FORMERLY REMEMBER THE EIGHTIES.COM
BILLY CURRIE (ULTRAVOX) INTERVIEW [2016]

BEFORE GET ONTO THE MUSIC, I WANTED TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT THE TITLE. AND NOT JUST THE TITLE OF THE ALBUM, BUT ALSO THE TITLE OF THE SONGS. BECAUSE IT SEEMS LIKE YOU'RE A MAN WHO LIKES WORDS.

I do like words. I don't write songs myself, but I've always been interested in words and how they fit with the music. So if I'm doing instrumental music I make an effort - usually at the end actually - to come with a proper title. In this case actually the track 'Gleam', which was the first track I wrote for the album, took a long time to actually finish. It took about a year. That was a difficult track but I got the title pretty early on. It just seemed to sum up the feeling I had while I was making that, it just seemed to pop in my head. But apart from that, all the rest of the titles came at the end.

DO YOU APPLY THE TITLE TO FIT THE MUSIC YOU'VE MADE?

Yes I do. Obviously when you're making instrumental music, it's just the atmosphere that's created by the music and the melody so with the title you come up with something that seems to fit. It's a funny relationship. Sometimes you come up with something that's a bit too literally like the sound, and that can be a bit uninspiring. You've got to keep sort of working at it. I can go through them for you if you want?

THAT'D BE REALLY INTERESTING ACTUALLY, YES PLEASE. THANK YOU!

For 'Neoteric Slip', 'slip' was a word that I'd written down earlier on. I just bang them in my black book, the words that develop over the writing period. So slip is in there and I just love the word. I practice transcendental meditation, I've been doing that for ten years now, and slip is related to that process: when you slip you're not really aware of what happened, it just happened and it's only afterwards that you have to stop yourself from hitting the floor when you realise. I used a similar word on 'Balletic Transcend' in 2013 which was 'dip'. A similar kind of thing. So I've got that, and also, I thought the word slip just reminded me in a way of the synthesiser roll on one section of it. And Neoteric just seemed to sit with that word. It means 'modern' so I was pleased to have the word in the title. 

Then you come to the second one, 'Whisperings', and after the full on, seven and a half minutes of the first track, I thought I just wanted something simple, 'Whisperings', and it's not a big effort to just say that word, it's easy - just like the track is. And I thought that the sound of the treble or violins in octaves did sound a bit like whisperings. So that's bloody corny, isn't it? I don't take it too seriously, but it's quite an emotional track at the beginning.

I THINK YOU CAN ONLY REALLY APPLY CORNY TO THINGS THAT WORK REALLY WELL. SO IT MIGHT WORK IN AN OBVIOUS WAY, BUT IT STILL HAS TO WORK FOR YOU TO EVEN THINK ABOUT USING THAT WORD.

Yes, absolutely. So that's that one. The next one is an example of what I was saying earlier, which is actually describing the music, The feel of the music: 'Tremolo Shudder'. I particularly love the word 'shudder'. That is really from thinking about the early vintage tremolo effects and I just like that word. But the thing is, there's a section in the track which seems to describe that feeling, so I decided to use a descriptive title there. But I like it. I had to try very hard to get a title for that one, because it was an important track for me. It seemed to demand something far more emotional than that title. But I went for it in the end. 

So the next one is 'Silver Tongued'. I just love the word 'silver' and it gives a feel of the strings when they come in. That string sound. It's kind of a bitter track really, it's nasty, isolationist, there's something strange about that track. It's actually a reworking from a much faster original version of a track called 'Running Through The Years' from my album 'Unearthed'. Anyway 'silver' just fitted. And 'tongued' has a nasty sort of feel about it, it's slippery somehow so that seemed to fit. It has quite an isolating and cold feel, that track.

'Doppel' came about from messing around with the German word 'doppelganger', which is the idea of an exact spirit of your soul looking over you. And I just thought that was quite interesting really, because that's sometimes how I feel. Sometimes during the process it's like talking to yourself. When you're fully inspired - and it's not often - you've just got to... it's like a little conversation of yourself. And in fact that's why I used the word 'doppel' which means double in German. Double. I just thought doppelganger was a bit of a mouthful. So it's just 'Doppel'. I just love the idea of having something short and sweet and a little bit funny to be honest.

AND IT WORKS SO WELL AS THE ALBUM TITLE AS WELL...

Thank you. Just something light and funny and cute for a change. And so then we move onto to 'In Full Cry'. It's a literal title again and I was a bit reluctant to use that, but I just like the sound of it. That's really what I'm doing. It's an ambient sort of track. And I've decided literally, unashamedly do this effect on the synthesiser where you get the vibrato going. I just did it full on. So I thought 'In Full Cry' was appropriate. 

'Viola Reach' is a bit of a smart-arsed thing that I did, a tribute to that band, Viola Beach, who died in the car crash. I'd had the word 'reach' in my black book, I just liked it and so that came about. 'Cause it features the viola! I feel thankful to them that they catapulted the word 'viola' to the world because the viola tends to be a little bit of a downtrodden instrument. Then there's 'Glibberig', that's a Dutch word actually...

I WAS GOING TO ASK IF IT WAS A REAL WORD. IT'S SUCH A BRILLIANT WORD.

I just like it! I could've used something that's more descriptive because it's pulling at the heart, but I decided not to. I just decided to go in a different direction. And it means slimy actually, and slippery. That track is kind of slidey and a bit slippery. It sticks to you, and it can be nasty as well. Emotional, but intense, overly intense.

The last one is 'Stymie' that's just a stop, getting in the way of people. It's quite a nasty word really, getting in the way of people and blocking their ideas. And that's that.

YOU MENTIONED THAT THE TRACK 'GLEAM' TOOK A YEAR TO COMPLETE, HOW LONG DID THE ALBUM TAKE TO MAKE OVERALL?

Oh it did take a long time. A bit longer than usual actually. This one took the whole of 2014, and I finished it - the music - in October 2015. It's a long process. And then for the first time ever I decided to not mix it straight away. I didn't mix it till April this year. That's something I've never done before but I think it was quite beneficial. So when I went into mix, I wasn't so intense and I kind of had a more relaxed view of it.

BECAUSE YOU'VE WRITTEN AND RECORDED THE ALBUM ALL YOURSELF, DOES NOT HAVING A PRODUCER WITH YOU MAKE IT DIFFICULT TO GET A PERSPECTIVE ON YOUR OWN WORK?

It is difficult. Sometimes that's where the 'doppel' thing comes into it and it's just like this other person that you're dealing with and you're trying to talk to, who's not just you, and you have to take a separate view on things sometimes. Plus I'm the world's worst at recalling what I've actually done in instrumental music because I go through these processes, and as soon as it's finished, that's it and I don't ever go back which is fairly odd. That's why it's quite unusual that I've gone back to work on 'Running Through The Years' track again. I always go forward and I forget the process that I go through to get there. But yes there's quite a lot of discussions within yourself. Like I said, 'Gleam' sat there for about a year. It was beginning to really get on my nerves, this track. If you have a producer they might be able to help you to move away from that, but you have to do it yourself when you're working by yourself. About a year later, in the Spring time - which might have been part of it - I just rewrote the middle section which was faster and that put me on the right track, making the track faster because up until then it was just too dull and I got bored of it I wasn't sure where I was going. So that's just an example of a difficulty of producing yourself.

WE WERE JUST TALKING ABOUT THE DIFFICULTIES OF PRODUCING YOURSELF. WHAT'S THE ADVANTAGES OF PRODUCING YOURSELF? WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO GO THAT DIRECTION WITH THIS RECORD?

Well I've done all of my solo albums by myself, but I had an engineer, maybe one or two engineers that I could bounce off throughout the process. Back in 2002 I decided to bring someone in, and to trust someone, and that was Peter Dudley who was teaching me Logic, and he will sometimes assist me and we've done five albums together now, He won't get involved in the music but he will sometimes get involved in the rhythm side of things. I don't rely on him all the time, and there are lots of tracks where I do the rhythm all myself, but that's sometimes where I need some help.

AND WHEN YOU'RE IN THE PROCESS OF MAKING MUSIC, DO YOU SET OUT TO MAKE AN ALBUM? OR DO YOU JUST WRITE UNTIL YOU HAVE ENOUGH THINGS TO BE AN ALBUM?

I felt this one was more of an album than any I've written actually. Quite often I think about writing an album, and that tends to be a reach of maybe four or five tracks and then I start drawing back, almost like I've expelled enough energy. Whereas with this one, this seems to be a full body of work, which was quite interesting. I think probably because I didn't rush. Also just going back to it and mixing after quite a few months gave me a much more grounded perspective, I'm usually flying around like a nutcase and there's a slightly annoying part of me that just wants to get it wrapped up as soon as possible. They kind of unfold and this one became an album more in the mixing process. I think I tend to look back at it a bit later, like over my shoulder because I was so involved in it, but with this one I was looking at it full on somehow...

I THINK DOPPEL SOUNDS LIKE AN ALBUM, THE TRACKS DEFINITELY FEEL LIKE THEY'RE INTERRELATED IN SOME WAY. IT SOUNDS VERY CINEMATIC. IT SOUNDS LIKE IT'S A SOUNDTRACK TO SOMETHING. I WAS WONDERING IF, IN YOUR HEAD, IT IS A SOUNDTRACK TO SOMETHING?

It's not really. No, I don't have that. That's purely what the music's projecting. There's no story or anything.

CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT INSTRUMENTS YOU'VE USED ON THE ALBUM?

What I've used is a synthesiser, my piano is the Synthology Ivory Piano and I'm quite into synthesisers from Omnisphere, I've used the Oddity 2 quite a lot, I have a development unit of that from G-Force. Quite a few different synthesisers and string machines, I can't remember them all off the top of my head without plugging into my Logic...

IS IT MOSTLY SOFT SYNTHS, OR IS IT MOSTLY ANALOGUE?

Oh no, I don't use analog synths. I know it sounds like sacrilege, but I had so many, so many synthesisers and I moved into a house that was a bit smaller. And I just had to have them on the stairs and in the end I just had get rid of them. I use violin and viola on the album though. I was very pleased to use both. 'Doppel' has violin and viola on it, and all the other tracks have either violin or viola. So I do have a tangible thing to play with. I wasn't a synthesiser player originally, I was taught as a violin player, and then as a viola player eventually when I went to music college. So it's very nice to have these tangible things around me. Just to look at, and they're beautiful things. And I learnt piano first of all, so the piano's important to me, really. I don't really feel the need - right now, anyway - to have physical analogue synthesisers around. The only physical analogue thing I would like to have around is a piano.

YOU MENTIONED YOUR INTRODUCTION TO MUSIC THROUGH CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THROUGH THE PIANO AND THE VIOLA AND THE VIOLIN. IF I'M RIGHT, THE FIRST TIME YOU REALLY GOT TO PLAY WITH A SYNTHESISER WAS IN THE STUDIO MAKING THE FIRST ULTRAVOX! ALBUM WITH BRIAN ENO?

Yes, that's absolutely right. A little while before that I was doing demos with Steve Lillywhite with Ultravox in the Phonogram studios just before we were signed and we really didn't know what we were doing, but it was like, "Oh let's hire a set of strings" so I was already aware of the string synths. And I'd already decided that I loved the Elka String Synth because it's just so real, and so cold as opposed to the Selena which was trying too hard to sound like real strings. It sounded soft. So I'd already decided that, and I loved the weight of the Clavinet when I realised how powerful they could be.

So when I was doing the first album with Ultravox! and Brian Eno was there, I'd written a piece with John Foxx, we'd put our two parts together, and that was 'Slip Away'. So he had this song, and it was my piece of music at the end. And Brian Eno worked on my music bit at the ending, he was immediately attracted to that. I wasn't in the studio at the time. Bloody typical. So, but when I went in, I had a bit of a shock really, because he'd changed it. He detuned the piano, some interesting things, and he'd done some Minimoog on it. And so he showed me how he got those sounds, and I can't say I particularly agreed with the direction he'd gone but I just thought it's time to experiment and let go, but it was difficult for me to let go because I saw it in a slightly different way, a clearer black and white way. Anyway I was fascinated by what he was doing, and he showed me a sound so I could do this descending scale at the end. Which was a little bit proggy really. And we had a bit of a laugh about that because my music was a bit proggy, this was before punk had arrived, although we were one of the first bands that were beginning to say bollocks to all that hippy and prog stuff.

But I found it even more interesting when we did 'My Sex'. Eno always had the synthesiser in the actual console. So it was all comfortable, and we could hear ourselves think, and chat. I remember him doing the melody for 'My Sex' and that was very interesting, just the way he's laying it down. Just mind blowing really, the intensity of the sustain, and showing me how to use ADSR. Showed me how to use the attack and decay and how it affected the sound. So yeah, Eno was very patient and helpful to me... while he ruined my track!

IT'S INTERESTING TO HEAR YOU TALK ABOUT HOW INVOLVED HE WAS BECAUSE AT THAT POINT ENO WAS VERY MUCH A NON-MUSICIAN, WASN'T HE?

Yes, he was a non-musician. But I could see that he'd upped his game a bit but he came over a little bit non-musician to me. Because, you've got to remember this was my first album, he wanted to change my piano - which sounded rather classical although the minimalism there which is why me and John (Foxx) liked it - he changed that and made it slightly comical with a heavy detune. So there were things that, the non-musician part of him was coming through, but he wasn't really like that so much. He could see that it was important to me to make a note and let the chords and the notes speak to me - rather than screw them up too much into sound effects. 

I WAS READING SOMETHING ABOUT DEVO QUITE RECENTLY AND THEY WERE SAYING THAT WHEN THEY WORKED WITH ENO THEY FOUND IT VERY DIFFICULT TO ACCEPT HIS INPUT. BUT TODAY THEY'D BE REALLY INTERESTED FOR HIM TO REMAKE THAT ALBUM WITH ALL OF HIS INPUT, NOW THAT THEY CAN SORT OF LET IT GO FROM A PERSPECTIVE - FROM A BIT OF A DISTANCE. WOULD YOU SAY SOMETHING ABOUT THE 'ULTRAVOX!' ALBUM?

He worked with them over in Conny Plank's studio. We called in there, we must have been in Germany on tour, and I remember the atmosphere in the Devo studio, it was very peculiar. It wasn't a great atmosphere. It was peculiar. I mean the singer was on the floor playing with cars, he looked like he was in his own unreal world, although we were in the middle of a tour, so we probably looked pretty strange too!

But I'm not sure I'd want to go back like that to be honest. I'm not so much of a believer in things that. Like giving people things to remix. I think of myself as more of a composer - I know it sounds like a bit of an high-falutin term, a bit arrogant, going "So I'm a composer or an artist" - but what I make, that's the thing that exists. Does that make sense? I'm not so much into someone reshaping it. That's why I was very unsure at the time, and I think that's why Brian Eno did it when I wasn't there. Because he would have found it too difficult while I was there. That's probably what Devo are talking about. You don't necessarily want another vision of what you're trying to achieve, but then if you say that, they can say, "Well why did you hire me?". It is a peculiar one.

I think there are people from our first album that would have been the same. I liked him but there were people that were a little bit wary of him in our band. Like Warren, but we were just lucky that we'd got a very strong, grounded, engineer in Steve Lillywhite who we'd built some rapport with. So that's why we didn't freak out. But I think he could have just gone in just with Brian. That could have been difficult. 

DO YOU ENJOY THE PROCESS OF DOING EVERYTHING YOURSELF IN THIS SORT OF NEW DIY AGE OF RELEASING YOUR OWN RECORDS WITHOUT THE NEED FOR A RECORD LABEL? IS THAT SOMETHING THAT APPEALS TO YOU?

Yes it does. It does because I've been on labels when I've been unable to get anything out to the world, to the people, and to be able to let people know what's going on a bit. They say that it's the democratisation of music, which it is, but sometimes I'm going to be a bit cynical. It's like "I'm releasing my record, my album next week - along with another 500,000 peole" but the important thing is that it's there and I'm still getting it out. I mean I'm lucky because I've got a bit of an up from people who may have known me from the past. Whereas someone starting right from now, they don't have that extra thing.

So actually it's a yes and a no... musician's are sort of isolated, and are trying to play catch up. A lot of them can only make money from playing live and that's affected people quite a bit. Just the simple fact that everyone's getting a slice of the pie, and the pie is smaller. So the chances of making good money are not there really.

WHAT SORT OF THINGS DO YOU LISTEN TO NOW FOR PLEASURE? CAN YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC FOR PLEASURE?

I actually can't! I did when I was younger of course. What I do now is I've signed up to Apple Music and I'll browse in my studio. I've got my own studio, just a converted garage in my house. And I'll listen and I'll browse through stuff, I'll zoom in on the new Radiohead album something. While I was making this album I did actually listen to some Eno stuff on Spotify. I found one album called 'Boring Music' and I thought that was such a great title, and I just marvelled at his ability to make beautiful sounds, he's just such a genius in that area. But my son plays stuff when I'm driving him places, being the cabbie dad, and he plays stuff, he like The Skints who are a bit ska. There's quite a number of young bands around now that are ska and reggae influenced and they're quite aggressive as well. So I'll check some of those, the young bands out through my son.

But I've always still been a lover of rock as well. So when Muse put something out, there's that shiver up the back of your spine, and I'm still up for that. That's what I used to like about going on stage, when you can really create a shiver up everyone's back. But the reason why I've gone to Apple Music is because online the quality can be a bit rubbish but one of the reasons why I settled for Apple Music is because I found some fantastic quality recordings, classical recordings, and from that, while I was making this album I listened to some old favourites from when I was in my teens. Like Michael Tippett which has got that real English feel. I'm a bit of a fan of that and you can feel this English feel that comes through, a very country, open, beautiful, happy feeling and I was influenced from listening to that.

WHAT WAS IT FOR THE 16 YEAR OLD YOU, WHO WAS SORT OF IMMERSED IN THIS CLASSICAL MUSIC WORLD? WHAT INSPIRED THE TRANSITION INTO POP, IN THE BROADEST SENSE OF THAT WORD?

I was always fascinated with pop. I was like a doppel in that I was like two people. I loved trying to look good. I loved the bands that were around like The Kinks and the Yardbirds, I just loved the way they looked. And I liked Jeff Beck, how he made those lovely guitar riffs, and because I was learning the violin at the same time I found all of that kind of stuff interesting, the idea that you could mix classical with blues and rock, and I became more and more interested in that. And then on the other side I discovered discovering Terry Riley and Steve Reich. I loved soul music as well. But it's really when all the sort of hippy stuff started, that I started getting into like experimental stuff. Like Country Joe & The Fish and Captain Beefheart.

A COUPLE OF MINUTES AGO, YOU MENTIONED THE POWER OF PLAYING LIVE, AND HOW MUCH YOU ENJOYED THAT. IS THERE POSSIBILITIES FOR YOU TO PLAY LIVE WITH THIS CURRENT PROJECT?

I'm not sure. It's a possibility. I did think about it a little bit but then dragged it out again. Because it would be expensive, I wouldn't like to do it on the cheap. Also I'm not sure if there's much opportunity for an instrumentalist, if I was a singer I think I would be out there though. I'm not being coy or lacking confidence. It's a possibility because I do like playing live, but it would take a lot more thinking, I'm kind of at a slight quandary, if you wanted to put on a good show, well then things start costing. It's a bit of a difficult one.

AND TO FINISH, HERE'S THE INEVITABLE ULTRAVOX QUESTION, WHICH I'M SURE EVERYONE ALWAYS ASKS YOU IN EVERY INTERVIEW YOU DO, BUT WHAT IS THE CURRENT STATUS OF ULTRAVOX?

Well, we just went our separate ways again. We did five years, full on, with Ultravox and we tried and stretched our relationships, and it did get a little bit raw to be honest and some feathers have been ruffled. But we did three big tours, and we did some festivals to help us fund what then was the start of an album in 2010. So we, we've had a full on stint of it. So I think it's kind of just been parked for the time being.

BILLY CURRIE - Doppel (2016)

'Doppel' is available now via Digital Download

JUNE 2016

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