Music: Revenge of the sound pirates

Trevor Horn and Paul Morley launched The Art of Noise on an unsuspecting world in 1983. Now they're back.
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The Independent Culture
It's a perfect Art of Noise moment. I'm asking Trevor Horn and Paul Morley about the difference between the use of the sample in post- modernism and modernism when Horn shouts "Tim! The single is in my wheelie in the control room of Studio One." Morley looks at me and loops this arbitrary vocal into a conversational edit: "That's very possibly the answer." The Art of Noise didn't invent sampling. And they didn't create self-reflexive music that highlights the sound of making sounds. It's just that in 1984, their album Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise? seemed so new that it made you think they did.

A band renowned for their remixes have remixed themselves three times. In 1985, the original members Gary Langan, JJ Jeczalik and Anne Dudley left ZTT records and took the name with them. This Art of Noise version 2 had top 10 hits and released three forgettable albums at the end of the Eighties. Dudley has since been working on film sound-tracks, most notably The Crying Game. Morley returned to journalism while Horn did production work for the Pet Shop Boys and Seal, among others.

On Monday, the band release a new single - "Metaforce" - off the portentously titled The Seduction of Claude Debussy album. If it's unusual that they're releasing an album after all these years, it's less of a surprise than arriving at their Dollis Hill studio in London to discover that the band are not only rehearsing, but are playing instruments, jamming even. Dudley is on keyboards, Lol Creme from 10CC is strumming guitar, Horn is plucking a double bass and Paul Morley is playing... Paul Morley. You can tell it's a jam because they're at that ambiguous point when everyone is looking at everyone else - looking in recognition that each is in the groove; and a look that is part reassurance and part question - "Is this right?" They have been rehearsing all day for live performances, the format of which hasn't been finalised yet.

Unlike the early Eighties, when Art of Noise puzzled and intrigued by remaining anonymous, Horn and Morley remain to do an interview. Morley's made a living from being intellectually cheeky. He explains his appearance as the result of record-company pressure. "They told us this time round that they want us to be anonymous. So we are going to be in our pictures."

After James Brown and Kraftwerk, Art of Noise are the third most sampled group of all time. So though you may not remember any of their tracks, their music has had such an afterlife that you will have heard it somewhere. If you can't recall the scratchy sonic drama of "Close (To the Edit)" you'll remember "Firestarter", which was the best record Art of Noise never made. When I ask Morley how much money the band received for it he retorts: "How much do you think we deserved? We got a nice share of it. I think the funniest thing was having our names on it. For a few months, I was so hip."

Though sampling now almost belongs to the dustbin of music history, in the early Eighties Art of Noise were sound pirates. "We were one of the first people to sample and we didn't understand the process of declaring the sample," says Morley. "There was no law back then. It was the Wild West frontier. I remember Peter Grant, manager of Led Zeppelin, fixing a glare on me once going on about a drum sample, saying `I believe you nicked a bit of John Bonham'. We didn't. But the terrifying thing at the time was that no one really knew." He adds: "This is why we started wearing masks."

At the time, their anonymity lent an air of intrigue that became a selling- point. The notion of anonymity fits with the collectivist ideology of Italian Futurism that inspired the band's name. Luigi Russolo, who conceptualised the art of noises in the Twenties, declared: "We find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noise of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds, than in rehearsing, for example, the Eroica or the Pastoral."

Isn't it odd that they are using Debussy's music from which to generate their new album? "So Debussy's the opposite end of spectrum to Marinetti and Russolo?" asks Horn. "You mean this is more precise and organised? But `Close (To the Edit)' had a parade of little tricks. The arrangements on this have sprung out of the same philosophies - taking bits of things and throwing them together while keeping it musically quite disciplined." And to emphasise that Debussy is just as much a materialist as Russolo, he quotes the former: "Music isn't the representation of the mood. It is the mood."

The truth is that the band were never Futurist fundamentalists. Though they had a passion for new technology, their samples were acts of curation rather than destruction. And Horn argues for a continuity between the patterned edits and beats of their early work, and the more oceanic sounds on the new album.

But if the new album resonates with the group's original ethos it is really because, ever since their collaboration on Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Horn and Morley have been locked into a conceptual cycle of grandeur, addressing ever-bigger themes. Their first single with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, "Relax", was a celebration of libido. The second single, "Two Tribes", had a video of world leaders wrestling and lyrics that trailed imminent nuclear apocalypse. If "Relax" and "Two Tribes" staged the unconscious of eros and thanatos, Art of Noise returned to musical first principles by taking the unconscious of music - beat, time and rhythm - and getting it off the couch and on to the dance floor. Their first six-track EP, Into Battle with the Art of Noise, was so popular in US clubs that Americans assumed the group were black.

The Seduction of Claude Debussy, with its mixture of the operatic and cinematic, is Art of Noise's pitch at a millennium album. In a way, it bookends 100 years of sound. "Because Art of Noise was about raiding the 20th century it seemed a really good idea to go back to the music of someone who opened up a lot of possibilities of 20th-century music," says Morley. "Sally Bradshaw sings some Paul Verlaine at the beginning. At the end you get Rakim rapping about Charles Baudelaire. It gave us our brackets between the operatic voice of the 19th century and the voice of the 20th century."

At times, The Seduction of Claude Debussy overcooks the mix. It has an occasional narrative by John Hurt. The presence of Hurt's authorial voice is surprising, given Morley's taste for post-structuralist philosophies that emphasise attention to text, rather than external features that attempt to explain it. "It gives the music markers," argues Morley, "a kind of structure." Horn suggests that "nowadays we are used to repetition and talking with music - like ads." Which has a kind of synchronicity. Advertising is a fundamental texture of 20th-century life. The album's mix of the ambient and the operatic (or what the press publicity calls "drum and Debussy") means that its destiny is to be played out as the noise/ sound- track for contemporary machines such as Volvo, Audi and BMW. But if that happens it will come after Art of Noise have had their fun.

"You can't just put out music today and hope that people listen to it, because everyone's used to the palaver," says Morley. "There will be palaver that in a way parodies the palaver that you have to do when you put out a record these days. So there will be puzzles."

`Metaforce' is released on Monday; `The Seduction of Claude Debussy' is released on 28 June