TONGUE IN CHEEK : 1985
As you're probably aware, SPK originated in Australia sometime
in 1978, and have enjoyed a certain amount of independent success
under the various guises of 'System Planning Korporation',
'Socialistisches Patienten Kollectiv', 'Surgical Penis Klinik'
and 'SepPuKu' with the release of two albums, "Information
Overload" and "Leichenschrei (Corpseshriek)", a 12"
single "Dekompositiones" and the highly acclaimed
Having undergone those several years of obscurity, SPK (who revolve around originator Graeme and chinese vocalist Sinan) last year signed to WEA Records and released the "Machine Age Voodoo" album and the "Junk Funk" single. Shortly before their release I spoke to Graeme prior to their gig at Leeds Poly...
Firstly, it's a very vague question, but how would you
describe S.P.K. to someone who is unaware of your existence?
Probably the most aggressive they're likely to see, and also probably the most aggressive sound they're likely to hear, apart from punky-sort of things, which I feel have bee done to death really. But I still think the show is more aggressive than any other band you'll ever see.
That's the whole idea of the show, it's not just the music?
It's yeah, everything. When we play live we really try to do a whole theatrical thing, once you're playing live, you're in a theatre, so try to think about the theatre a bit, and how to present yourselves. But we're trying to be musical aswell, I think at the moment we're trying to work on the contrast of a couple of female singers, who are really quite sweet, with the ultra-aggression going on behind them, with the highest technology you can get in terms of lights, and the lowest technology going on at the same time.
If I hadn't seen it at the soundcheck, I'd have thought
that it wouldn't blend at all, but they all seem to gel together.
It's the way I use the fairlight really, like I use the fairlight for sampling diving-tanks and machine-guns and all kinds of things like this, which the fairlight can do, but not many people really use it for this, so we get a really primitive sound out of the most high-tech equipment, it's just the sort of attitude to machines that I have - I'm most interested in the primitive aspects of man in modern society - the violence and the savagery.
Talking about that, are the rumours of people being burned
or seriously injured on stage, true?
Brian's been hit, you can see his scars, he's been hit three nights in a row. He comes on, and I start swinging chains and so on, he keeps getting in the way (laughs), and all you can do with the strobes on is fall over (laughs again), and he tends to fall over more than most. Yes, it's true, but we have had to calm down on a few things on this tour, like flame-throwers which we used to use, because frankly, we've received letters from every venue saying if you do this, you won't play. It was a choice for us between playing in unfortunate conditions, but playing at all.
The idea of an S.P.K. tour seems strange after reading the
difficulties you've had getting gigs, so you must have had to
tone it down a lot?
Yes, unfortunately, I think that's what happens when you're signed to a major company, you know, you can do anything when you're an independent, but when you're signed to a major, it's the company that puts the pressure on you, it's the venues, so there you are, but I still think it's the most over-the-top thing anyone's likely to see.
What happened at the I.C.A. gig?
I don't want to sound bad about that one, but I'm just getting sick of talking about it, just basically there's one particular fire officer in London who knows us and he tries to close us down whenever we appear, and that's it. And we said, look if you're gonna do that to us then the least we can do is ask for the punters to get their money back, which in fact happened, but papers like the NME did not report that fairly.
They said "£3.50 for 7 minutes."
That's right, but they got their money back, of course they did, and we didn't get paid obviously, cos we were gonna get paid out of the money they were paying. It's important that people realise that, and also we decided that that we didn't, at that stage, have anything different worked out, so when we had the show closed down, we didn't feel like just going out and going through the motions, which it would have been, a-la-Thompson Twins or something like that, or Depeche Mode you know, just miming to backing tapes, and that's not the sort of band we are.
The, er, Depeche Mode thing... the industrialism?
Enough said, I think. I think everybody knows that, it's just pathetic, but they're cleaning up the market.
Does it sicken you?
Yeah, it does a lot. It's not so much them, it's the people who stand around in their greasy raincoats at gigs and pick up ideas and use them for their own means.
And the people watching them on 'Top Of The Pops' think
they've innovated something new.
Yes, that's the way it works tho'.
Another question you're probably sick of talking about is,
did you ever feel any affinity with bands of a similar musical
ilk, metal percussion bands, or whatever?
Affinity? er, not really. I like Neubauten, I think they're quite good. I think Test Dept. are in roughly the same league as Depeche Mode actually, they saw us and Neubauten play, and then just stole it you know... they do it quite well, I mean live they are quite a good band, but I think until they can develop some imagination from some where and have their own ideas then, er, I don't really have any regard for them. Perhaps for them it's early days, and they present themselves very well, but even in that sense all they're doing really is re-hashing Ziga Vertov, and all that kind of Rod Schenke stuf and, so what? You know, it looks great, but what exactly is there in it?
But you liked Neubauten?
I did like Neubauten, but I also that they have kind of cut their throats just by, er, they seem to be going from one kind of sensationalism to another, whereas we, I think, present a show which is sensational, but there's no denying that there is actually the music there as well, hopefully we're not guilty of the same thing.
The change from the powerful to the more dancable, have you
found that the critics have welcomed and accepted that change?
They've welcomed it, but there's also been a lot of criticism aswell there's been a lot of "sell-out" criticism.
I haven't noticed much of that.
We have, in fact, I've been really depressed about all that criticism. Even in the Melody Maker last year, they S.P.K. seem to have found their niche somewhere between Test Dept. and Dep. Mode. If they'd have reported it the other way, I think it would have been more objective, but they always twist it so that we seem as though we're the ones that are coming along behind.
This is a quote from Dave Henderson, he said that S.P.K.
had "an aura about them that sets them apart from other
groups", what do you think it was?
That was in the early days, I think, I hope, it was a belief in what we were doing. Apart from all the setbacks, and the lack of commercial success, which we are in fact having... singles get stuck in the 90s and things like that. Just nummering away, I hope that's what he means, and trying to retain our integrity even in a major company, cos we still do our own management, we do all our own production, we do everything, we have total control, we do our own artwork and so on. They act as an advertising and distributing agency, and of course provide the finance.
Also we're trying to go through a series of radical changes from what we were before, so that we're not moving in a linear sense, which most bands seem to do, like take Cabaret Voltaire for example, is a band I like a lot, but you can almost pick what they're gonna do next, ther's not really anything unexpected ever happens. We stick our heads on the chopping-block a bit more, it gets hacked off a lot more, but I think it's worth it, it's much more interesting for us, and I think for the fans aswell.
Are the visuals and images you use very important?
Yes, if you're talking about affinities with bands in the same genre, you'll find that they're all male for a start, which is not something I want to happen, which is why we've gotten Sinan and Pat in the band, and it's all a bit too macho for my liking, which is a stage I went through between about 78 to 81, and I thought this is getting a bit tedious, hammering things and throwing flames at the audience and so on. So I tried to balance it out a bit, and now it's all to do with contradictions, and I think it works a lot better actually, it's more interesting, there's always something to watch, something different, and some of the videos are quite pretty quite beautiful, rather than being all this industrial stuff.
You said you can predict what other bands are going to do,
but do you think people can predict S.P.K. or is it a very
I'm sure they can't. The way I record actually, is that I have a idea of the sort of song I'm going to do when I walk into the studio, and the title of it, but apart from that we don't work anything out before we go in, we just start then and all our tracks are built up from rhythms and things like that, we write lyrics hurriedly a couple of days later, and fight a lot about it.
Who has the main say in S.P.K.?
Sinan and I share it equally. She tends to write the first draught of words, then I come along and make it more intellectual, ridiculously so, so that it can't be sung anymore, then Sinan makes it more singable, it seems to work.
The oriental images...?
But not predictable ones, I don't think I fit in with the really Gothic, or the industrial-boy or anything like that.
Were those images in your mind prior to Sinan joining, or
did she bring a lot of those in?
More to do with her, I think. In a way it's a bit dubious, I think, to be running around using African & Oriental imagery, like Bowie or somebody like that, but with Sinan I think it's slightly more genuine she is allowed to do it, it's where she comes from, her home, so it's more to do with her really.
Do you get many ideas from the other members of the band?
Howard contributes a lot in terms of keyboard, I'm getting really sick of synthesisers, so we've got a grand piano, an electric one, I really like the 'feel' of the piano. Like on "Metropolis" which is one of those you heard in the soundcheck, there were the operatic vocals - I actually thought of that before Malcolm McClaren, and due to contractual things we didn't get the single out, just another one of my ideas down the drain, although I do think on this occasion he has done it more tastefully, I like that track.
What do you think of Malcolm McClaren?
I think he's a bloody plagiarist, and I can't stand him personally. That "duck-rock" stuff stank, the way he wandered down to Soweto and nicked it all: he hasn't had much to do with Madame Butterfly, but the idea's good... quite good ideas but a lot of bullshit, I think that's what he is.
Do you think he was as influential in punk as people make
him out to have been?
I don't know really. The opinion I've always had of English punk is that it wasn't really anything exciting on a world scale. It was important for England, but there were a lot of American bands before that like Iggy and New York Dolls, which were in terms of originality, a great deal more important really.
Was it an influence on you?
It was an anti-influence on us, we were influenced by the Germans, Can and Kraftwerk and so on. I like the spirit of punk, that's very important but the actual music sound like heavy metal or something. Guitar... aarggh!!
If you do something very complicated in the studio, how do
you re-enact that live?
Well, it has to be done with fairlight, I mean there's no such thing as live digital music, but we get as close, I think, to a live digital sound as you can get. I mean, we have 8-track, we have the sound effects treated with echo or something, and the fairlights handling all the sequence arts and the big drums and the rhythm, and it's actually being mixed live, 24-track, which is quite a mammoth effort for our engineer aswell. But most other bands who have fairlights don't bother, for example Depeche Mode have two 8-tracks running in sync, and are probably lucky if their vocals are being done live, I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't. Because a band like that, everybody's so used to hearing that perticular sound, that if they went out and played live, they're in that hot-trap where they have to duplicate their records exactly, and they couldn't do it. It's not the old days when you wandered into a studio and put it down, it takes days, weeks, to do a single now.
How important do you regard the Dave Henderson articles in
Initially, I thought excellent, I did however think that he ran a very great danger of, er, like quality control, where he was raving about everything. But that's not to say that he shouldn't be doing what he is doing, it's just a danger for him. I think it's extremely important, in terms of name-checks anyway, for people who want to go out and listen to the records. There's no other journalists even want to mention this sphere, cos it's not in the interests of his or her career.
Do you think he's unique in that respect?
Dave Tibet tries. I think Sounds has quite a few good journalists, David Elliot's trying a few things now. I don't really read the papers that much, but it's certainly infinitely better than the NME. It took me 11 months to even get a review of "Leichenschrei", ringing up every week and by the time I finally got Chris Bohn to review the album, they'd had Neubauten and Test Dept. on the front cover, which was roughly 6 months after I'd given them the album. We very nearly stopped the band at that time, just out of sheer frustration.
How have you been treated by other NME journalists?
Well, they usually come in with a chip on their shoulder, trying to trap us on every single angle. In fact, the latest one, Cath Carole, she accused Sinan of exploiting her Oriental background. I blew my top, it's like telling an English person they shouldn't sing in English because it's exploiting England! And Sinan give her a really big rundown, cos she comes from a very traditional family, and she got very emotional about it, and Cath Carole had to retract everything she'd said. That's the sort of ignorant thing they'll say, just because they come in wanting to trap you on every single angle, for some reason.
They have the power of editing, which is so strong, that
whatever you do or say, they can take one step further.
They can go the one further, yeah. So basically I just try and remain above it, and just keep saying what I think are intelligent and sensible things, and if they want to mis-quote me, well, fuck it, just keep going until they grow up.
What are your plans for cracking foreign markets,
particularly the American market?
Well, we're signed to Electra in America, as opposed to WEA here, and I actually have a feeling that we would probably do better over there now, than we would here, mainly because we have no imitators there at the moment. At the end of this tour we're going to Europe, then Australia and New Zealand, then probably over to America in March, so it's quite busy.
Would that have been possible without the record company
Well, in '82 we did a coast to coast tour, which I arranged myself through friends. We did 12 dates, and the way we financed it was, we bought a van in San Francisco, and sold it in New York for double the price, cos they like vans on the west coast which have no rust on them, you see. We found that out and paid for the tour that way, so it can be done. With the old industrial connection we had a lot of people come to see us, at least 300 every gig, even in little out of the way places. We were doing much better business than a band like the Birthday Party who had been there a couple of months earlier, and had had much more press, so it can be done, but you'll never sell huge amounts of records, unless you've got a company. You have to convince the record company somehow that you are band that is going to be a good investment, so I don't know whether we can do that. Electra's got a very interesting label at the moment, they've got us, Yellow, the Residents, PIL, Alan Vega from Suicide, phenominal, you just don't expect that of an American record co. to take on all those weirdo bands, it's brilliant.
Do you know much about the American scene, because the
impression I get is that it's all middle-of-the-road rock bands,
or hardcore thrash bands?
Er, yes, basically the live bands are, yes. But you do have the other thing which is the really hip clubs in each major city, there's 3or4 in Boston, Chicago, places like that... and they'll play all the interesting electronic stuff, that's the sort of scene that a band like us has to go for. But I mean there are all those dreadful hardcore bands, the one thing you could say about the early English punk bands was at least their lyrics were relatively intelligent, but the American ones don't seem to be able to understand what their society's about anyway, it's all surfin and drugs as far as they're concerned... so what?? That's my attitude. I dunno, subtlety just goes right over their heads in some way.
Unfortunately, the tape ended at this point, and although we chatted away for quite some time, with me trying desperately to scribble down every spoken word, it all seems a bit vague. However, I do remember asking Graeme if he thought S.P.K. had a very loyal, devoted following, to which he replied... "Yeah, but not wildly fanatical, 3 or 4 gigs, you know. I'm a bit suspicious of people who follow every gig, have they not anything better to do?? It's the whole consumption trap." ...which seems like as good a place as any to stop. I'm not gonna preach to you about the merits or otherwise of SPK but I will say that the first time I heard "Leichenschrei" the sheer obscurity and sparseness of it literally scared me - I was in fear of a record! Nowadays, S.P.K. don't have that same effect on me, but the power and aggression is still there, blended cuningly with some of the most danceable music you could hope to hear. S.P.K. - a pleasurable experience not to be by-passed! Ian Cheek.xxx.
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