If That's Not A Freak Out, Then I'm A Dutchman: The Heads Interviewed
, December 8th, 2014 12:18
All four members of cult stoner quartet The Heads talk to Tristan Bath about their "sloppy magnum opus" Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere (currently riding high in tQ's reissues of the year chart) and how releasing a record is like taking a big shit
The world's still not produced a lo-fi slab of heavy acid rock to rival The Heads' Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere, almost 15 years on from its release. The forever-stoned Bristolian legends have since made an entire discography out of muddy rehearsal tapes, montaged jams, and riff repetition, with 2000's Everybody representing both the pinnacle and swift termination of the group's brief flirtation with the masses. The band emerged from the primordial ooze of the early ’90s as a superheavy stoner-rock quartet and, under the influence of energetic contemporary acid revivalists like Loop and Monster Magnet, they crafted Relaxing With The Heads in late 1995. It remains the group's most cleanly recorded and radio-friendly statement, comprising nine two-to-four-minute songs (plus a ten-minute jam tacked on the end) with Simon Price's snarled slacker vocals front and centre throughout. A few years of scattered touring, some phenomenal single releases on the Man's Ruin Records run by Frank Kozik in the Bay Area, radio sessions for both John Peel and Mark Radcliffe, and even smatterings of everyday living came next. The Heads wouldn't release Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere until some five years later. With it came the group's near-legendary first and last trip to the States for a brief - and fuzzy - tour of the psychedelic holy land on the American west coast. The recently re-released and expanded box-set edition of Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere includes several of those Man's Ruin singles, alongside some very rough live tapes from that Californian tour and some ace recollections from the band in the liner notes.
Over the years, the four Heads have largely dispersed (unlike most stoner legends, some of them hold down day jobs), but they occasionally gather for a rare gig slot (such as Koko in 2010, where tQ's Jimmy Martin last caught up with them), or to issue a mysteriously assembled disc of wigged-out jamming. Lead vocalist and guitarist Simon Price (a schoolteacher in his other life, and no relation to the esteemed music journalist who regularly contributes to this site) has extrapolated the Düsseldorfian wing of krautrock slow jams in his Kandodo project. Second guitarist Paul Allen (similarly not to be confused with Jared Leto's character in American Psycho) toured plenty in the 2000s with another Bristolian group Fuzz Against Junk, including dates with Damo Suzuki as frontman, and his most recent triumph has been his power trio Anthroprophh, firmly at the forefront of Europe's current psych revival well documented by this site earlier this year as well as featuring in our end of year albums chart. Bassist Hugo Morgan contributed many of the Stoogian riffs which formed the trademark grainy heaviosity of the group, and along with Heads drummer Wayne Maskell he's now a touring member of one of their chief founding influences: Loop.
Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere is one hell of a title: ripping off Neil Young, overstating that wry fuzzy stoner outlook, pessimistically broadcasting a dim future for The Heads, and somewhat summarising how those heavy acid jams work. These guys would just stand in dingy rehearsal rooms and play for hours and hours, recording endlessly on Simon Price's Walkman while the group careened through the cosmos, getting nowhere in the process. But as Maskell makes clear, "That's the point isn't it?" It's what makes amped-up fucking heavy acid jams so mind-bending - that lack of direction, the thrill of the ride. Long stretches, like the eight-minute freeform 'Motorjam', see Price and Allen scratch and pluck their guitars almost atonally through scratchy distorted pedals, mutant pumping wah-wah and heavily abused amplifiers, never batting an eyelid at the madness they're spewing. Each recording on Everybody is the sound of a band totally letting loose and just doing what feels good, like the waves of earsplitting noise, muddy indecipherable bass and Price's gibberish mumblings on 'Dirty Water', or the totally imperfect, cacophonous realisation of 'Fuego'.
In the wake of Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere's life-affirming reissue package, we got the rare opportunity to speak to all four Heads about jamming their way through the ’90s, getting petrol-bombed in California, and the gestation of their sloppy magnum opus.
What happened in between Relaxing With The Heads and Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere? There was a gap of several years that seemed relatively quiet.
Paul Allen: Well Relaxing came out in '96 and we were doing the toilet circuit on a regular basis, sometimes playing for nothing. We did shows in Northampton and Stoke-on-Trent as support on a tour and got zilch! In '97 we did a few European jaunts with Motorpsycho and started recording tracks for Man's Ruin as I think we admired his poster artwork and some of the music connected to the label. A few 7"s came out in this period too and some of the Everybody tracks were recorded, so we were quite busy up until mid '98. At that point I think we all got a bit fed up with each other. I personally had had enough and thought settling down and getting married would be a better option. The relationship all went a bit wrong and the band ended up playing together again by end of '99.
Hugo Morgan: In those five years we released a few singles, a Man's Ruin 10", did Peel and Radcliffe sessions, toured with The Mice, Motorpsycho and Magic Dirt as well as playing lots of gigs either headlining or supporting the likes of Wayne Kramer, Killdozer and Rocket From The Crypt. Also we all have full-time day jobs and some people were re-training and working in London during those years.
Wayne Maskell: It was an approach we would continue to use - focus on recording, put time and effort into getting something we were relatively pleased with, release it and basically take a break and not do anything to promote it. Putting a record out became like taking a big shit and then needing a lie down.
Simon Price: We rehearsed, jammed, worked at jobs, did a few gigs and got disillusioned.
Part of Everybody Knows' charm is in the interludes and brief clips from jams and little experiments between more traditionally composed songs. How did these come into being? How did you choose and edit them for the album?
PA: The Heads did jam a lot as well as rehearse the same songs over and over again. This was fairly constant between '93 and mid '98, so a lot of material was recorded including all those little sketches and many jams that ended up on 33, Dead In The Water etc. A few of these were selected for Wayne and Simon to edit with Shawn Joseph.
WM: Most of these were recorded on Simon's Walkman. They're our favourite bits too. We have hundreds of tapes of this sort of shit. Simon always recorded everything we did. No one else could be bothered.
Since Everybody Knows, Heads albums have tended towards strung-together jams and extended improvisation. Was that always present since the early days of the band?
WM: That's what The Heads was always about. In fact Relaxing With is probably not a good representation of what we are about. It was like we were trying to be a proper band. When Hugo first invited me to jam with Simon and original guitarist, Dave Spencer, we just used to play the same riff for hours and just get off on subtle changes and just the repetitiveness of it all. Just get lost in it. Our first gig supporting Swervedriver, we played for 45 minutes and only played four tracks.
PA: There was always a propensity to improvise and jam but this became more prevalent as time went on. We just enjoyed getting together and jamming. I remember reading that Can would improvise for hours and hours and record everything, so we tried to take that approach but without the crusty army mattresses.
SP: We always had that tendency. It comes from too much time spent in the rehearsal room. Just playing for fun until there was nothing left. Things tended towards the "no brakes skidding down the hill vibe" depending on what state we were in. I thought that was what all bands did.
HM: When we had the chance of doing the Quad 7" we only had four minutes worth of music and knew we had to capture people's attention pretty quickly if it did get radio play, so we got in the habit of writing more song-based material. I remember with Everybody there was a conscious effort to return to the earlier jam-based riffs along with the Relaxing-style tracks, to give our audience a better idea of what we were really about.
With Everybody Knows, did you know what you wanted at the start of the recording process, or did it develop over time into the trip we now know and love?
PA: It developed over time. For me, I started to integrate more into the band by the time Relaxing was released, and my riffs were getting the approval of the other members too. Everybody feels more like a band working together, as opposed to Relaxing where the riffs were mostly from Hugo with the band sorting out the arrangements. Also we did nearly all the recording by ourselves in our damp rehearsal room, so we had control on the production. Certain things like the strange phasing on 'Chrome Plated' and the speeding up of the track 'Long Gone' wouldn't have been possible in a paid-for studio because they'd have thought it was over-the-top, unprofessional and wrong. I did apologise to Wayne about the drum sound on some of the mixes I did, but he didn't mind as it sounded strange enough.
SP: We just wanted to do a second album. It was kind of random, made up of what we had left in us from the previous years. At the time it could well have been our last - a last statement of defiant intent. It had time to simmer till the flavours oozed, then we had to scrape it off the pan and chuck it in a gatefold. At the time it didn't feel amazing or anything, just an okay collection of our noise, but it did represent us and where we were at. We figured that if it was our last then at least we'd go out flying the freak flag and being proud of our stance and sound.
WM: It was recorded over a long period, just on and off. I don't remember us thinking, "Let's record an album," it was more like eventually realising we had a double album's worth of material. In fact we had already played our farewell gig and thought we might as well put it out as a full stop. Now 15 years later we're doing yet another farewell gig at Roadburn… but this time I think we mean it!
What were those original recordings like? It's all pieced together from disparate sources right? How much 'writing' was there before recording?
SP: Some tracks were properly rehearsed and recorded; well, onto an eight-track or four-track. They'd be tracks we'd played and fine-tuned in our room. A lot though came from jams recorded on the Walkman. One mic, get them down. Could never play them again, wouldn't be the same. If we waited until we were booked into a studio with time and money it might never had happened. We'd always had a loose time-management structure. Bit Bristolian in that respect.
PA: The writing would usually start with a few riffs and would develop with the whole band. I think one of the only songs where the music was 'written' was 'Barcoded', which was my attempt at a pop song so I can be blamed for that.
What did you learn from your messy tour of the west coast of America in the wake of Everybody Knows?
PA: Never shave with a dirty razor, and sometimes it's very difficult to find fresh fruit on the road.
WM: We learned that we weren't ready to tour America.
HM: How big and different America is to the UK. That we weren't as popular over there as we thought. Getting wasted on tour makes the post-tour blues ten times worse.
Your van got petrol-bombed in California - what was that about?
WM: It happened in Sacramento, or Excremento as it's called.
HM: There was an altercation in the bar we were playing. We didn't find out it had happened until after we played, to 20 people.
SP: Check with our Wayne on that one… It was something to do with a barstool and Sacrementalists?
PA: This was a strange gig. I remember Wayne and I swapping instruments and him just writhing on the floor with the guitar. The actual incident I think was helped along by some guy accusing us of throwing a bottle at him and one of us threatening him with a barstool because the guy was being an arse. The whole vibe in the capital was tense and the venue looked very earthy.
How were you paying for equipment back then? How much did you use? Did you have much in the way of FX pedals?
SP: We had part-time jobs, so not much spare money. Pedals were fuzz, wah and phase mainly, some delay. You can go a long way with a decent fuzz - Big Muff for me, Kimbara fuzz for Paul. Volume and repetition played its part. I guess the weed too was its own effect pedal.
PA: We definitely had fewer pedals then and we managed to get ours relatively cheap. Vintage pedals weren't considered of much worth. I remember picking up a Small Stone phaser for £20, which was attached to a massive turtle-shaped transformer with a 36-amp fuse. Simon was good at sniffing out bargains and he managed to locate the Kimbara fuzz I use and the SX2000 synth we used for those Dik Mik sounds.
WM: We were all on the dole and working. Great times. I'd saved up and bought the Yamaha kit I still use with Loop.
In the west coast tour diary [included in the expanded version of Everybody Knows], you mention listening to Harmonia's Deluxe. There's also a track on the album called 'Kraut Byrds'. How has the whole Germany-in-the-’70s thing influenced The Heads?
PA: Simon and Hugo worked at Replay Records so they managed to pick up these records in the early ’90s. Hugo had Neu!'s first LP, which would just not turn up for sale anywhere, and both of them had the Can vinyls too. They became aware of Can via Loop's 'Mother Sky' cover, I do believe. I had read about Can via a Floyd article but just couldn't obtain or listen to these records until I joined The Heads.
SP: We liked the krautrock gear. Can was a regular choice for the house stereo, usually Soundtracks or Tago Mago. To us they were like the German Hawkwind, but less hippy, more metronomic. Faust, Neu!, Kraftwerk - all the usual suspects - we liked their rhythms and instrumental emphasis, good head gear basically.
You got a helping hand from the John Peel and Mark Radcliffe - what equivalent boost can a young band get nowadays?
HM: [Heads associate] Simon Keeler had a good relationship with Peel and Radcliffe, which certainly helped us get sessions and radio play. Simon Price and me both worked at Replay [independent record shop in Bristol], so we got to know local promoters and knew the distributors of similar music to The Heads. Nowadays it's much easier to record music and to get it out on the internet to a global audience than it was back then, although it's still very much who you know that influences how successful a band is.
PA: The only regrets I have are rather prosaic - like I wish I went for a swim in the Pacific. Nowadays things have become more fragmented and decentralised so you have to search through a lot more content to find a new band you want to listen to. I do rather like what WFMU I do. As for an equivalent, I can't think of one that will supply the same boost. Things have changed a lot since.
SP: There's nothing to replace Peel, he'd give anyone a chance - that doesn't happen now. The thought of us playing live on Radio 1 at 8pm [as in Radcliffe's sessions] just seems ridiculous now. I guess there's some blogs and sites that new bands can get a lift from, but no guru like Peel.
Any good memories of meeting Peel and Radcliffe?
WM: We met Radcliffe before the live-to-air session we did for him in Manchester. We'd already done a bottle of tequila and stank out the BBC with, erm, tobacco smoke so I don't remember much. I think he took the piss out of Paul's shoes.
SP: With Peel you could do anything. We just got generally a far better quality recording of our tracks thanks to the BBC. The Peel sessions were pre-recorded so that wasn't quite as stressful as going out live like with the Radcliffe. We met Peel at a do - obviously he never went to the sessions. He was affable and very polite, I was a bit nervous so just mumbled a thanks to him and shook his hand. Radcliffe just took the piss out of us, in a friendly way. It was the only way to get a reaction or comment as, again, we were nervous and stoned.
HM: Radcliffe commented on how we didn't have beards and tattoos. We met John Peel at the ICA for his party to celebrate 25 years at Radio 1. I was introduced and spoke to him for five minutes, but can't remember much of it. Apparently the only person who was drunker than me was Pete Wylie.
Bristol is a great place. Could you imagine having started anywhere else?
WM: I don't think there's anything special about the Bristol music scene. It's just full of people patting each other on the back. It's just easy for bands to exist unchallenged and jobless. You can walk everywhere.
SP: There's a definite 'west coast' vibe about Bristol, which can be great or a bit frustrating, depending on how dynamic you're feeling. Big on bass too. It gave us plenty of time and space to do our thing, which is an essential part of the process. Unfortunately a lot of Bristol's creativity just gets marooned in Bristol. It is a cool place though, maybe too laidback for its own good.
Why do you think general consensus is now that Everybody Knows is your best album? What about Dead In The Water (a personal favourite of mine)?
SP: Everybody Knows has a good variety of tripped-out gear, it's an interesting listen, something to get lost in, always a good yardstick for an album. I like Dead In The Water too, instrumental meltdowns are my fave part of what we're about.
Anthroprophh are getting a hell of a rep as a live act recently. Are there any lessons from The Heads that have helped this project?
PA: I suppose the intensity and volume that The Heads had has filtered through. Gareth [Turner] has been a fan of the band for 20 years and has produced an LP for The Heads. He also took part in the jams we did as part of the Rituals CD releases. This approach in Anthroprophh hasn't been premeditated. Sometimes I wish it was a bit more mellow, but I think there's a need for something a bit heavier within the ubiquitous 'psych' genre.
You toured with Motorpsycho and Nebula in the 1990s. Are you still in touch with them?
WM: I just toured the States drumming with Loop and met up with Ruben and Mark from Nebula. Lovely to see them - great guys. Motorpsycho took themselves very seriously but that's probably why they blew us off the stage every night. We really were shite on that tour.
SP: Motorpsycho were very patient and understanding of our nonsense, and Nebula were from the other west coast, California, so we got on well. They were most hospitable. Wooden Shjips were real cool too. Bands are bands, road brothers and all that. Mudhoney were my personal favourites to play with.
'Psychedelic' music seems to be on an upswing in the UK at the moment. How would you define it?
HM: Psychedelic music to me is music that makes you re-evaluate what music is.
SP: Good psych should take you to a different place, be a bit disorientating and have the ability to make you wonder and perhaps make you feel the need to sit down. The current music scene is a bit weird because it's like, all the ingredients in the 'shop of sound' are now readily available and there are some new ways of putting them together, but really I just want a chip buttie. It's all cyclical. I'm too cynical, maybe, just hungry… good luck to them. Plug in and play. Making music, being creative in some primal way, should be fun. Listening to it or playing it can and should take you out of yourself for some brief blissful moments. Life's too short and somewhat full of shit, so, whatever makes you happy.
Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere box set is out now on Rooster