The Shamen

I’VE got all kinds of crap that I’ve accumulated over the years. Stuff I’ve written, posters, flyers, diaries, notebooks. Most of it isn’t particularly important or profound. You know, it’s just crap. I took the opportunity to get rid of a lot of it when I was moving out earlier this year. I had a bonfire.

I should probably have sorted through it a bit more thoroughly. But I couldn’t be arsed. It didn’t seem important.

One thing I did rescue from fiery oblivion was an unpublished interview with the Shamen, which I’m guessing is from 1989. It was done for Grunt, the fanzine I was involved in at the time, and typed up on Chumbawamba’s word processor – probably my first experience of new-fangled computers.

It didn’t run because we stopped doing the fanzine, partly because I was a lot more interested in 24-hour partying than pretty much anything else, partly because everyone else who was involved was busy with bands, families, actual work etc.

I think I went to the Shamen’s travelling rave experience Synergy a couple of times. I remember, well, not much, apart from the Shamen being fantastic and feeling impressed by the seamless presentation, with no gap between the DJs and the live music (I think Eskimos & Egypt were also on the bill).

Some time later, it was a pleasant surprise to find out that the infectious rave anthem that had been hammered all over the place for the last few weeks – the one that went, I can move, move, move any mountain – was actually the Shamen.

But all that was in the phuture.

* * *

THE SHAMEN are two Scots – Colin Angus and Will Sinnott – who live in London. They’ve been making some very groovy music for the last three years. Initially a self-styled ‘Sixties-influenced psychedelic band’, they released a decent if uninspiring debut album by the name of Drop.

Since then they’ve lost two of the original four members of the band and got up the noses of Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, the Daily Mirror, the Sun and the Jesus Army, by means of various scams and stings.

They have also evolved into a whirlwind dance frenzy, where Public Enemy meet HAL 9000 in a battle for supremacy over taut syncopation and wonderfully perverted acid basslines. To coin a phrase, they are mental.

Since this interview took place at Leeds University last summer, the band have released a single or two and have just signed to One Little Indian, home to such luminaries as the Sugarcubes and Kitchens of Distinction.

The Shamen really began to attract people’s attention with the release of Christopher Mayhew Says, a sample-happy true tale about an esteemed peer of the realm who ate some mescalin and cheerfully tripped his brains out while being filmed by a BBC documentary film crew in 1955.

“I think the simplest explanation is that I had these experiences, they were real, and that they took place outside of time,” says Lord Mayhew, as happy as Larry.

As well as the wigged-out psychedelic harmonies found throughout Drop, Christopher Mayhew Says also featured a bone-crunching beat box. The pair had been “listening to a lot of hip hop sounds” and they quickly realised that the developments and changes taking place in that field were a lot more interesting and exciting than anything that was happening in rock at the time.

“It had got really boring,” says Sinnott. “We started to hear things like Public Enemy, the early acid stuff, even the first S’Express single. It was new! We thought, we can do something with that. We can take things out of that and use them to make our own sound even more exciting.”

Newly ensconced in London after leaving their hometown of Aberdeen, the pair threw themselves into the capital’s rave scene. The other two members of the band weren’t quite so keen.

“The other two in the band didn’t enjoy life in London and basically felt a bit redundant – as we were programming all the stuff they used to play. They went back to Aberdeen,” says Sinnott.

“As bad as things were for them in London, there’s still a lot more fun to be had, and a lot more interesting things to do, than in Aberdeen,” adds Angus. “We don’t spend very long periods in London. We’re usually down there to work, to record or whatever.

“Although I call the place where I live home, I wouldn’t call London my home. It’s where I am now because we work there and the opportunities to work with other musicians, engineers, people who produce stuff for us, it’s the best place for us to be.”

A lot of the fun to be had in London these days is about acid house.

“The first acid club that I went to,” enthuses Sinnott, “the only thing I could compare it to previously was the first time I saw the Stranglers in Glasgow in 1977. I hadn’t been in amongst anything that felt that strong since then.

“Acid house was something completely new, even in the clubs. Things like the way the nights were constructed, the lights shows and the fact that psychedelics were being used. That also attracted us quite strongly.”

Taking their cue from the carefully constructed atmosphere of underground rave culture, the pair began to place more emphasis on the visual side of their live shows. A dissolve unit for their slide projector allowed them to introduce more animation to the images on the screen behind them, UV lights create what Sinnott calls “a certain air” at certain points in the set, while old standbys like smoke machines and strobes put in an inevitable appearance.

“If you can hit an audience with lots of smoke, if you can smother them with smoke and cut them off from the band, the smoke clears away and the audience becomes much more aware of the band. That’s a good effect because it starts people dancing. They feel they can let go a bit.”

“We always wanted to have something with a bit of substance, something that created moods rather than just the normal rock lighting set up. It was always something we’d aspired towards,” Angus tells me.

“That type of event is the entertainment of the future. People go along to raves and have a fantastic time. They don’t want to go back to grungey rock gigs or grotty discos.”

“This is actually the last time we’ll be touring with thsi kind of set up. The next time we tour we’ll be trying to create a whole night – good lightshows, good DJs, and the band will play like a half hour set in the middle of the night. It won’t just be a ‘Shamen plus support’ type of thing.

Later on, during the gig, one of Grunt’s mates went crashing off into an absolute bummer of a bad trip because he’d been confronted with pictures of concentration camp inmates accompanying the song War Prayer. I’m sure there were other contributory factors in the bad trip but if the Shamen want to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable doing psychedelics, they need to exercise a little more restraint in the imagery they use.

Last year, the band were involved in a minor controversy because of a film which accompanied their song Knature Of A Girl, exploring how female sexuality can be distorted and abused in the name of the feminine ideal. It featured What The Butler Saw-style footage of a young woman stripping off – nothing particularly explicit – but the film was only meant to be used in conjunction with that particular song.

Instead, a drunken projectionist showed the film through an entire gig in Manchester, much to the disgust of many women present, who saw it as pointless and gratuitous.

“But even when we used that part of the visuals properly, we were still getting lots of girls coming up to us afterwards, asking us why we used it. The point just wasn’t getting through,” says Sinnott. “We decided we’d had enough of people complaining about it. We had a set of black and white line drawings by a guy called Eric Stanton, who draws woman in long black leather boots in all these incredible bondage scenes, chained and strapped up, all sorts of things.

“We thought, let’s give it a go and see what people make of this. Now I wouldn’t consider the original film to be real porn, it was pretty soft, arty 1930s stuff. The Stanton drawings, they were porn. They were fucking hardcore porn. And not a word was said. Nobody passed a single comment about them.”

“If you’d have seen these things ..” Angus searches for the right words. “I’m sure they were drawn as a labour of love, but they’re the product of a totally perverted mind. But nobody said a thing about them, because they weren’t a film and they weren’t glossy photographs.

“In the end, we threw all that lot out because basically British audiences were too thick to understand what we were trying to do.”

Too thick? Maybe if they tightened up their presentation a bit there wouldn’t be any room for misinterpretation. This is particularly important when a lot of your audience is off their heads. Drugs like acid or ecstasy can completely transform users’ personalities. There are supposed to be lots of Leeds United fans who were into violence and general dickheadery, who got turned onto E and are now dedicated to Peace, Love and Unity. But so what?

“It’s the biggest social use of psychedelics since the Sixties – and not only that but it’s ordinary working class people making up the bulk of people using the stuff.

“If nothing else, it’s made them question their pre-existing notions of criminality. They’re at these clubs getting tripped out but it’s against the law and they’re criminals for doing it. But they’re having a brilliant time. There’s no violence in the clubs and psychedelics are much better than alcohol when it comes to having a good time.”

“We’re talking about 5000 people at these things [this was last summer, multiply that by five for some of the raves this summer – ed]. The first thing the law knows is when it sees busloads of people going towards an aircraft hangar. They can take the riot squad in there or whatever. But what are they going to find? Five thousand tripped out people who don’t want to fight,” Sinnott says.

“As for youth’s attitude towards politics, about their place in society, it’s completely apathetic. It’s like 1977 again. This country is dominated by medieval ideas which very few people under the age of 30 actually accept. They’re at odds with the society they live in and they’re starting to get into psychedelics, which makes them even more aware of the social situation they’re in. They can’t help but ask, what the fuck is going on?”

But is this cosmic awareness ever going to solidify into real political action – or even real political thought?

“That’s difficult to tell,” answers Sinnott. “We can’t sit here and say, this is what’s happening. The people using psychedelics in the clubs don’t have access to any kind of political action, but if any kind of extra-parliamentary situation was to arise, what would their response be?

“I think that’s the important thing. It’s all about how people feel about their own situation, which in turn leads them to looking at what’s going on around them. I just can’t believe that anyone can use psychedelics today and not question the whole situation in this country.”

Let’s get down to basics. Acid for everyone?

“Only if everyone wants it,” says Sinnott, smiling. “As we see it, there are only two rules for changing consciousness: You can’t stop the people who want to do it and you can’t make the people who don’t. We certainly don’t want to make it compulsory for anyone.”

“And it’s not as if it’s a pre-requisite for making someone intelligent or socially aware. It’s an individual metaphysical thing they’re indulging in and it all depends how your personality is constructed.”

Exactly. It’s all very well for a pair of ex-psychiatric nurses to go on about psychedelics, well versed as they are in their use, but aren’t there some unfortunates who just can’t handle acid?

“I think anyone can handle acid if they’re in the right place,” says Angus. “For us, setting is the most important thing, you’ve got to be in a place where you feel comfortable. The thing about acid raves is that the set up is right. Good sounds, good lights and stuff, and there’s a good vibe in the place with all these people using the gear.

“There’s no alcohol, so there’s no threat of violence, so you’ve actually created an atmosphere whereby people allow their consciousness to be enlarged or altered or whatever. They’re comfortable.”

“If you’re in the right place, with the right people, at the right time, then it’s good for anyone. In the wrong place, with the wrong people, at the wrong time, then it’s hell.”

Take notice here kids.

“Hopefully, over the next 40 or 50 years, we’ll see the emergence of electronic consciousness-changing devices,” continues Angus, with a kind of wistful, faraway looks in his eyes.

“There are already a couple that have been developed in America, like a helmet that can give you out-of-body experiences, shining lights, all the classical mystical things, and they’ve found a way to electronically trigger them in the brain with this machine.

“Folks could start drifting away from the drug scene, saying like, that was yesterday’s chemical technology, now we’ve got something else ..”

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