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Escape Velocity

Rants About Cosmic Sorrow: Ten Mouth Electron Interviewed
Gary Kaill , April 28th, 2015 11:09

The Manchester band speaks to Gary Kaill about the joys of collectives, political music and why their hometown - despite a burgeoning musical underground - still has so much to answer for

There are few bands who align their aesthetic with the works of Flann O'Brien, the Irish writer best known for his 1939 metafictional masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds. There are fewer still who'd seek inspiration from his later work, The Third Policeman, published after his death, in 1967.

But Manchester's Ten Mouth Electron are not an outfit to be cowed by the weight of artistic history and for Liverpool's 2014 International Music Festival, they contributed a track called 'Lex Mundi' to the tQ-curated Minor Characters project. Inspired directly by the darkly comic character de Selby, a shadowy figure who helps form the complex narrative spine of O'Brien's posthumous novel, it emerged as one of the high spots of an EP subsequently released by the Quietus Phonographic Corporation featuring, amongst others, East India Youth and Forest Swords.

After several years of on-and-off activity, late 2014 saw the release of a three-track EP featuring 'Brite Lites', 'Cut Up Technique' and 'Hate Week At The Coven'. A jarring collision of sophisticated guitar pop and ribald, jam-based groove, it confirmed much of their early promise.

This year sees the band (named after Teignmouth Electron, the trimaran sailed by English businessman Donald Crowhurst on his ill-fated entry in the 1969 round-the-world Golden Globe yacht race), readying themselves for a focussed and sustained period of activity.

Like the best collectives, band members contribute to the Ten Mouth Electron experience via their input into other projects. Led by singer and guitarist Bob Clowrey, the group also feature Clowrey's long-time musical partner Phil Lewis, a former member of genre-bending Manchester outfit Rapid Pig, while bassist Sadie Noble is part of post-punk protagonists (and recent Quietus interviewees) Ill. Drummer Jay Tea describes his other band, Locean, as "weird, experimental, jazz, spoken word stuff", and they have also been home to Ten Mouth Electron’s most recent addition, Rose Niland, a singer-songwriter in her own right.

With Manchester, as ever, throwing itself desperately on a week of unexpected sun, we gather (all bar Noble, who is otherwise engaged) in the beer garden of a city centre pub to discuss the band's wayward past and its brightening future.

I think by now there's a general acceptance that the worst thing you can ask a band is how they got their name. But in your case, it's a rule worth breaking. You've appropriated an event that still haunts a lot of people. As a teenager, I was obsessed with the Donald Crowhurst story. I'm guessing you feel similarly?

Bob Clowrey: Absolutely. That was a story that really appealed to me. It's Shakespearean, almost, a real tragedy. Crowhurst was a fascinating character. He was so tragically untrue to himself. He's your archetypal English eccentric. There's still so much mystery attached. He left these tantalising records behind, though. What would normally be your logbook with meticulous entries were just these rants about cosmic sorrow.

Phil Lewis: They're actually filming it now with Colin Firth. I think we should put our foot down and say we don't approve. Sack Firth!

Let's talk a little bit about your history. You’re a collective in the true sense, with members working in other bands. How did it all begin?

BC: Well we came together about four or five years ago and we've had various iterations over the years but this is what we'll call the classic line-up, I suppose.

PL: Yeah, me and Bob started to play together and the challenge has always been to find people who'll stick around, really.

BC: Well, that, of course, but people who can see what we're trying to do. Everybody's involved in other side projects, so…

PL: So we've pretty much just stolen members from other bands.

Certainly it's difficult to pin you down via your web presence. On your most recent publicity shots [see above], your faces are blurred out. Is that in line with the band's ethos, a pointed desire to let the music speak for you?

BC: Absolutely, yes.

PL: We're interested in playing music, not making cool websites or whatever but we do realise it has to be done. Late at night I’ve found myself typing 'how to publicise your band' into Google, but what are we going to learn? Oh, well N-Dubz did it like this. Brilliant.

BC: That shoot you mention was done quite begrudgingly. It was like we were four years old and we were being dragged to B&Q or something like that. We knew we had to do it but it just felt contrived. Should we be photographed sitting on, I don’t know, a fire escape? Ooh, let's all look off into the middle distance!

For the Liverpool International Music Festival's Minor Characters project, you built your contribution around Flann O'Brien's de Selby, a shadowy and unknowable character. Was that a deliberate attempt to pick someone who chimed with the Ten Mouth Electron aesthetic?

BC: I'd say it was, yes. For me, there's just something about it. It's the most terrifying book I've ever read, and at the same time it's the funniest book I've ever read. Stuff that really gets to me is often really scary and at the same time really hilarious. It's a masterpiece. I'd recommend anyone who hasn’t read it to read it.

Such a thin line, at times, between horror and comedy in art.

BC: There is, and that book treads that line perfectly. So that was why it appealed and felt right for this band. I want our music to be quite brutal and yet slyly funny at the same time. Pixies have that quality, don’t they, where you’re finding them funny but you’re also asking yourself whether you should really be laughing, because their lyrics are pretty grim, really.

You've described your sound as 'Krautrockabilly'. That's a first. Do you think we've come to rely too much on all of these tired and hackneyed labels to immediately compartmentalise music?

PL: The way people toss around genres and sub-genres so lazily, it's all so broad it's next to useless. We love psych rock, we love Krautrock, we love rockabilly and I understand why people are so keen to create labels, but it's become pretty meaningless.

BC: Perhaps this is what's going on at the moment? People who like good music have come to a consensus. It's not as tribal as it used to be. You get people listening to both doom and techno. When we first started jamming, some of it was psych, some it was folky. There's still a bag full of stuff that we love and we haven't even explored yet.

PL: The trick is to play with the right people. You play with people who make you sound interesting. Play with people who give you ideas and just let it come out, don't force it. I remember being 16 and playing guitar and trying to sound a particular way and it just wouldn’t happen. It was frustrating. And then I heard The Fall and I suddenly realised that you didn’t have to follow a set method. You just have to follow a natural approach, don’t try to force it into being something it's not, and that's when your own influences come in and they come in more naturally.

It's nigh on impossible to throw Ten Mouth Electron into a convenient genre. 'Brite Lites' is stately and elegant, 'Hate Week At The Coven' is a mini-riot.

BC: Not that it should be boiled down to a single idea, but we play these jams in the room and half of them disappear into the ether. It's very noisy, very chaotic but it's always good. But then what we do is take that 15-minute jam, and rather than make that the track, we'll condense it into four minutes. So you'll have those original, experimental noisy things but distilled to bring out its pop sensibility.

Does that mean that songwriting is quite a democratic process?

BC: Yeah, mostly.

PL: It's like I said before, you play with like-minded people and you see what that brings but I do believe passionately in the four or five-minute pop song. What we do, it's rock & roll, basically.

Jay Tea: If you set out with a restricted vision and the idea of what you want to be, you could end up being the kind of band where one person goes away, writes a song, brings it to the band and they flesh it out. Or, you can explore - just be a band and see what comes out of that. So if you work like that, as we do, you let the music lead you. If you like what comes out, you work on it. If you don't, then let it go.

Are you a political band? I know you're not U2, but you see why I'm asking, I hope.

BC: No, that's fine. I get why you’d ask. But we're not, not really. We don’t have any, what you might call, 'political' songs. Phil is a vehemently political person. But, we're not yet at the stage where we're looking to confront political issues in the music, necessarily.

But you're agitators, right? You’re not seeking cosy community with your audience.

BC: No we're not. No, that's a good word to apply to us. And, just because of how I've been feeling recently, I actually don’t think it will be long before we do write a political song. If only because, you know, shit's getting weird.

It is. Should it concern us that we have an election next month and the silence from the musical community has been deafening?

BC: It should. But it's so different these days. There are no real, big political voices, certainly in the UK.

JT: I wonder if that's because we've become a nation of comments? People have become more wary of what they say, scared of an internet backlash.

BC: There's something in that, definitely.

JT: I think so. I think that, unless you’re prepared to stake your life's work on something and you don’t care about the potential backlash, you’re almost forced to stay quiet.

Do we blame the industry, then? In a decade, the whole structure has changed to the degree where a mainstream indie act, who might previously find a niche, is suddenly headlining arenas with their first album. I can’t help but think that bands must suddenly find they’ve realised the dream and only then do they stop and ask themselves: what was it we wanted to actually say?

BC: I wonder if it comes back to this notion of genre? If you write just one political song, or a song that becomes labelled 'political', you’re suddenly seen as a political band.

PL: Maybe it is related to the discussion of musical genre. We all have different politics, to a degree, and that notion of a socialist state, where people grow up together and work together and live together, unfortunately isn’t really tenable any more with how society is now set up.

BC: Look what's happened to folk, which was the original political music. And now we've got those fucking guys in wellies - what are they called?

Mumford and Sons?

BC: Yeah, Mumford and Sons. And that's what passes for folk. And then you have the spectacle of the indie crowd complaining because they're headlining Reading. Fucking hell. It's the same thing! Look at that guy who got 100,000 signatures or whatever on his petition because Kanye West is headlining Glastonbury. Who would you rather see at your festival of fucking forward-thinking music? Oh, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Oasis. Come off it! In many ways, alternative music is more conservative than people would care to admit.

PL: Well look at it round here. Everyone is still obsessed with The Stone Roses and Oasis.

BC: Have you seen that big wall in Piccadilly Gardens? Everyone in Manchester hates it. The Evening News is running this competition to see which local legends are going to go on it and the names they’re proposing, Shaun Ryder and Ian Brown and the like. It's a fucking joke. Nothing against those guys but… come on.

But right now, and maybe this wasn't the case even as recently as just a few years ago, the Manchester music scene feels genuinely alive again. Would you agree?

PL: I would, definitely. And you know why that is? There's not just one sound to it. There might be similar ingredients but there definitely isn't a haircut. That's what the media looks for first - the haircut.

Finally, I was interested in how you scrapped your original recordings of 'Brite Lites' and 'Hate Week At The Coven' because you didn’t think they were good enough. That seems admirable but extreme.

BC: It happens quite often! No, the thing that sums it up absolutely perfectly is this: we recorded 'Hate Week At The Coven’ and we weren't quite happy with it. So we did it again. Then shortly after, we had some studio time and Phil suggested we record it again. Alright, well fine, but that's going to be three times we've recorded that track - it'll now account for half of our total fucking output! But, of course, there's a unique energy present each time you play and record, and that can change depending on who you’re recording with or what have you. So, we try to judge ourselves as best we can and not be too harsh. But still, I'm sure if we left it to Phil, we'd eventually release an album that consists of just 12 versions of 'Hate Week At The Coven’!

Brite Lites​/​Cut Up Technique is available from Ten Mouth Electron's Bandcamp. The band play The Star & Garter in Manchester on May 2 as part of John Doran’s An English Trip book tour, where the tQ editor will be performing with Årabrot, 2KoiKarp and Jay Tea, with fellow support coming from ILL; head to the Facebook event for full details