Intensive Care

As Shriekback emerge as the pioneers of Mutant Funk, David Marx raps with the subversive supergroup

SHRIEKBACK: OH POTENT concoction of the boyish Barry Andrews, a sensitive Carl Marsh, and the compassionate Dave Allen.  Their collective experience span the likes of XTC, Out on Blue Six, and the Gang of Four.  Together they weave the complicated fabric of their music by pulling threads through a variety of sounds and textures, and then utilising and building upon the naked framework of rhythm to create their tapestry.

Having just released Care, their debut album, which was received noteably mixed reaction from the press.  With the single All Lined Up having been recently issued, and with yet another recording session under way, I wandered down to Berry Street Studios to interview them.  There I found the band hurriedly mixing the final stages of yet another new single, On the Ground.  (I think that’s what it was called!)

All three members of Shriekback were remarkably relaxed, considering that they were about to embark on a somewhat strenuous European tour within 48 hours.  Their working relationship contains an impressive unity of thought and action, resulting in a deep understanding overtly inherent in their music.  Interesting, because Shriekback were apparently formed more out of accident rather than design.

Barry:  “We assembled quite randomly, and it was only really people knowing each other on a quite haphazard basis, that we all happened together, in the same place, at the same time.  It was only after doing that for about six months on a fairly casual basis, that everything like the mutual cohesion that we now have occurred.”

I suggested to Barry that there is a certain understanding from which their music stems, without having to participate in the inevitable jamming.

“Well, we met and we had a jam and it didn’t work.  It seemed like it would socially be a good idea to hang out with it for a bit, so we did just that.”

Was there any light at the end of the tunnel at that time?

Carl:  “No; Dave wanted to ease his way back into music after terrifying experiences with the Gang Of Four, I’d been in a group which had come out of the fact that we were friends, rather than the other way round, and that gets horrible when it goes wrong.”

Barry:  “It was a process of finding the bits that were satisfactory, and those that weren’t.”

The Band released all their material on Y Records, and independent label, and prefer to run their marketing operations from a small base.  I was interested to know how they became involved with Y.

“Dave was pretty close to Linda Neville, the manager of Gang of Four.  She was starting to work around Pigbag and Disc O’Dell, just as Y was beginning its resurgence.”

Would you say there is an advantage in working with a small independent label?

“There is an independent record label called Y Records, there is a this group called Shriekback.  We work together, and that situation works really well.

“There is nothing particularly brilliant about independent labels.  It’s just that this particular arrangement has a lot of commitment in it for everybody involved.  It comes out of the commitment, not the fact that it’s independent.”

Am I right in saying that you’d feel restricted working for a big company?

Carl:  “Just in the practical sense that you’ve got a big building and to get some artwork done, you’ve got to go see the art work department.  They say they can’t do anything until they’ve heard from marketing and marketing say they can’t do anything until they’ve heard from production…”

Barry:  “If you want some money, that makes it even more complicated.”

Carl:  “They have to send the cheque off to Middlesex to b countersigned and so on.”

Dave Allen deals with the management side of operations.  How do you all feel about this?

“He really enjoys it and he does it really well.  I feel quite safe leaving it up to him.”

Barry:  “Looking at this area, there is no right or wrong about it, really.  It’s just that management is another tool you can use.  At the moment, we haven’t found any problem with Dave performing that function.”

Does working in this way mean that you have complete control of the musical output?

“We all choose, we choose it completely.  There’s advice and interaction there, and there are the requirements of the market place.  That’s a choice, too, to go with what’s there.  The wave is coming in, so you’re going to ride it, or stay in the same place.”

Listening to Shriekback’s first release on vinyl, the mini album Tench, the mood is somewhat orthodox in terms of playing, structure and, above all, approach.  Just take a listen to the intriguing A Kind of Fascination and you get the impression that Shriekback are running away with themselves, whilst clutching onto the Rock’n’Roll curtain, yet never letting go of that bare minimum of control.  The recent release of Care shows the band at a more controversial, confident, and adventurous stage in their careers; exploring areas that they themselves knew existed, but were somewhat dubious about discovering.  Lines from the Library demonstrates this well.  Shriekback have stripped everything to a bare minimum, leaving only an abstract answer to those who question.

I wondered why the band take this kind of approach to their music.  Barry was immediately interested, grinned a little, but thought carefully before he answered.

“A lot of what we’re talking about is ancient really, a lot of what’s kind of lying around the world.  The balance between intention and what actually happens is a really delicate one and a really interesting one.  Accidents can happen all the time and things can be amazing for a minute.  What we’re trying to do is create the situation where that spontaneity can be carried through as far as it will go.”

Can I ask you about some of the influences which bear directly on your music?

“We listen to a lot of 12” at the moment, particularly American stuff, all the Sugar Hill stuff.  I went through a whole stage of being into lots of ethnic music.  I found a number of things attractive about that.  One was that given a situation, what would people do to express that desire that it’s in them to make music?”

Do you listen to bands like The Clash at all?

“Not any more, really, every now and then I have a go through my record collection and wallow in nostalgia.”

So you couldn’t say that there are any of today’s bands that really turn you on?

Carl:  “I like Siouxsie and the Banshees a lot; kind of the perfect group again, really.”

And lyrical influences?

Barry:  “On Tench a lot of what I was doing had a sort of Dylan ranting kind of speed quality to it.  It’s just trying to squeeze out as many images as possible, really.”

With the dynamic combination of percussionist Pedro Ortiz and drummer Martyn Barker for your live work, why is it that you use the Linn drum machine on almost all the tracks of your album?

“First of all it was easy and it didn’t do all the things that drummers do.  It doesn’t have big horrible kits that you have to get vans for, or gaffer tape all over them.  It takes ages to set up the mikes for a drummer and then they don’t play exactly what you want to hear.  So it was like this, oh wow, there’s this machine and it’s got real drum sounds in it and we can make do whatever we want.  Even though we haven’t got any rhythm, we can programme it so it works.  What grew out of that with Here Comes My Handclap on Tench, was actually revelling in the fact that it was a machine and it wasn’t a drummer.  There are all sorts of things that are possible with this.  What the Linn Drum is, is a drummer’s kit recorded and playable back in any combination.  What you’ve got is a decontualised drummer.  You’ve taken this guy’s work apart and you’ve then got the rhythms of a machine to play with.”

The guitar in the Shriekback camp doesn’t play a very prominent part within their sound.  This led me to ask Carl whether he felt satisfied with his particular role as guitarist.

“It’s funny really, I don’t feel particularly attached to the guitar.  It’s just that I think, oh, it needs some guitar here, so I go and do it.  Live, I find it much more satisfying to play guitar.  It’s big and loud and raucous and good for jumping around.”

Bearing in mind the subtleties and various qualities in the recorded guitar sound, I was inspired to ask Carl what gear he used for his live work.

“I’m playing a Fender Stratocaster, which is largely because it was the only one in the shop to replace the one that got stolen.  Ideally, I’d probably have a Stratocaster and a Gibson 335 and something chunky like an Ibanez solid body thing.  At present I’ve got a Carslbro Stingray amp, which is fine by me.  I also use an MXR distortion pedal and a swell pedal.  One thing that really limits the guitar is that you can’t control the envelope shape very much, and by having a swell pedal, you can control the attack.”

Barry has changed his keyboard sound a great deal since the early XTC days.  What gear does he use today?

“At the moment on stage I’m playing a Casio 202, an electronic sort of all-purpose workhorse.  I’d like to get a Roland combo.  I had one in New York from a hire company and liked it.  Dave has got one of those Acoustic bass amps, with the graphic on it, which he’s used a couple of times before on hire, and found particularly wonderful.  At the moment he’s using a Music Man which seems to be pretty good.  A solid sound with lots of bottle.”

Shriekback’s music does not pose a threat or ask any questions.  Its mood is that of honesty, purity, and experimentation.  Having said that, no amount of their music is possible without first having consulted the finer points of understanding, intelligence and, above all, compassion.  As a final conclusion to the interview, I asked Barry if he felt there was a message hidden within Shriekback music.

“If we were to answer that then, yes, the message in our music most people should perceive, is that we’re creating a manifesto; and this is the central core.  But to talk about it isn’t it, really.  To get us from it is it; and even that’s not it!”

JUNE 1983
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