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So just who are Barbed? It's a little like asking "who is Santa Claus?" Does it matter, so long as the presents appear as scheduled on Christmas morning? With Barbed, does it matter who they are, where they came from, what they do, so long as their recent album on These Records is such a fine and dandy thing?
Of course it matters. At a time when Re/Search are encouraging a revival of interest in the lost exotic popular music of decades gone by, and where modern critics enthuse about the potential in ambient and techno musics for similarly short-circuiting expectations of what pop music can become, Barbed sit at an interesting nexus. John Wall, a fellow-traveller in the world of musical cat burglars, spoke to Barbed's Alex Burrow and Alex McKechnie ...
JW: The album kicks off with a brief but bizarre track, Architect / Coleslaw. What's that all about then?
AM: Actually it was old documentary footage: missionaries in Papua New Guinea. The preachers' wives used walkie-talkies instead of telephones, and we happened to catch this rather silly conversation about coleslaw!
AB: They're over there as part of a big battle in Papua New Guinea where about twenty churches are competing to convert what are basically stone age tribes.
AM: Yeah, worldwide, there are certain languages that the West hasn't mastered yet. When the churches learn the last few dialects they can preach the word to the whole world!
AB: But Papua New Guinea has two or three thousand languages, I think. So there are armies of missionaries - some with their blenders, dishwashers and word processors - madly typing away translating the gospels.
JW: So what about musical influences then?
AM: At the time of writing the CD, we were listening to a lot of Negativland and John Zorn. To say that is very revealing, I suppose, maybe I'd rather make out we were musically clueless!
JW: That is very revealing!
AM: Well, Escape From Noise and Spillane were widely enjoyed at the time, it wasn't just us ...
AB: But we were very into Can when we started out - about ten years ago - and the Fall too. Hex Induction Hour is still a big favourite of mine, Mark E. Smith's experimental bits ... they've all been an influence.
JW: Teenage obsessions?
AM: Well, as far as they go, I think as long as you're obsessed with something, that's the important thing. We could have been totally hooked on glam rock and still have ended up making the music we do.
AB: Going back to Can though, their influence was especially important as far as editing went... Holger Czukay had a very serious, clinical approach. About 50% of our music comes from the same process of jamming and obsessive editing.
JW: So from what I've heard, you've been working for ten years in your studio and suddenly you emerge..., you know, small and perfectly formed!
AM: Well, really that's what we were trying to do - just arrive, complete, like saying: What a surprise! We're here, this is us!
JW: I see, but how did you first start out?
AB: Years and years ago, as a post-punk band. Then later, in November 1989, we officially became Barbed at the AVE Festival in Holland. By this stage we were quite heavily into electronics.
JW: So is any of the music from that period reflected on the CD?
AB: Yes, tracks like LFK, MSS and Barbed were all from that era. In fact, we took our name from an early version of Barbed... we were playing with a lot of voice samples to do with barbed wire.
JW: So can you describe the spirit of your early Barbed days?
AB: Well, we were writing tracks literally five seconds at a time - very linear, and we didn't really know where the next ten seconds were going to take us, but it was going to be ... another really amazing place!
AM: We really had a spirit of adventure about what we were doing - especially the track Barbed. That one progressed inch by inch, over months. It was ridiculous.
AB: Yeah, sometimes it was like clawing our way forward on our hands and knees, and by the end of the week we might be another three seconds in!
JW: So what was going on, were you just waiting around until the right samples popped up?
AB: Yeah, kind of, but then you're working quite intensely on a piece and then the big breakthroughs are like the most spontaneous moments when neither of you are concentrating and something triggers a revolution, and suddenly you've got the next half of the track written.
AM: To give you an example, the track Barbed, and also Whoops My Trombone! That sense of revolution really comes across in Whoops My Trombone, because it goes through such different sections - that's the one with the northern bloke swearing - that took an awfully long time.
JW: Strangely enough, one thing that really leaps out of your music is a sort of anarchy, it's loose in the way it's put together, but then that's not the case, you actually spend a long time working on these things?
AB: Yeah, but on the other hand, in the track Orpheus it seems there are long measured moments where you're just left floating, wondering when the next crackly sound is going to happen.
JW: That's right.
AB: Well, that was all a jam, literally a one-take wonder.
JW: Maybe that's the best approach to have - where there are no fixed guidelines or methods. I think what really does come across is that it all seems to be very spontaneous and in a way almost throwaway sometimes, and I find that really good.
JW: Your music's full of exclusive in-jokes, a sort of mocking humour, which isn't vicious ... a barbed sense of humour with a soft underbelly!
AM: Yes, there's mockery, but it's pretty warm and gentle.
AB: Humour's so important... sometimes we listen to what we've just written and laugh out loud.
AM: It's a balance, I think. A weird middle ground where the weight, depth and richness are balanced by lightness, humour and absurdity. When you hit that moment just right, things really start happening.
JW: Your humour's very much on display in your music. Your samples are low-tech. The scratches from records are often audible in your music ... maybe that's the reason you're sometimes associated with Negativland.
AM: Perhaps ... but the politics of sampling are not much of a concern to us.
AB: As we said before, we're working on an aesthetic level. It doesn't really matter how a sound was made.
AM: Most of our samples are taken from 50s and 60s records, so that accounts for the sound quality.
JW: But maybe that's what creates the impression of satirical intent.
AM: It's funny, people think we're sampling crackles and spraying everything with hiss, when in reality, if we're in sampling mode, we're often trying to polish up these dirty old records to get rid of a scratch!
AB: I think the occasional roughness of our sound shows an integrity, a punk sampling ethic.
JW: Tell me about your studio record collection.
AM: It's a very classy set of junk shop records. We're quite sophisticated now as far as collecting goes. We used to buy all sorts of trash, Scots Wahey, or Hypnotise Yourself, you know, Hawaiian Banjo ...
AB: Now we weed out all the crap. It's not a kitsch thing for us any more. We're only looking for quality music.
JW: You're not inspired by naffness?
AM: No, not at all. You get bored of that very quickly. Themed orchestral records, souvenir records ? they're usually the most sophisticated. Wally Stott and his Orchestra, people like that.
AB: 1958, that's a vintage year for those records, really weird hybrid albums, orchestral mixed in with strange narratives and sound effects.
JW: But aren't you coming from a self conscious viewpoint? These people were probably just churning this stuff out.
AM: Well, I wonder. Perhaps these records were a rare opportunity for those composers to take creative liberties. You know, "fill this record with music about New York, and make it interesting". Maybe that's all the brief they got! You can hear the excitement in the music. Often they were experimenting with early synths, or really mad stereo mixing. I don't think it needs a postmodern knowing ear to enjoy these records, they were actually written that way.
JW: I still sense a certain voyeurism in your music.
AM: Well, we can't deny that. We do use other people's personal recordings, which amazingly find their way into junk shops, usually still sitting on the reel to reel recorded they were actually made on!
AB: The track Football is a good example. It's like finding a time capsule, you can hear the tensions in the voice, the difficulty of speaking into the machine. You get a bit of a thrill when people date themselves too. There's a lot of that on the album.
JW: So have you always had a unified vision?
AB: No, not really. For a long time I had such an aversion to dance music, and Alex M was really pushing it. That tension created some really interesting sounds. Neither of us have ever wanted to emulate anything, any tension was always confined to the background.
JW: I know that a lot of dance elements cross over into what you're doing.
AB: Yeah, and occasionally they cross over a bit too far!
JW: That's right, there's a rumour going around that you had your first album rejected, it was recorded but never released.
AM: You mean the story where we put breakbeats through all our favourite experimental tracks?
AB: Yeah, These Records didn't find that very funny!
JW: So how did that arise?
AB: Well, we were really excited about the sound of early rave, and I suppose we got a bit carried away by our enthusiasm. We went over the edge a bit. We wanted to realign our sound, but we overstepped the mark, as far as These Records go anyway!
AM: The main thing for us was that a lot of the rave things that were going on were just as experimental as a lot of things that were supposed to be experimental. What we were doing was hooking into the excitement and immediacy of the sound.
AB: Stuff like The Prodigy ...
AM: Another big influence was Public Enemy. The excitement you feel when you hear A Nation of Millions ...
JW: So to what extent do you think you fit in with the experimental scene here in London?
AB: Well our fundamental goal was, above all, to be original, experimental, but also accessible at the same time. We wanted to be immediate, whereas a lot of the so-called "experimental" musicians around London seemed to delight in being like Faust on an off-day, really grim and insular.
AM: We've been to so many gigs that were really horrible, where no-one was trying to be special in any way.
JW: In some respects you seem to take a pride in being isolated, and even blissfully ignorant about a lot of the musicians working in your area. Is that a deliberate position.
AB: Yes it is, but it's on the level - we really don't work too hard to keep up with everything that's going on. I think really good things tend to leap out at you. I mean, music's not my life! Whatever slice of culture I happen to take I can be equally inspired. I want to read great books, see great films, watch great TV. I don't have the time or the interest to gen up on all the different music.
AM: At the same time though, there's something to be said for a musician to know the 'great music'. You've got to know your onions. Bands often seem to come out of nowhere, and be remarkably sussed. The Sex Pistols, for example, were supposed to be four working class lads with no idea about music. Of course, John Lydon spent most of his time listening to Can, Captain Beefheart and loads of reggae. It's hard to find anyone who's pure - I don't think they really exist.
Interview by and © John Wall. Beside a handful of one-off UK gigs, Barbed plan to tour Belgium, and have a 12" release in the pipeline.