In 1997 the UK music press was busy trying to create a new genre to fill the hole being left by a dwindling interest in Britpop and a saturation of the market with a plethora of also-ran indie copycats. The uninspiring term Britrock was coined which sought to group together lots of completely unrelated bands into a neat little bubble. Bands such as 3 Colours Red, A, Placebo, Skunk Anansie, Feeder, Silver Sun, China Drum, Bush were suddenly all one scene according to Kerrang, N.M.E et al. Bands that were too noisy to be indie but not quite loud enough to be metal or punk. I admit I was into quite a lot of these bands at the time, particularly 3 Colours Red and A who appealed to my melodic sensibilities. There was also a band called Symposium who I became a bit obsessed with although I cringe at how dated they sound now. They were my age, the drummer lived round the corner from my Auntie and Uncle in London and they were becoming the talk of the music magazines for their refreshingly energetic and chaotic live shows. Looking back, although they did live up to this live reputation, their songs were pretty basic ditties of teenage angst wrapped up in a punky pop parcel. They endeared themselves to me in many ways, one of which was being an example of the possibilities of 19 year old kids like me being able to actually do it. i.e being in a band as a job, making records and touring the country. They were really my first inspiration of songwriting and emulation as ridiculous as that seems now.
Which brings me to January 1997 and the formation of my first actual band.
During a night out at our local rock disco during the Christmas holidays of 1st year university, myself and 4 friends decided we would give it a go. I would play rhythm guitar and my Toilet Duck compadre Stuart would play drums. Our friend Dan could play guitar and although he was into some music I found extremely questionable he could play some lead so he was in. Keith couldn’t play anything so we decided he could be bassist and we would teach him to play root notes a la Sid Vicious. A fifth member, Paul was added on totally unnecessary 3rd guitar simply because he was our mate and although he already played drums in another band he wanted an outlet for his guitar playing. We horrendously named the band Subliminal Hatred. This name was thought up by Keith based on the fact that the previous Summer he had inserted hidden messages/threats into his university application form to do with accepting him onto courses. For months we were a band in name only. We didn’t even all have our own instruments.
In April Dan found an application form to apply for a grant from the National Lottery Arts Council. They had decided bands qualified as worthy of funding if you met the criteria in your application. We applied, thinking that a bit of help might enable us to get a bit of equipment or (with ideas massively above our abilities) fund some recording time for a demo. We filled in the form, sent it off and everyone went back to university.
In the summer we decided we better actually start writing some songs. I had bashed together a chord progression that would be our first song “Interplanetary”. Dan had been recording his own songs on a little 4 track recorder in his bedroom and decided that 2 of them would be our songs too. The only trouble was, we had nowhere to practice as a band, I didn’t have an amp as my little fender practice amp had died, Keith had nothing and Stuart had no drum kit. My grandma’s brother donated his shell of a drum kit from the 1950’s, I plugged my guitar into a karaoke machine. Paul acquired a keyboard amp from a family member for his guitar and Keith bought the cheapest beginner bass and amp combo from Argos he could find and we all went to his garage to practice. The only other drawback was that my great uncle’s drum kit had no snare drum or cymbals. Stuart’s solution was to use an upturned Quality street tin for the snare and the lid for a cymbal, which was suspended from the ceiling of the garage on a string!
We somehow managed to cobble together 4 songs that Summer with the aim that we would play our first gig in September at the annual Rock Open, a Battle of the Bands which was usually pretty well attended and more importantly all amps and drum kit was provided for everyone.
In July 1997 we heard back from the National Lottery Arts Council who told us that our application was successful and we had been awarded £1679! We were amazed and decided we would use it for recording a demo and CD production. This news began a series of appearances in our local press with a constant tag of “lotto dosh winners” assigned to us whenever we were mentioned. This got old fast. Particularly as this put extra pressure on us to be good. Which we were not. Keith and Dan were like a 2 man hype machine, being as vocal to anyone in earshot how good we were despite only having 4 songs.
September 19th came around eventually. The night of our first ever performance. To say I was nervous is an understatement so vast, it would struggle to squeeze into the grand canyon and frankly would have have embarrassed anyone who used that word to describe me on that particular night. It suddenly became very apparent to me that I had to sing in front of people other than my 4 mates. And doing it in front of them was bad enough. We went to a pub across the road from the gig venue to try to calm our nerves before our set. Our 5th member Paul was already calm as he had been told he could not perform as they could only provide us with 2 guitar amps. I proceeded to calm my nerves a little too much and got completely drunk. Not too drunk to walk or talk but certainly too drunk to sing in tune or play guitar properly. We played our 3 songs. We did not progress from the heat into the semi-finals.
Whilst on stage I realised just how different playing a live gig is to practicing. Playing in gig conditions, through a PA, with monitors is the strangest thing when you first start doing it. At practice you just keep turning something up until everyone can hear it, the conditions are relaxed and you can move stuff around. On stage, playing a gig it’s like you are wrapped in a cocoon of sound that you don’t really have any control over. Some things are louder than others because what the audience hear is being controlled by what the sound engineer puts through the PA in what volume. I had no concept of monitors and having to be able to hear vocals coming back at you through them. It just felt like I was singing into cotton wool instead of a microphone. I also didn’t realise how impossible it is to pitch your voice if you can’t hear it. It was a massively gradual learning curve and something which in all honesty I never fully got to grips with even after years of playing in bands.
We did 2 more gigs that year. One the day after the Rock open at Keith’s friends birthday party supporting a covers band, and one in December at a charity gig with other local bands.
The album I’ve picked for this year which I’ve not even mentioned yet, I didn’t hear until the following year. I became aware of Incubus via the song “New Skin” which was a released as a single in 1998. At first I thought it was Faith No More but then realised it wasn’t, once the turntable scratchy breakdown started. 1996/1997 saw bands of the burgeoning nu-metal scene releasing albums and although I was aware of them, I was not interested. I just didn’t think I was a metal guy. Hearing Incubus though made me think they were worth checking out. They didn’t sound like bludgeoning metal and sounded like they might have some good tunes. They weren’t as brash or as inwardly nihilistic as a lot of the bands they were lumped in with and seemed almost hippyish in their aesthetic, but with distorted guitars and a bit of an overkeen turntablist.
S.C.I.E.N.C.E has dated a bit now in the 20 years since it’s release but not half as badly as most of the glut of nu-metal released around the same time. And most of it’s datedness is due the ever present scratchy twiddling of DJ Gavin Koppell. It would be his only album with the band and his successor Chris Kilmore seemed a lot more tasteful and to know when less is more. I can listen to the album to this day and still appreciate it even though is does remind me of the subsequent flooding of the airwaves with a lot of very bad music. It wouldn’t have been authentic of me to pick a different album for 1997 though as this was definitely in my top ten favourite albums for a long time after it’s release.
There are lots of great songs on it that rise above the genre. Singles “New Skin” and “A Certain Shade of Green” were rock disco staples and songs like “Redefine” and “Nebula” show just how good the musicianship in the band is. Particularly the rhythm section which has a lot of funk influence. Brandon Boyd’s singing style is clearly influenced by Mike Patton but his melodies show a strong pop sensibility on a lot of the tracks.
I didn’t escape the nu-metal scene completely. I have to admit that I did buy one album. Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other”. It had a very short run on my stereo before I realised that I could not get on board with all the frat boy posturing and whining.
2 years after “S.C.I.E.N.C.E” was released Incubus followed it up with “Make Yourself” which was a much more widely successful album and seeking to distance themselves from the scene which they felt they had no musical affiliation with, the songs on that album had taken on a different sound, with a general calming down taking place. Not all of their fanbase was accepting of this and the band they became, but it was probably necessary as the members grew older and became interested in other sounds.
Here then is my song pick for the life playlist. It’s “New Skin” the first song I heard by the band and still got a belting chorus.