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Cue The Noise: An Interview With The Utopia Strong
Patrick Clarke , September 11th, 2019 08:55

Kavus Torabi, Michael J. York and former snooker player of impeccable taste Steve Davis have formed a new band, The Utopia Strong. Here, they tell Patrick Clarke the tale of their extraordinary debut album, compare snooker to Supernormal, and explain why they want their music to be joyous and generous

Photos by Al Overdrive

Interviewing Kavus Torabi, Michael J. York and Steve Davis about their band, The Utopia Strong, feels a little bit like talking to three teenagers who’ve just had their first single played on the radio. You’d never guess that Torabi and York are musicians of considerable standing with the likes of Coil, Gong, Current 93, Knifeworld, Teleplasmiste, Guapo, Cardiacs and more on their CVs, or that Davis was the most dominant force in snooker throughout the 1980s, the fourth-greatest player in the sport's history on the all-time rankings and a man who once single-handedly organised and promoted a three night residency for French prog-leviathans Magma just so he could see them play. The three are giddy with excitement for the release of their self-titled debut album on September 13, forever interrupting each other to poke gentle fun, constantly in hysterics at each other’s jokes.

“It really did feel like finding your best mates at school,” Torabi says, beaming. “Three is a funny number for friends, sometimes you get two people who are always in competition, but we got on so well together. Steve’s girlfriend describes The Utopia Strong as the sound of three guys falling in love!”

“It’s pathetic, isn’t it?” Davis laughs. “I’ve just had my 62nd birthday and all I’m looking forward to is when my album comes out! What fun that I can do that. It’s so easy to become tired with life, but the thrill of this has given all of us such a boost. From my perspective I didn’t think I’d get as much enjoyment from anything in my life in a work capacity once I’d retired from playing snooker.”

York and Torabi knew each other from their time together in experimental rock group Guapo, while Davis met Torabi in the early 2000s at a Magma gig in France. After striking up a friendship, Davis invited him to guest on his radio show The Interesting Alternative, which then blossomed into a regular double act and subsequently a DJ partnership. It was at Glastonbury 2017, where the two were playing records, that they and York first converged. “We were getting a bit sick of camping,” Torabi tells it. “I said ‘My mate Mike’s got a beautiful cottage just up the road, we could go there instead.’ That’s where the three of us met as a unit, and we had such an incredible time.”

They got on well. In York Davis says he found another kindred spirit, even if the musician hadn’t the faintest knowledge of his snooker career - “Who, the Magma fan?” York jokes – and all three quickly bonded over their shared and intense love of music. “We’re all into weird music that immediately seems quite accessible and generous and welcoming, but then when you start scratching beneath the surface there’s an awful lot to keep you engaged,” York describes.

Torabi agrees. “I think that’s it, all three of us are very ‘active’ listeners, for want of a better word. We really listen to music very intensely, and I think we brought that to [the band]. There are things that The Utopia Strong does that are extremely psychedelic and very engaging, and like Mike said very generous. We didn’t want it to be mean or difficult, we wanted to make something dense and polyrhythmic, but generous as well.”

A year previously, Davis had been turned on to modular synthesisers while watching Teeth Of The Sea’s Mike Bourne supporting Sly And The Family Drone at Café Oto with his side project Hirvikolari. “I wasn’t there to see Hirvikolari, but all of a sudden I’m watching Mike Bourne playing this box of wires and lights and I thought ‘that looks fun!’” he remembers. He struck up a conversation with Bourne, and before long acquired some equipment of his own, messing around and experimenting purely for his own enjoyment. “[Modular synth] requires being able to listen well, but you don’t necessarily need the dexterity… it’s so much fun!” There were no plans to form a band or play live, not even when he first started jamming with York and Torabi; again, it was just for the fun of it. It was simply a slice of luck that York decided to rudimentarily record what happened, and when they listened back they were so impressed that they started to think further ahead.

“Because the friendship came first, and we all really loved hanging out together, the band and making the album became a really good excuse for the three of us to just hang out together. We started to discover how much the three of think about music in the same way, especially when we were listening back to it,” Torabi says. “We spent the rest of the year listening a lot, deciding what to add and subtract. It wasn’t until after we’d finished it and we got Rocket saying they were gonna put it out that we went back to actually playing together. Once Rocket were interested it was suddenly ‘wait, what’s the cover gonna be? How are we gonna do the photos? How do we present this well-known snooker player as looking like he’s in a psychedelic group?!”

Their first ‘gig’ was an improvisation at a modular synth convention in Bristol called Machina Bristronica. “I turned up carrying a harmonium and a guitar and I felt like I’d shown up at a vegan convention with a pig’s carcass!” Torabi remembers. The Utopia Strong’s first proper performance, meanwhile, was at The Crow’s Nest at this year’s Glastonbury.

“We clashed with The Cure,” says Davis in his finest Romford deadpan, “which was unfortunate for them.” Playing live, he says, “was a journey into another world. The nerves are indescribable and in a different way to the snooker world, but at least I was with two professionals. There are probably not many bands who could say their first proper live gig was at Glastonbury. There are not many bands that haven’t had live gigs but get a record deal, and there’s not many bands that didn’t intend to make a record and still ended up with one. The whole thing is arse about face, really, it’s totally surreal from all our perspectives, even though Kavus and Mike are professional musicians.”

It is important to note that although, as Davis says, he’s the only ‘non-professional’ musician, he is every ounce an equal part of The Utopia Strong’s artistic process. “Dexterity is important,” Torabi says, “but I can think of plenty of groups where you have amazing virtuoso players creating stuff that doesn’t sound like music to me, it sounds like playing. You end up with fucking Dream Theater. I find it very easy to add things to and to play over what [Steve] does. It struck me that so much of what makes music important really just comes from taste and judgement. What’s so nice about The Utopia Strong is we’re all listening to each other and as we’re creating this stuff we’re trying to imagine it as the bigger piece, even if it only means adding a small thing that moves it in a certain direction, all three of us are prepared to do that, and all three of us are prepared to back off if it’s going too far one way.”

The three of them have created an album of staggering weight, an immersive experience that transcends the initial shock that those more familiar with Davis’ impeccable snooker than his impeccable taste have expressed once discovering that he’s in a band. The centrepiece of the record, ‘Brainsurgeons 3’, road-tested at Torabi and Davis’ DJ sets, is a masterpiece of psychedelic joy, an amorphous, whirring landmark of a song that transforms from low, bubbling kraut into a transcendent intergalactic rush. ‘Konta Chorus’, meanwhile, named in reference to a man in a Magma crowd’s mispronunciation of their 1974 LP Köhntarkösz, grows increasingly more gorgeous as it progresses, crescendoing into a shatteringly beautiful cornucopia of texture.

The fact that Davis is so well-known for his snooker is a blessing and a curse for The Utopia Strong. There’s still a fair few comments online under their music expressing bafflement that Steve ‘Nugget’ Davis is in a psychedelic group, rather than genuine interest in the quality of the music. “The journey from snooker, to DJing, to the band has been incredible, and it is a good backstory that’ll get us better traction and spread the word, but on the other hand it can also be a liability if the music’s not good enough,” he says. “Which is why when Rocket [Recordings] said they were taking a punt on us we felt really delighted. We know full well, because they confided this in us, that when we gave them the CD they said to each other ‘we’re not touching this with a barge pole even if it’s average.’ They didn’t want to be seen to be novelty searching, and rightly so. When Rocket said yes, they wanted to do something we were like ‘Wow! It is good! Someone thinks it’s good!’ We felt really delighted.”

“I can’t think of any other label I’d rather be on,” Torabi adds. “We’ll be seeing Chris [Reeder, Rocket boss] later on this evening just to hang out. It’s like getting two more new friends. They completely get the music; I feel like they’re part of the gang too.”

That said, the music business had a shock or two in store for a former snooker megastar. “After we played the Glastonbury set, we had to get all of our gear back to the car, and Glastonbury being what it is this took a long time,” recalls Torabi. “We had to get transport to get so far on the site, then get picked up by another transport, but we just wanted to go out and party. At one point I think it was 12.30, it was getting chilly and miserable, and we were stood by a pile of all our instruments waiting for transport that hadn’t turned up. I remember saying ‘I don’t know what celebrity treatment you’re used to, Steve, but welcome to being in a band!’”

“I still can’t understand it,” Davis laughs. “I’m carrying things now! It’s terrible!”

“Hang on a minute, someone used to carry your cue?!” exclaims a dumfounded York.

On a more serious note, Davis says “I'm tapping into another part of myself doing music, compared to my snooker stuff. They feel very separate. Sport is a pursuit of perfection, and the only thing I can think of that would be equivalent is entering a music playing competition and trying to win it. Music feels more enjoyable. The pressure of trying to keep on performing and keep on hitting the ball straight is a drain that in the end starts to consume you. It’s black and white, sport. You win or you lose, and the only joy is when you win. But then again in music there’s other people’s subjective judgement of what is your baby. As yet, we haven’t had a bad review of any type, but of course if anyone reviews this badly I’m gonna have to go around to their house and ask them ‘Why! Why don’t you like this? I’ve poured my heart and soul into it!’ That’s something all musicians have to come to terms with, I guess,” he says laughing.

“I think when Killing Joke made their first record and it was badly reviewed, Jazz Coleman went into their office and threw dogshit around,” adds Torabi. “And I’ve got a dog…”

“You’ve been warned!” jokes York

“We’re just really proud of it,” Davis continues. “It feels like something we’re still pinching ourselves about.”

The Utopia Strong’s gang is clearly a delightful one to be a part of. You can tell from the simple pleasure of a conversation with them, and it’s reflected in their debut album too. It sounds like what the band were so eager to achieve, a dense and complex listen, but a generous and joyous one too. “For some reason given that Mike and I worked together in Guapo, and given that we’re all into some pretty dark-sounding, rehearsal intensive, dissonant music, I thought that before we got together it would be a lot more abstract and dissonant and avant-garde,” says Torabi. “But it came out sounding uplifting, generous and joyous. I’ve never done something so overwhelmingly ‘up’ as this before. I love it. It feels too corny to say it’s ‘healing’, but it feels like it’s putting some joy into the world.”

“That’s just our outlook on life,” concludes York. “It’s not necessarily how we see the current state of the world, because there’s an awful lot to criticise, but it’s about how you go about your day to day interactions with other people. I think we’re all just trying to share as much joy and fun and love with one another as possible with this one.”

The Utopia Strong's self-titled debut album is released on 13 September via Rocket Recordings. You can pre-order it here. They tour the UK in December, and you can find the dates here.

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