Complex Industrialist: Douglas J. McCarthy (interview, 2012)

I interviewed Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas McCarthy in 2012. At that time, Doug was prepping his first solo LP, at that time intended to be called Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me, but which eventually emerged as Kill Your Friends on Pylon later that year. My interview was originally accompanied by a promotional photo that Doug had supplied, but which the photographer insisted I removed. I’ve no idea now if this photo is the one she asked me to remove – if it is, I will happily remove (again).

One of the two most important electronic acts to emerge from Essex in the Eighties, Nitzer Ebb surprised a lot of fans by reforming in the 2000s, not just for shows as is the current money-spinning way for the record industry machine to milk a band’s back catalogue, but also to record new material. The trio of Bon Harris, Douglas McCarthy and Jason Payne that had recorded 1994’s supposed swansong, Big Hit, almost ten years earlier, came back together to record Industrial Complex (also abbreviated to ICP), an album which managed to complete the circle that Nitzer Ebb had started but never quite finished, returning them to the punishing electronic body music of their earliest Power Of Voice and Mute releases. With Nitzer Ebb now on downtime after a couple of intense years of touring, including a powerful slot at Mute’s Short Circuit festival at The Roundhouse in London last year, Douglas McCarthy has recorded his first solo album, Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me. The album is due for release in April 2012.

‘Last year proved to be a bit frustrating for me with a few projects and tours being stymied by situations, events or people beyond my control,’ explains McCarthy by email from Los Angeles on the origins of Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me, ‘so I decided to take matters into my own hands. As it has turned out it was a fortuitous judgement call as, about six months after I started writing, we decided that we would take a year out from Nitzer Ebb. I also wanted to make music that was much more club based than Nitzer Ebb have ever done.’

McCarthy first moved to LA in the early Nineties, then spent some time moving round the country before heading back to England toward the end of the decade. ‘I initially came back to LA in 2005 to work with Bon on the reunion tour and then as the tour progressed and we started to work on new tracks it seemed sensible to relocate from London and work on the album that eventually was released as Industrial Complex.’ Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me, however, was begun back in the UK. ‘My father was in the last stages of a very grim terminal illness,’ says McCarthy, ‘and so my wife and I spent a lot of time in the UK. Going out to various nights and parties like my dear friend Richard Clouston’s Cosey Club really reminded me of a lot of things from years gone by and played a big part in the approach to the album. After my dad died, my wife and I came back to LA where the rest of the album was written and recorded in a relatively short space of time. We worked in an amazingly relaxed way, which is a direct response to being out here I think. I actually achieved much more taking that approach.’

While details of McCarthy’s solo record are starting to emerge, ears are still ringing from the breathtaking, urgent fast-paced beats and classic syncopated basslines of 2009’s Industrial Complex, the release of which was promoted by two hard years of touring and almost 150 live shows. ‘It came about after I had recorded an album as Fixmer/McCarthy with Terence Fixmer,’ says McCarthy of Industrial Complex‘s origins. ‘We toured extensively and would always drop in one or two classic Nitzer Ebb tracks. Inevitably it lead those cunning promoters to start asking if Nitzer Ebb could actually do shows again. I emailed Bon and as we were both going to be in the Midwest we agreed to meet up in Chicago for a chat. All went well and we agreed to play a smattering of festivals in Europe. Then, so as not to just be sitting on our arses between events, we added club shows in between. As it turned out we play something like 75 shows in Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, North America and South America. I had already moved from London to LA to rehearse and prepare for the tour so when we had breaks from touring, that was our home. We decided to fill the time with trying out some new ideas and, remarkably given our long break from the studio, it was fun, so we carried on in our own sweet time until we thought we had an album.’

‘In a lot of ways it was very similar to making Big Hit,’ continues McCarthy. ‘We would often start with a blank piece of paper, just evolving ideas in the simplest form as the mood took us – a bass part, a keyboard part, a percussion part, a guitar part, whatever was easiest to start an idea rolling. After that we would work on it for usually no more than a day, put it to bed and start the whole process again on something new. We carried on like that until we had over thirty tracks and then thought we better stop and pick the ones that would be a good collection for ICP. That’s the main difference, with Big Hit we really wrung the living hell out of the tracks before moving on to the next.’

The brittle Big Hit was preceded by Ebbhead, the 1991 album produced by Alan Wilder, recently of Recoil fame, with whom the trio of McCarthy, Harris and Payne performed on stage at The Roundhouse last year. In 1991 Wilder was the musical backbone of Depeche Mode, the other important electronic band to emerge from Essex in case you were wondering. ‘We toured with the Mode for the second time on the Violator album tour in North America in 1990, which was a life changing experience for all and sundry. On the tour we discussed working with Alan upon our return to the studio. The plan was for him to co-produce with Flood, which worked out perfectly. We approached Ebbhead this way because we saw how well these two could work together on Violator and wanted a more ‘musical’ approach to the songs, which is really at the core of someone like Alan as he is classically trained. The combination of that with Flood and Bon’s fantastic knob-twiddling, and my desire to ‘sing’ more, were all part of the evolution of that album.’ Ebbhead showcased a new, tortured emotional depth for Nitzer Ebb, even if it was obscured by the lurid dayglo colours of the album’s bright yellow sleeve.

‘We started as school friends who enjoyed skateboarding, music and drinking cider,’ recalls McCarthy of the halcyon youthful days from which Nitzer Ebb would eventually emerge. ‘Musically, we took our influences from a fairly eclectic array of artists and styles – Forties jazz, Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, glam, disco, punk and the post-punk scene that was emerging as we were starting to go out. Bands like The Banshees, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Theatre of Hate, The Birthday Party, Neubauten and Malaria! were all playing live shows that we would go to. We were also listening to Cabaret Voltaire, DAF, Fad Gadget, The Human League, Abwärts, Virgin Prunes, Soft Cell and The Normal among many more.’

Nitzer Ebb signed to Mute in time for the release of their first album, 1987’s insistent That Total Age, which was produced by Daniel Miller. ‘We were very aware of Mute and Daniel Miller of course; growing up in Essex with Depeche down the road in Basildon meant it was a no-brainer. Once we had signed Dan took me and Bon over to Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin to remix ‘Let Your Body Learn’ with Gareth Jones. It was our first trip to Berlin and at the airport we ran into Diamanda Galás, who was in the process of moving there so we all took pieces of her luggage as she had a mountain of stuff and had a very amusing flight getting told off by the flight attendants. It was like being Daniel’s naughty nephews on a weekend cultural break.’ Of their former label head, McCarthy has nothing but high praise. ‘Daniel has always been full of fantastic ideas, some more fantastic than others, but he never shows any diminished excitement about a project even, as it often does, when it gets tough.’

As the interview began to wind up, it seemed appropriate to ask McCarthy about the pronunciation of Nitzer Ebb, a debate which has seen fans take two sides, those who call the band Night-zer Ebb and those who prefer Nitt-zer Ebb. McCarthy is ambiguous as ever. ‘To be honest it started off as Night-zer but after decades of Nitt-zer I slip between the two.’

Originally posted; re-posted 2018.

(c) 2012 MJA Smith / Documentary Evidence

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VeryRecords: Reed & Caroline – Hello Science Interview (2018)

Ahead of the release of Hello Science, I caught up with Caroline Schutz and Reed Hays to talk about identity crises, science (duh, obviously) and dealing with demands for royalties from daughters. The interview was published today on the VeryRecords website here.

Hello Science is available to purchase at the VeryRecords website, or from the merchandise stall if you happen to be Stateside and watching Erasure on tour

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for VeryRecords

Electronic Sound Issue 43

Issue 43 of Electronic Sound is now available, and this month’s magazine & 7″ bundle includes exclusive tracks from the Radiophonic Workshop, the beneficiaries of a major in-depth feature this month.

For this issue I wrote a short introduction to the music of Ratgrave, whose jazz / hip-hop / electro / funk debut I mentioned in The Electricity Club interview, and who I expect I’m going to be banging on about for several months to come. Their self-titled album is released at the end of this month and it is a wild, untameable beast of a fusion record. I also interviewed Norwich’s Let’s Eat Grandma for this issue about their second album, which sees childhood friends Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton taking their curiously idiosyncratic music in a squarely electronic pop direction, complete with analogue synths and production nous from Faris Badwan and SOPHIE. We also had a god natter about the merits of rich tea biscuits.

In the review section I covered Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase‘s mesmerising Drums & Drones collection, three discs of processed percussion inspired by time spent at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House; a hard-hitting gem of an album by 1i2c which I described as ‘therapeutic music for anxious robots’; the new album from 4AD’s Gang Gang Dance; another brilliant collaboration tape on the Front & Follow label by Jodie Lowther and ARC Soundtracks; the brilliant second album by Geniuser, one half of which is Mick Allen from The Models, Rema-Rema, MASS and The Wolfgang Press.

Finally, I reviewed albums by two projects by current members of WireColin Newman and Malka Spigel‘s second Immersion album since they reactivated the band in the last couple of years, and the third album from Wire guitarist Matthew Simms as Slows. Simms is a highly inventive musical polymath, as comfortable with a guitar in his hand as he is using analogue synths, found sound or pretty much anything he can lay his hands on. A Great Big Smile From Venus consists of two long tracks covering an incredible breadth of ideas, continually moving out in directions that are both unexpected and yet entirely expected when you’re familiar with Simms’s vision.

The review section also features Ben Murphy’s fantastically detailed review of the new Reed & Caroline album, Hello Science, released earlier this month on Vince Clarke‘s VeryRecords.

The magazine and 7″ bundle is available exclusively from the Electronic Sound website here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

The Electricity Club: Documentary Evidence Interview (2018)

Those familiar with the story of how this blog came about – Erasure fan; found a copy of Mute‘s Documentary Evidence 4 inside my 12″ of said band’s ‘Chorus’; began collecting the Mute back catalogue; decided to write about it – will find an extended version of that story over at The Electricity Club website in an interview they did with me earlier this month.

I found this amusing, and slightly ironic: way back in 2003, when I started this here blog, I got in touch with Chris Bohn, then editor of The Wire and best known as NME journo Biba Kopf, to see if he’d be open to an interview. Kopf, for me, was synonymous with the Documentary Evidence pamphlet, as he’d written the Mute history that accompanied the catalogue listings at the back, and I couldn’t even estimate the number of times I’d read, re-read and digested those words. His response was along the lines of ‘Er… why?’ and so I shelved that as a bad, and slightly foolish idea. When The Electricity Club asked me to answer some questions, I could suddenly see Kopf’s point, and also my own naïveté.

In any event, I accepted, and the interview is now online here. Head over there and you can read about why Mute matters to me so much, musings on how much I love Taylor Swift (unashamedly), what it’s like to work for Vince Clarke, why I believe people have got it wrong about modern day Depeche Mode, and what electronic music I’m currently listening to.

I wrote most of my answers on a flight to Newquay to visit my father, who gets a mention in the interview. I only realised recently how important my dad is in the story of how I came to fall in love with electronic music… but that’s a story you’ll get to read another day.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound 35

Issue 35 of Electronic Sound has been out for a while, and this month features a major in-depth look at the work of much-missed German producer Conny Plank.

This issue features the last part of my feature on Alison Moyet, here focussing in on her influences. Such pieces are often really illuminating, particularly – as here – were they cover non-musical influences, and it was no different on this occasion. The interview was conducted in a bar in Chelsea back in May, and is the companion piece to a feature about Moyet’s latest album, Other.

My other major feature for this month was about the weird world of the Welcome To Night Vale podcast, something’s that been running for years but which totally passed me by. My interview with Jeffrey Cranor, co-author of the podcast, was definitely one of the most fun things I’ve done this year.

On the reviews front, I covered Gregg Kowalsky‘s ambient delight L’Orange, L’Orange, the very Night Vale-friendly strangeness of Snapped Ankles‘s Come Play The Trees, a reissue of an overlooked album by Twins Natalia, an absolutely fantastic electronic jazz crossover in the form of Brzzvll‘s Waiho, a more subtle jazz-with-synths hybrid in the form of Chet Doxas‘s Rich In Symbols, the fantastically raw No Luscious Life by Glasgow’s Golden Teacher, and a career-spanning piece on Simian Mobile Disco‘s ADSR reissue and Anthology collection.

My final contribution this month was among the most personally rewarding. For the magazine’s Buried Treasure section, I wrote a piece on Vic Twenty‘s Electrostalinist, an album which sadly seemed to pass everyone by when it was released in 2005. Vic Twenty was originally a duo of Adrian Morris and Angela Penhaligon (Piney Gir), they supported Erasure in 2003, and Mute‘s Daniel Miller set up a new independent label called Credible Sexy Units just to release one solitary single by the duo. Piney left to follow a successful solo career and Morris carried on alone. I drafted a review of the album for Documentary Evidence when it was released but never finished it, much to my regret, and so it was a pleasure to finally give Electrostalinist the coverage it deserved.

Electronic Sound can be purchaed at www.electronicsound.co.uk.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Documentary Evidence 2016 Top 10 Albums: 3. LNZNDRF ‘LNZNDRF’

lnzndrf

“In thrall to the methods of Can, if not their actual sound.” – Electronic Sound

I heralded the trio of Scott and Bryan Devendorf (from The National) and Bryan Lanz (from Beirut) as my new favourite band upon the release of their self-titled album for 4AD earlier this year. It would the first of three such occasions where I made that claim.

This was a frighteningly inventive LP, formed out of the same sort of long-form improvised jams that Can used nearly fifty years before in the creation of their seminal early records, only then treated and manipulated to take on a relatively ‘composed’ form. The output was a sort of Krautrock / electronic hybrid whose details reveal themselves over repeated listens.

I reviewed the album for Electronic Sound and interviewed Scott Devendorf for Clash. Back issues of Electronic Sound are available at http://www.electronicsound.co.uk while my interview can be read here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Soundescapes – An Interview With Espen J. Jörgensen (2011)

Noise Activity

Five years ago, Mute returned to its independent roots after separating from EMI. One of the first releases on the newly indie imprint was Soundescapes by Mute stalwart Simon Fisher Turner and one-time collaborator Espen J. Jörgensen. It arguably should have set the tone for Mute Artists’ new beginning, returning the label to the noisy, DIY, uncompromising point where it all began.

On the occasion of the fifth aniversary of Soundescapes, I am republishing my 2011 interview with Jörgensen. This will be followed in the next few days by the re-posting of a further interview with both Fisher Turner and Jörgensen from around the time of the album’s actual release. 


Soundescapes is a collaboration between musical auteur Simon Fisher Turner and film-maker / soundsmith Espen J. Jörgensen. The first fruits of this collaboration, the track ‘Noise Activity’, was released on 16 April 2011 as part of Mute‘s Vorwärts compilation; with that title, it is not a terrible surprise that the rest of Soundescapes explores the outer reaches of sound design.

‘I record whatever I like and Simon does whatever he likes with it,’ Jörgensen tells me from his home in Norway. ‘It’s the ultimate democracy; or maybe democrazy is a better word for it.’ Built on a mutual respect for each others’ creative vision, Fisher Turner and Jörgensen have an agreement not to challenge one another. ‘I do whatever I like, and Simon treats the material the way he wants to,’ says Jörgensen. and ‘I don’t comment on the outcome. So you could say that I’m the composer and he’s the re-composer.’

‘Noise Activity’ also appears on the forthcoming Soundescapes album, scheduled for release on a freshly independent Mute in November 2011, replete with a personal endorsement from Daniel Miller. ‘We’ve been working on this album for two to three years,’ explains Jörgensen about the album, recorded over an extended period in between both the composer and re-composer’s other activities, namely Fisher Turner’s scores and solo albums and Jörgenson’s work as a film-maker. ‘Noise Activity’ is our ADHD song. There are a couple of others which are ‘upbeat’, but not as crazy as that; some are very ambient, both light and dark.’

Already familiar with Fisher Turner’s work, I ask Jörgensen about his individual style. ‘I don’t actively try to pursue a sound, and I’m not trying to not pursue a sound. I think a lot of it comes from how I work, which is is more like an exorcism. I try to lure sounds out of devices and instruments. It’s all from intuition. I never write anything. I can have a five minute session one day and then I won’t touch an instrument for a month or two. I don’t do anything if I don’t feel like it.’

‘When I record things it’s mostly to hear what sounds I get if I hook up an instrument, be it circuit bent, analogue or digital, to an effects box or whatever; or it’s from an urge to play or record a beat. I try to record the first time I test an instrument to capture that first meeting or “moment”. I also think that art-by-mistake can be exciting, but I don’t call myself an artist.’

Artist isn’t the only term that Jörgensen doesn’t feel applies to himself. ‘I’m not a schooled musician and I don’t consider myself a musician, and so I can’t really say that I’m influenced by anyone.’

I ask Jörgensen whether his day-job as a film-maker means that the process of film making informs how he makes music. ‘They’re two different worlds, though they’re also not. I think it has more to do with my approach and attitude when I head into the different worlds. I want to be more free with music, so that’s what I do. With film you can improvise and play with the camera, editing and acting, but in the end it’s a lot of work. Music’s a lot of work, too, but Simon gets the hardest job of all – he’s supposed to make my noise work in a context, or a song, if you like. Then again, I wouldn’t call all of the tracks on Soundescapes songs.’

‘I like to write scripts which are more like skeletons,’ he says, returning to film. ‘I think it’s more fun to be open-minded when you work. If you’re not too tied to the script you can make room for things. I think visually, but when I work I often feel, or hear, what kind of music would work well without killing a scene. When I was working with [Faith No More founder / bassist] Billy Gould on the soundtrack for The Sequential Art, my documentary film about comics, he never got to see any of the footage. I told him what I wanted in the form of atmosphere and rhythm, and we worked from there.’

This sense of blind faith and trust also informs the Soundescapes collaboration. Whereas Gould never got to see a single scene, in the case of Soundescapes, Jörgenson and Fisher Turner have never actually even met one another. ‘When I think of it, I’ve never spoken to him either!’ says Jörgensen about this distance collaboration. ‘Our relationship is very text-based. It might sound very odd, but it works very well. I don’t always have control of the outcome with the stuff I record, but I don’t want to control what Simon does either because he does such a great job with putting it all together.’

First published 2011; edited 2016.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence