After a long journey of distillation from song concept through the final mixes, the self-produced third album from The Beta Band has arrived. Patience pays off: Heroes to Zeros is as true on record as it sounds in the imagination of band members Stephen Mason, Robin Jones, Rich Greentree and John Maclean.
Inspired by the reverent response received during their shows, the band set out to capture the intangible live element and marry it with the ritualistic digital process. "We always felt our songs grew enormously after a few months playing them on tour, so we tried to get that ignition happening in the studio by recording huge parts of the record live", says bassist Rich Greentree.
After two albums, three EPs, four singles, and a world tour, including supporting Radiohead, the time felt right for the band to take producing honors and evolve from the "collaborative co-productions" of their previous catalogue. They did -- and it worked.
Beta BandThe 12 final tracks had 18 months to breathe and develop in pre-production and test recording sessions before a final seven-week, no-holds-barred record and mix at Rockfield Studios in Wales. To achieve the highest fidelity from the results, they enlisted the services of Nigel Godrich (Air, Radiohead, Beck) for a final mix at London's Mayfair Studios. He was impressed by their efforts and they were pleased with his refinements.
With topical global issues of terrorism, war, and governmental mediocrity weighing on his mind, guitarist/vocalist Steve Mason wanted to make the songs on Heroes To Zeros more aggressive. "We've been known in the past as some hippie/stoner/folk kind of band. Thatâ€™s not how we are at all," claims Mason.
"Assessment" features dueling guitars and blaring brass and is the most loud, full-on rock they've ever recorded. The band-directed video, shot in the South East corner of England on the dunes of Camber Sands, fuels The Beta Band revolution and portrays "the history of human warfare".
Other songs include "Out-Side", a tribal drum throw down featuring dogs barking, seagulls squawking and trains chuffing. "Easy's" got the funk, "Rhododendron" is a beautiful instrumental. The organ-led and mantric "Space Beatle" welcomes us to the church of Beta and the thrashy "Painted Bird" will be worshipped live.
As for their performances, The Beta Band is renowned for their insistence on making their shows more than just gigs. On stage the band orchestrates theme nights, wears elaborate costumes and provides intense visuals including homemade films filling the backdrop.
With its magic of no formula gorging on self-belief, between July 1997 and July 1998 The Beta Band released three EPs, which were met with widespread critical acclaim. They were later compiled into a 12-track compilation aptly named The 3 EP's, which also had a walk-on role in the silver screen version of High Fidelity. For their self-titled debut full length in June 1999, the band once again took their no formula approach: some songs on paper, some broken clocks and a feeding trough into the church of the first album. Even they were baffled with the results. The second album, 2001's Hot Shots II, had a more electronic flavor merged with more concise songs and, according to Greentree, even a "thread of coherence".
With two DVDs planned --the making of the album and accompanying short films for the 12 tracks-- we'll get to see, as well as hear, what The Beta Band is on about. Heroes to Zeros represents a true marriage of samples, programmed beats and a live band. This is something we've been working towards since the beginning. We've carried on trying to hone our sound down to a pop song and are learning to make it tighter and more exciting," reveals Mason.
As producers, the foursome are now the proud fathers of a monster only they could have created. Pop-honed and spiritually uplifting; guitars, samples and aggression; live magic and digital sorcery; dogs, gulls and flowersâ€¦ it could only be The Beta Band.
Interview by Roxanne Blanford
Calling in from his SoHo Grand Hotel room in lower Manhattan â€“ after what was admittedly a night of total inebriation at the hands of record company executives paying the tab (â€œâ€¦with a free bar problems are sure to arise, especially when in Manhattanâ€¦â€?) -- Robin Jones reveals he is no stranger to the ways of this â€œseductiveâ€? city (â€œIâ€™ve been here many times, in many guisesâ€?).
And though he chooses not to elaborate, the spacey Scottish popster (raised in a hillside community just 10 miles or so outside of Edinburgh) lets it be known that he and everyone in the Beta Band (John Maclean, Steve Mason, Richard Greentree) is anticipating positive things for 2004, with a full-fledged European tour in support of the bandâ€™s full-length, self-produced HEROES TO ZEROS (Regal/Astralwerks/EMI).
Jones explains how Rich plays the harmonica and has â€˜a special way with wordsâ€™ though Steve is the main songwriter, handling most of the bass lines, and that John is the chief beat programmer.
But when asked about his own unique talent, about that with which he has a special way, Jones eloquently appraises himself as a â€œjack of all trades, master of none.â€? (He can write, he says, adding, â€œI donâ€™t like to commit myself to wordsâ€?).
While they are all versed in singing, songwriting, instruments and programming, interestingly enough neither Jones nor his band mates can be classified as professional musicians, per se.
â€œNone of us are exactly proficient with any one instrument in particular.
We donâ€™t exactly â€˜playâ€™ our instruments, not in the way that Miles Davis has a trumpet growing out of his lip. We just sort of pick them up. Everyone does everything. Computers have enabled us to be that way, so weâ€™re all capable of having a go at everything put in front of us. Itâ€™s just pure instinctâ€?.
As a whole, they all go back a bit. Robin Jones has known John the longest (since college), then, met Steve, and then Rich. Friends first, the group did not initially come to be from the germination of some grand idea to start a band.
â€œWe never really thought of what we did as forming a real band â€¦it just happened. We were just bored. John had just finished college, Steve didnâ€™t have a job, and I had just quit my job. We had a wealth of ideas, living in the same flat in London during one lazy summer...so, rather than sit around talking about things we could do, we sat around and actually did something, which was to make a demo, (CHAMPION VERSIONS, 1997)--our first EP.
â€œIt was all quite natural. It wasnâ€™t something like, â€˜..hereâ€™s what weâ€™re gonna do: weâ€™re gonna make a band, sign up for a five-album deal, then after seven years, weâ€™ll be releasing our 3rd album, and by that time weâ€™ll be so mature and so enlightenedâ€¦â€™..hahâ€¦.none of that.
â€œIt was more like â€˜what are you doing today?, well, I got ..uh..a 4- track,
and ..uh..this songâ€¦so..uh, why donâ€™t you do that, then?â€¦Take it to a record company and see if they like itâ€¦..or donâ€™tâ€¦.uh, if they donâ€™tâ€¦we could release it ourselves â€¦â€™ and then it all just spirals out of control and you realize this is actually your life andâ€¦..â€?
And, then, you find yourselves with a couple of impressive and original recordings on the market, producing your own ambient, dub-inflected/alt-electronic music, creating the definitive Beta Band sound (â€œitâ€™s like a
colorful paintingâ€?), and eschewing AOR rock producers to unearth the precise sounds and considered qualities that bespeak a one-of-a-kind artistic essence.
Says Jones, â€œSelf-producing is probably something we always should have done, and probably always have been capable of [doing]. But the go ahead needs to come from the record company. Thatâ€™s how it is.
If we had said to them,â€¦â€™hereâ€™s what weâ€™re gonna do..weâ€™re gonna produce it ourselvesâ€™,â€¦ then, theyâ€™d start panickingâ€¦and goingâ€¦â€™,..oh my God..
no.. no. ..this is just going to be a money pit---â€¦â€™
â€?We were intending to use a producer on this album at the onset, and we met with a few guys, tried working with someâ€¦but we didnâ€™t find the right mix of talent and visionâ€¦it was all the wrong sort of sound for usâ€¦. nothing came together that made the disc a Beta Band recording. Soâ€¦uhâ€¦we were at a meeting with the record company and we played our old demos, you knowâ€¦they start going, â€œyeah, this is what weâ€™re talking about, this is the sound!â€™, and they said, â€œwhy donâ€™t you produce it yourselves?â€™ so, our response was, â€˜Yes!â€™ hahaâ€¦.Itâ€™s all goodâ€?.
â€œAnytime you can keep your creativity to yourself and control every stage and be imaginative, youâ€™ll be pleased that you managed to bring your brain and soul together to create something that youâ€™re proud of. Getting to produce it ourselves is just another way that makes it closer to ourselves. So, yeah, the way we put it all together was really satisfyingâ€?.
With the advent of Pro Tools and such like over the last few years, music making has become a less organic enterprise. But, with HEROES TO ZEROS each Beta Band member, for the first time, worked it a different way, providing more personal, individual contributions.
â€œWeâ€™d take demos from work Steve had done, for instance, and then the remaining three of us would go home and sit in our own separate caves, hunched over the computer, working out full versions over each of the demos, separatelyâ€?.
â€œSee, on your own, youâ€™ve got all the time in the world to try every idea you might have entertained, no matter how daft. And, when you get back together with everyone, itâ€™s like,â€¦ you knowâ€¦ weâ€™d get this blackboard, right?, and start, well, okay, â€¦ â€˜alright!, what have you got for this part?, and you play a version, and then everyone sits around and goes, â€˜â€¦ hmmâ€¦yes, I really like the chorus there, but the verse isnâ€™t workingâ€¦â€™,
so we go through someone elseâ€™s version, and say, â€˜yeah, that verse is really goodâ€™, so weâ€™ll bolt that one on, and take the drumbeat from Rich, and ..uhâ€¦like that.
â€œItâ€™s just really difficult when youâ€™re in a studio, and youâ€™re a BAND, ..and youâ€™re sort of not quite all prepared, and itâ€™s costing you X amount of money, and someoneâ€™s staring at you through a pane of glass, shouting,..â€™ right!, play the drums now!..do something really creative, really imaginativeâ€¦do it now!â€™....and, well, you canâ€™t do it. So, itâ€™s just good to always be armed to the teeth going in with all the ammo you needâ€?.
Working everyday on the album ( working independently on versions, then a few months together tossing ideas around in rehearsal rooms, working out how the songs would go together, searching for the right producer, then six or so weeks actually recording and mixing and re-mixing) the entire process for completing HEROES TO ZEROS was wrapped up in mid-2003. Various factors delayed the release till spring 2004.
According to Jones, this disc, (recalling every sound from Radiohead and Badly Drawn Boy to the California/surf-rock sound of the Beach Boys, and The Mamas and the Papas, through psychedelic shades of the Doors) is â€œmore Beta Band, if that makes senseâ€¦more than any other release of ours. Itâ€™s drawing on all that wisdom, if I can be so pompous to say..so, yeah. This is the record weâ€™ve always been trying to make. Itâ€™s reallyâ€¦realized. The actual sound is slightly livelier (than previous releases), more organic, with a bit more soul and R&B type feel to it. Every song in it is quite cohesive to the wholeâ€?.
An intriguing backdrop to the disc is the war against Iraq, which was being waged and raging on while the Beta Band were writing songs and music. When asked if the war played any role in the overall feel of the release, Jonesâ€™ response is careful and contemplative:
â€œThereâ€™s nothing truly specific in the album itself referencing the war, no. But no doubt it subconsciously played a part. Itâ€™s this huge thing, itâ€™s a sign of the time. So, maybe there is a slight aggression in the albumâ€™s sound, you know, silent anger. Obviously it has filtered down to the finest part of all thingsâ€¦whether youâ€™re buying coca-cola from the local shop, or whether some government has decided to steal a whole country.
â€œYou canâ€™t go through life not being affected by everything thatâ€™s going on around youâ€¦it all seeps in to everything you do. You reflect everything, and everything influences you. All these things go on around you and contribute to form the person you are in this worldâ€?.
Politics and missing your loved ones aside (â€œâ€¦you get a bit tired when youâ€™re off on the road, touring, wishing you had a wife, or could see your old friends..â€?), and despite the routine and occasional frustrations along the way, Jones admits there was nothing particularly difficult in putting this new release together. The coming together of their unified efforts and innate abilities has given all members an generalized good feeling about the future and whatâ€™s to come.
â€œThis is an exciting time for us. We feel really strong, really positive. Itâ€™s been a pretty long walk to get here, but, itâ€™s a neat position to be inâ€?.