Approaching The Singularity: Melting Hand Interviewed

Ahead of their performance on The Quietus stage at Desertfest this weekend, Joseph Mumford speaks to Melting Hand about the alien properties of playing live and their upcoming second album

It’s not hard to imagine what you’re in for with Melting Hand. Featuring members from such esoteric noise and psych Titans as BONG, Luminous Bodies, Wharves and Terminal Cheesecake, they’re a veritable supergroup for the heads. Indeed, they semi-jokingly describe themselves as such: “a psych dirge supergroup four piece from Newcastle, London and France”, to be exact.

Their last record, 2016’s High Collider, was a proper freakout. Guitars smothered in fuzz and screaming into an endless void, hulkish basslines that groove as much as they stomp, and drums so powerful they could probably give you flail chest.

Ahead of a performance on tQ’s curated stage at Desertfest this weekend, we caught up with members Mike Vest (BONG, Blown Out) and Gordon Watson (Terminal Cheesecake, Luminous Bodies) for a quick chat about what’s going down in the Melting Hand camp.

How are you both?

Gordon Watson: Approaching the singularity.

Mike Vest: Mellow, with a hint of being well spun out. And busy. But in a good way I guess.

Can you tell me how you guys all met and decided to form Melting Hand?

GW: We’ve all known each other for a while from our other bands playing the same gigs and festivals, using the same rehearsal spaces, recording studios. I remember that Mike wanted ‎to play in a band with Russell [Smith – of Terminal Cheesecake and Skullflower]. I wanted to be in a band with Mike, being a big fan of his playing, and I wanted a chance to play bass instead of guitar. No chords, four strings, stick to the same sequence of notes, turn off the noise of thought and just groove. I’m in Terminal Cheesecake with Russ and Luminous Bodies with Tom Fug, so it was easy to get it together. Tom’s an amazing drummer! It’s a shame that Russell’s not currently involved; hopefully he’ll be back, but he lives in France so it’s difficult for him to play regularly in the UK. He’s busy with new closer-to-home projects – check out Plasticface. We also asked Marion Andrau (Underground Railroad) to add some guitar. In a twist of cosmic coincidence, Marion is French, but lives in East London. Wayne Adams (Big Lad, Pet Brick) is joining us at Desertfest too. As well as playing in his own bands, he runs the Bear Bites Horse recording studio in Haggerston. We recorded both High Collider and the new LP – whatever it’s going to be called: The Many Faces Of Earth? – there and Wayne gets involved with playing on the recordings as well as engineering them. He laid down some gnarly synths and will be doing that again onstage.

MV: I’ve been a big fan of Terminal [Cheesecake] and Skullflower from an really early age. They switched me on to a whole world of awesome noise rock music, so meeting Gordon, Russell, John and Dave was great. It came together really easy.

What do you mean by a ‘psych dirge?’

MV: I’ve always hated labelling, pushing bands into groups – but [psych-dirge] seemed to fit at the time. We use cheap smashed guitars, old combos, solid-state amp heads. Blast them to pieces. There is a lot of ‘psychedelic’ rock that’s very straight, really unmoving and made for radio. We didn’t want to be lumped in with all that, I guess. Don’t think that would be a problem anyway.

What’s so good about jamming?

MV: The freedom to be as expressive as you want. We all improvise a lot in all our bands. It keeps things interesting. It can be like walking a knife-edge live, everything could go wrong at any moment. I like the rush.

GW: It’s a big subject but it all boils down to an imaginary conversation with aliens on a stage, like at the end of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Mike’s one of those glowing geezers with the long arms and Tom’s a machine elf. I’m not sure I’ve played enough with Marion and Wayne yet to work out what entities they are, but I’m getting the feeling that Marion’s an ethereal plasma floating in an astral realm and Wayne’s an 8-bit Predator in Tron-world.

Your last live release,Live in Europe 2016 contained two performances, both with the same setlist bar the last two songs being switched around. It was interesting to listen and hear that they both sounded totally different anyway. What is your approach to playing live, and how do you think this sort of thing occurs?

GW: Again, it’s all alien encounters, antennae, feelers… invisible tendrils snaking through the space and time between us.

MV: We all roughly know the changes and dynamics of each song. But what’s in between, those points are totally improvised.

Is it important to separate live music from recorded music?

GW: I’m not sure it is. The old idea that a live instant composition – jamming as you call it – disappeared as soon as it escaped the ear of the audience doesn’t apply in an age of total surveillance. Now everything has the potential to haunt you for the rest of your life. Obviously the two have different vibes: the recorded version offers the illusion that you can keep working on it until it’s right, but as you add layer after layer, edit, chop and change and still don’t make a decision, you begin to understand that this is just a chimera. Perhaps the spontaneous version is all that matters?

MV: Couldn’t have said it better. I love live albums. That flash in time, recorded.

How does the dynamic within Melting Hand differ from those of your myriad other bands – BONG or Luminous Bodies for example?

GW: In Luminous Bodies I write a lot of the music, most of the lyrics, and I’m the ‘frontman’, so I feel under more pressure than with Melting Hand. Playing bass with Tom Fug’s drumming in Melting Hand is an intense experience of being simultaneously relaxed and totally focused – see The Path To The Deathless by Ajahn Sumedho. That’s completely different to the experience of fronting Luminous Bodies, bristling with an energy, right on the edge of collapse. Both are flying but one’s calm floating and the other’s terrifying free-fall.

MV: I feed off each member’s musicianship. The better the player, the more I can do. Tom is an awesome drummer, Gordon can play anything, and so on. Everyone wants to be there and puts their all into every performance. I respect that more than anything. I’ve played with a few musicians that just do the bare minimum to get by, which can be soul crushing for me.

Gordon, can you tell me a bit about the label you run, Hominid Sounds?

GW: Yeah! The label’s run by Wayne, Matt Ridout (Casual Nun), Graham Dyer (legendary gig-goer) and me. We’ve been putting out stuff for just over a year now and it’s going just the way we wanted it to. Our plan was – and is – to put out records and tapes by underground bands we like and make enough money back to finance the next release. We’ve got some right bangers, nodders and weirdos roughly in the rock, punk, electronic and free jazz genres. The latest is by Newcastle’s Blom. Check us out on Bandcamp!

What was recording the new album like? Was there anything you did differently from your previous record, High Collider?

GW: The process was the same: Tom and I rehearsed our parts alone until we could provide the others with a solid bedrock to work on. Then we rehearsed the band together and went in to record – one day, mostly first takes. The main differences have been that the band at that time was just Mike, Tom and me. This meant that I put some of the guitar down as well as bass and that, over a few weeks, we’ve had overdubs come in from all over the place. Tom and I working together, Mike and Marion recording individually and we’ve also had contributions from Sinead Young (Lower Slaughter) and Jonny Halifax (& The Howling Truth) from their own studios that are pretty special. We’re still working on stitching all the bits together with Wayne.

All members play in bands from the weirder end of the spectrum, and Melting Hand are the epitome of transcendentally noisy music – is it safe assume your next record isn’t going to be piano ballads?

GW: Actually the new album sounds a bit calmer than High Collider in places. There’s plenty of weird shit in there, and all-out noise, and there’s some Can-like funk and jazz grooves that weren’t on the first one. We’ve covered Joe Henderson’s ‘Earth’ from the ’73 album The Elements. It’s quite the epic, including Ken Nash’s narration read by Sinead. I foolishly attempt to interpret the great Charlie Haden’s bass. Really, I should have known better!

Mike, you describe yourself as an experimenter in ‘maximalist guitar’. I can make an educated guess at what you mean here, but can you elaborate?

MV: All of my music, bands and projects all involve the extreme side of guitar playing. Everything on full, heavily effected and distorted. Ultrasonics are only achieved only through maximum output. It seemed like a fitting title at the time.

Gordon, in an interview with Echoes and Dust from a few years ago you mentioned your intention to get ‘much more involved in civil disobedience’. Successful?

GW: No, I failed.

You guys have both played Desertfest before in different bands. What do you like about the festival?

MV: Desertfest are really accommodating with equipment, plus the crew at all stages are really attentive to detail during soundchecks and pre-show setup. I really love some of the ale in The Black Heart as well, nice drop and selection.

What can be expected from your set at Desertfest next weekend?

GW: Mostly stuff from the forthcoming album, with extra Wayne Adams. My bottom-end will be rumbling and fuzz-soaked (unless I get some Imodium). Mike’s guitar will be soaring and slicing your inner space. Tom’s drums will be simultaneously sublime and thunderous. Marion’s guitars will be icy and drenched in reverb. Wayne’s synths will be twisting and drilling like a spice worm. We’ll be doing as much as we can to ride a wave of cosmic bliss, if that’s at all possible on a Friday afternoon in The Black Heart with a stage manager hurrying us up.

MV: New songs, feedback, grooves and a general air of waster blues.

Melting Hand perform at Desertfest this Friday on the The Quietus stage at The Black Heart. For more info and tickets, visit the Desertfest website.

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