KLF IS GONNA ROCK YOU
ERNIE LONGMIRE, X Magazine's intrepid Music Director, shares words with BILL DRUMMOND, the more visible half of Britain's most unpredictable new export: THE KLF. Oh oh oh it's magic!
IN THE BEGINNING
Bill Drummond isn't a newcomer to the British music scene by any means. The short list: member of the late-'70s Liverpool band Big In Japan (with later-to-be-frontman for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Holly Johnson). Founding partner with David Balfe of the Zoo record label (releasing early efforts by friends that included Julian Cope and Echo And The Bunnymen; Balfe's Food Records is now home base for Jesus Jones). Former manager for Echo And The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. Former A&R man for WEA records, where he signed Brilliant (June Montana, Killing Joke's bassist Youth, and a guitarist named Jimmy Cauty).
The formers are over now. The current is The KLF, Drummond's collaboration with Jimmy Cauty which has survived two point five name-changes, a handful of number ones, a sampling controversy that led to the withdrawal of their first album, and an unfinished movie project that almost put them in the poorhouse.
Their debut LP, released under the name of The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, was unassumingly dubbed 1987 - WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON. Recorded by Drummond and Cauty, under the aliases 'King Boy D' and 'Rockman Rock,' in Cauty's tiny apartment on a hip-hop inspired whim, the album was a complete homebrew in-your-face masterpiece, combining drum machines and loud Scots shouting with sound bites from everyone from The Monkees to Abba.
Unfortunately, Abba bit back. The Jams, it seems, had lifted virtually every ounce of the Swedish disco band's hit "Dancing Queen" and dropped it unaltered into a track the Jams has dubbed "The Queen And I," predating the loop-and-sample antics of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice by three or so years. It wasn't so much a cover as it was an unauthorized remix, and the threat of an expensive lawsuit inspired The Jams to Do The Right Thing - burn all the unsold copies of the album.
They were soon back in the game, though, and after a similar (but mercifully lawsuit-free) escapade with Whitney Houston on "Whitney Joins The Jams" and another full-length album (WHO KILLED THE JAMS), they hit #1 in summer 1988 as The Timelords with what even they admit to as being the most nauseating record in the history of the world: the "Dr. Who"-inspired dance track, "Doctorin' The TARDIS," and a book - THE MANUAL (HOW TO HAVE A NUMBER ONE THE EASY WAY). This apparently worked for Eurotrash band Edelweiss, who read the book, stole Abba's "S.O.S.," and sold five million copies worldwide with "Bring Me Edelweiss."
Next, a compilation album and another change of name, this time to The KLF - "Kopyright Liberation Front," if some people can be believed. Then, a handful of tepidly-received ambient-house singles through late 1988 and early 1989, and a summer 1989 pop track ("Kylie Said To Jason") that didn't even manage to break the top 100. The band pulled back and regrouped, deciding to put together an album that you could listen to after the dance music was over. The result ... CHILL OUT.
The album is Cauty and Drummond's first full-length album in the US under the name The KLF. Released in the US on WaxTrax this past January (almost a year after it's original UK issue on the band's label, KLF Communications), it's a frighteningly evocative composition: a single forty-five-minute-long ambient road-trip across the southern gulf coast of the United States. Surprisingly (especially after hearing the record), it's a trip that the band's never actually taken.
Drummond's up-front about that aspect of it. "I've never been to those places. I don't know what those places are like, but in my head, I can imagine those sounds coming from those places, just looking at the map."
You don't even have to listen to the album to get a feel for the journey. Titles like "Brownsville Turnaround on the Tex-Mex Border," "3 a.m. Somewhere Out Of Beaumont," and "The Lights Of Baton Rouge Pass By" almost tell the whole story for you.
"I've always loved those titles like "The Lights Of Cincinnati' and, you know, 'Galveston'," Drummond explains. "American cities and towns and places, to us over here, have a real romantic feel to them.
"It was only after we recorded it that we decided ... that we gave it those titles," says Drummond, "and we thought that it had the feeling of that sort of trip. I love maps and atlases and I love place names, and I just sat down with the atlas and picked, you know, and saw the journey that it was and it all seemed to fit."
THE MACHINATIONS THAT MAKE IT ALL WORTHWHILE
The sound of CHILL OUT is gentle and fluffy, much like the sheep that grace its cover. It seems appropriate in its UK context, maybe, but on WaxTrax? Former home of Front 242 and A Split Second and a thousand other beat-noise bands?
"To be honest, I've never ever heard a record on WaxTrax," Drummond admits. "The only reason why those records came out on TVT and WaxTrax is because they phoned us up and said 'Can we license them?', and we just said ... 'Yeah, okay!'
"We've never even thought about [targeting] America, you know. When you're in Europe, it's like another world ... you just don't think about it. I mean, America means Jon Bon Jovi to me, or Aerosmith ... we've never thought seriously that our music fits into anything over in America."
Okay, fine, but what's with the white fluffy animals on the cover?
"The sleeve is a very very English thing. The Pink Floyd album ATOM HEART MOTHER, do you know that album? The sleeve with the cow's head on it? That's a very English thing and it has the vibe of the rave scene over here. When we're having the big Orbital raves out in the country, and you're dancing all night and then the sun would come up in the morning, and then you'd be surrounded by this English rural countryside ... so we wanted something that kind of reflected that, that feeling the day after the rave, that's what we wanted the music for.
"So when we went to the photo-library, we had a copy of ATOM HEART MOTHER under our arms, and we went in: 'Okay, we want a picture of sheep, like this.' They didn't have any pictures of sheep that were like the cover of ATOM HEART MOTHER, but they had these other pictures of sheep ... hundreds, thousands of pictures of sheep, and we picked the ones we used because it had that same sort of feeling."
THE WHITE ROOM
Currently charting overseas is the band's new album, THE WHITE ROOM, which has just been released by Arista in the US. The album's been a long time in the making ... last summer's leadoff single 'What Time Is Love?' saw its first release in October of 1988, and most of the rest of the album's tracks have been released on promos or compilations here and there in the two-and-a-half years since. X MAGAZINE even reviewed the demos in a snotty moment last summer.
"The songs were originally written for our film THE WHITE ROOM, which we still haven't finished," says Drummond. The movie, which was originally funded by £250,000 of proceeds from 'Doctorin' The TARDIS,' has been in limbo for the past two years due to lack of money to continue the project.
Last summer, the remix of 'What Time Is Love?' blew into the top ten. "So we thought," Drummond says, "let's, y'know, let's just get in there, finish these songs, and get the album out. Once we finish the film - which, goodness knows when that might be, sometime in the next millenium or so - then we'll do another soundtrack for the film. I dunno what we'll call the soundtrack then ... "
But THE WHITE ROOM isn't just a collection of previously-released stuff. When the band decided to pull together all the tracks they'd written for the film, they also decided to remix the best-known songs into a completely new context that Drummond calls the "Stadium House Trilogy." Officially, the Trilogy consists of the 'live-remix' versions of 'What Time Is Love?,' '3 a.m. Eternal,' and 'Last Train To Trancentral,' all of which have been pumped-up with beats, raps, and an audience. The songs aren't really live, of course ... it was much easier to just drop in crowd noise sampled from U2's RATTLE AND HUM.
OOO WHAT A GIVEAWAY!
Drummond informs me that the band is just putting the final touches on the 'Trancentral' single - the last one they're releasing from the WHITE ROOM album. "As soon as we've finished that," he pronounces, "we're straight in doing THE BLACK ROOM."
And how does that album relate to THE WHITE ROOM, aside from being, uhm, opposite in color?
Drummond doesn't miss a beat. "It's the compete yang to the yin of THE WHITE ROOM. It'll be very very dense, very very hardcore. No sort of 'up' choruses or anthems. I think it's going to be techno-metal, I think that's gonna be the sound. Techno-metal. Which'll be, you know, a cross between Techno and Heavy Metal.
"Megadeth with drum machines."
Drummond is on record as being not-particularly-fond of the idea that the long-playing album is the center of the musical universe, so one wonders why The KLF is leaping into another full-length release so soon after the release of THE WHITE ROOM.
"I like singles," he explains, "I like singles a lot. But I also don't mind doing albums when you can do them fast ... like when we did CHILL OUT, we did that very fast. And hopefully we're gonna do THE BLACK ROOM very fast, so it has that one kind of feel right the way through.
"But that having to keep your ... trying to keep your attention span going for the time that it takes to do a proper album like it took us to do THE WHITE ROOM ... I can't. I can't. My mind wanders very quickly, and so does Jimmy's. If we were able to do all our albums in two days then I'd be quite happy doing albums, but we can't. Doing a single takes about five days for us, and that's about as long as my attention span can keep at one thing. These groups that can spend a year making an album, y'know ... I often think about the time ... I just don't understand it."
THE KLF WORK ETHIC
Given that short attention span, I wonder aloud how long Drummond thinks he'll be able to sustain interest in his work with Jimmy Cauty.
"I dunno, because ... when we first started working together, it was just one record: it was the first Jams/Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu record, 'All You Need Is Love.' Really the only reason why we work together is to try and finish the next record, you know ... we've always got another idea, and we're saying 'okay, let's get that done, and then we'll have to get this done, then we'll have to get that done ... ' So when we've got everything done ... we can finish! And get back to normal life."
Which, given the completely-uncompleted WHITE ROOM movie, among other things, may be quite a while off.
"I know, I know, that's the terrible thing of it, yeah ... a light sentence."
THE INTERVIEWER GEEKS OUT, PART ONE
So if he wasn't part of The KLF right now, what would Bill Drummond be doing?
"I'd be writing. I mean, that's what I've always intended to do, and four years ago when I quit doing other things in music, I quit to concentrate on writing. It was through taking a week off, a week's break at Christmas after three months' writing, that I had the idea of doing a kind of a hip-hop type record. I phoned up Jimmy, and we started working together, and I thought 'Oh yeah ... one single, then I'll get back to the writing.'; and I haven't yet got back to the writing."
DRUMMOND IN CLUB COUNTRY (THE ETERNAL SWIPE)
Being a relatively anonymous pair, Drummond and Cauty have an advantage that most big pop artists don't - they can mingle with the public without getting their trousers involuntarily removed.
"I've never heard '3 A.M.' ... well, not the hit version of '3 A.M.' or the hit version of 'What Time Is Love?' I've never heard those in a club. Ever. I heard the original version of 'What Time Is Love?' in a club three times; I've heard the original version of '3 A.M. Eternal' once at a rave. But that was in 1989, that was two years ago now.
"To be honest with you, I didn't even know it was our record to begin with! I was out there at a rave, you know, thinking 'ohh I love this one, I love this, what's this one? I wonder what this one's called? I wonder...' and it dawned on me," he laughs, "'oh my God, this is our record!' Which is a stunning experience..."
Which brings up a problematic point in the dance-music scene, namely that sometimes it seems like ...
"All the records sound the same!"
Exactly. The riff from 'What Time Is Love?', for example, seems to be turning up in half the dance singles released in Europe at the moment. But given Drum-mond and Cauty's recent musical history, it's questionable whether they're in any position to complain about it.
"Well, we can't, except ... you know who Andrew Lloyd Webber is? Uhm ... it seems that he had the riff first, on JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR."
He's right. A trip to the record collection confirms that the 'What Time Is Love?' riff is lifted straight out of the track "Judas' Death" in Webber's rock-musical.
"Well we've never heard it ... see, supposedly it isn't even our riff, but we thought it was our riff all this time. We thought 'Hey! All these people are making records using our riff!' but it seems it isn't ... seems it's Andrew Lloyd Webber's," Drummond laughs. "And obviously, he must have ripped it off Mozart or somebody in the first place, Moz' probably got it off, you know ... it'll go right back to the cavemen."
Which, of course, makes it all okay.
WHITNEY JOINS THE JAMS II?
So who else would you like to work with, besides Jimmy?
"Uhm ... Arista records were using Whitney Houston as a carrot for us. I was saying well, you know, I used to really really like Whitney, the first album and some of the second album I really really loved.
"But I was saying, 'But I'd be far more interested in working with Aretha Franklin. I'd love to do a track with Aretha Franklin.' And so: 'We'll sign with Arista if you let us do a track with Aretha Franklin.' And then I find out that she's not on the label anymore!
"I think I'd like to do a track with Aretha Franklin. I'd like us to write ... but that'd be me and Jimmy doing that. Writing a song together and producing a track with her."
But isn't signing with a big record label like Arista an artistic compromise?
"It wouldn't be. It'll be a short-term deal, very very short. We have to give them more than one album, but it'll be no more than three, and it wouldn't be a signing. We'd just be licensing the product to them.
"They have to take the product as it is. If they don't like it, fair enough ... I mean, if it means that it doesn't sell in America, then that's ... nothing you can do about it. We're not desperate to come over and fill stadiums. It's not like we're trying to prove that we can be the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world, 'cause it just doesn't ... it's not what we're about."
KING BOY, WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?
From this side of the pond, the whole Drummond/Cauty collaboration seems like a hell of a lark. Of course, there's always the argument that rock journalists are really just frustrated rock musicians, so there's a tendency to romanticize the situation. But I have to ask. Is the band enjoying themselves? Are they having a good time?
Drummond mulls it over for a second. "Mmmmm ... no, not particularly.
We're not 'good-time' people. At all. Making records is a real struggle,
and we're, at heart - it sounds terrible - we're never ever happy
with what we do. When you're writing a piece you may be happy for a
few minutes after you've written it, or at some point, but most
of the time you're just ...
So what is it that keeps them going?
Pause. " ... Because you keep thinking... " he ventures, "you keep trying to get it out of your system. That's it. You keep hoping to get whatever it is out of your system so you don't have to make any more records. And you keep failing to. You keep thinking 'oh my God, well next time we'll really get it out of our system.'"
It doesn't look like that'll happen anytime soon.