Interview from MOJO last summer (the Amorphous promotional machine working as efficiently as ever):
The Amorphous Androgynous return! With "Sonic wangery", Weller and more.
"I've got a chateau in France," says Garry Cobain, the cosmic yet matter-of-fact brain behind The Amorphous Androgynous. "But don't be impressed by it. I bought it with very much a Led Zep romanticism in my mind, but it's falling apart in my absence - it's a fucking nightmare, ha ha! So don't follow my lead!"
It would be near-impossible to try. Alongside partner Brian Dougans, Cobain's been a chimerical presence in music since 1991's starry-eyed rave classic 'Papua New Guinea', credited to The Future Sound of London. A later refocusing as The Amorphous Androgynous led to 2002's unashamedly Aquarian The Isness and "super-consciousness" mixtape series A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding in Your Mind. Yet an uncompleted album with Noel Gallagher begun in 2009, it seems, placed stones in his passway that took time to get over.
"In simplistic terms we haven't actually done anything since 2002," says Gaz. "But we've been very busy, and all those chapters and been collected and worked through."
Already released is big-themes prog-epic 'We Persuade Ourselves We are Immortal', a six-part, 40 minute suite with strings and analogue synths featuring Peter Hammill, Paul Weller and the Chesterfield Philharmonic Choir, among others. The piece had a long genesis, growing from, variously, childhood memories of Pink Floyd, the Iraq War, hearing 'Comfortably Numb' while immobilised on a Shoreditch acupuncturist's couch, meeting Hammill at the MOJO Honours List awards in 2010, and the tragic death of drummer Virgil Howe.
"I began to realise, my God, you've got one life," says Cobain. "I regrouped, regrew and regathered. I wanted to get into my own power again... the challenge [with 'We Persuade...'] was to make it not only new, but also '70s, which I realise is a bracket that potentially only 'me' would like."
he says that recording has been going on since 2011, collaborating with musicians at 12 studios, physically and remotely - spaces include previous collaborator Weller's Black Barn, ex-Verve guitarist Nick McCabe's West Midlands set-up and, for mixing, Enrico Berto's Neve desk-equipped Mushroom studio near Venice. As a self-funded project, Cobain was able to overcome budgetary restrictions in a spirit of cooperation, directing up-for-it musicians including McCabe, guitarist Ray Fenwick, The Kooks' Luke Pritchard, and Steve Cradock into new creation via his sample collages and vibes.
"I'm tapping into all these great people and their collective knowledge," he says. "The album goes from pagan folk craziness to rocktronica to samplerdelia to prog-funk epics. The next single ['Mantra (Crossing Over)'] is pure Madchester, a confluence of where machine hits spirituality his vocal - I've got Paul [Weller] on vocals, guitar, keyboards and veena, a Rowetta!... there's a lot of sonic wangery on the album, the songs point to inherent spiritual sound-truths..."
Cobain is currently in Glastonbury for a month, and as Dougans lives in Frome, they might get to meet in the flesh. We must ask: will the Noel Gallagher LP ever come out?
"I feel quite stung by the Noel situation," says Cobain, who says he has 10 hard drives' worth of music from the 18-month sessions. "We didn't finish it together. I'd love a reason to revisit it, it was great, but maybe it was a bit too early... on a finishing note, [Noel] may or may not be on the album. I've had so many drummers and bassists in that I've forgotten."
Phrases that make me even more skeptical about this album than ever: Madchester, The Kooks, Steve Cradock. Also very slightly odd that Gaz being a few miles from Brian and they only "might" meet in the flesh.
edit: here's another! August 2021's Resolution Mag.
With the pioneering Future Sound of London still in semi-hibernation, Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans return to their Amorphous Androgynous alias to create their first original body of work since 2005. Titled We Persuade Ourselves We Are Immortal, the 40-minute, six-part prog rock concept album was created on a scale rarely seen these days, featuring over 100 musicians with a full 25-piece string orchestra and 50-piece choir. Under construction since 2017, the Floyd-inspired release features a veritable supergroup of contributors including Van der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill (vocals), Paul Weller (piano and guitar), Caravan’s Brian Hopper (sax) and one of Britain’s foremost guitarists, Ray Fenwick, with Garry Cobain in the ‘sampledelic’ hot seat. We sat down with the producer to talk about that, and set the record straight on his infamous co-production fracas with Noel Gallagher.
Moving from the pioneering IDM of Future Sound of London to the psychedelic/progressive rock sound of The Amorphous Androgynous, do you feel that electronic
music has less to say in 2021?
GC: FSOL was set up to be quite a vast, open source experiment and we were able to do lots of styles within that. I loved the audio-visual mystery of electronic music, but as we veered towards the millennia, with ‘future’ in our name I began to catch a glimpse of a future lust that I didn’t like and wanted to get the balance right. I don’t think FSOL has changed. A lot of it’s been archivist, and Brian [Dougan]’s been really active within that mode. When we’re solid together in recognising that name, there’ll be a very strong new FSOL that’s not so hidden.
Why was “future lust” a dead end for you?
GC: It’s the whole aspect of a faster, more programmed, more syncopated future, but what about the future of George Martin hooking up two 24 tracks and using the technology of the day to revolutionise the song? I was excited about that and began to play avant-garde ‘60s albums that used electronics. I didn’t want there to be a revolution of technology, I wanted to revolutionise my soul to be more symbiotic with everything. The future can’t just be technology; that would be a dangerous future.
So what was the concept behind We Persuade Ourselves We Are Immortal?
GC: In my mind, I was going to reunite Roger Waters and David Gilmour and get them doing harmonies [laughs]. My soul craved a certain kind of sound — I wanted to hear lyrics against lo-fi, modular vintage synth work. After the absurdity of [FSOL’s 2002 LP] The Isness, I craved a bit more of the FSOL — more of the depth, the ambience and the synths, but in 2012 I had no idea how I would be able to do a Floyd thing, especially with the budget on my label. Then I thought, I’ve only got one life I’m going to have to do it budget or not, and it’s been amazing in terms of directing and coordinating
musicians and experimenting with my own songrwiting and lyrics.
How would you describe Brian’s role in the production process these days?
GC: Brian’s much more technological. He’s also a brilliant communicator — albeit a lot more sparing with his words than me. The interesting story here is the advent of the remote studio. We’ve had to learn a new lexicon or language, which is working out our philosophy and working alone to the best of our ability. With Amorphous it’s based on songs, so I’m like a dog with a bone looking to interface with the right guitarist, drummer, vocalist or lyricist. He’s like, ‘fuck that, I just wanna keep making building blocks and new tracks’. He’s totally productive, so it’s very push-and-pull, but if I need a revolutionary angle put on a sound then I have the world expert. Sometimes it will come back as something I can use directly or sometimes I’ll say, ‘my god, it’s a new song!’
And your role?
GC: I’m a kind of master of sampling. I’ve been doing that for 30 years so I’m going to self-own that — having grown up with an Akai S612 two-second sampler and trained my ears to listen to snippets
of sound. When I listen to someone play, I can hear what I like and direct it into a mode. In the ‘90s we’d pay £50 to a musician, give them a reference, leave the DAT running and go and play pool. We were dysfunctional and didn’t even know how to interface with a human being. Now, I’ll talk to you about philosophy and get into what triggers you and your trauma wounds before we start recording. I’m really interested in collaboration and people — that’s how you get them to trust you and really understand what you’re after.
What intrigued you about working with Peter Hamill on this project?
GC: I originally met Peter when he gave us the Mojo Compilation Album of the Year award for A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding in Your Mind. I must confess I was a little embarrassed that night because I was introduced to people and didn’t actually know who they were. I didn’t know Peter too well either as most of my psychedelic catalogue came from picking up second-hand records. I’d
never come across a Van der Graaf Generator album, probably because people don’t get rid of them. It was only when Gary Lucas sent me an album he’d done with Peter that I heard an authority of voice that was able to occupy its own unique area and recognised the exact terrain that would work in. I’m a fully-fledged fan now because I’ve had more time to absorb his vast talent since the record came out.
We Persuade is a proper prog-rock odyssey. Where did you start in terms of laying a sound bed to build from?
GC: Although some of the great prog-rock and conceptual rock albums were done with a bunch of dudes sitting around a chateau for months waiting to do their part, that’s not going to work in the modern day. I create guitar, bass and drum samples from sessions I’ve done with musicians over the years and tend to lay the template of a song using those. We Persuade was already a 12-minute loop with drums, then I laid guitar and bass down, sampled that and started singing before breaking it out to loosen it up. I wanted it to sound live but I also wanted to have a sound bed that couldn’t possibly be live. I’m not interested in metronomic looping, too much processing or the reverb sounding modern — if it’s beginning to sound like a modern record I have to pull it apart and ditch it. Although it sounds like I’m emulating the past, I’m not. I’m perceiving a liberation of form that, yes, involves technology but has a load of eternal spirit in there. We don’t need to forget the past; we need to bring what works from the past into the present. That’s the ethos of Amorphous.
How did you persuade Paul Weller to take part and at what point was he brought into the production?
GC: He rang out of the blue to say that he loved one of the tracks we’d previously worked on and could we work out a deal for it. I was thinking, great, so I told him I’d swing by to talk about splits and deals. Long story short, I ended up staying three days and played him my piano refrain on We Persuade with vocals and all the samples. A lot of people equate Paul with his music and vocals, but he’s one of my favourite instrumentalists. We went to a curry house and I’ve always got Erik Satie and romantic French stuff like Debussy on the CD in the car. Paul went really quiet and as soon as we got back he said ‘I’ve got an idea for that track’ and immediately sat at the Steinway and wrote something in two takes. I went straight from Paul’s to SYd Arthur to ask if he knew a baritone sax player and he gave me Brian Hopper’s number. Then I knew I could crack this We Persuade baby open, so I collaged Paul’s piano with a couple of his solo 12-string guitar motifs and went down to Brian’s.
I understand mix engineer Enrico Berto had a big role to play?
GC: I dropped a Facebook post about working with Peter Hammill and Enrico messaged saying, “no way, I love Van der Graff Generator” and started introducing me to loads of other tracks. At that point I was really struggling with the technical enormity of what I was getting into. I didn’t realise I was going to replace a cello and a violin, multi-tracked ten times into a real 25-piece string orchestra, but Enrico started to show he really understood that. The mixing was colossal and I wanted to see how he dealt with the almighty challenge of using all those live elements. I knew he had a Neve set up and I was really interested in a getting an analogue, vintage sound, so I got on a flight, went to Italy, stayed there for four days to do the first mix and listened all the way back home. I was buzzing.
This sort of project sounds perfect for Abbey Road…
GC: Last time I went there was for The Isness, but I basically tried to polish a turd. Some of the recording was wrong and I tried to rectify it in mastering, which of course you can never do. We ended up spending seven grand, everybody was horrified and I was banned from recording at Abbey Road. I think a lot of us fell for the beautiful illusion of digital. Basically, we’ve all broken out of the box again,
or reconfigured the box to be in symbiosis with all that wonderful gear. At the end of the day, as much as computers have the ability to do exciting things recording is a wonderful air and that air is in the diodes and transistors of wonderful gear. That air is deeper than ones and zeros; it’s sacred.
You recorded strings at The Foundry in Sheffield. Can you take us through what your expectations were of the orchestra and the setting up of that space?
GC: Morven Bryce, who’s a top player on film sessions at Abbey Road, had been the violin player and string arranger by means of me singing bits to her and collaging them. We built them up over a year across four or five different sessions but she came back one day and said she’d love to get a live string section for this because 24 strings playing together is very different to collaging three violins from a
multitude of mic positions. I couldn’t afford strings so we put something on Facebook saying if you’d like to play on a 12-minute rock odyssey with revered session musician Morven Bryce, you’ll be fed and credited but there’s no money in it. We got a great reception to that, so there I was with 25 strings all set up and just about to hire a hall in Sheffield to try and wing it when the guy from The Foundry saw us on Facebook and said that he’d love to get involved. Let’s call it synchronicity.
Did the 50-piece choir also necessitate being recorded on a budget?
GC: I realised I couldn’t get the choir to the same studio because it was a 30-minute drive away, so I basically needed a mobile studio. I was speaking to Steve Cobby and he suggested
Paul Blakeman of The Cuckoo Clocks for on-location recording, so I hired him to come with his computer and mic, went to the rehearsal of the choir and recorded them over two days. It was about accepting imperfect character balanced by a good recording. I wanted it to have edge rather than make perfectly recorded chamber music.
For the final track, Synthony, you brought in Dave Spiers who runs GForce Software?
GC: Dave Spiers had posted a video on Facebook of him playing the Yamaha CS-80 and I immediately recognised its Vangelis sound so I got in touch with him. He invited me down to his studio, opened the door and, wow, he had 100 rare vintage synths. He’s now become an expert on all those synths and knows how to model them and turn them into GForce software.
There’s a theme that runs throughout the album where certain passages of music are returned to — a thread that keeps pulling the concept back together.
GC: I love that, so I don’t want to ruin it, but it all started with We Persuade. It’s a bit like a movie — you film loads of extra scenes and a lot of stuff hits the cutting room floor. There were lots of pieces I loved that had to go, but I still thought I could elevate those buried elements and expand them. Suddenly I could make a synth that was previously hidden really loud or turn a bridge into a Tomorrow Never Knows–type up-tempo splurge. So I dragged the samples kicking and screaming into that terrain, backwards, time-stretched and using that classic trick of recording the vocals half-speed with the beats and sounds at double-speed. I love motifs that punctuate space in a reverb or echo and find them really impactful, so I basically started to build in and add new instruments and performances from people like Dave Spiers.
Do you have plans to further develop the material?
GC: I’m not really sure if We Persuade is a themed single or an epic concept album. The real album will be Listening Beyond the Head Chakra, where you’ll get an element of We Persuade and the next single Mantra Crossing Over, which will also be 40 minutes.
It’s been written that you didn’t get on well with Noel Gallagher when producing his High Flying Birds debut. What impact did that experience have on you?
GC: I was a little traumatised in terms of what it’s like to have somebody who’s so opinionated about their music that they wouldn’t do what I want. Contrary to what was said in the press, I was very respectful to his tracks, but wanted to bring a new sonic encapsulation. My role is to be a loving bully, where you want to produce the best possible version of them but also have a vision. I’d be listening to Noel and thinking I want far more for you than just a remix, so I’m going to find your trigger points and go as far as I can before you tell me to leave the studio. There was a great moment where I asked him to be a voice actor. I wanted him moving me, not playing against an acoustic guitar demo, but he just sucked his lips and said, “Never ask me to be a fucking voice actor again”.
Would it be fair to assume things went downhill from there?
GC: There was a track called Everybody’s on the Run and I wanted to do my Floyd epic. I spent six months getting drums, strings and bass and learning how to create this sonic cathedral of sound and then we brought Noel in to do vocals. It was the big day and I was really excited that he was going to hear it but he said, “Get rid of that sound, get rid of that sound, get rid of those things” and I looked at Brian and did an impersonation of Beaker from the Muppets with his quivering lip. He was basically pulling the whole track back to his demo. My greatest regret was for myself and him, because it was a great album that needed collaboration and a maturity that I didn’t have and maybe he didn’t. I’m a big fan of reading books by producers. Some bully, some bribe, some co-dependently beg and some are so charismatic they get everyone within a one-mile radius to do exactly what they want — I think it’s called hypnosis.
Great, so Gaz is now basically shitting all over the last however many years of FSOL releases.