In the battleground that is the record business, one band have managed to find the space to be one of the most individual and resourceful of British talents. Nigel Lord talks uncommerciality in an Immaterial world.
Despite their relentless search for fresh "product", the record companies occasionally overlook small areas of musical experimentation. It's Immaterial occupy one such space.
"IT HAS TO BE CAPITAL PUNISHMENT"
"You're probably right. If you locked them up, they'd end up back on the streets once they got out".
It's five o'clock on a hot May afternoon and within minutes of our meeting, Jarvis Whitehead and I find ourselves in agreement over the punishment due anyone caught walking down a busy street strumming a guitar. Our discussion had been prompted by some minstrel wandering down Lark Lane, a faded but pleasant Liverpool thoroughfare in which are situated the offices of Essential Productions - the management company to which Jarvis is signed as one half of It's Immaterial. His other half (so to speak), is John Campbell; together they form what is one of this country's most valuable musical assets. Comparatively few people would agree but then, comparatively few people have been given the opportunity to listen. And that's another crime for which we should be discussing stiff sentences.
Happily for a small group of cognoscenti, the band can do no wrong and these loyal few have done what they can to spread the word to an uncaring world. There hasn't, however, been much "word" to spread in recent times. Like Kate Bush and Tears for Fears, It's Immaterial had allowed a gap of some four years to separate their last/latest vinyl offerings.
Back in '86, Life's Hard and Then You Die rewarded its listeners with some of the most sharply-honed melodies the decade had produced and provided a blueprint for what could be achieved by a band prepared to embrace new technology and combine it with more traditional instruments. Throughout, the music was suffused with incisive humour, courtesy of Cambell's wry, whimsical narrative style, and an eclecticism which had critics reaching for the thesaurus in search of suitable adjectives.
The singles, 'Driving Away From Home' and 'Ed's Funky Diner' brought the band the closest thing to mainstream success they have enjoyed. A couple more sank without trace, and if profiles in the press, radio and TV were anything to go by, so too had the band.
At the end of last year Campbell and Whitehead were rumoured to be working on a video project which it seemed reasonable to connect with the release of a second album. And Song - for that is its name - was released earlier this year.
But the world doesn't seem to have time for such an album. It lacks the immediacy which has become a prerequisite for popular music - there are no hook lines corkscrewing their way into your skull and you can't really dance to it. Despite this, It's Immaterial have, with producer Calum Malcolm, released a meticulously crafted set of songs which, with a little listening, etch their way into your subconscious.
Happily, Campbell and Whitehead still seem wedded to the (apparently) outdated notion that music - pop music, anyway - is about songs. Sceptics might consider four years a long time for two people to write ten songs, so where had the time gone?
"We went to Europe after the first album was released to do a series of live dates", recalls Campbell. "When we got back, we moved into a small rehearsal studio with our own 16-track and started demoing material for the second album - that was the year of '87. From March '88 through to December we were up in Scotland recording.
By 89 we had only really finished one track and the rest of the year we spent dabbling with the idea of making a long-form video to go out with the album."
This sounds like the kind of creative space normally afforded to bands having already gained considerable success.
"There certainly wasn't any commercial success to speak of", contradicts Whitehead, "we're just fortunate in having a rather gracious record company who allow us to work at our own pace."
And the success of the first two singles?
"They gained us some kind of profile", admits Campbell. "You could say it was the critical success of that album which bought us the time to write and record the second. I'm sure the record company wouldn't have been quite so gracious had the first record not been received so well. I think they suspected there was promise there and that in time it would grow".
Speaking of the singles, the original producer of Driving Away From Home was Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison, yet David Bascombe was credited as producer on the actual release - proving that even the most prestigious of producers don't necessarily make good partners.
Campbell: "He seemed to be very firmly of the opinion that it was a country and western song and we never saw it as that. It was a "road" song, but he wanted to go right back to country and western roots and do it completely in that style.
"For us it was an amalgamation of a few things. There was a lot of irony in the fact that we were Mancunians and it was a road song about Britain. We were coming in at a very oblique angle and I just don't think he picked up on it."
The song brought the band its greatest vinyl success four years ago, but now there is the success of Song to consider. You might expect a single to have already been chosen, but Campbell reckons it isn't that simple.
"When we came to write the last song we thought 'let's roll up our sleeves and write the single which we can use to sell the other nine songs'. And we tried for a year but we couldn't do it. Every time we did anything - change the EQ on a particular instrument, for example - we just didn't like it. We couldn't bear to go through with it. It isn't that we don't want to do anything commercial, it just doesn't seem to work for us."
For many, the band's understated humour has provided one of the most cogent reasons for latching on to their music. Apart from coming up with the title Life's Hard and Then You Die, the songs themselves are sprinkled liberally with priceless lines. Much of it is of Campbell's devising.
"I think the humour is an escape valve. Sometimes you find yourself expressing your own character too much and at times you get quite melancholic - especially when you're trying to create something and it's not going well. Really, you'd have to say it's for your own benefit; it's there to rescue it for you because it's getting a little too deep at those moments. But I wouldn't say it was particularly understated..."
"A lot of our English feel stems from a hatred of the Americanisms that come into the language. I find myself fighting against that kind of lyrics."
But there is an underlying Englishness about the songs on both albums; a pre-occupation with suburbia, out-of-season holiday towns and drab Sunday afternoons - all traditional English themes.
Campbell again: "Usually it starts with some expression I've heard or something I've read somewhere, and then you build in your own experiences around that. Most of the names are names of friends; most of the street names and locations are places I know or have been to. That's how personal the writing becomes. I think a lot of that English feel stems from a hatred of the Americanisms that come into the language. I find myself fighting against those kind of lyrics."
On the subject of feel, Song has more cohesion than the first album. Presumably this was because like most first albums, Life's Hard was made up of a collection of songs which had been gathered together from the time the band was formed - whereas the second was conceived as a complete set of ten songs.
"That's right", Whitehead confirms. "In fact, we tried to homogenise the new album. Some of the demos we started off with were distinctly different so when we got to Calum's studio (Castlesound in Edinburgh) we made a deliberate effort to make the album work as a whole, and to make it different from the first album. The other thing with Song was that the three of us worked more or less in isolation, whereas with Life's Hard there were many different people involved."
Clearly, the two of them prefer to maintain control over the entire creative process. If I have any criticism to make of the new album, however, it's that rather too much control seems to have been exacted on occasion. The album is never allowed to drift into uncharted waters. But this is not something of which Campbell is unaware.
"For months we dabbled around trying to create a particular kind of tension. In a sense it's a sort of controlled emotion; it's not quite letting go at any point. That's what was interesting me at the time. You get the impression that something's just about to happen in the narrative, but it never quite does. So I suppose that's where the element of control comes from."
This might also be the reason they resist the temptation to capitalise on the more obviously catchy parts of the songs.
But Campbell has a simpler explanation: he gets bored with the repetition. Yet like The Blue Nile, a band with whom it's not difficult to draw parallels (apart from the Calum Malcolm connection), there seems to be a fundamental appreciation of the value of a well-constructed song. Surprisingly, Campbell plays this down.
"I can see the parallels between us and The Blue Nile - and several other bands - but I've never really looked at us as songwriters in the strictest sense. We construct some kind of narrative story, I suppose, but the melodies are all quite simply placed.
"When we first went into Castlesound, the songs were very sketchy indeed. In fact they were practically written and re-written in the studio. Castlesound is in quite a pastoral setting and this, I think, came to be reflected in the music. And spending such a long time there meant that we really got to understand the studio and got involved much more in the recording process."
FROM THE TIME OF THE FIRST ALBUM, It's Immaterial have seemed quite happy to avail themselves of the benefits of hi-tech equipment. Do they feel they've gained any sort of mastery over it?
Campbell: "Having to go out and play the first album live - even though there were six of us in the band - there were still things we needed to sequence using a computer. So we had to look into that side of things. But we've never been totally on top of the technology. We tend to form attachments to certain instruments. On the new album, for example, we grew very found of the Jupiter 8. And we used a Yamaha KX88 as the master keyboard because we liked the feel of it. We're still very fond of the TR808, too. We used it on Life's Hard and again on Song".
If anything, the acoustic piano which gave much of the first album its fluid feel, has taken more of a back seat on Song.
"Not at all", replies Whitehead, "it's still there if you listen for it. In fact, that was one of the reasons for working with Calum - he's a great keyboard player. But he's very subtle; every note he plays is designed to enhance the song. In that sense he's very 'efficient'."
The respect shown for other people's musicianship is unmistakeable. Yet between themselves Campbell and Whitehead adopt a resolutely anti-muso stance. Is there any degree to which they might find themselves deliberately limiting their own development in order to protect their approach to writing music?
Whitehead: "That's been a part of the history of the band really. It's not so much a case of a particular chord being too clever or anything, it's more to do with the creative process being so difficult that if you tighten the boundaries in any way it makes it that much easier. When you're working with an instrument and you don't know what you can do with it, you end up looking for pure ideas or trying to get something out of it that moves you. And this leaves space for accidents to occur as well. In fact, we spend most of our time looking for accidents."
This approach also applies to their use of samplers, which seem to play a significant role in the new album.
"All the samples on the album were done by us", Campbell explains "...apart from a few from the Emulator library. We did a lot of sampling outside - we sampled castanets in a cave on the East Lothian coast."
"Also", Whitehead continues, "the percussionist who worked with The Blue Nile, Nigel Thomas, had left all his percussion instruments behind in the studio. There were lots of ethnic instruments and some really interesting things to hit, so we managed to get quite a wide range of percussive samples which we could experiment with." "But", explains Campbell, "we are aware that there are certain traps you can fall into. So for rhythm tracks, for example, we try to use very varied sounds and build up a sense of a rhythm rather than deliberately trying to find something different."
"When you're working with an instrument and you don't know what you can do with it, you end up looking for pure ideas or trying to get something out of it that moves you."
On the subject of drums and rhythm tracks, in a previous interview (E&MM, September '86), Campbell and Whitehead revealed that their use of a drum machine - the ubiquitous TR808 - had stemmed from the difficulties experienced working with the real thing. It seemed that whenever they ended up working alongside a drummer, their problems began.
Campbell explains: "It was the fact that we really couldn't find anyone who could play the rhythms we wanted. It was also the vocabulary between us: we weren't able to express ourselves too well. It's difficult trying to get an idea out of your head and communicating it to somebody.
"So we end up being fairly introverted and trying to discover a way round it ourselves. That's why we've persevered with drum machines. We play around with a track constantly trying to place the rhythm parts. Usually we set up a keyboard with some percussion samples and then attempt to slot them in and see where they fit. We go through a track many times looking for the right places. On Song we also spent a lot of time miking up and trying various types of reverb on the samples. Rather than using digital reverbs, Calum prefers to use rooms - there's a fabulous selection at Castlesound - and we spent a lot of time experimenting with different instruments in them."
The duo were clearly impressed by the way Malcolm works (and with his penchant for fine wines), but previous associations had turned out much less successful - that with Jerry Harrison being a case in point. The impression they give is one of being enthusiastic about their music to the point where they are unable to release control over it to others.
"It's such a hard thing to do", admits Cambell, "but we're desperately trying to learn to delegate. We know we're obsessive and want to be involved in every aspect of the things we do.
"I think a lot of it came about because we've been led down so many wrong avenues. We found that as soon as you loosen the reins, it becomes hard to get back in control. Soon it's nothing like you intended it to be, but by that time it's hard to do anything about it. I suppose we have come to deliberately avoid those situations simply because we're afraid of where that process can lead."
But how about in other areas where you simply have to leave it to someone else, like promotion of the album? "That's one of the reasons we take so much time making it. We make sure we get everything right - doing the absolute maximum amount that tails within our jurisdiction. I suppose it's like a plea to the people who are going to promote and market it to do it properly."
This reluctance to rely on others has also made them steer away from the vagaries of live performance.
"We haven't played any dates since '87", says Campbell, "and that was the first time we'd played live for two or three years. We'd like to do it if the process was a bit easier, but again, it's difficult finding the people we'd be happy playing with and who could interpret the songs in the way we'd like."
Whitehead agrees: "That was one of the briefs we gave ourselves for this new album. We tried to do something simple enough that we'd be able to play live without relying on too many other people. Having been round Europe and had a band together for a while, it's a nightmare."
In the light of this reluctance to perform live, the concept of extended video work could have been tailor made for It's Immaterial, giving them almost total control over their work.
"To a certain extent", agrees Whitehead, "but we've still had to work with directors - even though all the ideas for the videos have been our own. I think our involvement with video has to do with it being a visual thing; it's easier for us to grasp visual ideas.
"All the formal training John and I had was in the visual arts rather than music, and at the risk of sounding pretentious, this is reflected in the way we work in the studio. We tend to see things visually and discuss them in that way."
But how do a band who have avoided the pitfalls of the musical cliche manage to avoid those which seem to have dogged the video industry over the years?
"I don't know", says Whitehead, "but we spent the whole of last year trying to avoid them. Having completed most of the album, we didn't see any reason why we should do a selection of videos. We conceived it as an album rather than a number of different singles, so we wanted to do a long-form video."
But how can a long-form video secure airtime on Top of the Pops, for example?
"How would we secure airtime on Top of the Pops?" counters Campbell. "We've never regarded ourselves as a commercial band in that sense. If we write and record something and people like it, then fine, but really we do it to please us - and we have to bear the consequences of that."
One of the consequences is that, despite having produced two of the most compelling albums of the last few years, Whitehead and Campbell are wont to lapse into rather maudlin discussions as to whether they will get the opportunity to make a third. Having never been one to blame the current malaise in the music industry on the outpourings of factories like PWL, I would, nevertheless, find it difficult to maintain what little faith I still have in the music business if the system was so choked up it couldn't provide an outlet for a band like It's Immaterial. We shall see.
The interview concluded, we walk out into the pleasantly bohemian atmosphere which is Lark Lane on a warm Friday evening. Thankfully, the man trying to advertise the fact that he could play the guitar is nowhere to be seen. I mutter promises about buying three copies of the new album and getting every member of my family to do the same, but I know the best I can do is to whet the appetites of a few MT readers. Jumping in the car I make my way across the city and within minutes I find myself on the motorway.
Driving on down the M62 to Manchester...