Like Public Image Ltd and Killing Joke, Alex Novak is an artist in constant flux and metamorphosis. To commemorate four decades of musical exploration Glass Modern release Mercurial 1978-2018, a career-spanning retrospective that encompasses his early forays into music with Northampton ‘77 punks, the Isaws, to his most recent release with darkwave duo The Venus Fly Trap.
In between those two bands came the post-punk of Religious Overdose, the sci-fi leanings of The Tempest, a stint with Attrition and some dark, dystopian electronica in the shape of Spore and Nova State Conspiracy.
Alex Novak spoke to Peter Dennis to give us an overview of a kaleidoscopic career that’s taken on many different guises. Here Alex untangles the web and shines a light on the individual tracks.
As a genre, punk was an important incubator for you. How did it influence you?
At the time the distance between audience and bands was quite great, not physically but psychologically, and I think punk broke that barrier down. I was at the right place at the right time, I was at art school and punk happened while I was there and being involved with creativity it sparked something. At the time, my fellow students were getting into bands: Kevin Haskins and Danny Ash and David J, who after being in various student bands ended up being in Bauhaus. Finding people who were into the same thing as well: my brother [John Novak] and the other members of the Isaws were still at school so… we were quite young. We didn’t actually release any records at the time but we released two cassettes (which were later compiled on CD as 'Burnt Offering') the earliest track I picked for the upcoming CD is ‘Standens’ which is a place where we used to rehearse in the eastern district of Northampton, it was a youth centre, it wasn’t too far from where we lived, and the song is a tribute to that place. They allowed bands and other activities to happen: it’s quite hard to find somewhere to rehearse, I think there were a lot less rehearsal studios so you had to make do with pub back rooms and youth centres, if they’d let you in.
It seems that in writing about your locality, in true punk style, ‘Standens’ was the complete antithesis of prog rock. At your tender ages how aware were you of punks 'rules'?
I think early on we were capable of writing about other things because I think initially you draw on your experiences, but I think the DIY ethic was very important, that you did things and sorted things yourself and you also wrote about things that you knew as opposed to things you didn’t.
Then you moved onto your next band Religious Overdose. The first track from them is ‘Control Addicts’. It followed ‘Standens’ by a year but the difference in music and lyrics seems like a quantum leap.
The whole idea of punk was it opened the door to do what you wanted to do, there wasn’t a strict idea of what you should be like, although I did think punk became something of a uniform than idea. So a lot of people who were in punk bands quickly outgrew that and went off in loads of different directs so I ended up in Religious Overdose which was more like The Fall and Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division so we were heading more into post-punk, that’s quite a wide term but it developed out of punk.
And it seems that post-punk was far more true to the revolutionary spirit of punk than punk was itself.
Yes, you could do anything, there was no boundaries. There was electronic bands, bands who were more avant-garde, it all fitted in that genre. I met the members of Religious Overdose via art school. Richard Formby was studying art so I knew him from there. He was originally from Leeds where a lot of interesting bands were coming from.
Also around that time you made another important connection. This CD is going to be released via Glass Records and you originally met the owner Dave Henderson.
Yes, with ‘Control Addicts’ we got involved in the burgeoning tape scene and Dave Henderson wrote a column for the NME about the DIY tape scene, so I happened to see Glass Records mentioned, I sent our tape to Dave Henderson, and we ended up releasing our debut single on Glass Records.
And you played with some amazing bands like The Fall…
We organised a gig in Northampton with The Fall and we did a lot of gigs with bands in a similar genre: English Subtitles and people like that, and we performed with Attrition in their earlier days as well.
Around the time of Religious Overdose was a period when you could use your art school education. The singles came in very striking sleeves which subverted religious imagery. I wonder can you expand on what aesthetics you drew upon?
Both Richard and I came from a graphics background so the visual aspect is quite important. The name itself talks about how there’s too much religion, how it’s being shoved down people’s throats. So we used religious imagery on the sleeves and gig posters.
And you also used images of old cabaret stars...
Yes, that was used on the second single ‘I Said Go’, I like the very early days of black and white film which suited the subject matter.
Why did Religious Overdose come to an end?
We did two singles after ‘Control Addicts’: ‘I Said Go’ and ‘In This Century’. Basically Richard had done his time at art school so he decided to go back to Leeds. He went on to be involved with Jazz Butcher and also The Telescopes and Sonic Boom. His main interest was setting up a recording studio in Leeds so that made it a lot more difficult for Religious Overdose to function so we went our separate ways. We did compile all the material for a compilation CD called ‘Glass Hymns’ that came out a couple of years ago so all that material has been compiled.
After Religious Overdoes came The Tempest which was another seismic shift in terms of music, lyrics and imagery.
I hooked up with people in other bands who wanted to do stuff. It seemed in those days people always seemed to be in more than one band: they all had about three bands on the go depending on what was happening. So I hooked up with Mark Refoy (who ended up in Spaceman 3 and Spiritualized and more recently live with the Pet Shop Boys) and we ended up doing a band called The Tempest, so obviously we got in touch with Dave Henderson again and he released the first single ‘Lady Left This’ which seemed to get attention straight away. We got a lot of airplay on Radio 1 with John Peel and ‘Kid’ Jensen which brought us to the attention of Anagram Records (which was part of Cherry Red) and they put out the second single ‘Montezuma’ and the album ‘5 Against The House’, which was reissued a few years ago by Optic Nerve. We also did a lot of gigs with people like the Alien Sex Fiend all around the country. We got a lot of attention but it fizzled out very quickly because people were involved in other bands and attention was being drawn in other directions. So that didn’t last very long either but that seems a kind of formula for that period we were constantly changing and moving on and ideas were being formed very quickly.
The Tempest had a very unique sound. What musical influences did you draw on?
Joy Division and The Cure and some more obscure bands, touching into gothic as well, just before goth was starting. In fact we did support Bauhaus at the Hammersmith Palais. If you can imagine there’s five people in a band and they all bring their own influences. Definitely. For The Tempest I drew upon sci-fi, which is a big thing as we go along, a lot of sci-fi from the 50’s and 60’s, a lot of pulp books and comics, things like that.
After The Tempest you took another turn and hooked up with Martin Bowes from Attrition...
Yes, I knew Martin from Attrition and also he was involved in a Coventry fanzine called ‘Alternative Sounds’ so I’d been in contact sending stuff over the years. I joined Attrition which had been active for a while. I was in the band for a couple of years and I ended being on the ‘Smiling, at the Hypogonder Club’ LP and doing a tour of Holland with them. That was my first tour abroad so that opened my eyes to the possibility of getting out of the UK as well. It was a backing track, three vocalists and keyboards because it was entirely electronic so it was opening my eyes to a completely different area again. Attrition at that time probably wasn’t as dark as it is now but the ‘Smiling, at the Hypogonder Club’ is more like bands such as Propaganda. It was dark but it still had a pop edge.
Why did you leave Attrition?
When you join someone else’s project, it’s their band, it’s their baby so I had my own ideas about what I wanted to do, so I decided to form Venus Fly Trap. In that period I was living in London when I was in Attrition so that was a great experience, meeting people and getting around the place but I think sometimes that’s a distraction to getting things done so I went back to Northampton and hooked up with my brother John, who was in the Isaws, and Tony Booker, whom I knew from art school, so that was the original line up of Venus Fly Trap, we recorded the original version of ‘Morphine’. Later, when John left, we rerecorded ‘Morphine’ and the one thing with Venus Fly Trap is keeping track of all the members. The line up changed very quickly, John was out of the band after nine months so on the first single there was myself, Tony Booker moved to guitar and we got Chris Evans on bass so the first single was even different from the demo. ‘Morphine’ ended up on Tuesday Records then the Danceteria label but the guy who ran Tuesday, I was in contact with because of Attrition. They did the first two singles, ‘Morphine’ and ‘Desolation Railway’, and after that we ended up on Danceteria, both labels based in France. We were taken over to France pretty quickly, we were playing French tours in the late 80s and early 90s.
Venus Fly Trap’s debut 'Mars' rode high in the French national charts.
Yeah, it got into the French top 40. All the singles did pretty well; ‘Rocket USA’, the Suicide track, did well, it was totally reworked, you probably wouldn’t recognise it. We did a few full albums with Danceteria, ‘Totem’ and ‘Pandora’s Box’ and the single ‘Europa’.
Venus Fly Trap were very successful on the continent. Did it annoy you that Europeans got your sound straight away yet you were largely ignored in the UK?
That’s quite strange but sometimes you have to go where the interest is and that’s what we did, we just followed the interest. We did a lot of dates in France and Belgium and then Germany. You could play the UK any weekend you like but it’s nice to go somewhere different. When we headed into the early 90s, once ‘Achilles Heel’ had come out we ended up going to France, Belgium, Holland, Germany then Czechoslovakia for the first time in 91 and that really opened your eyes because when we first went there it was like being in the 1970s: the roads and what was in the shops and the fact that you couldn’t take money out of the country. You had to spend the money before you left the country because it had no value but it was a great experience.
Venus Fly Trap has featured a long list of characters. Each album has its unique sound. Do you attribute this to the constantly rotating line up?
Obviously everyone who’s involved brings in their own influences and ‘Mars’ I’d say is a collection as opposed to being a full album. The period I’d say that was consistent was between ‘Totem’ and ‘Pandora’s Box’. Most of the personnel was the same during that period, although it did flux.
‘Moscow Menagerie’ followed from the ‘Luna Tide’ album, a record which saw you returning to your rock roots.
With ‘Pandora’s Box’ that line up imploded so it had to be rebuilt. I’d certainly say that ‘Luna Tide’ was a transitory album. So there’s a transition between that and the next stage which the next single ‘Pulp Sister’ represents.
‘Pulp Sister’ was very cinematic and I’d say that’s a common theme that unites much of your work.
Yes, I’m certainly a big fan of film and especially sci-fi but ‘Pulp Sister’ is a very tongue-in-cheek homage to Tarantino, but underlying all that there’s a shift in line up as the sound goes more electronic. Less live drummer and more and more electronics and that’s the beginning of another period.
There was a seven year gap between Venus Fly Trap albums and you had these more electronic projects including Nova State Conspiracy.
That would certainly fit in with that transition from ‘Luna Tide’ to ‘Dark Amour’. Filling in that period and moving it into a more electronic direction. Nova State Conspiracy was with a friend who was a comic book illustrator, Simon Colby, who had a big interest in electronic bands so we decided to do a project together, completely studio based and that ended up on a German record label. We only did one EP and that was it.
Also around this time you were involved in other electronic projects: The Den and Spore. They’re three projects, that although different, seem united like a triptych. What was your reasoning for changing the name?
It was different people. The Den was myself and Tim Perkins who worked with Alan Moore and people like that and that gave it a different edge. Again we just released tracks on compilations, that didn’t develop because Tim moved away from Northampton. Spore was another 'try out' project.
Also during the Venus Fly Trap hiatus you went to Coventry University to study photography.
Yes, which again provided me with plenty of material to use in future albums. After ‘Dark Amour’ there was a break then we kind of re-jigged it with Andy Denton moving from drums to guitar and that kind of starts another period with guitars and electronics being the main thing. And those albums ‘Zenith’, ‘Nemesis’ and more recently ‘Icon’ I think all fit together because they featured the same line up.
Then after the hiatus your next single was ‘Metropolis’ which also has that sci-fi/cinematic/dystopian feel.
Obviously influenced by the film. All of those three albums had a strong sci-fi and film basis. Some obvious and some less so.
And then you covered The Cramps’ ‘Human Fly’...
We formerly covered Suicide who are not the most known band in the world. With The Cramps’ ‘Human Fly’ we thought we could do something with it. The original is more sparse rockabilly song but we made our version a full track. I think it works on that basis. We don’t do lots of covers but when we do we try to put our own stamp on them.
And that brings us up to the most recent single ‘Vitesse’ from the ‘Icon’ album.
With ‘Vitesse’ we're continuing into a more electro direction. A modern darkwave that’s heavy on the electronics and that’s where we are at the moment.
We’ve talked about your musical past where do you think it will move in the future?
I don’t think they’ll be any more Venus Fly Trap albums. It’s a lot of work and it takes a long time. I think it will be single tracks. I’d like to go back and remix some tracks. There’s quite a lot of stuff to be reissued first so I’m in the process of trying to reissue the Venus Fly Trap albums and then the other projects so it’s out there and available.
And how would you like history to remember your work and for it to be evaluated?
That’s a difficult question because that’s really out of your hands. Hopefully I’ll be alive when people appreciate it. There’s so many bands and musicians who are appreciated after they’re gone. That’s too late and those people need to be appreciated while they’re here. These things need to be acknowledged at the time, there’s so many bands and artists who’re not appreciated when they’re around and when they’re gone… people suddenly realised what they’ve lost.