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Xenomania - THE X FACTOR
(Q magazine article, October 2009)

Posted at 12:01 AM, 02 September 2009 -

Written by: Johnny Davis
Published: Q (October 2009)

In a Kent country house, Britain's pop factory cranks out hits for Girls Aloud, Kylie, and many, many more. Clock on at Xenomania - the "21st-century Motown"...

A Xenomania meeting in progress
Radio 1's Head of Music, George Ergatoudis, calls it "one of the most exciting pop records I've heard all year." Former Spice Girls manager and American idol impresario Simon Fuller was so taken with it he now manages the group. Even the Daily Star has declared it "nuts", in a good way. The general consensus is that Left My Heart In Tokyo is heading to Number 1 when it's released this month. For Mini Viva, the duo responsible for the striking disco-funk debut of pummelling strings, cheesy oriental synth motif, ridiculous rapping and indescribably great chorus, the journey from the North-west of England to the Radio 1 A-list has been a curious one.

Mini Viva rehearsing at Xenomania
"It was a bit weird," confirms 20-year-old Frankee Connolly, one half of Mini Viva. "They told us we were being taken to a studio, but when we got there it was just a big house". "We could", suggests her partner Britt Love, also 20, darkly, "have been going to anyone's house, really."

The pair met in 2007 at an audition held by a record label calling itself Select Music UK. Connolly had been targeted via her MySpace; Love showed up "after I'd seen a flyer". Soon they were driven to a house in Kent. "We came in and we were, like, Oh My God," recalls Connolly. "Seeing all the gold records on the wall!"

They spent the next two years training to be pop stars. This May they found themselves in the seventh-floor boardroom of Universal Music Group International's base in London. Their audience: Lucian Grainge, Universal's chairman and CEO, and arguably the most powerful executive in the British music industry. It was 11am and Grainge was eating muesli. But they stormed through Left My Heart In Tokyo and Mini Viva had a deal confirmed before Grainge had time to down his spoon.

Six weeks later Mini Viva are sitting in the garden of that same Kent house. It belongs to Brian Higgins, co-director of Xenomania, the most successful songwriting and production house Britain has produced in 20 years. From here Xenomania have written, recorded and produced 20 of Girls Aloud's record-breaking run of 21 singles. They have proved hitmakers for the Sugababes, Kylie, Pet Shop Boys and more, shifting some 25 million records in their 12-year history. Their songs are defined by a compulsion to corral pop music down ever more thrilling and creative avenues. Sugababes' Round Round or Girls Aloud's The Promise crossed dancefloor electronics with rock club guitars, classic '60s songwriting and sparkling '00s production.

Lyrically, too, Xenomania patented their own lines in winningly impenetrable silliness ("Something kinda ooh/Jumping on my tutu"), so much so that one journalist was compelled to ask Cheryl Cole whether 2004 hit The Show was about anal sex (it wasn't). Aided by five winning personalities, it was songcraft that escorted Girls Aloud from the nadir of credibility (winners of 2002 proto-X-Factor, Popstars: The Rivals) to somewhere near its zenith (two 2009 Brit Award nominations, Wembley Stadium gigs with Jay-Z and Coldplay).

Xenomania: Nick Coler, Miranda Cooper and Brian Higgins
Higgins acts as musical director, steering a seven-strong team that includes Xenomania co-director Miranda Cooper, best regarded for her lyric writing and now the most successful female songwriter ever (Madonna, Carole King and the Brill Building's Cynthia Well have trumped her elsewhere); Nick Coler, who programmed all The KLF's indelible hits; Tim Powell who started out in 1989 "doing hardcore rave stuff"; and Matt Gray, whose early platinum sellers include Pogo Stick Olympics and Space Station Oblivion - he wrote music for Commodore 64 video games.

Xenomania wall
Reliably dazzling yet never the same, Xenomania's services are understandably in demand. Their autumn schedule includes Cheryl Cole's solo album (co-produced with Will.i.am), Kylie's latest and the first material from Magistrates, the fashionably tipped Essex four-piece signed to The White Stripes' label XL. "At the moment there are 17 named artists we are being asked to consider," says the 42-year-old Higgins. "For us to accept any of them, it's really got to excite us a hell of a lot. We must not be caught putting out bad records."

The way Xenomania work is unusual. Based 45 minutes outside London "to avoid all the distractions", the team would never do anything as straightforward as sit down to write "a song". Instead they each work on backing tracks, chords or beats, Higgins choosing the best bits and building up songs like jigsaws. Xenomania believes that for a song to be "sincere", the artist must always be involved, so melodies and lyrics are always collaborative. Higgins: "The melodic side, which is about life, is the essence of songwriting. There's not many 17-year-olds who have Number 1 hits. If you're giving a melody to them to tell their life story through that melody, you've effectively given them the experience of the older person."

Higgins and Xenomania have already achieved success that would seem more than enough for most people. But it would be a terrible mistake to consider Higgins and Xenomania most people. "Presidents of labels go, Why haven't you retired yet?", he barks. "You think, is that what you're in it for? That's surely indicative of what they themselves are chasing. It's not someone who loves music. It's someone who wants overnight success. Well, I don't want to work with people like that. If you're searching fr overnight success, then get the fuck out of the business."

Xenomania are playing a long game, the next stage of which is to "bypass the nonsense" of the industry by launching their own record label. Aiming to become, as the team's head of A&R Sheila Burgel puts it, "a Motown of the 21st-century", Higgins's team have spent the last two years scouring the world for acts to develop. Turning the traditional pop producer's role on its head, Xenomania won't wait for record companies to bring them artists to work with. Instead, they'll sell record companies the artists they've discovered and developed.

That means presenting them "99 per cent complete", with a finished album with its first three singles earmarked, pre-style, rigorously drilled in performing live (50 shows for all new acts is now a ballpark figure) and, in Mini Viva's case, with their own brand of so-bad-it's-brilliant synchronised dancing. "I don't think record labels have the skill set to develop acts any more", says Higgins. "You need to be outside of it."

And if Xenomania's USP has thus far largely been girl pop, the next six months will see them comprehensively edging out of whatever remaining comfort zone they have left. Following Mini Viva, there'll be Vagabond (lusty soul-rock band), Pageboy (Pink-esque pop), Alex Gardner (groove-based blue-eyed rock), Nite Visions (the sons of Duran Duran's Andy and Roger Taylor, and sounding like it) and Gerard O'Connell (who'll release his music, a sort of four-to-the-floor Coldplay, under the name of Goldmark). This comes at a time when pop is once again in the ascendant; the days of Dizzee Rascal's Holiday and Lady GaGa's Paparazzi.

"Pop was a dirty word", says Radio 1's George Ergatoudis, whose swap of indie Jo Whiley for poppy Fearne Cotton perhaps signals a subtle station repositioning." But quality, exciting pop music sounds fresh now. Xenomania are doing it."

The Xenomania house
Arriving at Xenomania HQ, you could be forgiven for thinking you had entered a cult. Or at least a commune. The sprawling 16th-century mansion edges onto a village green, complete with Tudor tea rooms and statue of Sir Winston Churchill. "Girls Aloud used to stay at the local pub," says Miranda Cooper, 34. "Brian got the guy from the gym, Nigel, to take them out on the green running at 7.30am. They weren't happy."

Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, used to live here. A team of gardeners are attending to the not-insubstantial garden. There's a stream, and ducks everywhere. "There only used to be two", notes Florrie Arnold, one of two impossibly beautiful girls who float to greet Q, "Now they're breeding like rabbits."

At 20, Arnold turns out to be one of the grizzled old hands - a member of Xenomania's house band. Elsewhere teenagers sit around a wooden hall table, playing back music on MacBooks, writing lyrics in notebooks, and generally being so good-looking you feel like running screaming out the back door.

The house is a hive of activity. An east wing is off-bounds - Higgins's living quarters, with long-term partner Sarah ("I've no idea why it says 'danger' on the door," notes Arnold.) "We're churning out ideas all the time," says Nick Coler, who is currently "trying to get some beats together" for an undetermined artist for the St Trinian's II: The Legend of Fritton's Gold soundtrack. "You're trying to sell someone a feeling, and that's the feeling you're trying to get," he says. "It's easy to make something catchy. To be able to listen to it a thousand times, and still have that feeling - that's hard."

Boys in the attic:
Jason Resch & Kieran Jones
Elsewhere, house band members Jason Resch, 20, and Kieran Jones, 19, also known as JFK, are working on potential backing tracks for the same song, Tim Powell is tweaking mixes of Alex Gardner's music and Fred Falke, the noted Parisian remixer, is tackling a song by 2008 X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke. (Q stumbles across Burke at one point, before being shooed away by Higgins.) Falke divides his time between his own Toulouse studio and here. "The couch is very comfortable", he says admiringly. "Ikea."

Given all this, it's perhaps no coincidence one of Girls Aloud's albums was called What Will The Neighbours Say?." The villagers have generally got used to it," says Kieran Jones. "Though some do stand on the green and just stare at the house. That's a bit disconcerting."

Soon, housekeeper Pilar has lunch ready. Catering for 36, it's a feast comprising roast pork, cod mignon, hazelnut and vegetable salad, cabbage, beetroot and roast potatoes. There's a minor surge kitchen-wards. "Can you wait till Brian comes in first?" advises his PA Claire, in a tone that suggests it would be a good idea.

Lean and gym-fit, in his leather jacket Brian Higgins might bear physical resemblance to a Formula 1-era Damon Hill, but in temperament he's more Sir Alan Sugar: famously hard to please. A "work obsessive-compulsive" he's made no bones about packing pop stars he can't get along with on the train back to London, expects 12-hour days from his team and cheerfully admits to "binning 90 per cent" of Xenomania's work in his quest for the perfect pop song.

Franz Ferdinand excitedly proclaimed working with Xenomania on their recent Tonight: Franz Ferdinand album would be "a music marriage made in heaven" only to abandon the sessions three months later. "It didn't really work," said singer Alex Kapranos.

"I think Brian liked Franz Ferdinand... on a personal level," says Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant, whose 2009 collaborative Xenomania album Yes proved more successful. "But he works you very hard. He's very headmaster-ly. The first time I worked with, Miranda [Cooper] said, Right, now we'll try that with a different melody. And write some new words. I was like, What?"

"And you get marked," notes Tennant's partner, Chris Lowe. "He puts stars by your work, and comments. It's ruthless. It's fantastic!"

His self-belief is certainly impressive. In February, he had the first six acts signed to Xenomania perform for an audience of music business heavyweights that included six label presidents, two chairmen, 10 Radio 1 producers and key journalists. "One of the presidents said to me afterwards, If you'd fucked that up, you would have been fucked, Brian," he says. "But to me it was logical: the quality was there. And," he grins, "everyone left wanting to buy something."

Higgins was born in Whitehaven, Cumbria, the second eldest of five siblings. His father was a GP, his mother an actress. Aged 20, he co-wrote the song that would become Cher's Believe. At that stage he was a sales director at magazine publishers Reed. At night, he'd start his second job, writing and remixing pop songs into the small hours.

Along with Tim Powell and Matt Gray, he wrote All I Wanna Do, a Number 4 hit in 1997 for Dannii Minogue. "That was my entry fee," Higgins says. Executives at Warners asked if he had anything good for Cher, then hankering after a pop-dance direction. He'd spent eight years sitting on just the thing. Believe went to Number 1 in 23 countries, sold 10 million copies and ensured Higgins would never have to do a day's work again - an unlikely scenario.

Miranda Cooper & Brian Higgins
He set up Xenomania - the opposite of xenophobia, apparently - recruiting Cooper with what would become a trademark, a "talent in spotting winners" in the strangest places. Cooper, daughter of a former director of royal jewellers Asprey, was employed as a backing dancer for Eurovision hopeful Gina G. Later, Higgins would recruit A&R Burgel from US publication Bust ("the magazine for women with something to get off their chests") after bonding with her over the finer points of Simone Jackson and Anita Harris on the Here Come The Girls: British Girl Singers Of The '60s compilation. "We agreed that we're on a mission to destroy mediocrity," Burgel says. "Those 'alright' records. Throw them in the bad category. It has to be brilliant, or nothing."

Xenomania set about mastering pop. "As far as songwriting's concerned, we're fucking scientists", says Higgins. "I went through the whole of The Beatles songbook once, playing the chords on my left hand and working out all the melodies on my right. I just don't think there's that level of analysis of melody and chordal structure anywhere else."

«Wake Me Up was a fucking brilliant pop record»
- Popjustice
£20 music prize on Xenomania's wall
They struck gold with Girls Aloud. "I can still remember the girls' faces when we gave them [drum'n'bass/ surf guitar debut single] Sound Of The Underground," says Colin Barlow, now president of Geffen Records, then overseeing their label Polydor. "But coming from that TV show format, we wouldn't have got anywhere unless we'd taken a risk."

Over the last two years Higgins has "sunk hundreds of thousands of pounds" of his own money into the next stage - establishing Xenomania as a label.

After lunch, there are rehearsals, in 72 hours, Xenomania will host a room at the iTunes Live London Festival '09 in Camden. Alex Gardner's album isn't out until at least January 2010, but it's all part of a long-lead build up to launching Xenomania's acts; and generating as much industry and media anticipation as possible while simultaneously honing their live performance. Backed by the Xenomania house band, Pageboy's singer Brooke X romps through Heartbreak and Red Wine - a sultry pop-rock tune that lodges itself in your head.

The next day Q return to find Danish pop types Alphabeat in the hallway. Later Gerard O'Connell, Mini Viva and Jason Resch perform. Cooper and Higgins look on, the former bouncing on her hands, while Higgins stares ahead inscrutably.

"With this job, it's your life more than your job," says 19-year-old Alex Gardner, who'd come to London from Edinburgh to model before being earmarked by Burgel. "Everyone wants to make it work as best as possible for each other. It's like a big family." He's recently signed to Duffy's label A&M, with whom he's already drawing similarly "potentially massive" comparisons.

Pageboy rehearsal
Brooke X, on the other hand, caught Burgel's eye performing in a New York all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band - Lez Zeppelin. "Sheila emailed and asked if I wanted to come over to England," she explains. "I was, like, What's this? Who are Girls Aloud? Cher? OK, cool. But it's made me see how creative pop can be."

Can Xenomania become a Motown for the 21st century? In attempting to do so, they're diverging from their success with girl pop - which has upset some of their faithful fanbase.

"The hardcore Xenomania fans have been, What the hell is going on?", says Vagabond's singer Alex Vargas. "What is this Vagabond?"

In fact Higgins has already spent three years steering Vargas from dreams of becoming Robert Plant, into a more soulful direction. "That was a blow, but good in the long run. I was 18; slightly arrogant. Brian showed me that melody is the key to everything. I'm glad he pointed that out".

"What Brian is attempting is a big task," says Colin Barlow. "But I can't think of anyone else who could create something like that. With that work ethic, talent and passion, he has every chance."

Two days later, Alex Gardner is onstage at the iTunes night. It's a compelling four-song performance. Cooper, Burgel and Higgins stand directly in front of the stage, two of them dancing, Higgins standing stock still and mouthing every lyric. Afterwards Fred Falke is effusive. "How can you not enjoy it?", he beams. "You have to be deaf, dead or drunk."

Higgins is more cautious. "I'm standing here thinking of all the things that can be done better," he says. "But it's only his 25th performance."

Twenty-five more to go? "Something like that," he says. "We'll get there." Don't doubt it.

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