Sunday, 24 July 2005

total:spec - Goldfrapp

Goldfrapp are in a strange place right now. We're not talking about their base in Bath, although this also seems like an odd place for the band when you realise it's there that they create their sleazy sci-fi pop music. No, Goldfrapp are in a strange place because they seem to be making the difficult but (to some bands) important crossover to mainstream success, and they're not really sure whether they want it.

"People say that we're going big this time and I just think, nah," says Alison Goldfrapp, frontwoman extraordinaire and the effortlessly glamorous face of the band that bears her surname. "Especially as I think I can be quite pessimistic most of the time. I was one of those people at school who came bottom of the class. I permanently had this idea that I just wouldn't happen," she laughs.

But Alison did happen. Along with her partner in the sublime Will Gregory, composer extraordinaire and the geeky faceless half of the band, this curiously beautiful woman has become a very successful pop star, one of huge cult status and a dedicated fan following. The band might not have big hit singles (who does these days?) but the dense, introspective and otherworldly sounds of their debut album Felt Mountain has soundtracked many a party of the post-club or dinner kind, while the blithe, futuristic glam rock singles that came from their vastly different second album Black Cherry never fail to fill an indie club dancefloor.

With Goldfrapp's new album Supernature you get the best of both the band's worlds. Recent single Ooh La La took the glam rock influences to their inevitable conclusion by aping the Norman Greenbaum classic Spirit In The Sky, and Supernature revealed itself to be a heady concoction of growling, seductive pop music and haunting music noir. The duo seemed to have brought together all the elements of their past endeavours to create a distinctive Goldfrapp 'sound'.

"I hate the idea of settling into anything particularly," says Alison. "But I would say that we've definitely found a place where we’ve found a sound. But it feels like a sound where there is also a lot more room to explore in, to evolve and develop. So that’s a nice feeling, actually. I feel like we're developing what we’re doing and evolving and not sticking to a formula. Obviously you develop a sound - you're always drawn to certain things that are you but I think it’s that feeling that you’re always pushing it as well. It’s getting that balance.

"I think Supernature is definitely a lot more confident and there’s a simplicity to it which I really like. And that was something that we definitely wanted to do, simplify what we did. Because we always used lots of layers and textures and there was something quite challenging for us about holding back on that temptation to fill up the sound all the time."

"We both feel really lucky that we’ve broadened our sound dials," adds Will. "It feels now, in a way, that we can do more or less what we like. I’m sure we will play around with different stuff in the future. It’s good fun, it’s like dressing up. It’s all part of the glam, putting on a different outfit and seeing how you look in it, checking yourself out in the mirror. I think musical styles are bit like that and it’s good fun to do it. You don’t want to get stuck in your ways. In the 90s there was a lot of people just wearing the all black look and you had to stick to your one little furrow otherwise you wouldn't be taken seriously. I think that’s disappearing a bit, thank God. I’m sure we’ll always be mucking about with all sorts of different sounds."

The hype about Supernature began to build long before its release, with 'those in the know' in the music industry saying that the album would be the one to take the band to the next level; that it would be a huge success and Goldfrapp would become a mainstream commodity.

"It’s nice that people had this very positive reaction to the album," says Alison. "It’s quite interesting because with Black Cherry it was such a radical move from the first album that people were a bit like, 'What the fuck are you doing?' But with this album they seem to have got the gist of it. I did so many interviews with Black Cherry where I had to really justify why we’d done what we’d done. Whereas with this album it seems I haven't had to do that, which has been quite nice actually, I have to say. I think we’re a bit more in people’s radar this time."

And yet would being in the mainstream sit well with Goldfrapp? Despite the hype surrounding the latest album there are certain elements to the band that could keep them at the level of cult success. Their music is immediate and catchy, sure, and Alison's lyrics are ambiguous to the point that her ideas and imagery are very accessible, but although the duo say they have simplified their sound, it may still be the case that the music and the accompanying visual theatrics that are such an integral part of the band are a little too quirky for mainstream tastes, with a little too much English eccentricity

"I do feel a bit weird, possibly, about the idea of being mainstream," says Will. "I don’t know. Mainstream equals average to me sometimes. Not always, there’s some really excellent things that become mainstream aren’t there? He said trying to think of some," he laughs. "But yeah it’s a bit scary. But who knows, we’ll see. It may well not happen."

Whether the band themselves become household names remains to be seen, but what is definitely happening is that their ideas about music are making their influence on popular culture felt. Last year former S Club 7 singer Rachel Stevens released the single Some Girls - to great acclaim considering Rachel herself is not thought of very highly in the grand scheme of the pop world. Produced and written by pop maverick Richard X, who was also behind Sugababes' innovative Freak Like Me, Some Girls was an irresistible slice of glam pop funk that pressed all the right buttons despite its charisma-free singer. But what was also notable about it was that many reviews compared the song to Goldfrapp.

"I think I heard it once on Top Of The Pops and thought it was very bland," sniffs Alison. "I really hope that people don’t think we’re bland like that. I’ve nothing against her. I mean the poor girl probably doesn't have anything to do with what she does anyway. I don't see any relation to what we’re doing at all. One, we write and produce and mix what we do ourselves and I think that song is a million miles away from what we do. I think it was the whole thing with Richard X and us that got it going. He was supposed to do a remix [of 2003 single Strict Machine] for us and we got it back and we didn’t really like it. Obviously he’d got all the parts of Strict Machine and took that onboard, that idea, and used it for Rachel Stevens.

"It’s a weird one because when Ooh La La first got played on the radio someone said, [adopts dumbass voice] 'Ooh it sounds just like Rachel Stevens.' And there's that weird thing of, because she’s so mainstream and we haven’t had that kind of exposure, obviously there's always going to be people who think that that somehow came from her. People kept saying, 'Oh you must be really pissed off about it', and I was like, 'No, not really.' You can't claim a sound. When people were doing a shuffle beat in the 70s, everyone was doing it."

"I just thought it was another glam beat tune," adds Will. "And I thought maybe it was jumping on the bandwagon to do a glam song. But you know, it’s not that a swing beat and that vibe is owned by anybody. I though it was totally cool really."

"It’s for everyone’s taking," continues Alison. "And I think, in a way, it did us a favour because it got people talking about Goldfrapp."

"But it is a bit strange seeing people pick up on your ideas," says Will. "It’s a little bit like when you have a conversation at a party or something and you’re shouting really loudly and suddenly everyone stops talking and their listening to you. It’s a bit alarming."

Alison's love of the attention and Will's desire to stay on the periphery of the limelight might seem like a conflict of interests but it's actually what makes their partnership work so well. On stage and in photos Alison is always the focus. Will rarely appears in photos and doesn't even spend much time on stage when they perform live - "I’m usually trying to get the sound sorted out," he says. Both are happy with this state of affairs.

"I sometimes worry that it falls on her shoulders rather heavily," says Will. "But it was always really set up like that from the beginning. Even where the music’s concerned there’s a very strong role for Alison. She's the lead protagonist in the drama of each song. She’s the leading lady and there isn't really a leading man, shall we say," he laughs.

"We just do whatever both of us feel comfortable with and we’re always making sure that both of us are comfortable with the way it is," says Alison. "Will hates touring and ultimately there’s no point in someone being there if that’s what they hate doing. I think that that’s why a lot of bands have terrible problems - there's so much pressure to be this constant tight-knitted thing where you have to do everything together. Our band is about the writing and the music and the whole idea of it rather than being forced to do something that we don’t want to do. And Will’s quite comfortable with not being the visual focus. And I’m definitely more comfortable. Being the singer I guess that naturally happens anyway."

With Will very much in the background, it's sometimes hard not to think of Alison as a solo artist. Her glamorous and inventive image, her English rose good looks and her magnetic stage presence mark her out as one of pop's most engaging and attention-demanding divas. But Alison says she finds it hard to relate to pop's other divas - the likes of Beyonce Knowles or Kylie Minogue.

"I think Kylie’s a great performer and a great dancer and she’s got a great pair of cheekbones but that’s about it really," says Alison. "It’s like they’re a separate identity to the whole music and imagery. They have a whole entourage of people doing it for them so I find it hard to know what they are. They seem to have these personalities that are very generic and so I can’t really relate to them. I can’t really relate to it on a personal level at all, because I never really understand where the personal comes into what they do. As long as they of grin at everybody 24 hours a day then that seems to be all that’s required. There's lots of great singers in the past that didn’t have anything to do with the music but somehow you got a much more of a sense of their personality."
Goldfrapp have a very different shape in the studio. It's much more of a team effort. While the lyrics are Alison's area, she always runs her ideas by Will. He is more knowledgeable about computers but they both play every instrument and produce their albums together.

"We’re quite interchangeable in a way," says Will. "It’s just two of us having a bit of a laugh a lot of the time, improvising. If somebody has an idea they run with it, the other person totally dismisses it, then has another idea. It’s a bit of a tag race. Do we argue? On a good day we don’t really talk much at all, actually. It’s just getting on with it and just going, 'Yes. No. That’s good. I like that bit.' We don't tend to argue very much about music for some reason. I think that’s why we do it together, we seem to agree rather a lot about what’s good and what’s bad about music. I think it’s quite amazing considering the amount of time we spend together in the same room that we don’t have lots of arguments actually."

The pair met in 1999 after a mutual friend passed a demo tape of Alison's singing on to Will, who was already making a name for himself as a film composer. Alison had begun her singing career guesting on tracks for the likes of Tricky and Orbital, but in Will she found a like-minded soul.

"I was bored of working with people who seemed to be much more interested in what was cool or fashionable and what bpm they should be doing," says Alison. "What’s great about Will is that he’s very open-minded and even though he’s classically trained he’s the only person I’ve ever met that I feel musically I can relate to. He understands how I think about music and vice versa. He’s someone that I feel that there’s so much more to do with."

What did you think of each other when you first met?

"I was rather surprised," says Will. "Obviously I’d heard her voice and because it sounded so huge, I was perhaps expecting somebody really huge," he laughs. "Someone who would fill the door frame. But of course she’s not, she’s relatively petite. We got on straight away, had a laugh. Alison’s very funny."

"We talked a lot about music and the kind of things we liked," adds Alison. "And the kind of things we wanted to do, that we hadn’t felt like we’d had the opportunity to do with anyone else. And we sent a lot of music to each other. We’d do little tapes and we really checked each other out before we started doing anything. Which is a really nice way of doing it, actually. Discovering each other and where we were at musically."

What happens next to Goldfrapp seems to involve just more of the same. However successful Supernature is, it will do little to change the band's modus operandi, except that Alison would love more money to indulge the band's visual aspect when they're on tour - as they hit the road in October it will only be at Brixton Academy in London that fans will experience the full effect of Alison's imagination. Otherwise Goldfrapp will continue to bend the rules - both their own and the rules of pop music - shaking up popular culture and making their indelible (and very glittery) mark on it.

"It’s always good to start with rules and ideas," says Alison. "But you’ve also got to be open and free to let that change and evolve. And I think things always do evolve naturally. It’s just about being open to let that happen."

total:spec - The Oscars

For all the criticism the Oscars gets there is no doubt that all the world's eyes will be on the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood California on Sunday March 5, 2006.

There the red carpet will be laid, by which photographers and journalists from the world over will set up camp, all to cover the 78th Academy Awards ceremony. But long before the arrangements for the ceremony even begin to be made, long before Gwyneth, Kate and Uma begin to try on the various dresses they've been sent by the world's best designers, and long before fashion critics begin to sharpen their claws for their commentary on those dresses, the film industry is already thinking about Oscar night.

It's been a vintage summer blockbuster season, with a plethora of colourful event movies. We've been guided around the galaxy, a chocolate factory and a sinful city; we've been introduced to new film superheroes and seen old ones begin again; there's been violent showdowns aplenty - between a married couple, a Jedi Knight and his mentor and, not least, two worlds; and to cap it all there's been the inevitable TV remakes with the return of a nose-wiggling witch and their lordships the Dukes of Hazzard.

But as the summer season winds down, already Oscar is a golden glint in Hollywood's eye. The bright, shiny colours of the big effects-laden, humour-driven, popcorn-eating summer blockbusters begin to fade as children return to school, autumn begins to fall and cinema-goers prepare to get serious again. For the Oscars - and this is one of the many criticisms laid down against the ceremony - aren't about films that have fun, make people laugh or escape to other worlds. At least very rarely. What attracts Oscar's sombre gaze are films that are far more serious - films about real life, our history; that have tragic stories and worthy subject matter.

Film companies have got the routine down pat. They know that when the time comes for the Academy members to put pen to paper and place their votes for each award category, they're going to remember the films of the last six months much better than those released earlier in the year. As such the autumn and winter seasons see cinemas showing films that are more about filling film-goers heads with thoughts than their stomachs with popcorn.

This year it started early. As far back as August we saw the release of Crash, an ensemble drama set on the streets of Los Angeles that follows the events in the two days following, natch, a car crash. The crash brings together the lives of a cross section of the multi-ethnic populace of the city, played by the likes of Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle (who was nominated for Best Actor for Hotel Rwanda at this year's Oscars), Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Thandie Newton and Ryan Phillippe. Written and directed by Paul Haggis, who was nominated for Best Screenplay for the otherwise multi-Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby this year, Crash has everything the Academy seems to like in a film - drug problems, lengthy and thoughtful dialogue, marriage problems, race issues and violence. And will we see an Oscar nomination for the before now ignored Sandra Bullock?

More likely to get one is Russell Crowe. Despite his difficult reputation behind the camera, in front of it the Australian-born actor is highly respected and has good Oscar form, most notably with director Ron Howard, who he works with again on boxing drama Cinderella Man. The pair's last project, A Beautiful Mind - in which Crowe played real life character John Nash, a brilliant but asocial mathematician - might have been deemed unworthy of Oscar attention by many, but it cleaned up in 2002, getting Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Jennifer Connelly.

Crowe and Howard returned to a real-life, historical character for Cinderella Man. In the film, which came out in September, Crowe plays Depression-era fighter and common-man hero Jim Braddock, who defeated heavyweight champ Max Baer in a 15 round fight in 1935. Again it has those elements that Oscar seems to love - historical, personal and emotional drama. And to give it added Oscar opportunity, Crowe's female lead is no less than Renee Zellweger, herself no stranger to the golden statuette, having been nominated twice for Best Actress and winning Best Supporting Actress in 2004 for Cold Mountain.

Also a sure thing for at least a handful of nominations is Terrence Malick's The New World. The highly-regarded writer and director has made a rare return to film-making this year with his re-telling of the legend of John Smith (played by Colin Farrell) and Pochahontas (newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher). The reclusive Malick was nominated for two Oscars for his last feature, 1998's The Thin Red Line, which he'd made after a 20 year sabbatical taken after an impressive start to his career in the 70s with the critically-acclaimed films Badlands and Days Of Heaven. Whatever happens for Malick at the 2006 ceremony, an Academy award must be inevitable for the director at some point - his next project is a biopic of Che Guevara with Oscar-friendly actors Benicio Del Toro and Javier Bardem.

Also worth watching is Malick's star - Colin Farrell. The hype surrounding the actor's Hollywood career might have helped Farrell establish himself as a leading man, but so far Oscar night glory has evaded him. Maybe 2006 is his year?

Another new boy on the block who might be getting his first golden statue next year is Jake Gyllenhaal. The young actor will certainly be dusting down his tux for the night - he has no less than three films out throughout the autumn and winter seasons that he could be representing. In Proof, out in November, he plays second fiddle to Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. This already Oscar-laden pair play daughter and father respectively, Paltrow's character Catherine coming to the aid of her dying father, a brilliant maths professor who has lost his grip on reality.

The film reunites Paltrow with director John Madden, a coupling that already caught the attention of Oscar in 1999 with the multi-award-winning Shakespeare In Love. Hopkins has, of course, won one Oscar (for The Silence Of The Lambs) and been nominated for a further three, but Gyllenhaal also has war drama Jarhead to rely on for a possible nomination. Based on former Marine Anthony Swofford's best-selling 2003 book about his pre-Desert Storm experiences in Saudi Arabia and about his experiences fighting in Kuwait, the film has Gyllenhaal in his first adult lead as Swofford.

Backed by director Sam Mendes (Best Director for American Beauty in 2000) and co-star Jamie Foxx (Best Actor for Ray this year) the film seems a sure thing for a slew of nominations in March. But Gyllenhaal's final contender could either be his trump card or his albatross. The highly anticipated Brokeback Mountain is Hollywood's first attempt at serious drama with two gay characters as the protagonists. Based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx, who also wrote The Shipping News, the film stars Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as two ranch hands who meet in the summer of 1963 and fall in love.

Hollywood has been famously reticent about including gay characters in mainstream movies, and when they are it's either in a supporting role or in a comedy - In And Out for example, or The Birdcage. Whether Brokeback Mountain will mark a breakthrough in this area remains to be seen, but with director Ang Lee at the helm (his Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon garnered two Oscar nominations in 2001) the Academy will certainly be casting their eyes over the film.

Another novel making its way to the silver screen this year is Arthur Golden's more high profile Memoirs Of A Geisha. The screen adaptation of the best-selling book has been long awaited, with Madonna long saying she would love to star in the film and Steven Spielberg, who acquired the rights to the book nearly a decade ago, keeping the project on the back burner since he announced he would direct it in 1998. With other projects taking precedence he finally gave up on the idea of directing it himself and last year gave the reigns to Chicago director Rob Marshall, with himself in a producer role.

The film, which is out in January, follows the extraordinary tale of geisha Nitta Sayuri (played by Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi) through 20 years of Japan's turbulent history. Oscar attention is assured, not least because of the film's highly-regarded source material, but also because of Marshall's own past form. In 2003 his film version of the hit stage musical Chicago cleaned up at the Academy Awards with six wins and a further seven nominations, including one for Marshall himself for Best Director.

It may be a musical that takes centre stage again in 2006. Also tipped for Oscar glory is the new film version of Mel Brook's relentlessly award-winning stage show The Producers. Titled The Producers: A Movie Musical for its return to the silver screen (it was also made into an Oscar-winning film back in 1968) this December, the film stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick who reprise their stage roles as shyster theatre producers. Uma Thurman joins them as sexy secretary Ulla, demonstrating her singing skills for the first time on screen. That there will be nominations is highly likely. Where those nominations will land is unclear. Will new director Susan Storman, better known for her choreography, get a nod?

Also out in December is King Kong, the effects-driven remake of the 1933 monster movie classic. Not a likely Oscar-contender you may think, but with Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson at the helm we may see a fantasy film clearing up on Oscar night once again. Such a thing was unheard of before Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy hit cinema screens, but such was the overwhelming positive reaction to Jackson's loving adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's famous books that Oscar couldn't ignore them and in 2004 the final part of the trilogy, The Return Of The King, won a staggering 11 Academy awards.

Jackson has wanted to remake King Kong, the famous tale of a gigantic gorilla captured in the wild and taken to New York, for some time and the trailer suggests he's given it the same attention to detail and intricate camera work he did Lord Of The Rings. It may be that on March 6 next year one hairy individual will be at the top of a building roaring with joy.

But of course Oscar is far more keen on subjects like politics than giant gorillas and Steve Zaillian's new film version of the Robert Penn Warren novel All The King's Men is sure to get a look-in on Oscar night. It's only Zaillian's third film as a director but as a writer he has been nominated for two Academy awards and won one in 1994 for his screenplay for Schindler's List. The story itself - the life of populist politician Willie Stark, here played by Sean Penn - has a good history. The 1949 film version won three Oscars out of seven nominations. And with Oscar-friendly actors such as Penn, Kate Winslet and Jude Law on board, All The King's Men can't go wrong.

Except there's one film stood in its way. The front-runner for the 2006 Oscars is not Zaillian's remake, nor any of the other films we have already mentioned, but the new film from a certain Steven Spielberg. America's top film critics have claimed that Spielberg's as-yet-untitled film (it has the working title of Vengeance) about the 1972 Munich Olympics is the favourite to get Best Picture. In typical Spielberg fashion, the director has gone from the popcorn pyrotechnics of War Of The Worlds to a heart-rending real-life drama - it tells of the 1972 summer games in Munich at which a group of Palestinian militants kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes. Eric Bana plays the Mossad agent sent to track them down.

With its emotive subject and tragic ending (the athletes perished in a fire fight between police and the kidnappers) the film is perfect Oscar material, and as long as Spielberg can finish the film before the extremely tight December 23 opening it has scheduled in the US, Vengeance could be another Schindler's List (seven wins out of 12 nominations) for the director.