In 1989 came The Membranes, an eclectic, left-of-center punk band that marked the musical world with a unique sound. The Membranes’ music has touched many a soul since it’s inception, and will no doubt continue to inspire music makers in the generations to come. Founding member John Robb left a mark in the world of journalism, ran a record company Vinyl Drip Records, and birthed the idea for a band unafraid to conform to convention, still loved by many to this day. We were able to catch up with The Membranes following their latest release, ‘Inner Space/Outer Space’,which features re-mixes from 2015’s ‘Dark Matter/Dark Energy’.
Thanks so much for allowing us an interview. I’d like to start, and go back into The Membranes’ history. What brought about the formation of The Membranes? Was there a specific vision? An event? A drive to make a mark in the music world?
Punk rock was the starting point. It not only created a space for you to do something, it was also an electric shock to make you want to do it. There were so many great records coming out all at once and we really believed in that DIY thing – the idea you could write your media and make your own music and you didn’t have to wait for permission – that was a powerful idea. The whole story of post punk is really the then youth inspired by punk rock making punk rock on their own terms and what was so great about it was that it all came out completely differently because everyone understood it in completely different ways! It was an exciting idea and an exciting time.
Obviously music has changed so much since then. Have your personal influences changed?
Of course – I always keep listening – one of the cool things about writing about music is that you are always listening and always seeking. Punk rock – or our take on punk rock – shaped how we dealt with music but it did not limit what I listen to – I’m up for anything from Syrian choir music to Indian classical to drone metal to hardcore to good ‘ole punk rock to psychedelic to classical and then beyond…
Lyrically over the ages, The Membranes touch on a number of subjects. What gets you all brainstorming ideas? Are there specific things that pique your interest?
In the current stuff we have created set spaces to work within – the last album ‘Dark Matter/Dark Energy’ was about the universe but also about life and death – the space thing came from meeting the head of the CERN project at a TEDx talk I was doing. He explained all the latest universe theories to an amazing conversation we had. The mystery of space is so mind-blowing that the idea was to make music that could try and match the way your mind is blown thinking about space.
The album we are working on now is about nature – kind of our own small corner of the universe. Like the last album it’s direct but also a metaphor and can be used to describe so many different things whilst also exploring the beauty and the darkness of nature – the violence and the beauty of nature, the idea that all beauty decays – and life and death again, all these will be themes running through the album. It will also be dark melancholic and quite beautiful but also noisy and epic all clashing and combining like the seasons and nature itself.
Overall, The Membranes have a unique, set-apart sound. Did you seek to preserve continuity of this sound in 2015 with ‘Dark Matter/Dark Energy’?
Definitely – we have a sound but we like to stretch it as far as we can – on the last album we have string sections on some songs and other songs were stripped down to near silence, we like dislocated rhythms and we like writing songs around the bass guitar – that’s a hallmark leftover from the post punk period. On the new album we want to keep exploring our sound – we already aired some of the new songs on the Marc Riley session recently and people have been writing to us saying that these are our best songs yet! – the songs we played were – ‘Demon Seed/Demon Flower’, ‘Black Is The Colour’, ‘The Magical And Metaphysical World Of Plants – The Trees Roots Penetrate The Earth’s Waxen Crust’. The titles kind of tell you a bit about what the album is about! Musically the album will be using more of the choir that we have been doing special gigs within the last year – we have done about ten gigs with a couple of different 20 piece choirs – the sound of their voices is really magical and the idea of what is an ostensibly noisy band playing next to a choir is fascinating and we love using women’s voices in our sound which sometimes has the danger of being too male. It throws a while different texture into the mix.
I’ve heard and read about the how’s and why’s of The Membranes reuniting. May I have the how’s and why’s from the source?
My Bloody Valentine asked us to play ATP festival that they were curating. We used to play gigs with MBV in the eighties – they would support us in their early days and the guitar player in the Membrane, Nick Brown, played violin on the first MBV release – that gig went really well so Shellac asked us to play another ATP – we knew Steve Albini back from 1987 – The Membranes was the first album he worked on outside of Big Black.
How’s life for The Membranes since reuniting?
It’s been a great trip – we are making music without limitation and getting an amazing reaction to it – we never expected any of this!
With new generations of people out there making music, you’ve been cited as an influence on lots of people. How does that affect you?
It’s really flattering and it’s really surprising the variation of bands and musicians who name check us from Mercury Rev to MBV to Godflesh and Napalm Death – that’s quite a wide spread! A lot of the people who remixed tracks for us on the remix album were people who had name checked us in the past.
May I ask how did the ‘Inner space/Outer space’ remix come about? How do you feel about those new interpretations of Membranes’ songs?
We thought we would ask the people who liked the last album if they fancied remixing a track and it kind of ran from there – I’m fascinated by all the interpretations from the spaced out funk of Youth to Alexander Hacke‘s drone monk chant version to Manic Street Preachers who basically covered the song and gave us one of the best songs they had up their sleeves – they should take it back and make it into a hit!
How does album art get integrated into a release? What do you look for, and are there specific motivations in selection?
In the old days we used to use this great artist called Simon Clegg and the idea was for him to do the artwork for ‘Dark Matter/Dark Energy’ – like the old days I would send him the idea and a description and he would do the rest. I wanted him to rework Fuseli’s brilliant painting ‘‘The Nightmare’’ but he just didn’t have the tie to do it – family life got in the way! and then I looked at the paining and thought hang on, that’s brilliant as it is – the mood of it perfectly caught the mood of the album – kinda gothic mysterious and dark and even its title was perfect – for the remix album to keep the theme I used another Fuseli and I liked the escaping angels floating heavenwards like the songs themselves escaping heavenwards after their magical remixes!
There are a lot of songs that touch on space and the universe in ‘Dark Matter/Dark Energy’. Is there an inspiration behind it? A curiosity?
I think I answered that in one of the earlier questions but if you want me to expand on this please ask!
I must ask about your song titles. With all due respect to The Membranes, are some of these inside jokes for the band? Or is it all just how they wind up coming together?
I love song titles that are evocative or create pictures in your head – a psychedelic exercise! they don’t have to have a direct meaning but they also make a sort of sense as a title like, if you enter the arena you have to be prepared to deal with the lions, is on one level twisted but on another level makes total sense! get in the ring and deal with it! a lot of bands write great direct political songs and we cheer them on for that but everyone is here for a different reason and we seem to lean towards kinda twisted art weirdness because our heads our full of dust and madness.
Surely, the Membranes aren’t ready to “hang their hats” so to speak. What’s in the future for you?
The new album – really looking forward to getting this recorded and further exploring the dark dub, skeletal melancholy, twisted funk, choir wonk and orchestral melancholia and tripped out soundscapes that we love.
Photo credits: Gerald Underwood (2nd one)