* I generally don’t get nervous before interviews (anymore, that is), but for some reason, the thought of meeting Alison Goldfrapp terrified me. It didn’t help that a) Goldfrapp are one of my favourite bands (their debut Felt Mountain made my ‘Albums of the Decade’ list) b) the interview took place after a heavy weekend of partying in London and c) it was in an exclusive members’ club in Notting Hill the day after the BAFTAs, which meant the likes of Matt Dillon and Bobby Gillespie were wandering around. Very offputting. In reality, she was great – polite, but definitely doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I was glad to have it over and done with, though…
Originally published in The Irish Times, March 19th 2010
MAKE NO BONES about it: Alison Goldfrapp’s reputation precedes her. A group of journalists huddle around a table in the bar of a swanky members’ club in northwest London, worriedly discussing the singer’s reputed obstinacy when it comes to dealing with the media.
And then she arrives. Today, the petite musician – aged anywhere between 41 and 45, depending on what you read – is dressed in a baggy shirt, trainers and tinted Ray Ban shades. Her trademark golden ringlets are twisted into tight knots, and she’s got a surprisingly firm handshake. Blimey, there’s even a slight smile creasing the corners of her mouth as she unleashes one deadpan barb after another. Alison Goldfrapp is, well, normal. Although it’s clear that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But what were we expecting – six-inch stilettos and fake horse tails?
And besides, there’s really no reason why she shouldn’t in “good form” – as her label rep has reliably informed us earlier – anyway. Goldfrapp (comprising Alison and co-songwriter Will Gregory), are about to become a permanent fixture on the chart, airplay and festival landscapes this summer. Their fifth studio album Head First marks a return to the stomping, sexy, glamorous synth-rock sound that has informed most of the duo’s career. And it’s a hell of a lot more upbeat than their comparably pastoral last effort, Seventh Tree . Does this about-turn in direction signify a new found happiness in life, or is it simply further progress for one of the most evolutionary bands in recent memory?
“Well, Will’s always happy, and I’m always miserable,” she says with a wickedly sharp cackle. “No, that’s silly. Yeah, I think that’s definitely why we wanted to do this album.After Seventh Tree , we wanted to do something like Supernature again, but differently.
“We’d done the more introspective, dreamy thing, and it just didn’t feel right doing it again. We wanted an ‘up’ sound. We loved all the synths and the drums, and we wanted that – but we wanted it to be different from Supernature. I think what we learned from Seventh Tree was that it had a kind of warmth to it, and a melodiousness to it that we really liked, and we wanted to apply that – but to the synths and that sort of stuff.
“Y’know, it’s bloody good fun doing that stuff. I think our previous stuff had a coldness to it that we got a little bit bored of. There’s something really satisfying about going ‘errrrrrhhhhhhh’ on a synthesiser,” she laughs, thumping the table with her fingers. “It satisfies some basic need. I suppose it’s the same as if you play the guitar, plugging it in and just playing a power riff.”
Finding the right balance between cheesy synth riffs and catchy pop music isn’t always easy, adds Gregory, but it’s something that they’re both aware of when they’re writing. Much of Head First sounds influenced by the 1980s, not least Rocket , and Van Halen-esque love song I Wanna Life .
“I think we do like playing with what lives on the edge of being cheesy,” he nods. “It’s good fun, but you’ve just got to be really careful, because it is a precipice, and it definitely gives things an extra tension when you’re on the edge. Just one extra note in there, and you’ll be like ‘Woaahhhh! I’ve tumbled into some terrible cliché’. I think we do play with that, and I think the 1980s were full of terrible clichés, so it’s an even more perilous place to pick your sounds from. But it’s also quite entertaining.”
Recording the majority of the album in Gregory’s home studio also made a difference to the band’s creativity. While their early days were rife with unhappy recording experiences in desolate cottages or, as Goldfrapp puts it, “expensive, clinical” studios, having the time to develop an album makes all the difference. “I suppose it’s the difference between sitting in an office, and being somewhere you can stare out the window for half an hour without thinking ‘Shit, I’ve just spent another £10,000’,” she says with a wry smile.
As insular and intuitive as their set-up seems, Head First also marks the first time that an outsider has been drafted in for what Gregory calls an “audition of sorts”. Richard X, the pop mastermind behind albums by Róisín Murphy, M.I.A. and, er, Liberty X, took album tracks Alive and Rocket away to work on last year, although it was only his ideas on the former that made the final cut.
“We’ve had this kind of love-hate relationship with the idea of a producer, almost since the beginning,” Gregory explains. “I think we felt that it’d be great to have another pair of hands in there, but we were never quite sure what those hands should be doing. But we kind of feel like having someone to tell us ‘Is this a verse, or is this a chorus; is this a song, even, or should we just bin it?’ you know, whatever it is – someone to just give us a bit of support.
“Obviously, we sit in our houses for hour after hour, day after day, on our own trying to work this stuff out. And we saw lot of people; it was quite entertaining, and it was quite useful, because we played people four or five songs, or wherever we’d got to – and just getting their reaction was actually quite interesting. Richard X totally got what we were doing.”
The duo recently mentioned that 2008 also saw them tussle with managerial problems, although they deny it had any sort of impact on the album. Over the 10 years of their existence, though, they both agree that musicians have inevitably become intertwined with the business side of things – not least because of the boom in illegal downloading. They are somewhat resigned to having their music leaked ahead of schedule.
“If it wasn’t leaked, maybe that’s more worrying, in a way. It’s just a fact of life,” Goldfrapp shrugs. “It makes the whole record company side of things – all the planning that goes into a release, setting up certain things for certain dates – it makes all that kind of thing a little bit redundant. So that’s a bit deflating. It’s not about being in control . . . well, it is about being in control, actually, because you do something, finish it off, and you want to know when you release it. There’s a certain way of doing things, there’s a system of doing things, I suppose, that the record industry still hasn’t adjusted to quite yet. So that it frustrating. But we’re just gonna have to find another system, because it ain’t working anymore.”
“Spotify – that’s incredibly useful,” adds Gregory. “It’s like a big encylopedia in your room, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s really any way we can sit here mocking the internet and what it does – because what it does is so obviously immediately beneficial and useful, there’s just no point in complaining about it. It’s just learning to deal with the fallout and the changes. I think there’s a lot of ‘click’ that goes on. We sit there and we click through things. For every gain, there’s a loss, and I think sitting down and putting a record on for half an hour is quite difficult to do, because we like just to click through things.”
So in this age of insta-pleasure, it’s good to be a band that make albums, rather than disposable collections of singles that fizzle out after a year, I suggest. Goldfrapp have always been an “albums” band, and Head First is no different – but it’s definitely stocked with enough infectious tunes to launch the band back into the charts after its comparatively sedate predecessor.
“I think it’s going to be good to play live, that’s undeniable,” says Goldfrapp. “There’s certain sounds and certain tempos that you just know are going to sound really good fun to do. As for radio and all that stuff, that just feels like a world that we don’t know anything about, and it’s just a bloody mystery. I mean, BBC Radio 1 won’t playRocket , for instance. It’s just ‘not Radio 1’, apparently. I don’t think you can predict that sort of thing. It’s pointless us trying to predict it. Let the record company get their knickers in a twist about it!”
Leaving the sales figures and radioplay chart to their record company is one thing – but when you’re credited with reinvigorating a genre that was consigned to the bargain bin, you must feel some sort of responsibility to maintain a certain standard of quality.
“We were talking about this the other day,” nods Goldfrapp. “It’s kind of funny, because when we didSupernature , nobody knew what the fuck to call it. They didn’t know how to categorise it. Whereas now, any band with a synthesiser is called electro-pop. They didn’t know what we were doing, whether it was rock, or dance music.”
“I don’t know,” adds Gregory. “It just seems like . . . hell, there were synths going on before we did it. I don’t know why we sort of get credited with starting a trend.”
Perhaps not starting a trend, I suggest, but maybe making synthesisers cool again, after the overindulgence of the 1980s – at least for a younger generation. A large percentage of young bands seem to make synths an integral part of their sound, although few have live shows as ostentatious and theatrical.
“Is that true? Really?” Gregory says disbelievingly. “Well, I think so. I like to think so, anyway,” giggles Goldfrapp. “Oh God,” the shaggy-haired Gregory deadpans, holding his head in his hands. “What have we done?”