John Foxx moved to London in 1974 and became a key instigator in the rise of the UK electro-pop scene, as the founder member of Ultravox.
Yet before Ultravox had the chance to score any tangible success, Foxx departed to embark on a solo career, scoring a few minor hits of his own, before producing the influential eighties album, 'Metamatic'.
Foxx further experimented throughout the 80s. His most creative album of the decade, 'The Garden', showed a more mature, textured approach. However, subsequent releases, 'The Golden Section' and 'In Mysterious Ways' saw Foxx enter a barren period.
While most artists might have disappeared, Foxx simply withdrew, resurfacing in 1997 to produce one of the great ambient albums of our times, 'Cathedral Oceans'. Collaborations followed with Louis Gordon and Harold Budd.
Foxx now looks back at the trials and tribulations of a career that has seen the development of electronic music over three separate decades.
Do you view yourself as a pioneer of electronic music and how much do other people’s opinions and sound bites motivate you? I don’t think about it in that way. I simply happened to be around when that kind of technology first became easily available. The future was obvious. Suddenly a whole new unexplored territory opened up. Other peoples opinions? I listen, but it’s sometimes wise to cultivate a selective deafness. Actually, this is essential for survival
It’s very commendable that you have always followed your own path even in the face of certain commercial success, for instance with Ultravox. Would you say it is simply in your character to work alone and therefore avoid the negative confrontations that might arise working in a band? It’s certainly in my character to work alone for much of the time. But I also enjoy collaboration as well, with Louis Gordon and with Harold Budd for instance. These can be incredibly rich experiences. You simply need that elusive basic cellular understanding of what you are doing.
The band thing is a phase – like being in a gang. You can’t really be part of a gang all your life; it begins to feel undignified and it stunts your growth, unless you want to be a teenager forever. Some do. Some don’t. The benefits were the Gestalt - where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, a very powerful experience - and working in a closed society with people who have the same aim. Of course, the aims almost inevitably diverge as you all grow. The point of view I’ve always worked from is that of a ghost in the city - someone who is a sort of drifting, detached onlooker - but still vulnerable and trying against the odds to maintain a sort of dignity in the face of all the static.
Your latest album, Crash & Burn is probably the closest we’ve seen to you going retro, did you and Louis feel that now was the right time to produce such a nostalgic album? Actually I don’t feel it is nostalgic or retro. Only a small part of the agenda was a wish to consolidate the territory we feel is ours, or to explore the themes inherent in the music we make.
Some of the tracks such as Drive and Cinema were recorded on the same sessions as The Pleasures of Electricity. We realised we were making two different albums and divided the tracks accordingly. I think there are several new elements, such as Sex Video - New Minimal Brutalism, and Smoke – Intricate Freeform Romantic Bleep. I don’t know of any real precedents for these. I‘d rather say that Crash and Burn uses a grammar with which I participated in developing, and it also manages to enlarge that vocabulary.
What does the album title Crash & Burn metaphorically relate too, if anything? Well, we’ve all seen many things crash and burn lately. Reputations trust, organisations, countries. It really is a permanent part of the human condition. On the scale I’m addressing in the song, we all know friends, lovers and people who do this; sometimes it happens to us in various ways as well. Sometimes it’s simply the painful but necessary end of a chapter that always evokes that agonised, twisted feeling of being sad and angry at the same time. Synthesizers seem particularly good at modelling that while maintaining the right amount of distance. Detached Electrocatharsis.
Crash & Burn seems to feature a lot of analogue synthesised sounds on it, are these samples or are you one of these artists who believes in blending the best of analogue and digital tools, and, if so, why? They are both analogue source and samples from analogue sources, which are actually another way of recording. Analogue has the organic power and unpredictability - digital has the control. You need both. You sort of wrestle with the analogue and need to fix the surprising bits somehow or they simply get lost forever. My Arp has no memories at all, so you can’t store any sounds you make. Many of the instruments we use have no memories and so many permutations that you need something simpler, such as digital technology, to make them repeatable. There are also some good, unpredictable things beginning to evolve digitally and this is obviously the future, but these require loads of CPU and can tie up the entire system. They need a little more development time yet.
Why do you think electronic music is tending to look backwards rather than forwards these days with respect to the type of electronic music people are currently enthusiastic about? I don’t necessarily agree that it is purely retro. Sometimes you have to step back to go forward. You need to revalue and restate. The context has altered too, so that alters the use of the content and its meaning. Makes it into something new, which simply uses a few old elements. Twenty years ago sampling remade and re-modelled, then evolved new genres from the older elements. I think that what is happening now is a similar re-use of a previous generations electronic remains. New architecture containing some appropriated material. Gene splicing to make interesting mutations, better able to negotiate new environments.
There are also several other good techno-philosophical reasons for this revaluation, because speaker technology has really only just evolved so that you can now hear how good the sounds of the past really were. For instance, bass speaker technology is only now beginning to realise the quality and range of frequencies analogue equipment is and was capable of throwing out. We have also been through a very puritanical rejection of analogue for digital. So now we are realising the intrinsic and unique qualities of both media are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. A good parallel to this exists in digital video, where, for the first time, we can now see the value of intrinsic imperfections in transferred analogue film- scratches flicker, borders. The beauty of faded and ruined film, variable exposure, different textures and quality of film such as super 8 and black and white.
All these elements have a kind of unique evocative beauty. This beauty was invisible or overlooked until you could fix and begin to control the elements in a new, content free digital medium. So they slowly become incorporated in the new medium as a part of its language. They make the new medium richer and denser. They give an empty new medium texture and content and vocabulary. Sampled surface scratches from vinyl are an example of this process. Things previously regarded as faults become qualities. This re-use of older material happens in all the Arts and Sciences at all stages - Picasso drew from Rembrandt, The Rolling Stones appropriated all the Chicago Blues singers, Oppenheimer used Einstein, Chaplin used Music Hall, They all used that material to create something new, for a new time.
Do you think these retro-artists, Goldfrapp & Ladytron are two that come to mind, are really capturing the mood of the eighties or the excitement that it then generated at the time? I don’t feel they are retro. I think they are simply using some of those elements to build a new music for the present.
You’ve said that you are not interested in record sales, and that’s clearly the case, but at what point does the financial constraints of working to a small but loyal following become something that you have to consider? I always have to balance this against the ability to pursue what I feel is important. So far - so good.
Although there were maybe traces of ambient music in your mid-80’s album The Garden, why did your Cathedral Oceans album take so long to surface? Well, there was simply no context for Cathedral Oceans in 1983. Then, it was ‘Pop’ or ‘Classical’ - with nothing in between. When I played it to Virgin, they said there was no market for that sort of music and no real category for it. So I got on with other things for a few years. Simply waited.
After ambient music became marketable, and after the success of a few Gregorian chant records, things began to change. Music is now much broader than at any previous time. Cheap CDs and downloading have altered everything - people want to explore all varieties of music now, simply because they can. Sampling has had a huge effect - caused a mass re-examination and re-evaluation of everything recorded, in the hunt for raw material. People also are now beginning to understand that different kinds of music have different functions, that it’s as much of a delight to slow down as it is to speed up.
We are also beginning to become aware of the importance of context and environment on the effect of music. We are much more discerning and are differentiating in a more sophisticated way. How you can make your room more beautiful with the right discreet sound, How there is music for eating, thinking, sleeping, waking, walking, being angry, being tranquil, being alone, being with one person, being with a group of friends. How dance music operates best in a club and not at home, how pop functions best on radio - and so on. It all took time but we are finally here – there’s now a suitable context for Cathedral Oceans.
How are the methods of recording an ambient album different to a more conventional album? You don’t rely on physical excitement to generate the ideas.
It would seem to me that there is an infinite patience required, is that genre of music more difficult to write? No, I find it about the same as other kinds of music. The wonderful thing is entering a sense of calm flow and timelessness when everything goes well. You can sometimes generate an entire albums worth of music in this state.
"Well, we’ve all seen many things crash and burn lately. Reputations trust, organisations, countries. It really is a permanent part of the human condition."
Was Harold Budd an artist that had listened to, or influenced you towards making the Cathedral Oceans albums? In a way, but Cathedral Oceans has been developing quietly since I was a child, trying to understand what happened when I sang in a church - the power and subtlety of that interaction of architecture and space and voices. When I heard Harold’s work, I recognised some of what he was addressing, then more as I listened. Also from working with Eno and from listening to Eric Satie’s music, and from Ruben Garcia as well.
Harold is a central figure, perhaps the central figure in the development of what is called ‘ambient music’. Harold’s music provided the foundations and much of the structure. But this is really another more subtle form of modern technological popular music. Harold widened the whole vocabulary through sheer cool nerve and calm determination, operating patiently against the odds over many years. I was enthralled when I heard The Pearl. Working with and through Eno and Daniel Lanois, Harold made huge landscapes by altering the scale of miniature events, through the seemingly simple act of recording them and focussing right down onto the moment. They are like the first look down a microscope or a telescope must have been. He’s managed to supply a new lense to view the wonders of the world from an entirely new perspective.
How did you come to work with Harold on the latest Translucence + Drift Music releases? He came to a concert where I played Cathedral Oceans. I was too nervous to even speak to him at the time, but I heard that he liked the music. Later we met up and decided to work together. He very generously came over from Los Angeles to record. We set up a good piano in a big stone house overlooking a garden, pinned up some abstract paintings as a road map and began to record. There is still enough remaining material for another album.
Did you work together in the studio to create the recordings and what was it like working with Harold? A real pleasure. He was calm, cool, courteous, quietly humorous. He played his tiny miracles, then we went out in the evenings to drink a beer and eat and talk, a very urbane and civilised process. Most of the material is recorded live in a single take. Some of the Drift Music section was worked on afterwards by Louis Gordon and myself, and Translucence was subtly rearranged or edited a little afterwards, but not much.
Which do you prefer writing, ambient music or electronic pop? I like both equally for different reasons. I like power and volume and the peculiar cool excitement induced by machine rhythm and bleep. Equally, I need to immerse myself in some endless tranquil curving music. Part of my self-repair kit.
What is your armoury of equipment like? What do you use in the studio? As little as possible - but still an Arp, an Oscar, a Virus, a Nord, a CR78, a 909, an analogue phaser, a flanger, a Space Echo, a couple of Alesis reverbs, a Korg Drum machine. Louie’s Mac Computer, an old DAT recorder. The most important ingredient is Louis Gordon. That’s about it.
For those people that like the ambient sounds on Cathedral Oceans and your work with Harold Budd, are their any particular types of keyboards or software that are more suitable for that type of composing? It’s really more to do with circumstances and environment, I think. One beautiful reverb. A clear head. A good acoustic piano in a large room overlooking a garden with trees, trees, trees. The time of day is important too. I recorded my sections at dawn in summer. There are some traces of birdsong in parts of the recordings. Time seems suspended in the few hours around Dawn.
What drives you on to continue to write music, is it out of financial necessity, desire or the pursuit of the perfect song? There are still many things I want to hear. I can’t find them. No one is making them, so I have to make them myself.
You recently completed a small tour of the UK I believe? How did this go and did you enjoy it? It went very well thank you. We all enjoyed it. We plan to do more and to travel. Also to use projected video as an intrinsic part of the event.
What does the future hold and what new projects are you undertaking? Working live with film and video. Interrupted movies. Samplefilms. It is technologically possible at last to disrupt cinema, and I believe this will result in an explosion of change to the medium similar to the way recorded music was forever altered by the availability of cheap electric guitars, then synthesizers, and later samplers. Movies are in for a good shake up.
John Foxx interview, Barcode 2003 ©
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