Sunday 27 March 2016

INTERVIEW: Rodney Cromwell: At the forefront of London’s Synthpop Underground

Article by Soul1

Rodney Cromwell released his ‘Age of Anxiety’ LP early last summer, followed by his ‘Black Dog’ EP which we featured in late autumn. Both found themselves doing well in year-end charts for 2015, not to mention on BBC, Spain’s equivalent of that (Radio 3), and features in various great publications, such as Electronic Sound Magazine and NME. Some may remember his various past endeavors (including the excellent Arthur & Martha), while to others he may be a recent discovery. We caught up with him to get the lowdown on the man, the music and the aliases.

Can you tell us a bit about your music and influences?  

I make what has been described as lo-fi indie synth pop, which is pretty accurate as my album ‘Age of Anxiety’ was recorded in our spare bedroom using a collection of knackered analogue synthesizers. You can’t get much more lo-fi indie-synth really! Sonically it has been compared a lot to Kraftwerk and New Order, which is reasonable because they are two acts that have influenced my sound for a long time. But while making the record I was inspired by a whole mix of things, from left-field stuff like Polyrock, Section 25, Ulrich Schnauss all the way through to pop artists like Stromae, Carice Van Houten, Lady Gaga. I’m probably the only person who can hear all those influences though.

For starters, Rodney’s not your real name is it?

No not at all. My real name is Adam Cresswell. About three people remember me from the indie band SALOON, and back then I was known as ‘Adam Saloon’. After that I was in ARTHUR AND MARTHA and everyone called me ‘Arthur’. So Rodney Cromwell feels like my third stage name.  Although technically a solo album, I didn’t want to use my real name. Rodney Cromwell is not exactly a rock-star name like ‘Ziggy Stardust’ or ‘The Edge’ but it does give an additional layer of enigma and performance. It also stops me getting too many LinkedIn requests from strangers.

We heard that you played the recent Electro London show and that, despite not being the headliner, you actually stole the show. Have anything to say about that?

It was a great night in that everything really came together for the band and me. From what I can tell we have one of the more complex set-ups of acts on the synth scene in that we have live guitar, bass, two analogue synths and whole load of effects, along with an over-worked computer – all of which are plugged in! On the Electro London night we had a really good sound and the audience were really receptive so that gave us the confidence to push the sonics and really enjoy ourselves. I genuinely try not to pay too much attention to what reviews say. What I have seen said about our set has been really positive, but I don’t like the idea of ‘stealing the show’. The headliners MASSIVE EGO gave one of the most outlandish and entertaining performances that I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t view music as a competitive thing, I’m much more interested in a collaborative approach. All I really want to do is play well and hope a few people like it enough to buy the album; everything else is ephemeral.

Have you ever collaborated with any artists under your new stage name Rodney Cromwell? Can you tell us something about this?

I’ve only really been releasing stuff under the name Rodney Cromwell for about a year so there hasn’t been a great amount of time for collaborations. I have managed to fit in a remix for the Canadian band METER BRIDGE, which was cool, and at the moment I am working on a remix for THE LEAF LIBRARY, who are a lovely indie band from London. Also I’m putting out a 7” by HOLOGRAM TEEN on my label Happy Robots, which is the new act of Morgane Lhote, who used to be in STEREOLAB and THE PROJECTS. It’s a great record. I can’t wait for people to hear it.

2015 was a smashingly successful year for you. Last year, you released both and LP and then an EP. What was the inspiration to put out a second release so close to the first release?

After the album came out the obvious thing to do was to put out a single. One of the most popular tracks was ‘Black Dog’ so we edited and tidied it and it sounded great. It then seemed a good idea to try out an old-school 12” mix too. With the album track ‘You Will Struggle’ I always thought it would be cool to dig deeper into its ‘retro-trance’ aspect, so that became the ‘Glitchy Disco Mix’. And then my brother and production partner Dom Cresswell did an interesting reworking of ‘Barry was an Arms Dealer’ so we stuck that on and before we knew it we had a four track ‘EP’. It was no big deal. I do think people have become so accustomed to singles being padded out with tracks straight off an album or second-rate remixes, but to me it was just about trying out new ideas and putting out a quality product that doesn’t rip anyone off.

I assume that the synthpop community is quite small. Is that indeed the case? Are some countries more ‘progressive’ than others in this respect?

I really couldn’t tell you, as it is not a community that I have been a part of for very long. With the globalization of music through the internet sometimes I’ll be chatting to someone in another band and I haven’t a clue whether they are from Croydon or Croatia. I read a lot about how Sweden is one of the more progressive countries for synthpop. I have always found that Sweden was massively progressive in terms of music, culture and fashion across the spectrum. Certainly when I toured Sweden in Saloon we were probably the five least cool people in the venues each night. Even the people doing our sound looked way cooler than us.

What is the high point of your ‘real life’ as Rodney Cromwell?

That’s a difficult question because in one year there have been plenty of high points already. Supporting one of my favourite bands DEATH AND VANILLA was definitely a highlight as was playing the Indietracks festival in Summer 2015. That was only our second proper show and there were people singing along and cheering when song titles were announced – that’s what it’s all about! The very best part though has just been meeting some cool new people and hanging out with Alice and Richard who have been in the Rod Cromwell band over the last year. Obviously I don’t make enough money to pay them session rates, so I’m massively appreciative that they have been there for me. It has been a lot of fun.

What would you say is the high point of your ‘virtual life’ (i.e. social networks, online radio, etc.) as Rodney Cromwell?

Well the reaction has been brilliant for which I am eternally grateful. In December, when ‘Best of 2015’ lists were being shared, there was a lot of punching-the-air in Rod Cromwell Towers. Getting a positive reaction did take a long time though; in fact, just before the album came out, I really thought it could be the biggest flop of my career. Although I am thankful for any exposure (good or bad), the highlights for me were probably coverage from ‘The Electricity Club’ website and ‘Electronic Sound Magazine’ because they were publications that I was already a regular reader of. Their exposure certainly opened doors and gave me the push to get out there and flog the record to death, which is a part of the business that I’ve never really cared for before.

What is the last EP or LP you listened to and actually enjoyed?

I’ve been eating up everything on Bandcamp by the band BATTERY OPERATED ORCHESTRA which is the new(ish) act of Chris who was in the equally great band KATSEN. Every track I’ve heard by them is brilliant. If I won big on the lottery I would absolutely offer them a deal on my label although they probably have better offers coming in. I am going to gigs by SECTION 25, and CHVRCHES over the next few weeks so I’ve been reacquainting myself with their most recent releases too.

I understand that Malcolm Holmes from legendary pop group Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark has praised your work and that, more recently, Visage member now-turned-DJ Rusty Egan has come on board as a supporter. What is it like to be the object of such affection by such key pioneers in the field of synth-based music?

Haha - it’s great of course and it seems a bit crazy that people who are so influential and pioneering would be interested in what I do – I am expecting to get a cease-and-desist in the post from Peter Hook any day now! Haha. As you can tell from my press shots, I’m really not that cool or glamorous, so hearing that the guy who started the Blitz Club (editor’s note: Rusty Egan) likes what I do is amazing. People probably don’t realise that when I’m not making music I’m working a mundane office job, changing nappies, repainting the shed, stuff like that – no-one gets to see that side of the Rodney Cromwell experience thankfully.

Any other bands that you, in your turn, would also like to commend?

I really like this guy from Canada called GABE KNOX. I know nothing about him at all but he has a really great EP of electronic / krautrock stuff on Bandcamp. Also UMMAGMA from Canada. I’m looking forward to hearing what Alice does next with her band COSINES because I know they are working on a new EP. I think Andrew from REAL EXPERTS is one of the nicest guys I’ve met on the synth scene, and hopefully we will sort out doing a show together sometime. I’ve been enjoying the recent CIRCUIT3 album a lot too and, as I type, I am very much enjoying the CAVERN OF ANTI-MATTER album.

How is 2016 treating you so far? Any planned projects or gigs coming up that you can tell us about?

Foot still firmly on the pedal. I hope to put out another EP at some point. Gig bookings are coming in too. I’m playing the Threshold Festival in Liverpool on 2nd April, which should be a lot of fun. And I’ll be playing Synthetic City in Birmingham on 23rd April. I’ve not played in Birmingham since the Arthur & Martha days, so I’m very much looking forward to playing a good gig and having a decent curry before hand. If you’ve read this far and you are in the UK in April it would be great to see you at one of the shows.

Learn more about Rodney Cromwell / Happy Robots Records: Website | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Soundcloud | Bandcamp

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