In a totally unexpected development UK’s Plone have returned with their first new music in 20 years. For those unaware, they formed as a three-piece in the mid-90s with their first album, For Beginner Piano, released on Warp Records in 1999, and then, well, nothing. Whilst sharing a mischievous fun loving quality with label mate Plaid, their output of quirky wide eyed joyful electronics was quite at odds with much of the technocentric seriousness of Warp’s late 90’s output. Plus they were so damn cute. Now a duo, their second album, the ridiculously playful Puzzlewood was released on Ghost Box last month, so we took the opportunity to connect with Plone and ask where they’d been for the last 20 years.
Cyclic Defrost: Please bear in mind that I bought For Beginner Piano in the early 2000’s, not knowing anything about you guys, just because it was on Warp (like I mentioned in my review) and I was just immediately captivated with your music. Given that music rarely arrives fully formed out of nowhere, I’m really interested to know, not just how you began working together, but how you arrived at your collective approach to making music, which even today feels so unique?
Mike: Personally, it started with noise then over years became melody. I don’t have enough dexterity for an acoustic instrument, but electronic instruments always held a fascination for me anyway, so it was natural to evolve in that direction. Initially, Mark and I were collaborating, making noise-collages, synth-drones or anything that could be set up and left to run. It was apparent that something more was needed and inevitably we must learn to play our instruments after all. It was about this time (around ’94-‘95) that Billy bought a Roland Juno 60 and joined us. Billy could actually play which pushed Mark and myself forward. I think in trying to learn, I began to listen closer to music but retained the naivety of ignorance by being naturally unsuited for the task.
Cyclic Defrost: Did you have any touchstones in mind? Or what is it you thought you were doing at the time? Was it thought through?
Mike: It’s safe to say it was not thought through. There was a period before Plone, when we played rudimentary techno in clubs or wherever would have us. That was much more self-conscious and, as a result, unoriginal. The transformation into Plone was a schism with thinking about what people wanted. Only when we started entertaining ourselves did we start making music that entertained others.
Cyclic Defrost: Did you grow out of a scene where others were making similarly happy, wondrous themed music? And if so do you have a time machine so I can go back and live there?
Mike: We were broke and miserable for much of that time – the happiness in the music is an escape. You don’t need to travel back in time to want to find happiness. I think we have enough to want to escape from right now.
Cyclic Defrost: You seem like you must be gear nerds, it all sounds so analogue, bouncy and squelchy. Did you guys have a synth/ gear fetish? Though it also felt like you guys were using the tools in totally different ways than everyone else around you. Does that seem fair?
Billy: It was a really exciting time to be discovering this old technology with all of it’s quirks. I remember being struck by how unique- sounding each synth was and yet they were all made from the same basic components. We managed to rescue the dusty and unloved instruments hidden away at the back of the music stores. Being quite naive at the beginning we bought keyboards that looked interesting but were also cheap! Onstage there was the look of a car boot sale with all the unwanted relics whilst most other bands were using the latest digital synthesisers.
Initially, we had no sophisticated way of sequencing sounds so we just started playing them live like traditional instruments. Later, we’d listen to early recordings of live Kraftwerk performances and it was clear that it was all being played live, once the technology had moved on they would sequence everything. Similarly for us, the technology dictated the approach.
How did you end up on Warp? What was the experience and exposure like for you?
Billy: I think partly we were lucky that at the time there were very few bands who were doing a similar thing. Rob Mitchell from WARP came to see us and I imagine he must have looked at us on stage and thought “well this is certainly different”. He asked me to send him some demos and he and Steve Beckett thought it was so unusual and interesting compared to a lot of the Autechre -sounding demos they were receiving. They couldn’t quite get there heads around it at first but they liked it.
Cyclic Defrost: Now the million dollar question: Why just one album? What happened? Did you break up?
Mike: We handed in an unfinished second album to Warp. Although it took us two years to get to that point, the album was given over in haste, and not fully-realised. That was a deep regret, I still find that whole period too painful to think about. There were other factors too, but the upshot was that we were dropped by Warp, unemployed and broke again. For my own sanity I had to move on, and accept a little that the real world had won.
Cyclic Defrost: So there are interweb rumours of a fully formed second album. How come it wasn’t released at the time, or anytime in the last 20 years?
Mike: I touted the album to a few labels during the time following on from Warp, but no one would touch it for whatever reason. Damaged goods probably. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are several compositions on there to be proud of, and even some which have improved with time, but when I listen to it, I feel some of the grief and disappointment of the time. Luckily, however, a lot of the tracks got onto the fledgling internet and it’s been a comfort to see the positive responses they’ve got.
Cyclic Defrost: So, uh, what have you been up to for the last 20 years?
Mike: Mike in Mono was a solo act for a while. There was also the ZX Spectrum Orchestra with Brian Duffy (no one said it could be done! …or that anyone should try) and I played live in Brian’s Modified Toy Orchestra for a bit. Then I was through with music in 2008 – I couldn’t even bear to listen to anything by anyone – but after a few years, and with a couple of false starts, Billy managed to coax me into contributing ideas again.
Billy: After I left Seeland (a band I formed in 2005 with Tim Felton from Broadcast) around 2011 I carried on making music but it was directionless, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with it. When I’d occasionally get together with Mike that was quite productive but it was very on and off. It was only a few years ago that Mike and I started working together more seriously and I think that’s when things started to come together and move into more of a Plone territory.
Cyclic Defrost: It seems so unlikely that you would return 20 years later. How did Puzzlewood come about? I understand there are elements of music created in the past, though also more recent material?
Mike: There was a lot of material in the end, narrowed down to around 30 tracks which were submitted to Ghost Box who then whittled it down to the 14 on the album. It’s a good process but it takes 20 years! ‘Chalk Stream’ and ‘Sarcelle’ were in embryonic form when Plone stopped in 2001, there was a week in 2011 when we jammed out a few of the other tracks, and the rest were born in the years since then.
Cyclic Defrost: What was it like making Plone music 20 odd years later? How would you characterise the difference between Plone 2020 and Plone 1999?
Mike: Clearly the technology of recording is vastly different and that has released us from many of the headaches of the past. It also frees up time which I am obliged to fill with a mundane day job. I hope that 20 years of life experience has made it easier to collaborate.
Billy: It’s a calmer experience, less intense. We used to spend hours on end together in the studio, It’s not like that anymore. We work separately most of the time and meet up once a week.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you have to be childlike, full of wonder and mischief to make music that sounds like this? I’ve read a few review reviews that mention that Plone aren’t being ‘ironic’ – as if they’re surprised by that. Is it possible to make non ironic music in 2020?
Billy: Not really, we created a sound that we like and we still like it all these years later. There was a fashion for a while for ironic Easy Listening music like Mike Flowers Pops. We listen to Easy Listening but we’re not laughing at it.
Mike: The whole Plone style is a sincere expression of appreciation for all that his influenced it.
Cyclic Defrost: How did the relationship with Ghost Box come about?
Billy: It started off with a different musical collaboration that I’m working on. I contacted the label with this other project in mind and there was talk of maybe doing an EP. When the email exchanges got around to the subject of Plone I told them that there was loads of material that I had made with Mike. They recognised that a lot of it had that quintessential Plone sound and that’s when the idea of a new Plone album was suggested.
Cyclic Defrost: What happens now for Plone?
Mike: Another album on Ghost Box hopefully. I have really enjoyed feeding ideas to Billy, watching him run with them, and contributing to his ideas too. And I wouldn’t want to stop now, especially as we have found ourselves a home on such a good label.
You can find Puzzlewood here.