“Something transcendent”: An Interview with Stephen Lawrie of The Telescopes

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In the mid-to-late 1980s, Stephen Lawrie and his band The Telescopes, along with The Jesus and Mary Chain, Loop, and Spacemen 3, were at the vanguard of a new sound, which emphasized feedback-drenched guitars and melodic vocal melodies. Their songs “Kick the Wall,” “7th # Disaster,” “The Perfect Needle,” and debut LP, Taste, helped galvanize the nascent “shoegaze movement.” And bands like My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Slowdive, and Ride—just to name a few—are unimaginable without Lawrie and his fellow Telescopes.

The Telescopes went on to release their classic self-titled LP on Creation Records in 1992—and, in the process, Lawrie reinvented himself as a master of song craft and a musician whose creative restlessness wouldn’t allow him to settle on a single style. The Telescopes, in addition to soaring electric guitars, included acoustic guitars, pianos, delicate percussion, lush strings, and introspective and moody lyrics.

When The Telescopes returned in 2002 with Third Wave, Lawrie was as creative as ever, again changing up his sound, this time to include electronics and loops. And, a couple albums later, he was at it again. The two-track album HARM was a drone masterpiece, filled with epic noise pieces. It was one of the best albums of 2013.

Now, The Telescopes are back with a Fuzz Club Records single, a cover of The Stooges’ classic, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which Lawrie and his fellow musicians play in their inimitable way.

SEM was pleased to catch up with Lawrie on the release of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and discuss all things Telescopes with him.

SEM: Thank you for talking to us today, Stephen. From your point of view, how have shoegaze and noise rock evolved since The Telescopes got their start in the late 1980s?

SL: Well, shoegaze wasn’t a genre back then; it was mostly perceived to be an insult. But that aside, I think both have found a way of existing and moving forwards outside of the mainstream. I think a lot of space-rock music has pushed the whole shoegaze ethos further musically—bands like Flying Saucer Attack, Füxa, and a few of the Rocket Girl bands.

SEM: Bands like Ride, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Loop, and The Telescopes are more popular now than when they got their start in the late 1980s and early 1990s. How do you account for the resurgence?

SL: The internet. The music. The internet de centralized the strangle hold the music press and ‘industry’ used to have over everything. Whole scenes emerge without any help from either of them these days. Good music has more opportunities to find its way out there. People are more able to share their likes and build communities.

 

SEM: What are some of the newer shoegaze and noise rock bands that interest you and possibly hear The Telescopes in?

SL: I hear The Telescopes in some of the older shoegaze and noise rock bands as well. I’m not naming names because people may think I’m accusing them of plagiarism, which is not the case; it’s as perennial as the grass. Everything and nothing influences all artists.

I’m enjoying Body/Head, The Dead C, Ramleh, Rohame, METZ, Jazzfinger, Consumer Electronics, and Flavor Crystals at the moment. I’m not sure what genres they all belong to, and I doubt The Telescopes influence any of them, but I’m sure we share a few records in our collections.

SEM: What was it like to be on Creation Records?

SL: That’s a big question. I’m tempted to use that old chestnut people say about the 60s, ‘If you remember them you weren’t really there.’ Except, I’m not sure if I was really there. It was quite a trip. Alan [McGee] was also our manager for a while. Total conflict of interest. They were like us in a way, making it up as they went along, just finding how to make things happen. Working hard and playing hard. Something always has to give in that situation.

For The Telescopes, I feel that led to greater things. Eventually. I’m not a fan of much that followed on after our time on the label, but I’m really happy for the success they received. They truly deserved it. Total music fans. Who else would release some of the more groundbreaking things they put out? And actually try to make them successful on a commercial level?

SEM: Your self-titled 1992 release is one of my favorite records of all-time and one of the standout records from the heyday of shoegaze. Why, in your opinion, does t sound fresh and timeless in 2015?

SL: Maybe because it wasn’t stylized? We didn’t go for the big snare sound that was common back then, or anything else that would date things. The arrangements were built around sounds and song structures. I guess a lot of music I listen to is timeless. Talk Talk were a big influence on Guy Fixsen during the sessions. Guy produced the album. He started every morning with a Talk Talk record.

 

SEM: Tell us about the origin of The Telescopes’ lineup.

SL: The Telescopes started out as a one-piece band. It was just me. Then Dave [Fitzgerald] and Jo [Doran] joined, with Dave on bass and Jo on guitar. I played a drum and sang. Then Dave switched to guitar, Jo switched to tambourine, and we went through a whole load of bassists and drummers. Dominic [Dillon] and Rob [Brookes] joined just before we put out our first flexi with the Sowing Seeds fanzine. And Jo picked up the guitar again. But they were just the core members of the live setup. Which, with the exception of Jo, lasted until the second album. (Jo left the group during the recording of the Black Eyed Dog EP). I’ve always played a lot of the instruments on the records, and the producers on everything up until then also contributed musically. Guy played most of the piano on the second album. And Richard Formby, who produced a lot of our records, played a variety of instruments.

SEM: Since the dissolution of the five-piece lineup, how do you select people to make music with?

SL: It’s different every time. Sometimes, we gravitate towards each other. Or people I’m already playing with recommend people, if they can’t make it for some reason or other.

SEM: You always explore new sounds on your records. How much do the musicians you select determine the nature of the material for a particular album?

SL: Well, it doesn’t matter how arranged or written a piece is, if someone plays on it, even if they are following instructions, they will color it in their own way. Some contributors have had a free reign to do what they want, usually because I feel some kind of psychic connection with them musically. And they really get what we’re working on. Others have played parts I have written for them. It works in so many ways. It’s completely different for each person. And it changes all the time. The most important thing is to find the crack in the cosmic egg. The flash of inspiration, eureka moments.

SEM: What led to what I hear as the heightened interested in combining electronics and noise when you began releasing music again as The Telescopes in 2002?

SL: During my eight-year abstinence from The Telescopes, I got involved with sound engineering and a lot of people making break beat music from their bedrooms. It struck me how empowering it was to be self-contained and not have to find a budget to go into a studio. You could do it all from home. There’s a lot to be said for getting a band rehearsed and working against the clock, in terms of urgency especially. But if you want to experiment it gets costly. So, for the third album [Third Wave], I experimented at home but recorded louder things and mixed everything in a studio.

 

SEM: HARM, in my opinion, is one of the most adventurous, courageous, and rewarding records you’ve done. Were the two tracks done in single takes? What was the compositional process?

SL: “held” came from trying to play our drone version of “Black Eyed Dog” live with a full band. It became something else. So I started thinking about developing a new mantra for the vocals. I was playing with LSD and the search for God and as The Telescopes, we did a few shows on the West Coast before we hit the studio in L.A. So they were already playing “Black Eyed Dog” live.

When we got to the studio, I explained the new shape that the change of vocals would bring and we had a run through. Drew Fischer was engineering the session. He recorded the run through, and it sounded great. We tried another version, but it wasn’t as good.

With “torn,” I instructed everyone to play around the idea of the riff to “Suicide” from our first LP, without actually playing the riff. Unless you fkk it up in some way. I showed Sonya, the drummer, a beat. Then I came up with a different vocal idea and off we went. Again, the first take was best. We tried another, but it just didn’t have it.

 

SEM: What did you like best about working in long form?

SL: You get to work a whole range of things out of your system and tune into something transcendent in one uninterrupted flow.

SEM: What’s the best way to listen to this music?

SL: Freely.

SEM: Your cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is the most powerful and dynamic version I’ve ever heard. In your opinion, how does your noise rock approach draw from the lyrics?

SL: In every way.

SEM: Does this return to recording shorter songs than the ones on HARM signify the next step for The Telescopes?

SL: The next album has more songs on it.

SEM: What’s going on with The Telescopes now?

SL: We’re getting ready to release a new album in august on Tapete Records.

SEM: Thank you for your time.

Featured image by Dave Rusty Gryphon