Musicians are not machines, even if they use them, and by the end of 2011 and the Gravity the Seducer cycle, the members of Ladytron needed a break. Lead singer/synthesist Helen Marnie says that life in the group had been a constant since they banded together in 1999, and they needed to spread their wings. “If you don’t have that spark, it will come across,” notes Marnie of the creative process. “It was never like this thing that we would take a year or two years off. It was unspoken, but no one thought that it would take this long.”
During their unexpected hiatus, three of the four members moved away from their London home base. Mira Aroyo remained there, while Marnie returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Daniel Hunt relocated to Sao Paolo, and Reuben Wu nested in Chicago. Hunt has since worked on movies scores and co-produced projects including the Blind Spot EP for Lush in 2016 and Marnie’s first solo album Crystal World in 2013. Arroyo has been producing documentaries, while Wu has traveled and indulged in his photography.
Hunt encouraged Marnie to dive into her solo music because he felt she had the material, and both her crowdfunded debut and 2017’s Strange Words and Weird Wars were well received. The latter, a dynamic, dark-leaning effort that was among the best releases of 2017, was produced by Jonny Scott, who co-wrote a couple of the tracks.
“That was a different kind of kettle of fish because there was no Ladytron connection,” says Marnie of her sophomore effort. “I enjoyed that more because I feel like some people didn’t give me the credit that I was due on the first album. Maybe they thought that Danny wrote all the songs and I just sung them, that I hadn’t put the work in. But it was my album. This one was quite different from Crystal World.
“I absolutely loved doing it,” Marnie says of her solo work. “But it was also very, very stressful because I didn’t have any backing and didn’t have a label.”
But after two solo albums, Marnie – with new material in hand – was ready for Ladytron’s return. “We’d not been together for a long time, and it just felt right,” she says.
Like her second solo release, the new Ladytron album is dark. Lyrical themes of transition, feeling unsettled and apocalyptic angst run through the self-titled album. That wasn’t pre-planned. “We’ve never discussed lyrics between us really, unless there’s a track that hasn’t had lyrics,” says Marnie. “Then we’ve gone into the studio and completed them there, but that’s very rare. We never discuss themes beforehand. It all seems to just come together and click. I feel it would be odd for us to discuss things like that with each other.”
One such song was “Figurine,” for which they had music in the studio but no lyrics. Hunt conjured three words that Marnie then spun other lyrics around. “I kind of panicked and the night before was up super late trying to work this song out,” she recalls. “Then Danny and I did go over it the day that we were due to record it.”
Given that the members don’t discuss their lyrics before bringing them to the band, you might think it’s challenging for Marnie to engage with the material. “Maybe that’s why my delivery’s quite detached,” she says, laughing. “For me, it’s more about interpreting the sound of the words. How you emphasize certain words is important to me. That’s kind of my delivery. It’s less about, this is a love song, it needs to feel this way. I’m more concerned with the shape of the words, how my voice and my tone fit in with that. I think tone is so important. There are some vocalists I just can’t stand because it’s almost like they try too hard. For me anyway.”
Many people have used the word “icy” to describe Ladytron’s sound, but there’s a lot of warmth there, too. “I think the iciness idea comes from people’s perception of synthesizers and that they are somehow cold,” muses Marnie. “That’s so far from the truth because you can create anything with a synth, you know? You can make it really deep and fuzzy. They can create warmth, but I think that there is some confusion and that’s where that iciness idea comes from.”
The wild card on this self-titled album is Cavalera Conspiracy/ex-Sepultura drummer Igor Cavalera, whom they brought into the mix for a few tracks. His style lent a different energy to Ladytron’s music, which diverges from the ferocious thrash and death metal he’s known for playing (though he’s also become a DJ in recent years and remains steeped in the traditional music of his Brazilian heritage).
“We just let him have free reign, and he would play over the tracks and completely transform them,” says Marnie. “It was amazing. If you listen to some of the tracks, you’ll hear they suddenly kickoff and almost sound like a carnival. That’s him. I don’t think that we would have got that from someone else really. It was quite inspiring to watch him.”
Hunt met Cavalera after moving to Brazil, the latter’s homeland, and initially thought they might hang out a lot. “And then Igor moved to London, so it didn’t quite happen as he had planned,” remarks Marnie. “He was a drinking buddy, and they’re friends. Danny asked him if he would consider coming in for a day or two, and he was really up for it. It was great.”
Even though the ’80s are an obvious reference point for Ladytron, the specter of ’60s pop and baroque pop occasionally emerges on new tracks like “Until The Fire” and “The Animals,” not to mention those lush, gorgeous vocal harmonies on “The Mountain.” Marnie ascribes that vibe to Hunt. She says he grew up with ’60s club nights in the Motown and northern soul vein. “I think he’s perhaps quite influenced by that more so probably than the rest of us,” she says. “That’s probably where it snuck in.”
Marnie, who enjoys ’80s pop as well as genre-blending ’90s acts like Air and Massive Attack, grew up with classical music and played piano until she went to university.
“I was good, but I wasn’t good enough,” the singer confesses. “I was never going to be a classical pianist. But I did put in a lot of work when I was younger. All your friends would be out playing and you’d have to come in and do one to two hours a night. When you start to do well and get better and the grades are getting higher, it’s much more work. That’s how I grew up from about the age of eight. I studied piano. I love classical music. I like opera, I like singers like Maria Callas, and [composers like] Puccini and Verdi. Maybe that does kind of creep into my music, but I would think it’d be more in motifs and little riffs and things that might appear in classical music.”
Certainly, the lyrical themes on Ladytron could work on an operatic scale. While the band members like to keep the meaning of their colorful prose cryptic, the imagery on the new album is dark and ominous on tracks like “Horrorscope” and “Deadzone.” And at least one track is personal. “[‘You’ve Changed’] is “inspired by someone that I know,” says Marnie. “Or used to know.”
The album’s closing track, “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” summons a hopeful air, but even then, one might interpret it as a portent of renewed strife. “I read a review yesterday, and it was saying just that, like not fulfilling your destiny,” says Marnie. “Like you’re just saying, oh well, I can always do it again tomorrow. But when I wrote it, it wasn’t really like that. I guess it’s just your perspective. It is hopeful, and that’s why it’s the last track on the album. I think you always need that bit of a lift to round up and just finish on something that is positive or has the potential to be positive. It’s a sad song for me. It’s pretty emotional.”
The dystopian video for second single “The Island” is producing emotional responses from the band’s fans, too. It depicts a humanoid woman escaping a laboratory and exploring the countryside… until she’s hunted down by unidentified officials who set her ablaze with a flamethrower. While Marnie says director Bryan M. Ferguson’s video was not consciously modeled after Stranger Things, it does somewhat mirror images of Eleven after she breaks free from Hawkins Laboratory.
“If you some of his past work, it’s so twisted and colorful,” describes Marnie. “It’s dark but full of color. It’s so weird. It’s like obscure film festival material, and that’s just what he’s always done. The song ‘The Island’ has that kind of dystopian, messed-up feel, and it’s quite claustrophobic. He just wanted to convey that really and how humanity is fucked basically. That pretty much comes across in the video.”
The singer loves the “Island” clip but soon learned that not everybody else would. “I showed it to a few people before it came out and they were horrified,” recalls Marnie. “I just think they didn’t think it would end that way. I think they were hopeful that it was going to turn out okay. We were like, ‘nope, this is going down.’ I don’t think some people could really handle that.”
Six albums into their career, the U.K. quarter have proven their staying power, surviving the short-lived electroclash boom they were initially tied to.
“It felt weird because I didn’t think that we sounded anything like our contemporaries,” admits Marnie. “In interviews, we used to get a bit pissed off, but now it’s fine because not many of them have survived at all or made decent albums since 2003 or whenever. But we just kept putting things out, and I think we proved people wrong. I just think it was a really lazy, lazy label anyway, but it did characterize a time when electronic music was coming to the fore. Obviously now it’s everywhere, but that was probably the start of it all.”
Given that Ladytron’s music is sculpted in the studio and involves multiple layers of sounds and sometimes vocals, there will be those listeners who, when experiencing them live, will want to know what they are listening to. For the group, that is not the point. “There’s a lot of super fans and that really bothers them — they need to know, how much is live and how much isn’t,” says Marnie. “But they’ll never know. Take ‘The Mountain’ off this album. How are you going to recreate that with four people on stage without having backing? It’s just not possible.”
Even if Aroyo can harmonize with Marnie for that song, “you’re still not going to get the full sound [without help],” says the singer. “The general listener or concertgoer doesn’t care about that, but there will always be a handful that it bothers them if it does not seem to be completely live. But this is as live as we can get it without losing what is part of Ladytron.”
And that unmistakable sonic identity is what’s helped them stand out all along.