Some records truly stand the test of time and sound as fresh to the ears as they did in utterly different times and situations (writes Andy Wood). Pale Saints 1990 debut, The Comforts Of Madness, has always been one of those records for me and it’s one I’ve recommended to numerous people over the years. It’s a record that still sounds strong and inventive and elegant, a classic album that probably hasn’t received the kudos it should have done over the years. I was pretty pleased though to discover it would be released late last year as an expanded edition with an entire disc of extra tracks which allowed me to retire my well-played original album and also hear the original demo versions of the album and a John Peel session remastered rather than on iffy nth generation cassette recordings.
I came early to Pale Saints, having received a couple of demo tapes in the post as a sometime fanzine writer / editor. The bulk of the demo tapes I usually received were fairly run of the mill but these ones stuck in my head. The songs were pretty haunting, twisting and turning but with a strong melodic sensibility and the quality of the playing and song writing was obvious, not just to me but to a number of record labels. Within a year of the first demo Pale Saints had been signed to 4AD, one of the best known and most distinctive labels around, allegedly after Ivo saw them at their debut London show. September 1989 saw them release their debut E.P. Barging Into The Presence Of God which showcased not only their unique sound but outlook as well. The Leeds based trio of Ian Masters, Graeme Naysmith and Chris Cooper, also declined a V23 designed sleeve in favour of an arresting image by a painter friend of theirs, Graham Bailey. Pale Saints were definitely a band willing to pursue their own path in the world.
Things just kept on moving forward with the release of The Comforts Of Madness in February 1990 with a headline U.K. tour preceded by live performances of ‘Insubstantial’ and ‘She Rides The Waves’ on Snub TV and there was a lot of excitement around the band, not least in my head and I was already well up for seeing them at Fat Sam’s when they arrived in Dundee on Sunday 25 February 1990.
I’m not sure where the invite to review the band or ‘even better’ to interview them came from. My memory is a complete blank on that one. I had never spoken to press officers or label people before, my main modus operandum was just trying to blag my way into dressing rooms with a ropey portable mono cassette recorder and possibly some questions scribbled in a notepad but in this instance there appears to have been a plan of sorts.
The show was fantastic. I allude to the sound being less than perfect in the original introduction but I remember finding it all brilliant. I don’t recall there being any attempts to engage the audience or between song banter with the band using the pieces of music that linked the songs on the album between songs as a way of removing potential awkward gaps between the songs.
Pale Saints had a reputation for being a little bit aloof, a little bit odd and perhaps a little bit pretentious. None of which were negatives in my book but perhaps made a bit wary of interviewing them. Ian Masters, the vocalist and bassist, wasn’t present for the interview, which I remember being a little disappointed in. Early doors he had got quite a reputation for being utterly elusive in interviews and making up incredibly tall stories in lieu of interview answers. There was also the story of jars of disgusting items saved up to send to people including a jar of cigarette butts but I never asked about this in the end. I mean, they might have already had my address having sent me those demo tapes.
The interview took place in the corridor between the foyer and the dressing room at Fat Sam’s with quite a few interruptions. It’s probably not the best interview I have ever done but it was fun to type up and remember little bits of the night. Sadly, I don’t have any photographs from the night, camera film was expensive as was developing the things and I was always operating on a very frayed shoestring of a budget with more important things like buying records, beer and going to gigs taking greater precedence.
As an aside, Pale Saints were shoved in the nascent shoegaze thing which irked me a bit as they stood head and shoulders over most of the rest of the bands tagged with that bizarre title. Ride, who appeared to get more plaudits and record sales than Pale Saints, played Fat Sam’s only a few months after this show and it was truly one of the dullest gigs I’d been to with every song having the same noise breakdown and format.
Thirty-one years on I still find The Comforts Of Madness a gorgeously thrilling record, endlessly inventive and quite fearless, moving from deep reflection to frazzled noise and all points in between over its eleven songs, ten originals and a devastatingly gorgeous cover of Opal’s ‘Fell From The Sun’, a song precious few people in the U.K. would have been aware of in the original form at the time.
Pale Saints would go on to record two further albums, In Ribbons and Slow Buildings, with several line-up changes before splitting up in 1996. Graeme and Chris would continue to make music together while Ian Masters releases records under a variety of names, having went to Japan for a few years after the split and forgetting to come home. There were no encores and no reunions. They never became Bunnymen big but then neither did they experience a slow decline like the Bunnymen did.
Anyway, the interview below, the circumstances in which it came about shrouded in mystery, took place after the gig way past the witching hour. The additional guitarist I briefly chatted to before the interview was likely Ashley Horner of well-respected Leeds noiseniks, Edsel Auctioneer who Chris also drummed for. I can’t remember if I ever did pass on Pale Saints message to Lush when I saw them a short period after this gig again at Fat Sam’s, being a fairly shy and silly teenager I would probably have fainted if I had had to converse with Miki Berenyi of Lush.
I don’t know what became of the interview, if I submitted it, if it was published or dumped. I found it in a recent tidy up, neatly transcribed and typed out. I’ve tidied up some typos and cut-out some of my rambling / pontificating. Anything removed was to spare my blushes rather than Pale Saints. In the original transcript I kept referring to the author of the novel, The Comforts Of Madness, as Bill Sayers rather than Paul Sayer. The original title of the piece was ‘Barging Into The Presence Of Gods’. Pure hyperbole, I know but I’m not apologising. I was young, naïve and very excitable.
My final words are those. If you haven’t listened to Pale Saints before (and that does beg the question as to why you are reading this) then please do so. The Comforts Of Madness has survived the ravages of three decades of changing tastes to still remain one of my all-time favourite records while many others have fallen by the wayside or never made the cut.
Barging into the presence of Gods… well not exactly, but there was the brief. It read ‘Could you please review the Pale Saints when they play? An interview would be even better but you know these 4AD bands…’ Hmmm, can’t say as I’d never met or known any 4AD bands but was definitely aware of 4AD as the label of inner mystique and strange popstars. Would they be big headed, arrogant or plain rude? All of these or none? Only time would tell.
Pale Saints story so far is pure Hollywood. In the space of a year, they recorded a demo, played a few gigs and appeared to be yet another band that flirted on the edges of the music scene. Then 4AD stepped in and so began history. Yet the Pale Saints are not just ‘another band’. The demo just jumped out the speakers, kissed my ears and sent my head a spinning. I ran about daft telling people how good they were, largely to the stock response of ‘Oh he’s off again, yet another no hope band’. To which I laughed first, last and loudest when they appeared on Snub TV.
The LP, The Comforts Of Madness, is so imperfectly perfect. Every time I play it I hear something different, occasionally odd bits of sound cluttered but never ruined it. It’s a collection of thoughts, reflections, dreams, perhaps insanity. The guitars veer from the dreamy meanderings of ‘Insubstantial’ or ‘Fell From The Sun’ to the apocalyptic howl of ‘Sight Of You’. ‘Sea Of Sound’ is, in my opinion, one of the best songs ever, it’s melancholy without being self-indulgent, you can feel yourself drowning in its opaque beauty but instead you find yourself adrift. Each song is very different yet, unquestionably, each song is distinctly the Pale Saints. It’s an album full of influences, both musical and subliminally, yet it is original and fresh sounding.
So, as I was… Dance Factory [Fat Sam’s, Dundee], Sunday night and it’s packed – perhaps the busiest it’s been in a long while. As the lights go down the crowd are deafened into submission by a strange backing tape as these four shadows take to the stage. There is no attempt at rapport with the audience, they seem so aloof and enveloped in the shrouds of beauty they call music.
I shan’t beat about the bush, the sound is really rough, but loud. The band are brilliant, the quieter moments shine through but when both guitarists are racing on the downhill stretch it’s feedback galore. Brilliant. My ears will ring until Tuesday. I complain about this vehemently all week I mean, only Tuesday? Still, tonight I am happy.
Tonight I am also terrified. Bravely clutching my cassette recorder and notebook I make my way to the dressing room to partake in this thing they call an interview. The band aren’t there just the ‘part-time second guitarist’ (his words – not mine) who informs me that they are clearing up their gear. I am slightly relieved; they are normal beings after all. Then laughing he says, ‘Oh by the way, they’ll probably take the piss out of you’. Shit, can I go home? Too late. Graeme (guitar) and Chris (drums) are standing beside me, looking possibly more nervous and at least as embarrassed as I feel…
The band name, the L.P. and 12” E.P. titles are clever. It’s like some thought has been put into them. Rather than just calling the album Pale Saints and naming the E.P. after the lead song they give more of an identity or air of mystery to the band. Is this something you feel is important? Is it intentional?
Graeme – Yes… well it was intentional not to call it Pale Saints.
Chris – Yeah, I mean it’s just wasting an opportunity isn’t it? It’s better to come up with a title than…
Where did the title come from?
Chris – It was from a book by a bloke called Paul Sayer.
There is a pause as Graeme and Chris cheerfully and bemusedly autograph a pile of album being passed back for signing, judging by the amount of them, The Comforts Of Madness is big news in Dundee.
Chris – Where were we?
We were talking about the Paul Sayer book.
Chris – Paul Sayer. We’re on about the album title aren’t we?
Chris – It’s nicked from a book. That’s about that!
Where did the name Pale Saints originate from?
Chris – We used to have lists of names, we could never find one that we liked…
Woman – What record would you like to put on? (I’m assuming this is a request for the D.J.)
Chris – Blondie or Bunnymen. (To Graeme) – Jesus, how many people have we talked to tonight? Question is how did we get the name? It’s from a lyric by… ehm…
Graeme – It’s from a Scott Walker song.
Chris – It’s from a record that Ian’s got. We were called various other names but we’re not telling you any of them. (Graeme laughs). It’s just the one that stuck. It’s quite a good name isn’t it? Is it?
Yes, I like it. I think it’s a really good name. The lyrics – who does the lyrics?
Chris – Ian.
They seem to me to be more like a series of images as opposed to just being a story or a moral.
Chris – Yeah?
Graeme – That’s intentional as well.
Chris – Yes, I think it is. It’s better that the lyrics are open to individual interpretation. They cover a lot of things.
What is it like coming from Leeds? I know you (Chris) drum in The Edsel Auctioneer who are really good as well. There seems to be a lot of bands coming from Leeds, but not much attention being paid to them yet…
Chris – Yeah, well I mean there’s Pale Saints, Edsel Auctioneer, a band called Brideswell Taxis who aren’t that great but they’ve got better.
I saw Brideswell Taxis supporting Inspiral Carpets last November and they were just plain awful.
Chris – No I didn’t like them originally. We did a few gigs with them, well a couple. There’s a couple of other good bands. The Wedding Present, they’re okay and Cud. Ehm, I reckon the Edsel Auctioneers are about to do quite well. The music press’s going to turn to Leeds. It will get bored with Manchester.
What is 4AD like? It seems to be changing quite a lot – getting away from The Cocteau Twins / This Mortal Coil type stuff?
Graeme – I don’t think it was ever solely into that as it’s had noisy guitar bands even right from the beginning.
Chris – They had stuff like Colourbox as well, like sort of dance orientated stuff from 86/87 y’know, like Colourbox and MARRS.
Graeme – It’s pretty varied, pretty healthy.
Chris – Then they went through their American phase – Throwing Muses and Pixies. It’s a pretty good label to be on. There’s only a staff of about six or seven, something like that, it’s really small so you know everybody at the record company… it’s like… yes so we’d stick with them.
There’s less chance if you know everyone of getting lost in the hierarchy or mechanisms of a big record company.
Chris – We get everything we need on 4AD. We’re happy with them which is why we’ve signed a ten-year deal. Ten years ehhh… seventeen albums.
We all look a bit incredulous, more so Graeme.
Chris – No, not really. I’m bullshitting now. It’s five years, five albums.
The reviews in the music papers have mentioned a whole variety of bands as comparisons. What are your feelings on this?
Chris – My Bloody Valentine and the Mary Chain are ones that come up a lot. And New Order.
Dinosaur Jr., Ride…
Chris – Really? I’ve not seen that one. Where?
It was in Melody Maker. The list was My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Spacemen 3, Pink Floyd and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Chris – I mean that’s quite a mixture so I don’t mind. If we were constantly compared to one band we’d be worried but that list covers so many aspects of music.
The thing that attracted me…
Chris – Which out of them would you say we most sounded like?
None and All.
Chris – Yeah?
It’s like a collection of all I like in pop music without it sounding like any one band. (I reflect that if Chris smiles any more his face will split in two) You can spot influences but it’s still like, well it sounds like the Pale Saints. Are you fans of pop music?
Chris – Yes. Well all types of music really. Except Heavy Metal and er – is there any types of music we don’t like?
Graeme – Freeform Jazz. (Everyone laughs).
You’ve had quite a lot of coverage in the music press. Is it a necessary evil?
Graeme – Basically, yes.
Chris – Definitely.
Graeme – It is for bands starting out. People have got to get to know about you. I don’t think it matters so much once you are established.
Britain seems to be the only country with such an obsessive music press.
Chris – yeah, if you’re like a new band starting out and you’re not in any of the music papers then unfortunately you’re not going to get very far unless you sort of do gigs every night. Like this band (points out my t-shirt). Thrilled Skinny, they do a lot of gigs, did the Wedding Present tour as well. If the NME took them up and put them on the cover or gave them some decent coverage then they would rocket.
What do you prefer – playing live or recording?
Graeme – I enjoy ‘em both but definitely playing live.
Chris – Playing live and working on new songs.
Why did you want to be in a band? What made you want to start playing music?
Chris – Why?
Graeme – It seemed like a good thing to do at the time.
Chris – Just an ambition, something we’ve always wanted to do.
So, what are your aspirations a band? You said on Snub TV that you felt Pale Saints had commercial appeal but wouldn’t change just to appear commercial. How far can you go? Do you feel you can be really big?
Graeme – Yes but we’re not going to go out of our way to become a massive band.
Chris – But if you are happy with the records you are putting out you may as well sell loads. I just want our records to be sort of everywhere and as many people hear them as possible.
That’s good, as a lot of people in bands say, ‘oh we wouldn’t go on Top Of The Pops etc’ but if you’re proud of your records…
Chris – Which we are…
Then you should get them to as big an audience as possible.
Chris – We’d like to be sort of Bunnymen big, when they were BIG but they were also a cool band at the same time.
Are you a big fan of the Bunnymen? They keep being mentioned.
Chris – Yes, them and New Order and ehm who else are we big fans of?
Graeme – Neil Young, REM, Lush…
Chris – Err. (Bursts into laughter after a short silence).
So, are you pleased with the outcome of the album?
Chris – We’re pleased with the album – most of it – yeah. I mean like I’m proud of the songs and everything but there’s thing, because we worked with two producers. It’s just personal things. Like from a drumming point of view because Gil Norton (Pixies and of course, Bunnymen) was a lot stricter in the end I was pleased with the things we did with him.
Who was the other producer?
Chris – John Fryer who has done a lot of 4AD bands.
Graeme – He was a bit lax with us, let us get away with things. It’s really enjoyable to do that but a couple of weeks later you think, oh shit, why did I do that?
Chris – Yeah we had a better laugh whereas with Gil Norton he would say ‘Oh I want this done to a click track’ and he was really trying to get everything out of the songs. We had to rehearse with him and he’d suggest arrangements and that. It was a bit of a drag at the time but now you listen to it and really hear the things he’s brought in and it’s really tight and it’s really pleasing. It lifts it right out of indiedom and it gets you out of that kind of thing.
Right, last thing! The phrase that sums up Pale Saints for me was in one review that said ‘Melancholy Psychosis’. What would be a phrase that summed up the Pale Saints for you?
Chris (embarrassed laugh) – Uhm yeah, it does it very well, I can’t think of one.
Graeme – Ha that’s a good one yeah.
Well that’s all thanks.
Chris leans across as I switch off the cassette and restarts it.
Chris – Hello Lush! You must get that in…
So, there you have it. Ian wasn’t about so I didn’t feel that I should ask the others too much about the lyrics or the perception that Ian was mad. I also forgot to ask about the significance of pigs or about the jars of gunge they hoarded to send to people.
At this point in time however, I do feel it necessary to point out that the Pale Saints are not arrogant, rude or any of my previous preconceptions. In fact they are enthusiastic, charming and fun to speak to. As you’ll no doubt have noticed, Graeme is the quiet one while Chris is a total bundle of energy, both on and off stage.
What more can I say, put pictures of them on your wall, fall in love with them, see them live, buy the records. Once again, pop music is vital, alive and worth falling in love with. Better still, this is only the beginning.