In Conversation: David Hewson (Poeme Electronique)

David Hewson is a British composer best known for his scores for television and films. He is also the founder and the mastermind behind the music of  Poeme Electronique which he formed in the early 80's. Most people remember Poeme Electronique by their debut "Echoes Fade" which was released in 1982. Thankfully, the echoes did not fade away and Poeme Electronique are back!
Three decades in music and big future plans, here is what David told us about his early starts, Poeme Electronique, his other musical projects and a lot more. Enjoy the interview!

1. When and under what occasion did you start making music?

From as early as l can remember – my singing was the thing that got me started, from as young as 6 years old – I was told by my teachers that l had an "angelic" voice and always asked to sing in the school concerts – of course as you get older – you lose that naive sound – and now I tend to sing only as a guide for my music. My school however was very in touch with important developments in music teaching in the 60s, and all of my early music tuition was based entirely on the German composer Carl Orff's “Schulwerk” – our school was filled with wonderful xylophones, glockenspiels, metallophones and percussion in all shapes and sizes and we were all taught the importance of making music together as a team - this has never left me, and the discipline did me so much good l think, and as a curious child who cared little for anything other than music – all of these instruments were a treasure trove for me. I soon wanted to start making my own music on these instruments and still have some of my earliest efforts on music paper from the age of 11. I have so much to thank my first music teacher for and my early days at that school. Ten years later l discovered electronic sound - musique concrete was my great love - l was lucky as a teenager to be sent one day a week to the electronic music studios at the Royal Academy of Music in London and was soon making sounds and music on the EMS VCS3. Within a few years, after making so many experiments with tape loops, editing, echoes and multi sound tracking, my very kind parents bought me and EMS AKS - l still have it - it completely transformed my music making, l had started piano lesson when l was 11 - so l already had a bit of a head start at the keyboard. That was the start of a life long love affair with synthesizers and sound creation.

2. Looking back at your impressive musical career which lasts for more than thirty years, what do you consider your career highlights?
As a young musician and later, a composer, l was so amazed to see electronic music develop - from basic studio editing techniques with magnetic tapes, to sound being produced by stand alone oscillators and modules, to the revolutionary developments and creation of the first synthesizers from EMS and Bob Moog. This gave musicians and composers opportunity to create music from scratch as a self contained unit in small studio set ups - l had decided not to peruse a career as a serious "classical composer" - so these important developments enabled me and so many other to realise music without the immediate need for musicians (of course now some thirty years later most of my current music does involve musicians and orchestral instruments) - but l am sure that the years of working with electronic sound has helped to train my mind and ear. As far as career highlights are concerned, l have always found this difficult to pin down, as l am searching all of the time for a new idea or musical concept, however if l were to pinpoint one thing in particular it would have to be when l was asked to compose music for the great Hungarian Animator John Halas - he wanted to create a film using digital computer effects and transformations, the film was called Dilemma 1982, - and was the very first fully digitised film - the other thing that made it so special for me was that l composed it with my music teacher Richard Arnell - probably one of the greatest symphonists that the UK has ever produced - he was also such a fantastic experimenter himself, and supported my interest in electronic music whenever he could.

3. When and how was Poeme Electronique formed?
In the late seventies my brother Les asked me if l would be interested in playing keyboards with his then lively, and very active punk rock band "Stagestruk". The band were influenced by; and bit like The Tubes. It soon became a seven piece line up, and we played regularly in south London and we had a very large fan base and following. I soon started to write material for the band, we had a single on Trident records called "Smoke" - it did not do very well - in fact it was banned by the BBC radio stations - it was an anti-smoking song - but l don't think they got the message. After much hard work and many gigs and no commercial success, the band split and l decided to form Poeme Electronique, with my two cousins Sharon (who wrote the lyrics) and Julie - they had both been the backing vocalists in Stagestruk - and my brother played a guest role on some of the tracks on bass guitar. I then started to produce 4 track recordings of our songs in a tiny studio at our home in south London.

4. Which artist/band did inspire Poeme Electronique’s sound and vision?
So much has inspired Poeme - but l guess in the electronic realm it has to be OMD - Soft Cell - Eurythmics - Ultravox - Tangerine Dream - Gary Numan - Visage - Human League - and of course the great Kraftwerk!

5. Poeme Electronique released “Echoes Fade” in 1982 but sadly, it remained the only record which was released during the 80’s decade. Was the lack of commercial success reason for quitting here?
To our amazement The Echoes fade was championed by the record company executive Freddie Cannon - who was the chief of A and R at Carrere records in London at the time. Our then time manager Barry Dunning (He managed the group Mud in the 60s) played our little 4 track version of the song to Freddie who immediately wanted to release it just as it was! - completely unaltered, so that's exactly what happened. The length of the song worked against it from the start - and most radio stations would not play it because it did not fit into the required time slot - a pop record over 3 mins was always going to be a problem. The only person who liked the record and played it was the late great John Peel. We had an album or three of songs ready to go - but because of the lack of interest Poeme was buried amongst all of the many records that started out with such great dreams, Freddie did not lose hope in us however and got me to create 'Electrophonique' - an an album of electronic covers of hits from the period, so on that disc is soft cell, human league etc etc - a few copies still turn up on E-bay - as for the echoes fade - they sell for hundreds of pounds - crazy, but Poeme was not to be, it did not stop us writing songs however, and in the period after the echoes fade we created over 50 tracks. They were tucked away for years.

6. After Poeme Electronique dissolved, you embarked on a career in TV music, and set up another studio and started concentrating more on your own work. Can you instantly spot highlights from this period?
 My first studio was very tiny and very basic - l had two MS20s a DR55 drum machine, a WEM Copy Cat echo my lovely EMS AKS synth, an Elka Rhapsody, and a Korg Poly 1000, and a few Electro Harmonix Guitar Pedals. I longed to have access to the wonderful synths that had started to become available - PPG Wave, Roland, Moog, etc etc, but l now realise that the simple discipline of "less is more" sort of worked for us at the time - during the Poeme period, I had also been a full time school music teacher, l had used my enthusiasm for electronic music and composition to teach the young people at the school about the wonderful world of electronic sound - often playing Kraftwerk in the music lessons rather than Mozart, and used to take synthesizers into the school, sometimes to give live concerts, it caused a bit of a stir - traditional music sort of went out of the window - l had developed a system of graphic music notation that would allow the more disinterested and sometimes "unruly" pupils to get involved in group music making - it reminded me of my 'Schulwerk' days without the dots!! I soon realised that it may be possible to use my experience and knowledge to create commercial production music. So l borrowed what seemed like a fortune from the bank - £20,000 in 1986, to set up my second studio, with a Tascam 16 track analogue tape machine and numerous racks synths and a nice mixing console. I had come to the attention of a music production company in London called Atmosphere Music, after being asked to play the keyboards on the british soap opera theme "East Enders" - they asked if l would be interested in writing some synthesiser tracks that could be used as background or featured music for TV - l thought this was a fantastic opportunity - this really changed the whole of my life - as l now realised that it was possible to earn a living from composing, recording and creating music from my own studio - sadly teaching had to go. The money l started to make from TV Film and production music, has sustained me ever since.

7. Which role do you prefer in music, producer or performer?
 I wanted to be a concert pianist, my teacher was Christine Gough - she is a wonderful performer, and taught me so much, my early learning involved playing Bach, a little Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms etc, but then l was in heaven - Bartok! - l so loved to play this music - sadly l had a bad accident and cut a tendon in a finger on my left hand - this, and also the stress involved in performing, halted my ambition, l am so grateful for the technical skill that l still have - and if people get pleasure from my performances on my recordings - then l am as happy as l could be. As a producer, over the years l have worked with many musicians, and l do enjoy this role - l love to be able to share the experience and knowledge, and creative process - l have loved seeing peoples faces light up in a session when l had performed the odd synth solo for them, so l guess for me the two things have always gone hand in hand, particularly as l perform virtually every dot of music that l write.

8. Thanks to the Internet, many obscure bands from the 80's have been rediscovered and their albums have been reissued for the first time. The same occured to Poeme Elctronique whose recording material was made available on CD for the first time through Annalogue Records in 2009. Your fanbase has certainly grown since then but how did the new fans find the way to your music? 

In 2006 l had decided to start to look at my recorded archive - it was vast, and disorganised. I managed to find a person to digitise all of my old stereo recordings onto pro tools from tapes - so that l was able to go easily to these recordings. Many of the analogue tapes had deteriorated, and it involved baking them to get them to play a few times to be able to transfer them. After this, l was able to listen easily, and the many poeme songs started to come to light, including a very basic little film that we made of the echoes fade, with only a small cine camera, a white sheet and a couple of lights. I made this into a little movie file and posted this onto you tube, l was totally astonished to see thousands of hits, and started to get many emails about our music. One very special message was from Jochen Lange - who had managed to track me down via EMI - he wanted to know if l was still making music - the answer of course was yes - and if any of our material had survived. I have kept virtually every recording that l have ever made - including the little angle voice form 1960! so it was such a pleasure to say that albums worth of material had survived. Jochen was able to make the connection to Annalogue records - owned and run by Marc Schaffer, and through Marc's enthusiasm and fantastic support, we were able to re-release the echoes fade as new version, and later a double album of our songs. Many were on 4 track tape, so l began the long, and complex process of baking the tapes and transferring the recordings, to clean up, and were necessary re-record elements that had been lost, to bring them back to life. We also made the tracks available on itunes, this was an amazing feeling so many years later.

9. Have the recent reissues encourage you to make new music?
Very much so, and my plan is to try and complete a third Poeme album for re-lease later this year, and we have enough material even for a fourth album, this is all material from the 80s, such a lot of work so we will see. l am composing all of the time and often have two or three projects in progress at the same time, each day will not pass without some new music being made.

10. What is/ are your favorite album(s) from the 80’s decade?
I think it would have to be 'The Man Machine' from Kraftwerk not strictly 80s as it was was released in 1978 but it shaped so very much that was to come later "Das Model" was a hit in 1982 - so l guess it qualifies - l remember playing this so many times to my pupils when l was a teacher - it always caused such fun and havoc! I also did a cover version of "Das Model" with Sharon - so that made it special - the model was a man in our version.

11. Do you find time for new music and what do you usually listen to these days?
I am always very interested to listen - but out of choice I will listen to classical music. I never work past 6pm in the evening - so at that time its often nice to listen for an hour or so with a nice glass of ice cold wine - l also like to dig around on internet radio - its a treasure trove of sound - you never know what you might find. l very rarely listen to my own music - l get bored with it very quickly and want to move on to something new - but l do like to listen years later - to see if have have learned anything!

12. Have you got any further plans in music, new projects, new releases, live shows, maybe?
 I am working with Marc Schaffer, Sharon and Julie from Poeme, and Steve Lippert (who has been an inspiration and a great friend - he designs our sleeves) on our sister project Twins Natalia - this was Steve Lipperts invention - its a kind of electronic co-operative. Marc sends me a demo of a track - and l then transform this into a finished song with lyrics from Sharon, Sharon sings lead vocals and Julie sings backing, although this is never set in stone. We have already released a debut single, "When We Were Young", this has recently been covered by the wonderful duo Marsheaux, and we have covered a song by then - "Radial Emotion", this disc should be with us in June.And l am also completing a Twins Natalia album at the moment. Another special release is an extended 12 inch disc with a new Poeme Electronique song on one side and a new song from Twins Natalia on the other - it looks like the angel voice has returned! - maybe this time as a demon - as l sing the lead voice on the Twins Natalia song. All other vocal duties are taken care of by Sharon and Julie, and on this twins song we have wonderful lyrics by Steve Lippert. We are also planning a new minimal electronic project called PureVision - l will return to my very basic set up from 1979 - to record some new material!!

13. Where can fans gain access to your music?
 Other things of interest: