Song of the Mellow Hippo: An Interview with the Future Sound of London

Practically all of the recent articles about them are launched in the same fahion: “So . . . where exactly have the Future Sound of London been for the last six years?” But careful with that query Eugene, particularly when putting it to FSOL’s Garry “Gaz” Cobain. The last time I spoke to Gaz (round about the release of the 199X’s ISDN LP), I’m fairly certain that I put down the receiver and promptly went to bed. As the mouthier end of FSOL, Gaz will wax on wax off about nearly any subject until all of your long distance minutes are consumed. A simple conversation that began about a particular sound on one of their tracks, got sidetracked through Philosophy 301, and eventually touched down on how the FSOL were contemplating the sale of all their gear to finance an elaborate film project. As stimulating as the conversation was knotty, the resulting impression was one of enthused bewilderment. It’s probably taken six years for them to work through it all.

But much has shifted since the time when the FSOL were players on the electronica circuit, and as a result there’s little point in the duo (Brian Dougans being the less mouthier, but equally crucial member of the team . . .) in trying to contextually re-fit them to the 21st century. One listen to their recent release The Isness, and it’s clear that the FSOL are not quite the ambient dance noodlers that they once were.

If you prowl around their website, you’ll eventually stumble on a protracted set of diary entries that will begin to illustrate where Gaz dropped out of the production game, ran off to L.A. to hang with the likes of Cult singer Ian Astbury (!), and then retreat to the Far East where he would spend months taxing his Visa limit while simultaneously trying to cure himself from mercury poisoning. The journey drew him to a more organic aesthetic of making music, and for a time the only contact that Dougans had with Cobain came in the form of cassettes that would periodically arrive at FSOL HQ. As part of Cobain’s personal reinvention (new diet, etc. . . .) their music is also now bounding past their previously known perimeters. With titles like “The Galaxial Pharmaceutical”, and “The Mello Hippo Disco Show”, it’s textually clear at least that the FSOL have migrated from the abstract to the cosmic. The danger in all this of course, as already pointed out by some voices in the music press, is that the Future Sound of London will wind up dangerously recompiling themselves as something closer to the Antiquated Sound of Pink Floyd. Cobain, honestly, could give a shit. Because essentially The Isness is more of a serious re-think towards a greater realization of what the FSOL might be. And while the more unforgiving elements of the industry might expect them to have all of this sorted by now, there are no fast rules out there they need to adhere to.

With a new studio space (dubbed “Galaxial Pharmaceutical”), fresh remixes of their infamous “Papua New Guinea” single on the way, and the promise of a stellar new website, the Future Sound of London are now in as high a gear as they possibly ever have been. After several scheduling snafus we caught Gaz on the way out of his London digs for an evening out.

PopMatters: Hello? Have I reached the Mello Hippo?

Gaz Cobain: (laughing) Himself!

PM: I’ve spent a lot of time this morning looking at the site.

GC: It’s going to have a radical new overhaul actually in about two months. So stay tuned. The new one’s going to be very exciting. We just hooked up with a very hot, new Internet designer. We don’t really have state-of-the-art Internet knowledge, so it’s really great to have somebody at last. We’ve had quite a problem to do it ourselves over the past year. Then I got speaking to some guy in an organic food shop about spirituality and healing and food, and about half an hour later we got around to what we do and we sort of exchanged numbers.

PM: What was maddening about the site now is that I read through your diary and then I got to chapter 4 and it didn’t seem to be functioning after that.

GC: It’s not that it’s not functioning, it’s just that I haven’t written it yet. I did the first three chapters about nine months ago and I haven’t really had time to do anymore.

PM: Can you give me an idea about where the story goes from there? I heard you went to Mexico…

GC: The thing that I found really daunting was that it took me about a week to write those three chapters. I did a sketch diagram of where the story goes over the whole six years and the diagram has about 300 reference names in it. Those first three chapters cover about three reference names. So I suddenly got real daunted about how this was going to be a hell of a book (to finish). I guess the point is to keep plowing on really and not get too bogged down. Yeah, it does go quite crazy after that, but I found myself going into that rock and roll autobiography style. I was hoping that it would be a bit more literary, because it’s easy to fall into that shallow rock and roll autobiography style. I was trying to do a more deeply spiritual book, with a bit of rock and roll.

From there it goes to Mexico, and I get quite ill after that, and I begin to start looking at my health and my sanity. I got into yoga and meditation, and I went to India. I spent months in India just purifying. I started to write some songs on guitar, and sent those tapes back to Brian. Brian was sort of holding the fort over here…starting to panic I think about me and getting upset that I had gone off on my own. I wouldn’t speak to him for months on end and he would just get these strange tapes sent back with this radical new direction. Some of them were probably rubbish (laughs). Then I got back and we started to work together again…we got a new studio…and all those things are quite big chapters really.

PM: So how would you characterize the relationship over all those years of not recording?

GC: Um. . . .I think this record is the sound of two visionaries really. I know obviously how that sounds, but I don’t make any apologies for it. I think all human beings can be visionaries. Visionary just means being in touch really. I’ve spent the last five years kind of getting in touch. I think we both have different visions really and I think this record is the sound of those two visions fighting each other slightly. I think we’re really in a good place now. It’s a very imperfect record. It does have its flaws, but I can’t get too upset about that because I think I have to move on.

There’s so much I want to do, and I think Brian and I have learnt so much from doing this record. It’s kind of set us up for a new beginning almost and now we’re kind of ready to start. We’ve started remixing tracks from the album and funnily enough I think we’ve got the balance now. Sometimes when you talk broadly about something, it’s quite easy to disagree. But I think on this album I think we spent a lot of time fighting with words instead of doing the work and find an equilibrium with it. Now that we’ve remixed the tracks, we’re getting a really good sound.

This record has brought me back into a sense of balance. I think I’m beginning to realize what was good about what we did in the past, and this record has allowed me to see that I kind of overshot in a way. I’m learning what was good about the old me. You have to remember that when I became ill, I wanted to get rid of the old me. Maybe I frowned back a bit too heavily on the past. I think we have a good relationship because we balance each other. I found out by doing five years of really intensive healing. . . . I kind of fasted for months and got into a lot of really strange alternative stuff, and now that we’ve got that balance back, I now know that I can face technology again without it throwing me off. I didn’t feel in control of it enough. And I didn’t feel it was the way to go because I thought society was becoming very scientific in every aspect.

It just seemed to be that although science has become very impressive . . . for me, innovation just doesn’t happen in technology. What about soul innovation? For me I wanted to get in touch with the things that I thought I was missing. I’ve now thrown off being a luddite, because for years I was a partial luddite and I’ve been working in ways that I have been for ten years. Now I’ve started guitar playing and recording drums and brass bands and all this sort of stuff. The next process is going to be celebrating what I’ve learned about spirituality and the balance and celebrating technology again. So it’ll be a radical new shift again.

PM: When are the remixes coming out?

GC: I guess they’ll be out in the new couple of months. And that’s going to be a 30-minute translation in loads of parts of “The Mellow Hippo Disco Show.” I think that I wanted the album to be a vision, I didn’t want it to be too dance or to electronic.

PM: Were you able to arrive at what is The Isness solely through these new visions and sounds or were there a lot of psychedelics being taken that brought you to this place?

GC: For me psychedelia is not something that you find on an Internet site that relates to 1967. To me the word psychedelia relates to the natural state of a child. To a child, the whole world in inevitably psychedelic. When a child walks into the room, he’ll play with everything like it’s an incredible toy. He’ll see everything as being limitless. But I guess because of my healing, the more I began to throw off layers . . . um . . . (pause) . . . You know what happens when you become ill is that you have to find out why. That gets deeper and deeper and deeper. And over that time, I threw off hundreds of layers, so eventually I didn’t recognize the person I was.

So the term psychedelia to me relates to finding your natural balance. And as you find your balance, your childishness comes back. In terms of the psychedelic stuff, Brian’s experimented with things and he’s a bit of a marijuana head. I don’t touch anything, whether it be refined sugar, alcohol, wheat, or coffee. In the same breath I will say that the term Galaxial Pharmaceutical refers to is the idea that the whole galaxy has become one giant pharmacy. So just because I’ve lived a very pure life over the last five years, I can say in the same breath . . . “The hell I have!” Because everybody that lives in a modern city is breathing, eating, and shitting chemicals. If the word drug relates to something that unsettles the harmony of your internal chemistry, then we are all subjected to that everyday. So I have to say that this Earth is on drugs. Rather than being holier or healthier than thou in this conversation, it’s just that I had a particular crisis in my life and I had to deal with it. And the psychedelia on this record relates to that healing and balance.

PM: Have you guys stopped to considered where the progress of some of the other people from your electronic generation?

GC: Yes of course. We almost grew up in a super table of electronica with these people. It’s very interesting to me to see how people react to the current climate. It’s really interesting to me to look at The Orb and the Aphex Twin and the like. I can’t help but feel that because the music industry has become so corporate that people within the industry are dictating to artists much stronger now. To a certain degree that cutting edge avant garde electronica has really had its powerful day. There was a point there…this beautiful, glittering moment in about 1993 where avant garde electronic music was hitting a reverence all around the world. There’s still a market for that, but it’s just a market. In 1993 that kind of music was a shift of consciousness. So maybe that kind of music now is just to appeal to that marketplace. I see most of these artists doing the same thing — still very technology bound, still very programmed, I can’t help but think that there’s quite a lot of fear there.

PM: Is there anyone you guys have taken note of that you think are doing it right?

GC: Oh of course. There’s a whole load of new bands. Mercury Rev….I Monster’s “I Daydream In Blue”. That’s an incredible piece of music. And Simian as well. And apart from these young bands, there’s so much stuff coming from the past that to me really sounds very very new. But I tell you what happened, all these Germans used to come through the door . . . well, especially German..and say “Ya, so you like Tangerine Dream and Kraftverk?” And I used to think “My God, we must be doing something wrong! I love so much music and people only hear the electronic.” I didn’t want to just be a genre. That’s why at the beginning of that press release I wrote, “File under Prog-rock, raga, etc. . . .” It was just the idea of “Fuck genres, man!”, because genres are organized by businessmen, and businessmen are killing this industry right now. That’s the reason why a lot of really great artists are just running with their tales between their legs and doing the same thing they were doing 10 years ago. And I just find that quite sad.

PM: I’m wondering what you think about the possibility of performing behind this sort of record since in the past that was always something of a challenge.

GC: Well, that’s quite an interesting area really, because I go to quite a lot of gigs and no one seems to be doing what I’ve got in my mind. I’m beginning to think I should do it, but the trouble is that typically my vision is quite grandiose and I don’t really want to sell it short. I’m kind of hoping that I could use one or two TV opportunities over here to assemble a band together, rehearse, and build it into a bigger thing.