John Foxx

Designing the RetroFuture

[John Foxx] From the unassuming and decidedly non-glamorous backdrop of Chorley, Lancashire, via the famous Royal College of Art, through the audio landscapes of night time urban cities of Europe, to performing oceanic scores in Italian cathedrals, John Foxx remains forever at the forefront of the British Electronic movement. After more than a decade without a musical release, Foxx returned in 1995 with the "Metamatic"-like album "Shifting City".

Now, with his own label, a partner in the guise of Louis Gordon, and working with ambient Godfather Harold Budd, Foxx is releasing new material again. An electronic music cult icon, (even labelled the intellectual's Gary Numan!), John Foxx talks exclusively to Rob Dyer about the concept of the Retrofuture, playing in the image supermarket and what happens when James Brown meets bleating sheep.

Rob Dyer: How much do you think your time at the Royal College of Art influenced or shaped your career?

John Foxx: It didn't really shape my career, but it certainly facilitated the beginning. I suddenly had a headquarters in a good part of central London, from which I could plan operations. Gift. I was also free to pursue that Art stuff which so interested me, in very congenial surroundings, with people such as Eduardo Palozzi, Peter Blake, Carol Weight and Reg Gadney and many others around. I began playing with synths and recorders there, then began putting the band [Ultravox!] together too. I was expected to pursue my interests, and Art was anything I could make work for me, So I was, of course, down in the basement constructing the flying saucer from trash.

The Royal College acted as a good, useful launch pad. Just what Art schools should be, in fact. What really provided the education were the cities. First Manchester, then London. Later Paris, Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Rome, etc. When you walk through those streets, you're always half consciously thinking "How am I going to make my way through all this?" Like standing in the school playground, first day at school. I've had a song title around for years -"Some Way Through All The Cities". It's been the real theme of my life, I guess.

Do you think you are a natural outsider?

Yes, I think so. In any social situation, from a cup of coffee in a bar to a mass rally, always find myself detaching and observing. Not at all in a cold way - it's often a sort of sensuality. A way of finding pleasure in feeling the currents moving all around. Then idly speculating on why?, what if?, how come? etc.

Do you have a problem with the concept of 'the band'?

Not at all, but bands tend to be a transitory thing. Like being in a gang. First date and the gang evaporates. That is unless you can construct a place which will enable you all to grow up together. A more sophisticated sort of society. Otherwise you remain attention seeking adolescents for too long. Most embarrassing. We can all see the ones who do and the ones who don't. But I guess this is the paradox - the whole point of a band is to act out everything your generation wants to do. So, in fact you're paid by the audience to be snotty or sweet or cool or stupid for them. Bands tend to be unconscious puppets. Once they get free of all that, their value naturally diminishes.

How important is your 'Quiet Man' alter Ego?

Very important - to me. I can develop another parallel life through it, I can live as someone else. This gives me a new angle on everything. It gives me stories and music and songs and a way to go occasionally through the world as a more elegant being - or a more flawed one. An opportunity to see things through fresh eyes. Gets more fascinating all the time.

Your lyrics have a distinctively poetic quality. Have you ever written any poetry?

Oh lots - but none I'd care to show anyone - at least not yet.

Tell us about the possible Quiet Man novel.

Well, it's always possible. I keep writing it as a sort of parallel diary. There's some parallel life which I slip in and out of. Always have. I decided to write down the bits which get repeated. All the bits I don't quite understand yet. The sort of bits of experience I think we all have, but don't quite admit to ourselves. All the riffs - the wandering about in cities. The way I don't understand how time operates differently in different streets. How places can change you. How you recognise people - or not - at a deep cellular level. Where lovers come from. Coincidences of all kinds. Dreams. The patterns we all move to. I'm trying hard to glimpse all the things that emerge at the edge of consciousness. Writing them down allows me to view them and construct a sort of model of what I'm really about. What the subtext really is. Something like that anyway.

Why did you set up the Metamatic label?

To handle my recordings as an entity distinct from Virgin records. Also to perhaps become a label carrying a kind of music which I would like to hear - possibly made by other people. Then I realised what this entails in the way of responsibility to those people - all the mechanics of promotion, publicity, finance etc. So far, the only artist I've worked with on Metamatic is Harold Budd. Wonderful experience, that. What a man. Metamatic is always there, waiting. So it can be developed at any time. 

When, where and what was the "Cathedral Oceans" tour and how come I never heard about it at the time - I would have gone if I had known about it!

We simply did a few concerts at various locations chosen almost at random - from Pevsners guide. Plus a couple in Europe. Only local publicity - poster in the post office etc. The idea was to see if I could make some sort an alternative way to play music live. A cross between an "Installation" and a performance. Some sort of contemplative place, where you could stop by informally and leave the push and shove behind for a while. The "tour" was episodic and is still actually going on. I learnt a lot from the early events, and I want to pursue it all further now.

Is "Cathedral Oceans" an organic project then with more music and images to follow?

Yes, exactly. It may become a sort of movable installation or a performance or both. The title lays out the intention - oceanic, immersive and architectural. The whole thing is still developing and changing - but not the core, which is a stream of image and music.

Was "Metamatic" your most commercially successful album?

No, I think "The Garden" sold more. But it's certainly the definitive one.

Your music has been through quite varied styles over the years. Yet you are best known for your electronic stuff - do you agree and, if so, why do you think this is?

True. I think that had the strongest identity at the right time - and it's okay by me, because I still want to make that kind of music, still lots to be done in that area. People still use the content and it still sounds modern. I don't mind at all being typecast in this way. If I hated all that, it would be an entirely different story. Nothing worse than having to go through the motions - you have to get out, or die as an artist.

You don't seem to be a fan of the currently popular 80s revival tours. Can you explain why?

It seems to be a fast route to complete ossification. When I work with Louis, we make new music that's alive and growing and going somewhere. No point in becoming your own tribute band.

Do you care which instruments or type of instrumentation you use when you make your music?

Yes, the instrument influences the outcome. I still enjoy discovering what synthesizers can do - analogue and software. Still get a kick out of guitars. The infinite grid of strings and frets - always get something new and surprising happening.

[The Pleasures of Electricity] It is often tempting to refer to Kraftwerk when reviewing albums that cover similar subjects and use similar elements, but it seems to me that The Pleasures Of Electricity is influenced by Kraftwerk throughout. Would you disagree?

No - but there are many other things going on as well. That stylistic area is worth examining because it is quite a lot wider than it seems. The concept of retrofuture and parallel has always interested me since being subjected to black and white sci-fi movies as a child. "Quatermass" and "The Robot Monster", added to "Un Chien Andalou" etc. from the Art end. Plus being mentally warped by a diet of American B Movies from a very early age in Lancashire. Seeing this stuff without understanding any of it, you begin to make up your own stories and connections, which are much stranger than the original intentions. Also these become incorporated into your personal dream grammar. It's an equally wonderful and terrifying cinematic /hallucinogenic/schitzoprenic early neural programming. David Lynch is someone else who dips into the same image bank. So are Gilbert and George. So is Robert Wilson, so is Alain Resnais. So are Kraftwerk.

It's a generational experience, an image supermarket. A genre rather than an exclusive property. That's what I'd prefer to think, anyway. Then there's the music. Also culled from B Movie soundtracks. Theramin sci-fi tracks etc., added to folk music, tacky 1950's theme tunes, the Shadows. Then add all the strange European jukebox hits which I used to listen to on the hitchhike trail through France, Spain and Germany. Then add the Blues and the way that changed when it hit the cities. From being a local ethnic folk music it became electrified and made a whole new kind of electrifying urban music. Birth of Rock ensued then Pop as we know it. Same process for synthesizer music. It takes elements from indigenous sources - (though by now mostly urban except the folk tunes) - and synthesizes it into first 80s Electronic, then Acid and everything from Hip Hop to Jungle. Meets black music again in Detroit and Chicago and becomes House and Garage etc.

Then there's Plunderculture, where everything gets sampled - James Brown meets sheep bleating. Kraftwerk runs all the way through this, but so does British Electronic. We put pop songs into it. America put rhythm in. Germany put the sonic concept in. It gets stirred up again and again, but its still the same cocktail. New European Electronic Blues. Universal property. It's our duty to mess with it.

What would you like to achieve that you haven't already?

Just more of everything, more cinema - I want to make some films. More writing. More swimming. I'd also like to have a permanent home somewhere.

This interview first appeared in Kaleidoscope Magazine -

John Foxx on DSO: Gig Reviews / Music Reviews

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