Destroying Structure: An Interview With Ramleh
, February 1st, 2012 10:34
Seminal noise band Ramleh celebrate their thirtieth year of operation in 2012. Joseph Burnett spoke to band members Gary Mundy and Anthony diFranco about the group's history and influence
With the current upsurge in popularity for noise music, one now-defunct eighties record label has been garnering a lot of retrospective attention: Broken Flag Records, which operated from 1982 to 1989 under the beady eye of South Londoner Gary Mundy. In parallel to releasing pioneering works (usually in the then-nascent power electronics genre) by the likes of Maurizio Bianchi, Skullflower and Controlled Bleeding, Mundy also was the guiding hand of seminal noise/rock/drone/post-everything band Ramleh, which has now existed in a variety of forms for thirty years.
Today, Ramleh exists in two guises: one a power trio featuring Mundy on guitar and vocals, long-time member Anthony di Franco (formerly of Skullflower and the man behind the Ethnic Acid and JFK solo outfits) on bass, and drummer Martyn Watts; the other a power electronics act featuring just Mundy and di Franco. With a massive anniversary festival for both the band and Broken Flag set for 2012, the Quietus sat down with Gary Mundy and Anthony di Franco, after a rehearsal in preparation of last October's Leeds show, to discuss their unique history. We spoke about why they decided to have two versions of Ramleh, the story of Broken Flag, and how they're planning to celebrate 30 years of incredible music this year.
How did the rehearsal for the Leeds show go?
Gary Mundy: Pretty good.
Anthony diFranco: Yeah, it was really enjoyable.
GM: The three of us hadn't played together in quite a while. We have two versions of the band, and this was the guitar-bass-drums version, and Martyn [Watts] hadn't played the drums for a while so we were curious as to how it would sound [laughs], but it was like we'd never left off, really, wasn't it?
AdF: Yeah, fantastic.
I can imagine that Ramleh live shows must be very intense and demanding. How do you prepare for that? Is it easy to 'get in the zone', as they say?
GM: I'm always in 'the zone' [laughs]
AdF: A lot of it depends on the sound of the venue, whether we're doing the duo or the trio version of the band. You get a lot of variance from venue to venue, in the sound and so on. So generally, we work out the sound and kind of get sucked into it... If we've had a good gig, we generally get off the stage with a feeling we've been somewhere else, we come off and think 'wow'. We get a real kick out of performing live.
GM: It's certainly kind of gruelling, but then the adrenaline gets you going. At the end of each gig, I feel I could quite happily get back on and do it again.
Is your music mostly improvised, or do you come in with a setlist?
GM: We've got sets that we work out, which we sort of stick to, but there's room within our music to improvise. Some of our tracks are quite open-ended, so if it's going well we can extend them a bit. We have a pretty good idea of what we're going to do, though. We don't make it up as we go along.
AdF: It's kind of improvisation around a structure. Sometimes things turn into something else altogether.
GM: I like it when that happens, those happy accidents.
Tell me a bit more about these two versions of the band. When you're playing as a trio, I assume it's you, Gary, on guitar, Anthony on bass and Martyn on drums. When you perform as a duo, is it all electronics? When you're performing live, do you go back to older material, or do you just stick with new tracks?
AdF: We use guitar and bass as well, as a duo, along with the electronics, but there are no drums, no percussion.
GM: When we first started the electronics side of Ramleh, at a gig in New York, we did do some older material, because it was a 25th anniversary thing, so we did a mixture of both, but we then decided we wanted to do some new electronic stuff, so it's pretty much entirely new material now. We're doing these anniversary shows in May next year, so we might resurrect some older songs for that.
AdF: The current setlist contains quite a lot from the Valediction album, mixed with some new tracks, but we have the flexibility to shift around with that set-up.
GM: Yeah, whereas with the rock version of the band, apart from the 'Switch-Hitter' single we did, it's all material from the forthcoming album. If things are going well, I think you should always be happiest with what you're doing at the moment. If you only want to do old stuff, it kind of suggests that what you're doing now isn't any good! We're generally always happiest with what we're doing at the time. In hindsight, sometimes you might realise that what you were doing three albums ago was better than what you did two albums ago, but at the time of doing something it's different.
AdF: The way we've worked over the years has been to not reflect too much on the past and always try to look forwards. The sort of tension between our 'rock' and 'electronic' sides also gives us a lot of freedom to try new things.
How did the decision to have two different versions of the band come about?
GM: It was probably that New York show, again.
AdF: Yes, that's the simplest explanation. We were asked to do this show in New York in 2007. It was a power electronics show, so we worked on that, and it just worked really well.
GM: It seemed a shame to do it for just one show, so we thought we should carry on with that. But at the same time we wanted to carry on with what we'd be doing before, as the rock band, so we thought, 'Why don't we just carry on with both?' I think we figured that the two could sort of merge in some way in some point in the future, but at the moment they seem to work as two separate things. I like the idea that we could perhaps weave them together, with a bit of guitar-bass-drums and electronics, but we haven't really done it yet.
Regarding the history of Ramleh, I know you were on Broken Flag as a teenager, Anthony, as Ethnic Acid and JFK, whilst Gary was operating the label and performing as Ramleh.
AdF: I was very young, and Gary kindly released a couple of tapes I did, and then got me involved in Skullflower, on the early albums, such as Form Destroyer. But Gary's obviously the most long standing member of Ramleh.
GM: I started Ramleh in 1982, hence the 30-year anniversary concert next year. It was me and a friend of mine, who fell by the wayside when I suggested we play live. The first album was also me and someone else, before it became me and Philip Best, from Whitehouse. Stuart Dennison [from Skullflower] joined us afterwards, so we became a four-piece, and now it's just the three of us, or two. The shifts happened pretty much organically. Be Careful What You Wish For  was something of a concept album, whilst Valediction came out of reviving the whole power electronics thing, but at the same time we didn't want to do something that sounded like it could have come out in 1982.
Hole in the Heart [1987, reissued in 2009 on Dirter] was the one time it was just me, because I wanted to revive the band but couldn't find anyone to do it with! Listening back to it, I don't really know where that came from [laughs]. I was trying to do something a bit noisy but also with a lot of guitar, so it felt like a progression from what I'd been doing before. I think the rock band thing kind of evolved out of playing with Skullflower in the late eighties and early nineties. There were ideas coming out of that that I wanted to take into Ramleh, a sort of idea of being a metal band but without drums. And as ever, that idea turned into something completely different, but it got Philip back into the band, and then sort of evolved.
AdF: In the late eighties and early nineties, there were quite a lot people experimenting with rock, but using noisier sounds. There was a real sort of groundswell, a lot of people doing that. Sort of taking a rock idea and destroying it, and then building it back up only to destroy it again.
GM: Of course, in the early Skullflower days, we were all massive Butthole Surfers fans! I just loved the fact that you could take a rock idea and sort of mess around with it. Being a rock band, but a warped one.
What do you think of the current power electronics revival, and how do you look back at the scene from the eighties?
AdF: When I started recording music, in the mid-eighties, I was doing it in a complete vacuum, but Gary was in the middle of it...
GM: Well, William Bennett deserves the credit, really, because Whitehouse sort of sparked the whole thing off. I'd be doing my own things, with, y'know, tapes in my bedroom and so on, but it was seeing Whitehouse that made me realise there was potentially an audience for that sort of stuff. William told me how to get my records off the ground and there was a little cosy scene for a while. And then of course, it sort of splintered, but initially it was really good. I'm not really aware of what's going on at the moment. I don't really pay much attention. I'll hear a few things that sound great from time to time. I don't really want to be persuaded to do what's currently fashionable. This may seem big-headed, but I'd rather be the one being followed rather than following, so I like to try and always do something that sounds different.
AdF: I think we probably work differently from some of the other power electronics bands...
GM: I don't think that what we do is what they would consider to even be power electronics.
AdF: With Valediction, we recorded it as a rock album, but we used different instrumentation. So we did what you might call a power electronics album, but recorded it in the same way Led Zeppelin might have recorded an album [laughs]. Which is probably not how a lot of power electronics acts work. We don't use laptops for example.
GM: I don't even own a laptop!
Broken Flag started as a way to put out your own stuff and stuff you liked - do you miss running the label at all?
GM: Not much, no. It was hard work. I did it for seven years, something like that, and it was a real cottage industry, just me sitting at home and not going out as I tried to fulfil all these orders. I was happy to do it for a while, but it got to the stage where I didn't have a life! I do kind of miss having a label but I don't miss all the work involved [laughs].
AdF: It was one of the best labels you could be on at the time and, from my perspective, it seemed dangerously close to being a professional operation. I mean, you actually gave me copies of the tapes when they were released! But I should imagine there was an awful lot of work involved...
GM: Yeah, it was pretty much constant. There was a long list of orders that I had to get through all the time. These days, you wouldn't be able to get away with it, because people pretty much want everything immediately. But if you ordered something from me in those days, it would take you 3 or 4 weeks to get it, because I had other stuff to do first, and had this backlog. But people didn't worry so much in those days. They expected it to take a while, especially as I did everything to order. I didn't have boxes of tapes lying around.
Were you aware that the label was becoming a pretty big deal?
GM: With hindsight, as people have come up and said things to me, I've come to realise that people did appreciate it. But I didn't get that feeling at the time, it was just something I did. I didn't feel I was doing anything particularly special - I mean, there were lots of other labels around. But looking back, people seem to have a lot of fondness for Broken Flag, which is nice.
Plus you launched quite a few careers on Broken Flag: Skullflower, Maurizio Bianchi...
GM: Yes, that's true. When we started working on the Broken Flag boxset it was quite funny thinking about how long ago that was, and how many of those people are still doing stuff.
AdF: It was a very varied and open-minded back catalogue. From the perspective of someone who used to send Gary stuff to put out, it always used to amaze me that he would release some of the stuff that I did. Because I was deliberately making it far out.
GM: The only way I could work was that if someone sent me a tape, I'd put it on and then carry on with whatever I was doing. If the music caught my attention in some way, and I thought there was something good in there, I'd put it out. If it finished and I hadn't even noticed, then I'd have to be diplomatic and turn it down. I used to get a lot of really dull stuff, people just messing around with synthesizers, or whatever. I think a lot of people who don't really 'get' noise music just think anyone can do it but you can tell who knows what they're doing and who doesn't. A lot of it is down to ability.
AdF: You can tell when someone doing noise music has got musical sense. It can be melody, but it can even be something like structure. You can tell if someone has a sense of musical structure.
GM: When I look at our back catalogue, in Ramleh, there are very few side-long tracks, they all hover around that five-minute mark, and come from thinking about things more in a song-like way.
AdF: Which is not to say we won't do twenty-minute pieces, and we have!
Ramleh obviously had an influence on the modern noise scene. Do you find, with noise, that, after a while, when it's been building up, it gets to a point where it becomes cathartic as opposed to purely noisy?
AdF: Oh fucking hell, yeah! Absolutely. Sometimes it's like you're opening up a black hole, and sucking everyone in. Certainly when we do the power electronics show, it gets to a point where we build up a tidal wave of sound and you get lost in it, but you're participating at the same time. It's a bit like having your cake and eating it.
GM: When you're on stage, obviously you're performing, but the best gigs for me are when I kind of forget that the audience is there. You just sort of lose yourself in the music, and then you come back to reality and think 'Jesus, there are people here!' [laughs].
At the same time, Ramleh's music is very melodic, even subtle. When you're playing at such a high volume, can it be difficult to maintain that subtlety?
GM: I don't know if we're very subtle. Maybe tangentially...
AdF: It's quite nice when you have a structure to also have the freedom to destroy it and debase it a bit. Sometimes, it's nice when things just fall to pieces, and effectively that's what we've been doing for 20 or 30 years.
GM: I kind of like the opposite in many ways, when you're making pure noise, and you can introduce a melodic element to it. And people aren't even noticing.
I really like the use of vocals in Ramleh. They're very much subsumed in the mix, but are lyrics a very key part of what Ramleh do?
GM: Yeah. I'm quite happy to do stuff without vocals, but when they are in there, I do want the lyrics to mean something, even if you can't hear what they are. I haven't gone in much for lyrics sheets. With Valediction, it was a case of taking the lyrics, cutting them up and putting them in there.
Is it a kind of stream-of-consciousness approach to lyric-writing or do you work to a theme?
GM: Usually, yeah, it just kinds of comes out. I'll have a track and think it needs vocals, and then I think 'What sort of thing is that track conjuring up?' You hear a track and kind of hear a vocal melody. I did the lyrics for Valediction all in one night, it all kind of came out in one go...
AdF: Sometimes you'll have a rhythmic thing going on, and find that vocals will match that. As for the lyrics, it kind of depends on what's buzzing around in your head at the time. It's a difficult process to describe.
GM: If I'm going to write anything, it's probably going to be something very bleak. So Anthony has to do the positive stuff! In the early power electronics days, I'd try to do sort of aggressive lyrics, but most of the time it didn't come easily to me. It was always the sort of down, depressive stuff that came easily to me.
AdF: With Valediction, we were talking about doing a power electronics record, and Gary came up and said he'd written a shitload of lyrics.
GM: I just sat down one night and wrote a few different things that all sort of spewed out. I don't write very often, so when I do it's either rubbish or comes out on a roll like that.
AdF: Gary needs to be given a lot of credit for that whole 'vocal-as-instrument' style, with a lot of echo. That came out of early Ramleh. Even in the early days of Skullflower, when we had vocals, we used to call it 'The Ramleh Vocal', because it was a very distinctive sound.
GM: Matthew Bower asked me to do some vocals with the Voltigeurs for the Leeds show. As before, when I'd sung in Skullflower, and I asked him what he wanted, vocally, he said 'Your usual wounded elk' [laughs]. So that's my sound: wounded elk!
Do you have a thematic approach to each album?
AdF: There are definitely thematic ideas on individual albums. Valediction was quite a concept piece, though I'm not sure anyone got it. The clue's in the title...
GM: It's a lot about schizophrenia, of sorts, and depression, and the flipside of that, which is when you feel like you're king of the world. You feel like you're invincible and then suddenly you want to just kill yourself. It's one of the few very personal things I've written, whereas generally I write about more general things. I think in power electronics, there's a lot of that sort of macho posturing and aggression, which is ok to an extent, but there's not a lot of what I'd call 'emotional' power electronics.
AdF: Yet there's got to be room for that.
GM: I think you can use that music and do something more personal and moving, in a way. There's a bit in 'Part III' on Valediction where I'm just shouting 'Please forgive me' over and over. I kind of lose myself in that.
AdF: It's funny, I'd only just noticed that's what you were singing. [laughs] Valediction had a very dark sound, but what was interesting was the piece at the end, which had a driving feel to it, which turned it on its head to make it almost life-affirming.
GM: Pete Johnson from Second Layer, who put it out and did all the promos, described it as 'bleak psychedelia', and I think that sums it up. I like describing us as that.
As you said, next year marks the 30th anniversary of Broken Flag, with a huge festival to celebrate it in May. Is it all ex-Broken Flag people, or are you bringing in some other friends as well?
GM: I was speaking to the promoters, whom I'm letting do all the work [laughs], and they persuaded me that we should have one act each night that's a modern act who would have theoretically been influenced by what was put out on Broken Flag, so that's what we've done. We've got Prurient, as well as Ramleh, Skullflower, Giancarlo Toniutti, The New Blockaders, Controlled Bleeding and many others from the Broken Flag days. Basically anyone who's still alive!
AdF: It's very much a once in a lifetime experience, and we'll have Americans, Italians, Brits and so on.
Does having this big shebang make you look back at the history of Ramleh and Broken Flag in a new way?
GM: I'm kind of hoping this is going to be it, so we can focus on what we're doing now after all this.
AdF: Don't look back. It's very nice to have a legacy to look back on, and we're looking to re-release a lot of it, but it must not become a millstone around your fucking neck. You do have to focus on what you're doing at the moment, but at the same time you have to consider that people want to hear older stuff.
GM: And not have to pay £40 on Ebay!