Cult With No Name

Feeling the Adrenalin

January 2011


'Post-punk electronic balladeers’ Cult With No Name, comprise the east London duo of Erik Stein and Jon Boux. Having been the first international signing to LA label trakwerx in 2007 (founded by Jackson Del Rey of Californian punk outfit Savage Republic), CWNN’s first two studio albums - ‘Paper Wraps Rock’ and ‘Careful What You Wish For’ - have been met with considerable critical acclaim - including here at dsoaudio.com.

Blaine l. Reininger of similarly genre-transcending legends Tuxedomoon collaborated on their second album, Don Letts spun tracks on BBC6, and more recently Brett Anderson (Suede) rather impressively asked CWNN to open for him for the launch of his new album. Having provided the music for two blacker than black comedies at the Edinburgh Festival (‘Moz and the Meal’ and ‘Bored Stiff’), it’s fitting that Cult With No Name then turned their attention to cinema for their first DVD release, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Cult With No Name’s compulsive soundtrack approach brings out a humanity missing from all previous scores I've heard and is the perfect accompaniment to Robert Weine's expressionist classic.

Recently, CWNN returned with their fourth studio album, ‘Adrenalin’ - winner this month of the much-coveted dsoaudio !Recommended! award - and their second release to do so. Time then to sit down with both Erik Stein and Jon Boux to try and discover what makes them tick and CWNN's music so compelling.


Cult With No NameDSO: How did the two of you first get together, and did you quickly realise you'd be working together? What was it that clicked between you both?

ES: Well, it's the familiar tussle between fate and circumstance, although I'm not sure which of them won. We met whilst we were working at a central London branch of HMV... a long time ago. As you can imagine, HMV was a hotbed of frustrated artists, actors and musicians. Jon was managing the classical section and I the jazz section, and at some point, the twains met. We were just good friends for many years before the band started. Jon was already tied up with other combos, and I plodded away at being musically indulgent (very educational, in retrospect). That fact means that we're still pretty chilled out in each other's company. Our temperament is definitely part of our sound. I can't think of the specific moment when we decided to work together, but the moment basically presented itself to do something. From that point on, we realised we needed each other.

JB: Our musical get together started off as a bit of an experiment really. But it soon became very obvious that something clicked. I think we needed each other musically but from the off we had a working relationship that gave each other space. We instinctively knew each other's talents and didn't step on each other's toes - rare in my experience and something to hold onto. How does the writing process work between you, and who does what, when?

ES: Except for the instrumentals, I write the songs... usually on guitar, strangely enough. It's the most direct way to write. However, I'm not a great guitar player, nor do I have a great guitar. It takes Jon's very distinctive style of playing piano to bring the atmospheres, arrangements and dynamics to life. I also add loops and parts of my own, and it takes off from there (or crash lands, as the case may be). We work independently more than we do in the same room, but that's because we know (and trust) the limits of our respective strengths and weaknesses.

I always end up mixing the sorry mess that are our creations, because I'm a bit obsessive that way. Jon wisely leaves me to that bit. It's not fun listening to your own song 100 times in a row, and probably a little less fun to watch.

JB: I leave Erik to form the initial basis of the song - he's very prolific and can lyrically say things I couldn't even begin to do. There's a great point to our writing where the song starts to form into its next stage once I add my input and we start to bounce ideas off one another. It’s often very instinctive and can happen quite quickly. I'm a big believer in capturing an instant atmosphere and I think many of our songs do this.

Cult With No NameSpeaking of lyrics, how do you decide whether or not to include vocals on a track?

ES: It's really to do with the direction of travel. I tend to write songs rather than instrumentals and need Jon to squeeze them through his creative gauze to turn them into something that's more CWNN. Jon, however, only writes instrumentals as instrumentals. Putting words to his instrumentals would be kind of like saying they don't stand up to scrutiny on their own. I also feel that it's not a very integrated way of creating something, to simply slap words on top. Everyone knows that the worst bit of the wedding cake is the icing. For our score to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, which is 50% instrumental and 49% vocal, we decided to meet somewhere in the middle.

JB: Its an interesting question, as its never really occurred to me to leave off or add vocals once a track is on the way to completion. As Erik says our songs and instrumentals are fairly formed in their own way before we interact and turn it into CWNN.

Lyrics are often viewed as precious by their writers. Do you think this applies to you?

ES: Well some lyrics I'm proud of and some I'm certainly not, but I certainly don't hold any value to them. I've always held the view that songs are terrible ways to communicate a message, which is why song lyrics have been misunderstood and manipulated to suit the wrong cause since day one. I may write about things that I find fascinating, but I don't patronise the listener by looking down on them when they don't 'get' what I'm on about. Many songwriters do, I think. I'd argue that if, as a songwriter, you're precious about what you write, it's not the lyrics that are precious, but you. Once CWNN have released a song, I literally feel like I've let it go. It's now old enough to stand up and fight its own fights. Doesn't always win, though.

JB I can speak impartially here as I leave the lyrics to Erik. Again, its interesting as I often read a certain something into Erik's lyrics before I know the background of the song and somehow the mood follows. One of the things that fascinates me about Erik's lyrics are the small details. For me the best lyrics are ones that focus in on the detail but somehow manage to grab you with a wider concept. I could be getting carried away here, though.

So do you exclusively (or predominantly) write for yourselves or do you always have an eye on how you think it might be ‘received’ and, if the latter, does that affect your writing?

ES: I think it's always going to be a bit of both. In terms of writing for ourselves, there is certainly no pressure from our label to conform to anything, so we have total freedom (in theory). However, my own penchant for over-indulgence is these days tempered by the realisation there is a limit to what we can make a decent stab at. So, I suppose ultimately we write for ourselves...but act as our own audience too. On the other foot, the problem of writing too much with your audience in mind is that you can rarely predict what they will take to. There's a track on our first album called 'Maslow's Dog', which we actually wanted to drop from the album, that most reviewers picked as the standout! I'm certainly always very interested in what people think of what we do, but I suppose it's more important than anything else to find out why they think that. Pickyness should be unpicked.

JB: I'm always very keen to find out how are tracks are perceived and as Erik says understand why a song might be appealing or unappealing to someone - the findings are often surprising and very useful in giving a new perspective. I think the starting point is always to play for yourself though. Anything less than this and the writing and playing risks not being true. Although having said that, being in a duo is a very positive thing here - to echo Erik's words, we act as an audience for each other which stops any over indulgence on either side.

What sort of reaction/response are you hoping to solicit from those who hear your music?

ES: Much in the same way that I don't expect anyone to connect with my lyrics, I don't hope for any particular reaction, other than positive over negative. I really don't. I find it insulting to the listener. As they listen, it's their ears that own the music, not mine. Of course a positive reaction could constitute a number of things, from laughter to tears to being inspired to write a song that's a thousand times better than the one from CWNN that they've just heard.

JB: I just hope for a reaction. There's nothing worse than a shrug of the shoulders or indifference I think. Of course if the music touches people in a positive way I'm always going to favour that.

Cult With No NameYou’ve scored two silent films in the past couple of years. Is this just a stream of your expression, or could it become the focus of the band in the future?

ES: Well, one of those two films was just a brief short, Le Melomane by Georges Melies ]As part of a DVD compilation of Melies’ films released by Trakwerx]. The films really found us. It's more a stream of expression of the label we're signed to, Trakwerx, which we were lucky enough to fall headfirst into with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They'd already released new scores for Nosferatu and Battleship Potemkin (both by Del Rey and the Sun Kings) before we got our hands dirty. Essentially, we'll attempt most things that are asked of us, as long as those that are commissioning are aware of fuzzy framework we operate in. In terms of scores being a focus, I guess it's just another string to our bow. That comes first, focusing and taking aim then follows. As a general contradiction, CWNN drift. A lot of bands try 'be the loudest', 'be the quietist', 'be the most confrontational', 'be the most beautiful'. For me, it's like chasing rainbows. Cult With No Name just try to 'be'. JB: I think just a stream of expression, albeit a very enjoyable one. We initially approached the idea with a bit of trepidation. However, after coming out the other side, so to speak, the soundtrack work has actually had a definite influence on our music since. I would love the opportunity to do another one at some point - we definitely operate on the philosophy of never say no and that can come up with some very nice surprises.

Although your style has its roots in a blended new wave/classical/pop tradition, I've always seen you (in London) performing on the darkwave/industrial/electro circuit. Does this feel a bit incongruous for you? Does it throw up any issues of 'connecting' with audiences - particularly in supporting slots?

ES: You've hit the nail on the head in the question, I think. The new wave/classical/pop tradition - what IS that exactly?! Of course every bloody band says that they're misfits, but I genuinely think it's true of CWNN. Half of our material is acoustic (voice and piano/ guitar) and half is electronic. And the problem we find is that those two fanbases don't tend to mix. It's a sweeping generalisation I know, but fans of G. Numan don't tend to listen to R. Newman, and vice versa. So, when we play acoustic, 'singer-songwriter'-type venues (a horrible term) anything with a drum program and a synthesizer is met with mild disdain. Similarly, when we play synth/ industrial nights, the audience look on bemused, wondering when the loops are going to start. Although, it can be incredibly frustrating at times, ultimately being a misfit can only be a good thing. It's just too easy to fall into one of those two camps. Keep music lithe, I say.

JB: It is a challenge certainly. One of the great things about being in CWNN is that we never really fit in when we're performing live. That can be a frustration in the sense we're often positioned as a warm up act at electro gigs, but more a relief most of the time as our music is definitely not dictated by scene. Interestingly we've never really had an issue with support slots, with one of our best received gigs being with [Suede’s] Brett Anderson.

Which artists most inspired you to get involved with music and/or were/are the biggest influence on you?

ES: Growing up, I had a series of obsessive phases with bands that over the years have grown into a coat (ok, anorak) of many colours. The first band I ever fell in love with was The Stranglers. 'Rattus Norvegicus' is quite an album to own at the age of ten. A real education. I still love them.

By the age of 11, I was traveling up alone to central London record shopping, often going to the Music and Video Exchanges in Notting Hill. I started getting into quirkier electronic music when the Art of Noise and Yello started having their hits. Yello, in particular, lead me to my next obsession, The Residents. I vividly remember flicking through old copies of 'The Rock Yearbook' in my school library and coming across photos of four guys dressed in tuxdos with giant eyeball heads. I knew this was a band I HAD to hear. And so, for the next couple of years I became completely fixated by them (I still love them). Getting into The Residents helped introduce me to a brave new world of music, and helped to broaden my taste. After all, to be a Residents fan you need to be pretty thick-skinned, or cloth-eared as some would argue. Tuxedomoon, Captain Beefheart, Numan, John Foxx, Devo, Wall of Voodoo/ Stan Ridgway, The Associates, OMD, Danielle Dax, Negativland, The Nits and about a million others all soon followed. I've sort of accidentally grown into a serious collector of obscure electronic post-punk music. A few thousand records and not counting. I collect for the music though. The creativity, resourcefulness, passion and total lack of inhibition (and often talent) is still what inspires me above all else.

JB: This is always a difficult question, as I can never quite pinpoint the moment of inspiration that urged me to get involved in music. Playing piano from an early age, I was not surprisingly spurred on by other piano players, and in particular Elton John (his early 70s period, “Madman Across the Water”, etc.). There are also so many tracks that have provided constant inspiration, but I do draw particular influence from ambient writers (e.g. Harold Budd, Brian Eno), the minimalist composers (e.g. Arvo Part, Phillip Glass) and early 20th century classical music (e.g. Vaughan Williams, Copland and Faure). I do tend to lean towards more downbeat music, with the likes of The Blue Nile also being a great influence. One of the things that I feel works so well with CWNN is that Erik and I have some very different influences yet at the same time have found common ground with our own tastes, for example OMD and The Nits.

Are there any recent musical ‘discoveries’ that have excited you that you’d like to share with our readers?

JB: A few on my iPod at the moment. A recent discovery for me is the Leeds band ILiKETRAiNS, who are exciting. I think there are some great bands out there who have been releasing music over the past couple of years, my current favourites are tracks by The Boxer Rebellion, Foals and The Hours.

ES: I'm going to make myself unpopular here. I simply don't have the time or interest to listen to anything new, I'm too busy discovering the misspent youth I should have had. I genuinely can't recall that last time I bought a new album from a new band. There are reasons in that I'm always instinctively drawn to the source of any genre, as it usually crackles with excitement. For example, I've recently been listening to loads and loads of roots reggae. Why on earth would someone listen to modern roots when you have the likes of Burning Spear? For me, the same applies to anything, be it synth-pop, punk, noise, ambient. When you want to be educated in something you turn to Yoda, not Luke Skywalker.

I think you both have quite a reserved/modest disposition. Erik, do you find being the singer (inevitably leading to you personally being the focus of peoples’ attention live) is something you’re comfortable with? How does it feel to be the ‘front man’?

ES: You think? Well, we're fairly reserved people, I'd say. Why rage against the machine when you can seduce it? In terms of being a front man, it's taken a while to get used to, but there is an ego in me sadly, so I guess I do enjoy it. When we began playing live, I used to write what I was going to say between songs on a sheet of paper by my synth. I was that nervous. These days that awkward silence comes more naturally. Cult With No Name are also not the kind of band that inspires fanatical devotion or hysteria, so I've not had to deal with much of that. However, it's fascinating how watching someone standing on stage and singing into something resembling a phallus can change a quite rational person into something altogether different. I've nothing against it, of course. Ladies, please form an orderly queue. No, stop, not for the exit!

Cult With No NameHow and why did you hook up with your label Traxwerx?

JB: Erik can provide more detail as he was the instigator. We are very lucky to find a label like Trakwerx though. They really do give us real freedom and encouragement. Their approach to the finished product is fantastic as well - we love the album sleeves they did for Adrenalin.

ES: And the story is this. I used to run an obscure post-punk music blog, which posted up a review of an obscure classic from my collection every week. A friend of mine said it was the only way I'd get attention for my own music. I was terribly insulted by this suggestion at the time of course, but he was quite right. I got quite a few of the original artists involved in the records I reviewed emailing to thank me and saying it was the first time anyone had written about them in years. One such fellow was Jackson Del Rey, founding member of Savage Republic and 17 Pygmies. I'd reviewed the Pyg's mid-eighties classic 'Jedda By the Sea'. To cut a long story short, we struck up a friendship and a year or two down the line he actually re-formed the band and started up a label (he'd run a few in the past too). He liked what he heard of Cult With No Name and the rest is his story...and mine. For the record, 17 Pygmies have released more stuff since reforming than they ever did in the eighties. Their second coming is still very much going. Check out the album 'Celestina'.

Can you each cite a key musical epiphany moment?

ES: I can't really recall the precise moment I became obsessed with music. I guess an important moment would have been buying that first Residents record ('Diskomo'). I remember watching it spin round on my turntable for the first time thinking, 'what the fuck is this?!' I also remember my mum saying a few days later, 'those new records you bought sound good...except for the one that's Chinese.'

JB: I was very lucky to have a very inspirational (and eccentric) piano teacher from an early age who really instilled a love of music, but it was really only when my first live band moment came about (aged 17) that I knew I was hooked. There have been many moments since and I'm pleased to say that CWNN has provided much of these.

In all your years of gig going, which ones provided life changing experiences/stand out for you?

JB: There are many, but seeing The Blue Nile live have produced stand out moments, in particular the first time I saw them play just after their "Hats" period. One of the most memorable live music experiences I've seen was a classical moment, with a performance of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring".

ES: I don't know about life changing. I go to gigs as much to be educated as entertained these days, which is genuinely sad. A few gigs that really stood out for me were The Nits at Bush Hall, Tuxedomoon at Electrowerks (which I had major personal involvement in), ESG at Dingwalls, Laurie Anderson's 'Stories from the Nerve Bible' tour, The Pale at the Venue (many years ago), Brian Wilson performing 'Pet Sounds', Sparks' final concert of their 21 album spectacular, The Residents' 'Wormword' tour, and Devo at Shepherd's Bush. Some are memorable for the irreversible effect they had on my ears, others my heart, and some my shoes.

Assuming such a thing exists, what’s the 'plan' for developing CWNN? (Is there a ‘masterplan’ or do you just play as you go?)

ES: No plan. We're 100% play as we go. As a general rule, we wait to be asked. Usually we'll have an answer.

What question didn’t I ask that you’d have liked me to? And what would your answers be?

ES: That's the toughest question you've asked, you know. Perhaps a question about the meaning behind certain songs. What would be my answer? 'Well, which songs?'

JB: Well this has been one of the most comprehensive interviews we've had, but if I was to choose one extra question it would be what's the best bit of musical advice you've ever had. And the answer is 'less is more...'

 


See also:

Gig Reviews - Cult With No Name

Music Reviews - Cult With No Name

Official Cult With No Name website: http://www.cultwithnoname.com


INDEX NEW? MUSIC GIGS INTERVIEWS PROJECTS FEEDBACK LINKS -DSO