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Flashback: It's 1980 in Coventry ... The area is home to a new music scene, under-appreciated due to the lingering two-tone ska revival and other similar pop (in the worst possible use of the word) trends. Eyeless in Gaza are experimenting with the outer limits of songs, and there are tape labels in every bedroom. There are two particularly interesting avant-garde bands around: Stress, whose mainman runs the Adventures in Reality zine, and Attrition, a trio who purvey fine edgy synthesizer-tinged rock. Their first releases are local-label tapes and a flexi through Adventures zine. I move away from the area, to college in Cheshire ...
Flashback 2: February 1984, Crewe, Cheshire. One of the advantages of being social secretary of an art college is that you can put on some bands you want to see. Attrition have arrived and set up their instruments, and Alan (half of Stress, now also lighting / films director for Attrition) has set up an array of slide and cine projectors. They bring copies of their first 12", Deliverance, to sell, and do a stunning set of new material whilst home movies and found images flicker over and above them. I haven't a clue who else likes the gig, I'm too busy enjoying myself. Later the band eat anything and everything we have in the kitchen before crashing for the night. We keep in vague touch, Martin Bowes, the front man, stays in touch, sending early new releases from Third Mind Records, and I manage to play the likes of Shrinkwrap at the alternative discos sometimes - a tense, muscualr, uptempo song about recycling and vegetarianism. I released some tracks by Stress and Attrition on a Stride compilation Double Vision (now a collectors' item), but before long Attrition relocated to London, to Holland, change personnel ... and I forget about them, although the records still get played.
Present: In one of the numerous zines and magazines that flop through the door, there's a mention of new Attrition product. I realise I've missed out and write to Martin's old Coventry address. A few weeks later there's a delighted reply and a pile of CDs. The music on Contempo releases like A Tricky Business and Thin Red Line clearly relates to their early music, but is changed beyond belief: it's brilliantly produced, sounding better than ever; it's harder, precise, taut and energetic, everything's precisely controlled, there's nothing superfluous around the edges; and you can dance to it (well, anyone with any imagination always could). The doomy overtones remain, and even the imagery remains dark and evocative. I'm delighted with this new Attrition, now a duo of Martin, and Julia - another original member. It's time to talk, Martin takes some time out from planning a new album, and planning world domination for 1994.
Looking back, it's clear Attrition pre-dated Euro-pop techno, or whatever electronic pop is called this week, by several years. How did you do it?
I know what you mean - you're not the first to say that! There's elements of things we did years ago that you can hear in bands now, but we weren't alone in the early or mid 80s. I guess we took some influences at the time, and came up with our own sound. We never refined it into a commercial formula though, as some bands have now - we've been too busy trying other things.
You are the only stable member of the band in all its various incarnations. Are you a control-freak or what? What happened to all the other members?
The original line-up was really me, Julia and her brother Ashley, so as Julia is still working with me it hasn't changed that much. Sure, other people have come and gone, but it's difficult to find the right mix - I've ended up writing most of the music myself, now that I can! Alex Novak is now in the Venus Fly Trap, Pete Morris is now in The Shock Headed Peters. Garry Cox is working on a new project called XYZ. Everyone else has retired.
There's a romantic, or gothic element to most of your work. Do you delight in gloom and doom, or is it just an affectation?
Affectation!! Believe me, I've tried to write a happy tune, but I just can't do it. This is all I can do, it's like I have to ... and it's not just gloom and doom, well not always - there is romantic, gothic (maybe), some black humour (sometimes), and something for the soul (mostly). There are at least two sides to every story.
Tell us how you go about writing songs.
They start from ideas, sparks of ideas, and abstract sound, then rhythms, melodies, then a few words. Then they grow and change: it takes anything from a few months to a few years for a 'finished' piece to emerge (and even then they are never finished). Each piece has its own message, but they are part of the whole album, or series of albums (or my life!).
What equipment do you now use? Is it all electronics these days?
Mostly electronic, yes - computers, samplers, analogue and digital synthesisers, effects; but also male and female vocals, and occasionally guest guitar, saxophone or percussion is brought in - anything that makes a noise is OK by me!
Don't you miss the sound of guitars, bass and drums?
No! I can sample them!
Are you still using multi-media presentation? Last time I saw you live I really enjoyed the images.
Yes, we always have - these days it's slide projectors, TV monitors, and video - it's something we're building up at the moment, as I'd like to expand that side of things. The live show is as much vision as sound (or should be).
Are you glad that there's more of your kind of music around now, or did you prefer being a loner? Who do you like listening to, working with, who are you a fan of? And who were / are your influences?
Yes, it's only in the last few years that I've started to get much electronic music in my collection! There's some good stuff around, but I'm not exactly sure what "our kind of music" is! It's certainly easier to play in the UK now, and there are a lot more fanzines / labels etc in the electronic sphere - that whole scene is on an up.
I listen to all sorts of music - classical; 50s rock'n'roll; 60s - Doors, Velvets, psychedelia; 70s - glam, punk and Kraftwerk; 80s - underground, electronic. My favourite album is still Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure.
For influences, though, it is very often not music at all - usually life's experiences, occasionally the arts - and the spirit of the surrealists has certainly inspired me! And there's film ... we could go on forever.
Has the record label hopping finished? How did you meet up with Contempo?
I really don't know. We've changed record labels for a variety of reasons (money, differences of opinion). I always knew of Contempo and just hit them with a demo of material for the Tricky Business album at the right time - which was February 1991 to be precise. It's fine with them, but who knows? [since this interview, Attrition have moved yet again, to the German label Hyperium]
Are you bitter that the media and fashion police haven't noticed Attrition at all?
No, not really. Over the years we've had some wonderful responses from people all over the world. Sometimes it's the media, but other times it's a letter from someone on the other side of the world, and that means more to me in the end. Sure, we need better promotion, and maybe we don't always do the commercially "right" thing, but it grows all the time, and we'll eventually find everyone who wants to hear.
What are your future plans?
Well, we're just about to record a new album: The Hidden Agenda. It's a step on from the Tricky Business album of last year, and we're expecting good results from that. We've got plans for live shows around Europe at that time - France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Greece are all on the cards as we speak. There are also some contributions to compilations, and our early Third Mind records will start being reissued on CD, through Projekt Records in the USA.
So there's plenty happening. I'm also involved with a couple of side-projects, so we'll see ... and then, there are the recordings we're amassing for the future live album!
Interview by and © Rupert Loydell. For more information, contact: Attrition, c/o 24 Mount St., Coventry CV5 8DD, UK.