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Evolutionary Spirit: An Interview With John Foxx And Ade Fenton
Jonathan Wright , November 30th, 2023 13:44

John Foxx and Ade Fenton speak to Jonathan Wright about new track 'A Million Times', released today exclusively to tQ Sound And Vision subscribers

John Foxx photo by Ed Fielding; Ade Fenton photo by Zed Erina

To receive 'A Million Times' by John Foxx and Ade Fenton, become a Quietus Sound And Vision subscriber

The first time producer Ade Fenton worked with Gary Numan, he could hardly believe his luck. As a youngster, he had posters of Numan on his bedroom wall and The Pleasure Principle was one of two albums that “formed [his] love of electronic music”. The other album was by a singer who had in turn heavily influenced Numan, John Foxx’s 1980 solo debut, Metamatic.

When the opportunity came to record with Foxx for the latest entry in tQ’s subscriber exclusive Singularity series, the densely textured ‘A Million Times’ Fenton jumped at the chance. “When John was in my studio and messing around on my gear, it was like, ‘Fucking hell, John Foxx is twiddling the knobs on my PolyBrute,’” says Fenton, before both men burst out laughing.

The ease between the duo is evident as they chat via Zoom. Foxx and Fenton both live in Bath and know each other socially. They also share a manager – or “co-conspirator” in Foxx’s words – in Steve Malins. “It’s all a friendly conspiracy,” says Foxx. “It’s good fun, as well. And it’s serious fun, the kind of fun you like to have.” Indeed, what’s maybe most surprising is that the two hadn’t collaborated already.

‘A Million Times’ is a song that began life as a sketch by Foxx for part of a larger project. “I started the thing off with just one drum machine beat and some guitar sounds and a synth or two,” he says. “It was kind of messy, but I felt there was something interesting in it. It was the beginning of a dark album I never did, actually. I may do it at some point.”

“You will!” interjects Fenton, but that’s a potential project for the future. Back in the recent past, Foxx, having previously “wandered off in another direction as usual” rather than finish ‘A Million Times’, intuited there was a fit between the raw track and Fenton’s collaborations with Numan on the five-album run that began with 2006’s Jagged and most recently Intruder in 2021. “I like the sound he gets with Gary a lot,” says Foxx, “and the jigsaw fitted.”

But not without some work. One issue was that ‘A Million Times’ doesn’t have a conventional structure but instead builds through repetition. “You wrote the song, but you weren’t even sure where you were supposed to be coming in,” Fenton says to Foxx, who laughs. “With Gary I'm used to verse and then massive chorus, and then you can work out structure in a quite a linear way,” adds Fenton. “This didn’t happen with this track at all because of the way it’s put together. You know, it’s kind of like ‘sonic musings’.”

Both Foxx and Fenton are solitary souls, happy to work for long hours alone, but bringing their initial musings into focus eventually necessitated being together in Fenton’s studio. “When people do get together in the studio, I find more happens because somebody will hear something that another person won’t, or somebody will make a groove in a different way,” says Fenton. “John added some extra synth top-lines to the track and I would never in a million years have put those notes with that melody.”

Foxx’s take on collaborating in person is similar. “That communication you get in the studio is really interesting, because I often watch it from a distance and realise you don’t say that much,” he says. “You play things and alter a sound. And you just nod and say, ‘Yeah, great.’ That’s about the extent of the conversation, but there’s still a big conversation going on: it’s not verbal, but it’s to do with sonics. I love that kind of atmosphere when you get into it. It’s a very instinctive feeling, I think.”

Lyrically, ‘A Million Times’ is more upbeat than its swirling and menacing instrumental might initially suggest. “I was thinking about evolution,” Foxx explains. “It’s not always easy to not be doomy about the future, but I’ve realised that one of the reasons to be cheerful is the fact that we’re here, because each of our ancestors, right back down to when we were a one-celled creature, has survived. So we’re a success story that has lasted millions of years.” Nevertheless, the idea that not everyone gets to pass on their genes is also present. ‘Tell me, tell me, were we ever safe?’ asks Foxx at one point on the track, giving it a melancholy quality.

The lyric was also informed by Foxx’s ideas about how information is passed between generations. “I realised, without being taught, that I had a skill, which was cutting stone, and I realised I could do it very easily, as if I’d done it before sometime,” he says. “I do think that genetics are a kind of memory recording. They have to be in order for us to survive, and genes pass on useful information from generation to generation to build a human. I have a weird theory that among that there are actual memories of experiences, or at least glimpses, that we all carry, and these lead to ideas like reincarnation.”

The song, he adds, explores the idea of what it might be like to be able to glimpse back down the evolutionary chain through deep time, and forwards too. “We’re all isolated,” Foxx adds, “but in other ways we’re all joined at the hip. We’re social animals, whether we like it or not.” Some of us are more social than others, however. Would it be a fair assessment to see Foxx and Fenton as a couple of loners who need to work out ways to collaborate in order to let the world in? Foxx agrees without hesitation.

In this context, it’s fascinating to think about the critical response to Foxx down the years, which wasn’t always kind, especially early on. Even worse treatment was meted out to Gary Numan. “Funnily enough, I was reading a review of Telekon, Gary’s 1980 album, somebody had posted yesterday,” says Fenton. “A journalist from Sounds absolutely ripped it to pieces, didn’t understand it at all.”

That both Foxx and Numan are now revered as pioneers is a vindication but also, more subtly, perhaps evidence of how loners have shaped the history of electronic music, in part by speaking to others like them. There was, says Fenton, “no profound reason” why “the coldness” of The Pleasure Principle and Metamatic so connected with him, but somehow the chill he perceived inspired him.

As the 1980s progressed, he adds, he wasn’t much drawn to, say, The Human League’s pop records. It was techno that got Fenton interested again. Specifically, he mentions the revelation of first hearing the ‘hoover sound’ of Joey Beltram’s ‘Mentasm’ in a club. “It sounded like somebody was getting a synthesiser and ripping its guts out,” he remembers.

That in turn inspired Fenton to become the producer who helped bring a new clarity to Numan’s sound – a sound he has now brought to Foxx’s music too. Glimpsing back down the chain, you can clearly see some of the evolutionary steps that play into ‘A Million Times’. And you can look up the chain too. While Foxx is currently preoccupied with “piano music”, Fenton has been working on the debut solo album by one Raven Numan, Gary’s daughter.

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