Thursday, 28 March 2019

Three Interviews: FIAT LUX


 Fiat Lux are a three-piece Electro-Pop Group 
from Wakefield, who divulge the ‘Secrets’ of their 
‘Photography’ to Andrew Darlington 

 FOR IAN NELSON 1956-2006 

Picture this. It’s the mist-smudged ‘Emmerdale’ wastes between Wakefield and Huddersfield, cold and crisp, with just a hint of sun. A mud-slick farmyard overrun with spiky grass and dandelions. The only outward evidence of ‘music culture’ is a motorcycle strutted outside the backdoor, even that a modest non-Rockist Honda 250. Yet my approach – dodging puddles, looking for clues, triggers the door, and Steve Wright confirms, against the odds, that yes, this IS the Fiat Lux rehearsal studio.

He’s dark and ‘Kids From Fame’ supple. He grins easily, and perpetrates exactly the correct amount of slyly contagious humour into the band. A vocalist on a single-handed mission to reinvent the Elephant Joke as stage dialogue. Later, in conversation, he derisively defines the Rockist role as part of a ‘national association of rebels’, but as a slight concession to its conventions he’s got a token speeding fine accrued on this very bike, a fine that even now is impending. It don’t seem to bother him overmuch.

Inside the farmhouse is the other two-thirds of Fiat Lux – Ian Nelson, and blonde Dave Crickmore. The tapes for their debut Polydor album are finalised, and they’re working through material for promotional live dates to tie in with its release. The work proceeds with the kind of relaxed intensity that’s recognisable from the vinyl. They’ve already played the ‘Raffles’ club in Wakefield, toured with Blancmange, circa the Fiat Lux Indie hit “Feels Like Winter Again”, and more recently they’ve done a series of joint dates with Howard Jones. Perhaps now’s the moment to tour on their own strengths?

‘On our own weaknesses’ corrects Steve disarmingly.

They run through “Secrets”, the current single (January 1984). David unravelling scrolls of soft fluid musical shapes from his synth, Ian adding gentle, carefully-timed pulses of saxophone, while Steve sings of love, betrayed confidences, and stolen diaries… his passion directed at the flaking whitewashed wall, a cigarette slow-burning in his hand. The melodic strengths and tonal purity are the intensity. They follow the immutable laws of exquisite precision – but with that bit of extra Yorkshire bite. While the delivery is deceptively relaxed. They work full-strength on both levels. Beauty? it’s got a sort of beauty indeed. There’s something of the Romantic as well as the comedic about Fiat Lux. So far I ain’t detected the weaknesses. Perhaps they lie more with fickle audiences hung up on superficials – hair, image, sexual orientation?

We’ll talk through that later. But first, Ian Nelson, you worked in brother Bill’s Red Noise band, then Fiat Lux debuted on brother Bill’s Cocteau label. Is it an advantage or a disadvantage having the spectre of older brother Bill Nelson there? ‘Both, at different times’ he admits reflectively. Probably bored out of his skull with the question already. ‘I wouldn’t call it a spectre.’ He pauses. Fiat Lux are articulate, but Ian is more carefully guarded in his pronouncements than his fellows. I note that he’s dark and – it must be said, bears a fair family-resemblance to the Bill Nelson of early album sleeves. ‘It’s a useful background, and at times a little bit of a millstone hung around my neck’ he decides at length. ‘Depends on circumstances. I don’t give it that much thought. I prefer to work on the level of what I am within the context of Fiat Lux. Although we’ve not actually excluded the possibility of working with Bill again in the future, it’s gotta be done under the right circumstances. In the right atmosphere. But there’s no dichotomy about it at all. I still work with Bill quite frequently in other contexts.’

‘For the band as a whole, it’s a great stable to come from’ cuts in Steve tactfully. Like he’s delivering the official band line. ‘To have the fact that Bill picked us up and put us on our way through Cocteau is the advantage. The disadvantage is that sometimes people say ‘you should have stuck with Bill lads’. But that’s just not the way things work.’

‘People expect a kind of stasis’ concluded Dave, in tones that suggest stasis is not what he has in mind for Fiat Lux.

But although the nepotism angle is temptingly easy to overplay, a little archaeology into band history tells it different. The original record deal can be traced back through Steve’s early participation in the Yorkshire Actors Company. I remember seeing them doing a punishing ‘Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari’ in an uneasy downbill slot to a Bill Nelson gig at the Leeds ‘Warehouse’ Club. In the play, Steve ‘was the guy with the white face who carried off the girl. The somnambulist.’

So now the only suggestion of make-up about Fiat Lux is the faint blush of Crickmore’s eye-shadow. Isn’t there a temptation to introduce theatrical elements into the group’s stage-act, as Bowie did with Lindsay Kemp’s dance-moves? ‘We’re always looking for visually interesting ways of presentation. But I don’t want to get into that thing of making me ‘the actor’, who’s doing little bits of Mime.’ He illustrates his point with a little bit of Mime, that one where he traces the contours of an invisible wall on the air. Then he mimes boredom with the whole idea, and shrugs it aside. ‘We’re singing songs, and that’s it. If people get off on the music, and something comes of that, then it’s good. But we don’t want to really force anything.’

‘The performing medium has a tradition steeped in Rock ‘n’ Roll roots’ from Ian. ‘That implies a certain way of presenting a band. It’s maybe good to involve elements of that instead – but not to let that dominate. Whereas, we’ve just completed working on a video. With videos you’re talking about a visual film/ acting medium. It’s quite good for us because…’

‘…because we’ve had that background’ retrieves Dave. ‘I’ve often felt it strange that every band has to come up with a video. There’s no qualification to say that every musician is also an actor who is able to present himself well on film. Some of them become just tools for the ego of some big guy in a video company out to make his name. They look right idiots. But we’ve been able to do it on our own terms, which is brilliant.’

‘Video’s just become another marketing ploy, like the shrink-wrapped T-shirt’ asserts Steve genially. ‘But for us, video is not so much important, as interesting. We had the ideas for this video. We discussed it with the video company. They wanted different things – we fought against that. The Director would say ‘OK, this time I want some arms moving in rhythm to the song.’ And we’d say ‘no. That’s stupid.’ The original idea mooted was that old cliché of turning the pages, and then the pictures on the page come to life. And it’s Regency England and that kind of thing. Really, it was laughable. Instead we got our own ideas put forward. We act in it, we came up with the settings, even the camera angles…’

‘The song, “Secrets”, is so narrative in its form that it would’ve been pointless to restate it in a literal sense in the video. What’s the point? Leave it to the imagination. It’s better to create the picture in your own mind rather than slap them in front of you on the TV screen.’

‘It’s like, ‘I’ve read the book, and the film doesn’t come up to it’.’

‘…now buy the promotional Teddy Bear.’

Fiat Lux market a good line in perceptive three-way humour.

--- 0 --- 

Picture this. Steve Wright was once aliased under the unlikely pseudonym Steve Barbaro. Before that, he and David P Crickmore – as drama students at Bretton Hall, first recorded together under the equally unlikely group identity of the Juveniles. They contribute tracks called “Another Kind Of Guy” and “Scratched Blue Vinyl” to the ‘Household Shocks’ (Stark Products LOC01, 1980) regional compilation album – alongside Product Of Reason, Fault 151 and One Gang Logic, issued on blue vinyl. While Steve split off to follow his thespian bent, Crickmore realigned with former-Strangeways Power-Popper – and occasional music journalist! Ada Wilson to form the vastly underrated Magnificent Everything.

Fiat Lux is Latin for ‘Let There Be Light’. And under this moniker Steve and David reconnect to record the haunting “Feels Like Winter Again” (Cocteau Records, November 1982), all drum-machine, jittery Casio MT40, and regretful lyric ‘I hope I never see her again… with my eyes’. It’s vaguely softly shimmering Human League, definitely 1980, and a huge Indie hit. It was recorded ‘using a small and fairly under-equipped studio’ remembers Dave with a lopsided grin. ‘It got its sparkle out of the inadequacies of the place.’

It was only then that Ian brought Fiat Lux up to its present three-piece strength (or self-confessed weakness!). He first appears on their August 1983 second single – “Photography” (Polydor), produced by Hugh Jones with its insistent ear-worm clinking keyboard-riff, chewy rhythms and repeated ‘just a piece of my life’ motif. ‘It was – to date, probably the heaviest sax-orientated thing we’ve done’ he travelogues. ‘And look where it got us…!’

For my money, the comparative commercial failure of the excellent “Photography” – their first product under the Polydor deal, had more to do with its getting lost in that chasm that exists between a visible Indie chart placing, and a first sighting in the national Top Forty. A similar problem to the one that plagued the stunning Clock DVA at around the same time, a band who – after also building an Indie cult-following, now share a major label and a producer with Fiat Lux.

‘There always seems to be the ‘they’ve sold out’ theory of signing to a major’ comments Steve wistfully. ‘But it just isn’t that way at all. We’ve still got the same amount of control over our material. It’s just that now we have the backing and financial support which is important to us. Such resources ARE important. It’s much more comfortable, obviously, to have a good instrument to play and a good studio to work in than to fight for a sound in primitive circumstances. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with fighting for a sound, but maybe you can just produce that little bit more if you have the facilities. That’s something you have to take into consideration if you want to improve your music.’

‘The only thing that actually goes ZOOOOOM when you sign to a major label is a certain responsibility for ensuring that your material reaches a wider audience. It’s not that any pressure is exerted on you to kinda compromise on behalf of the business end of things. But you actually feel yourself wanting to develop in particular ways. An Independent label obviously doesn’t have the machinery to permit those options anyway, because they are necessarily narrow and limited. But we’ve never been a band that have actually been so experimental that we’ve had to change our ways.’

‘We haven’t suddenly softened up and put in the old Dance-beat.’

You’ve always been soft? This bantering humour is contagious. ‘We’ve always been mellow’ fences Steve defensively. ‘There’s always been a kind of seediness about the music…’

‘…he said, zipping up his fly!’ adds Ian seedily.

There’s always been a strong melodic content, I counter. Rephrasing a little. “Secrets” is a beautifully constructed song – ‘now you know me inside-out, you know my secrets… brought to my knees by my own words,’ it’s a brand-leader whatever context it’s placed within, just as the album tracks they play for me extend outwards beyond any electro-pop genre limitations. There’s little chance of music this richly diverse vanishing into ANY commercial black holes. But it’s around this point that the subject of Fiat Lux’s relationship to song-writing tradition, and to Rock clichés creeps in.

‘I don’t think any of us are particularly interested in the Rock tradition’ opines Steve.

‘It’s interesting’ contradicts Dave. ‘But we’re not a part of it.’

‘There’s a format which has grown up over a long long time which really doesn’t have much to do with us’ from Ian. ‘It’s just a kind of establishment really – which is NOT what it started out to be.’

It’s here that Steve invents ‘the national association of rebels’. A put-down delivered with evident satisfaction.

Anyone wanna see a Speeding Ticket?


November 1982 – “Feels Like Winter Again” c/w “What Is This Illness” (Cocteau Records COQ9) produced by Bill Nelson

August 1983 – “Photography” c/w “Aqua Vita (Extended Remix)” (Polydor 815302-1 FIAT X1)

28 January 1984 – “Secrets” c/w “Comfortable Life” plus “Aqua Vitae” (Polydor FIATX2) produced by Hugh Jones, reaches no.65, on chart for 3 weeks. Strong radio support from Peter Powell and Janice Long

17 March 1984 – “Blue Emotion” c/w “Sleepless Nightmare” (Polydor FIATX3 Polydor 817964-1) no.59, on chart for one week

August 1984 – ‘HIRED HISTORY’ (Polydor mini-LP 821-637-4) with ‘Secrets’, ‘Photography’, ‘Blue Emotion (Extended Version)’, ‘Comfortable Life’, ‘Sleepless Nightmare’, ‘Aqua Vitae’ (drums). Reissued as 2CD ‘Hired History Plus’ (Cherry Red, April 2019) featuring ‘Ark Of Embers’… 

September 1984 – “House of Thorns” c/w “Three Company” (FIAT4 Polydor 881-318-7) January 1985 – “Solitary Lovers” c/w “No More Proud (Proud and Dub Mix)” (FIATX5-DJ, Polydor)

1990 – ‘COMMERCIAL BREAKDOWN’ (Hendring Video, Channel 5 CFV00452) video with ‘Secrets’, ‘Blue Emotion’, ‘Photography’, ‘No More Proud’, ‘Sleepless Nightmare’, ‘The Moment’, ‘Comfortable Life’, ‘Embers’, ‘Splurge’, ‘House Of Thorns’, ‘Secrets (Reprise)’

February 2017 – “Secrets 2017” c/w “Secrets (Instrumental)” (SplidCD18 via Proper)

May 2018 – “It’s You (Radio Edit)” c/w “It’s You (Full plus instrumental version)” (SplidCD19 via Proper)

February 2019 – “Everyday In Heaven” (Splid via Proper) on Amazon and iTunes

February 2019 – ‘SAVED SYMMETRY’ (Splid Records SPLIDCD21) with ‘Tuesday’, ‘Hold Me While You Can’, ‘Everyday In Heaven, ‘Grey Unpainted Rooms’, ‘We Can Change The World’, ‘Wasted (On Baby Tears)’, ‘Long Lost Love’, ‘It’s You (Album Version)’, ‘Calling On Angels’, ‘Saved Symmetry’ plus ‘Secrets 2017) 


 This is a strange one. ‘Electronic Soundmaker’ – the specialist 
musician’s magazine that commissioned this FIAT LUX interview, was 
published monthly, which meant that copy had to be delivered at least six 
weeks in advance. When I spoke to them, their album ‘Aqua Vitea’ was 
scheduled for release at around the same time as the anticipated 
publication-date. So we conduct the interview as a promotion for the 
album, around the assumption that it was already there, in the shops. 
Unfortunately for everyone, their single “Secrets” stumbles just outside 
the chart. A few places higher and it would have qualified for ‘Top Of 
The Pops’ TV-slot exposure, followed inevitably by accelerated sales into 
higher chart visibility. Yet it stumbled. As a result, Polydor placed the tie-
in album release on hold. The album was not issued. And has never been 
released in its full form. Instead a mini-album, ‘Hired History’ (August 
1984, Polydor 821-637-4) emerged including a mere six of the intended 
tracks. So our interview was published in ‘Electronic Soundmaker’ 
discussing an album that did not exist. No-one complained. 
So far as I’m aware no-one even noticed. 
 Making this is the interview about the LP that never happened…

Fiat Lux means ‘Let There Be Light’, and they shed light aplenty on their first album. A sound that shines through – according to dark-haired vocalist Steve Wright, like ‘a searchlight in a sewer.’

If you have room in your heart for just one more Electro-Pop band, make it Fiat Lux.

They don’t fit easily into anyone’s preconceptions. They never have. Getting it together in a house in the country is not what you expect from modernists, but it’s a setting that’s exactly right for Fiat Lux. In their Smithybrook Farm rehearsal studios low whitewashed oak beams loom down perilously close to speaker cabinets, to Ian Nelson’s Jupiter 8, to microphones, David Crickmore’s Memorymoog, bronze sax, Fender guitar, and assorted other instruments. We distribute ourselves around the room and listen back to monitor mixes of the album over sweet coffee and a tube of ‘Jammie Dodgers’. The high-tech décor stands in odd – but not inappropriate, contrast to the rural setting.

‘Our second single, “Photography”, drew some flack’ travelogues Steve with evident amusement. ‘It got called turgid, it seems critics didn’t like its slowness. Other people, who took the time, caught onto the mood of it and really liked it.’

‘Radio exposure is so important’ asserts Ian, more seriously. ‘And we didn’t get the plays we needed.’

‘It was scheduled for a Radio ‘Round Table’ one Friday. We were listening. It was gradually getting nearer and nearer to the end of the programme and it hadn’t been on yet. Then they played the last record… and it wasn’t ours. Our plugger said ‘I bet I’ll go in there tomorrow and they’ll tell me it would’ve been the next one up… if they’d had time.’ There’s something momentarily wistful in Steve’s voice as he adds ‘it was little things that didn’t happen, like that.’

All bands complain about lack of airtime. It’s part of the game. But for Fiat Lux it’s more valid than most. Listen to their current single, the beautifully reflective “Secrets”. There’s a delicacy within the dynamics of melody and harmonies that give it irresistible power. No pretentions, no art-Pop cerebral frosting. They rely on the accumulative addiction of its pure melody. Like “Photography” it’s too slow for Disco boogie nights, and too subtle for radio’s bargain-basement-culture approach to immediacy. It needs repetition before yielding up its full potential. It’s worth the effort, but it needs those plays to break on through to the other side.

The album reveals similar slow burners. The spacious “Embers” in particular stands out. ‘This song is all about leaving spaces’ comments blonde Crickmore as it washes lushly around him. ‘Leaving a few spaces is in some ways a lot better than filling them.’ Drifting guitar chords float around a dramatic Scott Walker colouration, Ian’s hypnotic sax weaving and dancing in wave-forms. Then “Blue Emotions” – ‘the nicest Socialist song that anyone’s ever heard!’, which is something like Heaven 17 might sound with sweeping OMD shading, but free from their histrionic theatrics. Later on there’s “The Moment”, with nagging horns and intricate vocal harmonies, a slow loping acoustic guitar trim around a clean sax break. The slightly more orthodox Electro-Pop “Breaking The Boundary”, and the fast funk of “No More Proud” with its lyrical density served up though straining vocals. Here the chromatic drum-pulse percussion falls into place like the strokes of a well-oiled guillotine, drawing from a tight tight reservoir of power. But it’s in the beauty and clarity of the slower tracks that Fiat Lux deliver, and collectively, in album form honed and sharpened by Hugh Jones meticulous production, there’s no way they can now be overlooked.

--- 0 --- 

There’s sufficient facial similarity to betray Ian’s filial relationship to Bill Nelson. And it’s an obvious critical tactic to detect nepotism at work in the Fiat Lux debut – “Feels Like Winter Again”, which emerged on Nelson’s Cocteau label. But that single was recorded in Leeds Ric-Rac studios, then became a ‘NME’ ‘Single Of The Week’, and went Top Three in the Indie lists, even before Ian had expanded the line-up to a three-piece. Crickmore and Wright have a history of prowling Yorkshire stage-boards in various configurations, extending back some way. At the same time as Ian Nelson was honking sax with brother Bill’s Red Noise, Steve was down-bill hoofing ‘The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari’ as part of the Yorkshire Actors Company, while on the radio John Peel was playing the complex jazzy single Ian cut with Ada Wilson’s underrated Keeping Dark (1980, “Head In The Clouds” c/w “It Doesn’t Have To Be” Rockburgh Records ROCS224). But it was the collaborative success of “Feels Like Winter Again”, and the subsequent national tour with Blancmange, that fused the Fiat Lux identity into a tight professional unit. From which the step to Polydor, to “Photography”, and to the album, were natural progressions.

‘There’s some room for hindsight’ acknowledges Steve around a crumbling mouthful of ‘Jammie Dodger’. ‘Over the last couple of days I’ve listened to “Feels Like Winter Again” again. It’s great, but now I listen back to it, it seems really naïve. Not ‘cos there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just maybe not how it would sound if we did it now.’

‘What we would’ve raved about six months ago now seems really uneventful’ concurs David, cross-legged on the bare-boards floor near the speakers. ‘I’m glad about that. It means we’re moving on all the time. If they still sound great that would mean we aren’t achieving any progression. Now we’ve got fairly advanced backing tracks. Fairly advanced equipment, and hopefully we can come up with some fairly advanced sounds with them. In the early days the songs were slightly more basic. We were forced to rely more on the backing tapes simply because we didn’t have the facility to create a lot of the synthesiser sounds we wanted. We were limited to a Casio and a sax before we had any more!’

‘Now we have a lot more work to do on stage’ admits Ian. ‘There’s more opportunity to cheat, but we don’t want to do that. The responsibility falls on us to play a great deal more of the keyboard and synth parts live. We now tend to use more just a percussion-orientated backing tape. But a lot of the parts on the album that appear to be triggered mechanically and sequenced are actually played in real time. What we’ve done in a lot of cases is actually to replace certain voices on the Linndrum with real drums which we’ve set up in the studio. So the sounds are actually original drum-sounds triggered through digital delay units. They give the impression of being sequenced because they’re quite repetitive and synced up to a particular pulse, but they’re not actually done mechanically. They’re done live by human beings (guest drummer Rick Martinez).’

‘You can use the TR808 which was once hailed as the best drum-machine you could get. It’s got separate voices on it and everything. But although it’s now been superseded by the Linn it’s still as useful because it has some interesting sounds which aren’t obvious Linn sounds. You can use it in conjunction with other triggered sounds, through something like an AMS – which can hold a sample of sound, which could be a live sound, and use that to trigger the machines.’

Ian sits forward for emphasis. ‘The problem with drum-machines is that, because technology’s becoming cheaper and is available to almost everybody, they’re now so widely used. There’s only a certain number of permutations to the Linndrum sound regardless of what chips you put in. But if you actually combine it with this technique of using real drum-sounds digitally reproduced, and treating them in different ways, you can get away from the stereotyped drum-machine sound. There’s nothing wrong with certain sounds off certain drum-machines. No matter how cheap they are, some of them have an interesting characteristic that can be used in a particular song. But it’s useful to have the facility to be able to combine them with more sophisticated things. We’ve always tried to avoid using the machines in the conventional sense.’

The limitations lie with the musician, they infer, not with the technology. Donning my agent provocateur’s hat – a jaunty pork-pie model!, I suggest that, whereas the experimental Electro format was once vaguely revolutionary in its implications – with the Kraftwerk cyber-innovations, it’s now become a virtual establishment. So much so that a new generation of bands – like Red Guitars from Hull, are reverting back to restating the importance of traditional Rock instrumentation.

‘There’s a case for one or the other’ concedes Steve generously. ‘But what we’ve tried to do is integrate all instruments into what we’re doing.’

David nods animatedly. ‘The thing is, not to put a limit down on it’ he argues. ‘Like on those tracks you just heard, we’ve got things as old as the hills. There’s a mellotron doing some of the parts because they have a distinctive sound that’s un-creatable outside Fairlight-land.’

Voices overlap in three-part fully-interlocking harmony as Fiat Lux warm to the dialogue.

‘Obviously we still use ‘real’ bass guitars and guitars. In fact there’s a slightly heavier lean towards guitars on a lot of the new stuff…’

‘…just to give it a harder edge. We had that edge in the beginning because things were more primitive. Now we get it by using a bit more guitar here and there…’

‘…there’s more guitar, but not because we’re lagging behind the trend, Folks! But because some of the songs need more zappiness!’

Steve sums up. ‘This whole thing about reverting back to restating the importance of traditional instrumentation is like saying that the only way good contemporary Rock music can be made is by using the guitar. What did Bill (Nelson) call it – a plank of wood with wires on? And it is just that. If a song is suitable then – sure, use it. But I don’t see that that provides any justification for proclaiming ‘we’re a GUITAR BAND. We’re not one of those wimpy synthi-Poppy bands.’

‘It’s exactly the same prejudice that began the whole synth-orientated thing’ protests David. ‘It’ll go round in trends like that, and I don’t think we want to be a part of that. We want to feel that anything we have an inclination to use in a particular context, we can use it without feeling that we’re part of one sect or another. If it needs a Hoover – we’ll use one.’

The first wave of synthesiser bands saw its vocabulary in terms of metalanguage, implicitly icy and impersonal. But as the last finely-textured notes of the Fiat Lux album fade on my domestic sound centre it becomes obvious that that’s no longer the case. The novelty phase of ‘machine music’ is a long time dead, bands like Fiat Lux are bringing human warmth to it, and by doing so they ensure its continued relevance. In the same way that they’ve integrated their modernist rehearsal-studio into its rural setting, and mated electronic with acoustic sounds, they’ve humanised their technology, redeploying its characteristics through the lens of purely musical considerations. No technocrats of industrial chic, they extend the vocabulary of electricity.

‘That was one of the things that differentiated us from the average synthesiser band in the beginning’ explains David. ‘Most synth bands relied on the monotone-type format, with the synthesisers fizzing away to add the melody. We always went for the melody first, with synthesisers adding texture to the arrangement.’ They’re restating the primacy of the song.

Ian stands to emphatically kill the tape machine. ‘Things have to change and adapt because times are changing. There’s a lot of looking back, a lot of stasis. We’re not interested in reviving the sixties, the fifties, or even the forties. We’re quite content to rape the nineties…!’

Fiat Lux boot historical considerations and hit the current moving targets of cult and culture precisely.

If you have room in your heart for just one more…


Recently reconvened, Fiat Lux are an Electro-Pop Group 
from Wakefield. This is the rest of the interview tape we 
did together in January 1984, much of it previously unseen

You know what to expect from a former ‘Cocteau’-label band with Bill Nelson producer credits, right? Hot and cold running art-school poseurs, right? Digital sterile telecommunications, bleeps and pretentions, right? Well, here’s the lie. The original synthesiser bands saw their vocabulary in terms of metalanguage, implicitly cold and impersonal. But that’s no longer the case. Fiat Lux are no technocrats of industrial chic, they extend the vocabulary of electricity by adding warmth and humour. The human touch. By doing so they ensure the genre’s continued relevance as a music form.

They toured with the likes of Thomas Dolby, Blancmange and Howard Jones, as well as doing prestigious solo slots – including the ICA, to promote their debut Polydor album. But they weren’t always so up-market. First time I saw them, things were slightly more bargain-basement. It was late 1982 in a small club called ‘Raffles’, upstairs from a Yorkshire Disco in their native Wakefield. Their first release – “Feels Like Winter Again” c/w “What Is This Illness”, was recorded at the Leeds cut-price Ric-Rac studio with Bill Nelson at the desk, it became an ‘NME’ ‘Single Of The Week’.

Steve Wright – then known as Sebastian Barbaro!, vocalist and hit-man with Fiat Lux wears a ‘CONTEMPORARY DANCE THEATRE’ top, but sabotages its effect with grubby red baseball boots, and worse yet, Ian – brother of Bill Nelson, wears a 007 T-shirt etched with a ‘FUCK ART: LET’S DANCE’ motif. But local muso’s from yards around cram out the ‘Raffles’ club, hemming the Orange amps, spacing the floor for two Egypto-mask and Miró-mime girls to twitch and pirouette an aperitif that betrays something of Wright/ Barbaro’s previous eighteen-months spent hoofing with the Yorkshire Actors Company. Then there’s a further mental flashback of a year-and-a-half to June 1981, and a performance of “The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari” at the ‘Warehouse’ with Steve in white-face make-up. The Company play to large-scale indifference-cum-hostility. Ian was there too, on that same cold Leeds night, as part of bill-topping Red Noise. But there were no such division that night in Wakefield.

It’s Ian’s sax which honks its way into the first number, “With These Eyes”, and Fiat Lux become an irrepressible dance-virus. David P Crickmore (mini-moog) irradiates the stage with a huge guileless grin, running synth lines over ‘Herman’ Revox’s taped drum-pulse, machine-rhythms that get further humanised by Ian’s organic and all-over-the-place saxophone which exudes breathy zigzags of earthy kiss-of-life adrenalin. From the set that follows two numbers in particular stand out – “Comfortable Life” (later a B-side of 1984 single “Secrets”) with its chopped quickfire percussion, Crickmore shifting from keyboards to Bongos, and “Photography (Slight Return)” done in Rayographed reggae and just the correct infiltration of slyly contagious humour. That’s correct – humour, you don’t associate that with ‘Cocteau’ either, but Steve’s neat between-numbers spiel leaks over effortlessly into his vocals, and the mix works smoothly. They are less clinically precise, more accessible than Cocteau’s prior clients Flock Of Seagulls, and they create a music that works for the mind, the body, and all points between.

On the strength of the Indie chart Top Three placing of “Feels Like Winter Again” Fiat Lux switch to Polydor – and to producer Hugh Jones, issuing “Photography” c/w “Aqua Vitae” in August 1983. ‘This may be hypnotic’ wrote ‘Melody Maker’, ‘a slowly circling drum-pattern and time-keeping synth, tuneful, deceptively shy and gradually working up a fair head of atmosphere.’

I meet the band again in their Yorkshire rehearsal studios where we listen to album playbacks, with David sitting cross-legged on the floor near the speakers, and Steve singing along to the tapes. ‘What happened to Sebastian Barbaro?’ I enquire during warm-up small-talk. ‘He died’ Steve admits genially.

ANDREW DARLINGTON: How did you work together prior to Fiat Lux?

STEVE WRIGHT: Dave and I were in a band called the Juveniles. It’s funny, recently, I was listening to the first two tracks we did, issued on a Hull-and-Humberside compilation album called ‘Household Shocks’ (one of the members of the Juveniles came from Scunthorpe). I couldn’t stop laughing! It came out on blue vinyl, which was good because one of our songs was called “Scratched Blue Vinyl”. We were both at Art College, and the band was just relaxation. That was… 1978 (no, it was 1980)? wasn’t it?

DAVID CRICKMORE: The Juveniles was just something to get out of the College fixation that everyone had. We weren’t a part of that, we wanted to use our own devices, so we did it by going out with the band.

AD: You all have interesting histories – Ian in Red Noise, David in the Magnificent Everything, and Steve in Yorkshire Actors Co (performing ‘Clockwork Orange’ to Bill Nelson’s specially written taped soundtrack). Have you severed all connections with the Actors Co now?

STEVE: Yes. They’ve got a single out at the moment (sic). I’ve heard it. And I don’t rate it. I thought their first one was better.

AD: Isn’t there a temptation to introduce theatrical elements into the Fiat Lux stage-set?

STEVE: Because of the economics of this next tour we’ve gotta find something that’s containable in the back of a small van, yet is also interesting, and doesn’t cost the earth. And we’ve done it. What it is I shan’t say.

AD: Is the visual side of performance important for you? Through video, for example.

DAVID: Yes. Very much so.

IAN NELSON: Video is not so much important as interesting. If it wasn’t interesting then perhaps we wouldn’t make such an effort to elaborate on the ideas for video. The video for “Secrets” was good because we had virtual free reign on the story-boarding ourselves.

AD: You used to use additional percussion on stage, Bongos, wood-blocks, etc.

DAVID: Yes. We did. Don’t know if we’ll be able to do that now, because in the early days the songs were (a) slightly more basic, and (b) we relied slightly more on the backing tapes simply because we didn’t have the facilities to create a lot of the synthesiser sounds we wanted. So it was down to us to make use of a lot of percussion on stage to (a) fill in the gaps, and (b) to add that extra dimension to the equipment that we had either on tape or on stage.

AD: You tried out an organic rhythm section for a while, with drummer Rick Martinez and bassist Steve Smith. They’ve presumably now left?

STEVE: We just reverted to a three-piece, it’s more practical from the gigging point of view.

AD: You’ve gone back to ‘Herman’, the drum machine?

DAVID: The original ‘Herman’ tape-machine died at one of our gigs last December, in the middle of the set. So now we’ve got ‘Herman Mark Two’.

AD: With Sebastian Barbaro and now ‘Herman’ that’s two Fiat Lux fatalities. Perhaps you can make some kind of Ian Curtis cult thing out of it?

STEVE: Herman hung himself because of an involvement with a tape-machine in Siberia.

DAVID: I don’t know whether ‘Herman’ would command the same cult status. I suppose he can maybe go on display in the Wakefield Museum instead.

AD: Yes. But drum-machines grow more sophisticated. Drum machines – like Linndrums, are getting much more flexible.

IAN: It’s more to do with the actual sound-quality of it. Linndrum has a standard set of sounds, and they are chip-recordings of a real drummer.

DAVID: There’s someone prestigious who actually hits the drum for them – Steve Gadd or someone like that. So you can get different drum-sounds simply by getting a chip of a different someone hitting a different snare-drum or whatever.

AD: It’s not down to the limitations of the instrument though, it’s the intelligence behind it.

IAN: Yes. One would hope so.

AD: I always considered the saxophone to be a strong feature of the Fiat Lux sound. It has that…

STEVE: …human element. Yes, it’s only – what? a year-and-a-half ago that Ian started playing live with the band. At the time it seemed to us that not many other people were doing it. That a sax used with synths was very different. It gave a clear sound. The backing tapes, and the warmth of the saxophone enhance each other. A lot of other people have also latched onto that now.

IAN: Then again, we’re not exactly making such a feature of the sax as we were.

DAVID: We’ve moved on now.

AD: After the success of “Feels Like Winter Again” you toured with Blancmange.

IAN: Yes, that was good. They seem to have a very strong communication with their particular audience. They’ve got very fanatical followers. Nice people as well. Whatever anyone thinks about their music, you can’t knock their intentions or their integrity. They believe in what they do.

STEVE: They helped us a lot in what – for us, were naïve times. We were quite expecting to get five minutes soundcheck and then get chucked off. But they did theirs in twenty minutes, and then we had an hour-and-a-half! It was wonderful, so relaxing. They’d often stay around to watch our soundcheck. We got very reasonable treatment and sound quality mix-wise. There was no ‘mix them down because they’re the support band’.

IAN: They were almost falling over themselves to be nice to us.

STEVE: They’d do local radio interviews – and the BBC2 ‘Oxford Road Show’, and they kept plugging us. They’d say ‘before we speak about Blancmange we must tell you we’ve got an ace support band with us.’

AD: What was the deciding factor in quitting Cocteau to sign up with Polydor?

IAN: It depends what you want out of a label.

DAVID: Immediately you sign to a major you’re making the decision that you’re going to attempt to reach a wider audience. That means not necessarily a change in style or emphasis, but just an acknowledgement of a certain marketability. It’s the difference between thinking ‘we’re doing this for ourselves principally but it’s going out and a certain select audience may appreciate it,’ and ‘we’re doing this because we want to entertain on a large scale, because this is what we want to do.’

STEVE: You don’t have to draw any less on your own resources. Maybe people on an Indie label think that ‘we’re doing this ourselves.’ Well, we’re still doing it ourselves. We’re still coming up with the material ourselves. It’s just the way it’s being taken from that stage, and processed through the business side of things.

AD: You get better distribution through a major label.

IAN: Independent labels have national distribution now.

STEVE: The example would be, say, if we were producing identical material to the songs on the album, but we had to make a choice about what went out as a single. Then maybe, for our own taste, we’d select “Comfortable Life” to be the A-side, whereas “Secrets” would still be a part of our material and still an essential part of what the band is. But it’s obvious that the logical choice to have as a single – to reach a wider audience, is “Secrets”.

DAVID: We’ve always had those sort of songs about anyway. “Feels Like Winter Again”, on a major label, could probably have stood us in the same sort of stead.

AD: How are Fiat Lux numbers assembled?

IAN: It’s pretty much in the same way that we use instrumentation or whatever. There are a number of methodologies that apply at different times. Sometimes a song can be entirely written and dictated by one person. Or in other circumstances it can be a completely collective effort. And it’s just to do with the way a song evolves and what’s appropriate at the time.

STEVE: It is exactly that. Someone will come along with an idea and say ‘what shall we do with this?’ And then it’s ‘all three put your heads down and work on it.’ If it doesn’t work, throw it out, if it dies – work on it some more. We never stop working on them really. They seem to come to a point where they’re established for that time, but then they get reworked again. That’s why if you listen to “Photography” – now, and the version we did with Bill (Nelson) and the versions that we’d done for sessions before that…

IAN: They’re as different as chalk and cheese. But yes, it’s usually a collective effort.

AD: There’s not one lyrical input?

IAN: Not one exclusively. The majority of the lyrics tend to come from Steve. But then again, it’s perfectly likely… and on tape, it’s happening that Dave is writing things…

STEVE: …and we’ve got a song coming.

IAN: So it’s not coming from just one angle.

DAVID: Which is good because then there’s the spark of variety. We’ve all got various qualities which add up, and contribute to the whole which is distinguishable, yet with different leads bringing different ideas to the same song. It comes together as variety.

STEVE: Variety being the spice of…

IAN: …life.

STEVE: As with the music we’ve found that, we like to think that if you’re too overt about anything, people push you away. That’s what I was saying about “Blue Emotions” being perhaps ‘the nicest Socialist-minded song you’ll ever hear’. We’re not going out of our way to browbeat a political message.

DAVID: It’s based on the philosophy that if you set out to be very stark and bold about your viewpoint, you’re ultimately only going to attract people who already think that way anyway. It’s best to lull people into the security of liking a song and then give them time later in retrospect to think about what it says. It’s much better because you reach a wider audience without people getting offended enough in the first place to not actually go out of their way to see you or buy your stuff.

STEVE: Without being pushed away or shut off or excluded from their minds before you’ve even started to get any kind of feeling or message or sentiment across.

AD: It’s a trap to be seen as a ‘political band’?

IAN: To an extent that can also be very much a pose, as opposed to a valid belief. And at all costs, we want to stay away from that!

AD: Have Polydor been a good company to work with so far?

STEVE: Oh yes, they’re alright. We haven’t had dreadlocks waxed into our own hair or anything, yet.

DAVID: At least they give us the freedom of choice, to some extent, which some of their sister companies don’t seem to be so keen to do.

AD: Was Bill Nelson involved in the production of “Photography’, your first Polydor single?

IAN: No, there was an aborted attempt at a single for Polydor. We did hope to maintain the relationship we’d had with Bill, but for various reasons – mainly centring on the Record Company – it wasn’t considered to be the right direction. Which is not to say that they were insisting on any one particular direction. But after working on it, it appeared that it was not really gonna happen that way. So there is another version of “Photography” kicking around somewhere.

DAVID: The mistake with “Photography” was that we were trying to recreate the circumstances in which “Feels Like Winter Again” was done, and it didn’t work out as it might have done. So, never mind, it didn’t work, let’s go for it again in another way.

STEVE: “Photography” got some good reviews. We got put in the same bag as Velvet Underground for some reason! Very trendy name in’it – the Velvets!

DAVID: The explanation we got for radio people not playing that single were ridiculous. People away on holiday. That kind of thing.

STEVE: Everybody down at Polydor seem to be more confident about the current single (“Secrets” c/w “Comfortable Life”). “Secrets” was written during Spring this year. What we tried to do with “Photography” was to have two different aspects of the group on the two sides of the record. The same is true of “Secrets”, which is quite slow, with “Comfortable Life” as a more upbeat dance track, more drum-orientated.

AD: You recorded the album at the Liverpool Amazon studios.

IAN: Yes. It’s by no means hi-tech super-expensive. It’s just…

STEVE: …£24 an hour! I sling that in. It’s a third or a quarter the price of big studios we’ve been offered. It’s convenient and economical. It’s 24-track.

DAVID: And it’s sensible because it’s got all the ancillary gear that you would need in recording stages. What you do is spend more time and less money recording the main backing tracks and overdubs there – then take your mixing and final edits to a studio in London with all the gizmos. That’s the only time you really need 101-echo units.

AD: Don’t Polydor have studios you can use?

DAVID: They have one which is always in demand by one Mr Paul Weller. Usually they farm out to independent studios. We use RG Jones on Endeavour Way in Wimbledon for mixing (the same studios that the Yardbirds used in 1964!).

STEVE: It’s good because it’s well-appointed.

IAN: Whereas Amazon gives you time and freedom to develop your ideas without worrying that every turn of the clock is another £76 down the drain.

AD: Was Hugh Jones your choice as producer?

STEVE: Yes. That’s another thing where we had – not power, but – say, over the record company. They were suggesting producers until they were blue in the face, and we were going ‘no’. We met Hugh socially first. He was free, and we were wanting to do things, so…

DAVID: …we were aware of his previous stuff (Echo And The Bunnymen, Clock DVA, Icicle Works, Del Amitri, etc). It just worked from there. We got on with the chap. We knew what we were capable of. Polydor were happy with the demos we did with his involvement. We were happy. So off we went.

AD: Some producers contribute ideas, others just operate the desk. Does Hugh have a creative input?

DAVID: Oh definitely. He does both. He’s a very good engineer, that’s his background.

IAN: And he’s quite prepared to allow things to develop in their own right. But when the occasion demands he’ll come up with positive ideas of his own. It’s often very useful to have a creative input from outside the band, at a sort of secondary stage when songs and arrangements have been devised and developed, but maybe not proved in a recording situation.

STEVE: We’re so familiar with the material by that stage, by the time we actually get into the recording studio, that it’s difficult to be objective.

AD: What sort of reactions do playbacks – like this one, prompt? Are you self-critical?

DAVID: I think, with a producer like Hugh Jones, all the self-criticism and external criticism happens in the recording. He’s so meticulous you can’t get away with anything. He’s great for that. He might spend hours and hours on one particular thing. It’s debatable whether that working process is always good – some work spontaneously, and others are good at working precisely. We tend to be more careful with something that we’ve spent hours on. So I think we’re going to end up owning the studio!

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They joke about projected titles for the album – ‘As Big As All The World’s Lungs’ (!), the Latin for Torture or Intimidation, ‘Greatest Hits’, ‘Fiat Lux 1’ in preparation for ‘Fiat Lux 2’ and ‘3’. While the tape plays through tracks like “The Moment”, “Breaking The Boundary”, “Blue Emotion”, “Embers” and a fast funk “No More Proud” that I recall from the ‘Raffles’ set, lyrics emoting ‘my soul is a lake-full of anguish…’

Steve signs a copy of the record for me. ‘Neat writing’ I comment. ‘Good upbringing’ he responds. 

2019 opens a new chapter of the Fiat Lux story, tying off lots of loose ends, and opening up new routes. For an update, there are details here…

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