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A Quietus Interview

Loud Speaking: Amplifier Interviewed
Andrew Stimpson , March 17th, 2011 12:58

Andrew Stimpson ventures out on deck with an enormous oar to take on The Octopus, the monstrous new creation from Amplifier. Main photo Tom Sheehan

Amplifier are something of a conundrum. A three piece consisting of Sel Balamir, Matt Brobin and Neil Mahony, the band has a dedicated, but disparate fan base who can count NASA scientists and Homo DJs amongst their number, and they all sing the same refrain, "It’s fun to take a trip, but why are Amplifier not bigger than they are?"

It’s a good question too so I put it, and others, to the band.

Why are you not the Overlords of Rock?

Sel Balamir: Actually I think that we are. It's just that nobody else knows it. Apart from us, our fans, you and now your readers... Or maybe we are the Uberlords. I'm not sure.

Neil Mahony: Who actually decides who gets to be Overlords of Rock anyway? Is it voted on? Does it just last a year because I would want it for a full lifetime. So I could make some changes....

Seven years have passed since the amazing critical reception to Amplifier’s self titled debut in 2004. By now the British rock scene should have been long trampled beneath the crunching Brett Ewins boots, and rebuilt by the glittering eye beams, of the mighty renewer from Asteroid X unleashed by the sheer power and innovation of the young trio. That’s if the reviews were to be believed of course, but reviews are a load of old bollocks. Undoubtedly the album deserved to be heaped with praise but to be acclaimed as the new face of British rock and responsible for redefining a genre is surely to be doomed to failure. Should anything less than total submission to our gleaming masters from beyond time and space within three years follow then Amplifier could never live up to the hype.

Your self-titled debut was critically acclaimed and hyped-up as ‘genre defining’ and ‘the future of British rock’. What impact did this have on your perception of your own material, and your egos?

SB: Personally, I think that that record is a bit rubbish. One thing though- no matter how much press you get - it doesn't mean anyone will buy your record, and it definitely doesn't mean you'll get paid....

NM: I thought we were going to take over the planet. I believed everything that was written about us I was so convinced we would become rock royalty I even started to wear a crown.

Amplifier was released on the Music For Nations label shortly before it was bought by Sony. Perhaps sensing clouds on the horizon the band bravely purchased the rights to the record back from the giant and sought a new deal, eventually signing with SPV and recording the EP The Astronaut Dismantles Hal in 2005. Hal provided some bite-size satisfaction to those who had embraced the debut album and was followed in 2006 by Insider, the band’s second full-length album and one which they feel was rushed to completion. Once again they made the decision to change path and left SPV.

You seem from the outside to have no problems taking your destiny in your own hands but after such critical approval how difficult was it to depart from MFN/Sony, and then from SPV a couple of years later?

SB: Exactly zero difficulty - Shame about MFN - we liked that label. Sony/BMG - shite. SPV – shite.

NM: MFN was a bit like a family so when they went it was hard. Not least because our record had only been released the week before! The others, well they were just like particularly difficult banks. No sub-prime mortgages for Amplifier!

In October 2007 Amplifier debuted a new set at the Barfly as part of The Electric Proms and were championed by Lord Iffy Boatrace author Bruce Dickinson. Once again the critical reception was glowing and Amplifier gained new kudos and respect for not only their awesome sounds (going down), but also for being a tight and highly accomplished live act. Despite this the band continue to play their fare share of Anvil-esque shows, melting the faces of two dozen ecstatic hardcore fans in Leeds Rio’s. Amplifier as a live act are unafraid of cutting loose with soaring, lengthy epics like 'Interstellar' and 'Planet of Insects', even at the risk of alienating the more conventional, ADHD afflicted listener.

Your live performances at venues large and small are uncompromising affairs. What is your philosophy on performing live and touring?

SB: It's a balance between having fun and being serious.
It should be a kind of teetering balancing act between a christian mission and The Happy Mondays on tour.

NM: On an early tour, two nights in a row we made someone faint. We've been striving to better that ever since.

Back in March 2008 Amplifier announced that they had embarked upon the recording of their next two albums, Mystoria and The Octopus, back to back. In December 2010, the two albums having become one, The Octopus was made available to the group’s dedicated fans, a full two years after the first reveal of early session recordings via their website and the result of much blood sweat and tears.

Originally you announced two separate albums before confirming the one double album for release in 2009. Later that year you made the limited edition release Eternity available to fans in order to support your self-financing of the production. Was there a time when you feared that you would not complete The Octopus at all?

SB: No. To be honest, it took up so much effort and planning that there wasn't enough time or room to think about the possibility that it might not happen. This is not bravado - it was just impractical and time consuming to think about failure.

After four years in the making the third Amplifier album was released on 31st January 2011. A sprawling suite of 16 tracks spread across two discs (three on vinyl, spoiling the symmetry somewhat), The Octopus is the product of a band free of interference and corporate restrictions. It would be too easy to suggest (and it has been suggested) that at times it meanders and is just, well, too long. But that would be a reflection on the attention span of the reviewer. Like Crippled Black Phoenix’s expansive, themed double disc The Resurrectionists/ Night Raider it doesn’t outstay its welcome for one moment, provided of course you have a couple of spare hours to stick on your ear muffs and let the cosmic encephalopod steer you around the sonisphere.

Music journalist’s toolboxes are littered with clichés about disappointing sophomore efforts and difficult third albums. How do you view your own musical progression since your first album?

SB: First album - Naively optimistic, yet nostalgic too. HAL EP - like this although there's one song I hate - took about a week in our room - good fun. Second album - worked under the cosh - tried too hard to not be rubbish - generally pretty good - a couple of weaker songs in hindsight - but we were put under pressure by SPV. Eternity EP - love it - all demos from the early days, pure - no effort. The Octopus - Just great, a good balance between playing, improvising and song writing and with something for everyone. If it holds your attention for 2 hours it's got to be ok - surely - it held our attention for 4 years.

NM: I think when we're left to our own devices we can do anything. When others meddle - that's the only time things go awry.

Perhaps fifteen years after heavy rock and metal became fashionable again it appears that progressive rock is also experiencing something of a renaissance and Amplifier are riding the wave. Great timing for The Octopus then. Being a concept album packed with ideas it certainly bears all the hallmarks of a weighty prog epic and the themes contained within do nothing to dispel the idea; interstellar travel, ancient empires collapsing beneath the weight of their own contempt for humanity, and the overriding theme of the suffocation of being ‘driven’ by a presence not your own towards a joyous, cosmic climax. This is not a package of half a dozen great songs padded with fluff.

Self-indulgent... perhaps. But why not? Art is after all about indulging one’s own sense of creativity in one’s chosen medium. Unfettered by restrictions and the artificiality of target demographics, The Octopus is the (Tarkovsky’s)Solaris of rock music, long, deep, challenging, cosmic, and every minute absolutely worthwhile and relevant, if not absolutely essential. And it fucking well rocks too, which is a great result.

Speaking of progression the ‘prog’ community have embraced Amplifier as a strong proponent of the ‘New Wave of Prog'. How easily do the comparisons to Rush, Pink Floyd and the epic concept albums of the seventies sit with you?

SB: Well - we think that Dark Side Of The Moon is a good comparison - but only in zeitgeist - not in material or style. To be honest we don't really care what label we're tagged with - at the end of the day as far as we are concerned - we are Amplifier. We rock. I like most of those prog bands - so I'm ok with that. At the end of the day - I accept that we are not cool. And that is why a lot of people feel physically repulsed by us. Good stuff too.

NM: I fuckin' hate it. I think it's lazy and disingenuous. People who categorize and pigeonhole almost always do it because they have an agenda - whether that is to sell a magazine or make themselves look clever. I like well written critique as much as the next man but as soon as labels start to get thrown about I just switch off. Comparison is fine but trying create a scene around a new label is just lame. If people like it then that is great - if they don't then that's OK too.

How would you describe The Octopus to the uninitiated?

SB: If Quentin Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick made a heavy rock album - this is what it would be like, although essentially they would have endured some kind of Apocalypse Now!/Heart Of Darkness odyssey along the way.

NM: Exactly.

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