Now a well-established electropop powerhouse, Ladytron formed in Liverpool back in 1999 when synth-based electronic outfits were much fewer and farther between. Eight years later, the group is stronger than ever thanks to the recent success of its critically-acclaimed third album, "Witching Hour". With a sound that melds memorable melodies with dance-floor-ready beats and a dark, densely-textured sonic landscape, the foursome have won over scores of fans and made their mark as pioneers in today's ever-expanding electronic music scene. We sat down with Helen Marnie, Mira Aroyo, Daniel Hunt, and Reuben Wu before a recent San Francisco show and talked about the evolution of their music, and how Roland keyboards are helping them create their distinct sound — both live and in the studio.
You have a very devoted, almost fanatical following. Why do you think that is?
H: We have done a lot of touring the past four years, so we've gotten new fans on every tour.
M: Nowadays, I think a lot of bands have a big first album, and then they disappear, and as Helen said, every album has kind of picked up more people along the way. We've kind of never been over-hyped. I think people had a chance to listen to the music and then see us live. We didn't come and tour in the U.S. with [first album] "604" at all.
D: I think it's pretty rare these days that a band gets to grow over a few albums. A lot of times everything is fully formed on the first album and then your problem is how to follow it. But we've had time to just develop it and evolve. I don't know why that translates into loyalty, but maybe the fact that we've never been mainstream.
H: People like that.
How much of the music do you think contributes to that?
D: I think when we started there weren't that many people doing similar things. Now, some of the things that we were doing on the first album are more common currency. Even the synths themselves – I mean, at the beginning it felt like we were constantly having to justify being a synth-based band, and constantly answering questions and coming up against this attitude that a band in a similar position now wouldn't have to justify.
You definitely broke a lot of ground.
D: It didn't feel like it at the time, but in retrospect.
M: I think in electronic music at the time, there also weren't that many bands who were actually bands. It was maybe a DJ project and a singer, whereas we were the one thing that gave it an identity because we were four people. And the songs are more conventional songs, rather than beat-driven tracks.
Tell me about when you first started out, what kind of electronics you were using.
D: Right at the beginning, we had a lot of old gear that had just accumulated. Big keyboards like old Crumars and the [Roland] SH-09, and the Juno-6. We used to take all of that out live.
M: It used to fall apart.
D: One of them actually caught fire! So we got interested in the analog-modeling synths because we could take them out live and they were reliable, and a little more versatile as well. It's given us a couple more tricks.
R: It's good that there have been synths that have come out in the last couple years which are basically the equivalent of what we used to have. So the equivalent of the SH-2 is the ‘201. It's the equivalent which doesn't go out of tune.
What is everybody playing right now?
D: Live, I've got a Juno-G and the SH-201. The 201 is a direct replacement of the [SH-]2, and it's perfect. I really like the way it's laid out, and it's simple. It's the basics of synthesis completely laid out in a logical way. I like the way you access the effects very easily. And then the Juno-G I use more for paddy sounds and poly-sounds.
H: I'm using a Juno-G also. On this tour, we've used them.
Have they helped you at all?
D: The Juno-Gs have replaced our two MS-2000s. [to Helen] You got into the D Beam.
H: Yeah, it's great.
Mira, I've watched you play, and you do lots of realtime control. Do you think you can do that on the SH-201?
M: Yeah – I've played with it, and I do think so.
Do you process any sounds through the keyboards?
R: We have when we recorded, but not live, yet. We just like to play with the stuff.
There is a consistency from "604" through "Witching Hour", at least from my perspective. Where does that come from? Is it intentional?
D: It's weird because almost all of our songs are completely different. So I think the consistency is in certain instruments – obviously in the voices.
H: It's the songwriting.
Could there ever be a Ladytron unplugged?
M: There has been.
D: We did the Harmonium sessions, which was supposed to be unplugged. It was pretty plugged to be honest. We did Jonesy's Jukebox in LA, and had Steve Jones jamming with us on "Destroy". That was fun. We'd probably use accordions if we were going to do it properly.
M: I used to play [the accordion] when I was a young girl.
Some musicians argue that computers will one day take the place of synthesizers. Others think that hardware synths will remain. What do you think?
R: Well it depends what you think a computer is. Pretty much all modern synthesizers have computer technology inside them. All it is, is that you've got a musical keyboard instead of a text one.
M: A computer is like a sound bank in some ways as well – a sample bank.
R: In terms of actually playing music, we can't use a mouse and build blocks. We always have to play on the keyboard live, because it's just more expressive.
D: I think they serve different purposes. If you're carrying your laptop around with you, and you've got your sequencer and some soft synths and you're putting stuff together quickly – especially on the road – then it makes sense. But it's nowhere near as much fun to play with a soft synth. We've dallied in using laptops live.
You've never really used any sequencing live either, have you?
D: Not really. It's gonna develop in the future. It's like the SH-201 compared to doing something with a laptop – even if you've got controllers, it's still not the same. I can't see software synthesizers replacing hardware synthesizers at all.
R: When you've got a computer in front of you, the screen basically is the face of your keyboard. You have to use a mouse to point the cursor around. You may as well just grab a slider. It's like, the computer is for general use. You use it to go on eBay, you use it to talk to people – it's like a general tool, whereas a keyboard is for a specific purpose, and that's for playing music.
If we could design the perfect keyboard for you, what would it be?
R: I like knobs.
M: I think that's something we all want. Something with less LCD screens, more the way that the [SH-]201 is.
D: That's what I prefer about the 201 is that it's laid out logically. Knobs, faders, and D Beam. I like the way that Roland does these updated versions of old stuff. I suppose that started with the grooveboxes, didn't it? Recognizing what people like about the old stuff, and then making a new thing.
What's in the works for the band next?
H: We go to Paris on the 3rd, and we'll be in the studio to the end of November.
Anything you can divulge about the new release, what it's going to be like?
H: It's weird that people ask that because we really have no idea. [laughter]
Is that common, that you kind of wait until the ending to see?
D: Yeah. We start out with a frame, and leave a space to be filled when we're in the studio and being the most creative. We always co-produce the albums, too. With Jim Abbiss last time and Mickey Petralia before that. This time we're recording with this guy Andy Gardiner a.k.a. Vicarious Bliss. We've been talking about ideas, and he's really on the same wavelength – it's almost like an extra band member. He's a fan, and he has an understanding of what we do. We're excited about it, and we think it could really turn into something good.
When do you anticipate releasing it?
R: Next May.
Question for the fan club, from Dimitri. San Francisco is fascinated to know, how does Mira get her ringlets so perfect?
M: By sleeping in the correct way. [laughter]
If everybody could name a Ladytron song that is a favorite?
R: I like "Another Breakfast With You". It's a shame we don't play it anymore.
M: I actually really like "Skools Out".
D: …I just don't know. [laughter]
• • • • •
A seasoned keyboard player and analog synth user, Ladytron keyboardist Daniel Hunt recently added Roland's V-Synth GT to his rig, and he sat down with us to share his thoughts and insights on using the GT.
Daniel, what are your initial impressions of the GT?
It seems extremely powerful. I've only had it a short time, but I've played with it, and I actually used it to record on one of the songs on the new album. My first impression is that it's very powerful. I have not used a workstation keyboard like that before. It seems like there's a hell of a lot of things going on that I haven't discovered yet.
I got quite into the Articulative Phrase Synthesis. Very clever. I got a bit carried away with it. I was playing an organ and suddenly I had all these strings swelling and arpeggiating behind it. And then I discovered how to switch the sounds off and just have the prhase synthesis itself. And using it like that I think will come in really handy.
How will it fit into your rig?
I think it's an ideal workstation keyboard in the studio. Live, obviously we take more basic stuff out with us. What I'm intrigued by also is the Vocal Designer. This could be really useful, and it's exciting.
I was going through the patches and there are so many and as you said, it's got the filters, and a good set of classical keyboards. So I think it could be really useful in that respect. I've had to play before with the rackmount version of it [XT]. And I suppose it's like, it reminds me of a hardware equivalent of something like Reaktor. It's kind of modular. That's interesting because we've had other comparisons to Reaktor, to Massive and synths like that.
Yeah, we've used quite a bit of their stuff. They sent us Massive when they were developing it.
Anything you'd like to get into when you have time?
I've never really done that much sampling, to be honest. I've had the gear, but it's always been – for instance, I've got an old Akai, and I just can't be bothered to turn it on anymore. Now I have something more modern and accessible.
In a way, the V-Synth is the absolute opposite of the [SH-]201. If it's gonna have a screen, then I'd prefer it to be as much like a computer as possible, which I think the GT is — rather than buying a keyboard with a 2-line LCD — that just scares the hell out of me. It just feels like a tomb.
I like the computer integration by USB, and also the Mac support is really impressive. I like the way that the Mac is well-supported, because often, even nowadays, you find that things don't have drivers and you end up using third-party stuff. So I was impressed with the editor and the VST integration as well. Cubase is our main platform. It always ends up in ProTools once we're in the studio, but when we're composing we actually use Cubase.