Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

In 2013 I interviewed Xenomania’s Brian Higgins for a feature on the role of the producer. In the end I only used a small part of the interview. Here’s the full transcript.

 Q: What is the difference between a producer and a songwriter, for you?  And where does a producer / songwriter fit into that?

BH: There are various types. A producer who creates a track, a layer of music, then gives it to a songwriter in order to create the lyric and melody of a song is a writer / producer. He has helped to create music, to create a song and has gone on to make the record.

The purest sense of a songwriter / producer is, I suppose, a producer that is able to write songs at an accomplished level and has probably had a hit writing melodies and lyrics. That gives a producer an added advantage because they are in a position to offer to a songwriter, be it the singer in a band or a topline collaborator, the necessary help to make sure the lyric and melodic quality of the song is very high.

That is the purest form of writer / producer, an all-rounder, some who is as comfortable with melodies as they are with music.



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Rainy City logoManchester doesn’t just do things different musically, it also has a strong history of house music, staking a good claim to be the first place in Britain to have played the emerging house sound back in the 80s.

By the 1990s the Manchester house scene was led by Paper Records, which released records by the likes of Salt City Orchestra, Dirty Jesus and Crazy Penis, while label founders Miles Holloway and Elliot Eastwick DJed all over the city.

But if the Paper Records duo were Manchester’s Deep Dish – that’s to say, smooth, deep and successful – then Rainy City Music was perhaps its KDJ, bringing a rougher, live edge to underground house, which looked to the US, Brazil and Africa for inspiration and proved very different to other electronic music being made in Manchester at the time.


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Quincy JonesHowever much you think you know the work of Quincy Jones, he still has the power to surprise.

You know, of course, that he produced Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Thriller, revolutionising pop music in one amazing purple patch. But the sheer scale of his achievements is astounding.

Towards the end of our interview, the talk turns, inexplicably to football. Warming to the subject, Jones starts to sing The Self Preservation Society. “I wrote that, you know,” he adds, a glimmer in his eyes. “And they still sing that at football matches. Beckham told me.”


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(From 2005)

Isolated not just in name, German electronic wizard Isolée, inhabits a world far from the trodden path.

Spurning the dull inanity of most modern electronic music, Isolée’s tunes send strange debris of electric melody spiralling off into the ether, powered by oddly fizzing off-centred beats, in a way unlikely ever to endear him to Judge Jules or David Guetta. Isolated for sure…

But then aren’t we all a bit isolated these days? “I liked the word and it has a meaning – in our society everybody has a feeling with that,” Isolée, known to his mother as Rajko Muller, explains, in a fruity German accent. “Also Isolée is different to me the person. I like the confusion.”

Confusion he has in spades. After a debut album, 2000’s Rest, of stunning avant garde electrics, all bendy lines and chrystalline melodies, that floored the leftfield dance community and even produced one of the freakiest near hits of living memory in the peerless Beau Mot Plage, he’s back, five years later, with Wearemonster, and he’s gone disco.

Well, kind of. “I didn’t really realise it was more disco,” he says, after what feels like a century of deep thought. “I wasn’t really conscious about it.”

What this means is that it sounds like Muller has added a new world of live instrumentation – from warm, disco drums to twangy guitars and looming strings – to his meandering synth-lined path.

Except, naturally, he hasn’t. “There’s no live instrumentation,” he says, amused, conceivably. “But there was the intention to make it sound like this. It’s interesting to sound less computer-like – a more organic sound.”

As you may be beginning to understand, little is simple in the world of Isolée. Take the name for example. It means “isolated” sure, but has an extra “e” on the end.

Why, you may ask? Well, if you were British it would probably indicate a preference for drugs, in French it means feminine. And for Rajko, “…” which means either he doesn’t want to say or he just liked the look.

Well more power to him. The likelihood of  Isolée making a brash, headline-grabbing-style announcement is about as small as him making a brash, headline-grabbing-style record and if that means we never know what he eats for breakfast or his thoughts on celebrity culture then amen to that.

Download Isolée’s Pyjama remix of Osborne’s Daylight here

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When the Balanescu Quartet tour their latest album, the gorgeous Maria T, a ghost will be onstage. The album is a homage to one of Alexander Balanescu’s earliest musical influences, iconic Romanian folk-singer Maria Tanase, and Balanescu is hoping the multimedia live event will conjure her spirit.

Balanescu sees the album as an emotional re-connection to Romania – the country in which he was born in 1950 and fled in 1969.  In 1992 he toured Romania with his quartet, in support of Possessed, an album of Kraftwerk covers. The visit touched him emotionally and he left with the desire to express through his music the emotional connection to a country he had been forced to abandon as a teenager.

The album that followed in 1994, Luminitza (“small light” in Romanian) was an exquisite balance of folk, classical and the avant-garde, taking Eastern European folk music as inspiration for new musical material.

Although a decade later, Maria T is a follow up of sorts. Balanescu explains: “On this particular project I took the songs of Maria Tanase as a basis for new compositions. My intention was not to make transcriptions or arrangements of the ethnic material, but through my own particular musical perspective, with its classical, jazz, electronic and generally very eclectic influences, to develop a new personal language.”

The album is a towering success, swaying elegantly from the “Romanian reggae” (Alexander’s description) / Kraftwerk folk (mine) of opener Joc Pe Loc to the devastating, melancholic waltz of Lume, Lume, to the downright jaunty drinking song Vinul, oozing lush melody as it goes.

The making of the album, which Balanescu considers “absolutely” his most personal, was obviously a poignant time for him. “It was a kind of meeting between my quartet and her band: classical musicians, playing along with a gypsy’s band, meeting over the generations with the help of a computer. It was fantastic,” he says, in a voice still dripping with deliciously thick Romanian vowels. And it’s an emotional listen, too, visceral even. “Romanian folk music is very fatalistic,” Balanescu explains. “It’s very dark and yet the music has a kind of sweetness. It’s a kind of liberation.”

This fatalistic touch reflects the spirit of Tanase, often referred to as the Romanian Edith Piaf. She led an intense, bohemian life, cut tragically short at the age of 50, when she died of lung cancer. By that time she had already distinguished herself as a theatre and film actress, an operetta singer, a music hall star but principally as a folk singer.

Balanescu’s career, which has seen him work with everyone from The Pet Shop Boys (My October Symphony, a career highlight for Tennant and Lowe) to the Arditti Quartet, is far from what might be expected of a modern classical violinist. Balanescu expresses his admiration for the “grey areas” in music, which break the barriers between musical styles. Nevertheless, he is aware of the horrors into which it is easy to fall. “Some times cross over can be very horrible,” he says, politely. “When an artist isn’t aware of the elements, using it instead of enhancing it.”

Not that there is any worry of that with Maria T. In the end, despite the heart breaking melodies, brilliant arrangements and stunning playing, the album’s greatest achievement may be the way it manages to combine a very clever mix of modern music techniques, with the raw emotional force of Tanase’s beloved folk music.

And, as befits a tribute to a deceased singer, it’s deathly haunting.

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It’s a sobering thought, but when Stereolab released their first record back in 1991, Margaret Thatcher was still in power and Nirvana’s Nevermind had yet to break big.

Stereolab didn’t fit in then. And they don’t fit in now, as they approach the release of their 11th album (not withstanding a shelf full of compilations) the brilliant Chemical Chords.

You see, Stereolab care intensely about music. And they think deeply about it. This, for example, is co-founder / co-songwriter Tim Gane talking about the promo copies of the new album, which, in a slap in the face to internet pirates, came with all songs cut off at around the two-minute mark.

“In the US a lot of people said they liked the way that the songs ended suddenly like that.” Gane laughs. We’re sat on a wall outside the Brixton Windmill before the band’s “secret” gig at the start of June. A kid is doing wheelies down the road in a particularly distracting manner but Gane looks lost in the musical chat.

“They expect some kind of messing about on each record,” he adds. “I actually quite got into the idea of doing that for real, doing a record where things did really stop. What could we do with it? “The download problem, one way to solve it, you send one version out and when the real one comes out, it’s a totally different version. Why can’t you do it?”

Well, why not indeed? I want to agree with him and most probably do. In fact it’s only reading back my notes at the end of the night that you realise the very obvious pitfalls of such a plan slapping you in the face.

Of course Gane probably wouldn’t care for such inconsistencies: years ago he proclaimed that it was better for a band to be interesting than “good”, a view he subscribes to, to this day.

“Be different,” he urges. “Be unique, be something new and then try and make that something good as opposed to being very proficient. Attempt things. Try things. That is at the heart of why I like creating things.”

Which seems like as good a time as any to mention Chemical Chords, the band’s new effort comprising 14 tracks of “purposefully, short, dense, fast pop songs”, according to Gane. That’s pop, incidentally, in the sense of Motown and 60s girl groups in Paris cafes; pop as in fizzing cola pop that lodges itself in your brain that you never want to leave.

“That was kind of deliberate,” Gane admits, taking a deep draught on his beer. The sun is shining brightly now in a way that suits the Stereolab feel.

“I was very interested in making the tracks short but very tense. A lot of 60s pop songs, within the three-minute form with a lot of things going on.” But things are never that simple with Stereolab.

“There was a series of obstacles that I set up,” Gane adds. “But sometime we just go with the flow. I find seven-minute tracks a bit boring.”

The grizzled Stereolab fan may be excused a moment of disbelief here: the self-styled “groop” has a handul of seven-minute plus art monsters in their catalogue, from Emperor Tomato Ketchup’s majestic opener Metronomic Underground, to the locked groove drone of Jenny Ondioline, a track that could quite happily double or even triple its 18-minute playing time without ever exhausting this correspondent.

But this is Gane’s point: Stereolab are, in the immortal words of John Peel talking about his beloved Fall “always different, always the same”. Always the same because every song Stereolab have recorded is instantly – insistently – recognisable. Always different because the band have incorporated everything from wonky disco to sunshine bossa nova in their music over the years.

“People say we have an identafiable sound,” Gane shrugs. “I can’t change it. It’s done naturally and I am not going to inhibit it.”

The idea, he explains, with the new album was to build tracks from the rhythm upwards, without relying on the guitar chords that have given a motorik whoosh to so much of their output.

“I was just trying to change things and upset things a little bit,” Gane explains. “But conversly they ended up sounding like us.”

Of course the music is only part of the Stereolab charm. The band’s lyrics, too, coming from the pen of French singer and writer Lætitia Sadier are truly amazing. Consider this example, from the band’s dazzling single Ping Pong. “Bigger slump and bigger wars and a smaller recovery / Huger slump and greater wars and a shallower recovery / Don’t worry be happy, things will get better naturally / Don’t worry, shut up sit down, go with it and be happy”

You what? A sarcastic takedown of the capitalist system in a pop song. And that’s the bloody chorus as well. And if it sounds like it might be clunky, well it isn’t at all.

And then there’s this, from Fractal Dream on the new album: “Humanity is split between masters and servants,” trills Sadier over a pointed pop backing.

With such lofty concerns, the flash of fashion is, you feel, unlikely to trouble Stereolab’s weighty brains. But that is not to say that the band is on a sideline. Over the years everyone from Timbaland to The Neptunes and J Dilla have expressed their love for the group, while Lætitia collaborated with Common on his awesome track New Age, simply the best drone pop hip hop ever laid on vinyl.

“I identify with the way they make music,” Gane says of the rap stars that have clasped the band to their medallioned breast. “Rather than a band that makes songs. Like them, I tend to pick and mix. Everything is there to be used.”

And it is precisely this spirit of adventure that has allowed Stereolab to thrive, where so may of their peers (Tortoise? Mouse On Mars? Labradford?) have slunk off to the experimental pop graveyard. They’ve outlasted Thatcher. They’ve outgunned Nirvana. And you can expect them to be happily art rocking away when the sun eventually goes supernova.

“It is a bit unreal,” Gane admits of the band’s 17-year plus history. “But I’m not looking back on things that much. We don’t need to motivate ourselves to do this. We have just been lucky enough to have the right bunch of people to stay together.”

He’s being far too modest, of course: Stereolab are nothing other than a national treasure, the finest example of Anglo French collaboration since Concorde. Not that Gane would ever admit it.

“It goes back to the question of being in a band,” he concludes thoughtfully, returning to the question of interesting vs. good. “That in itself is not a reason for people to listen to you. You have to justify what you are doing.”

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All the best bands are a mass of contradictions are Broadcast are no exception. The band – slimmed down to the core duo of James Cargill and Trish Keenan – have emerged from their Birmingham bunker with a gorgeous new album, Tender Buttons, that is both their most obliquely cool and warmly personal.

“When I sat down to write the songs I was keen not to say anything. I just wanted to play around with words, I wanted to stay free of who I was,” Trish explains down the phone from her messy Birmingham bedroom. “But when I let go of all the pressure to describe me it became more personal.”

It is this idea of letting go that centres Tender Buttons.  “It’s letting go of everything, being human, being who you are,” Trish explains. “I lost my dad during the making of the album. That was a parallel for me. It came out in the way I thought about music and I had to let go of my dad.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that such emotions seeped into the album, given the troubled circumstances that surrounded the recording: James and Trish, who are also a couple, argued heavily while making Tender Buttons and Trish wrote many of the lyrics while visiting her father in hospital where he was dying of cancer.

Such frankness is incredible in modern music, but Trish is unfazed. “I have got no problem with people knowing me or any personal details about myself,” she says. “I have had a crazy life: I was brought up by a prostitute.”

This experience is reflected in the lyrics to the beautiful Goodbye Girls. “I imagine what it’s like to be a prostitute, what you have to turn off inside to do it,” Trish says. “To a certain degree it’s a description of my mum. She has a blankness to her some times. There’s reasons she ended up as a prostitute.”

The idea of letting go also applies to the very idea of Broadcast as a band: Tender Buttons is a conscious step away from the guitar driven 60s style of previous albums, based as it is around a hypnotic swirl of minimal drum machines and distorted, angry keyboards.

As Trish describes it, it was a horribly necessary move to make. “We came back from America on the Ha Ha tour and it just felt like we were really sick of how we worked. We always wear our references too much on our sleeves. We needed to do something that was more us, other than in the shadow of all the 60s bands,” she says.

Tender Buttons certainly achieves that: the album is a startlingly original mix, beholden to no one, and a real step forward from the maximal sounds of previous long player The Ha Ha Sound. “We just turned off all the jewellery. The Ha Ha Sound was like a jewellery box, full of sparkling things,” Trish says.

Brilliant as the album is though, it may well prove a controversial one with their fans, some of whom have urged the band to return to their 60s ways. But if there is one track above all that is likely to incite argument, it’s the brilliant pop noir of America’s Boy, which Trish describes as “a sort of celebration of the American soldier”. “I wrote something off the top of my head and I am going to be called a Neo Conservative,” Trish jokes. But of course things are not that cut and dried. “There’s no pro or anti war thing going on at all,” she says. “Besides the world you and I come from is already converted to anti war.”

Not that you can imagine Broadcast coming from the same world as anyone really. Rather they exist in splendid isolation, floating on the planet Broadcast a million miles away from the humdrum world of modern music. “I don’t know where we stand. We get good reviews but nobody buys it,” Trish says, possibly facetiously. “There is the promo world that exists and there is life in this house. It’s weird that there are these posh photos but I look around my bedroom and it’s a mess.”

And with that, the singer of the best band in Britain goes off to tidy her room.

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