APRIL 7, 2014 BY MATHIEU VAN STEENKISTE (original link (in Dutch))
Autumn 2004: 65DaysOfStatic storms the music world with a whirlwind of crackling beats, guitars that never go below “all red”, and bass that thunders like a distant Mordor. Where did this highly unique sound come from? Who were these people? Why this exact sound? This is an attempt at a reconstruction.
The influences for debut album The Fall Of Math were easy to find: IDM, echoes of Mogwai’s explosivity, a love for the noise of laptop wizards like Kid 606. But what this Sheffield quartet turned those influences into, was a completely unique blend; the result of years of searching with one goal in mind: becoming a band.
Weird, glitchy stuff
Like most musical biographies, this story started out in the smallest of biotopes: a student dorm. Paul Wolinski’s, to be clear. “I’d gone to Sheffield to get a degree in film studies, and to start a band. It didn’t work out all that well: I only found people to make music with in my final year.”
It didn’t help that Wolinski wasn’t a guitarist. He was a pale, shy boy who had used money from his student loans to get himself a sampler and had started fidgeting around with it. While his contemporaries were chasing girls and getting drunk in bars, he was working hard to figure out his new instrument. “Musically, it was a really interesting period”, he recalls. “It was the time when laptops were becoming more powerful and music software was becoming more widely available. The technology allowed for many more possibilities, and music was keeping up; plenty of weird, glitchy stuff was being made; very exciting. Aphex Twin had broken out of his niche, and especially in Sheffield, their hometown, Warp records were reaching a pretty wide audience. Kid 606 fascinated me as well. So the music I made became very noisy.”
Going on stage by himself? Wolinski wouldn’t consider it. “Too shy. Plus, from the beginning I had this idea that bands were way cooler and more exciting than a guy behind a computer ever could be. That was a really important element. Call it the magic that surrounds bands; it’s a kind of art, something alien, how the form can transcend the music, how it pushes you to look at liner notes and pictures as well. That’s what we wanted to create. Compare At The Drive-In to Kid 606: the former were the kind of band you wanted to hang up on your wall as a 16-year-old. That’s something you can’t achieve with a MacBook, so I started looking for other people.”
Sometime in 2000, an ad was placed on a wall, and people responded. For about a year, Wolinski messed around with someone called James on guitar, and a Mark who was also into electronics. “Not much happened, and when Mark left, James suggested this guitarist called Joe. We had a gig coming up, so we had to do something.”
Having been invited by James, high schooler Joe Shrewsbury turned up at the next rehearsal. He was seventeen years old, had never been in a band, and most of his experience came from plucking strings in his bedroom. “The day before, I even went out to buy extra pedals, as I didn’t have those yet. And the description of the band suggested that turning up with just an acoustic guitar would’ve been a bit pointless. We played together for about an hour, and it didn’t lead to all that much, but the others seemed to think it was pretty good.”
No matter what; the date for that first gig was set, so the band had to go to work. “We had an assignment”, Shrewsbury explains: “two weeks later – on April 4, 2001 – we needed to have thirty minutes of music that more or less made sense.” Wolinski adds: “It was a really good idea to set ourselves a deadline like that. We should’ve done that sooner, because at least things were happening now. It’s actually how we’ve worked ever since: we set an arbitrary goal for ourselves, or a deadline, or something completely unrealistic like ‘sign a contract with a record label so someone expects an album’, so that we’re forced into making something” (laughs).
“I think it was a mistake”, Shrewsbury says. “I wanted to play in the kind of band that Paul had no interest in; Sonic Youth or something like that. But let’s be honest: who needs a second Sonic Youth? But it was that collision of contrary approaches that made this work, more so than if I’d been able to do what I wanted to: you push each other to make something you couldn’t have done on your own. That’s the story of 65DaysOfStatic.” It would lead to James reaching his own conclusions, and handing over his bass to a guy called Ian. “It’s not nice to say, but it no longer worked when it became clear that Joe and I had become the vital parts of the band”, Wolinski admits.
A real drummer
Musically, the band still had a long way to go. “Aggressive and experimental”, is what Wolinski calls the band’s early music; “the most noisy stuff I’ve ever made. Pure insanity: we couldn’t have cared less about form. On top of that, we had this weird habit of piecing our songs together during live shows with mash-ups of Christina Aguilera songs and stuff like that. It was a practical solution. My sampler couldn’t handle more than 45 seconds of music, which is nothing when you need a complete collection of drum sounds for just one song. I could only load up one song at a time, with a floppy disc, so we used the mash-ups to fill time, while Joe added some feedback, until we were ready for the next song.”
“Eventually, I even learned to push the technology so far that I could work around those time limits. I could make my Akai S2000-sampler crash on purpose, which produced this fantastic glitch sound which you couldn’t completely control. I remember that we made the PA pop because of that. Terrible. We used to do that kind of thing all the time. If I’m honest, I think chances are great that we would’ve hit a dead end if Rob hadn’t joined. It could’ve been successful; you never know. But I’m glad that didn’t happen.” Because Rob joined, somehwere in 2002, if memories serve right.
Rob Jones then, drumming miracle and deus ex machina. If 65DaysOfStatic is a puzzle, then he counts for two pieces. “I think he was kind of bored in the metal bands he was playing with back then”, according to Wolinski: “He couldn’t do that, just be a rock drummer, he was looking for places where he could do something else. He jumped on our invitation like a hungry wolf; he just showed up with his entire drum kit. I don’t want to romanticize things too much, but when he showed up, “Retreat! Retreat!” was written really quickly. Shrewsbury laughs: “I remember that we were worried, when he came to rehearse with us for the first time. We were scared that we had accidentally asked him to join the band, while we just wanted to try some things out to see what that would give. By the end of rehearsal, we were begging him to come over again: he made us better than we were, and that’s still the case today.”
Now the band was shaping up, they needed to put something on record. That would become the Stumble.Stop.Repeat EP, released on December 1, 2003 on the band’s own Dustpunk label. It’s unknown how many copies there are, but it can’t be more than a couple hundred. “With Ian and Rob, we were starting to get somewhere”, explains Joe. “Rob and Paul started writing a lot of beats, and the three of us discovered how we could work as a unit.” The key, as was to be expected, were the live drums. Paul: “It was something really new for us: those electronic dance beats with live drums on top. I remember how we were writing the beat for “Install A Beak In The Heart That Clucks Time In Arabic”, and Rob started doing that thing on his toms on top of that: very exciting. It felt like we were finally getting somewhere.”
And yet Jones barely features on the EP. “It was recorded on our laptops, which didn’t allow us to record drums. We didn’t have any money for a studio”, explains Wolinski. “There’s just this looped sample of something Rob played on “Ophelia Remix” that’s on the record, but it was still a reflection of what it was like to play with him in a room, even if you only hear how Joe and I finally started to define the melodic side of our sound; a noisy wall of treble and fuzz.”
Not that the band was fully formed just yet; the endless parade of band members wasn’t at its end just yet. “At a certain moment we even talked to a girl who played violin, because we had this feeling that we had to expand our sound”, smiles Shrewsbury. “To be honest, the entire first paragraph of our Wikipedia page doesn’t feel like 65DaysOfStatic to us”, explains Paul. “We were still looking for the right line-up, and somewhere along that road there was a moment, about two months inbetween recording Stumble.Stop.Repeat and writing new music, that Graham Clarke, who now makes electronic music as Feedle, was playing with us. It didn’t last long, and that was probably because of me. When I’m writing beats, I have a pretty clear idea of what I’m doing. At that time, we were finally finding our voice as 65DaysOfStatic, and I fear I wasn’t all that easy to work with for someone who was doing the same things as me. Graham left after just one gig – Rob’s live debut – but he does have writing credits for a couple of songs on The Fall Of Math, definitely for “Retreat! Retreat!”.”
The final puzzle piece
That’s what 65DaysOfStatic was finally ready for. Stumble.Stop.Repeat had led to a contract with smaller label Monotreme, that pushed the plans for another EP into a debut album, as that was more commercially viable. The band went along with it, and at the end of 2003, – with “more volume than sense”, as they put it before – they recorded The Fall Of Math in just four days, with the final puzzle piece arriving in the months between mixing and releasing the album. Weren’t the band looking for a bass player who felt right? With Simon Wright, they’d found just that. Finally.
“We saved him from an architecture degree he didn’t really want”, laughs Wolinski. “Musically, he was what we needed: a bass player, and happy to be that. That might sound dumb, but trust me, so many bass players actually want to be guitarists, and play too many notes because of that. Even though a bass guitar is so powerful that you have to be careful with how you use it. Eventually he turned out to be great at synths as well, and he turned out to be someone who could fix our gear when an effects pedal broke down yet again. Very useful guy to have on tour.”
And that’s how The Fall Of Math was finally released. Without any buzz, and yet with a session for the legendary radio producer John Peel. A tour was up next. “We were still playing tiny places for about fifty people, but we had finally become a band”, declares Wolinski. “And it was good to get enough gigs to be able to grow. Before, it was a disaster if we gave a terrible performance, because it took weeks to set things right. Once we started playing night after night, it was different. And at a certain moment, at The Roadhouse in Manchester, I found myself jumping around on stage with my guitar without having to focus on what I was doing. Muscle memory: I could play a song without having to think so hard that I had to stay still to be able to play it.
And then it started for real. “Our life became this cycle of taking boring jobs only to quit them so we could go on tour, before taking on other jobs when that was over”, Wolinski explains. It wouldn’t become any easier, but the goal had been reached, even if the early ambition was never matched. Wolinski concludes: “We wanted to become the biggest band on the planet, and make a new sort of pop music, or at least an accessible version of all these terribly exciting sounds we were hearing. Like New Order did in the eighties. That was coupled with some grandstanding and manifests that were written at some, probably drunk, moments. We’ve never shied away from any slogan-esque language; it was a way of life for us, and we realized quite early on that that involves a certain naivité. You have to believe in what you’re doing, and you can’t be scared to actually say it. Which isn’t the same as arrogance, or blind confidence; it’s rather a willingness to defend what you’re doing. And we still have that.”
“This band is unstoppable”, is how the sample in “Retreat! Retreat!” goes, and it would stay that way. 65DaysOfStatic’s van still leaves town tens of times a year for yet another show; even in a Polish club where the PA could explode at any moment. Rather that, than just imploding and disappearing like many contemporaries. Little by little, record by record, the audience grows; the world will follow someday. But once in a while, after about a decade, it’s ok to look back. “Hey, any time now The Fall Of Math might sell its millionth copy. We’re almost there, only 980,000 to go!”, Shrewsbury smiles, summarizing the band’s idea: eternally forward, based on that everlasting belief in the essence of what makes a band; the power of four people believing in what they’re doing.
65DaysOfStatic are celebrating the tenth anniversary of The Fall Of Math by playing the album in full at the Ancienne Belgique on April 17. Before that, at 6pm, you can attend an interview with the band at Huis 23. Mail firstname.lastname@example.org to register for that.