Here is the second part of my three-part interview with British progressive rock band, The Enid.
As you look to your next release – the working title of which is ‘Reset’ – have you got everything planned for the studio?
Robert: I’m not going to be working with Joe like that this time, Jason’s doing it because he has developed. People see him as the sort of shy, slightly shoe-gazey guitarist who comes out with this incredible stuff and he is shy. But when you see him smile and he actually opens his eyes and looks at you, he’s such an amazing person. He’s also a very good pianist. He taught himself all of that. I gave him a piano when he went off to University in Worthing some years ago before he joined The Enid and he’s really taught himself an awful lot. He hasn’t got the confidence he really needs at the moment and I think working with Joe on the next album – where I can just be the long-stop or safety net if it’s really, really needed – is the way I wish to do this one. The one after that, whatever it’s going to be, we might give Dream Theater a run for their money! Do a really virtuoso album full of marvellous tunes and content, because content is everything as far as I’m concerned.
Max: Melodies are everything for me.
Robert: And the way that they are harmonised, because that can bring such a different emotional slant.
Joe: The reason The Enid’s music is so powerful is because we take that element of it so seriously. But we also recognise the importance of that tribal element of it. That roots down in our DNA as a prehistoric human need. Part of our social being is that rhythmic side to music. That’s what it was all about. We’d have been dancing round a fire, hitting things, making noises, vocalising. The rhythmic side is so important to make it accessible to people and that’s why it works.
It’s clear that you all take your music in The Enid seriously, but you’re very easy-going as people too. How do you think that has had an impact on how The Enid are perceived?
Robert: I went through my career up until now with such a phobia of being accused of being the band that took itself too seriously. I spent the whole of my public life impersonating a clown. I was just so concerned of the perception that this was elite, when of course, it was. I was sort of class denier. I came from a posh background, I was born on the Leeds Castle Estate, I went to boarding schools, I was brought up to believe that I was one of the most privileged people in the land and then I discovered a whole different life. I denied my own class. I could never get rid of my accent. My friend Tom Robinson did a better job. Tom and I went to school. Before he was there I think he went to Saffron Boarding School, which is a really posh Quaker boarding school. John Peel did the opposite to him. When I first met John Peel before the punk thing in the ‘60s, he was very posh, with a petite beard and a nice pad in Parsons Green. He’d been to Shrewsbury School and he thought, ‘well, punk is here, I’d better tone myself down!’ and accepted it in a scouse way and then got stuck there. It was really rather sad to see him lose touch with the reality of how music culture was moving on.
I cannot be all things to all people. If somebody approaches me – which they have in the past – and says to me, ‘I’m black, I live in a high-rise block in Hackney and your music doesn’t speak to me’ and I’d say ‘well, you’ve got music that speaks to you, why does mine need to?’ My music speaks to whoever can hear it or whoever will give it a listen. Like anything that’s worthwhile in life, you cannot expect to sit back and say ‘do it to me’. This is the culture that youth have at the moment where they have got no patience with anything. I know I sound like [I’m talking about] the good old days. Well, I tell you what, there’s no such thing as the good old days. The good old days were awful. I think of the days that I spent in a boarding school in the 1950s when bend over could mean one of two things and usually it meant both and there was absolutely fuck all you could do about it, you just had to put up with it. I remember the real problems of the political climate immediately after the Flower Power thing – which was great, or at least it seemed great at the time – was then [followed by] a strike in this country which has ruined several generations, particularly in the North. We’ve had a war against the working classes which has attempted to actually destroy the working classes as a section of society, making them believe that they can all be Prime Minister. The thing is that social mobility is a bit of a con, it’s a scam.
Joe: About taking ourselves seriously, we always try to be a fun band. We always try to have a few drinks with whatever bands we meet. There’s a great band called who we played with called Moon Safari in Portugal. We were picked up from the airport and put on a bus to the venue and they’d read on some prog forum that we were apparently stand-offish and not very friendly! They got on the bus, put their shades on and went to the back to kind of get out the way. But we put our hands out and introduced ourselves. We had a drink with them later and they explained to us that they’d heard through word of mouth that we weren’t very nice. So I’m glad we’re proving otherwise!
Why do you think the band had that reputation on this forum?
Robert: I think it’s a distortion of the fact that I have been very critical of some bands, not as people or in any social context, but just that they are simply not who they’re cracked up to be and the fact that they’re given equal billing to people who so obviously are much more gifted – otherwise, ‘prog’ will always be the leper colony of the music genres. If we don’t attract new and brilliant talent into progressive music, this is the way it will remain. I want to get rid of that and that means we need to do some serious weeding within the context. It’s no good saying a band like Pendragon – who’ve worked and worked for 20-25 years at doing what they do – deserve it. They fucking don’t deserve it. What they do, they do very well, but the stuff they do is shit. It’s so absolutely derivative of everything. They’re not the only ones by any means who do this, but they’re just someone I’ve picked on who really are what gives prog the bad name that it has. They have fans who actually love what they do, and all good to them – they’ve built up that. Being a band is not just about the music you do, it’s also about the friends you make – the audience. It’s why Lemmy from Motorhead is so bloody successful, because he has been mother, father, brother, sister and granddad now, to all his fans, whatever they’ve needed. He is like the John The Baptist of the heavy side of things. That is why Pendragon – fair play to them – have got those fans because they have made sure that they have paid attention. They’ve got that right, but they just need to get the music right and to take the plunge and if they haven’t got anyone in that band who is capable of moving them forward, then they should get somebody who can do it. They’re very good players; they can do all, it’s just the writing and content. There’s another band that I really like despite the fact that they do music or have done music that is not derivative but based upon a style that I recognise as being very progressive from the late 1960s. That’s Beardfish. What they do, they do brilliantly. They don’t copy, they actually improve. The content of what they’re doing is – in my view – a lot better than a lot of the music that has been done in that style, which is coming slightly from the jazz side of progressive.
Which bands do you think started progressive music?
Robert: When you think about the early progressive bands, who were they? Well, it all started in pop: Pet Sounds and ‘Sergeant Pepper’s’ and maybe Revolver a bit before. That’s really where it started. Then the R&B side who was being looked after by Alexis Korner, who really informed The Rolling Stones who really got their side of it from. You got bands like Cream who began to make waves and a huge number of those all wanting to push the envelope and all doing it within the particular genre that they had grown with. There was a huge divergence – this massive progressive outpouring – from the most experimental to effectively what was progressive pop music like ELO, they were associated with that. It wasn’t just the music; it was film, fashion, art and everything that was part of that explosion. That’s what you have to understand, that was progressive then. What we now have is I suppose one could say there was a lot of places to go from where you were and now everything has been done. A real good use of pastiche is the answer and in fact, Porcupine Tree are really good at this.
How do you feel about Porcupine Tree’s place in progressive music?
Robert: There are things about Steve Wilson that I admire tremendously because he is a very skilful, intelligent, clever producer and he also has a fine voice. He is rather like a brilliant chef who has all the ingredients and he knows about them and he will take them and make something. Has he ever made something that one could truly call original? I think he has in terms of the dish he presents to people. But as far as the ingredients are concerned, I don’t think he’s come up with much in there. I also think someone in his position ought to really be a bit more politicised because this generation particularly – who are facing their futures now – are facing a world where things have gone mad. I think we all know that. Ultimately, a time will have to come when a whole generation ignites with fury over the circumstances that they find themselves in. That has got to come sooner rather than later and it will be the artists and the intellectuals – which are the people who are always persecuted when there’s any kind of crackdown – who actually need to lead the way. It’s the writers and the musicians and all the rest of it.
Joe: I think already sparks are beginning to fly. We haven’t had a forest fire yet.
Robert: I think Steve Wilson makes comfortable music for the slightly well-heeled and that is something really nice to put on and I think I rather object to that. I just wish who people who are in a position to have a voice, a point of view and to share that point of view, should do so.
Joe: It’s provocation to make people think in a different way. If we’re told one thing, it’s very easy to take that because we haven’t had another side to it. The news were very quick to say that the attack in Woolwich was related to Islam, and it was, but by saying that, it immediately provoked a lot of attacks on Islam which weren’t necessarily fair.
Robert: I saw something on the news today and the fact is, yes, there has been a sharp rise in attacks, and these attacks have come from the horrendous extremes – from the fundamentalists within the Muslim community and from the nasty, bigoted right-wing who we have in this country. That’s largely the people who are doing this shit. We’ve always had them. This is nothing new. All generations since WWII in most of the European countries, let alone the rest of the world, have had terror waged by their own citizens against their internal regimes.
How do you feel about human nature? Are we naturally war-mongering creatures set on a disaster course?!
Joe: Naturally, the human race is very collectivist. In a normal situation where there are no threats, we’re quite happy to share everything we have with everybody. But the moment a threat arises, we become tribal and very individualist. That is just our response and I don’t think everybody is like that but there’s always that element to think about.
Going back to Joe’s point earlier about the very basic human need for music and rhythm, do you feel that music can be viewed as a civic duty? As artists do you see The Enid’s music in that respect?
Robert: No. I think it’s more the fact I can’t do anything else. I made my bed a long time ago and now I’m lying in it. That is the scenario. I don’t think an artist can hope to be anything more than an individualised mirror. You say ‘this is how I see the world, look at it’. When you get enough people doing that, then people have a lot of places they can look because no single person’s idea can ever really do anything more than indoctrinate you if you embrace it. You really have to be able to pick and mix. That’s the secret to finding the meaning of your own life. My life – as an example – I have found the meaning of my own life.
Interview by Calum Robson