Monday, December 04, 2017

Venturing into the Slipstream - Interview with Mark Refoy - From Spacemen 3 to Spiritualized...

On 20th July 1989, a talented young musician from Northhampton, England was on the eve of making his debut as guitarist for the avant-garde neo-psych trio Spacemen 3.  Jason Pierce, Pete Kember and Natty Brooker were quickly amassing a cult following for their hypnotic droning sound and stage antics, including the 11-minute, deafening trace-like 'Suicide,' and the cleverly titled 1990 release, 'Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To.'

Mark Refoy was about to join the roster that throughout its 9-year history, was loosely comprised of an equal number of alternating members, including Will Carruthers (Brian Jonestown Massacre), the late Natty Brooker, and Jonny Mattock (Massive Attack, The Breeders), to mention a few, but most notably, and to paraphrase Mark, Spacemen 3 will probably always be remembered as the brainchild of its two most predominant and founding members, Jason (J Spaceman) Pierce and Pete (Sonic Boom) Kember, both ironically born 19th November 1965, in Rugby.

Having already fronted his own band, Tell Tale Hearts, Mark's whirlwind tenure with Spacemen 3 included gigs at London's Town & Country Club, Subterranea, in West London, and the Reading Festival in August '89, where the band joined headliners, New Order; but it wasn't long thereafter, during the making of their fourth, and what would become their final album, 'Recurring,' that the Pierce/Kember artistic relationship was beginning to dismantle.  Taking great pains booking separate recording schedules in order to avoid contact with each another, the pair's prophetically irreparable estrangement signaled the beginning of a split so well documented in the media, that to this day, it rivals RKID - Oasis's battling brothers - in its acrimony.  

Not surprisingly, the band's remaining members, namely Carruthers, Refoy and Mattock had begun to feel creatively stifled, and were growing disillusioned with the increasingly laconic atmosphere surrounding their fellow Spacemen.  

By January of 1990, Kember had already sewn the seeds of a solo project, Spectrum and Pierce, anxious to get back on tour, had invited the band's remaining members to join his fledgling side project, Spiritualized which enjoyed critical acclaim most notably for Mark's titled, 'Lazer Guided Melodies,' and 1997's, 'Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.'  Spiritualized additionally had the distinction of being the last band to play at Manchester's iconic,  'Hacienda.'

For those who don't know, the band name was inspired by the back label of a bottle of Pernod, presumably 'spiritueux,' which if you've ever experienced the end of a bottle of absinthe, I suppose spiritualized is more than a remote possibility.

                                         Jason Pierce - (photo - Steve Gullick), of course.

'Recurring,' released in 1991, two years after the band's official breakup, is a beautifully fractured departure, the 2-part juxtaposition leaving no doubt as to Kember's rhythmic, innovative genius, nor Pierce's ability to produce entrancingly atmospheric sounds, independent of one another.

                                     Artwork - Laser Guided Melodies - Natty Brooker

                                                            Mark Refoy (Spiritualized)

For Mark Refoy, his time spent in Spacemen 3 and co-founding Spiritualized was well served; but following on the heels of his restless band mates, he was eager to branch out and intent on regaining creative control.  The exodus would prove to be a wise move, as over the years Refoy has consistently proven himself to be a skillful musician in his own right, enjoying success as the creator of the Britpop, electronic band, Slipstream, releasing two initial albums, Slipstream and Be Groovy or Leave, followed by Transcendental in 2003, and in 2008, 'Mantra,' produced by Pete Gleadall (Pet Shop Boys, David Bowie, George Michael, Tina Turner, U2) in 2008, and Stereo Brain / Mono Heart, in 2013.

In 2005, Mark was recruited by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, The Pet Shop Boys, to join their World Tour, including headlining the Live 8 Concert in Moscow.   

These days, Slipstream has streamlined itself to mainly Mark and Mattock, each veteran Spacemen, and both Northhampton lads with a love for rock n' roll, if not more than a few tales to tell...

                                                                 Jonny Mattock & Mark Refoy

                                              Out of the Blue - Cover art Anthony Ausgang

In October of this year, Slipstream released a brand new album, 'Out of the Blue,' which presented the perfect excuse for me to catch up with Mark, something I've been meaning to do for a while now.

GH:  So you grew up in Northampton.  What music were you listening to as a kid, and did you and Jonny (Mattock) know each other before Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized?

MR:  As a kid my parents would play a lot of music at home. My dad loved opera and classical music, so did my mum, but she also liked country, jazz and early rock n roll. I think that filtered through to my subconscious in some way. My mum used to sing us Red River Valley at night. After the age of about 9 or 10 I was heavily into pop music. 

Apparently when I was about 5 I was transfixed by The Beatles on TV, but I have no recollection of that. My parents didn’t like the pop music of the time and they actively encouraged us to turn the TV off whenever pop music came on. I don’t blame them at all, I’d do exactly the same right now given the current state of pop music! I loved Slade and TRex until I was about 12 and my uncle bought me the Beatles 62-66 red compilation and after that I was hooked, still am.

I was aware of Jonny Mattock before, because he and I are both from Northampton and we’d go to local gigs and play at local venues in our respective bands; Jonny played drums for The Apple Creation and I was in Tell Tale Hearts. We also worked in the same local mental hospital, St Crispins, he was a cleaner and I was a nursing assistant. We’d see each other about there.

GH:  Would you say the success you've achieved is luck and being in the right place at the right time, or is 'I know my craft and I've earned it' a better description?

MR:  It’s a combination of both, you won’t be successful without one complementing the other. Although whether I’ve ever been a ‘success’ is debatable. My main notion of success is when you’re playing an idea and it turns into a song you’re happy with and you get that feeling of ‘this is good!’

GH:  Was there any one defining moment in the formation of Slipstream, when you said to yourself, 'I've outgrown Spiritualized and I need to be doing my own thing?'

MR:  I never wanted to leave Spiritualized, but it was engineered in such a way that I couldn’t remain in the band any longer. I think Jason was doing me a favour at the time but I didn’t see it until years later. 

Slipstream came about purely by accident. I was doing songs and demos of my own while I was in Spiritualized. I sent some tapes out under my own name and Che Records managed to get hold of one, I didn’t actually send a copy to them, they heard the songs and said they wanted to do a single so they put Sundown out. I didn’t have a band, it was just me and Jonny Mattock so when Che said ‘you need a band name’ I rifled through my record collection for inspiration and two Van Morrison songs came to mind, ‘Queen Of The Slipstream’ and ‘Astral Weeks’ where he sings ‘If I ventured in the slipstream….’ So I thought, I’ll call this band Slipstream.

GH:  How would you describe your artistic process?  Do you and Jonny collaborate on music and lyrics?

MR:  My artistic process is when I casually strum and noodle away on whatever guitar is at hand and when it starts to sound good I’ll boot up Logic and try and get a song going. Or I might start with Logic first and do it that way. The music comes first and then I’ll try, without thinking too much, to do the words.

We collaborate on music but not lyrics. Jonny has started writing songs on his own. ’Like No Other’ is his which is on our latest single and album. We will work on our own material together, usually at my place and then send it to Pete Gleadall who mixes it at his studio in London, which is another whole creative artistic process in itself because he is a bona fide production/mixing genius.

GH:  Not that this is ever likely to happen, but if Spacemen 3 were to reunite, would you want to be a part of it again?

MR:  For me Spacemen 3 was always Jason and Pete. The two of them could go out on their own and it would be Spacemen 3, or if they hired a whole backing band with a choir and orchestra it would still be Spacemen 3. That’s how I see it anyway. 

I don’t have any real desire to be a part of it again, but you never know how you’ll feel about these things until they actually happen and in this case, it ain’t happening baby!

GH:  How did touring with Pet Shop Boys come about and did you know Neil and Chris previously?

MR:  I didn’t know Neil and Chris before playing with them but obviously I was very aware of them. I knew Vanessa Best, the bassist from Ultrasound and she was friends with Bic Hayes who was in Levitation and Dark Star. Bic got the job playing live guitar with Pet Shop Boys, they wanted another guitarist so they asked him if he knew anyone who could do it so Bic asked Vanessa if I was up for it and that’s how it came about.  I think they really wanted Johnny Marr because he’d played on the Release album they were about to tour but he wasn’t available. It was a great experience, I learnt a lot and they’re great people to work for. I met Pete Gleadall through the Pet Shop Boys, he’s been their musical right hand man for decades.

GH:  When you look back at your career with Spacemen 3, Spiritualized and Slipstream, what would you say is your fondest memory, and what, if anything, would you just as soon forget?

MR:  One thing that I remember with Spacemen 3 is playing the Reading Festival in 1989. It was a massive gig and I think we blew pretty much everyone off stage even though we went on stupidly early in the afternoon. Someone threw a boot and it just missed me. Can’t please everyone!

I have great memories of being on tour in Spiritualized, especially the early days. We were generally having a laugh most of the time and enjoying ourselves, which was contrary to how we were perceived by the fans and music press etc. Jason has a great sense of humour.

I have a memory of being in America with Slipstream, and I was daydreaming in a cab going over a bridge in New York and I thought, ‘the only reason I’m here at this point in time is due to me obsessively playing my beat up old nylon string guitar in my bedroom when I was a kid along to the first Clash album from beginning to end.’

GH:  How do you feel about the future of music in Britain, and are there any new bands you're excited about right now?

MR:  I don’t really feel anything about the future of music in Britain, I’m only concerned with the here and now. Where I work, the channel of choice on TV is 4 Music, which plays all the latest chart stuff. 99% of it I can’t relate to but the one song sticks in your head every now and then, I can’t remember what the last one was though!

I recently bought an album by Bicep called Bicep and an album by Forest Swords called Compassion. I don’t know if they’re bands in the accepted sense of the word but it’s music that I’m excited about right now. 

GH:  So Logic Pro is banned and you can take only one guitar to the desert island...what's it going to be?

MR:  Either one of two: a Gretsch Jim Dandy acoustic or a beat up old three quarter size classical nylon string acoustic. Either one will do me.

GH:  Who are your heroes?

MR:  My heroes, chronologically, would be Noddy Holder, John Lennon, Joe Strummer, Lou Reed, Johnny Thunders, Bernard Sumner, Kraftwerk and a whole host of others. But you think differently about ‘heroes’ the older you get. I still admire my heroes from younger days but they don’t figure in my life as much as they used to. But hell, if I watch some old electrifying Clash footage or hear Rock n Roll music by The Beatles, woah, I’m down with them! 

GH:  Thanks, Mark, it's always a pleasure!

Coming soon - Interviews with author Stewart Home, artist Matt Mahurin, and more on my album collaboration with Australia's Paper Kites.  Until then, check out the new American-Noir originals at El Paseo's A Gallery, Friday 1st December, 2017.