Published Feb 01, 2000To understand why the Beta Band have captured the imagination of the British music press and the hardcore geeks who read them, picture the obsessive record store clerks inHigh Fidelity , Nick Hornby's seminal literary ode to music geekdom. Listen to the Beta Band's full-length, self-titled debut album and it's easy to envision the clerks making a list of their top five comparisons. Take your pick: Fairport Convention remixed by King Tubby; the Vaselines meet Stereolab; Beck and RZA jamming on Krautrock; Negativland splicing up old Spike Jones records; the Ween boys turned to men.
While their music conjures images of these collaborations, it's also unassuming enough to sound like it could have been created by that eccentric musician down the street from you. It's inventive enough that some trainspotters will think it's genius, but its homespun simplicity suggests that these people should get outside and meet their neighbours.
The Beta Band emerged on the British scene in the fall of 1997 with a trilogy of vinyl-only EPs, packaged and re-released as the single CD, The Three EPs , in January of this year. The EPs established the core of their sound: trippy, droney space folk, with a tendency to overstay their welcome past the six minute mark. The highlight, however, was the 15-minute tape collage "Monolith," which displayed the depth of the band's vision.
On their new album, that ambition is married to their pop tendencies, as heard on "The Hard One." That one song features a distant piano sounding like it was recorded in the middle of the woods, subsonic dub bass, wind chimes forchrissakes, a deconstructive bridge of tape splicing, haunting vocals that sound like Nick Drake on valium, and an inverse interpolation of the pomp-rock classic "Total Eclipse of the Heart" ("Once upon a time I was falling apart / Now I'm only falling in love").
Both the EPs and the album are a glorious mess, infuriating for their daring experimentation that fails almost as often as it succeeds. But because they're so shameless about laying all their creative cards on the table, they get an "A" for ambition and full marks for being a deconstructivist pop band several worlds away from a mainstream map. The listener is confronted immediately by the lead-off track, a gonzo trilogy titled "The Beta Band Rap," which attempts to recap the short history of the band.
"It's just a stupid joke, really," laughs singer/songwriter/guitarist Steve Mason. "I have no idea how [that song] started. Some things get further down the road of a joke than they probably should, which is basically how this band started. They should have been like one of these things where you wake up in the morning with a hangover and say, 'Man, that was fun, but we should never do that.' But we end up doing it. 'The Beta Band Rap' is a classic example of something that grown men should steer clear of."
This is what makes the Beta Band peculiar - not only do they not live up to the hype built around them, they don't have any desire to. They have a notorious reputation for grunting out monosyllabic answers to journalists who want to shower them with hyperbole. Perhaps because he's not talking to British weeklies NME orMelody Maker , Mason is pleasant, intelligent, disarming and surprisingly forthcoming.
Perhaps because he's a Scot living in London, Mason possesses an active disdain for any assumed role his band plays in the UK's national music scene. "It's a strange attitude over here. I can't understand what it is," Mason muses from his London home. "Because Britain happened to have a couple of good bands in the past, everyone in this country seems to think they have a God-given right to look down on everyone else in the music industry of the world. Whether it's A&R people, journalists, or people in bands, everyone seems to have this arrogance to them. We think of ourselves as a world band who happen to come from this country. There's not much going on in this country that I think is really any good, especially from the white people."
Before you can peg Mason with the same arrogance he feels surrounded by, consider the following exchange he had with a Melody Maker reporter smitten with his music: "Why haven't any of you announced that you're the best rock'n'roll band in the world yet?" suggested the scribe, attempting to goad him into a Gallagherism. Mason turned to her and deadpanned, "Because we're probably the worst rock'n'roll band in the world."
Journalists want to slot you into a cupboard and lock the door. Fortunately, we've got the master keys.
Mason laughs at some of the adjectives that make recurring appearances in their press. "Pastoral" is his least favourite, often used to describe their acoustic flavour and vocal harmonies. "It implies some kind of grassy knoll, with little pixies jumping up and down with acoustic guitars," he laughs. "That's not how I see this band, but some journalists here want to slot you into a cupboard and lock the door. Fortunately, we've got the master keys."
When the band formed, they were transplanted Scots who had landed in London with a creative itch and large record collections. Mason and Beta Band DJ John McLean shared a love of hip-hop, and bassist Richard Greentree was a dub-head. Drummer Robin Jones was the freak of the group. "Robin's got bits and bobs of everything, but he was mainly into..." Mason pauses, sounding incredulous, "rock music ! Which I'd never really dabbled in, things like Yes's Topographic Oceans and stuff I'd avoided like the plague, having seenSpinal Tap . I think he saw the humour in it, but he also quite liked it. We all converged from different places to the same point."
During our hour-long conversation, Mason talks with enthusiasm about '60s calypso star Mighty Arrow (hence the steel drums on the new album), Kool Keith, JJ Cale, and Beenie Man. Minuscule elements of all those artists surface in the Beta Band, but even when the backing rhythms are strong, Mason's monotonous vocals make Lou Reed's emoting skills sound like Al Green. Mason knows his limitations, and doesn't push them.
"If you and I listened to the same record, we'd probably get completely different things out of it, just because of everything that's gone into making our personalities," he says. "Different sounds trigger different emotions in you because of what you've experienced in your life. I'm influenced by hip-hop, but how I translate that influence onto a record would be completely different from someone else's."
Mason was a 12-year old B-boy in Scotland, but these days he's attracted to more than the music of hip-hop culture. As a band comprised of art school refugees, as many of the classic UK bands are, they're drawn to the multifaceted notion that hip-hop culture is defined as having four elements - DJing, rapping, graffiti and break dancing.
"We like the fact that those four elements come together to make one thing, and the music's cut & paste aspect, which died a bit but is now coming back again. Especially the way the Wu-Tang or Dr. Octagon approach music. They throw everything into the pot and make a whole new sound, different from the music they're sampling or what inspired them in the first place. They're making something new out of something probably a bit tired, and we're quite interested in doing that.
"We all come from a very visual way of looking at things, me the least [Mason dropped out of art college]. We try to look at things in a different way, and see things that other people might overlook."
The visual element extends to their self-designed cover artwork, obtuse videos, and stage presentation. Until very recently, the latter featured thrift store remnants strewn about the stage and home movies projected behind the band. But the visuals were overwhelming the music, in a rather literal sense.
Describing their rehearsal space, Mason moans, "It's full of junk. It's a fucking nightmare. It's getting to the point where it's so full of junk that you can't fit any musical equipment in there because of the genie outfits, huge cushions and hat stands, fishing rods, motorbikes, giant metals, and all sorts of crap. So we threw it all out, and now we can fit our gear in."
The Beta Band have paid careful attention to their visuals since their inception. Now Mason would like to seize more control of his music's distribution.
"There are Jamaican guys making records at the moment, who put out a record a month, or a single a week. That sort of immediacy is what I'd really like to do. I'd like to record a track on a Monday, get it mixed and all that crap, get it to the pressing plant on Sunday, and get it out there."
Recognising the financial barriers to this approach, Mason concedes, "We're still a young band. No one is going to throw money at us, but we'll get there eventually. It'd be good to be like the Beastie Boys, where you have your own set-up going on and you can pretty much do what you want.
"The problem is that because I've signed this contract, [the record company is] going to want to do things a certain way, and they're not going to want to press up 2000 copies every two weeks. I've asked them before! They just get funny that way. They have their proper way of doing things. Not marketing plans, because we still have control over all that."
It's a control the band is exercising, primarily in their decision not to appease the hype-hungry British press. "I don't know what it's like in Canada, but here [the media frenzy is] a horrible, sick way of working,"
Mason bristles. "The bands are encouraged to get involved with it, because the record companies want to pump them full of drugs to pacify them so that they don't have to make any creative decisions. The record company can make those decisions for them, and sell a couple more million records. We like to stay ahead of the game and keep our heads screwed on."
But being such a huge music fan, Mason concedes that he has a certain curiosity about artists he respects. He tells an amusing story about a friend who moved to Manchester and began hanging out with a guy he later learned was the Stone Roses drummer. Discovering this, Mason immediately paid his friend a visit, hoping to casually bump into one of his musical heroes.
"I guess I do have that strange, morbid fascination that most people do, but only to a small extent. I wouldn't want to impose on anyone's life. People are a bit lost, aren't they? They're looking for some kind of answer which they can't find themselves, and they want someone to give it to them."
The Beta Band have found fans from their peer group, as well. The Beastie Boys requested their DJ services at a Grand Royal party in London; Noel Gallagher boasts that Oasis will be moving in a Beta Band direction (whatever that might mean); and Dr. John employed them as a percussion section on his recent Anutha Zone album. But without naming names, Mason says that songs of praise are only as worthy as the singer.
This year, we are the next big thing. Next year, we'll be washed up on the shore like drowned rats.
"It might sound a bit arrogant to say, but unless you respect people, I don't find any worth in what they say. They've said it about other bands in the past. We're just one band in a long line of next big things. It's just not something I'm interested in. I care about the people I respect and what they have to say - people in the band, our manager, my friends. These pop stars are just numpties. This year, we are the next big thing. Next year, we'll be washed up on the shore like drowned rats."
Either way, Mason plans to stay true to the band's initial modus operandi. "The Beta Band was making music the way most good bands start: just for yourselves, for fun, sitting around in your flat making noises. It's all a bit of an accident. It's hard to think what I'd be doing if we hadn't become what we have become, whatever that is - a bunch of lame asses!"