INTERVIEW: Neon Neon
, April 29th, 2013 07:34
We catch up with Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip to hear about the duo's new album, Praxis Makes Perfect, released today
Photograph courtesy of Mark James
The second album from Boom Bip and Gruff Rhys' Neon Neon collaboration is - like its predecessor - a concept album based upon the life of a single individual. While the pair's debut, Stainless Style, addressed the turbulent life of American automobile executive John DeLorean (and his subsequent bankruptcy), Praxis Makes Perfect thanks its existence to the life and times of Italian left-wing publisher and activist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.
The Feltrinelli publishing house offered a sanctuary to writers from all over the world from conflicting viewpoints, from the Beats to Doris Lessing, Chairman Mao to Boris Pasternak to Debray, magical realists, the revolutionary left, classics, art, mathematics, physics, science, philosophy, music. Imagined over many months, many thousands of miles and via a shared copy of Feltrinelli's biography, Praxis Makes Perfect is a shimmering, succinct pop album born from the joint pedigree of two of the most imaginative men in modern music.
Addressing the political upheavals that took place in 20th-century Italy with direct reference to the actions and reactions of Feltrinelli and his followers, the record is as informed as it is fun, exemplified perfectly by lead single 'Mid-Century Modern Nightmare' including a cameo by actor Asia Argento, who voices a call to arms that Feltrinelli broadcast to the masses in Genoa with a pirate transmitter from a Fiat car in 1970.
How did you become aware of Feltrinelli?
Gruff Rhys: I was given a copy of Senior Service, which is the biography of Feltrinelli by his son, Carlo Feltrinelli. I was given that by an Italian friend about ten years ago. I read it a couple of times because it's a story of biblical proportions. Ten years later we ended up making the record!
Boom Bip: Gruff sent the book to me, after he'd mentioned it when I'd been in London, at his flat, hanging out. I think he had some note in the book, something like "if we ever decide to do another biographical record, this has potential". So I read the book, and it was very shocking. It was a very inspiring story from the start.
Since your first album was also biographical, was it easy enough to start making this one, based on what you'd both learned about this man?
BB: Yeah. I think we really felt like we'd established a way of working together, with the first record, that kind of put us inside this conceptual box that felt like a really good way to work. Gruff and I both make very personal music in our solo projects, and in other projects, so it fits that when we come together we have such a strong theme and subject that it just really helps set up the guidelines for how the record should develop and sound. And of course Gruff takes the story and translates it into a more poetic sense with the lyrics. The concept to me is a really fun and different way of working compared to how I work on and develop the solo Boom Bip stuff. It's a nice relief from that.
That makes me think that the two of you were waiting to make a second Neon Neon record. Were you waiting for the right subject to base it on?
BB: I think a lot of it has to do with timing. It's quite difficult being on different continents, and with the solo work, and with everything else that we have going on. That's why we were uncertain whether there would be a second one. With this one it was the matter of all the elements coming together. The Feltrinelli story was one we had discussed and found very inspiring a while ago, then Gruff kind of came out of the blue with some really strong demos that were incredible right from the start. So it went from uncertainty to diving straight into it once I heard those demos, and we decided that we actually did have a little gap of time where we could make this happen.
I can hear Super Furries noises in the record and I can hear Boom Bip noises in the record. How do you work together, being based so many thousands of miles apart?
GR: We try not to work apart, you know? Bryan came over here last year, and we demoed the whole record, then Bryan did some tinkering over the next few months, and then I went out to Los Angeles for a week where we worked really intensely on it. Then we had an insane Italian road trip to finish up the record, recording various people and visiting the Feltrinelli library and things like that, before mixing it. So we didn't really record it apart. We kind of limited the instrumentation, and Bryan as a producer is quite good at making sure we don't go overboard with too many different instruments, and keep it simple. Sometimes on my own records I'll just throw everything in there, and the sounds can vary wildly within an album, whereas I enjoy these records because we really focus on them and we choose the sounds carefully. I suppose that's how we reign everything in.
BB: I think the first one was kind of a learning experience, where we did go all over the place and use a lot of different sounds. This one definitely had a lot more focus, whether it be with the instrumentation or the concept. It was a learning experience compared to the first one, because we did have to do a few of the songs by post, and there was a lot of work going on in separate rooms for the first album, so both of us really wanted to make sure we were in the same room for this. With that, and with the focus on instrumentation, it all flowed and became very cohesive in the end.
Gruff mentioned an Italian road trip. Did people know who he was and were they happy to hear what you were up to?
GR: He's quite a well known and divisive figure in Italy. He opened a chain of bookshops in Italy, and they're still there. He's still a controversial figure but everybody we worked with was interested in his story, and were sympathetic to him.
It's a very literal album, lyrically. Is it easier to address something directly than to just suggest?
GR: It's a nice break, writing about someone else and imagining scenarios. Also, we didn't want to make an earnest record of political rhetoric so it's quite detached in a way. It's quite a melodramatic record. We've removed his life story to the golden age of the Victor jukebox, so it's fun to write in a kind of detached way! It was like a soap opera.
BB: It's like that with the music as well. There are definitely tones and instruments there that we would never use in our own material. With Neon Neon it just kinda feels like we can put all that aside and have fun with it, and really try to create a strong aesthetic and theme, you know? We're not afraid of certain tones that we would be afraid of in our other music.
So do you think if you brought the ideas and techniques that you employ for Neon Neon to your own stuff, people would be confused?
GR: It's a distinct sound. When I listened back to this when we'd finished, it did sound like a Neon Neon record, and I didn't realise we had a 'band sound'. I think we've found some music language that we enjoy. It's like a holiday, you know? And the music is like some weird holiday disco.
Before you two met, at what point in your lives were you becoming aware of each others' music? And how did you actually meet?
GR: We ended up on tour together in 2002 in America, on a Super Furry Animals tour. We travelled together for a few weeks, and I guess I would have heard the Circle record [Boom Bip's 2000 collaboration LP with Doseone] and stuff like that. I think we started to mess about with music quite soon after meeting up.
BB: I just had a kind of one-man show at the time, so I was not in a very good position to drive my own car following the tour bus, so the Super Furries were nice enough to have me on their tour bus. That was just a full-on experience of all things Furries. I'd heard of Super Furry Animals, but at the time I wasn't too aware of their music. At the time I felt like they were one of the bands I knew I would like, but I'd never heard their music. So I grabbed a few of their CDs prior to the tour and I had them on my laptop, but I remember the real first time was in Detroit. I think that might have been our first show, on the Rings Around The World tour, and I was standing there in soundcheck and was just blown away. They had the surround-sound system, and I remember thinking, "fuck! This is a real band and I'm just some laptop guy!" As we hung out on the bus we realised that we listened to a lot of the same bands and had a lot of things in common with music, so towards the end of the tour I was working on a new record and I asked Gruff if he would want to do something on a song. I think that was the first time we actually discussed working together. It was a few months after that that we actually did something, I think I did a remix for Super Furries and Gruff did 'Do's And Don'ts' on my record.
How much does mid-twentieth century culture impact our lives today? What are the positives and negatives?
GR: I'm completely guilty of milking that period for all it's worth, but I do find it frustrating. I remember a couple of years ago being asked to fill in a Quietus Baker's Dozen of my favourite albums, and as I was about to do it I started to write down what I considered to be my favourite records, and I just thought my list was completely unacceptable. By the time I wrote them down it was like "why do I like this?! Is it just because it's been sold to me by a corporation?" I started re-evaluating why I'm listening to certain records. So I think that era has a natural grip, but it's also one of the periods in time where there was the greatest distribution of wealth in modern history. It's the period when the trade unions were at their strongest and the money was being distributed evenly. Maybe that's a factor in why it seems to be some golden age.
Last time you toured you brought quite a cast along with you; I remember Har Mar Superstar and Cate Le Bon both being part of the band. Have you got anything like that lined up this time?
GR: When we started touring the last record it was strange in a way, because we'd recorded the album as a studio record and we didn't have big touring plans. The record was maybe more popular than we imagined, I don't know... There was some kind of demand to tour, and we ended up going on the road without having thought very much about it. By the end of the tour the gigs sort of caught up with the record, and Har Mar Superstar started to become John DeLorean, and it became a conceptual gig. I think the last show we did, we had choreographed dances and and all kinds of shit, and it was great! We thought, "ah, this is what we should have done from the beginning!" With this tour we want to start at that point, so we got together with the National Theatre Of Wales - who are quite a radical theatre company - and they're helping us to construct Feltrinelli's life story! And we've got a load of actors, and explosions and things. We're doing five nights in Cardiff in May, then we're doing five nights in London in June. It's going to be the full production for a few nights, and then we're going to play some festivals with whoever we can salvage. We'll do a stripped down version over the summer.
Are you going to stretch the songs out for this? The songs on the record are pretty short.
G: Yeah. We've recorded an EP called Years Of Lead which is about the dark last four years of Feltrinelli's life. It's a much darker EP, but it's still synthetic. We didn't want to record any organic instrumentation on the album, although we cheated a bit, but it's pretty much a synthetic record. The EP is even more synthetic and it's darker. We'll be stretching out some of the more 'disco' numbers from the album and we'll be incorporating this EP. I'm sure some DeLorean songs will gatecrash as well.