GETTING METAPHYSICAL – Shriekback’s Barry Andrews Talks Philosophy, XTC And New Album ‘Why Anything? Why This?’

Picture by Howard Davidson

Something of an alternative supergroup, Shriekback came into being – at least as Barry Andrews tells it – after he was doggedly pursued by bassist Dave Allen.

Allen, looking to form a new band after the demise of Gang of Four, was keen to hook up with the keyboard player who’d quit XTC, after losing a power struggle with Andy Partridge.

Initially reluctant, Andrews came on board and the pair became a trio with the arrival of guitarist Carl Marsh, latterly of Out On Blue Six.

Drummer Martyn Barker (Billy Bragg/King Swamp) arrived in 1983, shortly before the release of perhaps their best known album Oil and Gold, which spawned the single Nemesis.

Numerous highly original albums followed, with Andrews the only constant in a changing roster of musicians.

Now restored to a core trio of Andrews, Barker and Marsh – with contributions from PiL bassist Scott Firth and regular collaborators Wendy and Sarah Partridge – Shriekback are back with Why Anything? Why This? their best received album in decades.

In his own inimitable style, Andrews tells Matt Catchpole about the making of the album and shares his thoughts on philosophy, metaphysics, XTC, synaesthesia and a whole lot more.

Iguana tell you a story – Barry Andrews and friend

Why Anything? Why This? is your 14th album – and many say it’s the best since 1985’s Oil and Gold – you must be pleased by the reviews, why do you think it’s been so well received?

Seems to have gone down well so far – which is obviously pleasing. Personally, I’m not quite over the post-mixing resentment that I feel for all of our albums. The bit where you just have to listen to it ad nauseam in a totally unnatural way – almost so it ceases to be music. And you bore the tits off all those around you. It’s horrible but it will pass and I’m sure I will see it in all its glory again.

What are you driving at with the title of the record?

Why Anything? Why This? is a pretty fundamental philosophical question. ‘Why does anything exist? And, since it does, why does it take the shape of all the multifarious phenomena we see around us?’ I like reading about philosophy- particularly metaphysics – mainly, I think, to give myself a weird vertiginous thrill, unobtainable in any other way.

Are there any songs you’re particularly proud of?

I am well pleased with And the Rain and 37. I think the songwriting is very clear and unfussy there and the production is a focussed and effective delivery system. It’s almost as though, after all these years, we knew what we were doing. The bigger question remains, some might say: why are we doing it?

There seem to be more guitars on the record this time – was that a conscious decision?

Yes, that’s because I’ve been playing them as well as Carl. I only started learning a year or so ago, but I’m getting really into it. I’m very basic indeed, but it does save you having to get in a real guitarist to do the bog standard parts. That has tended to expand though as I get more into the tech and, slowly, loosen up what Elvis Costello called ‘the little hands of concrete’. Also, I found, rather touchingly, that it’s possible to get quite affectionate towards guitars in a way you can’t at all with midi keyboards, laptops or plug-in software instruments. I have a lovely ’63 Jaguar which Finn brought back from the States for me which drenches you in Mojo every time you play it.

Martyn has taken in bigger role in the songwriting on the album – is that why there are more live drums?

Yeah, Martyn has tended to bemoan his role sometimes, not so much as in the classic ‘I’m just the drummer’ ‘plaint but, more annoyingly, the drummer who sometimes doesn’t get to play drums, because a bloody machine has beaten him to it. We all thought it might be good to let him out to gallop wild and free round the paddock this time. He’s good innee?

You have a very original sound, I think quite different to what you’d all produced in your previous bands – was that a deliberate move, or did the music evolve over time?

Well, that’s always been a prime directive for the group – sonic richness, texture, pushing the old envelope, innit. I think its development has been along two vectors: 1) thinking of stuff that might be a good idea (‘I wonder what happens if…?) And then 2) whether any of that stuff actually worked (and if it did, maybe do it again better). Natural Selection without all the killing and squelching. Ideal.

Did your brief collaboration with Robert Fripp as League of Gentleman influence your move into electronica?

No, I can say definitely that Fripp did not influence my relationship with electronic music. As I recall, he even thought me using an electronic tuner on the organ was kinda cheating. My work with him was purposefully Lo Tech. We were a ‘dance band’, apparently. All the Frippertronics happened somewhere else.

You also played with Iggy Pop and David Bowie on Iggy’s 1980s album Soldier – what was it like working with those two?

A very interesting time. Working with some of my heroes. Simple Minds shitting in someone’s car. Mariella Frostrup being teenage. James Williamson the producer getting hammered. Henry the roadie killing a bat. All human life was there. Will blog about it at some point.

The recent XTC documentary This is Pop portrayed you and Andy Partridge as being in a battle for the leadership of the band – was that what it felt like at the time?

Yes, I’d joined Andy’s band and then gotten into an unedifying power struggle with him to get my songs performed. What I needed to realise was that I was the keyboard player and just get on with making some nice noises on Andy and Colins’ tunes. However, I was 21-years-old with a blazing ego torch up my arse. Although I did the decent thing and creatively sacked myself, so it was alright ultimately.

Radios In Motion - XTC - OGWT Feb 78

Were you approached to take part in the documentary?

Yes. The production company asked me for an interview, but the thought of talking about those youthful ego-battles again was not an exciting one – wasn’t even a particularly interesting story at the time, I thought. So I declined. Still see the chaps occasionally – ran into Andy outside the takeaway, had a beer in Swindon with Terry {Chambers, XTC and TC&I drummer) the other night. Those arsy times seem long ago indeed…I believe they’re having plenty of arsiness with each other, mind {For more on this check out our interview with Colin Moulding}. Which is a shame. We were important to each other. And it was a great band. I really don’t have anything else to add.

When you first started out did you ever imagine you’d still be making music nearly 40 years later?

Well, yes, curiously, if you’d asked me at 21 or 16 or, possibly, even at seven or eight if I’d still be doing this (music/creating thing) at 61 I would have immediately said yes. Weird but true.

Your son Finn is singer-songwriter with The Veils – do you think it’s tougher for bands to get heard these days – or has social media made it easier to get stuff out there?

Well, better business brains than I have pondered this – machines and the new networks have advantages – cheaper production, place annihilating, anyone-can-do-it, no filters (A&R departments, studio expense, manufacturing), easier to monetise (websites with shops) but you will sell less because there are… so many people doing it (using cheap technology and all these new networks doh!)

Live performance will fill the gap – or will it?

Physical objects will fill the gap – or will they?

Oh Lordy – Ball of Confusion.. (throws up hands and camply swans out). 

Peak Performance – late 1980s line-up – Andrews with Martyn Barker and Dave Allen

You’re a visual as well as a musical artist – do you think your art influences and informs your music and vice versa?

I was reading The Vorrh – a novel by the sculptor Brian Caitling and it reminded me very much of Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (Shriekback required reading). It struck me that both were writings formed by visual minds. The descriptions of towers, carvings, guns, forests, longbows (made of muscle and bone) etc are all very much the point – not just sketchily filled in so the characters and plot can do their thing but lovingly created and rendered (words and drawings, of course, are ways to make big budget shit happen easily and for free).

It made me think of my own – er – ‘practice’ in music which is very object driven. ‘Big warm bass with harsh guitar chord’ could easily be ‘large rubber blob with a shard of spiky steel in it’. That’s very much how I see the music we make. Synaesthesiac? Maybe – see Church of the Louder Light off the new album.

Lastly, any plans for live shows in support of the album?

We have a festival booked in August in Belgium as the eight-piece band but we’re working, at the moment, on another live incarnation. Can’t say too much, get me?

  • Why Anything? Why This? is out now from the band’s own website
  • For more about Shriekback visit their Facebook page here
Shriekback 'And The Rain'


About the author

Full time journalist, music lover (obvs) and truly terrible guitarist. You can find Matt on twitter @matcatch

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