Men As Machines: An Interview With Officers

Having collaborated with artist Start Semple, and recently worked and toured with Gary Numan, Leeds-based four piece Officers have been finding ways to bridge the physical and electronic worlds. Dom Smith caught up with the band's Jamie Baker to discuss the importance of blurring those lines

Leeds-based four-piece Officers are ambassadors for a crossover sound, blending frayed electronics with affecting rock instrumentation and ghostly ambience, tempting the listener to wish to become some sort of human/machine hybrid, just so they could make music that sounds even a little bit like this. As he sits down to discuss their music, guitarist Jamie Baker is open about the ideas behind Officers’ debut self-produced album On The Twelve Thrones – mixed by Dave Bascombe (Depeche Mode) and Death In Vegas’ Tim Holmes – and the wires that pulled together to electrify this machine-rock monster.

Sonically, Thrones is diverse; Mosquito hits hard as the kind of dark, punchy tune that Marilyn Manson might try to write on his best day – it’s all snarling guitars, stomping beats and cutting synth elements. ‘Another Long Year’, meanwhile, is a chilling effort that would put many of last year’s much-mooted ‘witch house’ acts to shame.

And beyond the music, Officers have developed an ongoing relationship with contemporary artist Stuart Semple (who has previously worked with Lady Gaga and The Futureheads), with the aim of giving their music a greater visual impact, and harking to the importance of holding a physical product from your favourite artists in your hand (whether that be a tape, book, disc or other item of band-related paraphernalia). During last year’s Frieze Art Fair, Semple and the band set up an installation within London’s Rough Trade East, which led visitors through the shop to enter a matt black shack, where they could listen to the album in a small enclosed space.

Everyone involved held this desire for impact close to their collective heart during the making of the album in 2011, and that same positive approach has continued recently, as the band have worked with the CALM charity while also collaborating and performing with Gary Numan through May and early June on his Machine Music Tour. Baker discusses is first meeting with Stuart, and the importance of blurring lines between art and music in 2012.

How did you first meet artist Stuart Semple?

Jamie Baker: Stuart and I actually first met outside Rough Trade East, so it was fitting that our first installation together took place there. Stuart was working on a big exhibition [Fake Plastic Love] at the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane at the time. We just got on really well and ended up spending the day together. It was inspiring for me to see the work that went into it, even before I got to see the paintings. It reminded me of what goes on behind the scenes in a band, and the amount of work or help from people that goes into making a record or show that no one sees.

There has been a lot of talk recently about music on its own not being enough to promote a band, is that what the incorporation of art is for you?

JB: Music and art have always married together for the obvious reasons – but it’s not about it being a promotional tool for us, and I have never intended it to be. We have always kicked against the trends around us, even if when we have liked them. On the face of it, we couldn’t have made the promotion any more difficult for ourselves! Stuart handmade a promo CD that was taped shut; we wrote a PR document that told people nothing about us, or how the album sounded; Stuart’s limited edition prints were blow-torched and screwed closed. We are coated with talcum powder in our photos, and our name isn’t on the front of the album.

At the Rough Trade installation, we screwed shut the door to the shack and cut a hole in the house so anyone had to crawl through it to listen to the record. Everything I’ve done with the social networking sites has always been low-key, and we haven’t played live. It’s definitely more than a promotional exercise. It’s about trying to let people get immersed in our world a bit more, listen to the record and then make their own decisions. We always wanted the art side to be real though, and something that everyone could enjoy without it being elitist.

What were some of the biggest challenges pulling On The Twelve Thrones together, and working with Stuart on the Rough Trade installation last year for its release?

JB: We took the decision very early on that if we wanted to be able to do what we wanted to, it would mean having complete control. The downside of this being that there would be no label to finance it. So, the challenge there was that things would take longer than we would have liked. Doing it ourselves and with limited budget spurred us on though to be even more creative and think a bit deeper by using what we have – the constraints became the tools.

The shack installation was a labour of love for us all. Getting inside it at Rough Trade really took us back to the time when you listened to the records you’d bought and sat at home on your bedroom floor taking it in. Stuart thinks it’s probably the biggest piece of music packaging he can think of, and I’d have to agree with him!

Two Officers and the Nume

You’ve just collaborated with Stuart Semple for a second time on a release with Gary Numan on vocals called ‘Petals’ for the Campaign Against Living Miserably – can you talk us through what the charity means to you?

JB: Absolutely. Suicide among 35-year-old males is one of the biggest killers in the UK at the moment. There’s this stigma attached to mental health, especially within males and the bravado that’s naturally there; they don’t always know where to turn, and CALM offers essential support and advice. Hopefully, the track that we’ve done together will help to raise exposure for their work.

Your literature reads that you want to "make machines sound like humans, and humans sound like machines". Tell me more.

JB: I have always been interested in making things sound different to what they are supposed to and pushing them to their limits. I’m obsessed with pedals and trying new things and I find it pretty boring when new bands and artists try and sound exactly like the past. When you listen to stuff like the end of ‘The Competition Winner’ or ‘Mosquito’, the FX chain that was going on and the modulation required was so insane that I was playing the parts and operating pedals while Matt [Southall, vocals] and Stu [Drinkall, synths] had to operate others. We’ll never get it to sound like that off the record but it’s a perfect stamp in time!

There are loads of moments like that [on the album]. There’s some parts that sound like they are played by guitars that are actually synths and vice versa. It made things more interesting and challenging to do, but it makes it more satisfying and contributes to what makes us sound like us.

How did the Numan Machine Music Tour go?

JB: Amazing. We couldn’t really ask for anything more. We had a real connection with Gary’s family. It was great to have him watching behind us while we were playing every night, and then seeing all of his tweets about how much he loved our show. This was all about the right people working together and having a mutual love and respect.

What are you working on currently?

JB: Gary is currently in Los Angeles, so when he gets back we are hopefully going to be releasing ‘Petals’ officially. We’re doing some European festivals later this year and booking some more dates for our own tour. We are working on our second album right now, developing ideas for how it will look and sound. We also want to develop further concepts with Stuart, and look into doing some film scores which is a dream for myself and Matt, while expanding on our own label Original Wall Of Death and putting out other artists.

For more on Officers, head to their website.

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