Do you remember the first time you heard Nagamatzu? I do, and it drove me to re-issue one of their cassettes that collected songs from 1984-1986 called Sacred Islands Of The Mad on vinyl for the first time ever. I conducted this interview with both members of Nagamatzu: Steven Jarvis and Andrew Lagowski. Thanks to both of them for answering my questions, and thanks to you for reading!
Dark Entries: First thing first, can you tell the readers where the name Nagamatzu comes from?
Stephen Jarvis: Nagamatzu is a character from ‘the Atrocity Exhibition’ by JG Ballard. I can’t remember quite how we decided to use it. I know we were looking for something without a hidden meaning or play on words, something that would stand out in a crowd. Andrew gave me my copy of the book, the first Ballard that I read. I think the Joy Division song was another step in arousing our interest in Ballard, and he was a profound influence on many of our favourte recording artists at the time, particularly Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. I still go back to him pretty regularly, I re-read ‘High Rise’ and ‘Concrete Island’ this summer in fact.
And as a footnote to that, ‘Sacred Islands of the Mad’ is from Sylvia Plath. I can’t remember which poem and no longer have the completed works to look it up, but it was her description of her knees rising above the surface of her bath water.
DE: Can you tell us a little bit about growing up in the UK and some of your earliest musical memories?
Andrew Lagowski: There was almost always music playing in our house when I was a kid; lots of 50s rock ‘n’ roll, Ray Charles, Ivan Rebroff, T Rex, David Bowie (thanks to my sister)…all sorts.
SJ: ‘Im glad that I was born when I was. In 1976, the high point of punk in the UK I was only 12 years old, still very much under the thumb at home, so although I was aware of it going on it wasn’t what I was listening to. I was very conventional, in to Abba and ELO mostly. Then Blondie became my first experience of anything slightly different, they had massive success here in the UK, and my tastes started to change. Early Human League, Tubeway Army, Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark, Siouxsie, The Cure, Bauhaus and of course Joy Division and New Order all became big favourites.
1979 was THE pivotal year for me. I was doing exams at school that were going to help me to decide my future. Up to that point I was determined to join the army, having had the usual youthful second world war fixation fueled by parents and grandparents who’d lived through it. But in March that year my Dad died and my world somersaulted. I’d had a rocky relationship with my stepmother, and that all came to a head and I left home as soon as I was able, aged 17, and moved into a bedsit close to the centre of Ipswich, coincidentally just around the corner from Andrew. I also realised that the army was really not for me and floundered around a bit, finally deciding on art school.
DE: How did you form the band for Nagamaztu?
AL: I think we’d been to see Cabaret Voltaire in 1981 at the Lyceum in London (with TG, Z’ev, Non etc) and got really excited at the thought that anybody could make music and sound with little experience.
SJ: I met Andrew while we were still at school. It was in the 6th form while studying for A levels that I got to know him. At the same time I started to listen to John Peel and suddenly was exposed to shockingly brilliant new music. As is pretty normal I think, myself and Andrew congregated with other people who liked to listen to similar things, and to go to see live music.
One of the first gigs that I went to was the Fetish Night Out at the Lyceum in London in 1981 which featured Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Clock DVA, Non and Zev. A real awakening. I think it was in our friend’s car on the way home that the first tentative mention of us making music occurred. Andrew had already been playing drums in a local band, Silent Command.
Soon after we spent an afternoon making a noise in Andrew’s parents dining room and recording the results. That was the Magog Universal “Erradication Time” cassette. God knows what we recorded on, maybe Andrew’s Dad’s hi fi.
Then late in 1982 some friends had a spare slot at a gig they were putting on at the Albion Mills pub and asked us to play. We had about two weeks to prepare something. I think it was around then that Andrew’s Dad bought him the Ferrograph reel to reel that was to become so important to us. I bought a second hand drum machine and a bass guitar from a friend, Andrew had a guitar and a keyboard I think. I’m sorry to say I can’t remember at what point Andrew Fleck joined us, maybe Andrew knows, was he at the first gig? He’d left by the time we did Sacred Islands. I know we were impressed that he had a Wasp synthesiser. Anyway, we cobbled together a few experiments and hit the ground running as Nagamatzu.
DE: Do you remember the set up and equipment for recording your earlier songs?
AL: One of our main pieces was the Ferrograph Logic 7 reel to reel tape recorder which my dad bought from a local hi-fi shop. We used that a lot for plain mastering but also as backing for gigs and as a tape loop device.
We borrowed a lot of gear such as The Crumar Performer for strings, Roland Drumatix, Roland Space echo, Sequential Pro One, Korg Mono/Poly etc. Steve had a Sound Master SR-88 drum machine and I bought a £30 guitar and Colorsound Fuzzbox. Flecky had a Roland SH101 too.
SJ: Our first drum machine I think was a small grey box that you could programme very basic percussion on. I bought that in Axe Music in Ipswich. Then I bought my first bass, a Westone thunder 1 from a friend. £65 I think, which is the same as I sold it for many years later. Andrew’s Dad bought the Ferrograph. I remember it was very expensive, an incredibly impressive piece of kit that we were delighted would allow us to mess around with tape loops and to record a decent sound quaility. Andrew bought a second hand guitar, and soon after a copy of a Rickenbacker bass, because it looked like one that Peter Hook played. I bought it off him some years later and still have it.
When we performed live we also incorporated a slide show whenever the venue conditions allowed. At first these were largely art history slides, but that changed as I started to make slides with images captured from TV, and with found film. The UK film industry was centred around Soho in London and often interesting scraps of film could be found in bins in the area, which I would then collage together.
DE: Did the evolution of the synthesizer in the early 1980s have an effect on your sound?
AL: For me definitely. I was a junky in that respect and always wanted to know who was playing what and I’d try to emulate the sounds I heard. We would try and borrow whatever we could even if it was only for one recording.
SJ: Definitely. We were always borrowing kit from friends to see what sounds we could get. My favourite was the Crumar string synth, such a lovely warm sound. A lot of Shatter Days was done with that. I think Andrew has provided a pretty comprehensive list of the stuff that we tried. Our later recordings were largely based around the Roland D110 and a sequencer programme called Master Tracks Pro that we ran on an Atari 1040STE. Andrew also had a sampler by then, though I can’t remember which one .
DE: Was writing instrumental songs a conscious choice? How did this come to be?
AL: Think it was a conscious choice as none of us felt confident enough to be a vocalist and also none of us wanted to be seen as a group leader. We did bits and pieces of vocals but I cringe when I hear myself.
SJ: It was a very conscious decision. I was very aware that only bands with exceptional and unique vocalists seemed to be worth a listen. So many bands with interesting musical ideas can be let down by the choice of singer, it can really ruin the whole experience for me. I also tend to hear the vocals in songs as another instrument rather than placing great importance in what the words are. Several of the bands that we liked did do instrumentals amongst their songs anyway. I also really liked Dif Juz (4AD band) and O Yuki Conjugate (Final Image), both were almost entirely instrumental.
And another big influence on us were film soundtracks. I know Andrew really liked a lot of John Carpenter’s Halloween and Escape from new York. And Popul Vuh’s soundtracks for Herzog, Vangelis’ Blade Runner, Simon Boswell’s Hardware and Santa Sangre, plus loads of exposure to horror films all fed in to what we were doing.
We did occasionally experiment with vocals. That is Andrew you can hear on ‘watch and waste’. I think he’s on ‘Possession’ on the Shatter Days album too. And at the gig we did in Sudbury I had a go at a song, lyrics mostly improvised on the spot, and vocals through loads of effects, but it didn’t really work or appeal to us.
DE: Can you describe your most memorable/favorite live gig?
AL: My favourites were the 2nd gig we did at The Albion Mills in Ipswich (small Jazz cellar – it was chaotic, very loud and discordant but the place was rammed and had a great atmosphere) and the Reptile Club which is the file that appears on Archive.org. I remember Stephen and I hanging around outside the club before the gig and this guy and his girlfriend came up to us to ask us what kind of music Nagamatzu was after seeing the poster outside. I told them it was jazz funk. Don’t think they came to the gig but it would have been fun if they had.
SJ: Most of the gigs are pretty hazy in my memory. I was a very nervous performer and used to drink to calm my nerves before a show, sometimes a bit too much really, but it was the only way I was going to get up in front of a room full of people. Andrew would do his best to hide behind his stack of equipment. Often I think audiences were a little bewildered by the fact that we didn’t have a singer. And we didn’t help ourselves by being fairly static on stage. The slideshow was used as some sort of recompense for that, to give a visual aspect to the music.
Listening back, the very first gig at the Albion Mills was pretty good considering how quickly we had to get it together. It was a great little venue, an arched cellar with a very low ceiling. Once you got 20 people in there the walls would start to run with condensation, and they used to put on all types of music/noise, they were very open minded.
And like Andrew, I think the Reptile House gig was a good one. Our final gig at Hype in Kentish Town was pretty good too, I’ve still got a video of that one, we had some drunk guy wander onto the stage during that which was a bit surreal.
By far the worst was the Haverhill Plough gig. We had to do two one hour sets and we didn’t have enough material, so really dragged things out. it was awful.
DE: Why did you choose to issue your recordings on cassette up until 1986?
SJ: Purely financial reasons. We’d have loved to do more vinyl, but I was unemployed and Andrew was investing everything he could in equipment. We got a few offers to do records that didn’t come to anything, so just did what we could. All the local bands at the time were in the same boat. The Boredom Brothers, Danse Macabre, The Reasonable Strollers, Scum Auxilliary, The Sustained, Still life in Action, The Suckers and many others, we all started out with cassette releases, very few of us made it on to vinyl, and there is a wealth of great music that has been overlooked. That’s why a label like Dark Entries is such a good thing.
DE: You appeared on many compilations with artists such as Legendary Pink Dots, Coil, Merzbow, and Tara Cross, who did you consider your contemporaries at the time?
AL: Personally I didn’t look around much to see who our contemporaries were. A lot of the people on the compilations we did were our heroes or mentors, so we were happy to be in the same fold as them. However, there were lots of local bands in Ipswich who we hung around with and I think we all fed off each other – Boredom Brothers, Danse Macabre etc. I always felt others had more musical ability/talent than me, so I was always trying to learn stuff but I’m basically a technician, not a musician! I even had to retune my 12 string electric guitar to make it easier to play!
SJ: As Andrew says, we were always delighted that anyone considered what we were doing worthy of putting out in that kind of company. I don’t think we ever refused an invitation to be on a compilation. In that pre internet world it was a great way to get our stuff heard, and we ended up with far more interest in our music overseas than in the UK.
I really didn’t think of us as being on the same terms as any of those bands. We were more interested in what was going on locally, the scene around Ipswich, Colchester and Bury St Edmunds. The bands that we gigged with were different to us musically, but had a similar DIY attitude and were mutually supportive. I think we all believed in ourselves because of punk rock.
DE: I first heard your song ‘Roma Distruta’ at a club in New York City and I felt so drawn to your thumping bass and use of samples. How did you create such catchy music that strayed away from the standard UK post punk of the 80s?
AL: Not sure – I think we took bits from everything we liked and then tried to make our own version. I was strongly influenced by punk thanks to Nigel Flurrie, a guy from Ipswich, so often leaned towards noise and anger but equally I love Joy Division, Cocteau Twins, John Carpenter’s films and music etc. I think we also hated the 80’s pop culture and bands so much that we wanted to go in the opposite direction. ‘Roma Distruta’ was partially influenced by an SPK track I heard.
SJ: I wondered how you came across us. I find it truly bizarre that one of our tracks was being played in a club in New York. I just think we are incredibly obscure. I also believe that most of the interest in Nagamatzu stems from people back tracking through Andrew’s musical heritage.
I think our sound evolved through absorbing and in some cases trying to emulate our influences, but being only partially able to do so due to lack of musical ability and having limited equipment. Sounding as we did was a very challenging thing to achieve with limited resources, but I think the limitations were in the end a help, forcing us to be inventive and experiment. The bass heavy sound was indicative of our mutual admiration of Peter Hook. Andrew is responsible for almost all of the rhythm programming and sequencing in Nagamatzu. As his studio was at his home he’d spend God knows how many hours building tracks for me to come in and mess around over the top of. Many tracks I had a lot of input, but some are almost wholly Lagowski, “Roma Distruta” being a case in point. I think all I played on that was bass. I made sure I played it loud and he was kind enough to record it so rather than telling me to shut up.
DE: After talking to the DJ and getting the song information, I quickly discovered your http://www.archive.org/details/NagamatzuArchive site devoted to sharing the long lost Sacred Islands of the Mad cassette and more. What was the reasoning behind using this site to share your songs?
AL: I wanted people to be able to hear our work who might not have had a chance when we were doing cassettes.
DE: How do you feel about the renewed interest in your music and newer bands that look to Nagamatzu for inspiration?
AL: Amazed and grateful. I can’t imagine how we would be inspiring after we took so much inspiration from other bands we loved, but I’m not complaining of course.
SJ: I love the fact that there is renewed interest in Nagamatzu. I know it’s supposed to be a sin, but I was always proud of what we did and am glad people are getting the chance to hear us again. I can’t thank you enough for wanting to release this LP. As to inspiring anyone, I don’t know that we are.
DE: Both of you have stayed active in the music world over the years, do you have any current musical projects or future plans?
AL: I work on Lagowski and S.E.T.I. music and videos when I have spare time and sometimes do gigs if they are interesting festivals or venues http://www.lagowski.com
SJ: I no longer make music. I recorded my first Pure Motorised Instinct album around the same time that we did the last Nagamatzu album, then did one more “Everything is true”, which I think is my best, just after Nagamatzu ended. I did a handful of tunes as Terraform too, the outlet for the more Nagamatzu like work that didn’t fit with Pure Motorised Instinct. After that I tried to write some more, but felt I was repeating myself and in a bit of a rut, so decided to take a break. Work pressures meant that I didn’t have the time to go back to it for many years, and though those have now eased I don’t currently have the desire, my energies are directed to the visual arts now, and gardening. Never say never though, I still have much of the equipment, can’t quite let it go.
I’m delighted that Andrew has continued to record and perform and has become such a deservedly well respected artist.
Nagamatzu‘s Sacred Islands Of The Mad LP is out now on Dark Entries Records, get your copy in the SHOP or from one of our fine distributors.