Interview with Mark John-Davies of Messiah

Few bands manage to walk the line between commercial and underground dance music as well as Britain’s Messiah. With tracks such as “Temple of Dreams” and “Thunderdome,” Messiah have managed to create music that stands up to both the club and home listening environment. Their songs are catchy and often make use of recognizable samples, but they are done creatively and manage to rise above being simple novelty hits.

Messiah is comprised of Mark John-Davies and Ali Ghani, who met at the University of East Anglia. The group is a completely collaborative effort, with neither member having defined roles in the music’s composition. Ali had been interested in electronic music all along, following such bands as Kraftwerk and New Order, while Mark came from more of a rock background. It was out of boredom with rock music that Mark become interested in the new technology.

“I really like the idea of being able to create that sort of attitude but with electronic instruments,” he says. “Being lucky enough to be young when these things are new, it’s something that you want to experiment with. Really it was the urge not to pick up a guitar, because all the best riffs have been played, there were hardly any left.”

The group had their first UK release, “20,000 Hardcore Members” in 1991 and followed it up with a string of hits, including “There Is No Law” and “Temple of Dreams.” They soon attracted the attention of American Recording’s Rick Rubin and signed with that label in America.

Messiah’s debut album, “Twenty First Century Jesus” was supposed to come out early last year, but legal hassles with the group’s former US label delayed the release until this past spring (the LP came out just before Christmas in the UK).

Other than doing a small amount of editing and adding a few tracks, Messiah chose not make any fundamental changes on the album during the year it sat on the shelf.

“A lot of the album is reflective of the time it was written and we didn’t want to start meddling with it for fear of diluting what our original ideas were,” explains Mark. “When we come to do the next record, which we are doing literally as we speak, there’s going to be a very strong progression of ideas and probably quite a big jump, because there will be about a two-year gap creatively speaking.”

One thing that many of Messiah’s songs have in common is a creative use of spoken word samples taken from movies. Perhaps their most famous is the Richard Dawson “Who Loves You, Who Do You Love” sample (taken from “The Running Man”) used on “Temple of Dreams.” Mark says that they like to use such samples to give a more visual edge to the music. Sometimes the group will seek out samples that will fit into completed tracks, while other times a line from a movie they like will spark of an idea for a song.

Mark says that while it hasn’t been a major problem getting legal use of the samples they want, it can be a headache getting everything worked out.

“We have had to cut a few things out, but a lot of times the problem is actually to get to speak to people,” he explains. “In the music industry, it’s a pretty straightforward thing, you ring up a record company and they say yes or no, then your management will do a deal. With the film industry it works in a completely different way in terms of union laws and actors laws and the way the actual film companies are structured.”

While sampling has also played a role in Messiah’s actual music, Mark says its use is being downplayed in their new material.

“As we’re coming on to do this new album, it’s becoming something that’s less of a focal point for us,” he explains. “We’re moving much more into the ideas of songwriting and structure and things like that. It will still be there primarily as a mood setter, but I think it’s something that’s a very important part of our sound but at the same time is not something we want to be known specifically for.”

One thing that Messiah are starting to get into more is the use of vocalists in their music. Most of the tracks on “21st Century Jesus” don’t feature traditional sung vocals, but one that does prove to be one of the album’s most powerful songs.

“Creator” features the vocal talents of Cult singer Ian Astbury, who Messiah met through Rick Rubin when they signed to American in late 1992. According to Mark, Astbury is very interested in underground dance music.

For the new album, Messiah plan on having more tracks with sung vocals and hope to find a regular singer so that there will be continuity. This will also help the group put together their live show, as they want to do more than just mime to a backing tape (as many techno acts do).

The Messiah live show will feature additional musicians on stage, as well as interactive visuals running off a computer.

“I think Nine Inch Nails is a pretty successful example of bringing what is essentially electronic-based music into a live environment with a guitar and everything,” says Mark. “That’s a pretty good balance between the two. On top of that, we want to bring a very different visual side to it as well. The rock circuit has been going on for so long and it hasn’t changed. We want something more visual, more of an actual experience, that hasn’t really been done yet.”

While many electronic artists churn out large amounts of music and have a hard time determining what to release, Messiah tend to be more focused and know what will constitute an album beforehand. But if they did ever find themselves with extra tracks, they would not release under different names to get them out, as many electronic artists do.

“I don’t see the point,” explains Mark. “What you find a lot of the time is that you get these artists who like to be known for putting out very uncommercial things and then they want to make some money on the side so they put out a very commercial thing under a different name. It’s kind of like you’re ashamed of doing it. With Messiah, we want to go under that name and that’s the name that we’ve chosen. If we don’t want to put something out under that name, then that means it’s not good enough. A band like U2, they don’t go doing things under different names, the Beatles never did that, why should we?”

Messiah are currently in the studio working on their new album, which they hope to have done by the end of the year. They are also preparing for live shows, which may start to take place just before the album is released. The group is preparing the live visuals using Infini-D, Photoshop, and other Macintosh programs. With the new album and tour, Messiah will be showcasing the two years of evolution they have undergone since recording “21st Century Jesus.”

“There’s no need this time to make an album where every track will work on the dance floor,” says Mark. “We want to do one that is much more listenable as an album, rather than as ten dance tracks. If we want to bring a heavy guitar into it, we will, if we want to bring something more laid back, we will. It’s going to be much more of a free range.”

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