Feature: Scratch the Surface – 14 Iced Bears self-titled album, and an interview with Rob Sekula

14 Iced Bears: ‘14 Iced Bears’ ( Thunderball Records 1988 ) 

“Only the dust remains…”


Formed in 1985, 14 Iced Bears released three excellent records on the short lived Frank label before  moving to Sarah Records in 1988.
There they released a three track 7” single ( two songs of which also appeared on the influential Sarah compilation ‘Shadow Factory’ ).

In the same year the band moved to Thunderball Records and their sound expanded noticeably – the fragile nature of their Sarah single was still in evidence but was now shrouded in a heavier psychedelic influence. 
The rhythm section was propulsive, sometimes aggressive and the guitars often heavily distorted. 
The band were generally labelled by the press as “twee” or shambolic ( the curse of many a Sarah band ) but those preconceptions are soon cast aside when listening to this album. 

The overall sound is something of a precursor to the much maligned and clumsily named ‘shoegaze’ scene which followed shortly afterwards. 

14 Iced Bears balanced elements of “C86”, “Twee-pop” and psychedelia whilst also adding just enough hazy distortion to create something new.

In truth many of the bands who bridged the gap between 80s indie pop and 90s shoegaze were absorbing the same influences: 60s psychedelia, US alternative, The Mary Chain’s noisy updating of 60s surf pop, so by 1990 a new sound had become widespread and the 14 Iced Bears debut was possibly the first to successfully signpost the way forward. 


To gain some perspective on this album I’ve asked 14 Iced Bears songwriter / singer / guitarist Rob Sekula to answer a few questions: 

Hi Rob, 
Can you first give us a little background on the band in the period before the album was released? 

Hello Rich. Glad to answer your questions. With each year it all gets a bit hazier but I’ll do my best.
My mate Nick Emery and I formed the band at Sussex Uni near Brighton, and we were based in Brighton the whole time.

There were three singles released before the album, a couple of which were on the short lived Frank label set up by Mark Flunder of The Television Personalities. 
How did this connection come about ? 

Mark saw us play and thought our song ‘Jumped in a Puddle’ was a ‘mod classic’! So he wanted us to put out a single. We never released it as I fancied ‘Inside’ more.

Following this period there was a shift to the Sarah label based in Bristol – so along with Brighton you therefore had connections to two of the main cities involved in the indie scene. 
I presume this helped spread the word around and gain more gigs and fanzine exposure?

Not really. We weren’t that connected to other places as Brighton had its own scene, especially with the Big Twang club. Although the Sarah connection would have helped get our name around a bit more.

You did two Peel Sessions in 1986 and 1987. Any anecdotes and memories of these? and did they have much effect on boosting your audience numbers ? 

I remember John Peel’s response live as he played our first session. He was well into it, it felt like a dream come true. The rest isn’t history, unfortunately! But it definitely got us a bit more of a following.
The second session, we managed to break our van door key and ended up having to sleep the night in the BBC foyer! Always the true professionals. I also remember Dale Griffin the producer was quite taken with ‘Cut’.

I see Nick Roughley was on guitar during this period. I know he went on to be in Blow Up who signed to Creation. Did Creation ever approach you as a potential signing? I’ve often thought that the album might have become much more well known if you’d had the push of a label like Creation or 4AD behind you. 

I don’t think Alan McGee was much of a fan unfortunately. We would have loved to have had the backing of a bigger indie label as we didn’t really have anyone pushing us and had to record on quite small budgets.

The album itself appeared on Thunderball Records and I read somewhere that this was partly because Sarah at the time had a no albums policy – was that the case?

Yeah, we would have loved to have done the LP with Sarah but they were only into singles at the time. Luckily, a fan of ours, Graeme Sinclair, wanted to put us out on his label. 

The album seemed to be quite a change in direction or at least embraces more sonically adventurous sounds – was this something which developed organically over the preceding months or more of a conscious decision? 

It had developed organically really especially as the line-up was very different from the first two singles. We were all more into psychy type stuff rather than the C86 thing by then. For instance, the most-played music on the tour van tape was stuff by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.

What was the usual way in which the band worked up the songs? Would you bring a song almost fully formed or jam in the rehearsal room?

Both really. Either I’d come up with a song nearly fully formed (especially for the first few releases) or it would result from me making up a melody over something we were jamming together in a rehearsal.

A few of the songs were older ones which you re-recorded for the album ( Cut, Train Song , Hay Fever ) were the other songs written specifically for the LP or perhaps ones you’d not got around to recording yet? 

I think knowing there was an album coming up influenced the songwriting. It all seemed more part of a whole.

Do you have any specific memories of the recording process in Electrorhythm Studios ? 

Oh yes. It was in a small basement in Turnpike Lane, North London, run by a couple of really cool old hippies. 
The weather had turned tropical as London does around once a year, and we all ended up with a bit of a weird summer fever. Think it gave the recordings quite an intense feel. Really enjoyed the process though. 

What was the critical reaction to the album at the time? and more importantly were the band all happy with how it turned out? 

The reviews were weird as they were very often saying we would be massive if it wasn’t for our name! Seemed a bit trivial, but hey.
I think we were all pretty chuffed with it.

Do you recall other bands being impressed with the results ? It was certainly influential to me and my friends in our first forays into making music! but did you hear at the time if anyone was taking notes so to speak ?

We weren’t really aware of that but I never tired of telling people that both Ride and The Charlatans had a song called ‘Polar Bear’ on their debut lps. Just sayin’… 🙂

Regardless of it’s impact ( or lack thereof ) at the time it does seem that the albums reputation has grown to some degree – particularly amongst the American indie pop bands of recent times such as The Aislers Set covering ‘Cut’ and Slumberland Records releasing a compilation of your songs. 

That may have been due to the album getting a lot of play on US college radio. At one stage we were number two behind Sinead O’Connor and above New Order in college radio plays in the charts!

I always loved the sleeve design by the way. 
Very reminiscent of The Pink Floyd ( the definitive article being crucial here as I’m talking Syd era ! ) and the oil wheel portraits make me think of those inside the Dukes Of Stratosphear’s second LP. 

I had been a huge Syd fan for years and the ‘Piper’ LP is possibly the best psyche one I think. 
Went off them after Syd left apart from a few songs like Remember a Day, Paintbox and Julia Dream, which we later covered for a German release.

It felt right for where the band was at the time. Drummer Graham’s brother Gavin took them in a London studio. Loved the colour feel of the main cover pic he took and the blurredness reminded me of the first Teardrop Explodes cover. 

I’ve often considered the album to be influential on the scene which became “shoegaze”. 
I can certainly hear similarities in the excellent debut album from Pale Saints which came along about two years after yours. 
What are your thoughts on that? 

We weren’t consciously trying to do anything ‘sceney’. I think a lot of those bands had similar influences, especially the 60s psyche thing. A lot of the clubs at the time were playing that stuff as well as the indie hits.

By the time of your second album ‘Wonder’ in 1991 that scene was in full swing but it felt to me that you’d somehow been passed by even though some of the songs on ‘Wonder’ would have sat quite comfortably alongside many of those bands. 

We didn’t feel part of where the general thing may have been going. We were just doing our own thing really. Maybe being away from London was part of that, we didn’t go up there to the clubs much.
Shoegaze was a bit of an insult at the time like twee, anyway. Funny how both became genres. I was shocked when Pitchfork later said that ‘Inside’ was the invention of Shoegaze!

That second album came out on yet another label ! ( Borderline ) so in just a few years you’d appeared on four or five different labels. In retrospect do you think this held you back? Or were you simply happy to be releasing records as frequently as possible?.

We were just four mainly dole-ites in Brighton with no real backing. I did feel a bit jealous of other bands’ press and recording budgets. We just went with what we got offered. Borderline came along and gave us a nice week in a Norfolk farmhouse to record. Miles from any village, in the wilds. I got a lot of inspiration for the lyrics from tree-based walks on my own through empty country lanes.
We nearly had Gene Clark from The Byrds to guest on ‘Wonder’ as Dave Minns of Borderline was an old friend of his and was trying to get him to do it. 
Unfortunately that was around the time he died.

That would have been incredible!before we chat about the songs could you please explain when and why 14 Iced Bears eventually called it a day?.

It was in 1992, after playing Germany, when we split. I moved up to London then and it just fizzled out.

Track by Track

Off to quite a heavy start here with probably your fastest track. 
Love the rolling drums and have wondered for years about that constant squeaking sound and the gunshot sounds…a tin tray being hit ?

God, well that didn’t work then! It was my attempt at recreating some of the Acid House sounds I really liked, hearing them at the many nights going on in Brighton at the time. I was just mucking about on the studio sampler.

Love the genteel vocals on this one mixed with those cascading guitars. 
Is this a break up song ? With lines like “I’m the one you wanted or so you used to say…” and “my eyes were red with what I saw” I’m assuming some kind of doomed relationship is being documented here? 

It was more abstract feelings than based on a particular relationship. I just remember walking round Camberwell Green, near where I came from, and the words/melody entered my head. I don’t usually consciously try to write something. I just felt the words coming out of me.

This one is a pretty heavy psych track with those backwards guitars and the heavy toms on the drumming – it’s certainly not twee that’s for sure! 
Some parts of it I feel would fit nicely on Psychocandy. 

Really? I didn’t think Psychocandy was that psyche actually. Upside Down and Vegetable Man were more so.

Here’s one of those I’d hold up as an example of proto-shoegaze. 
A lovely drifting ballad and a pretty tune but with dark lyrics such as the opening line “I want to kill you a million times..” 
Early Primal Scream and The Stone Roses also did this juxtaposition of pretty tunes with dark lyrics really well ( ‘Made Of Stone’ for example ).

It was based on childhood memories of my parents arguing and the mixed feelings that would come up. Hence ‘Moths’ is a play on Mother. 
It was likely influenced by stuff like Julian Cope.

Another slow and atmospheric song with a nice minimal Phil Spector / J&MC ‘Just Like Honey’ drumbeat. 
At 1.37 there’s a lovely guitar motif of which The Byrds would be proud. Nice string section too which I’m guessing is done on a keyboard?. 

That guitar bit was on the insistence of Will the bassist who really wanted to play guitar, which was why he later joined Blow Up. Shame, he was a great bass player.
Yeah I did the strings on a keyboard to give it a wider sound.

One of the psych tunes with heavy throbbing bass and pounding toms which puts me in mind again of early Pink Floyd ( those backwards cymbals ) mixed with bands like Loop ( the feedback in the background ) and a bit of Satanic Majesty’s era Stones. 
This one really builds in intensity as it reaches a crescendo. 

Yeah it’s a real crescendo song, I guess. But I always wanted to stick a melody in there too, rather than a lot of the droney stuff that was going on.

This one would fit into the Pale Saints debut no problem. A brilliant bass intro and overall a fairly ‘punk’ track which has some moments which remind me of The Television Personalities. 

It’s weird what other people get from songs. I was quite proud to get the words ‘greasy chips’ into a song!.

A really melancholic, atmospheric song and very Galaxie 500 in places too which is always a good thing. 

Thanks, this one got a new lease of life when we toured the US in 2010/11. Really loved playing it live, seemed to have grown over the years.

One of the best opening lines of all time surely? “Don’t call me ever again…” probably the most ‘Sarah’ sounding track on the album. 
This song quite rightly is often regarded as a classic of indie-pop and still sounds pretty much perfect as a love song / pop song. In fact if it was played much faster it could be a lost Buzzcocks song. Yes it’s that good. 

Cheers man. It’s always been one of my personal favourites – this time based on a real breakup!

The album finishes with this swirling maelstrom of a song. 
There’s cyclical drum and guitar patterns, sleigh bells and all sorts of hypnotic effects going on. 
At 3:45 it sounds like it’s drifting to a conclusion with another Galaxie 500 like sound but then the song comes back in with the vocals mournfully asking “will I be with you tonight?” 

I remember writing that all afternoon on an empty Hove beach. You can really feel the waves if you hold the song up to your ear. 

There seems to be a lot of heartbreak and a sense of longing in many of the lyrics on the album. 
Was this documenting a real life personal experience or artistic licence? 

I think I had a sense of longing since about the age of five. I was a hopeless romantic, which is probably why I’ve ended up alone! Boo-hoo, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. 
Meditation and self-medication have helped! 🙂 

Thanks very much for sharing your memories and insights Rob. 
For me it’s one of the most underrated albums of the era and for those of us listening at the time it was a hugely inspirational record which lay down the groundwork for much of what was to follow. 

Here’s a link to the album for those of a digital persuasion: 

Sent from my iPhone

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