SEEFEEL was always more of a touchstone for me than the more explicitly vaunted MBV. Their music had this immensity of scale and space, and yet it was never closed-off or distant. Is it possible to possess warmth and a grandiosity of vision at the same time?
Listen to their exquisite More Like Space EP and you can hear it —a kind-of alchemical transformation of rock, a radical deconstruction. Guitar sounds are treated so radically that they hardly sounded like guitars any more. Formless and dreamlike, the songs are like volleys from the outer reaches, snaking out in mazelike, sidelong patterns. DJ Spooky once dubbed Seefeel’s music an “electroneiric otherspace” and he’s not wrong. Despite the lack of synths, the group got lumped in with a new strain of ambient electronica, followers of Eno bent on pushing sound to the stratosphere.
Later, as the group got even more abstract, more radically spacious —more Rothko then Klee— the experiment faltered a bit. But still, goal-post-shifting and revelatory, always.
Seefeel vocalist & guitarist Sarah Peacock went on to form the decidedly more pop-oriented Scala with Seefeel mates Daren Seymour and Justin Fletcher, aided and abetted by longtime Seefeel producer Mark Van Hoen. She also worked with Lo Recordings honcho Jon Tye and DJ Spykid on their excellent Echo Park project.
Sarah was kind enough to answer some questions about the Seefeel and Scala days.
• What kind of music were you interested in before joining Seefeel?
In 1991 I placed an ad in the NME to find people into My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, Mark rang me and asked if I liked the Cocteau Twins too. At the time I also loved the Too Pure bands (PJ Harvey, Th’ Faith Healers and Stereolab), Moonshake, Babes in Toyland, Pixies, Lush, Pale Saints, Ride, Blur, and the beginnings of more interesting electronic music —808 State, LFO, the Orb. I’d been a pop kid who’d grown up listening to John Peel.
• Recently there was a show at London’s ICA called The Secret Public that carried the sub-title “The Last Flowering of the British Underground,” referring, largely, to the 80s Avant-Garde. But I would argue that the early 90s were equally fruitful for music’s avant-garde; the secret underground of experimental, intellectual electronica was bubbling up relatively quietly alongside the boisterous, self-congratulatory BritPop movement.
You’ve got a point- maybe with electronic music’s inevitable link to dance culture (apolitical, hedonistic, anti-intellectual), I think it maybe doesn’t get thought of in the same terms.
• How would you characterize those years? Did you have some sense of Seefeel’s groundbreaking importance, or was it all hindsight?
We always wanted to do something new, to combine the music we loved but to do it in an anti-retro way.. We were surrounded by encouragement for a lot of the time and it’s harder now for me to remember that since 90% of the people I meet have never heard of us..!
• How did you the band get involved with Too Pure? I remember [label head] Paul Cox telling me that Seefeel’s first demo sounded very Pram-like, but that he heard some glimmer of something unique there and spurred you all to push it further. Is this accurate? How did Seefeel evolve?
When I joined, Mark and Justin had recorded a demo with Mark Van Hoen, the songs were more conventional ‘indie’. We continued like that for a while and Paul offered us a gig at their club the Sausage Machine which went catastrophically. I think the evolution happened because we were listening to stuff like the Warp AI compilation, Aphex Twin, Autechre etc. We continued to write and record stuff on 4-track but the rhythms changed, the effects were used differently, the old song structures went out of the window, I took over vocals and abandoned lyrics for one-liners.
• Where would you place Seefeel stylistically-speaking? And Scala?
Nothing really fits. Electronica is a good tag but it does not convey the fact we were a guitar band, we never used synths. ‘Indie Ambient Dub House’ was a good one from the time. Scala were neither one thing nor the other — Prodigy/Public Enemy/Tony Hatch/theme from ‘Robin’s Nest’. ‘Music for late night gardening’. Darren was always much better at this stuff than me!
• Was it hard in those days for Scala to escape the centrifugal force of Seefeel’s reputation?
That never seemed a problem, it’s hard to say as Scala never really did much. We only did three gigs and everything we recorded got released. We never had that much press, the fact we were ‘the other three’ just seemed to help garner interest.
We had a vicious review for ‘VDT’ which never mentioned Seefeel, and we had trouble getting some of the pro-Seefeel writers interested in Scala at all —things had moved on and we had been yesterday’s next big thing that never happened.
• How did the three of you get involved with Mark van Hoen (who produced and ended up being a de-facto member of Scala)? What did he bring to the group?
Mark VH knew Mark C[lifford] from Worcester, where they both grew up. He was involved before me (see answer to question 4 above!) playing bass and engineering the recordings (and later the live set). He was involved more in Scala than Seefeel but it was always on his terms. He input ideas, made us laugh, and never did anything he didn’t want to do.
• Why did “Compass Heart” and “To You In Alpha” come out nearly simultaneously? From a press-coverage perspective, they seemed to cancel one another out. The group seemed to fizzle out soon afterwards. It seemed like a deeply unfortunate end to a group that was just finding its sea legs. What happened? Had the band simply run its course?
Sorry —I’m going to cut and paste from another interview here!
Too Pure offered us publishing. We started recording an album and ditched it. There was big tension between Justin and Darren at that point and this ended with Justin leaving and having nothing more to do with the band any more. That album then got ditched, and then Simon McLean joined the band. We went away for a while, and wrote a whole new batch of songs. That became To You In Alpha which was the album proper.
But then Touch got a tape of the ditched album, the aborted one. Darren basically said that it was alright for them to put it out, without checking with Too Pure that it was OK to do this under our contract. So it all ended up where Too Pure were on the verge of suing us for the breach of contract, for releasing Compass Heart. Touch basically lost any rights they had for making money off that record. Too Pure got it all. And in turn they refused to promote To You In Alpha.
So it all ended really, really badly, both with Too Pure and with Touch. So that was why we wound up Scala. It was kind of on its last legs anyway, I don’t think we could have carried on much longer and done any more.
• What’s your fondest memory of Scala? Did you accomplish what you’d intended to with the group?
It was great doing a ‘Dazed and Confused’ photoshoot and a proper video for ‘Slide’, and most of the recording sessions were really good fun. All I wanted to do was enjoy it, and prove we could do it without Mark so in a sense we achieved that. We made some great stuff but it was very unfocused (unlike Seefeel).
• Current musical projects, if any? What groups have you been involved with since Scala ended?
Did January with Simon McLean (who was in Scala later on) where I met my other half Jonny. (We recorded a few things together and would like to take it further if we get the time.) We also played with Gemma Ray Ritual and Magnificent Shimmering Beasts, and I play piano for Simon Breed. All very very different from Seefeel and Scala!
• Any chance that Seefeel’s “indefinite hiatus” might come to an end with a reunion?
Ooh, don’t press me on that! Maybe…
[For more on this, head on over to Too Pure’s podcast, specifically episodes 2-4, where they interview Sarah and Mark Clifford about the recent lavish reissue of Quique! ]
• If you didn’t have music as an outlet, what do you think you’d do instead? (Painting, writing, etc.)
I did an Animation degree and always loved drawing, don’t know if I could have done it seriously though!
• Do you feel excited creatively by any music out now?
I’ve been on a retro thing for ages now, currently obsessed with Serge Gainsbourg, Scott Walker and 60s girl singers/groups. Most of the current things I like are pretty mainstream (Rufus Wainwright, Amy Winehouse), always waiting for new Broadcast stuff, I should make more of an effort really!
• Favorite guilty pleasure (musical or otherwise)?
Don’t believe in guilty pleasures! What I love, I love unabashedly..
• Something that inspired you today. Could be an overheard conversation, a passage from a book…
Sorry, I’ve been in the office on my own all day! There was nothing inspiring in the crappy free paper I read on the way here, and no-one talks on the Tube, that’s London for you..
• What musical artist will you just never ‘get’? For me, it’s Elvis Costello, for you it’s…
Post-Syd Pink Floyd. Being played ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ in music lessons at school and told it was great put me off for life!
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Seefeel, “More Like Space” (from More Like Space, 1992)
Seefeel, “Spangle” (from Artificial Intelligence 2, Warp, 1998)
Scala, “Triptych” (from Lips & Heaven EP, Too Pure, 1996)
Scala, “Blank Narrow Shut” (from To You In Alpha, Too Pure, 1998)
Echo Park, “Razorkiss” (from The Revolution Of Everyday Life, 1998)
HEADER IMAGES FROM SCALA ALBUMS ‘BEAUTY NOWHERE’ & ‘COMPASS HEART’ // SEEFEEL PRESS PHOTO BY STEFAN DE BATSELIER