Interview: Black Lamps – What, Exactly, Constitutes “Making It?”
Every town has them – bands and musicians who play for years and years, but fame somehow manages to allude them, despite all their talent and the hard work they put in. But what exactly constitutes making it? For Louder Than War, Jason White, the man behind Alternative Barnsley blog, explores the subject with the help of Lyndon Scarfe from long running band Black Lamps whose debut album will be out soon.
For many northerners, it might be that very first trip down to that London, inevitably to play on the arse-end of a line-up in a pub that doesn’t get busy until after you’ve played. Possibly you’ve been invited to support a major band in the third decade of their career and ten of their most hardened fans manage to catch you and thought you were a bit of alright. Maybe you’ve already had your fifteen minutes on a half-baked TV talent show, only to be slung to the side by a record label months after your semi-final placement. Maybe a little more credible, you reached the final of a national live circuit talent show after years of playing your local scene. If you are really lucky, you’ve had a UK chart hit in the 80s, toured the world, maybe even appeared on The Tube and recorded a Peel Session.
(Black Lamp photo above © Sally Lomas.) ‘Making it’ in the same sense that locals The Arctic Monkeys or Saxon have – or in a lesser sense, Rolo Tomassi – is a far and distant dream that only a select and lucky few will achieve, but the four gents in The Black Lamps have all experienced elements of some kind of fame and notoriety. Black Lamp guitarist Lyndon Scarfe was once keyboard player in the seminal dark-wave goth outfit The Danse Society. Drummer Dean Ormston laid down the beats in a great number of post-punk groups, including Creatures of Habit, The Second Coming, and later in Biff. Biff also featured the talents of Black Lamps vocalist Liam Stewart. And bassist Greg Firth, alongside his brother Carl, both played in the popular post-punk outfit Party Day.
A decade ago, Scarfe, Stewart, Ormston and Firth formed The Battling Tops, later changing their name to The Black Lamps after stumbling across this quote;
“…in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the early 1800s, where irate workers formed a group known as the Black Lamp, administered secret oaths, held clandestine meetings in ﬁelds in the middle of the night, and may have aimed to achieve both industrial and revolutionary goals.”
When you read the biography on their official website, it reads like a Barnsley rock family tree. It is a detailed insight and no holds barred account of the town’s post-punk history (straddling also the beginnings of punk, indie and now post-rock). They claim;
“In a modern world transfixed by talent shows, greed and celebrity their goal seems almost as revolutionary as their namesakes. They have no intention of becoming successful. It is enough to get together and make a big, beautiful fucking noise.”
And they definitely do that. Their gigs are rare, totalling three a year max and each time they play, they talk about the album they might one day release, which fans hope will be full of the atmospheric/euphoric music we they have grown to love. Referencing The Cure, Bowie, Pixies, Ramones, the Bad Seeds, Nick Drake, Boards of Canada, Mogwai and Curtis Mayfield, their songs sound both romantic and cinematic. They sound like a band you want to hear right?
But why are the gigs so rare? Where is the album? An early review once noted “they could be massive, if only they gave a shit!” But that’s not altogether true. They definitely do give a shit. When it comes to their recorded output, they are perfectionists; continuously rewriting, shelving, discarding or rerecording. Similarly, they each have careers which mean that its rare they can get together to record and play. They do have extra-curricular pursuits though.
Dean is a DJ and a DC Comics artist that has worked on all kinds of titles including Judge Dredd, Harke and Burr, Sandman, The Crow: City of Angels, Lucifer and most recently Bodies on the Vertigo imprint.
Liam has released two solo albums and a number of singles on the net label blocSonic. Over the years, Lyndon has produced endless ambient/drone pieces and remixes of other acts, again on blocSonic. Maybe most notably, an album of re-workings, re-mixes and rearrangements of songs by Liam Stewart called Outer Circular. Most recently, he released a soundtrack without a film called ‘Music for a Lost Film’. Their solo work has built up quite a following over the years, with nearly 100,000 copies of their albums downloaded between them. So this talk of apathy, is obviously a myth. The band are blatantly hardworking and passionate.
And with that, The Black Lamps’ long-awaited debut album is finally due out this winter via Of National Importance Records and will feature songs both familiar and new. I spoke to guitarist and mouthpiece for the band, Lyndon Scarfe, to find out more about the story of The Black Lamps.
Louder Than War: What was the first sounds you heard that started your relationship with music?
Lyndon Scarfe: Well my mum claims I was partial to a bit of Roy Orbison when I was very young but I have absolutely no recollection of that to be honest. My love of music really kicked off in 1972 when I’d be 11. My parents didn’t have a great record collection so I discovered bands I liked from stuff I heard on the radio and also from the collections of some older cousins who were into music.
What was the first single and albums you bought?
So 1972 was the year I bought my first single, album and went to my first gig. The first single I bought was the 1972 version of Debora by T.Rex on the Fly label. I can still remember how it had three short tracks on the b-side. Woodland Bop was one of them. Sometime in 1972 I saw Alice Cooper on Top of the Pops which completely blew my little mind, so School’s Out was the first album I bought – the one with the sleeve that folded out like a school desk. The first gig was at the end of ’72 when someone took me to see The Faces at Leeds Town Hall. I think that was the moment that cemented my obsession with music, seeing five pissed-up blokes having a laugh and making an amazing noise.
It sounds like I had impeccable taste right from the start but within a couple of years I was watching Mud and Suzi Quatro at the Civic, so it’s not all great.
When you started playing in Danse Society, you were the first of many local post-punk band. Members of which have ended up in The Black Lamps. Danse Society played a number of big dates around the UK with some legendary acts, but never played in their home town – Barnsley. Meanwhile, it sounded like the post-punk scene back home was thriving and vibrant. What are your recollections of those times?
It’s a strange thing that, it wasn’t really by design. Apart from the fact that there was nowhere to play except The Civic’s Centenary Rooms and the Changes pub, there was also no scene to speak of when we started. Only a handful of other bands in town with nothing much in common. The other thing was that The Danse Society emerged from a band called Y?, who had already been on a Sheffield compilation called Bouquet of Steel and had made contacts with promoters there and in Leeds. Via these contacts, the band’s second gig was at Futurama 2 festival at Leeds Queens Hall. We were pretty early on the bill but there were some great bands on such as the Bunnymen, U2 and the Banshees. So really The Danse Society moved straight on to playing Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester without that first step of playing in our home town. We sent a cassette of our first recordings to The Cure who had advertised for local bands to support them, and they asked us to play with them in Manchester and London. Then John Peel started playing the first single and we got a Peel Session out of it and everything really took off from there, so things moved pretty quickly. This sort of preceded the emergence of bands like Party Day and Creatures of Habit by a year or so. I’m not sure to what extent we influenced any of them but you’re right to say that within a couple of years there was a nice scene of local bands but The Danse Society wasn’t really part of it. We’d been away all that time playing all over. So unfortunately I don’t have a great deal of insight into that Barnsley scene. You’d have to ask the rest of the Lamps .
You jumped The Danse Society ship when you stopped enjoying the experience on being in the band. Aside from the bullshit that came with pending stardom, were there elements of it that you missed once you had left?
Well, I left for a lot of reasons, most of them spectacularly trivial looking back now. However, they were fundamental ones. I really had no great interest in stardom and what you had to do to get it. The management team and record company had ideas for the direction the band should go in that didn’t interest me at all. The worst thing we ever did was sign to a major. I would have been perfectly happy to plod on trying to make great music on an independent label. The rest of the band were up for making the big push but I was starting to feel less and less happy and unwilling to commit to it, so I packed in. I’ve never regretted it for a second. The first couple of years when we were putting stuff out ourselves and in complete control of everything was really exciting – I was already missing that when we were signed to Arista. It had basically turned into a job I wasn’t enjoying. I didn’t feel like I had any control over it anymore. So after I walked out. There wasn’t much that I missed.
Do you have a personal favourite of all of the other bands that the Black Lamps’ members have been in?
I really liked Party Day – they were an excellent, imaginative band who reminded me of the original aims of The Danse Society and they never seemed to make the same mistakes that we did. It’s a shame they weren’t more successful and widely heard.
When did you start creating your own solo music?
After I left The Danse Society, I was really disillusioned with music. I did some solo demo’s but they were poor and my heart wasn’t in it so I pretty much gave up on music for the second half of the 80’s. I didn’t play or record, I had no equipment, there were no bands I particularly liked. And then in the early 90’s a friend loaned me a DX7 and a sequencer and the whole computer music thing was just starting off so I got an Atari ST and an early copy of Cubase and I started tinkering about making my own stuff. It was almost all just really bad techno and for ages I was really struggling to make midi and Cubase work. At the time, the technology wasn’t well developed and everything seemed like a battle, but gradually I started making some stuff that I thought was okay and listenable using samples from The X-files and films. But I was doing all this for myself – never releasing anything – just doing it because I loved to get lost in it. That’s why I still do it to be honest – when you’re so involved in it, that three hours pass without you noticing.
So I was in on the computer based recording thing quite early and just followed the evolution of the software. From Cubase to Cakewalk to the amazing ReBirth and then Acid Pro. I could never afford Pro-Tools but the big thing for me was moving to a product called Ableton which has a slightly different approach to other music software systems and it really suits how I work, which is basically looping things around until I hit on something I like and then I try and arrange something more structured from there.
Both you and Liam have a pretty big following on sites like blocSonic? Why did you chose that specific platform you release your music on?
Well Liam was the first to release stuff on blocSonic. I don’t know how it happened but Mike Gregoire who runs blocSonic from the States heard some of Liam’s early solo stuff. Basically blocSonic is a net label that works under a Creative Commons license between the artist and the label. The artist doesn’t get paid and all the downloads are free for non-comercial use but Mike puts a massive amount of effort into promoting the stuff on his label so there’s the chance to be heard by a wide audience even though you won’t make anything from it – so if making money is not a driving factor for you then it’s a really great way of getting heard.
Most of what Mike had put out up to that point had been hip-hop and some dance stuff and I think Mike saw Liam as being his first Pop/Rock artist. Liam’s two albums on blocSonic have been really successful, the second one has had an amazing 70,000+ downloads from various sites.
My involvement was initially that Liam recommended me to do a remix of a track for a single Mike was putting out for him. From then on, I was invited to do other remixes and then Liam asked me to remix an album’s worth of his own tracks which we both put out as Stewart & Scarfe called the Outer Circular.
So then I started work on what became Music for a Lost Film and Mike said he’d like to put it out which I was really happy about as I’m not really interested in the marketing/promoting side of things, so the thought that somebody else would do all that was tempting. blocSonic released that at the start of this year and from stats from a few sites it seems to have been downloaded about 13,000 times which is about 12,000 more than I expected.
Doing it this way I’ve managed to get some interest from a couple of indie film makers in the States who have used a few tracks and also because the stuff is license free but with attribution (the user has to give you a credit on their work) there’s all sorts of stuff pops up on YouTube and Vimeo where people have used tracks, from a low budget Italian horror film to someone using it for a pregnancy relaxation course. Which is a bit varied.
You all share a mutual love of The Cure, Bowie, Pixies, Ramones, the Bad Seeds, but what are the influences that feed into the different parts of the band?
I think we’ve all got wide and varied tastes so it would give a wrong impression to say Dean’s into Northern Soul and I’m into ambient and drone or whatever. Though I think it’s fair to say that I’m the only one really into electronic music in a big way, and Dean is probably the only one into Soul in a big way – but we do overlap on a lot of new things not just the old stuff. Greg and myself probably buy more stuff these days and we often discover we’ve bought the same thing like Sharon van Etten or Toy or Interpol or Hookworms.
What are the occurring themes, musically and lyrically, that people will hear in the music of The Black Lamps?
The rhythm section is absolutely crucial to the noise we make. Deans drumming mixes power with some really interesting rhythms and musically the bass is key to our sound. I know lots of bass players arrive via guitar but Greg plays the bass in a different way to most bass players I’ve ever heard. Rather than just playing anchoring notes he plays chords or picks out arpeggios that really fill the sound out. The basslines to things like Archivist, Casa Disco and Planets carry the song and are really tuneful and distinctive, and the fact that the bass is already providing a really full sound itself means me and Liam don’t have to fill everything out with chords so our guitar parts are usually phrases or in my case noise and effects. Obviously we like to add some noise and volume to offset some of the more melodic stuff.
Lyrically, Liam tends to avoid abstract stuff and he writes about things that tend to have some sort of resonance with all of us and also they often relate in some way to living in Barnsley, stuff like Smoking Party is about him growing up, Casa Disco is obvious [Casa Disco is the name of a record shop that ran from the 80s – 00s), as is Sparrow Park. We tend not to do big chorus’s. In fact a lot of our songs don’t even have a sung chorus.
You played to a considerable crowd at the recent Live in Barnsley Festival. What is it like seeing those audiences now, compared to when the band first started out at Battling Tops?
It was a bit of a shock really, but a nice shock. It’s gradually grown and grown. Though we usually have fairly low expectations of anything so we’re rarely disappointed. There were one or two early gigs that had only a handful of people. But I went through that with The Danse Society too. Even when we were quite well established you could turn up at somewhere like Bath and there would be two people. But I think we all just love playing so if 3 people or 300 turn up, we still put the same into it.
Has it ever been a temptation to push yourself more with the band towards a wider success, or has it just never been an option?
No. I think it probably sounds weird and bullshit to some people but there is absolutely zero inclination to become successful. We want to be as good as possible so we are perfectionists in that respect but we have no goals for being successful or touring. I think it’s down to our ages and the fact that we still do it just for the love of making a deafening noise. We all went through that thing of hoping for some success and travelling around the country in death-trap vans 30 years ago so we’ve got that out of our systems. We do it for subtly different reasons now. All the ‘Kings of Apathy’ stuff is a bit of a joke. It’s focussed apathy. It’s apathy about being successful – particularly jumping through hoops to become successful. We still want to make the best possible music we can. We just don’t care about being ‘big’. If by some freak accident we did become successful, it’s not like any of us are going to pack our jobs in at this stage.
You’re very well respected amongst musicians on the local alternative music scene. What is your take on that scene – favourite artists, performers, photographers etc?
Well my knowledge of and involvement in music in town goes back to the mid/late 70’s and I can honestly say there has never been a more vibrant scene right across the arts than there is now. Musically there are now dozens and dozens of bands and a lot of them are excellent and there is a really wide range of styles and influences. It’s probably different to what was happening in the 80’s, where there was a small number of bands that had a similar outlook, sound and style and that was reflected by local fanzines. Now it’s more fragmented so there’s less of a ‘scene’ but I can’t think of time when there were so many creative people coming out of Barnsley.
In terms of who I particularly like, I think Pusher are superb. It’s difficult to predict who is going to take off because there’s more to it than just being great and working hard. A lot of success, and why one band kicks on and another doesn’t, is essentially luck and timing. So you can’t say with any confidence that one band will probably be successful and another won’t. But Pusher are doing everything right, they’re playing as far and wide as possible, everything they do seems like a progression from the last thing and they just sound awesome, so if they have that bit of luck, I can see them getting to the next level.
I also really like McCarthy Vigil – I love that beautifully shambolic sound they have. It takes a lot of skill to sound nice and loose like that. Explorers Society are promising too – I haven’t heard any recent stuff but I’m a sucker for that whole cello/piano/space-guitar thing where noise meets ambient/classical. I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.
Art wise I really love John Ledger’s work and Rory Garforth’s landscape photography.
I don’t think a lot of new musicians and artists in town realise what a great time it actually is – they probably think it’s a bit dead or shit, but really there’s never been a better time – particularly because there are now more outlets for what they do – more venues, Joe releasing stuff on ONI [Of National Importance Records], people like yourself covering all aspects of the creative scene, the new museum and the redone Civic. Looking back to the early 80’s there was nothing. Absolutely nothing.
You are the band’s social media mouthpiece and often post links about your musical influences (as well as musings on Barnsley Football Club) on the band’s Facebook page. You’re obviously someone that embraces technology to a certain extent, both musically and socially? When you look at the success of your recent solo pursuits, do you think the internet has made it more difficult or any easier to carve a path in the music industry?
Haha! Slightly reluctant social media mouthpiece. I stumbled into it because I was the only one able to set up the accounts. I once made a bold statement to my wife that I hated Facebook and would never use it. So I sort of use the band’s Facebook account as a convenient way round that. I have a love/hate relationship with social media, there are a few things I like about it and a lot that I hate. I don’t think any of the Lamps are comfortable with self-promotion. It’s probably something to do with our age. When we were younger, it was seen (rightly) as a character defect to go round talking about yourself, how great you were and pushing yourself on to people. So I always feel really uncomfortable and probably sound apologetic whenever I’m putting stuff up regarding what the band or I’m doing musically. It’s a fine line between promoting your band and sounding like a self absorbed, desperate cock. I have a personal loathing of people re-tweeting compliments. Stop it. It’s the digital equivalent of leaning over to a stranger in a pub and saying “see that bloke over there, he likes my music”. It’s not right is it? I might stray close to the line sometimes but if I ever go over I expect someone to point it out and slap me.
With regard to publishing music on the net, I once created a Tumblr page to collate my music (pre-blocSonic) and I subtitled it ‘pissing into the void’. That’s how I felt and still do really. Unless you’re lucky enough to get someone like blocSonic who has already created a network of blogs and other net outlets and who is willing to do all that promotional stuff, you face a massive task to be heard. That’s what it feels like. There are now thousands and thousands of people making high quality music and releasing it on the internet. How do you get heard in the middle of all the noise? I guess you start re-tweeting when people pay you a compliment on Twitter. I was just lucky enough to be asked to do some work with blocSonic, otherwise I would probably be looking at 200 hits on soundcloud because I can’t bring myself to do all the soul destroying self promotion stuff.
In one way the net has dramatically improved the tools for self publishing while creating new problems in how to stand out and be heard, which pushes a musician into areas of self promotion that most of them would prefer to avoid. It takes up time that would be better spent making music. I have absolutely no idea what the answer is. And I don’t even want to go near the problem of making a living from it. I’m lucky not to have to worry about that. It must be a mammoth task for a new artist to try and get by. Not helped by people illegally downloading stuff. If you like an independent artist then pay for what they create otherwise they probably won’t be doing it this time next year.
The album is finally on its way and will be released via Of National Importance Records. Why now?
No particular reason – we just got our arses in gear and finally finished off some recordings that we’d done over the last couple of years. Eventually getting them in a state where we are happy with them.
We really wanted to put it out with Joe at Of National Importance because we did the Pareidolia EP with him last year and myself and Liam had some stuff on a compilation he did a couple of years ago. He always puts a lot of thought and effort into everything he puts out. He’s done such a great job for bands in Barnsley and he’s brilliant at that promotional/marketing thing that we all hate.
Tell me about some of the new songs people can expect to hear? I’ve heard The Archivist and its sounds sublime. The ambient intro, the bass-line, the snare and the lyrics are like lines from a graphic novel. It sound great and it’s very Black Lamps.
The album is 10 tracks, 45 minutes, perfect album length. It’s got the old favourites like Casa Disco, Smoking Party, Planets etc and some newer things like Awkward, Gene Pool and Colour 8. Yeah, it’s got the usual mix of ambient intro’s and samples, pounding drums, lush basslines, tons of reverb, a bit of noise and Liam’s vocals. It’s a slightly more refined version of the live Lamps to be honest – that was the objective when mixing it. To keep that live feel but just a little more polished with more stuff subtly going off in the background. Oh and the cover art is by renowned comic-book artist Dean Ormston [the band’s drmmer] and the whole thing is lovingly put together by Jamie Briggs. It looks really lovely.
When can we get the album?
Originally we had hoped to release it before the end of the year. It’s all mixed and mastered, but unfortunately the time it takes to press vinyl is about 11-15 weeks. I guess we could have released it digitally and on CD first and put the vinyl out later but I think it would be better that everything came out together. So it’s now looking like very early January.
What about the second album?
About another ten years probably. I think the next release is more likely to be an EP – we don’t want to get the reputation for being prolific. And we need to slow down a bit at our age.
The Black Lamps as yet untitled debut album will be released in January, via Of National Importance Records. They can be found on their personal website: theblacklamps.co.uk and Facebook. Whilst their label can also be found on Facebook and OfNationalImportantRecords.co.uk
All photos above © Sally Lomas (first three) and Rory Garforth (latter three).