Pop: Things can only get Beta
Where the four-piece pop group goes to die, there lurks The Beta Band.
Friday 18 September 1998
Three Scotsmen and a lone Englishman - though due to their tendency to swap instruments in mid-song, one might easily suppose them to be an octet - their strange, surging, pagan, deceptively simple music applies a desperately needed shot of adrenaline to the prone form of the four-piece pop group. Not just slotting into other people's bills but stubbornly filling whole evenings with their own warped and wonderful hybrid of great music, terrible poetry, and alarming videos of strange rituals on Scottish hillsides, The Beta Band are the most exciting new British band to emerge in the last year and a half by a country mile.
Part art-school rhumba, part dub reverie, part pastoral idyll, The Beta Band sound resists all attempts at classification. "We all come from the countryside initially," explains their turntable wizard, John MacLean, on the telephone from the tour hotel in Liverpool. "And musically, we like to think that we inhabit our own village". The three four-track EPs the band have released over the past year and a bit - Champion Versions, The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos (now collected together on a single disc which the band insist is "not really an album" to stop mad people paying pounds 40 for them) - mark out that village as a very desirable place to live. But it's onstage that the band are at their most irresistible.
"When we first started playing gigs," MacLean continues, "the idea was to make it like a 1989 house club, but everyone was just standing and staring and not dancing. They've started to move around a bit now." Faced with a stage covered in ferns, a band wearing thrift-shop karate suits backed up by a fastforward video odyssey through a selection of record sleeves so eclectic as to be almost hallucinatory ("The scary part is," MacLean continues, "that was only two of our record collections"), audiences really have no other choice.
But while their forerunners in what might casually be termed British pop's nouveau psychedelic strain - like Spiritualized and Primal Scream - seem to be shuffling the cards of their musical heritage, The Beta Band are a whole new deck. If rock history is a hotel, they have checked out and gone for a walk along the clifftops in bare feet. But don't tell them face to face that's what you think they're doing. In fact, don't try to tell them anything, or they will look at you with the wounded expression of a small child who thinks you're about to take away its biscuit.
Before The Beta Band started to make it big, the secret NUJ list of the world's most obnoxious interviewees contained four names: Jazzie B, Chris Penn, Ricki Lake and Will Oldham of the Palace Brothers. Trying to talk to our heroes in drummer Robin's attic flat - located conveniently near to Highgate's suicide bridge, for those journalists who may want to end it all on the way home - it's as if the four resolute non-communicators listed above have decided to form a group. There's nothing intrinsically unfriendly about The Beta Band, but the inclusiveness and warmth of their music is in inverse proportion to their desire to talk about it.
In a perhaps understandable reaction to the discredited Oasis/Embrace school of "We're the best band in the world" self-promotional overkill, The Beta Band regard name, rank and serial number as frankness beyond the call of duty. They once refused to do an interview with The Face on the grounds that they "weren't really a band", but getting a foot in the door is only the beginning.
Beta Band techniques for frustrating friendly attempts at interrogation begin with standard Beatles-inspired obfuscation. Asked to say their names on tape for voice identification purposes, they start off by pretending to be the Beach Boys ("Brian, Dennis, Carl, Mike"), and then run the gamut of names which aren't actually their names until the joke is lying in the gutter for mercy.
They move on through vague disdain. A valiant attempt to start a discussion about the problems caused by noisy oystercatchers to coastal birdsong recordists, ends in total humiliation to downright hostility if the name of another group is mentioned.
Do they think you have to be secretive about something in order for it to be powerful? "No," says Gerry Rafferty-influenced vocalist, Steve Mason. "I just think people waste too much time talking about music that happened 30 years ago." Other bands would be very happy to be identified as coming from, say, a psychedelic tradition. "But if we're being described with reference to a genre that's 30 years old, we have failed in our quest to make brand new music," Mason insists dourly. "I don't even know what psychedelic means."
It comes from the Greek delios, meaning to make apparent, and psyche, meaning, well, the psyche. It was originally used with reference to drugs that were supposed to have this effect, and then to music that was supposed to complement, intensify or echo such experiences.
"But surely all music is about coming to a deeper understanding of oneself?" says Mason
He might have a point there.
"The reason we don't say very much," interjects bassist Richard Greentree, in the grip of a momentary merciful impulse, "is that, if we had to think about what our influences are, or why we're doing what we're doing, it would take all the fun out of it."
That seems fair enough. So is there anything The Beta Band wouldn't find it painful to discuss? Greentree pauses. "Talking about what we actually do - what instruments we used and how different making the third EP was to making the first - that would be acceptable."
OK then, how was making the third EP different to making the first?
Richard (excitedly, as if somehow vindicated): "The first EP, which I didn't play on, was basically just translating demos into the studio. Patty Patty Sound was quite live, and recorded as much as possible in one take, all playing at the same time. The third EP was done close-miked, with fewer instruments and more attention paid to getting individual sounds exactly right, and then overlaying them all together."
But these are the kind of mundane details from which the music of The Beta Band seems so capable of transporting us. The only things The Beta Band are willing to tell us should be exactly the sort of things we really don't need to know. And that's the exact opposite of the way their music works. "It's about waking up in the morning and reaching for a guitar," they told Melody Maker, in a rare moment of glasnost. "Or a glockenspiel, or a gong."
The Three EPs (Regal) is out 28 September. The Beta Band's rescheduled tour dates begin on 23 September, at Aberdeen Lemon Tree, and end on 30 September, at Camden Electric Ballroom. Their first album will be out next year
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