Better their hell then, than ours now: The UK legends reflect upon their seminal early ‘90s album and bring us up to date on where things stand in 2018.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
26 years on from its release, Hair and Skin Trading Company’s Jo in Nine G Hell (Situation Two/Beggars Banquet, 1992) is a record that takes the listener on quite a harrowing journey of visceral tribal rhythms, dubnotic pulses, and acid-spattered landscapes. Ex-Loop members John Willis (drums), and Neil MacKay (bass, vocals), augmented by Nigel Webb (guitar) plus the short-tenured keyboardist/sampler player Richard Johnston, were a force to be reckoned with on their debut. Pulling from a vast array of Krautrock influences, the band fused this with a kinetic tribalism and organic sonic chug that, as it contorted and entered the ear canal, managed to elicit a very unsettling and challenging listening experience which was wildly out of step with the early ‘90s.
As fate would have it, the album was found populating the .99 cent bin at many of the record stores that I frequented at the time. Not the first Situation 2 band to suffer this fate, I count The Darkside and Thee Hypnotics among those as facing similar fortunes. So while Americans seemed to let bands like this slip through the cracks, I took it as an opportunity to listen to some of the UK’s best kept secrets. I have immense respect for Peter Kent, Situation Two’s founder, whose team gathered together some of the most unique bands of the time.
Jo in Nine G Hell was produced by Roli Mosimann, who worked with The Swans and Foetus, and the uncompromising nature of the songs were given sonic coherence under his command. So what are some of the songs on this album worth mentioning?
First and foremost, the opener “Elevenate” must be discussed. “Some people deserve to die…” is a menacing enough lyric, but place it over an urgent guitar line and throbbing bass with some muscular drumming thrown in for good measure, and you have a full-on bloodletting about to take place. Thinking back to when I first heard this track, I can recall how excited I was. It was the sonic brutality and snide unadorned voice spitting vitriol that managed to hook me. It was the perfect angry manifesto for someone who was about to be spit out into the real world left to fend for himself. (Below: the author spins the track for you, the discerning Blurt readership.)
“Monkies,” with its nocturnal dub bass line, is another stunner that still blows me away. It’s the oddest mélange of psych/dub/metal that you will ever hear, but these disparate elements work extremely well and are the key to the uneasiness one feels when listening to this record. Then there’s “Where’s Gala,” with its cascade of sonic blips and bleeps, emitting a mournful call through the opium fog signaling that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Letting yourself fall down the rabbit hole is the part of the joy this record offers. “Pipeline,” with its motorik beat, works its magic as it enters your cranium; the meaty bass playing here is what makes this song shine—dare I say, it’s even a tad funky.
“Flat Truck,” with its tribal beat beginning, drifts off into a schizophrenic drug-addled ferocity. Here, the drumming and bass take center stage and act as the core on which the effect-laden guitar line is able to zigzag over. Here, as on much of the album, the rhythm section is front and center, while the guitar and vocals are used to augment the proceedings to chilling effect.
Hair and Skin Trading Company, on this record, took fans of Loop into some difficult, uncharted sonic territory that is well worth giving a listen to. (Fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the title is an anagram of the three members’ names (Neil, Nigel, John) as member Richard Johnston quit during the recording.)
Thankfully, I was able to track down bassist MacKay and drummer Willis, who are readying a new record as we speak, for an interview about the genesis of Jo in Nine G Hell—as well as the state of the world.
BLURT: Where did The Hair and Skin Trading Company name come from?
John Willis: It was the name of a real business at the end of the street that I lived [on in] London. We thought it was snappy.
Neil Mackay: The name came from an old closed factory in Falkland road in Turnpike lane North London. John used to live on that street, along with lots of old friends. Robert and Bex from Loop, Lisa, many old friends lived there. That was where John introduced me to the music of Steve Reich, Arvo Part, Ligeti and many other great pieces of music.
Not so much a question, but I want to get your take on whether you see that maybe this record is more suitable for our present condition, given that Donald Trump is in power?
JW: I don’t know about that. There is always a Donald Trump somewhere in power. I mean, when we made the album George W. Bush was in power. Who’d have thought we’d prefer him again!!!! The pre-internet, pre-rolling news and social media world was such a different place. I suppose if the record had any political potency it was about the possibilities [of] world destruction and that hasn’t gone away just yet.
Nigel Webb: Present condition? Possibly – control, power, money, corruption, poverty and so on. Not issues/situations that are at all resolved just yet (worse?) You can get regular updates these days though.
NM: Music is an art form. [It] is also a describer of current times. Although it has changed over the last 20 years and music is now produced for [money] and fame. Musicians now are compliant not creative. A great shame. As to whether this record is more suitable to our present condition I could not say I feel no longer in touch with the mobile telephone / internet addled society where peace, friendliness, compassion, trust, honesty, straightforwardness, transparency seem to all have no meaning any more.
Where was the album recorded?
NW: At Matrix Studios, 35 Little Russel St., in the west end of London. (The Birthday Party, Massive Attack, PIL, African Head Charge and many others have used it.)
NM: The album was recorded in the Matrix studio in Little Russell Street in central London. Originally opened in 1977, seems to still be working. [An] awesome studio I was very pleased to be in such [an] excellent professional space. I knew little about studio work then, still do! Great studio. Long may it last!
Who painted the album cover?
JW: 16th century Milanese artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, His paintings contained allegorical meanings, puns, and jokes and were made up from inanimate objects like fruit of books.
NM: We the band chose the main picture, and the creative director at Beggars Banquet, Steve Webbon, contacted the owner of the copyright to the picture (In Italy ) and I think for the price of an expensive bottle of whiskey we were allowed to use the picture. The original artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo. An awesome artist, please check [out] his work!
How much did it cost to record the album?
JW: More than we could afford.
Did sessions with Roli Mosimann go smoothly? In what ways did he alter your sound? Were there any songs that you were of two minds on?
JW: Roli really tidied our sound up more than changed it. He was cool but some songs suffered a little bit from being over-edited, in hindsight. The songs were mostly written by jamming ideas at rehearsals and there was a looseness that got lost, but having said that he did really focus the album. We had never really been “produced” before; we always worked with engineers who we respected. It was an interesting experiment, but we didn’t work with a producer again. I think we are all producers so we just need a great engineer to capture the ideas we have. Our stuff comes together very organically, and bringing in another brain at the end of the process felt strange, but he was pretty sympathetic I think.
NW: Erm no, not initially, Richard Johnston, the samples/keyboard player, walked [out the first day and was still living in my flat afterwards]. Roli implied he was going to do likewise, quit that is, until the studio was re-organized. The cellar [was] cleared out to create an echo chamber for the drums. We had demoed pretty much everything on our own in another studio. Vons, where I used to work, was used by Psychic T.V., Sol Invictus, Bark Psychosis, Silverfish, Terminal Cheesecake, My Bloody Valentine, etc. We were also into playing things [live and often improvised]. Roli had a different approach. We liked his work with The Swans, The Young Gods, and Wiseblood.
NM: Roli had a completely different idea to what we had for the album. He wanted “Chak Chak“ sequenced totally [using a] click track so he could control the sound completely. He wanted to lay the samples down using a computer and we had Richard at the time “playing“ the samples live with no sequencer. Richard flipped out when he found this out and left the studio with all the samples – so we were stuffed from the outset. Absolute drama from the word go. Richard refused to give the samples up. We had spent quite a while getting the sounds together so this was an important part of the songs gone. I contacted Richard and said give us the samples back or there will be trouble. If I remember rightly, I said he would still play parts on the album but no, he walked out there and then. I was sorry to see him go but I was very focused on “our big chance “so [we] went with Roli. Roli changed our sound heaps. The first engineer he had he sacked and got a famous engineer (Kenny Jones) in who made the drums sound big and full. The new engineer fed the drum sound down into a lower basement room to get a huge reverb sound. At the time I thought it was too clinical / clean but I was still very new to the whole thing and just trusted in him. It was an intense time. I was unsure of all of it really. It was the first album I was singing on. I thought of myself as just a bass player and was insecure about my voice / the lyrics / everything, really. I used to cringe when my voice came out of the speakers!
The production in my mind seems to have aged well, what’s your take?
JW: Yes, I agree. At that time studio production was just at the stage of moving from analogue to digital. I really liked that time the best because the music was tracked to tape with all the possibilities that brings – saturation, tape editing and warmth of tape compression – but in the control room there were new machines capable of things new to us. The advance of sampling and ease of syncing a computer to the tape machine was exciting. This was a great age of experimentation which mirrors the advent of multitracking in the 1960s. It had all the best bits of modern recording with the good bits of the restrictions of the past and that keeps the sound modern.
NW: I kind of like the production helped by the SSL super analogue ‘total recall’ mixing desk with two-inch 24-track reel to reel analogue tape machines.
NM: It sounds great. I wish we had used Roli for the subsequent recordings as he suggested. He did a great job. Clear and punchy, using the SSL system was awesome. The problems I have with some of the recordings are down to a lack of investment of time in some of the details!
How long did the album take to complete?
NM: I think the album took two weeks (not totally sure on that). I think the recording side of things was a week. I think Nigel wanted a lot more time to spend on guitar parts, but Roli wanted to spend time on mixing. I remember Nigel going home and pretty much not sleeping, working on new parts – God bless.
What do you recall about the sessions?
JW -The sessions were mostly cool from what I can remember. We had pretty clear ideas about how the songs should sound and had time to do more experimentation in the studio. We worked long hours and I think we might have kept Roli up a bit later than he was used to, but overall a very cool time. It was a new project for us and it felt really free because of that.
NW: Tension, quite a bit of stress, some obsessive behavior, was interesting understanding completely different methods of working, a learning process, working with great engineer Kenny Jones (Tom Waits, The Smiths, etc.) as well as a producer.
NM: I recall that I wanted it to have a bit more of a live feel. That was the only thing I remember really, trying to not get too stoned / out of it, trying to get that correct mix of out of it but still [be] able to play. That was my mind set at the time. Out of it but still able to play. It was quite stressful in a certain way. Roli was [a] strong character. I liked him and thought he did a great job and hope we are still friends. Good to see he is still doing production. I was in awe of his work with The Swans and The Young Gods so I pretty much kept my mouth shut and let him do his work!
Which songs were the hardest to nail?
JW: We’d played most of the songs live and, as far as I remember, we had no real problems getting them recorded.
NW: All pretty much just as easy / difficult.. .except “9/10 of the Law” which we had been playing live very differently and used on the “Ground Zero” B-side.
NM: No, [we] didn’t have any songs that were particularly “hard to nail.” We had rehearsed a fair bit, gigged, and had our setlist and knew the parts we had to play. As I said before, Nigel wanted to change bits and bobs but (he / we) ran out of time for that!
Listen to unreleased live version of the track “9/10 of the Law” which was graciously supplied by the band.
Were these songs explicitly written for this record or had some of them been around for a while?
JW: No, we had them all before we went in the studio
NW: all the tracks – well nearly / almost – everything had been, played, demoed, recorded, or played live in one form or another before going into the studio. The recording [approach] with Roli was very different.
NM: The songs were explicitly written. I am not keen on releasing “demos“ that I’ve had sitting around for a while. I like to work with musicians and create a new album up to date using the musicians and their [ideas]. Working with other musicians is what it is about really. The input they give is invaluable and I always try to listen to them, play with them, against them, whatever. It is a communication thing, really. I think everyone should be involved in music, playing in a group situation with fellow humans. I read somewhere that playing an instrument, singing [in] a group, fires more neurons than meditation! Make your brain good, be creative, create stuff, I don’t care what it is. Go out on a limb be daring. It can be scary. What’s the [worst] that can happen? Someone says your work is shit? Who cares what they say. At least you have done something! At least you have created! That is what important, new creation is!
JW: No just the album.
NW: “9/10 of the Law” and “Crush,” which involved going down to the same cellar, by now converted into an echo chamber and throwing / smashing various metal and other objects and yelling; both B-sides to “Ground Zero.” There are also some instrumental mixes of the songs. (Note: “Ground Zero” sleeve is pictured to the left.)
NM: No extra songs were created for this session. Later we got into writing heaps of stuff. I think and hope Nigel has a few boxes of [unused] old tracks. Do you Nigel? No this album was written and a few gigs were played before we went into the studio. No excess / no leftovers.
Seems Situation 2 was quite the cool label; were they hands off with the recording?
JW: Yes, they were pretty hands off. They put their trust in Roli and [thankfully] left us alone.
NW: They didn’t come down to the studio and were pretty hands off. Maybe [they] popped in? Nice folk[s] though.
NM: Situation 2 – Roger, who we dealt with there, was totally cool, totally – thank you to those guys – awesome! You must remember that at this time Loop was supposedly on a “holiday“ or taking a break from the hectic touring and recording schedule that had left us all exhausted and not wanting to be in each other’s company any more. I wish Loop had got back together, as I was too young and insecure to be the leader of a group. I just wanted to have fun – really, I’ve only just grown up over the last few years! I’m 54 now! When Loop got back together for a meeting a year later or so, we all agreed [that] we [liked what we were currently doing, so] why go back to something that is a pain? That was the end of Loop. If something isn’t fun and rewarding I [don’t] do it, end of story.
There are some bad ass songs on this record; tell me the genesis of the tracks “Monkies,” “Elevenate,” “Where’s Gala,” and “Flat Truck”?
JW: All our songs came together by playing in rehearsal rooms. We’d tape stuff and Neil would take them away and work on the lyrics or one of us would bring in an idea. You know the normal kind of way bands work. The great thing about H and S was the synergy we had. I don’t remember song or music writing being much of a problem [for] us. Sometimes we would decide to not play songs at a gig but just improvise for an hour. For whatever reason it generally worked out. We [might’ve] been more jazz than rock perhaps? We all liked Faust’s approach to music.
NW: “Monkies,” “Flat Truck,” “Elevenate” had all been started at our very first rehearsal session in prime time, London Bridge area, and Neil had demoed “Where’s Gala”, it was a favorite and still is here! These were all started before Richard was involved.
NM: “Monkies” – we are all monkies. Get over the Homo Sapien smart ape thing. We are not really any more “intelligent” than any other species, in my opinion. Other animals build things. Other animals and insects organize their communities much more cleverly than us. I always liked [the image] of a wolf pack moving through a snow-covered ravine. At the front are the oldest and [weakest] members of the pack, then next the strongest, then the main pack and at the back the 2nd strongest group, arranged so the pack moves at the speed of the [weakest among them]. In the human world the strongest would be at the front and bugger anyone else if they can’t keep up! [A] bit cynical, that, but probably true to a large extent. I have more faith in humanity than that, but you [catch] my drift!
At the point when you guys recorded this album, what were you all listening to?
JW: I was listening to Can, Public Image. Steve Reich was a new discovery for me and I devoured his output. I was really into a lot of dub and the Flaming Lips [as] I remember.
NW: Was listening to Einstürzende Neubauten Kollaps, Prince Far I “Nuclear Weapon” (Adrian Sherwood mix) Jello Biafra with D.O.A. Last scream of the missing neighbors CD, Wiseblood Dirtdish LP, Can Monster Movie LP, probably most of the other Can albums. Some Lee Hazlewood and Tom Waits.
NM: Velvet Underground, The Doors, Joy Division, Can, Suicide, Radio Birdman, The Stooges, MC5, and all sorts of garage / psyche obscure stuff, reggae, dub, On-u sound label. Anything weird and different. I had a thing against “commercial music“ in those days. It had to be weird ear candy for me [back] then!
I get the sense, at least in the States by the number of promo CDs I saw in the cut-out bin, that the album didn’t sell well here, what was the situation in the UK and Europe?
JW: We did pretty well in the UK and Europe, touring and festival shows, but the US was a disaster for us. We were dropped by Beggars Banquet just at the start of a coast to coast US tour. So we were in New York, I think, with a tour bus driven by us which had to be returned to an office in Los Angeles. Never understood the logic of that but maybe explains the bargain bins!
NW – Think “Ground Zero” got some indie chart position, not sure about the rest – looked for the CDs in the “bins” in the USA and couldn’t find any myself. I would have brought them back!
NM: I think the album was in the “indie” charts for a short period in the UK, but no, the album “didn’t do well.” I wasn’t that bothered really. What is success? Doing art that you want to do. Getting it out to the world in some small way, that is success in my opinion. Of course I would have liked to have had some money at the time. Same now maybe! We were all pretty poor in those days. We all worked shitty jobs. We lived life pretty much [from] week to week really. I hope Nigel and John [are both living comfortably these days].
How was the album received, both by the UK press and fans of Loop?
JW: I remember it being okay, you know, the normal thing where people hate it and love it equally. It probably polarized Loop fans but we never wanted to be Loop 2, and the more open minded came along.
NW: Some [decent] press UK wise. Not sure on the loop fans, possibly divided I imagine.
NM: That I cannot recall. I think we got a few reviews but nothing really majorly good. I knew Loop fans wouldn’t like it. It sounded so different to loop. Really, I didn’t want to be just a copy of Loop. What’s the point of that? If I had wanted to make money we could have done a dance / techno version of Loop.
Below: the band live in 1992 at the Reading Festival, captured in average sound quality (turn the volume up) but very good video quality for the times.
What songs on Jo in 9 G Hell did you guys play live? What were the hardest ones to render on stage?
JW: We did them all I think except Neil’s song, “Where’s Gala,” which we never did from memory. We used pretty basic technology in those days. Any samples were played back from a porta studio I had by me on stage. We rocked!
NW: We played all of them live at one point or other – but never as the album from start to finish, “Where’s Gala” was more tricky, maybe – it got better each time we tried it. I think, anyway.
NM: From the album the tracks we played live were : “Elevenate,” “Flat track,” “Torque,” “Monkies,” “Ground Zero,” “$1,000 Pledge,” “The Final Nail,” and “Pipeline”. John used to operate a 4-track cassette recorder for the tracks that had a backing. [Is that] lo-fi or what! Anyone who takes a 4-track cassette on stage nowadays would be considered lo-fi indeed!
Did you guys record any shows at the time?
NW: We didn’t as such. I’ve seen some of our very first shows filmed and posted on YouTube, a bit of Reading Festival ’92. Ott, our sound engineer, sort of recorded that too.
NM: No I don’t think we recorded anything live from those days, sadly!
What bands did you guys tour with for this record?
JW: We did a UK tour with The Swans and I think we toured with two other Situation 2 bands in Europe.
NW: We toured with Silverfish, Swans, and Cop Shoot Cop and also The God Machine. All jolly good chaps and chapesses.
NM: We toured quite a lot with the excellent band Sun Carriage at the time. Cannot remember who else we toured with. We played [the] North London scene a fair bit, particularly at the excellent “Sausage Machine“ club and the Falcon and various [other] places in and around London. There was an excellent music “scene” going on at the time. The live music scene has been destroyed now. I hope it makes a comeback. It is up to the youngsters out there to get off their [ass], put their mobile phones down, pick up a musical instrument, get some friends together, and create something beautiful! Later we toured the UK with Silverfish, The Swans, and did a European tour with Medicine. (Below: Swans tour itinerary, along with the HASTCO tour rider.)
What was the cut off the album that they worked to radio?
JW: “Ground Zero.”
NM: Have no idea what the lead cut the label sent out to radio. I didn’t really have a lot to do with any of that stuff. I thought of myself as a musician. I had and still have no idea about that side of things. Probably why I was and never really will be successful! Not my area!
Any DJs champion this record?
JW: John Peel was probably the main one.
NW: I was told that John Peel played it here – not sure on that, though. I think some radio stations we visited [later] in the USA said they had been playing the LP. Can’t be specific on that really.
NM: None as far as I know. I don’t think John Peel liked it much, not sure if he ever played it! He was the main man in those days!
Will the album ever be reissued?
NM: Not sure if it will ever be reissued. I hope so one day. Not heard anything going on, on that front!
In terms of HASTCO output, how do you feel about this record? Are there elements you once disliked that you’ve grown to like now and vice versa?
JW: It was our first release, and from my point of view it was a good start, but we got better at it and further from the gravitational pull of commercialism and closer to orbiting the planet inspiration – which is all you could ask for isn’t it?
NW: Just very different to where we went from there, perhaps. Still think some of it would [be] interesting soundtrack music [for] the appropriate film, which is also what I thought at the time to be honest.
NM: Must admit it’s the first time I’ve listened to the album for ages and ages. I wonder how and why we put the track “Where’s Gala“ on the album. I’m not sure Roli did that track. I think it was a 4- track recording we did! Listening to it for the first time in ages, it actually sounds really good. You know at the time the drugs I / we were taking – I shouldn’t speak about the other guys! – but anyways, I wasn’t in a particularly good head space. The recording seemed to be done so quick it felt like we were in and out of the studio in no time. Roli did a great job. He said at the end of the recording, “You have to do the next album with me!“
It was a [huge] mistake not to use him again, really. We should have built on the sound he got us. He did a great job with what we gave him. I feel personally I was still very young and inexperienced and didn’t know up from down. Life was hard, money was short. I just wanted to do the best I could. I’m proud of our output. We have a new album coming out that I think, as usual, has good ideas, etc. That’s the enduring thing for me. We had great ideas that sounded like no-one else. [We] were not trying to sound like anyone else.
I’m forever grateful to Nigel and John, they are great guys, supremely talented and fun to be with. [They are] very good friends of mine. I sincerely hope we do a few more things. Thank you guys! Was a pleasure to work with you. Sorry I wasn’t the greatest of bandleaders. But I wasn’t really the leader, just a member of the band. I think that was our main problem, really! We could have done great (er) things!
Below: Listen to the brilliant new track “Nihil” which the band graciously supplied to Blurt.
Photos from the 1992 Reading Festival in England.