The Beta Band
Not Just Another Bunch of Hot Shots
The Aquarian; August 15, 2001
The Beta Band has been unwittingly kicking up dust in a generally staid music scene since 1997, when its' four members came together in Edinburgh, Scotland, and as a lark, took their name from the bottom of the academic class, establishing from the start, a somewhat nonplussed attitude about being a part of the music scene in general. John MacLean, Steve Mason, Robin Jones, and Richard Greentree all play a variety of instruments ranging from decks to tape loops, and their musical non-sequiturs feature layers of folksy strumming, shuffling trip-hop rhythms and breakbeat ambience, and baroque orchestration, seamlessly meshed together.Read more or less
The group recorded three EPs between 1997 – 1998, which were in turn grouped together for a U.S. compilation in 1998 - called, strikingly enough, The Three E.P.s, arguably one of the year's most intriguing releases. The following year, a self-titled full-length album was recorded, which was immediately shunned by the band upon its' release as being too eccentric to be taken seriously, despite the fact that it went on to receive critical acclaim. In the year 2000, a seemingly inconsequential scene in the movie, High Fidelity featuring a song from their first EP, exposed them matter-of-factly to an entirely new audience, and by 2001, Radiohead credited them as having been rather influential during the recording of their Kid A/Amnesiac album sessions, which resulted in the Betas joining them as support on their current tour.
The release of this year's Hot Shots II finds the group completely flying in the face of an almost static sense of music fashion, further purging their influences of coy R&B romanticism, combined with a drop-dead funk attitude, lilting acoustic ballads and deft techno surrealism, resulting in a glorious sound that is at once familiar and timeless, yet not quite like anything you've heard before. Remarkably well-produced and lo-fi at the same time, Hot Shots II is a perfect example of The Beta Band's work ethic - inventing music that dictates its' own terms, simply for the sake of being music, rather than aiming for singles success or radio play, which ultimately makes them even more intriguing - and equally baffling - to those who love them.
In a telephone interview conducted during a brief respite from the current Radiohead tour – their fourth, and certainly their most visible visit to the U.S., lead singer/songwriter Steve Mason (who also records under the nom de plume King Biscuit Time), chatted from his native London, about the dichotomy between being in such an such an influential band, while somehow maintaining a profile of relative obscurity.
Explains Mason, "There's a lot of bands in Britain that have been influenced by us, and it's kind of flattering and slightly frustrating at the same time. We can't get our records played on Radio One, we can't get our videos played on MTV, but these people can."
Meanwhile, what has always seemed like the most natural way for the Betas to set about making music has become a point of fixation for many of their fans and critics alike. In a day and age when people obsess over influences, instrumentation, stylistic tendencies, and image, the Betas' refreshingly original approach is unfortunately too often over shadowed by the public's desire to reinvent their heroes as "The Next Big Thing".
When I suggested to Mason that people in general seem to be searching much too hard for clues as to how to interpret his bands' music, he was only too quick to agree: "Yeah, I think if they spent maybe less time trying to work out what it was they were hearing, and just concentrated on enjoying it, and just listening to it for pleasure, rather than for some kind of conversation piece or something like that, they might get more out of it."
Certainly The Beta Band has been subjected to countless wide-eyed superlatives, having been described in the press as "impossible", "magical", or even "mystical", to which Mason quickly retorted, "I suppose it's because, the majority of bands - in the mainstream - are so mediocre, that any kind of band that is striving to do something that's even slightly different, it's kind of perceived as being, "my god, where did these people come from?"
Although the band has maintained that they are incapable of irony for its' own sake, there is nonetheless something very ironic about the imaginative ways in which they have been described, which would actually seem to suggest more than anything, a complete lack of creative effort, amongst their peers as well as those who sing their praises. Affirmed Mason, "everybody has the capability, everybody has an imagination, and it's just a matter of using it, and not being so lazy."
Recording the first proper album seemed to be something of a nightmare for the band, as they tried perhaps a bit too hard to come up with ideas and methods of recording which would continue to challenge them creatively. Ultimately, the Betas expressed nothing but contempt for that release, although time has allowed them to look back and regard the whole experience as a necessary time they had to go through. In the meantime, Mason embarked on a project of his own, releasing a couple of EPs as King Biscuit Time, which subsequently were compiled as a 2000 release titled No Style.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, the album could almost pass itself off as a Beta Band release, with its' infectious rhythms and chirpy harmonies, but in stark contrast to the typical scenario of a side project encompassing work which falls outside the parameters of the main group, Mason revealed that he simply wanted to have something he could call his own - a non-collaborative work. "It's just that, ‘cause I'm the main songwriter in the band, sometimes it's nice to just work totally on your own. I just use King Biscuit Time as a kind of outlet, to sort of keep my kind of vision for each song totally pure, rather than letting other people work on them." He attests, "you can get quite precious about songs, you know, when you're a songwriter".
Given the premise that The Beta Band could do pretty much whatever they wanted and still remain true to the context of the group's musical identity, one can certainly appreciate the inherent diplomacy of working in such a manner. But surely, there must be some ideas the group has yet to see through to fruition? "We wanted to do a jungle track with bagpipes", Mason laughs - quickly adding, "luckily, that didn't work out". This potentially embarrassing admission aside, he contemplates the question, then disregards the notion that the group has left any stone unturned thus far - a charmed and enviable position, one might suspect, although at least one aspect of marketing falls short of their reach. The band has yet to have a hit single, and in the UK, that almost certainly spells certain death.
The problem is, the Betas don't really view their own music in terms of singles - explains Mason, "It's pretty difficult really - there was maybe one single from The Three EPs that would have made a good single, but the rest of them are so long, they would have had to have been edited to the point of extermination." "Squares", the track which opens the new album, was originally slated to be released as a single in the UK, but was withdrawn after it was learned that Radio One was already playing a single by another band, who happened to use a sample that was also featured in the Betas' track.
Lyrically, the group doesn't exactly wear it's politics on their collective sleeve, although woven within their whimsical, trippy melodies and innocent-sounding sing-song rhymes, lurk tales of gentle introspection, emotional duplicity, and various tangential philosophizing that will tangle your gray matter if you try to read too deeply into them. For example, "Eclipse", from the current album, features the following anecdotal nursery rhyme:
"The people asking questions to the people with the answers/the people with the answers are the people with the questions/so the people with the questions ask the people with the answers/the people with answers/won't tell the people with the questions the answers",
eventually building into an almost anti-climactic synopsis with the couplet, "I cant keep quiet for long/I'm a human being". In anyone else's hands, this could well spell out disaster, but the simple eloquence with which they pull this off recalls the panache of bands like the early Fall, as well as the detracted spaciness of Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd, with just the right balance of humor and cleverness to avoid the pitfall of pretension.
Although the music itself here doesn't really carry any sort of inherent "message" per se, it seems very likely – even to most casual listener, that this is in itself a more calculated message of sorts – in every detail of the group's personae, from the way in which they present themselves to the media, as well as to their audiences. Mason responded adamantly to this suggestion, stating that, "there is a really strong message in The Beta Band, but it's not something that we would want necessarily written down, so people could make a scene out of it".
To be sure, any band trying to maintain their integrity in the current arena of pop culture has their work cut out for them. Keep a low profile, and you run the risk of falling beneath the radar of the very people you want to reach; but create too much of a presence, and the labels practically affix themselves to you. "And then before you know it, it's the "new ... avant / psychedelia / folk / hop ... scene", chuckles Mason. I remind him that he has undoubtedly heard all of those tags and then some, to which he responds, between bursts of laughter, "Yeah, exactly! It's just ridiculous. So, what we're trying to do is inspire in people, to stretch their imaginations, look outside the norm, find out information for yourself - just look at the world around you, and see what you can contribute to it in a different way, that's never ever been done before", and then pausing for breath, he adds - not so much an afterthought as a summarization, "and just generally be healthy."
Now there's a band that's going to have their work cut out for them. Mason, still laughing at the thought of all the compound adjective "scene" descriptions, adds, rather emphatically, "Exactly – yeah!"
The Beta Band are supporting Radiohead at two shows in Liberty State Park, Thursday and Friday, August 16th & 17th.
© J. Free / The Aquarian; 2001