A couple of young boys have sneaked into a club in Leeds, The Warehouse, with the help of their friend, Martin Williams, who also happens to be the DJ there. Martin has a cassette of new music given to him by these cheeky teen chisellers. One track in particular is causing much dancefloor consternation. It’s called “LFO” and it’s also by LFO. As luck would have it on this evening, Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell from the fledgling Warp Records notice the dance-based kerfuffle and run up to the booth demanding to know what the heck the tune is. Martin dutifully points in the direction of 20 year olds Mark Bell and Gez Varley, for it is they.
I’m stood in a gay club in London, Troll, in the early summer of 1990. It’s sticky and humid outside, while inside the sweat is dripping off the speakers suspended above the dancefloor. A record comes on with bass so BIG, so tangible, it feels like you could put your arms round it and give it a cuddle. It sounds disembodied and otherwordly, and yet, paradoxically, it’s also soulful, like Kraftwerk is soulful. It’s also called “LFO” by LFO. It fits in perfectly with the mixture of house, techno and the R&S-style new beat the DJs play.
Mark Bell’s story could provide a template for every kid of a certain age growing up in Thatcher’s Britain. You could almost write the script yourself. It’s an amalgam of video games, football and music with a spot of hi-jinks thrown in for good measure. In a way, acid house became the physical expression of the disparate feelings of thousands of kids in Britain: casual culture, electro, breakdancing, hip hop, football, clothes, computer games, daft haircuts and that strange British obsession with black American culture. Mark Bell and his mate Gez Varley were no exception, really. They had the lino, like everyone who’d ever bought a Streetsounds compilation, and an unquenchable passion for electronically-driven culture.
Yet there is one difference. There are very few kids from the back streets of Leeds who get to work with Björk in Spain, produce bands like Depeche Mode and, moreover, get to make their own records for a living. Oh, and just for good measure working with a bunch of Germans who just so happened to be ex-members of Kraftwerk.
Mark Bell’s most significant early memories of music were threefold. There was the teacher at school who taught art and played Jean-Michel Jarre and Kraftwerk; there was the older sister who played disco, funk and early electro in her bedroom. There was also, recalls Mark, “a record shop in Leeds that had arcade games like Tempest and Defender and they’d play loads of early hip hop like Schoolly D. I remember feeling this is mine and my friend’s place”.
Mark’s first foray into the world of electronic instrumentation began when he managed to do a deal with his first girlfriend’s father. “He used to make reeaaaaallly bad ‘Lady In Red’ style ballads that I had to sit through for ages so I could convince him he needed a band, not soulless electronic crap, and I could buy his drum machine!”
When Mark left school to go do a photography and graphic design course at college. It’s here that he met both Gez Varley, his early LFO collaborator, and Martin Williams, a West Yorkshire DJ. Thanks to a legacy of money left by Gez’s grandmother, they found themselves with a bedroom full of equipment and a world of ideas. Those ideas mutated into cassettes full of possibilities, and pal Martin started playing them at his gigs. LFO (Low Frequency Oscilllation), the knob on many a vintage synth, now became a group.
“One Saturday Rob and Steve from Warp came to the Warehouse,” recalls Mark, “and Martin played some of our tracks and the crowd would go mental. Rob knew his music so he asked Martin what was playing and he pointed at me and Gez. So we sat in someone’s car and played them a tape, it was 90 minutes of fun! They couldn’t believe how much there was, Warp the label hadn’t quite started yet but they offered to put out a 12 for us. We’d never even thought about releasing stuff; it was more than enough hearing the music on a big system.”
The resultant tale has become the stuff of acid house legend. The expected 2,000 sales mutating into 130,000 and a number 12 placing in the UK Top 40. Not only that, but Radio 1’s Steve Wright offered his own (w)ringing endorsement, pronouncing ‘LFO’ terrible at every available opportunity. Being harangued by Steve Wright is, of course, the sort of thing that in saner times would merit knighthoods and the donation of small Caribbean islands for use thereof.
The debut album Frequencies – the first great European techno LP – captured the Detroit aesthetic perfectly, though this was hardly a surprise. The Detroit pioneers themselves had been influenced by electronic music from Yorkshire – early Human League and Cabaret Voltaire – as well as P-Funk and electro. Most of the kids in Yorkshire making early house and techno records had started out in breakdance crews. Electro was in their blood (or, at the very least, record collections).
There was some gap between the first album and Advance, their second effort. The press described them as “the Stone Roses of techno”, somehow missing the point that they were still actively making dance records for indie labels like Carl Craig’s Planet E. No matter. Advance managed to combine visceral drill-sergeant beats (“Tied Up”) with an almost jazz aesthetic on “Shove Piggy Shove” (which became Björk’s “I Go Humble”): Beauty and the Bea(s)t.
After the release of Advance, Mark and Gez parted ways with Mark retaining rights over the name. Not that he did anything with it. A mere seven years later we have the third album, Sheath. So why the gap? “Fuck knows,” laughs Mark. “It’s not intentional…It’s easy doing your first album as you have all the first part of your life to express. The second one is harder unless you’re going to repeat yourself… and repetition bores me a bit, it’s a complete wasted opportunity to be creative.”
Not that the lad’s been idle or anything. There’s the small matter of co-producing Björk’s Homogenic (the aforementioned trip to Spain), which included working with legendary Brazilian producer/keyboardist Eumir Deodato. “I really enjoy producing, as in thinking how someone’s song would make me like it, then actually putting that into practice,” says Mark, simply, of his production work. “You also meet some brilliant people like Deodato. He’d just wear his pyjamas all day playing the stock market on his computer, but when he was young he’d be a ‘true playa’ with loads of bikini girls on his sleeves.”
Mark also produced Björk’s Selma Songs (the soundtrack to her Palme d’Or winning Dancer in the Dark film) and Depeche Mode’s Exciter. A chance to work with true heroes. “I felt a bit odd when Depeche Mode were asking me for days off or what they should eat,” he confesses. “I used to be into them when I was 12 and now I am deciding what food they’re going to eat? They were really fun though.” He adds, pointedly: “But doing my own thing is more rewarding as there is no compromise, it’s just me.”
No compromise indeed. And so to Sheath by LFO. There’s a lack of a vocal presence on Sheath. Might this be a reaction to working with so many vocalists? “It’s definitely a reaction,” confirms Mark. “Björk is an amazing vocalist and I always compare other people to her range and feeling which is a bit stupid of me, but I’ve been spoilt really. Most demos that I get sent with vocals I find pretty hard work. I prefer the synths to sing on this one.” Describe your record in three words: “L...F.....O...”
Mark Bell still lives for that great moment, the one that makes the hairs stand to attention on your nape. “I remember hearing Schoolly D’s ‘Saturday Night’ and Grandmaster Flash’s ‘Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel’ and just getting all moist!,” says Mark. “I still get those feelings when I hear a ‘special’ track. That’s what I live for really, hearing or making a ‘special’ track.”
So has anything changed from starting out to getting here today? “Phew… I’ve got some pubes. I can cook a bit and I read the Sunday papers.” Growing up? Who knows? Just don’t ask him what went wrong at Leeds United…