This year marks the 20th anniversary of Lamb's self-titled debut record. When Andy Barlow and Lou Rhodes met in the 1990s, their lives merged and so did their creative energies. In many ways, their musical tastes conflicted; Andy was immersed in experimental electronics while Lou came from a singer-songwriter perspective. The juxtaposition that existed between them birthed a sound and a debut album like no other.
The common ground they found together evaded genre boundaries in creating their own hybrid which penetrated the worlds of electronica, trip hop, jazz and blues. Something inimitable exists in the stormy sounds of 'Transfatty Acid', the stimulating beats of 'Cotton Wool' and the bliss of 'Gorecki'. It seized the imaginations of those whom it reached in how it contrasted the transcendent spirit of the underground music scene with introspective lyrics on life and love.
Since their debut they have continued to make distinguished and exciting records and are set to play London's upcoming Convergence festival in March. Ahead of their performance, Andrew Darley spoke to Lou and Andy about the making of their pioneering debut and how their creative differences have now become their commonality.
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It's been 20 years since the self-titled debut. Obviously so much has happened for you both in the meantime, personally and professionally. Looking back on who you were at that time, do you see the album under a different light now?
LR: It's quite something to think that album was made 20 years ago. Looking back to who we were then, working in the basement of my West Didsbury flat in Manchester on an old Atari computer and a borrowed four-track tape recorder. We were young and naïve but somehow, even then, we knew we were on a mission to shake things up and trample boundaries. Sometimes I listen to that album these days and think, "Wow, where the hell did that come from?".
AB: Last week I was digging around in my loft for the parts for the first album. Most of the parts are on 4 track reel-to-reel tape and DAT tapes. Playing through them, the thing that hit me the most was how fresh it still sounds. Out of all of our albums, I feel it has aged the most gracefully.
When you think back on those earliest days of becoming a band, what comes to mind?
LR: Freshness, naivety, excitement - oh, and awkwardness! We were a bit of a nightmare for our record label.
AB: "Wow, Lou's gorgeous. Surely if I'm in a band with her we will get it on". Then... "Wow, she can really sing".
When the debut came out in 1996, there were so many alternative genres and voices receiving attention in mainstream terms. Although the debut album doesn't sound defined by that time, do you consider the '90s as a liberal period in music? If Lamb were to start making music now, would the band be any different?
LR: I'm sure we'd be very different if we started out now. That time in the early '90s did seem to be a very special time with really strong underground roots forming in music. Without the Internet, it was all word of mouth. You heard the new stuff if you were out in clubs or record stores, or listening to pirate radio. These days you just trawl through Spotify or Youtube, and it feels like everyone sounds the same.
AB: The '90s was an incredible time for music. So many bands, producers and labels sprung up every month; trip hop, drum & bass, and loads of strange, left-of-centre electronic music, and all CD and Vinyl quality. It really was a renaissance for music, and definitely spurred on the creative hive that is the music scene.
Did you ever felt like outsiders in a musical sense by not aligning with a particular genre?
LR: Definitely! We still are. Sometimes I think if we'd jumped in on a particular scene we might have had a very different path. In the end, though, I'm really glad we've carved our own path. I'm proud of who we are and happy to stand alone in that.
AB: Although we were the proverbial 'round peg' being banged into the square hole with our label (Mercury), they really did invest so we could spread our music to the world - something that, in the current climate, is much harder to come by.
Was there a moment when you knew you could work out in the long-term?
AB: Day number three of us getting together, in a studio in Leeds, going out and tripping on LSD. It became pretty evident that something special was happening.
LR: I think these things are cyclical. You may have a moment when everything starts to flow and fall into place, and you think "Ok, we're finally doing this", and then something else happens and the self-doubt pours in. I guess we've made a habit, over the years, of never really making long-term plans, and that's what keeps us fresh in what we do. Life's a never-ending question: "Ok, what's next?".
Does fewer inhibitions with each other today make the music easier to write?
LR: In some ways, yes it does, although in the early days it was less our inhibitions and more our differences as people that got in the way. We're still very different but have realised in time that our differences are our strengths, and what makes our music what it is. It's like a kind of alchemy; throwing contradictory forces together to make something neither would make alone.
AB: On our first album we definitely had a bee in our bonnet - Lou was coming from a singer-songwriter angle, and me from an electronic instrumental background, so we did tend to collide somewhat. Although through the years out musical influences have become more similar, we still disagree about creativity a lot, and the difference is that we don't take it so personally now.
Your last album Backspace Unwind in 2014 painted a very big picture in exploring the idea of the universe and space. Does songwriting change the way you understand yourself and the world around you?
LR: For me it's as essential as food or air. Sometimes I feel a little lost, and then I realise I just haven't written a song in a while. Having said that, there are still blocks to that process, and in our last two albums, especially Backspace Unwind, I found I needed to reinvent the songwriting process for myself in order to keep it fresh, experimenting with free-association and more abstract ideas which seemed to lead up and out of our everyday experience on this planet. The mind is an evil editor and sometimes it kicks in with self-limiting ideas that you need to trick into submission.
You're performing at Convergence festival on March 17th. Is performing and touring something that you are very comfortable with over the years?
AB: We are really looking forward to Convergence. After twenty years it's safe to say that we're pretty clear on our strengths, and know how to bring the best out of each other on stage.
LR: It's funny to think how hard it was to get on stage in the early days; nowadays it feels strangely natural, even for an introverted loner like me. It's not like we're touring all the time, but after a period of time at home, in the studio or whatever, stepping back into touring mode, with a band and crew who are like an extended family, is almost like a second home wherever we are.
How do you choose the songs for the live set, given that you now have six albums to pick from?
AB: Setlist discussions used to be dramatic deal breakers, as Lou and I had quite a different idea of what we wanted to play! We will be playing a lot of our new album, Backspace Unwind, as it lends itself to live really well. Also some hits and more classic tracks. We do an epic 10-minute version of 'Transfatty Acid', which is really fun and totally different to the original.
Lou, you're bringing out a new solo album, theyesandeye, in the summer. Do you ever play your solo work to each other while creating or prefer to keep it separate?
LR: Yes, I'm really excited about bringing theyesandeye out. We do sometimes play solo stuff to one another, but I think, over the years, we've realised that, because we are so different, our solo projects are often are at the far extremes of what the other might appreciate.
Do you have any plans in place to mark the debut 20th anniversary?
LR: I think most people are pretty nostalgic. It's human nature, isn't it? We've been discussing plans for marking the 20-year milestone, or perhaps the 21st! Nothing to tell as yet, but watch this space!
You teased a studio picture from Goa at Christmas on Facebook. Can we expect new Lamb music in the near future?
AB: I'm in the middle of producing a couple of records for other artists, so it's pretty hard to make a plan to get in the studio to try and write new Lamb songs. Saying that, there are a few ideas that we are batting to each other, which could well form something special.
What has been key to maintaining a strong creative relationship and friendship for over the past 20 years?
AB: I think not sleeping together definitely helps!
LR: The main thing, I think, was learning that differences are good, and that people don't need to think the same to make good music or other art. In fact, it's differences that make interesting things happen. We've learnt to appreciate each other's uniqueness and how that informs the creative dialectic of Lamb. Also, we've learned to get ourselves out of the way and just trust the process. Like that, every song is a new adventure.
Do you still surprise each other?
AB: Is that the same as asking do we take each other for granted? Lou was the first vocalist I really worked with back in the day, so I kind of thought all vocalists could write a song in an hour and sing in perfect tune. Now, 20 years on, and with more and more of my time spending producing artists - I realise how incredible she is, both as an artist and as a human being.