By: Mattias Huss
Photo by: Joe Dilworth
Alan Wilder seems doomed to be remembered chiefly as the technical mastermind behind the pop epics of Depeche Mode. But pop was never his thing. When left to his own devices, he transforms into a director of psychological sound thrillers, masterfully evoking the dark currents of the subconscious mind. Since 1986 his musical project Recoil has evolved from a disquieting daydream into a pleasant nightmare.
“Happy people aren’t very interesting”
There is definitely something about darkness, isn't there? I mean darkness as in death, misery and mystery. The morbid and the unknown are endlessly fascinating in an orderly society full of regulations and taboos. Sometimes you catch yourself thinking about the weirdest things.
For instance, have you ever wondered what rushes through the mind of a pilot realizing his plane is just about to crash?
Alan Wilder has made an album about it. It's called "Liquid"
– "Black Box" was originally just one track, based on this personal experience of a plane crash, Alan Wilder says. Then I realized it would be a good way to compile the album, to split it up, and to start and finish with it. The songs in between are like the pilot's life flashing before his eyes just before the crash.
In other words, "Liquid" is pretty gloomy stuff, and so was Alan's last record, "Unsound Methods". Whatever it is that comes unleashed during Wilder's sessions in his personal "Thin Line" studio, it's certainly not in the mood for a party.
– It just comes out that way, Wilder says, almost apologetically. The thing is that every small sound that works is generally made by mistake. So I don't really know what I'm doing, I'm just fishing in the dark. And what comes out tends to be dark. I suppose I'm just interested in human nature. And the fact is that happy people aren't very interesting.
Hate, lust and paranoia
Accordingly, the vocalists on "Liquid" are serious; no bullshit people. Spoken word artists Nicole Blackman (who has recorded with everybody from KMFDM to Bill Laswell) and Samantha Coerbell deliver disturbing and intense monologues on hate, lust and paranoia, carried further into darkness by the pulsing atmospherics delivered by Mr Wilder.
– I don't really follow the spoken word scene, he says. I'm just looking for people with a certain ability to control their vocal expression, which spoken word artists obviously have. I need people to come in and write the lyrics. I wrote some lyrics for "Construction Time Again" but I was never happy with them. They sound stupid.
Alan Wilder likens himself to a film director when it comes to making music.
– The guest artists on the record are like actors coming in and acting in the film I direct. My part is integrating them into the music.
Of course, they need to be people with a view of things similar to mine. Otherwise it wouldn't work.
Boiling people in oil
Impressingly, one of these people, performing some really twisted blues on the track "Strange Hours", is voice magician Diamanda Galás.
– She is a strong minded person, and a lot of fun, says Wilder. She just can't tolerate stupid people though. We're both on Mute, and I only met her once like in 1983 and said hello. It was great to work with someone with a classically trained voice. I really like her more restrained singing, the way she sings on the first part of the song. Like she's just about to break out. With the music I had, which was a really a dark blues kind of thing, I thought if I could get her to sing in that style, it would just have to work.
It seems that it did. Galás sounds really otherworldly, and quite different from the performances on her own albums. "Strange Hours" has been picked as the first single from the album. The original choice for first single, that was later changed, is just as remarkable. "Jezebel" features gospel vocals of the Golden Gate Quartet in a heart chilling biblical tale.
– I found this accapella song on an old record. It was just perfect, a really gruesome story about boiling people in oil and stuff. So I sampled it, pitched the voices down and messed around with it. I've tried to contact these guys to get permission for using the sample, but I haven't been able to find them. They started in the 1930s, but I've heard one of them is still alive, about 83 years old and still playing with new people.
Can’t really sing
The track is immensely well executed and stylish, reminiscent of Barry Adamson's best work. Who also happens to be signed to Mute.
– I know Barry, he made a remix for me. He's a nice person. But his music is more jazzy, and not as dark as mine. I think we're similar in that we both need these different singers to come in to retain interest in our music. And at the same time we need to be in complete control of things.
Both Wilder and Adamson left successful groups to break free of creative restraints and concentrate fully on their solo work. While Adamson has lately started to sing on his albums, Wilder has no such plans.
– Naah, I don't really feel I can sing, not lead anyway. Though in fact, I do sing a bit of backing vocals here and there on the album. The most important thing for me is that Recoil develops over time. I was worried that this album might be more of a sequel to "Unsound Methods" than a new, different work in it's own right.
Alan Wilder really doesn't need to worry. If this is a sequel, it's something like what Terminator II was to Terminator. Something bigger, badder and very, very explosive.
Shunt official homepage run by Alan Wilder and his partner Hepzibah Sessa – contains our Release printed issue 3/97 cover story translated into English, with lots of special pictures from Alan Wilder’s own archives
Mute Records Recoil's main record company
Reprise Records Recoil's US record company
Intercord Recoil's German record company
Playground Music Recoil's Scandinavian record company