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Escape Velocity

No Middle Ground: The Amazing Snakeheads Interviewed
Julian Marszalek , May 1st, 2014 00:35

With their debut album Amphetamine Ballads just released, Julian Marszalek catches up with Glasgow's hotwired rock & roll trio The Amazing Snakeheads to talk dramatic menace and the lure of minimalism

Photo by Gavin Watson

"Here it come again/Here it comes again/Here it comes AGAIN!" Rock & roll is a beast that will not die. No matter what gets thrown at it, no matter how many times it gets diluted, misused and misappropriated, it twists, turns and mutates to return as strong and fearsome as before.

Joining a long lineage of bands trailing back to the primordial origins of Little Richard and his offspring - which includes the demented chaos of The Birthday Party, The Meteors and The Gun Club, through to the form's latter day exponents in the shape of The Jim Jones Revue - are Glasgow's The Amazing Snakeheads. Theirs is a rain-soaked, neon-lit world of femme fatales, tension and menace so fully realised that the odour of cheap perfume, stale tobacco and spilled sour mash whiskey practically wafts from the speakers. This is music that revels in wobbly, trebly guitars that prowl, scrape and howl, a growling bottom-end rumble and propulsive beats, but brought into the 21st century without losing its crucial element of delinquency and degeneracy.

Their calling card, 'Testifying Time', a 66-second white-hot blast of coruscating heat that detonated last summer, is this month followed by the release of their debut album Amphetamine Ballads, which more than delivers on that initial promise as it swandives into a sea of madness, wild sexual abandon, and permanent midnight. It's wild ride, to be sure, and one that singer and guitarist Dale Barclay is still trying to make sense of himself...

How and why did The Amazing Snakeheads form?

Dale Barclay: Myself and William [Coombe, bass] have been friends since we were young and I met Jordon [Hutchinson, drums] about seven or eight years ago when I moved into my old flat and he was my neighbour and we became fast friends; we all did. We just decided to go to a practice room and have a bit of fun and make a racket. That was the extent of it at the beginning; we just wanted to have a bit of fun and play some music loud.

Did you always intend for the sound you arrived at or did it evolve?

DB: It certainly evolved. I can't say there was much intention in terms of the sound of the band. We learned how to put music together. It wasn't a case of 'let's do this' or 'let's do that' because we weren't really that capable of it, to be honest. We just sort of blundered on and we just made a racket. I think it's really important to try and let whatever influences you have come through in a way that's natural and not contrived. If you spent too long thinking about what kind of sound you want then you're sort of missing the point. We were keen to let things come out the way they come out. Don't get me wrong, there was no other way to do it when we started because we really couldn't play that much together. I'd never been in a band before, but Jordan had a little bit.

The music you make is a glorious and unholy collision of blues and punk. Was this music that you'd grown up with?

DB: There are certainly those elements in there, but there's a lot of other stuff that goes in there. We listen to a whole load of music; it doesn't matter if it's punk or it's blues or it's soul or funk. It could be anything, really. We like what we like regardless of what it is. Again, I think you've got to let things come through naturally; that's how you arrive at a sound. Or, arrive at a sound that's honest and that's us. We play music out of love and that's all that we can ask of ourselves, really. We're digging what we do. What people get out of it and what people want to reference it to is really up to them.

Songs like 'Flatlining' and 'Every Guy Wants To Be Her Baby' are like film noir set to music. Have those kinds of films or books influenced you in any way?

DB: If you're really into being creative then films and literature should all be in there somewhere. You've got to be open to whatever it is and that's what we are. We just try to let things through in a natural way in terms of, 'ok, is this feeling right?' We really go on instinct. But you're right; there's a whole load of influences there that do include films and literature. I don't want to explain this too much because rather than starting to give things context and referencing things you give people a heads up and we want them to make up their own minds; if people get different things from it then that's fine.

Some of the songs on the album are quite minimal and mantra-like and it seems as if you're trying to induce a trance-like state in the listener. Is that the intention?

DB: We don't really put a lot of thought into who's going to be listening to the music; we never have. We never thought anyone would be listening to the band but the wonderful thing about music is how awe-inspiring it is in the way that it connects with people. But minimal? Yeah, that's the one thing that we've always touched on – that and space and giving things room to breathe. We've always taken that approach from the start; we don't need to fill every space up. Minimal is good for us, especially for our music. And if that induces a certain feeling then all the better.

Rock and roll always seems to be written off but it always manages to return, phoenix-like. What do you think is its enduring appeal and why is the music of The Amazing Snakeheads connecting with people now?

DB: I don't know how our music is connecting with people; that's where the wonder and awe comes in! It really is awe-inspiring that for some reason the music that we make and will continue to make has connected with people in a certain way; that's fucking awe inspiring, and if you can't see the wonder in that then you shouldn't fucking do it. For me, rock and roll saved my life and it makes me feel alive. When things click into place, whether it's onstage or recording or writing then it works and I feel like I have a purpose in life. For me, that's where I'm at with rock and roll and I'll die for that feeling. If you're fortunate in life to have something that makes you happy then you should treat it accordingly. It's about excitement and it's about energy and it's about feeling alive.

You've toured with Glasvegas and The Jim Jones Revue. Did you learn from them?

DB: Absolutely. Glasvegas were the first band to take us on tour, and it was really good, because if you're in band then you really want to be on tour. Certainly we do, and that was our first experience of being on the road. It was only six days but it was a good taste, and we're very grateful to Glasvegas for doing that. The Jim Jones Revue are a fucking rock and roll band who go onstage every night and lay it on the line, and that's what it's all about. Forget the music - it's about what you do onstage. Rock and roll, jazz, whatever it is, your sole purpose is to be on that stage and that's what they do. It was really good being on tour with The Jim Jones Revue so we could see them actually do that. That's the way it's meant to be, because a lot of the stuff that we've talked about as a band has been really theoretical, but it was really good to be on the road with them and see what they do every night. They really do give everything, every night, onstage.

When you're onstage, do you find that you're no longer you, but a new character altogether?

DB: Speaking personally, it can either be hell on earth or it can be transcendental. It's one or the other for me. There's no middle ground; it either works or it doesn't. I'm either feeling it and achieving that feeling that I want to achieve every night that we play, or else it's just not there. That's not where you want to be, so every night we take the approach that this is the last gig we're ever going to play. We don't think about what's coming after it, because it has to be that way for us. When it does work, it's fucking powerful, man, and it makes me feel good.

You've already garnered a reputation as a fearsome and intense live band. How easy or difficult is it to capture that in a studio environment?

DB: To be honest, it wasn't particularly difficult. We took the approach that we didn't have much to lose. But playing live and making a record is not a chore. We were really looking forward to getting in the studio and we were really confident. We knew we were going to do it with Emily McLaren and Stuart Evens at Green Door studios so we were really excited about getting in there and just seeing it. In saying that, you never know how it's going to be, however confident you are. When we started, there was never a moment when we said, 'This is working', I could just tell and we were feeling it. The five of us in the studio were really getting to it and we were really being creative and ideas were coming. Some ideas worked and some didn't, but it was a really beautiful experience to be in a studio. It has exceeded expectations. We were confident, but we knew we wanted a lot in terms of textures and the sonic things we wanted to do, and we love the album. We're really pleased with it.

There's a high degree of dramatic menace in your music. Is that a reflection of your environment?

DB: I don't know. It's come up a few times. People can take our music how they take it, and I have no problem with it, but there's a lot more to it than just being angry. I mean, you say 'menace', but there's a lot of joy in it as well. Most of the time, when I'm writing the lyrics, I'll be fucking laughing. 'Where's My Knife?' was cracking me up when I was writing it.

I'm hoping that Glasgow is on the record. It's a tough city but it's a great city. It's got a bit of a bad rep; certainly in the 60s and the 70s, it was a rough fucking city, man, but now it's a beautiful city and a really creative city. I hope it's made it to the record, but it certainly wasn't a conscious thing. We believe that who you record with and where you record with will all make it on to the record. You just don't think about it – you let it seep in.

The dramatic menace thing, I can see where you're coming from with the horror movie and film noir stuff, rather than real menace. 'Every Guy Wants To be Her Baby' is just a story, and if you're going to tell a story in song, then you've got to go there. If you're going to tell a story, man, you've actually got to be there when you're telling it. You've got to put yourself in that position and you've got to visualise it and you've got to be able to smell it. If it comes across as dramatic then all the better, and it's down to how you tell it, and how far you're going to go with it.

What music would you play to get a party started?

DB: I'd put on some Sam Cooke and James Brown. Soul music is good to dance to. I could throw a lot of things in there but I'd say James Brown – that's when the party gets going. When he goes on, everybody's on it! You'd better believe it.

The Amazing Snakeheads' album Amphetamine Ballads is out now via Domino