As we descend the stairs into the studio of Ben Edwards, otherwise known as Benge or even The Maths, the sound of soft synth pads grows gradually louder. Playing one of the many keyboards assembled in the studio is John Foxx, with whom Benge has been writing and making music for a number of years now.
We are bade welcome, offered a drink and ushered to a seat, unknowingly positioned directly in front of some rare and unique analogue equipment. But more of that later – for initially we will talk with John Foxx And The Maths about the fruits of their most recent collaboration, The Shape Of Things.
Our initial instinct is that the album brings together a slightly softer side of Foxx with harder sounds used on Interplay, the previous John Foxx and the Maths album. Foxx, however, isn’t so sure. “Some of it’s actually harder than Interplay,” he says, approaching horizontal status in a chair in the corner of the studio. “It’s simpler,” offers Benge, seated at the flight deck’, where he has access to a number of weathered but highly collectible synths, all available at the slightest turn of his chair.
Foxx nods in agreement, a far off intensity in his eyes that suggests he might still be coming down from a fruitful day of music making. “It’s simpler, because it was less worked on’. We carried on working, there was a stream of stuff we started with Interplay, and then we just did the things that were around that seemed to be developing. We didn’t expect anything to happen.” “It didn’t start as an album,” explains Benge, “It was just tracks we were working on, and the more we did the more we realised we could make an album from it. The connecting tracks helped to unify the whole thing. I don’t feel that it’s softer really.”
Foxx concedes some differences, mind. “It’s probably emptier in some ways, more skeletal – and I quite like that. With Interplay we worked on the tracks individually, and with The Shape Of Things we left them earlier without decorating them.” “They’re more sketches,” adds Benge, “whereas Interplay is fully fleshed out, more worked on and more perfected. This is more sketches that we just let happen, with not as many takes…””…that felt like a luxury,” continues Foxx. “When you first start working you want to make sure everything works, but later on you get more confident. There is less compromising with what you think you ought to be doing. I think on this album we were prepared to take more chances.”
The Shape Of Things works best; it would seem, as a single structure. “Yeah, it makes sense listened in one go,” agrees Edwards, Steve Malins, our manager, is really good at getting the track order right.” “The nice thing about having someone else do that,” says Foxx, “is that we get so close to the material that it’s hard to sequence it, and you can look at it any number of ways. Because Steve doesn’t hear it as much as we do he can be much more objective, and then later on you can’t imagine it any other way.”
Edwards touches on another important element. “It’s the same with the cover; it becomes part of the whole experience. Jonathan Barnbrook did this one, and it had such a big influence on the sound of the whole album that it becomes locked in to it, with the primary colours and things, and you can’t imagine the album without it now. “It’s like buying a paperback book,” says Foxx, “with the image on the front; it expands on what’s inside. I think all of that is very important. Downloading is perfectly valid and I’ve nothing against it, but you get no narrative.” Benge nods. “You don’t have that association with the physical object, the sound and the image that you used to have.”
Foxx is passionate about the more physical forms of musical delivery. “It does make you view it differently. If I’m at home and I download things, if I really like them I still burn a CD, because it feels better. I prefer the sound of CDs, though sometimes I like MP3s, because the compression is unexpected, with that intelligent compression and EQ.” At this point Benge laughs in disagreement. “It’s true,” protests Foxx, “I’ve heard some tracks of mine that sound better on it! I don’t like the ready-made EQ on iTunes though, and the gaps in between get lost. The overlaps, it took ages to get rid of those. I don’t like music being inside my system. I don’t like iTunes, because I don’t want it grabbing MP3s when they come through, and I don’t want the library either. I don’t want one after another, that irritates me, but I suppose that’s the difference between someone who makes it and a consumer.”
His mini rant over, Foxx discusses the lyrics on The Shape Of Things, which to this listener at least sound deeply personal. “They always are really, as it’s still my experience that I’m talking about. There’s always that theme that I’ve had, where the songs are about a man and a woman in a city, and they are – and that’s all we’ve got.
Inside the studio…
Yet there is warmth to songs such as Tides and Vapour Trails that is immediately striking. “I’ve always liked vapour trails, for lots of reasons. They’re great at sunset when you see planes having gone over, it’s a great image. That was an old song, I wrote that at the same time as Systems Of Romance, and I’ve never known what to do with it. It was a guitar song, and it didn’t get on to Distance or any album until now. Everybody who writes has songs like that, that you don’t finish for whatever reason, and then one day it fits. It was working here with synths, putting the guitar against the synth, and then had Ben putting parts against it, and it just worked.” “We put a lot of backing vocals in there,” explains Benge, “and it was done during the Interplay sessions but it didn’t fit in to the sound of that album.
“It’s also about using an old form,” says Foxx, “like Roxy Music or ELO, it’s a mix of those two things, and it’s purely from listening to stuff when I was younger. It’s a hybrid of two or three things. But I quite like that in a way, because with writing you try and throw away the old things. With that one I didn’t mind so much because it’s long enough ago, it’s 30-40 years since either of those bands were in their heyday, and it doesn’t matter anymore. Things have moved on. It was interesting to take something that was almost archaic and let Ben change it, because he didn’t have the same view of it.”
The dynamic between the two is best explained a marriage of different eras. “My influences are more from the ’70s and 80s,” says Edwards, “whereas John’s are more 60s-70s. There’s no line drawn. I think that has an impact on the overall sound of what we do; it’s a combination of a lot of different eras. “You’re trying to figure out where they intersect, and how they link,” says Foxx, “but that’s always an area that has really interested me, like the link between psychedelia and German music, where Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk and those bands I really love came out of really great psychedelia like Tomorrow Never Knows, George Martin’s really great avant garde moment where he put backwards loops into a Beatles track.”
His whistle stop tour of history unfolds at speed. “After that we got prog, because sometimes we Brits are just really dim, and we don’t know when we’ve got something really fantastic and original like that track and we went prog, and what a swerve that was! So all the good stuff went over to Germany, because they recognised it immediately and ran off with it, and we could have had that, but we were too dim to recognise it until ten years later! The reason it was taken up in Germany was they’d already started it with Stockhausen and Schaeffer and that electronic movement, and the things in George Martin’s work had already started in Europe anyway, and they recognised that and found it really exciting. They recovered it immediately. I love these loops that you get in influences, I find them very interesting. That’s what I meant with conformative things being in a ten year loop, and we’ve got that going that we both recognise what each other brings, which is really exciting. Sometimes the context is surprising, and that’s part of what makes it really work. We don’t want any pastiches, definitely not. I’m far too old for nostalgia!”
Foxx is not far too old for touring, mind, and with The Maths he embarked on a highly successful UK tour last autumn. “It was fantastic,” enthuses Benge, “and we managed to put a band together that kept us on our toes, and it was a really interesting mixture of people. We had a bit of a disaster at the end where John banged his head though; he’s got a nice scar to show for it!” Foxx quickly dismisses his fall. “It was nice working with the band, because they’re so good, and you have to be as good as they are.” He speaks of multi instrumentalists Hannah Peel and Serafina Steer. “They do one thing with one hand and one with the other, which baffles me. It’s like having four musicians, having those two, they play two parts each, and backing vocals as well! It’s quite incredible, whereas I’m relegated to just about managing to walk and breathe at the same time – and not even managing that sometimes!”
On the tour it was noticeable gauging the warmth in the crowd for material both old and new. “The Metamatic stuff hasn’t really been done live properly,” explains Benge, “Because it’s so hard to do. A lot of it comes from backing tapes and programmed drums.” “It wasn’t possible to take it on the road,” adds Foxx, “and you couldn’t have done it because you needed ten synthesizer players who knew what they were doing, and I don’t think there were two players in Britain who knew what they were doing at the time! It was a new kind of music, and not many people had latched on to it. If you look at the charts in the ’70s and ’80s it wasn’t synthesizer music, it was pure pop, like Showaddywaddy.”
When the pair are ensconced in Benge’s studio, do they have a set way of working? “We tend to come up with ideas independently at first,” says Benge. “It’s always difficult coming in to the studio with nothing because there are so many options that you go around in circles. I like to come in with a strong idea for a drum pattern, a bass line or a musical structure, and John will maybe bring some words and vocals in to that. We see what we’ve got and compile it, then maybe add more synth parts. There are several songs that were done from arpeggios, and they’re really interesting.” He points to the big stack at the back of the studio. “This thing here, the Moog, you can set up different patterns that repeat and loop round.” “When you get a pattern coming out, it’s harmonic and rhythmic, and you start singing over the top, and it works like that,” explains Foxx. “Several things can originate from that situation. They’re great machines, and that’s one of the best synthesizers ever made, there will never be a better one than that.”
Analogue synthesizers are not a dying breed, mind, and are a subject close to Benge’s heart. “Korg are making the Monotron, and they’re pure analogue, they’re quite cheap to get and really popular now. Analogue stuff has really come back in to vogue, and Korg are one of the companies who have really brought back in to that. A lot of the stuff here I’ve brought really cheap or people didn’t want it and chucked it out, but it’s interesting to see how it’s coming back, and people have realised how nice that old stuff was.”
“Im halfway through a piano album…”– John Foxx
One of Benge’s previous records, Twenty Systems, features a track each from a different synthesizer – with the Moog in question appearing on the front cover. Foxx clearly has a strong affection for them too. “The odd thing about them is being able to control them by hand, rather than software,” he says. “These things you can quickly change all the parameters because it’s all there in front of you, and you don’t have to switch through on menus or anything, so you’re workflow is never interrupted. I like that, and people like the hands on approach because it’s much faster and more efficient. The digital stuff is weird, because it’s always imitating something else, and gives me a feeling of being like Formica. I always think why bother when you’ve got the real stuff there, why imitate it and use a plastic imitation? We are at a Formica stage of digital, because we know it’s great at reproducing stuff, but it’s content and texture free. Until we find out what its inherent qualities are, but maybe that’s it, we’re doomed to this awful sort of pastiche of instruments. Why not build some more analogue synths and use those? It feels pointless to me.”
The studio is clearly a one-off, with Edwards somehow in command of the array of equipment. “In here we’ve got everything connected, so you can put extra things in, and you get a signal change you’d never get if you did it on a computer. If you ever tried to reconstruct a sound here you wouldn’t be able to, and that’s one of the penalties! That’s nice though because you have to commit to things, you spend the time getting it right and then committing, so it’s a different way of working.”
Foxx does make some concessions for digital. “The good thing is how it’s made people appreciate the previous stage. It’s like when colour photography came in – black and white was dismissed as inferior, but then people said “Ah, it’s really beautiful”, and then set about imitating it. With Marshall amplifiers, when the Japanese tried to imitate it, they realised how thick and rich the sound was. Every advance in technology makes you value what you’ve got. I think it’s inevitable. I hate nostalgia but when a generation looks back, like I look at the 50s and 40s, it’s a magic world you just touched. My generation went towards rock n’ roll, and left Hollywood behind. When I was an art student I started looking up all these films and realised there’s a world there that I just glimpsed and almost had access to, but it just changed direction. There’s a lot of that in human nature, where the thing you nearly touched has vanished over the horizon, and you try to re-imagine it and make your own version of it.” Benge nods. “I think that perfectly sums up how I feel as well!”
As befits the musical career of both to date, they have a lot of project work on the go. “We’re both involved in various stages of lots of stuff,” says Foxx, “and we occasionally meet together! Im halfway through a piano album, I’m doing something with Ghostbox, and Benge is working on the next stage of the Maths.” “That’s with Tara Busch,” confirms Edwards. “The Maths is a floating body of people connected to the studio, and that’s how I met Hannah and other people that have been involved. The Maths summarises the work I do here at the studio.” Benge has worked on several records with Peel too, and met her through connections with Tunng, who for a while occupied the same studio space. “Tunng moved out two years ago, they were based in that room next door, but I did mix Hannah’s album The Broken Wave. They came down here and got interested in synthesizers. Serafina is a harpist, and all her work has been based around that, and Hannah comes from a more acoustic, folky background, but then they all see the synths and get hooked on that for a while.”
Foxx sums up the appeal. “Ben’s got such interesting equipment, and you’ve only got to choose one of these things and make a track with it, and it sounds like nothing else! There aren’t many studios that have a signature like that, it’s not a conventional sound layout at all, but the sonic signature is really interesting.” He gestures towards an innocuous looking object that sits on a shelf above the Moog. “Even that microphone, it’s a really cheap old thing but it suits the sound, it’s really intimate. I’ve been trying for years to get a mic that sounds like the voices inside your head, and none of the expensive ones could do that, the ones that are a couple of grand each. They’re all great microphones, but this one can do that, it’s like telepathy. I think it’s made by Philips, it’s unbranded – but it’s made in Holland and think it’s from the 60s, and it’s stereo as well. A lot of the equipment is like that, it makes a very exciting sound that you can’t get by any other means.”
The two are in such a rich creative vein of composition it seems inevitable there will be new material soon. Benge prefers to hedge his bets, though. “I don’t know, we’ll see what happens! What we’ve got to do at the moment is try and clear the table as we’ve all got so many projects. We’ve got remixes that we’ve been doing with various people that we need to get finished off, but I’m really excited about working on new stuff with John and we’ll see what we can do.”
“It’s not really a backlog of stuff,” says Foxx, “but there’s a lot of stuff, even with Hannah and Steff as well. “Hannah’s doing The Magnetic North, explains Benge, “which I mixed here, so she’s going to be busy doing that, and a dance thing at Sadler’s Wells too. We’ve both got several projects, remixes and collaborations, and there is talk of working with other people. When all that’s finished we can get on with other things, but there’s about six months’ work there I think.”
The studio doors, it seem, admit a variety of wide-eyed singers and musicians – even Dianne, a Japanese violinist. “She’s come from a completely different musical world to the one we’ve been used to, so we’re trying to get her hooked on synths as well”, says Benge. Foxx stresses the need for balance, though. “When you’ve got half a million quid’s worth of violin we’ve been trying to match that to synthesizers in a way that isn’t vulgar or obvious. It’s been great though, and again it’s interesting when you take people out of orthodox streams of music, and see how they can work with it.”
Our hour in the studio is up – and the day is done for Foxx, who is leaving to attend an art exhibition preview. Benge, however, looks set for a few more hours with another brew on the go. The studio clearly exerts a pull on all who pass through its doors – and the likelihood is that with Foxx and a number of potentially surprising names he will be occupied in making records for a good number of years yet. For now, though, The Shape Of Things will do nicely.
John Foxx And The Maths’ The Shape Of Things is out now on Metamatic. The Soft Moon vs John Foxx And The Maths release Evidence as a 7″ single through Captured Tracks on 26 June 2012. The group play London’s Cargo on 5 September 2012, and will also be appearing at Bestival on the Isle Of Wight on the following day.