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The Antidote To The Supergroup Dollar: Alan Wilder Of Recoil Interviewed
Maddy Sparham , May 21st, 2010 10:24

Maddy Sparham talks to Alan Wilder about the past of Depeche Mode and the future of Recoil

There are several clips on the web of a recent reunion between Alan Wilder and Depeche Mode. Wilder was a key member of the band through their gradual rise to a remarkably global success, playing a central part in the sonic experimentation that set them apart from the pop fray. If you get the right clip there's a nice shot past Martin L. Gore, in the spangly silver waistcoat he's been sporting on DM's current stadium 'Tour of the Universe', to a straight laced Wilder eloquently providing the piano backdrop to one of their most tender anthems, 'Somebody'. When the song ends, to a rapturous response from the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall, the two embrace warmly. It's a touching moment that speaks volumes about the divergent paths the two men have taken, one perhaps a little reluctanly trapped by pop stardom, the other more quietly confined to the studio these days.

Wilder has been busy, for a very long time now, with Recoil, the experimental side project he initiated as an 'antidote to... the restrictive climate of commercial pop'. Under this alias he released Hydrology (1988) and Bloodline (1990) whilst still working with Depeche Mode and continuing with Unsound Methods (1997), Liquid (2000), and most recently subHuman (2007) following his final departure from the band in the early 90's. Recoil's work, in turns lush and minimal, draws on and embraces a number of different genres including ambient, electronica and what used to be called trip-hop before that term became unfashionable. With many of their tracks being accompanied by some thought-provoking visuals, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the outfit would engage in some form of presentation on the live circuit.

Recoil now find themselves tentatively launching into that arena with a date at the 02 Academy in Islington on Sunday 25 April to support a new retrospective of their work, Recoil Selected. We caught up with Wilder as he prepared for the gig.

It's great to see a compilation coming out that will help people to see and hear what you've been doing all these years out of a spotlight that - certainly at the beginning - was glaring over you. What criteria dictated your selection process?

Alan Wilder: Actually I was given free reign to include whichever tracks I wanted for this compilation, which I saw as a challenge - to attempt to put together Recoil music that wouldn't just feel like a selection of random tracks from different eras but rather a seamless, cohesive listening experience. Something that would feel like a new album in a way. I tried to consider pace, atmosphere and overall balance so that one could be taken on a journey, like with all good albums. It was important to feature as many of the key vocalists as possible and create a varied balance between them, and I also felt, with the benefit of hindsight, that some tracks should be tightened up by editing.

Tell us a bit about your collaborative relationship with Paul Kendall.

AW: We go back a long way - Paul has been associated with Mute since the 80s, working as an engineer and editor in their studios. We met when he deputised briefly during the making of Depeche Mode's Songs Of Faith And Devotion album. With this selection, Paul assisted in all the re-editing - as well as the listening process - but his role generally is to fill in the gaps where I am not either technically skilled enough or to take a more sideways look at how the music comes together. We come from very different angles with sound, and that works in our favour I believe. I turn to him for unusual effects, lateral thinking, and his patience and knowledge in front of a mixing desk. We both have a desire to squeeze the very best out of what we work on, without compromise, and now we are taking that same aesthetic onto the road.

'A Strange Hour' is an intriguing billing. What form will the events take?

AW: The events are not so much 'live' band but more art installation - at the risk of sounding pretentious. Paul and I have just extended what we do in the studio into the live setting where we add spontaneous effects and extra parts to a pre-prepared bedrock. The music is comprised of stripped down, edited sections from many Recoil remixes and alternative versions, combined so that what we end up with is recognisably Recoil but doesn't necessarily sound like what you hear on the studio versions. We have some flexibility to tailor the sound for each venue but we are also tied in to a continuous film which accompanies everything.

In fact, this film element is what swung it for me to take the plunge with these events. With the advent of cheaper, portable HD cameras as well as affordable editing software, making films has suddenly become viable. I spent the first three months of the year collaborating with four different directors for this project using a central server where we could all upload - and feedback on - our work-in-progress.

I seem to recall that you've been critical of current production values and studio techniques in your blogs. Can you give us a summary of what's wrong with the sounds coming out of studios, home or otherwise, today?

AW: I have spoken about formats and mastering techniques, the loudness war, dynamically-reduced, over-compressed, souped up final products, spewed out into the market place without much care or proper musical consideration. This is more of a marketing-led problem rather than as a result of poorly produced music. There are many extremely well produced pieces of music which do not deserve this careless, dumbed down process at the end of the chain. The problem occurs due to paranoia over the attention span of the listener resulting in desperate measures in order to gain that attention back.

Does Recoil provide ideas on how to how to improve the situation?

AW: If you listen to a Recoil release, it should sound clear and dynamic, not necessarily 'apparently' loud but a musical, enjoyable experience. If the listener wants to hear it loud, they can turn up the volume on their amp - genius. My suggestion? Step back, stop texting and tweeting for a while, close your eyes and just listen.

Which current artists most impress you at the moment?

AW: Currently, I am quite impressed by the new Gil Scott Heron album and Architect. I like some of the latest Massive Attack material, the Hope Sandoval and Martina Topley-Bird tracks. I listen to many varied things at different times depending on my mood. Styles can range from avant garde, blues, electronic, classical. I have no rules really. Unfortunately, due to a complicated life - which seems to get more so by the day - I never find I have enough time to research and discover much new music but I enjoy trawling through my catalogue, built up since I was a teenager, and occasionally something new comes along to excite.

And which artists - of any kind - have had the greatest overall influence on your work or even your life?

AW: I would say early blues, late '60s Beatles, Hendrix, Floyd, psychedelia, '70s glam, Lou Reed, Bowie, Eno, Kraftwerk, and the late '70s punk / indie scene, Mute, Rough Trade, Factory etc. I also admire 20th century classical, the minimalists like Reich and Philip Glass and so on. With film it would be Kubrick, Coen Brothers, Mike Leigh, Polanski, Scorsese, Woody Allen... many more...

You've used various guest vocalists on the project - Diamanda Galás, Joe Richardson, Douglas McCarthy, Samantha Coerbell, Toni Halliday, Maggie Estep...Do you enjoy having that versatility of - how to put it - expressive palette?

AW: Without doubt - the reason the project is constructed in this way is to get the best of both worlds, in that I can bring in any guests to work with whenever I need to but retain my own clear direction and autonomy. I definitely enjoy contribution from others and I prefer to give them an open canvas to express themselves, without the hindrance of too much direction. My role is to encourage and absorb as many varied performances as possible and then reconstruct using the techniques I have come to know and love. What I don't want is to be part of a democratic process where everything has to be put to a vote and nobody ends up happy with the results. I did that and ultimately it didn't work for me. Call me a control freak if you like.

Did you feel at some points in the 90's that there was some positive shift in the mainstream towards an emphasis on sound and texture with artists and bands like Tricky or Massive Attack having commercial success?

AW: Certainly it is possible to make good pop music - I would cite 'Teardrop' say as an example from the '90s. It's a simple melodic song which works within a fairly standard four minute structure, memorable whilst being extremely atmospheric. But there have always been good pop records - 'My Generation', 'Whiter Shade of Pale' - however, they are rarities amongst the majority of dross churned out. I don't see any real change in that ratio over the years.

Do you think that the music industry is in some way restricted by its own intractable logic - i.e. sales?

AW: Of course. X Factor obsession being the epitome of that. There's perverse healthiness though in the adversity of the situation where most artists now have to be so much more pro-active to survive. I mean getting out there, self-promoting, playing live and selling product at the shows, creating a whole new existence outside of the industry, and even thereby changing the nature and thinking of the companies. On my current tour, we see EMI in all territories very keen to get along to the events with boxes of CDs, vinyl, whatever they think they can shift. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that - it's direct and it works - just like special editions, which they were reluctant to engage with a few years back, are now all the rage, viable, desirable.

Mute, in particular, seem to be embracing new marketing approaches, which seems like stepping back in time in terms of their 'indie' routes. With many of their artists, they are taking a fresh approach, working with different marketing & licensing companies more creatively, in an 'indie' way and somewhat outside of the EMI system, while remaining under the main EMI umbrella, so to speak.

Is there a paradox in the internet's strangulation of the industry even as it makes music more democratically available to make and hear than ever before?

AW: I don't really see it as strangulation rather than necessity-driven change. Technology evolves so fast that we have to be constantly aware of the potential changes it brings, and somehow try to stay ahead of that game. There is a lot of nostalgia for how things were and, as we know, changes are not always for the better, but with a little careful thought there is usually a way to retain the best of what we liked and re-introduce those concepts in an updated modern way. Even though, disappointingly, the masses will generally accept mediocrity, I think we are in the midst of a gradual return to more tangibility in our lives. Despite expecting instant satisfaction, we do also want quality and are happy when it is provided for us.

Specifically with music, I think there is a return to the idea of the longer format, with higher art principles. Just look at the popularity of special editions and vinyl collections. It seems that the way forward is to offer a full range of choice, everything from the simple download right through to a complete box set with many extras. We are trying to follow this principle with the 'Selected' packages.

Hate me now for the following questions if you like...Is there anything, anything at all, that you miss about being in one of the world's most unlikely supergroups?

AW: The cash.

There is something to be said for the shamanic or demagogic power of pop stardom - but is it entirely negative, positive or just a difficult balancing act between the two?

AW: Demagogic? That's a big word. Not sure what it means but I think I get the gist. It's true to say that fame can bring the worst out of those that may have diva tendencies. Keeping one's sense of self in this business can be quite difficult at times. There is tremendous ego massage that one experiences, especially when you're traveling around being lauded by fans everywhere. It's easy to become self obsessed, to imagine that everything revolves around your every word, every thought. I am constantly aware of that right now even during my fairly low-key tour. Having children helps keep your feet on the ground - they cut through all the crap.

Do you still keep in touch with any of Depeche Mode?

AW: I keep in touch with Dave, mainly by email or text. I haven't had much contact with Martin or Fletch since '95 but it was good to catch up with everyone recently at our brief reunion at Royal Albert Hall.

Are you amused or bemused by the amount of speculation on the web about a potential return to DM? Do you think they need you, as many people seem to think?

AW: I read in the The Daily Star that we are in fact becoming a quartet again, so it must be true! I think Martin and Dave will always need a strong producer - someone who can really be all things to them, like Flood for example, who can make sure they don't slip into safe ways of working - any worthwhile producer should do that for their artist actually - and someone who can be very hands on with the technology as well.

Whatever happened back then, the pressure must have been unbearable. Did the Gore / Gahan vision just diverge hopelessly from yours, or was your decision to leave entirely born of creative frustration? Or is that the same question?

AW: It is basically the same question, yes. I would describe it more as a lack of vision. I always felt everything was too safe - we could have gone so much further but lethargy was a big enemy. Perversely, we did create some of our very best work under the most tense and trying of circumstances, but it just wasn't much fun - like pulling teeth trying to get anything agreed upon with any enthusiasm. I basically decided during the making of Songs of Faith & Devotion that I didn't want to make records that way any more.

Does Recoil provide you with as fruitful and fulfilling an outlet for your creativity as you now wish to have?

AW: Pretty much so - it's really down to my own drive and ambition as to how much I do, and with whom. Sometimes there are financial restrictions but if the world was my oyster, maybe the thinking wouldn't be quite so lateral and the results less interesting - I'm not sure - but basically I'm happy doing what I do and juggling that against other things I enjoy in life outside of the rock 'n' roll circus.

What aspects of your career to date give you the most satisfaction?

AW: The found freedom to indulge myself without many restrictions, to work with diverse talent which may come from completely opposite musical angles, and without being dictated to or making too many compromises along the way. And also in the earlier years to experience playing in front of huge crowds, traveling the world, and having a lot of fun while doing it. I guess I've been pretty lucky.

Thanks very much for your time and indulgence - have a great show Sunday.

AW: You're very welcome. Hope you enjoy the live presentation.