With all the shadowy enigma of Neu! or Throbbing Gristle, one of the most exciting and unique artists to emerge from the ’90s UK dance scene, is making a stealthy return. Richard Fearless, aka Death In Vegas, cut some of that era’s most unusual records, fusing electro, dub, rock, psychedelia, soul and solid-gone experimentation to create a sound that was spacious and other-worldly, while also segueing with the pop mainstream.
After seven turbulent years, which have seen him up sticks for New York, form a raw-power rock & roll band, and eventually move back to London again, Fearless is back as Death In Vegas, releasing his first record under that alias since 2004’s ‘Satan’s Circus’.
Called ‘Trans Love Energies’, it marks a return to his roots in minimal techno, deploying the rudimentary gear behind all the classics of the original Detroit/Chicago era to try and spirit up fresh atmospheres. It’s the kind of eerie, nocturnal and often compulsively toxic record, which only Fearless could make, yet which feels thrillingly of-the-moment. His time is now, once again.
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Richard’s journey in music has been anything but a shrewdly strategized career. Cutting his teeth as a DJ at the Job Club in the early ’90s, he stumbled into making his first track, after hooking up with a like-minded engineer. Experimenting with loping hip hop beats, he became a reluctant hero of big beat, a resident DJ at the hallowed Heavenly Social, and soon found himself putting a live band together to tour his first Death In Vegas album, 1997’s ‘Dead Elvis’.
“I always tried to dissociate myself from all the stuff I was lumped in with,” he says. “Even as a DJ, there were times I’d be labelled big beat, when I was actually knocking out Carl Craig records. Y’know, sorry, that’s really not my bag.”
Still finishing his degree in graphic design at the time, Fearless spoke a different language to the club crowd. He’d talk about making music with lasting depth and meaning, far from the ephemeral froth of bangin’ dancefloor tracks. Creating his own artwork, and eventually the band’s videos, he always seemed like a ‘proper artist’, for whom music was merely one piece in a bigger puzzle.
After teaming up with a different engineer partner, Tim Holmes, he scaled unforeseen heights of credibility with 1999’s ‘The Contino Sessions’, whose dark, foreboding, guitar-y soundscapes were adorned by vocals from idols Iggy Pop and Bobby Gillespie. 2002’s ‘Scorpio Rising’ repeated the success, with help from a galaxy of stars, including Liam Gallagher, Paul Weller and Hope Sandoval. Two years on, ‘Satan’s Circus’, by contrast, pointedly didn’t feature any guest vocalists, and pursued a stark, beautiful electronic purism inspired by Krautrock tech-pioneers Kraftwerk. Fearless was feeling hemmed in, where once everything had happened freely and naturally.
“I’d been doing Death In Vegas solidly since I was at art school,” he says. “Because I was doing the artwork and the videos, it felt like it was taking over my life. I didn’t feel like there was anything else. Everything got a bit heavy. Our tour manager died while we were on the road. I just needed to step away from it, which was at least part of the reason I went to New York. When I got there, I went to college, to study large-format photography, which has been a big influence on this record.”
Richard’s darkroom faves: Alec Soth, Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, Philip-Lorca deCorcia, William Eggleston, Larry Clark and Diane Arbus.
New York, however, became a very dark and turbulent period in his life. “There was a lot of anger,” he says, quietly. “I didn’t really know how to deal with it, but the way I did was, to try and channel all that feeling into some music. I got a band called Black Acid together, rehearsed with them for a year, and then recorded everything we’d done in one take in Oliver from A Place To Bury Strangers’ kitchen.”
For Black Acid, Richard wrote lyrics. “It was my first time. The only other lyric I’d written was ‘Scorpio Rising’ [the song], and that was purely because Liam was like, Right, I’ll do it, but I’m not doing the lyrics. It was something I’d never thought about. But with Black Acid, I was really trying to deal with my situation, so the lyrics became very personal. I was initially trying to get somebody else to sing them, then, one day, I was like, I can’t get somebody else singing these words – whatever it sounds like, it doesn’t matter, no-one one can sing them and believe them as much as I can.”
Once he’d taken Black Acid out on the road, that chapter in his life soon ended when he moved back to his old flat in East London. It was time to move on.
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In Autumn 2009, Fearless was buzzing about being reunited with some of his vintage analogue electronic gear from his old Contino Rooms studio. After five years living in different cities, he and his old ’Vegas engineer, Tim Holmes, had gone their separate ways. Hiring a new room at Andrew Weatherall’s Rotters Golf Club studio in Shoreditch, Richard found himself newly emboldened to tinker around solo in his electro-sonic playground, without having to go through the filtre of someone else’s technical expertise.
In techno-boffin terms, his palette of gadgets contained the basic primary colours – a 303, an 808, a 909, a Korg MS-20 synth, a Roland SH-09 – the stuff that inspirational old Trax and Metroplex tunes were made on. In New York, he’d been grooving the whole Cold Wave revival of 1980s synth music, snapping up records on the Minimal Wave label by obscure old groups like Linear Movement, as well as tracking back to old favourites like Harmonia’s ‘Notre Dame’, or David Bowie’s ‘Low’ album. Also, by the by: Detroit’s Perspects/Le Car, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Syd Barrett, Jackno, Exuma, The Black Angels and Howlin’ Wolf.
When he played the first fruits of his labours to friends and associates, they’d all say, This doesn’t sound like Black Acid, this sounds like Death In Vegas – an alias, which Fearless had subconsciously considered laid to rest. Assuming that identity again, just him on his own, was finally something he was prepared to take on at this point in his life. It would also entail finally going properly public, on record, as a singer.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing for me to sing with Death In Vegas,” Richard says, “but one good reason for me to do it was, there weren’t going to be loads of guests singing on this record. You know what? I toured four albums without vocalists. I always had to treat the original vocal tracks [in pre-production], and really make them sound like samples, because, say, with ‘Scorpio Rising’, we obviously wouldn’t be having Liam on tour with us. If I did another whole album with just guests on it, I wasn’t gonna want to tour it. It’s just boring. So, it was a bit like, Right, I’m back on the vocal thing.”
So, that’s Richard you hear at the beginning of ‘Trans Love Energies’, reciting an elegy for a succession of songwriting heroes, against ‘Silver Time Machine’’s VU-meets-TG desolation, and yowling over ‘Black Hole’’s pulsating baroque-‘n’-roll grandeur. Originally, The Kills’s Jamie Hince had been lined up to sing and play guitar on ‘Black Hole’, but when scheduling proved difficult, Richard tried it out himself. “I’m really glad I did,” he says, “it feels like it’s more mine this way”.
Richard hadn’t entirely closed himself off from the idea of working with other singers. He had a certain epiphany on hearing ‘Beat On The Pulse’, the debut single from Austra, on Toronto’s Paper Bag label, particularly the operatic tones of Katie Stelmanis. He dropped them an email, and quickly received a reply gushing about her love of Death In Vegas. At the end of Austra’s European tour, Katie stayed on in London for a couple of days, which actually ended up nearer three weeks, and voiced her parts ‘Your Loft My Acid’, and ‘Witch Dance’, which have more of an ethereal, Cocteau Twins-y feel than the full-tilt operatic belting for which Stelmanis is becoming renowned.
Having just started out on the path to discovering his own voice, Fearless says he’s into using it with a firm consciousness of its place in the whole production. He cites Matthew Dear’s ‘Slowdance’ as his model – haunting electronic pop music, which points resolutely forward into the remainder of the 21st century. ‘Trans Love Energies’ is palpably, urgently, on the same page.
With almost two decades’ worth of experience in putting a piece of music together, Richard proves himself a remarkably versatile vocalist, whether whispering that heroes’ litany on ‘Silver Time Machine’, or yowling on the closing rock-out sequence of ‘Just Wanna Get High’. ‘Trans Love Energies’, as its title suggests, is a real rollercoaster of emotion: from the frosty synth-pop seduction of ‘Medication’ through to ‘Your Loft My Acid’’s slow-building hands-in-the-air euphoria, it’s a real trip – gourmet brain-food for the post-millennial tech-fiend.
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Almost twenty years into his artistic odyssey, Fearless is able to pick out certain guiding impulses which seem to govern his work. “A lot of the inspirations aren’t so much musical,” he says. “When I was in New York, before I had Black Acid, my one way of dealing with things was getting out of New York a lot, going up into the Catskills, hiking, fishing and taking pictures.
“I spent 15 years of my childhood growing up on the edge of the Kalahari desert (in Southern Africa),” he continues, “and I think there’s always been that sense of space in my music, like that open expanse of light you don’t get anywhere else but in those wide open spaces. I think it’s in all the music I like, and those great American photographers I like – the whole space of the American landscape thing.”
He reels off another list of icons in his own private universe, who each, regardless of their artistic medium, in their own way plug into that sense of spatial openness: Wim Wenders, Cormac McCarthy, Monte Hellman, Maya Deren, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Céline, Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith…
Richard smiles, as if he’s boiled down what he does to its essential purpose. “The best dub and the best techno – it’s all about minimal components, conjuring up the most feeling from the least tools. If you can trigger emotion with the most minimal amount of sound, that’s job done as far as I’m concerned.”