In a league of their own
They've been likened to the Human League, but synth-pop band Ladytron are a far more sophisticated proposition, says Andrew Perry
5 December 2002
It's been a terrible year for dance music. The revolution promised by acid house 15 years ago, where boring old guitars would be swept out of the charts by an exciting new world of electronic machinery, seems to have finally petered out. The superclubs are deserted as the same ageing DJs creakily endeavour to wind up the dancefloor to an all too familiar beat.
One fresh sound did arrive. Known as "electroclash", it was concocted by a handful of remixers from Berlin, and a tiny underground scene in New York centred on the duo Fischerspooner. They took their version of Kylie's "Come Into My World" into the pop charts, but when they brought their "live" performance to the UK in the summer, it was a glorified fashion show - a clumsy one at that - and all the music was pre-recorded. It almost felt like the end of the road.
Against this sorry landscape, a new album called Light & Magic by the British group Ladytron is a ray of sunshine, bringing both pop pizzazz and intriguing complexity to a wilting genre. On the surface, it may not sound a million miles from the electroclash agenda - 1980s synth-pop, updated with contemporary technology - but there's a greater sophistication at work here, on practically every level.
By existing outside the dance fraternity, the quartet have developed an identity of their own, based on the intriguing sexual frisson in their two boy/two girl line-up and their interest in songwriting traditions which extend back far beyond those of their peers.
It all began in Liverpool. Keyboard fanatics Danny Hunt and Reuben Wu were friends at college there when, in about 1997, they first started using the name Ladytron - an old Roxy Music song title. A year or two later, their two singers, London-based Helen Marnie, and Mira Aroyo, who was doing a PhD in genetics at Oxford, came into the picture. Their story of exactly how that happened varies from interview to interview - was it a chance meeting on a train in Mira's parental homeland, Bulgaria, or via the internet? When I ask them what the truth is, as their tour bus calmly eats up the miles between gigs in Glasgow and Edinburgh, they blush a little and say that they prefer these romantic possibilities to the mundane reality.
Inspired by the discrepancies in their tastes as much as the similarities, they began writing together during free weekends on Merseyside. They released a string of singles on Invicta Hi-Fi, an independent label co-run by Hunt, and followed these in 2001 with a DIY debut album, 604, disturbingly named after the world-threatening virus in the movie The Andromeda Strain.
Its marriage of analogue synthesizers, state-of-the-art programming and outrageously hummable pop tunes was equally unconventional, as was the playful interchange of Helen's seductive vocals coo and Mira's harsher, deadpan sound.
"There wasn't stuff like this being done in Liverpool at the time", says Aroyo with some understatement. "Liverpool comes out of this Teardrop Explodes/Beatles culture, and everyone wants to be in that mould. We just tried to bring through something different. We use a mixture of 1980s and 1970s synths, and also computer programmes that weren't around at that time, so you wouldn't have been able to make our music then".
Their idiosyncrasy came across in the lyrics, too, which were anything but the usual hedonist mantras or "I love my robot" retro-futurism spouted in most electronic music. Theirs suggested unusual sexuality, strange love triangles, and, on "The Way That I Found You", an obsession about someone spotted in the crowd at a women's tennis match.
All this was feverishly lapped up by the music press, but, as with all the most interesting pop music, people had trouble finding a pigeonhole for Ladytron. Were they Kraftwerk meets Blondie? A weirder Saint Etienne, maybe? The Human League reborn in the age of girlpower? None of these really hit the mark, and the confusion deepened when they were more likely to be found glamming up an afternoon's billing at the Reading Festival in their stage uniform of black catsuits than swanning around at the Ministry of Sound.
If Ladytron had actually wanted to fit in, the perfect chance came earlier this year when they could easily have jumped into bed with the electroclashers by signing to the trendier-than-thou label City Rockers. They chose not to.
Perhaps their most decisive act of separation from the electro fad came when they recorded the follow-up to 604. They'd already prepared some basic tracks back in Liverpool, and decided to finish them off in Los Angeles - a city almost totally devoid of electronic influence - with producer Mickey Petralia, who is best known for his work with Beck and the Beastie Boys.
"We just wanted to look at what we do in a totally different environment", says Aroyo. "We couldn't have brought anything new to it if we'd gone to Berlin or New York. Whereas people don't really make this sort of music in the sunshine. The studio had a swimming pool, so you could walk out for suntanning sessions between takes. Inside, it was black granite, black leather, black mirrored surfaces and huge cockroaches all over the place. It was decrepit sunshine, David Lynch sunshine".
The change of scenery at least partly explains why Light & Magic sounds so different from everything else. One track, "Blue Jeans", is pure techno-pop perfection, but with a thundering hip-hop breakbeat underneath it. As Danny Hunt rightly points out, "I don't know how anyone could hear that and still say that we sound like The Human League.
"You write a song that's basically inspired by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and people still think you're Kraftwerk. People find it hard to get beyond the sound of the keyboards".
What really separates Ladytron from the pack is the substance in their songs. In terms of structure, the band draw from all kinds of classic pop and rock. During our conversation, countless names crop up from the non-electro field - the Supremes, Britney, Phil Spector, Can, Nick Cave, Dolly Parton, Donna Summer, even Black Sabbath, whose classic "Paranoid" regularly features in Aroyo's solo DJ sets.
They're loath to reveal what the lyrics are actually about, because they're mostly about relationships all too close to home, and anyway, they like the idea of a pop lyric being a blank screen for the listeners to project their own meaning on.
"What they're not about", says Mira, "is space-age travel and riding in limousines. All that may be fun, but it's not something that we can relate to in a song. There's a lot of humanity in there. It's not this robotic, cold, icy thing".
To remind them to steer clear of that sort of thing, they pinned up the sleeve of Gary Numan's album The Pleasure Principle on the studio wall.
"It was a sign of where not to go", Aroyo chuckles. "I like some Tubeway Army songs, but we all respond to things that are warmer and have humanity to them".
"We heard that Gary actually wanted to meet us, but we didn't want to talk about planes, or hairpieces. We didn't meet up".