In Conversation: Alison Goldfrapp & New Order’s Gillian Gilbert
Next Monday, a unique double-header is coming to LA’s Hollywood Bowl: New Order and Goldfrapp. The pairing is an interesting one, New Order being legends and progenitors in the field of synth-pop and the shape-shifting Goldfrapp (mostly) being a like-minded descendent from two decades later. Having just released a new album, Silver Eye, back in the spring, Goldfrapp are back in their electronic-dominated mode. But the thing that’s interesting about putting the two together is how different they sound, how differently they use similar tools. New Order have always felt urbane, like futurism born during a time of industrial decline and modernizing yet still gritty cityscapes; Goldfrapp have often used digital tools to convey a more organic and spiritual identity, exploring sounds full of a kind of druidic mysticism. They’re two acts separated by time and ethos but tied together by style and a mutual admiration for the other’s work, and a show with both of them promises to be a night full of indelible beats and hooks.
Ahead of the occasion, we spoke with Alison Goldfrapp and New Order’s Gillian Gilbert about how they met, what’s changed during their many years as artists working in the music business, and what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry, from the early ’80s to today.
GOLDFRAPP: Gillian, I just wanted to thank you so much for having us play with you in LA!
GILBERT: [laughs] It’s my pleasure! It’s pretty good.
STEREOGUM: That was the first thing I wanted to ask you two about, how this one-off show came to be. Gillian, were you a fan of Goldfrapp before?
GILBERT: We’ve always been fans of Goldfrapp’s music, and I met Alison a couple of years ago when she did a really good photograph of me for Mute, having to do with a record coming out, an online thing. We played Goldfrapp for the kids since they were like, 7.
GOLDFRAPP: [laughs] Really!?
GILBERT: Yeah, the Black Cherry album. This’ll be really good because I’ve never seen [Goldfrapp] live, I’ve only seen the recent clips on the tele.
STEREOGUM: Have you two seen each other much since that photo session?
GILBERT: We haven’t had we? We’re not an unfriendly group, but we don’t mix with a lot of musicians.
GOLDFRAPP: Where do you live Gillian? You’re not in London are you?
GILBERT: No, we live up north. We live in a place called Macclesfield which is south of Manchester. And we don’t even go to Manchester that often, so we are pretty isolated. How about you Alison?
GOLDFRAPP: I’m in Hackney, in East London.
GILBERT: So do you mix with other groups and stuff?
GOLDFRAPP: Well, it’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I want to say yes, but I don’t really, no. [laughs] It’s a weird one. I know a few musicians, but it’s more by accident that I got to know them, like meeting you for instance. Sometimes festivals are quite good for that, you bump into people. But generally, I know very few musicians other than people I’ve met along the way. But it’s not like I hang out with a load of them.
STEREOGUM: I was curious how much each of you did still follow new music. Both Goldfrapp and New Order were innovative English acts that’ve stuck around and resurfaced amidst various trends. Are either of you particularly interested in anything that’s going on in Britain now, or finding younger artists that you see a bit of yourselves in?
GOLDFRAPP: [pause] Gillian, what do you — well, it must be different for you, because you’re a band. You’re a solid unit. Do you have much outside influence when you go into the studio? Or is it just you guys?
GILBERT: We sort of tend to…We record bits of music we heard off the radio or even in a hotel lounge. I’ve got a 21 year old and an 18 year old now, and they’re always playing new stuff. That’s how you come across other groups. We liked this band Factory Floor, who sent a CD to our farm. They sent it to “Stephen and Gillian, Macclesfield, New Order” and it came to us. It was one of those times where you’re feeling, “There’s nothing new going on, it isn’t exciting.” You want to be able to go see a band like the old days, where you didn’t know what to expect, and that was one of them bands. So that keeps you going.
GOLDFRAPP: Yes! They’re great, aren’t they, Factory Floor?
GILBERT: Yes, just the mood. I do like groups like that. And I think the thing is, people are going to see groups more now, because you get that feeling, if you’re in a crowd, it is just like the old days in a way. What about you Alison?
GOLDFRAPP: The same kinda thing. I listen to Radio 6 a lot, which I love. It’s quite often things people have sent me or friends have introduced me to, or I’m in a book shop and I hear something I ask them what’s playing. I guess, on this album that we’ve just done this instance, I was quite eager to introduce other people to this album, that we wanted to write with. We’ve had lots of musicians on past albums, but this time we had people actually writing with us, so that was very new. That was quite interesting, sorta looking around and searching around to see who’s doing what, and that’s how we wound up coming about the Haxan Cloak, John Congleton, and this guy called Leo Abrahams. I quite like that, it’s a good excuse to dig into things and see what people are up to.
GILBERT: And it gives you a new angle or perspective.
GOLDFRAPP: Completely! Yes. I love that. I think that’s what I love about it most. Especially having other people in the studio, it’s really great to have that different energy in the room. I found that really inspiring.
GILBERT: We worked with Tom Rowlands from Chemical Brothers on our new lineup, because our bassplayer left, and we felt like we were in quandary. So we worked with him, and he did the first couple of tracks, and it did gear you up. I think in the past when we were younger, we were like, “Oh no, we’ve got to keep together, we don’t want anyone else in this group.” Then you get to a point where you want different input. Old people certainly do.
GOLDFRAPP: You’re just more open, don’t you think? I feel more receptive to letting something else into my world. It may have been more precious before.
GILBERT: Yeah, I think when you’re younger, you definitely are, aren’t you?
GILBERT: Worrying about your hair and stuff—
GOLDFRAPP: I still am!
GILBERT: [laughs] Yeah, I still am as well.
STEREOGUM: I didn’t even realize this, but, Alison — I was kinda blown away to remember that Goldfrapp has been active for almost twenty years now. And, Gillian, New Order obviously goes back almost almost forty years—
GILBERT: I haven’t been here for forty years, though. [laughs] Sorry, go on.
STEREOGUM: Compared to when you were kids, starting out in these different scenes and eras, do you feel like you operate differently as artists now? Have you changed a lot?
GILBERT: Everything just comes with age. We’ve been doing it so long, in a way. We had lots of gaps, and we had lots of things that happened to us, and where you stop and you start…it’s never been a career path for us. When we started planning for a year ahead, we thought it was really weird. We weren’t a typical band on the label where you put a record out and then you tour it for a year. We’ve never been like that. It’s only sort of recently we’ve thought that’s a good idea. We didn’t get bored, because there were all these other things happening, like this record company going down and the club we had and all these daft things that weren’t associated with the music. Even the bassplayer leaving. You think it’s bad at the time and how’re you going to go on…that’s what we thought when we started the last record, Music Complete. It was a bit like going back to the beginning, how you start a group. Because we didn’t have any money and we started playing small gigs to see how we were going to be accepted. It was a bit like starting again, which kept you going in a way.
STEREOGUM: How about you Alison?
GOLDFRAPP: I don’t really think about it, to be honest. I feel like you’re constantly evolving and changing. I don’t know how to answer that question, actually. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: The pairing of Goldfrapp and New Order is pretty cool, with Goldfrapp mostly being an electronic artist and New Order being pioneers there, but with you both sounding so different. The other thing that dawned on me is that each artist has a distinct visual language, and it might change from album to album, but a Goldfrapp or New Order album has always had a distinct relationship between the visual and musical sides of the project.
GOLDFRAPP: We do videos because we have to, actually. I sometimes feel a bit…constrained by all those things that one has to do, that the record company asks us to do, or what’s expected. It’s a bit of a strange one, that, videos. I don’t know what I think about them. I actually don’t like most of them. Most of the videos we’ve done, I absolutely hate, if I’m honest. Probably because I don’t like looking at myself either. Yet strangely, visuals are very important to me. It’s odd. Especially sound and visuals. Music is a visual experience for me. Interestingly, when we come to the States this time, we’re not bringing any of our lights or show we’ve had when we’ve done gigs here. We’re coming pretty nude, actually. Just me and a band, it’s going to be quite simple. We can’t afford to bring the lights, that’s the sort of crux of it. But we did play a little club a couple months ago in Philadelphia where we didn’t have any of our usual bits and I actually really enjoyed it. It felt quite raw, and liberating in a way, because it felt a bit scary but it was fun.
GILBERT: It’s something new. Especially because you think, we’ve got visuals and we’ve got lights and then when you don’t use any of them, you think “Oh, god, we’re going to be so boring.” You never used to have things behind you, so just get on with it.
GILBERT: I know it’s worse for you Alison, because you’re the frontperson. Whenever I’ve had to sing, I loved the singing bit and I loved being in the studio, but to put me in front of a camera, to actually sing in front of somebody…I don’t know. To me, it’s like part of your soul going, and for people to think “Oh, that’s not right, you don’t look right.” I hated the photo session we did for Music Complete. Because it didn’t look like me and I didn’t like that. We never used to be like that. They used to do it in your own clothes, and whatever mistakes, we just left. That was part of you. You’d just come on the train or you’d just drove from Manchester to London and you did the photo session in the afternoon and then you drove home and you have the same makeup and clothes on as when you left Manchester. But now it’s all different, because you get stylized, and you’re like “Oh, I’m not used to that.” And it’s not me and I don’t like that. That’s why we get someone else to do the videos now.
STEREOGUM: Gillian, that was something I was curious about in a broader sense, especially for you since you took a break from New Order — how different does the music industry and the whole mechanism of it feel to you now as opposed to the ‘80s?
GILBERT: It’s quite good for us because I think a lot of people have gone back to that era, because you can, you can go back to whatever era you want to with the internet and stuff. That’s what my kids do, because they don’t really think — even Duran Duran, they don’t think that’s an uncool band, they just think “That’s a cool song” because they’ve heard it in a film or on tele. Then they bring it up and google it and see it for what it is. It’s really good for that. They have no concept of if you’re cool or uncool, unless it’s something really bad of course. A lot of young bands, like my daughter’s in a band…they’re in their 20s and they’re like “How can we get on? What should we do?” I have no idea. It’s a completely different world now. I don’t know how to explain it, I just know you sound like your own mum and dad because you say, “When I was young, I did this…” but it’s not like that anymore. Then I think, “Well, it’s up to you lot to do something.” [laughs] You’ve got all this technology and everything, just get on with it and perhaps something will come of that. I don’t know, it’s weird. Even the festivals now…when Glastonbury started being televised, it was loads of bands you’d never heard of. The Killers were on it in a little tent, and you got to know Franz Ferdinand, seeing them on the television and nobody knew of them. I don’t notice any little bands on Glastonbury this year, because everybody wants to play and it’s become a commercial thing. I know it works for a lot of people.
GOLDFRAPP: Gillian, I wanted to ask you this when I last saw you. How did it feel to be the only girl in a band in the ‘80s or ‘90s, with a load of blokes and being in an industry that, I still feel, is very sexist in a lot of ways? Did you ever feel that?
GILBERT: When I first started in the band, it was quite weird, because they were going through a bad time with losing Ian [Curtis]. When they asked me to join, I was like 18 or something. I didn’t really know anything other than being in New Order. I found the rest of the band—they weren’t sexist at all. That’s what was so weird. It was only people on the outside. The record company, they were quite sexist, but if you think about it, in the ‘70s when I was growing up, everything was quite sexist. You see old ‘80s programs, everybody was sexist, racist, whatever, and it all got laughed off in a way because it wasn’t very serious. I remember, Factory [Records] were closing down so we went to [the label] and everybody in London and I remember these four blokes, the managing director, and we went around the room and Bernard was doing his solo, and Stephen and Hooky, and [the man from the label] said “Gillian, what are you going to do?” and I said, “I want to write for New Order” and they started laughing at me! It just made me feel two inches. But I’ve got the last laugh now anyways. [laughs]
GOLDFRAPP: Did you ever feel pressured to look a certain way?
GILBERT: Yeah, certainly. To myself as well, because when you see yourself on tele you think “God, I’m so fat.” And so you sort of stop eating. Went through all that phase for a couple of years. A lot of things were written about you in them days. Half of it was good, because you didn’t really see a woman playing keyboards or playing guitar. Half of it was good, then you got the slight dig from certain types. [In the band] I was treated the same way because I was paid the same as everyone else. And I got the same vote, it was a democracy even though I’d recently joined the group. I don’t know, it wasn’t that bad around me. It was just when you stepped out. Of course, because we split up and got back together again, there were a few things that had been said about me and stuff…I don’t know, there’s just ups and downs and you get on with it.
GOLDFRAPP: I’m intrigued, because you actually took some time out. How did that feel? Was that a deliberate, conscious thing, or was it just something that happened?
GILBERT: Well, when I started having children, to me, I could do everything, be in the band and write and keep doing albums. And I couldn’t do it. Because we worked from home as well—that was going to be a great idea, that I could have the kids at home and work next door. But…you know musicians, they just go on all night. That was something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t say anything, I just kept going along with it, and it all came to a head when my second daughter became really ill when she was 18 months old. So I had to stop, for her. I didn’t want anybody else to look after her. When you look back, it was something heading that way anyway, but I didn’t want to make that decision, because I thought I could do everything.
GOLDFRAPP: That must be quite difficult. I’ve always been quite worried about that myself. I’ve always grown up thinking, “I have to make a choice, I can’t do both. I can’t have everything.”
GILBERT: It’s time. It takes up all of your time, night and day, doing a band. When you’re touring or rehearsing or doing a record. We’ve had a few weeks off here now, since two years ago. And it just effects the rest of your life. So, yeah, I had to take a break but I’m quite glad I did. Because I don’t wanna leave my kids with anybody else.
GOLDFRAPP: No, it’s a special time, isn’t it? Making albums is all-consuming, and I haven’t got a family, but I imagine having a family is also all-consuming. Two massive things.
STEREOGUM: These days there are so many young bands fronted or dominated by women, which seems different than the context you started in, Gillian. But you still see it talked about in all this “Women Who Rock!” kinda nonsense, you still hear all these awful stories of sexism and beyond on the road, at venues. Do either of you have a sense that it’s any better or different than when you started, or does it seem like all the same shit is still happening?
GOLDFRAPP: I feel like it probably has [gotten better], yes. I don’t know.
GILBERT: I think you see more women in bands. I don’t know, when I was younger—well, the punk thing was a great thing for women in bands, I think. You didn’t see many before, or successful ones anyway. The punk thing just felt like women with some attitude, which was very refreshing. [laughs] We’ve got more women with attitude now. But we’ve got a woman who does our sound, and something like that never happened. The backstage crew, you see women doing production. It’s not that unusual anymore. I’d say in the early days, it was all very male-dominated.
GOLDFRAPP: From my perspective, I’d say I see a lot more women now doing the technical side, the backline stuff. When we traveled within England it was always all male, but when you go into Europe, there’s many more women.
GILBERT: Yeah, that’s true.
GOLDFRAPP: I don’t know why that is. But I definitely see more women in the studio now. Women engineers. Women producers. Which is fantastic.
GILBERT: I think we realized you do need men and women working together. You can’t separate them, because they both bring a different—I mean, I don’t like to think of all women pretending to be a man in a man’s world. It’s not that. Why can’t you be a woman, and why can’t you be a man in your own life, bring your own thing? You’re not a man or woman. You’re just doing what you want to do. When I was away from New Order, and I came back, they said it was totally different. The whole dynamic. They tried being a rock band, in a way, but I don’t think New Order are like that anyway. So, I don’t know. It’s very deep. Or is it? [laughs] No, it’s good. You can do what you want these days.
New Order and Goldfrapp play the Hollywood Bowl next Monday, 09/18.
Goldfrapp tour dates:
09/16 San Francisco, CA @ The Warfield
09/18 Los Angeles, CA @ Hollywood Bowl *w/ New Order
09/20 Portland, OR @ Crystal Ballroom
09/21 Seattle, WA @ Showbox SoDo
09/22 Vancouver, BC @ Vogue Theater