As the Membranes play Clonakilty Guitar Festival this week, John Robb tells Eoghan O’Sullivan why they’re more keen on science than rock’n’roll clichés
WHETHER it’s discussing the ever-changing nature of punk, the internet bringing together fans from the Balkans to Brazil, vegetarian restaurants in Cork, his band The Membranes, space and whether it has edges or not, or the lack of money in the music industry nowadays, John Robb is never less than passionate.
Robb discusses all this and more ahead of a date with the reformed The Membranes at Clonakilty International Guitar Festival on Friday. The post-punk band released a number of albums across the 1980s, including one recorded by Steve Albini, though never gained more than cult status, breaking up in 1989.
Some 20 years later, curators My Bloody Valentine asked The Membranes to reform to play All Tomorrow’s Parties.
And, not wanting to be a nostalgia act trading on ever-older songs, last year they recorded a brilliant 68- minute concept album, Dark Matter/Dark Energy, inspired by space, the CERN project, and the passing of Robb’s father.
Meeting Joe Incandela, the head of CERN, “got us onto the theme of the mystery of the universe”, says Robb, claiming that a conversation about the universe can affect you in a psychedelic way.
“When you try to think of what the edge of the universe is, ‘is there an edge?’ ‘What’s weird, having an edge or not having an edge?’ And it’s all weird and it makes your head spin — we tried to make a record that matched that spin of your head.”
ACTING HIS AGE
Now in his mid-50s, Robb says the band are more interested in talking about science than acting in a clichéd rock and roll way out on the road.
Explaining starlight, and that what we see in the night sky is as old as the dinosaurs, he proclaims: “Thoughts like that, they could blow your mind far more than any rock and roll or drink and drugs can.”
Born in Fleetwood, Lancashire, and raised in Blackpool, Robb formed The Membranes when he was 16.
He’s written several books, and founded the website Louder Than War, which also spawned a label. A workaholic, he’s seen the music industry change immensely just in the last few years, let alone since his formative years.
“The worst thing about it now is, if you’re a young band from the wrong end of town, where the money isn’t, it’s difficult. How does a kid from Salford get themselves heard musically? They haven’t got parents who can subsidise their band.”
Where once bands, particularly during the punk years, sought a spin from John Peel and a mention in the music press, “now it’s about trying to find those gigs that you don’t lose money on and trying to make the internet work in your favour.
“Every two or three years, the battleground changes and you have to deal with it. As long as it doesn’t affect your music, it doesn’t really matter.”
Robb handles the social media for The Membranes, doing interviews and everything else involved with plugging a gig.
“It’s about an 18-hour day, it’s non-stop. You have to arrange every single aspect of everything. It’s the DIY lifestyle… There’s a huge list of things that you have to get through. But sometimes, some days, you actually get to play a musical instrument.”
And for Robb, picking up his bass and making music with his lifelong bandmates is still as exciting as ever.
“For me, soundcheck is a high point of the day. To actually get in a room and make a load of noise is a really cool moment. When you plug in after sitting in a van all day, it’s so great. The actual sonic sound and the interlocking of people making music — that’s the drug, that’s the thing that keeps everybody going.”
He says the band are more at ease with their sound than they ever were in their first phase.
“One of the big differences now is that the ideas we had then were too complex for our ability. Even though we came out of punk and worked within the parameters of punk, we were also kind of proggy in a weird kind of way. In Blackpool where we grew up, the punks and the hippies were all squashed together, there wasn’t a big alternative scene. So we’d listen to their Can records, their Hawkwind records, and had no idea that Can were a hip group — it was only 20 years later they became hip — they’re a really great magic mushroom band.
“But we couldn’t play that type of music, we had no ability to do it. We’d listen to it and we’d try and do our own version of it, and it would be a very primitive version of it, but we didn’t want to lose the noise we liked in punk as well. We like really strange timings but we like the heaviness and aggression of punk, so we kinda melded the two together. Nowadays we can do that in a way that feels really natural.”
TRUE TO HIS ROOTS
Robb still sports a mohican, still espouses the DIY lifestyle. But does he still identify as a punk? “In a sense, yeah. It’s not like it’s a tribe and you have to do this and all the things of the tribal idea, this kind of manifesto that never actually existed in the first place, but it’s a very important part of my life. And I still like a lot of that music.”
He also doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. “I understand anybody my age who prefers stuff they grew up with because that’s a magical period in your life when you’re totally free, you have no responsibilities, and that was the soundtrack — nothing’s ever going to beat that soundtrack. The only thing I don’t agree with is when they say, ‘Music was so much better in the old days’.
“If they just added the words ‘for me’ it’d make much more sense. Because you can’t say it as a fact that music was better when I happened to be 16. ‘Music was better for me when I was 16 because I could do whatever the fuck I liked and that was my soundtrack’ is probably the correct statement. Music doesn’t get better or worse just because you got older.”
Robb has vague memories of Sir Henry’s and playing a gig in the city in the 1980s. “It’s got this amazing musical history,” he muses on Cork. “Five Go Down To The Sea were a great band; we shared a record label with them back in the old days, and I always really liked them.”
He recently interviewed Frank & Walters on stage. “It was great to meet up with them again after such a long time. What a great band as well. They’re part of that slightly eccentric Cork musical tradition, which is always really interesting to listen to.”
Of The Membranes’ date with De Barra’s, he says: “We’re really easy to look after. As long as the sky is clear we can look at the stars .”
Clonakilty Guitar Festival: Other highlights
The Wicklow three-piece (below right) have Hozier connections but offer much, much more than that. Expect irresistible, harmony-laden pop songs.
One of the most influential Irish bands of the century return to Clonakilty for their only gig of the year. Expect plenty of new music, with an album planned next year, and lots of noisy instrumental old favourites.
A local three-piece led by young guitar virtuoso Sam Clague, Oose deal in experimental dream-hop and instrumentals. Only one EP to their name so far, but with this much talent, who knows how big they could get.
One of the criminally underrated acts in the country, O’Reilly always turns it on in the live arena. He’s got a new album coming on a major label, and this is the start of a European tour — his songs should sound bigger than ever.
Spook Guitar Orchestra
Trad revivalists Spook of the Thirteenth Lock have rounded up an electric guitar orchestra for suites of work about the 1913 Lockout and the 1916 Rising. They’ve only performed it a couple times this year. It sounds huge and will leave you buzzing for days afterwards. Earplugs might be a good idea.
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