Displaying influences as diverse as Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Roxy Music, and the Velvet Underground, Ladytron rocks like the 90’s never happened. The group has been branded “80’s Revival,” a term they loathe, though the facets of 80’s music they evoke are, to my mind, the very best ones: sparse, stylish vamps, ear-pleasing synths, and almost invasively catchy tunes. I called up songwriter Daniel Hunt in an American Holiday Inn and interviewed him about the darkness of pop, the dangers of kitsch, and the pleasures of “Logan’s Run,” the series.
Q: Your first single was recorded for 50 pounds and then picked up by British National Radio and named “single of the week” by NME. Was that surprising or did you expect it?
A: Well, I knew the song was very immediate, but I really had no idea what kind of impact it [would have]. We had such a little budget and everything that we just hoped that it would be reviewed at all. Because that was a risk – that it would just slip through. So then when we found out it was going to be “single of the week” it was freaky. But it was good. We just got another one as well.
Q: For which song?
A: In England there’s an E.P. coming out with “Another Breakfast with You” on it, the lead track, and that just got “single of the week” as well.
Q: You’re quoted in the press kit as saying “it might be time for a re-appraisal of what is ‘real’ music, especially in England.” What do you think the common conception of “real” music is and how do you think it needs to be reconsidered?
A: There’s kind of this “Official History of Rock:” the top 100 albums of all time and all this, and I just think a lot of the influences are really tired now. Even if the records are great, I just can’t understand it when a band wants to re-create them. And then there’s a lot of stuff that’s just completely tabboo, that you’re just not allowed to like – more or less anything from 1978 to 1989. [But] they’re all valid influences and there’s just this rocker school of journalism that…It’s as if they’re afraid of that stuff. And if you’re influenced by anything from that period, then they think it must be a joke, that you don’t actually mean it, you don’t actually like it. I think that’s what I was getting at.
Q: I was reading an essay by a fashion writer who discussing nostalgia and how it kind of has a ten-year buffer zone. It seems like people can only be nostalgic for things that happened at least ten or especially twenty years ago, but there’s a certain distaste for the immediate past.
A: Yeah, because a lot of stuff from the 90’s now have dated really badly. That’s what I think: there’s always a clear decade in between. 60’s influences were completely taboo until 1990 or so.
Q: I’m unfamiliar with the mechanics of programming. Who plays what, instrument-wise? How does Ladytron approach recording?
A: We’ve got our own studio and we just record into ProTools. We try to keep the programming at a minimum and most of the keyboard parts are played live. We all play keyboards – Helena [Marnie] is classically trained. Mira [Aroyo] plays guitar as well. Reuben [Wu] plays some violin on the album as well: really atonal, scratchy, horrible violin. [Laughs] But we record it 90 percent ourselves and then finish it in the studio. That’s how the first single was recorded so cheaply.
Q: Who writes most of the songs?
A: I write most of the songs, but everyone’s got an imput. I started the band with Reuben, and I had a lot of material to begin with, so that’s why this album is so long, in a way. There was quite a lot of stuff there already, we wanted to just get it all out so we could just start afresh on the next album.
Q: So can you tell me anything more about the sound of the full-length versus the EP?
A: It’s all similar school, but there’s probably influences going on there that wouldn’t have been immediately apparent on the EP…The skeleton of it is all electronic, but there’s a lot of different instrumentation going on in places on top of that. Some of it is very dirty, as well, some of the album’s a lot dirtier. Half of it is really, really clinical.
Q: By “dirty,” to you mean more organic-sounding?
A: Organic-sounding and harder, harsher.
Q: It seems to me that one of the big dichotomies concerning musicians today is the authentic feeling of the organic or old vs. the exciting feeling of the synthetic or new. You can see this evident in analog vs. digital arguments, folk and country revivals, and aggressively dehumanized electronic music like Oval. On the one hand, people fear that we may lose what was human about music, on the other, people are embracing the new world of possibilities opened up by new technologies. Where does Ladytron stand on this continuum?
A: Well, we did an interview in Spain and the interviewer said that we were “electronic music with skin.” So this thing about “real” music sort of goes back to [the “Official History of Rock”-style criticism] in a way, because maybe that’s why that school of journalism hates electronic music so much – because they’re scared of it. They’re scared of it losing the human element. But those things are always going to co-exist, so I don’t understand why they get so het up about it.
I like a lot of varied stuff, I don’t only like electronic music, so I can see the excitement in the purity of electronic music, but the edge of when a completely no-frills rock band can get up and just do it and have an immediate effect, that’s never going to go away. It’s always going to be there; I don’t think people have to worry about that. But as soon as electronic bands come along and say “death to guitars!”, that’s the point where it becomes ridiculous. And it always falls apart. It happens so many times, you know. Guitar’s still my main instrument: there’s a lot of guitar on the album.
Q: Well, a folk band could easily work up an acoustic guitar version of a song like “Play Girl.”
A: Yeah, exactly. There’s actually a version of it by this band called Snap Ant, who are on the same label in England; it’s like a remixed version, and it’s on this new EP, and that’s quite guitar-y, really downbeat. I thought it was really good.
Q: I find that the stuff I liked the best on the EP were the tracks where it was obvious there was a full, pre-written “song.”
A: Right. And that’s kind of 80 percent of what we do. The song comes first. We made a point that we wanted to be a pop band; we didn’t want to make records for record collectors, we wanted to make pop music out of this stuff. I think you can make pop music out of anything. As long as it’s direct and it’s regular and it’s got a good melody, you can catch the casual listener. It doesn’t matter what the instrumentation is. And this is what I mean about [issues of] authenticity. I think it’s actually stifling good tunes in a lot of ways. Like Travis: I think they’re a boring band, but I actually think they’ve got good tunes. But if you use any different instruments, if you put any imagination into it or thought at all, you’re seen as being not authentic. Which is a bit strange, but that’s the way it is.
Q: So is the quote in the NME about Ladytron “despising kitsch” an attempt to say “this is not a joke?”
A: Yeah. It was in the original press release that we did for the first single. It was just distancing ourselves straightaway, because it’s hampered so many bands that have had really good ideas but have always been perceived as being ironic jokers.
Q: Not to say the wrong thing, but when I first listened to “Play Girl,” one of the things that actually caught me about it was the way it seemed charmingly “retro.” But I really like a lot of the bands that are being referenced. I think there’s a fine line between “guilty pleasure” and just plain “pleasure,” and I think that often people like the safety of pretending they’re feeling the former when they’re really feeling the latter.
A: Yeah. [Laughs]
Q: Two members of Ladytron are designers, and the other two are a model and a genticist, two occupations which have to do, at least peripherally, with different types of design. In the NME article you said “It’s all about good design.” What are some important rules of design for Ladytron?
A: Well, I think in the last few years good design has actually crept back in to fashion. I never used to wear any new clothes, all my clothes used to be secondhand, [and] I don’t know whether it’s just part of getting older and not wanting to be laughed at in the street as much, but I actually find clothes that I like on sale now, where I never used to five years ago. And the same goes for furniture and for graphic design. Basically, it’s a lot of the stuff that people see as being retro-futurist now, but in reality it’s just good design. All Olivetti’s stuff, the plastics and the late 60’s and early 70’s [designs], it’s all really popular, that stuff, the look of it. But that stuff existed and it was percieved as being space-age, but it was actually the present, it defined the present, so it dates it, and ended up being supplanted by loads of really, really bad design. Like the 80’s: there’s very little visually there for me. This is where I have to stress that we’re not like some kind of 80’s revival band, because there’s bands that we’ve been compared to that are. But, visually, it does nothing for me, even though there’s a nostalgia value attached to it.
Q: It seems like now we’re in a time where design has become very important, because, especially in America among the middle and upper-classes, there’s so much money to be spent. So many people have too much money. So the question of “why do I want to buy something?” often comes down to just the design.
A: The iMac, the iBook…
Q: The iMac was a big part of that process, but now every little thing from the toothpick to the bicycle pump seems to be available in designer models.
A: Yeah, in translucent blue-and-white plastic. [Laughs]
Q: Part of me thinks that’s nice, because I appreciate design, too. But another part of me thinks that when there’s so much money to spend on the design of a toothpick, that money could be better spent.
A: Yeah, it does seem like there’s something obscene about it, as well. But I’m glad that stuff has crept in…It’s as if the way the future was anticipated 30 years ago has actually happened. It didn’t look like it was going to happen for 20 years and then suddenly it did. I’m really into “The Andromeda Strain” [Michael Crichton’s futuristic novel that was made into a 1971 movie – Ed.], so that’s kind of an influence on the title of the album and the uniforms we’ve got and stuff. But the design – me and Reuben just love that film.
Q: It’s funny – it kind of does feel futuristic to be alive right now, although it doesn’t at the same time. I suddenly remembered the other day that when I was in seventh grade I made myself a promise that as soon as the year 2000 came I would buy myself a hovercraft. What did you think the year 2000 would be like when you were a kid?
A: I can’t remember. I suppose I would have had similar thoughts to that – hovercraft and everything. I probably imagined it would be like “Logan’s Run,” the series. I also remember how I imagined myself, and it’s not very similar to reality. I probably expected myself to have kids and a real house and a real life and stuff. [Laughs] But I can’t remember how I actually visualized . Because we were bombarded with it constantly from T.V., so there were so many alternative visions. It was weird, in the 70’s there was all this really bad futurism…70 percent of it, the future just looked like a university campus with people walking around with togas on. [Laughs] There’s so many films like that. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.
Q: Well, if 2000 were like “Logan’s Run,” minus the Carrousel part, that would be kind of nice.
A: Yeah, minus the Carrousel part. Do you remember the series?
Q: I don’t.
A: It’s almost like an urban myth: I’ve been talking to people for years going “do you remember the series?” and they go “no – it never existed.” It had different actors in it and everything. But I met one guy the other night in this bar who, as if he was telepathic, started plucking things out of my brain; he just started going “I bet you’re into ‘The Andromeda Strain,’ aren’t you?” And I was like “yeah.” And he was like “What about ‘Logan’s Run,’ the series?” It was really surreal, I was really drunk, but this guy was just on totally the same tip.
Q: It’s funny how certain “futuristic” designs and inventions have been predicted and represented for so long that they almost feel “retro” even though they don’t yet exist. Like the hovercraft, or the picture-phone.
A: Yeah. The aquacar and stuff like that. It would just be catastrophic if the public had access to flying [machines]…
Q: When you think about how hard it is to merge lanes of traffic already.
A: And that’s not three dimensions. [Laughs]
Q: So what music have you been listening to recently?
A: Recently I’ve been listening to modern stuff: the Peaches’ album, I love the Peaches album. The Peaches are amazing – I met them when I was in Berlin. I’ve been listening to – this is not intended to be ironic, either – but I’ve been listening to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, that’s kind of a nostalgia thing as well, because I had it when I was a kid. I bought that again on vinyl and I love it. I love the [modern] German electro artists I know…When I DJ with Reuben, without the band, we mix it up totally, but there’s a place where we DJ…playing Northern Soul every week, so obviously my head’s full of that stuff. I don’t have to listen to it anymore.
Q: What do you want music to do? What do you feel the function of music is?
I’m not analytical at all about music until I’ve heard it lots of times. It’s like the Beatles: those songs are all in your head, you don’t have to listen to them, but when you think of “Drive My Car” you don’t think of it as being Paul McCartney’s attempt to do a ska song in 1965, it’s just “Drive My Car,” isn’t it? I was talking to [an earlier interviewer that day] about how pop music should just be a cheap buzz, but, you know, after awhile I always end up peeling back the layers. A lot of the music I like has a common thread: I suppose a lot of the music I like is quite minor, and a lot of the music we make is quite minor. The Shocking Blue is one of my favorite bands of all time, and they just didn’t have a single major chord in any of their songs. When you analyze it and [pop music’s] really dark, but people listen to it and doesn’t sound dark to them – like, Venus is a really dark record, but when middle-aged women are dancing to it at wedding parties they don’t hear it as such. I think it’s a very…Eastern European thing or even a Yiddish thing, it all goes back to Folk music, like Yiddish Folk music. It’s really strange when I hear a chord change it a Britney Spears song and just go “Yes!” and identify this thing that I like about so many songs. But this is me being hyper-analytical now, and [in general] I just listen to music for a cheap buzz.
Q: When I think about the difference between Folk and Pop music, I always think about it being like the difference between fruit and candy. I know I need fruit, but I want candy.
A: Yeah. It’s strange: America and England’s pop music histories have been quite similar…What was totally different was when we went to Spain. Electronic music seems a lot more popular there, and there’s a lot more early 80’s nostalgia. And the reason why is that pop music’s still a novelty there. Pop music didn’t exist before 1980 because the country was fascist [and] it wasn’t allowed. So everyone’s got this really fresh attitude. It’s really weird: we’ve been over there twice, and the response we’ve had has been amazing. We are all kind of jaded with pop music, even kids, over here in England, and it was just so strange going somewhere where it was still a novelty.
Q: Well, the members of Ladytron are from England, Scotland, and Bulgaria. How do you think that mix manifests itself in the music?
A: I’ve said to a few people: “I don’t feel like an English band.” I’ve got Spanish background, Reuben’s family is from Hong Kong and they just came to England, Helena’s Scottish, obviously. And we don’t feel English. But I don’t know whether there’s a direct connection between the personnel in the band, their nationalities, and the way we sound. Because I think we could be from anywhere and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Music’s just all learned, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s any genetic reason.
Q: I’ve often wondered about that. I interviewed David Balakrishnan from the Turtle Island String Quartet, and he told that, because his parents are from India, even though he wasn’t that familiar with Indian music growing up, he felt immediately familiar both hearing it and playing it, because it was in his blood. I don’t doubt that, but at the same time I don’t feel like I could play or even understand Ukranian music worth a damn without studying it.
A: Well, being [of Eastern-European descent], do you see that thing I was talking about? That minor quality in pop songs that’s in almost all great pop songs? I can’t remember who said it, but it’s a complete cliché, about the best art being a mixture of comedy and tragedy: you get these songs that are actually really dark but the lyrical matter is [at least] disguised, and the beat of the songs is regular [and] it’s got energy behind it…
Q: It seems like there are plenty of really sad ballads that peope think of as “in a minor key” that are actually entirely made up of major chords, and that maybe derive their sadness from the tension between the almost idiotically simplistic and optimistic sounds of those chords and the sad songs they’re set to. I also think that many fast-paced songs that people think of as upbeat often derive their mysteriousness or feeling of complexity from minor chords. The cliché is that minor key songs are sad, and I don’t think that’s quite correct. But on the subject of Eastern European music, I don’t know a lot about that stuff. I wasn’t raised knowing a lot about it. I do hear what you’re talking about, though. For example, in Klezmer music you hear a lot of dance songs that are in minor keys and have a quality of almost frantic happiness to them.
A: Yeah, yeah, but really sad at the same time. This is exactly what I was talking about. When it first started occuring to me about the Eastern [European] thing, I was talking to this guy who was in his 50’s about it, he sort of still DJs and stuff…and he was onto it as well, he said exactly the same thing. It’s so strange, I’m in this situation where everyone’s supposed to be really happy and they’re actually dancing to really pure minor darkness. I suppose the early 80’s was kind of the last time when, at least in England, with Soft Cell and Visage and all that, this stuff was complete mainstream pop music but it was just so, so dark.
Q: Yeah, that’s true with Depeche Mode as well. It’s mixing up these emotions of sadness and happiness almost seamlessly. I hear that in the Ladytron stuff, too.
A: These are the ingredients that all my favorite music contains, so if it does happen with us too then that’s why.