A fantastic, objective, fascinating, extremely in-depth article. Covers their entire
career from the very beginning to very near the end. This may be the
definitive Lush article.
by Pat Gilbert
Things have turned up roses for Lush. So why are they looking so glum? Pat Gilbert finds out...
Those who saw it thought 'Cold Turkey Sandwich' was a rip-roaring read. And like many first novels, it contained more than a hint of autobiography. In fact, it was the tale of a very real band that its author, Steve Rippon, had played in for three years in the late 80s. And, if you haven't guessed already, that band was Lush ...
4th March 1996: Nomis Studios is hidden away in a long, sprawling Victorian terrace, far from the weekday bustle of nearby Shepherds Bush. For the last few days, Lush have been booked in here to rehearse for their forthcoming UK tour to promote their third album, 'Lovelife'. The LP is set to become their most successful to date, thanks in part to two dazzling tasters, 'Single Girl' and 'Ladykillers', which both made the Top 30. Spookily, a builder across the way starts whistling 'Single Girl' as I buzz on Nomis's anonymous entry phone. It's a sign that Lush are reaching a whole new audience.
But the people I meet inside hardly seem flushed or elated by their new-found success. In fact, our lunchtime chat, which chronicles a band forever on the up, seems to get more downbeat as we go along. By the time we reach 'Ladykillers', all four members are staring glumly into space, chins propped up on palms. Cheer up, I say, it can't be that bad. You've got another hit!
'I know,' says singer Miki Berenyi, ruffling her famous flamingo hair. 'But what's annoying is that people are insinuating that everything we did before was shit.'
'It's all sort of begrudging,' adds handsomely-attired bassist Phil King.
'They heard 'De-Luxe' six years ago, put on the new record, listen to the first three notes and think, same old crap,' whines guitarist Emma Anderson.
'And there's all these fucking stupid Elastica comparisons,' says Miki. 'The Top 20 run-down went 'though they've been round for years, Lush are actually younger than most of the female Britpop bands'. We're not younger than Justine. We never said we were.'
'They ought to say, 'the next person who compares Lush to Elastica gets a smack in the mouth,' counters drummer Chris Acland, cheering up a bit.
Oh yes. Fame, fatal fame, it plays hideous tricks on the brain. But Lush do have a point. For years they were written off by their critics as an ethereal shoe-gazing band, whose only redeeming feature was their (yawn) Abba-esque line-up. And now that they've injected their music with some mad-cow bully beef, the Elastica comparisons are flying round like red-hot bomb shrapnel. But has anyone listened to the group's old records recently? I hadn't - and when I did, I got a surprise. Far from the mewling shoe-y bollocks I seemed to remember, I found instances of unfettered punk rock. Dance tunes. Rampant lo-fi grunge. Sun-kissed pop with Easy Listening harmonies. Aching choral folk. Pristine electric guitars. Pummeling new wave mosh-fodder. Great pop music, for chrissakes!
And the more I read about the early lives of Emma and Miki, the
more it all made sense. Sure, they went to nice schools and had
middle-class backgrounds, but the emotional bruising they got along
the way - thanks largely to parents who never understood them - was
as deep and lasting as the hurt felt by any other artist. Ironically
for a band with such a strong image, there's very little that's
cosmetic about Lush. When Emma first played Chris the track 'When I
Die', written about the death of her overbearing father, he nearly
cried. If you listen closely, you'll cry too. It's completely
'If you walked in now I wouldn't start,
Lush matter, and it's about time we realized it.
Back in Nomis, Emma Anderson - quiet but forceful, and prone to
pulling you up with a matronly 'Do you mind!' - is outlining the
band's early years. They go a long way to- wards explaining why
Lush's music is so exquisitely tortured. The daughter of an army
officer turned Arctic explorer, Emma was brought up in the stem
surroundings of a gentleman's club in Piccadilly, which her father
ran after he retired. Following spells at several private girls'
schools ('schools for girls' privates!', shouts Chris), including an
austere boarder in Littlehampton, she ended up taking her 'O'-Levels
at the exclusive Queen's College in Harley Street. Because it was a
fairly posh school (Michael Heseltine's daughter was there at the
time), Emma's parents invented a double-barreled name for her: Emma
It was at Queen's that she met Miki Berenyi, who'd also spent her childhood being pushed from pillar to post. Her previous school had been a Ladbroke Grove comprehensive, at which she was badly beaten up on her first day - apparently for jumping a queue for the tuck shop. Miki's father was an exiled Hungarian journalist, who'd met her Japanese mother at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where he'd been posted as a sports correspondent. They married and moved to London, where Miki was born a year later. When she was four, her parents split up. Eventually, her mother remarried and moved to America, leaving Miki to an unhappy teenage life in Willesden, in the care of her bullying and neurotic Hungarian grandmother ('She was born in Transylvania. Which figures.'). At 14, Miki couldn't take much more, and suffered a 'sort of nervous breakdown'. It was around this time she took to getting rat-arsed every night on cheap vodka.
When their paths crossed at Queen's, Miki and Emma found they had something else in common besides their unsettled backgrounds: music. To begin with, Duran Duran were favourites, but their tastes quickly shifted towards Goth, and before long they were soaking up the maudlin sounds of Rubella Ballet, Play Dead and Bauhaus. Gig-going became their main pastime. During their 'A' Levels, they published their own fanzine, the now near-legendary 'Alphabet Soup', which was full of teenage bile and a lot of swear words, but not much else. Both were now playing guitar, but not well enough to form a band.
In autumn 1986, aged 18, Emma and Miki enrolled on different English Literature degree courses, with Emma heading off to Ealing College (now Thames Valley University) and Miki to North London Poly. In her first year, Emma hitched up with the Rover Girls, an otherwise all-male covers band who got as far as recording a demo with Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine - Emma's boyfriend at the time. Wayne Morris at Lazy Records heard the tracks, and offered to put a single out. 'Nothing came of it,' says Emma, who played bass then. 'He wanted to change us, and said we ought to wear this or that. He wanted to market us as ... well, it doesn't matter who, but the thing was we weren't a serious band. I never wrote anything. It was Elvis covers.'
Meanwhile, Miki was adding primitive guitar to rockabilly garage band the Bugs, and even accompanied them on a European tour to promote their August 1987 album, 'Darkside' (which she didn't actually play on). Around this time, Miki and Emma began hatching a plan for their own band, initially called the Baby Machines. Recruiting two of Miki's classmates, singer Meriel Barham and Kendal-born drummer Chris Acland (then Miki's paramour), they began rehearsing in Miki's bedroom. After a few weeks, they realized they needed a proper bassist, and approached another student, Steve Rippon, who was five years older than the others and originally from Bracknell. 'I was in their class as well,' recalls Steve, phoning from Ireland. 'I was sitting in the college canteen one day, and they sidled up to me, really embarrassed. They said can you play bass? I said, no. They said, great, can you learn in six weeks?
'I went down to an audition at this place behind the Holloway Road,' he continues. 'They were possibly the worst group I'd ever seen in my life. It was an absolute cacophony. The songs were really simple and had titles like 'Female Hybrid', 'See-Saw' and 'He's A Bastard'. I thought, yeah, I can play bass to this.'
The urgency to recruit Steve was because of an impending gig at the Camden Falcon on 6th March 1988, supporting the Rosehips. In the event, the night passed as smoothly as could be expected, and the band branched out to play other venues on the London toilet circuit. They even supported Ted Harris from 'Playschool' at Ealing College. After they cut a four-song demo, internal tensions bubbled over and Meriel was given the push. 'She just wasn't interested,' sneers Emma. 'We'd organize all these gigs and she couldn't play them because her boyfriend was going away the next day or whatever. He came first. But she also felt uncomfortable playing guitar.' Meriel went on to join fellow 4AD shoe-gazers, the Pale Saints.
Over the next year or so, Lush kept plugging away, borrowing equipment to play their abstruse indie-pop to largely indifferent student audiences. Emma took a year off college to work for Jeff Barrett, who was then doing press for Creation and Factory. He also booked gigs at the Falcon, and whenever a band pulled out of a gig, Lush would get the call to fill the gap. One night, they were added to a bill featuring the Senseless Things, Snuff and Perfect Daze. A 'Melody Maker' correspondent in the audience was totally gob-smacked by their primitive pop, and filed a review saying they were going to be bigger than the Middle East. At the next gig, 12 A&R men turned up to see them. Only one ever called them back.
Undeterred, Lush sent a new demo tape off to 4AD, One Little Indian, Rough Trade and Mute, before heading off on a mini-tour with House Of Love in May 1989. The band had their final exams the following week. 'We had to revise in the back of the van,' laughs Chris. 'It used to belong to British Telecom, and had a wet mattress in the back. We got stopped by the police coming back from Newcastle one night. They got us all out of the van. They claimed we were doing 90. If it had gone that fast, the fucking thing would've exploded.'
4AD supremo Ivo attended the Colchester gig and, liking what he saw, agreed to finance some more demos - against the advice of his colleague, Howard Gough, who 'thought they were shit'. Meanwhile, Miki, Chris and Steve signed up on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme ('£340 a week and you got your housing benefit paid,' points out Chris), while Emma returned to finish her college course. However, the EAS soon become irrelevant when, in September 1989, Ivo opted to release six Lush demos as a mini-LP, 'Scar'. It was an inspired move. Kicking off with the jagged, lo-fi punk of 'Baby Talk', it took in a range of different moods, from the whispering choral pop of 'Scarlet' to the aptly-named and deliberately-misspelled 'Etheriel'. In one fell swoop, Lush had invented shoe-gazing - a downbeat, effects- heavy re-reading of '60s pop and American garage punk. Or maybe they hadn't ...
'All that came later,' says Emma, dismissively, picking at a Nomis salad sandwich.
'I didn't think we were similar to those other bands like Ride and Chapterhouse,' says Miki.
'It had a lot to do with Howard Gough,' grunts Chris, through a
mouthful of egg and chips. 'He decided he did like us after all and
became our manager. Then he signed up Chapterhouse. He was the Larry
Parnes of Shoe-y!'
The success of 'Scar' led Lush to sign a five-album deal with 4AD. Tours with the Darling Buds and Loop followed, as did another release, the 'Mad Love' EP, which included a brisker reworking of 'Thoughtforms', and saw the band experimenting with complex, folky harmonies on the trippy 'De-Luxe'. The single was produced by the Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie, who left his mark on the layers of textured guitars and vocals. 'What people still think of as the Lush sound is really Robin's interpretation of our songs,' says Miki. 'But we went along with it at the time.'
Perhaps put off by Lush's esoteric veils of noise, the weeklies kept their distance. However, come the autumn, the group had become too big to ignore. After more touring to pro- mote another single, 'Sweetness & Light', the band landed the cover of the 'Melody Maker'. The feature centered on the group's first trip to North America, where the material on their first three records had been compiled onto an album, 'Gala', also released in the UK as a luxuriously-packaged limited edition. In Canada, they went ice-skating and got the red-carpet treatment at one radio station which mistakenly thought they were hosting Rush. Then it was off to Japan, before returning to the States to play a joint-headlining tour with Ride. 'That was the best tour for actually seeing America,' says Miki. 'We were enjoying it for what it was. Ride were much bigger than us back home, so it seemed odd going on after them.'
Between July and October 1991, the band worked on their debut album, 'Spooky', at September Sound Studios. Guthrie was once again in the producer's chair. As the sessions progressed, he became increasingly taken with the idea of swamping the mix with swirling, phased guitars. Chris was also persuaded, perhaps against his better judgment, to forsake his normal drum-kit for a set of Simmons electronic pads, and to play to a click-track.
The summer of '91 was the golden age of baggy, and Lush became the most visible part of the Scene That Celebrates Itself - the indie drinking clique which hung out in Camden and the Syndrome club on Oxford Street. The rigging didn't stop there. Few album, single or book launches went by without at least one band member turning up to neck a few free bottles of Bud. In a word, Lush got themselves a band name. 'Yeah,' says Chris. 'Us and Blur.'
Miki and Chris were big Tottenham fans, and the Lillies' 3-1 trouncing of local. rivals Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-finals pleased them no end. So much so, that they appeared on a track called 'And David Seaman Will Be Very Disappointed About That', which was pressed up on flexidisc and given away with issue 24 of 'The Spur' fanzine. Credited to the Lillies, the song was written by Simon from the Cocteau Twins and also featured members of Moose. The lyrics? 'Three-one, three-one, three-one!' All the way through ...
Following a deliciously askew taster single - the dancey 'Nothing Natural' (backed by a cover of Dennis Wilson's 'Fallin' In Love') - and more tours, the album finally appeared in February 1992. It divided the critics. Guthrie had succeeded in making the music a wash of dreamy melodies and guitars', but the clinical sound seemed to suck out all of Lush's live bluster. Yet in 1996, it sounds strangely refreshing, redolent of a much-missed, polite '80s indie sound, and overdue confirmation that a record doesn't need to rock to be tough. There's a lovely, skewed beauty about tracks like 'Monochrome', and a pure pop lilt to 'For Love', but 'Spooky' is most startling for being a gonzoid riff-free area. Play it again and see ...
Around this time, Lush found themselves short of a bassist. During the final mixing of the album, Steve Rippon had left to travel the world with his girlfriend. Emma has no doubts as to why: 'He didn't like being away from home. We'd toured for a whole year, and I think the prospect of being away from his girlfriend was too much.'
Miki agrees: 'I remember Howard told him he'd be on tour for the best part of a year. His face drained of all its colour. You could see him thinking, I'm not fucking doing that.'
'We were just friends, really,' adds Chris. 'He wasn't really a bass player. Looking at his record collection, it probably wasn't really his sort of music anyway.'
Rippon, who now works for a computer firm in Dublin, admits that the idea of touring did get him down, but also hints at another reason for leaving. 'I wanted to write more of my own stuff, but there was no sign that they were willing to play it. In the early days we rehearsed two of my songs, 'Under Dreaming Spires' and 'Alice Springs Eternal'. They said they didn't fit in. I recorded seven tracks with our soundman, Pete Bartlett, with a hope they could use them on B-sides. It didn't work out. It wasn't really a bone of contention. In my mind it was, but I didn't cause any arguments.'
The following year, Rippon wrote 'Cold Turkey Sandwich' about his experiences. It has yet to be published...
In December 1991, Lush found a replacement bassist, Phil King, a
picture-researcher and occasional reviewer for 'NME', and also
veteran of loads of '80s indie acts, including Alan McGee's Biff
Bang Pow, the Servants, Hangman's Daughter and C.C. Rider. Evidently
a case of have bass, will travel.
After 'For Love' was lifted as single, and another UK. tour, Lush disappeared for two- and-a-half years. Or it least it seemed like that to their British audience. The chief reason was that their management and record company were keen to consolidate the inroads they'd made on the lucrative American and Japanese markets. And that meant touring, touring and more touring.
'Some of the European tours were pretty bad,' sighs Miki. 'Seven weeks, with six days on and a day off on Sunday. You wouldn't have a hotel, and you'd be sleeping on the bus in a lay-by in Avignon, and it would be raining outside. There weren't any shops open and all you get was ice-cream, when it was fucking freezing anyway! We didn't have hotel for the first two weeks. You'd be in Hamburg having to go into the station for a piss.'
'It was horrible,' Emma agrees. 'I remember showering at the venue in Frankfurt. All the local crew were just the other side of this flimsy curtain.'
'We'd turn up and they'd only be 120 people in these huge echoing halls,' says Miki. 'We'd say to the promoter, what went wrong? And they say, no, this is really good for here! You'd think, what?! The Bugs tour was like that, but it was OK because you were just excited to be there. But when you've sold quite a few records, you have different expectations.'
That summer, the band set off on the Lollapolooza tour - a travelling Stateside rock festival that draws huge audiences. Lush played near the bottom of a bill including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ministry, Pearl Jam, Ice Cube and Soundgarden. The schedule was designed to keep the bands alive and relaxed, but the rock'n'roll lifestyle still took its toll. 'There was a party in New Orleans,' Emma explains. 'I got a bit out of it, and smashed a window with my hand. I thought, that felt good, so I did it again. There was a lot of blood. I went to hospital, and was so out of it, I couldn't bear to wait. I ran out into the street without any shoes or socks on, and hailed what I thought was a cab. It was just some bloke in a van.'
'I got hammered on tequila,' says Miki, not to be outdone. 'Ministry were playing and I decided to stage-dive into the audience. Everyone got out of the way. The crowd then picked me up. I was unconscious and covered in blood. People were crying. They thought I was dead.'
'It was like a scene from 'Carrie',' laughs Phil.
After Lollapolooza, it was off to Japan and Australia, before the band finally came off the road in early 1993. By the following June they'd demoed all the songs to their follow-up to 'Spooky', but had trouble getting a producer. Their first choice, Sugar's Bob Mould, was too busy, while they toyed with the idea of getting in Led Zepp's John Paul Jones, before deciding he wasn't suitable. In the end, they settled for Mike Hedges, known for his work with the Banshees and the Cure. After performing at the ICA in Pall Mall as part of 4AD's week- long '13-Year Itch' celebration (they also appeared on a rare promo album of exclusive 4AD tracks of the same name), and supporting Rage Against The Machine at Brixton Academy, they ensconced themselves in Rockfield Studios in Wales. However, Emma still found time to play guitar on the Drum Club's 'Everything Is Now' album - the band reciprocated by putting out a promo featuring remixes of 'Stray' - while Chris sat in with Moose for some French dates. They also issued a flexidisc via their fan club, featuring a version of Jackie's 'Rupert The Bear'.
The new album, 'Split', was completed by December, but wasn't issued until June 1994. To promote it, someone had the idea of releasing two different singles on the same day. For a band that had been out of the public gaze for over two years, it was tantamount to commercial suicide - especially since 'Hypocrite' wasn't a particularly strong track, while 'Desire Lines' was the kind of languid and ethereal song that Lush were trying to disassociate themselves from. Emma explains the management's rationale: 'They thought it was going to go mad for us in America, so the album was pushed aside here. Two singles, six gigs and then it came out. We did a shitty promo tour of the States instead.'
In the UK, 'Split' got a lukewarm reception - which it didn't really deserve. Lush's experiences on the Lollapolooza tour hadn't exactly forged them into a hard-assed rock outfit, but it had toughened up their sound. Some of the tracks on the album, like the full-on choral punk of 'Blackout' and terse, scary blaze of 'The Invisible Man', were visceral and exciting indie, while 'Undertow' and 'When I Die' had the same languid, jarring strangeness as Blur's 'Sing'. 'Lovelife' is probably their finest moment ever. 'Split' was never a pop album, but it was bloody accomplished stuff. 4AD even paid to have a black cab sprayed with the artwork.
Sadly, America wasn't convinced, though the album still picked up some valuable airplay. Much to the band's dismay, plans for another UK single and tour in the autumn were shelved, as was a trip to Japan. It was suggested they forget about 'Split', and start work on a fresh album. Lush were incensed, Something had to give - and it was manager Howard Gough. 'We got rid of him,' says Emma. 'And things started looking up.'
'He let us down on a very personal level,' rues Miki. 'We put so much into 'Split', we really did. And then for someone to tell you it's not good enough, and saying you should write songs like Elastica or the Cranberries is fucking infuriating.'
'Yeah,' spits Emma. 'It was like, Miki, why don't you stop playing guitar then you can dance like Dolores. They lost faith. It scared me that you could put so much into something... especially when you feel all the support you had before falling away from you.'
For Lush, 'Split' was a turning point, echoing the kind of make-or-break period Blur had endured after 'Popscene' two years earlier. And like Blur, when the going got tough, Lush got going. After parting with Gough - who now runs Laurel Records, home to Menswear - the band began demoing new material.
It was harder, brighter, with Emma and Miki dropping their voices
down a register, to give the lyrics added oomph. The swathes of
melancholy guitar went, as did many of their trademark harmonies.
Jarvis Cocker duetted with Miki on the Jacques Brel-inspired
Parisian knees-up of 'Ciao!'. The lyrical immediacy of their very
earliest songs made a comeback: eight years down the line, the
sentiments of 'He's A Bastard' had been revived for 'Ladykillers'.
Lush had grown teeth.
The album was recorded in London last summer, and mixed that autumn in Boston, by Hole/Radiohead producers Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie. The pure punk-pop of 'Single Girl' was originally planned as a B-side, but it was eventually chosen as a first single. On its release in January, it was A-listed by Radio 1, and following several airings on TV - including a memorable performance on 'The White Room' - it shimmied into the Top 20. Hot on its heels came a follow-up, 'Lady Killers', a brazen and joyous indie party-popper, avec soupcon d'Elastica (hopefully Acland can't read French). 'Lovelife', the album, sky-rocketed into the charts in late March, triumphantly working the ethereal elements of old with a new-found pop sensibility. And although a promo of 'Ciao!' has been dispatched to radio stations across the land, the next single is scheduled to be the bouncy, Lemonheadsy tune, '500'. Hurrah!
So here we are, hanging out in, er, Shepherds Bush, with all-day breakfasts and (cold turkey) sandwiches duly scoffed, and Lush looking all upset about the fact they're bona fide pop stars whose songs are sung by scaffolders. Behind the cheery facade, Lush are a serious lot, and you can't help feeling that they feel compromised by their success. Perhaps their next album will be deliberately difficult, maybe a bit more honest. Life's getting tough for the middle-classes.
Special thanks to Lush, Steve Rippon, Dave Wilson (for help with
prices and illustrations), Jo Brooks, and Tony Morley at 4AD.