To celebrate the recent release of our 33 1/3 on Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth, we’re pleased to bring you the 2nd installment of Young Marble Giants Week by authors Michael Blair and Joe Bucciero!
“Music for the Congenitally Repressed”
Behind the scenes with Young Marble Giants’ Stuart Moxham and Alison Statton
While researching Colossal Youth, we were fortunate to be in touch with Stuart Moxham, YMG’s guitarist and primary songwriter, and Alison Statton, the band’s lead vocalist. Both provided crucial facts, contextual information, and insights that helped us understand what made the band and their sole LP simultaneously so peculiar and so embedded in the history of post-punk music. Below are a couple choice remarks (edited for length and clarity) from Moxham and Statton that speak to Colossal Youth’s origins, impact, and legacy.
How do feel the album’s reception, both in 1980 and today? Is there any part of the band’s history that you feel has been overlooked or misunderstood?
Stuart Moxham: The reviews Colossal Youth garnered when it was originally released were to die for; they were the first indication that we had done something bigger than we could have imagined. Since then the record has been elevated to seminal—even to sui generis—status, in reviews. Naturally this is both a massive thrill and a revelation. My favourite written critique contains the insightful and chucklesome observation that YMG made “music for the congenitally repressed.”
On a personal level making that music (and all my subsequent music) is a somewhat convoluted way of gaining self knowledge—not only through the opinions of reviewers, but also by dint of the nature of the people who are attracted to it and the responses they give, both en masse as live audiences, and through individual comments in person and elsewhere. So I would say, far from overlooking anything, the music has been illuminated from all angles—much to my delight and education. Although, there is a lot of tongue-in-cheek cheesiness going on in Colossal Youth which doesn’t seem to have been noted—and I think that our Cardiffian attitude, which so informs the music, has also been unexplored.
Could you tell us more about the recording process and the studio in Wales where the album was recorded?
SM: I was curious that Geoff recommended a place in mid Wales—Foel Studio, near Llanfair Caereinion, owned and run by the lovely Dave Anderson. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life: Five days of recording and mixing and sucking up everything about the process. The studio is in a stone barn overlooking a wide rural valley; unusually and with typical Dave nous, there is a large window in the control room, and there was plenty of weather and fresh air. We actually saw ball lightning in the yard one night—a completely wild, beautiful, and familiar context for us folks who had been raised on weekend trips and holidays in Wales.
The mixes took about twenty minutes for each track—quite a responsibility for Dave to have to achieve. But Dave instantly got what we were about and was enthusiastic about working with us. He did an excellent job for us of capturing what we had never actually heard—how we sounded! Of course, these were the glorious last days of analogue recording—huge reels of kelp whizzing by at top speed on multitrack machines the size of Smart cars.
Did you feel any sense of community and artistic kinship with other Rough Trade groups?
SM: There was a strong sense of a scene—difficult to put into words, but the times rang. I remember buying a 12″ single by At Home, a cover of ABBA’s “I Have A Dream.” It was hilariously brilliant, with spaced out lead guitars, tuneless recorders, and extra cheese on everything (that same cheese which evades reviewers of YMG). I think I can also say that we felt morally supported by The Raincoats, who were friendly in a new and sometimes challenging world. I became good friends with Phil Legg of Essential Logic, and through him squatted with the others in that band and met many other people in their scene. He was also instrumental in my learning how to multitrack. We remain pals.
Artistically, though, not so much. Even the fact that the Rough Trade label mates were equally idiosyncratic didn’t make me feel any less of an outsider, musically. We were quiet and minimal; these were two massive things to be the only people doing. Even now, we have to retain our own sound man, who understands our music, because every other sound person works to the template of high volume—big bass drum sound as a starting point, etc. The music business is surprisingly conservative at all levels; it embraces certain givens. YMG deliberately went against these conventions in order to shake things up, to see what could be done outside of them, and to get noticed in Wales in the late ’70s. The elements which got us noticed and successful also set us apart from our peers—or at least, that’s how I felt.
How did you feel as a Welsh band in a British scene? And how did you relate to your Rough Trade peers like The Raincoats and This Heat, whose politics were more forthright?
Alison Statton: I felt totally out of my depth. I was the complete opposite of a punk vocalist, politically naive, and still felt like a girl, not a woman at that point. I’d been working at the local dental hospital as a dental surgery assistant, nine ’til five, five days a week, up until getting the deal with Rough Trade. I was as far from anarchy as you could get. I loved the music that This Heat and The Raincoats were doing, but hadn’t come across any of it until our involvement with Rough Trade. Signing with the label opened up my musical horizons to a whole new world—like Augustus Pablo, Robert Wyatt, Swell Maps, Scritti Politti, and Cabaret Voltaire. The Raincoats made me feel like running away and forming a girl band.
We’re interested in learning more about the band’s origins in Cardiff. What was the scene like?
AS: My friend and I went to meet Stuart and Phil at a local club. They were in a band called True Wheel, which developed into a covers band with a difference, with Phil Moxham doing a cracking rendition of “Sweet Jane” and Stuart as lead singer on the rest of the songs—with us providing backing vocals… Those were fun times with absolutely no stress or responsibilities, but even then we were a slightly out of the norm, as we weren’t doing classic rock ’n’ roll or rhythm and blues covers, as most of the live bands in Cardiff were doing at the time.
The punk scene wasn’t making any major marks on Cardiff by comparison to other cities. In 1978 it was a Labour Government with James Callaghan, a Cardiff politician, as Prime Minister. It was a time of high unemployment and widespread strikes by public-sector trade unions, who were protesting about the pay caps. This pretty much opened the door in 1979 to the conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, leading to a very grey and dark period in British history, which certainly managed to stir up the music scene.
When you listen to Colossal Youth today, does anything new strike you?
AS: Absolutely. Listening to Colossal Youth now I can hear it in a much more detached way and appreciate it more—including its imperfections, rather than cringing at them. In the natural world there is no such thing as flawless, predictable perfection, yet it’s that naturalness and lack of control that creates the album’s uniqueness and draws you in. Young Marble Giants created an atmospheric soundscape rather than a technical marvel, and like many extreme experiences you either loved it or hated it, but it didn’t leave room for indifference. When I hear a YMG track played on the radio, it never quite fits in with the tracks on either side of it, so you can’t help but notice it. When listening to music I want to there to be space around the sound in order to appreciate what’s there, whether it be simple, complex, rough or smooth. I want to hear an honest, human vulnerability coming through somewhere and a sense of its true nature.
The songs on Colossal Youth are almost like sketches or haikus which leaves space for the listener’s imagination, allowing them to make it a personal experience. It’s a very naked affair. We were all young and naive, and had enough daring and nerve to be different, as well as lack of technical skills to be anything else! If you want to get something across it’s often more effective when it’s said simply. Bells and whistles have their place when you want to celebrate and dance, but after a while I need breathing space in life and in music. Even in complicated busy rhythms, it’s the momentary suspension that gives life to the beats, like a heartbeat. We never totally experience silence, but the more space we can give to the sounds that are present, the more their qualities can be appreciated or understood. Just look at how art exhibitions are set up. Why should sound be treated differently.