Mixmag October 1996: The Most Important Moments in a Life
Future Sound Of London's Brian Dougans has 'social interaction problems', while partner Garry Cobain can't decide who he wants to be. Their new album Dead Cities is the sound of the life in the most fucked up, avant garde electronica duo in the world. But they like it like that.
Decaying, desolate urban sprawl. Rats chewing through rubbish on the cracked pavement. A solitary psychopath monitoring the noise of his neighbours. A weirdo snorting his own dead skin cells to stay young. All these compulsive disorders that arise out of city life. Dead cities. They should burn this fucking place down and start again.
Here are Future Sound Of London in their bunker in the pebble-dashed sprawl of nowhere North West London. Here is skinhead Brian Dougans, silent and sly, leaning up against the wall with his omnipresent spliff. Here is Gary Cobain, blond streaks and baggy pants, holding forth on the book that accompanies their new album Dead Cities and the stories within it. About the guy who snorts dead skin cells like cocaine in hope of preserving his youth: "Chops out lines of dead shit, 100% pure". About his conspiracy theory concerning the speed cameras that guard London's trunk roads - that they look deliberately cumbersome and old-fashioned, so the speeding drivers won't take them seriously. So the Government can gather information and thus rid the city of troublesome motorists.
Garry's been done for speeding then. Now it's a conspiracy. Aren't you just universalising your own experience here? He stops dead, in mid-flow. Laughs. Like the thought had never occured to him. "It's just a book, man," he says. "It's fun, it's just a pisstake. I just thought it was a fun thing to do, doing some writing. I enjoyed it too, quite a liberating experience."
Here are two men who have spent ten years in a room together, getting weirder, more intense, richer. Two men who have made some of the most mesmerising electronic music ever made, who have bucked the system, making records that make as much or as little sense as you want them to. Worrying about speeding and neighbours (Wise old hippy saying: just because you're not paranoid, doesn't mean they're not watching you).
A lone cyberpunk standing against a wall composing a letter to his mother. Yesterday I killed a man, he writes. First death in the family? Dead cities. They should raze this fucking place to the ground.
It's not what your common or garden weirdo electronic music production duo talk about is it? Dead cities, muder in the family. With FSOL, it never was. On their way to success, other fine electronic music artists like Goldie and the Aphex Twin and Underworld and The Chemical Brothers have - like it or not - bowed to the way the rock-dominated record industry works and released singles and performed live and become rock acts, Future Sound Of London have not. Oh yes, they've played all over the world - by digital ISDN phone line, without leaving their studio. Oh yes, they've released singles, but singles that were 40 minutes long and came in six different episodes. Yes their last album Lifeforms (ISDN being, strictly speaking, a live album) sold 80,000 copies, but they remain aloof and alone, part of no scene, namedropped by no other electronic artists yet sampled wholesale by junglists, sending out videos and radio shows and pictures and records, picked up and absorbed all over the world. From their bunker in the red brick sprall in a corner of the dead city London.
Here are Future Sound Of London with a new album Dead Cities that may be their finest, most intense, most fucked and yet most pleasurable yet. An act who when on TV provide the video, when they appear on radio they provide the programme, when they appear in a magazine they provide the pictures. In modern music, they are alone in this.
Two very different men, who've spent ten years in a room together. One dour Scot who says little, smiles to himself and never changes his shaven head/combat keks look. One flamboyant southerner who switches his hair colour, clothes and image more than most people change their socks, then appears lounging in his designer warehouse flat in The Observer and Vogue. Who are these people? What are they really like? How do you spend ten years in a small room with one other person without killing them? Brian Dougans says that when they mastered their new album onto vinyl, he hated it. He stares out of the window of [Vit's] Thai cum greasy spoon caff, sucks in his breath, gives out little whistles. Phew! "It's like having a new baby. Perhaps. I rejected it. I rejected what we did. I think it was a bulk of work, it was a period of time. It has its moments, and other moments are like..." He lets out the whilst again, "Phew!"
"I can't take criticism and I can't take adoration, I've got a real problem with both," he ponders. "I don't know what we've done, it's hard. There's moments I think 'Yeah, we were close'".
Close to what? Who knows? Certainly not Brian. Dead Cities lies on the top of an impressive body of work that includes the international acid house hit "Humanoid" Brian produced and performed on Top Of The Pops as Stakker. "Papua New Guinea", the sweeping breakbeat dub drama that moved clubbers with its raw instrumental emotion. Lifeforms, a searing, painful soundscape of an album, that left the listener baffled. The artschool trip hop they turned to as Far Out Son Of Lung and called, with an ever-present wry humour, "Smokin' Japanese Babe". The 'live' ISDN album. And a swarn of early 90s aliases like Smart Systems and Yage and Mental Cube; playing with beats and the techno formula, getting played by rave details and Andrew Weatherall alike.
Now Dead Cities. Where Lifeforms was a claustrophobic album, Dead Cities reaches out. Garry will tell you that Lifeforms is about being closeted in one little room in the city and Dead Cities is about all the lives of all the little rooms in the city. What is true is that the individual tracks are stronger, sweeping from the cut-up, Run DMC chaos of "Herd Killing" and the harsh electro-funk of "We Have Explosive", to huge pits of chaos and noise and melody, climbing out again into tearful chunks of Ennio Morricone, and absurdly pretty ambient moments like "First Death In The Family" (that letter). Climbing out and taking the listener with it with the strength of the grooves, because more than anything else, FSOL understand rhythms. Fast breaks, slow funky hip hop, rolling Pink Floyd rock; it doesn't matter - whether your grooves are good enough, you can put anything else on top. FSOL know this.
It's a soundscape. It's art. You put your headphones on, or you wack it on the car stereo, you listen. You listen and listen and finish it bewildered, sad, amazed, exhausted. It is an album with a breadth and depth and style and scope beyond pretty much everyone else working on the sharp edges of electronica. Drive around a big city like the capital and it all becomes clear: it is the future sound of London. And Brian hates it.
He is from the south side of Glasgow. His dad was a technical supervisor for Scottish Television and ever since Brian gave him an Apple Mac they communicate by E-mail. "There's this weird technical bond with me and my old man," he says. Leaving school at 16, Brian spent four years working for the electricity board until his discovered marijuana and, consequently, music. "I used to hang out with - I won't say it," he says. "I was going to say Howie B, but I don't wanna say that. He used to have this youth club sort of thing, where the first band he was in used to rehearse. He had this weird big tape machine that used to play Herbie Hancock, guy was a fucking due, smokin' spliff".
He jacked in the electricity board and moved to Manchester to study sound engineering. He set up his own home studio and started working on his own stuff, influenced heavily by the industrial funk of Sheffield's Cabaret Voltaire and the proto-house of British pioneers Chakk. He worked in a Manchester club called The International, collecting glasses, nipping in and out of the bogs to pipe up another nip of weed. He met Garry and the two started working together. He met a guy caled Buggy G Riphead who still produces The Future Sound Of London's visuals. Brian produced "Humanoid" (Buggy did the video), had a hit, moved to London. He is 31.
That's half the story, half the life, the facts. What about the rest, the things that really changed Brian Dougans' life? How did he get from the electricity board to this studio of computers in London? In fact, let's be specific: what are the most important things that ever happened to him?
"Phew!", he goes. "Tough one". Then he starts talking.
"That just rocked my head, turned me into a real human being. Around the age of 18, there was this guy I knew used to work for the electricity board and he said 'You ever smoked spliff?' So he brought some in the next day, did one of those bong things, we were just racking spanners and all sorts of electric meters, nobody around. I was off my head, weird spirals, manically laughing. At that point I kind of awakened to myself, somehow. I met these guys, they were in a band, started scoring off them, started getting into music. From that I decided 'Yeah, music's a good way to go'. Which probably leads on to Gaz".
"He was serving some beers behind a bar [at the International club in Manchester, around 1986] and somebody said 'That guy plays bass'. He had weird long Chakk type hair all down his face. I thought he looked a bit slimy at the time. I'm not sure about this guy. But actually he turned out to be really quite interesting."
Buggy G/Morgan Khan
(Khan owned Streetsound Records and released the Stakker record on his own West Side subsidary. A long financial dispute between Dougan and Khan was won by Brian after he was granted legal aid;) "I met Bugs in the Hacienda through this other guy who said, 'When you speak to Bugs, don't speak shit to him. Speak directly to him, and only say what needs to be said.' So I immediately started speaking shit to him and Bugs just walked away." Despite the bad start, they worked together on some MTV themes in the same studios, Spirit, as 808 State. "There was a weird respect. The product seemed to be working and there was weird visuals, weird music. It was brand new, it was well out there."
"Papua New Guinea"/Virgin Records
"Papua New Guinea" went right around the world. There was a bidding war between major labels. Virgin won. "It was all strange. We were throwing water on chairs and getting people up to sit on the wet chair to see how much they would squirm on it." The man from Virgin declined the damp seat; FSOL signed. "They've been alright. They still don't understand us, y'know, they're a record company, they want to sell records. They don't understand half the philosophies, why the hell we don't play live, why we don't do this, why we don't do that."
The Apple Macintosh Computer
"As soon as I got the Mac everything changed for me. I suddenly realised there's more to music. I guess I've got an urge to create constantly, and just doing it in the one medium is pretty boring, so with getting the Mac it was learning animation, graphics, layout, Internet, music on the Mac, it's a whole world. I go home and just sit infront of it. Learning, fucking books, reading, Net. I guess I'm pretty boring.
Brian lives with his girlfriend, who also produces music on the trip hop/jazz dub/funk trickery side of things, though he doesn't want anyone to know who she is (she's [Neotropic], on the Ninja Tune label). Through meeting Brian, he claims "she's realised there's more to life than just partying or just being stupid, there's actually a serious path that you can persue to get into your own head." What does he mean by "partying and being stupid"?
"Aaaah. The old dead cities thing, y'know. People are just stupid. It's a dead city full of zombies. There's more to life than that. I have a real problem with clubs and shit. I guess it's my problem. I've got a social problem -" and he spits this "- I've got a social interaction problem".
He says he has no friends. "What does a friend do? What is a friend? I'm being genuine, I'm not just being an arsehole. I don't know. My girlfriend's a friend - of course. Gaz is a friend, although we're so ensconced in business we don't hang out together outside the studio. Not really".
Brian demonstrates his social interaction problem with a story about being recognised by one of Autechre in the shop Ambient Soho. It freaked him, and he rapidly left. "Don't think I'm happy," he states. "Don't know what would make me either. It's like a constant energy, a feeling of needing to work. It's always like never-ending. Why can't I take a holiday and forget about everything? What is all this leading to anyway? Is it just about money, is it about making money?"
Yet he says this all with a rueful smile on his face. And after a conflict he has accepted that his girlfriend does need to go out and dance and see people. And she does and that's cool, he stays home with the Mac. That's the thing with Future Sound Of London: they tell you all this stuff but they smile while they're saying it. It's almost like they're proud of themselves, they enjoy it.
Gary Cobain is the opposite. Nervous, vain, insecure, entertaining, paranoid, obsessed with himself and hating himself for it. Sometimes unrecognisable because he changes his image so much: blue hair and flying jacket for the Brit Awards; today, long blonde streaks, striped sweater, baggy silk pants and trainers. Socks worn low inside to give the appearance of not wearing any, without the accompanying smelly sneakers. He puts me in his convertable Mercedes and drives round so we can listen to the album again. Then he takes me to a bench at the top of a hill in the local park, looking down at the view that provided the title for their new single, "My Kingdom".
He's basically from Bedford, strict family, studied hard so he could go to college in Manchester - home, at the time, to so much great music. Got there and pretty soon jacked in his electronics degree figuring he had a year to sort himself out. Tells a good story as we sit in the wind about having the first slow dance of his class at a school disco and the whole school freezing to watch it. Chuckling, "So I've always been a bit of a groundbreaker." Only half joking, you suspect.
Met Brian at the International. "There is a bit of a heirarchy involved in working in a club, because the people working behind the bar are cool, they're the interfacers, and the people that collect the pots are scum. Brian was a pot collector," he remembers, grinning. "I saw this little sort of guy with dungarees, big chucky Docs that he'd cut off, and he had this weird springy hair. He looked really cool. I just looked at him and thought, "Cabaret Voltaire, the guy's a dude."
As you might expect, Gary's five life-changing experiences pan out rather differently.
First Cool Friend
"He dressed pretty different, different outlook, he seemed that much older than everybody else. We were about 14. The first time I met this guy we were wandering along from school, and this older girl who was like four years older, in the sixth form, was running along going 'You bastard, you bastard, you never phoned me', this beautiful sixth form girl. A guy of 14, this girl was 18. He gave me my first Doors tape, all alternative shit, the Stooges. He had hair like Jim Morrison, all bushy, I went to an Oxfam shop and bought my first overcoat with him. He opened me up to John Peel, and from then on I could be myself almost. I didn't need to follow fashion, I could be myself. His name was Paul Romans."
From Bedform To Manchester
"The second one was working hard and having very strict parents, then suddenly taking their money and running. I got the grades to go to Manchester, I didn't want to go anywhere else. Anywhere that had such good music I was going there. Now I'm going to be a musician."
"Number three has to be that moment when I took my first bong, Brian's millionth, and I had it with him. It wasn't a bong though, it was a hot knife, and I listened to his music and realised I'd found someone who was really fucking good. Somebody who was as good as what I heard on records."
Being Rejected By Record Companies
"Doing music and getting turned down by record companies. Doing music for the wrong reasons. You want to break into the music industry so you can do your own thing and you feel that it's quite difficult, and you feel that you need to be what everybody else is, and I wasn't myself. At a point Brian and I were not making music we really believed in. Probably around the end of "Humanoid". You do your first piece of music to come out on vinyl, and it goes Top 20 around the world. At that point you get introduced to all this shit in the music industry you haven't seen before. And you have somebody phoning you up going, 'Would you have dinner with this top name designer, or would you have dinner with another popstar?' And these people you think are wankers, now you don't, because it's exciting."
Playing The Popstar
"Beginning to live like I thought I should, going out a lot, shagging a lot, taking drugs. Taking the other side of it, and living like it, and using what I had in a way I never had. Playing the popstar, and having blue spikey hair, looking mad, and people thinking this guy's mad. It wasn't me." This all happened late last year/early '96. Gary was necking magic mushrooms from a jar in the fridge and pissing it up. It made him ill with a kidney disorder. He stopped.
Just A Thought
"The fifth one is just a thought, really. And that is that all the stuff I fucking loved as a kid, all the stuff I wanted to be, the moment I realised that everybody's different and I'm different. It's almost like everybody's given a set of cards at birth and the whole trick of life is to work out how your cards fit best for you and how you can do best with your cards. Looking at people like Bowie and artists you've loved over the years and trying to be like that, just makes you a prick... It's like my influences and there's hundreds of them - I don't need to be them."
29 years old and Garry is the popstar no more. But why does he still change the way he looks so much? I had to ask: Brian told me to. "I guess it's like the music, it's kind of like, I ain't happy with me, I am happy with me, with parts of me, but I'm always finding new bits. That set of cards I was just talking about? I'm always shifting, trying to find my perfect pair."
Yeah, and if you thought Brian's relationship with his girlfriend was a little strange, check this out. Garry shares his designer warehouse pad with Meredith, a buyer. They've known each other for ten years, they were, he says, madly in love for five, then drifted apart and split up. Now they're back together again. "Realised that we really love each other, love living together, but realised we can't have a conventional relationship anymore. So we live together, sleep together, never have sex, and we go and have seperate boyfriends and girlfriends. That was a good moment for me."
In his book High Fidelity, about an obsessive trainspotter who owns a record shop, Nick Hornby wonders about the effect a lifetime listening to pop music has on a personality. How do you deal with the realities of a relationship, for instance, if you're absorbed in pop music, which deals only in the dizzy heights of emotion? How can real love match up to your pop-centric expectations?
What if you spend the mid-80s in Manchester listening to funky art noise like Cabaret Voltaire and dreaming about being David Bowie? What if you are one of those young men in dusty shared houses obsessing over music, and for you it comes true, you are the one making the records? What if you spend ten years burrowing into strange electronic music and rhythms and discover you are really really good at it?
You become Future Sound Of London. You learn to live with it. You dive straight in and survive it. And when the world comes knocking at your studio door, you let it peep in through a digital ISDN phone line.
Brian Dougans and Garry Cobain understand mysique and stardom and use it for their own ends. Unlike so many underground artists who freeze when the cameras come knocking, FSOL have the will to control the interface with media and audience, exploit their own personality quirks to help the music, tell you they're weird, paranoid, obsessive. And they are, but I sense they're comfortable with that, that it is, after all, pop music to them. That in a way, their dreams, creative and otherwise, came true.
It is their ideas that really excite them, and thankfully, they have no illusions about becoming Tangerine Dream type composers. Their biggest argument with Virgin Records is about playing live - and they will never do it. It is about the work, sitting in a room, absorbing the internal - moods, dreams, fears - and the external - TV, radio, old records, rats, neighbours - and churning the whole damn lot into something that means as much or as little as the world around them. It is about this music that also comes from dancefloors but also goes right back through 50s classical and 60s art rock and 70s progressive rock and 80s punk funk and 90s acid house, that is so much bigger than clubs right now. This music that is the sound of the world today, unlike the retro stylings of the indie world. This is not the Future Sound, it is the present, right here, right now.
Gary meanwhile is railing about the Orb, about how they got fantastically boring when Alex Patterson started thinking he was a musician, not a sample king. "You ain't no muso, you're a theif. You're a fucking pickpocket, and a good one."
He is, of course, talking about himself.
Black cracked tarmac and charred ruins. No rats since they torched this fucking city. No people, empty rooms. Only one thing reminds me what this dead city was like before they burnt it. That CD I found in the fireproof safe in the place called Virgin. Strange sounds, noises nice and nasty. Future Sound Of London they called it Future passed now.