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A Whirlpool with Seductive Furniture: The John Foxx Interview, part 2

Author: • Sep 2nd, 2006 •

Category: Australia, Brian Eno, cyberpunk, film, interviews, John Foxx, music, punk, William Burroughs

Sleepy Brain: John Foxx
Interview by Simon Sellars

Sleepy Brain: John Foxx
John Foxx live at Shrewsbury, 1998. © Extreme Voice.

This is part 2 of my interview with John Foxx, former lead singer of Ultravox before the band’s Midge Ure era, and an on-and-off solo artist for the past 25 years. Foxx’s Ultravox purveyed a damned, dreamy, paranoid — and often playful — weave of electronics and motorik-tinged new-wave beats: seductive, lush and totally unique. Later, his first solo album, Metamatic (1980), birthed the all-synthetic ‘metal beat’ sound, a streamlined, neon-punk electroclash that continues to exert a palpable influence today, with its blend of ‘monochromatic, urban surrealism’ and supercharged Kraftwerkian analogue motor. All of this was heady stuff for one Gary Numan, an unabashed fan of the group, who took Foxx’s blueprint and rebooted it with a mainstream sheen.

After a few more albums, Foxx disappeared from the music scene for around 10 years, working as a visual artist under his real name, Dennis Leigh. In the 1990s he returned to music, making albums mainly in collaboration with Louis Gordon, a thorough update of the Metamatic sound. He also found time to release three CDs of his Cathedral Oceans concept, conceived as ‘architectural ambient music’.

I spoke to John on the back of the release of his latest album, Tiny Colour Movies, and the remastering and re-release of the three Foxx-led Ultravox albums: Ultravox! (1977), Ha! Ha! Ha! (1977) and Systems of Romance (1978).

Simon Sellars

Note: Part 1 is here.
Sleepy Brain: John Foxx

John, I have to make a confession: in 1980, when Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ was a huge hit, I became a fan of the Midge Ure version of the band. I was dimly aware that there was a previous incarnation led by you, but at that time I never bothered exploring it. The music press was so vitriolic to your version, as an impressionable kid reading the NME and Melody Maker in distant Australia, I never questioned it.

Don’t worry — I’ll protect you at the trials. There are several aspects to this. If anyone has the patience — mine’s threadbare. Here goes. First, I always enjoyed moving countercurrent. Much easier to swim that way. You can watch things from a distance. Very early on, we decided to investigate and develop lots of what had then been declared ungood and which we felt were manifesting themselves and were worth recording. These included psychedelia, electronics, cyberpunk, environments and elements suggested by the likes of Ballard and Burroughs, cheap European music and modes, and strange English pop, such as some aspects of the Shadows and Billy Fury which seemed to relate to a sort of undiscovered English retrofuturism. We were interested in a sort of ripped and burnt glamour. I was also taken with a detached, still stance. And some new things: Urban Bipedal RExploration. The City as Memory.

Pretty much everything that made life worth living, really.

We never saw ourselves as being in any way counter to what was happening, and nor did the other bands we knew. It’s true that some of the press of the moment seemed caught up in an enthusiastic, but surprisingly conservative view of what was admissible to the party. Whose party was it, exactly? As to the causes of this, I’m not sure – I suspect they may have felt caught off guard by the whole thing and had to swiftly cobble together some orthodox view to deal with it.

Ultravox have come in for their share of criticism since Island Records launched them with a bang eight months ago and amidst the flashing lights and polyvinyl jackets the band looked like they would bow out with a whimper. However, if their Marquee appearance was anything to go by, Ultravox are finally ‘getting it all together’. They were patchy enough and the bad bits were well on the mediocre side — obligatory loud and throbbing guitar and some empty posturing. But the good bits were quite blinding in their excellence and power. In places Ultravox were almost awe-inspiring”.

Chas de Whalley, New Musical Express, September 1977.

Sleepy Brain: John FoxxJohn Foxx ‘s controversial polyvinyl jacket, 1977.

Today, with ‘UltraFoxx’ getting namechecked by loads of people (including me), I just can’t comprehend the hate that was directed at your version of the band. Has the benefit of hindsight given you any insight into a cultural and critical climate that must have stung quite a bit?

It was an interesting play of peculiarly English, inverted class snobbery. I’ll attempt to explain something of this. We were entirely a working class band, so we were determined not to act out the pleb role the more middle-class writers seemed to expect. It would be letting the side down. We weren’t interested in pretending to be dumb, because we weren’t. We wanted a much wider frame. I suspect this irritated a few people entranced by their own view of what constituted the correct vision of punk behaviour and mores. A strange farce of inverted English class etiquettes ensued.

Later Vivienne Westwood named her shop ‘Nostalgie De Bou’ — a typically apt French term which means a nostalgia felt by the middle classes for the land, the mud, which they would not, of course, deign to touch themselves, but enjoyed vicariously through observing peasants. It also perfectly encompasses such activities as slumming and going to Harlem, as well as the Georgian predilection for a Sunday outing to watch the lunatics incarcerated in Bedlam. So, as usual, Vivienne was spot on.

Our stance was much less convoluted and more akin to my father’s ambitions as a boxer — to get out of the bloody mud and get out of those bloody towns and live like a human being for as long as possible. Get free enough to be able to redesign ourselves. Have some adventures along the way. Sure we were clumsy at times and we stumbled and got things wrong even according to our own lights, but we knew what those lights were and we certainly weren’t going to take instruction from any wet mockney.

By early 1977 we decided to let the whole thing rush by us while we made a still place to conduct our own experiments. It was all dead by early ’78 anyway — a beautiful bit of upheaval at just the right time. In retrospect, I think that was a good thing, because we became the first new wave band after punk fell off its perch. We got a brief time and space to make Systems of Romance, which contains several blueprints, including New Psychedelia, Electro, New Guitar, — many of these are still present in the gene code. I still see things through a sort of punk lens — one eye only, though. It’s always been valuable.

Although they are one of the most important British art rock bands, Ultravox have always been ignored or sneered at in the UK. But with re-mastered versions of their first three LPs just re-released, featuring extra tracks and sleeve notes … it’s long past time to rescue their legacy as synthetic rock pioneers…

The first three Ultravox albums, recorded when the band were led by John Foxx … have been most scandalously neglected … Systems of Romance produced a template for synthetic rock that Gary Numan, Duran Duran and others would follow. In Chicago and Detroit, the future producers of techno and house also listened attentively. This was rock from the future, all the more compelling at a time — now — when groups reheating twenty-five year old ideas are being sold to us as new”.

Fact Magazine, July 2006.

Sleepy Brain: John Foxx
Ultravox. L to r: John Foxx, Warren Cann, Billy Currie, Chris Cross, Robin Simon.

Why is the time right to remaster and re-release the first three Ultravox albums?

I think perhaps because they are getting mentioned with increasing frequency on people’s DNA checklists. It’s taken this long to allow a clearer view of just what was laid down there.

Brian Eno produced the first album. Is it safe to say that you took more from this partnership than the rest of the band? [Ultravox drummer] Warren Cann is quoted as saying that working with Eno “was absolutely NOT what we had actually envisaged. Eno was far more of a conceptualist, an ideas man”, and that Eno’s ideas were pretty much discarded in favour of a group production effort. Whereas you’ve said on a few occasions that you’ve been inspired by his work and theory.

Sleepy Brain: John Foxx
Warren Cann, after undergoing Enossification. Altogether, now: “He wants to be a machine…”

I think Billy, Chris and I enjoyed Eno’s involvement a lot. I think Warren did too, and I also valued Warren’s scepticism. When we got to doing ‘My Sex’ it was the three of us working in the studio with Brian.

I was alert to the fact that there were certain forms of music that couldn’t be arrived at in any other way than operating in a recording studio and I wanted to discover what this could mean for us. Eno encouraged that and things took off in a new way, one that became a long stream of work: ‘My Sex’, ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’, ‘Dislocation’, ‘Just for a Moment’, and onward to ‘Lieutenant 030’, ‘Glimmer’ and ‘Mr No’, ‘The Garden’, ‘Smoke’, and today with ‘A Room As Big as a City’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’.

I stole a cathode face from newscasts
And a crumbling fugue of songs
From the reservoir of video souls
In the lakes beneath my tongue
In flesh of ash and silent movies

— ‘I Want to Be A Machine’, Ultravox, 1977 (written by John Foxx)

So his involvement was valuable for that. And for many other things, too: I also felt liberated from the usual ‘hands off the controls’ attitude of engineers at that time. We’d grown very tired of ‘can’t do that’. Brian encouraged use of the studio as a means of communal transport. Can do. Just drive the damn thing. Lets see what this does. The fact that he may not have been so technical wasn’t the issue. What mattered was the view of the craft we were operating.

Later, when Billy and I used to drop into Bob Marley sessions run by Lee Perry at Basing St studios, we saw a similar view of the all hands operating the spacecraft/ouija board. The studio becomes an organic extension of communal desire, and you suddenly experience an important event, piloted by Perry. It was something like that we glimpsed through Eno’s presence.

Sleepy Brain: John Foxx

You once said you like to instil an emotional response in your listeners, and I experienced that the other day with Cathedral Oceans III. The feeling is extremely difficult to describe and I’m well aware that it will vary from listener to listener, but I felt dislocated, surreal, nostalgic, melancholy and sad all at once. I’m always amazed when music does this to me, and it always feels mystical and magical to me — a process beyond reason, theory and language. However, I know some theoretically minded musicians who argue that emotion in music is purely a function of music as ‘language’, a language they say is heavily influenced by film and visual mediums — certain chord sequences representing doom and tragedy, for example. They conclude that intrinsically there is no emotion in music. Can you explain a bit more about the role of emotion in your own work — and how you believe it’s generated?

Big subject – but fascinating. Here goes. What you say is accurate. At best, I think music operates mercifully beyond the reach of language and the intellect at first — one of the few forms capable of getting through the remaining gaps in a civilised psyche. It allows us to be Sensual Civilised Primitives — and don’t we just love that.

So, you have to experience the stuff first: sensuality as a vital component of intellect. Only then can you begin to apply intellect to choreograph your reactions, to begin our usual crafty dance out of experience. Enough to begin to categorise and connect, maybe even justify and compress what happened to you and reconcile this with other experienced elements — memory etc — to finally allow you to talk about it.

This first experience is the ‘Pleasure Despite’: it happens despite ideas and neuroses and discomfort and all the other necessary static. That is partly why it can provide such an efficient private transport — or connector. It only becomes anything akin to language afterwards — after the experience.

Language isn’t experience. Very far from it. Yet music is experience. A subjective surrender to something that can efficiently bypass most of our filters. Speaks to us directly. Also — it only exists in time. Music can never be experienced as a whole, except through memory. Therefore it requires a massive amount of a sort of seemingly passive — but actually tremendously active — subjective attention and objective connectivity to maintain its resonances throughout the duration of a piece.

A sort of furious knitting takes place. At one very simple level, the process is vaguely analogous to saying ‘blue room’ to a hundred people. What you do in that instant is create a hundred Blue Rooms in those heads — rooms that have never existed before and will never be the same again. They are manifested through all the neural pathways corresponding to ‘Blue Room,’ filtered through individual experiences and memories to date. If you were to say ‘Blue Room’ again to those people a year later, there would be a further layer of memory on the ‘Blue Room’ palimpsest, and so on, for the rest of their lives.

Music does all this in a much more abstract and subtle way, the neural equivalent of several cities worth of rooms and interior and exterior spaces of every imaginable hue. That’s just a little of how I think it operates- the listening, subjective bit. How it gets generated and transmitted is another story.

Sleepy Brain: John Foxx
JG Ballard photo © Steve Double.

I’ve enjoyed the various short stories of yours that are reproduced all over the web — there’s a lot of Ballard in them, as we’ve discovered. What’s the status of your mooted ‘Quiet Man’ book of short stories? Will it ever be released?

It exists mainly as a means to write songs. Things get manifested there and I move them into music. There’s been some talk of releasing sections that have been read and recorded recently. K-punk did one that I haven’t heard yet, but which seems to have been of interest. Hard to say how it would work as a book. I think it’s probably better as fragments.

I’m doing some Super-8 filming of ‘The Quiet Man’ for a project called ‘Grey Suit Music’. It’s continuing something I began in 1978, and contains some scenes shot then using Eddie Milov from Gloria Mundi.

Do you have a novel or film script in you?

That’s a challenge which I’d love to take on one day. But it would take much more of that time thing, of which I have none at present. Barely time to take a walk.

What on Earth is going on with the track ‘Ray 1/Ray 2’, from your album with Louis, Crash and Burn? Surely this is a Billy Joel parody — a cheeky nod and a wink to ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’? You once said you wanted to bring a ‘more instinctive, human element’ into your work — a sense of play. Is this an example?

Yes. Technofun. It’s Subterranean Homesick Electron Rock of the most shameless kind. Leave Billy Joel out of it though, and insert Dylan Drunk, backed up by the Virtual Velvets. A long list of TechnoLies and SellSpeak. I’m always fascinated by the jargon of certain trades and their delicious absurdity. We fell over several times recording that.

What’s your position on the free trading and downloading of music? Mainstream artists react against downloading, pointing to lost income, while underground musicians say that they get no income from CDs anyway, and rather more from concerts and gigs, so therefore they welcome ‘illegal’ downloading as a promotional tool…

It will obviously be the only way you can derive income from music in future, apart from playing live. At present it’s a mess. Everyone involved acted too slowly and the rug was duly pulled. Survivors may be OK in future. But it will all take time to sort out. Not many people have it.

The next generation will benefit most. Work it out: 1% of the net downloading x 1 song at 1p = ? I haven’t done the figures — Negroponte did it in dollars but that was some time ago and things change daily. Of course, the usual suspects will inevitably attempt to interpose themselves between you and the money.

Sleepy Brain: John Foxx

Why don’t you offer mp3 downloads on the Metamatic site? Tiny Colour Movies is on iTunes, but it’s DRM-protected and the bit rate, as with all iTunes wares, is a ridiculous 128kbps. I think most music lovers want to pay for downloads but part of the reason they continue to download illegally is because official stores like iTunes are so expensive and so restrictive in terms of the sonic quality and the rights management of the music. There has to be a better way, and I’m just wondering why more artists don’t offer downloads on their web sites. Cutting out the middleman, this could be done at a reasonable price and at CD quality, and I truly believe that the artist would in fact make more money this way.

Things will improve. Evolution takes time, administration, attention, persistence, knowledge. Plus effective distribution of music is actually only a single fraction of the aspects of the entity we like to call ‘musician’ — which is actually a swarm organism. It will cease to exist without all the buzzing components that make up its substance. The web simply can’t carry all that yet. I’m sure it will one day. But not quite yet.

You once described the music of the mid-80s as a “double-breasted dumbness”. Who excites and inspires you among the current crop of artists?

Mercifully it’s all become much more various since the mid 80s. I like elements and aspects of Depth through Surface, Peaches, Goldfrapp, Ladytron, Adult, Perspects, White Stripes, Radiohead, Robin Guthrie, Harold Budd, Oasis, The La’s, Aphex Twin, Vincent Gallo, M82, Fatal Love Triangle, BuzzBoy, Blofish, The Boards of Canada, Radon, Virus 252, Formal Equation, Louis Gordon, The Virtual Girls, Composite Human, Restricted Vision, Iggy Pop, The Machine Harmony Committee, Touch, Cannibal Clothing.

You’ve said that your career was shaped by your public image — that of a ghost among the city, finding dignity among the static — and that you had no choice in adopting that persona because you didn’t like being observed when you didn’t want to be. In some ways, it seems adopting such an outlook was prescient, in fact necessary for survival, given the rise of reality TV and the severely devolved notion of private space these days.

I think any sort of career I have is more a long accident. It is firmly shaped by deep personal inadequacies. Not shy but innately reserved. No good at being the object of attention in public. Need to go in for repairs frequently. Begin to feel like a shadow – time to leave swiftly. Only thing I could do was manifest someone who was tailored by all this, then operate him at one remove, in order to survive at all. No choice. Either that or: 1) Give it up. 2) Perish by degrees. 3) Hire someone else to do it for me. Being short of funds at the time I did the next best thing. What would you do?

Sleepy Brain: John Foxx
John Foxx and his admirer, Gary Numan, as seen by Japanese magazine Music Life.

Does the rise of “reality” culture — mediated by technology — fill you with dread? Or do you still believe, as you once said, that “we’re now entering a world where technology is more elegant. There are problems and we can see them — social, political, etcetera — but things will work themselves out”.

Technology is elegant and we aren’t. An interesting effect of technology is it enables people to do the opposite of many previous norms.

For example, we can…

• Be dirty and have long hair (not that the two necessarily go together, of course). We have soap and antiseptics: no lice, fleas or septicaemia.
• Pierce ourselves for fun and status – with antiseptics and antibiotics.
• Have many sexual partners: we have contraceptives and some effective STD treatments.
• Get impossibly fat: we have liposuction and media attention for the truly high achieving.
• Become drug addicts: we have clinics and media attention.
• Wipe out small populations of civilians: we have remote devices (fortunately this looks like coming to an end).
• Use everything up: we have oil (fortunately this looks like coming to an end).
• Move and live and holiday away from home: we have transport (ditto)
• Buy pornography in the supermarket: we now have conventional media forced to compete with the Internet.
• Die of body development: we have steroids and ingestible synthetic hormones.
• Wear Nylon: we have effective deodorants and anti-perspirants.
• Drive everywhere and expect a road: we have cars.
• Live packed into vast cities: we have antibiotics, transport, aircon, water filtering, heating, sewers, and everything else which supports the ecology.
• Have fun surgery: we have developed lifesaving techniques we can now misuse for entertainment, art and money.
• Talk to anyone in the world, in public: we have mobile phones – closest thing to telepathy — yet people still shout.

Sleepy Brain: John FoxxI think that statement of mine you refer to was evidence of a desire to go home after being exhausted by questioning. Sure, it all may work itself out — but it’s going to need some very acute and constant current awareness. Logic is a form of insanity and needs to be judiciously suspended occasionally, in order to check on what is actually happening. Technologies operate in similar ways and likewise can create self-justifying ecologies of thought and behaviour. I think we constantly need to keep checking and suspending.

I can’t look at Big Brother or any sort of reality show. Brat Panto. Might watch the Cronenberg Variation if it arrives.

Will your Antonioni soundtrack ever be released?

No. It’s long gone.

Will you ever tour Australia?

I’d like to. But it will most likely be as drifting molecules about twenty years from now.

..:: LINKS
+ A Whirlpool with Seductive Furniture: The John Foxx Interview Part 1 of this conversation
+ Metamatic Official John Foxx site
+ Cathedral Oceans Official site
+ Lively (and obsessive) Foxx forum at the official Ultravox site
+ K-punk review of the first three Ultravox albums
+ ‘Old sunlight from other times and other lives’: John Foxx’s Tiny Colour Movies K-punk analysis
+ Rockwrok UltraFoxx tribute site

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One Response »

  1. Henry, in the first part of this interview, John takes great pains to *not* align himself too closely with Ballardian themes, cf. the discussion about The Drowned World. In the second part, Ballard is barely mentioned. I therefore don’t understand the sarcasm or the vitriol about this in your comment.

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