Tripping the dark fantastic with The Membranes – in conversation with John Robb

Bass Instinct: John Robb, in action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Bass Instinct: John Robb, in action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

It’s fair to say that the bands topping the bill at this weekend’s Un-Peeled Christmas Party at The Continental, Preston, Lancashire, are enjoying something of a renaissance.

Post-punk outfit The Membranes and C86 outsiders The Wolfhounds have both released LPs to be proud of in recent times, three decades after they first shared dressing rooms on the indie circuit. And they’ve shifted more albums in the last couple of years than for many moons, with critical acclaim heaped upon them from the more discerning music press.

More of the latter in the next feature on this site, but first I’m focusing on fellow Death to Trad Rock troubadours The Membranes, talking inner space, outer space, dark energy, dark matter and much more with the band’s bassist and front-man John Robb.

At times it seems that Blackpool born and bred John’s never off our TV screens, this human whirlwind of an author, blogger, broadcaster and journalist something of a ‘go to’ talking head when it comes to online, on screen and on air tributes to lost rock stars and all manner of conversations regarding music culture’s past, present and future.

You may even recall talk of the last of the rocking mohawks on these very pages recently, as Ajay Saggar and Marcus Parnell reminisced about their formative days with ‘80s Preston indie favourites Dandelion Adventure.

The Membranes were a major catalyst for that band, with Marcus (aka ‘Fat Mark’) leading a loyal army of fervent fans following them all over. And it seems that John’s band – back together since 2009 – still inspire that level of adulation all over. But first, a bit about those Lancashire roots.

“Preston’s always been a big part of The Membranes’ story, and always a great place to play back In the old days. In the post-punk era, Blackpool had the bands and Preston had the audience, with classic venues like The Warehouse. We had some great gigs there, with people like Mark from Much Hoole and others smashing up venues!”

I think he’s being metaphorical there, but didn’t ask, instead fast-forwarding to November 2016 and The Membranes’ recent dates with The Sisters of Mercy. How did the Leeds rockers’ crowd react to their support act?

“It was an amazing reaction. When you’re supporting you never know what you’re going to get, and may get audiences resenting the fact that this other band’s playing. But they were really open from the first song. Even those who didn’t get it were trying hard to be really positive. And all the CDs we took along sold.”

12803293_10154004849639185_1994445922401642799_nThere seem to be lots of physical record sales of late, be it for 2015’s Dark Matter/Dark Energy (Cherry Red) or more recent remix LP Inner Space Outer Space (Louder than War), with its reworks of the previous album’s initial songs masterminded by the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, the Bad Seeds, Einsturzende Neubaten, Keith Levene, Reverend And The Makers, The Pop Group, and many more.

“It’s the economics of rock’n’roll these days. Not every town and city is blessed with a shop like Action Records, with people out of the habit of buying in shops. And a lot still think they can get it off the internet for free.”

The Membranes have also toured with Killing Joke and Therapy this year, and this site’s favourite band The Undertones, with a great photo of both bands together a few weeks back, captioned ‘The nicest chaps in rock and roll with the nicest chaps in rock and roll’.

“Yeah, we got on very well, and have known them a really long time. They’re really nice people to tour with. That’s also the case for The Sisters (of Mercy), despite them having a reputation for being difficult, and the fact that Andrew Eldridge doesn’t suffer fools.”

Away from the band, I see John’s got a live date in the diary with The Smiths’ guitar legend Johnny Marr, following the publication of the Mancunian’s autobiography, with the pair in conversation at Birmingham Town Hall (Friday, December 9th, with details here). Will he be taking his bass along?

“Well, I know he’ll take his guitar along … but he’s a very high standard, isn’t he!”

Are you suggesting you’re not?

“I’m really good at my style, but I don’t practise his style. I’m in that Peter Hook school. He told me (the pair in conversation to mark the publication of Peter’s Unknown Pleasures – Inside Joy Division book four years ago) The Rolling Stones once asked him to join, making their shortlist. He thought that was amazing, but then said, ‘To be honest – I can’t learn your songs’.

“He can’t play cover versions, and that’s a very post-punk thing, I think – picking up a guitar or bass and writing music without learning how to play music, coming up with your own style. Nowadays people tend to go to college for four years and learn every song. I don’t know which way’s best really. It’s quite good to be able to pick out your own style.”

Mohawk Master: John Robb in live action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Mohawk Master: John Robb in live action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Incidentally, what ever became of John’s original, erm … distinctive homemade bass?

“It was stolen out of my house – a complete nightmare, around 1992. It was heart-breaking – it meant absolutely nothing to anyone else. It only ever worked for me. I’m sure they nicked it, got halfway down the street, then thought, ‘What the f*** is that?’ It looks like a stick!’ People would borrow but couldn’t play it. It was so small and a weird shape and it’s hard to get your hand around it. But these days I’d probably still use what I’ve got now – my (Fender) Precision – because it’s a heavier sound.”

The Membranes have certainly packed in a lot of work this year – not bad for a band up for a 40th anniversary next year.

“It would be if we hadn’t taken 25 years off!”

Okay, so John’s also been at the helm of fellow punk rockers Goldblade since ’95, among all his other media work and writing, but let’s not split hairs.

“It was a long weekend!”

It’s not like you were idle for all those years.

“We had to take time off to study the universe.”

You didn’t go too far though.

“No, we just went to Manchester! The thing is that we only came back because My Bloody Valentine asked us to play the ATP (All Tomorrow’s Parties) Festival. That went really well, so we did this album. I just wanted to make a record I could listen to on the headphones and go, ‘F***! That sounds good!’ But then a few more said, ‘F***! That does sound good!”

14718717_10154651021854185_5936125292192229257_n“I thought it would just be me, but it’s rolled and rolled, ending up being our bestseller, doubling the sales of anything we put out before. It’s like everyone’s caught up with us. When we started people didn’t know what we were and would look baffled when we were playing. Then all these American bands turned up and we got told we were ripping them off! Err – yeah, of course – we had a crystal ball to look into the future!’

“Coming from Blackpool it makes it all the more difficult. Section 25 suffered that as well. To me their first album (1981’s Always Now) equals Joy Division’s – an amazing record. Yet in interviews there will be references to candy floss, the Tower … I’ve no problem with that, but our contemporaries like The Fall came from Manchester, Nick Cave was living in Berlin, Sonic Youth came out of New York … all cooler places. But coming from Blackpool they thought we must be taking the piss!”

So, just a few miles back up the road from his Fylde coast roots, what can we expect from John and his band this time at the ‘Conti’?

“We’ve got a whole new album ready, so will play three or four songs off that. And it’s not even recorded yet. We’re not really lumbered with hit records. If you’re The Undertones you’ve got to play Teenage Kicks, because it sells every venue out, and Lemmy always played Ace of Spades and never complained because it kept him going. But we can just play what we like – we’re not hampered by having a hit!”

Won’t there be someone out there shouting for the cult single that made No.6 in John Peel’s Festive 50 in 1984 – Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder?

“Occasionally you’ll get that, but for us it’s more about the sound and the attitude. I’ll be disappointed if people expect us just to play songs they semi-remember from 30 years ago, and just hope they will understand what we’re trying to do.

“For us it feels a lot better now. All the ideas we had in the ‘80s were way beyond our means and the songs were too difficult to play. They were so complex – almost like prog songs. Coming out of punk we only knew about two things. Now, if we want to go classical or into all these mad directions we know how to do it.”

So can we expect something of a celebration of all that dark matter, dark energy, inner space and outer space?

r-1014032-1184217392-jpeg“Yeah, we’ve always been fascinated by space, and when I met the head of the CERN project after a TEDx talk, we had a massive conversation all about the universe, and everything he told me fused with the album, which is very dark sounding. The idea of dark matter and the mystery of it poetically fascinated me, so it had to be the album title, and the songs started to feed into that.”

What will the line-up be on the night in Preston?

“A four-piece – me and Nick Brown from Blackpool, Rob (Haynes) from Manchester and Pete (Byrchmore) from Birmingham.”

And the other acts on the bill (I asked him this before a late change added Vukovar to the bill)?

“We’re not competitive – we all like each other. I love The Wolfhounds’ new album. We all kind of cheer each other on. You’re on the barricades together. We’ve never had that sense of competitiveness that you get in the bigger music scene. Maybe that’s why we all end up in cult bands!

“I only met The Folk Devils once, for about 20 seconds! We both supported The Fall at The Lyceum in London in 1984. It’ll be nice to meet them properly. They’re a great band too. It’s an amazing bill, and Rico (la Rocca, promoting the event as ‘Tuff Life Boogie’) does amazing stuff for Preston, with these really diverse bills. It’s a big town, and Gordon (Gibson) at Action Records has helped give it that reputation. But for the kind of music he’s putting on it’s an outpost, compared to Manchester.

”Similarly, we played Middlesbrough last week and on the night about 120 came and the promoter made a profit – I’ve never seen him so happy! I like playing those fringe towns and taking complex, weird music out there. And if people get to hear what we do, I think they’ll like it.”

Releasing the Flexible Membrane EP in 1980, did John ever contemplate that almost four decades later there would still be such an interest in Europe, the UK and the US for the band by the time he reached the grand old age of 55?

“When you’re young you don’t think past 25, and we were all set to burn out – living pretty fast. You’d think no one would like that kind of music by now. But – staring 60 in the eye – it’s more popular than ever, and virtually every band that came out of 1977/80 still going, apart from The Clash. It has a longevity no one expected.

“When we were 17 we loved Captain Beefheart, Howling Wolf and loads of old blues guys, and we’re a modern version of all that – old people who haven’t lost our edge really.”

51q5up2rvul-_sx305_bo1204203200_Three decades after their Death to Trad Rock EP (also the title of a John Robb book and tie-in CD on the ‘80s post-punk fanzine scene in 2009), give us a medical condition check on rock’s life expectancy right now – is it good, fair, critical, serious or dead?

“Ha! Rock music is a great musical form but at that point in time it was too suffocating. But one of the great things about rock music is that it keeps morphing into different forms.

“Some of the best things today are on the fringes of metal – when they go into drone or psychedelia, bands like Wardruna from Norway – Viking folk music played on traditional instruments. That’s where all the weird shit is! If (John) Peel was alive now he’d be playing that kind of thing.

Death to Trad Rock was just a cool title to antagonise at the time, but also a celebration. People will think they’re hip and say we’re only allowed to like certain types of music. But we got past that crap about 100 years ago!”

There certainly seems to have been a shift from the old big record company approach to a more punk DIY model, regarding ‘crowdfunding’ and so on.

“I like crowdfunding, and it works for us. We crowdfunded our remix album and we’re going to crowdfund a film about the universe too. Now, 20 years ago you’d have to go on your knees and grovel to someone asking them to give you money for a film, and they’d still say no. But we have an opportunity to make a film now, and with the technology can make something much cheaper.

“I love film, but of course I’m more into my music, and will spend every penny to make that perfect … or perfectly imperfect!”

How was it recording a BBC Radio One session for John Peel back in 1984?

“The same as for everyone really – it was a bit odd, because Dale Griffin was a bit grumpy! But I was a massive Mott the Hoople fan, so put up with it. It’s just a shame it wasn’t (Mott bass legend) Overend Watts, who I met at an after-show party on their previous tour. He was such a hero when I was 12 or 13, and I told him, ‘I’ve just got to shake your hand’ And – unbelievably – he said, ‘It’s John Robb, isn’t it? From The Membranes? I love your band!’”

“I thought, ‘How the f*** does Overend Watts know my band?’ But he liked The Monks and all that weird underground cult music. So we became good friends and have kept in touch.”

Those alternative celebrity endorsements must count for a lot, not least the love previously professed for his band by Big Black singer-songwriter and guitarist turned acclaimed sound engineer Steve Albini, and My Bloody Valentine singer-songwriter turned producer Kevin Shields.

Beyond Spike: John Robb lets rip with post-punk survivors The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Beyond Spike: John Robb lets rip with post-punk survivors The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

“There’s always things you tell people, but they think you’re making it up! But we were the first band to be recorded by Albini after Big Black. We went to his house and recorded an album in his cellar. He’d never been asked before.

“When we recorded Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder, we felt that sounded perfect but had no idea how we got it to sounds like that. But when we went to his house he showed me all his Membranes records and Rox fanzines (John’s first publication) that he bought in Rough Trade in 1985, and he said he’d been trying to find me. He wanted my label to put his early records out. I tell people that now and they say, ‘That can’t be right! It must be the other way around.”

Well, it would seem that Steve Albini at least has a more romantic notion of Blackpool’s musical worth then.

“Ha! It probably fascinates him more. It’s like with Shellac (the occasional Chicago three-piece, including Steve Albini). We played the Brudenell in Leeds last night and they were also on, and they just like playing cool venues. Instead of playing London you could probably get them to play Blackpool instead. They don’t work in a conventional way. They play weird gigs in weird towns. And I reckon Steve will have been fascinated by how we sounded like we do coming from a town that was totally different.

“As for Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine used to support us in Manchester, and Nick (Brown) played on their first release. That’s why Kevin reformed us really.”

If John had to boil down a career in The Membranes to two gigs, which would he choose?

“The choir gig we played in Estonia or Manchester. That was mind-blowing. You’d think, how does that work?’ But it does – really well! I saw this choir in Estonia – Sireen – during Tallinn Music Week and went up to them after and said, ‘We’ve got to work together!’

“I managed to get a gig with an Estonian promoter, but had never worked with a choir before, so it was a case of me singing parts to them. They then brought in Estonian folk songs, which we arranged around a piano. The only rehearsal we had was the soundcheck of the actual gig. I like to take a gamble! It could have gone badly wrong, but I felt I had nothing to lose. It’s not a career – everything’s on a tightrope!

Choral Treat: The Membranes with the BIMM choir, set to be heard again together at Manchester's Ritz in April 2017 (Photo: BIMM)

Choral Treat: The Membranes with the BIMM choir and BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley, set to be heard again together at Manchester’s Ritz in April 2017 (Photo: BIMM)

“We’re now set to play The Ritz in Manchester with a 20-piece choir next year (the British and Irish Modern Music Instititute – BIMM – choir, on Saturday, April 29th, in a show also featuring ex-Fall chanteuse Brix with her band The Extricated, Dub Sex, The Blinders, and more. For details head here). It’s a massive venue and another big risk, but tickets are going well.”

It must be a buzz to have all those voices behind his band. At this rate, are we likely to see John take over from Gareth Malone on the BBC series The Choir?

“Weirdly, that was mentioned the other day. I don’t watch telly and someone had to explain to me who he was, but … okay. We are a punk band, but punk to me is being very smart and revolutionary, taking risks and gambles with music.”

Rather than burning rare acetates of Sex Pistols singles (he says, bringing up a recent publicity stunt by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s son Joe Corre, who burned an estimated £5m worth of Pistols and punk memorabilia in protest at what he saw as punk’s 40th anniversary celebrations turning music’s revolution into a ‘museum piece’)?

“I don’t give a f*** about burning stuff. I just don’t like the way he’s talking on behalf of everyone else, saying punk is over. Try telling that to a 15-year-old kid inspired by this ancient spirit to go and do some art, being told he can’t! You can’t burn that. Joe Corre’s got £47m in his bank account because he sold underpants and knickers. It’s nothing to do with him.”

With its online empire, magazine, record company and so on, John’s sideline, Louder Than War, has certainly made a huge impact and proved it’s here to stay. The site’s 15-part manifesto alone is certainly a joy, and rather stirring too (with a link here). Do his writers have to chant those 15 points as a mantra every morning?

“That would be a great idea, like in Chairman Mao’s China – the Little Red Book, a digital version! It’s important to set parameters, but so many people write for us and what we’re really into is encouraging young writers.

“A girl from Blackpool did her first review for the site last week, on the band Lush, and their bass player started bitching about my writer and all these other old writers started criticising her syntax and grammar. But all their grammar was wrong as well. These are just old men of my age, moaning and complaining!

14907002_1154569294623731_7553018851655712774_n“The only bad thing about young people now is that they don’t tell those old people to f*** off! That’s what we did. They’ve got so much talent, but they’re scared of the old people. I see that on The X-Factor, where a 20-year-old singer’s so desperate they’ll be kow-towing to some weirdo creep like Louis Walsh. Why? Just make your own art!”

So what’s John’s advice for a new band coming through, from someone who’s been out there and at it for four decades now?

“One of my favourite words is ‘relentless’, and you don’t get in a band to avoid getting a job. It’s one of the toughest jobs in the world. Okay, it’s not like picking people off a road after they’ve been hit by a bus or working down the pits, but it’s very low-paid and you get snubbed or slagged off all the time.

“You really need an immense amount of self-belief and an incredible work ethic. All day you’re working and hustling like mad. Most musicians are quite introverted people, but the only way people are going to hear you is by you telling them you exist.

“It’s easier now with the internet, but back in the day I’d stand in a callbox in Blackpool for six hours a night, putting in washers the drummer stole from GEC in Preston, the same size as 10p pieces. For about three years all our phone calls were free. But it was f***ing freezing – just off the prom, with a howling wind coming off the sea.

“Yet that attitude and idea of standing there in a callbox all night calling one person after another, asking if they’ve got another number so I could ring the next person, was basically what you had to do.

“Also – write and keep writing, writing, writing, and keep playing, playing, playing. It’s an amazing life, unless you want a proper house in a proper kind of world – you won’t have that!”

 Finally, with the John Peel link in mind again, to mark your Un-Peeled Xmas Party appearance, let’s go back to  Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder‘s No. 6 placing in the festive 50 in 1984. There was talk of there being many similar postcodes and handwriting on the entries. What have you got to say for yourself, John?

“What happened was that my brother enthusiastically sent four postcards from Liverpool while he was at university there. I don’t think he understood the concept of how you rig a poll, so probably wrote the same thing on each, and Peel thought we’d fixed it. And because he mentioned it, it sort of stuck.

Lining Up: The Membranes in live action, with John Robb flanked by drummer Rob Haynes and guitarist Pete Byrchmore (Photo: Phil Newall)

Lining Up: The Membranes in live action, with John Robb flanked by drummer Rob Haynes and guitarist Pete Byrchmore (Photo: Phil Newall)

“But I think it was more likely that because you had a choice of songs you’d write down two you liked then put a curve-ball in for the third, and because of the title of our song, that was one you’d automatically think of. It had such an impact that year, so those who maybe voted for The Cure and New Order might have felt that was a bit mainstream so also voted for us – something off the wall.

“Ours was the ‘go to’ weird track, and got us one more radio play. And I still think it’s a great record. I’m my own worst critic, but when you get it right … I still play that record and think, ‘F***!’

“We did it in an all-night session, took it back to Mark Tilton’s house the next morning and were just rolling around on the floor, laughing, because it was so f***ing perfect! We kept playing the beginning, where the bass comes in, over and over again, thinking, ‘F***! That sounds good!”

At time of going to press, a few tickets (£12 plus booking or £14 on the door) remained for Saturday, December 3’s Un-Peeled Xmas Party (7.30pm-11.30pm), starring The Membranes, The Wolfhounds, The Folk Devils and Vukovar, with details on the Un-Peeled Facebook page, via the bands, or this link.

Be sure to come back here for writewyattuk’s Wolfhounds feature over the next day, starring David Callahan. In the meantime, you can keep up to date with all things Membranes via their websiteFacebook and Twitter links.  

And for all the latest from Louder Than War, head to John Robb’s site here.


About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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