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Friday, Oct. 14, 2005
Playing in the shadows
Special to The Japan Times
"Self-effacing" is not an adjective one normally uses to describe a rock band, but everything about the English quartet Electrelane seems designed to draw attention away from the individual players. In Electrelane's case this is particularly significant since all four members are young women, and there aren't many all-female rock bands who play mostly instrumental music.
Eschewing vocals is itself a self-effacing strategy, but Electrelane's instrumental methodology goes further since it is geared toward a total group sound that downplays solos, but nevertheless stresses improvisation. The difference is that the band improvises as a unit, allowing itself to follow a song to its natural conclusion, which means the song may change from performance to performance. This approach has been generally dubbed "postrock," but Electrelane has less in common with current like-minded bands, such as Tortoise and Mogwai, than they do with pop-oriented experimentalists like Stereolab and Quickspace. They're loud and aggressive, even harsh on occasion, but they never fail to come up with amazing hooks.
Verity Susman, who plays guitar and keyboards, sings when singing is called for and could be considered Electrelane's creative director. In person, she is as self-effacing as the band's image. Sitting in a Shibuya coffee shop, she talks in an even, quiet voice about the group's third album, "Axes," between sips of iced tea.
"We wrote it very quickly," she says, "and the recording process was better than any we'd ever experienced. We always wanted a live sound because we thought playing live is what we do best, so we decided that we'd record it all together, in one room, doing all the songs in one take, joining them all together. A big part of that is the members being in close proximity to each other."
Electrelane's previous album, "The Power Out," had more singing on it. "We prefer instrumentals, but for that one we wanted to try more traditional song structures and collected all the vocal songs we had." The results were successful, but the recording experience was less than satisfying. "The drums were in a separate room, and quite often the guitar and bass were separated. As a result the overall sound didn't have that roundness you'd get if we were all in the same room. We couldn't see each other, and that makes a big difference."
Electrelane have just flew in from Australia, where they've completed a whirlwind tour. They're in Japan for only one show, at Asagiri Jam near Mount Fuji. It's the kind of festival that suits them, since the artists aren't announced until all the tickets are sold.
"We've played festivals in Europe where people just go for the festival and aren't necessarily interested in particular bands," Susman says. "There's pressure to hold the attention of people who've never heard you, but in a way it's nice. You feel like you've got a more open audience."
A more open audience is also the reason Electrelane is more popular in America than it is in its native Britain. Or, at least, that's what Susman thinks. "Sometimes American bands tell us they get a better reception in England, so it may have something to do with coming from overseas. But in America underground culture is really strong, and we've benefited from that. The U.K. is led by the music press, which focuses on bands that fit into a scene, and we've never really fit into any, so we're slightly under the radar."
Brighton, the seaside town where Electrelane formed in 1998, apparently didn't have a distinctive scene, which turned out to be a blessing. "It's a good place, because people will just go out and see a band. There's two universities. People are interested in new things. I never knew if there was an audience, but people did think it odd that we were doing a lot of instrumentals."
Susman herself studied classical music, mainly the clarinet. She started Electrelane with her friend, Emma Gaze, who plays the drums. "We knew we didn't want to do the same thing that was going on, not that we particularly wanted to be different but that whole [Britpop] scene didn't intrigue us as performers."
The instrumental preference wasn't a hindrance to getting gigs, but sometimes people misread their intentions. "I remember we played in Scotland once and someone yelled, 'Sing the f**king song!' "
They became more widely known when their first album, "Rock it to the Moon," was released on their own label. Then they met Steve Albini. "We wanted to play the All Tomorrow's Parties festival, which he was curating in England, and sent him our album. He wrote back and said the bill was already finalized, but that he'd like to work with us on a record if we wanted to. As it happened, we had made a wish list of sound engineers, and he was at the top."
As a producer, Albini, who's worked with everyone from Nirvana to PJ Harvey, is famous for not taking a producer's role, something that appealed to Electrelane. "He had a reputation of just recording the band the way they sound when they set up in the room. He facilitates what the band wants to do."
The band made both "The Power Out" and "Axes" at Albini's studio, a reconverted dairy farm outside of Chicago. "He's got a huge live room with bricks that were chosen for their sound properties," Susman explains. "There's enough space for the whole band to play at the same time."
Given the emotional sweep of their songs, it seems odd that Electrelane hasn't scored a movie yet. Susman says they've had a few offers, but nothing that they wanted to pursue.
"We used to show films while we played," she says, "but later we decided we wanted the music to carry a gig." Up until recently, she adds, they even preferred to play in the dark, though they eventually realized that was taking self-effacement too far. "We opened for Le Tigre, who are quite visual. The lights are always on, so we just got used to it and figured there's nothing wrong with people seeing us while we play. The thing about films is that you're directing people to think something in relation to your songs, and after a while we thought that's not what we want to do."
There are, of course, many things that can direct people to think something different than you'd like, including the band's name, which is generic-sounding but memorable nonetheless. "It was a bit of a curse for a while," Susman says. "When the electroclash scene became popular, we got booked by people who thought we were an electroclash band."
The main point was to have a name that didn't mean anything. The members were discussing the matter in a pub and just decided to combine the words electric with the name of a certain island depicted on a poster on the wall. "We had a gig coming up and we needed a name right away," she says. "It's the way a lot of things happen."