Call Of The Wild
After carving a career for themselves with their unique brand of anarchic funk, Shriekback have decided the time has come for a change. Barry Andrews tells David Bradwell about the importance of loving musical equipment.
From the days of the first Shriekback recordings Barry Andrews has steered the band on a delicate course between inspiration and chaos; now he says it's time for a change.
Barry Andrews looks up from the steering wheel of his ageing Ford Fiesta and reveals that the next Shriekback album is to be their last. Go Bang! (released on Island at the end of last year) was a turning point for ex-XTC keyboardsman Andrews and his band: it was their first album to be produced exclusively by a third party, namely Richard James Burgess, and the end of an era in British pop innovation.
Shriekback have never been easy to categorise. When Arista released the debut Shriekback long player, Tench in 1981 (complete with Neneh Cherry on backing vocals), the band's music was perceived as a mixture of hard funk and ambient grace. By the release of Oil And Gold in 1985 they seemed poised to achieve huge commercial success, borne out by college and dance chart success in America of the single 'Nemesis'. Such success was to elude them, however, even after receiving further critical acclaim for the follow-up long-player Big Night Music (on Island Records). When vocalist/guitarist Carl Marsh and bass player Dave Allen departed, Andrews was left the sole surviving founder member and for him it's almost time to try something new. But first he has to oversee Shriekback's swansong, a rework of some of their older material. During the recording of Go Bang! Andrews had found himself spending long periods of time in silent contemplation. It seemed to be the right time to fold Shriekback, to investigate new areas of music, and accept the challenge a new direction would offer. As a parting gesture, the decision was taken to release a retrospective compilation album of early material.
"The idea is to take things that people might remember from the golden days, stuff that never really had a fair crack of the whip, or which was produced in a way that meant it would never get played in clubs or on mainstream radio, and try to do a big, noisy, brash, extrovert Shriekback dance record. It will be completely re-recorded, using very extreme sounds - in no sense a conventional album. I haven't got a clue what it's going to sound like. I suppose I hope to find some rhythmic common denominator between contemporary dance stuff and the Shriekback song in question and find some place where they can interact. Then I'm just going to let imagination and technology run riot over the top and see what happens. I'm going to approach all this new equipment with perhaps the same degree of irreverence and experiment that we used on tape machines and fuzzboxes when we were doing Care."
Andrews puts the loss of the Shriekback spirit into perspective with the recording of Go Bang!.
"Just prior to recording the album we did a huge tour of North America and Australasia", he recalls. "Looking back, we did some brilliant gigs, but then it started to get on our collective wick. We were touring, touring, touring and there was no sense of our career actually going up a notch. It seemed a kind of mindless activity that the agents and management were getting rich but we in the band were staying where we started. Touring in moderation is quite educational, but taken to that extreme I find I get very uncentered and disconnected. I just become a sort of party animal, which is alright up to a point, but you soon want a bit more quality in your life. Then Dave said that he'd had enough.
"Quite apart from anything else he wasn't happy with the direction the music was taking. We committed to do one more album, which was Go Bang!. I wanted to make a more MIDI/technology-based record which was smart and modern sounding, but Dave wasn't really musically capable of doing that, and certainly ideologically would not have been happy with it. In the end Dave went off to form a band called King Swamp with Steve Halliwell while we went to Nassau with Richard Burgess."
Anyone familiar with Shriekback's music will recognise that the band's own production was an important aspect of it. Their decision to bring in an outside producer, therefore, comes as something of a surprise. Andrews explains: "Every record company we've ever been signed to has tried to persuade us to get a proper producer. We thought that maybe we ought to get someone in to see what would happen. Burgess seemed like he was a man who knew how to make a dance groove work and make quite hard-sounding records which could nevertheless get played on the radio.
"It worked out pretty well, it certainly came in on course. But I found it a bit depressing because back in the early days there was a Shriekback collective decision that we were not going to take any shit from the record company, and we were just going to do what we wanted. If that was backward tape loops with somebody grunting in Italian over the top then so be it, and some of the great stuff that people hark back to in reviews came from that attitude. We were taking hardly any money, and that is realistically the only way you can achieve that degree of independence. Burgess, to his credit, took complete control in the studio and I thought I was being underemployed. The reason I do this is because it excites me. I like to find out things, to get out there on the cutting edge of what is possible. I can remember being absolutely petrified in the studio when we were doing Care in 1982 because we only had 19 days to record it and all we went in with was a few reels of blank tape. Go Bang! didn't have one moment of fear, it was utterly predictable from beginning to end and I think that's the kind of lack of excitement people identify."
Arriving at Andrews' Dorset farmhouse studio, we are confronted by some of the new equipment Andrews intends to employ in the final Shriekback project. An Akai S1000 sampler, ASQ10 sequencer and Alesis HR16 drum machine have only been here three days, and he is still wading through the instruction manuals. His previous setup revolved around a MIDI retrofitted Jupiter 8, Korg DSS1, Yamaha TX81Z and Korg DDD5. He opted for the ASQ10 rather than a software sequencer because he prefers to keep things within self-contained boxes. His other hi-tech purchases seem to depend upon the personality of the equipment in question.
"With the sampler it was as though I was choosing a car. I didn't care what it was, and as long as it performes a function and doesn't give me any trouble, I'm happy. There are other things where I look specifically for a certain character. The Alesis HR16 has got a real attitude. The '60s kick drum, the piccolo and the rosewood claves have a real feeling of 'Yeah, what are you going to use here, that's a hard sound, whack it in'. It's off the peg, you can't muck around with it, and it doesn't keep you hanging about. The S1000 is a pure piece of technology and it seems that they've thought of everything.
"We were touring, touring, touring - it seemed the agents and management were getting rich but we in the band were staying where we started."
"I'm quite superstitious about technology. There's a way that you can be with equipment where it works, and another where it fucks up all the time. I think electronic machines are very responsive to the power of intention in one. Quite often I'll be loading a sample and I think it'll be alright so I'll go and make a cup of tea. And then when I come back it hasn't loaded properly, whereas if I had sat down and watched it, it would have. Don't ask me why, but it happens too many times to be accidental. I definitely like to make friends with my machines.
I've had keyboards in the past that I just haven't loved, and if you don't love them they're always going to go wrong. Like that TX81Z, I don't love it at all, I don't care about it. It's got a couple of good sounds, but it doesn't bring me any joy at all to work with it."
Andrews is far from new to the wonders of technology. Having begun his professional career in music with a piano (which he describes as the first keyboard instrument he ever misused), he bought a Crumar Group 49 organ the year before he joined XTC. Whilst hopelessly out of date by modern standards, back in the late '70s it was a desirable, if somewhat unreliable piece of equipment.
"The organ used to break down on stage and two roadies would have to get amongst it with screwdrivers. There was a kind of performance element to that which I rather liked, and you could also bend the oscillators because they were stuck in little bits of wax. I did manage to squeeze quite a lot of expression out of it really, considering it only had about three sounds, and they were all rancid. But it had a manic edge to it which I liked. I felt that I wanted to go beyond that, but all the keyboards that were coming out were synths like the Minimoog which all had one bloody note. Then I went along to Argents one day and there was the Jupiter 8 and the Memorymoog and they were the first generation of big polyphonic synthesisers, that cost a few bob but did quite a lot. I played the Jupiter and fell in love with it immediately because it was everything I wanted. It was a piano in terms of how many notes you could play, but it was combined with an enormous breadth of sound. I was interested in being an orchestral composer before rock'n'roll led me off up its primrose path, and I'd always wanted those forces at my disposal. Suddenly it seemed that they were there and it was really really exciting. I remember thinking the Memorymoog was pretty good as well but that had fake wood on the side and I despised that!"
The early Shriekback albums were characterised by their atmosphere of experimentation. Although the band's finances were limited, they tried their best to keep abreast of new breakthroughs in technology. Tape loops were one early trademark, and as expected, Andrews welcomed the modern equivalent, the sampler, with great enthusiasm.
"There's nothing radical about samplers in terms of what you can achieve, but they are radical in the sense that you can achieve it a lot quicker. For instance, if you want to record a backwards tubular bell, then instead of having to hire a tubular bell, mike it up, record it, turn the tape over, re-record it and spending three or four hours to find out if it's going to work, you can just slap a sample in, reverse it and play it wherever you want. It doesn't mean that it's stopped people being inventive, it's possible to be more inventive now because you have so much more time and freedom. The Beatles weren't sitting around saying 'We can't do that, Chuck Berry wouldn't have done that', they were interested in finding out all the possibilities of what was available and so am I."
Andrews appears to be looking forward to the task of producing the final album with relish. While his current working method is more about reading owner's manuals than genuine innovation, he can see the germs of new ideas already developing.
"I always think it's exciting when you get a new piece of equipment or a new person to work with because, although it always seems like the first movements you make are elementary and obviously not in themselves the finished product, there is always a kind of energy that guides you towards certain things. Then when you look back in six months time when the project's over, you find that hidden within the first few things you tried were the germs of everything that developed into the final project. At the moment I'm just sitting back and watching myself really and trying to pick up the clues as I go along.
"I like to make friends with my machines - I've had keyboards that I just haven't loved, and if you don t love them they're always going to go wrong."
"I suppose it's much more a laboratory kind of thing now. If this was a band you would have other people and their vibes and you could bounce ideas between each other. In here I've got no excuses, it's just some equipment and, if I can work out how to use it, it will do what I tell it. It's quite confrontational - you can't get away from the fact that it's you on your own, but I find it a challenge.
"After Go Bang! I really wanted a challenge and just learning to work this stuff is a major problem. I suppose I've also always had to deal with technology through intermediaries in the past and a succession of engineers, some of which have been great, others which have been really awful, but always there's been this kind of frustration on my part. Sometimes you hear an engineer get a drum sound and if you could take that as a starting point and work back from it, it might be possible to get a whole new perspective on recording drums - even to get a novel and unconventional way of looking at drum sounds. But however great the communication is with the engineer, you can't explain it all and you have to realise that they've got a certain aesthetic which they think is good. Consequently I've got into the situation with engineers that I've really made my point on one or two things and they've asked me what I want them to do next and I don't know."
As for the future, Andrews is reluctant to say too much about which directions he will be pursuing. He has already received several film offers, and by way of a departure he recently provided the music for a show at the Battersea Arts Centre called Requiem At Low Tide.
"I did it with a dancer and it was utterly left field, determinedly uncommercial and it was a real good opening of the sluices. We flooded the Centre and had huge piles of rock in the middle. It was just like getting my feet back down on the ground a bit, and not disappearing into the more nebulous worlds of music business budgets and music business bullshit. One was aware when one was doing it that 80% of it was crap, but if you get that 20% that you wouldn't have even thought of if you hadn't attempted that massive range of stuff, then it's worth doing. I felt it wasn't a complete artistic success but there was an atmosphere that came through it, a kind of cold dark beauty that I was really pleased with."
Despite never attaining their deserved level of commercial success, the whole Shriekback project has been seen as immensely satisfactory by all concerned, with the possible exception of the record companies concerned. To predict what may come next would be doing Andrews a great disservice, but whatever he decides for the future, he has no regrets about the past.
"It's been an incredible project really. When me, Dave and Carl came together we were in some studio and we didn't know our arse from a hole in the ground. We were just there bluffing it.
I had loads of things I wanted to do but I didn't know how to do them. We all learned together and we all grew together, and it was very much a case of doing it in public as well, with our backgrounds in XTC and Gang of Four. I felt under incredible pressure sometimes to get it right and to get it right on my own terms without getting it right on anybody else's. I was hopelessly paranoid in those days. But now Dave's reached a point where he can go off and create a band from nothing except the general principles that we all learned together. Carl's done the same. Martyn is now a world class drummer, whereas when he came along to Shriekback he was a maintenance fitter at a hospital who played a bit of drums on the side.
"It seems like it's been an incredibly positive thing and we've left behind us some shit hot records, six great albums by anyone's standards and some great gigs, some really fiery passionate events.
"I think in any area of your life, but especially in art, you only find out what is going to happen next when you've killed the thing that happened before. You have to leave your last girlfriend to fall in love with somebody else."
Barry Andrews has done that, but the spirit of Shriekback remains. In whatever future form it manifests itself, the public stand to gain from the work of one of pop's true innovators. Let's hope it's sooner rather than later.
Interview by David Bradwell
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