Tut Vu Vu: Stardust From Tomorrow
The Phantom Band's <b>Andy Wake</b> eulogises the late, great horror R&B show that was Uncle John & Whitelock to explain the origins of <b>Tut Vu Vu</b>
Tut Vu Vu describe themselves as the love child of Anaïs Nin and David Lynch, and that's a reasonable metaphor for the strange dark brew of Musique Concrète concocted by two thirds of deceased Scottish cult favourites Uncle John & Whitelock. Tut Vu Vu release their debut 7” in December via The Bonjour Branch, a home-made imprint cobbled together by Dave Maclean (Django Django), Craig Coulthard (Randan Discotheque) and myself.
Most Fridays, Mattie “Ovalbody” Black was a guy even more under-age than I, in McGonagalls; the bar in Dundee where a few of us used to DJ each week- I'm fairly sure he was even one of the few who would occasionally fork out a pound for a mixtape from the shoe-box we'd take around the pub. A gangly eccentric chap, he belonged to a crowd that to me seemed tuned in to interesting music.
In that same pub, I saw him playing guitar in an ad-hoc band, experimenting with different ways of feeding sound into pickups; I barely knew him but decided he was a guy who probably wouldn't tire of having fun with musical dabbling. Raydale “Whitelock” Dower was a friend of people I knew at the Art School and in Skateboardy crowds, but I only knew of him, and probably only because of his memorable name. At this point, Dower was tinkering with a fretless bass he'd been given - the operation of which he claims to have had no expertise in at the time - and dreaming up GFM, which he explains “may or may not stand for Ganja-Force Massive, God Forgot Man, Gasoline Firearms & Mescalin, or Gods Finest Music...”.
After graduating I moved to Glasgow as most did. I saw a band precariously playing high on a ledge, above the partitioning in a King Street art gallery, filled with smoke and bedecked in what looked like Caribbean decoration. But the music wasn't reggae. Link Wray inspired guitars were underpinned by distorted organ stabs and an Americana so faked that it painted a nightmarish aura of Lynchian drama, more decisive than the real thing; unsettlingly so.
It was too dark and smoky to see the band, hunching under the ceiling – I could only see a pair of knees quivering frantically like a more-than-demented Elvis - but I was told they were called Uncle John & Whitelock and the knees belonged to Jake 'Uncle John' Lovatt. Their dark dark dirge-abilly 'Horror R&B', as they defined it, carried with it the urgency of how I could only imagine an early Birthday Party show could be, a manic energy close to what I'd seen in old Dead Kennedys live videos, channelled through Lovatt's exuberant showmanship and, despite the feeling that it could all fall apart at any minute (or that they could fall through the ceiling of the store cupboard they were perched over- I later heard that a bass amp did), an impressive level of musicianship for such a wayward and chaotic bunch; I reckoned I'd probably seen the most exciting band in Scotland.
Quite some time later, I heard that UJ&W were appearing in a church on Great Western Road. Minutes before the gig I met a staggering Mattie Black in the street, just as he threw an empty cider bottle into a skip. It was only then that I discovered he was in this elusive band I was about to watch. I'd heard about a similarly lubricated and gravity defying single launch in McSorleys, and goings on at their Robertson Street studio, a gathering point for scatter-shot collective GFM; the heading under which they released their DIY recordings, embarked on self-managed projects and hosted art events of sorts... but I hadn't realised the Dundee connection until now.
For some reason I found in this greater justification for enthusing about them. A further surprise of the gig was to see Mattie not holding a battered old guitar as I'd expected, but perched on a drum stool; a stool which he later fell off. Having struggled a bit with the slow 7/4 rhythm of their opener, the pattern of which was eventually being gesticulated to him by the arms of some helpful audience members and the rest of the band alike, the band eventually scrapped it and moved on to their psychobilly signature track The Train, at which point I witnessed some of the most lucidly involved drumming I'd experienced to date, and a band that could demonstrate with ease a balls-out songcraft hitherto unseen by the post-Mogwai Scottish rock audiences I was used to; cider or no cider.
But in the spirit of Scottish self-defeatism, after only one self-released album (albeit a much applauded 20 track epic) in 2006, There Is Nothing Else, and a few collectable seven and ten inch releases, the band decided to wind up, just as they were seeing glimpses of a more overground success and opportunities further afield. Raydale Dower believes that too much talking was to blame; it just wasn't as intuitive as it once had been. There was also a rumour circulating at the time, that several hundred copies of the album had to be edited with Tip-Ex, after former drummer Andrew Hobson was non-consentually credited as 'Hashfinger', which I can imagine might take some of the fun out of being in UJ&W.
Nonetheless, the GFM studio continued as a center of this-and-that, remaining a creative hub in some capacity: Raydale's art studio doubling up as a rehearsal space come skateboard workshop. After around a year, three bands emerged almost simultaneously from the ashes- Jacob Yates and the Pearly Gate Lockpickers, featuring front man Jake Lovatt, still with Jamie Bolland to his right on piano and Farfisa organ – Whitelock guitarist Dave Philp's band, Adopted as Holograph - and Tut Vu Vu, also featuring Bolland, alongside former Whitelocks, Mattie Black and Raydale Dower.
Their understated debut at Low Salt, a constantly mutating contemporary gallery of no fixed abode, seemed entirely appropriate for the way Tut Vu Vu like to operate. We booked them for The Hot Club as their 2nd live outing, and it became apparent to me that, when the estate was divided up, UJ&W had left most of the family heirlooms to Jacob Yates & The Pearly Gate Lockpickers. With Jake Lovatt's inimitable drawl, the Lockpickers are inevitably tied stylistically to the band of he and Bolland's past, which can't be a bad thing.
Saving only the underlay that bolstered the always slightly menacing rhythm section, along with the odd curious harmonic knick-knack from the house clearance, Tut Vu Vu have ventured on a more experimental path; fusing dark, sleazy club jazz with a hint of that foreboding R&B and somewhat Progressive tendencies, through an array of other-worldly electronics. The Progressive observation is confirmed by the fact that the band performed a quadrophonic show at Glasgow's CCA, as part of Raydale Dower's artist residency there. Dower regularly hangs up his electric bass - which he has always played in an almost-vertical position, as if it were an upright - in favour of an Arp Odyssey synth, or a clarinet played through various effects.
The stage is often strewn with props which range from the eclectic and decorative cardboard cut-outs and banners of Glasgow artist Judd Brucke, to an array of old televisions appearing circuit-bent in their abstract display of sound signals and video feedback. The line up seems unfixed - with the recent appearance of Iban Perez from Sparkling Shadazz – and the sound is as diverse as this would all suggest; veering from spooky space-jazz to the pads and pulsating rhythms akin to their apparent interest in German Kosmische and Krautrock. Moments of their 2009 tape cassette release 'Abracadabra Holmes' even take the form of a strange improvised and machine-like hip-hop.
On stage, Tut Vu Vu tinkers with melody that dances just-around predictable scales; as playful as Thelonius Monk or Erik Satie's subversion of familiar melodies, tip-toeing over the anticipated note with the cheeky half-grin of a malevolent teenager. Indeed, Bolland cites both Monk and Satie as influences, having performed a Satie tribute event at Dower's temporary art cafe 'Le Drapeau Noir', during Glasgow International, 2010. When Tut Vu Vu began, Dower looked to the bass melodies of Mingus as a guide to the musical freedom he sought after UJ&W. Personally, it was my enjoyment of Sun Ra that helped reveal to me why, whilst doing their sound at The Hot Club, Tut Vu Vu had perhaps just usurped Uncle John & Whitelock as my favourite live band.
I quiz Raydale Dower about Sun Ra and he confesses that “although Tut Vu Vu don't really improvise in that way - we do work with compositions – there is definitely something of the esoteric in there, so there's something akin to the way Sun Ra saw things”. He elaborates, describing the way he viewed creating music as “like a kind of alchemy, where you make sounds with other people in a room and you create an object separate from the sum of the individuals, and eventually you can trust in the presence of that object and not think about it; not worry about what it might do.”
This is a Ra-ism if ever I heard one. But Dower goes on to explain how he comes at writing music from the opposite position to that of Sun Ra. Ra began his career as an in-house composer for big-band, eventually forming his own group and only pursuing the Omniversal experimentation that we know him for later on, once he had mastered a huge level of musical skill. Dower, however, believes that any semblance of musicianship he has today, he has acquired only whilst a member of performing bands. A position similar to my own.
He goes on to talk of the importance of a band having a balance “between the trained and those who are just really keen to make a sound”. In his case, I'd guess the musically trained to whom he refers would be pianist Jamie Bolland and the recent line-up addition, Iban Perez. “Iban keeps asking what key things are in, but with us it's all in G, F and M...Tut Vu Vu is just continuing a quest to play that M chord”, he chuckled. He went on to explain his belief that a self-taught musician has the benefit of a more intuitive approach to melody. “Bassists write the worst basslines” and so on. “Music should be about being a bit bad”, he continues, “undermining things. Putting woodwind through electronic filters” and citing early Kraftwerk performances as an illustration.
Not initially intending to draw parallel with his band, Raydale jokes about his girlfriend remarking that a press release he wrote made little sense, as it was just a list of adjectives. “Why can't you start all your sentences with an adjective?” he asks me. He then concludes our conversation that Tut Vu Vu might be such a fumblerule of obfuscation un-eschewed: "a sentence that starts and ends with an adjective; that's us."
Tut Vu Vu play The Tunnels in Aberdeen (with Polar Bear) on 17 Oct and Edinburgh's Voodoo Room on 18 Oct.
Raydale Dower is currently Artist In Residence at Glasgow's Trongate 103, and a solo exhibition of his work at Stirling's Changing Room Gallery is now open.http://www.myspace.com/tutvuvu