Young Marble Giants
he history of minimalist post-punk trio Young Marble Giants carries with it all the trappings that make music geeks go all doolally. Two brothers from Cardiff, Wales—Philip and Stuart Moxham—start a band with Philip's then girlfriend Allison Statton. With chugging, muted guitar chords, simple drum machine beats, and Statton's warm, yet disaffected vocals, the group quickly accomplish what every band wishes to achieve—creating a completely original, instantly recognizable sound. Thanks to the release of their now classic album Colossal Youth, the band became an instant sensation in 1980s UK indie scene and find themselves touring both Europe and the US. Then, after the release of a pair of equally canonical singles, the band announces that they are splitting up. It is an almost noble death that earned the short-lived trio, in some circles at least, instant icon status.
Yet, to the surprise of the majority of their fans, an afterword is being slowly composed by the band. Not long before the release of a 3-CD set of their complete recorded history (out this month on Domino) came the news that the Young Marble Giants had agreed to reunite on stage at an arts festival in Wales this past May. Now with the announcement of another festival performance in Paris this October, and the possibility of the band producing new material, it seemed no better time for Stylus contributor Bob Ham to speak with bassist/principal songwriter Stuart Moxham about the band's past and possible future together.
Does it feel strange to be talking about music that you made over 20 years ago?
It feels great to be talking about it—I'm very proud of what we did and all this attention around the Domino re-release is great, of course. I've learned quite a bit from all the interviews—some of the questions are really thought-provoking and the answers, especially when we've been interviewed together, have been enlightening and even surprising. We weren't the best at communicating with each other, to put it mildy.
Over the last few years, you have gotten back together to perform on radio, were supposed to play the Rough Trade 25th Anniversary, and then finally performed again recently at the Hay Festival. What prompted you to get together again?
We met and decided to try to write new material, with the aim of making another album, early in 2003. Coincidentally BBC Radio Wales asked us to do a documentary on the band within two weeks of that meeting. The Rough Trade 25th gig never happened but as we'd agreed to do it, in principle, we felt that the band had a gig on the back burner and the Domino re-release was the perfect opportunity to use that.
I imagine you were all in contact with each other in the years prior to these shows, but was it an easy decision or did it take some convincing with one or more of you to play out again?
We were never in the same room together for 20 odd years, except for a coincidental occasion at a club in Cardiff (that in itself was a one-off for me.) Phil and Alison had split as a couple by the end of 1980 and, apart from a couple of times when Alison came to my home studio to record a vocal, all our lives went separate ways. I called a band meeting before the Hay rehearsals began and we cleared the air. Alison and Phil are not keen on playing live though, so it's always an issue. Nowadays families, jobs, geography, time—all conspire to make band related activity of any sort a logistical nightmare.
How did it feel playing these songs again?
To begin with, when we were rehearsing for the aborted Rough Trade thing, it felt weird—unpleasant actually—but when we reconvened this year for the Hay gig it was really good fun. Hard work, but I enjoyed playing an electric guitar again—at great speed—and the inherent power of the songs was a joy to revisit in front of an ideal audience.
Does it feel at all limiting to be playing such minimalist music? Do you ever feel the need to add to this material or embellish it a bit?
No and no. Minimalism isn't easy—mistakes are totally obvious and everybody involved has to be super accurate all the time—but it's a delight to play this stuff when it's going right. I'm not a particularly accomplished or knowledgeable musician—my excuse is that I'm self taught and have always been aware that my ignorance enables me to write in an unfettered way, which means I can be a tad more creative than perhaps someone who knows the "rules." This is fine when I'm writing and playing my own songs, which are on my own terms, but my limitations become obvious very quickly, for example when I've taught beginners the guitar, because I can play the chords but I don't know what they're called...What would be the point in adding to it? It's designed to be the way it is—does a motorcycle need a seatbelt?
I'm interested in how the band was received in Wales when you first started out. Were you accepted rather quickly or were you dismissed?
Well, at the first gig the audience consisted of our mother, who had driven us there with our gear; next time there were seven people, and it grew from there, but we were very soon playing in London and then touring the UK/Europe/US because the album received such glowing reviews and sold so well.
I have read that you were influenced by groups like Kraftwerk and Devo, but when I hear your music I hear a much more pronounced reggae/dub influence. Were you fans of reggae at the time?
Interesting this—we weren't, but we've been asked before, so there's obviously something I'm missing. I was a fan of Bob Marley and The Wailers, but it was only after YMG ceased trading, when I was squatting with the remnants of Essential Logic and their friends in north London, that I began a serious dub habit. I honestly can't hear reggae in it myself, except perhaps that dub is similarly spacious.
Are there particular songs or aspects of songs that you can see the influence of Devo or any of the other bands that you were fond of at that time?
This is an interesting question which deserves an answer but it's almost impossible without listening to lots of old albums and making notes—life's too short! I have certainly realized, when I've re-listened to records from that time which I haven't heard since, how influential they were—it's happened with Cat Stevens; the first Ultravox album; Simon and Garfunkel and Cream, for example.
I've discovered that, often, the things which inspired me were either specific musical features, which I don't have the vocabulary/knowledge to describe, or else things like the use of language, or topics for songs, or the production of a record, or a particular sound. It's interesting how, often, the things you think influence you are really just things that you remember and it's a shock to realize that you've actually plagiarized elements from sources you'd never have thought of.
Do you ever consider what the band could have done had you stuck together longer?
Yes, I have but it's a waste of time. Pure speculation. We were doomed to part sooner or later and I can't imagine how I personally would have handled any greater success; it was bad enough as it was.... I have great sympathy with celebs who crack up, because fame is a totally isolating phenomenon which disallows human contact because fans need to believe in the myth. That's how it works—the human need to have heroes/gods whose perceived lives compensate for the disappointments of everyday existence. The trouble is that those heroes are also frail humans, with the same disappointments, but they have to go along with the game because it sells product. It's a schizophrenic way to live. I admire the rare, down to earth characters who deal with it well. Musically I'm certain that we could have produced a lot more stuff, which is why I personally wanted us to get together again—it's a tantalizing challenge.
Besides the upcoming show you have in Paris, can we expect any more activity for the Young Marble Giants in the future? Any new music or shows outside of Europe?
This is a very topical question—we are being offered an amazing number of gigs all over the shop at the moment. We agreed to Paris on the basis that we'd have some new material by then, so in principle we may well do more shows, but getting the time off work/family commitments etc. makes it very difficult. Similarly the new material is almost impossibly slow because writing takes a lot of time and we haven't worked together for decades, but the spirit is willing...
What are the three of you involved in these days outside of music?
Are you kidding? Apart from the daily slog/parenting? In my case, I am a keen motorcyclist; I ride as often as possible, on road and off, and I have recently rediscovered coarse fishing, through the enthusiasm for it of my sons, but mostly my recreation is musical; I love playing and writing; occasionally I do a gig with my friend Louis Philippe and I have just released my new album, with him accompanying, called "The Huddle House" on his Wonder Records label and I am about to begin recording my next album, as yet untitled. Also I regularly sing and play at a rehab clinic, which is another story.
Young Marble Giants
By: Bob Ham
Published on: 2007-08-28