We hope most of you have the STRESS – Conspiracy Theory LP in your possession and the jam-packed 16 page zine that accompanied it. Sadly we had to cut some pages from the zine out including this interview, so please read up on your STRESS history while listening to the record.
Words and pictures by Kleo Fanthorpe
It’s a bright day in September 2011 and Stress are sitting before me in the cafe of a museum in the shadow of the Coventry’s famous bombed out cathedral. It’s been over 25 years since they were last interviewed about Stress and with 2012 seeing two new re-issues of Stress material coming out, it’s hard to shut them up. Memories of the summer riots that tore through the country are still fresh, and the UK recession is just beginning to bite, brought about by the “Greed is Good” ethos previously championed by the Thatcher Government. A Tory Government is in place who are hell bent on cutting everything to the bone. The parallels with the 1980s are chillingly obvious….
K: So to kick off, what do you both feel about Stress material being re-released almost 30 years on?
A: “I think that it’s absolutely right that this material is coming out again now. It might seem like nostalgia, and yes there is a renewed interest in ’80’s music, but the situation politically and socially is very similar to how it was back then. We have a right wing Government in power (who didn’t even get a majority) who are very similar politically to the Thatcher Government, and a bad recession with cuts and job losses. The only difference now is that no one seems to have the will to fight it. That’s why I feel that Stress is as relevant now as it was then. I’m not being a pessimist, but Government’s love power and people are very easy to manipulate and that’s just not a good combination!”
P: “I think it feels like the right time too. The music hasn’t dated particularly and it doesn’t have a “vintage” feel as such. Aside from the basic recording facilities we had to work with at the time, it could have been recorded yesterday really as the subjects of the songs feel quite contemporary, although they are quite stripped down. A lot of songs being recorded now in the electro field are also quite simple. I don’t quite agree that this Government is the same as the Thatcher one though, they are far more covert, but they still have the same basic philosophy – controlling things to benefit their rich chums. Whatever complexion they put on it, it’ still the same old ideas behind it”
A: “Although the background is different, the result is still the same. Basically it’s Government for the wealthy and screw everyone else. That same lack of compassion we experienced under Thatcher is definitely still there. Shame really, as for a while there things were improving”
K: There is a far higher level of affluence and social awareness now though, even amongst the poorer parts of society. Everyone seems to have a huge flat screen TV and a smart phone however poor they say they are. So how does that fit with the recent riots all over the country? They aren’t the same as the riots in the 1980’s….
A: “Although the media make a huge deal of it, I don’t think the riots we saw this year were even as widespread as in the 80’s – though I could be wrong! The reason behind it may have been different, but that general sense of anger with society was still there. The media played a huge part in these riots this time though. In fact I think they were one of the biggest culprits in making it spread so fast. They seemed to love it, with reporters rushing to the scene and almost encouraging things to escalate. I remember one news report that even had a map pointing out the areas of the country where police were at their thinnest. They might as well have said “please riot here”. Maybe that was their intention. They certainly seemed to be quite disappointed when it all fizzled out”
K: It’d interesting how it’s turned into a real witch hunt now, tracking down and arresting anyone who was even in the area and handing out really harsh punishments….
P: ” It’s probably because the Police went in relatively soft at the time, that they now want to look hard. They seem to be relying on getting images off CCTV afterwards and then beating people up through the legal system, but the people they are vilifying through the media are soft targets really. No one is going to have a lot of sympathy for some hoody throwing a brick through a window and stealing some trainers. That’s actually rather pathetic if you think about it and you have to ask why anyone would want to do that. But by focussing on tracking people down, the real reasons it happened are being ignored. If you tell people that all that matters is how many possessions you have, that their standing in society is based entirely on wealth, and that “Greed is Good”, then if people see a chance to get something for nothing they will go for it. Focussing only on the riots themselves is a smoke screen really, hiding the real reasons”
A: ” It’s also not so well known that [UK Prime Minister] David Cameron and his posh chums from Cambridge used to be in a drinking club when they were at university together that regularly used to go out and smash up restaurants on drunken nights out. That’s definitely anti social behaviour by any definition, but was dismissed by him as youthful high spirits, so there is a lot of hypocrisy and double standards being applied. There just doesn’t seem any willingness at all to look at the real social reasons behind the riots either. It’s easy to blame it on “criminal gangs” but when you think about it, what organised criminal would think that grabbing some trainers from a shop window live on national television was a great way to make money? That’s just ridiculous. People don’t just spontaneously start rioting all over the country. There is always a reason. I just don’t think the Government want to hear what that is. Look at the banks. That’s smash and grab at a corporate level, but they get away with it. What’s the difference really when it comes down to it?”
K: Coming back to Stress, how does that situation relate to what you were singing about in the 1980’s?
A: That’s a good point. These things do link back to some of the ideas in Stress songs, the idea of a consumer society gone wrong. That doesn’t only apply to the UK of course, its a global issue, as we’ve seen recently. What the riots do show is that the idea that you can’t be a complete person without certain consumer goods is a poisonous and actually quite dangerous concept. It’s been around since the 50’s when advertising really took off, but it’s a socially divisive thing which is ultimately very destructive. That’s what Stress was describing at the time and it still applies now. In some ways even more so.”
P: “Those same ideals are probably even more all pervasive now due to social media – facebook and such – being absolutely everywhere, and the fact that from a very early age it’s drummed into people that you prove your worth through your clothes and possessions, even to the extent of people feeling they have to surgically modify their own bodies to conform to an ideal size, shape and appearance that is completely artificial. It’s very easy to buy into all that without even realising it”
K: So why choose the name Stress? Was it stressful making music together?
P: ” I honestly can’t remember. I’ve always liked word play so it must have seemed appropriate at the time, stressing the point, etc. I can’t say we were in a constant state of stress all the time, though we had our moments! It’s not a bad name though. I’m used to it now, so it’s hard to imagine us being called anything else.”
A: “I can’t remember either, or whose idea it was, though it was probably dreamt up in the pub after a few too many beers. That’s how most bands choose their names isn’t it? That would explain why there are so many bands with stupid names around. Echo and the Bunnymen? Who thought that one up? It saved us a lot of money on Letraset at time though, as there were always loads of magazine articles on tackling stress that we could use the headlines from!”
K: How did you go about writing and recording tracks together?
P: “When we were writing and recording the songs, I always had a really strong picture of how I wanted songs to sound from the start. A good example is “Slaves To Beat” off The Big Wheel album. The idea for that song was there from the start and could have been written in twelve foot tall neon letters, it was just that clear to me how it was to be. That still didn’t mean it was straightforward to get it done and recorded. Just by having someone else in on the creative process alters it and moves it away from how I imagined it should sound. That wasn’t just with Alan, but with engineers and other people we worked with too. Often we were all virtually tearing our hair out by the end of the process.”
A: ” The way we worked did change over the years. In the beginning we had only very basic equipment and recorded in Phil’s bedroom. It was certainly a sparser sound, but the process was more democratic as we input pretty much equally and experimented quite a bit. Later on things got a bit more complex and structured and Phil took on a more dominant role in the song writing, with me trying to add a bit of chaos to the proceedings. We had more technology available by then too and I got very involved in the recording and engineering side”
K: What about releasing material? You didn’t have a record company behind you…
A: “As we both came from a background of doing fanzines, we were quite comfortable with doing things ourselves. We didn’t have a manager, publicist or record deal like lots of bands did, which made us very self reliant. We recorded and released everything ourselves through my Adventures in Reality label, or through like-minded record labels such as Third Mind and independent cassette labels. I had struck a deal with Rough Trade where they paid for the pressings and distributed the records, but we had total freedom over the recordings and artwork and kept all the copyright. That worked well. I used to chase after interviews all the time too as I felt it was really important to get the ideas behind the music across. Most interviews with bands are pointless, as outside of being musicians they don’t really have anything to say. We definitely had a lot to say, and that’s what made us very different to the vast majority of the local bands in the Coventry area, or indeed nationally.”
K: Stress only ever played a handful of gigs, less than 10 in all wasn’t it? Looking back, do you now wish you had done more?
A: I do. From what I’ve seen from other bands I think it would have helped make us better musicians too if we had to play live more regularly. You are quite exposed on stage and there’s no second chance if you hit a bum note, so you have to get it right every time. I think we would probably have stayed together longer as a band too as it does bring you closer together sharing those experiences. We always faced a challenge performing live as there was only two of us so we had a lot to do and we couldn’t afford a lot of equipment either. We did use some slides, but making it interesting visually was always a difficult one. Metal percussion helped a bit as it made a lot of noise and looked good, but that was only really used on the one track [Tear it Down]. Playing live tends to widens your horizons too as you travel more, meet a lot of interesting people, and often have quite weird experiences. I guess I was always more comfortable with gigging than Phil was as I had done quite a lot of it with Attrition and the Legendary Pink Dots in Europe and around the country when I did their live visuals for them. There was of course also a lot more pressure on Phil to be the front man than there was on me”
P: ” We just had so much to do onstage that the maximum set we could realistically do was 30 minutes or so, because my voice just wasn’t up to anything more. I had no real vocal technique and would shout myself so hoarse that I could hardly talk the next day. I never really liked the lack of control you had with playing live either and the risk of us totally screwing it up was always at the back of my mind. I’d never really thought of myself as a performer either, I just wrote the words and had to sing them because there was no one else to do it! I remember it was always nerve wracking for me just before we played. I tended to retreat into myself a bit beforehand. There was an instrumental track (“Anthem”) that Alan had written which we used for an intro and when I heard it again recently it really brought back that feeling of waiting to go on. It’s only 2½ minutes long but it seemed more like 15 at the time! Having said that though, Alan played me some old live recordings recently and I think they all sound pretty good”
K: Finally, how have you changed personally since those days and are there any things looking back you would have changed if you had a second chance?
P: “I don’t think we have personally really changed that much at heart. We are still the same people and the fact we are here today doing this interview and putting together material and artwork for the re-issues shows we are still up for it and haven’t disowned our past or become boring and conventional. As for what I would have changed, I would have liked to have done more lighter sounding material as well as all the shouty stuff.”
A: “I realise now that I should have included Stress on some of the bigger selling Adventures in Realities releases such as the Something Stirs compilation LP and the Last Supper compilation. Those have now become quite legendary in their own way. I can’t really think why I didn’t include Stress on them at the time. If there was any way I could have found to have included additional tracks on The Big Wheel to make it up from a 6 track mini LP to a full LP, I really should have done that too. Still, it’s good we have the opportunity to re-release the material again now on vinyl and CD, particularly the tracks that only ever came out on cassette”
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