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My first encounter with Contrastate was via a small review of their first LP in Audion, and what attracted my interest was the description of their music as "grotesque" and "noisy". Well, I wouldn't attach such a harsh word as "grotesque" to their sound, but theirs is certainly a striking and expansive music.
Contrastate are Stephen Meixner and Jonathon Grieve. To date they have released two LPs on their own Black Rose Recordings label and a cassette for Peter Harrison's Direction Music. This year, a CD is planned for release by the Tesco Organisation in Germany.
The following interview was carried out by post in August and September 1991.
You have stated that when Contrastate was formed in 1987, your music was based on noise and volume. Can I infer from this that you were interested in and influenced by the power electronics scene? What do you think was the purpose of this ultra violent and confrontational music?
Although we stated that Contrastate's early music was based on noise and volume, I would not describe the music as power electronics. The sound sources used were for example: the base frequencies from a didgeridoo, high frequencies from glass, keyboards etc, all played at high volume. It was very much a physical bombardment of sound. We played one or two live performances but nothing was ever released in this form. The nearest example of what we used to do in our recorded work would probably be As Time Began on the first album Seven Hands Seek Nine Fingers. Although I was interested in groups like Whitehouse, Ramleh etc from the power electronics scene, I had no desire to repeat exactly what they had done.
The purpose of being ultra violent and confrontational could be described as a reaction against what was happening in other forms of music which were becoming conventional and unimaginative. Punk at the time was dying a slow death. It had come on the scene promising to shock people out of their traditional conventions but never really lived up to those expectations, and became as conventional as the music and traditions it was set against. Other kinds of music such as the electronic / new wave scene were just as uninspiring, preferring to make fashion statements rather than anything else. Also, music does not live independently from what is happening elsewhere. The early eighties was politically a confrontational time affecting everyone personally one way or another.
Why did you move towards a more atmospheric and experimental form of music? Does this reflect your personal interests, whether it be literature or art or film?
The move towards a more atmospheric form of music was more of a natural progression than anything else. Inspiration or ideas can come from films, literature and/or society. At the moment, the ideas behind the new recordings for the forthcoming CD A Live Coal Under the Ashes come from my interest in the political and social structure in Eastern Europe.
You have said that the only way you could describe Contrastate's music was as experimental music. How would you define the term "experimental" in the context of your music, given that this term covers a wide range of musics?
I dislike using tags but I find you generally have to use them or people use them to describe your music. "Experimental music" is just a tag, and yes, it does cover a wide range. I use the term "experimental" because we are not an industrial or noise band. Also, we are experimental in the sense that we like trying out different ideas, different ways of recording and different ways of using instruments. I would like to think that Contrastate does not stand still but that each release is different and a progression from the last. In that respect, because the term "experimental" does cover a wide range it does serve a purpose in that it does not immediately define our music as belonging to one fixed area of music or another.
Can you tell me something about the relationship between you and Jonathon in the realisation of Contrastate's music? Also, how important is Ben Hughes' contribution?
For the new recordings, Contrastate has three members: Jonathan Grieve, Stephen J Pomeroy, and myself. If all three members are playing on one piece, then each has an equally valuable and individual contribution to make. The same can be said if there are two members contributing to one piece.
Ben Hughes' contribution is only on the artwork side, but he does all our artwork. He plays a very important part in the overall presentation of a final Contrastate product.
Why do Contrastate exist? What purpose is there behind the band? I always believe that individuals play music more than for the pleasure of playing music, especially in the realm of experimentation.
Personally, I don't think there is anything wrong with individuals playing music for their own pleasure. Contrastate exists for our own pleasure, and we also hope that other people enjoy our products. As well as that, Contrastate exists as a vehicle for our own thoughts, ideas and interests. Whether it is Eastern Europe, or nightmares surpassing the limits of madness. We do not intend to preach, only comment on certain aspects or events. Whether other people will come to the same conclusion as us on our ideas (on Eastern Europe for instance) is neither here nor there, but the main thing is that hopefully we have induced some sort of response.
Do you consider live performances to be relevant, or is the release of recorded material sufficient?
I personally consider live performances to be important, but not as important as recorded material. Live performances are usually a one-off event lasting a certain period of time, whereas recorded material lasts indefinitely. Contrastate have not performed live for about two years, but I would certainly like to do more live performances in the future. Rather than it just being a live performance, we would want it to be an event, although that would take a lot of organisation and time.
Why do you think that Britain has such a problem with the acceptance of the avant garde in all art forms, whereas in Europe and even America, the new has always flourished? Does this disappoint you?
This is probably a question British artists have long been questioning and trying to answer. It certainly does disappoint me that the acceptance of something "new" in Britain always takes a lot of time and hard work. As to the question of why, I can only hazard a guess. The acceptance of something "new" usually means breaking with traditional ideas and values. The British have always been quite conservative in their outlook, and tradition has always played an important part in British culture. It could be put down in part to the "island" mentality that has recently risen to the fore again in British culture. The British have always tended to want things handed on a plate to them rather than to have to go out and work to find, or seek out, something new. In Europe the growth of new culture is generally seen as something good and can grow alongside an existing culture; whereas in Britain the growth of something new is seen as either weird and belonging to minority tastes, or, taken to an extreme, as dangerous, and the refusal to accept it usually produced a polarisation of "them and us", leading to a kind of barrier mentality.
What has happened regarding the Portuguese compilation LP you were contributing to?
The compilation LP finally came out in July 1991. Apparently there are two volumes, each in an edition of 500, and each featuring different artists. The second volume has an unreleased track entitled Through the Lens of the Mad Eye, by Contrastate. I don't know how widely available it is, but the artwork and production are both very good.
How do you want Contrastate to develop? Do you have any firm plans or are you flexible?
There are no firm plans at the moment, but I would like to see Contrastate progressing in new areas with each new release. The new areas concerned will depend on our interests and ideas at the time of recording.
Seven Hands Seek Nine Fingers (Black Rose BRV 89-1001) LP
A Thousand Badgers in Labour (Black Rose BRV 90-1002) LP
"i" (Direction Music DMC 17) cassette
A Live Coal Under the Ashes (forthcoming CD 1992 from Tesco Organisation)
Contact: Contrastate, Stephen Meixner, 1 Milton Court, Barbican, London EC2Y 9BJ, U.K.. Interview by and (c) Phil Taylor.