Sometimes when a band has been around for a while, people can start to take them for granted and forget how special they are. Perhaps that applies to Fret!, the Tyneside power trio who’ve been blasting out a thrilling surfabilly-garage-hardcore hybrid for five years and are finally releasing their debut album, Through The Wound The Light Comes In, this month. So the first question thing I asked the band was why has the album been so long coming?
Steve Strode (guitar): We’ve been together as a band for 5 years now. We formed in 2012, although I was releasing home recordings as Fret! from 2011 – much of that material though is pretty removed from the band work. Why has it taken so long to release an album? Probably because it has never felt right. In the first couple of years, we put out CDRs of live shows and demos, to sell at gigs and raise funds to be able to get some decent recordings done. We recorded an album’s worth of material in 2014, but just used two tracks from that session for our debut single and then sat on the others; except to donate to the odd compilation album. The Killing Susan / Nico tracks we’re like a mini-album in a way and all recorded in the same session. For this album I think we were striving to try and transfer some of the live intensity to the recording. It was recorded ‘live’ in the studio, with only vocal overdubs. There are tracks on the album that we have been playing out for 5 years but have only now been happy with formally releasing. They sit well with the new material. So we’re happy with it.
Rob Woodcock (drums): Life, family commitments. We all have other bands and projects on the go. Like Steve said, just felt like the right time.
Cath Tyler (bass and vocals): I really like it when an album has cohesion and flow and no filler. I know why I play a particular thing but putting it on album means that I get to feel it and hear and see how it fits with the other tracks. With the live recording style, that’s what we came out of the studio with: an album.
Steve: The format choice for the album was something we mulled over. We all prefer vinyl but the lead time and cost is quite constraining. For example, we recorded the Killing Susan EP tracks in 2015. It was 8 months before the final product came out. We also wanted something that was fresh to take on tour. We recorded these tracks in January. As we’d already had a cassette come out the previous summer, we thought a CD with a gatefold sleeve (rather than your standard digipack or jewel-case) might be worth a try; especially as the artwork is another big factor for our releases. Tom McCarthaigh from Bristol band Perverts – check them out! – does all our record artwork. Having a gatefold sleeve allowed him to create more images and do something that chimes well with the record; especially the CD on-body image. It’ll also be a nice test of the appreciation of our music on that format. Sure there’s an element of ‘uncool’ about CDs, but if being cool means spending almost a grand to put a release out and wait a year for it to arrive, then fuck cool. On that note though, I saw something recently where Nate Young (Wolf Eyes) was stating that tape labels are killing music. Not sure if he was being ironic but he went on to declare the CDR as being the true format of the DIY underground. I recall that Wolf Eyes limited edition CDRs used to fetch well over a tenner. Definitely embracing the spirit of the DIY underground.”
Although Fret! have gigged constantly, in terms of releases, there seems to to have been a surge of activity lately.
Steve: As far as gigs go, we’ve been steadily ploughing away and it hasn’t really changed that much, except for the past couple of years where we’ve been playing more UKwide shows. So I assume that perception is probably because more people (reviewers etc) have started taking an interest? That being said, if you read certain areas of the underground music press (Echos And Dust, The Quietus), you’d think there are only 3 bands operating out of North East. Perception is reality, as they say … Must work harder!”
Rob: Yeah, we’ve been gigging steadily since our inception. We tend to play with different genres to ourselves though, so we’re not always on the local radar. We’ve shared stages with bands ranging from grindcore to harsh noise to bluegrass and twee indie. Ask us and 9 times out of 10 we’ll probably agree to play.
All three of you obviously have other bands and projects and have quite a diverse background, so how did Fret! come together and what do you think the unifying factor is that makes Fret! work?
Steve: It’s all a bit hazy. I think we were all a little aware of each other’s other bands and work. I knew of Rob from when he was playing with Marzuraan. I’d also seen Cath play a couple of times. And we all have friends in common within the incestuous Newcastle scene. Fret! becoming a band started with me uploading some of my solo stuff on YouTube; Rob chancing upon it; offering to add some drums; doing some jams just as a duo in very early 2012; then getting offered to play at the Distraction Records 10th Anniversary show (because of my former links with Distraction). Rob thought it would be good to see if Cath wanted to join, because they both played in Rhys Chatham’s orchestra at TUSK 2011. So the band made its debut at the Star and Shadow in April 2012, with a 4-song set (two of which appear on the album, one being a re-working of a song I first performed live in 1988).
Rob: What Steve said, although I’ve sort of known Cath 20 odd years now dating back to when Slampt were still putting on gigs in town. I’ve played in all sorts of bands over the years and tend to be a bit of a mess if I’m not creating something. I don’t really see us as an odd mix for a band. But still don’t know how the fuck to describe our sound!
Steve: What unifies as a band? Well 3 is the magic number, isn’t it? Everyone knows that some of the best bands are trios: Husker Du, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr, Spacemen 3, Motorhead, etc. It’s all to do with Pyramid Power, 3 minds working as one around the undulating force that is the Woodcock. Our preference when playing live is to play on the floor, triangle-formation, feeding off the audience to create a dynamic surge that spills out the centre. It’s like in Ghostbusters where the 3 of them combine each individual proton stream to create a big rush of energy that combats the negative ghost energy with positivity. Although we’re probably the reverse of that, seeing as our live shows are generally referred to as being loud, dark and intense.
We are also unified by a deep shared love of Depeche Mode.
Rob: Are we fuck!!!
Cath: I think the unifying factors are earballs, the tenacity and flexibility to keep messing around, trying things out and then the ability to stop messing when it no longer needs messing with. It’s also the ability to share space, enjoy coffee, listen to Depeche Mode without coming to blows. Despite differences of opinion.
The Fret! sound does owe a lot to the best of American guitar bands of the eighties and nineties (you mention Touch & Go in one of your profiles, which definitely fits) but there’s also a distinct surf element (a ‘depressed Beach Boys’, as you said yourself) but what else is in the mix in terms of influence and ambition?
Steve: I’ve personally been trying to recreate the sound of all the bands that I love from the late-80s / early-90s with every band I’ve been involved with since the late-80s. This is the first where I’ve been totally happy with the sound. I grew up listening to the output from labels like Blast First and SST but also 60s psych like 13th Floor Elevators and garage bands like The Seeds, The Misunderstood, the Pebbles and Nuggets comps. We all like quite a variety of different music, have varied tastes, some commonalities and have all played in very different bands, so it’s a weird melting pot of all our current and past influences. Take the track Surf on the album, That’s got a bit of garage-punk, surf, doom, Dead Kennedys in it. All in less than 3 minutes. Hillybilly is a straight out funk track. That’s my Bristol weirdo funk roots coming through. And we did a 14-minute version of a 1946 folk song in the style of early Swans. ‘Depressed Beach Boys’ is probably the best description ever written about us. It was in response to the Killing Nico tape and sums things up quite nicely. More “Grumpy Frown” than “Smiley Smile”.
Rob: I’ve always been a fan of the Am-Rep and Trance Syndicate stuff and grew up on a diet of DIY hardcore and punk. We probably work so well together as we all take those ideas into how a band should operate. There’s no bullshit or pretense.
Cath: Think Rob and Steve have said it all on that one
You’re playing a few dates with Mirrored Lips – is this the biggest Fret! tour to date and are you all looking forward to such an intense burst of Fret! activity?
Steve: Yep, we’ve done some long-weekend tours for the past couple of years, usually twice a year, the most recent being a 1000mile round trip that took in Blackpool, London and Glasgow, but this is the biggest single tour to date. 7 shows in 7 nights. All of us are travelling in the same van and we’ll get to see some old friends, along with checking out some new bands. Just need to sort the tour van music out now.
Obviously Mirrored Lips are label mates via Cruel Nature but presumably there’s more to the tour than that, a shared ethos or love of gnarly post punk?
Steve: The tour with Mirrored Lips came about because Cruel Nature put their tape out, then Sasha from the band got in touch about doing a UK tour and it sprung from there. They’re a great band so really looking forward to seeing them live. Yep a shared love of gnarly post-punk but it’s also a rare opportunity for UK audiences to catch them doing their thing. It kind of feels timely to be doing this. Rallying against the post-post-Cold War negativity that the mainstream media are perpetuating about Russia at the moment. Together in Anglo-American-Russian unity!