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FEARNET Exclusive Interview: Attrition's Dark Musical Legacy

I’ve filled a few pages on this site with my views about the surreal, often nightmarish but also strangely beautiful soundscapes of UK experimental band Attrition… but just recently I’ve had the good fortune to strike up a little dialogue with band founder and core member Martin Bowes. His band's influence on the Gothic, darkwave and industrial music genres over the past three decades has lent them a certain legendary status in those circles, and the recent reissues of his landmark “Live Trilogy” (mastered by Bowes himself and released through his own label, Two Gods), is a testament to his creative powers. But Martin’s also a very down-to-earth guy, who happens to be a huge fan of horror movies… which means, of course, he’s one of us.

Fresh off a stage performance in Vienna, Martin and his musical partner in crime Sin D’rella (who also heads up her own solo project, Imprint) took some time out to chat with us about the band’s role in the evolution of dark experimental music, their future plans, and most importantly, why zombie movies are so awesome. Children of the night, read on!

Attrition has been embraced by Goth & Darkwave fans, but your live performance in Across the Divide was recorded in 1984, before those genres were really defined. How would you categorize your sound at that stage?

Martin: There was a goth thing going on in the early ‘80s, but it was very much a guitar-based rock scene, based around bands like [Siouxsie and] The Banshees, Sex Gang Children, Sisters Of Mercy… I liked that music, but we were much more in a tradition of post-punk experimentalism, more influenced by bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk, Magazine, and also the more experimental side of bands like Crass and Joy Division. There was so much going on in music back then, especially in the UK; it was only later that goth and industrial and darkwave attempted to define a genre, and we appear to have got swept along by that – uncomfortably, at times.

While Cabaret Voltaire was doing their thing, there was also the whole proto-industrial music scene, including Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.

Martin: There was very much a second wave inspired by them and the post-punk era, and we emerged at the same time as bands like Coil, Legendary Pink Dots, Neubauten, In the Nursery, etc. Everyone was doing their own thing; everyone was inspired by a different past… but it did all come together here in the early ‘80s. It was not so much a "scene" as an outpouring of expression, championed by people here like Dave Henderson with his music columns in Sounds magazine at the time… and that really helped propel this new music to a new level. Ultimately though, the music was always much better received outside of the UK than it ever was here, which was good... we got to travel! But I think that it was a shame at the same time… people were missing something.

This trilogy of re-releases covers three decades of live performance. In what ways have you heard the band's live sound evolve over that period?

Martin: There are obvious advances in technology, and even the recordings: the live album from '84 was recorded onto cassette tape – that glorious analogue medium! – and of course we have gone through many a lineup change in those years. I have always updated the older songs that we perform live, so they gel within the current live set. I think it’s important that they evolve over time. There have been many twists and turns, and improvements in technique and sound quality… but ultimately, many things remain the same. Attrition has always – a few guest appearances aside – been a three-piece on stage: me, the female singer (now Sin D'rella), and a third person on synths and keyboards. The trilogy has always been important in many aspects of Attrition; that is evident on stage as it is on many of our projects. Something hardly ever discussed, actually, until now... but it is always there.

Has the evolution of music technology influenced your creative approach over the years?

Martin: Yes it has. I have always been fascinated with technology… well, technology that creates sound. As a non-musician, I long ago discovered it was my way of expressing myself – that and lyrics, which are also very important to me – and a change from sitting in front of a computer! So yes, I have been through the whole history of electronic instruments, I would think… from early analogue synths and drum machines to the latest software instruments, I use them all – and take influences from the possibilities they open up for me. I think it is important to move on and grow, in anything. I even teach this at the college here [in Coventry], so I am always learning about new technology. Ultimately though, you know, these are only tools. They are amazing tools, but it is what is in your head and heart and soul that is important. We can destroy computers, but we can't destroy music.

You've mastered several other bands' albums as well as your own... when did you first become interested in mastering?

Martin: I remember going to Utopia studios in London in 1984 for the analogue mastering of our debut album The Attrition of Reason. I was fascinated… compared to the possibilities today on computer, it was a very primitive art form back then, and over the years I would always take a close interest. I even went to LA when we first signed to [record label] Projekt so I could be there when all our old albums were remastered on CD. We were in the same mastering suite that had mastered Frank Sinatra – I know, it's totally ridiculous – but I liked it. Then some of our releases in the ‘90s were on overseas labels, and I didn’t get to sit in on those mastering sessions… with mixed results. So about 10 years ago, I finally got hold of the technology to be able to do this myself, and I really, really love that I finally have the control on everything now, from the initial idea to the recording and production, and now the final master. There is so much more you can do with your music at the mastering and compiling stage. So it went from there [to] mastering Attrition albums, and people liked it and started asking me to do their albums, which I will do when time allows… as it really isn't my vocation in life. But it is another something…

What would you consider your most important piece of advice to your music students?

Martin: I would say this: make sure the mix is as right as you can get it. Mastering isn’t magic dust. And by the same token, don’t overdo it... and give it some time. Leave it, come back the next day. Mastering will fuck with your ears and brain, so don't let it...  just walk away and come back tomorrow, and then you will know if it is working.

Sin, you mentioned your own band Imprint is working on music that will be part of a novel... can you elaborate on that project?

Sin: I was approached by a friend of mine called Nick of Ding an Sich in Greece, who I met when I played in Athens. Manolis Daloukas – who's a published writer and journalist as well as a great photographer – is actually writing the novel, and Nic and I will be collaborating on some tracks together to accompany the novel. It's something unusual and exciting, and I'm really happy to be involved with it! So far we're working on a cover of a Bob Dylan track and a Joni Mitchell track. It should be coming out around the end of the year, I believe... I'll be posting more about it on MySpace as I get details.

What plans are in the works for Attrition's next album?

Martin: As Sin joined Attrition last year, we have been busy with many projects... live shows, reissues, and importantly she has been very busy with her debut album as Imprint. But we are freeing up some time now… we have many, many ideas for the new Attrition album, and it is now the time to realize those. After me inviting many guests in on the last album [All Mine Enemys Whispers], this one will be back to the core, and will be an album that I will write together only with Sin. We have a lot to say.

Sin: It should be very interesting to see what we come up with, as we both have very different ways of working, and use completely different software! Not only that, but we sound so totally different – Attrition and Imprint, I mean. What I don't want to happen is for people to listen and say, “Oh, that's an Attrition song,” or “That's an Imprint song.” This needs to keep the Attrition feel to it, but I aim to bring something new to it. Exciting times.

Martin, you've told me you're a big fan of horror films, and zombie movies in particular. Care to share with us?

Martin: This is great! No one ever asks me about zombie films! I have loved them ever since I saw Night of the Living Dead in the 70's… and then Dawn of the Dead came out, [which] is probably my most favorite, and in my opinion the most important zombie movie. It says so much, doesn’t it? It transcends gore and splatter. The remake is also amazing, which is so rare a thing. I even got Sin to watch that one, and she is still here and alive and is not having nightmares about it! I love pretty much any zombie film: the Fulci ones, of course, and the 28 Days/Weeks Later were really good. I really want to be a zombie extra... but don’t know if I should be telling you this!

Sin: But you are a zombie, Mr. Bowes!

Sin, I take it you’re not as enthusiastic as Martin about zombies?

Sin: I can't stand zombie films. But I love horror! Ones that really fuck with your head. I'm not into gore though – films like Saw and such – I really can't see the point.

Has your music been influenced by horror films, books or other media?

Martin: Yes, of course. The atmosphere in the best horror films, the best books, that sense of dread, something we all experience in our everyday lives from time to time… you can find that in the music of Attrition. We have worked on instrumental pieces over the years that are obviously heavily influenced by horror music scores, from our first recording "This Death House" in 1982 (directly influenced by Night of the Living Dead), to last year’s All Mine Enemys Whispers – a soundtrack album telling the story of the life of Victorian serial killer Mary Ann Cotton. That one has even featured as the soundtrack to a documentary on her life.

Have you ever incorporated horror imagery into your live performances?

Martin: Not obvious imagery… we have had slide projections in the past and there may have been the odd image, but generally I’m influenced by the horror genre, as I believe it tells of something common to us all. When done well, it expresses our basic fears and puts them up there as an analogy of something much deeper and fearful that is inside us all... so I wouldn’t use obvious images, no... we do that in the music when it is needed, and create that atmosphere, but the images you must look for inside yourself.

Speaking of which… looking inside yourselves, what would each of you consider your greatest fear?

Sin: My greatest fear... is that the world and its inhabitants will always let greed rule.

Martin: My greatest fear… is not knowing.

Be sure to check out Attrition’s official site for more info on the remastered editions of three landmark performances: Across the Divide, Heretic Angels and Kill the Buddha (which I reviewed on these pages back in January).

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