Interview With Ian Dench Of EMF
EMF became a worldwide phenomenon almost as soon as their debut album “Schubert Dip” was released back in 1991. Lead single “Unbelievable” found its way into so many homes, a contagious mix of house dynamics, baggy drum beats and indie guitars. It came at the perfect time culturally. The UK’s dance scene was riding a literal high from the ever-growing rave culture while over in the States bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails were becoming the focus of the media. EMF were a band that could sit in both camps. 1992 saw them release the follow up album “Stigma” before deciding to take a break in 1995 after struggling a little with their third release “Cha Cha Cha”. Over the years the band have occasionally got together to play shows but the prospects of new material seemed slim. This has changed with the release of “Go Go Sapiens”, an eleven-track slap of pop hooks, crunchy guitars and house piano that screams EMF. We were lucky to catch up with guitarist Ian Dench to talk about their past glories, new hopes and everything in-between.
3 Songs & Out: It sounds like you’re quite busy at the moment?
Ian Dench (EMF Guitarist): That is true, actually, things have suddenly got very busy. And yeah, we've finished the record in the summer and we're like, oh, you know, we'll put it out in the spring and sort of all of a sudden, it's just going crazy.
3 Songs & Out: Some friends of mine were at the club show the other week, you know, and were immediately raving about how because the new material sounds
Ian Dench: I’m so happy that happened I think so one of the reviews said they were very brave to try and pull it off.
3 Songs & Out: Yeah, it was the Louder Than War one, wasn't it? Yeah, if you can get them on side, then that's a that's a great way to start the campaign with.
Ian Dench: Are they normally really hard on bands,
3 Songs & Out: John Robb runs it. And obviously, he's got his roots back to the proper 70s punk nucleus and he plays with The Membranes and things like that.
Ian Dench: I love that because my roots, I mean, are punk, so maybe they tapped into that a little bit.
3 Songs & Out: When “Unbelievable” came out as a single I was going out to rock clubs, and it was great, because to me, it was pop music but it seemed to include everyone.
Ian Dench: Okay, I like that. I mean, inclusive is good.
3 Songs & Out: I was flicking through YouTube earlier on to show by partner and I came up with some MTV performance from like, some end of year thing. You know, Zak’s there and James' there with mini dreads and everything like that. And I'm like it's almost like a cross between the Red Hot Chilli Peppers meets Faith No More meets Nine Inch Nails meets a little bit of baggy and Primal Scream. It was such a really cool melting point.
Ian Dench: I suppose so, we were just sort of reflecting what we were hearing, I suppose at the time, and all those things were going on around us. We all played in indie bands, and then all these sorts of things were happening on the dance floor, these other influences, and we were just like, oh, wouldn't be great to just sort of, sort of mix a bit of that in with it all. And then then that's sort of the way it came out.
3 Songs & Out: So originally was quite organic? You said you kind of said that you were taking all these different influences and just mix them all together? Was it just great for guys all get in a room together and just go, “Hey, let's see what everybody does?”
Ian Dench: It started out with James and I just sitting at my mum's piano, we played guitar, we'd always been in Guitar bands. And it's funny, he was younger than I was. and I'd seen him in a local guitar band, and, you know, and I'd had actually had a record deal. He'd been trying to get me involved in something he was doing and we just ended up sat at my mum's piano one day and but with our guitars. We loved that house piano thing. But I also had this mono synth, this sort of squelchy was a Yamaha CS 10. So, this mono synth had that sound that acid sound like, I get that sort of sequency sound. And then, of course, we play the guitars as well and sang songs and just wanted to do something. I remember James just going, I really like this, it was just sort of joyous. We did a bit of everything we loved and it just sort of came together. The first rehearsal we got was just that but a lot louder, with really distorted guitar. It was like wow, this is great. So, it was it was it was the definition of organic, we just use what was around us.
3 Songs & Out: I remember when I first listened to it (“Unbelievable”) I was at a friend's house and he was very into his dance music and things like that, whereas I was more, you know, long hair, into a bit more indie, a bit more rock, a bit more Jane’s Addiction, that kind of thing. He was playing all this stuff like early Shaman songs and things like that. It really kind of reminds me of that legacy; It's almost like euphoric trance like big beat. Get all these really cool sounds together and mix them up and it's such a groove. That's what I always got from EMF albums that I listened to when I was younger. It was just like a really nice groove You would stick EMF on to, you know, get yourself ready for the party.
Ian Dench: I love that. I love that. Because I still think that when we play live joy is sort of part of it really. It is about grooving and energy and that loving, jumping around making music.
3 Songs & Out: I mean, the fact that this was still being played in rock clubs, which always threw me because rock fans could be quite “if it's not Whitesnake, it's not happening.”
Ian Dench: I remember we went and ended up playing some sort of metal festival in Belgium. Heaven knows how we ended up on the bill. We had that energy about it but it was a pop and they were proper rock There's a lot of leather; they were proper rock fans, but they ended up doing the conga. And this was the most bizarre moment. They were obviously thinking, you know, perhaps this is a bit, it's not quite as heavy as we're used to, but it's so joyous. We're gonna enjoy ourselves. Bikers doing the Congo. Strangest thing.
3 Songs & Out: Who needs mosh pits?
Ian Dench: It was a it was a funny moment, really. It's a difficult thing, trying to be all things to everyone you can't really do that. And I think we've come a cropper a few times, because of that. The third album, “Cha Cha Cha”, was trying to be a bit of everything. I think the cohesive thing certainly about “Schubert Dip”, “Stigma” and "Go Go Sapiens” (the latest album) is that we also wrote songs. The songs were about something and we wrote them to mean something to us, and the stylistic thing flows from that. It wasn't style over content, you know, it has to serve the emotion.
3 Songs & Out: Like the song things first, and then you guys created in your own individual ways to make it sound like you.
Ian Dench: Yeah, and sometimes it comes together, the song is about something and the style of it comes out of what it's about, rather than just trying to do something that sounds really cool and not really being about anything. I think James and I are probably first and foremost songwriters. And, you know, occasionally we do things on acoustic guitar. That's always a good test of something whether it works on an acoustic guitar it will work with a band, and often the remix as well. We always do lots of remixes. It's great to take elements of a song and it works in another form. I think it's shows that there's some content that does work in various forms. And that's hopefully why it is more than, a stylistic exercise.
3 Songs & Out: So, is that, do you think, the main kind of reason why you kind of had a break after “Cha Cha Cha?”
Ian Dench: We were really lost. We were all over the shop. I think it had been tough on everyone. It was a manic five years. And, and. And we've, we've done that bit like second guessing about what we wanted to be. Do we only do underground or main stream? And? And? And I think there wasn't really a guiding direction on it. And I think it's a shame in a way because, you know, I look back at that Smash Hits era, when we were sort of like pinups on the front cover of the Smashies. We'd started out just trying to be cool rock and roll band, and then all of a sudden, we were this pop band, and there was a little bit of reluctance, which is unfair. I mean, this is one of the greatest things about the 100 Club show that Christmas when we played there. There are all the guys that come, the cool guys that always love going to see band. But then we've also got those girls that that were young girls who used to read the Smash Hits with when we first came out 30 years ago, who are now in their 40’s. They've got families, but they love rock and roll music. And it's like, in a funny way, “we discovered “Unbelievable” as this pop thing. And then “Stigma” made us fall in love with rock and roll music. And we ended up going to see bands and getting in the mosh pit and I love it.” It's like when you say it's inclusive, I'm glad it was inclusive. I'm glad we were a pop band that is there for everybody. Because you know why? Everybody should have that experience of the glory, of the madness of loud music, jumping around to music.
3 Songs & Out: It speaks to a commonality for everybody. You stick a drumbeat down and you will have people nod their head, no matter where you're born the world. So, I love those first three albums. And I know you guys have kind of been off and on since then, but still always been really busy doing other things. I was doing a bit research today and you’ve got an Ivor Novello Award for writing songs for Beyoncé and Shakira, Golden Globe nominations, Grammy nominations, songs for Florence and the Machine, for Texas, for The Prodigy, and the list goes on.
Ian Dench: I just, I just fell into that really after EMF. I did a couple of things and ended up working with Amanda Ghost and she's a force to be reckoned with. I sort of hang on to her coattails. We went off writing pop songs and working at Sony in New York and it was a wonderful experience. But it became a little heavy, I suppose. I think Amanda had been approached by somebody to say, “Oh, we want you to write a song for Beyoncé”. She said to me this guy called me up, it just had like, bullshit! So, let's go meet him and let's see what he says. We were in New York, we turned up at the Universal building. We go up to this floor and it's the Def Jam floor to meet this guy Todd asked me and he's like, pardon my terrible American accent, “there's somebody I want you to meet” and in walks Beyoncé and Jay Z. We were completely gobsmacked! Amanda, who, you know, at the time, we were working on a solo album, and she was “I'm a songwriter, I don't write songs for other people, normally, I'd like to just say yes. Perhaps we can get to know you and do something.” And she was like, “No, I haven't got time for that. We've got a great backing track. A couple of people have tried to write on it, but they failed. It's got some real Spanish guitars for Shakira and some hip-hop beats for Beyoncé. We think this could be great. So, we've got the studio booked at 8 o'clock tonight", and we were like, whoa! You know, writing for us was like, work on something and go away and do this and do that. So, we went back to the hotel and just unroll “Beautiful Liar” in the hotel. And I guess that was what it was, it was taking advantage of years of song writing, to be able to go, “Okay, this is what we need to do. It's got to be about women, it's got to be about this, bam, bam, bam”, they just came out like that.
We'd wrote a couple of other songs around that time, but then it became like, “Oh, you have to write it for us, you have to write it for us”. And that's not why you write, I've never been able to write a hit, because I want to write because you're excited about something and being with people that you love, you love similar music or something, or you've got a connection to them. And it became a thankless task. I worked really, really hard. And I put a lot of hours and I love what I do. But when it feels like, you're doing it for the wrong reasons it makes it difficult. And I don't think you get good results. And eventually it became like that. I feel like in in my whole career. I've done good work when I've done what I love. When I write songs with people I love that I love occasionally it's worked, you know, and I love writing with James (Atkin EMF frontman). James and I've always had chemistry, and we've always written over the years, you've written things and sort of nerded out about them a bit. There was on the box set of various demos we've done over the years, which were fun. We'd never sort of managed to finish them. After the 30th anniversary year, James was “let's make a record” and I'm like “okay, let's not forget about it, we're going to write a song, we're going to record them and that's it.” And that's what we did and we did it really quickly with a joy and a passion. That's the you know, wonderful thing.
3 Songs & Out: I literally got the CD this morning from the PR company. I've had a quick listen, and it sounds like the EMF you know, the kind of passion. The first single “Sister Sandinista” has that Clash kind of reference. I can imagine Joe Strummer doing this because he had those dance and dub kind of moments. It’s progression from “Cha Cha Cha”, “Stigma”, “Schubert Dip”; you can see that that line. The technology is a little bit better.
Ian Dench: Yeah, yeah, I think that's a fair appraisal. We still love the grooves and the guitars. In terms of subject matter, there's a lot about getting older and looking back. It's difficult for us to look at it but it's great that people turn around and say I see that there’s a development from what's happened before. James is still such a techno head with his beats. There's a couple on there that just came from him doing his techno beats and me sticking some guitars on it and other things. We work them up with a drummer (Adrian) Todd, who's an amazing drummer. But there's things we could never have written when we were younger, about getting older, looking back at people we've lost. You can't help feeling we’ve got to make the most of this.
3 Songs & Out: It’s really kind of call to arms, especially after the past couple of years, all the shit with Brexit and everything like that. It's kind of like, yeah, there's crappy stuff going on. But you know what? We can still dance; we can still enjoy ourselves. And that comes through perfectly, you know? How did you and Jim come together for this album? Did you do a lot through lockdown, or was it afterwards?
Ian Dench: Well, I mean, James is amazing. Back in the day, he was very reluctant rock star. He teaches music to kids in secondary school and, he's more of a rockstar now than he ever was. He goes on stage with such joy. And he's so funny and, so up for it. And it's so infectious, watching him. Over the pandemic, he did his whole series of “Tonight, Matthew” recordings, which enlisted various pop stars to do the recordings. He also sort of put together our recordings, online recordings of various tracks of ours. I'm just generally engaged with people online. Our socials have started taking off more than they ever have, you can see people engaging. The fans wanted to enjoy that part of their life. And then with the box set we thought we’ll do some merch and see how that goes. And he went "Well, why don't we just leave that money, we can use that to sort of make them promote a new album?” And in a funny way, I think it came from James's enthusiasm.
3 Songs & Out: Almost like he's infected you within enthusiasm.
Ian Dench: Exactly. 20 years ago, we almost got a couple of new songs. We almost did it, but I remember Stevie (Marsh bass player) was like “We've got to do it!” and I'm like “I'm not sure that James is ready yet.” But what I said to him then, and this was 10 years ago, when James is ready, you'll know and we'll just press that button. We had such a brilliant time. James lives in the Yorkshire Dales and I just go out there just hang out. We recorded the drums in a little studio up there, just it was just how it should be. And I like it. It's fun, easy and kind of the reasons why you got in a band and start making music in the first place, to enjoy yourselves. It's a fact that ultimately you just found that energy and then just put the live thing together.
3 Songs & Out: Like I said, I had friends see guys the other week at the launch gig. I mean, I really hope that this takes off because it gives you that that feeling inside that you can feel uplifted by it.
Ian Dench: That makes me happy.
3 Songs & Out: Good, you should be happy. Are there any further plans for what you guys going to do? Are you just going to feel how the album goes, what people think about it, see how the upcoming live shows go?
Ian Dench: We were meant to do the Shine On weekend in Budapest which got cancelled, and we both put a weekend aside for that. So, James is like “Well, why don't we just do some more writing?” So, you know, hopefully, we'll have something out again fairly soon afterwards.
3 Songs & Out: Before you had to go into a studio, whereas now you can sit by a stream with a laptop and make it all almost guerilla like.
Ian Dench: I mean, that's amazing. I remember my studio back in the day, huddled in the laptop. And I think you still need to do some stuff with live recording stuff. It's still hard to get in the studio. It's a shame because my son's into making music so it's all them as a laptop, and I think he loses something from not being able to get into a room and thrash it out.
3 Songs & Out: There's something nice about standing on a stage and hearing a drummer behind you and just feeling that air from the kick drum hitting the back of your head.
Ian Dench: People kind of miss that now. You've got the great ability now to work from home, to do everything on your laptop; processing beats, do all your backing and everything. But you miss that trail and round play and shitty pubs on a Saturday night. You pay your dues, don't you?
3 Songs & Out: It's almost like taking the punk scene and that the punk kind of background. It's just a different approach. It's more “yeah, I'm going to do this myself. I don't need anybody else.” It's a different kind of thing. But again, that's coming up with good music as well.
Ian Dench: That's the other great thing about bands when I was young. We all had guitars and we all got in bands. You have to have a collaboration. Now you can sit on a laptop and do your thing. You know, it's like me keep saying to my son you’ve got find collaborators and he’s doing it. But it doesn't happen as a matter of course. A drummer can’t sit there by himself, you’ve got to play in a band with somebody. And that was a wonderful thing. The band’s I played with people and you get to mix it up this way, that way, and it was a good.
You get people sort of like feeding in different influence like James was with that techno side, his kind of euphoric house piano kind of stuff. If you sat there on your new own you probably wouldn’t have had kind of side
The technology is amazing! The year we spent trying to get electronics to lock with live drums. And now you press the button and bing! it’s all quantized and it’s all there. I wish I had that before. So, I'm loving that.
3 Songs & Out: It sounds like everything's going really great in the camp for you guys
Ian Dench: When we did the new material at the gig at Water Rats everyone was so happy. The reception was great. And we really didn't know how it would go down, so that's the really given us a spring in our step
3 Songs & Ou:t Is there anything that you really kind of hope for the future? For yourself or for EMF?
Ian Dench Well, I just hope that we can do it on a scale that we still love it. In a funny way it was good because we did it because we love it and it’s already going a bit crazy and all it just reminded little bit of, you know, back in the day. If it gets all out a hand again then......you just get confused. Like you say, you finished one thing, you got to do another thing and then it’s just crazy. You just wanna stop and do it for the right reasons. It would be lovely to be doing it at just scale where you can do it the right way. And I think that's fine. I don't think the world is waiting for new EMF album, I don’t we have any expectations that it would be number one in the states again or anywhere.... except maybe Latvia. Hello. But. But it would just it be lovely, you know. The reception's been great I think it would be lovely to feel the love and give the love back then play some shows, just get out there and do our thing and just enjoy it without it getting too crazy.
3 Songs and Out would like to thank Ian Dench for taking the time to chat to us and to Matt Reynolds of Savage Gringo PR for arranging it.
“Go Go Sapiens” is available to buy on CD, Download and Vinyl now and you can read our review of the new album here.
You can also check out the above interview on our Youtube channel here.
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