Electronic conquistadors… how Future Sound of London went on tour via an ISDN cable

Today, we might think nothing of watching a live YouTube feed from a music festival, or uploading our latest mix to Mixcloud or any number of digital platforms.

A quarter of a century ago, however, this was in the realms of science fiction. At least until Future Sound of London came along.

Having earned critical acclaim from tracks such as Papua New Guinea and Lifeforms in the early 90s, in 1994 Future Sound of London, or FSOL, embarked on their most ambitious project yet… to bring their music ‘on the road’ via ISDN cables, the primordial soup of what we now know as broadband.

Akin to Marconi sending radio signals across the Atlantic, this was new territory for a music group, yet was in keeping with the ethereal experimentation the group was becoming famous for – 1993 single Cascade memorably extended to close to 40 minutes.

As the group’s Gary Cobain and Brian Dougans told Sound on Sound magazine in August 1994, the group’s plans to ‘tour’ via the medium of ISDN was a reaction to the current state of the music industry.

“Basically the idea is to break away from the hypocrisy of the way that electronic music is being forced on the road by a load of rock journalists,” Cobain explained.

“ I’ve nothing against electronic music going on the road at all, but I don’t think it’s the best forum for hearing that kind of music.”

At the time, the group had already performed a number of audio broadcasts via ISDN, for Kiss FM and for Pete Tong’s Essential Mix. But some 19 years before the first video was broadcast on YouTube, the next evolutionary step for the group was to be able to broadcast sound and pictures simultaneously, in a live gig setting.

“We have a philosophy about sound and vision that a lot of people with a lot more expertise in the video industry just don’t have, and musicians are capable of it — there’s no video maker who can make a video better than the one that I’ve got in my head,” Cobain explained.

Even back in 1994, the duo suggests, electronic music was beginning to get stale, and a new approach was needed.

“Dance music has ceased to be productive, and it’s no longer productive for us at all,” said Cobain. “So we’ve been trying to de-learn that process from 1988 onwards — in order to get back to what we were like before, where we were really scared of what we were doing because we didn’t know what it was, there was no ‘home’ for it.

“Every time you hit the keyboard it’s like ‘I’ve heard that before’. It’s trying to come up with something that is not only coherent but a new form of coherence, something that we haven’t done or heard before. And that’s really difficult without getting self-indulgent. It’s a thin line, because I don’t want to spill over into the ‘avant-garde’ quagmire, which would be an easy step for us to take right now — like an album of complete sound, not a track in sight: a complete three-dimensional headspace.”

Their sonic experiments throughout 1994 even turned into an album, the aptly titled ISDN, released the following year, while arguably the group’s most famous ‘live show’ took place in 1997, at Essential Festival in Brighton… ‘for Internet junkies’, as The Independent newspaper put it.

Memorably, the gig was cut short after ten minutes, after just two tracks, due to ‘technical difficulties’…

But considering the maximum achievable bandwidth at the time (using three separate ISDN lines) was 22kbps, and the equipment used was somewhat rudimentary (a DSM100 Digital Audio Transceiver Unit was used to simply ‘plug’ the equipment into the phone line, what FSOL set out to achieve close to 25 years ago has to go down as a breakthrough moment in electronic music culture.

The full article is available to view here.

[Kudos to FSOLVEVO and STAKKERHUMANOID for the YouTube uploads]

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