are a long distance love affair. Started a few years ago by David,
Meredith, and Jimmy, the three would send each other sound files
through the internet to their homes in San Francisco, Cambridge
(Mass), and Los Angeles, respectively. What may have started as
a fun project has blossomed into a unique electronic pop dream band.
Word spread shortly after the band released their first 7”
and CD (Transportation + Communication + LOVE). It didn’t
take long for their warm bleeps and Mute Records inspired love songs
about UFOs and baud rates to find an audience, easily wooing over
indiepop, electronic, and ambient fans. Produced by the band, The
Heartfelt exceeds all the expectations of a band delivering their
first internationally distributed album.
The Heartfelt combines that warm analogue sound that only bands
like Stereolab and Mouse On Mars can capture with a very obvious
pop sensibility not unlike bands like the Human League and OMD.
It’s not romantic pop, however, it’s more loyal to the
obscure Mute Records roster of yesteryear like Telex or Silicon
Teens. All that said, the band purrs and whirs to create something
that is 100% Figurine. You know it when you hear it. It’s
From a recent issue of the SF Weekly (an interview with Dan Strachota):
Although Figurine recorded its first songs in 1995, the band didn't
release its debut album, Transportation + Communication = Love,
until the summer of 1999. Even then, the record's goofy '80s-style
songs -- full of fuzzy synths, deadpan vocals, and lyrics about
robots, UFOs, and digital love -- received little notice. Part of
the problem was that the release came out on the tiny Oxnard label
Blackbean & Placenta; the fact that Figurine's three members
all lived in different parts of the country and couldn't tour didn't
help. "[Skillet] was about being an angsty teenager,"
David admits with a sheepish grin during the band's first group
interview, held in a Mission District cafe near his apartment.
Although the bandmates went off to separate colleges in 1993, they
stayed in touch. During college, David released an album of ambient
techno music as Antihouse, James played bass with "Enocore"
college radio favorite Strictly Ballroom, and Meredith was in a
short-lived pop band called 16-Yr-Old Boyfriend. When they came
home for vacations, they'd get together to experiment with recording.
"It started out as a novelty," Los Angeles resident James
says. "We just thought it would be fun to do an '80s techno
pop record." "We wanted people to think that when they
heard [the record] they would think it was something from the '80s
[that they had missed]," David says. "We were trying to
create artifacts from the past that weren't from the past."
One inspiration was "Dreaming of Me," an early song by
Depeche Mode. "I thought, "Wow, here's something that's
really pure and really nice and really electronic and doesn't try
to be chin-stroking,'" David says. "I wanted to try to
do that." Meanwhile, James' horizons expanded by listening
to the home-recorded tunesmithery of the Magnetic Fields. "[The
Magnetic Fields' Holiday] was the first thing I heard that pointed
out that you could make these lo-fi electronic songs and sing over
them, and it could be an effective sound. Before that I always thought
of techno pop as a really produced, clean, perfect thing that I
couldn't pull off."
In 1995, the trio named itself Figurine after the sleek, unisex
children's toys, and recorded two songs for a proposed 7-inch compilation.
When the project fell through, the members returned to college and
other outlets. (The single eventually came out in 1999.) After David
graduated from UC Berkeley in the winter of 1997, Figurine reconvened
in Santa Barbara and put more tunes to tape. The completed effort,
Transportation + Communication = Love, is a clever collection of
pop numbers swathed in the synth sounds of yesteryear. James speaks
his vocals in a deadpan robotic fashion, while Meredith adds a vaguely
European accent to her voice. Often, fans of the album e-mail the
group, asking if its members are British. (The band's England-based
Web site, www.figurinedatacenter.co.uk has furthered the confusion.)
"We like playing with people's expectations," David says.
"[The song's narrators were] like roles we were playing,"
Meredith adds. "It's easier to do these cheesy love songs because
it's a character," James concurs.
To that end, Figurine sang lyrics about getting your first kiss
at the same time as seeing your first UFO, about sending love letters
to Mars, and about hoping for a cure for loneliness ("We've
taken care of cancer and we've cured the common cold/ But I'll still
be left alone with no one warm to hold/ And all the robots that
we've built can fly our brand-new cars/ Yet still there's nothing
we've created that can mend a broken heart"). In Figurine's
world, technology was forever linked with that most human of instruments,
the heart. But when it came time to make the second album (following
numerous compilation appearances, including a cover of Bernthøler's
1983 cult hit "My Suitor" for March's Moshi Moshi collection),
the band members wanted to try something new. "It would've
been too much to do another retro '80s thing," James says.
"We recorded the songs for the first album without ever thinking
we'd have another," David explains. "There was no thought
about the people listening to it -- you're inclined to just go goofy
because it's this one-time thing. The second album was sort of an
attempt to figure out what we wanted other people to hear."
After working for a year on their respective backing tracks -- absorbing,
among other things, the pretty, melodic electro acts on Germany's
Morr Music label, Saint Etienne's pastoral electro pop, and the
personality-driven Detroit techno of AUX88 -- James and David arrived
at a sound firmly rooted in the electronic beats of today. When
they met with Meredith in Santa Barbara in December 2000 to record
vocals, they agreed to downplay past kitschy lyrics as well.
"The newer stuff has less of an emphasis on technology,"
James says. "It's not about the technology but the love relation
On The Heartfelt, there is still plenty of circuitry. On "Game
Over," Meredith dumps a guy because he plays a guitar instead
of a synthesizer: "Our game is over/ It's time you knew/ This
love is through." On "International Space Station II,"
James and Meredith look back at Earth after two years in space:
"I miss the blues/ I miss the greens/ I liked humans more than
machines." And "So Futuristic" is as robotic as Kraftwerk
The group's songwriting, however, has grown far more sophisticated.
On "Rewind," Meredith and James trade verses, using the
metaphor of a rewind button to question whether they should restart
their floundering relationship. Then, in the last verse, Meredith
suggests James press the fast-forward button to see how crappy his
life would be without her. "Stranger" uses a similar format,
with the duo swapping vocals -- only this time he is watching her
from afar and she wants to keep him there. The song alternates between
the boy's unrequited love and the girl's need for a stranger's protective
but distant presence. As you may have noticed, The Heartfelt doesn't
offer much in the way of good cheer. On "Way Too Good,"
James sings, "I don't know what you see in me/ A disappointment
is all I'll ever be," while on "Heartfelt," Meredith
wonders, "Do you have a heart?/ You seem so artificial."
If this is the future of love, we might be better off on the moon.
Luckily, the group's melodies are far from downbeat. "IMpossible"
is James' attempt at besting the Pet Shop Boys, and he almost succeeds:
It's easy to imagine the song's fuzzy beats, looped trills, and
Casio plinks lighting up a disco, with dancers singing along to
"I M so lost without you." "Way Too Good" is
techno-polished pop with thudding beats and squiggly noises, and
"So Futuristic" swings to a squishy funk rhythm lifted
from an '80s "booty bass" song. When asked the difference
between their songwriting styles, David says with a laugh, "I
can tell James' [tracks] because they've got things I would never
know how to do. And James hears mine and thinks they're primitive."
"David's are more bouncy, and James' are more textured,"
The question remains: Will indie fans expecting synths and androids
be put off by this new direction? Hoping to get people involved
in the new songs, Figurine placed three of what it calls "password"
songs on The Heartfelt, each with a code title like "NATUR."
A listener can go to the group's Web site, plug the code letters
into different locations, and download the separations -- the individual
vocals and beats -- for each song. "It's an attempt to see
if anyone will do a remix. It's a twist on the bonus track and a
way of integrating the Web site and album," David explains.
For their part, the members of Figurine aren't staying put. They've
contacted numerous abstract electronica people like Isan and Sutekh,
asking them to send unused bits of tracks so Figurine can turn them
into pop songs. "I think it's hard for some of them because
they think we're taking their serious art and making it into pop,
and they've been consciously trying to avoid pop," David says.
With The Heartfelt, Figurine isn't consciously avoiding pop; it's
hot-wiring it for the Space Age dance floor.