We all have no problem in giving pride of place and any amount of kudos to albums that were made by vintage names from the 1960s and 1970s, and we often place them on high and mighty pedestals. And rightly so, as these can often be more than affirmative listening experiences. They might even take up residence close to our hearts and may instigate major talking points within various friendship groups; some may even constitute a transformational, life-changing presence for us. What’s not all that frequent in this regard, however, are those albums made by more modern day acts; much less so even when it’s a group or artist who may have been around for a few years, but who then decide to split up, only to come back onto the scene more than a decade or so later for some still unfinished business. There won’t be too many of us who can name, nevermind laud many, if any, albums that were made by a 60s group who threw in the towel long ago but then decide to give it another go a decade or more down the line. And yet… there is one decidedly modern group who have just now turned this theory on its head, and this group is The Embrooks, from London and Folkestone down the south-east coast of England, who are easily one of the finest names around which is, or who are regally infatuated by the sounds made by 60s beat, garage and psychedelic groups. And this accolade is true not only for their original work done in the late 1990s, but also for now, today, in fact perhaps even more so now!
Their brand new album We Who Are… The Embrooks has not only caught the sound and the feel perfectly of those mod-rocking, freakbeat-into-psychedelic combos of 1966-68, but also, with their lyrical maturity and confident sense of song construction, arrangement and the potential of the studio, they possess something of the natural zeitgeist, with a strong purpose as to what it means to be living and breathing smack bang in the middle of this uber-moderne age.
Opening track ‘Going But Not Gone’ sets the scene for a pulsating, pulverizing ride through some of the best sounds heard in years. Their re-recording of last single ‘Nightmare’ (their first outing after they reconvened in 2016) plus ‘Don’t Look At Me’, ‘Til Tomorrow’ and ‘You Can If You Want’ are but a few cuts on the album that are particularly stunning; their style, outlook and overall feel. It is an album pierced by Alessandro Cozzi-Lepri’s brilliantly electrified guitar playing, plus a great commanding display in both rhythmic components – that’s the bass guitar and the drums I’m talking about, both scintillatingly inflicted upon us by Matthew “Mole” Lambert, and Lois Tozer, respectively, and all of which helps to churn up the totally captivating atmosphere that’s happening all through the album, and which truly manages to capture something in its feel, and which expertly conveys that authentic highwire kinetic charge that is truly “other” in its execution, set apart from the ordinary if you like, so as to make the listener feel that it’s something extraordinary that’s being heard! There’s not too many groups around who not only look to the past for the bulk of their inspiration, but who genuinely, and thoroughly are in thrall, fixated, and wholly transfixed by the full process of what ingredients went into those ahead-of-the-curve original masters – whether cubby-holed into the realm of garage / beat or whether situated alongside the heavier sphere that spawned all things mod-rock and their psychedelic generation relations. But those Embrooks also have a unique factor of their own, and this is down to the group’s terrifically exciting playing technique and the exceptional quality of their vocals. It’s their story which they’re telling and “it” – that unquantifiable thing which they possess and which has never been demonstrated so strongly; with all colours blazing, you might say – is sealed deep within their bones like a fire that won’t quit.
Here’s what the individual players that make up the Embrooks had to say about the questions I put to them.
Lenny Helsing: So it’s been a couple of years now since the Embrooks decided to get back together again. What was the reasoning behind the reconvening of the group after such a long hiatus?
Mole: Over time, a few people had kinda asked or suggested we should do it, but it never really felt right until we were actually offered a show. We figured the only way to find out if we could play together again and stand to be in the same room as each other (joke!), was to give it a shot. I was very conscious of doing it (getting back together) for the right reasons, or more accurately, NOT doing it for the wrong reasons!! There had to be sufficient outside interest, otherwise it could look like an enormous ego massage; and we had to be at least as good as we had been 10 years previously, in terms of performance and musicality.
Alessandro: I believe that the incidental reason was a good offer from the organisers of Barcelona Gambeat Festival in 2015 which asked for a one off reunion show in 2016. However, we had previously received similar offers but the timing was not right. At the end of 2015 there was a number of factors that made us think that it could work or at least was worth trying. Lois had been successfully back playing drums with Thee Jezebels (now Dagger Debs). I, after slowly getting back to handling a guitar in Minnesota with The Floorshakers and the short lived combo Peach Fuzz Forest and a short course of reunion shows with Head and the Hares, played for about 12 months with a London-based band called Merry-Men. Mole in the meantime had never stopped his million musical projects. So once most of the rust on Lois and myself had gone, it sounded like we could at least try to pull it off. The very moment in which I really believed this could happen was a night in Camden at the end of summer of 2015. Mole and Lois were guest DJs for a Weirdvsille event and I went along as a punter. Chatting with Mole that night I mentioned the fact that I had recently purchased a 1964 Vox JMI AC30. Mole asked ‘What are you going to do with it’? Relevant question at the time…most of you reading this probably know what I ended up doing with it….
Lois: So Mole spent goodness knows how long stating he would never play in a band with me ever again. Then he had a memory lapse and said after some persuasion (an offer of a fun Spanish gig & much cajoling by kind & keen fans) let’s give it whirl. All the various academic challenges had been reached & fuck it, it was the right time.
Lenny: What, if anything in particular, were the main reasons for the group choosing to stop playing in the first place?
Mole: Work commitments, primarily, plus the feeling that, at that point (2005), it felt as though it had run its course. We weren’t really writing new material with any real sense of purpose, and everyone was tired, physically and mentally.
Alessandro: We all seemed to have other priorities in life. We could have kept it going at a slower pace but there was not enough consensus to do so. It was a little bizarre as our third album had just come out and with great press and interest around it. On reflection, it sounded a wise decision as we do not seem to function properly unless there is a 100% commitment.
Lois: Nine & half years of pretty full on times, plus we all worked full time. It was really hard doing tours in a little van on a shoestring several times a year. I wanted to study for a degree part time & Al needed to complete PhD & had got married. All in all it sort of just ran out of steam. We honestly didn’t think we had any more awesome material as we were all knackered.
Lenny: Once you got back together and then came out with the ‘Nightmare’ b/w ‘Helen’ single… did you already know in your minds that you’d also like to make another album?
Mole: I don’t think so, not initially. It was nice to have something new to play when Al put Nightmare forward, and I very much like the fact that we’re NOT just playing the old gear, although (most of) that gear’s still good from our point of view. I’m beyond knocked out that we have an entire set’s worth of new, quality material to play, and with the very favourable reaction that the material seems to be getting. That kind of thing spurs you on to keep producing!
Alessandro: Absolutely not. The recording of Nightmare felt already like a great achievement and, at least personally, I was living it day by day without having too much expectation. I was still living the dream that the Embrooks were alive again and did not have much time to think ahead. With age I have learned that if you expect zero then whatever turns out is going to be as expected or better. Then slowly new material started to appear and also a spunky new studio which looked like the ideal place to record the new songs.
Lois: I don’t think so. We just took it as it came, the Nightmare single was a bit of a moment of excitement & the thought of re-doing Helen & getting it onto 7” was so appealing. Way back it was always the album track people would know. As it turned out Nightmare was so insanely good it was so inspiring. I started to write lyrics for Al’s tunes & collaborate on other things he had begun to write. Suddenly we had a whole load of other stuff. And simultaneously we also had our own studio, which became possible after Nightmare was released. So the LP was a bit of kismet.
Lenny: I love, as I’m sure all Embrooks fans love too, such as the Our New Day album that the late Greg Shaw put out for you on his Voxx label back in the late 90s. That LP was fabulous, with a gritty, and decidedly garage-mod beat feel and atmosphere, but after a few listens to the new We Who Are… The Embrooks LP my mind is beginning to formulate some notions that, actually, this new set might just be the best collection yet to bear the Embrooks name, any thoughts you might like to share on this?
Mole: Well, that certainly would be cool if people thought that! I’m always of the opinion (regardless of the band) that whatever you’re currently working on should be the best thing you’ve done, otherwise what’s the point? It would make little sense to put time and effort into recording an LP’s worth of songs to then think at the end “it’s not as good as the last one”!! Having said that, without blowing the old trumpet too much, I do think we set the bar pretty high with Our New Day and Yellow Glass Perspections, and once you’ve recorded in a studio of Toe Rag’s quality, it’s unlikely anything else will match it, but I think this new batch turned out pretty good.
Alessandro: I love Our New Day because of its freshness, the link with Greg Shaw and the memories of USA tours linked to its release. In retrospect, I always thought we could do a better mix of it, potentially easing out some of the compression. Overall I think that it is a tight battle between the new one and the previous Yellow Glass Perspections on Munster Records. YGP benefitted from the use of Toe Rag studios and Liam Watson’s production gimmicks, top song-writing, the use of strings etc., many people still consider it as our best album. The recording of it was, however, a little rushed. On the other hand, I believe that the playing in We Who Are is superior, both because we had improved as musicians but also because of the use of better-sounding equipment and the possibility to spend more time for the takes and overdubs.
Lois: That makes me really happy. We have written about stuff that is going on in our lives, had fun and this is the first LP that was so collaborative. We were really lucky to have Mole record it (he is a bit of a quality control freak) and we could take more time than before because of having the studio. I was really concerned we could take too much time, & stray into noodling, so imposed some time frames (nagged the others to crack on). So once mixed we were conscious that we had a decent legacy. It was a bit scary before the release in case people thought it didn’t stand up. It’s all very well thinking ‘it’s a corker’ but until others have an earful, you can’t be too sure.
Lenny: So, okay you’ve got as much access to North Down Sound studio as you want, or need – given that it’s your own studio, and give or take the odd sessions that also take place for a few other groups – so therefore do a lot of the group’s songs come to the session already well prepared and duly pre-rehearsed, or did some of the ideas that present themselves on We Who Are… actually get written, arranged and performed as and when you spent time in the studio?
Mole: Bit of both. Someone (usually Al) brings the bare bones of song to rehearsal, so at that point we probably have structure (verse, chorus etc), but little else. Then we set about adding to it, I guess thinking about what you can potentially hear the song turning out like. ‘Going But Not Gone’ from the LP was almost written on the spot, I had a bass riff that I just really wanted to use, and a kind of feel in mind, partly based on Oscar & The Majestics’ KILLER side, ‘No Chance Baby’. It all came together in probably no more than about 30 minutes!!
Alessandro: I think that we were very clever at taking advantage of having free studio time without over-indulging. Because of the potential unlimited time, there was a risk that the recording could have gone on forever, leading to an overproduced and potentially obsolete product. We set approximate deadlines and tried to stick to those. Although we recorded between March and August I do not think that we spent more than 3 weeks overall in the studio. Live-tracks were done in the usual 3-4 days. Regarding the timing of composition, I’d say was a mixture of things. Most of the original idea for my songs turned out to be eventually quite different. One example is ‘I’m Coming Home’ which I conceived as a rock number and then received the ‘Joe Meek’ treatment at North Down Sound. It just happened in the studio without any pre-meditation, in fact I had a more modern sound in mind for it, not certainly 1963. Some of the overdub arrangements were pre-prepared. I have recently bought a loop pedal and that helped constructing guitar overdubs when we still did not have a live track to work on. Others just came impromptu in the final phases. Examples of those are the uh-uhs backing vocals and the fuzz riff in the verse of ‘You Can if You Want’.
Lois: The studio has been the best thing ever. But there is surprisingly little Embrooks time in there. Although it’s where we rehearse, because Al lives in London we have limited time. Much of the writing is done via WhatsApp ideas & voice messages, then we get together and make a final song. However there have been amazingly fast ‘come-together-in-the-studio’ moments, such as ‘Going But Not Gone’ which went from one line we liked from a friend’s poem to a complete tune ready to polish all of a sudden.
Lenny: How happy are the three of you, individually and collectively, with the overall sound and performance results of We Who Are…? Are there, in hindsight, things that you now might’ve decided to do differently, or anything that may disturb you or disappoint you in any of the songs etc? I’d just like to point out that I’m not criticising here, but that I am just curious as to every part of the process that’s been worked out for this tremendous album?
Mole: Personally, I’m very happy with it. I genuinely think the LP is as good as it can be. There’s nothing on there that makes we wince, ha-ha!! Given our limitations as performers, and the limitations of the studio set-up, inevitably there are things you have to compromise on. We certainly took our time to try and get it as good as we could, rather than rushing through it, as we’d been forced to do in the past (because of studio costs, availability etc). I’m always knocked out with our vocal performances, I like to think we’ve got a pretty good grip on that.
Alessandro: As I mentioned before we set deadlines. It happened for all previous albums to have bits in the final mix for which I was thinking ‘I wish I had played that better’. My personal rule for moving onto the next step this time was trying to minimise that. In other words, if there was anything that was disturbing or disappointing me I would have pushed to have the situation resolved before moving forward. There was a funny moment when I played the test pressing and thought that some of the guitar overdubs had been wiped out in the process. Not so! I only had the ‘mono’ button pressed on my hi-fi system (dooh). So make sure that your speakers are wired correctly and play it STEREO for best results! I have now played the LP to death and I am not disturbed or disappointed by it at all…
Lois: It’s mid Jan 2019, so far so good! I have not had any cringe moments but can still hear those Mole ‘coaching quips’ that are forever bonded to the tracks!
My thanks to the Embrooks for their time providing these illuminating answers. If you haven’t done so already, you should get yourself a copy of the new album. It’s only one of the greatest modern albums of our time, therefore if you dig true garage freakbeat and those crunching proto-psychedelic sounds of which many groups loved to create back in the mid-to-late sixties, then get with the programme and don’t miss the bus.
State Records “making records that sound like records”
– Lenny Helsing