Saturday, 15 August 2009

Litmus - Aurora

I've recently received a promo of the much anticipated third album from Litmus, Aurora, released right now on Rise Above Records. This is one that I'll be reviewing for R2 (Rock N Reel) so I'm not going to write it up in depth here, save to say that this is another major leap forward for this always interesting and enjoyable band who deserve far more music press attention than they get (the excellent reviews for their previous offering, Planetfall, in the heavy rock press not withstanding) and that it's a really great record that should be in the collection of anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary space-rock.

In the meantime, I really enjoyed talking to Litmus bassist Martin about the new album (available on both CD and vinyl) and the history of Litmus:

For newcomers, tell us a bit about the development of Litmus?

I’ve known [Litmus guitarist] Simon a long time, literally since we were kids, and we’d been thinking of doing something like Litmus for quite a few years. We managed to rope-in a drummer, made a couple of demo tapes, over-dubbed the keyboards ourselves, and they were things that we just ran off ourselves and gave away to people, very underground! We had a couple of line-up changes and what was going to be the next demo tape turned into an album, which was You Are Here. Our manager, Colin Allen, helped us release that, the label was set-up to get that album out and it did pretty well.

What were the musical influences at this time?

Early ‘70s Hawkwind was an important influence, but one of many. For me, I guess there were also Gong, Motorhead, and Black Sabbath, and to some extent Here & Now... those were the obvious ones. But in terms of the influences on the band now, they’re very much wider than that, but certainly early Hawkwind/Motorhead/Gong/Sabbath would be the only ones that we’d all agree on!

You Are Here was a good calling card to kick off with, and that got you a deal with Rise Above Records...

The first album got us the attention of Rise Above Records; we sent them copies and ended-up playing a gig with Witchcraft and Circulus, who were both on Rise Above... and so Lee Dorrian, who runs the label, saw us there and evidently thought there was something about us worth investigating! We were talking to Rise Above whilst we were pulling together the second album, Planetfall, and it ended-up coming out on that label.

But you were starting to get a bit more attention by then, you’d supported Hawkwind a few times but perhaps more significantly you’d attracted the attention of Julian Cope?

That was actually off the back of the You Are Here album. We sent him a copy of that, and he liked it sufficiently to make it the ‘Album of the Month’ on his website, which was fantastic, and he wrote a remarkable review of it that was entertaining to say the least! We did a few gigs supporting him and that definitely got us a few converts...

I remember the support gig at the Fleece in Bristol, where you went down a storm with the Cope audience...

A great gig, really busy! You actually had to go through the bar to get past the crowd and onto the stage! We seemed to do okay with the audience, we weren’t sure what to expect because Julian’s own catalogue is so varied that most of his own fans don’t like some of the stuff he does! So I think that some people who turn up at his gigs aren’t going to be that interested in the support band [laughs]. We chatted with him a bit at various times, we had a lot of common interests, a very interesting bloke and a nice chap.

In Record Collector this year I’d mentioned Planetfall as being, I hesitate to say ‘industrial’, but I’d described it as being ‘juggernaut space-rock’...

It’s certainly got a harder sound to it; You Are Here had a very warm sound but Planetfall sounded more contemporary perhaps. It’s funny that you use the word ‘industrial’ because in terms of industrial music per se, that’s something that Marek, our drummer, is very interested in, more so than the rest of us. I think Planetfall was probably where Marek found his feet, having come in halfway through the process of You Are Here, when much of the music was already written and he was finding his place in the band. Whereas Planetfall has Marek very much in the driving seat, so it’s interesting... I wouldn’t hear anything in there that I would think of as ‘industrial’ but maybe there is something in that, because getting Marek settled in to the band was one of the major turning points for us and brought everything together, somehow.

So let’s contrast that with the new album, Aurora, because that is a marked change, it’s like you’ve moved back to the sound of the first album, but in a much more mature and well-realised way.

I think that’s a pretty good description, actually. I think its warmer sounding than Planetfall but in its own way, just as lively without having the same hard-edge to the sound.

But I thought it had more depth, partly because of the keyboard/synthesiser stuff that’s going on that enriches the whole experience?

Well, our keyboard player, Andy Thompson, left about two years ago and we didn’t really manage to replace him for a long time. We were gigging as a four-piece: guitar/bass/drums and Anton on synthesisers and space-sounds but we didn’t have anyone playing the melodies and harmonies aspect. That was okay, as far as it went, for live gigs, but those keyboard sounds had always been a large part of the Litmus vibe so that when we came to work on what became Aurora, since there was no keyboard player on the horizon, we decided we’d better just do it ourselves. In that sense, it was almost like going back to the way we’d done our original demo tapes. With neither Simon nor I really being keyboard players, the upshot was that it was going to take us a long time to do it! We did the guitar, bass and drums down at Foel Studios and then decamped to my house to do the keyboard parts. So having got the guitars and drums down in a matter of a couple of days, it was a matter of months to do the keyboard parts! But the effect of that is that the keyboards are quite well considered, perhaps because we didn’t have the virtuosity to just play the first thing that came to mind. We weren’t just jamming the keyboards over the top of the guitars, we had to take our time, by necessity, to do them. What that means is that the arrangements are quite well thought-out, in the end. We made a real effort to make them fit the songs, so that when we came to mix the album, we found that they could be quite prominent.

How does that translate to the current Litmus live sound?

We did finally find ourselves a keyboard player, Oli, and he’s more than capable of reproducing my fumbling keyboard playing... and very much more besides! But he joined just as we were finishing the album, so he’s not on Aurora at all, but it does mean we’re able to play that material as intended because the keyboards are quite integral to the album and it would have been a great shame if we couldn’t have reproduced it live. I mean, it’s always going to be a bit different live, we don’t feel like slaves to the arrangements on the record but the important things, like melody, need to come through.

Let’s just talk a little about the album itself then. I absolutely loved ‘Red Skies’, which plays out the album and despite its position as the final track thought it was a great centrepiece for the record.

I see that more as a bookend though, ‘Beyond the Sun’ at the start being the other one, and I think they balance each other quite well, a lot of open-ended jamming and I think those tracks capture that aspect of what Litmus is all about pretty well. I mean, we record by getting the drums and the bass and guitar amps turned up really loud as a three-piece, and the other bits go on later, but I think those two tracks capture that really well.

What’s the working method on the song writing for you guys?

Generally, one of us will have an idea for a song and it’ll be relatively complete, one of us will have written the chorus and the verses, but in terms of arrangement we get in a room and the rest of the band will help with the arrangement, which is a very useful way to work in terms of how the whole thing comes together.

This was your second time at Dave Anderson’s Foel Studios?

Yes, we also recorded Planetfall there, but this time around we mixed the album there as well. Foel has been a big part of the album, we love going and working there, it’s really the ideal place for Litmus. You get away from distractions in the middle of nowhere; it’s got a great sounding live room, it’s got a good mix between recording digitally and analogue, a lovely sounding desk in the control room, a big old British Trident mixing desk. Chris Fielding, the engineer there, played a very big part in getting the sound we want, and Dave Anderson is always very welcoming.

A bit clumsy perhaps, but I’d labelled Litmus as the ‘Great White Hope’ of the UK space-rock scene, recently.

I don’t think we’d see it that way, though. I think a lot of the people who’ve come to see us more recently aren’t necessarily from that scene, though we’ve had such great support from within that scene and we’re certainly very appreciative of those people who’ve been behind us for a few years now. I’m mean, you’re right, our profile is slowly increasing but I think perhaps that’s people coming to us from different scenes; we’ve played a lot of gigs with different people. You mentioned Julian Cope, but there have been other gigs and festivals, and certainly in Europe we’ve had some excellent opportunities to play on festival bills. We played a couple of times at Roadburn, which I’d rate as the best festival anywhere, it’s my favourite; I’d be there every year whether we were playing or not. We just played one called Stoned From The Underground, about fourteen-hundred people, and we went on at 10pm, so we’re getting some great slots in Europe now. Hopefully that suggests that Europe is going to be a good audience for us!

In terms of other bands who are, rightly or wrongly, perceived within the ‘space-rock’ community, and I absolutely take your point about bringing in audiences from outside the genre, who is particularly impressing you currently?

If we’re talking about the UK scene, then a band that’s on the fringes of that, who I like, is Earthling Society. I’ve just today been listening to their new album and it’s really great stuff. I think they’re probably the most original band to be working on the fringes of the space-rock scene here. They’ve turned into a very strong act. Outside of the UK, I saw FarFlung at Roadburn this year, and they played a really good set.

So what next for Litmus?

Who knows! My instinct says the next stuff might be more concise, it’s hard to say, that’s just my gut-feeling. We don’t plan things; whatever comes out is what comes out. But the immediate future? We’ve got a gig in London on 12th September, at a place called the Bull & Gate, which is one of the few places in Central London where we can do our own thing and play without a support band, which means we can play a nice long set. For the kind of music we play, it’s nice to be able to stretch-out a bit!

Litmus Myspace Page
Litmus Official Website
Rise Above Records

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