Ultrasound are ready and waiting with album No.3. “Real Britannia” is out in December, but a first track is being aired this week. Taking lead vocals is Vanessa Wilson, and James Auton caught up with her as they prepared for the madness to begin.
Then there was silence……
…..but you knew something was coming; something was about to erupt. Within that split second the world came crashing down and there was a cacophony of noise and a voice. An everything picture. Half agony, half ecstasy. Part pleasure, part pain.
Ultrasound were a fleeting brushstroke on the indie landscape in the late nineties, a brief but devastatingly glorious presence. Visually and audibly unlike any of their peers, the imposing sight of Tiny “Andrew” Woods centre stage, a man mountain that embodied more spirit of rock’n’roll than the lithe figures on the cover Smash Hits or propping the bar up in The Good Mixer. And Vanessa Wilson, bassist and owner of the most distinctive and powerful voice on the scene at that time and it’s that voice described above. The final eponymous song on album one ‘Everything Picture’ has an explosion of emotion that almost literally climaxes. It must be heard to be believed.
Seventeen years on, album three is ready to go. ‘Real Britannia’ is a narrative chronicle, part nostalgic, part prophetic. Post-Referendum blues written pre-Brexit. A glance over the shoulder to what was, and a condemnation of what is.
What is written above can equally be about what is to come.
Louder than War spoke to Vanessa about the past and the present, taking in the reformation, second album and the new record.
Those of us that are of a vintage that weren’t purely all about the Oasis’, the Blur’s, the Pulp’s, the archetypal “Britpop” band that defined an era, might have experienced Ultrasound. A band whose inspiration didn’t begin and end with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, but took in Glam, Prog, and pre-disgrace Gary Glitter. “It’s possible that Tiny is the oracle as he predicted his downfall in 1997, which is long before all that came out. Maybe we should be turning to him for predictions for the future.
They disappeared almost quickly as they appeared, leaving behind a magnum opus; a sprawling double album of magnificent, overblown rock’n’roll that whilst embraced by the fans was described by the some as being too long and over indulgent. “Everything Picture was the first album and half of the second album really. ‘Aire & Calder’ and songs like ‘I’ll show you mine’ should have been on the second album but we weren’t guided that well but we weren’t in a position where we were listening either”.
A few months after their debut was released in 1999 it all was all over. “I think we’d all become really disconnected from what it was that we were doing. Most people aren’t really prepared for life in their twenties. I think youth was a problem but the music industry is full of people who think they know what they are doing but they don’t”.
Ten years passed and they were thrown together by fate. Tiny was supposed to be singing at a benefit for Tim Smith of The Cardiacs that never happened, but they were all going to be together so why not play together, and then why not do a gig. “It was a dream come true. It was enough to just see them again. It became a tiered progression of excitement. It turned out it was something everyone wanted but didn’t dare ask. It’s weird that it’s become normal again.”
From the new beginning came a new album ‘Play for Today’. A slimmed down, “perfect pop album” previously described by guitarist Richard Green as a conscious effort to be more concise, but it still contained anthemic singles ‘Welfare State’ and ‘Sovereign’.
“Really, it was only ever going to be ‘Play for Today’ and then stop, but when Richard starts bringing amazing chord progressions into the room and everyone is like ‘This is amazing’ and we had to see it through. It just flowed. When people talk about a difficult third album, actually this has been our easiest one.”
So, was born ‘Real Britannia’, and what feels like the natural partner, companion record to ‘Everything Picture’; an epic, angry rollercoaster of an album, beginning with five barnstorming slices of escapism, jealousy, fury, despair, hope and tangible descriptions of Britain today. What follows on the flip side is akin to a rock opera. ‘Real Britannia’ is their ‘Abbey Road’. Side One has the singles and Side Two is the medley.
“When we got back together, I went up to Newcastle and met up with Tiny, he looked about twenty years older than he does now. Getting the band back together has reinforced that youthful spirit, and he’s getting younger, he’s going backwards.”
What was a difficult time when splitting the band, the decade long gap has benefited them and the new Ultrasound that has risen from the ashes has retained everything that went before that made Ultrasound unique.
“When we did ‘Everything Picture’ it had that energy, that tension, but we weren’t stood on solid ground, we didn’t know ourselves and we doubted our judgement at times. We’ve got the advantage of age on our side but still the same youthful angst and in a lot of ways it’s more powerful as we can deliver it directly”.
A more worldly wise Ultrasound can look back at that time and see the benefits and still see a part of themselves but know the pitfalls and what didn’t make the band work first time around, despite how much they cared for each other.
“This is the first album we’ve made ourselves, without even a producer and it’s been an absolute dream. That could be down to being older and wiser or it could be that we’re not very good at having other people around, we’re quite private people. As soon as there are other people around, the dynamic changes completely. This time it’s been a safe, emotional place where we can be and be completely open with each other and nothing could hinder that process”.
The tensions in the studio that made the debut what it was survives today and gives the record a re-ignited energy.
“This album is quite similar to ‘Everything Picture’ as it has that edgy anger to it, whereas ‘Play for Today’ was quite smooth and pop art, but when we write we don’t over think it, what comes, comes and then we build on it, but it does have this unhinged anger running through it”.
A happy accident that allowed them to start making music again has resulted in a productivity and a prolific inspired trio of song writers that have so much more still to say.
The final song ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ is the pinnacle of the record. Twenty minutes and thirteen seconds of continuous cyclical elements of song that then repeat and finds itself again before slowly disappearing.
“What we set out to write was a traditional song cycle, which was a big part of medieval music, but it’s just another song structure, we’ve got the popular music structure of intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, double chorus, end and a song cycle is just another musical structure but from another time”.
“It was always going to be semi-autobiographical and Tiny had some lyrics, but we all wrote certain sections and brought them to rehearsal, it took a long time to get that song together but it just took its own form, we didn’t try and write something ridiculous, although we did edit some bits out so it could fit on one side of vinyl”.
The result is a staggering, gradually soaring winged beast. A rose-tinted, part fictional glance over the shoulder and what people believe was a better time, but was at times worse and at times better than now. The approach to the runway, the end, when the bird lands, is a list of memories from their childhood and adolescence, and an admonishment of that belief that it was better back then, despite the three day week, the wars, the blackouts, Thatcher…..and it goes on.
Vanessa takes lead vocals on a song penned by her, (the first time on an Ultrasound record) ‘Soul Girl’, the initial song to hit the airwaves from the record (which can be streamed above) in anticipation of the single ‘Kon-Tiki’ out in November, with the album due on 2 December.
It follows the theme of ‘Real Britannia’ being the companion piece to ‘Everything Picture’, it is a close cousin of ‘Fame Thing’ and an impassioned plea that seems to be at odds with how the feeling is within the band at the moment.
“I wrote that song quite a long time ago, it was basically exactly where I was at that time, feeling extremely frustrated, and everything in it came true. But yeah, I was fucking angry. But I’ve dealt with that anger and now I’m extremely laid back”.
Vanessa has been busy over the past few years, whilst writing, rehearsing and recording with Ultrasound and working as a music advisor for schools in the East London area, she has been recording with Dodgy, contributing vocals to a number of tracks on their new album ‘What Are We Fighting For’.
“When Dodgy were splitting up in the ’90’s, the drummer, Matt, started forming a label with the bands manager Andy Winters who wanted to sign us, but by the time they had it up and running we had about twenty deals on the table and it didn’t happen, but I became really good friends with Matt and we formed a Northern Soul band doing covers, and played some celebrity parties with Bono and Kate Moss there and Brett Anderson doing guest vocals, it was just surreal. This was all in the early 2000s, but we stayed friends ever since and I’d done a few vocal parts on earlier stuff but I’ve done a load of vocals for them just as a favour”.
Subsequently, a co-headline gig was set up for the Scala, Kings Cross on 30 November, which is now the launch party for ‘Real Britannia’. “I’d rather go on first, it’s stressful going on last. They have all the party tunes. I’ll go up and do a few songs with them of course, but I’ll be able to have a drink and enjoy myself after our set. We could get up and form a Supergroup at the end, do the encore”.
It’ll be a night of new and old. Two new albums, wall to wall vinyl, and the classics being belted out. One such is Stay Young. An anthem for those who don’t want to go home.
“When we do that live, it’s explosive, every single time. It’s such a simple song, and it’s quite repetitive but there’s something about the way it builds and builds and seems to resonate with everyone. The thing is, when you looked at people in their 40’s fifty years ago, they were old, but nowadays they just want to keep experiencing things and living, and that song makes them feel that way, they want to take it all the way to their grave.”
The re-occurring familiarity that marks ‘Real Britannia’ as almost being that second album that the second disc of ‘Everything Picture’ should have been, the single ‘Kon-tiki’ has its arm around ‘Stay Young’, reassuring it. It talks of escaping, not wanting to go home and rubber stamps the ethos of the band. A refusal to give up, go quietly, grow old gracefully and fade away.
Ultimately, what we have is a band actually enjoying themselves. The trials and tribulations have been and gone, what’s left is friends making music.
‘Same Band’ came out on Fierce Panda 19 years ago, is it the same band?
“’No, it’s different. But the heartbeat is the same…….it’s family”.
Tickets for the Scala launch party gig with Dodgy can be found here.