The second album by Electribe 101 is the stuff of legend. Dismissed as “crap” when they were dropped by their major label in 1992, ‘Electribal Soul’ is nothing of the kind. When it finally saw the light of day, singer Billie Ray Martin proudly showed off this lost classic

“It’s been sitting on a DAT in a drawer for 30 years,” says Electribe 101 vocalist and songwriter Billie Ray Martin  of the band’s storied and never-before-released second album, ‘Electribal Soul’. “Listening to it now, I think how talented we were not just to do the techno thing, you know? Everything was built around my vocal, and that’s what made Electribe 101 different.”

Rocketed to fame by 1988 club classic and chart hit ‘Talking With Myself’ and epochal 1990 album ‘Electribal Memories’, Electribe 101 were celebrated for their synthesis of house music, electronica and vintage soul – a rare marriage of pop appeal and underground credibility. Their second long-player, ‘Electribal Soul’, was originally due out in 1992 but was sabotaged at the last moment by a dismissive record label.

After three decades in limbo, the album has been restored, remastered and repackaged with new artwork, overseen by Billie herself. Out this month on Electribal Records, it’s an astonishing time capsule of an especially vibrant era for UK music and a suite of songs that ranks alongside the band’s best.

As brilliant as the tracks are, they’ve lain dormant since Phonogram refused to release ‘Electribal Soul’ and subsequently dropped the group. Shortly afterwards, Electribe split up, with Hamburg-born, London-based Billie embarking on a solo career and the other members – Joe Stevens,  Les Fleming, Roberto Cimarosti and Brian Nordhoff – going on to form  The Groove Corporation. 

“We thought the album was shit because we were dropped,” says Billie, talking to us from her home in a snowy Berlin. “We were told, ‘You didn’t sell enough, you didn’t shift enough units’. Phonogram’s managing director apparently said, ‘What is this crap?’. I remember us mixing it and mixing it again, saying, ‘Does this sound good enough?’. It’s a bit weird, because when I started restoring the audio with the help of someone recently and listening to it when it was mastered, I thought, ‘Actually, this is really great’.”

Although Billie had been wanting to release ‘Electribal Soul’ for ages, she encountered several hurdles along  the way. She had the agreement of the remaining band members but when she initially approached Universal, who now own the master rights, about reissuing the  first album and finally putting out the second, they  didn’t want to know. Then she looked into a reissue record label but was disappointed by the lack of care and attention to the music they released. Eventually, she decided to oversee the project herself, trying out various mastering engineers before finding the right one.

“I wasn’t going to budge until it sounded the best it could,” she says.  “It was more like a process to decide that no one else could or would do it.”

The album sleeve image – a photograph of fingers grasping an industrial cog – makes explicit the band’s merging of human and machine. Mirroring  the style of their original covers, it was designed especially for the new release by Philip Marshall, famed for his artwork on Frankie Goes To Hollywood and 808 State records, among others. 

Meanwhile, Billie went to great lengths for the rest of the sleeve art, getting in touch with Lewis Mulatero, the photographer from the original ‘Electribal Memories’ sessions, to see if she could get back the unused  and unseen images. He’s now living in New Zealand but still had the old negatives, so he shipped them over. While they were sticky and damaged  from years in storage, Billie was able to get them fully restored.

The songs themselves feel like lost classics. The cover of Throbbing Gristle’s unsettling ‘Persuasion’, with its dark electro bassline, prowling rhythm, coercive lyrics and spoken-word samples, has a smouldering  power. ‘Insatiable Love’ is an emotive Balearic gem wreathed in synth sweeps and bleeps. ‘Conquering Tomorrow’ is a lush ambient track,  and ‘Space Oasis’ (later issued as a Billie Ray Martin solo record) is  a transcendent and glimmering piece of piano-driven Balearic house  with a wistful air comparable to A Man Called Adam. It’s tied together  by Billie’s soulful vocal tones, bringing warmth and feeling to the  machine-made music, while the lyrics have an intimate quality that  makes them all the more affecting.

“It was really about me and what I was going through at the time,”  says Billie. “But it’s something I never considered then – how close  I was to everything I wrote. It was from my experience.”

Electribal Soul’ was recorded in 1991 at Olympic  Studios in London, with production on some tracks overseen by Apollo 440’s Howard Gray. Although the band were feeling fragile when they made the album – having just come off a stressful tour with Depeche  Mode, and with the record label breathing down their necks – Billie still has fond memories of those times, recalling some of the brighter moments they had in the studio.

“I remember some of the songs were really joyful to do,” she says. “And spontaneous, because I would come in with all these records I’d heard and go to the group and say, ‘We need to do something like this’. If they were into it, we would sit right down and try something. Rob the keyboard player, who passed away three years ago, was so quick in coming up with nice ideas. And Joe, he was so amazing. All the hook lines that work around my vocal, that was him.

“We had a lot of fun. For ‘Persuasion’, I came in with this stuff that I really wanted to sample – the bit that says ‘machines’. They laid it out on a keyboard.  I remember it was late at night. As I sang the vocals, I’d press these keys saying ‘machines, machines’ and the band would create the music around  it. At one point, I pressed the wrong key and we suddenly got this violin playing. We just fell about laughing.”

While making ‘Electribal Soul’, Billie and the band embroidered the electronic beats and synths with more organic sources. The songs ‘Deadline For My Memories’ and ‘Hands Up And Amen’ have a transcendent gospel air thanks to Billie’s rich vocals, while blues and classic soul also come to the fore.

“I came in with all this soul stuff to inspire us,” she remembers. “Brian immediately said, ‘Oh yeah, Norman Whitfield [psychedelic soul producer] and The Undisputed Truth!’. I realised the rest of the group were already into that, and the Motown and Marvin Gaye stuff. Especially Brian – he brought  it all into the production. I didn’t have to convince anybody to add it.”

Yet house, in some ways a newer form of soul, remains a key element on the record. As in their earlier material, the spirit of Chicago is threaded through the spry rhythms of tracks like ‘Space Oasis’.

“To me, house was a kind of soul music and still is,” says Billie. “Artists  like Robert Owens, those were the people I listened to and said, ‘This has never been done before, and this is what I’ve been waiting for’, you know? Robert Owens sang about things that matter to us in modern life. For me, house allowed us to put the soul in technological music for the first time.”

Billie Ray Martin was born in Hamburg and loved singing from an early age, recording tapes of her vocalising and badgering her grandmother to send them to her favourite singers. When she finished school, she moved to Berlin and immersed herself in electropop, industrial and classic soul, absorbing the Eurythmics and becoming fascinated by Cabaret Voltaire. With her vocal talent, she formed a series  of bands, with one in particular an overnight sensation in the city.

“There was one group called Billie And The Deep,” she recalls.  “We were an 11-piece soul band and we were super-famous in Berlin.  This was all happening at the same time, but at that point I hadn’t combined soul and electronic music. Then I met a fellow student and we listened to Depeche Mode and started doing basic electronic music. Then I eventually decided to move to London.”

It was there that she fell into the club scene, with house becoming  a cultural phenomenon before her eyes.

“It was so inspiring,” she says. “It was the time when we all would go  to clubs at night and in the morning go straight to a record shop and say,  ‘I want the one that goes, “Doom, doom, doom!”. I want the one with that bassline’. And the guy behind the counter knew exactly what you were  talking about, because we were all listening to the same stuff.

“When house music started in the UK, the first week you’d see only  50 people in a club, then the next week it was 300, and the next – boom!  It was like wildfire. Dancing your head off… it was just the right moment  in time to be there. It was one of those movements. I wasn’t a drug-taker,  so I would be jumping around screaming to [Fingers Inc’s] ‘Can You Feel It’,  and I was actually the only one not on drugs. I was really lifted by the music.”

Billie joined forces with Birmingham four-piece Joe Stevens, Les  Fleming, Brian Nordhoff and Rob Cimarosti to become Electribe 101 after  they answered her ad in Melody Maker, which read: “Soul rebel seeks musicians – genius only”.

She had already collaborated with Mark Moore’s S’Express project  on several tracks, and it was her idea to adapt London producer Julian Jonah’s ‘Jealousy And Lies’ for Electribe 101’s first single and biggest hit.

‘Talking With Myself’ had a similar groove to Jonah’s song, but driven by a creeping grand piano line, supple drums and Billie’s effortlessly cool tones, it became something fresh and addictive. It reached Number 23 in the UK charts when it was reissued in 1990, and Number Eight in the US dance chart. Beyond its pop appeal, the song’s aquamarine tranquillity made it popular in Ibiza with the Balearic scene, typified by DJs like Alfredo and José Padilla.

“When I heard ‘Jealousy And Lies’, it was my eureka moment,” says Billie. “I went to the guys and said, ‘Let’s start with this and see where it takes us’.”

For a few years, Electribe 101 were highly successful, supporting Erasure at the massive Milton Keynes Bowl, enjoying another chart hit with ‘Tell Me When The Fever Ended’, releasing their album and having house pioneer Frankie Knuckles remix several of their songs. And when  the group came to their inauspicious end and went their separate ways, Billie continued to work in electronic music.

In 1993, she released ‘4 Ambient Tales’ on Apollo Records, the downtempo offshoot of R&S. Produced by The Grid, it took a beatless chill-out turn and Billie went on to collaborate with underground dance heroes Slam, DJ Hell, Spooky and Hard Ton on a succession of singles through the 1990s and 2000s.

“My interest always lay in combining vocals and electronic music,” she says. “The 90s were a great time for techno hits, so I was really into all that.”

Her biggest solo record was ‘Your Loving Arms’. A bouncy pop-dance juggernaut, again produced by The Grid and laden with vocal hooks, it was the most mainstream she ever got, reaching Number Six in the UK chart in 1995.

“That’s how ‘Your Loving Arms’ started – my love for pop, commercial stuff. Me and The Grid were like, ‘Come on then, let’s do it’. They didn’t fear sounding a bit more commercial for a while.”

More recently, Billie has returned to her overt soul, gospel and blues influences. She’s currently working on three albums which eschew electronics in favour of filmic production, orchestral strings and acoustic instruments, with renowned session musician Larry Mullins and members  of Tindersticks.

“There’s one album I’m working on where all the songs are like strange 1970s film soundtracks, which is what I was inspired by. I was like, ‘Oh my god, who do I involve in this? Who can help pull this together?’. Then I came across a Tindersticks soundtrack they’d done a long time ago. To cut a long story short, eventually I asked and they came. Three of them. We went to a big studio in the Czech Republic and spent five days recording. It was amazing because everything I had dreamed about happened in the studio. There were tears sometimes when I was doing vocals. Tindersticks are just great.”

While she’s no longer making electronic music, Billie  Ray Martin is dedicated to preserving her band’s  legacy. In addition to the new issue of ‘Electribal Soul’, she’s also recovered and put out Frankie Knuckles’ remixes of ‘Heading For The Night’, a track from the  first album slated to be a single but never released  at the time. The ‘Heading For Maddness’ mix in particular is a brilliant downtempo piece of electronic soul with a Mr Fingers bassline, dolphin noises and dubbed-out effects that you can’t help but feel would have  been huge had it been given the seal of approval by record execs.

The band never kept in touch, and with the death of keyboardist Rob Cimarosti in 2019, Billie says there’s no chance of any new music. Still, she wants to make sure people hear the incredible things they did make in the space of a few short years.

“When I listen to ‘Electribal Soul’ now, I’m thrilled and I think, ‘Wow!’,”  she says. “There could have been three singles from this, maybe even hit singles. Who knows?”

‘Electribal Soul’ is released on Electribal

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