Belgian sampling innovators Front 242 have been accused of encouraging a fascist following - where does the sampling stop and the politics begin? David Bradwell brings news from the front.
Front 242: fascist agitators or sampling stylists? When do samples lose their meaning and become art?
FRONT 242 ARE a complex case. On stage they appear to be three angry young Belgians with very little hair and a capacity for danger. On vinyl they become doomladen sample merchants who make quirky lance records often classified as "new beat". In the flesh they have been known to partake of vast quantities of rock 'n' roll mouthwash and be impossible to interview. Add to this rumours of unsavoury political persuasions and a recent British TV interview which was conducted entirely in French, and the prospect of interviewing them could hardly be described as "inviting". Nevertheless, prepared for the worst, I arranged to meet the band's Daniel B at a hotel n the day of their biggest London concert to date, to discuss music, technology, and the problems of being a Belgian.
Daniel B is the mysterious fourth member of Front 242. He never appears in photographs, and when the band play live he is never to be seen onstage, preferring instead the safety of a chair behind the mixing desk. Despite his low profiie, he plays a key part in defining the Front 242 sound. His manner is so far detatched from the Front 242 the public have grown to know and fear, that for the first ten minutes I genuinely thought I was in the wrong room.
Daniel B formed Front 242 in 1981 when he was working in a music shop. The band come from a non-musical background, stemming from an interest in the low end of technology. Together they saw synthesisers as a way for them to make sounds as non-musicians, and have since expanded their music directly in line with the technology available. Their working method is unusual in that they seldom work as a group, preferring instead to compose either singly or in pairs, passing cassettes and data disks to each other as tracks take shape. As well as Daniel B, both Patrick Codenys and Richard 23, the band's other two musicians, have home studios based around a sampler, rhythm programmer and four-track cassette machine. The Front 242 line-up is completed by Jean-Luc De Meyer, whose unique vocal style and views on the role of emotion in music have done much to place his hand in the media spotlight.
The other reason people are talking about Front 242 is the musical movement known as new beat. This originated in Belgian nightclubs and has fiIled the void left by the passing of acid house. The media have been quick to point a finger at Front 242 as the leading exponents of new beat, but the band themselves have a very different view.
"People are linking us with new beat because we are both from Belgium and they have discovered us at the same time, but we've existed so long that you can't really associate us with it", Daniel B explains, in a soft French accent. "If you want to, you could say that we initiated the new beat in Belgium, but that's all, we have nothing musically in common. I feel more affiliated with acid house and house in music terms."
FRONT 242 PREFER to think of themselves as making "electronic body music", a term they invented for the sake of distancing what they do from new beat. They were recently quoted on TV denying any space for emotion in electronic body music, but opinions on this differ within the band.
"That was Jean-Luc's point of view because, as the singer, he doesn't get involved with the machines we use, and my opinion is very different", Daniel B asserts. "Because we are non-musicans, we see everything apart from acoustic drums as a machine, even electric guitars. And machines can pass emotions. You can treat the sound of a synthesiser so badly that it can inspire fear in people, and fear is an emotion.
"Associations of sounds can make you think of images and an image of people who are in love is indirectly an emotion. We don't try to humanise machines because that would be pointless. They make so many mistakes on their own that we don't need to. MIDI makes mistakes because it slows down if you transmit too much information at once, and with sampling, if you don't cut right on the first byte there is a delay. When you get all of these things happening together the result is not machine-like anyway because there are so many faults. Our basic philosophy is that we like very heavy emotions - like fear and war - but sometimes we just try to create craziness."
"If I don't see people onstage move I can't do the job behind the mixing desk, and if they feel I have my hands in my pockets they think it's a bad concert so they take it easy."
The synthesisers Front 242 are using to create these feelings date from 1981, due to their policy of never discarding equipment. Daniel B reels off his list:
"From the early days we have things like the Roland System 100 Modular system, Korg MS20s, and British equipment like the Wasp and Gnat. Then, more recently, we have DX7s, and an Oberheim Matrix 1000. We did throw away the Akai S612 sampler because it was too small, and we have tended instead to stick to S900s and now S1000s. We still have one Emulator II, although I don't know why we keep it because it's always broken. As New Order said, it breaks when you need it, but when you don't it works.
"We buy the latest things if we think they can provide us with something new. We think of ourselves as a very low-tech band and use things that are available to anybody. For effects we use Quadraverbs, Roland reverbs and so on; in fact around 50% of our work is based on the effects we've used. Basslines are originated by a reverb quite a lot, where we only use the wet signal. For example, the bass on 'Headhunter' is only reverb, and if you hear the real bass track of it it's quite different."
On the sequencing side Daniel finds favour with the tried and tested Atari/Pro24 combination. In recent years all Front 242's rhythm tracks have been programmed on their sequencer, as drum machines have been replaced by samplers, although they still retain their Sequential DrumTraks. Sampling is now the single most important element in the Front 242 sound. Daniel B explains what he aims for when sampling.
"We look for quality - not in terms of whether or not it's 16-bit, but what the sample can do musically. We have 30 channels of TV in Belgium from all the countries around us, so you can sample a lot of different feelings and atmospheres from all those countries. When you do that a lot you take the sounds for the sounds themselves, and not for what they could be in a particular piece. We sample a lot from movies, but rarely from other bands. Sometimes you're in the car and you turn the radio up really loud until everything is distorted and you put the Pearlcorder on. You don't remember what you recorded because it's very distorted, but when you loop the sample you can get some really nice sounds.
"We also pass films amongst us, and on 'Never Stop' you can hear samples from Predator. Patrick is into noises and things that don't fit anywhere until you put them into a piece of music. I want a beginning and end to my samples - I don't just take anything, but we complement each other. I can't define how Richard samples, but when we get together and listen to everything we've got, everything fits as if it was built by one person, so it's a perfect way to work. We even get cassettes from people in America who like the work of Front 242 and who record samples for us that they would like to see in our music.
"The meaning of the sample is not important - we have to use communist propaganda we do it but if we have to use fascist propaganda we will do that as well."
"The meaning of the sample is not that important, although what is said and what it inspires in people is. We try not to give a meaning to the words, because we use anything, there are no taboos. If we have to use communist propaganda we do it, but if we have to use fascist propaganda we will do that as well. There are no borders for us - if it sounds OK we use it. When you use propaganda or politics you have to be aware that the message that those people intended may not come across in your music. When Jean-Luc writes words, they get corrected by the other people and if three people decide a song is about something else he has to begin again. If you take 'Welcome To Paradise', we are speaking of something, but people can't say if we are speaking bad or good of it."
The political side of Front 242 is something that has been causing concern wherever they appear. They employ Nazi imagery based around the colours red, white and black and seem to encourage aggression in their audience. Again, Daniel B seems far removed from the controversy, calmly explaining why they use such political references.
"It's art, it's like information. I don't know if you have the same feeling in the UK because you don't have the same information we've got in Belgium, but you can't get away from it. When you are in the USA there is a lot of information but it's all USA information. You can switch channels, but it's the same thing said another way. When you are in Belgium you get the German opinion, the French, the UK and the Belgian. That's when you get so informed, because it's four different opinions. You have to make your own mind up because you know none of the four is right. We try to emulate that in the music. We try to put so much information into it that some people tend to get lost. I think in the songs you can find politics, but so much politics that you don't know what is true."
FRONT 242 SONGS begin with the rhythms and work up. While it is easy to spot influences from the likes of Depeche Mode on some of the tracks, Daniel B denies an direct plagiarism. His own influences include Kraftwerk and Can, although he considers it more as conditioning, and prefers to name movements rather than individual groups.
"When we compose, if you can call what we do composing, there are no frontiers or barriers. On 'Never Stop' there is a riff that reminds me very much of something by Depeche Mode, but when you're working on it you have no time to feel that, it's only afterwards that you realise what you've done.
"The way we work on a track depends on who initiated the song, and even then there are no rules. On 'Welcome To Paradise' we used a lot of preacher samples. When I work I tend to always start with a tempo. I tried 12Obpm, and I saw that the majority of the preachers in fact spoke and sang at 120. All of the song was built around that tempo, and all of the samples in the song were chosen to fit that pattern.
"We even get cassettes from people in America who like the work of Front 242 and who record samples for us that they would like to see in our music."
"We've never started a song with the voice, it's always been the bassline or a rhythm track. Blend The Strength' is purely rhythm. We also have our own studio, and that cuts out the need for demos. It's based around a very low-tech 16-track machine with DAT for mastering, but it does the job for us. We feel at ease with what we and we don't want the big sound of the big studio.
More specifically, 'Headhunter' was conceived in terms of the effect on the bass and the heavy rhythm, but we didn't think that it would become a song. Then, after Jean-Luc had put some text on it and it had gone round amongst us a few more times, we realised it could be something more than what we call an intro. We see music as long intros, but we never say that this will be the next 12", we never know what it will become even until we cut the master.
"For the moment, my personal opinion is that we don't succeed very much, we only achieve maybe 50% of what we would like to do. I see other people, like Bomb The Bass, S' Xpress and Adrian Sherwood working with the same kind of idea succeeding much better. But you always like more what other people do, and I hasv a relation with my work that is not a relation of love. I never like what I do. I don't think we do anything we could realise with what we have, but time is our major problem."
Commerciality is something Daniel B actively tries to avoid. The band's latest single, the reasonably commercial 'Never Stop', was originally conceived as one track for a CD, but record company pressures and Daniel B's persistence meant it finally emerged as one part of a five-track package.
"Combined with the other songs it takes another dimension because even if there are influences, the other things should erase what is too commercial", he explains. "There is an interaction between the songs in the minds of the people who are listening, because you can't listen to one song without thinking we also did the other one. For us, what we do onstage or on record sounds soft and it's only when other people describe the music that you begin to realise that you do something very hard. We don't try to avoid commerciality as a group, but I do personally. I hate it, although I'm not sure why."
Sometimes what the band and public see as commercial or otherwise can be wildly different things. For example, Front 242 have a reputation for playing hard, aggressive concerts which can be very intimidating to attend. Because the band are so close to what goes on, they see things very differently. Maybe, after nine years, they have just become accustomed to it. On the whole, playing live is very important to Front 242, but as Daniel B explains, it is not something he is particularly enthusiastic about.
"On stage we use an eight-track recorder because we've had bad experiences with live sequencers - they fail all the time. The Emulator II is the basic sampling machine onstage, but that fails from moment to moment. The Emulator plays a collection of noises, and an S900 does drums and percussion. On top of that, I have a collection of cassettes of different movie noises that I mix in. The basic tracks pass through eight or nine stereo effects, which we change via MIDI. I see playing live as something I really want to avoid, although the opinions differ within the band. When you have the idea for the show, you would like to play up to ten gigs, but if you play three months the challenge goes. We never rehearse, so our state of mind is very important. We've done gigs that were fiascos, but we're not afraid. If I don't see the people onstage move I can't do the job I must do behind the mixing desk, and if they feel that I have my hands in my pockets and they don't hear the sound moving, they think it's a bad concert so they take it easy. In the beginning Front was better onstage than on record, but for the moment it's the contrary, because we cannot pay for the technology we want onstage."
For the future, Daniel B can envisage working with third party producers, preferably someone working as far away from Front 242 as possible. Particular names he has in mind at the moment are Matt Johnson of The The and David Ball, formerly of Soft Cell, although neither have yet been approached. Whatever the future holds in store, you can be sure Front 242 will outlive the hype of new beat, or whatever the next dance craze may be, continually moving in step with advancements in technology. And as a band they are going to be increasingly hard to ignore.
Interview by David Bradwell
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!