“We’re Not as Good as When We Go for an Adventure”: An Exclusive Interview with Andy McCluskey of OMD on the “Souvenir” Greatest Hits and Deluxe Boxset (Part 3) by Mary L. Chang

The second of the two European-coded DVDs is an impressive trinity of material.  The first two parts are live shows that Andy McCluskey says demonstrate how time and experience changed the band for the better.  The 1981 show filmed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was during the “Architecture and Morality” era, “when we were at the peak of our powers, but it just shows how very minimal the stage lighting was.  We were trying absolutely not to be a [conventional] rock and roll show, with crash bang wallop full of pyrotechnics and big flashing lights.  It was [about] trying to be more theatrical and moody and quite often, it was dark.”  He further notes, “When you listen to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane show, this was our third album, but we were still only 20, 21.  It’s crazy.  We were kids.  We still had all of our anxieties and nerves.”

 

In contrast, a 1985 show at Sheffield City Hall (“the most beautiful oval building”) filmed for the BBC’s Oxford Road Show series “shows a band much more confident, much more middle of the road, because we had brass with us.  We’d grown into being a bit more capable and relaxed onstage.  You can see that we’ve grown and mellowed a little bit by the mid-eighties.  It’s nice to see those two shows back to back.”  OMD will be returning to Sheffield on the 3rd of November, to that very same venue, on their European and UK 40th anniversary tour.

 

Also included on the second DVD is Crush the Movie, previously only available on VHS cassette in the eighties.  I ask Andy if the original intention of the film was to promote the album, or vice versa.  “It’s hard to know, really.  Someone persuaded us to make this complete film.  It was available as a video to purchase, so the fans could buy it, and it obviously contains the promo videos for the single releases.  But it was one of those things you do and you look back and think, I wonder how much that cost us?

 

“People say, ‘you look so serious in your photographs, and your music is dead serious.’  And we’re like, ‘we are serious about our music.  But we ourselves are ordinary guys who have a laugh.’  So you can see us goofing off in the studio and when we’re filming in Spain.  I think that was quite nice, to see a different side of OMD.  It hasn’t been available since it was available on VHS video, so we thought we’d make it available digitally because a lot of people haven’t seen it in decades.”

 

Included in the film is Andy and Paul Humphreys’ parody of an ABBA-themed sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News, a tv programme that made Rowan Atkinson a star.  They are in the studio with headphones on, gaily singing something called ‘One of Us is Ugly, One of Us is Cute’.  “Again, that was us, messing around in the studio, copying a comedy routine from a popular tv series at the time.  I look back at it and actually cringe because, god, what were we doing?  But it’s probably quite funny now.”  It is.

 

Arguably, the most accessible parts of the “Souvenir” deluxe boxset are the 40 singles that span OMD’s career because many, if not all, are old friends to OMD fans.  He and Paul decided to be “completely inclusive”, though Andy concedes that “some of them, maybe we could have done better [with], or we didn’t realize at the time it wasn’t as good as we thought it was.”  With the ever-present desire to try a different direction on each successive album, the singles lined up chronologically reflect this spirit of experimentation.

 

‘Don’t Go’ is their special 40th single, and it turns out it was conceived around the time they considered B-sides for 2017’s “The Punishment of Luxury”.  As Andy explains, things were promising from the start, but it took Paul’s intervention to finish the job.  “When I put the lyric on this sequencer, we thought, ‘hang on a minute, this is really good, this actually could become quite a strong song.  Let’s hold on to it.’  So we kept it, and earlier this year, when we were looking to finish the [greatest hits part of the] album, we went back to it.  It was a bit of a struggle, actually, because we knew there was something good in there [the earlier version], but we knew something was missing.  Finally, when Paul put the melody in the middle that reprises at the end, that was when we had a real clincher.

 

“The funny thing is, I started out singing it in the lower key.  Then, as it grew, I just thought, this needs to go up the octave to give it the proper McCluskey howl.  And that’s what really then elevated it to have a huge, intense, emotional kind of melancholy.  It’s a really good song.  We’re very proud of it, we thought for our 40th single in our 40th year, it stands up.  It’s good.  We know it won’t be a hit.  It’s not going to get played enough on the radio.  But we know it’s a good song.

 

“It’s one of the few songs where I’m not trading in poetry or metaphor.  It’s a pretty straight lyric about how much you can hurt when someone leaves your life.”  The tear-jerking video by Sprankenstein Studio was also just released last week.  “The video is a choker, isn’t it?” Andy jokes.  “It’s such simple line drawings.  The particular bit where the main character is sitting on the bench, aging, really shows how touching you can be with a few brushstrokes, you know?”

 

Naturally, having the singles arranged in chronological order allows Andy to reflect on the individual singles and what their success meant to him at the time.  “‘Electricity’ was never a hit, until this week when the 7” re-release was number 1 in the [UK] vinyl [singles] chart.  ‘Messages’ was our first hit, that was amazing.”

 

Sometimes, there was simply astonishment.  “‘Enola Gay’ was massive.  I remember we went to Italy and the record company asked us, ‘would you mind doing some press before we go to the tv station?’  We walked into this room and there’s 50 people and we’re like, this is a press conference!  Normally we do one-on-ones.  What the fuck?  And the first question was, ‘how does it feel to be number one in Italy?’  And we were like, ‘is this Candid Camera, is this a joke?  What?’  The record company goes, ‘yeah, it’s a surprise!  We didn’t want to tell you!’

 

“‘Maid of Orleans’ is a weird song to have been the biggest-selling song in Germany in 1982.  I mean, it starts with 40 seconds of distortion.  ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas’ was a huge release that I had as a hit on my own.  I was terrified because all I’d ever done was work with Paul and the other guys in the band.  Then ‘Walking on the Milky Way’ is one of the best songs I’ve ever written in my life, and that struggled to get to number 17 because [BBC] Radio 1 wouldn’t play it in the UK.”

 

OMD are in an enviable position where they have not one, but two fantastic primary songwriters and lead vocalists.  I ask Andy which of the songs he’s penned are his personal favourites.  “I have a soft spot for ‘Electricity’ because it was the first piece of music, an object of a song I had written.  That was the most amazing feeling, ever.  A song that Paul and I had written when we were 16, and I was now holding in my hand at age 19.  ‘Enola Gay’ because it kicked the doors open [for us] internationally.

 

“‘If You Leave’ [from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack], we’re proud of [it] because it was a remarkable piece of craftsmanship: under extreme duress, we write a song off the top of our heads in 1 day, and then it turned out to be the biggest hit.  I am very proud of ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas’ because I think I went back to the kind of ethos of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, which was ‘don’t write a hit, just write something and see what happens.  And one of them will be a hit if you’ve actually written a good song’.  ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas’ was an utterly bonkers song, but it was a massive hit in northern Europe.”

 

Andy also wants to take the time to reflect back on the two most recent OMD albums ‘English Electric’ and ‘The Punishment of Luxury’ and through the eyes of the version of him holding that original 1979 ‘Electricity’ single.  “There’s some tracks on there, because we’re looking back, because we’re reflecting, because we’re looking at 40 years, [so] I know how the 20-year old Andy McCluskey would have felt about the fact that the 60-year old McCluskey was still in the music industry.  He would have been horrified.

 

“He would have said, ‘if this is for young people, only young people make good music.  Old people make boring, conventional crap.  You need to retire before you’re 30.  Get out of the way, and let the young train come ploughing down the track.’  All I would say to him was, ‘son, totally understand where you’re coming from.  That gave you your energy and your angst, your naivete and enthusiasm.  But just have a listen to this album.  Have a listen to “The Punishment of Luxury”.’  I suspect the 20-year old Andy McCluskey would have gone, ‘wow! You guys can still do it!  Okay, carry on!’”

 

In the year of their 40th anniversary, Andy and OMD have incredible music behind them that they can be pleased with because they made it largely under their own terms.  “The one thing we’re most proud of is that for the most part, we have ploughed our own course through the music industry.  We have done what we have wanted to do.  There were times when we were under pressure.  It was only because of money – because we didn’t get into this to be rich and famous – but once it becomes what you do, you have to pay the bills to keep on creating.  If you don’t sell enough records, you get dropped, so no-one’s going to hear the next one.

 

“We sometimes had to err on the side of caution.  And the one thing that we have realised, when we err on the side of caution, we’re not as good as when we go for an adventure.”  It’s that sense of adventure, along with their healthy desire to be different, that has led OMD to write some of the greatest songs in popular music.  The “Souvenir” deluxe boxset, then, affords the music fan the chance to join them on a unique ride.  And what a ride it is.

 

Mary L. Chang is an American freelance music journalist.  She was the Editor-in-Chief of the UK/U.S./Irish music website There Goes the Fear from 2010 to 2019 and has contributed to international music outlets including DIY, Click Music and PopWreckoning.

“Oh My God, We’ve Arrived”: An Exclusive Interview with Andy McCluskey of OMD on the “Souvenir” Greatest Hits and Deluxe Boxset (Part 2) – By Mary L. Chang

Two of the five audio discs are live show recordings, and from virtually opposite sides of OMD’s long career.  The earlier recorded of the two discs comprises tracks recorded live in 1983, at London Hammersmith Odeon and at the end of their tour campaign for the then-critically-maligned “Dazzle Ships”.  While we can now enjoy the audio mixed by Paul Humphreys, Andy McCluskey reports that sadly, the accompanying film footage that was shot that night has unfortunately been lost.  For anyone lucky enough to have been in the audience for this show, you may notice there is a track missing from the set.

 

It’s only human nature to remember, with often great and excruciating detail, the moments where we have failed.  Despite the event occurring over 30 years ago, both Andy and Paul remembered that ‘Genetic Engineering’ went off that night in an utter shambles, so they chose to omit it from this release.  “What happened was we came in out of time with the click track.  Throughout the whole song, we knew we were out of time, and each of us kept trying to stop and come back in, instead of all stopping and starting the track again.  Nowadays, [if] we screw something up, we just start again.  We tried to get to the end of the song, and it sounded like World War III!”

 

Since its release in 1983, “Dazzle Ships” has enjoyed retrospective positive appraisals from music critics, as well as gained enthusiastic fans.  Says Andy, “The rest of it [the concert] is as we played it, and it’s an interesting and unusual show for a band who was at the top of its game but had just released an album that caused us problems commercially but which is now considered a kind of masterpiece.”  Given the background, you can’t help but muse over what concerns and anxiety might have been burbling in their early 20-something heads before and during the gig.

 

Andy’s comment also drives home the fact that they have always taken great pride in their live performances, even from the very early days.  “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were a live band.  Paul and I were experimenting in his mother’s back room.  But we took those experiments and went to play [them] live.  We were always a band who played live.  It was always part of the ethos.  So it’s important for us to demonstrate the energy, the emotion and the feel of a live show.  I love live shows because you can’t actually change anything about it, you know?  It’s done, it’s gone into the ether.”

 

While he concedes studio recordings are polished and “perfectly presented” these days and live recordings are not, “[a live recording] has much more energy and humanity, specifically for that reason.  It’s something that you did that one night, in that one room, to those people and those people only.  You may have played the same set the night before in a different city.  But every, every concert has a different feel because it’s a different venue and it’s different people.  It’s very much a document of a specific moment, and that’s what gives a live recording its charm.”

 

Those reading this who have seen OMD live will agree with me that Andy, and the whole band, clearly have a great time performing for their fans.  The ability to interface with the people who love their music is absolutely priceless to him.  “I think it’s the human and emotional connection with the audience in the hall.  It’s a special event to go and see people presenting their art to you.  The interaction you get between the band and the audience is visceral.  When an audience is enjoying themselves, when they’re applauding, they’re cheering, clapping and dancing, there’s a buzz.  You get something back.

 

“We’ve sold millions of records, but I wasn’t in the shop where every record was sold, you know?  I wasn’t sitting in the car when somebody heard it on the radio and turned to their friend and said, ‘hey, I really like this song!’  I can’t share that with people.  But when we stand onstage and play it that one time, in that city, to that group of people, then we see what they feel.  Then we see how they respond.  And they get us to play it to them personally, [it’s] not just the recording that everyone else got when they bought the CD or the record or listened to the download.  They get the one performance we’re doing that night in their town, and it’s individual.  It’s special.  That’s what gives it a frisson, an energy.”

 

The other live audio recording is a BBC Radio 2 In Concert special from 2011, hosted by Jo Whiley. “It’s a more recent live recording.  It was broadcast and went out into the ether live, but no-one’s ever heard it since.  So we just thought it would be a nice opportunity for people to have a different document of the same band, the same four people, playing whatever it was 27 years later.”  It is, indeed, a nice closing of the loop, a lovely reminder that four people who played music together as young men and shared so many stages could reunite after some time of estrangement, then return and perform together as a cohesive unit, as if little or no time had passed at all.  The music industry is littered with stories of band members falling out with each other, never to speak again.  OMD’s story is a rare one where outside forces may have conspired against them, but friendships and musical bonds have endured.

 

One of the two European-coded DVDs in the “Souvenir” deluxe boxset are a blistering array of the band’s live performances from 1980 to 2013.  The majority of the performances are taken from the BBC’s Top of the Pops, whose influence on British life Andy was keen to impress on this Yank.  “Top of the Pops, for British kids, is iconic.  It’s our American Bandstand.  We grew up watching it, it’s often where we heard a track for the first time before it became a hit or while it was climbing the charts.  To do Top of the Pops, for British bands, it was really a stamp of, ‘oh my god, we’ve arrived. This is really incredible.’  It was exciting.  It was terrifying!”

 

OMD’s first performance for the BBC series was a bit of a baptism by fire.  “Actually, the first time we did Top of the Pops with ‘Messages’, it was the first time I’d ever flown in an aeroplane.  We were in Belgium, and we were supposed to get the ferry back after a European tour.  We get a phone call, ‘quick, get back to the UK, you got Top of the Pops!’  It was quite weird because I had just been on this plane…then, of course, our equipment was still coming back on the ferry, so we were playing rented equipment, which weren’t our own instruments, so we all felt rather uncomfortable.”  With a chuckle and I’m sure a smile on the other end of the line, he adds, “Sometimes it’s not as glamorous as you think it is!”

 

Still, despite the nerve-inducing events before they even got in front of a camera, he has overwhelmingly fond memories of going to the BBC Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush to record their live appearances.  “It was a great, big circular building.  Every studio was divided [into two] and so had pairs, so when you came out of the dressing room, the two studios would share this cafe and tea shop.  And the great thing about recording and rehearsing for Top of the Pops, because you were there all day, there was a very large likelihood that the adjacent twin studio could be doing anything from a period drama to Doctor Who.  You could be sitting down, having a cup of tea with someone who looked like they were Jane Austen or [with] Doctor Who and the Daleks, or god knows what!”

 

Further, for its time, the BBC tv programme had incredible reach and influence on music listeners and the music-buying public, unlikely to be rivalled in Britain again.  “There were only three tv channels, and so everybody watched [Top of the Pops].  It was the one concession parents would make to their children, ‘okay, it’s Thursday night, it’s 7 o’clock.  You all can watch Top of the Pops.’  Twenty million people would watch it, of a population of 50 [million].  That’s how big it was.  If you were on Top of the Pops, it was the biggest advertisement you could ever get for your song.  That was really amazing, and I think it made it hugely important and exciting to do.”

 

During my research for this interview, I considered that the “Sugar Tax” single ‘Pandora’s Box’, appearing twice on the tv programme appearances DVD, might have a more personal angle to Andy and OMD than might have been initially apparent.  He considers my suggestion.  “I don’t think I ever saw [American twenties silent film actress] Louise Brooks and her career trajectory as a metaphor for OMD…certainly, she was precocious, she was young and talented, she was a teenager when she first came to people’s attention as being successful, so there are some similarities with OMD.  I think she refused to play the game.  We refused to play the game, but we were fortunate that we managed to sell records by creating our own set of rules, whereas Louise Brooks ultimately was cast out of the film industry because she was not abiding by their rules and doing what she was told.  So there were huge differences.”

 

In any event, Louise Brooks must have been a major influence on Andy at the time, as her memory stayed on his mind.  He reveals to me something that I had missed upon my audio inspection of the unreleased tracks.  “I don’t know if you’ve made the connection there, but the ‘American Venus’ that’s on the unreleased CD was my first attempt to write a song about Louise Brooks because ‘American Venus’ is another one of her film titles [like ‘Pandora’s Box’].  When I later went back and listened to ‘American Venus’ after our conversation, I realised why it hadn’t registered: Andy’s voice is so processed on it that I wouldn’t have made out the word “Kansas” if Andy had not brought it to my attention.  “‘American Venus’, when I heard it, the lyrics, ‘born in Kansas, from the tender prairie, to New York City’, that’s me trying to write a song about Louise Brooks, and it didn’t work.  And then I went away to write ’Pandora’s Box’ instead!  Basically, I kept a couple of the lyrics but utterly abandoned all the music.”

 

Such deconstructing, then rebuilding, has been a successful approach for him in some cases.  He relates a story to me about how the second Joan of Arc-themed OMD song ‘Maid of Orleans (The Waltz Joan of Arc)’ came about, and from a previously discarded idea.  “Paul and Malcolm [then-drummer Holmes], they came into the studio when we were packing up to go to the Manor [Studio in Oxfordshire], and they both said, ‘whatever happened to that waltzy one?’  And I said, ‘it doesn’t work.’  Mal said, “if you let me play drums on it, it might.’  And it did!”

 

Hearing more about the OMD modus operandi to songcraft, I was struck by the elements of hard work, experimentation and fate that have played a part in creating the songs we hold so dear in our hearts.  Despite the numerous detractors of electronic music who hounded OMD and their eighties contemporaries for not being real songwriters, the truth of the matter is that they are an act whose magic moments in the studio may have been hard-fought, and the proof is in the memorable end product.

 

 

Mary L. Chang is an American freelance music journalist.  She was the Editor-in-Chief of the UK/U.S./Irish music website There Goes the Fear from 2010 to 2019 and has contributed to international music outlets including DIY, Click Music and PopWreckoning.

“Different Colours, Different Shades”: An Exclusive Interview with Andy McCluskey of OMD on the “Souvenir” Greatest Hits and Deluxe Boxset (Part 1) – By Mary L. Chang

2019 will be remembered for a great many notable anniversaries.  In British music history, the greatest will be the 40th anniversary of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD).  The pioneering electronic act from a humble, working-class beginning in the Wirral, England, went on to become a successful, multimillion album-selling group who, except for the few times they “had to err on the side of caution”, were uncompromising in their artistic vision.

 

Days before their band were due to begin the anniversary-related European and UK OMD tour in Portugal, I was given the wonderful opportunity to speak with cofounder Andy McCluskey about the gravity of releasing the new greatest hits and deluxe boxset “Souvenir”, available now from Universal Music.  As Andy and I discussed what he and Paul Humphreys decided to include in the boxset, it became clear very quickly how important it was to the two of them to be able to present a big picture view of their career through this boxset.  It is designed for the fans, with scores of memorable tunes, live performance tracks and video clips, unreleased songs and fragments and more to dive into.  As a whole, it is a massive reminder of everything OMD have achieved and over such a long period of time, so much so that today’s up-and-coming acts should be envious.

 

Andy is matter-of-fact when looking back at their storied career.  “We’ve had some good moments.  There were other times when we were working and we didn’t get it quite right.  But not every Picasso is a masterpiece.”  He calls the big hit singles in the two greatest hits discs “the cherry and the icing on top” that music fans will clamour for, but he sees “Souvenir” as a metaphor for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.  That is, if you dig deeper through their oeuvre, their career is revealed as an “often dark and complicated, richer cake underneath [that includes] the unreleased tracks that show how we used to work” and the live performances they have chosen to include here.

 

I definitely was not expecting to hear a comparison of OMD’s career to a layered pudding.  However, upon further reflection, the metaphor totally makes sense.  (We will get to another cooking allusion later.)  While music fans know OMD for the single or singles that were successful in their respective territories, those who invest time exploring the band’s output beyond the hits and indeed, beyond the static studio recordings, shall be rewarded.  “It’s [“Souvenir”] about all the hidden depths of OMD, the different colours, different shades”, Andy explains.  “We’re not a band who just strives to write a hit single, and the rest of the album are songs that aren’t good enough be hit singles.  We accidentally write hit singles while we’re on our journey, experimenting and trying different kinds of music.”  This is just one example of why OMD are so beloved by their fans: the word “contrived” just does not exist in their vocabulary.

 

To the sonic geeks and synth addicts, both groups I consider myself a card-carrying member of, the most intriguing disc of the boxset has to be “Unreleased Archive Vol I.”  The songs and song fragments you hear on this disc were discovered in storage by cofounder Paul Humphreys, having been put away and abandoned following the completion of various albums.  Andy explains that in OMD’s early days, “we would write to tape, and it was a linear writing process.  We would just throw crazy ideas on the tape, then hope to actually make the song out of these component parts…[but] what tended to happen was if there was another song on the tape that had been used as part of a master in recording, then the tapes would go from the final mixing place and then into the storage, and we never saw them again.  So if we forgot to take the tapes home and keep them for working on again, they just went into storage, and so we hadn’t seen these tapes for, literally, decades.  So there was a real voyage of discovery to find what there was.”

 

However, before any reviewing of the material from storage could begin, they first had to overcome an unusual physical problem with the tapes, which Andy explained to me in much detail.  “Most of the tapes were from the late seventies to the early eighties, and the technology used on tape [around] then had changed.  The glue that was used to adhere the ferric oxide onto the tape was synthetic.  Prior to that, in the forties, fifties and sixties, they used glue made from whale product.  So the synthetic glue was obviously much more humane and moral.  The trouble was that it wasn’t as good as the whale product glue.

 

“Over the years, it tends to absorb moisture.  So what happens with these tapes is, if you try to lace these tapes on a machine and play them, they actually shed the oxide onto the playback head.  In the process of listening to your tapes, you’re actually stripping the magnetic oxide off the recording!  What you have to do is send them off to be baked, slowly, in an oven at a certain temperature for about 24 hours, and it dries the moisture out slowly.  And then you put the tape on the machine and transfer it to digital [recording] so you have saved the tape, but you’ve also got a digital copy.

 

“It was several weeks before we could actually get to hear these tracks.  And it was really exciting, because some of them we did recall, and it was like, ‘great, we’re just going to mix those, and we’ll have them.’  Others, we had no recollection whatsoever.”  For the long-time OMD fan, the disc is a nostalgic look back at their previous album eras, and you can practically picture yourself there in the studio with them.  If we use the metaphor of a slick muscle car to describe OMD and their unique musical output over these last 4 decades, then listening to “Unreleased Archive Vol I.” is like being afforded the chance to look under the bonnet and see how they worked back then.

 

“A lot of them [the tracks] are kind of like rough canvases”, Andy says, “where an artist was sketching in the background, but they never got to finally put the details on, the trees and the houses and the people.  It never got worked up to become a complete image, and that’s what some of these pieces of music are.  But there’s also quite a few complete songs that never made it out in public.”  More importantly, it reminded him and Paul of a completely different technical process of recording and writing, a process that worked for them creatively and artistically when they were younger.  “We’re rather proud of it.  It’s a really good snapshot of the way we used to think, the way we used to write, the way we used to experiment.  I love the fact that it starts with the cutest track we ever wrote, which is all of four or five channels of ‘Brand New Science’, which is just so sweet.”

 

OMD’s biggest hits have benefitted from his or Paul’s clever or emotional lyric content, so I asked him about two instrumental pieces on the disc that I found particularly intriguing.  “We are cool if something works as an instrumental.  We’re quite happy to leave it without a lyric.  That’s not a problem.  ’Guitar Thrash’ was just us trying to sound like one of the thrashiest songs by NEU!, like ‘Hero’, but we didn’t have a good lyric on it.”  So off to OMD storage it went.

 

“‘Radio Swiss International’ comes from the “Dazzle Ships” era.  We sampled a bunch of the radio call signs from various political radio stations.  Swiss [Radio] International wouldn’t let us use their call sign because they said the album was weighted too heavily towards communist propaganda.  And then we said, ‘if we use your call sign, we’re balancing it, aren’t we?’  They still wouldn’t let us use their call sign.  I hadn’t realized [until now that] we had tried to use it and make it into a broader piece of music, that we’d added extra instruments, so that was another surprise we’d found.”  When I mention that I think it sounds like a futuristic music box, he replies, “To English people, it [probably] sounds like an ice cream van, the ones that used to drive around and belt out distorted versions of ‘Greensleeves’.”

 

Using one of their international hits, Andy gives me a concrete example of his writing process in the eighties, along with a brief singing lesson.  “To give you an idea of how it worked [then], if you think of the song ‘Joan of Arc’, that started with me laying down 5 minutes of myself singing the note A and putting in an echo.  Then another 5 minutes of me singing random harmonies around it.  Then I played glockenspiel randomly in A major, and then I put down a click [track].  Then I started to write a song over that [instrumental] bed track.

 

“I put down the bass and chords, and then I finally got a vocal and drums.  And that’s how ‘Joan of Arc’ was created.  ‘Joan of Arc’ would not have that same texture or atmosphere if I had not started from those completely abstract elements.  That’s how we used to write: we would experiment, throw sounds onto a tape and then see if we could conjure a melody or a vocal out of it, from the feeling we created.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it didn’t.”

 

About the author:

Mary L. Chang is an American freelance music journalist.  She was the Editor-in-Chief of the UK/U.S./Irish music website There Goes the Fear from 2010 to 2019 and has contributed to international music outlets including DIY, Click Music and PopWreckoning.

Watch Vince Clarke interview Reed Hays about his vintage Vako Orchestron synth…

We are delighted to bring you this video of VeryRecords label boss Vince Clarke interviewing Reed Hays (of VeryRecords recording artists Reed & Caroline) about his vintage Vako Orchestron synthesiser…

Reed & Caroline’s second album Hello Science is out now and is available to buy on limited-edition CD and as MP3 or WAV downloads via the VeryRecords online shop.

Interview Feature: Reed & Caroline talk Hello Science…

Reed & Caroline’s second album Hello Science was released via digital download and as a limited-edition CD on July 6th 2018. In advance of the album release our friend Mat Smith sat down with Reed & Caroline’s Reed Hays and Caroline Schutz, to find out more…

May 24, 2018: at a tiny concert space tucked away at the back of Pianos on New York’s Lower East Side, Caroline Schutz and Reed Hays are performing songs from their second album.

From the opening ripples of ‘Buoyancy’, Schutz’s plaintive voice drifts across the venue like gentle waves, a siren among the curious stew of electronic sounds and melodies that Hays is coaxing from his Buchla system. Hays switches occasionally to furiously rapid cello playing, his technique with the instrument all the more watchable for knowing that he’d had to quickly glue the bridge back on after it snapped off during the soundcheck.

That Hays is able to make the Buchla sound so accessible – this being a machine, after all, that was designed by Don Buchla without keys to dissuade a user from settling into some sort of wearisome classical tradition – should be no surprise. After all, the first Reed & Caroline album, 2016’s ‘Buchla & Singing’ displayed a talent for wringing unexpected synth pop sweetness from Buchla’s invention, a far cry from the box’s purported original uses within the fabled Electric Kool-Aid Acid tests.

Seeing the duo perform these songs at Pianos is strangely fitting, as the tracks had their origins in an earlier performance right here. “We’d just performed our first ever show when we were told we’d need to round out our set list with more songs because we’d be going out on tour,” recalls Hays. The impetus for this burst of creativity had come from Vince Clarke, one half of Erasure and whose VeryRecords imprint issued ‘Buchla & Singing’. After that first show, Clarke had dropped the bombshell that Reed & Caroline would be taking the coveted support slot for Erasure’s 2018 North American tour. “We didn’t know exactly when it was going to be when he told us we’d be supporting, so I frantically set about writing new material in case it was only going to be three months away. A lot of second albums are the leftovers from what didn’t make it to the first album. I didn’t have any of those!”

The result is a body of work, ‘Hello Science’, originally conceived merely as songs to be performed live in front of concert-goers shelling out their hard-earned dollars to watch Erasure. Sidestepping the hoary cliché of a difficult second album, what began under extreme time pressure has become a solid collection of poignant songs that cements Reed & Caroline’s position among electronic music’s long history of synth duos, with twelve songs that appear to be entirely about science. Nothing else. Nada. Just science. Got it? No? Then try this lyric for size and then report back your findings to the class.

“Formulate hypotheses and gather all the facts – it’s science! It’s all about science!”
— Reed & Caroline, ‘It’s Science’

For an album so confidently, and boldly, about science – and one that is so richly researched and detailed – it may come as a surprise that its themes led Reed Hays into a state of doubt and panic. “I had a massive identity crisis about it,” he says with a sigh. “I’d written a bunch of these science songs, in a relative hurry, and while I was recording Caroline singing them she was like, ‘Is there anything that isn’t about science?’ We started second guessing ourselves, I guess. We’d also seen an interview promoting the last Erasure album where they were talking about the need for optimism today. Then I remembered when Vince first heard the initial Reed & Caroline stuff he’d said ‘I really like the optimism that’s in here.’ We thought ‘Oh gosh, shouldn’t we write some things that are more spiritual and optimistic?’ Somewhere along the line I realised that my love of science is something spiritual and optimistic. In these troubling political times, people are putting science into question. It’s almost like a faith that’s being outlawed. Because of that, what ended up as ‘Hello Science’ became really personal for me.”

Listening to Hays’s lyrics, covering such wide-ranging topics as Kepler’s theory of Platonic solids, how unsung female African-American ‘computers’ supported the likes of NASA’s space programme, or ruminations on the importance (or otherwise) of dark matter, one would assume Reed Hays had spent his entire education with his nose in a science textbook. It was anything but the case. “I was too busy practicing the cello to even take college-level chemistry classes,” he laughs. Nevertheless, the heavy research effort put into these songs belies the speed at which they were written. “I think it comes from the idea of science saving us all. It’s all very Star Trek on one level, but also any of these facts are just really interesting to ponder, as well as being mind-blowing.”

If his education wasn’t exactly filled with science, his upbringing was. Hays grew up in Huntsville in Alabama, a city where rocket scientists were relocated to from Europe after the Second World War, and science was literally all around him every day of the week. “My father was a social scientist who taught ethics to engineers,” he says, noting the puzzled look on my face. “I’m serious. He was a social psychologist. I still don’t know what that is, but he started an engineering ethics department at the university down in Alabama. He dealt with everything from environmental concerns to the actual ethics of whether an experiment was going to help humanity or screw it over. This was in the early days of AI, when no one was sure if it was going to happen tomorrow or in a hundred years. He would lay down the moral and ethical groundwork for dealing with something like that. We’re only just starting to see the importance of those ethics now.”

Given how naturally Caroline Schutz’s voice blends with Hays’s music, it’s perhaps a surprise that she doesn’t share Hays’s enthusiasm for all things science. “Caroline grew up in New York City museums,” deadpans Hays. “Reed writes the lyrics, so that all really does come from him,” agrees Schutz, “but I know he uses science to get at deeper issues. Reed really uses science as a way to cope with those things, which I think is interesting. It’s a way of making yourself feel better about those issues by looking at them from a scientific perspective. That’s the way that I can connect with the songs.”

So at the outset I said this album was all about science, but I lied. It might appear so, but it’s really not; ‘Hello Science’ is just as much about human issues. A track like ‘Before’, which opens the album, might be breaking down the interconnectedness of the past, present and future into a hymn-like song, but it’s just as much a mournful reminder of the finiteness of our earth’s resources and our very corporeal impermanence. “That song is both scientific and philosophical,” reflects Schutz. “Reed is good at using science as a parallel for other profounder issues, dealing with death and that sort of thing, but presenting them in a really simple, accessible way.”

Getting under the skin of these twelve songs reveals themes of loss (‘Entropy’), sexual inequality (‘Computers’), squandering our planet’s legacy (‘Another Solar System’), the darker side of internet-enabled home appliances (‘Internet Of Things’) and data proliferation and theft (‘Digital Trash’). These are big, often terrifying topics, things that could prompt an existential crisis in all but the most inured soul, all packaged and presented through the prism of scientific endeavour. “Caroline and I spent a lot more time together on this project compared to ‘Buchla & Singing’, where a lot of the songs were instrumental,” reflects Hays. “We had a lot of deep philosophical conversations about what these songs were about and how they should be presented.”

Although electronic instruments like the Buchla have an almost limitless capacity for making moods, one of the reasons that Reed & Caroline’s music works so well is precisely because of Schutz’s distinctive vocal, a humanising factor when twinned with Hays’s alien sounds. “I think the reason Reed always liked my voice is because it is kind of plain, it doesn’t have a lot of vibrato, and it doesn’t sound like I’m singing show tunes,” says Schutz. “It’s always straight and unaffected, and so in a way it goes well with the robotic things he creates, but I guess there’s also a certain breathiness about it that definitely makes people connect to it. I think the other thing about not having that singer-y vibrato is that it’s a more approachable voice for people. Listeners definitely picked up on that before I did.”

One immediate difference between ‘Hello Science’ and its predecessor is the use of cello on tracks like ‘It’s Science’. “The cello and the Buchla are the two instruments that I play,” explains Reed Hays matter-of-factly. “They are the only two things that I can touch and convey part of my soul. Antonio Stradivari, in the 18th century, was sort of a Don Buchla character. He was constantly perfecting ways to make the cello more expressive and efficient. Until Stradivari, cellos were all different sizes, some of them were as big as basses and people really used them primarily to play the bass part in church.”

Under Hays’s honed playing, the instrument proves to be a perfectly adaptable foil to the electronics. “Well, it’s like another voice,” says Hays. “It’s a tenor voice, and the only thing you have to be careful of is not to get too sad with it.”

Adding cello to the album had its origins in an artist friend asking Hays to sit in a corner and play cello at his gallery opening. “I brought a Buchla along and made this really ethereal patch,” he explains. “I improvised for about three hours and people seemed to like it, so I went back into the studio and I recorded a much shorter thirty minute version. I played it for Vince and after that he was always nagging at me to put cello on a couple of things.”

The other addition to the kit used on ‘Hello Science’ was a Vako Orchestron, manufactured by a Mattel subsidiary as a portable alternative to the Mellotron, the tape-loop playing keyboard beloved of Barclay James Harvest and countless other prog groups, John Lennon and Jean-Michel Jarre. Instead of tapes, the Orchestron used clear plastic discs where each concentric groove on the disc represented a different note.

Hays picked up his Orchestron at the fire sale when Sound City, the venerable Californian studio used by everyone from Neil Young to Tom Petty to Nirvana, went under, attracted by its signature deployment by a certain set of German synth luminaries. “Kraftwerk used an Orchestron on three of their albums,” he gushes. “It creates a very scratchy, low-bandwidth sound. It’s the source of the strings on ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and the choir on ‘Radio-Activity’, both of which are very unique sounds. They were the only band to really run with it. The Orchestron company made this giant one for Yes. Patrick Moraz tried it once and said ‘This thing’s never gonna work,’ and never used it again. I told Vince about it and he thought I was completely insane, like ‘Can’t you get samples of all that instead?’”

Serendipitously, Hays was connected to a cousin of a friend, Pea Hicks (Optigan.com), who had inherited the machinery to manufacture the clear plastic Orchestron discs. “For ‘Hello Science’ Caroline sang every note on the keyboard, and Pea made a bunch of optical discs from those recordings,” continues Hays. “That opened up all sorts of possibilities for adding really interesting vocal sounds to some of the tracks by reducing Caroline to little optical floppy discs.

The first song where Hays used the Orchestron was on the geometric otherworldliness of ‘Metratron’ that closes the album. “I was basically just playing around on the Orchestron with a choir patch. For a moment I felt like an actual keyboard player, which is scary because I can’t really play keyboards. I put this thing called the Buchla Music Easel on top of the Orchestron and I played one melody on the Buchla and another on the Orchestron and just kind of cooked up the track that way.”

The combination of Buchla, cello and Orchestron gives ‘Hello Science’ a slightly off-kilter quality, a sort of Wes Anderson oddness, like music for children played by adults. At least in the first half of the album there’s also a nod to 1981-era synthpop, something that wasn’t immediately evident on ‘Buchla & Singing’. “Vince had a little more influence on the shape of the sound of this album,” explains Hays, “and he stopped me from throwing songs out when I thought the whole project was a dismal failure. Sometimes I would play him something, and he’d say ‘Try an instrumental countermelody here,’ or ‘Maybe do something quirkier and sparser with the percussion,’ and suddenly the song worked. I don’t think it was to the extent that these tracks sound like Yazoo songs, but clearly this is a man whose sensibility was forty years in the making. The second half was where I went, well, there’s still a Buchla so I need to let it do its Buchla thing.”

Among the tracks in the second half is ‘Ocean’, were the central melody was written by Caroline Schutz’s pre-teen daughter Amalia, something that prompts Schutz to laugh. “She’s like, ‘Where are my royalties?’ I’m like, ‘You don’t even get an allowance!’ Our household’s pretty musical – my husband’s a musician, and both our daughters play instruments. Amalia plays piano but she also has a keyboard in her room, and she was messing around on that one day and came up with this nice intro that I really liked, and that became the intro to ‘Ocean’.”

Despite living on different coasts – Hays in New York and Schutz in Berkeley – one of the reasons that ‘Hello Science’ sounds so natural is because it wasn’t realised as a file-swapped distance collaboration. “It’s literally Reed and Caroline going back and forth, coast to coast,” explains Schutz. “My mother lives in New York and so I come in a lot, and Reed comes out to California a lot. You kind of get used to that flight after you’ve done it so many times. Whenever I come to New York I set aside a certain amount of time to go and record with Reed. We record pretty fast – I’m not sure why, but we do – so we’re able to get vocals done for a couple of songs usually in a day. And then we have a little guesthouse kinda thing here in Berkeley where we have some musical equipment too, and Reed uses that when he comes out West. It just works.”

‘It just works’ is, in its own succinct way, a fitting description of Reed & Caroline.

Like a lot of duos throughout the last forty-odd years of synth music, this is one that, on paper at least, simply shouldn’t work. And like its creators, ‘Hello Science’ is an album rich with contradictions, where contemporary concerns are executed with decades old (and centuries old) musical equipment, and where songs that celebrate women computers and songs that reminisce about the perforated printer paper you drew on as a kid can happily coexist.

It might be all about science – but it’s also human too.

Interview: Mat Smith

ORDER ‘HELLO SCIENCE’

The limited-edition CD format of ‘Hello Science’ is available in the online shop while stocks last.

The Digital Download format is available to order now as an MP3 from iTunes and all good online retailers. The album is also available as a high quality WAV download from the online shop.

Alka Interview: The Colour of Terrible Crystal

Alka’s The Colour of Terrible Crystal, the third album release from Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords, will be released via digital download and as a limited-edition CD on October 13th. In advance of the album release Mat Smith sat down with Bryan Michael, the force behind the Alka project, to find out more…

“It felt a lot like angels were presiding over the recording sessions for this album,” says Alka’s Bryan Michael, whose third album The Colour of Terrible Crystal will be released by Vince Clarke’s Very Records in October. “My collaborator Todd Steponick, who I worked with on the album, had just lost his mother and a close friend and it seemed to us like angels were all around us at that point.” Whether or not you believe in angels yourself is more or less irrelevant here; the point is that the notion of celestial beings circling Michael’s studio space opened up the creative channels required for him to complete this album, his first in eight years.

Since the release of 2009’s A Dog Lost In The Woods, and his programming work on Cure keyboardist Roger O’Donnell’s noodling Moogfest Songs From The Silver Box, Bryan Michael has busied himself with endeavours such as restoring vintage synths (he’s presently repairing a 1984 Emulator II) and restoring a 120-year-old Victorian house just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. “It has been hard to find the time for making music these past few years,” he admits. “I had so many ideas and I had started so many tracks, but I could only etch out a little bit of time here and there to finish things off. I knew I was getting to this point where if I didn’t pick it back up again, it was just going to go by the wayside. What really helped with this project was that I enlisted the aid of some of my fellow electronic musicians in the Philadelphia area, so it became more like a collaborative effort, and that really helped.”

Those collaborators – Steponick, Erika Tele and Audra Harley – and the renewed energy with which he approached what would become The Colour of Terrible Crystal have allowed Alka’s music to develop something of a borderless, genre-neutral quality that moves Bryan Michael’s style a considerable distance from the melodic IDM that had been the mainstay of his 2007 debut The Principles Of Suffocation and A Dog Lost In The Woods. “It happens with music in general, but specifically in electronic music – people get caught up in this strict need to identity something with a specific genre. That’s good in some ways, but I always prefer to hear a much larger cross-section of things,” he says.

The effect of Michael embracing so many styles and variations is like listening to a museum curator carefully nurturing his collection of exhibits. The appeal of such diversity is one that the curator himself has struggled to fathom. “I’ve been trying to piece that together forever,” he laughs. “Like, how do my interests mesh together in this way? What I’ve realised lately is that I’m friends with a very esoteric group, and we’re just naturally intrigued by a large variety of topics and interests. With the music I’m making right now I want to have the same broad approach, but not forcibly so. I don’t want to get to get stuck in too strict a pattern because I’m influenced by a lot of different sounds, and I just try to incorporate a large cross-section of those into my music. It’s a bit like a good library collection – you want to have a little bit of everything.”

“… and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. They move through the firmament which is the colour of a ‘terrible crystal’, and around a throne like sapphire, on which sits Metatron, suffused in the radiance of the rainbow.”
Peter Lamborn Wilson, Angels (1980)

Books are an important influence on Bryan Michael, and in the case of his latest album, he owes its title to an obscure work by the alternative philosophy writings of Peter Lamborn Wilson, best known for his espousing of the concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones, or social structures that evade formal control – something that the stylistically elusive music of Alka might well be a reflection of. “It was just one of these synchronistic moments,” he says. “I was reading Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Angels, which is a beautiful, beautiful book about angels in different religions and in mysticism, and that quote jumped out at me. It just resonated, and I thought it represented the various pieces that make up this collection of songs. It also came at the same time that I had found this very strong image which a Chicago glitch artist I had befriended – Sara Goodman – had come up with. It was this really beautiful piece of art which, to me, looked like this mysterious figure holding this glitched crystal in her hand as a sort of offering. It just connected everything that I had been reading at the time, and that reference to The Colour of Terrible Crystal fit the pattern of my other releases, where the titles are quite prose-y, and the image resonated so strongly that I had to use it.”

Metatron is Hebrew in origin, but is believed to be derived from the Latin mētātor, meaning ‘one who metes out or marks off a place, a divider and fixer of boundaries’. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of the music that Bryan Michael delivers on The Colour of Terrible Crystal, where boundaries are anything but fixed. This is a record that moves fluidly between almost-pop, the kind of post-John Carpenter early Eighties horror soundtrack favoured by the Burning Tapes label, jerky electro beats, glitchy electronica and even a nod to the earliest experiments with electronics.

Despite suggesting that Michael the musician is every bit as well-read as his literary self, he is relatively coy about his influences. “I always try to create what is happening at that moment with the programming, with whatever sounds come out at that particular moment in the session,” he explains. “But I try to not be obviously influenced by certain sounds. I’m not trying to be pretentious by saying I’m not influenced by anything – of course you’re influenced by everything, either consciously or subconsciously – but I try not to let anything influence me too much.”

Over a couple of beers in a British pub in Philadelphia, we talk about bands that Michael grew up with in his formative years, many of whom were the jumping-off point for many electronic musicians – early New Order, Depeche Mode up to and including Violator, Nitzer Ebb, Skinny Puppy and so on. If you listen to The Colour of Terrible Crystal closely, you can just make out the tracest echoes of some of these bands, even if they are elusive and fleeting and refracted through Bryan Michael’s own lens; it’s not that Michael is necessarily trying to obfuscate his influences, just that the sheer volume of ideas he comes up with allows for a complete freedom of passage between them.

Questlore is a track on The Colour of Terrible Crystal that seems to perhaps more overtly convey Michael’s influences, being set to a classic Mantronix-esque electro beat that tricks the listener by skipping ever so slightly just at the point you’ve settled into it. “It’s just stuff that happens,” shrugs Michael, casually. “It’s almost a Brian Eno Oblique Strategies sort of a thing. I didn’t intend for it to happen. It’s a happy accident. My older material always tended to be more melodic, a little more light, but I’ve always been drawn to the heavier kind of backbeat that would drive a track along.” The title of Questlore, reminiscent of the game World Of Warcraft, does not in any way indicate that Michael is some sort of gaming nerd, though he does confess to a subtle awareness. “It’s nothing that I know of – it just made sense at the time,” he insists, “but it does play on that sort of fantasy adventure type thing, almost like this song is a fantastic sort of journey.”

At one extreme of the album is the track Melancholy Lasts, complete with Michael’s own heavily vocodered voice. The song is a deft Alka homage to some of the synth pop that he grew up with, but something of a big departure from the style listeners would have been accustomed to on his first two albums. “I was trying to break through from a traditional sort of IDM kind of genre trap,” he admits. “In attempting to break through that I did start to do a little more of this traditional pop song structure type stuff, and it was refreshing.” Michael also says that working with Vince Clarke’s keen ear made that foray into more pop forms slightly easier than if he’d just been trying to achieve it on his own.

“I like to play with vocoders a lot,” he continues. “When I started experimenting with a pop structure I started to incorporate a few more vocal elements. You can hear Erika and Audra singing on a few of the tracks. I guess I just wanted to incorporate a little more of a vocal element on this album, but I’m never going to sing. I wanted my voice to fit with the music. That’s where the vocoder came into play.”

Some of The Colour of Terrible Crystal‘s most surprising moments arrive at the album’s other extreme, on Over Hills And Vales and Under Waves And Seas, two companion pieces that seek to tap into the legacy left by some of the earliest electronic music pioneers. “I really wanted to get to the roots of what electronic music was doing back then, in the late Forties, early Fifties, into the Sixties,” says Michael. “It was more experimental. When Wendy Carlos released the Switched On Bach album, electronic music creators and aficionados at the time were pulling their hair out because the synthesizer, with this endless range of possibilities, was being confined to this classical music tradition. Those two tracks were a direct connection to that earlier electronic sound. I was trying to get back to the question of what electronic music is, and how we can avoid getting stuck in set genres. To do that I decided to look and see how it all began, and that was really refreshing to get that out of my system and to make those songs.

“I think they hold up pretty well as soundscapes,” he continues, “but they’re definitely difficult listening.” With scratchy, slightly unnerving sounds, it’s possible to see these two pieces as akin to the fear-inducing soundtracks to particularly unnerving psychological horror films. Bryan Michael was slightly surprised that they appealed so strongly to Vince Clarke when they were selecting the tracks for inclusion on the album. “I mean, I love them, but I didn’t think that they had much appeal outside of me just messing around with these soundtrack kinds of things,” he laughs, with evident self-deprecation, “but he heard something in them, and he’s said that what he loves about my music is that sort of cinematic quality. He said a few times that you could put any kind of visual element to those two tracks in particular and you could just be transported into this other world.”

The Colour of Terrible Crystal is an enigma of an album, made by a quiet enigma of an artist. This is a body of work that is fully and beautifully untethered, able to go wherever it wants like the angels that may have been watching over the sessions, and broadly influenced by everything and nothing simultaneously. This is music where contradictions, left turns and unexpected moments find a place to meet and hang out, a record that both respects the electronic music of the past and yet presents it in an utterly original contemporary fashion; where occluded crystal can sparkle with the perfect clarity of diamonds.

“The party at the end of the world”: Interview with Fat White Family

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Almost all the ink that has been spilled over Fat White Family trots out how these “sick” and “troubled” boys “crawled out of the squats of South London – an apparent Wild West at the end of the Victoria line – and on to the stage.

But such trite labels seem insufficient for the band FACT interviewed in the cavernous attic above the stage on which they were about to play a wild sold-out show at the Electrowerkz club.

Though the Fat Whites do shout, spit, use fascist and communist imagery and play shows for the most part unattired – and often surrounded by pigs’ heads on sticks – they are also responsible for some of the most refreshingly provocative guitar music Britain has heard for a long while.

“Instead of talking about what the music is all about, they’ll bang on about aesthetics, how we do drugs, how we’re crazy, how we sweat a lot,” explains frontman Lias Saoudi in an Ayrshire lilt. “It’s kind of silly. If we’re the scariest band out there at the moment, it’s a truly tame time.”

Their debut album Champagne Holocaust sat freely-available online for almost a year before generating attention when Ben Wallers of the Country Teasers started making noise about them and the album made The Quietus’ number-five album of 2013.

Its 11 tracks jump between stripped-down blues (‘Wet Hot Beef‘) that recalls slower Birthday Party songs, unhinged Americana (Heaven on Earth) of the Butthole Surfers ilk, and huge unhinged football-terrace style incantations (Special Ape). They sing portentous songs about who killed JFK’s assassin, the hanged Wales football-captain Gary Speed, or life through the eyes of a paedophile (“but a kind of sexy paedophile”, Lias clarifies).

Fat whiteIn a politically consensualist age, when major labels’ A&R departments are taking safer and safer bets with tighter and tighter budgets, Fat White Family’s music and on-stage melodrama can’t help but excite.

The day Thatcher died, the band were immortalised on the front of The Independent newspaper, sat in the window of their squat above a Brixton pub holding a placard reading ‘The Witch is Dead’. On another occasion they occupied a south-London branch of Foxtons estate agents, baring a luminous-pink flag that read ‘Yuppies Out’. Another read: ‘Homes for all!’.

“Because of our approach to these things, it’s always going be tongue-in-cheek. We’re never going to take one side totally,” explains Lias. “We’ve been slated by the Left for not talking the causes seriously enough and from the Right for obvious reasons.  So we’ve just become these idiots walking around South London without a pot to piss in singing songs about bombing Disneyland.”

Fat White Family are Thatcher’s grandchildren – the sons and daughters of Thatcher’s children. They are have-nots who are pissed off at being flat broke and at what they see as a stultifying corporatisation to modern life. To many in 21st century Britain, the days of overtly political music are over, but not for Lias and his co-songwriter Saul Adamczewski, who is an admirer of 1990s post-punk outfit The Make-Up for their mischievous and iconoclastic use of religion and politics.

“I don’t see how anything isn’t political. Having a cup of tea is political,” Lias says “I try and use things I creatively or aesthetically in a situationist philosophy so people can draw whatever you want from it. We’re not telling people what to think, were just trying to ask questions and open up a debate.”

Situationism was an artistic and also a political revolutionary theory that grew out of the Parisian avant-garde of the post-war years that aimed to wake people up using spectacles – or in the Fat White’s case, gigs – and liberate them with direct human experiences.

While Lias is wont to intellectualise Fat White Family, Saul sees his outfit in more nihilistic terms.

“I love the idea of revolutionary madness,” he says, grinning widely to reveal a gaping hole where his incisor once was. “I don’t think there is any salvation. I think we can agree on one thing and that is everything is doomed. It’s like the party at the end of the world. There’s fuck all left to do. We’re just rejoicing before the curtain comes down.”

Twitter: @a_merat