In a new three‑part series, DJ, producer and remixer Dave Clarke meets key figures from half a century of electronic music.
In this series, I will be interviewing leading figures from three generations of electronic music: people who have shaped, are shaping, and will shape the future of these genres. My aim was not just to find out about their studio and music‑making techniques, but to dig a little deeper and work out what makes them tick creatively. For this first instalment, I elected to interview John Foxx.
Many will know John as part of Ultravox, but on leaving that band, he embarked on a very long solo career that is still going some 40 years and 40 albums later. A leading figure in electronic music since the late ’70s, John’s influence on the early UK techno scene is hard to overstate — simply put, John was a catalyst for many of us to begin making music. I found his 1979 album Metamatic both disturbing and sublime. His monochromatic soundscape was Radiophonic Workshop but with politics and rhythm; his lyrics were mysterious yet made sense. For me, he is perhaps the most sensitive yet perceptive soul in electronica and always a joy to interview (and remix for!).
A leading figure in electronic music since the late ’70s, John’s influence on the early UK techno scene is hard to overstate — simply put, John was a catalyst for many of us to begin making music.
When you started being involved in this industry, electronic music was just beginning to take a foothold. Do you ever look back and wonder how things would have been if you had a career with only a guitar and microphone?
Well, I started out as a singer‑songwriter playing a 12‑string guitar, with an eye on Lou Reed and the Velvets. This was about 1970. I supported bands around Manchester — actually, they supported me! — and grew accustomed to being completely ignored, but a fortunate weekly residency with Stackwaddy in Salford led to that room above a pub becoming crowded. It was a very useful scene: big room, easy‑going, a new generation coming in. I could write new songs every week and they’d get listened to or ignored — a good testing ground.
Then, in 1973, I went off to art school in London. A year later, phase two began, auditioning the band that became Ultravox. I’d begun tinkering with a Minimoog at art school, and that had given me some ideas. It was also a follow‑up to a much earlier brush with electronics. In 1964 my friend Tony Bassett converted a transistor radio into a Theremin. You changed pitch and volume by proximity to the aerial. I was impressed, because it could really howl. I found this tremendously exciting. It was like science-fiction.
Were Minimoogs and Theremins the kind of instruments you were waiting for but didn’t realise that you needed them until they arrived?
Yes! I also think there was a lot of foreshadowing coming from science‑fiction writing and film soundtracks such as Forbidden Planet, then Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram’s work in the Beeb’s Radiophonic Workshop. Most especially, Samuel R Delany’s book Nova, which I first picked up as a very weathered tourist leftover in La Escala, Spain, when hitchhiking in 1968. [John would often be looking for the art that he later studied at art school by travelling around in Europe.] It contained a glimpse of some technological possibilities for music.
At that time, sci‑fi was the great predictor, and Delany envisaged a punky beatnik character called Mouse, who played a Syrynx: a new instrument, akin to a synth/sitar which also acted on the audience as an hallucinogenic virtual broadcast. This was a prophetic vision. We humans really do want to surrender to something akin to dreaming, internalised cinema and hallucination. Total immersion, in other words. I truly think we’re still working towards this, and it will become a reality at some point in the future.
So these were some of the ideas that really fired me. By the time I began auditioning musicians for Ultravox, in early 1974, that was the sort of vision I had in mind for the band. A little later, this stuff evolved a name and a genre: Cyberpunk, as William Gibson called it.
Around the same time, across the pond, the Velvets were doing The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and I now realise Neu! and Conny Plank amongst others were just beginning operations in Germany too. These things were happening spontaneously and simultaneously across the Western world, for the first time. An awful lot of things fell into place around that time. A lot of trails were laid.
Amongst all that, new sorts of music were being made and all the bands, poets, artists and young technologists were busy trying to invent this new thing. First off the block, by a long way, had been Theremin, then Robert Moog, Buchla and others were on the case inventing new instruments.
Many people reading this have spent all their adult lives surrounded by possibilities for creating music electronically. You were at the very forefront and, unlike some of your predecessors, went away from cinematic synthscapes. You headed straight into something that became New Wave and came up with Metamatic. How did this musical vision come about?
What I was intent on devising was a new European form: some equivalent to the blues in America.
I’d loved the blues, grew up listening to Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter records at the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. I’d been going to the all‑nighters there since I was 14 years old. Those records represented pure human electricity and I loved all the imperfections: the roughness, the minimal power, the rawness and the distortion. I began by trying to imitate this, but quickly realised how daft that was as I’d never seen a house of the rising sun or rode the rails under a boxcar, and I didn’t speak American.
So I realised I’d have to devise something just as raw, but European: a way of telling stories that were about things I did know and was experiencing, often without completely understanding them. Motorways, concrete, cars, being lost and adrift in a city — hopeless romance and everything becoming unrecognisable — and it had to respond to new instruments.
I’d migrated to London from Lancashire and got a primitive drum machine and a cheap synth. That’s what I was going to use to make my new stuff. That’s what Metamatic really was: an attempt at creating a new form, Blackpool Neon Tango, made with synth and drum machine, in a flat in Tollington Park, London.
Metamatic was recorded at Pathway Studios where many punk records were recorded. Did you feel an outsider in that environment, and did they get what you were trying to achieve?
I did feel slightly odd at Pathway, because it was geared to bands with guitars and drums, whereas I wanted a much cooler approach, bringing in my own kit and operating as a one‑man unit. I really just wanted to access the eight‑track recording machine and loudspeakers.
I knew it was a great environment for recording, though, because I’d already used the studio to demo the Ultravox tracks for Systems Of Romance and was surprised how accurate the monitoring was. It was actually better and more true than many of the 24‑track studios in London at the time. It cost 100 quid. Including engineer. Wonderful. A relief.
So I guess the whole point of Pathway, at least for me, was to free myself from the tyranny of producers, big studios, record companies, etc, and to get hold of the means of production. In the 1970s this seemed impossible; a studio cost over a grand a day to hire, so you needed a record contract just to begin recording.
...the whole point of Pathway [Studios], at least for me, was to free myself from the tyranny of producers, big studios, record companies, etc, and to get hold of the means of production.
I had also realised from experience there were still a lot of barely recognised sonic problems with 24‑track studios then: phase cancellations, bass frequencies, distortions of various sorts, transformers, switching delays, problems of volume and speaker housing, headphones, mixing, room response, and so on. It was really hard to find a trustworthy recording environment. The mix always sounded different when you got it home.
Pathway was a complete contrast to all that, beautifully rough and minimal. The control room was so small it was like wearing a pair of headphones, so no problems with room interference. Everything was direct and straightforward.
Many artists producing music today do not have the limitations you faced with only eight mono tracks to record to. Do you find that such limitations help focus you into writing strong ideas?
I do think limitations make ideas stronger. Nothing like the constant focus afforded by having no choice. At that time, you got a good sound and recorded it, effects and all. You had to commit fully at every stage. Otherwise, it was impossible to get it all back later. There were no synth memories then. Find it, then use it — or lose it.
Do you still put limitations on yourself in the writing and recording process today to get a track to have a purpose?
Absolutely. I’m naturally limited in every way possible, anyway, so it doesn’t make any real difference. I’ve had to develop lots of useful rules of thumb — tenets, or whatever we like to call them, to avoid neurotic indecision. The act of recording is a great amplifier of neurosis.
Being indecisive in a studio is fatal, and I enjoyed that limitation and wanted to do recordings that only consisted of eight tracks of tape with no bouncing through a 12‑input desk.
Do you still limit yourself to eight tracks in 2021?
Well I use up to 10 now! Each track after about eight can be a compromise: it loses the value of what I want to convey. For some producers like Trevor Horn, more works well, too. However, by nature I have a minimalistic aesthetic.
What was your eureka purchase in the ’80s and why?
Well, of course, The Garden Studio, which Gareth and I built in Shoreditch [London] in 1982. Everybody started using that — a very long list — and lots of seminal records were made there: Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Eno, Trevor Horn, Vince Clarke, Depeche Mode, Heaven 17, the Cult, the The, and many others. I sold it because I couldn’t book it myself, and getting calls in the night at 4am to help resolve engineering issues like azimuth misalignment didn’t help things, but that is the price of success. People often stayed in there for months. [The Garden remained in business and firmly analogue after being sold by John, but finally closed two years ago.]
Did you make the mistake many were doing around the late ’80s of selling analogue synths in favour of digital gear?
Makes me groan. I sold two TB303s, my utterly beautiful Roland 808 drum machine, my Minimoog, my magnificent Jupiter 8, analogue phasers, flangers, a glorious Marshall fuzzbox. What a damn fool.
Luckily, I kept the 909 drum machine (best bass drum ever invented), the ARP Odyssey, the Gibson Les Paul, the Strat, the valve amps — and that little bastard wonder the [Roland] CR78.
More generally, going digital was the biggest unintentional con ever perpetrated on musicians and recording studios. As well as feeble instruments, a tide of crap but expensive equipment wreaked mayhem right at the very peak of tape‑based recording. Tape machines had just reached a sort of perfection. They sounded beautiful.
I had a listen to a Sony 24‑track digital hybrid that was being touted about as the indispensable 'next big thing' and instantly realised my Otari 24‑track tape machine was much better. The Sony was sonically very brittle to me. Early digital sound emphasised the top end of the audio at the expense of the bass end. There was reduced complexity, none of that positive harmonic distortion or incidental compression you got from valve and tape. The entire sound often seemed a skeletally thin caricature of what you imagined you’d recorded. Very disappointing. [Ironically, I use a DVD‑Audio rendition of Donald Fagan’s The Nightfly as a reference for studios. It was one of the first digitally recorded albums — DC]
But lots of studios went for it and mortgaged themselves out of existence with that type of machine. A quarter of a million quid was a hell of a lot of money in the mid‑1980s. They never recovered it.
Did you ever use a computer in sequencing and arranging? If so, how has your journey been from then to now?
Very long and often painful! It started with an ARP sequencer, which we used at Conny’s, then on some tracks on Metamatic. This was in 1979. I mostly used this as a drum programmer, triggering bass and snare drum sounds from the ARP. John Barker was especially good at setting this up. I particularly remember using it that way on ‘He’s A Liquid’. I’d also vary sequenced rhythms by throwing in repeats from a [Roland] Space Echo. I sequenced the end of ‘A New Kind Of Man’ by overlapping the repeated ARP theme, using a Space Echo on its very long internal delay.
Then a BBC [Micro] UMI. I used that to record some very early tracks on what became Cathedral Oceans. I couldn’t save anything, so I’d use it as a recording device. Then, when I was happy with a take, I’d replay it and record that onto two‑track, as soon as it was switched off everything went.
In 1983 we used a Roland MC8 for recording some Golden Section tracks with Mike Howlett. ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’, for instance, was almost entirely sequenced by that. Mike was quick and efficient at programming it. I tried it out and ended up hating the damn thing.
Then a Commodore 64 with Steinberg [Pro-16] when I was working with Tim Simenon [Bomb The Bass], then with Louis Gordon. Most of Shifting City and the next couple of albums were recorded using that system. It was good, straightforward and the triggering was bang on, for the time.
Overlapping this, I got a well‑designed and very useful all‑in‑one PC‑based system from Carillon, using Cubase, then finally went over to Logic on the Mac. As for present‑day sequencing and arranging, I really like the symbiosis of digital and analogue. You’re finally able to mix the beauty, richness and deviance of analogue with the stability and precision of digital.
And I’ve been very fortunate to work with the mighty Benge. He’s got every synth you can wish for in his studio and knows exactly how to interface, sequence and trigger the lot. Bliss. First time I’ve ever recorded without cursing. He’s a genius. Benge is officially the new Conny Plank. Even looks like him.
As for present‑day sequencing and arranging, I really like the symbiosis of digital and analogue. You’re finally able to mix the beauty, richness and deviance of analogue with the stability and precision of digital.
When did you stop recording to multitrack tape/two‑track?
As soon as I could. I think it was around the end of the 1980s. I’d been trying since 1983/4, but most early digital recording systems were crap. It took some years before they sounded right. Early digital multitrack was outrageously expensive and a clumsy hybrid. Even later, many DAT machines wouldn’t play tapes recorded on other DAT machines. Early CDs and CD players were an equivalent disaster.
Systems would come and go, then your media was unplayable. Meanwhile, all the analogue tapes were also shedding their oxide. You’d inevitably find your best work in a wee heap of rust on the store room floor. Thank goodness for computers. Oddly enough, though, I’m now recording some sounds onto cassette, then re‑recording into digital. It can give a useful feel and texture.
Were you ever into tape edits and manipulation?
Gareth Jones was a great tape editor, completely confident. He’d learnt that at the BBC and it was a joy to watch him do it. Proper craftsman. So was Conny Plank. There is a certain type of tape thinking which is exciting, because you feel you’re absolutely in accord with a medium and know it inside out. I loved that. Unfortunately, I’ve also come to realise that as soon as you arrive at this, it’s also a sign that things are about to change, which also means things will get worse for a while.
You could use tape edits as an arranging tool to cut the fat off a track, repeat sections and so on. We also recorded two minimal electronic songs on the same piece of tape. We did that at Conny’s, too. Sometimes songs breed in strange ways. I’d occasionally use the same drum pattern to record two different songs, then vary the drums using echoes, EQ or triggering later, all still on the same tape. John Walker, who was Vangelis’s engineer at the time, built me a great set of triggers for drums. You could feed any signal in and it would trigger without latency, so you could replace or adjust any track later.
I also used tape loops and very long delays to make music. Lots of drum loops got played over live, by drummers or someone triggering sounds from a keyboard. Setting up a tape loop was something I’d got from working with Conny and Eno. They’d both set up long loops using chrome chair legs to run the tape around the room. I first saw this in action during Holger Czukay’s Movies being made at Conny’s, and also when Eno was making Music For Airports there, around 1978. Conny could also make a 12‑track tape with notes on each track behave like a musical instrument on the desk. Inspirational.
Are you a fan of soft synths, or is it physical synths all the way?
They can be convenient. I often use a few of the basic things in Logic to make demos, but Benge shoots ‘em all at the border.
I interviewed Roger Linn for the Amsterdam Dance Event and he said he hated the sound of ‘crickets’ in those early drum machines, yet the sound you get from them is so futuristic and disjointed at the same time. What is it in those strange sounds that work for you when you have a plethora of drum sounds available to you now with a stronger frequency footprint?
I like their unorthodoxy. I often wanted to get to sounds that don’t resemble drums any more. It’s a legacy we need to grow out of. A weird prejudice from the past. I prefer something more akin to crash impact, bouncing a basketball, submarine explosions, white noise telegraphy beeps, or metal insects.
The CR78 in particular also has an immediate, unique sonic identity, something that drums rarely possess. There’s something surreal about a wee box that wasn’t sure if it was a serious drum machine or a cocktail‑bar gimmick that was set up by a non‑dancing Japanese programmer, devising approximations of alien dance rhythms, such as bossa nova, waltz and beguine, then sending them back for use in Europe.
A laptop. Logic. A decent mic. A few indispensables: an old vocoder, the ARP Odyssey, a Minimoog, a CR78, an MXR flanger, a couple of old guitars, a valve guitar amp to put the synths through, as well as guitar. Mostly, though, I go down to Benge’s place in Cornwall. He’s got absolutely everything. I’ve recently got him a couple of decent guitar amps, all he was lacking, since he wasn’t into guitars much. All that changed when Rob Simon got down there.
Do you ever think that you are done with a keyboard and you have explored every possible sound palette it has to offer?
Every time you think you’ve reached the end, you get faced with a new beginning. You hear something where someone has changed the context, or some sound you’ve always taken for granted gets exposed — usually by someone from another generation — and you start to listen with new ears. Music is always evolving and each new generation rethinks it. It’s that evolution that really engages me.
Do you use any special plug‑ins for effects, or do you prefer static hardware units?
I prefer the hardware because, mostly, I still think it sounds better and also has more quirks. I like a bit of wunk and flup. Most of all, I love that blue‑face MXR flanger/doubler. It was all over Metamatic, especially on the CR78. And the [MXR] Phase 100. A truly beautiful sound on a string machine. Old Lexicons are cracking reverbs. I also have a fondness for real plate reverb.
Is there anything in your opinion missing from today’s technology?
I really think we’re only just arriving at the border. We’re still Techno Neanderthal. The best, and the worst, is about to come.
I’m also very wary of what I call the Formica period of new technologies. They always start out by imitating previous things — mostly quite badly — so it takes a while before we discover what’s really unique about anything new. For instance, digital often gets employed to imitate previous analogue stuff: tape sounds, compression, valve, analogue synths, drum machines, etc. It’s also still employing a piano keyboard. All a bit daft.
Really, I’m waiting to hear digital making sounds and using control interfaces that aren’t possible for analogue. We may have to wait some time, but it will happen. The Theremin is still the most advanced instrument concept, played by proximity not by keyboard, yet that was devised over 100 years ago. I think that says something about how unadventurous modern instrument designs really are.
John Foxx: I’m very wary of what I call the Formica period of new technologies. They always start out by imitating previous things — mostly quite badly — so it takes a while before we discover what’s really unique about anything new.
What’s on your wish list for the future?
Absolute zero latency. The final death of multi‑function menus. Tiny, trustworthy, full‑range speakers.
I’m always hoping for some outrageous, bold, new instrument design, utilising gravity or osmosed human electricity as a power source, controlled by thought or dancing, recollection in tranquillity, anticipation or sexual congress — and capable of projecting disruptive, ultra‑engaging, or ultra‑becalming, 3D sound, vision and sensation.
It may take some time to arrive, but it’ll be well worth the wait.