Title: Ozric Tentacles
In: Guitar Magazine, Sep.01, 1994, v.4, no.8, p.40
Summary: The hirsute rustics currently taking prog rock to a new audience in the country's clubs.
A 400 year old millhouse-cum-recording studio on the river Avon... evidence of the odd 'exotic' cigarette... a clutch of dodgy 70's Gong albums. Who'd live in a house like this? Why, it's the Ozric Tentacles! Danny Eccleston goes west to meet chief Ozric Ed Wynne, ambient guitar prog overlord and creator of 13 albums in nine years. 'We're almost as big as the Zappa section in the record shops now...'
'We're all obsessed by mystery,' smiles Ed Wynne. 'I think that's fair to say. There's Joie and Merv obsessed by aliens and UFOs, and me... well, I'm obsessed by sound really. Music's a mystery, isn't it - 'cos really it's just a load of nonsense, it's just noise... Why should organising it create emotional responses? It's fun to be honest, this mystical, mysterious weirdness, and our way in is through the music.'
If the Ozric Tentacles needed anything so pretentious as a 'manifesto', maybe this could be it. Their bucolic blend of progressive rock, English rural psychedelia meshed with umpteen strands of 'world' music has, they're proud to say, no significance beyond itself. Unfazed by the demands of fashion and unsmirched by the smog and cynicism of the metropolis, they're happy in their West Country hideaway, where the pub shuts at ten and there's nowt to do but retreat behind the four-foot thick walls of their 16th century millhouse and jam like mad bastards on mescalin.
'The Americans love the idea of this place, 'cos of course they haven't got much that's over 200 years old. When we tell them we live in a 400 year old house where we make space rock music, they think it's great. They think we're all druids!'
It's an idyllic spot alright, shrouded by trees, and as good a place as any to discuss the aptly-titled "Arborescence", the Ozrics' latest 'proper' LP. Guitarist Ed Wynne glances absent-mindedly out of the window of his attic studio and reflects that it wasn't always thus...
'It was about 1982. There was a group of us who were into jamming for the sake of jamming, and doing little bits of recording and having fun with it. Then we started going to the free festivals with a generator, a band, amplifiers and a drum kit. That's really how we formed.'
The press are found of painting the Ozrics as mongrel-owning, yoghurt-knitting spaceheads with an allergy to the 20th century, but they're more likely to talk about the tough old graft behind their irresistible rise than spout pseudo-medieval mumbo jumbo. Their first full-length tape was entitled "Erpsongs" and gained an impressive currency among those for whom 'prog' was not necessarily a dirty word and, putting to shame the myriad of so-called 'indie bands' with surreptitious major label distribution deals, another six followed, mail-order only.
'"Arborescence is our 13th album,' says Ed. 'We're almost as big as the Frank Zappa section in the record shops ha ha! I don't go into record shops very often, but when I see it I think, That's just mad! I talk to people who've only got into us since our last album, "Jurassic Shift", and they say, "That was good, is there anything else we can here?" and I say, "Well, there's these other ten!"
If the Ozrics' were a fish, they'd be the Coelacanth. Thought extinct for a thousand grillion years or so, their particular strain of out-there, musicianship-heavy psychrock was suddenly rediscovered, thriving on the overlooked festival scene. Their rehabilitation as something approaching a hip musical entity was unexpected, but the recent flowering of ambient electronic music (courtesy of The Orb amongst others) has certainly helped. It seems the hippies are back...
'We were the band that didn't stop. The punk rockers wanted us to stop, but we persisted. We used to be guaranteed a gig at every festival we went to, at somebody's tent or other, but we can't do that anymore. When you go to Glastonbury now there's the massive stage and a production line of bands.'
Ed's not keen on that nasty punk rock music, then? 'Well for me it seemed like a very strange move for people to stop trying to achieve what they were trying to achieve - suddenly there was this anti-talent kind of mentality. But I thought, This can't last forever. So I stood firm doing what I was doing. In America they call us prog rock. They don't see the hyped "festival band" image at all. They simply see us as more progressive rock music from England - which we take as a compliment really.'
To their credit, and to the relief of music fans whose original problem with prog rock concerned the po-faced elitism of bands like Yes rather than their admirable (if sometimes overstretched) musical ambitions, the Ozrics are, above all else, a superfun partay. Not for nothing have they gained the affection of 'rave' audiences nationwide; the Ozric Tentacles are slaves to a monster groove.
'That whole thing about progressive rock being "high-brow, sophisticated, difficult music", that if you were a real music head you'd understand it, the elitism and all that - no, we're not into that at all. There are moments when it does sound like that in our music, but what we try and do is guide people through the music in a way they can cope with. We try and make it sound fun, which guides them through the pathways of the more complicated passages.'
Joie and Merv, the Ozrics' keyboardist and drummer, juggle their space rock commitments with time spent twiddling with machines that go 'bip'. And while their Eat Static dance project continues to thrive on the rave scene, the Ozrics remain in similar demand. Ed shakes his generously thatched head...
'We're always asked to do raves. For some reason we manage to get away with it, and I don't know why because this is not really rave music at all. Then again, people do dance to it and... well, it does have strange noises in it! It's weird that the ravers can only get off on house/techno music, and us. I personally find that more than half an hour of that incessant beat drives me up the wall!'
Make no mistake, the Ozrics are a guitar band (well, they're a flute band too, but that's another story). A master of everything from the Eastern and esoteric through lissom reggae to electrifying fusion-widdle, Ed can, um, play a bit. A fact which Joe Satriani, for one, is well aware of.
'I hadn't a clue that it was going to happen,' boggles Ed. 'They'd asked me if I'd like to see Joe Satriani and I said yeah, 'cos it'd be a guitarist burning up on stage which would be fun to watch. But when I got there, I was immediately ushered backstage and asked whether I had my guitar with me... They'd set up this jam in this dressing room, just me and him and a couple of guitars and all these cameras! And there we were having this weird little jam! It was really hot as well, so I was sweating away feeling very strange indeed. In fact it made me feel strange for about three days!
'Mind you I think Stevie Vai has the edge on him compositionally. It's almost like Joe's trying to play songs without the lyrics, retaining the song form. It's something I'm very keen to break away from myself. Also, I like Vai's sense of humour and his textual guitar sense. I think that he's really mad and I think he's opened the way for really "mad guitar" to be explored. Acrobatic guitar playing I call it.'
But what of the Ozrics' fabled eclecticism? Aren't they open to the same charges of patronising ethnic tourism that dog the likes of Sting and Paul Simon?
'Behind all of those kinds of music there's something deep-rooted and very strange,' argues Ed, 'but it's been watered down and watered down until the western ear can appreciate it more. We like to try and find it from a few notches back, before it actually becomes too saccharine. Some of the tapes we have are really odd, really mad; some of it doesn't even sound like music. Like, a one-string catgut violin played in a little shack somewhere can sound like God knows what-like someone oiling a piece of squealing machinery or something, but you can still find a tune in that.'
As the festival season grinds to a muddy and acid-fugged halt, there's an autumn tour from the Ozric Tentacles to provide our Indian summer's last mystic yahoo. Which is cool because with or without the catgut violin the Ozrics live is a fearsome prospect. Shaggy freaks prancing in epileptic lights they might appear, but in truth few 'rock' bands sail quite so invigoratingly close to the improvisational wind.
'It's a very fast thing doing an Ozrics gig,' marvels Ed. 'It's flying at you at a hundred miles an hour. Joie likens it to a conveyor belt going past with all these different shaped holes, and he's got to pick the right blocks to fit in those holes as they go flying past. And you have to get every single one right! And it's the same for me on guitar, except the conveyor belt for me is going at a thousand miles an hour. You've got split seconds to decide what you're going to do next, and a lot of concentration goes into it... and that's why I can't help but pull these faces. It's the bane of all lead guitar players. I hate watching myself on video, 'cos they always go close up on me when I'm playing a guitar solo, and I look hideous, especially with the strobe light flashing - you get these tortured, flickering faces. It's like Hieronymous Bosch!'
As the scent of pig slurry and silage sheds comes creeping tangily through the open window Hieronymous Bosch seems an unlikely comparison. Constable - solid, comfortable, English - would perhaps be more apt. 'The Americans insist that we're very English indeed,' concedes Ed as he waves vaguely at our oak-beamed surroundings, where a well-appointed mixing desk somehow fails to disturb the modest aura of a 18th century cottage industry...
'It's funny,' muses Ed. 'I've evolved from 4-track to 8-track to 24-track, so I've always had to invent ways of working around those limitations. It's an unusual setup. For one, I don't have a computer in here, because I don't really like TV screens in the room; I find they suck part of my brain away, absorbing my energies, 'cos I keep finding myself looking at them rather than using my ears, which is what you're meant to be doing. Still, you make all these efforts to make sure it's perfect and because everyone's speakers are different it never sounds the same!'
So in an Ozrics Utopia everyone would have the same speakers?
'Ha ha yeah! And in a perfect world, everyone will have their own
surroundsound room dedicated to...'
To the Ozric Tentacles?
'Well yeah, of course!'
(ON SAME PAGE)
ed's hands and feet
For a player with such a yen for space age sonics, Ed's guitar setup is surprisingly sparse. For a start he largely makes do with just two electrics; a newish Ibanez Jem and a beaten-up Ibanez Artist...
'The Artist is from the days when active circuits were yet to be properly tamed, so it's incredibly powerful. In fact, when I tried it out in the shop I almost blew up the amp! The active section has bass, middle and treble controls and a booster. So I take the bass and the treble ones right off, stick the middle on full and the booster on full, and use the actives 'on' switch as my lead switch. It basically triples the output of the guitar, which actually sounds quite nice through a Marshall, heh, heh! I really rely on those wild electronics now - it's a nice middly sound and it really pokes out.'
More esoteric instruments include an insane transferable-neck number hand-made by Ozrics' manager John Bennett. Bored of your 6-string? No problem: simply unlock from the back, slide out the neck (complete with bridge and strings) and shunt in a 12-stringed neck, or even a piezo-equipped solid acoustic unit. Easy peasy, and if that fails to appeal there's always Bennett's patent chipboard sitar.
Though Steve Hillage remains something of a guru, Ed's guitar sound is anything but a slayish copy of the Gongster. In fact, it's as full and round as it is weirdly synthetic.
'What I like about the sound that I do have is that I've kept the option of making it semi-artificial if I want. The distortion that I use is mainly from an old Marshall amp, which allows the rich sound of the guitar. I have it set right on the edge so that it's clean if you play quietly or distorted if you play loud; so it's always got that raw edge to it.
I also use a tape echo - a Korg Stage Echo - because tape echo sounds nice when it goes overload. Digital echos sound a bit to much like numbers crunching to me. I've got a Boss Super Overdrive pedal, which again you can still hear the original guitar through. I use a Crybaby wah-wah pedal, a Boss chorus and a compressor. I've also got a couple of the Boss micro-rack things - a phaser and a flanger. It's a really strong, mouthy sort of phaser; you can almost make it talk.
Recording, I usually mike the amp up if I can, with a Shure SM57. I wouldn't trust a rack. I know that nowadays that's what they like to use, just giving the PA a left and a right, but I like to think that if the PA blows up at least I can turn my amp right up and there'll still be a gig. If I had a wah pedal, an echo unit and a valve amp, then I could do a gig anywhere probably. The rest are just luxuries.'
'We also use acoustic guitars in the background,' continues Ed. 'We take everything out apart from the treble and mike them real close - like, using the guitar as a texture rather than the main instrument. I like to have two of them, one on each side, like a curtain behind the music, or twinkling stars... depending on what state of mind you're in!'