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Music

Fashion Don'ts

Liverpool's Ladytron Clashes with Electroclash

By Tony Ware | Posted 2/12/2003

Feels good
Looks good
Sounds good
Looks good
Feels good too
Feels good too (Uh-huh that's right)

With those lyrics from its almost 2-year-old but soon-to-be-domestically-released debut, #1, New York's flamboyant performance-art troupe Fischerspooner recorded what has become almost a mantra for electroclash, a movement with roots in New York but whose influence has been felt throughout the States and Europe. New York's most outfitted outfit has become one of the global figureheads in a widely thrown network whose electric catchall has tangled together the genuinely innovative, an orgy of fashionista mannequins, and a handful of acts who wondered if they were just getting fucked. What if being lumped in with a movement--two-thirds of which now makes no pretensions of being anything more than superficial--didn't feel good, too?

From press photos, Ladytron co-founder, songwriter, and keyboardist Reuben Wu appears to be a good-looking guy. Actually, all the members of the Liverpool-based electropop (stress on the "pop") act have a good look going for them. But fashion isn't a primary concern of Ladytron. If anything, Ladytron's members prefer not to be associated with 2002's most fashionable tag, electroclash. With an eye toward the haters that follow the hype, they shy away from a movement torn between establishing character or simply characters. Because if there is one thing Ladytron doesn't want to be, it's last year's model.

"The electroclash Web site often says things under band names like, 'Great music and model looks,'" says Wu by phone from the United Kingdom. "Who cares about being a model? It's about being in a band making music you want to make. That was irritating to us because we were lumped in as the electroclash counterpart in England, as if we'd contributed and were following that movement. Which is the opposite of what happened."

As so often happens, a style quickly began to threaten substance as more musicians clicked into cliques and jumped on bandwagons. Ladytron, in turn, distanced itself. Its members, which founded the group around the University of Liverpool, consider themselves to be following a Liverpudlian tradition of seclusion.

"When we wrote [Ladytron's 2001 debut full-length] 604, it was in relative isolation," Wu says. "I'm not saying no one anywhere was also doing what we were doing--there were a lot of artists producing with attitude, and we identify with Chicks on Speed, Miss Kittin and The Hacker, Tiga--but here there was nothing similar at the time. And we in no way were following, or at the time associated with, things happening in New York. We've always been as much into '60s pop as '80s. We've never been hard into Kraftwerk or Gary Numan or any of that. It really just is the instrumentation that bridges us with that era."

With no plans to jettison its oscillating analog synths, Ladytron used other means to avoid being too closely associated with current trends when recording its sophomore release, 2002's Light and Magic.

"We knew it was going to be quite a critical point in our path to come up with an album after [the rise of] electroclash," Wu says. "So during last spring and summer, when electroclash came up, we were producing in [Los Angeles] completely away from all of it. The songs were pretty much in various states of completion, but recording in the sunny context of L.A. gave us new perspectives [on them].

"We had a hire car, and at first we'd drive around putting the Beach Boys on the radio," he continues. "But we realized that the Beach Boys weren't working for us, while playing Joy Division was. Which, in a way, was exactly what we were doing with our own music, taking these songs written in the north of England and taking them to where there's no such thing as a gray day, which allowed them to benefit from being put in, appropriately, a different light."

While Light and Magic isn't exactly warm, California glistens through the more densely layered sweeps and swing. Tracks such as "Cracked LCD" and "Turn It On" feel detached, but the songs featuring breathy vocalists Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo are imbued with more gauzy soft focus than frigid friction. The album holds more of the dynamic tension, the futuristic fascination and dread, that marked the cusp of '80s new wave but is now missing from much of what's called electroclash. Tracks thump ("True Mathematics"), bounce ("Seventeen," "Blue Jeans"), and squirm ("NuHorizons,' "Cease2xist"). There is rigid motorik plod ("Fire") but also almost-house pulsing ("Flicking Your Switch").

The album is never dirgelike but has a cohesive duskiness. What it lacks are immediately apparent standout singles. "Light and Magic has more of a narrative, something that bridges it together if you listen in one go, even though every song on there is completely different," Wu says. "604 now feels more like a compilation."

With a more focused album under its belt, however, Ladytron is turning to compilations as a means to further flesh out its image. "We're putting out a compilation album on Emperor Norton in spring of records we like and DJ," Wu says. "Sort of a Ladytron Back to Mine, a look at what's on our decks. It's a mix of old and new stuff, like 'Horsepower' by CJ Bolland, 'Temporary Secretary' by Paul McCartney, 'Surrender' by Cheap Trick. When we first came out, people thought we were really into Human League and that was that. They saw the synthesizers and saw we didn't do much onstage but play, and people concluded we were just '80s revivalists. It's only now that people are thinking we're more than that. This compilation should be an important record for us and [should] give people a bit more of an understanding of what we're about."

Ladytron is also trying to augment its image with its live show. Having recently added a bass player and a drummer to achieve a harder-hitting set, the band members took kindly to comments that they sounded more brutal. "Too many bands stand with their laptop and have a vocalist talking into a microphone," Wu says. "Because it's electronic, people don't give a shit if it sounds like the record, but the point I've been trying to make all along is we're not just 'an electronic act.' We're a band."

And that's how Ladytron wants to be seen: As a singular entity, not just a piece of flotsam in the tide. "Acts came along, and people acted as if [they] could all be lumped in one speech bubble," Wu says. "Then people started producing music just for the speech bubble. The fashion got high profile in many magazines, but as the 'movement' received exposure the music got dumbed down to just needing a drum machine, some analog bass lines, and cold female vocals. And if you put some feathers in your hat, you could be electroclash. We'd rather make it fashionable again to concentrate on the music."

Ladytron play Washington's 9:30 Club Feb. 17 with Simian and Phaser.

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