Interview: Coldcut – The Joy Of Dex

This article originally appeared in London street press title ’24:7′ shortly before its premature demise in the early days of 1998. Although edited, designed and ready to print, this particular issue never made it to press. On hearing the title was folding due to lack of funding, the staff feared that their wages were under threat and left the office one morning carrying any piece of valuable technical equipment that wasn’t nailed down. My fondest memory was seeing the Fashion Editor carrying a fax machine off in a suitcase, with the plug hanging out the back.

It’s clear that Coldcut’s chapter in the history of modern music remains a work-in-progress, particularly given the ongoing success of Ninja Tune and Big Dada. The same cannot be said for the humble CD-ROM – re-reading the article below, it’s remarkable how quickly the references to formats became outdated. Back then, multimedia CDs were envisioned as being the saviour of the music industry, today they are all but extinct.

THE JOY OF DEX
Bringing you a lesson in Ninja style, a celebrated fusion of art and science, 24:7 deconstructs the myth and musical majesty that is COLDCUT.

WHAT’S THAT NOISE?
You can approach this particular noise from so many different angles. Coldcut could well be grandfathers of modern dance-music, creating the UK’s first purely sample-driven record eleven years ago and defining the art of the remix. Or they could be two grumpy old men, aggrieved at having produced four mighty top twenty hits only to be royally shafted by the men in suits. Or maybe they are the Ninja tribe of Southwark, the supremos behind the Ninja Tune and N-Tone labels, responsible for discovering, nurturing and promoting the work of The Herbalizer, DJ Vadim, DJ Food, Funki Procini and other big boys with big toys. They could be four-deck DJs, promoters, digital artists, hard-wiring software engineers, web-meisters or simply the scourge of the BPI. “I do feel slightly over exposed,” claims Matt. Whatever and whenever they are, they are undoubtedly ahead of their time.

FUNKJAZZTICAL TRICKNOLOGY
There is a sense of spiritual connection belying the fact that the Ninja HQ sits opposite London’s first prison, The Clink. It was undoubtedly a home for scoundrels and scallywags, the outsiders who refused to play ball, a mandatory hang-out for blasphemers, anarchists and cultural hooligans. The Coldcut office is littered with fragments and products of their career – a poster advertising the first album What’s That Noise?, racks of back catalogue vinyl from the Ninja stable and, playing on the tape deck, a selection of tunes from the forthcoming Ninja anthology, impossibly titled FunKungFusion. Meeting Coldcut, you know there is a wizard degree of cloak and dagger at work. From the way they look and the way they talk, Matt – confusingly – looks like a “Jonathan” and vice versa. Matt Black was recently celebrated in the Daily Telegraph, of all places, as “the pop star with geek cred”. Jonathan More, it seems, is the one that most people like to refer to as “the one with the hat”.

WELCOME TO THE CHURCH OF WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW
Coldcut released their fourth album, Let Us Play, in September 1997 and watched it enter the CIN dance charts at Number One, beautifully confirming the belief that you can never keep a good ninja down. It’s now February 1998 and Coldcut are, once again, showing a flagrant disregard for tradition by releasing a single, Timber, that contains just as many video tracks as audio. It’s an aesthetic of more for less, and it’s the same belief that saw them give away a free CD-ROM with the album, crammed to excess with bonus software, virtual mixing kits and an abundance of videos (“a funky and weird mix which make it more interesting than some corporate smooth trip” claims Jonathan). In the weeks preceding the release of Timber, the BPI announced that to be eligible for chart status, a CD single can only be sold with one video, irrespective of its running time. Thus, despite its sales, Timber will not now be registered in the singles chart and Coldcut find themselves, once more, out on their own and leaving the industry far, far behind. Sorry, but this just isn’t music.

RECIPE FOR DISASTER
What is so ironic about the withdrawal of Timber from the charts is that it was served the dual purpose of being an awareness raising exercise for the work of Greenpeace. Read the facts – 80% of the world’s ancient forest have been attacked, destroyed and plundered in the last thirty years. “Over the last few years we’ve slowly realised that we do believe in direct action to change things,” ponders Matt, “I think that it’s been more successful.” Timber is a unique exercise in direct action, but they also believe that changing your immediate environment can make a difference. The Ninja home is populated with second-hand furniture and is a shrine to the duo’s DIY belief system. “It would be quite easy for us to go out buy loads and loads of really expensive swanky office furniture,” declares Jonathan, “all made out of MDF and all that. But in fact, this is stuff that we’ve found and put together from skips, done out of neccesity when we first started, but it’s good to do that rather than keep buying new shit.”

FUCK DANCE, LET’S ART
For Timber, Stuart Warren-Hill of Hex Media (aka Hexstatic) and the Coldcut boys have boldly gone where no one has dared to dream of going before. Timber is neither an audio single nor a video single, but both. Each individual sound element has a corresponding visual element. The remix therefore exists on two formats and on two levels of entertainment. The video remix is a concept that may well have been invented by Massachusetts boys Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN) which they worked to great effect on the VHS single for U2’s Numb. Warren-Hill has taken the concept into forward drive and recently picked up the Best Video Editing award from France’s home-grown MTV-style channel, MCM. “People aren’t used to buying music in this way,” offers Matt, ruminating over Coldcut’s value-led philosophy. “They might be used to buying a Mr Bean video, they might be used to buying a seven inch single, but they have a problem putting the two things together. A VHS single tape isn’t a very attractive product whereas a CD is. That’s the advantage of the CD format, you can give people what they want, plus you can also fit extra stuff on it.” The double-whammy bonus is that it may also encourage the luddite music fan to invest in a computer capable of running of CD-ROMs. Once you start to talk around such changes in attitude, Jonathan begins to twitch with excitement. “A good example of that was a guy who came up to me at The 333 Club. The guy was quite concerned because his son was eight and hadn’t shown any interest in computers at school whatsoever and he was worried that he was going to miss out. He then saw him playing with Playtime on our CD-ROM and that was it basically, the kid was on it. He’s been on it every night since and now wants to get a computer of his own. That’s brilliant and we’re really into that happening.”

EVERYTHINGZ FUCT
It would actually be unthinkable for a major label to physically manoeuvre themselves in the same way. Such is the beauty of stealth – “the ante has been upped” as Matt rightly says. The duo are possibly too proud to laugh openly at the way the roles have been reversed. After years in the wild, they have come back to the table with an all-new, non-negotiable way of beating the multi-nationals at their own game. “We got ripped off pretty early,” admits Matt, referring to the post-Lisa Stansfield era of the Coldcut story, “but we managed to escape with our lives. Therefore I’d say we’ve always been business minded. We could make a lot more money if we wanted, just by cutting the amount of money we pay to our artists and charging them for all sorts of things, but there’s very little point in doing it.” “We just need to make money for survival,” he says, “we want to keep it fun and don’t want it to be a mega concern. Just keep it at a nice, reasonable size and make sure the music coming out is really good.”

I KNOW YOU’RE GONNA DIG THIS
Jonathan sums up his philosophy in one exquisite sentence: “You can pay somebody to do something and when they fuck up superbly they lie and say what you wanted to do is not possible so you end up doing it yourself anyway.” “It’s better to be cynical,” suggests Matt, “you might as well be. Finding out that Jeffery Archer owns all the merchandising rights to the Teletubbies – that’s a real dagger to the heart, but just so expected really. It’s kind of hilarious because it’s so outrageous.” Don’t for one minute think that the Ninja style is directed by pessimism – the opposite is most certainly the case. It might be about regaining control of one’s life, taking the ropes of one’s own destiny. It might be about having a laugh and not giving a toss about what any else thinks. Or it might just be about providing the source, inspiration and radical thinking that will continue to inspire generations of musicians and listeners for decades to come. Now that’s zentertainment.

Stuart Buchanan

Interview: T-Power / Chocolate Weasel – Further Self Evident Truths

This is the third and final part of the Ninja Tune trilogy (1,2) – an interview commissioned by Ninja Tune for their own magazine, The Pipe. On the couch were Chocolate Weasel – Mark Royal (aka T-Power) and Cris Stevens – who released Spaghettification through Ninja Tune in 1998. The interview took place in Mark’s London flat and was aided by a rather fine batch of puff. If the text veers off into both inner and outer space on more than one occassion (I can but apologise for the inclusion of the paragraph on “star matter” and carbon synthesis), I hope you’ll forgive the poor little addled brain that was gamefully trying to hold things together.

FURTHER SELF EVIDENT TRUTHS
Being alive is more than just a game of two halves. Ninja Tune’s drum’n’bass duo CHOCOLATE WEASEL blow the whistle and take a pot shot at the goal of enlightenment.

Look around your space, outside and inside, and calculate the amount of information that you are being bombarded with right at this moment. You may be conscious of the brightly hued distractions such as television, magazines or advertising, but consider the thought that the majority of your environment pushes information in a way that penetrates your mind subconsciously.

We experience a glut of information and misinformation at almost every waking moment of our lives. Technology such as the internet, cable and satellite may serve not to actually enhance our learning or to expand our field of awareness, but rather to simply add more useless junk to the already polluted highways and byways of the brain.

Information exists in a state of chaos which simply affords unscrupulous politicians, journalists and activists the opportunity to do away with balanced perspectives and effectively promote their own agenda. Hence we create a culture where propaganda thrives unchecked, where campaigns of biased misinformation ensure that we are as far away from the truth as possible, where the Rupert Murdoch-owned “X-Files” serves only to turn people away from the reality that multinational corporations already control our daily lives through power of capitalism.

How this links with the Ninja Tune project “Chocolate Weasel” is fairly simple. Mark Royal (alias drumnbass bod T-Power) and compadre Cris Stevens know they have to play the media game to promote their album, in order to sell units, in order to make money, in order to eat, in order to survive, in order to stay on the ride. They are also intelligent enough to realise that they can hijack such blatant sales promotion in order to offer thoughts and ideas that might help us to bring a sense of order to the information chaos, that helps us to make connections – the kind of script that rarely fills column inches in the world-wide entertainment media. It may appear to be some form of cyclical perfection, but the promotional process still remains embedded in the machinery of consumerism.

“I have a problem with the idea of selling music, because I believe that everyone should make music,” says Mark, sitting on his bed in his Walthamstow home cum studio. “Making music is a fundamental part of being human, but we’ve turned it into this thing where we take people’s skills as an individual and we’ve created a divide. You have specialists in societies and music has just become another specialist product to sell to people. It’s a big fucking problem knowing that you’ve got to sell units to do something that you enjoy.

“If you’re going to try and pinpoint a problem, the problem is money and mankind’s desire to horde more and more of it. Society’s becoming increasingly geared towards making money and fuck who you step on to get to where you’re going. Money is the root of the problem and if you really want to separate good and evil, then money is the root of all evil. It really does corrupt anything good about mankind.”

Such a philosophy ensures that Mark and Cris will never venture near the territory of the “sell-out” – a land populated by artists who are driven by money rather than messages. “There are points when you think fuck it,” admits Mark, “let’s do a stupid tune, get some daft blonde model in there, sing some song about a Barbie doll or something equally as stupid and just go and cane it. But we may see it as caning it, but how do people actually receive that it in the pop world? What effect is that having on the psyche of people and can you actually deal with the implications of what effect you’re having on some six year old girl sitting in her bedroom? They say it’s all harmless fun, they’re just kids… but you’re feeding information into these people and parents don’t have the time to actually school their children. They’re just like ‘there’s the television, sit in front of it’. TV has become their God and that’s where they are learning their reality from.”

Of course capitalism and consumerism are easily identifiable targets, but the root of the world’s problems lies deeper still.

“I don’t think a lot of people actually understand the problem,” claims Cris, “it’s become confused. You can’t apportion blame to any one bit of society – there are so many things that are corrupt like science, politics and religion – it’s not just one thing. But I don’t think a solution will be found. It’s just the on-going struggle that is life.”

“Solutions create more problems,” believes Mark, “there’s never an ultimate fix. It all boils down to the second law of thermodynamics and we’re trying to stop the rising entropy. But it’s a fundamental law of existence that we cannot stop it. We’re not in control. As much as we think that we are moulding our own destiny we’re not. We’re just there for the ride.”

The late comedian and modern-day soothsayer, Bill Hicks, similarly likened our voyage through life as one long ride with all the ups, downs, twists and turns that are inherent in any speeding rollercoaster. At the close of a performance, he would offer what he termed his “vision”, a vision that is – undoubtedly – the closest we are ever likely to get to a “solution”. He claimed that we could easily take the trillions of dollars spent on nuclear weapons and defence every year and use it to feed and clothe every single human being on the planet (which it would pay for many times over), subsequently allowing us “as one race, to explore outer space together, in peace, forever.”

Mark approves of the idea, but is equally aware of the improbability of it becoming a reality. “It is so fucking simple, but we just won’t do it. There’s an inbred fear in society and we don’t seem to be confident about the species. Someone’s obviously realised that a long time ago and that’s why consumerism took off. When people are unhappy, they’re scared and they’re going to buy like buggery. They just pander to that and they feed us what we want to see.”

Of course, there are hundreds of thousands of people worldwide that are motivated enough to stage their own form of vociferous protest against consumerism and the slow death of the planet. However, due to the dubious self-interest of those that own the mass means of communication, the promotion of any unpopular ideology has had to become more subtle. High profile activism such as demonstrations, marches or physical entrenchment may raise awareness, but there is rarely any result shift in public sympathy. The blame for this seems to lie squarely at the feet of the media.

“There is definitely a lot of positive action going on, but the way it’s all portrayed in the media is a problem in itself. Take the Newbury bypass – they were all made out to be a bunch of fringe nutcases, but there were middle aged people and old ladies involved in the protest – completely sane, normal people, which – of course – all of the protesters are, but because their clothes are scruffy, the media say they’re mad.”

The media have also been almost singularly responsible for an ill-conceived drugs education campaign that seemingly whips parents and authority figures into something akin to a rabid frenzy. Positive drugs messages are hard to find, yet individuals such as Keith Richards and Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler manage to fuse a dual lifestyle of being acceptable corporate salesmen whilst consistently imbibing near-lethal doses of illegal drugs. The worldwide drugs message may be hypocritical – but would we expect it to be any other way? If sensible drug use can open hitherto unused regions of the brain and promote learning, love and tolerance, what would that do for a global economy based on subjugation, fear and racial bigotry?

“Drugs go along way to accelerate the learning process,” claims Mark, one of the many who found an escape route from the pill-popping insanity of the acid house years. “My problem isn’t the use of drugs to expand the mind, my problem is drug use for hedonism – because that becomes a product and it’s not something that we use wisely. You have these cases where people suddenly wake up and suddenly have these great realisations whereas some people never get beyond the stage of seeing pink elephants.

“Doing hallucinogens put me on the edge of my existence and that just kicked me right out of where I was. I had a major wake up call. I did realise that I had been a total wanker to all my friends. I still find myself to this day apologising to my parents for my teenage years – ‘I’m sorry I was such an arsehole.'”

The use of drugs on earlier T-Power projects is well documented, but it’s a practice that ceased during the recording of the Chocolate Weasel album, “Spaghettification”, with interesting results. “It wasn’t just for the music purpose,” explains Cris, with a degree of guarded satisfaction, “we were just trying to get a bit of our lives back. We were just smoking insane amounts of skunk and it was developing into a bad habitual hang-up. Suddenly we were doing tracks in days instead of a week which was just amazing. It was like ‘I’m not stoned, I can actually do something.’ It’s an easy myth to buy into that you just need to get caned to do something really creative.”

However, acid guru and psychologist, Timothy Leary, claimed that cannabis artificially triggers the “fifth circuit” of the brain, the “gear” reserved for our dealings in multi-dimensionality, loss of gravity and space flight (the phrase “getting high” therefore seems to make more sense). Leary argued that drugs such as cannabis can assist rather than hinder us in our evolutionary process. His theory continued up the “gears” to the final, eighth circuit where the human race learns the craft of atomic engineering and the ability to build “self-replicating nanocomputers”.

Mark also agrees that the human race has a long way to go before it reaches its ultimate purpose. “I’ve been reading about how stars work, how they synthesise heavier elements, but they stop burning at silicon. They go supernova at that point – they can’t create silicon without going critical. We’re actually based on a carbon 12 chain and a carbon based lifeform cannot exist in the first generation of a star, so therefore our sun is second generation. Maybe we are the next chain, because we’re basically star matter, and maybe we have to now learn how to synthesise silicon – we become the next synthesis [the third generation]. Maybe we create universes and get into quantum information storage and maybe we actually start to define the laws of our own universe.”

In our late twentieth century arrogance, we assume that we are highly evolved and that we are close to the “top end” of the evolutionary scale. Mark’s theory might suggest that we are still effectively grunts, scraping our knuckles on the primordial turf, and that the creative fusion of our organic selves with our self-conceived technology is simply a future that we have to accept.

The profound interest that Mark and Cris actually have in the game of being alive is, contrary to what you might think, perfectly represented in their music. “Spaghettification” is undoubtedly brighter and more celebratory than their previous work, bringing a much-needed sense of humour to traditionally dark environs of drum’n’bass.

“The first album was like ‘wey-hey! this is pukka, I’ve just found philosophy, everyone should love one another’, then the second album was ‘oh fuck, no one does’ and then coming into the Ninja Tune album it was ‘bollocks, so what?’.”

Optimism in the face of overwhelming global problems is perhaps the ultimate lesson that we have on offer. Throughout their lives, Mark and Cris have simply made the decision to listen and learn and to intelligently decipher the information chaos. They are making connections within the maelstrom that we would do well to heed, but – by learning from their example – we have to get out there and discover things for ourselves. And – of course – we should really be having a good time in the process.

“I am quite thankful I’m living,” concludes Mark, “no matter how difficult it is. It’s a brilliant experience. You can only die at the end of it, so what’s the fucking problem? Let’s just get on with it and enjoy it.”

Stuart Buchanan

Interview: GusGus – Chilled To The Bone

When working for 24:7 in London, I was lucky enough to spend an hour or so in a pub with Baldur Stefansson from Icelandic collective Gus Gus.  Every band has their own story to tell about their rise to fame, however the transformation of GusGus from an accidental art collective to an American Billboard chart conquering electronic band (‘Ladyshave’ 1999) is a curious one.  Given their haphazard genesis, and the general lack of desire ‘to be a band’, it’s no real surprise that the momentum of GusGus could not be sustained.  Although they still release records today, they’ve shed six members (from nine to three) and their output is sadly not quite as thrilling as it once was.  That said, when you count Hafdus Huld, Daniel Agust and Emilliani Torrini amongst your founding members, it’s hard to sustain that level of quality after they depart.  The following article is an extended ‘Directors Cut’ version of the original piece, developed from the source transcript.

CHILLED TO THE BONE: AN INTERVIEW WITH GUSGUS

Originally published in 24:7 London, 1998

Imagine a politically active, blue-eyed lover of neck warmers with the voice of Benny from Top Cat. Disengaging himself from his lorry driver parents, he becomes the owner of Iceland’s largest collection of vinyl, only to wind up being ceremonially massacred in a Viking B-Movie. Let your florid imagination chew over that one and you might be half way towards understanding Gus Gus.

Hailing from the world’s Northern-most island republic, Gus Gus have no frontman, no pop stars, no picture postcard icons. They are instead the living embodiment of the working, democratic collective – a group of friends and comrades, making an ice-cool blend of trip-hop and techno, smarting with good old-fashioned pop sensibilities. And there’s a growing suspicion that they might just conquer the world.

Baldur Stefansson is today’s ambassador for the band, operating not only as manager but also as one-ninth of the decision making process. Downing the Jaegermeisters in a Wandsworth hostelry, Baldur prattles with an exuberance untainted by their recent romp across America. “We’ve sold four times as many albums in America as we have here,” he pronounces, “and the difference is that there is no pre-set electronic scene in America. There are no indicators so they respond right away to what you bring to them. Here you have to go through so many different stages of awareness because there is so much competition around.”

With such a flock of disorientatingly disparate personalities, it’s unsurprising to learn that the genesis of Gus Gus was a characteristically curious affair. “We all came together in 1995 when we were supposed to making a film,” rambles Baldur, effortlessly tripping through a mind bulging with detailed anecdotes. “The directors, Sigg and Stefan, had been working in Iceland for five years, so they used their contacts to bring people in as actors, and suddenly we had all the biggest rock and pop stars in Iceland in one place. We had to postpone the shooting for financial reasons and so everybody we had a little gap. We knew that we had an ambitious musical team, so we thought ‘why don’t we go and make an album?'”

All of the songs for what would become the Polyesterday album were originally written on guitar and piano, and in their early demo form, sounded “like traditional melodic rock and pop songs”. It was only after the electronic components were introduced did things start to get interesting. “It all changed shape. It became very diverse, because different members had different ambitions for different songs, and everybody was throwing different things into the mix. Nobody moulded it together into a certain pattern, but at the same time, of course, we were all driven by quality.”

So convinced was Baldur that Gus Gus were such a delicious prospect that he sold his car to pay for a spell of recording in one of Iceland’s most exquisite studios. “I honestly believed when I heard the album that it had some kind of potential, but the reason I didn’t push it too hard originally was because I had no idea that the members of the band wanted to go all the way – or if there was any big ambition to go down this route.”

When all was said and done and tidied away, they cautiously self-released the album in Iceland and sent out a batch of promos to friends and family. Five weeks later, a call came through from London’s 4AD – the label famed for such musical maestros as The Cocteau Twins and the Pixies. “I came into London and met the guys from 4AD and sat down and listened to what they said. We just liked the philosophy and working relationship that 4AD was talking about – and the fact that they wanted to sign the whole nine-piece collective and not try to slimline it down to simply just the musicians. After a couple of days of friendly chat (I wouldn’t say negotiation) they handed me a piece of paper with an offer. There we were, sitting with a good firm offer from a really enthusiastic record label and we didn’t even know what we were – were we a band or a collective or whatever? Did we want to do this? We spent a week sipping tea and coffee, chatting away and formalising the relationship between ourselves and with 4AD and the rest of the world, working out how we wanted to do this. It’s been two years of interesting and maturing experiences.”

There is a general truism that most bands work well with a benevolent dictator – one person (usually the singer) who makes, and then forces, the creative decisions on everyone else. Most great bands have worked with a variation of this model – not so with Gus Gus. “The beauty is that there is a space for everybody. Every time there is a project, for example someone wants us to do a song for their film or to direct a video commercial or whatever, we bring it to a brainstorm meeting. And, if nobody is interested or it doesn’t make sense to do it, we don’t do it – but if someone is interested then that person takes it on as a project manager. They become responsible for making it happen.They make a production plan and keep it all together, they work on it and then bring it back when it’s ready. There is a certain veto in that if someone really doesn’t like it, we work it out, but it’s not like anyone is anal about those sort of things. That is basically the quality control that takes place within the band.”

A good example of this is the way in which they selected songs for their next album. “We decided that we would have a D-Day for demos. We had 18 demos and Daniel become the project manager for collecting those together, making demo CDs and throwing a little listening party. Six of the members turned in songs. Daniel invited us over to his place, we had a dress code, everybody brought a bottle of red wine. We sat down and put the demo CD on and listened to all 18 songs with the lyrics in front of us. He made tapes for every member, we took them away and met a month later to choose which songs to use. We complied the points and saw that there were ten obvious winners. Now we are going into the process of recording the songs, working on loops, samples, layers, finding the groove, finding the heart and soul of the idea.”

Back on British soil for a London date, Gus Gus are releasing a remix package from their delicious debut, Polyesterday. Mixes come not only from luminaries such as Carl Craig and DJ Vadim, but also from the legendary Sasha, tweaked out of self-imposed exile to remake the album’s parting shot, Purple. “Sasha called us and said that he hadn’t been doing remixes for over a year,” says Baldur, clearly delighted at being in such singular company, “but he was really taken by the song and wanted to do something with it. Since he was so enthusiastic about doing it and he is so inspirational, we decided to go for it.”

Baldur seems misty-eyed about the future of the project, knowing full well that the band’s working methods will keep them safe from harm. “Being nine people, working together should be complex,” he asserts. ” but because we are so aware of it, we have been trying to come up with ideas of how to really make it work. It’s an effective system and we’re well organised in terms of deadlines and budgeting, so this has become a combination of artistic creation and the most fun job you could ever ask for. At the end of the day, if we hadn’t recorded that first album, we would all be doing something else right now. I might have been down in Brazil being a driving instructor, as was my plan. When the dream is over in ten years, maybe I’ll be there.”

Interview: Robert Miles – Married With Children

Ten years ago I interviewed a hitherto unknown underground dance music artist about the pressures of living up to a massive overground chart hit. During the course of the interview, Robert Miles described clearly how conflicted he was – despite selling 13 million copies of his debut album, he would be quite happy to disappear completely and return to a life of anonymity. A decade and a half after the fact, it seems that Robert Miles got his wish.

Originally published in 24/7 Magazine, November 1997.
ROBERT MILES: MARRIED WITH CHILDREN

One day you are playing out your favourite tunes as a DJ in your local club. The next thing you know, you are the biggest selling dance artist in the world. Stuart Buchanan meets Robert Miles as he learns how to cope with Children.

“The freedom we lost cannot be reconquered cheaply, but however high, it is a price worth paying” – Robert Miles, sleeve notes, “23am”.

There are few artists, that given the option, would even consider the sheer career trajectory of dance artist Robert Miles. It has been so swift and so radical that Miles has had little or no time to assimilate everything that is happening around him – to essentially deal with the infamous “price of fame”. Suddenly, he is not just successful, he is an international commodity. Sales in the last two years have now topped over 13 million world-wide, making him dance music’s most bankable asset. Now everybody wants their pound of flesh, everybody wants to see their investment soar to stellar heights and every member of the CD buying public wants to get inside his head.

Yet less than three years ago, Miles was happily playing out psychedelic trance tunes in his native Italy, making his mark as a DJ and playing at selective underground gatherings. ‘Children’ came to him after his father returned from an aid mission to the former Yugoslavia. The track was nailed down, the plate cut and suddenly everything changed.

“To be honest, the first time I played ‘Children’ in a club in Italy, I was very scared about the feedback from the people on the dancefloor. But the reaction was so huge and massive, I thought to myself ‘what’s going on here?’ and I knew at that point that I had something very strong in my hands. Of course, I never knew exactly how big it was going to be and all of a sudden I was projected into the pop star system.”

Miles’ underground was now overground and whatever he thought of ‘Children’ (he still considers it to be an ‘underground’ track), his former allies were starting to cast him in a different light. “That record was played more or less by all the underground DJs (including the house DJs even though it wasn’t a house record) and then of course it became this big hit that everybody knows and people say that it’s not underground music anymore. When you find yourself in that dimension, it’s very hard to work at the core because a lot of people know about you, they start to talk about you, all the media talk about you and suddenly you’re not an underground person, even if I feel that I am. So it’s a very hard game – everyone’s against you, all the underground scene comes against you. I really do understand what the underground thinks of me, because if I was in their shoes, I would probably be thinking the same thing.”

From the outside, much of the criticism levelled at him would be considered valid – for example, why DJ with trance, techno and hard funk only to release laid-back and accessible grooves? “When I’m DJing I really like to play experimental stuff and underground music, but when I produce – that kind of music comes from inside, it’s something that you cannot stop. I’ve tried so many times to produce the same music that I play as a DJ, but I don’t have the power to stop what is inside. But at the same time, I don’t really want to take the underground scene and put it into the big market, because I don’t want to mis-represent anybody. I’m just trying to ensure that the kind of people that hate club music are now able to listen to it step by step. Of course, I really want to release experimental music, but to get the masses to listen to that you need time and I need to build up slowly.”

His altruistic mission was cocked askew by the inevitable slew of copy-cat acts that attempt to stage a spectacular act of bandwagon-jumping. “Suddenly the chart was full of similar stuff , but no one had the same success because they didn’t have the same flavour as ‘Children’. I had to get out of that situation because everything I wanted to do and say was completely broken by all the other people that were copying my kind of music.”

Miles does not see himself so much as a vanguard, but he believes that he has certainly made a pioneering mark in the history of dance music. “The one thing that I am very happy about is that I made people accept that we don’t play shit music in clubs – we actually play very good music. A lot of people, after ‘Children’, started to go into underground clubs and to listen to that kind of music and now they love it. So I don’t think that everything I did was wrong, because a lot of people didn’t know Future Sound Of London or other types of experimental music before and now they’ll listen to it. It doesn’t matter what happens now or in the future, because I’m happy that I did something for the clubs.”

If ‘Children’ was genuinely such an act of benevolence, then Miles has paid dearly for it. He has, at all points on his current ley-line, refused to play the system and, more often than not, refused to be photographed. Miles is the epitome of the Nineties cultural renaissance – the face means nothing and the cult of celebrity has been ripped apart. Artists such as Leftfield, Underworld and FSOL, have shifted hundred of thousands of units but have still remained unknown in the public eye. Miles has gone one better – rivalling sales for artists such as The Spice Girls and Oasis during 1996 whilst still harbouring his anonymity.

With the release of his new album ’23am’ (Deconstruction), Miles has taken this notion to its logical conclusion. The face has been entirely removed and all that remains on the sleeves, promotional posters and videos is nothing more than a silhouette. Perhaps this truly is the death of the artist – or may it’s just a very clever promotional scam to fuel the public interest.

“There is one thing that I really don’t like – which is that people think that I always wanted to be a pop star, or that I love being a pop star, which is absolutely not true. I really don’t want to play the pop star system – I don’t feel myself as a pop star or think of myself in a commercial way. The title of the album comes from a message that I got from my broken answering machine – it said ‘you have three messages, Sunday 23am’. I thought that it was perfect because 23am can be, in a certain way, an imaginary time in which you find yourself, which fits well with the silhouette on the cover – that’s Robert Miles the pop star, not Robert Miles the real person. It’s a double personality, which is also a double reality – a lot of people want to see me as a pop star, but I’m not in that frame of mind at all. I think the title works well with that idea because it’s something that can exist, but doesn’t exist in reality.”

However, Miles is still buying into the media game – this interview, the videos, the hundreds of thousands spent on promotion. Many artists have built a successful career without such trappings – they have refused interviews and kept themselves hidden (Portishead’s Beth Gibbons being an obvious example), but Miles is content to take a more cautious and phased journey back into public obscurity. “The problem is that when you’ve sold 13 million copies, people want to see your face, they want to read about you and if I stopped doing all the promotion then nothing would actually get off the ground and I really want to be able to do more music. I know that now, step by step, I can cut down the promotion – if today you are Robert Miles that sells 13 million copies and then tomorrow you are the silhouette on the ’23am’ cover, then maybe the next step is that I am no one and nothing and that’s the way I want to go. But it’s impossible to give it all up at the one time, you must take your time. I have people saying to me ‘okay, now you have a position, you can do what you want, we can sell a million records’, but I have to tell them ‘I really don’t want to be here, I want to be back where I was’, but it takes time.”

From listening and watching Miles talk, you get the impression that his calm exterior belies the turmoil and confusion that simmer underneath. “The whole thing is a bit of a mess – trust me, it’s very difficult to be in this position. There are a lot of people that want to be in my position, but if they could actually do it they would go absolutely crazy. What I’m trying to do is to be very relaxed and to continue to do what I have to do. I know that some people will be for me and some people will be against me and we’ll just have to see what happens in the next year.”

Those twelve months may well see Miles embark on another project, perhaps under a different name altogether. He cites a range of influences on a spectrum leading from Robert Fripp to Goldie and LTJ Bukem, and of course there is his European trance background to consider. ” I really want to start another project because I work in that side of music, I really enjoy and support underground music. The project will probably be more the kind of music that I play as a DJ, but it’s not to show people that I can do both kinds of music. It’s something more personal and maybe it’s just so that I can show something to myself.”

We can look at Robert Miles an interesting anthropological experimental. If he can continue to sell millions of records and simultaneously eradicate his public persona, then we may well find ourselves with a unique concept on our hands. Perhaps we may well get to the stage where art can finally triumph over celebrity and Robert Miles, for one, will be happy. But the late twentieth century is truly an age where consumerism is largely fuelled by iconography, where leisure and entertainment is entirely built around the shallow foundation of looks over content – we must ask ourselves, do we really want to bring down such walls? Would we prefer to be surrounded by faceless music and nameless entertainment? Is that what we want? What we really, really want?

Stuart Buchanan

Interview: Bruce Gilbert, Wire – Come Back In Two Halves

I met with Bruce Gilbert back in 1995 when my brother-in-arms Roddy Hunter was performing at the National Review of Live Art in Glasgow. Roddy had used one of Bruce’s tracks (from the P’o album ‘Whilst Climbing Thieves Vie For Attention’) in his performance / installation titled ‘Blind Tim’ and we took the opportunity post-performance to softly grill Bruce about his time in Wire, Dome, Duet Emmo and P’o. I had little idea that we would in fact be led into a enthralling tale which detailed the exploits of electronic luminaries Richard James and Alex Paterson – as they, with Bruce, attempted to subvert the course of modern music during a potentially violent night out in downtown Moscow.

Bruce closed the interview by discussing, somewhat reluctantly, the future of Wire. He chose his words carefully, announcing that Wire were “asleep”, and of course the band reformed five years later for a series of releases, arguably as angular, taut and unnerving as their early releases of the 1970s. The interview was first published in Thee Data Base #5, 1995.

COME BACK IN TWO HALVES

One of the most dangerous things about the current music scene is the resurgence of the dodgy middle-aged male fraternity. You know the kind, the ex-punks – or even worse, the ex-prog-rockers – who think they have something new to say. Alas, the likes of Killing Joke, Tangerine Dream and Steve Hillage have very little to say – but give them their credit, they know a good bandwagon when they see one.

It would be easy, and more than a little insulting, to disregard the whole generation out of hand. There are some who have marched swiftly to the forefront of new electronica such as Andy Weatherall and Alex Paterson and there are some who have been making absurdist and avant-garde music quietly in the background.

One such luminary is Bruce Gilbert. His music career started fresh out of college in 1976 when he joined as guitarist / writer for Wire. They seemed to be a little too clever for the heady maelstrom of punk, but that only made their survival more inevitable. They managed to succeed outside of the usual rigours of the standard album-tour format and their imagination even carried them through a five year hiatus from 1980-1985. During that time, Wire never performed or recorded as a group, instead the members drifted from one solo / duo project to another. Bruce Gilbert notched up an impressive back-catalogue of work, mainly with Wire vocalist Graham Lewis, in Dome, Duet Emmo and P’o. It was P’o that brought Thee Data Base in touch with Bruce Gilbert in November last year. The track “Blind Tim” from the only P’o album, “Whilst Climbing Thieves Vie For Attention”, was used a continous loop in an eight hour installation / performance from Glasgow “Live Art” collective, Cylinder. Their idea of Cylinder’s “Blind Tim” performance inspired Gilbert to visit Glasgow, framed as it was in the context of the National Review Of Live Art. Though he would never call himself a performance artist, Gilbert & Lewis’ ‘Dome’ collaboration sparked off a series of live art performances at venues such as Manchester’s Hacienda, the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and the Rotterdam Arts Festival.

“We never called it ‘performance’ as such” explained Bruce Gilbert, in an impromptu interview in the midst of Cylinder’s set. “There was a need to make the music three dimensional. We wanted a physical equivalent of our approaches in the studio, which had a strong absurdity angle. Our work had to be done in 3D. When you create something out of context, if you have no history of intellectual context, it becomes anecdotal at best or just absurd – cliche ridden quite often. The object was to put our approach to things in the context of normal music. When we were invited to “arts” events we were very uncomfortable. We didn’t want a career as performance artists. I dabbled as a performer.”

Why then did ‘Dome’ perform at such events if Gilbert did not see himself as a performance artist? “Being a rock group, we had to perform at both levels or no levels. Wire as a group were always committed towards using multi-media. When you use record company money to make absurd things, when the record company had no idea what the money was to be used for, then you had to have a strategy. It was a good background, coming from a musical entity, but people just expected us to play Wire songs. They expected us to play punk rock songs and they didn’t get it. We were progressing very quickly. We used to confront audiences with something they would never dream of seeing at any other time, but eventually people did see the link. We saw the link, so it needed to be done. We had the opportunity, so we had to use it.”

Wire returned to recording in 1985 with ‘Snakedrill’ released through Mute records. As the most prolific and certainly most respected ‘independent’ label in the UK, Mute saw Wire sit side-by-side with the likes of Neubauten, Nick Cave and Diamanda Galas. The credibility of Mute’s recent attatchments with the likes of Ritchie Hawtin and Moby have enevitability done Gilbert’s profile no harm.

He was invited to DJ at the now-legendary Brittronica Festival in Moscow with the Aphex Twin and Alex Paterson amongst others. “When I sent over my requirements, I said that I wanted to be DJing in a shed. I got there and there was no shed. It wasn’t as if there were any large pieces of wood lying around that I could make one out of – you learn to do these things in those situations. I said to the organisers “Where’s the shed?” They just looked at me and laughed and said, “We just thought you were joking.” It soon became obvious to me that all the resident DJs were just little Moscow rich kids with baseball caps playing Madonna records. The club was basically full of members of the Russian Mafia and their girlfriends. The “kids” that we wanted to play to couldn’t afford the tickets. We were not playing to “real people”.

“I tried to duck out of my DJ spot, but the rest of them said to me, “You’re only playing fucking records…”. I started off with what I normally play – “drones” by people like Phil Niblock. I thought it would set the scene, a scene on top of which you can do anything. The audience were becoming restless, they wanted to dance to the Top Ten western dancey-dancey tracks. “I decided to put on “Frankie Teardrop”, I thought “well, it’s got a kind of beat”, but it’s basically just acapella screaming and it goes beautifully with the drones. All of sudden I was surrounded by people on stage with shiny shirts saying “Why are you not playing music for the people?”. They started to look through my record bag and I was saying “Madonna isn’t in there…” After that, I put this other tape on and a man in an even shinier shirt came up and said “People want to dance!”, so by this point I had had enough and I just said, “Oh, fuck off.” Then he started saying, “No, you fuck off!” and it went on from there “Fuck Off!”, “No You Fuck Off!”, “No You Fuck Off!”…

“While this was going on, I turned to Richard James and I said “I’ve done my bit! It’s your turn!”. He put on this dancey thing and these uniformed goons arrive. They were basically Russian SAS moonlighting as security guards. The Aphex Twin had played about thirty seconds of this beautifully groovy music when he was physically removed from the stage. We both went upstairs and Alex Paterson was just like, “What the fuck’s going on? I’m going down to do my set…” He come back thirty seconds later shouting “Bastards! Wouldn’t even let me audition…”

“Ultramarine were due on next, but they said they weren’t playing if the DJs weren’t allowed to play. The coach was called and the roadies from Ultramarine were the last people out. We were all on the coach and it was just revving up to go, when they came running out of the building towards the bus – they just went in there and pulled out all the plugs for the resident DJs… The frustration was in that we never got to play in front of real people. We never met the “underground” of Russia. If you’d had that line up in this country, people would be queuing in the streets – it would have been a great idea. What’s a bunch of show-off Russian DJs compared to the likes of Alex Paterson?”

Not to be disheartened from such an event, Gilbert has taken up a monthly DJ residency, appearing as ‘The Beekeper’ at the Disboey Club in London. “It’s a club with an eclectic mix of acts with everything from standard free jazz to situationist ranters like Stewart Home. As a DJ at Disobey there are certain rules I have to follow. Records are allowed to be old and temporarily unavailable, but they must have been commercially available at some point. Having no record player at home also makes life interesting.”

The last recorded output from Wire was under the name Wir, following the departure of drummer of Robert Gotobed. The album, ‘The First Letter’, surfaced in 1991, and since then all has been unnervingly quiet in the Wire camp. “When you don’t sell a large quantity of records, you are in a very vulnerable position. We were put in the position of having to sell our arses to the Americans. We were on tour in the US and I was being given a few $ a day in payment and I thought to myself, “I don’t need to be put through this kind of pressure.” Mute wanted to sell us to America – it was just like being on the record business hamster wheel. We never had a contract with Mute though. If Daniel Miller dies, we’re all up shit creek.

“‘Wire’ is asleep. Colin [Newman] is a record company now, doing trance LPs. He loves the complications of the business – he’s the only real muso out of all of us. Graham has left the Mute family. He’s living in Sweden and it would cost £400 for one airfare. The bottom line is that to finance people you have to promise tours and get into deeper shit with record companies. We’re perfectly capable of getting into a room and making a noise, but at the moment that’s not on the table.”

Following Gilbert’s Glasgow visit, he returned to London to instigate a one-off ‘Dome’ performance at Disobey with Graham Lewis. Quite what that says for his future plans, remains to be seen. He says he’s taking things easy, making plans and waiting for invitations. So and slow it grows.

Interview: Siouxsie Sioux / The Creatures

This is quite a blast from the past, dredging the archives for one of my first interviews to find its way into print (Pat Kane, from 80s pop duo ‘Hue & Cry‘ actually takes that high honour). I resurrected this piece to commemorate Siouxsie’s latest album, ‘Manta Ray’, her first solo release in three decades of recording. More importantly, it’s the first album without the emotional crutch and creative involvement of ex-husband Budgie – a partnership that outlasted the Banshees and, via The Creatures, arguably contains some of Siouxsie’s most innovative and complex work.

As a teenager, I was a keen devotee of Siouxie Sioux – and, to this day, I still own a near-complete collection of Banshees singles and album releases on vinyl. She never fails to impress and her allure is still remarkably potent.

Back in 1990, my pre-interview nerves were somewhere off the Richter Scale, being particularly mindful of the old cliche – “never interview your idols”. The reality was wonderfully different – Siouxsie and Budgie were not only relaxed and charming, but hugely welcoming and disarmingly open. Of course, it only made me love them more. The interview was first published in the Glasgow University Guardian in 1990.

THE CREATURES

After so many years as figurehead for the Banshees, no one can blame Siouxsie Sioux for being tired. The band are in a position where everything seems familiar – the approach to their continual projects resembles a well-trodden path, and if you’re not careful, stagnation and boredom can set in.

This may be part of the reason why six years after their debut album ‘Feast’, The Creatures have returned, creating one of their finest pieces to date – ‘Boomerang’. One of the most surprising aspects of the project was their decision to tour – even more startling was the fact that they chose to perform as a duo without the aid of any session musicians.

“We’ve taken it on, we have to see it through,” says Budgie, with more than a hint of apprehension in his voice. Tonight at the Queen Margaret Union, their backing tapes – controlled by Budgie’s drum pedal – refused to stay in line, causing a chaotic mess during a few intros. “It’s the first time on stage without Steve [Severin] and it’s as scary as shit.”

“I’m starting to enjoy it,” admits Siouxsie, “because it’s a completely different way of doing it. It’s getting the adrenalin going again. With smaller venues you start getting a sense of the audience again. It feels very different – which is the whole reason for doing this really.”

After eleven Banshees albums and numerous tours, you can imagine that the pair must hit the wall of disillusion on many occasions. Have they never thought that the end of the road must arrive one day?

“When we started this, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do another Banshees project,” explains Siouxsie, “I said ‘That’s it! I’ll leave it open, but I’m not promising anything.’ The last Banshees album ‘Peepshow’ as a whole album was probably the best we’ve done for a long time. ‘Hyaena’ and ‘Tinderbox’ fell – but they weren’t all bad. Half of ‘Hyaena’ I thought was really good, and ‘Cities In Dust’ I was really proud of, but as ‘whole albums’ they just didn’t work.”

Budgie: “‘Through The Looking Glass’ [the Banshees’ album of cover versions] just taught us how to work really quickly again. The songs were already written – all we were doing was figuring out how to play them, and we did that in a couple of weeks.”

Siouxsie: “We just wanted to stop hanging around the studio waiting for the guitarist to turn up. We got really bogged down with trying to find a guitarist to replace John McGeoch – we got let down by Robert Smith at the last minute – and then we started a new tour with John Carruthers… It was bit unfair to push it that way.”

It would seem then that to plough through another Banshees project directly after ‘Peepshow’ would have resulted in a terminal disaster. Fortunately for The Creatures, working as a duo is creatively far less inhibiting. Is it the case that tracks on ‘Boomerang’ may have never existed if they been put through the familair ‘five-piece’ channels?

Budgie: “Well, take the Banshees track ‘Peek-A-Boo’ for instance. To keep that the way it was, and the way it ended up, was quite a fight on Siouxsie’s part.”

Siouxsie: “It wasn’t done in the regular way. It was just an idea that I had and I didn’t want it to become ‘band-ised’, with guitars running all the way through it. I wanted to keep it bare with all the original ideas intact.”

Budgie: “I think that’s the way we approach The Creatures. It’s less precious in a way – because there’s just the two of us, you can play any instrument and there’s no guitarist in the corner thinking ‘Well, what am I going to play?’. You’re not being precious about what the band is supposed to be.”

Siouxsie: “And it’s not the case where everyone has to have a say in what you do. Trying to convince someone that the best thing they can do is ‘nothing’ is quite hard to do without sounding harsh. It’s good to strip yourself down and let yourself breathe.”

So are The Creatures prolonging the life of the Banshees?

“Something like The Banshees that’s got such a history can be inhibiting,” replies Siouxise, “you can step to the side and see what it’s doing – rather than being a part of it all the time – it keeps you interested in what you’re doing. I think nervousness and fear are really vital emotions.”

Listening toThe Creatures’ output, with the tribal chants of Hawaiian singers on ‘Feast’ and the crazed horn section on ‘Right Now’, the idea of transforming such orchestration to a small stage seems near to the realms of impossibility. However, judging by their appearance on the ‘Big World’ tv show, their attempt at re-constructing ‘Standing There’ or ‘You!’ seemed cluttered by the addition of a large band.

Budgie: “I didn’t like the sound of it, but it wasn’t the musicians’ fault. Basically, we discovered that you can’t mike up a marimba – it just doesn’t cut it live. You can put a hundred microphones on every slat and you still wouldn’t hear them with the feedback. The only alternative is to use a synthesised mallet and programmed backing which we’re using on this tour.”

To record ‘Feast’, The Creatures flew to Hawaii, and for ‘Boomerang’ they took their mobile studio to the cultural heart of the Spanish mainland. It’s the kind of scheme that the Banshees would never have undertaken.

Siouxsie: “It wasn’t a studio enviroment – we couldn’t have taken the band with guitars and amps to a situation like that. It would have horrified everyone around.”

Budgie: “When you’re with the band you’re very much ‘back in the gang’. You kind of walk all over whatever the situation you’re in because of the strength of the unit.”

Siouxsie: “No matter what you’re intentions are, people around you sort of stay back, because they see you as…”

Budgie: “They see you as confrontational, or just cheeky. When we took The Creatures to Spain it was different – we just slipped in. We were in a village, on a farm, and there was a community there -and we just went into the barn and made a lot of noise.”

Siouxsie: “We all ate together at this big table. It was great because there was very little language, due to the Andalucian accent. I can speak some Spanish, but with the Anadalucians … well, it’s like someone coming to Glasgow who has just learned English…”

How do The Creatures deal with the concept of ‘world music’, baring in the mind the diversity of ‘ethnic’ influence in their work?

Siouxsie: “I don’t like the way ‘world music’ has being a very hip thing. Ever since ‘JuJu’ we’ve been really into using different types of percussion and suchlike, but we’re not really delved that much. I just don’t like labels. It’s like when people say ‘you’re a punk band’. I say ‘well, we’re not a rock band, we’re not a punk band, we’re not a soul band … we’re not anything’. I really like the idea of things not being snobby like that. There are people who are like ‘we’re a Heavy Metal band and we’re not having bloody bells in our songs!’. That’s really stupid. I think it’s just whatever you hear and you like it, you’re curious about it, you don’t know what it is, so you pursue it.”

It seems then that the future of The Banshees is assured?

“I hope that the good things about The Creatures will carry through into the next Banshees project,” affirms Siouxsie, “I think the next Banshees thing that we do will be a really positive thing.”

Interview: Jamie Hewlett (Gorillaz) – Sex, Tanks & Kangaroos

One of my earliest interviews, with comic book artists Jamie Hewlett and Philip Bond, published during my year as Editor of Glasgow University Magazine.  Hewlett had scored major success around this time as co-creator of ‘Tank Girl’, however he would go on to far greater international acclaim as the visual mastermind and co-creator of the Gorillaz project with Damon Albarn. Bond continues to work in comics, working with the likes of Grant Morrison and Pete Milligan and on titles such as ‘Hellblazer’ and Harvey Pekar’s ‘American Splendour’.

It would seem that I was somewhat obsessed in this interview with proving the point that comics were ‘hip’ – a point that’s almost an impirical fact in 2008, but back in 1989 it was a hard case to argue for.  I tried to prove the point in two ways: (1) by using frequent references to Morrissey and The Smiths, and (2) by frequently discussing the sexual activity of Tank Girl.  The latter is probably the saddest of the two – I’m sure if I was ever to meet someone quite like Tank Girl, she’d chew me up and spit me out in a heartbeat.

SEX, TANKS & KANGAROOS

One thing that surprised a lot of sceptics over the summer was the final emergence of the Batman film.  Based largely on Frank Miller’s recent revitalisation of the character, the greatest shock came when they discovered that “it wasn’t for kids”.  Stuart Buchanan talks to Philip Bond and Jamie Hewlett from Deadline Magazine about the sudden rise in interest of ‘Adult Comics’.

The phrase ‘Adult Comics’ to some is nothing more than an intrinsic paradox.  Their mind immediately shifts to a father in his armchair by the fire, his kids playing with Lego on the floor, while he leafs through a copy of ‘The Incredible Hulk’.  Fortunately, this awkward preconception is as far removed from the truth as is possible.

The comics subculture is expanding every month with new artists and new titles coming to the fore.  Last month, for instance, witnessed the publication of ‘The Bogie Man’, a strip located entirely in Glasgow and the first venture of the Glasgow-based Fatman Press.

However, the most original comic (or do I say ‘magazine’?) available at the present time is without doubt the London-based Deadline.  One thing that separates Deadline from its unworthy cousins, such as 2000AD and Crisis, is its largely humourous content – not, perhaps, in the same lines as Viz, but more subtle than slapstick.  Underpinning the often black humour are numerous references to our contemporary culture – in the form of both blatant morals and subtextual nods to the cream of indie bands.

“Basically, Jamie and I have been really influenced by everything that is happening,” explains Philip Bond, author and artist of Deadline’s ‘Wired World’ and ‘Hot Triggers’, along with ‘Angels Amongst Us’ from Crisis.  “We just want to write about the sort of people that we are, except push it a bit further, and so the references have got to come across.  But we really didn’t think about who we were writing for.  We just wrote for ourselves, but from the way that the [public] signings have gone, it seems that people who come along are very much people like ourselves, which is exactly how it should be.  So I guess that it’s been very successful.”

One aspect that comics have eternally been criticised for is that they are predominantly created for men, and their content is distinctly chauvinistic. In Philip’s ‘Wired World’ strip however, the characters are female, highly disillusioned with the world around them.

“I suppose deep down I’m a feminist, maybe that’s why I write strips about women.  I think, from my own experiences, that women very often turn out to be much smarter than men.  Men are just dupes and they provide the slapstick behind the strips.”

Jamie Hewlett’s strip, ‘Tank Girl’, however has all too often been wrongly labelled as sexist. “If it is,” he claims, “it’s not meant to be.  I’m not sexist and I’m not racist, not at all.  So I try to stab at things that I don’t like – like McDonalds and shit music and lot of bollocks that you get on TV at the moment.  But you’ve really got to have all this shit around, because if everything was good, you’d be lost.  You’ve got nothing to be annoyed about.”

The appeal of ‘Tank Girl’, thankfully, stems far and wide, and Jamie is interested in teasing reads about her sexuality for some time to come.  “There are a lot of lesbians that are really into ‘Tank Girl’ apparently.  Everyone thinks that she is a lesbian at the moment, which she isn’t; her sexuality hasn’t been decided yet.”

“The initial idea for Tank Girl came from a girl I used to know in Worthing who looked like her.  When I first met her, she had this crewcut and she was headbutting this bouncer in the face.  She was really hard, but she was a really attractive girl.”

The comics culture it seems it filtering out into other contemporary mediums.  TV and Radio are dragging their feet, although cinema interest has been aroused in both Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ and 2000AD’s ‘Judge Dredd’.  However, the world of popular music is riddled with tributes and references to the fictional heroes of the 80s (Transvision Vamp, Pop Will Eat Itself and Anthrax have all been guilty in recent times). Both Jamie and Philip are quick to draw analogies between the two cultures.

Says Jamie, “Poeple like Brett Ewins [Deadline editor with Steve Dillon] are responsible for making comics quite ‘hip’ like they are now.  They are responsible for making comic artists into pop stars.”

Philip takes this a stage further: “If you buy a Kylie Minogue record, it’s her singing a Stock, Aitken and Waterman record and it’s just completely empty.  Whereas if you go out and buy a Morrissey record, it’s recognisable as a Morrissey record.  It’s got his character in it and everything.  I think comics are going that way.”

Jamie brings in the idea of using television as a good way to symbolise the intrinsic differences in the comics culture itself.  “If there was a Deadline TV show, we’d put on a really good one, because what we consider as the good bands and good comedians probably like what we do, as much as we like what they do.  Whereas if you had an Alan Moore TV show, it might be Alan sitting on a sofa, flicking his hair back and talking about really boring shit for three hours”.

Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ has long been thought of as the comic that finally broke the superhero mould and in that respect has been held in high regard.  Jamie, however, is more skeptical.  “Alan Moore bores me really.  I’m not into him.  ‘Watchmen’ was a really well written comic, but I don’t think he’s full of ideas.  It was alright, but it didn’t get me excited.  I didn’t get the same pleasure like I was listening to a Smiths album or something like that.  It’s like Brendan McCarthy’s ‘Strange Days’ – you do get a feeling like you’re listening to a Smiths album.  You’re really pleased with it and you want to keep it.  You want to have it around you all the time.”

The reaction that Deadline has received has been, at the very least, astounding.  It is due to this, that offers from other comics are numerous.  Both Jamie and Philip are contributing to ‘A1’ magazine, an independent forum for comic creators, and are also expanding their range to include work on both 2000AD and Crisis respectively.  However, both are far removed from their contemporary rivals.

Philip: “We are starting to be recognised as creators instead of just the illustrators.  That’s definitely part of the appeal of Deadline; because it’s got the artists who are also the creators – writing their own stuff and drawing it as well – it’s a more personal creation.  I think the readers recognise that and they can get into the personality behind the artist as well as just liking the drawing.”

Deadline is sure to be an eternal success, provided that it continues to provide an ever-hungry public with the meat that it so desperately craves.  There only seems to be one question remaining: will Tank Girl ever sleep with anybody?

“Well, I think if you fancy someone and you never see them being sexy or sleeping with anybody, that’s okay.  But if you see them being lewd all the time and shagging left, right and centre, then it takes it all away.  She probably will sleep with men when she gets round to it, but I don’t think she’s really interested in that.  If I was a woman, I wouldn’t sleep with a man, that’s for sure!”

First published in Glasgow University Magazine,  December 1989

Interview: Michael Gira, Swans

This interview from 1989 marked my first published piece outside of the cotton-wool confines of University Of Glasgow publications.  Such entities were only too happy to accept any writer who could work a pen and had read an album review or two in their time.  Stepping outside of that, into the world of paid commissions, was quite another thing entirely.  As fate would have it, I never pursued my intended career in journalism; nonetheless this piece marks the earliest successful attempt to have someone pay for my work, appearing in Scotland’s cultural listing magazine, The List.

Michael Gira was the test subject, founder and primary artistic force behind Swans, a band that emerged from New York’s No Wave scene and lived through their early years as post-punk / noise manufacturers, famed for the ear-bleeding volume of their live shows.  In 1988, they flirted with an alternative – recording their only major label album, ‘The Burning World’ with renowned producer Bill Laswell (a move that Gira later acknowleged as a “mismatch”).  That said, the album did introduce more acoustic instrumentation and semi-pop sensibilities, both of which informed later work.

Gira was a reluctant interview subject, and I always suspect that he was playing the role of the bored moggy, lazily pawing at me as if I were his mouse toy, gaining only a modicum of pleasure from the experience.  By the end, boredom has turned to sarcasm and it was clearly time to hang up the phone.

SWANS

In the seven years that Swans have existed, they have constantly deluded and delighted their swelling mass of admirers.  A change in style and change in line-up would inevitably mirror a shift in allegiance to a particular label.  In June of 1988, however, their most disturbing transformation took place with their interpretation of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (“Basically, a beautiful song”).  Swans had ripened into a crown of elegance.  Some called it beautiful, others a sell-out from their brutal noise afflictions of earlier years.  A mellowing of their sound?

“I wouldn’t say it was a mellowing as such”, muses creator and vocalist Michael Gira.  “We have merely jettisoned, killed and eliminated what has gone before. It’s a response to the need to live.  You need to get rid of something before you can progress”.

Faced with such a deliberate diversion in style, the music press has been flaunting the word ‘accessible’ in front of its readers.  In all such instances, this marked deviation can incite nothing short of a major fracas with the quota of Swans’ devotees.  “There was a small faction of fans who had limited perception.  They would bang their heads and shout for us to play louder.  There is, however, a larger group that has been responsive to changes within the band over the last few years.  We are, hopefully, going to appeal to a larger number of people and, at the same time, getting rid of the ones that we hate.”

An obvious ploy to weed out the dissidents from the disciples is Gira’s rendition of ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’, penned in 1969 by one Steve Winwood, on their latest album ‘Burning World’, their first for major label MCA.  He maintains however that’s “it’s not for the merits of the artist that I choose to cover a song.  It’s not because it’s a Steve Winwood song, rather it’s a good blueprint to build an atmosphere around.”

Audiences can an anticipate a more placid performance from Swans when they parade their plumage at Edinburgh’s Calton Studios this week. “Our shows are now full of pastoral ballads and uplifting crescendos.  It’s an end to the bludgeoning of our previous performances.  I am actually expecting the audience to levitate.”  And the United Kingdom?  Will it succumb to the forthcoming swan-song?  “Britain’s fine with me,” says Gira.  Fine?  With all Gira’s flourishing of feathers, we would expect more than a monosyllabic answer.  “Well, it’s the Emerald Isle,” he claims, rather reluctantly.  “What more can I say?

pic: Anne Helmond

First published in The List, July 1989

Sorry, But This Just Isn’t Music – Coldcut vs The Charts

24:7 was a short-lived free London street press title that operated at the tail end of 1997 and early 1998.  At the time, there was nothing else quite like it in the market, but entering a market dominated by Time Out and supplemented by the growing power of the web, was always going to be a hard sell.  24:7 made it to seven issues, with an eighth in the bag, but pulled from the press.  In the space of a few short weeks, I went from casual contributor on the web column to Commissioning Editor to unemployed.  Nonetheless, it was an intense period of output as regards my writing, including interviews with Coldcut, Gus Gus, Robert Miles and J.C. Herz.

Fate dealt an interesting hand – with the premature demise of the title, the Coldcut piece was not published in 24:7.  However, having formed a bond with Coldcut’s label Ninja Tune (primarily thanks to the Art Director’s relationship with Hexstatic), they suggested that it could perhaps run in an edition of their label magazine, The Pipe.  They also commissioned two further pieces from me: an interview with label artist Chocolate Weasel – Mark Royal (aka T-Power) and Cris Stevens – and an article on the rejection of Coldcut’s single ‘Timber’ from the national charts due to its extended content on its CD.  In hindsight, we can clearly see that the issues Coldcut faced with the humble CD-ROM were simply the first tiny flourishes of a far greater panic and malaise that gripped the music industry shortly after the turn of the century, and which – as time is sure to attest – led to the biggest shakedown in its history.

The foresight herein is simply happenstance, rather than any rigorous crystal-ball gazing on my part, yet I can’t help but think that words like these have even greater resonance in today’s market: “The innovators and the artisans have always been the ones to stand alone at the far edge of progress and wait with impatience for the weighty bulk of the mainstream to catch up … the rate of change is now so incredible, that perhaps that breach is now too wide to be bridged. When the penny finally drops for the industry, the innovators will have moved on further still.”

SORRY, BUT THIS JUST ISN’T MUSIC
The strange case of a music world crippled by terminal chart failure.

Remarkable to think that since 1998 poked its head out of its cold burrow many months ago, we have already discovered water on the moon and life on Jupiter, genetically engineered a cloned calf, effected photon teleportation and simultaneously disproved one of Einstein’s most fundamental of theories. Time, truly, is gaining momentum at an alarming rate and technology is sitting at the wheel, pulling out the throttle with its steel-toed boot firmly locked onto the accelerator.

There’s nothing wrong with this scenario per se, in fact – to some – this era is the most remarkable in this planet’s history. However, bringing up the rear in this ridiculously extended metaphor are those who stop to ponder over the ethics, the morals and the rules. They stall in their tracks to judge the rights and wrongs of any situation, without realising that the rest of the world is steaming further and further ahead. Of course we need markers and sceptics in order to keep us in some form of check, but invariably the wand of power is being held tightly by legislators who have an unfailing inability to cast their imaginations into the misty fog of the future. Thus we are left we a situation akin to the early days of the industrial revolution – the innovators battling the luddites, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

And such a war – you might be surprised to hear – is raging somewhere in the virtual nether regions of your own loveable music industry. You might think this as somewhat strange – the industry, after all, is traditionally built around advanced creative technologies, evident in the heaving, vast racks of digital audio equipment resplendent on stage during most live gigs and also in the steadily rampaging progress that music video has made over the last decade. However, the industry has been finally stumped by the simple notion that music is no longer something that you throw into your CD machine and just ‘play’. Music is now emerging into an arena where more than one sense organ being stimulated – the no-man’s land known as interactivity. You might have noticed the creeping influence of the “enhanced CD” sticker, blazoned on a growing number of CD singles. Such an “enhancement” usually takes the form of an additional single track of video and appears on the second of a two-CD set at the expense of a track of audio.

Not so with Coldcut’s most recent single release, Timber, which instead featured twelve audio tracks and eight video tracks over two separate CD singles. The running time of each CD fell within the limits for chart regulation monitored by the Chart Information Network (CIN), even when the length of each video track was taken into account. However, the BPI through CIN had previously decreed that, irrespective of running time, music that appears as video and not solely as audio must be confined to one track if it is to be eligible for entry into the chart. It seems that music formatted as exclusively audio will be readily welcomed into the chart fold, however utilising both sight and sound to create a singe package would appear to be a case of too much too soon. Charts exist for singles, albums, videos and software, but an attempt to move forward and merge such obviously compatible formats will deem a product ineligible for chart status.

“People aren’t used to buying music in this way,” claims Coldcut’s Matt Black, “they might be used to buying a Mr Bean video, they might be used to buying a seven inch single, but they have a problem putting the two things together. A VHS single tape isn’t a very attractive product whereas a CD is – and that’s the advantage of the CD format, you can give people what they want, plus you can also fit extra things on it.”

Of course, the wheels of administration and bureaucracy have classically moved at a rate of imperceptible knots, so perhaps we cannot expect the music industry as a whole to grab the baton and move onto the next stage of the relay. The innovators and the artisans have always been the ones to stand alone at the far edge of progress and wait with impatience for the weighty bulk of the mainstream to catch up. However, the rate of change is now so incredible, that perhaps that breach is now too wide to be bridged. When the penny finally drops for the industry, the innovators will have moved on further still.

Take, for example, the current state of world-wide music distribution. America’s Wired magazine already runs its own chart based on individual downloads from one music resource web site. What makes such a chart unique is that all the artists who submit full length tracks to the site are currently unsigned. Users are able to download tracks onto their hard drive and burn that directly onto a CD which can then be played back in the traditional manner. The public are therefore not only making their own tunes, but they are additionally taking distribution and manufacturing of music into their own hands. Sounds can also obviously be previewed before download, on something akin to a web based radio station where the user becomes the DJ. Instantly, we have a new, virtual music industry that exists in its entirety beyond any of the existing channels.

The chart, according to CIN, is “a listing of best selling recordings that can be accessed via all standard audio equipment”. The point clearly demonstrated by technological innovation is that the nature of playback is changing and is no longer exclusively the confines of the humble hi-fi. At the same time, the distribution and sale of music is also undergoing a radical evolutionary movement, such that the concept of the traditional record retailer may well also be redundant within the space of a few years, rather than decades. In order for the chart to remain as an accurate reflection of the tastes and behaviour patterns of music lovers nationwide, it too must take stock and effect some swift genetic manipulation. In Coldcut’s case, the forward-thinking faction of the creative industries may have lost one particular battle, but as we shall soon see, the innovation war has only just begun.

Stuart Buchanan