Talk Show Host: 032: Metroland

Nearly five years ago, I stumbled across a fascinating live electronic act opening the Saturday afternoon at BIMFest in Antwerp.

That act was Metroland, and in the years since I’ve followed their career closely. Their highly conceptual music has taken in the London Underground, Thalys trains, the Bauhaus movement and a few other ideas besides, and now, they are taking a look at their career so far with the 12×12 compilation.

Their work has raised many questions, too, at least from me, so I thought catching up with Metroland would be a good way of satisfying my curiosity, and so it proved.

It goes without saying that I’m grateful to Metroland for their time, and also for the use of some of their promo photos in this article. Good to speak with you, Passengers. Who are we travelling with today?

Metroland: Passenger S and Passenger A present on the platform. What was the origin of Metroland? I know you were in other projects before, how did this one come about?

Metroland: With our former band we felt that there was not much more to achieve than we had already done. It was limiting our ideas too much. And we already toyed with synth-pop and different types of electronic music, But we never got to do it right. It always remained an experiment. However one day, at a point where with the former project we had an entire album ready to get into the mix, we decided to call it a day. Just like that, and we picked up all those arrangements that we kept in the vault, labelled with “not suitable for the former project”. We started with green field: no name, no label, an uncertain path, except for “doing something completely different”. Did you have the conceptual basis before the sound? Do you find the conceptual nature as important as the sound?

Metroland: We had nothing but these unused arrangements to listen to, no idea about the sound or direction to go. We promised ourselves at that time not to put boundaries on ourselves, and that was how we got started. The concepts and how we work on those themes are of an equal importance of the music, as the music should be a reflection, an extension of the concept. It has struck me that good – or classic – modernist design is the core of your work. Is it just a casual interest, or a more professional one that was your route into understanding and interpreting design movements?

Metroland: Neither of us is working in some sort of artistic environment. In case you must know, it’s Telecom and IT. You could say the style of electronics do fit well with a more tight design. Not only do we care to exploit the concept as good as we can, but there is also the element of branding.

With our first two albums we were blessed with straight design forms which we used intensively over the concept and they were very thankful, because who does not recognize these underground maps, or who doesn’t know these three basic colors and forms that were used on Triadic Ballet.

The third was different, but still it was conceptual in its own way. For the 12×12 box, we took 8 months to set it up, meticulously setting up something simple, but darn solid. Listening to Mind The Gap after I first discovered it (when I saw you at BIMFest 2012), brought home to me just how much of a forest of noise travelling by public transport can be. It’s certainly an interesting experience listening to the album while winding my way through London… Indeed I see travel on public transport – or through a big city – as an experience in anonymity, where no-one knows or cares who you are. What was your intention behind remaining behind pseudonyms for Metroland?

Metroland: It fits the overall concept, you are an anonymous traveler in Metroland, the underground, or an airport, a train station. Just another Passenger in the crowd. Next to that, it takes away the focus from the individual. Metroland is not about a sexy vocalist, it is the concept and the fitting sound to it that deserves focus, not who did it. And so we keep on travelling as two anonymous Passengers, doing what we like to do. Over your releases so far, you’ve evolved a very distinctive sound (to the point where I hear a track and almost instantly know that it is you). Obviously there is a Kraftwerk influence either sonically or thematically at points, but what are your other points of reference and influence – and do you rely on particular hardware/synths to make your music, or have your broadened your horizons on that front over time?

Metroland: We are so pleased to read that someone can recognize the sound of Metroland. Yes, we are influenced by Kraftwerk, but we are not a copy, and it is so darn easy to write that we are a clone. To us, those people don’t take the time to listen how we build up our songs. We are not as minimalistic as they are. Agreed, we use ingredients from them, as much as we use ingredients from many other bands, but don’t we all have that somehow? We both have a long history as fan of too many bands to mention, that Metroland is a combination of all the best of all those worlds that we came across, but also personal feelings and interests.

As far as the working itself is concerned, we have been working in Reason for over 10 years, and are not particularly looking for a sound from one our influences, but if it comes like that, we don’t care.

A sound can give a plethora of ideas or impulses. The Thalys release was one that was intriguing to me (and still one of my favourite Metroland tracks). How did you end up with the official tie-in from the operator – and was it intended to feel like a 21st Century update to Trans-Europe Express?

Metroland: We just made an appointment with one of their departments, explained the crazy idea and hoped for a go. And we got it! The rest is history or can be read in the 12×12 boxJ. In retrospect, it could be considered as the TEE from the 21st century, but it was not intended that way. We had a complete concept up our sleeve about trains and Thalys was just one of the ideas at that time. But, most of these songs were discarded (and one demo, entitled The Elephant, [just google and see what it is] can be heard on the 12×12 box). The entire concept had to make place for the Triadic Ballet and that explains why Thalys is a stand-alone single, released after having only one album. With the death of Passenger L (Louis Zachert) last year, how has that affected how you now make and produce music? Did you feel that the journey wasn’t over and that you had to continue, or was there a lot of thought about that first?

Metroland: It doesn’t affect us music-wise. We worked with Louis for nearly 20 years, and as a close friend, he taught us a lot of tricks which we still use and will be using in the future. Louis did not write the songs or was not involved in the mix down or production. But like a good father he looked over the shoulder of his kids to see what we could do better. There was one song where he kicked Passenger S’ butt three times because he did something wrong. So, three times back into the mix, but we did it, we listened to that advise and added it into our compositions, and still do. And next to musical tips, and knowledge on other topics, his advices on Photoshop and esthetics are still in Passenger A his mind when working on the arty part of any release.

Clearly his legacy is bigger than one can imagine.

We never had the idea of stopping; Louis would not have wanted us to do so. Still, he is deeply missed, and when Passenger S is doing the mix, he often thinks about Louis and his many words of adviceand not only because of the music. He was truly a nice, kind and heartwarming person in every sense of the word. The new 12×12 compilation is an impressive beast. How come you are looking back now? Is this necessary before you move on further?

Metroland: It is not a necessity to look back, no need to; we need to look into the future. It is indeed an impressive best of, but that is because we wanted it to be like that. A ‘best of’ with 12 radio edits is just not interesting. The entire idea came because when we overlooked all we did during these years, we noticed that we had a lot of gaps (Mind the gap). Many tracks that were discarded, unused for no matter what reason, only available on downloads only, and so forth.

Since we are suckers for 12inches and rarities, we believed it would be nice to release a 12inch album, and with Cube included, we counted 12 12inch singles, and so 12×12 was born, next to 12+12 and 12≠12, 12 times a 12inch + 12 b-sides and the 12≠12 stands for 12 versions different from the 12inches. And to put the cherry on the pie, the ‘beast’ has a 16 track CD filled with bonus tracks, ranging from demos to unreleased songs and versions. What is the next destination for Metroland, or do you not know yet?

Metroland: A 10 track new concept album in the making with 2 singles. Already 2 songs in their final mix, most others ready. The entire set will be a nice aural picture and after that, the concept for another album is known, but not one single sound is yet saved for that one, just a rock solid idea. In addition, are there more plans for live shows – I for one would love to have the chance to see you live again sometime.

Metroland: Nothing in sight, playing live is another aspect of Metroland as we heavily rely on visuals to accompany the sound, and that is taking an enormous amount of time, and we don’t have this at the moment.

And as we are not part of any booking agency, we are susceptible to spontaneous requests by organizers that happen to be a fan, or by a fan that is helping there. Who knows, by the time you present this interview that could change.

12×12 is out on 26-May

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