The Gaza Stripped
Adam Sweeting take a peek at Eyeless In Gaza
Without really thinking too much about it, I’d casually dismissed Eyeless In Gaza as a passing futurist fad, another transient quirk of the fashion industry. However, there are times when it’s a pleasure to be proved wrong, and this is one of them.
A few weeks ago, Eyeless In Gaza released an outstanding Lp called ‘Drumming the Beating Heart’ on Cherry Red. It’s not particularly easy listening and it didn’t start to work on me until I’d played it a few times, sometimes specifically to listen to and at others just as background atmosphere while making tea, washing up, reading Kerrang! etc.
Gradually, the record revealed itself as a source of strange unsettling atmospheres, sometimes menacing, sometimes melancholy, sometimes naggingly tuneful. Most striking of all, it has a distinct voice which suddenly seems to be speaking very close to your ear.
The creators of these unexpected riches live in Nuneaton – at least, Peter Becker does, with Martyn Bates a few miles up the road. It’s a small town adrift in the impersonal sprawl of the Midlands, though both of them enjoy living there.
Becker lives in his parent’s horribly neat suburban house, though he plans to move out to find more room for himself and the piles of instruments, tape recorders and amplifiers currently fitted with difficulty into his bedroom. After Sheehan has whipped through a quick photo-session with the pair (which they regret afterwards, feeling they were bulldozed into unnatural poses), we adjourn to the more fertile pastures of a pub.
“It’s really difficult to get a rapport going with total strangers, isn’t it?” says Martyn Bates, deeply shocked that anyone could say a thing like “you can’t trust a man who doesn’t drink”.
“You’ve really shown yourself in a bad light, saying a thing like that,” he tells me. “That’s a really crass thing to say.” Sensing moral outrage, the Chief and I fail to improve the situation with a string of racist, sexist and beer-drinking jokes.
Luckily, relations don’t fall apart completely – Bates finally accepts that we are merely a pair of smart-arses and not intimate allies of Garry Bushell. It seems, though, that both Bates and Becker hold pretty strong political views – they’ve deliberately chosen not to express it through their music, for reasons which Becker tries to explain.
“It’s a hangover from that Au Pairs thing,” he begins. “They’re not only seen as musicians, they’re seen in a political light because they’re saying things in a political way in their music, which I don’t think is a bad thing. But once people come to expect that of you you’ve become bracketed like left wing or right wing or whatever, to come out with these statements.
It probably sounds a bit like a cop-out for me to say that, but the reason Martyn and I came together was to make music, and the political analyses which you can do about, like, drinking a pint in a pub or something, comes after that. The thing that comes first for me is the feeling, and then you can sit back and say ‘why have I done that? Why are we together? How can I look at it from the outside?’ Then you can take a couple of steps back.
I don’t look at everything through a political light, but I’ve got certain values and certain ways of looking at things. I don’t wanna have to sort of stand up and say ‘I do this because I feel it’s a step forward for this’, because we don’t do it for that reason. The reason why the Au Pairs might have formed a band was to have men and women together in a band, as a political point, but it’s not why we do it.”
Certainly ‘Drumming the Beating Heart’ keeps well away from wide-screen issues, confining itself to intricately observed recreations of mood and memory, poetic even. Listening to Bates sing a song like ‘Picture the Day’, passionate and proud of its forceful dialect, you might perhaps be reminded of George Eliot’s “dignity of labour” ethic. (Eliot was Nuneaton’s most famous offspring, and Bates only recently left his job at the hospital named after her.) The strengths of ‘Beating Heart’ are strictly personal and emotional, seemingly drawn at least partly from a folk tradition.
“That’s a lovely thing to say,” says Bates.
So you wouldn’t object to the notion of this being folk music? “We’ve never sat around and said ‘let’s play folk music’,” says Martyn. “But it’s something I really like, so it’s bound to come out in the music we wanna make.”
“A lot of folk music’s really simple as well,” adds Peter. “You get like a drone background with sort of an embellishment tune over the top, a repeated phrase. A lot of our stuff is like that, so I suppose it’s valid to make that comparison.”
Martyn: “There’s a pureness there though.”
Peter: “Yeah, just throwing yourself into the feeling of it rather than having to perform to somebody else to please them.”
The Eyeless In Gaza method of working normally consists of Martyn coming up with the basic ideas for songs, “like the lyric or the skeleton of the chords,” as Becker explains. “Then usually I’ll see if I can fit something to what he’s done or change around the tempo or completely restructure whether it’s fast or slow or, like, one feeling or another. So Martyn’s like the creator and I’m the sort of orchestrator if you like. But it’s still a two-way thing.”
“Yeah, I think so,” agrees Martyn. “It’s pretty good sort of marriage really, cos he’s good with working with basic ideas – I can come up with the basic idea but it takes me ages to come up with other stuff to complete it, whereas Pete gives it a context.”
Between them, Bates and Becker play a fair list of instruments. Becker, who paid some dues in club bands playing the likes of ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’, tackles bass, synths and drums plus anything else he can lay his hands on as the mood takes him. Bates handles guitars and organ. “Anything we can get that’s cheap and that inspires us,” as Becker puts it. “I get tired of the same thing. If you buy a new instrument you’re inspired by it, you wanna get something out of it, get it working. To capture that enthusiasm and that spirit, rather than ‘oh well, I can play this in my sleep now’ – you’re almost on automatic then.”
“As soon as I feel I’ve really got to work to find an idea, like I’ve really got to construct a piece bit by bit and it doesn’t flow emotionally, it seems too laboured to me. I’d rather pick something up and the first couple of ideas that come into my head … not to say that I’d just play anything, it’s still filtered through my own sort of set of values.”
They enjoy the flexibility of working as a duo, where they don’t have to limit themselves to a single well-defined role as they would in a larger group. “I should imagine that’s what it’s like being in a bigger band, having to water down your ideas a bit more, unless one person has the idea and he tells the rest of the band what to do – but then you’re just like a tool,” says Becker.
But though the format of Eyeless hasn’t changed over the last couple of years, the content has. The group was named after the Aldous Huxley novel, which Martyn was reading when he teamed up with Peter. It seemed appropriate to Martyn’s lyrics at the time. “But it might as well be a different group now, cos it’s got a bit of a different feel,” according to Becker. “Then it was more angry, and sort of like your head whirling round trying to make sense of things. Now it’s a bit more like … now you’ve assimilated all that sort of thing and you’ve taken the best things from it, and it actually means something to you. You’ve got one positive step and you’re building from that.”
Bates sees the latest album as a positive step forward. “I think this record is more of a mature record, because the first two were still very much like in our formative days. We recorded ‘Photographs’ two months after we met, and then ‘Caught in Flux’ and the 12 inch were recorded later the same year – and this was 1980.
They’re the first and second batches of ideas that we had, whereas with this one we’ve stockpiled a great deal of material over a year, a year and a half, and we’ve been able to grow with it, pick it out and collate it into more of a cohesive thing.”
Does living in an area like Nuneaton politicise you more, with its unemployment and absence of creative opportunities? “I don’t think it makes the blindest bit of difference. Basically it’s down to the sort of person you are. Whether you’ve just got one head screwed on and you’re not gonna change at all, or whether you’re gonna be open to a lot of influences and try to make sense of ’em all – which you could do if you lived in London where there’s a lot of things going on, you’re subjected to a lot of different things.
If you were like blinkered and these influences were there you wouldn’t look at ’em, but if you were a bit more open-minded you’d wanna try and make sense of it all. I still think people are vital – they can do things, they can change things, there’s nobody stopping you from getting up and doing something.”