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Rewind: Meriel Barham/Pale Saints interview from Sept 1994

by Seb Chan on February 25th, 2007

Part of a series of long lost interviews I wrote for 3D World Magazine back in the mid 1990s.

Heavenly Halos Of Sound

In these days of hyperspeed where everything is measured by speed and measured for speed it is strange to find one’s attention held for more than a few moments by any one object or image. With regards to music we see a million stars rise and fall propelled by a industry-driven music press every year. One moment one band is your sole listening, only to be replaced within a week or two in your Walkman, car stereo, or bedroom hi-fi by another. Thus it is truly strange to find one’s attention being consistently drawn to a group over a period stretching five years. Indeed I can only think of three bands that I have enjoyed consistently for such a long period of time – Public Enemy, The Orb, and the Pale Saints.

The Pale Saints are a four piece band hailing from Leeds. Originally signed to the cult British label 4AD after a support spot for Lush their guitar pop has slowly, over the years, metamorphosed into a sound resembling timeless romantic aesthetics rather than the throwaway nature of much other “indie” muzak. Having released two albums, The Comforts Of Madness in 1990 and In Ribbons in 1992, together with a string of impressive EPs, the Pale Saints lost bass player and vocalist Ian Masters in a tumultuous American tour in 1993. Just what happens when you lose a central band member?

I spoke to Meriel Barham, now principal vocalist and guitarist, direct from England about the Pale Saints’ new album, Slow Buildings, their recently released EP Fine Friend and the goings on in the band of late.

First, a little history. The Pale Saints began as a three piece, Chris Cooper, Ian Masters and Graeme Naysmith releasing the Barging into The Presence Of God EP in September of 1989. This EP featured the wonderfully emotive Sight Of You track and became critically acclaimed in the fickle British music press. This was followed early in 1990 by their debut album The Comforts Of Madness. Again critically acclaimed, it shot the band into the gaze of many British “indie” guitar enthusiasts. Late in 1990 the Half Life EP was released, featuring for the first time, Meriel Barham on supporting vocals and guitar. Still darlings of the music press, this EP had a softer, more atmospheric sound to the brash pop of their earlier releases. All fell silent – until mid 1991 when the Flesh Balloon EP was released. This release marked the introduction of the production talents of Hugh Jones who replaced John Fryer as the band’s producer. As such, Flesh Balloon saw the Pale Saints leave their “indie” guitar past well and truly behind with a beautiful cover of Nancy Sinatra’s Kinky Love featuring Meriel on vocals. Again all fell silent until the release of the superb In Ribbons LP in March of 1992. Highly acclaimed in Britain, America and even here in Australia, it firmly placed the Pale Saints in a league of their own merging the cello-based sound of Shell with the shimmering pop of A Thousand Stars Burst Open. Accompanying the album was a single featuring a marvellous cover of Mazzy Star’s Blue Flower.

Listening to Slow Buildings it is very difficult to tell that anything has changed since In Ribbons except for the solely female vocals. The glistening sound of Gesture Of A Fear, Fine Friend and other tracks would not be out of place on earlier releases. I was very surprised, then, to find, when I read their record company bio, that Ian Masters had left the band. The bio mysteriously stated that he left because “his arms became too short”. I didn’t buy that excuse. Meriel explains; “When we were touring the States for about five or six weeks, it became obvious that Ian became really fed up with the whole touring process. To him it became repetition and he didn’t get off on any of the excitement of playing live. He was going off in a different direction from the rest of the band. His creative ideas were also going in a different direction”. Canadian Colleen Browne, ex-Parachute Men, was drafted in to replace Ian. Since Ian’s departure, Meriel has found herself as the principal vocalist and songwriter – a position, which, despite her lack of songwriting experience, she views as a challenge rather than a burden. “I used to only do a couple of songs when we played but it is quite nice sometimes to be put under pressure to see how you will react . . . I’ve really got into it now”. The sound of the new lineup differs little from that of the original, something Meriel puts down to the way the band worked with Ian. “I think it would have affected the band more if Ian had been the principal songwriter but it was always a four way thing, we were all responsible. It was never Ian and a backing band. I think that’s why we’ve maintained a lot of the identity of the former band”.

The sound of the Pale Saints has always existed on the fringe of British “indie” guitar scene. The washes of strings and the lilting vocals owing more to the pseudo-classical style of other 4AD acts such as This Mortal Coil and the Cocteau Twins. Interesting then it was to find that Meriel’s current tastes lie well outside the classical realm with her citing names such as San Franscisco act, Grotus, Sebadoh, and the Young Gods. The only classical work mentioned was a piece by Henryk Gorecki which lends name and musical inspiration to Henry, an eleven minute epic on Slow Buildings.

Listening to Henry, the album’s centre piece, one finds the Pale Saints toying with their past with a little intro of Kinky Love playing on the radio, a phone ringing in the distance followed by footsteps and a slamming door. Out of curiosity I asked Meriel the story behind this bit of studio trickery. Unfortunately Meriel confirmed that indeed that was all it was, a bit of tom foolery in the studio that ended up as a linking point between tracks, nothing more, nothing less. Incidentally, she added “those are Hugh Jones’ footsteps you hear. He wears cowboy boots”.

The last three Pale Saints singles have included exquisite cover versions of Kinky Love, Blue Flower and now Fine Friend, adapted from the Persian Rugs’ “Poison On The Airwaves”. Meriel speaks of the future; “We are rehearsing a new cover, the Buzzcocks’ “Mad Mad Genius” and maybe it will be on the next single. Its a really manic song and somehow we’ve made it much more laid back and mellow . . . I don’t know why we’ve got into this trend – perhaps we’ll be known as a cover band”. This sent shivers down my spine, images of nights spent trying to convince people not to see Cure, Doors, Cold Chisel cover bands flashed before my eyes. Surprised she was to hear of our current spate of cover bands amongst the suburban pubs. A reflection on the poor state of our own music industry perhaps?

The Pale Saints have been fortunate to have survived the brunt of the fickle British music press. “I guess we’ve been lucky with the recent “new wave of new wave” trend. It has really focussed the press back on local British bands and meant that a lot of new bands have gotten exposure . . . the local scene became really hidden behind the wall of American grunge that was in the papers each week . . . For us, too, it has been hard because the papers consider that one album and you’re old news so its good to get the chance to go to America and Europe where they seem to respect their bands a little more”. Meriel remarked too on the difficulty posed by CDs with the demise of vinyl for new bands wanting some exposure – “The price of CDs over here is really quite expensive. When you used to be able to buy vinyl you could be a lot more adventurous – if you liked the cover or had heard the name. Now with CDs you tend to be a lot more cautious”. Certainly without the sort of underground culture that has built up around much dance music, “rock” appears to have suffered at the hands of its own marketing ploys.

Interviewing a British non-dance band these days inevitably brings mention of remixes. Saint Etienne, Primal Scream getting the treatment from Kris Needs, Autechre and Andy Weatherall, Pop Will Eat Itself being treated by Fun-Da-Mental, this list, of late, is as long as the Yellow Brick Road. Meriel has become a fan of Trans Global Underground and the band was considering at one stage a Trans Global Underground remix of King Fade (the instrumental track from Slow Buildings) for the flip side of first single. “It would have worked pretty well but because of money reasons and time we never really got around to it . . . The idea of giving one of your songs to someone to do whatever they like with it is quite exciting. We would be quite curious to see what they would do with it”.

Sebastian Chan September 1994

2 Comments
  1. “Comforts Of Madness”…surely one of the most underrated albums ever. Still as breathtaking today as it ever was.

    Thanks for posting this interview Seb…you shoegazing trance goth!

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