British duo Goldfrapp bring their electronic sound back to the dance floor
Story by Andi Teran / Photography by Victoria Stevens
It’s a grey morning on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and Alison Goldfrapp needs a cup of tea. She apologizes in clipped British mumbles, and were it not for delicate blonde wisps dancing lightly atop a pair of Wayfarers worn indoors, you’d hardly guess you were in the company of an electro-pop icon. Waiting patiently on the couch — also in shades — is Will Gregory, her decade-long co-conspirator in the chart-topping electronic outfit known as Goldfrapp. Together they tuck into a streamlined couch at the Hotel on Rivington to discuss Head First, their self-produced fifth album. Reminiscent of a soundtrack to a forgotten 1980’s sci-fi film, it finds their music dramatically reinvented, evoking a neon-tinged wonderland of frothy, synthesized beats beamed digitally from a Xanadu paradise. Bold in their direct homage to the pioneers of electro past, the duo is careful not to assign their music to any particular genre. But upon first listen — and then obsessively on repeat — it’s easy to see that this might possibly be the second coming of disco.
“We’ve given up worrying too much about what people think,” Alison explains, regarding the duo’s revamped sound. “I guess we could make our lives easier by doing the same thing, but I don’t think that’s why we make music.”
Goldfrapp have, in fact, been making music for over 10 years. What started as a collaboration between two musicians — composition by Will, vocals and lyrics by Alison — blossomed into their self-assured 2001 debut, Felt Mountain, which was short-listed for Britain’s coveted Mercury Prize. Critically acclaimed for their brand of esoteric electronica, the band fused “aggressive electronic noise” — as Will describes it — with a robust feminine lilt brought to life through Alison’s audaciously stylish stage persona. By their third release, 2005’s Supernature, Goldfrapp’s evolving nocturnal sound had generated successive top ten hits on international charts and garnered Grammy nominations, making the band an important purveyor of modern dance music.
“You start with an idea and you like where it’s coming from. It evolves, it builds, and like building blocks, you try things out and then take them away,” Alison explains. It’s the taking away, though, that found them on transitional ground with their last album, Seventh Tree, a mellow, folk-inspired collection of dreamy lullabies that completely abandoned all traces of their trademark dance beats. It was a complete departure from their then-beloved sound.
“We’re always trying to up the ante on our songwriting skills, which means trying to infuse a bit more harmonic and melodic variation,” Will defends. “It’s not just being this militant, one-note, somber, over-the-head with a sledgehammer [sound all of the time].” As is typical with popular music, staid musical arrangements are often shuffled in order to keep a band fresh and relevant. Such is not the case with the Goldfrapp collective. They stick to what inspires them and let their music grow organically through intense, countryside jam sessions at a studio near Bath. Completely devoted to their art, they follow instincts and not trends.
“We’ve always been fans of ’70s and ’80s disco,” says Will. “I think a lot of people [at that time] suddenly got a direction that enabled a certain marriage of voice and electronica together which is still resonating.” Both he and Alison were listening to the music of their electronic forefathers at the time of Head First’s recording sessions. Enduring inspirations such as soundtrack composer Giorgio Moroder — famed for his work with Donna Summer on disco classics such as “Love to Love You Baby” and film scores, specifically the 1982 erotic horror film Cat People — as well as the music of synthpunk raconteurs, Suicide, arguably the originators of synthesized vocal dualism, figured heavily into the creation of their new album.
“We always talk, every time we start an album, about what we want to do, and usually we say it would be great to make electro disco but with more of a human feel to it,” Will continues. “This time it felt like the right time to really do that.” Alison immediately interjects that Head First “is not disco really,” to which Will suggests that it is, but perhaps “more in a Blondie sense,” to which she counters, with a giggle, “Or Van Halen.”
Asked to ascribe words, characters, or themes to the vocal and lyric parts of the album, Alison immediately references the work of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and his novel Sputnik Sweetheart. “I think reading’s great for lyric writing. You have to read a lot; it’s an absolute necessity,” she says. “I think Murakami definitely seeped into [the album] for sure. He’s very visual, easy to read, surreal — it’s like being in a film — philosophical and fancy.”
Cinematic themes feature heavily in Goldfrapp’s work, and apart from citing them as inspirations, Will worked as a film composer prior to joining forces with Alison. In the middle of recording Head First, they received a call from an film editor friend looking to score British visual artist Sam Taylor Wood’s debut film, Nowhere Boy, a biopic of John Lennon’s early years. They immediately said yes and set about the task of creating an ambient score on the fly. Alison says of the experience, “I have to say I found it very difficult and creatively quite stifling in a way because [the process] is very fractured; it’s hard to get an overall momentum. At the same time I found it fascinating — a real eye-opener — and we were incredibly lucky because they liked what they heard most of the time. I think the fact that it was so completely different from what we were doing was a good thing.”
While Nowhere Boy has yet to set a U.S. release date, the fruits of the Head First sessions can be heard when the album releases on March 22. At the time of this interview, Alison and Will were still hammering out the visual aesthetics that will accompany the music, but mentioned “bright, vivid colors — quite a lot of pinks,” and the words “jubilant” and “dark humor” to describe the tone they wish to convey. As for the signature look that Alison Goldfrapp will undoubtedly concoct to bring the album’s frothy roller rink anthems and feline chase scenes to life, she says, “You can’t separate [music and fashion]. It’s evolving as we speak. It’s like a play or a film, and [together] they tell the story of the music. You’ve just got to fucking do it and pull out all the stops.”