Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Interview: John Foxx


I don’t want to be my own tribute band”. Electro pioneer John Foxx tells our UK correspondent James McGalliard how he’s looking forward, not back

“I see the tours going off in England, sort of Eighties things and I’ve been asked to join in with those and I won’t do it because I just think what we are doing is still alive and is going somewhere definite and we’re enjoying the journey and I don’t want to interrupt that”. John Foxx is in the high-rise bar of a posh hotel at the top of Regent Street in London, and is responding to me saying that his live shows (which he’s bringing to Australia for the first time this week) are far from retro.

“We are there to do music from some of the eras that we still feel are relevant. Some things from Metamatic and some things from even earlier - some stuff from the Ultravox! days and some from all the stages in between, things like Endlessly. Things that work with the way we play now, and also some of the very new things.”

But even the songs from thirty years ago seem to tie in thematically with the present work. “I don’t think there is anything that is inconsistent with the way we are working now, because when we look back on things I have written in the past there are themes that are present all the way through. And I like that, because there’s a thirty odd year body of work that is consistent.”

By all rights, John Foxx should be a household name. As punk grew into post-punk, he was the frontman and songwriter of Ultravox for their first three albums. After he left, they came up with Vienna, and Gary Numan found commercial success pursuing the path he’d laid down. When he wrote an album of ambient music in 1983, he couldn’t find anyone interested in releasing this new style of music. It seems that followers and imitators were achieving the recognition and the success that the pioneer didn’t. “It sounds vain when you say things like that, but a lot of that is true. A lot of things I did ten years before anybody else and then other people do it and it is like a new thing I just think, ‘Well, how interesting’. There is a price to pay for doing things too early…people ignore it until the time is right.”

But he hasn’t always been one with the times. He says his 1985 album, In Mysterious Ways, "was me driving on the pavement”. Shortly afterwards, Foxx disappeared from public view for ten years. “About 84 or 85 onwards I started losing interest in it – everything just got very boring to me. I wasn’t hearing anything I liked. I found myself doing those kind of things and I just thought ‘What’s the point? I don’t like any of this. So I should just stop for a bit’. So I walked away from all that…”

Time passed and around eight years later he found himself back in Manchester around the last days of the Hacienda and saw Louis Gordon playing at a commune party, and thought “I’ve got to work with this guy – he’s great. He just had a drum machine and a guitar he had borrowed from someone.” It’s this partnership with Louis Gordon that's been at the centre of his second coming and invigorating live shows. “A lot of that’s down to Louis because he was a fan of (my music)… He knew exactly how we wanted to hear it and it just turns out that’s the way I wanted to hear it as well. When we worked on that track together I thought this guy knows what he is doing.”

While live Foxx remains reasonably static, he rightly describes Gordon as “the human blur”. He continues in his soft Lancastrian lilt “I have never been that interested in being a performer as such. I think what I really like is recording best, but I also like getting on stage if it’s with someone like Louis because Louis is good fun to play music with and he knows my music probably better than I do myself he knows himself. It’s a good working relationship. It’s quite a hard thing to find that because a lot of people are competent but don’t have an intuitive understanding of that stuff. Whereas Louis does – it’s in his background, he grew up in Manchester and he has been right through that rave scene and he started off in the electronic scene. He’s been through all of it, and played all of it, so he knows all of it."

Melbourne’s second show will see only the fourth separate performance of Tiny Colour Movies, Foxx’s soundtrack to digitalised Super 8 movies. So what’s the story behind it? “I used to buy reels of film (from Brick Lane and Portobello Road markets) and didn’t know what they were and view them to see if there was anything interesting on them. Eventually I amassed all this stuff and didn’t quite know what to do with it. Then I saw this collector’s reel of films one night and thought ‘Yeah - that’s exactly right! It is finite. It does have a place in history’. And some of it is unique and some of the stories behind the pieces are very interesting too. It’s like reading an obituary; which is something I like - it’s not morbid at all. It’s very interesting because you get a summation of someone’s life and their achievements…”

“It’s about how ordinary things become extraordinary all the time, and it’s that kind of understanding. It’s also about the sheer beauty of it. I just like the look of that kind of quite crude film. Because you can now project it in a way that it was never intended to be projected, and the people who shot it would never have think it could be projected twenty feet high for instance, because it wouldn’t have been possible. But now you can digitalize it and do that, so you suddenly begin to look at things in a new way…”

And the music? “It’s simpler in some ways and more direct (than my collaborations with Louis Gordon)…It’s partly ambient but it’s also more electronic than that with analogue synths. Because I think there is a good parallel between these films being digitized and it being possible to see them in a new way where you appreciate all the faults as qualities; the scratches and bleached out bits are actually quite beautiful and the film wouldn’t be the same without them. And it’s the same with analogue synths. They were rediscovered because they were digitized and copied digitally and so people could hear how powerful and organic and strange sounding they actually were…”

John Foxx is busier now than ever. When he leaves me he’s off to meet with Leftfield about a future collaboration. He’s also currently working with Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie and Steve Jansen on a new project. Then there’s visual piece, The Quiet Man, an ongoing project he’s been working on since 1973. Not to mention his guerrilla plans for the ‘greening’ of public spaces of London. These shows are rare chance to see a true pioneer present his unique vision.

John Foxx and Louis Gordon play the Corner Hotel, this Thursday, 8 May 2008. “Tiny Colour Movies” will take place at ACMI, this Friday, 9 May 2008

© James McGalliard 2008