14th Sep2009

History Lesson: The Telescopes

by Todd


Formed in 1987, Stephen Lawrie created some of the most sonically challenging music of the burgeoning “shoegaze” era. Taking the noise of the Jesus and Mary Chain records to a new level, but maintaining a pop sensibility that set them ahead of the pack. Songs like “7th# Disaster” and “The Perfect Needle” took England by storm and put them on the cover of all the British magazines. There second album moved towards the “baggier” sound that was popular in 1992. Despite containing brilliant songs like “Flying”, the media turned on them following the lugheaded “change is bad” mentality. The Telescopes went through a series of personnel changes and were thought to be gone until reappearing in 2002 with a new album with only Stephen Lawrie remaining from the original line-up. In much the same way that heavy metal was doomed because of self-indulgent guitar solos (which we like to call, the noodley-noodley concept), noise/psychedelia was undermined by bands playing feedback and dirge just for the sake of it. Without any song structure or “point” to the noise, it became boring and eventually extinct. The Telescopes were one of the few bands that understood how to use noise as an art form, making it interesting and occasionally (gasp) hooky. Their albums and singles (the b-sides on their singles were always genius) still sound as fresh and innovative today as they did in the late 80′s.

We tracked down Stephen and found him still immersed in his craft and working on new music. We exchanged emails to formulate this interview.

To Kill A Slow Girl Walking

7th# disaster

TDOA: The band has released records with several different record labels.  Given the buzz in England over the band, I always wondered why you released the first album “Taste” on the American based label, What Goes On.  Why wasn’t the album released on a British label and did you get any backlash from British media for that decision?

Stephen: Our first records were on Cheree who were based in London. We were courted by lots of labels, (but) I guess What Goes On happened to be in the wrong place at the right time.  I don’t remember there being any territorial terrors.

TDOA: What led to the decision to release a live album as your second “album”?  Sometimes bands release live albums to fulfill an obligation to the label.  Is this the case or was it a creative decision?

Stephen: That was a bootleg by Fierce Records.  They were notorious at the time.  We were fine about it.

TDOA: Much was made in the media of the change in sound for the second record.  Obviously bands grow and change creatively with time.  However, I wonder if you can talk about the songwriting process’ for the first two records.  I assume that when you recorded the first album, most of the songs had been written in advance.  The second album was recorded after quite a bit of touring, so did you write it on the road and in the studio which reflected a different “mood”?

Stephen: We did a lot of touring while i was writing the first album, we were always playing.  the second album was written in isolation between engagements.  I became estranged from everything during the process of making that record.  So yes, the moods were very different.  but I felt I was hitting the same vein somehow.

TDOA: The mood of the two records seems starkly different.  Emotionally, were you or the band going through dramatically different things during that time?

Stephen: Yes, at first we were a merge, we overlapped each other, then as things progressed everything was laid bare and open to scrutiny.  i guess we stopped carrying each other. I think the music on that (second) album took everyone out of their comfort zones, the sound came together in the studio rather than in a rehearsal room. Unless you were at the creative helm it meant a lot of sitting around contemplating. not always constructive.

TDOA: It’s also interesting to me that the second album almost seemed like an anamoly. You’ve referenced that you returned to the sound of Taste in your later work. Given the turmoil going on during that period and that some critics didn’t like it, do you regret anything about the second album?

Stephen: No, nothing at all. There’s also similarities between what I do now and the second album.

TDOA: How would you describe your time with Creation Records?  Did you interact with Alan Mcgee often and what was he like to work with?

Stephen: They were exciting times.  Alan managed us too really, so we hung out quite a bit.  He always spoke his mind, we appreciated it.

TDOA: Why did David Fitzgerald leave the band and to what extent did his departure change the sound of the band?

Stephen: He was an escape goat for tensions within the band.  it didn’t solve anything.  We fell apart after that.  Everyone underestimated his role, including him.

TDOA: Do the two of you still speak?

Stephen: Yes, sometimes. he’s very encouraging about current Telescopes music.

TDOA: A frequent topic on our site is that people tend to not evolve musically, frequently sticking to the genre of music they liked in their early 20′s and never broadening their scope.  As a musician, you’ve evolved at an amazing pace.  Why do you think you were able to keep challenging yourself when so many other musicians either give up or just keep repeating themselves?

Stephen: I’ve tried to write the same song twice, but there’s no magic in it.  I’ve tried giving up, but it’s like trying to run from your own shadow.  I’ve also worked with a lot of different musicians, each one of them has challenged me.  It colors the results.

TDOA: I would suggest that your second album is your “poppiest” (and I don’t mean this in a bad way) record and that Taste was really a pre-cursor of the music you’ve done since you left Creation.  Do you think that’s a fair assessment and did you ever worry about alienating those that didn’t come on board until the second record?

Stephen: I think the album Bridget and I did has a lot in common with the extremity of Taste and the stuff I’m writing now has threads.  I’ve always alienated people somewhere along the line.  That’s just how it is.  People were really disappointed with the second album at the time, they wanted more of the same.

TDOA: The Antenna Records website references you in association with Julian Cope frequently.  What’s your relationship with Julian?  As a long-time fan, I’d love to know what he’s like these days and any stories you can share.

Stephen: Julian reviewed a Telescopes ep we did for Trensmat & Amp; Bridget’s cd ‘The Night’s Veins’.  He writes about a lot of great music on his Head Heritage site.  I think Bridget supported him when she was playing in Vibracathedral Orchestra.  I’ve never met him, but I saw him perform a few times in the 80s.

TDOA: I would be negligent if I didn’t ask about the large gaps between records, particularly between the 2nd record and The Third Wave.  What were you doing during these breaks?

Stephen: Outrunning my shadow.

TDOA: Were you writing music during that time? I’d be intrigued to know the tone and sound of the music you wrote during that period. Obviously, we’re talking about a long span of time. Did you write more songs that carried on the theme of the second record?

Stephen: I wrote some stuff with Nick Hemming from The Leisure Society. we did an album together for Double Agent Records. Also, tracks recorded just after the second album found their way on to the Spaceage compilation ‘Altered Perception’.

TDOA: You’re playing shows again in England.  Please tell us who’s in the current line-up and what we can expect from you in the near future.

Stephen: I’ve been playing with St. Deluxe quite a bit, and we’ve recorded together, also 93millionmilesfromthesun have been stepping in.  I’ve plans to do a show with members of Aspen Woods and One Unique Signal down in London are keen to help out.  I’m working towards a new Telescopes album and I might do some more with Bridget under the name of ‘Infinite Suns’.  There’s also the debut album from Afgan coming out soon on Antenna.

3 Responses to “History Lesson: The Telescopes”

  • Erik Hansen

    I don’t know a lot about the Telescopes, and I only have one c.d by them, but that was cool. It’s always nice to see what the old bands are up to.

  • I was fortunate to see the Telescopes live with Primal Scream in 1989 at a club in Islington. They were completely ear shredding, but a helluva lot of fun.

  • admin

    Steve, they’re playing sxsw in March. Kind of surprising that they’d reunite after all these years…

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