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Storm in a milkshake

The dance-pop duo Moloko evade pigeonholes. Their sound is vaguely reminiscent of Grace Jones and Talking Heads. But, they tell Nicholas Barber, not at all of Portishead
Which of Britain's new bands most deserves megastardom, the Bluetones or Shed 7? After listening to Moloko, such music-press debates remind you of Dr Johnson's analogy about judging between two species of insect. Moloko make ghostly, trippy dance-pop that rockets out of charted territory and into cartoonish, alien landscapes. Those other bands, frankly, don't. But then, considering that the country's most recent megastars are Oasis, what do you expect? "The band they idolise is the Beatles," says Mark Brydon, Moloko's boffin half. "Now if they were the contemporary Beatles, they'd be doing something like Goldie will come to do in future years. The Beatles were into experimenting with the latest technology, with influences from all over the world. Bands like Oasis just don't seem to understand that. It's just cabaret. We're very conscious of not being a pastiche band."

"Hey!" pipes up Risn Murphy, Moloko's singing half. "We're the new Beatles!"

"Well," Brydon smiles, "Moloko have probably got more affinity with 'I am the Walrus' than we do with most dance music." True enough, Murphy's mazes of marijuana-assisted wordplay would do Lennon proud. Take, for example, Moloko's new single "Fun For Me": "I dreamt that I was dreaming I was wired to a clock / Tickled by the minute hand tick tock tick tock / I dreamt I saw a moo cow jump across the moon / Just a flight of fantasy, zoom zoom zoom." And if you think the words are intriguing, wait until you hear the music.

The urge to experiment was nurtured by the pair's pre-Moloko careers. Murphy, 22, was expelled from her art-school foundation course "because I kept arguing with them. You had to have explanations for everything. Moloko is a reaction against that. I can just fly totally free."

Brydon, 35, but with "a mental age of 18", gave up architecture for music, and has long been a professional producer, songwriter and instrumentalist. He has collaborated with Boy George, and played in the jazz-funk combo, Cloud 9. "I was writing within a soul-jazz bracket and it became increasingly frustrating. There's a lot of trainspotters in that scene. If you were attempting to do something in a Herbie Hancock style, circa '73, then you had to use the right synthesisers, there was only one way to do it. It's a very liberating experience to be out of all that, to say: 'Yes, let's stick in some speed-metal riffs or whatever.' "

The formation of Moloko (Russian for "milk") is the "How We Met" story to end them all. According to the oft-repeated anecdote, in 1994 Murphy was at a party in Sheffield, where the duo is based, and was chanting: "Do you like my tight sweater?" Brydon heard her unsettling voice, and wondered if he could put the phrase to music. They recorded it at a nearby studio that very night. "Do You Like My Tight Sweater?" became the title of their first track and of their debut album, and it was a highly effective chat-up line to boot. Murphy and Brydon have been romantically involved ever since.

They make an odd couple. He has the bird's-nest hair of someone who has just crawled out of bed; she has the dyed, self- consciously kooky coiffure of someone who's just stepped out of the salon. His voice is rough and Northern; her accent hops back and forth from England to Ireland, where she was born (on Moloko records, it travels much further afield). But the pair complement each other. In the course of our amiable conversation in their publicist's west-London office, they have a sweet tendency to finish one another's sentences.

Murphy: "We wouldn't have made the music we made ..."

Brydon: "... if we hadn't been a couple."

Brydon: "I was allowed to be very sensual without being embarrassed. We could bring sexuality into the studio and work with it."

Could they be like the Eurythmics, and continue their professional partnership if they stopped being a couple? Murphy hesitates nervously before replying. "I don't think so. Jesus, that would take a lot of ... something. But I don't think we're gonna fall out, are we? We have a lot more than most couples. We're on a big adventure together."

When Moloko embarked on their adventure, they decided to throw the map out of the window and drive wherever the mood took them. They expected to release a mainly instrumental album, whereas Tight Sweater is crowded with Murphy's multiple vocal personalities. They never meant to play concerts, but now they are masters of the live show. On-stage, they mutate into a funky six-piece band, with Murphy as a riveting and self-confessed "lunatic" frontwoman.

In terms of their visual approach, and their balancing of artiness and poppiness, Murphy likens Moloko to Talking Heads and Grace Jones. Journalists more often describe them as a Technicolor copy of Portishead's subdued hues. What do they think of that comparison?

Brydon: "Laughable."

Murphy: "Complete crap. Put Portishead next to us and they look one- dimensional. They're one sentence and we're a book."

Forget Blur v Oasis. The real rancorous rivalry in British pop is between Portishead and Moloko.

"We're so much better than Portishead," insists Murphy, incredulous that anyone could believe otherwise. "And they know it, mate, I tell you. The Portishead guy came to our gig in Bristol wearing a T-shirt saying 'Accept No Imitations' and he went home with his head down, like a scolded puppy."

Brydon hunches over the table and mimes writing a memo on his cigarette packet. "Can you imagine? 'Tuesday morning. Must get T-shirt printed for Moloko gig tonight.' The point is, you've seen Moloko live, you've seen the way Risn performs. What's dawned on people is, 'Why did we put up with that lot standing around, drooping their heads, giving nothing? We're out to prove that you don't have to accept a guy sitting with his bedroom set up on stage, twiddling controls; and that it's OK to see someone perform. Going to most gigs is like going to church. You feel better about doing it, but it does nothing for you while you're there."

"And we're lunatic American televangelists instead," laughs Murphy. Praise the Lord.

! 'Fun For Me' (Echo, single) is released next week.