sun 22/05/2022

theartsdesk Q&A: Marc Almond of Soft Cell | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Marc Almond of Soft Cell

theartsdesk Q&A: Marc Almond of Soft Cell

The Eighties icon tells how Andy Warhol, Chernobyl, nostalgia and the colour purple inspired the first Soft Cell album in 20 years

Marc Almond and Dave Ball, Soft Cell in 2022

Soft Cell, the duo consisting of Marc Almond and Dave Ball, announced they were calling it quits in 2018. The two sold out shows at the 02 in London were supposed to be their swan song, waving goodbye to their Soft Cell days. But as their eponymous Eighties single hinted, waving goodbye is often paired with a hello.

In 2020 they embarked on a nationwide tour, playing their classic 1981 album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret in its entirety. This wasn’t just a nostalgia tour though. Brand new songs made it onto the setlist as well, like “Bruises On My Illusions”, “Heart Like Chernobyl “and “Nostalgia Machine”.

soft cellThis mixture of nostalgia and brand new material served as the perfect stage setter for *Happiness Not Included, Soft Cell’s first new album in 20 years. It’s an album which has a foot firmly in the past but isn’t bogged down by it. Instead, it is a testament to the creative power of nostalgia.

Soft Cell haven’t resorted to legacy act quite yet. On the album, the Eighties and contemporary culture rub shoulders. For example, on the titular track Almond compares watching the news to crack cocaine. This somewhat dated reference is followed by a line about Twitter and the phrase “crying emoji” is used. Dave Ball’s unashamedly retro instrumentals offer the perfect backdrop.

On a Zoom call I catch up with the band’s iconic front man, Marc Almond. Almond has had a prolific solo career, releasing over 25 albums under his own name. He’s reached the status of national treasure and it’s easy to see why. For someone who has been giving interviews for the better part of 40 years, he sounds surprisingly excited to be talking to me. Chatty and generous with his time, Almond’s friendly demeanour puts you at ease instantly. It’s clear that being back with Dave Ball as Soft Cell has put him in a sentimental headspace.

We talk about how synaesthesia inspired the Pet Shop Boys-assisted lead single, how meeting Andy Warhol was both over and underwhelming, and how lockdown shaped the album. We also touch on Chernobyl, Kraftwerk and lastly, Lana Del Rey.

HARRY THORFINN-GEORGE: First off, I just want to say I’ve been listening to the album for the past few days and I’ve been enjoying it so much.

MARC ALMOND: Good. I’m glad!

I remember reading that you said you always enjoy the process of putting something new into the world. Off the back of the Non-Stop Cabaret Tour and being back with Dave Ball- how do you feel about the rollout of this album?

Frustratingly it’s been delayed, as everything seems to be these days, it was supposed to come out about six months ago originally, it was all finished and done then. Having said that If we would have put it out then, we wouldn’t have had the wonderful Pet Shop Boys collaboration. With Covid schedules and everything, it feels like I’m still living a life of two years ago, still doing rescheduled dates from two year ago. But It’s exciting to finally have the record out. If lockdown hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have had the focus to write lyrics, we only decided to do an album right before lockdown. 

Yes well that feels fitting of the the album as a whole. I think it’s interesting how you mix the past, the present and the future throughout this. I want to talk about “Polaroid”, which I think is a brilliant track. It involves a story about you and Dave meeting Andy Warhol which is sort of complicated by the way it lives in your memory- which is clearly different from reality. Can you talk about that song and how it feeds into the themes of the album?

Yeah sure. “Polaroid” is about a meeting we had with Andy Warhol. I kind of wrote it saying that it was New York city 1981, but it was actually 1982 Dave reminded me (laughs)

Listen to "Polaroid" by Soft Cell

Already there the past is complicated!  

(laughs) Yeah, my memory was in 1981. We were recording the Art of Falling Apart album, I think. We were working at Media Sound Studios in New York and someone said, “would you like to come meet Andy Warhol he’s over at The Factory”. This was his third Factory that he had on the corner of Union Square, not the original Factory, this was a much more corporate place. We were immensely excited, as you can imagine. Andy Warhol was an icon and influenced me in my art college days. We went in there and sat at this conference table thing making small talk. I’d been to see the disco performer Sylvester the night before, so we were talking about that, talking about New York - well actually I was doing most of the talking not him, he was just cutting in with “yeah”, “great” and “oh gee” in a totally deadpan way (laughs). Then we both got out our polaroid cameras and started shooting polaroids of each other.

When I went out I just said to Dave “that was the strangest meeting I’ve ever had”. He didn’t actually say anything and we were there for maybe half an hour. I kind of imagined how I would like it to have been in my own mind. My image of Andy Warhol goes back to the Sixties and Seventies, the original factory with Lou Reed, Candy Darling and all these Warhol superstars in the silver factory. That’s how I imagined it.

Writing in that period of lockdown, we went into nostalgia a lot because there wasn’t much new stuff happening, not a lot of new music not a lot of new stuff altogether so you tended to retreat into your comfort zone which was listening to old albums that you loved, films that you loved - kind of retrospecting your life. I was just sorting through old photographs and I came across a photo of me and Dave with Andy Warhol. It was a ridiculous photo and I just remembered that time and started writing the lyrics. Dave sent me this great rhythm tune which just fit perfectly and I just started rapping over it really.

It’s got an almost rap-like quality to it.

Yeah! I think it’s one of the best tracks actually. I’m really pleased you picked up on it.

It’s interesting how you said over the past two years you have been looking backwards. The first line on the whole album is “I remember a past/ that told us of a future”. There is a retro-futurist idea here, looking at how the future was imagined in the past and then going: whatever happened to that? Do you think in the time of Covid and climate change, we’ve lost an idea of what the future could be?

When I was growing up we had this idea of the future from the Fifties and Sixties. when you watched early editions of Star Trek, early sci-fi films, we pictured everything being fantastic, everything working properly, everybody looked nice and had shiny outfits, smiley faces and flying cars, that sort of thing. When you actually look at it, it’s all quite dark really. What we were looking at was really kind of fascistic look of the future. We didn’t realize it at the time, perhaps our naivety, we imagined that the future was a beautiful place, but what has actually happened is a darker future that we didn’t see was going on all the time. I’m thinking of films like Logan’s Run, Soylent Green or Omega Man – some of these films that really portrayed a darker, dystopian vision of the future. “Happy Happy” is a slightly sarcastic song (laughs).

Listen to "Happy Happy" by Soft Cell

To say the least!

I think under the lockdown period we were looking at the past and being nostalgic and re-evaluating our lives, but we were also looking for what the future was going to be.

I think that’s what I’m trying to pick up on. There was a time when we thought about the future. I don’t think we do anymore.

No I think we’ve had the reality now. We had a utopian view, but it was actually a dystopian view which is how it turned out. As the pandemic is coming to an end we kind of thought, “well is this it now for the future”, and it was interesting because so many people I know had changed their outlook on life. They were going to leave their jobs, study new things, new languages and hobbies.

The end of the album, with a track like “New Eden” for example, shows how we are still looking for that utopia, looking for that thing that will carry us to the future. But we are getting older, losing our place in the world. Everything changes, things that you love slowly go away. So you have to look for a new horizon for the life you have left and what you’re going to do with it. This is something the pandemic period gave us, the chance to re-evaluate our lives. I know so many people who did so much downsizing and clearing out, me included. I was looking through boxes thinking, “Do I really need all this stuff?”  

Everyone started looking inwards.

Yes, looking inwards to allow yourself to move outwards.

soft cellWhich is what this album does. It looks backwards but it is also moving forward. It’s cool that you made something new out of the old.

Yeah! When Dave and I talked about the album originally, we said we’d give it a working title, a theme that we can hang it on. The title we came up with, which we liked, was Future Nostalgia. And then along came Dua Lipa which spoilt it for us…

Well great minds…

It was very frustrating. It was very, very annoying (laughs).

It would have been pretty funny if you also released an album called Future Nostalgia though.

I think we would be beaten on Google. We would have been smothered probably, being the huge artist that she is.

Yes most likely. Musically this album definitely looks back to your previous sounds too. Talk a bit about that.

We did an album about 20 years ago, which was our last album, which was Cruelty Without Beauty, and there was too much production on that album. It was a bit too – it just didn’t feel like a Soft Cell record in some ways. It didn’t gel together for me. We were trying to be different. When Dave was giving me tunes now, I said, “Let’s go back to being old school”, let’s look at albums like Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, look at the minimalism that we had then and the storytelling we had on that record. Let’s get some of that essence back into a Soft Cell record. This album is definitely more recognizable, it feels like a Soft Cell record more than Cruelty Without Beauty.

Definitely. I want to go back to something you said earlier about the past. An image that reoccurs on the album is Chernobyl. There’s a song called “Heart Like Chernobyl” and the abandoned Ferris wheel of Pripyat graces the album cover. It’s incredibly Eighties and incredibly bleak, which is perhaps very fitting for Soft Cell. But why is this an image you kept coming back to?

Dave came up with the image of the album sleeve. I’d written this song called “Heart Like Chernobyl”, which isn’t about Chernobyl, but more about how we’ve become desensitised and our feelings are like a nuclear wasteland of feelings. We were watching the news and looking for hope, but the news was just giving us bad imagery. People dying, people sick, refugees in boats – eventually watching the news everyday makes you desensitised. You find yourself goggling at the TV and thinking, “Oh well”. A war happening, a pandemic, Brexit thrown at us, we just felt bombarded by everything. There will always be some sardonic humour to Soft Cell when I write.

Also during the pandemic we watched the HBO series Chernobyl. Ironically just before the pandemic started, I was due to go to Ukraine for the first time to do a series of shows. Which I’ve been trying to do for ages. We would have been taken to Chernobyl and shown around, which I was very excited about. Chernobyl was really on my mind. Seeing images of the war happening in Ukraine now, Chernobyl is in the news again as the Russians surrounded it. I like the image Dave picked for the cover because it has this Ferris wheel, this pleasure land set in this psychedelic colour, a picture of sadness and misery yet it’s kind of a pop image, holy and psychedelic.

Listen to "Heart Like Chernobyl" by Soft Cell

And it’s an image of lost futures too, right? There was a time when Chernobyl represented the cutting edge of what the future could be and it now stands in ruins.

Yeah exactly. It’s also interesting how the Russians did their take on Chernobyl. I wish I can remember what it was called. It was a love story set around the incident. You would think it would be all jingoistic, “it wasn’t our fault” kind of thing, but it didn’t try to cover that. It’s a bit late to try to cover up on that after all, but there were two different things that came out about Chernobyl during the lockdown period. Chernobyl was on my mind and I felt like our hearts were like these empty wastelands looking for joy and light at the end of a tunnel.

Definitely. It also made me think of Kraftwerk’s iconic album Radioactivity too. Kraftwerk’s first completely electronic album which was trying to represent nuclear culture. You’re obviously in a lineage of Kraftwerk, both musically but also thematically.

That’s very true. Dave is very influenced by Kraftwerk, we both love Kraftwerk so there is a definite lineage there which is great. I like those lineages that go through music, a continual passing of the torch as it were of a genre of music.

It ties it nicely together. Speaking of tying things together: “Purple Zone”. What a single! What is the purple zone?

When I first wrote the lyrics for “Purple Zone”, I was reading about synaesthesia, where you can hear colours and smell sound, where your senses all get mixed up. You reach an aesthetic zone called the purple zone. That was my initial inspiration. Then I started reading about other purple zones in religion and science and politics. It was mentioned on the TV that China had this purple zone. The phrase kept coming up. I felt like it was this no man’s wasteland that we are all currently in. The world is in flux, a period of dark flux, a purple zone. In a way it’s quite a bleak song.

Watch the video for "Purple Zone' by Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys

It is, but it has this massive chorus which lifts it.

Yeah there’s this uplifting pop-ness. When the song was first finished, we had this list of all the tracks we wanted on the album. We wanted to pick 12, anything over that is too many. Purple zone wasn’t on my A-list.

Really? That’s surprising.

No, it wasn’t on my A-list. I felt there was something missing with this track. I really like it, I like the words, I like the tune, but there was something missing. It sounded a bit sub-Pet Shop Boys. Like Pet Shop Boys but not good enough. It was on everybody else’s A-list, so I just gave in. Our solo version is on the vinyl because that had to go into production a long time ago. But then suddenly Neil and Chris from Pet Shop Boys came to see Soft Cell live before Christmas when we performed the whole Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. They loved the show. They’ve always been very vocal about finding Soft Cell very influential. I was on holiday and then suddenly somebody came to me and I said, “Have a listen see what you think”. It sounded like a remix of “Purple Zone”, and then Chris’ voice came in and I felt very, very emotional really. There’s always been this heritage link between Pet Shop Boys and us, they’ve always cited us as an influence. They obviously went on to be way more successful than we ever were and have lasted a long time. So it was a nice thing that we came together in this marriage of the two bands.

Again, lineages! The past and present coming together.

Yeah! It suddenly struck me what was missing on this track. And it was Pet Shop Boys! (laughs) They asked me if I liked it, thinking I would probably not like it. I said I absolutely loved it. I felt rather emotional about it all. So lovely to hear Neil and me singing on the same record. I’ve got such huge respect for them. I’ve wanted to work with them in the past, but I was too shy to ask them (laughs). It was a really lovely moment to get that collaboration track.

I think it’s a great track because it has a huge chorus but a nihilist undertone.

I’m a bit of a nihilist when it comes to Soft Cell.

Yeah you are!

When I’m a solo artist I like to be very romantic, it’s my dark romantic side. But when I write for Soft Cell, I’m always the disillusioned romantic and cynic, that’s how it’s been from the beginning. I like to be cynical and a bit bleak with Soft Cell, I write about more worldy things compared to more personal emotions. I look outwards as opposed to inwards. There is this kind of bleakness to a lot Soft Cell, one of our earliest songs was called “Bleak is My Favourite Cliché”, in pre-Tainted Love days. There’s always been this bleakness and sardonic humour to Soft Cell. They’re often quite lonely songs about loneliness and a lonely view of the world sometimes, about being disconnected. I do love writing with Dave in that aspect, he gives me these minimal electronic tracks that are really lovely. Chernobyl for example, it was just him in his kitchen, he sent it to me and said he could take it up a notch or two in the production but I said, “No, don’t it sounds fantastic just as it is, just you playing in your kitchen”, I just went in and did a vocal over it, not singing, I was trying to do a bit of a Lou Reed vibe actually. The beauty of it is very simple. I love writing with Dave because it is very simple, just getting back to a simplicity.

Yeah I hear that. The nihilist tone really comes to the forefront on the title track, “Happiness not Included”. In “Purple Zone” the chorus offers some light, but “Happiness not Included” feels incredibly dark.

It is a very angry song.

Listen to "Happiness Not Included" by Soft Cell

It is. It also feels like a warning to someone younger, perhaps a naïve 23-year-old like myself! Despite your prolific career and colourful life, do you feel like “Happiness not Included” is how you feel?  

I wrote that song on a very angry day. There are a lot of different moods on this record. There are feelings which reflect this whole period we’ve been through. I didn’t want to write an album about viruses or pandemics or things like that. It would date the record and people wouldn’t want to listen to that once this is over. But there are a lot of feelings from these two years which go into it. Sometimes there are beautiful feelings and sometimes it’s all very bleak and angry. “Happiness Not Included” is an angry moment. It was originally a lot longer than what appears on the record. I just did this stream of consciousness in a way, writing down my thoughts. There were a lot more expletives. Also because I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was a sticker on it saying parental advisory (laughs).

(laughs) Yes, that would be very cool.

That’s always been one of my aims (laughs). But it got edited because it ended up being too self-indulgent.

So you had to reign it back in a bit?

Yeah I had to reign it back in and shorten it. But it’s that kind of outpouring - looking around at what was happening in the world, and feeling very frustrated and very angry. Hating social media. Hating everything else. I have this love hate thing with social media. I came off Twitter basically because I can’t be trusted on it to be honest (laughs). It was getting me into trouble. Someone said you can’t drop your Twitter account because you need to tell everyone you got a record out, but I don’t even know the password of my Twitter account now. I love my Instagram though, because Instagram I do for myself more than anyone else. It’s a beast that needs feeding but I like to remind myself of what I was doing a year ago because I can’t remember. It’s more like a personal diary that I let other people into. But I give something of myself so I can advertise what I’m doing as well so it works out. But I’ve had this love hate thing with social media… But I can’t exclude myself from the modern world, because then I’ll just become irrelevant, an invisible person.

I was going to end on one question here. You spoke briefly about how Dua Lipa rudely stole the title of your album.

Ah yes!

Well there are some enormous artists like Dua Lipa and The Weeknd who do a lot of this Eighties nostalgia. At the same time covers are integral to the DNA of Soft Cell. So it makes me think: do you listen to a lot of new music and is there anyone you feel could use a Soft Cell cover?

Hmm what am I listening to. I listen to a lot of things, I listen to a lot of Tyler, the Creator actually.
Oh wow seriously?

(laughs) Yeah I do!

Unexpected but very cool.

There’s a group called Wet Leg I really like them. I know she’s probably not the newest thing, but I love all of Lana Del Rey’s stuff. I feel an affinity for her. The way she writes about American decay, I really just get that.

Big Lana fan here.

Yeah she really taps into that whole Americana, the decay of America and I just love that. I feel we’re kindred in that way because I often write about what I feel is the decay of things I see as well. I don’t know. I tend to go back and re-listen to a lot of old stuff, I get most of my inspirations from that. It’s interesting that people are tapping into this Eighties period of pop, because when you look at it, it was the last real great period of individualistic pop. It really took its influences from everything going on in the Seventies, from glam rock to disco to punk, all those great musical genres of the 1970s that I grew up with in my teenage years. This went into the early part of the Eighties and there was a great kind of mix. This was the last great age of original pop. Brit pop in the Nineties was far too laddy for me, it was all anoraks and things like that. There are great bands like Suede that I love for example, I love Bret Anderson and Jarvis Cocker. But when I think of that time all I think about is anoraks and boring. The early Eighties, I’m talking about the early Eighties not the later when it became all adult-oriented rock, that bored me to tears. But the early Eighties was a great period of pop music. I think a lot of younger artists now tap into that because maybe it was the music their parents played and they are influenced by those sounds. It’s kind of interesting really.

So can we expect a Soft Cell, Tyler the Creator and Lana Del Rey collaboration?

(laughs) Well I work with a song writer called Chris Braid who produces and has written with Lana, and in Chris’s archive he has a song that Lana has written with him which was never released which is on Youtube, called “Damn You”. Chris and I recorded a version of it in the studio which was going to be for the Chaos and the Dancing Star album but we never got permission to release it because Lana’s manager said that maybe one day she would want to do this song and it can’t be released. But she had already leaked it on the internet. I’ve sung a couple of her songs live in concert, “Dark Paradise” and things. I go back and listen to her a lot.

I think you’re kindred spirits perhaps. You have a similar outlook on the world.

I think so Harry, I think so.

I’m going to have to wrap it up there. I just want to say a massive thank you. I feel really honoured to get to chat to a living legend.

You’re too sweet. It’s been lovely to talk to you and I really appreciate it.

 

*Happiness Not Included, the new album from Soft Cell is out now on BMG. To see new US tour dates and more go to softcell.co.uk

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