At this past year's Unsound Festival, we talked to Foxx alongside his current collaborator Benge as part of RA's Live Exchange series. The duo had recently put together an album, Interplay, that formed the basis for our conversation. Typically eloquent, Foxx was so engaging that we decided to edit and condense it for publication. Speaking with RA's Todd L. Burns in front of a crowd, Foxx and Benge touched on their partnership, the creative process and the power of the bass drum.
The new record is a return to synth pop in a way for you. I am wondering why now? Why was this the right time to revisit this space?
John Foxx: It was an accident in many ways. Benge made a record called Twenty Systems, in which a lot of synthesizers sounded like themselves. What I mean by that is that they didn't imitate any other instrument. I think it is a great sickness to try to imitate orchestras or bells or something specific. I think that this is a misuse of the instrument. What Benge was able to do was that he allowed them to make sounds that no other instruments could make, and therefore allow them to sound like themselves. When I heard that album, I wanted to work with him and to make some abstract music with him, but it didn't quite work out.
At what point did you realize it was turning into a more "pop" project?
Benge: Halfway through the first track I think.
John Foxx: Once we had set up something on the Moog, we let it run by itself and produced a rhythmic loop, and we were able to produce a song immediately. You have the melody, you have rhythm and you have harmonic intervals that lend themselves to layering. So I instinctively started started to sing along with the machine, which is a lovely way to work: the machine leads. The machine takes precedence. All you do is listen to what the machine produces. Benge would set up things, and it was delightful to respond to it.
John Foxx: Yeah, I always seem to write about the basic level; a man, a woman and a city. It's because I am an urban creature most of the time. I think that's increasingly relevant now because I think most people do live in cities and I think it is very interesting what happens in that environment. We alter ourselves constantly to live in it, to survive in it and that process has very poetic levels. I don't want to sound pretentious, but it is very moving the way people accommodate each other and the city that they live in, and try to build this environment together. You almost have to dissolve yourself, re-incorporate yourself with the city in order to make it work on any level. All those tiny interactions and the major draws and minor draws that result from all that. I find it endlessly fascinating. I could sit in a cafe all day and some times I do. It's like being part of a beautiful ocean that is constantly moving. A lot of what I sing about is trying to describe some of that process.
I've read you talking about the importance of acoustic space in your work. I was wondering how that came to play in this album if at all.
John Foxx: We weren't so concerned with it because I think everything is artificial in some way.
Benge: One of the rules is that we didn't use any plug-ins. Everything had to be a real effects unit. But we did try and keep the production side of it quite raw. We kind of felt like it was a very important part of the overall tone of the record. I am quite proud of the rough edges.
John Foxx: Imperfections were part of the philosophy because I hate perfected music. I detest anything that is overworked. When you see a painting that is perfected and finished, and there are no marks of a brush on it, I always find it very oppressive to see. It is painful, it is never a pleasure. If you see a Degas for instance, you see the gestures and the movements that are being left and it is another dimension but it is very important to the picture I think.
I was in art school before I started and saw friends of mine just destroying themselves because they wanted to reach some kind of perfection so I was determined not to do that. Some people want everything to be perfect, they want their clothes to be perfect, their mind to be perfect, their hair to be perfect, and they are perfecting themselves out of their relationships. I don't want to. I have been there, and I'm not going back. So it is important to me to be imperfect, and it is a skill. I reached imperfection quite naturally. [laughs] If I reach perfection accidentally, I will consider suicide.
Benge, how long did the recording process take?
Benge: It was over a year altogether, not every day but it was quite a lengthy process, because neither of us had any material that we had brought along, we kind of developed the whole thing together as we went along.
Have you found yourself inspired in your own solo work?
Benge: John got me into this idea of not working to so much of a fixed sequencer timeline. The work I'm doing recently on my own is completely free flowing from that.
You smile as he says that, John.
John Foxx: Well, it's just because electronic music is locked into sequences and people feel they have to lock things into that sequence. But if you sometimes disobey that rule, you get something quite fluid and interesting and you can interact in a different way. It is great to get something mechanical or something stripped—a framework. And to make organic movements inside that is essentially what we did. You can do fantastic things as long as the engineering can support it.
What are some of the things that you listened to when recording?
Benge: Arthur Russell, who was working in New York in the early '80s. He was someone that was making disco, but then putting this crazy kind of cello on top. It was almost like he went down some cul-de-sac and went somewhere that was forgotten about basically.
John Foxx: I always felt that with every artist, you can hear a song or a recording they made that leads you to think they could have gone a different direction, so I am fascinated by those moments. Particularly with Kraftwerk when they put out this song called "Neon Lights." It seemed to indicate they were taking a path of almost like a modern Frank Sinatra. It was a ballad form, and it was really emotive. It seemed like a development was about to take place, and then it didn't. I think Kraftwerk exhausted their particular stream along the way. And I do not mean that in any unpleasant way. I think they're geniuses, and their music is fantastic. People do run out of ideas, though. And that one seems to be a wasted opportunity. You can see that in the work of painters or filmmakers as well. It's these moments I try to identify in anyone's work and my own to see where I might have gone if I was being intelligent or receptive enough.
I will consider suicide."
That begs the question, looking back on your own career...
John Foxx: Oh, every moment. When I used to work with a string guitar I could have made just ambient music and explored that in 1977, or I could have been a pop musician pure and simply. We all have those moments where we wake up at 5 AM and think, "Oh, if only I had married Marianna!" Music is very much like that. You make choices all along, and the trajectory we have is sometimes determined by finances, accidents or chance meetings. That is what makes it so interesting.
You mentioned Kraftwerk exhausted their stream. Do you feel like you have exhausted your stream, and do you worry about that?
John Foxx: No, because I think if I do, then that's it. I will do something else. I don't mind exhausting it. I tend to love limitations, because you can't do anything without choosing limitations to work inside of. The worst thing is when you have too many choices. You can also inhibit your work by making your limitations so strict that you resolve the space between the limitations, and that is a danger as well. You need some limitations that can accept some alteration.
Benge: Part of the reason you can be creative is you collaborate so well, because it does keep you going. The thing with Kraftwerk is that they haven't collaborated as well. It's just those four people, and I think collaboration keeps it fresh.
John Foxx: I think that is very true. I am a social being, I like to work with other people, and you find that when you bring two elements together you get a third mind. Two people together means you get this third mind which is really strange and interesting, because it doesn't belong to a single person. It is a result of a collaboration.
At this point, the discussion was opened up to questions from the audience. One audience member asked about some of the drum machines used on the album.
Benge: In fact, there are really only two machines that John really uses and we still have them in the studio. They have such a specific sound to them, especially people like us that are really geeky about those things, you can't really recreate in any other way so we are very particular about getting that exactly right.
John Foxx: The two things I have to say is that Benge plays wonderful drums and synth kits over top the drum machines as well, so there are two layers of drums. But drum machines… I don't want to bore you to death, but I think drum machines are wonderful because they can play things that drums can't play. They can play faster or slower or in time, and effect them very quickly. You can respond to a drum machine almost as quickly as you can with the drum that is played by a human being. What the bass drum does is it reproduces the human heartbeat. And we learn this from the womb. We synchronize our heartbeat with our mother in the womb. When she is excited, we get excited too, the heartbeat rises and falls and ours as well.
So it is a very basic human function that we synchronize our heartbeats with what is happening around us and other people's heartbeats oddly enough. So when you get into the situation where there is this big heartbeat in a dance environment, we all synchronize with that beat as though it is our mother. That is why we love big soundsystems that have this big bass, because we are back in the womb and synchronizing with our mother, and if you accelerate that gently then you accelerate your own heartbeat. Essentially, any kind of dance event is a womb situation.