As three more of Flying Saucer Attack’s albums are reissued by Domino, the band’s David Pearce reflects on their making:
I might be conning myself as I usually do, but, shock horror, I think I may, after all these years, finally be starting on the road to growing up. And this is somewhat tied up with the series of FSA reissues Domino Records have recently been embarking on.
If you’ve read any of Richard King’s fine writings on the shenanigans in the Revolver shop in the 90s, you might think that we were in the business of “putting people off”. Fraught exchanges with customers — let alone fraught public exchanges between the staff carried on in full view. All that kind of thing.
Furthermore, you might get the idea that musically we were anti the “popular stuff” (let alone, er, anti people). That we were only interested in the weird stuff, that we were somewhat elitist. But there’s a bit more to it than that.
Actually, all of us individually liked quite a bit of popular, famous, commercial stuff, stuff with the rough edges shorn off. The key though, with the shop, was that we knew that with the nature of business, and human nature, there was always going to be the popular stuff like that, and rather a lot of it. (Y’know, Freddie and The Dreamers begat The Sweet begat The Cockney Rejects begat Oasis, Perry Como begat Rick Astley begat Moby begat that bloke from Coldplay, forever ). That stuff’s doing fine and always will.
So that actually left us with the freedom to think about other possibilities, other ideas, new ideas, the more misshapen edges.
Sometimes we’d get fixated on that stuff for sure, always seeking new ideas — maybe to the negation of old, good ideas. One thing about new ideas though — even if you don’t like all of them (new doesn’t necessarily mean good) — is that when there’s a bunch of them around, it makes things dynamic, and interesting, and makes scrabbling around for peanuts in the back room of a shop feel a hell of a lot more worthwhile, and justified. I can safely say that we were all restless, somewhat agitated types. And if nothing else, that would, in part, lead to the looking for of other possibilities, new ideas. That restless agitation could also help explain the attraction, at least to me, of the simple chaos of the place.
That’s all good and well, but it’s one thing revelling in chaos when you are a nominal employee in a record shop, and quite another when you have then accidentally landed your dream job, and are supposed to be running something nominally perceived to be a functioning band. What on earth was going on there?
As a person I’d always felt — and indeed, had been repeatedly told I was — a bit “wrong”. I’d always been looking for somewhere where I’d feel “right”, but had never really found it. School, college, attempted relationships, art college…I still didn’t really feel at home. And I can’t say that as a result my behaviour in any of those environments had been particularly admirable. Through it all, though, I still held onto the hope that I’d find my place somewhere, the scale.
Music, of course, was my passion in life, and my “safe and happy place”. So Revolver might seem like the kind of place where I’d finally feel comfortable, at home, kind of “fitting in”. The thing is, I’d started to feel that the Revolver shop didn’t really feel like home after all, and I was starting to behave a bit “wrong” there, too. I didn’t seem to be quite on the same “edge” as the rest of the people there did.
So when the chance to actually make music unexpectedly came along during this time, it felt like something of a life-line. Sure, my hands didn’t (and still don’t) glide effortlessly over the fretboard, and my vocal chords didn’t (and absolutely don’t) thrum with natural effortless gusto, but fucking hell, I was doing music!
On the musical side of things, Flying Saucer Attack tried to carry on in the same spirit as that of the shop – for many of the same reasons I’ve mentioned above, I think. It wasn’t even an issue: Popol Vuh and AR Kane had to be name-checked as often as possible, that horrible 80’s production sound I’d always despised (and which had even carried through to the sparkliness of shoegaze) had to be violently opposed, the hope that, say, Roy Harper and the Becketts would be fully recognised drove me/us on, and so on and so on. Delusional, maybe, but there was the feeling of something of a musical “cause”. There was also quite a bit of the “putting people off” stuff. To misquote that academic chap interrogating Syd Barrett and some other person on TV once, “did it really all have to be so bloody loud?” And having established a (bloody loud) musical identity on the first few records, why go against it on your first record for a regular label? And so on and so on.
And then there was the outright chaos on the operational side of things.
You see the thing was — and it really was a surprise to me at the time — I still didn’t feel “at home”, either within the band, or the wider world of music at the time. I mean for fuck’s sake there were some people that seemed to like what we were doing, and on the more personal side there were some amazing people — heroes even — that had offered us the hand of friendship. John Peel, Stereolab, Tom Rapp, Ptolemaic Terrascope, Jim O’Rourke, Colin Newman, Bruce Russell. Too many to mention here. But I still felt “wrong”, and my behaviour was by now more than a bit “wrong”.
It had got to the point where I couldn’t really handle any of the aspects of playing live. On the recording side, I was hardly letting anyone else be involved. And I was talking a lot of crap. For the good of the music, and on any interpersonal level, this was not good. In many ways, I was being a total ungrateful prat, and I was certainly being told this by quite a few close folks. I already knew it myself as well.
Where to go? Up ’til this point I’d always hoped I’d find a place for myself in life, and that then I’d finally feel calmer, and just become a better, more rounded person. Doing music had always been my big idea. Unfortunately, by this time, which would be the end of 1995, it clearly wasn’t having the effect I was expecting. And with making music not providing the answers I craved, the feeling of hope that had always been underneath everything driving me along just kind of left me. Maybe I recognised it as this loss of hope at the time — I don’t remember. It was at this time that I made that rather trite “end of phase one” comment.
I now know that I was born with a life-long condition (I’m certainly not unique in this) that makes me feel constantly restless and agitated, and also a bit on the margins in life. It also affects directly how I behave, the way I speak, move, interact, conversationalise, everything. It can make me destroy anything good I have. It means I find it nigh on impossible to maintain real friendships over a long period of time. It can make being out in public too difficult to handle. It means I can be incredibly juvenile, childish and petulant. It means my default position is to tend towards reclusiveness.
This knowledge has only come though in the last ten years. I didn’t have it back in the school, college, Revolver, or FSA days. Thankfully nowadays I am gradually starting to feel a bit calmer. Whilst knowing my behaviour is my responsibility, I also know it is not entirely my “fault” I behave the way I do. Knowing some of the reasons that lie underneath, hopefully I’m now a bit better around people.
But back at the end of 1995, I was still flailing around, trying to deal with this stuff on my own recognisance. The condition I have wasn’t even medically known about then.
The end of 1995 is slap bang in the middle of the period covered by the new batch of FSA re-issues. Furthermore, two of them were records I made after that “loss of hope” stuff I mentioned earlier. While last year’s three re-issues were all from before that point, this time around there was no getting away from it, and I was approaching hearing the test pressings with a great deal of trepidation about what I was going to find after all these years.
This, however, has proven to be where in this dour saga, and so far dour piece of writing, we finally have an upturn.
Because hearing the test pressings was such a surprising experience. Not only did I enjoy hearing most of the music again, I also think I may have learned a few things from it too.
Initially, when it came to the first album, I was just glad to find it didn’t have too much of that naivety of the Distance LP that I’ve remarked on at other times. I was surprised at how fresh it still sounds. Maybe more importantly than that, it sounded fun, a bit mischievous, almost a bit euphoric in places. I guess those are the things everybody’s first LP should sound like. This is the most “communally” made FSA record I think. Most of the people involved (please see thanks list below) were involved in the Revolver shop at various times too, and hearing this LP definitely reminded me of those Revolver days. It’s got a bit of the reckless spirit of Revolver about it. It’s got that uplifting feeling of having just discovered new ideas and new possibilities — well at least to us/me — and of course musically it’s trying to be a bit off to the edges. This one is really about “the noise”. At the time I thought we were deploying the noise as a weapon, but now I can see it was as much about self defence – something to hide behind. And listening past the noise, I recently realised just how much the commercial, “furtive” end of my listening habits had actually influenced this record. It’s really quite poppy! I can hear a lot of the stuff I listened to before the Syd Barrett, Roy Harper, Can epiphanies. Stuff like the Dickies, the Damned, early Simple Minds, early U2 even. In a way this record now makes me feel, well, a little bit more normal than I tend to tell myself I am, which is no bad thing to realise.
New Lands was the one I was approaching with real trepidation, I can tell you. This one is from just after that “end of phase one” statement. Bad times and all that. Not just in myself as I’ve talked about already, but also bad times in music generally. Looking back, the mid 90s had quite a lot of musical things going on, new ideas and stuff. Jungle, triphop, the Beastie Boys, stuff from New Zealand, PJ Harvey, maybe what we were involved in to a small extent. The whole kaboodle was certainly exciting and dynamic. It was a period exactly of the kind I’ve said we craved for in the Revolver shop and we thrived on it there at the time. As did the band. And for a while there even John Peel seemed to have cheered up quite a bit.
And then the dark cloud of Britpop descended with its dank, light destroying, noxious, soul poisoning fumes. Did UKIP really kick off there? Was it the major labels co-opting elements of the independent sector (the music, some of the labels, the distributors, the music papers, the vinyl, even the shops) to neuter them once and for all? To kill of the spirit of craving, creativity and endeavour once and for all? Or was it just, simply, purely, unmitigated musical shit? Whatever it was, it certainly seemed to stomp all over the weaker elements (ourselves, and I guess, to an extent, the shop). I remember the lovely NME once telling us to stop “being weirdos”, and to “join the party”. (I’m writing this February/March 2017. Look how messily the Britpop “party” ended up. I’m wondering where the current “party” is heading…)
New Lands was made in late 96/early 97, and by then I was firmly heading into default retreat mode. As I’ve said, inside myself I’d run out of a general sense of “hope”. Much frustration and anger. A few metaphorical/metaphysical and literal feuds afoot. Self-absorption and antisocialness. So hearing New Lands again, I was so glad to hear how warm and human it sounded. I think that may have something to do with the mastering this time around, but apart from a couple of embarrassing tracks, it’s definitely one of the good ones. Maybe a case of turning bad energy into good energy. Its working title was “fuck you”, after all (“you” in this case primarily being the NME, Elastica & co…you can imagine). Good intentions in there nonetheless. I remember, although the band was now in a reduced state (live stuff finished with, we becoming closer to I, no longer working at Revolver — that avenue to the world ended), and it was obvious that the world had passed on by somewhat, there was still a sense of the FSA/Revolver-style mission, to try something musically new, such as you can. A sense of “the cause” still prevailed. So it was about trying to bash out pseudo-techno beats on cardboard boxes, things like that.
Most importantly now it’s just good to know that even in darker times, something good came through in the music on this album. Further, and the newer Instrumentals LP, were kinda like that too. It’s such a relief to hear now that records that could have descended into whinges (and at least one of them, I used to think, indeed had) are actually more than, and better than that. A warmth and humanity came through despite everything. It makes me think that I can’t be all bad (and maybe wasn’t then either).
By the time Mirror was made, at the end of 1999, retreat was pretty much complete. The bulkhead though was that I’d found myself living in a stable two person, two cat household, working voluntarily in the Amnesty bookshop, seemingly living the “adult” life as much as I ever had. Complete with a gradual cracking-up inside my head though. The unreal musical fantasy world of the early nineties was over. I never dared venture near Revolver – I’m not sure it was even open anymore come the turn of the millennium. The empty legacy of the Britpop shenanigans was signalled by the emergence of new “hopefuls” in the shape of Travis, Muse and Placebo, machines of mediocrity all. It really felt like the end. And the pressures of my attempted grasping of a berth in the real grown up world were getting too much for my poor little head. That felt like the end too.
Mirror was slowly put together without any real plan over most of the intervening two years before it was completed. The fact there was any musical activity at all at this time was down to the perseverance of the great Rocker, who would kindly prod he and I together into action from time to time. That there is a heart to this album is down to him and Sandra and the cats really. And also messages of support from people like Simon, Laurence, Dan, Jessica, and the Movietone/Crescent folks too. I was really scared of hearing this album again, because I thought I’d hear a great deal of my own negative input in it. That, thankfully, isn’t there though, which is down to the folks I’ve just mentioned. There’s less “chaos” in the sound of this record — I remember I did want to try and do something that sounded a bit more “proper”, a bit more “grown up”. Oddly, without the chaos, it sounds a bit hollow. But there is still heart in there. And that’s even if the head was gone. And that’s a relief.
Shortly after the album was out, the flat was unexpectedly sold by the owners, and that was it for my head really. I left to return — temporarily, initially — to Winchcombe, really feeling that this last possible line of retreat was going to be kill or cure. I remember, shortly after fetching up at my dad’s house, managing to hold an hour of a telephone call with someone while thinking they were someone completely different. There was a great line I remember in an internet piece around then saying “how can a band with essentially one person in it break up?” But that’s what happened. I went AWOL from myself, and then it just goes blank.
I’m glad I’m hearing all six of these records again at this far remove. They’re definitely better than I remembered. There’s a certain tunefulness that I can hear now across all of them, that I’d never noticed before. Not as much of a signature as, say, Kevin Shields’ or Mark Eitzel’s tunefulness, and not as good, but I found something I liked with the melodies which ran through most of the records. And it was good to hear Rachel’s — and everyone else’s — parts, of course. I’ve found a little bit of beauty in each of the records.
It’s funny that I still feel the need to try and find new ideas in each of the releases. But I remember back then there was an almost overriding feeling of, “well that’s done, what next?” The need to break a system even if you’ve just made it. Yes, it’s that internal agitation, restlessness, defensiveness, coming through yet again. But it isn’t all bad. It’s a bit obstreperous maybe, a bit abrasive maybe, a bit unrealistic probably. But it drove the Revolver shop, and hopefully it drove FSA too. Yes, we may have kept to ourselves a bit too much, but we really weren’t trying to “put people off”.
There’s myths about people who, like myself, have Asperger’s. That we don’t have empathy, that we don’t have feelings, that we don’t like other people. Since my diagnosis I’ve believed some of these things myself. But I think there’s stuff in all of six of these reissued FSA records that proves otherwise.
As I slowly come back to myself and the blankness gradually lifts, I think that the music represents the better part of myself. I’m thankful for that. And I’m glad I can hear it now.
Domino’s reissues of Flying Saucer Attack, New Lands and Mirror are out now and available here.