Post Punk, Psychedelics & Philosophy: A Chat with Membranes’ John Robb
Drenched in dark, gothic aesthetic, intertwining melodies, and a behemoth of voices from a 20-piece choir, Membranes break new ground with their new post-punk masterpiece. Those aware of the legendary Membranes will know what a force they are to be reckoned with. Having been inspired by the punk DIY ethic and attitude, John Robb formed the Membranes in Blackpool of 1977. The pioneering sound of their ‘Death To Trad Rock’ EP and ‘Spike Milligan's Tape Recorder’ put Membranes high in the UK Indie Charts and received critical acclaim and rave reviews from many including the one and only John Peel.
Membranes took off into the 80s with several successful albums that became the foundations for a whole new scene of post-punk, inspiring Sonic Youth & Big Black - among many others. In 2009 when My Bloody Valentine personally asked the band to play their All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, Membranes reformed and are now more unstoppable than ever. Since 2009, the band have put out two records and are now back with their latest offering; ‘What Nature Gives...Nature Takes Away’. On this record John Robb worked with legendary producer Ding Archer (The Fall/The Pixies/PJ Harvey) and a full choir to create otherwordly, twisted, atmospheric bliss.
We catch up with John Robb, one of the hardest working musicians out there for a chat about psychedelia, philosophy and the powerful new Membranes new record.
Hello John! How are you doing today?
It’s actually my birthday! May the forth be with you! I spent it being the compère for a load of Smiths fans from all over the world on a bus tour round Manchester in a double decker bus... Very pop culture!
2019 is your 10th anniversary since nice reforming the band in 2009. Congratulations! How are things now compared to back in the day? Has it always been the same vision?
The vision never changes but the way it’s executed changes, that is what the vision is about in a sense. The idea of a band like this is to keep pushing and pushing - we added a choir to travel further into our heart of darkness, we make double albums because we have so many ideas, we are on a trip! Back in the day when we actually started things were far more Neolithic, trying to imagine a world pre internet is impassable, trying to create the music in your head was impossible... Now we can realise our visions, we can make sense of our ideas and that’s thrilling.
As many people are aware, the new Membranes album ‘What Nature Gives...Nature Takes Away’ will be coming out this June on Cherry Red Records. What can we look forward to from Membranes this year?
The album! Genuinely can’t wait for people to hear this record. Often I hate what I have done, my own worst critic - but this time it worked and I put my headphones on and I’m lost in the dark swirl of the sound, captivated by the intensity and breathless with our insane vision... don’t just ask me though! Got a great email from Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees/ QOTSA) this morning who was blown away with the album. Rarely does a musician make a record they actually like and when they do it’s a great feeling. We will be playing festivals with the choir and taking this thing up a few more levels.
After performing live with the choir you decided to take it into the studio. How did the idea of combining Membrane’s brooding post-punk with a choir come about? What was the intention behind this creative venture? Did it feel like a natural progression to you?
I was in Estonia at Tallinn music week at a music showcase event and saw one of the many amazing local choirs priming the works of Arvo Part. I was captivated. I asked them if they wanted to collaborate and they did. We did two shows in Estonia together but I couldn’t afford to get them to the UK so I created my own choir in the UK. The brooding post punk by its sparse nature and the kind of atmosphere it creates is perfect to add choirs over the top...surprised that no-ozone has thought of it before!
You recorded with Ding Archer who has formerly played with The Pixies, PJ Harvey and produced many albums by The Fall. What was it like working with him?
I’ve known Ding a long time… Can’t believe why we have never works together before. Musically we are in the same wavelength - he’s into dark post punk and understands that the bass guitar is at the centre of all things. I sat in the same chair they Mark E Smith had done for years and in the maelstrom of sound nodded when I needed something changing. Few words were exchanged. We just knew. We mixed by instinct and feel. Perfect. It’s the best sounding record I’ve ever worked on and so far many reviewers have agreed.
‘Dark Matter/Dark Energy’ and ’What Nature Gives….Nature Takes Away’ have so much clarity and depth! How difficult was it to combine your signature sound with a massive 20-piece choir? Was it a huge undertaking in the studio?
It was oddly easy. When you make a record you have to start with the vision and work backwards. I knew what sound I was aiming for. There were few happy accidents. The choir only added to the signature sound. The most challenging part was singing the choir parts at the choir for them to get their fantastic vocals around.
Your fuzzy, distorted baselines are the driving force underneath the orchestral wall of voices. Is the bass guitar often a starting point for you when it comes to writing new music?
Yes it is. Most post punk is based around the bass guitar. That time zone was truly that instruments key period. A combination of dub reggae and aggressive bass players like JJ Burnel changed the musical landscape. The future was briefly on four strings which was fascinating. It was not about power chords but about bass lines. Membranes were forged in that period and have stayed true to that sonic architecture but on our own terms.
Membranes music has always had a very distinct psychedelic appeal to it and the new album is drenched in an other-worldly, atmospheric vibe. Tell us about it!
We have always been fascinated by psychedelia . Magic mushrooms were part of our education and a portal into a new twisted landscape. We used to acid test our favourite records... I wonder how our new album would stand up to this?
What does psychedelic music mean to you and are there any records/artists that inspired or still inspire what you do?
It’s a twisted reality or a reality put into a sharp focus. It’s a monochrome world turned into day-glo. It’s another reality. It’s music carved into 3D. It’s a truth surrounded by confusion, every generation has a tripped out moment. It’s not just paisley though it can be Sunn O))), it can be Membranes, it can be Sex Pistols. All great music comes in colours.
‘Dark Matter’ and ‘What Nature Gives….’ share a lot of gothic imagery and ideology about life, death and the universe. Is ‘What Nature Gives…’ a continuation of the themes from the last record or a further exploration into your creative world?
The dark side is always fascinating. The most powerful driving forces are sex and death and they are both full of Abundant poetic imagery. Twist that around with other big themes like the universe or nature and you have an explosion of colours and ideas and imagery - who could resist such a strange brew, such a strange perfume!
Are there any particular new songs that you are looking forward to performing live?
My dream is to play the whole album in order from one end to the other...I would love to be allowed that indulgence!
Check out the Membranes single ‘A Strange Perfume’ from the forthcoming album ‘What Nature Gives...Nature Takes Away’ out this June 7th, 2019.
Keep up to date with Membranes below and catch them on their UK tour this year:
Sat 8th June - The Ritz - Manchester
Sat 22nd June - Esquires - Bedford
Sun 23rd June - The Prince Albert - Brighton
Fri 5th July - The Waterloo - Blackpool
Sat 6th July - TBC
Sun 7th July - 02 Academy - Birmingham
Fri 19th July - The Sugarmill - Stoke
Sat 20th July - Phase One - Liverpool
Fri 2nd Aug - Rebellion Festival - Blackpool
Fri 6th Sept - TBC
Fri 11th Oct - King Tuts - Glasgow
Sat 12th Oct - Krakatoa - Aberdeen
Sat 2nd Nov - The White Hart - Corby
by Kurt Fletcher