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The following interview was conducted over the Internet by me (Jonas Wårstad) with Tracy Howe in Toronto and Bill Vorn in Montreal, during November and December of 1996. This is the first interview with the two founders of Rational Youth since 1982.


When and where were you born?

Tracy:
February 16, 1952 in Toronto.

Bill: May 23, 1959 in Montreal.

When and how did you meet?

Tracy:
I was working in a record store in Montreal in the summer of 1981, when Bill, who had come in as a customer recognized me as having been in Men Without Hats.

Bill: In fact, I didn't come in as a customer, but to talk to Tracy. Somebody told me that he was planning something new and I was interested to know if a collaboration would be possible.

When did you decide to make music together?

Tracy:
At that first meeting, I told Bill that I had left Men Without Hats. He told me that he worked with synthesizers, and asked me if I would be interested in getting together with him to make some music. I immediately found Bill to be a very interesting person and agreed on the spot.

Bill: It's strange because I didn't know him at all at that time and after only maybe half an hour of conversation we were already good friends.

What was your main musical inspiration?

Tracy:
The original, and obvious, inspiration for Rational Youth was Kraftwerk. We were both big fans, and coincidentally we formed the group almost concurrently with "Computer World" being released.

Someone told me about some cassettes from around 1980. One was by you solo, one by Bill Vorn solo, and one by Kevin Komoda solo. What could this be?

Tracy:
I'm not sure, I did a cassette with Kevin Komoda once called "Affection" which I've heard some people in Sweden have (I don't!) otherwise I can only imagine that they must be demos that somehow slipped out.

Bill: "Affection" was a compilation cassette independently produced by Alex MacDonald and friends from Montreal band Action Men On Assignment.It was intended to be a mixture of both "fanzine" and cassette, and they wanted to publish their "magassette" on a regular basis, like a magazine ("March '82 - Issue number one" is written on the front cover). Tracy and Kevin had a piece called "Green Trenchcoat" and I had one called "Arcade". Unfortunately, I only have the magazine part of the "magassette", so I can't tell youwhat those cuts sounded like.

Tracy: Oh yes, I remember "Arcade"! That was great.

Was it official? Tell me more!

Tracy:
Yes, it was a real release, although not through YUL Records. Kevin was not quite yet in Rational Youth, but was in two other bands, Action Men On Assignment (who used to open all our shows) and the Blueprints. I remember "Affection" as being a lovely little package - a limited edition cassette EP with a sleeve that was designed to hold a beautiful booklet. The groups on it were all from Montreal. There was Action Men On Assignment, who were very quirky and fun, The Devices, who were very dark sounding, Ulterior Motive, who had a sort of 'psychobilly' sound like The Cramps, and Kevin and I just doing instrumental synth stuff that we made up on the spot. I remember that I had just got my Moog Source, which was like a programmable Mini-Moog, and I was just screaming with it. I wish I still had a copy of that tape. A guy in Sweden told me one of his friends has one.

Bill: I know somebody who had one. I'll ask him if he's still got it.

Your first release was the single "I Want To See the Light" in Oct 1981. When was it recorded? Summer 1981?

Tracy:
Yes, I think we recorded it in August.

Were these the first songs you recorded together, or did you record any other songs or demos before these?

Tracy:
No, those were the first. We never did any demos.

Were only you and Bill involved in the single?

Tracy:
No, actually there was a third guy, Mario Spezza, who had been sharing an apartment with Bill and was also into synths. Their apartment was absolutely crammed with modular synthesizers, because in addition to Bill's Systems 100 and 700, Mario had a Moog Studio 35 and a Studio 15, plus Korg analogue sequencers, Space Echos, etc. I felt somewhat intimidated the first time I showed up there with my little Sequential Circuits Pro One and Logan string machine!

Bill: I had been playing music with Mario for about two or three years at that time.We were in a band called "U" where we were five synthesizer guys doing Ultravox-like kind of stuff. That band broke up because it was a bit complicated to get everybody on the same frequency at the same time (too many humans involved in making machine music). When I started to work with Tracy, I was afraid to make the same mistake we made with U, and because of this, Mario was finally forced to quit RY only a few months after its creation.

Tell me generally about the recordings: problems, behind-the-scene incidents, funny stories. Was it a happy session? Also, in what studio and city was it recorded?

Tracy:
It was recorded at a 16-track studio on the South Shore of Montreal called Creason. I remember it as being exciting for us but also a bit frustrating because we were trying to record the sort of music that people who worked in studios at that time had no experience of. They didn't know how to record it. So we weren't really satisfied with the results. Also, looking back on it now, with all the interest in vintage electronic music equipment today, it's noteworthy that we used analogue sequencers on both tracks of that record. Those things were a lot of fun, but soon we got a Roland MC4 and after that it was all digital for us.

Bill: And it was also the first and only time we got into a studio with Pyer Desrochers. He was one of YUL's producers and he had just produced an EP by Montreal singer Yvel Champagne. Pyer was incredible (he was always trying to provoke) but I think he was too energized to be stuck in a studio. And it was also where we first met sound engineer André Corbeil, who became our dedicated soundman (live shows) for a few years.

Tracy, You wrote the A-side (I Want To See the Light), and Bill the B-side (Coboloid Race). Did you work 50/50 on each others songs musically? What instruments did you play, and what did Bill play?

Tracy:
When we first got together I brought one song (I Want To See The Light) and Bill brought the other (Coboloid Race). We had each already written those songs. We got an offer to record within a week of joining up together, so we decided to do those two. After that Bill and I, for as long as we stayed together, wrote 50/50 as a team, and both played on all the songs. We also both played on both sides of the first single. I would do all the singing, except for the Vocoder parts, which Bill did. Bill did most of the programming and was the one who came up with the best synthsounds. Then we would both play on top of the sequenced stuff.

Bill: Coboloid Race was only a simple piece of repetitive tracks at the beginning. I had written a bunch of words that didn't mean anything special. It was Tracy who had all the work of making a song out of this.

Is "Light" (second track on B-side) a "pure" instrumental version of the A-side, or is it remixed or added to?

Tracy:
That was just "I Want To See The Light" with the vocals off. Not very interesting.

Bill: It was in fact the first "backing track" that we've recorded. We eventually had to make one for every song we put on tape.

Tracy, what is your song about? (I Want To See the Light)

Tracy:
The lyrics were inspired by a novel by the French writer Robert Merle entitled "Madrapour" in which a group of people are condemned to fly around in an aeroplane for all eternity and never land.

And Bill's "Coboloid Race"?

Tracy:
Bill, it's a sort of satirical sci-fi story about these beings who are half- human and half- computer, right?

Bill: Yes, it's about what happens when your life is run like a machine or a computer program. Cobol was a business-oriented programming language still popular at the beginning of the80s.

Did you record any other songs during these sessions, or did you only make these two songs?

Tracy:
No, there weren't any other ones.

Why was it only released as a 12" single, and not as a 7"?

Tracy:
That was the idea of Marc Demouy, who started YUL Records. This was also to be their first release and he thought it would be a more interesting package. The original 12"s had a nice sleeve with an insert, and were covered in a very nice thick transparent plastic sleeve.

Bill: I think it was a sort of the fashion at the time (a bit like 3" CDs a few years ago). People also believed that 12"s had more dynamic range than 7"s.

What did it feel like when you first heard your song being played on the radio?

Tracy:
Well, great really, of course. It always sounds better on the radio!

Bill: But it was particularly great to hear our stuff playing in the clubs.

Do you know how many copies were made?

Tracy:
The original pressing was only a couple of thousand, then CBS picked up the distribution of all theYUL stuff and made more, but I couldn't tell you how many eventually went out.

Why wasn't it included on your first LP?

Tracy:
That's a good question. Well, I think we thought it sounded different from what the album was going to be like. It strikes me as odd now that it wasn't included. When Cold War Night Life is reissued on CD it will definitely be on.

Why did you choose the name Rational Youth, and who came up with the idea?

Tracy:
There is a student orchestra in Canada called the National Youth Orchestra. Our original name was Rational Youth Orchestra, a sort of play on words, but we got talked into dropping the "Orchestra" bit by YUL Records.

Bill: But it was also my fault, I didn't really like the word "orchestra" which has some strong classical connotations...

Tracy: And people also said it was too much like OMD. In the end we had a name which has never really described us accurately, but I like the paradox - especially now.

And why Yul records?

Tracy:
Well, they just happened to appear when we did. They were starting up and were looking for something to record. I had been in a few of the more well- known New Wave groups in Montreal from about 1978 up until the start of Rational Youth and I had known Marc Demouy, who started YUL (YUL is the airport code for Montreal Dorval), since about 1974. It all started rather spontaneously with YUL. It soon got fairly oppressive, though, as they insisted on having half of our publishing, and managing us, too. And, of course, there had to be contracts for all of these things, as well. So, you go along with all of it and in the end, it's business, and all that shit. More about that later.

Why was "I Want To See the Light" chosen as the A-side, and not the other way around?

Tracy:
The only reason may have been that, at the time, I was more well-known than Bill on the local music scene in Montreal and I had written "Light" but, really "Coboloid" is a much better track, in my view.

Bill: This piece was more structured like a "normal" song, so it had probably a better chance to be played on the air than the other one, which sounded a bit like an extended version of something else entirely...

Who designed the cover?

Tracy:
Sue Halle & Alex MacDonald, who played guitar in a band called Joe Tomorrow, and also in Action Men On Assignment with Kevin Komoda.

In early 1982, the 7" single Cite phosphore was released. Was it released to coincide with the LP?

Tracy:
No, it was released a little while before, maybe in January or February...I can't find anything with the dates on. I don't think we knew exactly what shape the album was going to take and Cite phosphore was something we wrote one night very spontaneously and decided to release as a French single while we had already been recording what was to be the album. I'm pretty sure it came out before CWNL...maybe Bill knows for sure. The 12" definitely came out after the album.

It had French lyrics, why?

Tracy:
It was originally written as a French song. "City of Night" was really the English version of "Cite phosphore". It was just done as a French single. I'm not sure we knew at the time that there would be an English version on the album.

Bill: We wanted to be as "European" as possible because we saw electro-pop as being something from over there. Kraftwerk already did French and German versions of some of their songs and it seemed like a normal thing for us to do.

Tell me about the female co-writer of Cite phosphore - Duran.

Tracy:
Hmmm...how did you know she was female? Actually she was Babette Duran, who was my girlfriend at the time, and the sister of Denis Duran who was later in the band. Seriously Jonas, how did you know she was female?

Who decided that this was to be the first single from the LP?

Tracy:
You didn't answer the question... Well, again, we didn't really think of it as being from the LP, and of of course in Canada you've got a French market and an English market which are pretty much mutually exclusive...So we'd done this song, that seemed to want to be done in French, and just decided to release it as a single.

Bill: When we wrote that song we knew it was going to be played on the radio. In fact, we wrote a song that had all the caracteristics needed for that purpose. And it worked. But the drawback is, when you listen to that song today, it's probably the most dated one.

In March 1982, your first LP, Cold War Night Life, was released. Tell me about those sessions in general.

Tracy:
Well, it really was a lot of fun. We recorded it on and off over a couple of months in this dancemusic studio in Montreal called Ultrasound. It was owned by YUL's original distributor, Unidisc. Pat Deserio, who produced all the Rational Youth stuff on YUL got this arrangement for us. It was a very good deal because they would advance us studio time against royalties at a very good rate. The studio wasn't bad, they had some reasonable stuff in it, a brand-new Soundcraft desk and 24-track machine; but they also had some bad stuff like a reverb with only one of the two channels working that we had to mix with. But generally it was cool. It was an Italian enterprise in a West Indian neighbourhood. I remember eating rotis all the time.We had some difficulty getting the engineers to understand what we were trying to do. Some of them couldn't grasp the fact that we were using this drum machine thing because we actually wanted to! And most of them had never had any experience with sequencers or anything computerized. But, they would stay awake all night with us until the sun came up, anyway. Pat was great. He had great intuition, he knew some studio tricks, and he made everyone laugh all the time. I learned a lot about making records from him. What I really admired about Pat was that he came out of this sort of street-hustler record business that you had in the dance scene in Montreal in those days. He's gone now,and I miss him.

When was it recorded?

Tracy:
I think it was February and March of 1982.

Did you use the same equipment as during Aug 1981, or did you buy the Roland MC4 for the LP sessions?

Tracy:
Bill bought the MC4 in- between the two records. He was amazing at programming that thing. It wasn't like sequencers today where you just play something in real time and then quantize. The only person I can think of who still uses them is Vince Clarke (Kraftwerk used an earlier version called the MC-8 before they got the Synclavier). This was pre-Midi of course but it was a big advance because you could compose and control four independent voices. It had a memory capacity of 16K (we got an expanded version that had a whopping 24K onboard - in other words, less memory than this interview takes up as a text file)! There was one Control Voltage and one Gate input/output for each voice, which we would run off the three System 100 modules and the System 700.

Bill: I remember we had to spend a lot of time calibrating the synths before each session.

Tracy: The note commands, that is all pitch changes, intervals, durations, and so on, had to be entered numerically off an alpha-numeric keypad. The numbers you entered corresponded exactly to the number of volts DC that would play what you wanted. So, as a middle-A note can be represented as 440hz, so can it be represented by a certain number of volts. Bill learned all these numbers in no time. The funny thing was, Bill is French and I'm English, and Bill and I would communicate, and still do, 90% in French. So if I had an idea for a song, I'd be thinking of notes in English and translating them into French for Bill who would then translate them into voltage with numbers!

Bill: Well, the thing is that I've never been a real traditional musician. I knew nothing (and still don't) about traditional notation, so it became a natural way for me to deal with music. Today, it's even easier to program a piece with all these graphic sequencers available for personal computers. Maybe this is why I'm more into algorithmic and chaotic composition right now.

Did you two play everything yourself?

Tracy:
Yes, along with Kevin Komoda.

How did you get in touch with him?

Tracy:
He was the keyboard player in a group called the Blueprints (Peter McGee who later played quite a bit on "Heredity" was also in that group) but he started hanging around quite a bit and I didsome jamming and recording with him in our rehearsal studio. He was an imaginative and instinctive synth guy and he wanted to leave the Blueprints. Bill and I were about two thirds of the way through recording "Cold War Night Life" and we asked him to join. Kevin was a lot of fun to watch on stage and added some spontaneity to the sound of the group.

Bill: Kevin was in fact the only true keyboard player in the band, (i.e. he was the only one capable of playing other people's songs!).

Why only eight tracks on LP (35 min)? Better sound quality?

Tracy:
Well, I don't know, I think at the time there were a few records around at that time with eight longish songs on, I'm thinking of Ultravox...but I'm not sure I really know why. It's true that adding another song would have meant cutting it pretty close in terms of vinyl.

I would now like you to comment on each one of the LP tracks: what the song is about, what you think of it now, memories, whatever comes to your mind... First:"Close To Nature":

Tracy:
This is one of my favourite RY songs. I love everything Bill does on it and I like the lyrics.

Bill: Probably one of the best we did live at that time.

"Beware The Fly":

Tracy:
Same as above. Rational Youth never played a live show without playing this song, right up to the end of the "Heredity" tours.

Bill: I really like what Tracy wrote as lyrics for this piece, especially because "beware the fly in the ointment" is an expression that you can't translate easily into French.

"Saturdays In Silesia":

Tracy:
This was our biggest hit in Canada.

Bill: I remember being at a computer fair in Montreal and looking at an old Commodore 64; I was surprised to discover that someone had carefully re-entered Saturdays note by note into the machine. It was the first time I saw a digital interpretation of one of our songs.

Tracy: Well, actually a few people have told me recently about that. It turns out that it was a in a music program for Commodore 64 that was sold commercially.

"Just A Sound In The Night":

Tracy:
Capitol Records talked me into re-recording this one for the first EP we did for them after Bill left, which was horrible. I like the "Cold War Night Life" original very much, though.

Bill: This one was our softest song, not made to be played in the clubs.

"Le meilleur des mondes":

Tracy:
Definitely our most Kraftwerk- like track. Bill really gets those TR-808 toms pounding in the breaks.

Bill: I remember being quite impressed by "Computer World"'s stereo sequences written by Ralf and Florian, and that piece is born from my first experiments with this kind of programming.

"Ring The Bells":

Tracy:
This track is sort of trying to be something that it's not, but I'm not sure that I know what it is!

Bill: Maybe our most dramatic song and one of the more intense souvenirs I have from that time. But I would like to re-arrange it and re-mix it completely.

"City Of Night":

Tracy:
When this came out, there was a record by another Montreal group called Trans-X entitled "Living On Video" which was quite similar and I think people confused one with the other. I love the vocoder bit in the middle but I've never been able to make out all of what Bill is saying!

Bill: I think it's better if you don't understand! I won't tell you anyway.

"Dancing on the Berlin Wall":

Tracy:
Hmm, let's see... All I remember is that I wrote the lyrics right after seeing the film "Funeral In Berlin" on TV with Michael Caine as secret agent Harry Palmer and that the "Ode To Joy" bit in the middle was one of dear Pat Deserio's corny ideas that always seemed to work in the end. Also, I remember that Bill and I were really pissed off at the engineer because he wouldn't let Bill use his Space Echo on the lead riff because it was too noisy. There wasn't anybody in Montreal in those days who had much of an understanding of what we were trying to do or how to record it.

Bill: This was one of my favourites and still is, even if there's no more wall and Berlin's a big construction site.

Why do you think 'Dancing...' was such a hit in Europe, and still dearly remembered?

Tracy:
Well, I never knew it was popular in Europe, I mean those Rams Horn Records people in Holland wouldn't have told us it was, anyway, so it's only been recently that I've learned that it was our best-known song in many parts of Europe. Now I can understand why people who hear it today like it - I just got an email yesterday from a fan in England who asked if our new stuff will be like "Berlin Wall" and he hoped it would be because it reminded him of Kraftwerk. It certainly is one of our most Kraftwerk-like songs and we are certainly totally unashamed of having been influenced by them - I mean, to me it's like if you were a blues singer and somebody said they liked your singing because it reminded them of Muddy Waters - would you be offended? And we really were influenced by them, not just in the way that any synthesizer group is influenced by them just by playing synths, but it really came out in our sound. Other than that, I guess the image of dancing on the Berlin Wall was quite powerful and of course in the end people did dance on it!

Did you and Bill co-write all of the songs?

Tracy:
Yes, definitely. Sometimes we'd do a song together from scratch (Just A Sound, Ring The Bells); sometimes I'd come in with a chord structure and melody and then Bill would fill it in (Saturdays, Beware The Fly); or sometimes Bill would come in with a rhythm pattern with sequences and I'd come up with ideas for expanding it (Close To Nature, Berlin Wall, Meilleur, Power Zone); and then sometimes Bill would have one part and I'd have another and we'd sort of graft them together (City Of Night) - and then I'd write the lyrics. It was always a good collaborative effort, in one way or another.

Bill: With the computer, we discovered how easy it was to change things inside a piece, adding, deleting, transposing, even interchanging elements from one song to another. And as we were only two guys, we didn't have to spend all night discussing an infinite number of details.

Some tracks from these sessions (Le meilleur des mondes, Dancing on the Berlin Wall, Power Zone) are much more synthetic/electronic and less melodic than the rest of the tracks. Was one of you more responsible for those tracks?

Tracy:
Yes, as you might have guessed, Bill was more responsible for those ones. On songs like those I would come up with the melody line over the top, play lead synth parts, write lyrics and sing. But Bill came up with the core ideas for those songs and, of course, all the interesting synth sounds and programming.

Bill: I think that's why it worked so well; we had different styles of composing but these styles were blending together just by themselves.

A hybrid case in point is City of Night: a melodic easy-listening synth pop tune, which suddenly goes Kraftwerk.

Tracy:
Well, exactly. My part in the song is quite retro and generic, and Bill's parts are a total contrast. But I think the contradiction is what makes the song work.

Bill: I don't know why I used to write almost every middle part like something completely different from the rest of the song. Maybe it's something I learned from rock'n roll without really questioning.

Then, after the LP, a 12" version of City of Night was released. How did you go about remixing it?

Tracy:
I wasn't actually there when Pat Deserio did the 12" mix. But all three versions were done in the same studio, although with a different engineer each time. I think the tempo of the 12" is sped up slightly.

"Power Zone" was only released on the B-side of the 12" City of Night.Why didn't you at least put it on the B-side of the 7" single too? (Where "Le meilleur des mondes" from the LP was put instead)

Tracy:
A good point. I think the only reason we put "Le meilleur des mondes" on the B-side was that it happened to have a French title - even though it's an instrumental! Canadian politics, basically.

Bill: Or some sophisticated marketing strategy...

Tracy: Ha, Ha...no doubt!

Was Power Zone originally intended/recorded for the LP? How come it was never included?

Tracy:
Yes, it was. We could never get any lyrics or a vocal part that we were happy with and we just put it aside. We eventually decided to do it as an instrumental but by that time the album was out. So we used it as the B-side on the "City Of Night" 12-inch.

Bill: I remember Tracy getting really pissed off with that song. He had written some lyrics for it but he couldn't find a way to fit them in. I thought it was OK to have a few instrumental cuts, anyway.

Did you record any more tracks or versions during these LP sessions?

Tracy:
No, just "Power Zone".

In November of 1982, Saturdays in Silesia was released as the second single from the LP. Tell me about the remixing.

Tracy:
Well, we had Angel Calvo in to overdub percussion on "Saturdays" (and "Pile Ou Face") which gave it a different feel from the album version, but otherwise it was just the tracks from the album. It was mixed in a better studio than the album had been, but again we were up against an engineer who thought synthesizers were something that Keith Emerson threw knives at.

A new track, "Pile ou face", was on the B-side. Was it recorded specifically for this single?

Tracy:
Yes, it was recorded specifically as a follow-up to "Cite phosphore", which had been a big hit in French Canada. Unfortunately, it (Pile ou face) was released at the same time as a record with exactly the same title by Robert Charlebois, who was an enormous star in Quebec, so it got lost in the shuffle.

When did the recording take place?

Tracy:
Pile ou face was recorded after the LP. At the same time the re-mix of Saturdays was done - 7" &12" (the 7' version is just the 12" without the edits). Then the 7" of Saturdays and Pile ou face was released as a double A-side English/French single, and the 12" of Saturdays was released with "Pile ou face" on the B-side.

And what about the title?

Tracy:
"Pile ou face" means "heads or tails" in English, which is what you say when you flip a coin to settle a dispute. One side of the coin has the Queen's head and the other is called the tail. Quite appropriate in this instance.

The extended version of Pile ou face consists of two parts: part one is the B-side of the 7" single, while part two is simply an instrumental repeat of part one. These parts put together were on the B-side of the 12". Who came up with this idea?

Tracy:
I honestly can't remember whose idea that was, or why somebody thought it was a good idea at the time!

Did you record any more tracks or versions during these late '82 sessions?

Tracy:
No, that was the lot.

TO BE CONTINUED......??

© Jonas Wårstad and Rational Youth, 1997.


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