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local anaesthetic aside
The Membranes are a remarkable band. Their early works are the stubborn epitome of DIY outsider music and were thrilling with a unique celebratory style of abrasive off-kil- ter post-punk music. Their musical influence today is far reaching, particularly within the US, where The Membranes count many alternative heavy hitters such as Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, Butthole Surfers and Big Black among their fan-base. The Membranes were the first band that Steve Albini worked with outside of Big Black. Dinosaur Jr even recorded their video for their breakthrough hit “Freak Scene” in The Membranes back yard in Man- chester, England!
After an extended break that started in 1993, The Membranes reformed in 2015 and re- leasedthehighlyacclaimedDarkEnergy/DarkMatterLP.ThenewMembranesalbumseem- ingly arrived out of nowhere. It sparked a renewed interested in the band, leading to the recent re-issue of the Membranes early material, Everyone’s Going Triple Bad Acid, Yeah! — conveniently packaged as a 5-CD box-set and lovingly assembled, ready to inspire a new generation of youthful noiseniks.
Membranes front-man John Robb is (still) a frenetic ball of energy and enthusiasm. He is engaging and charismatic. Outside of his many musical conquests, Mr. Robb is an ac- complished author, with a plethora of notable music books under his belt. He also regularly pops up as a pundit on various television programs in the UK, usually with a comment on popular culture with regard to post-punk and punk rock.
The author was lucky enough to squeeze the following interview out of John amidst his never ending non-stop schedule.
Your early recordings sound urgent and frustrated, with an almost palatable urge to connect. To what extent did operating out of Blackpool shape the sound of the embryonic Membranes?
Looking back on it now it was a big part of the sound. It was oddly quite a cut off place, out on a limb on a peninsula. A seaside holiday town full of kiss me quick candy floss that was another world to the music we were into. It would be fair to say that we made our music despite where we came from! There was a great music scene in the town though.
Section 25 were from Blackpool and we used to share rehearsal space with them. They were Ian Curtis’s favorite band, and for me, their debut is equal to Joy Division in terms of sound and ideas. Blackpool is like the Coney Island of the UK and like Coney Island, there is a strange beauty to it. In the winter when the wind would howl over the promenade and the waves crash everywhere we would sit there in an altered state and just get lost in the noise and power of nature. I loved the idea that the claustrophobia of suburbia would suddenly end at the bottom of the road for the wildness of the sea and somehow that all got into the music which sounds like the wildness of nature and the desolation of concrete! We loved noise as well and were thrilled by the possibilities of sound.
Many of your songs are bass heavy yet have a very scratchy guitar. It is both extreme sound- ing, yet sonically complimentary in terms of providing space within the song structure. Was it a conscious decision or happy accident to cut the mid-frequencies?
We were very concerned about making space in the sound. Although we were not play- ing dub reggae we loved that kind of music and were very conscious of the space between the instruments. So much punk and post-punk was the same. It was the time when the bass guitar was the key instrument, a mixture of the sonic space of dub and the heavy lead bass of the early Stranglers records which influenced so many people. We explored the idea of every instrument playing lead at the same time, which in hindsight was a very post-punk notion. We also loved bass end because of dub and top end because it made the instru- ments really cut through. We didn’t really know what mid was for and turned it up and down and didn’t get it!
You have to remember that people like us were the product of punk. This empowerment to play, this urge to make music and we had no musical training. We were doing it all by ear and feeling our way around the music. I interviewed Peter Hook (Joy Division / New Order) recently and he told me that the Rolling Stones had asked him to be on the short list after Bill Wyman had left and he had to tell them he knew no cover versions and could only play in his own style. And I thought that’s true of so many of us from that time. We were instinctive and self-taught and made music on our own terms — with or without ‘mids!’
I know you have written extensively over the years about punk rock, both its impact socially and musically. At the time much of the classic punk and post-punk music was being made, many individuals creating art and music had different ideas about the disposable aspects of pop music and youth culture than we do now 30 or 40 years on. How do you feel about nostalgia and punk?
Nostalgia for an age yet to come once sang Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks), and ironically he primly still sings it, and very well! Punk was always in a rush to go forwards and escape itself but inevitably it got trapped like all pop cults. Saying that though, the old war stories are great and music still sounds amazing. It’s just that I don’t want to spend my whole life in the swamp of my youth. Luckily with the Membranes we can keep going forwards which is an ironic thing to say in an interview about a box set of our old albums. The reason this (box set) came out is that our new album, the first for 26 years, called Dark Matter/Dark Energy had such a great reaction and sold so well that there has been a lot of interest in our old days.
In a way all music is current but I am lucky as I still write a lot and I get sent music all the time so I know there is greatly diverse and thrilling music being made all the time. No generation has the copyright on originality. Saying that though I still love the punk and post-punk period and once you push nostalgia to the side you can embrace just how great these records were.
The label you ran in the 1980s, Vinyl Drip, was the epitome of independence that defiantly portrayed a wealth of outsider music. Much of that material is difficult to track down at this point. Given you have just released a 5-CD Membranes compilation, any chance of a Vinyl Drip compilation somewhere down the line?
That’s a great idea. The world needs to hear a band like Bogshed who were stunning. Dislocated Fall-esque small town claustropand hobia with dark humor lyrics like the League Of Gentlemen (British dark comedy series) 20 years too early...
Is Goldblade still an ongoing concern? Or is it full steam ahead for the reformed Membranes at this point? How do you prioritize and fit everything in? Your writing, your music, your website “Louder Than War” — do you ever sleep?
We do the occasional Goldblade gig. There has never been a smart career plan! The Mem- branes are busy so we do that and it’s great to play that kind of music, and I love playing my bass. I try to cram everything into every day. It’s pretty ridiculous really. I sleep less than most people. I guess not drinking means I get more time. I just got to finish (writing) a book about the so-called Goth end of Post-Punk. I am editing it now, and will start work record- ing the new Membranes album, another double, we have all the songs ready. There will be choirs on some tracks this time and more experimental stuff, but also with some great angular noise and heavy grooves. And recording a filmed interview for a new online TV channel I’m setting up with Lush the soap people, as well as flying around Europe doing these in conversations ... with a life like that, who would want to sleep? Sleep is the curse of the ones that want to live at full speed!
| Everyone’s Going Triple Bad Acid, Yeah! is out now through Cherry Red Records.
us | the NOISE arts & news | JUNE 2017 • 31

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