Interview // The Telescopes

© Tyler Loring

It was during the Cosmic Fest, organised by Hidden Frequencies, that we got to meet Stephen Lawrie, John Lynch and Dave Gryphon, from space rock band The Telescopes, active since the end of the 80s but constantly renewing itself in its sound and the musicians who keep it alive. What is left of the band since the first album Taste, released in 1989? A more than ever inspired Stephen Lawrie, who knows how to surround himself and make his music evolve through passing time.

Manifesto XXI – Many musicians have joined the Telescopes throughout the years, what is the real core of the band ?

Stephen : It just evolves. It’s a complete different dynamic with each line-up. There are different line-ups merged together, some people that aren’t used to playing with each other link up. Some records I do on my own and others are more collaborative.

Last time we were here, we came a day early because we were playing somewhere else the next day. So we came to hang out with some other bands. We played with some Californian musicians who had a complete different feel. When I play with Jon, it’s more urgent but with them it was laid back and they tuned to 444 mega hertz. They’re into this theory that the Rockefellers changed the tune in the music to control people. 444 mega hertz is supposed to be what the world resonates at, a way to tune into the earth. We play the dissonant tune and in a more driven way so it was interesting.

John : It’s like british punk versus west-coast punk.

Stephen : It’s like this pedal I’ve got which is an amp simulation pedal. You can switch to American or British sound and it kind of sums it up. The British sound is more crunchy and the American one is more laid-back, spacey and chilled.

You’re coming out with a new record in July, what can we expect from it ?

Stephen : It’s like the album before, in some ways, but it’s darker. It’s a very similar sound and the same band is playing. It’s also got a similar shape to the last album, but some of the songs are more immediate and catchy. That wasn’t intentional, it’s just the way it came out. I’m actually working on another one as well where it’s all acoustic, so very different.

Is that a solo project ?

Stephen : No it’ll be the Telescopes.

Dave : You do acoustic shows as well.

That’s why I was wondering if you were merging towards a solo project.

Roux : He’s firing us one by one. (laugh)

John : He’s doing it slowly.

Stephen : Yeah I’ll give you a pension. You’ll get sacked the next day. (laugh)

How did you three meet ?

John : We play in a band called the Koolaid Electric Company so that’s how we know each other. I know Stephen because I booked the Telescopes for a show. I’d seen the Telescopes before when Stephen was playing with One Unique Signal and when the show rolled around, I got a phone call from one of the guys from the band saying the drummer couldn’t make it. They basically asked me to learn the whole set on the day of the show. (laugh)

Stephen : He was promoting the show and sitting in the car, listening to music trying to learn the songs. (laugh)

John : I had sold tickets, so I was in a sticky situation. I either cancelled the show and deal with refunds, or replaced the drummer. It was an honor to be asked si I thought I’d have a go. After this event, we just kept playing more and more together.

Learning a whole set in one day must have been a lot of work ! Did you manage to play well ?

Stephen : It was pretty good actually ! That show happened seven years ago already.

John : The seven year itch. Did you break a mirror that year ? (laugh)

You put out your album on Tapete Records, a german label, how did you get in contact with them ? A funny name to say in french since it literally means « faggot ».

(general laugh)

Stephen : In England, a faggot is originally a ball of meat. We met Tapete when we were in Paris. We were supposed to do a show here and then go to Hamburg but the venue got cancelled and we decided to stay at JB (from Coman’shee)’s place to hang out and jam for a few days. Then I got an email from Tapette saying « Oh, we’re so fucking pissed off that your show was cancelled, we wanted to talk to you about working together. ». So we basically got in touch after a missed opportunity. They’re a really good label and are great to work with.

Anton Newcombe has a studio in Berlin, did you guys get to record anything there ?

Stephen : Well we did, but not the studio that he’s in now, the previous one. John actually went over there with us but he wasn’t playing in the band yet. He cooked for us. (laugh) He was like a parent, he gave us love when we were feeling sad. We got to Berlin but there was nothing there, no studio or equipment, and Anton wasn’t very well at the time, he was in hospital. So, John went around all the charity shops and got plates, knives and forks and pans so we could cook. The sound engineer and I went around Berlin to borrow equipment. We ended up recording stuff there but we haven’t yet released it.

John : Will Caruthers, from Spacemen 3, helped us quite a lot over there. He took pity on us, he was like « You damn fools ! » (laugh)

Stephen : Anton put one of our records out as well on his Keep Music Evil label a long time ago. When emails and computers started up, I started getting messages from this crazy fucker in California, you know. It was Anton. (laugh) I didn’t think anything of it. I get quite a bit of crazy people writing to me, it makes me laugh a bit but I don’t dwell on it. I was talking about Anton one day and someone asks me if I’d seen the film he was in. That’s when I found out about his band. He’s cool, he’s a big Telescopes fan. We went to his new studio on our last tour, just to have a look and for him to show us all his toys. The thing with Anton is that he’s got his way of doing it, and that’s the only way. You have to give him complete control over what you’re doing. He keeps saying he wants us to work together but I don’t want to make a record that sounds like the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

How did the recording process come along on this last album ? Was there a lot of space for improvisation ?

Stephen : I find that creativity in general is improvisation. You try something and it doesn’t work, so you give it another try. Sometimes we just keep the actual improvisation and don’t develop it any further. Sometimes I’ll improvise things and delete parts that don’t work and then improvise again. I think a lot of artists work like that now especially since they have access to editing facilities. When I started recording, that was the thing that took up the time and computers were nothing like they are now. We used to cut up tape and stuff, that’s how we made loops.

You’ve seen the music industry evolve during thirty years, what are the main differences between the 90s and now ? Are you disillusioned by it ?

Stephen : No ! I mean, I am a bit disappointed with what people are doing with the technology that’s available. It’s a lot more empowering for artists nowadays. Like I was saying, with editing, you’d be in the studio watching the clock tick and thinking « shit, my budget’s running out. ». Now you can do that in your bedroom very quickly. Quite a few musicians don’t seem to take advantage of what’s there for them.

I noticed you not only used traditional instruments but also seek unconventional gear. Is every sound that an object makes, music to your ears ?

Stephen : Yeah, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a really bad way. I can get really obsessed with things. I used to do that as a child, I would get obsessed with little sounds in the eating system to a point where I felt like I was mentally ill. (laugh) Of course I didn’t know how that could be used in music, it was just a weird fascination. I was asking people if they could hear the music in random things and they thought I was an idiot.

What kind of unconventional objects do you use ?

Stephen : All sorts. Bed springs, things like that. I’ve got a piece of wood with two of those attached to it. I’ve got one track by just leaving it at the door of my studio with a xylophone next to it. Every time I was coming in and out of the room I had to stop, have a little play with it, and was determined to come up with a track just using those two instruments. I also used a bread maker as a rythme track because it made an interesting sound. We also use a lot of weird objects on the guitars. It’s a constant search really. It’s daring to do it. I know quite a lot of people have the idea, they’ll start jamming around and treat it as a joke. You have to have the balls to say «  That’s the song ! ».

How do you stay relevant today, with an ever-changing industry ?

Stephen : You can buy a 303 box that’s got loads of stuff on it but you don’t have to use it all. The industry is so vast, you can just do your own thing. We follow our own course and use the industry as a tool. I have a bit of an aversion towards getting swallowed up by labels, I’m quite suspicious. I work with a lot of labels and I’ve got many friends in that field. But I’ve been in situations where they just take over everything and you lose your focus.

There’s been a growing love for bands like My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen 3, The Jesus and Mary Chain and others. They really came back in the spotlight these past years. Do you have an input on that ?

Stephen : I guess a lot of them have had some time to get over their own shit. Bands like Slowdive had a hard time. The press were cruel to them, they totally destroyed their career. It takes a long time to get over something like that and get your head back together. I guess they had to wait until Slowdive were theirs again. It’s like the industry takes it away from them. You get that a little bit when you release a record anyway. All of the sudden it’s not yours, everybody’s got an opinion on it and you’ve got to be careful of what you say as well.

I met a guy last night and all he wanted to talk about was « A Perfect Needle ». For me, it was super irritating but at the same time, it means a lot to him. The guy was saying to me « Oh, I’m so sorry, I know you don’t like that song. » but it’s not that. I liked it enough to finish writing it and to record it. I obviously like it. (laugh)

What are your thoughts on these new bands that are very much inspired with you, and what other bands of your generation came up with ? Is there something there or is it just a copy void of soul ?

Stephen : It’s both. Recently, a label did a tribute album to the Telescopes. I was actually pleasantly surprised because most of the bands did their own versions, whereas quite often it’s just a straight copy. It’s interesting to listen to but it’s kind of embarrassing as well. I remember in the early 90s I went to see a band and the support band did one of my songs. The singer was even doing an impression of me, he was dropping to his knees like I used to do. It was very strange.

I saw one of your record sleeves is a picture of the catacombs in Paris, is it a place where you like to hang out ? Was it the official or unofficial catacombs ?

Stephen : I didn’t take the picture so I’m not sure but I’ve been there a couple times. I know the guys from Coman’shee played some shows down there.

I saw you played at the Marquis de Sade yesterday night. Did you read any of the author’s books ?

Stephen : Yes, of course. I read it as a teenager. One of my favorite books is actually a book about him, Satan’s Saint. It was really interesting to read about his opinions and it explodes a lot of myths. I particularly enjoyed 120 days of Sodom. They all start with « This libertine prefers too… » (laugh). It’s funny, he’s trying to upset people. I don’t think the Marquis de Sade’s work inspires me directly in my music but I can relate to his way of thinking through his disillusionment and anger. One of the things he seems to point out a lot is the hypocrisy of powers who dictate how people should live their life and the moralists. He’s sort of poking at that and trying to get a reaction. That’s something that used to get to me as a teenager, the hypocrisy of teachers and adults in general. You’re not right just because you’re older, everything is up for question. We live in a world where we don’t know the answers to everything.

Concerning the visuals of your album covers and posters, is there a particular artist you stick to ?

Stephen : It changes all the time. On the last two albums, I did the art work. Sometimes I’ll be at somebody’s house and I’ll see a piece of paper and I’ll ask if I can scan it. It may be something that was destined to be thrown away.

Apart from music, what kind of art or cinema inspires you daily ?

Stephen : I really like Lars Von Trier, he’s got a beautiful sense of horror. Something disgusting is happening in the frame but it looks amazing, it’s very challenging. I appreciate many artists, from the past and present. I love Georges Bataille, in particular his poetry. It’s very spacious and minimal.

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