Take three musicians who like to remain anonymous, four film-makers and a stunning live show, and you've got one of the most original - if unsung - bands in Britain today.
Few bands comprise more film-makers than musicians, and fewer still create novel sounds by experimenting relentlessly with new technology. Startled Insects are one such band - though their identity remains a mystery.
THE FIRST TIME I came into contact with the Startled Insects was somewhere late in 1985. An Island Records employee handed me an eponymously titled mini-album of theirs which bore a rather intriguing cover. There was a striking graphic, a collection of strange song titles ('Khalk'ry', 'Thunk'), and an almost complete lack of information of any kind.
The music proved equally intriguing. No sooner had the needle entered the groove, when an unlikely instrumental mixture of exotic sounds and rhythms came rolling into my room. Listening to the music was like entering a jungle, a unique, complex world of quirky electronic noises (which often possessed an insect-like quality), indefinable percussion sounds, and mysterious acoustic instruments. Electronic sounds were clearly dominant, but the overall sound of the record was natural and acoustic. That, together with the complexity of some of the electronic sounds, left me wondering whether the band had been using tape loops, or perhaps even sampling (the latter seemed unlikely, because the record was made in 1984, when cheap sampling was not yet widely available, and the record was obviously a low-budget affair).
In short, the record was a bit of a mystery. It was also an avant-garde masterpiece, drawing its major strength from catchy hooks and funky rhythms which made it, unlike a lot of avant-garde material, fun to listen to.
I never heard anything from or about the band again until last May, when two multi-media performances by the Startled Insects at the ICA in London were announced. The truth was out. The Insects were a collective of four film-makers and three musicians. And when Antilles Records (an Island subsidiary) simultaneously announced the release of the first complete Startled Insects album, it seemed about time to investigate.
First came the album, Curse of the Pheromones. Containing 10 pieces of instrumental music with titles such as 'Igor's Horn' and 'Shrimps in Love', the new Insects venture turned out to be a smoother and more approachable continuation of their 1984 outing. On the plus side, the rhythms were more coherent and there were interesting applications of instruments like steel drum, flute, saxophones and strings. On the minus side, the acoustic feel of the previous disc had been replaced by a glossier, more highly polished sound, and some of the keyboard textures were now clearly recognisable and therefore less innovative.
Yet, on the whole, with a stronger focus on melodies and chord sequences (the latter almost completely absent on the mini-album), the record still features an impressive amount of unpredictable rhythms and distinctive sounds. Streets ahead, in fact, of a lot of the sonic and conceptual experimentation now taking place on both sides of the Atlantic.
The ICA show included original films, movement and, of course, music. The Insects' desire to remain anonymous was obviously still current, since the three musicians moved around the stage in bizarre costumes. There was a guitar player, a bass player, and a keyboard player who occasionally turned his attention to flute and bass clarinet. All three of them also dabbled with acoustic percussion and Simmons drums, and the trio was supported by two eight-track tape machines.
The live music proved more aggressive and violent than the records. Shrieks of energy sent shivers up my spine, and the menacing costumes and movements contrived to create a morbid atmosphere. Luckily, it was all offset by some more light-hearted visual images (snakes turning into vacuum cleaner hoses, you know the sort of thing) from the Insects' film-making division.
A WEEK LATER, in the basement of a large Georgian house in Bristol, I find myself in the Insects' recording studio. I'm faced with two likeable characters, who, of course (what else did I expect?), do not want their names mentioned in this magazine — or in any other for that matter. I shall call them Tony and Bill and their third, absent partner George.
Tony is the guitar player, 34 years of age and dressed in green corduroy trousers and a grey checked shirt; and Bill is the bass player, aged 26, wearing a green sweatshirt and baggy black trousers, held together by a tight belt. Both talk softly in a relaxed and confident manner, though Bill has a tendency to burst into almost uncontrollable laughter while making a joke about something, probably his own artistic endeavours.
The first topic of conversation is obvious. Why this anonymity lark? Tony opens the scoring.
"We decided very early on that we wanted to perform with films on stage. Being a recognisable individual seemed a drawback from that performance aspect, because as individuals the focus would be: he's the guitar player and he's the bass player. Wearing costumes frees us from that, and makes us an integral part of the visual happenings on stage."
Which all makes sense, but why remain anonymous in an interview, or on a record sleeve? Is the idea to create some kind of mysterious aura around the band? They two Insects look at each other in baffled agony, until Bill comes up with an answer.
"We feel that there's too much emphasis placed on individuals in the music industry. So we decided that it wasn't necessary to have our faces plastered all over the place. Apart from that, we're a collective. We're not a pop group with media trappings. We have a theatre background and are interested in projecting something which isn't prosaic."
The theatre background is one small revelation from their past. It turns out that all three music-playing Insects also had extensive experience playing in local Bristol bands (no names again), where they immersed themselves in contemporary funk and, George, the main keyboard player, went through classical training, but the other two are entirely self-taught.
Startled Insects came into being a little over three years ago, when Tony and George were spending their time writing songs for a band they were playing in. Since the other band members had a habit of turning up at erratic times, they found themselves frequently without a vocalist, and started to make instrumental music instead.
Tony recalls: "We realised that we had more freedom in terms of structure that way. Then it occurred to us that it was actually right to make instrumental music."
"Analogue synths retain a performance element in that you can change the sound of them while you're playing... That's why we keep things like Minimoogs."
Bill joined the two others shortly afterwards, and the three of them started working on the music that was to become the mini-album Startled Insects (released on the Bristol-based independent Antenna label).
"Initially it was never our intention to release anything of what we were doing", says Bill. "We were just making music for music's sake, largely on borrowed equipment, in the 16-track studio which was here at the time."
Once the collective's ideas about doing a multi-media show started to surface, they sought contact with local Bristol film-makers. Their first live performance — costumes and films and all - coincided with the release of the mini-album in 1984. The name Startled Insects was taken from a name they once gave to a sound they got out of a Prophet 5.
In the three years which have passed since that germination period, the Insects have gone on to do several small tours of Europe. They've also released a 12" single, 'Underworld', on Antenna, and have written the accompanying music to two BBC Wildlife On One television documentaries.
One of the reasons why it took so long for them to create a new album, was that the 16-track studio had gone bust, which meant they had no place to work.
"We need a multitrack recording facility to come up with music", says Bill. "We're not a band to sit down and write songs. In that sense we're flummoxed."
So it wasn't until the Insects signed a contract with Island and bought recording equipment with their advances, that they could resume work.
NOW THERE IS Curse of the Pheromones, for which the demos were recorded in the basement we're now sitting in, and where once the 16-track studio operated. Island's advance has resulted in two Tascam tape recorders, a 42 two-track and a 48 eight-track, a Tascam M50 12:8 mixing console, a Great British Spring reverb and Roland tape-echo units RE201 and RE501. On the instrument side, there's a Yamaha CX5 computer, a DX7, a Roland Jupiter 6, a Prophet 2002 sampler, a Simmons SDS9 kit and an Atari ST computer with Steinberg 24-track sequencing package. Only a Minimoog remains from the original, pre-island sessions.
Tony explains how the ensemble conceives a piece of music.
"Inspiration comes from various sources, often from film work. We might start from a riff, a melody or a rhythm. If someone has a rough sketch for an idea which we all like, then we work on it with this equipment. Through a process of trial and error - we build onto that idea, add pieces or subtract things - the track becomes a piece. The finished idea might be very different from the original."
Bill elaborates: "What most often happens is that we have an idea for a piece of music, and that is then talked about with the film-makers. They listen to it and say what they think of it, what atmospheres and what images come into their heads. Possibly the idea for a storyboard comes together. Often the music changes towards that idea, because we keep those images in our heads as well."
The music for Curse of the Pheromones was demo'd over a period of several months, with most keyboard and percussion parts played by hand because the Atari hadn't yet arrived. The next step towards the finished product consisted of taking the music to a 24-track studio to record it again, incorporating session musicians playing brass, strings, drums and percussion.
Bill: "We decided to start recording in a studio that was well equipped for synthesisers and computerised music: that was Paradise Studios in Chiswick. Then we moved on to a studio that had excellent facilities for acoustic and performance types of music, which was Rockfield in Wales. We thought that if we hired a studio that had everything, we would be paying for facilities which we wouldn't be using all the time. So we did it in two parts. But of course, that needed careful pre-production, with all the sounds, sequences and arrangements more or less ready for use."
The Atari arrived three weeks before the Paradise sessions, just in time to enable the Insects to program all their sequences into it.
"We're not sure where the next step will come from - we're breaking new ground. No-one has taken this multi-media thing to the extremes we've been taking it to."
Bill: "Before that we'd only used the CX5 for some basic sequencing. Other stuff we just played. Yet, when the Atari arrived, we were very careful not to sequence everything. We made sure that we kept the performance element in our music."
Tony: "We used the Atari only for reasons of time-saving and convenience; we're determined not to make it sound absolutely clean and mechanical. In fact, we programmed the computer to play certain parts with a loose feel, slightly out of time. We programmed mistakes, although they didn't sound like that. The Atari is a wonderful tool, but we don't want to become too dependent on it, because the danger is that music becomes too cerebral, too mental. You're just going dash-dot, using only one finger. But music needs a certain physicality, a performance element."
After recording all the electronic parts at Paradise - with keyboards largely played manually by George - the band came back to their demo studio to reassess ideas and to organise the session players. After that, the acoustic side of the music was recorded at Rockfield. Both Insects stress the blending of acoustic and electronic sounds as being important.
Bill: "It's at the forefront of our minds all the time. It's the reason why we hired those two studios. And with synthesisers, we have a similar thing in that we like to blend analogue synths with digital synths. We don't want to become too digital-sounding. Analogue synths retain a performance element in that you can change the sound of them whilst you're playing. You can't do that with digital synths. That's why we keep things like Minimoogs. The majority of our sounds are analogue, especially on our first album ..."
Speaking of which, what's the reason for the distinct differences between the first and second Insects albums?
Tony starts to answer that question with some views on melody: "There's a lot more melody on the new album, because we do believe in melody. There's a lot of experimentation going on, but I believe that melodies have an emotional impact that you can't get out of any degree of clever experimentation. So possibly the most important feature of our music is the melody content."
Personally I'd have said that last point was debatable, but regardless of that, it turns out that the whole process through which the first album was created was very different from that of the new album. To begin with, the band recorded the first album themselves over a period of nine months, as Bill explains.
"That certainly had a great impact on the way that album came out. We mixed the tracks many times, and although we did some remixes on Curse of Pheromones ourselves, it's not the same as doing it in the studio where you're actually recording, having a chance to come back and re-record things over a long period of time. If we'd done the whole of the new album here, we would have ended up with something different."
Then there was the band's less disciplined way of working, with all that borrowed equipment - though there were no samplers or tape loops.
"We used everything we could lay our hands on", says Tony. "We had no MIDI and no sync facilities, so once a track had gone down we had to push-button play the drum machines we borrowed. Those insect-like sounds you're talking about came mainly from a very crappy synthesiser called the Wasp. We also used its nephew, the Spider." Other electronic instruments used on the mini-album were a Jupiter 8, a Prophet 5, several drum machines and, as Tony adds, "lots of Minimoog: we spent an awful long time creating synth sounds".
Everything startled insects have produced shows evidence of frantic experimentation with instruments, with the musicians showing little or no respect for what their machines were originally intended for.
One odd rhythm sound was created by putting a Drumatix through a vocoder. On 'The Big Wheel', from the new album, a sound similar to that of crushing paper came about as the result of sampling a Minimoog sound into the Prophet 2002. And on 'Glass Mountain' (also on the new album), the Insects sampled a cheap African shaker into the lowest-quality percussion sampler they could find.
Bill, this time poker-faced, reveals that 'Shrimps in Love' features a sampled frog. "I went out at night to some swamps outside Bristol during the frog mating season with a microphone in my hand", he says.
By the time you read this, Startled Insects will be about to embark on their first (none too extensive) tour of Britain. Then after that, according to Bill, "we're doing a new tour of Europe. In Britain we've until now only played in London and in Bristol. I don't know why, but so far there doesn't seem to be the kind of interest here for what we're doing the way there is in Europe. We hope that that's going to change now."
Tony is less specific, but gives a broader view of his band's work which forms a suitable conclusion to our meeting.
"In terms of our own work, we're not quite sure where the next step will come from. We're breaking new ground. I don't think anyone has taken this multi-media thing to the extremes we have been taking it to. It's been a learning process of three years for all of us, and we're as curious for the continuation as everyone else."
Interview by Paul Tingen
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