Interview // Richard Fearless of Death in Vegas
Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, June 1.
Urban legend has it that Richard Fearless was forced to drop his electronic project’s original name – Dead Elvis – following an objection from Presley’s estate. Here, the Death in Vegas mainman reveals it was a copyright claim from an identically-titled Dublin record label that led him to adopt the much more evocative title.
“Death in Vegas was a friend’s film about the last minutes of Elvis’ life. I had two days to change the name because there was a record label in Dublin called Dead Elvis,” he recounts. “It wasn’t so much Presley’s music as the kind of ‘obsession’ that interested me. I’ve always been quite obsessed by obsession. The whole obsessive thing about Elvis fans was what I was really into.”
Fearless – partnered with original collaborator Steve Hellier – instead used the Dead Elvis title for their 1997 debut, a dense venture in stoner-friendly electronica that brought club notoriety, if not commercial success. Hellier soon left to be replaced by Tim Holmes, and the pair formed the band’s nucleus until they were dropped by their label in 2004.
Death in Vegas reached their commercial peak with the 2003 album Scorpio Rising, which boasted Liam Gallagher singing on the psychedelia-soaked title track, as well as high-profile guest spots from Paul Weller, Hope Sandoval and bassist Mani of the recently-reunited Stone Roses, though the success was bittersweet for its creator.
“I felt that most of the collaborations had overshadowed the music a little bit too much. I didn’t want that list of celebrity guests – it just felt wrong. With Satan’s Circus we said ‘fuck that, we’re not going to work with anyone.’ We did an instrumental record, and the record company freaked out and dropped us.”
Following a seven-year hiatus, during which time he relocated to New York, Fearless returned without Holmes to record Trans-Love Energies in 2011.
“With the other albums, I would tend to get a record in my head and listen to it over and again, and would try to capture a vibe or a production sound. With this album, there wasn’t any of that going on. For the first time, I didn’t even have turntables in the studio, which I’ve always had.
“I’ve always had my DJ room, either in the live room or next to it. This is the first time I didn’t even have that – I didn’t have any records in the studio. In hindsight, it’s probably why the album sounds so much like a journey, because I think of all the things I’ve been into in my life. Certainly, the very first electronic music I got into was like Chicago House and the whole Detroit scene.
“I drew on my ‘sonic memories’ a bit more making this record, rather than being obsessed by one Harmonia record, which I seemed to be on when I did Satan’s Circus. I’d say it is because I had a limited amount of equipment to make the record and used what I had. I had vintage drum machines and synthesisers, and that’s the kind of dance music I still DJ with. I just wanted to make music I’d be into.”
Once again, Fearless turned the proverbial tables on their heads to take on lead vocals for the first time.
“The first track I did was ‘Black Hole.’ Someone else was going to sing that but it didn’t work out, so I had a stab. I just went in and did it in the studio, and the people I was with at the time were really into it and encouraging.
“It gave me the confidence to work through the record, and it felt like the most natural thing to do. It didn’t go down particularly well with the people involved, like management, but I stuck to my guns.”
Fearless’ reverb-swamped vocals colour the majority of the record’s ten tracks, though he did make an exception for one guest vocalist – Katie Stelmanis of Canadian darkwave act Austra – who takes the lead on single ‘Your Loft My Acid,’ which calls to mind the recently-departed Donna Summer, and Witchdance.’
“It worked out really easily. My management contacted her and it happened that she was a Death in Vegas fan. If you find that out, it does tend to make things slightly easier. I wrote the material and sent it to her. She was touring and had a couple of days off, so we tried to nail it and we didn’t nail it. Then I kind of hijacked her in my house for two weeks until we did nail it.”
While the live set draws liberally from their five-album catalogue – they have over two and a half hours of music rehearsed – only ‘Your Loft My Acid’ makes the cut from the popular collaborations, and Fearless has taken pains to change and refine the track so it works in the live setting.
“That was one of the biggest worries, how to do ‘Your Loft My Acid’ without Katie there, but I think we nailed it. The recorded song is very different to how we do it live. I’ve got old tape machines and I’m slowing the vocal down, frying it in and out and doing stuff to it, so it’s kind of like a sample but treated live.”
The band’s appearance at Electric Picnic last summer was their first live performance in seven years, and Fearless is excited to return with a few more gigs under his belt.
“We’ve probably played 50 shows since Electric Picnic and we’ve changed the setlist pretty much every night. It makes it so much more interesting for you as an artist if you’re not just doing the same thing over and over.
“I’ve always been really happy to have what I think is a really strong support in Ireland, which is magic because it’s where all my family is from. Irish crowds have always been fucking great, and it did seem like there was a lot of love when we did our last shows there.”