Interview with The Electricity Club

The Electricity Club is without doubt the most important website for fans of synthpop old and new. Featuring dozens of exclusive interviews with electro legends like Thomas Dolby, John Foxx, Heaven 17, New Order and OMD, TEC nevertheless doesn’t wallow in 80s nostalgia: you’ll also find reviews and features from the cream of current synthpop and electronic bands. The Electricity Club recently celebrated its first birthday, so I thought it’d be a good time to catch up with site owner Chi Ming Lai and ask him about the site, his inspiration, and his advice for other music bloggers.

 

How did your site get its name?

I’m a big OMD fan so the song Electricity was an ideal reflection of my musical roots plus it was also a manifesto using just one word. My technical partner in the site (Arc23) already owned the domain name electricity-club.co.uk from an abandoned project so it made sense to use it. So it became Electricity Club, but the decision to add the definite article suddenly gave it more resonance. The ‘Club’ element also gives a sense of belonging, that this is something special, exclusive and not for everyone… a place for outsiders to gather together. Electronic music fans are quite discerning characters and need to know there is an element of quality control. Arc23’s design and layout of TEC provides an important visual statement in that philosophy too.

How long has your site been running for?

It’s been just over a year. It’s amazing that we’ve gone from nothing to getting interviews with artists I have admired over the years plus receiving a message of support from an ex-member of Kraftwerk!

What styles of music do you cover?

Basically, it’s the classic Synth Britannia bands and those new artists who have their musical roots in that era. All sorts of acts are considered but there has to be synthesizer instrumentation. Lady Gaga would get in because of the distinct Italo template she has, while guitar driven bands like Muse and White Lies have had mentions because they each have a significant electronic element in their sound. Muse in particular are effectively a 21st Century version of Ultravox!

What makes The Electricity Club different from other blogs?

TEC's Chi with Mirrors & Mark Jones

The Electricity Club features good content based on informed knowledge and enthusiasm acquired “at the coalface.” I go to gigs, buy music, and actively network with people in the music industry. That’s not the case with many music blogs. Someone once said to me “I’m very impressed with your knowledge of the genre” but I was actually there first time round and any part of it that I wasn’t, I then do some proper research. There’s nothing worse than a schoolboy error on an article and that doesn’t help with credibility. I’ve also had a go at being in a band myself: using synths and drum machines, designing and building basic electronic instruments, performing, recording, doing PR etc. It’s bloody difficult! I realize my own musical limitations but am able to recognize talent in others, I think I have an empathy with an artist or label boss mindset. So I don’t take it personally if these people don’t reply to my messages or speak to me after a gig. The motor racing commentator Murray Walker put it best: those who can, do it – those who can’t, talk (or write) about it!

Why do you blog?

Queen Of Hearts photo by Richard Price

My mind is full of music trivia and other useless bits of information so a blog (or web publication as I prefer to call it) is the perfect outlet. I’m still a big fan of music and I think it’s a shame when exciting new stuff doesn’t get listened to by an audience who theoretically should appreciate it. So the idea was to have new articles on classic acts to draw people in to the site so that those who are curious might then check out the new acts that are featured. Also, I was sick of my favourite acts being labelled ‘80s’. To me, ‘80s’ means things like T’Pau, Swing Out Sister, Rick Astley and Kids From Fame. I hate all the cheesy glorification of that decade which the mainstream media and some websites indulge in. The Electricity Club may feature music with origins in the 80s, but it also features stuff from the 70s, the 90s, the noughties and most importantly, now! It’s synthpop, not 80s!

Do you have other blog contributors?

Yes, there’s a team based all around the world who contribute articles. That’s important because if it was all just about me and what I thought, it would get pretty boring. Acting as the editor, I’m mindful that my fellow contributors may be passionate about bands that deserve coverage, even if I personally may not be that interested in them. Also, I recognise that I’m not as knowledgeable about every act or niche as I’d like, so occasionally I do need help. For example, Steve Gray is TEC’s resident Depeche Mode and Gary Numan expert while Johan Wejedal from synth.nu reports on the vibrant Scandinavian scene.

How do you decide what to write about?

Gary Numan photo by Mike Cooper

Ultimately, it’s what’s interesting me at the time. I’m particularly into the ‘Like that? Then try this!’ mentality so I enjoy bringing things to people’s attention. If I’m really into something, I find it easy to write about it and it all happens quite quickly. But it’s the editing and rephrasing into a cohesive article that takes ages.

Do you plan out your posts in advance?

Yes, TEC has a strategy. I draw up a schedule for about three months in advance based on what’s going on with new releases and touring plus works-in-progress and the team’s own timetable of gigs. There’s also a reserve of articles like the Lost Albums features and assorted listings just in case there’s a quiet period. Of course, TEC gets contacted by acts requesting to be mentioned but there are only a finite number of hours in the day to listen to new music and a finite amount of space on the site for articles in any given period.

How do you approach reviewing an album?

I always try to set the scene with a preface before getting into the content. The background stories are often fascinating. I like using musical reference points to describe how a song sounds but I try to be informative with it. If you like an album, it isn’t really that difficult to write about it as the enthusiasm drives you along. If I’m unsure about an album, then I’ll usually pass it to one or two of the other contributors to get their opinion, just in case I’ve missed something. But if the album really isn’t getting any love from anyone, then it’s simply not featured. There’s really no point in crucifying an album in public if you don’t like it.

What do you think of the current synthpop and electro scene?

I think it’s the best it’s been since that Synth Britannia era. People are using synthesizers again, as opposed to keyboards or samplers and that pop element is back with a vengeance.

What changes have you seen in recent synth music and where do you see it going?

I think some of the dance and industrial stuff that was prevalent in between Synth Britannia and the noughties generation alienated me as it was just beats, loops and noise to my ears. But now synthpop, as opposed to electronica, is alive and well so that means songs and melodies. And that’s actually the most important thing rather than any particular vintage sounds that may be being used. The fact that it is all songs again is what’s making modern synthpop seem like it’s come from a past era. The song format may be old fashioned but classic tunes are what people emotionally connect with. I grew up with my mum playing Abba, Dusty Springfield, The Walker Brothers, Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones rather than The Beatles or The Rolling Stones so I’ve always enjoyed pure pop.

Who are some of your favourite bands and artists?

When I was at school, it was OMD, Gary Numan, Japan, Kraftwerk, New Order, Ultravox, Jean Michel Jarre, The Human League and Heaven 17. Then later after college, it would have been Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode and Erasure. When there was no synthpop around during Britpop, I caught up properly with influential artists like Brian Eno, La Düsseldorf, David Bowie and Roxy Music. Of the newer acts, I love Ladytron, Goldfrapp, Little Boots, Marsheaux, Villa Nah and Mirrors.

 

Name a band you love that no-one else seems to have heard of.

Funnily enough, TEC’s Lost Albums series was partly designed to redress that issue. So I guess Younger Younger 28s would be one of those bands. Their singer Ashley Reaks (aka Joe Northern) sent me a nice email to thank me for featuring their only album Soap.

Which review, interview or feature are you most proud of?

Chi, Sarah Blackwood, Lindon and Ben

Probably TEC’s 1st birthday interview with Stephen Morris from Joy Division and New Order. What a great guy, it was just one of those interviews where both parties were really enjoying it. I remember when I switched off the digital recorder at the end, the timer read one hour nine minutes! And when I was listening back to transcribe it, it was like getting a pot of gold with all these wonderful anecdotes about two of the most renowned bands in the world. To be able to share in that was a real privilege.

I also loved my interview with Sarah Blackwood from Client and Dubstar. We sat having coffee and cake in St Pancras for two hours talking about everything from her writing letters to Martin Gore to the size of Alison Goldfrapp’s breasts!

The We Hope You Enjoy Our New Direction Crap Albums feature was fun and provoked a lot of discussion, but that was the idea. People agreed with most of the albums I listed but there was one person who said two of the albums I mentioned were actually their all time favourites!

Which other music websites and blogs do you rate?

Photo by Lola Kxx

I was speaking to a PR recently who said most blogs now are really lazy, just linking to other people’s articles or repeating press releases word-for-word. While I would use the press release as a reference, I always try to put my own stamp on proceedings. What makes me laugh though are those blogs whose articles are written by people who clearly know nothing about music or the subject they are covering. I know it’s always happened in the press but I guess the internet exasperates it…everyone thinks they can be a writer or reviewer! The YouTube comments section and the reviews on Amazon are what you’ve got to thank for setting off those aspirations!

But it’s important check out other sites to help maintain your own standards. Of the ones out there, I like SoftSynth, it’s kind of like TEC but different. It’s good to get an informed perspective from another writer who likes similar stuff. The Quietus is really good too, they have some fantastic interviews. Incidentally, Nix Lowry who writes for TEC occasionally also does work for them. Popjustice has some great sharp wit and humour. It’s cut from the same cloth as Smash Hits, treating pop music as the most important and the most ridiculous thing in the world, both at the same time. They can put the boot into Stereophonics in a funny way without making it seem spiteful or bitter in the same way Smash Hits could make fun of The Cult. I wish I could write like that… many other blogs try but fail miserably.

Thanks very much for your time Chi!

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