DEATH IN VEGAS
by Simon Reynolds
"Have you got any Jack Purcell's?" asks Richard Fearless.
The burly sales clerk in Sports Authority looks blank.
"It's a make of trainers," Fearless explains.
The sales clerk looks blanker still.
"Sneakers, Rich-- in America, they call 'em sneakers," translates Tim Holmes, Fearless's sound engineer partner in Death In Vegas.
Arriving in New York, the first thing British bands --especially those affiliated to dance music--tend to do is hunt down the latest lines of name-brand sneakers. It seems typical of Richard Fearless that his holy grail is a ultra-obscure brand named after a post-war tennis champion; a brand he became obsessed with after spotting them on Elvis Presley's feet in a classic 1950s stage photograph. Style is something of an obsession for Fearless, who's reknowned in Britain for his mod-influenced sharp-dressed look, who recently turned down a Calvin Klein TV commercial, and whose prized pair of Patrick Cox snakeskin loafers were stolen when he passed out after DJing at a club.
Today, hitting the street again after the fruitless footwear quest, he's looking relatively under-dressed in a long sleeve pink shirt and faded jeans with the silver letters AC and DC stenciled on alternate buttocks. Still, in many ways Fearless and his band represent every Anglophobe's nightmare of style-over-content Limey art-rock. After getting an art scholarship at a boarding school aged 13, Fearless went on to study Fine Art at college, before switching to a graphic design degree course at the London College of Printing. It's in his blood: his mother is an art teacher and his sister designs shoes. Even his voice has the classic UK art school rock accent--middle class, but slurred and mumbly in a downwardly mobile effort to suppress its innately posh crispness and clarity.
Wandering the streets of mid-town Manhattan, Fearless's aesthete's eye is constantly
captivated. "What a marvellous little old man!" he enthuses as a dapper, David Lynch-
esque geezer waddles past. Fearless keeps stopping to take snaps of showroom dummies
in store windows--the mis-shapen, poorly executed physiognomy of mass-produced
mannequins fascinates him. One of his many projects on the go--which encompass a
movie about India influenced by Sixties experimental film-maker Harry Smith, a
documentary about Elvis fans, and a film score--is putting together an exhibition of his mannequin photos.
Over lunch at a noodle diner near Times Square, Fearless explains how Death In Vegas's
visuals are equally as important as its sonics. His record contract includes a clause that gives him total control of all aspects of the band's presentation--not just the cover art, but the advertisements too. Better still, he notes gleefully, the record company "has to pay us separately for the art work--including any amendments." For Fearless does it all himself, right down to the fonts--like the Gothic typography used on Death In Vegas's new album The Contino Sessions, which he hand-copied from Luftwaffe insignia.
Inspired by a James Ellroy character, Contino Rooms is the name of Death In Vegas's twin studio HQ in North London. With Holmes tweaking the music in one room and design partner Will Bevan finessing the imagery in the other, Fearless flits back and forth all day overseeing the work-in-progress. "With the new album, we were designing the sleeve while we were making the music," he says, a boyish grin brightening his pallid features.
Death In Vegas's dark 'n' dubby debut 1997 Dead Elvis was lumped in with the Big Beat
scene, largely because of Fearless's DJ residency at the Heavenly Social, the London club made famous by The Chemical Brothers. But with Contino, Fearless has broken decisively with that scene's relentlessly cheery antics and pledged his allegiance to moody, tripped-out trance rock---Sixties garage punks like Thirteenth Floor Elevators and Chocolate Watchband, the manic-depressive mantras of Velvet Underground and The Stooges, and, most of all, all the late Eighties neo-psychedelic resurgence of My Bloody Valentine, Loop, and Spacemen 3 that so enthralled Fearless when he was 17.
Contino Sessions mostly consists of instrumentals, such as the album's highpoint "Flying"--a celestial pageant of ringing, iridescent guitars that recalls Neu! and Harmonia, Fearless's Krautrock faves. But there are vocal cameos from archetypal leather-trousered rockers such as Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, Jesus & Mary Chain's Jim Reid, and Iggy Pop, who contributed a psychosis-by-numbers monologue to "Aisha".
"Iggy was just a stab in the dark," explains Fearless, wolfing down food from the three
heaped and steaming dishes he's ordered. "We wrote a track for him, got our manager to
contact his manager, sent him a letter. It was a bit of a dream really that he said yes." The session took place in New York's Electric Ladyland studios. "Iggy turned up in a torn black T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, blue drainpipe Levis, and black biker boots," recalls Holmes. "He did the vocal, and we just stood there open-mouthed." Holmes was was so buzzed by this encounter with his hero that he rushed out immediately afterwards and bought a pair of sneakers, only to find out later they were "three sizes too small".
Despite the duo's love of all things Iggy-esque and the new album's boycott of the
dancefloor, Death In Vegas remains very much a product of the last decade of UK rave
culture. Fearless describes the late Eighties acid house revolution as "my punk rock," and when he DJ-s he mostly plays Detroit techno. "I'm still excited by dance music, but with Contino we were trying to get away from that whole electronica tag, which seemed to be exploding here. It would have been too easy to make an album that would have ridden on that wave."
Although it sounds like incandescent rock'n'roll, Contino's mode of construction owes a lot to dance music. "What I love about the best dub reggae and techno is how hypnotic and monotonous it is," says Fearless indistinctly through a mouthful of fried rice. "When there is a change, you notice it so much more. That's what we tried to do with our album, but using live musicians."
Fearless can't play any instruments himself. Instead, he and Holmes operate as sound painters--sketching the outlines of songs, then using "real" musicians as a palette of colors. "We get the guys to play along to the tracks, and then we sample and rework the best bits, " explains Holmes, looking glum because his cellophane noodles with sliced pork haven't materialized. On Contino Sessions, the result
is a DJ's simulacrum of psychedelic rock--fuzzed-out, distorted, but looped and layered electronica-style.
If there's a drawback to this DJ/designer's sensibility to arranging sound, it's that it is necessarily somewhat detached. Unlike their inspirations from Moby Grape to
Spiritualized, Death In Vegas songs don't seem to be driven by urgent emotions. Adapting the Velvet Underground drone-rock aesthetic into a sort of wallpaper-of-noise, The Contino Sessions works as gloriously cinematic mood-food rather than soul-wrenched expression.
All the words on the album are written by the guest vocalists. "For me, it's all about sound," says Fearless. "I just can't take what goes on in my head and put it onto paper as lyrics. Being extremely dyslexic doesn't help." He claims that his brand of chronic dyslexia doesn't affect his reading abilities, only writing and arithmetic: "When somebody leaves a phone number on my answer-machine, I have to get someone else to write it down!"
And then, incorrigible art school rocker that he is, Fearless is pivoting 180 degrees in his seat and training his camera on a waiter at a distant table. The boy just can't help it.