The Ozric Tentacles Surge Beyond the Hidden Step

Jesse Jarnow

All jokes about Spinal Tap pushed aside, it's hard to get around the fact that the Ozric Tentacles are British. This makes all the difference in... well... the world.

It informs every level of their existence, and altogether separates them from their American counterparts -- not making them any better or worse, just establishing an alternate set of rules. The Ozrics formation, nearly 20 years ago, places them at a much different starting point, both musically and culturally than American jambands.

Where bands in the U.S. mostly grew mostly out of a suburban culture yearning for something more meaningful, the Ozrics emerged from the U.K.'s anarchistic festival scene that  flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s. Sounding somewhere across between modern-day summer festivals and the legendary Burning Man, these events often found bands - impromptu and professional - setting up, unannounced, at all corners of the sites. It was at one of these gatherings - near Stonehenge, appropriately - that the Ozrics were born.

The band's music - a psychedelic electronic fusion not wholly unrelated to the Disco Biscuits, Lake Trout, Sector 9, and all those fellas - predates all of the so-called trance fusion bands and does much the same thing. One gets the impression that to the Ozrics - or, at least, bassist Zia Geelani, with whom I spoke - none of their own music seems particularly revolutionary.

That doesn't, of course, mean that it doesn't sound or original. From his modest reactions to questions on the phone, one gets the sense that the Ozrics approach to an electronic fusion is the most natural thing in the world. With forerunners like the sadly overlooked proto-electronic wizards Gong, this might just be the case. As U.K. festivals transmogrified into raves, the Ozrics continued to mature, connected more intimately to a genuine electronic scene than their American counterparts who seem to be attempting to graft themselves to it with gusto. 

In any situation, the music is pretty free of most basic structural conventions that even the most experimental (non free-jazz) bands tend to stick to. Their musical language is quite different. Just as an American dialect morphed out of the King's English over time, eventually transforming into something quite different, the music of the Ozric Tentacles has grown into a mutated kind of progressive instrumental music. Where preprogrammed beats are almost unheard of in American improvised music, the Ozrics employ them as a natural part of their sound. 

Tracks wind about over a pulsing electronic bed, more composed than anything else. In places, the band's reliance on synthesizers and processed guitar sounds can sound dated, but the overall effect is hypnotic and does well to paint surreal soundscapes and pull the listener through them.

In Britain, their flights of fancy have won them a distinct cult following, free of major publicity, hit singles, music videos, and all those other trappings. As the band continues to tour year in and year out, they continue to push their creative boundaries. With the release of their 19th album, "the Hidden Step" (Phoenix Rising) comes an American tour, ready to launch on October 24th at the Paradise in Boston. If the growth of the new electronic-influenced bands in the past year is any indication, people will eat the Ozrics alive.

And, yes, they're still British. As I pulled myself out of bed on a lazy Saturday afternoon to dial the 18 digits required to get me on the phone with the theater the band was playing at in Brighton, a cheery English voice greeted me. "Have you called about the interview?" it inquired.

"Uh, yeah..."

"Great! Let me just patch you through then..."

I was soon put through to Zia Geelani, the bassist for the quintet, who - not surprisingly - spoke with a soothing British accent, pleasantly measuring his thoughts, and taking his time with his responses. Throughout, Geelani seemed just as interested in the differences between the Ozrics and American bands as his awkwardly probing interviewer. After the interview proper was over, Geelani proceeded to inquire into the makings of the American scene... 

JJ:     Your music doesn't seem to follow standard song structure, but it all seems to sort of have this unified language to it. How did that evolve?

ZG:     Well, standard structure generally involves vocals, if you're talking about anything remotely commercial these days. One reason for the way it's evolved is because we don't have vocals. We concentrate on the structure of the music more than the standard band would. That's where we find new avenues, new ways of looking at sounds and using them, because the emphasis is all on them and not on a vocal, do you see what I mean? So, it kind of evolves for that reason.

Also, we like a massive selection of all sorts of music, including ethnic instrumental music and African, Indian, Chinese... you name it. We incorporate all these different styles and ultimately that produces the kind of cacophony we make. (Laughs.)

JJ:     What's the song-writing process like?

ZG:     There are two routes, normally, to the way we make the music. One is to simply get in the studio together and just jam. And, from that jam - all those jams - we'll kind of divide it up and listen to the best bits and work out how to tie them altogether and make it sound good. From there, comes a track basically. It's a very organic process. You start and you don't know how it's going to end.

For example, if a good drum track is found, we'll keep that drum track and add all sorts of different ideas to it, some of which might never have been in the original jam but might have evolved out of listening to it over and over, you see.

The other way is to program tracks beforehand - all programmed drums based a lot on sequence - which is a much more cerebral approach. It's not immediate like a jam. That's basically the two ways we do music, really.

JJ:     Do you guys have a standard approach to making albums, or is it different each time you go in?

ZG:     I know that when we go in, we don't know what we're gonna have when we come out. (Laughs.) Unlike most bands who know their material before they go into the studio, we don't have any idea clue, we invent it as we go along. Insofar as that, there's not really a standard procedure, but - like I said - jamming and preprogramming a couple of tracks is mainly the route we take and then just add organically as and when we feel something is right for a track.

JJ:     When you're going in to improvise like that, how much planning do you do before a take? Or do you just start from scratch.

ZG:     No planning, really. We might just be spending an afternoon jamming any kind of weird thing that comes to our minds just for the fun of it, but the DAT is running all the time. From that session, there might be three or four really good ideas that came out that we could use. So we sit down and figure out how to tie them altogether, find bridges between them and so on. I mean, we don't even know how fast the track is gonna be when we sit down and jam or anything. It's just a product of real spontaneity.

JJ:     How much do you discuss your improvisation in general?

ZG:     How much do we discuss it?

JJ:     Yeah.

ZG:     You mean between ourselves?

JJ:     Yeah.

ZG:     How do you mean?

JJ:     Like, after a show, say, do you discuss how it went in terms of playing off of each other and...

ZG:    Oh, yeah! Sure, sure... if there's a great moment in the set, we'll all be buzzing about it the minute the gig's finished. A good jam after one of the tracks will always get us sort of happy and we'll talk about. But things very rarely stay in the memory and, unless we've recorded it, it's just a one-off moment that happens in the gig and we'll never revisit it.

JJ:     Do you ever listen to the shows? Do you tape them yourselves?

ZG:     Yeah, we do, whenever we can - sometimes - not as often as I'd like. But we do try to tape the shows as much as possible. 

JJ:     Is there a typical Ozric Tentacles rehearsal, or is it all just sort of unstructured jamming kind of stuff?

ZG:     I suppose prior to a tour, when we roughly know what tracks we're gonna play, we concentrate on getting those tracks sounding as good as possible, so you've got direction in that. But if we're going for just jamming, then there really is no script at all. We're just having a laugh, really, as mates would of any age.

JJ:     How do you structure your shows? Do you go from a setlist?

ZG:     Yeah, we've got a setlist. A lot of what we do is a fusion of programmed music and live played music -- a lot of tracks are fused like that. So, we need to know beforehand. There's a lot of loading and technicalities to do before each track, so it's best to know what you're gonna play next, otherwise are just long gaps and a bit of an awkward silence.

JJ:     Do you keep the same setlist for the whole tour? Or do you alternate from night-to-night?

ZG:     We work out a general setlist for the tour and then we tend to swap individual tracks out with other tracks that we already know, just for a change for ourselves and for the audiences. We often change the encore about as to how what we feel, what we wanna play.

JJ:     How different do songs get from night to night, in terms of length, and in terms of vibe?

ZG:     Ah, well... some songs are very pre-set, from beginning to end you know exactly where it is, and where you are, and how it's gonna be, so there isn't a lot of room in that. But, we reserve other tracks for jamming at the end of or jamming in the middle of -- we open up a section and jam it for a while and stuff. And basically that's different every single night. It just depends on the mood and who's doing what and who has a crazy idea. It's all completely spontaneous, all the jamming.

JJ:     How much does the audience effect the improvisation? The specific audience...

ZG:     Loads. Loads. If we're getting a really good response, if people are jumping about and being loony and all that, then we play better. So, the madder the audience is, the more fun we have, really.

JJ:     Sort of related to that, what would you qualify as an ideal audience? Would it be jumping around or...?

ZG:     Yeah, I think so, actually: people who love it and [are] jumping about, going completely nutty; losing it. (Laughs.)

JJ:     So, now, the obvious American journalist question: how are American fans different from British fans?

ZG:     Well, they don't tend to go as nutty, really.

JJ:     Oh?

ZG:     Although, I have to say, some of the gigs we've done on this tour, at the moment, the British fans didn't go particularly nutty either. But I would say about the American audiences is that they're particularly attentive and listen very closely. They might not be thrashing about like nutters but they are listening very closely and you get a very appreciative applause. You can tell the quality of the applause that come back (laughs), which is really nice, actually, very nice -- more so than English probably. It's hard to say, really.

JJ:     Most American audiences have probably only had a chance to hear the two most recent albums, and maybe one or two that came out on I.R.S. over here, and most are definitely going to be seeing the band for the first time this time around. Is that gonna shape your approach at all, or are you just gonna sort of carry on with what you're doing on the tour right now?

ZG:     Yeah. I think we're gonna basically take this set to America. We've revamped the set and they won't have heard it. We've got some new tracks in there as well. I don't think there is any cause to change it. We've been taking it around England, getting it tighter and tighter, and by the time we get it to America, it should sound really good.

JJ:     Have you had a chance to hear any of the younger American bands that are also sort of integrating this world-electronic approach, like the Disco Biscuits or Lake Trout?

ZG:     Yes, I have. Not a lot, but I have heard bits and bobs that people have sent me on CD and stuff; sample CDs and such, where you get one track from various different bands. Some of it sounds very interesting. It all definitely has an American flavor -- which is natural, of course, because they're Americans (laughs). I can see a difference between an English style and an American style, for sure.

JJ:     What differences do you hear?

ZG:     The American style seems to still be quite attached to old blues progressions in the chord sequences and things like that. We tend to shy away from them. We tend to keep well away from bluesey/R & B-influenced chord progressions and stuff like that, because it has been done a million times. Some people do it very well and others not-so-well, but it has been done. We feel we wanna explore stranger territory, where chord sequences don't necessarily make sense, but they tend to sound nice anyway. So, who's to say?

JJ:     Do you see yourself as part of roughly the same tradition as these guys, if it is a tradition?

ZG:     I think we share a tradition, definitely, which is basically to play improvised music - a flavor of improvised music - to audience who wanna hear that sort of thing, and aren't out for the typical commercial hit. So, we do share that. I'm sure there's some cross-fertilization between the scenes in England and America. I think the American scene is a lot healthier and a lot bigger. There's hardly anyone doing anything like what we do in this country, really. Certainly no one who's been picked up by any record companies or anything like that.

JJ:     What did you grow up listening to?

ZG:    Me personally?

JJ:     Yeah.

ZG:     Oh, boy. There's a lot of stuff. I guess some of my all-time favorites are bands like Steely Dan; a guy called Julian Cope - I don't know if you've ever heard of him - and the Teardrop Explodes, the band he was in. These were early bands that blew my mind. And I still listen to Steely Dan.

Personally, I grew up on a diet of electronic music, anything from electro-hip-hop to drum-and-bass, trance techno, whatever. I've been listening to that practically most of my life, really. So, that has had an influence, despite the fact that I also listen to just about anything as well.

JJ:    When did you first start to play electronic music? Was it always playing what you were listening to? Or was there a moment when you said...?

ZG:     As a band?

JJ:     Yeah, or as an individual musician.

ZG:     I've always totally been into electronic music. I was obsessed with drum machines at the age of 14, 13, before I even owned one. I was absolutely blown away by the concept of them. As soon as I could, I bought a drum machine. I was about 16 then. It's kind of been an obsession with me ever since, although I bought a bass at the same time. There've been two different strands to the way I've sort of developed my musical stuff. It's always been an influence really, the electronic side of it. I still write tracks, as well.

JJ:    Do you play in any side-projects?

ZG:     Yeah, I do. I write tunes for fashion shows and product launches as well, which is a kind of commercial sideline. It's only ever used as one-off at a particular event or a concert or something. Those are kind of chunky dance tunes. That's with a friend as well, and that's completely un-Ozric related. We've also done a couple of gigs as well, just for the fun of it, at raves and things, which is really good fun.

JJ:    How do you approach those gigs differently than you do an Ozrics show?

ZG:     For a start, I'm using all synths and MIDI equipment on stage which is a totally different world for me, 'cause I'm just used to getting up on stage and playing my bass. It's a bit more of a nightmare. (Laughs.) It's great fun. I love it. Like I said, I've always loved electronic music, so to be standing there making it in front of a crowd that's dancing is a great high point for me.

JJ:     How have you noticed the Ozrics changing from tour to tour? Or album to album? Or is it something that's completely unconscious?

ZG:     Oh, it has changed. I mean, lineup changes have forced musical changes, as is the way, because people bring their personalities to the music and, when they go, it changes. So, with each lineup change, there has been a slightly different direction, although not planned -- it's just the way things have turned out. That's one evolution. I guess that's the only evolution really, because we don't really plan to do one kind of album and then another kind of album the following year. We don't do that. We go into the studio and it's very unplanned. Any evolution is accidental.

JJ:     How often do you hear what you've been listening to coming out in your playing?

ZG:     Ah, as a band, maybe quite a lot, actually. It's very obscure. I would know the reference, but I'm not sure anyone else would, 'cause I know what we listen to, and I know how we made the music, and I know that that's definitely a Cheb Khaled moment, or something like that. I'd really doubt anyone else could spot some of these things. Some of them, perhaps.

JJ:    What have you been listening to lately?

ZG:     Just recently, I've been listening to loads of Pantera, loads of Squarepusher, Aphex Twin. Some Cheb Khaled. Have you ever heard of him?

JJ:     No.

ZG:     Well, he's an Algerian singer -- absolutely *amazing* voice. Incredible. Some Steely Dan, but that's a perennial for me. What else? There was something else, but it slips my mind right now... I can't remember. Generally, that's the sort of flavor I'm into at the moment.

JJ:     Any parting words of advice for American audiences when coming into see you? Anything to keep in mind...

ZG:    Yeah, come and buy all our merchandise. (Laughs.) Come and enjoy and do what you do in front of jambands in America, I guess, because there's a really thriving scene out there, what with the Dead and everything. It really established itself much more strongly than it did in Europe or Britain. For people to carry on wanting that vibe, and coming to our gigs to get it, is a really great thing. That's amazing, so just keep coming basically and enjoying it. If you could call that advice.