This is Radgecore: Birdhead at the Pleasance Sessions

The Pleasance Sessions return this month and once again we've curated an evening of stellar live music. Kicking off closing night on 18 October are the inimitable Birdhead – Edinburgh's very own dance-inspired krautrockers

Feature by Chris McCall | 03 Oct 2014

Being the first band on at any show can be a daunting experience. Sparse crowds, indifferent punters and the constant din of bar conversations are all obstacles opening acts have to contend with. So, when we were planning our night of live musical entertainment at this month’s Pleasance Sessions, it was crucial to book a group that could seize people’s attention – and not look out of place on a bill that includes such Scottish heavyweights as Remember Remember and The Phantom Band, both of whom have stellar new albums to promote.

Birdhead are not the kind of act to wilt in the spotlight. While there are more than a few tough duos – from Cutty's Gym to Bronto Skylift – out causing a stir with little more than a guitar and drum kit at their disposal, this Edinburgh act are just that bit different. The pairing of drummer David Nicklen and guitarist, vocalist, loops and keys man Stephen Donkin has proved an inspired choice and already thrown up some of the most singular guitar music to emerge from Edinburgh in recent years.

Tourist, the stand out single from last year’s Pleasure Centre LP, is a good place to start if you’re beginning from a position of total unfamiliarity – but then some people come away from Birdhead gigs still feeling none the wiser. For a rough amateur’s guide to this outfit, try and mix the metronomic drumming of Jaki Liebezeit with dance-style synths, granite-hard riffs, and some latter-day Mark E Smith distorted vocals for good measure, and you’re just about half way there. It’s a winning formula that’s landed them on BBC radio playlists, seen their recent T in the Park set broadcast to thousands and won support slots for the likes of Death In Vegas. All things considered, they’ve more than earned a place at The Skinny’s Pleasance Session on 18 October. Just don’t call them noisemongers.

"we bring something different to the table” – Stephen Donkin

“We always have trouble describing ourselves to people who have never heard us before,” explains Donkin. “I like to name-drop Neu! and Harmonia, because I do genuinely love all that stuff – but it doesn’t necessarily come across in the music. In a live setting, we are a pretty heavy, shouty band, and I guess that’s where the ‘noisemongers’ tag comes from. I cringe at the ‘electro rock’ tag as well – it conjures images of the worst kind of bands imaginable to me. Someone once called us ‘radgecore’ – which I was quite down with.”

Nicklen agrees. "When asked about the band, I mention Krautrock, but given that not many people really know what I’m talking about – and the more Krautrock I listen too, the more I realise the spectrum of genres that term actually covers – I don’t think I’ll be using it again. Usually, I start with: “Do you know a band called The Fall?” and take it from there.”

While any group bold enough to compare themselves with Prestwich’s longest-running musical ensemble is usually guilty of wishful thinking, Birdhead are on surer footing. Like The Fall, their sound is all about the rhythm, and it powers along like the tracks of a Mark V tank crashing through an abandoned First World War trench. When in their element, their music’s dalliance with looping effects, synths and drones recalls other such Kraut-inspired garage rockers like the Monks or latter-day dance mentalists Factory Floor.

You can draw your own conclusions when they share the stage with Remember Remember and The Phantom Band, a hometown gig that Donkin is particularly looking forward to. “I actually love both these bands. I listened to The Wants on repeat for months and could probably sing you every word of it. I was absolutely cheesing when we were asked to play alongside them both. The last time I saw Remember Remember was at Electric Circus and they were totally mesmerising and hypnotic. That said, I think we bring something different to the table. For a start, we have far less personnel than those bands do, but will hopefully make just as much noise. I think we are a spikier proposition, so I’m hoping people will remember seeing us while they neck their first pint.”

The Birdhead story began when Nicklen, a long term Edinburgh resident originally from Scunthorpe, met Newhaven native Donkin when the latter joined a mutual friend’s band as bass player. A year down the line, the pair were firm friends and beginning their own musical experiments. As is often the case with the most innovative groups, they didn’t just arrive at their sound fully formed – it would take months of evolution, and the departure of several bandmates before the Birdhead formula was discovered.

“After the demise of our first band, we kept working together on various different projects, including a kind of lounge band and a straight up garage act,” Donkin recalls. “I was still playing bass, and Dave was playing guitar. We kept shedding members as things didn’t work out until eventually it was just Dave and I.

“We kept rehearsing just the two of us, to stay active at doing something. We would take turns playing guitar and drums. One day, I brought my laptop in with a bass loop on it to play away to, and during that first session we wrote the bulk of what became Tourist. We realised we had something then and there, and decided to press on with that extremely rudimentary setup. We have since become a little bit more refined with our live setup, but not much.”

As with all two piece groups, there were those that wondered if it was merely a temporary arrangement before other suitable members could be found. Not so, says Donkin. “We have, at times, tried playing with other people, in an experimental way. But coming from having played in bands with loads of other folk before, we know what the perils are. More people means more opinions; more voices, more egos, more levels to tweak, etc. With just the two of us, everything is simple – except it takes us longer to write stuff and we have to carry all the gear ourselves.

“There are loads of great two pieces in Scotland at the moment though, from Black International to Pinact to Ultimate Slaymaster, all doing cool shit. I think if you have music you want to play and it’s good enough, it doesn’t really matter how many of you are playing it. And sometimes restrictions breed the best kind of creativity.”

While declaring themselves satisfied with Pleasure Centre, Birdhead are already planning to push on with their next album, which they have “pretty big plans for” and aim to release in 2015. They’ve been keeping live bookings to a minimum to focus their energies on writing, but did find time to play a summer show back in Nicklen’s hometown of Scunthorpe – the capital of the UK steel industry and an unlikely hotbed of live music. “It’s a great wee town which most bands understandably bypass, so I feel it’s my duty to head home once in a while and punish the ears of my ever dutiful family and friends,” Nicklen enthuses. "Scunthorpe has always had a pretty lively local music scene, we kind of had to make our own fun.”

Aside from hitting up the Pleasance Sessions, and taping a new album, Birdhead have one other task on their schedules – securing the @Birdhead twitter handle from a Shanghai-based photographic collective of the same name. “As obsessive Google-baiters, we are very well aware of our Chinese counterparts,” notes Donkin. “I tweet them about once a month asking them to relinquish @Birdhead but have as yet had no reply. One day, somewhere, we will meet and sort this whole sorry business out. In the unlikely event that you are reading this gentlemen, please get in touch so we can join forces and become a Captain Planet-style amalgamation, conquering the world with mad music and arty nature photos.”

Birdhead play The Skinny's Pleasance Session alongside The Phantom Band and Remember Remember at Edinburgh's Pleasance Theatre on 18 Oct