❉ We Are Cult’s Ange Chan catches up with genre-hopping ‘post-punk half-drunk atmospheric esoteric electronic balladeers’ Erik Stein and Jon Boux.
“In days gone by, when you bought an LP, it was like an investment. When it was a gatefold sleeve you positively felt like a shareholder. Downloading individual tracks from individual bands has inevitably led to a more remote relationship with the artist, which is ironic given it’s the age of social media…”
Cult With No Name are an electro duo from London consisting of Erik Stein and Jon Boux, who are notoriously difficult to pigeonhole but describe themselves as ‘post-punk electronic balladeers’.
Formed in 2004, they were initially signed in 2007 by Trakwerx, however the band are currently on their own ‘CWNN Music’ label, and they are distributed globally through Darla Records.
Heir of the Dog is their latest album, the band’s eighth, released in September 2017 to positive critique, and features guest appearances from Tuxedomoon and Kelli Ali of Sneaker Pimps fame. Constantly hopping between high electro pop foot-tappers to melodic soulful ballads from one track to the next, it’s no wonder the band refuse to slot into a singular genre when there’s rich fruit to be found in many musical styles.
We Are Cult caught up with the band in between a busy schedule.
Thanks for talking to us. Can you tell me where do you draw your influences from?
As with most bands, we have a lot of separate influences with some in common. I guess when you’re in a duo though, the differences and the similarities are more explicitly expressed and less blurred than in say a four piece. Although I really don’t like to generalise about one era of music being better than another (after all, the kids of today will say the exact same things we do in 20-30 years and our parents did the same 20-30 years ago) the late ’80s was not a great time to be a teenager, musically speaking. The only thing exciting it had going for it was acid house, but I was too young to rave. Consequently, I went back in time to nearest thing I could connect with, and that seemed to be post-punk and electronic music. It soon grew into a record collecting obsession, now about 4000 strong, complete with a lot of very obscure and rare items. The bands I was obsessed with growing up were The Stranglers and The Residents. Alongside or soon after (and in some cases a bit before) came stuff like Gary Numan, Tuxedomoon, The Associates, John Foxx, Devo, Yello, OMD, The Art of Noise, Captain Beefheart, and plenty of weird stuff. Later, I got heavily into the Dutch band Nits, who are totally unknown in the UK but are very much a shared influence with Jon (along with OMD) and can be heard in CWNN.
Jon has classical influences that I don’t have at all, which makes them doubly important in the context of CWNN. Largely 20th century composers, the likes of Vaughan-Williams, Elgar, Aaron Copland and Arvo Part. He recently bought a turntable and so is regularly sourcing classical ‘rare groove’, which is quite inspiring to watch. He is also influenced by Eno (who isn’t?) and other key ambient musicians.
In terms of bands, The Blue Nile are a big influence, Pink Floyd, early Genesis. We saw The Blue Nile live together once. As I looked round the Barbican before the gig I said, “there’s a lot of marking not getting done tonight”, probably a bit too loudly for my own good.
How would YOU describe your musical style?
I never really know what to say when people ask me that. When we started, I printed 10,000 postcards that described us as ‘post-punk half-drunk atmospheric esoteric electronic balladeers’. So, maybe just ‘pretentious’?
We don’t rigidly stick to any genre but we do stick to a production/ writing formula that seems to generate a consistent sound. Over the years we’ve been compared to absolutely everyone from Roxy Music, to Mercury Rev, to Gary Numan, to Randy Newman, to Shriekback, to Scott Walker, to the Pet Shop Boys. Answers on a postcard please.
Your melodies are driven by the sound of the piano. Are either of you classically trained?
Jon is classically trained and studied music alongside the history of art at University. He has a unique playing style though, which I think helps keep what we do consistent as I tend to wander off in all directions. I had piano lessons as a teenager, but was a lazy, arrogant student. Then I taught myself guitar. It’s interesting that you say the melodies are driven by the sound of the piano. Most of our songs actually start on guitar and we gradually strip that away and replace it with something, we hope, more interesting.
Your music is quite eclectic, moving from slower ballads to funky electro-fest tunes. Which do you prefer performing?
It’s a double-edged sword. We’re lucky enough to have a diverse back catalogue and we can tailor our set to the venue and PA system. Electronic to acoustic to fast to slow and back. We quite often even do this on the night when we arrive. The disadvantage is getting gigs in the first place as people assume we’ll be too electronic for some places and not electronic enough for others. We don’t have a preference about what we perform as long as when we glance over at the sound engineer he or she is still standing behind the desk.
What are your thoughts on the current synth scene?
That we’re on the outside looking in. A lot of people say we don’t sound like any other (modern) synth/ electronic band, which I guess is a good thing. It’s not meant as an arrogant statement, just a statement of fact. Certainly our fans are a really diverse bunch. Sometimes it would be nice to be invited to the party more, although not if the party involves too much Depeche Mode imitation, black leather trousers and lyrics that make generic references to ‘the darkness’. Where’s the subversion gone? Luckily, we have bands like Tiny Magnetic Pets (and others) to save us from all that, and it’s wonderful to see them moving up in the world. Generally though, I tend to still listen to the older electronic stuff, but that’s largely as a result of being an insufferable post-punk record collector.
It’s actually a really interesting debate about what electronic music even is these days. I think it’s quite a convincing argument to say that a band like Sleaford Mods are one of the most exciting electronic bands at the moment.
How important are synth festivals and do you enjoy attending them?
In our experience, despite all the things that can potentially go wrong, they’re often the most enjoyable to perform at. I think there’s actually less tension, because every band knows there is no space for any egos when you have a 10 minute turnaround and 30 second line feed before your set. In terms of attending, I’ll absolutely go if the bands interest me. I go to a lot of gigs and it’s always educational, which is a shame really as I stand there thinking “I wish I could do that” or possibly “ooh, I wouldn’t do that”, when I could just be having a good time.
Which is more important to you – playing live or issuing music digitally/on other formats?
Both are completely interdependent these days. In days gone by, you toured to promote the album, now the album is used to promote the tour. We much prefer physical formats, but CD sales really are declining. A friend of mine who runs a label started putting download codes in CDs as these days laptops and PCs don’t have drives. A brilliant idea, so we did the same. Vinyl is so, so tempting but an incredible financial risk for any small label like ours. You can use CDs like business cards, but vinyl is a very expensive placemat. Interestingly though, our soundtrack for Blue Velvet Revisited with Tuxedomoon and John Foxx did extremely well on vinyl. I think PledgeMusic may eventually be the solution to all the risks, and we’re lucky enough to be very close friends with Kelli Ali (ex-Sneaker Pimps) who has turned running a PledgeMusic campaign into an art form. She’s utterly brilliant at it.
J.J. Burnel once said a very profound thing about the digital revolution in music, that downloads are eroding band loyalty. In days gone by, when you bought an LP, it was like an investment. When it was a gatefold sleeve you positively felt like a shareholder. Downloading individual tracks from individual bands has inevitably led to a more remote relationship with the artist, which is ironic given it’s the age of social media with supposedly direct and closer access to your music heroes. I still have no idea whether 100,000 people owning one song from CWNN is a better position to be in than 10,000 people owning a whole CWNN album.
What’s next for CWNN? Any live gigs planned?
We’re at least halfway through the next album. It’s interesting, although it’s not deliberate, after a while the songs do start hang together in their own weird and unique way. It will be quite a different album from ‘Heir of the Dog’. We also have a potential exciting side project, but details are far from confirmed.
No gigs for a while, unfortunately. We’re looking at doing some in Germany, as we have our biggest following there. We are of course always interested in gig proposals. Step in to our office…we’ll even give you a cup of tea.
Thanks Erik. Hope to catch you live at some point in the not too distant future.
❉ To find out more about the band and buy “Heir of the Dog”, visit their website www.cultwithnoname.com