The World’s Second Best Pop Group with a Bald Singer
By Dave Segal (‘Creem’ June 1987)
“…Shriekback have opted to make a different kind of music – one which exalts human frailty and the harmonious mess of nature over the simplistic reductions of our crude computers.” – liner notes to Big Night Music. This thing called Shriekback is a strange beast. Trying to describe them gives me one hell of a headache. The new Shriekback music (it’s called Big Night Music but it could just as easily be called Small Morning Music) screws with rock critics’ rote jargon. If you wanted to be crass, you could label ‘em an intellectual funk band with gospel/cocktail lounge pretensions. Unlike most Anglo-Caucasians who funk around with black styles of music, Shriekback throw a skewered light on what, in pedestrian hands, can be a brain-numbing genre. You can attribute Shriekback’s uniqueness (no lie) to keyboardist/singer/lyricist Barry Andrews.
Andrews has full control of Shriekback now that Carl Marsh has departed with his Fairlights and drum computers for solo obscurity. Pared down to a trio (Dave Allen, he of the Zeus-like bass playing on Gang of Four’s first two LPs, and Martyn Barker on percussion toys), Shriekback have for the most part ditched Marsh’s vision of a “harsh disco reality” and gone for a rococo/eclectic sonic gumbo that’s as slippery to grasp as Eno’s skull in a bathtub. There’s a slickness to the Andrews/Gavin MacKillop production on Big Night Music, but don’t let that trouble yer noggin. It’s a good kind of slickness; Andrews has a Byrne-Enoesque aesthetic that enables him to craft exotic pop of excessive fussiness (‘Black Light Trap,’ ‘Running on the Rocks,’ ‘Sticky Jazz’) or of severe sparseness (everything else). You could call this The Soft Album without too much controversy.
Oddly, some of the songs sound better with the volume turned down. Perhaps because he can’t sing very well, Andrews often resorts to an intimate whispery delivery. Very nice and relaxing, this voice. And he’s a clever gump, too. It’s not by accident that wispy, gentle toons sit cheek by jowl with swollen brassy epics; and then out of nowhere will sprout a pretension-deflater like ‘Pretty Little Things,’ which sounds like Prince on helium and dexies. I tell ya, listening to Big Night Music is more fun than working in an abattoir on a humid day.
Andrews has the serene monkish demeanor of the Keith Carradine character in the Kung Fu TV show. Before Shriekback, he was in XTC from ’77 to ’79, and he also played with Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen in 1980. He’s a peace-lovin’, broad-minded intellectual dabbler wearing a black floppy hat and a long black coat. We had a civilized chat amid the delicately bubbling jacuzzi water inside a swanky Detroit hotel. Andrews proved to be more stimulating than a week’s worth of The Dick Cavett Show.
CREEM: Why did Carl Marsh leave Shriekback?
BARRY ANDREWS: He wanted to do solo things, really. Carl’s quite a self-contained sort of bloke I don’t think he ever found it easy working with other people. The band was becoming a two-headed beast that was tearing itself in half. Oil and Gold (released in ’85) suffered from that. A bit of schizophrenia between the Carl direction and my direction. I like things when they’re soft and vulnerable and maybe even a bit maudlin. I like a certain amount of crying into my Guinness.
Did Marsh’s departure cause a change in your sound?
Definitely, there was a sort of opening of the sluices. When Carl left, I felt like, firstly, I’ve got this huge canvas to work with on the whole record. It’s all gonna be my words, my tunes. So instead of it being this common denominator area we could inhabit with Carl, what the three of us could agree on was actually a bigger area because there were fewer things to filter out. I wanted to try doing something very simple and direct and emotional, like ‘The Cradle Song,’ Just trying out every option and seeing what’s possible. There’s a certain amount of experimentation that doesn’t work, but a whole lot that does. Normally we wouldn’t have even dared to try. Big Night Music is diverse. I don’t think anyone could complain about it being too homogenous. I think there is a coherence to it that we’ve never achieved on a record before, with the possible exception of Care (released in ’82)
Does everyone have creative input into the words and music?
I’m the sole lyricist. On the new album, Dave confined himself to bass playing, Martyn did a whole lot more than he’s ever done. He plays all the drums and does lots of percussion. So he’s actually responsible for quite a lot of the textures. I’m really responsible for the way the whole thing sounds and the structure of the songs. I can’t imagine collaborating with someone on a song. It would be like having somebody advise you while you’re having sex with somebody (laughs). There’s so much that just happens in your head. It’s quite a fragile process and it’s not something I could easily involve someone with.
Your lyrics have a stream of consciousness to them…
A stream of unconsciousness…(much laughter).
Sometimes it’s brilliant and at other times it leaves the listener baffled. Maybe they’re too oblique for universal understanding.
Maybe that’s a valid criticism. I don’t go in for any kind of broad political commentary.
You write more about personal things?
I don’t know if they’re even personal things, really. What I try to do is create an entity with sound that has not existed before. The songs are meant to be things you can walk into and walk around, that have their own kind of smell and atmosphere and texture. They’re not meant to be billboards or television programs. Or newspapers. The lyrics aren’t the point any more than the bass drum pattern’s the point. You might have a very good pair of kidneys but that’s not your whole story, is it?
If I asked you what ‘The Reptiles and I’ is about, could you tell me?
I can tell you what I was trying to do. It’s what it is for you definitely. That’s a nice fatuous answer, I suppose, and it’s what it means to me. And that’s about as far as it goes. I had this idea of using a lot of lists that I found in Webster’s Dictionary. A list of languages, elements, proverbs. I liked the idea of a bunch of verses that were lists. I was trying to create a nursery rhyme that would work in an adult way and would have that sort of darkness about it, that sinister kind of thing that the best nursery rhymes have. I’m really a little kid sitting at the foot of the great god Language. I’ve really got no command over it. I pretty much take what it gives me. I get excited by all the different ways people speak in the same way. I get excited about all the different cultures people can have, all the different ways of being in the world. It seems very rich and diverse and brilliant. And it inspires me.
Were you influenced by any writers?
I steal a lot. I’m a complete bastard for that. I’ll tell you the dead ones. I’ve ripped Shakespeare off something rotten. I’ve had my way with T.S. Eliot. Martin Luther King. The Bible. Certainly bits of the Koran. Complete verbal beachcomber.
At least you’re taking from great sources.
Oh yeah. That’s what they’re there for. To get crunched up and recycled. I don’t do it in any cynical way. It’s like doing a cover of a band’s song that you really think is a good song. It seems silly to wrack your brains when somebody else’s said it so well. I just rip it off. Shameless, really.
Have any current songwriters influenced you?
David Byrne’s approach – when I was a bit more uncertain about writing lyrics – he seemed to offer quite a good little cubbyhole to hide in, where you could get away without saying anything at all as long as it sounded all right. But on this LP, I got less and less satisfied with what you could do with that and more interested in what would happen if you pushed the thing up toward the light a little more. So things like ‘Cradle Song,’ ‘Reptiles,’ and ‘Gunning for the Buddha’ are like little narratives, stories, which I’ve never attempted before. Getting into the old Tin Pan Alley thing. People like Gilbert and Sullivan and the English music hall singers. Popular Victorian kitsch. Edwardian parlor songs.
Shriekback is often labelled an intellectual band.
It’s high time we burst that bubble.
Are you college-educated?
No. It was between making a choice of being in a rock’n’roll band or going to university.
Are you religious?
I don’t belong to a religion. I don’t have any faith, in that way. I do have a strong religious sense. It’s difficult to say without it sounding pretentious. I have a sense of awe of a kind of religious veneration or worship in the presence of what is around – people, mainly, the rush and energy of people and what they can do and build and keep going on and having babies. Just what it is to be alive. There’s definitely a force that moves us on in a mysterious way. I said to someone once that I feel about religion the way I felt about sex when I was 12. You know there’s something going on, but you don’t know what the fuck it is!
To read more about Shriekback's music and career, please visit their website (sign up for the newsletter for free downloads) and Tumblr. You can also join in our conversations over on Facebook. And, while you're at it, pick up a copy of their new album, Without Real String or Fish!