Alternative Press, February 1993
The other day I took my mother out to dinner. As she looked through the menu, she called my attention to the steak and fish combo, mentioning that the way the fried fish portions were laid out in the photo, they looked like (to her, mind you) a fetus.
“I’m not crazy, look at this,” she said. “Over here is the head, these are the arms…”
“I think you’ve snapped, Mum.”
“Go to hell. What’s it look like to you?” (Abrasion is a hereditary trait in the Pettigrew family.)
“Fried fish on a plate.”
“Forget it. I wonder what the Turkey Special looks like…”
Over a decade ago, Shriekback excavated the area of post-punk avant garde with a dense groove. When Barry Andrews, Dave Allen and Carl Marsh released their first mini-LP Tench back in 1981, there were many necks strained from the double take. Each member brought with them elements of their previous bands (XTC, Gang of Four, Out On Blue Six, respectively) and created a funk-rock-noise amalgamation. Drummer Martyn Barker was acquired shortly afterward, and the quartet released a few records that were crazed and mysterious (Care, Jam Science and Oil And Gold), as well as a string of heavily rotated club singles like “My Spine (Is the Bass Line),” and the only rock song which used the word “parthenogenesis” (“Nemesis”).
Marsh was the first to bail out during a 1985 tour and the trio continued with guitarist Mike Cozzi, releasing a smoother record, Big Night Music. Soon afterward, disinterest began to take a toll on Allen, and he vacated. The remaining band members recorded Go Bang!, an album aimed solely at the marketplace. If there was any irony in recording a cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s loathsome “Get Down Tonight,” it was certainly lost. After they had written the band off, Barker and Allen formed the faceless AOR-ploy King Swamp, and Andrews started a band called Illuminati, whose only album remains on ice.
Eventually, Allen, in his new position as label chief at World Domination, thought the time was right for a new Shriekback LP. Andrews and Barker agreed and the result, Sacred City, like most of their prestigious body of work, has moments of tense ambience, shimmering pop, screaming noise and jungle grooves.
But what’s this got to do with fried fish looking like fetuses? Two things: does this tried-and-true “comeback” story look more like that of the Buzzcocks, or the Sex Pistols? And is their reunion just another stab at commerce or does it only look that way?
“Comeback?” questions the terminally polite Andrews. “Go ahead, use it,” he concedes.
Even with all the dinosaur/last gasp connotations?
“That may well be so, but fact is fact and here we are, so make of it what you will.”
“I don’t think that’s totally appropriate,” counters Allen. “It’s acceptable, but whenever I hear ‘comeback,’ I hear ‘failure.’”
So you think of the Gang of Four’s recent reunion then?
“That’s a bit unkind,” he corrects trying to ease smears on his old band. “I think of it as a continuation. God knows where it’s going to go now.”
Allen bailed out of Shriekback the first time around after a neverending world tour left him drained, stifled and looking quite miserable. These days his stage demeanor is totally animated and he looks like he’s even having (gas) fun. Fun despite having to open Shriekback shows with his other group Low Pop Suicide and living on a $26-dollar-a-day touring allowance.
“I was disillusioned playing the same set every night,” he says. “I was tired of having to appease fans with hits, and my personal life was in shambles. I had to leave and go do things. I remember telling you that whatever happened in my life, I had to do King Swamp, just to see if I could. Now, I fell a lot more inspired.”
And Allen has provided his share of inspirations as well: his terse bass lines during his tenure in Gang of Four and Shriekback predate all the new tattooed bass-slapping plagiarists that have sprouted up in funk-metal cliché bands in regional music scenes.
“Yeah,” he concurs. “It seems that’s more like cabaret now. And I was concerned about [being construed as a funk-metal band] to the point where I had discussed it with Barry before this tour and he felt the same way. I was talking to Flea at Lollapalooza and he told me he learned everything about bass from the first two Gang of Four records. But it sounds to me like he actually listened to Shriekback!”
“The time is really right for us,” says Andrews. “Now we don’t have to wonder what the single’s going to be or what our place is in the market. We’ve returned to the same principle we had when we made Care – if it’s exciting we’ll do it.”
Chinese water torture seems far more exciting (if not more fulfilling) than the truly tepid Go Bang!
“We have a light and frivolous side so we figured we’d make a light and frivolous record,” he counters. “Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
Even at the expense of what you do best: propulsive funk and dark atmospherics?
“I think you can trace Shriekback’s career in those two threads: a dancey, noisy side and a dark, brooding bit. There’s no shame in something different.
“I think it’s quite unfair to raise the banner of a sell-out album, which I believe is what you’re implying,” he says with a little annoyance. “I think every time you make a record your motivations are complex, so in your implications that Go Bang! was made to be commercial, well, yeah. And we were [trying to be commercial] on all the other records we made too.”
The latest LP Sacred City is a song cycle (the ‘90s term for “concept album”) featuring vignettes of city life. Andrews’ original concept was intended to take the form of a written thesis or a movie, until Allen called him up to discuss reforming the group (actually, Andrews has created a video for the album which will be available shortly). There is the foreboding darkness of “Below” and “3 am,” the steamy grooves rising from the street on “Beatles Zebra Crossing” and “Signs” and the noise overload of “The Bastard Sons of Enoch.” For this LP, the band reassessed their energy and avoided the hard-driving funk synapses, aiming instead for subtlety.
“Yes, it’s a more subtle record,” agrees Andrews. “In terms of some of the African-y grooves and brush rhythms and such, sure. On “Bastard Sons” we had guitars being played with power drills and knives but at the end of the day, some of them didn’t make it through our filtration system.”
What is that filtration system? Here’s a man who’s scored film music, played with XTC, Iggy Pop, Robert Fripp and still has the enthusiasm to get onstage and, ugh, shriek (sorry).
“I can’t sing like Aretha Franklin or Bono,” Andrews muses aloud. “I can’t play keyboards like Rick Wakeman. All I do is have ideas and an energy to want to make things. The fact that it comes out in music is because I’ve been doing it for a while.”
Shriekback’s live line-up is augmented by the serrated violin stylings of Cat Evans and guitarist Cozzi. Another tour may be in the works, and a new Shriekback LP may appear next fall. Despite a hiatus from wild shamanic dancing and playing in front of people, Shriekback theorize that the difference between rejuvenation and adrenalin is merely in the spelling.
“Playing live is odd,” admits Andrews. “You put on weird clothes, jump around, get sweaty and shout at people, and they behave in the most unnatural way.”
Are you apologizing?
“No, not at the moment. I haven’t done anything terrible yet!”
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