Front 242 played the London Astoria during the second leg of their Re:Boot tour on Sunday 22 November 1998. The band played at the same venue a year earlier to a capacity crowd. They need not have worried if this revisit was too soon; by the time the band were ready to come on at 9.30pm the floor and balcony were both solid with thousands of 242 fans. Just half-an-hour before they were due to go on, I met up with Patrick Codenys of the band in his dressing room. Declining Patrick's offer of an orange Kit Kat, I began the questions...
Rob Dyer: The last I heard, Front 242 were experiencing problems with their old label. What is happening with the band at the moment?
Patrick Codenys: We are on trial against our last record label, Play It Again Sam. It's gonna be probably a three to four year kind of trial. It's all about figures - no big deal. It's nothing artistic whatsoever, but besides that the band is totally free and the band has no contract. When we released the live album of the Re:Boot tour we just picked up the best label at the moment that we thought for that kind of music and that was it.
You have been together for over a decade, how have the relationships within the band changed?
Well, I think to have been in a band now for 17 years (certainly when we stopped it was 15 years of work), it is like a long couple's life. At the end it is worse than being married for 15 years! [Laughs] I think all the people in the band are very reasonable because we had a very protected way of working together, since everyone had their own sector of work. And that's nice because you can develop yourself and you kind of never bother the others or are never trying to take the other's job. We are very disciplined people and we know what our limits are within this band, and that's very fair. We are a bunch of friends also, we used to live a mile away from each other, so the relations are great. The only thing is that at one point there were so many exciting electronic bands and the world was moving so fast and we were the only ones who still had to work in the old-fashioned way. Which means an album every year and six months in the studio. In the 80s the process [for F242] was faster than anybody else, but in the 90s it becomes one of the slowest. So we really needed to cut down, to consider new ways of working, and have a look at other artists and what was happening in the world and I think that was a healthy decision.
Has your approach to writing changed over the years?
It is the same way as it has always been, which means a certain percentage of technology is involved - new stuff, exciting stuff. Also the music scene has moved on. There is much more competition now. In the 80s we were one of the only bands, there were others but still very few bands doing electronic music. Now, there is much more competition and excitement also. The 80s for us was really a struggle - and I really mean it. Rock was the establishment and it was very hard for us to break down all those doors. The 90s definitely gives us great satisfaction because everything we fought for has now happened. At the same time you feel less involved, you don't have as much anger or anguish about things - it's more moderated. It's time to try and find other tracks - research other areas. We are like at the Middle Ages of electronic music, there are still so many things to be done.
Since the music industry is more open now to purely electronic music has this made things easier for you?
No, I wouldn't say so. Firstly, you don't make our kind of music in reaction to anything. You keep on working in what you believe in. Sometimes you are in phase with what is successful and sometimes you are underground. We will probably always be more in the underground. Five years ago for instance, the techno scene and jungle and all those things were very popular but it was too light for us. Now, with bands like the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers and more of those trashy and edgy electronic bands, it is a good time to be exposed to what we do.
Do you have a favourite track and album by Front 242?
Headhunter is definitely our main track because it has all those magic elements to be an alternative hit which is really difficult to do. You either go with a hit and break the charts or you are underground. But being in-between and trying to reach a certain type of success with alternative music, when you can reach that it means you have the power to make people understand and to go to more underground music. I think that was very true of that song. And for albums - the first one, Geography, definitely. It represents a lot of things for us.
Do you find touring a drag or do you still manage to get a buzz out of it?
Yes we still do have a buzz. It's not always the same artistic discipline that excites you. Sometimes it is cinema, graphic design, computer graphics. We are still very curious human beings and we enjoy artistic life a lot.
How does Front 242 continue alongside the band members other projects?
Well, I think the fact that we reworked all the songs helped bring in new energies. It's never a problem to be together, to have a good kick on stage. The other projects we don't judge them. I think it is normal that everybody wants to blow or to do research. Some people take it very seriously, others just want to be on the road and do their stuff. It depends, personally, I've never had the chance to develop a project but I think that '99 will be a productive year for most members.
Do you get much feedback from your fans?
Yes we do. We are very open at the gigs to shake hands or people come and talk to us. We have a very active fan club - half merchandising, half fan club - that answers a lot of the questions. It's very important to be close to fans because we hate the music industry in general; so the closer you get to the people the healthier the relationship between your music and the people who listen to it. Because, after all, there is nothing else.
Are you big film fans?
Yeah, we watch a lot of movies.
Do films influence your song writing?
Oh, definitely. I think cinema is the one artistic discipline that makes me dream. It's a real dream factory. It's very important. On all levels, serious movies or purely light entertaining movies, it's very important - the aesthetic of the image. But you can hear it in most of our albums. We have tried to translate the complexity of the picture into music - it is that obvious. Sometimes you think 'this movie is great, these pictures are great. I'm gonna try to do that with the music' and okay sometimes you fail, but sometimes your music goes even further.
Do you follow the electronic music scene, do you have any other favourite bands?
I think it is more easy for me to follow genres rather than point to artists. I know that people in the band like drum 'n bass, jungle - all those very creative things - guys like Goldie, Ronnie Size - that's very trendy. There are other bands - I think Empirion is doing a good job in some of their work. Massive Attack is a movement in creativity. We just listen to everything: Morcheeba, Sneaker Pimps stuff like that. You just buy records and listen - not everything is good but you grab some interesting stuff. Then the French wave is great also: Daft Punk, Stardust, Bob Sinclair and all those things, really trendy and funny. What it more difficult is to find heavy good underground stuff. That is something I miss at the moment.
Do you go to clubs?
Yes we do, but clubs in general now, in Brussels, are pretty much just the trendy French type of music. Sometimes you hear really good tunes but it is more difficult to find bands. I remember some pieces by Renegade Soundwave that were enormously good. Here and there you can pick up one artist, but there's no band that I went to see and thought 'wow!'. In the 80s there was a hardcore of electronic industrial acts - now electronic music is more mainstream. There is less of a concentration. There is definitely less of a concept in everything. So there is less leadership somehow. It's bad I would say. It's like in the world of pictures - people just take and recycle constantly. You might see kids of 14 playing with Van Gogh paintings and not knowing who Van Gogh is, you know? I always say that the problem is that you have to develop a human character. Before you are an artist you have to be a personality and that is something that is missing. The results are so easy, thanks to technology, that you have a lot of things happening - a lot of sounds but little concept. And so there are a lack of personalities and leaders, and somehow people need leaders for direction. People have a lot of ideas but sometimes they don't know themselves how they did it, or how to master the technology, and mastering your art is very important.
When can fans expect new material from Front 242?
I think it is very difficult for Front 242 to do an album. Not because we don't want to because we are a good bunch of friends. We feel maybe it's not worth the pressure. It is a band that continued a very good career from beginning to end and it's nice like that. Also, potentially, each member is free to do whatever he wants, the technology is there, it's cheaper and do it is possible to extend. To go back into the studio is something we really have to think about. Again, we need a concept, we have to think it is worth it. We are not gonna do it for money but we have to do it with a certain conscience I think that people who were listening to Front 242 really found something in it and wanted to have something to feed them and if we don't have this material we shouldn't do it.
How has the Re:Boot tour been?
I have nothing to say but that it is great, simply great. A lot of people are everywhere we play. You see here, it is the second time we come to London [on the Re:Boot tour] and it packed again, we don't get it! [Laughs] America was the same. We played two days in Chicago, San Francisco, New York was packed. I think people came to see the band either because the fan base stays and they still trust the band, also there are a lot of curious people coming because of some press and Front has some credit as a good techno band. The whole thing together makes it a good crowd and it's well-packed and the shows are powerful, and everybody enjoys it. I think also that it comes from the fact that there is a lack of strong electronic bands on stage - that's something missing for a lot of people. There is a future for electronic music on stage. Maybe not like a rock concept, but more than just a DJ spinning and I think that is maybe one reason why people come to the concerts.
You're welcome. Enjoy the gig!
Interview by Rob Dyer. My sincere thanks to Marie at Cybase23 for organising this interview - it wouldn't have been possible without you!