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The Physics House Band


Interview

Ambitious math rock trio chat improvisation, Stewart Lee, and their latest album.

Image of The Physics House Band

It’s a typically busy evening at Glasgow’s famed hipster joint The Hug and Pint, and the members of Brighton’s The Physics House Band – Sam Organ, Adam Hutchinson and Dave Morgan – settle down for their Thai fusion dinner ahead of their gig later on, the latest date on their first headline tour in four years. The music venue-cum-restaurant is a common 21st century concept in this city, and the group look right at home. Suffice to say, if they weren’t settled in Brighton, they’d fit right in here. Drummer Dave Morgan certainly looks the part in an ironic t-shirt printed with the Jurassic Park logo, only ‘Jurassic Park’ is replaced with ‘Papasaurus’. “My girlfriend made me buy it,” he says bashfully.

The Physics House Band’s latest album, Mercury Fountain, is a space-aged laser beam to the temples of contemporary math rock, but like all new things it’s made from old parts: classical, electronic, hip hop, world – “Basically, it’s all good,” bespectacled bassist Hutchinson says matter-of-factly, “It’s all going to filter its way through to how we end up composing.” True, each song is like a reverse prism, gathering far-flung influences and realigning them into a cohesive and noisy whole. Any given tune is likely to have touches of Flying Lotus’ buggy jazz fusion, the crashing space shuttle riffing of Led Zeppelin, and a hint of Gustav Holst’s generosity of spirit. Hutchinson has the look of a keen scholar of the studio, and he doesn’t disappoint: “We like to experiment in the studio. We’ve been fortunate to record with the guys at Wicker studios [in Kent] – Joel and Raven – and they have a wealth of equipment”. That the threesome should end up gaining a key aspect of their unique sound in the studio of psychedelic jazz outfit Syd Arthur should surprise nobody.

The link isn’t made lightly; The Physics House Band too hark back to an age when the album was a sacred work of art, and held to be the definitive format for the musician’s vision. Indeed, after starting Mercury Fountain, many may find it impossible to stop until it’s finished. A concept album, then? The group aren’t so sure. Hutchinson gently dismisses and re-mystifies: “It’s more like a vague snapshot of ideas, with a vague story behind it… it’s all one giant experience”. He continues, “We knew that we wanted to have a through-playing record… it’s nice to feel like you’re being taken on a journey”. The aptly-named Organ puts in no uncertain terms that, were the album a collection of conventional three- to four-minute cuts, it would simply “get lost”, drowned in the never-ending flow of today’s music releases, whereas Mercury Fountain’s 30-odd minute suite recalls the longevity of an LP. “That’s how we listen to records, enjoyed as the artist intended,” Organ argues. The existing continuous firestorm of an album was a no-brainer for them – “it just came naturally”.

For a group with conviction, The Physics House Band push for the subjective, as Hutchinson claims: “Obviously, there’s no real subject matter in instrumental music. You can infer things, you can say the tension here is the sea and it crashes here against the shore, but really you can take it whatever way.” The group haven’t uttered a single word throughout their releases, but their music certainly speaks for itself. However, their song titles portray a constellation of references – sci-fi pulp buzzwords, space travel, names suggesting distant caves on cold planets. Morgan chimes in, referring to his bandmates: “These guys read books so… you know.” It’s a perfectly open-ended shrug of the shoulders that dispels any sense of a group agenda: “We’re not a preachy band by any means,” he adds. Sadly, Hutchinson says, being a political band – previously relegated to folk, punk, and fringe hip hop – isn’t seen as desirable anymore. Like actors who get involved with politics, political musicians are frequently told to get down from their soapboxes. Organ agrees: “I think the role of the artist is to make beautiful things, but there should be space for the artist to be political.”

On the topic of beautiful things, is there any room for wild improvisation in their shows when their shimmering suites seem so meticulously laid out? “We’d have to [improvise], otherwise we’d get bored,” says Morgan. “We’d get bored with playing the set, then we wouldn’t be a band anymore.” Improvisation, as keen observers may notice, is a key part of what the group do – for survival, if nothing else. As far as solos are concerned, “there are good shows and bad shows,” says Organ, but they manage to learn from both: “The bad shows make you think about what you’re doing… every night you’re under pressure just to go for it -” “Or you fuck up”, interjects Hutchinson. Such a bloody-minded approach is redolent of Derek Bailey, a giant of free-improvised jazz, who famously incorporated mistakes into his guitar work. There’s a thought here that, if you’re bound to fail, fail spectacularly. For all Organ and Hutchinson do on their guitars and synths, Morgan’s percussion is the guiding principle, bringing the stray pieces together. “It’s sort of like join-the-dots,” he says concisely.

Speaking of “failing better”, cult alternative comedian Stewart Lee made sure the new album made the right first impression by writing its puzzled press release. After persistent emails and long silences, it was submitted from out of the blue, containing the gem of a compliment calling Mercury Fountain “a super-dense mindfuck of a thing”. “He reviewed our first record in the paper,” Organ says – which is believable given Lee’s run of oddball music reviews of far left-field releases, presumably written and published without the knowledge of anyone higher up. “He has a similar approach to comedy as we do to music,” Organ says tentatively, “which is: do what you love and really involve yourself.” Hutchinson, a fan of a pithy statement, manages to sum up the group quite nicely: “If you do something, and you’re really into it, other people are going to be into it because of that.”

Cigarettes are rolled, and it’s time for the group to prep for tonight’s first support act, fellow Brightonians InTechnicolour. Are there any plans for after the tour’s over? The group is constantly in the writing process, it seems, be it together or apart. Providing there’s time for both, new material is surely on the way. A riotous performance awaits within the sweaty confines of The Hug and Pint cellar, and to all eyes watching, The Physics House Band seem to have great work on the horizon, hopefully in less than four years this time.

Mercury Fountain is out now via Small Pond Records on vinyl, CD, and digital.