erasing clouds

From Elmer Gantry to Ennio Morricone, From Reggae to Jazz: An Evening with Red Bee Society

by anna battista

New year, new resolutions. New people to meet, new books to read, new bands to listen to. Magazines and sites have been conjecturing at least since November 2003, what will happen during this year regarding style, music, literature and so on. For what regards music, charts have been compiled, foreseeing that this or that band will become the star of this new year. Well, honestly I don't know who will be the "next big thing" musically speaking, what I know is that I've recently met one of the most original and interesting bands around. They are called Red Bee Society, they have been going for a couple of years, though it's maybe a year since their new line-up, including Mark Baillie on vocals, Rod Mattocks on guitar and sampler, Paul D'Agostino on bass and Stuart Blair on drums, got going. They are based in Glasgow and their music is, well, let's see, it's a, yes, it's…well, I cannot really find the words to describe it, because their music is the result of a kazillion different influences, from films to books, from bands to soundtrack composers. Rumours say that some majors travelled up to Glasgow from London to meet them. Hmm, better to investigate if this is true with Mark and Roddy, two members of Red Bee Society. "A couple of labels came to see us over the last six months of 2003," Roddy nods, humbly shrugging, "I guess they're just keeping in touch to see what happens and what will come up."

We're in a pub around Glasgow's West End, it's midweek and there aren't a lot of people around. "We put a record out ourselves," Mark explains, "it's entitled 'Two Cops' and it's out on Gantry records. The plan for 2004 is to put out an album as well, but it obviously depends on what else happens. There have been talks of people interested in us, but I think we'll go on releasing records until something happens. We won't stop and wait for this to happen, but it is nice that there's been people who got in touch with us and came to see us."

Red Bee Society seem to have a great attitude towards the music business and towards what they are doing, if they were a deluded band they would just wait for a record label to come and give them a hand with their career. "I really enjoyed the process of putting out a single. It feels kind of good and a lot of good things came out of it, people got interested in what we were doing, so it has been pretty good for us," Mark states, "Now we've got some money as well to release the album, so doing the single has been a positive experience. We haven't been in the studio with the money of the labels which have expressed interest in our band. Usually these kind of labels are on their terms and working with them is just very clinical, that's why we came to the conclusion that we'll keep on going on like this for the time being."

Roddy seems to agree with Mark. "It's a good experience working on your own because you get to know how it works to release a record," he says, "I'd certainly recommend it to those bands who were sort of conned by record labels and never released a record themselves. The album will come out probably sometime in the spring, we've recorded half of it just now. We've got our own studio here in Glasgow, so that's quite good because if you're to go with a big label too early they might just put you in a big studio and it might not be the right studio for you, you might not get the right sound and so on, we're happy with the sound we got so far. When you work with a big label, some guy in an office picks up a producer for you and we don't want to get into all that until we've got a good idea of ourselves and of what we want to sound like. Obviously, financially, it is going to be better if somebody comes up with a deal, but we're quite happy with the way things are going so far. We've been recording with our own equipment which is a sort of mixture of lo-fi and hi-fi stuff. We use sequencers and stuff like that as well, but the guitar on our records tends to be quite raw. The studio is basic, but it's gradually growing from a basic set to better things."

Red Bee Society. Sounds like an interesting name. It might be a revolutionary group's name, let's see, perhaps it's the name of a secret sect which bases its life on socialist teachings. Yes, it's surely something like that…or at least I'm convinced it is till Mark explains to me that I'm completely wrong. "It's not an obvious reference," he shakes his head, "A friend of mine wrote a story called 'The Hunt for a Yellow Nose', it was about the search for yellow nosed bees when he was a kid. It was autobiographical, it was a nice wee tale and one of the characters in it, apparently this was true, kept two dead bees called Laurel and Hardy in a matchbox and that was his pets and he used to go around saying 'do you want to see my pets?' I thought it was kind of touching and I wrote a song called 'Dead Bee Society' which was a complete laugh, it was terrible, but it was also fun. I suggested to call the band Dead Bee Society, but the name, like my song, was frowned upon," Mark smiles, "then eventually, our keyboard player, who had a sort of obsession with the red colour, suggested to call the band Red Bee Society, so I kind of went for that, by a process of wearing anybody down. That's the story, but I think it's a good name. It sounds like it's something more interesting or exciting than it actually is. People really think it's a secret society or a reference to something political."

As stated above, Red Bee Society are based in Glasgow, a place with an incredibly vivid musical scene. "We're part of it and we're in contrast with it," Mark states. "I think there are Glasgow bands I really like and there are bands I know, I talk to and discuss things with. For example, I know V-Twin and I really love their music. They're putting together their second album now and I've been talking a lot to Jason, the singer, about a few things. He's a good friend of mine and he's been giving me a lot of advice about the best way to approach things with the band. I know other people from V-Twin very well. Glasgow is really good for what regards venues and music, compared to cities like Edinburgh. Roddy comes from Edinburgh and the music scene is completely different there, you can't really have a band that easily in Edinburgh, whereas you can find an audience for anything in Glasgow, people are really interested in music here."

After talking about the local scene, we try to get more into Red Bee Society's world, exploring their style, music and inspirations. "I tend to write the lyrics," Mark says, "that's my department, but for what regards ideas for songs, well sometimes I'm the one who comes up with an idea, sometimes it's Roddy. Sometimes I will just have an idea for a title and the band will come up with something the next day or the next month. Sometimes an idea is flashed out and then it becomes a song or it doesn't become anything. Generally after getting an idea, we go into the studio and work on it. Then the idea becomes a collaborative thing and everybody in the band gets involved."

"Sometimes we use references as well," Roddy explains, "we use older stuff or we sample some stuff and then play the guitar while the samples are going. Then we take the samples out and we get a completely new song. A good thing which people said about us is that it is quite difficult to pigeonhole our music and to discover which are our musical references." Mark is quite keen on examining in detail some of Red Bee's tracks. "We have a song that has got a kind of ska-reggae feeling, but it has also got a country kind of feel, I call it 'cowboy ska' because when I hear it I always imagine cowboys sitting around a fire playing Jimmy Cliff. Then we have other songs which are completely different from that, such as a track called 'Natural Snow' a track with a Latin feel. The song breaks into vocal samples saying 'everything in the place is going to be funky', then it breaks into a hard beat. It's a funny track because right when you expect a particular rhythm to start playing, something else happens. We have a song called 'Sister' which is eight minutes long, and that was our attempt at doing an Ennio Morricone Western kind of thing. I don't know if people will go, 'oh that sounds like Morricone!' when they hear it, but we've tried and it became something else! We were also trying to do a sort of John Coltrane track when we were working on it and it came out as something else." "The first two minutes of that song are a Spaghetti Western," Roddy explains, "then it goes onto a soul thing and becomes something else. I love the guitar on Ennio Morricone's stuff, I think he's great. But our musical influences are many. I play the guitar and take care of the sequencers and samples. For instance, a few years ago I was on holiday in Brazil and picked up some music there and now we've used some of those samples in one of our songs. Once you put something like that in a guitar band, the band sounds different and interesting."

Red Bee Society's inspiration to write their first single came from films. "Sometimes we get new ideas from films. The subject matter for 'Two Cops' was inspired a lot by a couple of Elmer Gantry films from the '60s. Basically the first three lines in that song are all from that film, but taken from different parts of the film, I just wrote them down as I was watching the movie. That was the kind of thing for the idea of that song." Roddy underlines how the art work for the single was done by Gary Rough, a Glaswegian artists based in New York, "I think his work is great," Marks enthuses, "he's brilliant, he likes the band and we all like his work. We were sitting here in this pub chatting about The Night of the Hunter and he just decided to get involved with the band."

When it comes to choosing the best track from Red Bee Society's yet to be released debut album, Mark doesn't seem to have any doubts. "I would say it's 'When we Talk of Horses'" he states, "We did that live, only once or twice and we will do that to the next gig. I think it sounds finished now. "When it starts, the song is sparse and bare, then it sorts of builds up, there is a guitar solo which is quite epic, then there is a cello player playing for a couple of bars what sounds like the theme song from the Black Beauty film, then there is a funky part. I like this song, I think it's a good song." "The song came on the back of doing 'Two Cops' and it comes in terms of progression for what regards the sound since there are a few more interesting sounds on this track," Roddy explains, "I play the guitar usually, but here there are some good sound effects, microsound guitar effects, quite old ones from the '70s and they're great since they add colour to the sound."

For a band listening to Morricone and mixing it with Brazilian music and reggae, among the other things, contemporary bands don't mean a lot: Roddy states he doesn't really know too many contemporary bands. "I often get stuck when somebody asks me what new bands do you like," he admits, "I probably should listen to more bands because I know there are good bands out there. You see bands in Glasgow and you think they're really good bands. But why do you have to go only into one period of musical history such as last year when you can go into the whole history of music. When I was a bit younger I didn't like the stuff that was mainstream and I used to listen to older stuff because I thought it was a bit different and I liked it." "I tend to listen to reggae stuff a lot, stuff like Desmond Dekker or Jimmy Cliff," Mark says, "But I listen to some jazz as well, such as Pharaoh Saunders. Most of the albums I've got are late '60s, early '70s. I like Super Furry Animals and Flaming Lips, but they're quite obvious bands in a way. I went to see Turbonegro recently with some of the members of V-Twin, they're quite enjoyable, they're Scandinavian theatrical rock and I enjoyed them, but I couldn't say that such bands are an influence on Red Bee Society. We've been compared with Orange Juice, a comparison I don't really see, but also to The Beta Band because I think we both use samples and mix them with guitars and folky stuff." "When I used to read the NME," Roddy starts again, "you could find stuff like interviews with Primal Scream and other bands and they always talked about older music, really interesting stuff and it was great 'cos you would say 'right, I'm going to check that out'. We mentioned the Glasgow scene and the good thing about it is that people here don't mind looking back to older music and talking about it." Mark nods while Roddy is talking, then he adds, "You can ask people here about music and they will recommend you lots of bands to listen to, music here is an evangelical thing!"

And talking about evangelism, music and Glasgow, it is worthwhile to remember Nemis, a music network for Scottish artists, labels, music businesses, media, venues and so on. Nemis was founded in 2001 and it is based in Glasgow. Its aim is, among other things, to offer advice to anyone involved in any area of the music business, promote new bands and organise workshops and seminars. Red Bee Society joined Nemis last year."We've been aware of what Nemis has been doing for the last year," Roddy says, "lately Alec Downie took over the developing office and we went down to see him regarding our single 'Two Cops'. He's a great guy, very enthusiastic and gave us advice about help and stuff. He seems to really like the band and put us on at Glasgow's CCA. Nemis have an email group: if you want to find out something like who does the cheapest posters in Scotland, rather than making mistakes or going to the wrong people or looking up on the yellow pages, you can put a question on that and somebody will come back answering you, that's very good." "When I was talking with some guys in Newcastle after a gig, " Mark remembers, "I asked if there is a similar thing to Nemis there and they said there wasn't. I think Nemis is a very good thing. Scotland is a small country, if there is an organisation, then there is a general kind of consensus to encourage musicians at any level, not just superstars, it's a good thing. Nemis helps people at a time when they might give up and chuck the music career, because it's too hard. People can be supported through Nemis, so I think it's definitely a positive thing."

Roddy mentioned the gig at the CCA in October 2003 when they played with three other bands, The Gems, Stylus Automatic and Alamo Racetrack. "That was the best thing we ever did," he nods, "I really enjoyed it". Red Bee Society played last year also in Dundee and Newcastle and they have a residency at Glasgow's Postgraduate Club. New gigs are scheduled in February 2004 and more gigs will be announced on Red Bee's site Apart from playing gigs around Glasgow, Red Bee Society will spend the beginning of 2004 working on their first album and finishing it, "I feel we have improved live a lot," Roddy claims, "and we've been keeping standards up."

Closing time is nearing in the pub and while a weird guy with pupils of different colour, a crossover between a second summer of love rave head and a loved up Marilyn Manson, someone I'm assured is an innocuous usual suspect of the West End scene, mumbles incomprehensible sentences disrupting the last minutes of our interview, we make a bit of small talk. Mark tells me the funny story of an Irish friend of his who might be moving to Rome to become the singer in a U2 tribute band even though he never followed U2, then the conversation moves onto books and rebel writers and again to music and favourite records. The pub is definitely closing down. I walk with Mark and Roddy up Sauchiehall Street. The place is busy: people are walking around, coming out of a pub, entering into a club. Noises melt and mingle in this cold Glasgow night. While I say goodbye to the Red Bee Society I think the next time I'll see them it will be on the cover of a music mag.


Issue 20, February 2004

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Photos from Red Bee Society's web site.