words: Jacky Hall
pics: Chris Saunders
Yeah, yeah, Sandman hearts RUMPUS. And look - that eccentric trio are being featured yet again. In the November issue too, so perhaps the band will be anticipating this auspicious press attention as an annual event....
"It's just sort of works, really," is a statement. Danny Lowe makes several times during the interview. As singer, bassist and lyricist, he is inevitably the band's focus. Dave Attwood provides some mesmerising jazzy beats ("He really is the best drummer in the world," compliments Danny. "Don't say that, it'll go in," mumbles his blushing bandmate). Former Salopian Ian Hutchinson completes the line-up on guitar.
He and Dave are long-term friends and formed a Queen tribute act of drums and saxophone at the age of twelve. Even though there's no sax in Queen. Their beginnings were "around the turn of the century" as a Chesterfield fourpiece, the Insofars. Original demos can still be found on the Internet. Although that was a fun time, the band can now look back and realise how much they've improved. Rumpus came into existence in 2001.
Musical descriptions of Rumpus are problematic. They use guitar, bass, drums and vocals like most other bands but don't rely on this. Instead, they play unconventional and almost psychedelic rock yet pop songs. "It's not the perceived idea of what's going to do well," Dave admits. "We couldn't have done much worse!" adds Ian. Mentioning 'musical influences' usually irks the egos of any band, but for Rumpus the 'little bit of everything' response is probably true.
"We're not interested in little Green Day singles," says Danny. "There's so many bands who have three good singles and then a load of filler."
Currently, Rumpus appear a secure yet vivacious band on the cusp of major success. After all, they've just been reviewed in Rocksound. They've played together as a band for long enough to develop a tight live show. They've also met enough people in the music industry to understand how to maintain their integrity. Having their own practise space out in Attercliffe has really helped too: no more shifting around the equipment. "We used to practise in one of those £15 for three hours places," Dave says. "But we can go anytime now - we've got more material on the go." They no longer live together and didn't find the experience particularly helpful creatively. "When you see each other at practise and at home, you start to think 'not you two again'" admits Danny.
Rumpus' debut album, Ball of Snakes, is now available from independent Sheffield outlets and through the band's website at a bargainous mid-price. Around 200 people turned up for their pre-album launch at the Grapes. Most copies were sold that night, before the record's release. Local label South by So What are also responsible for putting out albums by acts including This Floating World and Fake Ideal, and were a natural choice for Ball of Snakes.
"It was mutual," Ian says. " We'd recorded an album and they were putting stuff out." The band also admires the nurturing attitude of South By So What, who don't interfere with any creative decisions. "If we'd got a bigger record deal it could have been ruined," says Danny. "We're not a conventional rock band and want to hang onto that. A major label would want to file down the edges." And it's those edges which make Rumpus such an interesting and excitingly exceptional band.
As for the potentially Freudian album title, Dave and Danny just thought it sounded good. Ian's suggestion is that the metaphor reflects "the tangled up mess of songs". Recording was across two four-day sessions with Alan Smyth at 2Fly Studios. From the resulting twenty songs, ten made the final Ball of Snakes cut. Inclusion was based on creating a coherent sound. "I like an album you can listen to the whole way through without something sticking out," says Ian.
All three enjoyed the process of recording with Mr Smyth. Dave is full of praise: "he's got an amazing talent for listening to something over and over again but he still remains focussed." Ian jokes that he gets bored after "four or five times through." The recording set-up was familiar, like a gig or practise. Alan surrounded the band with microphones and equipment, recording everything but the vocals live. "We kept banging it out until we were happy with it," Ian says. He then admits "I can't really remember it. It's got my name on though."
When it comes to discussing the album in detail, the band struggle to remember the tracklisting. "This is like a pub quiz!" jokes Ian. Eventually all ten tracks have been written down - in the correct order. Dave is modest about his involvement. "I just put the drums in, so I'm redundant." When Ian asks what those drum patterns mean, Dave says he doesn't know.
The opener is The Woods and includes what is probably Rumpus' most explicit musical reference. "It came from that Black Sabbath riff. it's meant to be the evilest chord," Danny explains. "They're not the same notes [as Black Sabbath] but they run through it, it's meant to be monstrous." Along with How R U? (the inspiration for which came from irritating text messages) and older song Fish, The Woods promotional video was made by Danny's girlfriend, Helene Michaelides.
"Feeling Something is about trying to convince a girlfriend to join an orgy. Or something," laughs Ian. Danny doesn't directly deny this, but Dave is bemused: "I didn't realise that!" Star Fox began as a structured jam, but also has a concrete inspiration. "It's about a girl I used to know who took loads of drugs all the time and just talked shit," confirms Danny. It may sound like a rock song, but the surprising middle section is apparently often controversial. But, as Ian considers, it's all about perspective: "maybe the whole song's an excuse to have that bit."
Although it's the riff on Let Me In that is Danny's favourite, "the bit about the chickens" does it for Ian. It's an urgent little number, and this sense of immediacy is important to Danny. "With bands like the Pixies, are really short and it's done," he says, hitting the table to emphasise.
Disconnecting Seam is Dave's favourite: "I love that song. I never get bored of it." He expands that "I remember sitting in a pub in Chesterfield with Ian when we were about 15. We were talking about being a band and I could hear Ian's solo in my head." It may sound prog rock influenced now but had understated beginnings. "It used to be really quiet. I found an old tape from about seven years ago where it's just vocals and guitar," Danny reveals. Amazingly, Disconnecting Seam once featured a Rumpus flirtation with rap at the end. "I personally think it still should," Dave laughs.
Contrast is an important part of the songwriting. Danny highlights Biochemist as an example. "The main part is really dingy but then it's got a really poppy chorus. It's also kind of discordant, maybe that's why people say we sound like Captain Beefheart."
Final track Dark Skies is another song based on distinct ideas. "Without it would be like having black against a black background," Danny asserts. Biochemist also features in Danny's solo sets around the city's acoustic nights, something he got into through knowing promoters. However, being on his own is an experience Danny feels sceptical about. "Not being funny, I hate it," he says. "You get loads of people just sitting around wanting to talk, which is a really uncomfortable atmosphere when people sing these heartfelt songs." Yet he acknowledges the value of hearing Rumpus songs in their bass and vocals, stripped context. "It's usually a good sign if it's going to work well with a full band if it works like that. If it works one way but not the other then it's probably a poor song."
Park is apparently a nostalgic song about those early adolescent days of drinking cider in the local recreation ground. "Maybe that's a manipulated idea because not everybody gets it," Danny concedes. Well, some of us only had village greens - if lucky enough. "People think it's the oddest song, lyrically," Danny continues. "'Is it about fringes?' You should never try and force meaning!"
Sign My Name Across Your Back was resurrected by Alan Smyth, as it's a song the band rarely used to include live. Perhaps it's testament to the band's experience that they now include quieter songs. "Sometimes we value excitement over other things. Sometimes our live sets have been a bit too full on, Danny says. "So we put in some chilled out moments now."
Despite the excitement of releasing their debut album, Rumpus are already planning ahead. They'll soon return to Alan Smyth with fifteen songs ready to record. "Putting stuff out is such a slow process, I feel we're already at the next stage of the story," says Danny. "It's like looking at stars in the star but the light is from thousands of years ago," concludes Ian, almost philosophically.
Danny's creativity and songwriting talent is possibly the band's compulsion. When asked how many songs he has written, he estimates it must be hundreds. "We keep losing them because there are so many," Ian adds. But Danny isn't another arrogant Johnny "I'm the new Dylan" Borrell type. He's worked hard on developing is flair for a catchy chorus combined with sinister lyrical content. "People say 'you're in a band, you write some songs, oh that's nice' but it actually takes fucking hours." The entire band understands that some people may find the lyrics ambiguous and difficult to enjoy. "People have an idea that a song's only good if it's some emotional thing," says Danny.
"I would argue that if you're using stuff that just spills out of your subconscious that's equally valid." Ian concludes that: "maybe some people think if you can't be arsed to make a meaning for it then it isn't worth anything."
The final query considers those often surreal and dark lyrics. Dark Skies features the line 'to hell and back and back to hell', while Let Me In includes 'we're going back into the womb'. Ian's suggestion is that they come from "the darkest depths of Danny's mind." Danny's eventual conclusion is that "I don't know. It just sort of works, really."