Don't quaestion everything…


Guitarist – Jul 1991


When Terry Bickers quit the House Of Love many predicted his 15 minutes of fame were up. But now he's back with Levitation - a band who aren't afraid to say "progressive rock"...Interview by Michael Leonard.

While guitar bands are undoubtedly back at the fore of the "indie" scene, it's hard to dispute that few British musicians in that arena have approached the status of "guitar hero". One was Johnny Marr, but since the Smiths split, the rising star has waned somewhat. In the wake of The Smiths' demise, the House Of Love were the prime movers. Their arrival was timed just right, with Morrissey spiralling into cabaret and Echo And The Bunnymen in disarray, and on a pop menu increasingly dominated by dance music, the House Of Love were a tasty proposition. They were hardly revolutionary - leader Guy Chadwick's songs were sometimes wincingly reminiscent of the Bunnymen - but fuelled by Terry Bickers' explosive guitar playing, HOL were an instant thrill. Bickers himself was no "technician", but the armoury of guitar effects and atmospherics that he employed made his sound one of the most instantly recognisable in modern rock.

The band's eponymous debut album with Creation - recorded in just eleven days - showcased Bickers' delicate, chiming style (Love In A Car, Man To Child, Christine) as well as his brusque, more brutal solos (Happy, Touch Me). Kudos was heaped upon the band and it wasn't long before Phonogram secured their signatures for a reportedly massive fee. The House Of Love, it seemed, were destined to be big.

But like so many pop tales, this is where things started to go wrong: their major label debut 45, Never, was a decidedly muted affair and the whole of '89 seemed to be eaten away by the recording of the "Fontana" album. After a competent but uncharacteristically dull performance at that year's Reading Festival, and before that second album was even released, it was announced that Terry Bickers and the House Of Love had parted company.

Bickers was sacked! Bickers was a drug-crazed monster! Bickers was five strings short of a chord! The stories circulated in a manner typical of a band that had become far too safe too quickly; the rumour-mongering was all that was left. Even when he announced the genesis of his new band, Levitation, nothing had changed and the music press had lost it again - only more so. Terry was apparently infatuated with dance and was forming an acid/ rock hybrid! Terry's experimentation with chemicals was on the scale of an ICI research plant! Levitation, it seems, wanted to be the Hawkwind of the nineties! Arrrgghhh!

One play of Levitation's debut "Coppelia EP", and the recent press hyperbole makes sense - amazingly. Whereas his playing with the House Of Love relied on short, structured bursts, Levitation are a free-form and decidedly psychedelic affair. The EP's centrepiece, Smile, revolves around one of Bickers' trademark bubbling guitar motifs, leaving room for the band to improvise at will when it comes to playing live; Nadine features about as many guitar sounds as is possible to fit into a 1 minute 20 seconds song; Rosemary Jones features typical heavily-effected squawks. Whether it's wanton indulgence or a genuine redefinition of rock, it certainly grabs your attention.

Live, Levitation make a point of going off at tangents - hence the "progressive" tag - and unlike his work with the House Of Love, Bickers is trying to set as few boundaries as possible for his new band. He still holds his work with the HOL fondly, but admits that the constraints of that band sowed the seeds of his vision for Levitation.

"The House Of Love's stuff was engineered. Someone was talking to me about Happy the other day, and they just said "Why did that solo end there? Why didn't it go on?" and I didn't know. Guy had this idea that everything should be on the borderline of commerciality, but also be stepping out, and that just required such tight control. With us now, we can jam live. Deirdre Donahue, who's an American DJ brought up on jazz, saw us recently and said to me, "As a rock band, you're one of the closest to jazz improv." I thought that was a real compliment, that we're like "jazzers". We are musos in that sense."

The first steps taken by Levitation are still something of a surprise. While the House Of Love as a whole were obviously influenced by the likes of The Velvet Underground and The Doors, Bickers would mumble on in interviews about his passion for German synth innovators Kraftwerk, and his original statement concerning Levitation implied a dancier direction. But what we've witnessed in the last month has more in common with Pink Floyd, so what happened?

"It's funny you should mention Kraftwerk, cos I started singing Autobahn right at the end last night," he laughs. "I do like the finite nature of some electronic music and I was interested in the positive attitude of dance at the time. Hip-hop is sort of like black punk - all you need is a microphone and some decks and you can do it in your garage. That's what appealed to me - De La Soul, the D.A.I.S.Y age - I was swept up in the euphoria of that at the time.

"You see, I like the Cocteau Twins because they tie in all the computers at the same time, and it's got a lot of soul. I do think that machines have soul - you get all your gadgets and pedals and amps and they have their own character; they're like little people smiling up at you from the ground. Like a Fuzzface!

"At first, I thought dance would mean some really whacky records coming out, but whereas punk opened channels, dance didn't develop in the way I hoped.

"But now I think that people who were not so into dance music are picking up guitars again, and I feel proud to be running the gauntlet for guitars. I think it's going to happen a bit more this year."
Bickers rambles in a manner that makes you realise he is truly in love with Levitation. While his contribution to the House Of Love was central - evident in their low profile since his departure - it was still Chadwick's band.

"Yeah, now I can express myself. One of the reasons why I broke with the House Of Love was that I was stepping out on stage and starting to sing. Maybe I shouldn't have been doing it but I just did it on the moment. I mean, the van could have crashed the next day and I wanted to enjoy it - I know that sounds a bit fatalistic, but the "now" became very important and Guy didn't like that.

"It was exhausting with the House Of Love, 'cos we spent three years building the band up and then being foisted into a record deal that wasn't the right one, in retrospect. Although everyone thought, "Yeah, this is good," there was too much pressure. The money thing comes along, but there's all the rest that comes along with it. Sometimes it's better to have the space to develop than to have money."
Looking back, the band didn't break free of that pressure. The "Fontana" album lacked the fire that made their debut album so special, and it seemed appropriate that the only forthcoming hit was a re-recording of their first single, Shine On. With Bickers and Chadwick falling out at the time of recording, some painful public (ahem) bickering followed. After apparently asking him to rejoin, Chadwick then said Bickers wasn't even responsible for most of the playing on "Fontana".
"It was recorded in a painstaking way and it just lost momentum," Bickers reflects. "Guy was saying, "We've really got it together now - this is going to be our six months," but...There has to be time when you step aside and look at what you're pushing, what you're putting across, whether you're saying anything. I mean, they've got songs and they could have released five singles since The Beatles And The Stones! It's not that difficult. I just feel like saying, "Kick yourself up the arse mate! Believe in yourself." That's what I've had to do.

"Guy said some really awful things about me - about drugs and things - but I think his pride was just hurt and he got vicious. He did say that stuff about Simon (Simon Walker, Bickers' replacement). We were at dinner and he said, "Simon's guitar playing's like a disease"! But Simon is ten times the guitarist I am, technically. Simon is like Tom Verlaine and Robert Fripp, but with Guy that doesn't fit."
While this might seem far removed from the ideal of playing guitar in a band, it shows how much personal character is as important as bare musical talent in producing good music.
"With musicians' characters, there's a big element of the ego taking over without you noticing," Bickers says cryptically. "There was a headline for a music paper piece once - "The Ego Has Landed" - and there's a big element in being a musician, in taking to a stage, of "Mummy, you're not watching me"."

With Levitation, the aim is for a freer structure than he experienced in the House Of Love. There's no set timetable for albums or tours, and producing other bands is an undisguised ambition.
"We've all been in bands before - Bic (Hayes, guitar) was and still is in the Cardiacs; Lawrence (O'Keefe, bass) was in the Jazz Butcher. We've all come from bands where there's been a songwriting overseer, so this is the first time we've all been able to get our own ideas across. There'll never be a shortage of material with us, because we come from such different backgrounds. Lawrence has just introduced me to Doctor John and White Noise. That's amazing; original psychedelia using tape loops - the first sampling if you like. Bic and Bob (White, keyboards) were into Hawkwind and stuff, and that's why the press are always on about this progressive angle. But with Hawkwind, it's more down to ideals behind the music. They obviously weren't a worldwide smash, but they stuck with it.

So what really inspired him as a guitar player?

"First, it would be "Real Life" by Magazine with John McGeogh, because of each musician colouring the other. Howard Devoto's songs were very personal and I wish I could lyrically express myself like he did - coldly real. I feel we're a band like that, or a band like Ian Dury And The Blockheads. Basically, we are blockheads...idiots.

"Then "Strange Days" by the Doors, or a selection of Doors tracks, 'cos I'm a big fan of Robbie Krieger; he was a real inspiration to me. Also, "Fear Of Music" by Talking Heads for the angular riffing. Then "Another Green World" by Brian Eno with Robert Fripp and maybe the Fripp style again on "Scary Monsters". He's very talented but sometimes he can be too clever-clever.

""154" by Wire. It's a really dark album, but it's the stuff BC Gilbert gets out of his's like an animal, it's like it's metamorphosed. In fact, sometimes it's like the book "Metamorphosis" - you can imagine his guitar waking up and being an insect! That album has an intense theatrical atmosphere.
"Last, one of the early Stooges albums, just for creating what was basically punk, and giving a kickstart to everything that followed."

So he's not a closet progressive rocker?

"I'm not into anything too pure," he continues. "It's like people who say "I'm a jazzer" or "I'm a bluesman" - that's like being a devotee of a religion. We want to step outside of everything and be like amoebas floating in the ether, just soaking everything up. Our brains are sponges, if that's a good thing."

Erm, yeah, far out. With Terry revealing plans to introduce Pink Floyd style lights to Levitation's live shows, maybe his kooky progressive tendencies haven't been exaggerated. Still, their recent tour of France with Ride shows that the dry ice and strobes aren't the be all and end all. In Montpellier they did what Terry describes as their best gig, busking in a bar for free pizzas and beer.
"You can't do that in London; imagine walking up to the Powerhouse in the early evening and saying, "We're a band, we want a gig"!

"It was a magical, spiritual tour! At times during that tour it was like Indiana Jones and we felt lucky to be alive. One time, we didn't have enough money to pay our motorway toll 'cos it was a pretty frugal tour, and we drove from Montpellier to Clermant-Ferrand through all this fog and we got to this place where there'd been a rockfall just before we got there - it could easily have landed on us. When we got to Clermant, we were just going, "Yeah! We're alive!" There were loads of things like that."

Reports of Bickers' drug-fuelled "eccentricity" are naturally going to generate plenty of column inches for Levitation in the future. He might sound like everyone's idea of a bad flashback, but behind that is a band that are producing some extreme and challenging music. The "Coppelia EP" has already been acclaimed as this generation's "Marquee Moon". No packets required - this will disorientate you even when you're as clean as a vicar's collar on a Sunday morning.

"A lot of the drug chat is flannel anyway," he admits with a smirk. "Our drummer is basically a bit of a youngster from Bristol and he was just gabbing. We were mainly talking about times past and we're not substance abusers...we just smoke some dope, which is pretty boring really. We don't really do anything else - the music and what we're like as people is extreme enough.

"Every press thing we do from now on will be more and more like Monty Python," he smile. "It's boring to read that we've been in the studio for two months and it's been really good, so a lot of what's in our interviews is made up - you just make it up as you go along, don't you?"
Precisely. Improvisation eh, Terry?


with The House of Love:

"The House Of Love" (mini-LP) Creation 1987
"The House Of Love" (LP) Creation 1988
"The House Of Love" (LP) Fontana

with Levitation:

"The Coppelia EP" (4-track EP) Ultimate 1991


Terry made in clear he was in no muso mood as soon as he spoke: "I hate those magazines that talk to musicians for pages, 'cos there's only so much you can say." Onstage, Bic Hayes takes over about half of the lead work, as Terry says, "I was told at about 15 that I had a good voice and that I should sing, and I'm happy about that 'cos it's something I'm good at. My guitar playing hasn't gone by the wayside, but I'm still a bit of a novice really.

"My guitars have always been cheap - but if you treat them with respect, they give respect back. Every guitar I've owned has cost under £150, although I'm about to buy an Epiphone semi-acoustic for £300. My main guitar, the semi I've got, is a CMI - Cleartone Musical Instruments. They were one of the first Japanese imports and they had to make them really good to crack the market. No matter what I've changed on it, like pickups, it's always had this real "dirty boots" sound, this animalistic tone that suits my, sort of, wild antics.

"I've got three distortion pedals, but I use one as a sort of gain preamp - it's just for different textures of that white noise.

"I've got a Boss chorus ensemble - a great little antique with a really good wobbly sound. Then I've got a Burman combo, which is a bit sick. I haven't got a rack, although I'll buy one when I can afford it. I used to work in music shops, so I've always been a bit of a buyer and seller; I've never had much of an emotional tie to things."

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