Itís hard to believe Alan Wilder departed Depeche Mode 12 years ago!
Conceived in the mid-eighties, yet far removed from the Modeís electro-pop aesthetic, Wilderís experimental side-project Recoil gives birth to a 5th studio album.
Itís been more than 6 years since Alan Wilder released his concept album, Liquid Ė but when youíve sold well over 50 million records with Depeche Mode, whatís the rush?
Barcode questions Wilder on the recording of subHuman, and how even the most experienced and technology-minded of producers struggled to relearn how to use most of his equipment.
What has been the reason for the lengthy delay between subhuman and the previous Recoil? Itís everyoneís opening question (laughs) Ė not surprisingly. It was just really a break that got extended a bit longer than I intended really. I was a bit drained from the last album and I thought well Iíll have bit of a break here and it coincided with us having a second child. So I just got embroiled in family life and it went on a bit longer than I thought it would. It does make you realise that thereís a bit more to life than being shut away in a studio 24 hours a day.
What can people expect in terms of an evolution of the ideas and sounds represented on previous Recoil albums? Well they can expect a link in terms of what you might call a Recoil trademark, which is long, atmospheric pieces with plenty of sonic layers and depth to them. Lyrically, or vocally should we say, itís quite different to the last album, which included a lot of spoken word, whereas this time Iím working with Joe Richardson, mainly, and Carla Trevaskis Ė both singers rather than poets, and particularly gone into more of a blues direction.
One aspect that does remain is your connection with blues music, whatís your fascination with this genre? I think itís just something to do with the fact that itís so opposite to electronics or modern technology. I mean rather than electronics Iíd say technology because the pure electronic aspect of this record is not that high, thereís a lot of loops and performance, which is something Iíve been experimenting with for a long time really. So thereís a lot of playing on there but the technology is utilised to bring it into the modern age and restructure it and do interesting things, and Blues music is so far removed from all that I suppose, in that itís raw emotion and very much the roots of modern music.
Do you listen to much Blues music, or have you done in the past? I wouldnít say I listen to an inordinate amount of Blues music; itís in amongst my collection which encompasses all kinds of music. If I listen to music it tends to be the older pioneers of Blues rather than modern Blues artists, although there a few more modern Blues people I would listen to as well. But I listen to all kinds of different music.
One certainly gets the impression that your music is not influenced by any outside agent; did you have a clear idea of how you wanted this record to sound from the start? No I didnít have a clear idea at all, itís one of the problems I have in that because Iím working with different vocalists and lyricists and the songs tend to come later, when Iím starting off on a project itís very unfocused and I donít know what direction itís going. To go back to what you were asking earlier about how does it link together and how does the trademark remain, I put it down to following my instincts and relying on that method of experimenting and following where that leads to, and so you do get some sort of continuity out of that approach despite the fact that the vocalists can be very different from each other.
The lyrics and Joe Richardsonís vocal harks back to the whole Louisiana slave trade, does the album make a political statement in that sense? If you want to find one then there is. I try and make sense of what heís written. I havenít dictated to him what he should write, Iíve just given him music and hopefully that has led him off in a particular direction and heís come up with some words and ideas. And at the end of it all, I try and make some kind of sense out of it so I can present the album and give it a title that isnít just pie in the sky. And so really, my interpretation of his words set me thinking about this idea of subhuman and subordination, whether itís on a political stage or talking about religion or class or any of those things. Thereís no specific political statement from me, itís more about human nature and the repetitive cycle of human nature, which is a bit depressing in some ways but that seems to be what itís all about.
I wouldnít say the musicís depressing, but the lyrics are quite savage in places arenít they, what other subjects does the album tackle? There were a couple of songs that we didnít use but no, what you hear is pretty much what we did. Occasionally when I present the music to them I put some sampled guide vocals on there and that sometimes sets them off in a particular direction, it gives them a clue to how I was thinking about the music when I was putting it together. Itís probably a bit more than coincidence that what they often tend to write about are similar things; the dark side of human nature. So presumably the music sets them thinking about the same kind of ideas most of the time.
I was also looking at the cover art with the showroom dummies and wondered whether that was your idea and how much say you have in the design? Well I gave a brief synopsis to the designer about what my idea of subHuman was and he came up with this idea of representing the subhuman as a worthless, recyclable being and using mannequins and dummies and setting them into everyday situations. I liked the idea, so from there he basically put it together and then we talked about the various images and came up with the ones we mutually agreed on.
Musically, subHuman has many diverse elements, such as on Allelujah, which at times sounds like a modern Vangelis to me, very orchestral and soundtrack-oriented. Would you agree on that influence? Possible yeah, Iím not sure about Vangelis (laughs); I was thinking more Cocteau Twins myself. I think vocally it goes into the Elizabeth Fraser area a bit, but anyway the idea to use Carla was to balance out what Joe had done because I felt that he was so intense that a whole album of him could get a bit much. So I deliberately looked for someone who was very opposite to him, a long way away from what he does. Most of my tracks do end up with this filmic quality about them.
Where did you find Carla Trevaskis, because her vocal very much reminded me of Kate Bush? Yeah, I think sheís a Kate Bush fan; she also likes Tori Amos and those types. Sheís not that well known, sheís a friend of a friend really, someone that Mute recommended to me. I had a look at her mySpace and listened to it and thought thatís an interesting voice that I could do something with, and thatís really how it came about.
The guitar aspect is much more expansive on this record too, the albumís quite rock oriented in passages Ė why did you decide to integrate that into the music this time? Again, it sort of came together naturally that way, and when Joe got involved it kind of went a bit further because he is a very good guitarist. His band is a three-piece blues band, so he said, well why donít you use my band as well. Obviously I didnít want to just make a pastiche Blues record but I do think it was a good idea to use the musicians and then use the technology to do something a bit more interesting with them, so yeah, youíve got a lot of guitars on there and Joeís got a huge collection of vintage guitars and amps, and he plays the harpÖ he does the lot!
Was everything recorded at your home studio? No, what happened was that I got all my stuff together at home and then we took it out to Texas where he lives and thereís a local studio there, which is not really a commercial studio itís a word of mouth place, but it was a fantastic studio with piles of vintage gear, you name it they had it; all these lovely old valve microphones. So we went very old school with the recording, we did everything with valve equipment straight to 15 IPS multi-track, no Dolby, lots of tape compression, and only at the very end of that week of recording with Joe and his band did we transfer it all into Pro Tools and I took it home on a little palm-sized drive. It was a great mixture of old and new technology.
It sounds a very organic way of recording; do you find that solely working on computers gives too dry and digital a feel? I would agree, yíknow, some plug-ins and digital processing is better, but then thereís plenty of stuff thatís better if you go analogue. We often, when weíre mixing for example, bring all our sounds out of the computer through analogue effects and old-style reverbs and then record it back in digitally so you get the best of both.
And also the environment you were working in, did this might modify the characteristics of the material that you were working with? When you work with anyone new, and youíll know this like anyone knows this Ė youíre trying to impress each other that little bit more. Thereís an added tension, you donít quite know whatís gonna happen but everyoneís trying to do their best and thatís something I really enjoy. So that was exactly how it was, we went out to Texas and met all these people weíd never met before in an unknown environment, but it brings something to the project. It was quite swampy out there, it was 100 degrees and really humid, so it had the right kind of vibe for the music. It was interesting, this was in Austin so we went out to see Joeís band play as well and it was quite a culture shock to see all these Blues bands playing in every bar you walked upon.
How did you begin arranging the tracks, and what were the building blocks that upheld the record at first? This is a problem for me because I donít have this focus of a vocalist to add a song as such. Basically Iíll get a loop of some kind and Iíll mix it with another loop until something works. Thatís my first experiment and then Iíll add something to that until I start to form some kind of picture that excites me in a way. Now, that could be anything and from there Iíve got to turn it into something I can present to a singer that makes some kind of sense and I kind of imagine roughly where I think a verse might happen and where a chorus happens and I create dynamic changes to indicate that. What happens is it tends to grow into a very long piece that I then get very attached to, so when later on we crowbar the song in I donít then want to remove lots of that so I end up with these very long pieces and songs that are quite drawn out. I mean, yíknow, Daniel Miller would pull his hair out at Mute saying can we have a three-and-a-half minute track here please (laughs), he just asked me to edit the first track, which is eight minutes twenty to three fifty for a radio edit so thatís quite a challenge.
Can I ask about your studio set up and what sort of tools you used in the recording of the album? Iím running a Power Mac with Pro Tools hardware and then Logic Audio for the main sequencing, which has its limitations that I discovered towards the end of the project. I donít know if itís a combination of running Logic and Pro Tools together that causes it but basically when youíve got a lot of automation going in Logic and you wanna move all your parts around itís a nightmare because it doesnít take all the automation with it. So itís a very long-winded process trying to restructure your song at that point. I got a bit frustrated with Logic and I probably will move to something else unless they improve it for the next album. But anyway, thatís the main stuff and then obviously we got loads of plug-ins and bits and pieces to go with that, like Native Instruments soft synth stuff.
Do you use any hardware synths at all? Well, Iíve got one sitting here, but I didnít use them that much on this album. Occasionally Iíd turn to Midi Moog, Iíve got a Supernova rackmount Ė Iíd do the odd sequencer part on there and Iíve got a master keyboard with a few sounds in that I occasionally use. But generally speaking itís a lot of loops and samples and live performance that have been sampled. The EMS synth I used a lot actually, but mainly for processing sounds rather than pure synth sounds. I havenít got a huge amount of outboard gear to be honest; Iíve got a space echo, a couple of Lexicon reverb units.
Are you the sort of composer that spends a lot of time creating new sounds or designing sounds rather than using a library? Well I use all kinds of things, I go to a library sometimes for certain things and then I re-use a lot of old sounds from a collection that goes back 20 years from the Mode right up to now. But I try and re-use them in a way that turns them into something completely new by stretching and processing and I also, as I said, take lots of pieces of performance from the musicians in Texas, as source material. Iíll use a CD library for real string sounds, things like thatÖ so itís a bit of everything.
There seems to be a lot of sampling on the album, but nothing obvious Ė what were your sampling sources? Well, how long have you got? They come from everywhere Ė a lot of them are re-used sounds Iíve used before from Depeche Mode days and earlier Recoil albums, I couldnít reel them off to you now to be honest.
I was thinking more a long the lines of film samples or things you picked up from the television? Thereís a little bit, thereís a few speech things at the end of one of the tracks called 5000 years Ė that came from a TV documentary which Iíve had knocking about for years actually. On previous albums Iíve used bits from films. I had to get permission to use something from Apocalypse Now once.
People used to sample a lot but get so tired of asking permission and the expense of it that theyíre starting to give up on the idea, do you find that? Well if I think Iíve got something dodgy Iíll disguise it rather than try and get a clearance. I mean, letís be honest, it is, as you say, a nightmare trying to get clearance for the stupidest thing and I try not to use samples in an obvious way like that. If I think thereís something contentious then Iíll make sure itís not obvious, yeah.
What with your vast experience as a producer and composer, would you say that youíve mastered technology to the extent where itís a slave to you? No, youíre joking (laughs); Iíve nowhere near mastered anything. Iím constantly being challenged by it. You know, Iím just not that technical really. I know what I can do within the boundaries of the equipment Iíve got and I sort of stick to it. The beginning of this album was a nightmare because I hadnít worked for so long I had to re-learn everything and try and remember how it all worked. Iíd forgotten so much, 5 years is a long time in those terms isnít it? So I didnít really get any music done for the first two or three months, I just had to work out how it all worked again and I find that really frustrating, Iím just not prepared to delve into every detail I just wanna get going on something.
I suppose that might partly explain why you put off recording the album for so long? It was a bit daunting to be honest, the longer it went on I thought, God Iíve got to go through a whole upgrade here before I can even start, so yes youíre right (laughs).
Is there once piece of kit that youíd say was essential to you working on the project, something you could actually rely on? Well, I suppose one of the things I used most was the time-stretching facility that Ableton Live gives you. I ran Ableton as a slave to Logic and a lot of my sample sources would go through there to be stretched down two octaves, but then re-tuned and re-timed so that I could fit them. For me, itís not just a question of placing a load of random samples together and hoping something happens, I mean it has to work musically and that often means re-tuning things in a very subtle way and actually stretching individual components of a loop in order to give it a different groove and a different pitch and a different feel. So I used Live an awful lot to do that, I didnít use Live as a sequencer in itself.
Technology has obviously changed massively over the period youíve spent in DM and with your solo work, do you think it has changed for your benefit or just become more complex and convoluted? Itís only as complicated as you want to make it, I think itís become easier to be honest. For me to do what Iím doing now is easier than it was - now that Iíve learned how to do it again - five or ten years ago because some problems have been ironed out. Yes thereís some new ones that now exist, and of course thereís endless choices for everything you wanna do, which if youíre not careful just means that you never get to an end of a project Ė so a certain amount of discipline is always involved and good ideas are always involved. I try and embrace the technology, and the computer has been a wonderful thing for music in the last 15-20 years.
In the early eighties artists would belt out albums almost annually, whereas now people tend to spend 4, 5 or even 6 years making an album. So one gets the impression that itís the technology holding everything up? You could be right. I think most people are a bit quicker than that now days. I know Iím slow (laughs). I donít know really, are people taking longer to make records? Some of the bands around now seem to be churning them out pretty quickly, although Iím sure with every rock band going now everything goes through Pro Tools and gets chopped up.
Can you tell us something about the subHuman DVD, because I understand thereís different versions of the album on there and some other goodies? Well we did a fairly straightforward surround sound version of the album, which is not radically different itís just spread out. But that was interesting, particularly the mastering process and all the different formats you have to consider when youíre doing that for DVD, which is kind of new to me. When we were mastering the 5.1 and checking the rear speakers and the effect of just listening to ambient elements like reverb and bits and pieces that you tend to put in the outer speaker, it sparked the idea to do another version of the album which was more stripped back basically. So thereís a stereo version of the whole album that is more minimal and revealing; the different layers that often exist that youíre not immediately aware of. I know Recoil fans will like all that stuff, because they always ask me about different sound sources.
So have you stripped it down then added new parts? Basically, weíve removed the rockier elements, the big drums and lots of the guitars and left the more ambient elements and unusual sounds, and then on occasion, yes Iíve put a few new ones in just to make it gel together.
Whatís your opinion on 5.1 surround, because I know that this is something thatís increasingly being used by electronic artists to widen the spectrum Ė so you feel that this can be used to develop the genre in new directions? I think thereís a future to it. I was listening to Richie Hawtinís thing the other day, I think itís called Transitions, because I was actually just trying to find another surround CD as a reference as I wasnít sure if my system was working and ended up playing this whole thing and I thought it was really clever what heíd done - the way heíd spaced each individual sound into different speakers and very much used the system to really spread the music. There doesnít seem to be a real template for how to do a surround mix, which is perhaps a good thing, but youíve also got the problem of peopleís systems, a lot of people stick their centre speaker through a TV and have a couple of dodgy satellite speakers at the back. So, we havenít quite got there yet, but I think what with cinema, plasma technology, high definition and all that, then surround sound makes a lot of sense as well.Stereo seems a very linear way of listening to music, do you think albums could be specifically written to utilise the advantages of 5.1 surround? Itís difficult isnít it because you canít expect a listener to always be in the optimum position to listen to surround music, whereas stereo or mono even you can pretty much guarantee itís gonna sound pretty much right wherever youíre listening, whatever environment. So I canít see it ever really being the most popular way of listening to stuff. Itís interesting, even when you listen to the surround sound and go back to the stereo, thereís something good about going back to stereo, itís kind of an old friend perhaps. The danger of surrounding stuff is that you lose the energy of the initial mix when you place it all around the room, so ití something you have to be aware of I think.
Have you thought about producing for other artists in the meantime or dare I say fitting in a guest slot with Depeche Mode? Oooooh, steady on! Erm, I get asked sometimes, but as you know Iím not quickest in the world and itís a long project for me to make my own albums so, being a bit of a perfectionist I couldnít just knock off another project in a couple of months Iíd have to get really involved. So thatís really my concern about doing all that, whether Iíd have enough energy to then do my own stuff as well. But you never know.
Now that youíve been away from Depeche Mode for some time, what are your emotions if you ever flick into that headspace? I generally have good feelings about it, I mean I donít regret having left so thatís fine, but I also look back and think I enjoyed that and it was good fun Ė it gets a bit rosier as time goes on really. Listening back to all the remasters, which I had to do recently, helped bring back a lot of interesting memories of what it was like when we were making the records and how the band relationship was at that time. So, yeah I miss a little bit of it sometimes, being on the road I enjoyed most of the time and I do miss a little bit of that travelling around. But the whole dynamic of being in a group and putting everything to the vote, which I got very tired of to be honest, I donít miss any of that.
Are you still in touch with the lads? Not much no, I went to see Dave when he played his solo concert a couple of years back and we have an email chat every now and then. But I havenít seen Martin for a while or Fletch.
Iím not sure if you have toured with Recoil at all in the past, is this a project youíd like to take on the road? Never have no, not really. You never say never, it could happen but itís not something Iím driven to do really, Iíve got other priorities. The label wouldnít push me, I mean theyíd be happy if I did it because itís just another promotional tool from their point of view and probably one of the best ones you can do. Weíre happy to concentrate heavily on online marketing ideas like YouTube and trying to cultivate that whole side of things.
Will we have to wait as long for your next Recoil album? Unlikely no, I think Iíve had my hiatus.
Do you have time to listen to much other music? Do you have any favourites currently? I listen to all kinds of things but it tends to be older stuff thatís been around in my collection. Iím not very good at keeping abreast of everything, I canít think of many new artists that I could cite as being really exciting. I donít listen to a lot of electronic music to be honest, that might sound strange but I donít.
One thing Iíve always wanted to ask you about, assuming itís true, is the near collision you had with a jet fighter plane, can you recall the incident with much clarity? Yes it is true. Itís the sort of thing youíll never forget if it ever happens to you. Because it happened just before we made the last album, we kind of used that idea Ė thereís a track on there called Black Box and it was based around the whole experience. What happened was we were just on holiday in Scotland, driving in an open top car, middle of nowhere, and a low level Tornado just went overhead Ė practising presumably. It came really, really, really close to us, and my wife Hep looked up and said, ďthey do fly low now donít theyĒ, and I said, ďheís not flying low, heís going downĒ, and sure enough he just crashed about 200 yards in front of us. Within literally it hitting the ground all the debris starting flying into the car, so we pulled up, walked around the corner and there were the remains. Well there werenít remains, it had been scattered so far there was nothing really to see apart from the odd little piece of whatever. Itís something that stays with you; we couldnít stop dreaming about it for a year.
What are you three fave Depeche Mode tracks? In Your Room (album version) - the most dynamic and uplifting DM track ever. It's got the lot. Walking In My Shoes - poignant words, great melody & chord structure with an emotional string/ebo guitar build at the end. Never Let Me Down - anthemic. A great track to play, and hear live.
And your three favourite pieces of gear? Mini Moog - my first synth. Still sounds fat. The Computer - I've been addicted to Macs ever since we started using them for music making in the '80s. Now they rule my life - can't imagine existing without them. Plasma screen/Sky Sports on HD - cricket heaven!
Alan Wilder interview, Barcode 2008 ©
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