Schnauser may lurch manically from style to style, and their music may be doused in dark humour, but they’re no comedy rock troupe. They’re serious. In fact, they’re a matter of life and death. “My dad had died, my best friend had cancer and there was a lot of shit going down,” recalls Schnauser’s singer, guitarist and co-songwriter Alan Strawbridge, of the moment in 2005 that he decided to form the “band”.
At that point, they were a solo project, with himself in charge of instruments and music, all put together with a particularly diseased worldview, as expressed on his debut album Kill All Humans, with titles such as Hail To The Corpse, There’s A Fist and Moron. “It sounds melodramatic, but there was a lot of vitriol pouring out of me because life didn’t seem very fair,” Strawbridge explains.
The unfairness of life is manifest on Schnauser’s albums: Kill All Humans, The Sound Of Meat (2010), The Missing Link (2011), Where Business Meets Fashion (2013) and the latest, Protein For Everyone. But that doesn’t mean they make for dour listening. Far from it: the Bristol outfit, now a four-piece – Strawbridge’s contributions are enhanced by Duncan Gammon on keyboards and vocals, Holly McIntosh on bass and vocals (who was unavailable for the photoshoot) and Jasper Williams on drums – manage to compress as much exuberance into their songs as possible, even if they bring lashings of malice to the party.
Like their favourite art-pop/prog-pop acts past and present – from Stackridge and Frank Zappa to 10cc and Todd Rundgren through to XTC and The Cardiacs and onto Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – Schnauser combine mischief with melody, anger with angularity. It makes for a particularly potent pairing.
Strawbridge had been doing “similar stuff” with his previous band The Lucky Bishops, who were on The Bevis Frond’s label. They had played New York’s legendary CBGB’s and various festivals around the world before “petering out”. Then his father died, his best mate got ill, and before he knew it he’d exorcised a lot of his demons via fun-time ditties such as Moron.
“Oh, that was just me being silly,” deadpans Strawbridge. He remembers his early Schnauser gigging days with McIntosh, his then-girlfriend, and Marco from The Lucky Bishops. “I was living in Weymouth, where it was impossible to find any culture. People would shout out, ‘Play something we know!’ They were very small-minded. Moron was a reaction against that.”
There’s A Fist comes from a similarly toxic place…
“We did a gig at a wedding, and it was all really pleasant, until we got ready to leave,” Strawbridge recounts. “Suddenly, these shaven-headed blokes – inbred country weirdos – surrounded us and said, ‘No, you’re going to carry on playing.’ They basically held us to ransom. Once we started up again, as a jape they kept pulling the plug out on us. It was incredibly scary but slightly abstract, so I thought I’d better put it in a song.”
Think Straw Dogs as soundtracked by Andy Partridge for some idea of its malevolent invention. By The Sound Of Meat, Strawbridge and McIntosh – daughter of Robbie McIntosh, sideman for Paul McCartney, The Pretenders, Talk Talk and Tears For Fears – had moved to Bristol and, relatively speaking, gotten happy.
“The first album was a reaction to the dead-end nature of a seaside town but by the time we’d got to Bristol it was a much more positive experience,” he says.
To repeat: relatively speaking. Titles on The Sound Of Meat included Twins Of Evil, Nobody Loves Me, I Couldn’t Fuck A Gorilla and I Wuv You, Mommy. Then Strawbridge took a turn for the more miserable when his other half wound up in Cambridge and his flatmate was “shagging a woman up in London”. Isolated and depressed, he came up with the material for The Missing Link.
“That’s probably the weirdest thing we’ve put out as Schnauser,” he admits of tracks such as Dark Is My Mind, about his former boss, an alcoholic who was, he says, “committing suicide, only very slowly”. He recalls of the …Missing Link period: “There was a bit of mental disintegration going on.
I was feeling forlorn and missing Holly, stuck on my own in this farmhouse, going slightly deranged with these dark thoughts. I’m basically quite a cynical person.” He adds: “Not that I’m wallowing in it.”
If anyone helped animate Strawbridge and focus his more miserablist tendencies, it’s Duncan Gammon. In 2009, the latter issued Lord Gammonshire’s Guide To Everyday Sounds, a similar mix to Schnauser of the bitter and baroque, with takes on the stupidity of humankind set to eclectic, fast-morphing pop. Gammon couldn’t believe his ears when he caught Schnauser live, supporting Euros Childs of Gorky’s – “There were no other bands in Bristol who sounded like Supertramp and 10cc,” he says – and before he knew it, he was in.
“I’m quite cynical but I like to see the funny side of things,” decides Gammon, who discovered Egg, Barclay James Harvest, Hatfield And The North and all his other favourite groups via a tatty copy of the NME Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Rock that he acquired as a teen from a car boot sale. “Occasionally I’m disappointed but I don’t like to mope so I make some black humour out of it.”
The first album they worked on together was Where Business Meets Fashion, their shiniest demolition yet of middle-class mores and working-class morons. “That was a democratic effort,” says Strawbridge. It took two years to conceive and involved hours and hours of meticulous studio craft.
“By the time we’d finished I’d probably played it 300 times,” he laughs. “I really didn’t want to let it go. I got a bit control-freaky about it.”
As a result, Schnauser went for a more spontaneous feel with Protein For Everyone. Their fifth album contains fewer overdubs and more of what you get when you see the band live. It climaxes with the multi-part, 17-minute Disposable Outcomes, complete with 11⁄8 wig-out coda, and a section about going to the shops to buy tomatoes based on the riff to Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants To Rule The World. It’s an epic way to follow up their 2014 double-A-side 7-inch single on which Schnauser covered Soft Machine’s As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still and Yes’ Astral Traveller.
“It’s got lots of ideas crowbarred together,” explains Gammon of Disposable Outcomes. “We wanted to do something like side two of Abbey Road or Nine Feet Underground by Caravan. Or like Soft Machine’s Volume Two, where one side of the record features all these little pop nuggets. Lyrically, too, it’s a mishmash of different ideas.”
Strawbridge feels the new album is “more philosophical and less moany”. Nevertheless, Schnauser’s trademark acerbic humour – school of Chris Morris meets Godley & Creme – is still firmly in place. With its Hipgnosis-style cover featuring the band members literally as meatheads, Protein For Everyone is a loose concept about a dystopian future-world,
à la ’70s sci-fi movie Soylent Green, where humans are forced to sell their body parts for cash. Elsewhere on the album there are musings on the English temperament (Grey Or Blue), our obsession with social media (National Grid), society’s treatment of women filtered through a song about wasps (The Reason They’re Alive), relationship breakdowns (Split), and the sadness of Christmas (Buon Natale).
It’s weird to think that Schnauser hold down actual full-time jobs: Strawbridge, 42 years old, is employed by a charity organising bike rides and Gammon (36) is a footpath ranger for the southwest coast, while McIntosh (28) worked until recently for a local arts centre (Jasper Williams, also 42, is unemployed).
Then again, with attendances at their gigs going up and each of their albums selling successively more, soon they might be able to commit to Schnauser full-time. They’re certainly proving popular across Europe.
“We spent a week touring Italy earlier this year,” remembers Gammon, “and we got a really good reception. Our type of pop-prog is probably more popular over there, and with a younger audience. We’d turn up at our gigs at midnight and there would be hundreds of people in their twenties there. Then we’d go into record shops and instead of Justin Bieber it would be all PFM records and Gentle Giant! We’d be, like, ‘Hang on, what’s going on here?’”
Finally, how would they explain Schnauser to an alien?
“We’re a band that writes about things that other bands don’t,” offers Gammon. “We write about the mundane neuroses of life and wrap them up in as many silly, complex arrangements as we can – for fun, not to show off. We’ve got low attention spans and we get bored easily, which is why we lurch from one style to the next.”
“It’s a cynically witty look at modern life,” suggests Strawbridge. “Life can be depressing, but you can have a laugh at the same time. It’s perverse facetiousness.”
If anxiety is their motor, should we be worried that the band might become too content?
“Well, I had a bit of turmoil this year,” says Strawbridge, who recently broke up with McIntosh – she has only just rejoined the band after a period away. You can see his sardonic smile a mile away. “I think I’ve done enough to keep happiness at bay.”
_Protein For Everyone is out September 29 on Esoteric. See www.schnauser.co.uk for more information. _
Schnauser’s prog-pop playlists! The trio pick their prog-pop top fives.
Jasper Williams Moby Grape: Wow/Grape Jam (1968) Yes: The Yes Album (1971) Utopia: Ra (1977) Spirit: Future Games (1977) Simple Minds: New Gold Dream (1982)
Duncan Gammon Soft Machine: Volume Two (1969) Stackridge: Friendliness (1972) 10cc: How Dare You (1976) Cardiacs: A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window (1988) Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci: Barafundle (1997)
Alan Strawbridge The Kinks: The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968) Todd Rundgren: A Wizard, A True Star (1973) 10cc: Sheet Music (1974) XTC: Skylarking (1986) The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (1999)