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Great Scots, It’s the Beta Band!

Great Scots, It’s the Beta Band!

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.”

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