can be creative in all kinds of related areas.”
Against one wall of the studio sits a video editing suite provided by FSOL’s publishers Sony. Nearby there is an Apple Macintosh Quadra 950 computer, on which Brian and Garry did the sleeve design for Lifeforms. All around us are the raw materials from which they hew their multi-dimensional art. It’s exactly the kind of location you’d expect for a band who are no longer just a band. On the 14th of May, this will also be the location of their revolutionary live broadcast over Radio One. Still in the development stages, FSOL are planning to have Robert Fripp playing guitar with them on the night. It
promises to be essential listening. “For me,” explains Garry, “I like to listen to music. I think the best way of doing that is to sit at home and have the music piped through your speakers.”
FSOL may, at this point, reject any identification with the dance scene. They are, however, one of its strongest assets. It’s a paradox but, without them, without a continuing dialogue about its strengths and weaknesses, dance culture wouldn’t be able to sustain the spirit of adventure which is so central to its appeal. FSOL may be explorers in a parallel world but they’re keeping their options open. “It’s ironic,” says Garry, “but I think we’re getting back into beats again!”
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