Since the early 1970s, brothers Mark and Clive Ives have been recording as Woo – arguably the UK’s most prolific DIY outfit. Two new albums, ‘Robot X’ and ‘Xylophonics’, raid their vast archive. And it all began with Uncle Fred’s musical saw 

“Uncle Fred was great,” says Clive Ives. “He was an old RAF guy with a big moustache – such a sweet man. My brother and I would only see him very occasionally, but he was a great storyteller. He’d say, ‘The next time you come, we’re going to make a film!’. So we’d turn up six months later still thinking about that, but of course by that point he’d completely forgotten whatever he’d suggested. 

“Then, one day, he got out a saw and started playing it with a bow. It went ‘Wooooooo!’ and, as I remember, Mark said, ‘Hey, that would be a great name for our band’.”

And so it proved. Since 1972, Mark and Clive Ives have been recording splendidly odd music under the collective name Woo, amassing a truly extraordinary archive of home recordings along the way. The albums that have actually been released – over 30 of them – barely scratch the surface of a body of work that playfully embraces folk music, dub, avant-garde jazz, ambient soundscapes, and a few experiments that even veer dangerously close to conventional pop music. 

Album titles include ‘How To Make Your Home Look Like Space’, ‘Paradise In Pimlico’ and ‘Dobbin’s Lost His Coconuts’. 

It’s a wonderful world to explore, a giddy mishmash of melodic mysticism and Python-style humour. Imagine Graham Chapman’s silly Colonel marching about the parade ground, bellowing at Kraftwerk to cover songs by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Or possibly the other way around. And this whole offbeat musical journey began in south London in the early 1960s.

“We started playing in our garage when I was about seven and Mark was nine,” recalls Clive. “The kids on our street would pay a penny to watch us, but we must have been unbelievably bad. We had two guys on guitars, and me on my grandad’s old drum kit – he played with the Royal Marines. We were being The Beatles! We grew up watching them get more and more famous, absolutely devouring everything they did.

“And The Beatles’ music was transforming at an incredible pace. They went from the very accessible ‘Please Please Me’ to the far-out, psychedelic ‘I Am The Walrus’ within four years. Each of their albums inspired and informed our musical education. Then in 1967, there was ‘All You Need Is Love’ – an international message of love and optimism that could be easily understood by people all over the world. It was a profoundly optimistic time for us.”

In an early example of their admirable eclecticism, however, the brothers were combining their explorations of the psychedelic realm with an interest in the more grounded world of traditional pub jazz. 

“We had another uncle, Uncle Ivor, who was a great sax player,” recalls Clive. “We’d go to his Sunday lunchtime gigs, in rough old pubs where the guys were hammering out jazz standards. And that opened the door for Mark to play his clarinet – he’d sometimes join in.” 

By 1972, following Mark’s own stint with the RAF band, the brothers were holed up in a terraced house in Wimbledon, creating home recordings with prolific abandon. And, by the mid-1970s, their musical ambitions had been transformed by Clive’s purchase of an early synthesiser.

“It was a little Roland that I bought for £300,” he remembers. “Until then, I’d been bashing saucepans and kitchen utensils while Mark was playing the guitar, but I saw this synth in a magazine and thought, ‘That’s what I want!’. 

“The whole idea of making home recordings with a synthesiser was such an exciting adventure. We’d say, ‘What can we do tonight? Let’s make something that sounds like it comes from Russia, or a Parisian cafe, or like something you would hear on late-night BBC Radio 3!’. 

“But we weren’t really trying to get our music out there. It took another five years for Mike Alway from Cherry Red Records to come to our studio and say, ‘Wow, this is great – I’ll help you release something’.”

The debut album, 1982’s ‘Whichever Way You Are Going, You Are Going Wrong’, combines swirling electronics and McCartney-esque basslines with pastoral woodwind and folk-rock guitars. It was warmly reviewed, earning them comparisons to both The Durutti Column and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

In the USA, Bruce Licher – founder of the Independent Project Records label – came across a copy stored in the warehouse of the San Francisco branch of Rough Trade and was smitten. In 1989, the follow-up album, ‘It’s Cosy Inside’, finally gained a release on his label. 

By this time, the brothers’ growing interest in Raja yoga and Krishna Consciousness was lending their music a more contemplative feel.

“There’s a song on ‘It’s Cosy Inside’ called ‘The Bird’,” says Clive. “It’s a really soft, mystical track, and we just said, ‘Where on earth did that come from?’. My brother was a real soul-seeker when he was younger, so we were aspiring to make more mystical music, and that track – in its own strange way – really captured something.”

A profound interest in the spiritual, he explains, has been a long-standing passion for both Ives brothers. 

“Mark travelled to India in his 20s and had a very powerful, life-changing spiritual experience,” explains Clive. “Then, some years later, I had a good friend who was a Hare Krishna devotee. He often talked to me about Krishna Consciousness, and I spent many uplifting hours chanting with him and his friends. These experiences have influenced both our music and our visual art.”

The duo continue to write and record together, with 2020’s dreamy, jazz-tinged ‘Arcturian Corridor’ a recent high spot. But the mining of their extensive archives has also uncovered a rich seam of unreleased gems. Bruce Licher and Independent Project Records have come onboard again to issue two new collections of vintage material. While ‘Robot X’ is a disquieting collection of 1980s synth instrumentals, ‘Xylophonics’ is a gentler 1990s showcase for the Ives brothers’ earliest digital recordings. 

“About 10 years ago, our friend and guitarist Larry Lloyd said, ‘I can’t bear it – you’ve got all these DAT tapes and cassettes, and I’m going to make it my mission to digitise everything for you’,” recalls Clive. “Which he did, and there were something like 1,500 separate tracks. So when we look back at our archives, I sit there with Mark and say, ‘When did we do that?’. And we listen out for whichever synthesiser or gizmo we were using at the time.

“‘Robot X’ loosely dates from the 1980s, but we don’t really know exactly when because we’ve got so many tracks. When Bruce asked us what inspired the album, though, what really came back to me was Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece ‘Brazil’. That blend of sci-fi and dark comedy.”

It’s an influence that also seeps into Clive’s decidedly Gilliam-esque video for one of the album’s pivotal tracks, ‘The One That Got Away’.

“It starts with a robot flying over some houses, watching everything,” he explains. “It’s a comic way of looking at surveillance. Then it takes you into the mass production of the robots. Outside the factory are huge piles of scrap, all the redundant spare parts. And this is reality! Every country in the world is about to start producing millions of these robots, and they’ll all eventually become scrap, because we’ll upgrade everything. So the finale has one little Robot X moving across this panorama of scrap, and in the closing moment, you see him taking off and escaping into the sunset.

“And as I’m explaining it, I’m realising there are a few more things from ‘Brazil’ in there!” he laughs. “That movie really got into my bloodstream.” 

‘Xylophonics’, meanwhile, is easier to date. Its production techniques narrow it down to the mid-1990s, when the brothers first began recording using computer technology. 

“For years, a friend of mine had been saying, ‘You’ve really got to get a computer’,” explains Clive. “I’d been resisting it, but when I finally got one, I changed my mind. In the past, I’d had to use a funny Synthi machine to link a step sequencer to a drum machine, but suddenly I had a computer and the whole idea of recording looped, minimalist compositions became much easier. So these are our earliest experiments in using that technology.” 

Why the initial reluctance, then? He shrugs. 

“Before computers came into everyday use, I was convinced the technology would hinder my creativity,” he explains. “It took me a while to realise that this wasn’t true, and that computers can actually enhance artistic possibilities.”

So, as they enter their sixth decade of recording music together, what does the future hold for the Ives brothers? More original material? Or more of those gems from the extensive Woo archives? 

“Both!” smiles Clive. “I’ve got some new compositions I’m working on, and I want Mark to work on them as well. So that’s my priority. But he’s still really happy to keep going through the archives. About four months ago we said, ‘Right – this is the final time we’re going through all this stuff’. We shortlisted all the things we hadn’t used, and we were amazed at how much of it we still really liked. There’s a very funny, quirky album in there somewhere. And a very gentle one. And some quite weird stuff, too.

“And Mark has very clear memories of it all. He’ll say, ‘I remember this one! We had cherry pie and custard that night!’. We even found one recently where he’s doing a really awful impersonation of Barry White. But he’s very specific about his singing, and I’ve got a programme now where you can take the vocals off, so we did that, and now it’s an instrumental.” 

‘Robot X’ and ‘Xylophonics’ are out on Independent Project Records

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