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Pictured: Charles Bullen, left, and Charles Hayward. Credit: Jacques Granger
An hour before This Is Not This Heat took the stage at Knoxville, Tennessee’s Big Ears Festival in March, a crowd of about 20 — club staffers, and a handful of super-fans — gathered to watch its soundcheck. After running the set and getting levels right, TINTH — the late-Seventies U.K. trio This Heat, rechristened to honor the memory of bassist Gareth Williams (who passed in 2001) and reinforced with four new members joining co-founders Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward — broke into a loose, impromptu funk jam. Coming from these long-dormant giants of cryptic, Cold War-era art-punk, it was an unexpected moment of levity before the scary-intense set to come — only their fifth in the U.S., ever.
Just being in the room with Hayward and Bullen felt surreal, and knowing some of This Heat’s history helps explain why. Championed by John Peel, Sonic Youth and Radiohead, the group’s catalog nonetheless remained out-of-print for decades. File sharing and a 2006 six-CD box set partially remedied this, but Williams’ death all but ensured This Heat would be lost to time. Then, in 2016, for the 40th anniversary of their inaugural show, the surviving duo flipped the script, announcing that Light in the Attic would reissue 1979’s This Heat, 1980’s Health and Efficiency EP and 1981 high watermark Deceit, and that they would play live again — intermittently, but indefinitely — under the TINTH moniker.
At Big Ears, the strikingly gaunt, long-bearded Bullen, singing-drummer extraordinaire Hayward and the expanded band put on a 90-minute clinic in punk rock experimentalism. Laser-focused and awe-inspiringly dynamic, it affirmed that This Heat’s music contains multitudes; from song to song, one could draw a line back to dub, Krautrock, prog and free jazz, or forward to post-punk, noise, math rock, doom and post-rock. The biggest takeaway was how unnervingly current its serious-as-a-heart-attack, analog-or-bust style still sounds 40 years later.
A January interview with The Quietus found Hayward sounding satisfied and ready to step away; in it, he said Knoxville was likely to be the last U.S. show of this surprising second act. There had been no dates scheduled beyond a May concert billed as TINTH’s final London performance. But talking to the pair moments after they got out of performing an hour-long segment of a 12-hour collaborative drone set with other artists playing Big Ears, it became apparent Hayward may have spoken too soon. Not long after, they announced five final final Stateside gigs: tomorrow, July 23, in Chicago, July 25 in L.A., July 27 in San Francisco, July 29 in Atlanta and, finally, Elsewhere Hall in Brooklyn next Wednesday, July 31. Tickets are still available at press time.
CHARLIE ZAILLIAN: Here we are, the morning after the last-ever U.S. This is Not This Heat show — for now. How did you feel about it?
CHARLES HAYWARD: I suppose a very good principle to live your life is, every gig’s the last gig.
CHARLES BULLEN: Last night would’ve been one of our best-ever gigs, probably, if we hadn’t been comparing it to the previous two, at Zebulon in Los Angeles.
CZ: What was in the air at those shows?
CB: The vibe in the audience was so intense it set the bar very high. There was shouts, movement…
CH: Getting it to be that ecstatic… that ecstasy is not a showbiz commodity, if you know what I mean.
CZ: How long had the This is Not This Heat idea been in the pipeline before 2016? When did the idea of playing again first get floated?
CH: I met Luis Carvajal [of Care in the Community Recordings] in 2014 at a gig. He said, “I want to buy you lunch.” And of course there is no such thing as a free lunch. [laughs]
CB: He made [Hayward] sign his name in blood. [laughs]
CH: We slowly moved towards it. It wasn’t originally going to be a band. It wasn’t even going to be anything. It was [Carvajal] trying to persuade me to [allow] an album that was going to be a [tribute album]. That was the original idea, and I was like, “well, you’re not convincing me, and even then, you’ve got to convince [Bullen].”
CB: [But] then it was coming up to the 40th anniversary of the first gig… Luis wasn’t the first to ask. People had been asking for about 20 years. But the 40th anniversary was coming up and I thought, well, should we wait for the 50th? If not now, when?
CZ: This Heat took on mythical status for how hard the records were to find for so long, at least here in the U.S., in the Nineties. I’d heard about Deceit for years before actually getting to hear it.
CB [to CH]: Weren’t those records still [being] pressed in the Nineties?
CH: Yeah, but that was only going as far as Croydon.
CB: Yeah, yeah. They had mailorder, but maybe they just weren’t together on the promotion.
CH: Yeah, they weren’t. They were sort of like, if you’re already part of the club that’s great, and if not, then you can go and get lost.
CZ: What about playing this music again has surprised you about it, compositionally? Do you have to put yourself back in the headspace you were at when you wrote it to remember how to play it, or have you kept it close at hand over the years?
CH: I was in a prog rock group that used to play in 17/8, 21/8, and once a year I’ve got this ritual where I run through the most difficult piece of material that we played just to see if my memory can still hold it. And it can. So that’s the first thing to say. The second thing to say is [my] playing’s moved on an incredible amount. So there are things I did then that I wouldn’t necessarily do now. You do have to go back into it in a way. But I think we’ve got a twisted sense of personality, and we are obliged to mature, and I’ve always tried to stay connected to my childhood. The older I get, the more versions of me I’ve got. So I can access my 24-year-old self, it’s just a part of me.
CZ: Do you find there is some accidental brilliance that comes with making music before you know as much as you do now?
CB: Yeah. That makes me think of Gareth, of course, who started playing three weeks before he played the first gig with us.
CH: I think the whole of humanity is knowing, then not knowing, then knowing, then realizing that you don’t know. Then from that, finding a new thing to know and then, moving from that, into not knowing again. It’s constant.
CZ: Learning, and unlearning.
CH: Learning, unlearning, learning, then finding out what you learned doesn’t quite fit the new circumstances. Learning, becoming obsessed with one detail, then moving on, getting obsessed with the next one, and then, after awhile, forgetting the very first detail and having to re-remember it.
CZ: When This Heat started, in 1976, was there a certain moment you realized you’d hit on something real unique?
CH: [Bullen] and I [met] towards the back end of 1972. We fumbled around in the dark, just trying to find a way of making something happen. You look back at different groups and a successful curve is seven years, and that’s what [This Heat] did. Before we managed to hit the right spot with Gareth, we had a confidence in each others’ playing that meant we kept working together. And then when Gareth came along he was the ingredient that made sense of everything else.
CZ Then, in ’82, you got out before diluting the catalog with material that wasn’t up to your standards.
CB: Yeah, before that horrible decade of the Eighties.
CH: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think any decade is one to sit out, we’re not in for the easy ride. The Thatcher thing… I kept going through the Eighties, confronting the difficulties of it. And I found that the contradictory environment was actually very conducive to making art.
CZ: Watching you play last night, it was blowing my mind how relevant the discomfort and paranoia in the music feels to the current moment, for having been written 40 years ago.
CH: We’ve got this chorus, “history repeats itself” [from Deceit’s “Cenotaph”]. It’s like there’s this wormhole from then to here. We’re singing the songs for the first time in 40 years and it’s almost like, “oh my god, this is scarily… now.”
CZ: Because This Heat was such a hands-on, tape-recording, tape-splicing project, I’m curious how your relationship with analog recording has changed over the years.
CH: Technology’s become a lot more democratic, and that’s good and bad. I find that there’s a certain admin mindset that, it’s like you’re a secretary or you’re working in an office, and that’s the basic default position of what it is to use a computer. The minute you start making music, you have to enter into that domain. So personally I don’t make music on the computer. I make it on one of those multi-track digital machines, and try and keep it in my head to as near as how it felt with analog tape. Drop-ins, multiple versions, even click tracks so I can replace the drums — they’re all a no-no.
CB: Because I worked as a studio engineer and got pulled into recording with computer and so on, I got really pissed off with that and stopped doing it more than 10 years ago. I’ve been doing some solo playing where I’ve got a little Zoom recorder. It’s digital, obviously, but you can just reach out, press record, then forget about it and do what you’re doing, which I love.
CH: I’ve spent a lot of time getting my drums set up in my studio, so that I don’t have to reset them each time. I saw this biopic about Joe Meek (Telstar: The Joe Meek Story), someone starts moving his hi-hat cymbal and he’s going “no, no, no, no, no, don’t do that!”
CZ Was that also why you balked at that tribute album idea — not trusting others with your songs?
CH: Yeah, there was a bit of that. For people to completely pull it to pieces and put it back together again… on that level, us sanctioning that, is cool. But when people do versions and they send them to you and say “we really like what you do,” and it’s like “well, you either just really copied what we do, or you don’t get what we’re doing at all”…
CZ: It’s a slippery slope.
CH: It’s a weird, slippery slope. [laughs]
CZ: So, just as far as this maybe, maybe not being the last U.S. show, is there any idea when that might be decided, or does it hinge on how the London show in May goes?
CH: I’m completely bemused as to whether we’re playing in June or July or what.
CB: It’s nearly all there, but [Carvajal] needs to get one more thing in order to make it financially viable, is what he said this morning.
CZ: We were talking about learning, unlearning, relearning — sometimes you don’t want to make definitive statements about what you’re going to do, to allow yourself to change your mind.
CH: Changing your mind is really what it’s all about. We could play Australia. We could play South America. I like the idea of the not-quite-completed act, so that there’s a space left for the audiences, either they imagine it or…
CB: Originally it was supposed to be the 40th anniversary gig, then we were going to do the Barbican, then [Hayward] broke his ankle, so that got delayed a year. Now we’ve been doing it for three years, with that break while [Hayward] healed. But yeah, we never thought it was going to [last] for three years.
CZ: If this were to be the end, what would you say about the experience overall?
CB: It’s been amazing. Especially this tour. These gigs make me think maybe we should do it a little longer. Especially [in the U.S.], because people seem to get it and love us so much.
CH: It’s quite an interesting experience doing something from 40 years ago, because I’ve never done that looking-back thing. I did a gig once in the late Nineties and someone went up to me and said, “Can you play something we could all recognize?”
CB: What, “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies?
CH: I didn’t quite get that, but then of course, music is all about memory, so when a good improvisation happens, something you did on your own comes back again and it has this sense of shape and people know when it comes to the end and they know when the new beginning is and it’s because they’ve got this memory thing going on, and that’s a big, big part of music I’ve never really been involved in at all. It’s felt really quite interesting to see what that’s like. And we’ve changed some things slightly…
CB: …and some things a bit more.
CZ: Yeah, I heard some parts that weren’t as I remember them on record.
CH: I suppose when I say slightly… yeah, some of it’s not slight, some of it’s quite big. But then you’re playing with peoples’ memory. Again. Because they remember the old version. Then you give them this new thing that lies on top of the old one. I do find all that interesting. I don’t know if I want to do that for the rest of my life. It’s interesting to do — not to do for five years, but for three years, with a one-year, quite literally, break. [laughs]
CZ: Leaving the catalog intact — is that a certainty?
CH: I think we’re going to leave it. Otherwise we’d just start going through the whole process again, and does anyone really listen to the Rolling Stones songs from 1999? They all go out to the concession stands and get their Coca-Colas and popcorns.
Courtesy of Care in the Community Recordings
CZ: The moniker This is Not This Heat, is that strictly a tribute to Gareth to not use the original name as it were, or is there more intention to it?
CB: Basically that, yeah.
CH: That is a big part of it, and also, it’s not This Heat because it’s got more people in it.
CB: What did you think about it?
CZ: The name? I thought about Magritte…
CH: Yeah, there’s that.
CB: It’s a joke as well.
CH: I mean, yeah, we’re not a humor band. But it’s like, Beckett had this tragicomedy thing. The modern world isn’t cut up into things that are funny and not funny, serious and not serious, everything is kind of woven inside itself. That’s the way I see it. You put humor inside things that are very heavy, because it’s the only way we can deal.
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