Marc Almond On Soft Cell’s New Album, Andy Warhol, And God

Synth-pop pioneer in conversation...

‘*Happiness Not Included’ is the new album by Soft Cell, the duo of Marc Almond and Dave Ball. A duo of towering cultural significance in electronic pop since arriving in 1981, ‘*Happiness Not Included’ finds the pair taking a cynical swipe at religion, British history, the media, our sundry obsessions with nostalgia and the let-downs of modern life compared to what we were promised. The album features collaborations with Pet Shop Boys and Christeene and finds Almond reminiscing on a meeting with Andy Warhol in 1981.

Forty years may have passed since they dropped the vivid, unflinching ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’, but their new album finds Almond and Ball in familiar territory, mixing late-night tender torch songs with dark-hued, upbeat songs that lurk in the inviting, shadowy corners of the nightclub. We spoke to Almond about the state of society, threats to hard-won LGBTQ+ freedoms and his hopes for the future.

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I found myself noticing nostalgic or backward-looking references in your lyrics here – a cheeky reference to The Pink Flamingo from ‘Say Hello, Goodbye’ on ’Nostalgia Machine’, a sense of longing for all the things we were promised in the future on ‘Happy Happy Happy’, the idea that the world just wants to remake the 1980s on ‘Tranquilliser’. What’s your relationship like to the nostalgia machine?

I suppose 80s music still resonates today because of the sweet naivety and emotion that came from so much creativity combined with the visual excitement. It was unashamedly fun, hedonistic, sometimes political and often had an anthem of liberation to it in such repressive times.

I think any artist deals, to some degree, with themes that are meaningful to them and when you get to a certain age you find that everything hoped or imagined has come true, but only in part – almost like a kind of warped and disappointing view of the future. But in the end, if indeed this is the end, there is a thread of optimism that comes with accepting who we are and where we are in the world. There is so much madness presently in the world that it all feels out of kilter.

I feel incredibly privileged to be still here and working after 40 years. I look back at many of my contemporaries from that era and there is only a handful left who are still working, and even fewer of them with a record deal and recording new material through a major label. The track ‘I’m Not A Friend Of God’, to me, sounds like it could have been recorded by Nina Simone. It’s very cynical about religion, which I can relate to, and which is totally understandable. Have you ever been drawn to religion or spirituality through your life? I don’t hold with any religion. They are equally absurd.

The notion of God, when you stop to think about it – I mean really think about it – is quite a bizarre concept, founded upon fables and mythologies. So don’t be too disappointed when your imaginary friend lets you down.

You collaborated on the track ‘Nighthawks’ with Christeene. That song seems to perfectly capture the thrill, but also danger, of arriving at a new city or a point of reinvention. It seems vaguely biographical – almost like the other chapter of the ‘Bedsitter’ story, perhaps. How did the collaboration with Christeene come about?

It came about by chance. We have a mutual friend and they put the idea forward and it seemed like a great fit.

She is incredibly confrontational and challenging, something that we need in these times to make us look at ourselves and our society.

It feels like the world’s relationship with the LBGTQ+ community is in a pivotal, uncertain place right now, and in a way that’s why a figure like Christeene being featured prominently on ‘Nighthawks’ is so incredibly important. To me – perhaps naively – it feels like the music world is a very accepting place today but I know it hasn’t always been. What was your experience?

Billie Porter talks eloquently about how we are at the forefront of telling our own narrative. It’s not in the hands of other people who are outside the community anymore. Like him, I feel so blessed to have lived long enough to see this day.

The struggle is not over. Our freedoms balance precariously on a precipice. The right wing and nationalists would curtail any freedoms if they could, for gays, for women, and the minorities everywhere. And in addition I see, especially through social media, divisions amongst the community – be kinder to each other and realise that only through standing together can we hold on to the gains we have made and ensure a better world for everyone.

I suppose it comes back to feeling pride in ourselves. I think the early trans rights activist Marsha P. Johnson was right. “If a transvestite doesn’t say, ‘I’m gay and I’m proud and I’m a transvestite’ then nobody else is going to hop up there and say, ‘I’m gay and I’m proud and I’m a transvestite’ for them.”

I feel like collaborating is something you’ve always been drawn to – not just with Dave, but with many other artists. What makes a good collaboration, in your opinion? What do you enjoy about them?

Collaborations are odd things – they are balancing acts between two artists who feel artistically or commercially close enough to benefit more than harm the other. It’s a strange kind of dance, and when they work they can be amazing. In fact my biggest hits have been duets.

‘Polaroid’ describes your time at The Factory in New York in 1981 and meeting Andy Warhol. What was he like to interact with?

He was everything you would want Andy Warhol to be. There was nothing of who he was that he revealed, this strange creation, oddly taller than I imagined. He was polite, guarded, cold but also exactly as I had wanted him to be. The current documentary available on streaming is astonishing, and heartbreaking. 

There’s a wonderful narrative to ‘Light Sleepers’ – a bit of people watching perhaps and imagining the stories of people you’re watching while drinking your coffee. Where did the idea for that song come from?

It is a very personal song which I wrote during a brief visit to Los Angeles. It was one of those mornings when you wake up early because of jet lag, and I would wander down to the Earth Cafe and sit watching life, when the end of the night meets the beginning of a new day. You get that mix of people coming down and starting up. It’s such a lovely moment when a city yawns itself awake.

There is a pretty bleak prognosis for society running through this album which, like the views on religion, I think we all can relate to. If this wasn’t our current reality and destiny, what would utopia look like for you?

A place without shame, where there is no shame in being what you are. Where you are the only one who gets to say who you are. I think that search is summed up in the final track on the album, maybe one of our finest songs of all, ‘New Eden’.

I wrote it for older people who feel lost in this current world, outliers I suppose in this polarised black and white place. I wanted to evoke that feeling of optimism that comes with at least a belief of a better place, or world, maybe even spiritualism.

One of the songs that inspired me into writing ‘New Eden’ was the song ‘Go West’ – first by the Village People, as it was filled with such promise of something better, freer, a time before AIDS. And then the remarkable version by the Pet Shop Boys that taps into the post-AIDS world, and shifts the location of the theme to East/West and political freedoms, and the lovely sadness and melancholic delivery by Neil.

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‘* Happiness Not Included’ by Soft Cell is out now on BMG and available on vinyl, cd, cassette and digital – // Soft Cell have recently announced a US tour in August for the ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ 40th anniversary, full dates here:

Interview: Mat Smith
Photo Credit: Andrew Whitton

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