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an interview with Mark Beazley by Simon Berkovitch / pictures by Paul Heartfield
"Today the artist is no longer constrained by the limitation that all of man's experience is expressed by his outward appearance. Freed from the need of describing a particular person, the possibilities are endless. The whole of man's experience becomes his model, and in that sense, it can be said that all of art is a portrait of an idea."
(Mark Rothko, 'The Portrait and the Modern Artist', extract from a typescript of the broadcast 'Art in New York,' Radio WNYC, 13th October, 1943)
Rothko's latest album, 'A Continual Search For Origins' sees main-man Mark Beazley crafting his soundscapes with an expanded musical palette. After the dissolution of the influential bass trio of Mark, Jon Meade and Crawford Blair (now in Foe and Lomax, respectively), the line up of Rothko has expanded to incorporate the musicians of Delicate Awol. The new album was inspired by Mark's visit to a Origlio, a tiny village in Switzerland and also somewhere "a million miles from the blank aggression and violent pace of life here in London." Inspired by his field recordings of the sounds around him on that visit, Mark has attempted "to create the feeling of being somewhere else" and to recreate "the sensation of travelling, of passing through, on my way to another place." With the pastoral instrumentation of the musicians of Delicate Awol, along with Mark's melodic and emotive bass textures, that aim has been beautifully realised. I caught up with Mark before Rothko's headlining slot at Cherry Jam, reconvening to a dubious Queensway pub to pick his brains...The 'Thank you' list on the album suggests that there wasn't an acrimonious split with Jon Meade and Crawford Blair. How much did you feel that things had run their course for the original bass trio?
I couldn't see what else we could do with it. In fact, the truth is, I couldn't see what else I could do with it We did a short UK tour in February last year and after that, for me that was it. We did a couple more gigs in June...but for me it was already over.Was that a farewell tour for that particular line up?
I wasn't aware of that at the time, when we started the tour. We supported Porcupine Tree (A contemporary Progressive rock band). To this day I'm not sure why they asked us to do it. They're a good bunch of guys, though and I must say it was a brilliant tour. We were treated well and played to bigger audiences than we ever had before.Were the Porcupine Tree fans into what you were doing?
We had been told that we wouldn't make any money selling merchandise, but in the end we funded ourselves, selling our records on tour. Every night on that tour was superb, but it was only on the last night at the Shepherd's Bush Empire that I thought, "I don't know what else we can do here..."With the three bass guitar line up, did you feel that you were pursuing an uncommercial sound, as you've previously expressed surprise in the initial attention that you received?
I think that I've said somewhere that I thought that we would do 3 or 4 gigs and that would be that. It never really occurred to me when I started out, as I had no idea what was going on in the musical world at all...I still don't really. I had a four-track recorder set up and I was just making instrumental music using the bass guitar... I don't play guitar or drums. I decided on just using bass because I thought the stuff I was recording on cassette really worked. And that carried on through the whole period with the bass trio of Jon, Crawford and myself.So, Rothko initially developed through the help of friends?
I met Crawford through the music ads in Melody Maker, but I was playing as a bassist in Geiger Counter with Jon and when that group temporarily disbanded I started doing my own stuff. I asked Jon to play bass even though he had never played that instrument before. But it was great; Jon took to it amazingly, although I know it wasn't easy for him. He plays really well now! He put a lot of himself into it and I can't imagine anyone else playing the lines that Jon did live. He took the instrument somewhere else, which was great.Did the current line up of Rothko also develop from a series of friendships?
After receiving a couple of emails from them, Delicate Awol came along to a gig and we started to get to know each other. We played a gig in Brighton, got along really well and it really just unfolded from there. I was already recording new material, about a year ago, I think. I had a lot of stuff recorded, about 8 or 9 tracks from the new album and some other tracks that have gone on to be used elsewhere. And I really wanted some other sounds on there, so I asked them if they would like to play. We went into the studio to work on those tracks but we also built up some things completely from scratch...and there's the album. The next step was someone offering Delicate Awol a few gigs and Jim (Version, guitar) suggesting that Rothko should play also. At this point we hadn't rehearsed together at all, but we did a few shows together and... (laughing)...it was really good! I think I've rehearsed more with Delicate Awol in the last 7 or 8 months than I did in about 2 years with Jon and Crawford. I despised rehearsing then. I felt there was no need to rehearse songs that were so simple. And because I felt there was no need, I didn't want to do it.Do you return the musical favour? Do you also play with Delicate Awol?
No, I'm not their style of musician. I'm terrible at doing 'proper' bass playing and all the rest of it. I've tried but... failed. They're really adaptable. Since we started getting the band together, there have been various line-ups of Rothko at gigs around the country. Sometimes it's just me doing solo stuff, other times it's Michael (Donnelly) and myself as a bass duo or Caroline (Ross, guitars, vocals, percussion and flute) and myself just using bass, flute and vocals. At Dingwalls, we were a trio, two basses with flute and vocals. There's a real sense of freedom and no constraints really. Whoever is involved on the night, that's what Rothko is. Delicate Awol are such a good band and great to work with. They are fearless musicians and the enthusiasm they have is phenomenal. After 5 years of Rothko, I need to work with people like this. I've discovered a whole new way of playing the tunes. I know that I've been sitting here and saying how great this is, which isn't like me, but it's been fantastic. I can't believe I'm playing with these people.So, you feel that the distinct nature of the two bands leads to a healthily productive working relationship?
Oh, yeah. It feels fresh all the time, every time we do a gig or rehearse. You know when you listen to a record for ages and all of a sudden you think, "God, I didn't know that was on there"? That's what it's like playing with them because I catch all sorts of new things that are going on. It's been a great meeting of minds in more ways than one.Geographical distances don't seem to present a problem for you. Delicate Awol are based up in Scotland and 'A Continual Search For Origins' was inspired by your visit to Switzerland...
I've got a tiny studio set up with a decent set of speakers, monitors, a sampler and a little keyboard. The Awol have their own studio in Scotland. They send me stuff, I load it up onto my computer and then I edit it from there. My ex-girlfriend is from Switzerland and we've kept in touch. We're still friends and get on better now than we've ever done. Her mother has this really nice place in the tiny village of Origlio. And if there's time and if it's available, she's kind enough to let me stay there. I have the place to myself. Hearing all the sounds on that record...I'm just back there. I walked round with a Mini Disc recorder and microphone, went on a couple of boat journeys and sat in the garden. Most of the recordings are of the village at night. It's a great place: I was going to go back there this year but we had the offer of playing at a festival in Belgium, so I had to cancel my plans. Michael and myself are going to do it as a bass duo. In fact Guns N Roses are on the main stage...That would be an interesting collaboration...
Me and Axl...we're like that (crosses fingers)Did these field recordings set off the musical ideas?
Totally. It's a desire to recreate, in my own head, somewhere that wasn't London, somewhere that wasn't a flat in Archway. With most people who do anything in the fields of art, music, literature or whatever, it's about trying to be somewhere else, I guess. Some people would see that as a naff cop out or escapist, I guess. I did the whole album on headphones. When you're working, you're in your little sound capsule anyway. I was just trying to remember what the places were like and I'd listen to these field recordings and ask myself "God, where was I then? What was I doing when I recorded that?" Then I'd realise that I was spending so much time listening to the field recordings that I'd better get on with the recording! I was enjoying the sounds a little too much. But it really is a fantastic place. Caroline's vocals are particularly breathtaking in this musical setting. Is this a bit of a departure for a band that is associated with predominantly instrumental pieces?
There was a vocal track on 'Forty Years To Find A Voice' by a really good friend of mine, Simon Tilbury, someone with whom I've played music with for years. The beauty of practically doing a solo record is that I have been able to realise more things than I previously had done. I love Caroline's voice and one of the things I wanted to do was to persuade her to sing on the record. I was knocked out that she did it. If it was up to me, I'd have 11 vocal tracks on there, but I'm rubbish at writing lyrics! Her voice is so good; it's very folky.Any intentions to deliver a Beazly vocal?
Absolutely none whatsoever! (laughs)The acoustic instrumentation and folk based vocals hint at a more pastoral Rothko sound...
Absolutely. I wanted things to be clearer than they have been previously. I was really settled on how I wanted the bass to sound on every track. I wanted it to be really clean and clear sounding. There's less of the great, booming washes of sound, and when there is, it's not generated by bass guitar.You're no stranger to the folk scene, though. I recall that an early single was 'For Danny', a tribute to bass legend Danny Thompson, famous for his work with The Pentangle and John Martyn, amongst others...
That was a sample from one of his tracks. I chatted to him on the 'phone a couple of times and he let us use that. It's from a video where he's talking about his life and playing some tunes on the upright bass. I don't play upright myself. It's really hard work. It sounds great and feels great, but when you can't move your arms or hands the next day, you do think, "I'll give it a miss". I'm not a musically trained player and it's much easier to play if you are. A great instrument, though. I've done a lot of folk stuff in the past. I've been in a Greek folk band and I did some traditional stuff...folk clubs in Cambridge, that sort of thing.With some artists' precious approach to their work, how have you approached your remixing work and how do you react to remixes of Rothko material?
I love remixing. I'm given free reign. It's a great way of working because it does make me look at things quite differently and I end up using different sounds that I wouldn't normally come up with. You see how other people put things together and you have to bend a little bit and try different ideas. Mind you, I did a remix for Hefner and I just kept the whole vocal and played the bass and piano underneath. I've no idea whether Darren liked it or not, but I kept the song structure the same. With other stuff, I move things around and play a bit of bass. I was handed a remix yesterday and I've listened to it over and over again. It's by a guy called Teho Teardo from Italy and it's brilliant. It's quite dark but with lots of cello and electronic sounds. I dunno...I'm rubbish at putting things in genres. But he's done a really good job.Remixes aside, other people have interpreted your work. An early example comes from the sadly defunct Monsoon Bassoon's cover of 'seventyseven a' (and indeed, your cover of their charmingly named 'fuck you, fuck your endoscope') on Weird Neighbourhood records. Another perspective comes from a different artistic discipline. How did artist Juliet Blake's pictorial interpretations of your music come about?
Juliet sent me an email last November saying that she'd used the mini-album 'In The Pulse Of An Artery' as part of an exhibition she was doing about medireview Britain. That music was used, along with her painting that signified pre-battle meditation. And it was absolutely brilliant. She sent me the original painting and we kept in touch. She's interested in the synesthesic interpretation of music and I sent her an unmastered CD-R of 'A Continual Search for Origins' and, in return, she sent me more paintings. This exhibition's going to be a private viewing in Cornwall this September, with sound from the record. I'd love to go down there with my bass and play, but just to turn up would be really nice. She's done all 11 tracks, her interpretations of each individual track...it's phenomenal. She wanted to do something that was connected with a whole piece of work, a complete interpretation. I'd love to see it up close, as she sends me images from her workshop and they're just fantastic.Who was responsible for the sleeve artwork?
It was all done in-house by Alison at Too Pure. Fucking fantastic. Have you seen the 'Red Cells' single cover? It's a red and a white blood cell on black. The artwork for the album was just carrying on the theme of the cellular breakdown of things. The initial plan was to get my DNA code on there, but time ran out. The idea seemed to fit, as the thing is about origins and where people are going and coming from. I was upset that I couldn't get it on there, as it would have put the seal on it for me as a complete package. But I love the cover. It looks great on the vinyl edition as well... How did your collaboration with Susumu Yokota come about?
He's somebody whose work I really like. I was sent his 'Magic Thread' album about 18 months ago and I absolutely loved it. I'd also heard a couple of tracks on John Peel. His work's quite ambient but he does house music and electronica, if you want to use words like that...it seeps into you. He'd requested some tracks that were separated down, so I sent them as individual sound files on CD and he played on them, edited them, mixed them and did an absolutely awesome job (The results can be heard on the 'Waters Edge' 12" on Lo Recordings). We played a gig at Dingwalls together and he was really nice. We did try to collaborate live, but the soundman was such a prick that he put the mockers on it. He was an absolute, complete pillock. He made life difficult for everyone, which was unfortunate. We're fairly accommodating. We don't rant and shout. We just want to get on with it.You certainly seem to be energised by the creative developments in Rothko. What next for the band?
I have no idea at all. I'm just really pleased with the way that the whole thing has worked out. It's proved to me that stopping doing the bass trio was completely the right decision. It was just killing me doing that. I was having such nightmare about it and I'm glad that's all gone. I loved the time we spent together, don't get me wrong, even though most people wrote us off from the off. People aren't interested and think it's a joke, a group with 3 bass guitars. But it's not a joke. It's what we did and those times are something of which I am really proud. We achieved an incredible amount and met some fantastic people, including the Awol folk. But I never know what's happening tomorrow, let alone what's to come in 3 months, 6 months or a year's time. I have been at work on some new material recently. It's a rambling piano piece with other stuff layered over the top. I intended it to be pleasant and pastoral, but it's possibly been one of the most ferocious things I've come up with so far. I've no idea why. It's taken me back a little bit, actually. It sounds like some of the dismissals and pigeonholing of Rothko is something that has irritated you in the past...
It really upsets me. Musicians and bands don't define genreother people do. It's a really easy way of getting across an idea of how something might sound. I suppose it works in mainstream journalism. That's how they do it...this is a post-rock band, this is a rock band, this is a jazz ensemble. I mean space is limited and you never know who is going to edit it when you post your copy. But it is irritating, yeah. I don't get as worked up about it as I used to. If someone said to me, "post-rock"...I mean, what the fucking hell's post-rock? I've never heard of it. What is it? Who makes it? What does it sound like? What does it signify? I did an email interview about it. I was asked whether post-rock was a good description of my music and how it related to political attitudes? So I went into this long spiel, trying to ask him whether he thought the sound of post-rock meant that people had no political interest at all. I mean, does heavy metal infer anarchy? Does death metal infer that people want to go out and kill? But he never replied...(laughs). Somebody read something from the NME to me, something about jazz. I forget the exact terminology, but basically a total dismissal. The fact of the matter is, the only truly adventurous, brutal, awesome players are all in the jazz world. They have no fear at all: no fear of criticism. They just want to do it, get out-there, experiment and have a blast. That's where jazz comes from, really. All the groundbreaking stuff like Coltrane, Miles, Bill Evans...they've changed the face of music by being fearless, not brave, but fearless. There's a real difference there. You can't slag off jazz as a whole genre! That's ridiculous! It's unbelievable that people are prepared to do that. I've got an album at home with Gary Peacock on bass and Marcus Stockhausen on piano, recorded in 1972. It's a mind blowing, spacious, experimental piece of work with no real beginning or end. There are tracks on it, but it just drifts...it's an awesome record. And if that was released today, it would be slagged off as post-rock. Some journalist at the NME emailed me, saying that bands like The Hives and The Strokes are "the complete package." If they're the complete package, I'm not fucking bothered. The inference is that experimental music, for want of a better word, is basically dead. Not just redundant, but that it means nothing. All this complete package business...you can keep it. I'm not saying that what I'm doing is any good, by the way. I would never go out and say, "Yeah, we're like this or like that." It's pointless. What would there be to gain? I don't know what other people's motives are when they do that. It makes me uneasy. They're trying to be cool, I guess. God! I can't ever imagine being cool. It's great! I can't imagine that burden. I mean, what happens when you get older? Jesus, you're finished! God forbid anyone ever calling us cool...then I know we're finished! (laughs)
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002