September 23, 2006

Electricity and ghosts: the John Foxx interview (redux)


After reading the interview online, John wanted to add detail to some of his responses, which he has kindly taken time to do. So the version of the interview below is a kind of extended remix.

I talked to John while he was recording his new LP, From Trash, the fourth he has recorded with Louis Gordon.

Foxx's records have always been about architecture and space rather than personal emotions, and on Metamatic and the albums with Gordon, he has 'edited' London, much in the way that Godard edited Paris in Alphaville, trimming away the Trad trappings to produce a city of angular high rises and depersonalized plazas. A whole other city - lushly desolated and languid - is explored in the 'Quiet Man' stories, the Cathdral Oceans project and Tiny Colour Movies, of course. But From Trash, which might turn out to be the most successful of his collaborations with Gordon, is a celebration of the city at its most anonymous, lurid and enjoyably alienating. The metropolis emerges as a inexhaustible clamour of options. 'Ten thousand ways/ that we can go/ from here...And the air/ is filled with electricity/ and ghosts... an invitation to disappear/ and reappear...' But, appropriately, given its title, the album sounds scuffed and scratched, abrasive and harsh; this is the city as seen through shattered windscreens or on malfunctioning CCTV monitors. The electronics are as frayed as a Londoner's nerves. But, as in London itself, there are always moments of tranquility amidst the tumult; 'Never Let Me Go', for instance, is a lovely vocoder fugue, as unexpectedly refreshing as a quiet side-road adjacent to Oxford Street.

It's not only the way that the vocals are distorted on 'Freeze Frame' that reminds me of the unconsummated electro-plateau of Justin Timberlake's 'SexyBack'. (Incidentally, Timbaland produced that distorted effect by feeding Timberlake's vocals through a guitar amp - so there are still some uses for a guitar amps then.) Like 'SexyBack', the most viscerally compulsive tracks on From Trash - the title track, 'Freeze Frame', and 'A Million Cars' - sound as if they have been designed to function on an EBM dancefloor. (I hasten to add that I'm not the first to notice the parallels between Timberlake and EBM.) When it crawled out of the pop hinterlands of Belgium and Canada in the 1980s, EBM - which was massively indebted to Metamatic, it goes without saying - touted itself as the sleek, cyborgian future. As it happened, the future was cancelled, and like Goth, EBM has attained hardy perenniality by retreating into the catacombs and re-emerging every now and then to intersect with the mainstream.

Given my comments on Blade Runner and Neuromancer in the last post, it's interesting to compare Foxx's sonic fictional rendition of cyberpunk with Gibson's literary version. While Foxx stripped out pop's 'blue-jean DNA' and re-clothed it in the grey suits of a certain avant garde (Magritte, Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Burroughs), Gibson dressed SF down in rock 'n' roll leathers and shades. It is the difference between pulp modernism and postmodernism.

It's possible to hear 'From Trash', which splices b-movie terror with class anxieties, as an oblique kind of oblique manifesto for pulp modernism, actually. 'They always come.. they always come.. from trash...Invasion/ imitation/ no invitation/ no sense of occasion...' Some remarks Foxx made in the second part of the interview with Simon Sellars, (the first part of which appeared on Ballardian) might provide a few clues as to why the notion of coming 'from trash' continues to resonate. 'We were entirely a working class band,' Foxx said of Ultravox, '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. ... Our stance was much ... 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.'

Since Tiny Colour Movies had just been released when we spoke, we began by talking about cinema.

K-P: Which films were most influential on you early on?

JF: Oh, very cheap science fiction films mostly. There was one particularly memorable movie called Robot Monster, so bad it was surreal, it had the quality of a dream, an exceptional movie.

I now think it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, partly because it had no regard for plot or anything else recognizable as conventional cinema of the time. This of course made it an event of inestimable importance to me, because, as a child I took it all literally – swallowed it whole, like Alice’s potion.


And like that potion, it allowed entry to an unexpected universe. One which had unfathomable logic and laws which were endlessly flexible. A deeply exhilarating experience. I still dream sequences from it, or rather I seem to have permanently incorporated sections of it into my dream grammar.

Growing up with movies as a child and being subjected to them before I could understand the adult preoccupations and motivations involved in the plots, pitched me into conscripting these films as a personal grammar. I had no choice, so I ended up with this Lynchian reservoir of sequences that carried every dread and joy and everything in between.

These events are still imbued with unfathomable, inexplicable, tantalizing mystery, because I couldn’t really understand them at all. It was hallucinogenic and vivid, and provided me with an image bank and a gorgeous range of emotional tones I still haven’t managed to exhaust.

Much later,when I got to ‘Cinema’ - or the official critical view of it - the more intellectual, often French aspect. I didn’t recognize it at all.

Later, I ended up enjoying this sort of perspective a little, but in a rather disengaged, sceptical way. To me, it seems a method of criticism which is often marvelously baroque and can be engaging, but has little to do with my own experience of Cinema.

I can only deal with it as a marvelous fictional construct, like medieval religion or quantum physics - a consensual social hallucination developed by a priesthood. In the end it’s as tangential as my own individual one.

But that very crude, improvisational, amateurish side of cinema or filmmaking, I continue to find deeply fascinating. Take for example Ed Wood’s films. He made them simply because he was in a place where it could be done.

I think of Ed Wood as a sort of advanced naive artist. He was among the first to make cut-up movies. He achieved this by using props he came across in warehouses and stock footage he discovered in the film vaults of Hollywood cutting rooms, then he built movies around these fragments.

This is the art of collage and sampling. It is art as found object, as coincidence, as accident, as Surrealism, as DaDa, as Situationism. All made possible and motivated also by the dynamo of American opportunism, but with great love and inadequacy and tenderness.

Ed Wood was doing, fifty years ago, what the avant garde are only now beginning to do with film.

(This is also very similar to the way rock’n roll often manages to parallel or prefigure avant garde concepts, by arriving at them from a totally different direction. Pop is such a virile mongrel it’s capable of effortlessly demonstrating, realizing, manifesting, absorbing, remaking any sort of academic intellectual concept. It can do this so well, it often makes any parallel or previous version appear weak or even redundant).

An admiration for that sort of visceral, sensual, opportunistic, native intelligence led to an interest in, and respect for, home video and super 8 - very low grade domestic ways of making films - I suddenly realised there was a whole other world there, one which hadn’t been properly discussed, but as real, in fact more real and potentially at least as powerful, as official cinema.

K-P: The film collection you refer to in the sleeve notes to Tiny Colour Movies - you write about it very beautifully. Are there any plans for those films to be shown in the UK?

JF: Thanks. I’d like to - there are some problems with these fragments, because they’re so small. They’re physically difficult things, and they’re unique irreplaceable and very fragile, so you can only ever show digital copies of them. But it would be interesting to do something like that. I’m beginning to look at some possibilities now, working with Mike Barker, who has accumulated a marvellous archive, and we’re discussing this with some film festivals.

(Leeds and Brighton have since confirmed showings of Cathedral Oceans and Tiny Colour Movies in November, and the ICA is discussing some film/music events for March 07).

K-P: I noticed you thanked Paul Auster in the sleeve notes, why was that?

JF: Paul Auster has is very interesting to me, because I wrote this thing called ‘The Quiet Man’ years ago, in the 80s, in fact I’m still writing it. Then I read the New York Trilogy, and it struck so many chimes. It was as if I’d written it, or it was the book I should have written. I have to be very careful to find my way around it now.

Such occurrences are simultaneously rewarding and terrifying. They illustrate the fact that there is something in the air, which is tremendously heartening after working alone for years, yet they scare you because it feels as if someone has published first, and therefore registered their claim to where you discovered gold.

I simply wanted to acknowledge the effect, and the odd sort of encouragement of recognized themes, as well as a continuing parallel interest in the idea of lost movies and fragments

K-P: There’s a certain kind of London affect that’s interesting, of stillness, and the city being overgrown, which is sort of recurrent in your work - where’s that come from do you think?

JF: When I first came to London it seemed a great deal like Lancashire, where I’d come from. But Lancashire had fallen into ruin. The factories had closed, the economy had faltered. We felt like the Incas after the Spaniards had passed. Helpless, nostalgic savages adrift in the ruins.

I grew up playing in empty factories, huge places which were overgrown. I remember trees growing out of the buildings. I remember a certain moments of looking at it all and thinking what it would have been like when it was all working. What life might be like, if it were all working still.

All of my family worked in mills and factories and mines. And all this was gently subsiding, spinning away.

Coming to London, I couldn’t help but wonder if it might also fall into dissolution. Then I saw a picture a friend had. It was a realistic painting of what appeared to be a view over a jungle from a high place. Gradually you came to realize that it was a view of an overgrown city from a tower, then you realised that this panorama was from a ruined Centre Point and you could see Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, Charing Cross road in the undergrowth. It felt like a revelation. It manifested so perfectly this vision I’d had of everything becoming overgrown, an overgrown London. A vision of longing and nostalgia tinged with fear.

I would often experience a feeling of stillness and wonder as I walked through certain parts of London. I often walked through empty buildings and neglected, overlooked places and they would replay that sensation very strongly.

I went to Shoreditch, in 1982, and made a studio there. When we first went into the studio building it had trees growing out of the windows on the upper stories. It was very like Lancashire, that whole area was derelict, had been abandoned, because that had been the industrial bit of the East End. Now there was no-one there, it was empty. It gave me that calm drifting feeling of recognition.

There was some kind of collective image of overgrown and abandoned cities at that time. Perhaps it’s always there. Such images were present in Ballard, Burroughs, Philip K Dick. In those science fiction authors writing about the near future - conducting thought experiments, exploring likely consequences and views of the unrecognized present, which I think is very valuable. They offer perspectives and meditations on our vanity and endeavours. As such they maintain continuity with a long line of imagery, from religious myths and folk stories to science fiction.

K-P: It seems to have a real unconscious resonance, this idea of overgrown cities, it’s obviously there in surrealist paintings, which seem to be a constant reference, especially in your early work -

JF: Yes, there’s that side of it too. In science fiction films you often get those recurrent images, which I think are very beautiful, of someone walking through an abandoned city.

We have accumulated a range of such images all along the line, from folk and fairytales, to the actual construction of follies and romantic overgrown gardens, to the truly dislocated, such as Piranesi’s ruins and prisons, to Max Earnst’s paintings, or Breughel’s Tower of Babel, or the background urban locations in Bosch, as well as De Chirico’s townscapes and shadows.

Planet of the Apes has one of the most shocking and resonant - the end of original movie, where we see the Statue of Liberty tilted in the sand. A real jolt, the first time you see it. A modern take on Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Photo by Tim Chapman

K-P: I also wondered about religion, because it seems to me, off the back of Cathedral Oceans, but also the records covers, with their use of Renaissance imagery; an emphasis on light and radiance seems to persist through all your work. Do you see that as an explicitly religious thing?

JF: No, I don’t. It’s very difficult, all that. What I’d prefer to say is - I’m not really a religious person. In fact I think religions are quite dangerous, power structures that can lead to all kinds of terrible mistakes, the history’s not too good - in some senses. - It must equally be said that some of the ideas they promote and contain have allowed the foundation of civilization as we know it. Take for instance that astounding, revolutionary idea of turning the other cheek.
That single concept helped take us out of centuries of civilization sapping vendettas - of us all being subjected to people with short tempers and long memories, and those who would manipulate them.

Appreciation of the wonders of ‘Creation’ was one of the original philosophical cornerstones of Science – making an investigation of the mechanisms of this concept of Creation desirable and therefore possible, as revealing of the intricate marvels of ‘God’s Work’.

Of course, all this came unstuck when Science raced ahead of the church and seemed to contradict it, when Gallileo managed to upset the status quo.
So, on one hand you have the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ side of religion, the province of the literal, bureaucratic application of morality and the arbitration and ownership of ideas and experience - Fundamentalism, which scares me.
And on the other we have that new sort of Dawkinian response - a parallel fundamentalism using Science, co- opting Darwin and that volatile and partly insane beast, Logic.

This seems intolerant of all grey areas. Of course I have to declare that is where my personal interest really lies - in the uncertain, the peripheral, the overlooked, the neglected, the emergent, the as yet undefined.

It seems to me the point is being lost again in all the dust raised by daft, dull literal arguments about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

A more useful position might be a humble attempt to gain some understanding of what these ideas mean and what their effects and uses might be, in various contexts, as distillations, communicators, transmitters and indicators of vital - and often universal - human experiences and concepts.

Anyhow, these are some of the reasons why I’d much prefer to avoid that entire area of energy sapping static, along with the words ‘religion’ or ‘spiritual’.
I ‘m also convinced that those kinds of experiences, which are often labelled as ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ experiences, are really a part of normal human experience, and are available to everyone. I strongly believe they are not solely the province of religion – I think everyone can access them without reference to religion.

They also seem to operate and have a value in a number of different and very useful ways – as providers of perspectives and emotional and visceral connectiveness – with the universe and with other human beings, animals and plants - together with their respective, overlapping, intellectual, emotional and physical ecologies. And it’s this which really interests me. This delicate tangled web.

The radiance I sometimes refer to occupies this sort of area. I often see people as if in a frozen moment and they seem to have an internal glow inside them. Their skin seems translucent and they carry their own time. I feel calm and distant and warm from this. It can happen in an instant. In very mundane urban situations. You realize you are not looking at a single person, but at a sort of stream or cascade.

It happened yesterday in a supermarket. I happened to glance at a young woman who looked like a transfigured hidden Madonna. She wore jeans and a teeshirt, an ordinary woman. But equally, she was a continuity, a lovely genetic physical thread to other times, both previous and ahead and still unformed. She simply glowed. Quietly and unknowingly luminous. The Eternal Woman.

K-P: The sort of feelings you deal with are more abstract; it’s like you go to those states without reference to the way they’ve traditionally been coded, really.

JF: Yes. I certainly feel there are other ways of allowing these experiences. I feel we may often prevent ourselves from really seeing some things that may be truly important by filtering them through inadequate presumptions. These also need careful untangling.

K-P: You often use the word ‘angelic’, or ‘angel’…

JF: Yes, very perilous territory, especially since these terms have since been co-opted by New Agers. I’ll put on the grey suit to dispel all that.

Many of these spring from what I think of as ‘thought experiments’ - things I employ all the time, as a tool to get at half buried or emerging realizations. If you’re at all interested, I’ll try to outline a few.

Firstly, the idea interested me - still does – of parallel evolutions – imagine something that may have evolved alongside us, something we’re not quite aware of yet, that we haven’t yet discovered.

That may include things which exist in other planes or by other means, or things which resemble human beings so well that we assume them to be human, but they may not be. Yet they live among us undetected.- the possibility that other forms of life may have evolved alongside us, but invisible because of their proximity.

‘Hiding in plain sight’ is a great idea, something that’s very interesting in itself - on one level connected with sleight of hand and parlour tricks and conmen, but on the other hand, very subtle, intuition led perceptions. It could give rise to situations that are tremendously moving, fragile, tender. Metaphorically very resonant.

Another one - I’m also very interested in the concept of a singularity. An event that only happens once, or once every thousand or million years.
There may be rhythms which extend over tens of millions of years and are therefore unrecognizable to us, except as single unconnectable and unexplainable events.

But the fact that we have no context to fit them into, doesn’t mean they don’t happen.

Yet another thought experiments posits the concept of Angels as a connection between things. An entity that only exists between. A sort of web or connection. They arise purely as an intrinsic, invisible and unsuspected component of the evolution of the ecology that supports whatever they exist between. They cannot exist on their own.

K-P: Yeah, because in the Cathedral Oceans book you seem to have stuff on angels which runs parallel with the stuff on ghosts …

JF: I guess it’s all a continuum. Many of us have these little incidents - everything from coincidences onward - things that we can’t explain using the references we commonly employ.

I’m very interested in those things, always have been. Through those odd things, we glimpse something that’s outside the way we usually look at the world, and realise there might be another way of looking at it, an alternate perception to the one we have, and I think that’s a very valuable possibility to keep hold of. The awareness that maybe there are gaps in our perception that we aren’t able to fill yet.

K-P: Yeah, because I think one of the most powerful things - which comes out in Tiny Colour Movies but in retrospect has always been there - is that you’re able to deal with positive, affirmatory feelings that are sort of eerie and uncanny, and a certain kind of calm serenity.

JF: Good, somehow that’s always been a vital component of that sort of experience, for me. A sensation of utter cam and stillness. Miles away from any agitation. It seems deeply positive.

It’s an opposite to the excitement you get from, say, rock and roll… I think in general we like to stir ourselves up in various ways, using art or using media or whatever, and I think it’s just as valid to move against the norm, and the norm at the moment is to speed everything up.

I mean, that’s what we’re trying to attain, aren’t we, through media? - That awful maximization of time and efficient transmission of ‘information’. Some of this is economic – time equals money - and some is simply done because it can be done, and has become an unquestioned convention.

If you could time-jump to show the average TV ad of today to someone twenty or thirty years ago, they wouldn’t understand it. The ad would depend on the viewers perception speed and also on a series of recent references. Our parents simply weren’t fast enough, they hadn’t been accelerated as we have been by media and the pace of modern life, and they also don’t have the inculcated, busy reference chain.

Acceleration is also kind of exciting and interesting, I mean I really enjoy it, sometimes - but it equally leads you to think ‘what happens if you do the opposite?’- it might be just as pleasurable and just as valid to do that.
So, one of the things I want to try to do is work on the other end of this spectrum - see what happens when you slow things down.

I was surprised when I was doing the first music for Cathedral Oceans, using echoes that were 30 seconds long, so the rhythms were 30 seconds between the beats.

It was very interesting slowing down enough to work with that intuitively. You had to do it, you had to synchronise with the track in order to be able to work with it. And it’s very interesting what kind of state you get into – intense, yet calm and tranquil. A sort of trance state.

K-P: I think it's particularly on the LPs with Harold Budd, where you get that sort of aching plateau, where you slow down so much that any peturbation has a massive effect really.

JF: Yeah, exactly. Very well put.

Harold was one of the first people who got that right, I think. One of the very first to have sufficient courage to leave enough space in the music and not fill spaces unnecessarily. Not decorate. Takes an awful lot of quiet courage to do that.
When this is done, it allows an alternative ecology to emerge – one based on events that are much less frequent. And that, of course, affects their significance. You are drawn to them in a sort of smiling fascination, rather than the usual pop music method of lapel grabbing bombardment.

K-P: It seems to be something similar to what you get in Tarkovsky films - where either people say ‘oh, this is too slow I can’t stand it’, or they enter into the slow time of the film and anything that happens almost becomes too much.

JF: Exactly, you can concentrate on any event very thoroughly, when that mode of perception is made available. Events become stately and welcome and valued and significant, and their arrival and departure can be fully experienced. The lack of jostling allows that sort of elegant notional space to open up.

It functions at the other end of the spectrum from commercial t.v. and cinema, and of rock & roll. Both ends can be equally interesting, I think.

K-P: Yeah, I was actually listening to one of the pieces on Tiny Colour Movies and it was like you’d imposed the stillness and calmness of painting and photography or a certain type of film onto - the agitation of rock, really.

JF: Yeah, that’s interesting, yes.

K-P: Because certain kind of dreams - the dreams we’re most familiar with are hyper-agitated, full of urgency etc, and there’s another type of dream quality you seem to get to where those urgencies are suspended and you’re out of that everyday life push-and-pull, really. I wondered - there seems to be a certain aching, or longing quality - these are words you seem to use a lot in your music…

JF: Well, dreams are a very important component. I realized that it is not simply the image you present yourself with, in a dream, which is important – it’s also the emotional tone of the scene. You can see a cloud, but this will be accompanied by a sense of wonder or by a sense of dread, and it is that accompaniment which determines its meaning.

The employment of these images and tones are some of the things that everyone shares, aren’t they? They’re composed of bits of unique personal events and references and memories, such as longings that you might have had when you’re a child.

When your parents are away even for an hour it feel as though it goes on forever and you really deeply miss them - and the abstraction, the tone component of that just carries on through life. Gets applied to different situations. These longings - and all other emotional parts of the spectrum - join the repertoire of tones we carry and apply. Some moments last forever.

K-P: But there’s almost a positive side, almost an enjoyment of longing and ache.

JF: Oh yes, where the observer part of you acknowledges an emotional connection with the rest. Simultaneously you feel as though you are very integrated, yet you are being gently pulled away from yourself. Gently disengaged.

K-P: Isn’t the ‘emotionless’ quality of your music more to do with a certain kind of calm?

JF: Yes, it’s quite a complex thing, a compound. There are states where there’s a sensation of time passing, things changing, knowing the world is changing, falling in on itself, and reforming. And you may even be in the process of doing just that yourself.

But there are moments where you just stand by and watch it all, where you’re aware of it, in a moment that seems to go on forever. So it’s something of standing in a still place and watching the patterns in passing crowds and even in your own life. Can be a very powerful experience.

That stillness, and the maintainence of a quiet dignity in the face of insurmountable circumstances can be immensely moving to witness.
It can be much more effective and moving if someone tells the story in an unemotional or undramatic way. You find that in Ishiguro. Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go are good examples of that kind of writing, where the most important components remain unstated. The Leopard is suffused with, and is dependent on a variant of this.

It’s also allied to a device used in different ways by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Cary Grant. - An archetypical figure attempts to retain dignity in the face of the worldly chaos while remaining ever hopeful of romance.
And with Ballard and Burroughs, you get an almost gentlemanly, middle class version of a similar sort of stance – mayhem of all kinds observed from a disengaged viewpoint.


K-P: OK, so you’re recording this new album now. How does that compare with previous ones you’ve done with Louis?

JF: It’s similar in a way, because when we get together we work in a similar way. But I think this album is a little more abstract, the beats and vocals – in fact all the elements - are much more cut-up than previously.

There are more abstract elements too - things we wanted to do, but couldn’t before, but now technology allows it. You can really chop things up and turn them around and change them.

Many of the songs have a cut-up feeling, because they are made up of various improvised takes which have been cut up ruthlessly and reassembled. A good way of catching the moment and not over polishing a performance along the way, so it still feels fresh. There are some new themes – ‘Friendly Fire’ and ‘Another You’ and ‘From Trash’.

That’s what’s new about it, but it’s still recognizable, I think, as what we do.

K-P: How big is the psychedelic influence, because that seemed to come back with the stuff you’ve done with Louis?

JF: Well we both like that, certain kinds of psychedelia, not all of it. It mainly stems from ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the Beatles track. A little of that is present but more subsumed in the Electron Rock. Still a healthy amount of dislocation though.

K-P: There’s a strong influence on your vocal style from The Beatles, isn’t there?

JF: Yeah, well that’s just what I grew up with, and also where I grew up – in the North, equidistant between Manchester and Liverpool.

I think the main influences are church music, that period of psychedelia, the blues I guess, along with cheap radio and film music I heard when I was a child and later, when I went hitchhiking in Europe, as a teenager. And the context - which can’t be neglected – The passing of an era, ruin and reformation, a sort of wary, drifting, celebration of urbanity.

That psychedelic side is very important. I remember hearing ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ when it came out - and it had a drum loop and backward and collaged tapes as well as drones, which people hadn’t used before.

I realized it was something which couldn’t have been arrived at without a recording studio, yet it seemed strangely alive – a perfect mating of art and technology. It seemed like the future of imagination in music – and in many ways it was. A prime indicator.

It is also one of Brian Eno’s favourite tracks - you can hear the influence of it on Talking Head’s ‘Remain in Light’. I was pleased to discover that, and a couple of other things, when we worked together. Gave us a nice instant common vocabulary outside the expected Art School set of references.


Thanks to Owen for the transcription.

Posted by mark at September 23, 2006 01:05 AM | TrackBack