[sic] Magazine

Interview – The Black Lamps

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The Black Lamps released their eponymous debut album around the turn of the year. Quite simply, It is wonderful. Almost ten years in the making the record recaptures that late 80’s/early nineties vibe of dreampop, shoegaze and C86 . Just as Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights was the shot in the arm that revitalised post-punk, I wonder whether the South Yorkshire act could do something similar for the dreampop scene? With warm bass reminiscent of Lowlife and dreamy melodies akin to The Chameleons or Black Swan Lane, I was more than intrigued. I was delighted. The only ‘problem’ is that I cannot stop playing the damned thing. (Very bad news for a busy reviewer) And yet, I’d known nothing about the Barnsley band. So I sat down with Lyndon Scarfe (former Danse Society member) to get to know The Black Lamps a little bit better.

Enjoy the interview:

What is a ‘black lamp’ or what does it signify ?

Lyndon: The Black Lamp (no ‘s’) were a 19th century revolutionary group based in Yorkshire in the style of the Luddites. I don’t think much is known about them and there may even be some doubt that they existed at all.

We were originally called Battling Tops – which is one of those awful names you arrive at by trying to apply the democratic process to selecting a band name. We rejected much better names because at least one person in the band hated them so we ended up with one that we all hated the least. Anyway – a few years later Greg spotted the reference to the Black Lamp and we decided it was far better than Battling Tops.

Where and how did the band come together?

Lyndon: Well individually we’ve all been in bands on and off since the early 80’s. However, in the early 2000’s Dean and Greg were in a band called King Palooka with a guy called Pat Crawford, they released a couple of ep’s and I think Liam joined towards the end of the band. Pat was highly motivated, he had already been frustrated at the laid back, almost apathetic commitment of Dean and Greg so when Liam joined and was just as bad he decided he’d had enough. Pat plays in a punk band called System of Hate these days.

I’d been making my own electronic stuff and kept bumping into Dean in town – he asked me if I fancied joining and playing keyboards. I absolutely hated the idea of playing keyboards in a band again so I kept saying no and then on one occasion I was probably pissed and said ‘look OK I’ll join but I’m not playing keyboards, I’ll play guitar’ – and that was it.

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Did you have a mission statement?

Lyndon: Absolutely not – I never trust anyone with a mission statement.

Would you say that you all share similar tastes or are you all quite diverse?

Lyndon: I’d say we have fairly diverse tastes that occasionally overlap. I could draw a Venn diagram if you like. I think we probably share similar historical influences, stuff from punk or from the 80’s like Joy Division, the Bunnymen, Ramones but in terms of new stuff there’s less overlap. Also there are strong influences that we don’t really share, for example I’m really into a lot of electronic/ambient stuff – Boards of Canada, Stars of the Lid, Tim Hecker etc whereas the rest of the band are not so bothered.

Dean is really into soul, particularly Northern Soul whereas the rest of us have only a passing interest.

So how would you categorise The Black Lamps?

Lyndon: That’s a really tough one – I’ve no idea to be honest – I know we get some references to post-rock and a lot of references to the 80’s and comparisons to the Cure. But I don’t really see that myself. I think there are lots of little influences and individual components that you might highlight as reminding you of something but when they’re all put together I’m not exactly sure what it is. Very occasionally the guitars do have that post-rock tone and sometimes there might be a hint of Peter Hook to a bassline but the overall sound definitely isn’t post-rock or the 80’s.

There seems to be a lot of (good) musical happenings in Yorkshire and South Yorkshire in particular, recently. I thinking of Exit Calm, yourselves and Pusher. Would you say there’s a scene developing?

Lyndon: I think the word ‘scene’ implies something shared and inter-connected between the bands, some common sound, look or attitude but that (to me) doesn’t seem to be the case. There are a lot of really high quality bands in Barnsley at the moment, probably more than at any point over the last 30 years so you could say the Barnsley music scene in general is looking strong but there’s no sense of organisation or any one band or person that the ‘scene’ is being pushed along or represented by.

There are a couple of decent small venue’s like the Polish Club and the Underground (who have Sleaford Mods coming up) but still a shortage of good sized venue’s that might attract bigger bands to Barnsley. This means that local bands don’t often get to play in front of a larger audience as support, which traditionally was always a good way of getting more people to hear you.

Joe Boyd is doing his bit to try and get a varied selection of bands heard via his label Of National Importance and Jason White is documenting everything via Alternative Barnsley and also promoting shows – so at least the bands have an outlet and something is gradually forming.

Where was the album recorded and how easy is it to find studio or rehearsal time? Added to that why has the album taken so long to complete?

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Lyndon: Ha, a mix of apathy and poor time management skills. As has been well documented elsewhere we are not exactly ambitious. There has never been a plan or any goals to aim for. We just like to get together to play and write. Playing live and releasing stuff is almost an afterthought. We’re not a band who gets together 3 or 4 times a week. We try to make once a week but often it’s once a fortnight. We all have families and jobs and Dean has his art deadlines so it’s often difficult finding a time when we can all get together. This is even worse when recording, and we struggled to get access to the studio we used (Orion near Rotherham) because Steve Ellis who we recorded with also had a lot on.

So the album was recorded over a couple of years in about 3 different sessions. The original idea was to mix it with Steve but due to finding it difficult to arrange we took the audio and I mixed it myself at home. I was worried that the recordings from different sessions would stand out so we redid a lot of the guitars, keys and some vocals in order to get some consistency of tone across the whole album.

How has the music industry altered between the time of The Danse Society and The Black Lamps?

Lyndon: Haha, how long have you got? Dramatically, on many levels. Firstly from the point of view of getting a band started, back then you could fund the …ahem…alternative lifestyle through everyone being on the dole – this would allow you to spend time working on a load of songs and possibly even low key touring around the UK without appearing on the DHSS radar and being kicked off. The harsh clampdown against benefits has completely removed that and is possibly the biggest contributor to the current debate about ‘pop culture being overwhelmed by people who went to public school’. Now you would need (or be forced to take) a job to fund the band which would obviously limit your availability to play.

Then there is the role of the major label or the larger Indie label, in the past they would often take on an upcoming band with potential and allow them to grow and evolve. This never seems to happen now, the approach of majors seems completely risk averse, they need to be able to guarantee a return on everything which completely inhibits the type of music they are willing to put out, to safe, boring, mainstream – which is one of the reasons I never seem to buy anything on a major – not because of ideological reasons, just because they are rarely interesting. Anyway fuck the majors, there are new ways for bands to get their music out there, through bandcamp or small internet labels or even just digitally from their own websites. But it does involve a lot of additional hard work letting people know you’ve got something to listen to.

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In terms of getting exposure it is totally different. The outlet for alternative bands in the 80’s was essentially Peel and the major papers – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds. Though limited, this had the effect of channelling information directly to people who were interested. It gave the impression of a large and thriving counter-culture outside of the mainstream. Nowadays it is much more diverse and fragmented and you have to seek information out. There are many good websites (like your own) or bloggers that cover new music but there is no single voice like the NME that had the power to create ‘scenes’ and influence what people listened to. Obviously there are positives from this but the counter-culture now seems only to be visible through lots of little windows rather than one big one. If you just look at the charts or listen to Radio 1 or watch the Brits you would get the impression that music is essentially boring and shit at the moment – but personally I don’t believe this is true. There is a LOT of amazing music being made and released, it’s just operating on a different level and isn’t as visible as it might have been in the 80’s.

I could ramble on about the creative side, recording facilities etc They are also massively different and also a massive improvement, so much so that we were able to mix the album with nothing more than a laptop and some reasonably priced software – but I don’t want to bore you to death about the differences between then and now.

Does the album have to sell a certain number for Black Lamps to carry on?

Lyndon: Well it’s totally self-funded and as a band we all have jobs so we don’t rely on revenue from the band to live. We’d like to break even on putting it out but it’s not the end of the world or the band if we don’t.

Can you make money from music anymore?

Lyndon: As I said – we all have jobs outside of the band so it’s not a challenge we are faced with, I’m under no illusions as to how hard it must be to live purely off the revenue of a band. Anyone who manages to do so has my absolute respect. I suspect you have to really work hard as a business person rather than an artist in order to make it work. Which is something I would find difficult myself.

It’s something that makes me feel strongly against piracy, and I’m not talking about massively successful rich musicians or major labels, but for all those independent artists who are just trying to get by and make a living from music and are doing something that enriches your life in some way – why would you fucking steal from them?

To be honest it’s a relief we’re at that stage in our own lives that we don’t have to feed our families from the band.

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The Black Lamps strikes my mind as a lot warmer and dreamier than The Danse Society records which were rather icy and gothic. Was that a deliberate shift in your view?

Lyndon: No – nothing’s pre-meditated or planned. I think the difference is mainly in the tone of the vocals and the guitars. Liam’s vocals tend to be lighter and more dreamy and the guitars are drenched in reverb and delay on top of warmer clean tones. The guitar tones of the 80’s were more driven by scratchy transistor amps.

I realise you probably meant ‘icy and gothic’ in the true sense rather than ‘GOTH’ but it’s still strange to me that the Danse Society are looked back on as goths (though obviously the re-formed version of the band are more than happy to align themselves with goth) because during my time in the band we were never goths. We’d been playing for ages before the term had ever been used. I thought we were post-punk and had more in common with New Order, the Bunnymen or Psychedelic Furs. Personally I have a narrower definition than most people of what was and wasn’t goth – I think goth was born from the Batcave scene – the true goth bands were The Specimen, Alien Sex Fiend, Christian Death and bands that came from that point. All these documentaries, articles and compilation albums that label certain bands as being goth have completely missed the point. Joy Division – definitely not goth, the Cure – not goth, the Banshees – not goth, The Birthday Party – not goth. Killing Joke – not goth. These bands may have influenced bands that were happy to call themselves goth but they were never goth themselves. Goth to me has a very strong campy, theatrical, Rocky Horror angle to it – which has never really interested me.

Yeah I agree with you the distinction between gothic and Goth is very important. If I said The Black Lamps have a more of a 4AD sound as compared to a Factory sound would that be fairer? And which was your favourite label back in the day?

Lyndon: Yeah I see your point, there was something about the sound of some of those 4AD bands like the Cocteau’s, This Mortal Coil, Clan of Xymox that was more dreamlike, the guitar tones do have some similarity with ours.

Favourite label is a tough one – Rough Trade was almost too diverse – lots of stuff on there that I couldn’t care less about. 4AD also diverse, some amazing stuff on there and a really wide range of styles. I loved the care they put into everything. Factory were definitely more focussed, I liked pretty much everything on Factory, they were more consistent. I know if Greg was here he would make a strong case for Sarah and Postcard. I loved a lot of stuff on Creation too – MBV, J&MC, Swervedriver, Teenage Fanclub.
Super Furries, Primals. Actually, looking at that list I’ll go for Creation.

If you could support any band, who would it be?

Lyndon: British Sea Power. I’ve seen them a few times and the type of audience they attract seem polite and well mannered enough not to bottle us off.

Haha. That’s a fine band. Great live. So will there be an album No2 from you guys?

Lyndon: Not sure – if we are to do it we need to get writing and recording fast.

There’s no way we can take as long about it as we did for this one. We have about 3 new songs already but we would really need to crack on to get an album’s worth anytime soon.

What’s next for The Black Lamps?

Lyndon: We need to make the effort to play live more – hopefully venture out a little further than we currently do and a little more often. And maybe record and release an ep. Small steps though, we don’t want to overwork ourselves.

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[sic] Magazine thank Lyndon and The Black Lamps for an insightful interview and wonderful album. The Black Lamps eponymous debut album is out now. See our review via the link below. Band photography used with kind permission from Rory Garforth and Fiona Stephenson. Photography may be subject to copyright. For more from Rory and Fiona please visit the links below.

The Black Lamps album review

Official webpage

Rory Garforth

Fiona Stephenson

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