Interview: The Japanese Popstars
Published on June 4th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Having previously remixed for the likes of Beyonce, Kylie Minogue, Groove Armada, Depeche Mode, Daft Punk and Gorillaz, Northern Irish producers Decky Hedrock, Gary Curran and Gareth Donoghue are set to unleash Controlling Your Allegiance, their second studio album as The Japanese Popstars.
Quite aside from its impressive roster of guest vocalists – including Robert Smith, Jon Spencer, Green Velvet, Lisa Hannigan and Editors front man Tom Smith – this follow-up to 2008 debut We Just Are boasts the kind of lush synths and hypnotic rhythms that could propel them to the pantheon of British dance/electronic alongside such obvious reference points as Underworld, The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy.
Rocksucker caught up with Decky – real name Declan McLaughlin – while he and Gary were working on a Radio 1 Essential mix, in order to discuss the procurement of aforementioned special guests, a fictional monkey actor, Robert Smith’s spam folder, light beams with glaring eyes and the band’s love of trainers…
We’ve been loving the video for ‘Joshua’. Who conceived and made it?
Our record label came up with the idea, the guy who does our internet and online media and stuff. We thought it was cool so we gave it the green light. The monkey originated from when we were writing our second album and we were calling it ‘Album 2’; then we started calling it ‘Al-baboon 2’ and that’s where the ‘Joshua’ monkey came from! That’s just our weird sense of humour.
So is the monkey called Joshua?
The monkey’s called Al Baboon and he plays the part of Joshua. At the very end of it we actually asked if we could have credits come up which say “Joshua: played by Al Baboon” but we forgot to do that. Someone forgot to pass on that message to our manager!
What made you choose Tom Smith to sing on the track?
We did a remix for Editors last year for a track called ‘Papillon’. Tom loved the way it turned out and we love Tom’s voice – we’re all big fans of Editors so we were all excited to be working on an Editors track – and it turned out that Tom really liked the track. So, when we wrote the idea for ‘Joshua’, we sent it to Tom and he fired back some ideas which we really liked.
It all ties together beautifully, sounds a bit like Underworld…
Wow, I’ll take that as a compliment as I’m a massive fan of Underworld! It’s strange: it was originally going to be a ‘hands in the air’ piano track and then it all changed with Tom’s vocal on it. It’s weird how people hear a track differently.
Is there any significance to the title Controlling Your Allegiances?
It sort of stems from when we were recording the album and working with a load of artists on it, making allegiances with these people. The ‘controlling’ part comes from the track we did with Green Velvet, called ‘Let Go’; he kept saying “control” on the track and we thought it was a nice pairing of words, because at the same time it can reflect what we’re doing with artists and, as some people could look at it, what we’re doing with fans. It’s our warped sense of humour.
Are you more excited about getting the album out there, or frustrated that it’s taken a bit longer than expected? Mind you, these things usually do…
It has taken a lot longer than expected! How did you know? (Laughs) It’s one of those things. We essentially had this album finished in March last year, all the tracks and all the vocalists; bar, strangely enough, ‘Joshua’, which was done after we signed [to EMI, in April last year]. EMI said: rather than just releasing this album, would it be a plan to do videos for a few tracks first and release them as singles to build up a bit of profiling campaign? Through that course of time, there were certain hold-ups, red tape et cetera and that’s allowed us to add Tom from Editors. We also added another track just three weeks ago.Over the course of the last year, we’ve discovered techniques for writing music and processing tracks et cetera on the computer, so we polished off some of the tracks to make them brighter and better. It gave us more time to tweak things; to a certain extent, we had the album finished last year but it would have been a bit different to the one that’s coming out next week. At the same time, it has been frustrating sitting around waiting for this album to come out but the ball started to roll so we’re happy with that.
What was Robert Smith like to work with?
Amazing! Robert’s just such a genius. It all started off when we had this idea for a track and the breakdown of it reminded me of The Cure, so I said to Gary when we were writing it, “Why don’t we see if we can get Robert Smith on this track?” We phoned our manager that night and he was like, “I’ll try.” He apparently got Robert Smith’s email address somehow and emailed him asking if we could send him a track. We got nothing back for six months and in that space of time we’d written an idea which was called ‘Full Bloom’; about a week later, we got a response from Robert Smith saying that our email had gone into his spam folder and that he’d love to do something with us!We thought Robert would be perfect for ‘Full Bloom’ so we sent it across and within a few days he’d sent us back an idea; we knew we had something at that point and, over the next two or three months, we basically put together ‘Take Forever’ from ‘Full Bloom’ just with Robert singing on it. We’d send across an idea for the track and he’d send back vocals. He did all the processing – and everything else you hear within his vocals – himself; he sent us back thirty-eight stems of him singing, one with echo, another one with reverb and so on. There were thirty-eight different parts to make each individual noise that he sings!Then he ended up playing six-string bass guitar on it as well, a few little ideas he had while in the studio with his guitar, and we ended up putting that on the track as well. He’s just an absolute genius to work with.
With the likes of Jon Spencer and Green Velvet, was it a case of you approaching them or them approaching you?
Our manager asked us to make a ‘wish list’ of people we wanted to work with so, as we wrote songs, we had people in mind. For Jon Spencer, we approached him and sent him the track. We actually sent him a track attached to an email saying ‘Destroy Jon Spencer’; he was afraid to open the email because he thought there might be a virus inside or something! For Green Velvet, we’ve done a few shows with him in different parts of the world over the last few years and we’ve always wanted to work with him but never had the courage to ask him. We were doing a show together in Belfast and we said, “Alright, we’re going to go for it this time, after the show we’ll pluck up the courage and ask Curtis if he’d like to do a track with us.”After the show, we went over to him and he said, “I wanna do a track with you guys! I wanna collaborate!” We were like: “yesss!” It took a lot of Dutch courage to go up and ask him but in the end we didn’t have to because he asked us first. We were just about to ask him the exact same question. Then he disappeared for six months – he used to just go missing at times! – but then we played with him again in Serbia and managed to get him locked down in the studio.
Do you have any idea yet about who you’ll try to rope into appearing on the next album?
Well, we’ve actually started album three; a load of ideas for tracks are already sitting there and we’re starting to approach vocalists – I don’t want to say who they are yet – so we have an idea of who we want to work with. We’re trying to get the tracks right so we can then approach these guys with them and hopefully do something with them.
You’ve remixed tracks for some big-name artists. How do these sorts of things come about and do you get much feedback from the artists themselves?
What we discovered when we moved to EMI is that, being on a major label, they tend to pick people for us. They pick a few people that are ‘hot’ and that we want to remix, like Beyonce and Depeche Mode: they’ve all come through the record label or the artist management. It’s never been a case of Beyonce ringing us up and going, “I love what you’re doing. Fancy a remix?” What we have had though with Beyonce is that we initially got asked to remix ‘If I Were a Boy’, which was the first single off her last album I think, and we did two versions of it. It was 70bpm, which is really slow for us to work with, so we thought we’d make a dance track, and then something really lovely and electronic that we thought she’d really like.There were all these different artists that we supposed to remix the track but apparently everyone else might have struggled with how slow it was because we were the only ones that delivered on the day! We sent across these two different versions of the track and we then got a call about a week later to say that Beyonce or Beyonce’s people really liked it and could we do her next single so we then ended up doing ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’ for her as well. We like to think that she heard our ‘Epic Mix’ of ‘If I Were a Boy’, which is the one we did specially for her, and asked for us again!
Are there any more remixes in the pipeline at the moment?
Not at the minute. We’ve been working on album three so now we’re trying to get our live show sorted out for the festival season so everybody knows what they’re supposed to do and we’ve got something we’re all happy with. If an offer for a remix comes through and we really like it and think we could do something with it then I’m sure we could remix it the next week but at the minute we’re sort of camped down to concentrate on the live show and try to get album three sorted.
Indeed, we read that you intend to “upgrade your visual show” for this summer’s festivals. In what way, may we ask?
It’s all baby steps at the minute but we’ve hired a company that makes massive desks with giant lights and 3D LED screens, stuff like that, so for the last few months we’ve been doing special shows where we’ve been testing each level of this new production; we haven’t had it all for every show because obviously it’s expensive to ship all of this and we need two people to drive it and set it up. I think there’s a nine-panel LED screen. They’ve made a new version of IRED LED and we’ve got six panels of that at the front.Then we’ve invested in this giant desk – we haven’t seen it yet because it won’t be ready until Glastonbury – which has like eighteen LED lights on the front of it and they’re hi-res lights so, potentially, we can put images on them, like the lights could have eyes looking at you, crazy stuff like that. It’ll be interesting to see when it’s all set up because we haven’t seen much of it yet, other than the screens which we were really impressed with. We’re really excited about getting this desk set up and seeing exactly what it does.
Apparently you have your own brand of trainers or some such…?
(Laughs) I wouldn’t go as far as to say we’ve got our own brand. That’s just internet hearsay! We’re all massive sneaker fans so, a few years ago, I designed a pair on NIKEiD that we called JAPSTARS01 and started wearing them myself. We put a link to buy them on our MySpace and people started turning up to our gigs wearing them. It’s crazy to think that something you can design in your bedroom for yourself could be appreciated by other people and I plan to do it again.
Where do you keep all your awards? And which one means the most to you personally?
You know something, we sort of take turns to keep them. I think it’s my turn next. We don’t put a lot of value on them because they are very superficial at the end of the day. Obviously it’s a massive compliment but we’d still be doing what we’re doing even if we didn’t win them. It’s quite industry isn’t it, an excuse to have a night out. When people turn up to our shows, or say online that they like what we’re doing, that means more because it’s more personal than someone at an awards ceremony handing you a crystal trophy. It’s a great honour but if you don’t win it, you don’t win it, and if you do win it then it just sits there gathering dust.
Any recommendations for up-and-coming talent?
There’s a guy who appears on our album called James Vincent McMorrow. He’s from Dublin and we stumbled across him through our publishers; they gave us his album and we were absolutely blown away by it. He does these kind of psych-folk songs and he’s got an amazing voice so we had to do something with him. When he was recording the vocals for ‘Shells of Silver’ in his bedroom, he actually had a cold and he was complaining about his flatmate making too much noise, apologised to us about it, but we thought he’d captured so much in the song that, when he went to the studio to rerecord it, it was recorded too clean and too proper so we used the version he recorded in his bedroom with a cold.We never told him that we didn’t use the version that he sang in the studio! He’s just such a talent and he could be pretty big in the next few years. He was on Jools Holland last week, actually. His voice is amazing.
If you listen to the track very carefully, can you hear his flatmate in the background?
(Laughs) D’you know something, I think we did go through it all and muted the parts where you could hear it! Apparently his flatmate was on the hairdryer.
Finally, could you name – as of this very moment – your top three albums of all time?
I would say my top album would be Music for the Jilted Generation by The Prodigy: I saw them live in 1994 when I was mostly into hip hop and rock music and they made me want to make dance music, turned my whole thinking of music around. Ill Communication by Beastie Boys is number two: ‘Sabotage’ is one of my favourite ever songs. The third one would probably change depending on what mood I’m in. I’ll go with Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses for now.
Controlling Your Allegiance is released on June 13th on Virgin Records. For more information, please visit thejapanesepopstars.co.uk