John Foxx: Metamatic 35 Years On

The release date, Friday, January 18, 1980, made John Foxx’s debut solo album one of the first of the 1980s. It was a statement of electronic music that was put together relatively quickly, and with a simple set-up (“an eight track cupboard in Islington”), but one that would continue to reverberate down the decades.

Electronic Sound spoke to Foxx on the release of his album ‘Evidence’ in 2013 in a wide-ranging interview that covered his entire career. Much of it didn’t make it into the original feature, so here, on the anniversary of its release, is an excerpt where Foxx discusses ‘Metamatic’, growing up on the outskirts of Manchester and living in JG Ballard’s London.

 When you signed to Virgin, Metamatic – it was going to be called Fusion/Fission?

That’s true. There was a discussion about ‘Fusion Fission’, I said it’s going to be called that. I can barely remember it now. It was a quick episode. The single was going to be ‘A New Kind of Man’, which we pressed up and then I did ‘Underpass’, because I hadn’t finished making the album. Things run about three months early, Virgin were saying they wanted it out in January at the latest. There was Christmas which is always a problem, so they tried to get it out before, but it wasn’t ready. They were bit put out by that, so they wanted to release a single, and they were happy with ‘A New Kind Of Man’, then I brought ‘Underpass’ in when I’d just done it. And they said, ‘that sounds great, that should be the single’. So we waited until January 1980. I’m glad it wasn’t the last record of the 70s and was the first record of the 80s. It set things up for the next ten years, I didn’t mean it in a vain way. I mean it was like a fresh start, a new decade, and that was the first record of it.

 What does ‘Metamatic’ mean?

There was an artist called Jean Tinguely who made self-destructing machines, they were amusing things that pull themselves apart eventually, and I thought that was a pretty good description of what I was like, they had a sense of humour, they were called Metamatics, and that was their mission; self destruction. And I thought, ‘Alright, let’s have some of that then.’

That album referenced Ballard. I’m interested in function and artifice in your work…

The problem with the band format is that it’s band, you have to accommodate all those instruments in everything you write, you write for the band. That’s great, but there are some things that don’t fit that, and I was beginning to do that. Even on ‘Systems’, there were things like ‘Dislocation’ and ‘Just For A Moment’ which I was aware didn’t need the whole band to play on, and I was more interested in that kind of stuff. It was so frustrating because Robin had just come on board and he was bloody brilliant, so good, and I wanted to do more work with him. It was the only thing that really tore me up, not continuing with Robin. It still bugs me. But I’d realised that if you used synths the best answer to making the sound is minimalism, and that’s what I was really interested in, and I got really excited listening to dub records that stripped everything down to one sound per moment, and gave it the whole space, which was really revolutionary then, because everything else was kitchen sink production; everything in. The rock world was geared to that big sound, whereas dub was clearing the air out. Everything would have its moment, you had a bass drum filling two speakers with nothing else there, or a bass that would come in behind it, you had this universe of sound shoes that you’d never heard before. Plus you had people like Kraftwerk who were stripping things out, from a different angle. Between those two poles I was really excited by possibilities and was hearing it, on ‘Systems’ I was beginning to be able to do more of that.

Sonically you had this very clean minimal palette to use another art term, but then you had a combination of very dark sharp sci-fi imagery, and shiny surfaces.

I never wrote anything about sci-fi or the future, which is what Ballard did. He does write about future scenarios, but it’s more psychological extrapolation. Sci-fi is everything from space ships and laser guns right to the other end of it, Burroughs, Ballard.

That’s what I’m referencing. 

I like Ballard particularly because he was English. He was the only one who could hold his own easily with the rest, I found it really exciting because it was a whole set of imagery which coincided with what I was experiencing in London at the time, concrete overpasses, all the dusty bits underneath the bright lights, where you had to walk if you didn’t have much money and were marooned in London. His imagery was where I was, where I was living. I wrote about where I was, and I used that as a bit of a lens.

It didn’t feel particularly critical of those things…

It isn’t, it’s a kind of acceptance, and that’s the most horrific thing, how everyone accepted it. Coming from up north, factory towns, where everybody involved in that environment. It’s changed now, but it was all factories, and work, then the motorways came through and I remember how disruptive and connecting at the same time it seemed. All those effects of constant disruption, constant change, factories closing down, cinemas becoming bingo halls. Everything felt like it was in constant motion, and not in a particularly pleasant way. You just had to deal with it. I remember when I was a kid watching films of Hiroshima which scared me to death, but you couldn’t stop watching, because it was new and threatening and you wanted to understand it, and then I’d see ‘Quatermass’ a day later, and it was hard to figure out which was real. That was when things met for me, aged six or seven and watching TV, and looking outside. Because everything was black and white then, the north particularly. That’s why Ballard made more sense to me than almost any other at the time. There were other writers I liked, even that I preferred reading, but he got his finger on how it felt and what kind of violence it did to your psyche to be like that, and a lot of rock’s about overstatement, and I didn’t want to overstate it because that destroys it, so the best thing to do is maintain a kind of reserve and not be dramatic about it, and that has two effects, one it enables you to retain your dignity, and there’s also something about the feeling of emotion being withheld that has a greater effect than just displaying it. There are certain films which display this idea, like ‘Brief Encounter’, or ‘The Remains of the Day’, that is more powerful to me.

Ishiguro is a master of that English understatement, which is interesting given he’s Japanese.

It’s a good observation of Englishness from his point of view. Because he is from somewhere else, he understand it better than we do. Its like Hockney going to Los Angeles and seeing the splash. No one else could see splashes because they saw them all time, but he could. The book is wonderful, it’s like ‘Bridseshead Revisited’ with all the crap taken out of it, it’s a better and clearer statement. It’s a dub version if you like.

In your solo stuff there’s also a lushness, ‘The Garden’, an appreciation of the countryside, the outdoors, is that because you’re from a town where you could walk into the English countryside?

Where I lived is like that. On the edge of greater Manchester. On the edge was the Lord Levehulme estate. There’s s system of natural lakes there which are reservoirs and he built a garden on the hillside of one of these, he brought in all kinds of plants the would survive, rhododendrons and azaleas, and built this whole chain of small lakes and waterways and terraces of buildings and a house at the top. Then something went wrong with his marriage and he jettisoned the whole place. The story locally was that he’d dynamited the house, and left it. There was this ruined garden, massive, that we used to play in as children. It was all overgrown and tangled and you couldn’t get into it easily, kids love things like that. We spent all summer there. The contrast between a factory town with everything covered in soot, and going up there where the air was cleaner, it’s part of my work being schizophrenic, dividing between that very dark urban material and then the other very lush sensual things.