Don't quaestion everything…


Select – July 1992


They know what mental torment is. They’ve made those quantum leaps into fear, paranoia and pessimism and they’ve come back with a stylistic freakout of an album called “Need For Not”. Their mental health is not what it could be. No wonder Levitation ask: “Who is sane, in an unsane world?”

THEY USED TO SAY OF THE LATE FILM DIRECTOR Sam Peckinpah that he had to be physically removed from the set at the completion of a movie because he refused to admit it was all over and he couldn’t imagine life without it. “Movies are my life, fellas,” he would protest as they dragged him, kicking, to his caravan. “Besides, I don’t like sleeping.”

Terry Bickers likes to tell that story. At the end of their latest, loudest UK tour, Levitation had two rare days off. On the first morning of the first day, hyperactive guitarist Bic Hayes, already chewing the walls with boredom, phoned up drummer Dave Francolini, who was himself fidgeting maniacally with a music box he’d found that played “Swan Lake” - trying to take it apart and put it back together so it played backwards – and they agreed that all this relaxing was doing their brains in. They had to get back to work.

They met up and went into the band’s 24-hour hired rehearsal studio at Hammersmith to mess around on “a few ideas for modern punk classics”, as Bic puts it. They had only been there a couple of hours when keyboard player Bob White came in and sheepishly admitted that he quite fancied working on a few things too. Terry Bickers was next in. A nice peaceful holiday, for Levitation, translates as Chinese water torture. These days they all race each other to the studio to work on solo ideas, only to invariably find three other members already plugged in and grooving away when they get there.

“Levitation’s like an amoeba, d’you know what I mean,” jabbers Bic, a small, friendly guy who races around with his mouth open onstage and looks as though he arrived in 1992 via the pages of Oliver Twist. “We all sort of get our tentacles out and do different things, and then all get sucked back into the amoeba.” He gets into his stride, and speeds up: “We’re in it for life. Y’know, two weeks in the studio – madness, intensity, all the backing tracks in two weeks – that’s living. That’s really living. When this band’s not working I just plummet into the depths of despair, it’s like get the razor blades out.”

Levitation like talking about how extreme and sort of psychotically embroiled in all of this they are. They never talk about their music in private, so interviews are their big chance to find out what all the other members think. What exactly is it they do, for instance? No one seems too sure. Progressive rock, fast-forwarded through the camera obscura to encompass ‘90s political horror flashframes? Kaleidoscope punk of a fashion? Panic indie smart drug paranoia guitar warfare dreadlock post-Chadwick phobic metal psychodrama? Etc?

An hour-long chat soon becomes a passionate, overlapping collision-conversation of heated views, contemptuous put-downs and sulky silences as opinions are exchanged and debated. They really don’t seem to be able to agree on very much at all.

We’re gathered here ostensibly to discuss the band’s wild debut album, “Need For Not”. Which is a bit of a drag for old Bic, since he got bored with it about five months ago when it was recorded. “It was made in December, and that is not fucking fast enough,” he grumbles vociferously. He’s not the only member of Levitation for whom life is agonisingly slow. Dave Francolini wanted two albums out last year.

But “Need For Not” is great, and they needn’t worry. It’s the sound of all their dramatically opposed musical backgrounds (indie, punk, twiddly bits, Velvets, hypnotic Can stuff, Terry Bickers, drug-fuelled mantras, etc) all aboard one stylistic freakout of a mothership. It’s like they couldn’t get it together, so they got everything together.

In typical Levitation style, they arrive for this interview in different time-frames. Bic and Dave are already waiting, tapping their fingers impatiently on the table, beer glasses drained. Bob White soon arrives, charming and self-effacing and pony-tailed. Laurence O’Keefe, the laconic bassist is not expected to be joining us, unless his serious bout of chickenpox unexpectedly clears up some time within the next 20 minutes. And there’s as yet no sign of Terry, so, quite reasonably, everyone talks about him until he gets here.

“Terry’s got religion,” one Levitation member had confided a few weeks previously. Sounds good. Which religion? “All of them.”

Bic mentions an NME-generated scam to get Terry and Guy Chadwick on their cover, back to back in archetypal duellist style, with a suitably at-each-other’s-throats interview on the inside. Bic thinks it’s a great idea. Dave thinks it’s a disgusting idea. Neither of them can confidently predict what Terry himself will think of it.

Levitation, of course, were a band born out of a split: Terry’s split from The House Of Love in December 1989, viewed at the time as the epitome of acrimony and somewhat mythologised ever since. Dave talks of the Terry he first met back in late ’89 being “aware of the feeling of isolation, massively… he knows what mental torment is, he knows what it’s like to have your mind screaming around making quantum leaps into the unknown”.

Terry’s mind. The quantum leaps. Lonely nights checked into the Hotel Abyss. Levitation would like you to know that they have been there. In at least two cases, it seems plausible. There’s much talk meanwhile of living as fast as possible, of getting as much done while these five vastly different people can still co-exist. In case, as Bic says with trepidation in his eyes, “it all ended tomorrow”.
“I worry every week about the group splitting up,” confesses Dave. “I wouldn’t be able to do anything for ages. Certainly not music.”

“The last time I was in a group that split up,” recalls Bic, aiming a melodramatic finger at the others, “I broke everything I had. Smashed everything up, totally. Destroyed the flat, destroyed the relationship, everything. It was empty. Void. I don’t ever want that to happen again.”

So, uh, exactly how frayed a string are Levitation hanging by here?

“Everyone in this band is completely different,” states Bic. “But there’s a unity about it which basically stems from our cynical approach to life and our questioning of things. We’re all very sceptical about the spirit of the age. About politics. About religion. All these things. That’s what brings us together. And we’ve all got a completely anarchic approach to our lives. I’m not talking about going around chucking petrol bombs. I mean mentally. That’s the unity.”

Someone mishears him and mentions energy.

“Of course there’s energy,” remonstrates Bic. “We’re plugging into the National Grid and moving all that air and sort of going vvwwooaaarrhhh!! Think about it. We’ve all brought our crosses to this group – all our teenage angst and adolescent shit – and been totally shattered by meeting all the other people…”

His voice tails off. His face breaks into a huge grin. “Teee-rrr-aaaaaa-y-y-y-y,” he cries. It’s Terry. And, Lord above, what an entrance.

He strides in like Robert De Niro in the bar scene in Mean Streets, all slow motion and good vibes, saluting friends, shaking hands and hugging Bic, who clears a place for him at the table. You half expect to hear “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” start up on the jukebox. Hair swept back, big coat, rock ‘n’ roll flamboyance on tap…Terry looks terrific. He goes off to the bar to get a drink, asking casually as he does: “Has the, ah, subject of my mental health come up yet?”

TERRY REALLY LIKES THE ALBUM, WHICH IS GOOD, because it means we can talk about it. We can talk about it for 24 seconds, to be precise, which is the longest this man can manage on one subject before his mind catapults him on to another one.

Everyone should try to meet Terry Bickers at least once in their lives. He is extraordinary company. Sentences take huge leaps, wild diversions, screeching handbrake turns and end in different continents in different centuries, “Do you know what I mean?” he says, eyes peering confidentially into yours. It’s like talking to a paranoid library.

In his first 20 minutes he gets through the Natural Law Party; the Maharishi; frauds; journalists; Jason Donovan and The Face; benefit gigs; gay rights; passages in The Bible that contradict each other on the subject of vegetarianism; how eating hamburgers eventually makes you “look grey”; steroids; Saddam Hussein; the Bomb; smog levels in Mexico City and Los Angeles; the loss of plankton from the food chain (“when that happens we’re all fucked”); the title of the LP, which Bic and he agree is “an anti-materialist statement of the age”; the possibility of re-opening County Hall in London, the former HQ of the GLC, as a soup kitchen for the homeless; opening a Levitation art gallery to show some of the paintings they have been sent by fans; the Enterprise Allowance Scheme; civil liberties; and his daughter Eloise.

“Bliss out,” he says, and smiles.

Now that Terry’s turned up, the conversational boundaries have been changed. Bic seems particularly pleased to see him, and starts yakking away excitedly and cackling. Bob smiles, as if resigned to the fact he probably won’t get another word in for the day. Dave’s reaction is the most dramatic. He clams up completely and slumps in his chair. It’s as if Terry has taken over his energy supply.

“A lot of creative people have started sending us their work, which is really refreshing,” Terry says. “Writers, painters, photographers, people who’ve done new record covers. A lot of it’s really good. The people we get on well with are the people who come up to us after gigs and engage in impromptu debates. Like gatherings. We just knock around ideas.”

What was all that about “has my mental health come up” then, Terry? He leans forward and replies in his patented Tel-speak of twangy-vowelled semi-certainty and semi-panic: “Who is sane in an unsane world? That’s the question you’ve got to ask yourself. Basically, anyone is free to make any form of expression they want to, and that was tangents and jollity really, as well as sort of information.”

Translation: he was having a laugh. A lot of what Levitation feed people comes from a love of mischief and what they think will get a reaction. That’s why Dave makes cryptic helium-pitched announcements between songs when the band play live, using his snare drum microphone; no one can see him back there crouched in the darkness and they can’t work out where the strange voices are coming from. Also, he and Terry have claimed in interviews that they used to knock around together in previous lives.

“Well…” smiles Terry ruefully, “we had a sort of inkling. I mean, I’m not really sure. It’s this one that counts, I know that.” He good-naturedly deflects more speculation about his sanity, honing in on the oft-mentioned holy trinity of fear, paranoia and pessimism.

“If you don’t experience fear, paranoia and pessimism then you’re obviously in a vacuum. Paranoia is the opening of the consciousness, as Aldous Huxley one said. Or was it William Burroughs?”
Maybe it was you, Terry. Dave, slumped in his chair, has now completely lost any interest he had in the conversation. He can be heard making gentle sighing sounds from time to time.
“People think, Oh here we go, the religious trip,” Terry goes on. “But it’s true. I’ve got faith, you know? I’ve really got faith. I read a lot of The Bible now, and I go to gospel church. I’ve been reading The Bible and I’ve got a lot of strength out of it, I really have.”

It’s just a thought, but is there any way we could draw a straight, unswerving line between what Terry’s just said and the music of Levitation? Terry thinks so, certainly in terms of the band’s theatrical, utterly uncompromising, poly-doctrinal out-of-our-fuckin’-way approach.

“People only see the bad side of religion,” he says. “Like American fundamentalists saying send us your money and we’ll save you. That’s all wrong. That’s revolving it around money. You’ve got to revolve it around people.” He peers a bit deeper, nodding thoughtfully.

Er…go on.

“The only thing that is of worth politically is grand gesture,” he continues. “Demonstration by action. I think a lot of groups need to think about what exactly it is they’re achieving. A lot of them say they’re having a good time, but they’re just kidding themselves. They’re just record company puppets.”

“To pick up on what Terry’s saying here,” interjects Dave mercifully from his by now practicallyhorizontally position, “I really hope people come to our gigs and see that Levitation are artists and, like hopefully, just by doing quite solidly set-out ideas, it’ll make people think about their own freedom of expression. Do you know what I’m saying?”

“That’s bollocks,” says Bic angrily. “A gig’s a fuckin’ gig, man.”

“Yeah, y’know, I agree,” mutters Bob.

Dave groans loudly and goes back into his shell. Bob shrugs good-naturedly. Bic looks expectantly at Terry. Laurence, somewhere in a bed several miles away, scratches another itch. Terry nods thoughtfully to himself.

“There’s a war in the soul,” he says.


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