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Interview: Rational Youth

by François Zappa

Photo credit: Kalle Christiansson

A lot of things have changed since the release of Rational Youth’s Cold War Night Life de Rational Youth in 1982, but the world is still in the wrong hands and it’s normal to feel the same pressure and paranoia that inspired Tracy Howe when he wrote the lyrics of the album 37 years ago. In this interview, Tracy, another of our Canadian heroes, tell us the story behind the band. We will see them playing live on a Saturday, but not in Silesia but in the W-Festival in the same stage where Psyche will also play.

—Your first bands were The Normals and Heaven Seventeen. What can you tell us of these first days? Heaven Seventeen was one of the first punk bands that used synths, did you know Metal Urbain, the French band that it was also one of the first to do that?

Well, The Normals were a punk band in Montreal from 1977-1978. I was the drummer and I contributed to the songwriting. We were very much influenced by The Buzzcocks, The Clash and The Jam. We played several shows and made an album called Now Music Now. Heaven Seventeen existed from about 1978 to 1980. Broadly speaking, it was in the style of Magazine and early Ultravox. Yes, I did know of Metal Urbain and bought their single Panik when it came out!

—You also played with Men without Hats. A few years ago someone gave me, as a present, the album Pop Goes the World. I never got into it, should I give another try to the album or to another one? You played with them during a few months. How was it?

I couldn’t really recommend that album. I’ve never heard it myself quite honestly, except for the single, which was unavoidable when it came out. I have never heard an entire Men Without Hats album, except I guess their first EP, because I used to play those songs. Ivan Doroschuk was briefly in the last version of Heaven Seventeen before it split, and he asked me to join MWH as the guitarist, which I agreed to as I’d never played guitar in a band, so that was sort of interesting. Other than that, it was a fairly unhappy experience but it gave me the idea to start doing music with synthesizers.

—What’s your favorite Kraftwerk album and why?

Oh, that’s a difficult question to answer! If I pick one, it’s like I’m abandoning the others. I guess if I was exiled to a desert island and could only pick one, it would have to be The Man Machine. The thing that I have always loved about Kraftwerk is the sheer beauty of the compositions and synth arrangements. The melodic content, and the orchestration of the sounds in songs like “Neon Lights,” “Metropolis,” “Spacelab,” the sheer fun of “The Model,” the massive, relentless drive of “The Robots.” It’s a perfect album, from start to finish.

—We kind of ask this to Psyche, but how were received your first shows in Canada? You were the first band playing only with synths.

Actually, quite well, in fact. Our very first shows also included a lot of visual projections and there we were, two of us making all this noise with synthesizers. People in Montreal had never seen that from a local band. Our second show ever was opening for OMD in a big hall and we made quite an impact.

—We would like to talk about two things of Cold War Night Life, your album from 1982, first the use of the Roland TR-808 (used by YMO or Afrika Bambata) and the lyrics related to the cold war. Was it easy to find this kind of equipment in the eighties? And how did you start writing about serious things when almost everybody making music with synths was writing more typical lyrics?

It was easy to find that sort of equipment but it was quite expensive, of course. I think we may have bought the first TR-808 that came into Canada. Before that, and on our first single, we used a Roland CR-78. But the 808 was a revelation, and that, of course, was what we used on the album Cold War Night Life.

The thing with the lyrics is I had been writing lyrics that were sort of “serious” in the bands I was in before Rational Youth. I was just not good at writing lyrics about the things that other bands were singing about, and also, I felt the pressure of the times we were living in in those early days. It really felt like the world was going to blow up, and I felt I had to say something about it, if not to change what was happening, at least to somehow bear witness to it. I also liked, and still like, the juxtaposition of jolly pop music with lyrics about serious subjects. I can’t really do it any other way.

—I read that the album has been reissued after a fan email campaign, can you please explain this?

Yes, Cold War Night Life was originally released in Canada in 1982 by YUL Records as a vinyl LP. YUL sold the masters to EMI Music in 1985 but EMI never released it, and with the advent of CDs the album was not available in that format. I first created a Rational Youth internet site in 1997, just for fun, and was surprised at the reaction it got. I honestly thought we were all but forgotten, and then EMI released a compilation CD called All Our Saturdays that year. It really seemed a pity that Cold War Night Life was not available, but since I now had this web page to communicate with all these fans I had discovered we had, I got the idea of asking people to contact EMI Canada to ask them to release the album on CD. They got hundreds of requests and the CD was in fact released by EMI in 1998, and was also licensed to a Swedish label, October Records.

We are kind of videogames nerds, so I have to ask you about the commodore 64 version of Saturdays in Silesia. Can you tell us something about this?

Isn’t that funny? I had nothing to do with that, and I never owned a Commodore 64, but people told me about it and sent me clips of what it sounded like and I was really tickled by the whole thing, quite honestly. It’s all ancient history now but I’d be delighted if back then somebody got the idea to do synth music because of that!

After this, you released the EP Rational Youth, also released as Electronic Composings right? Would you say that the sound is more new wave and a bit less synth pop?

Yes, I think that’s true. There are two reasons for that really. First, Bill Vorn left the band to go back to university in the autumn of 1982, and the band had been contracted to do a fairly large-scale tour across Canada, 26 dates over 6 weeks. I was absolutely devastated that Bill left, but we were committed to the tour and it seemed like the simplest way to deal with the situation was to recruit a drummer and a bass guitarist, which worked OK, but pushed the sound of the band in a different direction. Secondly, EMI saw us on that tour and offered us a recording contract, which we decided to sign, so that pretty much locked in this type of line-up. When this group recorded that first EP, it was very much influenced by the fact that it was now, unfortunately really, a more orthodox sort of band, and subject to the influence of the record company.

—How did you feel when the rest of the band left after the eponymous EP?

Well, terrible, of course, but it was hastily thrown together under pressure and the chemistry was not good to begin with. It was sort of like in the film “The Commitments,” you know?

—You said that you were not happy with your following album Heredity being released under the band name? Do you find it different from the Rational Youth sound?

Yes. That was a decent pop album but in all honesty things had obviously drifted a long way away from the original concept that Bill Vorn and I had conceived together. It’s obviously different from the Rational Youth sound in that there are guitars all over it for a start. Making that album was a combination of some fun times, specifically working with Dee Long, who was an amazing producer and a lovely person, and having all the big-time resources available, mixing it at a famous studio in London, and at the same time being miserable because of the sense that I was just blindly working my way through a massive labyrinth that I had allowed myself to get trapped in, with the record company living rent-free in my head, and really just ploughing ahead with it because, you know, I couldn’t walk away from it, it had to be finished.

—You placed the band in a long hiatus in 1986, why?

After all the stress of making the album, Heredity came out with a big splash of publicity by EMI in Canada, but the U.S. label gave it a minimal release there and didn’t support the record. It all seemed like a bit of a failure, and after touring for months supporting the record and feeling that I had alienated many of our original fans, I had had enough. I called it a hiatus at the time, but really as far as I was concerned I was finished with music, period. Even with all the touring I was not making any money whatsoever either, that was all going somewhere else, so I had to stop.

I think Bill Vorn and I had started something that was really original, something greater than the sum of its parts, and when he left a lot of the magic left with him. He simply had other ambitions, he didn’t really want to be in a pop group at all, and he’s done very well in the career he’s had in art and arts education since Rational Youth, but for me Rational Youth was more of an existential challenge and after Heredity it just had to stop.

—Your come back album To the Goddess Electricity is a more personal album, at least in the lyrics. First you were writing about the world but now the songs were about you, what do you think? You also managed to update the sound of the band.

Yes, that album came about almost by accident. I was approached by Dave Rout and Jean-Claude Cutz in Toronto about doing some music, in about 1999 I think, and I was pretty much inactive still, but they inspired me to do something new. They were actually Rational Youth fans, so that was different for me. They were also excellent musicians and synth guys, and J-C was a really good recording engineer. I think we made a really good record together and it was great for me in that I truly felt that it was also a real Rational Youth record, and I still do. I think the sort of update in the sound, as well as the lyrical content, reflects the point in time when it was made, and the experience that Dave and J-C had behind them, which was more in sync with the “electronica” of the period than I was, I suppose. I really love that album still and am very proud of it.

—And what happened between this record and the following one? You did some touring, right?

Yes, we did a few tours in Scandinavia, and then, for personal reasons, i.e. to go and live with Gaenor, I decided to move a few thousand kilometres away to go and live in western Canada.

Future Past Tense from 2016 brings us the opportunity of asking two of our classic questions: was it difficult to write songs again and for the remixes, how did you select the people who were going to remix the songs?

—When Gaenor and I started making music together, it suddenly became quite easy to write songs again, because for the first time I have a real anchor to keep me on the right path and moving forward, and because she writes a lot of the new material, particularly lyrics, and we are perfectly in tune. This really is Rational Youth now, just like in 1982. It’s also easier in the sense that I’m not just limited to writing songs that I can sing because Gaenor has a voice that can take the music to different places, and that’s liberating. Having said that, it’s harder to write now than the first album was, but it’s like that for everyone. It requires more work but I work hard at it.

As for remixes, they seem to me to be a sort of necessary evil, you know, something that your label wants, to put on a record, so I sort of just ask friends to do them. All the remixes on Future Past Tense were done by friends.

—In this album you made a cover of Psyche and you also share a Split with them where you cover AC/DC. Do you find connections between both bands?

Oh yes very much. We are spiritual brothers and sisters. Darrin calls me a “hero” but he’s a hero to me too. I have so much admiration for him, because he and his brother Stephen did what I always wanted to do but never did: they left Canada and moved to Europe, sleeping on park benches in Paris and under the city wall in Nürnberg, all for their art. On top of that, they were the other pure synthpop band from Canada in the 80s and they wrote so many monumental songs, “Unveiling the Secret,” “The Brain Collapses,” “Sanctuary,” “The Saint Became a Lush,” and on and on. Having toured together with Psyche several times, it’s been a real privilege to hear them every night. Darrin is such an incredible singer, and he really lives out his songs. He leaves everything on the stage. Just an incredible performing artist. And Stefan Rabura is an extraordinary musician, a real virtuoso. And more than that, we are all very close friends. Gaenor and I just adore the two of them, and when we tour it’s always fun and we never get on each other’s nerves, not even one little bit!

—Can you tell us about the bad experience with the scam festival called Stockholm Synth Festival?

That was in 1997, when we had been inactive for over ten years and this promoter in Stockholm contacted me to ask if we would headline this synth festival. He would fly us over and pay us a certain amount and I was able to convince Bill Vorn to do it. I was living in Toronto at the time and started travelling back and forth to Montreal to prepare and rehearse with Bill. As the date of the show approached the promoter became more and more difficult to contact and by the week of the event we had still no contact and no flights had been booked, yet the promoter was still selling tickets to an event that had Rational Youth and Front 242 headlining. By a few days before the scheduled event it became clear that they had no intention of bringing us and I tried to contact as many people in Sweden as I could that we were not coming but it turns out they oversold tickets and the venue was filled way over capacity on the event and was a bit of a fiasco. The promoter, it turns out, was a well-known gangster and left the country with everybody’s money, or something like that.

—What is the Magic Box? the live album and some songs that you found in a box?

Magic Box was a CD of “rarities.” It was called that because this box was found with a bunch of old tapes in it. The tapes were Rational Youth demos, and out-takes from record sessions, plus two full-length live concert recordings.

—Rational Youth has a tribute album called Heresy. Were you involved in the creation of the album or was it a Cold War Night Life idea?

—No, that was entirely Simon Helm from the Cold War Night Life magazine. I knew he was putting it together but that’s all I knew. When it was finished and I got a copy of it I was very moved, because it is a beautiful album, and the versions of our songs by all those bands are really wonderful. I felt really honoured by that and incredibly grateful to Simon and all the musicians who participated in that project.

—Now you play with your wife, can the band be a reason for arguments at home? 

Ha ha! Well actually yes, it can be, but good arguments. She wins nine times out of ten, of course. Seriously, she has great instincts about what we do and I trust her judgement, although I still try to put up a fight sometimes!

You were planning to release a six-track EP but now you are going to release a full album? Can you advance anything about it? Or better can you advance something?

—It will be a full-length album. I can tell you that it will include a bunch of new song, of course, plus all-new electronic versions of three of the songs which were on the 1983 EMI Rational Youth EP that you mentioned earlier (I considered that to be unfinished business), as well as a collaboration on one track with one of our favourite German artists. I’m sorry I can’t reveal who that is yet!

—What can we expect of your concert at W-Festival? Are you coming with a full band?

—Gaenor and I are the full band. We have played to large crowds already, the two of us, as when we opened for Midge Ure in Canada, and it goes over very well in a big venue. It was great to be invited to W-Fest 2019 and we are really looking forward to it.

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