"[Skillet] was about being an angsty teenager," David admits with a sheepish grin during the band's first group interview, held in a Mission District cafe near his apartment.
Although the bandmates went off to separate colleges in 1993, they stayed in touch. During college, David released an album of ambient techno music as Antihouse, James played bass with "Enocore" college radio favorite Strictly Ballroom, and Meredith was in a short-lived pop band called 16-Yr-Old Boyfriend. When they came home for vacations, they'd get together to experiment with recording.
"It started out as a novelty," Los Angeles resident James says. "We just thought it would be fun to do an '80s techno pop record."
"We wanted people to think that when they heard [the record] they would think it was something from the '80s [that they had missed]," David says. "We were trying to create artifacts from the past that weren't from the past."
One inspiration was "Dreaming of Me," an early song by Depeche Mode. "I thought, "Wow, here's something that's really pure and really nice and really electronic and doesn't try to be chin-stroking,'" David says. "I wanted to try to do that."
Meanwhile, James' horizons expanded by listening to the home-recorded tunesmithery of the Magnetic Fields. "[The Magnetic Fields' Holiday] was the first thing I heard that pointed out that you could make these lo-fi electronic songs and sing over them, and it could be an effective sound. Before that I always thought of techno pop as a really produced, clean, perfect thing that I couldn't pull off."
In 1995, the trio named itself Figurine after the sleek, unisex children's toys, and recorded two songs for a proposed 7-inch compilation. When the project fell through, the members returned to college and other outlets. (The single eventually came out in 1999.) After David graduated from UC Berkeley in the winter of 1997, Figurine reconvened in Santa Barbara and put more tunes to tape.
The completed effort, Transportation + Communication = Love, is a clever collection of pop numbers swathed in the synth sounds of yesteryear. James speaks his vocals in a deadpan robotic fashion, while Meredith adds a vaguely European accent to her voice. Often, fans of the album e-mail the group, asking if its members are British. (The band's England-based Web site, www.figurinedatacenter.co.uk has furthered the confusion.)
"We like playing with people's expectations," David says.
"[The song's narrators were] like roles we were playing," Meredith adds.
"It's easier to do these cheesy love songs because it's a character," James concurs.
To that end, Figurine sang lyrics about getting your first kiss at the same time as seeing your first UFO, about sending love letters to Mars, and about hoping for a cure for loneliness ("We've taken care of cancer and we've cured the common cold/ But I'll still be left alone with no one warm to hold/ And all the robots that we've built can fly our brand-new cars/ Yet still there's nothing we've created that can mend a broken heart"). In Figurine's world, technology was forever linked with that most human of instruments, the heart.
But when it came time to make the second album (following numerous compilation appearances, including a cover of Bernthøler's 1983 cult hit "My Suitor" for March's Moshi Moshi collection), the band members wanted to try something new.
"It would've been too much to do another retro '80s thing," James says.
"We recorded the songs for the first album without ever thinking we'd have another," David explains. "There was no thought about the people listening to it -- you're inclined to just go goofy because it's this one-time thing. The second album was sort of an attempt to figure out what we wanted other people to hear."
After working for a year on their respective backing tracks -- absorbing, among other things, the pretty, melodic electro acts on Germany's Morr Music label, Saint Etienne's pastoral electro pop, and the personality-driven Detroit techno of AUX88 -- James and David arrived at a sound firmly rooted in the electronic beats of today. When they met with Meredith in Santa Barbara in December 2000 to record vocals, they agreed to downplay past kitschy lyrics as well.
"The newer stuff has less of an emphasis on technology," James says. "It's not about the technology but the love relation around it."
On The Heartfelt, there is still plenty of circuitry. On "Game Over," Meredith dumps a guy because he plays a guitar instead of a synthesizer: "Our game is over/ It's time you knew/ This love is through." On "International Space Station II," James and Meredith look back at Earth after two years in space: "I miss the blues/ I miss the greens/ I liked humans more than machines." And "So Futuristic" is as robotic as Kraftwerk ever got.
The group's songwriting, however, has grown far more sophisticated. On "Rewind," Meredith and James trade verses, using the metaphor of a rewind button to question whether they should restart their floundering relationship. Then, in the last verse, Meredith suggests James press the fast-forward button to see how crappy his life would be without her. "Stranger" uses a similar format, with the duo swapping vocals -- only this time he is watching her from afar and she wants to keep him there. The song alternates between the boy's unrequited love and the girl's need for a stranger's protective but distant presence.
As you may have noticed, The Heartfelt doesn't offer much in the way of good cheer. On "Way Too Good," James sings, "I don't know what you see in me/ A disappointment is all I'll ever be," while on "Heartfelt," Meredith wonders, "Do you have a heart?/ You seem so artificial." If this is the future of love, we might be better off on the moon.
Luckily, the group's melodies are far from downbeat. "IMpossible" is James' attempt at besting the Pet Shop Boys, and he almost succeeds: It's easy to imagine the song's fuzzy beats, looped trills, and Casio plinks lighting up a disco, with dancers singing along to "I M so lost without you." "Way Too Good" is techno-polished pop with thudding beats and squiggly noises, and "So Futuristic" swings to a squishy funk rhythm lifted from an '80s "booty bass" song.
When asked the difference between their songwriting styles, David says with a laugh, "I can tell James' [tracks] because they've got things I would never know how to do. And James hears mine and thinks they're primitive."
"David's are more bouncy, and James' are more textured," Meredith offers.
The question remains: Will indie fans expecting synths and androids be put off by this new direction? Hoping to get people involved in the new songs, Figurine placed three of what it calls "password" songs on The Heartfelt, each with a code title like "NATUR." A listener can go to the group's Web site, plug the code letters into different locations, and download the separations -- the individual vocals and beats -- for each song.
"It's an attempt to see if anyone will do a remix. It's a twist on the bonus track and a way of integrating the Web site and album," David explains.
For their part, the members of Figurine aren't staying put. They've contacted numerous abstract electronica people like Isan and Sutekh, asking them to send unused bits of tracks so Figurine can turn them into pop songs.
"I think it's hard for some of them because they think we're taking their serious art and making it into pop, and they've been consciously trying to avoid pop," David says.
With The Heartfelt, Figurine isn't consciously avoiding pop; it's hot-wiring it for the Space Age dance floor.