Young Marble Giants don’t play live very often. And when they do, it’s never easy for singer Alison Statton, a chiropractor by day, to locate her game face. “It’s always about me re-facing the awkwardness that I’ve always felt with live performance,” she tells MOJO in familiarly soft tones. “It’s never been something I’ve been confident with.”
Active again to a degree since 2007, when Domino Recordings reissued their one full-length album, 1980’s extraordinary Colossal Youth, appearances by the influential Cardiff trio have remained sporadic. Yet Thursday, August 27 sees Statton, plus Moxham brothers Phil (bass) and Stuart (guitar) reconvene at London’s Royal Festival Hall for what promises to be the highlight of this year’s Meltdown Festival.
With its stark, magical hush and kitchen-sink poetry, their music has attracted the awe of musicians ever since it was first released. Notoriously, Kurt Cobain listed Colossal Youth among his Top 50 all-time albums; and now this year’s Meltdown curator David Byrne has joined the legion of avowed admirers.
“Colossal Youth was quite a phenomenon,” says Byrne. “It’s the archetype of bedroom-made music. But because it has that lack of slickness it really draws you in.”
Young Marble Giants split in 1980, with recognition and touring inflaming internal tensions. Semi-revived but not writing-fit, they talk to MOJO in the lead-up to their Meltdown show. Statton and Stuart Moxham are disarmingly modest about the landmark music they made, and philosophical about the group’s past, present and future…
First: Meltdown. David Byrne and Young Marble Giants seems like a good fit.
Alison Statton: That’s interesting to hear, because I must admit it really threw me. I mean, I’ve been a huge fan of David Byrne since early Talking Heads days, but he’s been so prolific and Young Marble Giants have been so very unprolific. It’s a very exciting offer but very daunting at the same time.
Have you ever played somewhere like Royal Festival Hall before?
AS: Oh no, that’s all new. We actually always feel more comfortable with a smaller audience because our sound isn’t a big sound, and our songs are almost like sketches, sort of small haikus. It’s more like doing a poetry reading really.
Does the Meltdown show mean YMG are trading cult status for something bigger?
Stuart Moxham: I suppose Colossal Youth is one of those records that everybody that’s in the know, knows about. And nobody else knows about at all. Musicians and music press can talk about us, but they might as well be talking Venusian. The fact that it’s the Royal Festival Hall, it’s our heads up in a way.
Since ’07 you’ve been playing what, one or two shows a year?
SM: Not much more than that, no. Basically we formed as an experiment to see if we could write some new music, and that sort of didn’t really work – tremendous shame. In the meantime, the lovely people at Julie Tippex’s booking agency got their oar in and offered us a gig in Paris, and despite having expressly said we weren’t going to be an ’80s comeback band doing the old stuff, we ended up doing exactly that.
What got in the way of writing or recording new music?
SM: I think it was just a kind of awkwardness, really. We parted awkwardly and we’re not the sort of people who bring things out into the open and discuss them frankly. When we got back together again, it was as if no time had lapsed between getting off that flight from New York in November, 1980. We just picked up where we left off in a way.
To go back to Colossal Youth, it’s a record that’s consistently maintained its appeal. Is that partly because there’s not a lot there to date – it’s so minimal?
SM: And also the fact we didn’t use ‘contemporary’ sounds. The rhythm generator we used was a non-commercial thing and it doesn’t sound like anything else. Our cousin, Pete Joyce, made it from a Practical Wireless Magazine article. Then there’s the organ sound, which goes back to cinemas and what have you. It’s kind of a cheesy organ sound.
Like the Bontempi organs people used to have in their front rooms? Even next to the DIY records punk threw up, Colossal Youth sounds very ‘domestic’…
SM: Oh yeah. Well we made it in our house. It is literally domestic.
So how did a teenage Led Zeppelin fan end up making one of the most minimal pop records ever?
SM: That’s a good question. I think the answer to that is that I was in a crucible of self-imposed pressure. I was 24 when we started making the music, and didn’t have a clue what to do with my life. We were in Cardiff, which didn’t really exist on the musical map, so there was a hell of a lot to overcome. The answer was to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing and see what we came up with. Even when we moved to London, I don’t feel like we really fitted in, even at Rough Trade. I mean Rough Trade made us welcome. They were great in every way, but we weren’t like any other band at all.
How deliberately or consciously ‘anti-rock’ were you?
SM: Well it was conscious, yeah. It was going against all the grains. We definitely didn’t want things like introductions. Why do you need introductions? Why do you need to have production? Nice little violins and vocal harmonies and drums? Drummers? What a pain!
YMG songs aren’t just sparse-minimal. They’re also short-minimal. They finish exactly once they’ve made their point.
SM: Yeah, and you know I still do that. Every song I’ve ever written is like a diagram for what the song could be if someone else did it. You set it up, you tell the story, you go. You know, I want to write the next one.
The combination of your troubled lyrics and Alison’s unadorned voice is the core of YMG. It’s affecting music without being affected.
SM: We couldn’t have had a better singer. Alison started something – the wave of indie girl singers with that kind of ‘I’m singing in the shower’ approach – but Alison’s unique. There’s an ingenuousness about her voice.
Alison, how easy is it to connect with the person you were when you sang the songs the first time around?
AS: I think the songs are of a nature where I instantly tap back into that person, and where we all were then. They have an atmosphere about them. But I also think I interpret them very differently now, emotionally and mentally, with the life experience I have now. Stuart’s songs are like little snapshots, and it’s like looking at any kind of visual image, you put your own interpretation into it.
Can you give an example of where your take on a YMG song has changed?
AS: Constantly Changing is one. Back then I looked at it more as an intensified spotlight on a relationship story. Now I suppose I see it more as more of a philosophical life statement, about impermanence, nothing being permanent. That’s just one that’s popping up.
Some of these songs are very sad, and another singer might have tried to wring every last bit of angst or melodrama out of them, but your tone is almost like that of a reporter.
AS: A lot of that comes from lack of confidence and being a complete introvert at the time. We were all pretty introverted, and we just did things naturally because that’s the only way we could cope with doing anything. We chose to keep it sparse, it wasn’t completely accidental, but as far as the vocals go, I didn’t have a lot of choice because I’m not a trained singer, and I wouldn’t call myself a singer now or call myself a vocalist really. I just tell a story with a natural voice.
As the songs were developing, the ones that ended up on Colossal Youth, did they strike you as strange or different?
AS: Hearing Phil and Stuart playing together, for me that was always absolute joy. That was magic. I loved the rhythms and the basic drum machine. It just excited me. But I didn’t expect anyone else to be excited by it, and I could never quite get comfortable with my vocals being there because it was too close to home and I couldn’t hear it objectively at all. I can’t now really, to be honest. I’ve just got to think, Well, it works. We threw things down; even when it came to recording it was all very unexpected. We’d already disbanded, effectively, when we got the recording contract, so we went to the studio, put it down live, and in five days it was done and dusted. Then listening back, when it was actually pressed, I just remember thinking, Oh no, oh no…
The album came out to these amazing reviews, but the group was already on the rocks. That must have been bittersweet.
AS: To be honest, it had gone much further than I had ever expected, so I just had to be grateful for that. It’s like a relationship that you’ve been in for a while, and you know you need to move on. It’s still painful, there has been love there, this has been shared, a shared goal or whatever, it’s still painful but you know it’s healthy. Actually, that break was in a sense the best thing we could have done, because we do love each other dearly now, all of us, and I don’t think maybe that would have been the case if we’d all stayed together.
As a fan, it’s hard not to mourn the unborn second album…
AS: I guess I don’t tend to. I like to just appreciate what’s been good and not dwell on what we’ve missed out on, and what could have been. Maybe because of everything that was there, because of all the tension, it could have been brilliant, it could have been even more bizarre. It could have been right out there. But on the other hand, it might have just been going through the motions, a less creative project.
But it would have been nice to hear more Phil and Alison songs, like Eating Noddemix. That’s Colossal Youth at its most brilliantly odd.
AS: I remember being incredibly nervous putting it forward. I always saw Stuart as the songwriter. And with Eating Noddemix, I think it was quite hard for Phil and Stuart to relate to my melody. So that’s why it’s even sparser than the rest. It felt weird approaching a song the other way round.
Stuart, you’ve said before that the touring helped split YMG. I was wondering whether the fact that you’re such an unconventional-sounding band with such an unconventional set-up, added an extra level of anxiety, knowing that you’d be confounding a lot of expectations, knowing that you wouldn’t be rocking out?
SM: Hmmm. I was going to say that there was no anxiety, because of course we started off with, like, the best reviews in the world, and on one of the best labels in the world. We were headlining straight away, people loved us, and I’m like Paul McCartney, I want people to like me, I try to be accessible, I try to make pop music. But also, you’re right really. We play very quietly, as well as minimally, and it is still a problem. You know, we played in Barcelona three years ago in front of 3,000 people, and we got to the soundcheck, and the bass drum’s going and it sounds like the Hammer Of The Gods. I was going, No, no, no! We don’t want that, because every group has that bass drum, and we don’t want that. We want people to have to be quiet to hear us. In fact, I have been known to say, after a couple of numbers, Can you hear us at the back? And if they say Yes, I say OK, we’ll turn it down then.
That’s very funny.
SM: Quietness is such an important element, and there’s also the element of us being physically close on the stage. We’ve come to realise this over the last few years, that we need to be as if we’re in our room at home, just hearing each other.
It’s 1980 and YMG are breaking apart. Phil [Moxham, bass] and Alison were splitting up weren’t they? Or had they already split?
SM: I think so. You don’t know with other people’s relationships, but I think so. And I was also splitting up with my girlfriend at the time, Wendy Smith, who was in America on tour with us. It was a bit grim. Alison also was very unwell towards the end of that tour. And also, the last thing we ever expected to happen was to be successful. We had no plans for success at all, no plans for another record. We just didn’t ever seriously think that it would work. I was about to bugger off to Berlin and was giving it till Christmas.
Later on, how significant was Kurt Cobain piping up and saying positive things about Young Marble Giants? Was there an uptick in interest in the group?
SM: I suppose people heard about us because of it, but I think the real surge in interest came when Domino did the re-release. We got a proper re-release and The Sun gave us four stars, the Guardian gave us four stars, so everybody knew about it and suddenly we had two audiences; we had the people who’d listened back in the day, and their kids. So we have a young audience as well which is mad, really amazing.
Alison, you’re a chiropractor now?
AS: Yep, I’m a McTimoney chiropractor, and I love what I do. I can get very lost in it and completely forget that I do music. It’s getting people out from pain and educating them about taking care of their bodies, and making themselves stronger and less vulnerable physically. But whatever you do, it’s important that you do it because you love it, not because you want to make money from it or you want to be famous for it. It’s got to come from the heart really.
Are new Young Marble Giants songs too much to hope for?
AS: I don’t know. There’s some invisible barriers there. Partly it’s because we don’t get together as Young Marble Giants apart from when we’re doing a gig. So that’s the major block. But even if it never got out there or it never got recorded, I’d love to give ourselves the chance to see if we could do something. I think we’d all be a bit shy, and feel a bit vulnerable, going back to that intimate relationship – because there’s something very exposing about writing music. But I’d try and make myself really available to see what could happen.
Meltdown commences at London’s South Bank Centre on August 17, 2015. Young Marble Giants play the Royal Festival Hall on August 27, visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk for more information.
Moxham & Halliday’s album A Known About Thing (hABIT) is available now via www.moxhamandhalliday.com.