By Robin Howells
Does anyone express English consciousness, in resolutely modern form, as well as John Foxx? Arguably we have to look outside of music for a clear answer such as J.G. Ballard, an author with whom Foxx has often sympathised on record. Both necessarily fixate on the city and everything emerging from it: quotidian repetition alongside grim aberration and fantastical novelty.
Early in his career, Foxx had the chance to make a differing mark on pop culture with his band Ultravox, who were soon to enjoy global fame. At the end of their first US tour, however, he walked out; a characteristically independent move that allowed him to go on to explore radical avenues. 1980 saw his former band mates taking new music technology and smothering it in faux baroque, on “Vienna”. Foxx on the other hand emerged with “Metamatic”, an album based on a grid of bare synthesiser pulses and punctured by sharp drum machine beats. It endures as synth pop's most finely poised moment: a grainy splice of reality and worrying fantasy, full of hollow vocals that resonate with Ballard novels such as “Crash” and “High Rise”. Foxx's network of transistors approximates the city, its connections all-important to a traffic regulated by electronic timekeepers.
By the mid-80s, however, it looked as if he had hit a blind alley. He sold his studio and returned to work as a graphic artist under his birth name, Dennis Leigh. Slowly he drifted towards music again, employing his background in visual art for projects such as “Cathedral Oceans”, an ongoing work encompassing Ambient composition, photomontage and film. At first glance the imagery – of statues superimposed with plant growth – reinforces a sense of departure, but Foxx insists its preoccupations are as usual with the urban landscape. He explores a fantasy of London overcome by nature – typically Ballardian, recalling the depiction in “Drowned World” of the city swamped by rising seas, and representative of the critical imagination that feeds Foxx's recent work.
One of his most powerful ideas is something he terms Gray Nature, a speculative domain investigating how exotic forms of life might emerge within urban ecosystems. He says these postulations inform most of his songwriting now, ranging in subject matter from man-made weather systems to entities that colonise electrical networks.
Amid the conceptualising, this year Foxx has returned to familiar territory with his band The Maths, a group masterminded by producer and vintage synth expert Benge. Their album “Interplay” (released on Foxx's label called Metamatic) is true synth pop at its core, sharing some of “Metamatic's” frigid aesthetic and unsettling power. There aren't too many illusions though, about which decade we're in: partly due to inflections borrowed from the present, including digital manipulations of Foxx's voice; partly, it has to be said, due to his influence on even this millennium’s music. You can spot them live next October, in Krakow’s Unsound festival.
Although he has never bothered struggling to stay fashionable, John Foxx is no more capable of standing still than any metropolis would be. While “Interplay” is sure to bring renewed appreciation, it's just one point on a map of endeavours that shows every sign of continuing its sprawl.
What's wrong with being in a band? If John Foxx and the Maths counts, and if my reckoning's correct, it's the first time you've been a member of one since 1979.
Nothing. Bands are great – if you want to be in one. On the positive side, there’s always something unique about that third mind thing that happens when a group of people get together – the entity becoming greater than the sum of the parts. Sinister, but pure magic. Unfortunately, I get a bit burnt by touring and have to go in for repairs, so I’ve long been disqualified from conventional bands.
The Maths is really Benge’s thing. I just fit in where it suits – so does everybody else. At present, there’s a revolving nebula of like-minded people involved, all centred around Benge’s Shoreditch studio, so the band has lots of different potential configurations. This particular one uses The Exploding Plastic Inevitable as blueprint. Serafina and Hannah are ferociously good, so we’ll see what happens.
Has your experience of recording for your own independent label been better than, worse than or impossible to compare to being contracted to a major?
Oh, much better. Majors are pretty dead now. That era’s well over – MP3 shot the old pterodactyl down. The only thing you can regret is the money, but we’ve all had to get used to that since the bankers got their sticky little hands in our pockets. It’s interesting though, being free of that tyranny of the hit single. Things have loosened up a bit and music has generally got far more interesting. As well as playing live, I guess the future is all about recombination and reformation via unexpected collaborations. The thing is busy taking new forms. Organism adapting. Watch out.
Have you identified the effects of getting older in your music, over the years? Changes in priorities or preoccupations, for instance?
Well. I’m still obsessed with the city and how it alters people – I guess the basic theme is a man, a woman and a city. A sort of adult movie film noir. I suspected there might be a lifetime’s work when I started down that road in 1976. It just seems to get richer and more complex all the time.
Electricity and ghosts have begun to creep in, too. I noticed that started after Dawkins and co. got going with their puritanical absolutism. There’s always someone wanting to set up a new priesthood. Tiresome. You have to enact a reply to that sort of tosh. My entire being is angled against anyone making that kind of assumption, no matter who or why. Intellectual bullying of the worst kind. Beat all else into submission through self-publicity. You have to laugh. Deep down, everyone realizes it’s tosh – and Dawkins was naïve to place himself in that position. Nothing against him, too isolated by post-intuitive culture is all, poor bugger. Been set up by publishers to make money, and he’ll be the one to pay. Just like rock 'n' roll there’s always another one all dressed up and waiting in the wings.
“Cathedral Oceans” makes me wonder if something precipitated a shift from an urban to a pastoral focus in your work. At some point did you become disenchanted with the luminous half-life of the city?
I agree it might seem like that, but “Cathedral Oceans” is really urban – it’s to do with London overgrown. It certainly contains pastoral elements, but they’re streets and buildings overtaken by nature. Several years ago, I had this grand vision of London as a parallel, overgrown, almost deserted city. The Quiet Man is someone who explores it from his everyday life in London. He sort of slips between the two, finds points of transition by random wandering. Advanced flaneur manoeuvers. The whole thing created a sort of personal annexe that’s useful to explore. It’s given me lots of ideas for stories and songs.
Your idea of Gray Nature, a kind of ecology of the urban in its own right, is pretty fascinating. Has it somehow found its way into your music as a theme?
Oh yes, almost everything I write now tends to be predicated on that. I’m very busy examining how new forms of psychic connection are occurring, since we all live in cities now, and positing what new forms of life might be taking advantage of it all.
Recently, I realized we’ve even got new ghosts, too – in media. We’re surrounded by the dead all the time, much more than any ancient tribe, and it’s massively cumulative. We’ve got Lennon and Sinatra and dozens of others still singing on the airwaves, Monroe’s still flitting through, all luminous and sexual, Cobain’s still grunging, Kennedy’s still getting shot. Hundreds more – Milligan, Hancock, Churchill and the other one. Plus the wars and scandals and other guilty secrets – Bush, Iraq, Blair, Kelly, Wikileaks. How long did it take us to realise that Guantanamo is in Cuba? All these ghosts, all constantly appearing on rotation. So we inhabit this very strange, new replay ecology and it will inevitably alter us. We’re massively overpopulated by ghosts and electricity.
What do you still hope to achieve in music? Are there particular projects you'd like to realise in the near future?
Oh, I guess what I always hope to achieve is some life that interests me, allows me to make wee explorations and experiments – like the Grey Ecology, or Electricity and Ghosts and The Quiet Man and others. They’re all really ways of exploring the effects of living in a city. I do think that’s where the real adventure lies: the urban jungle, our new worldwide ecology.
How do we survive? How will it alter us? What will we find in there? Isn’t it all wonderfully mysterious? The mythlands used to exist somewhere else, far, far away – the Wild West, outer space, the oceans etc. This is the most mysterious one ever, and it’s right here. Just open your door and walk.
Is there a particular impulse or need that has made you return in earnest, of late, to forms of pop music?
Well, pop forms are really succinct disciplines that involve tremendously concentrated gestural language. Capable of conveying entire universes in a few seconds. Urban Code. They are also relatively recent, mercifully unstable and still fairly invisible, so not well understood. On top of that, all the strictures that created them have recently become extinct, so I’m now eager to see where this takes us.
I’ve always loved overlooked things. Things commonly considered to be trash. They can be some of the most beautiful things we have, yet we always seem to feel this need to pretend to despise them. Got to add that I equally enjoy formless, unstructured, or expressionist/impressionist explorations – from Satie on. It’s equally fascinating to watch that kind of undergrowth moving, too.
Is it true that the John Foxx and the Maths album is composed only with vintage instruments?
Certainly – mostly Benge’s, plus a couple of mine.
What made you decide to do that – the idea that it might impose productive limitations? A desire to take a stab at retro?
Oh God, not retro. I’d rather attenuate my filters. I think we came to the conclusion that synthesizers were never deeply explored in their time. Now we can record them properly and begin to find out what they’re all about. They’re still so very new. Guitars and drums and all the other things have been around for thousands of years and we’re still only just getting to grips with what they can do.
Your music from the period of “Metamatic” forms a convincing triangle with some of J.G. Ballard's writing and a notion of Britain at the time. Do you think we have any music or literature capable of relating so evocatively to Britain today?
I think so. There’s a detectable new strand of British authors, such as Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd – and Kazuo Ishiguro – who are mapping the territory as we speak. They’re all taking different angles, but steadily working their way into the heart of it.
There’s also an interesting strand of American writing that seems independently relevant to this – early beginnings with EL Doctorow’s “Ragtime”, which seems to have informed so many different modern novels. I was especially attracted to Paul Auster’s “New York Trilogy”, a beautifully spectral take on noir detective novels, built on some overlooked aspects of New York.
As for music – Burial, LoneLady, The Ghost Box artists, Ladytron at their best. Aspects of Warp [Records]. I've just heard a brilliant song by Serafina Steer, “Long Haul Driving”, describing some overlooked sides of British life. It’s like a new Stevie Smith poem. She could go far with that approach. Chris and Cosey are still in there. Aphex [Twin] can get there too, when he chooses. He really is a British phenomenon, kept lots of essentials alive through very difficult times.
This seemingly new riot phase is in position for examination, though. Its root cause is not new, but the enabling technology is and that lent it a new form. One of the unexpected consequences of technological innovation. I think this will be a major constituent of the next phase of our new urban civilization – unforeseen consequences. Often of things that initially seemed completely beneficial.
Feel free to disagree if you think I'm wrong, but I'd say examples of music engaging with literature greatly outnumber instances of the reverse. Ballard's story “The Sound Sweep” would be a rare one. Do you think there's any intrinsic reason for this?
That’s interesting… True perhaps because writing is a single activity whereas song is a messy, compound one. It has music and text plus some performance aspect, too. The text and everything else also needs context, or it will be seen to have no foundation and be ignored.
Would you describe John Foxx merely as an alias, or more than that?
I think he’s some sort of Enabler – you know, the type of character therapists warn addicts about. He’s certainly enabled me to maintain a quiet, invisible existence – books and a garden. Long walks in autumn, and so on. Could never have done it on my own. Far too many flaws. But the price – the price is this psychic extravagance of touring and recording. He’s got to go. That’s for certain, but I’m never sure who really has the upper hand. We have these Gollumic conversations in private. Deeply embarrassing. Psychic tag-wrestling. It’s a bit like that relationship between artists and audiences. You know, the artist assumes the audience is there because of him, but the audience knows they really created him as a wee manifestation of their desires. He has no choice but to act all these out, or be discarded. He’s expected to do this with panache and in great detail, until it kills him.
Along the way, they’ll reward him with applause and perhaps money, but it’s a hidden part of the contract that the damn fool will never suspect the true nature of the relationship. His vanity ensures he will always assume the compulsion comes from him. And that’s what the audience loves most. Their little secret. I’m beginning to realize Foxx is a bit like that. PlayGround is a media partner of Unsound
Ahead of his appearance at the Unsound festival in Krakow - and with his new album “Interplay” (with band The Maths) still fresh - synth pioneer John Foxx talks ecology, literature, urban decay and music in this inspiring interview..
Photo by Ed Fielding
"The Complete Cathedral Oceans"
John Foxx and The Maths "Interplay"
John Foxx and The Maths
Unsound 2011 will take place between the 9th and 16th of October at various locations in Krakow. You can get your tickets here.