Feature ·

Critical acclaim isn't everything

Beta Band

[Part 1 of 2]

On Aug. 3, 2004, Radiohead's favorite band announced they were breaking up, and everybody was just as disappointed as Thom Yorke was. After three EPs (which were collected into one full-length, aptly titled The Three EPs, and immortalized in the film version of Nick Hornsby's High Fidelity) and three full-lengths, the Edinburgh, Scotland-based Beta Band vocalist Stephen Mason, drummer Robin Jones, deejay/sampler John Maclean, and bassist Richard Greentree -- will disband come January. Turns out, too many reviewer-types liked their records, not enough fan-types bought 'em.
The news that the band, which melds innovation and traditional pop sensibilities to create a sound that's quite unlike any other band's, would bow out came on the heels of their third full-length, Heroes to Zeros, released in May on Astralwerks. Prefix sat down with bassist Richard Greentree prior to the band's breakup, and although he was happy with the album, frustrations were evident. And in hindsight, the breakup isn't that surprising. Greentree talks about the Gap, the GZA, Premier, Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian, Nick Hornsby, and gives some clues about the reasons the band may have called it quits.


 

[more:]
Prefix Magazine:
How's it going?

Beta Band:
Richard Greentree: Not bad man. Just coming back to life after a heavy evening.

PM:
A lot of drinking?

Beta Band:
Yeah. Most of my life. [Laughs]

PM:
What time did you wake up today?

Beta Band:
About 11:15. I panicked because so far this week we've been meeting everyday at 11:30 in the lobby and going off to do stuff. I forgot that it was phoners today. I was like, Shit, and I got my clothes on and ran out the door anyway.

PM:
Let's get to it then, since I assume you're pretty busy.

Beta Band:
Actually, this is my last phoner for the day; I'm off to look for a birthday present for my wife. There's no rush.

PM:
Sounds good. Since releasing Hot Shots II, what have you guys been up to?

Beta Band:
Well, we toured the last album quite extensively, so we've been doing a lot of stuff on the road. Which is great, because it solidified us as a band. And then really, we've been just going through the process of making this record. It's been a very, very long process, but we've come to realize what it was we were trying for and how to do it.
We've developed a working method, which in itself took a long time. Stephen will write a song or I will write a song and that will then be given to the others members of the band, who will go away and work on new versions. And then we'll get back together, and there'll be like four versions of each song. We'll listen to them and grab the best elements from each one.
And then we'll put them together into another version, which we'll go and play. And then we'll play that, and that goes through still another process, until we finally enter the studio. It's a great way of doing it, because it's a process of refinement. But it takes a long time. But that's what we've been doing, basically.

PM:
I read that Heroes to Zeros took about a year and a half to complete and that the band was taking a more muscular approach to their songwriting, both lyrically and musically. Do you know what they meant when they said muscular?

Beta Band:
Maybe it means we go to the gym a lot? Not quite sure. Well, "muscular" is maybe not the best -- there's different ways of approaching it. That might work, because you can have a flabby beer gut or a toned six pack. It's more defined. It's kind of what I said before about the refining process.
Before, we'd go in the studio with a few ideas scribbled on paper and do the song there and then. That's how we did the first album, which I love but there's songs on there that -- there are great moments, but we slacked off. And once you listened back to it, you could already hear the stuff that should've been edited out.
This time, our time at the studio was much more enjoyable. Because we've already eliminated the dead wood, and all we've got to do is piece together all the great sounds and melodies that we've managed to catch along the way.
So in the end, the fat's off the top and you can see the muscle underneath. But you could work with almost any word, though, couldn't you? You could say this album is more masticated and define why if you wanted to.

PM:
It sounds like you're pleased with how the album came out.

Beta Band:
Very much so. All art is about getting an idea out of your head and putting it into a format where people can come to it at a different time and interact with it and go away with an idea in their head, even if it wasn't the same idea you had in yours when you put it out.
The process of making art can be very frustrating if you have a clear idea in your head but you can't actually develop it. Everyone has great ideas and writes good books in their heads. You might think of a story while half a sleep or in a dream. You might have a great film, but actually doing it is very difficult. It's the same with our music.
We started off with a great idea of what we want it to be, but just absolutely no talent or skill to actually achieve that. Now, we're actually making the records and the songs that we hear, how we want them to be. So, we've been very pleased with it because that's a great feeling to be able to do that, to have an idea and say, "We're going to have it sound like this," and then record it and listen back to it and think, Shit, it does sound like this. That's why we're happy.

PM:
How else would you say the album is different from your earlier ones?

Beta Band:
I've got to stop answering questions one question before you ask. [Laughs] It's different in the way that I just talked about. All the songs have gone to their logical conclusions. When we did shows, people would say, "I really love the record, but before the show I was wondering how you were going to reproduce that live, because it has so many layers to it. But you guys actually reproduced it and it actually sounds better live than it does on record." We were getting that everywhere we went. We thought it was time to take notice of that, to get to that point where we'd write a song that we couldn't do a gig with before we recorded it.
Because that's what was happening; the songs were unfolding as we were recording them. We'd go in with the bare bones and add things to it. And sometimes, after you give yourself a day with a bass line or a melody, you think later that it would be better if one note was left out or something.
Playing songs live before we recorded them was something we've never done. That's why it's different -- the songs reached that point of readiness before we recorded them, so they could be improved on.

PM:
What's the motivation or inspiration at this point for the band?

Beta Band:
Just a little bit of notoriety. Just a little bit of success that's evaded us for so long. We've always been critically acclaimed, but we haven't sold any records. Which is great, because you're in it for the acclaim. But we're being held back because of financial underachievement. We've got so many ideas that we'd love to put in place.
It's easy to feel guilty when you hear yourself saying you want some financial success out of this. Ultimately, if we achieved that success and we had that money, we'd do something with it, we'd be rewarding our history. Because at the moment we're living hand to mouth, and the record company is paying our rent and our food bills, and we're about a million pounds in debt to them.
It's difficult because we want new equipment. I saw a pedal yesterday that would be great for this one song, but it's three hundred pounds. And it's difficult that I can't have that to use it for what we're trying to do here. It's just disappointing, really.
If someone gave us a million pounds, it wouldn't all go away on nice cars. We would do something ridiculous that benefits everyone. We have an idea where we want to buy a huge house and dig a big hole next to it and push the house into the hole over and over again. I know that doesn't sound like a very profitable endeavor --

PM:
No, it definitely doesn't.

Beta Band:
But it would make a great short film. To use the money in that way would be a breath of fresh air for everyone that's clamoring along. We want money for the right reasons, is what I'm trying to say. If the band was self-sufficient in that way, we could do so much more, as far as collaborations and other things.

PM:
It's been said that you guys have been offered lots of money from various major corporations, such as the Gap. You guys turned that one down. Do you ever regret that decision?

Beta Band:
Oh no. Who would want to be ... Gap is the emblem of mediocrity, isn't it? Why would we want to be associated with that?

PM:
You could take their money and finance some of those ideas you talked about, no?

Beta Band:
It wouldn't be the same though. It's not like we turn down everyone; if the right people wanted the right song at the right time for the right thing we'd say yes, but it's not very often that happens. And Gap is just sick. Those ads. When I saw Missy Elliot, I couldn't believe it.
We need the fuckin' money, but why do it? We said no and we need the money, but if you don't need the fucking money and you're saying yes to it, then what's the fucking point? Where has the integrity gone? There's nothing there.
It is a very different world; it's not like 1977 when the Clash wouldn't have dreamed of "London Calling" being on car ads, and now you hear it on car ads. Things have changed vastly since then. You have to be quite cutthroat. Everything is so commercial and so fucking expensive. But at the same time, you just try to maintain a little bit of dignity.

PM:
So you have a definite line drawn.

Beta Band:
It's just dignity. When I'm an old man and my grandson is sitting on my knee, I want him to be proud about it and to show that there is an alternative. That's the thing that depressed me the most growing up. Just look around -- the idea that there are alternatives is crap. Where are the people standing apart from this rush toward the death of civilization?
I see TV in America and watch CNN and it just amazes me the nonsense people are talking about. It's a blind rush toward death, basically. They need to stop and turn around and try to quantify their lives instead of going for this crazy consumerist mania we're living in. It's unfair that sometimes America is viewed as the mindless bullies of the world. It's not the American's fault; this is a vast, beautiful country. It's difficult, but it does represent the end of civilization, because it has lost its way. England included. They've lost their way.

Planet Asia - " 'Cause everybody got to be underground at one point." The Beta Band Critical acclaim isn't everything
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