Still Rational: Tracy Howe on Rational Youth

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In Canadian history, there is special respect for les voyageurs; the early pioneers who explored uncharted territory, discovered its wealth and opened paths for others to follow. Montreal’s Rational Youth will be remembered as electro-voyageurs; the country’s first band to make pop records and perform using only synthesizers and drum machines. The release of their first 12” single, I Want to See the Light/Coboloid Race, in 1981, was a watershed moment for electronic music in Canada: up to that point, synthesizers had been used by academics creating “new music” in the manner of Stockhausen or as high-end organs for conventional songs. Rational Youth took them into the studio to make a new kind of electronic pop music, rooted in the aesthetics of Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra, but with a distinctively Canadien flavour.

Rational Youth’s first album, 1982’s Cold War Night Life, inspired more than the title of this magazine. It gave confidence to Canadian bands to make electronic music of their own, and became one of the classic LPs of the genre, alongside Depeche Mode’s Speak and Spell and Kraftwerk’s own Computer World. The album’s title was perfectly chosen: lyrically and sonically, it channelled the tension and neurosis of the superpower conflict, evoking the shadows-and-fog world of fictional spies, George Smiley and Harry Palmer. At the same time, it was able to describe teen romance in Solidarity-era Poland with humour and empathy. It was pop ahead of its time: Rational Youth sang Dancing on the Berlin Wall a decade before young Germans scaled it to celebrate the end of their political and physical division.

Thirty-two years after their first single, Rational Youth are back on the release trail. The discovery of a box of tapes, documenting stops on the band’s 1983 national tour, has opened a window to the past and a door to the future. Two shows, from Ottawa and Winnipeg, are scheduled for release as limited-edition cassettes and CDs, while a luxurious boxed set of Rational Youth records is being prepared for reissue on vinyl. The possibility of future Rational Youth live dates and even studio material is being explored, with keyboardist Kevin Komoda and singer Tracy Howe developing an entirely new show. While original keyboardist Bill Vorn has other commitments and won’t be joining them, his legacy is clearly present in the upcoming releases.

CWNL spoke with Tracy Howe about the band’s origins, experience and prospects. Currently drumming with The Normals, his revived 1970s punk band, Howe has been cheered by the reception given to news of the Rational Youth live tapes. A great raconteur, we let him tell the story in his own words.

On being in Heaven Seventeen (no, not that one)…

There was a small but pretty vibrant – and I guess kind of incestuous – music scene in Montreal at the time, starting in about 1978. People all knew one-another. We had The Normals, and then The Normals broke up, because I wanted to move on. It was funny. Scott Cameron, who was the bass player in The Normals, actually bought a synthesizer while we were still in The Normals. It was an original Korg MS-20.  It must have cost him a lot of money. He bought the MS-20, and then I bought this thing in a music store – it was a Logan String Melody, which is a kind of string keyboard.

When The Normals fizzled out, we started this band called Heaven Seventeen, with “Seventeen” written out. Obviously, we stole the name from the same place the other Heaven 17 stole it from – it’s from the film, A Clockwork Orange. Alex, the Malcolm McDowell character, goes into this record store, and there’s an imaginary Top Ten on the wall, and one of the bands is called The Heaven Seventeen. The idea with Heaven Seventeen was, I really liked the first couple of Ultravox albums; so, they were kind of in-between, already. Then there was Howard Devoto, who had been in The Buzzcocks, and he had started Magazine. So that was what Heaven Seventeen was to sound like.

…and Men Without Hats (yes, that one)

We had a number of personnel changes along the way. We had the Logan and Scott’s MS-20, and Scott was in Heaven Seventeen. Eventually Ivan Doroschuk joined Heaven Seventeen. He had a version of Men Without Hats that was just a guitar punk band that played – not that often, once or twice – at the venues that The Normals used to play at. So, he was an actor for that period, pretty much, too. Of course, he was in Heaven Seventeen for a while, but he went off, after that, and he started Men Without Hats. He asked me to join Men Without Hats, but I joined as the guitar player. I was in Men Without Hats for a few months – four or five months or something. They had a shed-load of synthesizers, although what they were doing was not completely synth. It was a combination. It was a hybrid, as well.

When I left Men Without Hats, I thought, there is some really good equipment. I liked to fool around on it when we weren’t doing anything. I left Men Without Hats, but I wasn’t doing anything. I had my Logan and got the Sequential Circuits Pro-1, so I was just fooling around with that at home. I had the idea that I was going to do something with it. That’s actually when I wrote the song, I Want to See the Light.

On meeting Bill Vorn and recording the first Rational Youth single

I was working in a record store called Sam the Record Man. This was the one in Montreal on St. Catherine’s Street. Bill Vorn comes in – like, I knew him, but he came up to me and said, “Hey, you used to be in Men Without Hats. I do stuff with synthesizers. Do you want to try and get a band together?” And I said, “Yeah!” I kind of liked him, and so that is literally how it happened. He recognised me and walked up to me in the store and said, “Do you want to check it out?”

He said, “Come over to my place.” So I went over to his place, and he had this apartment; and there was this room where the equipment was, and it was just insane. It was just all of these modular synthesizers – the ones with patch-cords and everything – like the Roland System 700, the Roland System 100. There were these two massive Moog Studios 15 and 35, which belonged to another guy he was living with at that time. That guy was Mario Spezza. He actually played on I Want to See the Light, when we recorded it for our first single.

So that was how we met: he just walked up to me and said, “Do you want to do something?” And I said, “Sure!” I took my little synthesizers over to his place, and I said, “Let’s figure out a way of doing a record.” He had Coboloid Race. He had a very abstract arrangement, with synths and everything. It was just a piece of music, and he also had this poem he had written called Coboloid Race. The lyrics scanned really well. I never changed one word in his text. We arranged it into a song. It was just this bunch of sequences that he had, and we did that.

So, those were our first two songs. This guy starting an independent record label in Montreal, YUL Records, came along and said, “Do you want to record them?” It was just serendipity. We said we had these two songs and we were doing this electronic thing and, guess what, it is really easy to record. That didn’t really mean much to him, but we did it in a couple of hours.

On YUL Records and recording with Pat Deserio

Pat [Deserio] worked with Marc [Demouy, of YUL Records and Rational Youth’s manager]. Marc brokered this studio time, in this studio that was actually reasonably good, and we went down there and we did it [the first single]. The guy who was the engineer ended up being our sound man later on, because he was just freelance – he was a good guy. We recorded that there. Pat just came along. Well, it is credited to Pyer Desrochers. He recorded it and that was pretty much it.

Pat had been a producer in the infamous Montreal disco scene prior. We were pretty wary of him, because of the disco scene – we didn’t want to have anything to do with that.  Pat turned out to be an awesome guy. He became our producer, and he got us a deal with a label that was a disco label but also a distributor – so they became our distributor. They had their own studio. That is how we did Cold War Night Life, because they had a studio. So, you could go there at night. Pat used to go to work in the morning, and he had been up all night with us on Cold War Night Life.

The most frustrating thing in those days was engineers who didn’t have a clue. We had this drum machine, the TR-808, so they didn’t really know what we were doing. To them, it was like, “Is this a demo?” They didn’t get it. It was so different.

Talking about being purely electronic, Bill was such a fanatic. At one point, Pat wanted to use one of the stairwells in the building the studio was in, to use as an echo chamber – you know, put a speaker and mike down there to put on the snare drum. Bill freaked out: “We don’t do electro-acoustic music!” The idea was that we were completely electronic. There was nothing, except for the human voice, that was not voltage-controlled. That was the idea.

On musical influences beyond Kraftwerk

I really liked Ultravox. I was the one with YMO and Logic System, and all of that stuff. Bill, the first day I went over to his house, all his records were there. As you might expect, there was Kraftwerk, but there was also Klaus Schultze and Tangerine Dream. For electronic stuff, I also like Eno, Moebius, Roedilius – that kind of stuff. He liked stuff that was pure synth. He didn’t like Klaus Schulze that much – it’s just that Klaus Schulze did everything on synthesizer and he liked synthesizers a lot. That’s why he liked Klaus Schulze.

Both of us would buy a Jean-Michel Jarre album and say how much we didn’t like it. Really, we didn’t like it, but we bought it because we wanted to hear what it was. We wanted to hear what he was doing. We wanted to hear the synth thing in that. There weren’t really other things to listen to – yet. Quite honestly, in a way, for what we did – apart from some people in Germany, who had been doing it from years before – it’s funny that not that many people from anywhere else tried to do it. When we did it, we were certainly the only people we knew of. There was stuff like The Normal that had come out, and early Depeche Mode that had already started.

On the Montreal scene as an incubator for electronic music

Montreal was already a big market for progressive rock. So that kind of stuff had an edge in Montreal already, anyway. People who liked progressive rock sort of liked krautrock; and if they liked krautrock, maybe they liked Kraftwerk, too, because they liked Can and Amon Duul. It was all kind of mushed together there. People in Montreal would also associate that with progressive stuff, so in those days people who liked Rick Wakeman would also like something maybe more esoteric.

On playing in Sweden the first time

It’s kind of a funny story. There was going to be this thing in 1997, the Stockholm Synth Festival. We got contacted, because I had just put up a rudimentary Rational Youth Web site – you know, early days – and started to get all these emails from people in Sweden. I put up the site and all this stuff started flooding in through Sweden. I got this email from a guy, and he was putting on this thing called the Stockholm Synth Festival at Stockholm University. He wanted to know if we wanted to play, and he would bring us over. It was going to be headlined by Front 242 and us. Quite honestly, I didn’t know who Front 242 were, at the time. I looked into it, and we said sure. I looked up Bill and said, “Bill, they want us to go play at this festival.” So, we got together. I was living in Toronto at the time, commuting to Montreal to practice. It was so exciting – we were going to go to Sweden and play. It was crazy – how could you imagine that?

Then it turned out the whole thing was a big scam. He sold tickets, but he never intended to bring us. He never sent us any sort of contract. He just put us on the poster. It was really bad, and people were really mad. People showed up at this gig, and they were really upset that we weren’t there. But I tried all the contacts that I had beforehand, because he was supposed to send us an air ticket or something. He was supposed to tell us something. He just kind of disappeared, and we couldn’t reach him. It came up to the date of the show, and a week before the show I started telling all the people I could, tell people over there that it doesn’t look like we’re coming, because this guy is not contacting us.

So, that’s what happened, and we were really upset. But the guy from Energy Rekords, Per Faeltenborg, contacted me and said, “I would like to put you on, and I really will put you on.” He made a persuasive pitch with that. He said, “I will go up to Stockholm and we will tell people up there that you’re not in Stockholm but will be in Lund,” in what turned out to be two weeks later. So, we said, “Go for it!”

It turned out we did this thing called Virtual Xmas 97 in Lund with a bunch of bands – Elegant Machinery and Mesh. We were the headliners. It was phenomenal. It was really great. That’s how the whole thing started. We got involved with October Records, which was eventually taken over by Energy.

On Swedish fans and Eddie Bengtsson

Tracy Howe and Eddie BengtssonThe thing about the guys in Sweden – especially in the south, in Skåne – is it’s a real hodge-podge type of music. The people there are incredibly loyal and into it – God bless them.

It’s lovely to see Page just doing stuff, and I think that Eddie [Bengtsson] is a wonderful talent. I always respected that they played in Swedish. I actually tried to do a cover of one of his songs – actually, it wasn’t a Page song, it was a Sista Mannen på Jorden song called Luft. The melody was so beautiful, and I still wanted it to be about luft – about air – but I never could come up with a lyric or a vocal part that did it justice. If it wasn’t going to be as good as Eddie was in Swedish, then it wasn’t going to be any good, so I kind of abandoned it, but I really think he’s a wonderful talent.

With Rational Youth, we come and go, like Page does, in a way. We are in a flurry of activity, because we found these old tapes. We have some fans who are so fanatical and dedicated, it’s amazing. It’s always come as a shock to me. We just don’t have that many of them!

On touring Northern Europe

I always wondered what would happen if Bill hadn’t quit the band, but after that thing in Sweden he said, “Ok, that’s fine, we’ve done that”, etc., and he didn’t want to do any more. So I found a couple of guys. I was living in Toronto at the time. That was when we did the To the Goddess Electricity album. Those guys were really talented. They were younger than me. The two of them didn’t get along together, so we did one trip over to Sweden with three of us; and then we came over a couple of times, and it was just me and one of the other guys. We did a couple of tours through Scandinavia. That was really fun.

We played one gig in Germany, but that is the only time we’ve played in Germany. It’s really funny, because we do have some fans in Germany, but how come we didn’t do better there? We made absolutely zero-minus-zero impact in the UK, which was kind of disappointing. It was always a dream to be able to go and play there.

On the show under development

We’re trying to put it together again, because this live stuff is coming out. Kevin Komoda is really driving it. We’ve going to try it. They are rehearsing it – and when I say “they,” Kevin and a few other musicians were working on Rational Youth stuff just yesterday. They’ve been doing that for a little while. I’m afraid to go, and he doesn’t want to bring me until it’s ready. I don’t want to impose on it too much.  I’m really excited and really scared about doing it again. I want it to be something a lot better than what it ever was before, if we do it.

I don’t want to do a two-guys-with-laptops thing anymore. We are going to play this live. We are actually going to play every part live. So, there’s going to be about five people. There’s going to be a drum – we have a drummer. In the early days, like Depeche, you had these parts sequenced onto the MC-4 and all of this stuff – you couldn’t play it without playing along with a tape recorder. Then it became that you had it on a DAT machine. Now you can have it on your laptop and play it right out of Logic or Cubase. So, you think that’s live, but you have two guys standing up there looking like doctors. I want it to be exciting and a little bit risky. So, it’s going to be a drummer and four other people playing all this stuff, and a ton of synths, and no sequencers. That’s a first.

On the 1983 tour and the rediscovered live tapes

The 1983 tour – these live records that we have coming out – that was the band that we got together after Bill left. Nobody could replace Bill, in terms of what he did. The equipment that Bill had got – like the TR-808 and the MC-4– it’s not that you couldn’t buy an MC-4, but you had to program those things, and I didn’t have the patience for it. Anytime there was a step-time sequencer or something, I could run it, but Bill would sit there with the MC-4. You had to program the notes in as numerical values based on DC voltage. I used to joke with Bill: “Alright, let’s change this from 80 up to 90 volts here.”  He had this all in his head. He could sit there, and he would write out these reams of paper with numbers on it, just to do the songs on Cold War Night Life. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t like you just played it into your computer and quantised it, like Garage Band. It was really complicated.

He left us, and we had this tour booked, and we had to get it together. We got a bass player and a drummer. At the time, I thought, people like it ok, but is this the real thing? We made a record for Capitol Records with Pat Deserio again. That first record with Capital Records had all its own issues, dealing with a major record label; and, from then on, it defined a lot of problems that I had and the band had. When Kevin found these tapes, which we are just putting out now, we listened to them and we both thought, “Oh my God, I didn’t realise we were that good!” Not only that, but I didn’t realise that it sounded kind of electronic. It just didn’t, because we had been with Bill before, and we knew that was totally electronic.

We wanted to do this tour; we had all these dates, going from coast to coast in Canada – nice gigs in universities and everything – and we wanted to do them. It worked out pretty well. At the time, it was like the ship had already taken a torpedo in the bow, in terms of morale and direction. When we listen to it now, it’s actually pretty good. So that gave us the idea: let’s do something like that, but do it way better. Let’s do it now, with what we can do now, and have at it. The idea is that it’s going to be this really live synth onslaught – if we do it. We’re going to rehearse this stuff. We’re going to play a gig in Montreal. If it goes well, we’ll do more – if it doesn’t, then hey. We’ll have to see.

On the potential for new shows and new songs

The problem with playing in Montreal is that it will be the scariest thing ever, because I know Montreal. It has changed in a lot of ways, but it hasn’t changed all that much. They’re going to like it, but they’re not going to like it that much. If we did go to Sweden with it, people would like it. I’ve talked to a couple of people already. People are asking, “Will you come over?”  I think, if we feel comfortable with doing this and we feel like it’s working, we would certainly want to come over. It will be what people want but also something more. We’d have something to prove, so we’d have motivation – rather than click “play” and sing the song, look busy out there.

I’ve been doing music since I was 16. Even though I haven’t been a full-time professional musician since was a child, I still know when something’s good. The plan is to do something that, if you saw us and you liked Rational Youth, you wouldn’t be disappointed; you wouldn’t feel cheated in any way, but you would also get something out of it that you didn’t think you were going to get.  It’s going to hit you on an emotional level. That’s because it’s going to be live and it’s going to be powerful. We’ve got a little girl on drums who is risky dynamic, and Kevin and those songs. Although we haven’t had a huge number of records out, we do have what I think are quite a lot of strong songs. If you play them live and play them well, it’s not hard to put a show together with those songs.

If the stuff goes really well, I am sure it will inspire us to do some new stuff. It is hard to do some new stuff today – not just in terms of dragging the songs out of yourself, but some people will inevitably be disappointed. For some of our hard-core supporters, Cold War Night Life was this iconic album. Hey, it’s nice to have done one in your lifetime, even if it’s not for 50 billion people, but there are a lot of people who think it’s a really classic album.

I remember when, with J-C [Jean-Claude Cutz], back in the nineties, we did the album, To the Goddess Electricity. We busted our guts doing that album. We were trying to say, what would it be like if this was our second album? We were trying as hard as we could. People sort of liked it, but I think some people were disappointed. It’s like trying to catch lightning in a bottle, but you never know. Maybe by doing the band this way – because it’s kind of different, especially for now – it will trigger some kind of different direction for us that would be something a little bit ground-breaking but still rooted in where it came from and make sense to people.

Live 1983 is released in November 2013 on Artoffact Records, and is available for pre-order through Storming the Base.

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