By Chris Dorney
The last year has been a very successful one for the East London duo ‘Cult With No Name’, winning the coveted dsoaudio !Recommended! Award and also picking up a nomination for the prestigious Exposure Awards. The ‘Post-punk electronic balladeers’, comprising of Erik Stein and Jonny Boux, are gearing up for a very busy and exciting 2012, seeing the release of their fifth studio album and a string of gigs to follow.
I first photographed ‘Cult With No Name’ last Summer when they performed at the International Pop Overthrow Festival in London and was then asked in November to shoot a series of promotional stills in preparation for their new album “Above As Below” (released January).
Their past releases have, very rightly, gained positive reviews from critics and “Above As Below” does not disappoint either. The album demonstrates the duo’s diversity of creation; showcasing them at their lightest, darkest, most melodic, nonchalant, bon vivant, serious and humorous. As well as their own talent, the duo called in the likes of Kelli Ali (Sneaker Pimps), Luc van Lieshout and Bruce Geduldig (Tuxedomoon), John Ellis (The Stranglers, Peter Gabriel) and Meg Maryatt (17 Pygmies) to contribute on the album.
I recently caught up with them again to chat about their music, plans for 2012, and of course, the new album.
CD: Before we talk about the new album, how did the two of you meet? And ultimately, how did ‘Cult With No Name’ form?
ES: We both met whilst working at a branch of HMV, the famous computer games and DVD chain. However, in those days it sold something called ‘CDs’.
Most of the people who worked there were frustrated creatives. After all, selling Shania Twain albums isn’t really a career aspiration (although for some people it was). Out of this same group of people also grew the (sadly now defunct) indie band Seafood.
Jon and I didn’t start working together until several years later. He was in other bands which ended and I was getting nowhere fast doing stuff on my own. We had a few overlapping musical interests so it made sense for us to play around with the Venn diagram and see what we came up with. We’re still playing with the same diagram, although we have at least now coloured it in.
JB: We were lucky enough to work on the same floor side by side. In those days Erik worked as the “jazz man” and I worked in the aisle next to him as the classical expert. I wouldn’t call myself an expert really, though.
We first got together as a bit of experiment actually. We collaborated on a track for a compilation album, a set of covers for a band we both love called The Nits (which Erik introduced me to at the time – I’ve never looked back). From those small shoots grew some more experiments which eventually became CWNN.
CD: What is the songwriting process of the band? Do you (Erik) write the lyrics and form the basis of the composition and then Jonny adds his interpretation?
ES: Essentially, I write the songs…usually on guitar. Sometimes the song title comes first, as I keep a list of possible song titles and themes. However, I’m not the most proficient musician and I don’t have any kind of distinctive playing style, because, well, I can’t really play. Squeezing the songs through Jon’s creative filter turns them into something else and unique. He has a very distinctive style and sound which are every bit as central to what is cwnn as the melodies and lyrics that I generate. During the forming process, Jon also often comes up with riffs and melodies, but rarely realises he’s done so until I point it out, by which time he’s forgotten what he’s just played. He never ever plays anything the exact same way twice, which I used to hate but now love, as I realise it keeps everything fresh. Most of the ‘beats’, if we do use any, are mine.
The exception to all these fairly hard and fast rules are the instrumentals, which Jon writes and records by himself and I then endlessly twiddle knobs on.
JB: I think in terms of the songwriting process we compliment each other a great deal, which goes some way to explaining why we work so well together. Erik loves to do the things I either don’t have the patience for or the skill. I leave the lyric writing process completely to Erik and wouldn’t begin to understand how he goes about this – I love the results and that’s what matters. The moments I love are when the song gets past its initial journey and becomes CWNN. This can sometimes happen very quickly, by happy accident or take some longer grafting, but either way the process fundamentally works for us and produces an end result that on our own we wouldn’t be capable of producing.
CD: Congratulations on the release of your new album. How long did it take to complete?
ES: Thank you. It’s hard to say exactly. We never sit down and say ‘right, let’s record an album’. I always have a wealth of material (but an absence of quality control), so we just keep on laying down tracks. Somewhere around the sixth track we realise it’s starting to look like an album so we start to think about how it might (or might not, as the case may be) fit together. Our label, ‘Trakwerx’, put no real pressure on us at all, which curiously probably makes us even more productive.
‘Above as Below’ took a little longer than our other albums as we were waiting on the various guest contributors. By God were they worth the wait, though.
JB: ‘Above as Below’ was all in all about a year in the making, but the process of formulating the songs was much faster.
I’d like to think are quite prolific having written 5 albums now in as many years. We’re fortunate in that writers’ block doesn’t happen very often. Erik is very prolific with the initial songs and we generally can work quickly to capture and produce the final product. Of course, like any band we have our moments when things might not work immediately, but generally we’re very lucky in this respect – long may it last.
Like Erik, I think this is partly down to the wonderful support our label Trakwerx provides. They do give us complete autonomy and that freedom really does take the pressure off. The strictest deadlines are the ones we set ourselves.
Cult With No Name performing at last year’s International Pop Overthrow Festival in London.
CD: I’ve spoken to musicians before who have said that the recording process can be quite an intimidating and frustrating experience. Do you agree with this? I’m guessing that as this is your fifth studio album, you have now both become well versed in the whole recording and mixing process?
ES: That’s interesting. I wonder if they’ve been recording in recording studios? Jon and I are lucky enough to have own small home studios, which are more than adequate for cwnn’s needs. Actually, it could well be argued that cwnn’s minimal sound is as a direct result of restrictions placed on ourselves with respect to our little set ups.
I don’t really like recording studios. The ones I’ve been in are dingy, and smell of sweat and egos that are even bigger than mine. I like the option of recording vocal parts at home in slippers and a bathrobe, with the neighbours giving me curious looks as they walk past. Also, Jon and I work separately more than we do in the same room. This immediately alleviates any tension or the danger of being overexposed to one individual, which is the cause of 90% of band break-ups, or so I keep reading.
JB: I can see that having others present could make the recording process more difficult and ultimately frustrating. I definitely think that this would compromise how we work and change the end result – the recording process for us is very much part of the writing process as well.
What we have become well versed in I think is anticipating each other more. Over time, much of what Erik writes instantly lends itself to my style and I also think I have adapted my approach with Erik’s lyrics and writing in mind over time.
CD: Over the 14 tracks on the new album, a few different musical styles can be found from synth-pop to more classical piano-led melodies. Is this range of styles symbolic of the different influences that each of you have?
ES: I guess so, although none of it is deliberate, as such. We treat each song very individually. For example, I never process my vocals the same way twice, which helps. Jon’s playing style and sound is the glue that binds it together and stops it sounding like 14 different inferior bands, which is what it probably would sound like if he wasn’t there. I do always use other songs as very specific reference points in my mind. Just to give you an example, with the backing vocals on ‘One Kiss, Then Home’ I was trying to evoke the sound and feel of side two of Bowie’s ‘Low’ i.e. tracks like ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Subterraneans’. Aim unassailably high, I say.
JB: I think it probably is. Although, it is often some of our common ground, artists like OMD, The Nits and Laurie Anderson jump out as influences in the music. We do have some very distinctive differences in our preferences though, which ultimately is very healthy. I’m classically trained and am greatly influenced by my experiences of classical music whilst growing up, particularly sacred music. Classical music is so broad, diverse and endlessly fascinating – it has a great deal to lend and offer pop music in my view.
CD: The diversity of the lyrical perspectives on this album is also very interesting. For example, the song “Idi’s Admin”, which is about the frustration of life as a P.A to an African Dictator, is an unusual topic. How did you get the idea for that song?
JB: I’ll leave this to Erik as the lyrics man. I am endlessly in awe of the variety of subjects he covers though!
ES: Well, the title is a pun on Idi Amin, surely everyone’s favourite narcissistic, bonkers Ugandan dictator. Shortly after his death (and long before the film ‘The Last King of Scotland’ existed), I watched documentary on his life and wrote the lyrics based on some of his quirks (and from the perspective of his P.A.). Amongst other things, he was reputed to keep the body parts of his murdered political opponents in the fridge, and most famously adorned himself with various fictitious medals and honours. When he died in exile, it was covered up and denied for several days, which is referred to towards the end of the song…along with throwing away all his medals.
Perhaps the quirkiest thing about ‘Idi’s Admin’, is that the lyrics originally accompanied the music behind ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’, which is also on the album. It’s what Idi would have wanted. And he would have especially dug John Ellis’ brilliant guitar solo at the end.
CD: The new album includes many contributions from other artists, more-so than your previous albums. What was the thinking behind this? Also, was it an easy process to get other artists involved?
ES: I’m very conscious of not repeating myself musically. With cwnn, I think this fear is heightened because we’ve been using broadly the same minimal set up and approach since day one. It was time to let others in, people who could sprinkle a bit of magic here and there.
We were extremely fortunate to have people contribute in the way that they did. John Ellis we’ve known for some years and has always been very supportive and kind to us. Bruce and Luc are from Tuxedomoon, one of my very favourite bands and still criminally overlooked in this country. I got to know them when I helped put on a chaotic gig for them in London some years back.
I got to know Kelli Ali through a friend of mine. We both ended up on a compilation together and she loved what she heard of cwnn. She has been incredibly flattering about what we do. When I tentatively hinted that we would love for her to do some vocals on the album she was delighted. We hope she might contribute to maybe 3 or 4 songs max, but she came back with vocals on 8! I couldn’t believe it. What she does on the album is brilliant. She also co-wrote ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’, which is probably why it’s one of the best tracks we’ve ever done.
JB: Like much of what CWNN does, I don’t think there was a deliberate decision or plan. Like Erik says, we are both very keen to never stand still and always evolve what we do. The introduction of others artists was more a case of right place, right time and an ideal way to progress the CWNN sound from our previous album ‘Adrenalin’. We are very lucky to know some fabulous artists in their own right and privileged that they agreed to contribute to the record. I think that all their contributions really benefit the songs and go some way to make the album what it is – we’re really chuffed about their involvement, and the final result.
CD: What do ‘Cult With No Name’ have in store for us in the next 12 months?
ES and JB: More collaborations, More writing. More recording. Repeat. Repeat. And a Californian tour.