Why aren’t A.R. Kane world-renowned megastars?
That was certainly the status they seemed destined for in the 1980s. They topped the independent charts with their debut album, 69, regularly received rave reviews, and were cited by many as one of the most important and innovative bands of their era. However, despite once being considered every inch the equals of My Bloody Valentine and the Pixies, A.R. Kane – at its core a duo comprising Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala – their name now means little to most music fans under the age of 30.
The release, last month, of the A.R. Kane: Complete Singles Collection, has thankfully brought this visionary band back into focus. As Simon Reynolds writes in his sleevenotes for the compilation, their music was initially compared in the music press to that of The Jesus & The Mary Chain, but in interviews they denied any significant allegiance to indie-rock, instead citing the likes of ECM’s Azymuth, Miles Davis, Weather Report and black post-punk combo Basement 5 as the real influences behind their self-styled “dream-pop”.
Debuting in 1986 with the ‘When You’re Sad’ 12″ on One Little Indian, they signed to 4AD in ’87, releasing the Lollita EP, produced by Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie. The following year they decamped to Rough Trade, where they would release landmark records like the Up Home! EP (1988) and the albums 69 (1988) and “i” (1989); come the 1990s, Ayuli and Tambala established their own label H.ark! and, in ’94, delivered their final album, New Clear Child. Their Rough Trade recordings in particular made a deep impression on emerging shoegaze, psychedelic and post-rock groups like Flying Saucer Attack, Slowdive, Bark Psychosis and Disco Inferno.
Over 25 years after they formed, FACT’s Tim Purdom spoke to the very charming and sanguine Rudy Tambala to find out how it all went down.
“Alex and I were friends from a really young age – we went to primary school together, we’d been hanging out for years. We had a lot of common interests. Then, coming up to our teenage years, like most kids we got more and more into music, began swapping records and cassettes. Alex was from more of a dub soundsystem background – his brothers were into these reggae soundsystems from East London. I was more from like a soul and jazz-funk background, my older brother was involved in that club scene. So were pretty much immersed in music, and then I guess added to the cocktail was all the pop music of the time: going into the whole punk era and then getting into the more alternative sides of jazz, dub-reggae, or the stuff that John Peel would be playing. That hotchpotch of different musical influences had an effect on us I guess. Then you’re going to clubs and bars and getting exposed to different bands… all these things, being in this mixed-up environment, seeped in to what we did.
“Later on, Alex got a guitar, and we’d sit and mess around on it, pluck away, and then at a certain point I think we had enough skill, and maybe confidence, to say, why don’t we start a band? And it came together very, very quickly – you know, a few hours after we decided we were going to have a band, we told people that we had a band, and we got set up for a demo. [laughs]”
“I don’t think we had a particular sound that we wanted; I think the thing we had in mind was more of an attitude, and an aesthetic. The Cocteau Twins were on The Tube, the Channel 4 programme, one night; we both saw it, separately, and rung each other up immediately and were like, ‘Did you see that?!’ What we found exciting about it, and what we related to, apart from the fact that they looked and sounded completely different to anything that we’d seen before, was that they didn’t have a drummer. We thought that was really amazing. They had a tape-machine in the background. We’d grown up with a lot of technology around us…I was quite into computers and things like that, and used to play around with tape machines; Alex used to hang around in the soundsystem crew, where they built all their own equipment – you know, we’d go round to his house and his brother would be there soldering circuit-boards. There’d be valves everywhere, speaker boxes, echo machines…
“So we completely related to that, and then the [Cocteau Twins’] sound was really echoey and spacey, which we could really relate to too. We were like, wow, this would be really easy to do, wouldn’t it? [laughs] – all we need is a guitar and a microphone, and a tape machine. So within a couple of weeks we’d bought a guitar, a drum machine and a digital delay pedal, and started making sounds. Making sounds like we’d heard from the Cocteau Twins, but immediately seeing the relationship to what we already knew of – more groove-based music, and reggae, and soul, and stuff like that. And it really was like wow, this is real DIY – you could go down Denmark St and spend £200 and you could have a band. You didn’t need loads and loads of equipment.”
“The transition from there into the studio was a pretty straightforward one. It feels quite natural to experiment with whatever equipment a studio’s got, if you have a general familiarity with electronics.
“I guess the thing was… we didn’t really have many preconceptions at the time, we were quite naive and excited and childlike in our approach. Obviously by the time we were making records we’d probably collected a few 4AD records like Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil – and we were in awe of those guys, it was like wow, these guys are doing something no one else is doing. So getting introduced to people like that, meeting Robin [Guthrie] at a show, was quite mind-blowing.
“Different producers have different ways of working. The first, and the mainstay, was actually Ray Shulman. He was an older guy, he was 10 years older than us, I think, and we knew him from the 60s and 70s, prog rock bands and things like that, and he was a real consummate musician, he knew every bit of technology, he knew exactly how everything worked – technically and musically. So to be in a studio with him – well, we weren’t so naive that we didn’t realise we were working with someone who was really gifted, and who could really help us to go beyond what we could do naturally. So he tried to get the best out of us basically, and helped us to focus our ideas. Also his wife, who was kind of a mentor figure to us, told us about the industry, gave us a bit of savvy, let us know which guys were going to fuck us over [laughs] – so we were getting a really hard and fast education into lots of things.
“Working with Robin was a very different experience. As I said, we were quite in awe of him, but of course when you meet him he’s a very down to earth sort of guy. Not dissimilar to us in background, you know, just a working class bloke who loves music. But he definitely had something different – he had sounds that no one else had, and which no one else knew how to create, and for a couple of our songs we knew that sound would work. For a single like Lollita, it really, really worked – and he still claims to this day that it’s the best thing we ever did, which is very, very Robin [laughs]. Going to Robin was very much like ‘Robin, give us your sound’; but he was also a really a hard taskmaster and a really good teacher, plus he had about 30 guitars and we could use any of them, which was pretty good fun. We only had one guitar each! [laughs]”
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As a musician active in the late 80s, what effect did the advent of rave culture have on you?
“I have a few distinct memories of rave culture hitting Britain. I was living in Stratford in East London, which is a very drab and dreary place – at least it was then; very grey, very English and old-fashioned. Suddenly you noticed lots of people wearing really brightly coloured clothes, which was kind of funny, if like us you came from from a slightly more cosmopolitan background. I mean, we’d been exposed to different scenes, and we were very aware of 60s psychedelia, for instance; I suppose we were a little more avant-garde in our tastes than the general locals in Stratford. We were used to feel like the bohemians, the outsiders. Then suddenly everything shifted towards a more European look, a more chilled out look and feel, and we knew what was causing it – it was very much the drugs and the music of the time.
“People didn’t really go clubbing back then – there was no real club culture. It was a very underground culture – a bunch of reggae stuff, or you’d go out in the West End or out in Essex and there’d be a few clubs playing electronic music, house, or whatever. But then suddenly clubbing became mainstream culture, it was almost overnight. And it was so bizarre. The people that would normally be punching the shit out of each other on Saturday night in some dingy little pub in the back of Canning Town, suddenly they’ve got great big fluorescent t-shirts with smiley faces on them, and they’re all loved up and hugging each other – and that was a real shock to my system [laughs]. I was thinking, this isn’t for real, is it? But it kind of was, and I think it left a residue in our culture, because we now have a deeply embedded clubbing culture in Britain, and a rave culture, and it’s almost mainstream – festival culture took a lot of its energy from that too, and we have a summer of love every year now, even if it does rain [laughs]. So it was a massive shift, and I think that at the time if you were already a bit more boho and elitist, on the fringe, then it felt like an invasion into your territory. But on the other hand, there were suddenly a lot more people you could relate to.”
“I think there was just more sounds around. The first thing we bought was a drum machine – we listened to a lot of dance music anyway, and we went out clubbing a lot – so it wasn’t that dance music was alien to us. I think house music… I don’t think we ever went into the house sound as such, which was more of a loop-based, mechanical rhythm; we always tried to do something a little bit more groove-based and live-sounding, and also our performances would be – well, if a song was four minutes long then it would be four minutes of performance. We’d never just set a four-bar loop and let it run. Whereas the whole point of the acid house thing was that it was repetitive, and hypnotic, and that it would trance you out because of that. There weren’t a lot of changes, and it was very minimal, while we tended to be more kind of old-style, you might call it more of a musical or rock type of production – verses! choruses! lots of different instruments and live performers! [laughs] So yeah, we didn’t want to be electronic house musicians, although we would perhaps do more of a housey mix on a track if we felt it worked.”
Your 1989 “i” album was quite a major statement, and quite unique within your catalogue in terms of how it actually sounds. How did it come together?
“Well, the EPs were a thing in themselves and for the first album, 69, we bought a studio in this dark little basement and immersed ourselves in the dark, and we had so much freedom. We were limited in what we could do, technically, but I think those limitations were perfect for us at that time, and there wasn’t any external influence on us particularly, we were just doing our own thing. And we approached each song individually – you know, how should this work? We didn’t have a specific sound we were aiming for, but working so closely together, we just knew when it felt right. That was the chemistry between us.
“And it did extend onto the “i” album – which is a collection of lots of different styles of music. We tried to put it out as a four-sided double-album and separate them out into the songs that had a similar kind of vibe to them, but the reality is that they weren’t written in sequence like that at all. If you take all my favourite musicians, they never had one particular style – they just wrote songs. We were determined not to be like, I don’t know, Stone Roses, where it’s like, ‘We’re a rock band,’ or like My Bloody Valentine, where it’s like, ‘We do really deep layers and layers of shoegazey stuff’; we were more like, OK, let’s do that on this song, but on that song let’s do something completely different.
“For the “i” album, we were given a top studio, and lots of time, as much tape as we could eat – and because there was lots of new technology coming out, and new producers, new ideas, new music, we spent a lot of time in the studio just discovering how it works. You know, what does this do what, or what oes that do? Plug that into that, reverse that, what does it sound like, oh it sounds great, no it sounds shit, we’ve just wasted a day [laughs]… and we had the luxury of being able to do that, it was a real indulgence from our label at the time, Rough Trade. So I guess it’s not as cohesive as 69 – I mean, how many times do I hear a double-album and think, hmm, that would’ve been a really good single album, you know? I think it might be true of the “i” album too [laughs].”
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Why did A.R. Kane fizzle out when it did? What happened after “i”?
“Alex was working in the advertising world as well as doing music. He just wanted to get away from all that, and I don’t blame him, so he left the country and did other types of stuff, and he ended up in California. And at the same time he went to America, I bought a studio in London, a proper studio, commercially run with our own little production company and record label. So he’s over in the States, studying Chinese furniture and whatnot, and I’m in Stratford producing Butterfly Child and these little embryonic dream-pop bands. So for a year or two we just did our own thing, but obviously the A.R. Kane thing was still there, and it could’ve gone lots of different directions…
“Anyway, what happened was that David Byrne’s label [Luaka Bop] got in touch with us. They’d heard the records and they liked what we were doing, so they said why don’t you do a record with us? So we went over and met them and they were like totally fucking cool people – suddenly it’s all gone very New York, meeting David Byrne and having cocktails, and obviously we were like, yes David, we would like to do an album with your label [laughs].
“Firstly we did a compilation album, and while we were putting that together they said we should do one new track, so there’s at least one new thing on it, and so we suddenly we ended up in Palo Alto or somewhere working together again. We did that, and then we were like, OK, let’s do a new album. We decided we’d do it in San Francisco – which again was an absurd luxury [laughs] – and so we got together, but I think it wasn’t a great experience for either of us in the end. I think we’d grown apart a little creatively, we’d had different experiences – you know, right up to the “i” album our life experiences had been very similar, and we connected very easily. But here we were, a few years later, and we were sending each tapes of ideas through the post – no internet in those days – and I think there can be a lot of misunderstandings when you work that way. We were writing songs separately, so we’d turn up to the studio and it was… well, it wasn’t the way we used to work. So there was a lot of friction to begin with. And then we started to break through that, and we got some really nice songs on the last album, but some of the other songs just weren’t quite there, and it all left a rather sour taste in our mouths.
“Plus at the time we were doing this, Rough Trade went bust, so we ended up in a very difficult situation – with a very, very heavy studio owner demanding money from us. Which you don’t really want [laughs]. Then there was a lot of fighting between lawyers and label, and we were stuck in the middle. Which is not a great feeling, and I think that was another reason the album suffered a little bit. It ended up as a fight between two labels and us, so three different sets of lawyers, and the only reason I remember that so clearly now is because I found some old papers at home recently and I ended up going through all the faxes that had been sent between the lawyers and…I almost threw up on them [laughs]… disgusting. That’s the music industry, that’s what it’s about [laughs]. I’m not really blaming anybody, I think a lot of bands can come through this sort of thing, but I don’t think we really had the desire to – at the end of the day, I didn’t want to live in America, and Alex did.”
But that wasn’t the last time you worked together?
“We tried one more – we self-built a studio in Sacramento and David Byrne shipped the equipment out to us, but when we got there, we were just like, god, there’s no chemistry at the moment. I think what we lacked was the usual tension and friction of being in London, and also being connected to a scene together. You know, when you’re both in the same city and you know every new band, every new piece of artwork, every new movie that comes out, and you’ve got the same experiences and the same impressions. And without that core of shared cultural experience, things just drift, and suddenly you don’t really understand where each other are coming from. So we decided to call it a day after three or four demos, we knew it wasn’t working. It’s not that we thought that this was the end of the band…but then I went back to England and, well, we just never ended up doing anything together again. Quite sad really, isn’t it?! [laughs]”
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