Ladytron: Rise Of The Machines

Ladytron are a little bit Kraftwerk, a little bit Roxy and very, very now. So should the doe-eyed boys of angst rock be worried about the electro-pop foursome from Liverpool? Simon Price thinks so. Prepare to be synthesised...
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The Independent Culture

"We thought we'd be invited to glamorous parties!" adds Mira Aroyo. "We were excited about that at first." Then, Danny explains, "we realised it was just one big clusterfuck. They [Telstar] seemed really confused about the idea of making a proper album. And we should have known something was wrong when they kept comparing us to The Hives."

While Ladytron were working on their third album, a successor to 2002's acclaimed Light and Magic, the rug was suddenly pulled from underneath them when the label went bust. But Telstar's liquidation turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

"It happened on the last day of April 2004, when we went into the studio to start recording this album. We thought 'There's something weird going on.' They'd put us into the studio, knowing full well that they were going into liquidation a few days later. But we went ahead with recording anyway, because it was all paid for. So we thought 'OK, it will solve itself...'"

And it did, when an A&R man from Island Records, having never heard Ladytron before, signed them purely on the strength of the new recordings. Now with the backing of a proper, solid record label, Ladytron's third album, Witching Hour, will be released in October, only a year late.

Band loses record deal. Band gets new record deal. Album slightly delayed. Hardly front-page news. Why should you care? Because Ladytron are one of the greatest British bands of the moment and, slowly but surely, by word of mouth, people are beginning to realise it.

Two guys. Two girls. All in their late twenties. All playing synthesizers. Together, they make dark, intelligent pop, infused with mystique and elegance, and possessing an awesome kinetic power.

Publicly, Ladytron put up a front, a four-person politburo - but behind the scenes, you get the impression that Danny Hunt is the main man (he'd written most of their first album before the band had even formed, although duties are more evenly shared now). Born in Liverpool, Hunt grew up across the River Mersey on the Wirral, but now lives back in the city.

Reuben Wu is of Chinese parentage, and can speak Cantonese "like a five-year-old". He too grew up over the water in Birkenhead, and now inhabits the metropolis proper. Although all four members of Ladytron are keen club DJs, Reuben is perhaps the flashiest on the decks. He thinks that regular DJing helps keep you in touch with what moves people ("...or what doesn't move people, when you clear the floor in Belgium with Ciccone Youth's cover of 'Into the Groove'"). Helen Marnie grew up in smalltown Scotland, then moved via Glasgow to Liverpool University, where she met Danny and Reuben. Nowadays she lives in London's Hoxton.

Mira Aroyo - the only member never to have lived in Liverpool - has perhaps the most exotic background. She was born in Sofia when Bulgaria was still part of the Soviet bloc. Her family moved to Israel when she was 10, and she now lives in London, where she met Danny through mutual friends ("We were DJing the same sort of music"). When she visits Sofia these days, Mira can't find her way around, "because all the street names have been changed back to the pre-1944 ones".

Ladytron coalesced in the late 1990s. Even though they're cagey about admitting it, the name comes from the early Roxy Music classic (Reuben's Roxy T-shirt is something of a giveaway). However, Reuben was recently delighted to discover that Ladytron was also the name of a character in a DC comic from the Eighties called Wildcats ("Her real name's Maxine Manchester - she can open her chest, and a machine gun comes out"). Mira, meanwhile, was amused to find out that they share their name with a fashion boutique in darkest Essex.

After a couple of appearances on compilation albums, Ladytron's first single, "He Took Her to a Movie", was released on Invicta Hi-Fi, the label that Danny co-runs from an office in Liverpool above the famous indie record shop Probe Plus. "Movie" was essentially a reworking of Kraftwerk's "The Model" with added lesbo-erotic overtones ("No, Kraftwerk didn't sue us... but we should sue them for dressing up their robots in Ladytron-style uniforms! We'll call it a truce"). Those uniforms - utilitarian workwear, reminiscent of the USSR, Red China, or the Junior Anti-Sex League in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four - were a defining feature of early Ladytron shows, with the girls blank and robotic up front, and the guys moody and brooding at the back, all facing symmetrical banks of Korg synths.

Their 2000 debut album, 604, containing the sublime singles "The Way that I Found You" and "Playgirl", was invariably compared to The Human League (largely due to the twin female vocals). Its successor, Light and Magic, prefaced by the unstoppable international cult hit "Seventeen", was a slicker, stronger, altogether bigger affair. For a while, they were lumped in with the Electroclash scene (whose existence they predated), which Danny found "really frustrating": "But we've outlived it. We're making our third album, while people we were getting compared to back then have fallen by the wayside."

Nowadays, Helen and Mira are allowed to wear their own clothes onstage, but they tend to keep the look dark, plain and minimal. Danny and Reuben's onstage/offstage looks are indistinguishable: they're Men In Black. Only the length of the hair has fluctuated over the years, although Danny has recently taken to sporting a Van Dyck 'tache/goatee combo. Offstage, Mira has a slightly hippyish style, while Helen goes for a vintage, almost Victorian look.

I catch up with Ladytron twice, this time around. The first time is at the ICA in London, not long after Liverpool's improbable Champions League victory against AC Milan in Istanbul. Danny, a rabid supporter of Liverpool FC, flew to Turkey for the match and DJed at a post-match celebration. A picture of Hunt holding the trophy (sneakily arranged by a friend who works at Anfield) is proudly displayed on the Ladytron website. He still has bags under his eyes.

"I came back with post-traumatic stress disorder, but in a good way, not having slept for three days." Mira is, however, well aware of the power of Liverpool's triumph. "I was walking around the streets of Liverpool afterwards and it felt like there had been a revolution and the dictator had been deposed."

The second time is in the Dragon Bar, in the heart of Liverpool. Reuben and Helen have come from watching The Magic Numbers - a very un-Ladytron band - whom they describe as "like rays of sunshine".

They're on confident form, and so they should be. To date, although always cool with the cognoscenti, Ladytron have been underrated, and have never come within a sniff of a Mercury, a Brit or a proper hit. But, with a climate of growing appreciation, a major label behind them, a stunning new album coming soon, and an irresistible juggernaut of a single, "Destroy Everything You Touch", imminent, Ladytron may be on the brink of achieving the success and the silverware they deserve.

They still won't rule out things going wrong, though. Danny wonders how much radio play a song called "Destroy Everything You Touch" will receive in the current climate of terror ("It could have been worse. We nearly called the album Fighting in Built-Up Areas"). He also wonders whether the "Boycott Bulgarian Goods" posters all over the city will prompt people to turn against the 'Tron (the boycott has been in action since Liverpool supporter Michael Shields was imprisoned in Sofia, apparently unjustly, for attempted murder). He's half-joking.

Anyone familiar with the glacial electronic surfaces of the first two Ladytron albums will be surprised at how physical, how dirty, how rock the new album often sounds. There's a gliding, stratospheric feel to some of the guitars which is reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine (Danny admits that MBV's Kevin Shields, along with Terry Bickers of House Of Love/Levitation, were his teenage guitar heroes).

And there are, it seems, more "real" instruments. "It sounds like there are more real instruments," corrects Mira. "The guitar sounds are so heavily effected that people assume they're synthesizers, and our mono synths people assume are guitars. When we went to master the album in America, the engineer said 'We'll need to bring out the guitars a bit' and we said 'Er, there are no guitars!'" As Danny says: "A guitar is just a waveform generator..."

"We've always been interested in finding our own sounds," Mira continues. "We've never wanted to press the pre-programmed sound buttons. We wanted our own signatures. It's like Brian Eno's approach on late Seventies Bowie records."

Sometimes, however, Ladytron's obsession with originality can take its toll. "There was this one time," Danny winces, "when we were all completely fucked, we'd been out in Liverpool the night before. And I'm surrounded by machines making weeeooww noises, standing in the middle of a room with a guitar synth for eight hours, and I haven't come up with one original idea. We've never recorded on a Sunday since."

Ladytron's approach to gigging is similarly innovative. They tire easily of the conventional gig circuit, and frequently play in peculiar locations. They recently performed at the Tate Liverpool as part of an installation by an artist called Assume Astro Vivid Focus (real name Eli Sudbrack), and their bass frequencies were so powerful that the Picassos upstairs were vibrating, and parts of the gallery ceiling fell down. "People were bleeding," Reuben remembers nonchalantly.

Lyrically, Ladytron songs read like Cold War thrillers. There's a story being told, but being left untold as well. The band see verbal economy as a strength. "It's as important to leave that kind of space in a song as it is to leave space between the bass, guitar and drums," says Danny. Their most famous song, "Seventeen", features just four repeated lines, repeated: "They only want you when you're seventeen/ When you're twenty-one, you're no fun/ They take a Polaroid and let you go, say they'll let you know/ So come on..."

The listener is left to wonder whether it's about prostitution, modelling, pop music, mail order brides... Were there more words in an earlier draft?

"There were," Danny confesses, "but they sounded rubbish. The whole concept of it is in those four lines, it works better. As soon as you know what something's about - whether it's a song or a film - it loses its power. You have to have mystery. I never like to see interviews with my favourite film directors. I stick my fingers in my ears. I don't wanna know!"

On the subject of their new lyrics, on Witching Hour, they're equally taciturn. I wondered, I say, whether "Soft Power" is about the war in Iraq.

"No," says Danny.

"No comment," says Mira.

You won't get any further with Mira's Bulgarian lyrics. "On the first album, I couldn't think of anything to say, so I just recited the national anthem!"

Playing devil's advocate, I put it to them that Ladytron are generally viewed as cold, passionless, artificial and premeditated. "These things which are levelled at us," says Danny, bristling slightly, "I feel like now people aren't accused of these things. We had to..." "...break the mould," suggests Mira.

It's the interplay between her vocals (blank, monotonous) and Helen's (pure, melodic) which upsets the passion freaks, but it's incredibly effective: the way that Mira repeats lines which Helen has just sung, semi-sarcastic and sotto voce, subverts the narrative of the song.

"There's this idea," says Danny, "that passion means a histrionic vocal performance, rather than an emotional, but subdued vocal performance. When you're actually creating a certain kind of mood, you don't have to go nuts on a guitar. You can play one note on an E-bow, or a screaming LA guitar solo."

The band's appetite for the unusual is one reason why Ladytron have so far avoided a comeback tour, preferring a low-key "series of warm-up gigs" and a handful of shows in the more glamorous European festivals (the beach-based Benicassim, and a street carnival in Gijón). This weekend, they've finally knuckled down to conventional gigging at the Carling Festival in Reading and Leeds, and you can see them on Tuesday supporting Franz Ferdinand in Edinburgh, ahead of a full headlining tour in the winter.

One of their most unusual ventures took place last year, amid all the record-label chaos. In the summer of 2004, with the help of the British Council, Ladytron became one of a select few bands, since Wham! famously visited in the Eighties, to play China. The four-city tour was a bizarre experience, in many ways. "It was the first outdoor gig in Shanghai ever played," says Mira with pride. "Hardcore fans came over from Hong Kong, it was amazing."

Ladytron - or "Electric Lady", as they were billed (the closest translation the authorities could come up with) - were supported by a boy band called Flower, whose set consisted entirely of translated Busted songs and whom Reuben saw backstage beforehand, styling each other's hair and giving each other massages ("Males are a lot more comfortable with each other physically over there...").

While there's no mistaking the genuine Scottish and Bulgarian accents on a Ladytron record, not everybody in China quite got it. Danny recalls: "They asked Mira 'Why do you sing in Bulgarian?', then they turned to Helen and said 'What about the Roman qualities of your voice?' Because to them, from right over the other side of the Earth, the Roman Empire was this huge thing that stretched as far as Scotland - so Helen is Roman."

"Jean Michel Jarre was there too", Danny recalls, "with his electro-harp, playing at the Great Wall, at the same time as us. We wanted," he says, his dripping with sarcasm, "to go there and meet him in front of the world's press, to usher in a glorious new era of electronic music..."

Celebrate the 'Tron.

'Witching Hour' is out on Island Records on 3 October