Forget the saying “never meet your heroes”. Sometimes you just have to meet them! When we heard that John Robb is working on a new material, we immediately knew we wanted to speak to him about it. John is not only a musician, magazine editor (he runs the wildly popular Louder than War magazine) and journalist. He is also a poet, a modern philosopher and an artist. His works have been shaping musical landscape since 1977 and Membranes are considered as one of the most influential punk/alternative rock outfits in the history of British music.
We sat down with John a couple of days before his (sort of) homecoming gig at the Manchester Ritz to discuss the new album, forces of nature, our place in the natural order of the universe and performing with a choir! It was a huge pleasure and priviladge to interview our childhood hero, so if you have one, don’t wait and apporach them. Disappointments happen, but so does the magic. And for us it was a magical experience.
John Robb (vocals, bass)
Nick Brown (guitar)
Peter Byrchmore (guitar)
Rob Haynes (drums)
Official bio: This one comes with their own Wikipedia entry!
“What Natures Gives… Nature Takes Away” is your first studio album since 2015 and a follow up to the acclaimed “Dark Matter/Dark Energy”. Four years is a long time. Can you tell us how this album shaped from its conception to the final mixes?
John Robb: We got busy. We didn’t expect the last album to go as well as it did and we were sidetracked by touring and life. All the time though the idea of the next album was germinating (ha!) like a seed. There is no rush for a band like ours, we are not a teenage hit machine. This stuff is art and art takes time. Just create when you are ready. Don’t wait for permission on how and when you create. When it was ready, it was ready. There were always ideas and when they had a grand scheme to fit into to with the nature thing then it all fell intom place. Making a record as epic and ambitious as this is, of course, a gamble. The underground scene has lots of rules and you are expected to conform by them! In many ways underground music is even more tightly regulated by what you are perceived to be allowed to do than the so called mainstream. Alternative music is often not that alternative, is it?
The album’s title, quickly brings connotation to the famous Bible verse “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). Was it something you wanted the listeners to notice and think about? Are we, as human beings, at the mercy of the forces of nature?
The front cover of “What Nature Gives”
John Robb: Yes, the album is about the beauty and violence of nature. It’s also about how we are the nature and as you say we are at the mercy of the forces of nature. We are at the mercy of its ebbs and flows. We do our best to try and break away but we are just chimps in suits. We like the idea of biblical preachers against a stormy sky shouting at nature. Like the good book can even have any control on the mighty forces already unleashed way before a god was even invented. As human beings, we are merely navigating this swirl of wildness and hoping for the best.
The “natural theme” is omnipresent on the record. Looking at the song titles, one cannot miss multiple references to animals (“Murder of Crows”, The City Is An Animal”), plants (“Demon Seed/Demon Flower”) or forests (“Deep In The Forest Where The Memories Linger”). Are we looking at concept album, or “dark rock opera” as one of the reviewers called it?
John Robb: “Dark rock opera” is a pretty cool term! There is a concept running through the album but it’s not as literal as it sounds. The songs take the themes of nature but each song is its own entity but the tracks run in an order. For me, it’s very much an album with each piece in place and not loads of tracks chucked together. Like a book with chapters! “A Strange Perfume” is about the power of pheromones and the powerful primal instinctive urge of the perfumes of our own scent whilst “A Murder Of Crows” is about the dark power of crows – their mystical power, their smartness and their cunning cruelty. The song also looks back on the roots of the word “murder” back to the plains of India where it is an actual Hindu word. “Demon Seed/Demon Flower” is a dark dub built around the themes brought up by Baudelaire – it’s a Baudelaire dub! It’s about how sex runs right through nature and we celebrate the voluptuous flowers trying to attract each other’s attention in the battlefield of life. “Deep In The Forest” is a celebration of the tomblike silence at the centre of the darkest first, a place where you can hear nature sigh in its eternal woody silence. It’s also part of a theme for the perfume we are working on with Lush which will be called “A Strange Perfume”! It smells of the erotic dampness, leaf mould and autumnal richness of the forest – a place where your memories linger for eternity.
Back cover of the new album
Two songs, however differ from the rest, thematically and musically. “Pandora’s Box” and “Mother Ocean/Father Time” seems to be inspired by classical Greek mythology. Can you tell us more about them?
John Robb: “Pandora’s Box” is the apocalyptic end piece of the album. It is about the power of love and lust and the curveballs that nature throws at us in life and that moment in time when you have to jump in and open the box.
“Mother Ocean/Father Time” is about the ocean and it’s also about my grandfather, a French Canadian who used to work on the cable ships as they crossed the Atlantic in the early 20th century. They used to call it the most dangerous job in the world. Eventually he stopped over in London for a couple of days and had the briefest of dalliances with my grandmother and was never seen again. I liked that mystery to their brief affair, that intensity of the moment against the backdrop of the mighty ocean. The music was written to reflect that with the riff being the churning of the waves and the salt stained seas, another celebration of the sheer power of nature. I used to live by the sea and loved that line between suburbia and the wild ocean. On one side the thin veneer of civilisation and on the other the wild and mysterious depths.
The record, which is set to be released on June 7th, is a double album full of intriguing guests: Chris Packham, Kirk Brandon (Spear of Destiny) and even a 20 – person choir. You have previously worked with Estonian female choir Sireen for festival slots and BIMM choir for a tour in the UK. Which choir have you employed on this occasion?
John Robb: I like working with guests. I think rock bands don’t have to be so rigid. We have done so many collaborations over the years. We played in Mexico last night and did a live collaboration with a local band who are called Descartes A Kant (who are really worth checking out). We had one rehearsal and a get on stage kind of affair and that is the kind of risk taking that always creates great art. The choir we used on this album is recruited from BIMM – we can’t afford to fly an Estonian choir around. It’s the price you pay for having ideas bigger than your budget. I put the call out on Facebook for a choir and Claire Pilling, who teaches singing at BIMM college came back to us and recruited the choir. It was great working with the Sireen choir who I saw play a festival in Estonia 5 years ago and asked if they wanted to do a gig with us straight after. They said yes and we played two amazing and brilliantly received gigs in Estonia with them which is where this album really started.
We want to ask you about another person who is featured on the album – dame Shirley Collins, the force behind English Folk Revival of 1960s and 1970s. What an incredible woman. She is 83 years old this year and just released her new album herself. Was it hard to convince dame Collins to appear on the record? It does look a bit like Metallica/Marianne Faithfull collaboration!
John Robb: Shirley is amazing. I met her through filming stuff for Lush, the cosmetics chain, who have created a media channel which I film content for. She was in Lush one night at the launch of a film about her and it was great to meet her. She is a wonderful woman. I asked her if she wanted to do a piece for the album and an hour later she was reading this great piece about the South Downs and the power of music and how it comes out of the very soil of the surrounding hills. Her description of the flowers and birds in the Sussex hills is so evocative and perfect and one of the highpoint of the album for me.
“What Nature Gives” comes with an incredible sleeve artwork that is actually a Gothic Victoriana painting by artist Valentine Cameron Prinsep, a relative to Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. The title of the painting does sound like something Nicky Wire would come up with: “At The First Touch Of Winter Summer Fades Away”. How did you come across this piece?
John Robb: I did a Google search! I was putting key words from the album and then searching through images and hoping something powerful and evocative would come up. What I needed was a piece of artwork that would reflect the themes of the album: the transient nature of nature, life and death and the passing of the seasons and the second that image appeared I know it was perfect. I like it because it is the seasons and death and also because its quite erotic and tragic and full of flowers and lingering and tragedy – just like the album!
The release is being promoted by leading single “A Strange Perfume”, where the band members are shown singing among the ballet dancers clad in black. The video is surprisingly dark and has some sort of nervousness to it. It was directed by Anya Cinnamon Machin – visual artist and cinematographer based in Manchester. Please tell us more about the story behind the video.
John Robb: The song itself was about the erotic power of scent. A celebration of the sensuality of all five senses like in the Kama Sutra where all the subtlties of attraction are celebrated. The idea was to have a ballet dancer as we hate mimed band videos and prefer something a bit off kilter. I think the world is a bit too full of blokes pretending to play guitars in videos and we didn’t want to throw another one out there. Anya is a brilliant young film maker from Manchester and it was a pleasure working with her. We are collaborating on a new video with her now – an animation. We wanted “A Strange Perfume” to be dark and shadowy and also to take an influence from the film Black Swan. That edgy tightrope walking film about the nature of intensity and madness – all themes that we are fascinated by.
Not sure if somebody else observed it before us but there is a strong representation of females on that release: from the Persephone/Demeter figures on the cover, to guests such as dame Shirley Collins, to video director, choir members and ballet dancers in the videos. Its very uplifting in the male dominated industry.
John Robb: Yes! Great that you noticed. We wanted to make a record that broke down the traditional “4 blokes against the world” nature of rock music. There are many bands that are great at that and some of them are my favourites but there’s no point in us joining that eternal queue. We were bored of that macho conservative world and thought of ways to break it up. Using the choir was one. The human voice in harmony is one of the greatest sounds imaginable and to hear that harmony in a modern world that is full of shouting and not very much listening, is quite something. Having that many women around, changes the dynamic of things and the sound and texture of the music. It was great to have guests like 84 year old folk singer Shirley Collins on the album, firstly, because we love her music and, secondly, because we want to celebrate age and wisdom and the beauty of older people. Jordan is on there because she is one of my best mates and an iconic presence who defined punk with an artful brilliance that made her so key. She had inspired us when we were growing up.
Right after the release of the record, you embark on a tour that will take you all over the UK (Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool among other dates), Europe and even to Mexico. What can we expect from you on stage?
John Robb: The music is still physical and will be played in a physical way. There are many epic moments but you can still dance to it. We will bring the choir to as many gigs as we possibly can and try and make something spectacular if we can.
In an recent interview with GigSluts you jokingly said that Membranes can only operate on a grand scale. Here’s our last question: imagine you have no restriction of any kind (financial, timely or artistic) when it comes to the production of your upcoming gigs. What do you go for? Las Vegas residency, grand opening at the Carnegie Hall or Michael Jackson-like world tour?
John Robb: I would love to play epic events like the Carnegie Hall! We did check how much it would cost to hire once and it was a lot! (laughing) We’d love to play at the Griffiths Observatory in LA, The Royal Albert Hall in London or the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow. All brilliant locations with the choir and a sense of the spectacular. I love off-the-wall locations. We played the top of Blackpool Tower a couple years ago and we love cinemas where we can use the screen to play a film! I would also love to play caves or in the middle of a forest. Or have this 3D immersive light show that I have been working on. Just need the money to make it all work. Of course, it’s all very ambitious but ambition is the driver in breaking barriers in art, isn’t it?
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Membranes will play Ritz in Manchester on Saturday the 8th of June with supports from Glove, The Pack (Theatre Of Hate), Liines, Queen Zee and HENGE.
More information about the event can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/events/226440181569176/
Last remaining tickets can be purchased from: https://www.seetickets.com/event/the-membranes-henge/o2-ritz/1308269
We will be in the front row, so expect a detailed review from the frontlines!
Malcia and Rita