INTERVIEW WITH JOHN ROBB FROM THE MEMBRANES I hope you all know John Robb. He not only has written with „Punk Rock“ one of the best books about the origin and the golden years of punk in England, he was with his band The Membranes also part of the scene. Some years ago, The Membranes have reunited and last year they released with „Dark Matter / Dark Energy“ a new, great album. I guess these are enough reasons to ask the busy old punk some questions about his band, the new record and his new book projects.
„Dark Matter / Dark Energy“ is your first album in 26 years. Did you feel a special pressure when writing and producing this record? Comeback albums are usually, especially in the punk rock community, viewed critically.
The only pressure when making a record is your own expectations. I wanted to make something that had the noise thrills of punk rock without following any of the usual ideas. I wanted the freedom to go where we wanted and go on a real trip.
We are not operating under normal rules. We make albums when we feel like it. We are not trying to fit in with what you are meant to do! We make albums when when we feel like it and when we are ready! The minute you start to worry about whether a community is going to be critical of your record you are finished – and you are not punk rock! Of course we love the punk rock community – we have lots friends there and we have been into punk rock for what feels like all our lives but the whole point of punk rock is not to play the game and we don’t want to be like one of those corporate American bands who make polished punk rock lite to ‚market‘ . Good luck to them for doing that but pop punk is not really punk. But then, of course, who are we to tell anyone what to sound like – we create our music on our own terms – we make the stuff we want to listen to.
When we did a couple of gigs after 25 years we didn’t even think anyone would turn up or really care about what we were doing any more and yet the gigs went really well and were really busy. I had no interest in doing loads of old songs and wanted to make a new record, after meeting the head of the CERN project at a TEdx talk we were both giving I wanted to make music that matched the wonder and madness of the universe and that’s what we set out to do. We ended up with a double album. We had no idea anyone would like it and then it started getting lots of great reviews and reactions and people buying it were saying it was one of their albums of the year…It’s been really interesting taking what is in some parts quite a left field record to punk rock festivals and watching everyone jump around to songs about particle physics and death…
The „sell-out“ – reproach is also not far, when a band gets back together again many years after their release. Do these kind of discussions concern you or has anyone ever made such accusations?
I doubt we could earn enough money to ‘sell out’ and the whole term is a joke anyway. As long as the music is great I don’t care if a band gets paid. Sell out accusations usually seem to come from people with really well paid jobs or rich parents or people who support big football clubs with well paid players who they never call sell outs – only musicians are meant to live on nothing! Sell out accusations usually seem to come from people with really well paid jobs or rich parents or people who support big football clubs with well paid players who they never call sell outs – only musicians are meant to live on nothing! If a band makes rubbish music to make money that’s not really my problem either- I just listen to another band- there’s plenty of great stuff out there to listen to. If you were going to sell out you certainly wouldn’t be doing what we are doing – you would go and get a proper job and get paid.
Sell out accusations usually seem to come from people with really well paid jobs or rich parents or people who support big football clubs with well paid players who they never call sell outs – only musicians are meant to live on nothing!
The lyrics to „Dark Matter / Dark Energy“ are supposedly created after a conversation with the head of the CERN project Joe Incandela. Do you have a special interest in astrophysics or how did it come to that conversation?
I’ve always been fascinated by the universe and know a lot about it but when I had done my talk about punk rock and Joe Incandela did his talk about the Universe at Tedx we seeked eachother out for a conversation about our topics. It was a thrilling conversation – he has the information that is 5 years ahead of what everyone else knows and it was great to hear it – I liked he idea of dark matter and dark energy – even the words are so poetic that they make you want to write music to match the phrases and also the mystery and strangeness of the universe…big topics I know but who wants the millionth record of the usual topics. Of course the album is not just about the universe, sex, death and madness are in there as well.
„Dark Matter / Dark Energy“ is a concept album which describes the emergence and demise of the universe, which is a rather unusual topic in Punkrock. What fascinates you the most about this subject?
Originally the album was going to be sort of autobiographical but then my father got old and started to die so it was loosely based on his life but then I met the CERN project people and that got threaded in and began to take over and I liked the idea of the birth and death of the universe and how that even the universe like us is frail and dies in the end – it’s pretty abstract but I got really into the idea. `initially the idea was to make music to match the mind blowing conversation I had about the universe with the CERN people but the whole talk of the universe was really fascinating and something I had been fascinated with since I was an 8 year old kid watching the moon landings on TV – it seemed like the future had arrived all at once.
I know it seem like an Unusual topic for punk rock but when I first got into punk rock when I was a teenager in the mid seventies there was no template, there were no rules. When any type of music become codified it dies. There is nothing less punk rock than some of the current American bands with their sacherine harmonies and soft vocals singing about the same three topics over and over. fair enough that’s their punk rock but it’s not mine and I can’t think of anything less punk rock than looking down a check list of 5 subjects to sing about them so we can sell more T shirts at our gigs! In some ways the whole universe as a subject is another kind of reality, looking a bit beyond the usual parameters and we used the universe sas the backdrop as the songs were about lots of other stuff as well entwined around the universe idea.
„Dark Matter / Dark Energy“ is a truly diverse album with many musical influences. While listening I heard influences of Krautrock, free jazz, African drumming sounds, Space Rock, Metal and of course Punk and yet the album sounds from a single source. I would think it’s pretty hard to get these influences under one roof.
Perfect description – that list makes me want to buy the album! I listen to music all the time and it will soak in somewhere but it will still come out through my hands and my vision so it will have that kind of sound to it. As much as we love Lemmy, as much as we love UK Subs we also love the music you list above and it’s all in there but it’s all ours as well – we have our own sound and our own way of playing – we grew up with punk rock but we never had closed minds and we like the idea of different rhythms and sounds played with the energy and power of punk.
In 21st century you sing:“ I’m an unapologetic middle aged fucked up 21st Century Man „. Is this a self-description?
Yes. Who would not be fucked up by this world. the whole planet is on the edge of a nervous breakdown but despite being fucked up we still stand strong against the tide of mediaeval insanity.
You’ve been back since 2009, but „Dark Matter / Dark Energy“ is published this year. Why did you let so much time pass between your comeback and the new record?
At first we were only doing the odd gig and then it started to escalate! also it took a long time to borrow the money to record the record – it’s not easy making music with no money! But somehow I managed to make it work. In terms of the universe, of course, and the ideas like all the stars you see in the sky no longer exist because their light took so long to get here then what’s five years…
Who would not be fucked up by this world. the whole planet is on the edge of a nervous breakdown but despite being fucked up we still stand strong against the tide of mediaeval insanity.
Looking back to the beginning of the Membranes, what was it that fascinated you so much about Punk? And is this fascination still there?
Punk was empowering – it was saying ‘go on do it!’ and that’s really important to anyone. I loved music before then like Bowie/Trex and glam but punk was our turn, it was the time when a generation got their hands on the tools of production. And the way we saw it there were no rules – there was no template – punk could be Suicide, it could the the Stranglers, it could be the Fall it could be Crass, it could be Rudimentary Peni – we liked the noise and the excitement but we also like the sense of adventure. It was a perfect time to be 16. The sound and the fury caught our mood.
I interviewed an old German punk band, Brausepöter some time ago, the band said that Punk was in their beginning better, because everything was new and the bands were experimenting more. Do you have a similar point of view?
Yes! we come from the same sort of place. And that spirit still exists. But I must tell you that young bands are just as experimental and exciting now as they were then. I hear great music every day.
In 1990 the Membranes resolved. What was the reason?
Ran out of time! there is only so long you can starve for your art!
What have you done in the years in between?
I had another band called Goldblade , I wrote for music papers, wrote books (one book on punk is out in germany – punk rock an oral history) . I launched my own music website called louderthanwar.com, I did a lot of TV and radio presenting, producing records, doing spoken word, acting – there is the empowerment of punk rock for you – there is nothing to be scared of.
Punk was empowering – it was saying ‘go on do it!’ and that’s really important to anyone.
You’re not only a musician, but also a journalist and author, I read that you are working on a new book. Can you already tell, what is at stake and when it will be released?
The book is about the dark side of post punk – the so called goth music scene – I was sick of seeing so many great bands written out of the narrative of music culture. I’m 2/3 of the way through the book and it’s going really well. Bands from Bauhaus to Sisters Of mercy to Neubaten to early Adam and the Ants, from Industrial music to black metal – from old dark European folk stories to strange beliefs and the melancholic side of European culture…
Now that the album is out: Are you coming on tour to Germany?
Working on it now – would love to come – got gigs all over Europe and need to play Germany…
Thank you for the interview! And if any Booker should read this interview, take The Membranes under contract and organize them a tour in Germany. I would really like that!