I’ve been listening to so-called ‘industrial music’ since I was 20, therefore, being over 40, I must admit that I’ve lost the very first mystical era, as I was too young to be there at concerts. But I’ve dug a lot into hundreds of records from noise, extreme and – well – industrial sounds that have shaken my ears and nerves, mostly from the ‘80s.
Surprisingly, it was already 2009 when, thanks to this excellent book (by French writer and journalist Eric Duboys) that I discovered Bourbonese Qualk. Well, I must admit that I may not have been attentive in my listenings, because that name never popped out to me from my readings, from friends or in music shops (RIP) that I was used to frequent. Duboys, dedicates a chapter to the most famous bands in that Industrial ‘grey area’, such as SPK, TG, CV and also, in a long footnote he describes Bourbonese Qualk as “………” – so it aroused my curiosity, which was only satisfied after a wild afternoon of downloading from the (again surprising) Bourbonese Qualk website, where nearly all their records have been made available by the only active member of the band, mr. Simon Crab…And the music was just great.
One of the most relevant things was the – in my mere opinion – very high quality of most of their records, especially the early ones dated 1983, like ‘Laughing Afternoon’ or the wonderful ‘Preparing for Power’ (1986), still my favourite alongside the later ‘Unpop’ (1991).
I then tried to see if I was just the only jerk that never knew them before, so I asked many friends, including well known musical journalists, what do they thinked about Bourbonese Qualk and most of them had never heard them or vaguely knew the band only by name. What about Social Media? There must be over there a fan Facebook page with hundreds of followers, right? Well, today (March 2015) it has more than 1000 fans, but believe me five years ago the total was well under 200.
This unbalanced situation made me even more enthusiastic about their art to the point that I even did a cover of one of their pieces with my band (Sparkle in Grey), and then I decided to contact Simon to letting him know. Six years after here we are with an interview which first of all, tries to clarify why they’ve never achieved fame in this unjust world – or what kind of madness makes them do anything to stay in one of the most uncompromising niche of musical art for years.
Why do you think BQ didn’t become as popular as other bands of the same period such as CVs, TGs or SPK? It may be my tiny personal opinion, but the quality of your music was reat and deserved more success. Did you make anything in order to avoid success maybe? What happened?
What happened? several things; some of them accidental some of them on purpose.
One comment that has been made about BQ was that it was free of artifice and pretence – ‘it was what it was’ i.e. we didn’t construct a myth around the music, the group or the personalities – we left it open to interpretation. I think this – creating a Myth – is how some groups become ‘famous’– very much the case of TG and to a lesser extent SPK and CV (not that we were anyway aligned to these type of groups). We were always told to make ourselves somehow more presentable – talk less about politics, squatting, rioting, be nice to the press, do more of the ‘commercial’ tracks and less of the noisy stuff. Needless to say we ignored this advice.
We were approached by several major labels (who had no idea what we were about) and we basically told them to fuck off. I think we were very entrenched in our ways – we’d never have survived very long with a big label and the ‘music-business’ environment…that was somehow anathema; all that rock shit. We were much closer to punk than Industrial – we mixed with anarchopunk/skins crowd, don’t think we knew any Industrial bands. Groups like Crass were very influential on our music and way of working – that ‘complete independence’ from the mainstream attitude had a big effect on us.
Also; It was not a career – we never thought we’d exist for more than a few months so we didn’t particularly care about longevity or success- And; what is success? we had complete control over our music, record label, performances, tours, images, video, posters, artwork. We financed everything ourselves and paid ourselves a small wage. This is more than most musicians achieve even if they’re working in ‘successful’ bands.
But It’s also down to personality. I think some people crave fame and adulation, they love the whole rock thing. We didn’t. We disliked being thought of as musicians (all that talk about guitars and amplifiers, diminished sevenths or whatever). I used to say that I was an accountant. Far more glamorous.
Yes, I knew of your respect for Crass, and as far as I understood you considered yourselves closer to anarchy than to other ‘ways of thinking’. Maybe also this pushed some potential fan from the ‘industrial area’ far from you? Do you consider yourself an anarchist? Or a revolutionary? I saw you collect pictures of riots and of Nestor Ivanovič Machno in your Pinterest account!
In general, people who openly describe themselves as Anarchists tend to be idiots. It’s become something of a lifestyle rather than a political movement with it’s own ‘rules’ dress codes and behaviour with little knowledge of Anarchist history and theory – so I’d be cautious to describe myself as such. But yes, something like a Libertarian Communist/Anarchist – Julian and I were very involved in various events throughout the 1908s – ‘Stop the City’ (The original anti-capitalist riot that closed the London stock exchange in 1984) and the Poll Tax Campaigns of the late 80s. The Ambulance Station was an experiment in practical Anarchism. I’m still very involved in political activism (and so is Julian). It may have pushed some Industrial fans away, and if so, good! there is an unpleasant strand of lazy Fascism in industrial music (Current 93, Sol Invictus and the like) which was evident even in TG’s work. This is one of the reasons we never liked being associated with the scene.
At the same time in the blog you update from time to time I remember I found a post where you said that the gear you used to record was previously in the hands of CVs, TGs and SPKs [maybe my memory is wrong, as I couldn’t find the post back now]. So you had close contacts with that ‘scene’, was it just a joke or just a real matter of instrumental market?
Something like that. We bought the equipment from the Nocturnal Emissions, who got it from SPK who bought it from TG. I was good friends with Nigel and Caroline of Nocturnal Emissions – we all lived in the same area (Brixton/Camberwell in South London) in a very tight-knit activist squatter community. I think they (N.E.) were the only ‘Industrial’ group we knew; We didn’t know anyone when we first arrived in london and they were very helpful and encouraging to us. If anyone’s interested; the equipment was an old Teac 4 track tape recorder, a Korg Stage Echo (which we used a lot – it’s an old tape echo with a very long tape loop) and I think, a graphic equaliser and a TR808 drum machine. Also, our only ‘keyboard’ was an old Casio Vl1 – no synthesiser, nothing. The London Industrial scene became a recognisable entity only really after the release of the ‘Elephant table album’ which threw together a lot of different groups under one banner. I remember Portion Control – and Test Department who we let use our studio at the Ambulance Station (which they filled with tons of rusting metal) but then we also knew non-industrialists like Lol Coxhill, Royal Family and the Poor, legendary Pink Dots etc.
…And even in this latest case, don’t you think that anyway your sounds were close to those of these bands?
It’s a bit hard for me to be subjective, but no I don’t think it was similar (also depends on what album or time period you are talking about) – to me our music was much more organic and instrumentally varied; we used guitars, bass, drums etc. drums especially were seen by others as being a bit old fashioned. I guess there may be a similarity in sound due to the equipment – pretty much everyone used an 808 drum machine at the time so it locates it as an ‘early 80s sound’. i’d be curious to know which tracks you think sound similar to the groups you mentioned…if it is the case then it was accidental – we certainly didn’t set out by saying ‘hey, let’s make an industrial track that sounds like TG’ if anything we would do the opposite and avoid sounding ‘industrial’ (guess we didn’t succeed!).
[Yes I indeed meant a matter of sounds. The 808 was used a lot in these years as far as I know, and in fact I thought of some tracks from NE and SPK, like bits from Befehlsnotstand and Leichenschrei. But it was used as well by many new wave bands… I mean: maybe one of the things in common with NE and SPK is the repetition of patterns, the obsessions in rhythms and the saturation of certain frequencies.] Musically speaking, in my opinion you were totally different not only because the use of the’ normal’ instrumentation and the drums, but for some more deep attention to melodies. The impression is that you and your bandmates paid quite a lot of attention to this. Did you studied musical theory or do you think you were maybe more interested than other radical bands in some kind of ‘ beauty’ in your songs?
I myself never studied music formally – self-taught. But yes I think we were equally interested in harmony and ‘beauty’ as you put it as much as noise and ‘ugliness’. All part of the same spectrum and needn’t exclude each other. I always wanted to create a wide spectrum of textures in a finished album with often jarring contrasts between, and sometimes within, tracks – a rich variety of sonic tones and frequency. I have always been interested in a wide variety of music not just a single genre; composers such as Erik Satie – who can also be very ‘experimental’ and surreal at the same time as being ‘pretty’ so I guess this influence is audible…
Yes, I agree with this variety of influences coming into your music. One thing that also always surprised me in your album was not only this quantity of different genres coming together but also the way the ‘songs’ developed. Many of them, especially in the first period, have a sort of ‘improvised-like’ structure. Am I right? I mean: the impression is that you got into the rehearsal room and play with the recs on, to capture the moments and the feelings of that time. But Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s much more ‘written’ and planned in advance.
I guess it was a bit like that – improvised, but not necessarily in real time; I basically had a whole pile of tapes of ongoing work which I kept adding and editing random bits and pieces of whatever we were working on at the time – and over a year or so until it almost organically coalesced into something that resembles a complete work (such as an LP). I’d usually start by making a rhythm track with tape loops or electronics, then layer instruments over it and add the vocals at the end. If a piece is good it usually ‘works’ straight away – there’s a kind of immediate energy and vitality about it and it’s very obvious (to me, anyway). If it needs laborious working and re-working it usually means it’s not that good in the first place. So, in that way, most of our work was very spontaneous.
…and to me it looks also that there’s a very little post-production. Right? I notice that some tracks finish all of a sudden, with no ‘coda’ at all, and they seem to start and finish from nothing. Do you agree? It’s the opposite to many other bands style, and it adds some sort of spontaneous feeling to the music.
Yeah, It was intentional; abrupt starts and stops, changes of mood and texture. I wanted it to sound as if the sound was a continuum, that it was constantly going on and that a vinyl record was just a glimpse of a musical landscape. As well as that we had no interest in song structure – we didn’t really have verses and choruses, middle-eights (whatever they are?) – they just start and then stop with no traditional ‘musical development’. I like that basic-ness. There was a also a heavy dose of punk attitude; we saw ourselves as attacking the audience and shocking them out of their (supposed) complacency – give them the opposite to what they’d expect …or want.
Regarding post-production; when it came to mixing, we had very crude equipment. ‘Laughing Afternoon’ was mixed without a mixing desk! just using the output controls from a TEAC 4-Track. So the brutal splicing and editing became a way of creating a specific feeling. I think I was very influenced by Faust’s ‘Faust Tapes’ album – everything edited together with a constantly shifting tonality.
This sounds very interesting to me, I’m always fascinated by the creative process. Personally I think that this way of building tracks as ‘glimpses of a [wider] musical landscapes’ is one of the elements that has made, compared to others bands of the same period, your work less subject to get updated quickly. You can listen to some of your songs several times and you’ll never get bored exactly because there’s something missing you’ll always search for. About this process, again: you say “I’d usually start by making…”. Over the years several musicians took part to the albums, but you’ve been the only constant presence. How much did they contribute to the music? Tell me something about Steven Tanza and Owen If (I love his drumming) and then, if it’s not too sad for you, Miles Miles and the others.
There were, I guess, three distinct periods of BQ: 1 – (1979-1982); Me and my brother Ted. 2 – (1982-1986) the trio of Steven Tanza, Julian Gilbert and Simon Crab (me) and 3 – (1986-2003): Miles Miles, Owen If and Myself with big contribution and spiritual guidance from Kif Cole.
They all contributed in varying amounts of course – as you mentioned – I was the constant member and was responsible for pretty much all of the music – or at least I’d start the tracks, as described above, and then bring in musicians to add their bit. Julian was very involved; writing texts and lyrics, vocals, ideas and some instrumentation – we all lived together at the Ambulance Station at the time, so it was a very tight group of people, very committed, obsessively fanatical about what we were doing. Steve was, how can I say, quite a difficult character and less committed perhaps… he didn’t contribute a huge amount in terms of musical concepts (though I’m sure he’d disagree) during that time – he was more interested on the ‘art’ side of the project – videos and so-on – ironically I think his best music was after he left BQ and worked as ‘The State’ for a short period.
Owen (If) took over as the drummer around 1986 – I’d known him from his previous group ‘Scatter’ (which became The Stereo Mcs) who I’d worked with in our studio at the Ambulance Station. Owen was a very jolly South-Welsh bloke, a very talented percussionist and always completely baffled by BQ’s politics and theory. Owen started working as the drummer for the pop group ‘Stereo MCs’ at the same time as working in BQ – a strange combination – but I think you can see the influence in their early work! (‘Connected’ LP). They almost released a duet I did with Rob of The ‘Stereos’ luckily it was never released.
I started working with Miles shortly after Owen joined. Miles was a self-taught, gifted and unconventional guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. He was a deeply troubled and intense individual who most people found impossible to work with; we immediately became very close friends.
We lived, worked and regularly rehearsed during this period in a squatted street in South London (Malt St SE1 – which no longer exists). This is where we recorded and used as a base for touring around Europe – we stopped recording for about a year; concentrating on performing live. Miles and I worked very closely together; creating rhythm tracks, instrument parts and the bringing in Owen to play over the top, Miles brought a musical complexity and depth that we’d never had before. This collaboration resulted in the three albums ‘My Government is My Soul’ , ‘Unpop’ and ‘On Uncertainty’ – which in my mind are our best work.
Yes, I like those albums, and just today my friend Alberto [guitarist in Sparkle in Grey] just passed me a link to an ‘Unreleased Demo of that period [ask me if you’re curious] and I find it very inspired too, very pure, even if I somehow miss the vocals. You mentioned that point and it makes me curious too: so it’s not always you to sing? What’s the ‘relationship’ you have with your voice?
After Julian left around 1985, Steve and I both had a go at doing vocals… but, for some reason I ended up with the job – and since then I’ve done all the vocals. I’ve never set out to be a vocalist and it’s not something that comes naturally to me. Again, i think the ‘anyone can do it’ punk attitude helped here – it didn’t matter if you were ‘good’ as long as you do it with originality and verve! I created a kind of agit-prop repetitive, sloganised, short-phrased style that I liked – it was more about haranguing the crowd…I had absolutely no interest in singing…That kind of aggressive style was all around us at the time – hard-core punk was the unavoidable soundtrack to our lives at the Ambulance Station and osmotically became a part of our music.
You describe the ‘Ambulance Station’ period as a very creative and it looks to me as a ‘commune’, similar in a way to the Dial House of Crass.
Yes it was a very creative period, more active than the Dial House (which was outside London in the country) – we rebuilt the building (with zero budget) to accommodate artist studios, filmmakers, darkrooms, recording studios, rehearsal space, print workshops, free cafe, sculpture studios – we even had metal casting equipment for making sculpture – and a big performance space and bar. There was always a lot going on and we lived in the middle of all of that madness.
Now I think you’ve changed your life a lot, right? Do you miss that period? Do you see any red line connecting the life you did at that time and the work as a designer [as far as I understand] you do now? [If this is too personal don’t answer – I’ve found these infos online].
Well, it was a long time ago – thirty years almost! so one would HOPE that one’s life has changed. The Neo-Con revolution that started in the Eighties completely changed everything, especially here in the UK – the cultural dynamic (to use a pretentious phrase) is completely different. But yes, I’m still connected to ‘that life’; I’m still active in direct action – anti-capitalist riots, black bloc, anti-fascist action as well as running and mentoring various activist and social technology groups.
It has been quite a schizophrenic, perhaps hypocritical existence; until recently I was a well known Creative Director in the advertising industry with big global clients. One day I’d be at a Bank’s board meeting, the next I’d be burning the same bank at the G20 riots (this actually happened). I’m not doing that (advertising) anymore – I’m using my skills in a more ‘socially-progressive’ way running antipoverty, fair taxation and healthcare (Ebola currently) campaigns for development charities.
And, I’d like to add that I think we are about to see the beginning of the end of the Neo-Liberal Era, in Europe at least. Interesting times…
One of the things I’ve been always curious was the titles or the ‘themes’ of the BQ songs… time ago (again) I’ve read this post
But did in the past you used other ways to name the songs? Or can you describe how some of them were born? I’m interested in particular in “Soft City” and “Born Left Hearted” (Preparing for Power), “Barcelona Telephone Exchange” (Laughing Afternoon), “Call to Arms” (The Spike) “Always There” (Bourbonese Qualk) and “M25” (Unpop).
Well, we didn’t set out, as I guess other groups do (though I might be wrong), to write songs about something – love songs about girlfriends or whatever. The music almost always came first and the vocals later. Because we didn’t write ‘songs’ as such, titles were mostly decided right at the end of the process when we were putting the album together (unless there was an obvious vocal-lead title). However, there are ‘Themes’ that developed of various periods, for instance; ‘Soft City’ is the title of a book by Jonathan Raban – an early kind-of psychogeographical study of London. I was very interested in urban geography at the time (which has become very fashionable now in the UK with writer like Iain Sinclair etc) from a political and psychological point of view;
“In the city we can live deliberately: inventing and renewing ourselves, carving out journeys, creating private spaces. But in the city we are also afraid of being alone, clinging to the structures of daily life to ward off the chaos around us”
This obsession with the City and urbanism was a major theme in our work – music and visual – from around the ‘Preparing For Power’ period – partly because we were so involved in buildings; exploring the empty and disused landscape, squatting and rehousing homeless people in London, taking away control of buildings from local government and opening them up to new uses.
Similarly ‘M25’ was part of a theme around politics, power and architecture; The M25 is the London Orbital motorway built during the Thatcher regime as an example of the victory of individualism (private cars) over the collective (public transport) – a symbol of Thatcher’s ‘Great car Economy’ (another track off ‘Unpop’). Strangely, Iain Sinclair much later wrote a book about the M25 as well…
‘Call to Arms’; It’s hard to describe adequately here how we lived at the time this was written but we – and this was a commonly held view – saw ourselves as being at war with ‘the state’. Sounds a bit over the top now (kind-of) but when you are living a daily reality of being attacked, arrested, searched and in constant poverty with no way out it does makes sense. There is a more recent parallel with the so called ‘radicalisation’ process of young European Muslims. So this title was a ‘Call to Arms’ – an expression of righteous anger in a Mayakovsky-esque, short, slogan style. There were several tracks named in a similar theme. And, incidentally, throughout Europe, this track was played in nightclubs when they wanted everyone to leave at the end of the night and became known as the ‘The Rausmeister’ (‘Bouncer’ in English).
‘Born Left hearted’ is a rare example of a track being called after the lyrics – my brother Ted wrote some lyrics for us in the mid Eighties ( think the other one was ‘New Jerusalem’). ‘Always There’ was as close as we got to a love song; a piece expressing tenderness and closeness…
So; a very mixed bag. I’m guessing you are looking for some kind of process or method – but, there wasn’t (isn’t) any. Sorry about that. All in all, it’s very hard, in a few paragraphs to explain the basic ‘meaning’ of what we did – it was something that was lived rather than theorised. And, we we’re ‘anti-meaning’ in other words, you had to work it out for yourself, and any conclusion was as valid as any other.
Ok, we’re at the end of this long and (for me) very interesting interview. I know there are projects of re-releasing your old material. Can you tell me more? Are you going to play/publish something new? I’ve appreciated a lot also your EP for Thisco not to long ago…
It was long for me as well (Joke…). We’re re-releasing the old material – first off is a double vinyl CD compilation 1982-1986 on the Berlin based Mannequin label plus a 12” of ‘Lies’ and a remix by Ancient Methods. We will be re-releasing all the old original work on vinyl in 2015. Myself; I have just released my first solo album “After America” on the canadian Fathom label. I’m planning another solo release in 2015 (it’s more or less finished now) and some live performances – oh, and I WILL finish the remixes of Sparkle In Grey soon(ish)… Steve is doing his art stuff , Julian has recently been revealed as a Russian spy! (bullshit). Everyone else is dead.