They Dream Electric

May 2013

Formed in October 2012 and launched in March this year, KuBO are a Dublin based electronic project, producing synthwave/minimal electronic music on vintage analogue synthesizers. Having first recorded electronic music together in 1986 under the name ManSeries, this initial partnership, which was minimal in its form and structure, began whilst both were still at school. Since then the friends have explored difference genres and arenas, collaborating again in various forms over the years including the very early days of Empire State Human as well as a film scores for the Brian O'Malley directed short 'Screwback'. 

Inspired by the resurgence and renewed interest in this early, minimal form of electronic music the two have now once again come together to record as 'KuBO', picking up where they left off back in 1986. Brian's Gary Numan and Vangelis inspired dark, cinematic synth layering's, under pinned by pulsating bass synth lines and tight drum programming are the perfect counterfoil to the angelic voice of Aidan Casserly, who’s long time fascination with David Bowie, Jacques Brel and Kraftwerk make for a meeting of the minds that goes back to the roots of the music the pair made as teenagers. 

Those original inspirations, fueled by a fascination with Science Fiction, Avant-Garde cinema, alienation and...Vampires, are once again at the centre of these recordings, which form a synthetic landscape of brooding, melodic, minimal electronica, with the focus on a pure and deliberate exploration of synthetic sound and evocative vocal melody. Their debut release, a cassette single entitled "I Dream Electric", is released this week on the Vocoder Tapes label.

Interview by Rob Dyer.

Kubodsoaudio: KuBO has emerged after years of the two of you knowing each other and working together before. Why Kubo and why now? How did you get here?

KuBO: Since the early days of Empire State Human, the period when we were in that together, we've continued to work on and off on various projects. So it’s always been there, a desire to create together, but timing is crucial when it comes to anything creative. Brian’s focus on directing and writing from the mid 90’s meant music wasn't an area he was active in for over a decade, until about two years ago when he decided to turn on an old synthesizer he had in his attic. From that emerged PolyDROID, Brian's solo electronic project. Aidan on the other hand had continued to explore his musical interests through not only nine ESH albums, but also The Garland Cult, The Wazp, and various international collaborations including Wolfgang Flur from Kraftwerk. There is a vast and varied body of work ranging from electronic to Jazz.  

August/September 2012, we found all our old demos cassettes and eventually multi-track recording masters from our 1986 ManSeries project. We were both really surprised and impressed with them. The nucleus of song, sound and direction was still relevant within these demo's, they still sounded quite current. When we brought some of the separate musical parts into Apple Logic we found elements, and even a song or two, that was worthy of re-invention and re-modeling. Come to my Disco is one such example. 

We've both always loved a certain type of song, sound and mood and it was clear when we did work together there was a unique result at the end of it, and something quite different to our solo work. So from these resurrected recordings we rediscovered a passion for this very specific type of electronic sound, and with little thought or planning we suddenly found ourselves very quickly writing new songs together, picking up where we’d left off back in '86. Within a couple of months we had close to ten songs written and produced, and more on the way.

What did you do with Wolfgang Flur?

With Empire State Human on our 2009 album Audio Gothic, we did a track with Wolf called Melancholic Afro. It was released as a single and remix EP. He supplied spoken vocals and light synth drumming. Very, very nice guy, a gentleman, and a great experience meeting him (in Dublin) and working with him.

Where does the name KuBO come from? 

‘Kubo Futurism’ was the main form of painting and sculpture practiced by Russian Futurists in the early 20th century, which was a combination of the Italian Futurist movement and the avant-garde Cubist art movement pioneered by Picasso and Georges Braque around the same time. The Italian Futurist (Futurismo) movement, which was an artistic and social movement, was concerned with themes associated with contemporary concepts of the future, including speed, technology, the industrial city etcetera and represented the technological triumph of humanity over nature. Within those ideas we identified themes that were very similar to the subjects we were writing about, and so it seemed the perfect fit. 

What roles do each of you bring to the project? 

We both play synths, and we both write the music together on vintage analogue synthesizers. This process of taking inspiration from a real synthesizer instead of a virtual recreation has really proved the difference, giving KuBO a distinct voice over any other project we've both been involved in. Once written, Brian produces the final music and mixes it in Logic. Aidan provides vocals (but there is the odd line or two that Brian has added if you listen carefully). Brian handles all the visual designs such as logo's, photography, direction and layout. His Fine art Degree and successful career as a film director/writer, has been a big part of the successful visual image and design of KuBO. It’s fully cohesive, from sound to image, they feel very much like different elements of the same entity. 

You also work together under other guises – can you tell us a little about those? 

Since we were teenagers we’ve worked on many projects together. We started with minimal electronica as ManSeries in 1986, then went our separate ways. Picked up again when we started the synthpop act Empire State Human in 1998, which was a much more focused and crafted musical project, but again after a time we went different directions. Brian moved into Film Direction, Aidan focused on music. We came together again on various projects in the 2000’s, including the soundtrack to Brian's short film Screwback, and also a Sony PlayStation commercial. For Brian's solo PolyDROID project, when playing live Aidan often joins him on live synth duties, and indeed Aidan took part in the recording of a PolyDROID live session for RTE 2FM's Dan Hegarty radio show in December 2012.

KuboDoes being based in Ireland impact much on your ability to pursue what you want with KuBO? 

It did when we were young, that’s for sure. Ireland has pretty much always been a rock, techno and traditional music territory. However electronic music has grown in the last three to five years, so it’s no longer frowned upon like it was when we were working as ManSeries. Now with the acceptance of electronic music creation within traditionally rock circles, there has been a shift, thankfully. Where KuBO fit in to all of this in Ireland is difficult to say. We’re working with UK label Vocoder Tapes for our debut single, and we've approached a number of European labels regarding an EP/album on vinyl. Beyond that an Irish involvement is possible, but our audience is mainly the UK and Europe, so that’s where we’ve focused our efforts. 

Your first release is a limited edition cassette single. That's either a bold or foolish format to go with in an age dominated by digital. Why did you choose an increasingly scarce analogue format? 

Cassette is the physical format, but it's released digitally too, so it’s available in that form for anyone who wants it. The main reason for the cassette is that it’s part of a story, released with a label that specializes in cassettes – Vocoder Tapes. Releasing on CD no longer holds any fascination for people, and we wanted to do something that captured the imagination. For that reason the audio cassette is the perfect medium. It’s inexpensive and it creates an interesting story. More importantly, vinyl now represents the physical side of the electronic sub-genres, and cassette to a lesser extent. So to be part of an ever-growing electronic genre, such as Minimal Wave/Synthwave, through a physical cassette release is KuBO’s way of introducing ourselves to that dedicated community. The biggest minimal wave label in the world - Minimal Wave Records - release both vinyl and cassette, as well as digital formats, so whilst in a mainstream arena it would seem foolish, within electronic sub-genres it makes perfect sense. 

Today many acts release on digital only, and then disappear. Since our launch in March 2013 the reaction has already been extremely encouraging. We had over 1,000 plays on Soundcloud within a matter of days, followed immediately by a CNN online feature, so we understand and embrace the power of digital mediums. But releasing a debut single with a specialist label like Vocoder Tapes, which will be followed by a compilation appearance with the same label, is really a statement of intent and a promise of quality. Long Live Cassette! 

Given that you have worked together before and both have had other musical projects, what is your specific vision for KuBO? 

For us, what makes KuBO so unique and complete is the way we approach the songwriting. From initial inspiration to the fact they're played and written on real analogue synths. The lyrical input and ideas behind the songs are part of our vision, and this is fuelled by the interaction with this machines that seem almost alive. The sound inspires the idea, and vice versa. There's been so many songs written about love won, and love lost, but that isn't something that will be part of KuBO. Sci-Fi, film, art and cinematic references are the main inspirations for songs like An OddityI Dream Electric and I Am Precision. These songs were written and inspired by this creative process - sounds inspiring ideas, ideas suggesting sounds.

You've gone for a distinctive aesthetic with the project. Your minimalist, monochrome artwork in particular recalls much of the minimal wave movement from the 1980s. How important to you is the visual presentation of the music? 

The reality is KuBO will exist for much of its audience as images on a web page and digital files on SoundCloud. So visual presentation is everything. We see the visuals as a visual representation of concept behind the music and songs. Once you hear the music, the visuals should be the perfect compliment. That sounds like an intellectual approach to visuals, but it’s really not. Like our music, the visuals are reactionary, they happen without too much navel gazing, but because our mindset for KuBO is very specific, the visuals follow through. We spend a great deal of time ensuring they work perfectly, with attention paid to framing, colour correction and typography, but the concepts present themselves relatively quickly. 

That attention to detail in the visuals is the major difference between bands that want to establish themselves as a unique entity, to those who are creating the music without including a strong visual theme. We see music as a Director or Producer would see a film. It’s a package. You crate the art, music or film, then you present it in a way that appeals to your audience. If you can identify that audience in advance, then you’re more likely to present it to them in a manner they will respond positively to. In the 1980s that sense of visual identity was extremely important, and the minimal wave or synthwave genre do return to that in many ways, but without the flamboyance. As we grew up in that period, but were too young to create music in it professionally, its influence follows us, and with the insight that comes with age, we’ve held on to the positive aspects. 

KuboPerforming live is another area that we want to include within this project, and we've strong ideas as to the way we want KuBO to look. An experience for the audience is what's missing in many electronic performances today. Laptops have replaced synths, and reel to reels have been replaced by hard drives. None of this makes for a particularly visually engaging experience for the audience, there is no sense of the music being created live by humans, or the sounds being generated for wooden ended time machines. KuBO wants to embark on a total experience, from studio to stage, and we're really looking forward to seeing where it will take us in the near future. 

There's a lot emotion in your composition – both musically and vocally. How do you choose lyrics that work with that? 

Sometimes we discuss a lyrical/song idea before we start the writing. A yet to be heard track ‘Dark Star Blues’ is a good example of this. It’s a song about a man contemplating his life, and what he’s done, as he takes his last breath before being put into cryogenic freeze in a deep space prison in the distant future. It’s actually quite tragic and haunting, and certainly very human, which counterbalances the science fiction theme nicely. 

Other times the lyrics are fully written to begin with, and the music is inspired by the lyrical content. ‘I am Precision’ is about a gene created by humanity that seeks perfection, and as a result wipes out the imperfect human race. That’s pretty ominous stuff, and the music has a heavy duty, apocalyptic feel to it inspired by those lyrics. Then we go into free fall and do everything at once. In ‘An Oddity’ the vocal part was recorded as a sequencer played a melody on repeat. The overlapping vocal parts are actually different takes, and they are sung differently due to the improvisational nature and the fact that the vocal melody hadn’t been established. So in that instance we stumbled across a very effective device – Aidans voice repeating lines of the verse slightly differently – purely due to having no plan. 

These 3 different approaches, which we use depending on the source of the initial inspiration, really spark the little grey cells and allow us to deliver something that may not otherwise have evolved had we taken a more traditional approach to songwriting. 

Some people consider the minimal wave movement as sounding 'cold' or 'detached'. That could hardly be said of Aidan's voice. Do you want to deliberately challenge perceptions of the genre by taking the vocal route you have? 

It’s that cold detachment that drew us back to the genre, we love that sound, however with a lifetime of experiences behind us, both musically and personally, there is an emotional edge we simply cant avoid. We believe it’s these elements, the cold and the emotive clashing in a track, that makes KuBO stand out from other minimal wave/synthwave bands. On top of the haunting, machine like music are vocals that are bit more sophisticated or singer orientated. 

The content of the songs are dark, and the music often detuned or distorted, but that balanced with a melodic vocal performance is something that seems to work for us. We're aware that we can't go too much down a full on vocal performance on every song or you start to slip into synthpop and loose your edge. ‘Das Klub’ for instance is a good example of a track we’ve done where the vocals are less of a performance, more of a mantra. I’m not sure we’re challenging perceptions of the genre, I think that’s for listeners to say, but we certainly are an atypical example. I can’t think of another act in the genre who we sound like, and we’re happy with that. The hope is its something people like and consider legitimate, despite its differences. 

Have you had formal vocal or singing training Aidan? 

Other then some early lessons in breathing, or how to use the voice, there's no formal training. Singing for Aidan is a passion, and when you have a passion you learn to do the best job with what you've got. Range wise its a tenor's range or slightly higher. It's lower since the early days of ESH, and that's been of benefit for the KuBO sound. 

KuboPart of the KuBo approach is to use only vintage analogue synths. What do you feel they offer over modern technology? 

Unlike virtual synthesizers, real synthesizers are made up of electrical components, which react to their environment – humidity, temperature etc, but also time. The tolerances of the components change as they age, which means a 30 year old synth will sound different to the day it was first made, and two identical 30 year old synths will sound slightly different to each other. This was also true when they were brand new; due to slight variations in the manufacturing process no two analogue synths were 100% identical in sound. So when you hear someone say that a vintage synth sounds more organic, it’s less of a turn of phrase than you might think. Today mass produced components are exact clones of each other, and with digital elements replacing the likes of filters and oscillators in synths, the unpredictability you found in an old analogue synths is gone. Even modern analogue synths are more likely to sound identical and behave less predictably due to superior, and cheaper mass produced manufacturing. 

When it comes to a virtual synth all of this is meaningless of course. Each instance, no matter what computer it's open on, will sound 100% identical. This isn’t a bad thing, many of them are excellent, but what they don’t have is a provenance. There’s no story, there’s nothing to touch, its completely intangible. For many electronic artists today that’s ok. But for us, possibly because we started on hardware synths, there’s something hugely romantic and evocative about a wooden ended hunk of metal, plastic and electronics that fills us with excitement.

I think this translates to the listener, making for a more engaging and human recording. That sounds contradictory, but it’s true. You really can hear the ghost in the machine with these vintage synths, and that’s something that is completely missing from virtual synths. We know it’s working for us because people comment on how we use real synths over virtual ones, and how the sound appeals to them so. The thrill we get from stumbling upon a new sound whilst pushing a physical slider can result in a completely new song 20 minutes later. That’s a very powerful tool to have at your disposal. 

Following on from that, what are your favourite bits of kit then and why? 

We are very lucky to have many classic synths. For the synth heads out there we have – Roland Jupiter 8, Jupiter 4, Juno 60, System 100 (101 & 102 expander), Moog Prodigy, Multimoog, Korg Monopoly and Sequential Pro One. Our favorite bit of kit is the Roland Jupiter 4. Along with the System 100 this was the synth responsible for the sound of The Future and The Human League Mk1, and indeed even in HL Mark II it can be heard as the chord sounds in the opening of Seconds on the Dare album. 

It’s the most organic, mesmerising sound we’ve ever heard from a synth, however for much of our recent recordings it wasn’t fully functional so didn’t play as big a part as we would have liked. Now its repaired its been used a lot in our more recent tracks, but the two synths that represent eighty percent of the sounds to date have been from the Jupiter 8 and the System 100. The Jupiter 8 is considered one of the two or three greatest polyphonic synths ever made. When Brian first got one it seemed to produce those typical sounds that are familiar in many 80’s pop tracks, which isn’t what he was necessarily after. He sold it on, but 6 months later stumbled upon a live recoding he had made with it, knowing instantly he had made a mistake selling it. Its sound was immense and deeply complex. 

He acquired another, but this time around deeper and more open-minded exploration revealed a synth with an evocative and hugely powerfully sound, capable of a vastly complex sound palette beyond the punchy brass sounds and soft pads that made it so desirable in its day. It’s a synth capable of dark, distorted, apocalyptic monstrosities, as well as beautifully plucky sequences and luscious strings. In truth we could do everything we need with this one single synth. It’s amazing and we love it. 

The System 100 (not to be confused with the later System 100M) is another fave because like the Jupiter 4, it has a very organic sound. Its an early Roland synth from 1975-79 and produces those sounds you expect to hear in late 70’s recordings like Tangerine Dream and The Future. Its simply beautiful both physically and sound wise. Within minutes of sparking it up and pushing a few sliders you’re playing a sound that’s as good as anything you’ve heard on your favourite classic synth albums. 

Can you each name one or two albums by artists that you most admire and say a little about why they mean so much to you? 

Aidan: Kraftwerk - The Man Machine, Soft Cell - The Art of Falling Apart. The reason I love these two albums is that they're perfect examples of each band at their peak in terms of sounds, songs, production, vision, style and content. Whilst Man Machine is undeniably influential, The Art of Falling Apart was the voice of many disenfranchised teenagers, and its importance to many from that generation is not to be underestimated. I can happily listen to both albums today and get as much satisfaction as I did when I discovered them many years ago. 

KuboFor me Dave Ball has never received recognition in the mainstream music press for his music production in Soft Cell. It’s always Marc Almond who gets the plaudits for the Soft Cell sound. However, when asked about the synths that Soft Cell used, or the creation of their musical sound, Marc has said many times before, that the reality is he was never really aware or interested in that side of things. That’s not to take away from Marc’s input into Soft Cell of course, his songwriting is sublime, but it does highlight the brilliance of Dave Ball and the role he played in creating their sound. The Art of Falling Apart has such a wide pallet of textures, influences and layers. It’s totally brilliant, and like many bands from that era, the B-sides and extras are often some of the most interesting work. Some Bizzare are re-releasing an expanded version of The Art of Falling Apart soon. Check it out. 

Kraftwerk of course are always given the recognition, and quite rightly too. The Man Machine is just about perfect in every sense of the word, from the artwork, song writing (Karl Bartos take a bow), themes and arrangements. Karl Bartos is another person who never gets enough credit for his songwriting input into The Man Machine, but I’ve always found it fascinating how this album is the most different in the Kraftwerk catalogue, and it’s the album he contributed the most to. There is no doubt his input went a long way towards what helps make it the classic that it is. 

Brian: Kraftwerk – The Man Machine. This for me is the most important electronic album of all time. Kraftwerk wrote classic albums before and after this, but this is the point in music history where popular songwriting met electronic music. Nothing would ever be the same again. Literally eveything you hear in popular music today, and since the 80’s, exists in the form it exists because of this album. That's quite something. A lot of music that followed dated one way or other. Much of the music we loved as kids, and still love today, sounds like its from another era. But this always sounds brand new and totally fresh 35 years later. A total masterpiece. 

I first heard The Model’was when I was around ten years old and I’d never heard anything quite like it. It was a beautiful song with this complex, interwoven musical baking made up of sounds I didnt know existed. It opened up a whole new world. The Knife – Silent Shout. I was lucky to be introduced to this band through Silent Shout due to a retrospective review of thier first album Deep Cuts in Future Music magazine. I’d never heard of them, and the review pointed out that Deep Cuts was bettered only by the follow up Silent Shout. So thats where I started. 

Deep Cuts is a classic and important album in its own right, but Silent Shout manged to transcends music – I consider it to be music as art. It took a few listens to tune in, but when I did, it was a eureka moment for me. No longer was I hindered by my preconceptions of how vocals should sound, or what electronic music should achieve. Whilst KuBo bears no resemblance to The Knife, my attitude to sound design, sequencing and indeed vocal processing was imeasurably altered upon hearing this, and my work in KuBo is where this is most apparent. Possibly the greatest electronic album of the 21st century so far.

Are you determined for your releases to be via a label (like your first single on Vocoder Tapes) or would you be happy to self-release? 

There are many elements that come together to help a release. Distribution, promotion, budget, but most importantly an audience. If a label has a ready made audience for the music you are making, then that can help in areas where finances are stretched. So even if a label is working off a tight budget, if they have an audience waiting to see what’s coming next, that’s certainly far more useful than a self release, or even a release with a label that may have funds, but a less focused audience. 

Where we are now is helping Vocoder Tapes to promote the cassette single and the upcoming Connected by Wires compilation album. Between us we have direct access to enough electronic music fans to justify the release. The next stage for us is an EP or Album, and the goal for that is a vinyl release. We feel our music is valid enough to justify vinyl, the story and the format fit together, and we are currently pursuing that with a number of labels. As of yet we have nothing in place and would welcome input from any interested labels. 

Official KuBO website: http://www.soundcloud.com/kubo-music