They might have launched a thousand post-rock ships, but who the heck were Bark Psychosis? As their seminal 1994 ‘Hex’ album gets a welcome reissue, frontman Graham Sutton tells all…
“How many fucking albums get released a year?” asks Bark Psychosis’ Graham Sutton. “There’s mountains of shit out there. So with something that I put my heart and soul into making, but which didn’t really grab anyone’s attention at the time, for me to still be here talking about it now, that’s really nice. If you make something, you always hope that it’s going to have some kind of lifespan.”
We’re talking about the Bark Psychosis album ‘Hex’, released the best part of a quarter century ago and which is now getting a timely reissue by Fire Records. Somewhat overlooked first time round, the record was rock music, but in a form that seemed to occupy a completely different universe to most things going on at the time. It was music in long-form (both in terms of the expansiveness with which it was presented and also the time it took to come to fruition) and also a full stop in the history of the group up to that point.
“The name came from a dream I had when I was 14, back when I started the band,” recalls Sutton, who was still at school in Snaresbrook, Essex, when he formed Bark Psychosis in 1986. Consisting of himself, Daniel Gish, John Ling and Mark Simnett, the group started out paying tribute to Napalm Death before setting to work on their own idiosyncratic take on rock music.
“We liked a lot of different music,” says Sutton. “Some of us liked Five Star and some of us liked Napalm Death. I’ve just always looked for a certain power and intensity from the music I like.”
Sutton’s eclectic taste covers everything from Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth, through to jazz, classical and dub. If those influences seem shambolic, he is quick to point out that a listener’s response to music should be an entirely personal one.
“Only I know what these things truly mean to me,” he says. “That then fed into the band. We took very small focussed fragments from a broad cross section of areas that wouldn’t necessarily rub up against each other in the hope that we’d come up with something that felt new, but which also spoke to you, as the creator, on a personal level.”
Technology played a major part in how the band approached making music, and Sutton talks enthusiastically about how they were obsessed with drum machines, sequencing, sampling, and labels like ZTT. Yet the economics of the day put the group’s tech wishlist somewhat out of reach.
“We could only get on board when it became cheap enough, when you weren’t talking about a Fairlight costing the same as a house,” he laughs. “We started getting involved when you were able to buy a sampler for the price of a crappy secondhand car instead. It still wasn’t peanuts, but with three or four individuals all pooling together, at a time when music still made money, you could feasibly end up buying one.”
Being able to afford their own technology was, for Sutton, the beginning of being able to make the music he had imagined Bark Psychosis were capable of.
“At the start of the whole process you’d have all these amazing thoughts about what you’re going to do,” he says. “We made our first record when we were 17. At that age, you have all these thoughts in your head of what you’re going to do with no access to a studio to work it out, and then suddenly you’ve got one night to make something, including having access to a sampler for two hours. We had to work everything out for ourselves, but I’m not disowning any of our early stuff at all.”
‘Hex’, in contrast to some of that earlier work, has a languid fluidity expressed through jazz phrasing, semi-classical instrumentation, electronics, ambient fabric and a reverb-drenched sound. It is, at least in its presentation, a guitar-led album, but one that could not have been executed without samplers and studio processing.
Heard as a whole, ‘Hex’ sounds at once mournful and yet retains an arresting sense of hope, an album that feels like it is drifting, but which is constantly moving forward. Not for nothing did it prompt music writer Simon Reynolds to coin the phrase “post-rock”, allowing
Bark Psychosis to become part of a movement of like-minded, go anywhere, be anything groups like Tortoise and Labradford, bands who were equally as motivated by taking bits and pieces from disparate areas of music.
Both in terms of its musical style and the process with which it was recorded, the precedent for ‘Hex’ came from Bark Psychosis’ 21-minute single ‘Scum’, which was released in 1992.
“Mark was working doing some community work at St John’s Church in Stratford, east London,” recalls Sutton. “That meant we got access to a damp, mouldy room to store our gear, but we also got to rehearse in the church. I was totally obsessed with the space in which things were recorded and I really wanted to experiment with that. I thought the church would be perfect for the sort of music we were making.”
With the guidance of Talk Talk’s Lee Harris and engineer Phill Brown, the team rented kit for 10 days, set it up around the church and recorded what they played and the result was ‘Scum’.
“We all enjoyed that process,” he continues, “but I had a specific vision. I thought that the church would be good for some things, but not for everything. So with ‘Hex’ it was quite demarcated in terms of different phases of recording. We recorded the drums at a studio in Bath, we came back to St John’s to do some basic backing and overdubs, then we went down to my flat in Brighton to do sequencing, moving stuff around with the sampler, and my vocals.”
One of the enduring qualities of ‘Hex’ is its ability to quietly surprise. Being something of a slow-building record, you’d think that there would be plenty of clues in ample time as to where the music is headed, but often as not that isn’t the case.
“I always loved stuff where the end point is completely different from the start, and you almost can’t work out how you got there,” says Sutton. “The pace of the music, or the ebb and flow, is paramount to me and was to all of us in the band. We described the music we were making in terms of tension and release.”
While ‘Hex’ appeared to suggest that the eight long years since Bark Psychosis had formed had finally paid off, the process of recording ‘Hex’ proved to be the end of the band.
“No one could really put up with me,” laughs Sutton. “The band had started off with certain ideals of being a democratic unit, but you have to actually make decisions about things, and you have to have a vision of what you want to do. It was an interesting experiment, but ultimately not one that worked.”
It’s tempting to view the period after ‘Hex’ as a bit of a wilderness. Though it may not necessarily be obvious to anyone but Sutton, he felt that the next logical incarnation of Bark Psychosis was as a drum ’n’ bass unit, evidenced by a somewhat hastily prepared set at 1994’s Phoenix Festival.
“It wasn’t calculated,” he shrugs. “I’d always been drawn by my intuition about where the music that excited me was taking me. I still do to this day.”
Little was heard of the band after that. Sutton threw himself into production, largely thanks to the encouragement of Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis.
“He asked me if I’d ever thought about producing anyone else,” he says. “I’d only ever worked on our records at that point, but I said I’d have a go if anything came up. A couple of weeks later he sent me a postcard with big letters that said, ‘Can you make me a hit?’. It seemed to be so absurd that I just had to take him up on it.”
The hit Travis wanted came in the form of Delays’ ‘Long Time Coming’ single, which lodged itself firmly in the Top 20.
Anyone thinking that Sutton had shelved Bark Psychosis completely was in for a surprise when he released a new album called ‘///Codename: Dustsucker’ in 2004. The album picked up where ‘Hex’ left off, yet it was vastly different again. By now, Bark Psychosis was just Sutton and sampled contributions from a coterie of other musicians, something he feels was an entirely logical progression.
“I don’t consider myself to be a performer,” he insists. “I’m coming at things from a writer’s point of view. I like making records, as opposed to re-enacting them in front of a bunch of people. I’ve got absolutely no interest in that whatsoever, so the notion of needing a band just faded away.”
So will the reissue of ‘Hex’ presage another Bark Psychosis album? Sutton remains tight-lipped. For someone so resolutely focussed on looking forward, it seems curious that he’d not instinctively know the answer to this.
“I don’t like to tempt fate,” he says. “I spend my entire life making music in one form or another, more often than not I find myself producing other people’s records. I find that a really good process from a psychological point of view, and I feel creatively satisfied most of the time. I’m constantly making bits and pieces. The door is definitely not shut.”
‘Hex’ is out on Fire