Bill Cummings 14/07/2009
“It's a little bit suspect with it (Shoegaze) coming into mainstream indie now, it looks like it might be the next thing to be mined. Then obviously there's going be a backlash and then everyone's going to be sneering at it again. Its like it's cool and worthy to be a stripped down punk band but if you admit you've got a lot of a lot of effects pedals then you're hiding behind it. But then I think those people don't like their own company and just like not talking for five minutes.” Engineers bassist/vocalist Mark Peters giving his perspective on a totally different music scene from the one his band left four years ago. With all the talk of a rise in nu-gaze and rapturously received albums from M83, Maps and Kyte, along with the rise in labels like the Sonic Cathedral and Northern star and the sell out return of My Bloody Valentine there's confirmation that excelling in sonically adventurousness is in fact something that should be applauded, not derided. Unfortunately the phrase took on a derogatory meaning during its blossoming in the early 90s, slung at anyone wielding a guitar and hiding behind a wall of sound, with long greasy hair and a lumberjack shirt on their back, but was Shoegaze as easy to pigeonhole as the mainstream music made out? Or was there something more nuanced beneath the tides in this ocean of noise: 'Something that interested me that at the time was only the press coined the term (Shoegaze) and labelled a lot of the crapper bands that came out at the time with it.' Continues Mark 'The ones that were just taking on the sounds of bigger acts like My Bloody Valentine or Ride when those bands were at their peak. But at the time there wasn't really much difference between the Stone Roses, 'Screamdaelic' by Primal Scream and Spiritualized it was all just kind of epic, hedonistic kind of music.'
It shouldn't be forgotten that way back in 2005 the Engineers debut offered up an intimate record that bore its way into people's subconsciousness, followed by a series of standout shows that saw them leading a the first wave of new acts that skilfully blurred the lines between dream pop, post rock and Shoegaze. Indeed Mark doesn't feel that 'shoegaze' is a dirty word anymore. It's been embraced by a new generation of underground bands from the sighing dream pop of Kyte to the MBV flecked indie fuzz of The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, but Mark thinks his band steps out of any crude boxes through the force and intricacy of their work, contacting the listener on different levels: 'I think its become an accepted genre there's a big community of people who love that music and don't care what the mainstream press say about it, or what trendy bands want to do.' Mark points out 'I'm not going to be so naive to think they we won't be pigeon holed because I know that we already are but I think there's a lot more to us. I think if you actually listen to us opposed to just skimming through it. '
He's right to be confident, returning with their startlingly new lush and swirling LP 'Three Fact Fader' - brought into creation via a labour of love that spun together writing, recording and production sessions over a four year period into an elegiac, multi-layered piece of work. But that's not to say it's birth was anything like easy. There was a danger at one point that the record that could never seen the light of day: 'We started writing this album in 2005, since the first one came out, we finished recording it in 2007. But our record company (Echo part of Chrysalis) just stopped releasing records in the traditional way.' Mark recalls 'We'd had quite a long intensive period of writing and recording, so opposed to sitting around waiting we thought we'd take a break. A couple of labels approached us but we didn't think it was moving on in the right way so we thought we'd wait until the right label (Kscope) to come along.'
In the intervening period the band (full line up: Simon Phipps, Mark Peters, Dan MacBean, Andrew Sweeney), released a cover of the Tim Buckley's classic "Song to the Siren" for the 2005 tribute album 'Dream Brother: The Songs of Tim and Jeff Buckley', worked on various different musical projects, Mark recently teamed up with German electronic genius Ulrich Schnauss, producing a single by Daniel Land and the Modern Painters. The push that finally made it possible for the album to come blinking into the light of day, was driven organically by the interest in the recordings from the fans 'We had a remix done by DJ Sasha that prompted a bit of interest on the myspace so we put up a few songs and that prompted more interest. We just got loads of really positive responses from it people asking where they could get it. Then this label (Kskope) approached us and they weren't even aware that there was another album they were just interested in us as a band because they loved the first album, and what we were doing.'
In the time between albums the Engineers had grown as people, musicians and producers, learning new production techniques on different projects and bringing a different slant to the recordings that had been lying dormant, bringing new ideas to the table and jamming them out. That working with renowned producer Ken Thomas (M83, Maps, Sigur Ros) sounds more like collaborative processes 'He's more of a counsellor than anything else; he's not really a nob twiddler, although he can do that. He just brought an impartial aspect to it, more of a philosophical approach. He did the M83, and the Maps album after he did our album he didn't even know what shoegaze was. We just wanted to make a great album and that was his opening gambit. We properly recording in 2006 we were touring, we started off at a place where Ken did his apprenticeship here in Surrey where 'Meat is Murder' (which both of us agree is the best Smiths album) was recorded; we were the last band to record there actually. Then we went to Rockfield in North Wales.'
Perhaps surprisingly to some there are propulsive Krautrock elements new to the world of the Engineers. Samples from Harmonia's Watussi provide new single and opening track 'Clean Coloured Wine' with a disarming familiarity, and yet at the same it time manages to sound fresh and modern. It's a rich vein of influence that's carried into the axis of the album with the track 'Crawl from the Wreckage' a crashing, haunting slice of modernistic pyschedlia 'We were just listening to a lot of Neu!, Harmonia and Can was a big influence on the album just in terms of an artistic idea of music, opposed to just write a song.' remembers Mark. There are more up to date flourishes too the bleeping wide screen electronic harmonic rushes of 'What Pushed Us Together', 'By What You Are' and 'Emergency Room' influenced by the likes of Panda Bear's 'Person Pitch' and The Animal Collective's 'Merriweather Post Pavillion', recording in different locations seems to have brought a different colour to each track 'Most of it was recorded in this lockup in a industrial estate when you're in a big studio you're more tempted you've got the vibe a bit more.' Mark points out 'but I wouldn't have liked to record the whole thing there coz I think you're not truly yourself in a big studio because you can do it whichever what you want it, why would you want to lose your personalities to that?'
'Three Person Pitch' is a personal record: with the cascading cautionary 'Song for Andy' and the grand string led 'The Fear Has gone' that's contains hypnotic looping vox, and the sighing 'Brighter As We Fall' with it's Nick Mcabe-esque shimmering guitars that are 'so-cavernous-you-feel-like-you-could-step-into-their-world' while the heartbreaking Pink Floyd 'Dark Side of the Moon'-esque vocals brings you down to earth with a bump. These are just a few of the myriad of moments on this long player that ring with a wistfulness, but as Mark points out they're careful not to call into a trap of being saccharine and overtly commercialised. It's a fine line to tread but Engineers navigate it with ethereal majesty: 'Anything that's got a slick manufactured sound loses the personal touch. But there's also this horrible thing where its a pared down sound, that's intentionally emotional, that's seen by some as almost a fast ticket to being worthy and real, that later gets used for a car advert.' Before he reveals 'There's so many people like that you meet when you're out, they might be thirty five but they're pretending to be teenage girls.'
Carefully and deliberately avoiding the commercial cynicism of mainstream 'elevator acts' that lack real heart, the Engineers create finely tuned sonic patterns dappled by harmonies that attempt to reflect their own voices, always trying to move the listener with their music. In turn taking them to places filled with rushes of misty melancholia and epic epiphanies, and creating a bond between musician and listener much like emotional heartache of Spiritualized and Chapterhouse. It's an aim that apparently seeps through both the recording and writing processes “It's quite personal from the point of view of the lyrics and vocals, musically we start off trying to tap into an otherworldly vibe and the lyrics always take it back to a personal experience, whether that's something going on in our lives at the time, or something we've seen in the news or read in a book but its always best to have something to relate to because otherwise it can just be vague. We do sometimes approach it as instrumental but we do bring the lyrics in as the focus of what we build the music around, an intimacy, it acts as though one person can have enormous ideas but then at the end of the day they're just one person and a vocal can portray that, but then music can portray that your imagination is endless.' Mark laughs apologising for his pretension, but continues 'The music can take you to places, a place you remember someone who's gone, there's a kind of elegy about it I think that's how we are as people really. But I think it's important, that the material that will come next will have more of a forward of approach about it.”
Since 'Three Person Pitch' was four years in the it's influences can seem disparate this is reflected by Mark's listening habits that are as eclectic as any modern music fan 'The last thing I listened to 'Lux supreme' by John Coltrane that's one of my favourite albums, whatever's lying around I'm surrounded by CDs or on Ipod Shuffle. I really got into Deerhunter last year; I'm waiting for them to do their brilliant album.' Of the newer acts was he's enjoying 'A band I really love are this act from Baltimore called Beach house. And although I really love the Animal Collective stuff, I really love the Panda Bear one that became before it. Someone said the rest of them heard that album and got that their ideas from that. I think its really interesting that they got a hip hop producer in they totally not only went into Panda Bear territory but they also took that a step on as well. Aside from the experimental side to it I think they're just great songs...' Perhaps burned by experience, Mark's suspicious of much of the music being pushed by larger label, rightly pointing out the cynical commercialism at the heart of decisions that sees huge big label marketing machines back the likes of Florence and the Machine, La Roux, Little Boots et al, looking hopefully to a future where most bands and music is driven by artistic, personal forces rather than commercial ones: 'We're at the end of an era where big labels dictate the trends now.' Mark smiles 'A lot of the big labels have all got a young, pretty, 80s electro girl at the moment to me that should have been three years ago, really! It's weird that these so called partially indie acts are being pushed so hard because Girls Aloud did it last year. Like anything with big labels its not necessarily or what they think is amazing it just kind of ticks the boxes, its just kind of the lowest common denominator of indie' before sarcastically adding 'Oh that'll be OK because we can relate it to that, is it actually that special? No.'
Yet you really get the sense of redemption when Mark speaks, thankful that 2005 will not be there only crack at catching the attention of the music loving public, but he's keen to make the point that it's still an album constructed for them and their loyal fans: 'Before we had a break we did two gigs and one of them was at the Sonic Cathedral and it was definitely the best gig we'd played in four years because we had nobody telling us what to play and then people on our message boards saying it was the best gig they'd ever been too and it was just like 'shit why didn't we just listen to our own' you know. I think its just growing up really; I just think you should take your own opinion as the one to listen too.'
With such a long gap between albums, and a gap in live performances of over two years surely there's a tour to follow up their recent Sonic Cathedral date? 'I think the first album was kind of a staying in late at night album, dare I say chillout. We wrote the songs for this album with a view to having something more exciting for us to play live. There's a strong possibility that we're going to support this band Porcupine tree in October, so that's going be good, bigger gigs are better for us because we tend to need a bigger sound system to get the music across in the best way. And going to different places especially abroad is more inspiring than anything else, it just writes songs for us those kinds of experiences.' It will be fascinating to watch these returning Sonic Engineers forge more new ground.
The album 'Three Person Pitch' is out now on Kscope records.