Of all the early praise directed at Ladytron for their new record, Witching Hour, the response that resonated most came in the form of tough love from a longtime friend. Upon hearing the album for the first time, Steve Pross, formerly the manager of the quartet's now-defunct label Emperor Norton, took founder Daniel Hunt aside and said, "You are now the band you were pretending to be five years ago." Others might have interpreted this as a backhanded compliment, but Hunt knew exactly what he was trying to say. "I completely understood it," he says on the line from his Liverpool flat. "I don't think he meant to discredit what we were doing before–but I don't feel like we're aspiring to be something anymore."
Stood beside 2001's debut 604 and 2002's Light & Magic, Witching Hour is a skyscraper. Not only is its production more agitated and alive, but its songs are sleeker, more aerodynamic and better crafted. Rounded out by multi-instrumentalist Reuben Wu and vocalists Mira Aroyo and Helena Marnie, all of whom contribute music by committee, there's a darker, more menacing bent to Ladytron circa 2005; cutesy tick-tock electro about movie theaters and cracked LCDs has given way to hurricane songs about destruction and screams bleeding through the walls.
Ladytron's showing increased confidence in its ability, which Hunt says was nourished by spending the majority of 2003 on the road. "We hadn't really toured properly before we recorded Light & Magic," he says. "When we finished, we'd become such a monster live that it was just night and day from before–it had become something mean and screechy and dynamic. We'd learnt so much and there was so much we wanted to do. We could've toured for another six months at least, but we wanted to crack on with the record."
More Money, More Problems
Starting the record would be a cakewalk; seeing it through would be another thing entirely. After concluding Light & Magic's traveling roadshow with a homecoming gig in Liverpool in September 2003 (their support: a little-known Scottish band called Franz Ferdinand), Ladytron immediately commenced work on demos for Witching Hour. New material flowed readily; within a few months, they'd mapped out the entire record. But by the time they were ready to start recording in April, their ill-fated UK label Telstar had gone into administration. "They put us in the studio but didn't tell us that this was going to happen. They must have known, so it was kind of an odd situation," Hunt laughs. "We were like 'What do we do? Do we carry on recording?' So we just went ahead. They paid for at least part of it, but we had the fallback position of Emperor Norton in the States, so we were like 'Well, fuck it. It doesn't matter.'"
Famous last words. As the summer wore on, it became clear that Emperor Norton was also on the verge of running aground. Island UK had stepped up in Telstar's absence, so there was never a point where the band was homeless, but that summer was a tumultuous one. Despite being all but mixed by June 2004, Witching Hour was still light years away from being released; although Hunt knew that Ladytron was too well established not to land on its feet, he acknowledges that the band could have faced a huge momentum killer.
It's a testament to the durability of Witching Hour that all four bandmates remain excited about the record nearly 15 months after making it. "This sounds narcissistic, but I can still listen to it on my iPod and enjoy it," he says. "I still hear little things I hadn't heard before." With the benefit of hindsight, Hunt also acknowledges that the label antics and the resulting layoff might be a good thing in the long run. For starters, it means they're on solid ground in both North America and Europe for the first time in a while. "Within a couple of weeks of signing to Telstar, we thought we might've made a mistake," he recalls. "We were attracted to the label for all the wrong reasons–they had all these R&B acts on there and we just thought it was hugely amusing, looking completely incongruous on their roster. The main thing is we thought we'd be invited to all their parties and stuff, which probably wasn't the best basis for a healthy business relationship."
With any luck, the extended delay has washed away some of the lazy clichés that have plagued Ladytron since day one. Hunt is eager to finally outrun descriptors like 'aloof' (demeanor), 'asymmetrical' (haircuts), 'electroclash' (meaningless) and, perhaps most inexplicably, 'Kraftwerk' (sounds like). On the matter of that last bugaboo, Hunt simply sighs. "Our first single sounds like 'The Model', but we recorded it six years ago!" he says. "They are one of the greats, but if you told somebody that we sounded like Kraftwerk and they went and downloaded a bunch of our MP3s, they'd think you were full of shit. I mean, obviously we were named after a Roxy Music song, which would've been a more obvious place to look for influences, and Low by David Bowie is probably the closest thing to this record. I think we articulated that here better than ever."
In keeping with past tradition, Reuben and Mira of Ladytron are doing a DJ tour this month, with a proper full-band tour to follow in the new year. Until then, Hunt's sharpening his knives in preparation for record number four. Given the layoff, it's hard to blame him for looking ahead. "[Witching Hour] is the closest thing to definitive that we've done, but I think the next one will be even more so," he promises. "That's another way the layoff has been good–we've got quite a lot of stuff in reserve now."
Analog Graveyard: The Machines That Populate Ladytron's Synthetic Paradise.
While heavily treated guitars continue to make a dent in Ladytron's sound, the band's studio is still ruled by keyboards. While Hunt claims the band owns at least 20 vintage pieces, he also admits to having lost count somewhere around 1998. Here he talks shop about Ladytron's studio gear, live setup and recording philosophies:
"Most of the bassy riffs are a Roland SH2 or a Korg MS20. Reuben especially likes sticking his Korg MS10 through Electro Harmonix boxes and fattening them up. For the poly stuff, we used Farfisa organs and Solina string machines–basically the same stuff we've used all along, but we probably treated it a bit rougher. We also used a load of the producer's toys as well–Reuben's got an ARP 2600, which you can sit around with for a full day trying to get something useful out of and fail, and the next day you switch it on and it'll automatically make something genius.
"I've got this really shit, five-pound, sub-Casio keyboard that I got off this trader; the chords for 'International Dateline' were written on that. It's good to have that kind of gear. The shit toys can end up being quite inspirational.
"Our stage set-up is like Bell Laboratories. It's hugely complicated and it's a nightmare for anybody working with us. We've tried to rein in the amount of old analog gear we take out live with us just for logistics' sake–the stuff was breaking down and we had numerous keyboards just burst into flames. On the record itself, we've got free reign of course.
"Software synths are fine, especially for composition on a laptop. Once those sounds are down, we'll always look at alternatives. But sometimes you just end up using [the originals], especially if they're something basic like a string synth, cause you're not going to get a different sound out of anything else unless you really want a load of AC hum or crackle. [Softsynths] are so much better now than they were when we did the last record. The main thing is that it's not the fact that you're using software or hardware, it's just making something sound different and not using presets.
"Our approach goes back to the whole Eno/Bowie Low thing–the treatments are as important as the synths. We like to confuse synths and guitars quite a lot–there are some things people hear they assume is a guitar that's a synth and vice versa. On the last album, there were guitars all over 'Cease To Exist' and a few of the other songs, but they were treated in a way that people didn't recognize them."