New Membranes album Dark Matter/Dark Energy
We talk to John a few days after a sell out The Membranes album launch show in London, at which the band pounded through tracks from the brilliant new release. Heavy bass sounds, adrenaline-rush guitar riffs, danceable tunes and phenomenal energy had the audience lapping up the new material.
Dark Matter/Dark Energy sounds as if it is made from space metal, forged in a torrent of sparks at a mammoth foundry at the heart of the universe. It’s a complex and compelling masterpiece featuring everything from space sounds to strings to a radiator grille. John says it grew out of a band reunion and a meeting with a leading scientist.
We got asked to reform by My Bloody Valentine to play ATP about four years ago because our guitarist used to play in My Bloody Valentine in the early days, and they supported us at the start.
Well, we never thought about doing gigs again but the money was really good so we thought let’s do it and see what that pile of cash actually looks like. The gig went really well and I went, we don’t really want to play old stuff, let’s play new stuff so started to tinker around with ideas, new songs. Then I did this TEDx talk about punk and DIY culture and one of the other talkers was Joe Incandela from the CERN project in Switzerland.
Making things mindblowing
John and Joe bonded over a shared love of the Buzzcocks, but John had been a fan of the scientist for some time.
I’ve always been really fascinated by this guy, he’s the Number One guy at CERN. He’s the one who ran the Higgs Boson project so he’s got all the information. He was telling me stuff that still hasn’t come out yet, about the multiverse - this is one of endless universes that goes on forever.
It’s all this complete weird esoteric stuff. You talk about the Big Bang and how they’ve tracked it all the way back to the first trillionth of a second, but it can’t go back any further than that because they have no understanding to do that. Then he talked about dark matter, dark energy and I was thinking the idea of it was amazing. They used to think it was just ten percent of the universe now they think it’s about 80% so he’s saying that the more we find out the less we know.
The conversation was so mindblowing, and quite psychedelic. So what I was trying to aim at, was making these things with the band mindblowing. We did a gig called The Universe Explained in Manchester and we had a couple of CERN scientists doing conversations with me, then we played at the end of it and it went down really well and I thought, that’s got to be an album.
Joe Incandela even explains the universe on haunting track The Multiverse Suite. While the album was being made though, John’s father died. Some of his recorded words also feature.
It was about the life and death of the universe in a way, so it kind of fitted all that as well. It’s not strictly a concept album but that’s the loose concept of it. It’s like a documentary.
Recording the album - from jams to production tricks
The Membranes topped the Indie album charts in 1989 with To Slay The Rock Pig, and were one of the first bands that Steve Albini recorded at his base in Chicago. So how did they go about recording this amazing work, their first new album in 26 years?
Some of this album’s written at home, on GarageBand, the band then work it out, everyone just bashes it together in the room. We’ve played together such a long time because it’s most people out of Goldblade, and it’s so instinctive the way we play, you just start a riff and everyone’s on it straight away. Some of the songs on the album are actually jams in the studio, and the first takes as well!
You’ll be thinking well maybe we should rerecord that, but no! You never get it as good. If you’ve got a really good band who just play perfectly, speed up and slow down in the right places then you can’t repeat that, the magical moment. I think that kills a lot of music, that thing where people try and recreate that moment. The moment is already there so it’s never going to come back again. Maybe six songs we actually did like that in pretty well one take.
I really like raw, live-sounding records and I love the way Albini makes records, I love Shellac. I also like stuff like dub reggae, things where it’s just psychedelic or weird effects, things that move around, things that fuck your mind up when you listen to them, so it’s a mixture of the two. It’s got the raw edge of being played in a live environment, but also far more produced than people probably imagine.
The Membranes - pic C Vogelzang
Themes and lyrics
The lyrics too were a mix of worked on and immediate.
It wasn’t like we were just trying to say, oh look how smart we are, we’ve got lots of different references on it, it was just something that I was just dead interested in,
There’s about three or four songs where I just went in and did the lyrics off the top of my head as well, just getting into the idea of if it’s in your head get it out, and that’s what some of the tunes came out like, so in a way I had to decide what they were about myself, what the hell’s this one about?
I love a great live room
The Membranes made the album on a limited budget and recorded for a few days here and there in different studios. They relished a new found freedom from unwanted interference.
The bulk of the tracks were recorded at a great studio up in Yorkshire, near Hebden Bridge. It’s called Distant City Studios and it’s got a really good engineer and great live room and I love a great live room because as soon as you put the kit up in a room and you hit it, it sounds perfect, it does save an awful lot of time.
It’s wooden floors, wooden walls and he just had the room so well set up, the kit just sounded amazing straight away. Once you’ve got the drum kit down, everything’s quite easy in getting guitar, bass, because everything sits on top. It’s not that hard to record guitar and bass because if you’ve got good amps, good gear, they’ll all sound good if you play them well, because you don’t need a special room for them. Actually you don’t need special mics for them, you can record them with SM58s and they’ll sound good, if you’re really stuck for mics.
The Membranes - Kitmonsters
Breaking the rules
John says they relished the performance side and also a new found freedom from unwanted interference.
Performance is a massive part as well as getting a good sound, and to have an engineer who will let you do extreme things.
I remember a lot of our older records from growing up, they never let us make the records as raw as we wanted them to sound, because all the engineers in those days, about the 70s, it was all about getting a clean sound. You still get that nowadays, when people talk about radio mixes and how it should be for the radio.
We made a record that’s totally not obeying any of those rules but the perverse thing about it is that we’re getting played loads on the radio. I think the music should be dictated by the musicians, not by people who say I can’t play you on the radio because your music’s too loud. That’s nothing to do with you, you know, this is our music.
The Membranes - Kitmonsters
String parts with one finger
Tracks like The Multiverse Suite have strings on them. Originally Clint Mansell was going to do some mixing and they planned to use his string section, but scheduling issues meant the plans fell through. It was John who ended up playing the parts.
We can’t play strings but you can hear string parts in your head. This is pretty amazing now, totally ridiculous, but it’s an iPad.
It’s got a little string section so you can play with a finger. The initial idea was to play with the iPad and then I was going to go and find a string section to come into the studio and just go record the string section. But it wasn’t that easy to get a string section all together in one place at once. And also it sounded so good on the iPad, actually sounded like a string section, so there was no point.
It’s in GarageBand, just a very standard setting, so we just use that. I mean obviously if we had the money and we sold loads and loads of records - as no one does nowadays - but if we did then we’d use a string section live.
Plans for a choir
They may not have used a live strings section, but they are planning on scaling up their sound with a recording trip to Estonia.
I’ve been to Estonia to a music conference, there’s a great music scene there. I saw this choir, it was 30 women, doing this kind of drone singing, choral singing, it was absolutely mindblowing. I got to know them really well and we’re going to do a gig together in Estonia where we play with them while they do their choir thing with our music. There are a lot of drones in the music which would sound great with choirs singing them, and the idea is to go and record a single with them. I think it would sound incredible and I’ve got to film it, see if I can get that set up as a documentary sort of thing.
A skip and found sounds
On the album, band member Rob Haynes is credited with “drums, metal percussion, rubbing stones together, bits of plastic and radiator grill”. A catalogue of found sounds. How did it all happen?
Well outside the studio there was a skip and there was great stuff in that skip. One day it’s got all bits of metal in there so we just use them, and then the next time all bits of broken stone. There was a warehouse across the way and they were just smashing it down. The best sound that we actually found was a plastic bucket, I thought let’s try that out, it was a joke really. We started hitting it and it just made really great sounds so, it’s in the tracks. You can hear it being played as percussion.
Then another studio we went to in Manchester in the city centre, we just put the mic out in the corridor, and there was a radiator, we played on that, and some pipes. There was a fire escape going down the back like those New York fire escapes, we just took the mic out there, played the fire escape as well and it just sounded great, it had a really nice tone to it, the metal.
In a way, when you’re playing a guitar, you are actually hitting bits of metal, just really thin bits of metal stretched over a pick up, and drums is just hitting things as well, so it’s not really that massive a jump.
The Membranes - Kitmonsters
You couldn’t seem cool coming from Blackpool
John compares The Membranes’ love of found sounds to that of contemporaries Einstürzende Neubauten, and contrasts the fortunes of a band from Berlin and one from Blackpool.
Out of punk, there was a lot of people who were into that found sound thing. Obviously people like Neubauten. In a lot of ways, when we were going in the late 70s to the early 80s they were fellow travellers.
I’ve often thought, this is quite funny really, because they were from Berlin they’re like the coolest people in the world but we’re from Blackpool so we’re on a hiding to nothing. You just couldn’t seem cool coming from Blackpool. That was always a problem. Section 25 who also came from Blackpool had that problem as well. They were an amazing band and to me their first album’s as good as Joy Division’s first album. It’s not just me who says that, Ian Curtis thought that as well because he loved Section 25. But I think because Joy Division were from Manchester which had a great music scene and a heavy vibe, it kind of helped the music.
If you’re a band from Blackpool at the time, every single feature you ever did people would go on about candyfloss and Blackpool Tower and illuminations. If you’re from Berlin people used to go on about the Berlin Wall and the tension between the East and the West and this city where heavy people did heavy things.
The Membranes recently played a historic hometown show though - playing the UK’s highest ever gig, at the top of the Blackpool Tower!
Homage to Kraftwerk
The Membranes’ genre-defying work meant no instrument or technology was out of bounds - John’s vocals are put through a vocoder effect on Dark Matter.
I wanted that Kraftwerk thing because one of my favourite all time songs is Radioactivity. It’s just so spooky, it does sound like the eternity and it has that kind of vocoder effect on it so it was like a little reminder to me of how much I love that record, and it actually really fitted the track as well. It’s really hard to get a vocal in there, to sing really quietly into a track that’s got strings on it.
Kraftwerk were so great, they kind of de-sensitized the music. They take all the clichéd ideas out, the emoting in music, The X Factor thing where you pull faces and wave your hands about, and they stand there and they take all the emotion out of the vocal and somehow it makes it more emotional, and that’s a very cool little trick. So it was kind of a nod to Kraftwerk’s genius. We’re trying to work out how the hell to do that track live.
The real sound of the universe
Making the album led John deep into the sounds of the universe.
The Hum Of The Universe was originally written about the universe, it is actually in the musical note B Minor, I read that. I like the idea that in meditation, people try to zone in on the drone of the universe in a sense. I thought, I’m going to find this sound, I bet they’ll have it on YouTube because you can find everything, and I found it, it was on there.
In the end it didn’t fit on that track so we put it onto Dark Matter. So that weird droney sound is actually a recording of the noise of the universe. I think it’s the radio waves coming out of the initial big bang, they make a noise, but if you’re in space you wouldn’t be able to hear it because you’re in a vacuum. But I don’t mind the contradiction. I think because you take a poetic license when you make a piece of art, it doesn’t really matter if something’s 100% true or not, it’s just the idea that the universe is making this hum.
I also found this really amazing Buddhist choir singing the hum of the universe, this really deep hum, but apparently the sound of the universe is 26 octaves below one you can even hear, anyway, it’s so deep. Even that was a pretty cool idea as well.
Total freedom of expression
Dark Matter/Dark Energy is already being hailed as an album of the year, and is a stunning example of the creative power and brilliance that can come out of a DIY project.
This record is coming out on a label but it was constructed in a very DIY kind of way. I think maybe the best music’s made like that, because you see a lot of bands that get quite big and they get other people to write their songs for them. The thing about DIY is that it’s a great concept but a pain in the arse because you spend your whole life doing stuff - oh God we’ve got to sort out a German tour.
We’ve got this idea about The Membranes, there’s no rules, we’re not a genre band. It’s great doing Goldblade, but I like being in a band where if you want to have an orchestra we can. And then if people don’t like it then it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t have to be anything. It can be really loud and really quiet, it’s just whatever we feel like at that point in time. And I think that any musician always craves that kind of total freedom of expression.
John talks about bass guitar in punk, his own bass, amp and pedals here.