“Some jagged surrealism, some acidic observation, and a high decibel nervous breakdown”: all in a day’s work for one of England’s premiere post-punk combos, now back in the saddle with some seriously dark energy. Founding member John Robb explains…
BY TIM HINELY
Raise your hand if you remember this UK post-punk bunch from the late ‘80s (not enough hands raised). I remember them because Homestead released a few of their records in between releasing stuff by likeminded souls like Sonic Youth, Naked Raygun and Big Black. The band called it quits in the early ‘90s, returned in 2009 with and then dove back underground again, never to be seen or heard from again… until now.
OK, question two, raise your hand if you thought that this bunch, led by wild-haired maniac John Robb – in addition to having a solid side career as a journalist, he used to do a cool zine called Rox, incidentally – had mellowed with age, (ok, way too many hands up—see the final exchange as a “bonus question” below for the details on Rox).
Well good god they have not. Not even close. Dark Matter / Dark Energy, released on Cherry Red and their first album since 1989, is so full of spastic, grinding grunts you’d think it was 1988 all over again. Apparently it’s a bit of a concept record, too, all about the life and death of the universe (sadly, Robb lost his father during the recording so part of it is about him a well).
These fourteen songs bob and weave, rise and fall and generally make a first class racket in the best way possible. In some other bent universe cuts like “Do the Supernova,” “Money is Dust” and “Space Junk” would be viewed as hits (the gorgeous “Dark Matter”, too) and Robb hailed as supreme ruler, but in America this’ll likely they’ll likely not be appearing on Jimmy Fallon or Kimmel or whatever anytime soon. Fine with me. Robb chatted with BLURT about the record and not them, so there.
BLURT: Why a new Membranes record? Why now?
JOHN ROBB: We had waited long enough! When the band stopped in 1990 we had run out of steam, run out of ideas and run out of time. 25 years later I had more ideas and more steam than ever. I never even thought about it for years but out of the blue My Bloody Valentine, who used to support the Membranes before they broke through, and who Nick from the Membranes played violin for for a period, asked us to play ATP festival. This was followed by Shellac getting us onto their ATP festival and both gigs went really well- packed out and with a great reaction.
I was never interested in coming back and just playing the old stuff. The whole idea of a band like the Membranes was to go forwards. I wanted to reform the spirit and the idea of the band more than replicate what we were and just rattle of faithful versions of old songs; we wanted to move forwards and make an album that was epic and unique. We wanted to get deep into the heart of the dark stuff – the shamanic stuff – the subconscious.
There was a couple of ideas that when we started playing them exploded into something epic and huge and captivating and every quickly we had an album with lots of new songs coming out of thin air that turned into a double album when we started recording because the band was so hot that every time I started jamming on a bass line the whole song came together really quickly. Some of the songs are one take jams with one take vocals on them – the music and the words were during out- the psychic poetry was like a fountain. I’ve never felt so inspired!
We would not have used the songs if they didn’t work, but they sounded edgy and exciting and had a perfect groove. I also started playing bass again for the first time since the beginning of the band and this is really key as the bass was the main instrument of the post punk period that we came out of and cranked to the top of the mix defines our sound. Another factor was the meeting with the head of the CERN project when me and him were both giving a talk at a TedX event. He was talking about the Higgs Boson project and I was talking about the power of DIY culture and we hit it off – he gave me loads of great information about the universe – totally mind blowing that really affected the album which was already sounding dark and mysterious so Dark Matter/Dark Energy was born – then during the recording my father died which affected a lot of the songs so it all sorted of wove together.
Is it really the first record since 1989?
Yes. The time is right now. Creativity should never be in a hurry! We had to make a record that was right. It took a year to record – in fits and starts. I was thinking about it every day, running it through my head. It had to be perfect for what it was and I put everything into it. If it wasn’t right it wasn’t going to come out. (Below: a very young Membranes)
What does the title mean, Dark Matter/ Dark Energy?
It’s about the mysterious matter than makes up most of the universe and also the mysterious matter of the tidal waves of emotions- the original spark came from the conversation with Joe Incandela of the CERN project at that Ted X event. He said to me that they know less about the universe now that when he started working there and ‘the more we find out the less we know…’ which really affected me – I loved that idea- the great mystery and I also loved the idea of this invisible matter and energy making up 90 per cent of the universe.
I also liked the idea that the darkness of melancholia, which is a very northern thing, was captured into words and in a lot of music on the album. We are based in Manchester and very aware of the lineage from post punk to Joy Division etc – we grew up in Blackpool but we were like distant cousins of that Manchester scene alongside another great local band Section 25. We were younger and we came from an uncool town – our contemporaries were the Birthday Party from Melbourne, Einsturzende Neubauten from Berlin, Sonic Youth from New York, Steve Albini in Chicago, but we were from fucking Blackpool – a seaside town and every write up we got would reference holiday makers and candy floss which had nothing to do with the heavy skewed music we were making. Weird.
Can we expect some Simon Clegg cover art again?
He was meant to be doing the cover – he’s a genius artist. I sent him the Fuseli painting that eventually became the cover a year ago but he never got round to redoing it! He was very apologetic but I simply ran out of time and the Fuseli painting is brilliant- it really captures the feel of the album – the sex and death and mystery of everything- the inherent nightmare – the erotic and the terror. I love all of Fuseli’s work and when we tour the USA in the autumn I will be making pilgrimage to the Washington DC gallery the Nightmare is hanging in. We kept the lineage with Simon, though, by using his brilliant jester paintings on the album and the single- the jester was always our key piece of artwork/logo and it was always flattering when other groups used a similar motif afterwards. There was something macabre about the jester and we loved the way that they would cackle at authority whilst being thought of as being fools – seeing through the lunacy of the so called real world.
Who is playing in the band now?
John Robb vocals/bass, Nick Brown guitar (original member and from Blackpool), Peter Byrchnmore guitar and Rob Haynes drums—as well as guest musicians on the album playing strings etc.
Are you still in Blackpool?
I left Blackpool in 1984 but I’m still involved with lots of people there and part of the campaign to get the local football club sorted out from its dodgy owners. We play the Rebellion festival there and I go over to meet the council now and then about projects.
For folks expecting another Songs of Love & Fury or Kiss Ass Godhead, what will they get?
Possibly closer to Kiss Ass Godhead– there is that heaviness to the sound but also some tracks that are almost like classical music. One track is built around breathing with string section playing on top, one is an unrelenting heavy bass motif, one track is a drone on an e-bow and another is layers of hypnotic feedback and strings whilst another is driven by a snarling heavy bass. There are some slow moments where we sound like ourselves- some jagged surrealism, some acidic observation, some of it is a high decibel nervous breakdown and some of it is dark dub soundscape. It’s quite psychedelic in parts and doesn’t really sound like anyone else. We believe it’s the best record we have made and has all the hallmarks of the classic Membranes without being museum piece. It’s twisted yet weirdly listenable – people who have heard bits of it so far are very excited by it.
How has the response been so far?
It’s early days but response has been amazing so far from all over the world- people are saying it’s the best thing that we have done and that we have arrived back at just the right time.
Will you be making it to the USA for any shows?
There is a plan to tour the USA in the autumn- it’s hard work touring the USA these days – you need £3000 to cover the costs of visas and the visa people make the whole process so complex that you sometimes have to cancel your tour. We had a campaign about it last year and had a meeting at the American embassy. They were very helpful but only changed the time that band had to arrive at the embassy for their interview to get your visa (the whole band has to go at the same time for a one minute interview to London only – imagine the hassle if you were an orchestra!). There are dates sketched out for the tour and it looks like a 4 week stint…
Do you still keep up with newer bands? If so who are some current acts that you like?
Luckily for me I do a music website called louderthanwar.com and we are totally on top of new bands- we get sent stuff all the time and write constantly about music – follow the site for tips!
BONUS QUESTION: When can we expect a new issue of Rox?
Sometimes I think about doing special fanzine to tie in with a tour! I guess the louderthanwar site mops up most of the writing and websites are the digital equivalent of the Xerox culture of our youth – saying that, an old school photocopied missive would suit what we are doing! I love the cut and paste culture, it was the perfect reflection of the punk ether – the music, the clothes, the hair – was all cut and paste… May well do a new Rox – thanks for the inspiration!