John Foxx is a figure both hugely influential and, relative to his achievements, unfairly unsung.
A pioneer of the early synth-pop wave, he appeared on the scene as lead singer for the new wave group Ultravox, before going solo with the 1980 album Metamatic, an electronic drive through crumbling, Ballardian cityscapes.
Foxx largely withdrew from the music scene around 1985, a period which he spent working in the fields of film and art. But since his return to music in the late ‘90s, he’s been a prolific collaborator, working with figures as diverse as Finnish DJ Jori Hulkkonen and New York coldwave duo Xeno And Oaklander, and making several exceptional albums with London analogue synthesizer musician Ben ‘Benge’ Edwards under the name John Foxx And The Maths.
Foxx’s latest collaboration is such an uncanny fit that, in a way, it feels strange it hasn’t happened sooner. His new six-track EP Empty Avenues, released as John Foxx And The Belbury Circle, teams him up with Jim Jupp and Jon Brooks – co-owner and recording artist for the English record label Ghost Box respectively. Recording independently as Belbury Poly and The Advisory Circle, Jupp and Brooks have become known for a dreamily nostalgic, faintly eldritch sound influenced by library music and the public information films of the 1970s and 80s – a sensibility which shares much with Foxx’s own songs of quiet, suited Englishmen adrift in time and space.
The seeds of this three-way collaboration were planted when Benge invited Jupp and Brooks to his London studio – “an absolute paradise for a synth nerd like me,” says Jupp – during sessions for the 2011 John Foxx And The Maths album Interplay. Shortly after, Foxx asked Jupp and Brooks to sit on a panel discussion with the author Ian Sinclair in advance of Foxx and Benge’s 2010 show at the Camden Roundhouse. According to Jupp, “it was these discussions that made it clear our shared interests would make a collaboration worthwhile.”
Dreamy and romantic, English but profoundly other, songs like ‘Empty Avenues’ and ‘Time Of Your Life’ are both inviting and intriguing, finding a shared space between two well-defined aesthetic universes. FACT’s Louis Pattison spoke to John Foxx, Jim Jupp and Jon Brooks about graphic design, pop music and the point where the future and the past converge.
So – first of all, could you say a little about how you first heard, and became familiar, with one another’s work?
John Foxx: I heard some Ghost Box tracks on the radio and really enjoyed the sound. You could deduce the world they were referring to – and elaborating on. It was very emotive to me, and chimed perfectly with what Benge and I were doing.
Jim Jupp: I’ve been a huge fan of John’s work since Underpass came out. Metamatic and his later ‘80s solo albums were a big part of my adolescence. As a kid I’d always been drawn to electronic music mostly on TV soundtracks or from the likes of Jean Michel Jarre, but John Foxx for me neatly connected electronics to psychedelia and a more British sensibility. So he’s always been a huge part of my musical DNA and the chance to collaborate was immensely exciting.
To generalise enormously, Ghost Box’s aesthetic appears concerned with the stuff of the past, toying with ideas of memory and nostalgia, while John is often associated with a electro-pop scene concerned with a sort of sci-fi futurism. But are these two apparently contrary approaches really part of the same thing? All futures feel a bit like retrofutures these days, and the way the future is often represented is really just the past through a lens…
Jon Brooks: I discovered John Foxx’s Metamatic album some time in the late 1980s, I think it was 1987. I would have been in primary school when it came out, so it took me a few years to find it. Metamatic stayed with me. I still play it regularly.
Jim Jupp: I think that’s exactly right. There’s a clear difference in styles and not all of John’s current work would quite fit into the Ghost Box world. Despite that there’s a lot of commonalities. One would be about a sense of timelessness, past present and future existing all at once. There’s also a strong sense of fictional realities and parallel world histories and future in John’s work. I guess psychogeography – although I don’t think anyone uses the word anymore – would be another
shared point of reference. Most obvious, of course, is the love of old analogue gear and sounds. The great thing about collaborative work is that it allows you to explore ideas that have always interested you, but to be pushed into doing it in new ways.
John Foxx: The future of the past is really interesting, as well as the history of the ideas of the future and possible futures. Time and memory and expectancy all conspire to make a sort of Moebius loop – joined end to end, but with an unexpected twist. We’re both somewhere on that twist – not victims of nostalgia, but using it as raw artistic material, to make new music and images.
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Did you all congregate in the studio together, or was it something mostly worked on remotely? And how was the process of working? How long does it take?
Jon Brooks: We all worked remotely. I kept the arrangements wide open so that hopefully John could explore them fully and add another dimension via his vocals and textures, which he did beautifully.
Jim Jupp: We were all working on other projects simultaneously, so it was a leisurely and unpressured process of batting arrangements and mixes back and forth until we were all happy. John Foxx provided some extra musical parts along the way and Jon and I made the final production tweaks.
Jon Brooks: The process went back and forth and the project grew to fruition over a year or so.
A question for John – lyrically, the Empty Avenues EP seems to contain echoes of your earlier work – the deserted cityscape of the title track, or ‘Almost There’ and ‘The Suit’, which seem to point towards the themes of your Quiet Man work. Ghost Box itself feels like a very self-contained universe. Did you find it easy to reconcile your lyrical themes with the preoccupations of Ghost Box?
John Foxx: Oh yes. We live almost on the same street, right next to the Ghost Poly, by Heartbreak Hotel. Nigel Kneale lives just up the road, Delia Derbyshire drops in for a cup of tea occasionally and they’re filming Tomorrow’s World in the refectory.
The inner sleeve features a quote from The Hill Of Dreams by the Welsh supernatural author Arthur Machen. Is the book a direct influence on Empty Avenues? Or just a shared fascination?
Jim Jupp: The Arthur Machen quote came from our side. I’ve never actually asked John if he’s aware of Machen or not! He’s a writer who has been a big influence on the Ghost Box world – but Hill Of Dreams is actually not part of his canon of supernatural work. It’s a more of a fevered, romantic vision of landscape and city (particularly London). But I thought this dovetailed nicely with the Quiet Man mythology, which I believe has run through John’s artwork and music for many years – it explores ideas about an alternate reality of deserted cityscapes.
Jon Brooks: It’s a good choice.
You all share an interest in graphics and design – I imagine this presents another language in which you can discuss and articulate ideas?
Jim Jupp: Definitely – but in this case Julian House took sole responsibility for the design work, and I think he managed to anchor the whole project in a world that would be instantly familiar to both Foxx and Ghost Box fans. As well as our usual signifiers of old paperbacks and institutional design, he was thinking about classic 4AD album art, and some of John Foxx’s own graphic design work from the 80s and 90s.
John Foxx: Well, the Ghost Box design is as important as the music, I think – it locates it and identifies the world – makes it even more tangible. You have to be very alert not to use imagery that diminishes the music. Ghost Box certainly don’t fall for that.
John – your music career started in earnest in the mid-to-late ’70s, also a boom time for the public service films, science fiction series, etc that would later influence Ghost Box. What of this stuff really inspired you at the time?
John Foxx: All of it. I was always very aware of the power of that sort of film and image – how it made a parallel world and language outside the usual, very conservative, so called ‘hip’ imagery of the time. I was always aware of that slightly surreal edge of a so-called conventional world, not concerned with style or superficial appearance and therefore unaware of the accumulating imagery, all the resonances of this new, unintended universe they were responsible for. I began to explore my part of it on Metamatic and in the Quiet Man writing. That world was where I lived for years. Ghost Box occupy another district very close by, and some streets seem to lead into the same territory.
How do you hear the mood on Empty Avenues? It’s not dystopian, but it’s not quite optimistic either…
John Foxx: I hope it’s realistically and enjoyably melancholy. That’s not unhappiness – it’s more a pleasure taken in emotion recollected in tranquility. My favourite state, I think. I absolutely don’t enjoy being shaken and stirred.
Jim Jupp: I hear a strong element of the romantic in the EP. It’s a word that no-one dares use these days and I’m not sure if the others would agree with me. But at the very least it’s certainly melancholic and shot through with a sense of loss – maybe even amnesia.
Jon Brooks: I agree with Jim, in that the mood is romantic, melancholic and with a great sense of loss – all traits that you’ll find within the music of Belbury Poly and The Advisory Circle, but certain aspects of them are amplified by John Foxx’s involvement.
Jon and Jim – you’ve said that this collaboration presents “perhaps a stronger pop sensibility” than previous Ghost Box releases. Is that something you’ve shied away from in the past?
Jim Jupp: It’s not something we’ve shied away from. I think I speak for Jon and Julian when I say we share a love of pop music, and in no way favour the avant garde over the popular. We just follow our personal interests and they generally tend to lead us somewhere in between, with occasional moments that are either light as a feather or entirely out-there. Collaboration is definitely a great tool for pushing your interests into new genres, and we like the idea of having a steady stream of singles and EPs as kind of offshoot from the main album schedule of Ghost Box. It not only gets us doing new things, but it means we can put out work by artists whose usual work wouldn’t necessarily fit into our admittedly narrow constraints.
Jon Brooks: Personally, I’ve never shied away from pop music, but I’m rarely asked about it. The Advisory Circle is full of pop hooks if you listen out for them, but the inclusion of John’s vocal automatically adds a new layer of pop sensibility. I enjoy working with vocals and making them the centre of a good arrangement. My own interests in music span from the psychedelic counter-culture and avant-garde works of Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, through library music, Cluster, Eno, acid house, to Friendly Fires and stuff on Tri Angle. I just like lots of things. I’m obsessional when it comes to pop production and engineering, too; these are the things that keep me awake at night.
John Foxx: Some of my most important influences are in pop music. There’s lots of beautifully strange stuff in there – the stuff David Lynch identified in Julee Cruise and Badalamenti’s ‘Falling’, and so on – listen to any Joe Meek material, or even early Shadows. It’s all weird as you like – ghost coffee bars, Panavision, tweed jackets, new science, smart leisurewear and lost London.
Any further plans with this project? Do you intend to perform it live?
Jim Jupp: I suspect not as this really was very much a studio project. Jon Brooks and I plan to release more work together as The Belbury Circle. It makes perfect sense, rooted as we are in such common ground. Not only was it a great honour for us but it was such a fun and rewarding project that the door is always wide open any time John fancies trying a new project with us.
Jon Brooks: I choose not to perform live. Jim and I have plans to record some more material together as The Belbury Circle – we have known each other for years and there’s a real understanding there between us. We would definitely like to work with John Foxx again on some new songs.
John Foxx:I’d certainly like to make more music with Ghost Box. They’ve certainly brought something quintessential into focus – and a very British focus at that. We have to thank them for instituting a marvellous travel agency to an entire, unsuspected new world. Can’t see any of us working live though. Perhaps something with film?