1. I am delighted to have the opportunity to interview John von Ahlen, the driving force behind Parralox, the Australian electro-pop project.
Although formed in 2008, you were not idle, you released your debut album “Electricity” the very same year. When listening to it, I feel it is influenced by some old school synth pop music, very poppy, vibrant and danceable. How do you feel about it looking back in time?
I’m quite happy with the Electricity album. The only regret I have is releasing so many songs together on one album (15!) when I really should have released the songs as two albums. But I guess I was excited about the songs and really wanted everyone to hear them all together. I knew it was a lot of tracks to release on one album, but I wanted to impress people from the beginning and didn’t really know which songs to leave off the album, so I included everything I had recorded. Now that I’m getting older I realise that quantity doesn’t relate to quality, but I think in this case I managed to keep the production and song-writing values consistent enough that the album was quite strong as a package. When you produce music in such a quick burst, you’re always moving onto the next thing, which means you can often forget about the earlier material. We perform a few of the Electricity tracks live, but the rest of them I don’t listen to as often as I should. So when I do go back it’s nice to hear these tracks that are basically the genesis of Parralox. It was pretty much me putting all my musical influences together into one album. You just have to look at the dedications for all the tracks to get an idea of where the inspiration is coming from.
2. Even though you name both some old school synth pop and some more contemporary names as the bands you like or are influenced by, I find your musical expression quite unique and very modern. Would you say it has to do with your love for clubbing and dance music sound?
Indeed. I’ve grown up with electronic music in my blood, plus a strong love of pop music, and in particular well written songs. In my younger years I was pretty much living in nights clubs. I started off going to clubs when I was 16. I was introduced to the world of nightclubs by my flat mate, a lady who was transitioning from male to female, and was totally captivated by this amazing fantasy land of music and personalities. Soon after I became a podium dancer at one of the most popular gay clubs in Melbourne (7th Heaven). So of course I was going out nearly 5 days a week! You become immersed and absorbed in club culture and the newest songs, which of course hit mainstream radio a year or 2 after we’ve been listening to them in the clubs. I then started DJing, which was also a lot of fun in those days. So while I was always a fan of Depeche Mode, The Human League, Yazoo etc, I was also listening to the most cutting edge dance music and getting inspiration from pretty much everywhere. I must point out that I’m not just into electronic music per se, but am a fan of ANY song that is well written, no matter what the genre. My brother was into Heavy Metal, so I remember listening to a lot of Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne. Quite a few of those songs are breath-taking. Not to mention artists like The Carpenters, Randy Crawford, Billie Holiday and well…I could go on! So I guess it was only natural that when I started to produce music of my own, I would mix all of these influences together into something that sounded both new and old at the same time.
3. The fans didn’t have to wait too long, in 2009 you released “State of Decay”. Even though albums are just a year apart, they tell a different story, as I feel “Electricity” is more poppy and “State of Decay” a bit more dark and complex in a general feel and with Parralox’s own signature. How is it to have albums released within a year and being able to bring some new ideas to your music making in such a short time?
I don’t really know where my ideas come from. A lot of the songs I write come from lucid dreaming, so I really feel like I’m cheating in a way. But I also approach things from a mathematical perspective, almost like there’s a formula there waiting to be deciphered or decoded. In most cases I can feel that there’s a song waiting to be revealed, and I just need to get the right sounds (or remove the wrong sounds) until everything just falls into place. A lesson I learnt from Pete Waterman is how important a song title is. You wouldn’t think that one word or sentence could have such a profound effect, but the truth is I wanted to pay homage to my love of Science Fiction. In the same way that The Human League wrote “Tom Baker” I thought I could go one step further and use the name of a Doctor Who episode as an album title. I specifically chose “State Of Decay” both because it was a brilliant Doctor Who story, but also because the words themselves hinted at something darker. So I guess the truth of the matter is that I chose the album title before I even started writing the actual songs (with the exception of “Hotter” which Roxy refused to sing, hence why it wasn’t included on Electricity). I grew up writing and producing music for a lot of other artists, but never really had much experience writing lyrics or top line melodies. I did try writing a few full songs when I started out back in the late 80s, but they were pretty much rubbish, which is why I always worked with other lyricists who wrote the melodies, and relied on my strength as a producer and composer. I guess it wasn’t until I was in The Tenth Stage, and wrote a song that actually sounded OK when I realised “hang on, maybe I CAN write songs after all”. I think I wrote one song for the first album, and another for the 2nd album and perhaps that gave me the confidence to realise maybe I had finally crossed a threshold of sorts. When I write songs now, I generally go on pure instinct, and like David Lynch says, the ideas come from somewhere else and I merely am a vessel to shape these impressions I receive.
4. Can you reveal the beautiful female vocals on “Electricity”, “State of Decay” and “Metropolis” to us?
The vocals on those albums are courtesy of the amazing Amii Jackson, who is a truly gifted pop vocalist. I was so fortunate to work with her. They were really good times!
5. I was so pleasantly surprised by the choice of the songs you covered on “Recovery”. I never thought that “Eye in the Sky” from The Alan Parsons Project could ever sound so well, but you nailed it. What made you choose those particular songs? Does the choice resonate with your personal taste in music or did you go by some other criteria? Do you have your favourite cover song on the release?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m a big lover of well written songs, and Eye In The Sky is one song I grew up with. I remember singing that song in my bedroom and just going into a blissful trance. The music itself is just amazing, as are the lyrics and production. From the moment I created Parralox I always did cover versions, but never really released them to the public. Ingo at conzoom records suggested we put them all together on an album, and I was initially hesitant, but after having released so many original songs I felt I had earned the right to have a little fun with other people’s songs! It was really difficult to choose the tracklisting for Recover, because there are so many songs I love and wanted to cover. And just when I thought I had the perfect tracklisting, I’d remember another 30 songs that I loved and should cover. You always have the fear factor of doing a version of a classic song, so I guess you really have 2 choices. Copy the sound that people know, or take the song in a totally different direction, and so I used a combination of both approaches on the album. I don’t know if I have my favourite song on the release, because I’m STILL coming up with ideas for songs I’d love to cover. I guess I can say I was really happy with the way Eye In The Sky turned out. I remember just producing the song and using what I thought would sound nice to my ears, so I’m lucky that it turned out the way I did. I guess other people seem to enjoy it too, based on the sales and YouTube stats.
6. I must admit, “Aeronaut” is the closest to my personal taste in music, and it is a brilliant author’s work. My personal feeling about this album is that it’s less mainstream and a bit more “underground”. What are your own thoughts about this release?
Aeronaut was written when Parralox was going through a bit of a transition phase. I wanted to write songs that were a little different direction to what I had previously done. I guess underground is one way of putting it, but I was really influenced by M83 and his sounds at the time and wanted to do something a but more dream pop or Motown sounding. I’m not sure if the influences show, but that’s what I was thinking. Amii wasn’t really keen on singing any of the demos I had done (Aeronaut, Somebody II, Oblivion, Mystery etc) so those songs just sat there for a while until I decided to create a side project and get them out into the world. After Amii left Parralox I thought I’d take a chance and finally release these tracks to the world as originally intended and I was surprised to find that they have been the most commercially successful releases so far. It was a bit of a challenge to find myself producing my own vocals, but I approached it the same way I do any other vocalist. I’m pretty happy with the way Aeronaut turned out.
7. Even though your music can be characterised as pop, it is very appealing to the “dark” audience as well. Are you pleased with the notion that your music has reached even the fans in the gothic subculture?
Oh yes, very much! I was very honoured to perform at Infest 2010, have always had a desire to perform at Wave Gothic Treffen. That is actually one of my life long goals, and maybe one day it will come true! I guess I wear my influences on my sleeve, in particular Depeche Mode, Einsturzende Neubauten, DAF etc so it’s no surprise that the gothic scene would be receptive to the Parralox sound as well. You can see it with bands such as Marsheaux, who also are very well received. It gives me such a thrill to know that the gothic crowd (some of them anyway) get into Parralox. I guess there’s so many different sides to the band’s sound, there’s something to make everyone happy.
8. You made an eye catching video for “Aeronaut”, can you tell us a little bit more about the video itself?
That’s a very long story! Subterrane Recording Studio is located in the heart of Melbourne, and some new people moved into the apartments a few floors above. I got to know them and made friends with a guy called John Ibrahim. John is a genius in terms of his knowledge of fashion, art and design. He was working on some pretty amazing projects and would often go upstairs and share a cup of tea and listen to him talking about what he was working on and what inspired him. He also opened my eyes to another world of design and creation and exposed me to all these amazing designers, creators, painters and directors I wasn’t really aware of. I secretly dreamed of having him work with Parralox, but I knew he wasn’t really into directing music videos for bands, even though he had done so before and was very successful with the results. After developing a good friendship, I guess he got to hear more Parralox music and really understood what it was all about. He would hear some songs and be more interested in some than others. When he heard Eye In The Sky he must have been moved by it, because it was at that stage that he agreed to be the Creative Director for the music video. We spent a few months working on the concept and design for the video, which resulted in me constructing a mirror box (which you see in the final video) entirely by hand using materials sourced from around Melbourne. It was sheer luck that my brother in law works at a glass factory and was able to custom cut the massive mirror pieces that we needed, including the two way mirror which is how we achieved that infinite look. Even though I directed the video, the actual design and concept is largely thanks to John Ibrahim. The guy is just a genius, plain and simple. And it was because of this that he naturally found work in Paris. I was sad to see him leave Melbourne, but thrilled that his skills had taken him to the centre of the fashion world, which is where he belongs! With all the travel I do with Parralox I was able to see John a few times a year in Paris and so of course the friendship continued. We had already come up with some ideas for the music video for Aeronaut while John was in Melbourne, and after he was settled in Paris, it was agreed that we would work together on Aeronaut. John spend a lot of time walking the street of Paris and finding all the perfect locations for the video. He came up with so many amazing concepts and ideas, same as we did for Eye In The Sky. So when I arrived in Paris, we pretty much filmed the video in 3 nights. We had an assistant on hand to carry the equipment for the first night, but on the subsequent nights of shooting it was just John and myself. We would wake up in the afternoon and go to a café and drink coffee and watch the world go by, and go back to our apartment and have a little siesta. We’d then wake up around 2200 and start hair and makeup and would leave at around midnight or a little after. Because John had researched his locations so meticulously, we were fortunate to shoot at so many iconic locations with next to no people in the shots! It was quite a liberating experience to film Aeronaut, just the two of us walking the streets with a camera. We would go to one location and film what we needed to, and then go onto the next location. After a few days of filming it was getting close to the weekend, I think perhaps Thursday or Friday was the final day of shooting. We realised that the locations we wanted to film at were suddenly not to empty, as more people were coming into the city and staying later and later in the morning. We filmed at Hôtel DeVille, Musée du Louvre, Jardin des Tuileries, Pont Alexandre III & Petit Palais. I think the final day of shooting was at Jardin des Tuileries and it was pretty much the very last scene we shot, in which both us were DEAD tired as it was nearly 0600. We were about to just call it quits when we though we must soldier on and get at least one last scene in. Well, there was something magical in the air, because everything just came together so magically. The lighting and location was just haunting. We of course had no lighting, so relied on what nature, and the city, provided. So that final scene, which we really didn’t want to do, ended up becoming the main sequence for the entire music video. It was like a blend of Twin Peaks’ Agent Dale Cooper and the House of Harkonnen from Dune. So it’s amazing the contrast between that video and all the others I have directed previously, in which I’d be working with Assistant Directors, Camera Assistants, Lighting Designers, Hairdressers, Makeup, Wardrobe, multiple locations and heaps of extras and actors. This was the total opposite, with just John, a camera and tripod and myself, walking the streets of Paris in the early hours of the morning.
9. Another interesting release in 2015 is “Holiday ‘15”. Please tell us a little more about it!
After the success of the Recovery album, I was encouraged to release Recovery Part 2, but a little hesitant to release a full album of covers again. Even though I’ve written over a hundred songs for Parralox I didn’t want to be known as a covers band. I guess a compromise was to release an EP with 6 songs instead haha! So I was chatting with my manager about doing a Christmas type EP, as so many of my favourite bands had done. But instead of ALL Christmas songs, there would be maybe one or two seasonal tracks, and the rest would be covers. And so Holiday ’14 was born. It was released as Limited Edition CD for the hardcore fans, but we soon realised that lots of people wanted to get their hands on a copy, as they all sold out very quickly. The name came from The Human League’s release Holiday ’80. Again it’s the idea of taking something old and turning it into something new, which I guess is at the heart of Parralox. So then when 2015 came around it seemed only natural to continue the tradition and release the follow up, namely Holiday ’15. I had already recorded a few cover versions for other compilations, so it was an easy choice to put them all together on this release, as I had already done the hard work! I wrote a few new songs (Voyager, Rocket Science and Paris Mon Amour) and worked with an amazing Australian vocalist called Louise Love, who also sang on “I Don’t Depend On You”. Paris Mon Amour was co-written by Caesar Gergess (who lives in Paris) and myself. And as you might guess, I’ve already started work on Holiday ’16 😉
10. Since the first album onwards I can hear how much passion for the synth sound Parralox express, and not to forget your outstanding production! Where do you feel most at home? Composing, song writing, playing synths, being a vocalist or producer?
I guess at the end of the day I really do feel most at home in the studio. It brings me great joy to compose, write and produce music. I ended up doing vocals because I found myself with no lead singer after Amii left. So it was a bit of a gamble to release a Parralox song with a male voice as lead, but it seems to have worked. I collect Vintage Synths, so I spend a lot of time working on sounds, and focusing on certain synths to get the best out of them. At the moment I’m rediscovering the Pro-One which is just an insanely good sounding synth. Just listen to Upstairs At Erics! Production is really what makes me happiest I guess, but because I also write the songs I suppose it’s the entire process. We are fortunate to live in a time where we have access to so much amazing technology.
11. It seems impossible to cover all that you have released since 2008; you have released albums, EPs, remixes and appeared on some compilations. Just recently you have released “Wildlife” EP, so what awaits us further?
We are still in the promotional phase for the Wildlife EP, but I’ve already begun writing new tracks for our next album “Subculture” which I hope to have finalised by August or September. If everything goes right, I’d also like to release another EP or single this year, and it will be accompanied by another trademark Parralox Animated Lyric Video, assuming the song I want to record gets recorded! I won’t say too much more about what that is. I’m also producing a few other artists this year, as well as doing remixes for other bands, plus some Animation and Video work for other people, so I’m keeping myself busy. Maybe too busy?
12. You are very recognized, as we can see from some music charts. Can you mention some of them where you ranked really high or are especially proud of?
Our highest commercial achievement was a Billboard USA Hot Dance Club Play position for Creep (#45) as well as #2 on the Billboard Breakout Charts. We’ve also had a few Number One positions on other charts around the world. But to be perfectly honest I am just proud to be on any chart, even if we are Number 500. If you visit our website you’ll see a list of the Chart Positions we’ve achieved around the world, and I can honestly say I’m proud of each and every one of them, because they all represent the fans who are buying the songs, the DJs who are playing the songs in clubs and on radio and the blogs who support us so wonderfully. I don’t take anything for granted and I know how precious all these things are.
13. I must pay you a compliment as well for all the Parralox cover art, I find it amazing. As I have read
somewhere that is also John’s work, I find it amazing that one person can be so diverse, so productive and innovative. So John, how do you manage?
Hmmm sometimes I’m not sure myself! I guess I have a very strong work ethic and I’m very self motivated and driven. When you love something so much, it’s not even work really. It’s just your life and you have no choice. A big inspiration to me is Galileo. He did so many wonderful things, and generally never worried about what he could or couldn’t do. He was a true renaissance man. I never stop to think about whether I can or can’t do something, well.. for the most part! I believe we all have the potential to do whatever we set our minds to. So for instance when I was in The Tenth Stage and my band mate suggested we do an animated clip and find an animator, I said “why don’t I have a try?” I had never animated anything before in my life, but I sat down with After Effects and after a few months ended up with a Music Video that I’m very proud of. When I started Parralox I knew from the very outset that I wanted a strong and consistent design, imagery and branding for the band. Many of my favourite bands would use repeated logos and typeface that branded certain releases (The Human League, Heaven 17, Yazoo, SAW, Depeche Mode, Blancmange etc) and I always found that thrilling. It gives a sense of continuity and collectability to your products. As far as the Parralox design itself, I guess it’s a combination of my influences. There are so many people out there who are better designers and creators than me, but that’s OK. It’s what gives me inspiration and I always aim to be as good as the people that inspire me.
14. You have played in Europe, for example Germany, Sweden, UK, countries whose audience really enjoys such a sound, so can you compare those scenes to the Australian one?
There really is no comparison. Australia doesn’t really have the population to sustain a live synthpop scene. You only need to look at our list of Gigs to see that we’ve only performed in Australia a handful of times, but perform very regularly in Europe. Plus the population of Australia is vastly different to Europe and America in terms of the music that is consumed. Trust me, I’ve tried to find many Promoters and Record Labels to work with Parralox in Australia, but they just aren’t interested in us, despite healthy sales overseas and a very loyal fanbase. But that’s OK because the whole world is our audience!
15. What can one expect from your live gig? Any news on some possible dates?
We’ve just performed in London and Sweden, which was simply amazing. Our good friend Sebastian at Wonderland Records (and Henrik Wittgren) asked us to perform again at Electronic Winter 2016 in Gothenburg and we had a simply brilliant time. This is the 3rd time we’ve played in Sweden. But, I’m going to try and focus on studio work and get the next 2 albums done this year. Live work is great but it really does take time away from being in the studio, because we usually rehearse for 2 months leading up to the gigs. I would love to be able to design a proper stage set, as I have some definite ideas for how I would like Parralox to appear live, rather than just 2 people standing behind keyboards. That’s an area we will explore in more detail.
16. Can you name some of the bands and artists you have collaborated with so far and some names who you would like to have on your collaboration list?
In terms of Parralox I’ve remixed Erasure, Marcella Detroit, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Electronic, Doctor and The Medics, as well as a bunch of amazing synthpop bands across Europe and America. I’d love to produce The Human League’s next album!
17. Parralox has teamed up with conzoom Records. How are you pleased with your joined venture?
Conzoom records has been there since the very beginning. I met Ingo in 2008 in London when I saw Yazoo perform for the Reconnected Tour and we’ve been working together ever since. . I’m also fortunate to have a brilliant manager, Raj Rudolph, who I’ve been working with for a many years. Ingo and I have a handshake agreement, and the relationship has continued to grow over the years. Conzoom Records have been such a large part of our success and I look forward to working together for many more years.
18. Can you provide some useful links where your fans can follow your work?
Parralox Social Media Links