If you ask me, few bands in the long and tumultuous history of rock n’ roll were as distinctive as The Sound.
Yeah, they were a rock band but also a sui generis, far, far apart from the press-favoured, “pretty boy” posturing that characterised so much of the 80’s post-punk landscape.
Starting out as The Outsiders, (once joined onstage by no less than Iggy Pop) The Sound continued a subterranean lineage that began with the likes of The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and The Doors. And their best records – ‘From the Lion’s Mouth’ and ‘All Fall Down’ – filtered the inspiration of these mavericks through the lens of Thatcher’s divided Britain, creating music that was contrarily both timeless and beautiful.
Ruben Guastapaglia reached out to The Sound’s bass-hero, Graham Bailey, for a chat.
Ruben : How are you, Graham? We are living in strange times. I hope you’re getting through it alright. Where in the world are you right now – geographically and psychologically?
Graham : Moved more times than I care to remember. New Orleans from 1991 till 2005; left due to Hurricane Katrina; ended up in Memphis. Then to North Carolina. Back to England. Then North Carolina. Now in Appalachia, Tennessee and happy here.
We haven’t been affected much by “the v1rus,” other than all the zombies wearing (pointless) masks.
Do you remember what inspired you to pick up a bass, specifically? And do you remember your first bass? Do you still have it perchance?
Graham : Yup. I wasn’t any good at guitar, tried learning with Bert Weeden ‘Play In A Day. Didn’t work. Then, I built an effects device that converted guitar to bass notes. Used that in Second Layer (Graham’s experimental electronic project with Adrian Borland), then saved my money and bought a Fender Musicmaster (short scale), that got stolen in Amsterdam.
I do still have my first guitar – a Japanese Strat copy. At least, I think I do – somewhere!
What was the Wimbledon scene like when you first started playing? Was there a scene there? Or was it imperative to play in central London?
Graham : I guess you haven’t been to Wimbledon? It’s kinda upper middle class suburbia. We actually lived in Raynes Park; not quite so “upper.” There was no scene and I don’t recall playing in Wimbledon. The most local gigs were in Kingston or Surbiton. Wasn’t “hip” to be from there. Apparently, we weren’t working class enough…and that was definitely a hindrance early on. Later, it went away, as we became known as a London group. Still an issue not being from the North though. Didn’t much like playing in the UK, other than London.
How did you, as a band, in The Outsiders and The Sound get about in those days?
As The Outsiders, it was me and Bob doing transport. Both Adrians didn’t drive (never learned). The first transport for The Sound was an old ambulance, which was pretty cool…until another band borrowed it, broke down and abandoned it way up North. Then we got a “real” van, and once we’d made a little money, we bought a decent car – which I drove. Band in car. Crew and equipment in van. Later, as the money went, we had to go back to all of us in the van. That sucked.
‘From the Lions Mouth’ is generally hailed as your best record, yet I personally think that you reached your apex, in terms of song writing, with ‘Shock of Daylight’ EP. How would you describe the stylistic evolution of the band over the years? Were you the kind of band to discuss new directions?* Or did the changes in your sound happen organically? (*Specifically thinking of a Peter Hook podcast I heard the other day in which he said that New Order never discussed music).
Graham : Best or most commercial? For me, recording it was boring; got shut out of the studio by the producer and the studio was in the middle of nowhere. My favourite album is ‘All Fall Down’ – that was fun. There we were, in one of the most exclusive residential studios, with all kinds of weirdness. Nick Robbins was used to us but Flood didn’t know how to take us.
No, we never discussed “direction,” nor music, as none of us knew anything about music theory. I was always interested in technology and experimental ways of doing things and found different ways of playing by trial and error. All the songs came together in rehearsal.
Korova was a eclectic imprint (of Warner Music Group); its catalogue ranging from Tenpole Tudor to The Residents. Did you have much interaction or affiliation with the other bands on their roster? What are your thoughts on your major/indie label crossover experience? If you’d known what you know now, what would you have done differently back then? (If anything).
Graham : When we signed to Korova, the only other act was “the Bunnymen.” We did a what was supposed to be a co-headline tour with them, which turned out not to be, due to them having a pushy tour manager and us, not. Pete and Will were friendly enough. I still have a hard time writing or talking about “Bunnymen” without chuckling inside. We did a tour with Comsat Angels and another with Fiat Lux. Those were good and we got on really well. Other than that, we pretty much kept to ourselves.
It’s hard to look back in hindsight but I think signing to Korova wasn’t the smartest move. They were ok to work with. But the bulk of their promotion budget went to “the Bunnymen.” I understand why. Warners (which Korova really was) are in the business of making money through music. The trend at that time was the “pretty boy” emasculated male… and that’s where the money went.
A lot has been said about the conflicts with WEA during the making of ‘All Fall Down,’ in 1982. It must have been hard to work without the support of your own record company … What can you tell us about the climate/conflict and the studio sessions for the recording of that record?
Graham : I wrote about that. There weren’t conflicts as such, at least not till they heard the final recordings. Then they said they wanted us to make it more commercial, so we went in and added the pounding bass drum on ‘We Could Go Far’ as the only concession. Like I said, recording ‘All Fall Down’ was a lot of fun. The reality was Adrian and I realised there wasn’t going to be another Second Layer project, so all the ideas and some of the songs came from mixing the two together. And no, we didn’t (ever) go into the studio (‘All Fall Down’ was recorded at The Manor) to deliberately make an uncommercial record. Who in their right mind would do that? Equally, we never tried to make something commercial. That was never a factor when composing music!
In The Go-Betweens documentary (‘Right Here’), Lindy Morrison of the band says that contrary to belief, hits were never their plan. Did you want to have hits?
Graham : Ha! Yes and no. Sure, it would be good to have had hits. But not by planning it. At least, we never planned a “hit” but we did choose the most likely songs as singles. I wouldn’t be against it now.
It was a big thing to record Peel Sessions and get on the Old Grey Whistle Test in the early 80s. What do you recall of these experiences?
Graham : Definitely a big deal. The Peel Sessions were relatively easy. Nicky Horne even better – he had a good sense of humour and made us feel comfortable. OGWT was probably more intimidating for the others but I was working at the BBC at the time, so I was used to cameras and equipment/crew. However, it was nerve racking, to say the least.
The Sound, like many other great bands in the 80s, enjoyed relative success in Belgium and The Netherlands. How did you end up signing for Play It Again Sam? What was it like working with them?
Graham : It was really Holland not Belgium so much. I honestly don’t know. It was like we hit the ground running from the first gig. PIAS was a major mistake. Total crooks. I guess we were slightly desperate to find a label after Static went bankrupt.
I would like to know more about Second Layer. Did you ever play live? “World of Rubber” is an outstanding exercise of minimalism. Its sharpness and angularity are at odds with the loud, dramatic tone of The Sound. Was it a conscious decision to separate the two as much as possible? Or was it more organic?
2nd Layer were never a live band. Adrian and I were experimenting with “stuff” years before The Sound. We tried to keep the two separate but there wasn’t any deliberate “let’s do something different.” It was more due to the rhythm generator and I was able to use all the effects boxes I was building and as there was no pressure to make proper songs, we could do anything.
Can you tell us the story behind 2nd Layer’s drum machine? Didn’t you actually build it yourself?
Graham : Yes, it was based on a kit in one of the electronic mags I got but modified. It was a “rhythm generator,” not drum machine – they didn’t exist then!
To my ears, you have a rather unique way of playing bass. I think that you are one of the unsung virtuosos of the instrument, but honestly, I can’t find the right words to express what is so individual about your style.
Graham : I think you are referring to when I started hitting the strings, rather than picking them? I never played bass “like you’re supposed to.” In the beginning, I only used a plectrum to strum the strings. Later, I heard that jazz-funk style? Was it called “slap and tickle?” I liked the “slap” twang bit but not the pick bit. So, I found a way to just hit the strings to get that twang sound. However, it required new strings every gig, as they went dull.
How about when it came to recording? Did you try to mimic your live setup or did you get more experimental and try to mimic that live? Guitar solos were a rare commodity in the post-punk ecosystem – yet they seemed essential for your sound. What can you tell us about Adrian Borland’s style of playing?
We were really primarily a live band. There wasn’t much difference between live and studio, other than overdubs. I listened to a lot of different music back then. I was always hunting out obscure music when on tour.
Can’t really comment on guitar solos. We kind of all just did what we did and it worked (most of the time). My personal taste : I don’t much care for guitar (or any other) solos. However, Adrian did…
Arcane Delights pulls great music out of the shadows, celebrating it as it deserves to be celebrated. Do you think The Sound properly got their dues?
Graham : I like that idea being in the shadows. Then being pulled out… I don’t know how to comment on the “deserves” bit, nor can I comment on “dues.” It was/is what it is!
I’ve noticed a resurgence of interest in The Sound of late, with even new bands citing you as their influence. What are your thoughts on why this is happening?
Graham : I haven’t been paying any attention to music since 1990 until about 6 months ago. I’m unaware of this, though I’ve been buying a lot of records this year. There are some really great bands out there. Two favourites at the moment are Meg Myers and Keep Shelly in Athens.
The modern prevalence of re-issuing is about making everything bigger and better than before. Everything is expanded, remastered, gorged with bonus tracks, more, more, more. Is this always a better thing? Or is the original the definitive article and should be left alone?
Graham : I’ll go with if folks want to buy then why not? On all the above. If folks like it, it’s a good thing. I’d like to do re-mixes but not just the same thing “digitally re-mastered.” That’s pointless in my opinion.
Do you feel that The Sound filled a gap in the spectrum of post-punk? Have you ever really felt part of a particular musical movement?
Graham : Sorry, I don’t get all these musical genders these days. As far as I am concerned, The Sound were/are a rock band and Second Layer were/are an experimental electronic band.
Music from bands like yours is often labelled as depressing, a term that I don’t like at all, not least because it ends up conveniently oversimplifying a whole range of different emotions. How would you describe The Sound to a layman?
Graham : I’ll have to lift this from the spoken part on ‘Motel’ by Meg Myers – go listen to it on YouTube; you’ll get it. (*Ed : the song features a section from an interview with Townes Van Zandt, when asked why his songs are so sad. “I don’t think they’re all that sad. I have a few that aren’t sad…they’re hopeless. Hopeless situations. You don’t think life’s sad? But from recognising the sadness, you can put it aside and be happy to enjoy the happy side of life.”).
Personally, I like emotional, passionate, edgy music. I don’t like “happy” music at all. But I am happy!
The sound of The Sound was the soundscape for Adrian’s words, which are real, passionate and genuine and ultimately led him to the end.