Posted on Oct 13th 2014 09:02 pm
Tonight, Monday 13th October 2014, the news of Mark Bell’s untimely death, apparently from complications following a medical procedure, has been confirmed by Warp Records.
Mark contacted me a good few years ago, completely out of the blue, to tell me he liked themilkfactory and to encourage me to ‘keep up the good work’. I was so taken back that I couldn’t believe it could in any way be THE Mark Bell, but I soon got confirmation from Warp that the address the email came from was indeed his. I plucked up the courage to ask him for an interview, which he very kindly accepted. I sent him a bunch of questions, and he replied very quickly, and generously, and sent a picture of him playing with a robot dog, which his girlfriend had taken the weekend before. A few weeks later, he invited me to come to a big Warp part at Electrowerks 2, where he was playing. After his set, I got to meet him, and we ended up chatting about quite a few things, including sailing on lakes around Leeds. Mark Bell was an extremely generous and kind artist, and although themilkfactory is no longer around, I am reviving it briefly today to republish this interview. RIP Mark, you are a true legend, and a true gentleman.
Mark Bell might only have been nineteen when he recorded Frequencies, but it didn’t stop him from getting right at the top of a scene that was only burgeoning at the time. With its abstract melodies, vocoded voices, abrasive noises, Kraftwerk-like robotic beats and huge infra-bass, Frequencies was as defining a moment to the electronica world as Cabaret Voltaire was to the acid house movement, and is to this day an absolute classic. Five years later came Advance, Mark’s second album. If the soundscapes and structures were less rigid, LFO was introducing once again a forward thinking vision to the genre. Then came Mark Bell the producer, with Björk first, on the magnificent Homogenic and on the soundtrack for Dancer In The Dark, and then with Depeche Mode. As he is putting the finishing touches to his third album, Mark contacted us completely out of the blue. After the first moment of excitement gone, and Warp assuring us that it wasn’t an hoax, we couldn’t let the man go without asking him to give us an interview. And, as he is such a nice guy, he said yes. So, excitement moment number two: Mark Bell…
What is your musical background? How did you come to electronic music and form LFO?
When I was 14 and a half I bought an 808 from my first girlfriend’s dad for £25 (he used to do Lady In Red style demos with it). I was really into Hip-Hop and Electro and I wanted to try and make some beats of my own. When I left school I did a Graphics and Photography course where I met Gez (Varley) and Martin (Williams), Martin used to DJ at a club in Leeds called the Warehouse, Gez used to break at the same silly places I used to when we were about 13. It just happened naturally really, we got some synths from second hand shops, recorded them on a four-track and Martin played them in his set.
Was LFO originally a duo or was Gez Varley never meant to stay?
Gez felt trapped by the confines of Warp and wanted to pursue a more direct ‘dance’ orientated sound, LFO was always my baby really, most of the tracks on Frequencies I made alone but we split everything 50/50 ‘cos I’m so nice and I didn’t know anything about publishing!
Frequencies was a defining record in early electronica. Did you realise its potential at the time?
Not really, we were both 19 and didn’t have any master plans (yet). Frequencies is a personal album, it wasn’t intended for everyone to get, it’s more like a compilation tape/CD you make for a mate. It’s really flattering when people say they are influenced by it.
Do you understand better now the impact it has had on electronic music?
I’m going all shy now…
In the late eighties/early nineties, there seem to have been loads of landmark albums released, and quite a few of them on Warp. Do you think there was more creativity at the time, or have we just got used to new sounds?
I don’t know what it was? I think the ‘scene’ was healthier, as in people weren’t so genre obsessed, all this prawncore, IDM, speedfelch talk really gets on my knob, it’s like everyone’s a hymen-in-tact HMV employee.
How did you come to work with Warp?
Warp came to the Leeds Warehouse one night and heard Martin play some tracks and they got all moist, so we played them some more tracks and we made friends.
On Intro from Frequencies, you paid homage to a handful of pioneers of electronic music, including Depeche Mode. What was it like to work with them ten years later?
Like a special Barbara Cartland dream.
A while ago, there were a few people who were giving you a bit of a hard time on the Warp message board for working with Björk and Depeche Mode. What was your reaction to them not understanding your choices?
Was I arguing with them? I was probably pissed out of my mind. I couldn’t give a fuck if anyone disapproves of what I do but I love a good pissed up argument from time to time.
How did the Björk collaboration come up?
I met Björk when she was playing one of the last Sugarcubes concerts, she really wanted me to contribute to her solo album Debut but I was to busy fannying around with my own beats. She then rang up when she was doing Post but I was still fannying. Then she was doing her third Album and she asked if I’d come to Spain to work with her for a bit, I ended up staying for 5 months and then we did Homogenic.
Working with such an unconventional artist must have been a bit of a challenge. How did you work with her?
It’s more fun than challenging, similar things move/excite us, it’s more of a team thing. I could do whatever with the music and she can sing over it straight away without hearing it once. We captured some beautiful moments like that. We worked with some brilliant musicians, like Coba, a classical Japanese accordian player. On Bacholorette he thought his part should sound like it was played by a really enthusiastic amateur, so he limited himself to three fingers on each hand so it would be a struggle for him to play, man v accordian, which was nice. Deodato the disco legend did most of the string arrangements with us; his old 70’s album covers are a testament to his genius with his flowing locks and ladies in bikinis everywhere. Markus Dravs was brilliant to work with, he co-produced Brian Eno and he’s a crazy German Liverpudlian. Trevor Morais whose studio it was is a cool drummer who played with Kool & The Gang and loads of other great funk bands. On a morning he’d do a ‘drum school’ thing where Markus, Björk, Rebecca (lard) and me would learn the ways of funk!
How did you approach Dancer In The Dark, which probably had more constraints due to the nature of the project?
The only constraints was the momentum and mood of the music to be locked to the film, which wasn’t that hard ‘cos it’s a great story. We also recorded with Valgeir, an Icelandic engineer/producer who was invaluable when it came to translation in the various bars and pubs. I wrote two of the songs at home before seeing any of the script, just Björk describing the scenes over the phone. Getting all the found sound samples was a laugh, recording Icelandic fish factory noises mixing it with Icelandic bra snapping rhythms.
Did you experience the tension that is said to have risen between Björk and Lars Von Tiers during the filming?
Lars is just a wind up merchant, Björk was really vulnerable during the filming and Lars is an unrelenting teaser. Everyone’s friends now.
Was producing Exciter for Depeche Mode a job with more limitation because of the band being so established already?
Not at all, it was easier; we all just clicked straight away when we met at Andy (bass synth) Fletcher’s bar in London. I could play with all their old synths/drum machines, etc… We decided to break things up and make nights out fun so we recorded in New York, Santa Barbara and London to keep things fresh and not job like. We worked with Gareth Jones, a brilliant producer (Neubauten, Can, Nick Cave, etc..). He was the voice of reason, a consummate professional and a gent.
What differentiates the work as a musician and producer?
A ‘producer’ originally was someone who would steer the recording project with non-creative business decisions like which studio, which session musicians you can afford, etc… When I’m ‘producing’ I just focus on the music as if it’s my own personal stuff, I’m about as organized as a dead sock.
Beside Björk and Depeche Mode, who else would you like to work with, either as a producer or collaborator?
Nobody at the moment, I’m just really enjoying doing my own music for now. I’m doing something with Dan the Automator in a bit though.
You worked on a very interesting internet-based visual project with Danny Brown. How did this come up?
I saw Danny’s Noodlebox site and it blew me away, It was more art + fun than the usual Designers Republic rip offs, my mum liked it too.
How did you work on this project? Did you provide the music after the graphic part was created or were you completely involved right from the start?
The music clips are short loops from my new album, I sent him some loops and he sent some rough ideas back and we did that until we were happy! It is amazing when you play around with it for some time, you can get some really beautiful things. Me and Danny have worked on some other things that should be up soon…
Are there any plans to release the soundtrack?
Yes, when I pull my finger out.
Is the internet a medium that interest you?
Totally, I think it’s affecting everyone, whether it’s Instant news from loads of perspectives, paying your bills or mail order brides, it’s bonkers!
There was a long gap between Frequencies and Advance, and you are currently working on the follow up. Beside the production work, does it take you a lot of time to concretise your ideas?
I’m sorry milkman.
Has the way you work changed a lot since the late eighties?
I’ve got some more toys now but it’s the same principal. If it sounds good, record it.
Technology as moved on a lot since the days of Frequencies, and electronic music is somehow democratised these days. Does it make harder to write some original material?
Not at all. I know everyone’s got fruity loops and reason, etc… but if people stop trying to emulate Aphex and Autechre and let themselves go a bit, I’m sure everyone can make something cool.
Who are the artists that impress you today?
Venetian Snares, Autechre, Radiohead, Thomas Brinkmann, DJ Shadow.
Did working with Björk and Depeche Mode make you want to include more vocals on your albums?
No thank you.
Can you give us a little insight into the new album? What is the general mood like?
I’m totally excited about it! And that’s all I’ll say!
Do you have a release date for it yet?
I will do soon….
There is somewhere a boy band called LFO, apparently standing for Lyte Funky Ones. Although it is very unlikely that your fans would fall for this, have you ever tried to stop them from using the name?
Yeah, the Bastards! They’re managed by the same people as Backdoor Boys. The only thing I could do was to make them state every time it says LFO it’s got to say it’s the Lyte Funky Ones.
Thank you to Mark and Gill.