Apr 2020 08

With a new album on the way, Martin Bowes speaks with ReGen Magazine about 40 years making music under the banner of Attrition.
 

 

An InterView with Martin Bowes of Attrition

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

For four decades, Attrition has remained one of the more unique entities in the whole of underground music. From Coventry in the U.K., Martin Bowes has helmed the band through numerous incarnations of personnel and musical style to become a legendary fusion of industrial, electronic, gothic, and post-punk – as such, Attrition has virtually defined yet also defied the parameters by which most identify darkwave music. Put simply, no other band sounds quite like Attrition, a facet that Bowes should be proud of despite proving to be a double-edged sword, as he explains in this special conversation with ReGen Magazine. Releasing The Great Derailer EP and music video in January of this year, with another single and a new full-length album, The Black Maria, on the way, Bowes takes the time to discuss the group’s history and the evolution of his skills as a musician and a producer, the current state of technology, his inclusion in the NUKES collective, and the current contingent of participating musicians that comprise Attrition.

 

Let’s begin with The Great Derailer and the upcoming album, The Black Maria. Attrition has always had a juxtaposition of disparate vocal styles, with your gravely, throaty sound offset by vibrantly melodic and operatic voices, and on this single, you have Emese Arvai-Illes and Elisa Day.
First of all, as you’ve worked with numerous vocalists throughout Attrition’s history, is it ever challenging to find new voices that capture your interest such that you want to bring it into the band? What are the qualities that you look for, and in what ways did Emese and Elisa meet or exceed them?

Bowes: I would say that my original vocalist – Julia Niblock who I started Attrition with back in 1980 – made the mold. It worked so well when we recorded and played together, and it was sad when she pulled out of music altogether. The last album we worked together on was 2004’s Dante’s Kitchen, and she’d stopped touring even before that time. So, I started looking around for someone else to work with; some worked better than others. I took more of a lead role in the vocals since then anyway, so these days, I usually work with ‘guests’ – a rotating lineup rather than a permanent fixture.
It was wonderful having Emese sing on ‘The Great Derailer.’ She’s amazing, and actually the nearest to ‘the ghost of Julia.’ We met in Hungary in 2017 originally when Attrition played in Budapest there with Emese’s band Black Nail Cabaret.
Elisa has actually provided operatic backing vocals on most of the upcoming album. She is from Mexico and I met her as she is on Mario Cabada’s No Devotion label there, who I have also got involved with. Elisa was over in London performing at the Opera last summer and she came up to record here with me in Coventry… another amazing talent I am pleased to have worked with.

As you’re the sole songwriter, how much of what you write is affected by the vocalists involved? Do you write with a particular singer or vocal style in mind, or is the material sometimes altered from how you originally wrote it to suit the participating vocalists?
Similarly, the same can be said for the various instrumentalists involved – how much are they a part of the songwriting process? Obviously, their individual styles affect the final outcome, but does it ever deviate from how you originally envisioned a track?

Bowes: I tend to write how I feel and then when it has some form and structure, I will ask others to get involved. I rarely offer too much guidance and just want to see how others interpret what I do. It doesn’t always work out, but sometimes, it just gels perfectly. I’d say it was down to understanding the nature of the song, the music… and some people just get that better than others, regardless of their musical skills. And then, I take the song further, adapting my ideas and the mix in the process… and yes, sometimes things change drastically, although the heart, the soul remains the same beast.

 

 

The second track on the EP contains field recordings from Ossington subway Station in Toronto. What was it about this particular station that motivated you to make such a field recording?
What was the impetus for the track – is there a specific theme or idea behind it, or was it simply an outlet to use those recordings since you had them?

Bowes: For the past few years I have been compiling field recordings I have taken on my travels around the world – like an audio photo album if you like… Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, U.K., and more. I plan to release this as a free download/streaming once I have them edited and ready. In fact, I released a sample on U.S. label Silber Records’ field recording series last year… some late night recording from the mountains of Transylvania (we played there in August 2018).
 

 
‘The Pillar’ needed some machine sounds, and I had the subway trains from Toronto’s Ossington station… they worked. It wasn’t anything about Ossington, however!

The Great Derailer is now available digitally, as well as on a limited edition CD. What are your thoughts on the resurgence of vinyl and cassettes, and in what ways do you feel it is superseding the CD as the preferred physical medium?
Will we be seeing any Attrition releases soon on vinyl?

Bowes: I think any medium that gets music to people is a good thing. It’s slightly strange that these days, there are so many ‘carriers’ and choices as to which to use, but the resurgence of vinyl in particular has helped the music industry… perhaps not as much as downloads and now streaming have. It’s all good. I tend to stream a lot more now than dig into my vinyl and CD collection. And yes, Attrition has had vinyl and cassette versions available in recent years again, and I plan to make The Black Maria available on CD, vinyl, cassette, download, and streaming; so, there is no excuse.

With Two Gods and Attrition, you’ve maintained a steady stream of output on digital platforms, releasing numerous live albums, demo collections, album reissues, and more. What have you found to be the major advantages and drawbacks to releasing music on your own terms via outlets like Bandcamp or Spotify?

Bowes: Yeah, since I hooked my label Two Gods up with a good digital distributor, it’s been a wonderful way of making everything available, especially through Bandcamp, where I can include all the physical material as well. The digital releases are perfect for all the old live recordings and remixes or demos – the releases that should be out there for fans, but really don’t merit a physical run. I’ve spent many hours digitizing and mastering those old cassette tapes and DAT tapes; kind of calmed down a bit now, but they are up there forever, and there may be a few more yet to surface. I don’t see any disadvantages in it really, except all the time it takes me, but then I’ve always been like that. It took over my life in the early ’80s.

So, you’ve said that you’ll be releasing another single before The Black Maria is to be released later in spring. What can you tell us about this, and in what ways do you feel this next single and ‘The Great Deraile’r represent both the tone and themes of The Black Maria?

Bowes: Well, I think the next single may be after The Black Maria. ‘The Alibi’ is recorded and will be mixed soon, and I plan another video for this one. It’s part of The Black Maria family; there are a lot of characters on this album, even if they are representations of actual events and feelings more than real people. ‘The Alibi’ is a song of separation.

 

 

Besides Attrition, you run The Cage and have worked with numerous artists in various capacities – mixing, mastering, production, etc. What about this do you find that you enjoy the most, and in what ways does it affect your approach toward making music in Attrition?

Bowes: Ever since I stopped teaching music tech at the college here in Coventry (Government cuts anyone?), I upped my game in The Cage, so in 2011, my studio work became my ‘regular job’ in a way. I’ve always enjoyed keeping Attrition as my passion, my life story, rather than relying on it for commercial support; I’ll always prefer it like that.
I enjoy learning from music (as I did from teaching it at first), and working on other artists’ music does mean I experience new ideas and new approaches, or even just listening to a lot of new music. I do a lot of mastering, and I enjoy that; of course, it helps me with my own music, but god, restoring music from clapped out old vinyl can drive me crazy at times!

It does seem like there’s a renewed interest in the formative acts of early industrial and post-punk (i.e. the tributes to Fad Gadget and Cabaret Voltaire, more reissues of the latter band and Throbbing Gristle, Test Dept reunited and touring and releasing music again). To what would you attribute this? What about the current social, political, cultural zeitgeist do you feel has people going back to these acts?
On a similar note, many of your albums draw on classic works of art, literature, and even history; how much of what you write – either musically or lyrically – has any bearing on or reflection of current events?

Bowes: I think a lot of older music is being rediscovered these days, and not just in the industrial field, but in so many. Old punk bands never seem to die. It’s so much easier to hear about what’s happening these days and to ‘get the old bands back on the road’ should you want to. In fact, I am working on a plan with the original Attrition band members Ashley Niblock and Woody to recreate the 1982 soundtrack Death House for a series of live performances – it has never been out of the studio before.
And to the second part of your question, I always link to current events – political, artistic, philosophical, and often personal events.

 

 

In a recent InterView I did with Chris Connelly, he said, ‘I also feel the role of the muse in the creative process has been one historically marginalized or misunderstood. There are incredibly strong creative forces out there that are far more esoteric and ethereal than a simple brush to a canvas, and from my experience, they are female.’ I bring this up because throughout your history with Attrition, you’ve not only worked with a great many female musicians (vocalists and instrumentalists), but your artwork and photography features women very prominently. And yet, even in 2020, we still seem to live in a patriarchal society with a lack of empathy pertaining to women; to what would you attribute this?

Bowes: I’ve always strived to try and represent both the male and the female. I don’t need that in bands I listen to, which is very varied, but I do need it in my own work; it’s a given. I don’t even question it, probably as that was the way I started out. It’s in my Attrition DNA. And yes, I agree there is still too much patriarchal crap going on… and a lot more other crap going on these days too with the rise of the right again.
I remember coming across strong females in the music scene over the years and I’ve always had such admiration as I know they put up with a lot more than men do to get there. On our first tours in the U.S.A., I noticed more female promoters than I’d come across before over here; the talented Scary Lady Sarah in Chicago being a great example. I think things have improved, but there is a long way to go.

Attrition is often referred to as darkwave, although your music has incorporated numerous elements of various electronic styles, early industrial, post-punk, and that dreaded term of ‘goth.’ What are your thoughts on the validity of genres and how people perceive them? Will we ever reach a point where we do away with them completely, or will they always be that necessary evil (a ‘selling point’ if you will)?

Bowes: It’s a strange one, isn’t it! We kind of need them, some kind of pointers; otherwise, everything is just ‘music,’ and where would we start with recommendations? I’d say use those words, but you don’t need them at the end of the day; just borrow them for a while. And don’t get me started on ‘goth.’ It’s my own fault for writing “A Girl Called Harmony.” I forever protest my innocence, but it makes me smile. Again, it’s just a word.

 

 

Despite the numerous genres and the impact you’ve had on numerous acts, Attrition’s sound has remained fairly distinct and identifiable; I honestly can’t think of any other bands or artists I’ve listened to that remind me of Attrition. After four decades, what do you think has kept the sound of Attrition so purely your own?

Bowes: I find that too. It’s nothing intentional as I just do whatever I need to, but I have trouble thinking of a good band that fits our sound when we’re looking at show lineups, and I think Attrition not always easily fitting the various genres can count against me sometimes, and for me at other times. I remember a band saying to me years ago that they couldn’t take on drum & bass influences as I had around the time of the Dante’s Kitchen album. I just asked them why; they could do whatever the hell they wanted to!
I just do my thing and don’t worry about it.

What music is exciting you the most now; what do you listen to?

Bowes: I listen to so much music in the studio, and there are some amazing bands out there. I love the new album from Ukraine’s Dakhabrakha I mastered here recently – an amazing mix of world music. And then, I always come across bands at our shows – Tokyo’s 101A were incredible when we played with them there in December, and there are a lot of groundbreaking bands here locally in Coventry, so I’ve been out to more local gigs here than I have in years recently. Futumche is easily my favorite.

How important is it for you to keep up with the latest developments in music technology? What is exciting you the most in that regard, what new gear or software is appealing to you at the moment? What sorts of developments would you like to see in the tech and how both you and new artists will be utilizing them?

Bowes: I always do keep up with it. I started with ’80s hardware – TR-808, Korg MS-20, Wasp, tape delays, etc…. and then software came on so far over the last 20 years and I embraced that. But what’s exciting me now are all the cheaply priced semi-modular and modular hardware synths coming along; like vinyl, a complete circle, except things interface with the past now more and it all works together. I recently bought the Behringer Neutron and Crave, and they are so good and so flexible in sound. Developments? There is a way to go in controller hardware and software for computer systems. It’s getting better, but there is a way to go yet.

You’re also part of the new collective on No Devotion Records, NUKES, whose membership also includes the likes of Chris Connelly, EN ESCH, Erie Loch, Tony Young, and more. Would you tell us how you first became part of this band, and what you feel is your role in NUKES?

Bowes: I was talking with the label owner, Mario, about putting out some Attrition music on the label – in fact, we’ve had tracks on two of his compilations… the latest is out very soon. And then NUKES was born. I don’t have much of a role just yet as I am still finishing the new Attrition album, but that will change, and I will be fully on board as soon as I can get there!

Are there any other collaborations – either in Attrition, as a producer, or otherwise – that you can tell us about?

Bowes: Well, last year, I finally released the Engram album – a side project I started with John Costello back in ’96! It was put on hold until a few years ago when we kickstarted it back to life, and the debut album Das Kapital was born; it may be some time until album two!
I’m talking about new productions here with some bands, but nothing concrete just yet. In fact, after working so much in the studio the past few years, it’s been wonderful to devote my time to Attrition more again. I needed that. So, The Black Maria will be followed by next year’s 40th anniversary releases and shows. There is a lot to do and to celebrate!
 
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Attrition
Website, Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, YouTube
Two Gods
Website, Facebook, Bandcamp
The Cage Studios
Website, Facebook, Bandcamp

 

“The Great Derailer” video and stills by Anthony Weir
Live photography by David Velez in 2000
All photos courtesy of Attrition

 

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