One of the most interesting and undervalued bands of the 1980s returns to the stage after a long wait: In September, Shriekback will play in Maastricht with an eight-headed live band. We use this opportunity for a short, sketchy portrait of the band—and an exclusive interview with founding member Carl Marsh.
Raw, funky and unpolished—and then again dark, spherical and mysterious, balancing between Post-Wave, Funk and Disco: Shriekback have always been a stylistic chameleon. The band start happened to be in the bustling phase of the British Independand scene shortly after Punk and New Wave—oscillating between creativity and DIY noise.
In 1981, Shriekback were founded by former XTC-keyboarder Barry Andrews, bassist Dave Allen from Gang of Four and guitarist Carl Marsh. Drummer Martyn Baker joined the band shortly afterwards. The first album was published on Y Records by Dick O’Dell who already had released records from The Slits, The Pop Group and Pigbag. O’Dell appreciated Barry Andrews’ awesome ingenuity, Allen’s Parliament-style P-Funk bass, which soon contributed significantly to the Shriekback sound, and the unconditional desire for experiment and innovation. He gave the band a Carte Blanche and the result was the EP Tench and the beginning of an extremely fertile series of releases on Y.
With the tracks My Spine (is the Bass line) and Lined Up, Shriekback even had two veritable club hits, and with Care and Jam Science two groundbreaking albums on which they successfully extended and defined their sound spectrum. No wonder that BBC legend and truffle pig John Peel soon became aware of the band. Between 1982 and 1985, three Peel Sessions were produced which were published in a limited edition in the last year. In 1985, meanwhile, the band had signed to Arista, and Shriekback released Oil and Gold, an amazingly timeless album from today’s point of view, and according to many, to date their best. Despite their enormous reputation and the reputation as an excellent live band, Shriekback has remained largely under the radar, and the very big commercial breakthrough remained.
Several personal rochades, collaborations and albums later, where Shriekback remained a rather loose project around front man Barry Andrews, Marsh and Barker returned to the band for the album Without Real String or Fish. In the spring of this year, Shriekback launched a successful Kickstarter campaign with the goal of going back on tour. Similar to their most active live-time in the ’80s, the stage line-up consists of eight musicians. In addition to Andrews, Marsh and Barker, Scott Firth (P.i.L), Steve Halliwell and background singers Wendy and Sarah Partridge have been added (again). The premiere of Shriekback Live 2.0 took place at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London in early June. A live album with material from this gig has already been released and first tracks show they sound better than ever. On September 21, Shriekback will play in the Muziekgieterij in Maastricht.
MOVIE: You have recently played your first live gig in 25 years, at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. How did that feel? And who had the idea with the Kickstarter campaign that finally made this possible?
Carl Marsh: Yes… that was a long time coming, wasn’t it? In many ways, it wasn’t ‘someone’s idea’ to use Kickstarter, it was that using Kickstarter (or another crowdfunding option) was the only way for it to happen. For many years we’d been asked when we would play live again, and the answer was ‘probably never’, because a) there weren’t enough members of the original band working together at any one time and b) to put something on stage that did justice to the very varied material – I mean, we were potentially looking at a set pulled from 13 albums – and be more than a pale shadow of the band at its live finest would have required a large amount of start-up funding: it would be a big band and require a lot of resources. Point a) was largely covered when Barry, Martyn and myself were reunited for Without Real String Or Fish – three of us together it somehow seemed a feasible starting point for a live band. The limited potential solutions for point b) seemed to be either crowdfunding, massive major label support or marriage to a hugely wealthy heiress. I think we made the right choice.
And yes, it’s fabulous to play with this talented bunch of bastards again – the extended Shriekback family united in a big groovy noise. We need to do a lot more of it. I’m biased, obviously, but from where I’m standing it sounds pretty extraordinary. Fantastic crowd at Sheperd’s Bush, a great night.
When it comes to choosing venues for other gigs in Europe, the Paradiso in Amsterdam is an obvious choice. How did you get to Maastricht? Did you play in the region in the ’80s?
Yes, the Paradiso’s such a great venue, I’m really looking forward to that. Speaking for myself, I played in Maastricht not long after Oil & Gold came out – some of the others may have been more recently. It comes down to putting together shows in great venues on dates that make it viable, and these two hit it. We’re very happy to do more – suggestions welcome.
You have always had an affinity with the water—the sea and the deep sea with all the fish, especially the strange bizarre creatures, which is also reflected in the band logo. How did this love for the underwater world come about?
I don’t know! Tench was named because Dave and Barry kept fish at the time and we thought the way the fish scavenged around the bottom of the tank, taking whatever they could find to sustain them, seems to parallel how we were making records… maybe. And the way those deep sea fish evolve strategies to make a very strange environment work for them. Also, we also tend to express what we’re looking for musically in fairly abstract terms, a lot of which tend to include those kind of reference – “I want the bass to sound like a whale surprised to bump into a submarine”, stuff like that, and a lot of those phrases were/are ‘aquatic’, for whatever reason. And come on, who doesn’t love those smart octopi, killer sharks, hot-vent worms and colour-changing cuttlefish?
Your sound signature has always been very unique but difficult to define. Some time ago, you asked your followers on Facebook how they would describe the musical style of Shriekback (with interesting results). When it comes to the general atmosphere, certain things come to mind: a certain nocturnal lucidness, deep and dark but pleasant moods in the subconscious, something very urban in style, but also connected with the harsh, wild nature. What elements of your musical DNA are probably the most prominent and most recognizable?
Well, ‘nocturnal lucidness’ kinda nails it… in fact, you clearly get it in that sentence. Being totally open to instinct and intuition and then refining that intelligently and technically I suppose is it. Mine and refine …
The album of yours which probably acclaimed most praise and fame (and rightly so) is “Oil and Gold” with modern classics such as “Nemesis”, “Malaria” or “This Big Hush”. In my humble opinion, it is not only one of the best albums of the ’80s, but also had a very contemporary feel with regard to cover design. Would you agree? And where did you get the idea for the album title?
Would I agree it’s a great album? Hell, yeah, why not! The cover reflects the contradictions in content and texture that we love – a certain, er, productive discomfort, maybe. As I recall, the title was from one of my lyric ideas that didn’t actually make it to the record (it turned up on one of my albums later, though – I’m big on recycling) and again reflects those contradictions – two substances we apparently can’t do without, one dirty, cheap, and essential (for a little while longer, anyway), the other shiny, expensive and desirable.
Your 14th studio album, is, as we speak, probably still in the works. Any schedule for a release date? And if you compare the way you used to work on an album with today’s, especially when you consider the improved technological possibilities, is it easier or harder to make a track today?
We are indeed working on that beast. Release date… not sure, maybe near the end of the year. Making a track? Mostly, much easier. Hands-on control, the ability to collaborate instantly and remotely, an (sort of) infinite sound palette – much more time for much less money. Coupled with the ability to spread and sell the work via the internet/social media, that’s a pretty powerful thing. I really don’t miss being on a ‘major label’ – whatever that means now. On the other hand, and for better or worse, I tend to be a deadline-driven kinda guy, and the thought that I had one chance to write and record a vocal, in a studio costing £ 1,200 a day, tomorrow, certainly did used to sharpen the mind. I’m still adjusting to that change, to be honest. And you have to learn a lot of techie stuff that used to be someone else’s problem. But y’know, we ain’t going back.
Are any tracks or albums of contemporary artists/bands currently on your turntable, the iPhone or the Spotify playlist right now? What do you particularly like about it?
I tend not to play too much other stuff in periods when I’m writing, but in the last couple of days (according to the player history on my phone and laptop it’s been The Wave Pictures, Grinderman and Björk. Björk has no boundaries. My New Year’s resolution this years was ‘be more Björk’. I haven’t succeeded yet. Oh, just found the tracks I saved listening to the radio recently, too – Dick Dale, Pavement, Cecil Taylor, Tamikrest, Peter Perrett, The Oh Sees, Mark Lanegan The Surfing Magazines and François & the Atlas Mountains. Pick the bones out of that lot.
Now, for the last question. We have picked five songs from your impressive catalogue. Which sea animal would you associate with each individual track?
Deep, slow, powerful… giant squid.
Fish below the Ice
Fast and purposeful – salmon, sharks and dolphins (although dolphins wouldn’t do ice, right?)
Shoals of small colourful things that coalesce and then scatter to leave – oceanic regret.
My Spine (is the Bass Line)
Barracuda? Well-meaning barracuda, though.
Horrors of the Deep
Sirens and mermaids!
Thanks a lot for the answers. See you in Maastricht!
Yeah man. Bring your dancing shoes.
Read the German version of this article