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What an absolute pleasure it was to catch up with one of England’s greats after all these years. Rarely does a fan have the opportunity to see some of their favorite acts live, let alone seeing two at the same time over week’s time! Being afforded the chance to work the road with two behemoths in Scenic and Breathless, the bands combined forces for a brief West Coast tour back in 2003 that proved unforgettable. Although Breathless has yet to hit these shores since then, their remarkable catalog has remained as a perfect soundtrack throughout life’s trials and tribulations.
Formed 1983 in London, England, Breathless features singer/keyboardist Dominic Appleton, bassist Ari Neufeld, guitarist Gary Mundy and drummer (back again!) Tristram Latimer Sayer. A band that has straddled melancholia drawing on influences ranging from post-punk to dream pop that has culminated in seven full-lengths, thirteen singles/EPs and one compilation over the years.
The following is the full-length interview conducted for the short take in Big Takeover issue 78 and was spurred by the reissue of 1999’s fifth LP, Blue Moon. Pressed to vinyl for the first time ever and released earlier this year, Blue Moon is a result of studio experimentation; recording rehearsals and harvesting the gems contained therein that demand introspection and reflection on behalf of its listeners.
Tremendous gratitude to Dominic Appleton, Gary Mundy and Ari Neufeld for taking time out to chat and special thanks particularly to Ari for coordinating the back and forth.
James Broscheid: Breathless is one band that helped me through personal tragedy and hard times (especially Three Times And Waving, Between Happiness and Heartache, and Blue Moon) as well as being part of many mountain driving soundtracks here in Colorado! Where does music come from in you?
Ari Neufeld: I definitely tend to write more when I am feeling low than when things are going well, as I find writing and playing really cathartic. Those three albums you mention were all written at a time when I was head over heels in love with someone that I couldn’t have and I was constantly pouring my feelings out into music. With “All That Matters Now” (off 1991’s Between Happiness and Heartache) I wrote the bass part first and Dominic instinctively wrote the lyrics echoing exactly what I was feeling, but about a parallel situation in his own life, without us ever discussing it. I guess he just picked up on the mood and took it from there. Even though I am very happy in love now, when I write music I always take myself back to those dark days.
Dominic Appleton: There’s definitely a melancholy streak running through all our work. A lot of it’s just reflective or thoughtful not necessarily sad. That’s what I like in other peoples music; something complex and thought provoking. I just enjoy that sort of thing. It’s comforting. It’s strange that in music some people can have a problem with melancholia when they don’t in literature and film. There’s dance music if you want to dance and there’s our sort of music if you want to indulge yourself with a beautiful dose of self-reflection.
Gary Mundy: I actually can’t write when I feel bad but I draw on those feelings later when I’m feeling OK again. I can’t write anything happy to save my life!
JB: Blue Moon was originally released in 1999. Why have you decided to give it the reissue treatment now? Are there any plans to reissue earlier works?
AN: We have always talked about releasing Blue Moon on vinyl. And although it is one of my favourite Breathless albums, I was always aware that it was quite a difficult album to listen to in one go as an hour long CD. I guess it was the great response we got from releasing Green To Blue (2012) on double vinyl that encouraged us to release Blue Moon and being reminded after years of listening to CDs just how rich and lush vinyl sounds.
We are also planning to release Behind The Light (2003) on vinyl as it’s the only album of ours now (except for the 1994 ‘Heartburst’ compilation) that is still only available on CD. It’s also a way of connecting with our fans while we are working on our new album, as we know how long this process always seems to take, from past experience. Though having said that, we are going through a very creative phase and are making great headway with our new record.
DA: Also in 1999 people just weren’t buying vinyl (or not enough people) so there was no way we could afford to release it on that format. I’m so pleased that there’s been such a massive resurgence of interest in vinyl, (me too! – JB). Blue Moon works so much better as four sides. As a single cd album it’s very long and pretty intense to listen to in one sitting. Re-releasing it now as a double cd and album really suits it.
JB: Dominic, you have mentioned that you don’t enjoy live performance, preferring to float away on riffs in studio during rehearsals. I must admit, those are the moments I remember enjoying most when seeing Breathless live! Getting lost on a melody that goes on (seemingly) forever is one of the reasons I love Blue Moon so much (like songs you wish would never end). Has the band always recorded its rehearsals (like Can) or was this technique utilized on this record only? Is there any set agenda before heading into the studio or is it a matter of all the members’ ideas coalescing into songs?
DA: Yes it is a fantastic way to work when you have the opportunity. For certain types of songs it’s really refreshing to capture the mood and the moment rather than taking it all apart for more formal recording sessions. Mind you that approach really works for other songs. It’s just great to have different approaches for different songs.
AN: We have always recorded our rehearsals and always worked in the Can way, of jamming for hours, recording everything we do and then taking the best bits from that. I guess the main difference with Blue Moon was that instead of recording onto a tiny cassette player in the middle of the practice room, we were lucky enough to be rehearsing in a recording studio anyway, so we just asked the owner where the best place was to set up the mics, plugged them into a DAT machine (and in one instance a cassette machine) and just pressed record, and then Dominic recorded his vocals on top of that, (in the case of “Walk Down To The Water” at home). I don’t know about a set agenda, but I would say all our songs are the result of all the members ideas coalescing into songs. Before recording Blue Moon, we recorded a follow up to Between Happiness and Heartache in the traditional way and it just sounded like a tired, less vibe-y re-run of Between Happiness. So we decided to try a more spontaneous approach, as we repeatedly found that the ‘proper’ recordings that we had laboured so meticulously over, didn’t sound nearly as good as the original jams from which they were extracted.
JB: I have the fondest of memories seeing the band in Pittsburgh back when Blue Moon was originally released and then going on that memorable tour with Breathless and Scenic in 2003 here on the West Coast. Are there any plans to play live on the cusp of this reissue?
AN: I have great memories of those shows too and of the audiences being really warm and enthusiastic. I would love to come and play again.
GM: People seemed so happy that we had actually made it out there. I always enjoy being in the U.S.
JB: I think Breathless is one of those rare bands that can be truly reflective & melancholy one moment (“Goodnight” comes to mind) and explosive & intense the next (like “Come Reassure Me”) and be brazen enough to pull it off. It all seems so fragile like everything is about to burst, yet sublime, much like what we go through in our lives. I consider all of the band’s records accomplished works but where does Blue Moon fit? To me, it seems the most complete Breathless record.
AN: I guess not having the time and money constraints one does with a traditional recording session, allows one to experiment more, which is probably why Blue Moon is our most diverse album. It is definitely one of my favourite Breathless albums and I was amazed how contemporary it sounds after all this time, which is something the new crop of reviews seems to be picking up on.
I guess the diversity stems from the fact that it was recorded a bit at a time over a couple of years so it captured all our changes of mood and influences over a period of time. For me it was definitely the most enjoyable album to make and I would love for our next album to be recorded in a similar way.
GM: I think at the time we felt that we wanted to do something very different for us. It’s our most experimental record, particularly the Moonstone tracks that we recorded at the same time but as ever, one record usually leads you to do something different to the next and by the time we got to Green to Blue, I think we felt that we wanted to make a lusher, more obviously melodic record. Now that that is our last album, I for one am feeling like being a little more experimental again but I think ultimately a mixture of a more live, experimental sound with some bigger, more lush tracks would probably create the best album. Ultimately it’s whatever we like best at the time.
JB: Ari, along with Dominic’s vocals of course, your bass playing is one element that makes Breathless instantly recognizable, in the same manner as Peter Hook in Joy Division. What was the catalyst for you to pick up the bass and can you share some of your influences?
AN: That’s very sweet of you to say so. Any question that mentions me in the same sentence as Peter Hook is a huge compliment in itself, as he is one of my favourite bass players. It was him and Jah Wobble (original Public Image Ltd bassist) that really inspired me to start playing. I immediately recognised that their bass lines were the core of the song, the main melody from which everything else stemmed and that this was something I could do.
My favourite bass player ever is Carol Kaye (American bassist estimated to have played on over 10,000 recordings!). The list of incredible records she has played on is astounding. I’ve always loved Motown but, I had no idea who played on those records. It was my bass teacher who turned me on to her and taught me her bass lines. I already liked Peter Hook, but it was only years later that I discovered what a big fan of hers he is too. I also really like Barry Adamson (English musician appearing on recordings for The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds amongst others), Bernard Edwards*(1952-1996), and *Naomi Yang (Galaxie 500, Damon & Naomi) though I didn’t hear her until I’d been playing a while.
JB: What were some of the first songs you remember hearing that helped you come to the realization that being involved in music was one thing you wanted to do?
AN: I have always known I wanted to play music, everything I heard as a child made me want to play but I didn’t have any formal training so assumed it wasn’t something I would be able to do. We used to write songs on the glockenspiel when I was at Primary school and I remember really enjoying it and being pretty good at it, but it wasn’t until I heard PiL’s Lowlife and Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart that I realised it was something I could do myself.
DA: When I was 13 my parents bought a music centre (and) from that day I became obsessed with music. Punk had just happened so it was an exciting time in music and there was definitely an attitude that anyone could make music. With the exception of Wire and Buzzcocks, most British punk was a bit too close to pub rock for me though. It was post punk and American bands that really ignited my imagination, people/bands like Patti Smith, Television, The Only Ones, Pere Ubu, Scritti Polliti, Magazine, The Raincoats, A Certain Ratio. I religiously taped John Peel. Gary and I used to spend our breaks at school playing each other what we’d found. We were so excited we had to start making music ourselves.
GM: I was obsessed with music from the age of about 6. I listened to the radio constantly. I got my first guitar when I was 10 but I was probably 13 before the idea of actually forming a band seemed like something I could actually do. As Dominic said, we used to make tapes for each other of our latest discoveries. As well as what Dominic mentioned, I remember us listening to This Heat, Wire, I was obsessed with the Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire, Section 25, Joy Division and countless others. We wanted to be like all our favourite bands but they were so diverse that ultimately you just end up sounding like yourself, which is how it should be.
Photo by Dave Proud
JB: I love the fact that Tenor Vossa was established to release Breathless recordings (I always hold Bruce Licher’s Independent Project Records in the same regard). Do you find the business of managing your own label a bit suffocating or is the freedom far more liberating? What inspired you to start Tenor Vossa in the first place?
AN: It’s lovely to be compared to Bruce’s label, as I love both the music and the aesthetic of Independent Project Records. When we first started out we went to see a number of record labels in the hope of getting signed. But they just weren’t on our wavelength, they kept saying things like “we can’t hear the hit single here” and we were saying, “we’re not aiming to make hit singles, we’re an album band. We write songs that go on for five or ten minutes, often without a chorus!” At the same time this was going on Dominic and I were working at the Virgin Megastore and playing our demo of Waterland in the shop. Amazingly lots of customers were coming up to the counter and asking who this band was and where they could buy this music, which made us realise that there was an audience out there for us and that we should release the song ourselves.
Sometimes running a label can be very time consuming, leaving very little time for me to make my own music. It’s interesting to see that lots of bands are actually leaving their record labels to set up on their own, Nick Cave being a good case in point. Thankfully we have a great network of people that we work with that handle distribution and PR etc, which minimises the day to day work load.
JB: Dominic, I read that you started singing lessons within the past several years. Has there been any progression with it as far as your comfort level on stage? If it is any consolation, out of all the times I’ve seen Breathless live, I never detected any nervousness or bad vocal performances!
DA: Blimey, thank you for that but I’m amazed. I did do singing lessons for a few months a couple of years ago. It helped my confidence a little but I’m still not overly keen to play live. It’s funny I’m reading Tracey Thorn’s (English musician known for her work in Everything But The Girl) book “Naked At The Albert Hall” at the moment. She’s a singer that hates to perform and hasn’t done it for over 15 years. It’s fascinating for me to hear about so many other singers’ insecurities and one thing she talks about is the difference between what the performer feels and the audience receives – a terrified performer having a very hard time doesn’t always spoil other peoples enjoyment. It’s reassuring to me that I’m not alone and makes me realise that I should probably stop pontificating about how hard I find it and just bloody well get on with it. Probably.
JB: Following up on the Blue Moon vinyl release (I completely agree with you Ari and Dominic; vinyl is so much warmer AND Blue Moon is fantastic on that media!), I am always curious as to how artists perceive their work. Making albums is such a personal endeavor as you have alluded to. When recording, is the band conscious of listeners hearing Breathless records in their entirety and does that affect how you sequence a record? Unless I’m in a hurry, I listen to your records from start to finish. To me, that is a lost art in this day and age.
AN: We definitely sequence a record with the idea in mind that people will listen to it as a whole, so we try and build the mood and are very conscious of the way the record flows from one track to the next. But this is something we do right at the end after we have chosen which songs to include. When we start recording we don’t look that far ahead. Most of our regular studio albums were recorded in two sessions usually about six months or a year apart from each other. And usually the second batch of songs hasn’t yet been written when we go into the studio to record the first session, so I guess what we have recorded in the first session does influence the second lot of songs when we start writing them, whether consciously or not.
DA: Absolutely we think about the sequence. In the old days we’d think of it as two sides with a kind of ending on each side. Since Blue Moon (i.e. since the CD releases) they’ve been put together, as you suggest, with the idea that they will be listened to in one go. It was interesting that with the new Blue Moon vinyl release we didn’t have to change the running order. It just worked cut up that way.
Photo by Kevin Westenberg
JB: I love “All That Matters Now” and to learn the story behind it makes it even more special! Has that kind of band chemistry been present since day one?
AN: Yes I think it has always been there because we are all such close friends and tell each other everything. Dominic and Gary grew up together, and I worked with Dominic at the Virgin Megastore and I shared a flat with him for a while, so we spent a lot of time together and I think if you spend that much time together you start to sense what the other person is thinking.
For me, one of the most magical things about Breathless is that Dominic and Gary come up with the vocal and guitar parts that I would if I could sing or play guitar as well as they can. I remember the first rehearsal we had with Gary, it was almost like there was some weird telepathy going on, he was playing exactly what I was hearing in my head! And this was about half an hour after we had first met and had only spoken about ten words to each other.
DA: It’s true there’s a very strong bond between us. It’s fantastic as we’re so comfortable to try things out and not be embarrassed. It’s also probably one of the reasons when we’re writing songs they’re very often about an hour long at first as we all drift off in to that same headspace. I absolutely love it.
GM: Yes. There’s definitely something that happens when you put the three of us in a room together that wouldn’t happen otherwise. We do seem to know generally what we each need to do. Obviously we adapt and hopefully improve the songs along the way but I’m never really happier than when we are all creating something new together, sometimes seemingly out of nothing. It just tends to work somehow.
JB: There will always be more interest in songs that reach into the depths of who we are as human beings and the struggles we face. Like Dominic stated, there’s upbeat stuff to dance to if that’s how you’re feeling but it will always be temporary because the stuff that penetrates deeper makes bands memorable. Do you think melancholia assists in crafting better songs?
AN: Absolutely! But maybe that just shows what a miserable person I am! There are very few upbeat songs that I like, or that I would aspire to write myself. All the music I listen to is melancholy so that is what inspires and influences me. Plus I find writing very cathartic, so if I am feeling down about something, I find that writing music can really lift my spirit and take me out of that dark place. It’s not only melancholy music that I like, I think what you say about songs reaching into the depths of who we are and the struggles we face also applies to the kind of films I like watching and the books I enjoy reading.
DA: Ha, I concur! Ari definitely isn’t a miserable person. None of us are but we are all quite introspective. When we’re together we talk and talk and talk. Very often we’re meant to be writing but there’s so much we want to talk about, usually irrelevant to what we’re writing. There’s a lot of laughter when we’re together. When we’re recording it can be hilarious. I think we need that outlet as a counterpoint to just how intense it can be when we’re working. That introspection is what we mine for when we’re writing. It definitely suits us. I don’t think we could be flippant with our music if we tried. It’s just not in our nature as musicians but I promise we’re quite a laugh the rest of the time.
AN: I would say Dominic and Gary are two of the funniest people I know.
GM: Breathless rehearsals are usually the time when as well as being creative, we catch up on what we’ve each been doing and have a good laugh with each other. We laugh a lot in the studio too when we are recording. Mixing sometimes gets a little more tense and playing live brings out the more serious side as we all get very nervous but mostly it’s very enjoyable but I do draw on my more melancholy times when actually playing, although I find it stirring rather than depressing.
JB: I am delighted to hear there is a new record in the works. How close to completion is it and is it something more experimental as Gary mentioned in regards to Blue Moon? I would imagine it would be pretty tricky to describe until its finished?
AN: It’s always difficult to say with a Breathless record how close to completion it is! But I would say we have written about two thirds of it. A lot of the new songs are shorter and poppier than say, on Blue Moon. Poppy, but I definitely wouldn’t describe them as light in any way, maybe somewhere in the same territory as “Walk Down To The Water”, “I Want You To Realise”, and “Good To See You”. Though having said that, we have decided we would like to do a long piece like Behind The Light as well. Actually I realise that in answering this question I am contradicting what I said earlier in answer to your question about being aware of the finished album as a whole right from the start. Which makes me realise that this is something that has changed over the years and that we have become more aware of how we would like the finished album to sound, both in terms of the actual songs and in terns of the overall sound.
DA: It’s true what Ari’s saying but I’m not sure I’d use the term poppy. I guess the songs are more focused on structure and melody. Sort of poppy for us but I don’t think anyone else would think of it as pop.
GM: We talked about making an album of short songs this time and the first few followed that rule but at the moment we are working on tracks that are just demanding to be longer, so I think the album will be a mixture of the two but it usually becomes obvious what is working best and what isn’t going to fit on the record.
JB: There is a band I like out of Barcelona called Mourn with a great record label but poor management. They have a second record in the can (now released finally!) but were being held hostage by their management company (withholding royalties and tour revenue for whatever reason). They are very young and perhaps naive but to learn that those types of things are still happening to artists in the “industry” is shocking. As Ari mentioned, more and more bands are striking out on their own, releasing their own stuff. I suppose this is a great example FOR establishing your own label? Do you think bands going it alone is a combination of advances in technology and the avoidance of shady contracts?
AN: That sounds like a soul destroying situation for the band from Barcelona. But yes I think you’ve hit the nail on the head! I’m all for independence and self sufficiency and although there are exceptions out there, I don’t think just selling one’s music on line without proper physical distribution and PR behind you is very effective either. Because now that anyone can do it, it means that everyone is doing it and the competition is much stiffer.
GM: I think these days it is harder for bands to get noticed but if you do get noticed then the Internet is a wonderful way to raise your profile quickly and let people know that you are playing live and releasing records, so I think it’s harder initially but if you’re any good and persevere it can pay dividends later but the creative control of releasing your own work is a very pleasant luxury.
Members of Scenic & Breathless outside Los Angeles’ Spaceland, 2003.
Photo by James Broscheid
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