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Petrol Babble

That Petrol Emotion

Article from Making Music, July 1987

Reamann of That Petrol Emotion tells Jon Lewin which guitar riffs on their new LP, "Babble", were nicked from Pere Ubu, how the group's guitar interplay echoes Buzzcocks and Stones, and what Howling Wolfs real name is.

IT'S LUNCHTIME. I'm sitting outside a pub off Oxford Street, London with Martin, Reamann (almost pronounced Raymond), and Reamann's mate. Martin is a press officer, he buys the drinks. Reamann plays guitar with That Petrol Emotion: he does the interview. His mate stays quiet. You should read Reamann's parts in a thick Irish (Northern) accent.

In case you don't know already, That Petrol Emotion are that noisy five-piece guitar-driven pop band who recently almost had a hit with a single called 'Big Decision'. You know, the ones with two brothers from The Undertones who made one of the best debut albums of last year ("Manic Pop Thrill"), and have just released a second LP ("Babble") to almost universal acclaim. Reviewers keep comparing them to Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu, so I asked Reamann who was the biggest influence on his guitar playing.

"The first guy I really wanted to play like was the guitarist out of the Gang Of Four — Andy Gill. He was like a thrash thing, but he had the right notes as well, even if it was luck. I liked that chance element!"

That Petrol Emotion began in the spring of 1984 when the Undertones broke up and a disillusioned Sean O'Neill returned to Derry. Unable to find a job he started a club with old friend Reamann O'Gormann, the two of them acting as DJs playing a complete cross section of music. This gave Sean the stimulus to start writing songs again, and he asked Reamann if he wanted to help.

"We played a couple of dates in the local pub, just the two of us with a drum machine, then Ciaran, a drummer, wrote us a letter saying he was really interested. I already knew of Ciaran — he was the guy who'd get 10 out of 10 on The Buzzcocks in the local pop quiz, so he was OK."

In October 1984 the three of them moved over to London and recruited Sean's brother Damian from a "crap group" called Eleven. Damian agreed to play bass, even though he'd been a guitarist in The Undertones. American singer Steve Mack was a little harder to find.

"I was surprised at the people we auditioned," Reamann told me, "as the ads were really brilliant. We listed our influences as Jameson's, George Best, Buzzcocks, Pere Ubu... I thought we'd have got the perfect singer. But we only got Steve after auditioning half of England. We took Steve because he picked things up really quickly — virtually the first time he sang with us was on the first single, 'Keen'."

Reamann quite happily admits the Beefheart/Ubu comparison. "More so on this LP than the first one. It's not annoying, because that's what we wanted to emulate, a certain feeling more than a direct rip-off." Ahem... "Oh, you recognise the guitar riffs on 'Belly Bugs'?" Reamann laughed guilelessly. "Yeah, that is completely nicked from a Pere Ubu song. Ha ha."

How close is That Petrol Emotion to sounding the way you want?

"We're closer now that the songs are getting poppier. Take those early 1970s T Rex singles and combine that with a funk thing... that's more in the new songs like 'Here It Is', with its chant 'Gotta go back, gotta go back'..

You say the band is getting poppier — but surely "Babble" is generally a lot heavier than "Manic Pop Thrill"?

"Yeah, but I'm talking about the new songs — all the songs from the LP we've been playing in the set for the last six or seven months. But definitely the album is heavier, we deliberately went for it — like the producer was in The Swans — and we wanted a really hard edge to it, sort of threatening. We picked Roli Mosimann because of what he'd done with The Young Gods — their first single had clarity and distinction in the sound, but was really tough as well. He's brilliant."

Although the band more or less took their live set straight into the studio, Mosimann's contribution as producer of "Babble" was more than just fader wiggling. He rearranged two of the tracks, 'Belly Bugs' and 'In The Playpen', swapping the parts around "like a jigsaw puzzle". But the way that Roli worked in the studio — recording bass and drums, then guitars and other parts — wasn't entirely satisfactory.

"I think some songs suffered. 'Inside', especially, is too clean. What Roli did for the sound on the LP was great, but I think we lost a bit of the spontaneity that we had in the first album, which was done almost live. There's less overdubbing on "Babble", actually, but everything's really big and clear so it doesn't sound so sparse."

One of the most distinctive features of That Petrol Emotion's sound is the way the guitars lock together, two separate parts combining in one riff. Reamann claims that there's no masterplan behind this, and that he and Sean just play off each other instinctively, though he does liken their interplay to The Buzzcocks or early Rolling Stones — he's a Brian Jones fan.

"It's the bass as well — Sean and Damian are into a melodic sort of thing, and I try to make it more trashy... if you've got two really good melodic things going on, then I'll try and do something different rather than playing a melody."

Politics are almost as important to the band as their music. But unlike many (are there 'many'?) overtly political groups, That Petrol Emotion don't proselytise, and they restrict most of the seriousness to print on the record sleeves.

"We find it very hard to be sloganeering about it. You can be very contrived and write a song shouting at people, but that's not the way we want to do it. The music comes first, obviously — if it's good music, then people will listen to it, and then maybe they'll read the sleeve and see the political content. We don't consciously avoid slogans, it's just difficult to talk about something so complicated in a three minute pop song.

"There's a couple of songs with veiled politics — 'For What It's Worth', and 'Big Decision' — but that's more general, not confined to Northern Ireland. There are so many other things wrong in the world..."

Finishing my pint, and blithely ignoring the sorrows of the world, I asked Reamann what advice he'd offer to anyone inspired to follow in his footsteps. "Take chances as much as possible, and don't just stick to what you think of as your sound. The perfect example of that is the Velvet Underground — everyone quotes them as an influence, but very few people take chances like them, playing slow songs, making a racket when they wanted to."

So what chances do That Petrol Emotion take, and where are they going from here? Apart from back to the office for a cup of coffee.

"It'd be very easy for us to sit back and churn out another two LPs, but we're not scared to experiment or take chances. There's a couple of new songs that are definitely gonna have brass. Basically, if it sounds good, it sounds good. The sort of blueprint I'd like is the first three Roxy Music LPs, and T Rex."

BELLY BUGS: "Pere Ubu's guitar riff. We more or less jammed that in about five minutes one day. 'It's A Good Thing' from the first LP we wrote like that, too, the backing was all done at a soundcheck one day, and Sean went away and put some words to it. But that doesn't happen very often. It's nearly always individuals that come in with an idea, or half an idea, and then there's a collaboration..."

CHESTER BURNETTE: "That's Howling Wolfs real name."

BIG DECISION: "Sean wrote it around a sort of Jesus & Mary Chain riff, then we changed the key which totally changed it. When we were recording we wanted more singing parts, but we ran out of time. The rap we put in when we were in the studio... There was a whole big thing about Morrissey complaining about not getting higher in the charts, and slagging off black music. Black music is still the best music for me, the most innovative anyway, so we thought we'd got to show him. 'Agitate, educate, and organise' is from a song called 'How You Gonna Make A Black Nation Rise?', from about 1982, by a group called Brother D & The Collective Effort. It's good to acknowledge your sources."

INSIDE: "We use a Korg Poly 800II which Steve plays on stage, and we've bought a Korg sampler too now. We'll be definitely using that more, sampling stuff like Eno from early Roxy Music. The subliminal noise in the fadeout is the exact same noise as was used for "Lifeblood' on the first LP, a Pere Ubu type thing. There's not much of that sort of stuff going on. I love things like that, but it's a matter of getting different sounds, stealing sounds from various records."

STATIC: "That looped ending was done on a sampler. The guitar was, as well: there were four chords to my guitar part and I just played one of each into the sampler. That's why it sounds a bit weird. Why? Because it sounded good... and it was easier to play! If there's an easier way we'll use it."

CREEPING TO THE CROSS: "Steve, Dee, and Ciaran are sampled at the beginning of that, going 'ah ah'. It sounds like an integral part of the song, as if it was suggesting rhythm. We did put it down early on when we were recording, but the song was actually written around the guitar riff..."

SWAMP: "That was already finished by the time we came to record it, but it was changed — live there's more of a build-down in the middle — whereas this one is more the same. Couple of guitar overdubs... but the feeling's there. I think 'Swamp' is my current favourite of the stuff we've already recorded, I don't think it's lost any of its rawness. My normal set-up is a Telecaster straight through a Marshall 50W combo, but we also have a spare guitar, a Peavey T60, which we keep as a spare for 'Swamp' as it's in D tuning."

FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH: "Yeah, it's made of different bits and pieces: Damien had the chorus guitar part on a 4-track, and I thought it was brilliant, too good to waste, so I wrote the song around that, put a tune on the chorus, and made up a verse and the tune on the verse. On stage, Steve plays guitar on this as well. It wasn't recorded with him playing it, it sounded so good we thought that's how we'd do it live."

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jul 1987

Interview by Jon Lewin

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