A little Twink and a lot of Robert Halcrow

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When I recently ordered the new Twink vinyl single that has been released on Gare du Nord Records, in order to save on postage, I also got the self-titled debut CD by District Repair Depot that I had previously overlooked.

Little did I know how well they would fit together.

But let us start from the beginning. Twink, in case you don’t know, was a central figure in the British psychedelic pop movement. He was the drummer in the In-Crowd, together with other luminaries such as Steve Howe and Keith West. They soon changed their name to Tomorrow, and made a near-perfect psychedelic pop album before breaking up. Twink then played with The Pretty Things on the classic ’S.F. Sorrow’ before making a solo LP and then moving on to the Pink Fairies. 

The rest, as they say, is post-history, and I haven’t really been following the various subsequent Twink releases. For this reason, I was not sure what to expect from the ‘Brand New Morning /Dreams Turn Into Rainbows’. Suffice to say, I was blown away. Totally.

The A side is a psychedelic pop nugget that would fit nicely in 1968 and has a clear Barrett-era Pink Floyd influence. Very catchy, with slightly deadpan vocals, and an incredibly nice Mellotron. The B-side ‘Dreams Turn Into Rainbows’ is more hippyish and in line with what I would expect from Twink; spaced-out and with lyrics that are quite fuzzy at the edges. Nevertheless, it is a great track and again the production is spot on for this type of music, including the plaintive Mellotron.

It is so good, that I immediately want to play it again. It isn’t until I turn the single over to play ‘Brand New Morning’ from the start, that I notice it is a co-write between Robert Halcrow and Twink. So that explains the poppy feel of it!

Robert Halcrow has had a band called Picturebox for several years, where he plays pop music influenced by the post-punk era of the 80s and bands like XTC. I always buy their albums, and the latest one, ‘Escapes’, that came out in 2018, is their best yet. It has many really great tracks, such as the sarcastic opener ‘Stumble’, the more introspective ‘Siren’ or the driving pop of ‘I Got the Pox’ with its chaotic and strung-out outro. But my favourite may just be the strange circular tale of ‘The Vicar’s Dog’.

I then went on to play the other record that I had ordered together with the Twink single. It immediately made me sit up straight and listen. Hooky pop songs that don’t make a lot of noise but are totally charmed. Quite indebted to the 1960’s but with a relaxed, almost rural feel to them that both soothe and fill you with wonder. Wow! 

What the hell is this? It turns out that District Repair Depot is again Robert Halcrow, this time together with Stephen Evans. I browse around the internet for a while, but find very little mention of this rather magical little album; it seems I am not the only person who overlooked it upon release. Time to make amends!

Although the songwriting here is top-notch throughout, ‘Flat Stanley’ has all the components of a classic psych-pop song, including a barmy melody with unforgettable story-telling lyrics.

That song alone makes this a must-have album. But before I even have time to wrap my head around the rest of it, my inbox bings with a message from Bandcamp saying that District Repair Depot are about to release a new EP. 

It turns out to be a 4-track EP, called Argy-BARGY, and two of the tracks are already available with the pre-order.

The title track, ‘Argy-Bargy’ is back to the 80s Picturebox style and has an itchy new wave XTC melody, whereas ‘(The Word of) Autumn Feelings’ has that contagious 60s feel again while at the same time taking everything nice and easy. Both of these tracks are incredibly nice, although I might prefer the latter one. Can’t wait to hear the other tracks on the EP upon their release on the 8th of March!

Eastern Western music from Lefty Wright

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One of my favourite albums of 2014 was ‘Songs From the Portal’ by Dundee multi-instrumentalist and sitar player Paul Lefty Wright. That album was as sprawling and wide-eyed as it was unexpected in its treatment of pop music. Playing it today, it still feels incredibly fresh in its unconventional use of conventional building blocks.

After five long years, Paul is back again, this time with The 3rd Eye Flute Band. And musically, there are very few connections. For starters, it is all instrumental. I must say that I miss the vocals, since the lyrics on ‘Songs From the Portal’ were great, and had some truly amazing stories to tell.

But luckily, the band name happens to be such a story in itself. It seems that Paul wanted to learn playing the metal flute, and a friend told him he should buy a Yamaha SL2 for £800. As Paul was sitting in his sofa dosing off in the evening, he thought the price was totally out of his budget. But just as his eyelids got heavy, he saw an image of the flute in the window of a local thrift shop in his mind’s eye. The next morning, he went there and of course it was there. It was in fact an LS2, for only £90.

He started playing and was an unusually quick learner, to the point that he is now participating on demos for Paul Weller’s next album both on flute and sitar.

With anyone else, I might scoff at a band called the 3rd Eye Flute Band for the above reasons – especially if the album title is ‘Music from An Eastern Western’  and the band leader calls himself Lefty Wright. But with Paul, I’m all OK with that. Once you have heard this guy’s music, you will know why.

When I saw the album sleeve, which lists all the different ragas that the songs are based on, I was fully expecting this to be a very Indian affair, not least since Paul is a sitar player as already mentioned.

And when the needle hit the first groove, it did indeed sound very Indian. Not that my judgment means much in this case. My experience barely extends beyond Ravi Shankar’s guest appearances on Beatles albums. To put it bluntly, although I do know what a sitar sounds like, I wouldn’t be able to tell a raga from a muffin even if you were to hit me on the head with them.

But after the short intro track, the music quickly changes character. ‘The Left of Spring’ is a flute led number, allegedly based on a theme from Stravinsky’s ‘The Rites of Spring’, with a thumpy bass to the fore and Mellotron in the back. It has a bluesy feel and I couldn’t help but think of Jethro Tull, although this doesn’t sound anything like them. ‘Hoedown’ comes across almost like a jig, albeit with different instrumentation, and ‘Paxploitation’ takes us on a jazzy flute fantasy trip.

Side two starts with a key track, ‘Theme from an Eastern Wester’, the title them to an imaginary Bollywood Western. If anything, it reminds me vaguely of mid 70s prog rock although again it doesn’t sound at all like that. The soundtrack theme returns towards the end of the album with ‘Theme, variations 1 and 2’ in a similar but different vein: first it gallops away but then stops and breaks into a forlorn Mellotron voice reminiscent of Bo Hansson’s ‘Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings’. Except there’s lots of sitar so the comparison falters yet again.

While struggling to come to grips with the music here, I gradually realise that Paul’s strength is that although nothing he does is conventional, neither is it contrived. While the music on this album is definitely experimental, importantly, it doesn’t try to be different, or even difficult. When I asked Paul what kind of music it is, he answered: “I don’t really know what it is, it just appeared in my head like that.”

This music doesn’t try to fit into a certain genre, but at the same time it doesn’t consciously try to break genre rules either. It is innocent in a way, and as such it is a very liberating listen.

You really need to hear it.

https://paulleftywright.bandcamp.com/album/the-3rd-eye-flute-band-music-from-an-eastern-western

The psychedelic mystery of Mandrake Paddle Steamer

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Mandrake Paddle Steamer is a late 60s English psychedelic group that to this day remains shrouded in mystery.

The masterful obscurity rescue team also known as Guerssen records have just put out ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ on their Sommor sub-label that compiles hitherto properly unreleased material with the group. Now Guerssen always does things with style and class, and there is no difference here; these tracks come from the best sources that have surfaced so far and sound better than ever. And the music is hair-raisingly good, combining plaintive late-era psychedelia with wide-eyed proto-prog.

If you are at all interested in late 60s music, you must seek this one out. In fact, I suggest that you pause your reading right here and go out and buy it before you continue. Because once you have a copy, you will invariably start scratching your head and wonder at what you have in your hands, just like I will be doing for the rest of this review.

 


 

Welcome back! Although great, this release in a way deepens the confusion surrounding the band. Do you think that ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ rings a bell? It is also the title of Harry Nilsson’s debut album from 1967 which is of no relation. 

Instead, this CD/LP collects five UK recordings from 1968 focusing around the core creative team of Brian Engel and Martin Briley and then mixes in four recordings made after Engel had left: one from the tail end of 1968 and three 1970 recordings by which time the band had shortened its name to Mandrake. 

And then we get to the liner notes, which seem to be mainly written by original band member Paula (Paul in the mandrake days) Riordan. Although stating that some of these tracks have been previously compiled with inferior sound quality and wrong titles, they certainly do not help in clearing things up.

For starters, there is even confusion about what the group released. Their only single came out on Parlohone in the UK back in 1969, the A-side of which, ‘Strange Walking Man’ has left quite a mark, having been included on such esteemed compilations as ‘Acid Drops, Spacedust & Flying Saucers’, ‘Insane Times’ and ‘Psychedelia at Abby Road 1965-1969’ among others. And for good reason; it is a track that very much captures the post-psychedleic spirit of the time.

But then there is another single, released by Mandrake, also in 1969, but on the Swedish branch of Parlophone, as original soundtrack music from the Swedish film “Skottet”. Although it is quite good and has been included on Mandrake Paddle Steamer bootlegs I think we can safely remove it from the official list: the songwriters on that single are Claes Fellbom and Calvin Floyd, both of them known producers, writers and composers. Unhelpfully, there is no mention of it in the liners to the Guerssen release – but I have word from Guerssen that the band has no memory of the single.

Some light was shed on the band when RPM released ‘Between the Sea and the Sky’ containing an album ’s worth of tracks recorded by Martin Briley and Brian Engel in 1970/71 at George Martin’s Air Studios, but subsequently canned. The music had become even quirkier in a proto-10cc sort of way, and this is a must-have item for any serious lover of British pop music. But it also proved that many bootleg tracks that had been circulating were actually from these sessions and not properly by Mandrake Paddle Steamer.

Are you still with me? Good, because here is where it starts getting really confusing. The liner notes on that RPM release promised that “an official long awaited Mandrake Paddle Steamer collection will follow”. We were just asked to hold on. Roughly a decade later, we were still holding on, when an account on Bandcamp, published a six song collection called “The Mandrake Paddle Steamer Tapes”. Now the sound quality was pretty good on these tapes, the haunted pyschedelic pop with a hard prog edge was proof enough that they were the genuine thing, despite the page misspelling Brian Engel as “Brian Engle”.

But at some point in time, the six track compilation was reduced to just one track, the instrumental ‘Carmen’ that I would assume is from after Engel’s departure. Instead the rest now appear on the Guerssen compilation, which references the just mentioned Bandcamp making it legitimate in the process. But there are still some interesting differences. ‘Nice Man’ from the “The Mandrake Paddle Steamer Tapes” is gone, which is a pity because it has a great hard rock vibe and good vocals and it might just date from the Engel era. But it seems it was never finished back in the day and overdubs had been added more recently, hence its exclusion here.

The most worthwhile addition on the Guerssen release is unquestionably ‘The October Country’ which allegedly is the band’s first studio recording, that was only pressed on 10 acetates. It has all the atmosphere you could dream of, including the odd crackle.

There are also great sounding previously bootleg-only versions of ‘Solitarire Husk’ (‘The Ivory Castle of Solitane Itusk’ / ‘The Ivory Castle of Solitaire Husk’ on bootlegs) ‘The World Whistles By’ (‘In My Padded Cell’ / ‘East Wing’ on bootlegs) and ‘Upminster Windows’. These three tracks alone would make the Guerssen disc a solid purchase.

In addition, two 1968 tracks that have been redacted from “The Mandrake Paddle Steamer Tapes” now appear on the Guerssen release, namely the title track ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ (referred to on on bootlegs as ‘Cougar and Dark’) and the post-Engels track ‘Doorway To January’ (interestingly called ‘Slo Blo’ on ‘… Tapes’ just like on some bootlegs, whereas it has been called ‘Janus Suite’ on others).

From the 1970 Mandrake incarnation we also get ‘Stella Mermaid’ and ‘Doris The Piper’ that were also previously on ‘… Tapes’ but are not there anymore, as well as a hitherto totally unknown track, ‘Simple Song’ that despite its name is probably the most complex thing here. Martin Briley is still credited as playing guitar here but given that it is an instrumental track, I would guess it might be the last track with him on before he too left.

But that leaves out some interesting bootleg tracks unaccounted for, such as the yearning ‘Senlac Lament’ and the late night swing of ‘Nobody Flies So High’. So maybe there is more yet to be discovered?

Do you feel exhausted and confused on a higher level now? Well, I told you to go out and buy the thing before reading on, didn’t I!

Robert Wyatt: the Matching Mole interview

In celebration of Robert Wyatt’s birthday, we here republish an interview with Robert focusing on Matching Mole. This is a pretty long piece, but rather interesting too, I would say!

The article was written by Michael Björn and originally published in Japanese music magazine Strange Days #166, pages 14-25, September 2013*.

Copyright © Michael Björn 2013

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The first time I interviewed Robert Wyatt was in my late teens. I was invited to his London suburb home and was totally overwhelmed to meet this great rock star who had carefully prepared the visit with a selection of Swedish jazz records. For me – a teenage school kid. He has remained a great hero ever since, musically as well as on a human plane.

However, when I contact him about this article, I get a categorical refusal and a ”No more to say.” Period.

Robert is very unhappy about how recent reissues have heaped bonus tracks on the originals. And just like he sings on ”Gloria Gloom”, he still has his ”doubts about how much to contribute to the already rich” – in this context represented by the record companies.

But during the course of some e-mails, Robert thaws and agrees to the interview. I get the feeling that his frustrations are overcome by a warm pride over the original albums, unique and masterly as they are. The last few e-mails are adorned with rhythmic references, a ding-ching here and an oobop sh’bam there. When we finally hook up, Robert is in a very good mood, full of friendly laughter. Again, I feel like that teenage school kid, totally charmed by his kind and thoughtful attitude.

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My idea is that I would like to do an interview and send you the text before we publish.

Robert: You said that before. I don’t like the idea that I would have any kind of censorship role. I will tell you whatever I think and you write whatever you write.

 

OK, fair enough!

Robert: You should, however, be clear that it was your idea to talk about these things. There’s a joke about a bishop who arrives in a city and a journalist asks him: ”Are you going to visit the red light district in our city?” The bishop replies: ”Is there a red light district in your city?” And the front page of the newspaper the next day is: ”Bishop asks: Is there a red light district in your city?”

 

So, I would like to talk about Matching Mole and that is my idea then and not yours!

Robert: Yes, that’s right, ha ha!

 

Matching Mole is a pun on the French translation of Soft machine, ”machine molle”.

Robert: Yes, that is what the French call Soft Machine. So I just thought I’d carry on with that. I didn’t see why I should lose the name completely.

 

When you were in France with Soft Machine, they actually called the group ”Machine Molle” then?

Robert: Yes, they did that anyway, so that is my little joke, that’s all. Nobody owns the name, so in fact anybody can call themselves Soft Machine. I thought it would be quite funny to just call the Matching Mole records Soft Machine 5, Soft machine 6 et cetera and so on. But then I thought: ”Oh, never mind, I won’t do that.” He he he!

 

How did the band come about, originally?

Robert: I can’t remember… I can’t remember how I knew Bill MacCormick. He knew me because he was a school friend of Phil Manzanera, and they used to come to Soft Machine concerts, apparently, when they were young. But apart from that, I don’t really know. Dave Sinclair I knew from Caravan of course. And Dave MacRae, how on earth did I hear Dave MacRae? … I can’t remember, that’s ridiculous.

I started earning a living from music about 50 years ago. And for about ten years, I was working live, playing drums non-stop just every day. From 1973 until now obviously not on drums – but there’s been so much stuff, it is hard to remember.

 

How did you approach making music with Matching Mole?

Robert: As a child, the music I listened to was my father’s music, classical music basically. Then my big brother came home with his jazz records, and the LPs were pretty long too. I got used to that… in fact, to me, the innovative thing to do is to make short songs of three or four minutes, like pop records. I wasn’t interested in if they were commercial, but just the idea of completing a piece of music in two or three minutes. It is the opposite way around, I think, from a lot of what people call progressive musicians do. They start out as rock musicians and then go on to do grand works afterwards, you know.

 

So the progression is in the other direction, from long to short.

Robert: It is in the other direction. It is interesting where we meet, but I wasn’t going that way. And to me, the dramatic discovery in the 50s was pop music. I had never listened to it as a child. So I thought ”Well, that is really interesting! You just do a song and stop after three minutes, wow!” Ha ha ha!

 

Ha ha!

Robert: My dad had things like Hindemith, Stravinsky stuff and Bartok. To me that was how long music was. And then my brother had stuff like Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans, which were quite extended sort of things. So that was how I started thinking about music. It wasn’t trying to be clever.

I didn’t like the fact that people thought very carefully about the beginning to get people listening, but they would put the weakest track at the end. In fact, I think that the impact of a record ending is as strong as a record beginning. The last notes of a record – just like it did with a symphony – that’s the thing that is hanging in the air when it stops.

 

About the first Matching Mole record

Even though you are going in the other direction, on the first record you don’t end with the pop song ‘O Caroline’, you start with it.

Robert: No, I hadn’t gotten around to that yet. But often I would play Dave Sinclair’s advocate. When I was with people who looked down on pop music, I would be very defensive and say: ”Well, you try and do that. It is not so easy.” But when I am surrounded by people who think anything that isn’t pop music is just pretentious and boring, that upsets me too. I don’t see why there had to be battles. Instead one should enjoy the differences.

 

How did you go about putting the music together?

Robert: We lived in a place called ‘All Saints Road’ – a short attempt of having my own place, it was disastrous. But we had an upstairs and a downstairs – and downstairs, we had all the instruments. It was a very run down, poor area at that time. We could make a lot of noise and there weren’t any neighbours who would make a fuss so that was OK. So there we were.

And really, it was about playing. Like jazz, it is about playing instruments as opposed to anything else. I wanted to reverse the process that happens in jazz, whereby you start with a plan but the improvisation is sort of the last thing.

On the first record we used themes, mostly by Phil Miller and myself: not songs or tunes really, just kind of patterns. But there can be endless variations on how to deal with these patterns. You keep the rhythmic pattern going or the harmonic pattern, and everything else changes. It was very influenced by free jazz, but I wanted to be based on a kind of rock sound. I wanted that kind of freedom in a rock context and I think that was what was unusual at that time.

The thing is then to turn it into something, and that is done in the editing of the recording. We would go through the routines for hours, but the process was to find the ones were it all kind of worked coherently, and to throw away all the bits that didn’t work. That is what upset me with the CD reissue of this record. They put in all the stuff that didn’t work with all the stuff that did work. And I feel… that it upsets me, frankly. Because although the original LP may sound random to a casual listener, it is not.

I really like things to sound as if people have just thought of it and it is totally easy and they don’t have to think about it. What we call ”artless”. I like artless art. People think it’s random; it is not random. There’s a nice quote, I think it is Cezanne: ”People think my paintings look as if they are done too quickly. That is because they are looking too quickly.” Ha ha ha!

 

I suppose you want to put musicians in situations that they are not accustomed to, in order to make them grow?

Robert: It is more selfish. I want to hear music that I have not heard before!

 

I think Dave Sinclair really did feel that he was in a different context than he was used to.

Robert: He was uncomfortable; he wanted to do straightforward songs. He would be quite happy doing that and he does it beautifully. Personally, I found that he was a lovely improviser but it made him so anxious that I couldn’t to it to him after a while. Nobody would let him down a groove; Bill didn’t lay him down a groove, and I didn’t lay down a groove. Phil chooses completely unlikely notes on guitar, there’s absolutely no telling what notes Phil is going to play, or when and where – and Dave was completely unnerved by it, I think. Nevertheless, he did some terrific stuff on the album, and so I am very happy with that. We were very good friends, you know, he didn’t have to do it. I don’t think he regrets the experience, I hope he doesn’t.

 

Dave Sinclair told me that you called him back from Portugal. You had really decided that you wanted to have him in the group?

Robert: Absolutely, I knew some very good organists like Zoot Money and so on, but on the whole, the keyboard players I knew were either jazz players or jazzy blues players – which is a wonderful thing, but it is an idiom that exists already. Or, there were marvellous keyboard players who worked from a classical tradition who were interested in improvising. But I found that they had not a very strong concept of what I considered as swing or groove at all.

So there was difficulty finding musicians to play with. I didn’t want people whom you can identify as belonging to any particular idiom.

I didn’t get these certain ideas from music first; I got them from paintings. Bonnard is nothing like Degas and Degas is nothing like van Gogh and van Gogh is nothing like Kandinsky. They don’t seem to be trying to fit into a… thing. They are developing their own… language. And I just wanted people who would do that and not just think: ”Oh, this is a jazz thing” or something. I was really looking for something that hadn’t been done before.

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About ‘Little Red Record’

On ‘Little Red Record’, the other musicians have a bigger role in the development of the music.

Robert: That’s right. They were more familiar with each other, and they were more familiar working with me, so they knew what they were writing for.

This also means that ‘Little Red Record’ was more ramshackle because, although the playing on the first had been democratic, I had been totally autocratic on the editing. I felt that on the next record we made, I really must let everybody else do his thing. Whatever they want to do. So Dave MacRae does tunes, Bill MacCormick does tunes, Phil Miller does stuff and so on. By its very nature, it is less coherent in that way.

 

The title seems less ramshackle…?

Robert: It is not seriously political, although people think it was. I wasn’t particularly interested in politics at that time, it was just my joke, you know. Everyone thinks we mean the little red book, but it could easily mean ‘Little Red Engine’ which is the name of a children’s book in England, about a train.

There was some very simplistic socialist rhetoric on the record. I have no idea if I meant it; probably I had no idea what I was talking about. But the idea of the imitation Maoist cover was entirely the record company’s, not mine. Nothing to do with us. And I would be embarrassed about that cover because poor Dave MacRae who’s the gentlest man in the world has been given a frightening looking gun, which is very unfair on him because he wouldn’t hurt a fly.

 

Some of the songs are nicknames

Robert: Yes, if anybody is interested in those things ‘Gloria Gloom’ is my Alfie and ‘Flora Fidgit’ is Julie Christie, the actress.

 

And together with Dave Gale, they are Der Mutter Korus.

Robert: Absolutely. I only met Dave gale again recently, he made films and so on. In fact, it was he who was a friend of the Pink Floyd. When I broke my back, it was he who said: ”Why don’t you do a concert for Robert?” So I have lots to thank Dave for, he is a friend of Alfie’s from, I think, art college.

 

Alfie and Julie are both talking on the record.

Robert: That is true. Then again Dave Gale is on there. He is making very funny little things, if you can hear them, about wanting to wear his woolly. He always likes to wear his woolly; it makes him feel more secure; some strange neurotic stuff. Julie for some reason decided to become a prostitute with a first-time customer. And Alfie wonders what on earth they are talking about. Anyway, we kept all of it on there. We really had good fun with that.

 

It seems that Julie’s first-time customer is a woman?

Robert: Yeah, that’s an implication there; Dave Gale certainly is not interested is he? He is too busy with his woolly. But really, I don’t think it was thought through, I think they were improvising as much as musicians do. Then again: in a way that they would never normally do. It was very interesting and fun to try and work out how to keep instrumental coherence and allow some of the voices to come through, but not always.

 

Given that the record is a bit chaotic, Robert Fripp seems like an unlikely producer.

Robert: Yes, I know! I think he didn’t quite know why I asked him. Funnily enough my son came over yesterday, he had found a photograph of Fripp and me, at some festival I think, talking to each other. It is a very merry little photograph and I don’t remember it at all. I don’t remember listening to his band or him listening to mine, or anything. When we were working in England in -67, there weren’t really any other bands that I knew out there.

 

Phil Miller found it difficult to record in the studio, since he was in awe of Fripp.

Robert: Yeah, Bill MacCormick mentions that. Phil is in fact always like that. He is almost chronically shy and never seen in person. But if that was the case, I am ashamed to say I didn’t really notice. I had been on the road with Hendrix, so it was very hard for me to imagine being awestruck by the presence of a terrific guitarist after a year of that.

 

Brian Eno is also on the album.

Robert: Yes, that was because Bill MacCormick knew him since he was a friend of Phil Manzanera’s. Bill asked him for an introduction to ‘Gloria Gloom’, but he did it in his own studio and just brought it in and we worked it into the thing.

 

He did bring his synth into the studio, I think Dave MacRae is using it on the record as well.

Robert: Yeah, that is possibly quite right. I had completely forgotten that! Yeah, that’s right. Eno contributes to the record in a way that is so discreet you often don’t know he is doing it. Dave MacRae himself is very inventive on keyboards, using the fuzz box and pedals in a kind of crazy way anyway. But certainly, he would be very happy for Brian to be trying stuff.

 

There was a CD release of ‘Little Red Record’ on BGO in 1993 where the A-sides and B-sides where switched. I read that this is the way you originally wanted the album to be.

Robert: That is true. I wasn’t sure about that. In the end I decided that it meant starting the album with Brian’s introduction to ‘Gloria Gloom’ basically. And I thought it took too long to come in. And I thought: “Get some food on the table” you know.

 

Ha ha ha!

Robert: So I abandoned that after a while. I had exactly the same idea when I did ‘Ruth is stranger than Richard’, I swapped the sides around on different versions.

 

You were thinking loud about the track composition so to speak?

Robert: I was, yeah. I took responsibility for that because… somebody had to. I didn’t really know anybody, not even Fripp, who was thinking like that; every track in terms of the complete piece of music, where it was in it and so on. Which is always a thing I like to think about.

 

Comparing ‘Matching Mole’ and ‘Little Red Record’

The two Matching Mole records sound fundamentally unlike each other, how did that happen?

Robert: For the ‘Little Red Record’, I decided for some reason in my head at that time, that I would play without a snare on the snare drum all the way through. If you take the snare off, it doesn’t just affect the snare drum, it affects the bass drum and it affects the rest of the band. It makes it more kind of translucent, if you like.

The moment you have the snare on, it affects the bass and you get those thumps without notes: boom-da, boom-da. The moment you take that off, a lightness comes through. Dave MacRae’s playing is full of light, and I wanted that. It is not rock & roll, it is much more fluid. I wanted to play drums more fluidly to see if I could stick with Dave when he was playing.

The other thing is, I like to try and have sustained pieces so that one piece flows into another and it is some sort of journey going through. That is consistent on both albums, but the thing which is different is that Dave MacRae came with his tunes, like that lovely ‘Smoke Signal’ thing, and Bill came with his rather Soft Machine influenced stuff.

 

For the first record, CBS was closing their studio and you were the last band in there – and then on ‘Little Red Record’ you are actually more or less the first band in the new studio.

Robert: Yeah! You know, I had forgotten that, you are quite right! Poor Dave Sinclair in that cold studio, I had completely forgotten that. But you know, even so, it didn’t influence us much. When you are young, you can sleep in fields you know. Ha ha ha!

 

With it being so cold in the studio, you had developed all the musical patterns before you came to the studio then, I suppose?

Robert: Not necessarily, because it is recorded and we didn’t record at home. So I think it must have been quite a lot of it trying out stuff in the studio. We did rehearse it for ours to get everyone familiar enough with the patterns to not have to think about them.

 

I used to prefer the first Matching Mole record because it sounds more like other Canterbury records. But the more I listen, the more I like the ‘Little Red Record’ because it doesn’t!

Robert: I have exactly the same reaction! I have been listening to them since you got in touch. The first one is totally coherent; I understand what we are trying to do and we did it. The second one is much more reckless, but because of that I find it very interesting. And I don’t mind hearing the variations, the different takes, because they show different aspects.

In the case of the CDs, definitely it is the CD of the ‘Little Red Record’ that has more listening stuff on it. I am more comfortable with it now. I completely agree: I reversed on that. On the first one, I am very unhappy with the extra tracks and the repeats of the single and, I don’t know, I just find it’s a mess.

So yes, I agree. It is exactly what happened to me, listening to them.

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About reissues

You are obviously not happy with the Matching Mole CD reissues.

Robert: I really like the idea of two sides, whether is on the original 78 rpm records or eventually on vinyl LPs. And I always find it very interesting that there are two sides on an LP of about 20 minutes each. This sounds very pretentious and I am very pretentious, mind you, but I find that a lot of life is about two unequal halves. Just the fact that so much is binary: eyes, arms, men and women, everything. If you watch a sprout growing, very often the first thing you see is leaves alternating one side and another, they are not quite the same.

I like the idea of one side of a record being about the same thing as the other side but quite different. There is no literary equivalent, I can’t say this in words, I just have a feeling that the A-side and B-side meant something to me. Particularly on the first Matching Mole record but then again on the later ones, on ‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘Ruth is Stranger than Richard’. Even when it became CDs, I tend to divide things in two parts at least. To have different parts, whatever kind of shape, parts that are about 20 minutes long, that seems to be a good length for listening to a piece of music without having to go and have a piss or get another drink or something. So that was the idea here.

But there again, I am not happy with putting them all together in a big lump, because I want to make records that you can leave on until the end. If you make records where you have alternative takes, the same thing again and so on, it is OK for archives, for historical record, but it no longer serves the original function: A record you could put on and leave on until the end. So that was the idea of the original thing.

 

Live performances

You managed to play quite a lot of live shows during the short lifespan of the band.

Robert: We did, yeah! And they were very good fun to play. I used to like changing the themes, like… on the original ‘Marchides’, Dave wanted the improvisation completely out tempo, rubato or whatever the word would be, and I wasn’t comfortable with that live. So I started to put some sort of a pulse underneath it. As much as I love free jazz, I am never really comfortable with too much out of tempo stuff. One of the things I really liked about jazz and rock music was that kind of physical movement. So, I tended to put that in, or change the time signatures slightly.

 

Did playing so much live influence the way the second album turned out?

Robert: Yes, I think that is possibly absolutely right.

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Splitting up

Do you have any memories from when you decided to split up the band?

Robert: I realised that in Soft Machine, I couldn’t be a follower. And in Matching Mole, I found out that also I couldn’t be a leader. So I was left with these two things. And then it occurred to me! My inspirational light bulb moment was: ”You don’t have to be in a band, Robert! It is not a law.”

For all that time, because rock groups started about the time conscription in the army ended, I always saw it as an extension of going into the army. In the early 60s all young men went into the army to occupy foreign countries for a few years and sit around drinking beer, and picking up local girls and so on. And when they stopped recruiting soldiers, the Beatles went to Germany and did exactly the same thing! Ha ha ha!

I always thought that you have to be in a sort of gang, but no you don’t. You don’t have to do it! I was liberated in the end by – people think I am being ironic – but, I was liberated by being in a wheelchair. A band was no longer a possibility. It is a paradox, but I am totally happy that it happened now.

 

But there was talk of a new incarnation of Matching Mole?

Robert: Dave MacRae wanted to form a jazz-rock trio. And I didn’t really want to go that jazz-rock way. I don’t really like what came to be known as jazz-rock. There are some very nice people playing it, but it seems a bit opportunistic. Jazz musicians who are jealous of rock musicians doing so well and thinking: ”Well I can play instruments better than them. Let’s grow our hair, give ourselves a mystical name, get rid of our horn player and get a guitar player and we can play rock better than them.”

So, I didn’t want to be in a jazz-rock band. I was trying to think about a keyboard player, really. And the one I came up with, who was lovely, was a man called Francis Monkman who played with Curved Air. He had no jazz in him, but I worked with him on a radio broadcast that was later put out on American label Cuneiform. He was brilliant, very imaginative also, from a classical background.

But I just didn’t know what to do and I thought: ”Well I want a jazz player, but someone like Gary Windo who just doesn’t play like a session musician. And Bill again maybe.” I was working on that, and I could imagine a few tunes with that, but I couldn’t imagine spending a year just with that. So… I was sort of saved from all of it by just falling out of a window. Into another planet, ha ha! Into another world.

 

So as a solo artist, you have been a leader of yourself for the rest of your career.

Robert: Yeah, that’s right. I boss myself around. There are no bad feelings that way.

 

The Italians of the East

I saw on Youtube that you did a kind of a workshop at pub last year, where there was some playback of your music and you were talking in-between.

Robert: Yeah, there have been a couple of those. One for Wire magazine, and then for Cafe Oto in London, they have a music venue over there, run by a Japanese person.

 

Would you be at all interested in doing something like that in Japan?

Robert: I would have been, but in fact I am not travelling anymore. I don’t go on airplanes anymore. The thing is, my wife is older than me. She is in her 70s and she is not very well. She has been struggling with her health. Having been fairly selfish most of my life and just doing my thing, I am trying now to be more just kind of domestic.

I would love to go to Japan in the sense that they are wonderful. I get lovely letters from Japan, and beautiful gifts, lovely things. Somebody asked me to name their new restaurant, and I did that, it is called ”Happy Mouth”. And I’ve got Japanese neighbours here. But I can’t travel anymore.

Certainly, musicians who play there love it, and I feel sad that I am missing that, but I can’t deal with it any more. I am not interested in talking about my disability, because as you gather, mostly it has been almost an advantage, making me concentrate and simplify my life. But that said, next year will be my 70th year, and I am getting health problems. I just can’t do things I used to be able to do.

I am so grateful to Japan, in some way they are kind of the Italians in the East. Because the two places I get the most alive and lively, understanding and friendly responses: in the West is Italy and in the East it is of course Japan. And those two areas of people listening have been my best encouragement over the years, absolutely no question.

 

Thank you for talking to me today!

Robert: I am sorry I gave you a bit of a hard time in the beginning… Temperamental musicians, what can you say!!



*Footnote: Please note that this is the original English article manuscript submitted for publication, and eventual differences to the Japanese translation made to make the article fit in the allotted space are not accounted for.

Stars In Battledress: The In Droplet Form interview

In celebration of the January 2019 release of the Lost Crowns debut album ‘Every Night Something Happens’ featuring Richard Larcombe, we here republish an interview with Richard and his brother James Larcombe about their second album ‘In Droplet From’ as the Stars In Battledress.

The article was written by Michael Björn and originally published in Japanese music magazine Strange Days #179, pages 60-64, October 2014*.

Copyright © Michael Björn 2014

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Brothers Richard and James Larcombe are members of both the North Sea Radio Orchestra and William D Drake’s band. As a duo they are called Stars In Battledress, and their brilliant 2003 debut album ‘Secrets and Signals’ produced by Tim Smith from legendary band the Cardiacs is today a sought-after collector’s item. Their new album ‘In Droplet Form’ is even better than the debut.

When we meet up at 1930s styled Paddington Hilton Hotel in London, Richard looks like he stepped right out of Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 steps’ and blends right in, whereas James literally stepped out of a plane and just arrived from Germany. 

As we discuss their unusual approach to music, it is soon clear that under their endearingly British modesty bubbles a strong creative passion. Read on to discover the advantages of embracing hiss, being willfully irritating and playing a B-flat note.

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You started out making cassette compilations?

Richard: Oh, yes, our pre-history. I must have been 17-18 and James is a few years younger than me. We would take the very best bits of something and jam them together; initially it was bits of other music, but then we started learning how to play the results. When we a few years later listened back to the tapes, we thought we wouldn’t exactly want to play that – but it did sound like something. So we tried to write something original in that style. That is how the material for the first album emerged, really.

What is the story behind the first album?

Richard: One day in the very late 90s we said ‘Oh let’s call ourselves Stars In Battledress and book a gig’. We worked out half an hour of stuff in the style of the old tapes, and did the show. Tim Smith who we knew vaguely at the time was one of the few people who attended the show. Afterwards, he said ‘I’m starting a label, the AME label, I think this is fantastic stuff, will you make an album with us?’ We didn’t have to think about it very long, Tim Smith was a great musician and a great producer, so we said yes.

We made the album at his studio in Salisbury, in just a week and a half. This was in 2000 and Tim didn’t release it on the AME label in the end. As I was involved with Kavus Torabi and other people at the time in starting the House of Stairs label, eventually we released it there in 2003. And that was that. It seems like a very long time ago now.

James: Tim Smith also gave us the confidence that it was going to work; he could obviously tell what was going on. It was hard to make the second album since we didn’t have anyone to produce it. It took a long time for us to get good enough to record it. Only in the last few years, for example, have I got any good at mixing.

Richard: It is a contrast. Although we wrote the material over a couple of years, the first album took a week and a half to record, whereas our new album has taken since then to finish.

bild 2Why Stars In Battledress?

Richard: It was an entertainment division within the British army during the Second World War, a touring party of army members who would perform to military audiences, as a part of the war effort. The appeal of the phrase at the time was that it was nothing like what we were doing. There is no military side, and we are not stars, so it just sounded like the least appropriate possible name. Not, perhaps, a commercially minded way of doing things….

The two albums are very much of a piece, as if you have found your natural form.

James: Some of the stuff on the new album was written before some of the stuff on the old album. Then it was polished and embedded in other things.

Richard: You sing more in the more recent material than on the first album, James…

James: Yeah, that is very much true, I have really grown to enjoy that.

Richard: We use the two voices and two instruments on almost every track.

James: That’s right, we always have to tell the sound man at gigs that the vocals really should be together; although I don’t sing as much as Richard, it does really need to be in the same volume. The voices make a kind of nice blend together.

Richard: As there’s only two of us, we need as much going on as possible, really!

James: It is the same, to be honest, when we are recording. Unless the piano and guitar are kind of locking in, it doesn’t sound like an awful lot. You just hear half the parts.

Richard: Yeah, it is made to sound like one instrument.

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How do you make the songs?

James: We have always made it difficult for us by taking kind of simple-ish songs and then… almost swapping the parts.

Richard: Yes, we’ll switch. I’ll learn the piano parts on the guitar…

James: … and I’ll learn some guitarry parts on the piano. It always ends up quite awkwardly and quite a few of our songs are not very natural. I hope it doesn’t sound forcedly awkward. The primary focus is on the song being beautiful and any kind of awkward moment is just to serve that. 

Richard: Maybe we are rather complex and awkward people!

James: Also, there is a sense of trying to do something that is a bit different. Which is good, I am not ashamed of that at all.

Richard: And I must say, I do get a kick out of that. As a performer, I like playing one thing while singing another. It’s not so much a case of showing off, but it’s just a case of… it is very fulfilling to me. It really is as simple as that a lot of the time.

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What’s the reason for calling this album ‘In Droplet Form’?

James: It’s a lyric from the first song on the album.

Richard: There’s a beautiful poem called ‘Eyes and Tears’ by Andrew Marvell who is an English metaphysical poet, and it is a meditation on the relationship between the fact that the eyes see and the fact that they weep; the same thing is done by both. That was the starting point for the first song; obviously, it’s a largely instrumental number, so there is less depth to my meditation than there was to his!

‘Hunt The Button’ stands out from a sound perspective. It starts with a loud cassette click.

Richard: Bits of it are the actual ancient cassette recordings that we did; the rest of it we redid using the same kind of equipment, so we had a bit of archive fun with that one. We even used cassette to record parts; or we recorded them digitally and then put it through cassette so it picked up all that noise and all the hiss and that.

James: Also, the style of 4-track recording when both of us play on one track with one microphone and then do it again and again; that lends a real density to the sound.

Richard: And I love the hiss.

James: Yeah, we couldn’t get rid of the hiss, so we embraced it. 

I’ve got the ‘Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr Drake’ album on cassette. It sounds like that.

Richard: Yeah, exactly. Hopefully, it sounds like that.

James: One of my favourite albums.

Richard: ‘Hunt The Button’ was the first track that we finished mixing, because it doesn’t have to sound sparkling clean. And for a long time, I had to be dissuaded from saying ‘Let’s re-record all tracks using the same technology! Let’s put them through tape!’

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What is the song ‘Fluent English’ about? It is probably something I would need…

James: Ha ha!

Richard: It was a series of unfinished pieces, most of which were written at a different rhythm, so there are bits where the lyrics go across the rhythm, just like singing one song over another song. It is all quite playful on the lyrical front.

Another catchy song is ‘Hollywood Says So’ – it even has a chorus!

Richard: Yes, the song with the chorus. Don’t know what came over us, ha ha! Must have been something in the water that day. It is about trying to live according to the ways of the old Hollywood heroes. The references to Film Weekly and climbing castle walls, it’s all that Errol Flynn sort of swashbuckling thing, I suppose.

The song ‘TKS2’ is the point on the album where my family says ‘Turn that off!’

Richard: Our rock number!

James: I would say that’s the one that’s going to cause people trouble.

It is irritating!

Richard: It is supposed to be irritating!

James: I had to tell the mastering engineer that this is supposed to sound slightly obnoxious, on the edge of ‘Is it too trebly, is it too scratchy and screechy?’ It has to have that edge on it otherwise it just sounds like it is going on and on and being too polite or too mannered. That was deliberate, we distorted everything.

Richard: There is also emphasis on contrast between the instruments and the voices. The voices are very gentle, they are floating on quite a simple unison melody; juxtaposed with quite torturously complex instrumental stuff, that’s all the fun of it. And then it is ridiculous in the end – that still makes me laugh!

The last song is ‘The Women From The Ministry’. There was a radio show called ‘The Men From The Ministry’.

James: Yes, it is a well known English phrase, meaning ’those who are in charge’.

Richard: The lyrics were inspired by some things I read about art created by asylum inmates. Hans Prinzhorn in the 1930s made a famous collection of the artwork of the mentally ill – and there seemed to be a lot of recurring themes about strange authority figures. Adding the Women From The Ministry is simply a twist on a well-known phrase.

The track ends with a long instrumental part.

Richard: Yes, you can’t have too much of a good thing.

James: I like the way it does that. 

Richard: What note is that?

James: B-flat

Richard: You see, B-flat is, in this country, certainly one of the classic notes. People can’t hear enough of that note. You’ve made the people sit through all this terrible music, now give the public what they want, keep that B-flat going!!



*Footnote: Please note that this is the original English article manuscript submitted for publication, and eventual differences to the Japanese translation made to make the article fit in the allotted space are not accounted for. Also, on page 62, the names were been incorrectly switched under the photo; James is on the left and Richard is on the right.

This version also features a previously unpublished photo from the interview session.

Cosmic ‘Variants’ by Cobalt Chapel

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I have never understood the thing with remixes and extended versions. I still probably don’t, but ‘Variants’ by eclectic psychedelic English duo Cobalt Chapel is the exception that proves the rule. A great album, no less.

‘Variants’ consists of the kosmische dyad’s remixes of most tracks from their self-titled debut album. Many, although not all, of these remixes are longer than the originals so the reason why some tracks are missing is probably that they simply couldn’t fit on the record.

Normally I would rather stick to the original, but when the first variant here, ‘We Come Willingly’ starts with a barrage of analogue synths – a fat analogue bottom and a howling top with lots going on in the middle – it makes me sit up an listen. It feels more like a re-imagination than a traditional remix.

Gone are the rhythmic elements of the track, and instead vintage keyboards fill the soundstage. Cecilia Fage’s beautiful voice is in the foreground, creating an an eerie twilight zone effect. There is still a lot of echo – like in most remixes – but here it serves a point, rather than just give the listener remix fatigue. And although the track is in fact almost one half longer than the original, nothing feels wasted. There is a strong presence to the music that gradually builds, and once it finishes, I almost want to listen to it right again, that’s how good it is. Better than the original version? Grudgingly, I would have to say yes.

Other variants, such as ‘Black Eyes’, keep the rhythmical component but not necessarily using drums, thus keeping the analogue electronics focused atmosphere intact. Again, some of the sounds here are just amazing! I think Jarrod has said he had 16 different vintage keyboards when recording the Mountain EP, and I believe he has picked up a couple more since then…

Interestingly, on Cobalt Chapel’s Bandcamp page there is an earlier remix of ‘Horratia’, made by MAPS. It has a more typical electronic feel and reminds me why I am really not into remixes. In comparison, I much prefer the version on ‘Variants’ which is more ominous and cacophonous. 

Finally, the album ends with a ‘Positive Negative’ variant that is more than twice as long as the original. In all honesty, that is five minutes too long for me, but at this stage I am already floating in space and hardly notice!

Lost Crowns found crown jewels

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I only needed to play ten seconds of the Lost Crowns’ debut album ‘Every Night Something Happens’ to think that it is fantastic.

A sustained, reedy organ tone in the bottom, rattly cymbals and a twitchy guitar on top. That’s all. A bit murky and certainly eerie.

On their Bandcamp site, the Lost Crowns call themselves a “psych-pop supergroup”. However, that “super” adjective only makes sense if you are a fan of punk/prog cult band the Cardiacs, in which case you already have bought this album as well.

But if you aren’t and you haven’t, then I urge you to read on since this review is written especially for you.

You see, not only did Cardiacs main-man Tim Smith make some of the most fabulous pop records ever, he also acted as a magnet for other singular talents. And the extended family of Cardiacs-related musicians remain at the forefront of English underground music to this day, not least in outfits such as Knifeworld and North Sea Radio Orchestra – bands that both lend members to the Lost Crowns.

And chief Crown jewel Richard Larcombe certainly is a singular talent. According to Bad Elephant Music label boss David Elliot, Richard wanted to take the psychedelic music from the late 60s and turn it up a notch.

But that would be a bit like going with every other underground band on the planet. This album sounds nothing like that. That is to say, although it does have a post-psychedelic early 70s proto-prog feel at times, that isn’t the point with this record.

Instead, the point is that this is music that can be hauntingly beautiful one second but angular and harsh the next. Without transition. It has awkward time signatures and in place of solos there are odd flights of tones sprinkled throughout. 

This might sound a bit chaotic, and at times it is indeed. But as a perfect balance, there’s always Richard’s strikingly English and somehow well-mannered voice.

In other words, it sounds like nothing else you have heard.

That is, if you haven’t heard Stars In Battledress, Richard’s band with his younger brother James. Or even better, Defeat The Young, which was the band that featured Richard as the only songwriter with James just playing. The Lost Crowns sound a bit like that, only with a band instead of a brother. Defeat The Young unfortunately only released four songs at the dawn of this century, but they are all great little wonders.

So getting a full Richard Larcombe penned album is quite a treat. An album like ‘Every Night Something Happens’ is not something that happens every year.

Because it is not just the ten first seconds that are brilliant. The other 49 minutes are too. Every single one of those minutes, I should say. Richard’s twisted sense of melody makes perfectly twisted melodic sense throughout.

In fact, I already know this will be the best album of 2019 for me. And I will carry it close to my heart much longer than that. Literally. It will fit nicely next to “In Droplet Form” by the Stars In Battledress which has been on my phone ever since its release back in 2014.