rhythm ace interview
(11th June 2000)
Mike Stokes weighs in about mid-way between Zebedee and Your Genial Host, Ted Bovis. He bounces around on coiled steel legs, occasionally fiddling with a turntable, triggering a sample or playing a bit of guitar, but mostly bouncing and shouting "Do you want it faster?" and "If you shout loud enough, you will get DISCO!!!" Richard March is more Rhinestone Cowboy-meets-New Grebo. The shirt which wouldn't look out of place at any over-50's line-dancing night is rather unfeasibly topped by a slight overhaul of the coiffure that he was sporting back in 1987 when as one of Pop Will Eat Itself he was dribbling oily curry down the front of his Birmingham 1992 Olympics t-shirt. An odd pairing, yes, but together they are Bentley Rhythm Ace and tonight, in the cause of promoting the new LP "For Your Ears Only" and with the help of three friends (Kermit, Fuzz and, err, Keith) they delivered a set of gutbustingly danceable breakbeat cheekiness the like of which I haven't experienced for at least three years...
Three or so years ago I was shaking my skinny rear end with the rest of a small, but keen, crowd upstairs at Bedford Esquires as the first "live" incarnation of Bentley Rhythm ace waved their beer in one hand and held their wigs on with the other while samplers and DAT tape did all the donkey work. The fact that the band weren't, with the exception of drummer Fuzz Townshend, actually doing very much didn't seem to matter a great deal, more important was the transparent enjoyment the band obviously got out of prannying around while music recorded first in a back bedroom as tapes for the car blasted out. On the back of a couple of 12" singles for label of the day Skint (before they signed themselves up with the corporate Satan, Sony) they'd been booted out on tour with no idea how to play any of the tracks they'd stitched together from boot sale records on an old Atari computer. They solved this problem by simply playing along to mostly pre-recorded backing, dressing up in ridiculous costumes and generally having a pretty good time.
Which, as we speed back to the future or, rather, the Cambridge Junction tonight, is more-or-less what they appear to be having all over again. Now expanded to a five piece with two drummers (Fuzz and Keith), Richard on bass, Kermit (of Black Grape) on some kind of electronics and occasional vocals and Mike leaping for England the sense that the gig is just an extension of the post-pub knees-up is still very much alive.
A couple of hours earlier, in the back of the tour bus, Mike was getting ready for the night's exertions with the aid of a cool brew, a spliff and an infectious, and liberally-dispersed, chuckle. Richard was back at the hotel, possibly paying for kinky sadistic sex in the way pop stars are supposed to or more likely catching up on the shower and sleep he'd missed the night before. Just one Bentley is top entertainment though, even if Mike's opening salvo begins at the bottom: "You're not allowed to... go for a poo on the bus or you're dead man. No way! The smell'd be fucking disgusting. You can only piss. There's a big sign in the loo: NO SHITTING. IF YOU NEED A SHIT, TELL THE DRIVER." A sterling contribution to the Are They As Stupid As They Act? debate...
You've got a reputation for being a comedy band and I've heard you say that with a Birmingham accent, you've got to be a comedy band...
Mike: ... that's just us taking the piss out of ourselves. We don't have to be a comedy band... we're not a comedy band, we just can't help smiling. The music just comes out that way. I suppose, with the first tour the fact that we'd just totally dress up as well, it was like we didn't want to be known by our faces. And it was for a laugh too, but the press just went a bit over the top saying "they love to be comic." We're proud of being from Birmingham. The only bad thing about Birmingham is that it's too close to London, I think. It could be moved up a little bit.
But what about all the James Bond titles? And the rest of the titles, come to that?
M: They're all just pathetic puns. It was just at first that we had to get a name for the band and for these four tracks that we had. I think we did too much James Bond. We could've called the tunes anything so instead of [puts on serious voice] a new high level of dance...we just made up some things. Other titles are just quotes, y'know just stuff we've been saying for years.
Jim: And "Midlander: There can only be one"?
M: The "Midlander" single, that's from "Highlander: There can only be one." We always used to say, before we'd even done Bentleys, that we should do "Midlander" all in Brummie with subtitles...
Is success any sweeter the second time around? Perhaps you can answer on Rich's behalf.
M: I can't really answer that question on behalf of him 'cos I don't know what's inside his head... When our first 12" sold 800 copies, I was like "imagine if all 800 people came!" Rich was getting off on me, I know that. He used to say that he love getting off this little bloke going "ohh imagine."
J: You find it pretty sweet, then. It must beat laying roads or whatever?
M: Yeah! Each job I've had has got its ups and downs about it. It is definitely my favourite job because it's my hobby and we did it as a hobby. We'd done "Bentley's Gonna Sort You Out" six months before we ever sent it off. It was our car tape and friends used to say "stop moaning about having no money, send your tape off." So we did and we got signed and now this. It's like a really weird one, y'know. Some days you wake up on the bus and it's like you've been buried alive and you dream about them days of tarmaccing in the sun. But this is my favourite job. I wouldn't want to go back to them days, and having to work for someone again would be horrible.
Who did you send your tapes to apart from Skint?
M: We only sent a tape to Skint. We had this list, and we was really broke at the time, Rich was still doing the Poppies...
J: I didn't know that...
M: Yeah, we was doing this... I'd really met him because we lived close and went to the same pub and smoked spliff and y'know, groups of people... And it was always like, we'd go back to his and the studio was there and when he wasn't doing Poppies stuff, I'd pop down. It was just fun... When our mate gave us the list of record labels to send the tape to Skint was at the top. So our idea was "we'll send it to that one first, if they say no we'll send it to the next one..." It sounds classic, well it was classic 'cos Skint went yes straight away. They were at the top 'cos we'd heard of Norman Cook. That was it though, we'd heard of him.
I saw you playing live at Bedford Esquires a few years back. It looked like Fuzz was the only one doing anything.
M: He was. Completely.
J: Was it all DAT?
M: That was our first tour. We had things going through a bit but... our sound guy wasn't even a sound guy. It all tumbled from, like I say a car tape. Then suddenly we were being asked to DJ: have you DJ-ed? "Oh Yeah" but you'd only ever DJ-ed on a Monday night down the pub for all the beer you could drink, and you stuck Pink Floyd on when you wanted to go outside for a spliff... So we were DJ-ing and then they were saying you've got to do a tour and we were like "What? A Live Tour? Live? What do we do?" We were scratching our heads and thought we'd have a look at what dance bands do. So we watched a few videos and MTV and they just stood there in front of these decks and, our sarcasm I suppose, we were like "How long can you and me stand there going [mimes nothing]? We'll have to get our mates who can play things!" Fuzz was the first one on that tour. We had got keyboards going but it was basically just playing... Along the way we've brought in other stuff. I play guitar now, there's two drummers and we've got vocals from Kermit.
J: So is a lot of it live now?
M: It's on tapes but we've knocked out loads of things, so that we have to play this record in there. It adds a bit of enjoyment as well.
J: For you...
M: ...for us, yeah. 'Cos it's like if I don't do that then... it'll sound different to the record which is what we wanted. Especially with dance music you don't want your fans going out and buying the record then coming to the gig and finding they might as well have stayed at home and listened to the album.
J: I think it's different seeing you play. It was similar to the Poppies, but they had a lot of stuff on tape...
M: ...they had tons of stuff on tape. [laughs]
J: But they were obviously having such a good time. It was the same when we've seen you. You've got your beer in one hand, you're holding your hat on with the other..
M: Didn't Fuzz go off and someone got up on his drums? No, I think that was the second time we played there. He got up to tell the sound man he couldn't hear the drums and someone got on stage and started playing the drums really badly. He was running back going NOOOOO!!
J: I liked that bright red shark/theremin thing that you had.
M: That's not around, no, 'cos we haven't got James [from EMF] on this tour. He's doing his own music and he couldn't afford to spend a month on the bus with us.
J: That's a shame. I wouldn't like to say that was the best bit... but it was pretty high up.
M: [laughs loudly] It was...
J: Did you know much of the Poppies stuff.
M: I knew one track but Rich played me some recently and there was so much where I was going "No way, was this you?" Y'know, loads of stuff that you remembered from the Friday night at your local indie club. "Oh yeah, I used to dance to this one, was that you?" That one, "There is no Love Between Us," I thought that was Jesus Jones! I don't know any of my records. I pull 'em out and it's second one, second side, I love that one, what's it called? You have to put a little mark by the track.
Talking about record collections, what do you do about clearing samples?
M: They're all cleared.
J: Not on the first records.
M: Not on the first 12", no. None of the Crosby, Still and Nash was ever cleared. When it came in the charts a year-odd later we did have to hand the sample in. On the first album I think it did mention one sample and that was 'cos we couldn't find it. You only have to mention them when you can't find it. I think now it might have changed and you have to put all the ones that you've cleared. They're weird things samples. We don't clear a lot of stuff now because we've fucked 'em up so much just to get the sound.
J: Have people sampled you? Did they clear it?
M: Yeah, the Beastie Boys have. And, no, they just asked us. Clearing's... it's more that... it's a bit weird. When they sampled us I don't think we were published but when you get publishers involved they do all the dealings so you have to ask them and they always want money. We had to pay for the last single, "Gutbuster," the bass line in it. We asked if we could use it and they said yeah but we don't want a percentage deal, we want £3500. So we just had to buy it off 'em. Now, apparently, that means that if it gets sampled from our song we get the money.
J: Even the promo for "Gutbuster" has got sample credits on it.
M: They were right funny buggers though. I've noticed it a lot though, the new Fatboy Slim and the Midfield General albums. He [The Midfield General, Damien Harris of Skint] actually took 'em all out and it's really lost a bit on the one song. He'd got a sample of The Seeds in it and they said no, cos they've always got that choice, or they can go we want 100% of the royalties. But he took 'em out and replayed it.
J: I bought the first album when it was on Skint but I know you had some problems when you put it out again on Parlophone...
M: ...In England, yeah. That was Walt Disney said they didn't want to be associated with dance, druggy music. It was in "Whoosh" and we had to take it out, but they let us off with the album in England. Then they asked us if they could have some music for Inspector Gadget and we said yeah. But they gave us a bit of money... less than we paid for our bass line.
Do you think you've changed at all, since the first record?
J: I reckon you've become bigger and thicker-which you can take either way, I suppose...
M: [laughs] A lot more in it, you mean?
J: I'm not saying that the first records were weedy or anything, but it's a bigger sound now in comparison.
M: The only thing we've changed really is the technology. We've gone from an Atari running everything in the studio to the PCs. We can do loads more. As long as you can play a note on an instrument you can record it onto a computer and play everything. Suddenly we've had a lot more than we can do. We can drop a bit of violin in there and that...
J: Is that how you go about writing tracks, just arsing about until you get it right?
M: [laughs] Well, yeah, just sitting there all night fiddling. Playing around and putting tracks together like jigsaws, normally doing about five at a time so when you get bored just flick on to another one. Then you can always just fuck around with the sounds of the different instruments. When we'd come to the end of doing the album we'd got 22 tracks completely finished and we had to stop and choose 13 which was the hardest job. "Gutbuster" was finished two Octobers ago and it was like "hasn't this been out?"
J: Was it your decision not to put anything out until you'd got an album?
M: It was the record label 'cos they'd got all the Blur stuff to put out. We were going to put it out then.
J: Do you get a lot of hassle from the record label?
M: Erm. We've been having our fair share. Not hassle...Just [leans into the microphone] to any bands out there, you've got to remember that when you sign a deal, what I've noticed being a new-comer to it, is the people that you've signed to-the A&R department and the people at the top of Parlophone-might get offered these new jobs, which they'll take and then suddenly this new person comes into the A&R department and they've got this new idea. It's like... you have to watch out. I'd not even thought about it but the A&R bloke we signed to was a lot to do with it, we like him, but now he's not the A&R man.
J: Do you have remixes and stuff that you're contractually-obliged to do? I'm thinking of Supergrass...
M: No. That remix was them offering us a carrot on a stick 'cos we had V2 after us as well. At the time Skint were signing to Sony and we were like "There's no point sticking with Skint on Sony 'cos we'll have to go through both of them every time." So we went with Parlophone. It's the old Beatles label...
J: In name...
M: Yeah, nothing like that now. It's EMI isn't it? EMI-Warner.
J: You'll be signed to Sony before long.
M: Yeah Sony'll own that soon, won't they? Or Bill Gates.
Think of that, the Bentley Rhythm Ace 2003 operating system free with every new PC. Microsoft being taken to court for forcing computer users to listen to the BRA boys. It gives "For Your Ears Only" a new slant doesn't it? www.bentleyrhythmace.com
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