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Escape Velocity

Feel The Buzz: An Interview With Mosquitoes
Jennifer Lucy Allan , March 16th, 2021 09:20

Jennifer Lucy Allan takes apart Clive Phillips, Peter Blundell, and Dominic Goodman’s trio to unpick how they’ve built their distinctive no wave by negation, and gathered a small and dedicated fanbase on the way

Mosquitoes live by Laurent Orseau

Mosquitoes are a band best described through what they are not. They are no wave by negation; post punk but only at a push, and are more This Heat or DNA than Orange Juice. They are not rock or punk, although they have drums, guitar, bass and vocals; they are certainly not jazz, although like free improvisation there is an ambition to escape genre. They are like Mars in some respects, but make Live At Artist’s Space sound like a Gang Of Four best of. They have also been compared to US Maple, Nate Young’s Regression series, and German industrial group P16.D4.

These comparisons are however, stretched to their threadbare limits when subjected to Mosquitoes’ suffocating absence of footholds, their abandonment of the scaffolding of lyrics, riffs and regular rhythms but retention of whirr and rattle, fatigued industrial textures, wordless vocals, echoes, clangs and thuds.

They have captured some of the no wave palette in hollow production treatments; the ricocheting reverb of analogue dub; they are experimental in the sense in which everything without verse and chorus is experimental in some way or another, but are also not experimental, because after years of playing together, Mosquitoes know exactly what they are doing. Now, five years after their first 7” was released, they have a small and committed following in underground circles, and while they have turned heads and sold out short runs of their EPs to experimentally-preoccupied fans, they have also resisted becoming any sort of scene band – they’d have to play live a bit more for that.

I first met Mosquitoes, the trio of Clive Phillips (drums), Peter Blundell (voice and bass guitar), and Dominic Goodman (guitar and electronics) in person last summer, in the shadow of Zaha Hadid’s Olympic pool during the brief hot freedoms of summer 2020. Prior to that interview, there had been little information about them online – I knew little more than their recorded output and their band name, which always appears on sleeves in Blundell’s bold freehand type. This was a glorious absence of context, the sort that doesn’t come around much nowadays for a band with a handful of records out, even if technically, haven’t ever released a full-length album.

Today, I am speaking to them all separately (and remotely), to parse their sound and triangulate the sensibilities that form their distinctive push and pulling apart of the not-quite-post-punk palette. In person last year, the conversation had pinged in half-finished sentences between each member, a stream of consciousness from three individuals, but talking to them apart reveals the contribution and character of each – Blundell is literary, the organiser, and prone to explosive bursts of laughter; Phillips is an obsessive editor who wants to strip everything back to almost nothing, but with whom it’s hard to get a word in edgeways; Goodman is the mediator when it comes to artwork, a sort of thoughtful magpie for texture, space, and restraint.

The absence of information is intentional, but is not intended to be cryptic. Instead, it is an extension of their refusal to put anything out they don’t feel absolutely necessary, because originally, nothing was ever supposed to be out there at all. “In the early days ‘mysterious’ was attached to us quite a lot,” says Goodman, “but it was more about being very controlled about how we wanted to communicate and for all those communications to be worthwhile.”     

Mosquitoes never intended to release music or play live – they were just friends with shared interests at first. Phillips and Blundell knew each other from art school in the 1990s, and then Phillips introduced Goodman and Blundell at a Fushitsusha gig in 2012. They talked so much about art and film and music, at some point someone suggested they make some, so they started playing as a trio. Goodman describes those early sessions as a “freedom bubble” of music-making, but one where they spent three years refining a vocabulary of sound. Only Blundell had ever played in bands before, with musician (and Café Oto sound engineer) James Dunn, in a duo called Temperatures.

The story of their first single release could be from another era entirely. MOS001 was a two-track self-released 7” pressed in an edition of 100 in 2016. The motivation was to document what they’d been doing, but Phillips says he also ‘didn’t want to die without ever having released a record’. They pressed 100 copies, watched it get cut in Hackney and handmade the artwork. Then Phillips “bounded up to Rough Trade on Talbot Road” with ten copies under his arm. They took the lot on the spot. Some made it over to the US where Byron Coley and others took note, and people pricked up their ears this side of the pond, too (the 7” now goes for just under £100 on Discogs). That was supposed to be the end of it.

Afterwards, Goodman temporarily stepped back due to work commitments, but Phillips and Blundell continued recording – to cassette – with Goodman later being dragged back to contribute overdubs, with the result an EP known just as MOS002 (which has just been reissued by World of Echo). MOS002 was then followed by two 12”s that were almost albums: 2018’s Drip Water Hollow Out Stone, whose title is effectively a poem describing the sounds it contains, then Vortex Veering Back To Venus’ six agitated, grumbling tracks, released in 2019. A 7” followed on Swedish label I Dischi Del Barone, and last year another almost-album, a 45RPM 12” of nine sketches called Minus Objects. As well as the March reissue of MOS002, a new two track 12” EP will be out in April on Belgian label Knotwilg records – two tracks that top the ten minute mark. One track opens with Blundell vocalising syllables and closes with an uncharacteristically cathartic cacophony, the other throbs with industrial menace. Blundell and Goodman also record as a duo in a separate project called Komare, where they make oppressive maws of sound. They have released an EP and a full length since 2018.

The years of playing together before releasing anything meant that Mosquitoes’ sound was already lean by their first release, sinew and muscle sculpted and toned. Goodman also puts this down to them coming to music a bit later in life. However, when they first began it was a different story: a long process of brutally and systematically removing elements. Phillips remembers being alarmed by the number of pedals Goodman unpacked at an early session – “more pedals than the Tour de France” he joked. But then he watched Goodman pull up a chair or crouch over his guitar on the floor and pull sounds from it that Phillips says made him sit up and think again: “The noise that was coming out the guitar was incredibly inventive,” he recalls. “I thought, oh yes, I'll have some of that!”

Goodman says one of the ways he thinks about their sound is in terms of holding space, but his inspirations for this come as much from film or art as music. He mentions filmmakers Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr, and Carlos Reygadas: “I feel like you learn about what it means to hold a moment from how long they can hold a shot,” he explains. “In art, I think about someone like Richard Serra and the way he works with materials – simple materials, but their presence – when you stand next to the sculptures their weight gets you thinking about how those emotions are created. It all filters back.”

They have a habit of taking notes on scraps of paper that become spread around their rehearsal space. Blundell says: “If you were a fly dropping in on Mosquitoes recordings there will be all the equipment, and then around the edges there would be pen and paper to write things. I think it's even unknowable to us what role they play, but there's this need to write things down and account for what's going on.”

These notes can be words or instructions, but are no longer lyrics. The two tracks on their first 7” are about physical deterioration and mental deterioration respectively, and are the only recordings with lyrics (based on two books by Scottish writer Janice Galloway and the final book by a neglected English author called Christine Brooke-Rose). Blundell’s vocal now has become “a dynamic of composition, rather than a texture that's on top of things,” he says, and he’s been listening to musicians who work with bodily, or extended vocal techniques, such as Ka Baird and Joan La Barbara. He now vocalises in repetitive explorations akin to sound poetry; gasps and shudders, and a sort of incantatory grasping at language. “I'd call it an utterance, rather than trying to communicate,” he explains. “It's dealing with communication but not necessarily communicating something specific. We've explored space more, and as a result everything becomes more heightened, including the vocals, so they have to become more about occupying a sonic space.” 

It is perhaps more appropriate to think about Mosquitoes’ sound in terms of a vocabulary. “We love the word ‘accents’ for what we do,” Phillips says, “but if you listen very carefully, you'll hear a lot of those accents are slightly off, which gives it a jarring or unnerving effect. Sometimes I think, maybe that could have been a bit tighter? But actually no, no – we want to leave it as it is.”

Phillips says most drummers wouldn’t even describe what he uses as a drumkit – it’s a kick, a de-snared snare (meaning he has taken the snare springs off) and a ‘very nice’ crash: “That's it,” he says. “The snare is off underneath, so whether you can even describe it as a snare is debatable but in doing that I’m immediately changing the sound, the perceived sound, I’m editing straight away. I always talk about editing as we're playing, deciding what to put in and what to leave out. It's not a wild jam, I’m thinking as I’m doing it – and that starts with my kit being restructured.”

Phillips wasn’t in any bands before (nor was Goodman, although he played guitar) but remembers the joy of sitting behind a kit in a friend’s heavy metal band and whacking ‘anything and everything’. For him, Mosquitoes was a challenge, to try and escape the conventions of drumming in various genres: “I thought, it's still going to be rock music if it's got that ruddy great rock beat behind it, you know? There’s nothing wrong with that, but that was the first thing to go.”

He sometimes jokes to Blundell that it’s time to get some drumming lessons: “It drives him crazy,” Phillips laughs, “he says ‘don’t you dare! It would ruin you!’”

There is a minimalism in Mosquitoes’, which is not immediately obvious in the tangle of sounds that elsewhere might be used as noisy augmentations, considered unwanted artefacts, features of sloppy recording or the leftovers from cacophonous industrial music. Some of these are the product of Goodman’s ear for serrated timbres pulled from his guitar and electronics; feedback created by daisy-chained pedals, background hum and grating metallic strings. Others are to do with the way they’re recording Phillips’s drums, which can be dull and far away or harsh and springy. Blundell switches disorientingly between wet and dry vocal mics, and his bass is the only thing not pestered by distortions. Phillips says they ask: “If something interferes, is it good interference or bad interference? Everything affects something else, and it can be a plus or a minus. Drum stools always have a squeak, and you hear of control engineers yelling about getting rid of the squeak on the drum stool – but I like squeaks, leave it in! Maybe I’ll mic up the squeak!”

Their love of stripping things back is about orderliness in the sense that there is nothing extraneous. What’s left is their core sound, which Blundell describes as the result of taking everything apart and only keeping what’s necessary. “To understand things, you take them apart,” he explains. A reference that comes up talking to both him and Goodman is experimental writer David Markson. Blundell sends me his creative dictum after we talk, and it could equally be a description of Mosquitoes: ‘Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.’

Phillips describes Mosquitoes’ editing in terms of painting: “If you look at a photorealist painting, all the detail is there – it’s incredible, technically perfect,” he says. “You admire someone’s technique, and they certainly have talent, but it can leave you strangely unmoved. Then, you look at something like Velázquez, and he can do it all of course, an incredible technician, those amazing details like teardrops and reflections – but there's an arm or a hand, and there's no detail in it. Of course, it doesn’t spoil the painting, it adds to it. It’s about purposely leaving out information.” 

Both Phillips and Goodman separately express the fact that there’s too much information around, and they don’t feel the need to add to it. Goodman says he wants to think carefully about why they put certain things out there, whereas for Phillips, he feels overwhelmed with the amount of information that’s around generally, about which he is apologetic and charming: “I know age is a lot to do with it,” he says, “but bands come out and they give you their life stories. I think let people judge – they hear the music, and they like it or they don’t.”

The future of Mosquitoes is always up in the air – they are all keen to retain the sense of freedom and exploration they had when they started, but it sounds unlikely there will be many more live shows. The energy is palpable though, the enjoyment of this thing they do together, and an attachment to its purpose as something fun, exploratory, inventive, creative. “The agenda is very different to wanting to be a rock and roll star and touring the world,” Phillips says laughing, “we all want to leave something for posterity! But it's very much three friends coming together and digging the same stuff, with lots of overlaps, and underlaps too,” he enthuses. Goodman echoes this sentiment: “I'm always split between, maybe we've recorded the last thing we'll ever record together, other days I think maybe we'll be recording another 20 years. Either way, that's fine! We'll carry on while it makes sense.”

Reverse Drift – Reverse Charge by Mosquitoes is out on April 6 & Mosquitoes s/t 10” is out now on World Of Echo