by Chris Frain, June 2017
It is theoretically plausible that matter can be sent forward through time (it has something to do with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and…maybe Ghostbusters technology?). When I first heard the synthpop duo Battery Operated Orchestra (or BOO, for short) last year, I was convinced that we are being visited by time travelers from 1982. Their music so perfectly reflects an early 80s sensibility yet never slips into winking irony, cliche, or exploitation of any particular 1980s trope or sound. One feels nostalgia when hearing a BOO song, but it’s so far removed from any direct reference that it’s almost unsettling. Instead of a current artist looking back at the 1980s and trying to recreate that magic, BOO sound more like a group in their prime from that era, crafting catchy (AF!) synthpop songs and constantly developing new sounds over the course of their albums.
“The Sea” from Radiation (2016)
BOO consists of vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Brigitte Rose and synth-wrangler Chris Blackburn, who claim to be from the mythical lands of “Tasmania” and “Scotland,” respectively (I see through their clever ruse). Currently based on the South Coast of the UK (in our current space-time continuum), they have been producing music and videos at a prolific pace since 2012’s debut AC/EP. So far they have independently created and released two full-length albums – Incomplete Until Broken (2014) and Radiation (2016) – along with several EPs including Tsk?! and Observatory (both in 2013) and several singles and re-mixes. All of their physical media are individually hand-crafted by the duo, and are also available on Bandcamp.
“Tin Can Telephone” from Incomplete Until Broken (2014)
What sets BOO apart, besides the exquisite packaging of their albums, is the sheer diversity in moods, tempos, and overall sound on each of their albums, all while still staying firmly within the synthpop genre. On Tsk?!, for example, cheerful tracks like “Lost in Static” co-exist with the propulsive angst of “Unjustifiable Transfer” and the ambient soundscape “NGC-5194,” without at all feeling schizophrenic. A similar dynamic can be found on the more recent Radiation, which features the quirky Devo-esque “The Sea” and “Fairy Tale” along with the Kraftwerkian title track and the downright spooky “I Go Invisible.” BOO are not ones to beat one sound or one style into the ground, each album and EP are their own little ecosystems that have evolved over time.
“Diamond Feelings” from Radiation (2016)
I was lucky enough to catch the duo after their recent shows in Europe and ask them a few questions about their process, their synthesizers, and 1980s culture.
Echosynthetic (ES): Tell us a little bit about the group’s origin. Were there other groups you two were involved with before BOO?
Chris Blackburn (CB): We met in London in 2008 and booked a practice room in Kings X, but we didn’t start properly until 2010 when Brigitte moved down to the south coast… I had a band before that called Katsen.
Brigitte Rose (BR): we bonded over music instantly but the time wasn’t right for BOO to form yet, Katsen was just taking off around then.
CB: In a very small way!
ES: With BOO, I’m hearing some prominent influences like Devo, Depeche Mode, The Human League, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Ladytron, and Kraftwerk – is this accurate? Are there some others that you hear when you’re working on your tracks?
CB: Yep, that’s pretty accurate! There are plenty of bands we’d like to sound like but haven’t the technical prowess to even come close. We most usually aspire to a supergroup made of Cardiacs, Pixies and YMO.
BR: I don’t think we ever intend to sound like anyone in particular but there are so many bands we admire. We love the simplicity of Deux for instance…Devo definitely!…Stereo Total.
ES: Your music covers a very wide range of emotions/moods/tempos. What drives these decisions – do the lyrics inspire the musical choices or vice-versa, or something else entirely?
BR: The music just comes out when we play. I find that part, the starting point (in a good song) has a really clear feeling that tells me where to go lyrically and melodies seem to follow instinctively. It’s not always as straightforward as that though!
CB: Sometimes the lyrics come from the music, and sometimes the music adapts itself around the lyrics. Often we’ll sit and improvise words and melodies, and edit it up and re-arrange whatever we get, then take a step back and look at what we’ve got. If it feels right, we’ll re-write it and go again. But sometimes the words just come right out at the same time as the bones of the song pop out. We love Wire’s lyrics: strangely abstract and emotional at the same time.
ES: I’ve noticed each album ends with a spacey/haunting track. Is that an intentional pattern or just a coincidence?
CB: It’s intentional. We like ending with a gentle goodbye.
ES: You do all your own production, from tracking to mastering, all the way to product design/packaging and videos. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the course of your albums that you could pass along to other artists who are planning on sticking to a DIY path?
BR: Invest in a good printer! If you’re going to be doing your own packaging, set aside a month of no social life! And another month for the PR work…it’s a lot of work but it’s rewarding, and it’s important to have creative control.
CB: We try to listen to our final mix on as many stereos as we can…it’s always worth giving stuff away for free too.
ES: Without turning this too much into “shop talk,” tell us a little bit about the gear you use. Is it all vintage gear?
CB: We use some synths more than others… The Teisco 110F is a particular favourite, as is the MFB Dominion 1, but the Yamaha CS-01 (which Brie plays live) and the Roland SH-01 and MC-202 are the longest serving in the BOO army!
BR: the ‘BOO family’ of synths has been growing since we met!
CB: It’s not all vintage gear, no. We just got an Oberheim OB6.
BR: We can’t really rely on the vintage gear for live shows, so our set up is more modern and compact for travelling.
CB: Yes, vintage has weight and stability issues!
ES: Speaking of travelling…You’ve done shows in the UK as well as on the continent. Is Europe, and Germany in particular, more responsive to synthpop? Is there more room over there for electronic music that isn’t techno or EDM?
BR: Yes, totally. Audiences in Germany in particular are very appreciative and there’s obviously a legacy of great electronic music there, and in fact all over Europe and the U.K. Sweden is a great supporter of synth pop too. We’d love to play there.
CB: Germany really feels like home!
ES: Are there any other artists/groups you frequently gig with?
CB: We’ve gigged with Vile Electrodes twice now, but I think that’s as frequent as it’s gotten! Actually, three times, ‘cos they gave Katsen their only gig too (thanks Viles!) We played with The Department twice too! And Brutalist Architecture in the Sun twice!
ES: The last full-length album, “Radiation,” came out in 2016 – Is there a new album in the works? If so, when can we expect it? What are some of the new sounds/approaches/themes on it?
CB: We are working now on something special with some very special guests… more news soon!
BR: Radiation was 2016 but it does feel like a long time ago now. We have finally started working on the next release after a very busy year!
CB: We are also working on the next full length thing, and it’s coming together nicely… Some of it is coming out sounding rather large.
ES: Are there any bits of 1980s culture (other than music) you still enjoy? Movies, TV, video games, etc.?
BR: We love having a night in playing Spectrum video games!
CB: We definitely have a soft spot for trashy 80s B movies. A recent gem we found was “Get Crazy.”
At this point I ran off to find a copy of “Get Crazy” for the Echosynthetic video library while the members of BOO disappeared into a flash of blinding blue light.
Their videos can be found at their YouTube feed, click HERE to check those out.
Oh, and good luck getting this tune out of your head…
“Kakehashi-san” from Incomplete Until Broken (2014)
Chris Frain records and performs electronic music under the moniker Pattern Language. The debut EP from Pattern Language – Total Squaresville – is available on Happy Robots Records at: https://happyrobotsrecords.bandcamp.com/album/total-squaresville.