“There’s times when I’ve regretted the band splitting up to the point of being really depressed about it…” confesses the now heavily side-burned, sort of ’70s-slung, Neil Young-looking Green. “..and then there have been times when I think that’s all happened, and this is where I am now. It depends what mood I’m in.”
Understandably, what with all the recent radio play, a stunning new LP Play For Today to plug, and four fifths of the original line-up back on the road – re-joining Wood and Green are Vanessa Best on bass and vocals, Andy Peace on drums and new addition Bob Birch on keys, having lost Matt Jones to Liam’s Beady Eye – Tiny and Richard are keen to move off the subject of the split. “There was no big fall out or anything…” offers Tiny, fixed to a park bench nursing a tatty roll up.”…it was more of a drift really.”
For many of Ultrasound’s first-time-round fans – left devastated by the “drift” back in ’99, but today clutching tickets to the band’s impending album launch gig in London this month – it’s interesting now to learn of relationship meltdowns within the group, record label clashes, last minute tours slicing into the extensive (and expensive) studio time required to fulfil punishing recording deadlines. Not to mention top-drawer producers walking out of sessions for the album that eventually became their sprawling (and some said self-indulgent) double debut, Everything Picture.
“My memory of that time was we always had to be somewhere else to where we actually were.” Green recalls. “It’s like we’d go in the studio and we’d have it booked for a couple of weeks making the album, and we’d have to go off and do this show or that show, things were always being re-arranged, so it was very hard. It got tiring, not physically tiring…more confusing. You got quite dispersed..”
With the modest success of Everything Picture and it’s festival-friendly 45 ‘Stay Young’ both troubling the Top 30, the band briefly became darlings of the NME, the talk of the industry, and very nearly proper pop group material had their career been left in the hands of their then record label Nude – home to the likes of Geneva, Black Box Recorder and most notably, Suede.
“Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise when the label were really trying to push us towards the charts and more mainstream world..” says Green. “..I like pop music but it was hard to push us into that world. At the same time there was also an element of pop in Ultrasound’s stuff, we were as much Abba as we were the Sex Pistols. We weren’t a cute indie band. In my mind we were always like someone like Sonic Youth…”
Clearly smitten sonically by Thurston Moore’s mob, as well as clear debts to the likes of the Who, Fall, 70’s Floyd, Crazy Horse, the Cardiacs and bits of Bowie, Ultrasound’s story began in Wakefield, near Leeds, and the polytechnic where Wood and Green met in 1989.
Built on a mutual fetish for the Velvet Underground, the pair soon forged a writing partnership that over the next ten years, via as many name changes as band members as shows, carved out an achingly dramatic array of anthems – ‘Floodlit World’, ‘Same Band’, ‘Aire and Calder’, ‘Best Wishes’ – and an equally potent live show that later in London attracted huge label interest, firing a frenzied bidding war between major and indies to sign the band, at a time when, as Tiny is quick to insert, ” there were a lot of dross bands around. Gene…and bands like that…”
Fast forward the major festival appearances, headline tours, rave reviews, and slick promo vids, past the break-up and all the post-split activities – Tiny’s fruitless attempt at assembling Ultrasound mark II in Newcastle before fronting another group Siren, Green’s post-break-up bands the Somatics and the Heavens, Andy Peace’s return to his joinery trade, Vanessa Best’s shift into music education management – and the new album sounds like it may well have benefited from such a stretched hiatus.
“I think we’ve got better at it…” Green says of Play for Today, a record that, without blowing holes into, or fully escaping the ornate and turbulent temper of their debut, could be considered a less-lavish, sharp, heavy-on-hooks affair. “..listening to some of that first album now, yeah, it is too long. We are more objective now. It’s a learning thing; we’ve all been involved in other things since then, made other albums with other people.”
Indeed, the real draw of Play for Today – its title Tiny reveals is “all about political issues, but not directly politics”, and quite possibly his passion for playwright Dennis Potter – lies in Ultrasound’s own sonic reinvention. Released on indie label Fierce Panda ( incidentally the band’s brief pre-Nude abode) with desk job duties left to producer Guy Massey ( McCartney, Manics, and Divine Comedy) it’s an album crawling with credible choruses, squealing fed-back guitar breaks, and thought-provoking lyrics.
Akin to the din of simultaneously spinning Quartermass and Quadrophenia, lead single ‘Welfare State’ with its piercing Prog organ motif, soon lost to Green’s violent, Townshend-like guitar chords and Best’s cavernous bass – is maybe the album’s nearest nod to the Ultrasound of old, and token of the tacky “Punk Floyd” tag the press once picked out to stress the sneering space-rock make-up of their songs.
Green describes the rest of the record as being “a balance between what we sounded like then, but pulling it forward to where we are now”, but for many deaf to the songs the band made over a decade ago, Play for Today could pass as the power pop of a refreshingly raw new band, who, having maybe found counsel in their album’s title, have disclosed their diversity across ten tracks that gamely gather motorik drumming and punky riffs (‘Beautiful Sadness’), balls-to-the-floor rock (‘Goodbye Baby, Amen’), Byrds-like ballads (‘Nonsense’), and a bona fide colliery brass band (opening ‘Between Two Rivers’).
“The whole Byrds thing (‘Nonsense’) was my fault really…” says Green, sort of almost schoolboy-shy in his confession.”…I really like that sound and we were talking about Philip Glass, and repetitive patterns and I were thinking that sort of a Roger Mcguinn guitar thing, it’s a bit like that, what you can pick out on a twelve-string guitar, geometric things, I thought that could work. The album sounded like it needed something like that on it.”
“We had to have a progression, and develop from that into something new.” he adds, of the prolific writing sessions that also threw out the mammoth and momentarily Elbow-like ‘Sovereign’, stadium-sing-a-long-er ‘Twins’, the breezy to barbaric country soul of ‘Deus Ex-Natura’ and ‘Glitterbox’, a murky mantra sang by bassist Best that Portishead would struggle to pass up.
“The idea behind a certain song can usually be something incredibly stupid…” smiles the tongue-tied till now Tiny, his partly-gold pearlies glinting in the afternoon sun.” With something like ‘Deus’, it was in six eight time, and we’d never done something in six eight before. Richard had some words but couldn’t finish it off, so he gave them to me and asked if I could do anything with them. We both got thinking about nature which got me thinking about evolution and how we’ve arrived at where we are now and why. It’s a springboard of ideas really.”
Green agrees: “It’s kind of instinctive really; you kind of know what works in the band, with this group of people. Fundamentally, I don’t think our writing has changed. It’s like what we said about being apart for so long and how we might have changed as people; I think the basic personality of someone doesn’t really change. We set up our gear in a room and just played some heavy rock and roll. Maybe if we decided to write in the studio it might have taken a very different course…”
Tomorrow the band will venture up to the highest peaks of rural Hathersage to shoot the “outdoor bits” to that video, but as Green firmly asserts before bidding farewell, whatever course Ultrasound take this time around, will certainly entail ” making the art we want to make.. that’s always been the most important thing. Something we made that very clear from the start.”
October, 2012. Previously unpublished.