Drone: a harmonic or monophonic effect or accompaniment where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece.
Visual artist, producer, DJ, world-conquering band leader; Richard Fearless is many things. Predictable is not one of them. As Death In Vegas, he cut some of the most unusual dark electronic pop of the past 20 years fusing electro, dub, rock, psychedelia and solid-gone experimentation with vocals from the likes of Iggy Pop, Bobby Gillespie and Jim Reid of Jesus & Mary Chain. His last output as Death In Vegas; ‘Trans Love Energies’ (2011) marked a return to his roots of heavily stripped-back techno influenced sounds. In the interim years since that album’s release he’s produced films for the Rolling Stones, developed his large format photography - an obsession with lasers in various natural settings forms the focus of this - and assembled a tapestry of sound in his own Metal Box studio. His palette of production tools remains the basic primary colours of a 303, an 808, a 909, a Korg MS-20 synth and a Roland SH-09.
Now in 2014, Richard Fearless has stepped back into the electronic music world as an artist in his own right, producing under his own name for the first time and adding another string to his bow in the form of his own label; Drone.
It's these pieces of wax which have been getting us excited of late... so we sat down in a park and talked about life... here are the results:
Let's start with your lineage.
Well I moved to London to go to Camberwell Arts College and then went onto London College of Printing at Elephant and Castle. My sister lived in a housing co-op in Islington so I’d spend a lot of time in Islngton and I’d spend my summers with her, from about 14 I started living with her in the summer.
And where were you previously to that?
When I wasn’t at school I’d come up to see my sister in the summer and then in Easter and during the winter I’d be in Africa with my dad. Being very much into music, Reckless was the big shop in Islington and another one in the west end. I ended up working in Reckless when I was about 16. It was quite a tough job to get at the time.
No, the one in Soho. Kirk Degiorgio used to work there then
Later I started working in Mr Bongo, they were beginning to bring in an electronic element when I got involved. But that was quite short lived work because things started kicking off with the band. I really loved it though, Tony from Scratch Perverts was there and it was purely just to get your hands on ammunition really. I don’t think I ever took a pay cheque from any of the jobs, it was just all about vinyl.
You just exchanged it for vinyl…
Yeah. The same way I got a summer job at NME and that was basically about robbing everyone’s mail bags! (Laughs)
It was all just about getting records. Those days there was just so much physical promos being sent out. I must have been on about 4 or 5 promo lists and I’d get a big box every week.
It was different times. But it was kind of about having built up quite a big record collection and collecting really, really young.
What kind of stuff? Detroit?
No, not at all, first of all it was musicals.
What sort of musicals?
I was quite ill when I was about 7 and I had convulsions and I had quite a bit of time off school and during the time of Elvis’ death there were a lot of Elvis films and musicals and I think that might have been the start of it.
Is that the Dead Elvis reference then (Death in Vegas original name and first album)?
Kind of. The Dead Elvis thing really kind of, I’d started a clothing label called Claiming Marilyn as I'd heard no-one had claimed Marilyn Monroe's body are she'd died. I was more just obsessed with other people's obsessions. That’s the whole Elvis thing, it was more infatuations and other peoples infatuations fascinating me.
But we were called Dead Elvis and then we had to change the name because there was a record label called Dead Elvis. And my friend had made a film about the last 15 minutes of Elvis’ life with Lee Bowrey playing Elvis who was my flatmate at the time and that was the name of the film and I had like a day to change the name I think.
A day? What before the record came out?
Yeah otherwise something would have happened…
Did you put a record out as Dead Elvis?
Well it was the name of the first album but my whole DJ thing was something that started from really young, that was being in Africa and not really watching much tv – due to the nature of the only type of TV we could get at the time. My dad had a really big collection and was really into dancing, and he used to go and see big bands and enter dances and travel around Ireland to these dances. He had quite a tasty Jazz collection which he brought over and my mum was more into folk but then she really embraced African music. Where we lived and where I was born, on the border of Zambia and what was the Belgian Congo then but is now Zaire, there was a lot of conflict but there was also a lot of amazing music coming out of the Belgian Congo and she was a art teacher, and some local people she met through the school really got into this music. It was a big social scene out there. A lot of pissed parents out there at night wigging out to Witch and lots of other great Zambian music.
They’ve just been reissued haven’t they?
Yeah I believe so. But yeah we had this big cool collection in the house and there was this big thing of putting a record on then getting the nod from my dad and getting my mum dancing. The power of selection became attractive to me at a really young age. And then that carried on to being a teenager and being at school, I was a real loner at school and had only one or two really good mates as I was just so removed from everyone else. But then I went to art school and realized that there were other people like me as I just felt like I was from another planet. My record collection whilst I was at school really helped me to keep my sanity and kind of, my imagination and my dreams about the outside world away from this prison I went too because I hated it. I hated it. Really bad.
I went to boarding school and it was the last school in the country to ban caning. It was this place called The Oratory near Reading and it was this horrible draconian Catholic school. But my record collection was definitely my saving grace and moving into my sister's housing co-op when I left school. When I started art college I spent my first grant on a pair of decks and it was always just back to my room to listen to music, and I guess that’s what got me into putting on parties because I was putting on parties in my house and they started getting bigger and bigger and more and more people were coming. Then I started putting on parties in London and then I got my first residency.
Where was this?
The Job Club
Is that in Soho?
It was in Soho yeah, but I cant remember what street it was on… But it was me and this guy called Carl Reckless and other guy called Owen Shameless. So it was Shameless, Reckless and Fearless. Named by the older brother who was putting on the parties, it was basically a group of friends putting n these nights and they were quite mad. It’s quite a legendary little club. There were some thing they were doing there that were kind of way ahead of their time. They had this back room with a bedroom stereo in it and they were getting the Chemical Brothers to come in and play on a bedroom stereo but with only one turntable and playing the back room. Someone definitely got an idea from it if you know what I mean! (Laughs)
But it became quite a coveted booking and they got some amazing people over.
Is that where Fearless came from then?
Yeah. And the thing about the club was that we tried to make it about the residents so the residents always ended.
Yeah, they always ended the night. We had some good guests in and some amazing people played like Claude Young, Derrick May, it was really really good. It was insane. They used to do these things that were really sort of like theatre pieces and I remember it being a bit of a drug haven and one night about 10 guys would come out wearing loin cloth and they were carrying a gold dwarf or something or these two guys would come out as boxers and beat each other up. It would just happen really quickly right in the middle of the dance floor.
And that’d be it? (Laughs)
It’d last like 15 or 20 seconds. (Laughs) It was a good club. But then I got asked to be one of the residents at the Heavenly Social as they’d just started but then they moved to Farringdon, I got asked by Tumills, no before it was Turnmills.
Smithfields yeah. So I was resident there and then when the Social carried on to Turnmills for 3 years or so. I then went to Razzmataz in Barcelona. I love playing the same place and getting to know a crowd really well and feeling a bit more comfortable. It’s a bit like you’re always testing the waters when you turn up somewhere new. And then I’ve kinda gone full circle again and releasing under myself and DJing again.
And why did you decide to do that?
I think when it comes down to it it’s what I love doing the most really. I really love DJing and I really just had to stop buying music for a few years. Like when I went to America I just got overloaded with it. It’s a weird one with music because you spend your whole life just listening to it, and especially when you add in working in a studio and working on an album, you’re listening to the same music all day so intensely and then at night you’re listening to records, and then at the weekend you’re playing records out. After a while it kind of lost it’s impact really. I really just wanted to not think about it for a while and just go back to studying the arts and go back to the visual side of my brain. Which I did, and then found I went into this really creative musical things, which is when I started writing the Black Acid stuff. I picked up a guitar and started to… I didn’t forget about music all together I just didn’t want to listen to anyone else’s. Maybe I did, I just though I needed to stop. I certainly stopped my electronic stuff and it wasn’t until I moved back in with Andrew (Weatherall) and I started writing Trans Love Energies whilst in the studio at Andrew's that I started buying electronic music and all of a sudden I was really inspired by what I was listening to and that there was other people's music out there.
I think the thing that is so exciting for me right now is to be writing music as Richard Fearless because it’s so different to Death In Vegas, not that I’m doing Death In Vegas with other people, because I’m not as it’s me on my own. But it’s just a whole different hat to put on.
What defines a Death In Vegas record and what defines a Richard Fearless record?
It’s not a particularly easy question…
No no, it’s a good one. I think with Richard Fearless it feels like it’s more visceral and more immediate. With Death In Vegas I always want to have an underground thread that goes through it but I then want to make that as big as I can to a certain level.
It always felt weird, well not weird listening to a Death In Vegas record, which I was a fan of, and then listening to you playing records at Turmills was a completely different experience. Obviously you can hear techno running through the albums but there wasn’t that…
I think there are different periods. Like the Contino Rooms was a bit of a liberating experience for me. I had a studio and an engineer who became partner in the band, Tim. We were 24/7 working together and the money from Dead Elvis I spend setting up the studio. It was quite a liberating way of working. Scorpio rising was trying to make of a bigger record and more of an exploration of this kind of sound and pressure from the record company to work with other vocalists.
And then Satan's Circus, which is more of a reaction. And I remember Heil Xanax was the first track that I mixed myself. I’ve always trying to push the band as much to the left as I could, and I think with Death in Vegas there’s always something pulling me back a little bit. Sometimes it’s record companies, something it’s working through someone else… But with Richard Fearless I’ve got one job only, and that’s to make something that I want to play out, and that’s what I’ve set my limitations at. Something I want to be in my record box.
No vocals? Not necessarily?
I just take it as each release. As I get to it really. At the moment I’m buzzing on just doing the music and the other people that I’ve got lined up. I don’t see a common thread, musically, going through it but I see a common pulse of energy.
Is Drone just an outlet for Richard Fearless, or is there other stuff you’re going to be doing with it?
No. It’s an outlet for other artists too, 100%. It’s also an outlet for Richard Fearless but also because it’s Drone it’s going to be Death In Vegas’ label as well.
Right, so Death In Vegas doesn’t exist anywhere else then?
No. That’s why I’m testing the waters with the live album.
So there is going to be a live album on the label?
Yeah. I've still not decided how it's going to come out... but yeah it will be.
So is Drone just going to be techno?
No, at the moment it’s electronic based. I’ve always thought about Mute and all of it’s subsidiaries. Do you really have to do all of that?
Yeah I agree, you almost dilute things more don’t you.
But yeah, it’s to be the home of Death In Vegas.
This is something I’d like to ask… It feels like Death In Vegas is a bit of a dirty word to you?
When I’m writing DIV records I absolutely love it. It just becomes such a big machine, like the touring side of it. My last tour, first of all I did the record, which took me about a year to write, and two weeks before the album came out you could get it for free on the internet. We got people shutting down sites left right and center and then I toured and did 40 something like dates and basically made nothing. When it gets to that level It just becomes massive operation. With my live shows I try to put on something that’s really spectacular and when I’m producing I put so much effort into working with the band and it just takes so much out of me. At the end of it I just feel like it’s a big machine and everyone’s getting something out of it but really I’m not getting much out of it at all.
So you’d be better off just putting out the album and not touring.
Yeah, or just do it how I would really rather do it. I wanna do Death In Vegas but I don’t wanna do it in the formularic way that I’ve done it before. Pressure from promoters. The first question is always how many old songs is he going to be doing? That's the first thing promoters start asking me.
With my artwork at the moment, I have this work that I’m working on and I’m working very much with lights at the moment. And my idea of Death In Vegas is very much of a show but do it in a different kind of way. I don’t have any interest in going out on tour and playing a bunch of songs. I always wanted Death In Vegas to be this forward thinking thing. It’s got to seem relevant and work for a whole new generation. I’m not providing some kind of service. I also feel like the process of touring is too repetitious for me.
And I guess the last Death In Vegas album was literally at the peak of when music was getting leaked and it was pre-digital age in a way. And we’re now in sort of post digital where everything is so accessible.
The record label dropped us after we handed in Satan's Circus which I still think is one of my best albums
The record company wanted…
Another one with Liam singing over it or something.
Yeah, another kind of gold record.
Which is what Contino Sessions did?
Cortino Sessions went gold yeah. It’s funny that, thinking about Death In Vegas because I think that and Trans Love Energies are my favourite records. I think it might have been at that point though that we also fell out of favour of certain journalists, after the backlash of doing Scorpio Rising, people just wanted to put down the record. There were certain reviews of Satan's Circus that, looking back, were pretty unjust because I had a lot of young bands coming up to me and saying what an inspiration it was and I think it had a really big effect on a lot of younger people that record.
Yeah. That’s the nature of journalism though isn’t it. People get old and bored and jaded and they love to start slagging shit off. They like the status quo and the norm
One thing I think is quite weird. I was reading something someone posted, I think it was Norman Records, like ‘Richard Fearless, it’s cool to like him again’ or something like that. And there’s a barrage of people like ‘where’s he been?’ and all that kind of stuff. The weird thing is, that I don’t really feel like I’ve been away from anything because I’ve never stopped doing what I’m doing. I’ve always been making music or making art, I’m just trying to hone my skills. I think what I’m trying to do with the label, and certainly with the Richard Fearless stuff, is that I’m making records that I really want to make.
Rather than compromising for some record label that dictates.
Yeah, and that’s back to what the label is about. It’s supposed to be uncompromising music of the highest order.
It’s a difficult thing to go through though; being back and forth with relevance I guess, becoming relevant in the eyes of whoever/whatever again. You’re pretty much a new artist in the eyes of some people aren’t you in the new age.
That’s not a bad thing though that’s a great thing. I’d rather that.
I don’t wanna be reading about me playing with Derrick May and the mention of Paul Weller, what’s all that about? You know what I mean? Did you see that release for the Derrick May KOKO show? It was like ‘has worked with Paul Weller’, what’s that got to do with anything? I’ve helped old ladies across the road but we’re not talking about that right now. For me to go out last week, playing at Moog and dropping Higher Electronic States and seeing it shake the roof and loads of kids loosing their minds to the music.
It is about constant re-invention though. It’s what life is about, constantly discovering new things and re-energizing.
So you sung on the last album for the first time didn’t you? Are you going to do any more of that?
Well I sung on Black Acid…
That’s you? I didn’t realise you did that, I thought you had someone else…
No that’s all me. Black Acid was the first time I’d sung, but I think that was a carthartic way of dealing with a situation I was in at the time. I think the nature of the lyrics didn’t really seem right for anyone else to sing. As a producer one of the things that I’ve learnt, or my theory, is that if people don’t believe the lyrics that they’re singing you’re never going to get a really good vocal performance out of them because they don’t believe their lyrics. If you get into the character of it you’re going to get a much stronger performance. I think someone singing their heart out to something that they really mean is better than someone with a more trained voice singing. So that was the start of what was Black Acid and when I came back with Death In Vegas I wrote one song for Jamie from the Kills. Jamie was getting married and had a little wedding to arrange, anyway it didn’t happen and I was like, you know what I need a back up plan, that might not happen…
So I wrote the lyrics for what then became Black Hole and I started to enjoy the whole process of writing lyrics and getting into that whole world. I’d always wanted to do it but I’d just never really been into writing and I’d always shied away from it. So anyway, I ended up putting that down myself and I got a coupe of peoples opinions of whom I really valued and they were really supportive of the performance which gave me encouragement. Also I don’t think I really wanted to work with lots of vocalists that over-shadowed some of the other elements like with Scorpio Rising when I went to India and I worked with one of the greatest violinists in the world, Dr Subramaniam who did all the string arrangements for Scorpio Rising. All the questions on that album were just about the other guest vocalists - i.e. Liam Gallagher - instead the other elements involved in the album.
I’m writing different records all the time though. I’ve got records that I’m writing at the moment that are for Black Acid on the guitar. They just go into different slots.
Who was the violinist?
Dr Subramanium. He was the string arranger and did all the strings for Scorpio Rising. He’s revered as India’s greatest ever Violinist.
You went to India and recorded with him?
I was going to India quite a lot at the time, originally for treatment of my Scoliosis, I tried some Ayurvedic treatment and it was really helpful. While there I ended up falling in love area I was going to. I just ended up going out there on any vacation I could. Whilst I was there I was discovering a lot and really getting into the music and this one composer kept coming up and it was this Dr Subrmanium from Bangalore. I got in touch with him and in the end, for Scorpio Rising
I had this idea because there’s a huge film industry out there, all the film posters are hand painted. Unfortunately I think it’s just for cost because it’s probably cheaper than printing costs, but it’s still this amazing art. So it started as this Robert Frank homage, who’s the photographer that did the cover for Exile on Main Street, and I wanted to get my artwork re-interpreted by these artists and painters. So the cover is their painting, which was actually painted 125 foot high.
125 foot high?! What? And then you just photographed it?
We were going to photograph it, but we couldn’t get high enough. So I got another one done and we shipped it back to England and then reconstructed it in England.
You shipped it back? Have you still got it?
No, I had in storage while I was in a America for four years. There was a building that was getting blown up and I tried to see if we could have it put on the side of it… And then I wanted to break it up and put different parts of it around the country, and that was the last idea… Just have bits of it in woods and stuff and then have a map and someone can piece it together and build it. My good friend Wiz, the director was out with us the whole week and filmed the whole operation,It was a mental mental week. We about120 hours of footage that will one day get edited down.
Do you and Wiz still make stuff together?
Yeah, I’ve done some bits. I’ve made some music for the proms and I did the musical direction for super vision and some scoring for some bbc work. He’s how I got asked into doing Dark Horses.
Did he make videos for Death In Vegas as well?
No. He’s working on various feature ideas and the plan is to work on something much bigger together.
What about your art?
Well, I’m trying to get my first show. Well, not my first show but I’m trying to get a show together.
And that’s involving lights?
That will be taking my work that involves taking club lighting into natural environments and then taking photos of them.
Is that the lake photos?
Yeah, I’ve just got 4 more in the series to do now but I can’t tell you what they are.
Why didn’t Your Loft My Acid come out on vinyl? That was my favourite record on that album and I was gutted it wasn't on the vinyl...
I think the vinyl was a compromise and to be honest I was disappointed with the vinyl pressing. It wasn’t as louder cut as it’s have liked. I purely didn’t play it out because the cuts weren’t loud enough.
Why was the remix on there? Because it sounded more clubby?
I can’t really remember why… I think it was maybe just a bad running order. (Laughs) It will be coming out on vinyl though.
So I hear there’s a dub of Witchdance floating around…
There is yes. I remixed myself.
Richard Fearless has remixed Death In Vegas?
Yes. Which I believe is… It’s not a first I’ve done it loads. (Laughs)
So currently Prosumer and Harvey have got dubplates of that.
So do you feel part of this Neo-primitive scene that they’re calling it?
Is it neo primitive now? (Laughs)
I definitely don’t feel like a part of anything like that. With my releases I just want to have my own sound because you’ve always got your points of reference. I’ve got limit machines but I just want to explore those machines. There’s so much amazing music being made but then there’s also so much music that I listen too that sounds kind of terrible and to me it all sounds a little bit too rushed. But saying that there are some fantastic pieces being made.
How long does it take you to make a record?
Like a 12” or an album?
I was interviewing Richard Norris the other day and he says he’s going to start trying to make records in an hour.
Yeah, he was saying him and Erol are doing more of that Wizard Sleeve stuff together and he said they try to make them quite quickly in a 2 or 3 days or something like that.
I’d say mine is more into weeks, probably approaching months. Whether or not it’s wasted on some people, but I’m wanting to split my records out on consoles, I’m wanting to use certain consoles depending on what I’m mixing. I want to master it as well as I can and I want to get it cut as well as I can. I just want to make something excellent. A lot of people I work with want stuff immediate, but I tend to work in years…
That’s a good way to be! It’s a good way to be about stuff.
It can frustrate people.
Richard Fearless Gamma Ray is out now on his Drone imprint through Kompakt. Buy it here.