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By: Tim Foster
A few months ago I went down to The Lexington in that London to see White Hills, the special guests were a band I had heard of but not heard, Teeth Of The Sea. I’m so glad I got there early! Teeth Of The Sea were amazing! They’re either very danceable rock or very rocky dance I’m not sure which but so intense and exciting! (We have described them elsewhere in these pages as ‘disco music for the end of the world’ – Ed.) They self describe as ‘an incendiary sound that marries the aural enlightenment of an avant-garde sensibility with the reckless abandon of trashy rock & roll’ (1) Seeing the wide demographic present in the audience busting some moves as their set progressed was…err…interesting!
TOTS is comprised of Mat Colgate, Mike Bourne, Sam Barton and Jimmy Martin (2), they formed in 2006 and released their first album Orphaned By The Ocean in 2009. They’ve since released three subsequent albums (3). After the gig we chatted about the possibility of an interview and over time it happened!
(((o))): You’ve been together about 10 years now and produced four full length albums Orphaned by the Ocean, Your Mercury, Master, and last year’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. Do you feel each one is a shift in style and feel? Is each album distinct or are there continuities that spill over?
Sam: We’ve always tried consciously to keep moving, I don’t think any of us have ever been interested in establishing a trademark sound and then honing that. Whilst there’s a lot of common ground between us musically there’s also pretty big differences in taste there too, as well as constantly shifting listening habits so it would actually be more contrived if all our records sound the same as it wouldn’t reflect us as people at all.
Mat: Personally I try and change parts of my methodology with each release as a way of inspiring new approaches and sounds. My purchase of a drum machine was a big kickstart for parts of HDBT, for example. Having said that I would hope that you can listen to any of the albums and know that it’s TOTS.
(((o))): Are you getting nearer to your ideal- a teleologic process – or is it an evolution which could go anywhere?
Sam: I can assure you there’s no overriding purpose or ultimate goal at work here, any and all shifts in sound or methodology exist purely to keep ourselves interested and keep the process enjoyable. I think anyone who knows us would agree that the idea of a master plan is pretty ridiculous! I suppose that’s what might make it interesting for people to follow though – no one knows where we’re going next mainly because the members of the band themselves don’t have a clue.
Mat: It’s nice to think that we have the flexibility to go pretty much anywhere with our music but obviously there are limits. I don’t think we’d ever be in a position where a salsa album would seem the right thing to do. Our ideal process is pretty much the one we’ve got: we all listen to loads of music, watch a load of films, read a bunch of books, drink a few beers and then start playing. It all comes out somewhere.
(((o))): As well as TOTS you seem to have a lot going on around the edges, side projects, collaborations. Could you talk us through some of them? How do those involvements then feed back into TOTS progression?
Sam: As mentioned before we all have pretty disparate, ever-evolving tastes and hyperactive, restless personalities so it’s good to keep busy and indulge these things. Mat runs & DJs a disco/techno/industrial night (The Meat Packing District) and Jimmy plays guitar in newly-resurgent NWOBHM legends Angel Witch, Mike and I do a modular synth & trumpet drones/beats/loops band called Hirvikolari together plus Mike also does a pure modular duo called Metal with Jamie Paton of Caged & Aviary. On top of that we’ve all at some point done bits & bobs on other bands recordings/gigs. Whilst on a general level all and any creativity outside of TOTS is going to be of benefit to the band I don’t know that anything specific from these necessarily feeds back into TOTS because even before we were doing any of the other projects we’d bring all these disparate influences to the table anyway. I guess from a purely technical level playing in Hirvikolari probably helps me with stamina/technique/understanding my set up etc, just the boring stuff really. I honestly don’t know what any of the others would say to this question though!
Mat: The Meatpacking District is my very loose and personal interpretation of what a ‘Disco’ night consists of – meaning that I get to play everything from Front 242 to Donna Summer to Queen Samantha to Zombi. It definitely feeds into my contributions to the band. Disco has been an obsession of mine for years now, it’s spaciousness, use of repetition, adaptation of experimental techniques into more ‘accessible’ forms, social radicalism and sheer danceability are a continual source of fascination to me. It’s also a very easy music to get wrong in interesting ways, which for a musical klutz like myself is extremely useful.
(((o))): You’ve also re-imagined or written soundtracks for films and books including ‘A Field in England’ and ‘1984’ (4). How did those projects happen, were you asked to cover those films/books or were you able to choose the source material? (Did you see the stage production of ‘1984’ in London last year-what did you think of it?)
Sam: It’s a band of cinephiles so I guess the soundtrack angle was always there in the way we sounded, the word ‘cinematic’ is probably in every review of every record we’ve ever made! The first actual film-related project we did was on New Year’s eve 2009 when we performed a cover of the entire Flash Gordon soundtrack whilst all in home-made costumes from the film.
After that we were approached by the Branchage Film Festival in Jersey to do a project in 2011, which is when we readapted/recut Neil Marshall’s bonkers trash epic Doomsday and composed an entirely original soundtrack to it. It obviously wasn’t a complete disaster because after that we seemed to become a bit of a go-to band for Philip Ilson who not only helps program Branchage but also organises the London Short Film Festival as well as having a curatorial role in a number of International film festivals. That’s basically where the commissions for both A Field In England (which we performed at the Cork Film Festival in 2013 and then at the London Short Film Festival in January 2014) and 1984 (which we performed at CERN in Switzerland, the Transylvanian Film Festival in Cluj, Romania and Latitude Festival, all in 2014) came out of. I think it’s been a total privilege to actually be involved in all those events, the film work has taken us to some amazing parts of Europe and we’ve met some brilliant people through it, a very different setting to a traditional rock gig/tour/festival.
(((o))): The word that seems to crop up a lot when your non-soundtrack music is being discussed is ‘cinematic’! In fact I read one comment that suggested your latest album, Highly Deadly Black Tarantula, is best understood as a soundtrack to an as yet unmade movie (5)! Has that been a conscious element of the creative process or has it been ‘by osmosis’?
Sam: Ha! See my previous answer re ‘cinematic’. I don’t think we ever sat down and said that we want our music to sound like a soundtrack but I suppose there’s two things at work there: 1) we’re obviously all influenced a lot by individual acts like Goblin or Tangerine Dream, who created a particularly atmospheric strand of soundtrack work in the 1970s, and also the way certain directors (eg Kubrick) place music within their films. 2) In putting an album together as an instrumental band we tend to always view it more as a single complete work than perhaps a band with lyrics does (where each song is explicitly about a different thing maybe it’s more difficult to do that). The lack of explicit verbal narrative can also lead a listener to respond in a way more akin to a visual piece of work, which obviously ties in again.
Mat: The absence of ‘lyrics’ tends to draw people toward that comparison, I think. That and the fact that we’re certainly not averse to a bit of epic grandstanding. Lots of my favourite instrumental music has a synesthesiac quality and evokes images and events. Obviously we’re all massive fans of Goblin, Tangerine Dream – particularly their ‘The Keep’ soundtrack in my case – and Angelo Badalamenti, but I’d also add Barry De Vorson’s ‘Warriors’ soundtrack, Coil’s Unreleased ‘Hellraiser’ project and the Cliff Martinez’ soundtrack to ‘Only God Forgives’ to that list. We’re all massive movie heads – I’m actually a film journalist in what passes for my ‘civilian’ life – and it can’t help but rub off. Cinema is pretty much all we ever talk about in the rehearsal studio.
(((o))): How does your music take shape, does one person bring a piece or does it emerge from collaboration?
Sam : Initially we always used to just come to the rehearsal room with absolutely nothing prepared and then make a din until something of interest emerged. We’d then just record all our rehearsals and slowly put tracks together that way. These days we still do that a bit but we’ve relaxed our policy on ‘pre-prepared’ material, any one of us might have sketched a loop, beat, riff or melodic idea at home and bring it in. Where it goes from there though is anyone’s guess, the writing is always a democratic process so each individual generally gets to do whatever the hell they want over anyone else’s idea (with the caveat that equally anyone can suggest any other member try anything out they think might work). For the last album we actually tried to keep the compositional detail as simple as possible until we got into the studio so we could have the freedom to write as we were getting the stuff down, which was great and something I’d be keen to carry on with for future TOTS releases.
Mat: Improvisation is at the heart of how TOTS compose, but we will occasionally bring ideas down to the studio with us – a drum loop here, a drone there, a piece of found sound. Anything can be the bedrock of a composition. Personally speaking, I tend to be on the lookout for particularly tasty noises. Not necessarily ‘notes’ I should point out, but a good gristly piece of noise or crackle will usually get me started on the right track.
(((o))): In a band where there are few lyrics what subject matter provokes your song writing and how does that subject matter inform the song’s final outcome? Is it difficult to transpose anything discernable of the original stimulant into music without lyrical content?
Sam: In all honesty we never, ever talk about what something’s ‘about’, we tend to discuss the creation of tracks/albums more in terms of sounds/images/atmosphere and put stuff together around that. That’s not to say we don’t all bring our individual stories/feelings/opinions to the table it’s more we like to leave the idea of ‘meaning’ open ended so that people can impose their own narratives/stories onto it. As a listener that’s obviously one of the really key things about instrumental music, whether it’s classical, jazz, electronic music, soundtracks etc. In answer to the second part of your question, yes, these things can take massive tangents along the way dependent on what everyone’s individual contributions are. It’s not something I think any of us is worried about, providing we’re all happy with the way it ends up.
Mat: Again, I can only speak personally on this one, but I tend to be more inspired by different compositional techniques than any particular subject matter. I love trying stuff like cut-ups, automatic writing, random processes and the use of found sounds as kicking off points. I don’t consider myself to be a particularly ‘inspired’ artist in the traditional sense, so these are great techniques – tricks, if you will – to get the brain going. Having said that, a lot of the last album strikes me as being fairly angry. Why the fuck would it not be?
(((o))): I saw you for the first time supporting White Hills at The Lexington in March-I couldn’t work out if it was some of the most danceable rock or rockiest dance that I had heard, in terms of danceable intensity it reminded me a little of ATR! Were you happy with that gig-there seemed to be a lot of movement going on in the audience!
Sam: Yeah, loved that show. The Lexington is one of our favourite venues in London and we’re all big fans of White Hills, both as a band and as people. Terrascope the organisers also did a bang up job of promoting the show and looking after us, again really nice people. When there’s a situation like that where there’s a hell of a lot of goodwill in the room between all parties plus everyone is doing their job very well it makes everything about 10 times easier. On top of that the audience was totally having it and we managed to avoid any major technical fuck ups so yep, a really great night!
Mat: I love it when people dance at our shows! I wish more people would. Dancing is one of my principal joys in life, so to inspire that reaction in other people is fantastic. I was at Berghain for the first time recently and the view from the balcony down onto the packed, writhing dancefloor was one of the most powerfully moving things I have ever seen. An incredible thing to witness and be a part of. Interestingly enough, as a friend of mine pointed out recently, TOTS are one of the only bands you’ll ever meet where all the members like to dance. Seriously, line up the 5 percent lagers, stick something that goes BANG BANG BANG onto the stereo and watch us go. It’s quite something.
(((o))): Mat kept a diary of your tour with Thought Forms and Esben and the Witch and it made me realise that you can have no idea what you are coming into at a gig (6). How much does the immediate environment -the audience/building affect you or are you fairly self contained in terms of performance?
Sam: Well, two directly opposing yet nevertheless completely true cliches here: 1) if you go onstage at a less than well attended show with the intention of giving anything less than your absolute utmost to the cause of rock’n’roll/partying/noise/whatever then you’re basically a dick and are ripping off the few people decent enough to haul their sorry asses out and watch your ponderous antics. 2) The bigger/more up for it the audience is the better the show is going to be. So yeah, put simply, we never really get depressed by small audiences but to not get a lift from a really great crowd would be perverse.
Mat: Well there is of course the famous ‘What would Wolf Eyes do?’ rule, which ensures that even if there are only three people in the audience they will still witness an unparalleled amount of lunging and fist pumping. Obviously playing a sold-out show is going to make you feel good in a way that playing a half-full venue isn’t but we always give it our best. We’re old troupers really. We love the smell of the grease paint. “The show must go on, dear…” etc etc.
(((o))): What films, books, authors have you been enjoying lately? Who would you cite as musical influences, if anyone?
Sam: Film: I went to see a fantastic documentary about Ornette Coleman last night called ‘Ornette: Made In America’ by Shirley Clarke (1985) that was easily one of the best musician documentaries I’ve ever seen. Really experimental in it’s editing with fantastic footage of him performing Skies Of America with the Forth Worth symphony orchestra interspersed with interviews with people like William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and George Russell. Absolutely inspiring stuff.
Book: I’m just getting to the end of Kieron Pim’s biography of David Litvinoff ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’. Litvinoff was this curiously mercurial figure in 1960s London, a gay Jewish guy who’d grown up in pretty severe poverty but in adulthood inhabited all these different social milieus, from running with the Krays to being friends with the Rolling Stones and Francis Bacon. It’s a great study of London at the time and a lot of the social codes of behaviour that he could flit between really effortlessly.
Musically: We’ve all got too many influences to list really, but a short list of key names for me would feature Miles Davis, Eno, Butthole Surfers, the aforementioned Ornette Coleman, Delia Derbyshire, Funkadelic, This Heat, Jon Hassell, Annette Peacock, David Bowie, Liars, Oneida, Colin Stetson, Kate Bush, Throbbing Gristle, Lee Morgan. Worth pointing out though that lists of this nature always tend to canonize more classic, established artists whereas I’m probably just as influenced by dancing around at 2 in the morning to some Nigerian psyche or banging techno record that I can’t the name of as I am by some of these folks’ music.
Mat: I’ve watched a bumper crop of good films recently. ‘Green Room’ is a good one – look out for that in May – and I adored Severin Fiala and Monika Franz’ ‘Goodnight Mommy’, which was genuinely thoughtful and disturbing horror that kept me guessing right until the end. All things considered however, I think ‘Hail Caesar!’ may well end up being my favourite film this year. The sight of George Clooney delivering mock-pompous dialogue while dressed as a Roman general could have been made for me and I was tearing up with sheer joy at points. I’ve gone on about ‘Batman V Superman’ in detail elsewhere, but I am still very intrigued as to what effect that titanic. flailing mess of a film will have on the superhero movie genre in general. Also, how fucking good is Rainer Werner Fassbinder?
Comics-wise, I finally got around – after about twenty years – to finishing Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s ‘Zenith’ which was just as satisfying as I’d always hoped it would be. I’ve also been getting heavily into the work of Italian artist Guido Crepax, whose erotic works are wonderfully kinky with a lovely sense of pop-art unease to them. Looking forward to the new Daniel Clowes as well. Plus ‘Batman’ is really good fun at the moment, which is always makes getting out of a bed that bit easier.
Influences? Blimey, where to start? Afro/Cosmic disco, dark Italo and synth stuff, loads and loads of prime period industrial – TG, SPK, Cabs etc -, Whitehouse, Ramleh and the whole scene that surrounded the Broken Flag label, vintage Brit psych, lots of extreme metal – the more extreme the better, particularly Gnaw Their Tongues, Aevangelist and The Body – Regis and the Downwards label, clattery agit-punk… anything under-produced, murky and aggressive tends to get my vote. Also that ‘Gqom Oh! The Sound Of Durban’ compilation excited more than anything has in years. Everyone should listen to that.
(4) McCracken, S (2015). Daylight Come: An Interview With Teeth Of The Sea. Nov 2015 http://thequietus.com/articles/19185-teeth-of-the-sea-interview-highly-deadly-black-tarantula
(5) Diver, M. (2015) The Lead Review: Mike Diver On Teeth Of The Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. Nov 2015 http://thequietus.com/articles/19134-teeth-of-the-sea-highly-deadly-black-tarantula-review response from Arron Leslie, Nov 2015.
(6) Colgate, M. (2013) Features: Teeth Of The Sea Tour Diary- with Thought Forms and Esben and the Witch. Oct 2013 http://www.the-monitors.com/2013/10/29/teeth-of-the-sea-tour-diary-with-thought-forms-and-esben-and-the-witch/