It can rightfully be said that the Future Sound of London helped usher in the modern era of electronic music. Classic tracks such as “Papua New Guinea” and the albums Lifeforms, ISDN and Dead Cities (all released on Astralwerks in 1994, 1995 and 1996, respectively) cleared the path for such contemporary artists as Four Tet, Animal Collective and Kammerflimmer Kollektief, among others.
“We created a sound which was emulated many times,” FSOL co-founder Brian Dougans says from his home in Frome, England. “We created a blueprint that anybody could do, really. [Create] a drum beat, stick in some noises and echoes, add scary swooshes and call it FSOL!”
Joined by Garry Cobain, FSOL created music to teasing effect in the compilation Teachings From the Electronic Brain (Astralwerks, 2006), which culls tracks from the aforementioned albums, as well as Accelerator (Jumpin' & Pumpin', 1992), The Isness (Astralwerks, 2002) and, under the pseudonym Amorphous Androgynous, Tales of Ephidrina (Astralwerks, 1993). Initially using an Atari 1040ST, C-Lab Notator, a Roland JX-3P synth and Akai S1000 samplers, FSOL mixed techno, ambient, jazz, folk and even operatic samples for a sound that would some 15 years later be dubbed “folktronic.” FSOL was among the first to grasp the importance of the Internet on ISDN, forecasted the freak-folk scene with the psychedelic The Isness and perpetually combined the visual with the sonic — an idea that found perfect expression in “Devil Girl,” a small child who adorned much of FSOL's artwork.
“There was always a tactile sense of warmth to FSOL,” Cobain reflects from London. “But there was also technological innovation working. And there seemed to be enough of a network to indulge the creative fire. Now you are competing with a million bands on MySpace.com. Is that positive?”
Claiming influences as diverse as Cocteau Twins, Claude Debussy, A Certain Ratio, Rachmaninoff, Eno and Tangerine Dream, FSOL “married the nostalgic sadness, the depth and the epic-ness to technological innovation and the sheen of Sheffield electronic funk,” Cobain says, for their first album, Accelerator. FSOL followed with what many consider to be their masterpiece, the ambient/organic Lifeforms. Recorded at their Galaxial Pharmaceutical Studios by stringing together a chain of ADATs and Akai S3200 samplers, Lifeforms sounds like the entire ocean emptied for your ears only.
“We wanted to release a very immersive, mind-blowing piece of music that was long and would deeply drench you in it,” Cobain insists. “Lifeforms was redefining ‘classical ambient electronic experimental’ — that was the phrase we used.”
ISDN followed, drawing on FSOL's fascination with technology and the future. Tracks like “Far-Out Son of Lung and the Ramblings of a Madman” showed FSOL moving beyond ambient electronic music to edgier kinetic funk and breakbeats.
“We chanced upon digital phone lines, which record ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network] used to gather news,” Dougans explains. “We realized that we could use it to broadcast our images, graphics, text and music. ISDN was the transmissions that we made to 100 radio stations around the world. By not touring in traditional ways, we could just broadcast our world through the media.”
Dead Cities seemed to turn its back on the FSOL aesthetic, with its menacing cover art depicting industrial decay not quite overshadowing surprisingly lush tracks like “Yage” and “Max.” But the ominous “We Have Explosive” remains the album's most prophetic track.
“We did encase that in something that was aggressive, and that was a mistake,” Cobain says. “But it was the strongest thing we could say at the time. The theme was too male and too technology driven.”
After six years away from the scene, FSOL returned as Amorphous Androgynous with the full-scale psychedelic happening of The Isness. Samples were traded for live performances, Steinberg Cubase and an Apple Mac G3. The Isness showed Dougans and Cobain “expressing some prog rock, psychedelic, hugely produced music,” Cobain says. 2005's Alice in Ultraland (Harvest) followed in a similar vein, using “a six-piece band with sitar, drums, electronics, huge visual screens — one big monstrous psychedelic bubble for your eyes and brain,” Cobain says.
Currently working on their next album as Amorphous Androgynous, Dougans and Cobain remain as opinionated as ever. But what of the future of Future Sound of London?
“I don't think the future is only about the musicians of the now,” Cobain replies. “The future is also inhabited by the past; it is about past messages coinciding with future technologies to bring profound truth. What you can't see is what we believe in. Whether it is organic food or psychedelic, electronic, oak-tronic — whatever it is.”