Young Marble Giants Biography
"UNLIKELY" is the word that springs to mind. The people, the place, the music, the combination. Cardiff plays host to crumbling rock venues, R&B, rife indifference, rugby union and Young Marble Giants. It's perverse, or worse.
Around summertime last year, Young Marble Giants made two minor adjustments to a saga of striking complacency and secured themselves a future in rock 'n roll.
Being a band of unusual character -- a motionless, fragile girl singer; two gaunt, reticent brothers on guitar and bass; a synth and a L72 kit-built rhythm generator -- they decided to track their live set on a rough-hewn demo, copy it onto cassettes, slap a potato print on the cover, and loose it upon Cardiff's natives for a modest two notes. The idea was to accustom likely punters to the reserve and quietness of their sound and thus lessen the culture-shock of seeing three people struggling to upstage their own equipment. A dismal failure.
This spawned the second ploy, to elicit two slots on a local punkkreig compilation, Z Block's Is The War Over?, upon which the Giants radiate like a bowlful of dahlias in a bombsite. Disaster; it's shipped 1,200 nationwide in ten months.
However (sense the happy ending?), a copy of this blighted disc chanced to fall into the capable hands of Geoff Travis, astute supremo of London's Rough Trade Records. Working, I assume, on the principle that any left-field organisation must make occasionally obvious bows to commerce, he instantly recognised a vast potential. The Giants are weird, yes, but not extravagantly so, while still harmonious enough to seduce the airwaves. They're so inoffensive, it's shocking.
As naive about independent labels as about all other machinations of the Biz, they'd reckoned Rough Trade "some weird arty label. All their other bands are so avant-garde, and we seemed really melodic -- even old-fashioned -- in comparison."
Singer Alison Statton has nothing but wide-eyed admiration for Geoff's foresight and flexibility. "He really surprised us. We thought he'd say: 'We'll let you do a single first and we'll see how it goes from there.' In fact he said: 'What do you want to do -- an album, an EP, both, a single?' He said that before he'd even heard our cassette, just on the strength of the two album tracks."
The band's whole approach to the deal is as refreshing as the end-product. They chose to cut an album and -- worried sick that it wouldn't sell without a single out to break the ice -- opted to make the smallest possible dent in Rough Trade's slender bank balance. Colossal Youth, their sublime scenic debut, was recorded and mixed on five tracks, in as many days, cost a total of L1,000 and has since sold 7,000 copies in six weeks with next to no promotional muscle.
You ought to hear the results. 15 tracks of breathless width and definition, it fills the shadows long forgotten in the usual rat-race for power and unsubtle assault. A sharp reminder of just how often in rock spheres intention is defeated by the clumsiness of its components. (Phew! - Ed.)
The Giants sweep the decks of all but the strictest, most essential accents, at times going beyond even that to leave much of their backing unstated. Philip Moxham echoes his brother: "You write the gaps as much as you write the music." Elusive, sometimes nonsensical words wrapped in coolly passionate melodies are etched onto a foundation so thin and vulnerable that it boasts the kind of natural spaciousness most over-cramped production can only ever hope to synthesise. (Phew again! Ed.)
The reaction's been immediate, almost dangerously so. After a meagre four London dates, sparkling testaments have begun to litter the rock press. In fact it's partly due to the gushing plaudits of your very own Tom Hibbert and Candice B. Reel that I find myself in Cardiff this Sunday morn, rummaging through Alison Statton's record collection in a sharklike search for clues.
Devo, Kraftwerk, Bowie, Eno, Ultravox, Bolan, Duane Eddy, Tom Waits...ah-HA!
"Include Hymns, Disco, The Residents and nursery rhymes," she adds, "and that's near enough our ideal music. Extracts from the best of everything we really like."
Though the bulk of this input weighs a little synth-heavy, they're at pains to point out that it's the sound texture, "the mechanical aspect" and the staid visuals they find attractive, not the pose or polemic.
"We just rely on the music to communicate," emotes Alison. "The way I feel is that if you go to listen to a band, you go to listen. You don't go to see an amateur dramatic performance, and it's just not in any of us to leap around on stage."
They don't feel obliged to provide any visual focus but talk of "strange receptions" at their first London gigs. "We held their attention," she explains softly, "but it was as if they were begrudging it. l think they expected something. I don't know who felt more awkward -- us or the audience. People thought we were being laid-back, but we were just shy and nervous, blinkered, cut off from everything, just concentrating on what we were doing. Paranoid."
Just occasionally they give a glimpse of why they find The Smoke so exhausting, so frenetic. "We'd really like to play chamber- music places. Places where people can just sit down, relax and listen. They enthuse for a moment about church organ sound and the acoustics of churches. "We'd really like to play rural places, too."
It's exactly this looseness of temperament that's at odds with their music's rigidly self-imposed restrictions. A rhythm tape, a bass, and guitar/synth, a voice -- cautious, eerie, exact; no solos, no indulgence.
"I think the new sound will have to be more relaxed," admits Philip. "There's friction between the lot of us, the way everything's become so strict. It's becoming hard, but we do like that minimal sound. I think we'll have to relax before we can become more experimental."
The kind of press they've started to collect is fiercely defensive, effusive but warily pointing to inevitable tags and criticisms. It's a thin line between cult and collapse.
Philip is aware but understandably puzzled. "It's a bit weird. it's as if people are trying to latch onto some kind of cult thing, to see us as part of some movement, and we're just not into that at all. We're doing this just because we get pleasure out of it. We don't want a big hip following or anything and that's what people seem to be playing on."
He couldn't be more adamant about the lack of logistics. "It all comes down to noise in the end. if you like our sound, you'll listen to it, and if not, you won't. It's that simple."
Oh, the name! Thought you'd never ask. It comes from the index of a book on classical sculpture. They quote this text on the cover of their new single ("I hope it doesn't look arty or pretentious, it's just that people are always asking us how we thought it up").
Accidentally (or not) the description of "a colossal statue of a youth" bears the two phrases that best contain the Giants' music - "tensed vitality and geometric structuring."
You could be made for their measure.