The ISO Interview: 'Rock music is outdated' by Murray Walker
Isochronous have changed their name to ISO with the launch of their new album 'Piece by Piece'. It's a move forming part of a greater shift toward conquering the pop music universe.
Their first single 'No Fire' is already being over-played by our dear radio stations and it's a good indication of what to expect on the new album. Less rock and more electronic sounds - there is even a dubstep track on the new record.
What's On caught up with Alex Parker, Richard Brokensha, Marko Benini and Fronko Schoeman of ISO when they were in Cape Town for the launch of the new album for a candid interview about the death of rock, making music on your phone, learning lessons and being 'pop shoe-gazers'.
I have to start with the obvious question; why the name change? Was it an easy decision to make?
Alex: It wasn’t a tough decision. It became apparent to us that the name was a hindrance.
Before, our interviews started with ‘why the name Isochronous?’ Now it’s ‘why the name change?’ ‘Isochronous’ is just a Greek word we plucked out the air. We were young and the things we wanted out of the industry were different to the things we want now. Shortening the name to ISO just makes it easier for people new to our music, radio DJ’s, interviewers.
Marko: We just needed the right time to change it and now seems the right time.
How long ago did you see this problem?
Marko: It was roughly two years ago; when we went to Germany.
Alex: Germany was certainly the biggest eye-opener. Zay zought it vas a dizeaze.
You’re not a metal band.
Marko: A lot of people kept saying they thought we were a metal band.
Alex: We tried to come up with a new name but then decided shortening Isochronous to ISO was the best move. Our fans already call us ISO. So far it’s been a smooth change.
The rock edge you had has now given way to a more electronic sound. Why?
Alex: Well, we feel rock music is actually outdated. A lot of bands, in South Africa especially, play rock from the 70’s. We’re very interested in modern pop culture and the music that surrounds it. We’re influenced by it.
One of the advantages of having a keyboard in the band is that you can have so many instruments in this one instrument and that’s something we’ve really explored. The guitar, drums and bass are still there so we feel it’s not so much a change as simply adding to our sound.
I’ve always thought you had a pop sound, just with a rock blanket over it. You’ve just swapped that for an electronic blanket now.
Marko: Exactly. This is also a technical question though because the way we decided to make this record meant we couldn’t rely on expensive equipment and fancy studios to get the sound we wanted. We had to use a computer.
If you look at what’s going on in electronic music with people like Skrillex, those methods of production have seeped into what we’re doing. I think Skrillex is the best producer out there. His music isn’t so great but his production is untouchable and he does it all on his little Mac at home. With headphones probably. I thought ‘hey, why can’t we take that process into our own music?’
Why do you think electronic sounds have become so popular today?
Franko: If you look at any genre of music, you’ll see it’s rooted in another genre. There has always been a fusion and that fusion is something that comes from an understanding and consideration of where that music comes from with an interpretation that is much more current. We have to look at where music’s main development is now and that is definitely in the electronic side of things. We can now do what people back in the day could never dream of doing and we can do it on an iPhone. We all have influences from classical, jazz, rock, pop and we’re at a point where we’re fusing that understanding with what is the future of music.
Marko: Electronic music has been popular for decades, now though, any Tom, Dick or Harry can make a tune on his iPad and boom, it’s a hit on radio.
Alex: We think using more electronic elements suits our music. It’s more modern, more accessible.
Marko: This is just for now. Who knows what we’ll do on the next record.
The transition in your sound has been quite gradual; there has always been an electronic element to your music. When did you really decide to go that route?
Alex: I think the biggest issue was gear. We’ve had to save for a long time in order to buy the gear we wanted so we could do what we wanted to do live. The sound you hear now is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, we just didn’t have the gear.
One of my favourite descriptions of the band is ‘pop shoe-gazers’. I enjoy it because I’ve never been able to make sense of your lyrics, they’ve always been enigmatic, weird frankly.
Richard: We tend to write in metaphors so anyone can relate in their own way.
I struggle to make out any meaning though.
Alex: We all wrote lyrics for this album. We studied other pop songs. A Nickleback song could be about a lover or it could be about God. It’s ambiguous which makes it appealing to a wider audience.
What are some of the lyrical themes you explore on the new album?
Richard: Love, there’s a lot about love. But also some darker stuff on ‘Count the Hours’ and ‘Heaven’.
Marko: ‘No Fire’ is about losing something or someone. When we were doing the first album we were very young, Franko was 16, and we were mostly writing about getting high. Really, that’s why the lyrics are mostly non-sensical.
Alex: It was literally like bong, jam room, write a lyric.
Marko: Literally. It was like that. Now it’s a whole different ball game. We have grown up and learned if you are serious about your music, there is no time to mess around. We're over that now. We don't drink before shows and Alex doesn't even drink at all anymore. We can look deeper into our experiences now and things have slowed down somewhat.
Franko: We’ve not written anything too direct because you want people to take away a meaning that works for them, along their own experiences.
Marko: It also sounds very cheesy if you’re being too specific and you’re trying to tell people what to think.
What did you learn from your tour of Germany? Besides that your name is a hindrance.
Franko: It was like looking at our own career from this successful view-point. Like looking down the tunnel but from where the light is shining if that makes sense. I say that because the people we dealt with have been doing this for a long time, they are very professional and it all comes down to doing the little things well. From the order in which they prepare for a show to the way you dress. All these little things end up making a huge difference.
Marko: I think a major thing was to look at the band as a brand which is something we laughed at in the past. Unfortunately you can’t just play music and think things are going to happen. You have to put yourself out there. Yes, lots of luck is involved but its all about how you present yourself as a band, as an image, as an identity, as an idea.
In Germany we got a lot of questions from big industry people because they were confused as to what we were trying to portray. We didn’t have a fixed idea. They asked if we were a pop band or a progressive band and initially we got offended, like they were trying to control us but actually they were just giving us really good advice.
Alex: For one of the shows there was a band coach who took notes of our show and they were horrific. She was like ‘what the fuck are you guys doing?’ Playing in front of ten thousand people is really adrenaline pumping so you’re really excited and energetic and everyone has his moves and if you watch the DVD you’ll think 'these okes are clowns'.
Marko: What a bunch of amateurs.
Alex: Watching the videos and looking at the notes we really realised where we were going wrong. You can still feel the music and be entertaining but there needs to be more control.
Marko: It’s all about enhancing the experience for the audience and if you’re being to self-indulgent people pick that up.
What can people expect now that you’ve taken these lessons to heart? What are some of the tangible changes you’ve made.
Alex: The production of our set has improved. Our performance is tighter, more accurate. I think the vocal quality has improved. Richard learnt so much singing in front of so many people.
Franko: Our look has changed now too.
Alex: Marko used to have a beard down to his belly…
Marko: …which is honestly no way to present one’s self. You can’t go and entertain people and look like a cave man. It’s something we just never considered before. I think the whole offering is tighter; we’ve tried to enhance the experience for the listener.
The production on the album is very good and it was done completely independently, walk us through the writing process.
Richard: We wrote songs on acoustic guitar first. We wrote 23 songs in total and then we had a listening party with friends, family and fans and had them fill out forms scoring each song and giving comments.
Marko: It’s really difficult to pick songs for a record.
Franko: When you’re creatively involved it’s tough to decided what to include and what to leave out. That’s why you have record labels that choose for you. The listening session really worked well for us. We didn’t pick the ten best, we picked the ten best that sound good together and also got good scores. After that we took those songs into the mixing process. We have this piece-of-shit HP, 13-inch laptop that we struggled with but it worked.
Alex: Richard edited the album and Marko mixed the album. We wanted to master it ourselves too but didn’t have the time so the mastering was done at Lapdust Studios and we are very happy with the results.
Marko and Richard are both really talented and I often don’t have anything to say about it so I’m like, well, I just gonna play the fucking keyboards over here.
To find out more about ISO, visit their facebook page
ISO have a few shows left of their album launch tour: Bloem
*Image by Sean Brand