August 16, 2010
Transcending the eighties: Colin Marshall talks to Wang Chung lead singer Jack Hues
Jack Hues is the lead singer and, alongside Nick Feldman, primary collaborator of the rock group Wang Chung. Throughout the 1980s, Wang Chung released such albums as Points on the Curve, Mosaic, and The Warmer Side of Cool, as well as the soundtrack to William Friedkin’s film To Live and Die in L.A.. Now they’re back recording and touring again, having recently completed one U.S. tour and about to launch another in support of their new double EP, Abducted by the 80s. Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio show and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3 with music] [iTunes link]
I've listened to this title track, "Abducted by the 80s", a bunch of times. I'm not noticing a whole lot of fondness for the eighties coming through. I think about bands who first got popular in the eighties: some of them are using the eighties as their meal ticket, as nostalgia act; some of them — I think of Gary Numan, who would kill himself first. What are you feelings on the eighties?
The lyrics, if that's the right term, is a poem by a guy called Rob G. Rob is a sort of stand-up comedian/poet. I first came across this poem of his, "Abducted By the 80s", when my daughter Violet went to see him when she was up at university. She said, "Dad, you've got to hear this track. It's so funny. You'll love it." That very acidic take he's got on the eighties did appeal to me. He is relentlessly negative about it. But what's also interesting is just how resonant everything he says is as it passes through your consciousness. With the eighties, maybe now, it's not whether you love it or hate it; it's just how you reconcile yourself to it.
He mentions many things people who were coming up in those days might consider embarrassing: the new romantic shoes, the Mel Gibson mullet. Often, people will say, especially in the U.K., "Oh, think back to when I was this terrible twentysomething in the eighties, I listened to the Human League" — I like the Human League, I'm not calling them out — "doing cocaine, doing all this." Wang Chung is not among the things that embarrass them, typically. The name has become a catchphrase. No one seems to actually regret listening to Wang Chung. Do you get that same impression?
Well... no. I shouldn't say that, should I? And it's very nice of you to present it in that way. At the time, we did walk a line between being a sort of art-rock band — especially, that came out on To Live and Die in L.A. — but "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" is a mainstream record. We were intent that that was what we wanted to do. Some people find what we did a little on the irritating side, but what's interesting these days is that, with distance, certain things — even if they were irritating at the time — get this cloak of being "classic," if you like. "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" falls into that.
It's an interesting time to be revisiting those tunes and producing new music under the Wang Chung logo. We're pleased we've remained enigmatic enough as a band to be able to continue to redefine ourselves in 2010. We haven't quite got ourselves pinned down everywhere. There are still people who give us the time of day, so that's great.
I find this fascinating, this issue of redefinition. Not 20 minutes ago, I was at a coffee shop getting a cup of tea, and on the speakers came Rick Astley with "Together Forever". That guy's big hit came within a year or two of yours, and he's now treated as a human absurdity in many quarters. Wang Chung is certainly not. I don't mean to say nobody says, "Oh, I was listening to 'Everybody Have Fun Tonight', wasn't I a dumb youth?" But they don't treat you like Rick Astley, by any means.
No, no. But wasn't there something Rick was involved in recently, some online thing, that didn't do his reputation any good?
It's a prank you play online where you tell somebody a link is something enticing, but it ends up being one of his music videos.
Fortunately, we've avoided that one so far.
I want to return to what you've said about redefinition and how, initially, people had a hard time pinning you down anyway. I came to Wang Chung as a listener — maybe this is uncommon — in the later nineties, and through the Warmer Side of Cool album on top of that. I thus got a little different image. When I picked up the album, in my mind was this zeitgeist meme that "Wang Chung = the 1980s". I figured, "Well, I'll learn about this era." I did listen to all your albums and found more variety than I expected, but also came to find the sound I enjoyed was not particularly accurately represented by the likes of "Everybody Have Fun Tonight". Is that the feeling you might've had?
Oh, totally. Wang Chung does cover a range of styles. Myself as a musician, I started taking guitar lessons when I was about eight years old, so I learned classical guitar, although I wasn't particularly interested in classical music, per se. But when it came to leaving school, I went to university and did do a degree in classical music. I got into classical music through experience rather than it being rammed down my neck as a kid. What I'm avoiding is saying I was "classically trained," because that, to me, has all sorts of negative connotations for a rock musician. I feel I had the good fortune to explore it when I was good and ready, in a sense.
This is a very long-winded way of saying that the influences on the music come from a vast array or sources, from the gamut of classical music through the prog and jazz fusion Nick and I were both into in the seventies. Yet we were casting Wang Chung as a viable commercial act. If the seventies was when the bands really defined the music business, in the eighties the music business learned to define the bands, if you like. We were running with that. Geffen, a fabulous label, were a little company when we signed to them, so we had that real one-to-one attention a young band needs. But they were also a record company, and wanted to have a Top 40 hit. We were working with that tension all that time.
The pendulum used to swing in the band from the more commercial tracks, "Dance Hall Days" and "Everybody Have Fun", to the more — what shall we say? — musically adventurous things. Some of that's on The Warmer Side of Cool, "The World in Which We Life" on Mosaic, the instrumental tracks on To Live and Die in L.A. all reflect that attempt to write into a space which is not really commercial music space. It's interesting what you say; I might be noticing it online with some of the blogs and things, that there are people who relished that slightly more dense music we were writing and didn't have a problem matching with the commercial stuff.
Many are the times I've had to sit a friend down in front of, say, Points on the Curve, and re-educate them, to an extent. When somebody hasn't followed your and Nick's activities since the 1980s, when they have just these fleeting glimpes and sounds, how much of what they remember is an invention of you and Nick, and how much is it an invention of a record company, or of somebody perhaps advising you as to what style might work?
That's a very interesting question. Obviously the whole history of Wang Chung is bound up with the history of MTV, which has come up in a couple of conversations I've had recently, and the fact that Wang Chung was one of those bands on MTV every hour, in everybody's living room. That sense of a fleeting image is very much what TV is about, and what Wang Chung was really about at that time. Not so much about, but the medium through which we got into the American consciousness.
Ten years before, I guess we'd have been touring nine months out of the year. MTV was the way we came in. To me, it's no surprise that people's main sense is through the video for "Dance Hall Days" and "Everybody Have Fun Tonight". I don't want to say iconic, exactly, but they're very fixed in people's minds. Unfortunately, the way humans process things is almost always visuals first, then the sound a bit later.
But it is true also that, when you think of those visual images, even in the videos — this was a time of extreme appearances. Sure, you and Nick looked a bit eighties, we can admit that, but not to the extent of an ABC or some other band. It always seemed tempered; you were never completely of the era. Does that resonate at all with you?
I hear that very positively. And thank you.
But do you think it's true?
Well... yes, I guess so! It's hard for me to say. I'm used to people coming from an opposite viewpoint to yours. I'd always be thinking, "Well, we did our best." But with "Everybody Have Fun Tonight", I was talking to somebody about that video, and they were pointing out that it's this ridiculous party record, yet we deliver the video with these serious, intense faces. That was very deliberate, to create something in contradiction to the lightness of the records.
As in all era, you can only go far defining "the eighties" or "the nineties". Then, of course, there's what everybody was actually doing. We weren't particularly setting out to be eighties in our appearance. We just... wore black. Which was probably a good choice.
I want to keep the number of questions I ask about the eighties to a minimum for that reason, but even then, did you guys look around, see the bands popular alongside you — especially out of the U.K. — see the images, see their sounds, and think, "This is a little much. We've got to step back." Or was it just in your nature not to do the full-bore eighties stylistic choices?
I don't think this is necessarily a good thing, but I really wasn't watching what other bands were doing, or even listening to them that much. I got into this thing some artists do: "I'm on my course, and I want to follow it and I don't want to get distracted." With hindsight, that was not a great attitude, actually. Certainly through the nineties, when I started producing other artists, I started listening with a much more open mind rather than just an attitude of, "What can I nick from this?" That helped me as an artist.
Again, I don't think we saw a style we were trying to avoid or anything. We were just working with the producers we had, Chris Hughes and Peter Wolf, really trying to develop the music. We were old-fashioned enough to be into the music at that time, especially all the studio technology and the whole art of making of an album. That was the thing that interested Nick and I most over anything.
It is a fascinating progress you can see through the albums, the way the sound changes. I came to The Warmer Side of Cool in '99, it came out in '89. To the listener who might not know, it's still your most recent studio album. That sound hooked me; obviously it's different from the albums that precede it. How do you characterize the way your sound changed from the self-titled initial release to Warmer Side?
Wow, big question. I think Huang Chung, the album we released on Arista and recorded in the U.K., released in '81, still sounds like the purest version of what we were trying to do. Essentially, it was our live set. We didn't have a lot of experience working in a studio or of the American music business. Some of the songs on that album work well and, like I say, represent me and Nick in a pure way.
Then you have this pendulum swing, the pressure to come up with powerful hooks and choruses that are positive. Then the other side is this slightly more prog-influenced or jazz-influenced side of what we did, which is evident in songs like "Wait" on Points on the Curve. After "Everybody Had Fun Tonight", the pendulum had definitely swung a long way to the right.
The Warmer Side of Cool was an attempt to make a much more, if you like, art-for-art's-sake statement. The songs on that record, we weren't thinking in terms of, "We've got to have a hit single." It was more, "This is what we're writing, this is what we've done, and this is what you've got to run with. In retrospect, that was — not unwise, exactly, but we could've played the game a lot more shrewdly than we did.
It seems to polarize people today: many love it, many believe it isn't in keeping with what they loved about Wang Chung initially. Because it was the album before a long break, people will frame it saying, "They made this album and were displeased," or, "They couldn't face making another one." What is the actual feeling? Was it just time to take a break? Did it have anything to do with the album?
Yeah. It was quite a long time in the making. Geffen were not really pleased with it. "Praying to a New God" they put out as a single, but of course, even then, having "God" in the title caused all sorts of problems.
Even in 1989? Wow. That would fly today.
One would think, but back then, radio stations in the South, apparently, were not into it. How much was just them struggling with an album that was, at that time — it certainly wasn't like a fashionable album. It was heady, heading towards a Steely Dan record, which is a band we were compared with a bit in the Points on the Curve days. To that more complex musical stuff, as opposed to where music was headed: the beginnings of the influence of hip-hop, drum loops, a stripped-down sampling approach. We weren't looking at that at all.
To try and answer your question more succinctly, Nick and I fought quite a lot in that album for the different approaches we had. When Geffen were like, "Well, this is okay, maybe you should think about doing another one," I don't think Nick and I could have stomached another album. It was a natural time for us to part company.
I read a lot of music critics writing about the 1990s. They talk about what artists who became popular in the seventies and eighties did in the nineties. The consensus seems to be: not a good decade for either. The seventies artists were trying to strip down their sound, not credibly in many cases, and the eighties artists were doing the drum loops, trying but not really getting the influences of the time in. I mentioned Gary Numan earlier; it was a badly troubled decade for him. Are you glad to have missed the nineties as Wang Chung?
Yeah. In many ways, I think Wang Chung would have struggled in the nineties, although having said that, I wish we'd embraced the sampling and looping thing sooner, because we could've been quite good at that, with an ear for a hooky tune. Creatively, that decade of the eighties was a strong time for us. Being able to regroup out of any sort of public eye was a good thing. Nick went into A&R, and consequently stayed pretty well up to date with what was going on. I started producing younger bands and equally got a sense of the contemporary scene. We were cut off from trying to translate our eighties personas into the nineties. That probably saved us a lot of heartache.
You mentioned the dynamic you and Nick had and have today again, but you also mentioned it can turn sour given the wrong set of circumstances. You've mentioned in other interviews that it's a double-edged sword: there's a creative tension you can hear working well in the eighties stuff, but can potentially go wrong. It doesn't seem ay of the times things have gone wrong have made it to release. The times you and Nick don't work well together are the times nothing gets put out at all?
I guess that's right. Like I say, it's where that pendulum is. Sometimes we can both get into something like "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" and bring our talents to bear on something like that so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But The Warmer Side of Cool, in places, suffers from a lack of inspiration. But I don't want to nitpick. The way we are these days is a lot more open. Ideas the two of us come up with, we kind of support it. There's a clearer sense of the quality control required for Wang Chung.
How do you think of the difference in approach between you and Nick, the way you thought about music then or today?
In simple terms, Nick likes commercial music and likes success. It works in that framework quite easily. I tend to think it has to feel right for me. Maybe because I'm the singer; I have to feel, when I'm singing something, that I believe in it. I know that's an old cliché that old singers trot out, but it's kind of true. If you're going to be singing a song over and over, you've got to feel it. If I don't feel it, I don't want to be lumbered with it.
How much did you personally ever care about dance music as a form? The way you describe your background, it doesn't sound like the background of somebody who would get interested in the form of dance music. At a certain point you would've had to, given that you made a name for yourselves on that.
An artist like David Bowie is an example of someone who writes great "art music". An album like Let's Dance really embraces dance music, absolutely gets it on the money. In tracks like "Fame", the whole fliration he had with American dace music he had from "Station to Station" and "Young Americans", that was a massive influence on me. The way rhythm works in music is something I feel strongly. Little Feat were another massive influence. The way the rhythm works in that band, with Richie Hayward and Sam Clayton, it's very funky, sort of has a black feel, for want of a better term. That's always been something I really got, something I miss in a lot of English music, actually. That's one of the ingredients in Wang Chung that can be a turn-on or a turn-off for people, the extent that we embrace the dance feel in bands like Chic, those Bowie albums, Chaka Khan, Little Feat. All important in the way Wang Chung sounds.
When did the inkling come that you and Nick could work together again as Wang Chung and produce something satisfying to the both of you?
It was a sort of timing thing, in the sense that around about 2006 we did this show, Hit Me Baby One More Time, which was sort of amusing. Nick and I really enjoyed that. It also was around that time that we were looking at doing a new publishing deal with some of the old songs. Also around that time, Nick stopped working for the record labels, so he had more time on his hands to focus in on Wang Chung stuff. Probably that last thing was the most important ingredient in us getting new tracks together, getting this new project to completion.
What is the experience like of playing on a television show like that? I was very curious when I saw it, what that must've been, how you were even approached.
They approached us. I'm not sure how they chose us over the myriad of possible bands — but, I think, a good choice, as it turns out. The requirement was that you perform your hit — in our case, one of your hits — and then to a cover of a contemporary song. They sent a list of ten songs, of which six were available. I phoned up Chris Hughes, who produced Points on the Curve and my jazz records, the things I've done more recently, and went through this list, which included "Toxic" by Britney Spears, which I think is an amazing song, actually. I was quite keen to do that. But he said, "No, you should do 'Hot in Herre'. You could really nail it." I was going, "You're mad, aren't you?" I did a demo of it here at home, and I could get what Chris was saying. The way the rhythm works, the vocals; it's not a billion miles away from "Dance Hall Days". I relished the chance to do a tune like that on TV.
I was stunned. I was thinking to myself, it wouldn't have sounded out of place in a Points on the Curve-type setting, which alarmed me, in a sense.
Yes, everything we touch turns into eighties-ness. That was part of the challenge, to try and turn it into something credibly Wang Chung. I think that caught the way we can do something simultaneously quite musical, but quite witty as well, and quite light, that you can get into on all sorts of levels.
This takes me into the new tracks on the new double EP, Abducted by the 80s. What can you tell us about the musical seed that grew "London Orbital"?
It grew very much out of that keyboard riff, very much out of that particular sound, which is like an old Oberheim keyboard. What's fascinating about the modern world of laptops with every synthesizer you ever dreamed of is that you have access to these sounds that, in the eighties, were actually quite hard to create, or to come by the machines, or certainly to find people who could actually play these things and operate them effectively. Now it's all at fingertips. I was messing around with that particular kind of Human League, Kraftwerk-y type sound.
Then it was a question of developing the song. It happened over time, the sense that we probably wouldn't have done it in the eighties. It would have been a lot more stark, synth and drum box. It was making the texture a little more rich. "London Orbital" refers to this large motorway that goes around the perimeter of London. It's a way of avoiding the center of London, heavy traffic and stuff, this endless motorway I used to drive on collecting my daughter from university. It's trying to capture it and describe it, and I think it does that pretty well, that haunting evening atmosphere.
The contrast between that era and this one, as you mentioned, is that, if you could find somebody who could accurately and reliably program a DX-7, you were automatically raised in attention. Buy an Emulator II, you knew you could get attention based on that. But now, is that a new dimension of challenge, because a 12-year-old could play all of the sounds every eighties band ever used?
Yes. It is challenging. I did an interview where the final question was something like, "What are the differences between music now and music back in the eighties? I said something like, "The upside is, everything's available and everybody can do it. The downside is, everything's available and everybody can do it." That's how it is. Certainly I can remember getting hold of synths that would make that sort of sound. It was a very specific machine. They were very expensive. They were unreliable. You needed a technician to maintain them. You needed somebody pretty good to program them and play them. Now it's all there for the having. All the stuff that made it difficult in the eighties was peripheral to coming up with the idea in the first place. That's still the key thing, isn't it? All the gear in the world isn't going to create a great song unless you've got a great idea in the first place.
How much on your mind is it to make a continuation of the previous Wang Chung albums, and how much of it is going to be Wang Chung because it's you and Nick working together?
I think we're reasonably conscious that Wang Chung is a certain thing — I'd be hard pressed to define it — and that certain things are right for Wang Chung and certain things aren't. I have my jazz project, The Quartet. The music I write for that would simply not be appropriate for Wang Chung. Having said that, the music I'm writing now is inhabiting this strange hybrid world between the two. The thing I've worked on over the years is trying to bring the two areas of my musical expression, the classical jazz-influenced side and the more pop dance-influenced side, and synthesize them into something really effective.
I wanted to get an idea of what the creative space known as Wang Chung offers you. It is that hybridity?
I think that's absolutely the right word, hybridity. Nick and I were talking a little while ago about Wang Chung being a sort of laboratory where you can bring different musical things, combine them and see what new hybrids come up. It's definitely about hybridization.
"Stargazing" is now one of my favorite Wang Chung tracks, I think because there's some space to it, some exploratory space. It's a longer cut than most Wang Chung cuts. Do you think that itself offers it a lot?
I tend to write on the longer side. What I like about that song is the components are presented one by one, and then all together. It takes time to present each part — the guitar part, the bass part, the jangling guitar part — then combining them all at the end. That takes time to do. The time taken is legitimate; it's not just waffling on. It actually requires that space. That works well for Wang Chung. Sometimes the density of the music makes the shorter songs a little hard to digest at first. That bigger space is definitely an advantage for us.
In terms of technology or saleability or getting past gatekeepers, would "Stargazing" have been possible in, say, 1989 or before?
It would inevitably have been album cut, end of side one. Or even side two. It would not have been considered as a single, as such. One of the great things about today is, those considerations don't determine that fleeting impression the casual listener has from a band. It's quite often determined by those considerations around radio formatting, racking up something in a record store, which are not particularly helpful to bands. Whereas now, the length of a track is not a huge consideration, especially now for Wang Chung not really in a position to command huge radio play. It's about just attracting people into the music we're making. It really is down to the quality of the music-making. "Stargazing" is a track I'm proud of. I think it's a great song.
As you know, there's endless discussion about what is happening in the music business. One of the positive sides people bring up is that, despite the difficulties this has produced, now bands can directly commune with their audiences, offer them things, get feed back more easily. Give me an impression of this, but in 1986, it wasn't that easy to get response from the fans directly. There were channels. The communication wasn't always so clear. Is that correct?
Very much so. The sense I will give you is that, the more successful a band became at that time, the more hermetically sealed you became from the outside world.
I think that explains a lot I've heard in general.
Yeah, yeah. It's definitely a standard syndrome. I'm sure it happens now. It is possible to be in touch with fans, and it is more open, somehow. The discussion isn't so controlled by the labels. In the past, it was that whole thing of trying to present a united front. Everybody had to be on the same page, the same story. Now we can have a conversation like this, which I don't think I would've have with an interviewer like yourself back in the eighties: the depth of questioning, the awareness of the way the business works, we would not have touched on those sorts of things.
You've been touring. You've done a U.S. tour. You're coming back. You've done U.K. shows. What have you found out there on the ground, seeing fans come to your shows? I'm sure being able to communicate with them, seeing the response in various areas — what have been your impressions?
Very positive, actually. We get a wide range of people coming to the shows. There's definitely a cluster in the center of people who bought the albums in the eighties and bring them along to get them signed, and are very much the die-hard fans from back in the day. That's great, that they come out and support us. The loyalty is really touching. Then there are also much younger people as well who are into eighties music, and also people who are just sort of curious.
The really great thing about the gigging we've been doing is, we've been doing 60 percent old stuff and 40 percent new tunes. Almost without exception, people love the new stuff and experience the evening as a pretty seamless blending of the two styles. The way Wang Chung performs now, as a rock band, is probably more effective than we were back in the eighties, when we were more hindered by trying to reproduce the records. Now, we still reproduce the songs, as it were, but we treat the songs a lot more freely: extend them in places and create much more of a show for people.
I think about how touring must have been for a Wang Chung-type band in the mid-eighties, playing quite large venues, getting ferried around, having to do dozens of interviews right up to the moment you catch the plane, having to deal with all the detritus, feeling a disconnect from fans and all that. I think to myself, "No wonder Roger Waters spat on that guy." Is my impression correct at all of the touring back then?
I think it is. Most of the touring we did in the eighties was supporting large, successful bands. We toured with the cars in 1984 and with Tina Turner in 1987. We were playing huge stadiums. It was simultaneously really exciting, yet also sort of alienating. That was the experience I had through the eighties: you had this sense of something being created that was beyond your control, that somehow people were getting the wrong end of the stick. It was a struggle all the time for me; I'm not saying it would be for everybody. Now, it's completely different. The people who come to the show have already made up their minds that they like Wang Chung and that they're going to have a great time.
Although having said that, we never struggled to have a good time with audiences as a support act. In '84 we had "Dance Hall Days", in '87 we had "Everybody Have Fun". Those stadium gigs were pretty full. It never felt like everyone was at the bar, waiting for us to finish. We had really large audiences, very enthusiastic audiences You're talking about the sort of tight schedule, all the traveling, the fact that you would go to a place like San Francisco maybe three or four times but never actually see it apart from a very, very large car park. It's much nicer, this tour we've just done: you visit all these cities and have a bit of time to wander around, time to meet people, time to hang out with people. The whole thing is really enjoyable.
This is the first of a planned series of EPs. You have a series of EPs culminating in an album?
The plan is to release another EP of four tunes early next year, and then May time for the third EP, and then releasing the album maybe this time next year. That's if we ever get to the need to release an album. There is a sort of question mark over that as a viable medium to communicate the songs now. I like this double EP format we've got for the first release, in that it does make the songs more digestible. There's time to listen to each of those four new songs and get into them. As opposed to us putting an album of twelve new tunes out and it being like, "Okay, great! So now what are you going to do next?" Ekeing this stuff out is good for us, and it's good for the listeners as well, I hope. But there's about fourteen or fifteen tunes recorded, all pretty much ready to go, so it's not like we're short of material. In fact, there's other stuff in the can as well.
That's how we're going to do it: release these smaller packages, then, depending on how things go, we may release it as an album. Or we may just keep it to these smaller packages and keep doing that. The interesting thing is that one could release the next four songs pretty much as you've written them, as opposed to the time scale we used to be in with record labels, from writing a song to releasing it being maybe two or three years.
This is a fascinating perspective. You hear a lot of hand-wringing about the death of the album. I come to suspect, based on your description, that hand-wringing is mostly from record labels, not artists. For an artist, the album is a bit of an exhausting format, not quite one music is best released in? It seems like you're not wringing the hands.
I'm not, although I am high up the queue of people happy to lament the passing of the album. I think it is an amazing way for a band to display its wares, to put it slightly badly. My albums from the sixties in the seventies — the golden age, as it were — the obvious ones spring to mind. They are very, very satisfying ways to listen to pop music, and allow the artist to encompass a lot of different stuff. The focus on a particular track, the more single-oriented thing, I've never particularly liked. But then, I guess that was because that process was controlled by the labels. It's quite a different sort of thing when the artist is choosing to focus on a particular track.
Mixed feelings. In an ideal world, it would be nice to just be producing an album and stepping up to the plate, taking on the pressure that demands of you to be selective, coherent, and so on. But there's also a lot of fun to be had from doing these shorter things. Certainly we can be even more diverse. The next EP will have slightly more dance-oriented stuff on it. There's a further EP that will have the ballads on it. That's quite an interesting way to approach it, I think.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
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