Since man first put finger to string to make sound or voice to melody to make song, music has been strengthened by the collaboration of two minds. It's the yin and yang of creative energy between partnered forces, the ebb and flow of ideas and the tempestuous brainstorm that can brew between two unique and inspired individuals.
Maybe two heads are just better than one. Every genre has its list of late and great duos, and dance music's collaboration roster is an impressive list: brothers come to mind, biological (Orbital) and ostensible (the Chemical Brothers). Two artists can become one big name in lights — Faithless, Daft Punk or Basement Jaxx — while other times the names draw fans independently (for example, Sasha and Digweed).
Goldfrapp also deserves a spot on that list. Although Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp's moniker might not be as widely known as the aforementioned, dance music has been absorbing the duo's influence and appreciating its presence since its 2000 debut, Felt Mountain (Mute). Though the album failed to make Goldfrapp a household name, critics adored its cinematic scope, and it was eventually nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. On 2003's Black Cherry (Mute), Goldfrapp revealed a raunchy, electro-fueled fire, earning many devotees among the DJ set and club goers.
The same mood runs though the group's latest release, Supernature (Mute, 2006), an album with hooks catchy and strange enough to make Goldfrapp's music artistically innovative and commercially viable.
“[Supernature] is probably our most commercially accessible record,” Will Gregory ponders over the phone from a hotel in New York. “In other words, you could say that it's more mainstream, then? That certainly brings up the warning signs, but there's been some great music that has been commercially successful. I also think a lot of bad music is commercially successful, but that doesn't mean the two are mutually exclusive. What one has to worry about is trying to do something better than we did last time.”
“On a creative level, I think the songs are simpler in that they're more direct,” Alison Goldfrapp adds. “To be commercially successful just means [your music] has reached more people, which I suppose is a good thing.”
Following the success of their first two albums, the third could have been a daunting blank canvas. But Gregory and Goldfrapp armed themselves with snippets of songs they wrote during breaks from their tour for Black Cherry and buckled down.
Always regarded as Goldfrapp's creative half, Alison Goldfrapp vaguely resembles a grown-up Shirley Temple — wide, blue eyes ringed in blonde curls as tight as the corsets she often wears in photo shoots. The creative flair Goldfrapp flaunts on album covers and onstage stems from her early coursework in the art department at Middlesex College, a venture that allowed her to delve into art for art's sake, without concern for the paycheck that may or may not be attached. A performance art piece she put on at a party piqued the interest of two key guests, Phil and Paul Hartnoll, better known as Orbital. Although they weren't interested in the yodeling skills she displayed during the performance, they did recognize her range and asked her to sing guest vocals on their 1994 album, Snivilisation (ffrr) and on Middle of Nowhere (ffrr, 1999).
Goldfrapp's next resume bullet came when she contributed vocals to Tricky's seminal Maxinquaye (Island, 1995). Two years of subsequent touring followed, a vocal workout that Goldfrapp has called invaluable but draining. Eager to excavate her own creative channel, she set out to find a new outlet for her voice.
Meanwhile, Gregory was enjoying a successful career as a session and touring musician, playing saxophone for Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel, The Cure and Portishead. He eventually hung up his sax and started working in film and television. Although his success in the field was modest — he is best known for the 1995 film I.D. — the experience inspires his current approach to music writing.
“A lot of film writers have been pioneers,” he enthuses. “I think they've been allowed to do that because the visuals take enough of your attention away from the sound. Scores can really be this eclectic mix-up of stuff that I find quite inspiring. In the orchestration particularly, they can do weird combinations of stuff; one minute there'll be a left-hand bongo workout, and then there'll be some synth thing, then a choir, then an orchestra, then a rock thing…. Film composers are able to switch in a lot of strangeness.”
In 1999, when Goldfrapp and Gregory were finally introduced, the connection was not immediate. Having already made strides in their own careers, both approached the possibility of collaboration with caution. It wasn't until they exchanged mixtapes and discussed their eclectic but similar tastes that they realized the union held potential.
SECLUDED STUDIO STRATEGIES
Beginning in the summer of 2004, the duo rented a small cottage in the western English town of Wiltshire and set up shop to record Supernature. “I don't find working in a conventional studio very creative at all,” Goldfrapp says. “You're always clock-watching and burning up money. Plus, invariably they have no natural daylight. The way we work, we can see the countryside, hear the lawn mowers and get a sense of the outside world so we can also work in a less sterile, more relaxed atmosphere.”
But hiding out in the countryside has its drawbacks as well. “It's a bit like becoming a monk or going into a retreat, and it's not always healthy cause you become a bit obsessed,” Gregory counters. “You just don't stop thinking about it, and maybe you need outside input. Sometimes a bit of external energy is good, because otherwise you go a bit up the walls. But at the same time, it's great for building up continuity of work without any other stimulus.”
Despite Goldfrapp and Gregory's individualistic streaks, both say that disputes over a song's direction were rare during the 12 months they took to complete Supernature. “We are both quite different personalities,” Goldfrapp admits. “But the important thing is that we spark ideas off each other really well. One of us will go as far as we can with an idea, and then the other will carry it further forward.”
“Sometimes you can hear something in your head that you haven't quite got out onto the tape,” Gregory continues. “I think we're both good about giving each other the space to get to that point before we're too judgmental about it. That's important. We're usually in agreement about when something is good and when it's not. It's usually just how you get there that's up for debate.”
When it comes to explaining how they get there, Gregory and Goldfrapp say the exact process is “impossible to describe.” Because of Goldfrapp's flamboyant image, a misconception grew up around her that she was the band's sole creative force, while Gregory was the technical studio wizard. Their studio dynamic, however, is far more fluid than that description implies. “Alison doesn't operate the technology, so there is that element there,” Gregory says. “But once you get past that delineation of roles, I like to think that it's more of a conversation. It's very hard to say who does what.”
Although Gregory's role in the studio requires the technical understanding of the band's equipment, he prefers an organic approach to operating those machines. “I'm very lazy,” he readily admits. “I don't like learning new tricks, so it's not a natural thing for me to be getting packets through the post — new software, updates, upgrades. I'm not into that, cause then you never really get time to learn what you've got. I'm quite happy to be a bit Luddite with not having the newest, speediest thing. I think we're always trying to get something human out of the performance side of it. Everything you hear has hopefully been played to some extent. It might have been quantized and squared up and cued up, but ultimately, it came from someone playing a musical instrument. I think that's what we try to retain. I'm not happy to give much to the machines to do or choose. They don't get much of a shout.”
While the band's recording medium, Apple Logic Pro 6.4, doesn't get a chance to show all the magic it can do in the Goldfrapp studio, synths do get more of a spotlight. “You develop a rapport with an instrument in the same way that you do with a conventional instrument by just playing it a lot,” Gregory says. “I think on one hand, synths are a bit like toys — made to go straight away. It's not as if it takes you ten years to get an acceptable sound out of it, like a violin. But at the same time, [synths] have possibilities that are beyond toys. A lot of them have only been around for a comparably short amount of time, and people are still finding out what they can do and what's interesting about them. People are always bringing new things to it.”
Gregory's attraction to the human aspects of music mirrors Goldfrapp's approach to writing and presenting the band's image. As the lyricist, Goldfrapp controls the group's verbal message to listeners, but her enigmatic verses — “Nasal douche/ Poolside line/ Soft lit tan/ What's your sign?” — are not necessarily meant to have the same meaning for everyone.
“Lyrics can be based on anything — dreams, snatches of conversation, phrases,” Goldfrapp maintains. “‘Ooh la la’ is a good example of that. I think people know what it's meant to mean, even though it doesn't really have literal meaning. Music is a personal experience. Everybody has their own feeling of what it means, and that's the whole point of it. It's your property when you listen to it, and you decide what it's about, really.”
The same can be said of Goldfrapp's visual image: Black Cherry's visual persona was marked by huskies and elk, dancers wearing antlers and tit tassels. For Supernature, Goldfrapp chose similarly compelling imagery: She's wearing a dramatic plume of peacock feathers and little else on the album's cover. The band's videos, stage show and album art are all tangled into a symbiotic relationship with the songs themselves: “Images inform the music and vice versa,” Goldfrapp argues.
While Gregory is twisting knobs and pushing buttons, Goldfrapp is concocting the visual image to go with the track. “It's usually something that is evolving while the song is being written, simultaneously, and so it's still quite natural,” he says. “It is something we talk about, but it very much comes from Alison's visual sense, whether it's styling or artwork for the sleeve or costumes for the dancers.”
Although they each approach writing from a different angle, the dynamic when they come together results in natural jam sessions. “There'll be some processing or synth interacting with what Alison is singing that I might also be fiddling with,” Gregory says. “That's nice 'cause you're both jamming and kind of feeding off what each other is doing. I think that's a way we like working quite often, whether it's jamming on synths or just hitting things.”
This free-form attitude, however, is a somewhat recent maturation for Goldfrapp. During the writing of their previous two albums, the pair imposed production rules, banning guitars of any kind, along with samples and drum loops. “We were like opinionated teenagers,” Gregory confesses. “There were rules, and this was kosher and that wasn't. We just relaxed since then. We realized, you know, it's okay, we'll still be Goldfrapp even if we break a few of our own rules. We wanted something quite powerful and raunchy sometimes, maybe even a bit bluesy, and guitars were a quick way of getting there.”
Having lifted their ban on guitars — and relaxing in general — Goldfrapp experimented with new sounds and instruments, although Gregory stuck with Logic, the tried-and-true recording software for him. “I just never had the time or the patience to try any others. I'm too impatient. I'm very, ‘Let's do, let's go, let's go,’ and if someone comes and says, ‘But have you considered the possibility?’ No, I'm not interested.”
THE FINISHING TOUCH
Supernature dips into the dramatic, allowing listeners to recall Goldfrapp's earlier offerings with songs like “Let It Take You” and “Koko,” which occupy the same dreamy, ethereal headspace of many songs on Felt Mountain. But the album clearly absorbed Black Cherry's glam-rock, disco influences. “Lovely 2 C U” and “Ride the White Horse” are every bit as infectiously sleazy as “Train” or “Strict Machine.”
Where Supernature differs from the previous albums is in the surprisingly cheerful ballads. Unabashedly happy, the melody and lyrics in “Fly Me Away” and “Number 1” imply that Goldfrapp might have some joy in her life: “You're my favorite moment/ You're my Saturday/ Cos you're my Number 1.” Regardless of her original inspiration, the songs give the album a vibe of contentment and maturity that implies that the band left its angry teenage years behind along with the guitar ban.
The album's standout, however, comes in the buried ninth track, “Satin Chic.” “It was right toward the end of recording,” Gregory recalls. “I think we felt that there was more. You get to that point in an album where you can roughly see the landscape, and something seems to be missing, like you didn't put enough trees at the edge. We just rather randomly started something — that sort of German oohmpa bass came up, and Alison had some quite strong lyric ideas as well, ‘Look good, talking cheap….’”
“I was just thinking of an androgynous person dressed head to toe in an electric blue satin suit, or was it chocolate brown…?” Goldfrapp says. “The thought of a hedonistic, indulgent, self-satisfying male/female. I suppose [‘Satin Chic’] means being glamorous, hedonistic, greedy. The satin is a metaphor for a state of mind.”
“That verse happened,” Gregory continues, “Then the chorus was just this meee-na-nah thing. We'd talked about pianos but hadn't really used them much. We found this honky-tonk piano and started fiddling around with that, and it sort of stuck to it for some reason. We brought guitars in because, again, we wanted something that you wouldn't normally associate with where the song was. So then you've got this weird combination of the German tick-tock synths, punk bass, honky-tonk piano and bluesy guitars, and then Alison doing this kind of falsetto thing over it. Sometimes you have to sort of throw things and see what sticks.”
In the end, Goldfrapp's concept for the song represents the duo better than perhaps she or Gregory intended: “'Satin Chic' is being completely enveloped by lushness. Head to toe. No compromise.”
Every album has its star equipment — the new toy discovered by an artist that quickly becomes the go-to gear during recording. For Goldfrapp, that clutch piece of equipment during the recording of Supernature was a '60s Univox fuzz pedal.
“I was in the States last time around, and I bought a pedal that we used a lot,” Gregory explains. “It just fizzes things up, makes it more of a generic sound rather than sounding like a specific synth.” The simplicity is what keeps Gregory coming back for more of the orange fuzz box. “This thing is just on or off, and it's fantastic. We had to ration it in the end, 'cause it was starting to be in everything, and all the songs were starting to sound the same.”
Gregory has never been the type to follow a setup manual, so it was no surprise that he didn't use the pedal as it was intended. “A lot of keyboard sounds went through that,” he says. “I think it's meant for a guitar, so we probably did something bad to it, but we used it on the Fender Rhodes, the Wurlitzer, the Clavinet…. If you put it on a Clavinet, it really sounds like a guitar. It was just a way of kicking things up a bit. Guitars probably have different output levels than keyboards, and I think we overdrove the thing and made it sound a bit broken, which was all part of it. It enables me as the keyboard player to stray into what normally might be exclusively guitarist territory, which I really enjoy. I think we all really want to be rock-out guitar players. I probably just realized that about 20 years too late!”
SELECT GOLDFRAPP GOLD
Computer, recording software
Apple G4 computer, Logic Pro 6.4 software
Yamaha O2R digital mixing desk
Oberheim 4 Voice SEM modules
Polyvox (Russian synth)
Roland Jupiter 6, Paraphonic 505 string synth, SH-09
Wurlitzer electric piano
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors
AKG C12 mic
Percy Bear mic (C12 capsule)
Valley People Dynamite stereo compressor
AKG BX20 Spring Reverb
Boss CE-20 Chorus Ensemble
Roland RE-501 Chorus Echo
Univox Super Fuzz pedal