Staff Writer: Sharon Edge
Photo Credit: Simon White (http://www.disturbing.org.uk)
Neon Zoo are currently riding high on the British underground scene. Since the release of their debut album “Heaven-Sin” in April 2005 they’ve played Whitby Gothic Weekend, Finland’s Lumous Gothic Festival and been named by a national magazine as one of the best breakthrough bands in the country. Blending techno beats with sexy bass lines and electric guitars, their dancefloor friendly vibe is scoring plenty of column inches and attracting a loyal army of fans.
Watching Neon Zoo play live, the words passionate, raw, and self-assured spring to mind. So it comes as a surprise to discover that lead singer and founder member, Rick Alexander, is quietly spoken and rather nervous about having a tape recorder shoved in his face. He gives me the low-down on Neon Zoo’s cast and crew.
“Currently we’re a six piece. There’s me, Ashley (guitar), Baz (guitar), Richard (bass), Mike (guitar/synth-drum) and Jonathan (samples and loops). We’ve known each other for years and when I put the band together I decided to include all my friends.” Neon Zoo is largely Rick’s baby though. The project was well underway before the other guys got involved. For about a year Rick had been working on ideas for the band’s first recording, the hard-to-come-by “Slave EP”. It was a chance meeting with Mike Uwins of successful Goth/Pop band Manuskript that lit the touchpaper of success. Putting the “Slave EP” together in his home studio, Rick realised he needed to know more about the technical side of music production if he was ever going to achieve the sound he was after. He signed up for some classes at a local recording studio. Mike was his teacher. Rick played Mike the tracks he was working on, and the Manuskript frontman was hooked. These days you might see Mike playing guitar or electronic drums at a Neon Zoo gig, but his main contribution is as the band’s producer. “Mike comes from a completely different place to me and that’s clear from the way the album’s produced. Mike comes from the 80s, and I come from the 70s. I come from places like Grunge and Industrial and Mike comes from places like Goth and Pop. He’s brought in his influences and I’ve brought in mine.” Mike’s expertise as a producer and Rick’s creative vision met head-on to bring about a sound neither one could have delivered without the other, and the debut album “Heaven-Sin” was born. “If it was left to me, it would probably be a bit more Industrial and guitar driven. If it was left to Mike it would probably have been a lot poppier and 80s sounding. It’s the fact that we’ve both made compromises that makes the album work so well.” I wondered if Rick found any moments on the CD particularly sweet. “I like the fact that there are so many different things in the album. You’ve got the heavy Rammstein-y rockiness of the title track “Heaven-Sin”, then you’ve got a Gothy kind of modern-day Doors with songs like “Fly with Me” and “I am the Sea”, right through to songs like “Unspoken” - which is some days the song that I just have to listen to.” This variety in sound is important to Rick and he sees it as a key factor in the band’s success. “Neon Zoo don’t try to conform to any genre or style. I think there are so many bands out there that want to be the next Coldplay or whoever, or who sound just like somebody else, but we’ve got so many different influences. I like to think that everyone can hear the different ingredients that have gone into our stuff.”
I steel myself to ask the obvious question. What does Neon Zoo mean? It opens the door to whole new arena of influences working on Rick’s sound. “The short answer is that it’s partly to do with a dream I had involving a zoo at night time and partly to do with ancient belief systems about uncaging the animals that you fear. When you release them it empowers you.” There’s never really a short answer with Rick Alexander. Hypnotherapy, psychology, religion … he’s interested in anything and everything and rattles off the names of writers and poets as easily as he does bands and musicians. “Most of the lyrics work on more than one level. I have quite an interest in things to do with psychology and subconscious symbolism. Occultism, magickal studies and witchcraft are all influential, and probably some poetry such as Byron, that kind of thing. I might draw influence from a film or a book – someone like Robert Anton Wilson for example - and, although I won’t write a song specifically about it, a lot of his stuff will stick in my mind and then I’ll use it when I’m recording a song, or writing something.” He resists the suggestion that he’s promoting certain ideas in his songs. “I’m not trying to preach to anybody. I’d like to think that in my lyrics there are things that people can pick up and run with themselves. I do get emails from people that say ‘I really love this lyric’ or ‘I’ve printed these lyrics off and put them on my wall’, stuff like that. That’s probably the best compliment I can have really.”
Like the lyrics, Rick’s music comes steeped in high quality influences. He returns to his love of the sleazy music of 70s bands “like Led Zeppelin and the Doors who wrote really great songs organically” and 80s bands with “a slightly dark side.” There are rock flavours in there too and some grinding tribal tunes that betray his recent conversion to dance music. But for a band so beloved by the UK Goth scene, I haven’t heard him say the g-word very often. “I wouldn’t call us ‘Gothic’ - not in the traditional Sisters of Mercy kind of way. But there’s a lot of debate at the moment about what is Goth, and what isn’t Goth. I think in some ways we are more Gothic than some Goth bands just because of the nature of our influences and what we write about! But our sound, I wouldn’t say that’s Goth in any traditional, or modern, form.” This seems a strange comment from a man who was only recently gracing the stage at the world famous Whitby Gothic Weekend. “There’s a dark feel to some of our music, and the Goth world seems to pick up on that. But at the same time, the dance world is into what we do and so are the indie-kids as well.” So what about the scene itself? “I think there are too many people still holding onto their beliefs of what they think the scene ‘should’ be and that everybody should still sound like Rosetta Stone. There are also too many people who think that it should all be about bleepy, techno, dark dance music. There are different aspects to it these days.”
If he seems tired as he picks his way through my questions, it’s because Neon Zoo have been gigging for weeks and have only just finished their autumn campaign. “We put everything into it. Every chord that’s played, every movement, is actually meant.” The live show is a visual treat as well as a musical one, with each person bringing an extra dimension to the gig, from guitarist Ashley’s flamboyant outfits (which sometimes include angel wings) to bassist Richard’s head-down aggressive groove. “I think a really striking visual performance can make people pay more attention to the songs. But I still think you need really good, solid songs and solid playing, for people to take notice of your visual show.”
Now the gigging is over for a couple of months, Rick is recording some guest vocals for electro/darkwave band Basilica. “Basilica are similar to Neon Zoo, but with a female vocalist. They wanted a male vocalist to guest on their next album “13th station.”” But the Neon Zoo work continues. “Next I’m going to be working on writing some new songs. And while I’m recording with Basilica, a Neon Zoo DVD is being made. It will have some live footage and a couple of videos on it. And also there’ll be a new Neon Zoo single.”
I get the impression that the success of Neon Zoo has caught Rick, and his team, almost by surprise. But he’s a grafter too, and if hard work, dedication and genuine commitment count for anything, we’ll soon be hearing much more from this particular dark star.
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