INTERVIEW: Ultrasound

INTERVIEW: Ultrasound

“This song is the clarion call/If it means we have to reform/ We crashed and burned but we return/ To claim our stake/ From the day we are born until the day that we die/Because we are safe in the arms of the welfare state.” Ultrasound – Welfare State

“When you start off with an idea for a song you might start off with one idea but it can quickly turn into another idea,” reveals Ultrasound’s lead singer, Tiny Woods, in his gentle but knowing, North East tone. “That’s certainly true with the Welfare State because I was trying to write a song about our situation and us and it quickly turned into a political rant,” he laughs; “It’s microcosm to macrocosm and vice versa…”

Ten years away and Ultrasound return with a surprisingly storming prescient double ‘A sided’ release this very Monday. Surprising because most ‘new material’ from reformed acts is often crushingly disappointing but Ultrasound buck the trend and then some. The first side ‘Welfare State’ is a clarion call, an irony laden, sometimes-bitter rapier-like rail against government policy: an address, indeed, to the Welfare State. But listen again and it’s as much a self aware, comment on Ultrasound’s own history as broken up outsiders of the music business, too. All housed in Ultrasound’s trademark cosmic sound: like a spaceship rattling off to some other planet its rippling wide screen instrumentals, dappling Who- like keyboard stabs are infused with the ambition of a Pink Floyd, while Tiny’s sneering vocals burst forth, embodying the spirit of Johnny Rotten, before revealing an affecting arc. If that wasn’t enough there’s a second side too, more in keeping with their darker, more sprawling efforts of yesteryear, ‘Soverign’  is a pleasing ambition that still burns within the outfit leaking with a sinister introspection: “Sovereign isn’t a B side it’s one side and another a bit like Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, inside and an outside,” laughs Tiny. “I kind of like the idea that someone has vinyl, just puts on a side and that’s the one they hear…”

Ultrasound – Welfare State / Sovereign (Released Aug 29) by Label Fandango

A decade since their last release and various splinter outfits, Ultrasound’s reformation wasn’t planned because they’d fallen on hard times, this isn’t yet another cynical coming together. It was simply a twist of fate. At the end of 2009, out of the proverbial blue bassist Vanessa received an e-mail from Bic Hayes asking if Ultrasound would consider re-forming to play a Tim Smith benefit gig. The Cardiacs were a catalyst for the creation of Ultrasound the first time around and so it was an easy decision for them to make. The show never took place but it reinvigorated the long lost members, and they went on to record a track for the Cardiacs tribute album, and perform three London shows to a sweaty mess of adoration.

Back in the late ’90s Ultrasound stood out as startling outsiders in a sea of banality. The twisting, strident vocals of Tiny Woods, complimented by a cinematic walls of crashing instrumentation, that throbbed and demand your attention. Supersonic, and heartbreakingly, they didn’t look like bands of the time either. Indeed some music papers seemed more concerned with Tiny’s weight than the music. In fact it was perhaps surprising that a band this ambitious, and heart clawingly colossal, could compete with the nascent dreary rumbles of Coldplay, Starsailor, Travis et al, but they did and some. Signing to Suede‘s home Nude in a whirlwind of hype, Ultrasound began a brief but dazzling two years in the spotlight, eventually releasing their cult classic album ‘Everything Picture’ in 1999 a long player so soaring, vast, and brilliant that it resides in many record collections to this day. Tracks like ‘Suckle’ , ‘Floodlit World’ and ‘Stay Young’ possesed a gravity defying creativity and combustible pretentiousness, the sound of constantly on the verge of breaking apart. But that’s why it stands the test of time. “It was the intention of most of our work at the time, this is not made for people in present times; there’s was a very conscious element of that,”  Tiny notes. “I personally like leafing through record shops and getting into something that way. When I grew up I got into music that had already been….”

Maybe just maybe there’s some kid out there in a record shop now who will be flipping through the record shop racks and stumble upon Ultrasound’s debut, it’s Jackson Pollack-esque splurge of paint cover, and like John Peel buy it ‘because of the artwork.’ He won’t regret it if he does. But just how did the sleeve emerge? “We were in talks with a record designer but he came up with a crap idea so we had something like two days to the deadline so we thought lets do it ourselves” Recalls Tiny “We just bought a canvas and some paint and just started, let’s paint an everything pictures there’s many layers you can’t see all the layers coz it’s painted over. We started out with a canvas and we just stuck loads of pictures on there and just painted over it, you can still see bits of it. It even had three D elements….”

“We were tricked a little bit with the vinyl because the original sleeve was going to open up in four layers gatefold like an Emmerson Lake and Palmer sleeve which didn’t happen with the CD,” Tiny points out. “But I assumed it would happen with the vinyl but it ended up to be a single sleeve. And we were like ‘No! No! it’s meant to open out to be a huge gatefold…’ I would have liked it to have been three LPs!” laughs Tiny.

The sleeve was ridiculous, but it was standout, it was a smeared mess of colours on canvas like the music. It was ‘Everything’ all at once, laid bare before your ears, there wasn’t anything held back for a second inevitably disappointing album. Ultrasound were making a statement in more ways than one: “It was called ‘Everything Picture’ so it was about doing everything all in one go, because we wouldn’t last long enough to do another one.”

For Tiny and his fellow band mates perhaps it was this creative urgency that propelled them on to greater heights? “We originally wanted to do a triple album but we were kind of talked out of it by the record company and partly by ourselves because some of the songs weren’t up to par. That was always the intention to deliver everything warts n all, and to some extent it still is, I don’t want to deliver a polished [record] – it smacks of that something really mid 70s…”

A double album for starters, songs that regularly stretch past the seven-minute mark: and sublimely ridiculous artwork. Ultrasound sound suspiciously like a prog band to some music watchers, but surely they’re more immediate than that, but does Tiny think they’re prog?“It depends by what you mean by prog?” He notes, “I think of us as a prog band because, I grew up in the late sixties early seventies so when I grew up prog meant good. The Beatles ‘White Album’ was prog. Anything that isn’t standard and isn’t a straight pop thing that to me is prog, in that term I’m quite proud of the tag, it became something else which I don’t think we were anything to do with.” Tiny stops, before adding:“I wouldn’t like to think people just think of us as a prog band, there are many more influences too….”

Back in the late 90s, Ultrasound were justifiably in the eye of a world wind of hype, like the ill fated Gay Dad and Terris after them they were now cover stars, and playing BBC sessions for Steve Lamacq, but unlike those bands they could back it up. Sadly it began to take a toll, they saw less of each other, recording sessions were stretched, tensions arose, and the paranoia generated by their whirlwind ascent from nowhere to somewhere would eventually see them torn apart in the late nineties. But why does Tiny think they split up? “It’s difficult to say one thing, we kind of always knew we were different people of different generations and we’ve got different wave lengths in this band. It’s just hard seeing each other’s points of views and that ‘band thing’. We kind of told ourselves many times that we’re not different we’re not unique because the Who hated each other. But we always had the ambition at the time to keep it together for the album.”

Reminisces Tiny, “It wasn’t mutual certainly, the split, it was just a total breakdown of communication. None of us knew what any of us were thinking any more,” he concedes “It’s OK now, but it’s one of those things four or five people together, it’s always going to be difficult, you have to keep reinventing yourselves every few years. It’s possible to do but to actually release something of value and worth you have to look back and almost analyse yourselves. Radiohead did that after The Bends, they had to almost get back together again minus the rest of the world if they wanted to still continue and still develop. Look back and sort out of a lot of shit before they could carry on, the rest of it doesn’t matter.”

Ultrasound were known as a combustible outfit at times, but with the passage of time the writing process is a more unifying experience for the group: “It’s different it’s more democratic the writing process anyway in the old days it tended to be more separate where as now it’s more of a combination, me and Richard tend to bang through ideas and take it to the band and they add their bits on. It didn’t really work like that before that much but it was better when it did,” admits Tiny, continuing: “Richard brought a song or I brought a song that was kind of how it worked, now we bring our own ideas, we all get a chance to be ourselves in our songs and take it where we want to go.”

Once they started rehearsing again it felt comfortable, natural and elicited a new surge of creativity “Once we got together we just thought this is too good to just stop, we need to continue; with this we did one rehearsal where we just ran through some of the old songs, and that seemed to go well.” Tiny continues: “So me and Richard got together and we wrote just to write and took it from there…”

The plans don’t stop there, Ultrasound look set to be around for a good while to come, that’s if you invest in them that is. “We’re going to release the single, and hopefully make enough money towards another one and just keep going towards an album,”  Tiny enthuses, before going on: “We’ve certainly got enough songs written, we’ve got a backlog of songs at the moment that’s what we’re working through now, that’s what I’m trying to do now get the lyrics together for the new ones , that’s what we’re working on now. Within a month of meeting back up together we’d written ‘Sovereign’. It felt quite natural at the time, but looking back it is quite surprising.”

Ultrasound clearly aren’t one of the growing number of 90s bands that reform for mortgage related tours. Thankfully this isn’t simply another nostalgia project, or a vain stab at old glories, Ultrasound are very much about the here and now, and it shows: “We never wanted to be a greatest hits band, we don’t want to be the Pixies or anything, the idea if we were going to get back together we were going to do something new something now, that’s more exciting to me than doing a set of old songs again,” affirms Tiny, before adding: “I might enjoy playing them but that’s not really the point. There’s about ten new ones – hopefully they’ll be a single album with another one to follow that…”

Money isn’t the motivation because quite frankly they aren’t being offered any, maybe back in the 90s that was the case but not now. “I know that there’s an incentive for a lot of bands to reform and that’s money. Which is fair enough. But we’ve never been in a position where people offered us money,” laughs Tiny before reasserting his group’s outsider status. “We’ve been together despite all that. Certainly nobody has ever waved a chequebook at us saying you know here’s a promise of glory, there’s no promise of glory there never was. There never will be. There’s the distinct impression that nobody wants us to reform….”

Ultrasound’s new single ‘Welfare State/Soverign’ is out this Monday the 29th of August not on CD, but 10” vinyl and those that invest will get the download code too. So you’ve got the best of both worlds.
Ultrasound launch the single this Wednesday 31st August @ The Macbeth, London.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.