The Sound of Fo’netiks
In an era when digital recording, editing and mixing has made music making vastly easier, thankfully there are always those who want to push the new technology as far as it can go. Fo’netiks are one such band, utilizing every available bit of technology they can lay their hands on, whilst keeping one foot firmly rooted in the need to play live. Along with their stunning visuals, the three-piece stand as positive proof that innovation amongst Liverpool bands is alive and well. Nerve met up with them for an interview.
Deriving their name from the phonetic pronunciation of the word ‘phonetics’ itself, the band formed following the dissolution of their previous groups in early 2010. Consisting of lead vocalist and guitarist Jamie, electronics guru Liam and drummer/programmer Wardy, after eighteen months of intense rehearsals and a dozen or so live performances, the trio now feel they are hitting their stride. “We’ve been playing together for about a year and a bit, the first six months were just a Windows Error Message” Jamie grimaces about the technical difficulties the group ran into seemingly every practice session. “We almost, without realizing it, make life very difficult for ourselves. Because we use computers to make all the sounds, we have to sync-up all the visuals, meaning we have to decide what visuals we want to use and write a song at the same time.”
Bridging the divide between dance music and rock is an exercise that has been going for several decades now, dance-rock situationist prankster-geniuses The KLF and venerable electro-veterans OMD flying the flag for Merseyside in that field. Yet whereas the latter avoided rock music influences, preferring pop, the members of Fo’netiks grew up as avid rock fans. Gradually drawn towards dance music and DJ culture, dubstep/house musician Burial, electro-garage act Mode Selector, the indie-funk of Battles, plus the defiantly electronic, alternately brutal and tender techno of Aphex Twin win their approval. Two American bands however, dance-rock doyens LCD Soundsystem and the critically lauded TV on the Radio best underline what the band are aiming to achieve in their melding of dance music’s thudding electro beats with the raw excitement of rock music. Given a limitless amount of opportunity (and cash), David Sitik, lynchpin of TV On the Radio is instantly mentioned as the figure the band would most want to work with.
Crucially, both LCD Soundsystem and TV On the Radio are capable of reproducing their genre-blurring sound live, a challenging task given the amount of preparation needed for each performance. Similarly, Fo’netiks avoid the trap of walking onstage of “phoning in” performances via multiple pre-sequenced backing tracks and loops. When the band do resort to this however, all of what you hear at their gigs is rendered live, including the FX and samples that frequently crop up in the band’s songs. “I read something James Murphy out of LCD Soundsystem was saying,” Jamie states, “Where he said when they started out what they wanted to do was dance music without computers, to just completely move away from that, so obviously you need nine or ten people to be able to do it. I don’t think I know nine or ten people we could use!” he laughs.
This lack of extra hands onstage ironically, might have led the group to discover their own sound. Without resorting to backing tracks or having extra musicians troop on and offstage, the trio have had to painstakingly work out live arrangements they can handle in-house. “The current song we’ve got at the moment, there was an initial stage of composition that Jamie did on the computer, he built this dance track that sounded brilliant, there were layers and layers of it, then we were saying, ‘Can we do this live?’” Liam says. “We don’t wanna get onstage and press ‘Play’ on a backing track. There’s just no point, we were like, “Can we play every part of this live?” We’ve had to strip it back a bit, but that’s the thing, it’s easy to get carried away, sticking more sounds on when you’re doing it on a sequencer.” “We won’t compromise and it takes us forever, the first thing we do when we sit down and write a song is say ‘Can we actually do this?’” Jamie concurs. “‘Can we play this song the way we want it to sound, using the tools that we have?’ I think the thing is not to be afraid of using the technology that’s there. You look at the way that film is now compared to ten or twenty years ago, reality is barely distinguishable from CGI,” he continues. “I think people are missing a trick with music, there’s this weird sort of separation between electronic music and rock music.”
Full-on live performances also means that the band are freer to experiment without being slavishly tied to loops and sequencers. “If we feel like taking the song away from what it’s doing, from the written version of it, we can do,” Jamie says. “It’s not a rigid structure where we’re saying, ‘Right in four bars, we will to change to this’, it’s fluid.” Treasured influence Holy Fuck, famed for their ability to create electronic music in real time, rely on a huge amount of improvisation onstage, in addition to the navigating the intricacies of their songs. Precariously, Fo’netiks’ use of computers onstage means the performance could potentially collapse at any given moment if the hardware decides it doesn’t want to work. “The most rock n’ roll thing we could do is for one of us to hit the ‘Delete’ button during a gig!” Jamie grins. This, they reckon, merely gives the band’s performances an extra edge live however, as the group don’t have room for complacency.
Offstage and on record, ‘Vicious Sirens’ begins with a Pink Floyd-style sequenced intro before a dirty guitar riff crashes in, building up the tension before the entrance of the drums, concluding with a frenzied Jonny Greenwood guitar outro. Elsewhere, ‘Early Warning’ bolts an early U2 riff onto film soundtrack samples, climaxing with a chanted chorus, one of the few occasions the band indulge themselves with one. Specializing in slow-burn intros that gradually build up momentum, Fo’netiks’ tracks usually begin with the electronic spine of the song, the entrance of the vocals, then finally kicking into top gear with the arrival of the drums. New track ‘Antelope’ is the height of their songwriting achievements thus far, summing up their oeuvre in four compact minutes.
Whilst the group are fans of guitar bands, (all admit to being huge fans of the Pixies), the trio don’t care for some of the backwards looking tendencies of some groups over the past decade. “There has been a kind of luddite thing (in recent years)” Liam states, “I mean when The White Stripes’ said ‘No computers were used during the making of this album’, Whoop-de-fucking do!” “I don’t wanna look at music as something reductive” Jamie agrees. “The be-all and end-all is the actual final product, the song at the end of the day. It’s a very good thing to look ahead, we’d still be looking at Constable Landscapes if it wasn’t for the futurists and the modernists saying ‘We’re not gonna do it like that anymore.’”
Leading on from talk of artists, the band’s light shows and onstage projections display a group with a highly developed sense of the visual. “Massively, it’s all about the music, but the visuals are part of the add-on entertainment really,” Wardy states when asked about this side of the group. “The website, the visuals when we play live, it’s another way to get our message across really” he continues. “I don’t even remember it being a separate decision,” Liam adds, “it just made sense straight away, a lot of what we do comes from dance music, any time you go to see a DJ, there’s the visuals.” A gig in September last year for Never Records as part of the Liverpool Biennial, shored up their commitment to intertwining art and music. “Part of our interest with the visuals is us sinking back behind it. Onstage, we like the idea of the stage not being lit, so we’re almost in shadow. We’re not the kind of band where we want it to be our faces right at the front,” Liam explains. A continuation of Pink Floyd’s early outings flanked by oil screens on to the theatricality of The Wall up to Crosby’s finest, Clinic and their face obscuring surgeon’s masks, there has always been a thread of bands who revel in their anonymity. In the present day, neo-psychedelic act Animal Collective have continued this opaque trend. “I’ve seen them live loads of times and I still don’t think I could pick them out in a line up,” Liam says admiringly.
As the band’s resident electronics expert, the samples, including pieces of film dialogue and other found sounds present in the group’s material come courtesy of Liam. An interest that dates back to his childhood, he can remember tape-editing at the age of ten with one of his cousins. “We used to get bits of people talking and cut it up and stick it back together and try and make nonsensical conversations,” he explains. “We got used to recording using the Pause button, we’d use one bit of one song, and then use another song and you’d pause it so you would create your own remixes.” In keeping with this cut-up technique and the dance music aesthetic, the group frequently remix their own material. The latest product of this, ‘Sounds Like’ sees the original track re-routed from its original dance-rock blueprint and supplemented with Massive Attack style samples and a bottomless well of bass sound.
As for the next stage for the group, Jamie answers immediately, “Loads of gigs. Shitloads of gigs.” Possibly suffering a slight bout of cabin fever from months spent in the practice room, the group are now eager to tread the boards of the city’s venues and have their set-list drawn up. Due to the time consuming songwriting process for each track, the band have a slender catalogue, honed over the past twelve months. “We play five tracks live, we’re about to add the sixth.” Jamie explains. “Half an hour of new music is enough anyway” Wardy states. “We haven’t done that many recordings cos we want to be a shit-hot live band, that’s what we put our effort into.” “Recorded stuff is all good, but more and more it’s becoming background noise to people’s lives, but now, live music is an experience, it’s a communal thing which doesn’t happen as often as it should do,” Jamie says.
Whilst there has seemingly been an explosion in eclecticism amongst present day Liverpool bands, all drawing from a huge and varied list of influences, aside from possibly Speed Pets, there don’t appear to be many plotting the same course as Fo’netiks. “I think when you live in Liverpool you take eclecticism as part of it,” Liam says of the few electronic-based acts in the city. “We can’t expect to be on the bill with five other bands who sound exactly like us.” The lack of fellow travellers on the road to electro-dance-rock Valhalla however doesn’t appear to phase them much. “It’s kind of enjoyable being the outsiders in a way, being pitted against rock bands,” Wardy smiles. “At least people will remember us.”
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