Friday 5 April 2013

Andy Diagram (Spaceheads / James) - Interview

Spaceheads are a drum and trumpet duo featuring Richard Harrison and Andy Diagram and are releasing their new EP Sun Radar next week. David Brown from Louder Than War met Andy, better known as the trumpet player with James, in a London pub to talk about the EP, the band’s history and their plans for the future.

It’s been five years since you released something. What have been the reasons for that and why are you releasing something now?

Five years ago, we released a recording of a gig on a French label and that gig was three years earlier, it’s even longer that we haven’t been active. And we didn’t get to promote that release either. It was with a guy called Max Eastley and we didn’t promote it properly.

The last thing we did properly was a US tour ten years ago in 2003 and just after that Richard the drummer became a Dad and that slowed things right down. We knew that would happen and it’s a question of how much do you slow it down so we did the occasional French tour, a weekend away, until the time I rejoined James in 2007 and then it went really quiet, we hardly did anything. Now Richard’s kids are 10 and 8 we can be a bit more active again. Or at least he’s got permission now (laughs).
So the new EP Sun Radar is just a start then?

Yes, it’s a start and it’s not like we’re going to get straight back to where we were. It’s part of a strategy that’s going to take a couple of years before we’re back to where we’ll do gigs. It’s a strategy to reconnect with all the people we knew ten years ago.

We used to tour a lot round France, Greece, Italy and Holland. It was the days before bands really took email lists and social media seriously. So we had no contact with those people, they just turned up at the gigs. With a band like Spaceheads, you need to keep the whole audience on board. With Facebook and social media, it’s set up for bands like Spaceheads who have a worldwide audience but in little pockets of people in every town around the world.

Is there a reason why you think your fanbase is that diverse? A lot of bands tend to have fanbases in pockets?

Well, our gigs are generally 50-150 people, not massive audiences, but it’s people who love the band and buy our stuff, but we don’t know where they are now and they’ll be older and have had kids and stuff. It’s going to be a matter of reconnecting.

The EP, although it’s four songs, seems to fit together as one piece of music. Was that intentional?

It’s not intentional, but there was an idea behind the EP that does unite it. We wanted short snappy pieces. In the past we would ramble on a bit, the average length of a song would be about seven minutes. I’ve got into making videos recently and editing live footage down to three minutes and I thought I’d apply that technique to the cd as well and edit out all the unnecessary bits to get down to a few minutes.

Do you think your type of music doesn’t matter whether a song is three minutes or seven minutes because of the type of music it is?

Yes, seven minutes works as well and it has in the past, but I really fancied getting short and to the point with this one. The songs were chosen because they have an upbeat feel and they’re very melodic, quite rhymic.

Listening to your other songs, it is a lot more upbeat. And even something you could dance to where the older stuff never did.

Bits of it would, we’ve always had our more dancey stuff, we’ve played places where people are dancing and we’d get booked to play dance festivals as well as jazz and indie clubs.

Do you think that’s because your music is difficult to categorise? Spaceheads don’t really fit into any category.

Yeah. That can be a bit of a problem, because it doesn’t sound like anything. I know a lot of people say that, but when people listen to it they agree. Spaceheads have always managed to cross a few boundaries as well. We didn’t fit into one scene, but it also made it hard because we never got recognized by any scene, so whilst others were doing quite well in the improvised music scene and getting festival bookings, we’d only get the odd party and we weren’t taken that seriously by that scene. Those things happen when you don’t fit in.

You’ve been a band for twenty-four years and as a band that’s quite electronic based being just trumpet and drums, how’s has technology impacted on the way you work?

It’s impacted more in the live sense with what we use on stage. I’ve moved over to using computers which I resisted a lot. That’s because I hated using a computer with a mouse, but now I can control my computer with my phone which sits on top of my trumpet so I can run around the stage, it’s all part of an instrument. Technology-wise things are always changing and I did get frustrated our sound wasn’t changing and we were very loop-based. We weren’t developing enough, but the rest was good as I learnt to appreciate it.

Some bands need a break sometimes to come back refreshed. Like your other band (both laugh). The EP is out in April. Are you going to tour it and release other stuff?

It’s released, quite cynically, to coincide with the James tour. It was going to come out in May, so I thought why not try and get James fans to listen to it and maybe sell it to them if they like it.

The EP is also out on vinyl as well.

We had a lot of people tell me not to do the EP on cd and just have vinyl and download, like Loop Ellington. People were asking me for cd-r promos of it, so I thought this time I’d do 1000 cds as well as the vinyl.

When you left James in 1992, the story was that you wanted to pursue other musical interests including Spaceheads and you supported James on the acoustic tour that year. Do you find the James connection is a plus or a minus in the improvised music scene?

It’s a plus but people don’t admit it. Because I’ve played with James, people take me more seriously because I’ve got that experience of playing in front of big crowds and experience with technology. I got my first radio mic with James so I could move around the stage and this time I got in-ear monitors. Those things can feed into smaller things. In terms of whether people like James in that scene, quite often they don’t even know them. That scene can be quite snobby, but some people do love them and some think they’re rubbish. And that scene has to be quite protective of itself because it’s a small audience and it’s sort of outside of music almost.

Going back to Spaceheads, what are the plans after the EP comes out?

We’ve got more songs recorded. We’ve got an album’s worth of stuff and we’ve been thinking about how to do it. Rather than release an album, we thought let’s do EPs and do them in a row and build and keep interest. It’s more expensive to do it that way, three EPs rather than album.

It’s difficult nowadays though, as a band, as you drop an album and within a month almost it’s gone and there’s not as much longevity as there used to be. If there’s nothing new for 12 months, people forget you.

Yeah exactly. The EP thing is a way of keeping that interest going. Our stuff doesn’t sell quickly, but sells over time. So we’ve got all our old stuff online to buy and download and the hope is people will go back and look at the old material as well.

So will you be going out and touring the record?

Not immediately. As I said, we can’t do it just yet, but we’re looking two or three years ahead. We’ll do two or three EPs then hopefully an album on Merge Records in the US who are quite a big label, probably too big for us, but they love us. We’ve already done two albums with them and they’re a big label with bands like Arcade Fire, She And Him, Sugar, Lambchop and Magnetic Fields.

If people are going to go back and check out your older material, where would yo recommend that they start?

They should be prepared for a lot of stuff out there, but it’s all trumpet, effects and drums. If it’s something like Sun Radar, then it should be the first album with Merge called Angel Station, that’s a good starting point. The second one from Merge, Low Pressure, is a follow-up to that and a bit more chilled out. We do a lot of more atmospheric ones. One of our early live ones, Round The Outside, is quite a rough recording from our nine-week US tour in 1996, but it has some great moments on it.

Are you still working on other projects, such as David Thomas And The Two Pale Boys?

Yes, I’ve got some gigs coming up with David Thomas. He’s less busy with the Pale Boys and concentrating more on Pere Ubu. The guitarist is playing with them and coincidentally he asked me to join Pere Ubu at the time James got back together and Tim had already asked me to come back. So I didn’t hear from him for a while.

So, to finish, what are your plans to release the two other Eps?

We plan to release one later this year and the other early next year. They’re pretty much recorded. I suppose the big change with this EP is I’m doing the promotion myself. It’s the first time, other than the Loop Ellington single, that I’ve put something out myself. I’ve never had to promote myself before, it’s not easy to do it.

But it is the best way of making sure it’s done how you want it, to do it yourself.

Yeah, but it takes up so much time. Since the end of last year, I’ve not done anything but getting this cd out to people. It’s hard to make judgments on what’s right to do and what’s a waste of time. It’s not something I want to keep on doing if it doesn’t get easier, but it’s a necessity at the moment. Once I know what I have to do to sell a certain number of records and how long it’ll take me to do it, then it’ll be fine, if it’s under control.

Sun Radar EP is out now on cd and vinyl. It can be purchased from the Spaceheads on-line store and will be available on the merchandise desk on James’ upcoming tour.

Spaceheads official website can be found here, and they are also on Facebook and Twitter. Andy also has his own Facebook page.  The official James website can be found here.

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