John Foxx: Howling Into The Void
By Classic Pop | March 4, 2021
In 1980, John Foxx predicted a terrifying dystopian future with his incredible synthetic masterpiece Metamatic. The future he predicted is now here, and it’s worse – far worse – than he imagined, and he’s angry about it. Luckily, though, he’s turned that rage into the aptly-named studio album Howl, his most powerful and personal work to date… By Andy Jones
Forty-one years ago John Foxx released the album Metamatic, a record steeped in an all-new blend of synths and drum machines which conjured up a future that was as terrifying as it was mesmerising. It predicted a world straight out of the sci-fi novels of J.G. Ballard or predictions by Marshall McLuhan – cold cities, burning cars, disconnected people, all residing in a harsh, unloving future. That future is now, and according to Foxx, the reality we now live in is darker than anything he could possibly have believed four decades ago…
“Well it’s worse,” he sighs, “worse than I’d imagined; it’s absolute bloody chaos. It’s panned out badly, but obviously there are good things as well which can give you hope. But the media magnifies everything and changes the perspective on things that you might never have heard about before.
It has all kinds of effects that we hadn’t anticipated and that we don’t yet understand. It affects your thinking, the ‘memes’ become embedded and you take them on. A lot of uncritical or receptive people are affected negatively and react to things quickly because of the media.
“Social media is particularly like that. Bullying has been magnified – it’s a bully’s dream. You can get on with it invisibly and you can torture people to death; it’s awful. All of these effects take a long time to understand and technology is moving faster than our understanding of it; even faster than Ballard predicted, which is a scary thought.
“Then there’s the news, the gossip and the idea that we’ve confused politics with personalities and celebrity,” Foxx continues. “These things are getting mixed up and separating the strands used to be an editorial job but there’s no editorial any more. What the algorithms do is give you more of what you are looking at, so rather than criticising you they enforce what your little desire happens to be. If you’re with friends and talking about something, someone might say ‘piss off, what are you talking about?’ whereas alone on a computer you don’t have that. Someone needs to build an algorithm that says ‘get real’ or ‘bugger off’ to criticise you rather than giving you more of what you want.”
Foxx can fortunately channel his own ‘bugger off’ algorithm through his music. Indeed his latest album, Howl – produced as part of John Foxx and The Maths with long-time collaborator Ben Edwards aka Benge, master (and abuser) of the violin Hannah Peel, and guitarist extraordinaire Robin Simon – is in part at least, their reaction to the current climate. It is arguably their most powerful collection of songs yet, all driven by a collective of outspoken and hugely talented musicians that Foxx can surround himself with. “I’ve wanted to get Robin [Simon] involved, but it’s never been possible before,” John explains of his former bandmate from the Mk.1 version of Ultravox that Foxx formed and fronted until the late 1970s. “He was in L.A. for a while, and then with The Maths we were just using synthesisers. But then I said to Benge ‘have you ever worked with guitars?’ He hadn’t really so I said ‘let’s try Robin’. He came down and did a couple of things, and it built from there. Robin has this habit where he’ll give you three versions of his take on any song you write, and you think ‘bloody hell, I hadn’t thought of that!’. But you take it away and sit on it and then suddenly you realise it’s better than your original idea.”
The results on Howl are a perfect blend of incendiary guitars, Benge’s electronic beats and synths and Hannah’s powerful strings.
“As with Robin, what I like about what Hannah does is she’s not a conventional musician,” John enthuses. “She can do all of those things – she conducts orchestras – but she likes a bit of ferocity and puts her violin through effects and distortions so she’ll have it roaring away. That is not common. A lot of people who play violin are precious about it but she’s not; she just goes for it.”
And Benge is a third part of The Maths jigsaw, whose studio the album was recorded in, and a space that is full to the brim with rare synths…
“He’s got everything,” John laughs. “He’s even got Robert Moog’s Moog – the case is from Moog’s garden! We have a wander about and I say ‘is this one working?’ and he’ll say ‘maybe half the keys are alright’ or something! He got a lot of old synths that people were throwing away that he found in skips. I always say that Benge rescued an entire genre from a skip!”
When Foxx was recording Utravox’s third album, Systems Of Romance, also with Robin Simon, way back in 1978, the project was overseen by the legendary Kraftwerk and Neu! producer Conny Plank, Foxx believes that Benge exhibits a lot of his qualities.
“There are certain spirits that you meet who are mavericks and Conny was particularly like that; he was just unique, like working with Marlene Dietrich and then doing synth music [with Kraftwerk]; a great mix of things. He would try anything. He’d get an idea and suddenly you would be mic’ing stuff up in a barn and all that kind of thing. Benge is like that. He wants to get a sound he has in his head and he’ll go to infinite lengths to get it, like modifying a bit of equipment to make it work for him. Conny was always doing that, too. He had a workshop with a guy called ‘Doktor’ who would doctor his equipment, and they used to do that for Kraftwerk, build equipment for them. Ben is the same, he’s very knowledgeable. He’ll get the most broken piece of equipment and make it work.”
“Benge, Robin and Hannah, they’re all the same,” Foxx continues on this latest incarnation of The Maths. “They are people who whenever you meet them they have a fresh outlook. They won’t go over the same ground again. And when you work with people like that it kicks you into action, too, because you have to come up to the mark. I like them being opinionated because it’s all in the interest of making what you do good. It’s not personal; sometimes you have to step aside and let someone else get on with it because you respect them, and it’s that respect that is essential. It’s not financially driven, it’s an artistic thing – you want to do something that is good, relevant and interesting, that you want to be proud of.”
John now has a vast back catalogue, from his early Ultravox work, through a series of solo albums to numerous collaborations. But one of his golden rules has always been never to look back on this earlier output and to strive for innovation. However, Howl exhibits a kind of ‘best of’ approach, with elements of different strands of Foxx’s vast back catalogue shining through, so it’s no surprise to hear that he actually revisited to his former work before its recording.
“I’ve never done that before. I used to discard things and get on with the next project,” he explains. “But I thought this time ‘let’s sit down and listen to what I’ve done’ –
I realised there are a lot of things I haven’t done. Apart from on Systems Of Romance, I’d never really done the ‘rock’ thing – a modern version of rock, not blues or anything corny like heavy metal, something that had the spirit that started me off in music.”
So what was it like revisiting his earlier work once again?
“Sometimes you think ‘oh that’s crap’ and other times you think ‘well maybe it has some qualities’,” he explains. “I can’t bear anything that is half arsed, that hasn’t gone for it. Ben’s like that; he won’t have anything in there that is the slightest bit weedy, and Robin’s the same. The beauty of working with people you respect is that they will tell you when you are ‘driving on the pavement’; they are not afraid to. Robin doesn’t say much but what he does say is really on it.
“I remember him saying to me in the 80s after he heard [third Foxx solo album] The Golden Section that ‘it hasn’t got enough ‘grrr’!’ And I thought ‘he’s right’. I was chasing this kind of psychedelic thing and I’d forgotten about the ‘grr’! I’m still proud of the ideas because all the Manchester scene kicked off with that about 10 years after but it should have sounded better, but I was doing it myself.
“Being alone worked with [debut solo LP] Metamatic; it was an ‘alone’ type album. And there was no escape; you had to use two synths and a drum machine but when I did The Golden Section you could have anything you wanted. It was a big mistake because too big a palette buggers you up completely.”
And so, inevitably, we swing back to Metamatic, an album that predicted a version of this present, an album that has remained a peak in Foxx’s career and, as we speak, a record that is almost exactly four decades old. Yet, as we turn to this arguably bleak-sounding solo recording, John reveals that its creation was actually full of joy… “It was me and Gareth [Jones, engineer] locked in a studio having great fun discovering what those machines could do for the first time. I didn’t want to make light music but everything was a delight. Putting a drum machine on was a delight, like: what can we do with this now? Stick it through that box, what happens now? Listen to that: drums through a flanger – amazing! People forget that there is ‘a first time’ and we were listening to things thinking ‘I haven’t heard that before’. That was the message, one of the stipulations: it was all new. There was Thomas Leer, Daniel Miller and The Human League working on this kind of thing as well, all at the same time, but we didn’t know each other’s work. It was like punk: different strands of the same thing.
“I always think of Metamatic as like a white, European blues album. If I was transposed to America, I would have been a black guy in a studio with a guitar and one microphone. Metamatic was the equivalent: primitive, straight-down music with the instruments that you had available, and nothing else; that and your ingenuity, you just get on with it. All the best music is made like that: simple stuff made with whatever is to hand. It reflects the time you’re in and stays relevant. Thank God I did that. Sometimes you just have to say ‘thank you’ – you don’t know who to – that you were allowed those moments to get things right, and by some miracle you were in the right place at the right time to do this thing that was of its time but remains relevant.”
John mentions those pockets of synth pioneers, working in isolation in the late 70s, but the figure that joined them up and dragged them to the fore was Gary Numan, whose hit single Are ‘Friends’ Electric? put the synthesiser centre stage. Numan has subsequently cited Foxx and his version of Ultravox as a major influence for his early work which brings us neatly back to The Maths. The loose collective led by Foxx has worked with many different musicians over the years and has even partnered with Numan for the 2017 track Talk.
“We always said we wanted to work together,” Foxx recalls of the collaboration. “What Gary does is very personal and he’s very conscious of the space he occupies.
“You have to fit in with that somehow, which we do quite easily. Then it’s actually physically getting people together.
“He’s in LA or touring most of the time which is what he does and what he loves. I’m the opposite; I try to avoid touring and stay in England. And then there’s the material – where do you start? You could be in the studio for days, but luckily Ade [Fenton, Numan collaborator] was around and Benge was around; everyone was around at the same time.
“Gary liked the song Talk that we’d done, so we did a version of that, and he did his bits. We were sending things to and fro until everyone was happy. I’d always like to work with Gary [again], I think he’s great and I like his last album – it’s the best one he’s made for a long time.”
While John is enjoying this third and busiest phase of his career, there are certainly no plans to stop, and he already has the next Maths album underway, not to mention at least two albums with Harold Budd.
“I’ve been talking to Harold recently and have loads of stuff he’d sent over that I haven’t worked on yet. Howl has also kicked a lot of doors open so I’ve also already started writing the new Maths album – there are three or four songs in progress.”
“The songs just breed,” he laughs when asked about this prolific outlook. “I’ll be doing music until I fall off the perch. That’s what I do. It’s what you are.”
“There isn’t one! But if I had to say one it would be nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll, it would be The Pearl because you have three great talents together: Harold Budd, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. Lanois is the great landscape artist of music, Brian is a great ideas man and Budd invented a way of playing piano that is fantastic. I will love it until the day I die. It’s a great album.”
“Very difficult, I really like Sweet Jane [The Velvet Underground], The Passenger [Iggy Pop], and Smokestack Lightning [Howlin’ Wolf and others] is still the big one, and John Lee Hooker’s Dimples. What I really like is something stripped down and primitive that has a kind of magic that will last forever. There’s also Roadrunner, the Jonathan Richman track, that is very spontaneous, or You Really Got Me [The Kinks] – all those primitive rock songs. I listen to that and All Day And All Of The Night every few weeks and just marvel at them. How can you do that with three or four chords and get an immaculate song?”
“I think Harold Budd. It’s not rock ‘n’ roll, so maybe Iggy, too. He’s probably my favourite for rock ‘n’ roll.”
Most innovative artist of the last 40 years?
“Aphex Twin and Burial.”
Biggest innovation in music of the last 40 years?
“Well, it’s the computer isn’t it. It’s changed things immeasurably, but digital is an empty medium that you have to fill with something interesting and that’s where analogue comes in. An unholy alliance…”
Where is music consumption headed?
“It’s increasing exponentially and the music industry has its first dose of income from Spotify. The future is paying for what you get. It might just be pennies but it has to get back to the artist, otherwise it just goes back into showbiz.”
Where do you think music-making is headed?
“The same as it always has been. People with ideas will make it and people who like those ideas will listen to it. It’s always been the same. It will never change and it will survive.”
Who would you still like to work with?
“Iggy and John Cooper Clarke, but many of the people I would like to work with are dead like Lou Reed, John Lee Hooker and Nico.”
Best moment of your career?
“There are three really: working with Conny Plank and having the band [Ultravox] at its peak. Everything was working. The same with Metamatic. I got in the studio, met Gareth and suddenly ‘bang’ we were off. I just thought ‘how lucky is that?’ And the same with Benge. I bumped into him, went down to his studio, and there it was.
Three of your own works that you would use as an introduction to your music?
“Systems of Romance [Ultravox], Metamatic and Translucence/Drift Music [with Harold Budd].”
How would you like to personally be remembered?
“Just for doing stuff that people still value and that it doesn’t fall by the wayside of fashion; that it is still relevant.”