If you long for those messy days of the mid-90s, where Glasgow seemed to be a melting pot of angular, noisey, and messy indie rock and roll and pop punk, inhabited by Bis and Mogwai and the likes, then this is the Scratch the Surface for you, as it features fine purveyors of such things as the brilliant and underrated Urusei Yatsura, and their debut album – 1996’s We are Urusei Yatsura.
The band formed in 1993, when Fergus Laurie and Graham Kemp met at the University of Glasgow. Elaine Graham soon joined on bass, and added her brother Ian on drums to complete the lions up. Taking their name from the manga of the same name, the band made their recorded debut ‘Guitars are boring’ on a compilation released by the Kazoo club, which brought them to the attention of John Peel, who invited them to do a session in 1994. In total the band went on to record four Peel sessions, and appeared on the Evening Session for Steve Lamacq as well.
The went on release three albums and see their single Hello Tiger skirt the top 40 before splitting in 2001. Many of us have haven’t forgotten either the band, or the deliciously scuzzy debut long player, so we sort out Graham Kemp, who told us a little of the background and reaction to the record, as well as talking us through the album track by track.
Thanks to Graham Kemp for all the photos used in this article
We had signed to Che records off the back of a Peel Session we did in late 1994, and a split single and an EP that got some airplay. I had written them a long, mad letter as we were big fans of the Albini produced 18th Dye record they put out, and they came up to Glasgow to see us. We spent 1995 putting out coloured vinyl singles for Che and Lovetrain and started touring the UK to promote them. We had finally managed to scrape up enough money to buy ourselves amplifiers and a nice silver drumkit for Ian, so we could stop begging headliners for backline, but since everything was cheap and nasty, our shows were usually messy and chaotic and incorporated at least one incident of broken amp, guitar or drum. Luckily we didn’t take ourselves too seriously, so we just messed around and joked with the audience, or powered through on volume and fuzz. We had been together for a couple of years at this point and we were very glad to expand out of our usual Glasgow venues, and do some shows in London. The furthest we had ventured until then was Dundee with the legendary Spare Snare. We were changing throughout 1994/95 and our sound was becoming more rough and ready, and influenced by American indie of the 80’s/90’s. By the time we got into WSRS (8-20th Jan 1996) with John Rivers we had a set we were really happy with, and the idea was to record it in keeping with the spirit of the group we had developed playing live for the last few years. Che had suggested John, and we were delighted to work with him based on his recordings with the Pastels and Swell Maps. We had never been to Leamington Spa before but we soon found that it was not possible to replace broken snares or even buy spare plectrums, so the album really ended up embodying the sounds of scarcity. We were all sharing a room for a couple of weeks with a betamax tape machine and a box of tapes to keep us company. We quickly found that the only tape that hadn’t been filled with a night of random TV was the one that had The Shining on. That was the background to the record.
TRACK BY TRACK:
We were always friendly with Alex Kapranos’s first band , the Blisters. He ran the Kazoo Club and Club 99p at the 13thNote and basically is to blame for Urusei Yatsura by encouraging us and giving us a stage to play regularly. Well, the drummer in the Blisters was Thom Falls and he was doing a sound engineering course at a local college. He invited us in to record and one of the tunes we tried was a new one with no lyrics. We got the music down then me and Fergus spent an hour in the canteen scribbling down pages and pages of lyrics and combined them into our own “introducing” song. It namechecks just about every Glasgow band that we played with, hung out with or otherwise enjoyed, in a bragging “this is who we are, come get us” old school rap kind of thing. I really wanted an excuse to play my wrecked guitar like a drum so I used the old Sonic Youth drumstick under the strings trick. I have no idea why more people don’t do this. It’s really fun. Anyway this is really Fergus’s song, and he was the one who directed everything, so there really are two viewpoints crashing into each other here. We re-recorded this with John Rivers and we placed it at the beginning as it was a literal introduction to the band.
First Day on a New planet
I had the idea for this tune in the front seat of a rusted transit van coming back from a show at about 2 in the morning somewhere. We were on the motorway and following the white lines bathed in the pale orange glow of streetlights, and everything felt new and strange and somehow weightless. The future possibilities seemed limitless and in my sleep deprived state I felt a kind of hysterical joy. Fergus captured the feeling perfectly as i’m singing about gliding out near the end. I set out to write the perfect opening song for the album we had planned and I failed, but I feel I failed in the right way.
Pow R. Ball
We first did this song as a kind of surf instrumental at the only Battle Of The Bands we ever condescended to play at, really as a favour to the guys who ran Babelfish, our rehearsal space. (It was in a little falling down building in the middle of a scrap yard and very much helped to form our aesthetic as a band.) We kept a little of the feel when we recorded it. Me and Fergus were standing on an ironing board in the live room as we added the yelling over the introduction, hanging ten or whatever. The goofiness is also present in the words, where I pretend to confuse Calvin Johnson of K records with Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes. He is the greatest dancer in the USA, and one of my major inspirations at the time, and we did have “make it fucked up” as our unofficial motto for years. I have no idea what he made of this, although Lois Maffeo wrote a really nice appraisal of the LP for Allmusic which delighted me. We came second, by the way.
Kewpies Like Watermelon
When Fergus brought this song into rehearsal it blew my tiny mind because the chord sequence felt backwards to me. It’s really hard to sing and play at the same time and I don’t know how he kept this straight, but it made sense to him I suppose. I sort of suggested the title as a Japanese friend had sent him a letter on some cartoon notepaper which had this very phrase and a picture of a Kewpie doll munching on watermelon, and I thought it was a fantastic song title. There is no sexual connotation intended although I can see how some of the words may be suggestive if you are into some wild circus-style sex. There is also a nice little Delgados quote in there. I really wanted to begin the song with a Ren & Stimpy sample (from the episode where Stimpy makes a cartoon. It’s a glockenspiel run followed by “Uh-oh”. )Would have been perfect but we feared corporate revenge so I got talked out of it. Now we fear nothing. We used to start shows with this song as it’s a pretty good attention getter.
Phasers on Stun / Sola Kola
This song came about due to a love of the band Trumans Water. We had been to see them at the Venue in Edinburgh and their approach was so inventive and inspiring. Fergus had a cassette 4-track and we were going to do an improvised LP based on Trumans style song titles but we only really got as far as this one, and about 20 hilarious titles. I edited it pretty tightly which was something we seemed to be pretty good at around this time, and wrote some words about hooking up at a comic convention as I reckoned some pretty shady nonsense must go on at events like that. Stuff about my sneakers filling up with snow and spending too long in bed is straight up autobiographical material though. We had just over a minute of tape left on the reel so I improvised the Sola Kola coda based on a random drumbeat Ian played until it came off the capstan. I just randomly turned the little plastic tuning pegs on my geek Kay guitar until it sounded good and jammed along. You can almost hear Fergus reciting the cast of DC’s Legion Of Superheroes comic in the background.
Black Hole Love
A great Fergus tune based around the sound of his Hohner JT60 which had a weird inductor tone control so you could be warm and trebly at the same time. There’s a wah wah pedal on the chorus, and my guitar is the good old wrecked Kay in random tuning, with a drumstick providing a movable bridge. Fergus introduced this one at a show in Edinburgh by saying, “see all our songs aren’t all about comics, we have love songs too.” Thus the sequencing on the record. We had a heated discussion in the studio about a version that had a lot of reverb and echo that sounded great, but I thought very out of place with the overall sound of the record. We compromised with a few seconds of effects on the outro, which I think sounds massive, and more effective for it’s shorter duration.
Every album ended up with a song like this. Basically the last one worked to a stage where we would feel happy recording it, but never played live and subsequently the band never knowing exactly what we feel about it, or where it fits in. This is another song written with my favourite chord shape on my old Woolworths Kay guitar. The idea of the Kay guitar was to have the volume and tone controls up full so its really just raw guitar sound, then add the basic fuzz on a Boss distortion pedal where needed. Very primitive stuff. This is a sort of mellow, very US indie rock type inflected song about suffering from exposure in the Cairngorms, inspired by a title provided by Colin and Chris from the band Eska and used because of it’s magical and elusive quality. I don’t think we ever played this live in the end, although we did record it for a Peel Session. It’s relatively popular on our Soundcloud page.
Fergus says this tune was inspired by Drop Nineteens and Eugenius and is basically what our vinyl would end up being melted into to finally fulfill it’s destined function. Like Siamese we had a go at re-recording this with John but we were never quite as happy with it as the original 7” version, which we ended up remixing and using instead. I always had the idea that our first album would be a collection of sorts, a statement of where we were at the time, so I wanted all our previously released singles to be on it. Since I was a loud mouthed opinionated nightmare of a person, I got my way. The album is basically our ideal set at the time it was recorded.
Death 2 Everyone
We had this sinister little tune for a while, as it originally appeared in a different form on the “All Hail” EP. I wanted to redo it as a more metal/riffy/shouty proposition because I was just in that sort of mood. It worked really well on the geek guitar. ( A wrecked Kay that had all lower E strings tuned to E all the way down). I was reading Hunter S Thompson’s account of the 1972 election at the time and I wondered what kind of song he would sing if he had a band. I think the guitar solo in this one possibly qualifies as gonzo.
I think this is a great tune, another one that could have been a single. Fergus went off it in a big way as he thought it sounded a bit too Pavement. We definitely had a very similar aesthetic and obviously both bands owed a lot to Sonic Youth and The Fall, but I don’t think this sounds like any particular Malkmus song. The rhythm is nice and bouncy and we started to notice our growing audiences bouncing in time with it.
This is an exerpt from a practice room dictaphone recording. We were trying to get a tune called The Power Of Negative Thinking ready for the album but it just wasn’t quite there. I really wanted to use a variety of different (cheap) recording techniques so these few seconds from cassette fitted in here nicely. It sort of reminds me of the Cure but I don’t know why.
This has always been one of my favourite songs I wrote for the band. I’ve always been sort of obsessed with early New Order singles and I think this has a similar upbeat but melancholy quality to it. Fergus’s guitar part, as usual, makes it work. He was always great about coming up with a variety of different approaches when we were learning songs and would always end up with something surprising to me. The words are a hearttfelt cliché. The pain of being absolutely ordinary and the endless struggle against boredom and being boring. We, as a band, had the attitude of determination to go down fighting, although our defeat was already written in the stars, and this song captures some of that feeling.
We had this song for quite a long time and it was on the way out of our set to be replaced by Siamese as a set closer by the time we recorded the album. We had played it for John Peel when he and Walters had dropped in at the 13thNote to offer us our first session, so we thought it was lucky for us and possibly a good album closer. We liked having a song that could degenerate into chaos and this one featured a toy spaceship that I would “play” by holding the speaker to my guitar pickup, and a Talking Tina doll that repeated some apropos sentences, played in the same way. We looked at the cutesiness of the dolls and ray guns and record covers as a provocation, a way to be anti rock n roll while indulging in the trappings of it in some small way. We loved noise and chaos but we knew the sweetness and emotionality, and the visuals would put the right people off. We gained a following of fanzine kids and teenage girls and were absolutely barred from Jools Holland so I count that as success. Anyway, I wish I had taken another run at my guitar on this, it’s very out of time. Talking Tina has the last word.
We got written about in the music papers to some extent, we got some slots on Scottish TV now we had been ok’d down south, and we got a lot of new people coming to our shows, so I have no complaints as to how it was received. To this day I have no earthly idea how many copies we sold because it honestly never occurred to me to ask. I just sort of assumed it may break even, and if Che were happy enough to let us release another one then it was all good. We were able to quit our jobs or sign off, so that was the extent of our dreams of glory. We got asked to play in the USA when the album was released over there, and it opened doors to tour in Europe, so I suppose it got us a lot of attention, and took us to the next level. It was part of a trajectory of growth for the band and we were very happy to be playing the songs to people. I think a lot of people liked it.
I was surprised listening back to the LP how much I enjoyed it as a collection of songs. It’s a nice mix of naivety and sophistication. John Rivers did a good job bringing out the best of us, and I think the choice of songs was pretty good. I wanted it to be a summary of the band, a handful of songs that might be played in a really good set, and I don’t think it gets too dull and repetitive despite the deliberately limited type of sounds we set out to use. We really wanted to take some techniques used by noise bands and put it in a pop context, and I think we really were appreciated as a kind of warped pop band rather than a rock operation. We tapped into a very vibrant scene made up of earnest young men in band t-shirts and teenage girls in leopard print and Doc Martins. Absolutely our people, and I hope we brought a bit of fun and energy into their lives. The punkness of the message was “anyone can do this, just do something.” I think we got our point over.
Fergus and Elaine are married, with children. Graham is married and has a 17 month old baby. Ian is Ianing around. All still live in Glasgow.
www.paperbirch.band is Fergus’s new project with Dee Sada. A new album has just been released on Reckless Yes.
https://calacas.bandcamp.com/music for some random tunes from me (Graham). An album is being recorded at Analogue Mountain but has been much delayed by the pandemic.
I have been in the process of archiving Urusei Yatsura live shows at https://uruseiyatsuraband.bandcamp.com/ and have been sharing photos at uruseiyatsuraband Instagram and @Urusei_Yatsura_ on Twitter. There will be a remastered We Are Urusei Yatsura out later this year on Rocketgirl with a bonus disc featuring a selection of B sides and unheard demo versions, stuff that is impossible to find anywhere else.
Graham Kemp, Glasgow May 2021