Neon Neon may not have won the Mercury Music Prize, but arriving for the event in a pair of time-travelling cars (if Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown had his way) with lego-brick medallions hanging from their necks, the eccentric duo could not be missed…
Interview feature for The Skinny
Boom Bip and Gruff Rhys have differing memories of the DeLorean DMC-12, the fabled supercar that moonlighted as a time machine in Back to the Future. Bip (real name Bryan Hollon) recalls that, in the American Mid-West of his youth, “it was always like every town would have about one. It was very rare to spot them, but you did.” But in 1980s Bethesda, a Welsh quarry town on the edge of Snowdonia, Rhys was not so lucky: “I didn’t actually see one till this year. I remember there was one TR7, which was the cheapest car that looked vaguely like a sports car.”
Over the past few years, however, the duo who call themselves Neon Neon have centred their combined creative energies on the car’s creator, John DeLorean, and capped their obsession by rolling up at last month’s Mercury Music Prize ceremony in two surviving examples of the gull-winged vehicle. It wasn’t enough to sway the judges, but Rhys and Hollon couldn’t have been too disappointed that their album Stainless Style lost out. After all, it had been listed as 20/1 outsiders by bookmaker William Hill, its profile had already been boosted by the nomination, and, considering the Mercury rewards British and Irish talent, they were lucky to qualify, given that Hollon hails from Cincinnati, Ohio.
Despite missing out on the £20,000 cheque, the pairing of Rhys, the revered pied piper of Cardiff’s evergreen psych-pop troupe Super Furry Animals, with Hollon, the respected LA-based electronic producer signed to Warp Records in his own right, still stands as one of the most intriguing collaborations of recent times. Coincidentally, the seed of Neon Neon was sown way back during the tour for Rhys’ only other Mercury-nominated album, 2001’s Rings Around the World, with Boom Bip opening for the Super Furries on some of their North American dates. After the tour, Hollon agreed to contribute to the Super Furries’ remix album Phantom Phorce, in exchange for Rhys singing on a track from Boom Bip’s 2005 album Blue Eyed in the Red Room. Down a phone line from Los Angeles, Hollon recalls that “it was kind of a barter system and it seemed to work out really well.”
A couple of days after my chat with Hollon, I call Rhys in Cardiff, and ask him if throwing himself headfirst into Neon Neon was a risk. “I don’t think it was a risk but it was fun doing something completely different,” he says. “Bryan asked me two or three years ago about making a whole album, and his brief was that it would have to be completely unlike any Boom Bip record or any Super Furry record. We had this policy of going where our instincts told us not to go.”
This transatlantic treaty would eventually suit the subject matter very nicely, but the idea to make a concept album about John DeLorean – the chaotic, womanising, engineering genius – actually came about during the recording, as Hollon reveals: “We never thought of Back to the Future once as we were making this. It was more that the music I made in the demos inspired the theme.” Rhys continues the story: “We borrowed a house from someone at Lex Records and set up the studio there for a couple of weeks. Will from Lex has a lot of amazing books – the 1980s are his specialist period – and he’s got a lot of synths, so we were sitting around all day playing with these synths and replica guns and reading glossy books about cars. Bryan was doing all these demos and the ones I was excited about sounded really glossy. I picked them up and built the basic tracks for songs like Raquel. I had to come up with lyrics that would sit with that kind of music and I couldn’t find anything with my own life that fitted in with that level of glamour, so within two or three days I had become obsessed with John DeLorean. His life story is so inspiring. Not necessarily in a good way.”
Indeed, De Lorean’s biography is a classic tale of the American Dream turned sour; a rags-to-riches story of stunning cars, stunning women, the Rat Pack, drug trafficking, an FBI sting, and even the Northern Irish troubles. I mention to Hollon that it sounds like prime biopic fodder, and, if it does make it to celluloid, that it now has a readymade soundtrack. “It’s funny because a good friend of mine is a video editor here in Los Angeles,” he says. “He works with this director and he gave him a copy of the record and the director loved it and was like, ‘why hasn’t anyone done a film on this guy?’ So he went into some talent agencies and talked to them about it and strangely enough there is a script around Hollywood right now being discussed, about a DeLorean film. The name George Clooney was being thrown around for being DeLorean himself. “But can you imagine that film?” an enthused Hollon continues. “You know, make it really good and grimy. Starting in Detroit and getting wrapped up in the Hollywood scene, and then the disco scene, going to Studio 54, and then becoming this hustler, and travelling around the world on a private jet, and hustling from South American druglords, to Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra and all these people he hustled money from. Then eventually going over to Britain, talking to the Thatcher administration and building the Belfast plant and showing his rise, with the car getting ready to come out – and then it just completely flops. He bombs his own factory and blames it on the IRA. It would be the best movie ever, right?”
I feel compelled to agree. And in inadvertently creating the soundtrack for the best movie ever Hollon and Rhys had to radically rethink their whole approach to music-making. For Hollon, this meant rewinding his studio skills 25 years, for that 1983 effect: “That proved to be really difficult, to dumb myself down and strip it back. I couldn’t use a lot of tricky MIDI programming like I’m used to, so instead I tried to use a lot more step sequencers, more presets and different patches on older synthesizers and keyboards, which was really difficult for me because I really steer away from that with the Boom Bip stuff. There were certain clichés that I was hitting with the music, like with space-toms and really cheesy synths.”
For Rhys, it meant betraying his adolescent self and embracing 80s cheese: “The stuff I listened to as a teenager in the 80s was independent guitar pop and American hardcore and some hip hop, and what I hated was glossy pop music with saxophones and backing vocals. So in a way this record was revisiting music I hated and coming to terms with it,” he laughs. “I can listen to a Rick Astley track now and appreciate the innocence of it, whereas at the time it would make me feel nauseous.”
Rhys and Hollon were wise to ignore their inner taste monitors, because aside from the Mercury nomination, Stainless Style has not just received glowing reviews but has added another dimension to both artists’ careers. So is it the start of a beautifully neon-lit friendship? Hollon: “We definitely have plans to carry on with this. It’s not a one-off, but I think we’ve exhausted the playboy engineer genre.” Rhys agrees: “We’ve set up a way of working now so we just need the spark of an idea in the future. I think it would have to be extremely different. We’ve milked John DeLorean for all he’s got.”
Neon Neon play Oran Mor, Glasgow on 6 Nov.
Stainless Style is out now via Lex Records.