Coventry-based composer Martin Bowes has
remained the constant creative force behind Attrition, one of England's
finest bands, since the early 80s. Over a quarter of a century
Attrition has seen countless musical trends and movements come and go,
but throughout the changing fashions, Bowes has always ploughed his
own, genuinely unique furrow. Music rarely gets more passionate,
personal or brave as it does when the Attrition alchemy creates its
magic. Never complacent, always pushing the boundaries of dark
alternative electronic music, from neo-classical to drum n bass gothic,
Attrition have never been afraid to experiment. The latest album, All
Mine Enemys Whispers: The Story of Mary Ann Cotton is an
imagined soundtrack to the life of one of Britain's most prolific
female serial killers who brought about the demise of more than twenty
victims in Victorian England. The music from the album and Attrition
will feature in a documentary on ITV3 in October. Taking time out from
releasing the Attrition back catalogue on his own Two Gods label and
playing all over the globe, Martin Bowes spoke with Rob Dyer about his
latest work and reflected on a remarkable career to date.
Were you troubled by the Mary Ann Cotton story (particularly given your connection) and, if so, is that what compelled you to create the album - as a form of personal exorcism?
I wasn't troubled at all by this story. I was looking for something different after the Dante's Kitchen album which was a very introspective personal album, I wanted something different, something I could explore that I had a connection with but wasn't so much about me, more my reaction to that something. I heard about the story of Mary Ann Cotton, the Victorian serial killer who poisoned up to 20 of her own children and husbands for the insurance money, and our family connection from my father and when I was handed the woman's sewing box. It had been kept in my family and handed down the generations. I knew that I needed to relate this story, or rather my interpretation of it.
It was more my exploration of her life and her motives... and I did feel the story from the side of her victims... so I was aiming for a certain sense of dread on the album. Oh yes, the family connection is the fact that my ancestor was the police sergeant that arrested her, just in case you were wondering! So no, it wasn't exorcism it was exploration!
How did you come to the decision to go down the soundtrack/ambient route for "All Mine Enemys Whispers"? Why that over a more conventional song-based album?
I had no need to write songs about the woman! There already is a Victorian children's rhyme and I had my own children sing that on the album, but otherwise I was aiming for atmospheres. I wanted to give my interpretation of the story through atmosphere and emotion. I decided early on that I was to not use NOTES on this album. Rather a mix of found sounds and tonal clusters, to create a bed in which I could bring in some guest players.
How did bringing in all the guest artists come about?
Well I started with my children and then had Laurie [Reader], who was singing in Attrition at the time, perform some vocal effects. I had recently met Erica Mulkey of umwoman and invited her to contribute cello. Then I asked long time friend Ned Kirby of Stromkern to add some piano. Some saxophone from German friend Ute Mansell, and finally some amazing vocals from Sin D'rella and violin from Joanne Dalin. So a lot of people contributed. I did a lot of editing of the final parts and I am really pleased with the way it came out. I think I brought the guests in on this as it was such an experimental album for me that I let it be open to something different. It was a real change to work with so many guests, and I know they enjoyed it too. I learnt from that and I certainly will do that again, and I will be returning the favour on some of their albums!
Aside from the music, the new album contains many real world ambient noises, like the sound of digging and soil being thrown on top of a coffin on "The Burial Club". How did you record all those sound effect elements?
I spent a LONG time either recording elements for this or searching through sound effects libraries and the net and then processing the sounds I had. For the digging sounds I actually found them online. Although there are a collection taken from many different sources and then processed: edited... pitch shifted... delayed... etc. I think it worked. The illusion at any rate.
You almost have a schizophrenic personality. Off stage you have a very mild-mannered demeanour. On stage you almost seem possessed by a writhing spirit! Is the transformation involuntary or something you need to perform?
Are you looking for a fight?! Actually, yes... you are right. There is a part of me which I touch with my music that is a very different part of me than I am normally in my day to day. Although I think that has merged a bit over the years. I think I found a part of me that I needed through my music and brought it out. Maybe it is the stronger part of me. There is a power there... and a knowledge... but it is not always the most gentle! Being onstage is always going to be an intense experience for me, that is why I needed to do it in the first place. So that side of me will always be present, and yes it is involuntary and yes I NEED to perform!
As much as I like your recorded output, I think the only true Attrition is found in your live performances. How important is playing live and touring to you?
It is very, very important to me... and in an echo of what I said earlier, it is not just the travel and the meeting people and the promotion of your work, which is all very important for any artist, and it makes you into who you are, but those few moments on stage when everything comes right and, like magic, they transcend our everyday life, and I need to do that.
You split with your wife a few years back and your output slowed at the time, presumably as a result. How did that experience affect your life and creativity?
Well we weren't actually married, that was someone else! Yes, it was a difficult time around 2001-2003. Starting again... having trouble with access to my children... dark days really. And I stopped touring for a couple of years. Gradually worked on the Dante's Kitchen album when I felt up to it. But it all worked out. Sometimes we have to go through these times of change and I am certainly better for it, and if it meant a slower time for my music then I can live with that.
Sin D'rella will now be assuming a more permanent vocalist role within Attrition. You seem very excited about this development. Can you tell us more about this?
Well, the last time I had a permanent member of the band with me was 20 years ago. Since then I have worked with some people regularly, but Attrition was always me. And I found someone that I totally relate to. I wasn't expecting that to happen again, so more than merely a vocalist, she is writing with me, and this is changing what Attrition is. And change is good. Sin has her own musical project - Imprint, and she has invited me to play on synths for her. We are going to be touring with both groups this year which I am really excited about.
Your children have had 'cameo' appearances on some of your work, including the new album. What do they make of your work, and is music something you think either of them will pursue?
They think "daddies music is scary"!!! They certainly can't listen to the Mary Ann Cotton album. And I can't blame them! Although I know they appreciated tracks like A Girl Called Harmony [from YEAR ALBUM] in the past. I would LOVE them to do music and I'd love to help out, but I'm not sure they will. I don't push them!
Do you ever concern yourself with the commercial prospects of any of your releases? How viable do you think a 'career' in music is these days?
I don't think too much of commercial concerns other than making sure costs are covered for tours and wanting to get the music out to people, so in that way I will promote it as best I can, with some help from the record labels. I never came into this as a "career", it was, and always will be, a passion... something I need to do. I do get some royalties which help, but my regular income is from teaching music technology at the college here [in Coventry]. I won't do that full time as I have to work on music but it does mean I am free from worrying about writing a pop hit! I don't think anyone should worry about the "career" thing. Maybe you will sell a lot for a while and fair play... but just do it because you need to.
I've heard a lot of new music from bands that no one has heard about. There is a LOT going on out there. I really think the music business is in disarray after the shock of the download and labels reeling from that. I think the time is right for bands to take more control. That is exciting... it really is.
You've a pretty extensive back catalogue. Can you single out any personal favourites and explain why they have a special place in your mind?
There are a few songs that always stand out to me; they may well not stand out to others as it is totally for personal reasons. Dreamsleep from In The Realm Of The Hungry Ghosts - one of Julia's songs. The first one we ever had released on vinyl in '83. Her lyrics are so beautiful. I wish I had written it! Fate Is Smiling - from Smiling, At The Hypogonder Club. It's statement of intent, and I still appreciate it. I Am Eternity - from the Eternity LP. The first song I wrote on my own. A statement of identity. To this day I don't know where those words came from. Two Gods - from Dante's Kitchen. That was me trying to make sense of relationships, with my children... with myself... with my partner. It still moves me. Enough for today...
Has the way you approach making music changed over the years?
I do a lot more on the computer now. From recording to editing and even getting files sent to me from the States via the PC. We didn't even own a computer in the eighties! Unless you count a drum computer. The access to recording that computers have given everyone is amazing. It has really allowed everyone to record their own music. I know you still need to learn how to do it but the means are there. That has been a quiet revolution, that and the means of promotion and distribution have changed the music industry forever.
You and Attrition's music are due to appear in a documentary to be shown on ITV3. Can you tell us more about this exciting news?
Freeatlast TV are making a series of documentaries on female serial killers and are featuring Mary Ann Cotton on one episode; so they came to me to interview me about the album and the family connection. They will also be using some of the album on the programme. It will be out sometime in October. We're also talking with a film company in the USA about a film version of the life of Mary Ann Cotton. So it has turned into quite a project!
Which venue have you always wanted to perform in?
We played CBGB's once. It really really was shit. And the people were rude. Still I like to think we played there. I'm glad it closed though.
You've had a longer career than many. What stands out for you as highlights along the way so far?
Strange... I often feel like I've only just started. Time flies. I think that is maybe why I am still doing this, I have only just begun. Highlights? Well there are many different kinds of highlights... As much as the thrill of playing different countries, different festivals, the travel and rush of the tour is all important, and I couldn't do without that. As much as there are so many highlights there, the most important highlights are the emotions you feel when you create something that at least goes SOME WAY to expressing how you feel inside... When you just know you have done something right, and it's not easy at all to do that. And then there is the follow up to that. The times when someone else totally gets what you were reaching for... and it moves them too. It can bring a tear to your eye...
What does the future holds for Attrition?
It holds as much as we want it to. We are as busy as ever with all our work. I'm still caught up in the massive reissue project I started a couple of years ago through our own Two Gods label. Remastering all the early releases, adding extra tracks... putting out a live album from the 25 year anniversary tour. Then there is the tribute album Wrapped in The Guise of My Friend which will finally be released later this year. We are also working on a collaborative release with Imprint which will be the next Attrition music to see the light of day. And then live we are lining up shows in the UK, USA, Europe, South America, possibly further afield in the Ukraine, Russia and the Far East. There are NOT enough hours in the day. But then I wouldn't have it any other way.
Attrition on dsoaudio.com:
Music Reviews - Attrition
Gig Reviews - Attrition
Attrition website: http://www.attrition.co.uk
Official Attrition Myspace website: http://www.myspace.com/danteskitchen
Official Imprint Myspace website: http://www.myspace.com/imprintuk