Wagging Tongues: an interview with Biting Tongues
On February 23, 2007 Biting Tongues played live at Islington Mill Studios in Salford, their first show in Manchester for two decades. I met up with Graham Massey, Howard Walmsley, Ken Hollings, Colin Seddon and Eddie Sherwood at the venue earlier the same day to discover more about the band’s past and what it was like to play together again.
JT: How did Biting Tongues start?
HW: I’d begun experimenting with film. I was already a musician. I’d made a short film with a friend, Richard Roberts, and we went to a gig at the Russell Club one night and ‘thought this is terrible, we can do better than this’. It was a punk period [band], Singing Bananas, someone like that, and we said, let’s show the film and we’ll put a band together to play a live soundtrack. And I more or less introduced people to each other on stage.
GM: To provide a bit of history to that: there were a couple of performances when I wasn’t in the band, and each performance was almost a different set of people. Until the third performance.
HW: And then the film elements kind of got left behind after a while. We still used slides and film loops and then the first proper version of [Biting Tongues] would be the band that played the ICA I s’pose.
KH: No, it would be the Beach Club.
HW: Yes. Which is where New Hormones comes in.
KH: That was the first time that particular five-piece performed. I was living in London so I was commuting up to do performances [and] that was the first time that particular five-piece got together and we worked phenomenally well.
JT: Do you remember the precise date?
GM: I’ve got the flyer [the flyer is dated June 3, 1980]
HW: There was a lot of little envelopes with cassettes flying up and down [between London and Manchester] with ideas for tunes. Ken would send ideas for texts and presentation.
KH: Quite a lot of the early shows, a lot of it was improvised around loose structures or cues set up. I knew Howard from before Biting Tongues, I knew he was working on films and that was the element that I was interested in. And then Graham knew Colin knew Eddie. But what was really interesting was the five of us didn’t know each other as a five – we hadn’t got together socially.
HW: At that time we’d put quite a lot of work into a particular piece and then crash it. We just didn’t do the same things twice. So the evolution of what we were doing, which was always at the edge of our ability – we were playing things that we couldn’t play, that were impossible to play – kept it very fresh and very challenging.
KH: Going back to your criticism of the post-punk stuff, I remember you saying that Punk was just a bit too ‘off the shelf’, a bit too much of a mould or matrix that you could just fit stuff into, and we wanted to completely get rid of all that and just bring elements together and see what would happen on stage. And now I look back the innocence and arrogance and stupidity of some of our decisions like never playing the same numbers twice. When we started recording the first album it was all done in one take – all new material, hardly rehearsed. I was barely on nodding terms with Graham, we’d played like one gig together, and I seem to remember the first thing Graham saying to me, ‘you mind not doing that’, because I was fiddling around with his amplifier in the studio, because I didn’t really have anything else to do.
HW: We didn’t sell that at the time. We’ve only just realised what that actually meant. That opportunity – someone’s paying for you to go in a recording studio – and we’re sort of, ‘let’s just see’. We never really traded on that. So people listening to it didn’t really know what they were listening to.
GM: It was a bit more of a slash’n’burn culture though, wasn’t it? You didn’t expect things to last. Things barely lasted months: they just went (makes noise like a fly) and that was the culture back then a little bit more than it is now.
KH: I think slash’n’burn is a good image – there was a sense of ‘no, you don’t want to do this, you don’t want to do that’.
GM: Coz bands nowadays they start with a career plan and then they get signed before they’ve even got four tunes.
JT: Plus you had the multimedia aspect from the start, which is unusual.
HW: The interesting thing about that is that it really was old school. Until the digital age there was never really an easy way of putting that together.
GM: You were lucky to have a video player [in those days].
KH: It was really labour intensive. We were mostly using 16 mil, thanks to Howard. And the great thing about slides is they were 35 mil, so you’d get quite a good projected spread onto the stage.
GM: Ilford culture.
HW: That first film we used every single frame what we bought – the positive, the negative, the lead offs – and a lot of it, it was black and white, we coloured it in with felt-tip pens.
GM: All that stuff that’s so easy to do with computers now. Even to do just a slide image used to involve weird colouring in and superimposition.
HW: And actually physically cutting up negatives… weird colouring in. Letraset… And now that’s half an hour on Photoshop for some bright kid.
KH: We used to get some text on acetate and cut them into the images as well.
GM: We used to get through a lot of Letraset, didn’t we?
KH: And that’s where “First Use All the Gs” comes from – coz they were always the first ones to go, weren’t they, on your Letraset. Small footnote, the film was called Biting Tongues and the band took the name from the film.
HW: Because it was a performance.
JT: Who would you say you were influenced by at that time?
HW: The punk reference earlier is interesting, because punk referenced rock and I think we actively fought against rock influence. Sun Ra, Miles Davis.
KH: For me a lot of Parliament, Funkadelic and early George Clinton. And at the time you were laughed at, because they were on Casablanca they were disco. And you weren’t supposed to listen to disco. That interest in Clinton didn’t really come until the early 80s.
HW: Some of the Germans – Can, Faust.
KH: Coz we kind of grew up with Krautrock.
JT: Postpunk breaking out of punk’s three minute ramalama.
HW: They may have been punk but they were still straight.
KH: I always get disappointed by retrospectives of punk, because they never mention the funk element, listening to Krautrock; bands like Suicide, they showed what could be done; bands like This Heat: I remember being very struck by what they were doing back in the day.
GM: The band me and Colin had before Biting Tongues that was running a little bit parallel, we used to do Chrome cover versions. There was all that American slant on post-punk culture that came into it. The things that we had in common when we met were things like the Sun Ra.
KH: Impulse tried to reissue Sun Ra’s back catalogue and then they ran out of money or they decided just to scrap the whole project.
GM: So Manchester was flooded with…
KH: That’s never really been given its full credit – all those punched out Impulse reissues that you could get for like 75p. Massive influence. And that was one of the things, we all said, ‘oh, you know Nubians from Plutonium’.
GM: That was a badge. That was a sparking point. Other things that flooded the market at the time were ECM albums. I know me and Colin had a lot of those in common. I wouldn’t say it was an influence, but there was a lot of jazz connections between what we were doing, so jazz was in the pot.
HW: But jazz as in the edge – Bitches Brew, Eric Dolphy.
GM: But it certainly wasn’t just punk. There was a punk attitude.
HW: What punk did was for that time was open the doors to a lot of new, smaller gigs that made things possible.
KH: That whole DIY ethos. I mean up till then, 101 Pop Culture History, but I mean this notion that you either had to have a degree in music or banks and banks of equipment to do music. That was great – all that was cleared away. I think there was an element, the notion of the five of us just going into a studio and recording an album side. Here it is, just go and do it.
GM: Also one of the things we had in common is that we came from a making tapes culture. We messed around with tape recordings. I always see it as two factions – they were the older ones from my perspective. They had all these recordings that were just like ours, where they were messing round with tapes, and cutting up tapes and just generally having a social occasion round the tape recorder and then seeing what you could do with cutting it up. And we did that as well. It was one of the things we had in common and yeah, we’re working in a collage type way.
HW: We never played a song.
GM: No. And that collage culture was around in Zappa and Beefheart and that kind of thing so that was a common ground. Even though we weren’t obsessed with Zappa and Beefheart and that, we knew the common language of collaged record making. And Faust Tapes.
KH: Certainly Faust Tapes again were a cheap…
GM: 49 pence records
KH: Everywhere. And the seeds that those things sowed. And that notion that you could take almost like a social event and re-edit it and re-cut it. Also, and we haven’t even mentioned it, the importance of having tapes running on stage. We called them backing tapes but they weren’t in any established sense of the word, they would be bits of news broadcasts, TV station chopped, things running backwards.
GM: It was there as a texture, it wasn’t there as any kind of cueing system. It was just random, flowy. That had come from bands like Can [who] used to do that with the shortwave radio. It was floating around in the culture to do that, it wasn’t new to do that, but we did it, perhaps turned up the dial on it a bit more than most bands. And those occasions when we got together to make them were equally part of the ritual of what we did. Make the films, make the tapes, then make music. And the text is nothing to do with song writing.
KH: Not at all.
GM: It’s much more from that same idea of, it’s another layer in the collage, it’s got its own place in the overall picture, but it isn’t song writing.
KH: It was the perfect opportunity for cutting text in a venue and a format that would allow the text to interact with everything else. And certainly when it came to the recording, some of the recordings you’d get these really interesting moments where you can’t actually tell whether it was the text being cut up or some random elements being introduced off the tape. Those moments were really great.
GM: And that is almost very common these days in Computer World, when all media lives in one box, but that then it was more out on a limb.
HW: And the fact that it had to be brought together brought its own quality.
JT: Because you were trying to bring all these different elements together and each show had a different set, I guess you weren’t regularly performing live because it was too much work in a sense, you had to prepare everything.
GM: But it was a lot easier to get gigs because in that post-punk culture of do-it-yourself and collectives – there was this Manchester Musicians’ Collective thing going on where you’d go to a meeting once a month and they’d hand out, there’d be a rota of people doing concerts, so we had a regular flow of gigs, but they were mostly in Manchester. We didn’t set out to conquer the world, we were happy to do Manchester gigs, and Ken had a similar connection in London so Ken would be getting us London gigs to do with his scene in London, so we had a sort of Manchester-London axis. We rarely played outside that.
KH: Very rarely.
JT: When you did your first recordings how did you go about choosing what to put on record?
GM: It was whatever we’d rehearsed that week, wasn’t it?
HW: Side two of ‘Don’t Heal’, which was the first thing we recorded, which was for New Hormones. They put us in touch with Stuart [James].
GM: He was a Radio Piccadilly producer.
HW: He produced Mark Radcliffe’s show.
HW: And working towards the recording of that stuff, we did something which is the best thing we do, we started from scratch there. And the principle of that we had actually done before when we did that thing with Bob Jones at the Film & Video Workshop. Bob was a video maker, a film director, and he said, oh I’ll do some film of you. So in a room similar to this [upstairs room at Islington Mill Studios, Salford], he was just sitting there with a camera, and we played for, I don’t know how long, three-quarters of an hour or something. So there’d been a bit of a precedent.
KH: God, I’d forgotten about the Noh Luck Ritual! N-o-H as in Japanese theatre. It’s the kind of thing you wake up screaming over 20 years later.
HW: There’s not really a story [with ‘Don’t Heal’, side two] because it’s simple: it was played live in the studio. I think there was possibly bits of overdubbing or bits of post-production, but essentially the chassis went down in the duration at the time.
JT: Where was it recorded?
GM: It was a place called Drone Studios in Chorlton. The fashion for studios then was to have a very dead sound, so it was a padded room in a cellar, padded with denim, so it was actually like being in someone’s jeans.
KH: A Status Quo fan convention [laughs].
HW: I think it was 8-track.
KH: It was 8-track. You know we even left in stuff like the vocal fluffs. It just stayed in.
GM: Well we couldn’t afford. In some ways it was like, it’s four hours and that’s it, bang! Because that was the budget. It was do or die. It wasn’t take 3 and take 4 or anything like that.
KH: I just remember having this music stand with sheets of A4 paper and index cards with different treated texts on them. And I was just picking them up as we were going along and dropping them in. And there is some kind of odd fragmented narrative through the whole session.
GM: So that’s side two and then side one happened about a year later or something.
HW: We realised that New Hormones were never going to get it off the ground.
GM: I think that’s the first time they ran out of money.
HW: So we had what in our view and in actual fact was a very fresh recording, that from our point of view that needed to be out there. Nothing was happening, we were starting to get more exposure, more people were starting to see us and someone had heard a track on a tape and somehow found us and said I’ve heard this have you got any more like that. What was his name? Peter Kent! He was essentially from Warner’s, from Beggars Banquet, Situation Two. We said, well we’ve recorded it for this other record company but it’s sat on the shelf. And he said how about if I buy that off them and we’ll pay for you to do some more and then there’ll be an album and everything will be great and away you go. So the second side we recorded [side one of the LP] was a slightly fancier affair in a 24-track studio.
KH: I think we actually had two days.
KH: It made a big difference to us to have people like Richard [Boon] and Peter [Wright – the guys who ran New Hormones records] come to us and say, that was amazing, that was really exciting, come and do something. And I think up until then, it had been well this is a really interesting experiment that you are doing. And that was the first time anyone had said, no, this is really vital, come into the studio, we’ll do it for you.
JT: Was that just after the Beach Club show, or later?
KH: That was immediate; in fact it was practically while the audience was still leaving the Beach Club. I just remember, I think it was Peter, coming up.
HW: At that time, we were friends, it was all amicable. I now know, years later, that look in people’s eyes where nothing’s gonna happen. I didn’t then. Oh, isn’t the album coming out yet? Oh, soon, soon. And the rate we were working, it was becoming less and less vital. Although we really liked it as a piece. So when we got the opportunity to release it somewhere else – either put it out or sell it please. And to their credit, because they appreciated what the music was about, they say ‘yeah, okay’. I’m sure they did all right financially out of it as well.
GM: Then the next thing was ‘Live It’, wasn’t it? Which [New Hormones] did get to [release]. It was a cassette, so it wasn’t hard to get together.
KH: But it also put us into a way of working which we hadn’t done before.
Which was working in an eight-track studio, using a small studio, but using all of it. Spending our time layering tapes into the mix. Some of it was performed live. I think even for Live It, three of the tracks were performed live straight to the master tape.
GM: I think it was all two-track because the machine didn’t work.
KH: No, some of it was mixed…
Colin: It was all mixed at the time as we played.
KH: One session was done [like that]: “Denture Beach” and “42” and “43”.
GM: It was done at Roger Salmon’s [studio].
Colin: That’s right.
KH: But “Reflector” and the others…
Colin: It was from two sessions.
KH: And it was Stuart James that did the straight to two-track session. And then I think we kind of [produced] the other tracks.
JT: Why did you have the two sessions?
GM: Again it was kind of like, here’s a bit of money, oh we’ve got four tracks. Here’s another bit of money, oh we’ve got two tracks. Here’s another bit of money. It’s a product. It was never sort of, here’s the album: this is the concept of the album. [It was] oh, we’ve got some money to do some recordings, oh we’ve got a collection of recordings, that way of doing it.
HW: The ones that went straight to tape are for me the most fresh, right recordings.
JT: Why did it come out on cassette?
GM: There was a definite vogue for cassette at the time. I mean it was cheap to manufacture, but there was a culture of cassettes.
Colin: Major labels were doing it as well.
GM: It was the Walkman era. Cassettes were the format of the moment, so to speak.
Colin: The Walkman was a really big thing when it came out.
GM: It was such a big deal.
JT: And only 500 copies of ‘Live It’ were issued originally?
GM: Was it?
HW: No idea. Sounds right.
JT: What about the packaging – ‘Radio Sweat’ and ‘Pickpocket’ [the other cassettes released by New Hormones in the same series in 1981] came in quite fancy cases, with stickers?
GM: I don’t remember a lot of the other ones. I remember they had a magazine on cassette, ‘Northern Lights’. We did some stuff for that. It would be things like – on one there’s an interview with Ian Curtis in a pub that you can barely hear, some percussion improvisations actually by one of the guys that’s in the support band tonight, Richard [Dick Harrison of Spaceheads and former drummer with Mudhutters and Dislocation Dance]. And they intended to release one a month, like an audio magazine, to go along with this cassette mania that was going on.
They were just running with that idea at the time. It was also because the magazine culture in Manchester at the time was pretty thin… Considering that Manchester had quite a vibrant music scene, nothing was really covering it. And in a way [‘Northern Lights’] was an attempt to redress that.
KH: The other advantage of a cassette release was, you could do it in small batches and kind of tweak the release, which was what happened with ours [‘Live it’]. There was one edition, blue on white cover, and there was only seven tracks. And I don’t think the sound quality was that great. I remember being a bit disappointed by it. And then it was reissued, white on blue and we added an extra track on side one, which was a live recording we’d done at Manchester Poly.
JT: The thing with ‘Northern Lights’ is nowadays you’d probably do it as a podcast.
KH: It was the podcast of its day.
HW: It definitely was. That’s exactly what it was.
JT: And then you were going to release ‘Libreville’ on New Hormones initially.
HW: I can remember the same conversation again, which was, hi guys, we’ve been approached for the material. I think we were more active about trying to push that around, actually. It was a serious thing. We’d put a lot of work into that: we’d had a producer, Roland Beelans, come over from Belgium.
JT: How’d you meet him?
KH: I think he’d heard the first album.
HW: We recorded in a variety of studios. We had our heads a bit more round how we would record the material. But from the New Hormones point of view, once again well intentioned but the wheels fell off.
JT: Do you think that New Hormones, if they’d had the money could have been a really influential label?
KH: I’d hate to think that it was all down to money: they were an influential label. To go back to what I was saying, just the enthusiasm that allowed us all to focus on what we were doing, it was really useful. And there was an awful lot of energy. I remember when we did the Body Repairs night. New Hormones actually had a night at The Venue – Eric Random and God’s Gift.
JT: What’s happened to God’s Gift, by the way?
KH: I don’t know. I lost track of them after that gig, actually.
But I remember Richard [Boon] saying, because I was shuttling between London and Manchester, rehearsals and gigs, and working on ‘Feverhouse’ with Howard. And Richard said, look if you’re going back to London on Monday morning, drop by the office and we can do some flyers and get them out in Soho. I was, ‘yeah, fine’. And I turned up, quite early in the morning, and Richard hadn’t started them yet, he was still laying them out, and basically, he’d taken an old copy of Search and Destroy and had just cut out these old African tribal marking pictures, and I think there was an eye surgery one as well. And he was still doing all this Letraset. But done really quickly, really efficiently – taking an A4 sheet and putting the flyer on it, putting it through the Xerox machine and guillotining it. And I think I was only in the office for 20 minutes and by the time he had finished I had a thick wad of flyers. In fact, the opening lines to “Reflector” were inspired by the flyer, the ‘filed down teeth’. So there was a lot of energy as well.
HW: In answer to your question about money, [Richard Boon was] management for Buzzcocks and Buzzcocks had been a very successful mainstream pop act. One of the first films I ever worked on, again with director Bob Jones, was working on a Buzzcocks promo. That’s how I got to know Richard more closely than before. They used that kind of core momentum and bank balance to begin the experiment. But then Buzzcocks starting crumbling, they weren’t selling quite as much, didn’t have their deal renewed, etc, etc.
KH: I remember evenings spent in the New Hormones house, which was five minutes walk from where Howard lived.
GM: And about 100 yards from where Tony Wilson lived!
KH: The first time I met Tony Wilson he was sitting on the floor in the front room showing someone out of Dislocation Dance how to solve the Rubik’s Cube. That was my introduction to him.
GM: Most of the Manchester music scene was in literally one square mile of Didsbury at one point.
JT: So they all lived there to be close to the Factory office?
HW: And then the floor fell in on the house and they had to move out.
HW: The floor eventually fell in on the house.
KH: It was the weight of all the vintage magazines and paperbacks.
HW: Unissued recordings
KH: And old copies of Jackie annual from about 1965. I remember the most amazing collection; it must have been Richard’s.
JT: You later went on to record for Factory – what would you say was the main difference in ethos between the two labels, apart from that Factory had a bit more money?
HW: Factory didn’t know who we were. They had no idea who we were or what we did, but they did it. ‘Feverhouse’ was a bit of a Trojan horse there, because Ikon had put out the film and done some kind of shuffle where Factory put out the album and that establishes us as a Factory band. And then it’s like, ‘well we’ve got this other stuff that we do’. ‘Ok, fine’.
KH: The other advantage was, we were sort of running out of money to finish the actual film of ‘Feverhouse’, I think we wanted to do one last shoot and some post-production, and I think that was actually part of the deal as well, that Tony Wilson would underwrite…
HW: That was part of the deal but it never happened, they never shelled.
KH: Did they not?
HW: Not for that. I remember a conversation with Wilson which was more or less, ‘well, that was then’.
KH: I seem to remember the film was on his coffee table for about nine months, a rough cut of it.
HW: The other thing was, because I had an ongoing relationship with Ikon – I used to work with them sometimes with other bands – I was in and out of Factory’s office quite a bit. And the main issue there was just dealing with the weight of the machine that was dealing with New Order.
JT: It seems to me from the outside that Factory would have these periods where they would have one very successful band and everyone else was a tiny fragment of interest for the label.
HW: Tony [was] well on record as saying he doesn’t like, doesn’t understand, doesn’t want anything to do with anything remotely connected to jazz. We’re very connected (KH: Remotely connected) to jazz. But I think they understood our position and I think they understood the kind of intention of what we were trying to do, which was kind of beyond and outside of the music. And they were interesting – interesting people to deal with.
GM: I don’t think we had one person there who we dealt with. There was no one who was championing us and bringing us in. Which felt odd.
HW: Essentially we were dealing with Tony and Tony was very distracted and didn’t understand us.
GM: The whole catalogue – occasionally you’d go and try and blag records from the office and you’d be like, ‘what’s this?!?’
HW: What are you doing?!
GM: Who’s commissioned this? Like weird Afrobeat things. It was a real mix.
CS: Later when you’d find out how much they used to spend on sleeves and really successful chart successes didn’t make any money because the sleeve art cost so much, you can see why that was. They could say yes to anything; you could see how there was a lack of selection going on.
GM: There was no great vision with Factory, which is odd because Factory has this reputation of being a visionary label.
JT: Peter Saville’s artwork was visionary maybe?
GM: Yeah, and a lot of it is front. I don’t think it was a particularly visionary label: it just did some good things and had a big wake of – no pun intended.
HW: We were very much further down the food chain than New Order or whatever. It seemed even more absurd when – I remember Tony phoning up and saying, he’d just got this bill off Dave Pringle who’d charged himself at some pittance an hour, but it was too much: ‘How can you pay that for a producer? I’m not paying that’. And for that he did the recordings, he did all the post [-production], he came to London, he mastered it with us. ‘Oh that’s alright then, okay fine’. But then you look at the bill for the cover for that, for the sleeve art, it was Trevor Johnson, and it was preposterous, and it took months. The same thing again, of a value system that didn’t actually understand the thing that seemed to be at the centre of it, the music.
GM: [New Hormones was] a much more sort of family record company. They all practically used to live in one house: Richard and Peter and [Ian]. They lived in this massive house and it was more of a family thing than Factory. Tony always had this media connection as well that sort of widened it out. Didn’t feel quite as cottage industry. Two different styles, definitely.
JT: Factory’s legacy in Manchester is pretty clear – Hacienda, Dry Bar, Madchester, etc. New Hormones doesn’t have any visible legacy. What do you think the legacy was?
GM: For me, I think the Beach Club was a very important club. It was an important in changing clubbing in Manchester as the Hacienda. It was earlier, and a bit more…
GM: Yes, it was dimpier, but it was the first time Manchester focused in that arts way, because it had cinema on and everything as well. It had that feel.
ES: It was more than just a club where you went and got drunk and watched a band.
JT: Which records/songs of your own from that time stand up best?
ES: “Evening State” stands up for me.
HW: “Heart Disease”.
ES: “First Use All the Gs”.
KH: We’ve got a track on a compilation on Soul Jazz called ‘DIY 80s’. And they’ve taken a track from the very first session we did, the one that New Hormones stumped up for, “You can choke like that”. And listening to it again I was really quite surprised at how fresh it sounded.
GM: I like all of [‘Don’t Heal’] – I like the naivety of it, I like the mistakes in it. I love some of the worst stuff on it like “Blue Traces”. Doesn’t work any way you look at it, but I just love the folly of it.
CS: Folly, yeah, folly: there’s a kind of unquestioning thing, I don’t know whether it’s a youth thing, we had a kind of unspoken rule amongst ourselves that if anybody else does it or follows any rules of musical harmony, then we don’t do it. So it became a real self – not self-referential – but mix that with a high level of energy and arrogance.
Well we found later on that other people followed that and we got lumped in with Pigbag and that kind of thing.
CS: That sort of post-punk jazz thing. But that were actually a lot of people experimenting with the same sort of ideas but from a different angle.
JT: What about people like Throbbing Gristle? Did you play with them?
GM: No, we were very aware of them. We had a friend that had the 24-hour box set and we did do the 24-hour box set party [laughs].
KH: I do remember we played the old – when it was still the Whiskey-a-go-go, just on the edge of Chinatown, Wardour Street – with 23 Skidoo. And I remember it was a really great night, I really enjoyed the set that we did. Graham had had some food poisoning and had to run off stage at the end to throw up. And I’m trying to put some of his gear together at the end to clear up and Gen and Paula [Orridge] are right at the front of the stage, and Gen is just staring at me, just fixed. And I’m going, I can’t deal with this right now, I really don’t want to talk to him right now, because I’m still vibrating from the set. And the next morning someone from Rough Trade phoned up and said, ‘it was a really great set last night, I really enjoyed it, what happened to you though, Graham raced off the stage’. ‘Oh, Graham was ill and then I was getting sick of Genesis P. Orridge staring at me while I was trying to clear up’. ‘Oh, it was coz he thought you were all absolutely brilliant, but it’s him, he won’t come over and say it’.
ES: There were a few faces in the audience that night.
KH: Richard Strange was there.
ES: I heard, and this is going back a few years, rumour that Debbie Harry and Joe Strummer were in the audience. I might be wrong.
CS: It’s been interesting relearning some of the stuff for the gig.
JT: Are you using the same equipment?
GM: It’s kind of quite faithful.
ES: Same drum kit.
CS: I’ve got completely different gear, but I’ve realised, with the bass sound, if you just turn the treble up full you can do it with any bass guitar.
HW: You can’t not have had the last 20 years, but…
GM: In readdressing it, we’re not trying to modernise it or update it in any way.
CS: We thought we would actually. When we do the ICA gig we thought we’d bring all the different experiences we had had, and electronics, filmmaking and different things we had all done.
GM: Which we could do if we were in a four-week workshop.
CS: If we were devising new material obviously that would come along, but there didn’t seem to be any reason to change the stuff.
HW: There’s enough essence within that material to still engage us enough to just keep fighting with each other.
ES: There’s still the same vibe in the band. We’re all a bit older, bit maybe wiser, but there’s definitely that energy.
GM: It’s not the sort of band you would design on paper, you know what I mean.
CS: The difference 20 years on is it makes me laugh – when you’re in the middle of it it’s just really funny sometimes, but it was incredibly earnest and serious when we did it. You can kind of step outside of it – what is this? This is really funny.
KH: Colin came up with a thing during the rehearsals yesterday when he said it’s almost like I wish I could reach back 23 years and just smack myself for doing this impossible bassline which I’m now having to relearn.
CS: I must have sent a curse back to my former self because it’s such a horrible thing and then I realised that my former self must have sent a curse back to me anyway for saying that, because it got even harder when I said it. Ridiculous.
HW: For me, having played quite a lot of music of different sorts, looking back at this the chemistry and the shear volume, a lot of what I’m doing, it just deteriorates into texture: there’s no question of any kind of lyric or interpretation of music: it’s just about listening to the other elements and the sax kind of melts under the amount of force I have to put into it to make it survive.
CS: It doesn’t use traditional harmony and song structure at all. I think we were aware of that and deliberately avoided it. I’ve learned lots about that since. It’s always really interesting to go back to it and see why it works, because it does work still, even though it ignores all those rules. It’s like choosing a different medium in visual art, you know.
KH: The same with the text. I want to curse my former self for putting two incredibly complicated arrangements of text, where one idea isn’t in any way related to the other: there’s no verse structure, there’s no chorus, there’s nothing – it is an assemblage of text that needs to be memorised 20 years on. But it still works.
GM: For me, coz later on I get involved in music technology and everything, Biting Tongues was such a great grounding that when the sampler came along – this is the perfect instrument. It would have been so the perfect instrument for Biting Tongues.
CS: You’d made loops and stuff out of reel-to-reel and then deliberately broken the erase head on them and used coat hangers and stuff and then technology comes along and makes that possible.
GM: The language of collage music is definitely something that I took into techno and stuff later on. I think I learned ‘most every musical trick I’ve ever used in anything else in Biting Tongues.
It’s just more of a viewpoint on music – seeing music not in terms of harmony and structure. And just seeing it as organised noise, which is the main thing we used to do.
CS: Sound sculpture.
GM: And me personally, I’ve never come out of seeing music that way – I see music as organised noise and this was the best band for organised noise as far as I’m concerned.
CS: You can see that with ‘Recharge’ – sometimes a track comes on at random and you think, is this early 808 State or is this Biting Tongues? But you can’t quite tell, because they were happening at the same time doing the first stuff. You can hear the stepping-stones of the transition.
GM: But it’s that idea that everything can be included so long as you organise it the right way, and very dense textures in music. And Biting Tongues you can just peel back layers and layers and layers and layers and tune into the most minute detail and that can be the most important thing. I love that about Biting Tongues – it’s depth of ways of listening to it. I can listen to it now and still not be bored by it – there’s surprises in it.
JT: Are you going to do any new recordings?
GM: We-ell… We’re recording tonight.
KH: I think the one thing it would be great to do would be to have a great live recording, because Biting Tongues live really was something to behold. I always thought our greatest strength was the live performances. I mean the studio stuff was really interesting and we did push a lot of barriers, but, the vibe, I mean that’s why I don’t have any qualms whatsoever about coming up and doing a show like 20 years [later] because I know what we do together and I know that it’s good, and it’s still good. I don’t have a second thought.
ES: Four years ago [for a gig at the ICA] was the first time for 20 years that we’d all actually met each other. Me and Ken anyway. The first time we actually got together in a rehearsal room, started going through the tunes and that and you came out with it after about half a day: ‘sound like us’, dead chuffed! It’s like nothing else I’ve ever done before or since. Like Graham says, there’s a lot of different layers, a lot of different influences as well: Stanley Clarke and Bird and Charlie Watts. And it’s still got that vibe about it; when we performed at the ICA the buzz was amazing.
GM: It’s energy music above everything else. I mean, you can break it down in an intellectual kind of way, but really it’s very visceral energy music, if you are in a room with it, it makes your blood go faster.
CS: Maracatu is a North Eastern Brazilian music and it has got a sort of insistent drive that’s really similar to this.
ES: It’s the only thing I can think of [that’s similar].
…You can’t do it half-heartedly.
GM: It’s total commitment music.
ES: I’m knackered this week, but happily knackered.
GM: And that’s the thing you remember from any of the gigs we used to do – total commitment. That’s a good lesson that we’ve had to readdress.
CS: The thing you ask about is there any new music. It’s all about finding the right context. We’ve all got different lives in different parts of the country and it’s finding a situation where we could all happily give up the things we do and spend weeks or months in a studio and see what comes out.
It’d be really fascinating. And 20 years ago you’d go, okay if somebody throws money at us. But now there’s loads more to consider as to whether we could find time to do something like that. I’d love the luxury of it, it’d be really interesting. Coz there were little hints coming out yesterday, just bits, and it was weird – just that combination of people and instruments, things that would have no place in any other context – I don’t play these kind of basslines in any other musical situation – it only works with this. So, it’d be very interesting to see what we’d come up with.
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