The first time I ever flew in a plane was to Bonn to work with Conny Plank on our first album. Rick (Smith, later also of Underworld) and I were in Freur and had recently signed to CBS. We were living in Splott in Cardiff and our A&R Muff Winwood came down and auditioned us live in Rick’s bedroom. We discussed producers and Conny’s name came up, mainly due to his work with Kraftwerk.
We were massive fans of records like Trans-Europe Express and especially Computer World... they were just extraordinary records. I remember Rick buying the first Sony Walkman I ever saw. He used to walk up and down Queen St in Cardiff having an epiphany. Kraftwerk was our meeting of minds. We were obsessed with records such as Silver Machine by Hawkwind, lots of funk and dub reggae and Kraftwerk sort of brought a lot of those ideas of repetition, of trance-like music, into focus.
We were avid John Peel listeners and it was him who turned us onto Krautrock. Back then, those records made up a lot of his playlist – Harmonia, Faust, Amon Düül, Neu!. Those records made me imagine a bizarre place called Berlin where all this cool stuff happened. I was obsessed with the idea that they seemed to refuse to acknowledge things needed to be done in an American way. The records were uplifting, positive and mindblowing sonically, but they didn’t kowtow to what was considered fashionable.
I’ve always had a theory that great ideas were born in Berlin, appropriated and made accessible here, then finally taken by Americans, who made them massive and sold them back to German kids. When we first went to Germany to do press with Freur, journalists laughed at us for saying we were inspired by Kraftwerk – they weren’t yet accepted in their home country as anything other than a joke and the charts were full of really ropey US/UK soundalikes. It was bizarre. This was the country that gave us Stockhausen and most people were listening to really bad pastiche pop music.
Prior to the recording session, our first encounter with Conny was in a very brown, corduroy-clad hotel room just by Heathrow airport. I remember him playing tapes of a band he was working with called Kowalski, who were just brilliant. They had these incredibly powerful anti-fascist recordings they’d made featuring Hitler addressing rallies. I was really intrigued hearing him talk about the importance of Hitler’s microphone, how it distorted so much it had the effect of making a little man sound so very big.
We arrived in Germany to work with Conny and were picked up by a giant lemon-yellow military troop carrier manned by four bearded, long-haired hippies. We were dressed in the regulation Freur beads, crimped hair, make-up and plastic clothes, so that must have made for an interesting sight. His studio was a farmhouse with a beautifully converted barn where the studio was set up. The bricks in the pathway leading up to it were laid in the shape of a reel-to-reel tape. We loved it.
We used to bring over VHS tapes of The Young Ones and he’d roar with laughter.
When we worked over there, a lot of studio time was spent un-learning things. Conny taught our drummer to find the spaces between the beats; it was about missing things out in a very particular way. His way of working consisted of messing with sounds while you were playing. He’d also play a lot of psychological games – funny ones – to get you in an abnormal frame of mind. He was a massive fan of Prince, records such as Dirty Mind and Controversy. He thought they were the cutting edge of electronic music, that Prince’s very electronic funk was going to be the way forward. Rhythm was incredibly important to him, funk was important, not making music that aped other countries.
When we were working with him, he was just starting to get ill. He used to lie down at the back of the studio a lot, but was always incredibly warm-hearted and funny. He really loved British humour, too. We used to bring over VHS tapes of The Young Ones and he’d roar with laughter, he was fanatical. He told us that as a young man he used to steal cars. He was so poor, he’d break in looking for things to eat. His style still resonates with us today as Underworld. What we owe to that period is the love of a machine pulse with a human voice moving across the beat. That’s remained in our blood.