Goldfrapp are in a strange place right now. We're not talking about their base in
, 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
"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
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. London
"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."