Thanks so much to Arlo and Felix for this great interview! Back in October I wrote a small piece about Feral on the blog, and through Facebook Arlo got in touch with me. Happily he was keen to tell the story of this great band from England that only released one 7″, but what a great 7″ it is!
++ Hi guys! Thanks so much for being up for this interview. Tell me, are you still based in Crawcrook or Newcastle? And how was Crawcrook back in the days of Feral? Has it changed much?
Arlo: Hiya Roque. Happy New Year! No problem at all for doing the interview. It’s not often we get a chance to talk about Feral these days, so we’re happy to be given the chance. Crawcrook was (as you’d mentioned in your piece about our single) a small coal-mining town from about 1850 up to about 1960. It’s on the banks of the River Tyne, which runs through Newcastle 5 miles further downstream. The pits had all closed before we were born, so it was pretty much a rural ‘commuter town’ for Newcastle. A pretty good place to grow up. Close enough to the city to be able to stay attached to civilisation, but with a touch of the weird pagan shit that still goes on in abundance further inland, in the hills of Northumberland. There are little villages not far from us, with names like Twice Brewed and Scroggwood, where they spend their Saturday nights dancing round swords and singing accordian tunes to the moon. We all moved into Newcastle in our late teens and twenties and got more involved in the music scene. We ran Newcastle’s top ‘indie’ night, The Palace, through the 1990s at the legendary Riverside venue (now no more). It was a good mix of music. Classic indie, Manchester stuff, Britpop, dance, 60s psych and northern soul and a bit of hip-hop thrown in. It was run mainly as a club for us and our friends, with the guest-list running to over a hundred people most weeks. It was class! 500 or so people getting together in a great venue every Friday. Good live bands, good music and a great atmosphere. Me and Steve have moved back out to Crawcrook and neighbouring Ryton now, and still see each regularly. Felix landed a class job designing toy cars for Hot Wheels, and has ended up in LA. He was (until just a few weeks ago) Vice President of Hot Wheels, and has been spending the last few years project managing mad, life-sized loop-the-loops for suped-up cars in the deserts of America. We still keep in close touch, swapping music files we’re working on. I was over there visiting him about 6 weeks ago. Stu Lowey, our guitarist, died aged 28 in 2001. He developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human form of Mad-Cow disease) in his mid 20s, probably caused by bovine growth hormones he’d been given as a child.
++ Arlo was telling me that he likes the photo on the cover of the 7″ because you looked all covered in coal dust after a hard days shift down the pit. Is that so? Did you work in a coal mine?
Arlo: It was taken after a hard day’s photo-shoot with Yozzer Hughes, a deranged Scouse maverick who also produced Change You Even. Bit of a Fagin type character. He took pride in taunting all the other Newcastle bands that Feral were the only ones who were gonna get anywhere ‘cos they’re fookin seventeen’! He had us dug into a fox-hole, covered in bracken and fallen branches. We’d been hunched in there for about three hours by the time he actually got the shot he wanted.
Felix: Real lateral thought displayed there by Yozza…..”I know,….. they’re called feral so I’ll drive them out to the woods and stick them in a ditch”. From memory he spent quite a bit of time telling us how long it had taken him to scout for the location….in hindsight we should have asked him what he was doing wandering around in the woods looking for a ditch to put seventeen year old boys in…
++ Tell me then how did you all meet? And have you been in bands before Feral?
Arlo: We all met at school and lived within about a mile of each other as kids. Me, Felix and Steve met aged 4 in primary school, and met Stu at Ryton Comprehensive school aged 11. We hung around together for years before we started playing music. We’d been a pretty tight gang through our teenage years, skateboarding, graffiti art-ing, listening to music and generally hanging around street corners. Feral took a little while to properly coalesce from various mates going round each other’s garages and bedrooms and making a racket.
Felix: From memory the idea of a band started forming when we were about fifteen. Me and Stu used to dream about it and eventually figured if we were going to be in a band we’d better get somebody in it who could actually play an instrument….so we subtly courted Arlo. I picked up the bass because I figured four strings would be easier to learn than six. Steve had had drum lessons when we were seven so we pretty much told him he was the drummer.
++ What are your first musical memories? And what inspired you to make music?
Arlo: I’ve been indoctrinated from birth. My Grandad was a miner in County Durham who had a massive record collection dating back to the invention of the gramaphone. They had nothing else of value in the house, but he had full rooms which were literally floor to ceiling with records! He used to play old novelty records for me as a kid, along with the classical and opera stuff he was into, and bought me my first 7” singles when I was 3, On The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by Laurel and Hardy and Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. (I used to think the first line was ‘Is this the real life or is this just Plasticine?’ Much better lyrics, in my opinion.) My Mam and Dad were both well into their music too. Massive fans of The Beatles, Dylan, Paul Simon, The Incredible String Band etc. I can remember days at home with my Mam, pre-school (so aged 4 or less), sitting using her washing basket as a boat and listening to Cripple Creek Ferry by Neil Young and The Hedgehog Song by The Incredibles. I took a shine to Jimi Hendrix when I was about 8 after seeing a documentary on the BBC that my Dad had recorded. My folks weren’t particularly into Hendrix. They’d seen him at the Isle of White Festival in 1970 (where they also saw Arlo Guthrie, hence my name). But I was smitten. I badgered them for a guitar for Christmas, and got a real cheap nylon – stringed acoustic. One of my Dad’s mates gave me a couple of lessons and persuaded my Dad that I needed a better guitar, so I got a Hondo Les Paul copy the next Christmas. Much easier to play behind my head. Me, Felix, Steve and Stu went through our early teens sharing tapes of New Order, Bomb The Bass, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim and skate videos with tunes by The Descendents, Firehose, Sonic Youth etc. But it was really the first time we heard The Stone Roses that the idea of being a band crystalised. Me and Steve had been to RPM records in Newcastle the day She Bangs The Drums came out. I bought the album, and Steve bought the 12”, along with a batch of other bands’ records. We both went home and had a listen through the day’s new purchases, and were both just floored when we put the Roses on. Straight on the phone to each other, raving about them. And they were immediately put onto tape for that evening, racing round the country lanes of Northumberland in Felix’s VW Passat with Waterfall and Resurrection blasting at top volume. I don’t know about the rest of the band, but for me that was the day it all changed. We’d been playing around with guitars and writing a few songs together before The Roses, but that was when I decided we could be a ‘proper band’.
++ And where does the name of the band come from? Is there a story behind it?
Arlo: Feral was a character in a story in 2000AD (Strontium Dogs, I think). Steve had picked up on it as a cool word/band-name. It was like every band, hunting around for a name. It was just the least ridiculous one we came up with!
Felix: I think we settled on it in the car on our way to our first Deckham music collective gig.
++ What would you say were your influences at the time of Feral? What were you listening to?
Arlo: We were coming back round to guitars after having been into hip-hop for a few years. The skate videos I mentioned played a big part in that to begin with. We were into stuff by Dinosaur Jr, Ultra Vivid Scene, Sonic Youth etc. The Manchester scene was starting to kick off, led by the Roses, Mondays and Carpets and that was when we started going out to gigs. Most of the venues in Newcastle were ‘over 18’. We’d been reluctant to travel into town just to get turned away from gigs at the door for being under-age. So we missed out on the Roses at Newcastle Riverside. We went down a few weeks after for The Charlatans’ first Newcastle gig, and got in no-bother. Then realised that half the kids in there were younger than us! After that, we were out every week to see bands at The Riverside and Newcastle’s grottiest little indie venue, The Broken Doll. Stephen Joyce used to put The Whoosh Club on at The Broken Doll. Usually three bands, two of them local, for £1.50. We went to see Ride’s first Newcastle gig at a Whoosh night. They’d been signed to Creation Records and started attracting a lot of attention between Stephen booking them and the actual gig. There must have been over 300 people crammed into a room that was a bit of a squeeze for 100! Whoosh nights got us into Creation Records stuff, particularly My Bloody Valentine, which influenced how we used the guitars, noise and distortion to create textures. And introduced us to a load of new guitar music, Five Thirty, Boo Radleys, Swervedriver etc etc.
Felix: As the band progressed we started going to Raves, what started out as a very jingle jangle band progressed into something quite rich with looped patterns later on.
++ There were plenty of guitar bands in the late 80s, early 90s, the now so called C86 sound. So I wonder if you felt part of a scene then?
Arlo: Nah, not really. We were into the Manchester bands, but didn’t come from Manchester, so were exempt from that. We were into the shoegazey bands I’ve mentioned above, but not really part of any ‘scene’ with them either. There was a good scene in Newcastle at the time. We did a load of gigs with The Lavender Faction, The Sunflowers, Crane, Goose, Deep, The Acrylic Tones, Razorblade Smile, Unexplained Laughter. And a lot of those bands made up the crowd who used to get along to the Palace club over the next few years.
++ Did you play many gigs? Any favourites? Any not so favourite?
Arlo: We did loads of gigs. Mostly in the North East of England, but we did a few round the country. We got some offers to go to mainland Europe but just never got it sorted. We were pretty hapless on the organisation side! Scotland gigs were always good fun. Better licensing laws meant the bands didn’t start til later in the night, by which time the drink was usually flowing and the crowds were always up for a laugh. Probably my best memory of a gig was the second one we played, at the school we all went. We persuaded them to let us have the main hall for the night, filled it with a couple of hundred school mates and just had a proper celebratory party. It was where we and our friends all There was a good one where we were supporting another local band, Razorblade Smile. I think there’d been some wrangling about who was going to headline. We went on before them and played covers of their entire set. We hadn’t told them beforehand, so they were a bit put out that they had nothing left rehearsed to play that we hadn’t just done. We did loads of shite little gigs at the start, especially when we were in that Deckham Collective. Each band had half a dozen people there to see them, and none of the bands liked each other’s music. They were pretty soul-destroying, but they were a means to an end, securing us the use of cheap practice rooms.
Felix: One thing I remember about the shite little gigs was how loud we were compared to the other bands. We were this little four piece band made up of scraggly teenagers pushing AMPS on stage that were bigger than us. A favourite early gig of mine was a Lust records Christmas party where we had ten people on stage with us doing Kylie Minogue’s ‘better the devil you Know’. I think Steve finished that set by throwing his high hats through the window….upstairs at the Broken Doll.
++ You released just the one 7″ on Lust Recordings. How did this relationship came to be?
Arlo: We sent Stephen Joyce a tape of some demos after we’d been to one of the Whoosh nights he put on. We were just looking for gigs really. He put us on at the Whoosh a few times and we went down well. He’d already released a few singles on the Whoosh label, but was starting up again under the name Lust Recordings. I think the first Lust Record was a Lavender Faction 12”, and we were the second. We were planning more, but Stephen was busy working as Kevin Shields’ (MBV) guitar technician. When Loveless came out, and during the tour that followed it, he was away. We were refusing to even answer the calls we were getting from other record labels, cos we were happy on Lust Recordings. By the time we realised that Stephen wasn’t going to be around to manage us or sort out getting the next single recorded, we’d lost all momentum.
++ So the A side has the name of the song wrong. What was the song’s original name? What happened?
Arlo: That was Stephen Joyce’s bad hearing. Too many MBV gigs! It was called Change You Even (from the chorus lyrics: I’d never change you even though I’ll never want you as you are). He just misheard me, and we’d purposely put the vocal low in the mix. We only realised the day the records came back from the pressing plant, by which point it was too late to put right.
++ And in a sentence or two, could you tell me the story behind each song on the single?
Arlo: Change You Even was us messing about with a guitar tuning I came up with. DADAAD for anyone who’s interested. Loads of drone! We got three new songs in a week just out of that tuning. It turned out to be about 8 minutes long, which we didn’t notice til we started recording it. The lyrics are just teenage, heart-on-sleeve, here’s what I’m thinking about today sort of stuff. Bridge is a song to a mate of ours, Rob Quick, who committed suicide that year. His was one of the garages we used to go round to and make a noise. I came up with the song while I was at the Tin Bridge over the River Tyne at Wylam. It was a disused, derelict railway bridge we used to hang around at, and where I’d had a pretty in-depth discussion with Rob not long before he died. Away came out of us getting our hands on a 4-track cassette portastudio for the first time. It was originally layers of swirling guitar noise over a lullaby-strum. Then flipping the cassette over to record layers of backwards guitar. The version on the single was an attempt to make a ‘releasable song’ out of that idea. I prefer the rough-as-fuck original sketch to the version we put out on the single.
++ What do you remember of the recording sessions at Hi Level in Newcastle? Any fun anecdotes to share?
Arlo: It was produced by John ‘Yozzer’ Hughes, veteran record shop owner in Newcastle, and all-round knob. He’s the bloke who had us hiding in muddy holes for the cover photo. He had worked with The Dickies, and reckoned he used to hang out with Robert Calvert from Hawkwind. He claimed to have Calvert’s one-stringed Ukrainian fiddle (not a euphemism!) mounted on his wall at home.
Felix: Ironically I spent a large chunk of my childhood travelling round various pagan sites with my crazy hippie aunt in a battered Bedford van listening to Hawkwind and Zappa so I thought the eukranian fiddle and his tales of Brock and Calvert were quite impressive
Arlo: He was trying to force-feed us some terrible 70s prog, groups like Tractor and stuff no-one has ever heard of. Trying to influence the sound in a new direction which none of us bought into in any way. He dismantled the studio’s monitoring system and wired in some knackered car-speakers. Mixed the single through them, claiming that if it sounds good through them, it’ll sound good through anything. It just ended up sounding shit through anything! We did some good stuff there though. It was on the top floor of an old 5 storey building. We used the bare brick stairwell as an echo chamber, with about 100 ft of guitar lead draped down the stairs, an amp at the bottom, and mics set up on each landing. It gave a massive sound to some of the layered guitars at the end of Change You Even. It was an all-night session, cos we got the place cheap through the night, and I can remember going out onto the roof-top overlooking Newcastle city centre as the sun was coming up and the final tweaks were being made to Yozzer’s mix through his crappy speakers.
++ And how come the B side wasn’t recorded there but instead in a home portostudio?
Arlo: That was just a lie! It was recorded at a ‘community studio’ in a place called Consett in the middle of nowhere. The place was set up to record primary-school music workshops, local radio advert voice-overs and that sort of carry-on. The engineer nearly shat himself when we switched our amps on. He had no idea what we were after, and the results weren’t much better than what we’d managed ourselves on the portastudio. So we just said that’s how they were recorded so it didn’t seem like we’d wasted good money on shit mixes.
++ Did you participate perhaps in some compilations?
Arlo: We were members of the Deckham Music Collective in Gateshead for a few months. You’ve never met a more unlikely ‘collective’ in your life. None of the bands had anything in common. The attraction to us was that they had practice rooms and a studio. We recorded some stuff in their studio, literally ran away with the tapes and have still never paid them to this day. The guy chased after us for a couple of years but I think we’ve got away with it now. I think they might have put one of the tunes we recorded that day on a compilation album of seminal Deckham artists such as the mighty ‘Nell Mangle vs The Robinsons’, one of the most hard-hitting satirical double acts to come out of Britain in the 1980s. Check them out if you get a chance.
++ Are there any more Feral recordings? Perhaps on tapes and such?
Arlo: Yeah, I’ll send you them. There was a four song follow up single / EP recorded and ready to go. Unfortunately we only kept masters on cassette (not sure where the DATs went) so the sound quality is a bit ropey. I’ve got some of the multitrack reel-to-reels, but I’m having trouble finding anywhere which has still got their analogue tape machines to go and run off some decent mixes.
++ Then what happened? When did you call it a day? And why?
Arlo: I’ve not called it a day! I still play music and mess around with sound. Feral just dissolved / evolved. Me, Felix and Steve have stayed close friends and collaborators to this day.
++ Were you involved with other bands after Feral? Tell me a bit about each if you can!
Arlo: Not long after the Feral single we became a 3 piece briefly. We then recruited Ian Nagel from The Acrylic Tones on guitar. He was a real 60s aficionado and Feral took on a more psych / jangly sound for a year or so. We then disbanded for a few weeks, Ian continued with the Acrylic Tones, and we recruited Paul Schofield from The Sunflowers on vocals and renamed the band Camp Freddie. Camp Freddie was a good little band. We holed-up in a barn in Felix’s auntie’s house near Morpeth in Northumberland. Hired a sixteen track tape machine and borrowed a mixing desk and some mics and set about writing a new batch of songs. I’ll send you what I can of those home-made recordings. We only did a handful of gigs, but they were good ones. We took a coach load of us down to Sunderland to play at their Saturday night indie club (The Independent, I think), and had a great night. Good gig, loads of friends on an away-day, everyone mashed and a good night’s dancing afterwards! I can’t really remember why we stopped doing Camp Freddie. After a year or two of just running the club-night, and learning how to use a sampler and Cubase on an Atari ST, I got together with a Sunderland lad who’d been on the scene for years, Kristian Atkinson. Me and him cooked up the idea for the next band, The Kustom Built. We were going to work without a drummer, using samples and drum machines, with live guitars and keyboards. The Kustom Built ethos was to take bits and pieces of music from anywhere and bolt them all together into a suped-up mash of punk, funk and psychedelia. F-Punk! Felix was lured back to Newcastle from his job with Mattel to play bass. Stu Craig was poached from Stax Connection on guitar and we had Cam (an old Sunderland mate of Kristian’s) on vocals. Kustom Built put out three EPs on Atomic Records, toured with Clint Boon, played Reading and Leeds festivals and did the first Radio One live session of the millennium. We never really split up, just sort of fizzled out and went our separate ways around 2002.
++ What about today? Do you still play?
Arlo: The Kustom Built been invited to play a festival in Minehead later this year with The Happy Mondays and The Inspiral Carpets and a load others. It’s been a while since we all played together. Felix is coming back from L.A. and Stu from London to do it. Me and Kristian are working on a few new tunes to put out some time soon.
++ And do you have any other hobbies aside from music?
Arlo: I do Judo, playing and coaching. Felix is as into cars as he’s ever been, and is currently working on some cool stuff with stunt drivers The Bandito Brothers. Steve runs a sound system and does a bit of DJing.
++ One last question, looking back to those days, what would you say was Feral’s biggest highlight as a band?
Arlo: Spending the night at Colm (My Bloody Valentine’s drummer)’s house on a London trip. It was the day they’d finished the mixing of Loveless. We spent the night absolutely off our faces listening to the album the whole indie world was dying to hear. We were in an absolute mess the next morning, trying to do an interview with the NME. We got a panning off the journalist for not having much to say, but we were all on a come-down and had just had our efforts put firmly into perspective after hearing one of the greatest records ever made.
++ Thanks again so much! Anything else you’d like to add?
Arlo: Thank you! Sorry it’s taken a few weeks to get back to you. Thanks for showing an interest in our obscure little outfit from the coal-field backwaters of England!
Feral – Bridge