Summer Festivals 2012: Death in Vegas - interview
A chat with Richard Fearless ahead of his RockNess performance
As British music finally dragged itself out of a post-Britpop hangover around the turn of the century, Death in Vegas were among the most quintessential of festival bands. 1999’s The Contino Sessions and 2002’s Scorpio Rising were staples of any discerning record collection, their after-hours collusion of dark electronica, drony rock swagger and narcotic menace providing the perfect soundtrack to any lost weekend done right – both the bullet-proof euphoria of the up and the paranoid delirium of the comedown.
But then, in 2005, the band’s fulcrum Richard Fearless quit London for New York, leaving their future unclear.
RockNess will be Death in Vegas’ first major British festival in seven years, and the first of a busy summer that presents a daunting challenge: convincing people that they remain one of the meanest and most unmissable bands on any festival bill, even if electronic music has moved on in their absence.
Fearless (real name Richard Maguire) seems suitably unfazed, if also glad to be making this comeback in Scotland, where vociferously enthusiastic audiences have routinely greeted his live and DJ sets. ‘They’re always great crowds and that’s obviously what you’re feeding off,’ he drawls, over a crackly line from London. ‘You know, when the crowd are just standing there, mobile phones are being shoved in your face it’s kind of hard to switch into mode.
‘We’ve been fortunate that we’ve always had a strong support in Scotland,’ he adds, ‘we’re really excited.’
He doesn’t sound excited. He sounds pretty bored actually. But would you expect obliging perkiness from a guy whose back catalogue reads like a litany of sleaze (‘Dirge’, ‘G.B.H’, ‘Hands Around My Throat’ anyone?) and whose side-project is a nightmarish sludge-rock band called Black Acid (solitary single to date: ‘I Hate You’)? With too many Olly Murs, Jessie Js, Cher Lloyds and other such eager-to-please plastic pop featherweights littering festival line-ups this summer, Fearless’ old-fashioned couldn’t-give-a-monkeys nonchalance is probably what music needs more of right now.
Following the release last September of their excellent fifth album Trans-Love Energies, Death in Vegas are ‘very much back’, albeit now effectively as a Fearless solo project since the departure of Tim Holmes, the art school-formed band’s only other hitherto constant member. The new record comes after a ‘refreshing’ hiatus, prompted by a phase of creative stagnation (2004’s kraut-rocky Satan’s Circus was critically panned) that convinced Fearless to ‘have a break from music’ for the first time in a decade. He shelved Death in Vegas indefinitely, moved to New York and went back to college to study photography. It was during those four years that Fearless formed Black Acid, another strand of an underground and altogether revitalising experience in the States.
Fast-forward to 2009, and back in London, with support from legendary acid house producer Andy Weatherall, Death in Vegas were revived for Trans-Love Energies – an uplifting meeting of repetitive beats and trippy psych-rock that’s set to spread some stellar heaviness across festival fields this summer.
Guest vocalists have been a feature of much of Death in Vegas’ most defining work: Bobby Gillespie, Liam Gallagher and Iggy Pop (‘That was mental,’ Fearless reminisces of working with the latter, ‘still every now and then I get a phone call off of him.’) among others all appeared on either The Contino Sessions or Scorpio Rising. But Trans-Love Energies is the first Death in Vegas album to exclusively feature Fearless’ own vocals, aside from two tracks sung by Katie Stelmanis from Canadian electrogoth-pop band Austra.
That’s not to say he’s ruling out future work with other vocalists. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and psych-rock godfather Roky Erickson top a wish list that bears another more surprising name. ‘I’d really like to work with a big power singer – someone like Beyoncé,’ Fearless reveals, deadpan serious, even if he does indulge his only laugh of the interview. ‘I actually wrote a song for Beyoncé and sent it to her.’
Quite why the current queen of even-my-gran-knows-about-her mainstream pop didn’t accept the invitation to sing something by the bloke from that scary sound band we’ll never understand, but it’s a mindboggling proposition. ‘Some of the best work I’ve been involved with in the last few years has been when I’ve worked outwith my comfort zone,’ Fearless asserts. ‘I think it’s really important to put yourself in that position.’
Death in Vegas play RockNess on Sun 10 Jun.