Since what we loosely term as the ‘summer of love’ of 1988, the stock of John Foxx has grown considerably. Cited often as an influence by peddlers of such machines as the 303 and the 808, the electronic pioneer does of course have far more on his CV.
Right now though he’s in the studio, preparing some videos for live performance. Even though the event is less than a day away, he seems relaxed.
“We’re just editing some videos for a show tomorrow, and have just finished the editing of The Quiet Man,” he says.
So how does he intend to perform? He considers briefly. “There’s a grand piano that I’ll be playing, and a synthesizer also. I think it’s alright to be using the two, and since I’ve been working with Harold Budd I find I really enjoy working with grand piano, although in this case it is treated with reverb and so on. I just like the sound of the piano, and I always have done. I think it’s a very minimal sound, yet it’s so rich that it carries, and all the harmonics get multiplied and fill a lot of space. It’s rather like looking down a microscope.”
Though he likes altering the sound of a piano, Foxx admits he’s unlikely to go the whole hog as composers such as John Cage have done. “I like some treated piano, but the Cage method – that’s more destructive, it’s using noise rather than music or harmonies. I like what Cage did, and the theory that music is organised noise – well, it’s actually true. I’m very interested in all of that, and there are a lot of people like Holger Czukay from Can who are pupils of Cage.”
He concedes to rather liking elements of musical instruments other than just the pitches they make. “Absolutely – I always enjoyed the noisy side of things. If you use synthesizers you’re forced to think about all those elements, the idea of working with and creating building blocks.”
“I don’t listen to my stuff very much at all if I’m being totally honest, and when I do sometimes it’s a bit of a shock”– John Foxx keeps a distance from his newly reissued material
The Foxx catalogue has grown considerably of late, with several albums reissued and a new best of, entitled Glimmer, released. I’m interested to know if he had any say in its running order. “I did, yeah, and what I like to do is ask around me and see what people think. I’m not the best person to judge my own work, and so I asked people like Louis Gordon and Steve Malins what they thought.”
And was it a process of rediscovery as the reissues were ironed out? How does Foxx feel an album like The Garden has fared over time? As it turns out, he doesn’t have an answer, though he considers carefully. “I don’t listen to my stuff very much at all if I’m being totally honest, and when I do sometimes it’s a bit of a shock. Some things seem to have worn well, whereas others don’t. I think that until you get to the stage where someone else did them, you can’t be objective. The hardest thing is viewing them objectively, and that’s why it’s not important what I think about the music.”
In amongst the recoating of old material, Foxx is working on new material, new collaborations. “I’ve been working with Paul Daley, of Leftfield, also with Steve Jansen, David Sylvain‘s brother, and an album with Robin Guthrie that we’ve just finished. Harold has been working with a piano again which is nice, so he’s sent some things over for me to work with and on.”
Exploring the Daley connection, Foxx confesses to a liking of dance music. “I like stuff that’s beat driven, and I particularly like elements of that slightly punky side of dance music, the very London street feel.” On Daley’s input, he says, “He travels a lot and DJs, and he hears a lot when he’s doing that. That scene is still very intact, it grows and shrinks but these ideas are all fascinating to listen to. I like working with Paul because he knows about sounds, about what makes that scene and about real craftsmanship.”
“I particularly like elements of that slightly punky side of dance music”– John Foxx on his recent work with ex-Leftfield member Paul Daley.
While he’s name checked by current electro heads, Foxx pitched in when the late 1980s was causing a rethink of electronic music’s direction. “It was one of those things, I found people had been calling me up a lot. I had all the kit – the 909 and the 808, and at the beginnings of acid house, people wanted to work with these sounds but didn’t have all the equipment, so I used to get loads of calls from people. Tim Simenon and LFO were the most interesting guys I worked with though, and Tim in particular I found very open minded.”
And what of today’s open homage to the era? “The danger is making pastiches and imitating them. Every genre does this – they look at what they grew up with and use building blocks for their own construction. What you have is something that needs its own new bit of grammar for another generation. It eventually grows into something that’s fit for the modern age. When it turns into something else it becomes interesting. I think it’s true to say all musicians start imitating their heroes, then end up killing them!”
A specific name-check for Foxx came from 2007’s big band Klaxons, for which the subject is grateful. “It’s nice when people do name check. I like their music a lot, and the way they were doing it as well. I found it a spirit of refreshment after the style that people were calling ‘shoegaze’. They take a lot of elements and have made an interesting sound and approach.”
We move on to talk about a love of Foxx’s, the idea of music through natural noise. “In modern life you get these tremendous rushes of sound. I remember recording an underground train once, and I was astounded at the levels of bass. The power of that sound was incredible; it illustrated what’s always going on in the city. All these things we filter out selectively.” He pauses. “You know, there’s a whole movement about tuned buildings where you mic buildings up – there’s a whole group of people who do that, tuning cities if you like. You set up an atrium. I remember hitting that with a choir once, where we sung a note that suddenly got much louder because of the natural frequency of the building we were in. I didn’t understand for so long how that happened, and how when you talk in a pub you talk at a certain frequency to make yourself heard.”
This taps into another love of the Ultravox founder – cities. “City scapes have always interested me from day one. For some reason it was always the urban landscape for me!” Which is where we have to leave it – for Foxx’s current landscape is a darkened room somewhere in London. “It’s looking like an all-nighter tonight” he notes ruefully – but deep within lurks the conviction he’ll get it all finished.