Alan Wilder's Interview With Paul Raven (Subba-Cultcha)10.07.2007
Paul Raven talks to former Depeche Mode muso Alan Wilder about the latest release from his Recoil project, as well as politics in music & the changing face of the record industry
In 1986, four years after joining notorious electro-pop outfit Depeche Mode, Alan Wilder released an album of solo material on Mute Records under the moniker Recoil. This solo material remained as a side project until Wilder's departure from the band in 1996, which allowed him more time to expand his list of collaborators and guest vocalists.
Recoil is known for its deep and lushly produced soundscapes, often featuring spoken word artists as well as singers. The last album, Liquid, was released in 2000; now, after a seven year wait, Wilder returns with subHuman, a dark and moody collection of blues-tinged epics that's sure to thrill old fans and win him new ones.
I caught up with Alan by phone, and asked him some questions about Recoil, his long career, and the changing landscape of the music industry.
After twenty years of making Recoil records, do you still get excited on the run up to release dates, or is it a relief to have it all out of the way? “Both, actually. When you get the album finished, that's a great relief, it's a culmination of such a long period of time ... what happens is I get to a stage about two thirds of the way through where I think to myself, “Oh, I've actually got an album here.” For a long period, I'm never sure if I've actually got enough stuff to make into a decent record, y'know? Especially when I'm not writing the songs.”
“And then getting to the end is a relief, and it's also quite exciting, the build-up period – a lot of people don't realise how long it takes, the turnaround period from actually finishing the last mix to getting the CD out into some sort of saleable form. There's so many format issues to consider, so many promotional and marketing tools these days, more than ever, and you've gotta cover all your angles ... it's quite hard work.”
So after three decades in the music industry, you still get nervous about the quality of your material? “Yes, I do, and I think that some self-doubt is a good thing, that's what drives you to push to improve yourself all the time ... if you don't doubt what you're doing, consider that it might be improvable, that maybe you could do it better, you're likely to go downhill, and I'd like to think that each record gets better rather than worse!”
“But that feeling of excitement ... a good example was yesterday when I was given the vinyl version of the album for the first time, and that's a really lovely moment. That never dies, that moment of getting the final product in your hand and seeing it for the first time. It's a beautiful thing, the vinyl, it's a special edition gatefold ... gives you a real buzz.”
Vinyl is still somehow totemic, isn't it, something more of an artefact than a CD or a download? “Of course it is, yeah, and people my age, we remember what vinyl meant to us when we were young – to pick up a record and peruse the artwork, and get into the nitty-gritty of every little detail, the credits and all that stuff. It's sadly something that's disappearing - although vinyl still has its fans, of course - but the whole artwork thing, the physical product, is something that's disappearing.”
If you could go back in time and visit yourself when you were making the first Recoil album, what would you tell yourself about the times to come? “Well, at the time it was such an off-the-cuff thing, they were never even intended for release, it was just something I did on a four-track cassette machine at home. It wasn't even in my head that this could turn into a record, it was just “oh, I'm gonna fiddle round when I've got a bit of time with a few keyboards sitting at home”, and I played it to Daniel Miller [founder of Mute Records], and he said “well, we could put this out”, and I said to him “I don't really want to re-record it” and he replied “we can just release it as it is.” I said “but it was done on cassette!” and he said “well, it doesn't really matter...” And so that was what we did, it kinda got born by accident almost, and every time I had a bit of time to myself I thought “I'll do a bit more of that,” and it got a bit more serious over the years ... but there was no long-term plan with it, no great expectations for what it might turn into. I still don't, really – I still make it for my own pleasure, and anything else that happens is kind of a by-product of that.”
That's an enviable place to be. You're on record as saying that you're not bothered too much about the commercial success of Recoil material. So how do you define success for yourself? “As you say, it's an enviable position, I'm grateful for that. The past has set me up to be able to please myself, really, and I can appreciate a lot of people don't have that luxury. But it's a natural process, I just try to do what pleases me in the studio, if it happens to get commercial at times there's nothing wrong with that, but if it isn't, that doesn't matter either, you know?”
“That's not to say that when I get to the end of making a record that I don't do everything in my power to help promote it - apart from playing live, of course. But the other aspects, I'll do whatever I can, I'll make radio edits, we'll get out there and promote it, do all the interviews and bits and pieces you have to do. I haven't got a problem with doing that and trying to sell the thing, but when I'm making the music I'm just not thinking about those things ... I'm just trying to make some music that I don't hear anywhere else, something that I want to listen to.”
Can you give us an insight into your songwriting processes? Do you just start with an idea and take it to the studio? “I have vague ideas, but they're not songs ... from experience over the years I know I'm not a great lyricist, and songwriting itself doesn't come that naturally to me, so I've come to realise what my strengths are, and they're much more in the sound, orchestration and production departments. So that's what I concentrate on at first, just getting these atmospheres going, some sort of loose direction. But it can be frustrating working like that, of course; there's no focus to anything, so I'm fishing around in the dark for long periods.”
“It goes back to what I was saying earlier, about whether I've actually got an album there at all ... but I don't have the confidence to just go to someone and say “hey, let's write together, man” and see what happens, so I have to produce something first and then present that. Which is what I did in this case: came up with these five or six atmospheric pieces of music which didn't have focus, but had a kind of bluesy direction. So that's when I have to find someone who's going to compliment the direction. So I googled for Joe [Richardson], we started talking, I gave him a CD of the work in progress .... you can imagine how it goes, he comes back and says “yes, I've got a few ideas for that,” and then we get together ... and it's only at that point, when he starts singing on top of the material that I think “OK, now I've got an idea of where we're going.””
Kind of a back-and-forth kind of thing? “Yeah – it's exactly as you might imagine when you're working with different people, you have to kind of feel each other out a bit, get an idea of what each other likes ... we didn't use everything, we discarded a few pieces, some ideas that didn't work out so well. But that's all part of the process – it brings a kind of added tension, especially when you're working with new people who you've never met, and I like that feeling. It doesn't always work out, but you know what it's like when you meet someone, you're trying to impress them, they're trying to impress you ... it just takes it a little bit further than it might have gone.”
There's a subtle theme of politics and pluralism in subHuman, with songs about the way people are seen by other people, and the systems that control them. Do you think music is valuable as a delivery system for ideas? “I think it should be thought-provoking in some way. I don't have any pretensions that you can change the world, particularly, but I think you do have a requirement to provide something that isn't just fodder. I try to apply some sort of thought process to the ideas behind everything ... as you say, I'm not writing the words, so it's really very much my interpretation of what other people are writing, and then trying to present it in a cohesive way.”
“So I try and think a bit about the words, and what they mean ... I think Joe's track '5000 Years' is the pivotal one, that's what set me off on this 'subHuman' thing, and I think it's a very relevant thing, even though it's not a new idea, it's very relevant to what's happening in the world. With modern communications, we're more and more aware of what goes on in the world than we ever were, and it's quite a depressing story, really! It's really just about human nature, and the cycle of human nature never ceases to depress you!”
Do you think the Bonos and Geldofs of the world are doing any good? “I wouldn't denounce them ... I mean, yes, possibly, quite possibly. I'm not an activist in that sense, but I can possibly play a very small part, you know. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that, provided you know what you're talking about, and your intentions are sound.”
You're known for staying out of the public eye to a great extent, but much like Mute Records, you were an 'early adopter' with regard to using the internet as a promotional tool, and as a way of communicating with your fans. Was this simply a matter of expediency, or did you see the long-range potential early on? “It was really just a way to compensate for not playing live. It was put to me that “if you don't go out and perform live, Alan, you have to find some way of promoting yourself!” So it made sense to use the internet ... and things have changed so much, even in the last five years. I mean, we did quite a lot of the 'Q & A' thing on the website about ten years ago, and really that's just a forerunner to what MySpace is now. So in that sense, I think I did get in there quite early, and I've tried to continue it now ... you've got no choice, really, you've got to embrace the way people are approaching music these days, which is just so different from the way it was five, ten years ago.”
We're hearing a great deal about the problems that the record industry is going through thanks to new technologies like the internet – from your perspective, can you see the landscape changing? “That's a good question, and it's one I've been asked a few times recently! It depends where you're coming from ... there's a lot of people out there who have got their two fingers up to the record industry, saying “well, you're out of business now, we're controlling this ourselves, as musicians”, but record companies are shit-filters, you know? They play an important role in that sense, so I feel quite sorry for outfits like Mute Records, and many other companies that are having to strip back with redundancies left right and centre because they're not selling CDs. I think they do play an important role in filtering out the crap ... but on the other hand, you have fat A&R men selling us Pop Idol shit, and I can't stand that, obviously. So in that sense I'm quite happy to see new bands promoting themselves on MySpace and selling their CDs online ... from a musician's point of view it's quite a healthy thing. So I'm caught in the middle of that, really, I can see both sides.”
Are there any potential collaborators that you've always wanted to work with? “Pete Burns! [laughs] No ... there's all sorts of people, so many good singers out there, there's no one particular person. As a concept, it's like I said earlier, about the tension that working with a new person brings ... one of the great advantages of not being in a band is that you've got that freedom to just, y'know, flirt, work with lots of people ... which is something I missed with Depeche Mode, we were very insular, and that was – among many others – one of the reasons I wanted to move on and start doing other things. And I'm sure next time round [with Recoil] there'll be new people again, and perhaps some of the previous collaborators as well.”
Are there any hot new bands you've discovered recently that we should be looking out for? “No, not really ... I don't have a lot of time to search through it all. Going back to what we were saying about MySpace, you've got to have the time to go searching for it. If it's not going to be thrown in your face by the record companies any more, you've got to make an effort as a listener to go and find the interesting stuff, and wade through the dross. My problem is I just don't have the time to do that ... I don't know if it's just that I'm too old to be bothered, but I'd rather go back and sift through my collection that spans the last thirty years and find interesting things there. But that's not to say there isn't good music out there, and if I'm zipping through MySpace I do come across the occasional thing that's interesting.”
And finally, it's been seven years since Liquid was released ... “No! [laughs] I know your question! It won't be as long to wait for the next album! I'll be going back into the studio later this year, or that's the plan anyway, once I'm done promoting subHuman and have had a few weeks off in the summer ... if we ever get one! I have to base everything around school holidays now, otherwise the wife says “you're not going in the studio while the kids are at home!””
…I'll look forward to hearing it. Thanks very much for your time.
Thanks to Zoe @ Mute…
By: Paul Raven
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