Don't quaestion everything…


Melody Maker – 27 Apr 1991


When Terry Bickers quit The House of Love, many people predicted his world would fall apart. But, on the contrary, his new band Levitation are pushing back the frontiers of rock for a whole new generation. STEVE SUTHERLAND goes along for the ride.

"You know you're with friends so why be frightened?" - Rosemary Jones.

Fear is the enemy. Levitation are aware of this. Hyper-aware. Their creed is: "Fear not. Befriend co-incidence. Make an ally of the accidental and there's nowhere you can't go, nothing you can't do."

Levitation stare into the chaos and laugh. Levitation

"Don't be frightened of that word. People are too frightened of it. I'm not embarrassed to say it. We are a Progressive band. You can be Progressive without being pompous. It sounds like a cliche but I don't care - we are a Progressive band and we are in the here and now."

Terry Bickers has just thumped the table, scattering empty Heineken bottles. He laughs: "We're Progressive. We're into ideas."
"Progressive has a retrospective stigma that it shouldn't have," says drummer Dave Francolini, getting mighty excited. "Look at The Charlatans, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets - they're supposed to be modern but they're far more retro than any Progressive music could possibly be."

"Yeah," shouts elfin guitarist Bic Hayes, "I'm really into some Gentle Giant stuff and that's Prog. Power and Glory is an amazing album!"

So there you have it. Levitation are determined to reclaim Progressive Rock from bad flashbacks of Rick Wakeman and his spangled cape, humping his grand piano across the ice as a thousand knights in white satin disappear up his arse.

"Oh man! No-one wants that sh*t!" screams the wild-eyed Bic. "No-one!"

Levitation know the task ahead is monumental. They know they'll have to fight with every fibre of their integrity to play whatever they want irrespective of fad or fashion. And they know they'll have to be f**king great to get an audience to go along for the ride.

But Levitation are f**king great, the greatest we have right now, and the time, says Bickers, is ripe for action.
"The dance era has opened up so many channels that people will listen to any records now and I think the public will be more open to where we're at."

"If people are tenacious enough, they can dance to anything," says Bic.

"Tenacious - does that mean drunk?" asks Dave, laughing.

"You can dance to Hendrix, Stockhausen..." Bic continues.

"Stockhausen? I haven't heard any," says bassist Laurence O'Keefe, "but I think I stepped in some once."

Levitation's debut EP Coppelia, is, literally, a revelation. There are many fine bands around at the moment - Ride, Blur, you know who they are - but none of them have yet taken the leap into the unknown that Levitation have. Take Ride's marvellous Sennen. It's unlikely that melancholy has ever been given such a fresh face. It's perfect but... that's it. It goes nowhere. There's no development. No growth.

Brilliant as it is, in contrast to Levitation's Smile, Sennen lacks dimension. When Bickers talks of Progression he quite literally means taking an emotion and pursuing it through its evolution from, say, frustration to alleviation. When Levitation play, something happens, a drama unfolds. Passages of intense terror climax into blissful relief.

The Coppelia EP is this generation's Marquee Moon, guitars used as triggers to unleash adrenaline, to probe awkward corners and recall past pleasures. Each song is alive, as if the band are determined to reach some emotional honesty, some truth beyond pop's usual conveniently false juxtaposition of black of white, love and hate.

"It's angry love," says Bickers. "We're into positive negativism. You have to be aware of all the negative things that are going on, all the grimness, and then turn it around, turn it into the positive, use it positively. It's like John Lydon said, "Anger is an energy"."
"I can't handle negative people," says Bic. "I can't handle people who are trying to drag you down all the time. There's such a wealth of things you can do. There's so much creativity going on in the world - that's what fires me up.

"There's positivity in everybody. Everybody has the capability of being a really nice person. It's just a matter of negating your ego and... flowing."

"We express that in a practical sense, in that we're into teamwork in a big way, the co-operative ethic," says Bickers.

"The way we work is mostly jamming, and our ideal would be just to have the tapes running all the time like I imagine Prince does. He has enough money to do that, and probably has someone there logging each version of each song as The Beatles used to do. That's the ideal for us. All we really want is unlimited tape space."

"If you work in that format in the studio, when you perform live, you gain a kind of consciousness," says Dave. "Y'know, if Bic's doing something, I know he's not gonna stop so we keep going. That's how the song lives".

Levitation have discovered their own form of telepathy on stage and, live, the songs on the Coppelia EP respond to the occasion and go where the atmosphere takes them.

"Remember the other night at the Mean Fiddler, remember Paid In Kind, the middle bit that just went on and on and on?" asks Dave breathlessly. "Well, most of that had white light filtering through it! Going down on Mother Earth, yeah! One of these nights we're going to go on, play that song first in the set and play it for half an hour.

"As you can imagine, in the past we've all taken enormous amounts of drugs before we played and, it's only partly this, but we've had to overcome that disorientation which has made our playing that much more passionate. Now we're much more level-headed and lucid but we've retained that strength."

One of the reasons I love Levitation so much is that they remind me of The Grateful Dead, surely the most inspirational live band ever. The Dead are legendary for re-interpreting their songs on the spot, unafraid to take them into territories uncharted.
"I love the Dead too man!" shouts Dave. "Two drummers! Wow!"

"When we go to America we've got this contact and, if it comes off, we're going to use the Dead's original light show," says Bickers. "A few Deadheads have bought it and, apparently, it's a star in itself, like Hawkwind's lightshow or something.They're up for finding a band they can work with and I think we're that band."

The way Levitation talk reminds me of the Dead's Jerry Garcia who told me once that, although he doesn't trip on stage any more, he remembers each of his acid excursions so vividly that, when he gets to a point in the improvisation where fainter hearts might turn back, he realises he's been thereabouts before and survived, so he ploughs on regardless.

"That's because he wasn't getting out of it," say Bickers, who's brought a pack of Tarot cards along with him, "he was getting into it."

It's like getting lost and riding the panic

"You're so right" When I see the white lights man, I go!" says Bic who has a penchant for screaming silently and rolling around on his back on stage.

"There's a line in Against Nature where it says, "You bring it all back to me" which is using things from the past in the now," says Bickers. "That's definitely what it's all about."

"If I chart my life, it definitely changed after my first acid trip," says Dave.

How could it not be so.

"Hahahahahaha!" He yells. "A toast to that!"

The band all clink bottles. "How could it not be! Hahahaha."

"An important element is also the fact that it could all fall apart at any moment," says keyboard player Robert White.

"Yeah!" says Dave. "The point of collapse is brilliant... the intensity."

That's the drama, the theatre, the thing that, as a member of the audience, drags you in. There's nothing so exciting as seeing a band nearly lose the plot and then suddenly bridge the abyss to somewhere else. It's one of the greatest human achievements, the "Further" the original Acid Test pioneers were seeking. And the great thing is, you never arrive. It's an on-going process, an eternal osmosis.

"It's super-reality," says Bickers. "Supernature. That's the difference between technical playing and emotional playing."

And that's what a gig should be - not just the songs played pristine but an event unique to that one occasion.

"That's important because times are hard and money is tight," says Bickers. "I think less records will be sold this year. Rather than buying two LPs, people will go and have a good night out so I definitely think live music's gonna be on the upturn this year."

Levitation are determined to make this a good time to be alive, determined to offer alternatives and, if possible, alternatives to those alternatives.

"Well, you never have sex in the same position twice, do you?" asks Dave rather mysteriously. It's a thought I guess.

"I think people listening to The Orb and experimental dance and stuff has opened up their eyes and they're latching into rock music now and stealing from it," Bickers enthuses. "I'm all for the "Shoplifters Of The World Unite" idea, stealing ideas from whoever, be it Salvador Dali or Bertolt Brecht or Beefheart..."

"Or "The Munsters"!" yells Bic.

Sampling's all very well (Levitation use Can) so long as you do something with it.

"Well that's bound to happen in this band because, whenever anyone brings in an idea loosely based on something else, as soon as it gets used by the rest of us, it gets turned into something different," says Dave. "Just going round the table naming some influences... Wire, Zappa, early Smiths, Killing Joke, Cardiacs, Faust... it's all so different."

"I think we're lucky in that nobody in the band has any stigma about what they listen to," say Bickers, who's wearing his eyes like coal and sporting a scar on his forehead from rolling around in the foliage on a recent video shoot. "Laurence is introducing us to things like Dr. John at the moment, stuff which I'd never heard, which is like even further on than Beefheart!"
Levitation are into sharing in a big way. It's not just swapping record collections - they like the idea of the "extended family", admire the way REM run their own business and are trying their damnedest to get new, young lighting crews and video directors and sleeve designers to work with them for the benefit of the whole.

"So many people, because of the way the world is, suffer in silence," says Bic. "They don't get anything done. They're afraid to go out on a limb."

Hence, "You know you're with friends so why be frightened?"

"Exactly. Everybody's frightened. That's the basic, fundamental human condition."

"But, in the most basic sense, through meeting each other, we've lost a lot of fear and grown stronger," says Bickers. "We're onto a flow..."

"It's all about trust," says Dave. "I remember once, when I was living in these flats, I came home late and the three guys I was living with had dropped a tab. I suddenly felt I was in the mentor position when you go "Look at that" and you start showing them colours and stuff. It would be great if people came to our gigs and got completely loaded and just let us take them through it.

"We're not going to get up and go, "I'm mean, I'm the microphone fiend, I'm back with a vengeance". We're going to get up there and suggest because suggestion's important. I mean, what is rhythm? Rhythm says absolutely nothing. All it does is suggest the infinite and suggest the permutations within the infinite, and I suppose that's what we're about; the power of suggestion as I feel music should be."

"The only reason I've ever played," says Laurence, " is to send emotional postcards to myself."

Levitation want to know if you're prepared to go with the flow? If you're prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt? If you're prepared to be unprepared?

They're working on their own timetable, avoiding the record company trap of recording, then touring, tiring yourself out, wasting your best years. Levitation have learned all about the pitfalls. They're no fools.

Terry Bickers was Guy Chadwick's partner in The House Of Love until he couldn't take the petty competitiveness any longer. There were tensions, brought to the surface, he says , through mushrooms. There were ego battles when they should have been pulling together. It was great on stage but off, the band had nothing in common and Bickers found himself drawn to the effusive company of Dave who was drumming in the support band.

They tripped together in Aberystwyth and on that very day, Bickers quit The House of Love and formed the notion of Levitation. Slowly the fantasy gained flesh as he gathered the new band together. It was important, he says, that none of them were fans of The House of Love. He wanted more open minds than that.

He knew it was working one night in Montpellier. The fledgling Levitation were due to support Ride the next night but found themselves with a spare 24 hours and no dosh. So they legged round town with their few press clippings, used a bit of pigeon French and got a gig jamming in a bar for three hours for pizza and beer.

"That was the best gig we did," says Dave. "The band came of age that night."

Now it's a marvel to see how House of Love fans turn up at Levitation gigs and have all their preconceptions, not to mention their minds, blown sky high.

"I think that's what we're all into," says Bickers. "People pin all their youthful angst on some band or other - like the Smiths. But bands like that aren't going to give you anything except, maybe, a few ideas. We're all inspired by things that have really shocked us or made us go, "What the f**k was that?". Y'know, extremities rather than just taking what you're given."

Levitation delight in delivering the unexpected, something to jolt you from your complacency. Take Nadine, the shimmering first track on the Coppelia EP. It's barely two minutes long. You're just getting your head around it when... it's gone!

"That's what we felt. If you heard that on the radio, you'd go "What the f**k was that? I've got to hear that again!"" says Bickers.

"But it wasn't contrived that way. When we did it, it came as a bit of a shock to me too, but it just seemed the natural thing to do at the time.

"It's a little quip, a joke about advertising. It has everything in there. We purposely put tons of spice in it. It could go on but why not end it?"

"We could probably do an entire EP of just Smile played differently every single time. We could do what Laibach did with Sympathy for the Devil," says Bic.

"We've got an idea of doing an album, six songs each side, one side acoustic and classical using instruments like cellos and stuff, and then rock it on the other side," says Bickers.

Is there nothing this band can't do? They say they haven't been stumped yet. They've worked with The Venus Beads and The Belltower, "just to spread music as wide as we can and entertain as many people as possible," and they plan many future collaborations.

"Music is the great tarpaulin," says Dave, who's leaping around the room to a Daisy Chainsaw demo. "It's the shelter from the elements. You can't do it in your own little tent. You have to do it with everyone else."

"It's not just about music," says Bickers. "It's about people."

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