Electronic / electro-acoustic duo Ultramarine are Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond. The pair started out in the early 1980s as founding members of the 5-piece band, A Primary Industry, or API – their music heavily influenced by the acts on Factory Records, and the closely related Belgian label, Les Disques Du Crépuscule. The group eventually traveling to Brussels in 1989 to record their sophomore long-player, Folk.
With Folk being reissued late last year by Foam On A Wave, and an API track featured as one of the crucial standouts on Cherrystones latest Critical Mass comp for Touch Sensitive, I caught up with Paul to find out more about Ultramarine`s past, present, and future.
How did you and Ian meet?
We met when we were about sixteen. We lived in the same village in Essex and went to the same school.
When did you first starting making music together?
What inspired you to start making music?
As a kid, The Jam were the first band that I got into seriously and seeing them made me get a bass guitar and start playing around with music. Listening to John Peel from about 1980 / 81 was what really opened up my imagination.
Had either of you had any formal training?
I haven’t had any. Ian had guitar lessons when he was in his teens.
Had you been in bands before?
We were both in separate local bands. I had a band with my brother and two other lads in about 1981 – doing versions of things that were easy to play. I remember doing covers of She’s Lost Control, Truth by New Order, Agent Orange by Ski Patrol and Endless Soul by Josef K. A pretty good set in retrospect! We didn’t do any gigs – it was purely living room stuff.
How did API come about?
I seem to remember the aforementioned local bands merging for a combined jam session in a village hall. API came out of that.
Who else was in the band?
Jemma Mellerio on vocals and clarinet, my brother Simon on drums and Guy Waddilove on trumpet and percussion.
What would have been your musical influences?
At the time of starting API in the early ‘80s we were really only listening to contemporary things – not digging back at all – so we were inspired by all the obvious stuff of that time; Factory Records, 4AD, The Raincoats, The Slits, 23 Skidoo, Cabaret Voltaire, Gang of Four, The Pop Group, Rip Rig & Panic, On-U Sound etc.
Who wrote the songs?
The whole band.
Did you play any memorable gigs?
We played at WOMAD on Mersey Island in 1985, which was headlined by New Order and A Certain Ratio were on the bill. We were very excited by that. We did a couple of gigs in Spain supporting Portion Control and a John Peel Roadshow with Nitzer Ebb. We supported Throwing Muses at the Africa Centre for their first UK show and supported Dif Juz and The Wolfgang Press. Dif Juz were very influential on us so it was a big thrill supporting and meeting them.
How did you hook up with Rob Deacon and Sweatbox?
We met Rob in 1984 when he was doing Abstract Magazine, before he started Sweatbox. He licensed Perversion from our first 7” single for his Life At The Top compilation.
Can you tell me more about the recording of the first API LP, Ultramarine?
We worked up the songs in a pretty traditional way and most of the songs were arranged before we took them into the studio. One or two tracks were created from scratch in the studio by heavily dubbing and reworking other songs. We worked with a very creative engineer, Colin James, who introduced the “studio as an instrument” concept to us which was something we were interested in through people like Adrian Sherwood. Colin was a founder member of Meat Beat Manifesto and worked with us on most of the API records and the Ultramarine albums Folk and Every Man And Woman Is A Star.
Where was it recorded, how long did it take, what kind of equipment were you using?
Ultramarine was recorded at F2 Studio, Mount Pleasant – off Grays Inn Road – in over a week or so. We had a straightforward band set-up of bass, drums & guitar, Jemma singing and playing clarinet, and the studio’s Korg Poly-61 synth. We used the studio outboard gear a lot, in particular the BEL BD80 digital delay which had a 2-second sampling time and was our first encounter with a sampler.
What happened after the recording of the LP?
I’ve got very little memory of that. We did a little bit of press I think and probably some gigs but I don’t remember the album getting much attention.
How did you hook up with Les Disques Du Crépuscule?
I worked at Crépuscule in 1988 with James Nice – who now runs Crépuscule and Factory Benelux, after resurrecting both labels about 10 years ago. James is a very old friend of ours. He released the first A Primary Industry single on his label LTM in 1984. After I stopped working at Crépuscule they released the first Ultramarine record Wyndham Lewis which I think we’d recorded in 1987. That led on to us doing Folk with them.
How did the band personnel change at this point?
Folk was done with more-or-less the same line-up as API.
Did you all travel to Brussels to record?
Yes, we all went – with Colin James.
How long were you there?
About a week. I think it was a single trip to record and mix the album.
Did you get to hang out with other artists on the label?
I’d met quite a few of the artists when working at the label – Wim Mertens, Isabelle Antena, Anna Domino, Alan Rankine, Blaine Reininger – but I don’t think we met anyone when we were recording Folk.
What was Brussels like at that time?
I really liked it but I think I was too young to understand it properly and to get the most out of it. We definitely had a notion of it being a sophisticated European city and that romantic idea had originally drawn us to becoming fans of Crépuscule in the mid-80s. Their compilations From Brussels with Love and The Fruit of the Original Sin were very influential on us in that respect. We missed the real heyday of that scene in the earlier ‘80s but it was still exciting and inspiring for us to be there.
Why the name change to Ultramarine?
I’m not really sure about that. We’d had a break while I was working in Brussels and I think must have seen it as a new project when we restarted.
How did the recording process differ to that of your previous LP?
The songwriting process for Folk was still based on rehearsing together as a band but we started using samples more. Previously we’d only used very basic sampling techniques as an effect in the studio but for Folk we had an Atari 1040 and an Akai S900 sampler which we used for some drum loops and a few other parts. We also used sequenced synth parts for the first time using a Sequential Circuits ProOne. We recruited a couple of session musicians and really enjoyed that; we had an accordion player and a great percussionist called Frank Michiels who played with Anna Domino and Isabelle Antena. I think there was a certain amount of arranging the tracks on the fly in the studio but other than that it was quite a straightforward production process.
I know you employed samples. Can you divulge what any of them were?
How would your influences on this record have differed to the API LP?
I have real difficulty in recalling what influences might have gone into Folk. One record I’m pretty sure was an influence was Benjamin Lew & Steven Brown’s album A Propos D’Un Paysage, released on Crammed in 1985 and most definitely a “Brussels” album for us. We loved Steven Brown’s sax and clarinet playing and, as clarinet was effectively our lead melodic instrument, there was a direct connection. We were interested in the mix of acoustic and electronic on that Lew & Brown album. I suppose Tuxedomoon more generally would have been an influence too.
How was the new album received?
I think it was more-or-less ignored. I don’t recall any reviews at the time; maybe one by Rob Deacon in Melody Maker. For some reason we’d stopped playing live by then, which probably didn’t help, and I don’t remember doing any sort of promotion on the album.
What happened to the band?
People went their separate ways to study or do day jobs.
Was the deal with Les Disques Du Crépuscule always intended to be a one album thing?
I think it was a one-record-at-a-time thing. After Folk Ian and I started recording Every Man And Woman Is A Star for Crépuscule and that turned into a joint venture with Brainiak. We split the recording of the album between London and Brussels. For reasons that are lost in the mists of time Crépuscule dropped out at some point and Brainiak released it on their own.
What prompted the decision to continue as a duo?
I can’t really remember; I think it was just circumstances.
At this point – musically – who was doing what?
Around 1990, once the band had reduced to just me and Ian, we started concentrating on working with the Akai S900, digging for samples and developing ideas.
What was the next thing you recorded?
Ian and I did the original version of Stella for a Crépuscule sub-label called Dancyclopaedia. We recorded that in Brussels again and worked on a remix with Eddy De Clercq who we went to meet in Amsterdam. Eddy was DJing at the Roxy and took us to a party he was doing for Boy George’s birthday. Leigh Bowery performed a sort of self-enema while hanging from the ceiling. In retrospect, that definitely feels like a watershed moment for us – no pun intended.
Again, how had the equipment and process changed?
The Stella project was heavily sampler-based, also using some played bass & guitar parts. We were still working with Colin James who was keeping us on track with what was going on with the technology; I remember he had an 808 and a 303 or ProOne and that was definitely a eureka moment for us. We did a couple of versions of Stella; the original one for Crépuscule and a slightly later version that we recorded in London for a Brainiak 12”.
What now would have been your influences?
Mainly the sampler itself; the fresh concept of reusing audio snippets from other records. We immediately realised that it opened up a infinite palette of new sounds, textures and beats. We’d originally heard sampling on The Young Gods album a few years earlier but it was records like De La Soul`s 3 Feet High and Rising and A Tribe Called Quest`s People’s Instinctive Travels that really kickstarted our imagination. We were into the bleep stuff like Testone by Sweet Exorcist and pop-dance things like Soul II Soul, Sunshine On A Rainy Day by Zoe and City Lights by William Pitt. I remember that period around 1990 as being a really joyous time. Tracks like Testone made us really happy and I suppose also had a lineage in the early ‘80s industrial and post punk we’d grown up with.
There seems to be a huge change between Folk and Stella. Can you pin-point what prompted this change in direction?
I think we were feeling really positive about life in general and were reflecting that. Discovering the new technology, reading i-D and The Face, hearing the new music. All of it helped free us up and, in terms of making music, enabled us to make an imaginative step up.
Had you experienced “acid house” by then?
I was in Brussels in 1988 so I feel like I missed it. We caught the tail end of it I suppose but we weren’t serious clubbers.
How did you hook up with Tim Fielding and Brainiak?
Colin James was involved with The Brain and Brainiak so we met Tim and Sean McLusky through him.
Were you hanging out at The Brain club?
Yes, we used to go there quite regularly for a while.
Are there any tunes in particular that remind you of The Brain?
I always associate Baby Ford, Sueño Latino and Sun Electric’s O’Locco with The Brain. I’m not sure if I actually heard any of them there but that’s definitely the vibe I recall.
Did you ever perform live at the club?
We played there live once which I suppose would have been the first Ultramarine show.
Did you hang out with other artists on the label – like Mr Monday – or other performers like Ramjac?
Not that I remember – only really Sean McLusky – who had his band If? at the time – and Colin who did The Diceman on Brainiak.
Were you buying records? If so which shops did you visit regularly?
At that time I think we were only really buying secondhand records at places like Record & Tape Exchange. I don’t remember buying much new dance vinyl at the time.
Did you go to any other clubs?
We went to clubs in London but weren’t regulars anywhere. We went to the Hacienda and the Zap Club for Chris Coco & Helene Stokes’ Coco Club. We did one of our first live sets there, probably in 1990.
Who is the vocalist on Stella?
Gabrielle Roth, the dancer and musician. The recording is taken from a TV interview and was used unedited – it just snapped into the track like magic. We were in touch with Gabrielle briefly but didn’t meet her.
How long did it take to expand these new ideas out into an album?
The writing of Every Man And Woman Is A Star happened very quickly; we came up with the basic tracks over a few months. The recording was more drawn out, using a couple of different studios in London, where we recorded several other musicians, and mixing in Brussels. We then recorded a couple of additional tracks and reworked some others for the expanded release on Rough Trade a year or so later.
Was the title – Every Man And Woman Is A Star – a conscious nod to Aleister Crowley?
Yes. I think we liked the idea of the all-inclusive slightly hippyish sound of it, but it coming from quite a dark, esoteric source.
Were you part of the “IDM” scene?
No, we weren’t considered part of that. I think our music has always been a bit too eclectic to fit into a definite genre. Our use of acoustic instruments and the band set-up for our live shows always seemed to set us aside from being part of a particular scene. It’s not been a policy or a conscious thing; we would probably have had an easier time over the years if we had been part of a scene.
Did you get to know contemporaries like Black Dog, Aphex Twin and the Global Communications guys?
We met quite a few of those guys by playing live with them. We met a lot of people including Autechre through the Megadog shows, others through Oscillate in Birmingham, we toured in the US with Orbital and Meat Beat Manifesto and were on the Britronica trip to Moscow with Aphex, Autechre, Bark Psychosis, Seefeel, Reload and quite a few others.
This sound currently seems to be having a resurgence – there are loads of reissues of mid-90s “chilled out” electronica – do you have any idea why? For me its a massive trip down memory lane.
I suppose it’s just the 25-year cycle or whatever it is! Now it’s time to reassess the mid-90s. I’m not sure what it is but it’s great to see some of this music seeing the light again. I think the reissue scene has been incredible over the past few years – I’ve heard so much amazing music that passed me by at the time. There seems to me to be an openness about how music is received nowadays by those who genuinely love music. If it’s good, honest and interesting, let’s hear it and enjoy it. I get more out of music nowadays – spiritually, emotionally and intellectually – than I ever have.
What prompted the move to Blanco Y Negro?
Every Man And Woman Is A Star was reissued by Rough Trade and we did a couple of singles for them too. Geoff Travis A&R’d Blanco Y Negro – which was a Warners sub-label – and signed us to Warners. We really enjoyed working with Geoff and being on Blanco felt like a continuation of being on Rough Trade so it was an easy move to make. The Warners deal enabled us to give up our day jobs and do music full time for several years.
On the album United Kingdoms – what prompted the involvement of the other players again? What was the concept – what kind of sound were you after?
Working with other musicians has been quite central to a lot of what we’ve done. We felt it worked really well on Every Man And Woman Is A Star and wanted to expand on it for United Kingdoms. The general idea has always been to record other musicians at a fairly early stage in a song’s development – recording some pre-written ideas and some improvisation – to take that recorded material away and work on it at home, folding it into the sound and the arrangements. Some of this material – like a solo – we’ll use quite straight. Other times we’ll heavily edit or manipulate what we’ve recorded.
How did the collaboration with Robert Wyatt come about?
We’d been listening to Traffic’s version of John Barleycorn and had the idea of doing something similar with English folk songs. We thought Robert would be the ideal singer for a project like that. He was on Rough Trade at the time so it was very easy to get in touch with him through Geoff Travis.
How influenced were you by the Canterbury Scene, Soft Machine, et al.?
Other than Robert Wyatt’s early-80s records for Rough Trade, we weren’t aware of the Canterbury Scene until we started digging for samples around 1990. Through that process we discovered a lot of that music; Kevin Ayers, Soft Machine, Robert’s earlier solo records, Hugh Hopper, Lol Coxhill, Richard Sinclair and the various Caravan offshoots. We got heavily into Kevin Ayers in particular, even to the extent that we went to Majorca in the summer of 1992 to see if we could track him down in Deià and ask him if he’d like to collaborate with us (Rob – for more on Deia please check the interview with Joan Bibiloni). While we were there we bumped into Lady June in a little night club in Deià; she told us that Kevin was away – I think living in Madrid at the time – and gave us his phone number with the instruction to “Ask for Marcel”, which I presume was a reference to his song Am I Really Marcel?!
United Kingdoms was conceived as a sort of Canterbury tribute. As well as the songs we wrote with Robert Wyatt, there was a cover version of a Matching Mole track – Instant Kitten – and Jimmy Hastings – who played with Caravan, Soft Machine & Hatfield and the North – played on several tracks. After the album we worked with Kevin Ayers on a cover version of his song Hymn and Lol Coxhill also played on that. We also played live with Lol and Elton Dean from Soft Machine – we were deeply immersed in that world for a while!
Did you have any involvement with Pete Lawrence and The Big Chill?
I think we met Pete a few times and played at a Big Chill event at the Arts Depot in King’s Cross with Nightmares On Wax and Matthew Herbert. We didn’t play at any of the festivals though.
Were you playing a lot of festival gigs? Have you played Glastonbury?
We did a few; most memorably Forest Fayre in the Forest of Dean and Strawberry Fair in Cambridge. We played on the NME stage at Glastonbury in 1993 and 1994.
What made you decide to take a break after 1998`s A User`s Guide?
In the end, we were quite demoralised by the major label experience with Warners. Trying to make a living out of music was taking a lot of the fun out of it for us and what we were doing in the late ‘90s wasn’t really fitting in anywhere. The live electronic scene had fizzled out a bit by then too. We loved working on A User’s Guide and were very focussed for that record, spending about a year full time on developing and recording it. But we saw it as a bit of a “fuck you” record and knew we were going to pack it in once we’d finished it.
At what point did you start Real Soon, and reactivate Ultramarine?
Real Soon started in 2002 and we restarted Ultramarine in about 2010.
How did you reconnect with Les Disques Du Crépuscule?
James Nice, who runs the label nowadays, is a very old friend of ours and we’d done a few things with him in recent years like contributing to Crépuscule compilations. We released the previous album, This Time Last Year, on Real Soon but wanted Signals Into Space to be a more expansive, ambitious record and I think doing it with Crépuscule gave it more visibility. The record felt like a good fit for the label too.
How did you hook up with Anna Domino?
We wanted to work with a singer on Signals Into Space and Anna came to mind early on in the project. We were big fans of hers from the mid-80s and thought her voice could work well with our music. We made contact through James and had a great correspondence with her over a couple of years as we worked on the tracks together. She really engaged with the whole thing and we had a lot of fun receiving her ideas and sketches and folding them into what we were doing. The record grew up around this back and forth with Anna. She recorded her vocals at home with her husband Michel Delory engineering. It was a real thrill hearing her voice on our music for the first time; her voice is so familiar to us and it connects to a magical time for me personally and musically.
How did the recent remix of Woo come about? Were you big fans of Woo anyway?
I’ve only fairly recently got into Woo. I absolutely love their stuff but they had completely passed me by for some reason. Andy Butler from Hercules and Love Affair put me onto them a few years ago saying that they sounded like Ultramarine! I think they have a lot in common with things Ian and I have been into for years, like The Durutti Column and the Lew & Brown record I mentioned. We were approached by the Italian label Quindi Records to do the remix and I’ve had some correspondence with Clive Ives which as been nice.
How has lockdown been for you?
On a personal level it’s been fine but until recently it really sapped all the creative energy out of me. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get some music done but I’ve found it to be a bit of slog. Just starting to get going again now!
All being well, what do Ultramarine have planned for the future?
We’re working on three or four new projects, hopefully all for release in 2021. One is based around a recording we did in February 2020 on a Thames sailing barge in Essex. We recorded a live session with Greg Heath – saxes – and Ric Elsworth – vibes & percussion – who we hope will form our live band if and when we can ever play shows again. We’re currently in the process of trying to shape that into a record.
(A Primary Industry captured by Lawrence Watson in 1984.)
Ultramarine`s Folk is available directly from Foam On A Wave, while Cherrystones` Critical Mass Volume 2 can be purchased from Touch Sensitive. You can check out the duo’s back catalogue and forthcoming releases over at Real Soon.