It's been less than a week since the Beta Band arrived in New York City to talk about their highly anticipated debut album (out June 29) and already the Scottish foursome's cracking wise, Beatles '64-style.| "You know I'm Robin because I'm on the left side of the table and John's over there on the right side," quips good-natured drummer Robin Jones as we muddle through a telephone interview interrupted by streams of speakerphone static. Decks and samples wizard John McLean, ostensibly seated at Jones's right, laughs heartily. Of course, that could have been John posing as Robin as a put-on, and who'd be the wiser? The laughter did sound awfully suspicious -- giddy even -- and these are, after all, the same guys who enjoy dressing up in karate suits, Indian headdresses, and covering themselves (well, McLean anyway) in human hair on stage.
"Oh, that's more for us than anybody else," says Jones of the band's fondness for unique attire. "It's just for fun. We'd rather get into some kind of character study when we're on stage than just shuffle our feet and look down at the ground." The Beta Band have definitely set their sights skyward. Since the summer of 1997, when they issued the first of three now out-of-print EPs (which Astralwerks collected and released in the U.S. this past January as The Three E.P.s), the band's blissed-out amalgam of drowsy psychedelia, Dub-dosed groove and fractured folk-pop has generated a buzz that isn't likely to quiet down anytime soon. All of which has taken the Beta Band -- which also includes guitarist/vocalist Stephen Mason and bassist Richard Greentree -- a bit by surprise.
"I didn't want to be in a band. I wanted to be a famous artist and a painter," says McLean, quickly shooing away the notion that he had any musical aspirations beyond playing the occasional gig with friends. "We made demo tapes of some things we had knocked off in a bedroom and the plan was to make 300 copies of it and get it to a club so that we could play and make enough money to do another record. And when we started sending tapes out, we said to ourselves that if we get anywhere, we'll just keep doing what we're doing."
"Absurd" and "amusing" are two words that tend to come up frequently when Jones and McLean discuss the attention given them by the rock press in the past year. "It's kind of absurd, but it's also amusing up to a point, because it's always some new comparison or whatever," says Jones. McLean agrees: "You sort of get used to the British press -- they kind of leap on things and leap off them pretty quickly. The bad reviews are the interesting ones, and then some of them are just pure exaggeration or pure hype. Like somebody said that we sounded like [the Beatles'] 'White' album squished into one song, which was ridiculous."
Indeed, while the Beta Band do have an appetite for the ambient collages and inside-out loops that were, in particular, firing John Lennon's imagination around that time (think "Revolution 9", or maybe "Glass Onion" played at half-speed), whom the group really evoke most acutely are fellow Scots Primal Scream, who helped ignite the all-night bonfires of the early Nineties U.K. rave scene. Then there are the scattered nature noises (forest-bound birds, helium-induced mice) and other assorted headphone-friendly effects that suggest the acid noir of Pink Floyd -- had Floyd gotten loaded on dub rhythms and dance music instead of, uh, other things.
"Well, when I was a student I listened to Primal Scream a hell of a lot and Robin listened to Pink Floyd a hell of a lot and Richard listened to dub a hell of a lot, so yeah, I think that pretty much nails it," says McLean. "It's funny. When you go to make an album, you don't think you're influenced by anything until you go back and listen to the album you've made. And then you say to yourself -- oh s--t! -- and you hear all sorts of stuff in there."
Beta Band's new disc teems with the same kind of pulsing hallucinatory imagery and deep-shag Scottish soul grooves as its predecessor, but features the boys styling over a few more hip-hop dusted beats this time around. The album's autobiographical opening track, "The Beta Band Rap," for instance, features a playful marching band intro that gives way to a funny sketchbook chronology detailing the Beta's rapid ascension up the proverbial ladder of success: "Since we got signed ...we always wash our hands and chew our food....(we're) drinkin' champagne at EMI ..."
From there, the boys wink and nod toward the Beach Boys' Wild Honey disc ("it's not the best album but it's still pretty good -- it's got some funny little love songs"), the Beatles ("You say it's your birthday"), and in general throw their arms open wide to a smoke-stoked party of heightened perceptions. Each track unfolds into panoramic vistas of texture and sound that suggest other ethereal worlds even as the band's approach remains rooted in organic instrumentation like acoustic guitar and percussion and lyrics that often amount to little more than earth-bound mantra-like chants. It's that sense of improvisational freedom within the framework of a specific song that gives the band's material its expansive flair -- that and tunes that routinely clock in anywhere from six to sixteen minutes.
"Every song is approached differently," says McLean. "Some of them were worked out beforehand in terms of chords and melodies and others we just sort of built up from one idea or melody." Says Jones: "We never really had a master plan ... after we did a song, we turned around and tried to do exactly the opposite. The most exciting songs were the ones where we were making something out of nothing."
One attempt at "making something out of nothing" was a second ambient disc that was originally to have been included as a bonus with the Beta Band's debut. But that recording, divided into two pieces titled "Happiness and Colour" and "The Hut," has since been shelved by the band until further notice. "We've always wanted to make a record of sound as a description for something like happiness, where a distinct first part gives way to a distinct second part," Jones says. "We liked some of what we recorded, but it's not really what we wanted it to be from start to finish. We felt the second part was lacking in direction."
The band plans to revisit and re-record the material at some point, but for now they're focusing on promoting The Beta Band proper and plotting their next move. "For the first time, we're going to do a video with a director," says Jones. "You can get kind of over-protective if you try to do everything yourself, and I think it's good to give someone else some control. But at the same time, we'll still have control artistically over what we do and the records we make."
As if to prove his bandmate's point about relinquishing control, McLean interjects, his heavy Scottish brogue battling to break through the cloud of telephone static that signaled the conclusion of the interview. "Anything else about us or the record, you can make up as you go along," he said. "Just make up a good story."