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A Quietus Interview

The Scene That Calibrates Itself: Neo Shoegazers Engineers Interviewed
John Doran , July 16th, 2009 16:52

All hail the blissful return of Engineers. John Doran shares a cuppa with Mark Peters to discuss Three Fact Fader

Here’s three facts about Three Fact Fader, the new Engineers album. One, it’s already one of my favourite albums of the year, delving even further into the sensuous and sublime worlds of neo-shoegaze, cosmiche synth rock and blissed out pop music. Listening to it feels like traversing a maze made from velvet, snow and honey with a pleasant head injury. Two, it’s been well worth the five year wait since their debut EP Folly and four year wait since their debut album were released to hear this record; the delay hasn’t been about tardiness, rather record label troubles, which have now been solved. Three, this album (to repeat what I said recently in the NME - something that bears repeating) is bookended by two of the best songs you’ll hear all year ‘Clean Coloured Wire’, which is built around a haunting Harmonia refrain, and ‘What Pushed Us Together’, an Animal Collective-influenced gem of a track.

And all the songs in between are none too shoddy either.

The ghosts of Slowdive and Chapterhouse certainly walk through the walls of the room, heads under arms, but Engineers aren’t mere genre parodists. They’ve forged an aqueous and ambient sound of their own. A strident copyist wouldn't be equally influenced by Dennis Wilson and Ulrich Schnauss, I guess. And goddamit, if I were less of an Eagle Eyed Adventurer Action Man sort, the lightness of the touch on ‘The Fear Has Gone’ would have me weeping like a bairn. Like a child.

Anyway, moving swiftly on . . . The band, featuring Simon Phipps (vocals), Dan Macbean (guitars), Mark Peters (bass) and Sweeny (drums), coalesced in 2003, releasing the Folly EP in 2004, their eponymous debut album in 2005, and then getting stuck in stasis due to the collapse of Echo Records. Finally, they’ve released the follow up through Kscope.

Actually, before we start, here’s a fourth fact about Engineers, which I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to know, let alone tell you: Dan, their mercurial guitarist is a actually direct descendent of Sawney Bean, the notorious 16th Century Scottish clan head who was reportedly executed for the murder and cannibalization of 1,000 people. And if you are ever set the challenge of accompanying him upon a sortie amongst the pubs and clubs of a modern city, you'll notice a certain robustness in the way he attacks his late evening snack and a lustiness in his appreciation of the post-prandial beverages that makes you sense some kind of family resemblance; that this story is perhaps no fabrication.

In fact, a few days in the company of Mcbean and you can start to feel like you’ve been attacked by a pack of cannibals yourself. Especially in the liver and kidney regions. So I guess I should report that the Engineers are fine company for many reasons.

Today, however, my sweetmeats are fine as I’ve got the pleasure of sharing a coffee with the group's de facto spokesman Mark Peters outside a street cafe in Edgeware Road.

It’s been about five years since Folly came out and usually (this is a very depressing state of affairs!) I’d be tempted to start asking about how music has changed in your absence. But it hasn’t really. Not that much anyway. What has changed really is the industry. Why the long wait, anyway?

Mark Peters: We got this album to being virtually finished by the end of 2006 and basically the record company ceased to be, it turned into solely a publishing house. So rather than just wait around for six months waiting for another label to come along we just went ‘Let’s just have a break. We’ll see what happens.’ A few smaller labels had wanted to do it but nothing really came along and then eventually they (Kscope) turned up. They were interested in us as a band rather than a commodity. Artistically they thought we’d compliment the other acts on the label. It seemed like a great idea. It was unexpected that anyone would have that attitude in this day and age.

Well, I’m about to contradict myself and it’s only my second question! I guess that all things shoegazery are currently being embraced with more warmth by the mainstream than they were a decade ago. Do you feel that musical tastes have shifted in your favour slightly since you’ve been gone?

MP: “I think so yeah but every time something underground moves into the mainstream then there’s always the obvious backlash and the people who are perceived to have brought the sound into the mainstream are always regarded by people as ‘light’ or just doing it for reasons of fashion. And to be honest with you, I kind of have to agree with them to a certain degree, when people do these things for the wrong reasons. I won’t lie and say that we’re not influenced by a lot of the great shoe-gazing bands but it’s more about a feeling that runs through all music rather than saying ‘Oh, let’s make a track that sounds like the first song on Loveless or something. The best bands are just another influence.

There are many kinds of reasons for making this celestial or “cosmiche” music. Say you have the camp of Kember and Pearce from Spacemen 3 who lived by the maxim of taking drugs to make music to take drugs to someone like Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode who wrote ‘Come Back’ recently as a homage to the Mary Chain as a way to try and recapture that drug rush through music to other bands, who will have more spiritual reasons for recording . . . What draws you to this sound?

MP: I think it’s more a way of removing ourselves from everyday life. It’s looking for that heightened feeling. For fuck’s sake we’re just on a piece of revolving shit. And we’re trapped in this thing where there are seven days in the week and 24 hours in the day and how can it possibly be this ordered?! The second we alter our perception slightly of how life is everyone starts freaking out and shouting at one another. Everyone treats life as if it is so firmly in place with these guidelines and rules. But we’re just a bag of bones and flesh. We consider our brains to be better than the best computer in the world but we’re just like a load of chemicals! The great thing about humans is that we can comprehend infinity. Isn’t that a better thing to put into music than trainers and jeans?

Well, anything that gets us away from the slough of skiffle-influenced pub rock masquerading as indie that we seem to be just leaving behind us at the moment is good I think.

MP: I think that was the result of the back of the internet self-promotion thing but now I think that aside from the financial problems, there’s actually been a liberation in music making. We don’t have to just appeal to a bunch of trendy kids; we can do anything. The problem with big record companies which is symbolic of a problem in society as a whole, is that we tend to patronize each other a lot and presume that people want to be entertained by the lowest common denominator. And that’s just not true. There’s a lot of really bright people who want to listen to interesting music and want to be challenged.

I think so. As I was saying on Drowned in Sound earlier this week, we work on the relatively un-nihilistic principle that some people don’t just want to read the equivalent of the Argos catalogue and aren’t just reading The Quietus for a star rating, and we’re still here. I mean if you’re doing anything even remotely creative and listening to market research, then what’s the point?

MP: There’s a lot of negative aspects to the way the internet is but it just means that you can get to the heart of the matter. Look at what happened in Iran with Twitter. There was no one standing between you and the truth. That’s great. Take advantage of it.

Was the whole album written three years ago?

MP: Literally the only things that weren’t written were the last two tracks, which me and Dan went into Britannia Row, which used to be Pink Floyd’s studios to finish them off. You were bang on with the Animal Collective comparison. That’s what I’m talking about really. They take a little bit of the shoegaze influence and twist it. I mean, I love the hip hop influence on that album. You listen to it and go ‘Yes!’ I wouldn’t say that I every song on it is amazing but I love it as a blueprint.

 

So is that a sample or an interpolation or what have you of Harmonia on ‘Clean Coloured Wire’?

MP: Yeah, it’s an eight bar loop from the first track off Music Von Harmonia called ‘Watussi’.

Have you spoken to Michael Rother?

MP: Yeah, on email. They invited us to play a festival with them in Austria but we couldn’t do it unfortunately. He’s a deep guy. Not in a weird, intense way but he still really feels the same way he used to. And I really like the way he had a clear artistic vision and he’s never swayed from it even though the style and the technology has changed. It’s very much about an intellectual and emotional experience.

Yeah, Rother is a dude. When that Tribute To Neu! album came out – which let’s face it, isn’t any good, as these things never are . . .

MP: He said he wasn’t sure whether Oasis should be on there on or not.

It’s a good thing though isn’t it? All these people getting into it? Some people I know are dead against it. The attitude is, this is our music and other people don’t ‘understand’ it. But I think it’s good if young kids reading the NME are getting into Neu! I’m all for that . . . So you’re from the same neck of the woods as me in the North West, what was your local music culture like? Was it all Floyd and Zappa? It’s different to the rest of the country up there isn’t it, all those places between Manchester and Liverpool?

MP: The old adage was that anyone who lived past Skelmersdale was in to Zappa and Floyd and buying dodgy resin. When I was first in bands in the early 90s there was a big backlash against any bands who wanted to do anything shoegazy. There was that lot Mazey Fade from St Helens who we used to go and watch – Peel loved them – but also there was a lot of this La's derivative stuff and Stone Roses clones; jingly jangly music and we were always into a more epic kind of sound. Even though there was some wanky behaviour that went hand in hand with it the Verve were a breath of fresh air locally because it was a bit more global. It gave us inspiration that we could go where they were going.

So your album artwork was done by a good friend of the Quietus, mature lensman Mr Tom Sheehan [Legendary snapper who was with Ozzy when he was arrested at the Alamo, took John Lydon to Studio 54 etc]. Do you have the same disease as him? The record collecting bug that is?

MP: Yeah. I wish I had the money to do more of it . . . I’ve wasted a lot of time in record shops over the years. Probably I was the one who bought the records that we all listened to. I think John [Tatlock, occasional Quietus scribe] was that guy before I joined the band. Tom’s great though. He’s not into the arty stuff like Krautrock or shoey or free jazz. He's more into The Birth Of Cool.

He gave me his Bitches Brew box set as a present! I was knocked out. I think he wants to keep it Kind Of Blue when it comes to Miles!

MP: Yeah, with a glass of wine! He’s a hep cat! He’s into his psych stuff though.

Obviously people love Tom but I know people who used to worry about the influence that he would have on bands. Simon Price, ex-of Melody Maker, for example once called him “the second most evil man alive” for turning Richey Edwards on to country rock! Ha ha ha! Can you imagine it!? This was just before The Holy Bible as well . . . Imagine that album with a Flying Burrito Brothers influence!

MP: [laughing] He’s a very unassuming guy but therein lies a lot, I guess. He probably doesn’t even realise he’s that big an influence on people. The number of good records he’s turned me on to . . . I’ve got books and books of CDs. One turned up this morning. He double sends them sometimes! whispers I think he gets forgetful!

He sent me the same Howard Tate one twice. But that was good as I could send it a copy on to a mate in New Orleans.

MP: The blue one? He loves that record. He’s like the character out of that Woody Allen film. He’s the rock and roll Zelig - an unassuming character who just happens to be there at all these junctures in history! I’m really happy that Tom’s done our sleeve though; I think it’s the first one he’s done since the Flaming Groovies sleeve he did. And it’s nice to be able to work with your friends.

Three Fact Fader is out now

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