When you get the chance to talk to John Robb it’s a bit like doing a Sudoku, you can’t be exactly sure where’s best to start. Singer, songwriter, bassist, Blackpool fan, post-punk champion, lo-fi Ethiopian blues enthusiast, talking head, author, commentator, Milliganite – the list of Robb’s endeavours is as long as it is varied. There are a couple of common denominators however, enthusiasm, passion and a refusal to bend to mainstream lines of conformity.
This is perhaps most evident in his role as bassist/vocalist with progressive post punks The Membranes. A terrible description I know, but trying to think of a snappy way of describing The Membranes is like trying to describe the colour turquoise to a dog. “We were never a band you could label, we didn’t want to fit in a little box. There were just certain sounds that we liked that didn’t really fit it anywhere else but that wasn’t our fault,” he explains.
Punk has been a massive influence in his life, it certainly colours his music more so in spirit than sound. ‘Do the Supernova’ from last years critically acclaimed Dark Energy/Dark Matter reflects this perfectly – punk-rock in structure but avant-garde in arrangement.
“I think when you’re in the studio you always tend to deconstruct things more. Live things get a bit faster, the rush of energy takes you over, you don’t want to deny that. We really like stuff that’s got high energy, the music’s not verse-chorus kind of music but it doesn’t mean we don’t want a mosh pit. We want people to jump up and down. Even if it’s a nine-minute groove it’s there for dancing to. I mean there are only a few songs that you couldn’t really dance to, we play them when we have a choir with us, they’re more atmospheric pieces.”
The band have recently began using a choir at some of their shows, adding a new dimension to many of their songs.
“There’s two different ways it will go, one where we’ll play the songs and it just goes back to the bass and drums and the guitars play more sparse parts then the choir fill in between. They still have the same energy; it’s still a pretty raw sound. Then there’s other ones where we build the choir up and play more ambient, droning pieces around them. It creates a really dark foreboding atmosphere. We’re going to do a lot more with the choir now, because we found them after we did this album. The next album is going to have the choir on about a third to half the tracks; we’re just working on that at the moment.”
Before reforming in 2009 at the behest of My Bloody Valentine the band had been on hiatus for 26 years. Despite such a long lay off John insists his role in the band is largely the same, telling us “Everybody has different roles in a band. I was the one in the old days who would stand in the phone box with a bag full of ten pence pieces ringing people up trying to get gigs and John Peel sessions for hours on end. Somebody’s got to do it otherwise nothing ever happens. There’s a million bands in the world, no matter how good you are no one gets discovered, you have to go out and show people you exist.”
“It’s not like the Simon Cowell dominated media industry wants a bunch of people in their fifties playing weird post-punk about space. It’s very much our own personal vision and because of that we’ve had to create the space for it to exist in.”
“Pop music is a very skilfully constructed party of tricks. It tricks you into emotions, it’s like watching reality tv when they put the sad music on in the background and everyone in the program starts getting the hankies out. It’s just a series of tricks and false emotions. On a level it’s very addictive but I don’t care about it. I never watch it. It has nothing to do with my life. I prefer making art on my own terms and luckily there are enough people out there interested in what we’re doing for us to keep doing it.”
The number of people interested has allowed the group to share the art they have created on a wider scale than they had initially anticipated.
“We did purely make the record for ourselves and then it got picked up on. It got loads of good reviews right across Europe. It’s hard for us to know how it comes over because we’ve only just made it going ‘oh god that sounds good’ or ‘that makes me feel good listening to that’ that was the motivation. We were just trying to make a record that sounds like us. It’s not like we were trying to match up to someone else, trying to become the 38th version of The Clash, we needed to be the first version of ourselves. All we had to do was rely on instinct and I think all the best music is made on instinct.”
These days there is pressure from the music industry to be easily pigeon holed, to sound like your influences, to take the next logical step on a well trodden road. Robb pays no heed to these established guidelines instead he places the utmost importance on the band’s creative freedom.
“It’s everything for a band like ours. All we do is try to create space where we can create stuff on our own terms. Whether that’s financial space or time space or just a space with an audience letting us get away with it. If we wrote down what it was that we do it would sound a lot less easy to listen to than it actually is. We like the groove, it’s hypnotic, it pulls people in. The tension and dynamic builds up to a crescendo. It pulls you in and once you’re in a crescendo there’s no getting out of there.”
He insists music isn’t only for everyone to enjoy but also for everyone to make.
“If you’re a 15 year old kid reading this and you want to make music but you never learned how to play, just go make it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play 26 jazz chords just go get a guitar, plug it in, hit it and something will come. I think that’s important. Punk wasn’t anti-virtuoso, it was anti the idea that only virtuosos can be creative.”
“That’s the great thing about a band like The Membranes, a conventional musician will say ‘well…the next bit will have to go to F’ and we’ll go ‘well…it sounds great as it is’ you don’t need peoples permission to create.”
Robb started his website Louder Than War in 2010 and it has been lauded as one of the best sites for alternative music since. It acts as a platform for new bands as well as having some excellent music writers including Robb himself.
“It’s a digital fanzine in a way but because it’s digital the reach is far bigger. You can actually have an effect, if you find young new bands you can actually set them up on the road by writing about them a few times. That’s what it’s there for. There’s good music everywhere and we want to hear about it. We could put something up by a band in the Outer Hebrides and someone in London might read about it and give them a record deal. It’s a catalyst”
“People talk about journalists being the gate keepers, well the record shop are the gate keepers as well. Bands are gate keepers, like when David Bowie was trying to give it to Iggy and the Velvet Underground in the early 70’s that’s the model really. Every band gives people checklists of people to check out. Everyone gives you references to check out, then it leads to a mad day on Spotify where you end up listening to Ethiopian Blues played on a tin pot…I found that once it was amazing. Just a bloke wailing away with this clanking piece of metal in the background.”
John Robb, “just a bloke wailing away” in the name of artistic expression.
The Membranes play Clonakilty Guitar Festival on the weekend of the 15th-18th of this the month.