Return To Orbit: The Long, Strange Trip Of Terminal Cheesecake
, August 5th, 2013 05:37
London's clown princes of synapse-shredding noise rock and psychedelia Terminal Cheesecake have just reunited with help from Gnod, and are preparing to lay waste to Supernormal Festival. Jimmy Martin caught up with the band's members to talk onstage drug experiences and their strange and addled history
"It was very ritualistic for us to really get out of our heads when we played," asserts Terminal Cheesecake's Gordon Watson, sat in a Hackney pub on a warm July evening. "It was very deliberate, and not messing about - like, properly out of our heads. We weren't trying to be professional or anything, it was about having a big psychedelic experience. And one gig we played there, I was playing away, and I was in this massive cloud of artificial smoke, the whole place was just obscured from my view. I played for about twenty minutes like that, the smoke machine kept puffing up big clouds of smoke and I was really getting into it, lost contact with the rest of the band really, couldn't see the audience, all I could see were these flashing lights and the smoke machine. I started wandering around the stage and I wandered far enough and I realised it was only me that was onstage. I was there by myself, and the rest of the band left me there."
"That happened quite often, actually…" he reflects.
Let's cut straight to the chase here. There must, surely, have been times when Terminal Cheesecake, London's recently reformed clown princes of synapse-shredding noise rock and queasy psychedelic abandon, thought about whether they maybe ought to have given themselves a less stupid name?
Certainly, for anyone in a band, the precarious art of being taken seriously is invariably beset by handicaps. Yet gazing over the bills the group - headed up by Watson, Gary Boniface and Russell Smith - found themselves on in their heyday, alongside self-consciously gravitas-laden or opaque names like Loop, God, Godflesh and Oxbow, they couldn't help but look like comic relief. Indeed, this particular then-teenage onlooker, having made rare contact with them in the live pages of early '90s Kerrang, has to admit he then erroneously filed them away mentally with the wacky, irksome and long-forgotten likes of Scat Opera and Foreheads In A Fishtank.
"The name came from a Waronzo record," reveals Gordon. "Nick Saloman [of The Bevis Frond] had this label called Waronzo, and he released a catalogue for it a few times. Part of the catalogue was these releases of old '60s records that never ever existed, and one of them was Terminal Cheesecake. So Russell and Gary thought 'Well, we'll make that band exist then!'"
It comes as little surprise, given the hazy, addled disorientation of many of Terminal Cheesecake's records, that some of the memories of their original incarnations follow suit. Yet the chipper Russell Smith, who now lives in the French countryside near Cognac and renovates vintage motorcycles, amongst other gainful employment, can remember the spark that initially set these freaks onto their ill-advised mission.
Smith had recently been a member of the quixotic A.R. Kane, perhaps best known as the 'A' and the first 'R' in M/A/R/R/S, they of the No. 1 hit 'Pump Up The Volume', but who were also responsible for a whole batch of records that dazzlingly redefined British art rock while the wider world's back was turned, and are still arguably yet to receive their dues. Yet although Smith played on 'Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)', the B-side to said smash hit, he was growing increasing dissatisfied with his role alongside these noisy ingénues.
"They'd put this one record out on One Little Indian, When You're Sad, which was a great track, and which was as obscure as hell," he relates via the medium of Skype. "They wanted to do some gigs. I knew Rudy [Tambala] though his brother, who was a really good friend of mine. There was a bass sitting there, and he said 'Can you play that?' I said 'Well, yeah, not particularly well', and he said 'My brother's band's looking for a bass player, would you be interested?' I said "'What's it sound like?' and he said 'Well, they're a bit like the Mary Chain, they're noisy, loads of feedback'. I was like, ok, I'm in it if they sound like that. So then they seemed like classy old boys. They knew what they wanted and I slotted into that."
Indeed, he soon found himself in something of an indie It Band. "We had a very intense six months to a year, played some pretty good shows, some pretty chaotic feedback assault shows, we played some mad shows. And it all just took off; it just went really quickly. We did some gigs with other 4AD bands, we played bloody Sadlers Wells, all sorts of places. We supported the Butthole Surfers, and I thought God, I'm playing with a band I think are amazing, we'd better be good here, and we were. We had Adrian Sherwood doing the live sound, and to be honest, how can you go wrong! We had recorded drums we'd recorded on cassette through the foldback onstage and through the system, and it was just immense, just like a Tackhead mix of A.R. Kane."
Yet his role as an auxiliary member started to become a bone of contention. "After the first Rough Trade EP, with 'Baby Milk Snatcher', they were getting a bit like 'Well, it's our band…' I did have some input in developing the tracks, but I was never going to get any credit on it; they just wanted a bass player, they didn't want anybody putting their input in, so I thought, better go and do something. I had an idea I wanted to so something heavier and a bit more extreme you know, a bit madder to be honest."
The results of this were initially somewhat inauspicious, but the turning point would come when Smith hooked up with vocalist Gary Boniface, who up until this point had been a player in the London rockabilly scene, particularly in an underrated troupe by the name of The Purple Things. "They were more of a psych garage band, but they didn't seem to get any appreciation at all," notes Smith. "I remember I went to see them a couple of times with friends and they were phenomenal, but on record they sounded a bit overproduced and they didn't really come over. They didn't have studios like Toe Rag back then.
Lord Of The Dance, from the VCL album
"I got in a band with a friend of mine, called Lager Damage," he continues. "It was an extremely noisy thing, just me doing vocals and Big Black drum machines and massive basses feeding back everywhere. And it wasn't going anywhere. I'd known Gary from The Purple Things and we all worked in record shops, so we knew all the collectors and connoisseurs. I met Gary at a Pussy Galore gig, and it was 'What you doing Gary, when's the next Purple Things gig?' [He replied] 'Nah, man, we split the Purple Things up.' 'What?! Why?' 'Ah, going nowhere, mate.' I said 'D'you wanna get a band together?' and he knew what I'd done, and he said 'Yeah!' He came round my house, we wrote a couple of demos that day, we wrote a bit more, and we got a set together within about six months, we got Stalky in from The Purple Things, my mate Mick who was in Lager Damage, and that was Cheesecake. We just wrote a set and started playing."
This line-up would record the first two Cheesecake albums, which saw the light of day as some of the first releases ever through Gary Walker's Wiiija label. 1988's Johnny Town Mouse and '89's cataclysmic VCL were both intimidating slabs of sound, melding a pugilistic onslaught of riffs and rackets with Boniface's effects-addled vocal delivery (on which his rockabilly origins were distantly audible), alongside a psychedelic wash and a pungent sense of humour. The latter's intense and absurdist brew was cooked up from a bizarre list of ingredients: Ozzy Osbourne interview dialogue, a cheeky Pink Floyd lift, a hotrails-to-hell take on Flipper's 'Sex Bomb' and brain-decimating rendition of the popular hymn 'Lord Of The Dance'.
With these influences in mind, received wisdom will almost always cite Terminal Cheesecake as the British answer to the similarly irreverent and lysergically wayward strains of the Butthole Surfers. It's a comparison neither Smith nor Watson shy away from.
"Well, the Buttholes were the best live band I thought, in terms of offering something extra, like great, mad, crazy light shows and stuff," offers Smith. "We did like all the American bands - we loved Pussy Galore, Sonic Youth, Big Black, a lot of the industrial stuff. We loved Swans, we loved Loop. We loved World Domination Enterpises, Spacemen 3, and a lot of the British bands like Napalm [Death], and all the classic psych, the obscure stuff that you got in the record shop, all the obvious stuff like Hawkwind. We weren't trying to sound like anyone, we were just trying to create a band that was a bit mad and not entirely serious, up ourselves. We all saw the funny side of life that maybe the Buttholes had."
"We were massively into that, and that's how I met Gary in the first place," adds Watson. "I used to work in second hand record shops, imports and stuff like that. I first met Gary when he came in and asked for a Butthole Surfers record. And I had 'em all! So we had a good old chat. But then Russell's come from a northern soul background and '60s psych background as well. A lot of the stuff he does, he says he's trying to do Chocolate Watch Band instrumentals and they all go wrong. So that was the roots of it."
Cheesecake assembled a hardcore fanbase of wasters in London strongholds like the New Cross Venue and Finsbury Park fleapit Sir George Robey. However, they soon hit something of a glass ceiling in terms of touring or playing almost anywhere else.
"We were sort of bumbling along. We weren't getting anywhere," remembers Smith, cheerfully enough. "We couldn't get to play outside of London, and the records were really not selling at all. Rough Trade and Wiiija were really sweet with us, but they didn't know what to say. We had our little following, which caused trouble wherever we went, and everyone seemed to enjoy it, but the only gigs we seemed to get were the Robey or a support. And the supports for Cheesecake could be pretty tough because we didn't get a good sound, and we didn't have a chance to soundcheck, and they were a bit demoralising, and then we'd go back to the Robey. It was a bit frustrating. But you do know [that] at the time there was a real big thing with the Mean Fiddler lot. They didn't want certain bands on supports, because they brought an unsavoury element to shows – all the festival bands and the hardcore bands. We got grouped in with a lot of people, because we were difficult to categorise. 'Oh they're a punk band, they're a hardcore band, or they're a crusty band'. It was just a very weird time to be in a band, and it was hard. But weirdly enough, after the third album it seemed to change."
'Pony Boy, taken from the Angels In Pigtails album
Indeed, although the band virtually split up beforehand, they were resuscitated by the offer of a Peel session in early 1990, and Angels In Pigtails, which came out through Kevin Martin's Pathological label in the same year, formed a big step up for the band. In many ways it's the record they're most remembered for. It added sharper focus to their deranged noise rock assaults, and the sometimes incoherent, swampy sound of their first two efforts was channelled into something both vividly psychedelic and oddly futuristic. Both Smith and Watson - who had come closer to being a fully-fledged member of the band by this stage, having guested on the early records - put much of this down to the presence of Smith's old friend Rudy from A.R. Kane on mixing desk duties.
"It was great, because we also took it away from that control zone where we were trying to do everything and telling the engineer what to do," enthuses Smith. "It was his studio, he'd just bought all that equipment and he wouldn't let anyone touch it. But he's also really got a fantastic ear and great ideas, really technical, a great understanding of operating the gear. He was suggesting things that we would never have thought of. He encouraged us to get going again, and that's kind of forgotten."
"It had graduated from being noise rock into psychedelia at that point," reflects Gordon. "We were adding loads of stuff in - we were playing loads of backing tracks and loops while we were playing live, and did the same in the studio, really. And there are whole sections there, like 'Pony Girl' and 'Turkish Glass', where we were doing really freeform sessions in the studio with stupid toy instruments and stuff like that, and we edited it together for all those tracks. It was a sort of Faust-y thing. We had a bugle, we had a detuned acoustic guitar and kids' keyboards and things like that, and there were also tracks where we first started doing sampling."
True to form, though, no sooner had this album been completed than things started going askew for Smith. This precipitated his unexpected depature from the Terminal Cheesecake ranks amidst time-honoured communication problems, despite his - by everyone's reckoning - being the prominent influence on Angels In Pigtails.
"Of course, after that there was pressure to play live," Smith notes. "I didn't really want to play live. All the stuff was quite technical things that didn't seem to sound that great in rehearsal. I was like, oh Christ, I'm having to play rhythm and lead at the same time. I just didn't think this would sound that good, and the live shows were hit and miss. I was like fuck it, I needed a break, I was caning narcotics of every type. So I went for a break in California and to promote Pigtails at the same time. [Then] Gordon phoned me up - well, he says he sent me a letter - and he says, 'Ah, a gig's come up, and Gary thinks we gotta do it, you ain't coming back.' 'Oh that's nice!' He says 'Would you mind?' I said 'There's not a lot I can do, Gordon, I'm in the States.' Gordon took over on guitar, they got this guy who lived on a barge to play bass, got a new drummer and just carried on. And I wasn't even in my band! It's almost Brian Jones."
Without Smith - who upon his return quickly found other hideous rackets to get involved with, God and Skullflower, for much of the 90s - the purging of rock elements from Cheesecake's sound continued. "That album Pigtails is quite rockist, it's got my influence, things like the Neu! cover version and the more krautrock-y stuff that Gary wasn't quite so aware of. And the, we got really into this kind of Stalinist, razing everything into the ground, trying to get rid of that rock sound from it."
What was the impetus for this? "We felt like it was getting really clichéd. And that's when we cut our hair off and all that sort of stuff. This was like '92, '93. I suppose it was just a lot of Sub Pop bands kicking in, Tad and Nirvana and all the rest of it. Me and Gary had been working in record shops for ages, and you tend to get really jaded when you work in record shops. There was loads of rehashing of Stooges and MC5 stuff, and I love that stuff, but that turned me off. We were more into the electronic edge, and we were getting right into hip-hop at the time, and dub reggae and things like that. It was like, that's the direction we want to go."
The next two Cheesecake albums, 1992's Pearlesque Kings Of The Jewmost and '94's King Of All Spaceheads document this change. The latter moved even closer to the genre-splicing mood of the era, as well as packing a certain uneasy mixture of Bonzo-esque humour and contemporary festival culture. Yet this was to be the band's last hurrah.
"I think Gary had really just had enough of it," reasons Watson. "We had loads of people coming in and out, loads of people playing tablas and sitars and didgeridoos, and it all got kind of fragmented. And we had a few problems with the label we were on at the time, Jackass. So at that time we were left with boxes and boxes of this album. So that all went a bit stale, and to follow the theme of really getting rid of the rockist element, me and Gary were getting really into dub reggae, and we actually formed a reggae band in that period as well, Bud Alzir [spell it backwards, droogs - tQ]. Once we'd formed that, we thought we'd just stop doing Cheesecake stuff altogether."
Bud Alzir were briefly signed to a Sony subsidiary, yet were also soon history, and most of the members of the band had little to do with playing music beyond the mid-'90s. Indeed, to the thousand-yard-stare toting heads who constitute Terminal Cheesecake's fanbase, the announcement of a reformation taking place this year, initially at Supernormal Festival and at Corsica Studios in London, was quite the pleasant surprise. What's more, it turns out that the main impetus for the reformation has been the band themselves.
"I think it was Russell really, who's been the driving force behind it," reckons Watson. "Very Spinal Tap, yeah - it could be really shit. But it's really been spurred on by people being interested in it. That little community of people online being really enthusiastic."
The main obstacle, however, was the fact that Gary Boniface, the singer who for many was the face of the group, chose not to be involved. "I just don't think the band had run its course," says Smith. "We didn't realise our potential, and I just think it's a shame not to do it, I've been pressurising Gordon for quite a while. And then Gary was just not going to have it. [Initially] Gordon didn't want to do it if Gary didn't want to do it. And I said look, it doesn't matter, let's do it. It's as much my band as his and people want to hear it still, and it'd be such a good laugh doing it with you with two guitars."
Gordon is philosophical about Boniface not wanting to be involved, reasoning that it's not easy for a frontman to get back into a mindset and a set of lyrics he hasn't operated with for nearly twenty years. Yet, despite ex-God man Dave Cochrane and drummer John Jobbagy having been recruited as a rhythm section, the search for a new singer was proving just as taxing, until he had a certain revelation, in the modern-day equivalent of the kind of fleapits Cheesecake used to haunt in days of yore.
"Well, I've been to see Gnod quite a few times," he says. "And I started talking seriously to Russell about doing the reformation, and then I was watching Gnod, and I was thinking 'That guy actually sounds a lot like Gary'. With the delay box all that. So I just made friends with him just from going to gigs and talking to him afterwards, and I got in touch with him by e-mail. Because he seemed to be a dead ringer for Gary."
"Gordon's initial approach was more like 'You might have heard of my old band Terminal Cheesecake?' rather than 'You must have heard of my old band'," recalls Neil Francis, the Gnod member in question. "That pretty much sealed it - got no time for egomaniacs! I'm not sure if I sound like Gary or not. On some of the more lyrically-centred tunes I am doing the words as they are, but a lot of it I am making up as on my own or dispensing with them altogether. I don't feel that I am 'replacing' him, 'cos if you listen to Terminal Cheesecake's records, the vocals are mixed quite far back, like in Gnod's records. They are not the centrepiece to the tune in the same way as they are in, say, The Fall. They're like another instrument or element in the sound, so I feel I fit fit right into it quite snugly. I met up with them for the first rehearsal in London, and thought they were sound as fuck. Even better! I also found that Russ had played on the first record I ever bought, which was M/A/R/R/S' 'Pump Up The Volume'!"
The new five-piece lineup subsequently retreated to Smith's house to rehearse and, as Watson notes, "It was nice in these rehearsals in France to see these old men gambolling like spring lambs on the hillside! Getting right back into it. Actually, I think one of the things that surprised me the most was that the rehearsals were so hardcore and heavy, everyone was really going for it."
"Vatloads of wine and nothing to disturb apart from sheep, cows and horses," notes Francis. "Idyllic and inspiring. Upbeat, aye. Smiles all round with wine-crusted lips."
Thus, anyone planning on heading out to Supernormal or Corsica Studios should expect this most unlikely of resuscitations to be close to the full-on aesthetic of yore, albeit with the benefit of the knowledge that the original plan of this wayward troupe has almost been fulfilled. In some ways, maybe it's just as well that this unfortunately monikered gang never took themselves that seriously after all.
"I don't think we worried about being taken seriously, but we were really serious about those recordings we did," Watson reflects. "We spent a long time on them. And we wanted to make them… not popular records, but records that might be cult records in the future. We thought, 'we're going to make it so it's practically unlistenable now, and in the future people might think it's alright.'"
Space cadets, mission accomplished.
Terminal Cheesecake will be playing at Supernormal Festival at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire, which takes place this weekend, August 9th-11th. For more information and tickets, click here to visit the Supernormal website.