Computer Dreaming

Figurine ditches its synth pop past for an electro present

Although Figurine recorded its first songs in 1995, the band didn't release its debut album, Transportation + Communication = Love, until the summer of 1999. Even then, the record's goofy '80s-style songs -- full of fuzzy synths, deadpan vocals, and lyrics about robots, UFOs, and digital love -- received little notice. Part of the problem was that the release came out on the tiny Oxnard label Blackbean & Placenta; the fact that Figurine's three members all lived in different parts of the country and couldn't tour didn't help.

"[Skillet] was about being an angsty teenager," David admits with a sheepish grin during the band's first group interview, held in a Mission District cafe near his apartment.

Although the bandmates went off to separate colleges in 1993, they stayed in touch. During college, David released an album of ambient techno music as Antihouse, James played bass with "Enocore" college radio favorite Strictly Ballroom, and Meredith was in a short-lived pop band called 16-Yr-Old Boyfriend. When they came home for vacations, they'd get together to experiment with recording.

Figurine: So futuristic.
David Figurine
Figurine: So futuristic.
Figurine: So futuristic.
David Figurine
Figurine: So futuristic.

"It started out as a novelty," Los Angeles resident James says. "We just thought it would be fun to do an '80s techno pop record."

"We wanted people to think that when they heard [the record] they would think it was something from the '80s [that they had missed]," David says. "We were trying to create artifacts from the past that weren't from the past."

One inspiration was "Dreaming of Me," an early song by Depeche Mode. "I thought, "Wow, here's something that's really pure and really nice and really electronic and doesn't try to be chin-stroking,'" David says. "I wanted to try to do that."

Meanwhile, James' horizons expanded by listening to the home-recorded tunesmithery of the Magnetic Fields. "[The Magnetic Fields' Holiday] was the first thing I heard that pointed out that you could make these lo-fi electronic songs and sing over them, and it could be an effective sound. Before that I always thought of techno pop as a really produced, clean, perfect thing that I couldn't pull off."

In 1995, the trio named itself Figurine after the sleek, unisex children's toys, and recorded two songs for a proposed 7-inch compilation. When the project fell through, the members returned to college and other outlets. (The single eventually came out in 1999.) After David graduated from UC Berkeley in the winter of 1997, Figurine reconvened in Santa Barbara and put more tunes to tape.

The completed effort, Transportation + Communication = Love, is a clever collection of pop numbers swathed in the synth sounds of yesteryear. James speaks his vocals in a deadpan robotic fashion, while Meredith adds a vaguely European accent to her voice. Often, fans of the album e-mail the group, asking if its members are British. (The band's England-based Web site, www.figurinedatacenter.co.uk has furthered the confusion.)

"We like playing with people's expectations," David says.

"[The song's narrators were] like roles we were playing," Meredith adds.

"It's easier to do these cheesy love songs because it's a character," James concurs.

To that end, Figurine sang lyrics about getting your first kiss at the same time as seeing your first UFO, about sending love letters to Mars, and about hoping for a cure for loneliness ("We've taken care of cancer and we've cured the common cold/ But I'll still be left alone with no one warm to hold/ And all the robots that we've built can fly our brand-new cars/ Yet still there's nothing we've created that can mend a broken heart"). In Figurine's world, technology was forever linked with that most human of instruments, the heart.

But when it came time to make the second album (following numerous compilation appearances, including a cover of Bernthøler's 1983 cult hit "My Suitor" for March's Moshi Moshi collection), the band members wanted to try something new.

"It would've been too much to do another retro '80s thing," James says.

"We recorded the songs for the first album without ever thinking we'd have another," David explains. "There was no thought about the people listening to it -- you're inclined to just go goofy because it's this one-time thing. The second album was sort of an attempt to figure out what we wanted other people to hear."

After working for a year on their respective backing tracks -- absorbing, among other things, the pretty, melodic electro acts on Germany's Morr Music label, Saint Etienne's pastoral electro pop, and the personality-driven Detroit techno of AUX88 -- James and David arrived at a sound firmly rooted in the electronic beats of today. When they met with Meredith in Santa Barbara in December 2000 to record vocals, they agreed to downplay past kitschy lyrics as well.

"The newer stuff has less of an emphasis on technology," James says. "It's not about the technology but the love relation around it."

On The Heartfelt, there is still plenty of circuitry. On "Game Over," Meredith dumps a guy because he plays a guitar instead of a synthesizer: "Our game is over/ It's time you knew/ This love is through." On "International Space Station II," James and Meredith look back at Earth after two years in space: "I miss the blues/ I miss the greens/ I liked humans more than machines." And "So Futuristic" is as robotic as Kraftwerk ever got.

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