In Electric Eden, his landmark 2010 study of Britain’s “visionary music”, author Rob Young dedicates a paragraph to the work of Martyn Bates. A chapter might have been more appropriate.
Bates and fellow Coventry narive Peter Becker (pictured above, l-r) are the founders and sole constant members of Eyeless In Gaza, a project which debuted in 1980 with the striking three-track 7″ Kodak Ghosts Run Amok. The band’s early 80s vintage, and the sparse, electronic sound they pursued on their early releases, has led to them being cursed, to this day, with the misleading epithet “post-punk” – despite their essaying of a sound, and a vision, far too personal, intractable and ever-evolving to be satisfactorily categorised as such. Indeed, Bates and Becker consider Eyeless In Gaza to be less a band, and more “a life-project.”
2012 marks 32 years of Eyeless In Gaza, 32 years that have seen little in the way of mainstream success – though their records frequently troubled the upper regions of the independent charts in the 1980s – and even less in the way of compromise. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, Eyeless have continued to improve, continued to experiment, continued to grow as artists.
At the heart of their music is a dynamic relationship between songcraft and sonics. A keen student of the folk tradition, but one entirely unafraid of breaking from it, Bates puts everything he has into his impassioned, imposing vocal performances, sometimes rejecting words altogether, at others delivering lyrics that bend effortlessly, and often within the same phrase, from the intimate confessional mode to a grandstanding high romanticism. Here is a man who sounds alive. It’s all further elevated and enriched by the duo’s highly developed sense of atmosphere – Eyeless In Gaza care deeply about production and recording, about the sonic space in which their voices and instruments are suspended. Whether they happen to be using electronics or archaic acoustic instruments, their carefully wrought, uncluttered arrangements are always such that the whole sounds utterly eerie and immersive, and it’s no surprise that their work is often mentioned in the same breath as that of David Sylvian and the 4AD roster.
Though most of their recent releases, including last year’s Everyone Feels Like A Stranger, have been issued via their own Ambivalent Scale imprint, Eyeless In Gaza’s new EP, Butterfly Attitude, comes courtesy of Downwards, the label founded and operated by Karl O’Connor [aka Regis] with Peter Sutton. Downwards has explored many different avenues over its nearly two-decade existence, from the pistoning industrial techno of its early days to the US-centric shoegaze and gothic pop showcased on its DO 10″ series, but it’s fair to say it’s never released anything quite like Eyeless’s Butterfly Attitude.
FACT’s Kiran Sande traded emails with Martyn Bates to find out more about the Downwards connection, and to try to pinpoint what exactly is is that has given Eyeless In Gaza such longevity.
“We wanted to create work that people could become involved with, themselves; active rather than passive.”
Martyn Bates: “Having met Peter Becker I discovered a wonderful synchronicity within the principle of two; we had all the colours we needed for our explorations – more to the point we had the vital factor of control contained within a compact symbiosis. Another major factor about this decision (and it’s something that has continued to be an interest and an area that we’ve explored in lots of atypical ways) is a shared interest in minimalist music and writing.
“When I say ‘minimalist music’, I’m not thinking of the so-called ‘modern classical music’ such as Reich and Glass – that doesn’t particularly interest me. In a personal sense, minimalism simply means a quality that delves right into the tone of the music and into the grist of the words, into the heart of the music and the text…to explore it and yet not ‘do something’ with it…. It’s a way of leaving a skeletal picture which allows other spaces to come into the work…and also it allows the listener to become more active in their involvement as a listener, within the experience of listening to what is being created; it somehow invites greater participation.”
MB: “We wanted to create work that people could become involved with, themselves; active rather than passive. We wanted to make a music that inspired, that promoted investigation of one’s own spirit and creativity; a kind of emancipation via music and words – via the impetus of example, as opposed to patronising and proselytizing. We always thought of what we are doing as ‘art’ (with a small ‘a’ – a kind of ‘folk-art’) as opposed to pop music, which sounds quite a precious statement to make. However, we always have a consciousness about the song, the words, the melodies, and the value of that discipline. What we always want to do is to combine all of our interests – and, above all, we always want to communicate.”
“Records are the creatures that you send out into the world, things that will always live.”
How would you describe the evolution of Eyeless in Gaza’s songs and sonics over the course of your career? How did you get from Kodak Ghosts Run Amok to Everyone Feels Like A Stranger?
“I like the way that the songs and sonics have run, obviously. However, as a general rule, personally, I come to feel more and more that recordings are ‘where it happens’. Records or recordings are more ‘alive’ in many senses than live concerts are. Of course I feel that the two things are intrinsically different, and I also feel that the art of playing ‘live’ concerts is a peculiar, and a most special and ‘rare’ occurrence – each concert being a unique ‘happening’, for want of a better expression. But for me – records are the creatures that you send out into the world, things that will always live – creatures that live and breathe and take on lives of their own, beyond the moment.
“This includes of course the life where the listener completes the picture – creating, making new life by simply listening and completing the circle. Apart from all this though, I feel that Eyeless in Gaza have always striven for a timeless, transcendent feel. Obviously, everything under the sun is more, much more than that – things are death and life, in one seed – and that is a good thing.