MOTOR: ‘On 'Metamatic' you famously used the CR-78 drum machine. Do you think the album benefited from the exclusive use of one drum machine?’
JOHN FOXX: ‘Oh yes –you got a real sonic identity right away – just plug the drummer in and off you go. There was a lot of bunk mythology about drums in those days – bands routinely spent days getting a drum sound in studios. Used to drive me nuts.
The CR78 was so brilliant, you could get down to the serious business of sound mashing right away – plus you could put it through lots of those little effects boxes that conventional engineers sneered at. They read technical specs and had forgotten how to listen. But all the high spec boxes were crap. Far too polite. It was the wee cheap ones with the nasty sounds that were truly revolutionary.
At the time, the CR78 also seemed such a little box that no one took it seriously. It was intended for cabaret work - so you didn’t have to pay a drummer and carry a kit around. Not meant for anything significant.
Drums, on the other hand, were very serious - complex and heavy, with a big skilled guy to hit them hard, loads of mystique - specialist microphones all at different angles and mounted on specific stands– it had all become a daft set of studio conventions. Like getting married is now - you get coerced into spending twenty grand and giving all your friends and family a two-week holiday. Totally unnecessary.
I remember thinking my way clear of it all by using something I learnt in art school – the concept of relative scale. If you allow a thing enough space, it can be as big as you like. So I gave the CR78 all the drum space on the record. That gave it room to expand into a proper presence, rather than being a wee add-on, and it also made Metamatic sound very different from anything else around at the time.
Another quirky thing about that machine - it was a very unhip, non-dancing but capable Japanese programmer’s idea of western rhythms, from a cabaret/ lounge point of view - with fundamentally inaccurate waltz, samba, bossa nova, disco and rock thrown in. Pretty wild. You couldn’t fail to get something challenging out of that.’
MOTOR: ‘Do you think it’s an advantage or disadvantage for electronic musicians today have an overwhelming amount of soft and hardware instruments available to them?’
JOHN FOXX: ‘Another valuable thing I learnt in art school is that limitations can be a positive advantage. If you can do absolutely anything, then your work will most likely be a mess.
Operating from self imposed strictures breeds a certain elegance that people seem to instinctively recognize. I guess it’s a relief from the real world, which is a jumble of incoming incoherence.
Compare walking into a minimalist room to a teenage bedroom. Or try putting all your favorite food onto one plate - it doesn’t make a good meal.’
MOTOR: ‘Many of electronic producers today are less musically trained, but much more computer savvy than say the 80's. Everything today fits neatly into genres. These genres become big and then die in the space of a few years. Do you think the lack of human soul and musicality on much of the new electronic/dance music contributes to its short lifespan?’
JOHN FOXX: ‘Things haven’t changed much. I clearly remember a period in the 1960’s when there was a new dance every week –the Watusi, the Frug, the Twist, the Hitchhiker etc – and a new single to go with it - we don’t remember most of em at all.
I think there is room for both long and short-term stuff - Like the difference between newspapers, magazines and novels – all reading matter, but each aiming at different kinds of longevity or immediacy.
Musicality is vital - but not conventional musicality which is built on observing conventions that can efficiently disable you from engaging with anything truly new.
As for Soul – I think that might mean an ability to make what you have available transmit what you want to communicate.’
MOTOR: ‘How do you feel about soft synths - do you think they capture the original synths they aim to emulate? I was always a big fan of the Pro One and the Arp 2600 for example, but I rarely incorporate them in my songs because of the pain of controlling them and recalling sounds/presets. Sampling these synths creates loop based music, but loses the fluidity of the original synths.’
JOHN FOXX: ‘Yes it’s interesting. You can’t shift a sample too much, and softies are useful up to a point but they are too nice to get really rough. If you want something truly mucky and disobedient, then get an old analogue machine. It’s back to that careful engineering and technical spec stuff - the bad behaviour gets ironed out – but that’s what you really want. That’s the whole point. The sound always has to feel bigger than its medium, otherwise it will seem too feeble and passive.
Pushing the envelope is utterly vital to any useful kind of music. Otherwise it just lies down contentedly on the sofa and gets fat on Cowell.’
MOTOR: ‘If you were to record 'Metamatic' today, would you still use the same instruments?’
JOHN FOXX: ‘Well, I guess I wouldn’t record Metamatic today – Then I was trying hard to write about what I was living through, while everyone else seemed to be trying to make the ultimate punk or prog or pop record.
I found it wasn’t easy writing about the present, because of course its always unrecognized at the time. But give it ten years or so and everyone begins to go “oh yea – now I get it”.
It’s the driving forward using the rear view mirror syndrome - that’s what humans do. We’re going forward in time but can’t see ahead at all. All its possible to see is the past. So we don’t recognize the future until it’s gone. Then we know what it was. By then, of course, we’re into another unrecognized present. Hilarious, makes you wonder how we ever got out of the swamp.
I guess Metamatic is getting recognized now, because we have that particular past finally in view for the first time. Took about thirty years and I don’t have enough lifespan to do it all again. It’ll have to be the Watusi next.’