Punish Your Machine: Front 242’s Mental Electronics

The Belgian masters of EBM on militaristic imagery, resisting narratives and more

Belgian industrial group Front 242 were at the crest of the Electronic Body Music wave, carrying the baton from groups like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, combining their post-punk aesthetic with strong backbeats, slices, samples and ominous vocals. Their raw sound was married with militaristic imagery, chopped-up scenes from television, and even evangelical leanings. Finding their stride with their “Headhunter” single and Front By Front album, it proved the perfect foil for Anton Corbijn and his eye for the surreal, and took the group around the world. Subsequently, the band and their sound developed through the ’90s, and their album Tyranny (For You) ushered in an era of dense, multi-layered sounds. Without Front 242, the tones of techno that we know today would certainly sound much different.

In this excerpt from a Fireside Chat with Hanna Bächer on Red Bull Radio, Front 242 co-founder Patrick Codenys discussed the band’s early adoption of militaristic imagery, the importance of cinema to Front 242’s concept, mistakes made in courting the mainstream and why he thinks the synthesizer is an “orphan instrument.”

Front 242 BunkerMedia / Wandeclayt

You’ve said that electronic music is more “mental” than rock music. Did you always feel like that when you were starting out in the late ’70s?

When you play electronic music, especially when you start in the ’80s, you have to read manuals, you have to organize your work and you don’t have a tool in your hands like a guitar or a drummer. So, it is very mental because you have to construct the music you want to do. You have to be synchronized with the machine in certain ways to know exactly what you want to do.

It’s also changed through time. In the case of Front 242, we had different technologies for each album. You analyze the aesthetic of what you want to do and you see how technically you can achieve that. You try to create a new aesthetic with this type of technology. Also, what I call the interface between the machine and the man has changed through all those years. If you take the example of photography, people before had only 24 frames, and so they had to organize their mind and the feeling of the space and be able to catch the right picture. They had 24 chances, no more. That forced a human being to deal with its emotions, with its intellect and experience. Whereas today the machine is doing that for you most of the time.

Especially in the beginning of electronic music, people were very mental, because it’s not like with a real musician where you master your instrument and you make one with your instrument. It’s always a fight.

You had to force things and fight with your machine.

Nowadays, the way synthesizers have developed they have become more intuitive. They have become more reactive, in a way. It’s more trial–and–error, seeing what sounds they make and going with that. But back in the days it was a lot more “thinking as composition,” where you would sit down, compose and then only later hear what comes out.

At the time, especially in the early ’80s, musicians were linked with engineers, like Moog, Oberheim, all those guys. The engineers were constructing an instrument, building an instrument, but didn’t know really how it would work, how it would be used. Therefore, some electronic musicians started to work on it and give direction to the engineers, who would then change certain parts of it. There was really a collaboration between the two.

Today, it’s more the software designers who are making what you will find in a machine. Of course, there’s a huge business that is involved. Therefore, a lot of those machines are made to please you in a way. So there’s little research involved. At the time, you were very frustrated of course, but there was a lot of research and you would go a lot of different directions.

The new machines – not all of them – but we come back to that idea of the interface, because today the people don’t have the reflexes of questioning themselves and what they want. They’re very often taken by the machine who brings them somewhere. Whereas in the ’80s – I don’t say it’s better – but at the time you really needed to think, “What do I want to do and how am I going to do this?” You had to force things and fight with your machine. That’s why we have a song called “Punish Your Machine,” which is related to that. But it’s true that today it’s more user–friendly.

Front 242 - Punish Your Machine

What influenced you? Were there any important musicians or important visual artists around in Belgium in the 1960s and ’70s, your teenage years?

Actually, there are different reasons why we started [making] electronic music with Front 242. One of the first reasons is that you’re totally isolated [in Belgium]. You’re not English, you’re not American. You don’t have the big industry behind you. You don’t have the promo, the press, the whole stuff. You’re on your own. On top of which, there’s no musician market. If you live in London and you need a drummer to start a band, you have 20 people ringing at your door if you put an announcement in the paper. In Belgium... No drummer? OK, I’ll take a rhythm box. No bass player? OK, I’ll take one synth to do the bassline.

The third reason is that I think a lot of people didn’t want to go into that Anglo–Saxon music. For me, the synthesizer was an orphan instrument with no mother, no father. A guitar existed since the ’50s. All those instruments had a history already. Here I have a black box that’s an orphan, and I want to do music that is closer to who I am. So this is a great opportunity to start something at the time. I think that’s how we started: just trial and error, nothing else.

You have to understand also that people doing electronic music had a strong... They were not trusting the record labels, because record labels meant business and all that stuff. Also, record labels didn’t understand electronic music. In the ’90s, English labels understood how they could make money with electronic music. I mean, Prodigy, Underworld, Chemical Brothers, whatsoever that was on the market. Really good music. They could make money with it. But in the ’80s you had all those bands that were doing those strange things that nobody understood or knew. Some audience was coming, and so it was very clumsy. But that’s the charm of it also.

Another thing that was also important is, when you start with a synthesizer as a black box and you try to do either a concept or something that is close to you, the influences we had were not rock & roll nor jazz nor blues, because that’s for the English people. So for me, for instance, the way to structure the song with the synthesizer... A synthesizer is actually architecture. I was personally influenced by postmodern architecture of the time, which has nothing to do with music. It’s just another field. In order to have more lyric or metaphoric elements in the music, we would choose cinema, where all the sounds were allowed on the soundtrack. A door slamming, a car, the music, everything together... the dialogue. The world of sound was brighter in the cinema.

For Front 242, I think that cinema and architecture had more importance than blues or jazz. You try to create that new aesthetic, you try to create something of your own, so you collect information from other disciplines.

In a way that’s what makes sound for cinema or music for film different from other music, is that there’s a broader dynamic range of different emotions in cinema. If you would just make music as a musician, it’s a limited range that you’re covering.

Definitely. I’m also a sound teacher in school, so I’m going to explain something to you. In cinema, actually, it goes from the senses. Everything starts with the senses – with the eyes, the ears, the touching and all that stuff. When you use your eyes, you use a cone of 30 degrees. It’s kind of a focus. When I want to look to that light, I’m going to start with 30 degrees and [moves his head from left to right] create a sequence, a timeline from A to B. That’s why, for instance, vision is very narrative, because you create a story, and cinema is linked also with literature most of the time and is also very often narrative.

Sound is 360 degrees. It’s three–dimensional. It’s behind you, it’s even vibrating with the sub–bass and stuff, so it is a very different sense than vision. And it’s global – it’s very global – as material that you touch. I think that one of the powers of electronic music is to be able to explore all those fields of the sound – of the fridge we just heard, the people outside – and put it in sequence in music and be much less narrative. Whereas if you listen to Anglo–Saxon music, most of the time sounds are in an arrangement for a message, for a lyric, for a song.

I’m not bashing on English music, because I was very influenced, for instance, by industrial music like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire. Even Joy Division is not to me like a real, typical rock band. At the time, the fact that you could do music with noise was something new and it had no narrative element, really. It had a concept.

There’s not one musician in Front 242. Nobody can play an instrument. We just can make collage.

[Front 242 vocalist] Jean–Luc De Meyer isn’t here, but with this in mind, if he didn’t want to make narrative lyrics, how would he approach them?

Jean–Luc creates his lyrics mostly on association of words. It’s funny because in a lot of situations we don’t work like a real band, where everybody has to do his little shit and says “I want to hear myself”... A guy does a certain part of the job, and then another one and then another one. Then when we got into the studio, there’s generally one or two people who are dealing with the results. Everybody works for a result.

When Jean–Luc was coming with lyrics, it happened very often that we would erase a whole sentence, because also we would consider the voice as being just another instrument. This makes you have a different approach. Like in a movie, sometimes you don’t hear everything. It’s more hectic. The point is not to have the message being absolutely there. For some songs, it is. But we would cut some sentences and he would rebuild with the gaps. That’s why most of the songs you don’t really know what they mean, what they’re talking about, but he’s a writer. I’m not going to say [Jean–Luc’s] work is not valuable – it is – but it’s been sabotaged by the man sometimes... At the time, this is a really revolutionary way of working. Working more with collage and really having a pure musical composition, because to tell you the truth, there’s not one musician in Front 242. There’s not one musician. Nobody can play an instrument. We just can make collage.

You always had this very strong visual identity. In the beginning, who was responsible for the visual identity, and did developing a visual identity come before doing music or at the same time?

We started to use visuals because we realized that our music was not enough. It was really art in ’81. We had some crowds coming to the gigs, but we were not recognized by any press or journalists. We needed to go there. In order to do that, you have to be extreme and you have to have strong imagery. There’s two guys who are our graphic designers in the band. Richard [Jonckheere] was also into industrial music, so there’s also that idea that you need a concept or that you need a very rough and very extreme presentation if you want to force the markets. So, we started to go into all those designs from Bauhaus to Constructivism, which we liked. Like, Russian Constructivism. Italian Futurism also was interesting.

Onstage, we realized that having military clothing was very convenient because people could buy it very cheap and identify it to the band that way. At the same time it was scary for the music establishment. The real journalists thought, “This is aggressive.” For us, it was the only way to force things.

Front 242 - Headhunter

For the song “Headhunter,” were you commissioning Anton Corbijn to do the visual? How did that video come together?

At the time it was a big MTV story. Everybody needed a video clip. I think we just toured with Depeche Mode, so there was a sort of idea that the band could progress in a way. But if we wanted to progress, we needed to have video support.

We wanted to do it first with Lars von Trier, who is a Danish director who we liked for his first films, like The Element of Crime and stuff like that. Great movies. But he was very expensive. It was not easy to get. Also, we were very excited by the pictures of Anton Corbijn on Joy Division. The guy really had a story. He came from some underground field and he did a few things for Depeche Mode also. We really liked his way of doing things. So the record label and us worked out together a way to pay him, because at the time those video clips were not inexpensive. It wasn’t cheap at all. Finally, the guy accepted to do it and I think he did a good job, because that video got some turns on and on, on MTV.

I’m going to ask you about a few side projects. Some that you were yourself involved in, and some that you weren’t. First: You were not in Revolting Cocks, right?

No. I worked on the first album, but I was not on it as a band member. Revolting Cocks is a band project that started as a side project of Front 242, but also of Ministry, because Al Jourgensen was involved, Richard [Jonckheere] was involved and Luc Van Acker was involved, the three of them. They just got that Fairlight machine, which is a huge, expensive machine, and they didn’t know how to use it. They could only do very short loops. The music was made based on what they could do with that super expensive machine. That’s why it’s very repetitive.

Revolting Cocks - We Shall Cleanse The World

But it was very spontaneous. There’s a great movie that’s going to come out about the history of Wax Trax! and they explained how they were in the studio. They were really like kids in the studio trying to make things work, but it’s a very interesting project because it uses a lot of samples, and that’s a time where sampling was coming in. But it uses a lot of samples to compose from beginning to end. It was a one–shot project, somehow. Later on they did more records, and somewhere down the road they had different band members. I don’t know if you know, but the Revolting Cocks are back on the road. They’re back with Luc Van Acker and Richard, the initial band members, and they play Big Sexy Land, which is that famous album that started it all.

That kind of humor – to call a band Revolting Cocks and you being this band of young guys – to me it sounds like you must have been into stuff like Coil? I think it’s a kind of humor that they have, but also it reminds me of punk rock.

Yeah. I think you cannot be always 100% serious. Even with Front 242, we were talking about the video clip, “Headhunter,” it’s very humorous. In fact, the people in the band are doing jokes all the time. You’re just serious onstage and in what you do. I think the Revolting Cocks is the same type of spirit. It has that punk feeling, like a “What the fuck? I don’t give a shit. I just go for it.” I think it’s something that you have to keep. Although, you’re always called back by that idea of, “I have to master my technology.” It’s always a back-and-forth feeling of being very disciplined, otherwise the show’s not going to happen. At the same time, to find the time to let go and be somebody else.

In the late ’80s, a thing that happened specifically in Belgium is New Beat, and there’s this documentary The Sound of Belgium where they trace it back to a few guys traveling to Detroit and finding all these records. Was that your scene at that time, or were you already too removed traveling the world?

No. The Sound of Belgium is explaining the story of Belgian music, but in clubs. So it’s the club side. At the time, there were not too many records, and there’s a sort of legend that says that New Beat started with vinyls. It’s not a legend, actually, because it was played in the club. It’s Front 242 records and Nitzer Ebb records that were slowed down to 100 BPM, and you had that feeling of a change of beat and tempo that would give the whole feeling of New Beat.

Initially, we were flattered and it was fun... It’s dance music, but it’s tough. We like the tough part, but since there’s a part of us that likes research and tries to do other things, for us it was sometimes too simple, like all dance music. I kind of blame them more than techno or anything else. We were related for the fun part and the fact that when you listen to a track like Front 242’s “Commando Mix,” it’s got a beat. But it’s also very tough. That’s why it had some success in Spain, too, because it’s dance music but it’s very strong and very hard. New Beat had that part, but it was not really our scene.

Front 242 - Commando Mix

I want to talk about Fuck Up Evil, or Up Evil, and Off, because at that point you started to bring in a lot of other people. Why was that? Did the band need new blood?

Up Evil and Off were two records that were linked with the American period. We were just signed with Sony, which we all regret, I must say. But Sony is a big machine and you have a lot of possibilities. At the same time, the music that we did was still Front 242, but because of the American market, I believe, there was more distortion, maybe more guitars and stuff like that. It was very conflicted within the band, because personally I’m more into pure electro, not too associated with some rock stereotypes.

We were also at a time where, because of that conflict, we needed a sort of mediator, especially for the production. The record label started to look into producers and had Andy Wallace, who did Nirvana and stuff like that. For the mastering, we went to Portland. I don’t remember if the guy was the guy who did Metallica. If you see the references, that has nothing to do with us, but those people were very competent. They were very good producers, and so it was a very different atmosphere. We were leaving that sort of self–production feeling where we would do everything from A to Z and we would accept some support from outside.

For me, it was a mistake, but at the end of the day, it’s two different albums, so who cares? Off especially is still quite a good album to me.

By Hanna Bächer on July 21, 2017

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