Electric dreams - the new hip-hop project

The louche life of John DeLorean is the perfect subject matter for Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip's new project, Neon Neon
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The Independent Culture

In the last 48 hours, my life has revolved around a jellyfish,” says Boom Bip. It’s lunchtime on a sunny Monday in LA, and the fuzzyheaded leftfield hip-hop producer has just emerged from the shaded cocoon of his bedroom.

The man known to his mum as Bryon Hallon is the knob-twiddling half of synth-pop duo, Neon Neon.

The other half is Welsh wonder Gruff Rhys. This weekend, Rhys arrived in Boom Bip’s LA ’hood with his band Super Furry Animals, who are currently touring the States. Taking advantage of the rare occurrence of both Neon Neon members being in the same city at the same time, the pair spent the last two days filming the video for their delicious new single, “I Lust U”.

In the video, Boom Bip plays a doting jellyfish lover whose beautiful specimen steals the show at a jellyfish pageant, before meeting a tragically squishy end. Although currently trying to shake the excesses of last night’s whiskey-soaked wrap party, they clearly enjoyed making their fated tale of passion, triumph and tragedy.

“It’s good to be irreverent with your own work,” says Rhys acknowledging their video’s delightful absurdity. In fact, it’s even more wonderfully ridiculous given that the song in question has nothing whatsoever to do with aquatic life. Instead, like every other track from Neon Neon’s debut album, Stainless Style , it’s inspired by the life and times of Eighties car maker John DeLorean; the self-styled celebrity engineer whose most famous creation, the DMC-12, was immortalised as the gull wing-doored time-machine in the 1985 classic Back To The Future.

The album charts the commercialist pin-up’s spectacular rise and fall. Marvellously skewed songs about DeLorean’s obsession with Hollywood stars, his high-profile arrest for drugs trafficking and last ditch attempt at redemption – with a baptism in his own luxury pool – are all set to hookladen Eighties-influenced electronica; at times feral and propulsive, at others hung with melancholy and shimmering with warmth. Bolstered with guest vocals from Spank Rock’s Naeem Juwan, The Magic Numbers and up-and-coming Welsh chanteuse Cate Le Bon, Stainless Style is an impeccably styled album, as rich and dramatic as the decadence that inspired it. And, unlike most concept albums, it’s a whole heap of fun.

The seeds of Stainless Style were sown when Boom Bip and Rhys collaborated on the hypnotic “Do’s And Don’ts”, from Boom Bip’s 2005 album Blue Eyed In The Red Room: “That’s when I realised we were on the same wavelength,” says Boom Bip. “We work at the same pace, have the same passion for music and have a lot of similar tastes.” When Boom Bip talks about Rhys he sounds almost like a teenager with a crush. “He’s incredibly pleasant just to be around,” he adds, “there’s not even a hint of negativity about him. When we first worked together it was a really enjoyable experience I was really excited about working with him again.”

Although the album reeks of the Eighties like Old Spice deodorant, an obsession with late Seventies disco actually proved the catalyst for Neon Neon. “That’s where it started off,” explains Boom Bip. “I was listening to a ton of early Italian and New York disco at the time and I decided I wanted to make my own bonkers disco album.”

With his iPod heaving with surging hooks and helicopter basslines – signatures of dancefloor innovators like Giorgio Moroder – Boom Bip began to summon his own disco-inspired sounds from his arsenal of synths and keyboards. “I suddenly had this idea, maybe it was a bad idea,” he adds with a self-deprecating snort, “to mix that early Italian/psychedelic disco sound with Eighties power-pop song structures and see how it would work.”

The producer felt that his new sonic venture was too much of a departure to be released as a Boom Bip record. Instead, he decided to rope in Rhys to help him to pull it off. “If you listen to Super Furry Animals records you can see just what Gruff is capable of,” says Boom Bip. “He can do country rock or metal, belting techno or MOR ballads.”

Instrumental demos in hand, Boom Bip hot-footed it to the UK and approached Rhys. The plan, he said, was to step outside themselves and make something completely unlike anything either had done before. The idea tickled the fancy of the Super Furries’ front man. “We both like to try to create unlikely music,” says Rhys, his Welsh accent thick as a duvet around his words. “We aim to mess with people’s expectations of what they think we should be doing as musicians. So when Boom Bip said we should suspend our usual sensitive taste and try and do something outside our personalities, I thought it sounded like fun.”

For Boom Bip’s power-pop/disco idea to work, they decided they needed a theme to focus their efforts: “If we’d just let the music flow it would have been a really natural, really organic process but the end product would probably have just sounded a lot like what we’ve recoded together in the past,” explains Boom Bip.

His demos set the scene sonically, so the pair began brainstorming for ideas. “A lot of time was spent listening to old records and watching bad films,” remembers Rhys fondly. “We talked a lot about our childhoods,” adds Boom Bip. “We were trying to find some shared cultural reference points. And all roads seemed to lead to the amazing DeLorean.” Even now, his voice takes on a childlike wonder when he discusses the car. “It was made of stainless style!” he gushes. ‘It looked like a massive kitchen appliance!” And, of course, it became a time machine when it reached 88mph.

At the time neither knew much of the man behind the machine, but research revealed a fascinating tale. “John DeLorean turned out to be an endless source of inspiration,” says Rhys. “His life story is so mental it reads almost like something out of Greek mythology!” With a trail of A list Hollywood girlfriends to his name, the son of a lowly factory worker became so influential he convinced the UK Government to invest in his Belfast car factory. His company went into receivership in 1982, the same year he was arrested and accused of drug trafficking, a charge he was eventually found not guilty of due to entrapment. “It’s a very dark tale,” says Rhys. “DeLorean was the epitome of the American dream and ended up living through the American nightmare.”

Suitably inspired by their subject, Boom Bip and Rhys set about building on the Moroder-inspired demos. “We had a mantra,” says Boom Bip, “don’t be afraid of the obvious. If something, like a chord progression, seemed too cheesy or led in a direction we would never usually take our own music, then that’s where we went with Neon Neon.”

If that meant peppering the songs with power ballad lyrical clichés like, “the distance in your eyes” and “in the heat of the night” then so be it. “It was an exercise in generic songwriting techniques,” says Rhys. “We had to suspend any comfortable ideas of personal taste. If anything was too beautiful, too tasteful, we threw it off the record.”

From its glossy tales of greed and excess to the deliberate recording process that brought it to life, the album, says Rhys, “is a celebration of all things synthetic.” As such, it’s a stylistically precise and strikingly-clever homage. “The biggest challenge was to avoid making something that was purely novelty. And, although we wanted to reference this different era, we also wanted our songs to sound new. That was difficult.” Perhaps so, but they achieved it; there’s an unmistakable freshness to the songs, which succeed in sounding bright and witty, without ever tipping into self-conscious wackiness.

“It was blast to make,” says Boom Bip. “It was such fun do these ridiculous things that we would never do in our regular music.” It’s also an album bursting with lyrical gems. For instance, “Raquel”, an ode to one of DeLorean’s rumoured conquests, Raquel Welch, features the line, “I saw you as a movie star/now you’re riding in my car/Oh Raquel, you fill me with inertia, yes you do,” rising out of Boom Bip’s percussive bleeps and squelching beats.

The guest spots provided more scope for random absurdity, with the artists given free rein to add whatever they felt was appropriate for the songs. The outcomes were suitably unpredictable; Female rap trio, Yo Majesty, turned “Sweat Shop”, a song about bad working conditions in a sweat shop-style factory, into a heaving, writhing aural orgy. “They completely sexualised the song,” laughs a clearly thrilled Rhys. “They took it somewhere I could never taken it without sounding completely ludicrous.”

The cogs are already turning to find the inspiration behind Rhys and Boom Bip’s next collaboration. As well as jellyfish, says Boom Bip, the weekend centred around a brainstorming session to decide what their next project might be. “I think we might have it pinpointed,” he says, refusing to give anything away. No doubt, we should expect the unexpected. “We’ve written about a right wing industrialist now, so maybe for the next record we’ll have to pick a social revolutionary,” teases Rhys. Derek Hatton, perhaps?

For now, though, the pair should bask in the glory of what looks set to become one of the year’s least likely, but most cherished underground hits. “Well, it might seem like a light-hearted study of the psyche of a random human being who manufactured some pretty crazy-looking cars,” grins Rhys. “But, ultimately, it’s just a fun party record.”

Single ‘ I Lust U’ is out on Lex Records on 10 March. ‘ Stainless Style’ is released on 17 March. Neon Neon headline Fabric in London on 20 March.

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