From Rapture To Rupt: The Journey of Seefeel
Interview: Simon Reynolds
4421 words, 00:14:44
Seefeel slip in and out of categories. In their time, they’ve been designated “ambient” and lumped in with “post-rock”. Some revere them as part of the pantheon of Nineties IDM, alongside Autechre, Aphex Twin, and μ-Ziq. Seefeel’s early sound - blurry, wombing groovescapes propelled gently but firmly along by flicker-pulses and rippling patterns - anticipated the Basic Channel / Chain Reaction / Pole style of dubby house and techno that came out of Berlin a few years later. Equally, Seefeel’s colder, clanky ‘n’ cavernous side pre-echoes the dubstep of Pinch and Loefah. Yet despite all these associations and connections, parallels and pigeonholes, they sound unique. Seefeel slip in and out of categories.
Formed in 1992, Seefeel emerged in tandem with a number of left-field UK guitar groups engaged in a gradual process of abandoning songs and dissolving traditional rock structures like the riff, in favor of explorations of texture, effects processing, and space. For a while, for want of a better tag, people described this tendency as “ambient” – a vague but not completely unhelpful tag for “any band that wants to go beyond the constraints of three-minute punky pop, beyond choruses”, as the group’s Mark Clifford put it at the time.
Although they each sounded distinctive and differed in significant ways from each other, these outfits – Seefeel, Disco Inferno, Main, Moonshake, Laika, Bark Psychosis, Insides, Techno Animal – came into loose alignment around early 1994, whereupon some bright spark shepherded them under the umbrella “post-rock”. Although that term subsequently came to signify something else altogether in the 21st Century (epic and dramatic instrumental rock, not nearly as post- as it likes to think it is), the directions pursued by Seefeel and their fellow-travelers in the mid-Nineties shine out still as an underexplored frontier for music.
After recording three EPs (More Like Space, Plainsong, and Pure, Impure), a single (“Time To Find Me”) and the album Quique for Too Pure, Seefeel signed to Warp in 1994 and entered a whole new phase of creativity that lined them up alongside the heavyweights of “electronic listening music” (a.k.a. IDM) like their new labelmates Aphex Twin and Autechre. The music they recorded for Warp and for Rephlex over the course of just three busy years, 1994-1996, is now being reissued, along with a host of unreleased and barely-released material from that period, as the four-CD box set Rupt & Flex. There are also vinyl reissues of their debut Warp album Succour and the Rephlex maxi-EP Ch-Vox, and a new collection, St/Fr/Sp that pulls together the Starethrough EP, the single “Fracture” b/w “Tied”, and the Autechre remix of “Spangle”. All these releases are handsomely filled out with unreleased material.
On the eve of this bonanza for Seefeel fans, I spoke with Mark Clifford and Sarah Peacock about the group’s journey.
When I heard your earliest music, the coordinates seemed similar to shoegaze groups like Slowdive – starting from a similar place (My Bloody Valentine, A.R. Kane) but clearly already heading somewhere more interesting. I gather that it was the Cocteau Twins above all that was the foundation and starting point.
Mark Clifford: “Ever since I was a teenager, the Cocteaus were this huge thing. Dead Can Dance too, although they were kind of a phase. I was really into that whole 4AD sound. But it was the Cocteau Twins in particular – one of those bands where when you first hear them, they completely change your ideas about music.”
Although it’s song-based and there’s a kind of guitar hero, albeit one working with texture and atmosphere rather than acrobatic solos, there is something about Cocteau Twins that points beyond rock. It’s not quite electronic music, but it’s very produced and studio oriented - all about effects and this massive cavernous reverb. Then there’s the drum machine.
MC: “I don’t think they get credited enough for that. Garlands, it’s basically electronic beats with noise on top. When we did the first EP, More Like Space, I sent it to the Cocteaus and wrote a letter saying ‘this record we’ve just released is only because of your music’. I didn’t expect a reply but Robin Guthrie wrote back. I almost wanted to frame his letter and put it on the wall! You can’t imagine how it feels when you have heroes and they like your music - that’s the highest praise imaginable.”
The other thing in the early Seefeel sound that points beyond shoegaze is the dub element: the echo and the pockets of reverberant space that honeycomb the production. You found this blissful interzone between the Cocteaus / Dead Can Dance and Lee Perry / Adrian Sherwood.
MC: “I grew up in Birmingham so I heard reggae - but dub, I almost got into it through the backdoor, people who’d been influenced by it. It sounds almost shameful to say, but things like The Orb. It was quite late. You realise there’s this whole area of music you’d been unaware of.”
You came together because of an advert that Sarah put in the NME. Mark had already been making proto-Seefeel music for a while, using very basic equipment; Justin Fletcher joined as a drummer, and Daren Seymour became the bassist. But originally the roles were different: Mark was singing as well as playing guitar. And Sarah…
MC: “Sarah originally joined to play bass, but she gave me this tape she’d made at home on which there was a basic version of ‘Time To Find Me’. A cassette called Little Bits of Sarah, a collection of really weird melodies. I’ve still got it somewhere.”
Sarah Peacock: “A couple of the things I’d done for this animated film I’d made at college – ‘Time To Find Me’ was one, in embryonic form. In the early days, Mark was still singing some songs, like “Come Alive”. But then gradually I took over supplying the vocals.”
I generally try to avoid finding out what groups feel about being recruited to one of my invented genres or movements, like hauntology, or in your case, post-rock. But, whatever you think about being shoved in that category, Seefeel seem to have an almost archetypal arc of evolution for a post-rock group. At the start, the guitars are heavily effected but still discernibly guitars, and there are vocals, songs, even lyrics. Then gradually, organically, the guitar textures get steadily more amorphous and harder to distinguish from synths or sample-loops. The voice is now wordless and it’s not singing tunes so much billowing out rippling folds of melodious texture. The stage after that is where you can’t identify the instrumental source of a sound and the voice could be a sequenced pattern – you’re not really sure it even comes from a human being. At this point, the group has gone beyond rock and is really making purely electronic music: either groove-oriented, a matrix of pulsations, or sheerly ambient soundscapes. That’s the perfect Platonic form for a post-rock trajectory – and it’s the path Seefeel travelled.
MC: “We got put in so many different boxes. ‘Ambient’ didn’t quite work for me, because I just think of Brian Eno’s definition – wallpaper music. I suppose Quique was getting near to that. The post-rock thing – see, I never really thought of us as having anything to do with rock. Apart from the band format. When people used to ask about Seefeel, I would always say if you walked in and just saw us onstage but couldn’t hear anything, you’d think we were a normal band playing, because of the instruments and the line-up. But we tried to avoid every kind of rock element when it came to making the records. Even down to having no fills in the drumming.”
So really Seefeel should just be called a post-__ group – because there were never any rock aspects that you jettisoned on your journey into the beyond. You’re just post-__ !
MC: “I don’t mind the label. People used to call us dub and I never saw that either - we use elements of dub.”
You mentioned the drums… One thing I noticed listening to the evolution of Seefeel through the Too Pure phase and then onto to the Warp era with Starethrough and Succour, is that the approach to percussion is the opposite to banging dance music, where there’s usually a strident kick driving the whole thing along. The Seefeel drum kit is decentered – different drum sounds are distributed across the mix, creating a more undulating or sidling crab-wise kind of groove. At times almost like the rhythmic equivalent of a lullaby. A cradle-rocking motion.
MC: “Yes that is one kind of rock element that we are definitely post- . In our music the beat is underneath the music, supporting it, rather than dominating it.
Sort of Small Beat, rather than Big Beat!
MC: The title Quique actually comes from our nickname for the kick drum, that’s what we’d write on the channel on the mixing desk, using a bit of masking tape.”
“Quique drum” sounds diminutive! So did Seefeel tracks start with rhythm, building up on top of that undercarriage, or did you have a different process?
MC: “Generally it would start with a guitar sound, or a loop. Sometimes it would start with a rhythm. You can’t really write a Seefeel song on an acoustic guitar – it’s the quality of the sound that makes the track.”
You couldn’t really be a busker and do Seefeel songs.
MC: “You could but it would be the most boring busk!”
Yet you could imagine some songs being adapted into choral music. There is a sacred feel to some tracks, reflected in titles like “Plainsong” and “Monastic,” on Succour. That makes me think of how the names of the two labels you were on suit the different phases of Seefeel. Too Pure sounds saintly and mystic, but it could also have a druggy meaning, like MDMA that’s too strong (which totally goes with the bliss-overdose feeling of Quique). Warp fits perfectly with the more mutated and processed later sound of Seefeel, and the dislocated and uncanny mood. Like strange disassociated mental states that are hard to classify.You must have been thrilled to have been on two of the most interesting and important labels of the ‘90s, one after the other.
SP: “It was amazing. We were huge fans of Warp. When they came along to see us play and we met them and they were such nice people, it was brilliant. We were so flattered that they liked us and when they offered the multi-album deal, we jumped at it”.
Then on a social level you became close with the label’s biggest artists, Aphex Twin and Autechre.
SP: “I can’t remember when we first met them, but there were certainly many occasions when we’d be on the same bill. Like when we went to the Britronica festival in Moscow. That is kind of legendary in our lore. Spring 94 – a bunch of us got invited over to play over four days. Richard D. James was there, and Autechre. Along with Ultramarine, Mark Pritchard, Bark Psychosis, Russell Haswell. There’s some high-quality footage of us on YouTube from the festival. The set from Bark Psychosis is up there too – and there’s almost nothing of them from that era of playing, in terms of film .”
What was Russia like in 1994?
SP: “At that time the whole country was falling apart – it was the Yeltsin era, the collapse of the old system.
MC: “It was the biggest culture shock I’d ever had in my life. Because it’s a place that looks just like where you’re from, in terms of the buildings or whatever – but society’s collapsed. My memories are people trying to sell whatever they could sell, trying to get a dollar off you for a plastic bag. You felt bad eating food there.”
SP: “But yes we really bonded with those people over four days. That was when we got to know Autechre. Another time me and Justin went to New York to do a press thing and Autechre happened to be playing and we spent an evening hanging out with them backstage. And Moby turned up. It all felt very ‘showbiz’!”
Before signing to Warp, you’d already connected with Aphex Twin through his gorgeous “Time To Find Me” remixes. Unusually, given his reputation for eviscerating other clients like Curve or Jesus Jones - almost entirely replacing their music - he did this very sensitive reworking, leaving most of the original Seefeel track in there but developing it exquisitely. A big compliment – and I guess another sign that Seefeel were not just a vaguely indie group but were being welcomed into the fraternity of IDM.
SP: “It was hugely flattering for us that he did the remixes and we adored what he did with ‘Time To Find Me’. So it was a bit of a mutual appreciation society.”
And out of that came the later idea of doing an EP for Rephlex. Or is Ch-Vox a mini-LP? There are six tracks.
MC: “It was supposed to be an EP, but people call it the third album, which is fine. Because the tracks are quite long, it feels more like an album. Richard didn’t ask for any money for doing the remixes, he just asked us to do an EP for his label. Ch-Vox was like taking Succour a step further – just the loose bones. I don’t think that’s an album we would ever have given to Warp to release. Rephlex felt like the right place for it.”
‘Starethrough (Transition Mix)’
Rewinding a bit, to the transition from the Too Pure era to the Warp phase. How did technology factor into Seefeel’s evolution?
MC: “At the very start, we had a Tascam 4-track machine that recorded onto cassette tapes.”
SP: “The sound was basically effects and guitars. Rather than sampling and looping, we were literally playing a guitar bit for the whole length of the track. The guitar is so processed you can’t tell it’s a guitar at all.”
MC: “We did have some access to an Akai sampler, but we had to borrow that equipment. So it was very limited: we would only have it for a couple of days and it’s only used on a few of the early tracks, like ‘Plainsong”.
SP: “Then we got an Atari computer. Very basic – like a 1K computer. You ran Cubase off it. So that allowed us to sequence samples.“
MC: “Getting a more advanced Ensoniq sampler was one of the things that enabled us to make the jump from the Too Pure era to the Warp era. Still only eight seconds of sample time, but it felt like a big leap.”
SP: “That’s how we could do the experimental vocals - me improvising bits and it being cut up and reassembled by Mark, resulting in tracks like ‘Starethrough’. Doing the same with sounds from the guitar, processing them beyond recognition.”
MC: “Another thing I got but didn’t actually use that much was the Avatar guitar-synth. I didn’t realise it needed a special pick-up. So for a long time I was using it completely incorrectly. I put guitars and drums through it and it just turned everything into noise. You can hear it a lot on ‘Tied’, the B-side of “Fracture” – all those distorted sounds are from the Avatar.”
So the Starethrough EP was the first release for Warp, and it’s still half in that Quique bliss-space. “Starethrough” itself has the clanky skank rhythm and the braid of billowing vocals, although the ecstasy has a tinge of derangement – as though protracted rapture is slowly driving someone out of their wits.
SP: “That started off as a remix of ‘Charlotte’s Mouth’ from Quique. Mark took the bare bones of my vocal in that and treated it like a sample, cutting it up into loads of little bits, layering it. When Mark pretty much did that all on his own, we were so impressed with that direction – it was like, ‘this is how it has got to be’.”
Also quite Quique-y is the idyllic “Spangle”, all glinting guitar and vocals like a dove cooing.
SP: “’Spangle’ was one where the vocals were recorded at home – I did them in the bathroom.”
Because of the echo in there?
SP: “Yes. It was a little windowless bathroom and I had to have the lights off because the extractor fan would hum otherwise. Then we’d put the vocals through the Roland GP8 guitar effects we used back in the day and through an amp as well, to give it that crunchy sound.
Even the title “Spangle” sounds like first-phase Seefeel, still under the spell of the Cocteaus. Whereas by the time of Succour, you’ve moved into alignment with Autechre and Aphex circa Selected Ambient Works Vol II. Right down to the titles which are encrypted and vaguely scientific sounding. Or just disjointed.
SP: “Half words, like ‘Rupt’”.
Others are like words from a foreign language, or things that got garbled in transcription. Like, where does “Utreat” come from?
MC: “When we toured with Cocteau Twins, in early ’94, we were driving to Utrecht and I misread it and wrote it down wrong in this little book I had. And because I really liked Utrecht, it’s a really cool place, this mangled word always had this good connotation.”
SP: “Because they aren’t conventional songs, where you can pick a line from the chorus to name it, we’d use these little in-joke words that seemed to be descriptive of the way it sounded. Usually they’d be working titles that we would end up sticking with.”
MC: “When you’ve got a track that sounds like ‘Utreat’, you can’t call it something like ‘Sunday Night Love Ride’. The music doesn’t give you a feeling of reality, it gives you a feeling of unreality – so the titles had to reflect that.”
Although you were really happy to be on Warp, I gather that Succour was coloured by a certain tension at that time, caused by doing a lot of touring. So the album ended up sounding the opposite of what the word “succour” evokes – instead of comfort or release, the vibe is unease… there’s a feeling of fixation, like someone caught up in mental loops of foreboding thoughts. Spaced out, but not blissed out.
MC: “When you sign a record deal you somehow think your life is going to take this huge jump and everything’s going to be amazing. It wasn’t a let-down, but it was a lot of hard work. I didn’t like touring, I found it a real slog. The Cocteaus treated us really well and they had their own catering and it was a big professional touring operation. But it was just the repetitiveness – the traveling, the soundchecks, the hotels – and the worrying about everything all the time. We were using a lot of technology that wasn’t always reliable, so there was always this nagging doubt in the back of your head - ‘Will this break down half way through the set?’”
Succour has a great cover – the table of elements. Where did that idea come from? It seems to fit the music really well – it goes with that aura of “we are scientists of sound, breaking everything down to subasonic particles”. And the elements-style abbreviation for each song fits the enigmatic quality of the music.
MC: “It came from the T-shirts. We had the idea of doing the tour dates as a periodic table on the back of each T-shirt, with Lo for London and then the date for each city. So that idea was given to Ian [Anderson, of The Designers Republic] and he did a great job with it.”
SP: “But it was originally just almost a Beavis and Butthead type reaction – ‘cool’. All the possible interpretations came afterwards. But yes even the way the tracks are constructed, it’s elemental - each sample or drum sound is like an element.”
What can you tell us about the unreleased material that accompanies the Succour reissue?
MC: “Some tracks have been out before but they’re hard to find – three pieces were on a quite obscure Sub Rosa compilation, Ancient Lights and the Black Core, from 1995. ‘As Link’ was on the Warp20 album.”
With these pieces, particularly the sequence of tracks that all feature the word “As” in the title, there’s a similar vibe to Succour. Bad dreams, a psyche disintegrating under the pressure of dread. Some you could imagine as underscores for a disturbing film – a horror movie. Or a series like Chernobyl - “The disaster clean-up crew approach the damaged reactor in their protective suits, shafts of sickly grey light falling across their bodies through the exploded roof”
SP: “Someone should do that - synch those tunes to a really disturbing horror film”.
Has that happened with Seefeel? With this being the golden age for music supervisors smuggling left-field music into arty TV series, you ought to getting a bit of a revenue stream.
MC: “One of the Succour tracks was used in a French film about a mental asylum, called something like These Walls Have Ears. Another track was in the Gregg Araki film Nowhere.”
SP: “Once I was watching a documentary about Ed Gein, the serial killer, and suddenly it was like ‘I recognise that’. They had one of our tunes in there!”
With the Ch-Vox EP, the title track is the third iteration of “Charlotte’s Mouth”. You had the first reinvention of it with “Starethrough” and then this whole other stage of decomposition.
SP: “‘Starethrough’ is Mark taking my vocal and chopping it up beyond recognition. And ‘Ch-Vox’ is a bit of that vocal pitched down so far you can’t even tell it’s voice anymore.”
As the singer, what did you think about being turned into raw material?
SP: “At the time, I was ever so slightly resentful, because we weren’t getting on very well personally as a group. I was thinking that I would like to have a go at this myself, assembling these things using my voice, just to see if I could do it as well as Mark. And thinking that maybe the musicality – hooks and tunes, which I think is what I always did bring to Seefeel – had been taken out of my hands a bit. Like, ‘I’m not in this to disappear’. With certain tracks, a lot of people didn’t realise that it was a voice. But honestly, looking back, the fact that it worked so brilliantly… all that was unfounded. Just me being a bit of a dick really! The end result was all that mattered – it sounded brilliant, it was doing something really different, and it made my voice sound amazing.”
MC: “What’s unique about Sarah’s voice is that you can do that – if she sang like a regular singer and you tried pitching it up an octave, it would sound horrendous, like a horrible Pinky and Perky. But because her voice is very tonal, it means you can pitch it up and you get these really beautiful tones. Or pitch it down, like on ‘Ch-Vox,’ where it’s dropped by about two octaves and that’s how you get these really weird drones of vocal.”
What can you tell us about the bonus material that comes with Ch-Vox?
MC: “Well, it’s not that those tracks ‘come with’ Ch-Vox. There was no Ch-Vox session, or Succour session. The sessions were completely interlaced. So we did it by affinity – which tracks seemed to most go with one record or the other.”
“Evio” is particularly great – the hall-of-mirror vocal bouncing around in an echo chamber, the meshwork of voice-pulses.
MC: “That one has never been released before. There was another unreleased track associated with ‘Evio’ and it used to drive Sarah mad!”
SP: “It was made out all these little gasps and tiny bits of vocal. Because we were sharing a flat at the time, a little basement flat in Blackheath, Mark would often be working all night on tracks while I was trying to sleep. And that one almost tipped me over the edge!”
And then after Ch-Vox, Seefeel dispersed, without ever formally breaking up. Mark went off to do Disjecta while Sarah, Daren and Justin formed Scala, a more song-oriented proposition.
SP: “We went to do a festival in Brussels and so many things went wrong. Technical problems at the gig, they couldn’t get Mark a vegan meal, all kinds of random stuff going off. Then on the way home in the van, we had a big falling out. We were almost home and right in the middle of a really big argument - and Mark got out of the van! So I just said to the other two, ‘Shall we try and do something without him?’”
MC: “Disjecta was kind of already done, just extra tracks made during Seefeel. Partly me trying things out and partly me just copying a lot of the electronic music I liked! They were never really made with the intention of releasing them. Then Steve Beckett from Warp asked me if I had any music. But they were never made as a solo project. While the whole thing with Scala was happening, I was very busy, so I didn’t notice as much as I would have if I’d been sitting at home twiddling my thumbs. I was working with people I really wanted to work with. In 1995 I did four remixes for Cocteau Twins, the Otherness EP. And then I toured with them. We had this little 15-minute remix segment that we did in the middle of each concert – ‘Pitch the Baby’, ‘Wax and Wane’, ‘Aloysius’. Quite weird! You can find it on YouTube.”
There’s discernible excitement out there about these reissues and the bonus material. Well, I guess my social feeds are kind of self-selecting, they tend to skew disproportionately towards the sort of person who would describe Seefeel as one of the greatest electronic groups of the ‘90s. But nonetheless, it does feels like there’s a buzz.
MC: “It’s amazing. And surprising to me.”
SP: “The reaction from people, it’s been brilliant. I have been having to do a lot of liking and ❤-ing tweets and things like that in the last month or two!”