In 1991 The Future Sound of London brought their unique brand of experimentalism to the dancefloor with the seminal track, 'Papua New Guinea' — and launched their career in the process.
"I don't think it's the best piece of music I've ever written, but it just hit a mindset," says Garry Cobain when describing 'Papua New Guinea', the classic club track that served as the first and biggest hit for the Future Sound of London, the electronic outfit in which he partnered Brian Dougans. Sampling the bass line from Meat Beat Manifesto's 'Radio Babylon' together with Lisa Gerrard's vocal from 'Dawn of the Iconoclast' by Dead Can Dance, 'Papua New Guinea' was FSOL's most dance-friendly track in the days before they became one of the most experimental outfits on the electronic scene.
"Music is like a baby," Cobain continues. "It takes on a life of its own, and either the mindset is ready for it and accepts it and promotes that piece of music into an icon, or it doesn't. That's not my choice. It's about synchronicity of the consciousness with that piece of music."
A self-described 'bit of an indie kid' and fan of Manchester-based Factory Records acts such as Joy Division, Cobain was so magnetised by the city that in 1984 he embarked on an electronics degree at the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology. There he met Brian Dougans, a Glaswegian studying sound recording, who was also taken by Factory's white funk industrial outfits like A Certain Ratio. Although Dougans was then the more technically adept of the two, Cobain played some guitar but was, according to his own assessment, "never very good, and I'm still not very good at anything — I think that's part of the essence of our magic as well as our problem. I mean, there I was, doing an electronics degree, and I'd never touched a computer. This was 1985."
Cobain asserts that his motive for doing the degree was "to get to the magic of the music, which I knew was there." And the motive for him dropping out at the end of his first year?
"Well, I quickly realised that I was nowhere near to making synths or anything interesting. When I met Brian, he sort of freaked me out because although the sound recording course he was doing didn't have any electronics, it was just bang-on. It was about music and making music and music technology, whereas my degree was about diodes and capacitors and computers. I was nowhere near the music, so I was well envious of Brian, and he was also a couple of years older, which seemed to be very significant when I was in my late teens. He was very much a guiding force, and he was also extremely charismatic."
What's more, Dougans had the distinction of being one of the first people Cobain knew to have a computer setup. During the 1970s, his father Bill Dougans had done a lot of electronic soundtrack work for Scottish films and he had a tech suite that Brian often visited, so he had the know-how to write electronic music in the days before the dance explosion made composing and recording accessible to everybody.
"In 1985, Brian was the first person I'd ever met who played me music that was worthy of being released on record," says Cobain. "I used to just hero-worship Brian. I mean, he was making music that was seriously up there with Cabaret Voltaire and all these other bands, and to me that music was a mystery. I didn't know how to make music like that. I was an indie kid, and there I was, sitting with a guy who was sequencing and sampling and all that sort of stuff. Brian was the man. He was right at the center, right at the heart, and he had the power. He just whizzed around town with this charisma and people knew he was going somewhere — and I wanted to be a part of it."
While Cobain acknowledges that, early on, he was "the kind of charismatic guy with the suits and the haircut," he also assisted Dougans by assuming the role of frontman at a time when that was still necessary.
"Brian was producing some bands, and I was sort of taking the piss out of them because I wanted to be in a band with Brian," Cobain says. "My agenda was to actually get him working with and for me, with me being the kind of frontman. Then, when dance music came along, that gave Brian the power to need none of us. So, by the time 1988 came around, Brian went off and did 'Stakker Humanoid' pretty much by himself, and it was only when he ran into a bit of trouble afterwards that he called on me again. That was the beginning of FSOL.
"You see, although I thought Brian was magic, after a year of working with him I'd realised that he wasn't totally in control of the technology. The technology was actually very powerful in itself, and I wanted a bit of that technology. So I worked at Heathrow Airport to get a grand together, I managed to con my landlord at the time to give me another grand — he saw Brian becoming a star with 'Stakker' and he thought I had it in me to be a star as well — and in those glorious days of Prince Charles's Enterprise Allowance scheme I also managed to get a grand from the bank. Then, while Brian was becoming Stakker, I launched myself and said, 'Screw you, I've got my own studio, these are my tunes and I don't need you to do my electronic work anymore. I've got the power now as well.' In fact, when Stakker ran aground I was writing some bloody good music, and that's why Brian came back to me and we began releasing lots of stuff."
The first notable example of which was 'Papua New Guinea', an undeniably commercial track that flew in the face of FSOL's musical philosophy.
"The industry was very geared towards dance singles," Cobain remarks. "You know, big bloody statements that sell records. Well, Brian and I always knew that we were far too way-out to play that game. What we really wanted to do was produce big, sprawling, cosmic, ambient rock albums — in other words, concept albums — which would be easy for us. The singles game was a really difficult one, and we played it for awhile because that's how we got our money. We released loads of dance music — some of it admittedly dodgy — but we were always looking for the opportunity to start getting weirder, and gradually we found it. Out of a two-year process of getting paid £750 per EP, we were at last able to inject our personalities and get the balance of Debussi, the Cocteau Twins, Cabaret Voltaire and dance music all in the same bag, and that in turn gave us the power to release our first album.
"The label sat on that record for about nine months before releasing it, and they only did so after 'Papua New Guinea' became a hit, thus reinforcing the fact that dance records don't sell unless there's a hit single. We and the Orb were desperately trying to undercut that model. And then, of course, once we did undercut it, it all became terribly easy, and there were 15 million dance concept/ambient albums coming out, and it all imploded in a different way."
The aforementioned first album, Accelerator, was techno pure and simple, with a few notable exceptions. Most specifically, 'Papua New Guinea' opened the doors to ethno-ambient and in its wake there would be countless imitations, yet upon its 1991 UK release (five years before it was issued in the States) the record veered only slightly from current trends.
"A lot of Accelerator was us working within the dance universal language and giving it a tweak," says Cobain. "Still, we weren't tweaking it as much as we'd really liked to have done, because we were trying to make a living. It was only when we got to Lifeforms  that we said, 'Okay, big label behind us, now you're going to have a vision'. Then again, had we been given that vision before Accelerator we would have still probably been a little bit more dance-y, because that's where we were at. At that point, four-on-the-floor wasn't such a dirty term, it was actually quite an appealing language. We were trying to work within it, and our kind of retarded take on those beats was pretty interesting. It wasn't as interesting as it would eventually become — by the time of Lifeforms the attitude became 'Okay, drop the beat and drop the bass and let's return to serious albums that aren't based around hit singles.' That was the whole philosophy of Lifeforms; that the hit single had actually ruined the long-player. What we wanted to do was take the opportunity to really present an experience that is so dynamic and so deep that it becomes commercial."
"In this day and age there's a creative use of sampling and a non-creative use", says Cobain. "That's what I think is so good about 'Papua New Guinea' — I think it's familiar but it's also totally exotic. If it was only totally exotic I don't think it would have been so successful, whereas the final product proved to be fast food for hungry dancefloors. You see, in those days there was very much a fast food mentality. There was so much stuff pommeling the raving, dancing masses that sometimes there needed to be something a little bit familiar. If you're going to take somebody on a journey, there should be something familiar, so to a certain degree we were all playing the game of getting something familiar and then warping it.
"There was nothing wrong back then with having a little bit of a familiar bass line, and the 'Babylon' bass line was one of the greatest within that culture. If you listen to the bass line on 'Radio Babylon' it's darker and deeper and shifts slightly differently, whereas if you listen to the 'Papua New Guinea' bass line it's a kind of staccato sampled version. I think [Meat Beat Manifesto's] Jack Danger has always been a bit insulted that we sampled it, but everybody was sampling. I mean, why begrudge people sampling you and having more success?"
Why indeed, especially when Cobain and Dougans were always first to describe themselves as "the best pickpockets in town". They took sounds from everywhere, including a TV nature documentary about, yes, Papua New Guinea.
"We were very quick to realize this stuff was in very wide stereo," says Cobain. "We were there with the DATs running, and in essence that was the name 'Papua New Guinea'. The whole ethos of that was you can travel far and wide and be very exotic without going anywhere. As two very skint musicians in London, we greatly desired a more exotic lifestyle — the question we always faced was 'Have you been to Papua New Guinea?' 'Well, no, but through the rapidly advancing media it won't be long now.' That was the attitude. We could sit and sample the sounds that had been collected for documentaries and use them in a different way. That was the revolution of sampling. It was an amazing time.
"What an incredible thing, to be able to pull together all these weird sources, to take a Dead Can Dance sample, put it against a Papua New Guinea nature documentary with some tribal percussion and bring it to some dance beats that were lying around.
It was fantastic. You had punks and bohemians and ravers and poets and romantics all gathered in the same space, and that was before the music industry got hold of it and the greed of the people who were making it ruined it. At that point it ended up being as negative as everything else — it was as lazy as jazz, as lazy as rock, as lazy as indie eventually, and that's where it is now, but for a while it was revolutionary."
Accelerator was put together at FSOL's studio, Earthbeat, located in Dollis Hill, Northwest London, next to the tube station. This comprised an area the size of a large closet, sandwiched between a PA company on one side and a guitar manufacturer on the other.
"Eventually, as the rents went up, they both lost their premises and we moved in and, thanks to the deal with Virgin, expanded sideways and rebuilt," Cobain recalls. "However, at the time of Accelerator the setup was a 28-input Soundtracs desk which we'd got from our silent partner. The Soundtracs was really beautiful; very warm and very big, and we now miss it, actually. We also had an Atari 1040 running Creator — I've still got that somewhere and I'm thinking of digging it out again — and then we had DATs and recorders and other lo-fi stuff, as well as a slim selection of outboard gear; [Yamaha] SPX90s, and a Roland Space Echo. There was also a Roland D110 synth module, a TR909 and TB303, drum machines, and a lot of nice analogue stuff that Brian picked up from his old man. We ran several samplers, like an [Akai] S1000, an S950 and an S900, and even an S612 which had a two-second sampling capacity. We ran it pretty much live onto DAT, and then we had various synths like the [Roland] JX3P.
"We used to sequence virtually everything, and with the two seconds of samples offered by the S612 we learned the beauty of how to take one note and write with it. So, when I'm talking about sampling I'm not referring to just dropping massive bloody hip-hop chunks. I'm talking about going through records, going through TV, getting a conga note and then playing weird rhythms with it. Very creative sampling. That's the ethos we brought to Lifeforms and all those albums, and in that respect we definitely took sampling to a new dimension. A lot of people were just throwing in big samples and spinning breaks under them.
"Maybe 'Papua New Guinea' was the first time that sampling really went there — we were taking from a very exotic sound base and we were using samples in quite a different way. Brian was schooled in quite a lot of stuff, and I think his sound techniques really came together at that point. It was a fusion of a lot of stuff. Here were two people who knew a lot of music, from the Smiths to dance culture to the Cocteau Twins to industrial funk, and we were bringing that to a dance music culture that was open to receiving it. And it was also the playground for the technology revolution that was taking place. You had the 303 being used in ways it wasn't supposed to be used, and the sampler was being used in ways that weren't intended. So, we were good bloody advertising for technology companies in a way.
"In actual fact, we were criticised because we had loads of gear, and that's absolutely laughable because the rock and indie bands that were around back then had shitloads of gear, since they were still doing it the old way. They were going into big, old studios and spending a fortune each day whereas we just had a bunch of gear that we'd begged, borrowed and stolen, and put in a room. There was nothing special about our gear, but then to a degree Brian and I also pumped ourselves up because that was the technology game. You pumped up your technology to make yourself look like a spaceship. After all, when you're a technological band it's cool to be a spaceship. So, we were going, 'Yeah, we've got five samplers. We're the mother ship,' and eventually that came back to haunt us. People would say, 'It's just a big bloody computer and it's really expensive,' and we'd think, 'You're welcome to make your point, but you're missing the point because rock is still far more expensive than we are and will ever be.'
"We were always very DIY and very punk, and our whole attitude was 'if it sounds good through the speakers, then it's good.' We wanted character. We didn't really want it to sound ordinary. We wanted it to sound extraordinary. I mean, these techniques had been used to produce flatulent rock albums, but they could also be used as a form of DIY to revolutionise the recording process.
"We just wanted to get weird sounds, so we were always sticking drums in this long, narrow tunnel in Dollis Hill — you wouldn't normally want to go down there at night, but we were there with harmonicas, hitting the railings for percussive sounds, and gathering loads of samples, rampantly DIY-ing. Then again, another aspect to us was that we were part of a complex that contained recording studios and rehearsal studios, and we used to go outside the door, set up mics, record people who were rehearsing, and then put them on our records — and they never knew. We were absolutely winging it."
Unconventional games. Nevertheless, Cobain is also quick to point out that while such techniques make for an interesting story, these weren't the sole essence to FSOL.
"What we were doing was telling the music press, 'Fuck romance. Romance is possible through a collection of sounds that is being spunked out through the media. And if that's too stark for you, then you'd better just get with the program. This is going to revolutionise in its own way. Maybe some of the romance will go, but you're going to have to learn how to write about this. This is going to have to be your new romance.'"
The engineer credited on the 'Papua New Guinea' and Accelerator sessions was YAGE, who Garry Cobain describes as "semi-fictitious and semi-real" while simultaneously admitting this was "kind of an alter-ego for the both of us". Enough said, save for the fact that the name is derived from Yajé, a vision-inducing drink that is made from a psychoactive jungle vine and plants.
"'Papua New Guinea' is a very good example of the way we were working back then," says Cobain. "When you look at that track, the melodic sensibility of it was mine. I wrote, sequenced and played the JX3P top-line synth part live, I did the same for the strings — a one-note pad in the sampler, triggered from the 1040, with each of the chords being three notes worked out and played — and an engineer we were working with also gave me this one-note harp sample, that, basically, could go from C-0 to G-8 right across the keyboard
"As for the Dead Can Dance voice sample, there's a funny story about that. My girlfriend had gone and been unfaithful to me in Greece because I'd been unfaithful to her in Balham [South London]. She was teaching English and she did it with a student, and once she'd paid me back for my unfaithfulness — it was a one-all draw — we got back together, but she continued to receive these rather puppy-doggish tapes of tracks that were lamenting his lost love. Well, on one of them was the Dead Can Dance song. I'd always loved Dead Can Dance but I didn't have that particular album, so I sampled it from the cassette."
Not that this was the starting point for the song.
"The technological innovation of the sound is Brian, basically," Cobain explains. "There's a kind of way in which we pull and push in our writing and production techniques, and Brian is very good at collecting a palette of sound that is going to work in terms of the mix. He collects very much on a top, middle and bass production level, and he'd collected this great chord. I'm not sure where it was from, but I basically played it into the pan, and it was just a great pan while he gated the strings, So, you can see what was happening — there was a bit of collection, a bit of writing and then the gating on the strings was brilliant. There's no way in hell I'd ever work out how to do that, it's just not my bag."
"We were angry brothers in a lot of ways," adds Dougans. "There was a lot of friction between us, but we were definitely focussed as one unit, no doubt about it. We were tuned in to virtually the exact same things, but there was a competition, and there still is."
For 'Papua New Guinea', Cobain utilised some old break-beats, collected sounds and introduced the voice sample.
"There's a mix of the song called 'Dumb Child of Q' — it's on the 12-inch — and that's pretty much me writing," he says. "However, that track wouldn't have done anything because it didn't have what it later had. Instead, Brian just sat back, waiting for me to exhaust, and then when that happened, he waded in with a whole bank of samples. He had some new drums, he gated the strings, and my God it was sounding bloody massive. He revolutionised the sound."
"Our best tracks were mixed as we went along because the sound basically dictated the mix, and in the case of 'Papua New Guinea' we acquired a compressor and Brian stuck the whole mix through it", says Cobain.
"That was a very dodgy Fostex 3070 that I got from my dad," Dougans recalls. "It seemed to give the track a gel which we played into. As I was mixing it the whole track went through that compressor, and as you know, compressors can cause a real squeeze effect when you put too much through them. So, we were sort of mixing through the compressor but pulling it back — taming it, pushing it, taming it — and that's how it gelled together."
"We were really in love with hearing our music on radio and it didn't happen enough for us," says Cobain. "However, we loved the compression on Kiss FM and Radio One, so our dream was to get the music sounding like that before it hit radio. That's why Brian stuck the whole mix through that compressor, which was something we'd never done before — it gave a certain squashed sound, and by the time that then went back through the Radio One compressors it just sounded like magic. We always say that track came alive on radio, and after that we coined the term 'twice-baked' — in other words, if you overdo the compression and then it goes through the broadcast network it's twice-baked and it just sounds crap; totally mushed. However, with 'Papua New Guinea' it worked really well."
"The drums were pulled from all over the place," says Dougans. "There were about four loops from various people, there was a big, fat bass drum that we always used which was stuck in a giant reverb, and quite a lot of the dubs — the seagull sound, the backwards whoosh — were all coming off stuff that I had done years before, sampled off a cassette and spun backwards. We both had big bags of samples and dubs and noises, and we would both just go in and sprinkle them over things that we were doing."
"We work together but we don't necessarily work at the same time," adds Cobain. "There's the push and the pull and then the exhaustion, and when I exhaust, Brian's strong, and vice-versa. That's how all good couples collaborate. When one person's depressed, the other is up, and we're much like that to this day, very yin and yang. Anyway, after I was exhausted on 'Papua New Guinea', the track was done and I thought it was great, Brian knew it could be so much better and he therefore brought in these breaks and did a load more sampling, and at that point we began writing again. My bass line fell by the wayside — it was crap, too middle-y and Brian said it needed to be bassier, so I pulled out the Meat Beat Manifesto bass line, and we chopped that up and added it.
"With 'Papua New Guinea' we got to the stage where everybody thought it was brilliant, but then Brian added a break halfway through that comes with some of that exotic tribal percussion as well as a flute that he sampled. He pitched it +12 and 12, and we did that a lot — if a sample sounds good at +12 and 12 you just follow them on so that it kind of becomes the same sample. Or even turn it backwards and just make the sample a bit more exotic. So, we did a bit of that, dropped the drums out, brought in some percussion, and at that point it was brilliant but it needed more. I was exhausted with the track, but Brian went in just one more time and we ended up developing a kind of middle eight. At that point I piled in there with this JX3P line which rose to a sort of crescendo with the middle-eight, basically like a sequence, and then we brought in this vocal that was sampled from I-don't-know-where.
"We didn't really hang around on tracks. We used to work two, three, four days, and I think 'Papua New Guinea' was the longest we ever worked on a track — we worked on it for about a week solid, and it just kept coming and Brian kept pushing. So, we fired in that voice sample, which was from a male session vocalist who'd come in and done some stuff, and the bass came in really late. We always hated bass lines that came late because it's very difficult to squeeze a bass in. People had already been saying, 'This is a fantastic track,' and we were like, 'Yeah, great, but the bass line's shit. What are we gonna do?' And it was a little bit of a squeeze, but it worked."
Familiar enough to hit the hungry dance floors and also exotic enough to take everyone there on a totally radical trip — that, as previously asserted by Garry Cobain, was the secret of 'Papua New Guinea's' success. Indeed, at a time when said trip had promised a lot but, like rave, had become very formulaic, 'Papua New Guinea' presented an extremely bold soundscape.
"We were always a part of ethnic, and ethnic samples were great, but they're just part of the ether," Cobain says. "In the ether you have everything from crackling static to an ethnic sample, and when they're mixed together the results can be exotic. Exoticism for us was the psychedelic domain of mix and match; bizarre things, asynchronous, things that shouldn't go together. That was the game, and that's what is so good about sampling."
"'Papua' was a massive success for me and Gaz, and it was really a beautiful moment to share such a great thing," adds Dougans. "It was a great time, because we'd come out of the dance thing and people wanted to use electronics, and there was a lot of cool experimentation going on at that point. I've got good memories of it."