On the same day that Vladimir Putin opened the Winter Olympics, the EQ Music family took to the stage in East London. Rising talents from the UK, France and the US showcased varied styles of pop and dance music, as an electro-driven alternative to the opening ceremony. Many of these artists would face persecution and harassment in Russia, just for being themselves; so, for the enthusiastic fans packed into a compact venue in London’s Shoreditch district to hear them perform, the timing of the event had added poignancy.
The headliner for the evening was Mute Records recording artist, Polly Scattergood, but the atmosphere was charged with anticipation for a rare appearance by Australia’s Parralox. Melbourne-based John von Ahlen’s main project, Parralox has been a prolific and highly-regarded fixture on the international electronic music scene since 2008’s Electricity album. Their latest effort, Recovery, is a collection of cover songs, giving the Parralox treatment to classic tracks by artists like The Human League, Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft, New Order, Depeche Mode and Sparks. One of the stand-out tracks, Eye in the Sky, went viral after it was adopted by the Equality Rocks campaign, shifting awareness of Parralox from the hardcore synthescenti into the mainstream.
Eye in the Sky opens Parralox’s show. It’s a complete refresh of the classic Alan Parsons Project hit, but it still manages to capture the emotional sweep of the original. It’s also the audience’s introduction to the third generation of the band, featuring new singer Johanna. The former vocalist for The Ultrasonics is a glamorous and energetic addition to the line-up, and she confidently handles a set dominated by Parralox originals. Von Ahlen deftly manipulates a Pro-One synth and doubles on vocals, while drum duties are handled with Flür-ish (see what we did there?) by guest-percussionist Lilo Topchev. Parralox’s show is packed with surprises, including the live debut of Black Jeans from the Electricity album and the first outing of their next single, Crying on the Dancefloor. It’s a rush that is over all too quickly; a taster that leaves the capacity crowd calling for more.
A listen to Recovery helps to keep the feeling alive. One of the interesting things about the album is the selection of songs. While Eye in the Sky will be known to anyone who had access to an FM radio in the 1980s, other choices signal the breadth of von Ahlen’s tastes. Take Kebabträume (Kebab Dreams), the first single from DAF on Mute Records. Sung with piercing punk irony by Gabi Delgado, the German original takes on the division of Berlin and hostile attitudes towards Turkish immigration. It’s classic proto-electro, but won’t be as widely-known as the songs it rubs shoulders with. How did von Ahlen choose it for Recovery?
There were probably at least another thirty covers that I wanted to include on the album. It was really heart-breaking to decide which children to love and which children to leave behind. There were a bazillion-and-one cover versions that I could have done. Kebabträume – from the minute that song was released, I absolutely loved it to death. Obviously, there is a heavy political message behind there. I think that political messages have a good place in pop music; and I think, unless you really know what you are talking about, stay away. My reason for covering Kebabträume was I love the band [DAF] so much and the song itself had something magical for me.
The other dimension was that I sung it in my native tongue of German – my heritage is German, my parents are German. It’s the first Parralox song that I’ve sung in another language. I just thought it would be a nice gift for our German fans to sing a song entirely in their native tongue – and not only sing it in German, but to entirely reinterpret the track into a new vision. I guess that’s the whole point of doing a covers album.
Other songs that made the cut include Sparks’ The Number One Song in Heaven, Abba’s The Day Before You Came and Blind Vision by Blancmange. Recovery is like a curated guide to essential songs from the 1970s and 80s, reinterpreted through a bank of analogue and virtual synths. The sounds are crafted with care, and von Ahlen’s own vocals are expressive and elegant. When the production hits the mark so well, there must be a lot of interest in his studio work.
I don’t like giving away too much about the behind-the-scenes process. In terms of the technical aspect, I find it a great source of amusement when there are a lot of people online talking about, “What software do you use? Do you use a Mac or a PC? Do you use Cubase or Logic?” Honestly, to me, I find these the most tedious bullshit discussions, and the reason is that I quite frankly don’t care what you use to make your music. I don’t think anyone else should care; they should be more concerned with actually making music.
Having said that, if Vince Clarke called me up tomorrow and said, “Come to my studio,” I would drop everything and be there in a heartbeat. I would be gagging to know. So, it might make me sound like a little bit of a hypocrite, but the point is, it’s not what you use; it’s how you use it. Like RuPaul said, “It doesn’t matter what you wear; it’s how you wear it” – and that is absolutely true, whether it is fashion or music.
I was telling Johanna, I use Cubase software and people are like, “Oh yeah, cool, Cubase 7.5 – the version that came out like a month ago.” Yes, I have that, but here is the absolute truth of the matter: everything that I’ve done with Parralox, up until 6 months ago, was done on the 1993 version of Cubase – VST 5.1. It is the most ancient audio software you can use in your whole life. People have come into the studio, and they’ve always gagged – “Are you kidding me? You’re not using the latest software?” And I’m like, “No, why should I?”
Another source of comedy for me is that people always try and guess, “Did you use a real synth or a VST?” If you have to ask the question, it is irrelevant. It doesn’t really matter. There are a lot of analogue purists out there. For a track like Kebabträume, I used the Sequential Circuits Pro-One. That was triple-tracked – I did one pass for left, one pass for right, and another one for the centre, and I was modulating the filter the whole way through, which means you get a massive sound – it’s almost like a tri-stereo sound. I do use a massive amount of analogue gear.
At one time, my mission was to buy the entire catalogue of synthesizers used in the making of the [Human League’s] Dare album. I’m glad to say I accomplished that task. Actually, I lie, because the only thing I don’t have is the Roland System 100M – but maybe Martin Ware will give me his one, if I ask nicely. The Sequential Circuits Pro-One is my favourite synth at the moment. Obviously, Vince Clarke used it for [Yazoo’s debut album] Upstairs at Eric’s – the entire album was done on a Pro-One and an Arp 2600. That synth gives you such sonic versatility.
Von Ahlen’s attention to detail is not confined to the sound of his music; it is clearly evident in his graphic design and video work. Take the lyric videos that von Ahlen made for Silent Morning and Sharper than a Knife, which animated dozens of record covers; condensing the best bits of a DJ’s collection into pulsing, kaleidoscopic bursts of imagery representing the best of the 80s and 90s graphics. They are homages to Neville Brody, Peter Saville and other cover designers, but the method recasts iconic graphics in an entirely new context without being unfairly derivative.
The visual side of things is just as important as the music. It’s crazy, but sometimes the music will take so long but the graphic/visual side will take five minutes. Sometimes, it is the other way around. Like, for that lyric video, it probably took about three weeks of animating for six hours a day, because it’s obviously a very tedious process.
You’ve got to decide what album covers you want to use. You’ve got to recreate all of the imagery from scratch, because for copyright reasons you can’t use Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – you’ll get your arse sued off. So, you need to recreate that album from scratch. A real example is the Malcolm McLaren Buffalo Girls cover – if you look at the animation that I did, every single element in that is entirely uniquely created new, though it looks identical to the album cover.
For me, it’s all about paying attention to details. It’s one of the things that I obsess about. If you’re going to copy something and pay homage to it, you need to get it 100 percent right. People notice those small details, and the devil is in the detail. Paying attention to those details, and with such accuracy, I guess it shows in the end product.
The next Parralox video, for Crying on the Dancefloor, will take a different approach. Von Ahlen is stepping back from making the band’s videos for the first time. A few days after the gig in Shoreditch, Parralox were in an underground Hoxton venue to make a video with a new director in the chair.
This will be the first Parralox video that I haven’t directed. Up until this point, I have always been producer and director of the video clips; so, on this video I’ve had to let go a little bit, which is a bit scary, but also quite thrilling, because we’ve got such a fantastic team involved. Simon Wan is directing the video, Nick Pate is doing the styling, and Manuel Diaz is doing the costume and couture. Obviously, we’ve got Johanna and Francine in the video. I won’t give away the plot, but there is quite a kooky story to it.
All artists say, “I’m looking forward to this being the best thing that we’ve ever done,” but I can genuinely say that I can’t wait for people to see this video. It will still be Parralox, but it will be new Parralox.
Singers Johanna and Francine are a key part of Parralox’s next stage. For Francine, who has her own path as a singer and songwriter, working on the next single has been a pleasure:
I think it’s very hooky and it’s kind of pop, but the production style is quite new, and it’s come leaps and bounds since the first demo that I’ve heard. There’s always been a drive and power to it that I really liked; juxtaposed with nice, melodic movements. So, I kind of singled that one out and said, “Yeah, I’d like to sing that one.” Luckily, John let me.
Johanna’s work with von Ahlen goes back half a decade to her previous role in The Ultrasonics. When their well-received single, Perfect Girl, came out, it was accompanied by remixes from Marsheaux and a certain Parralox.
Johanna: I love electro music. I love the 80s sound, obviously, as I’ve been doing it before. I’m just really excited to be doing it again and working beside John. I feel like I have known of John, and have known Raj [Rudolph, EQ Music supremo], for quite a few years.
JVA: The ironic thing is, to the outside world Johanna will be a new singer, but I actually produced her in a musical track five years ago, so we have a musical history together. Some things are just meant to be. Everything happens at the right time and the right place, and clearly things happen for a reason.
Never one to sit still, von Ahlen is also active with his side project, The Sound of the Crowd. An album, Life is Calling, came out in 2013, blending influences like New Order and The Human League with von Ahlen’s innate pop sensibility. The current focus is on Parralox, but are we going to see more of this project in the future?
Absolutely. The Sound of the Crowd is my side-project. It is a true solo project, where it is just myself. I released that album a few months ago. The original single, Wildlife, has been floating around for a year, but I’ve got a whole bunch of remixes that we’ll be releasing within the next month or so. There will be a double-A side with a song called Oblivion. I just had a video shot in France for that with an amazing French actress. The video for Oblivion will be coming out probably in a month.
While all of this creation is going on, it is hard to ignore what is happening in Russia, where discrimination and the denial of human rights are being institutionalised and defended by the country’s President. What would von Ahlen say to Vladimir Putin, if he had the chance?
What I would have to say is, “Shame on you for being that inconsiderate.” Planet Earth is a very small planet, and we’re all human beings on the same planet. We all deserve the same fundamental rights or respect, whether you are gay or straight or whatever colour you happen to be. Face it – sexual orientation is not a big deal, and it absolutely mortifies me.
The reality is that changes aren’t going to happen overnight. The only real, effective changes that are going to happen are by educating the youth and educating our children. To further that conversation, Human Rights Campaign, which is all about marriage equality, has chosen Parralox as one of the artists to represent Equality Rocks. We’ve just recorded a little message for Human Rights Campaign. So, that leads into human equality and the fundamental rights of all human beings, and that goes hand in hand with – if heterosexual people can get married and have miserable divorces, why can’t gay people?
Let’s face it, I’m not one to make political statements, but I think that a large roadblock in achieving equal human rights is religion; whatever that religion may be, because a lot of people preach equality but I would really like to see that put into practice. That’s not really evidenced a lot of the time. I’m proud to say that I’m an atheist, and I think that my philosophy in life is that I love everybody equally. I try not to be biased against anybody – except Putin at this point in time. But seriously, all joking aside, I think the philosophy of loving everybody equally – not because I’m forced to, not because I’m scared that I’m going to be struck by a bolt of lightning, but because I think that inherently all human beings deserve that fundamental respect – if that respect comes from within, inherently, without being forced and told to respect, then that is a good way to go.
I don’t want to deliver any heavy political messages, because Parralox is not about delivering political messages, but if we are talking about fundamental human rights then we really can’t ignore it.