A view from across the Pond plus interviews with UK ‘Jambands’ Urban Spacemen and Klangstorm
The wonders of the Internet have certainly made it easier for unknown' bands to spread the word of their music without actually playing in an area, and of course, it's helped people stay in touch and exchange tapes of shows much easier, but the Internet still has its limitations. There are many bands that I have spoken to in recent years that marvel at the fact that they often get inquiries and feedback about their music from many European countries such as Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. However, the jamband phenomenon seems pretty much to be something unique to the United States, at least on a major scale. I have come across isolated bands from various countries that are great proponents of improvisation and are worthy of checking out, two that immediately spring to mind are Sweden's Mr. Morning and Germany’s Schulff Jull.
More recently I've come across a couple of UK bands that somewhat fit into the genre. They are Urban Spacemen from South East England and the London-based Klangstorm. Given the fact that British and American music is probably the "most related" and "culturally interchangeable" I thought it would be a good idea to plug both these bands as they do make interesting music and at the same time get some kind of perspective of what kind of improvisational scene exists in the UK and their impressions on the US bands, after all none of the US bands haven't made much of dent in the UK market. Evangeline Recorded Works has been licensing Gov't Mule albums for release there and have done quite well with them, although they did less well with String Cheese Incidents Outside Inside. The new moe. album is actually he first moe. product to get a domestic release in European countries, all the rest were only available as imports. Of course, if you an American Jamband fan that plans on visiting the UK this article might give you an idea of what to check out. Similarly if you are an American band that wants to hook up with the UK scene you can contact either band through their respective websites.
First, here's some background info on the Urban Spacemen. They are an electric, rock, blues, funk, jazzy, jam, progressive, spacey kind of band hailing from south east England. I've heard some live stuff of theirs and it's pretty interesting. Kind of "Dark Star" Grateful Dead mold but updated with more complex contemporary nuances. It's quite accessible and exciting. Several tracks such as one called "Cosmic Blues" show that they have some good material as well as creating some nice instrumental textures. The band is a five-piece consisting of Ron Bennett, drums, Andy House, keyboards and guitarists Mick Overy and David Weston both of the Cosmic Charlies (a London Dead cover band) and bass player Terry Wilson. You can learn more from their website. You can also download mp3s of various live shows from the site to get an idea of the bands music. The following is an "internet" interview with David Weston.
M.S. I’m kind of interested in what bands have influenced you and where you play?
D.W. Our influences are many and very varied but if I tell you that we are in the 40 something age group and all grew up on a diet on classic/progressive/spacey rock in the 70's I think you will understand a little of where we are coming from. Everything from the heavy bands like Purple, Zeppelin and Sabbath through the 'progressive' bands like Genesis, Yes and National Health to the more unusual spacey/jam stuff like Gong (a big one for me), Hawkwind and Man are in there somewhere plus of course all the usual 60's suspects along with the Dead, there's the Allman's, Zappa, Miles jazz, blues, folk etc etc etc. Hopefully you get my drift. Although I personally really like Phish (Round Room is very disappointing), moe., SCI and the DBs I think they are bit late to really have much influence on us other than reaffirming that there are some people out there who are prepared to let a band take chances live.
M.S. What other bands are out there on the UK scene and are their outlets for improvisational based music through radio, clubs, internet etc.?
D.W. Personally I do not think that there are many other bands out there although I am sure there must be. I think that the key is for bands to work together, cross fertilizing audiences, synergistic publicity etc. Hopefully this is what we will begin to do with bands like Klangstorm and some others that we are in contact with although it sort of needs someone outside of any one band to put the time and energy into developing the framework – a sort of Euro jambands.com. Perhaps it is easier for bands to exist on a professional basis in the US but it's certainly nigh on impossible here. There just isn't the live music culture other than tribute/cover bands. We generally play in the music rooms attached to pubs, bars whatever. Being amateur/semi-pro inevitably limits the amount of time and energy available. Of course, this will be different for the young/younger bands but I haven't seen much evidence of many inclined in the 'jam' direction. I think that particular hole is filled by the ambient trance/dance scene in the UK with very few other youngsters having aspirations beyond three chord Oasis/Travis type stuff. I thought for a while that Gomez might do it but they seem to lack the inclination (or ability?) to step off the edge….
M.S. I’ve heard some of your soundboard discs and think you do some interesting stuff. Will you be recording anything for release? Also is there a ‘"tape exchange" system going in the UK?
D.W. We are currently working on a studio album but I honestly couldn't tell you when it will be finished, hopefully some time this year. We may also release a CD of live recordings as we accumulate ones that are of sufficient recording and performance quality. In the mean time audience recording and trading is actively encouraged (although pretty small scale) and we make selected live cuts available for download (a choice jam is linked here).
M.S. Is there much of a jam scene in the UK?
D.W. If there is, it is very small and not at all cohesive. I think that heads/hippies whatever you want to call them in this country don't have the acceptance of such a broad range of musical influences as in the US nor are they as tolerant of experimentation and 'indulgence'. To be honest, I don't think that your average UK semi pro musician is likely to be as of high a technical standard as in the US, we don't have such a strong 'muso' culture. The closest we have ever come to a larger scene is the free festivals and fayres that ran from the mid seventies until 1984. I saw many a band or loose collective of musicians jam from nothing (as opposed to using songs as a base) in the small hours of the morning in a marquee on Salisbury Plain or the depths of Suffolk. The festival scene however mutated into the rave scene and jamming bands were almost totally replaced by 'dance' music. Probably the closest thing you could get to a Dead show in Europe would be at a rave. For the chemically powered audience electronica provides a far more predictable and reliable groove than a band. There are a few honorable exceptions of course, Gong, Hawkwind, Man, Ozric Tentacles (the least successful IMHO) and the long defunct Here and Now all create or created a vibe at their shows which although musically dissimilar to the US thing still serves to transport the audience to some other place. I am not counting Dead tribute bands as although they are very worthy it's not the same as a home grown scene in my view. So where are we now? It's probably an age thing but it's frustrating that the Dead heads, Phish fans etc that there are in the UK (excluding US ex pats) will rarely if ever take a chance on a new band. There isn't a live music culture here and just about the only regular live music that there is comes from 'tribute' bands and pub / club cabaret / cover acts. Also I find that rock fans like it loud and succinct, blues fans… I guess what I am saying is that those people who do go and see live music very much segregate themselves. I guess having a recording to whet peoples appetite helps.
M.S. Do you see a continued future for improvisational music?
D.W. Where do we go from here? Well, I guess that the trick would be to organize and coalesce, for bands to support each other and organize exchange gigs where an audience exists and occasional festivals type occasions ('incidents'). Problem is that most of the people I have met who are in a 'jam' band in the UK are all involved with families, jobs etc and are in the 40 plus age group (as are most of their audience) so time and energy are at a premium. Maybe there are some younger bands out there but with the exception of the defunct but rather good Moom I haven't seen any yet. Still anything is possible.
M.S. In your opinion is there much interest in the current Jambands from the USA?
D.W. Interest in the US scene is in my experience largely limited to people of my age group and a bit older – i.e. people who grew up with the Dead etc. On the recent Bob Weir tour the only people younger than about 40 were peoples' kids and US students.
M.S. How do you get the word out about your band? Is it through the Internet?
D.W. I think that the word spreads largely through word of mouth, friends telling
friends etc, there is no radio exposure that I know of. There is a web site
that I contribute to that attempts to spread the word www.bathtub-of-adventures.com. Unfortunately due to other commitments (i.e. the band) this has been pretty much dormant for quite a while now.
M.S. Do you recommend any other music from the UK to Jamband fans and do you have any parting comments?
D.W. That's about all I can think of for now. I would suggest that people check out Man and Gong who are both still active and I think could be safely classed as jam. Gong in particular are for me as important as the Dead in creating a sound that is all their own and very much invented a large part of the ambient techno sound. www.planetgong.co.uk/ and www.manband.net Also Bill Pannifer’s site which is an essential source of information.
PART TWO Klangstorm
Klangstorm is another British band with a propensity for improvisation. In many ways they are more experimental than the Urban Spaceman (no vocals- except spoken word) and also more "out there" than most US jam bands. They have an expansive sound that's a strange cross between pastoral textures and more jagged industrial sounds. The band mixes early psychedelia with more experimental modern age sounds and is quite sophisticated. They have released a number of CDs to date, all of which come highly recommended. For more information you can check out their website.
What follows is an interview with the band's drummer Jim Roberts.
M.S. Are there any real young bands in the UK doing improv/jam band music. No disrespect but yourselves and the Urban Spaceman and the Cosmic Charlies are more old school?
J.R. Yes our collective age surpasses 200, the most notable in London band is Picklepuss, all under 21 and sons of the Cosmic Charlies. I have not yet heard them as a band although I jammed with the bass player last summer (who clearly knew his chops) but all reports point to this band being one to watch. They are pretty looking too.
M.S. What are Klangstorm’s influences and what prompted you to play improvised music?
J.R. Our influences are diverse. Phil Cervi and I put together the original Klangstorm project back in 1996, he came from a euro avant-garde background. Can, Neu, Faust, early Tangerine Dream. I came from a more conservative background. I was, and still am, a rocker- the only thing to be in the 70s macho music ideal, Mountain, Grand Funk, Hot Tuna, Spirit, Purps, Sabs. Sometime in my mid teens I bought an album by the Grateful Dead because they had a cool name. It took a while but I got into it. When I started playing in bands, being a drummer I always enjoyed showing off and open ended jamming really appealed to me for that reason. I started playing with some really talented musicians who could improvise and the magic began to take over, the danger of playing on the edge, riding the beast, seeing where this collective communication could take you was the real kick. We did not set out to form a jam band. It just happened to be the only way we could play together.
M.S. Is there much of a scene in the UK and if so where does it have its roots. Is any of it in bands like Phish and Widespread Panic?
J.R. Phish and Widespread Panic have no profile in the UK. When the former played here in the mid 90s it was a US kids frat audience who came to those gigs, kids with daddy's credit card. You could count the Brits on one hand. The Grateful Dead remain as the main focus for a lot of the individuals who would be a part of the scene. However, they never get of their ass and go to gigs; consequently the scene as such is nonexistent. Instead it is based around a small group of bands who through their own communities maintain the concept of a movement. There is a Grateful Dead cover band who attract a small following but what's the point of doing covers of another bands material badly? Conversely there are pockets of real experimentation in the UK which owes more to the European lineage. It tends to get pigeon holed as "post punk" but bands such as Pram and Rothko are doing some really exiting stuff outside of the parameters of the Jamband scene.
M.S. What kind of venues are there for you to play?
J.R. They are very hard to find. Klangstorm was never really intended to be a regular gigging band. We were originally only interested in the recorded artifact (writers note: very much like the superb US band Djam Karet). With the release of our first two albums we did one themed performance mixing visual art, music and dance. We did not want to play accepted venues. We had all been in bands that had done the circuit and we chose instead to do site specific events in disused industrial sites, factories etc. In the last couple of years we have started to really work as a band and gig regularly. To be honest the UK gig scene sucks. Provincial venues are only interested in tribute bands or the ubiquitous blues act doing Stevie Ray Vaughan doing Jimi Hendrix doing Otis Rush! In London try getting a gig if you are over 27 and you think the Stooges are a little dated at best. Punk and British desire to be up with the Jones' destroyed musical invention at a grass roots level in this country a long time ago…..but we are huge in Wandsworth!
M.S. Does Jamband or improvisational music get any media coverage?
J.R. No, but I found this great little south London station called Resonance which plays the weirdest shit but they only broadcast a couple of days a week.
M.S. In your opinion is there much interest in the current US Jambands and if so what kind of awareness if there of the US scene?
J.R. I think the awareness is negligible. The US scene is just peculiar to its country of origin and is of little consequence on this side of the pond. Why? Partly the scene itself is off putting as so many acts seem to be chasing each others tails. A scene based on "improve" and new musical horizons seems from an outside perspective as being very stagnant. moe., SCI, Disco Biscuits, they all seem to sound the same, repeating a formulae of middle class Gap wearing trash. There is nothing particularly exciting in what these bands have to say. They are really only benefiting from the desire of young people to find something that belongs to them, perhaps in the same way their parents wax lyrically about that Dead De Moines '73 show they saw. They naturally want to be originators of something that speaks to them but it all seems a little contrived in the image of the originators. Great, I should moan, the Jamband scene promotes musicians jamming for a living, but what if that's another endless version of China Cat Rider?
*M.S. What's the festival scene like these days? Is it a good way to get out
there and play?*
J.R. Very much so, I was talking to David Weston of Urban Spacemen a while back about the UK scene when the suggestion of this interview had come up and he pointed out something that had not occurred to me before. Up until about 1986 this country had a thriving alternative festival circuit, led by and large by groups like Hawkwind, Ozric Tentacles and whatever version of Gong was functioning that week. The summer event calendar supported a number of bands that would stretch out their eclectic material and could now be pigeon holed as Jambands. Groups like Mandragora, Magic Mushroom Band, Tubula Dog and Omni Opera were a part of a scene that was also peripatetic, groups of people traveling from one site to the next in a rather low tech version of a Dead summer tour, or perhaps even the HORDE packages of a decade ago. The government of the time had a dim view of this and took on the culture that this scene was a part of at Stonehenge (the legendary battle of Beanfield) and overnight the free festival circuit disappeared and with it many of the bands. The growth of the dance culture that replaced it (and absorbed many of the traveling community) took off in the late 80s, a drug based experience with open ended rhythmic passion at its centre…sounds like a Dead show does it not, well yes but without the musicians. David points to (and I agree with him) that the growth of the rave scene smothered the underground band culture.
But you can't keep an old hippy down, the festival circuit has improved in recent years, it has become more organized (has to be due to draconian licensing laws) and we had the pleasure of playing at a number of festivals this summer (Big Green Gathering, Trealy Farm). On the whole these events are not looking for bands that stretch out, it amazes me that punk still has a toe hold on the consciousness of people that attend festivals but it is only a case of blagging the gig and hoping the audience is sufficiently mellow to appreciate that you are in for the long ride.
*M.S. Would it be feasible for some of the lesser known US bands to hook up for
dates with UK bands? or is there just not enough interest?*
J.R. Building interest is what this is all about, people over here bemoan that US bands come rarely to the UK and we don't get enough of a fix of groovy jam music. Yet they do not appreciate that there are great home grown artists who are trying experiment with the concept of improvisational music that are being ignored. Between a number of bands in the south east we are looking to focus attention on UK acts (and if there are any bands out there we don't know of please get in touch) to get the bums on seats and develop a sense of ownership of our own scene'. Then we would love to have a cultural exchange, indeed any US acts that would consider playing in the UK please get in touch with me.
M.S. Do you get much interest from other European countries?
J.R. Germany, I love Germany, they still have thriving music scene over there, one that reminds me of the US in many ways. It all comes down to places to play. In the US in many urban areas (at least on either side of the continent) every street seems to have its little psychedelic dungeon and audiences have come to expect something different, they want to be entertained and are more open minded than here in the UK. Germany is the same in it has a pride in its own rich underground musical heritage that informs openness to many styles of performance. The big problem we have is getting any distribution on the continent…any ideas anyone?
M.S. Is there a communal atmosphere with bands that play improv?
J.R. Not a great deal at the moment, watch this space
M.S. Have you gotten any interest from fans and promoters in the USA?
J.R. Ironically we have probably sold more CDs in the States than in the UK, although as a band we have never played there. This is due in part to the great work of Archie Patterson at eurock.com. I think the average Joe in the street in "Maintown America" has more knowledge of different styles of music than their compatriot in the UK. Is this because of college radio I wonder sometimes or just the general access to so much choice of media? Plus the attitude of the listener in the States is not colored quite so much by class distinction, political or polemical viewpoints as I feel it is in Britain.
M.S. Can you recommend any other bands that you play with or have heard?
J.R. If you are ever in Boston, go to the Lizard Lounge, Thursday nights, Club D'elf, not so much of a band but fluid experimentation, its the brain child of the bass player and along with the regular drummer and percussionist they lay down some amazing grooves that guest soloists add to. You never know what you are going to get but I have never been disappointed. Every time I make it over to MA I try and catch them. Lizard Lounge itself is also exactly the type of venue I would like to see in the UK, funky little dive with some great beer (Anchor Steam!) and an open policy to the entertainment on offer. In Blighty (note: this means the UK) checkout the Urban Spacemen, who remind me a lot of Wales' much loved Man, in fact (here comes the plug) check them out at upcoming Jamband double bill with Klangstorm March 20th at the Bedford Arms Balham London.
There you have it a quick synopsis of the UK scene and a few contrasting views on the US scene. Both these bands are worth investigating. Let's have some more cultural interchanges. Any other bands out there in Europe that want a plug please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org