Why Dark Matters - An Interview with John Robb of The Membranes
John Robb of The Membranes
When The Membranes disbanded in 1990, it appeared that the door had closed on an interesting, if occasionally wayward, chapter in musical history. The Peel favourites left behind some great records as well as some average ones, though their pioneering spirit had ensured their name would be forever remembered in the annals of the post-punk age. It was hardly expected that twenty-five years down the line, a revamped band would emerge from the shadows to release one of the most important and critically-lauded albums of 2015, tackling a subject so immense it made a prog-rock trilogy seem like an episode of Trumpton. Isolation talked to singer-bassist-songwriter John Robb about The Membranes' resurrection.
When you reformed the band in 2009 did you believe you would ever record a new album?

No! there was no masterplan. There was never even any intention to reform but when My Bloody Valentine asked us to play ATP festival it seemed like an interesting idea and when that went well it just rolled on from there. This kind of music is my natural territory so it pours out. It was also great to play bass again and the idea of building music around the bass guitar like all the great post punk bands was very appealing. The bass is direct but also powerful and melancholic - perfect!  We spent a couple of years just doing the occasional gig but when Shellac asked us to play another ATP I decided that we had to play new songs as the whole point of bands like The Membranes was to go forwards - so in a splurge there were new songs. Some of them had been sitting around on the laptop for ages and some were jams that sounded great and made themselves into songs. At this point I thought let's make an album! There was plenty of really good stuff and when the concept of the Universe and life and death all rolled together it had very strong reason to exist.

You must be delighted with the reception Dark Matter/Dark Energy has received. Had you expected this?

Not in the slightest! Even yesterday we got daytime play on BBC 6 Music and we are not the kind of band that normally gets this sort of attention. It genuinely was one of those records that had to be made. My head was full of ideas and they had to come out. I spent a year working on that record and it felt like no-one would be interested, but that didn’t matter because it was the first record I have ever made where I loved every track and it felt great working on the songs with the band in the studio. Some of the songs were straight live jams in the studio which is normally the worst way to make music but because we know each other so well we can feel it perfectly. Once I had the concept and the title of the album - Dark Matter/Dark Energy - the idea to make a dark and heavy record fell into place and reconnected with what the Membranes was really about. We didn’t want to make a shabby DIY record and as much as I love those kind of records I wanted to make something else - a dark piece of art which was compounded when my father died and that got entangled into the album and the idea about the life and death of the universe and of people close to you. The album was like making a very personal painting and when people started to say they really liked it when it was getting sent out it was a total shock but a great feeling. 

This was the first album Pete and Rob have made with the band. Has it changed the dynamic of the band in any way? Is touring a new album different?

The big difference is that now we can play the ideas that we have! A lot of time in the past the ideas outstripped the band. Some of the line-ups had people that could barely play, which was fine at the time but not the way I would want to work now. The band is instinctive now - like an animal in the tundra - a hunting warrior animal living on instinct! When we tour we know we can deliver a powerful performance and not just rely on hope. The Membranes in 2015 is about power and emotion and summing up the shamanic dark arts!

The album tackles a massive subject. Were you ever daunted by what you had started? How did you get across to the band what was in your head?

Never daunted because I was never pretending to have all the answers. I’ve always been fascinated by the universe and when I did the Ted X talk and the head of the CERN Project was also there we had a meeting over dinner and he explained the universe or what they did and didn’t know about it - this was stuff that was five years ahead of what we know in public and when he started talking about dark matter and dark energy that was mesmerising - it was so poetic and so, well, dark. It perfectly matched the mood I was trying to capture on the album. The album was initially about the birth and death of the universe and that was going to be entwined with my life but when my father died it as obvious where to go. The first track is about the birth of the universe but also about life and sex and death and the last track is about the death of the universe and my father - the drone at the end is the long wait for death at the end of a long life. I sat there and watched that part of life with my father just lying there not able to talk or open his eyes but still aware of everything. It was haunting. It could not have failed to affect the music. There is even a little snippet of me and him talking about the universe in the track. It was easy to get the ideas across to the band - we are all interested in the same kind of stuff. Great music can be really dumb or it can dare to dream or dare to tackle the heavy stuff - you should never fear what people think or feel trapped. 

How difficult is it these days for a band like the Membranes to make an album?

It is not easy because the music biz collapsed, but saying that this has just become the best selling Membranes' album in the UK ever. And it has received the best reaction. This has made things easier - touring America like we just did is the hardest part - the visas cost us £5,000 (American bands pay £30 to come to the UK) and you get taxed 30 per cent on your gig fees - the state are literally mugging you at every turn. The easiest bit is the ideas - there are plenty of those and also people are very receptive now to music like this. In the old days people were baffled by what we were doing because we got there too early!

Looking back at it now, what are your thoughts on the record? Did you worry about the contrast between the intimately emotional response to your loss and the enormity of the subject in hand. What perspective did it give you on the nature of humanity?

I like the idea that when you die all your atoms go back the universe - it’s like we are just borrowing this stuff that makes us and we have to eventually return. In a sense there is an afterlife because these atoms live on into eternity getting passed from one place to another. I like the idea of the Universe and its fragmented mythical power and the idea of the mystery of dark matter as the head of CERN explained it - the idea that they thought they had unravelled the mystery when he started working there but now it appears that they have only opened up more mysteries and that dark matter actually makes up most of the universe. Thinking about stuff like that really affects you in a creative way.

The media has changed so much over the years, does this hinder the promotion of a new record and how important is it that printed music media exists? Was your decision to move Louder Than War into print a reaction to the demise of the NME?

The media is interesting now. If you get organised you can send your music and info right across the world. There are thousands of pockets of musical resistance who will support you … it actually makes promotion easier. The trouble is there is less money around than there used to be - I mean money in terms of being able to afford to do stuff! With the Louder Than War website it gave me and the other writers a freedom to write about what we wanted away from the media and its fairly narrow confines. These days there are no dominant medias - the music fans get their say. This is why there are so many pockets of underground music that exist now that could never have existed years ago. Lots of non-mainstream media-friendly music survives internationally because of the internet and that’s fascinating. Conversely we decided to do a magazine version of LTW because it was perverse and we liked the idea of print is not dead like vinyl is not dead. Luckily the same week we did our first copy the NME went really weird!

Has the success of the album inspired you to write a follow-up?

I have already been writing stuff … lots of stuff was sketched out on my iPhone whilst we were touring America - it's amazing how much stuff you can sketch out on Garageband!


dark matter dark energy

The Membranes' astonishing album is available at all good record retailers, though we would recommend you buy it from your local independent record store or direct from John's website Louder Than Words.


The Membranes are playing The Hope & Ruin in Brighton, along with the Inca Babies, on Friday 18th December. Tickets are available from Resident in Brighton or on-line from Isolation. Doors at 7.30pm

Words: Adam Hammond
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