As well as being a great event in a very good cause, the Fritz van Helsing Memorial show in March also had the benefit of reintroducing me to Sam Barber and the Outcasts just at the same time as Sam released the third Valley of Silence E.P. As previously reported, ‘Valley of Silence III: The Age of Starlight’ is a cracking pop record which maintains the high standard of the previous 2 E.P.s.
So I was delighted when Sam agreed to speak to the blog – at some length. Here’s what he had to say for himself.
MPT – Can you give a little of your musical background, please?
SB – As far as the instruments I play these days are concerned, I’m self taught. The only musical lessons I’ve had were on the tuba, which I played at school to Grade 5. We did a little tour of Europe with the school wind band when I was 15 or so, so that was my first taste of musical performance. I used to sneak into the music rooms and play the classical acoustics on one string when there weren’t classes on, but I was never one of the in-crowd who took lessons in the cool instruments – guitar, bass, drums.
I was more into English than music at school – I found it far more exciting to write a story or prose, I admired the whole silent dignity of words on paper. It was probably when I heard the Manics I realised that the power of words could appeal to more people when attached to melody; that lyrics could be not just as valid as the music, but more important. That was the ‘eureka’ moment if you like.
I got my first guitar at 16, and gradually – very gradually – picked up the basics. I still remember Will haplessly trying to show me barre chords- I just couldn’t see the point of them. I started to properly teach myself to play the piano about three years ago, and I’ve been playing drums since I was about 18; I play the latter in the Norman Lamont’s band Invisible Helpers.
MPT – Who are the Outcasts?
SB – The Outcasts started out as my bassist Will (Baird) and his buddy playing acoustic guitars, and they took the name from the Stones song Jigsaw Puzzle: ‘And the guitar players look damaged / they’ve been outcasts all their lives’. I think it was a tossup between that and ‘the Delinquents’.
They happened into the pub I was playing my first ever gig in and I joined them as lead singer. The other bloke moved to London about a year later and we met a drummer who liked the songs I was starting to write. We became a three piece with Will switching to bass and, as I’d shown a bit of improvement on the instrument, myself on lead guitar and vocals.We eventually went our separate ways in 2004, before reunification in 2009 to promote my second solo album.
As for the current incarnation, Johnny (Allan) joined as a replacement drummer in 2010, as did Fiona (Thom) on rhythm guitar. Mary (Robbs) joined us last year on violin. We also have a ‘studio’ cello player called Georgina, who played on the last two VoS records. This is the strongest lineup I’ve ever played with by some distance, and the fact that it’s my own music being played is a wonderful bonus.
MPT – What is astronomy pop?
SB – Fun. It’s about making astronomy accessible to the man or woman in the street, without being patronising or obtuse. It’s easy to forget there’s an unending universe of truly wonderful things up there above us, and Valley of Silence is about reminding people of that in a way that will really affect them. There’s a certain romance to the idea of music as a universal language I suppose.
I was impressed by the Duckworth Lewis Method album – slick, knowing pop tunes about cricket – it really shouldn’t work on paper, but it’s a fantastic record that sold well, which was pleasing to see. I’m a huge fan of subversion in pop music – sneaking esoteric ideas into peoples’ heads on the back of a catchy melody is a delicious thing to behold.
There’s a saying that the best way to get people learning is, make ’em think they’re not learning. If Valley of Silence makes one more person Google ‘Enceladus’ than would have otherwise, it’s done its job.
MPT – Science (fiction) in pop has something of a dubious reputation – I’m largely thinking dodgy 70 discos clothing and, er, dodgy disco songs. What made you think you could pull it off?
SB – I think a lot of music that deals with science fiction is either too obscure or too comedically pretentious to be successful in what it sets out to achieve. You have to face facts – if you go on stage and say “this song is about the dual radio source produced by an active galactic nuclei”, people are going to laugh at you. Conversely, if you go on stage and try to lecture people, your whole stage act is going to fail. So you have to subvert the form.
Sure, The Final Countdown is a massively successful record, but that’s because it’s so ridiculous no-one takes it seriously. I mean why are they ‘heading for Venus’? You get the impression that Europe weren’t going for laughs; that they were doing it straight.
Of course, there are excellent examples of astronomy-themed pop music. But sciencey part – the so-called ‘boring’ stuff that, shall we say, doesn’t make for a good pop lyric, that’s what I was interested in – not making novelty songs, but communicating to people how awe-inspiring the sky above us is in a way that they just have to press play to understand.
MPT – Why avoid the so-called futuristic sounds (actually 30-40 years old!) on these records?
SB – Well, part of the concept which got lost after VoS1 was to use only acoustic instruments -guitar, piano and strings- for that very reason. I didn’t want it to sound futuristic in any way, quite the opposite. In the same way that the subject matter had to lose its pretense, so did the music and the soundscape.I was going for the look and feel of late Victorian astronomy which is kind of hinted at in the promo film for Parallel Universe.
Once it became clear I was going to be recording with a band for the next two records I kind of gave in a little, using the electric guitar a lot more and I began to write more band-suited songs. That said, there are a few synths here and there across the trilogy – Neptune, Jupiter, D.R.A.G.N., all feature heavy use of synthesizers – but on the whole, yes, getting a MicroKorg or a Kaos Pad out just felt like a cliche I didn’t want to get into.
It’s the lyrics that I want people to get the atmosphere from, not ‘oooooh, spacey sounds’. I think actually leaving ‘space’ – pardon the pun – on the songs, for example Enceladus, is vastly more effective at conjuring up the feeling of the cold open vista of high Saturn orbit and the loneliness and impenetrability of the moon itself than attempting to shove the concept down the listener’s throat with electronic sounds.
MPT – Now that you’ve completed the Valley of Silence trilogy, how do you look back on the three records?
SB – I’m still taken aback by the confidence of VoS1. The standard of songwriting is very high. It definitely works as a standalone piece. Three of the songs on there rarely leave our setlist, so that’s a good indicator of its quality.
The Pillars of Creation brought in somewhat more complicated ideas, and I’ll hold my hands up here – they were too complicated. I can’t help but feel the main impression D.R.A.G.N. left was one of confusion. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s one of the finest lyrics on VoS, as is Occam’s Razor, but I’m not sure if many people ‘got’ those numbers.
Venus, however, did work – as close to a perfect embodiment of the VoS concept as any of the tracks come, being a perfect synthesis of hard science and the frailty of emotion. If you look it up, all the lyrics to that song, while double-entendres, are pure scientific fact.
MPT – There was talk of a deluxe physical release of all 3 EPs – is that still on the cards?
SB – Yes, but not right away. I’m remastering the whole lot and it will be released as a single album, which was my original intent. Plus it makes it more affordable for everyone.
MPT – How much is science or SF an influence on you and what (if any) are your main influences (books, films, TV)?
SB – It’s the questions, the ideas science provokes that lend themselves best to artistic expression. A few of the folk I admire are Clarke, Sagan, Patrick Moore, Ronald D Moore, J. Michael Strazynsky, Michio Kaku – they’re all good commuicators of these ideas. There have been a few standout productions over the last few years – Moon, Cargo (from which Rhea got its title), Melancholia.
MPT – What are the plans to promote ‘Age of Starlight’?
SB – We launched the album with our friends Townhouse and William Douglas at a great night at the Third Door in Edinburgh. We’re playing two hugely successful open air concerts in Princes Street Gardens during the festival and we’ve been played on radio stations across the Central Belt. We’re looking forward to playing lots more gigs over the coming months to get the album out there.
As part of that promotion for the new record Sam and the Outcasts are performing for the second time in Princes Street Gardens on Friday (3rd August) between 4.30 p.m. and 5.30 p.m.
And here’s the video for recent single ‘Neptune’: