Primary 1: "It’s almost like catchphrase music." The next pop megastar talks to Ruth Saxelby.
It’s the morning after the night before. The only thing for it is spicy food. Sweat it out. Culinary options are limited in this corner of Hackney Wick but thankfully the corner shop does a nice line in canned Thai green curry soup. I’m sat in photographer Mikael Gregorsky’s airy studio on the weekend of Lovebox. The boom boom boom can just about be heard above the rumble of the nearby overground. Or maybe that’s just artistic licence. We’re waiting for Joe Flory aka PRIMARY 1 to arrive. There’s not much hanging around – he’s bang on time and very polite too.
I had been wondering what to expect from this reluctant pop star in the making. You won’t find his face all over the internet – or actually, much of his music. In contrast to prevailing strike-while-the-hype-is-hot tactics, Flory has kept a pretty low profile since his shoulder-jerking debut single Hold Me Down on EROL ALKAN’s Phantasy Sound label in January 2008. That’s despite/because of the Guardian and Popjustice being quick with the CALVIN HARRIS comparisons and suggestions of superstar production rope-ins. Fair enough – the 24-year old half-Norwegian is a producer/songwriter/musician who makes electronic pop music. However, unlike Harris, PRIMARY 1’s brand of pop has teeth, wrapping bile-coated lyrics in peppy, funk-ridden, 21st century sound. Yeah, there’s a touch of PRINCE in there but there’s also more than a sniff of GEORGE MICHAEL’s couldn’t-give-a-toss attitude. Pop doesn’t have to be substance-lite with smooth edges to be accessible – and Flory knows it.
Having toured with METRONOMY last summer (reworking ‘My Heart Rate Rapid’ into a jingly jangly love letter in the process), this year he’s been more vocal. There was the rap-off with THE SHOES on electro stomper ‘Ho Lord’ and more recently, the much blogged collaboration with RITON on the ghostly ‘Who’s There’. And now, having signed to Atlantic, that rumoured debut record is finally on the way. From a first listen to album tracks ‘Foaming’ and ‘Outside’, it’s gonna be killer. Bowls of hot soup on our laps, we sit down to chat pop and breathe in hangover-curing, chilli-laced steam.
You studied film…how did you get into music making?
I’ve just always done it really. I used to play drums and then basically, like a lot of people, I got a computer. I wasn’t in any bands, it wasn’t that attractive to be in a band. I wanted to do everything. When I got a computer it just opened it up. I’ve been making stuff at home for about 7 years – since I was 17.
So what have you been up to since ‘Hold Me Down’?
Basically I’ve been making my album. It’s taken a long time but it’s been great because I’ve effectively made the album I wanted to make. The album’s not dance music or anything, it’s just songs.
I’ve really like ‘Foaming’…
Yeah, that’s a favourite of mine.
What I like is that if you were listening without really listening, it feels really summery but it’s actually quite acidic. It sounds like family angst…
It was at the time. What’s funny is that song is like four years old. The best thing about writing songs is that I don’t really think about it at the time but then looking back on it, it’s like ‘oh wow’. It’s quite intense I suppose.
There was a lot of attention when ‘Hold Me Down’ came out at the beginning of 2008. The Guardian’s New Band Of The Day were saying Kylie and Madonna were going to come calling…
That’s the side of things I was never really interested in I guess.
What, producing other people?
I mean, I am but I suppose there are two sides of pop music. The one where people who are really idiosyncratic are making pop songs in a really particular way, and then there are obviously the huge selling things. I guess they do overlap but I never really thought about the Madonna side of things. So it’s weird when people write ‘you should do this’ or whatever.
With mainstream pop, it’s often about the image being as accessible as the music. You’ve always seemed to keep that quite separate, wearing a lion mask and not putting your face out there.
I don’t know – it’s only because I wanted to have the music out there and not be identified as a person. It’s going to have to go that way I think, you can’t avoid it, you have to build things up. I wish you could just release albums and that would be it but it’s not like that, which I’ve now understood.
A bit of rebellion at first then…
Over the last couple of years, everything seems to have suddenly become pop. Definitions of pop seem to have changed or maybe the way we listen to things has changed…
What I think it is when people say ‘I just do pop music’ what they mean is ‘I want to write really great songs’ but that’s nothing to do with pop music. It’s just really great songs. You can do it in whatever genre. But then there are a lot of the aesthetics of pop music [out there] without the songs. I reckon anyway.
When is the album coming out? It’s coming out on Atlantic?
Yeah, I’m going to release ‘Foaming’ first actually and a few other things in the next couple of months, then the album. I am really excited about it because there’s a lot there and it takes a while to get into but ultimately, hopefully, it’s quite rewarding to listen to.
Do you know what it’s going to be called?
It’s called Love In A Jugular Vein – at the moment. There’s a song called that and I think it sums it up quite well.
What’s on the album?
To be honest, it’s me doing the things I like in my particular own way. There’s one or two quick 3 minute things, there’s a kind of guitar-based song and there’s one called ‘Who’s Afraid Of The Dark’, which is quite orchestral – it’s got trumpets.
Which you play?
I play it all. I can play enough of everything to make it work.
Are you self-taught?
No, I had lessons at school. I was in the brass band. I loved it.
Did you have a uniform?
Actually, I went to visit some cousins of mine in Norway and they have proper old school marching bands there. We had these crazy overall-type uniforms with berets and we had to march around, it was brilliant. We went on tour and everything.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I have a real soft spot for certain electronic music like Burial. I really love stuff like that. To be honest, just because it’s so specific. That’s like all my favourite stuff – they do one style and they do it really well. I think Metronomy are fantastic. It kind of makes sense that a lot of things that I like often don’t have vocals. I always want to do that kind of thing but with vocals. That was the idea behind it when I started out in this.
Do you do everything on the album – playing/producing/singing?
Pretty much but I have worked with lots of different people on different aspects. It was going to be a lo-fi album but then I was lucky enough to find someone who wanted to release it. It’s been great working with other people but it’s also been hard. I’ve never learned so much in my life. I worked with Paul Epworth a little bit, on one track. And a guy called John Hill, who did a lot of Santigold’s music, sent me a backing track and I made it into something I would do. That’s going to be the second release actually, a song called ‘In The Middle’. One of the things I always wanted to do was a slow song, a really intense, heavy, slow song and that’s the one we did together. I must have done 50 attempts on my own but then with him, it worked.
It is good to bang heads a bit with someone else. It helps you work out what you really think about something.
Yeah and listening to stuff with other people sitting there, you know it’s rubbish pretty quickly. (Laughs.) You can kind of sense the room going ‘errr, this is embarrassing’. (Laughs.) It’s been great because it means that I’m really pleased with everything that’s on the record.
I imagine you’re a bit of a perfectionist.
Yeah. Over a long period of time. A really slow one.
So, running parallel to this has been the Riton stuff?
That’s only happened really recently. Again, working with other people, I never thought that would happen. With Riton, what I’m effectively doing is breaking up the music. It’s really different to writing songs. It’s almost like catchphrase music…
Catchphrase music?! I’m thinking of that ITV show now…
(Laughs) It is kind of like that – you’ve got three seconds to get the message across. Why I like it so much is that’s it’s so different to my album, and I do enjoy that type of dance music. We just met and got on, and then just wrote loads of stuff really quickly. It’s really fun to have someone who’s doing all the music – I just contribute bits. He does things I wouldn’t think of doing. I really enjoy that. There’s a hell of a lot of dancey pop stuff now, isn’t there. But I think it will be weird enough. He has weird production ideas.
Weird is good.
Definitely. So we’ve had a lot of fun with that.
So what’s next?
A lot of the songs on the album are really intense and urgent. But what I really want to do next is an album of things you can leave on. Almost background music I suppose but if you listen to it there’s loads of detail. Whether or not that works in terms of getting it released on a major or whatever, it doesn’t really matter. Like I love that GONZALES album, the piano one. The thing about that album, the people who are involved in classical, they all hate it. But that’s what’s great about it, because it’s in-between something.
For more Metronomy-influenced pop, check out our piece on Your Twenties.