Big Electric Energy
by Lesley Sly
They are tired of being cult heroes – Shriekback, the weird studio band, the unpredictable performers. Their new line-up, tour and album were the firt lap in a drive for wider acceptance. Head shrieker, Barry Andrews, maps out the course.
The Shriekback of old was, by their own admission, chaotic and experimental. They were machine-men, dabbling with drum computers and Fairlights, every song a loose sketch from backing track to overdub. And live, it was jam science.
But the Shriekback that stormed Australia with a high octane live set and the cruisy cocktail-style album, Big Night Music, in March was a different kettle of…fish. (Alas, little light was shed on their strange preoccupation with deep sea creatures in our post-gig interview).
They are now a band intent on cracking the mainstream, getting their powerful live sound onto vinyl and dispensing with as much machinery as possible in the process.
They’ve been streamlining the human element, too. When they hit the cultish London circuit in 1981 with the mini-album, Tench, they were six-piece. By the following year, they were three – Barry Andrews (vocals/keyboards; ex-XTC, Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen), David Allen (bass; ex-Gang of Four) and Carl Marsh (guitar).
Then came the albums Care and Jam Science and in 1984 they took on drummer, Martyn Barker, had their first chart single Hand On My Heart and followed up with the album, Oil And Gold, inn 1985.
In early 1986 they signed a new deal with Island and lost Carl Marsh. Another change was the approach to recording. The writing trio of Andrews, Allen and Barker decided to concentrate on the expansive, atmospheric elements of their music and go for an ‘all-played’ groove, augmented by their four-piece Big Live Band – Michael Cozzi (guitars), Steve Halliwell (keyboards) and backing singers, Wendy and Sarah Partridge.
For the Australian tour they added a percussionist and Barry left keyboard duties to Steve, bar the occasional solo.
The last time I saw the band live was at one of their first gigs in a seedy London pub. On stage this year, in the claustrophonic refectory hall at Sydney Uni, there was hardly a trace of the enfant terrible. Dynamic, controlled, structured rock’n’roll theatre, a new authority, no chaos.
In the dressing room later, Barry Andrews explained this new order…
Your live set is much more structured now. There are middle-eights, you all start and stop in the same places. You’re very tight and professional…
I don’t know about very tight and professional, but certainly more than we used to be. We do all end at the same time.
Remember the Greyhound in Fulham (London), one of your first gigs?
(Shudders) Christ Almighty. We have changed since then.
Do you think you’ve sacrificed spontaneity for structure?
Not really. It used to be a fucking mess. There was a good, wild, out-of-control energy, you know all those AAARRRRGH, post-punk screams. But after a while…it’s unchannelled and ultimately not satisfying when you do seven gigs in a row and only one of them is any good.
I think we are channeling that energy more and there are still areas of improvisation…freedom within that structure.
What parts are improvised?
All the solos. I never play the same solo twice on Feelers, I’m always mucking around with the vocals, doing little improvised rants and stuff.
I think it’s a popular misconception that you have to do completely improvised music in order to have freedom. Mike (guitarist) always plays the same solo but there’s a difference when he’s really putting his heart and soul into it. It has an authority and power to it.
You get quite close to recorded sounds live…I think we do considering how many overdubs and weird things we’re doing in the studio.
Were you using Fairlight much on Big Night Music?
No. We’d decided it was going to be a low budget album and we weren’t going to use the Fairlight as much as we had on Oil And Gold. We also wanted to use more acoustic instruments, so that it sounded like a band in a room playing some music, all in time.
Towards the end of recording there was a particular sound on Underwaterboys that we couldn’t get on either the JP8 or the DSS1 and me and Gavin (MacKillop, co-producer) were tearing our hair out [er, figuratively speaking]. So we decided to chip inn out of our own money and get the Fairlight to do this sound. As it turned out we did do it within budget – we didn’t have to sell our cars or anything – and so we went round the tracks putting little touches of Fairlight on here and there.
You’ve always used machines to make music. Was the decision taken on this album not to do so due to budget or were you bored with that approach?
No, it wasn’t because of the budget. It was the first record where Martyn (drummer) had really found his feet and he had loads and ideas bubbling over. It seemed a bit irrelevant to haul in a Fairlight or drums computer and put it through its paces.
We were bored with all that stuff after a four-year romance with technology too. Also, some of the rhythms are so subtle like, Running on the Rocks – there no drum computer in the world can do that.
How do you write your songs?
Always from the rhythm. In the old day it was a drum machine and we’d build the songs in the studio a la Bowie and all that. But, that wasn’t a particularly cost-effective way of doing things and we also decided that we wanted the…thing to happen in music that you only get when you’ve played a song for a long time on stage.
On Oil and Gold there was only one track that was like that (Health And Knowledge) which, while it wasn’t a great groove or even a particularly great song, had this smoothness, a rotundity to it. We thought it would be nice to have a whole album with the edges worn off, with a nice ‘used’ quality to it.
Do you write together?
Generally, Martyn will put down a rhythm and we’ll all – me, Dave and Martyn – improvise around that. If there’s an energy to the groove we’ll just tape the drums on cassette for two minutes.
Then, I take that home and put it on my cassette machine which has a loop function and just sit there singing to it, record that on another machine and listen to it. I find that quite often good things come out when you’re just burbling off the top of your head whereas if you sat down and tried to write it, that critical part of the brain might be brought to bear on it and crush the idea before it grows. I then go through and make notes, wander round, have a cup of tea, read a few books, find a few weird words (laughs). Then I do the whole process again until the thing starts to bed down into a structure, verse, chorus, etc. Then, I take it back to Dave and Martyn and we work on chords and details.
Atmosphere is crucial in your music. Is sound important in the writing process?
I tend to find that the rhythm will suggest a certain kind of atmosphere. It will all be encapsulated in that rhythm. Once you’ve got the initial crystalisation of the song, it’s all police work from there on. Like, Shining Path…it was obvious from that rhythm and the title that it was going to be this huge, swirly, exotic druggie-opium vision. From there on we knew it was going to need bells, big chords, wind gong, etc.
No home studios?
Martyn’s making moves in that direction. Sometimes I think it would be a good idea but then…I used to do that with XTC. I used to sit in my bedroom with an Akai two-track machine, a Wurlitzer piano and microphone and write the whole thing. Then I’d go along with a song and try to impose it on the band and tell the bass player and drummer what to play.It had a kind of awkwardness to it because they were playing something which wasn’t quite natural for them. Sometimes it worked but now it works every time because we don’t add things to songs unless they do work.
So, when you record now you take complete songs in?
Yeah and we’re going to work that way on the next album. There’s a couple of new ones we’re playing already.
How long does it take to get a song together?
Maybe a day per song. But, once I take the verse and chorus along we just put a bit of intense energy into it, maybe an hour, and then I take it home and work on it again. Then we bring in the other players.
You use the Jupiter 8 for rehearsals?Yes.
What’s happened to that battered old organ you used for years?
It’s in my ex-wife’s cupboard. I go round every now and then and dust it off (the organ, that is). It’s a sweet little thing, and I can’t bring myself to throw it away but I can’t find any use for it anymore.
Was recording Big Night Music standard procedure?Yes…I haven’t worked in that way since the Robert Fripp album. Gavin is a very traditional producer and I really left it to him. It’s nice, there’s something very organic about recording that way [as a band]. You don’t have to go through the endless…well, there’s a drum rhythm and I haven’t got a clue what to do next, maybe go blurgh on the first beat of every bar and then try to find some chords, and lay three tracks of percussion that we’ll never use.
It was exciting to work like that and if money was no object I probably still would…
Because there’s always the element of surprise when you’re actually creating the song track-by-track?
Yeah…the only track we did like that was Sticky Jazz and I think you can hear the difference…the textures change suddenly.
What about vocal treatment?
On Big Night Music I was getting into big whispering but the process of recording was mostly traditional. Occasionally I fed my voice through an AC30 amp wound up like fuck and recorded in a live room. On the end of Black Light Trap I fed it though Mike’s pedalboard with the distortion wound right up…and all these other knobs. I don’t really know what they do.
It’s your fifth album and seems like a summary of the rest. Do you agree?
No, I think there are areas left out…mainly the big noisy stuff. It’s like taking one of the themes of Shriekback, which is the big, dark, quiet cocktail band thing with more of the reggae influence. We’ve taken that and really explored it.
On the next album we’ll get into the big racket.
Using players and no machines?
Yes, I think so. It usually becomes apparent after you’ve been on the road a while what sort of album you want to make next. On this tour it’s become clear that everyone is excited about taking the atmosphere we get live and trying to record that and mess with it and see what happens.
Back to the whispering…you’ve said you’ll do more shouting next time. Isn’t the whisper part of Shriekback’s charm, a hallmark almost?
Well, for the sake of making an homogenous record…it always irritated me, about Oil And Gold especially, that you’re listening to a noisy track, you’re in party mode and then suddenly it goes all quiet and mushy and you have to leap for the turntable and get that track off.
When I want to listen to a piece of music I want an atmosphere and I think most people do. So, I would say…yeah, we’ll have a whispering-free, high-noise album. (laughs).
Why are you so popular here and often dismissed as an arty band in the UK?
There’s two things…if you’re not getting played on radio in the UK there isn’t really the gig circuit to establish yourself anymore. Also, the British psyche finds it a bit disgusting seeing this person up there on stage going ‘waaaah, look at me’. They like records and nightclubs and keeping it all under control.
For a long time in England we were making experimental, reflective, not grab-you-by-the-throat sort of records and people got a bit bored waiting for Shriekback to do something that would be devastating. And live, it was a shambles. We couldn’t take an audience like we did tonight. Now, we can take a cool audience and have them in a frenzy by the end because we’ve learnt the art of rock’n’roll theatre.
The soundtrack you’ve done for the movie, Slamdance…
It’s not a soundtrack, it’s just the song at the end. I’m looking at doing a soundtrack though…I’ve done a film music demo to a whole bunch of image from wildlife documentaries and films like Conan the Barbarian and Passage to India. So we’re going to go to LA and throw a few video tapes at a few moguls there.
Shriekback has its own sovereignty – it’s not something that each of us independently would do. I found doing the film music demo it was more one dimensional.
You’ve talked about having a magic power live that you don’t understand. Is that created because of the audience?
I think it’s there in rehearsal too, it’s just a smaller audience! It’s partly that with the band the sum is greater than the parts. I like working on my own but I prefer having other people around to bounce off and crash into.
What about your preoccupation with fish?
(Laughs)…What can I tell you?
Yeah…Martyn is writing his own songs which sound fabulously commercial, Dave is talking about doing an album with Jorgensen of Ministry and I’m making Super 8 movies at the moment.
Film seems to be quite a strong direction for me…I’m just assembling images and playing around with scripts.
No. Shriekback is not entirely my vision but at least I can involve all my musical interests which is great.
In XTC I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, only that it wasn’t XTC. It was only after that that I started to look at my musical language…finding out why I liked certain kinds of music, and what moves me.
Do you listen to music for pleasure?
Yes…not pop. I used to have a clock radio which drove me mad because it would come on in the morning with this pop music and I’d wake up going ‘oh, the bass is good, drums are okay, what about the chorus’ and you go into all that.
I listen to old church music, nice gentle things.
This need for wider appeal…does Shriekback need more commercial success to reach full potential?I think it’s a popular misconception that you achieve commercial success and then you do what you want to do…I don’t know anyone who has done that.
We are doing what we want to do, it wouldn’t be different if I had loads of money.
What is there left for Shriekback to do?
The next album – translating the live thing. And, getting our music to a wider audience. I don’t think there is anything hopelessly archane about what we do and I don’t see why it shouldn’t appeal to a lot of people. I think it’s a case of appropriate presentation.
And…I’m tired of being a cult figure.
Martyn Barker (drums): I’m using a hired Yamaha 900 Series kit – 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 toms, 22" bass drum, 14" x 10" deep snare and Zildjian cymbals (16, 17, 18 crashes, Chinaboy and Swish both 16"; hi-hats are K Series (top) and Dynobeat (bottom); Camco chain bass drum pedal.
I’ve been using this kit on the American and Australian tours. In England I’ve been using a Gretch kit but I’m changing to Yamaha because I like the depth of the sound of this kit. You get a good natural sound, it’s very good live and as an all-round kit.
I’ve been using very thin crashes because Shriekback is a dynamic band so you don’t need any ride cymbals. The music needs good splash sounds…plenty of that.
The difficulty for me with cymbals is trying to change the sound all the time…in Underwaterboys I used coins to rub against Chinese cymbals which makes that off-beat sound. And in Nemesis the chorus has to be very dynamic so I use lots of splashes, lots of crash cymbals.
No electronic drums?
I used to use bits of Simmons gear and I use the Linn 9000 for writing. But for Big Night Music I used a real drum kit with percussion because it was easier and that was the direction the music was going in.
(Live percussion is: LP congas and cowbells. Cymbals in Zildjian (16" thin crash), and 20" Chinese wind gong.)
Mike Cozzi (guitar): I’ve been experimenting a lot lately and have just changed all my gear. At the moment I’m using a Gallien-Krueger amp as a preamp sending it though a Carver power amp. The main effects I use are a volume pedal, which I think is well under-used these days, and three different distortions, Big Muff, Boss overdrive, and the other is the distortion on the Krueger. I use various rack delays…everything is rackmounted.
I still use a Strat which I’ve had customised (added a Kahler tremolo and humbucker pickups). On the acoustic numbers I use a Hohner semi-acoustic 12-string.
Bass equipment: Music Man bass guitar through Trace Elliot gear, using 4 x 10 and 1 x 15 speakers.
Martyn: Dave has a custom-built bass which he uses for the slower moodier numbers which makes a deep, warm sound. But the Music Man is his main instrument.
Keyboards: Jupiter 8 and Korg DSS1 which wins heaps of praise from Barry Andrews: "We seem to be getting sounds which are as good as a Fairlight Series II. It’s helpful having the synthesizing part as a well as the sampler because you can really fuck around with those samples and make them sound interesting.
Sonic (July/August 1987)
Shriekback recently released their 13th studio album, Without Real String or Fish. It is available on their website. Click the album cover to be taken to their online store!