One of the great things about the area of the musical world that I generally write about, is that there has been a surge of really great electronic pop – or synthpop, if you will – in recent times. Many of the protagonists have been new bands, bringing a fresh new feel to a genre that has allowed a surprising amount of leeway over the years.
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It isn’t a total changing of the guard, though. There are a number of bands who’ve been around for a while who seem to be gaining a new lease of life too, either being inspired by what they are hearing around them, or simply gaining fresh impetus in their own realms to release great new music. The latest of these is the return of Iris, who first came to prominence with the release of Disconnect twenty years ago. With their sixth album Six coming out next month, I caught up with Reagan and Andrew from the band to discuss both the past and the present.
Thanks to both of them for their time, and to them also for the promo photos used in this article.
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It’s been a while since we last heard from IRIS, but Six is out in August. Presumably you took a break as real life took precedence after Radiant?
Reagan: It maybe took a bit longer, but they always take a while. Also, we’re weaving record making with other parts of life, and to have that space to do both is something I think we both need. We still follow the same, general cadence though.
Andrew: Yeah, I’ve personally had some big changes, as my daughter was born after Radiant came out, and that certainly changed my priorities a bit. We have never been that compelled to follow timelines – perhaps that’s because we haven’t been depending on this for our personal livelihoods, unlike other bands who have constant release schedules as almost a financial necessity. I do realize five years is a bit long, though, especially since some of these songs have been close to their final form for years now. It’s just tough when you’re not able to focus on it 24/7.
Radiant seemed to take a more thoughtful, blissed-out tone at points. How does Six compare, and what’s changed in the meantime musically for you as a group?
Reagan: Six is more of an amalgam of everything we’ve done. I don’t think we made plans but just got back into the writing process to see where it would lead. We ended up with a lot of tracks to choose from, and there were plenty we didn’t pursue, so it was really more about which ones made the most sense for a full length album. If Blacklight was darker and Radiant was more ethereal, Six takes from everything, which was kind of freeing. We crossed the spectrum of our work and just relied on instincts.
Andrew: I did aim to increase the energy level a bit, as I agree that Radiant was a bit on the ambient side (perhaps too much). From a musical perspective, I’ve finally built what I’d consider a “proper” studio in my basement, and that has certainly influenced the production a bit. (Of course, the irony is that I have the best setup when I’ve reached the point in my life when I have the least time!). I think, personally, the core of the Iris sound is in the approach to melody and harmony – how Reagan writes melodies, how we orchestrate chords, sound washes, basslines – things which can remain constant across decisions like “more guitars”, “less guitars”, “hard beats”, “ambient beats”, etc. For Six this core remains, but I’ve turned the energy level up a bit, the guitars down a bit, and I think we’ve ended up with something interesting. Where it sits on the spectrum of our releases is really up to the listener (or you, the critic…)
As well as looking forward to the new, you’ve got the Disconnect 20 show coming up in September in Philadelphia, with original member Matt Morris joining the pair of you. I listened to Disconnect again recently for the first time in a while, and was struck by just how punchy a set of songs you created at the time. What are your memories of making it, and how it was received?
Reagan: I guess I remember more about what led up to it than the making of it. I was fueled by a lot of ambition then, it was like I was on autopilot, and that happened out of nowhere. I had no previous plans or desire to be in a band, but the commitment to it was overnight. I went from being completely aimless in life to laser-focused on something that felt beyond my control. I think the music I was into was my only real therapy at a time when I was a pretty disturbed young man. When I found an entry point to make that same music, I was all in. I found my freedom becoming a slave to the effort. I recall writing Annie Would I Lie To You, I remember when I wrote that, and I remember us recording it miles away in Austin for a sampler CD, and I remember that people liked it more than I expected. Looking back, there are a lot of songs on Disconnect I wish I’d never let anyone hear, but I was just starting out and we needed to work with what we had, so Matt and I worked over the summer of ’99 if I have it right, and then one day it was released and it wasn’t long after we got the call to come play New York. I think we just felt like, hey let’s keep putting our best foot forward at each next step, and maybe something will happen, and it did.
What were your initial influences in creating music in the early days of IRIS, and is any of that still the same now?
Reagan: The first time I heard something that I had a real, visceral response to was maybe The Alan Parsons Project and some of those slow Eye in the Sky type songs. Then a few years later, Erasure was the big moment for me, I mean that was the first band that just blew my mind. I know how a lot of people see them today, but if they could only hear it like it seemed back then. Then Depeche Mode, and at that point I had my radar out for everything that hit those happy sad tones. Seven Red Seven, Cause & Effect, Anything Box, Information Society, Red Flag, T42, Cetu Javu, Celebrate the Nun, Moskwa TV, I could go on but basically bands who were just as good as the New Order and DM’s, but you could actually go to a small club and see them up close. And yes they’re all still relevant to me today, because they all wrote such great material. After a while you start to drift off and just do your own thing, but those influences are inseparable from me at this point, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Andrew: I came from the landscape of 90’s alternative and 2000’s IDM. I didn’t have a lot of the touchpoints that Reagan did, in terms of obscure melodic “synthpop”, except for the obvious big hitters like Depeche Mode. I think I brought a bit of influence from bands like Underworld, Orbital, etc, as well as trying to make the sound a bit more modern and less explicitly 80’s-influenced. I also, for better or worse, included the dreaded guitars into the Iris mix – which, frankly, just felt natural to me considering at least 50% of Reagan’s demos had big fake-guitar power chord synths in them (and you can hear this on Disconnect tracks like Danger Is the Shame and Waves Crash In, btw). I was of course nervous taking this over from Matt, and it wasn’t really clear at first whether it would work. The big moment was when Reagan came to my house and demoed Unknown, and once we had something working for that track it paved the way for what would become Awakening. I certainly wasn’t as mature of a producer as Matt was back then, but I feel like I had enough ideas and musical chops that the sound slowly iterated into something successful. Moving forward, I feel like some of the new tracks like Silent echo the things I was trying to do with earlier tracks like Whatever and Sentimental Scar, only executed a bit better. Even though 20 years have gone by, my fundamental tastes and style really haven’t changed that much, and so that provides another thread across the last four albums.
The musical landscape has changed an awful lot since Disconnect. The “futurepop” boom was around the time of that album, and presumably that helped you out? Certainly as Six looms, synth-heavy music such as yours is kinda back in vogue again, it seems.
Reagan: I don’t keep up with that’s new, so I’m a bit of a hermit, musically, but yes I think you’re right. When I started hearing a resurgence of music I liked in the mid-2000’s, I was afraid it would all end again, like in ’93. Surprisingly it has stayed around to this day, and it seems song-based electronic music is finally here to stay. I love it.
Andrew: I could probably ramble about this topic for hours, honestly. We were never part of the “futurepop” boom – if I had gone and made Awakening sound like a VNV Nation record or something, perhaps. I think we charted our own path, and the most interesting thing for me was getting quickly sucked into the “goth” scene, which was and is still almost totally inexplicable to me. It started in the Disconnect days, with Reagan and Matt getting invited to play goth venues in NYC, and then continued when we played WGT in 2005. There must be some sort of key element in the tracks which resonates with the goth scene (especially in Germany), and much less so with the traditional “electronica” audience. I feel like Mesh also fell into this same pattern, and now I’m seeing it yet again with Empathy Test.
Now that it’s the late 2010’s, genre lines are so blurred and fuzzy that it’s hard to really pin down the differences between goth, post-punk, darkwave, dark IDM, electro-pop, and other genres. Synth-heavy music started being part of pop decades ago and now it’s just an accepted instrument like anything else. Additionally, with the decline of mainstream radio and media, bands are on a more level footing, and people can happily live outside the mainstream, never encountering “top-10” bands on the radio, which then makes indie artists feel bigger, as it’s not even immediately evident how big they are! In the end, we just do our thing, influenced by the things we like, and if people like it, great.
How do you see the wider “scene” nowadays? Do you still feel part of it, or is there, um, something of a disconnect as you’ve gotten older?
Reagan: That’s a good question. I don’t necessarily feel part of any scene, but at the same time we have a certain scene we usually play to more than any and I’m grateful we have that. I don’t always feel that much a part of it, but I’d probably say that about any scene. There’s probably more of a disconnect for me to just being out at night. I wish all the shows were at, like, four in the afternoon, but no I don’t feel a disconnect from the scene really. I probably feel closer to the scene than I ever have, just because like I said, it’s provided us a forum, a place to come be a band and be heard. I feel pretty grateful for that.
Andrew: I’ve never really been part of the “scene”. There are certainly bands I like (Wolfsheim, Mesh, De/Vision, Seabound, Skinny Puppy, Drab Majesty, etc) but I’ve never been part of the fashion element of it, nor did I grow up wearing black and obsessing over the Cure or The Sisters of Mercy. I do have a lot of friends in it now, so there is a bit of a social element. It’s strange playing festivals like Mechanismus where my immediate reaction to at least 50% of the bands is “what on earth is this racket”, but yet they want us to make our particular brand of racket as well, and we’re grateful for that. Is it better or worse than playing dive bars? Would I rather play to 1500 people at WGT or 500 at the 4th stage at Coachella? Who knows. At some point you just accept the audience that fate has given you, and be happy that your music has given someone, somewhere, happiness.
Six (DE/UK/NA) is out on 23-August, and they play a handful of shows in the US and Germany later in the year