September 16th, 2010 | Interviews

Download: BEAK> “Wulfstan”


(from the “Wulfstan” 12″ available now from BEAK>)

BEAK> is a Dogme 95 band made up of Bristol musicians Billy Fuller, Matt Williams and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. They took time before their last stateside show to lament the disappearance of British independent music stores and express their disdain for rock’n’roll shows. When he isn’t performing with BEAK>, Geoff Barrow runs Invada records. This interview by Kristina Benson.

How was Amoeba?
Billy Fuller (bass): Good fun. What a big record store.
Great. That was our icebreaker. Let’s move on. I read in an interview that you are all equal participants in this project.
BF: Yes. We are all equal. We’re all men.
Is there anyone who is more equal than everyone else?
BF: Stu. He’s our man.
But you—Geoff—you seem to do all the interviews. All the ones I could find, anyway?
Geoff Barrow (drums/vocals): That’s mostly the American stuff.
All of you participate?
BF: Yes. We all have a chat.
Yes. I can see that you are all very verbose. Very garrulous, loquacious people.
BF: Robust?
BF: Yes.
You told the BBC you were a Dogme 95 band. Do you know what I’m talking about? You look like you have no idea what I’m talking about.
GB: I do know what you’re talking about. We kind of adopted—see, the reason I talk is because [Matt] doesn’t fucking talk. Anyway—we adopted a kind of Dogme way of working. But it was more like a natural one than a forced one. It just happened to kind of be that way and we didn’t want to change it. We didn’t do any overdubs, we just did some edits, we played all at the same time, wrote our stuff within a couple of takes, and we just liked the way we worked and we continued that. But we were quite happy with it not changing. And I think that is basically like a Dogme, you know. We wanted to continue it so they were our rules. If we’d kind of done something else—I mean, I think there is one tiny little overdub on the record, and that was a discussion.
BF: It was a bit of a discussion, yes.
I also make music and sometimes when I try to pick up an instrument that isn’t my native instrument, it’s because I want to do something different. But sometimes it’s because I know I can hide behind something now. ‘Oh, well—I’m not a guitarist.’
GB: Like a sneaky kind of … ? Like you can’t be judged properly because it was only done as a demo? I can understand how people do use that, as a concept. When we put out the record—because I think we actually did put it on the record that we only did it in one take. So we did actually make a point of saying that. But that’s because I think that it’s an interesting way of working.
BF: It’s refreshing, you know? I know Geoff’s worked on records and Matt’s worked on records and I’ve worked on records where it’s like multilayered and it takes ages and ages and ages, and I think for the three of us to get into a room and go [snaps fingers] bosh! We have all just worked on records for so long that by the end of it, you’re just like, ‘I don’t know what it is anymore.’ Where this is so fresh that it’s like refreshing, and this was exciting.
I didn’t mean to imply that I felt you were hiding from anything.
BF: Yes—don’t go around implying, now. You’re so suspicious!
I saw another interview with a British magazine wherein you expressed reservations about playing in a hall named after a slave owner.
GB: That would have been an interview with me because I run Invada records. And [the fest] was called Invada Invasion. So I was the spokesperson for the whole event. And that’s when Mogwai played and those bands. BEAK> didn’t play—it wasn’t anything to do with BEAK>. We did a massive concert there and basically they rebuilt the hall. And I know for a fact that they are going to change the name of the hall, but it’s not public knowledge. But for Invada … Edward Coston [for whom the hall was named] was a notorious slave owner. He was part of the death of six million people. And he would just be turning in his grave to like see all the people who were in the hall [attending the fest]. So it was a way of saying, ‘Fuck you.’
How do you feel about playing in corporate arenas—or venues named after corporations—that are directly or indirectly responsible for death or exploitation?
BF: I don’t much think BEAK> will be playing in an arena in the next couple of weeks.
But Portishead might. And yes, I know that everything we touch, or consume, to some extent is associated with exploiting someone.
BF: Exactly—so what can you do? You know?
GB: That’s what’s so great about All Tomorrow’s Parties. And that’s why we’re such big fans of it. They won’t have any corporate sponsorship at all. They won’t take money from fucking … you know. So that’s why people support it.
Do you think that bands and artists and public figures have some sort of responsibility to point out the extent to which corporations do evil things and control our lives?
GB: I absolutely do—absolutely. And I try not to play anywhere corporate whenever possible.
Your press release said you were going to come to the states with Wal-Mart, Krispy Kreme and McDonalds, and in return take back BP—why those three?
GB: They’re just massive corporations, aren’t they? I mean—Wal-Mart is known for bad shit. They’re all just bad, aren’t they? It’s a joke, really. Because press releases are just fucking stupid. ‘A band is coming to play. Here is the band that is coming to play. Buy a ticket and go fucking see them.’ Like, you don’t have to write ‘they are on tour because.’ So I just wrote this fucking complete rubbish—not rubbish, I mean, I just thought, ‘Oh, I’ll write something.’ And then it got printed! What the fuck is that about? But press releases—why? It’s like, ‘This is the band, this is their music, go buy it or don’t buy it.’ The whole thing of like ‘You might like this because you like this!’ ‘If you like Level 42 you’ll like—‘
BF: ‘—Hootie and the Blowfish.’
So you guys—married and kids. How does your marriage survive this? I saw how you recorded for eight days twelve hours a day and then ran home to put the kids to bed.
GB: That was me.
BF: All the best musicians have the best women behind them.
And women musicians?
BF: I’m speaking from my point of view, I mean. If I’m recording up in my room, I have my wife come up and try to get her to do a little harmony for me because I can’t do them. So she’ll come up and do it. And she does a little bit of violin. Like John Cale in the Velvet Underground—sort of high and screechy. Not classical.
GB: I didn’t know that. Does she sing as well?
BF: Oh, yeah. We sing songs together.
GB: Oh—that’s nice! I really like that actually—to be with a partner who sings. She do harmonies? Which songs?
BF: We’ve done ‘All My Trials’—a folk standard—and a Leonard Cohen track which we did the other week.
GB: Wicked! How cool is that! I didn’t know that.
In an other interview, Geoff, you said that trying to write new music is like eating your own barfed-up curry dinner. Because you want it to sound like you, but you want it to be new too. And now you’re looking at me funny again.
GB: I think that might have been a Portishead interview.
Does it not apply to this band then?
GB: No!
BF: It’s a different thing, isn’t it?
GB: Different people, different outlooks—everything is different. Different goals. Everything.
BF: Different hairstyles. Different ages.
One of your Dogme 95 rules is that you have to record in the same room. Is it the same room from beginning to end for that record, or the same room—always—for BEAK> to record?
GB: It would be nice to be in the same room. Whether it has to be in the same room for the next record, I don’t really know. We haven’t really talked about it.
BF: Looking through a pane of glass with headphones on—always makes me—
GB: Oh God, it’s horrible!
BF: Terrible.
GB: Awful.
BF: And you can spend eight hours trying to get a headphone mix right—it’s horrible. It’s so hard to play music like that.
GB: It’s just—it’s boring. Rock ’n’ roll shows are boring. It is. It is all boring. It’s all been done a million times. People clapping after tunes is boring. It’s boring, it’s all fucking boring. Dear God. Do you know what I mean? It’s just boring, it’s so incredibly boring. But we still do it. Everybody still does it. Ugh.
Why do you still do it?
GB: Because—you’re trying to go different paths. And you all go down a different path—everyone goes down a different path. Just to try and go somewhere else is difficult. It’s hard work. Well—sometimes it’s easy. Like BEAK>. BEAK> to me is easy. I just love it, and it’s easy. I mean, Portishead is fun too and all that—and that side of it is really great as well. [Billy] plays with other people, and so does Matt. But when we get together, it’s like … we just don’t actually care that much.
Obviously you care a little bit, no? You’re on tour? You have PR…?
GB: Well—that side is the business. I run a record company, so yeah—I put it out, and I try to sell as many copies as I can and put the money back into the label or other bands or whatever. That’s a love for me on the other side.
Your roadie was telling me small record stores in the UK are evaporating.
BF: Oh, yeah. Independent record stores in Bristol? There’s like … one.
I thought there was this big Bristol music scene?
GB: No. It’s full of posh students. It’s like people everywhere who watch the Hills and read about Paris Hilton. You gotta remember—America is a fucking ginormous place. So there still is a movement of freaks that still want to buy records and vinyl. There’s so many people that it adds up to be worth it. In England, it’s just not there anymore. You don’t hear decent stuff on the radio. They call like Florence and the Machine—they call that truly original.
BF: They’re cutting-edge.
GB: They think they’re truly the original alternative cutting-edge music. And that’s where the U.K. is. And DIY exists, but it’s so tiny. Matt, you’re part of that, aren’t you? The DIY scene in Bristol? About how many people turn up to a show?
Matt Williams (keyboards/guitar): Four.
That’s so odd to me. Here, Cleaners From Venus tapes are being reissued on cassette by a company in Fullerton. Cassettes are getting big.
BF: We made a tape. For the tour. We’re down with the kids.
MW: Cassettes are really popular back home too.
BF: But going back to the records—this is a time when people will get their external hard drive, go round to their friends house, and link the two up, and go, ‘Here’s 10,000 songs.’ In an hour. And then go, ‘Thanks-very-much-goodbye!’
GB: But also that saves them—they’re working, and they haven’t costed music into their life anymore. You know what it’s like: you go to work, you get your wages, and you work out what your costing’s are. ‘What am I going to spend on a CD this week’? Well you don’t have to. You can just copy off your mates. And it doesn’t seem truly that illegal, you know? Because you don’t feel like someone’s going to knock on the door, really, about one CD. So people do it.
BF: And that’s why the shops close.
Vinyl is so different though. I mean people buy vinyl to have the physical artifact.
GB: That might be so in the U.S., where there’s enough people, but in the U.K., there’s just not.
BF: It’s just a very small demographic of people who are like that in the U.K. There is people like that, but it’s not huge.
Honestly, my first Portishead show—I saw it because someone copied the cassette for me.
GB: Did you buy the record afterwards?
I bought 180-gram vinyl of Dummy and a 12″ of a remixed track off Live at Roseland, I think, and another 12″ of remixes of ‘Sour Times.’
GB: So you didn’t kind of go back home and download it all off the internet because it was 1994. Now that’s what you would do maybe.
BF: Now we can make tour 45s, but we have to know we’re going to sell them. It’s brutal, really.
So I know you know Dogme—do you ever use Eno’s Oblique Strategies?
GB: You don’t need them. You just kind of do that naturally. Matt is basically those cards.
MW: I have no idea what you’re on about.
I just learned about this shit this afternoon myself.
BF: You have a deck of cards, and if you’re stuck on a song, you pick a card and it says like ‘Do What Your Friend Would Do’ or something. It’s strategies for artists.
MW: I just make a sound and if I like the sound, I say, ‘Good, I’m happy’.
BF: This is my oblique strategy. [Shows picture of baby son.] I only got two days left and then he’ll be shitting in my hand again.
Final question. You guys have all been here—most of you—before September 11. You’re going to be here tomorrow, on September 11. What do you think of all this, and how things have changed, if indeed you think they have?
GB: It was a real tragedy—really terrible. But it was also a brilliant way to make the western world fearful and turn into just sheeple in line, wasn’t it? We had people blow themselves up in the streets during the IRA, just like people blow themselves up every day in every part of the world—it’s nothing special.