Still Fun After All These Years: An Interview with Wang Chung
Wang Chung's Nick Feldman recalls making one of the band's biggest hits, working with one of film's greatest directors, and the future of Wang Chung itself.
"It came out of the blue," says Wang Chung's Nick Feldman, discussing the origins of Orchesography, the group's new LP, tracked with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The record features re-imaginings of the band's biggest hits, including "Dance Hall Days", "Let's Go", and, of course, "Everybody Have Fun Tonight".
"The record company, August Day, approached us to see if we were interested," Feldman continues, adding that Mike Score of a Flock of Seagulls, had put in a good word for the band after the Flock released a similar project, Ascension, in 2018 via the same imprint. An email or two later and the project was quickly underway.
Feldman and bandmate Jack Hughes became immersed in the project from the start. "I think we would have been very uncomfortable just handing that over to other people," says Feldman. "We met with Pete Whitfield, who did string arrangements and discussed possibilities and approaches. He wrote some arrangements and had some software where you can do mock-ups. He'd create them on his computer and then send them to us. We'd go through them and make suggestions until we got to a point where we were all happy. Then, they were all scored out and sent to Prague and performed there. We're very happy with the result."
Orchesography serves as a reminder of Wang Chung's ability to create formidable hits and those fan favorites ("Dance Hall Days" et al.) are given a new lease on life here but the collection also shines a light on some of the lesser-known spots in a body of work that is never less than impressive.
Feldman spoke with PopMatters from his home in London.
I know how it feels to be a fan and hear these songs in this iteration. But I didn't write them, and I haven't played them live for the last 30-plus years.
So what was it like for you to hear them like this?
Thrilling, in a way. When it was first suggested, my thoughts were that, if nothing else, it was going to be an experience. We hadn't worked with an orchestra before. I love the idea of reinterpretations as well. I think our music has stood the test of quite a long time, really. Decades, which, in itself, is gratifying. We really appreciate that. So, that it could be re-interpreted in a way that could be new, different, is substantial.
What were the discussions about the song selection like? I imagine that "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" was never off the table.
We couldn't cover everything, so we had to pick a few obvious tracks and a few less obvious ones to give it a fresh journey. But it was always in our brains that we would do "Everybody Have Fun Tonight", "Dance Hall Days" etc. But there are different mixes on the album, so there's orchestral mixes, just an orchestra and voice. Then the full band, orchestral stuff. It covers a whole lot of ground. We also did "World in Which We Live" which is a song we hadn't played live since the '80s. Then there's the more recent "Overwhelming Feeling". [From 2012's Tazer Up!] It was lovely to do stuff that was not totally based in the '80s but which allowed everyone to get a sense of our whole career.
Hearing the songs in this setting, and even the original ones, I wondered if you were influenced by progressive rock because there are harmonic/melodic choices that speak to that, even if you're not necessarily moving between odd time signatures or writing 20-minute epics.
You have good ears, good instincts, that's all I can say. Yes. We like to describe our band, or whatever we are, as a laboratory of ideas. What we love and what we've listened to, both Jack and I, spans from prog rock to the Beatles to punk rock. We came out of punk rock. That was the motivating, get-off-your-ass scene that made us feel like maybe we could do it as well. We love punk and soul. With "Everybody Have Fun Tonight", the chords in the middle, in the "on the edge of oblivion" section are kind of quiet. Harmonically, they're sophisticated, if that's the right word, chords. You might not ordinally find that in a pop song like it. You're right. You're hearing something that's in our DNA.
One of the more remarkable turns in your career is the To Live and Die in L.A.soundtrack. Here's this band that's had this mainstream success and they go off and provide the music for this strange film.
That question follows very well from the last. One of our albums is called Points on the Curve. If you like the curve is our career, and our music and the point is a different aspect of it. To Live and Die In L.A. was a fantastically stimulating, incredible thing to be offered. It came out of the blue. We were trying to come up with a follow-up to Points on the Curve and were getting pressured by the record company to come up with the next hit. Quite honestly, I think we were struggling.
Suddenly, we got offered the opposite of pop music: A long form, dark, spontaneous, intense soundtrack. [Director William] Friedkin didn't want songs. He wanted instrumentals. We did long-form pieces, and it was the perfect thing for us. We were honored and excited to work with someone like him.
The brief he gave us was: Go into a studio, give us 40 minutes of music. He gave us the song "Wait" from Points on the Curve as a reference point. But the great thing was, he didn't want us to score it to picture. He just wanted us to send him music, and then he would lay it into the film as he saw fit.
He not only laid it in but he cut the film to our music, so it was an incredible thing to be involved with. The fantastic thing for us was that it took all the pressure off us to write a follow-up hit. We cleansed our palette. We got something out of our system. The next thing was "Everybody Have Fun Tonight", the real pop stuff.
You mentioned revisiting songs that you hadn't touched in quite a while for this project. When you go back and listen to them, do you think, "This is great!" or "This is peculiar, I don't understand what we were thinking when we wrote it"?
[Laughs.] I definitely understand how peculiar we could be at times. I get that. Without being too pleased with ourselves, I think I've grown to appreciate what we did back in the day. I went through a time at the end of the late '80s and early '90s [during which] I felt a little bit self-conscious about it. When we split up and I was looking for something new to get involved with I might have lost sight of what we'd achieved.
But when I became an A&R guy, working for Warner Brothers, I started to really appreciate it. I realized how difficult it was to achieve what we had. Having got to that point has, I think, helped us be more creative and to enjoy most things that go with Wang Chung.
In 2012 you made Tazer Up! It seems like then you had come through the other side and were feeling less self-conscious. It's Wang Chung but Wang Chung in a contemporary setting.
I'd gained a whole new music business experience. That helped. The passage of time helps you recharge the battery. I'm speaking from a personal perspective, but I think it was lovely. It was about making a record that was faithful to what Wang Chung is all about. It was faithful to the past but worked in the contemporary setting as well. We wanted to make a sort of modern antique! [Laughs.]
The retail market is so different than when you started. How much time do you spend fretting about that? Or do you say, "This is how it is now, and we have to get on with it?"
[Laughs.] One thing about getting a bit older and having been around a few blocks, so to speak, I've learned that you've just got to do what you do. You can't control everything. The whole square pegs and round holes are something we have less stress about. Things are as they are. That's not to say that we don't make every effort to make things as good as they can possibly be. I think we just have a different perspective.
You created a lyric in "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" that is a cultural expression, deeply embedded. ("Everybody Wang Chung tonight.") People who have never heard the song probably have uttered those words. When you were writing the song was there a sense of, "We can't do this. We can't be self-referential. And we can't verb it"?
[Laughs.] It was considered to be in the worst possible taste at the time. People weren't doing it at the time but we wanted to be the godfathers of rap. That's why we did it. [Laughs.]
It seems the really cool thing to do now, to name-check yourself. To be honest, we had no idea if it was any good. Our manager was coming over to see us while we were recording in Vienna. We were really nervous. We thought, "What if he doesn't like it? Maybe we're wasting all this studio time." We thought maybe we were naughty boys.
He turned up, and we played it for him, and he went mad. He loved it! He could hear that it was an absolute smash. We were very relieved about that. It wasn't designed to become a verb. It just happened. We're delighted by it, being a part of the culture, beyond having a hit song. Not everyone likes it, but it's made a mark that's quite deep.
On this album, "Fun Tonight (Reprise)" is the original conception of "Everybody Have Fun Tonight." That morphed into the version that everyone knows. That's what we were doing in the studio in Vienna when we thought our manager was going to be cross with us because maybe it wasn't very good. So, the original version was much slower, a bit more "Hey Jude."
A friend of mine often points out that Motörhead had the single "Motörhead" from the debut album Motörhead. Lemmy was a genius in branding.
[Laughs.] Good point, good point. Bless him.
Do you have inclinations toward a new album of all-original material in the future?
Jack's got a solo album of material that he's almost finished recording. I've got a whole ton of songs that I've been writing over the last year or two that I am actually really excited about. So, whether we actually end up doing another Wang Chung record in the near future, I don't know. It's something I'm very open to. We'll wind up putting something out, whether as Wang Chung or two separate guys.
We're also re-releasing our past albums over the next year or so, so that will be a very comprehensive retrospective with a whole bunch of unreleased stuff, including demos. It'll have loads of annotations and extra stuff, quite a deluxe package.