published: 24 /
Dave Goodwin speaks to UK/French electronic duo Scenius about their 80's-influenced debut album, 'Enough Fears'.
Scenius, the duo composed of UK producer Steve Whitfield (The Cure, The Mission, Yann Tiersen…) and French singer Fabrice Nau, are portrayers of the art of making electronic dark-pop out of vintage synths and rhythm machines, blending the spirit and sounds of early electronic outfits such as Kraftwerk, Eno, Depeche Mode and OMD with a clearly modern and as it turns out unique approach.
Having just released their first full length offering ‘Enough Fears’. they are reported to be instigating taking the Scenius sound out and about into the live environment when these strange times come to an end, so we here at Pennyblackmusic decided to get in on the act and throw a few questions at them. We tip-toed iur way through the plethora of analog synths and drum machines to and spoke to both Steve Whitfield and Fabrice Nau about Scenius,
PB: What did you do to get ‘Enough Fears’ sounding as 1980s as it actually does? What machines and instruments did you use during the recording?
STEVE WHITFIELD: I guess it’s from my old collection of analog synths and drum machines from the late 70’s and early 80’s. We had made a conscious decision to use them as much as possible on the album. So the inherent sound and warmth of those machines comes through. Although it is influenced by the past, we’d definitely say it’s also rooted in the present.
We did use the occasional virtual synth but they were then put through the old synths filters. Some lines were also played by hand to keep the human feel.
But it was all recorded in to a modern computer software called Pro Tools, so I was able to do things that would have been impossible back in the tape days. Our aim was to take those old synths and influences and kick them into 2020 so it was not just a retro fest. So far a lot of reviews have agreed with us, which is very satisfying.
There are influences in there from so many different bands and styles from the likes of The Beatles right through to music that’s happening in 2020 on the album. I’ve never really got into a lot of the mid 80’s synth music. Too many people started to use sampled real drum sounds and a lot of the digital keyboards became very clinical sounding and too hard to program (Yamaha DX7, etc). So a lot of bands started to use the same presets/sounds. The great thing about my old kit is there’s no preset sounds, so every sound you have to create yourself. It’s harder but much more gratifying and you end up with your own sounds.
PB: The sound is so close to the music of that era. Is that the kind of music that you were brought up and raised upon?
SW: I got into post-punk and early electronic bands at the same time, but also Bowie, Eno and early Roxy Music were early influences before that. We both like melody and experimentation.
FABRICE NAU: We definitely share a passion for what happened in music in the late 70’s and early 80’s. But it doesn’t boil down to the electronic bands. It’s more the spirit of that era that influences us, that “let’s do it our own way” approach that was really fresh and exciting and which gave birth to songs that often have some kind of weird, twisted, unexpected aspects to them. I wouldn’t say this spirit is all lost today, but it’s definitely gone very rare in the top places of the charts. And sadly, on the other hand, many bands that are playing post-punk music nowadays are truer to the sound – sometimes to the point where it’s copycat – rather than the spirit.
PB: What contemporary bands are you listening to today?
SW: They’re not exactly new but I love Boards Of Canada and LCD Sound System and I completely respect anyone who’s doing their own thing. I really like John Grant’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and Jane Weaver’s ‘The Silver Globe’ albums but I also listen to a lot of guitar music.
FN: I’ve enjoyed the recent albums of Working Men’s Club and Ela Minus. I also enjoy some of the current psyche scene like Fat White Family, The Psychotic Monks... I live in Angers, France, where we host Levitation, the European sister festival of Austin Psyche-Fest - founded over there in Texas by the Black Angels. It’s a good example of a scene that is often truer to the spirit of their influences than just to the sound.
PB: Would you consider taking the Scenius project on the road when Covid is hopefully behind us?
SW: We’re working on it at the moment. I’d say we’re very close to being ready to go out live. I’ve already bought some new synths to take out live and had a blast out of the system at a rehearsal room to see if will work.
FN: Yes, sure. We’ve already had a first gig offer in France, so that’s definitely something we’re considering.
PB: How did you go about writing ‘Enough Fears’ and matching the lyrical content to the sounds? Which came first, the lyrics or the music?
SW: The music came first and then I’d send it over to Fabrice to see if he liked it.
FN: Yeah, I’m in a very comfortable position – I mean according to my own standards – where all I have to do is to let myself be inspired by the music Steve sends me and come up with a good vocal melody. I do my best to make sure that the ideas I come up with are very compatible with the mix as it is, in the melody itself and in the interpretation and sometimes in some EQ moves or effects. So that it will not require to mess around with Steve’s original production for the vocals to sit in well in the mix.
Once I had got a few good ideas and Steve liked them too, then we adjusted the song structure to fit the length of the vocal lines. Sometimes we’d change the order of some sections as well. It’s only after that I would write the final lyrics. In fact, most of the time there would already be bits of lyrics that came up while creating the vocal lines – in a kind of “automatic writing” so to speak, only it’s just sung not written. I like to think that they were truly inspired by the music, so I tend to preserve them as much as possible and build the rest of the lyrics around them. As an example, in the album’s opening song ‘Make it Shiny’, the whole lyrics bit of “so if you want it shiny, make it shiny” came along as I was searching for vocal lines.
PB: Did you have your own studio to record it or were you using someone else’s?
SW: Yeah, I have a mix studio based around Pro Tools at home. It’s where I do all my mixing for other bands now. It’s also where I’ve recorded four albums (except the drums!) with my guitar band Klammer.
FN: I work on Ableton Live, in which I import Steve’s track. Then I’d record my vocal draft pretty much anywhere, often using just my laptop built-in mike. Then I’d usually record the final vocals simply in a good sounding room, so that there’s no crappy room reflections in my takes. Then I’d do all the vocals edit on headphones at home.
PB: Are you working on a second album and what direction do you see it going in comparison to ‘Enough Fears’?
SW: We’ve already got the bare bones of nine new songs on the go and we’ll get straight into finishing off the writing of them in January. I’d say at the moment it would be a sister album of ‘Enough Fears’, it’ll be a progression but not huge change. After that I guess we’d probably go for a more radical change to the sound.
FN: Both Steve and I can play and record guitars, bass and drums. So technically we’re left with a rather wide range of possible evolution to Scenius’s sound. But the thing in creation is very much less about all you can do than about being purposeful about which elements you pick and stick to. We both love music that was created out of a limited palette of sounds and techniques. So this will probably be our most constant guide for records to come.
PB: Have you ever met and worked with any of the bands/musicians such as Depeche Mode, New Order, John Foxx and Brian Eno that you have obviously gained influence from?
SW: I’m lucky to have engineered The Cure in the studio on their Wish album and I spent six months living and working with them. It may not sound like they’re a big influence on Scenius but they are a big influence on me!
I did briefly meet Bernard from New Order through them, but it was so brief he wouldn’t remember it. Ha, ha!
FN: No, not any of the bands you’ve mentioned. But in fact your question can be reversed: most of the musicians I’ve worked with have had an influence on me, which includes Steve!
PB: Thank you.
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