I have been back in Bristol for about 6 months now, and boy have I missed the place. It’s a vibrant City with so much going on that it’s very easy to get distracted and if you find willing conspirators you can be out every night.
One of the greatest things about a city this size is the number of venues that have live music on, and not just tribute bands, but proper bona fide gigs criss crossing genres and styles, so from the Fleece, The Louisiana, The O2, Colston Hall, The Old Duke to name a few there really is something for everyone.
One thing Bristol has got going for it is a talented and diverse musical scene, from bands like Portishead, Massive Attack, Hi Fiction Science, the Blue Aeroplanes and artists like Tricky and She Makes War there really is some fantastic music that has been produced and continues to come out of this area.
One such band is Schnauser, an exciting and eclectic English band, who are now signed to the Esoteric Antenna label (alongside local band Hi-Fiction Science, and the excellent Tin Spirits from just down the M4 at Swindon), hats off to Mark & Vicky Powell at Esoteric who find some amazing bands. With some fantastic bands in this area there must be something in the water (or the cider-just ask the Wurzels…)
Mark Powell brought Schnauser to my attention at the album launch for Hi-Fiction Science’s wonderful album Curious Yellow, when he mentioned that if I enjoyed Hi-Fiction Science I should keep an eye out for the new Schnauser album.
In one of those happy coincidences which keeps the world spinning the next day I saw the last Schnauser long player (Where Business meets Fashion) on the review list for the DPRP, and I was hooked.
If you can imagine a four piece performing music in a Canterbury scene vein, with a seam of quintessentially English surrealism and word play running through their oeuvre with overtures of Monty Python or the Bonzo’s and killer vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys or early Yes, then you are getting warm as to the Schnauser sound.
However there is something indefinable at play as well, something truly original that sends tingles down the spine, and which puts a great big smile on the face.
Their latest album Protein for Everyone, is their fifth long playing excursion, and sees the debut of Jasper Williams on drums, joining founder member multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Alan Strawbridge, long term collaborator, bassist and vocalist Holly McIntosh and keyboardist extraordinaire Duncan Gammon (also on vocals) who joined in 2011.
Following on from the inventive and complex tracks on Where Business Meets Fashion, which is wonderfully layered album, containing some fantastic tracks like Walking Stick and Cat and Waterloo Teeth, Protein for Everyone is an evolution of the Schnauser sound.
With a striking cover, featuring Laura Kidd (She Makes War) and a real beefcake of a Gentleman all in tweed enjoying a day out at Clevedon pier, this is album art as part of the record, and is probably the best album cover I have seen so far this year (although it might put vegetarians off) the meat theme is carried over, with the CD itself looking like a piece of steak, and the credits written like packaging for meat. A wonderful concept, it works beautifully with the contents of the album.
These 7 tracks are superb, starting with the fantastic Grey or Blue, with its vocal harmonies, it’s great keyboard and guitar work, and of course that Schnauser trademark, the vocal harmonies of Alan and Holly that add so much to the sound, and with its lyrics about choosing optimism or pessimism, it’s a brilliant opener to a strong album. Since the band coalesced around the current line up, the confidence and power of the songwriting has grown, and this is a definite step along from the previous album. The title track Protein for Everyone, features more of those wonderful harmonies, some fantastic musical interplay between all four of the band and lyrics about selling body parts for me. The knack Schnauser have for mixing the dark and the light is sublime, the music is bright, airy and upbeat, then you throw in the lyrics, and it’s only as you’re humming or singing along, you realise that they’re covering quite dark subjects in a very clever way.
National Grid is another great song, and as the music works its magic, again very catchy and very clever, the lyrics deal with everyone being connected via social media.
Contemporary lyrical commentary in a pop/prog packaging, very few people can pull this off, even fewer can pull it off with such skill and aplomb.
Holly takes the lead on The Reason they’re Alive, a brilliant composed song, with another great performance by the band and some fantastic lyrics, again looking at the world in a slightly different way, this time celebrating the life of wasps of all creatures, again it makes you think about them in a slightly different way.
Split is a fairly conventional post-love song, with some heartfelt lyrics and a great performance from Alan, whilst Buon Natale is a fairly joyous if a tad incongruous Christmas song in Italian, whilst the lyrics are all sung in Italian, the music is wonderful, and I would love to be able to speak Italian to translate it, and find out what they are saying.
Then we come to the grand finale, and when I say grand finale it is the long one, Disposable Outcomes, a 16-minute plus epic of Canterbury style intensity and musical playfulness. In fact as it’s made up from a number of different songs it also has that Abbey Road side 2 vibe to it as it flips from mood to mood and song to song.
In fact the band are brimming with musical confidence here, it starts with an announcement about turning off your mobile devices and asking you to enjoy the song, with a lyrical introduction to the piece. In fact the spoken word intro is almost pure Stanshall. With some fantastic jazzy piano, great keyboard work and guitar interplay, the drum and bass of Holly and Jasper working in sync, this is fantastic as it weaves from mood to mood, it’s lyrics celebrating the joys in life, as it sneaks in a reprise from Buon Natalie, with some great guitar work. The band really stretch them out on this one, as the song fragments are all built and built with some of Duncans finest keyboard works and Alans brilliant guitar as suddenly a powerful driving keyboard and guitar riff comes in, Jaspers beat propelling it along at great speed.
This is a confident and intelligent piece of music, as it leads us back into some more of Schnausers story lyrics about Ordinary Ways, celebrating the joy of the usual, in a similar vein to McCartneys vocal interlude during A day in the Life.
Next we launch into Spleen Damage, a cautionary tale for all written and performed in a style that owes nods to the Bonzo’s or indeed Monty Python, with it’s blend or the real and the surreal, it provides a counterpoint to the musical intensity, as the story builds to its crescendo.
The finale returns to musical ideas introduced in Grey or Blue, and rounds the album off with aplomb and style as the finale builds and builds.
This is a fantastic album and shows a band at the park of their musical and compositional powers, and there is no weak track on it, proof of the pudding of course is, does it work live?
Yes, is the answer to that question.
The album was launched at the Lanes in Bristol on Saturday 4th October, and having already heard the album, and having the joy of seeing them play (albeit a truncated set) supporting Knifeworld, with the addition of the saxophonist to the line up, this was not going to be a gig I missed. Especially it’s practically on the doorstep!
The venue itself, the Lanes, is as the name suggests a bowling alley/bar/multipurpose venue, and whilst I love the fact that quirky venues like this have a place in the world, and also are diversifying so they can maximise their space and make sure they generate revenue to stay open, I am not 100% sure that this works as a venue for live music.
The fact that the bowling was still going on whilst the band played was distracting, and the mixing on the sound left a bit to be desired as some of the magic of the vocal harmonies were lost in the mix.
However that is my only criticism of the night, and with a few tweaks the venue would be perfect. However the audience didn’t seem to mind as the place filled up very quickly, and there was quite a crowd there ready to enjoy the debut of Protein for Everyone in a live setting.
The band played a couple of tracks from their previous album Where Business meets Fashion, including a wonderful version of Walking Stick and Cat, before launching into the album.
With the addition of Deano on Sax to the band, this was the first time the audience got the full five-piece Schnauser effect, and boy is it impressive.
The addition of the sax to the band enhances the live sound, and the way it weaves into the tracks from Protein is superb.
Watching a band live is always better than listening to the album, and the beauty of Protein for Everyone is that every track on the album translates well into a live setting, and when you see them live, you realise just how powerful a drummer Jasper is, throwing himself into everything and driving the songs along, whilst Holly on bass plays to perfection, more than a match for jasper, and the way they work together anchors the whole sound, and is as important to the band as Alans wonderful guitar work and vocals, and Duncans keyboards and his theremin, which when thrown in with the vocal harmonies adds to the fact that at times there is a Beach Boys vibe about them. The vocal interplay between Alan and Holly, which has been a Schnauser trademark for as long as there has been a Schnauser band is vitally important to the sound, and on tracks like The Reason they’re alive and Buon Natale, is at the forefront of the bands sound. The highlight of the set for me, and indeed the highlight of the album, is the immense epic Disposable Outcomes, which works even better live than it does on record (bear in mind on record it is flawless) and with the addition of the sax to the mix, it lifts it even higher, and with its quick fire mood changes, its changes in key, and tempo and style, it comes off with aplomb, showing that Schnauser are absolutely on fire as a live act, and easily the equal of any band you might have seen before. With some fantastic stagecraft and peerless musicianship from all 5 of the band, this was one of those gigs you leave and realise you’ve just witnessed something special. If you get the chance to see Schnauser do so.
I also spoke to multi-instrumentalist and keyboard player Duncan Gammon about the new album, and Schnauser in general, first however we got talking about Duncans 2009 solo album Lord Gammonshire’s guide to Everyday Sounds, a piece of fantastic prog pop, which features guests like Maria Charles from Bristol’s Hi-Fiction Science, and is a rare treat which deserves investigation.
‘It took ages to record, as it was ideas I’d had for a long time, and there was stuff bubbling under from about 2001 when I had started playing in Bristol bands, I started recording it at my home studio, and a friend of mine Gaz Williams, whose a producer here in Bristol helped me out with it, and it came out in 2009. It got some good reviews and reasonable sales, and then I should have promoted it more and toured with it, but I didn’t!’
Then you joined Schnauser,
‘I joined Schnauser in 2011, I had seen them supporting Euros Childs as I’m a bit of a Gorkys (zycotic Mynki) fan and was blown away by seeing them. I bought Sound of Meat and got chatting to the band. I am very into photography so I offered to do some pictures for them, and we got chatting about music. I sent a copy of my album to Alan (Strawbridge) who was raving about it, and then he asked me to join the band on keyboards. I wasn’t really a keyboard player, my main instrument is the guitar, but having switched over to keyboards there’s a different area of songwriting that has opened up for me, and it’s like a blank canvas composing in a way you wouldn’t even consider with a guitar’
Had that informed your input on Protein for Everyone?
‘When I joined the band the majority of Business meets Fashion was already recorded, so I overdubbed all the keyboards and we recorded one song, Pigeons, which I contributed. This time round we were writing in the rehearsal studios, and the process was more organic. It reflects more of what we sound like live, and of course it’s the first album with Jasper on drums.’
‘John (Fowle) the previous drummer had a great sound, right on the mark, he was very precise, Jasper is so different, he’s very much into jazz and so he plays the drums very much like a lead instrument. So the songs came very easily from the jam sessions, and there was a real spark with the writing.’
‘We’ve been playing these songs a long time, they were well rehearsed before we recorded them, and they’ve been in the set list for a while, so we’re used to performing them and know what we’re doing each time’.
I mentioned how I’d seen them supporting Knifeworld recently in Bristol,
‘That was a great gig, I love what Kavus does with Knifeworld and of course the Cardiacs, the music Knifeworld are making is amazing. Unfortunately on the night of that gig, with it being in a small pub, it took ages to set up, so we had to play a shorter set, but we still managed to get the 16 minuter in.
It was out first gig playing with the sax player Deano, who’s now a permanent member of the band. He brings that extra package, another ingredient to the mix and a different sound.’
What about the album launch gig, how did that go?
‘The launch gig, that was the first time we’d played all the songs live and in order as a whole. The sound was a bit muddy, some of the harmonies got lost, but it was a lovely place to do a gig, it’s a great venue.
We launched the last album at the Cube, which unfortunately this time round was booked up, the Cube is an old cinema so we had more films, which this time round we were unable to show.
We did have a good time performing, and it’s good to see the songs went down well with a lot of the audience’
Protein for Everyone is their first album on the Esoteric Antenna label,
‘Mark & Vicky (Powell, label bosses at Esoteric) have done so much for us, they’ve both been so enthusiastic about the record, and I count them as friends. The press has also been very supportive we are getting great reviews. There was a good one in Prog, another great one in Shindig and Record Collector, there’s been some radio as well, and we’re getting orders from other countries
We were nominated for the Limelight award at the Prog Awards this year, we chanced it when we sent off Where Business meets Fashion, and they latched on it and have been supportive of us, and it’s taken off from there.’
How do you feel about being part of the new prog scene?
‘It seems to have come at the right time for us, with all the magazines calling us prog. I am a massive prog fan and listened to things like Ummagumma, Zep III, and Piper at the Gates of Dawn when I was growing up, so it’s where I come from. Up until recently prog has been a dirty word, but now there’s bands like Syd Arthur who aren’t afraid to say they are prog’
Has prog influenced you as a songwriter?
‘Personally I listen to a lot of music, the Canterbury Scene, Caravan, the Soft Machine, Egg, I also like a lot of new bands. We went to see White Denim as a band and they sparked in us the idea of doing the 16-minute track. White Denim have released 4 albums and live they cut it up and mix it with tracks from each album being chopped and changed, its high energy entertainment with a cut and paste style.
Al & Holly are into Todd Rundgren, Al and I like 10CC with their element of songwriting. I consider the work of 10CC to be prog but in a pop sound. Like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci they had a prog approach with a more commercial sound.
We like to think we have that same sort of approach.
The last track we recorded for the album was Disposable Outcomes, we’d been writing a lot of jams and had ideas for verses and choruses that were unfinished, and then we decided to segue them in a way that seems perfectly natural.
They all came from sessions going back to about 2012 and we’d had bits and pieces recorded when the last album came out.
It became more of a cohesive piece as we did it live in the studio, then overdubbing bits and pieces to give it more energy, we must have rehearsed it several times before recording it, then we broke it into chunks, did 4 takes of each and then mixed it and nailed it. Then when we toured Italy we wondered what we could do live, and honed it there.’
I mentioned the striking album cover, which harks back to classic album covers of the 70’s,
‘We had the album title already, and Johnny who runs Rocket recordings, is a great graphic designer, was knocking ideas around with us. At first we thought about making a meat-processing machine out of an amp, but that didn’t quite work, we wanted something unexpected. So Johnny came up with the idea of the man made out of meat, which ties in with the title track and selling body parts for meat.
We took the photos at Clevedon pier, and Laura Kidd (solo artist She Makes War) another friend from Bristol, volunteered to be our cover star, which works out great because she has a pet Schnauser Benji, and so he’s in some of our promo material as well. Johnny has an eye for detail and is a big fan of Barney Bubbles, and he wanted to make this one like a Hipgnosis cover.
Down to the disturbing shrink-wrapped faces?
That was Johnny’s idea; he covered our heads in cling film, and told us not to breath in otherwise we would suffocate. That was a surreal afternoon. The things you do for your art!’
How has the band evolved?
‘We’re all working full time or part time, and so we can’t do this permanently because at this level it doesn’t pay the bills, and so we fit Schnauser in round family life, and we’re lucky to have such supportive families who allow us to do this.
We feel we’ve evolved from the previous album, and we have a few songs left over from this album that we’re not sure what to do with yet.
Now we’re starting to jam and the riffs we’re doing are different again from ones we’d have done two or three years ago. The song is paramount; it’s all about the pop hooks. The playing might be a bit sharper, particularly with the sax. Now we have the sax we are revisiting the back catalogue to mix the set list up a bit. We’ll even be drawing on the first album that Al did as Schnauser back in 2005, Kill all Humans.
It started out as Al’s baby and it’s evolved as we’ve been playing the new material and stuff from the 4 previous albums.
Has any of the Lord Gammonshire material made it’s way into the set list?
We’ve played Everyday Sounds, so it has been known to happen, as we play Bristol quite a bit, we like to have very different set lists at each gig.
We’re looking for a few more gigs across the UK and start to get out there. Its difficult without a manager, and there’s no idea if there’ll be an audience for us if we get gigs. We’re playing Birmingham, Bournemouth, Swindon fairly soon, then Italy in February.’
Italy seems to figure quite heavily in the bands story
‘Al is obsessed with Italy; in fact he’s out there at the moment. He’s been learning Italian for a long time and I think he’d move there at the drop of a hat.
Buon Natale for instance means Happy Christmas, but Al felt that if he’d sung the lyrics in English they would come across as mawkish, as it’s a jolly tune with quite melancholic lyrics about missing his Dad and other people at Christmas.
It took a while to get the lyrics right on the recording, as we recorded it as live in Weston Super mare, the same sessions that we recorded Grey or Blue, Protein for Everyone, National Grid and Buon Natale. It must have taken about 40 takes to get the vocal right for that. The fact we’ve been playing most of these songs for two years means when we were able to get them done pretty quickly in the studio.’
Buon Natale features another example of the Schnauser harmonies,
‘I’m not needed that often to get involved with the harmonies, one of the Schnauser sounds is the vocal harmonies with Al singing a higher vocal than Holly, there’s only a few songs where I join in and we all harmonise.
Has the band thought about performing further a field?
‘Hopefully we’re looking to set some gigs on in January, we’d like to go up North as we’ve been selling albums in Hebden Bridge, and I have family up North as well, so hopefully we can play up there’.
What about festivals?
‘We played Eppyfest last year, which is a great gig, a superb venue, however we nearly didn’t make it as we broke down and were stuck at Thornbury for three hours, luckily we made it in the end.
We are looking to do more festivals; we usually get on Bristol’s Dot-to-Dot festival. We’ve also played a festival in Dorset, it was the first time we ever played a big stage like the one they have at Glastonbury with a big PA. We played with the Pretty Things and Hugh Cornwall that was good fun. We’d love to do the Green Man festival, and it’s all about getting the momentum behind you’.
And having the record label helps,
‘It was ironic Esoteric signing Hi-Fiction Science and us at the same time, as we’re both good friends. There’s a great scene in Bristol with loads of bands and the live scene is good and supportive, it’s nice to know that there’s bands and venues for everyone.
We wouldn’t have labelled ourselves prog, we think we’re nearer a pop band, and prog people and the prog scene picking up on what we’re doing have labelled us, and it’s great to get exposure as part of the scene.
What about the final story in Disposable Outcomes?
The story, Spleen Damage, it came from a night when I’d had some Speckled Hen. A big influence of mine is Viv Stanshall, and Al had this piano piece that he didn’t know what to do with, and it sounded a bit Rawlinsons end, so I got the notepad out and went nuts. The lyrics throughout Disposable Outcomes are all about celebrating the ordinary. No-one writes about going down the shops, and it’s what people do everyday, so why not write about it and celebrate it.’
Thanks to Vicky at Esoteric for arranging the interview with Duncan, and thanks to Duncan for his time.
More information can be found at http://www.schnauser.co.uk