Ultramarine – ‘Stella’

Paul Hammond talks us through Ultramarine’s 1990 folktronic classic, ‘Stella’

“Ian Cooper and I met when we were about 16. We lived in the same village in Essex and went to the same school. We were both in local bands. I had a band with my brother and two other lads, covering things that were easy to play.  I remember doing versions of ‘She’s Lost Control’ by Joy Division, ‘Truth’ by New Order, ‘Agent Orange’ by Ski Patrol and ‘Endless Soul’ by Josef K. It was a pretty good set in retrospect!

“We didn’t do any gigs – it was purely living room stuff. At some point, there was a combined jam session in a village hall, and A Primary Industry came out of that – with Jemma Mellerio on vocals and clarinet, Guy Waddilove on trumpet and percussion, and my brother Simon on drums. We were inspired by all the obvious post-punk and industrial stuff of that time.

“As API we played at WOMAD in 1985. New Order headlined that year, and A Certain Ratio were also on the bill – we were very excited by that. We did a couple of gigs in Spain supporting Portion Control, and a John Peel Roadshow with Nitzer Ebb. We supported Dif Juz and The Wolfgang Press, and also Throwing Muses at their first UK show at The Africa Centre in Covent Garden.

“Dif Juz were a very big influence on us, so it was a real thrill to meet them. The recording of the debut API album, ‘Ultramarine’, was done in a pretty traditional way, with most of the songs arranged before we took them into the studio. One or two tracks were created from scratch by heavily dubbing and reworking other songs using outboard gear, in particular a BEL BD80 digital delay, which had two seconds of sampling time and was our first encounter with a sampler.

“In 1988, I was working at Les Disques Du Crépuscule and living in Brussels, which led to the band doing our next album, ‘Folk’, with them. Everyone came over for a week, including Colin James our engineer. Colin was a founder member of Meat Beat Manifesto, and introduced us to the concept of the studio as an instrument. It was at this point that we changed our name to Ultramarine.

“When ‘Folk’ came out, it was more or less ignored and everyone went their separate ways. Ian and I continued though, and started work on the follow-up, ‘Every Man And Woman Is A Star’, initially for Crépuscule and then for London label, Brainiak. This was around 1990. With the rest of the band gone, we concentrated our efforts on the Akai S900, digging for samples and developing ideas.

“Ian and I did the original version of ‘Stella’ for a Crépuscule sub-label called Dancyclopaedia. We recorded it in Brussels and we worked on a remix with Eddy De Clercq, who we went to meet in Amsterdam. Eddy was DJing at RoXY and took us to a party he was doing for Boy George’s birthday there. Leigh Bowery, as I remember it, performed a sort of self-enema while hanging from the ceiling.

“A later version of ‘Stella’ came out on a Brainiak 12-inch. We were still working with Colin who was keeping us up-to-date with the technology.  I remember he had an 808 and a 303 or a Pro One, and that was definitely a eureka moment for us. The sampler itself became our main source of inspiration. The fresh concept of reusing audio snippets from other records opened up an infinite palette of new sounds and textures.

“We’d originally heard sampling on an album by The Young Gods a few years earlier, but it was records like De La Soul’s ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ and A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘People’s Instinctive Travels’ that really kick-started our imagination. We were into bleep stuff like Sweet Exorcist’s ‘Testone’ and more commercial artists like Soul II Soul.

“I remember that period around 1990 as being a really joyous time. Tracks like ‘Testone’ had a lineage in the early 80s post-punk and industrial that we’d grown up with. We were feeling really positive about life in general and were reflecting that in the studio. Discovering the new technology, reading i-D and The Face, hearing new music… all of it helped free us up and, in terms of our music, enabled us to make an imaginative step up.

“We came up with the basic tracks for ‘Every Man And Woman Is A Star’ over a few months. It all happened very quickly. The vocal on ‘Stella’ is the late dancer, musician, and therapist, Gabrielle Roth. It’s a recording taken from a TV interview, and was used unedited – it just snapped into the track like magic. Colin was involved with The Brain nightclub on London’s Wardour Street and their label, Brainiak, recording for them under the name The Diceman, so we met Sean McLusky and Tim Fielding through him.

“We went there quite regularly for a while. I associate Baby Ford, Sueño Latino and Sun Electric’s ‘O’Locco’ with The Brain. I’m not sure if I actually heard any of them there, but that’s definitely the vibe I recall. We played there live once, which would have been the first Ultramarine show. Another of our early live shows was at The Zap in Brighton, for Chris Coco and Helene Stokes’ Coco Club.

“We met a lot of people through doing gigs, including Autechre at the Megadog shows, others through Oscillate in Birmingham. We toured in the US with Orbital, and were on the Britronica trip to Moscow in 1994 with Aphex Twin, Bark Psychosis, Seefeel, Reload and quite a few others. I don’t think we were ever considered part of the IDM scene. I think our music has always been a bit too eclectic to fit into a definite genre. Our use of acoustic instruments, plus the band set-up for our live shows, always seemed to set  us apart. It’s not been a policy or a conscious thing, but we would probably have had an easier time over the years if we had been part of a scene.”

Ultramarine’s ‘Interiors’ 12-inch EP is released by Blackford Hill

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