These days the Scottish quartet are still respected but much less hyped, a situation that seems to suit them down to their reticent ground.
As they (finally) prepare to release their new album, musicOMH caught up with the band…
Percussionist Robin Jones is hung over. His car had broken down the night before and, as the affable but groggy Scot puts it, he had binged on Stella as a means of “anger management”.
The vehicular chaos was reminiscent of The Beta Band’s Reading Festival ’97 debcle, when one van broke down after the next on the way there, leaving them with just a 10-minute set and a disappointed crowd.
“It’s all part and parcel of being in this band,” muses Robin. “We certainly have bizarre times but we’ve got better vans now.”
But should anything like that happen again, fans can at least turn to new album Heroes To Zeros, on which the Beta Band have spent a painstaking 18 months to perfect a “live” sound.
“The four of us playing all together in a room: that’s a real X factor,” Robin says, making a comparison to the normal studio routine of recording parts separately without the band ever playing the song together. “When you’re on tour the songs develop musically over time, and you’re on stage thinking, ‘Ah yes, that chorus should be doubled up.'”
“I’m gonna be sick!” – Beta Band percussionist Robin Jones when made to listen to a quote of his own band’s PR spiel.
So the band set about reversing the trend. They made sure the songs had matured fully, learnt how to play each song in one go, and then played them “live” for the album before going on the road.
This was all a laborious process, thanks to them all being “control freaks”. It involved all four members taking a demo home to work on their own versions of each song, having all become adept at using ProTools on their Mackintosh computers. They then reconvened to listen and select the best bits from each version. Eighteen months later and out popped Heroes To Zeros, lovingly created with utmost perfectionism.
The band chose to give the album a more raucous guitar-based sound, resulting in the album’s buzzword being “aggression” among certain reviewers. No doubt this is the case because it says so on the album’s press release. My eyebrows raised when I first read the supposed reason for this “aggression”, so I quizzed Robin whether this wasn’t just a load of PR claptrap.
I went so far as to read out the exact phrase, despite the voice down the phone blithely feigning strangulation. I quoted: “With topical issues of global terrorism, war and government mediocrity weighing collectively on their minds, it’s not surprising that the songs have a more aggressive bent than the previous Beta Band recordings.”
“I’m gonna be sick!” Robin had interjected, but did end up agreeing with the general gist of the statement. “When there’s four of you in a band, some of you dabble in politics,” he explains. “The war was going at the time we were making the record and you feel frustration and anger. So rather than sitting round asking, (puts on dopey voice) ‘What does it all mean?’ and blaming our Prime Minister, we’ve put it into our music.”
“We’re trying to… inject… quality into an otherwise mediocre genre.” – Robin Jones on The Beta Band’s lofty ambitions for directing music videos.
There’s no doubt the Beta lads are happy with the end result; in fact, Robin says, they’re “positive and jolly.” And so they should be, having had unlimited time in which to record the album – record company Regal must have clocked on to what happens if you try to rush the Beta Band. Their eponymous debut album had mixed reviews, but the bluntest criticism came from the band themselves, calling it “the worst record” they had ever made and blaming time constraints.
“Being under pressure is like being a caged animal – we start snarling!” Robin says spiritedly, before adding, “But now we’ve got the time, we’ve got no reason to complain.”
Continuing the idea that the Beta Band yield the best results when given a free rein, they have even been allowed to make their own video for new single, Assessment. For the band, visuals are an essential part of their creative whole. And they spent a long time “convincing record companies that we can direct.” Says a jocular Robin:
“Videos normally just don’t tend to work with songs, in that there’s normally someone standing on a sausage in the back garden. They just don’t mean a lot. What we’re trying to do is inject a bit of quality into an otherwise mediocre genre.”
“It would be nice to unleash a herd of dingoes into the crowd.” – Robin Jones on why anyone going to see The Beta Band this year should be afraid, very afrad.
Despite this mischievously bold remark, it’s true that the backdrop visuals at their gigs could only be created by those fully plugged into the Beta Band frequency, i.e. themselves. Home-made videos have always played a part in their live shows, complementing outrageous costumes and theatrical stunts.
Their imminent tour will be no exception. Robin claims they have “grand designs”, but that whether these will happen depends on budget and time. At the moment fervent rehearsing (“we haven’t played live together for two years”) takes precedence. So can he tell us any of the entertainment features that have been planned?
“It would be nice to unleash a herd of dingoes into the crowd,” comes the cheeky rejoinder, before revealing that smart tailor-made suits are being made for the show.
And will they be doing festivals this summer? A return to the Reading Festival perhaps?
“Hopefully,” says Robin genuinely. “The record company is waiting to gauge the response to the album and then hopefully they’ll book us for festivals.”
So there you have it folks – buy the new album and The Beta Band could be coming to a festival near you. Otherwise you can see them on tour later this month. This is, of course, providing their van doesn’t break down…
The Beta Band – Music: The Best Of
Interview – The Beta Band
The Beta Band – Heroes To Zeros
The Beta Band @ Ocean, London
The Beta Band @ 93 Feet East, London