Former FACTORY Records stalwarts CRISPY AMBULANCE reformed for the live re-union "ACCESSORY AFTER THE FACT" in late 1999, demonstrating that their powers have not waned since their early 1980s heyday. Now they've presented a highly commendable new studio album "Scissorgun" on LTM/ Darla. To celebrate, TIM PEACOCK asks vocalist ALAN HEMPSALL for his thoughts on past, present and future in the CRISPY AMBULANCE camp.
Quite probably the most under-rated of all the Factory Records bands, CRISPY AMBULANCE - ALAN HEMPSALL (vocals); ROBERT DAVENPORT (guitar); KEITH DARBYSHIRE (Bass) and drummer GARY MADELEY - were often unfavourably associated with JOY DIVISION in the press, despite leaving behind a wealth of excellent material like "The Plateau Phase" LP (1982) and the live "Fin."
However, thanks to the great LTM label, CRISPY AMBULANCE'S work can now be savoured again, along with the brand new studio CD, "Scissorgun", a visceral and vibrant addition to the CA canon. Alan has plenty to tell me about the record, but first let's backtrack a little.
For instance, although every band must expect their fair share of bad press, the 3 main weeklies (at the time) NME, SOUNDS and MELODY MAKER all seemed particularly vitriolic towards CRISPY AMBULANCE. Your correspondent wrote for SOUNDS long after CRISPY AMBULANCE'S initial spell, but still can't understand the negativity en masse…
ALAN HEMPSALL: "I didn't know you wrote for SOUNDS! Actually, the coverage we got in the early day wasn't all bad. You may recall SOUNDS writer DAVE McCULLOUGH couldn't say a bad word about us and there were even a couple of good live reviews from NME."
"Yes, we did get it in the neck a little," he continues. "But I think a lot of that was just Factory backlash. I've said this before, but it always struck me as funny how the less we sounded like JOY DIVISION (i.e "Plateau Phase") the more we got accused of sounding like them. In any case we always got great support from audiences and that's what counts."
Before we move onto "Scissorgun" and current events in the CRISPY AMBULANCE world, I wonder what Alan himself is pleased with from his back catalogue. I venture that I'd certainly be satisfied with "Plateau Phase" LP from 1982.
"I'm certainly pleased with "Plateau Phase" concurs Alan. "Also "Live On A Hot August Night", "Black Death" and some of the live stuff on "Fin." That European tour was a very rewarding experience. I particularly like "Are You Ready?" "Travel Time", "We Move Through…" and "Federation" off the studio album, but quite a lot of the live stuff strikes a chord too."
Moving swiftly into 2002, though, CRISPY AMBULANCE are back with us again: great news for discerning heads out there. New album "Scissorgun" is quite a tour de force by anyone's standards. Will CRISPY AMBULANCE be a long -term project again now, Alan?
"CRISPY AMBULANCE as a project is taken one step at a time," he considers.
"The four of us and things could change at any time as we all have families and careers. We now plan to do some gigs in the UK and US. After that, who knows? No-one was more surprised than me when our brief re-union was followed by a stretch of writing new material for a new release."
This writer noted with interest that 808 STATE'S GRAHAM MASSEY produced "Scissorgun". Although I'd realised MASSEY was a well-respected man on the Manchester scene, I didn't know he went back so far with CRISPY AMBULANCE. Alan fills the picture in for me:
"We've known Graham since we were at school," he tells me. "He played at CA'S first gig in 1978 and did the artwork for our first single in 1980. He was an obvious choice to produce us. It was either him or CHRIS NAGLE (ex-JOY DIVISION engineer and WHAT? NOISE member) and Chris is busy doing other things at present."
What did Graham bring to the studio set up?
Alan: "Graham has good knowledge of Pro-Tools, which dominate Testa- Rossa Studios (in Longsight, Manchester, birthplace of "Scissorgun") and as CA'S knowledge of recent studio technology advances is limited, his help is crucial."
Despite MASSEY'S input, I feel part of "Scissorgun"s attraction is its' full-on guitar-driven live sound.
Alan: "All the beds on "Scissorgun" were live, but a lot of stuff was overdubbed or double-tracked. We built up the sound extensively after the beds were put down."
Another element of CRISPY AMBULANCE'S sound that's always struck this writer is the edge in Alan's voice and the images that sound random, visceral and exciting on tracks like, say, "Loupgarou." Alan explains about his approach to writing lyrics.
"I write all the lyrics usually after the band have provided an instrumental idea on tape," he suggests.
"I usually start off with streams of words. I find the end result is better if I'm not desperate to convey some sort of hidden meaning. I usually steer clear of love as it seems to be the only emotion many lyricists are capable of feeling. The meanings seem to reveal themselves later."
As ever, rhythmically, "Scissorgun" sounds enormous. I wonder, does Alan relate to much contemporary dance music at all? Songs like the cracking new CD opening track "Step Up!" would suggest so…
"Yes, I listen to dance music," agrees Alan. "Mainly drum and bass and UK garage, although it has no influence on our stuff really as the others write the music and they don't listen to a great deal of dance stuff but that's fine by me. We all listen to quite a varied range of music old and new."
On the other hand, "Scissorgun" features tracks like the excellent "Parallax" where Robert Davenport's guitar very much calls the shots. Over the years, this writer's always been impressed by his playing. He's very under-rated, isn't he, Alan?
"Yes, Robert's guitar playing is good on this track ("Parallax") but, on the whole, "Scissorgun" is very much Robert's album. "Parallax" is one of those songs where structure is everything, so there's no particular point of reference to the words."
Before we sign off, there's a couple of other questions I can't resist asking Alan. Firstly, CRISPY AMBULANCE are one of the few guitar bands (or any bands, for that matter) to dare to cover a track by THROBBING GRISTLE. As anyone who's ever delved into the depraved, proto-industrial back catalogue of GENESIS P.ORRIDGE and co will tell you, there aren't exactly rich pickings for riff-driven rock quartets. CRISPY AMBULANCE, however, re-invented TG'S "United" into something very much their own. Check out "Fin" and you'll see what I mean…
Alan: "I thought it would be fun to do a THROBBING GRISTLE song, but it had to be one of the more melodic ones as we couldn't hope to replicate some of the more hard-core stuff!"
"So in that sense, "United" was an obvious choice. GENESIS P. approved of our use of it so we performed it originally at the Paul Raymond Revue Bar with Gen present."
Finally, the inevitable question, I guess, considering the recent interest re-kindled in Factory Records with the film "24 Hour Party People". What do you make of it all, Alan?
"I really enjoyed "24 Hour Party People," he enthuses.
"It made me laugh out loud in places. The accuracy is not really the point. I would say it's reasonably accurate. They made a film out of it and I think it's more important that it translates to an 18 year old in Wisconsin than to have just 400 forty year old Mancunians go and say hey, that's just how it was."