Daniel Hunt, keyboard player for Liverpool electro-pop group Ladytron, talks to Alasdair Duncan about embarrassing YouTube footage, recording in Paris, and the ways in which constant touring has changed the band for the better.
When the first wave of eighties revivalism broke in 2002, it's fair to say that Ladytron became electroclash royalty – fashion bible The Face reviewed their early singles with giddy reverence, and they appeared on numerous compilations, including City Rockers' now-legendary Futurism mixtape, alongside the likes of Felix da Housecat, Peaches, Chicks on Speed and Fischerspooner. In the years to come, many of these artists would flame out (Ministry of Sound invested more than a million pounds in Fischerspooner's failed debut album) or fade away, but Ladytron stuck around, and over the course of four albums, their cult-like fan base continued to grow while their dark, fuzzed-out electro pop sound would evolve into something altogether more intriguing.
When writing about Ladytron, journalists tend to reach for adjectives like 'icy', 'wintry' and 'detached', to the point where their reviews have become a game of indie electro word substitution. "I don't mind those adjectives if someone's talking about our sound", Hunt says, when I ask if this bothers him, "but when people call our music 'emotionless', that really bothers us. We play a lot of sad songs, but still... These days, people are so visually absorbed – they tend to look at a photo, and have these very clear preconceptions about what we're going to be like, but when they actually meet us and realise that we're smiling, it's not what they expect".
"We've always been quite awkward, in that we've never been really keen on crossing over", Hunt tells me when I ask about the reasons behind Ladytron's continued success. "We've never changed anything we do to be more commercial. We're not really musicians, we're just four people in a band who often wonder how they ended up in a band. It feels like we've hit our stride now – most bands are fully formed at the beginning, and they have their first album that comes out fully formed as a complete idea. For our first album, people assumed that what we did was the be all and end all, but then we just carried on".
The first Ladytron album, 604, was a collection of stripped back, simplistic pop songs – most of the tracks were composed of little more than junk shop synths and tinny beats – but the lyrics, about cool kids falling in love ("He Took Her to a Movie") and out again ("Another Breakfast With You"), hinted at something more beneath the surface. The band's two singers, Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo, also provided a startling contrast – the former provided heartbreakingly sweet melodies on tracks like "Playgirl", while the latter undercut these with sinister speak-singing, often in her native Bulgarian. Their second album, Light & Magic, built on the atmospheres of the first, and lead single "Seventeen" – "they only want you when you're seventeen / when you're twenty-one you're no fun" – would become the band's signature track in years to come.
Ladytron's newest album, Velocifero, is a different beast entirely. Dark, fuzzy and drenched in feedback, tracks like "Season of Illusions" and current radio hit "Ghosts" rely as heavily on guitars as the band's older records did on cheap Casio synthesisers. More than anything, this evolution in the band's sound comes down to the skills they picked up playing live. "We were spoiled at first", Hunt says of Ladytron's earliest forays into touring, "because up until then, we'd really never had to pay our dues. We never really played a small tour – we started at a big level, and we naively thought that everyone could get away with playing bedroom production music live to big rooms".
"When we toured the first album, we found it really frustrating, to be honest", he continues. "It's not until you put things in a live arena that you realise how constrained they are. Some bands will say, 'fuck it, we'll just go out with a backing tape until we've got to the level where we can tour with proper equipment', but we haven't done that since we were touring our first album, and that's a big part of the reason why it was so frustrating. We had a DAT, and we had synths and vocals, but it just felt like there was nothing breathing. There's footage on YouTube of our first album tour, but if people see it and think that's what we're like now, they'll get a shock".
"Touring the second album was better", Hunt continues, "because we had a drummer and a bass player, and we wanted to make things bigger. Instead of just recreating the album, we wanted to do something that would surpass it. That definitely fed into the third album and beyond – we liked the idea of using a broader range of instruments, and just having a bit more chaos going on. It's about scope; when we play the newer songs live, they always make sense. The older songs always need a lot more augmentation to make sense live, but the new stuff just goes".
How many of the old songs have survived and found their way into Ladytron's current live set, I wonder? "We've ditched some of the really early stuff now", Hunt tells me. "He Took Her To a Movie mutated so much when we'd do it live, it became this big freak-out. That song made sense in 1998 in terms of what was going on then, but it's not relevant personally to me now. It's still a cool track, but I don't really feel a connection with it at all to be honest. There are a couple tracks from the first album where I think, if we were to make a compilation now, they probably wouldn't be on it, because the threads that connect the four albums together exist elsewhere. There's plenty of it on the first album, but it's more songs like "This Is Our Sound", or "Another Breakfast With You" or "Discotraxx", those are the ones we're more proud of from the early stuff".
Velocifero was recorded in Paris with Ed Banger-affiliated producer Busy P, although it is stands out defiantly from the trendy, distortion-heavy techno currently coming out of that city. "We all know Paris quite well", Hunt says, "and it's changed. Even compared to two years ago, when I spent a lot of time there, it's changed. It's blown up into a dance music capital. That's not the reason we went there, though. When people heard we were working with Vicarious Bliss, they assumed we wanted to make an Ed Banger record, but that's not what we wanted to do. We made that clear from the very start. We wanted to work with him more because he liked us as a band, and understood what we were trying to do. We'd have long conversations about The House of Love, My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab and things like that... there's a common pool of influences there, maybe ones that aren't so apparent".