Although they weren’t the first band to create dark, robotic sounding electronic music, Front 242 are probably the most influential group on today’s scene. Beginning in the mid to late ’80s, an onslaught of new bands have emerged that play aggressive electronic music with often distorted vocals and pounding dance beats. But Front 242 were ahead of their time, making this style of music way back in 1982.
Front 242 was started up in 1981 by keyboardist/ programmer/ producer Daniel B, who rarely appears publicly with the band despite being the founder. A year later keyboardist Patrick Codenys and vocalist Jean-Luc De Meyer came on board, with vocalist/live performer Richard JK (also known as Richard 23) joining a year after that. Over the years Front 242 has consistently put out high-quality material that has grown even more aggressive, particularly with their US major-label debut, “Tyranny (For You)”(1991). This year, the group put out two new albums. The first, “06:21:03:11 UP EVIL” is the logical follow-up to “Tyranny,” while the new “05:22:09:12 OFF” is much more experimental and features vocals by 99 Kowalski and the Eran Westwood (of NYC band Spill). The following interview was conducted with Codenys during the Lollapalooza tour.
What was it like going out as the only electronic band on this year’s Lollapalooza tour?
We had a lot of struggles at the beginning because we had to fine-tune with the rest of the sets because we definitely have a different type of music and we had a different way of presenting it. So it was quite difficult. I think we’ve reached a point where we can present something very complex. It’s still very, very different. A lot of people don’t get it, or are quite curious or surprised.
In terms of the selection of what songs you performed, did try to tail or you set at all to the mass audiences?
I don’t think there’s any way to make the songs where people would be comfortable when you’re Front 242. When you address your music to 20,000 people; I think our fans are people who have already made the effort to listen to that kind of music and that’s nice. I think it’s more like we’ve prepared a sample and are happy to have the big exposure and we just hope that people will open up their minds, that they are curious, that they will just open their ears to something different than American rock.
Is it difficult to adapt Front 242 to the live setting?
This year it’s very close to what we have in the studio; it’s almost like a portable studio on the road because Daniel is at the mixing desk with a bunch of machines and working with a portable computer, a Powerbook, to run the sequences. And the guys on stage are adding sounds and different things on the music. It’s very flexible this year. We can really work on the material; we can cut and switch sounds, cancel sequences that are not going through because they’re too complicated, so it’s very flexible.
How do the members of Front 242 work together to create the music?
This year it has been more directed by two persons. Generally, the other people have helped on the music, especially Richard because he’s got a library of samples. This is just because I think the formula for the ’90s is more oriented on one or two-person projects. When you see Nine Inch Nails, it’s one person. Ministry in two people. But it didn’t bring any frustration, everybody’s pretty self-sufficient.
It’s unusual for an electronic band to have two vocalists. What was the reason for bringing in Richard?
We have two vocalists, but we have one lead singer. Richard is more the second singer but the entertainer. The first singer concentrates on the lyrics, and the role of Richard is more like a kind of random kind of singing that’s just supposed to go with the feeling and the audience. He’s really free. He’s got some lines he’s supposed to say, but in general, his role is to make it more alive by repeating some lines and provoking the audience. That’s really his role.
Andy Wallace, who mixed “06:21:03:11 Up Evil” is primarily known for his work with guitar bands. Why did Front 242 choose to work with him?
Especially on this campaign, which is two albums, we really wanted to implode or explode the concept of the band. We were tired of the same formula all the time, we really wanted to reach other directions. So the only way to do that is to challenge yourself. Andy Wallace was probably the biggest risk we could take; he’s really not into electronic music. The only reason we chose him was that he’s also somebody who’s a sort of ‘wise man’ in terms of audio mixing. He must be in his late 40’s and he knows about music and when you have good ears like he does, dealing with 40 tracks of traditional rock or 40 tracks or electronic music, he’s got the maturity to do that. We just have to tell him ‘this is the atmosphere we want to create, this is the idea behind the song.’ He could do it very well.
How w ould you compare “05:22:09:12 OFF” with “06:21:03:11 UP EVIL”?
“It’s the opposite of the first one. The two albums are based on duality, like good and evil. The first one is very dark, a lot of distortion and guitars. The second album is purely electronic, we mixed it ourselves. It’s dance, ambiance, a female vocalist on it; it goes a totally opposite direction. For us, we felt that electronic music was going toward an end. It is really like a guitar period now and the only way for us to find solutions is to exploit the band and try to go all directions. It’s dangerous because you don’t have a very obvious commercial album, but your only chance is to go for extremes because it might open up more ways of doing music. So the second album is more on the synthesizer/electronic field.
What was it like to emerge as one of the first bands doing aggressive electronic music band in the ’80s?
It was like you were a freak at the time, really, especially with the press. We still have a lot of problems with the press because we’re not using guitars and we don’t go for a traditional rock base. At the time it was very difficult, you know how music is. If you take the cinema industry, it’s way more open-minded. Music is a very traditional branch.
How did you cope with the reactions?
It’s just being stubborn; it’s the only way. You make yourself very strong. You build shields, you have to be self-sufficient, you produce yourself because nobody wants to do it. You keep on working on the project with the ideas you have at the beginning. One of our powers I think was to be able to translate out music live to the audience in a very physical way. Most electronic bands are studio bands who are very cold on stage and not very exciting. We have the power to express ourselves directly to our audience. It’s very important for us.
Technology in music has evolved a great deal since Front 242 started, but do you fin d yourselves limited at all by the current equipment available?
No, because we’re not computer freaks or slaves to our technology. Technology has always been a tool for us. It’s true that we work a lot with ideas first so we talk a lot and we work with feelings and ideas and emotions. It’s true that in the early ’80s there were not so many ways to express what you had in mind because the technology wasn’t that flexible as it is now. But at the same time, the effort you had to put in what you were doing was more breakthrough at the end. So it was always a tool for us.
Are you comfortable with the term “industrial” in describing the music of Front 242? If not, what label would you prefer?
The best thing to say is that Front 242 is doing Front 242, but I know people won’t go for that. To me, I would say I like the term ‘alternative’ and I like the term ‘industrial’ also only because ‘industrial’ is a movement that started in the early ’70s in Germany and moved to England and Belgium and now is reaching the States. And I think that it’s ok because it’s a very big movement and it’s always moving. It’s not something that’s a fashion. There have been ‘industrial’ bands since almost ever. So that’s ok for me.
Are any members of Front 242 involved in any side projects?
That’s going to be the near-future for Front 242. I think we will keep the band but we’re probably all going to work on side projects.
Did you have any goals in mind in going out on the Lollapalooza tour?
For us, it’s giving a sample of that type of music and spread it because we have a big exposure. We don’t pretend we’re going to convince people with what we’re doing, we’re just proposing a type of music. It’s day time, and generally, we like to have a very cinematograph show with a lot of elements on stage and lights. But we cannot bring that, so it’s Front without the image. It’s almost like switching a TV on but not having the screen.
Will you be returning to do shows on your own?
We’ll come back in November or December for a headline tour. I’m aware that a lot of fans, and a lot of people have said so, they wouldn’t come for Lollapalooza.