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A Quietus Interview

Ein Kleiner Lichtzauber: Creep Show Interviewed
John Doran , March 7th, 2018 09:17

Living the dream with John Grant, Stephen Mallinder, Ben Edwards and Phil Winter aka Creep Show. Casting spells: John Doran

“A Friday night's dream on Saturday told/
Is due to come true be it never so old.”

Do you believe in magic? Today around a small table, in a small bar upstairs at the large Strongroom studios complex in Shoreditch there is going to be some magic. Not much, you understand, just a modicum. A smidgin of enchantment which will operate at the subliminal level. We want to microdose on prestidigitation. I am going to conduct a ritual with the aim of subtly altering the physical world around my four guests. We will utter an automatically composed incantation while performing symbolic acts with the aim of banishing bad questions; banishing even worse answers and drawing out the golden lattice that connects all things - to bring it just slightly closer to the world of perception. Today’s ritual is ein kleiner lichtmagie. Ein kleiner lichtzauber. Please welcome a subtle shift of the quotidian occultation as we banish opaqueness. Today, I swear to you, the channels will be clearer. Watch closely and you’ll see when it happens.

Sat to my right is John Grant, the former frontman of the Czars and popular Bella Union signed singer songwriter; sitting opposite me are former Cabaret Voltaire singer Stephen ‘Mal’ Mallinder and Phil Winter from Lone Taxidermist and Tunng; and on my left is Ben ‘Benge’ Edwards of The Maths and Memetune records.

The ritual is simplicity itself. In turn each person will light a tea candle while stating their name. They will then nominate a spirit animal; intone a phrase that relates to a recurring dream; and then say the one word that is a surrogate for the idea of magic. I pass each participant a box of matches and a candle and we begin.

Subject One: “John Grant. Ocelot. ‘We still need to order.’ Newt.”

Subject Two: “Stephen Mallinder. Hare. ‘I’m covered in moss.’ Roundabout.”

Subject Three: “Phillip Winter. Cock. ‘I can’t breathe.’ Fireworks.”

Subject Four: “Ben Edwards. Dog. ‘Soft pelvis.’ Onion.”

(And for the record: “John Doran. Pangolin. ‘A Newcastle Brown Ale?’ Soliloquy.”)

There’s a lot to process here but already I can tell we have moved into a subtly different realm even if my four guests still seem steadfastly unconvinced.

John Grant, was born in Michigan in 1968 and raised in a strict Methodist household in rural Colorado in the kind of heavy, conservative domestic atmosphere that wasn’t conducive to him having a happy adolescence as a gay man. It was no surprise that he sought and found some solace in the escape offered by playing and listening to music. After a period studying in Germany he found himself in Denver, USA, where he co-founded the indie rock band The Czars. Despite having some success, heavy use of alcohol and drugs took their toll and they split in 2004. At a loose end he moved to New York and worked for a time as a waiter.

He says: “The phrase I’ve just told you is related to waiting on tables in a restaurant. It’s a waiter’s anxiety dream. In the dream I have there’s a room full of tables and I can’t get through them all and there’s someone at one of the tables saying, ‘We still need to order, you cunt.’”

John is bone dry. He talks regularly and scathingly about his dour youth and dour young manhood. He will signal when he’s joking (which is often) because with him it’s not always immediately apparent where the line between humour and trauma lies. (He arrives with a small retinue of people and the first thing I hear him say is, “Well, I’m thinking about suicide every day so it must be time for me to release a new solo album.” He’s joking of course. But what kind of joke is it?)

He adds: “As for newt… well, magic just makes me think about witches standing around a cauldron. It’s childhood stuff. Witch Hazel from Bugs Bunny, the Loony Tunes cartoon, and she would always be putting eye of newt and chickens feet into her potion.”

The dream state is of fundamental importance to these four men. They are all members of a new band who are just about to release their debut album Mr Dynamite on Bella Union, the record label that has now long been the home of John Grant. The music is a bewildering and playful mix of various styles of all-analogue synthetic funk and disco featuring the heavily manipulated voices of Mal and John - often so heavily manipulated that you can’t tell which one is which. The band is called Creep Show and the name came to Benge in a dream several years after they first met and made music together.

He explains: “We were under pressure because it was the day we were deciding on the artwork for the album. We were sending the music off to get mastered so we just had to have a name - there was no putting it off any more. On the day I needed to decide, I woke up having just had a dream about being in an art gallery. In this dream I was looking at a show which had the theme of how different periods and styles of art bleed into one another and act as influencers. It was specifically about graffiti art and how that originally came up as an aspect of street culture but then influenced different areas in the fine art world. Those ideas then got shared around in that world before evolving into different artforms over the years. And in my dream this exhibition was called Creep Show.”

He adds: “Since naming the project I’ve been to the Basquiat exhibition and it made it more obvious what was going on in my mind about the constant shift in art.”

His musical collaborators, who so far have remained implacable in stony silence all burst into laughter when the concept of having a recurring dream about having a soft pelvis is brought up.

Mal chips in: “Soft Pelvis is a total prog rock band name. I used to play organ in a band called Soft Pelvis.”

Benge suggests that he is too scared to analyse his own dreams but will concede this: “I think it’s about being born. If someone else told me they were plagued by recurring dreams of having a soft pelvis that’s how I’d interpret it.”

Perhaps it is for the best that we never find out what the dreams ‘Covered in moss’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ are all about. The moment is lost when Mal reveals that he is very much a ‘dream person’. He says: “I once used to have a very, very strange dream. I was looking in the mirror at my mum’s house in Sheffield and then my eyes became really, really luminescent and the whites went blue. In this dream I was convinced I was going to die and it was so strong that I’ve always had a strange fear of looking intensely into my mum’s bathroom mirror. Now it seems obvious that just the act of looking into that particular mirror triggered the dream to happen again.”

And then he drops some South Yorkshire rhyming folklore on us: “My whole life has been guided by a particular saying. My Auntie Marge had this little rhyme she used to recite to me when I was young, ‘A Friday night's dream on Saturday told, Is due to come true be it never so old.’ So I would be very careful never to tell anyone my dream on a Saturday morning in case it came true. Even if it was a good dream, there was the idea that if I spoke about it something bad might come of it…”

Mr Dynamite follows true dream logic in that it is neither dreamy or nightmarish but a roiling audioscape of weird juxtapositions, glistening and unreal pads, queasy lyrical associations, confusingly fractured narratives, unexpected stylistic switches, a warren of audio thresholds, wild and inappropriate synthesized combinations and a choir of voices that are simultaneously both angelic and demonic but all of it underpinned by a heavy, pulsating machine funk that reveals plenty of hard won skin in the game.

As subtly unusual as Mr Dynamite is, it’s a safe bet to say it’s the product of friendship, I mean, for starters, it sounds like it was a blast to make.

All four men met together for the first time at Sheffield’s excellent Sensoria festival in 2014. Wrangler were the main support to the Carter Tutti Play Chris And Cosey show at Abbeydale Picture House. As band lore has it, when they were setting up on stage Benge started nudging Phil and Mal in the ribs with a mantra of, ‘Fucking hell - it’s John Grant over there.’

Grant - a dyed in the wool fan of English industrial music - turned up to the band’s soundcheck in order to have a dance. He pulls a dismayed face when this is brought up. He wants it to be known that normally he doesn’t like to be seen “doing anything in public” but on this occasion it was a fait accompli given that their music made him so “delighted and filled with joy”.

He expands: “Dancing was inevitable. I used to live out in the middle of nowhere in Colorado. I didn’t think [Cabaret Voltaire & Chris And Cosey] existed in real life. So to see these people playing live...”

You only have to talk to John Grant for five minutes to see his genuine passion for English electronic music of the 1980s shining through. You can tell that it’s a genuine thrill for him to be working with Mal: “I probably first heard Cabaret Voltaire in mid-1984. At the time I was just going to church, going to school and going to piano class. But I always loved synthesizers and synth sounds.”

When he adds: “At that time I had just sold my saxophone in order to get Sequential Circuits six track”, Benge, whose collection of vintage synthesizer gear is worryingly large, chips in brightly: “COOL! Have you still got it?”

Once we determine that someone in Denver now owns this specific six track, Grant continues: “I was really into those second two Eurythmics records Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) and Touch. And that was about the time I discovered Alien Sex Fiend (Acid Bath was the album I was really into) but Cabaret Voltaire was a really big band for me. When I first heard ‘Do Right’...”

He drifts off momentarily into a reverie before continuing: “‘Crackdown’ was another huge record. And then The Covenant, The Sword And The Arm Of The Lord was a big deal but when I heard ‘Sensoria’ for the first time I was incapacitated. And I never recovered. I just used to listen to ‘Just Fascination’ over and over again. Not to mention Drinking Gasoline and C O D E...

“It was heaven for me to listen to this music and it totally saved my life. It took me out of the bleak landscape that I was in. It was pure joy. There was nothing scary in that music to me.”

To fans of The Czars or John’s fine solo records Queen Of Denmark, Pale Green Ghosts and Grey Tickles, Black Pressure his reverence for the Cabs might not be immediately apparent but this area is still a work in process. He says: “My fandom has fed back into my own music but I had a really difficult time translating that stuff. I’m just now getting there with the help of Wrangler. With the help of Creep Show.

“I grew up playing classical music and was also the child of 70s AOR ballads which I fucking love to this day. I love the Alan Parsons Project vibe of having thousands of shimmering, undulating pads on a track or the Carpenters with those layered harmonies… but then I also love all the industrial stuff like Skinny Puppy and Einsturzende Neubauten as well. Obviously it’s been a long process trying to combine all of those elements into my own voice and it’s an ongoing process.”

Instantaneously at the mention of Berlin’s most misunderstood group of spanner spilling pipe prangers all of the tea lights suddenly extinguish as if a great cold draught has rolled through the room. Apart from Phil Winter’s candle which only grows in stature.

The magic seems to be telling us that you have some kind of connection with Einsturzende Neubauten Phil…

He groans and says: “They came to stay at our house, The Vicarage. It was this big house by the North Circular that me and some friends were staying in with the job of stopping it from getting squatted and trashed, which we failed to achieve on both counts. Bands used to stay with us in the early 80s when they were over on tour. The Butthole Surfers stayed once and various members of Swans would crash with us. Einsturzende Neubauten were over to play at the ICA in January 1984 - the really famous gig where they tried to drill through the stage so they could get into the tunnel that went into Buckingham Palace. A friend of ours was managing them and had brought them over for that show so they were crashing with us. The day after the show when I got out of bed they’d already been out to the local shop to get some food and as I was coming down the stairs they walked in through the front door all eating raw Danish bacon out of the packet uncooked. They thought it was cured ham. I was like, ‘You can’t eat that! You have to cook it first you weirdos!’”

“You know,” says Mal brightly, “the cinema where we all met was where I watched Guns Of Navarone and Carry On Camping with my Nan. I grew up five minutes away from there. I was an altar boy in the church over the road.”

The magic seems to have brought us to a very significant point of the conversation as suddenly everyone’s tealight reignites. Your master of magical ceremonies was an altar boy in Liverpool. Stephen ‘Mal’ Mallinder was an altar boy in Sheffield. What about everyone else?

Phil: “My dad is a vicar and my sister is a vicar.”

Benge: “I was brought up in a practicing Baptist household.”

John Grant: “I wasn’t an altar boy but I was trying to get some action with an altar boy when I was going to church if that counts?”

“I didn’t get any action though”, he adds glumly. “I didn’t have no game.”

After meeting in Sheffield the four musicians didn’t discuss working together but swapped emails and stayed in touch. John Grant asked Wrangler to do a remix of ‘Voodoo Doll’ which eventually saw the light of day in the summer of 2016; around the same time they played the Royal Albert Hall together. Then both parties received phone calls asking them to take part in an ‘old and new’ style project for that October’s Rough Trade 40 event at the Barbican alongside the other pairings of Scritti Politti & Alexis Taylor and The Pop Group & Protomartyr.

Mal is very matter of fact about the evening: “Everyone took the idea of their collaboration very differently from everyone else and we took it a lot more seriously than most.”

Phil agrees: “All of the collaborators rehearsed in a premises studios that the Barbican had block booked and it was really interesting watching the other guys trying to figure it out and then slowly cooling on the idea of doing original material and just going, ‘Fuck it, let’s just play the hits.’”

Mal continues: “Mark Stewart [The Pop Group] said to me, ‘We’re not going to be able to do it because we’ve got no idea what we’re doing.’ And then when I saw Green [Gartside, Scritti Politti] and he asked me how it was going I said, ‘Oh it’s fine we’ve written all of this new stuff and…’ He stopped me and said, ‘What do you mean you’ve written all of this new stuff?’ I said, ‘We’ve written new material… what are you lot doing?’ He said, ‘We’re all in the room but we’re all just fighting over what the word ‘collaboration’ means.’ He said they were just throwing stuff at each other. When I told him we’d written a 45 minute set he just said, ‘Fucking hell… we’re playing in two days and we haven’t written a note.’”

All of Creep Show start talking at once but what they are saying can be summed up like this: There was no need to discuss it. We just got on with it.

The reader should, at this juncture, draw their own conclusions about the organisational and creative benefits of being either a practicing Communist or someone who talks a good line in critical theory while also being a band member.

Mal adds: “Well it all worked out in the end for everyone but we just worked in a way that suited us and the studio is the place where we work on stuff out so it was easy for us to knock sketches up, send them to John and then get together and work on them as a group. We worked quickly and productively and some of those tracks are on the album.”

The spooky Faustian electro of ‘Mr Dynamite’ and the utopian bleep and bass pop of ‘Tokyo Metro’ were both songs that were written in this way; and while there was quite a long gap between these original sessions and when the rest of the album was recorded it seems like an LP was always on the cards from day one.

John says: “The way I remember it was we did those original songs and thought, ‘Oh, this is fucking great - we should do an album’ but it was also important that we were having a lot of fun and it was a good vibe. We are all in love with sound. There are some guys in Creep Show who are great at sound design and sometimes when you get guys who are into sound design you have to hit them in the fucking head with an anvil to get them to stop tinkering but those guys know what they love and find sounds very quickly and then stick with the sounds that they love.”

Mal agrees: “We loved doing the rehearsal and the show and loved each other’s company so when we finished all of that, I think recording was just a good excuse to get back together.”

Perhaps all of this biographical stuff is by-the-by. What is more important is the lattice that connects them. John sums it up neatly: “It feels as if I can’t remember not knowing these guys.”

Mr Dynamite was recorded at Benge’s house on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, which Mal describes as looking like “Tracey Island but inland” and John describes as being a “mid-century modernist Frank Lloyd Wright kind of house that made me shit my diaper when I saw it”. Benge’s unusually large synthesizer collection which used to be crammed into a studio just off Hoxton Square now resides in the basement of the house. When asked if he ever takes the opportunity to play an organ solo on the roof as the sun sets while wearing a cape, he goes strangely quiet. Reader - draw your own conclusion.

Quickly changing the subject, Benge says: “When I moved into the house it was clear that the basement was the ideal room for keeping the synthesizers in. I stripped it all out and put in lots of sound insulation.”

Phil adds: “You got rid of all of the cages.”

Hold on, what now?

Benge explains - partially: “Yeah, the room was full of cages. They were about two metres tall and one metre across. You could have fitted people in them. I never got to the bottom of what that was about.”

When asked who Mr Dynamite is John has this to say: “I’d say Satan. That kind of character. Somebody who is going to cause serious destruction. Bespoke destruction. The kind of destruction that is tailored to your specific needs, with previous knowledge of what makes the person tick. Kind of like in 1984 when you end up in Room 101. They put everyone in the room but they have access to everyone’s specific nightmares and that's how they came up with the rat helmet for Winston.”

There then follows a short and ultimately confusing conversation about rat helmets that comes to two conclusions. A. Rat Helmet would be a good name for the kind of prog rock band who would support Soft Pelvis. B. Imagine Deadmaus’ real head in a rat helmet.

The magic is starting to flow quick and fast now and it’s nearly impossible to keep the conversation on track, the golden lattice that connects all things suddenly and temporarily materialises into view like a well crisped Birds Eye potato waffle pinging free from a toaster and, even momentarily, pinging free from gravity itself.

John recalls going to see 1984 at a huge cinema when he was growing up: “It was in a gigantic one screen cinema with a huge number of people crammed into the theatre. Some over-enthusiastic fruit loop who worked there had the great idea of just playing ‘Sex Crime’ by The Eurythmics in its entirety very loud just to a black screen at the very start of the film. It was amazing. This has reminded me how I need to write a song about John Hurt dying and how everyone now needs to give up acting.”

Mal chips in: “John Hurt used to stay at Chris Watson’s mum and dad’s house when we were doing Cabaret Voltaire. It was really weird. He was doing amateur dramatics locally. This was right at the start back in 1972 or 1973. A couple of years later we were like, ‘Fucking hell, Quentin Crisp was round your mum and dad’s house!’”

There then follows a short and ultimately confusing conversation about the relative values of the TV film starring John Hurt as Quentin Crisp The Naked Civil Servant and the Arena documentary starring Quentin Crisp as Quentin Crisp Chelsea Hotel that comes to one conclusion, John Hurt’s Dead Skin Cooker would be a good name for the kind of prog rock band who would support Soft Pelvis and Rat Helmet.

John who is an obsessive about world underground maps and systems, explains the genesis of ‘Tokyo Metro’: “I was introduced to the trumpet player Toshinori Kondo who is one of my heroes, when I first went to Tokyo. His stop on the Metro is Noborito. So really I thought it would be good to do a song about all of the stops on the Tokyo Metro. And that name features prominently because it’s his stop. And also because I love Mexican food.”

Mal got to go to Tokyo for the first time in 1982: “It was an insane culture shock. Cabaret Voltaire were there for gigs but we stayed on; it was the most gratuitous blag you could think of. We did two shows in Tokyo and one in Osaka. Our label over there, Japan Records, recorded one of the shows on 24 track. And we were having such a great time that we were like, ‘We can’t possibly leave until we’ve mixed this live album. I’m sorry but we’re going to have to stay for another two or three weeks. So that’s how we did [Cabs live LP] Hai!.”

Another early doors track is ‘K-Mart Johnny’ which was originally called ‘Better Days’ because it had the sentiment, “We wish we were in better days.” Mal wrote the verses with one eye on the current political climate in Europe, but when he sent it over to John for perusal, it dredged up a more personal story from the American’s childhood.

John says: “It triggered a story about being young. A bad memory of being made fun of in the street for being poor because we would shop at K-Mart. People would shout, “K-Mart Johnny” at me. I was so naive, you see, that I would get excited about going to K-Mart mainly because it was where I would get all of my dinosaur models from. But one particular kid teased me and… well, I wouldn’t go as far as saying I got my revenge on him. I used to have this T-Rex model and it had yellow spots all over it and this kid was scared of it because I told him the yellow spots were from a sickness that it had. I was trying to force it on him, telling him he was going to get the disease and he ran home crying. I felt vindicated. But of course there is no real revenge or satisfaction that you can get from such things. If you hold onto things like this from your childhood until you’re an adult, then people just look at you and go, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you man?’ [laughs]”

If the first 80% of the album sounds like it was a blast to make and is, let’s say, playful in nature, the last two tracks - the Kraftwerkian epic ‘Fall’ and the emotionally vulnerable ballad ‘Safe And Sound’ - are much more monumental and sombre. Why was it sequenced that way?

Benge explains: “We were thinking of the vinyl and we wanted the two epic tracks to be on the one side. They’re like nearly ten minutes each.”

John adds: “There was also a sense in which we didn’t want to throw a wet blanket over proceedings.”

He pauses awkwardly for a touch before adding: “I was a little bit embarrassed about that last track. It’s way too… there are none of those bits of dark humour in it. It’s rare for me [to perform a song like this]. I am actually quite an optimist but I just prefer not to project it to the world. [laughs] There are none of those barbs in there and that’s not a safe zone for me.

“I wrote that track for someone else who was going through a difficult time in their life but they never responded to it so I just let [Wrangler] decide whether it was going to be on the Creep Show album because maybe I thought it was too… positive or whatever.”

Benge steps in: “John had done a demo of the vocal to send it off to the musician he wrote the track for and we were all just like, ‘This is such a great vocal.’”

Mal adds his voice: “We were adamant that it had to be on the album. And in the end it was Phil who insisted we use that first demo vocal take on the finished track because John might not have intended it to sound like that, had he had time to think about it, but there was an emotional fragility to it because of that.”

John continues: “So in that case I was fine with it going on the album because I trust their judgement. And as it turned out I ended up going through a breakup anyway so the song applied to me and it’s a great sentiment. It is telling you just to be comfortable in your own skin. [If you split up with someone] you don’t have to go out and kill that other person with a chainsaw, you can just let it happen and it will pass. Just be comfortable and know you are where you need to be.”

Benge adds wryly: “I mean… I’ll bet Barry Manilow is kicking himself now. He really missed a trick letting that one slip through the net.”

So, this friendship as a creative strategy thing... If I’m being honest with you I’m glad not all bands get on so well with one another but I have to admit that it seems to work for Creep Show. But is everything as it seems? I mean, it’s not my job to hunt for controversy but on the other hand it would be remiss of me not to give the tree one last vigorous shake. Did both singers manage to get through the entire process without falling out once? There were no diva fits? No star tantrums? Not even for a few minutes?

Mal deadpans: “Well, now that you mention it we did fall out. He’s a complete cunt to be honest…”

John hams it up: “Well of course I’m classically trained so I knew what I was doing while Mal…”

Mal concludes: “Look… he just can’t sing…”

The Comical Creep Show Fake Argument Magic Interview Closer - a worthy support act to Soft Pelvis, Rat Helmet and John Hurt’s Dead Skin Cooker, I’m sure you’ll agree.

They all start laughing and the tea lights extinguish for good this time. It appears Creep Show actually did get along like a well-maintained, moorside, modernist mid-20th century house full of synthesizers on fire.

Mr Dynamite is out via Bella Union on March 16, John Grant plays this year's Green Man Festival - for tickets and information go here

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