“I grew up in the 80s, which I think it was an incredibly progressive time for music. I don’t hold with this nonsense that it was a bad time for music at all. There was a lot of extremely exciting stuff going on in underground rock and metal, with everyone from Slayer and Celtic Frost through to Sonic Youth, Big Black and Swans. Whenever any of them put a new record out it always seemed really exciting. But from that era my two favourites would be Voivod and Cardiacs.
Voivod got me quite early on, when Killing Technology came out in 1987. They were compositionally streets ahead of any other band in metal. A few years ago I decided I wanted to do a cover of Forgotten In Space on the harmonium, and I was really shocked how many chords and funny meters they used. When Nothingface came out in 1989 I couldn’t believe what they were pulling off. Even today it sounds like it’s been beamed back from the future or another planet. It’s a remarkable record.
Also in 1989, Cardiacs released On Land And In The Sea. I can’t pick a favourite Cardiacs record, but that’s certainly the one that had the biggest impact on me. It’s a total mind-blowing kaleidoscope of an album and it was the clarion call that made me realise that I needed to move to London and do something with my life. I was growing up in Plymouth and that album sounded nothing like Plymouth, so I thought, ‘Okay, so if these dudes are in London, that’s obviously the place I need to go to!’. It was the beginning of the path that eventually led to me joining the band, so it’s obviously an important one.
If Cardiacs aren’t progressive, then what is? It’s just the best of everything. It blew open my interest in music and sent me back to a lot of the 70s prog as well. I quite liked stuff like King Crimson and Yes and Gentle Giant, but it was records like Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, the Gong stuff, Magma and particularly Henry Cow that had an extraordinary effect on me and still do! It was the first album, Legend, that completely blew me away. It’s a jewel-encrusted labyrinth of a record that sounds like nothing else on Earth. I knew it was really dense music, and you hear people say how difficult Henry Cow’s music is, but if you like really complex music but done really beautifully in such a natural way, I can’t think of a better band.
Around that time I discovered Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby too. Being in your teens and discovering all this mental stuff, it totally rewires your DNA. I can’t imagine hearing Trout Mask Replica for the first time again, and it having any less of an effect than it had on me at the age of 17. It’s just like nothing on Earth and the mythology around it just makes it more intriguing. I just read that John French book [Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic] and the recording of Trout Mask… was clearly a catalogue of unending mental torture and misery, but I think it was worth it. It certainly makes for a fascinating read.
I love An Electric Storm by White Noise. It was an album made in 1969 by the guys from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, so it was more project than band, but it was weirdly overlooked. It’s one of the great British psychedelic albums, right up there with Sgt. Pepper, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and SF Sorrow, but it’s more far out than all of those. It’s full of pioneering electronica, really amazing psychedelic songwriting and strange sound effects, of course.
There are a few albums that people from the regular prog world may not be familiar with, but everyone should hear. One of them is Torture Garden by Naked City, which completely took the top of my head off. I still regard it as a pivotal record in my life. It’s where I discovered Fred Frith and people like that and it was my gateway to jazz too. Without Torture Garden we’d probably never have had Ruins, Mr. Bungle, Fantômas and all that high-speed, jazz colliding with extreme noise stuff.
Another one I must mention is Pony Express Record by Shudder To Think, which I think is one of the greatest rock records ever made. I was a big fan already but then that record came out and it was astonishing. It’s constantly changing time signature, there are any amount of strange chords, really advanced song structures and all this extraordinary playing and crashing atonality, and yet it’s still sexy and has this real swagger to it. I don’t think people were ready for it when it came out. They came from the so-called alternative rock scene and they were on a major label, for Christ’s sake! They had loads of money thrown at them and someone said, ‘Go and make a really posh sounding record!’ - and then they came out with that!
Doing a radio show with Steve Davis has been a revelation. He’s introduced me to so much stuff. It’s been a real two-way thing. I’ve recently turned him onto the Melvins, Sonic Youth and Talk Talk, but he’s really into modern music and he turned me onto a lot of stuff from this Altrock label from Italy. There’s an album called Rainbro by Inner Ear Brigade and it’s my favourite record of this year so far. It’s like a proggier version of Stereolab. In a way it would be amazing enough if Steve was just into Gentle Giant or something, but we’ll be in the studio and he’ll put on some deranged 12-minute explosion of dissonance and be jumping around, whistling along with it, and saying ‘This is amazing, isn’t it?’’. He really listens to music like a musician. He just gets it.”