They take their name from a mathematical formula, think electricity is God, want to form a 1,000-strong synth orchestra and play a millennium gig from a Zeppelin. Welcome to the weird and wired world of ADD N TO (X). In the Moog: ANDY CRYSELL
ROLL UP, roll up, the brain-washing is about to begin. No really, it is, because while Add N to (X)’s Barry Smith may claim he’s merely programming one of his dusty old synths for a gig in Brighton tomorrow night, he’s actually fibbing.
‘Whirr-err-whirr-err!’ goes the grim-looking module at full volume, replicating the droning sound which, when coupled with swirly visuals and the discreet placement of powders in cuppas, always equalled zombiefied trance-out time in a host of ’60s TV shows. As the oscillations swell, fellow band members, Ann Shenton and Stephen Clayton, call Barry ‘Lord Of The Fags’ as he lights another and clears his throat. At last, in the chilly confines of this rehearsal studio in dankest south London, he is free to commence the indoctrination…
“Machines are there to be f—ed with on every level and electricity is God,” he mutters adamantly. “It makes tea for you, right, then it can strike you down in a second.”
Recipients of two NME Singles Of The Week last year (for ‘Black Regent’ and ‘King Wasp’), Add N to (X) take their name from a mysterious mathematical formula, and utter quotes of this kind as naturally as others stare blankly into their pints, avoiding bold statements at all costs. They confidently tout notions of futurism which extend far beyond the kitsch or hackneyed, accompanying them with a brain-prodding, eardrum-troubling sound which parallels their neoteric views masterfully. In short, if they take their cues from sci-fi at all, it’s from the likes of JG Ballard rather George Lucas. “It’s not like with Kraftwerk, who wanted to become machines. It’s us versus the machines,” Ann offers as an example. “We’ve written a track about machines trying to have sex with women. We tell the contraptions, ‘No you can’t do that, we won’t let you.’ We harass them until they end up in this horrible state and start raping themselves, f—ing their own circuits!”
And let’s face it, that didn’t happen in Star Wars very often…
Following long stints on the dole (plus, in Barry’s case, a spell as a DJ on pirate station Radio Stalin in Prague), this threesome formed Add N to (X) four years ago, releasing their debut album, Vero Electronics, in 1996. But it’s on their more audacious and peculiarly funky new one for the Satellite label, On The Wires Of Our Nerves, that it’s more acutely evident they’re a strapping left-field force to be reckoned with. Boasting mind-boggling track titles like ‘Sound Of Accelerating Concrete’ and ‘The Orgy Of Bubastis’, it is a brimful of nu-Krautrock, visceral odd-pop, deconstructed blues, vocodered voices and a miasma-like splurge of tones garnered from Moogs and a variety of other analogue synths. It thereby deserves to see them receiving plaudits from jungle and techno fans, Stereolab, Mogwai and Cornershop devotees, aficionados of America’s lo-fi scene — anyone, in fact, who likes their pop to fly out of the speakers in a devoutly unorthodox fashion.
“We’re sucking punk inside out,” reckons Stephen, instigating another A-bomb-strength measure of militancy. “We’re outsiders but we’re not going to run off and hide. People expect synth bands to be non-confrontational, knob-twiddling softies — well, they’d better think again.” And you can indeed say that again, because it’d be a titanic understatement to suggest their live shows have been lively affairs. Their pantheon of insurgent noises appear to manifest strange reactions in the crowd (with members of Depeche Mode, Scott Walker and a pogoing Jarvis Cocker numbering among them on many occasions) and some fairly pointed ones from the band, too.
“This music definitely effects people,” explains Barry with an innovative mixture of doom and glee. “One guy had to leave because he thought his stomach was going to implode. Others end up vomiting or bleeding from the ears and nose. It’s dangerous but exciting.”
Potentially dangerous for the band, too, it turns out…
“People either tell us their eardrums were bursting but they really loved it, or, as has happened before,” notes Ann, “a bloke will come up and chuck a pint of lager in my face. It’s all or nothing.
“Then there are the times that someone purposely knocks our equipment,” she continues. “That’s usually the cue for Stephen to jump into the crowd and start thumping the guilty person.”
In between nursing the bruises, they indulge in their shared love of musical mavericks (such as early 20th-century synth trailblazer Edgar Varese) and fantastical inventions — with the following all featuring among their favourite man-made creations…
“Radio towers, pylons and telephone exchanges are beautiful things,” Barry insists. “We love brilliantly flawed creations — things like Zeppelins which were so volatile and certain to blow up eventually.”
“Then there were those satellites Russia wanted to send into space,” interjects Stephen. “Massive solar ray bulbs which would’ve meant the farmers could’ve grown crops all night.”
And their least favourite machines?
“Oh, U-Boats and Sinclair C-5s, I suppose,” Barry decides matter-of-factly.
SURE, AT FIRST glance Add N to (X) may seem most of the way round an extremely twisty bend, but the truth is they’re some of the most fantastically attuned thinkers to surface in pop in years. Moreover, they’re as much doers as thinkers. Along with plans to play a gig floating over London in one of their beloved Zeps on the eve of the millennium, form a 1,000-strong synthesiser orchestra, challenge Mogwai to a soundclash and collaborate with architects on transient buildings (made from water, fire, electricity and, uh, noise), they’ll shortly be recording their next album in Lord Nelson’s former abode in Bond Street. And the public, it transpires, will be allowed in to witness them at work.
“We’re going to lay bare the studio process,” Barry enthuses. “Most bands disappear for six months then return with tales of how sordid it was making an LP; how they almost killed each other or OD’d. That’s usually a load of rubbish, so we’re going to let the public see the process for themselves.”
Better still, they add, Nelson’s place is currently used as an art gallery. Erm, why’s that better, then?
“Well, the gallery’s director came up to us and said, ‘It’s about time someone injected some monkey glands into this dusty old institution,'” grins Ann. “Can you believe that?!”
THEY CAN definitely count the Mute label among the believers. After On The Wires… they’re moving over to the famous electronics-friendly imprint, having turned down a multitude of major label offers. “Which all seemed to come with the catch that we’d need to get a frontperson, be less noisy and, y’know, completely change,” Stephen observes wryly.
As for early inspirational seeds from whence Add N to (X)’s trailblazing muse sprouted, they’ve been pondering that one for the last hour, determinedly avoiding any mention of supposed influences such as Kraftwerk and Suicide. Eventually, it’s Ann who collects the trophy for the most bizarre answer. “I got into all these mesmeric sounds because I was deaf in one ear when I was young,” she reveals. “I had to sit in these soundproof rooms with all these analogue bleeps going on for hours on end, pressing a button if I could actually hear them. Even at the age of nine, you see, Add N to (X) had started for me.” Close to 20 years later, in another soundproof room, the analogue bleepery continues. This time, though, Ann and her doggedly focused compadres are working different buttons, devising a hypno-racket that’s more likely to cause than cure deafness.
“Oh well,” she shrugs unconcernedly, before scoffing, “most bands couldn’t even manage that.”
As such, dare to Add N to (X) and it seems you’ll get… more than you bargained for.
© Andy Crysell, New Musical Express, 14 February 1998