Alien Skin

Darkroom Magazine Interview 2013

Interview with Alien Skin for Darkroom Magazine
Published 26 July 2013
All questions by Roberto Alessandro Filippozzi.

1. Let’s get immediately into your new album, starting with its title “The Secret Garden”, which in your lyrics seems to be like a safe place that is inside your heart, mind & soul, and you look for it when you need to leave the world outside: what’s the concept behind it?

'The Secret Garden' is a song I wrote way back in 1985 and although I've always considered it a strong track I've never quite had the vehicle for it and hence it's remained in my archives for nearly three decades. A year ago I resurrected it and recreated it for new release. The lyrics therefore are from that particular period in my life, like a page from a diary entry. As such they are intriguing to me personally as they document my feelings and state of mind from that bygone era. Having said that, the sentiment of the song is still relevant to me today. I guess the lyrical mood and atmosphere of many of my songs can be said to stem from the general theme of The Secret Garden. I don't particularly feel inclined to discuss lyrics in detail as I prefer people to generate their own ideas, but I believe the emotion and mental state expressed in the song is one that is easily and readily understood.

2. Aside from this concept, what do the lyrics talk about and what kind of things inspire the words you sing in your songs?

I don't mind admitting that many of my songs are inspired by melancholia and the less than fortunate personal and social relations I have experienced or have seen others experience. I know that often it is expected of one to always show the optimistic and happier side of one's personality, and cheer on that everything will be 'alright' etc. This may or may not be true but I'd be deceiving myself if I wrote anything less than the truth as I feel it. Consequently, I have a number of songs dealing with issues such as personal loss: After the Funeral, For Always & Music Box Doll to name three; songs about war: Brigitte, On A Fine Day, Emily; others about depression & alienation: This Isolation, Gloomy Sunday, End of the Season etc, etc. I am not necessarily a gloomy, unsmiling person but that is the part of my persona that I draw most from to write music. Music is my favourite expressive language and these particular moods, atmospheres and emotions that I use to create it are the ones that inspire me the most and are the most fluent to work with.

3. Musically speaking, your style is immediately recognizable between a million other bands, but in my humble opinion it is too restrictive to label it simply as ‘synthpop’, since I believe it’s much more: what’s your point of view?

To be honest I have a difficult time finding a pigeon hole for what I do as Alien Skin. I really don't know in what particular genre & sub-genre to classify my music and this makes it hard for me to market it. The term 'synthpop' always had a derogatory connotation in Australia, akin to something lightweight and insignificant, like fluff so I've never been attracted to it but I understand it's a tag that other people elsewhere identify with. Consequently I can't really add much more to it than that, I need other people to best define it for me. So there's a challenge for readers....I seek your opinion:)

I appreciate your recognition of what I do Roberto, I don't set out to be 'different' it's an organic development after many decades of been exposed to music and producing it. I also unfortunately find a lot of new music within the 'synthpop' genre to be generic and uninspiring. To my ears, much of it labours to emulate a certain early 80s period and the bands that populated the genre in those days. This leads to music producers who are indistinguishable from each other. One thing I look for in music is the personality of the artist. If I listen to a dozen or a hundred songs of a genre and I am unsure and confused as to whether I am actually listening to different artists, then it's disappointing. I believe people can be a lot more creative and interesting if they abandoned the idea of producing what they think others 'want to hear' within the genre and be bold enough to have confidence in their own innate creative drives.

4. While most synthpop bands are looking for a hit-single that easily gets into the minds at first listening, you seem to be more interested in fully expressing the intimate passion that runs through your words and melodies, and still your songs have the potential to become hit-singles as well: what’s your philosophy about composition then?

In the 80s, during the period when I had aspirations of major public success and all things grand, I had similar ambitions to your synthpop band scenario, but for me this era is over. At the age of 54 I can no longer compete with a younger breed of people on the same playing field. I have a realistic understanding of where my music will take me and I know it's nowhere near the heights many of these people believe they can achieve with more exposure. Essentially, I write and produce music that I feel I want to do and can do best. It is also reasonable to expect younger people to be more energetic and therefore this manifests in the music they produce, as did I once upon a time. As Alien Skin I prefer to write songs that do not have the burden of appealing to a mass audience immediately but appeal to me and hopefully to a smaller demographic who wish to take time to listen to what I do. And flowing on from this, the music therefore, I hope, stays in their consciousness much longer. Finally, the 'song' to me is paramount; everything else is a beautiful bonus. In the electronic genre I learnt this from the song writing of Martin Gore in the wee early days of Depeche Mode's career.
5. On your website your music is described with 3 words: beautiful, haunting and cinematic. I surely agree on these 3 terms, but if I should choose another word to describe your music, I would say ‘nocturnal’: what’s your opinion, and how much the nighttime influences your own music?

The combination of grey wintry atmosphere, a gothic, romantic sensuality & isolated  abandoned cemeteries combined with a nocturnal environment is a good way to imagine much of Alien Skin music, in my view. The songs, I agree, sit much better in night time ambience rather than on bright sunny summer days by the seaside. Not that there's anything bad  about the later....but I leave that to other artists to explore:)

6. Vocally speaking, your voice has often been compared to Martin Gore or David Sylvian’s voices: aside from the honour that such comparisons brings, how do you feel about such comments?

Martin Gore has been a major inspiration to me since the early 80s, firstly his song writing then his voice. Overtime I have subconsciously adapted his manner in the way I sing as it suits my voice. Prior to this influence, the way I used my voice to sing was simply not convincing as I was using more of a rock approach which didn't suit me. David Sylvian is also someone I admire, in Japan and later his solo work, which I love dearly. As I don't consider myself a singer per se but a song writer 'forced' to sing his own songs in order to have them publicly presented, it is a great honour for me, of course, if people cite these comparisons.

7. Your style is pretty much consolidated over the years, so I personally don’t expect drastic changes in the future, which is alright since Alien Skin sounds so good. If you should choose a song from the last album to represent your own sound at best, what song it would be and why? I’d personally choose “Crushing Flowers”…

I'd probably agree with you that Crushing Flowers is definitive Alien Skin, up to now anyway. It has most of the elements that many of my songs from my previous three CD albums have consisted of. The Secret Garden album though has deviated some degrees from the totality of what the other albums musically represent. The somberness and dark atmosphere is still there but I have purposely allowed a bit more light through the window shutters this time.

8. Once again you worked with A Different Drum for releasing the new album, and I know that label only releases 300 copies for each album now, only for subscribers… What do you think about this commercial solution? Is it suitable for Alien Skin too in these troubled times for the music market?

A Different Drum label offered to help with the CD release of 'The Secret Garden'. They have a subscription system where fans commit to a monthly subscription fee in return for receiving a monthly CD in the synthpop genre. Each subscriber receives the same title from the label's fluent stable of acts. The fees help cover the cost of CD manufacture and do go some way in assisting the artist. I don't think it is a permanent solution as the numbers we are talking about are small. I appreciate the enthusiasts but as the word implies, enthusiasts are by nature a minor demographic. But nonetheless the subscription system has indeed helped me.

CD sales are difficult for so many related reasons but I shall nonetheless always release my albums in this format, I guess I feel there's more legitimacy releasing a CD than simply a download. The act of physically organising & producing a CD together with designing full artwork for paper printing and all the logistics involved including distribution through real shops etc, makes it more 'real' for me.

It is so much easier to just record a bunch of songs at home, call them an album and just upload them to iTunes, Bandcamp or where ever but the reality of a physical format also tempers the over excited desire to constantly release on the spur of the moment everything one creates. Luckily, there still are a number of fans who will ONLY buy a CD and I bless them for that:)

9. By the way, how do you see the future of alternative music? I personally got convinced that the future of the REAL alternative music (not only the dark stuff) is darker than hell… I mean, the commercial bullshits are now SO invasive, you are forced to listen to these ‘songs’ wherever you are: at work, at gasoline station, at supermarket, at the doctor, in any shop, at gym, at the bar… I wonder how the next generations will ever get in touch with something DIFFERENT… what’s your opinion?

A good issue Roberto and a very complex one at that so I apologise if I need to go into a wordy answer here. I was born in 1959 and have seen contemporary music grow and develop almost from its inception. By contemporary I imply being of the era where music was no longer the exclusive domain of musically seasoned adults but became dominated by a younger generation, in the mid to late 50s. The post second world war era  saw a seismic cultural shift favouring youth against the previously predominant adult generation. Without wishing to go into too much historical detail, a new form of music together with young innovative musicians began to blossom and this produced an explosion of exciting new ideas. Nascent rock and roll record labels themselves grew from this  primitive beginning to becoming essential in providing the commercial bedrock for all that unfolded.

We saw the growth and maturing of brilliant new artists, songwriters, people who have become cultural icons over the decades. Everything I know about music and song writing comes from these people including The Beatles, David Bowie, Brian Wilson & later Kraftwerk and early Depeche Mode amongst many more. They essentially, and to a certain degree, 'made it up' as they went along during those early years; such was the furtive new ground they explored, especially in the experimental 60s. But like all historical periods, I believe this golden, exciting and inventive era is now over. The industry itself is no longer the model I once knew. Digital technology (in itself a positive development) has helped change forever the methods of music distribution and consumption, sales & also the possession of people's work illegally. The value of music is no longer what it once was both as a commodity & also in its cultural, social and personal significance. Music in the modern age is now only one of many commercial commodities available in competition,  online, with buying apps, games, software, videos and just general shopping. It has become far more generic and insipid than at any time since the 50s, in my opinion. Music no longer holds the same position culturally as it once did when it was a social force galvanising, inspiring and exciting people.

Since the 80s large international corporations, across the board, have dominated social and economic life and recording companies are cut from the same cloth. Where once artists were nurtured by their respective labels, allowing time and even albums to mature and produce their best work, now days music is less art and has become pure commercial fodder where musicians are not viewed or treated as artists but disposable product makers. Goal being an immediate return on investment or else no more major company support, and these companies are taking less and less risks in the market place. We have, more than ever before, an army of music drones that occupy the consciousness of much of the younger generation, in particular the audience which prefers to accept everything that's presented to them without challenge. It occurred before, yes, but never to the extent that it has over the past couple of decades.

To cut a longer story short, in my opinion, what I grew up with and what many acknowledged as a 'better time' has come to an end and it can never be resurrected. Major record companies today, shape and reward the least interesting of people, and those that make the music work in an environment where the quality bar has been lowered so much I personally can't recognize the music world I grew up in. Certainly there will always be exceptions but I'm speaking of the general current trend.

Alternative music breathes the same air as the major players and cannot, I believe, in and of itself change the world in which it and we exist.

I have no direct answer, unlike movies there is not always a favourable resolution. I think we have seen the best of times and now they have come to an end. The idea of musicians making a decent & long term living from the sale of their recorded work is over, as well, unless the artists is a household name. Even for the bigger brand name artists, money is to be found mostly in doing massive global concert tours which most of us are never going to achieve; and endorsing consumer products like perfumes:)

How will the next generations keep in touch, I don't know. Again, the bar, I believe, has been set so low that the saying “I've been down so long it looks like up to me” may ring anything that will be on a level slightly above the drudgery & generic monotony of what music may become (if not already there) will appeal to them as something new an exciting. Pessimistic perhaps, but I'd love to live long enough to be proven wrong. At this time and with the trajectory, not only music but social & economic relations and western culture in general, that's how I perceive it.

10. Back to Alien Skin, what are your future plans? Are you also a live act or only a studio-project? Any other artistic project you are involved in that we should know about?

I have done a lot of live work, not only with Real Life but with other bands I have been in since the 70s. I did my final show with Real Life in 2005 and at this point have no plans to return to the stage. As much as I would love to tour Alien Skin, the economics of the venture will not allow it. Considering most of my fans are in another hemisphere the logistics and pure expense of organizing a live show to tour are staggering. I don't have the drawing power needed to pull in large audiences. Perhaps if I was 30 years younger and a lot more naïve I'd attempt it:)

One of the key reasons I gave up live concerts in 2005 is my hearing damage after many years of loud stage work. As I fear losing my hearing altogether I stay away from loud decibels as much as possible.

As for other projects, well I'm always working on new music. I'm currently working on a follow up album to The Secret Garden and hope to release it early 2014. There are also a couple of collaborations with international artists in the brew as well, though I don't wish to announce them as there is no definite time line at present. Finally, I don't do many remixes any more but I recently completed The Pinned Man for a Roughhausen best of album called The Medicated Generation. Roughhausen is the main project of ex Frontline Assembly guitarist, Jeff Stoddard. It's not usually the music genre I work in but it was a lot of fun to do.

11. Looking back at your entire career as Alien Skin, I believe the most incredible song you ever made was your amazing version of the traditional 'The Unquiet Grave', a song that is normally reprised by neofolk and/or acoustic bands: how did you come up with such a particular idea to make your own version of such a special song?

I was watching the 1960 British movie 'The Innocents' on DVD. It's a memorable ghost story filmed in black and white with Deborah Kerr; I've seen it a number of times over the years as I love the atmosphere so much. The theme tune, sung by a young girl at the beginning, is so haunting it mesmerised me and I tried to research it online. At the same time my wife, Iryna, remembered an old folk song she loved as a child The Unquiet Grave, it reminded her of the eeriness of the film's theme tune I liked so much. I had not heard it before so we found versions of it on Youtube. After one listen of this 14th century folk song I had the immediate desire to create an Alien Skin all flowed from the haunting atmosphere that stuck in my consciousness after watching 'The Innocents' the night before. Thank you for the kind words by the way:)

12. We all know you have been a member of Real Life, a band that has been very successful in the 80s… Is the band still alive, and are you still involved in? Thinking about the years spent with Real Life, what are your best and worse memories of such a musical journey?

Real Life as a band ended November 2005. Up until 2000 it was a 4 piece band as in the 80s but by its end it consisted of myself and David Sterry, singer-guitarist, with the addition of a session live drummer for stage work. After I left the band David continued performing in 80s review shows (as Real Life) with other musicians, but for all intents and purposes the band as a recording outfit is over.

My favourite memories will always be the concert tours, especially in the US where we performed to so many supportive and enthusiastic people. A large outdoor show with OMD & Claudia Brucken in 2000 was a particular highlight. Of course the song Send Me An Angel never failed to bring the house down, whether in an over excited boisterous club in Chicago or a quaint gothic venue in Bremen, Germany. As for worse, I don't think there was such a thing:) One thing I am  disappointed about is that we broke up just before the era of social media taking form on the internet. I believe we could have reached a lot more people and consequently would have been in a better position to secure on-going world tours if the current power of social media like Facebook, Twitter & Youtube etc were around at the time.

13. Most people out there are seduced by bright lights and smart advertisings, also in the dark/gothic scene, so in the end the bigger labels and their artists dominate on magazines and dedicated medias… Despite you have been in an important band as Real Life you are not getting the same exposure like bands on Trisol or Out Of Line now, but you have much more to offer respect to most bands signed to the top labels: does it hurt you somehow, or you accept it as part of the game?

Thank you again Roberto for your vote of confidence in Alien Skin. I'm a self financed independent artist, I cannot compete on the level of large label acts. That's not a problem, it can't be any other way for me. Real Life had major success at one point in history but success rarely lasts, people and time moves on. I continue to produce music because I love what I do....and as Alien Skin, for the first time in my life, I have been able to write, produce, record and release material that has been created  by me without compromise or interference from anyone else. This freedom is something that satisfies me tremendously. Most of my music producing life since teenage hood has been a compromise, collaborating with others and having my preferences suppressed on occasions; Alien Skin in contrast is solely me. If people love what they hear then I know it is because of what I have created. Conversely if they hate it, well I accept that as well. Regardless of their attitude, it all comes down to me and I find this immensely rewarding.

14.  Thanks for your time, last words are at your disposal…

Roberto, I appreciate your interest in interviewing me, and thank you for your wonderful review of 'The Secret Garden' album. I would like to encourage people to visit my website which also contains a large number of blogs. My site also offers guest list membership to people which entitles them to free Alien Skin singles. Finally, if people consider themselves an Alien Skin fan please spread the word everywhere you can to familiarise others with my work.


Find the published interview, translated into Italian by the interviewer, on the Darkroom Magazine website.