Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bonus Q&A with Recoil

Here are more excerpts from my phone interview with Recoil’s Alan Wilder from his home in England...

Did constant fan requests for you to take Recoil on the road factor into your decision to finally do so?

Not particularly. I’ve always had a good relationship with fans. I’ve kept live communication going. When you’re in a position like Recoil, you kind of have to use those outlets; the social media stuff side of things: Facebook and MySpace as it was and more recently, Twitter. If you don’t cultivate that, then it’s very difficult to find a good outlet, because radio is very difficult. I’ve always tried to involve the fans. There’s a lot of talented people out there online just waiting to help, really. I guess from that point of view, I’m bowing to the [fans], but it’s not really that. It’s just my own decision that it felt like a good time to do it.

How much work went into planning, pre-production and programming for this tour? I talked to Vince Clarke several years ago and he used to spend six months or so prepping for an Erasure tour. When did you actually start getting ready?

I started in January. Then we did the first shows in March. So it didn’t actually take too long. Again, the beauty of modern technology helps in many ways. I had four different filmmakers working on this film. We all had a central server where we could upload the work, myself included, with the music. Without modern technology, email and fast uploading and downloading, there’s no way we could have done it in that sort of time frame. It would have been a much longer period of course. So it came together quite quickly and in the meantime, while they were making films, I was with Paul Kendall in the studio putting together all the music. A lot of it is regurgitated from existing remixes and new mixes. Then sort of put together in a completely different way. So it’s quite a fun project.

Is the music featured in the shows only taken from ‘Selected’?

No, there’s other stuff in there. There’s little bits of Depeche Mode I throw in every now and again, just as a kind of nod. I don’t like to give too much of that away because it’s a nice surprise to the fans. Of course a lot of my audience are Depeche Mode fans as well. It goes with my history. I throw a bit of that in to keep them happy. Also, there’s other bits of music that aren’t on that album - that’s true. It’s just a whole different mixture of bits and it almost runs as a continuous piece. It constantly changes and you never quite know what’s coming next.

Are you playing mostly general admission venues so fans can dance around to the music?

Yeah. It’s good that the venues are open. Actually the one in San Diego is quite unusual because that’s normally a jazz venue. They’re having to move the seats out of the way and we’re doing a particularly late show that night after another evening’s performance has already been and gone. Then they’re going to clear all the chairs out and turn the volume up and change it around slightly. It looks like a great venue.

When you toured Europe over the spring – in between delays due to the Icelandic volcano eruption - did those shows meet your expectations?

Yes they did. I’m really lucky that I’ve got good loyal followers. I think it’s not surprising that where I do best is also the areas where Depeche Mode did best. There is a direct correlation. Eastern Europe – Depeche Mode has a reputation there for being one of the first Western groups to really do well in places like Russia, Romania, Poland and all these countries. In the ‘80s in particular, when it was very difficult, no one went to tour there. We actually made an effort to go to many of those places. I think the fans really appreciated that. The legacy of that continues now. I’m actually reaping the benefits of that now when I go and visit those countries. People remember and we have a reputation that precedes us. I’d say the Eastern European gigs have been the best ones in Europe although all of them have been good. Germany’s always a strong market.

I saw on one of your website's tour blog video updates where you said on one of the European dates, there were some ‘Spinal Tap’-type moments.

There’s plenty of those. You now, the days of 14 huge articulated trucks and massive productions [from the DM days] have changed a bit for me. These days, we run things on a pretty tight ship. We have a very small touring party. We take all our equipment on the plane with us. We don’t have a huge amount anyway – we’re using laptops and synthesizers. It’s not a major production that we take with us, it’s all hired locally. We ask the local promoter to come up with a projection screen and we hope that when we get there, it’s to the specifications we’ve asked for. But it isn’t always. When we got to a couple places in Russia for example, it was comical. You have to be a bit philosophical, I suppose. We do everything in our power to advance the shows properly so these mistakes don’t happen, but of course they do.

The US shows are Wilder’s first live appearances in SoCal since DM’s ‘Devotional’ tour in the ‘90s. Recoil played in New York City and Austin earlier this year.

Those were ‘testing the waters’ kinds of shows. Then we decided we should come back and do a full scale tour, which is quite difficult to set up these days. We found it harder to set up than in Europe for a number of reasons – procuring visas and the logistics of getting around the States. It’s quite tough out there at the moment getting promoters to commit to shows. People don’t seem to be coming out to shows as readily as they used to in America.

Have you had to tweak the presentation as you’ve proceeded along on tour?

Yeah. I’m certainly changing a little bit for the North and South American tour now. We’ve outdated some of the films, really by way of variation, rather than correct much. There are a few little moments where I thought, ‘we can tighten that bit up and take this bit out and put a bit more there.’ It’s changed a little bit. It’s not radically different, just a little bit updated.

You had special guests at certain European dates. Anything like that planned for America?

A few things. I’m definitely trying. The thing with Recoil is [the guests] live all around the world. What I do occasionally is if I happen to be touring where they live, I can rope one of them in. I’ve got Joe Richardson turning up in Dallas. He’s from Austin, so he only has a three-hour drive. Nicole Blackman lives in New York, so she can join in there. Douglas McCarthy from Nitzer Ebb might turn up and do a couple shows. It just doesn’t make any logistical sense to take all the singers on the road for all the dates. It wouldn’t work out financially. Apart from the Recoil guests, what I’m trying to do is work on having other acts play in each venue and make each one unique. We’re throwing after show parties wherever we can. Having lots of support acts and different interesting people join the evening so every show is slightly different.

Turning to the ‘Selected’ collection, how did you decide which songs to include? Did you have a certain criteria?

Normally, when there’s some kind of collection being put together, there are stipulations. You’ve got to include this or that. As it goes, Recoil’s never had any major hit records, so there weren’t really any of those worries…I thought, ‘ah, it could actually sound better than your average ‘Best Of’ album. This could make sense as a record in itself if I put it together carefully.’

I noticed there’s nothing from ‘Hydrology 1+2.’

It’s not that I don’t like them particularly, as I say, if you go for an overall cohesion, then I couldn’t really fit those things in.

On the remix disc, you have others doing a few. Did you seek people out?

Mostly I seek people out or people have offered stuff. Again, it’s a little bit shoestring.

For the remix of “Strange Hours ’10,” you worked with an actual band, the Black Ships, featuring two ex-members of The Verve. How did that come about?

That’s interesting. My friend Davide Rossi is a string player/violinist and he played on The Verve album. He also plays with Goldfrapp and others. He was the catalyst for all that and introduced me to the other guys – Nick McCabe, who I’ve always liked as a guitarist – and told me they [and a couple other guys] are the Black Ships. They’re trying to finish their first album right now. I said, ‘look, would you mind just playing on this?’

With the wonders of the internet, they sent me the files…I don’t need to necessarily be in the room with the musicians these days. I can just get them to do stuff and then sort it out later.

You’ve worked with Paul Kendall for 10 years now. What keeps your musical partnership fresh?

That’s a good question [laughs]. I guess after 10 years, if they haven’t got on your nerves, then you must be quite good friends, I suppose. We have a good friendship is the first thing. He offers things in the studio that I can’t really do and visa versa. We don’t come from very different musical angles. It’s useful to have someone to bounce off [ideas] like that. I tend to be a control freak and want to take charge of everything myself. I do also need other people. It’s great to have someone who attacks things from such a different point of view. We just work together well. He just seems to gel. He actually lives here. I’ve got this place down in Sussex. I had a spare space and he was stuck for somewhere to live so he’s been living here for the past three years. I see a bit too much of him really.

Back in the early days of Recoil, you were one of the first musicians to use sampling. What initially drew you to that?

I think just the advent of the technology itself drew me to it. The emulator was probably the first sampler I used. Pretty much the first sampler that existed, I think. Actually, the precursor to sampling was the mellotron. Basically, when you pressed the key on the mellotron, it would actually trigger the playing of a tape in a loop, which is effectively what sampling is – sampling does it digitally and this used to do it on analog tape. But the effect is exactly the same. You’d press a key on a keyboard, it would send a piece of tape playing and actually play a real sound back at you at that particular pitch, like a violin or something. That’s what the mellotron was and it’s a very distinctive sound. People remember it from The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and all that. That was the precursor. Then this digital version came along, the emulator. To me, it was like a magic box where you were only limited by your imagination of sound. You’re not restricted to something that has to be synthesized. You could actually use the real sound itself. This is just a revelation. I’ve been enthralled by it ever since I’d say. As I say, you’re only limited by what you can think about doing.

In the past, with Recoil, you have said it was a reaction to the commercial pop nature of Depeche Mode. Did you intend it to be more underground and out of the spotlight?

Yes and no. I want people to know about the project and want it to do well. It’s not deliberately underground as it were…I’m not anti-pop music. I like pop music and occasionally Recoil will, more by accident than by design, be relatively commercial. Other times, it will go much more avant garde. It’s all by accident, really. Nothing is designed that way.

When you first left DM, did you feel like a weight had been lifted – that you could finally do what you wanted without restrictions?

I guess so. I could kind of do it within the group as well. I had the side project going anyway. There would be time restrictions. There were many reasons why I decided to leave that group.

While watching some of the DM documentaries included with the amazing catalog reissues a few years ago, I’d often see you in the footage sitting right next to the producers in the studio. Did that serve as a learning experience for you that later helped with Recoil?

Definitely. I’ve learned a lot over the years from working with different people – from the likes of Daniel Miller in the early days to Gareth Jones and Flood. We did some really good work on ‘Violator’ and ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion’ where both albums were co-produced with Flood. I think it was the most inventive time for Depeche Mode, from my point of view. For myself, I’ve kind of been carrying on those ideas ever since. I’m always willing to learn from people, definitely.

The music of Recoil has a cinematic quality. Have you ever been approached to do a movie score and would that interest you?

You would think I would, but I haven’t had any real serious offers. I have done small things and the music has been placed in films or on TV. I’ve never really been commissioned to write a full scale score. It is something I’d be interested to do, yeah. It’s quite clear my music would suit that sort of thing.

What is your take on the state of electronic music today?

I wouldn’t say it’s either vibrant or stagnant. I’d say there’s always good music within any genre if you look closely. And there’s a lot of not so good music. That scenario hasn’t really changed over the years. There’s always good music around. It’s finding it, having the time or desire to find it. Outlets for good music are not always easy. There’s a lot of struggling people out there who have talent and don’t get heard. There must be good music out there. I don’t say I’m on the cutting edge though of knowing what’s really trendy these days. It’s just finding the time to explore and find new things is not easy sometimes.

Back in February, you guested with Depeche Mode on “Somebody” for a London charity benefit. What was that experience like?

It was good night, yeah…the performance itself was fun. Got a lovely reaction from the audience, who were very surprised. It was quite a big secret. Not many people knew about it.

In SoCal, Depeche Mode is so big here that you probably have more of a built in fan base than elsewhere in America.

We’ve been lucky. The [Recoil] shows are going really well from all the reports I hear. Tickets are selling really well. They should all be pretty much sold out in California. I’m very excited to be coming.

Do you have a lot of fond memories of SoCal from back in the day, when DM played the Rose Bowl, the Tower Records signing frenzy and everything?

Absolutely, yeah. Those were some of the highlights of the whole Depeche Mode career - the Rose Bowl event. We used to regularly play in Orange County in Irvine and the Forum in LA. We did lots of shows in California and they were always great crowds.

Which DM albums still stand the test of time for you?

‘Violator’ is classic in its own way, even though it’s a little more rigid and dated sounding, I suppose. I preferred ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion.’

What are your plans for Recoil in 2011?
Now that I’ve committed to doing shows this year, of course all the agents are going, ‘come back, we’ve got festivals next year. You’ve laid the groundwork, now do some more.’ That wasn’t really my idea. The [original] idea was do a lot this year and go and something different next year…[he might take part in two special Mute Records nights at the London Roundhouse in May featuring acts from the roster]. You could see some interesting collaborations at that. My plan is generally to do some more recording and see where it goes.    

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