Interview: The Utopia Strong
We’re trying to make something that is transcendental and exploratory. We want to reveal a hidden dimension and want to blow peoples minds.
The Utopia Strong have just released their new album International Treasure and it is a brilliant blend of their many influences that result in an awe inspiring collection of songs that are in turns psychedelic, euphoric and of a darker nature too. Gavin Brown caught up with Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi to hear all about International Treasure and its creation as well as discussing their excitement for playing live live and treasured memories of Glastonbury.
E&D: Your new album International Treasure is out now. You must be glad that it’s out so people can really listen and absorb it?
Kavus: We finished the album last October. We finished the recording of it probably late summer, or autumn last year, but we finished mixing it in October, so we’ve been sitting on the album for ages. Normally you’d have like three months but because of the vinyl and everything we’ve been delayed but we’re really, really excited. From our perspective, it is the best thing we’ve done. As far as I’m concerned, in the twenty or thirty years of making records, I think it’s the one I feel most satisfied with. It was worth getting to my age and making this many albums to get this one done.
Steve: It’s quite frustrating, and I’m sure a lot of artists at the moment are quite frustrated. One of the things that I’ve learned about it, it’s exciting to, even though you do it for yourself, it’s exciting when other people then get the chance to listen to it, because then it might be confirmed that that you were right and that it was okay as an album. To have to wait six or seven months is purgatory. We knew that there was a vinyl problem in the pipeline, so we’ve actually had the CDs for about two months, just sitting looking at them going, oh, when can we finally give these to people! It’s been quite a funny time and I’m sure it’s the same for all other artists.
Kavus: You’ve just reminded me of something that I do. I’ve got a bunch of, say about eight or nine very close musician friends, contemporaries. Tim from Cardiacs was always one of the first one that, whenever I make a new record, I send it to them first because I want to get their opinion on it, and they do it with me as well. We all send each other the music before they come out. You almost want the acknowledgement of your peers, just to say, look, I think it’s good but is this any good? This time round, I haven’t sent it to anyone because I’m so satisfied with it. I just want it to go out to the world. Initially, the reaction has been great so we’re really delighted with that, it’s early days, but we’re very happy with the fact that it’s an improvement on the first album.
E&D: You’ve stated that you’re operating outside your comfort zones with the album, did that make it more of an explorative process when you were creating it, so you can explore different, different avenues with the music this time?
Kavus: Well, I think we just got a clearer idea of what the band is. Since the first one we did, we self released the album and we played live a lot. I feel like we just got deeper into whatever the band is. We didn’t really know what we were doing the first time, I mean, we knew trying to make something great, but what I mean is we didn’t really have a plan of what kind of band it was to do it live. This album feels much more like we’ve added a status statement. When we first started recording the first album I thought it was going to be mainly electronics and adding some sort of shimmery effects but then we carried on and started adding more and more acoustic instruments and more and more unusual instruments, so this time round, we know that any sort of more exotic instruments, The Utopia Strong is a good place for them kind of thing.
Steve: With this album, we knew we were going to make an album. Whereas the first album, we didn’t and we just jammed and then when we listened back, we thought, well, this could become an album. Everything on the first album was never done with an intention of making one. Everything on this album was done with the intention, even though there was a similar process. We didn’t subconsciously decide to be a bit more experimental. That’s maybe where it could be construed to be a little bit more out of our comfort zone, but it didn’t feel uncomfortable. It still felt like great fun, being involved in it and doing it and just coming up with ideas. We were a bit more confident that we could stretch ourselves, and that for me, was an important point.
Kavus: I think we rejected, I say, rejected, we’re going to use them on other things but we sort of rejected about three or four pieces, which definitely would have made the first album, because they’re great pieces. I think the first time, we were just pleased at how good we thought the tunes were, and this time, we knew the record we were going to make. The first one is maybe a bit more eclectic, but this seems a lot more focused.
E&D: Did you get the chance to get together in the studio for this album?
Kavus: Yeah, we don’t do anything remotely, which is really nice. I mean, particularly because of the nature of the way we do it, we discuss everything. The thing is, regardless of who’s playing the parts on an album, they may not necessarily have been written by the person who plays them.
E&D: You started ideas with the album, just as it was changing with the pandemic, did that alter the sound of the album with what you originally envisioned for it, or did you have clear ideas from the start, with it being pretty bleak in places?
Kavus: We had a lot more time with it before, we then went back to changing or adding to some of the tracks, maybe if you were making an album with a time constraint, you’d have to make decisions quicker. We had a lot more time just to sit in our own houses and listen back and let it just grow with us, so that maybe worked better, even though it seemed a frustrating amount of time from the first album.
E&D: With it being your second album, did you feel any pressure following up the debut album for Rocket Recordings?
Steve: No, although it’s interesting that we’re talking about this. The difficult second album apparently happens, right? It doesn’t seem like that’s happened to us. It feels like it’s actually been easier, for me anyway. I think the more difficult thing is for maybe journalists, because it’s a little bit more difficult for them to decide what they want to do with it in as much as there was an easy storyline for the first one of the novelty factor.
Kavus: Steve Davis is a synth player now and it’s not terrible!
Steve: Yeah, that’s a couple of hundred words before you start but now, where do you go with that because this is not a one off novelty, this is actually a serious band.
Kavus: I think that’s it, I think the story was, without wanting to sound immodest, because the first time was great, but I think the story was Steve Davis is doing this band with members of Cardiacs and Coil and Current 93 and it’s not crap. It’s not a novelty album. Whereas this time, I think it’s a better album but I think now people are just taking us as a band, which is what we are and we take that incredibly seriously, but even though it’s a better album, it’s like, well, how much press is an exploratory psychedelic album gonna get? Because once you take away the celebrity factor, which is what we wanted to take away, we wanted us to settle on this. I think we’ve got to be realistic, we’ve made, it might be my favourite album in what I can loosely call a career, but I’m going to quote from Mike, who when he’s not doing this is a bagpipe maker and he says: “The thing is, I could make the absolute best set of bagpipes in the world, but it’s not going to then go mainstream, they’re only going to be acknowledged by other people who appreciate bagpipes.” We can make what we might think is the best album, but we realise that the audience for that is is limited but I hope that limited audience really get it because I’m immensely proud of this record.
Steve: Yeah, and obviously whatever world of music you live in, you think it’s bigger than it probably is. I was shocked when I was watching a Tangerine Dream interview recently that that even though you would think Tangerine Dream are massive, and everybody in the world knows them, most people only know them from playing Grand Theft Auto 5! They’ve had more listens through that than any other way, and a band like Neu! Not that many people know them but I think that everybody knows them!
Kavus: In our obsessive music world, these are titans!
E&D: The first track you released from the album was ‘Shepherdess’. Can you tell us a bit about that track and the Chinese instrument you used for the track?
Kavus: That’s called a gusheng. I don’t mind giving away some of the backstory. What happened during lockdown. A guy got in touch with me, Milo he’s called and he’s a mastering engineer from just up the road from I where live in Tottenham, and said look, I’ve picked up a load of instruments, they were checking out these interesting instruments I’ve got no use for. Do you want them. I love collecting instruments. I’m a player but I’m not a multi instrumentalist at all but give me an instrument and I can get a tune out of it. It may not be brilliant but I can get a tune. The only instrument I can play with any competence really is the guitar or maybe the bass. I went round down, he just had all these incredible instruments and he had a gusheng which needed fixing so I ordered some bridges and got it fixed up, it’s really like a Chinese harp. I tuned it and spent a few days getting to know the instrument and beachside of the tuning, it really reminded me of Alice Coltrane. When we were recording, I said wouldn’t it be fun to do an Alice Coltrane-esque piece. That was one of the first ones where rather than just improvise, we thought let’s see what happens. Steve had come up with this beat and it’s a really cool beat, then we put a delay on that beat and thought that’s a cool starting point, then Mike added to it and I started playing over the top of it and we kept the bits that sounded good. It was all sounding very nice and new agey, and then Steve came up with this really dystopian sort of B-Minor bassline and suddenly, as soon as that came in, which is like Part Two, it makes the piece and it’s The Utopia Strong strong now. I don’t think it sounds like Alice Coltrane but I’m happy to admit that that was the starting point.
Steve: It’s got a cool jazzy thing, and therein lies the fascination for me as a newbie to all this. This album we were able to sculpt more, because we got a bit more sophisticated in our recording technique, we weren’t just three lines in and three tracks, we had a bit more separation so we were able to do a bit more sculpting and because of that, we were able to be taken in different directions. We were listening back to the jams and then all of a sudden, it’s like they were lending themselves to different influences like a jazzy one in that track. In another track, there’s a hint of Aphex Twin. That was something that we were able to do more once we realised that was the case, because we had more separation of the tracks, and the individual voices between each other, so being able to separate the drum track from the synth track, meant we had more, we had more sort of scope, so that was nice.
Kavus: In a way what defined the first album is, the initial sessions we had, we just recorded them for posterity, so like Steve said, we just had three hints and then we had to sort of create the rest of the album with what we had there. There were places on the first album where something would happen and if only we could mute the bassline here, but we couldn’t so we had to have overdubs. With this one, we had more freedom but we haven’t gone for full separation as I like the idea of having a bit of a guide but the spontaneity of the original. We’re trying to make something that is transcendental and exploratory. We want to reveal a hidden dimension and want to blow peoples minds. Obviously, though there’s a calculated process there!
E&D: Obviously you’ve gone a bit darker in places on the album like ‘Revelations’ and ‘Disaster 2′, but it ends with ‘Castalia’ which is an uplifting and triumphant track. Did you always want to conclude with a song like that?
Steve: It demanded to be last, it demanded to be like, everything’s gonna be alright. It’s not all doom and gloom. We were listening to the album and said this is pretty dark but then we had this track that developed and we thought, what better place to put it than at the end, you might have thought it’s bad, but everything’s gonna be alright.
Kavus: I think the previous track, the title track, which just for record is my favourite thing we’ve done and by extension, everything that I’ve ever been involved in I think. I mean, for me, the title track absolutely hits a bullseye. It feels like my whole life of planning and writing music was leading towards the song. The song ‘Castalia’, that came from the very first sessions. We did have a few dancier number for the album but we realised that’s not really the vibe of the album, so we got rid of them, but that one just had a special place for us and it was like, Well, where do we put it? At one point we thought maybe put it first, it couldn’t fit in the middle, that would have seen really strange. Suddenly, these bright colours come in at the end of these muted kind of gloomy, dark greens! Like you say, it feels like you’ve gone to the darkest point of the trip and then the sun has come up behind the horizon and it’s a new day! Sometimes the worst thoughts can be when you’re lying in bed and grinding your gears at four or five in the morning. Certainly for me anyway, your grind your gears, those existential problems, and when you get up and the sunlight comes it’s not so bad. ‘Castilia’ feels like that. It was really, everything’s gonna be all right. One of the working titles was ‘COVID Over’ because it really felt like this is the song to celebrate when COVID is over, when we get out of this misery.
Steve: Every track that you’re involved in, it has a special place but I can imagine albums that you didn’t like first time round, or tracks you didn’t like on an album, the more you listen to the album, the more all of a sudden other tracks became your favourites. I feel that will be the case for people who listen to this multiple times, all of a sudden, their favourite will be ‘Disaster 2’ or another track from the album, with ‘Castalia’ it’s there as the really happy bit and we’re looking forward to doing some DJ sets to actually play it out to see what the reaction is like. We did that with ‘Brainsurgeons 3’ as well, we did that before the first album was even out.
Kavus: Before it was even mixed actually!
Steve: People were dancing and coming up to say what the hell was this? It’s going to be the other way round with ‘Castalia’ as we haven’t had a chance to DJ yet but it’ll be interesting to see where it fits in with other dance tracks but it’s a happy track so that’s great.
E&D: You’ve just done a video for the track. It’s done by Mike from Teeth Of The Sea. The video perfectly fits the song. How happy are you with the video?
Kavus: it’s amazing, Mike is brilliant, people are starting to see just what a brilliant guy he is. He’s a clever motherfucker that guy and it’s amazing to see what he does. All the Teeth Of The Sea guys are brilliant. There’s another band I’m in called The Holy Family and he did a video for us called ‘Inward Turning Suns’ which was incredible, so once we saw that and he’s part of the whole Rocket thing and we said we wanted Mike to do a video for the new album and as it happened, he’d already heard the album and he said to Rocket, I want to do a video for ‘Castalia’. It’s beautiful and it’s got this otherworldly and, dare I say it, spiritual thing going on in that video and it just seems perfect.
Steve: Obviously, the days of the single have gone, but it’s still nice to have tracks that where there’s a video included. We had one for the first album, but nowhere near as sophisticated as that. For that reason, everything is a little bit more thrown in that direction, in that everything’s an improvement on the first album in that way.
E&D: Are you looking forward to getting out there and playing live again, especially with this new material?
Kavus: It’s interesting, you mention new material, because every night is an improvisation. The thing is, because we can’t reproduce the stuff live, there’s so many overdubs and so much sculpting and arranging, that the way we perform live is just the same way that we do in the initial sessions, except we do much longer pieces, we tend to play one continuous piece for like 40 minutes or something. Every night I feel like we getting better at it. In fact we record everything for posterity or most gigs, and the ones that we are really, really happy with we then release as self released albums but we can’t wait. We’re playing at Glastonbury in the Glade stage. Three dates with Magma which is pretty amazing. We’re playing the Convenanza Festival, Andy Weatheralks festival in France, our first time on the continent. It’s really exciting and really amazing.
Steve: I can’t believe that I’m actually saying, yes, I’m actually looking forward to playing live on stage because of all of the things that I’ve been involved in, that I’ve experienced being in front of a crowd, arguably the early times of doing this was so nerve racking, I can’t begin to talk about it. Talk about out of your depth! When the first album came out, Rocket Recordings said, Oh, you will be doing gigs for it and Kavus and Mike went of course we will, and I went What!! That was a moment where I thought oh no, what have I let myself in for! You stop and start with gigs and then all of a sudden when you have to do another one you get a bit nervous for it, but we did one in Birkenhead at Future Yard which is a wonderful venue if you ever get a chance to go to. Brilliant venue and lovely people, and by the end of it I thought this is lovely. So yes, the live things are great and not knowing what’s going to come out the other end is is even better I think, even though you’re walking the tightrope, it could be a shit night when you’re improvising, but for Mike and Kavus, I think it’s something that they must think is great because it gives them a free rein to go wherever they want. How wonderful is that for a musician!
Kavus: Well, I will say Steve, because I remember I sometimes I get caught, not so much of contact high but contact anxiety from you, because you’d be so nervous and now I get really nervous as well. The worst thing I remember was in Dublin, and I was having a meltdown and the only way to deal with it was to listen to ‘Mission From ‘Arry’ by Iron Maiden before we went on. To be fair to Steve, while he’s going, look, I’ve not done this before, Mike’s probably had a bit more experience with just going out and doing straight improvisations. I mean, I’ve had elements, In Gong, there are places where there are improvisations, you’ll get to the end of verse three and then improvise for X amount of time, and then at some point, I’ll make the eye contact, okay, well, I’ll do a little trigger, that means okay, we’re going back into the tune now. You’ve always got the safety net, if you think it’s not going anywhere, I’ll start playing the main riff, and then the drummers like that and we’re back into the rest of the song. Sometimes we will do gigs, we’ve just come off and thought that was shit, and people still go it blew my mind. It was like, No, that was terrible. On other hand, we’ll get shows where we go off, we will listen back to it, because you don’t realise if something’s been good or not until you listen, because your mind is making all these micro decisions while you’re improvising. Is this any good? Or shall I change? Is this going on long enough? You’re constantly doing that but the audience aren’t getting any of that, they’re not getting what this entire internal dialogue you’re going through is? It’s only when you listen back, and you’re not part of the decision making process that you go, that was a really good night. From my perspective, I was just as much as novice, although I’ve got like forty odd years of playing an instrument behind me, I was just as much of a novice when it comes to improvising as Steve was in a way.
Steve: My only thing about some of the tour is I think I will still get incredibly nervous when we’re supporting Magma because of the significance of that, and I hope I do t become a gibbering wreck! Glastonbury’s massive! We did play up at the Crows Nest early on.
Kavus: It’s a small place, only about ten or fifteen people could see us!
Steve: This is a bit bigger now! It’ll be interesting to see which of those gigs will be the worst feeling for nerves!
Kavus: It’s funny, that Glastonbury Crows Nest show, I think it was only the third performance we had done. It was in 2019 and it was the first time I thought, we’ve got something here!
The Utopia Strong forthcoming tour dates: