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Escape Velocity

Through The Looking Glass: An Interview With Mirrors
Nix Lowrey , April 5th, 2011 10:22

Nix Lowrey talks to Mirrors singer James New about disillusionment, and finds out why they aren't mere synth-pop copy-cats...

“Cowardice and courage are never without a measure of affectation. Nor is love. Feelings are never true. They play with their mirrors.” Jean Baudrillard

One could be forgiven for thinking that in writing this, Jean Baudrillard was offering a call to arms to the disaffected 21st century – foreseeing the barriers between the media and the mediated, the representation of truth and truth itself, and most importantly, the representation of feeling and how numbing the overwhelming two dimensionality of media representation can become.

James New, vocalist for Mirrors, believes it is this disconnection and disaffection, and the inability to fabricate desire in an environment of over satiety and hyperinflation of temporary meaning, that led him and his band mate Ally Young to form a band.

Embracing the idea of artifice and half-truths, and combining that with a restraint – a denial of that instant gratification which he feels numbs us all to any genuine sense of values – Mirrors are attempting to recreate a sense of the unique, to slice through our tendrils of contemporary attachment to life's quick fixes and involve us in what he hopes is a small moment of genuine experience. Like an old fashioned magician, New believes the mirror can reveal most when displaying least, and that Mirrors can a modern mythology for their audience by withholding the mundane.

It's quite a challenge, and one rarely heard in a modern disaffect that's too appalled by constant war and resigned to corporate and governmental insincerity to conceive a redefinition of 'the genuine', the grand notion, an elevated ambition. It feels very early 80s, and very similar to the ideas of the futurists – and in that, the beginning of the very idea of marketing and mediation which leads us to the contemporary state.

However, as the rave generation embraced the ideas of the psychedelic elite, perhaps it's time we embraced the heavily weighted ideas about ideas themselves that wedged themselves into new romance and futurism. Certainly, New sees an urgent need to find a replacement for the disassociative in modern life.

Why do you hide the personal background of the band?

James New: Our idea was that people might appreciate preserving that sense of mystery - the way things were 10, 15 years ago before the internet. I certainly remember growing up being 14, 15 years old, queuing up to get a CD on the basis that I didn't know that much about a band, but what I did know I liked. I think we've lost a little bit of that. So we are trying to preserve that little bit of mystery, I guess.

In the bits that we take control of - like our website, Facebook and Myspace - rather than talk about our everyday lives, we'd rather talk about things that are interesting us, and I think that's more interesting for people anyway. I'm happy to talk about our history; it's just not particularly interesting.

How did the band form?

JN: I think firstly it was meeting Ally, the other 'ego' in the band. I moved to Brighton, and met him as a consequence of that. We actually met in a very nice pub in Brighton and probably bonded first over good ale. Brighton is very big on real ale...

And what's your favourite real ale?

JN: My favourite is probably Dark Star, but that's a local brew done here at a pub around the back of the station in Brighton. There you go, there's some personal information [laughs]. Dark Star and Harveys, which is made in Lewes across the road. And then we [James and Ally] ended up having a conversation more based on our mutual disappointment in what we'd seen around us, which sounds quite horrible in a way, but I think we were disappointed in a lot of things.

Such as?

JN: Today, it's quite easy to be quite bored. There's really nothing to affiliate yourself with in politics, and art, as well as music. And, particularly as musicians, we were frustrated.

Three years ago, if you look back to the sort of bands that were about, they were kind of identikit bands, the same kind of scruffy little boys playing scruffy little songs. That kind of post-Oasis, post-Libertines kind of attitude of 'Yeah, we don't really think much for ourselves and we're going to celebrate that fact’. For us, after 10 or 15 years of it we found it quite... dull. We were talking about it and thinking, just as a philosophy, why doesn't someone do something more interactive and more meticulously thought out? Bring a bit of showmanship back into live music?

We felt like there was some kind of hole there that could be filled. And what we wanted to do was make something a little more interactive, a little more of an experience, and hopefully to create a live show where the experience started from the moment you walked into the show. I think what it tells you about this country, a little bit, is that we are... we have a habit of celebrating our own stupidity.

Do you think that is a particularly British trait?

JN: I do think that is a little bit British. I think we always seem to like to complain about things, and that’s quite a bad attitude.

What do you feel needs to change?

JN: Not just modern Britain, but modern life! Certainly I have a tendency to be quite bored, and I don't really feel like I have an association with anything. I think we have a trend of political ambivalence in this country. The main political parties are far more centralised now than in they were in the past, and it is difficult to side passionately with one or the other. We are also, I think, distracted and overwhelmed by the intensity of modern life, and it is hard to focus. The idea of the feeling of non-feeling has become a common theme within our lyrics. On the outside, we are wealthier, healthier and have a world at our fingertips, but there is an underlying feeling that we are collectively unhappier. I'm not certain even if that is true. I can't speak for the happiness of previous generations when life was frankly a lot harder, but nevertheless that niggling feeling that we are unhappier is there.

Regardless of our political leanings as people, we try to avoid including any obvious aspect of it in our lyrics, which are deeply personal. I suppose in a way our songs are concerned with the politics of the mind, if you like! I tend to write quickly, avoiding story, sometimes putting lyrics together randomly. I try to focus more on senses rather than meaning: movement, dancing, touching.

Back to meeting Ally - where did it go from there?

JN: Firstly we were meeting in pubs and talking about music, not talking about being in a band but what we would like a band to be. From that point onwards it was quite obvious that we were going to try to make some music. Because we were both playing around with electronic music we both had home studios, so we put all the bits of gear we had in one room and talked about it a bit more.

It then became trial and error for about the next year, trying to find a sound. The thing that pushed us towards what Mirrors became is that we wanted to make sure it was a pop band. We wanted to make sure it wasn't self indulgent for self indulgence's sake. We wanted it to be something that people could really get behind, that maybe presented pop music in a slightly more interesting way, but importantly, they were pop songs.


JN: Because pop music has been such an important part of all the band members' lives. We all grew up with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Police and all the normal stuff that kids grow up with, and you live with those things. And we wanted to take those elements of what we liked when we grew up, and great pop music, and combine them with electronic music that we were falling in love with. Kraftwerk was a turning point for me. I was in a band before Mirrors and I was lucky enough to do a bit of travelling with that band and I think it was Germany where I found a Kraftwerk record. I say record, but it was probably a CD. Trans Europe Express, actually. My favourite song was 'Europe Endless'. I remember me and Ali bonding that first year we met over that and dancing to 'Europe Endless', and it was skipping. We were so drunk we didn't even realise it had been skipping for 20 minutes. That's how good it is.

Do you have a big synth collection and what are your favourite synths? What led you there and away from the guitar?

JN: Arp 2600 Akai MPC1000
Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08
Doepfer MAQ16/3 Sequencer
Kawai R50
Korg MicroPreset
MOOG Little Phatty
Nord Lead 2X
Octave Cat
Roland Juno-60
Roland SH-101
Roland TR-808
Roland MC-202
Roland SPD-S
Siel Cruise

That's everything we used to make the record. Some of them we bought, some we borrowed and some we stole. I say stole, we found about five fantastic synthesizers in the basement of our record label which are now on permanent loan to the Mirrors 'Give A Synthesizer A Home' foundation!

What drew us to them? I think it's the idea that the sounds you can make from them are limitless. Synthesizer itself is a misleading term; these wondrous machines do the opposite of synthesizing pre-existing sounds; they create new sounds, and they seem sometimes to have a mind of their own. There is always more potential within them.

Your website often references current influences. What were the film, book and CD that most influenced you most growing up?

JN: Oh my god, that's such a big question. I think the first book was probably 1984, I still think that's one of my favourite books now I'm going to read it again actually. I'm reading Down and Out in Paris and London now; I just want to have a little look at the man [George Orwell] a bit more. I like those powerful ideas about social commentary. Musically, I know it's an obvious thing for me to say but I think the band that had the most impact on me was Kraftwerk, because they seemed to be beamed down from outer space. You couldn't really identify with them and that's what I find really exciting about them. It's like the opposite of the Britpop that was going on around me.

What about electronic music from Britain – even 80s bands like The Human League etc?

JN: I think it was Kraftwerk's alien nature appealed to me more because The Human League, OMD and stuff seemed very real to me, and I could picture what they were like. Preserving the sense of mystery - there isn't a band that did that more than Kraftwerk. They keep themselves to themselves. And lots of people like me find that really intriguing, and you want to find out every last little bit about them because you can't.

You enjoy the engagement with your curiosity, creating some dramatic tension, and a kind of relationship with the band? Is that it?

JN: I want what I can't have. I think I am fairly obsessive compulsive and that's all part of it. I made a clip for Mirrors the other day which was filming a housemate of mine secretly on a very busy street. He was in a very ornate chair in an old Victorian three piece, and I just told him to sit there and not move and filmed people's reactions. I find that very intriguing – to see how people react. And it was amazing. Actually, some people were genuinely quite angry about it. Some people were laughing and pointing, just the range of reactions made a really good visual. I put it up on our club night.

Everyone is fascinated with what we can't have, because more and more we can have everything we want and not only can we have it, but we can have it instantly.

But you can't have other peoples' lives...

JN: I can't. But I can watch them. Or write about them.

There seems in your promotion to be an inference that there is a Mirrors manifesto of a kind. How would you define that?

JN: It’s a big question, I think. It makes me sound quite pompous but I like the idea that Mirrors is a sort of pop music that makes a very small dent in the way that pop music is produced and consumed, you know? A lot of the stuff in the mainstream... we see the same things over and over, and I think particularly for a live show, we’re trying to make a sort of special event for people to get involved in. I’d definitely like to make a pop band that’s a little bit more interactive than what we’ve seen for the last sort of 10-15 years.

How do you translate that idea through on a record?

JN: Especially with a modern band, I think the record is just one part of what we do. I think the live show is the only way now, really. Recorded music has been devalued so much - anyone can have a record, as soon as they want it, and they can have it free, and that’s the reality. Personally, I’m more focussed on converting that great music into a live show that, you know, you have to buy. I know that sounds stupid but I think that if people have to spend some money, that will mean they care about it more. I don’t think that people care as much about records as they did simply because music is not worth as much as it was.

What do you think makes Mirrors sonically unique?

JN: OK, I think one thing that sort of makes us unique - hopefully - is that we make electronic music, but we do it in a way that’s very sort of warm and soulful. I think that what we actually like to try and call it is a kind of electronic soul music. I don’t mean that in a cheesy or commercial sort of way, I mean it in a genuinely heartfelt and honest kind of way - like bands like Arcade Fire but sonically more towards an electronic palette. I mean intent - the soulful intent - of the lyrics, and that sort of ghostly warm ethereal feel that we combine with our electronics.

If you think about the history of British electronic pop music, do you feel that there is a certain sterility?

JN: They’re very thin: think of records like The Human League's Dare and Depeche Mode's Speak and Spell - there’s nothing in them at all, and in that sense they are fairly cheesy. I think with what we do, it’s a much denser beast; there’s so much more in it, and that’s very intentional. We wanted it to sound almost oversaturated. Believe it or not, there are tons of guitars in there - almost a My Bloody Valentine sort of density underneath. I think that definitely gives it its own feel and its own atmosphere.

We’re not emulating minimalism, we quite intentionally want it to fill out every frequency. And I think it’s something that you can do with a modern band, but maybe a band from 30 years ago couldn’t have done, because of modern production techniques and compression. I think that makes it a quite modern sounding record in a way, and I know that people will always say that it sounds like a lot of bands that we’ve mentioned – OMD, The Human League and that’s fair enough - but I think that the way that it’s produced is very modern.

How was it touring with OMD?

JN: It was such a great tour for us. We were concerned about it because people were already talking about these songs that we’ve written now as comparable to OMD, but for us it just made the experience amazing because we finally had an audience that absolutely loved what we were doing. It was great to be playing for a big audience: for me, that's kind of what Mirrors were made for. Our sound, because there are no organic or acoustic instruments, it's made for a big room, so it was great for us to actually try that out on a big stage, and see if people would feel it.

Do you want to be categorised with something that really is of the past? One thing that you as a band have said is that you’re interested in futurity.

JN: It does disappoint me a little bit to be honest. When we were making it I didn’t... I obviously knew that we were referencing these sort of bands and stuff, but I thought there were elements of 1970s Krautrock, bits of techno... I think maybe one thing that I’m a bit disappointed with is that the perception of it, and maybe it’s right, is that it’s a slightly derivative record. But it’s our first attempt, so...

Do you feel there are many other bands in a similar vein to yourselves? Do you feel part of a movement at all?

JN: If I did – which I don't to be honest – I probably wouldn't admit to it. I think most of us as quite happy and content to keep everything in the world of Mirrors. I think it's an important idea that we want it to be our own little bubble. Hurts is a band that we get compared with a lot. I don't want to say anything negative about them; I like them in principle and I think they look really stylish. But in nine out of 10 interviews, I'll be asked how much I love Hurts.

How do you differentiate yourselves from a band like Hurts when your aesthetic/visual values seem very similar?

JN: It's difficult, to be honest. We've actually been around a bit longer - this came about around three years ago, and Hurts, as far as I'm aware, have been around for about a year and a half. So when we did see it, it was literally a 'shit' moment [laughs]. There was definitely a scene where something like that was going to react against maybe what we considered the 'indie' scene at the time. So it's difficult, but I think I just have to trust peoples' judgement, and if they listen to our records and they do see some similarities in our album to Hurts then I'm afraid I think they're idiots. We try to make everything we do a part of Mirrors. Our image, our artwork, even our press release, which was a series of bullet points outlining our distinct ideas, is parts of a coherent whole. In this way we are influenced by those that lived their life as art; Gilbert and George would be a prime example.

Do you think about the future much - not just for yourself but for England? Do you find it easy to invest in the ideas of 'future' and how do you feel that relates to Mirrors?

JN: I think people would say I'm a pessimist, but I don't really think of myself as one. I just find the darker side of life more invigorating, that's all. I think about the future, of course, but mostly as an individual. I'm no activist. The reality is that bands like Mirrors are finding it harder and harder to make an impact on the general public, and I'm sure it's the same in other creative industries where the money is running dry.

Going back to that idea of our own ambivalence to things, what worries me is that as everything becomes more accessible to us on a day-to-day basis, we are in fact simultaneously devaluing everything that is important to us. Music, that magical wonder that has enraptured almost every person on Earth since the beginning of humanity, is now increasingly being reduced in our society to yet another product whose sole purpose is to make a lot of money very quickly. Ringtones: they're symbolic of this saddening situation. The public don't seem to care. They are literally told what to like. We are caring less about things the more readily available they become, and I do wonder where that trend stops.

The name - why? And how did you decide upon it?

JN: Finally, an easy question! [laughs]. It's a simple, obvious everyday word, memorable and strong but there is an obvious symbolism there. Mirror: something that gives a minutely faithful representation, image, or idea of something else. I liked the idea of being a mirror. Quietly watching and examining the world around me...

Mirrors debut album Lights and Offerings is out now. More info at