At the dawn on the 80s, Portion Control sat alone in the middle of a great big hypothetical field. On one side resided the commercialism of electronic exponents The Human League, Depeche Mode and Ultravox etc., and on the other underground illusionists SPK, My Bloody Valentine, Nurse With Wound and the Legendary Pink Dots.
Portion Control either couldn’t decide which way to turn, or weren’t marketed suitably in either direction. However, they’re still fondly remembered as an innovative, experimental electronic group, even if awkwardly lumped in with what one would call the EBM/Industrial scene. Wellcome, their first album for a decade gives Portion Control the chance to firmly stamp their identity on to a more accepting 21st Century electronic musical culture. Founder member, John Whybrew, gives us the low down.
Who were the group’s original influences and what were your objectives when you first started making music? Our principal influences were from the UK punk scene, particularly the Pop Group & Wire along with the symbolism of early Factory & Industrial Records. Our punk grounding meant we often worked within conventional song structures i.e. verses and choruses. We had no set objectives, again like many groups from this period, the music and energy was a way of expressing youself.
In retrospect, were there any artists who were making electronic music that excited or impressed you at the time? Some artists and some albums, namely: Early SPK, Matt Johnson - Burning Blue Soul, Chris and Cosey - Heartbeat, Throbbing Gristle, Der Plan & Pyrolator, Early Eyeless In Gaza.
What originally, and continues to, appeal to you about using electronic instrumentation to produce music? When we started it was at the time when synthesisers and drum machines became affordable. The notion of being a conventional group held no appeal but the sonic possibilities of electronics excited us. At this time, electronics seemed so anti-musical. We were refused Musicians Union Membership before a John Peel session because we claimed, rightly, that none of us could play a conventional instrument. Today, electronic production has all but taken over. Creating the music is easier in that you no longer have to rely on hooking up analogue gear etc. But it certainly hasn’t seen anything improve.
Why do you think Portion Control were acclaimed critically but did not quite receive the parallel success of your contemporaries? We just rejected the normal conventions of touring releasing albums etc.
I read once that you cooked and gave pancakes out to your audience when you played live, is this true? We did this at NL Centrum Amsterdam around the ‘I Staggered’ days. It was a bit bizarre, but tasty (just a hint of lemon and a little vanilla sugar).
You were signed to London Records in 1997 but nothing was actually released, what happened? We signed a management deal with Tom Watkins, and then a deal with London Records. We recorded a single produced by Arthur Baker. This was just before the whole electronic dance scene exploded. London wanted the intro shortened and it just fell apart. Sadly this put us out of action whilst the legal side of the deal was undone. This was far from the happiest time although we have a lot of respect for Tom Watkins and Arthur Baker.
Very few people are aware that Portion Control morphed into Solar Enemy in the early nineties, is this project still alive and what did it represent at the time? We felt compelled to create, and so Solar Enemy was created. Portion Control was still being cleared from the legal restrictions imposed by the deals mentioned above. The project is finished and we are now concentrating on Portion Control.
Have you been frustrated by your relative lack of success over the years, in that you have been unable to communicate your ideas to a bigger audience? In some ways I would say that is has been frustrating, our work for Illuminated generated healthy sales but this was abruptly halted by the whole London Records thing. It was interesting that the Canadian & US acts took elements of ‘Industrial’ and fused them with Metal and even Goth influences, creating pretty powerful acts, but this just isn’t our style. In many respects, our dislike of the music industry and its conventions hold us back, but we create the output that stays true to our mission and hope that enough people understand it. Commercial success has never been an important driving force.
Portion Control do appear to have been lumped in with all the other EBM/Industrial acts over the past 20 years or so, did you ever see yourself as part of this genre/scene? EBM is a pretty new phrase to me! and doesn’t define Portion Control. I think we borrow from the Industrial scene but, to us, Industrial is Throbbing Gristle, NON, SPK and that’s about it. I suppose we borrow elements from all the electronic genres.We liked the ‘Wild Planet’ idea Dave Henderson first muted along with ‘difficult music’. We are opposed to the whole genre/category idea and it seems more embedded now than ever - probably due to the Internet.
You were quite influential to a variety of underground acts, including Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly, are these artists you know of and respect? Of Course! I have great respect for both Skinny Puppy and FLA. Both have had a huge output and are full of enthusiasm and influence.
It’s taken 10 years for Portion Control to produce any new material, why the delay? And what have you been up to during this period? We have been aware of the interest in our older recordings and had a number of offers to re-release them. So far we have not decided if we wish this to happen. During these 10 years we all kept abreast of the music creation technologies, never really fully deploying them.
So why did you decide to reform and record this album at this point in time? Portion Control is in our blood, it’s our statement. The idea of using just soft synths, samplers and fx plug-ins just seemed to re-spark us, and we muted the idea of a new release. This was around 2002. As the outline took shape it just seemed to grow and mutate…
What is the meaning behind the album title, Wellcome? A tribute to Henry Wellcome.
It's a beast of an album, and it's obvious that you have kept abreast of the technological advances over the years. Has it been difficult to do so having not released anythig for such a long period? Technological advances we love. We have always derived inspiration from new hardware/software. We found it pretty easy getting back into the Portion Control creative process. We all know instinctively what works and how far we can push the technology.
What are the primary tools that you use in the studio? We couldn’t wait to sell all our old keyboards to concentrate on software. All the sequencer packages have a different ‘feel’ even with the same material. We utilise them all… Cubase SX, Reason, Acid, Fruity Loops and Orion. Plus an arsenal of synth plug-ins including Muon stuff, JunoFX2, Native Instruments stuff, z3ta, Ohmforce, Audio Mulch etc… audio editors play a key role in manipulating both individual sounds and sections. It’s really good for us to be able to get soft emulations of keyboards we were famililar with, such as the Oscar, Juno 8, Pro 5. On the graphics/internet side we principally use Fireworks, Flash, Swish & Premiere Pro for any video work.
How long did it take to put the album together, and was it necessary to salvage the group from a state of stagnancy or disrepair at all? 2 years.Wellcome is a very varied album that takes in a lot of styles and concepts. Would you say it was the result of 10-years worth of stored up ideas and music coming to fruition? Kind of. We took a ‘snapshot’ from our earlier days wanting Wellcome to reflect our style with current technology and methods. ‘Pure Portion Control’. Diversity was essential. Our original concept was 2 x 60 minutes, but it edited to 135 mins, which was OK. We worked individually on scenes, samples and sections allowing the tracks to evolve. We also wanted a sterile feel to the packaging and liked the look/styling of the shatterproof polyprop boxes. We decided to create a website dedicated to the product rather than to Portion Control.
I find it to be a very difficult album to describe, which I suppose is a compliment in a world of mostly manufactured tripe. How would you describe the album to the layman? It’s very hard to describe your own works, but we wanted the material to interest and excite. It was imperative for us to create a ‘journey’ encompassing all the Portion Control elements and experiences. Some bits are decidedly lo-fi, primitive, even experimental. Some sections kind of regular Portion Control. The 'Onion Jacks' just grew and brooded, whilst other tracks were cut short. I’m not sure if Wellcome is easy to digest, it is certainly dense and makes demands on the listener. This probably doesn’t help the layman - what someone with no knowledge of Portion Control would make of it I cannot guess. As usual it’s difficult to categorise… It’s just Portion Control.
Listening to tracks such as ‘Blind Eyes’, and a number of others, it sounds as though Wellcome is mainly a technological update of your original style and origins? Perfectly true. This was exactly our aim.
It's a self-produced release, so why have you chosen not to use the services of a record label? We wanted total control of the music, packaging and web site. It had to reflect a ‘whole’. The website is dedicated to the one product. Again, we were mindful of the Pure Portion Control concet that was now driving Wellcome. Independence from a label also means we can sell it at a favourable price and sell fewer to recover our costs. We really do not know how many we might sell. Mostly they have been bought by people who know our history.
Is it partly because you have had negative experiences with record labels in the past? Only London Records.
What are your expectations for Wellcome, and do you think it will be difficult to achieve the exposure you’re looking for without a publicity machine to drive you? We have no expectations for Wellcome and it is difficult for us to return to the fray and anticipate how well Wellcome will sell. Only being available online is not an ideal situation, but it’s the route we have chosen at the moment.
Are there any plans to tour with the new material? Maybe a few ‘transmissions'.
I understand there are plans to re-release your past material, has this evolved yet and if not, what can we expect to be released and when? We haven’t decided yet if we want to release our old material.
What styles or individual artists appeal to you at present and have your listening tastes changed over the years? Not much appeals - early DJ Shadow, bits from DJ Spooky, some Funki Porcini & Warp. I don’t think our listening tastes have changed.
Given the opportunity, what, if anything, would you change about the past 25 years in careerist terms? Certainly nothing up to the London signing. I think our style of electro punk was picked up just to early for any sort of cross-over. Having said that, the majors exert tremendous pressure on bands to achieve commercial success. We prefer, and are happier working from ‘outside’ the conventional music processes.
Will we have to wait another decade for your next release? We hope to follow Wellcome with a Maxi EP, currently titled 'Headstorm’, probably supported by 'Onion Jack 3' - and a few other surprises - before the end of the year.
Portion Control interview, Barcode 2004 ©
No part of this interview may be reproduced under any circumstances without the written or verbal permission of the editor. Photo's taken from the Portion Control Fan Site.