Synthetic Pleasures: Ubre Blanca in conversation
Formed from the ashes of Shitdisco and Divorce, synth enthusiasts Ubre Blanca discuss their debut EP, retro-futurism, and Glasgow's alternative music scene
As we sit down to discuss their debut EP at Nice N' Sleazy's, Andy Brown – drummer in Remember Remember, and until recently, Divorce – is lamenting his choice of location for the photoshoot. His bandmate Joel Stone – formerly of Shitdisco – makes an interesting observation about the fashion choices in Glasgow's Charing Cross: "There were loads of guys wearing football manager jackets," he says. "The people you see wearing them in social situations are always people you wouldn't trust to carry a fucking glass of water across a room, let alone trust with a football team."
In direct contrast, both Stone and Brown could each be described as a safe pair of hands. Brown's demoniacal drumming for extreme noise art-punks Divorce grounded the band in a riveting and intense hardcore dynamic – he is equally at home behind the kit for the ten-minute atmospheric post-rock voyages of Remember Remember, using an altogether subtler approach. Stone meanwhile toured with Shitdisco across the world during the brief dominance of 'new rave' – pairing him with Brown on an electronic project was bound to produce impressive results. That the results would resemble the synth-driven soundtrack to an undiscovered 80s horror classic is more of a surprise.
The duo announced their presence officially in August, and since then have played gigs with Zombie Zombie, Islet, and at the Music Language Festival. Stone used the name as an umbrella project for several collaborations, but eventually, it "came down to just the two of us," says Brown. "We both wanted to try something we had never done before." That something was "a John Carpenter and Giorgio Moroder-sounding project," to put it mildly. "The rules are different for synths – you're allowed to do stuff that would be absolutely offensive on a guitar," says Stone. Inspired by a love of Kraftwerk, Carpenter, Moroder and Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin fame), they began recording tracks.
"The rules are different for synths – you're allowed to do stuff that would be absolutely offensive on a guitar" – Joel Stone
Their music avoids the over-compression so common in electronic music, that leads to "audio sausage" syndrome. Stone notes that "in cinema, composition has gone the other way." Brown describes how this affects their writing process: "We make a point of making sure that there is dynamic range – that there's a really wide scope, so that when something does get big, you can viscerally feel it."
On first listen, you could be forgiven for thinking Ubre Blanca were analogue synth purists, but this is not the case. They use soft synths and Ableton Live to recreate and expand upon the analogue synth sound live, and in the studio, they use a combination of digital and analogue gear. "For practicality, it makes more sense," explains Brown. "Carting around a bunch of old, expensive synths can be very expensive and difficult."
Stone has a cautionary tale about touring with more valuable analogue gear. "I was touring with a synth guitar, which was the first synth guitar – the Roland GR-500. It's quite rare, and worth a lot of money. I was waiting for a plane and I looked out of the airport window, and I saw the throwers on the tarmac. There were 'fragile' stickers all over it, in every language under the sun. I saw one of the baggage handlers lift it up over his head and WHAM! He just stoated it off the floor. My heart was just like... fuck. It was so painful. Not because it was my instrument – because it was a historical artefact. There are only about a thousand of them. After that I figured I'd go digital. You can figure out ways to make the same sounds using equipment which, if it gets smashed by throwers, isn't a crime against history."
They use soft synths fed through guitar amps or analogue synths in the studio to achieve an approximation of analogue warmth. "You can use the filters and parameters of the analogue synth, but you can play polyphonic sounds," explains Stone. "Use a Yamaha DX7 through a Multimoog, or something like that. You get really interesting results." Brown shakes his head warily. "This will make the purists spin. They'll hate it. Luckily I just play the drums."
Their cover art, not to mention their sound, also derives from the aesthetic of 'retro-futurism' - a focus on visions of the future from byegone eras. "I've had this phrase knocking around my head – 'when the future was something you could look forward to,"' says Stone. "Generally now, people are probably not incorrectly terrified of the future and what it might hold, but that wasn't always the case. That's a mindset that's really interesting to look at – when the future wasn't purely existential horror."
Ubre Blanca's music seems to carry an implied rejection of what they describe as the "clean, white and brushed chrome-looking future, where everything purrs and nothing smells" in favour of a lost "ZX-81 future," as Stone puts it. "There is enough of a disparity between what really is – what's going on now – and what they were proposing would be the future, that we can look back and say, 'That would have been great,'" says Brown.
The duo are both excited to be releasing on Clan Destine, a record label which, aptly, only trades in vinyl and cassettes. Clan Destine offers a home within a very diverse and experimental roster, whose bands share an aesthetic more than a sound: "There is a kind of 'hive mind' effect at work," Brown believes. "Our record will stand out but it won't seem weird."
They're also full of praise for Glasgow-based promoter Cry Parrot, aka Fielding Hope. They were an "11th-hour addition" to this year's Music Language Festival, and had a great response to their set at the Glue Factory, despite the dreich weather. "It's a testament to Fielding that he is the kind of guy who can bring all of these people – who can be quite prickly... there is something about people who make experimental music, the way they are wired – and he can get them on the same side," says Brown. "He's created a legitimate alternative to things like King Tut's and T in the Park – anything that promotes the meat and potatoes indie-schmindie rubbish."
Brown however is insistant that he "never expected to make a living out of music." If one does expect this, "that can dilute what kind of music you make – if that's not a consideration you are free to follow your own methods. Even if it's an audience of one, at least you've created something honest, instead of pandering to a commercial template." Ranting against the ubiquity of bands composed of "guys in fedoras with ukeleles," Stone observes: "There have always been swine getting away with it."
Asked about the recent breakup of Divorce, Brown says that it "just wasn't much of a story. The thing had kind of run out of steam." He is working on the new Remember Remember album and new tracks for Ubre Blanca concurrently. With 12 songs recorded, and more on the way, the duo intend to release a series of 12-inch records next year, following up with an album in 2015. "We're moving faster than I've ever worked in a band before," observes Brown. "It's been a real creative spurt." Remixes and collaborations are also in the offing.
We chat briefly about the influence of the Glasgow School of Art, less as an academic institution (Brown, a graduate of the GSA, says "there is a cliche that you go to art school to study painting and come out with a degree in Marxist cultural theory... which is basically what happened to me...") than as a cultural "melting pot" focused around the Students Association and its attendant clubs and gigs.
Stone offers a final observation about his time at the Art School. "A lot of people you meet in an academic context are not very interesting. It's not their fault sometimes – maybe it's because they've just come out of school and they've not done anything. You haven't had the time to develop a really fascinating personality. You're not going to be a raconteur at 17, you don't have the material there."
Brown laughs. "It would be a bit suspicious if you were..." Stone puts on an incredulous cod-American accent. "You were never in 'Nam...'" The pair laugh, displaying the same easy camaraderie they share on stage. "We had a lying kid in our school who claimed he designed the James Bond gun from the 60s," Stone remembers, heading off on yet another tangent. "He was obsessed with Lexus cars, but to an unhealthy and prurient degree... he claimed to have fucked one up the exhaust pipe." Brown's smile widens with appreciation. "That's borderline schizophrenic..."