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Soft Cell
Interview with Marc Almond
by Alexander Laurence

Marc Almond and David Ball formed Soft Cell in the late seventies. Their tenure as students of Leeds University were left behind when "Tainted Love" became a worldwide smash hit. They combined the heart of Northern Soul and the mind of German techno to help create the early Electro scene and influenced everyone from Detroit techno artists to today's Electroclash bunch.

After three albums and a handful of pop singles, Soft Cell broke up in 1983, though the duo would collaborate on and off over the years. Around 2000, there was talk of a new record. This finally happened this summer when Soft Cell released its first album in almost two decades. Cruelty Without Beauty captures the feel of the old group, but is a modern record that brings the band into a new era. At their first American show in New York City they played to a packed house at the Roxy. Their mix of old and new material kept the audience excited.

I interviewed Marc Almond recently to find out more about the longevity of the band.


AL: You lived in New York City off and on for the past twenty years. Was it a real influence on your Soft Cell and solo records?

MA: I spent a alot of time here. New York is like home away from home. It's like a drug you have to get a fix once or twice a year. So I come here and get some energy from the place. I was lucky enough at the beginning of the 1980s to come here and record my first album. When I first came here I thought I'd seen it all and knew it all, and I had been to London, and I'd seen the city. Then I came to New York and realized I hadn't seen it all. The club culture and the nightlife was amazing. We were given the keys to the city....

AL: "Tainted Love" was a huge single....

MA: It was. And "Tainted Love" still is a very big single. It was issued as a remix recently. Wherever you go, you can't run away from it. Soft Cell really comes from disco and dance music. When we started I was working in a discotheque to pay my rent. It was the first American style discotheque in the north on England, in Leeds. I worked my way up from coat check to DJ. It was the only place in England at that time that was playing the American disco imports. David Ball and myself were both fans of 1970s disco, but having grown out of punk as well, we had this strange marriage of punk and disco and dance. That was definitely our roots and that was to be seen in some of our early songs like "Memorabilia" which was a forerunner to the whole electro acid house sound.

AL: I think that some people like yourself, and maybe David Bowie, have done different and new things over time, but then there those bands like The Sex Pistols, Bauhaus, and The Human League who do nothing for a decade then return doing karaoke.

MA: I don't knock people for what they do. Some of those bands from the 80s are happy being a cabaret act and say "I'm going out and doing my old hits." If there's twenty thousand people who want to pay to relive some old times and nostalgic memories, then that's fine. What are they going to do? Sit at home and die? If you were a band who was forcing yourself on the public, and nobody wanted to see you, then I would say it's time to give up. I saw The Human League a few years ago and I thought they were great. I like their last album as well. I always thought that they were a very underrated band especially in Britain where they were very innovated and started off the whole electronic music thing. People owe them a debt. If they are cashing in on their past, all the more power to them. But for me personally I like to bring something new to the table.

AL: You were doing records as Marc and The Mambas, and collaborations with Coil, Jim Thirwell, and others, and now with Magnetic Fields....

MA: I would like to collaborate less now than I have in the past, because I have been too diverse in the past twenty years. I think that I have confused the public as far as what direction I'm really going in. I'm a little bit more single focused these days. I want to do things that are still within my boundaries. I want to do things that have an essence of Marc Almond.

AL: I was always wondering about the performance you did with Lydia Lunch, Thirwell, and Nick Cave called "The Immaculate Consumptive" back in 1982. What was that all about?

MA: We did that here in New York and Washington DC. It was one of those things that you had to hear about more than actually see. It's become better with legend and the test of time. Everyone goes "Were you there? No, I wasn't there but I heard it was really amazing." It's best kept that way in people's imaginations. I'm glad it wasn't recorded. I think it came together because Lydia found a way of getting a huge exorbitant fee from Danceteria for bringing us all together. None of us knew why we were there. Lydia seemed to know why we were there. She had a strategy of paying the rent that month. It was a very shambolic cabaret, and Nick stole the show, so we all hated him after that. He did this mind blowing version of "In The Ghetto" so we were all sick after that.

AL: How do you approach doing each Marc Almond record: "The Stars We Are" seemed more pop oriented, while the Jacques Brel or Georges Bataille stuff seemed more underground?

MA: I always thought of it as being the same. I never really thought of it as being more pop or less pop. I just did the style where I was at the time: maybe it reflected the moods I was going through, or maybe it reflected the music I was listening to at that time. I always think of everything I do as being accessible. Sometimes it's a surprise when people say "That was really underground and uncommercial." But often I have done things that were a reaction to things that I had done before. Not so much now, because I found that was a case of losing direction. I much more focused and not concerned with worrying whether I'm a pop artist or a serious songwriter.

AL: Some people think "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" is a much better song than "Tainted Love." Why is that so?

MA: It's a good song and it tells a story. The song and the persona really encapsulates so much of what I've been about. In Britain, it's the more popular song. "Tainted Love" is a song that has a life of its own, and I don't have anything to do with. When I hear it, or see the old videos of myself performing it, it's like hearing and seeing a stranger. I still perform it live sometimes because I like the reaction that it gets. It's been a good friend, because when I play a concert and people don't know me very well, and it's going down like a lead balloon, all I have to do is bring out "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" or "Tainted Love" and suddenly I have everybody.

AL: Your album "Open All Night" was originally released in England on your own label, Blue Star, and here in America on Instinct. How was that experience?

MA: I originally recorded this record for Echo, which is a label in England. It was like a major independent label, but it went into a state of flux: it changed its format and personnel. I was also signed for a second record. I asked them to let me walk from their label and release under my own label. It wasn't the label I signed with and this album didn't have a place on their label anymore because it had become more pop. I was lucky to have a great quality finished album to start my own label with. That has given me a whole new freedom. I don't have to answer to A & R people and I feel it's my own work. This was the first record where I had full control. At this time it's a vehicle for my own music.

AL: You had a few duets with Siouxie Sioux and Kelly Ali (who used to be in Sneaker Pimps). Did you actually meet these people?

MA: Yeah. I planned a few duets on this album. I just simply rang them up and asked them. When I did the duet with Gene Pitney, "Something's Got Ahold of My Heart," which was a big hit in Europe, we didn't actually meet. I was touring at the time he did his vocals. We did the vocals separately, then later met in Las Vegas, to do the video, which was a great place to meet for the first time. Normally I like to do duets with the people in the room, that's the whole point.



--Alexander Laurence

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