Gruff Rhys (right) and Boom Bip
Photo: Klaus Thymann
For better or worse, the '80s revival is still alive and kicking. From Knight Rider remakes to the electro resurgence, the influential decade isn't going away anytime soon. But for L.A. instrumentalist Boom Bip, aka Bryan Hollon, and Gruff Rhys of Welsh rock group Super Furry Animals, their recent collaboration known as Neon Neon wasn't initially designed to fall so deeply into the popular '80s epitome.
When Hollon and Rhys began recording their album, Stainless Style (Lex, 2008), in the summer of 2006 in London, the primary goal was to make something entirely different from their previous work. “It had to be something completely outside of ourselves,” says Hollon, who made a name with left-field hip-hop albums like Seed to Sun (Lex, 2002).
Surrounded by vintage Casio keyboards and reference books from the '80s while brainstorming in-studio, Neon Neon became all about those glossy years. While Hollon's initial demos for this project drew from oddball Euro-disco, it wasn't until the duo started digging their heads in the books and watching old films on YouTube that Stainless Style became a pop record inspired by the life of famed automobile engineer John DeLorean. And DeLorean's rise from a working-class background to a life of luxury leaves much to write about.
“It's such an inspiring story that we ended up making the whole record about moments from his life,” Rhys says of DeLorean. “It helped focus the record and make it into something we'd never usually do. And although we were trying to make something different, we didn't realize we were going to make a mid-'80s synth-pop record. That was never part of the plan. [Laughs.]”
To capture that unforeseen vibe on Stainless Style, the duo relied on keyboards such as the Casio SK-5, Korg MiniKorg 700 and Roland SH-101, as well as Casio drum pads and sticks and a 1964 Silvertone Jupiter guitar to create outputs that, as Rhys describes, “celebrate sounds that would usually scare us.”
The challenge for the duo was to not sound dated. “We wanted the tracks to sound like a new version of something familiar but also hit hard on a sound system, so it was a careful process of making sure some sounds were full and warm while others were thin and ping-y,” Hollon explains. “For guitars, we mostly recorded those direct into an Eventide chorus [effects pedal]. There wasn't any reason to have an amp color the sound. It just needed to be thin, with the chorus dominating the sound.”
“Raquel,” a song about John DeLorean's love for actress and sex symbol Raquel Welch, is inspired by early '90s Shep Pettibone remixes and bridges the disco sounds of Hollon's original demos with Tears for Fears-esque new-wave pop. And the secret of this track was to squash the sonics into their most rudimentary forms.
“The percussion used was fairly straight-ahead percussion in simple patterns,” Hollon explains of “Raquel.” “They aren't meant to sound huge or full because they didn't sound that way back in the day. You could not really tell if it was a sample or the real thing on those extended mixes. We wanted that same sound; however, most of that percussion was played with real instruments and tracked out to sound stiff.”
While “I Lust U,” featuring Cate Le Bon, operates on a similar wavelength to “Raquel,” the album's assorted cast of guests helped shake things up elsewhere. Assisted by Spank Rock, the bottom-heavy electro-esque track, “Trick for Treat,” details the sexual exploits of DeLorean, while the synth-y hip-hop cut, “Luxury Pool,” sees Fatlip thoroughly explore the auto engineer's dream-chasing persona.
To ensure that the concept of the album was fully realized, Hollon and Rhys didn't allow verses to be mailed in — the process of Stainless Style was to get everyone closely involved in the life of DeLorean and the entire '80s atmosphere.
“In the beginning, we said we want to be in the same room with everyone. That way we can make sure it's very specific to the story that needs to be told and what this project's all about,” says Hollon. “So when we went into it, we told them, ‘This is the idea; this is the story; are you down to do it?’ And everybody was really excited about it.”