As visionary but reluctant musicians, Future Sound Of London are in the fortunate position (courtesy of Virgin and their publishers, Sony) of being financially supported in the pursuit of their experimental approach to audio/visual manipulation and production. Having caught the public's eye in 1988 with their Stakker Humanoid project, they continued to infiltrate the dance music scene, surfacing in 1992 with the acclaimed crossover-underground hit 'Papua New Guinea'. Submerging once again, they worked under a proliferation of aliases, including SemiReal, Mental Cube, Smart Systems, AST, Indo Tribe, Candese and Yage. But the success of 'Papua New Guinea', which peaked at 22 in the charts, was enough to secure a lucrative deal with Virgin.
Thus FSOL's ambitious multi-media plans have slowly been taking shape, with the ultimate aim of operating as an 'audio/visual broadcast system'. In the meantime, under the name Amorphous Androgynous, they released 'Tales of Ephidrina' on their own EBV label in 1993. This was followed by their debut Virgin release, the 30-minute, six-part single 'Cascade'. 'Lifeforms' (the single), featuring the voice of Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, was set for release early this year but subsequently withdrawn due to contractual litigation. Lifeforms (the album) was released in May.
Partners Gary Cobain and Brian Dougans initially met in Manchester in 1986, where they both studied Electronics. Despite a brief hiatus around the time of the Stakker 'Humanoid' single, the pair have since worked together continuously, and have forged an effective, though unlikely, musical alliance. Cobain's effervescent and visionary enthusiasm often sees him going full circle with his arguments. But he is the charismatic mouthpiece to the band, throwing countless ideas around whilst Dougans, more restrained and reticent, will studiously piece the input together and manipulate it in order to create the final product. For this interview at their north-west London Earthbeat studio, Dougans adopts a standing position behind the mixing desk, leaving all the talking to Cobain, only to occasionally be drawn into conversation.
Having listened to FSOL's new Lifeforms album, I felt its dominant feel was one of fluidity; how did they achieve this effect?
Cobain: "I guess the radio shows have been quite instrumental in building up that sort of flow of consciousness feel. [Throughout the last year FSOL have put together a number of broadcasts for Kiss FM]. Because with that we tend to bury things in huge reverbs and overlay tracks on the top. We do a lot of dubs between the ADATs and Macintosh (running ProTools), get it synced up to Creator, and we'll have maybe a sequence coming in at the end of the track which then flows with some overlaid samples into another section. So we keep bouncing it back between those formats until we've got it to sound fluid."
The album was recorded in a linear fashion rather than being edited and compiled at a later date?
Dougans: "Yes -- linear, but flexible." Cobain: "It's an overall aesthetic that we've been working towards, and links and morphing are an extension of that. With this whole idea of non-linear music I think people's minds are tuned to the abstract like they've never been before. We've spent a lot of time writing links and what we've come up with as part of this 'link theory' is the idea that a track should only be in for as long as it's working, which means that you have to retain a critical awareness of what you're doing. Our whole mentality is getting away from singles, and that's not such a good thing, because the best way to sell albums, traditionally, is to have singles."
Do you feel pressured in any way by your record label?
Cobain: "No -- the whole idea in signing to a major was that we had big ideas and we felt that we could educate them as much as they could help us. Our whole idea is to become a broadcast system, and by that we mean putting together audio/visual projects for cable TV and radio."
These future plans that Cobain is hinting at will include the use of the developing technology of digital transmission, namely ISDN, to broadcast live from their studio. May 14th saw their first 'live' Radio 1 broadcast (as part of Pete Tong's Essential Selection show). Following that, FSOL are planning a promotional 'radio tour' via ISDN to radio stations up and down the country. Cobain: "Basically the idea is to break away from the hypocrisy of the way that electronic music is being forced on the road by a load of rock journalists. I've nothing against electronic music going on the road at all, but I don't think it's the best forum for hearing that kind of music."
The potential for digital broadcasting and ISDN is enormous -- consider the possibility of an almost instantaneous release, with an act like FSOL composing a track in their studio during the day and broadcasting it live that evening. No mastering, production, artwork or distribution -- just pure, instant access. But of course the next logical step, and one that FSOL are working towards, is the combined transmission of sounds and picture -- an audio/visual broadcast. As a step towards achieving this, FSOL plan to release a seven-minute pilot film with the Lifeforms album.
"It will be like a showcase for a film that we've been trying to get off the ground for years," explains Cobain. "But there's been incredible red tape because the music industry is a music industry not an audio/visual one, so we've had to do different deals on the side with people like Sony, our publishers.
"Our aim with the next album is to have a major cinematic release; a really high-end technical film with an amazing soundtrack. We're getting into broadcasting and we're permeating TV -- so basically we're taking control over everything." FSOL are essentially interested in creating visuals that are as strong as their music, but getting access to top-end visual equipment has not been easy -- highlighting the disparities that still exist between the audio and audio/visual worlds.
Cobain: "Just look at how samplers have come down through the years to their current level. We're desperately trying to get access to what history isn't allowing us -- the top-end computer visual side. In the music world the hierarchy has broken down between producers and engineers -- it's all gone. Now nobody blinks an eyelid if somebody says 'I write, produce and engineer' -- so what, everybody does! However, in the film and video industry it hasn't happened, and our idea is that when that does happen, then musicians will start interpreting their own music visually, and become as adept working with these systems as they are working with music systems.
"We have a philosophy about sound and vision that a lot of people with a lot more expertise in the video industry just don't have, and musicians are capable of it -- there's no video maker who can make a video better than the one that I've got in my head."
Around the time of 'Papua New Guinea', the influences of dance music were evident in FSOL's music. But this style has now largely been shunned by the pair -- a process which they frequently refer to as 'de-learning'.
Cobain: "What I mean when I refer to 'de-learning' was that we were just electronic musicians when we first met and we didn't have a particular focal point. Then dance music happened so we switched off and focused on that, like a lot of people did. It was a very 'homely' area to be in at the time -- it felt very safe and made you feel like you belonged somewhere.
"But dance music has ceased to be productive, and it's no longer productive for us at all. So we've been trying to de-learn that process from 1988 onwards -- in order to get back to what we were like before, where we were really scared of what we were doing because we didn't know what it was, there was no 'home' for it.
"Every time you hit the keyboard it's like 'I've heard that before'. It's trying to come up with something that is not only coherent but a new form of coherence, something that we haven't done or heard before. And that's really difficult without getting self-indulgent. It's a thin line, because I don't want to spill over into the 'avant-garde' quagmire, which would be an easy step for us to take right now -- like an album of complete sound, not a track in sight: a complete three-dimensional headspace. Maybe we'll do it anyway!"
Do you find normal instrumentation restrictive?
Cobain: "I don't find it restrictive; I just find my ability sorely lacking. Every time I go to a preset keyboard and expander I just write complete cheesy crap, and it's only when we get into the samplers that we're able to do something that sounds good."
Have you got into building your own instruments like the Aphex Twin?
Cobain: "Well we both come from an electronics background. (Cobain -- Degree from UMIST and Dougans -- Studio Technology at Salford College, Manchester, where they first met).
Dougans: "I thought Aphex just built fuzz boxes anyway! That's what his equipment is -- a drum machine through a fuzz box. It's as simple as that -- a bit of reverb, a bit of old analogue." Cobain: "That'll look terrible if it's printed." Dougans: "I don't mind."
FSOL's Earthbeat Studio used to be much smaller but was overhauled to accommodate visual editing equipment -- future plans are for a relocation where the two facilities can work together but also in isolation.
Cobain: "Before we had the studio rebuilt we had a different desk (Soundtracs CM4400), different speakers, different acoustics -- and basically this album has been about us trying to find a new sound. And it has completely changed -- we used to be quite broad and basic and now we're very stark and sparse. I guess we've adapted our philosophy to suit what's happened accidentally -- trying to make a positive out of a negative."
With such a cavalier attitude to music you might think that FSOL employed unusual production techniques. But the pair are not very forthcoming. Dougans: "I can't really think of anything particular." Cobain: "Not other than mixing sounds with effects and EQ as you go. Brian's very good at mixing, whereas I've got this writing attitude where I'll just fling the faders up and it becomes part of the sound! Brian listens a lot in headphones -- I don't -- he's obsessed with spatial head space."
So why the preference for headphones? Cobain: "The Urei monitors are crap, we never listen to them because they hurt your ears. They basically fill the spaces in the wall that we had cut out for them! We've gone back to monitoring on the Tannoy Golds which we had in the old studio." Dougans: "No, I'm sure they'll sound nice when we move studio, but the acoustics are all wrong in this room." Cobain: "Because we had a severe bass problem when we first moved in -- we just couldn't write bass lines. And we tried to make it into a strong philosophy -- like 'dance music's crap because it evolves around bass lines', therefore we hate bass lines! But really it was because we could never 'squeeze' a bassline in with the acoustics. The acoustics were in fact dictating the sound of the music -- the mix just sounded so full. It took a long time to re-evaluate what the acoustics were doing." Dougans: "I think we changed a lot musically anyway. We were quite 'beat' orientated in the old studio, using loops that filled out the sound." Cobain: "People have become adept at using new technology. There were the cut-up, scratch video artists of the 80s -- and they learned their own particular diction and vocabulary of image by cutting up other peoples stuff. Similarly with samplers: a new generation of musicians, as with hip-hop, just took beats, loops or whatever, and through that gradually samples came down and down until people were writing with them."
Dougans: "Most of our tracks run live. Those tracks are then 'welded' onto the ADAT, and then we over-dub on top of that. So when the initial track's written it's pretty much running live with mutes from the C-Lab. We pretty much bolt everything together on the ADAT."
Cobain: "The ideal scenario would be one that we can't possibly have, and that is enough sampling time and a big enough desk to run a whole album at once and be able to effect every sound individually according to what we want. Because what will happen is that we write a track one day that's five minutes long, and four months later we'll come to actually putting it on an album and we'll decide we don't want five minutes of it -- we want a minute of it, and we want to change the sound in the middle of it! And at that point you can't -- so, ideally, it would be nice to have all the sounds for the whole album running live so you could do that. But that's impossible and I don't really know what the answer is.
"We have a pretty much 'one-off' attitude to our work -- once it's recorded, we don't really go back and remix. If we ever remix anything then we start again -- which is how this 38-minute single stuff has come about. There's a good argument that once you've worked on a track and you've gone away from it, then that's it. It was a moment in time."
Although frequently used by the advertising industry, the transmission of digital audio data via a telephone network has only recently been seized upon by the music industry. Radio stations like Classic FM have utilised the system in a way that allows their DJs to work from home, but FSOL's broadcast on 14th May has pushed those possibilities even further.
APT (Audio Processing Technology) provided the necessary hardware, which consisted of a Pro-link ISDN Manager for dialling up any suitably-equipped receiver, and a DSM100 Digital Audio Transceiver Unit, which takes a simple stereo feed and encodes it into digital data ready for transmission. The unit also has an incoming line for talkback and 2-way operation.
British Telecom's digital lines are currently capable of handling 64Kb per line (in America this figure is 254Kb). One line will normally accommodate a 5K bandwidth, suitable for speech. But in order to achieve a 22K bandwidth, essential for quality FM broadcasts, FSOL used three lines.
Mark Maclean, aka Buggy G Riphead, is FSOL's visual wizard. Formerly involved with FSOL via the Manchester-based Stakker video production team who created the visuals for the groundbreaking 'Humanoid', he has once again joined forces with Dougans and Cobain.
A wide array of visual editing and control equipment is at his disposal, and the whole system is fully integrated with the audio side. Maclean: "What's good about the system is that we've got the ADATs directly linked up with the Sony 910 Edit Controller (using an Alesis AI2 interface), so that we can 'rock and roll' digital sound from the 910 -- which is quite a nice facility.
"We're still on Beta, we've not gone onto non-linear or disk-write systems yet. It's easy to transfer onto other formats when necessary, so we're going to stick with digital technology -- digital video, digital telecine -- along with Super 16mm and 35mm film."
Preparation for the Lifeforms promo film has entailed chromakeyed filming of a model, who will then be placed within a 3D computer-animated environment. Maclean: "The camera we use is a Sony DXC537 with Canon 9.5mm lens -- it's £28,000 worth of equipment and is very good. I've shot the footage and we're now layering the sounds to the visuals and vice-versa."
"The Macintosh I use is a 950 with 35Mb of RAM, 1 Gig internal hard drive, with a Umax scanner, Photoshop and various other little programs -- Illustrator, Fractal Painter and so on. I use a lot of SGI, 3D modelling with programs like Soft Image and Prisms.
Accessit RIAA Amp
Alesis ADAT digital 8-track (x2)
Alesis BRC Remote Controller
Alesis AI-2 Synchroniser
Atari 1040 running Emagic Creator
Carver Power Amp
Digidesign ProTools (4-track version)
Sony CDP-770 CD player
Sony DTC-1000ES DAT
Soundtracs IL3632 mixing desk (36 input)
Tannoy Little Gold monitors
Urei Model 838 (time aligned) monitors
Yamaha NS10 monitors
KEYBOARDS & SYNTHESIZERS
EMS Synthi AKS synth
Roland TR909 drum machine
Roland TB303 Bassline
Emu Proteus 1XR (with Protologic upgrade)
Emu Vintage Key
Oberheim Matrix 100
Korg Wavestation A/D
Roland MKS50 (plus PG300 programmer)
Lacom Hard Disk Drive
OUTBOARD & EFFECTS
Alesis Midiverb II (x2)
Alesis Quadraverb (x2)
Audio Logic 2001 Digital Sampler
BBE Sonic Maximizer
Bel BD80 delay
Bel BF20 Flanger
Drawmer DS201 Dual Gate
Fostex 3070 Compressor/Limiter
Ibanez DM1100 Digital Delay
Korg DRV-1000 Digital Reverb
LA Audio MIDI Gate
Tascam 103 Cassette Deck
Yamaha Q2031 graphic EQ
Apple Macintosh Quadra 950 (36Mb RAM/1 Gig internal Hard Drive)
Sony Digital Audio Recorder
Sony PVW-2650P Betacam SP Videocassette Player
Sony PVW-2800P Betacam SP Videocassette Recorder
Sony BKE-9500 Editing Control Disk Unit
Sony BVE-910 Edit Controller
Sony PVM-2044QM video monitor
Sony DXC537 Camera (with 9.5mm Canon lens)
FSOL have also been respected for their diverse remix work, despite being highly selective about which projects they take on. They've recently completed the Sylvian/Fripp remix for Virgin's The Music Of Changes -- A Brief History of Ambient Volume 3 compilation. Cobain: "We like remixing as long as there's no stipulations as to what we can or cannot do. As far as I'm concerned the dance remix is the worst thing in history -- we're not interested in trying to gain people club play.
"Normally we'd ask for the whole album, rather than just the single. With the Sylvian/Fripp one, basically we picked bits from the whole album and re-constituted them. With David Sylvian it was in fact difficult to get anything from him that was useful. We pitched him down, we pieced syllables together and still couldn't get anything. But Fripp's guitar work was absolutely amazing and we could layer that."
FSOL look set to undertake the first audio/visual remix with the next single from Prince -- manipulating both the multitrack recording (via ISDN link-up) and the video.
Audio files to accompany the article.
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