Life Without Buildings Oral History | Wondering Sound
Life Without Buildings

Oral History: Life Without Buildings’ Any Other City

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

Contributor
on 04.18.14 in Features
@douglaswolk

The Glasgow band Life Without Buildings existed for only a couple of years, and made only one studio album, 2001′s Any Other City (which is being reissued on vinyl by the New York label What’s Your Rupture? in the US and by Rough Trade in the UK for this year’s Record Store Day). It’s an extraordinary record: fluid, mysterious post-punk that showcases the voice of sui generis frontwoman Sue Tompkins, who speaks and sings as if she’s turning over every word and phrase in her mouth, exploring it from a multitude of angles, breaking it down into its phonemes and then leaping to the next thought. Tompkins and the other members of the band — guitarist Robert Johnston (now Robert Dallas Gray), bassist Chris Evans and drummer Will Bradley — came together through the Glasgow art scene, and they were very clearly inspired by that world’s openness to uncertainty and eccentricity. I interviewed the four of them separately about their memories of the group and the album.

Robert Dallas Gray: Chris and Will and I were more or less friends before we started playing together. I’d known Will quite a long time by that point, and we were all very involved in the art scene in Glasgow.

Just from hanging out at openings and things, it turned out that Chris and Will and I were similarly enthusiastic about music. Will had been in bands and I’d been playing on my own since my teens, so we talked a lot about getting something going and eventually did. We asked Chris if he could play bass and he lied and said that he could.

Chris Evans: I was at art school in Barcelona, not Glasgow like the others. I heard about the art and music scene in the city and moved there. Playing music with Will and Robert came about through late-night conversations over cigarettes and liquor. I think I might have exaggerated my skills at playing bass. I’d not played since rehearsing in a converted pigsty with friends after school.

Will Bradley: I started out playing AC/DC covers in working-men’s clubs in South Wales when I was a teenager, but by the end of the ’80s, I was in Nottingham and making pretty decent music with, among others, Glen Johnson (who went on to found Piano Magic). When I arrived in Glasgow, I found a very welcoming scene.

‘‘I remember sitting in one room of the flat, literally on the bed in Rob’s bedroom, as we were recording, listening to Sue singing ‘The Leanover’ next door, and slowly realizing, for the first time, this is more than we ever guessed at — it’s something marvelous.’’

It’s a Glasgow cliché to big-up the Pastels and tie them in to everything that happens in the music scene, but I have to admit that, even though we never played together and have fairly divergent sonic interests, [Pastels members] Stephen, Kathrine and Annabel did a lot to make me feel welcome; Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub, too. I played with a great punk band called the Space Kittens for a while, and I was also part of a guitar-bass-drums three-piece with Stuart Murdoch, later of Belle & Sebastian. I left both those, for better or for worse, because I thought I was still young and had some other, abstract idea of what the music I wanted to make should sound like. My Bloody Valentine convinced me of the power of noise and feedback, and I loved the Go-Betweens, but I was never really an indie kid. I was still hung up on my past — the Mod music, soul and funk and ska, and a childhood obsession with electronics.

Sue Tompkins: My twin sister Hayley’s an artist. We’re really close, and we both came up to Glasgow at the same time. I made artwork in a collaboration called Elizabeth Go with my sister [and the artists] Cathy Wilkes, Victoria Morton and Sarah Tripp; it was something we all did alongside our own practices. It’s indicative of what the Glasgow art scene was like, and is still like: Lots of people work together, and music overlaps art. Everybody went out to these openings and parties, and everybody knew everybody else, and everybody had gone out with everybody else.

Gray: At that time there were a lot of “art bands” coming out, things like Angela Bulloch’s Big Bottom, and we were adamantly not part of that. We really didn’t see the music as having anything to do with our involvement in art at all, although in retrospect of course it did.

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Bradley: As I remember it, Chris, Robert and I were at a party, and I said in some abstract way that I wanted to form a new band that could escape from the indie-rock parameters of the scene and try something else. Rob and Chris immediately decided that I meant to include them and signed up on the spot. We first convened as guitar-bass-drums to no result, and then decided to try working techno-style, the three of us ’round a computer. But nothing clicked till we threw all that away and started again.

Gray: The pre-Sue stuff, from what I can remember, was very much Boys’ Music. Sounded a bit like Kriedler or something like that. Neo-Krautrock. We had an idea of trying to build electronics into a live sound, like a lot of those [early Krautrock] groups were doing.

Tompkins: Elizabeth Go was the first time I can remember doing what I do now. My job in one of our performances, at Transmission Gallery, was to stand up, hold a microphone and just read out what I’d written. Robert was on the board of Transmission, so he was really active and put on a lot of exhibitions, but I also knew he had a strong interest in music. I remember getting a phone call — [the boys] said to me something like, “We’ve got a gig in about two weeks in London, will you do something?” Very vague, which was very good for me. If they’d said, “Can you sing on this song, and it’s called this,” I’d have probably freaked out.

‘‘I still remember waiting with, as they say, bated breath when Sue put the first vocal track down. When the track finished [the producer] sat for a minute and then said, ‘That was amazing.”’

Bradley: Sue was a friend of mine long before we started the band, and I knew something of what she was capable of. But, as I remember it, the Elizabeth Go performance at Transmission Gallery — which was in itself a great thing — was the moment at which it became possible to see that Sue had a certain ability. We — Rob, Chris and me — turned to each other and said, “OK, this is something.”

Tompkins: They would just start playing, and then I’d watch that process for a bit — I find that, still, quite amazing, how the instruments go together. I write a lot, and so I’d take a couple of hundred sheets of paper with things I’d written and typed on them, and listen and listen, and sit on the floor and read through some words, singing along with it in my head. And then I’d just stand up and try it. As far as I could see, they were very accepting. I could have said anything, and they’d have gone “That’s great, Sue!” But they were very quiet, as well. I took them not saying anything as a good sign, although from anybody else I’d take non-communication as the biggest downer ever.

Bradley: As I remember it, we played our first show with three songs; I could well be wrong. It was in London, supporting Piano Magic. One of the songs was called “Athlete at Rest,” at least to us. Another had Sue singing repeatedly “A boy, a boy, I’m living with a boy,” and I have a hazy rehearsal tape to prove it. It’s possible that the third was some proto version of “New Town.”

Evans: I do remember that we had three songs for the first gig with Sue, down in London, and the last one was “New Town,” which was a killer for me to play.

Gray: For our first 20 or so shows, I had stage fright to the point that I couldn’t remember what had happened immediately after coming off stage, so I’m not really a reliable witness. I have very vague memories of our first gig. My main memory is seeing people in the audience looking totally confused. Apparently it caused some kind of stir, almost certainly to do with Sue.

Bradley: To my mind there really was a moment when the LWB sound clicked. After that first London gig, Rough Trade/Tugboat didn’t just ask us straight out to make a record — though we’d love for history to say that was true. They asked us to send them a demo, and we home-recorded “The Leanover.” The recording was done at Robert’s flat, with super-basic borrowed equipment, but the most important thing was that, for the first time, we actually got to hear what Sue was singing. I remember sitting in one room of the flat, literally on the bed in Rob’s bedroom, as we were recording, listening to Sue singing “The Leanover” next door, and slowly realizing, for the first time, this is more than we ever guessed at — it’s something marvelous.

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Tompkins: We recorded it with me sitting down, like I was writing a letter. It was really funny to see the three of them all squodged up together. And luckily they didn’t mind what I did — if they’d turned around and gone, “Oh, that’s not what we were thinking…” I do remember that being a turning point, where they got it. It’s a nice memory.

Gray: I recall we all just looked at each other and grinned huge grins. I don’t think we’d ever really heard her properly, because of the crap vocal PAs we were rehearsing with. I remember thinking, “That’s it, that’s what I imagined it could be.” It sounded like something new.

[Glen Johnson] wrote back saying he’d left it with [Rough Trade head] Geoff Travis, who put a note on it saying, “I love this!” So they offered to put out a single. This was a pretty important turning point for us, because it led to us meeting [producer] Andy Miller. We booked what was Chem 19 Studios at the time [Chemikal Underground's studio] and Andy was the house engineer. We were kind of terrified of recording in a studio, because we thought a typical engineer wouldn’t understand what Sue was doing and would make life difficult for us. We were late to the studio on the first day, and Andy apparently was about to give up and leave when we came in. There was just an immediate rapport when we met. It was really obvious that we shared a sense of humor and an outlook on life, but I still remember waiting with, as they say, bated breath when Sue put the first vocal track down. When the track finished, Andy sat for a minute and then said, “That was amazing.”

‘‘Sometimes, I think, ‘If we had stayed together, what would the second album have been like?’ If I think about how good that process was, it feels like a loss. I will very occasionally put on one of our songs, and I still can’t quite get a hold of it.’’

Tompkins: He’s just the nicest — he made it really normal. I’d never been in that environment before — being in a soundbooth, in a black box — and it was fun!

Bradley: Though there is no production credit on the record, in effect we produced it together with him; he enabled us to get closer to what we wanted and do more with what we had than we had thought possible. He had endless patience and endless good ideas; he combined the role of brilliant engineer with that of light-touch producer and super-musical human consultant.

Gray: Andy was always very keen on capturing the best moments of Sue’s vocals, which of course makes the heart of the record. A lot of the vocal patterns in the songs were effectively set down in editing vocal takes for the album — they were more mutable before that. The main thing I remember was how hard it was to get Sue to stop jumping up and down during vocals.

Evans: I remember Andy Miller getting us to hold a cardboard box around a mic stand in the yard so we could record Sue singing outside, and I remember forgetting to breathe whilst playing bass, something I’ve still not figured out.

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Tompkins: Will and Chris and Robert were all very learned about their music. They all had massive music collections. Will and Robert both loved the Go-Betweens, which I’d never heard — I listened to them, and they’re amazing! I wanted to do a cover version of some dance thing — not “Pump Up the Jam,” but something like it — and I remember them saying, “Oh, no, we’re not doing that.” Now, maybe I’d go, “Why not?” At the time, though, I was like, “Yeah, I know what you mean, Robert, yeah.”

I’m sure there are lots of musicians who make what they make through not wanting to make something else. They don’t want to sound like Television, so they make sure that they don’t. But I think my lack of knowing as much as Will and Chris and Robert was quite a good balance, in retrospect.

Gray: I do feel very proud of the record; there are good tunes on it, and Sue’s uniqueness makes it something apart, of its own.

Evans: [Any Other City] sounds joyfully unprofessional, the music chases itself, Sue’s voice is extraordinary.

Gray: I think that we were pretty much a classic art-school band. You look at something like Roxy Music and it’s clear in retrospect that their whole thing was completely coincident with and informed by what Richard Hamilton was doing. What seemed outrageous to a lot of people seemed quite natural to them because of that.

With us, it’s much more diffuse. But while we were pretty adamant that we were a rock band, very few rock bands would have willingly incorporated what Sue was doing. So, having come from a visual-art background gave us an openness, so that we could simultaneously want to sound like the Smiths and Television and also happily incorporate an element that a lot of people found quite hard to process. At the time we got some really incredulous reviews and a few people telling us quite directly to “get rid of the singer”. I think it’s that disjunction that makes what we did still stand up.

Bradley: To be honest, the idea of Life Without Buildings as “art rock” never appealed to us. We never asked anyone to take our biographies into account when listening to our music and, with one exception, we never played art galleries. We have nothing else to offer but the band — and now only the recorded sound of the band. That’s it.

Tompkins: Sometimes, I think, “If we had stayed together, what would the second album have been like?” If I think about how good that process was, it feels like a loss. I will very occasionally put on one of our songs, and I still can’t quite get a hold of it, but I like the energy of it. Some of the songs — I think they’re meant to be quite joyous.

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