15 January 2012

Drowned in Sound interview (2011)

Although recognised by many as an integral part of the electroclash scene that welcomed in the early part of the last decade, the story of Ladytron actually predates that whole fad by several years. Having formed in Liverpool at the back end of the 1990s, the foursome of Helen Marnie, Reuben Wu, Mira Aroyo and Danny Hunt set about creating music that would be seen as an alternative to the current alternative. Influenced by electronic music, krautrock and kitsch pop as much as traditional guitar bands, it was no surprise that when their debut long player 604 first saw the light of day in 2001 it was greeted like a long lost relative from another continent, its contents sounding like nothing else either of the present or from the past fifteen years or so.

Ten years and three subsequent albums later, Ladytron still confound and surprise in equal measures, whether that be with 2005's shoegaze-tinged Witching Hour or most recent long player, Velocifero, released in 2008 and heralded by critics as their most radio-friendly pop record to date. Later this year, the band will release their as-yet untitled fifth album, with a career-spanning Best Of also due beforehand mid-summer.

It's a pleasant January morning and Reuben Wu is in a buoyant mood, the forthcoming record finally completed. Ever the eternal optimists ourselves, DiS are on-hand armed with a sackful of questions for our only-too-willing participant to breeze through. And gracefully he does...

It's been nearly three years since your last album. What have you been up to in the meantime?

Well, we actually just finished the new record about a month ago. I've just been adding a few bits and pieces here and the odd remix there. We're still kind of busy preparing for the album's release and stuff, gradually easing into the new year!

When the band started over a decade ago, did you still expect to be sat here in 2011 talking about pending Best Of compilations and album number five?

I really had no expectations to be honest. At the time when we formed the band we all had other things going on and so Ladytron wasn't really the biggest thing in our lives. From that point on it just grew really. I remember being surprised by the first few years of our existence, from where something we were just doing as a hobby then turned into us getting NME Single of the Week, and then we had interest from America and ended up signed to an American label. It was like a quick succession of very pleasant surprises really, so to still be here making music after eleven years is more something that we've grown to get used to rather than plan for. Thinking about it, I guess it is quite shocking actually!

It's fair to say you had a major influence on a lot of electronic music this past decade, and also the underground dance scene. Do you have any regrets in some ways that other artists perhaps enjoyed the commercial success Ladytron paved the way for as opposed to the critical acclaim you've amassed over this time?

We have no regrets. The way we've developed as a group and as individual artists has been quite an evolution really. We've never had hype, and although musically similar we never really saw ourselves as part of the whole electroclash movement, even though it was very big at the time. I think the thing about electroclash was that every artist associated with it was actualy quite reluctant to be involved with the scene. I think most of us were grouped together because the music we were all making was very different from what had recently come before. It felt like a template for more individualistic sounds rather than generic rock and roll or house music. We saw ourselves as trying to inject some kind of character into the music scene at that time, so were resentful of being seen as part of a collective movement when that really wasn't the case. Also, every artist was very different from each other. The only thing we all had in common was that we preferred using synthesizers to guitars in a rock and pop context. It was quite a disparate movement really, although it did make using synthesizers cool again in that environment. Obviously it had happened before in the early 1970s and a lot of our inspiration was taken from that. Even though Electroclash soon died a death, as every fad does, it had a long lasting impact on pop music in general which can still be heard today. At the time we were constantly having to defend ourselves against journalists asking us to justify why we used synthesizers.

It's interesting you say that, particularly about the synth era of the 1970s. Do you see Ladytron as having more in common with progressive artists from that period like Brian Eno - the band being named after a Roxy Music song - and Emerson, Lake & Palmer as opposed to the New Romantic groups of the 1980s?

I think that's possibly true. We listen to and like a lot of music. We're all much bigger fans of German progressive rock from the sixties and seventies like Can, Neu! and Harmonia than the music that came along in the eighties. I think some people kind of decided that we were some kind of 1980s revival band. They saw the keyboards and made that conclusion without really listening to the music. We have drawn influences from that era too - a lot of music made around that time was incredible - but to me it just seemed an easy comparison to make.

One of the reasons why Ladytron have stood the test of time must be down to the fact that you've managed to transgress so many different styles and genres of music. Where do you see yourselves in the broader spectrum?

That's a question which has always been difficult for us to answer. It would be impossible to just simplify our music to that extent, but on sites like MySpace for example where we have to put little catchphrases describing our music we just put "electronic pop". I guess that's the most direct and easiest to understand reference for who we are and what we do.

You've also never really been fashionable in a sense where you could drift out with any particular passing fad. Was that something you were consciously aware of?

Yeah, we always knew we never wanted to be an obscure underground band. We never purposely wanted people not to listen to our music. We want to get our music out there as much as possible, but at the same time we're never going to compromise our sound just to infiltrate the mainstream. Because we've never had a massive rush of hype behind us; if anything, it's been more of a stable trajectory for us and as long as people still know who we are that's fine. It's funny, I got stopped by the police while I was on my bike in Brick Lane yesterday. He was a plain clothed police officer and he showed me his badge and I was like "Oh fuck, he's going to tell me off for riding on Brick Lane because it's too crowded!" and actually he said "Excuse me, you're riding a very expensive Bronson bicycle and I was just wondering where you bought it from as there have been a lot of thefts in the area recently and we'd just like to check the number on the frame." He obviously thought I'd stolen my own bike - I was wearing a gore-tex waterproof jacket so maybe I did resemble your average bicycle thief - so while he was checking my details and awaiting confirmation from the station he asked me why I'd purchased such an expensive model. When I answered that the main reason was that it folds up and I can take it on tour with me he asked if I was in a band, and I quite reluctantly said "Yeah". He then asked which band and when I replied "Ladytron", he went "Ladytron!?! I know Ladytron, I saw you play with Nine Inch Nails in Brixton and you were amazing, so in that case, I believe you, you can go!" So the moral of that story is if a policeman stops you on suspicion of theft, tell him you're a member of Ladytron and everything will be alright!

When I hear songs like 'Sugar' they remind me of My Bloody Valentine, particularly the layered backing track, which is very Loveless orientated. Were they an influence on the way you recorded and produced that song?

The whole of the Witching Hour album to be honest is influenced by Loveless. When we were writing that record it was pretty much all we listened to. I remember when Loveless first came out and thinking it was the weirdest, craziest collection of sounds I'd ever heard, and it stuck with me all the way through. I think by the time we'd gotten round to putting Witching Hour together, it had become embedded in our musical consciousness. I can see why you'd mention 'Sugar' as that layered sound is most prevalent on that track actually. We had quite a funny experience recording the song as well. To get that guitar sound we had to use a whammy bar, but it wasn't a plucked string. We used an E-Bow instead to sustain it to infinity. Danny (Hunt) was holding the guitar with the note and the other hand on the whammy bar, whereas I had one hand on the E-bow and the other on the whammy bar...it's definitely something we wouldn't be able to repeat on stage!

You've worked and played with numerous reputable artists from all fields and genres of music. Who would you say stands out the most for you and why?

The ones which really stood out for us would have to be Nine Inch Nails. We toured all over the UK and Europe with them back in 2007, and because they're such a huge band we were actually quite shocked at how bands at that level operate, y'know with seven tour buses and their own catering...

How did you become involved with Nine Inch Nails?

Trent Reznor's a fan of the band, and he got in touch with our management. At the time we were in the throes of our North American tour so we were already on the road, then suddenly this invitation to support Nine Inch Nails came in. Our first impressions were like "Woaahhh...how are we going to do this?" It would mean us literally having one day off in between both tours to sort all our kit and then be ready to get back on the road again, so it was all a bit frantic. We were also a little worried about what kind of reaction we'd get from these hardcore Nine Inch Nails when they see us and hear us play our first song. We honestly thought there was a chance we'd get bottled offstage, but what we found were a bunch of really receptive and open-minded fans everywhere we played. I think there's much more in common between our band and Nine Inch Nails than people realise. We seem to like pretty much the same music and we share the same kinds of instrumentation. The only difference is they seem to have been accepted by the metal genre whereas to us they're an experimental electronic orientated band.

One other link between both bands has to be that while no two albums by either artist sound the same, both of you are also very distinctive in your own right.

Yeah definitely. I was a massive fan of Nine Inch Nails back in the day. Pretty Hate Machine is an absolute classic, so I guess it was only natural for there to be some kind of overlap where we were concerned. It was an amazing experience, and we made so many new friends on that tour, particularly Alessandro Cortini who was their keyboard player and ended up working on our last two albums.

If you had to choose an album as being THE definitive Ladytron record which would it be?

I think the classic record would be Witching Hour because it showed where we were musically at the time after lots of hard touring. Also, the general rule is that you only really become yourselves as a band after the third album. The second record is always said to be the "difficult" one, so if you get to that third record you should also find your identity. It was a record we wrote after spending a long time on the road and during that period we'd changed from being what was initially quite fragile sounding. We changed the way we played live, took a drummer and bass player on tour, brought more guitars into the set and playing the music at that time became more of an influence to us than simply trying to replicate what was already on record. I guess looking back, we were still learning on the road and figuring out what kind of band we really wanted to become, and Witching Hour documents that period succinctly.

It's certainly a very different record to your first album 604 for example. How would you go about replicating some of those songs live now, or has a lot of that material gradually disappeared from the set over time?

There are some songs from that era we wouldn't play any more. Songs like 'Paco!' for example were of their time and just don't really fit in with what we're about these days. We still include things like 'Playgirl' and 'He Took Her To a Movie', although we don't play them in the same format as they sound like on the album. Even going back to 2002/2003, we'd started to develop most of those bands for playing live by adding more drums, more bass and more processed synthesizer sounds, and we've continued to do so ever since. Basically we want them to be as powerful as the songs from Witching Hour. It almost feels like that record signifies the point where we finally became the band we wanted to be when we started back in 1999.

Your sound has developed in many ways over time. We haven't really touched on Light & Magic but that represents a giant leap forward from 604, then Witching Hour moving things further before Velocifero almost brings you back full circle being arguably your most pure pop record to date. Would you agree with that?

I don't know to be honest. The word "poppy" wouldn't really come into my mind that much when I think of Velocifero. I see it as being more progressive or psychedelic in many ways. We definitely came full circle in terms of using predominantly electronic sounds, almost by way of a reappraisal of what we'd left behind with Witching Hour. I think Velocifero sounds bigger than any of its predecessors. By that point we'd become a lot more competent in the studio, more collaborative as a work and possibly even better songwriters as well. For me I'd have to say it's my favourite album as opposed to definitive in terms of the whole band, and possibly our most diverse as well.

Moving onto the present, you've just finished recording the new record. Does it have a title yet?

Gravity the Seducer.

And a projected release date?

Not exactly no. Hopefully it will be out before the end of 2011 but we've got the Best Of album coming out first.

How would you describe the new record in terms of sound compared to your previous albums?

I think it's a moodier album. There's definitely a lot more space in this record than on Velocifero for example. It's more expansive, yet understated at the same time. I wouldn't say it's downtempo but it's definitely not as hard as some of our previous albums either.

Your forthcoming single 'Ace of Hz', is that quite representative of the band's current sound and will that feature on the new album?

It will be on the new record, although I'd say it is probably the least representative track on the entire album! It's actually quite an old song from the Witching Hour era, although production-wise it does fit in well with the rest of Gravity the Seducer. It's difficult to put into words how this record sounds except to say it isn't anything like Velocifero. I've listened to the finished version of the album so many times now that I just want to put it away for a while.

Regarding the Best Of, how did you arrive at the final tracklisting?

It was quite difficult. We had a lot of different options. We could have just put all the singles on in chronological order, and to be fair, a lot of the singles are on the compilation, but if we'd just done that it would have been a bit of a cop out. I think all of the tracks on the Best Of could have been singles anyway. The second disc on the deluxe edition is my favourite because it's mainly comprised of b-sides and obscure tracks which very few people have heard, plus there's a whole load of remixes and a photo booklet of behind the scenes and tour footage.

Will there be any surprise omissions?

There'll always be surprises for people. "Oh I can't believe you missed out 'Paco!'... it's my favourite... I'm not buying it!". No, 'Paco!' isn't going to be on the record!

I read somewhere that you were all based in different parts of Europe. Is that still the case and if so, what kind of strain does that put on the band in terms of writing, recording and rehearsing?

At one point, Danny was living in Milan, I was based in Liverpool and the two girls Mira and Helen in London. At the moment, I'm also spending more time in London but Danny's all over the place. He's actually in Brazil at the minute. We have to organise things very meticulously. When it comes to recording or rehearsing we tend to book a week or two in a studio where everyone can get to. Velocifero we recorded in Kent for example, and we managed to lay the whole album down in literally a couple of weeks, so once we are all together the process is pretty straightforward and manageable. Each person will have their own pieces beforehand and once everyone is happy with their bit, that's when we collaborate as a band to bring it all together.

With the power of hindsight, if there was anything about the past decade you could change about Ladytron, what would it be and why?

When I listen to how we sound as a live band now, I think we've really upped our game and improved beyond recognition, because when we first started out I think we were absolute shite! Most of that was down to a lack of knowledge in using the technology we had. We could record in the studio but live so many things went wrong.

I remember the first time I saw you at Dot To Dot in Nottingham back in 2005...

Oh God I remember that! Helen lost her voice, the sound was awful, and thinking about it now that is quite possibly the worst show we've ever played! We had to cut out all of Helen's songs actually... I'd like to think we've learned from experiences like that to become the band we are now.

Is that show the main reason why you haven't played Nottingham since?

No, not at all. I think it's just more a logistical thing to be honest. We just don't tend to go on big tours as much as we used to, while at the same time still trying to take in as many countries as possible. It's really strange because we seem to attract much bigger crowds in the USA than anywhere in the UK.

Why do you think that is?

I don't know, except that from the very start the Americans seem to have got us. I think they see us as being quintessentially British whereas with an indie rock band from this country the general perception over there is that they're just trying to be American. We're not conventional in the sense we aren't a normal band like your average four boys with guitars and it seems to have worked in our favour over there. We played a show with Brian Eno at Sydney Opera House a few years ago and Eno said that bands like Ladytron made him proud to be British, which is possibly the greatest compliment anyone has ever paid us.

Finally, are there any plans to tour this year?

Again, we'd like to think so, although that's looking more likely as though it will coincide with the release of the new record rather than the compilation.