Shriek Back In Anger
Tim Goodyer talks to Carl Marsh, guitarist with E&MM's idiosyncratic cover artists, about Oil and Gold, rock and roll, and the Jupiter 8 versus the DX7.
They make scintillating, emotive music with high technology, produce stunning videos, and get more life out of a live performance than almost everybody else. Yet major popular success seems as far away from Shriekback now as it's ever been. Is that a good thing?
I must confess to having found Shriekback something of an enigma for quite a while now. With their schizophrenic musical personality, split between hard funk and ambient grace, sombre visual image and anarchic stage excursions, they've been a constant source of mystery and bemusement. The band was formed in 1982 by Barry Andrews, once keyboardsman with XTC and later a participant in Robert Fripp's League of Gentlemen. He gathered around him Dave Allen (no, not that one), once bassist with Gang of Four, singer/manager Linda Neville and guitarist Carl Marsh, who now shares singing duties with Andrews. The other original member was drummer Brian Neville, who later left to join Pigbag.
None of the band's initial line-up wanted to feel hemmed in by a 'group' format, so their desire was to avoid commitment within the band and maintain as much flexibility as possible. It was on this basis that a low-budget arrangement with Y Records, with Arista distributing, resulted in the release of a series of singles in '82 and '83.
Carl Marsh, slightly hungover but looking rather more handsome than his stage and video appearances would indicate, remembers the band's formative months clearly.
'From the start it was never conceived as a long-term group, because that was the last thing most of us wanted at the time. We'd all been in groups that had ended up either disappointingly or acrimoniously on their collapse, so everybody wanted something that was not necessarily short-term, but uncommitted in its way of working. But it gelled and gained its own momentum, and the more it gelled the easier it was to work and the better it worked.'
The venture finally resulted in the release of an album, Care, on Y Records in March '83. But the association with Y was doomed to failure, as both label and band attempted to expand, with the latter lacking the necessary financial resources necessary. Consequently Jam Science, Shriekback's second long-player, was begun on Y Records but completed and released on the Arista label in July 1984.
Now, I was never all that impressed with the Andrews contribution to XTC, so when Jam Science touched the critical consciousness and met with a positive response, I was pleasantly surprised. In particular, a slower number by the name of 'Hand on My Heart' was strangely compelling. Still, there were some niggling doubts, the feeling that there was some promise as yet unfulfilled, that the music lacked an intangible 'something' that would give it maturity and total acceptability.
That something duly arrived in the shape of Album Number 3, Oil and Gold. Following Linda Neville's departure and the introduction of drummer Martin Barker, the disc brought together previously unreconciled elements, producing a satisfying balance of mood, melody and sounds. Truly, Shriekback's moment had come, and a chat with Mr Andrews was in order. Or so I thought. Sadly, but typically of things journalistic and musical, the arrival of the appointed hour was not accompanied by the arrival of Mr Andrews. But all was not lost, as Carl Marsh, slightly hungover but looking rather more handsome than his stage and video appearances would indicate, stepped in to save the day.
Oil and Gold sees the aforementioned schizophrenia more prevalent than before, with songs that range from traditional, guitar-based chaotic funk to subtle, atmospheric pieces in which technology comes to the fore. The cryptic sleevenotes attribute production to the absent Barry Andrews, but intriguingly, Hans Zimmer's name appears in conjunction with some of the playing and engineering credits, and is also on the receiving end of some 'special thanks'.
'We first met Hans Zimmer when we were doing 'Mercy Dash' (a single released in September '84). He came to bail us out after Hugh Padgham failed to produce the single. He originally came as an engineer and Fairlight programmer and, from that, we decided to work with him on this album.
'It started off on a co-production basis at Lillie Yard Studios, with Hans fairly much in charge of the production of the initial rhythm tracks. Then things became rather frictional between him and Barry, probably because they both do the same sort of thing, and it just didn't work out. We ended up wasting too much time discussing things, so Barry took over as producer for the last stretch of the album. Then Gavin Mackillop came in to do the mix.
'Hans did a lot of the setting up of sounds at Lillie Yard. He's quite good at that kind of thing and was very good with the Fairlight. You can do quite a lot with it without getting into all the very subtle things like diving inside it and altering all the harmonics. With just a few basic sounds, you can mix them up a bit and then get the control page and mess around with them. It's not really as difficult as all the Fairlight programmers like to make out so that they can keep earning £150 a day for doing it. Hans actually knows what he's doing, so he holds it all together while we plug things in and twiddle a few knobs!
'The studio itself is also very good for that. Not only has it got every bit of equipment that you could possibly want, but it's all linked up together all the time. There are some very extreme keyboard associations going on there - a Fairlight, a DX1, a couple of Jupiters and a DX rack all MIDI'd up together.'
Despite the technical adventure of Oil and Gold, its overall sound remains realistic and approachable, evidence that the musicians behind it maintain a healthy respect for things acoustic.
'I think the album's quite good in that respect because, although there are a lot of rich sounds layered together, it doesn't sound particularly hi-tech. The sounds are very diverse. At one point you've got all those keyboards MIDI'd up together in a big splurge, and at another you've got Martin's drum track on 'Faded Flowers', which is just him playing the sticks on the rim of the drum miked-up very close.'
But involvement with state-of-the-art equipment doesn't ensure unequivocal endearment to it, nor does it preclude the use of older technology that's proven itself capable of accomplishing the tasks assigned to it.
'The DX keyboards generally I find a bit inscrutable. A lot of people use the presets because they don't know how to program sounds of their own. Personally speaking, I really don't like a lot of those preset sounds in isolation. Again, Hans is good at programming the DXs.
'Alternatively, the JP8 is a good, solid, dependable friend, because it's got a few sounds that it does really well. It always seems to be the case that if you can't quite get what you want elsewhere, you end up going back to the Jupiter and finding it.'
And it all works. The album derives its dancefloor strength from tracks such as 'Everything That Rises Must Converge' and 'Fish Below The Ice' (the current single release, and receiving deserved airplay attention), while the contemporary answer to Jam Science's 'Hand On My Heart' is a delicate piece titled 'This Big Hush'. This relies on the sound, rather than melody, for its success, with synth layering behind Andrews' ethereal vocal that has almost vocal properties itself.
'On 'This Big Hush' we've used a lot of Fairlight and DX1 MIDI'd together', explains Marsh. 'It's also one of the few tracks where we've used drum machine as opposed to drums.'
And the vocals?
'This time it's mostly Barry's vocals that are the quiet, stylised ones. I get to do all what he terms the 'cock-rock' ones. I'd never actually done any singing before Shriekback, so as far as I'm concerned, it's always getting better. Previously, if I was at all worried about a vocal I'd stylise it so that I could hide behind the stylisation. I suppose it's from playing live, where you can't get away with that so much, that I went into this album with the attitude that I was going to shout my head off and see how it came out - and it seemed to work alright.'
Nonetheless, if there is a musical barrier that stands between Shriekback and massive, world-dominating success, it's the part the voices play. Marsh and Andrews deliver their message competently enough, but their ranges are restricted, and there's not much room for changes in colour or style.
Things have improved, though, even if the evolution of the band's sound isn't really restricted to specific areas. It's an overall development of the ingredients that were the band right from its inception, something Marsh is keen to draw attention to.
'This album is the first we've done with a major company budget and a bit of promotion behind it - and also, from our end, with a bit of thought behind it. And it's the first time we've had Martin playing drums as a full-time member. The trouble is that record companies tend to get a bit worried when there are never any demos or anything; it's never there until we go into the studio and make it up, so they have to give you all this money for you to go into the studio, and all they can do is hope there's a record there at the end of it. They're pretty happy now, but they'd be a lot happier with a hit single!
'There are a number of diverse angles to the music. There's the very heavy bass and drums funk, and there's the light, almost ambient stuff. They all come out of exactly the same writing process, and we've had some songs that have been quite poppy, so a hit single will probably turn up sooner or later. We haven't really tried to sit down and write a single but I don't see that there's anything wrong with that method of writing if it works for you.
'During the process of writing the rhythm tracks for the album, various things emerged and subsequently became songs, and each time it went: "That sounds as if it might be a single... or that does... or that does!". 'Nemesis' (the last single) was one of the first suggested, I suppose because it sounds in some ways like a pop record with power chords and such, but the words in it made people a little unhappy with it. Practically everything received consideration at one time or another and I gave up trying to be objective about it, but 'Nemesis' was the one that was chosen in the end.
'In retrospect, 'Malaria' or 'Fish Below the Ice' might have made better singles because they have quite a nice blend of recognisable Shriekback elements and poppiness about them. 'Nemesis' is actually doing quite well in America and also on European cable stations - it's only Britain that hates us!
'Lyrically we take what naturally happens: it's not trying to sell you anything and it's not a Redskins manifesto or a Billy Bragg song. The words also have to work with the music, and fit in with the atmosphere and pace of the song. Either Barry or myself will say "I want that one", and the track takes shape after that. The lyrics have to work as another overdub on the music, in a similar way to an instrumental overdub.'
But in addition to their instrumental diversity, their recording dexterity and their lyrical intellect, Shriekback have earned themselves a reputation as a live band in the true sense of the term, though not all of that liveliness lies in the medium of music. At a time when a whole generation of bands and solo musicians is losing sleep over the problems of live performance and their attendant sequencer/backing tape dilemmas, not to mention the delicate subject of drum machines and drummers, they're amongst a handful of artists who take to the stage with an energy and aggression generally believed to have become extinct around the same time as the diplodocus.
On the surface of it, it's difficult to see how they could have avoided frequently encountered technical problems like the ones mentioned in the last paragraph, considering the wealth of technology and modern programming techniques they've chosen to employ. But Carl Marsh, slightly hungover but looking rather more handsome than his stage and video appearances would indicate, has the answer.
'Up to now the policy has been always to treat the studio as a completely separate thing to live work. We don't attempt to emulate what we've done there at all - we just strip it down as far as possible and then rebuild it.'
More in keeping with the way so many technology-laden acts go about performing is the way Shriekback take on additional musicians to help them out whenever they take the stage, to fill the cracks left by the absence of multitracked indulgences.
'On the last live dates we did, there were the four of us plus Lu (a mysterious 'floating' Shriekbacker) to play guitar when I was singing and keyboards when Barry was singing. This time we thought we'd expand it a bit and take an extra keyboard player as well as Lu, so we'd have everything covered and could reproduce a bit more of that rich texture (cue tone of heavy irony) for which we're so rightly famed...
'So what we've settled for personnel-wise is Barry with his Jupiter, Steve Halliwell with a DX7 - and they swap around a bit - and then Lu and me with guitars, Dave and Martin on bass and drums, and two women backing singers.
'At one time we did have quite ambitious plans to take all the keyboards on tour with us, but we've ended up with the Jupiter - again! In the end we didn't take that as far as we wanted to, partly because of the expense and partly because the rehearsals told us it wasn't really the essence of what we do live.
'Because the album's been done with Martin playing most of the drums, it's been a lot easier to reproduce live. Obviously it doesn't sound a lot like the record, but we're not really too worried about that anyway - people have got the album, so they know what that sounds like already.
'In the past the problems haven't been reproducing sounds, but trying to get everything flowing and working rhythmically. We fiddled about with drum machines at rehearsal but didn't like them, and we've tried backing tapes live before and didn't like them either - so we sacked them!'
More than anything else, Shriekback's live reputation has grown up around energetic stage antics to accompany what becomes even more energetic music. Their live performances have raised more than a few eyebrows before now, and the trend seems set to continue unabated.
'The live performances are pretty chaotic; our Tube performance seemed to have baffled everyone. It certainly lost one of the cameramen: there were about 15 seconds of him wandering around behind the stage filming the backdrop and wondering where we'd gone!
'There's also some pretty memorable footage somewhere of a festival in Belgium last summer. It was energy to the exclusion of everything else. It was good, actually, because I wasn't looking forward to it and all these horrible bands like The Fixx were on, and New Order were headlining. But we were in the right mood for it so we charged on and blitzed the place, destroying half the PA in the process. We got a bit told off for that but we also got brilliant reviews - much better than any of the other bands - so we felt completely justified.
'It was nice to see that it does work on that scale. It's no bullshit: just five guys wearing black clothes playing a fairly standard set of instruments.'
Sounds like live music to me. More than most, Shriekback are capable of producing fascinating, dynamic music that refreshes and invigorates; of using technology in as human a way as logistics - and record company budgets - will permit.
I wish them well. I hope they keep their backs turned on the commercial pressures that have robbed both artists and their audiences of good music and good entertainment. And at the same time, it's worth hoping their style, their attitudes and their music are accepted hy a broader, more appreciative following.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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