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Like Nocturnal Emissions, Soviet France have become a cult band. With a reputation for obscurity that would put many others to shame, they've been quietly producing their own distinctive blend of industrial sound collage throughout the last decade. Noisy and primitive material has gradually given way to, well, noisy and sophisticated material. Some of the abstract music they are now creating is minimal, ambient, unintrusive, some of it is loud and disconcerting, but it all manages to define a sonic space very much of their own. The traditions are clearly visible, both the admitted academic and rock-born sound collagists of the sixties and seventies, but Soviet France's music is distinguished by its very personal quality. A pop analogue might be The Blue Nile, who combine discordance with harmony in a wonderfully serene music that has few easy landmarks to refer to in the rest of its musical terrain.
Again like the Emissions, they started life roughly a decade ago, in the fallout from the innovative European music of the 70s and punk, and in the heyday of "industrial" music.
"None of us had any real musical background, we just decided to be in bands. Without any outside influence we very quickly decided we wanted a band that completely ignored conventional approaches to music, including the minimal amount of training we had ourselves."
Of course, at the end of the seventies everyone was forming bands (didn't you? OK, neither did I. Maybe not everyone.) But most of them seemed to find their favourite three chord thrash, get stuck there, and give up within a year or two to become accountants. Maybe it all just lies in the previous influences. Soviet France's are not that surprising when you come to listen to their music.
"We were into all the more familiar stuff, like Can, and Neu, and early Kraftwerk, all the German bands. A lot of classical stuff as well like Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez, and Luciano Berio. It was the stuff that I personally, and I think this goes for the other members of the group, had more of an instinct for. We felt closer to it than conventional commercial music. At the same time we've got very catholic tastes, we listen to all kinds of music. We're just as much into Motorhead as we are into Stockhausen. I think the common factor in all of it is an element of noise really. Noise is a non-musical sound format, which you find in Motorhead just as much as you do in Stockhausen."
So that's the influences out of the way. But there is more to the music of Soviet France than just genre or stylistic considerations.
"I think we were searching for something else within music, something that meant a lot more to us personally than you would get being in a conventional band really. Most conventional bands are performers. They try to supply something as entertainment to an audience. We weren't interested in that at all. We were interested in a lot of the power within music for creating states of mind. and revealing parts of your own personality to yourself. Also as an avenue or a medium for accessing some of the more primitive instincts and subconscious: stuff that goes on in everybody's heads, but most people don't have an outlet for."
Soviet France certainly go some way to following up that avenue. It's generally a cyclic, abstract music, looping and shifting textures of noise around to create a soundscape that certainly doesn't exist anywhere else in this world. It's lack of obvious connections to any conventional instrumentation or sometimes any other recognisable sounds can make it sound alien and unwelcome. On the other hand, sometimes there are recognisable fragments swimming through the music, brief snatches of voice, or perhaps something else that sounds familiar but rarely identifiable. This side of the mix will inevitable trigger instinctive associations in the mind of the listener, helping to personalise it and drawing them in. It's repetitive nature is highly entrancing, very hypnotic. Although Soviet France feel their music is a highly personal expression, there is quite a lot there to attract others to it.
"We produce music all the time. The figure we always quote, and it still holds true, is that what we've actually released to the world is about 5% of what we've actually recorded. We record everything we do. Making music is an end in itself to us. We make music just because we like doing it. We have a huge archive of unreleased material. When we come to release something, on CD or whatever, the reasons for choosing that particular material is that it seems more important musically to us than anything else we have lying around at the time ...
"Making music is what I like doing more than any other serious intellectual or physical activity that I'm involved in. Anything else is subsidiary and secondary to it. I'm really into the music. We're fortunate in a way, in that because part of the way that we produce the music is to enter into a sort of altered state of consciousness, without trying to sound too pretentious. We just switch off all conscious sensory perceptions, and we start making the music. Once we've finished and we've come out of that it's very exhausting for a start, and you always feel immediately afterwards that what we've produced is a load of rubbish. Maybe two days later we listen back to it. Because we're listening to it in a different state of consciousness, it's like listening to somebody else's music. I find myself totally addicted to it. It's music I like listening to over and above any other kind of music. We're fortunate in that we can both the producers of the music and in turn the audience, without being too critical or feeling so involved in it that we are unable to listen to our music in the way that many musicians are. Having said that, we always have this problem in that actually releasing something exorcises these kinds of feelings. In many ways, to release a piece of our music really is giving something of ourselves away to people. The process of getting that music into a state where it can be released on CD or vinyl or whatever means that we have to listen to it in such a close and detailed way, through the production processes, that we take it apart. It loses all the previous relevance that it had for ourselves. I've never had any children, but the closest thing I can imagine to it is like losing a child ... it's really taking something away from us."
Regardless of the attachment that the group may have to their own music, or the feelings it can generate in open-minded listeners, its actual production comes down to what may seem like a very mundane process. Most of what the group do is improvised, and then edited to impose a coherent structure upon it. Because it isn't actually composed, it's arguable whether it's ever likely to produce a single masterpiece. Also, it means that the music is to a large extent irrepeatable. Some of the sounds and developments used in it can be reused and repeated, but because of the improvisation always involved, it can never be the same twice. Because this means there is such a huge quantity of Soviet France music, and such a seemingly huge quantity of potential music still to come, it makes brief excerpts (like albums) seem somehow less important. In conventional musical thought, if there is so much of something, then it can't really be worth anything - it's only the rarities, the one-offs, the composed masterpieces that can ever achieve true musical magnificence. This has an element of truth in it, but it ignores the fact that there is more to music than just its function as a series of works of art. Because there is so much of it, Soviet France's music achieves a far more mundane but far more significant result. It integrates itself into life more, becomes more closely entwined with the people who produce it. Compositional master-works may shine as artistic beacons of light, but they shine all too rarely, whereas Soviet France's music is a part of their day-to-day life, and with them whenever they want.
For us poor schmucks who only buy the stuff, it can never form such an important place in our life. It's someone else's personal expression, not ours. We can only get some sort of intellectual or emotional resonance in bite-sized chunks. But that's hardly the point. The point is that what Soviet France do anyone can do: if music really can have intuitive, subconscious application, and if only music that someone produces themself is ever really going to give them the meaning that they need, then surely they should get out their and do exactly what Soviet France have done. The production process can be as mystical or as mundane as anyone wants:
"About 90% of our material is generated from acoustic sound sources. We've quite a collection between us of ethnic musical instruments, instruments that we built ourselves, or objects that we use as sound sources. That's always the starting point. We set up a few mikes around the place, wherever we decide to make the recording. We have these boxfuls of acoustic instruments, and we just improvise there on the spot. We generate about two to three hours worth of material, and then post produce it. We mix what we've got, reprocess it, and complete a finished set of recordings which maybe one day will get released. In a way, there's two very apposite sides to the production. We start by making very live recordings, very acoustic recordings. Then we process those in a very artificial way to produce what finally becomes the music."
At the time of this interview, the group had performed live less than a dozen times. Immediately afterwards they toured North America, taking in over thirty venues. Their most recent performance was due to be as part of the Eurobeat Avant-Garde event in London in October, which amongst others was due to feature Nocturnal Emissions, Konstruktivists and Morphogenesis. (This event was later cancelled). Performance is a slightly different matter to the production of a studio recording:
"The only difference is in the editing. Live performance is a continuous sort of musical production, almost identical to the way that we produce music for a recording. The only difference being that we maybe cut out and reprocess some of the stuff on its way into a recording ... In fact, although it seems quite far removed from what people hear in the releases that we make, it's still Soviet France music and very recognisable as such."
Throughout their history, Soviet France have frequently been lumped in with any number of other "industrial" or post-industrial groups, from Throbbing Gristle onwards. Having initially attached themselves to the label Red Rhino, they quickly became the label's token "weird" group, producing esoteric and obscure music that was sure to find its own cult audience but probably not get much further. It's only natural that they achieved some recognition as part of the "lunatic" fringe of the burgeoning indie music scene.
"We never felt we were in the industrial tradition which was very much the contemporary movement from which we sprang. It was round about that time where everybody seems to have arrived at the same point and started lots of things, like Nocturnal Emissions, and what Throbbing Gristle were doing, and Test Dept's early days, and everybody else ... 23 Skidoo. We were aware of what everyone else was doing, but because we were in Newcastle which is quite a cultural island in itself, we didn't feel any bonding to that at all, we didn't feel any attachment to it. We saw ourselves as very isolated and very much out on a limb. It didn't worry us, we were quite happy in that situation, quite happy to continue fiddling about with the ideas we had. We didn't feel that we had to conform to any kind of preconceptions about what we were doing at all ...
"I think there seems to have been a particular generation of people who arrived at a particular point in their own minds, post-sixties, post-early seventies, with a lot of twentieth century musical history behind them, going back to Dada and a lot of early ideas about how sound and noise could become music. It seemed to coalesce, particularly after punk. Punk was quite significant in that it opened up in a lot of people's minds a crucial idea, which was that you can obtain the means of production, and you can make your own music, and you can make it available to the general population quite easily. That also coincided with a general upgrading in technology, like the synthesiser and cassette recording technology. People realised very quickly that they could make what the fuck they like as music, call it music, and be able to spread it around and distribute it. And people would be interested in that."
I don't want to keep on mentioning our friends Nocturnal Emissions, after all they had their own interview last issue, but yet another similarity between the two groups lies in their development throughout the eighties, which parallelled the progression of various other post-industrial groups from harsh to softer noise. What was at first noisy and abrasive gradually matured into a more sophisticated sound. In Soviet France's case, the harsher cyclic music of their early albums made way for something that was smoother, easier to listen to, and as a result probably more effective in its ability to worm its way into the listener's subconscious. Part of the reason for the development is a purely technical one, a growing appreciation of how to use their instruments and recording technology. An additional reason, like N.E., was a growing appreciation that although noise had functioned well to wake people up at one point, it rapidly became a self-defeating pursuit, one that provoked a response and then left the listener hanging in mid-air. With the ability to produce something with less rough edges, it also resulted in a music that was more positive in feeling, less of a reaction and more of a contribution.
"The first two releases, they're musically very naive. We still make them available. We haven't disowned them and don't regard them as irrelevant. But compared to what we're doing now they're almost childish in their approach. It was a very important period of development, which is why we haven't disavowed them. We had to deal with that then to come to where we are now. If anything, anybody who has reviewed our music over the last ten years, the thing that would strike them is that we've probably become a lot softer in our musical approach. It's no more accessible now, in fact it's probably even less accessible than it was in the early days ...
"If you've been doing music for ten years, you do become more sophisticated, both in terms of your practical approach to making the music, and also in the ideas which you use to inform the music. In the early days the whole idea was to be confrontational. To borrow a phrase from Test Dept, it was a kind of 'shock therapy'. You use noise and extremes of noise to shock people into a new way of perceiving things, a new state of mind.
"The impact that the first Throbbing Gristle LP had on me was way beyond anything I'd ever heard. It was complementing something that I knew I had within me anyway, and at the same time it was like 'fucking hell, there's people actually doing this kind of stuff'. I know that we've had that kind of impact on other people as well. Some of the feedback we get, with people writing letters to us, it's very obvious that when people first come to Soviet France they find something, both within themselves, and at the same time so new to them that it does shock them into a new idea about music altogether."
One other thing about the band grew less extreme as the years passed, although for different reasons. At the outset, the group developed a fetishistic passion for unusual packaging for their releases, with early albums coming out in a hessian sack and packaged in roofing felt. Commercial restraints, and the amount of simple hard work that unusual packaging demands, have diminished this impulse as time has gone on. An album like Look Into Me sits in a perfectly normal CD or LP sleeve. However, Just an Illusion, released by Staalplaat, keeps up the packaging reputation by being a CD coming in a little hardwood box, with indented printing on the outside. There's more to this than just a desire to maintain some form of notoriety, of course. These products really are something special. My enjoyment of Just an Illusion was definitely enhanced by its presentation: by making the album something special, something outside the run-of-the-mill plastic CD boxes which currently fill one of my drawers, I was always going to pay closer attention to what it contains. It becomes a fetish, a unique object invested with spiritual significance, rather than just one among the many, and the effort is definitely appreciated. The band have managed to keep their visibility as individuals at a minimum level. This is, of course, an old trick by individuals anxious to either avoid or exploit the pop industry's obsession with saleable images. The Residents achieved notoriety throughout the seventies (and boredom thereafter) by refusing to allow their individual identities to become known. Test Dept, trying to present themselves as a collective unit in order to reflect their political beliefs have acted in a similar way. The band's name is known but the individuals forming it are rarely singled out for attention. Soviet France, aware of how the industry operates and trying to avoid its less pleasant tendencies, have also kept their individual identities out of the picture as far as the music is concerned, while remaining perfectly accessible to those who bother to contact them.
"We realised early on that one of the biggest favours we could do ourselves was in not creating any kind of image or allowing any kind of image to be created for us. That's the reason why we don't include any names of personnel on the records. It's not secrecy, and it's not a deliberate marketing ploy like the Residents use. Anybody who really wants to can find out who we are and talk to us personally, like you're doing. But we cottoned on really quickly to the idea of the cult of personality, and realised that it was a fundamental means of control used in the music industry, and so we deliberately set our faces against that. We set about creating a complete antithesis to it. We've never allowed photographs of ourselves to be published, or haven't until now anyway, and we've never really identified ourselves as personalities at all."
Just in case all the above makes the group seem a bit po-faced, it's worth pointing out that the music of Soviet France can actually be funny too. It's hardly laugh-out-loud stuff, but the loops and snippets of recycled sound material frequently have a playfulness to them that can be quite readily spotted.
"People do recognise the humour sometimes, maybe not as often as they should. Particularly with the early releases there was a lot of self-effacing humour, and cynical and critical humour as well. Cynical humour about the industrial movement, cynical humour about the political state of the world or this country. There was a lot of musical humour as well. We have a good laugh making it and we think other people should have a good laugh listening to it as well, if they can work out what the jokes are!"
Although the group admits to no long term plans, a whole series of short-term ones exist. A compilation CD is being compiled for release through Mute subsidiary The Grey Area; a recording of their live performance from Vienna in 1990 is being released by their own label Charrm, entitled simply Vienna Live; and Canadian label DOVentertainment (whose The Death of Vinyl compilation CD they contributed to) are releasing their latest proper album, Shadow: Thief of the Sun.
Contact Soviet France / Charrm at: 5 Wingrove Road, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE4 9BP, U.K. Please enclose SAE/IRC.
[Interview with Ben of Soviet France, by and (C) Brian Duguid, Grand National Day, 6/4/91, shortly before the group toured North America.]