The Dread Magnificence Of Perversity: Teeth Of The Sea Interviewed

John Calvert talks to Teeth Of The Sea about sex, violence and D.I.S.C.O.

Photograph courtesy of Al Overdrive

In the back-room lounge of The Old Blue Last boozer sit three-quarters of London four-piece Teeth Of The Sea. And even if this is a fellowship of intrepid futurists – the enemies of nostalgia – and even if Jimmy Martin, with his bleach blonde hair and piercings has the aqualine look of a utopian android, there is something undeniably olde worlde about these musicians.

Teeth Of The Sea are part of a lineage of transgressive London eccentrics stretching back to Wilmot (John, not Gary). As I sit listening from across the table, conversation topics range from the lewd to the ever so lovely, from Lady Bumticklers Revels to the art of fine tea-making, with the repartee intimidating in erudition and exchanged in units of supersyllabic chicanery. These are what I’d like to call gentleman beasts; the kind of men who’ve loitered around the undercarriage of British culture since records began; the kind of men who’d give you first dibs on the clean-up towel then maybe read you a little Byron.

No mean feat in this day and age of endless reproduction, 2010’s universally acclaimed Your Mercury offered a take on psychedelia unlike any other that proceeded it – a uniquely British, uniquely anxious form of psychedelia which, in a review of the album in 2010, this writer described like so: “Epileptic, infinite and disturbance-vexed, the Londoner’s second LP sooner calls to mind the altered states of mental ill-heath: the band’s sublime delusions ferrying you to constructed worlds of the mind – touched, tasted and played in from the comfort of a hospital bed. In this way Your Mercury is less psychedelic so much as it is psychological. What use is a clear night sky for stargazing when the amber pollution is amplifying the voices in your head?”

These were some of the greatest stories ever told, stories of the city, set across an imagined London from the other side of now: where trumpet and noise music joined with guitar styles to form arching megastructures in the fading distance… cinematic, proud, and heartbreaking. Your Mercury is what happens when those from England’s north march on the capital and remake it in their own image.

Then there was silence. Then the stirrings of something completely different. Something a little Giorgio Moroder, and deeply kinky. And soon the stink of slapped ruddy flesh and dry mouths agape in swimming ecstasy shrouded the steel magnificence of Your Mercury in a blood-red loom of rubber coil. Darkness falls on the city, and the night-crawlers shuffle in that darkness; who are some of them human, and others humanoid.

Master, the band’s third and finest long player, blurs the lines between the abuse of technology and the exquisite abuse of the self; a fantasia of laser-streaked porno-prog and robot love, hungry of intent, rich in detail, and, from one moment to the next, never ever what you expect. The dandy tabooists have grown another whole size in dreadful tyranny; and don’t spare the nipple clamps – from the Berghain to the galactic blue beyond via New York City, 1975. Noise meets the destroyer’s dirty cosmonaut dreams on Master; and it’s Jesus-in-a-handbag levels of FUCKING ACE. Here’s Jimmy Martin, Mike Bourne and Mat Colegate to tell you all about it.

Was there a period of adjustment in terms of band dynamics as you continued to develop your new sound?

Jimmy Martin: Well, certainly what Mike did on Master in turn had the effect of pushing the rest of us towards a more electronic bent. But as for ‘a new sound’: in the past we’ve called ourselves a rock band only because it’s more convenient when explaining the band, but in actual fact the rock side and the electronica side have always existed side-by-side in our sound. And the same applies when it comes to Master.

Mat Colegate: From my perspective, because of the kind of electronics being used on Master I’ve had to drum very differently. As a drummer, when the actual pulse of the music is already provided by the electronics, as a consequence you’re forced to rethink your role in the track. It’s a bit like how in house music the introduction of the [Roland TB] 303 in turn had an effect on how bass players played. Often I’m drumming to loops on Master, meaning I’ve had to use space a lot more, or maybe act in a more percussive capacity, for want of a better term. It forces you to think a lot more about what you’re doing, rather than just pounding out a rhythm.

Does that same principle extend to the entire band? As in – instead of derived from a top-down, overarching concept the ‘Master aesthetic’ instead grew from the technology you’re using this time around.

MC: Yeah, and often using that technology wrongly.

How do you mean?

MC: Well, take psychedelia, which incidentally is a category critics tend to put TOTS into. If you were just to look at these so-called ‘nu-psych’ bands coming through now you’d think, "OK, so psychedelia is the 60s and guitars?" But it really isn’t. Those bands aren’t looking any further beyond the pre-packaged idea of psychedelia: that shallow idea of psychedelia as merely noodling [and] distorted guitars. It’s anything but. In truth, psychedelia was founded on the idea of technology [and has] been abused.

In what way?

JM: Well, OK, in terms of electronic music, one obvious example is the psychedelic misuse of the Roland machines in acid house. But when we say ‘technology’, we’re include in that the guitar itself.

MC: Yeah, if take it right back to the 60s and American bands like The Electric Prunes. You can almost date psychedelia from the point the Prunes started using VOX wah-wah pedal, after it came down in price from £100 to £50.

Yeah. There’s even Hendrix using feedback.

MC: Basically, I think that when it comes to technology, Teeth Of The Sea have always been of the opinion that it’s all about getting it wrong.

But speaking in practical terms, how does that play out in your music?

MC: Well, for example, I had no idea what I was doing when I bought a mixing desk, but fucking around one day I plugged the desk into itself and then ran the feedback through a vocal-delay pedal. And though I cant be certain, the resulting sound on Master is an original.


MC: But aside from anything, it was exactly the sound I wanted – which is the sound of ‘sick’.

Mike Bourne: In my opinion, I think you can chart the life of Teeth Of The Sea by the equipment we’ve used and the albums we were listening to at the time of making the respective records. When we were writing the debut [Orphaned By The Ocean], for example, we were listening to a lot of drone-y noisy rock records, then by Your Mercury we were getting into different stuff, including electronica. This time around, after Your Mercury Jimmy had bought Juno synths while I got a lot more equipment too, as did Mat – a lot of power electronics stuff.

What do you feel is lacking in contemporary rock music? Why I ask is because, to me, you’re endless compulsion to locate new sounds from genre-splicing smacks of a discontent with the status quo.

MC: Maybe. I suppose inevitably it does. But I’d also say that, more importantly, if our sound indeed does possess some quality of ‘other-ness’ then its a quality that has come instead from a contentedness with the way we write; which is a style we like to think is pretty unique.

JM: Otherwise, I don’t want to single anyone out for criticism, really.

OK, but maybe if you can instead pinpoint like, a certain trend, that irks you?

JM: Well, what I will say is that listeners are just as much to blame for the current state of mainstream music as the bands. I think a lot of people get into stuff simply because it reminds them of stuff they’ve heard before, rather than… genuinely looking for new sounds. I mean, i’m as guilty as anyone. I got into that thrash-metal revival a couple of years back. But you must always be vigilant of and stay resilient to nostalgia!

MB: Although I’m reluctant to ever play the tired old X Factor card in an interview, it’s bullshit that people blame Simon Cowell for ‘ruining music;. It’s not Simon Cowell’s fault, it’s the general public’s. Because they lap that shit up. You can find great music anywhere provided you’re willing look for it, but if you’re idiot enough to buy whatever is put in front of you then, well, fuck you, that’s what you deserve.

JM: But if I have an aversion to anything it’s less the myopia of contemporary rock music and more so the middle-brow consensus, represented by bands like Radiohead. I think the future of this music lies in in irreverence, in general but particularly in terms of influences, in that there should be a culture in music of throwing everything into the mix – flaunting your mess of sound without giving a fuck if the final combination is "bad taste".

Moving on, I’ve always seen Teeth Of The Sea as being unique in British rock in your ability to capture London. What has the city become for you in the three years since Your Mercury? And in turn, do you feel that whatever you have perhaps internalized is manifested on Master?

MB: Well I’ve moved. That’s different. [they laugh] I used to live in Finsbury Park and now I live in Clapton. It’s nicer.

MC: I think these kind of environmental influences work in far more arcane ways than you imagine, influencing you in ways that you don’t quite understand at the time. When it comes to Master, I’ve always felt that JG Ballard’s late-60s ideas on internal processes as architecture – tower blocks as spinal columns etc – are somehow relevant when you’re talking about the album. If London and it’s impression on Teeth Of The Sea is anywhere on Master, it’s there. It’s that idea of architecture as exoskeletons of the human condition… it just seems to fit the sound.

JM: Yeah, but JG Ballard didn’t like rock music, did he? One of life’s great tragedies.

MB: Yeah, Ballard was more about the gabba.

JM: We’re going to have four different verdicts on this, but I think for me I agree with Kevin Martin when he said that it’s the filth and chaos of London that inspires him.

Another new addition to the ToTS palette on Master is sex…

JM: C’mon. We’ve always been a sexy band.

MB: For God’s sake look at us.

But, but…in my mind there was never anything remotely carnal about your previous records, which were more spiritual and/or philosophical in nature. Can you account for this shift?

JM: Well, I dunno… what’s happened since Your Mercury? I suppose since then we started listening to a lot of disco.

MB: Yeah. Basically it’s all about the D.I.S.C.O.

MC: But particularly the thunderous, pumping music of Patrick Cowley!

But, how do you go from that to…

MB: Oh, and Sam [Barton, bass, brass, electronics] lost his virginity.

He lost his virginity?

MC: Yeah, during the making of Master.


MB: I myself trace the conversion back to that day Mat turned up at the studio wearing nothing but ass-less chaps, a leather jerkin and one single studded leather glove. For me, that was the turning point. From then on, things just got sexier.

MC: Yeah, I mean in the end we just had sex with each other.


[The band are laughing]

JM: Personally, I’ve always thought of sexuality as being the primary function of music. I mean, The Stooges’ Funhouse, to me, is the sexiest record ever made. But… I don’t know… if you start trying to make sexy music you end up sounding like fucking… Michael Bolton.

MC: Well, in my opinion noise music itself is sexy. That idea of pummeling waves of noise coming at you until you lose a sense of your own physicality, your sense of self – that’s a very sexy feeling, especially so when you’re in a room with a lot of other people.

As in, sex is, like, when…

MC: …when you make the primitive rhythm of the swamps, the point from which man and woman can never jointly return?


[The band are laughing]

But do you mean it’s like ‘sex as the opposite of cerebral?’

MC: Well, yeah, in the way that with sex, as with noise music, your inhibitions are… vanquished… by a kind of rhythm and force.

JM: It’s all about ‘the abject’. We always like to talk about ‘the abject’.

MB: Beyond that, I think Master is a more confident record, and I suppose confidence itself is sexy.

MC: And also Mike finally had the confidence to ask me out.

[The band are laughing]

So, you finally had sex with each other?

MC: It was about time

JM: I mean, we’d had sex before, but never with each other.

MC: Well, Sam hadn’t.

MB: You can’t say that. He’s not even here.

JM: Overall, you might say that Master is the sex scene from Cruising rather than the sex scene from Top Gun.

I’ve not seen Cruising.

JM: It’s an 80s movie, starring Al Pacino as an undercover detective investigating the underground gay scene in 80s San Francisco.

MC: We’re talking specifically about the club scene in the film, where Al Pacino basically takes a lot of poppers and loses his shit.


MC: Yeah, he just busts a massive deuce!

[The band are laughing]

MC: No, basically Al Pacino takes these poppers and goes nuts on the dance floor.

So what are you saying? You based the entire album on a scene from an 80s Al Pacino vehicle?

MC: Well, it’s a pretty powerful scene.

[The band are laughing]

JM: I mean, no, of course not.

MB: But, you know, seriously, there is something about that scene that encapsulates everything we we were trying to do on Master – the way the scene is oppressive, and also sexual. And then of course there’s the dance floor setting.


MB: By the same measure, you can never underestimate the influence Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds has had on this band. I mean, that’s a record that, yeah… is very much Teeth Of The Sea. Here you had one lowly guy’s epic, grandiose quest to do something really fantastic; and a record which uses all these different elements – crazy sounds that shouldn’t work together but, in our minds, do.

MC: And the way that there are moments when it’s touching, and at other times bombastic and overblown, and other moments again where it’s strange and alien – like during the stretches of weird FX.

MB: I mean, there’s even the genre-splicing. It’s all very Teeth Of The Sea.

This brings me to my next question. TOTS are known for taking a lot of inspiration from sci-fi cinema. But did you have a specific strain of sci-fi in mind as inspiration on Master?

JM: Um… no, not for Master. Not specifically. I mean, yeah, there’s always gonna be lot of cerebral sci-fi in there – stuff like Solaris, 2001 etc.

MC: As well as Möbius comics.

JM: But, y’know, OK… there’s a lot of THX-1138 and Solaris and bits like that in there, but at the same time there’s just as much Barbarella and Flash Gordon.

Ha. Yeah, that about says it all.

MB: But in general… any sci-fi except Moon. You’re talking to a band where all four members hate Moon.


Mat: By the same measure, there’s also stuff like Event Horizon and Alien. People always focus on sci-fi when it comes to us, but we’re also massive horror fans. Last year we did this alternative soundtrack for director Neil Marshall’s bloody, futuristic Doomsday, and the last ten minutes of the soundtrack is just us screaming as Sean Pertwee’s burning face plays on a loop, and we thought there was something inherently funny about that. And I suppose that same thinking informs Master. There’s something about putting disco and horror together that’s uniquely perverse.

Like, in the tradition of absurdity?

MC: Uh, yeah. I think the word we’d use is ‘ghoulish’. That sums up Master.

That’s perfect.

MC: Also, it’s worthwhile noting that the influence of horror on our sound is more than just ideological in nature. The way in which the tracks on Master ‘move’ – the breaks, the transitions in tone, the cuts – is directly inspired by horror film-making.

Is there, like, a subtextual backstory that spans the album; or even a fully plotted narrative?

JM: Well so far, a lot of reviewers have come to the conclusion that Master is a concept album. Specifically a concept album about some kind of future dystopia ruled by robots. And we’re totally flattered by that.

MC: To us, that means we are doing something right. AND, as a bonus you get all these ace reviews that begin like “We open on a lone android walking through a ruined metropolis. The year: 2089. The planet: …EARTH”.

[The band are laughing]

JM: But unfortunately Master is, in truth, not a concept album.


JM: We did try to make a concept album once, though. Your Mercury was supposed to be a concept album.

MB: Yeah, originally it was going to be a concept album about a shadowy cabal of Victorian hypnotists.

[The band are laughing]

MB: No, seriously. We were going to call it ‘The Sleeper Awaits’.

[More laughing/Jimmy Martin leaves interview]

Am I right in saying texture was a more central concern this time around?

MB: Well, texture has always been incredibly important to us.

But would you say that it’s of even greater importance on Master, given the fact that you’re now using more electronics?

MC: OK, yeah. Here you have lots and lots of crunch, and crackle, and, y’know, snapping noises. It’s a more physical record. It’s sweaty, and muscly. It’s, yeah… physical.

Whereas Your Mercury was kind of "of the mind"?

MC: Well, if Your Mercury was like some gleaming, psychic-powered spaceship, say, then Master is this nasty… dungeon: a place where physical wrong and good are being done to people.

To me, historically the TOTS sound has carried a tone of vague torment – in the urban angst and "psychic unease" that anchors the band’s previous records. Having said that, in the past the malaise was always matched by a note of hope, what with the music’s grandeur and wistfulness, while on Master there is only a bleakness. Why?

MB: Really? You’d say that even about ‘Responder’, the last track?

Perhaps not. But taking the album as a whole I would.

MC: Maybe, yeah. What I will say is that we wanted there to be less "overt grandeur" this time around. I suppose we wanted to make it less about, like, a celebration of Aztec Ziggurats, and more about dwelling in… fucking… cabbage-smelling basements.

Well that comes through, I think. And then some.

MC: And again with regards to "grandeur": whereas Your Mercury was all about fluid, soaring arcs, this time around we were really into the idea of "rupturing narrative". Which, in a certain respect is telling of the influence that noise music had on song-construction throughout the album, specifically noise-music’s tendency to frustrate – often violently – momentum; or indeed causality… that most quintessentially rockist of principles. On Master, frequently there are parts that at first appear to signal the beginning of a build towards something epic, but which are abruptly struck dead – like, destroyed; often by a massive burst of noise.

MB: Which I think takes discipline. It does. Because when you’re making this widescreen style of rock there are so many ‘epic victories’ available to you.


MC: And if you give in to those instincts you run the risk of ending up like Arcade Fire. They’ll do their stuff and sing their song, will Arcade Fire, and then sooner or later they’ll pile the song with masses of instrumentation for a crescendo that’s supposed to represents hope and humanity or whatever; and in the end everyone comes out of it just fine. But personally I’d rather be fucked with, like when I saw Enter The Void. We want to convey to the listener that there is, in fact, a real chance everything will not be fine. On Master, we want listeners to be unsure about the type of person it is taking them on this journey. Most of all, we want them to come back to the album but not know why.

[Teeth Of The Sea and The Quietus would like to state that Sam Barton is in fact a lover of many years experience. The trumpeter would also like to state that his personal vision for Master was ‘John le Carré meets Frankie Knuckles’. Or vice versa.]

The band did however have sex with each other. “It was great” said one member.

Master is out now on Rocket

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