Cultural Exchange

Machine heads Christopher Phipps and Alex Zaitsev aim their humanity at your sound system

The two current members of London Exchange have the "western disease" and they've got it bad. You can hear symptoms cutting through every dance-tech-pop driven track -- this music for the Nineties. "The police came only for a reason," says Alex Zaitsev, who is Christopher Phipps's latest partner in the Exchange. "Western disease. And when the cops came, you'd have to let them in. I was a little scared, very careful. Otherwise you can disappear."

That may have changed since Zaitsev left Moscow two years ago for the advertised freedoms of the USA. Or maybe not. "I still have family there," the keyboardist continues. "Things are rougher now. Before, at least you had food. There's so much happening, it's a big mess. So you can't be too happy. It's going to be worse before it gets better."

Zaitsev and the key man behind the London Exchange moniker, soft-spoken Christopher Phipps, are real people with real concerns and real lives, and this is surprising. On the surface, at least, there's very little human-ness in the music of Phipps and Zaitsev. The beats pound like nuclear-powered jackhammers and the rhythms run free and wild, spacey effects punch in on time, and the singing's fine too. But this music is generated by machine, by computer, by other synthetic extensions of the two song creators. "In Moscow," Zaitsev says, "there were tons of people with talent, but no equipment, which cost a fortune. They'd make guitars themselves from pieces of wood and strings. I dreamed of owning a synthesizer."

Set aside your soul-bound musical mandates and it makes perfect sense: a nice Roland goes for 20,000 rubles; it is less attainable and therefore better. London Exchange founder Phipps, born in Miami, reared in the Midwest, returned home, was early on drawn to the techno tip like faghags to the Warsaw Ballroom. "It's a studio thing," the classically trained pianist says, "and that's what we want to emphasize. The guy in his car or his home listening to your music -- that's where we want to make our mark. We'll concentrate on the show end later. We plan a couple of exclusive live shows this fall, and we'll hire a drummer, another keyboardist, even though Alex does handle the keys and computers fine -- he's got a mouse in each hand and smoke coming out of his ears."

Phipps acquired his first synth at age twelve, a Roland SH-1000 paid for with money earned by delivering newspapers. He organized his first band (the Bad Habits) at age seventeen, offering Panhandle-area fans a mix of originals and covers of Sex Pistols, Devo, B-52's. He played bass synth and guitar in that group, which even had the opportunity to open for R.E.M. at one point. New Wave washed the deconstructionist undergroundism of R.E.M. away, and Phipps turned his ear for influences toward OMD, Thompson Twins, Depeche Mode -- "that whole techno-dance-pop movement of the early Eighties," as he puts it. He also worked with an outfit called Strange Phenomenon, which evenly mixed originals and covers. "That was the only way to get gigs," Phipps recalls. That enterprise was ascending when the drummer moved to California, and Phipps headed downstate for Miami.

In the mid-Eighties -- while Zaitsev was learning about sound engineering in Moscow -- Phipps visited L.A., met a bunch of big-name stars, and came up with the concept of London Exchange. "There was nothing happening in the synth area," Phipps says. "I did some keyboard tech work and learned a bunch of things. I knew what I wanted to do was to come back to Miami and start London Exchange. That was in the fall of '86, and I've been at it ever since."

Phipps met David Honono of the Voice in Fashion, and they wrote songs together. Meanwhile, Phipps was setting up a home studio. "David introduced me to Peter Marr, our future producer," Phipps says. "And I also started studying sound engineering at Miami-Dade Community College. From late '86 to '88, I was in studios all the time. I had the name, but we weren't anything but the idea and the type of music I wanted to do." During two years of songwriting, Phipps says, he came up with "one song that was exceptional." That cut, "Memories of You," took off. Billboard, claiming credit for "discovering" the song, declared that it "merits both club and hot crossover attention." More importantly, it launched London Exchange as a viable pursuit, and attracted the interest of mix master Phil Jones, who went on to provide club mixes of subsequent singles "Lost Without Your Touch" and "Girl Inside the Magazine." "Phil's a DJ by trade," Phipps notes. "So he lent a DJ's perspective. In the past London Exchange had different line-ups, and it was something new to the clubs that had track acts. We were like the first one that did a soundcheck. We plugged everything in, premixed on the board, then sent it out left and right. But I always hated that term `track act.'"

During the Moscow Peace Festival of 1989, Alex Zaitsev "met some people from the States" -- he was a translator for bands such as Motley Crue and Scorpions. "These people suggested I come over to see the business," Zaitsev says. He arrived in New York City, visited Utah, found the weather too cold, and decided to bolt to South Florida.

Zaitsev had never lived in the cold isolation associated with the erstwhile Soviet Union. "We'd trade tapes and stuff," he says. "I later found out that I was into the same stuff back then as Christopher was. I had a pretty big collection of Western music. Two people on the opposite sides of the world, both thinking the same, with the same influences. When I came here, at first I was disappointed by metal, by all the guitar bands. I heard on WKPX about London Exchange, and tracked him down."

While still in Moscow, Zaitsev didn't quite hear everything that Americans take for granted. "When New Wave hit," he remembers, "police would check your tapes. Madness or Culture Club -- they thought that was Nazi, fascist music. I was in the police office three times a day, even more sometimes. I had bangs, and they thought I was like Hitler. For hair, earrings, for anything they'd take me in. Dire Straits and Pink Floyd also were forbidden. You know that song on Final Cut, where [Roger Waters] sings about how Brezhnev took Afghanistan?" The authorities had ways to deal with such waywardness. "You had to be employed or be studying," Zaitsev says. "Otherwise you could go to jail. If you couldn't find a job, the police would get one for you, or help you find one. There was no unemployment. Of course, they could find you a job in a bad place. There were tons of places where people didn't want to work."

After arriving here, Zaitsev was certain of one thing: He wanted to work with London Exchange. He contacted Merlin Records -- the company set up by Phipps and his brother John after other labels declined to sign them -- and explained that he thought the guy from London Exchange might be a potential producer for him. "He played some demos of his stuff," Christopher Phipps recalls, "and it was really good, lots of potential. I needed a keyboardist."

Original Exchange keyboardist Jose Conde had announced he was leaving. Drummer Tim Gavin and bassist Martin Davis, who had joined for club dates in the summer of 1990, as well as early collaborator Douglas Edwards, had also moved on to other projects. (Gavin and Davis went on to form Plastic Nude Martini.)

A year ago Zaitsev and Phipps hooked up and began working in Phipps's by-then completed home studio in Lauderhill. "The studio was a major turning point," Phipps explains, "because there's no overhead cost to record, so we can mess with the arsenal, experiment. Before London Exchange was 90 percent me. Now it's more of a 50-50, collaborative thing. This is the definitive London Exchange."

Phipps, who produced Chatterbox's "Shake the House" back in December of 1990, sees a future in that line of musical work. Eventually he and Zaitsev will release an album -- the material on their various demo tapes is certainly strong enough to justify full-length slabbing -- and the duo this week issued a single under the band name Dos Ex Machina. The two songs, "Threat of Aggression" and "Rage," lean toward an industrial sound. Phipps also foresees a small tour in the fall. "Maybe New Orleans," he says, "there's some demand there. Then work down through the state, hit the college towns, and end up down here for shows at progressive clubs." A stop in Moscow is not on the agenda. Yet.

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