The Guardian 23rd October 2001: The Wilderness Years
They were one of the 1990s techno supergroups. So what have Future Sound of London been doing for the past five years? Cycling in the woods, finds Dom Phillips
"At the end of the day, I think I've got simmering, sexual human energy," says Garry Cobain, the self-aware, flamboyant half of intense electronic duo Future Sound of London. Five years ago, they were as big as stadium-filling techno acts such as the Chemical Brothers or Underworld. But after their fourth album - Dead Cities, an uncompromising, anti-urban concept LP - made it into the top 20, they disappeared.
Now they have suddenly spluttered back to life. In 1992, their single "Papua New Guinea" defined a new direction for electronic dance music. With its heavy dub bass, seagulls, evocative chants and strings, it's one of the most memorable chill-out records ever made. It's just been back in the charts - their first release for five years - and next week they release Translations, an album featuring new versions of the single. Translations takes the bittersweet melancholy into seven radical reworkings of freewheeling ambient whirl, throwing in 1970s guitar, double bass and sitar along the way. Earlier this month, their 1992 album Accelerator, which flexed wily rhythms into places techno had never been before - was also re-released. And still to come is the album they say has taken five years to make.
We are in their two-room complex in a London studio building, an Aladdin's cave of expensive equipment and cheap tat that is half psychedelic recording studio and half disturbed teenager's bedroom. A glorious confusion of stuff spreads everywhere: a child's drumkit, fish lamps, numerous computers, two gleaming mountain bikes, a plastic baby, a toy R2D2 robot from Star Wars, vast Beatles portraits, a Hits of Hawaii album, piles of tapes and CDs. And a pink fluffy hippo that Cobain, 36, and his band partner Brian Dougans, 34, hope will soon get its own animated TV and radio show.
Unlike today's innocuous chill-out producers, FSOL always laced their melodic, rhythmically deft electronica with arsenic. They were the first act to use digital imaging to create futuristic photo-collages for magazine covers. When they first appeared in 1992, techno was primarily a hard-nosed, turbo-powered noise that was designed for raves and given apocalyptic titles such as Dominator. FSOL were at the vanguard of a movement that stretched techno beyond the dancefloor, employing a rich diversity of voices, samples and influences to create landscapes of sound that had more to do with John Cage and Brian Eno than with raving.
Cobain, a fan of indie bands, met Dougans, a studio-minded technician, at college in Manchester. They began with a flurry of inventive techno singles under aliases such as Smart Systems and Yage. They signed to Virgin Records and released three ambitious albums, the most accessible of which is 1994's sprawling Lifeforms. By the mid-1990s they were one of a handful of techno supergroups. But while acts like the Chemical Brothers cleverly rode a wave of electronica on to the international festival circuit, FSOL refused to play live. Instead, they performed from their studio via an ISDN line.
"We don't need another supergroup trying to be the best rock'n'roll band in the world," says Cobain, "because we need bands that are this genuine and this exploratory."
At least that's the theory. Five years ago, Cobain had a loft apartment in London's Hoxton and an ever-changing wardrobe, and dyed his hair blonde. "He lost the plot," says Dougans. Looking back, the signs were there on Dead Cities: track with titles such as Everyone in the World is Doing Something Without Me, and walls of synthesised noise.
"When I look at the history of music, it's always cool to have the biggest, hardest sound. Males hide behind that," says Cobain. Uncomfortable with himself, and with his health disintegrating, he disappeared abroad and the two lost contact.
"I used to stand outside Gaz's house and wonder if he was in," says Dougans. "Is he there? Where is he? Who the fuck is he anyway? No phone calls for weeks on end. No Gaz. Is he still my mate? Is he in England? Where the fuck is he now?" He tracked Cobain's progress via his Visa card bills. "He's reached his limit. He'll be back soon. Oh no, he's extended it!" They both laugh - a little too hard.
Finally, Dougans started getting songs in the post, sung and performed by Cobain on guitar. They began tentatively meeting for countryside bike rides. "A mumble, as we called it," says Cobain. "We'd go for, like, five hours. Take those little speaker things that you attach to a Walkman." Before long they were having little sound clashes in the woods - with increasingly powerful sets of baby Walkman speakers. "Suddenly we were back into the old FSOL games," says Cobain.
They play me a few tracks from the album they hope to release next year under another old alias: Amorphous Androgynous. They've gone psychedelic - this owes more to Radiohead and Sgt Pepper's than to dance music. Cobain sings and plays acoustic guitar, sounding a little like Richard Ashcroft, alongside a sea of orchestras, Indian raggas, guitars, breakbeats and strange noises. They have a blind sitar player, Baluji Shrivastav, who sits in the middle of the studio to play. "They're songs with weird lyrics, but they've also got weird sounds," says Cobain. "And you know what? A band couldn't make a song like this. But we can."
At times this dense soup of 1970s rock and electronica sounds wildly exciting, at times overblown and pretentious - exactly what an FSOL comeback should deliver. As the band disappear for photographs, two twentysomething dudes peer through the window. "Just checking out your place," one tells me. "Looks wild." "That's the Future Sound of London," I say. "Wow! In there?" they say, and trip off down the stairs, delighted.
Translations is released on Jumpin' & Pumpin' next Monday. Accelerator is out now.
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