Perhaps equally known as the singer/leader of the pre-Midge Ure lineup of Ultravox, and as a solo artist who pioneered the electro revolution in the early 80s, John Foxx’s career has taken many other twists and turns. 3 albums with the band who would be eventually be seen as chart stalwartspreceded a clutch of top 40 albums and singles, though it seemed that others – from Tubeway Army to Depeche Mode – took his blueprint (admittedly itself Krautrock-based) and ran with it, scooping the prizes.
Foxx didn’t get stuck living in the past however – after several diversions away from his electronic sound including The Garden, The Golden Section and In Mysterious Ways, he spent his time running a popular studio, scoring film soundtracks and producing videos. He then disappeared for much of the next 10 years, but re-emerged to release 2 albums in 1997 including one with Louis Gordon, Shifting City. Since then Foxx has got back to regular recording and producing new material, but it’s now that his work has been re-appraised, and indeed re-released, with his solo debut Metamatic getting the full repackaging and remastering treatment. This contrasts neatly with a release which predates the reissue – From Trash, another album with Gordon. It’s at this point, with a UK tour to promote the album imminent, that itm? caught up with John.
Looking back now on the electronic sound of Metamatic, how ‘stylised’ was the emotionless robot style which you shared with Kraftwerk and (in extreme form) Gary Numan? And did follow-up The Garden see you being more yourself?
The Garden is as much me as Metamatic. They’re both really an aspect. But Metamatic is somehow more able to contain what I want – that detached inadequate urban character.
Someone who has so few qualifications to succeed in the situations he finds himself in. Ever hopeful of romance. Trying to maintain dignity against the odds. Just like me really.
The Garden is pleasure, resolution. Metamatic is uncomfortable – grainy and unpredictable – even though the elements feel familiar now. Still surprises me. Feels more true to life, I guess. That’s where I really live.
Metamatic was famously JG Ballard inspired – when you’re writing new material what books (or other art) inspire you nowadays?
Not many single things – though Kazuo Ishiguro can really do it – The Unconsoled was a blinder; the first well documented dream grammar. I think Remains of the Day is one of the best books about England ever written – at least the equal of Brideshead.
Movies… still the same ones – Last Year in Marienbad, Cinema Paradiso (not the director’s cut, though). Movie fragments. Old accidental super 8mm footage. And I’m seeing lots of small digital movies now – films are evolving into something fluid and fascinating at present. Miles away from Hollywood.
Going further back to Ultravox – do you have any qualms about revisiting the past ? So many bands and artists can be precious about these things.
No, I wrote those things anyway, though the band undoubtedly affected things along the way. I’m not precious about anything apart from struggling to maintain an odd kind of dignity. My own version.
How did you feel when the ‘new’ lineup did ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ and other ‘classic’ early Ultravox tunes live? Were you tempted to counter by doing old tunes too, or did you concentrate on Metamatic?
No problem, any of it. Didn’t play live at the time, anyway. I was recording The Garden by then.
What were you doing for 10 years – we know you were making a living through your graphic design training, but were you doing anything musical in the time after Mysterious Ways?
Yes, never stopped. Did lots of early electronic dance stuff. Hapazard. Got lost several times. Getting lost for 10 years can be instructive. Just needed to make some adjustments to my private life, really. Everyone needs one. Me more than most. Plus, I have to go in for repairs from time to time. Not really well qualified for this business at all.
I know you have an interest in films which often come out in the music – have you ever been approached or tried to do more mainstream film work? Or is Tiny Colour Movies (a short-film-inspired instrumental album) closer to your own tastes?
I always see the songs as small movies – theme intro, then the characters emerge, conflict, reassemble, resolve, theme out. All in 3D technicolour or glorious black and white, of course.
I did some work with Michelangelo Antonioni in Rome and a some music of mine was used in a Working Title movie called Inside I’m Dancing recently. Bits and pieces here and there – mostly accidental.
Tiny Colour Movies is a real pleasure to work on, partly because it’s a self generated project and I know it’s eventually going to be released in some form or other.
It’s also collaborative. Working with Mike Barker and others is really instructive. We’re all learning how to make movies, but in a very gentle way. It wouldn’t be like this in the mainstream. There wouldn’t be time and we wouldn’t be able to evolve in the same way.
The major film indistry is enviably lucrative and ferocious fun, but it’s so very volatile – only a small percentage of films in planning ever make it to completion – so you can spend your life chasing projects that never make it to release.
And you have set up art exhibitions – how closely are your art and music intertwined?
The same thing in different forms really. They feed each other. Write a bit of music, imagine a movie, find a photo, alter it into an image, use it to make a song etc.
And a book coming too – I think all we need is a DVD for the complete ‘multimedia’ experience. Or are there other areas you might get into?
Oh, I’ll try anything – complete media slut, me.
You’ve working with Louis Gordon again on From Trash – how can you balance old and new and focus on one thing given you’re stepping back 30 years for Metamatic?
Louis does a lot of the balancing. He bought the stuff when he was a kid and looks at everything from that point of view. A perspective I don’t have. Really valuable, that.
Left to myself I’d go off into complete imbalance or wilful obscurity straightaway.
Louis knows what he wants to hear – and so does Steve Malins. I trust them both enough to listen, though I keep a weather eye out at all times. And do the odd moonlight excursion – always back for breakfast, though.
Are your memories of the early Ultravox days happy ones – or any regrets?
What can I say about it all?
Well, for a start, it’s easy to forget how much deep respect I still carry for that band. They are all damned good, acrobatic, intelligent, shapeshifting, volatile, groundbreaking musicians. They knew the language. Unspoken urban code. By the end we were a powerful electrical unit.
That whole scene – London, Britain, 1970s, marvellous mayhem played out against a truly bleak concrete urban background. Trying to make the soundtrack for post industrial cities, completely, pathetically lost – but a tiny gang of utterly committed losers. Attempting to make some kind of adventure for ourselves, reinvent our little lives into something just a wee bit wider.There’s no substitute for all that. It can only happen once. It hurts and it’s beautiful and daft in equal measure. Either you’re dead, or spinning off dolewards, or you succeed – but never in any way you might have envisiged.
We did all that. None of us will ever forget it and we’re all changed forever as a result. Then it evaporates.
I remember walking around London at 4am in me mac. Came out of a cafe near Store Street.. It was raining. All gone.
Went home, made a cup of tea. Switched on the drum machine. Looked out of the window. Grey. Windy. Gorgeous. Started writing.
You were seen as a pioneer at the time but are you now absorbing or investigating newer acts? Do you hear elements of your own stuff in modern bands, and how do you feel about that if/when it happens?
I listen to everything in passing. Get the flavour. Then I might investigate whatever stays. Lots of recognisable DNA about, but I’m bad at spotting traces of mine until someone else points it out. Then I feel quietly pleased that it still shows up, still gets used.
The Garden saw you shift from pure synth-based music to more traditional’ instrumentation, though you did you come round to synths again?
I left synths alone for a time because everyone and his dog had a synth band by mid 1980. So I did the graceful but daft thing and legged it.
Then I slowly realised that none of them had actually gone that close to my territory. Probably because it wasn’t worth it. They were all getting top ten and I was mostly lower reaches.
But that can have distinct benefits – you can work away and no one interferes, so you can develop things. Take chances. Mess it up once in a while. Go AWOL and start again and still survive. All invaluable. If I’d had more hits it would have killed me, anyway.
So I was free to consolidate all those modes and tunes and overlooked bits and mix them up with versions of someone shadowy until it all felt ok. Truly delightful being able to do all that.
In retrospect, I can now see I’ve often been incredibly fortunate – with people I worked with, and with circumstances – but never in any way I ever expected, so it all remained unrecognisable for a whiile. Then you slowly begin to realise how lucky you’ve actually been.
John Foxx tours the UK around the reissue of album Metamatic – commencing at Glasgow’s Barfly on Thurs 4th October the tour continues via Manchester Uni (Friday 5th), Birmingham Barfly (Saturday 6th), Brighton The Gloucester (Sunday 7th) and London Cargo (Monday 8th), plus a further London show on November 24th…. more details at www.metamatic.com