The Aquarian

The Aquarian; August 15, 2001 cover

Interview:
Steve Mason
of The Beta Band
July 2001

This is pretty much just the pre-edited, raw interview / conversation.
Another part of the process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.

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How's the tour been going so far?
Good, really good. Really amazing venues, you know? We've never really done that many outdoor gigs, so it was quite an experience to play all these huge outdoor places.

Is that the majority of the venues you're playing?
Oh yeah, they were all outdoor.

Any interesting responses from any of the shows on this tour so far?
I think they were all pretty good, you know? They were all better than expected, really. Some of the venues are laid out slightly strange, they have their seat areas at the front, and then the standing area at the back, so a lot of the people that arrive early on are kind of standing about three miles away from you see, so it's a little strange, but, they were all – every audience that we played to was really responsive. It was really, really good.

This is your second time to the US, is it not?
It's probably our fourth, or something like that – yeah, we've played there quite a few times.

You're certainly playing to much larger audiences this time around.
Mmm, yeah.

Radiohead have attributed your being on this tour, to The Beta Band having influenced them to some degree. What does it feel like, to be aware of your influence on a band who are themselves regarded as being influential?
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. The Beta Band's completely broke – we owe about a million pounds to the record company. We don't really sell enough records to make any money whatsoever. So, it's kind of frustrating from that point of view, and the fact that these already well-established bands, who are managing to make another great album, by being influenced by us. Where, we're kind of stuck at the bottom, with this industry - kind of…blanket, smothering us. Where, we can't get played anywhere, so, it's flattering these people have heard of us, but it's frustrating, you know?

It's my understanding that you hadn't originally intended to come into this as a band, though - is that correct?
No, not really – only two of us went to art college, John and Robin. Me and Richard both were working before the band, so, the art school thing is a bit overplayed, really. I mean, we're all really interested in art, and we think of The Beta Band as a kind of…artistic adventure, but it wasn't like we were an art collective, or anything like that. We deliberately formed a band.

It does seem that many people are focusing their attention on things like the samples, or the various combinations of genres and styles you incorporate into your music - do you think that perhaps people are looking too hard for clues?
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.

The band pretty much dismissed the first proper album when it came out, and yet it went on to receive some critical acclaim in spite of this, as well as featuring some brilliant tracks. Now that you've been playing that material out a bit, and have had some time to look back, have your feelings changed about that album at all?
I suppose now I don't feel that it was a complete waste of time, because we learned – especially me, so much from making that record. Whereas before, I kind of saw it as a total waste of time and money, and now I feel much more at ease with it, because, obviously we're all so happy with Hot Shots II, that I see it now for what it is – it was a necessary time that we had to go through.

You've certainly heard all the superlatives in the press, "impossible", "magical", "mystical" – to what do you attribute these wide-eyed responses to the way you make music?
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?", you know, "The Planet of the Apes", "these guys are crazy!", "they must ingest 400 gallons of liquid acid a day!", whereas, everybody has the capability, everybody has an imagination, and it's just a matter of using it, and not being so lazy.

What was the story around the single you had originally picked from Hot Shots II ("Squares") being withdrawn from radio airplay?
There's another group here who used the same sample, and their track came out first, and Radio One, which is the big radio station here said they wouldn't playlist two tracks with the same sample, so - we didn't have to, but we decided to pull ours, 'cause without any Radio One play in this country, it's kind of dead. So, we did that, and unfortunately Radio One said they wouldn't play the one we picked anyway – the new one ("Broke").

But "Broke" did enter the UK charts pretty respectably -
Yeah it did, but not through any help from Radio One.

What influenced the decision to pick "Broke" as the new single?
I wanted "Broke" to be the single anyway, so I think I kind of argued for that one quite strongly. I wanted to come back with something up tempo, and really kind of vibrant and modern sounding.

What is it like for you to think in terms of your music as singles?
It's pretty difficult, really. There wasn't really any singles – well, there was maybe one single from the Three EPs that should have been a single, but never ever was. I think maybe "Inner Meet Me" 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.

Have you found that the scene featuring "Dry the Rain" in the movie "High Fidelity" has helped you gain greater exposure?
I suppose at first I didn't think it would be that successful, because the movie wasn't that successful, I don't think, as to what people thought it might be. But then, when we went out there on the last tour with Radiohead, most of the people we talked to said they'd heard about us through that film, so it has really helped us a lot, you know?

Was your solo album, King Biscuit Time, something you felt went outside the perimeters of what might be considered Beta Band material?
No, not at all, it's just that, 'cause I'm the main songwriter in the band, sometimes it's nice to just work totally on your own, and 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. I mean, you can get quite precious about songs, you know, when you're a songwriter. Most of the King Biscuit Time stuff I've released has been demos I've done at home, and they're just tracks that I haven't really wanted to change, 'cause I really liked the way they sounded, the way I've recorded them at home. So, there isn't really a conflict, it's more of a case of, I find it very cathartic to do King Biscuit Time, and then come back to The Beta Band with a fresh approach again.

What do you feel is the difference between the material you write for each group?
I don't really write like that, I don't write songs for the Beta Band, and songs for King Biscuit Time, I just – whatever songs I have at the time, I just decide what I'm gonna do.

In terms of the way you create your music, are there things you've wanted to try, that you haven't done yet?
We wanted to do a jungle track with bagpipes... eh, luckily, that didn't work out. But that's about the only thing we've thought of, and never tried.

So, you really don't think that there's anything you haven't been able to do?
No, I don't think so.

Although your music doesn't carry any inherent "message", could it be that there is a definite sort of message in the way you present yourselves to the media, and to your audiences as well?
Yeah definitely, I mean, 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, and other bands could say "right, we're gonna be like that", and then before you know it, it's the "new... avant / psychedelia / folk / hop scene".

And you've heard all of that already, haven't you?
[laughing] Yeah, exactly! And before you know it, it's just ridiculous. So, what we're trying to do is inspire in people, to stretch their imaginations, look outside the norm, and don't take anything for – always second-guess people, always find out why people are saying what they're saying to you, you know, find out information for yourself, and just look at the world around you, and see what you can contribute to it, and see what you can contribute to it in a different way, that's never ever been done before, and just generally be healthy.

Well, it would seem that you've got your work cut out for you.
[laughs] Exactly, yeah!

I live in London, so, I'm not really too aware of what's going on up there. In terms of British bands, I don't really listen to a lot of – well, actually, no British bands at all, I really listen to hip-hop and Jamaican music, new Raga as well, and R & B, and modern black music. So, I don't really inhabit that world of small, dark clubs, listening to three guys hammering away on Gibsons. [laughing] It's not my scene, dude!

© J. Free; 2001


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