John Fryer is best known for his work as a producer, having worked on such breakthrough albums as Depeche Mode’s debut, Speak & Spell (1980), and Pretty Hate Machine (1989), the seminal album from the industrial rock band, Nine Inch Nails. He is also one of the two essential members of the goth/dream-pop collective, This Mortal Coil, along with 4AD label co-founder, Ivo Watt-Russell.
Fryer got his start in 1980, as a producer at Blackwing Studios—an old church in South-East London that had been converted into a recording studio by engineer Eric Radcliffe and Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records.
“Because all the indie labels were friends, back in the day. Most of them were friends. They were all music lovers, that’s why they had the labels,” Fryer said. “[Miller] used Blackwing Studio and then he said to Ivo that he could start using the studio. So it was all thanks to Danny Miller, actually.”
According to Fryer, This Mortal Coil originally formed after Watt-Russell asked 4AD recording artists Modern English to re-record a 12-inch composite of the two songs “16 Days” and “Gathering Dust.”
“That’s why This Mortal Coil started,” Fryer told Salute Magazine in a recent one-on-one interview. “Because they didn’t want to do it and he wanted to do it. So, those were the first two songs recorded. ‘Song to the Siren’ [a cover of the 1970 Tim Buckley song] was just recorded as a throwaway B-side to the 12” and then “Song to the Siren” just took over and became the classic it is today.
Salute recently caught up with Fryer to talk about his process, his work over the years, and his latest project, Black Needle Noise, which is available now via Bandcamp.
SALUTE: You’ve worked with a number of artists over the years, such as Depeche Mode, Modern English, Peter Murphy, Nine Inch Nails, White Zombie, Stabbing Westward, Lush, Swans, and Gravity Kills. Which band was your favorite to work with and why?
FRYER: Black Needle Noise is my favorite to work with because it’s my own music and it’s more personal. I’m very proud of all the records that I’ve made, but that’s working on other people’s music. Actually, all the projects I’ve done myself DarkDriveClinic, Muricidae, Silver Ghost Shimmer, and Black Needle Noise are more personal because I’m writing the music.
Who was the most difficult to work with?
FRYER: Trent “goddamn” Reznor was one of the most difficult. He was just a pretentious little girl that was all. He used to jump around and stamp his feet when things didn’t go his way.
Tell me more about Black Needle Noise. How did you come up with the concept to have different tracks featuring different vocalists?
FRYER: It’s not a new concept. We did the same thing with This Mortal Coil, using different singers to vocalize different songs. Massive Attack have done it. It has been around for awhile.
Tell me more about “System Bi,” the latest single from Black Needle Noise. What made you decide to record in another language.
FRYER: Because, basically, there are no real limitations with Black Needle Noise. There is only one kind of rule I have at the moment, and that is each singer will only sing two songs. I want it to be fun for them. I don’t want it to become a burden, because they all have their own careers. They don’t have to do anything once they’ve sung the song. It’s nice if they publicize it, but they really don’t have to do anything. And it would be nice if some more journalists would actually interview the singers, rather than just me.
How was it that you found some of the artists?
FRYER: Some of them I know personally. Some others have been recommended by other people, by other journalists, by other singers. Jarboe [songwriter and former keyboard player of the experimental rock group, Swans] recommended Antic Clay to me. Simon Helm said about Kendra Frost [of the electronic duo Kite Base], because she did a cover version of a Nine Inch Nails song, he said: “you should listen to this, listen to her voice.” And I contacted her and said, “hey would you want to do a song for me?” And she ended up singing two songs.
Who are some artists you’d be interested in working with in the future?
FRYER: Taylor Swift. Maynard [James Keenan] from Tool. It’s just a real cross-section of singers. Hope [Sandoval] from Mazzy Star. People with unique voices. They don’t have to be the best singers in the world. The most in tune singers in the world. It’s that character and uniqueness.
Would you work with someone like Lana Del Rey?
FRYER: She has got an interesting voice. Not your classic pop vocalist. Same thing with Beth [Gibbons] from Portishead. She’s not a classic pop vocalist but she’s got a great voice. If you got an interesting voice, I’d like to work with. Could be anything like Taylor Swift, who has like a country-pop vocal, or Fakeba, who is singing in Wolof [the native language of Senegal]. But I’m going to start using more vocalists from around the world singing in their traditional language. I don’t want people to say you just do this.
Do you feel you rely more on female vocals?
FRYER: Yes. I like female vocalists. It’s like when I first did DarkDriveClinic. I had written the music and then I was looking for vocalists to sing on it. I tried some male vocalists, but it sounded like I was trying too hard with the record. It just didn’t feel right. The music feels more natural with a female on the top.
I have no problem with being gay, transgender. Black, white, yellow. It’s just a voice. They can be old, young… if you got a good voice, you’ve got a good voice.
What are you looking to do with the project and how do you want to develop it?
FRYER: It’s just growing organically. The more I do, it seems to be growing wider and wider, and more people are becoming aware of it. Like yourself, there are more people writing about it, and the more people write about it, the more people will hear it. It’s continually growing. It’s taking its own course. It’s not being forced upon anybody.
Do you find Bandcamp to be the best platform for distributing your music?
FRYER: Yes, I do. I like the way Bandcamp works, whenever money comes in, they take their percentage and it goes straight to you. Whether it’s one dollar, ten dollars, hundred dollars. If people are buying it, then there is a continuous stream of music and money.
I put the music up for “pay what you want” because if people want to pirate it, they’re going to pirate it. The funny thing is that I didn’t realize, you can get an mp3 for free on Bandcamp, or you can go to iTunes and pay for an mp3 because that’s the quality where you’ll get it. I didn’t know. I thought you were getting .flac files, but you’re not. iTunes is not a great platform.
Do you feel that iTunes takes away from the artist?
FRYER: It’s a corporate site. I think Bandcamp is more of an independent site. If they get paid you get paid. With iTunes, it’s every six months, if you manage to make any money or sell anything.
And you have to pay their prices on it. If it’s an album, the cheapest you can put it on is $5.99. But if you want to put it on at your own price you have to negotiate with them. You can’t just say I want to put it on at $3.99, because that they want their cut.
With music going digital, album artwork can get lost. But with Black Needle Noise, each song has its own artwork. Do you do it all yourself? How important is the visual aspect?
FRYER: I do everything myself. Even most of the videos, I’ve done myself. To me, it’s very important. Each picture is chosen carefully to go with each song. It’s not just here’s a random picture. I mean, they’re all random pictures, but to me, they’re random pictures that fit the music in a weird way.
How was it that you transitioned from New Wave music like Depeche Mode and Cocteau Twins to more industrial and even metal music?
FRYER: I’ve never limited myself by working with one style of music. I like working with different styles of music because each person you work with is different. They all bring something different to the table. Metal people kind of work in one way, and ambient people kind of work in a different way, and I like taking one thing from here and one thing from there and putting it together and mixing it all up.
I love the industrial bands, Nine Inch Nails and Stabbing Westward they were more influenced by the This Mortal Coil sound, the more ethereal sound and they wanted to bring a bit of that into their music.
What do you think of the current state of electronic music?
FRYER: Is it in a healthy state? People are still making music. It’s like whatever happens in the world, people are still going to make music. People are still going to make art. Whether they’re millionaires or they’re homeless. It’s like the cavemen that beat on a stone with bones and sticks, they made music. The quality of the music is going to go up or down. It’s always going to be there.
What do you think of the quality of music today? Songwriting? Recording?
FRYER: You’ve always had great songwriters and not so great songwriters. The quality of the recording… you can go back to the late ‘70s, when people made records on cassette. They’re not great quality. The mp3 is not great quality. It’s always been the same, between good and bad. But if it’s a great song it will shine through whether it’s recorded on cassette, or ukelele, or a sixty-piece orchestra. A great song is a great song. You should be able to do it a million different ways and it will still sound great.
FRYER: More of the same. There will be more Black Needle Noise songs. It will be a bit more diverse, vocally or language-wise, not just everything sung in English. I wanted to broaden out. Like the last song was in Wolof. It’s also a different tonality to what you’re used to. That’s what I’m saying with Black Needle Noise, I don’t want any limitations or boundaries to be in the way. If it’s a good sound it’s a good sound. If it’s a good song, it’s a good song.
It’s also about trying to promote everybody at the same time. It’s not just about me. It’s about all the singers, it’s about all the people making the videos. It’s trying to make other people aware of other artists, which is working because when I was DJing at the Cloak & Dagger Festival I had some people come up to me and thank me for introducing them to new music that they didn’t even know existed. That’s the idea. It’s like cross-pollination. Like an octopus reaching out in different areas with its tentacles. You may have never have heard of Jarboe, you may have never have heard of Kendra Frost. And also helping people making videos, so people will look at those.
I’m still producing bands, I’m still mixing bands. If anyone needs anything, they should not hesitate to contact me.
To hear more from John Fryer’s latest project, Black Needle Noise, check them out via Bandcamp and be sure to check out some of the featured artists, including: Tara Busch (I Speak Machine), Jennie Vee (Eagles of Death Metal), Elena Alice Fossi (Spectra Paris, Kirlian Camera), Bill Leeb (Front Line Assembly), Andrea Kerr (Colt), Sivert Høyem, Mimi Page, Attasalina, ZiaLand, Andreas Elvenes, Omniflux, and singer-songwriter/12-string guitarist Tim Scott McConnell, a.k.a. Ledfoot.
WATCH: BLACK NEEDLE NOISE – “SYSTEM BI” FEAT. FAKEBA