We talk to the Death In Vegas founder about the London wasteland where he keeps a studio and his new album with former porn actress Sasha Grey
In the docklands of East London, against the contrasting backdrop of luxury flats and the last remnants of the city’s heavy industry, is Trinity Buoy Wharf. Sitting on the edge of the Thames, with a clear view of both Canary Wharf and the former Millennium Dome, the wharf was once a maintenance depot for the hundreds of boats that would sail the river daily. Later, it would come to house an experimental lighthouse that was used by pioneering physicist Michael Faraday. But by the 1990s it had become derelict, and when the surrounding areas were cleared for redevelopment, the local government conceded the wharf to artists in an attempt to offset some of the damage caused by the capitalist excess surrounding it. It’s here, in a converted shipping container facing the waterfront, that Richard Fearless keeps his studio.
As the founder and sole constant member of Death In Vegas, Fearless was responsible for some of the most distinctive British albums of the late 90s and early 2000s. Across records like The Contino Sessions and Scorpio Rising, he and production partner Tim Holmes laid out a droning, druggy vision of psychedelic music informed by film noir, decayed Americana, Detroit techno, and trip hop, collaborating with musicians like Bobby Gillespie, Iggy Pop, and Liam Gallagher along the way. Things took a left turn with 2004’s Satan’s Circus (released following aborted sessions producing what would’ve been Oasis’ sixth album), an instrumental album that saw Death In Vegas explore krautrock rhythms and minimalistic electronica. After Holmes left the band, Fearless returned with 2011’s Trans-Love Energies, a rapturous dance record made up of chugging rhythms and frazzled arpeggio basslines.
Death In Vegas’ latest full-length is Transmission, a stripped-back, noirish industrial techno album that feels as far removed from their earlier, rockier albums than anything Fearless has put his name to before. Recorded by Fearless in his quayside studio, the album has a raw, gritty quality created by the array of analogue synthesizers, vintage drum machines, and battered reverb units he has lying around. Littered across the record are spoken vocals courtesy of former adult actress Sasha Grey – the two artists bonded over a mutual love of industrial groups like Throbbing Gristle, and Fearless found her Midwestern twang gave the record a distinctively dark quality. “She’s actually from Sacramento,” Fearless says, “She sounds like Sissy Spacek in Badlands.”
Transmission has a solitary feel, borne out of the location it was recorded in. Though the wharf houses a handful of other artists (Daniel Avery occupies the unit adjacent to Fearless’, where he’s currently laying down tracks for his second album), it feels isolated from the usual rush of the city. The surrounding steelyards create a huge din in the daytime but fall silent at night, while the nearby tower blocks feel eerily quiet and disconnected from any real sense of community.
Fearless spends most of his time in isolation when he’s making music, and the area – and its strange history – has rubbed off on him. During a tour of the wharf he points to a barge belonging to an ex-bank robber, and recalls how, when draining a nearby pond to make way for a bird sanctuary, workers found a sunken Rolls Royce with a skeleton handcuffed to the car door. He points to the soulless new developments beyond the little-used Emirates Air Line cable car. “It’s horrid, but I love it,” he grins. “I want it to go as mad as possible.”
What were your initial ideas for Transmission?
Richard Fearless: I wanted to do something that was more reflective of me as a DJ. I was DJing before I even did Death In Vegas, but it was always very much an ‘other’ project – I’d never play Death In Vegas records out when I was DJing. I’d actually made an album as Richard Fearless that was gonna come out on (my record label) Drone, (but) my studio got broken into, and they stole the would-be album and all the music. That was nine months ago.
I lost my mind, went totally darkside for about three weeks, went to America with my wife, and while I was in Los Angeles I had this epiphany: ‘This is amazing, this is a great thing. I’m gonna remake it, and I’m gonna do it as Death In Vegas. That’s what I should be doing right now.’ I’d also known that I wanted to work with someone who was more performance-based rather than a singer. I’ve worked with amazing singers before, so I needed someone who I could work on the performance with, who wouldn’t just be, like... Liam sings like Liam, you know what I mean?
How did you first become aware of Sasha?
Richard Fearless: I remember reading an interview with her. She got asked this question about her role as an adult performer – it was quite a harsh question. Her answer was really empowering. It made me take interest in her as a person. In the same interview, I think she mentioned (she was a fan of) Throbbing Gristle. And I saw that she was following my band on Twitter. I wanted a whispered vocal (on the album), so what started with that turned into her coming onboard as a singer. She’s actually coming over next week to do more material.
A lot of your older albums used singers who were famous in their own right. Did you ever find it hard to strike that balance of using their personality while keeping Death In Vegas’ identity?
Richard Fearless: Most of those collaborations were probably done for that reason – because they would bring that to the table. But I just decided I didn’t want to (do that anymore). Sasha was writing poetry. I knew that to get a strong performance out of her, she had to really believe what she was singing – they had to be her words. It was a really nice process of working.
She’s obviously played in industrial bands too, so there’s a natural fit there musically.
Richard Fearless: She’s done everything – the Steven Soderbergh film, she’s been a Supreme model.
Why did you choose to work with just one vocal collaborator for the album?
Richard Fearless: With the last album, I got into this whole thing about Trans-Love Energies, this commune set up in Ann Arbor. I was trying to send out positive energies with that album and as a person. With Transmission, there’s a big feeling of isolation. Working in a place like this, there’s so much noise; the steel factories, drones, and general sounds of scraping just go on all day. At night, with the cable car and the Dome, it’s this sort of Ballardian landscape. But then you’re in tune with the outside world through the internet, and Sasha to me really sums that up. Two and a half million kids follow her on Facebook. She sums up the modern world. And then to know she liked Throbbing Gristle on top of that? It just made sense.
Was it just this environment that fed into that feeling of isolation, or something else?
Richard Fearless: It’s not just this environment, it’s working on your own. I’ve never worked for anyone in my life. I’ve never been in an office. Working on your own, it’s like being in an open prison a lot of the time – but with a really good view. (The album is) very industrial. It suits the darkness; I work through the night a lot.
Are you tired of the rock band setup?
Richard Fearless: Totally. To me, the idea of just taking Death In Vegas out and doing loads of old songs that you didn’t even like in the first place anyway… I’d rather shoot myself in the foot. This is me trying to push myself and make it creatively exciting. You can’t think about losing fans, you just have to think about your own mentality and making it true to yourself.
Does the idea of booking out x amount of weeks in the studio to make a record have any appeal anymore? Was that part of your reason to remain independent?
Richard Fearless: I just don’t have any of that. I got signed after my first single for a five-album deal when I was at art college. That wasn’t the plan. I wanted to be an artist. How can people even be in bands in London anymore? It’s such a problem. I’ve been lucky; I’ve always done art, if I couldn’t do anything else I wouldn’t know what to do. What do people do?
Having cut out middle managers, record labels, and all these other voices, do you ever find it difficult knowing that almost all of the decisions rest on you?
Richard Fearless: I have a manager. We speak about every six months and he lives in a castle. Well, he has turrets on his house. He lives in France. When there’s times I’ve needed help, I can call on him, but really it’s just myself. I’m managing and running and doing it all.
After all the big name collaborations of Scorpio Rising, you released an instrumental album. Did you want to put the brakes on it?
Richard Fearless: I put the brakes on it. I also put the brakes on my career. My record company were like, ‘uh-uh’. It was, weirdly, the same week I stopped working with Oasis, so I was like ‘Fuck this, I’m getting out of here. I’m going to America.’
Was there a risk of Death In Vegas running away from you?
Richard Fearless: It made me realise there was. I put the brakes on and ditched the car, mid-tour. But I wanted to change – it’s why I’m doing it how I’m doing it now. It’s back to being an artist. You have to keep driving yourself.