Ever woken up, dripping with sweat, having suffered The Terrifying Dream? The Scaramanga Six certainly have and they've gone and written an album about it, the songs all in some way recounting those fear filled nights. Bassist and singer Steven Morricone spoke with Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid about the Six's foursome, the art of making recording an album as difficult as possible, while still delivering a killer record and of course, dreams that terrify
Hi Steven and thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for Sea of Tranquility, it's hugely appreciated.
No worries at all, fellow Steven.
I'm embarrassed to say that your new album, The Terrifying Dream is the first time Sea of Tranquility has encountered The Scaramanga Six, so can we start with some of the background please. When did the band first come together and how have you evolved from The Scaramanga Six, to the current Scaramanga four?
There is no need for embarrassment - We have been lurking ominously in the shadows nibbling around the edge of the biscuit of obscurity for twenty long years now. Though relentless in our activity, a certain amount of media blackout over the years concerning our releases and a tendency to turn up relatively unannounced at gigs does mean that we are often a new discovery to people of taste like yourself. It's not through choice of course the fact we are so far underground that we are almost troglodytes is something we would very much like to change, and hopefully your readers can help us out in that respect.
The band has always been loosely based in Huddersfield, W. Yorks we started out Monkees-style as a bunch of dossers sharing a big old Victorian house there in the mid 90's, annoying neighbours with deafening attic jam sessions. The band that arose from that was initially called just 'Scaramanga', but then quickly changed to The Scaramanga Six because we wanted to sound more like a wrongly convicted set of detainees. There were actually six of us to start off with, but the name stuck despite numerous line-up changes and fluctuating numbers. What's in a name eh?
It's always been based around me and my twin brother Paul as long as we rock together it will continue. Our secret weapon, Julia Arnez, on guitar has been with us for 19yrs and drum-twatter Gareth Champion is now the longest serving stickman at nearly 10 years, mainly on his account of also being a terrific chef.
Through it all, we like to think there has been some consistency of style and content though we have got better at recording and performing, most of the early material still stands up to today's output.
In my review of The Terrifying Dream, I found it unusually difficult to categorise your music into a neat genre box. When someone asks you, "so what sort of music does your band play?". What is the answer you give them?
20 years down the line and this is no clearer to any of us either. The best description we've come up with is that we are like an evil version of a pop group. Some would say we are fairly straight-forward punk rock, and it's true to say that our material is up-front, but where would be the fun in being predictable? We wouldn't describe ourselves as prog, yet there seems to be an affinity with those who like that sort of thing.
I suppose if you imagined the sort of encyclopaedic racket that would emanate from the arse of a werewolf that's just eaten all of your very favourite bands, that's us in a nutshell.
As a band you seem very open to new ideas, the line-up having expanded and contracted and various instruments incorporated and then sometimes discarded. You've also employed different and varied recording formats. Is the experience and challenge of pushing the boundaries and vision of what The Scaramanga Six can achieve almost as much of a driving force in itself as the creation of superb music?
I think we've only just scratched the surface of our creative potential, and that's what truly keeps us going. Always make the next thing you do better or different from the last.
It's very easy to rest on your laurels and settle into an easy and predictable way of doing things, so we like to make things as hard as possible for ourselves (sometimes unintentionally!) which keeps us on our toes and also keeps the handful of likers we have accrued guessing.
So we might bolster the line-up to have two drummers and play entirely live (such as on Phantom Head) or set ourselves an arbitrary, but ridiculously short deadline for completion which can force something exciting out including all warts (Songs of Prey is a good example written, recorded and released in about 6 months flat). For the latest album, I moved 200 miles away from the others and we all worked by proxy in complete isolation, only really speaking to each other when absolutely necessary. As our potential for playing the tunes live would be decreased due to lack of togetherness to practice, we thought sod it and decided to abandon a purely live-sounding approach and return to the lavish style of arrangement, incorporating all manner of instruments, which provided its own level of satisfaction.
The Terrifying Dream; it's a conceptual album without being a concept album. Can you share the lyrical ideas and themes behind the album and the songs please.
Most of our albums have a vaguely concept-y feel to them, but this one seems to have been stitched together tighter than others. The first few songs to emerge seemed to sum up waking with a cold sweat and a pounding heart after some unfathomable jumble of feelings, situations and people from your subconscious touches a genuine nerve in your sleep It stemmed from there really: a collection of songs inspired by the strange and uncontrollable truths of your dreams. Horrendous and stifling environments and grim caricatures of familiar people mix with real home life ("Citadel"), deep longing and heart-stabbing guilt ("Arabella"), strange 3rd-person detachment and morbid fascination ("The Outsider" and "Staring at the Accident"). The album has a strangely calming epilogue in "Be Nothing" in the realization that none of these human concerns actually matter.
And where did that idea emanate from?
It would be trite to say that the idea came to us in a dream, and also complete bollocks. How the hell can we all be dreaming the same thing at the same time unless our brains were locked in uni-thought by some strange force? That normally only happens during live performances.
Seriously, it happened organically from a few fronds of commonality that seemed to get thicker and more pervasive like a bramble through a shrubbery. We merely harvested the berries and made one hell of a crumble.
As I mentioned, the album contains a whole host of styles and attacks, where do you all draw your influences and writing styles from?
On this album you can probably hear elements of Stranglers, Magazine, Cardiacs, The Four Tops, Burt Bacharach, Black Sabbath, Talking Heads, Julian Cope, John Barry and the like all mushed up into a paste that ultimately still sounds like us. We like the dramatisations and distortions of the human condition that the likes of Scott Walker, Andy Partridge or Sparks bring into song. Writing styles and approaches vary wildly sometimes it comes easy, other times an idea can be gestating for months or even years.
In terms of writing, who brings what to the band? Do you all write individually, coming up with full songs, or is the process much more collaborative - or a combination of the two?
About three quarters of the songs are written by Paul, and the rest by me though I tend to stuff a couple of songs-worth into each. Our Paul has always been able to write with greater clarity and his songs also tend to be more conducive for subsequent mauling by the band. Of course when we get hold of a tune as a group it can morph into something much more hideous and beautiful. Julia has the power to poo-poo a tune if she feels that way about it there's no middle ground with her she either likes a song or would rather gouge out her own eyeballs and stuff them in her ears than play it. Gareth is generally congenial.
Now I have to focus on the song "The Man Who Couldn't Sing". It was a song which really grabbed me when I saw you in Edinburgh. I have to ask if it is an autobiographical song and if not, where did the inspiration come from?
"The Man Who Couldn't Sing" is about one such nightmare situation whereby the subject of the dream is onstage for the most important public appearance of his career only to be choked to croaky silence by an imaginary hand of terror. Our Paul dreamt this one up, but in reality it never happens of course none of can seem to stop him singing, no matter how hard we strangle.
I think pretty much every musician has this same sort of dream you are playing in your favourite band and suddenly you don't know any of the material, your equipment is buggered or you just can't seem to physically get on the stage. Your ambitions are realized only to be scuppered. Mine seem to feature a lot of logistical problems and general untidiness onstage perhaps that says something autobiographical?
I know that most bands claim that their newest release is, obviously, they're best. However when I spoke to you in Edinburgh, you were already showing how excited you were about what was about to come with The Terrifying Dream. What is it about this album that has you so enthused?
It's because in spite of all the self-imposed difficulties, we seemed to come up with the most coherent and vast array of songs yet. We had 20 or so songs selected for recording, so when complete there was a delicious dilemma in which to pick for the album something we've not had before as we usually just bung the lot on. The end result just seemed to flow perfectly we really do think this is our best yet, no word of a lie. It's taken us in some very tantalising new directions with a new level of darkness, yet seems also to be one of our most 'poppy'. How the frig did we manage that? Just couldn't wait for people to wrap their ears around it.
And how much do you feel you have evolved over the years, and specifically from your last album Phantom Head, which you recorded on two-track tape with Steve Albini producing?
We knew what we were doing from the outset basically we play the music we want to hear. If you are not in your favourite band, then something is not right. Though we've got a lot better at recording and performing over the years, I don't think a great deal has changed in the overall musical vision but things have veered from the more melodramatic to the more punky to the more cinematic to the more mental. I'd say we've certainly got more confident over time.
Recording with Steve Albini was a real experience for us, but strangely enough it took us right back to our earliest experiences with recording before all studios had a digital setup with pro-tools and that. It's probably testament to our focused approach that that album turned out with the bear minimum of errors, despite being played mainly live. We returned to a dense, layering approach with the new album.
You utilised the ever expanding Pledge crowd funding platform for this album - which you also did for Phantom Head - is that an experience and format you enjoy taking part in?
Actually, 'The Terrifying Dream' was our first ever foray into PledgeMusic we funded all the previous albums ourselves through our own label Wrath Records, but had to put out a direct appeal to our supporters for 'Phantom Head' when Gareth's appendix exploded a few weeks before we were due to fly out to Chicago to record our own resources depleted, we needed the funds to pay for the re-arranged flights with Twatbastard Airlines, which amazingly people gave us directly!
For this new album, PledgeMusic was an absolute revelation for us kicking ourselves that we didn't try it out sooner, but I think a certain amount of foolish pride got in our way before. We were hugely inspired by the success and amazing sense of community that got built around campaigns by contemporaries like the ever-fantastic Eureka Machines. It worked a treat for us, and allowed us to really give a massive bundle of specialness to the pledgers. I can't recommend it enough for those who are independent-minded and well organized.
I recently had a look through the projects currently seeking funding on Pledge and have to say I was dazzled by the amount of bands and other projects there; the list was endless. How much of a challenge is it to stand out and hit the target you hope to?
It's certainly getting bigger and bigger as more high-profile artists figure out it's a much better model of self-release than going through a label. Some are there because of parting company with their previous labels and they are doing what every band/artist that has had a leg-up should do cultivate and harvest their crops directly. We've never had that initial success to trade on, but our longevity and persistence has helped us build up enough of a following to make it a viable thing to have a go at. We must have been doing something right to stand out, as we got a large amount of pledgers through that were completely new to the band. PledgeMusic themselves do help out where they can with publicity we got our campaign featured on the front page of the website for the first couple of weeks, which really helped. They must have liked our approach.
Amazingly, we hit our target within 16hrs of the campaign opening which totally knocked us sideways. They urged us to err on the side of caution with the initial target, which was good advice, but we had an idea of what we could raise already from the Phantom Head appeal as it turned out, we trebled that. It may be more difficult to stand out the next time, but I'm confident we can at least repeat our success.
Bands usually offer their fans exclusives items and other unavailable experiences and the like. However you offered up the chance for Pledgers to have some of their own belongings personalised by the band, before having them sent back to them
Can you give us some detail about what you received and what you did to, well, Scaramanga them? It has been one of my favourite Pledges to see come to fruition!
I think you are referring to the 'The Scaramanga Six will tell you to FUCK OFF' exclusive. We have a reputation for a certain amount of audience abuse and intimidation, which people seem to lap up like the simpering scum they are. This is that a few stages further the 'lucky' pledger could send us any solid object, which we would then scrawl all over with puerile and offensive messages aimed at whomever the pledger wanted, all with love from The Scaramanga Six. Pretty much all of them were self-abusive. They were given a short questionnaire to fill out including a 1-10 rating of how offensive, how many spurting cock & balls pictures etc.
We got sent some of the following items: A shit Flying-V Ukulele, a mannequin head, a Eureka Machines poster (that was particularly satisfying to deface), a pair of brand-new studio monitor speakers etc. Needless to say, we did a number on them and that number was 2. You can see some of these soiled items on our Facebook page.
Did you get any reaction back from the people who'd sent their stuff in, to firstly seeing the video on Pledge and then to receiving their items back?
Yes, they bloody loved it and furthermore, when they got in touch to say thank you, we told them to FUCK OFF again - on a couple of occasions in person.
I've been hugely impressed with The Terrifying Dream. It also feels like the sort of album which is just crying out to be performed live. Do you have any plans for some more live shows?
Strangely, our circumstances have meant that this has been more of a studio album than any of our previous ones so only a handful of the tunes have made it into our live set, mores the pity. Perhaps we may eventually rehearse again, in which case we could get a few more of them gig-fit. However, I suspect we may just move on to yet more new material.
There are always gigs in the pipeline, but we face a slight hiatus for a few months as I am about to become a father for the first time. The others toyed with the idea of replacing me, but then realized that it would be an empty endeavour filled only with a vacuum of despair (in reality, they couldn't be arsed). We have had a pretty busy year so far, but now all my gallivanting is over for the moment.
Fear not, we will be back and when you least expect it. We are like a cross between a yo-yo and a bad smell.
And finally, with such a fine album under your belt, what can we expect next from The Scaramanga Six?
The working title of our next opus is 'Mysteries of the Unknown' - Not even we will know what it will be until it happens.
(Click here to read our reviews of The Terrifying Dream)