On Roxy Music's debut album, Bryan Ferry sang of revenge enacted upon an unsuspecting object of affection in a song called “Ladytron.” Keyboardist Brian Eno layered synth drones and strings atop curiously effected guitars and orchestral instruments. It was a song of dark emotions wrapped in a seductive groove by turns relaxed and passionate, and it toyed with sounds and moods rarely experienced in the pop music of the time. That time, specifically, was 1972, long before any member of the Liverpool, England, band Ladytron touched finger to key of any of the group's prized vintage synths, which were being produced at the same time as Roxy Music's experimental avant-pop.
Nearly 30 years later, when Ladytron released its first album, 604 (Emperor Norton, 2001), few listeners heard a connection between its synth pop and the stylish art rock of fellow Brits Roxy Music. Rather, Ladytron was unceremoniously lumped into the electroclash movement with acts such as Fischerspooner, Adult and Mount Sims, where it would stay through the release of its second album, Light & Magic (Emperor Norton, 2002). Although the electroclash label didn't put Ladytron in bad company, it did overlook the breezy sophistication of the band's minimal yet layered synths-and-beats sound and its knack for writing pop hooks and melodies, which stand on their own. What no one could have known for certain was that for its first two albums, Ladytron was gestating in the cocoon of its home studio. The band broke out of this incubator with a yearlong world tour supporting Light & Magic and then spread its wings fully when it went into a Liverpool studio with producer Jim Abbiss (Kasabian, U.N.K.L.E.) to record Witching Hour (Rykodisc, 2005), an album appropriately enchanting for its title.
Witching Hour is all about bending the line between genres, so much so that the ends of the line meet in the middle. In other words, Ladytron has come full circle with its influences, including '70s Krautrock and art rock, '80s electro and synth pop and the cavalcade of '90s dance styles from which the band draws. Early experimenters such as Can, Neu! and Roxy Music helped inform Kraftwerk, which in turn inspired the creators of hip-hop, house and techno but also influenced new-wave bands and the contemporary psychedelics of shoegaze guitar bands. In an artistic progression that may surprise many — yet disappoint few — fans, Ladytron invokes pieces of each of these styles to create an emotional, energetic, catchy, beautiful, intelligent album that is either very challenging to classify specifically or incredibly easy to classify in general as pop music.
“We're not very interested in being a band attached to another band's reputation or sound,” says Daniel Hunt (keyboards, production), who wrote the bulk of the material for Ladytron's first two albums. On Witching Hour, the other members — Mira Aroyo (vocals, keyboards), Helena Marnie (vocals, keyboards) and Reuben Wu (keyboards, production) — contributed more to the writing.
The result feels more like a stylistically diverse group effort, and it's expertly paced — indicative of a band whose members have all spent the past few years picking up DJ gigs. Witching Hour opens with the tension-building drone of “High Rise” and then explodes into the powerfully stoic drive and bounce of “Destroy Everything You Touch,” in which Marnie's icily delivered vocals scolding an insensitive friend could be a direct answer to Ferry's “Ladytron” lyrics. The album then ebbs and flows between ethereal, midtempo tunes; instrumental interludes; and club-ready rockers until it gives way to a gorgeous, synth-pad-drenched conclusion in the last three songs, including the ode to My Bloody Valentine, “White Light Generator,” and Ladytron's first certifiable tearjerker, the wistful and climactic “All the Way.”
For Ladytron's 12-month Light & Magic world tour, the group added a live bassist and drummer to the lineup and stopped using sequenced beats and loops onstage in favor of playing all the parts in real time. “We used to play with a laboratory set up onstage,” Aroyo says, referring to the nearly 15 vintage analog synths that the band used onstage each night. “It just felt really limiting, like we couldn't go anywhere with it being tied to a loop.”
To punch up the live sound, the band added drummer Keith York, formerly of Broadcast, and bassist Andrea Goldsworthy. “We wanted to explore something that was more dynamic,” Hunt explains. “The first two albums sound very serene and small compared to how the tracks ended up sounding live, when they became harder and more powerful.”
“We got a lot of confidence out of playing as a live band,” Aroyo continues. “We're a lot better than we were before.” The band started touring to support Witching Hour in October (it should cover the U.S. during late winter and spring of 2006) and has kept the six-member format for the gigs. Adapting the album to the stage was much more intuitive this time. “Basically, the way we had done the previous records, we were just a recording band, not a touring band,” Aroyo says. “We made the records and then appropriated them live. Whereas with this one, it's still very delicate and precise on the record, but it's punchier. It was quite easy to adapt this one live.” That didn't mean that the band simply forsook all of its carefully processed and mixed drum tracks from Witching Hour to have them played on a standard drum kit. “We're kind of like a weirdo rock band, but we're not really interested in being a traditional rock band in any way,” Aroyo adds. “So the live drum sounds need to fit right in with the rest of the music.”
Drummer York plays both sampled sounds from drum pads onstage and a full kit that is miked and effected to capture the essence of Witching Hour's heavily treated beats. It helped that York played drums on about half of the album and contributed to the creation of the drum sounds. “He's very clever with the drum processing,” Hunt says. Although York and Goldsworthy are sidemen, they bring a lot to the process. “They're not in the photos and not in the band proper, but they take a lot of responsibility for what they do,” Hunt says. “They're an integral part of the way we perform live.”
The band has also dropped most of its vintage synths from the stage show to preserve the instruments and ensure better reliability from contemporary digital-modeling synths. Trusty old servants such as the Korg MS-10 and MS-20, the Roland SH-2 and SH-09, the Moog Micromoog, the Sequential Circuits Pro-One and others are used for recording, but Ladytron replaces them live with models such as the Korg MS-2000 and MicroKorg. “A lot of the original sounds were made on [vintage] Korgs,” Aroyo says. “The new modeling synths aren't as good as the real thing — they don't have all the natural modulation the MS-10s and MS-20s have — but they're a pretty good approximation.”
After the Light & Magic tour wrapped in the latter half of 2003, members of the band wasted little time in preparing material for the next record. Hunt, Aroyo, Marnie and Wu wrote material on their own at home, sometimes full songs or just short sketches of a song. “We write all the songs on guitars and keyboards,” Hunt says. “We don't sequence until the last minute.” When the group does sequence in parts, it's usually with Steinberg Cubase SX. “We're used to it,” Hunt explains. “We've been using it for seven or eight years. A lot of people talk about Logic, especially since Apple bought it. But if you've just come off tour, and you've got to write another record, do you want to work on music or sit there and learn another application for six months?” Hunt also notes that for the most part, the band eschews software synths because, in the end, they usually prefer the tracks they record on hardware instruments anyway.
After hashing out material individually for a time, the band worked as a group for at least a month piecing ideas into demos for Witching Hour. “Because there was such a delay between this album and the last one, people assume it was a creative delay,” Hunt says. “It totally wasn't.” By January 2004, the Witching Hour demos were prepared, and the band took about 24 working song ideas into the studio to work with Londoner Abbiss, who in 15 years of producing has worked with Björk, Sneaker Pimps, Massive Attack, Placebo, DJ Shadow and many others.
Although Abbiss was a large part of the process, several of the vocal and instrumental tracks from the group's original demos made it to Witching Hour. “People assume that because this album sounds a bit different, the producer has changed the sound or that, because we changed labels, the label changed the sound,” Hunt says. “This album was headed in the direction it was from the moment it started. Jim brought his skills and a fresh pair of ears and took it to another level altogether.”
A great deal of sonic exploration to find the perfect tones and timbres was key to the studio sessions. “We started doing this six years ago, but now all those sounds we used people can get in any cracked version of Cubase,” Hunt says. The band drew upon Abbiss' expert ear and vast collection of rare and exotic instruments and signal processors to diligently create a sonic palette. They spent weeks recording and tweaking sounds, and the band leaned heavily on the producer's collection of effects boxes, especially vintage Electro-Harmonix overdrives, delays and synth boxes, such as the company's Bass Micro Synthesizer. Unsung heroes also came in the form of old unidentified Russian knockoff pedals, such as the box that mimicked the classic WEM Watkins Copicat tape-delay box. “Some of the sounds were unattainable without these strange boxes we were feeding stuff through,” Hunt reveals.
High-maintenance instruments, such as a harmonium (an Indian hand-pumped reed organ) and an ARP 2600 analog modular synth, won over the Ladytron members' hearts in the studio. “One day, we couldn't function at all; we'd been out the night before,” Aroyo recalls. “Jim just sat there in the studio all day with a guitar, and he was surrounded by Korg synths with every output going through every pedal he could possibly have and the ARP 2600, as well. All day was spent like that, and we came up with one sound. The ARP 2600 is very tricky.”
They treated drums just as meticulously. To record the drums for “amTV,” a sassy piece of synth rock with a particularly massive and noisy snare, the team devised a setup that Hunt calls a “freak show.” The drums were miked, sent through ring modulators and then into amplifiers, miked again, filtered and so on. “It was this insane contraption,” Hunt boasts. “It ended up producing this drum sound completely by accident, but that was a good experience.”
Throughout the recording, the emphasis was on the result, not the method. “A lot of the songs have a mixture of both sampled electronic drums and [acoustic] drums,” Aroyo says. “The live drums ended up sounding very tight, crisp and effected. People might even think that they're sequenced.”
Along the same lines, and what's more noticeable on the album, is that guitars and synths are used interchangeably. During the recording, Ladytron often treated synths with guitar overdrive and distortion pedals and sent guitars through Electro-Harmonix synth pedals; on several of the songs, it's tough to determine synth riffs from guitar riffs. For example, the droning lead sound on “High Rise” is ambiguous, but it's actually a guitar played with an EBow. “There's been guitar on all the records, but people are saying on this one, it's more dominant,” Aroyo says. “But the guitar is treated so much, it's like the stuff you get in Krautrock or shoegaze records. It's just being used as a sound wave.”
BEWITCHING IN CHINA
With Witching Hour ostensibly finished in the first half of 2004, the album sat in limbo while the band waited on the logistics of moving to a new record label. While the band considered remixing and DJ gigs, fate intervened when a government organization called the British Council offered Ladytron the rare opportunity to tour China as part of a cross-cultural outreach program. The band couldn't pass it up. “They probably picked us because they saw us as a more interesting proposition than your typical British four-boys-with-guitars band,” Hunt says about the minitour, which included stops to cosmopolitan cities such as Shanghai as well as obscure locales. “We went to some strange dilapidated park full of miniature world monuments, and literally no [Western] band had ever been there. The records have never been distributed there, so the only way to get the record was to download it illegally. So the benefits of file sharing are pretty obvious. It's more important for people to be able to get your music.”
More significant, China served as the testing grounds for the first live performances of many songs off of Witching Hour. “We came back into the studio and mixed having more of a pure idea of what we wanted to do,” Aroyo says. Soon after returning, Ladytron secured a deal with Island/Universal in the UK (and Rykodisc in the U.S.) — fittingly, the same label group that reissues Roxy Music discs.
In the interim between releasing Witching Hour and touring, Ladytron is demoing for the next album and remixing bands such as Bloc Party and Goldfrapp. The band tends to home-record remixes from scratch using only the original vocal unless another approach is requested. Regarding other artists remixing Ladytron, Hunt gives one strong piece of advice: Be creative. “When we get a remix back and it sounds almost the same as the original,” Hunt laments, “it's really disappointing.”
SELECT WITCHING HOUR GEAR
ARP 2600 modular synth, Solina String Synthesizer
EBow electronic guitar bow
Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer effects unit
Harmonium through a Leslie amp
Korg MicroKorg (live), MS-10, MS-20, MS-2000 (live) synths
Moog Micromoog synth
Native Instruments Battery software drum sampler
Roland SH-09, SH-2 synths
Sequential Circuits Pro-One synth
Simmons Clap Trap drum module
Steinberg Cubase SX software