Back with the future
The last time I saw Ladytron was the last time I was in Edinburgh's Gilded Balloon. Twenty-four hours after a set of robotically performed electropop, the Old Town venue went up in smoke. The futuristic music jarred - Jean Michel Jarred - with the setting of a world-class medieval heritage site and, while it definitely had an austere beauty, I wasn't convinced that the 21st century was ready for the band.
"The uniforms got in the way and we got fed up being asked questions about them", explains Danny Hunt, the Liverpudlian band-member who does most of the talking in the bar after the gig. Helen Marnie, of the Scots-Bulgarian dual-singing axis, puts it more bluntly: "I got fed up looking like a boy".
So now Aberfoyle-born Marnie and Mira Aroyo wear slinky dresses and stand back-to-back centre stage, and during their best song - the great lost hit single "Seventeen" - they pose and pout and do a little Human League waitresses-in-cocktail-bar routine. "They only want you when you're 17..." they sing, "when you're 21 you're no fun". This isn't Ladytron selling out; they're simply making the most of what they've very obviously got.
The band took their name from the second track on the first Roxy Music album. While it may be tempting to think that, in the spirit of the first track, they've remade and re-modelled themselves for their upcoming third album, and what's more at record-company insistence, the young four-piece insist the changes are normal, part of natural development and a sign of their growing maturity.
"When we look back at our old videos we're like children", says Marnie, who in common with the others used to stand glumly behind a synthesizer". For the first couple of years I was quite nervous about being on stage. But we've just done our first American tour. That was a real head-stretcher and helped us grow up a bit".
Ladytron are a great-looking, great-sounding band who have yet to achieve great sales. With a new label - Island - behind them, they now find themselves in that strange holding-bay for cult groups: the one between those who make a couple of albums then split, possibly to be acclaimed as massively important only after they've become binmen; and those who go mainstream, with all that implies.
Interesting times for the band, as Hunt acknowledges. "I know every group will say this, but we've always tried to avoid commercial pressures", he says. "Take 'Seventeen'. It was a hit in Australia, Sweden and Spain and people in those countries assume it was a hit here too. Sometimes I think I'm glad it wasn't. It was small and interesting, like the band. I would have hated if it had become an albatross".
"But then I remember that it was released at Christmas, that it suffered from distribution problems, that the Tuesday of the week of release you couldn't buy it in the shops, and none of that can be termed useful for Ladytron".
The group are hoping for a better deal in every sense from Island, who were Roxy Music's old label. This most style-conscious of bands love the old palm-tree logo. But Aroyo, their most style-conscious member - she used to have an amazing, rocket-shaped haircut - is keen to play down the aesthetics this time.
Sorry? "We like other things as well. In fact, we probably like kittens more than architecture". She thinks for a moment. "Kittens In Architecture - should that have been the title of the new album?".
The group are an intriguing cultural mix. Hunt's roots are "black Irish" but he's 100% Scouse. He reckons he's still on a high after DJing for 30,000 Liverpool football fans in Istanbul before the European Cup triumph ("You'll Never Walk Alone", obviously, "Teenage Kicks" and The Fall's "Mr Pharmacist" in tribute to John Peel, and a new team anthem, Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire").
The other bloke in the band is Reuben Wu, who confused the locals during Ladytron's recent British Council-sponsored tour of China. "They thought I was in the group to provide 'Asian effects'. They wouldn't believe I was Chinese because I don't speak Mandarin. I told them I spoke Cantonese and they were like: 'Why?'".
A number of things were lost in translation during this visit to a land where the band had previously sold just 250 records. "I was complimented on my 'Roman' voice", says Marnie. "I suppose the world looks different to China, so I politely suggested to them that I thought it had a Scottish lilt".
During the official welcome, Ladytron's Liverpool base was utilised by their hosts to bizarre effect, through a pub-singer rendition of "Yesterday" and a film depicting run-down streets in the city. Hunt, though, takes positives from the trip. "We were there as an apology for Wham!, the first Western pop combo to play China", he jokes.
The four met on Merseyside, where Marnie did a music degree. She was a "typical pop kid" in her youth. "I was in a group before, but the boys made me sing indie covers", she says. The rest of Ladytron were DJing in clubs when she met them. "I wasn't, I was dancing in clubs, but I guess all of us were looking for something that wasn't happening at that time".
Completing the line-up is Aroyo, the joker in the pack, who talks about their shared sense of humour as being like a "donkey-powered comedy train". The much-travelled Ladytron recently played her homeland, and Hunt admits his expectations of Bulgaria were of a "big grey cloud". "Instead", says Wu, "there were red Ferraris everywhere".
Nothing is what it seems these days, not even Ladytron. The new album is called Witching Hour, and while synthesizers are still very much to the fore, it has got more of a proper band sound, with real bass and actual drums. Aroyo suspects they're turning into "rock pigs".
They might wonder what life will be like in the 23rd century, but no more than anyone else does. "We don't want to be defined by it", says Hunt, who is probably only half-joking when he reveals that a new band rule forbids them to be photographed in front of buildings such as power stations chosen to illustrate future foreboding.
In the early days, according to Aroyo, people meeting Ladytron for the first time were disappointed to discover they weren't humanoids. Now - before our food is consumed in pill form, and music through a chip storing our record collections inserted in the brain - they would love a hit.