In a world taking some distinctly dark turns, George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is starting to feel alarmingly prescient. Enter d’Voxx – Nino Auricchio and Paul Borg – whose officially sanctioned musical homage to the celebrated dystopian novel succeeds where David Bowie once failed

“When I studied ‘1984’ at school, it read like a vision of the future that had thankfully never come to pass,” explains Nino Auricchio, leaning on the console of an impressive studio set-up. “But now, unfortunately, things appear to have taken a darker turn. We’re slipping more and more into areas where there’s a danger of totalitarianism. The assault on truth. People taking control of information when they really shouldn’t have that ability. We wanted to explore that.”

“If you’re a certain age, ‘1984’ was a staple of the school curriculum,” adds Paul Borg. “But as Nino says, it was a retrospective look at what might have been. We read it from a safe position, when it felt like an old novel about something we’d come close to but had never quite happened. So who would have guessed we’d come back to it in the way we have?”

They’re speaking via video call, and we’re all hoping Big Brother isn’t watching us – although Borg’s jazz-influenced kittens, Mingus and Django, are making their noisy presences felt. Since 2015, Auricchio and Borg have been making modular music together as d’Voxx. Their 2019 debut album, ‘Télégraphe’, was an upbeat, Berlin School-hued journey through the interconnectedness of underground metro stations. The follow-up, however, is a much darker voyage through George Orwell’s premonition of a dystopian future, where the authority of the state is both merciless and total.

“People in their 40s, 50s and 60s grew up in a time when things were quite stable,” continues Borg. “That period between the Second World War and the 21st century was an era with a strange sense of certainty – in Western civilisations, at least. But the history of the world is not stable, so we were misled. And all those certainties have been taken away in the last six or seven years. So maybe what we’ve returned to is actually the norm? It’s a scary thought.”

“After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it seemed as if the wars were won,” agrees Auricchio. “Neoliberal monetarism and social democracy had triumphed, and everyone was allowed to do whatever they wanted. But for the last 30 years, we’ve been spending that post-war dividend hand over fist, and now it’s run out and we’ve gone back to what life was like before. You do worry about the future of your kids.”

The album is starkly beautiful, weaving spoken extracts from the original Orwell text into elegant suites of modular synth, all underpinned by sympathetic sound collages – including field recordings of primitive 1940s computers, which are still “clicking away” at Bletchley Park.

And, amazingly, the duo have succeeded where David Bowie failed. In 1973, Bowie abandoned plans to adapt ‘1984’ into a stage musical when Orwell’s widow, Sonia, flatly refused to grant him the rights. The disgruntled rock star later described her as “the biggest upper-class snob I’ve ever met in my life” (although there’s no evidence they did actually meet), and the songs Bowie had already written were swiftly retooled for ‘Diamond Dogs’. Five decades on, d’Voxx had more luck – both the Orwell estate and Penguin Books were happy for them to produce an officially sanctioned musical homage.

“I think it helped when we made it clear that we were quite a niche project and not some mainstream act,” smiles Borg. “We were only releasing small numbers, purely for artistic endeavour.”

“And we didn’t want to hit all the cliches,” says Auricchio. “So there’s no Room 101 or Big Brother.”

“That’s why we went back to the original text,” adds Borg. “To re-read and see what resonated in a contemporary sense. The opening track, ‘Airstrip One’, is quite disturbing. You hear children being bombed – something that is happening right now, and it’s getting closer and closer to Western Europe. When I hear that track, I’m still uncomfortable with it, and that’s important. I’m glad it makes me feel that way.

“We started ‘1984’ three years ago. ‘Télégraphe’ had been such a celebration of the global network and the idea of making those connections. It was the positive side of an interconnected world. But then Brexit, Trump and Putin happened, and we didn’t feel like making a happy album.”

Their lament for global cooperation is fuelled by decidedly cosmopolitan upbringings.

“I was born in Stratford-upon-Avon to an Italian father,” says Auricchio. “He was a professional guitarist who had played all over the world, then came to the UK in 1974. He was working in Cyprus when the Turks invaded, and the British Embassy flew out all the foreign nationals. So he came to RAF Brize Norton and worked in London – playing in Greek restaurants because they wanted live music six nights a week. He met my mum in Stratford, and the rest is history. I moved around an awful lot as a kid – to different parts of the UK, and back to Italy for a while. I think I’d moved 13 times by the time I was 18.”

“Whereas I’m from north London, born in Islington,” says Borg. “But my father is Maltese – he came to this country after the war.”

So let’s ask a cheesy question. Where were they both in the actual year of 1984? For seasoned producer Borg, the answer is eyebrow-raising, and the story begins the previous summer. Reinforce the floorboards, everyone… there are some serious name-drops incoming.

“In 1983, I was 15 and I needed some pocket money for the summer holidays,” says Borg. “A friend of mine said, ‘Go to the Job Centre and say you’re 16 – they never check’. So I did. And I must have told them I was into music because in the Roundhouse Studio in Camden, where Haircut One Hundred were recording, they’d lost a file of applications for assistant engineers. So one of the guys from Haircut One Hundred said, ‘Let’s phone the Labour Exchange and see who we get – that’ll be a laugh’.

“The following day, my mother came to find me fishing up on Hampstead Heath and said the Job Centre had phoned, asking if I’d like to make tea in the studio. So I spent three weeks working with Slade’s Noddy Holder and Jim Lea. Lemmy from Motörhead was also floating around. But then I had to go back to school.

“In 1984, though, I went back. I left school on the Friday, and on the Monday morning I was there while Stevie Wonder was recording the vocals for ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’. That was my first full day at work. I asked if he wanted a cup of tea, and he said, ‘No, I’m cool, man – I’ve got peppermint and hot water’. And we were all amazed because he had a Braille DX7.”

Bloody hell. Auricchio is laughing raucously at this splendid showbiz yarn, and then – with a gleeful lack of mercy – makes the pair of us feel ancient.

“I was four years old in 1984,” he beams. “But I was mad about electronic music as a kid – I grew up listening to people like Mike Oldfield, Jean-Michel Jarre and Jan Hammer. At the age of seven, I wanted to learn the piano, so I had lessons all throughout school.

“Then I got into teaching while doing other musical bits on the side. I found myself making funk albums with a band called Funkshone. We toured all over Europe and did some absolutely bonkers gigs. One was at an extreme sports festival, on a floating pontoon being towed up the middle of a Norwegian fjord. And we were invaded by teenagers dressed as pirates.”

“Norwegian pirates?” asks Borg, incredulously.

“Well, Vikings, I guess,” continues Auricchio. “Later that day, we were meant to be supporting Earth, Wind & Fire, but they didn’t turn up. So we headlined. Apparently, they got as far as Oslo but didn’t think they were being paid enough to board the plane for the last leg. I imagine they found a nice place selling cinnamon buns and didn’t want to leave.”

Borg and Auricchio are a great double act – bright, breezy and generous with laughter at each other’s anecdotes. Even before their first meeting, they’d amassed mutual friends and contacts through adventures in the jazz-funk scene. After cutting his teeth in the studio with Rebel MC, Derek B and Yazz (“I’ve got a double platinum disc somewhere”), Borg spent much of the 1990s working with Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label. By 2005, they were both teaching at the University of West London and met for the first time at a degree show in Brick Lane.

Their friendship eventually morphed into a musical partnership. Curiously, this was partially inspired by the distinctly non-funky phenomenon of numbers stations – short-wave radio stations broadcasting mysterious sequences of numbers internationally throughout the 20th century.

Although often assumed to be instructions for spooks and spies on covert operations, their true nature has never been officially revealed. But these plummy-voiced snippets, couched in static and interspersed with stark electronic jingles, remain evocative curios from an era that was riddled with Cold War paranoia. An extensive set of off-air recordings, primarily made by Irdial Discs founder Akin Fernandez as The Conet Project, was released in 1997.

“Back in 2015, Nino and I had a project called Cold Waves,” recalls Borg. “And he mentioned the numbers stations to me. I used to listen to them when I was a kid to scare myself to sleep! So we came up with a Max/MSP patch that allowed us to sonify the recordings captured by The Conet Project. And in 2016 we performed it at Funkhaus in Berlin.”

“Yes, and we drove there!” adds Auricchio. “On the way back, we thought, ‘What should we do next?’, and that was the beginning of d’Voxx.”

Three years later, ‘Télégraphe’ was released via DiN, Ian Boddy’s mighty fine ambient electronica imprint.

“Ever since I started listening to instrumental electronic music as a teenager, I’d wondered, ‘What the hell do you call your tracks?’,” recalls Auricchio. “So I had the random idea of naming them after different underground railway stations. The idea of these networks linking seemed to fall into place alongside the modular connections of the music. And we decided to include segues between the tracks – trains would arrive, and there’d be an announcement.”

“And the stations are all over the world,” continues Borg. “So you travel from a Chinese station to a German U-Bahn to the Paris Metro. It’s a really abstract journey. People have said that listening to the album on a train is very confusing.”

And are their students aware of their creative escapades?

“We make sure they are!” laughs Auricchio. “We wrote a module called ‘The New Modular Music’, which we’re delivering across the electronic music courses here at the university. The students are used to making music on laptops in their bedrooms, so using actual hardware is something they initially find really difficult. But, after a while, they start to see it as a completely new way of working.”

“Which lends itself to interesting live performances,” adds Borg. “They’re physically moving around, plugging in cables to make something happen. And when we play live, Nino and I now set up our systems opposite each other, so we’re able to communicate and improvise.”

“When we first started performing, we were standing next to each other with our modular suitcases,” adds Auricchio. “We’d open them up in front of us, looking like two guys who’d gone on holiday and were unpacking their clothes. So we decided to go side-on. We could finally see each other and… ‘Oh, look! Actual cables!’. And there’s a certain amount of ego, too. We enjoy being onstage, projecting ourselves. It’s about having fun, but it can also be, ‘Yes, we’re very serious’. That Philip Glass stare…”

He glowers with a furrowed brow into his webcam and there are chortles all around.

When it comes to the crunch, though, Nino Auricchio and Paul Borg are very serious. Certainly about ‘1984’ and the political apathy and post-truth misinformation that has allowed 21st-century Orwellian “doublespeak” to flourish.

“You’ve got a whole group of the population who don’t care anymore,” says Auricchio, despairingly. “They don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. It’s, ‘Leave us alone in our homes to watch Matt Hancock eating kangaroo cock in the jungle’.”

“There’s a serious point to that as well,” says Borg. “They don’t want people educated. I first noticed the yawning gap in my own education in the 1990s when I was working in France for a while. Everyone over there had a grounding in philosophical ideas and would question things in a healthy way. I don’t think that exists here or in the States.”

Their crusade to redress the balance has been backed by a label boss who is generously supportive of their work. Both are fervent in their praise for Sunderland electronic maestro Ian Boddy. How did they make first contact?

“He was a face at all the modular festivals,” explains Borg. “I think I rudely interrupted a conversation he was having with Robin Rimbaud, and I remember him giving me an evil glare. Ian does scare me a little bit, but in the nicest possible way. He’s an amazing guy and he gives a voice to a lot of artists who work in electronic music.”

And on that heart-warming note, we retreat back into our own personal dystopias and call it a day. Borg needs to let the cats out, too.

“Hopefully, the next time we talk, things will be slightly more cheerful,” he smiles. As one of his biggest-selling musical collaborators once succinctly put it, the only way is up.

‘1984’ is out on DiN

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