"We built the songs around the sound and the band were so hot that we could create stuff out of thin air" Soundblab interviews John Robb - Interviews - Soundblab

"We built the songs around the sound and the band were so hot that we could create stuff out of thin air" Soundblab interviews John Robb

by Rob Taylor Rating: Release Date:

Iconic punk rock band The Membranes formed in Blackpool, Lancashire, back in 1977. Fans of the band include Grasshopper from Mercury Rev, David Gedge from The Wedding Present, Justin Hayward Young of The Vaccines, and Tim Burgess of The Charlatans.

It's been almost two decades since their last album, and 2015 sees the release of Dark Energy/Dark Matter on Cherry Red Records. Soundblab caught up with singer, music journalist, and Tedx speaker, John Robb about the new album.

Here's a teaser from the album: 

.be" style="line-height: 1.6em;">Membranes: 'The Universe Explodes into a Billion Photons of Pure White Light'

Hello, John and thanks for offering your time to speak with Soundblab.

The inspiration for Dark Matter/Dark Energy comes from a conversation you had with particle physicist Joe Incandela about the Higgs Boson particle. Was this a chance meeting, and how did Joe’s explanation inspire the type of music on the album?

We were both speaking at a Tedx talk. These are amazing events. You get 18 minutes spoken word to speak to 3000 people about various, diverse topics. I was there doing a talk about the universe, zen and punk rock DIY and Joe was talking about particle physics.

Before we went on stage to do our talks, they took us for a meal and we hit it off straight away - Joe wanted to know about Buzzcocks and I wanted to know about the universe - both equally important in their own way! The conversation was amazing - it was stuff that they were researching behind the scenes and not public knowledge at the time, like the CERN project being used for research into dark matter and the idea of the multiverse theory - that there are endless universes.

He talked a lot about dark matter and dark energy and how when he started at CERN, they thought this was a small part of the universe but now think that it's most of it. I asked what it was and he said "It's dark and we don't know what it is," which was thrilling.

He also said that the more they found out the less they know and I thought that was so poetic and so mind-blowing that the Membranes album would have to be about this. A truly 21st century psychedelia that has grown up through punk and post-punk can only work with big mind-blowing topics like this. We arranged a gig called The Universe Explained where scientists talked in conversations with me about the universe and The Membranes played at the end.

The gig went really well, and from that I decided to do an album and the music and ideas flowed. Once it was called Dark Matter/Dark Energy it made total sense and during the recording my father died, which matched the epic and melancholic feel of the album and title and also the fact he was really into the universe as well - one of the tracks, 'The Hum of the Universe' has him talking to me about the universe spliced in as a tribute to him.    

Dark Matter/Dark Energy as an album strikes a metaphorical note with activities of the Large Hadron Collider. A number of musical elements headed on a collision course. While staying true to The Membranes’ punk roots, the album crosses boundaries into noise, drone, dub, ambient, free jazz, and progressive rock.

We have been listening to music, reading books and watching films all our lives, soaking up so much stuff and then it pours out in a different order. Of course, we still wanted to make music that could pulverise the body and erase the mind and now we realised we could actually do this because we could actually play these ideas instead of fumbling towards them.

I switched back to bass guitar, my first musical love, and then it all snapped into place. I'm a bass fiend and I love the sound it makes from the heavy, tough gnarl to the dark dub rumble - we built the songs around the sound and the band were so hot that we could create stuff out of thin air.

Half the album is one-take jams but without any of the flab that can entail - they fell into place in one go because we were all in the same place at the same time. We didn't say lets make a dub song, we just started playing and the collisions of intent created this stuff. We could be channelling punk rock, Magma, Miles Davis and Clint Mansell at the same time and it would work, we would then instinctively heavy it up and it felt right. 

For us, punk rock was about opening doors and not closing them, and we loved Suicide, The Stranglers, Discharge as much as The Fall, PiL, or The Cramps, and then all the other music from other eras from Gnawa to free jazz, from Sunn O))) or black metal or Bauhaus or classical, but we don't want to be these forms of music. It's about making our own unique fingerprint on the planet.

The album has tough, gnarly, bass-driven violence and it also has spectral string-section-driven neo soundtrack pieces. It's as varied as the moods in a day... and it has no fear - that fear of 'you can't play that because...'

There’s a powerful energy being emitted throughout the album. I can only imagine the thunderously earsplitting din when you play this on top of the Blackpool Tower. When I googled this location, the images suggest a rather ornate ballroom venue. Will the location provide the necessary theater for your depiction of dark matter?

We are into special, unusual gigs. Of course, we play in normal venues as well but if we had the choice we would make every gig a special event to match the music. We have already done a gig called the Universe Explained which was a series of events with me interviewing top scientists on stage from the CERN project, a film, comedians doing space jokes, and art installations, and the night ended with a mind blowing Membranes set and it worked really well. We are currently talking about doing the same event in Estonia and Portugal.

The tower gig was because I am from Blackpool and the tower is iconic and looks amazing - it also looks like a space ship so it fits into the concept! It was not the ballroom but the observation floor at the top of the tower, 158 metres above sea level with a glass floor - we cured people's vertigo that night! 

We were given the wrong capacity by the the tower people so had to play two gigs because you can only get there by lift and I didn't want to be responsible for anyone getting hurt! it was an amazing and magical night - some of the footage will be in our next YouTube clip from the album. As you so perfectly put it, a location like that provides the perfect theatre for the album - the tower is a charismatic building and so part of my life and also reaches out to space... Perfect.

I’ve listened to Dark Matter several times now, and there’s an incredible breadth to the album which is at first impenetrable, but like PiL’s Metal Box, you have to let all preconceptions go and just experience the ride. I think what I first heard as anger is in fact unbridled punk energy, interspersed with very funky basslines, and almost classical serenity. It's a fucking huge sound!
This is such a perfect description. I'm honoured! There are so many layers to the album that we hope people make the effort to get in there. It's like an overgrown garden of ideas with all this magic stuff beneath the undergrowth. But then, it's not all just noise either, and we have learned how to channel the noise now and create space to let everything breathe.

It's great you mention funky basslines, I'm a big fan of Parliament/Funkadelic and like to ooze some funk into the proceedings. Without the funk, you don't have the sex and all best rock music, no matter how mutated it is, should have the funk and the sex to it.

The idea of letting all preconceptions go is important as we... Rock music sometimes gets bound up in rules and regulations and preconceptions and that is plain wrong. It should always be an adventure of ideas and don't panic! You can still dance to it!

The longish drones, such as on ‘Money is Dust’ and ‘Magic Eye’ give pause for wonder, a bit of space for thought, very true to the subject matter? ‘5776’ is in fact subtitled ‘The Breathing Song’.

The breathing is the rhythm pattern to the song which is about two lovers looking at the stars in the sky and feeling that mystical rush of eternity you get when you realise that the light you see up there is coming from stars that don't exist any more, and many stars exist but we can't see them yet because the light has not got here yet! I love that idea.

It makes me melt inside to think on stuff like that. Like does the universe have an edge, where does time start if it does - the millions of other universes out there! '5776' is apparently the number of stars you can see in the sky, and even if this is not an accurate figure I like the idea that someone tried to put a figure on it.

'Money is Dust' is a political song, an ode to the end of capitalism and a reflection of the pointlessness of greed played out in the vastness of the universe - money is dust, we are all specks of space dust hanging together against the violence and beauty of the universal. 

Do you think there is ageism at work in the music industry, a certain discomfort with older guys presenting a fresh outlook on punk and hard rock? Are you the “unapologetic, middle-aged, fucked-up 21st Century Man” as the song goes, whose "body is creaking but whose mind is so alive"?

The unapologetic, middle-aged, fucked-up 21st century man is me... That song is autobiographical and the lyrics poured out of the top of my head in a surge in a one-take vocal that sounded and felt right so we kept it.

I really like the words as well. I don't really care that much about the music industry. I'm 54 and I'm lucky that record labels let me record this crazy shit, and I'm lucky enough that people all over the world want to hear it. We could have released as a brand new band but it somehow all fitted into the idea of The Membranes, which was always an experimental take on the power and fury of punk rock.

Some bands were very good at honing down the template of punk rock into fast and simple guitar thrash and I love that kind of music as well, but with The Membranes, it was always about something different that fitted in outside the cattle-pens. Punk rock should always be getting reinvented - that was the whole point!

Lastly, as both a musician, and a music journalist who founded the Louder Than War music website, are you frustrated that today there is such a short window of opportunity to get your ideas heard? It’s true, isn’t it, that recognition comes mainly from hard graft out on the road?

There are spaces. Websites like yours of course - a patchwork of refusenik outsiders. Independent music has become indie music - a jangly genre for major labels to market - but there is still resistance and many groups young and old work outside the framework.

Of course, it's a challenge taking the plunge and making music on your own terms but we are perhaps brave and insane people who believe the art must come first. So far the reaction from all around the world has been amazing, and people calling the album a classic. It seems to have hit a nerve in a way that we could never had imagined.

Good luck, John, with the album, you deserve it, and I reckon you’d be a top bloke to share a beer with sometime. Its also a great album of remembrance to your dad.

Thanks for the comment about my dad. I think about him every day, and even at 94 he was proud of my stubborn resistance of the easy road. Lets meet up sometime. One of the great things about music is meeting many fellow travellers across the world!

Check back for Soundblab's review of Dark Matter/Dark Energy soon.

Follow this link for another taste for what's in store on Dark Matter/Dark Energy:

The Band's Facebook link is The Membranes