Long a standard bearer for experimental electronic pop music, Future Sound of London returned in the summer of 2002 with its first album in seven years, The Isness (Hypnotic). The record is as steeped in rock’s rich analog psychedelic past as the band’s previous recordings have scouted out the hazy digital future. It’s as heady and philosophical as Dead Cities, the album’s distant predecessor, was harsh and fatalistic.
On the phone from London, the more verbal half of the FSOL duo, Garry Cobain, talked about the journey from millennial claustrophobia to open-ended cosmic consciousness. His take on contemporary electronic music is, at times, brutally frank; at one point he dismisses it as “quite cold, quite dark, quite miserable.” It’s informative to get his perspective — that of a digital provocateur who rediscovered analog, classic-rock sounds and techniques. Cobain and his FSOL partner, Brian Dougans, created an electronica milestone 10 long years ago with the single “Papua New Guinea,” and followed through on its promise with a handful of albums, notably ISDN and Dead Cities, that got darker and more richly layered with each passing technological upgrade.
The only way to fully appreciate the gap between Dead Cities and The Isness, other than hearing them back to back, is to imagine Philip Glass having followed up his minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach with a Romantic flute concerto, or Radiohead having followed its fragmented Kid A album not with the complementary sounds of Amnesiac but with a full-length record of anthemic U2 covers.
“I guess the starting point of the record was this realization that we weren’t turned on by cold, programmed electronica,” says Cobain.
Such is the shock that awaits FSOL fans who enter the world of The Isness unprepared for its caked layers of orchestration, its lengthy patches of folkie back-porch mysticism, its full-body nods to Indian raga. Put simply, the present sound of the Future Sound of London is, in fact, London’s past; the album is ripe with references to the Beatles, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, not to mention the early electric-jazz work of Miles Davis, which prominently featured British guitarist John McLaughlin.
Guests on the new album include Mike Rowe, a latter day Britpop figure thanks to his work with Oasis; Captain Beefheart alumni Gary Lucas; and Max Richter, who has recorded contemporary classical work, but who was most widely heard on his orchestrations for In the Mode, the 2000 album from drum’n'bass act Roni Size and Reprazent.
Visit FSOL’s Internet home page and you’ll find several chapters of “ramblings” that document Cobain’s spiritual dissolution following the cyberpunk rigor of Dead Cities. As it turned out, the exhaustion was not simply spiritual. Cobain spent several years dealing with failing health, only to eventually track the problem back to his teeth. His fillings had been leaking mercury and decimating his immune system. (It’s helpful to hear the new album’s title as an antonym for “illness.”)
And so, in a roundabout manner best left for him to explain, below, Cobain found himself reveling in the studio ingenuity of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s at a moment when alt-country bands such as Wilco are experimenting with tape loops and sound effects.
As Cobain explains, The Isness documents his own search for a balance between “soul” and “technology” (a sign of his rebirth, he steps out from behind the mixing board and sings). And fond as he is of Isness‘ sloppy, “flawed” effluence, he’s excited about returning to his samplers. “I’m quite getting back into my machines,” he reports.
Marc Weidenbaum: I was just reading the journal you have on line at the Future Sound of London homepage.
Garry Cobain: The ramblings?
Weidenbaum: Yes, and I was having trouble getting to your last chapter, the fourth one.
Cobain: I haven’t written it yet. I’m very happy because everybody always comes back to me and tells me there’s a technical jam, but it’s just my lazy ass.
Weidenbaum: You can blame the computer for a few more months. I was wondering what it feels like to be in the midst of doing press for the new album following such a long absence from public life.
Cobain: It feels joyous. It’s nice speaking to people, it’s nice trying to explain the inexplicable. [Laughs]
Weidenbaum: It’s clear from the lyrics on the album that you’re enjoying reveling in a kind of meaninglessness.
Cobain: Yes. What I’m reveling in more is a meaningless significance. Everything means something to me, but I enjoy the idea, the child-like idea, of things that somehow have a deeper kind of resonance, but you don’t know quite why. It’s that kind of cutup technique where you jostle words ’round, and if they land in the right way, they convey something that’s almost like hinting at something. I think that’s why I’ve always been quite good at this, really. It’s the idea of how can we put sound and image together, to try and hint at the meaning of the universe, without knowing at all what the meaning of the universe is.
Weidenbaum: Words are like samples in that way. When you use them in the way you do, they have not just their defined meaning, but also this pure sound value, and possibly the associations for where you heard those sounds before.
Cobain: Yes, of course. That’s the great thing about sampling, isn’t it. There’s a whole history involved in the sound, and where it’s come from.
Weidenbaum: Your online journal makes it clear that you felt exhausted by Dead Cities and needed to move on.
Cobain: The reason why I couldn’t get further is those three chapters cover about the first week after Dead Cities. I realized it was gonna be one hell of a book [Laughs]
Weidenbaum: That was a week? So much happened: your trip to L.A., your failing health.
Cobain: It doesn’t cover very long. There’s been a lot happening in five years. It is a vast book, actually. It just depends how much time one spends writing about the past.
Weidenbaum: With having someone like Gary Lucas around, were you tempted to speak with him about his work with Captain Beefheart?
Cobain: I think the thing about Brian and myself is that we don’t place that much value on histories. If that person is alive now and has still a great charisma, then the fact they kind of did something in the past is an additional cool. We had Donovan and many great people coming into the studio over the last five years, and the reason why we hooked into these people is they’re very much alive now. Yeah, we like the association with Captain Beefheart, but I’ve never really owned any of his records, I don’t really dig that many of them. I think I have one, is it Trout Mask Replica? And I think I tried listening to it once and I couldn’t get beyond this. I’m not that proud of that association, though I do realize it’s quite a cool one. He’s just very alive [Gary Lucas], very present, and kind of a like soul.
Weidenbaum: I was wondering how he and Max Richter worked together, since they have a broad range of experience in classical and rock and other areas.
Cobain: Max didn’t every really work directly with Gary. Max’s work on pretty much most of the tracks were generated acoustically, apart from one, which is “[Her Tongue Is] Like a Jellyfish,” which has got a Max orchestration. We were just farming stuff over to him at his studio, but on a couple of tracks I went over there and laid down, like, rough versions on vocals and guitar parts and he would orchestrate them. And then we would layer that process up, but as the vision began to get more grandiose, we had this vision of the ultimate cosmic psychedelic one-man band — just because we could do it. We suddenly realized we didn’t really have any prison walls, and that we could just celebrate sound and we wanted — I think, because quite a lot of music has become quite scientific and quite mind-oriented, and even our music was quite mental, was quite intellectual, very weirdly structured and quite computerized, and I loved that. It was a very important part of this journey, but we suddenly wanted this freeform jamming orchestrated … just for the hell of it. People would say, You can’t use a 64-piece orchestra because it’s so expensive, and we’d say, Fuck it: I want to sing with an orchestra. The record company at the time would say to us, You can only use an orchestra if it’s gonna be a definite hit single. And we’d say, Number one, I’m not interested in a hit single, because it seems to me that everybody’s trying to get a hit single. I’m interested in trying to make one of those records that I go round to my friends’ houses and they’re all really proud of, you know? And those records wouldn’t be played on radio right now. Nobody would play [the Rolling Stones'] “2000 Light Years from Home” on the radio right now. but that’s such a great song. [The Beatles'] “Tomorrow Never Knows” would not be a single, but it’s so amazing, and generation after generation of people have found that track. And then you go deeper, Hariprasad Chaurasia — a flute raga [player] from India — that’s a single, because it revolutionizes my soul, and that’s what a single is to me. So, don’t tell me how and when I can use an orchestra, because I’m just trying to make great music, and I’ve got no appreciation of people putting these rules on me, and I’m just trying to make music that celebrates the potential of the human consciousness, if you like. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.
Weidenbaum: One big thing the album seems to celebrate is British-ness.
Cobain: That’s very good point in a way, because I guess the starting point of the record was this realization that we weren’t turned on by cold, programmed electronica — that’s not to say I won’t come back to that, because now that I’ve done this and I’m involved with this, I’m quite getting back into my machines, but that’s the way the ellipse of life works. At that point I was getting very bored with the very clever scientific program music, that in a way we were being lumped in with, and if you listen to any of my records, they’re always very organic. They’re not that computerized. Yes, they use technology, but they’re incredibly organic as well. And we got really disenfranchised with that thing. We kind of want to put a bit more of an organic, sprawling psychedelia in there, that had more female spirit, and a bit more soul, and a bit more joy. In a way, you know, it’s a very flawed album, but we wanted to celebrate the possibility, the fact there are no prison walls in this life. The illness I had at that point really made me open up to how much of a prison I was living in.
Weidenbaum: You’ve said that you found out after a long period of health struggles that you were suffering from poisoning from mercury fillings.
Cobain: It’s a bit of a con. They call them silver fillings, right? That’s just another way of making you ignorant about the fact that you have the second most toxic substance known to man sitting right in your mouth. The only reason they thought it was safe was because it was affordable, and they assumed that by taking urine samples that it didn’t come out of the body. Saying “silver” is a very good way of avoiding the truth. And I don’t have anything to gain by telling you this. I try and tell people about this. I think this album has become a metaphor for really ancient truths and ancient wisdoms and ancient processes, from tantra to balance to meditation to healthy eating. All of this stuff, I’ve tried to bring it through the album, as I’ve attempted to do that with myself, and to heal myself, I’ve seen all those issues that I’ve begun to address. It’s typical FSOL, really, because every time I undergo anything, I’m not separate from the world that’s spawning me, and every time I plumb into something, I see it happen on a mass-consciousness level in society. And when I travel around the world, I see it everywhere.
Weidenbaum: That holistic view is very much a part of what occurred in the ’60s with artists waking to Eastern traditions, folks like Brian Jones of the Stones, and George Harrison of the Beatles — which is very much the music you’re looking back to on The Isness.
Cobain: Very good point, yes.
Weidenbaum: The promotional material for your album included a list of 15 songs or albums that inspired The Isness, from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” to the Kinks’ “See My Friends.” The Miles Davis album you mention in this list wasn’t one of his classic albums, but instead the remix record, Panthalassa, that Bill Laswell did.
Cobain: That is a genius record, because he has — what he has done on that is he’s given [back] the old spirit — and it’s a spirit I think we’re missing. That’s why at the moment designers, interior decorators, all these people are plumbing into a ’70s cosmic consciousness. Fashion is learning a lot from the ’70s right now, because we’re suddenly realizing that we don’t use color, we don’t use fabric, we don’t use ostentation in any form, because we’ve become quite fearful and we’ve become quite closed down, and we’ve begun to celebrate fear and misery in our lives.
Weidenbaum: The track on your record that has a particular feel from the Davis-Laswell record is “Yes My Brother.”
Cobain: What you’ve revealed in that is you don’t have the new edition of the album. That’s the old version. We changed it. [The record company] released that by mistake. There’s 2500 of those, so you have a rare copy.
Weidenbaum: So the song “Yes My Brother, with Philip Pinn and Herb Moons, is not on the final version of The Isness?
Cobain: That’s not on there. You have to get hold of the new one.
Weidenbaum: Please tell me that “Go Tell It to the Trees Egghead” is still on there, with its great backwoods spiritualism.
Cobain: Yes. Now, going back to your question about the British-ness [of the album], when we were annoyed about the electronic thing that was going on — quite cold, quite dark, quite miserable — all about science, all about technology, we began to — because we live in an area that has so many markets — we began to buy loads of cheap records with exotic covers, that sprung from, like, 1967 onwards. And it enabled us, for the first time, because of the cheapness of most of these records, at bric-a-brac stores, to research the past a little bit more. And after having done that for a while and plugging into all these people that had, as you said a few minutes ago, plugged into this cosmic consciousness of the ’60s and ’70s, we found Alice Coltrane and we found Donovan and we found elements of the Beatles and Kinks, and then we started going further afield into like Indian flute music and then Ry Cooder with V.M. Bhatt down by the river. There was an openness. There’s so many great — the element I really like about that Laswell Panthalassa thing was, he has the wide big spaces of modern production but he has the heart and the soul of that kind of openness, and that’s what we were tying to do, really. Suddenly the idea sprung in us, that what we’d like to do rather than be an electronic band making another weird record, which is always the way we’re perceived, why don’t we pretend we’re the Beatles doing Sgt. Pepper’s, or the Rolling Stones doing Their Satanic Majesties Request, and do a version of that with the way the studio is now, and the potential of what we’ve learned about healing and all that stuff now.
Weidenbaum: The records you were mention, the Satanic Majesties album and, of course, Sgt. Pepper’s, were among the first mainstream releases that used the recording studio as an instrument. Which is what you —-
Cobain: Yes, that’s your tie-in really.
Weidenbaum: That work is what the contemporary electronic-music world came out of. How did you record the new record?
Cobain: It’s been a bit of a mess, really: in a way, very technologically, but in a way very lo-fi. What I mean by that is, Brian had to completely re-jig the studio, and while I was traipsing around India he was getting into new software, getting into Mac-based design, and stuff like that, and revamping the whole studio really, but in that process we ended up, like the Beatles did probably, as some of these tracks unfolded, because they’re such big — I mean, “Galaxial Pharmaceutical” took about a year, and we ended up multi-tracking, recording down into two tracks, overdubbing, overdubbing, overdubbing, losing the originals. … Some of the versions could have been better, but we lost a lot of the constituent parts over the years. We moved studio. We lost discs.
Cobain: It was a real mess. On the one hand, we were really pushing the technology, but on the other we were saying, To hell with it, it’s one big two-track —
Weidenbaum: With a huge hard drive attached. So, is this the new album the document of a learning process?
Cobain: Absolutely. That’s a very important point, too. It’s a very flawed record, but I think the vision of it is one that my heart will always support, and that’s why I can talk about it with such alacrity. It is flawed, but I learned to appreciate that maybe a bit more. I think the reason I can move on as an artist is because it is flawed. There’s so much that’s wrong with the record. I don’t think we have got the balance of soul to technology correct, which is actually what my rebalancing process was about. My attitude is, if you know who you are, and you know yourself, then technology is a very safe instrument. But in the wrong hands, technology is yet another part of the mass sedation. And I wanted my own sedation to end, and I began the journey to get that balance back. I never actually anticipated I’d be the singer on this record, but it was also part of the healing process. And I feel I have that balance more than I’ve ever had it, and now I’m actually getting back into technology again, and right now we are in a great position to make the record this could have been.