Velimir Pavle Ilic meets ambient throwbacks AGK ahead of their appearance at the Big Chill Festival...
With a proliferation of 80s comebacks on the go and sounds from that era still punctuating today's music, you could be forgiven for being heartily sick of the decade that fashion forgot.
Making plastic ashtrays from A Flock Of Seagulls records is all well and good, but the 80s weren't all bad.
The more refined end of the spectrum saw groups such as Talk Talk, Kraftwerk and David Sylvian carving out careers for themselves once the New Romantic gloss had faded, and it's from such sources that London-based group AGK take their cue.
Although inspired by 80s acts, AGK eschew big hairdos and killer pouts in favour of an altogether more sophisticated, chilled out vibe - someone once brilliantly described them as '...Nick Rhodes playing Felix da Housecat on a Fisher Price turntable', but that doesn't quite paint the whole picture.
Formed in 2002, AGK (previously Ackers & G) are DJ and musician Paul Gathercole, studio engineer Kevin Paul and singer Ben Ackland. Essentially, they combine traditional songwriting with a lush, contemporary edge, but in truth there's more than a hint of autumnal melancholy to this stuff.
Beautifully ambient songs - recalling the likes of Harold Budd, Brian Eno and Telefon Tel Aviv - are rounded out with warm notes and blissful chords, while gorgeously hollow xylophone and piano melodies are hugely reminiscent of Talk Talk's later efforts and David Sylvian's beguiling solo work.
Their five-track EP The Shortest Romance has already made waves, featuring much-lauded covers of Duran Duran's Planet Earth and Neon Dog, an eerily moving version of Nick Drake's charmingly fragile Black-Eyed Dog mixed with Kraftwerk's eternal Neon Lights. The Mode Mix of Planet Earth (featured on the 12" vinyl version) offers further evidence of AGK's genius and is pure mashed-up electro madness - you'd almost swear it was Kraftwerk, laced with just a trace of classic New Order.
"The Neon Dog thing was actually inspired by a Kraftwerk concert at Brixton Academy last year," explains Gathercole.
"We came home still really wired after the concert and started fiddling with very electronic sounds. We soon realised that the melodies were kind of similar to Black-Eyed Dog, so we put a vocal down based on that song and it became a cover version - when we do it live, the layers of guitar actually make it murkier and slightly darker."
AGK's sumptuous interpretation of Black-Eyed Dog pushes all the right ethereal buttons, but the two radically different versions of Planet Earth are equally intriguing. There were rumours that Moby also wanted to cover the Duran song but AGK beat him to it.
"Embarrassing though it may be to admit it, I was a massive Duran Duran fan," smirks Gathercole.
"It all started in quite a twisted way - I was playing around with an idea, making a track built entirely of samples from Duran Duran songs. It started to lean more towards Planet Earth so we stripped out the samples and started playing the song. The first version of it was really noisy and was almost like an electro-clash mix. It was a lot of fun to do and was inspired by heroes of ours - there are bits of Depeche Mode-type electronic sounds in it, and it's just big and messy."
Following their well-received debut performance at last year's Big Chill (they are also playing this year's event), word has spread quickly and the UK's DJing fraternity - amongst them Radio One/Blue Room DJ Chris Coco, the globetrotting Mixmaster Morris and Mark Moore (formerly of S'Express) - have given AGK plenty of exposure.
Lest you think this has all occurred overnight, it transpires that Ackland and Gathercole became acquainted at school, and had spent a couple of years making instrumental music until the latter met Kevin Paul at a party.
"He was going out with a mutual friend and we just started talking about music," explains Gathercole.
" He was really fascinating because he worked at Mute Records with people like Depeche Mode and Goldfrapp, musicians I really respected. He was interested in hearing the music I was telling him about, so he came round a couple of weeks later and listened to some stuff. I spoke to Ben and said 'you really should meet this guy', so we got together and just hit it off.
"Pete Lawrence at Big Chill Recordings was interested in signing us, so the initial agenda was to take the songs that Ben and I had written and shape them up to be a record, and that's exactly what happened."
Gathercole is quick to point out that despite the 80s palette, AGK manage to absorb other musical styles in relative harmony.
"Even when 80s music was unfashionable, I still listened to my Depeche Mode albums," he says.
"I still listen to Kraftwerk's Computer World and other stuff too - classical and world music - but Ben has always been much more into the singer/songwriter thing.
"Kevin listens to hip hop and house, and you can hear it coming through in his percussion and drum programming. It's actually a miracle that we managed to work together at all - one day it'll probably all explode into three fits of resentment and passion!"
The next few years could be interesting. With the popularity of ambient, soundscape and experimental electronic music continuing to flourish, AGK could well find their stock following suit.
"We already have strong ideas for the second and third albums," claims Gathercole.
"There's a level of success that allows you to attain the freedom to do what you want and deliver your ideas. I know this is going to sound pretentious, but I genuinely value the ability to create an album as the piece of art that we want it to be."
* Big Chill Festival 2005 is at Eastnor Castle on Friday 5th --Sunday 7 August. Info: www.bigchill.net. AGK's debut album The Liking Of Things is due out in August.