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Old 5th October 2003   #1
V Knid esq
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LFO interview

I did this for "a best-selling right-wing broadsheet newspaper" but it never ended up getting published, so bear with me if it appears as if it's addressing a less-than-musically-educated audience...



I have to keep reminding myself that the man sitting opposite me in this funky Leeds café is a bona fide rave legend and producer for some of the coolest and most influential names in music. As Mark Bell – a shortish, unpretentious Yorkshireman, cheery despite having a bit of a cold – reminisces about his early musical experiences, he seems no different to any early-30s clubber looking back on the old days. Yet the story he’s telling was to have lasting repercussions for the sound of the 1990s and beyond.

“Me and me mate Gez started going to the Warehouse in Leeds; they'd play Mantronix, early Chicago house, soul, all on the same night, mixed up by all the DJs. You'd get allsorts there from goths to zoot suit jazz dancers to b-boy style kids; I really don't know what drugs were around then - I was sixteen and pretending to enjoy half a lager and lime. We gave a tape of our recordings to 'DJ Martin' who helped loads with arranging our tracks so it'd work on the dancefloor. We’d just been messing around with drum machines since we were like thirteen, tapping away at them like they were arcade games, making tapes to play our mates at school. Anyway, DJ Martin would play our cassettes in his sets and people would go mental - in a good way - cos they were totally raw. Me and Gez would be so proud, nodding at each other - that was enough for us, we really didn't consider anything being released, we were complete!”

However, it didn’t end with that completion. The owners of the fledgling Sheffield techno label WARP Records were regulars at the Warehouse too, and in 1990, snapped up Mark and Gez’s track ‘LFO’ to be one of the first releases on the label. It was truly an epoch-defining tune, mixing the machine funk of Detroit techno with the northern electronics of Cabaret Voltaire and, crucially, a simple but gigantic speaker-shattering subsonic bassline. Its Speak’n’Spell machine vocals could be heard in raves from Penzance to Aberdeen, and it crashed the Top 10, memorably causing a bitter Steve Wright to declare it “the worst record ever”. An album, ‘Frequencies’ followed in ‘91, spawning more hits, more rave moments, and collaborations with the boys’ all time heroes Kraftwerk and other electronic dons.

Rather than capitalise on their success, though, Mark and Gez promptly went home and took it very easy. Five years separated ‘Frequencies’ and their second album ‘Advance’, but the album was warmly received, and cemented their place in the burgeoning electronica scene. Gez left shortly after, and Mark managed to wait a full seven years before releasing the stunning new LFO album, ‘Sheath’. He doesn’t see this as strange, though: “Yeah, people always say ‘where have you been’, or talk about our influence, and that makes us seem like the old guard, but it doesn’t feel like that. I don’t know where all the time goes. I’m doing the same thing whether I’ve got an album out or not – making tunes at home is what I do, that’s what I love, not the promoting and packaging. So when people say ‘oh you’ve been away’, I haven’t – I’m still doing exactly the same thing, making tunes and hanging out with my friends up here.”

He hasn’t just been in his bedroom, mind: Mark has also been spending time in the studio defining the sounds of his childhood heroes Depeche Mode and 21st Century diva Bjork. Even on this subject, he’s pragmatic: “It’s been crazy, coming from my little bedroom studio to these incredible expensive recording places. With Depeche Mode I’d just end up hiring a little mixing desk and setting up in a corner by where the band were actually playing so I could communicate direct with them instead of using the huge desk. With Bjork, we’ll use laptops, so I can work on a track, send a CD out to whichever hotel she’s going to be in, and she can just plug in and do her thing on it then send it back. It’s just amazing for an artist that there isn’t this wasted time, sitting in hotel rooms and whatnot.”

Mark has taken classical influences from Bjork (‘Unafraid To Linger’ on ‘Sheath’ shimmers with weightless Debussy melodies), and a rock feel from Depeche Mode (‘Snot’, as the title suggests, is fantastically simplistic electro-punk boogie). However the synths on the album sing just like they have done on every LFO release, and this timeless signature sound has ensured that it is being embraced by old-school electronicists and super-fashionable electroclash disco punks alike. Mark is still the eager clubber he was at 16, and his music (current single ‘Freak’) is still making people go mental – in a good way – worldwide. Whether we get another LFO record this decade is anyone’s guess, but they’ve left us plenty to enjoy in the meantime.


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Last edited by V Knid esq : 6th October 2003 at 09:25.
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Old 5th October 2003   #2
V Knid esq
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And here, as an introduction into how the media lies and how little information actually goes in to any given article, is the transcript of the actual interview I did with Mark. You will notice several differences between what he 'says' here and what went into the actual text of the article. Now the transcript itself is not entirely accurate, as a) I typed it up from a muffled Dictaphone tape, so I couldn't be sure about all the words, and b) I adjusted a lot of the sentence structure to flow a bit more on the page than a normal two-people-facing-each-other-over-a-cafe-table-and-talking-about-music discussion would actually look. So what went into the text that I submitted was fairly unrelated to anything Mark said. Anyway, here's what I typed from the tape:

The Mark Bell that’s sitting opposite me seems little different to many of my mates who were in that very club… yet he’s spent the last decade and a half touring the world, meeting his heroes, and collaborating in studios with some of the biggest and most acclaimed acts in the world.

“When I used to go to the Warehouse they'd play Mantronix, early Chicago house, soul, all on the same night by all the DJs. We gave a tape of our recordings to 'DJ Martin' who helped loads with arranging our tracks so it'd work on the dancefloor. I remember there wasn't really any fashion policy, you'd get allsorts from goths to zoot suit jazz dancers to b-boy style kids. I really don't know what drugs were around then, I was sixteen and pretending to enjoy half a lager and lime…”

“Dj Martin would play our cassettes in his sets and people would go mental (In a good way) as they were totally raw, Me and Gez would be so proud, nodding at each other, that was enough for us, we really didn't consider anything being released, we were complete!”

Euro electro scene – “from when I was like thirteen, that’s exactly the music that I liked – electro, electropop. It was around then I got this drum machine from my first girlfriend’s dad… he had a Roland 808 [legendary techno rhythm box] which he just used for singing these really bad ballads over and make me listen to them. So I saved up all my pocket money to buy that when he got some slick digital machine, and then I used to make all these tracks just on a little tape recorder for me to listen to or to play to my friends at school. It’d be electro, distorted drum sounds, and I haven’t stopped since then – that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for, well, it’s more than 20 years now!”

“It was all the early hip hop stuff I was listening to. There was this record shop called Crash [in Leeds], and they had arcade machines in there, so we’d go in and hear all those tracks. That was my social scene to start with, just playing the games… and drum machines are like that, like little games, tapping out the beats on the pads, challenging yourself with it.”

“And now you hear that again, like with Peaches or whoever – people are just really getting into having one drum machine, making these tough patterns and playing guitar, shouting, MCing over it. I think it’s really good the simplicity of it.”

“It’s really healthy the way electro is so strong now, there’s people doing all that punky stuff, there’s the more leftfield people like Autechre doing the mad complex things that might be difficult to get into but after a while it just blows your mind…”

On LFO’s influence “I don’t know – that kind of makes us seem like the old guard but it doesn’t feel like that. It’s weird, I don’t know where all the time goes – people say its 7 years since the last album, but it really doesn’t feel like that.”

“Basically, I’m doing the same thing whether I’ve got an album out or not – making tunes at home is what I do, that’s what I love, not the promoting, spending days and days answering the same questions. So when people say ‘oh you’ve been away’, I haven’t – I’m still doing exactly the same thing.”

“It’s a pleasure being the producer on other people’s projects for just that reason – I’m out of the limelight and I can step back and let them get on with taking responsibility for it all. It crazy as well, coming from my little bedroom studio to these incredible expensive recording places. With Depeche Mode we’d be flown into New York to go to the Electric Ladyland studios or wherever. There’d be these huge mixing desks, like tens of thousands of pounds worth, but I’d just end up hiring a little desk cos that’s what I’m used to and setting up in a corner where the band were actually playing. Instead of the usual setup where you’ve got the producer on one side of the glass with all this equipment and the band in their own place, I actually wanted to be close to them so I could talk to them and be a bit more easy about it all.”

“You don’t need the big set up at all. It’s like with Bjork – she’s just been on tour, and we’re still working together while she’s out there. We’ve both got a similar setup, so I can work on a track, send a CD out to whichever hotel she’s going to be in, and she can just plug in and do her thing on it then send it back. It’s just amazing for an artist that there isn’t this wasted time, sitting in hotel rooms and whatnot. I just think people have more time to spare than they realise – you know, there’s all these people going to work on a bus or train, and that’s say 20 minutes when you’re doing nothing. You use that time to just put down a few ideas, and you could have a book or whatever done in a year.”

“With Depeche Mode, the only outside influence was from [Mute Records boss] Daniel Miller, but he’s someone I totally respect from making ‘Warm Leatherette’ [as The Normal], or producing Soft Cell’s ‘Non Stop Erotic Cabaret’, so it wasn’t really like having 3 A&R men coming in saying ‘oh can you take 30 seconds off this so we’ll get radio play?’”

“It was a total shock when the band asked me to work with them – it was like ‘they’re going in the studio to start the album in five days, can you do it?’. That whole electro pop thing had been so important to me as a kid I was really nervous, so I reckon if I’d had longer than five days I would have bottled it, come up with some excuse or other. I just didn’t have time though, and as it was it was just a total laugh – one of them owns a pub, so we were in there loads, just having a good time and doing the record. They were really normal guys… well, they were all caricatures of themselves having lived that rockstar life for so long and never really growing up; but they’d come out the other side and they could all laugh at themselves. Dave Gahan had been to the point, and there’s footage of it, where he had actually DIED from his drug use and was very very lucky to be resuscitated – but he was really sort of philosophical about that and he could laugh at how stupid he’d been. It must have been hard for them – I mean, they’d had one tour playing to 50,000 plus people every date and they were just touring solidly for a year and a half! It’s gotta be hard to keep your perspective then, so it was good to see that they’ve come through and got their feet on the ground again.”

“Going round the world on the Bjork tour has been great, playing to huge audiences everywhere from Mexico to Japan. It’s really encouraging, seeing people who may not understand the lyrics or whatever getting off on the music, looking genuinely happy. It’s encouraging that people are out and there’s some real joy being expressed. You know, you watch the news and it’s all bad news, all misery, but I’ve been to all these different corners of the world and seen that people are capable of really enjoying themselves and really expressing the same kind of release. You never hear any news saying like ‘a brilliant thing happened and people really enjoyed themselves in this country today’! You see differences between countries, local idiosyncrasies, but the thing I’ve got out of the travelling is the similarities, the links between people the world over.”

“Yeah, dance music, electronic music culture is as strong as its ever been across the world. Maybe not so much that big superclub thing, the handbag house and all that huge DJ culture, but that deserved to die, I think that was inevitable anyway! Look at the SONAR festival [yearly experimental festival / conference in Barcelona], and loads of things like that springing up: you can have the most wild totally experimental music and people are bang into it. At SONAR this year there was an International Deejay Gigolos party and they weren’t playing retro stuff, old records or anything – everything was brand new stuff that doesn’t sound like anything that’s been done before, and people went absolutely wild for it. Maybe it has been a bit crap for a few years, everyone doing this repetitive techno, ripping off Jeff Mills [Detroit-born pioneer of relentless, slow-building hard techno], doing stuff that might sound fine but doesn’t go anywhere, just keeps going on and on with the same beat all night. There’s been good producers doing that, but there’s nothing in any of those tracks you can recognise and grab hold of and go ‘yeeeah, I love that!’. But that’s changed now – people have got that kind of attitude that you can do a track and you can scream and shout over it, or put a huge riff that sounds like a rock record, or just be really experimental with it all again and make something that people aren’t going to forget.”

“Of course there’s loads of new tracks that are just clichéd electroclash or whatever you want to call it, there’s always people who’ll jump on bandwagons and do formulaic stuff, but I think at its best it’s making people realise that they can just pick up a drum machine and express themselves in a really individual way.”

On looking outside the confines of techno “’Snot’ [on the new album] was a real conscious effort to make something that captures the energy of teenagers who can’t really play their instruments, so the riff is just *durnurnurnur dunurnurnur* and the drums are programmed to be like someone who can only concentrate on like three things. It was a deliberate effort to get away from the over complexity of a lot of modern techno / electro stuff, yeah. And other tracks like [track 7 of the album, can’t remember what it’s called], I’ve done things like putting the drum machine through old guitar effects pedals to get a rawness like old Suicide records, to escape from the sounds that become dominant cos everyone’s using the same software packages to make their electronic music. When you’ve got too much clever gear, it’s easy to go right up your own arse and get really noodly – the results can sound technically stunning but there’s no heart in it. If you use a few rough old bits of kit, you get more hands on, the whole thing sounds a bit more live and immediate. The [music software] programs are set by the programmer so you can only go a certain distance with any effect, but when you’ve got your kit in front of you, you can plug anything into anything and really abuse the effects, make them really extreme.”

“The Debussy thing came from recording and playing with Bjork, working with all the real string players - I was learning loads about how all these different scales and keys create the moods… and Debussy’s got this real signature key [the whole-tone scale] where it makes the music feel kind of weightless, so I started experimenting on using that in my own stuff, and yeah, that’s found its way into a couple of tracks.”

“I still do electro, techno, tracks just like on [first album] ‘Frequencies’ every week. Any time I wanted I could release another three albums of tracks like that I’ve got at home, but I just think that’d be boring for people to listen to – I’d rather give people something where a bit of work’s gone into making something they haven’t heard before.”

“I used to make techno tracks for labels that I liked, just for a bit of fun, make the sort of stuff I thought they’d like. I don’t really do that now cos that was a thing me and Gez had going – a little competition to see who could get onto the coolest label!

“I think I will put more straight techno tracks out, but not on an album. I don’t have that much of an attention span, so I don’t really want to listen to another album that’s the same groove all the way through; anyway I’ve done that already. What I’d like to do is a set of EPs that can each have a theme. Like that punky kind of track on the album, I’ve got more tracks like that from the time that I made it, and I could release them all together.”

“I did the Tribal Gathering warehouse rave recently which was the first time I’ve played as LFO in seven years, and I was shitting myself but I ended up really enjoying it. Lots of people now perform with just a laptop, but I brought my 808 drum machine and an old EMS synth – it’s what they used for the dalek voices, just a really mad 60s thing – and some other old bits of kit, and just did it how I’ve always done stuff, really live. And this huge crowd totally responded. I love the way you can just slam something in, it’s kind of rough and ready but you get surprises – like one record I really love is that early Beck, ‘Odelay’, cos it’s totally cut-and-paste, and these stupid noises will just come in out of nowhere. It’s better to have the chance of mistakes than to be too slick.”

“I don’t feel like I make techno particularly – those definitions are up to people listening really, people might say because you use certain equipment or certain DJs play your records that you belong to one movement or another, but I just feel like I make music.”

On plans for the future: “Well there’s more stuff with Bjork coming up, but I really don’t plan much at all. After I came off the Depeche Mode thing, I had a great time just doing nothing, just making music at home like I always do. I don’t have a big wishlist of people I’d like to work with or anything – the people I’ve done stuff with have always come to me, I mean with Bjork I didn’t even really know her before that. I’ve never made plans; even with LFO, I originally wanted to do something in graphics, I had no plans in music, but we’d do our stuff on cassette for DJ mates and it all just went off from that one night when WARP saw people going wild to our tune and signed it. I just wait for the next thing to come along…”

On ‘intelligent’ dance music and the early WARP legacy “I don’t think that’s been too healthy for some time now – there’s so much of it that just feels like homework, like you have to put in all this work to listen to it, like it’s all technique over substance. All the tiny edits and funny time signatures, it can make you feel stupid if you don’t get it. I’ll appreciate a lot of it on the technical level, but won’t feel like it’s enriched my life, won’t want to listen to it again. I want something that’s going to surprise me, grab me on a base level, make me feel like I want to do something stupid. Something like the Dizzee Rascal to me sounds a thousand times more exciting as electronic music than 95% of the supposedly cutting-edge noodle!”

“I’ll DJ in Leeds sometimes, just cos I know the people, just for the fun of it, to play my tunes that I’m working on. It won’t be billed as an LFO set or even as me, I’ll just be another DJ. It’s just great to play to 200 people where you can get the reaction instantly. In its way it’s so much more fun than playing to 60,000 people where you can only see like the first two rows, and even then they’re quite a way from you. DJing or not, I still go out clubbing most weekends, I still enjoy that, and Leeds has got plenty of variety and people who are really into all the different scenes of dance music, they don’t act like they’re too cool for school, they really get into it.”



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Last edited by V Knid esq : 6th October 2003 at 09:26.
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