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LISTEN: New Membranes
Gillian Paxton , June 6th, 2019 10:51

Membranes singer John Robb discusses the band's new album and why he's moved into perfume as well as post punk, alongside a premiere of a new track

With the latest Membranes album, What Nature Gives… Nature Takes Away, set for release tomorrow (June 7) via with Cherry Red Records, the band have now shared the record's title track, which you can listen to above.

What Nature Gives… Nature Takes Away is a diverse double album exploring the beauty and violence of the natural world. The follow-up to their previous album, Dark Matter/Dark Energy, What Nature Gives… Nature Takes Away sees the band performing alongside a 20-piece choir and also features collaborations with Chris Packham, Shirley Collins, Jordan and Kirk Brandon.

We caught up with Membranes singer John Robb recently to talk life, death, perfume and how bacteria will outlive us all, and you can read the results of that conversation below.

Head here to check our review of the band's latest album and pre-order the album ahead of its release here.

Can you talk a little bit about What Nature Gives…Nature Takes Away and its title track?

John Robb: The theme of the album, loosely speaking, is the peace and violence of nature. So, the title track is about how the gifts that nature gives you are likely to be taken away again. It’s also about the idea that nature, on one level, is very beautiful but also really violent at the same time.

You say “death is nature’s loving partner”. Your last album also dealt with the theme of death. Why do you return to this subject?

JR: Well, death is the ultimate culmination, it’s gonna happen whether you’re rich or poor or content or miserable. No one gets out of here alive, but we think we’re here forever. Pop culture is one of the guiltiest parties in that. The idea that you’re young forever is cool, if you can get away with it, but it kind of frames it as if you’re in a permanent state of childhood, like a doll.

While we were doing the last album my father died, and that brought on all these ideas about death. It’s a very primal thing to think about death, but usually life gets in the way and makes it easier, so the distractions are there for a reason. But thinking about death is not a bad thing. If you think, “Oh my god, we’re not going to be around forever. One day I’m going to fall over and that’s it,” that actually sharpens up everything and makes you more aware of life because you know it’s finite.

You’ve also got a 20-piece choir on the album. How did that affect the music that you were writing?

JR: It hugely affected me. I mean, in a way each person in the choir is an instrument, and there’s 20 of them, all playing notes, so it’s like playing a keyboard made of human voices. I watched a choir performance about five years ago and got blown away by how they were able to sing in a way that’s melancholic and so beautiful and I thought that would fit into our music.

The choir is made up of women. I know, ostensibly, we’re four blokes in a band, but I don’t want to end up like that. The Membranes were always meant to be an experimental band. You can go to the gig and see a punk rock band and it’s exciting, but I didn’t want to work within those tight parameters of what rock music is. I like the idea of working with a bunch of women in a group, it just changed the vibe and created a different mixture of personalities. The choir is a curveball, a total curveball, and it creates quite a different dynamic.

It didn’t really change the way we wrote the music, but there were a few songs where we would start with the choir part and build on it. What we’d be doing up to that point was having the choir sing chords we already had, and that made the sound dynamic. But I thought it would be interesting to start with a choir part and build the song around it, so the first track on the album, ‘Strange Perfume’, was a choir melody first. It’s kind of weird because the melody was in my head for about 30 years, so I thought “Ah, I can actually use this, I can get the choir to sing it.” So, we constructed the song in reverse, starting with the choir then adding the song.

Actually, that song was quite important thematically to our work. It’s about the power of attraction and how important pheromones are. I got really interested in perfume. You always think that sights and sounds are important but actually your sense of smell is more important. So, we partnered with Lush and they’re making a perfume that I designed, a “Strange Perfume.”

Did you design the scent of the perfume?

JR: I did, I sent a paragraph to Lush when they asked for what I wanted. I said I wanted to keep the same feeling in the album. I wanted something that smelled like the deep forest and old leather. A bit sensual and mysterious, really primal… that’s kind of what I wanted to get into a bottle. And I thought “Wow, they’re gonna think that’s so pretentious” but they said “Perfect!”

What was it like collaborating with Chris Packham?

JR: Well, Chris is great. I met him about four years ago. It was actually my birthday and I said, “You’re lucky, it’s my birthday today,” and he said, “It’s my birthday as well!” We were born on the same date! And punk rock both totally changed our lives, we like a lot of the same records, and we’re both quite into nature as well, so when I was making the album, I thought “Wouldn’t it be great to get Chris on this somehow?”

So, I told him “Why don’t you just do a paragraph and read it out?” And five minutes later he records this thing on his phone and because it’s Chris he’s really worried about it, but he got all the themes in the album in one piece and he got it perfectly. And that was it. It was actually rather easy. If it had been slightly long or it didn’t fit the theme I would have told him but he just did it.

You also collaborated with Shirley Collins. How did her folk career mesh with the themes you were trying to portray in the album?

JR: Well, Shirley is great. She made a film that Lush paid for so I met her at the Lush HQ. There was a guy called Bobby Marshall who I’d known for years there as well, and I went “How come you’re here, Bobby?” and he said “That’s my mom!” and I didn’t realize it!

Shirley’s contributions to music culture are amazing. I brought her in because she talks in her film about the idea that folk songs are the soil of England and your surrounding nature and ecosystem is actually seeping into how you sing.

I thought she could explain the concepts on this great piece about the birds just flying around and splashing down to attack. It’s this track called ‘Murmuration Of Starlings On Blackpool Pier.’ When I was growing up you'd get all of these birds flying around the pier at night-time before they all go to bed. And underneath all that is all the wild, drunken mayhem of Blackpool going on. So, I thought that’s kind of my background, that’s kind of my folk roots. It kind of clashes in a sense but I liked the juxtaposition of Shirley’s folk roots being fixed to the Downs and the flowers growing there and in a sense my folk roots would be Blackpool Pier, teenagers shagging underneath the piers. I thought that’s kind of cool. It’s the same thing, but different.

And you also collaborated with Jordan and Kirk Brandon. What was that like?

JR: Jordan’s whole thing is that she’s really into ballet. And people think that you can’t be both into ballet and into punk. I really liked the juxtaposition of ideas that to be a ballet dancer you really have to go for it, it’s a tough discipline. It’s fascinating how it looks dainty but it’s actually incredibly difficult to do. You have to learn to hurt your feet, and that aligns quite strongly with punk because punk clothes are really uncomfortable to wear and give you blisters. You learn that with creativity, the minute you’re comfortable, everything stops. All of those parallel things are there.

It’s like her book that just came out, a really inspiring read about a 16-year-old girl who goes up to London on a train and is noticed for the way she’s dressed. The book’s called Defying Gravity because she’s trying to defy gravity with her dancing by jumping in the air and she’s trying to defy the cultural oppression of the 70s. And these little things tie in very nicely with the album. It’s a parallel that you would never think of.

Jordan’s in her 60s now and as women are getting older, they’re not conforming, they still operate on their own instinct. You know, I think the last victory of pop culture is that as people get older, they don’t give up. They don’t go “Ah, I’m too old to do this now, I can’t make another record.” They’re still vibrant and courageous and alive.

Is this album your attempt to explain nature?

JR: Maybe not to explain nature but more admire the awesome power. I was in Manchester Airport flying out to Mexico to play a gig, and I looked out the window and saw crows nesting in a tree. And to them, Manchester Airport didn’t even exist. Crows had probably been nesting in that tree for hundreds of years. Every spring a Peregrine falcon comes to nest on top of the Arndale Shopping Centre. It has no perception that it’s a place for shopping.

I like the idea that nature carries on. The most successful lifeform on this planet is bacteria. We’re temporary residents. At some point we will either evolve into something else or we’ll fuck everything up and blow the planet up. But the bacteria will just carry on after that. They were there at the beginning, they’re there now, and they’re so perfect that they don’t even need to work to get bigger. Across the whole universe, there are probably colonies of them everywhere, millions of them, and they’re all inside us!

It’s a really fascinating thing, the idea that we’re here, but we’re just here by our fingernails. If you ever feel bored or you feel the weight of life on top of you, it’s actually meaningless compared to the idea that the universe is so massive that it has no end. That puts it into perspective, doesn’t it? All of those things you fear, they mean absolutely nothing. I think in a way, it’s quite lovely, really takes the weight off, doesn’t it?

If you have those fears, which everyone has, you can probably let go of them. In a weird way it aligns a lot with punk rock. People say, “Oh, I’m afraid people are going to laugh at me,” but who cares? Who cares? In 10,000 years, they won’t be there and you won’t be there and all that’s going to be left is the bacteria and they don’t care either.