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Escape Velocity

The Joy Of Synth: Nothing But Noise Interviewed
Nix Lowrey , March 13th, 2012 06:59

Front 242 founder member Daniel B has reunited with co-founder Dirk Bergen after almost 30 years, for a new project entitled Nothing But Noise. Nix Lowrey caught up with Daniel to discuss working together again, the lure of electronic music and the wonder of synthesisers

Aggressive, robotic and militaristic: everything Belgian brutalists Front 242 are - and new F242 side project Nothing But Noise are not. Founding F242 member Daniel Bressanuti - known as codename Daniel B - has spent the last year split between commanding large festival crowds with the bombastic Front 242 live show, and sitting in a small room jamming beatless wig-outs on old analogue synthesisers with Nothing But Noise. Intriguingly, F242 co-founder Dirk Bergen has joined him, writing together again for the first time since Bergen quit the band almost 30 years ago. Together with mutual friend Erwin Jarbot, they have conjured up Not Bleeding Red, a post-motorik improvised album of non-linear, post-psych synthesis.  

For those unfamiliar with Bergen and Bressanuti’s provenance, Front 242 were enigmatic, subversive sonic pioneers - the forefathers of Electronic Body Music. The first spores to thrive in the Flemish petri-dish of the early 80s that later spawned proto-house/techno genres New Beat and Agreppo, Front 242 ushered in a new danceable, aggressively synthetic musical style. Embracing what would become recognised as an industrial and techno ethic - anonymity - and a subversion of the idea of marketed product, Front 242 took strong cues from the original machine-men Kraftwerk and obscured their identities behind codenames and images. The final blushes of the cold war resonate through their uniforms and dystopian imagery.  

Front 242 became cult heroes to an audience of politically disenfranchised clubbers and technology-hungry musicians of the 80s and 90s, and have continued to record and tour to the present day. The band structure is loose, flexible - a model once again perfected by Kraftwerk before them - and all current members of Front 242 sport multiple side-projects spanning DJing, bands and film. Daniel B has produced an array of extra-curricular work over the years, including ‘Male or Female’ and  ‘Speed Tribe’, a DVD and audio release based around the 2001 Le Mans motor race. ‘Nothing But Noise’ is his newest and most anti-242 project, in a way - ambient and improvisational where F242 is clinical and direct.

Daniel begins by reassuring the Quietus that despite recent announcements of cancelled shows, Nothing But Noise does not signal the end of Front 242.

Are the recent announcement that Front 242 are cancelling all concerts after May and this new project linked at all?

Daniel B: That’s pure coincidence.  We spoke about taking a break last year and it’s not that we are fed up with playing live, but we don’t want to become fed up with it. So we decided to take a little pause after our concerts in May.

Does that signal the end for Front 242?

DB: For the moment, yes. You never know the future - we could meet up in 3 months time and decide not to go on. For the moment nobody wants to stop the band, we just want to relax a little bit. By our definition, we’ve played a lot of gigs so far this year, and we didn’t want to overdo it. We felt it was a good time to stop and maybe think of new material. We’ve been working on some new songs for a year but we’re not at all happy with the results so far. If we take a break, we can work on improving them.

So how did this side project come together? It’s very different from Front 242.

DB: Dirk [Bergen], who is in Nothing But Noise, was one of the other founding members of Front 242.

How did you reunite for this project?

DB: We’ve stayed friends forever. Dirk is still one of my best friends, if not my best friend, and although it’s been many years since he was in Front 242 we’ve been in touch all this time. Every week we go and have a drink or something. For years he had a job and wasn’t very interested in doing music, but last year he stopped working all together, so I and Erwin Jadot [NBN's third member] pushed him to start doing music again.

What did you set out to make?

DB: Before coming up with the concept of Front 242 we were already playing with synthesisers, and that’s where we began anew a year ago. We were using synths and taking our cues and influences from when we stopped working together in ‘82-’83.

Did it take a while to conceptualise and develop?

DB: When we first started it was more like ‘Let’s do music together again’ with no real goal. We had no interest in putting a record out. The idea was ‘You have free time, me too, let’s come together and try to do some music that we like’. Later, hearing the pieces we were creating, we thought maybe we should try to put it out - and it then became more serious. I must say, in the 80s Front 242 started like that too - at the beginning there was never a plan to become a commercially viable band.  

The album has a very ambient direction reminiscent of krautrock...

DB: It was not a direction we deliberately wanted to work in, but it was an influence we wanted to pay homage to. That music influenced us in the early stages of our music making.

Why did it catch your attention back then?

DB: Because it was the only music with synths around, apart from Stockhausen and musique concrète, which as a young kid you’re not jumping to emulate. We had a more powerful attraction to artists like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultz, Kraftwerk, BBC workshop music and krautrock. But for us in the 80s the goal was not be like the BBC music workshop. This time too.

What we wanted to do is start where we thought Krautrock, Tangerine Dream and things finished, and say, ‘What would those people do today to continue?’ And we want, if we are able to continue, to go further. You can see already in some of the new pieces on our website that are not on the album that we are looking further into what that music could become.

Why synth music?

DB: It represented something so exciting - pure electronic creation, made by artists like Pierre Henry and Stockhausen. And then came krautrock, introducing the use of sequencers. With the sequencer came an element that had been missing from electronic music before and that was rhythm. A lot of musique concrete is really noise - not rhythm based. The sequencer developed in a very fast fashion and enabled people to create music that was completely different. And with Nothing But Noise, we wanted to explore that again, making rhythmic music with no drums.

Have you used mostly vintage analogue on this album?

DB: We used a lot of analogue, because I have still kept all my synths. I have 35, maybe 40 synths in my collection, and a lot of them are early analogue. I’m still more at ease with analogue technology - I don’t know why. It’s a music-love-technology relationship I don’t have with digital. Digital for me is more useful for effects, whereas analogue is more the basic skeleton of what I see as music.

Do you see this project having a continuation of the same synth aesthetic you have with F242?

DB: If you go and see F242 live even today we still use the same analogue machines. In the Re-Boot period we went more dancy and digital, but then we came back with what we call ‘the vintage’. There are some new analogue machines in our kit because there is an analogue renaissance at the moment: Moog is back, Sequential is back, modular synths are really booming.

Did you have a synth of your own before you started Front 242?

DB: I had wanted to make music since... I don’t know when. The first thing you do when you’re not a musician and you want to start a band - and are a little bit lazy - is think about getting a synth. Because learning a guitar is theoretically simple but if you want to do it well... I know people who have played guitar for 30 years who say they’re still learning. At almost the same time I bought some drums, but after a year I replaced them with a drum machine because the first drum machines had come onto the market.

Can you talk a bit about the album and studio process?

DB: I live in France and Dirk and Erwin live in Belgium, so the early stages were exchanges of audio, and sometimes MIDI, files. Then, later, we spent more time together, mostly at Erwin’s place. We didn’t go to a studio, we did it all in-house. We came together, we improvised, we explored ideas and worked.

Many of the pieces that are on the album are largely just improvised, because when you try to repeat a melody you never pick up the charm that is there on the first thing you did. So we sometimes kept even some of the bad stuff. Later, we realised we had so much material recorded that we could do something with it, so we worked more seriously at mixing it and giving it shape.

As a musician do you think ‘conceptually’, visually or mathematically? Mechanically? Instinctively?

DB: For me it’s a mix of maths and energy from sound. The maths being the rhythm, the swing, the groove, the sounds that make the sequencing. But I always think about the sound first. Not what it does, but an idea of a sound spectrum. I think it’s like a being painter. He wants a colour, and he knows what other colours to mix to get it exactly right. I always think like that about sounds.

How was the studio experience? Was it difficult working with Dirk after so long?

DB: No, particularly because we chose a music style we both agreed on. There were disagreements in the early days of Front 242 about the direction we were going in, and that’s why Dirk left the band. But if you go drinking with your friend and talk about music for years, when you talk about doing a project together you’re not going to be confrontational, because you’re doing it for fun. You try to make music you both like.

Is that because you’re both really laid back?

D. Not really. [laughs]

Dirk and Erwin know, of course, how I am. Maybe they have a certain respect for me because I have been part of F242 for so long and we did things right I would say - because we’re still there after 30 years, still touring and still successful. Not a lot of bands can say that, I think, so we must have done something right.

I’m not an easy guy to work with when it comes to music, I know what I want, what sound, and I think Dirk and Erwin respect that. But at the same time, I know how they think and what they do, so it’s easy to understand each other. We’ve had many years of talking about music, and we know each others' background so well it’s easy not to get into even a discussion.

What happens from here?

DB: We’ll go further. We’ve had a lot of enthusiastic responses to the music, also we enjoy working together. We have performed three live shows for the moment, which is a lot of work and sometimes more work than we even expected. Whatever happens with this release we will go on, we already have more than two hours music for the next album, and we have ideas of places we’d like to try to play live.