BEYOND CARE, THANK GOD!Do you know what danger means?
Are Shriekback’s polyrhythms just polytechnic or is their dance stance entrancing?
BARNEY HOSKYNS crosses the big pond to pop the question, JOE STEVENS snaps back.
SHRIEKBACK are back for another bite of the Big A.
What’s down below this afternoon is Central Park, and a livid, explosively close sky is about to break over it.
Carl Marsh, Dave Allen, and Barry Andrews have just got in from Boston, where they captivated a capacity crowd at the Paradise Club, and tonight are set to kick off the annual New Music Seminar week with a date at Danceteria.
The three founder members of the quintessential alternative supergroup skip the feigned-disdain approach favoured by many Western rock bands and are immediately pleasant. Barry is a bald and benign Jaz Coleman, hunched goblin-like against the bedpost. Dave is chirpily, boyishly comical; his warmer Northern accent contrasting with his Southern colleagues. Carl is pretty much face-down and wordless through our chat.
The combined picture is one of satisfaction: with the album ‘Jam Science’, with their company Arista, with being here right now.
What are Shriekback about? In the past it was that terribly dull meta-funk, the whole My Live In The Bush of Theory trip. The Shriekback of ‘Tench’ and most of ‘Care’ were a trio who appeared unable to sing or write songs – in itself not unusual for polytechnic funk – and fell back on something abstract, fleshless, barrenly self-conscious. It was a fudge of their own backgrounds in XTC, Out On Blue Six, and the Gang of Four, plus a slippery handle on the Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’ and all the subliminal ethno-ghetto blasting that implies. The voices sounded like rock critics in the bath (if rock critics take baths), and the project smacked of an attempt to turn the academy into a gymnasium.
In Mat Snow’s words, it all got a bit too “modular and even-tempered”.
Now, onstage, on ‘Jam Science’, the music pulls and stretches and leaps at your ear. Beats rebound and effects scatter left to right. “Pert” and “gank” basses rub against your spine. The whole sound is alive, whether fed through Paul “Groucho” Smykle’s intoxicated mix of the album or boosted by the burning guitar chops grafted on by touring man Lou (ex-Spizzenergi and the uncle in the 3 Mustaphas 3). It’s a crossplay of texture and rhythm, a team effort which at least looks focused and funky.
All of this is not an explanation, of course. Just a way of saying that Shriekback have given up trying to explain. So maybe they didn’t have a library’s worth to say in the first place. I don’t think David Byrne did either. Shriekback ask “Are you ready for shock of devotion?” and proceed to deliver it. They are alive to their own power.
"With us, it’s always been ‘come on in’, where all those industrial funk bands seemed to be pushing you away. The live set now isn’t too harsh, it’s actually grooving. Last night was shit hot, we were operating full tilt. Everyone was moving. It’s good to get that visual idea of what Shriekback are about."
Dave is in full flow: “We’ve never denied that we don’t want to be successful.”
"Er, double negative, Dave," points out Barry.
Of course Shriekback want to be successful, and it’s a fine irony that the Arista deal has given them the credibility they never enjoyed in Indieland. Everything seems immediately more impressive: the Groucho mix, the album cover, the TV ad, the collective confidence.
"The irony is more that we started ‘Jam Science’ well before there was any mention of Arista," says Dave. "In fact, it was almost complete and ready to go."
"The change realy came when Arista started taking us seriously," adds Barry. "Suddenly it was no longer, oh, fucking Shriekback with their weird ideas. We were definitely getting fed up with being obscure. I just wanted to spell it out. I was listening to ‘Sexthinkone’ the other day, and the whole thing just sounds like trying to have a shit when you’re constipated.
"There were a lot of things on ‘Care’ that I felt people weren’t picking up on. ‘Care’ for me was a freeing-up, it was emptying the bowels. We got a few letters saying, yeah, I got it, but a lot of people didn’t really see what we were up to. I think what Arista have done for us has encouraged us to get out of the house a bit more."
‘Care’ opened so well with ‘Lined Up’ and ‘Cleartrails’, but then didn’t seem to know where it was headed. It got awfully bare and subdued. I, for one, couldn’t lock into the abstractions of ‘Hapax Legomena’ and ‘Brink of Collapse’.
"This album’s not so disparate a ‘Care’" Dave agrees. "We’ve gone for a fuller sound and the album is more of a whole. It’s galvanised us. My feeling is that not enough people have checked us out, y’know, they just had some kind of idea about us."
Barry: “I think it’s interesting, the degree to which an image grows like some plant, and the way you can throw a few things in there which’ll make it change.”
You’ve said that at the beginning you felt insecure because you had no master plan. What conceptual scheme were you working from?
"It was a tiny area, a tiny aperture out of what everyone else was doing at that time. For me, I was following through things which first surfaced in Restaurant for Dogs. What interested me was making music about the cycles of things, really – just the idea of breath, for instance. It just seemed to me that there weren’t any middle-eights in nature."
Until now, Shriekback have always played down melody. One critic accurately described them as “all angles and obtrusions”, lacking a firm centre.
"Before, we just away with a lot of pure energy," concedes Dave. "And it didn’t work that well. The fact is, though, that we absolutely cannot write songs, we just can NOT. What does come naturally to us is setting up a good solid rhythm, a sort of loop beat. Then the challenge is to get those highs and peaks in, where Carl or Barry can give it some kind of melodic push. ‘Jam Science’ has definitely got more melody in it."
So funk’s no longer just a “mask”?
"God, you’ve got an armoury of quotes, incha!" laughs Barry. "What I meant when I said that was that it’s like one of those science fiction movies where aliens take over the bodies of humans, and it might look like your Uncle Fred but it’s really one of them. Some of these songs might sound like funk, but they’re really possessed by Shriekback!"
Shriekback talk of “messing with permitted levels of sound”, making noises that aren’t clichès.
"Except that you can use those clichès," interjects Dave, "because they work, they knot together. In the past, I was too wary of being obvious. But it’s true, one of the things that keeps us going is the adventure, the risk-taking."
The trio have retained one motor concept, though. It’s the seventh of the 7 Pillars of Shriekback, the binding agreements they made wit each other in July 1983.
"It really boiled down to this," says Barry. "We wanted the band to express love, authenticity, and energy."
Now we all prefer and don’t you agree
a mechanical kind of ecstacy
I like Shriekback for not being embarrassed to use these words. I ask if their experience in American EST training has affected their attitude to music.
"For me, it’s been quite simple," says Dave. "I spent four years in the Gang of Four, and I would never admit to being a really good bass player who could actually get things done, go out there and make a difference. I could never accept that. There was always a tension, but I was always denying it. That’s just one area that EST helped me with. It helped me come out a lot, and I think I give more in this band than I ever did in the Gang.
"We’ve never really discussed this, because people always seem to get the wrong idea. I mean, I’d never come across anything weird, I was a straight guy who got pissed a lot, but all the political stuff in the Gang of Four had just fucked me up. There was never any outlet for pure discussion, I jut agreed with everything that was said. We were putting across a manifesto, if you like, which I was a part of but didn’t get anything back from. EST gave me my confidence back. I’m now aware of what I can do, and it’s up to me every day to do it."
Barry: “I think for me the big thing after EST training was that it gave me an experience which, once you’ve seen it, you don’t ever forget it. You never go back to all the rattle that goes on in your head. One you’ve seen the relationship between you and your mind, you can never take it too seriously again.
"A good analogy for it is swimming, in that everyone has the capacity in them to swim. Some people can’t swim, even though that capacity exists, and once you’ve learned how to swim, you can’t not do it. The training says that there are laws that govern the universe, which you have to comply with. They exist when you fall out of that window, they exist in relationships between people, and they exist in the way a piece of music is put together. EST rubs your nose in those laws. You see them for what they are, there’s no mystery anymore."
Dave: “EST makes you ask yourself, is everything alright now, right now? Are you happy now, not tomorrow or next week? In a sense, it’s almost meditative.”
I’m not going to say, of those unfashionable things communication and love, because it really doesn’t interest me whether something is in fashion or not. I know it’s not cool for me to say I love you, but if I don’t love you, then – as Joseph Conrad and his rocking Gang of Four put it – “we live, as we dream, alone.” Let’s not dream, let’s not be alienated, let’s see what’s happening right now. To oppose Miserabilism doesn’t mean you have to get on Soothing Williams’ jingoistic picket line. Shriekback say, enter here, none shall be turned away.
Are you still “normal English white boys, easily embarrassed”, or did EST change that?
"Yeah, I am," confesses Barry. "Sea-anemone out of water, I am."
"I go through phases of being embarrassed and not being embarrassed," says Dave. "We are quite a sensitive band, it’s true."
Does that link up with the rather hackneyed idea that white funk was about compensating for being pale and frail and neurotic?
"There’s a lot of truth in that, though. I sometimes get the idea in me head that black bass players are gonna be better than me, and it sort of ties up with liberal guilt."
"One thing about black culture you can generalise about," adds Barry, "is that people are encouraged to express themselves, whereas in England it’s like at school – get off the piano! You’ll ruin the felt! I think what we’re talking about really is finding this voice which seems authentic, and for me that’s the issue in the whole career of Shriekback. It’s like, what is it? What’s the language?"
The sky looks as though it’s about to crack. The humidity outside is so thick it’s scary. As Barry summarises, I’m preparing to take my leave.
"The sole importance of art is that you can create something that wasn’t there before, and once you’ve communicated to somebody through that, then their world is not going to be exactly the same.
"We get a bit intense about it sometimes, but it’s like Fela Kuti said, if you fuck around with music, you will die young."
New Musical Express (1 September 1984)