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A Quietus Interview

Collapsing Star: Robert Hampson Of Loop Interviewed
Jonathan Selzer , February 16th, 2022 09:34

Robert Hampson talks to Jonathan Selzer about Loop and Sonancy, the cult band's first album in over three decades. All portraits by Simon Holliday

“I’ve never been so fucking angry making a record.”

Sitting in his Leeds living room with a plain white wall behind him, devoid of the paraphernalia or instruments musicians tend to surround themselves on Zoom calls, Robert Hampson is trying to come to terms with a world that hasn’t just changed immeasurably in the 32 years since he last put out an album under the Loop banner, but one whose rapidly shifting coordinates and simultaneously heightened/numbing sense of dislocation feel beyond all of our grasp.

All of which suggests that his route back to one of the most seminal, synapse-rewiring yet strangely unsung bands to have burned themselves into the exploratory reaches of the late 80s and early-to-mid-90s indie scene – and the making of the new album Sonancy – wasn’t born out of nostalgia or a desire to reap the posthumous, millennial-amplified benefits granted to the likes of Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. Rather, it’s from an instinctive understanding that when Loop exist, they resonate. They corral us in our most liminal of states.

Affable, expansively and sometimes digressively chatty, but with a sharp, independent, adversarial edge in tune with both his South London roots and a set of personal marker points laid down many decades ago, Robert is clear that if Loop were a dystopian, psychedelic headfuck, it was also a response to getting fucked with.

“Even back in the day, I was fascinated with periods when things went bad, because it’s just the human condition. There was Altamont and Charlie Manson that signalled the death of the hippie dream, but it was the same with the acid rave scene, when that went bad, because all the drugs when bad. But now, there are much more realistic dystopian elements to deal with, like a virus that could literally wipe you off the face of the planet, and a political period of time where fascism is creeping in around the world and right-wing extremism is another plague that seems to be happening. It’s even worse than fucking Thatcher, and everybody knows how much I hated her. So it's weird for all this to happen in the making of this record. I would never have dreamt of it – I would never have thought in a worst case scenario about this stuff actually happening – and suddenly I'm actually making a record, and all this stuff that I'd thought about and talked about and wondered about for so long is actually happening.”

‘This Is Where You End’, ‘Fixed To Fall’, ‘Torched’, Fade Out… Loop’s trajectory was forever along the circumference of collapse. It’s still surprising to remember that their initial run only lasted for five years, the three albums they recorded between their inception in 1986 and 91 occupying a stretch of time that seems to exist in its own gravity well. Theirs was an hermetic mass of dark matter feeding off of rock’s most volatile and digressive energies yet never quite gaining purchase in any established canon.

Loop’s basic template was to marry the dark edge of 60s psychedelia, the death-trip riffage of The Stooges, and the warped, syncopated clockwork grooves of early 70s Krautrock. But rather than offer mere homage, the band fashioned a mesmerising, ritualistic sound, whose mantric grooves were bathed in layers of wah-wah, fuzz and frontman Robert Hampson’s spectral vocals, all giving off an unearthly radiance like the corona around a solar eclipse.

“Creating something new out of our influences was the whole point,” says Robert. “I made it clear that I loved The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, Can and Neu!, but the intention was to throw it all into the cauldron and see what came out of it, without trying to sound generic. It had a very inward, reflective nature to it all. I always like to think it was this collapsing star that sucked everything in around it, and with the repetition, and it just became this pulsing void. It was definitely its own planet and I think we were forgotten about.”

While Loop’s 1987 debut album, Heaven’s End, was a dizzying fever dream, chromatically filtered through a lysergic haze as it lapped up against the shores of consciousness, the 1989 follow-up, Fade Out was darker and more determined beast. This was psychedelia as a claustrophobic, perception-fugged pilgrimage, ‘Fever Knife’s perpetual, weary, hammer-fall groove slipped out of your grasp like a mind telescoping after one hit too many. The closing, purgatorial swing of ‘Got To Get It Over’ dissipated into endless stretches of cosmic radiation, collapsing into a void that had finally been articulated and invoked by its incessant demarcation.

Fade Out was the darkest of all of them,” Robert recalls, “and probably the most introspective. It had a very aggressive, brittle edge to it all. It was all very deliberate. I guess that was just part of the process of me always saying I don't want every Loop album to sound the same. I wanted it to sound like Loop, obviously, but I never wanted to keeps on making a facsimile of the record I did before.

“So if Fade Out got really dark, then [1990’s] A Gilded Eternity was like the other side. It wasn’t necessarily stepping into the light, but there was something positive about it – not necessarily uplifting but just another element that came in, that maybe not everything’s negative.”

If it feels strange ascribing qualitative attributes to Loop’s music – positive/negative, uplifting/bleak – it’s not just because their music was a state of being, never intended to be self-reflective or have an ego with reactive emotional needs at its core. It’s also because, like the eras bewilderingly fictionalised in Thomas Pynchon novels, say, Loop were always drawn to states of transition. They never drew the line between a moment going from good to bad, they inhabited the space in between: states of change that have a dynamic charge all their own. As Robert says, “I remember at the time saying it was like beautiful destruction. I don't always see destruction as being catastrophic, it’s part of rebirth.”

Loop burned out in 1991, Robert and guitarist Scott Dawson embarking on the project Main and later solo work, and bassist Neil Mackay and drummer John Wills going on to form The Hair And Skin Trading Company.

“We never ever fell out,” says Robert, “and that’s something I’m very happy about. But you can be with your best friends and still get sick of them, and we were just getting fed up with each other’s company. We were very tired from constant touring, and maybe there were some decisions made on our behalf that none of us were very happy about, but we kept quiet about it, not wanting to rock the boat. We lost our identity as being friends. We weren’t very communicative with each other at the end, so it was this disintegration, which is maybe what was needed. I don’t like bands that just go on forever, and even if we had stayed together, we probably wouldn’t have made more than one more record.”

If Hair And Skin siphoned off Loop’s groove and made it more concrete, Main was Loop’s afterglow, the sculptured atmospherics of the debut, conjoined EPs, Hydra-Calm, immersed in immaterial yet organic processes of ever-nascent wonder. Scott left in in 1996, but the band were already becoming increasingly abstract, Robert abandoning his guitar to focus on micro-tonalities and elements of found-sound musique concrète,

“I’ve never regretted splitting the band up, ever. I’m just as proud of Main. There was nobody else doing that at that time. You hear so many film soundtracks now, where you've got this very abstract sound design, almost in a non-musical context, and I think, fucking hell, I was doing this 20-30 years ago.”

Even if other artists, such as Godflesh (who had once counted Robert as a member) and The Telescopes had taken similar arcs, heading out into more atmospheric climes before resurrecting their original noise-saturated sound, the eventual return of Loop (the irony), wasn’t inevitable. Even when Robert was heavily involved in the reissues of Loop’s back catalogue on Reactor Records in 2008, he had little intention of picking up the guitar again.

“At that time it was definitely a no-no. People were chasing me to do the reissues, and the real justification was to remaster them, because the technology had come along in leaps and bounds since the 90s. I hadn’t listened to the back catalogue for so long, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. But it did start the ball rolling, because I started getting requests from people like All Tomorrow’s Parties, who specialised in getting bands back together again or to play albums in their entirety. Specifically with Loop, they wanted us to play A Gilded Eternity in full. I just said I'm really not interested, it's a lot of hassle and I'm not really one for going back on my past. But they just kept niggling at me, and in the end, I did have a kind of a moment where I just thought, 'Well, okay, we can give it a go.'”

Not only did Robert have to reassess and rekindle his relationship with Loop musically, it would involve trying to reconnect with his estranged former band members. “I just put it on the line and said, would you be interested, and they all said yes, and so we took it from there. I did say in an email that this was a chance to heal old wounds, but I don't think it was a revelation to any of us that it was only going to be for a very limited time. So we did it, I think it was 80% successful. I'm not going to get into a bitching match about the other 20%.”

But if Loop were destined to fall apart once more, the spark was lit. Simon Keeler, who’d worked on the reissues with Robert, suggested that if he was ever to reform the band once more, he should think about the members of Bristol psych rock band The Heads, a band clearly indebted to Loop.

“I really hadn’t thought about taking it any further at that time,” Robert admits. “It was so all encompassing, having to deal with ATP and stuff like that, it was more like, take one hurdle at a time. But it was only because it was falling apart, and it wasn't pleasant that I did think: I've invested so much time and energy into this, I really feel like doing it more. I wouldn’t say I was invigorated, but I just had a taste for it. I just thought, it could be done.

“I took straw polls with every fucking person I knew, just saying, would it be bad for me to keep Loop going without the others? And everyone was just like, what the fuck are you on about? You are Loop. They said, just be the new Mark E Smith. There are other examples of bands that have incarnations that don’t mean all of the original members are together, and some work, some don’t, give it a go.”

Bringing on bassist Hugo Morgan and drummer Wayne Maskell from The Heads, with Dan Boyd on guitar, the new Loop recorded a new EP, Array 1, in 2015 in collaboration with ATP, at the time the first of a projected three-part series, until the business got into financial difficulties before finally going into administration a year later. “It became very evident, almost as soon as we’d finished Array 1, sighs Robert, “that we weren't going to be doing #2 and #3.”

“After ATP folded, he continues, “it was a bit of a fallow period. It was so fucking typical of Loop; just as we built up some momentum and suddenly it was all gone. But I definitely thought: I can't just sit there and wait for something to happen, I've got to get creative myself. So after a while of thinking about it, I thought, I've just got to start writing material and see what happens with it.

With Cooking Vinyl picking up the rights, Loop started recording the full-length follow-up to A Gilded Eternity, only to enter into a world tilted fully off its axis.

"One of the reasons Sonancy is angry", he says, "is because I was so frustrated at how fucking long it took to make. Obviously COVID affected everybody, but we were making it under very difficult circumstances. We weren’t allowed in the studio together at the same time and things like that, and you can’t imagine how many train tickets I had to cancel, how many times I had to rebook the studio. And we've got this problem with vinyl production, so the hardest thing to accept for me right now is that when this record finally sees the light of day, it will almost be a year old, and I should be thinking about the next record by now. I didn’t think about this at the time, but in hindsight, the frustration actually helped the creative process and made it what it is."

If Array 1 brought echoes of Robert’s more experimental post-Loop work into the classic template, Sonancy is clearly a marker for a new era. Only exceeding the five-minute mark on central track ‘Isochrone’, its infinite permutations around locked grooves couldn’t be the work of anyone else, and yet this is a more streamlined, tensile manifestation. Still as mesmerising as falling through a fractal wormhole, still echoing across cranial hemispheres, there’s a pneumatic quality to the likes of ‘Eolian’, the looseness of previous albums recalibrated to, if not a state of immediacy, then a feeling that even in their temporal domain, time isn't there to be wasted. They are motored not by the playfulness of krautrock percussion but by tribal urging of post punk.

“I deliberately wanted to make a very tight record,” Robert confirms. “Loop is renowned for longer tracks and that much more drawn-out expanse of sound, and I wanted to strip that out, to create much more of a vortex. I won't deny that I thought very much about a post punk influence on it. Everybody knows that I love post punk, but I didn't want to copy anybody.’

Robert’s love of The Pop Group in particular is telling. Covering the band’s ‘Thief Of Fire’ back on 1988’s Collision EP they took a sound that was always teetering on the edge of collapse and fully subsumed it into their own, immeasurable universe. But, and to the surprise of Robert himself, post punk’s skeletal, edge-of-Armageddon itch and rictus funk has been making its way through the underground and alternative scenes for the past few years, from Beastmilk’s doomsday stomp through the white-knuckle, dustbowl gospel of Wovenhand’s Refactory Obdurate to indie bands such as Wet Leg and more. Why now?

“For me at least, it goes with the idea of wanting to make something much more succinct and tighter. So with that you have much more of a sense of urgency about things, and agitation at the same time. That’s pretty much what post-punk was all about.”

That seems a very relevant sensation for what we’re living through right now.

“Exactly. And for all the trials the band have been through, this couldn't have been made at a better time. It helped me incredibly to be feeling agitated and angry and fucked off, and worried about what the fuck is going on in the outside world.”

Not that Sonancy outwardly advertises itself as such. Whereas Loop titles were often masterclasses in self-description, the song titles here – ‘Eolian’, ‘Supra’, ‘Fermion’ – have a Main-level air of abstraction to them.

“I don't like anything that's really literal,” says Robert, “and the older I've got, the more I've thought about how I like the abstract nature of having these almost proto-scienctific or astronomical titles that are like an entity in themselves. They mean something, but they don’t tell you what you’re going to get.”

And yet the title Sonancy itself, means 'capable of producing sound’. Perhaps one inference to draw from it is that we do have a voice, that even in world of noise, refraction and distraction, we can still make ourselves heard.

“I think what you can say about the whole concept of Sonancy is that there is a sense of bleakness to it that hasn’t been there probably since Fade Out. But I still have a sense of that we can save something from it all. A lot of what I was trying to do with this record was to say it's not too late. There really is a sense of urgency in the way that we are dealing with everything on this fucking planet at the moment, and as a race of people.”

Sonancy is out on March 11