Since I tend to torture my writers with various things, I felt it only appropriate if I sent my good friend Hirez out to hang with the Wasp Factory/Chaos Engine contingent. I had thoroughly enjoyed Chaos Engine's appearance at Convergence 8 in Montreal, Canada and while there had made sure that Lee and his pals would be available for blathering about in Legends. The result is a muddied, long yet interesting conversation transcribed from a tape that Hirez chased them around England with. The gang goes into music, industry, Wasp Factory bands and more than we had ever expected. The result? A look not only inside a band but inside one of the UK's prime independent artist labels now putting out some of the most interesting and amazing stuff.
This conversation took place at the start of September. Since then, many unexpected things have happened. Not least was Lee's announcement that the Chaos Engine Christmas gig of a couple of days ago was their last. No more Chaos Engine gigs is, all things considered, a Very Bad Thing . Well, what happens next remains to be seen.
Those that took part in this rambling barrage
of verbiage include:
L - Lee Chaos
A - Allezbleu
T - Uncle Tony
J - J. 'Hirez' H-R
We'd been talking about how people listen to music now.
L: A month ago I took my record player down and put it in the airing-cupboard... This is another thing that a lot of my friends have confessed - that they've got huge, huge vinyl collections and it is now actually more effort for them to get the record player out, remove the ornaments from the top of the record player, dust off the vinyl and put it on [the turntable] than it is for them to download the MP3 of the vinyl that they actually have and listen to it.
J: Fuck off! I never said that! Well, ok... It's true...
A: Not true. Not true! Lee plays nothing but vinyl.
L: This is Australia, isn't it?
A: No! No! I'm not talking about my brother, I'm talking about Lee who was at that place a few days ago...
L: ... Oh, yeah...
A: ... And he has a vinyl collection that would cover this entire wall. I kid you not.
T: Ok, so he's anal-retentive...
A: No, he's not anal-retentive, he just likes music! There are people out there who do...
L: But he's into that neo-[folk] stuff that only comes out on vinyl...
A: ... That's not true, I have a whole heap of Cold Meat Industry that don't come out on vinyl. [ ] I'm sure you could get them on vinyl, but it's a whole heap easier to get them on CD. I mean, he does listen to a lot of that stuff, but his vinyl collection spans everything from, y'know... Everything. Front Line Assembly to the Damned to...
J: ... He's got the sound of a Belgian bloke farting on a Wednesday...
J: ... He's got the sound of a pizza... I mean, that's... Everything.
L: The man has Aleister Crowley singing the hits of The Beatles on a church organ. I've heard it - it's one of the most sinister things I've ever come across.
J: I suppose the CD has taken over from the mix-tape...
L: ... And the eight-track cartridge...
T: How is your radiogram these days?
J: ... But... It wasn't so long ago that... Look, stand-out records like, say, Never mind the bollocks. Twenty minutes a side?
L: Not even that... I think the whole thing weighs in at thirty-four minutes.
J: Unknown Pleasures? Similar sort of time...
A: But... People aren't going to buy CDs because of... Production values, or... What Phildo says
L: ... Oh no. We're not going there... We're talking about the length of the album...
A: But the length of the album doesn't matter - you buy it because it's what you want to listen to.
J: But it's to do with technical stuff... I knew a bunch of people who bought Brothers in arms - this was 1984, and they'd just bought a CD player - and they were like 'Cor! Look at the production-values on that!' ... They didn't buy it because they liked Dire Straits, they bought it because you could hear the guitarist fart halfway through song three.
L: That's it. I do remember somebody actually playing the CD and going, 'Listen, you can hear Phil Collins' drumstool squeak just before he starts playing...' at which point I knew that the technical revolution was... A bit of a non-starter. What I'm talking about is the way that the music industry is operating. They're basically creatively bankrupt, and they will keep trying to sell you Sgt. Pepper on every fucking format that's invented until they think that you're not going to buy it anymore. And people just keep on lapping it up. I'm led to believe the whole thing's going to come out in something like 5:1 surround-sound Dolby...
J: ... Yeah, that's this week...
L: ... But it was never intended to be recorded like that. It was recorded on a four-track cassette, y'know? It was recorded on an open-reel four-track. There was no intention of doing this. As far as I'm concerned, this is like... Deciding that the Mona Lisa would look better with a bobble hat and going and painting it on! All it is now is complete fucking commerce - the whole thing - and the whole way the music industry is, is just to dig up dead horses, stick animatronics inside them and make them walk and talk again.
J: Anyway, Uncle Lee. Tell us about Chaos Engine.
L: No, I don't want to.
J: Oh, ok then.
L: This is more fun.
J: Tell us about Swarf then.
J: Ah, go on. I'll just make something up if you don't.
L: ... I don't know... I'm... Not sure about the Swarf thing, actually. I'm not... I'm not sure what my feelings are on it at the moment.
A: Think press-release!
A: I'm kidding...
L: I just... I don't know... On a sort of a wider level, I... Didn't set up a record label to sell crack to kids - it was always my ethos to do it... Ethically, and... Properly.
J: ... You are Tony Wilson.
L: I fucking hope not... This whole thing of doing everything on a handshake deal and not bringing in paperwork and giving the artist a generous percentage - it's got to be a two-way thing, and it just sort of fucks me off that... Oh, I don't know... It makes me very sad that people thought that... We didn't really know what we were doing and that a Proper Record Deal is a Good Idea. Because... To all intents and purposes, I think that decisions to leave the label that have been made at present, as it were, were based on people not having enough information on how the record industry actually works... Which makes me sad...
J: That, I suppose, they will find out?'
L: Yeah... I... It's a shame - I don't want people that I know to become a cautionary tale that I tell down the pub. Especially not people who's work I really enjoy.
J: Given that the record industry is dying on its arse, is blaming any technical thing it can find and is busily trying to hamstring the IT industry, why do we have to be friends with them?
L: Well, that's the whole thing. This is what the Punk Rock Wars should have killed off the first time round. Frankly. I just find the music industry is really sad because people believe the hype and think, 'Yeah, yeah. I can be famous. I can be rich.' Most of the time you have to make a choice between those things.
J: What, you can write your own songs or you can do what you're told?
L: "Would you like to be rich OR famous..?" Because you can either scuttle round in the background earning the money, or you can be out on stage being fleeced left, right and centre by all the people who are actually earning a crust from it.
A: Is it better to sell out or fade away?
L: It's nice to have the option.
J: I take it that, if I may be pretentious and quote Nietchze, 'That which does not destroy Wasp-Factory makes it stronger'?
L: Yeah... To a certain extent. We never went into this thinking that we knew everything, and we've gone into it with a very definite ethos, which is something that we've stuck to. We could have dragged people through the courts for what's happened, but that wasn't something that I wanted to get involved with - I didn't start a record-label to spend all my time in court with a nervous breakdown.
L: At the end of the day, you're getting involved with the music business. The clue's in the name, y'know. It is a business and it's not an 'arts-council funded jolly for all and sundry and wouldn't it be nice to sell some records?' But... The way the industry is at the moment, it's just not geared up for that.
T: If it was all arts-council funded, you'd get art students doing it...
L: Don't be dissing art students - go and find out how many of them are in the music industry...
J: It [the music industry] just looks... Broken.
L: Hm. Yeah... The thing that really [depressed] us is that we were recording the DUST EP [Lords of Madness(*)] and read in The Guardian that Mute has just been sold to... EMI, I think it was, for something like £46 million... Because I think they wanted to own Moby. We actually had a minute's silence in the studio because that was the whole blueprint for what we're doing. Mute records is The One that we based it on - they were the ones who said, 'Yeah, we're going to sign Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure... Whatever. And then we're going to take all this money and spend it on Non, or on these way out bands that we know aren't going to make any money, but we think this music should be made.' ... And that was always the ethos of Mute, with Daniel Miller. That's what he wanted to do. He said, 'This is a bunch of records I want made, this is a bunch of records that I like that I know aren't going to make money. Let's put the two together: A funds B.' All we're trying to do is... Here are a bunch of records we think are really important and should be released. In years to come, they may make money, but it's the Van Gogh thing - these might not sell in their lifetime, but... It's stuff that needs to be created.
J: And Rough Trade. I suppose The Smiths paid for, um, Jane...
L: Well, this is the whole Alan McGee thing. Where he was working on Creation, and Creation had become Oasis' record-label, so he sold it and started another label. Which is an incredibly admirable thing to have done. To just say, 'No, fuck this. I'm no longer running a record-label. I'm an administrator and I'm in meetings with Sony every other day, talking about figures.' They've had a controlling interest in Creation for a long time - I think pretty much since the first Oasis album came out - and at the end of it he just said, 'No, fuck this. I want to run a record label again.' So he sold out and then bought back in, as it were.
J: Is it possible to sell records, CDs, whatever, outside of the, quote, 'music industry?' I mean, you look at what goes on and it's all a bit Animal Farm(**) - If you have to do business with suits, you turn into a suit, because that's the only way [the business] can function. Surely one should be able to do it a different way?
L: It would be nice to think so. This is part of the whole Wasp-Factory thing. We set it up and it was effectively a 'workers collective,' where the idea was that all we were doing was providing structures that you can only get through having a big co-operative organisation. Things like distribution and so on. It's not like we sat around waiting for the next wave, for people to say 'How are we going to make money distributing this stuff with all this technology that's suddenly arrived?' I feel like the record industry is slowly going into hibernation, if anything. And at the moment, what we're [doing] is stockpiling really good artists and get them working on stuff. It's not as if interesting music has died out - you've only got to look at the number of people who are downloading MP3s to know that people are still interesting in looking for new music. Frantically. It's the fact that there was this huge issue about Napster. If people weren't interested in music, as some seem to think is the case because record sales are down and they're thinking, 'Ah, music's crap. Nobody's interested anymore.' Then why would Napster have taken off? Everyone would have just said, 'Music's crap, I'm not interested. I'll go and download porn.' But there were more people interested in Napster than there were in porn servers...
J: There's a case to be made that it would cost the majors next to no money to digitize their entire back-catalogue, dump the damn thing online and charge 50p a download.
L: Exactly. You could say, 'I want that Pop Will Eat Itself B-side that I forgot to buy in 1987...' But the sad thing about the music industry is that they don't really want accurate figures on what's been sold to whoever, because so much of it is shrouded in writing A off against B, so-and-so being recouped against D, X many video costs being offset against record sales, artist recording in the record label's own studio and that cost being charged back to them twice, etc, etc. The whole idea of this suddenly incredibly visible accounting system scares the shit out of them. The music industry is not based upon transparent accounting - everybody being able to see who is interested in what music. You've only got to look at the way that it works with royalty payments for radio-play. The only radio stations that submit their playlists [to the PRS] on a daily basis are radios one to five. The rest of them, all the independent local radio stations, they come in for one day a month, if you're lucky. They take a sample of what's being played and then just multiply that by 30 days. If you're on that list, you're quids in. If some band were played, and there were 30-40 thousand listeners but they weren't played on sample-day, they don't get any performance royalties. Now, in this day and age, it's perfectly possible for the PRS to track that. It can all be done digitally. The same as play in big clubs - it could all be tracked. But it's not in their interests to do that, because when that happens, Simply Red don't get their wedge of cash. Elton John doesn't get his big sack of money. Because if they have to guess, then the big artists are going to be the ones who're quids in.
J: From what I understand of commercial radio, playlists are decided by half-a-dozen blokes sitting round a table and they send the list out to the stations saying, 'Play this now.' Clearchannel, I think, own a significant percentage of wireless in the US... In the 80s there was the college radio thing, which is where REM came from. That was invaded by the majors, looking to simulate some credibility, and college radio ceased to be an interesting thing.
L: Yes. There's an interesting parallel there with internet radio, which the RIAA in the US are trying to close down.
J: Have succeeded, I think...
L: I've been writing letters to them almost weekly, saying, 'No. We want our stuff played.' The PRS and the MCPS in this country are almost the same thing: An organisation that allegedly collect money on my behalf that I never see anything of.
J: Then who gets it? Where does this money go?
L: What happens is... If, for instance, one of my tracks gets played, but isn't registered with them... The money collected on my behalf goes into a big pot. Said big pot is then shared out between the top ten grossing artists at the end of each year, because they can't work out how to share it amongst everyone else because it's not cost effective to do so. Robbie Williams gets another few quid. Elton John gets a new rug. The point being that all this technology should make it a more level playing field for the music industry, and I think that's why the music industry - in the Big Evil sense - is desperately trying to stamp out the whole MP3 thing. Another reason why 'MP3s are bad' is that, like you said, there's two or three singles on an album now and the rest of it's filler. You get MP3s out there and people know your album sucks...
L: ... Because people can just go and download stuff they've never heard of and go, 'Fuck me, this is terrible.' This is one of the reasons, allegedly, that Metallica were so annoyed with it. Because suddenly people realized that they couldn't write songs anymore...
J: This is... New...
A: Hang on... It was... 1994 when I figured out Metallica couldn't write songs, and that was way before I discovered the internet.
L: It gives you a preview of material that they don't want you to hear. They'd rather you went into K-Mart and bought the album, having heard nothing but the grossly over-produced single with the video you saw on MTV.
[Coffee break. Tony goes off for a dance and some tabs. Allezbleu attacks the coffee machine.]
J: Where was I? Music industry... Chaos Engine...Yes, Chaos Engine. Surely the entire reason you started all of this was so you could release your own CDs, rather than having to deal with coke-addled nonces?
L: Yes... I think so... It's kinda hard when you've... Got the studio you always dreamed of and you're doing it as a full-time thing. It's... Difficult to stay motivated because I've got what I want. The [last] Chaos Engine album was really fucking difficult to put together. It was really, really hard work because I'd done more producing and enoyed that so much more... And it was really difficult for me to go, 'I can do whatever I want now and nobody's reining me in at any point.' ... And that was really difficult. I don't know. I think we fell between two stools again, because part of it was big gay disco EBM and part of it was like nu-metal and I think that was the problem, and [it] always inherently has been with the Chaos Engine, is that it's too 'grrr' for the disco-kids and it's too disco for the hoodie-nu-metal Slipknot fans. I think we're going to be the industrial equivalent of the Associates...
J: What, you're going to die in a shed?
L: They were one of those bands that no-one really appreciated until they were gone, then they put together a retrospective and go, 'Ah. Yes. Those songs were pretty damn good.'
A: But you have got good reviews: People do 'get it'. Those who get it, love it. The rest go 'duuuuhh?'
L: Yeah, that's it. I know there's a guy in Texas walking around with a Chaos Engine tattoo. And that's one of the reasons that I don't stop doing it. But I don't want to be limping along with no hair and playing the back of a pub on a Tuesday night. There has to be a certain level of progress. When we go out and do gigs, we'll always give it 110% on stage, regardless of the crises of faith we've had about what we're trying to sound like... I think that was one of the problems with the album - I spent a lot of time thinking 'well, this is the song where we're going to sound a bit like Icon of Coil, this is the song where we're going to rock out and sound like the Deftones,' rather than actually making it for myself. Which, in a way, is why I'm keen to just go right into recording an album and just ignore everything. Just record it myself. A lot of the bands I was inspired by when I was recording it are just so far out of 'the scene' that I don't think there were really any anchor points for people within the scene that we're moving in. I've been listening to Aphex Twin and Kid606 and a lot of the fucked-up glitch-rock stuff. Japanese noise bands and Mindless Self-indulgence - things like that. That's what was really inspiring me when I was working on the mixes. But trying to sound like a band that doesn't even have a label over here is counter-productive as far as trying to... Sell it afterwards is concerned. Because nobody knows who I'm trying to sound like. There are just no reference points for anyone to get into... I think I was looking over my shoulder too much when we were working on it, really. In retrospect.
J: This will sound... Off... But the bits I liked best were the parts that joined the songs together.
L: Yeah... That was the stuff I did last. I was writing software to do what I wanted - programming up parts and modular equipment and doing a lot of noisy things... And they were the bits that I really got my teeth into. What I wanted were tracks that did that for a bit and then went on and did something else, and I don't think I really encompassed that. I started off wanting to write a bunch of really dancefloor-friendly popsongs, and then toward the end I started listening to a lot of really fucked-up stuff that made me want to go away and pull apart all the songs again. So there was never a state where I said, 'This is finished.' because I got to a stage where I was saying, 'Let's see how fucked-up we can make things before this isn't a song anymore.' ... And then I tried to glue it all back together, and I think a lot of the time you can sort of see the joins where I've done that. Whereas the stuff that joined the tracks was all done in one take and it was like, 'Yeah, that's done.' and those are the bits that were really exciting for me on the album.
J: I'm probably not alone in thinking that a lot of noodling about in the studio for months at a time is counterproductive, and the correct way to record a song is to bang it out live and always use the first take...
L: I'd... Agree with that. One of the things we did with a lot of previous material was take it out and gig it to death before we recorded it. With this album, we didn't do that so much, so I had no idea if the dynamic was working. Some of the songs we've taken out live and I've really not enjoyed doing them... And if I'd have known that, it would have been an immediate bad sign and I'd have gone, 'That song doesn't work, there's too much going on before anybody gets into the meat of the song.' ... And because we'd not road-tested a lot of them, I didn't feel that there was a dynamic that was really exciting. Another thing that was noticed a while ago is that structurally, they're really quite straightforward. That was something that I kind of wanted to do, because one of the criticisms levelled at Chaos Engine was that you'd just be getting into something and we'd change it... But for every person that really annoyed, there were people who were like, 'Yeah, this is great. Because it reminds me of bands like... Cardiacs.' Where you've got to know the band in order to appreciate the live show... Like a big ritual joke that you're all in on, and if you don't know what's going to happen next you're going to look like someone who's not a fan of the band. In a way, I kind of like that, but that's so far removed from the 'VNV-plod-plod-plod here comes the chorus, here's the break, here's the snare-roll and off we go.'
J: There are, though, a set of people who want that out of a song.
L: Yes. There's a lot of material on that album where I was trying to do something different. It's just that I had a foot in both camps - in what people were going to enjoy listening to and, 'I fucking love this. This is for me.' ... And I think I put myself under a lot of pressure thinking, 'Well, what are people going to like? What are people going to enjoy dancing to in clubs?' And... I just didn't get it right... I should have gone, 'What do I like? What makes me bounce around the lounge?' and then that would have translated better. I think.
J: Why don't you play Euphoria anymore? Since it's one of my favourite tracks..
L: It's... Not that enjoyable for the musicians because it does just hit a groove and loop around for a bit. Musically, it was off in the dance-industrial thing, but... We're still in a bit of a rock phase at the moment. I don't know where we're going to go next, but there's part of me that just wants to really get involved in knocking out some dance tracks... Something that's less rock-oriented. I'm still keen to hear an EBM band put guitars on a track to serious effect - I think it's much more likely to come from that direction... But even then, you could say, 'Oh, but that was done back with Rosetta Stone.'
J: ... That final, majestic, live version of Adrenaline is... What all guitar-oriented mad techno should be. There's some mad Japanese band that I keep seeing on Sci-Fi channel at 10am when I've got a screaming hangover...
L: ... Mad Capsule Markets...
J: ... Thank you! They're jumpy-up-and-down hoodie-metal with a bonkers 303 in the background and it's the best thing I've heard ever...
L: ... They are quite magnificent. It's Atari Teenage Riot on too much space-dust and cola.
[Another coffee break.]
L: ...I set up the record label I'd always dreamed of and then people got on to that label, full of the joys of it and then fucking walked off... And went and decided to do the 'bright lights big city' thing instead... Feel free to carry on recording...
J: Moi? As if...
L: It's... I've got to be honest, when Mark and I put the label together...
J: It's... Got to be a kick in the teeth...
L: Yeah... It is... It was, effectively, the equivalent of a two-year relationship ending... Where there'd been a sort of... Understanding. It did feel like being dumped. It was... Fucking horrible... It was very distressing and... It still is distressing. Had we tried to pull some of the shit that is now being pulled, we would have got very, very... Abruptly told to fuck off. And rightly so. And yet, some of the hoops that said band are being asked to jump through now, they're doing with a happy grin on their face. Had we gone, 'This is what you need to do in order to sell more CDs', they'd have gone, 'Piss off. You're just our mates...'
A: Maybe you just need to be... Harsher?
L: This is one of the things. We do have a tendency to work very closely with the artist, to the point where we do become their friends. I wouldn't have it any other way. It's not like I would ever 'employ' a band, as such, and put together an agreement of what they're expected to do on our behalf... But sometimes I wish I could. But... This is the thing... All the time I've been saying, well, what's happened here is dishonourable... And we're always surprised that nobody else can see it.
J: Were I playing devil's advocate I would say, 'Honour is good, but eating is better...'
L: Yes, which is why I'm... Distressed that... Fuck it, I'm going to name names: Swarf will now be expected to work five times as hard with no advance whatsoever. The only difference will be that instead of us putting together gigs that we know will cover their fuel expenses and leave them a few quid on top, they will now get to travel in a big shiny tour-bus and that money will be deducted from their record-sales.
J: I saw some stuff on-line which is publicly available, so I don't suppose it's any secret, where they've been told they're going to do a European tour with a 'major artist.' From what little I know about the music industry, surely they're going to be paying to get on that bill.
L: Certainly. And that money will be recoupable.
J: Yes... It's not free money, kids. It's a loan. The interest payments are your soul...
L: Quite. This is the whole thing we tried to explain. If I thought.. Don't get me wrong - there are artists on our label, who I'm not going to name, who are currently negotiating six and seven-figure fees to walk. With huge, major labels. They will go with my blessing because of they way that we're being kept in the loop.
J: Again, if I play devil's advocate... One could say that if you know you're being ripped off, then you're happy.
L: Hmm... Yeah. That's a shame, because one of the whole ethoses about the way we work is that everyone gets involved and works on their own behalf. The whole structure of the label is that we go out there and say, 'Yes, you can sell your own CDs. You can sell them at the gigs and keep all the money.' We're saying, 'This is how you can make money right now, because we know it'll take us a while to get some money out of your project.' So we give you a bunch of CDs, you sell them, we're not going to come hunting you down for that cash. That's how we do things. I don't want people to sit around and expect to be made into rock stars.
J: If I say 'anarchist collective,' would I be out of order?
L: Not at all. That was the whole point. We expect people to be able to work for themselves. The whole [record] deal thing that people just sit around expecting to be made famous, and when they are made famous they suddenly start questioning what all this money is for, and it's the people who put them there in the first place. My ideal being that you don't really need those people there if you're prepared to do some of your own leg-work.
J: I had got the distinct impression from... Certain other bands who will remain equally nameless... That what Wasp-Factory was doing was 'grossly unfair' for some reason. All I could see going on was that you had the contacts in the pressing plant and with the mastering people and with the printers and distributors... And that these were things that any rational person could find by picking up the bloody phonebook and looking for themselves... And I couldn't quite see how that was 'difficult' or 'cheating.'
L: No. Not at all. What we realized at an early stage, is that it's a strength through numbers thing. If you've suddenly got a catalogue of work, even if it's just a bunch of your mates, you become an interesting prospect to a distributor. If it's just you on your own, you're just A.N. Other band with A.N. Other vanity label.
J: Speaking of which, what of Skinflowers? The least 'Wasp-Factory' band on the Wasp-Factory label...
L: ... And increasingly so, since I understand they've just taken on a drummer as well.
J: Good God!
L: Mm-hmm. Broken the cardinal rule of Wasp-Factory...
J: They'll be indie-anoraks next... They'll be in fanzines and the NME.
L: Quite. It's strange. They released [Data in a hurry, and] Gary became very disillusioned because the album came out and then Radiohead went through their big resurgence and every single review that came out said, 'Skinflowers. They sound just like Radiohead...' And he said, 'This is tiresome. I really don't like this at all. I'm very bored with being continually referred to as a poor man's Radiohead. I'm not interested in doing that.' They went away and wrote some hard-arse rock sounds that really saw them going down that Big Black route and redisovering bands like Wildhearts... And the comparisons stuck. I think the point where Gary just finally threw in the towel was when he read a review of a David Byrne album which went, 'Oh, he's just trying to sound like Radiohead...' And it's like Radiohead have for the last God knows how many years been trying to sound an awful lot like Talking Heads... And at that point he decided there was no point carrying on, he was going to get these comparisons as long as he lived and he couldn't be arsed with it... So they basically went into exile a little bit, and then came out doing some really full-on music with loads and loads of attitude and loads of aggression, just for the hell of it - to go back out there and play live... But I think they were a band who just... Appeared, and put their album out through us at a time when it was too easy to pigeonhole them, and they just got really, really fucked off with it.
J: That's a great shame - I have to admit that Skinflowers are probably one of my favourite bands.
L: I still think the guy is one of the best songwriters we've got on the label, I still think he's got one of the best voices... Their music does stuff to me that most of the other stuff on the label just doesn't touch. It hits nerves that other stuff doesn't. Whereas some bands just rock out and are this way exciting, there's something about Skinflowers and the way they hang a song together that I think is totally unique... And I would be very, very sad if they decided to call it a day. But at the moment they're continually reinventing themselves. I think they've written something in the region of forty or fifty songs for the new album, which I've heard in various states that go from bastardised Rebirth loops to full-on eight part harmonies to standard three-piece rock band. I don't think they've really got an idea of what they want the album to sound like right now. My feeling would be 'all of the above' and let people unravel it. But having said that, again that sort of eclecticism will see them tarred with the Radiohead brush.
J: Possibly. Is there scope for banging out two different albums?
L: I'd never say to them, 'Lads, we have to get an album out right now.' If they're not ready to record then that's fine. I'd never try to pressure an artist into releasing something they weren't happy with... Which I know is something that I'm going to get a backhanded slap from Swarf as well, because I very much got the impression that their debut album should have been out well before now. On the other hand, it's the fact that they're not... Whereas Skinflowers are out writing forty or fifty songs and beavering away in their bedrooms, Swarf are just knocking out the same seven or eight tracks live now, still don't have enough material for an album and really fucking should.
J: It was... A shock, seeing them live for the first time, that they were very good indeed. It was a stunning racket. But any other band I've come across in that position would already have had the t-shirts and the CD-Rs pressed up. What planet are these people from? Do they not understand how the publicity machine works?
L: Exactly. This is where you make the money on the gigs. It was Chaos Engine t-shirt money that floated Wasp-Factory in the first place.
J: There's nothing wrong with making the money on the merch... Now we have MTV, now we have the internet, tunes are only a third of a rock band's output. Which sounds bad in isolation, but if you're going to play at that commerce game then you damn well sell yourself. It's an ugly thing to consider, but if you're going to do it, you might as well do it right. I'm now trying to think of a band where the shirts were better than the records...
L: Senseless Things were probably a case in point.
J: Hm. Yes... What of Tarantella [Serpentine]?
L: ... Is the new vocalist for Sheep on Drugs.
J: Really? Bloody hell... How? Why?
L: I don't know what the official story is, I just know that the SoD comeback gig was more Lee's doing than Duncan's because Duncan is a... Retiring family man now and doesn't seem particularly keen to carry on, whereas Lee is still mad keen for it. Wasp-Factory and SoD ended up on the same bus to Eurorock where it was mooted that Marcus [Tarantella] might be an ideal replacement. Lee saw him do a gig Upstairs at the Garage and asked him if he'd like to do live vocals for SoD. Wasp-Factory's hand in this was doing what's best for the artist - it would be nice if Marcus sold a whole bunch of his albums off the back of this, but there's no guarantee.
J: The most recent Tarantella performances have been this... Fantastically good dark drum & bass. Will this get recorded at some stage?
L: Yes. The only stipulation that I had with him working on the SoD stuff was that we still saw another Tarantella album at some point. Regardless of it coming out on the label or not. For the first album, Marcus was drawing on about four years of performance poetry. That's where I met him, and he came in and did some readings, one of which was used on Obstinate... And then his love of music was married with the lyrics, and for some of the time when we were doing [his] first album, we were taking a bunch of lyrics and a bunch of songs and going 'which fits best?' - there was pretty much a sort of mix and match attitude there. I think Marcus is now starting a writing process, and I think he's already got some musical ideas, but I think now the lyrics are meant to be more of an integral part of that... Though because he didn't have that huge wealth of material to feed off that he had before, he'd come to us before the SoD thing and said 'I'm not sure I'm ready to move on with the second album yet.' I think in a way that's good, because the SoD tour will provide him with a set of experiences to feed into the second album... And then some... So, it's not 'on hold,' it's very much a work-in-progress... I've heard some of the music and what he's done live and it's fucking sensational. He's really, really come into his own during the last few shows.
J: The last gig I saw was... Scary stuff. I make no bones about it. There was this fearsome racket going on. Live. Which was a welcome surprise. These people were playing something that was almost jazz, which sounds terribly pretentious, but it was excellent to see someone hacking out this... Synthesiser assault groove...
L: This is one of the good things about the label - all of the artists are continually raising the bar for the others. There's a real sense of camaraderie and everyone's egging each other on to be bigger and better... That's one of the things I like about it - Marcus especially has responded really well to the... Hothousing and everyone working together and helping each other. They've really been the example, and [he's] gone from being a performance poet to this mighty live act - how he's started off not really sure of what's going on and then really come into his own...
J: Could we see something like a Wasp-Factory 'house band' happening?
L: I'd prefer, rather than a 'house band,' that there was a very heavy collaborative element going on in the bands, and the fact that we've got some artists remixing other bands or stepping in and doing production... It's kind of like the 21st century version of the Tackhead/house band for On-U Sound...
(**) A wonderful book, reviewed in the Off The Shelf column in Legends #109.