Tracy Howe is pumped about making music again. His on again off again synth pop project, Rational Youth, is very much back on with the help of his wife, Gaenor. The duo picks up where the group (which released such classics as 1982’s Cold War Night Life and 1999’s To the Goddess Electricity) left off, but is born anew – all while attempting to maintain the minimalist attitude Rational Youth is known for.
Future Past Tense, out now on Artoffact Records, is six tracks of sardonic, catchy, beautiful and chaotic synth madness, self-recorded by Team Howe over four months at their home in Chesterville, Ontario.
“We (record) a lot differently than we did in 1981, where you go into a recording studio and somebody there knew how to run everything, now I just do it all myself,” Tracy says over the phone from Ottawa. “The interesting thing is that I’m doing it all at the same time, the writing and recording and mixing. It’s almost like sometimes the last lyric and the last vocal are going down at the moment when the last couple of moves on the mix are getting ready to move and then you print it.”
Writing the five tunes (the EP also features a cover of “Unveiling the Secret” by Germany act Psyche) was a collaborative effort, something quite different from past Rational Youth records.
“We went on tour in Germany with Psyche, they’re a married couple,” he says. “We were convinced that it was way more fun that way. I do like to have a collaborator and Gaenor is the best collaborator I’ve ever had. This new EP, she really did make an enormous contribution.”
Noting that Gaenor wrote about half the lyrics, it helped that prior to joining she was a big Rational Youth fan.
“She has this instinctive sense of what Rational Youth is supposed to sound like,” Tracy says. “So whenever I get off track she helps me get back with the program. She also has the voice of an angel. In terms of me composing you tend to be limited, you realize at some point it’s going to have to be sung by somebody. So in my case I write songs around the limitations of my voice and she has a little more range and flexibility. People sort of expect to hear me, but she adds something really cool to it. A wonderful sort of tension and release thing we get going between us.”
Howe also explains that had he not taken almost two decades off from the band, that there may not be a band today.
“As you probably know, I can easily walk away from this for years at a time,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t really credit that to anything. Sometimes I just think it’s not our time and right now it feels a lot like when we first came up, like the world seems to be in the same fucked up situation. If I’d been doing this solid for 35 years it wouldn’t have been very good anyway. I’d be so bitter and twisted by now, you certainly wouldn’t be talking to me.
“Quite honestly, I have a big problem with depression and anxiety and I’ll go on tears where I just can’t stomach doing it. I have to wait for all my chemicals to rearrange somehow before I can do this. That sounds really insane, but I really wanna do this right now. We finished this record but now I just wanna do another one. It’s almost like being a new band.”
The idea of living in a future that was not the one advertised to Howe and his generation is a major theme of the record, and it’s dominant throughout the new material. It also shows up in the gear the duo uses.
“There were times when we had absolutely jaw dropping analogue synthesizers but we don’t have anything dating back to those days – our live rig is meant to be functional and portable,” he says. “When we record it’s a mixture of hardware and software synths. It’s not as pure as it was in 1982. At the time we had this fantastic analogue equipment.
“Then, our idea was that this was the music of the future and that there would be further development in the music technology that would make what we had obsolete, and in a sense there has been, and it’s kinda predicted the digitization and so on. What I find ironic is that analogue synthesizers became like vintage guitars. A ’53 Telecaster became the same thing as a 1973 Mini Moog. In terms of gear, yes, we have a kind of sound and it has certain characteristics to it and as long as we can make these sounds somehow I don’t care how authentic the equipment is. It was about the future back then, and now everyone wants to go retro.”
The perfect combination of dreamer and realist, Howe’s perception of the current ‘future’ is spot on.
“In 2016 when you think of ‘the future’ it’s hard to be that optimistic about it,” he says. “It’s not about world politics or the environment, it’s about the idea that there’s really nothing that exciting. Back then, you still had this feeling that things are screwed up now but things are gonna get better when a robot brings you your dinner. Now, whatever, there’s gonna be more memory on your iPhone. Who cares? This idea of the future as this goal or this wonderful place sort of exists in the past. The future is in the past.”