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Brian Higgins interview (April 2010, PonyStep)
Posted at 11:58 AM, 13 April 2010 -

The webzine PonyStep has published an extensive interview with Xenomania's Brian Higgins, conducted by Andreas Soteriou. Read it here. A few highlights from the interview:

The current state of pop and the need to reinvent
«The world is pop mad now. (...) The ease for us to stand out is a lot harder now, so we have to re-appraise where we go sonically, which is fine. (...)
In 2001, when we emerged, pop music was on its backside and indie music was about to rise, through The Strokes and everything else. We were an independent company and we were as indie as the other bands around us. (...) The difference was that we didn't sing our own songs and loved female vocals. It was easy for us to stand out (...), to dominate and dictate. All we had to do was make sure that every time we worked with either of the two girl groups that we had [Sugababes and Girls Aloud], that we didn't ruin it or cock it up. We took it so seriously, it was life or death because we knew that if we let it go with either Sugababes or Girls Aloud, there wasn't an obvious replacement because we were surrounded by a sea of bands.»

The (uncertain) future of the Girls Aloud/Xenomania partnership
«Obviously that the rise of Cheryl Cole as a superstar is a phenomenon in itself, which is great for her. I think that everyone's got to wait and see where that takes Cheryl because it is obviously profoundly altering her life and how she sees her life. If she goes to America and does X-Factor and everything, then that is going to create a situation. They are all creating solo records, therefore they're all working with lots of other producers and stuff. It would be foolish for me to sit here and say that in a year's time, they'll definitely come back to us. (...)
I guess there's three options, really; They will come back, they won't full stop or they'll be back and work with other people. I have a completely open mind to the way that is. I certainly don't think that we have any ownership over them or anything like that. (...)
If the band continues it will be a small miracle, but then, every album was for me anyway. That's why we put so much into it, because we couldn't believe that they'd come back to us. We never assumed they would, ever.»

The early years of Girls Aloud
«We initially only did two songs on the original Girls Aloud album; Sound of the Underground and No Good Advice, then I heard the other ten tracks and said, "This is a disaster". (...)
They'd sent them off to these other Swedish guys and different people in the UK who were about to be rubbed out by what was coming - the rise of indie and our sort of pop. I heard this stuff coming back and I said, "There are two completely separate groups on this record. We need to get rid of six tracks and I'll replace them". We did that and allowed the album to stand up as a body of work. (...)
When the second album came round, the label said, 'Listen, we're not going to do this group any more if you don't do it". I think my initial reaction was to do a few tracks and he said, "No, you have to do this because I think you're the only person who understands exactly what it is". So, that's how we took it on.»

Girls Aloud weren't accepted but gave two fingers up to everybody
«'Sexy! No, No, No' sounded ridiculously challenging because we thought that radio wasn't going to play them anyway. It was like two fingers up to everybody. You're not going to play them on the radio, anyway, so we'll give you something that you couldn't play. (...)
[Girls Aloud] loved the hostility that was in all their records because they realised that they weren't accepted. At TV studios, always treated really badly, unmanaged for years, having to do it all themselves. There is a great book in the Girls Aloud story, really. There is so much that people just don't know, about how much they were shunned at the start. We loved working with them, loved them as girls and their voices. They met a group of people that wanted to make a statement musically more than they wanted to make money. If we made the right statement and it was melodically as good as possible, then something good would come from that. (...)
We’re lucky in the sense that we met a group that had various voices within it that could really inspire excellent records, and they met people that were obsessed about wanting to have an expression through pop music that was as avant-garde as it was commercial, looking to combine those two things.»

The Xenomania set-up
«We're a fairly small group of people here. If ever we feel that there is a lot of thinking to be done, we contract people. In 2006, Xenomania was four people. Writing Sweet About Me, Call the Shots, Something Kinda Ooooh, there were just four of us. Then we sold a load of records and expanded, signed some acts and expanded again. It is a bit like a squeezebox, really. It opens and contracts accordingly, it doesn't show off by its size. There are eight people and some specialists that come in every now and again. I think we need to be that size.»

Between rural Kent and industrial Shoreditch
«I‘ve never lived in London and never wanted to live in London. Although, I‘m probably closer to feeling more comfortable living there than I have ever done before because of the place we have in Shoreditch. There is a big studio there and a big flat so I‘m going to probably live there maybe a few days a week and then live here for the rest of the time. Split myself between Shoreditch and the countryside. I like Shoreditch because it is like a Northern town, very industrial. It is like a town, so I don’t feel like I am in a city and I like that, because I don’t like cities very much.»

Building an online presence for new acts
«It’s no surprise that Ellie Goulding has got off to the quickest start this year, because she did the most work online last year, all the pre-label work, if you like. (...) I think she is a very good example of what needs to happen before you go on, you have to build it properly. The artist needs to be hands-on in doing that. (...)
If I’d known then what I know now, I would have added a full online presence with Alex [Gardner], any number of different releases out into the marketplace prior to going anywhere near a label, so that there was a very healthy underground aspect and online presence for that artist and I didn’t do that, because I didn’t believe I needed to. (...) If you service a record to Radio 1, the minute you go in with it, they’re on Google, looking to see what the online presence is. They are now using that as a determination of how hip or cool something is. Regardless of the quality of the record or the act, if that presence isn’t there, they will not play the record. It is basically making it clear that if you haven’t built up the online work through the blogs and with Facebook fans, Twitter fans, then you can forget about it, unfortunately.»

Florrie Arnold
«Florrie is interesting. I took her out of our group. She is not signed to a major label. She has got the majors trying to sign her, but I think that we have to build her world online. We're not signing her to a label, which I think is really important. Because the minute she is signed, someone on high will say, "Right, ready or not, let's get her on a schedule", and that isn't working. I think she is amazing, she has got a great story. She is only twenty, was a fantastic session drummer for us and then there was her emergence as a singer. She has got amazing things going on in her life.»

Stepping outside of the "Xenomania sound"
«I guess whenever we have stepped outside of whatever people consider to be our sound, which is uptempo, electronic, exciting, imaginative and enthusiastic (...) lyrically interesting, original, with a shock in it somewhere, you won't know what it's going to sound like before you put it on... If ever we have stepped outside of that, it hasn't worked. 'Sweet About Me' wasn't your typical Xenomania record, and that was a huge worldwide hit, but I think that if you take the Rexola sound away from it, then it isn't successful. It needed that sort of thing to allow it to sink in to people's psyche and then they were able to judge it as a record as opposed to a Xenomania record first. I think that Vagabond was way outside what we would normally do because the guy's voice lead me into that particular area. I think that the truth of it is that it's probably a lesson in everybody sticking to what they're really good at, as opposed to doing things competently, because competently isn't going to get you anywhere. We're lucky in that we've found an area of music that we cen excel in, or call our own and I guess that's where we should stay. Naturally, sometimes we go outside of that, but it doesn't seem to work very often.»

What went wrong with Vagabond
«If you look at Vagabond in the context of the single 'Don't Wanna Run No More', it's a good song, a very good song and a decent record and everything else, but it's not brilliant. It's not vital or unique or standalone. When we were actually looking at the record and seeing that it was going to struggle, it didn't sound remotely like anything else around it at that time, but it certainly wasn't leading anything else. As a result of that, it was a record that didn't make a connection with anybody. We have to accept that part of our job here is to connect with people. And if we're not doing that, it doesn't matter how good the record is, then we're not doing it right. Our other choice is to blame everyone else that the records aren't connecting and I think that 's a waste of time.»

Collaborating and creatively debating with the Pet Shop Boys
«I thought that they would be hard work. I won't compromise on what I'm doing. I won't water it down and I won't dilute it, because that defeats the object of working with me in the first place, really. I don't like collaborating unless I am in charge of the collaboration. (...)
Neil told me that they very wilfully checked their egos in every morning they came into the studio because they decided that they were going to trust me to do it. I would say that 98 per cent of the time that worked and the two per cent that it didn't were natural creative debates, really, between me and Neil, with Chris acting as mediator, "Break it up, lads. Break it up!" (Laughs). That was fine. Neil is ever so bright and visionary and all those things. We sort of worked out the rules of engagement before we made the record and then were able to make it well. And they came in with a lot of really good material that I liked, as well.»

The end of the decade and the future of Xenomania
«It was an amazing ten years, an incredible period, but I think it is over. And I think the fact that we were able to end the decade with a hit that was very like us in “I Left My Heart in Tokyo” is fine, a really good thing. (...)
It feels like we've come back to how we started in a way. Putting remixes out and watching them go up the charts. It feels like I'm back there again in a funny sort of way. I've been working with Kylie, Alesha... Nadine's been coming in, so its not like I'm not active in the world of trying to create mainstream hits. It's just that I feel like I need challenges and I find them in tough situations. Looking for adversity, in a way. (...)
I think that everything needs to be thirty per cent better now if you want to even consider having a similar level of success. I think for myself and Miranda, that our average songwriting has to increase by thirty per cent within the next 5 years. We have to get back to audacity within our records and making statements and all the things that we are used to doing, I suppose. Challenging things.»

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Blogger daavid said...

Good stuff!

April 13, 2010 at 8:24 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want a miracle.
I want back the Girls Aloud.

April 14, 2010 at 12:41 AM  

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