By Chyrisse Tabone, Journalist/Photographer and Amanda Cunningham, Photographer–London
A couple of months ago while checking out videos on YouTube I discovered a fantastic dark and eerie post-punk song called “The Universe Explodes Into A Billion Photons of White Pure Light.” It absolutely blew my mind! The song was from a newly released album by 1980s underground punk cult group Membranes and was its first in 26 years. I knew I had to find out more about this band and little would I know in July I would have the opportunity to sit down and chat with band leader and songwriter John Robb. We met at a studio where he was busy producing the debut EP from garage punk band Black Crack.
Sitting on a couch in a 70s style wallpapered room with eclectic décor we initiated a chat until dinner beckoned as everyone adjourned to a nearby café for wonderful roasted vegetable wraps with feta cheese. After lighthearted dinner talk, we mozied back to the studio while walking. I grabbed my Zoom audio recorder and asked Robb about his extraordinary career as an author, music journalist, historian on punk rock history, lead singer/composer with Goldblade and the revived Membranes, as well as a science enthusiast. Robb has participated in the annual TedxSalford conference as well as focused his latest album Dark Matter/Dark Energy with themes centering on the Universe and Quantum Physics. His interest was piqued after meeting Higgs-Boson scientist Joe Incandela, head of CMS Experiments at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, a few years ago.
Membranes and Dark Matter/Dark Energy
First off, Rock At Night had to ask the most obvious question to Robb, “Why and how after 26 years did the Membranes produce a new album?”
Robb responded, “When we formed in Blackpool in 1979 (by 1990 the punk rock scene was running out of steam) people weren’t giving us gigs anymore. So we stopped the band about a week and never got back to doing it again.”
During the next couple of decades Robb became “side-tracked with writing for music papers, writing books and doing the telly.” He formed another band called Goldblade which gave him his “fix for music.”
Robb later explained the Membranes reunited about four years ago when “we got asked by My Bloody Valentine to play at the ATP Festival.” He continued, “Years ago when we started, My Bloody Valentine was one of our support bands and we became very good friends with them. And the guitar player with The Membranes played with My Bloody Valentine for their first mini-album. We have connections with them. In the meantime they’ve became this huge and we became this weird little cult band.”
The Membranes teamed up with My Bloody Valentine and played a “load of gigs” including performing in the festival circuit in Europe and even Istanbul. During the concerts Robb did not want to play the old Membranes tunes since “we didn’t really have any hits because we were an underground band.” He felt Membranes music should progress forward so the band played around with ideas for new music, later sitting down to actually record the tunes which appeared to “pour out” during this newfound creative surge.
Robb explained, “Some of the songs on the album are jams. They don’t sound the same twice. Some of the vocals I did straight from my head.”
Rock At Night asked, “Did you improvise?”
“Yes, I did improvise. I love to improvise. When we play them live we play them different everytime….to just keep the edge on it….to keep moving it around.”
We continued walking through the alleyway toward the studio. I noticed a lot of colorful pastel-colored graffiti on the brick walls, which appealed to my interest in urban culture. Robb then explained the background of the post-punk music and its evolution in the UK. He asserted, “It’s really meant to capture an atmosphere. An atmosphere with dark melancholic atmosphere of the great northwest music…which must sound weird if you live in a hot, sunny place.”
Robb explained that the people in the Mediterranean and America love dark or post-punk music more than those in the UK. He believed the inclement weather and industrial atmosphere in Northern England created the darkness and gloominess that inspired the evolution of a lot of post-punk music. He grew up in Blackpool which he described as a “bit like Las Vegas—a tacky, holiday town—so we didn’t have any industrial waste or the northern thing. But Manchester North did (they were really beating up the cities there).”
Since Robb is a punk music historian, it was fascinating to listen to his insight. He continued, “If you listen to Joy Division, they don’t do songs about ‘life’s not fair…I don’t have any money’. They just sing songs that reflect what Manchester looked at that time. If you listened to their music, that’s what Manchester looked like. It was all warehouses and broken windows. It doesn’t look like that now (it’s like this…expensive buildings everywhere you go.” He starts pointing in the direction of various buildings in the area.
As Robb slows down his walking pace and pauses, he explained, “So we grew up with that…that was part of our heritage. We tapped back into that side. ..the natural side of our music and it was a lot more experimental, dark, or weirder.”
Rock At Night asked, “How does the new stuff differ from the original music?”
Robb replied without hesitation, “Well, the thing was we didn’t know how to play that well then. We were so young.”
“So technically you got more training?”
“We kind of understand how to do it now.”
“One of the tricks is to keep it simple, really. To keep it simple.”
The central theme of Dark Matter/Dark Energy is quantum theory physics? Rock at Night wondered how science inspired the album and Robb explained, “You know those Ted Talks? You get 17 minutes to talk about a topic. I did one called ‘Punk Rock DIY’ in Sulford. They had guests sitting around and having dinner together….”
“Like a round table?”
“Yes, like a round table. The guy opposite to me asked, ‘What do you do, mate? I’d love to talk to you. I love punk. The Buzzcocks are my favorite band.’ So I asked him, ‘What do you do anyway?’ and he goes ‘I’m the head of the CERN Project.’“
Rock At Night said, “Wow! That is something else! This is how you met Higgs-Boson scientist Joe Incandela!”
Robb exclaimed, “I said, ‘Whoa! I’ll tell you about the Buzzcocks but you need to tell me about the Universe back from the very beginning to the end.’”
Robb explained that Incandela grew up in a little town near Chicago which only had “100 houses in it.” Incandela went to school with Laurie Anderson, who incidentally contributed to CERN by writing its theme tune. Robb laughed and pointed out, “That was a high achieving village in America!”
One could see the pride when Robb discusses Incandela and CERN. He clearly is knowledgeable of science and beams as he discussed the topic. He said, “So he talked about how the Big Bang was traced back to the first trillionith of a second …in the end…how in the universe…all the matter cannot hold itself together anymore because gravity or forces (there’s not enough of it). It goes into endless photons of white light that glows forever and ever. It’s kind of like what they say in Hinduism…it’s like a vision of heaven but a scientific version.”
Rock At Night asked, “So he explained all this?”
Robb confirmed, “Yes, they thought they understood the universe and unraveling it all. He said, ‘Now the 30 years he’s been there they know about 2 percent of the information.’”
Rock at Night laughed and agreed, “The more you know, the less you know.”
“That’s what he said to me, ‘the more we find out the less we know.’ This is amazing! It’s a pretty heavy, brilliant concept. I was surfing for information and then I thought, ‘Wow. Wouldn’t it be great to make music that sounded like this information?’
Dark Matter/Dark Energy is Robb’s attempt in capturing the “intensity of his ideas in a musical kind of way.” From his discussions with scientists and Incandela, he noted, “They talk about dark matter, dark energy and they think 80% of the universe is dark matter . So I asked, ‘What is dark matter?’ He goes, “It’s dark! We call it matter because we don’t know what it is.. so we’ve got to call it something!” (Laughter)
Robb explained that Incandela actually made a “cameo” appearance in the album because there is a snippet of him speaking within one song. Robb says, “I chopped an interview [with Joe Incandela] so you can hear him. He’s got a great voice! He explains dark matter…’Well, dark matter is’…. (Robb puts on an American accent) it constitutes most of the universe…’”
Rock At Night said, “Dark Matter, Dark Energy…It’s such a fantastic title for an album.”
Robb agreed, “It’s fantastic energy for a dark record .There’s more artistic ideas getting off the idea of the universe than just listing the facts. It’s a concept album that tries to capture the atmosphere of wonderment and the strangeness.”
“Is it like an abstract art project?”
“Laced into that the songs are esoteric…they are about real things. It starts with the beginning of the universe and the end of the universe….and I was actually thinking I could do my life in there, as well…you start to get born and then you die so.”
Robb quieted for a moment and confided, “When me dad died…The last track of the album “The Hum of the Universe” is about death, really. You basically turn back into dust…into the universe.”
“Yes, we are all part of the universe. People seem to think the universe is over there but it’s here…it’s part of the floor, really. It’s here…When me dad died he floated off into eternity….in a sense…not in a religious sense but a practical sense. He was always quite scientific, me dad….
“He’s actually talking to me in the track. When I thought he was going to die I got a recorder out and recorded about a 45 minute conversation of him talking about the universe. He said, ‘You were always interested in the universe, weren’t you, son?’ I clipped that out and put it in the track. He would have thought that was pretty cool?”
Rock At Night asked, “He would have approved?”
“Yeah, because it was about the universe and he was always fascinated by that.”
The Musical Universe
At this point in the interview the topic shifted to the musical aspect of the universe—drones. Robb explained, “Another thing about the universe is the universe has a musical note. It’s B-minor…about 45 steps down. It drones. We got into drones as well. We tried to get the drone of the universe. That track is in B-minor so we’re trying to make the musical equivalence of the universe.”
He continued, “When you mediate, you try to get into the perfect zone. That’s the same as the universe. I like the idea about trying to lock into the universe. So there’s all sorts of those kind of things going on in the record. It’s a complex record.”
Rock at Night responded, “This is a very deep topic. Do you think people will get what you are trying to do?”
Robb said, “You can’t make records worried about what other people think. You know, when you make a painting, you don’t you are going to sell the painting. So, it’s like a work of art in a sense.”
Robb put his heart and soul into creating his masterpiece Dark Matter/Dark Energy. He admittedly spent every penny he had on that record saying, “I’ve got no money now. I’m so skint.”
After completion of the album, he sent demos to colleagues and asked them to be straight with him about the album. He was floored with the overwhelming amount of enthusiastic responses saying “This is fuckin’ amazing! This is the fuckin’ greatest thing! This is Record of the Year.” I have to admit. I agree with their assessment.
Future Plans for Membranes
The Membranes have signed on with the record label Metropolis and a tour of the US is being planned for the Fall. The dates and locations are currently being worked out.
Robb also proudly announced Membranes are going to be playing in Estonia for Science Week with a 30-piece-all-woman choir on September 25th. He said the event will be televised and a single will be produced in a year or two. He explained about the women choir, “We might use them as kind of a dark drone.”
He continues, “Yeah, National TV will film it. They all dress in red and we all dress in black. They’ll stand in a semi-circle around us and we’ll play…and they look amazing. Visual things are important.”
Rock At Night asked, “What other things do you have cooking?”
Robb answered, “I write for a website called Louder Than War and I write about music and other stuff as well. I write books. I’m working on a book right now about darker music. The story of post-punk is being re-written in England. There’s a lot of innovative bands. Of course I love the Gang of Four. These bands are really part of history. I’m writing about the half that hasn’t been covered before. There’s a TV thing I’m working on like an arts program. “
John Robb is one talented and busy man! Rock At Night really looks forward to the Membranes arrival in the US and hearing more stellar music from this fascinating band!
“Do the Supernova”
“The Universe Explodes Into a Billion Photons of Pure White Light”
“If You Enter the Arena, You’ve Got to Be Prepared to Deal with the Lions”
John Robb of Membranes circa 1985
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I grew up in a household full of rock music, studied journalism in college, and then became a scientist.Although my science career has served me well, music has always played a major role in my life. I grew up reading "Creem" magazine; I play several musical instruments as a "hobby";and it seems a camera has always been in my hand. Now, I am combining what I love the most--music and photography--serving as editor of Rock At Night. My motto: life is short...no regrets. Chyrisse