After releasing experimental/industrial tapes of Antagonistic Music/Dissonance (as Migraine Inducers), Martyn Bates formed Eyeless In Gaza in 1980 as a duo with Peter Becker. Eager to explore musical territories that veered crazily from filmic ambience to rock and pop, industrial funk to avant-folk styles, the duo steered hungrily and rapidly through several albums that culminated in the reflective swan songs of Rust Red September and Back From the Rains. Citing a need to explore fresh territories and musical configurations/situations, Bates suspended Eyeless In Gaza activities in February 1987, leaving behind an eclectic legacy and influential body of work that has yet to be fully acknowledged by the press. Contributions to the soundtracks of Derek Jarmans’ The Garden and The Last of England followed, along with a series of solo albums that saw Bates armed with a 12-string acoustic guitar investigating traditional troubadour stylings whilst moving further and further from that particular context with each successive release.
(text courtesy of the publicity from Terrastock 4 Seattle, WA, USA November 3-5, 2000)
Martyn, it’s been over 15 years since we last chatted with you, during which time you’ve been quite the busy lad! It’s a pleasure to take this opportunity to fill in the gaps. Let’s begin with your latest album, fireworks & jewels/the colour of amber, which you recorded in Evia, Greece during some unsettling economic and political situations. What made you choose to go to Greece to record the album?
I went to Greece for Alan Trench, that was the main reason – a dear friend, also a first rate intuitive/anarchic performer player and producer – luckily for me. That’s where my friends were, and that’s where I went, and why I went. I doubt if ANYONE could do for me what Alan’s done with this trilogy – he created a space, a peace … that made conditions right for me to enter into the creativity – he gave me all the room I needed to paint the canvas, and he provided such an empathetic foil, a unwitting vibration.
Did you write the album ahead of time or did you write it while in Evia?
Ah no – you must be joking! The whole thing was carefully prepared, in terms of the compositions and performances – leaving some room for whatever spirits present to also enter into the words, music, performance and the whole thing.
Can you elaborate on the title? At first glance, it appears to be a 2-fer reissue combining two separate albums into one release. Was there a feeling of indecision, leading to two separate titles, or, perhaps, each title represent the two sides of an album? Perhaps the listener is being subtly guided into two song suites and each title sets a predominant mood...?
You can choose your title, choose your own “in”, your own starting point - I guess that was my feeling. Both titles fit the album, for me. There was no indecision – I wanted to create a sense of tension with this idea of ‘two titles’. The story, personally, for me is to do with the way that during heightened moments in everyday life – or, within those moments where there are “fireworks & jewels” as you might say – there’s always a spark or a thought in there that flashes the colour amber – an elusive, tantalising light in there that you know is eternal, and forever, and yet … it’s somehow, always, always held out of reach… .
Ok – so what else does “the colour amber” signify to you? Is there a psychological veil that the listener must break through in order to get into the same head space as you were when you recorded the album? It sure feels very personal, yet cautious to me. As if you’re inviting us in to a séance with the 5000 spirits that we must converse with to reveal the layers of the onion you’ve wrapped this listening experience in?
Well, yes … again, it’s waiting / immanence / capture / old worlds trapped in amber. There is no perfection, only the journey – maybe the striving is a struggling for perfection – but! ‘perfection’ is a kind of death – and that’s the amber, the tantalising lingering, the life caught in death. The illusion of beauty and the beautiful illusion: Journey & Arrival.
I have to mention the image on the sleeve of “fireworks and jewels” at this point. It’s St. Margaret’s of Antioch, an 11th century church pretty close by me. One night I saw the amber light framing the church, and with its steeple and bloody/blessed histories it seemed like a time capsule somehow - of promise, pity & pathos..., and potential. It was an image of thirst, of strange timelessness …and when I saw the photographs that Elizabeth S. took, an idea crystallised, and I knew it had to be one of the key album sleeve images.
I love the ambience you create throughout the album, alternately bringing acoustic guitar and banjo to the fore while your always emotional vocals (and Elizabeth’s subtle harmonies) turn your poetic lyrics into visual pictures that all tell a story, perhaps mini movies. I suspect these songs would lend themselves perfectly to video embellishment. Were you thinking visually while writing and recording the album?
I always say I think with my soul, my mind is elsewhere when I’m writing the pieces, often when I am playing also. So yes, I am thinking visually, I am thinking ELSEWHERE/another time and space, somehow. It’s all inchoate grasping, catharsis – done to discover myself, to learn – or rather, to try for that.
With that last question in mind, I note that you’ve written music for film, again combining several media into one. Is this an area you’d like to explore further if given the opportunity?
I particularly loved the special effects that your Twelve Thousand Days partner Alan Trench brought to tracks like ‘Long After’. I practically felt the ocean spray on my keyboard from his tapes and percussive treatments. Were these recorded live right in Greece or are these effects you brought with you from home?
Alan lives in the most beautiful part of the world, and he’s started a whole new life for himself – that’s brave. He’s alive to that natural environment. Alan and I worked in tandem to realise all the stuff that appears on the album – but, essentially the tapes, the ideas, the capture of both the shadownight and the re-birthing sun: these are his private responses/empathies with the music, lyrics, performances.
Once again your chameleon-like vocals shift and morph to serve the song, from the intimate, almost whispered ‘Away’ to the more ambient inflections in ‘Embers, Starry Tapers’. Once you’ve finished a song and decided it’s a perfect fit for the album you’re working on, do you go through a separate creative process to determine how to approach it vocally? Or are the vocals right there at the beginning as you’re composing?
The voice is key, it’s my character, it’s the song itself somehow – that’s how it feels. The whole thing is mysteriously organic and incoherent, and unclear to me – beautifully so, purposefully so. I don’t want to know how, why, when, what for … I just want to communicate/externalise. Beyond the initial work, this takes 57 years (my age) of craft to apply this: it’s THAT personal!!!
You’ve included your lyrics inside the CD trifold. Do you encourage listeners to follow along while listening, or do you include them in the hope that people will revisit the songs and dig deeper into the words after they’ve first experienced the music and arrangements? I guess I’m asking if there is a concern that people will get swallowed up by the words (you use a lot of shorthand!) and miss each song’s intended (initial) impact.
I don’t really believe that people can get ‘swallowed up by words’. For me, the beauty of ambiguity is that the listener can experience the thing for themselves – they can complete it. I don’t give a fuck – I just want to make it so that people can relate, that’s all. So... Hang on, wait a minute … who am I kidding then? I clearly give all the fucks in the world!!!
Several lyrics have a dreamlike quality (‘Faith Stars’, ‘Remembering’, the title track) that adds an element of gothic folkiness to the proceedings. The title track is particularly unnerving. Are you a lucid dreamer and do your dreams find their way into your lyrics?
Well, yes, I am interested in the unconscious process. I think that much is pretty self evident. To me, I feel isn’t that what ‘art’ is about?
Respectfully, I hear possible influences of Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, perhaps Jackson C. Frank or Timothy Renner (Hand/Eye guru), and even Shirley Collins (particularly in the banjo tracks). Do your favourite artists find their way, even unconsciously, into your songwriting and performing and do you let that influence become part of the recording, almost as an homage? Or if you feel something might prompt a stupid git like me to suggest another performer has filtered into a recording, do you stop and have a rethink?
Ok then, let’s play a game, for today, and leave it at that? Martyn’s random favourites [as of Christmas Day, 2015] (a selection). Here we go … Byrds: ‘I See You’, ‘What’s Happening?’ – The New Age: ‘All Around’ – Vashti: ‘Winter Is Blue’ – Tymon Dogg: ‘Made Of Light’ – Laura Nyro: ‘December’s Boudoir’, ‘Captain For Dark Mornings’ – Miracle Legion: ‘Please (demo)’ – Durrutti Column: ‘Never Known’ – Van Morrison: ‘Beside You’ – Licorice McKenzie: ‘I Know You’ – Neil Young: ‘Soldier’ – Jackie Leven: ‘Working Alone’ – Bronco: ‘Love’ – The Animals: ‘Poem By The Sea’ – Gil Evans: ‘Moon Taj’ – Amon Duul II: ‘She Came Through The Chimney’, ‘Sandoz In The Rain’ – Pat Kilroy: ‘The River’ – McCarthy: ‘An MP Speaks (Peel Session version: [12 November 1986])’ – Mothers Of Invention: ‘Little House I Used To Live In’ – Michael O’Shea: ‘Kerry’ – Medicine Head: ‘Any Day Now’, ‘Have No Fear’ – Spherical Objects: ‘The Crystal Tree’, ‘What Goes On’ – Moby Grape: ‘Bitter Wind’ – Henry Cow/Slapp Happy: ‘Excerpt From The Messiah’ – The Sufi Choir: ‘The Song’s Song To Itself’ – John’s Children: ‘Sarah Crazy Child’…. I could go on, and on, and on....
You’ve contributed to numerous compilations over the years, including Terrascope’s own Alms release, as well as Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen tribute albums. Were you invited to contribute or did you seek out the compilers to express your interest in offering to record a track for the album?
Generally, people invite me to work. And there are still lots of things I have to turn down due to work pressures and schedules, which is both a good and a bad thing.
Many of your albums have been reissued over the years and there have been several extensive retrospectives (e.g., Mythic Language, Your Jeweled Footsteps, Plague of Years). Do you take advantage of opportunities to reissue your material simply to keep the albums alive and in the marketplace or do you find that new fans enjoying later releases want to go back and backfill their own collections?
I am proud of everything I have ever done, but I suffer: I hate that people sometimes seem to only know the stuff that has been the most widely marketed. Let’s just say “I have new music to offer – let’s have a listen to THAT please!” That’s how I feel.
You seem to prefer to focus on the new releases over the more widely marketed ones (which might be the result of a label with better distribution channels than A-Scale?) Yet, I am assuming that you approved the retrospectives? Are you saying that these retrospectives were assembled by you (you chose the contents) in order to focus on your lesser-known tracks – so people could get to know your “deep cuts” rather than the ones getting all the publicity?
If a new compilation is being prepared, then I always take great pains to get myself involved as heavily as I can. I feel it’s important to 'get it right' to 'keep it alive' in the right way: pictorial content, etc.-wise, and 'feel' wise – not to mention an equal measure (or some representation) of old and new content wherever possible. 'Mania Sour' / 'Bitter Apples' … or ‘Sun Bursts In'/ 'New Risen': it’s always a battle of balances between my old and new selves.
And I was also wondering who the audience was for the retrospectives: new listeners looking to hear the older material or old fans who want the convenience of having highlights from many releases represented in one convenient package?
For new listeners, and for older listeners – to run clocks backwards or forwards, I guess.
You’ve collaborated frequently throughout your career, but one early unreleased effort intrigues me: your recordings with Deirdre Rutkowski. Were these slated for one of the This Mortal Coil releases? I would love to have heard that. Do you own the recordings and might they see the light of day as part of the recent attic cleaning (as it were) of early, unreleased recordings?
Yes, me and Deirdre ‘own’ them, but the masters are lost, to the best of my knowledge. These pieces were eventually slated for a release on Ambivalent Scale, but it never happened. Maybe I should track Deirdre down, and do some kind of internet release if she’s up for it. It was good, it was a shame to waste it. Maybe we can make something happen with that stuff.
You’ve issued over 50 recordings via your Ambivalent Scale imprint, yet you also have released material on seemingly dozens of other labels (Cherry Red, Integrity, Sub Rosa, MMM, Monopol, et.al. Do you know going in that the album you’re working on will be issued on A-Scale or is that your backup in case any of the other labels you’ve worked with decline to release it?
Something like that!! (And NOTHING like that, also – it varies from project to project). I don’t know what to say, other than I have integrity. It’s not like majors haven’t come sniffing around down the long years – and if it was ’right’ I’d probably ‘do it’. BUT, it never quite is, is it? My experience is, they all want you to water down your art, fuck with it, re-make that song again, re-record it, fuck with it to meet whatever ‘fashionable’ band/artist/model is in favour/selling loads at that time. (Yes: WHAT’S SELLING this week?). It’s bullshit. I can’t do that: I’m an artist, mannnnnnnn! What’s the point? I might as well be making baked beans or guns if I’m gonna do that.
Where do you stand on the various media versions that are now available to artists to release their music? You’ve put music out on cassette, vinyl, CD, and digital. Do you record your music to be agnostic, medium-wise? Do you view these media as simply listener preferences/conveniences or is your music intended for a preferred medium?
My fucking soul runs and hides in the maws of all this miasma … yawning, askance and distressed. I feel ’bored’, I guess, with the whole conundrum of ‘medium’. I just want to survive on my own terms. I can be fluid about the whole question, but I must maintain my fucking integrity (there’s that word again) or what THE FUCK has all this been worth down the long years?!!!
I’m not sure I’m gleaning your intent. I’m guessing that the whole “medium” question is tedious, but are you suggesting that the medium your work is released on is unimportant – it’s the music within that counts? I was just asking, in light of the different media that your work has been released on, is there a preferred medium for releasing your material? Are you a “vinyl junkie” that prefers the “warmth” of analogue? Does “digital” rob the music of important “data” that listeners will never hear? I’ve listened to crap digital compressions that make the music sound like shit. I wouldn’t want to be judged on the sound of my work if it was sanitised into bits and bytes merely for the convenience of lazy listeners who couldn’t be fucked to buy a damn CD or a vinyl release.
I (of course!!!) see your point about 'it's the music within that counts' … but, it’s not just about THAT, is it? 'The music' is about ‘heroes’, ‘villains’, mythological registers, where we are in the world, time and space, universal archetypes, the personal, the psychogeographical, the physiological, etc., etc. I honestly, truly, have no ‘preferred’ medium - and no definitive ideas or sympathies with any one 'format' for music. It all feels to me as if the 'myriad’ formats 'plethora'/plethora of varieties of 'carriers' just feel like plain and simple ol' ad-man 'packaging' to me - and it's THAT aspect of things that I have run out of patience with. It's just all reduced to consumer capitalism somehow.
Tell us a little about live performances. You performed at Terrastock in 2000. Describe the atmosphere and what you think about performing live in general. Do you prefer to perform solo or have someone out there with you?
Terrastock 2000, performing with Elizabeth S., that was great. I felt welcomed, it was like a ‘coming home’ of sorts. You know, when the atmosphere is right, it can be very heaven playing live.
I’m still curious to know if you have any performing preferences. Are you more comfortable calling all the shots and controlling the performance by being alone or are you more comfortable when you have partners to play with…and off of?
It varies from time to time, across time.
Do you ever perform material from your other projects? For example, would you ever perform an EiG track at a Martyn Bates show or a 12,000 Days track at a EiG show?
Yes, generally, I'll play MB solo stuff or stuff from solo projects on stage with Eyeless in Gaza - after the event, as it casts a different light on when I've done on record with other collaborators - it can be an interesting exercise.
What other projects are on the horizon that we can be on the lookout for?
There’s a 12’000 Days album imminent … been waiting a while for that one to emerge. Plus, there is a new EYEYLESS IN GAZA album that we are finishing recording right now and I’ve already started thinking about the next Martyn Bates solo LP. I’ve just got such fucking music in me. I am seriously thinking about some hybrid project with me contributing/collaborating with Athens doyens Black Lesbian Fishermen. Elizabeth S. and I played a split gig with them a couple of years back, and we did an oedipal version of ‘Long Lankin’ with them that felt really good. I’ve long wanted to do a set of ‘cover’ versions of stuff I love. Maybe that would be a good project to do with them. Fucking good band!