Goldfrapp: Why they're not your average pop group

They're fiercely intelligent, musically brilliant and deliciously dark, but there are many more reasons why Alison Goldfrapp and her (usually silent) partner Will Gregory are different, says Simon Gage. Solvent abuse, sexy nuns and twirling nipple tassles anyone?
Click to follow

"And when I'm in a mood everyone knows it." She gives a little chuckle, but she isn't joking. Her moods are notorious and her spikiness the stuff of journalistic legend; she's been known to leave the room if she's not feeling the questions. "I'm not scary. I'm just not very good at putting it on," she says, her voice flat and dry. With an attitude like that, you'd better be good at what you do: people will take it from an Aretha Franklin but they certainly won't take it from a Dannii Minogue.

Luckily, Alison is excellent at what she does. Madonna doesn't allow herself to be photographed holding your new album unless your album is slap-bang on the cutting edge. "I love that photo," says Alison of the shot that turned up in the UK tabloids earlier this month, even though she says she's not particularly flattered. "I want to get that picture."

I wonder if she's heard that they're referring to Madonna as Oldfrapp these days. She has and she thinks it's pretty amusing. "I bet she isn't pleased about that. But it's funny. I'm probably not that far off her age." Not that Alison will actually tell you how old she is.

So, how does it feel to have Madonna climbing up your tree? "I don't think she's climbing up my tree," refutes Alison. "But she climbs up everyone's bloody tree, doesn't she? She's always got her eye on what everyone's doing and she's always nabbing people, the latest DJ or whatever, to get them to put their thing on her thing, you know. I think it's quite clever but I don't know if it's that creative."

One reason that Alison gives for why people sometimes find her difficult is that she gets bored very easily. Although there isn't much time for her to get bored at the moment. Since she became, officially, the coolest thing in pop right now ("Oh, God!" she groans when this is mentioned), she has appeared almost naked - but for a peacock feather-train - on billboards across the country and enjoyed her first Number One album in the form of Supernature, the third Goldfrapp long-player which went gold almost immediately after being released in August this year. This success came on the back of the band's first Top Five single "Ooh La La", which was also picked up for a high-profile Vodafone advert.

With a deeply cool, sexually charged electronic vibe that veers from almost-Visage through to almost-Gary Glitter, Supernature (which may or may not be name-checking the bizarre Eurodisco hit by Cerrone) is moody, intelligent, glamorous and unique. Or at least it was unique until everyone from Rachel Stevens onwards started clambering on to the Goldfrapp wagon to chance their arm with some intelligent and moody electronica.

>With 'Supernature' to promote, videos to mastermind, a new single out tomorrow (it's called "Number 1", and she agrees this may be tempting fate) and a tour to embark on with Coldplay (who hand-picked the Goldfrapp live circus - and it really is a circus - to travel round Europe with them), it's clearly going to be a busy autumn for Alison. But not quite so busy for Will Gregory, the other, invisible half of Goldfrapp, as he doesn't even attend his own concerts. Talking to him in his Bath home, I ask if he ever turns up to do spot checks.

"I just turn up with a speed gun," he laughs before making it clear - more than clear - that he and Alison are both busy in their own departments. "I don't ring her up from a beach and ask if it was a good gig," he says.

Ask if they ever fall out, and he admits they do sometimes have rows, but that they're very rarely about the work and more likely to centre on who has had the most time off. "I don't know if we'd be friends if it weren't for Goldfrapp," he continues. "It's very hard to talk to people about a musical relationship if they're not musical. I've had very close musical relationships with other people, very often blokes. The relationship is not about attraction in the traditional way. It's about the excitement of someone whose mind is tuned in, but in a way that you can totally beam to. That is intimate, but in a very platonic and heady way. It's not even about the other person's personality." Both Alison and Will have long-term partners who apparently never feel in any way jealous of the time they spend together.

Gregory, who first made a name for himself as a soundtrack musician and for working with bands such as Portishead, teamed up with Alison after he heard her collaborations with trip-hop artist Tricky on the latter's 1995 album Maxinquaye. They recorded the first Goldfrapp album, Felt Mountain, in 2000. (Goldfrapp is Alison's real surname, by the way, a strange German name that seems to have disappeared everywhere except in Alison's family: she likes to say that she is the last of the Goldfrapps.) Their debut, a rather a trippy collection of soundscapes, became one of the year's key albums. The follow-up, Black Cherry, cemented their style of sexy electronica that has made them the most interesting proposition currently in the charts, and Alison the most respected woman operating in pop (well, apart from Kate Bush, who is one of Alison's heroes).

"It's very exciting," says Will, sounding laid back despite the attention the duo are currently attracting. "It's probably harder for Alison. I think I'm getting off quite lightly. Basically it's the way the music is designed. The voice is this dramatic character in a variety of different musical situations. The spotlight is very much on that varying personality and it doesn't make sense for me to be grinning behind a keyboard. That would be a bit cheesy."

"It took quite a lot of energy to let everyone know that there were two of us and that I wasn't just the girl brought in as a vocalist who sat in the corner doing her knitting while he was writing and producing," says Alison, who is the antithesis of the pop muppet who wants all the glory but spends her creative time in hair and make-up. "I'm not one of those people who grew up dreaming of being on Top of the Pops," she says. She did, mind you, get to meet her childhood pin-up David Cassidy when she appeared on TOTP2 a while back. "I used to kiss his album every night when I was a little girl," she says, rolling her eyes. Her other heroes growing up were Marc Bolan - "it was very sexy but it wasn't obvious - and Joan Jett, who Alison admits she "had a bit of a crush on".

It's strange to think that the avant garde diva we see today was once a happy middle-class, David Cassidy-loving poppet, attending a convent school she loved and feeling as if she was living in The Sound of Music. "I thought the nuns were dead cool with their headdresses and their black polo necks. I was on cloud nine," she says, looking back on her happy childhood days (which makes for a refreshing change in a world where so many stars can only talk about their formative years in therapist-speak). It's not that her family was Catholic, it's just that her deeply Christian mum thought the school would be good for her. "I loved those nuns," she says. "I saw them as really strong. There was Sister Therese-Marie who wore this big crucifix with a stiff skirt - a bit dykey in a way - and I thought, 'Wow!' It seemed very glamorous because it was in beautiful surroundings, these fantastic long, cool corridors with sparkly bits in them. And the nuns were from all over the world. I was in awe."

But the idyll came crashing down when Alison failed an important exam and was forced to move to the dreaded local comprehensive, where she was picked on as the posh girl. "I wasn't properly bullied but they had it in for me," she says with a dry little laugh. "And then I got into make-up and Tippex and was well at home." Tippex? For correcting homework? "Inhaling," she laughs. "Then I ended up doing community service, just for being generally bad. They sent me out to make posters but they put me in a room with a lot of solvents so not many posters got made. And the ones that did were unreadable."

Between schoolgirl delinquency and now, Alison moved along what, with retrospect, was the perfect path to pop stardom. After school she somehow wangled a grant from the British Council to sing with the Catherine Massin dance troupe in Antwerp. "It was my first professional singing," she says, "and from there I just went round Europe, which was a big eye-opener for me. And then I went to art school."

At Middlesex Polytechnic (now a university), which has always been very highly thought of for its forward-looking art and media courses, Alison got into performance art, which she now looks back on with some embarrassment. "I did this stupid performance once," she says, rolling her eyes. "It was called Love Sick and I spent three days in this sort of cubicle in bed on a drip and people came and visited me. I got worse and worse because I was getting more and more love sick. Which people said they found offensive anyway. Performance art is normally pretty dodgy most of the time. I did a couple of good things. I think it was more when there was music involved because I was more comfortable doing that."

Such as her degree show where she attached a microphone to a cow so that you could hear its amplified inner workings as Alison milked it... while yodelling.

With that sort of background, Goldfrapp, the band, were never going to turn out regular pop videos and it's partly thanks to some truly jaw-dropping mini art films that their reputation has been forged. Apart from their very first video, directed by Turner Prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans, which she describes as "absolutely, astonishingly atrocious", Alison has had firm control over Goldfrapp's visual presentation, concentrating on elements such as women wearing animal heads, galloping horses made out of mirrorballs, glam-rock excess and dancers twirling nipple tassels in opposite directions ("I've always fantasised about women who can twirl their tits in opposite directions. I've tried but I can only get one going"). The video for their new single features a plastic surgery clinic where people with dogs heads go to get nipped and tucked.

"Alison looks after the visual side," says Will, who adds that he likes to retain the power of veto. "There have been a couple of moments," he laughs, "but we do discuss everything and she's so good at coming up with ideas." She has now collaborated on three videos with filmmaker Dawn Shadforth, who has also worked with Björk, Oasis and Kylie Minogue (most memorably for "Can't Get You Out Of My Head").

The videos and stage performances where the dancers often wear animal heads and have tails sewn on to their costumes (a touch that designer Helmut Lang has picked up on in his latest collections) are something Alison's mum, as a committed Christian, is very uncomfortable with. "It was funny. My mum said to me the other day, 'I hope you won't be using animals or girls with animals heads this time,' because its pagan and Satanist." Bad luck, Mum. But although you'd think one of the primary motivators for an artist such as Alison would be the outrage of her parents, she actually has a sweet and quite old-fashioned concern for the feelings of her mother, who is now 80 and living in a home in Hampshire.

"My dad's not around anymore but I do think if my mum wasn't around I'd probably say a lot more," says Alison who is, for example, very interested in sex and owns both a coffee-table porn collection and a private stash for her own personal use. "I think most of the things she reads she finds slightly disturbing," sniggers Alison. "Usually to do with drug-taking in my younger days. They just see you as a little girl. And they don't want to read about things other people know about you and that they don't. They feel like they don't have that control anymore. They don't know you the way somebody else does."

Her mum actually turned up at one of Goldfrapp's recent gigs and Alison - remember that we're talking about one of the most out-there pop performers of the moment - became fixated on the idea of her being there in the room. "Everyone else pales into the background," she says. "It's just your mum. Your mum filling up the whole auditorium. It's funny how they still have that influence on you. You still worry about what they think. I suppose it's quite nice but I do find it claustrophobic in a way."

A few days later I catch up with Alison backstage at a venue in Berlin, where she's cracking on with her European tour. She's finding the German audiences a bit quiet after the adulation of the UK fans, but reckons she can get them waving their hands by the end of the show. She hooks up with Coldplay next week and laughs that she'll probably be hanging out with Gwyneth Paltrow: "We might have a little chinwag over our macrobiotic catering," she says camply. "And we could get a bit of knitting in: I could teach her to knit one and pearl one."

With it all going better than either she or Will could have dared imagine, I ask how Alison feels about the great reactions that she is receiving. She pleads ignorance. "I don't read the press so I'm sort of in denial. I picked up the paper the other day and saw a review of the gig. I just saw the headline and thought, 'No! Don't read any more!' I just think it's not healthy to read stuff about you. You've got to step away from yourself a bit or else you'd go a bit bonkers."

Goldfrapp's album 'Supernature' is out now, and their new single 'Number 1' is released tomorrow, both on Mute records