Pop: Take a walk on the mild side

In a business filled with planet-sized egos, The All Seeing I have a refreshing modesty as well as bags of talent. They think it has something to do with coming from Sheffield.
  • @FionaSturges
It is telling that, standing at Sheffield's rail station, I fail to recognise the core members of The All Seeing I. Armed only with a blurred photocopy of a man with no hair and another with more hair than a woolly mammoth, I desperately scan the platform. It is only when the station is nearly empty that I spot them eyeing me quizzically from behind a newspaper.

You'll have heard The All Seeing I's single Beat Goes On being played during TV trailers in a bid to make their sitcoms seem more hip. It's a crackling drum'n'bass track where a girl giggles as if she is being tickled to death. You might also have seen Jarvis Cocker mincing about on Top Of The Pops, lamenting "Marie has set up home with a man who's half my age/A halfwit in a leotard stands on my stage". That was The All Seeing I's next hit, Walk Like A Panther. Cocker wrote the lyric although he was standing in for Seventies cabaret star Tony Christie, who sings it on the record.

The band's current single, the tragi-comic First Man In Space, also written by Cocker, features The Human League's Phil Oakey, his voice as exquisitely yearning as it was back in1981 with Don't You Want Me? To add to the confusion, Babybird's Stephen Jones is on their forthcoming album Pickled Eggs & Sherbet, with Lisa Millet, Tiana Krahn (the giggler on Beat Goes On) and Boz. By my calculations, that is seven singers.

Which begs the question, who exactly are The All Seeing I? The band comprise Dean Honer, Jason Buckle and DJ Parrot, the one with the Neanderthal hair. They use words like "faceless", and "anonymous" to describe themselves, although not in a self-deprecating way. I think it is a more a case of sticking with what they know. After all, dance music has never been known for its big personalities - Andrew Weatherall and Carl Cox may be world famous DJs, but you imagine that they can still go to the supermarket in peace. This lot prefer to work quietly in the background, leaving the limelight to a stream of guest vocalists.

Their names don't even appear on the record sleeve, although they have credited everyone else, including the fish'n'chip shop where the pictures were taken. "None of us has the self-confidence or the in-built charisma to represent a band," says Honer. "Besides, none of us can sing," explains Parrot. "Jason's not bad, but he's microphone-shy. There's a difference between singing in the bathroom and in front of a microphone. And with lyrics, you really put yourself on the line."

Parrot also likes to romanticise the Sheffield ethic. "There is a quiet pride in the way Sheffield people work. They don't go around singing their own praises like gobby Mancunians or Scousers will do. Sheffield is a town that has as much identity as Manchester and Newcastle and Liverpool, but the people haven't got a name. They just get on with things."

Parrot has been working on the Sheffield scene since the mid-Eighties, when he was one half of techno act Sweet Exorcist, signed to the nascent Warp label. A couple of years ago he became the producer for experimentalists Add (N) to X, and came to work in Honer's studio. They began making tunes together, putting out records on Parrot's label Earth. When the studio shut, they moved the equipment into Parrot's house, which he shared with Buckle. "Jason went out shopping one day and came back with a Buddy Rich record. We heard it and rushed downstairs and made him put it on our record player. We sampled it and that was it."

Beat Goes On was born and within a matter of weeks it was top of Radio 1's play-list. "We're used to our records just plopping out and selling a couple of thousand if we're lucky," gasps Honer. "We couldn't believe it when Beat Goes On started being used for TV jingles." It wasn't all good news, however. The All Seeing I were sued by Blue Note records for sampling the Buddy Rich line. "You've got to hold your hands up," says Honer. "People sample illegally all the time. But when you're used to selling relatively few records, you just assume you won't get caught."

Dean Honer is not exactly shy, but he hardly fits into one's idea of a friend to the stars. When he talks about being on television or recording with Cocker, there is a detachment in his voice as if it has all happened to his younger brother. Out of the three, he seems the most taken aback by their success and likes to downplay the band's starry connections.

"We only asked Tony Christie to sing because we thought he lived up the road. We wouldn't have approached people that we didn't know. It just turned out that he lived in Spain." Still, it's not every dance outfit that can call upon such luminaries as Christie, Cocker and Oakey to spice up their record.

"Sheffield's a pretty small place, y'know"' says Parrot. "We knew Jarvis already. It just happened that we bumped into him on Top Of The Pops and asked him to write a few songs." "He came creeping into our dressing room to use our make-up lady," remembers Honer. "It was the perfect opportunity. We didn't really expect him to say yes."

There is always a danger that too many Zeitgeisty names on one record can be a band's undoing. A case in point was last year's UNKLE project, masterminded by James Lavelle and featuring the Beastie Boys, DJ Shadow, Richard Ashcroft and Radiohead's Thom Yorke. The record wasn't at all bad, but expectations spiralled out of control and sales were disastrously low. "`That young man's range of vision was probably too wide," says Parrot. "He was getting people in from far and wide whereas we, if anything, are a bit blinkered. Cocker, Oakey and Stephen Jones understand our mentality because they all come from the same place."

Conversely, the biggest criticism levelled at dance acts these days is blandness, and the Chemical Brothers have recently made their most exciting album yet, with vocal contributions from Noel Gallagher, Bernard Sumner and Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue. It must also be pointed out that The All Seeing I had a hit with Beat Goes On before any of the big names climbed on board - Tiana Krahn was a newcomer recommended to the band by ex-Pulp guitarist Russell Senior. Parrot is still confident that the band could go it alone.

He says: "The ideal thing would be to find a frontperson to do it all, though obviously it will be hard to follow up Mr Cocker's lyrics. I would like to avoid that stereotypical second album syndrome and I've got every faith that if we carry on with Boz and Lisa we'll be fine. I'm not sweating just yet."

The All Seeing I's album `Pickled Eggs & Sherbet' (FFrr) is out on September 20, see review opposite