Repeating, Shouting, Pointing: Fixmer/McCarthy Interviewed

As Terence Fixmer and Douglas McCarthy ex of Nitzer Ebb prepare to bring their full-throttling collaboration Fixmer/McCarthy to the UK this weekend, Luke Turner dropped them a line to find out their dirty little secrets

Over the past year or so techno sets on dancefloors across the world (well, Europe) have been enlivened by one of Nitzer Ebb’s ridiculous stompers hoving into view, priapic and riding a giant leather bear, amid the 4/4 rattle & bang. Although Douglas McCarthy and Bon Harris have put NE to rest, succor remains for those who love their bangers leathery, swinging (in both the good senses of the word) and sordid. Handily, given how well suited McCarthy’s work is to the club, this comes in the form of Fixmer/McCarthy, the NE vocalist’s collaboration with French techno producer Terence Fixmer. Their debut album Between The Devil, released in 2004, was a thriller, a dozen hyper-sexed rippers that saw McCarthy on some of the finest vocal form of his life. Much like the solo work of Regis and his Surgeon collaboration, British Murder Boys, this is punishing music that has bleak wit at its core – see the Mickey Mouse deaths head logo that has graced the cover of their records, and the simple joy in banging it out hard and fast, every 4/4 kick in a codpiece. Now split between Switzerland (Fixmer) and Los Angeles (McCarthy), the duo picked up the threads after time away making films, solo records and carrying on with life to get back together – "it seemed the right time to make a concerted effort to concentrate on FM," says McCarthy. The result was new track ‘Chemicals’, a sturdy ode to the delights of sweaty brain obliteration that bodes well for Fixmer/McCarthy’s appearance (alongside Broken English Club) at Cosey Club this weekend.

Douglas, when did you first hear Terence’s music?

Douglas McCarthy: Actually, it was when we first met. I had made some serious space between myself and the music industry after the Nitzer Ebb ‘Big Hit’ tour (it was anything but by the way). I had returned to the UK after living in Grosse Point, near Detroit, for a few years and was working on a short film directed by John Malkovich when I got a request from Seth Hodder at Nova Mute who had just released a series of Nitzer Ebb remixes by a gaggle of techno producers including Terence. Seth said that Terence was interested in getting me to do some vocals for his then second album. It’d been a while since Nitzer Ebb so I thought it might be interesting. I was living in Shoreditch at the time and Terence happened to be in London so he came over and played a few ideas to me. I think that was the first time I heard his music.

And Terence, when did you first encounter Nitzer Ebb?

Terence Fixmer: It was probably around 1988 or ’89, i remember I had a tape from a club in Belgium called Skyline – I was too young to be allowed to go. They played mainly avant-garde and EBM music, cold wave and the starting era of new beat. ‘Let Your Body Learn’ was on it and I was like, WTF is that?! What I really loved in Nitzer Ebb was the violence and energy in the music, made from the basslines and on top of it this guy shouting like hell. There was even sometimes a sense of melody without losing any power in his anger. 

Douglas, you’d quit music to work in film, would you have gone back into music if it wasn’t for Terence?

DM: It’s an interesting question. I was very much involved in establishing a career as a director but was going out a lot to the then pretty raw Shoreditch nightlife – Cosey Club when it was at On The Rocks, as well as Nag Nag Nag in the West End – so I was feeling a bit of an itch to get back involved. Certainly Terence made that transition back into music very easy. After listening to the tracks he played me I went to Lille where he was based at the time and we just started recording ideas. His initial thought was to have me sing on one or two of the tracks for his next album. Once we got to about nine we began to discuss the tracks as a new project and Fixmer/McCarthy was born.

What do you most admire about each other?

DM: Haha! His massive nose and big ol’ hair. No, he’s a very driven individual but has an absurd sense of humour, both of which make co-creating with him enjoyable and easy.

TF: Haha! well, i would say his big face, we usually sign to each other as BF and BN in email. Otherwise  Doug has a great sense of black humour and self mockery, and I admire his ability to dance on stage playing a dramatic role for each song.

After some time away did you take any different approaches this time around?

DM: It’s funny because we’ve been to gather for what feels a short period of time but, A. it isn’t and B. the ability to work remotely is an easy studio experience. The distance between Southern California and the Alps doesn’t really make that much difference to our process. That said, we worked on nearly all of the new tracks at soundcheck of Fixmer/McCarthy gigs. Then we’d try them out directly that night with the audience. It’s taken us to a more raw and heavy level, similar to Between The Devil but somehow more modern through Terence’s production.

TF: We’re both instinctive and we have a good understanding soundwise so there’s is a lot of spontaneity about the music. We don’t want to be complicated, it is about fun.

You’ve said you might record a new track live at Cosey Club…

TF: Yes, and sometimes it is really hazardous – during the soundcheck I make Doug listen to a sequence I’ve considered for Fixmer/McCarthy, then straight away he has a good idea for vocals and.or lyrics on it, and then we decide to try it during the show without rehearsal. We have lots of eye communication during the show where we understand what to do at what moment. Often when I start this new track that Douglas has come up with he’ll sing a different vocal melody and lyrics from what he planned (because he just forgot it like every old man), but then the spontaneity is there and we end up with better lyrics and melody in the end.

Why ‘Chemicals’?

TF: I don’t know, I never pay attention to his lyrics, I’m French haha!

DM: I can’t remember if Terence sent me the file of the basic song or i heard it at a soundcheck. Either way, the first thought that popped into my head was remembering the early Spanish shows Nitzer Ebb played in 1985. They were all on the south eastern coast around Murcia and Valencia. The latter had a club called Spook Factory that opened at alike 6am and went on all day so everyone, including us, would end up when other clubs finished. It was pre-Balearic Beats and certainly Acid House but had all of that loved-up drugged-up mayhem that hit London a few years later. At the time there was a popular car sticker that was a pill capsule, as seen on the cover art I did for ‘Chemicals’. I just wanted to invoke the feeling I had as a 19-year-old kid going bonkers in Spain.

Douglas, you’ve talked about. "Repeating, shouting, pointing" – is that your musical modus-operandi?

DM: I should trade mark it. When Nitzer Ebb were opening for Depeche Mode on the Violator Tour they left a lyric sheet in our dressing room where they had re-written ‘Fun To Be Had’… "you’ve got to state the bleeding obvious, you’ve got so say everything twice…" and so on. Me and Cyrus Rex were larking about a while ago and after I’d dick flicked him he grabbed my finger and ruptured the tendon so as it goes, I have a bent pointy finger. I assume it’s extremely confusing to anyone in the crowd as i look at them but my finger points off to the left.

Techno and what we might for want of a better term call EBM are currently fairly fused in clubs/music. Douglas, back in the day were you into techno?

DM: Oh, it’s a funny old world. I remember ‘EBM’ being coined and thought, ‘what the fuck are you on about?’. Techno was always a Detroit thing for me and although I certainly appreciated what those guys were doing, it never really seemed exactly what Nitzer Ebb were trying to do sonically at the time. I once received a call at some hotel I was staying at on tour from Derrick May. He was totally pissed off because NE had rejected his mixes (funnily enough, Nova Mute released them decades later and Bon and myself were like, ‘what didn’t we like?’). Fuck knows how he got my number. That said, yes we did go to clubs and had a jolly good time. Meeting an unknown (to us) Sven Vath at Dorian Grey in Frankfurt in 1989 and going back to his studio kind of sums it up. It was just music and now 28 years later, lo and behold, it’s just music.

Are you wary of these times when tough electronic music and techno both become pretty hip? You’ve seen the cycle revolve before…

DM: I’ve got the pointy thing. As you say, it’s been round and round the block more than enough times. It’s nice that Dior Homme use ‘Control, I’m Here’. It’s nice I still get to muck about on stage. I’m pretty sanguine about it all.

It’s fair to say that your music is rather associated with dark spaces, drizzly weather, dubious sex in gloomy places. How does living in LA affect that?

DM: Ask Silent Servant. Miserable bastard! I’ve always had the opinion that every location in the world, no matter how idyllic or the opposite to gloomy, has a dark underbelly. It might only be two people moping about in a graveyard with a bottle of cider (me and Bon aged 14) but that’s all it takes.

Were there any new musical inspirations to the new tracks?

DM: Terence has dived into the world of modular synths so that has been a new influence to a certain extent but I think it’s pretty much what it says on the tin.

TF: hmmm…..not sure what to answer, i have a sound in my head, and i know what i like to create for FM, not sure about new musical inspiration, it is just in me.

Douglas, how many pairs of aviator sunglasses have you got through in your life?

DM: I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had my fair share. 

Is sexual humour something that’s underrated/ignored in your lyrics and music?

DM: Seemingly so, but I sort of like that. It’s like Van Halen’s no blue M&Ms on their rider. If you didn’t notice the small shit how are you gonna get the rest of it, right? Lazy or blinkered people make me laugh, but I laugh at most things so…

Douglas, what’s the key difference playing to a club audience as opposed to a gig?

DM: Fixmer/McCarthy seems to have the ability to leave little between the two, as our last Berghain gig illustrated. People feel free to dance or watch or both. The only exception I can think of is a gig Terence and I played when they had Terence in a huge DJ booth but I was on like a catwalk on the opposite side of the club. So when we started playing it just looked like Terence was performing alone. After a while a few confused people started noticing me and wondering why some old guy was dancing around angrily pointing at them.

Terence, what does working with a vocalist give to you in the club environment?

TF: I like it a lot because I’m used to playing solo sets as Terence Fixmer, so the attention from the people is usually on me – I’m not so comfortable with that. Because Douglas is there people will focus on him – he’s a fury on stage. He runs, shouts, points his strange fingers, gets topless and sometimes sings. It makes me more relaxed and I can focus on the machines and the music.

Douglas, you’ve spoken about the gig that changed how you saw rock & roll for you… Is Fixmer / McCarthy a rock & roll group at heart?

DM: Yes, I have had great pleasure conjoining rock and roll with electronic music. It undoubtedly came from touring with Depeche. After Nitzer Ebb signed to Mute, Daniel Miller wanted us to open for them on the Music For The Masses European tour and we totally balked at the idea, thinking we’d be viewed as selling out. It took one show for me and Bon to look at each other and say, ‘oh, that’s what this performing thing is about’. Interestingly with Terence, he has a natural ability to write music that is actually extremely bluesy and rock & roll, with a great swing to it. Funnily enough though, when I point it out to him he can’t hear it – he says ‘to me it just sounds like really hard techno’.

TF: Douglas is rock &roll. I remember him singing the lyrics of ‘Join In The Chant’ on the music of ‘Control I’m Here’, so I was waiting the moment to play the music of ‘Join In The Chant’ to see what he will sing.

What keeps you both doing what you do?

DM: We’re a double act. Closer to Morecambe and Wise than Iggy and Bowie but there’s a synergy and affection that I think binds us. If it stops being fun we will stop. That or if i have a heart attack on stage.

What can everyone at Cosey Club expect?

DM: A heart attack?

Fixmer/McCarthy play Cosey Club at Electrowerkz, London with Broken English Club this weekend. For tickets visit Dice here

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