An Interview with British Electric Foundation’s Martyn Ware!
"We’re writing a new Heaven 17 album!"
“I’d probably make more money if I just stuck to what everyone else is doing”…OX talked emerging artists and modern music with Martyn Ware!
First of all, could you give us an idea of what to expect from British Electric Foundation at Rewind Festival this summer?
The idea is that BEF, which was founded in the 80s and went on to produce lots of famous singers, would do some new cover versions of the singers which we produced, as well as their other famous songs and some other covers a well. There’s about 7 or 8 different singers, some very exciting people like Robin Scott from M. That’s quite a coup for us to have him performing with us. Then there’s Peter Hook from New Order, and Thomas Dolby and Glenn Gregory of course. Basically, the whole thing is like a review, and we’re doing brand new arrangement of the old songs and some surprising cover versions as well.
Obviously you’re an accomplished producer as well as a musician in your own right. What’s it like realising another artist’s vision when compared to writing your own material?
It’s a collaborative process really, and there’s a whole range of different types of artist from a producer’s perspective. There’s artists who literally just come in and sing, and they regard their job as just coming in and doing the top line, as it were. For instance, when I was working with Tina Turner she was very much like that, but the best singer in the world at that time, as far as I was concerned. Then sometimes you produce acts where they have their own songs and you’re just helping them to polish it up and give the best performance of it that they can, and maybe suggest some additional arrangements.
The thing is that historically, BEF has been all about electronic music I suppose, and now electronic music is everywhere. You can’t move for it. As a production company that dealt with a combination of electronic music with a soul influence, it was kind of like a template for how the dance scene developed in the 80s and 90s.
As you said, electronic music is everywhere nowadays and there’s a soul influence in a lot of the modern stuff as well. Do you think you’re an influence on the electronic or dance scene nowadays?
Well, us amongst many other people. Obviously we started The Human League in the late 70s and part of our whole thing was to only use synthesizers. People are still looking back at the first two Human League albums and quoting them as influences, even today’s generation of electronic music-makers, so I’m very proud of that. I think we did have an influence, I mean Penthouse and Pavement was sort of a template for electronic funk, really. We weren’t the first, but certainly in Britain and in the ‘pop’ format, I think we were fairly influential.
From Heaven 17 and British Electric Foundation, to your 3D sound and immersive sound projects, your work has always emphasized the use of electronics. What was it that inspired you to get so involved with the technology side of music?
Good question. I’ve always been fascinated with technology, probably because I’m not a traditionally trained musician. I never went to music college, I can only just about read music now, and I’m not the world’s greatest keyboard player, but I’ve always had a very good ear for music and that’s why I became a successful producer and sold 60 million records!
If you think about it, Stevie Wonder could obviously never read music and learned through just doing it, and I believe that’s a quite interesting way of proceeding, because you don’t know that you’re breaking the rules if you don’t know what the rules are. It’s always worked for me, that approach, and I believe that music should come from the soul anyway. I’m not just talking about soul music; I think that music should be an empathetic and soulful activity. If something doesn’t emotionally engage me, I’m not interested. What I’m always looking for is the technology to stimulate new ideas and a different approach. That’ll probably carry on until the day I die. I’m always looking forward. Sometimes it’s to my own detriment, and I’d probably make more money if I just stuck to what everyone else is doing, but I’m just really interested in the future of music and the future of sound environments.
On the subject of modern music, what recent or new artists do you listen to? What do you look for in an emerging artist?
I listen to an enormous range of music from avant-garde stuff to modern classical, to hip hop, new soul, I like a lot of rap… I’m still very fond of melodic soul stuff, I suppose. I like people with a slightly different take on it, like Frank Ocean and FKA Twigs. My 19-year-old daughter is my A&R person nowadays, so she keeps feeding me new and interesting people to listen to.
I’ve interviewed quite a few artists for the Rewind festival now and I can’t say any others have mentioned Frank Ocean or FKA Twigs so far.
There are always people writing good, melodic, interesting, contemporary pop music, it’s just getting harder to find. I’m not as fond of the whole EDM thing, I think it’s too formulaic.
Me neither. Why do you think it’s becoming more difficult to find interesting music?
I think it’s harder to find a home for it on the radio. So many radio stations have a strict playlist policy. There are exceptions, I mean BBC 6Music is great and will play a wide variety of stuff, but there aren’t many eclectic radio stations apart from on internet radio. To be honest, I’ve got a 19-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, and if they want to listen to something they just listen to it on Youtube, they don’t need people curating their tastes for them. They can figure it out for themselves. I think the whole nature of how we listen to music has changed so radically. When I was growing up you would define who you were by your record collection, wouldn’t you? Now, it’s not relevant because you can listen to anything, instantaneously, on any device you want.
You don’t really need to own music any more. I don’t think my teenage offspring have bought a CD for about 5 years. I don’t think I’ve bought a CD for about 5 years! I’m always on the lookout for interesting or unusual songwriters, and I’m very interested in how people create emotion using music. Frank Ocean is a great example. I’m currently mentoring a couple of young unknown songwriters at the moment who are in that kind of vein, and I really like, so I do make an effort to not only keep up but try and help people.
Fantastic. You’re also a pioneer of surround sound and the technology involved in it. Can you give us a bit of background behind the “immersive sound” projects and the purpose behind them?
Well, I’ve got a company called Illustrious, which I formed with Vince Clarke from Erasure in 2000. I became very interested in surround sound as a possible new medium for creating more interesting soundscape, I suppose. We were looking at being involved in developing a piece of software called 3D audioscape, which enables to create surround soundscapes, but not like in a cinema where all the speakers are at ear level, but also have a height axis as well. With our system, you can move up to 16 different soundstreams around simultaneously, in any direction you want. This enables us to do some amazing things, and we’re doing a lot of very exciting soundscape work around the world. We just launched a new, huge soundscape in a shopping destination called Liverpool One, in Liverpool. We’re also talking to the Coliseum in Rome about doing a 3-dimensional soundscape based on how it would have sounded.
Yeah! We’re in talks with loads of people. Also, at Festival Number 6 at Portmeirion in Wales, we’re doing a big soundscape up there this summer. There are lots of new things happening at the moment, and it’s quite futuristic because we’re looking at a future where perhaps new building developments might be subtly engineered to make them sound more agreeable.
Do you have any time to write more music?
Yes, we’re writing a new Heaven 17 album! Me & Glenn are both very busy so we’re trying to fit it in amongst other things. We’ve already released a double A-side 12” which is available at heaven17.com, which will be the first two tracks off the album. That’s only available on vinyl. We tend to release tracks as we write them, and release a kind of compilation of the tracks, when we get the time!
You can catch Martyn playing as part of British Electric Foundation at Rewind Festival on Sunday 23 August. Rewind runs from Friday 21 to Sunday 23 at Temple Island Meadows, Henley-on-Thames.
- Jack Rayner
Top Image - Heaven 17 at Rewind Scotland 2014 (Credit: Dod Morrison photography)
Middle Image - Heaven 17
Bottom Image - Martyn Ware
Related Articles: British Electric Foundation at Rewind Sunday 23 August!
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