Interview with John Fryer of DarkDriveClinic

John Fryer may not be a household name yet, but he should be. Having worked on iconic records such as Depeche Mode’s ‘Speak and Spell’ and Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Pretty Hate Machine,’ Fryer has helped to shape the modern musical landscape. In his work with Cocteau Twins and other 4AD bands, he pioneered an ethereal pop/rock sound that would influence countless shoegaze bands. Fryer has also helped to bring goth, metal, and industrial music into the mainstream, working with artists like Love and Rockets, Swans, Stabbing Westward, Fields of the Nephilim, White Zombie, Gravity Kills, Cradle of Filth, the aforementioned Nine Inch Nails, and many others.

With DarkDriveClinic, Fryer presents a grand synthesis of all that has come before in his career, demonstrating his ability to craft dark, hooky post-industrial rock songs using a musical palette that ranges from discordant to dreamy. Rebecca Coseboom of Stripmall Architecture lends her vocal prowess to round out these crisp, crunchy anthems and lurid ballads of disillusionment and pain. Bittersweet lyrics echo hauntingly, telling tales of star-crossed lovers. Each song blends into the next, ferocious guitars fading out to reveal choruses of mournful strings laced onto heavily processed, stuttering beats. Unexpected details disarm, such as a plaintive horn on “Love’s Lost Cross” or a sudden explosion of drums in the middle of slow-burner “Angel of Malcontent.”

With ‘Noise in My Head’ soon being released on vinyl by Green Fuse Records, Rock Edition got a chance to catch up with John Fryer and find out what makes him tick. Read on.

What does the name DarkDriveClinic mean to you?

This is a very hard question — let me try to give you an answer. It’s like being in your vintage convertible car on a long road trip through the night; long empty roads stretching out for miles in front of you — no other traffic in sight. Apart from the headlights of your car, the only other light is from the full moon overhead, lighting up the surrounding landscapes, casting long shadows over the dry deserted grounds. From out of nowhere, you speed through a brightly lit town, extremely bright neon and street lamps flashing past, and almost as soon as it starts, it’s over, and you’re back on the open road again. The next thing you know, you’re driving down this winding road by the edge of a cliff and end up by the sea; a very tranquil, calm place — just the purr of the engine and the soft sound of the waves hitting the shore. The roof is now down on your convertible, the wind is blowing through your hair and the fresh weeping scars on your head from the electroconvulsive (electro-shock) therapy they have been doing on you at the clinic. Then you have to decide — is it real or a dream? It’s all up to the listeners, really.

Is DarkDriveClinic just you and Rebecca Coseboom?

For the most part, yes, it’s Rebecca and me, but I [also] really like to work with my friend Tom Berger who plays guitar for me. I write the songs/music, and then I will send it to Tom to add guitars. I give him a list of what parts and sounds I would like and where, but then he has a free hand to experiment and try other things out. I would start by editing the parts in that I have asked for, then depending on the song and the alternate parts, I proceed to edit the guitars from there. Sometimes I really like the alternate guitar parts and sounds he has given me, so I edit them in and change the song to make them fit, if I really like them. When it’s all been edited together, it can give the track a strange feel. I think “Mercury Head” is the best example of this.

How or when did you know that Coseboom was the right vocalist for DarkDriveClinic?

Rebecca has been one of the strange circles of fate that surrounds the album. My lovely wife Hanna had just got back in contact with an old friend of hers named Kat through Facebook; she hadn’t seen or spoken to her for about 13 years. Kat had moved to San Francisco during that time, and was now a big fan of Rebecca’s other band, Stripmall Architecture. Kat was recommending to Hanna that I should look into producing them. At the same time, I was putting an ad on Facebook and Myspace looking for a singer, and Rebecca was one of the singers who got back to me. This was a strange coincidence and I said to Hanna at the time, “What a strange twist of fate that she of all people should get back to me.” Lo and behold, hers was the only demo that came close to sounding right for the music. In fact, it was so good, we kept the melody and words for the song — I just got her to re-sing it with a better vocal mic. And, guess what? I am mixing the new Stripmall Architecture album.

What’s your collaborative process with Coseboom like? Who writes the lyrics? Do you play all of the instruments?

The collaboration with Coseboom is very easy. Most of the time what she comes up with the first time is what we go with. There have only been a couple of songs where I thought she should re-work the vocal lines or change the odd word or two. I send her the music finished and all she has to do is write over the top of it. There were two songs where I actually changed the music to fit the vocals better and add more dynamics, but that was all. It has taken me so long to get the songs to where I was totally happy with them, I was not going to start changing them all again, as some singers wanted me to do — fuck that.

One song, “Love’s Lost Cross,” I had everything sorted out on, [including a] rough vocal melody. I had the words, so I did a very bad rough guide vocal for Rebecca to listen to, [telling her] she could change the melody as much as she wanted to make it work, but keep the words. It worked out really well.

The only other song where she came to a bit of a block was “Still Contagious.” This was the only song where we tried to sort out the vocal lines together. We had hit a wall, so we took a coffee break and drove off to Starbucks; whilst talking in the car, she mentioned a phrase which I thought was cool for the first verse, so we used that. I had a pre-chorus and chorus that fit perfectly with the first verse now, so we just sat there drinking our Starbucks and worked out the second verse, then we shifted what Rebecca had been singing for the chorus into the middle of the song. Again, it worked out pretty well.

The DarkDriveClinic album is coming out on vinyl on Green Fuse Records. How did you get hooked up with them?

This is another one of those circles of fate. I have been working with a band called Dead Leaf Echo for the last couple of years. Lloyd from the band has been dealing with some vinyl labels for DLE, and I asked him to recommend any labels he thought would be good for us. DarkDriveClinic were looking to do a vinyl release ourself, as our CD and digital labels were not interested in doing vinyl. It also turns out that the drummer in Rebecca’s band is a good friend of the label owner. So there we are — another circle complete.

And how did you get hooked up with DLE?

Lloyd from DLE is a big shoegaze fan, and likes the shoegaze albums which I made in the past. So he did what a lot of bands seem to be afraid to do — he contacted me to see if I could work with them. As it happened, I could, and it was great to get back to that sound, but in a modern way. I worked with them on their ‘Truth’ EP, and I just finished working with them on their new album. So if you’re a band out there, remember this: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. So [go ahead] and ask — the worst I can do is say no. You never know — we might end up working together!

What’s the album called, and where should people go to get it?

The album is called ‘Noise in My Head.’ It came out in the USA and most of the world on October 25 through Metropolis Records. It came out in Germany and Europe on November 11 through Danse Macabre Records. It should by now be in most record stores; if not, you can mail order it from the labels or download it through Amazon, iTunes or most other reputable online companies. Please don’t pirate, as it is killing people’s livelihoods.

Will DarkDriveClinic be touring, either in North America or in Europe? If so, do you have any rough idea of when it will happen?

We will be touring in 2012, probably in Germany first, and then the good old US of A. We hope to start sometime after Easter.

Who directed the “Silhouettes” video and who came up with the concept for it?

Well, I have to say this was all down to Rebecca, as far as the concept and the filming, but the editing was all the work of the lovely Ryan (Chief) Coseboom, Rebecca’s husband. I think the work they did on this video is great. Awesome job.

You’ve worked with a lot of artists over the years, from Cocteau Twins and Depeche Mode to Love and Rockets and Nine Inch Nails. While I’m sure that all of them were incredible experiences, were there any particular ones that were exceptionally special or unique?

To me they are all special, exceptional and unique. Each band is different; it gives me a different look at life and music. That’s why I like to work with so many different types and styles of music. I have learned a lot over the years from all the bands I have worked with, and I hope I will continue to learn from the bands in the future. It was a great learning curve for me, growing up in the music world of the 80s, and in Blackwing Studios. So many of the amazing alternative bands from that time crossed my path and I’m eternally grateful.

When I started in the recording world, the studios were totally analog. Gradually through the 80s, technology and musical styles changed — better drum machines, synthesizers, sync tone — you could actually sync things together from tape to get more than one pass of your programmed parts, rather than play it live over the top of your first pass. Now we are at a stage of totally digitally recorded music, but I’m so glad I have seen and lived through all the changes.

Do you still work with Ivo Watts-Russell?


What’s going on with your label, Something to Listen to?

Nothing is happening with my label, as it had to be closed down due to certain circumstances, which legally I can’t go into here or anywhere else. It was great fun, but it was very hard work trying to get things happening with it. We made five fantastic albums and five fantastic EPs. We had great critical acclaim — [there was] only had one bad review out of all the hundreds of reviews we had. It was a great period of my life, but I would not want to repeat it. It nearly killed me financially and mentally, being a 25 hours a day, eight days a week job.

Did you always know that you wanted to play and produce music? If not, when did you figure it out?

I’ve always been interested in music, since a very young age. The radio in England (Radio 1) was quite diverse when I was young, playing loads of different styles of music: one minute you had Frank Sinatra, next [you’d have] The Beatles, then it would be Jimi Hendrix — a whole mixed bag of music all day long. Then I got into my brother’s music. He was listening to Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground and other bands from the States. Then there was Top Of The Pops on TV when I was a teen; it was all getting very glam by then with David Bowie, T. Rex, The Sweet, and many more.

I left home by the age of 16, got a job and rented a flat. I started to learn to play guitar, but it never really happened for me then, so I used to help set up the PA for my friend’s band. Then they decided, as bands do, to go to the studio to make some demos, [so] I went along just to sit in and see what went on. I found it fascinating. The next thing that happened was another one of those quirks of fate: I had just got made redundant from my job, and heard that the guy (Eric [Radcliffe of Blackwing Studios]) in the studio where my friends had been making their demos was looking for an assistant. I went back to the studio and said, “You need someone to work here, and I need a job.” Eric said, “Okay, start now.” I stayed there for nine years. The rest, as they say, is history…

When it comes to your own music, do you approach the production in the same manner that you would with other artists?

No, writing my own music is nothing like working on other artists’ music. Writing my own music starts as an idea in my own mind that I have to sit [with] and develop over a couple of days. I can be going nowhere, when all of a sudden a new sound [makes] everything just click into place and the song takes shape. Sounds are very important to me; they seem to have their own life and can totally change the direction of my songs.

Do you employ similar production techniques with all the artists you work with, or is it different every time?

To me, you can’t approach any two artists the same; I was saying something like this in a lecture the other day. [I think] music is a kind of grey area, not black and not white. Even if you have a four-piece live band, there can [still] be so many variables to those bands that it is never a straightforward job. You can have techniques to record things, but you must be able to adapt them to every band and style of music you come across.

Some producers have become known for having a certain type of sound, such as the Daniel Lanois sound, or Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Is there a “John Fryer sound”?

Well, there is a kind of John Fryer wall of guitar sound that I have, and big dynamics in my mixes. Also, there was the ethereal sound of 4AD in the 80s. People say they can hear when I have produced or mixed a band, that there are always elements of me in whatever I do, but I always try to make the artists’ albums, to try to bring out the best of their songs. As DarkDriveClinic has shown, I can make my own music, so I don’t need to trample over other peoples’ songs with my big boots, leaving my stamp on it.

Pick up DarkDriveClinic’s debut album, Noise in My Head.

For information on pre-ordering the vinyl, head over to Green Fuse Records.

For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their official website.