On his 1993 album “Cyberpunk” Billy Idol re-defined his approach to creating music. The album was created in Idol’s home studio, which is controlled by a Macintosh computer and makes extensive use of other electronic gear. But despite the samples, dance beats, and strange electronic noises, “Cyberpunk” is musically more in tune with Idol’s early work than many of his other albums. The electronics have enabled Idol to re-embrace the DIY ethic of the punk era and come up with his best album in years.
Idol does not allow himself to be overcome by the electronics, as all of the songs on “Cyberpunk” would be strong enough to stand up with more traditional instrumentation. Idol’s fascination with technology does not end with the music, as he has also put out a limited edition “Cyberpunk” computer disk and is getting into computerized video. Around the time of making “Cyberpunk”, Idol discovered the Internet, which was the medium used for the following interview.
Some people see computers and sequencers as just an extension of traditional studio recording, saying that there is no difference in recording a track to computer or tape. But others like to look at it as a completely new medium and use it to come up with things that would not be possible with traditional recording techniques. How do you see it?
Billy Idol: I’ve always wanted to blend rock and roll with technology. Back in early ’80 I started doing dub mixes of my songs just to stretch the boundaries of the norm. “White Wedding” was released in two parts–one with my live band, one all machine. In 1987, I tried to take this to an extreme with the recording of WHIPLASH SMILE. But I wasn’t right, the technology wasn’t right. And it was a painful album to make.
Then for CHARMED LIFE, I went back to the process of recording in a more traditional rock and roll fashion. Again, it was painful.So much so that I literally threw myself into the jaws of death with my motorcycle accident. While I was recovering from the leg surgeries, punk rock journalists Legs McNeil interviewed me and called me cyberpunk because of the muscle stimulator on my leg. It looked like man merging with machine. Legs kind of reaffirmed my punk rock beginnings and picked up that I was still thinking that way–it’s just that the process of making music had escaped me a bit.
Was there anything in particular that influenced you to start using more electronics in your music?
Billy Idol: I still really wanted the DIY thing, and I wanted to start to command the recording process. I was tired of being someone who had to go through a producer and an engineer and their interpretations. I wanted to be right in the action, and I just needed a little help to do it. Robin Hancock, my producer, really helped. With today’s computers, you can really capture the personalities of the people playing the instruments, or playing the computers for that matter.
Mark Younger-Smith (my guitar player), Robin and myself were the core of the project, but we also used my drummer Tal Bergman on a few tracks and my bassist Larry Seymour on one track and Living Colour’s Doug Wimbash on quite a few tracks. Computers have become more human as they work with you. You hear a real band on CYBERPUNK. Through the computer, you’re listening to a live, little garage band flailing away. And it was done in my house. No money wasted at the big studios. DIY. Punk rock. Cyberpunk.
What equipment did you use?
Billy Idol: I used Studiovision and Protools programs for the Macintosh.
You obviously started making “Cyberpunk” before the media really started latching on to “the Cyberpunk movement,” but are you afraid at all of people thinking you’re just cashing in on a trend? Don’t you think that naming the album “Cyberpunk” might fuel this type of thinking?
Billy Idol: I have never given a fuck what people think of me. Isn’t that obvious? CYBERPUNK is my reality, my passion and my journey. And I’m sharing it with all my fans. Fuck anyone who doesn’t get it.
How long did “Cyberpunk” take to make?
Billy Idol: The good news is that CYBERPUNK took 10 months to make. A miracle for me. The last two albums took three and four years to make. And they hurt.
Did you have a good grasp on the technology beforehand or were you experimenting with it as you made the album?
Billy Idol: After Keith Forsey and I parted ways, I went to Trevor Rabin’s studio to do some work for my new album. He had a virtual studio set up. I was excited because I felt that I finally found a way to record that would be true to my original ideas. Most of what you hear on CYBERPUNK are original demos done in the home studio. I incorporated the virtual studio idea at my home. I didn’t know how to use it. Robin Hancock educated Mark and me. I had to learn about computers, about graphics, recording, the WELL. I hooked up with Mondo 2000 folk and Mark Frauenfelder of boing boing. We tried recording with BiNaurel Heads, Roland Sound Space. We wanted to expand the limits of where sound is thrown.
Can you elaborate more on the “Blendo” video?
Billy Idol: I loved “Lawnmower Man” and through a group of friends ended up meeting Brett Leonard. He and I swarmed various images with Hi-8 cameras–me at the accupuncturist, me at Aha Spa–a mind gym, various LA landscapes, “Heroin” related images–and fed them back through a band of desk-top computers. The operators of these computers act as musicians, for as they hear the music played back in real time, they edit the images, one on top of the other. I’ve been building a blendo bed of footage to use on the tour. Additionally, I’ll have folk out in the audience with Hi-8s swarming the crowd, and we’ll swarm the stage, as well. There will be another person on stage, editing the blendo footage–he’ll be like another band member– and throwing it on the in-house screen. So, in essence, this will be an interactive show.
What else can we expect from the live show?
Billy Idol: Rock and roll, mate. Rock and roll.
Will your new interest in computers affect the way older Billy Idol songs are performed?
Billy Idol: When I get back from Europe at the end of June, my band and I begin rehearsals. I’ll see then how we will be playing the older stuff. I haven’t really got that sorted yet.
When will you be touring in support of “Cyberpunk”?
Billy Idol: The U.S. tour begins in late October. I’ll be doing a warm-up stadium tour in the late summer in Europe.