Alastair Harper of Extradition Order talks us through their new album American Prometheus out today on Jezus Factory.
“Oh hey. I didn’t see you there. How are you? How are your friends? Check on them – they might not be OK. Close friends. Maybe slightly more distant. But not everyone you’ve ever met. Don’t be absurd. Unless you’re pitching an absurd giftable book like those comedians on Dave panel shows used to write in the 90s. “Hah! My adventure getting in touch with everyone I ever met while carrying a fridge. Hah!” God, imagine being that prick. It isn’t the life they wanted, surely? The sadness of the clown.
Anyway. I was asked to write about this record. American Prometheus it’s called. It’s easily the best record we’ve ever done so I’m happy to do so. I’m really smug about it. Sometimes I listen to it when drunk and alone on a sofa on a Friday. After I’ve watched Graham Norton. I love Graham Norton. He’s surprisingly political, don’t you think? By the time he’s done I’m usually most of a bottle in and I’ll end up finding some documentary on Fleetwood Mac on iplayer or some Anthony Bourdain thing and then I’ll drunkenly think about my own music and then it’s 3am and I’m alone listening admiringly to my own band. Again.
Anway. Let me tell you something. This record. I remember a few of the songs had music before the lyrics and structure came together. We were practising for our monthly night at the Betsey – We’re Not Kids Anymore. Have you ever been? Probably not. I’d have noticed. The night came about because I was kind of sick of traditional band nights. I mean, I leave the house so rarely I didn’t want to have to choose between going to see a play or hear a physics lecture or hear an illustrator talk about their work or see a band. So I did a night that pulled all these together and had the only band that ever plays be my own. Because we’re the best band. Good idea, huh? My friend Dan’s theatre company would put on scenes. Or comedians like my friends Sophie or Flora would do stuff. Live drawing, film screenings. It’s all go. And then a wee dance to my wee band. I should bring it back really. But it’s such an arse to book people. Ugh. And I try to ensure a mixture of race and gender but white men are bloody everywhere. They’re like Japanese knotweed, sinking their roots into every genre.
Anyway, at the time I’d been getting my head around the birth of modern physics in the early twentieth century – how it went from this abstract, very poetic pursuit of people who seemed to have more in common with the surrealists than NASA but ended up being the source of the biggest military project the world had ever seen. It’s interesting, right? Like how Leo Da Vinci could paint the Mona Lisa and design catapults. That’s how I saw those physicists then. And how they came professionalised – scientific. I think it would be good material for a kind of musical biography.
So we tried to get a new song ready for each night, mostly because it forced us to keep making new things. You know guys, a band is like a shark – as soon as you stop moving making new songs you end up dead. You end up a cover band of your own corpse. Yeh. Deep. Which is why we’ve no idea how to play any Extradition Order songs other than the current one. That and the band members keep dying. Hah. No that’s dark humour. It’s deflection. Because, if you didn’t know, yhe weird thing is that before we finished this record, my buddy Nick got sick and he died. Hmph.
It doesn’t make sense to the story of the record. It obviously isn’t something the record is about. But I guess that’s life. Or the absence of it, hah. Things get ripped apart that you weren’t even paying attention to. The Universe finds a whole new way of operating without asking permission. This is what Oppenheimer and his peers did to our Universe and how they destroyed the world their teachers thoughts was settled. Hey – see what I did there? That’s called a narrative bridge. Let me tell you about the songs, ok?
Daddy Give Me Your Money
J Robert Oppenheimer was born in NYC to comparative wealth – Picassos and van Goghs on his midtown Manhattan apartment wall. He had the luxury to learn about science thanks to his dad’s money. It was luxurious life and his dad happily paid for his higher education just as he had paid for his strange, proto-hippy Steiner style high school education. A liberal, German Jewish (but largely secular) upbringing. He was as into Eastern poetry as he was lab research.
So this is a track is about the freedom of privilege. Musically it was maybe the first one we did and convinced us that maybe we could get away with trying our version of soul music – largely thanks to Nick’s bass line. It catchy, you know?
I wanted more
So our friend Oppenheimer was an anxious young man. Keen to get ahead but worried with it. He felt so anxious and out of place studying in England at the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge that he apparently had a bit of a moment and tried to feed his professor a poisoned apple. No one died. Well, between 130,000 to 220,000 did – but that comes later.
This song changed its feel a lot when Rosie and Noush added their vocal and feels to me like the Go Gos and Fun Boy Three are doing both versions of Our Lips Are Sealed. Noush and Rosie are great. Have you met them? You should. They’re lush.
Baby, what have you done for me lately?
Jean Tatlock dated Oppenheimer through the late 1930s. The Communist party supporting daughter of an English professor, she seemed smart and charismatic and a little deranged. Oppenheimer tried proposing to her twice. She refused him both times. This is a little about their relationship and the hanging on to something that’s gone emotionally but lives on physically. Have you ever had that? I bet you have. Stud.
You know, a lot of the brilliant biographies of Oppenheimer show their age a bit in how they talk about the women he loved. For such an awkward and often cruel man he loved some women who seemed amazing, so I guess that’s in his favour. I wish people wrote more about them.
Nick always insisted I tried to sing this song like Jarvis Cocker even though I didn’t know what that meant or how to sing like anyone – I barely sing like myself. Luckily we had Noush and Rosie come on board after we’d recorded the first versions. Remember I said about them? They sang into an iphone headset on my sofa over a bunch of beers and managed to make this the pop song it wanted to be. Yeh. An iPhone mic. We thought it might just be to do a test but it sounded fine. I guess it’s more tech than Buddy Holly had when you think about it and he sounds great.
A new set of rules need a new set of tools
In the 1920s Oppenheimer studied across Europe – in Cambridge, Gottingen, before heading back to the US to Caltech. He befriended a group of young men who would change our understanding of reality – Heisenberg, Diract, Pauli and more. Youth and ambition and arrogance meant a new world would be possible and all that idealistic earnest pursuit of knowledge. This is before all those young men became weapons of the countries they happened to find themselves in. Imagine when their knowledge became power and they started getting saluted at? Be weird, right?
Anyway. The awesome string on this was by our friend Kate Arnold whose band Fear of the Forest is awesome and you should know that. She follows a similar nonfiction story telling approach to song writing – her last record being about her own ancestors. We should pretend it’s a genre. Audiography? Sometimes like that. She did a slide show of her album at We’re Not Kids Anymore because, as I said, I only let my band play at the night. You see what I was trying to do? In the land of the blind the one eyed band is king.
The America First movement of the 1930s argued America should not be so worried about Adolf Hitler. He seemed a good guy to them. The odd bunch gained support and were able to gather mass rallies as they gained the support of Charles Lindbergh and a young JFK. In the words of Woody Guthrie, ‘They say “America First,” but they mean “America Next”’ Yeh.
This song was written by the band the day Jo Cox was shot – according to quantum mechanics there is no meaningful distinction between present and past. You know what I mean? Sure you do – you’re a smart ass.
I’ve got a gang, I’ve got a club
The Manhattan Project employed over one hundred thousand people to monitor things they did not have the security clearance to understand.
This song really came from the drum beat – Radhika just smashing it out without any of the others around. Nick used to always grumble about it. I hope he’d have liked where we got to with it. When he started to get sick he got grumpier in practise. It was how I first noticed he wasn’t himself. I was normally the grumpy one taking things too seriously.
Kitty Puening, a physicist herself, was married to another man when she started an affair with Oppenheimer. They would marry the day after her divorce, pregnant with Oppenheimer’s child. Educated, articulate and sexual, during their time in Los Almos she became depressed and drunk, stiffened by two children and the limited possibilities for a smart woman on a military base in the 1940s. Another of those awesome women I was saying about.
I love the little drum thing Rads does at the start. Radhika is just one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, I think. But also fiercely determined. She’s tough – she’s an actor and I love how she stands up to casting people who decide a part needs to be caucasian for no reason. More power to her elbow.
Fat Boy, Thin Man
Little Boy, packed with uranium, was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Fat Man, filled with plutonium, was detonated over Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. It was the last time, so far, nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. The two explosions resulted in a similar number of deaths to the number of people that worked on their development in Los Almos. Funny coincidence.
This song definitely proved why we needed brass on the record. Sean and Rachel were Rads’ friends and helped us out splendidly doing all the tracks in one, maybe two, sessions down at Jon Clayton’s recording studio by Brixton, Onecat. I think Rachel’s a historian and Sean’s a music teacher. Isn’t everyone surprisingly interesting in this world? Maybe you should get in touch with everyone you ever met after all. Maybe people would surprise you. There’s all these people Nick and Matt and I were at school with that I thought were pricks but when Nick died they were lovely. Except a few. A few were still pricks. They wanted his death to be all about them and they hadn’t seen him in, what, fifteen years? Jesus, guys – have some perspective.
Pills and the party
Jean Tatlock carried on sleeping with Oppenheimer as he, now a married father of two, worked on the Manhattan Project. She grew increasingly depressed, confused about her sexuality, and anxious from constant military surveillance. Her father found her body in a bathtub in 1944, aged 29. I’d like to know more about her. She seemed charismatic and cool and born in the wrong time to do what she could normally have done. Anyway, some people die in dumb ways.
Do I love you?
You know, one thing to his favour and also to his determent is Oppenheimer never settled – whether with people he loved, the work he did or the poetry he taught himself. He hated the idea of being a quiet man. His life always seemed to bounce between recklessness and responsibility. If things settled down in his life he seemed to find a way to smash it up in the air again.
This song is largely built from the absorbing keys riff that Matt built it from. Matt’s a good lad. He’s instinctive as a musician. Like Jez on guitar. They both feel their way to things. It’s great. So many of the things we pull together are from the half-thought musical doodling someone does in practise. The guitar melody on this by Jez is incredible. A lot of what he came up with were redone by Sean and Rachel as brass and Ian, producing, did an amazing job of switching between the two.
As a physicist Oppenheimer’s impact was never fully recognised– he was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times, in 1945, 1951 and 1967, but never won. Some have argued that his work on black holes would have earned him the prize if he had lived long enough to see his theories proven right. I dunno. I don’t know much about black holes.
Either way this last track was one of the first ones Noush learned to play when Nick became too sick to play himself. He took her through the notes and let her use his bass. I’m glad the torch got passed over like that. It felt right.
Anyway. That’s our record. We’re going to do another now so just give me a minute to get that sorted. It’s about MFK Fisher. I love MFK Fisher but that’s for another time. Take care, man. Drop me a line. We should go for a beer or something. Not tonight. I’m hungover to be honest. The band went to the Betsey to plot out this next record. It went fine I think. Anyway.