The Face January 1995: Future Pop
When Future Sound Of London played live in New York last month, they were at home in London, connected to the venue only by a telephone line. A gimmick, or the dawning of a new era in rock ‘n’ roll?
The PA system at The Kitchen in downtown Manhattan hums to life. A telephone rings plaintively, disembodied and eerie sounding. “Hello, this is The Kitchen. We’re through to you in London. Future Sound, we’re about to make history!” Americans are good at dealing with momentousness. And this is, in a modest kind of way, momentous: Future Sound Of London are putting on a show in New York, live from their studio back home in NW2, complete with visuals supplied via the Internet. The occasion has been made possible by British Telecom’s ISDN digital phone lines. Future Sound have used them in the past to deliver live radio shows within the UK and abroad – they’ve even named their sparkling new album, which has its origins in a live transmission to Amsterdam, after them – but they’ve never addressed a specific audience at a specific site before. No one has. But the thing is, we Brits have never been very good at dawns of new eras.
“Look,” comes the voice of FSOL’s Gary Cobain, “it’s four o’clock in the fucking morning and we’re fucking shagged. The sound is great here, so let’s get on with it. And turn the volume up, we don’t want any fucking mu-zak vibe at that end!”
Cobain, of course, doesn’t realise quite how loud and clear he’s coming through. This is one problem inherent in the type of long-distance gig he’s in the process of pioneering. A control freak if ever there was one, he’s been agonising all week over the lack of influence he’s been able to exert on the environment his music is to enter.
“I’m glad we did it,” he will later say, “but I’m not sure we’ll do it again in quite that way. We had no idea what was going on at the other end. It was a lonely experience.”
Another problem was made humourously extant half an hour earlier, when some tunes immediately recognisable as the work of Cobain and his Glaswegian partner Brian Dougans came wafting through the sound system. The audience politely applauded each one, then got up to leave, satisfied that the little piece of history they’d been promised had come to pass. It hadn’t of course. The DJ had merely decided to warm us up by dropping a couple of tracks from the Lifeforms LP. Whoops.
Future Sound’s set is the centerpiece of a two-day exposition of ambient music at The Kitchen. Ambience hasn’t had the impact in the States that some were hoping for in 1994 – in particular the US record labels which were reportedly sending memos to their British divisions at the start of the year, imploring them to “sign ambient!” Lately, it has begun to make a mark, though with a very different set of coordinates to those which apply at home.
The Kitchen, see, is in essence a highbrow place. Downstairs is a smallish theatre, while the upper section functions as the Electronic Café, connected through the Net to similar ventures in Santa Monica and Paris, with others due online in the near future. The stated idea is “to create a global telecommunity for the arts”, whatever that might be. On this side of the Atlantic, cyberspace belongs to these people, as does ambient music. Ambience doesn’t have its immediate roots in the chill-out rooms of danceterias: its connection to the original visions of Cage and Eno is far more explicit. Here it is essentially an intellectual exercise, pursued by New Age musicians: to all intents and purposes, the “fucking mu-zak” Cobain spoke of earlier.
Nevertheless, ambient music looks to have a future in this country as the official artform of the cyberpunks, who are very much on the ascendant right now. It fulfills all the necessary criteria: it’s largely computer-generated, yet less aggressive than house or techno. It’s also “head music” par excellence, album-based and easily consumable at home. No one should be surprised that Future Sound’s virtual set is also being diverted to the offices of Wired, the rather excellent cyberpunk journal, which has just been picked up by the Guardian in the UK for wider distribution. Sensing this, perhaps, Future Sound go out of their way to subvert expectations. The quieter passages are dark and unsettling, the more extrovert ones dense and disjointed. Like most of their ilk in Britain, they owe their reputation to their early work in the clubs (“Papua New Guinea” is still one of the finest dance anthems ever made), but there’s no way you could dance to this. Nor could you sit back passively and let it wash over you. In short, this is not ambient music. So there. Throughout, the sounds are accompanied by the band’s trademark 3D-effect silicon graphics interspersed with perplexing footage of a live terrapin crawling over a glass sheet. What exactly are they saying here? Nothing, it transpires. The terrapin images have leaked in from Santa Monica. Bizarre. By the end of the 75-minute set, the graphics are beginning to pall, but the intensity of the music has carried us through. Most intriguing was the knowledge that, while 3,000 miles of ocean separated us from the performers, it was still possible to feel intimately connected with them. The planet is shrinking. The Kitchen gig has been a guarded success.
A few days later, Dougans and Cobain are back in the studio. They want to know what it was like to have been at The Kitchen. They’re an odd couple. The quietly-spoken, shaven-headed Dougans paces around behind the mixing console, smoking profusely, while Cobain – the handsome, dashing iconoclast, today dressed in dapper tweed flares and a beatnik-style rollneck jumper – settles in a chair with a mug of coffee, eyes twinkling, describing ideas and issuing declarations at a rate that would make Malcolm McLaren dizzy. Cobain thinks it’s funny that the Kitchen enterprise has generated so much interest. He thinks it shows how “we’re all so fucked up about gatherings of people”. Why is music piped in to an audience of 500 people so much more fascinating than a live radio show which reaches two million? Cobain likes asking these questions. He’s curious about the “subjective” constituent of our reaction to an “objective” work of art. He doesn’t like the
nebulousness of the equation. A few months back, he and Dougans released a single under the sly moniker Far Out Son Of Lung. No one twigged, but it got universal rave reviews. Several publications made it single of the week. Heartwarming, surely.
“Yeah, it’s complicated,” he admits. “You see, I’m not into deglamorising music. In fact, I hate that. What we’re trying to do is put something across which is as dynamic and entertaining as a band can be. The traditional band performance is a very, very good way of putting music across. We recognise the power of it and don’t want to deny it. So, I’m not going to pipe some muzak into a space and be all highbrow about it, saying, ‘This is the future.’”
Why did you agree to do it?
“I think it was a first step to something more interesting. Next time, we’ll be designing the environment you come into. It’s a difficult path we’re treading. Right now, people think we’re as faceless, highbrow and uninteresting as a lot of other electronic artists, which is to miss the point of what we’re doing. This is actually more rock ‘n’ roll than rock ‘n’ roll.
Just doing music isn’t enough anymore. Pretty soon, we’re going to be able to fuck with image and with the context in which our music is heard in a way that no one has ever been able to do before.” We’re hearing a lot of these sort of claims at the moment. Over the course of the next hour, Cobain explains that the ultimate aim is to take the virtuality of the ISDN shows
one step further and be able to appear, along with sequences of other carefully-chosen, computerised images, in bona fide virtual reality, as a complement to the music. They’ve already had computer-generated models of themselves created, and hustled time on silicon graphics machines – giving them access to the techniques used to animate the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. “Then we’ll be able to programme Brian to say all the things he normally doesn’t get to say in interviews,” laughs Cobain. Within 18 months, they reckon, the project, which amounts to a 3D Future Sound film, could be complete. Sounds unlikely? But we were scoffing at the ISDN idea ten months ago. For all their reservations about the actual event, the pair pulled it off.
Could this be the giant leap that propels pop into the next century? Someone’s going to do it, and if anyone is prepared to quote odds, you could do worse than put your money on Future Sound Of London.
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