Paul Grace recently caught up with HiFi Sean, ex-Soup Dragon turned DJ and Producer, to talk about his exciting new collaborative album, Ft.
Do you ever get bored of being referred to as the ex-singer of The Soup Dragons?
Not at all and to be honest it rarely happens these days. I was the singer, I wrote 99% of the songs as well as produced the band. It’s who I was from the age of 16 until 1995. We did some amazing things – travelled the world, got to play Madison Square Gardens two nights on the row. We were on Top Of The Pops four or five times and I managed to live out all those teenage kid dreams because of the band I was in.
Is there any chance of a Soup Dragons reunion?
Well to be honest I have too much much new stuff to say than old at this point in time, so I’m too busy investing in the new “me”. That might sound like commercial suicide but this will be the third time I’ll have reinvented myself. I’m starting from scratch now and I started from scratch in the late 90’s with the High Fidelity and it feels really exciting.
Your new album Ft. has 13 tracks and each song features a different guest vocalist or musician, including Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, Yoko Ono and Suicide’s Alan Vega. What was the idea behind the album? Was there a specific concept or was it more of an organic evolution?
If I was to curate an art show about my life but do it in the medium of audio then this album is it. The collection of songs on Ft. are a mirror image or blueprint of everything I’ve done that has brought me to this point in life, and in that sense it is conceptual. That might sound a bit pretentious, but it’s taken over two years to make, and it’s genuinely is the most honest thing I’ve ever done.
A few years ago I’d been hurt by a friend which affected me really badly for quite a while. But then I realised that what was making me even more depressed was the fact that there was something else missing in my life, and that thing was music. So I started writing songs and immediately felt like I was turning a corner, almost like a door was opening. I started playing bits of songs to friends and they loved what I was doing so that inspired me to keep going.
I’d always wanted to do a concept album. I’d already kind of done one with the High Fidelity called “Omnichord”, and on it every song featured an omnichord, which John Peel actually encouraged me to do. For Ft. I wanted to make an album which was kind of an inward look to what turns me on musically – across the whole musical spectrum. I’ve always been really into the idea of non-genre-fication especially in this day and age since we’ve all become so genre-fied, mainly because of the hashtag culture, which has become an easily accessible marketing tool. And you know, not everybody’s record collection is genre-speficic – instead it’s far more eclectic. It was also really important to make an album that doesn’t just sound like a compilation, because then it would just be like “A night out with HiFi Sean”. 50% of this album is me pulling all of my life experiences together and making it sound like one coherent thing, while the other 50% was everyone else who had influenced me. For example, the track ‘Ultratheque’ was influenced by the first disco I ever went to which also happened to be Scotland’s first ever laser disco. It was like really sci-fi and we were like “Oh my god…a laser!”, but it was actually more like a laser pen! It was an important part of my youth and I was obsessed by the name. The artwork for the album is an extension of that too – it features a body which is myself, with a head which has lots of concentric circles around it depicting the vocalists and musicians who I worked with. It has that moire effect and pulses if you look at it from different angles which also looks like sound waves, almost like it’s alive and breathing.
How did you come to work with all the artists? Were they friends? Musical heroes?
Some of them were friends, some of them were friends of friends who put me in contact. It was a bit like a little family tree with lots of overlaps. For example, Soft Cell’s Dave Ball was a good friend of Maggie K De Monde from Scarlet Fantastic who sings on the record, and Maggie was a good friend of mine, so she put me in contact with Dave. Years ago The Soup Dragons were supposed to support the B52’s so I knew Fred Schneider. David McAlmont who I adore and think is one of the best vocalists around, he knew someone who knows Yoko, so put us in touch. I asked Yoko, she said to send her the music and loved it. It was crazy – they were all sent tracks and everyone started accepting so I had to write more music. I couldn’t believe it! I think that everyone on the album is very unique. There’s nobody who sounds like Alan Vega, or Fred Schneider, and nobody who sounds like Jean Honeymoon. Nobody plays keyboards like Dave Ball. The reason I went to Dave is because I’d always been hugely influenced by his keyboard playing to the point I was obsessed by his instrumentals, in particular Soft Cell’s ‘So’. I was hoping Dave would bring that feel to the track and it was amazing when we started working on it. Straight away it was like “Oh my god that sounds like just Dave Ball!!!”.
How did the creative process work? Did you meet up with the guest vocalists?
I came up with some of the song titles and music and it was the vocalists who wrote most of the lyrics, but saying that each song though was kinda different to the other in the way it was put together. With Fred Schneider however, I went to New York to record with him, but we had no concept of what the song was going to be about until the night before we were due to record. We went to a bar for a few drinks and he asked, “What do you want to write it about?”, as he hadn’t yet written any lyrics, so I asked randomly if he likes truckers and he said, “I love truckers!”, so we wrote a song called ‘Truck’. We were Googling all this trucking jargon and came up with a huge list, it was hysterical! Then the following day we were in the studio and he just pieced it all together like the total professional he is. David McAlmont said his track reminded him of floating in space, so he came up with the idea of a song about French dancer Josephine Baker, and connecting it with somebody who was a female astronaut but who had also been a failed dancer, so when she was weightless in space she would gyrate ‘Like Josephine Baker’. Little Annie’s ‘Just Another Song’ was the idea of a song being like a failed relationship, and that you go through life having favourite songs, and then you dump them because you get fed up of them or your taste changes. So she wrote this song about picking people up in bars and you can either have them for the rest of your life, or you can use them and dispose of them.
The last track on the album ‘A Kiss Before Dying’, features Suicide’s Alan Vega and almost feels like a chilling premonition to his death, a sentiment which is further underpinned by its haunting three minute orchestral outro. How did that come about?
I said to Alan that I’d like to record a song with him, but to take him out of his comfort zone of electronica, and half way through for it to turn symphonic, like the soundtrack to a war movie like Full Metal Jacket. So we wrote the track about the American dream of a young kid wanting to see the world by joining the army and leaving the small town he lives in, and then go to the war field but then the kid dies and the whole thing elevates to depict the beauty of death, which almost reflects the past few weeks.
When I found out about his death I got a strange text in the middle of the night from a friend saying “Sorry about Alan” which I didn’t quite understand because I was half asleep, but then I woke up the next morning and it was on my mind so I Googled it and saw that he’d died during the night. His wife said they were really touched and happy that this was his final parting message to the world, and that she’s really proud of it (it was Alan’s last recording).
Some of the vocalists on Ft. are not who you’d typically associate with electronic music (e.g. Normal Blake of the Teenage Fanclub). What was the thinking behind that?
I’m really drawn to the juxtaposition of voices you wouldn’t expect to hear against a particular type of music. Norman and I grew up together in the same town in Scotland, and despite being in loads of bands together, we realised we’d never actually written a song together, so I asked him if he’d like to sing on the album. He agreed and jokingly said, “there are two things you said you’d never do; one was live in London and the other was live high up in a tower block”, but I’m actually doing both now, so the song was about me finding my love for music again on the 18th floor (I live on the 18th floor of an East London tower block). Yet again that’s another snapshot of my life at that moment. It was great working with him and we’re planning on doing a whole album of electronic folk at some stage.
A lot of electronic records feel very formulaic and devoid of emotion yet with Ft. it feels like you’ve successfully managed to inject a degree of soul and character throughout. Was this difficult?
Not at all, when it comes down to it first and foremost I’m a songwriter and I’ve always been a songwriter. I could have made an album like Daft Punk by taking dance floor arrangements and putting them on a long player, but I wanted to take the experience of my time within clubland and to mix that with my rock background. But the main thing is that it had to have good songs. A lot of the songs have very experimental arrangements. Dave Ball and Alan Vega’s songs don’t follow a standard song format – there are no verses or choruses. I hate predictable tracks so wanted to break the mould, and experiment more with arrangements and create something that was unique. Of course there were familiar elements which provides the listener a comfort zone, like a voice you might recognise or even an element of a song structure, but when you look at it from a distance the whole album is very unique. I can’t think of any other album that sounds like this.
Have you test driven any of the tracks in clubs?
I don’t think the actual album versions are really made for the dance floor although I was DJ’ing with Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic at a club called Savage the other week, and she said she was going to play the album version of ‘Testify’ which really surprised me. I was completely blown away by the reaction considering no-one yet knows the song – within ten seconds everyone screaming and clapping which was awesome to see. When I’m DJ’ing though I normally play the remixed versions. I was DJ’ing at the pool at Shoreditch House recently, it was really sunny and I played a dub version of ‘Monday Morning Sunshine’. OK, it wasn’t quite Ibiza, but it suited the vibe perfectly; like another snapshot in time where everything just came together and felt right.
Who would you like to work with in the future?
I’d definitely like to work with vocalists again as I’m not 100% in to singing that much any more, and there is so much incredible new talent out there I’d love to work with. I’d really love to work with Lana Del Ray and Wayne from the Flaming Lips who I’m a big fan of. Someone asked me recently who the ultimate person to work with dead or alive and it would have to have been Billy Mackenzie of the Associates. He would have fitted perfectly with the concept of the album with his totally distinct voice.
Which Producers do you admire?
There are lots of people I admire but there’s one person who pretty much changed my life as a teenager and got me into producing music and that was Martin Rushent. He was famous for working with the Human League and was the first person who introduced me to electronic dubs, and made these mad remixes of Altered Images and Pete Shelley tracks. He was at the cutting edge and creating stuff like Larry Levan at Paradise Garage in New York, but he was in a tiny studio in Manchester. He was definitely one of the unsung heroes who I honestly think Prince was a big fan of. If you listen to Prince’s productions and the way he programmed his drums and stripped things down there are a lot of parallels with Martin Rushent’s style. I mean his work sounded like it came from out of space. He produced the dub remix album of the Human League’s Dare which he completely deconstructed back to its basic elements and then tripped it out. That was the most influential album for me – so ahead of its time.
What’s your favourite club to DJ in?
The one club I still have in my heart is the one I started DJ’ing at in Glasgow in the early 2000’s called ‘Record Playaz’, and which I still occasionally host at Dalston Superstore in East London. The policy was electro-clash, electronic and punk, and actually another blueprint to the Ft. album. I mean this album despite being electronic really is made with a rock’n’roll attitude. I have rock’n’roll in my veins – it’s where I came from – and I think that is quite evident when listening to it. Again, why genre-fy things? It’s all about the right attitude. And there are lots of amazing electronic records out there that are more punky than some punk records.
Where does HiFi Sean go from here?
I’m hoping to DJ less and produce more and have already written half of the next album. My love of classical string arrangements is very apparent in this album and I’m hoping to develop string arrangements more and have lots ideas for more tracks. I’ve already written the perfect song for David McAlmont which will be a massive James Bond style production but in a Bollywood style with huge drums and lots of other dramatic elements. I actually found the best cover in the whole wide world for the next album that I took a picture of while I was taking a piss one day in Borough Market, not only is it the best title for the album it’s just the best artwork. It’s again like that idea of taking a snapshot of something in your life that happens at that second. And the album I suppose is like that for me time at this point in my life; a blueprint for where my head is at. And really that is what an album should be.
Making Ft. has made me realise how much I absolutely love making records. If I could just make records and someone paid me to stay in a room and make records for the rest to of my life I’d be quite happy. Like that thing that Prince did where there are 600 songs of his sitting in a vault somewhere which no-one will ever hear sounds like heaven to me.
You can order Ft. here