Ain't that a kick in the teeth?
Two years ago, despite great reviews, Ladytron's luck vanished. They tell Jude Rogers how the internet, fans and a little gung-ho touring restored their fortunes
"We could have had a press conference on the Great Wall of China with Jean-Michel Jarre. Imagine it! The old and the new electronic worlds together at last - we could shake hands and usher in the new era. But, given us, it obviously didn't happen".
Ladytron - Daniel Hunt, Helen Marnie, Mira Aroyo and Reuben Wu - are sitting in a distinctly unfuturistic tapas bar in London's King's Cross, ordering jamón and manchego. Hunt, the new owner of a distinctly unfuturistic handlebar moustache and man with a nice line in sarcasm, is speaking in a broad Merseyside accent on the eve of their fourth album, Velocifero, and remembering the time when they were in the far east.
"Come on, it would have been perfect, wouldn't it?" he laughs, half-joking, looking at his band. Wu, his fellow Liverpudlian and male Ladytronian, ruffles his quiff of black hair and points out that they got to shake Kenny G's hand instead. Glaswegian Marnie and Bulgarian Aroyo, the sharp, stylish women whose sweet, icy voices carry Ladytron's records, look at each other, sigh theatrically, and laugh like drains.
The band's woe-is-us banter may be slightly exaggerated, but it has solid foundations. Ladytron had a prolific start, forming in 1999 and releasing their first two albums, 604 and Light & Magic, in the next two years. Their music sounded gorgeously sharp, modern and strange, reminding listeners of 1980s synth pop, shoegazing, the 90s electronica of Warp records and the likes of Stereolab, Broadcast and Air. Their lyrics were impressively disaffected, too. Prominent tracks from their early years included Playgirl ("Why are you sleeping in tomorrow's world? Why are you dancing when you could be alone?") and the modern morality lesson Seventeen ("They only want you when you're 17. When you're 21, you're no fun").
Then in 2005, Ladytron released Witching Hour, teeming with confident, alternative club classics. It had great reviews in the indie, electronic and mainstream music press. Then, Hunt explains, their labels let them down. "In Britain, Universal/Island completely fucked it up". How? "You know, the guy who signs you leaves the label, everyone nods and pretends, 'Yeah, we really understand the band and believe in it', at the same time as they're cutting off the air supply. Classic, really".
The same happened in America. There, they were a priority act for Emperor Norton, which had promised to spend a large sum on the group. Soon after, Rykodisc bought the label, closed it down, and axed all its bands apart from Ladytron. "We weren't happy", explains Hunt, "but we thought, 'Ah, how bad can it get?' Then we were told no money would be spent on the album, then they didn't organise any interviews for us, and for a long while" - Hunt's voice is dripping with contempt - "the only way of getting the record was to download it". But then something strange happened. Slowly but surely, the album started to flourish and sell well. How? "Touring it off our own back", says Aroyo. "On the sly", adds Wu.
In the past two years, Ladytron have played the UK, Europe and North America extensively and taken it upon themselves to tour where the fans wanted them to. "Bands generally have pressure about where to play by their labels", says Aroyo. "But as our label didn't care, we went to the places other bands won't - because they're told not to. Places like Russia, Mexico, Colombia, where there are really developed scenes but less money".
Then Ladytron's luck almost turned again: the Colombian military turned up to storm the gig and demand protection money. They were only put off until after the set was done because the son of the president, Alvaro Ulribe, was there. "Thank God", Marnie laughs. "Somehow, we managed to get out of that one".
But how did they get that level of support in Colombia without a record? "The internet", says Aroyo. Songs such as "Destroy Everything You Touch" travelled all by themselves. So although Island reissued the album last summer for one last push, it almost didn't need it: Witching Hour eventually become their biggest album to date. "The internet liberated us - putting us as people directly in touch with our fans, wherever they were", Aroyo explains. The key to Ladytron, though, isn't technology, it's songs. Their topics suggest a yearning for a future sanctuary from the past, but they insist this isn't because they're "sci-fi" - it's more about their songs' human core.
Aroyo sings two tracks in her native Bulgarian on Velocifero, and calls Ladytron's new album folk music. "We're just writing about what we know, and it happens that we're surrounded by technology. Certain technological objects didn't exist 60 years ago as they do now, so all we're doing is building them into our songs". She smiles. "So to me, our songs are like fairytales".
Surely it's time for Ladytron to get lucky? "Who knows?" says Hunt. "We seem to have been doing pretty well by ourselves, so let's just keep going". And then, a few days after we meet, Ladytron play a sold-out headline show at the London Astoria. It's their chance to perform new songs to an eager crowd, to make their own luck. But, partway through the set, the sound system packs up. The quartet trudge off, perhaps hoping normal service has not been resumed.