Creativity and craft rarely overlap.
Don’t get me wrong. You can repeatedly work with a groovy template and still be engaging, but rarely does an artist who has fallen into a pattern challenge himself to tweak what he does. Ronnie Martin constantly tinkers with his palette and limits himself, while still delivering the pop hooks.
Martin has recorded under the name Joy Electric since 1994. All of his full-length albums have been released by Tooth & Nail Records. Joy Electric has never used computers to record (a point he makes very clear in many albums’ liner). Since 1997, Ronnie has never used a drum machine on a full-length album, utilizing percussive sounds coaxed from his Moog and Roland synthesizers. He has a penchant for concept albums, using them to explore topics of friendship, being over-looked, technology and even fairies. Right now, he is between full-length albums and just released an EP, Curiosities and Such, on his own label EEPsociety (short for Early Electronic Preservation Society).
Check out the song, “Curiosities and Such,” from Joy Electric’s new EP.
Martin has occasionally recorded side projects that don’t fit his strict constraints for Joy Electric. A few years ago, he recorded an album under the name Shepherd with drummer/genius, Frank Lenz. He and his brother, Jason Martin (from Starflyer 59), recorded The Brothers Martin album two years ago. This year, he brings us an EP on Velvet Blue Music under the name Ronald of Orange.
Listen to “Brush Away the Cobwebs” from the Ronald of Orange EP.
I asked Martin some questions a couple weeks ago about his various projects and other synthpop bands; his responses are in italics. Dig it…
I want to introduce you to a new audience. Can you just briefly explain your set-up and how that differs from most electronic artists? What/who inspired you to go this route?
My set up / philosophy for electronic music is that I create every sound from analog synthesizers only. From drums, to bass, to leads and so on, every sound source originates from the Moog and is recorded directly to tape. So, no samples, drum machines or other digital sound sources. I was inspired by artists such as early Human League, Kraftwerk, Peter Baumann, etc., who only had access to analog synthesizers and tape recorders when creating their early works because that’s simply what was available. In my opinion, these limitations forced a certain creativity and originality that was somewhat lost with the advent of MIDI, samplers and other digital options that came to fruition in the 1980’s. My philosophy is to continue where those artists left off before the technology turned.
So I first got into the Pet Shop Boys because I had heard Joy Electric compared to them. To me, the likeness stopped at the fact that you and Chris Lowe both use synthesizers. What is the most absurd comparison you’ve heard in people’s attempts to describe Joy Electric’s sound?
From a songwriting standpoint, the Pet Shop Boys have always been an influence, actually. I wouldn’t know where to start trying to recall all of the absurd comparisons over the years, but mostly it’s of the “it sounds like a video game” variety. The funny thing about that is I’ve never been a “gamer,” so I was never influenced by sounds from that medium. But I totally understand people thinking that upon an initial listen. What do you do?
Speaking of Lowe and company, have you heard the new Pet Shop Boys record? Great stuff. I assume you don’t begrudge electronic artists who incorporate other real instruments?
Of course not….I don’t begrudge anybody doing anything they love musically. I have a pretty narrow scope with what I do, so I obviously would never hold anybody else to that. I have only heard the first single from the new PSB’s, which I thought was a nice return to form, although they’ve rarely strayed from their formula, which is nice.
It seems like many of your albums are driven by concepts. When writing, what inspires you first—concepts, sounds or visual images? What opens the door to your themes and their correlating sounds?
It’s definitely a concept, which probably then leads to a visual. The sounds always come at the end, during production. I’m always interested in trying to come up with something that’s never been addressed in a pop song. Conceptually, pop music is so formulaic that I think it’s easy to bring in a new perspective if that’s the kind of mind you have.
Let’s talk about the Ronald of Orange EP. First of all, who came up with that band name? It’s brilliant and matches the late-80s British sorta-twee aesthetic you seem to have gone for.
The name was something I had floating around for awhile, and it just seemed appropriate for the project. I had wanted something with my own name in it, without it being simply my full name. I had read about the historical character William of Orange, so I thought “yeah, I think I got it.”
Were the Ronald of Orange songs ever intended to be Joy Electric songs?
Only the chorus for “Potential.” That was something I had written right after Hello Mannequin, but never did anything with it. Everything else was written on the spot for the project.
Have you received any feedback from The Innocence Mission about the cover of “Today”? What do they think about it?
Oh no, I don’t know that they would ever hear it unless I sent them a copy. I probably should try. One of my favorite bands. I don’t think I did their song much justice, but…..
I saw you do an acoustic mini-set at The New Earth around the time of the Unelectric album. Do you plan to break into your shows with any of these Ronald of Orange songs on guitar?
No, I like to keep things separate. If interest continues to build with the Orange project, I’ll eventually do some live shows.
On to the new EP, Curiosities and Such, which I find to be your most engaging EP in quite some time (Except for “Wireless, From London” on Workmanship, as that may be my favorite Joy Electric song!), you only use a Moog Synthesizer. You seem to oscillate between a few different types of synthesizers from album to album. I’m assuming there has to come frustrating moments that arise as a result of limiting yourself. How do your self-imposed constraints hinder and/or help your work?
Well, I’ve been using the Moog since The Ministry of Archers, so I’ve had quite a bit of time with it, learning the ins and outs, and growing with it. I think that when you put limitations on things, you also have to accept the fact that what you do will look a certain way and be perceived for what it is. Stylistically, for instance, I can do a fast post-punk type of track like “Curiosities and Such” and then do something very atmospheric like “Cluster of Bare Trees,” but at the end of the day it’s still an analog synthesizer track and anybody other than the most devout listener isn’t going describe it much differently. As far as working in the studio, yes, there are many frustrating moments, but that would be the same regardless of how I worked. Making music is hard…..
I, too, love the solo in “Which Witch.” I know you’ve tried these sorts of hastily-recorded tracks on EPs before that invoke the feel of the early-80s Sheffield bands, but have you ever thought about doing something crazy like writing and recording a full album in a short amount of time? (Maybe in a week?!)
I think about it everyday! The EP was probably the closest I’ve come. All totaled I did it in about 2-3 weeks, stretched out to about five weeks. There’s something about starting an album project where I automatically seem to put a more decisive hat on for some reason. I think I’m less like that now than ever, and that’s because I really despise these extremely polished electronic records that you hear so much of these days. My favorite records really are things like Being Boiled by the Human League, where they had eight tracks, and everything is so raw and primitive. The goal is to get to a place like that and be content with it, because I don’t think the reaction would be too positive from the fans. Or the label. I really do want to limit things to eight tracks and be as spontaneous and of the moment as possible.
On a personal note, thank you for including “Let Us Speak Light” on Curiosities and Such. I know you’re not too keen on it, but lines like, “I’ll search until I falter, until I lose all that I know,” really resonate with me right now.
Great, that’s nice to hear. You know, I spent more time on that song than the others, so I grew tired of it. Musically I really like it a lot….it kind of ties in to what I just said….it’s a very raw song.
How has your live show changed since those early Tooth & Nail days? How have the crowds changed? Do you see them getting any older or do they remain fairly young?
Well, everything changes. There was a scene when we first started that essentially doesn’t exist anymore, and the live shows were always difficult without a drummer. Just when I think I’ve grown into things a bit, I’ll realize that I’m still uncomfortable being the kind of band we are in a live setting. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The crowds have always been a mix of young and older kids, surprisingly enough.
You’ve started a recording studio and collective, EEPSociety. What’s that all about? Does it replace the Electric Joy Toy Company and Plastiq Musiq of yore?
It replaces everything…..it’s an entirely new venture. A studio, production company and vinyl only label, basically.
Are there any further recording plans for The Foxglove Hunt (Ronnie’s side project with former Fine China singer, Rob Withem)? Withem solo projects? The Brothers Martin?
Yes, new Foxglove this fall. No plans for Brothers Martin. I have no idea about any other Withem solo projects, but I’m pretty sure Foxglove is it for him at the moment.
Okay, since I’m asking silly questions. What one or two songs would you dream of remixing, if given the opportunity?
“Ceremony” from New Order and “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” by The Smiths.
One last question. Since I have the opportunity, I have to ask…what do you think of Simple Minds’ Reel to Reel Cacophony? It’s twisted; I love it.
Not being a huge SM fan, I’ve have to go with “New Gold Dream” or “Empires and Dance”. I can’t remember if I’ve heard “Reel to Reel…” or not. Whatever, just give me “Alive and Kicking”……
Man, great interview.
It really made me want to hear some of the JE albums/projects that I am not so familiar with.
Looking forward to the new Foxglove.
It’s a sickness, man. Ronnie’s the aural equivalent of crack cocaine. In a good way.