Everyone has something that gets up their nose. It might be the oversaturated dunked biscuit breaking off into your tea, or stepping on the loose paving that shoots cold puddle water up your leg. Maybe it’s the person being very loud on their phone in the Quiet Carriage, or missing a parcel from the post office even though you’ve waited in all day. For all these Very British Problems and more, Bristol’s Schnauser have an album for that: Irritant.
Taking 18 months to complete and following their mildly meat-themed Protein For Everyone extravaganza of 2014, Irritant came together using Protein For Everyone leftovers and a heap of new stuff that accumulated as the band expanded from a quartet to a five-piece with a brassy new blast of musical inspo. These days frontman/guitarist Alan Strawbridge – initially the solo core of Schnauser, which he started in 2005 – bassist Holly McIntosh, drummer Jasper Williams and keyboard player Duncan Gammon are joined by sax ace Dino Christodoulou, a discovery from local jazz-cabaret duo Dromedary, whom Strawbridge stumbled across one night while out drinking. “I went for a walk, popped into a nearby venue and got drunk. I found this band playing really fast Middle Eastern stuff in 7⁄8. It was really great.”
Meanwhile, Gammon was already well aware of Christodoulou’s work. “Bristol is quite incestuous,” he laughs, “and Dino played with our friends in The Brackish. He’s got a real free jazz thing going on and we found that when he played with us he could tastefully fit in with the cacophony.”
“He was a breath of fresh air,” says Strawbridge. “It gave us a kick up the arse.”
Now Schnauser are giving things that get on our collective wicks a mild size nine up the backside too, just as they did on previous albums with songs such as Dinner Party (from 2013’s Where Business Meets Fashion) and the not-very-thinly-disguised Moron (from 2005 debut Kill All Humans). For Strawbridge – and for nearly half of the nation – two major things have gotten under his skin of late. “First, there’s Brexit. It’s an embarrassing and calamitous decision which will have a devastating impact on generations to come, culturally and economically,” he sighs. “And then there’s the UK housing crisis – that’s a massive bugbear for me as someone who’s missed the boat in buying somewhere and therefore am trapped into paying most of my earnings on inflated rent for the rest of my existence.”
These are big deals worthy of their own concept albums alone. But Irritant also has a poke at the public school toffs-in-charge (The Monday Club), the misselling of insurance (Have You Got PPI?), or just simply having a song stuck in your head (Chinese Brainworm). Schnauser fans might recognise instrumental Re-Mortgaging The Nest Of Hairs as a rework of Nest Of Hairs from 2005 which “We’ve been playing live for the last six years so we thought, ‘Let’s put it out as it sounds now,’” says Gammon, admitting the band’s current sound might also have been bolstered by his new-found love of synth pop. “I bought a Korg MS20 and went on a binge. Landscape, Heaven 17, Human League… I’d not paid much attention to them before.”
In the inner spread of Irritant you can see Gammon modelling the synth keytar-style in a line-up shot of the band that involves hospital gowns, kilts, too-short shorts and Strawbridge draped in an orange curtain. “We were aiming for [Roxy Music’s] For Your Pleasure,” he remarks. “I think it sums us up!”
Another instrumental, A New Atmosphere sews together individual jams with lyrics by Williams based on a mad journey through the city and the concept of The Bristol Hum – “No one can explain it,” says Gammon. “It’s supposed to be the ocean bed vibrating beneath us, but not everyone is tuned in. I am, though, late at night…”
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The opening track, however – a German disco gameshow theme called Spiele Mit Katzen – has perhaps the best basis for a song that Prog’s heard this year.
“It’s about staying in an Airbnb in Berlin,” says Strawbridge. “It was a room in a shared house with four goth lesbians who seemed perfectly friendly to begin with. One day we got back to find loads of notes everywhere: ‘Please do not do this,’ ‘Please do not move boxes in the hallway,’ ‘Please put the toilet seat down because the cats might fall in.’
“It became weirdly passive aggressive, ending in a note being sent to the person who owned the room we were staying in, saying they were being evicted because we’d been playing games with the cats [laughs]. It was all fabricated to get them thrown out of the house.
“That’s what a lot of my works are based on,” Strawbridge admits. “‘Shall I have a go at this person through song?’”
It’s a tactic that’s worked for The Kinks, Caravan and XTC, three divine inspirations for the band who, with their ebullient mix of wry observation, popsike hooks and Canterbury scene jazz progginess could be interpreted by general music fans as an irritant themselves. “The title does play on us being a bit of a Marmite band,” Gammon confesses to Prog. “We don’t particularly set out to write things in 9⁄8, but we do have quite short attention spans so while we’re doing stuff for the love of it why not make the music the most fun to play? It also puts a smile on the face of the audience.”
Another person with a smile on their face is co-producer Gaz ‘Goldstar’ Williams. As day jobs encroach on creative time – McIntosh works in admin, Christodoulou is a legal sec, Williams is a reception temp, Strawbridge recently opened a café, Salt, in Bristol town centre – Gammon and his old friend Williams took on the production task. Williams is a larger-than-life Welsh polymath, the bassist in Charlotte Church’s covers band crew Late Night Pop Dungeon (“You should hear their cover of 21st Century Schizoid Man!” says Gammon), with connections to Brian Eno and Underworld’s Karl Hyde. He also has “an Aladdin’s cave of crazy equipment, old synths and drum machines”, Gammon chuckles. “We recorded the tracks in two days, then we spent a good six months on the production, no deadline or pressure. Gaz’s input on this record is equal to all of us, he really shaped it.”
“By the end, though,” says Strawbridge, who for years helmed the whole Schnauser shebang until Salt became his focus, “I stepped in to mix it as those two had lost the plot after hearing it 500 times.”
Irritant is the most collaborative album that the band have worked on to date and the synergy in it just sizzles. For us, the biggest irritant is that Schnauser aren’t bigger. Give ’em a go – let this grate on yer ears today.
Irritant is out now via Bad Elephant. See www.schnauser.co.uk for more information.