An Interview with Alan Wilder of Recoil (ex-Depeche Mode)

Kevin Keating
Alan Wilder of Recoil
Alan Wilder of Recoil

Alan Wilder's Recoil will be performing at San Francisco's Mezzanine on October 21st and graciously took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for SFBAC.

Get your tickets while they're still available here.

For those of you not already familiar with Alan Wilder, Alan was nearly a founding member of Depeche Mode, replacing Vincent Clarke in 1982 who went on to form Yaz and Erasure. Alan was an integral component of DM's signature sound and ultimately left the band in 1995. In the late 80's and in his spare time between DM albums and tours, Alan began to compose his solo material under the name, Recoil.

With that as some background, let's get to the interview!

On San Francisco / Touring: 
SFBAC:  We're looking forward to your performance at the Mezzanine in San Francisco on October 21st, do you have any favorite stories from previous time spent in the city?
AW: Nothing immediately comes to mind apart from certain late night activities which I couldn’t possibly mention in an interview!  Apart from the touring, I have visited as a tourist on several occasions and I do remember plenty of enjoyable times just wandering around the city.  There are so many cool areas, great restaurants and so on.  I’d say SF is easily my favourite city on the west side of America.  It seems to possess more of a European flavour compared to other west coast cities.  Previous shows with DM were always great (but we were generally spoilt with receptive audiences everywhere in California).  
SFBAC: Do you prefer performing in large venues or smaller, more intimate settings like the Mezzanine (ie. capacity 1000)?
AW: With Recoil, I have enjoyed being nearer to the audience, being able to actually see people’s expressions.  With DM one felt very removed at times, enveloped within a huge production which almost seemed to run itself at times.  I did enjoy those shows though - I mean how could you not playing to so many people, with the power of those massive events? 
SFBAC: Of all the places you've toured in the past, what cities stand out and why?
AW: At the risk of sounding patronising, usually the more ‘rock ‘n’ roll-deprived’ places garner the most vociferous reactions. If you combine that with say a Latin temperament, then you get amazing response.  I think the best ever crowd I experienced was in Santiago ’94 during ‘the ‘Devotional’ tour.  Also the Mexicans are always incredible. Russian audiences and people from other ex-iron curtain countries are always extremely enthusiastic.  The legacy of these country’s histories still effects the mentality today.  I’d say on this recent Recoil tour, the best crowds were in Mexico City, Moscow, Budapest, Bucharest, Prague, Lodz, Barcelona, Berlin and Paris.
SFBAC: Do you find it challenging translating studio material for the live environment? Can you describe what gear you'll use onstage during the tour? 
AW: It’s a challenge I really enjoy - trying to imagine how the music would work in a venue at loud volume where the listener is in a completely different frame of mind than at home or with headphones - maybe ready to dance with a drink in their hand.  Using mainly laptops, a synth for filtering and live effects, we have tried to pair back the music and tailor it with these thoughts in mind.  I used to do the same job preparing the Mode live versions and, in some ways, I found this work much more creative than actually going out and playing on stage. 
SFBAC: What can fans expect during the 'Selected' tour? 
AW: The events are not so much ‘live’ band but more art installation.  Paul Kendall and I have just extended what we do in the studio into the live setting where we add spontaneous effects and extra parts to a pre-prepared bedrock.  As I alluded to above, the music is comprised of stripped down, edited sections from many Recoil remixes and alternative versions, combined so that what we end up with is recognizably Recoil but doesn't necessarily sound like what you hear on the studio versions.  We have some flexibility to tailor the sound for each venue but we are also tied in to a continuous film which accompanies everything. 
In fact, this film element is what swung it for me to take the plunge with these events. With the advent of cheaper, portable HD cameras as well as affordable editing software, making films has suddenly become viable. I spent the first 3 months of the year collaborating with 4 different directors for this project using a central server where we could all upload (and feedback on) our work-in-progress.
SFBAC: You've had a number of guests perform with you already during this tour, do you have any surprises lined-up for the SF show? 
AW: At this time, we are working on various possibilities - keep an eye on the Recoil forums for details. We definitely already have Architect and Conjure One as extra acts for the evening.  We also hope to host an after-show DM/Recoil party and I will be around to sign items, meet with people and so on.
On recording:
SFBAC: Can you describe how your writing/recording process has evolved over the years just as technology and software has evolved? 
AW: I have always struggled to write songs in the conventional way.  Lyrics don’t come naturally to me so my process has always been a bit different.  I guess ever since the advent of the first samplers I have been fascinated with looping performances and trying to turn those into something which occasionally (if I’m lucky) forms a new piece or a song.  I guess the technology has helped with certain tools greatly increasing the potential of those experiments.  Being a perfectionist however does tend to slow me down in that I like to explore every avenue before committing.  And there are so many possibilities these days.
SFBAC: What's your favorite gear within your home studio? 
AW: My needs are quite simple these days.  Logic Audio, Ableton Live, plenty of plug-ins.  I just bought a MacBook Pro so I’m much more portable these days, finally making music on the move (at least sometimes).  In the studio, I love my 1970‘s Neve console, Roland space echo, Manley amps and compressor, VCS 3, Minimoog and Oberheim synths, and that’s about it.  I have plenty of other gear but it’s largely redundant.
SFBAC: Do you have a theme or sound in mind before you start searching for a sample? For example, how did you decide to use Bukka White’s “Shake ‘em On Down” for your earlier single, ‘Electro Blues of Bukka White’?
AW: Usually I just get a vague notion for a starting point and start listening out for possible sounds to loop.  Hopefully (but not always) that will inspire me to add something else and an atmosphere starts to emerge.  It’s trial and error and I’m looking for ‘happy accidents’ which will suggest overall direction.  From there, I can more efficiently put a picture together although the process often takes unexpected twists and turns.  In fact, these are the moments I crave - when one so-called sound accident renders everything you’ve done up to that point useless, because the new element is much better or sparks a completely new and more exciting direction. In the case of Bukka, the music just naturally took a blues direction with the chords, but with a very electronic basis, and that’s when I started trawling through some blues records to find something that fitted.
SFBAC: A few years ago, you wrote an editorial describing the shifting landscape in the music industry due, in large part, to the napsterization of music. Has there been any meaningful change within the industry since you wrote that? 
AW:  Since then, there have been some marketing re-thinks for the better.  A more tactile approach perhaps. We are seeing a return to higher quality formats, collectible editions, vinyl and so on.  Mute have embraced the idea of limited editions where everyone can benefit - the consumer who gets total choice ranging from a simple download right through to the most luxury items, the artist who can indulge all his creative whims, and the Record company who can charge the appropriate price for each product in order to make some profit - as long as they do not over produce and get lumbered with expensive stock.  The music business is of course one of the fastest mutating industries and one has to try to understand why things adapt in the way they do. If the consumer isn’t particularly passionate and wants free music (which now seems inevitable amongst most listeners) then I’m not against the Spotify-type concept for example where, in effect, the artist receives his payment via advertisers.
SFBAC: Another topic you hit upon in your editorial was the notion of decreasing audio fidelity, specifically MP3’s lossy format. Did you entertain higher fidelity formats with this years release of ‘Selected’? DVD-Audio? SACD?
AW: I spoke about formats and mastering techniques, the loudness war, dynamically-reduced, over-compressed, souped up final products, spewed out into the market place without much care or proper musical consideration. This is more of a marketing-led problem rather than as a result of poorly produced music.  There are many extremely well produced pieces of music which do not deserve this careless dumbed down process at the end of the chain. The problem occurs due to paranoia over the attention span of the listener resulting in desperate measures in order to gain that attention back. 
We have DVD audio in the ‘Selected’ box set.  This is higher bit rate than CD.  If you listen to a Recoil release, it should sound clear and dynamic, not necessarily (apparently) loud but a musical, enjoyable experience.  If the listener wants to hear it loud, they can turn up the volume on their amp - genius.   My suggestion? Step back, stop texting and tweeting for a while, close your eyes and just listen.
SFBAC: When can we expect to hear new Recoil emerge? 
AW: Realistically, not before 2012.  My intention is to work on new material after the tour and with all that goes into any release these days, the turnaround time to get things released is quite long.  Plus I’m quite a slow worker anyway! 
SFBAC: Can you envision a time where Recoil could tour with DM? 
AW: Hmm - cant see that one somehow. 
SFBAC: Looking back at your career with Depeche Mode, do you have any regrets about leaving at the time you did?
AW: No regrets.  For the most part, I enjoyed my time in the group but I wanted to concentrate on other things and have been lucky enough to continue doing what I love with little compromise along the way.  In fact, much less compromise than when I was in DM.  I consider myself very fortunate in that respect.
SFBAC: What DM album are you most proud of?
AW: ‘Songs of Faith & Devotion’ is my favourite, even though paradoxically it was the most difficult to make.  Communication was very poor between us all during that period and tensions ran high but, as is so often the case, that kind of chemistry must have been instrumental in helping to create some of the strongest material, such as ‘In Your Room’, ‘Walking in my Shoes’, ‘I Feel You’ and so on.  Even though ‘Violator’ was very successful, for me, it doesn't contain the depth and looser feel that I love about ‘SOFAD’.
SFBAC: What are you currently listening to?
AW:  Currently, I am quite impressed by the last Gil Scott Heron album and Architect.  I like some of the latest Massive Attack material (Hope Sandoval, Martina Topley-Bird tracks).  I listen to many varied things at different times depending on my mood.  Styles can range from avant garde, blues, electronic, classical.  I have no rules really.  Unfortunately, due to a complicated life (which seems to get more so by the day), I never find I have enough time to research and discover much new music but I enjoy trawling through my catalogue, built up since I was a teenager, and occasionally something new comes along to excite.
SFBAC: As a Douglas McCarthy fan, can we expect to hear more from him on future Recoil material?
AW: Possibly - it’s difficult to say until I have new material properly underway.  I like to work intuitively which means that the musical direction is a discovery process and somewhat unpredictable.  Only once I have something established does it suggest who would be appropriate to vocalise.
SFBAC: Of all the artists you’ve worked with over the years (remixing, producing, collaborating, performing, etc.) who stands out and why?
AW: I’d say for sheer talent, Joe Richardson and Diamanda Galas.  Both were easy to work with and exuded confidence (not arrogance).  Joe has this incredible array of talent - he is a prolific songwriter, fantastic guitarist & harmonica player and has a unique soulful blues voice.  It’s a dream for me to have someone like that at my disposal, especially as he has a very open-minded attitude to recording techniques and modern approaches.  Diamanda likewise is open and multi-talented.  In both cases, you can just let them go, record everything they do and know you will end up with a wealth of material to play around with. 
SFBAC: What artist(s) would you want to collaborate with in the future (who you haven't already worked with)?
AW: I’ve been missing Mark Hollis since he made those last three Talk Talk albums. His voice would be a great match for some of the atmospheres I like to make.  How sad that he doesn’t do anything any more.  Morrissey would also be part of any Recoil dream team.  There’s Lisa Gerrard, Guy Garvey - many singers actually that I like.
SFBAC: Alan, thanks so much for making the time for this interview and we're looking forward to seeing you in October!

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