Don't quaestion everything…


Siren - March 1992


Levitation are slowly getting there, their intricacies coupled with brain squashing feverish rushes. They also seem a trifle weird.

'I'm just talking about Bic and Bob and how I sort of picked this up from them, after never being able to juggle for years and years, and the fact that I never would have learnt, had I not met somebody who acquired that craft, rather than something impersonal...'

It's close to midnight in the lounging area of a south London studio and Terry Bickers is doing a passable job of keeping his balls in the air. He's spent most of the evening laying down the final overdubs on tracks destined for Levitation's first full studio album, but now he's explaining how juggling can be a form of meditation that gets the right and the left sides of the brain working together. The question that arises though is whether all of this is really relevant to Levitation.

'The point I was going to make,' says Terry, with the air of someone talking to a child who has just left its bed to disrupt a dinner party downstairs, 'was the fact that even at my stage of life, you're still learning things. It was a good realisation that I should not think, before starting this session, that I know everything. I should be open to listening to other people we're working with - the producers - and taking everyone's opinion as equal.'

It would seem (and who could want it otherwise?) that Terry Bickers - singer, songwriter, guitarist and father of one daughter - is in a confident mood. It's all in sharp contrast to the first time we met at a Paris hotel in December 1990. Then, Terry had been in the motormouth mode that was seen on last year’s infamous Rapido interview, which was conducted during the same period.

I'd arranged an interview as much out of curiosity as anything else. Levitation were finishing up their first series of live dates. Low key European support slots to Galaxie 500 and Ride. Terry, meanwhile, was in the mood to put the record straight, tell his side of a few stories. Yes, Guy Chadwick had asked him to come back to The House of Love; The House of Love had lost their way, chosen the wrong producers; Alan McGee’s name became transposed to Mr McGoo and Levitation's publishers were caustically referred to as 'The Music Corporation of America' due to the small matter of a lack of tour support. Terry, although he denied it at the time, was bitter.

It was the end of a stressful period, something which Terry now acknowledges when I ask if he had a nervous breakdown at the time of The House of Love split. 'It was exhaustion. I did basically,' he recalls. 'I kind of couldn't function as I did before and it's very frightening. It makes you stronger, the experience of something like that helps you build a resistance, because you have to in this day and age.'

It's not merely for the sake of raking over old coals that it's worth recalling this period. The image of Terry at that time was of a half-crazed, acid addled nutter (something, like Julian Cope, he may never completely shake off). The Canadian singer and sometime neighbour Dave Howard commented ironically on events with a song on his eponymous debut album with The Dave Howard Singers, 'What If Terry Had Been Sane?'. The punchlines were that if Terry hadn't freaked out, Simon Walker would never have left Dave's band to join The House Of Love; Dave would never had discovered that The Dave Howard Singers worked better as a bass/keyboards/drum trio - a revelation he says is partly responsible for him getting the finance to make an album at all; and Levitation would never had been formed.

Put simply, Terry's feelings of isolation within The House of Love meant that he had to form Levitation. Later on that Paris day, Levitation played a gig which only hinted at the power they've developed since, before Terry went into a studio in the North of the city to put a guitar track on an album of Corsican folk music (!). The contrast between the Terry of earlier in the day and the relaxed figure of later was stark. Surrounded by other members of the band, Terry was mellow and happily chatting over red wine and herbal cigarettes. As Levitation drummer Dave Francolini says, 'Terry sings songs, Terry writes music, Terry loves music, Terry enjoys being in recording studios. That is why we're all here. He's inspiring.'

During 1991, Levitation released three singles, collected on the compilation 'Coterie'. The 'Coppelia' EP with the exception of the live favourite 'Smile', is a half formed thing, a collection of ideas recorded before the band had played live. 'Squirrel' from the Rough Trade Singles club, is a hint at what the band can do, but it's the 'After Ever' ep which really shows what the band are about. Describing the new album, Dave comments, 'you can hear a lot of arm movements of this album, a lot of flailing around, a lot of realness.' It's also a comment that sums up 'After Ever', an attempt to break through to something, anything, so long as it's real.

Back in 1992, arrangements have been made to meet at six o'clock. This is fine in theory, but the practice proves a tad trickier. Terry bounces in to meet me, smiles, says 'hi' and bounces back to duties behind the mixing desk. This leaves guitarist Bic Hayes, shortly to be joined by Dave Francolini and keyboard player Bob White, to conduct one interview and Terry to talk later (bassist Laurence O'Keefe is absent).

This is a pity, not only because it sets up an artificial dichotomy between band and front man, but because the way the band's personalities play off each other is fascinating. Bic is practical and enthusiastic, loathe to analyse the band on the grounds that he's too close to what's happening. Dave is dryer, laconic, possessed of an ironic sense of humour. Bob is the eternal innocent abroad, peering at the world with surprise from behind his glasses, the kind of person who loses car keys. Terry is a kaleidoscope of Winnie the Pooh characters - frenetic Tigger one moment, wise old Owl the next.

They've all walked the rock n' roll treadmill. Bob has been in various bands, the absent Laurence was a Jazz Butcher, Dave met Terry via a House of Love support slot with Something Pretty Beautiful and Bic is a part time Cardiac who used to play bass with The Dave Howard Singers. It's a disparate list.
'We all come from totally different musical backgrounds, totally different styles and that's why it was really odd that we should get together as a band,' concurs Bic, 'because none of us has really done similar things, or in the same circles, or our circles have crossed over a bit but not really that much. It's not like a band of people who grew up together - which is what I've always been in bands like before - people you've known. This is really new.'
Bic sees this as one of the strengths of the band.

'It holds a lot more interest as you never know what's going to happen,' he says. 'I think the strength of it really does lie in the fact that we've all got completely different musical tastes which cross over and that really helps to make the music more colourful, rather than a band of people trying to emulate a musical collection, which is what most bands do. They all like the same sort of music, so they all play the same sort of music, but we don't really. It's got influences from all over the place, which, yeah, is definitely a strength.' So far these collective influences have produced a sound labelled by some as 'progressive' rock. Ask Bic about this and the answer is likely to be curt, 'well that's just a tag isn't it? I mean... I dunno. That's just a media tag.'

It's also a lazy one. It's weird that close parallels can be found between Levitation's reception and that of the bands in immediate post punk period such as Magazine and Public Image Limited. Magazine's 'Secondhand Daylight' and PIL's 'First Edition' were seen by some as betraying the spirit of punk, sell outs. Levitation are in a similar contemporary position. With the vogue for the more naive structures of younger guitar bands Levitation get put to one side, the rawness of their music ignored. The other implication here is that Terry, like Devoto and Lydon, is being asked why he doesn't make records like he used to, a question not worth dignifying with an answer.

Levitation like extreme music, whether that means avant-garde, rootsy or just plain loud. Their talk of artists ranges through Killing Joke, Dr John, Julian Cope, Talk Talk and Crass' 'Christ The Album'. With so many ideas and comments flying, it all confirms the impression of Levitation as a democratically run band.

Bic visibly winces, 'It's such a horrible word, democracy. I'd really like to usurp it.'

'Balanced. Balanced is the word,' opines Dave.

But writing credits are equally split. 'It is, it's all actually written by all of us. Astonishingly enough,' Bob replies.

After some confusing chatter about how this process works, Bic attempts to conclude matters, 'everyone chips in their ten pence worth.'

Bob has other ideas, 'Oohh, sometimes even more.'

'The fivers come out. It's like a gamble really, like a big gambling scheme,' agrees Bic.
Dave is trying to reiterate his point about balance but it's Bob who has the last word on the subject, 'Hah, I'll give you a tenner if you don't play that.'

The question of money is pertinent. Both their deals, with Rough Trade in the UK and Capitol in the USA, look eccentric in the light of Rough Trade's recent financial difficulties and the fact that the Capitol deal was actually signed first. For Bic, the key to both deals lies in the attitude of the two companies.

'The Capitol thing was because they were so interested in us,' he comments with a slightly puzzled look. 'When we first started, we didn't get any interest from record companies here at all and the Americans were really into it. They just really wanted us. We met them and they were into it for what we considered to be the right reasons, so we went with it. It's the same story for Rough Trade, because we met Geoff Travis and he really liked the band. We get on with him and there's a communication, which are the important things really.'

Bic is unconcerned about Rough Trade's past problems, although Bob philosophically remarks, 'every time you mention Rough Trade, the Levitation album is an important part of the reconstruction of the label.' The band have been given eight weeks, including time in a residential studio in Kent, to finish the project with producers Tim Smith and Ken Gardener. For some bands this would be enough time for a single. Levitation have managed 17 tracks.

Tonight, there's ample time to watch Levitation work. Terry's idea of 'just 10 minutes' appears to work on some strange quantum level as he concentrates on finishing off a couple of tracks. 'Sacred Lover' is the song 'Nadine' should have been, a sensual, beautiful ballad. The provisionally titled 'Arcs of Light and Dew' (the title may be saved for the album as a whole) is Levitation at their psychedelic best, soaring melodies and pulverising guitars in equal measures. The final mix may feature backing vocals from Heidi Berry, who comes in from an adjoining studio to work on the song, before getting thoroughly confused as Terry goes over the song line by line. 'Could I hear the whole thing?' she asks plaintively.

Eventually Terry decided to call it a night, which leaves us free to talk, talk which turns to the band's Autumn visit to the USA, where they played at the CMJ Seminar (a smaller version of the New Music Seminar) in New York with Blur, before moving on to Los Angeles.

'That was a real awareness opener in lots of ways,' he recalls. 'Wherever you go, it colours your whole personality and it's good that if people have grown up in real slum areas, that if they can get out and see other places and travel and if they can break out, then they'll be the people to return to those places to help people. It's very important in America that they have a feeling that people aren't alone. It's more severe than over here, it really is. People that we met, a lot of them were afraid to go out. There was only one liquor store they'd go into. All the others were no-go zones, because it wasn't familiar and there's too many shoot outs in shops and outside bars. Dave had some cross fire near him, you know?'

Like many, Terry is both fascinated and appalled by America. The fascination is with the deserts, space, the Indian culture; the kick in the teeth is the exporting of the worst of America, its cultural imperialism. Does Terry then, consider Levitation very British?

'Yeah' comes the blunt reply.

Very English even?

'The Autumn season, the fungus among us.'

Less blunt, but a good opening to talk about drugs. What about drugs? Is Levitation's reputation as a drug band true?

'I haven't been able to get any', laughs Terry. 'No, we wouldn't be able to work at the rate we do. I think a big element of the band is the new adrenaline seekers sort of thing. We smoke, but no one does hard drugs in the band at all. Like with Ecstasy, there's a gland in your body that releases euphoria and a lot of people think they know how to cope with what's a safe level, etc. But the way I feel about it is that it releases a hormone that produces euphoria and you've only got a certain amount of that in your body. So it's released in one go and you've got nothing in storage. After a while, it definitely leads to a tendency of depression - definitely it would, you know? Speaking from a couple of experiences of it, then I would say it had a surprise effect two days later, where I found myself getting really uptight about something I wouldn't normally. It really does hinder your work too much.

'There's no such thing as methadone pretty, it's always methadone ugly, or with any of those things?

Do you know that saying?' concludes Terry.

Indeed. Maybe it's getting on, time to conclude things with an easy question. What about plans for the next year or so? Apparently this isn't so easy. 'I think we need to find somewhere where we can go and get in touch with nature and hug a few trees, stand by a few trees and seek their approval. Basically, because I know that I don't want anybody in the band to suffer from burn-out, as so easily can happen, even on the energy level, without the knocking substances back. I've seen lots of people burn out, just from stressing themselves too much about why they're doing it, the motives for doing music. In one given year, you've only got so much communicative energy.'

Terry has a plan to take Levitation on tour via the canals of Britain and it's this kind of thing which causes some to write Levitation off. But, if Levitation are just new age hippies (a highly debatable point), they're new agers with an attitude problem which finds expression in the Black Sabbath riffs on the last single, 'World Around'. There's a sense of purpose here, a sense that Levitation are a band working to a collective ideal.

The taxi home takes me along the Thames and past the Houses of Parliament. You want crazy? Hell, you've seen what goes on in there. Smile, the experience begins.....


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