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Art & Culture / The Sound of Style

Douglas J. McCarthy

In this column Dean Mayo Davies asks creatives to reveal how music has enriched their work and shaped their identity

Douglas J. McCarthy
Douglas J. McCarthy

"It’s a bit murky today but it’s always fun coming here," says Nitzer Ebb's Douglas J. McCarthy in a gruff pitch that's absolutely parallel to the voice etched on vinyl...

"It’s a bit murky today but it’s always fun coming here," says Nitzer Ebb's Douglas J. McCarthy in a gruff pitch that's absolutely parallel to the voice etched on vinyl. The (natural born) frontman is speaking from Berlin, where he's rehearsing ahead of a handful of shows coinciding with his debut solo record, Life Is Sucking The Life Out Of Me. The release has its hawk’s eye on the dancefloor and, as shown with first cut Hey, a total devotion to remixes and alternative edits. More sex and menace for your buck, in other words – and a natural progression of his thumping electronic project with Terence Fixmer, as Fixmer/McCarthy.

"The last [Nitzer Ebb] album, Industrial Complex, we toured the best part of two years, something in the region of 275 shows," McCarthy explains, a very different experience to the US of the 80s, where sound engineers would mix Ebb's keyboards low down, expecting a bassist and guitarist to turn up at some point.

"In between stints, I decided I wanted to make more of a dance album, which [Nitzer] can do obviously, and have done very well. But there’s always a rock element to it and I wanted to immerse myself back into a mixture of things. Over the past couple of years, when I come to London, I’ve been hanging out with my friend Richard Clouston [of Cosey Club]. Both of us went through this period where we were re-listening to early acid house, and more straight-ahead dance music as it seems now, but back then it was extremely experimental. On the album, I worked with Mark Bell, of Shaboom records, which is very much a house, tech-house label. The idea is not to have a mish-mash of totally different styles, but for people to hear each track very obviously has an electronic-based song, hear my voice, and then associate it with me over genre.”

Based in Los Angeles these days, McCarthy has come a long way from Barking, east London, where he was born.

"Afterwards my upwardly mobile parents moved us to Canvey Island, the dizzy cultural heights of Essex. Which is quite ironic seeing as its about fifteen feet below sea level. We used to go and play on the sea wall and you’d see on one side this choppy North Sea, Thames Estuary, and below you the land where your house was. It was a pretty mad psychological experience."

"I did an art foundation, as every good musician should...of course I was there for about a term but I recognised the importance of visual expression"

McCarthy met Ebb bandmates Bon Harris and David Gooday at comprehensive school. "They were in the year above me, we were all skateboarders at the time, and hung out. 'Pretty Vacant' was on the radio and I remember singing that – what I thought was funny about it was that you could say ‘cunt’. By the early 80s, the whole dawning of Thatcherism, it was a pretty charged period of time. My parents were very left-leaning, my dad very involved in the trade unions and we certainly knew about politics in my house, much to my sister’s dismay. I remember there was one time she cried because ‘Fiddler on the Roof‘ was playing on ITV and there was some documentary on BBC 2 that my dad insisted that we watch," he recounts.

"By the time I’d got to fifteen we started doing shows. We played our first at the Chelmsford YMCA and quickly got a following from the punks. You had to do it yourself, so we’d book nights and club nights – it would always be completely packed with all our mates and anyone else who was bored out of their minds in the area of Chelmsford. Essex has churned out a variety of synth bands, in the same way as Sheffield has its reputation – Depeche [Mode] had their residency at Crocs in Rayleigh."

Though Simon Granger is the man behind Nitzer Ebb’s graphics, a mix of Dada, Russian Constructivism and Italian Futurism, McCarthy is very much a conceptual driving force – everything is interlinked. "I did an art foundation, as every good musician should,” he laughs. “Of course I was there for about a term but I recognised the importance of visual expression."

On stage and off, over the past five years, McCarthy has honed a deviant western look in black. The EBM Johnny Cash, if you will.

“A second hand shop in Joshua Tree really set me off on this pervy cowboy thing, I found these brilliant ankle cowboy boots there," McCarthy remembers. “Plus Raf Simons has always been very into our music. He’d come to shows and Terence and myself played in Japan to open his Tokyo store – I’ve got some really nice tailoring of his.”

Dean Mayo Davies is a writer based in London. He contributes to titles including AnOther and Another Man, Dazed & Confused, Vogue Hommes Japan, The Last Magazine and Zoo Magazine.

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