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Catsuits & Starlight: The Strange World Of Dave Smith & Guapo
Matt Evans , September 1st, 2015 14:37

As Guapo prepare to play The Lexington for The Quietus, Matt Evans speaks to founder David Smith about the history of the group and his varied work with Cyclobe, The Stargazer's Assistant and Miasma & The Carousel Of Headless Horses

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To a certain subcultural subcurrent, Guapo are iconic figures in British music. Formed in London in 1994 as an already left-field hardcore noise-rock duo (bassist Matt Thompson and drummer David Smith), the band gradually mutated, both in personnel and style, becoming increasingly eccentric, ambitious and adept with every release. In the late 1990s/ early 2000s, London found itself with a thriving, fertile, endlessly creative math-rock/ neo-prog scene, populated by the likes of the Monsoon Bassoon, Foe, Nought and Ursa – bands with more muscle and imagination and fun than their relatively dry American counterparts. At every event in this scene, Guapo’s presence could be felt lurking in the background. They were spoken of with an air of starry-eyed reverence, partly because their live appearances were comparatively infrequent – a Guapo gig always felt like a big event.

By the time they released Five Suns in 2004, they had achieved semi-mythical status. They’d been absent for some time, expanding to a three-piece with the inclusion of keyboardist Daniel O’Sullivan (of Grumbling Fur, Ulver, Æthenor, etc.), and had been working on an expansive, epic (in the old-fashioned sense), mind-blowing cosmic-prog concept album – a million miles from the kind of short, sharp, agile but brutal shocks they’d been plying on Hirohito (1998) and Great Sage, Equal Of Heaven (2001). Five Suns took the band to the next level, not only creatively, but in terms of reach and acclaim, too.

Following the departure of Matt Thompson – who went on to record excellent cinematic music both solo as Rashomon and with Carpenter-esque trio Zoltan – Guapo’s lineup continued to mutate. The band became a central hub of the modern British progressive music family tree, absorbing members of the aforementioned Monsoon Bassoon (Kavus Torabi, also of Knifeworld/Chrome Hoof/Gong) and Nought (James Sedwards, also of The Devil and Zodiac Youth, now playing with Thurston Moore). And, in the process, recorded some of their biggest, strongest and most progtacular work to date.

Throughout all of this change, evolution and upheaval, the one constant has been founder member David Smith – a creative and thoughtful soul, not only an extraordinary drummer (with some extraordinary drumfaces), multi-instrumentalist and composer, but also a sculptor and installation artist. Ahead of Guapo’s tQ-curated appearance at the Lexington on Thursday night (September 3), he talks us through ten notable notablenesses from his musical life and times.

Guapo – Obscure Knowledge

We try to make sure that everything we do evolves. This record features what has been the stable line-up for the best part of a decade. When we were writing and recording it, it felt like we’d really found our places as that line-up, in terms of actually writing material together. Everything felt natural. We recorded it in a couple of takes. It was a real breath of fresh air to feel that we’d hit our peak.

There were quite a number of years where, as a band, we hadn’t written too much new music. We all felt that the writing had come on in leaps and bounds since History Of The Visitation, where we felt we were on the cusp of something. Maybe another six months and we might have polished that record a bit more and felt a bit happier with it. With this one, we felt like it was ready. With Visitation, at least from my side of things, there was a bit of pressure to get it finished and put a record out, because it had been five years or so since the previous one.

Obscure Knowledge, like History Of The Visitation and Five Suns before it, seems like one long piece split into movements. Do you set out to write album-length suites?

Once we get going, we tend to have difficulty making it concise. We get more and more ideas and they tend to topple onto each other. Before you know it, it’s 15 minutes long and you’ve barely started. At the moment, it’s just the natural way that the music seems to flow. We’ve started writing new material, and as yet there are no monsters in there, so we’ll see. Maybe the next one will be three-minute singles, who knows?

Was there a thematic basis to this one?

It’s loosely tied in with Huxley’s Doors Of Perception. But what we tend to do is once we start working on music and start thinking about themes, the two coalesce. We don’t set out saying, ‘Let’s write a piece of music about this’. They just tend to find their own path, and it can take a while for a theme to become apparent. It’s not a necessity, but it’s a nice vehicle to generate artwork or ideas or a discussion point about the music.

Guapo – History Of The Visitation

We all love this piece, but from the point of view of when we recorded it, we could have benefited from another few months of rehearsing and honing it. We were maybe a just a bit too early.

This was the first one in a while without Daniel [O’Sullivan]. Did that change the band’s sound?

We brought Emmett [Elvin, of Knifeworld, Chrome Hoof, solo] in on keyboards, he’s a very stylistically different player, so that informed the approach. It was always going to sound different. We also opened it out to the three of us, whereas for many years it had just been myself and one other person. Me, Emmett and Kavus were the main drivers of the last couple of records. James [Sedwards] took more of a back seat, then would come in and introduce his element to it, and he was certainly fully involved in writing his own parts.

James is no longer in Guapo, he plays in Thurston Moore’s band. Sam Warren, who plays bass in Thumpermonkey, has been with us since the beginning of the year. He’s slotted straight in, he’s perfect. An incredible player. He’s actually teaching us the old material, stuff we haven’t played for a year.

Interesting you call year-old stuff ‘the old material’ when you’ve been around for 21 years… As the one constant member throughout the history of Guapo, do you still think of it as the same band, or has it been many bands sharing one name?

I guess I do think of it as one band. It’s just like a history you carry with you, it’s a relationship. You’re no longer in that relationship with certain people, but you’re carrying on, still carrying that baggage with you. I do see it as something that will be tied to me for the rest of my life. I’ve got this far, I’m not giving up now…

Guapo – Five Suns

Myself and Matt [Thompson] had had a good two or three years just working on our own with the odd guest. We were definitely at a point where we just couldn’t realise the ideas we were coming up with just the two of us. We’d done a bit of touring using a sampler to fatten out the group, but we definitely needed a new musician. At that point we’d just started to write pieces that stretched over 15 minutes. We had a chance meeting with Daniel at a festival in Homerton.

Historically, it’s become one of those benchmark records that people tend to judge us by. It was the culmination of a couple of years’ hard work, and definitely us making the leap as musicians to achieve something greater for ourselves. It was the first record where we started fishing around for someone to release it. It was the next step in our evolution. We had quite a few offers for that record, but because Cuneiform approached us first and we had a verbal agreement with them, we released the record with them.

Guapo – Ipecac/Fantomas Tours

We’d sent Mike Patton the Five Suns recordings and he got back to us a month or so after Cuneiform did. We said, ‘We’ve agreed to release a record with someone else, but we’d like to do an album for Ipecac’ and they agreed to do the next record [Black Oni, 2005]. It was nice to go from struggling to feeling that we had the next two records sorted. That’s why those albums came out in quite quick succession. Ipecac was probably in our top five dream labels, and we caught it just at the right time. Patton was at a real peak in his personal career and the label was a happening thing.

The big bonus was that, obviously, he wants to promote the label, so you get out on the road with him, and we ended up doing two tours with Fantômas and a couple of shows with Jello Biafra and the Melvins. It took us on another journey in terms of exposing us to a much bigger audience than we’d ever played to before. It was fun, racing across Europe in a transit van, trying to keep up with a Nightliner was a bit dreadful, but ten years of doing it on our own had stood us in good stead. We missed a few shows, but the clause for that was if we missed a show, Fantômas had to go on and do our set as well – which they dutifully did!

It was generally good fun. I don’t seem to remember any horrors. It’s all a bit of blur really. There’s no glamour involved. You’re chucked on stage for a 20-minute line check and suddenly there are 2,000 people there. You’ve just got to hope that they like you enough not to chuck things at you.

Guapo – Rock In Opposition Festival

We were definitely the noise band when that whole thing started. I think 2007 was the first one we did. We were straddling two worlds really, between the full-on noisy rock world and the chin-stroking proggy world. We definitely do divide audiences when we play those kind of events. Some people just think we’re far too loud and can’t listen to us. There’s confrontational stuff at the festival, but it’s quieter than our band. They invited us back another two times though, so it couldn’t have gone that badly, I suppose.

Do you feel at home in that kind of line-up?

I think so. For us it’s always a complete honour, as DIY self-taught musicians, to be on the same bill as Magma – people that you’ve looked up to for 10–15 years. Gracing the same stage as them and bumping into them backstage is just absolutely wonderful. It’s great to meet certain people, and you also find that several of them are in all of those bands. It’s like a family. There’s no rock & roll to it, everyone mucks in and hangs out together. It’s definitely more relaxed. The backstages can look very brown. I’m sure you can imagine when someone like Kavus ambles into the dressing room like a dust storm, all guns blazing… it tends to liven the party up somewhat, make it a bit more purple.

The Stargazer's Assistant – The Other Side Of The Island Exhibition

That’s the other half of my life. I trained as a sculptor and that’s what I do for a living – not my own work, obviously. If you’ve seen my work, it doesn’t really sell! I make nice things for other people. This exhibition was a very long-standing piece of work, which took about three years to make, and which saw me starting a new musical project, essentially to write soundtracks to go with the installation. It’s a whole immersive experience, the first big, large-scale multi-media piece I did.

The whole series of work was very much inspired by an Austrian artist who wrote one book, called Alfred Kubin. He was amazing. He illustrated a lot of books. A lot of his work was very dark. He was an interwar and across the wars artist, and being Austrian he was forgotten post-war. But he wrote this one book called The Other Side. I think he wrote it in about 12 days. It’s just the most fantastical stream-of-consciousness tale. I happened to come across it in a bookshop, and for about a year I was completely obsessed with reading and rereading it. It completely informed the visual side, and spurred me on to make music from it too. I’ve always made music from a visual standpoint. The soundtrack was actually part of the exhibition, and as on the opening and closing nights I did live performances.

The Stargazer's Assistant – When The Dust Settles Exhibition

This was in collaboration with my partner, Amanda Whittle. We both created site-specific work in an old bunker in a car park in Dalston, directly behind Cate Oto. You wouldn’t even know it was there. I looked on the MOD sites and it’s not registered. It must have been an air-raid shelter or a blast proof-store for a building that housed chemicals or something. We set up an event and a series of performances over a long weekend. We hired it, we actually paid money for this hole in the ground full of water, which took several days to pump out.

It was about having an immersive experience. As you walked in, it was candlelit, very dark, water on the floor. It was very eerie. It was frightening though, because you couldn’t lock it up at night. Anyone could have gone in and trashed the place. But no one did, we were very lucky.

I think I was drawn to doing installation pieces that were interactive or that included a musical element because I was just so used to organising things in a band. I’ve done exhibitions where you submit a piece of work, turn up and have a nice glass of wine and go home again, but I don’t get much from that. I find it a bit removed. It’s not a community experience.

The Stargazer's Assistant – Shivers & Voids, Mirrors & Tides

After I did The Other Side Of The Island soundtrack, I got quite a lot of encouragement from my circle of friends and colleagues. At that point I decided that I’d make this another music project, and follow-up was the Shivers & Voids EP. But I also had some additional material, so I had an agreement with the label [Utech] that at some point it would become a full album. And kindly, Keith who runs the label, did agree to release it.

There’s more musical stuff going on in this one, because it’s not specifically written as a soundtrack. I’ve started to play it live, I have two collaborators [Mike York, woodwind, Guapo and Cyclobe collaborator and David Knight, guitarist with Danielle Dax, Shockheaded Peters and UnicaZürn], and we’re working on a record. It’s definitely becoming more of a musical project. It’s like the out-there textural stuff that we do with Guapo, without drums.

Miasma & The Carousel Of Headless Horses – Perils

When Daniel joined Guapo he was getting his own band together with a couple of friends, and he invited me to join. Essentially, he joined Guapo and I joined his band, and we ran the two things concurrently.

Coincidentally, Miasma ended up on ex-Mr Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance’s Web of Mimicry label at the same time that Guapo were being released on his former bandmate Mike Patton’s Ipecac…

That was an interesting moment, meeting Trey and realising that those two didn’t get on any more, but things have worked out.

How did the experience of Miasma compare to Guapo?

It was definitely more fun to some extent, because the pressure was off me as the guy organising absolutely everything. I could be just a member of a band. It was a matter of thinking that with Guapo we’ve got this ridiculously stupid band that not many people are ever going to like and we’re never going to get anywhere with it, so let’s try and make Miasma a bit more fun – not commercial, but maybe some people will turn up to our shows. It was Daniel’s baby to a large extent. We all had a say in how we wrote the material. At the time, Guapo had our own space, and creatively it was a very busy period. We could rehearse a lot and write a lot, and the two bands shared some of the same personnel. At one point three or four members of Miasma were the full line-up of Guapo.

Daniel was definitely the driving element in how we presented ourselves, in the corpse paint and the antiquated dress, and he brought some of that performance element to Guapo in the last couple of years he was in the band – the crazy catsuits and things like that.

Cyclobe

Cyclobe is Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown, both of whom are known for their roles in Coil. Cyclobe has been their project since the late 90s, but they never performed it live until a few years ago, and that’s where I got involved. It’s a fairly rare event, but we have been invited to do some nice festivals over the last few years – Antony Hegarty’s Meltdown, the Brian Eno-curated Punkt festival in Denmark and the CTM festival in Berlin. And in October we’re off to do the Wounded Galaxies festival in Indiana. We’re doing two shows there – one is a Cyclobe set, the other will be soundtracks to Derek Jarman films.

Is it very different to how you play with Guapo?

Absolutely, I play percussion. I don’t play drums. It’s a very different line-up, there’s no rock in it whatsoever. We have duelling hurdy-gurdys, and Mike York playing lots of strange woodwind instruments that he makes himself. There’s an element of electronic music to it, but it’s very much coming from a folk background. It’s quite meticulous. Steve and Ossian write all of the music, we just come in and learn it. Again, it has a very strong visual element – the current performances are in conjunction with a film made specifically for it. It’s not a rock’n’roll show, it’s a work of art, a painstaking, picked-over process.

Guapo are playing at The Lexington on Thursday night; for more information and tickets go here

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mitchell cobb
Sep 2, 2015 11:41am

"Kavus Torabi, also of Knifeworld/Chrome Hoof/Gong"

missing a pretty obvious one there I think

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Matt Evans
Sep 2, 2015 12:31pm

In reply to mitchell cobb:

True, but sometimes I set myself the challenge of going at least 15 minutes without mentioning them...

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