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The Noise are back in town

Its taken Art of Noise more than three years to record their new album — but thats what happens when you combine rap, electronics and Debussy. They talk to Robin Denselow.

In a recording studio in deepest Notting Hill, theres some decidedly unfrenzied activity. Anne Dudley, the Oscar-winning film-score writer and arranger, is sitting at the piano, playing a few drifting chords. Shes “trying out a few things” for the new concept album by Art of Noise (AON), the quirky experimental band with whom she first notched up hit singles back in the 80s.

Producer Trevor Horn and writer Paul Morley — both veterans of earlier AON adventures — are on hand, and so too is the classical singer Sally Bradshaw, who appears on the new album alongside the rapper Rakim. Its called The Seduction of Claude Debussy and is based around the ideas and life of the great French composer. It is a mixture of classical, electronic and rap styles thats certainly as controversial as anything AON has done in the past — and more sophisticated. The aim, Dudley claims, “is to be anti-dumbing down. Why should one assume that people have no desire for something more challenging and intelligent? Its an insult. Most things arent worth listening to more than once.”

She is obviously so fond of the project that she cant put it down. The band have been working on it — on and off — for the best part of three years, and its supposed to be finished. Ive even got a pre-release CD in my bag. But now, Morley claims, “weve had a really good idea.” The only band member not here is newcomer Lol Crème — the video ace best known for his work with 10cc — who is away in the US. “Hes the only one of us who knows when something is finished,” says Dudley, “so weve snuck back to the studio without him. Hell be devastated.”

Art of Noise always were an odd bunch. They evolved from the studio team used by ex-Buggles and ex-Yes man Trevor Horn back in his early-80s glory days when he was producing studio spectaculars like Frankie Goes to Hollywoods Two Tribes or Malcolm McLarens Duck Rock. Dudley had musical skill, JJ Jaczalic added programming and keyboard technique, Horn was an ace in the studio, and Morley later helped sell the package. His techniques included writing AON “manifestos” influenced by the ideas of the Italian Futurist movement of the 1910s and 1920s, or ensuring that the band were never revealed, using pictures of spanners or hammers in place of their portraits.

And it actually worked. Art of Noises clanking, witty rhythmic mixture of sampled noises, voices and electronics became a club success, and the band produced a hit single for Horns ZTT label with Close to the Edit. Then they split. Dudley and Jaczalic went off to China Records, taking the AON name with them, and notched up more mainstream hits with Duane Eddy (featuring the twanger himself) and a Tom Jones treatment of Princes Kiss.

By 1990 they had packed it in, and Dudley went on to produce, arrange and write on her own. The new Art of Noise team got together because of Debussy. Horn and Dudley had been interested in a project on the composer for some time, and Sally Bradshaw remembers “walking in the Hollywood hills with Trevor and saying, ‘I want to do Debussy”. One of Morleys early manifestos was called Raiding the 20th Century, and he agreed they should “go right back to the beginning of the century”.

With the millennium approaching, it seemed right to revive interest in the man who proved to be such a seminal influence on 20th-century music. “After all,” says Dudley, “he was the first serious composer to take a real interest in jazz.” She begins to enthuse about “those beautiful major 7th chords, moved in a parallel fashion… Thats a jazz way of working that you can hear in Gil Evans or Miles Davis”.

Art of Noise was considered to be the right vehicle for the project “because it can be anything at any time, and no one knows who we are”. There were some legalities involved in wrestling the name back to ZTT, and then the new team set about constructing “not an album of Debussy music but an Art of Noise album with Debussys spirit”.

The process, according to Dudley, consists of her coming up with a theme “that then gets shaped and pulled about by everyone else. We start with a sound or an idea, and improvise around it, then toss it around in the way jazz musicians would do.” The band, once famous for the samples they used, have become the third most sampled act in pop history (after James Brown and Kraftwerk). But on this album, they say, they have used noises made by no one but themselves.

Anne Dudley began many of her compositions “with an original Debussy song or piano piece (but never from one of his greatest hits like Prélude à laprès-midi dun faune) and then worked around his chord structures or added new chords to fragments of his melodies.” The resulting songs were then “recorded completely straight. I played the piano and Sally sang, so the source material was our own material to start with — and the orchestral stuff was all properly arranged, not nicked off a CD.” Thats the starting point, before, as Morley puts it, “you push all your sound into a machine and sculpt it. Lols very good at that, chipping away until it becomes a record”.

One other key ingredient of the album is the voice of John Hurt, who acts as narrator, first describing Debussys death in Paris in 1918, then his importance and his decidedly unsociable character, fascinated by colours and flowers, and preferring cats to people.

The album starts with Dudleys gentle piano work punctuated by slow narrative phrases from Hurt, then in come Sally Bradshaws operatic vocals and theres a gradual build-up as Crèmes guitar and synthesized percussion are added. It develops into a clever, subtle mood piece, with continual changes of pace, and hints of jazz, funk and sturdy bass lines balancing the more lyrical piano themes.

The best sections are the more audacious. Theres a description of Debussy at work, surrounded by flowers, with a reminder that he wrote settings for poems by Charles Baudelaire.

“It would,” Hurt announces, “remind you of the line by Baudelaire ‘Sound and perfume swirl in the evening air.” A piano theme gives way to percussion, and a thoughtful contribution from Rakim, with surely the first-ever rap rhyming of “Baudelaire” and “evening air”. It may sound too arty by half, but it actually works. “We just sent Rakim some information, thinking it wouldnt mean much to him,” said Morley, “and he did this fabulous rap, throwing things out of context all over the shop.”

They think that Debussy would have approved — even if he is portrayed as something of an unpleasant, grouchy genius — and that he would have particularly enjoyed the remixing that inevitably now goes with a project like this. New versions of the Rakim rap track, Metaforce, by the likes of Roni Size will no doubt be bombarding the club scene even before the album is released.

And after that, it seems, the band who once revelled in anonymity may actually be going on tour, in an attempt to annoy and shake up the pop scene a little more. “When I used to imagine what a band would be like in the year 2000,” says Morley, “I thought theyd be a weird mixture of artists and scientists, not something like Ocean Colour Scene. We thought Kraftwerk were the godfathers of the future, and one reason we got together was the return of the guitar music that has saturated the 90s.” “And,” adds Anne Dudley, “we can actually play.”

The Seduction of Claude Debussy will be released on June 28.