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Shooting for pop's Olympus

Catherine Wheel follow their own knotty path toward fame

by Ted Drozdowski

GREAT YARMOUTH, ENGLAND -- Among the things that don't suck in this life are sex, the beauty of unspoiled nature, and the joy of discovering a band who can change the way you perceive everything: the moment, your relationship with the world, the limits of your imagination, the way songs and sounds can reflect and color your own inner musings about the whole ball of wax from human needs to bungee jumping. I've felt that way about Catherine Wheel ever since the day in 1992 when the monolithic opening chords of their love song/future-shock epic "Black Metallic" made me pull my car to the side of the road and turn the radio up till the speakers growled.

That album, Ferment, and its follow-ups, Chrome and Happy Days, and now the collection of previously unreleased recordings and alternate takes called Like Cats and Dogs (Mercury; out this Tuesday), have at times sounded more like the work of aural conjurers than musicians. Their songs range from radio hits like "Crank," "I Want To Touch You," and "Judy Staring at the Sun" to brilliant and expansive album tracks like the minutely tooled jam "Eat My Dust (You Insensitive Fuck)" and four-barrel hot rods like "Little Muscle." They're often breathing soundscapes that shimmer with tides of defeat and joy, telling stories that shift from the cyberworld to the mundane, over the sacred hills of contentment and deep down into the scarred valleys of heartache. In particular, on last year's Happy Days they used a year's experience touring -- which included multiple stops in Boston -- to turn up the volume and impact, adding more precision and slam to their broad palette.

Although they've been embraced by alternative-rock radio, Catherine Wheel seem to be an alternative to alternative, unbound by the generic roar of grunge, or the recycled sound of punk, or the pop simplistics that seem to govern the musical lives of nearly every band in heavy rock rotation these days. Instead, they offer a sophisticated lyricism rich in expansive melodies that travel over a sonic terrain so adventurous, they're the first mainstream group to cross it since the heyday of Pink Floyd. (And I'm talking Umma Gumma- and Meddle-era Floyd, not overblown pabulum like The Wall.) But they do so without anachronism; though they're children of '70s rock, they're determined to search for their own new musical locales, whether by following the trails illuminated by the inventive sounds they squeeze out of their louder-than-hell guitars, or by following the veins that lead from their fingers back to the center of their hearts.

All these qualities slice through the tracks of Like Cats and Dogs. There are intense dynamic shifts, but even more intense emotional changes and transportations to musical spheres that few bands can aspire to help listeners reach. On "Heal 2," a more concise reprise of a should-have-been-hit from Happy Days, singer Rob Dickinson sings of the desire for fulfillment and love over a gently heaving ocean of guitars, shining his rippling tenor voice like a beacon on the simple but most cherished treasure of life. On "Car," Brian Futter puts his guitar through the paces, rounding all sorts of wicked sonic curves -- dizzy vibrato, fragmented melodies, and precision feedback -- with grace. And there's an overt, ballsy nod to their roots, a cover of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," that shows remarkable courage in an act of embracing a dinosaur-rock influence during a time of hipper-than-thou indie-world witchhunting. It's also a damn pretty performance.

Recently, I traveled to visit the band in their hometown, which I understood to be a tourist spot on England's east coast. To my surprise and delight, I found not the rural fishing village I'd half-expected but a gigantic version of our own Hampton Beach. Great Yarmouth, where the band were raised, is a classic English coastal tourist trap, with a boardwalk, paint-peeled gazebos and arcades, a Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, an aging amusement park, and too much dogshit on the beach. Full of fish-and-chips stands and tacky tourist shops, but full of life in a bustling, kitschy, shamelessly commercial and delightfully tacky way.

It's fun, and so are the lads who make this smart, epic music. When we meet in the pub of a genteel but slightly ratty 'bout-the-edges seaside hotel, Rob emerges as a natural leader, outspoken and thoughtful, his backwards baseball cap putting a working-class lid on his lofty ambitions. (He's also an inveterate fan of great Boston pop, with Belly, Buffalo Tom, and Mission of Burma -- whose "Revolver" Catherine Wheel covered on an English EP -- among his favorite groups.) Brian, Rob's fellow guitarist and Catherine Wheel co-founder, tends to be quieter, but his quick wit and deep concern for all aspects of the band seem a reflection of his playing -- always probing, pushing for a musical observation on the matter at hand that's precise and unique. Drummer Neil Sim is the band's rock, a powerhouse hitter and timekeeper whose other abilities (which include singing, engineering, production) and even-keeled nature seem in keeping with his expansive spirit. And bassist Dave Hawes? Well, he'd recently relocated to Ohio after marrying an American and couldn't make our interview in the pub across from the Great Yarmouth beach, where England's version of muzak is pumped at an alarming level, but the selection of Scotches and beers helps one ignore it.

When we spoke, Catherine Wheel were preparing to go into the studio to record a CD of all-new songs for early 1997 release. To judge by the rehearsal of new material I attended in the band's warehouse practice space, that album promises to stay their exceptional course.

Phoenix: Sonically, there seems to be an identity to Catherine Wheel. Do you feel that there is a Catherine Wheel aesthetic?

Rob: Yeah, I think the thread between our records is that they're all songs that we've written with a ghetto blaster and the acoustic guitar, and we just added different things to them, sonically, depending on what's going through our heads at the time. But we've never written songs that rely on sonics or soundscapes to exist. If you strip our songs, there's always gonna be a coherent idea or attitude underneath.

The reason our three albums sound different is where our heads have been at in terms of what has been interesting dynamically and stuff. The first record was a product of me and Brian. When the band started, we wrote songs for six months in his bedroom with an eight-track recorder. We had a chance to find a guitar approach we were happy with. In that environment, we didn't have to worry about playing them live or anything like that. So we treated them with lots of guitars and overdubs, lots of long sections in which you could feel the texture of the layeredness of the guitar.

In the first 18 months of the band's life, we kept that kind of attitude where there were less distinctive guitar parts but more of a layered feel where you'd hear different things the more you'd listen. There were more harmonies and feedback; it's a wall of sound. Then, as we went through working with different producers and toured, the sense that we could get dynamics differently had an effect on how we approach songs.

Brian: I've always thought of Ferment as the primeval slime of our music, that we'd started to emerge. There are some indistinct aspects of our sound on Ferment that are much sharper now.

Rob: For a band who are known as a guitar band, this is kind of ironic. I find the guitars were never us. It's the songs we write, which was ultimately more important than Catherine Wheel as any kind of sonic terrorists. I mean, we're not like My Bloody Valentine, who do very short tours and then go lock themselves in studios and experiment; that isn't where we're at. I'd like the band to reflect attitudes and real feelings and opinions through songs.

That said, the songs require certain things that the guitars do. I think that's how we approach the guitar tracks: what does the song need? Some songs still exist in which the initial excitement from the song is the guitar riff, or the feel of the guitar, or the feel of what the band's doing generally -- in which the verses and the chorus have taken a back seat, initially.

[Muzak suddenly surges into the overhead speakers.]

Neil: Now this is sonic terrorism. I'll go see someone . . .

Phoenix: At what point did you feel the band congealed? Was there an epiphany, a sense of "Yeah, this is what Catherine Wheel's supposed to be!"?

Brian: When "Black Metallic" was being rehearsed, that particular song seemed to be the cathartic point.

Neil: I think also the first gig we ever did. After rehearsing so long, it just seemed to make sense of the whole thing.

Rob: Because we spent four or five months writing songs before the band existed as it does today, we'd made sure that we were happy with what potentially would be our sound. It felt really natural.

Brian: Except doing the drums on drum machine -- I programmed the drums, and there's a tightness there that . . .

Neil: Yeah, it was pretty weird. I didn't know what these guys were doing. I was a friend of theirs, I had no idea what they were up to in that bedroom for months. I happened to hear the four-tracks that they'd done and I was really knocked out by it. I hadn't realized that anybody did stuff like that, and I had to be involved. It was pretty amazing to hear that stuff initially -- "I Want To Touch You" and "Black Metallic."

Phoenix: Where was your first gig?

Rob: It was at the Norwich Arts Center. It's an old converted church. It was 1990, or 1991? We were first band on in a five-band bill, and it was very exciting.

Brian: It was at about eight o'clock, and we all sat in the pub until about two minutes to eight, and we sort of rushed the stage. It was the first time I was ever in front of an audience.

Rob: I was thrust in front of this audience, and I knew either I was going to feel comfortable doing this or I wasn't -- and we were going to forget it if I wasn't. Before I knew it, half an hour just flew by, and by the time we'd finished, the place was full up. We went to the bar and thought, "Yeah, we're a good band, probably better than the rest of the bands." And we were.

Brian: Yeah; we were the best band on the bill.

Neil: We were playing "I Want To Touch You," "Black Metallic" -- great songs. This was the first group we had, and we knew that this really was going to work.

Phoenix: When you were writing "Black Metallic," how did you feel about it? I am wondering whether the experience of putting that song together crystallized the band.

Rob: No not really. We never felt a point where, early on anyway, we'd written a song that stood the test of time. I think we felt the song was a good one and we played it a lot. In the six months the band really started working, we did lots and lots of gigs.

Brian: We just played the song again and again live. I think the more we played it, the more it took on this epic scale, in terms of its length and in terms what we could do with the song.

Phoenix: The dynamic changes, and the breadth of the sound?

Rob: The peaks the song lends itself to, Brian having space to do what he does best, and it kind of crystallized the vocal style of where we were at. It contained everything: great guitar parts, fantastic lyrics, and it had a great tune. So, it contained everything that we planned in the bedroom that our band should be. Our band should be a great guitar band, with guitars that didn't sound like anybody else's but still had good songs underneath it, which was the credo. And as we played it more it did take on this big shape. By the time we recorded it, it was in its finalized version.

Brian: Now it's evolved past when we recorded it. It's sometimes gone over 20 minutes. Now we're trying to cut the monster down.

Phoenix: One of my favorite things about your band is the way you guys play with space and time. You seem to have a musical presence bigger than the song itself, in the way the guitars and the keys and the dynamics and the vocals mesh. It's kind of trippy. Do you make a conscious effort in a song like "Black Metallic" or "Eat My Dust (You Insensitive Fuck)" to transport your audience to another place?

Rob: That would imply that we were writing songs that push people's buttons, which I genuinely don't think we do. I think we are doing what comes naturally when we come down to it. The juxtaposition between loud and quiet is a very powerful one, and I think we do it very well and we use it very well. When it comes from a moment of such intense volume and then drops to nothing . . .

Brian: It's a bit like masturbation, really. You do it for yourself and if anybody else enjoys it, well . . . [laughs].

Rob: Other people don't enjoy it as much as you do . . .

The idea of being a psychedelic band means doing things for reasons other than what comes naturally to you. There is a quite introspective side of this band. It is constantly fighting with the aggressive side of what we do, and that produces a tension, and it's almost like a massive release when we reach parts where it isn't full-on. I think the essence of what the band is is a quiet band, rather than a loud band, because a loud band kicks down more doors, just lets it out. Our best moments are our most tender, most melancholy, introspective moments. That is when we are at our most powerful.

Phoenix: Are there any bands who have given you that transported feeling?

Rob: Queen transported me the first time I saw them. Wow! I couldn't believe a band could play . . . close your eyes and it was like the record, only they were in front of me.

My listening was similar to Neil's when we were 15, you know, Black Sabbath or Queen and Rush. When I started thinking about the fact that maybe I could sing and pull a band together, I was a big fan of a British band called House of Love. They crystallized for me that you could have this enormous spacy wall of guitar sound and a vocal that doesn't need to be screaming its head off competing with it. The vocal could sit effortlessly on top, which is basically what the Valentines did as well, with lots and lots of guitars, which of course you can do in a recording studio.

That almost sums up what alternative rock did: it meant you could play loud guitars, but you didn't have to scream over the top of them. You could play loud guitars and the vocals could be almost the opposite of what the guitars were doing. And I think that is something that interested us. We didn't want to throw our loud guitars away. We didn't want to throw out our pedals and distortion boxes and the love of that kind of power . . . the kind of excitement you get when you plug a guitar in and crank it up. It's primeval, it's basic.

Phoenix: You guys don't sound much like the song-oriented rock bands we have in the States. Do you think that's a problem in your efforts to break through here?

Rob: Oasis has made it into America. Although America has been attracted to grunge for the last five years, it proves something else can break through.

Phoenix: You're more sophisticated than Oasis, who are pretty straight popsters.

Rob: That may be why we haven't sold three million albums in America. Our approach to certain things is quite subtle, leaves stuff unsaid, for people to fill in. We do what is necessary to grab the idea -- which isn't the best approach to writing hit records. Plus, the nature of the radio is that it doesn't sometimes help music that is a little bit more subtle.

Brian: I don't think we're profound, but our music is longer lasting than Oasis. For us, it's always been about longevity, never the quick buck. [Laughter.]

Phoenix: Like Pink Floyd, your music gets really trippy. Is there a relationship between your music and pot?

Neil: Pot? Smoking?

Phoenix: Mmm-hmm. There is a heady feel . . .

Neil: Actually, you're not the first to notice. Although we smoke, we don't trip out . . .

Rob: Like Cypress Hill . . .

Neil: That's not our inspiration. I think in general, if you're off your head a lot of the time and you write stuff, if you come back and listen to it when you're not off your head, it doesn't do anything. As an extracurricular activity, I've enjoyed music more because I was stoned when I was listening to it. Was (Not Was) -- the first time I ever heard them I was tripping on mushrooms, and at that particular time they were the only band that existed. But when I was straight, they were [laughs] good. There's not much longevity in music that is drug oriented.

Rob: Speaking for myself and Brian, we've never done anything in this band creatively while under the influence of anything, whether it's writing songs or performing. So the music has absolutely zilch to do with drugs.

Brian: But it probably has the perfect ingredients that would appeal to somebody smoking.

Phoenix: I was surprised to see MTV here, and how few rock songs are on it. There's a lot of techno/post-disco stuff, purely atmospheric and terribly boring to watch. Then there's teen-fluff like Take That. Appalling.

Brian: That's the European way of MTV. It's all Europop, Euro-shit. People pop tablets and go to nightclubs all weekend, off their fucking heads, and don't worry about employment and don't worry about whatever and they live for the weekends. What's good at the moment is that there are a lot more guitar bands coming up, so that may change.

Rob: MTV is less important to bands over here than it is in America as a source of breaking a band. In England, a very small percentage of people actually have MTV, cable.

Phoenix: You've worked with two producers. How important do you consider their contributions in each record?

Rob: Tim Friese-Greene approaches things very differently from Gil Norton, but I think we've come out far better musically as a result of working with them. Gil brought a lot of the pop sensibility that we had out and showed us how songs could be arranged.

Brian: Tim wasn't concerned about getting to the chorus too quickly.

Rob: We worked it in such a way that we experienced this very highly principled, very mental approach to music with Tim. He encouraged spontaneity and not thinking about things too much.

Gil's method was "find the part, play it properly, and that would be great." So we brought some of Tim's way of doing things to Gil's way, for Chrome and Happy Days.

Brian: To me Tim was more sort of atmosphere, the vibe, what part you play. He was excellent in creating, putting an idea in your head.

Rob: Whether there were two singles on the record was the last thing we had to be worried about; we were making a piece of art with Tim. We were the first band to work with him in six years; he'd been making Talk Talk records up to that point, his own band.

Neil: He would say, "There is never a wrong note, just a boring choice."

Rob: Gil had worked with lots of bands. He knew what a band needed if it was to continue to be a band. He worked far closer to the business in general and brought a set of values to the production that were equally enthralling to us as what Tim brought.

Tim gave us a few ideas on how to rearrange some of the songs. But the song was recorded as is; when we came to do Chrome and Happy Days -- having to arrange songs -- Gil brought ideas to us.

And we wouldn't have wanted to learn from anyone else other than Gil. Gil arranged Doolittle, the Pixies' record, which was basically the precursor of every great grunge song in America. "Monkey Gone to Heaven" -- that's Gil. It's the cellos, the bass driven by the verse, the big guitars. I think that's where Kurt Cobain got his ideas from, I think every big guitar band owes a tip of the hat to that Pixies record.

Phoenix: What's your frustration as a band?

Rob: I'm not sure I've got one at the moment. The idea of moving forward is attractive to us in terms of reaching more people and selling more records, but we are trying to do that without fucking the music up -- trying to strike that balance, remain honest, and maintain the integrity of the band. We've slogged around America 14 times, playing similar-sized venues; the idea of playing different places is quite appealing. So just to do that you need to sell more records.

Very few bands have done it. R.E.M. probably managed to do it, the Cure probably managed to. These are bands that got better and bigger without fucking themselves up.

Phoenix: For kids who grew up listening to Rush and Queen -- in the rock-star era -- is it odd to have your own fans and international following?

Rob: We've done a good body of work that I'm proud of. Having said that, it would serve us well if we did appreciate what we have done, but it's not in our nature. I think we don't pat ourselves on the back enough.

Brian: That's because we know we can achieve more. If we thought we'd reached our zenith . . .

Rob: I still think there's a middle ground where you can still appreciate what you've done and still have goals . . .

Phoenix: But you're an introspective band . . . unsatisfied . . .

Neil: Most definitely. I could spend two days playing one drum line and have on many occasions, and that can be the best take, yet I can walk away and say I can do it better. That's just the way my mind works.

Rob: We know other local musicians, and we are the only band to get out of this part of England and go do gigs in London. We've done tours around the world, but we still come back to Yarmouth and think nothing of it. Despite that, I think if there was one of us who had an unnatural inkling toward optimism, they probably wouldn't be in the band.

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