Tuesday 28 October 2014

Music Interview: THE CASSANDRA COMPLEX Leeds, 1988


This interview with CASSANDRA COMPLEX took place in 
1988. Some of the ideas, and some of the technology has been 
overtaken by events. The energy, the attitude, and the spirit, has not…

‘Contact Music’, Briggate, Leeds. ‘Surplus Music’, Boar Lane, Leeds.

Rodney looks wistfully through the plate-glass at West Yorkshire’s premier Music Marts. ‘When we had no money, we’d look in here longing to own all the gear we couldn’t afford. Now we’re bankable and there’s nothing here I actually want to buy!’ THIS from the guy who yells onstage ‘if we could AFFORD two guitars, we’d HAVE two guitars!’ (dialogue on ‘Feel The Width’).

Rodney Orpheus is voice, oracle, and programming with Cassandra Complex whose fourth album – ‘Theomania’, is a solitary cat in a street of its own. Audible sound operates from twenty to 20,000 vibrations per second. The number of vibrations per second is called frequency. Presumably ‘Theomania’ operates within such limitations, it just makes it sound like more. CX – his preferred abbreviation, are a band on the knife-edge of now, with a bias into tomorrow, and a reputation for a teasingly good up-chat line… on the ‘eat drink and party ‘cos tomorrow we may be obsolete’ principle. A Complex simplicity – a cat among the pigeons.

Sometimes Rodney comes on all fast-talking technocrat, then he’s mass-market conman. Now he’s a fusion of the many. So I attempt to hack into some controversial copy. We talk ‘Game Theory’ and George Orwell. We talk paranoia and ‘Star Trek’. I ask was it Pete Wylie who said ‘there’s never been a Jimi Hendrix for the synthesiser?’ There’s never been someone who took the synth and extended it out to – and beyond, the limits of its capability. Rodney’s is an instant non-flexible response – ‘yes there is, Tomita. He was one of the first synth players, but listen to the sounds and the textures of his stuff, the way he puts his things together. He IS the Hendrix of the synthesiser world. No way around it. His album of Ravel pieces is incredible (‘The Ravel Album’, 1979). Jean-Michel Jarre is basically very overblown – big layers of sound. Whereas Tomita is completely the opposite. He’s deconstructivist. He’s…’

Minimalist? I suggest. ‘In a sense. Closer to people like Ravel or Debussy who painted sound pictures.’

Pointilistic? I persist. ‘Perhaps. But taking that process further. He replaces entire orchestral sections with a single synth sound. He just places that sound for a few seconds – then leaves it, complete, a statement in itself…’

I’d not expected Tomita. Suicide perhaps. Or Giorgio Moroder. Even electro-industrial circa Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire. The second CX album – ‘Hello America’, is a stylistic kleptomania of such names, a refinement of aggression carried out with surgical efficiency, and an eye to product placement. A compilation culled from CX’s first eighteen months of recording it includes the self-financed debut single, “March” – a trial balloon feeler for Rodney’s multinational schizo-geographic ambitions, followed by “Moscow Idaho” (‘it’s a real place, I’ve never been there. I can’t wait to go!’), and “Datakill” – both major European hits. And there’s more, a collection of some of the most stimulating sounds these ears have come across in a singularly l-o-n-g barren time-span, and all the more valuable because of it.

But depressingly, English reviewers and record-buyers at large still fight shy of CX. Perhaps because of words like ‘programming’ which tend to crop up with some regularity on their sleeves? Is it a form of technophobia, part and parcel of the problematic concept of ‘personalising’ electronics? ‘Y-e-a-h’ concedes Rodney. ‘It’s definitely an obstacle. You can personalise guitars, but it can be difficult to differentiate between drum machines. You can tell the difference in the style of programming, but the essential sound is going to be the same. I can tell every time I listen to a record these days, which drum machine they’re using, ninety-nine percent of the audience isn’t going to have the foggiest idea of the difference between a 707 or an 808. But any musician’s gonna pick it out immediately. But things are changing. As equipment becomes more advanced, and cheaper, there’s a greater diversity of style. You can BUY greater versatility for your money…’ For the record, CX use ‘a TR707 drum machine, which is really’ – snaps fingers – ‘excellent. Very simple to use. Totally IDIOT-proof because it’s step-time programming, and we’re crap at doing anything that involves mechanical skill.’

In Rodney’s game-plan – rather than being an elitist thing envisaged by technophobic reviewers and record-buyers, electronics technology provides ‘the ultimate Punk instruments, absolutely. You can buy yourself one of those little Casio samplers for £99 – and make a record with it, easily. You can’t get a decent GUITAR for £99. It’s like the old Akai F6-12 sampler, they’re only £400 now. And ease of use is one of the best criteria for buying an instrument. It SHOULD be easy to use. For some reason, when you read reviews of instruments, they very rarely take that into account. It’s a pain in the ass to have to sit down and read through a fifty-page manual and press sixteen buttons, when what you want – to create a piece of music, is to just go BANG, and DO IT! We’ve used the Akai F6-12 because it’s ridiculously cheap, ridiculously brilliant, and ridiculously easy to use. Any moron can make a good sample and play it in five minutes. The instrument manual is four pages long! – which, for a piece of modern electronic equipment, is unbelievable. It’s easier to operate than a cassette deck.’

Is this what CX mean by Datakill? – stay tuned! ‘But you want flexibility as well, which is another reason why we use all these things. They ARE flexible. We use a lot of little Casio keyboards, just normal small £90 ones. We run them through fuzzboxes and all kinds of effects pedals so they sound incredible. Those cheap Casio’s have got an ATTACK and drive that you just can’t get on anything else. We always have a couple of those. On tour we carry two or three and just throw them around the stage. They’re so cheap it doesn’t matter if you bash them, you can beat the crap out of them…’

So does this instant access aspect of techno make musicianship less important, as some insensitive folk suggest? ‘Of course it’s important’ he snaps back. ‘A lot of people would think that sounds insulting! It’s bloody stupid to say that musicianship isn’t important. In the same sense that if you want to be a good plumber you’ve got to know what size pipes to use. If you want to be a good carpenter you’ve got to know the difference between one bit of wood and another. You can be a naturally gifted carpenter, and be able to knock up chairs and tables – but you’ll be an even BETTER carpenter if you know the best sort of wood, the best sort of glue, the best sort of nails to use. And if you want to make good MUSIC, the important thing is the creativity, the idea. But those ideas aren’t very much use if you don’t have some conception of how to manifest them into a material form. People can’t listen to ideas. They can only listen to the product.’

So let’s listen to the product…

--- 0 --- 
‘You know what an orgone is? An orgone is a unit of energy 
produced during extreme sexual excitement. 
You know that? Well, you know NOW!’ 
                         (dialogue on ‘Feed The Width’

‘Feel The Width’ – their third album, is four sides and ninety minutes of electronic violence, hi-NRG that breaks the groove-barrier in a track-by-track series of neon-lit synth-fizzy tail-fin flashes. If music is the spice of life – this is a Madras! CX toured Europe with Severed Heads. They shift a lot of sales units there which tend to receipt in Euro-currencies. On the tour that spawned the album, Cassandra Complex was Belfast-born Rodney, with journalist co-founder Andy Booth (guitar, keyboards, voice and programming), and John Marchini (sax, bass, percussion), augmented by ‘Surfin’ Jez Willis (later of Utah Saints) and Keith Langley. ‘Feel The Width’ – ‘a LIVE double-album’ he drools, ‘Hey, ROCK ‘N’ RAAAAWLLL!’, with more than a hint of gleeful derision.

And now it’s ‘Theomania’, new titles like “One-Millionth Happy Customer”, “Oz”, “God John”, “Too Stupid To Sin”, and more…

But we’ve crossed the city centre pedestrian precincts to cruise a Fantasy Games store, ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, Interactives, ‘Paranoia’ box-sets, ‘Star Trek’. Rodney is a fan. The ‘Theomania’ sleeve shows him over a back-projection Starship Enterprise. But then – to Rodney, the shift from Music Mart to Gameplay Theory is not a great one. CX played downbill to ace Game Theorists Sigue Sigue Sputnik (‘loved Tony James, didn’t rate Martin Degville’) at their legendary Abbey Road Studio gig. Which made CX the first band to play live there since the Fabs twenty years ago today.

But let’s play games – the BIG games. Life and death, meaning and the nature of reality. ‘Theomania’ means ‘the conviction that you are god.’ So I confront the god-like genius of Rodney Orpheus with the philosophical games of perception raised by such a condition, of what is and what is not true, whether or not there is an objective truth to measure your god-like qualities against. He’s admirably unphased. ‘There’s a consensus on that constitutes ‘truth’’ he banters. ‘There is such a thing as ‘Consensus Reality’. Reality is either a totally individual subjective thing – or it’s a consensus of individual perceptions. There’s no answer beyond that.’ THIS, from a guy who sings ‘well, fuck you asshole’ and ‘fuck this life, give me a Kalashnikov’ (on “Oz”).

Surely ‘theomania’, like ‘conspiracy theory’, is just a form of paranoia? A delusion that everything that happens is the result of some vast scheme, whether controlled by a deity or by some hidden power-group – CIA, Masonic Lodges, MI5, the Jesuits? ‘Yes. The big attraction of Conspiracy Theory is that it makes you realise you are important. Imagine a guy who’s on the dole. He sits watching TV every night, nothing else to do, nothing to think, no-one gives a shit about him. But… then he discovers Conspiracy Theory, and finds out that EVERYBODY – Police, Masons, Science Fiction fans, EVERYBODY, is part of one giant plot to GET HIM!!! So he’s got to be incredibly important. It makes him aware that he’s at the centre of this huge web of international intrigue, all designed to place him exactly where he is… on the dole, in his front room, watching TV.’

Personally I tend towards the fuck-up accidental theory of history. The one that says that no oganisation, deity, or bureaucracy is efficient enough to organise anything. No-one knows what the hell’s going on. That’s also quite reassuring in a way. ‘Someone said that when you look back over human history, and you realise the horrendous things that people have done to each other, and to the environment, through the centuries, it gives you real hope. Because if the human race can be this STUPID and yet have survived this long, we should be able to muddle through just about anything.’

He indicates a box-set game on the display. ‘You definitely should play ‘Paranoia’ – it’ll certainly open your eyes to all this. It’s the ULTIMATE bureaucratic nightmare…’

--- 0 --- 
‘People who don’t get 
computer literate in the 
 next few years are going 
to be in trouble…’ 
 (Rodney Orpheus in 
‘Melody Maker’, 23 July 1988) 

Cassandra Complex began in Leeds, Yorkshire, with two albums – ‘Grenade’ and ‘Hello America’ issued through the local Rouska label. Then, just when you’d got your breath back, there was the multinational switch to living in Aachen and signing to Belgium’s Play It Again Sam for ‘Feel The Width’ and ‘Theomania’. They were recorded on videotape through a Sony PCM digital mastering system, which sounds hi-tech, but ain’t. ‘There’s this absurd notion that somehow the more technological you become, the less ‘live’ you are, the less raw, which is completely the opposite of what’s true’ he begins.

More Cassandra Complexities follow, stay tuned! ‘If you use low-grade technology you get massive signal degradation creeping in. Sometimes that can be nice. Distortion can be very useful. You take Holger Czukay’s thing where he just uses a really poor-quality Dictaphone, and the signal degradation becomes part of the music. But that’s an effect rather than a universal usage. In normal multi-track recording, every time you transfer from tape to tape you get some degradation, then when you go to normal quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape you automatically lose some of the power of your drums, you get surface-hiss building up, all sorts of shit. But you don’t HAVE TO do it that way.

‘You can record digitally using Sony PCM converter and videotape! Same quality as CD more or less, better dynamics, no tape hiss. For some reason it’s not a very well-known technique with the average punter, but it’s quite common among electronic musicians. What you do is – you don’t record the drums, the samples or sequencers on multi-track tape at all, you just record a time code. Then you programme the drums and all the keyboards etc through a midi into the computer, just directly into the desk. Then, when you do your mixdown, you’ve got your voice and guitars and stuff coming off multi-track, sure – but you’ve got EVERYTHING ELSE coming off time-code on ONE TRACK. So you can record thirty tracks of music off an eight-track tape machine – which makes it very very cheap and handy to use.’

A pause for breath. ‘It means that when you cut the record, your drums are literally LIVE – because the digital samples go direct to digital videotape that’s going direct to disc, so what you hear on record is EXACTLY what went into the desk…’

So what of the future, Rodney? His is an instant non-flexible response. ‘Do you remember a BBC2 TV Science Fiction series from many years back called ‘1990’, with Edward Woodward (two series: 18 September 1977 – 10 April 1978)? Funny – nobody ever saw it. I saw it. It wasn’t Ray Guns and starships SF. It was just a prediction of what Britain might be like in the year 1990 – a totalitarian state that had evolved that way through complete stumbling inefficiency, rather than any sort of Big Brother bullshit. I thought ‘1984’ was a piece of crap. George Orwell was a HORRIBLE writer who should never have been allowed anywhere near Science Fiction. But ‘1990’ was fascinating, with Edward Woodward at his most brilliant. But for some reason it just got completely and utterly ignored by everybody…’

Rodney Orpheus is a Complex character. According to ‘Melody Maker’ he’s a ‘sort of cross between Pete Burns, Muriel Gray, and a hippie’ (23 May 1987). But his game-play theory of DIY recording sounds like a far more viable vision of 1990 than anything conjured up by BBC2, with or without Edward Woodward!

Cassandra Complex is a band on the knife-edge of now, with a bias into tomorrow. A solitary cat in a street of its own.

Image, charisma, distinction – call it what you will, CX got it. You’d be unwise to miss it.


March 1985 – “March” c/w “Pickup (Live) + “Hcoma” (Complex RAP CXD001) 12” single, with Rodney Orpheus, Paul Dillon and Andy Booth

April 1985 – ‘LIVE IN LEATHER’ (Complex) live cassette-only release

October 1985 – “Moscow Idaho” c/w “Beyond Belief + “David Venus” (Rouska Come 2T) 12” single

October 1985 – ‘RAGING SUN’ (Rouska RANT 01) label compilation includes Cassandra Complex track ‘Fragile’

August 1986 – “Datakill” c/w “Wintry Weather Song” + “Three Cities” (Rouska Come 5T) with John Marchini replacing Paul Dillon

September 1986 – ‘GRENADE’ (Rouska CXRA 01) features eight tracks, including ‘Wonderworld’, ‘Prairie Bitch’, ‘Motherad’, ‘Report From The Back’. In the German Indie Top Ten for eight months. Credited to Rodney Orpheus (voice, programming) and Andy Booth (guitar, keyboards, voice, programming) with ‘Surfin’ Jez Willis (later of Utah Saints, bass and keyboards), John Marchini (saxophone, bas guitar) and Keith Langley (acoustic and electronic percussion, voice)

May 1987 – ‘ZARAH LEANDER’S GREATEST HITS’ (Rouska Concord 18CD) fifteen-track 64-minute CD-only label compilation featuring ‘Beyond Belief’, ‘Datakill’, ‘Clouds’ and ‘Power’ plus material by other bands

September 1987 – ‘HELLO AMERICA’ (Rouska CXRA 002), compilation made up of Come 2T, Come 5T and ‘Raging Sun’, plus so-far unreleased ‘Clouds’, described as ‘glacial peaks and boiling troughs’ by ‘Melody Maker’ (5 December 1987)

September 1987 – ‘FEEL THE WIDTH’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 68) recorded ‘on cassette by Hubert’, including ‘Clouds’, ‘Wonderworld’, ‘Power’, ‘Prairie Rose’, ‘March’, ‘Moscow Idaho’, ‘Ghost Rider (old Vega-Rev’s number), ‘Something Came Over Me’ (Throbbing Gristle cover) and more. ‘Underground no.7’ magazine said ‘a monstrous din… like banging your head against a wall of speakers’

October 1987 – “Kill Your Children” c/w “Something Came Over Me” + “Angels In The Sky” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 64) ‘Melody Maker’ says ‘it closes in upon your imagination as unsettling as it is ridiculously pretty. To ignore it would be unpardonable’ (3 October 1987)

June 1988 – ‘THEOMANIA’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 88), eight new tracks spread across Side.0 and Side.1, including ‘God John’, ‘Oz’, ‘Too Stupid To Sin’ and ‘Honeytrap’. ‘Melody Maker’ says it’s ‘clearly working on a pretty advanced level of irreverence’ (Dave Jennings, 18 June 1988). Marchini and Andy Booth leave, guitarist Volker Zacharias joins (from Girls Under Glass)

1988 – “Thirty Minutes Of Death” c/w “Gunship” + “Moment Before Impact” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 112)

1988 – “(In Search Of) Penny Century” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 136) with title and extended mix, plus ‘Beyond Belief (Revisited)’, ‘Something Came Over Me/ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling (Medley)’ and ‘Oz’

1989 – ‘SATAN, BUGS BUNNY, AND ME…’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 118) seven tracks with ‘Kill The Christian Swine’, ‘Symphony For The Devil’, ‘City Of Dreams’, ‘What Can You Say?’ etc

1990 – “Finland” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 151) with ‘I Believe In Free Everything (Charlie Victor)’, ‘Let’s Go To Europe’, ‘What Turns You On?’, ‘Fire And Forget’ and ‘Forests’

1990 – ‘CYBERPUNX’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 148) twelve tracks including ‘Nice Work (If You Can Get It)’, ‘Let’s Go To Europe’, ‘Happy Days (War Is Here Again)’, ‘Jihad Girl’, ‘Sunshine At Midnight’ etc

1990 – “Nice Work” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 164) with ‘Mace Mix’ and Cellphone Mix’ plus ‘I Want You’ and ‘Sleeper’

1991 – “Gnostic Christmas”, free with limited edition ‘War Against Sleep’

1992 – ‘THE WAR AGAINST SLEEP’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 195) nine tracks including ‘Lullaby For The First Baby Born In Outer Space’, ‘Lakeside’, ‘What Can I Do For You?’, ‘Dr Adder’ etc

1992 – ‘BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 230) live 2CD album with Rodney Orpheus’ tour diary from November 1991 to May 1992, includes ‘Angels In The Sky’, ‘Honeytrap’, ‘Datakill’, ‘Let’s Go To Europe’, ‘Dr Adder’, ‘She Loves Me’ etc

1993 – ‘SEX AND DEATH’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 255) thirteen tracks with ‘Kneel To The Boss’, ‘Mouth Of Heaven’, ‘The War Against Sleep’, ‘Come Out’, ‘Satisfy Me’ plus John Cage ‘4:33’. With Rodney Orpheus, Volker Zacharias, Jurgen Jansen, Robert Wilcocks, Andy Booth

1994 – “Give Me What I Need” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 258) maxi-single with ‘Looking Good Mix’, ‘Original Mix’, ‘Looking Bad Mix’ plus ‘You Still Make Me Sick’. Also 12” single c/w ‘Mouth Of Heaven’

1995 – ‘WORK 1.0’ (Play It Again Sam) compilation

2000 – “Twice As Good” (Synthetic Symphony SPV) with ‘Apop Sexy Disco Mix’, ‘Genytal Mix’, ‘Wetware Mix’ plus ‘Nothing Personal’

2000 – ‘WETWARE’ (Metropolis MET 182) with ‘Twice As Good (Apop)’, ‘Dion Fortune’, ‘Valis’, ‘My Possession’, ‘Blood Vessel’ etc

2012 – ‘LOOTING THE DUNGEON’ (Nimbit/ self-released MP3) with remastered ‘Fragile’, ‘Clouds’ and ‘Ghost Rider’

August 2013 – ‘ALL THE THINGS I’VE ALWAYS WANTED’ (Nimbit/ self-released download-only) with Rodney Orpheus (vocals), Volker Zacharias (guitar, bass), Andy Booth (guitar, keyboards), Axel Ermes (keyboards, vocoder), twenty-four tracks including ‘Gunship’, ‘One Millionth Happy Customer’, ‘Kneel To The Boss’, ‘Too Stupid To Sin’, ‘Moscow Idaho”, ‘Motherad’, ‘Datakill’ etc

‘EIGHT MILES HIGHER’ enthusiastically recommends ‘THE BLACK BOOK (THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF RICHARD ROUSKA)’ by CAPTAIN SWING… 1977cc@outlook.com which revisits, re-invigorates and disembowels the full secret histories of Leeds Indie scene from the insider perspective…

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