photo by Emma Lavelle
Interview by Billy Hell
In September 2012 I called round at the Withington house where Plank guitarist and keyboard player Dave Rowe and bassist Ed Troup live, just after Liam Stewart had replaced Johnny Winbolt-Lewis on drums. Armed with two tape recorders, a bag of records for them to listen to later and my big mouth, I sat with them in the living room and talked about Plank. Then Liam went home and we moved to the kitchen. Fast forward to June 2014 and they'd made their second album Hive Mind, a concept album about insects. Dave answered some more questions about that via e-mail. Just before the tape started, we were talking about the NME and Ed opined that he preferred ELO.
NOTE: The band sometimes includes their name with an exclamation point as 'Plank!' which is why you see it as such occasionally below.
PSF: So you like ELO?
ET: They're from Birmingham, so yeah. (Ed grew up in Birmingham)
PSF: Aren't they generally regarded as a Beatles rip off band?
ET: ELO are better than the Beatles.
PSF: Where are you two from?
DR: We're Lancashire lads. I'm from Chorley.
PSF: You told me Plank! are named after Conny Plank so you obviously like him and the records he produced.
DR: I started listening to Neu! albums and realised he was the producer, but then I started realising that he'd done loads of other stuff like Kraftwerk and Ultravox. He did a Killing Joke record!
(I'd just given Dave a spare copy of the third Killing Joke album Revelations which was produced by Conny Plank)
DR: At the time I didn't think anyone would get it. The exclamation mark made it a bit too obvious.
PSF: The exclamation mark could make it seem like it's calling someone a plank as a mild insult, but it's nothing to do with that is it?
DR: It was because of Neu! Some people have said it's a bit contrived. Some people don't get the reference.
PSF: You could say that human language is contrived.
DR: It's better than Nasdaq anyway! Easier to Google.
(Ed and Liam also play in the heavy instrumental trio Nasdaq with guitarist Dan Bridgewood-Hill. The same trio were also FTSE 100 playing lighter funkier tunes and have recently formed a stellar quartet with guitarist Laurie Hulme called Seatoller who play faster more Sonic Youth-influenced music)
PSF: Are there any other Conny Plank productions you like that you think are worth telling people about?
DR: He did a lot of stuff with Jaki Leibezeit and Phantom Band. He did a lot of Cluster didn't he?
PSF: He did Cluster II but there's a lot of Cluster I haven't heard.
DR: There are a lot of other bands too, all these Scorpions-type bands.
PSF: Dave, you were in Autokat before Plank weren't you? Was Johnny in any bands before he drummed for Plank?
DR: Johnny was in a band called Keef. We formed Plank and all our other bands just dissolved.
ET: Autokat, Burnst and Keef all disappeared within six months of Plank forming. Ste (Barrow, Burnst drummer) didn't want to play drums anymore so Burnst stopped.
(Ed played bass in Burnst and Dan Bridgewood-Hill played guitar)
PSF: How did you all meet?
ET: I met Liam a long time ago.
LS: It was at a gig at the Red House rehearsal rooms. The support band for a Beecher gig didn't turn up and Burnst were practising in the next room. I think Marios who put the gig on just asked you if you wanted to play. That's how I met that lot.
ET: It was an afternoon gig wasn't it? Liam joined Burnst a few years later on.
LS: Burnst reformed but minus me.
ET: It was about four or five gigs I think.
DR: You said I always had a fisherman's hat! We were at a lot of the same gigs but never really talked to each other much before we became bandmates. I'm not sure how it all fused. Before Plank me and Liam were doing a band called Machete which was keyboards and drums but now that's on hiatus as Liam's learning all the Plank songs.
LS: Machete play quirky little songs with synth loops and funky rhythms.
PSF: So would it be kind of like the way FTSE 100 sound compared to Plank in it's relationship to Plank music?
DR: That's a fair thing to say, yeah.
LS: That's a fairly good analysis of it actually.
PSF: And I haven't even heard it yet!
ET: I've heard it from my room when they practise. It sounds really good.
PSF: Ed, you are in a lot of bands apart from Plank! Wode, Burnst, Nasdaq, FTSE 100 and (since 2014) Seatoller. Is that it?
PSF: Seatoller, Nasdaq, FTSE 100 and Burnst only happen one at a time, so it's three really. There are six but Nasdaq and FTSE 100 are the same trio playing different music so maybe five.
PSF: This is the tough question for you: if it came to the point where you had to choose one band, which one would you choose to play in? You can't really choose Wode with these two here!
ET: I'd choose jumping off a building.
PSF: You might break!
ET: That would be the ultimate musical expression.
DR: He'd be doing his solo project.
ET: I'm going to do a solo project called The Leap.
PSF: Doing what?
ET: Playing the bass.
PSF: You played six string guitar in Cornish Tin Mines but you don't play guitar in any bands now do you?
ET: No, it's a nice instrument though.
PSF: Dave, what effects do you play guitar through?
DR: I've got a multi-effects processor. All I use is distortion, an octave which is more like a harmoniser and a whammy, like Tom Morello.
PSF: There's the looping as well. You set up a loop and keep it going while you play another part along with it.
DR: I've been trying to introduce a bit more looping the keyboard as well.
PSF: When you're recording you must be able to keep the looping more accurate.
DR: I record the loops onto a sampler and sample through the loop pedal, then switch tha sampler off and start again. It's confusing. Liam's going to have to deal with it!
PSF: Have there been any memorable occasions when technology has let you down in Plank?
DR: The loop pedal for a time was switching itself off and looping in different places and stuff like that.
ET: We've trod a thin line with that loop pedal on occasion but it's never resulted in a song breaking down and having to stop.
PSF: Do you have to change your timing a bit?
ET: A little bit. You have to listen out for it.
DR: When Johnny was in the band, I left it to him.
PSF: Have any of you heard the song "Dum Dum" by the Butthole Surfers from the album Psychic... Powerless... Another Man's Sac? The drumming on "Arse Nick" from your first EP is very similar to the drumming on that.
DR: "Arse Nick" came from the comedy programme Porridge. He said something about sitting on a razor: arse nick.
PSF: Here's another comparison: "King Rat" has a certain part that sounds quite similar to "Lunar Landing" by Trans Am from their Red Line album. Have you heard that album?
ET: I've heard that album, it's really good.
PSF: Have you two heard Trans Am?
LS: I'm not overly familiar. The only thing I've heard is that cover version of the Fucking Champs.
PSF: The funny thing is the next track on Animalism is "La Luna." Thinking of influences, when we were talking about Conny Plank you mentioned Kraftwerk, Ultravox and Neu! Those seem to me the most obvious comparisons for Plank, especially "Astradyne" by Ultravox and the rhythms of Neu! You mentioned John Adams in the press release. I can hear a bit of his music and Steve Reich too but it's not overt.
DR: What Steve Reich and John Adams do can seem very linear, more alluring. The idea of trying to come off just one chord or one key; not involving a lot of chord changes and making it confusing. We get compared to that drum beat they call 'motorik,' which doesn't really mean anything.
PSF: Wasn't that a term Neu! came up with?
DR: I don't know if Neu! came up with that term, but I always call it 'Klaus Dinger beat.'
PSF: 'Motorik' is a better term than 'krautrock' really, that just literally translates as rock music played by Germans, but most fans of such music know what it means. People even shorten it to "kraut" these days as a form of musical description, which is even sillier. Another band Plank remind me of is Icebreaker International. Have you heard them?
DR: Yeah, Ste Barrow the drummer of Burnst sent me a link to one of their tracks.
ET: I've got that album in my room. It's a great concept album about a cargo ship travelling from Korea to America.
PSF: Via Rotterdam and Dubai. There's a really uplifting track called "Port of Dubai." Were Add N to X an influence?
ET: I liked their discordant Moog sounds, and Kling Klang as well, on Rock Action.
DR: They were buying up all those old synths in the eighties and nineties when people didn't want them. Those Moogs, you could get a TR-9 which is worth about two hundred grand now for about two hundred quid.
PSF: You must like Can?
DR: Yeah I like Can.
PSF: Did you notice that The Lost Tapes box and the Plank single have the same colour scheme?
DR: Autumnal colours.
PSF: I know you like Mogwai and Slint.
PSF: I though of Oneida too mainly because the first time I saw you was supporting them at Islington Mill but you're not that similar really. It depends which Oneida track really, some are very different to Plank!
LS: They've changed their sound a lot, haven't they? Weren't they like a lot more stoner rock?
PSF: On their early albums, yeah. You've used a lot of film projections when you play gigs. Was the one for the album launch at Soup Kitchen made specially?
DR: That was a mish-mash of stuff I've been collaborating on with a guy called Chris Croft and the older films were fifties stock footage. Previously we'd used some eighties horror stuff. We cut together all the fast moving psychedelic sections from Altered States by Ken Russell when we supported Jim Noir at Band on the Wall. The idea was to make it a bit darker.
PSF: On the first EP, there are German and French song titles: "1001 Nacht" and "La Luna." Was it a conscious decision to use foreign languages?
DR: You know "Come sta, la luna" by Can? "La Luna" just sounds like that.
PSF: What about "1001 Nacht?"
DR: I read a story on the Internet about this woman who fell in love with the Eiffel Tower. She fell in love with this fairground ride called 1001 Nacht. It's based on that. I think she fell in love with a fence as well.
ET: It's good to have European languages as titles for our music as it's instrumental with no lyrics to name the songs after. Why not have European words in there as well? There are all these European bands who are singing in English and that doesn't seem right to me.
PSF: That's probably a lot to do with the USA speaking English, being a big market and where rock 'n' roll originated, so English is the rock'n'roll language, and British success can be very important for bands who care about that sort of thing.
ET: It shouldn't really be like that though.
PSF: There are some great European bands who sing in their own languages, like Einsturzende Neubauten.
ET: I see Plank as a European band so why not have different languages in there?
DR: If you play instrumental music or you sing in a language other than English you're cutting your audience down, aren't you?
PSF: Hookworms supported you at the "Animalism" album launch at Soup Kitchen. How did you get to hear them and why did you ask them to support?
DR: Will who runs the Acoustic Anarchy label was doing press for Hookworms and he was really into them and they're doing that krautrock infuenced thing.
PSF: I saw them for the first time supporting Bardo Pond at the Brudenell in Leeds and they were a hell of a lot better at Soup Kitchen.
ET: Listening to them, obviously I was getting prepared for playing so I wasn't watching them intently, but I think they went down really well. They played a really good set. I saw them once before in Derby and they weren't anywhere near as good as that back then.
PSF: You've played quite a lot of supports. Are there any bands you haven't yet supported whom it would be a great honour to support?
PSF: Have you sent them a copy of the album?
DR: We sent a copy to Rock Action, their label. Their drummer Martin Bullock was really into our first EP, asking about a vinyl release. I mentioned the album to him but he hasn't replied so whether he's yet to listen to it or didn't like it, I don't know. It's up to him.
PSF: It's possible he's just too busy! I would have thought Mogwai would like your music.
DR: I wouldn't mind supporting Tortoise.
PSF: Yeah, they're awesome, one of the best live bands around.
DR: Have you heard that band Circle?
PSF: The band from Finland? Did you see them at Islington Mill?
DR: No I missed that.
PSF: They encored with a long cover of "Here Come The Warm Jets" by Brian Eno that kept building and building and I didn't even recognise it until right at the end. They were all singing it and it was a bit different to the main set which was much more metal.
DR: Iron Maiden would be a good support slot.
PSF: Who is your favourite band you've supported?
ET: I really like Sleepy Sun.
DR: I think Zombie Zombie were good.
ET: We played with Cantaloupe once and they're really good.
PSF: FTSE 100 played with them as well.
ET: That's why Plank played, because FTSE 100 couldn't.
PSF: Apart from the songs that were written earlier most of the songs on Animalism have titles themed on animals, and you were quoted in the press release as saying that's because animals are better than us...
ET: They're more interesting, aren't they?
PSF: Should I interview the cat instead then?
ET: I can't remember that train of thought I was on at the time but you get loads of bands writing songs about people all the time. That's a bit old hat. It's expired a bit.
DR: It's always about love, isn't it?
PSF: That's a common theme in song lyrics.
DR: So stay away from any kind of human emotional content in the music.
ET: What if all those animals had souls?
DR: Who says they don't?
PSF: They've all got arseholes.
PSF: On Animalism you've got cows, pigs, rats and dogs. These can all be found on farms, although the rats are sort of uninvited guests. Then you've got "Iguana Farm" and there aren't any iguana farms are there?
DR: We were playing Scattergories when I used to live with Will and one of his answers was, "There's no such thing as an iguana farm."
ET: I think the question was: "name a farm animal." And the letter "I" came up.
DR: He said iguana and then argued until he was blue in the face.
PSF: "Moolicks" is where the cows come into it but was that a made up word that was a pun on the word "music?"
ET: It wasn't anything to do with me. It's quite a good title.
DR: It was probably Johnny who thought of it. Mark Riley said there's a cow's lick, so it's a moo because cows make moo noises, so stuck together it's "Moolicks."
ET: I always thought the guitar at the beginning of "Moolicks" sounds a little bit like a cow mooing. Perhaps that's where it came from , but I can't remember the conversations that went on to create that title.
DR: "King Rat" was originally called "Blind Weaner" but I thought that was a bit too stupid. "Self Harm" was pushing it.
PSF: Weaner as in a piglet?
ET: A little sausage.
PSF: It's also what farmers call baby pigs that are still suckling.
DR: Maybe we should have stuck with that!
PSF: Is "Pig Sick" about a hangover, when someone says they feel pig sick?
ET: Wasn't that to do with that disease that was going round?
DR: Swine flu! But also people sometimes say they feel sick as a pig.
PSF: And sick as a dog; and you've got "Alpha Dog." What's an alpha dog?
DR: Alpha Dog is from when Wikileaks put out all that information from the CIA and their term for Vladimir Putin was Alpha Dog. That happened around the same time that tune was being written. He definitely thinks he is the alpha dog.
ET: You wouldn't mess with Putin.
PSF: You could bring "Self Harm" into the farm theme by saying it quickly so that it sounds like "sell farm." Buy iguanas, sell the farm...
ET: I never noticed that.
PSF: That song reminds me of "Money" by Pink Floyd sped up, it sounds like part of it could be the same notes but in a different order. It's almost twice as fast.
DR: Different time signature as well: "Money" is in seven and "Self Harm" is in eleven.
ET: I've always been very pleased with "Self Harm" because it starts off quite chirpy but by the end of it it's gone quite dark, but it's still got the same flow all the way through it.
DR: That bit in the middle; someone came up to us and said they really liked how we'd put "Atlas" by Battles in the middle of it! I think it's because it has a similar groove and we're playing similar music.
PSF: Pigs pop up twice in the "Animalism" song titles, "Dying for Pigs" and "Pig Sick." Why do pigs get two titles?
DR: We'd written "Pig Sick" and then "Dying for Pigs" was written on the toilet wall in Fuel (vegetarian cafe bar in Withington near their home). I was coming round to that idea of the animals, so I thought it was a good idea to use it as a song title. We were also trying to go for all two word titles. "Dying for Pigs" threw it a bit didn't it?
PSF: "Dying for Pigs" makes me think of a sunrise and "King Rat" is like getting into a car and motoring away on a sunny day.
DR: I always thought the end of "King Rat" sounded like some kind of sunrise.
PSF: You had a saxophone player on "Moolicks" at the International Festival. Who was that?
DR: She's called Charlotte Holroyd. She was in a band called Lonely Woman with Liam for a bit but that doesn't exist anymore. I think they only lasted one gig.
PSF: Was it just sax and drums?
ET: The main guy was called Martin and he played guitar. They were really good. It was quite jazzy. Martin sang in Spy vs. Spy. Charlotte teaches flute and is a session musician.
PSF: Are you going to do anymore tunes with sax?
DR: I want to use a flute next; put it through the space echo and get it sounding psychedelic.
PSF: Jethro Tull!
DR: Or Camel.
PSF: Isobel the singer of Bardo Pond plays a fair bit of flute, and Mercury Rev had a flute player in their early days. The Fall had a flute player very briefly in the nineties.
PSF: What's the worst disaster you've had at a Plank gig?
DR: We nearly had the keyboard knocked over at the Animalism album launch. It went at forty-five degree angle then swung back when the pigs were dancing.
PSF: Will the dancing pigs be returning?
ET: I think it's possible.
DR: The first one was one of our mates, Nick Steedman. He was the original pig.
ET: He was asked to come on stage in a pig mask for "Moolicks" at the album launch and he did. Somebody else in the audience had a mask and came up on stage as well completely out of the blue. It was good, we didn't plan that.
DR: He nearly destroyed my gear though!
PSF: That's the trouble with drunk people getting up on stage. That's why Fugazi don't allow it. Someone got on stage with the Stranglers many years ago and they pulled his trousers down and stuck a banana up his arse.
Fast forward to Summer 2014 and Plank's second album Hive Mind has just been released, so I sent Dave some questions about it by e-mail.
PSF: Hive Mind is a great album title. What prompted you to call the album that?
DR: When we were deciding on a theme for the album shortly after releasing Animalism we had the daft uber-prog idea of creating a prog trilogy: Animalism, Insecticide and finally Bacterium (I think bacterium may be a step too far!). Anyway we stuck with the idea and started to construct the album with an entomological theme.
My friend and label boss Charlie Bayley aka 'The Softpriest' was getting very ill and weaker by the day, he'd had cancer for the last five years or so and I wanted to get the album finished so he could hear it. He was always very supportive of my music, even back when I first joined Autokat in 2005.
On one of our last meetings I had rushed to get the album roughly mixed and sat with him as we listened to the tracks. Thankfully he loved it but when discussing the title he thought naming an album about insects called "Insecticide" was a bit of a contradiction and suggested "Hivemind." It had the insect theme we wanted and also the idea of a group or collection of beings working together as one. I thought it was a cool idea and suggested it to Liam and Ed, who both thought it was a good idea. We also decided to dedicate the album to Charlie, I look back on the time we spent together with great fondness and miss him dearly.
PSF: Was the song title "Grasshopper from Mars" a play on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars? If not, what inspired that song title?
DR: No, its actually named after the Faith No More instrumental track "Woodpecker from Mars." It was a favourite of mine and my brothers when we were little and listened to Heavy Metal. We learnt how to play it with a pal of ours and did a 'gig' in one of our bedrooms, I think I was about ten at the time. Chris Ashton was on the keyboards I believe! It was a good effort but must have sounded fuckin' gash!
PSF: Was the guitar riff from "Aphidelity" ripped off from "On the Run" by Pink Floyd?
DR: Funny you say that, as I'm pretty sure it is inspired by it and the more I realised it was pretty close, the more delay and chorus I added to make it sound more like it. Some people have suggested it sounds like 10cc, but I've not really heard much of them, however I was pretty much brought up on a staple diet of The Wall era Pink Floyd, I'd call it involuntary plagiarism.
PSF: Were you thinking of bees with "Swarm Behaviour?"
DR: Not really, that song was written extremely quickly. I came up with the three main sections on guitar and it's probably the most traditional of song structures we have ever done, ie. verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus, end. The title came from me reading about bees and how they interact within a hive. I found it fascinating. "Hivemind" and "Swarm Behaviour" are two of the same thing. I spoke with Ali Lloyd of American Men fame (Doctor in Maths) and asked if he could construct a swarm behaviour algorithm that could be outputted as MIDI information to be used as a random backdrop to the middle eight, but we never got round to finishing the project.
PSF: Who are the voices and what are they talking about on "Metamorphosis" and "Moth Lover?"
DR: The idea was for the second side of the album to be one continuous piece, like "Echoes" by Pink Floyd or "Djed" by Tortoise. Those long undulating tracks really resonated with me. I wanted to see if I could come up with something similar. Using the insect theme I thought maybe using the life cycle of a butterfly would be interesting, so we'd have Egg, Caterpillar, Pupae and finally Butterfly, not dissimilar to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." The whole piece was going to be called "Metamorphosis," with subtitles for each of the four sections, but even I thought that was on the naff end of prog. "Metamorphosis" stuck as the first track title. The actual talking was inspired by Dark Side of the Moon. I always liked trying to work out what the voices on that album were talking about. The voices on that track are evangelical Christians and creationist "scientists" discussing the life cycle of a butterfly. Its absolutely crackers some of things they are saying e.g. "The life cycle of a butterfly is the most powerful evidence of intelligent design anywhere in the universe."
Same with "Moth Lover," which was written as the "Caterpillar" section and also has sound bites of the same discussion. Things take an even more absurd turn with, "One thing that puzzles me today is why the theory of evolution is not being challenged more when it defies intelligent reason. There has to be some great plan, some master creator with a definite plan who has done all this...."
PSF: Have you planned any films of insects to use with the songs?
DR: I had discussed commissioning an animated video for the whole Side B of the album, but obviously costs are involved with getting talented people on board, so it has been pretty much a dead end on that front. I am going to put one together myself though using the 1961 Japanese film Mothra. It looks great and the special effects and action would really suit the music.
PSF: Did you decide to make an album about insects before or after the music was written?
DR: We had already discussed it before, and had been making working titles such as "Dark Web" and "Khepri," it was only a little later that more actual insectoid ideas developed and became main motivators or inspiration for the music.
PSF: Were all the songs instigated by Dave, or did some evolve from jams or bass lines or drum parts?
DR: All but "Cricket," which was a tune written by Ed on the bass. Simple piano was added to punctuate the chord changes and it sounded great as it was. It was a bit of a coincidence that the synth of "Khepri" was very similar in tempo to it, and worked out well when fusing the two. Most of the tracks though come from my ideas, then we arrange and develop them in the practice room, a prime example being the end section of "Grasshoppers from Mars," pure Ed and Liam grooving.
PSF: Liam was using headphones live. Was this to play along to a click track?
DR: No, just the loop pedal. We had a few teething problems when he first joined the band, especially live when an unreliable monitoring system or a rubbish sound engineer would completely throw us and we'd slip out of time or what not. Now Liam just takes a feed from my loop pedal to a little mixer and can mix the guitar or the keyboard to in ear headphones, depending on which one is the prominent rhythm provider.
PSF: Are you making the next album about microbes?
DR: Maybe, I think Ed is keen on the idea of discovering microscopic life forms on other planets and giving the album a more sci-fi theme. I think we'll struggle to come up with enough ideas or metaphors for it. We do have a new track with the working title of "E-Coli," so watch this space.
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