May 7, 2014
Originally published on FACT.
Words: Louis Pattison
In 2004, Lucas MacFadden, aka Cut Chemist, hard-touring turntablist and former member of Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli, was in Rome to lecture for Red Bull Music Academy when he got a tip about a collection of rare records in nearby Milan.
With some time to spare, he hopped on the train. “They had a ton of pretty collectable stuff – library music, a 45 of ‘Apache’ by Incredible Bongo Band,” he says. “Then I came across this compilation I didn’t recognise. It had this red and white sculpture on the cover, like one of those Allen Jones sculptures from A Clockwork Orange, and written on the sleeve was ‘alternative funk’ – I thought, I bet that’s kind of ironic – like, I bet this is a different kind of funk to what I’m looking for. But that in itself is interesting, because I see a lot of records.”
Putting the needle to the groove, it turned out that MacFadden had happened was a collection of continental ‘80 electro. “The sort of thing I’d had utter contempt for in the past,” laughs. “But for some reason I was changing my tune. I was in the middle of making my first solo album and I wanted to evolve my sound a little more, find a new direction. What I liked about it, though, was it was really crude.” One track, titled ‘Megamix’ by a group called Vox Populi!, stood out. “It was really basic, the mixing was out of whack, you could tell it was a home production. And it had this scratching on it, but there was really no dexterity to it, suggesting there was no turntable involved – it as something harder to manhandle, like a reel-to-reel.” Instantly, he was hooked. There were enough familiar qualities to bring me in – and enough weirdness to bring me in even more.”
MacFadden bought it, stuck it in his record box, later touted it round ‘80s music collectors with little recognition. Later, he was working on a track featuring Edan and Mr Lif for his forthcoming solo album, The Audience’s Listening. “It had this heavy drum break, the sort of thing you’d expect me to do at the time. I wanted to go a little left. So I put this ‘Megamix’ track underneath and it totally changed it – it just sounded more psychedelic, unhinged, punk. There were so many tethers to different genres I loved. It had those old-school elements that tether it to Jurassic 5, a bit, but it also had this psychedelic feel that tied it to Edan. The hip-hop kids didn’t like it – they’re like, that song’s weird, I’ve never heard a rap song like it.” He laughs. “And I was like, yeah, I’ve never heard anything like it either.”
Clearing the sample, however, posed immediate issues. “I’m not the best cyber-digger – I did searches and there was nothing. But a year later, the guy that does visuals for me called me up, like, did you know they have a MySpace page?” MacFadden made contact, and soon he was corresponding with Axel Kyrou of Vox Populi! and his friend and collaborator, Pierre Jolivet of the affiliated Paris group Pacific 231. From them, he bought all the original material they had – a treasure trove of releases that spanned from industrial dance to Joy Division-indebted synth-pop, goth gloom to music concrete. “It was my first foray into cassette collecting – cassettes in plastic bags, packaged with fanzines. It was totally DIY, and I was like, man, that’s so cool,” says MacFadden.
Soon, the music of Vox Populi! and Pacific 231 was providing valuable material for a good proportion of MacFadden’s productions. “I was making so much music with their music, I was just like, I should put out an album of their music, my favourite of their songs. I didn’t want to be like, putting out an album made of all their songs and be like, here’s the new Cut Chemist album!” So out now on MacFadden’s own A Stable Sound label is Cut Chemist Presents Funk Off, a collection of Vox Populi! and Pacific 231 tracks, some familiar to diggers, some exclusive.
MacFadden is not alone in singing the groups’ praises: Spencer Clark of The Skaters reissued Vox Populi!’s 1987 cassette Half Dead Ganja Music last year, while an extensive Vox Populi! box is due later this year on Vinyl On Demand. But MacFadden is looking forward to building a proper working relationship with Kyrou and Jolivet, with a new Cut Chemist LP in the works that will feature live contributions from both. “What they do is their own sound, like a niche inside a niche,” he says. “I call it drum machine wave. What I do with my music – I try to create a world, with my friends, in my home studio. And when I was interviewing Axel, he pretty much explained his world as the exact same thing. When I met him, it was like we were friends already – we’d had the same philosophies, the same sensibility. It’s almost like the music doesn’t matter so much as the experience that made the music. I like that ethic.”
Can you tell me a little about the surroundings that Vox Populi! and Pacific 231 grew out of? Where were you based? What is the relationship between the two groups?
Axel: We met in 1983 and found a lot of similarities. We shared the same musical tastes. We were the same age, 19. We were living close to one another. We had both recently released our first cassette, and our home studios shared the same basics: a monophonic synth, a rhythm box, a reel-to-reel tape deck, a microphone and some effect boxes. We immediately got on very well together and agreed to making music and set up our own productions through our label, VP231. Two months later, the cassette compilation Ritual Dos Sadicos was released and in October 1983 we played in the first and only Parisian festival of industrial music alongside Nox and Whitehouse. Our band, called Berlinerluft was short lived, and also included the singer B Wolf, who you can hear on several tracks of Funk Off. From this period until now, we shared a strong friendship and many musical explorations.
Pierre: We were, and still are to a point, driven by minimalistic sounds. Our music, at early stages, had more to do with DIY than anything else! I consider Axel to be more mellow than me. In the early years, I was influenced primarily by industrial music and especially power electronics. But it’s remarkable, for me, how our paths crisscross, our styles having fused into many different experimental routes.
What was the music that influenced you? I hear Joy Division, but the sensibility seems more rooted in a practice similar to Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo, music concrète. What equipment were you using? What techniques interested you?
Axel: I come from a very music-friendly environment. My mother, Mireille, was a classically trained pianist. She studied harmony with Olivier Messiaen before joining the GRM under the direction of musique concrete founder Pierre Schaeffer in 1958. She stayed there four years and had a musical study released on the compilation Musique Concrete, released by Philips in 1964. She taught me some of my first basics and tricks. My father was a music addict, always listening to all kind of oddities: free jazz, pure noise, Krautrock, prog, industrial… he was a film and TV director very much involved in surrealism, his main body of work being a reference book about surrealism and cinema. This was a very progressive environment, ideal for experiencing alternative cultures.
In my teens I was regularly sent to English families to improve my language, and from the age of 15 to 19 – the years 1979 to 1983 – London was my city of choice. I got to see many great acts: DAF, Killing Joke, SPK, Soft Cell, A Certain Ratio, Throbbing Gristle, Lemon Kittens, This Heat, Clock DVA… I was influenced by their music, off course, but also they way imposed their own ways of making music and distributing it. They never waited for anything from the authorities nor from the big firms. They were close to the people they reached and never had big-headed attitude. Voice has always been important for me. Even the instrumental tracks from Funk Off, like ‘Les Dames De Copenhague’ or ‘Sur Les Rochers Du Fleuve’ feature vocal inserts. B Wolf sang with us until 1985, and was clearly influenced by Ian Curtis – also in the mood of his lyrics, although it was not easily decodable as I mixed his voice rather low. After, my wife Mitra joined us, singing in Persian. She sings like nobody else and opened up a whole new universe of oneiric drifts. Mitra only appears once on Funk Off, playing guitar.
Pierre: Industrial music was the illumination for me, Throbbing Gristle being an electro-shock after the stereotypical punk movement. Harsh electronics was my first strong attraction, exploring the limits of feedback! My first album is a testament to that period. I quickly expanded my horizon, after having some very interesting talks with Axel’s dad and exploring non-western sounds, moving into forms of mystical ambient directions.
There are a lot of harsh/unusual edits in the music – scratches, sections played backwards, oddly treated samples and noisy loops. What were you reaching for with this? Was the intent to jar?
Axel: Musically, I have always tried, consciously or not, to bypass the intellect. It is connected to my philosophy, the power of the ‘here and now’, as talked about by [spiritualist Jiddu] Krishnamurti and later Eckhart Tolle. This is to say that my music is not thought at all, the intellect being hardly able to get a grip with the reality of the ‘now’. It is nearly impossible for me to make a plan for a track and follow it. So I just put the recording key on, and dive happily into the unknown. Egoless music – that’s where the oddness, the unexpected moves come from. I love madness in music – for music’s sake, not to shock or to offend the listener. In the studio, I’m looking for ways to get out there, by inviting in the studio many diverse musicians and non-musicians and by often using homemade apparatus. Like the echo coming in reverse, before the initial sound. For this trick, you record something on one side of a reel-to-reel tape, then put it backward and record the echo on the other channel. Put it back in the right position, and hear the unexpected result. I also discovered that by putting my Revox on the cue position, you could scratch the reel like a record player. You can hear this in various tracks from Funk Off – ‘Megamix’, for instance. On ‘Gole Mariam’, from our album Half Dead Ganja Music, we recreated the never-ending echo effect pioneered by Terry Riley, Brian Eno and Rober Fripp using two connected Revoxs.
Pierre: From the beginning, I’ve used odd techniques. My first tape, Psychic Euthanasia, was recorded multitracked on a basic cassette deck, by covering the erasing head! Saying that, I moved quickly into reel-to-reel offering more potential and far superior quality. Shortly after, I took a William Burroughs approach of cutting, slicing and pasting to create new sounds – some of my masters are swamped with those oblique cuts.
Did people dance to this music? Was it ever played in clubs?
Axel: Most of our friends from the alternative scene despised dancing. It was considered completely uncool and was still very much associated with disco. But I easily saw, at the end of the ‘70s, most of my certainties about the musical world were wide of the mark. Electronic music could get it to number one in the charts, and dance music could get experimental and daring. I liked Was Not Was, Whodini, Jonzun Crew – and, of course, the precursors: Funkadelic, James Brown, War. Coming from a very open-minded family, this music came very obviously to me, but not to those around me. That’s why we did not make a proper album from our alternative funk sessions – instead, we spread them amongst various Vox Populi! releases or compilations. It was way too strange for the clubs. And the marketing strategies and networks were also radically different. Though we made these freaky funk tracks, we existed only through the alternative post punk channels. I think things only changed in 1987 with the release of the first Meat Beat Manifesto album, which was freaky but dancefloor friendly. Now you see some of the most daring moves coming from the dance world. ‘Le freak c’est chic’, especially on the dancefloor.
Pierre: I doubt any of my works were played in clubs. I listened to some early rap, like Public Enemy, but I was never attracted to funk, like Axel. I started to play live in 1983, and my early shows found me using a Super 8 loop with soundtrack and body art performance. It was a very physical experience for the audience and me! Very often, I was playing with Vox Populi! and then switching into Pacific 231 mode during the same night.
When did Cut Chemist get in touch? Were you familiar with his music? Have you met and talked music, and is there much common ground?
Axel: I think he got in touch around 2009. I had some of his tracks on a few turntablist hip-hop compilations, but I did not know his work thoroughly. Discovering The Audience’s Listening was a real treat, and not only because Vox Populi’s ‘Megamix’ is heavily sampled there! I love it. He gets the listener to new sonic territories. I’m looking forward to have a real exchange with him.
Pierre: Axel put me in touch with Lucas, and instantly connections were drawn. He’s a very open-minded musician, bridging some unlikely styles together. I’m delighted with the work he has done, and I’m looking forward to his new album where Axel and myself have also contributions.
Are Vox Populi! and Pacific 231 still active concerns? What are you up to?
Axel: Vox Populi!’s reissue schedule is coming to an end this autumn with a luxurious vinyl boxset released by Vinyl On Demand, featuring music from the years 1982 to 1988, including many unreleased and compilation tracks. We’ve been working on a new album, and I’m now beginning the mixing stage. Apart from myself and my wife Mitra, we have new musicians at band: Pierre-Jean Grappin on drums, Stephane Lucido on bass and Mocke on guitar. Most of our stuff is available freely, including Imaginaires, La Cathedrale Morte and Sucre De Pasteque – the cassettes from which many tracks of Funk Off are taken from.
Pierre: Pacific 231 is still very active. I’m just back from Belfast where I had an interactive installation involving projection mapping and light sensors driven soundscape. Last year I had a new solo album, Micromega, on Silent Media, a collaboration with Instinct Primal, a collaboration with Lt. Caramel. A forthcoming CD with Bardoseneticcube will be available shortly. As a recap, a double CD of my 1983-86 material is available from Functional.