Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Hexmas - M.E.S. on the festive season


(mini-interview as part of The Observer's package feature on the kind of Christmas being enjoyed by famous people with the name of Smith)

The Observer, December 23, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Given his curmudgeonly image, you might expect Mark E. Smith to regard Christmas as a time to endure rather than enjoy.

"I don't mind it," he says. "I'd like it more if it was just for a couple of days. But when the whole country shuts down for two weeks, I find it gets on me nerves a bit. Christmas in this country just drags on and on. Apart from that, it's okay. You can't knock it, can you?"

Mark E. Smith's group, The Fall, are something of a post-punk institution. But, unlike most institutions, The Fall don't stand for anything.

In the 14 years of their existence, they have recorded a gargantuan body of work as demanding, wayward and cryptic as Dylan's, while Smith has been a perennial and voluble presence in the music press.

His Northern bloody-mindedness and bracing inflexibility of character has been reflected in The Fall's coruscating sound — and his views on the so-called festive season.

"Usually, I try to get away altogether. I try to avoid the claustrophobia of being cooped up with the family, and all the arguments," he says.

"This year, though, I'm spending it with my mum, 'cos she's on her own."

And how about the grisly business of giving? "I do all the present buying the day before Christmas. I'm not much of a shopper. I go by instinct. On Christmas Eve, the shops are clear.

"Overall, I enjoy New Year much more than Christmas. I used to live in Edinburgh until recently, and I like the Scottish attitude to New Year. I have a lot of friends up there — real friends, who don't know who I am, if you know what I mean."

Smith migrated to Scotland from his native Manchester after splitting up with his American wife, Brix, last year. During Brix's stint in the band, The Fall shifted somewhat in the direction of pop, and even enjoyed some chart success.

Now 32, Mark E. Smith says he's enjoyed the return to the single life. "It's fantastic, and I need space to work in anyway." Meanwhile, Brix is pursuing a solo pop career and has been romantically linked with violinist Nigel Kennedy.

Smith has his own connections with high culture. The Fall have collaborated with Michael Clark, most notably in a genre-trashing ballet, called I am Curious, Orange, in 1988.

Currently Smith is working on a musical, the details of which he prefers to keep under wraps. It's indicative of the singer's contrary nature that if anybody else in rock had dared to make similar dalliances with high art, they would have been lashed with his most scathing derision.

Smith has often fulminated about how rock 'n' roll was ruined when the students and art-college kids got hold of it. And he's long been the music press's token anti-liberal.

His out-of-kilter notions and pet bigotries are relished as an antidote to the right-on pieties of the alternative scene. In interviews he's typically to be found ranting about how wholemeal bread tastes like dust, or why nuclear weapons are preferable to conscription.

"I think aloud when I'm doing interviews," says Smith. "Sometimes the things I say are just a wind-up, but they get taken seriously. But if you're looking for an illiberal quote, then I can tell you that I believe we should be at war with Iraq right now."

If Smith has a creed, it's probably a kind of brass-tacks scepticism, a thoroughly old-school British distaste for humbug and cant.

"There's two things wrong with Britain nowadays," he says. "There's too much media, TV is too much in charge. And everybody's starting to take politics seriously again, now that Thatcher's gone.

"I was always brought up to think that politicians were all as bad as each other, that they were all idiots. I always thought that the good thing about Britain was that everybody thought politics didn't matter, whereas in Europe they think it does."

With his cut-the-crap nature, does he find Christmas nauseatingly twee? Or does he have a secret sentimental streak?

"Well, I'm actually a very nice bloke, I'll have you know. I tend to get written up in a particular way. Of course I have a sentimental side, perhaps overly so. I have a family and all that. I'm just about the only man left among 80 women. All the menfolk are dropping off like flies."

This Christmas, it seems, "our Mark" will be smothered firmly in the ample bosom of his family.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Joe Boyd interview

Time Out, May 2006

by Simon Reynolds

White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s - Joe Boyd’s riveting memoir of his life as record producer and manager - is perfectly timed. British folk rock is freakily fashionable at the moment, with Boyd protégés like The Incredible String Band, Vashti Bunyan, Nick Drake, and Fairport Convention revered as sacred ancestors by the new breed of beardy American minstrels such as Devendra Banhardt. But the New Jersey-born Boyd’s involvement in music extends way beyond gently-plucked acoustic guitars and dulcet-toned troubadours.

He was the production manager at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 (it was Boyd who plugged in Dylan’s electric guitar that fateful night), he co-founded the legendary London psychedelic club UF0, and he produced Pink Floyd’s debut single “Arnold Layne”. Boyd appears across the pages of White Bicycles as an almost Zelig-like figure, popping up alongside legend after legend: Muddy Waters, Roland Kirk, Eric Clapton, Duke Ellington, Nico, and--most unlikely of all-- the pre-ABBA Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Frida, with whom he spent an evening wassailing in Sweden. He shared a house in Laurel Canyon with John Cale and even dated lovely Linda Peters, the future Mrs Richard Thompson.

Unlike Zelig, though, Boyd was no bystander, but a crucial backroom catalyst and enabler, or as he prefers, “an eminence grise”.  His career really took off when he arrived in London in late 1965. Swept up in the “incredible energy of 1966,” he neglected his day job (setting up the UK branch of Elektra Records) and became a prime mover on the city’s psychedelic underground. With partner John Hopkins, he started UFO. “There were a lot more freaks in London than we’d realized,” he recalls of the club’s wildfire success. “The great golden period of UFO was from December 1966, when it opened, to April 1967, when “Arnold Layne” came out. Then Hoppy and some of his pals at International Times threw the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream rave at Alexandra Palace, the one Hendrix and Lennon turned up too, and there were a lot of cameras there. Almost instantly, UFO was swamped by the curious.” Hard on the heel of these “tourists” came the media and the law, resulting in tabloid horror stories about naked 15 year old girls tripping out of their minds, police raids, and a drug bust for Hoppy.

The idea for UFO evolved as an offshoot of the London Free School, an idealistic “education for the people” venture operated out of a basement in Ladbroke Grove. Renting a nearby church hall, Boyd and Hoppy staged a series of precociously triptastic Pink Floyd sound-and-light shows to raise money for the LFS. “Then, we thought ‘why not raise some money for ourselves?’” chuckles Boyd. “We were both broke--I’d lost the Elektra job, while Hoppy had been a photographer but had given it up for ‘the revolution’. So starting UFO seemed like an obvious way to make a bit of bread”

Among the more anarcho-yippie “heads” of the time, like Grove hairy Mick Farren, the organizationally-skilled Boyd was regarded as suspiciously bourgeois and business-savvy. But in this respect he exemplified a breed of aesthete-entrepreneur who flourished in the Sixties--characters like Chris Blackwell of Island Records (with whom Boyd’s  production company Witchseason forged an alliance), Chris Stamp & Kit Lambert (the team behind The Who and the Track label), Peter Jenner, Giorgio Gomelsky, et al. All of these cats managed to walk the line between art and commerce, the underground and the mainstream. Equally driven by a passion for rock and a love of the hustle, record biz mavericks such as Denny Cordell and Tony Secunda (the producer and manager behind the Move) are as vividly drawn in Boyd’s memoir as far more widely known figures like Nick Drake and Sandy Denny.  Although Boyd similarly managed to balance the demands of music and the bottom line, he says he wasn’t nearly as tough or shrewd as the true players of the era. After recording “Arnold Layne”, for instance, he was maneuvred out of any stake in Pink Floyd’s future.

Ironically, for someone at the swirling kaleidoscopic center of London’s freak scene, Boyd’s own approach to producing records shunned all the trippy tricks that got slathered over music in the late Sixties, opting instead for a warm and luminous naturalism. “I had a horror of making the hand of the producer visible, so all those overdone studio effects like phasing and panning never appealed,” he explains. “I felt it would date the music, whereas I always wanted my things to be listened to in 50 years. For me the task of a producer is to create the illusion of a band in a room playing together live in a real acoustic space.” You can hear the timeless fruits of Boyd’s sensitive approach on the White Bicycles double-CD of Witchseason productions that’s coming out in tandem with the book.

And the title of the memoir? It’s an emblem, explains Boyd, for all those “lovely ideas of the Sixties” that didn’t work out.  It specifically refers to the Dutch Provos scheme of distributing white bicycles around Amsterdam for people to use for free—a utopian plan that worked fine for a while, “until by the end of 1967 people started stealing the bikes and repainting them”. Boyd explains that in his increasingly desperate search for a title, he recalled that in the book he identifies the moment when UFO faves Tomorrow performed their Brit-psych classic “White Bicycle” as the absolute zenith of the Sixties, the peak before the crash into disillusion and disintegration. The pinnacle occurred at “just before dawn on Saturday, 1 July 1967.” If his sense of recall sounds suspiciously precise for someone who surely ought to have been blitzed out of his gourd at the time, Boyd anticipates any objections, confessing “I cheated. I never got too stoned. I became the eminence grise I aspired to be, and disproved at least one sixties myth: I was there, and I do remember.”

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Maas production

Timo Maas
Village Voice, 2001
by Simon Reynolds

If you’ve entered a Manhattan dance store recently, you’ll have noticed swaths of wall space swallowed up by something called “progressive.” Trance without cheese, house purged of disco, techno stripped of black feel, progressive is defined almost by its in-between-ness. The genre’s tantric ideal is the long set sustained at the brink of climax. DJs like John Digweed deliberately select characterless tracks rather than orgasmic anthems, because they work better as mixscape components. Progressive therefore tends to be a rather level, peakless experience—mild and middling.

It’s certainly the last genre I thought would generate anything exciting, until a chubby-cheeked German called Timo Maas came along. At his least, he’s Sasha with balls; at his best, he makes progressive’s indistinctness seem like the promise of a new genre. “Big room,” a term DJs often drop when reviewing records, might be a good name. Site-specific rather than musically defined, it refers to colossal-sounding tracks that exploit the surround-sound systems at Twilo-style superclubs. Maas’s music is sculpted in four dimensions: huge blocks of sound-in-motion, glittering tracer-trails of filtered noise panning overhead. Sound becomes spectacular. Size counts, not just in quadraphonic dimensions but along the frequency spectrum: A sudden kick-drum will open up a hidden plateau of sub-bass below what you believed was the nether threshold.

With his Twilo residency shifted to Saturdays (warming up for Junior Vasquez), Maas now has twice as much time on the decks. Unfortunately, a six-hour set means he can slow-build, Digweed-style. After much gritless throb and sub-euphoric pummel, Maas finally reached full throttle around 4 a.m. on February 10, sending the crowd apeshit with his re-remix of “Dooms Night,” his scene-crossing smash of 2000. 

Still, a curious blankness lingers. Eliminating the aspects of rave that harked back to youth movements like hippie and punk, progressive achieves a kind of purity. There’s no humor or sexuality, just a vague urgency, semi-articulated through the occasional vocal sample: “It’s in your reach . . . concentrate . . . find the space inside.” Even in the hands of such a consummate pyrotechnician, the “big room” sound shows how rave’s explosive energies have been corralled by the superclub industry. Sound becomes spectacle. And that’s not progressive in any sense of the word.