Released in 1991, ‘Ripe’ was the only album by BANDERAS.
The pairing of Caroline Buckley and Sally Herbert met in 1987 when they were in the live band of THE COMMUNARDS, the duo comprising of Jimmy Somerville, formally of BRONSKI BEAT and Richard Coles, now a BBC TV vicar and more recently, a ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ contestant.
THE COMMUNARDS had HI-NRG hits with covers of the disco classics ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ and ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’, so were in demand on the concert circuit.
Buckley filled the big shoes of Sarah-Jane Morris who had moved on to pursue a solo career while Herbert was in the string section which also included Audrey Riley, Jocelyn Pook and Anne Stephenson. After THE COMMUNARDS disbanded and Jimmy Somerville loaned the pair a Yamaha DX7 and a sampler, Buckley and Herbert became BANDERAS, the Spanish word for “flag”. Adopting a striking shaven headed image, they began writing songs and gigging, eventually coming to the attention of producer Stephen Hague’s manager.
THE COMMUNARDS’s second and final album ‘Red’ featured contributions from Buckley and Herbert, so having worked with Stephen Hague in his capacity as its producer, the American was an obvious and natural choice to helm BANDERAS’ debut long player. And to keep things in THE COMMUNARDS’ family, they also signed to their label London Records.
Things looked promising for BANDERAS and this was outlined by the cast of players on the album; special guests included Bernard Sumner, Johnny Marr and old pal Jimmy Somerville while there were noted sessioners on board such as Luís Jardim, Guy Pratt and Stevie Lange as well former band mates Audrey Riley and Jocelyn Pook.
The album’s ace was the magnificent ‘This Is Your Life’, one of the last songs written and recorded for ‘Ripe’. Using a sample from Grace Jones’ ‘Crack Attack’, it had a distinct Pet Shop Girls behavioural vibe to it. Meanwhile there was also the added bonus of Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner on rhythm guitars plus a terrific middle eight section featuring Sumner’s vocals before an emotive synth solo. “There is no rehearsal, no second chance” sang Buckley and Sumner together but rather prophetically, despite ‘This Is Your Life’ reaching No16 in the UK singles charts, there were no more hits for BANDERAS.
With a banging drum mantra and a catchy riff, the more uptempo second single ‘She Sells’ was a shopping list song that just missed out on a Top40 chart entry. But despite lyrics attacking the advertising industry’s use of sexist stereotypes, the message proved to be less appealing than the melancholic but uplifting YOLO stance of ‘This Is Your Life’.
The third BANDERAS single ‘May This Be Your Last Sorrow’ fared even worse, but despite being inspired by a scene from a film in Arabic where the mourners were reciting to a bereaved family, the funereal trip-hop with its dub-laden backdrop foresaw the likes of ONE DOVE, THE ALOOF and PORTISHEAD.
Alongside the singles, ‘Ripe’ had other highlights. It was not difficult to imagine either Neil Tennant or Jimmy Somerville singing on ‘The Comfort Of Faith’, a song questioning unconditional religious devotion that came with a typically classic Stephen Hague production while with an orchestral arrangement that undoubtedly seeded Herbert’s future career as a film score composer, ‘Why Aren’t You In Love With Me?’ was BANDERAS’ take on Philly soul with Buckley’s emotive resignation in harmony with a comparatively understated falsetto from Jimmy Sommerville.
Most striking was ‘It’s Written All Over My Face’, a bare self-produced song which despite its countrified acoustic guitar recalled the pulsing electronic arrangement of Marianne Faithfull’s version of ‘The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan’. Also quite stripped down was ‘Too Good’ featuring a stark percussive groove augmented by fretless bass runs while the album’s closer ‘Never Too Late’ saw the duo offer their take on Patsy Cline.
Interestingly in the booklet notes, neither Buckley nor Herbert express any great enthusiasm for ‘First Hand’ or ‘Don’t Let That Man’ but while these do not hit the heights of the album’s highlights, they are not bad but sound very much of their time.
A second album was in the works to be produced by Alan Moulder but London Records lost interest and BANDERAS quietly disbanded. In the past 5 years, both Caroline Buckley and Sally Herbert have worked independently with Jimmy Somerville on various projects, so it is apt that the wee Scotsman conducts the short interview with them for the reissue of ‘Ripe’.
Anthologised by Cherry Red on their 90/9 imprint, ‘Ripe’ has been remastered as a double CD edition with the album plus B-sides coupled with a collection of remixes, many of which actually seem to feature the structures of the various songs, documenting a period just before the club DJ remix madness went into overdrive.
‘This Is Your Life’ may be considered something of a one hit wonder but to have written such a timeless song that resonates with the public, even if it is for a limited moment in time, is a gift to any composer. Regardless of that, based on the evidence of ‘Ripe’, BANDERAS delivered an album that was worthy of the supporting cast that helped embellish it.
If you missed ‘Ripe’ first time round, now is a good time to catch up 30 years on…
With ‘Hygiene Strip’ and ‘I Can See You Outside’, Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie have been re-exploring the electronic direction of their earlier sound, having celebrated the 25th Anniversary of their debut single ‘Stars’ in 2020.
Both co-produced by Stephen Hague who helmed the first two DUBSTAR albums ‘Disgraceful’ and ‘Goodbye’, ‘Hygiene Strip’ was an apocalyptic heartbreak song reflecting love, loss, anger and ideology while the more uptempo ‘I Can See You Outside’ evoked Christine McVie and Giorgio Moroder liaising unexpectedly in a condemned nightclub.
Taking its title from the slowly but constantly moving pieces of Earth’s crust and uppermost mantle which cause earthquakes when stuck together, ‘Tectonic Plates’ focusses on friction over a neo-baggy beat, but paradoxically sparkles on entry in a seismic shift.
Imagining the paintings of modern surrealist Marc Chagall, Blackwood observes this girl who “Drifted far beyond this world To places unreachably high, sky is just another thing that passed her by”. Wilkie then bursts in with some rhythm guitar reminiscent of DUBSTAR’s former Food labelmates BLUR and their first hit ‘There’s No Other Way’, although an array of catchy synth riffs prove to be irresistible.
Working again with Stephen Hague, a new DUBSTAR album is now close to completion. The necessity to record it remotely has led to the realisation of ideas which would normally consume an afternoon actually take a week.
The creative tension has led to a compulsion to create, with plenty to write about in the face of adversity in that sardonic Northern English way. So it’s all Back To Blackwood as Wilkie brings in his love of XTC and CHIC for the bittersweet kitchen sink poetry of DUBSTAR to remain firmly intact as a kind of pop regression therapy.
As a gesture of solidarity with fellow humans, DUBSTAR present ‘Hygiene Strip’.
“’Hygiene Strip’ was created at the height of the 2020 UK lockdown” said Sarah Blackwood to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK, “The writing, recording and video had to be done remotely, and it is the first collaboration with Stephen Hague and DUBSTAR to be released since the ’90s.”
Written by Sarah Blackwood, Chris Wilkie and Stephen Hague, the song itself is classic DUBSTAR and characterised by Blackwood’s distinctively forlorn vocal presence. But there is also the subtle lifting air of PET SHOP BOYS looming to offer some hope in the haze of melancholy.
Hygiene strips of course have become common place now to remind the population of social distancing but of course, they could also be metaphorically referring to the removal of personal protective clothing for sterilisation or the role of face coverings, actions that ultimately affect life.
The self-made lyric video is a striking monochromatic affair highlighting the emotional tension and psychological effects of the worldwide lockdown; it concludes with Miss Blackwood starkly masking up…
Stephen Hague produced DUBSTAR’s first two albums ‘Disgraceful’ and ‘Goodbye’ as well as their biggest hit singles ‘Stars’ and ‘Not So Manic Now’. Now domiciled on the South Coast of England, the American became best known for working with OMD, PET SHOP BOYS, NEW ORDER and ERASURE.
While Hague has not worked with DUBSTAR since 1997, he and Sarah Blackwood have remained in contact over the years, so a recording reunion was almost inevitable. The 2018 comeback ‘One’ was produced by Youth but while new DUBSTAR material is being written and recorded, the release schedule has yet to be confirmed.
Celebrating their 40th Anniversary, OMD are one of the acts from the Synth Britannia era whose creative powers now are as strong as their chart heyday.
Setting a high standard of romantic retro-futurism with lyrical gists ranging from technology and war to deceased religious figures and long distance relationships, OMD released their debut single ‘Electricity’ in 1979, a statement about the environment that would have made today’s young campaigner Greta Thunberg proud.
Those who complain that OMD’s music is not dark enough often forget that within their highly melodic songs, subjects have included the suicide of a charismatic musician, the suicide of a woman who worked as a stripper because she had no other means of supporting herself, the racially motivated massacre of five innocent demonstrators by the Ku Klux Klan, the death of over 140,000 people by nuclear attack and most notably on two hit singles, the brutal execution of a teenage girl!
Founder members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys began an impressive run of acclaimed albums and hit singles, starting with the Mike Howlett produced ‘Messages’ in 1980. The huge European popularity of the follow-up ‘Enola Gay’ captured the Cold War angst of the times under the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction, while ‘Maid Of Orleans’ became the biggest selling single of 1982 in West Germany when Der Bundesrepublik was the biggest Western music market after the USA and Japan.
Long-time drummer Mal Holmes and live keyboardist Martin Cooper joined the fray as full band members for 1983’s ‘Dazzle Ships’ album, but things went creatively awry for OMD as McCluskey and Humphreys found themselves in an existential crisis, following journalistic criticism that songs about dead saints were not going to change the world. The more politically charged and experimental album failed to sell, but has since been re-evaluated in the 21st Century as a meisterwerk.
Bruised and under commercial pressure, OMD opted to pursue more conventional ambitions and traditions to stay in the black and scored the Top5 US hit ‘If You Leave’ from the John Hughes movie ‘Pretty In Pink’ in 1986. However a North American tour opening for DEPECHE MODE in 1988 failed to sustain momentum. In the backdrop of the resultant fallout and the inevitable musical differences, Humphreys, Holmes and Cooper departed, leaving McCluskey with the OMD brand name.
However, the split precipitated a number of interesting artistic and creative diversions for McCluskey and Humphreys which despite the triumphant reunion of the classic line-up in 2007 and the success of OMD’s most recent album ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ in 2017, continue in varying degrees today in parallel with band activities.
In his most recent interview with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK, Paul Humphreys said: “I still find it utterly amazing and rather fantastic that after 40 years, OMD is still alive and well, selling out big tours and making what even our harshest critics consider to be relevant new records.”
By way of a Beginner’s Guide to showcase the diverse facets of OMD, a hefty 25 tracks of interest have been selected from their career, although largely eschewing those made famous by singular consumption.
But with so many tracks available and the list already being VERY long, links to the OMD family tree like THE ID, as well as work with MARSHEAUX and contributions to the soundtracks of ‘For The Greater Good’, ‘Eddie The Eagle’ and ‘The D-Train’ (which between them saw McCluskey working with notable names such as Danny Boyle, Gary Barlow, Hugh Jackman and Jack Antonoff) have been omitted.
With a restriction of one track per album project, they highlight how two lads from The Wirral have maintained their standing as a creative and cultural force four decades on, despite their numerous ups and downs.
OMD The Messerschmitt Twins (1980)
With their passion for military aircraft and German music, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys were nicknamed ‘The Messerschmitt Twins’; this mournful Compurhythm driven synth ballad of the same name had mournful if cryptic lyrics which could be seen as the thoughts of aircrew during wartime missions, pondering whether they would return to home. The bleak fatalistic narrative was given further resonance by Andy McCluskey’s resigned vocalisation.
The ‘Organisation’ album saw OMD purchase their first polyphonic synthesizer, a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 which allowed Paul Humphreys to explore more haunting gothic timbres away from the cheesier chords of the Vox Jaguar organ. Shaped by eerie choir textures and a repeating two note synthbass motif set to Mal Holmes’ simple marching snare pattern, the beauty of ‘2nd Thought’ echoed the third section of KRAFTWERK’s ‘Autobahn’ and displayed a maturity in OMD’s developing sound.
Running at almost eight minutes, the nautical adventure of ‘Sealand’ demonstrated OMD’s mastery of the epic, mysteriously beginning with a ghostly collage of melodica and reed horns before sad synths and progressive sweeps made their presence felt. Featuring just a minute of vocals in the sparse middle section, the penultimate movement collapsed into a fit of industrial noise before a slow misty reprise of the main melodic theme, like a lost ship in the fog.
Like ‘Maid Of Orleans’, the harrowing ‘International’ was musically inspired by the skippy waltz of ‘Back In Judy’s Jungle’ by Brian Eno. The introductory news report about “a young girl from Nicaragua whose hands had been cut off at the wrists by the former Somoza guards…” acted as one of the fuels for Andy McCluskey to express his anger about economic corruption, political hypocrisy and torture in captivity, all topics which are still sadly relevant today.
THE PARTNERSHIP was an unrealised side project of Peter Saville cohort and ex-SPOONS member Brett Wickens with Roger Humphreys (no relation) who recorded as CERAMIC HELLO. Produced by William Orbit, the pulsatingly uptempo ‘Sampling The Blast Furnace’ featured guest vocals from Andy McCluskey alongside vocodered voices and chants by Martha Ladly. While this version remains unreleased, the slower McCluskey-less demo was on the reissue of CERAMIC HELLO’s only album.
Not officially released, alternate version available on the CERAMIC HELLO album ‘The Absence Of A Canary V1.1’ via Vinyl On Demand
After the critical mauling that ‘Dazzle Ships’ received, OMD were in debt to Virgin Records and realised that they would have to sell more records to survive. The commercial pressure led to a trip to the sunnier climes of AIR Studios in Monserrat and the musically diverse ‘Junk Culture’. A song about McCluskey’s intimate liaison with a local girl, the bizarre mix of carnival whistles, soca, Mellotron choir, rhythm guitar and 808 driven electro came over a bit like AZTEC CAMERA produced by Arthur Baker.
1985’s ‘Crush’ was Stephen Hague’s first full album production and opened the doors for OMD’s ambitions in the US. Following the success of ‘If You Leave’, ‘The Pacific Age’ continued the partnership and was intended to reinforce momentum. The opening song ‘Stay’ threw in the kitchen sink from Mal Holmes’ mighty drums to layers of synthetic strings plus the addition of soulful female backing singers, brass and heavy metal guitar. But the esoteric elements that made OMD so appealing were being wiped away.
The suave and sophisticated Etienne Daho was seen as France’s answer to George Michael. While OMD were in Paris recording ‘The Pacific Age’ at Studio de la Grande Armée, they took part in a ‘Les Enfants Du Rock’ French TV special also which also saw their French label mate interviewing his musical influences like Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg. The DAHOMD duet saw Daho and McCluskey’s low voices blend well over the original Stephen Hague produced single from ‘Crush’.
Available on the ETIENNE DAHO deluxe album ‘Pop Satori’ via Virgin Records
ARTHUR BAKER & THE BACKBEAT DISCIPLES Walkaway (1989)
Producer Arthur Baker gathered a studio collective to make a pop record tracing his love of soul, synthpop, disco, HI-NRG and Europop. His first recording since the fragmentation of OMD, Andy McCuskey contributed lyrics, keyboards and vocals to the electro-reggae of ‘Walkaway’ which threatened to turn into CULTURE CLUB’s ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?’. The vocal cast of the ‘Merge’ album included Al Green, Martin Fry, Jimmy Somerville and Etienne Daho.
Available on the ARTHUR BAKER & THE BACKBEAT DISCIPLES album ‘Merge’ via A&M Records
Going it alone as OMD, Andy McCluskey became open to collaboration. Meeting Stuart Kershaw and Lloyd Massett from pop rap combo RAW UNLTD, the pair set about modernising the rhythmic elements of McCluskey’s new songs. The ghostly ‘Walking On Air’ referenced ‘Statues’ from ‘Organisation’ while the mechanical bossa nova evoked the mellow moods of Bryan Ferry. Kershaw has since taken over the drum stool from Mal Holmes who left OMD in 2014 for health reasons.
Available on the OMD album ‘Sugar Tax’ via Virgin Records
THE LISTENING POOL Where Do We Go From Here? (1993)
With bursts of sampled choir, electric piano and wah-wah guitar, ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ came from THE LISTENING POOL’s only album ‘Still Life’ released in 1994. Driven by a gently percolating drum machine programmed by Mal Holmes, the understated air reminiscent of CHINA CRISIS was sweetened by Martin Cooper’s soprano sax with Paul Humphreys vocally pondering their creative situation with the threesome having now departed the OMD camp.
Available on the THE LISTENING POOL album ‘Still Life’ via Telegraph Records
Recorded for his ELEKTRIC MUSIC project after leaving KRAFTWERK, Karl Bartos’ collaboration with Andy McCluskey featured one of his best melodies synth melodies. Bartos told ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK: “He suggested we do something together and I was up for it… We picked some cassettes and finally I found the opening notes of ‘Kissing The Machine’”. With fabulously surreal lyrics about a love affair with a sexy robot, the song was later resurrected with new backing from Paul Humphreys for ‘English Electric’.
Available on the ELEKTRIC MUSIC album ‘Esperanto’ via SPV Records
On a commercial roll and aiming for a younger pop market, ‘Liberator’ featured lots of busy modern dance effects but saw Andy McCluskey losing his way in the song department. Its confused schizophrenic nature was compounded by the pure genius of darker numbers like ‘King Of Stone’ and ‘Christine’. The symphonic string laden ‘Best Years Of Our Lives’ was another of the better tracks, borrowing its solemn topline from ‘Spanish Harlem’, a song made famous by Ben E King.
Available on the OMD album ‘Liberator’ via Virgin Records
After the muted reception for 1993’s painfully poppy ‘Liberator’, Andy McCluskey brought in a more conventional rock sound for 1996’s ‘Universal’. However, the OASIS sounding ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ failed to get major traction. One of its B-sides ‘The New Dark Age’ gave a haunting nod to ‘Statues’ using the auto-accompaniment on the Elgam Symphony organ and was the last great synth song of the solo era as the OMD vehicle was quietly retired by McCluskey… for now!
When Andy McCluskey joined Stuart Kershaw to make some dysfunctional pop for a girl group, most thought he had lost his marbles. The original project HONEYHEAD was stillborn, but when three girls from Liverpool were recruited to form ATOMIC KITTEN, it eventually led to a UK No1 single with ‘Whole Again’. However, the demo of the first single ‘Right Now’ sounded like disco evergreen ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ arranged like ‘Sugar Tax’ era OMD, but with female vocals!
Available on the ATOMIC KITTEN single ‘Right Now’ via Innocent Records
Having been ousted from Team AK by a coup d’état, Andy McCluskey licked his wounds and recruited another three local girls to form THE GENIE QUEEN. Featuring soon-to-be WAG / top model Abbey Clancy and future TV presenter Anna Ord, ‘What A Girl Goes Through’ was an appealing pop R ’n’ B number based around samples of ‘Souvenir’. The project disbanded without being signed, but a track intended for THE GENIE QUEEN called ‘Pulse’ appeared on ‘History Of Modern’ featuring the girls.
Paul Humphreys and Claudia Brücken released their only album as ONETWO in 2007 and from it was ‘Anonymous’, a song that began life as a demo from the aborted PROPAGANDA reunion and which had also been co-written with Andy McCluskey. The pretty ringing melodies and elegiac atmospheres were very reminiscent of classic OMD. But the collaboration had been unusual as at the time of the song’s conception, as Humphreys had not yet committed to rejoining McCluskey in his old band.
BLANK & JONES featuring BERNARD SUMNER Miracle Cure – Paul Humphreys Onetwo remix (2008)
Having worked with THE CURE’s Robert Smith, trance duo Piet Blank and Jaspa Jones had Bernard Sumner of NEW ORDER high on their list of vocalists for their album ‘The Logic Of Pleasure’, which also featured Claudia Brücken. The German duo remixed ONETWO’s ‘Kein Anschluß’, so naturally the gesture was reciprocated when Paul Humphreys offered his smooth offbeat atmospheric rework of ‘Miracle Cure’ in what could be seen as the nearest thing to a NEW ORDER vs OMD collaboration.
Of this ‘History Of Modern’ highlight, Paul Humphreys said: “It was a song Andy did many, many years ago with Stuart and I think it was done in the 90s. He played it to me and it sounded a bit like a rock ballad. I said ‘I think the vocal tune’s great, but everything else has to go. Give me the vocal stem and I’ll do a whole new track for it’, so I came to my studio and completely reworked it.” – the result was mesmerising and even dropped in ROXY MUSIC’s ‘If There Is Something’ at the close.
Mal Holmes once said that “MIRRORS do OMD better than OMD do OMD!”… originally a ten minute epic split into three movements, ‘Secrets’ closed MIRRORS’ outstanding ‘Lights & Offerings’ long player, driven by an intense percussive tattoo and a shifting octave bass riff that was pure Klingklang. While pushing forward the synthetic claps, Andy McCluskey stripped down and the backing and shortened proceedings, making it much less claustrophobic and militaristic than the original.
Originally on the MIRRORS deluxe album ‘Lights & Offerings’ via Undo Records, currently unavailable
PAUL HUMPHREYS & DOUGLAS COUPLAND Electric Ikebana (2012)
A collaboration between ‘Generation X’ author Douglas Coupland, and Paul Humphreys, ‘Electric Ikebana’ was an audio visual installation to act as the voice of the network for French telecoms company Alcatel-Lucent. The beautiful piece had conceptual hints of KRAFTWERK’s ‘The Voice Of Energy’ while there was also a charming mathematical formula recital “x = [-b +- √(b² -4ac)] / 2a” to the tune of the nursery rhyme ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ which recalled ‘ABC Auto-Industry’ from ‘Dazzle Ships’.
Of ‘Helen Of Troy’, Andy McCluskey said to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK: “George Geranios and Nick Bitzenis of FOTONOVELA were our label bosses in Greece via their Undo Records and they sent me this track…the demo had Nick going “Helen Of Troy – Helen Of Troy” so I took his vocal off as you do, chopped it all up and rearranged it… it’s gorgeous! I have used some of Nick’s backing vocals… I love it to bits! And ‘Helen Of Troy’ is much more of a metaphor than either of the ‘Joan Of Arcs’ were.”
Andy Bell’s debut solo album ‘Electric Blue’ had been produced by ONETWO’s backing band THE MANHATTAN CLIQUE and featured two duets with Claudia Brücken. ‘The Violet Flame’ album saw ERASURE express an infectious zest for the future with songs beginning as pre-recorded dance grooves from Vince Clarke. But the best number from the sessions was ‘Be The One’ remixed by Paul Humphreys who added some of the beautiful Synthwerk magic that characterised ‘English Electric’.
The avant pop approach of VILE ELECTRODES is reminiscent of early OMD, with ‘Deep Red’ capturing Andy McCluskey’s interest enough to invite the duo to support the German leg of the ‘English Electric’ tour. With its potent drama, ‘The Vanished Past’ came complete with a mighty drum climax like ‘Navigation’. Bleak and wonderful, “not everything is as it seems” as a forlorn stranger joins in after five minutes. As the adventure unfolds like a lost OMD epic, that stranger reveals himself to be Mr McCluskey!
OMD began their recorded career with a KRAFTWERK homage and four decades on, have come full circle. A great grandchild of Klingklang and cousin of ‘Metroland’ from ‘English Electric’ but refined for BBC Radio 2 airplay, ‘Don’t Go’ captures the essence of OMD’s enduring electronic appeal. With crystalline synth melodies from Humphreys and a spirited vocal delivery from McCluskey attached to a hypnotic Synthanorma backdrop, OMD continue to produce quality avant pop tunes.
Now a duo comprising Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie, with the guitarist taking on main songwriting duties, ‘One’ is DUBSTAR’s first new album for eighteen years.
Long standing fans who loved the long playing trilogy of ‘Disgraceful’, ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Make It Better’ have had nothing but praise for ‘One’, produced by Youth whose credits include CROWDED HOUSE and THE VERVE.
Despite sitting on the bridge between Britpop and Synth Britannia in their heyday, DUBSTAR’s appeal has always been via their down-to-earth kitchen sink dramas. There is certainly no shortage of those on ‘One’ which has been well worth the wait, as a work following the conflicts of an aborted reunion which was unable to be sustained despite live performances in 2013.
Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie kindly chatted over their usual cup of tea about how the two of them became ‘One’…
How has been working together as a duo?
Chris: It’s been easier than as a trio *laughs*
The funny thing is though, it was never just a trio anyway, we’ve always had outside collaborators whether it was our live rhythm section, Stephen Hague or whoever, and Youth has felt like a member in lots of ways this time around.
So it’s rarely just me and Sarah in a vacuum. You don’t have to compromise as much, especially from my perspective as the instrumentalist. In the past, I was often having to field ideas that I didn’t like so much. Now, I get a feeling for how it should be and just do it.
Sarah: It seemed to go a lot more smoothly, Chris would send it to me, I’d sing it and anything he didn’t like, he just didn’t put in the final mix, so that was fine! Subtle enough to not hurt my feelings or anything like that *laughs*
So no writing songs in weird keys for you?
Sarah: Do you remember that Chris? – “Can you reach that note right at the top of the piano Sarah?”… I can with an “aaah” but it’s a whole different story with a word! *laughs*
So was working with Youth on ‘One’ a natural choice as I know Sarah, he had previously worked with you in your previous band?
Sarah: Chris and I have always been fans of his work on things like CROWDED HOUSE’s ‘Together Alone’ album.
Chris: After the adjustment in personnel within the group, we were closely in touch with Stephen Hague, but worried that we’d be putting him in an uncomfortable position by asking him to do it, so after a lot of head-scratching, Me and Sarah made a wish-list of who we’d like to work with, especially the ones whose phone numbers we had, and whittled it down *laughs*
Youth was top of my list and Sarah happened to know him already, so that made it much easier.
We didn’t have a label at this point, but Youth tackled the situation by adopting an early-60s approach, doing what people like George Martin used to do, and became the A&R guy as well as the producer.
We had around 30 tracks demoed, and made regular visits to his house for several weeks, working to get them down to a collection of songs which felt meaningful together, before the official production dates began.
‘One’ does come across like a proper album in that respect, perhaps more than our previous records, despite the style of the tracks being more diverse.
‘One’ has a much more live sounding feel than previous albums although it is still classic DUBSTAR, had that been a conscious move ?
Chris: Yeah, that’s definitely something I was after. Wherever you had programmed elements, I wanted them to feel like they were in the room. Even with a Moog bass or Solina Strings part, I wanted to be able to visualise the space it was in. Youth and his engineer have this down to a fine art. I think they got the best acoustic guitar sound I’ve ever had for instance, because they understand the environment it’s being recorded in so well.
Is the software and tech available now more straightforward to use and to get that organic feel within the budget constraints?
Chris: Very much so. Plug-ins have come so far that it’s difficult to spot the difference most of the time. I would do a lot of the programming, and even record a lot of the guitars at home, but when we got to Youth’s place, we’d have to make a decision about which bits could be improved by reworking in a proper acoustic environment, or would benefit from being left alone. Recording is so much more expeditious now, you could potentially make a whole album on your laptop and most people won’t be able to detect the short-cuts, but I do appreciate a lot of these developments, because back in the 90s we’d be going into a residential studio like Real World and spending four grand a day just to try and get a decent drum sound! *laughs*
That’s good because a lot of modern purely electronic recordings lack air…
Chris: Thanks, on tracks like ‘Locked Inside’ which is one of the most electronic ones on the album, we were really trying to approach it like JON & VANGELIS or the early GARY NUMAN tracks where you can really feel the air moving around the equipment; it might be a machine but you can sense the human being using it.
So on ‘Locked Inside’, is that a TEARS FOR FEARS sample or an actual Drumulator programme?
Chris: Ooooh! There’s a question! *laughs*
I don’t know if I should say, but it is a sample from ‘Shout’. It was something that Youth did to see if we’d spot it… we’d been talking affectionately about TEARS FOR FEARS a lot, and he added it between sessions when we weren’t in the room! When we came back, he had this cheeky look on his face and I went “that’s from ‘Shout’ that is!”
After you’ve heard it for a while you miss it when it’s not there, it’s become part of it! So you have to run the risk of keeping the sample, but if Roland and Curt are reading this, please don’t give us a hard time! It was done with love *laughs*
Sarah: Yes, please don’t! It was Youth’s fault, and we want to be able to afford to make another album! *laughs*
So Sarah, is the tech and software making things more straightforward for you now vocally?
Sarah: A bit, I had a lot of throat problems in DUBSTAR before because I’ve got a really fragile voice. I have a narrow neck, tiny ears and even though my nose is big, I’ve had tubes shoved up there to investigate what was going on and they said there wasn’t a lot of room, so I really suffer, I only have to go to a restaurant and talk too much and my throat is inflamed! This is why the performance thing caused me so much anxiety and stress, which made things even worse.
So I had to find ways to manage that, I’ve got really into pilates which has taught me to expand my rib cage properly and I’m learning to feel space in my head, but I’m still a work in progress. When Youth’s engineer Michael Rendall recorded me, he managed to get a really good sound in my headphones which meant I could sing higher with not much power, I didn’t really have to push for it. On ‘Love Comes Late’, he asked me to go an octave up and I instinctively went “no”! He just stuck the headphones on and said “you can now!”*laughs*
Chris: I think you’re a lot stronger and more proficient; your voice seems to work better than it ever did. I find you can do stuff now that you’d have never been able to do in the 90s and effortlessly. For me, as someone who worked with Sarah years ago, to come back with her operating at a higher level is quite thrilling. It’s great when you’re writing, knowing that whatever you write, she’s going to be able to do it.
Do either of you have any thoughts about the use of vocal effects in modern music? Are you in the mindset that you are making a record as opposed to recreating a live performance?
Sarah: I feel like I’m cheating, I’m remember the first time I went in a studio doing the first DUBSTAR album and the vocals were comped, I thought “that’s not right” but Andy Ross of Food Records just went “everybody else does it, and if you don’t want to sound as good as everybody else, then don’t do it”.
I would say Ella Fitzgerald doesn’t do it! But Andy would reply “Ella Fitzgerald sings those songs night after night after night and she gets muscle memory, she can do it perfect with her eyes shut. You’ve only sung those songs five times, you haven’t toured them, you haven’t explored them in your own voice” – and when you think about it, musicians in the old days would get their material together and take it on tour, get spotted and then go in the studio to record those songs, so it was different. But when you do your new songs, you’ve only sung them a handful of times before you record them, and then you’d take them out on the road, so that’s kind of interesting.
Chris: I understand what you mean, I used to think it was cheating to comp the guitars, and complain to Stephen Hague that I wanted to do it again from the top, worried that people would think I was a sample. I suppose you can improve as a result of being neurotic, though.
Sarah: Yeah, it feels wrong and that you’re compromising your artistic integrity, BUT what we make a point of doing is we try and do one take, and then drop tiny little bits in that are really offensive. But sometimes mistakes keep things authentic… there’s a horrible brown note on ‘Stars’ which Stephen Hague left in because he liked it.
Chris: Another thing about the ‘one take’ thing Sarah, even people who have never worked in studios can pick up on the way someone is breathing when it’s sung from the top to the bottom, you can feel it even if you don’t necessarily know why. So by retaining that element of performance, it makes it feel like Sarah’s in the room singing the song to you more.
To go back to your point about the use of effect, apart from the end of ‘Love Comes Late’ where you have a flanger treatment going on to create a different colour and distinguish from the other sung part, it’s true that Sarah does prefer a natural vocal…if you have too much effect going on, you lose that intimacy.
When you have a ‘character’ singer, like Sarah is, you want to feel her humanity, as if she’s in your ear and telling you something.
Sarah: It doesn’t distract from the words as well, if there’s lots of effects on it, you don’t listen to the words.
Chris: A well-known example of the software performing the song more than the singer must be CHER with ‘Believe’ and the autotune thing, which was still new then, but of course she didn’t have to prove anything. It is a shame these days when the autotune is singing the song and you suspect that they probably only performed it on one note and just dialled it in! *laughs*
Sarah: It does make it unlistenable when it’s overdone. When it’s someone like ALISON MOYET, its ok, because you know she’s an awesome singer, she’s got nothing to prove, so playing around with the vocal adds another dimension to the track. It’s how you use it I guess.
Chris: KATE BUSH creates different vocal sounds just with her delivery or the way she’s tracked it. She becomes something else…
Sarah: …yes, like those backing vocals on PETER GABRIEL’s ‘No Self Control’, I’d love to be a bit more experimental but I don’t know if I’ve got the courage.
Chris: The song suggests what you’re going to do.
There’s less of the ‘dub’ in DUBSTAR on ‘One’?
Chris: When we first started, we really loved ONE DOVE, and they had some great tracks remixed by people like William Orbit and Andrew Weatherall. There was something they were doing at the time which leaned heavily on dub in the bass especially, which was just incredible and the sound of it was something we aspired to do.
Having said that, even in the early 90s, the word “dub” had become a little bit hackneyed in pop music, I was sick of the sound of the word. I hadn’t really thought much about the dub element in our group, until our then-manager Graeme Robinson came to visit, saying “It looks like I’ve got you a record contract but the catch is, you’re called DUBSTAR!”, which he’d suggested to Food Records without consulting us, thinking it was a good idea.
I remember at the first meeting, Andy Ross said “that will be a great name because of the dub element”, but my heart sank because I thought “so do we have to keep doing those bass lines in perpetuity then?” The name was now part of the intended marketing, which felt like the tail was wagging the dog, and I found that really depressing! *laughs*
If you listen to the first three albums, by the time ‘Make It Better’ comes along, there’s not much trace of it left, but by then, you’ve become the name and vice versa.
Youth was a bit disappointed that we weren’t up for revisiting some of that dub flavour, since it’s a musical comfort zone for him, so maybe on the next one we will. ‘Two’ could be like ‘Disgraceful 2’!
Sarah: It’s quite surprising isn’t it, that got omitted from this album working with Youth. You’d have thought that’s one of first things he’d have got in.
Chris: It makes sense, because what he did back then was informing a lot of what was going on at the time. In some ways, he would have been a very sensible choice as producer for ‘Disgraceful’.
Sarah: Wasn’t his band BRILLIANT Food 1 by catalogue number??
Chris: Yes, that’s correct… I suppose there is some weird synchronicity going on in the Youth and DUBSTAR story, so it’s not really that surprising we ended up doing something together.
So is this DUBSTAR return a conscious reboot or more of a “suck it and see” approach?
Chris: It sort of crept up on us, we’d been spending time together from 2013 and we’d done some one-off performances. We knew we wanted to do something, I was enjoying having Sarah back in my life on a day-to-day basis, since I hadn’t for a few years, whereas we used to actually live together at one point.
I was really enjoying her singing again, so we started what I thought might have been a Sarah solo record; that was very liberating originally because it meant I didn’t have to think about it in the context of a new DUBSTAR record, and the ideas started flowing in a totally uninhibited way.
So when the likes of Youth started saying “this is essentially a DUBSTAR record isn’t it, so you might as well have the advantage of calling it that”, it obviously made sense and became quite exciting. But it was a pressure-free initiation stage.
How do you feel about today’s music business landscape, like with the current formats, you’re not under pressure to churn out B-sides and covers like in the past, it’s just “the album” now isn’t it?
Chris: Yeah, that’s right but also, the album has a different character now as a format because any one of the songs can effectively be the single, just according to how it’s received. You can still do what you used to do and nominate whichever one of the songs you feel best sums up what the album is about, and throw some money behind plugging it for radio or making a nice video.
We had two chosen singles off this current album: ‘Love Comes Late’ and ‘You Were Never In Love’, but you had ‘Waltz No.9’ and ‘Why Don’t You Kiss Me?’ being received as singles by the listeners, and they’ve subsequently become flagship tunes for us now, but it happens organically. So as an artist, you have to accept that you’ve lost control a bit, but that can be a good thing, it’s nice.
Sarah: I just get a bit confused because I sit there with my iPhone and I’ve got EVERYTHING in the world, what do I want to listen to? And that’s why it’s important that I go to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK and go “oh what have you been writing about lately?”*laughs*
There’s no central filter, in some ways it’s brilliant because you have the whole world at your fingertips, but that has its drawbacks as well… I’m the sort of person that likes a little boundary because it gives me a bit of comfort.
Something which I’ve discussed this with Richard Barbieri of JAPAN is this skipping culture with streaming which is actively promoted on Spotify, it’s like no-one ‘listens’ anymore…
Sarah: Yeah! You know what? I’m guilty of that! It makes you wonder how albums like ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ would fare now, that’s an epic… are we going to have our epics anymore or is everything going to be digested in nice little bits?
Chris: It’s very much directed by playlist culture as well. You can have a track that your fans might not think is terribly important, but if it’s turned up on a certain playlist somewhere which has a lot of traffic, you look on Spotify and it suddenly appears to be your most popular song! So somebody who’s investigating the group and never heard you before listens to that one first. It might be something that’s not representative of the band at all, but if they don’t like it, they miss the entire canon of work after hearing the first 30 seconds! *laughs*
Did ‘Love Gathers’ with its lesbian affair on the school run narrative emerge from real life events and gossip from the playground?
Chris: I can’t go into too much detail because it doesn’t really help. The thing is, when you have children, you inevitably find yourself going back to school. And for a lot of people, spending more time at school, even though it’s only at the beginning and end of the day, is a welcome return.
I didn’t like school, and it took me years outside of school to rebuild myself as a person, so when I got there as a parent, all the old anxieties crept in. I noticed how for a lot of other parents, they had been waiting for that moment to return, and were visibly in their element! It was like they had children so they could go back to school! All these old categories returned, you could see who the bullies were and who the nerds were, and I was definitely in the latter *laughs*
So revisiting that school environment, I remembered why I had so much anxiety as a child myself because of this micro-community, and the way little things become big things. So if you fall out with somebody, everything becomes a much bigger deal. That story in ‘Love Gathers’ was based on stuff that was going on when I wrote it, but in order to make it ‘happen’ as a song, everything has to be as inflated to the scale it was felt in the yard… anyway, I hope that covers it *laughs*
Sarah: I loved singing that song because it’s a real story and the words are just fantastic to get your mouth around.
I guess with DUBSTAR, you’ve always been a storyteller?
Sarah: Yes, my voice doesn’t lend itself to drivel, some people can sing anything and it sounds awesome… my voice has to have something to say.
Chris: I think you’ve made a good point, because even though we didn’t want to do cover versions when we did the first album, ‘Not So Manic Now’ is on there because it said something about our ethos more effectively than anything we had of our own at that time.
But that’s a story song. I heard it on the radio a little while ago and I realised why people like it, there’s something about the way Sarah’s voice depicts the character in that story.
So much so that when ‘Stars’ was released the second time, and people finally got it, it was more interesting in the context of ‘Not So Manic Now’, because that character with the cup of tea in the tower block was suddenly underneath the firmament, singing this beautiful torch song, and it benefitted from the context.
You now virtually do own ‘Not So Manic Now’ and there are people who are still discovering that it’s a cover…
Chris: …although strictly speaking, it’s not so much a cover as what they used to call a ’cut’, like when Elvis would cut a song, as in the first recorded version people heard. When BRICK SUPPLY did ‘Not So Manic Now’, we were given what was basically a demo tape, so it wasn’t like a release which people were already familiar with. I always compare ‘Not So Manic Now’ to ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ by SIMPLE MINDS, because that’s the song which defines them for the majority of people, despite not being self-penned. But you’re lucky if you’ve got one of those.
‘Please Stop Leaving Me Alone’ is such a DUBSTAR title…
Chris: Thanks, that one is connected slightly to ‘Love Gathers’ since it relates again to encounters in the school environment and the small village where I live. One of the parent couples were going through a divorce, and the effect this had on the community was like a tidal wave flushing through the village, because it’s a small place and other people seemed to begin having problems in their own relationships, like a domino effect.
I was close friends with one of them, and that legalese jargon was around a lot at the time. I noticed how you could get into a situation where you’re already spending money on lawyers, momentum has built, but you’ve gone so far down the road that you can’t turn around, even if you start having second thoughts.
It kind of wrote itself, there was a lot of unhappiness around, and if you listen to the electric guitar part at the end of the track, that take was recorded on the afternoon that I wrote it, so you can hear the frustration. I like the idea of having a shorter distance between the thought, expression, and what the listener gets in their headphones or speakers at home.
Sarah: I think that’s quite a Youth thing, even at proper production stage, we had little time to do the actual recording so decisions were made and often they were the first decision, so we didn’t dither around. It was all “we’ll go for this, is everyone happy?” which gave it a kind of immediacy that is prevalent throughout the album.
Chris: That’s why Youth prioritised many of the guitar takes I’d done at writing stage, even though I assumed that they would be replaced. There’s a lot of guitars on the record which I’d done on the day it was written at home, and they retain an urgency that you wouldn’t get when you’ve done it 25 times in the studio.
‘You Were Never In Love’ is classic DUBSTAR, how did that come together?
Chris: It came from that earlier period where me and Sarah were hanging out with Youth round at his house a lot. We’d developed a good relationship by then, and we were talking about the sort of records we liked, the producers we were into, the sound of record we wanted to make..
I was really wanting to impress him because he can be quite a fierce critic, but in a constructive way. There was a certain type of song we didn’t have which was closer to what we had been talking about in our conversations, so I really wanted to go back to him, and for him to say “yes, that’s what we’re missing”!
So I had a sound in my head, and visual image of Sarah looking like Virginia Madsen at the start of ‘Dune’, with her head in the stars, imparting benevolent advice about where you’d gone wrong. At the time, I was seeking some kind of celestial advice myself. I wanted it to be more electronic sounding and dreamy, and it seemed to write itself.
Sarah: I remember you sent me this really rough demo, you said “It’s a bit patchy, I’m not sure, I think I’m going to bin it…” and I was “NO! NO! NO! That’s got legs, we’ve got to keep going with this one, it’s awesome”.
What’s coming across in your relationship with Youth is its sounding like what DAF had with Conny Plank, in that its homely and encouraging. I know you’re friends with Stephen Hague but the impression from what I’ve read is he can be a bit school teacher type of character? Please enlighten me…
Chris: He has a reputation for formality, but he’s always very down-to-earth and fun-to-be-with, I’ve found, we always had a laugh.
He can be very disarming and genuinely hilarious when the mood takes him. And he’s a lot more experimental in the studio than he gets credit for. I’ve burned a lot of midnight oil with him, exploring the unexpected.
Sarah: He always seemed to literally weep with laughter when he was out with us!
Chris: I guess he has the image of a fastened-top-button sort of guy, but maybe that’s been projected onto him, because some his best known records feel so pristine, but that perfection makes them endure. He’s very thorough.
With Youth, as much as I loved his records and was really excited about working with him, I wasn’t in a good place in my own head when we met, and I was paranoid that he was going to be this ‘rock star producer’ who was going to throw his ego around and impose his will excessively onto everything we’d been working on. But it was the total opposite, I have to say; it was me who went in with bad attitude, and he’s actually very ego-less and generous in his spirit.
Although he can be a merciless critic, it’s usually for the greater good and to your benefit, I think. So we did some gentle sparring initially, but I really love the guy because he gave me something which no-one else has been able to give me, and we’ve made the record which I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, so I’ll always be really grateful to him for helping us to do that. We’ve been extremely lucky to have producers like Stephen Hague and Youth, and have learned so much from them.
The classic brass infused ‘I Hold Your Heart’ was a surprise and takes you on Northern soul journey….
Chris: That one started off as quite a mellifluous, dreamy-sounding thing, but Youth’s engineer Michael is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and one day we were just throwing ideas around and then Michael opens a drawer, produces a trumpet and starts playing it! *laughs*
I had mixed feelings initially, but it did make sense in that Northern soul, Dexys way… it made the track more robust than it had been, and you could see its pop potential, whereas it had felt more apologetic in the way we’d been delivering it. So it was a happy studio day.
Sarah: It was weird because when we were doing the demo, I was like “yeah, these words, they’re great, they’re about an abusive relationship”, and when I was singing it in the studio, I was “Oh my god! It’s me that’s the bunny boiler in this song, I AM ONE!”, all this stuff about “restricting your movements”! It’s so sinister man! *laughs*
Chris: But it’s nice that it’s so happy! *laughs*
‘Mantra’ is very Beatles-esque and has that lush vocal ending…
Chris: During the pre-production hang-out with Youth, he had expressed a desire to co-write with us. Right at the end of those sessions, I had this idea for the verse and was visualising it as a three part harmony, sounding like Karen Carpenter. I was really happy with the verses, which emerged like the ‘stream of consciousness’ lyrics in ‘Waltz No.9’ but I wasn’t completely sure what it was about yet.
When we were doing the demo for ‘Mantra’, Sarah would do this lyric-less part sometimes, and it seemed to be heading that way. My working title was ‘You Are Gone’. But after Sarah was doing that ‘wobbly’ stuff, I started calling it ‘Mantra’ because it felt like one.
We’d just had dinner with Youth and there was this strange atmosphere in the room. There was a palpable charge in the air, like static, and I noticed his breathing had changed a bit. He announced that we should try “the Mantra one”, so I asked if he had anything for the chorus section, and he immediately started singing it. We worked through the night and by dawn it was finished. It’s a good one for the end of the album.
Sarah: Youth was playing me like a Theremin, he made me open my mouth, moved his hands up in the air and my voice went up and then a little higher and then my voice followed his hands DOWN! It was like he was conducting me. That was quite a moment actually.
The acclaim must have triggered some interest in performing again…are live dates in support of ‘One’ in the offing, or even say an acoustic combined talk format?
Chris: We have been asked a lot, and we’ve tried to avoid the nostalgia circuit up to this point, because we wanted this to be an artistic endeavour rather than ‘making hay’ just because people are interested in the 90s again. It saddened me a bit that it took us so long to get it together, and by the time we got round to doing it, this 90s trip was already on, but I’m glad we at least beat SLEEPER to the post! *laughs*
Sarah: We’re just masters of cr*p timing!
Chris: It would be nice to do some live appearances in 2019, but rather than a tour, I’d prefer to do a number of small live events, or maybe a significant one-off. I like the idea of doing an acoustic thing. Sarah and I have done this in the past where it’s just the two of us and there’s an intimacy that I really like. When I’ve seen other artists do it, it’s like you’ve hung out with them for the night…
Sarah: It’s so honest isn’t it? There’s no hiding, your songs have to be good, the performance has to be good and it’s bloody nerve racking as well! With regards having a talk format, I don’t think I could multitask, I have to concentrate on singing… women are supposed to be good at multi-tasking but I’m utterly sh*te.
Chris: I went to see CHINA CRISIS at The Sage in Gateshead before Christmas and they did that particularly well, I thought. It was pretty much 40% chat and 60% music, but at the end of the night, you felt like you knew who they were.
Sarah: Miles Hunt from THE WONDER STUFF is like that too. About 10 years ago, he did these acoustic shows and would tell such entertaining nuggets about what the songs meant to him or how the songs came about… I remember there was one about him and David Gedge of THE WEDDING PRESENT having w*nking competitions so he wrote this guitar line that emulated his forearm whilst in the act called ‘Angelica Maybe’… it’s one of my favourite Miles songs.
I remember when DUBSTAR covered ‘Every Day I Die’ for the Numan tribute album ‘Random’, Gary did ask me if I was aware of what I was singing… I smiled sweetly as I said yes *laughs*
What next for DUBSTAR?
Chris: We were already writing the next record as we completed the last, and we’ve got enough to do another quite quickly now, but I don’t know if it’s exactly what we need yet.
Some of it is like the poppiest material we’ve ever done, while conversely, there’s some of the most inscrutable stuff as well.
So I imagine we ought to do what we did last time and hang out with Youth for a bit, to get that third party perspective where a producer can hear it more clearly than you can. I’m hoping we can do as much of that this year as possible.
Sarah: Same for me as well.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to DUBSTAR