The Disobedient Machine: An Interview with John Foxx

“I think obedient music is some of the most boring music in the world.”

Born Dennis Leigh in 1948, John Foxx has been at the forefront of the synth movement since the early days of Ultravox! Truly ahead of their time, Ultravox! recorded three records that pushed the boundaries of punk’s aggression, marrying conventional rock instrumentation with primitive synthesizers and esoteric German influences. Once parting ways with the budding new wave band at the conclusion of their first US tour, he embarked on an adventurous and extremely influential solo career, exploring both cold detachment and existential beauty over the course of several solo records. His debut solo record Metamatic has rightfully been cherished as one of the earliest synth masterpieces, and singles such as Underpass and No-One Driving can still be heard in clubs across the world to date.

Always eager to push boundaries and explore textures, Foxx released three more synth-driven records, 1981’s The Garden, 1983’s The Golden Section, and 1985’s In Mysterious Ways, before taking a lengthy hiatus from music. During this time, Foxx explored his passion for graphic design as a professor at Leeds Metropolitan University. Never one to shy away from music for too long, Foxx began working with several acid house and electro acts in the early 90s before finally re-emerging as a solo artist in 1997 with a string of solo and collaborative records. Since then, Foxx has remained heavily active, exploring ambient and experimental music, avant-garde, and electronica, often in the same string of releases. Notable collaborators include ambient musician Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins, Finnish DJ Jori Hulkkonen, and synth musician Louis Gordon.

Foxx’s latest and most fruitful project is John Foxx and the Maths, a collective centered around Foxx and analog synth wizard Ben Edwards, better known as Benge. The Maths sees Foxx returning to much of the early, synth driven work that defined his early career, and has expanded to include live contributions from Hannah Peel and Serafina Steer, amongst several of his past musical partners. Foxx’s knack for partnering with exceptional musicians continued, with Gazelle Twin, Xeno & Oaklander, Matthew Dear, and The Soft Moon contributing to tracks on 2012’s Evidence. Shortly after, John Foxx and the Maths embarked on a UK tour, supporting Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

His latest studio outing with The Maths is The Machine, a (mostly) instrumental record originally conceived as the live soundtrack to Neil Duffield’s stage adaptation of E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Speaks,” an incredibly forward-thinking science fiction tale from 1909. The Machine is a stunning work of art, supporting many of Forster’s themes with cold, analog synths and experimental patterns. While written in 2016 and released in a limited run in February 2017, it will be released worldwide on September 22nd.

We had the honor of catching up with John Foxx to discuss his past and present works, his influence across countless genres, and his relationship with the instrument that defined his career and set him apart from the pack in 1976. The results are as follows:


Post-Punk:
What originally attracted you to the synthesizer?

John Foxx: Ah- well you could make noises with it that you couldn’t get from anything else, you know? It was also more aggressive in some ways than guitars could be at that point. Also, you only needed one finger to play it. It was the punk thing- everyone was saying how easy how it was to play guitar, but synth was just one finger.

Much has been said about Metamatic, your influential debut record. I’ve always loved The Garden equally- can you speak a bit about that record and how it expanded on Metamatic’s stark sonic template?

Well, The Garden was actually a step back in some ways just to retrieve the territory I’d started with Systems of Romance with Ultravox. I thought Metamatic was so hard-edged and merciless at the time, I thought I’d step back and retrieve the sound that Conny Plank, our producer was working on. Also, I’d been to Italy for a while, so I’d warmed up a bit after living in London during the 70s. London was very grey and bleak at that point. Going over to Italy made me see England and Europe and a different way. So, it’s all those factors that came together and made The Garden a different album.

It’s a much more romantic record…

Yeah, that’s definitely the connection to Italy that really triggered that off.

I also loved the emphasis on choral music.

Oh yeah, you can certainly do that sort of thing for the first time with the early Roland Vocoder- the VP330 I think it was, which was one of the first cheap vocoders, but it had lots of other facilities that I wanted to use to mix it up with other instruments. So, I suddenly had this way to make a choir if I wanted it, and it sounded electronic but had its own qualities that weren’t available before.

“Underpass” is the track that continues to define your work. What do you feel is the contributing factor to the song’s longevity?

Well, I always wanted to strip things down to the simplest possible level, and I think I got as far as I could there with Metamatic, many tracks on Metamatic only had six tracks- I recorded it on an 8 track machine and I’m pretty sure that “Underpass” only had six tracks- so I was very pleased with that. It was that kind of minimalism that I wanted to get to. I did that to let each sound have as much aural space as possible- that was influenced a lot by dub reggae, which was new at the time. Gareth [Jones], the engineer and I were listening to a lot of that at the time, as it was being made at the same studio. So that influenced the sound of Metamatic dramatically.

I know I often hear “Underpass” out to this day. I’ve also DJed much of your work and that always seems to be the one people respond to above all. I know there were some recent remixes of it released, so that song continues to really inspire people.

Yeah – it’s interesting – I think you get to the point where things become I don’t know, you could say a classic or something like it because you can’t reduce it anymore, you can’t take anything away from it without it disappearing, so I think when things are irreducible like that- they seem to have a life of their own.

Are you tired of that song in any way? I know a lot of musicians tend to shy away from “the hit.”

No, I still enjoy listening to it. At the time, we felt it was successful- it was one of those tracks that you felt worked properly and I still feel like that. I’m glad people like it- it shows very good taste, I think. [chuckles]

How has your relationship with the synthesizer changed over the years?

Well, it changed a lot when the digital stuff came along. That was really confusing. I sort of lost enthusiasm for synths then because they had become different animals, really. I realized that the problem was digital equipment- you know – most of it was pretty crappy. It was too complicated- all those multi-functional menus. My god, what a waste of time.

I agree.

When I threw all that stuff away and went back to the ARP Odyssey and CR-78 and so on, that was it, it was fine again. I realized it wasn’t really me that had lost the way, it was just the string of the equipment and the evolution of the instruments that had become something that was sort of a techie’s heaven and no good for the rest of the human race.

There was an era – around 10-15 years ago – when analog electronics came back in a big way, and all the better for it. Do you and Benge use any digital tools at all in your recordings with The Maths?

We have to record digitally, which is fine, especially considering everything is CDs and MP3s now, so you can’t avoid it. But the recording equipment we use is all analog. Benge will not use anything digital, apart from maybe a DX7- which is permissible. That’s about far as it ever goes. He’s always on patrol, he won’t let me use any digital sounds at all.

Hah, so he keeps you in line then?

He does, yeah. And I’m really pleased he does, it’s great.

He’s pretty busy, huh? He has a lot of new material coming out with new projects.

He’s really in demand- lots of artists want to work with him now. I’m really pleased for him. Makes it a problem to record with me now, that’s the trouble though!

What’s great about analog gear is that I like how imperfect it is – mistakes are permissible and it makes music a little more real and gritty.

That’s exactly right – and it’s just like singers too. I’ve always hated people who could sing well- any opera singer or anyone classically trained. Even pop singers or rock singers who are too good, that kind of professionalism destroys any texture or anything interesting or original in the voice. All the singers I like are the imperfect ones you know, from even the old guys like Johnny Cash- he’s not a great singer but he gets more across than any other singer can get. Lou Reed, too, for instance. All those people who have limited vocal abilities and texture – that’s what I listen for. Instruments are just the same, aren’t they? You want the signature of an instrument that really is a powerful thing, even if it’s very limited in many ways and imperfect and disobedient. I think obedient music is some of the most boring music in the world.

Speaking to your point about singers, I’m not sure if someone like Brian Eno could be successful today with his voice- I don’t think today’s industry would give him a chance. It’s amazing that folks with idiosyncratic voices and playing styles were able to carve out their niche.

The line of evolution is very interesting because Brian’s voice is almost identical to Syd Barrett- the original Pink Floyd singer who went mad after LSD sessions and left the band. So, there’s that line from psychedelia to Brian, who was carrying on that tradition consciously and people who picked up on that really enjoyed that kind of thing.

Interesting you should mention lineage- I would say that your music has influenced so much different music that followed, from Detroit and Chicago house and techno to much of the 90s electronica that followed. How do you feel about your contributions to the development of electronic music?

Well, I’m always pleased when people take things, I think music is like a conversation when people take on something you might have mentioned or said musically- when someone gets excited about it, that’s a real compliment. Even if they steal the whole thing and call it their own, it doesn’t matter – it’s fun and part of evolution as a form. It’s an ongoing conversation- there isn’t a point where it stops, it just carries on and on and it’s wonderful to watch it evolve.

Did you like any of the 90s electronica at the time? I know you worked on a video for LFO in the early 90s.

I liked LFO a lot, and I liked a lot of KLF’s stuff- “3am Eternal” was a really great record when it came out – it really sounded like something new at the time. Tim Simenon’s “Winter In July” with Bomb the Bass, etc. Some of those early things were great!

I think The KLF are coming back…soon. There have been so many rumors and hints. It’ll be really interesting to see what happens there.

You know, it will be interesting. It’s a different time, isn’t it?

Interesting sidebar- I always thought there were a lot of 90s bands that looked to electronica as the “future” of music. Of course, this was also the case in the late 70s and early 80s, but after things went a bit more excessive and commercial as the decade progressed, synths kind of became a dirty word again that no one wanted to talk about. There were shoegaze bands that insisted they didn’t use keyboards and then britpop and grunge brought guitars front and center, but it was very short lived. Soon, all the rock bands were marrying this newer music with electronics all over again. For me, and this might be looking at things very narrowly, but *maybe* this was one of the last times of really deep musical innovation that wasn’t hell bent on nostalgia.

There are all kinds of things happening all the time, and it’s easy to miss things though. I miss them sometimes. People play me a record that was made years ago and I think “wow that was a real turning point and I hadn’t seen it.” Or sometimes you’re over at a friend’s house or a club and you hear something new. It’s not that obvious at the time, a few years later, other people have picked up on it too, and it’s developed into a new strand of something. It’s very much like hearing The Soft Moon’s music for the first time, and learning that Luis had gotten ahold of the ARP Odyssey and brought it into this century really. That was really exciting- I thought it was great that he was making this new kind of textural music and that was tremendous.

Speaking of which, I know The Maths last pop record featured a slew of collaborations, including tracks with Gazelle Twin, The Soft Moon, and Xeno & Oaklander. What attracts you to collaborating with modern artists?

There’s a kind of energy happening somewhere, and I’m still excited enough to want to jump in there and work with it. I always did, and I haven’t changed in that respect. Whenever I hear something that’s exciting, I just want to get involved and work with them. You learn an awful lot from working with people’s new attitudes to old things, or even new attitudes to new things. It’s really refreshing. Otherwise you just become relegated to one particular era, and that’s something I never wanted to be. I never wanted to be someone from the 70s or 80s. Like I said, it’s an ongoing conversation and you want to put your word in now and again. I never want to keep saying the same things again and again.

I’d also liken some of your earliest work as sort of a Velvet Underground situation. Perhaps it wasn’t as commercially successful as The Human League would be a few years later, but it was that sort of thing where people heard it and were immediately inspired to create music, and I think that’s still true today.

I’m pleased about it because it means I’ve still got some relevance and some ideas that people can use. It’s all up for grabs- people can steal whatever they like, I don’t care. It’s a compliment when people take things that you’ve done and make something new out of it. Every generation tends to do that and I always find it interesting to see what people discard from the past and what they use to construct their new kind of music. It’s really important to observe that and understand it if you can.

J.G. Ballard’s influence on your early work has been very well documented over the years. What other literary and visual works have impacted you?

There’s quite a lot of it really. Some of William Burroughs’ stuff, just the way he wrote, really. I’m a little ambivalent about Burroughs because as a human being, he was a bit of a disaster area sometimes, as a parent for instance, or a husband…

Definitely.

…but the way he writes has a real visual impact, and it’s always something I felt was a valuable thing. I really respect some of his work like that in that way. Visually, there’s a whole wide range from cinema, right through to painting. Warhol, for instance, is an obvious one, but he was an artist who understood the impact of imagery and took it on to make his work more powerful. The whole surrealist movement- Dali’s films and Un Chien Andalou are all important to me as a collection of images- there are very striking, stimulating stories that are embedded in that and you make up for yourself when you see that kind of imagery. In a conventional way, it didn’t make any sense, so you were forced to make some kind of sense out of it, which is perfect, that’s exactly the way that music works.

I always find it far more interesting when musicians pull from different areas of influence rather than just focusing on music. Painters and authors are just as valuable to me as musical influences.

You’re absolutely right- you must look outside whatever genre or medium you happen to work in, because otherwise you’re confined. It’s only the people that have a wider vision that will make something out of it. I think someone like Bowie was interesting in that respect because he was always curious, you know, he would find things and put them into his music and it made the music broader and bigger than anyone else’s at that time. That’s the sort of object lesson in how to do things, I think.

I definitely learned it from Bowie, too.

He’s one of the seminal people, isn’t he? He latched on to people like Lou Reed and Iggy before most people had.

Kraftwerk, too.

Well, some of us were already in the know there! But Bowie really broadcasted what that was about, and it influenced a whole generation of people to pick up on it, which was incredibly important at the time.

He was a great benefactor too, he always gave credit where it was due, which is really important.

Yeah, exactly – he was very generous with that. Lots of bands try to hide their influence or pretend it was them that originated things, which is about the most stupid thing you can do, really. Bowie was great- he stole lots of stuff, but always told people where he got it from, and that was a great thing to do. As Picasso said, “good artists copy; great artists steal.”

It seems like much of the post-punk and synth music was born out of political and social turmoil in Europe in the late 70s and early 80s. It’s hard to truly compare to today really, but it seems like we’re living in similarly difficult times. Do world events still shape your outlook from a musical perspective?

Oh, absolutely. When you’re in a state of terror, you react to it, and you can’t help but write about it. I don’t write specifically about things, but I write about the way I’m affected by what happens around me. I remember writing a song with a guy from Scandinavia, Jori [Hulkkonen] called “Something is Coming Down the Avenues.” It was just around the time of 9/11 and I thought “What am I actually writing about here?” and I realized that it wasn’t specifically about 9/11, but the implications of it- the change in society that it signaled. How we suddenly became more aware of what was happening in the Middle East on a bigger level, trying to understand it and coming to terms with it, yet feeling dread that we’d overlooked something that was dangerous. That song embodies that feeling for me, and so on. “Fear in the Western World” by Ultravox! was more of the same thing really.

I’d say art is a very good coping mechanism for everything that happens around us- a way to channel all these feelings of dread and terror and pain and try to create something beautiful or meaningful out of it, even if the work isn’t directly political or sociological.

I think it’s one of the functions of it- it’s a way of working through things in a model form, if you like. I always thought a play or a drama’s purpose is to make a model of the real world so you can see the mechanisms that happened so you can understand an event – all the circumstances that led up to that moment. While you don’t forgive the event, you can begin to comprehend the reasons that might have happened. It’s not always as completely bleak as that, sometimes it’s more subtle than that, but you can see that in the model that’s presented that way. I think music does something like that, but in a more abstract way. You listen to certain tracks and you know what they’re about, even though they don’t say these things explicitly. They have an atmosphere and a journey in the piece of music that is identical to what you’re experiencing in the real world. That can really help you work through all that sort of fear or trauma, or even happiness.

There’s only so many ways you can write a love song- most of the music that appeals to me goes a little further than that.

Love songs have got to be good or have to be effective or say something new, or at the very least say something old in a new way, for them to be of any value. I was really pleased when I was a kid and I listened to The Who. Pete Townshend said that he wasn’t going to write any love songs. I thought that was really interesting and it really hooked me on to The Who above everyone else, because he wouldn’t write a love song. I thought “I’ve got to hear what this guy is going to write, it must be wonderful,” and it really was!

The latest Maths record, The Machine was originally conceived as a soundtrack to a theater adaptation of a classic short story. While it was completed in 2016 it’s just now receiving a wide release.

That’s right.

While this isn’t your first foray into more experimental and ambient material, how was the recording process different than the previous Maths records, which are more song-and-hook oriented?

Well, oddly enough, when Benge and I began to work together, we were originally going to make instrumental experimental music, but as soon as I heard his Moog modular, he played me some arpeggios he was doing and I immediately started singing to the music. They became songs very quickly. We hadn’t intended to write any songs like that, we wanted to do pieces of music similar to 1970s German electronica like Cluster or Can. All the time we’ve worked together we’ve done pieces of music like that. In other words, we worked on both kinds of music together, so this was no different really. It was just like writing songs together, but we weren’t going to put vocals on them because of the nature of the project.

Was it hard to resist the temptation to put vocals on some of the tracks?

There are a few tracks we didn’t put on that album. We figured some of those would make a proper song so we kept it aside. That’s what happens, things breed and change- it’s like a breeding farm. You go into the studio and it’s like some kind of laboratory and things happen that you don’t expect. It’s like you said – it’s the nature of analog equipment, you can’t always predict what it’s going to do, so you have to take advantage of it the best you can. It’s a bit of a wrestling match sometimes –the things we think might make songs we just hide away and keep ‘til the next sessions and use things that are suitable for a particular project like this one. There’s plenty of it, we work very quickly in the studio. There’s always a lot of material, it’s just a matter of refining it and knocking it down into something that fits that particular need.

I know you mentioned Benge is in very high demand, but are you guys planning on working on a new record soon? What’s next?

Yes, when we get the time [chuckles]. We just recorded some tracks with Robin Simon, who was the last guitarist in Ultravox! I think he’s a bit of a genius- because he doesn’t sound like anyone else and he doesn’t play clichés either – he’s about the only guitarist that doesn’t, really. I’ve always wanted to do some more work with him, and we’ve just begun. I’m trying to write material that suits his playing, and some of it is working really well, so we’re quite excited about that. We’re also doing some electronic pieces that I’ve begun to write- and as I mentioned, we have this store of stuff that’s been started in other projects that we need to finish. So, there’s quite a lot of material to work on then, always always always.

It’s always good to be busy!

Oh yeah, I hope so! Benge is totally booked up ‘til Christmas though. After that, I hope to get into the studio at some point with him so we can get through some of this material.

So, there aren’t any live shows planned for next year?

Not at the moment, no. There’s just such a backlog of stuff to do in the studio and I want to get that done to give us all a new direction. I’d also like to involve Hannah [Peel] in playing and writing stuff as well because she’s really good and we haven’t really done that yet. I also want to get Gazelle Twin back in the mix because she’s so brilliant. Everything she does is completely original, it’s wonderful to work with her.

This is maybe more of a request, but when you do happen to play live again, if you ever would consider coming to the States, we would love to have you here!

I’d love to do some concerts in America, that would be great. A lot of things came out of there that really affected me- the Velvets in New York and all that, really seminal things, and there’s that spirit abound in America, so I’d be happy to do that.

When’s the last time you toured here?

Oh- wow. With the band! The late 70s. So, it’s about time I did something soon…

Back to The Machine for a bit- so this record is the soundtrack to a play based on “The Machine Stops,” a short story by E.M. Forster from 1909. How does this hundred-year old story translate to today?

I think it does very well. When Forster first saw the cusp of human technology developing- for instance, how you can pretend to link people together and make them closer, while you’re actually isolating them- he really put his finger on the central problem we’ve got at the moment. The web, for instance, smuggled in isolation disguised as communication. I read the story when I was at school, but that was long before the internet happened. When I read it again after the internet happened- I realized that the story was more relevant than it had ever been, which is quite incredible, because it was written in 1909, long before most houses even had electricity in England. That particular human foible and technological relationship between humans is so far beyond his experience, I’m not sure how he did it. H.G. Wells was also operating at roughly the time and touched on some of the same things, but this was the perfect statement really. It’s so impressive that he was so prescient at the time.

It’s kind of terrifying how accurate he was. I have a very similar struggle with social media and isolation. Social media has its merits, of course, but it’s definitely alienating.

There’s a Banksy image called “Modern Love” that really sums this up. It’s a young man and a young woman, both looking at their phone screen rather than looking at each other. That’s perfect, and it’s exactly what Forster was putting his finger on in 1909 and it’s amazing how relevant it is now.

It’s amazing how sci-fi moves in cycles. We’re actually closer to living in some of the sci-fi scenarios from the 60s and 70s that inspired much of the early 80s dystopian soundscape that you and some of your peers were writing about. I’m sure it felt like a distant, but attainable future at the time, but now moreso than ever. Then there’s Black Mirror, which is kind of a cautionary tale about the world we live in today that taps into the same feeling.

Oh yes, that’s a great series and a great attempt to put the finger on the pulse of science fiction again. There were older series like Quatermass in the fifties and sixties that really did the same thing, and that really terrified people and I think Black Mirror does as well. It’s really accurate and slightly satirical, but not in any humorous sort of way. If you read Ballard’s books, they could almost be the dialogue on the news right now- he really foresaw a lot of what was going to happen in this period, I think.

Can’t help but think of “The Drowned World” with all of the climate change. Right now in the States we’re just coming off a devastating hurricane in Texas and a lot of people are in trouble at the moment. Scientists also predict that New York is going to be underwater someday, the way things are going. It’s terrifying to watch all that unfold…

Well, heh, good luck! I think more of the same here, we’re a very small island and we don’t have much inland. If we ever get a tsunami over here, it’s going to be a real problem. Everyone’s in that state at the moment, where the world is shifting under our feet you know, and we have to try and make sense of it, really.

Until then, there’s art…

That’s the only defense!


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