❉ Don’t Brexit – BRIX IT! Nick Walters meets Brix and the Extricated one year on from their last encounter and reviews their new album Breaking State.
“Brix has been through a lot, and she’s come through it all, a survivor, tough as nails but with a smile as bright as the sun and a positive attitude that is impossible to resist. Her lyrics, always personal, always honest, sometimes brutally so, allude to this journey, and Breaking State, as an album, takes the listener on this journey.”
The world is a grim and gloomy place. Brexit, Trump, intolerance, hatred, atrocities, poverty, war, famine, I could go on. This is not news; some say it has always been that way, it’s a matter of perspective. Others say you should count your blessings. Yet others shrug indifferently and binge Netflix. Whoever is right, I don’t know, but now the clocks have gone back and winter has slammed down like a steel shutter on the last shimmerings of summer, the outlook seems ever more dark, dank, depressing and damp.
Don’t give up. Don’t despair. Don’t cry. Don’t even sigh wistfully! There are some remaining rays of sunshine. Several shards of summer sent spiralling skywards by winter’s hammer. Brix Smith Start and her band the Extricated are one such shard. To play their new album, Breaking State, is to blast away the chill, scare away Jack Frost, disperse the clouds and smile and dance around like a loon. With music like this, we might, just might, make it through until the light nights of BST are here again.
I’m experiencing a profound sense of déjà vu mixed with au temps perdu, because it was almost exactly a year ago that Brix and the Extricated brought out their first album, Part 2, and performed at the Thekla in Bristol. Now they’re back with a new album and are playing the Thekla again on 27 October, and blimey, it doesn’t seem like a year since I interviewed Brix and guitarist Steve Trafford at the venue. But it is. And it was a year that saw the passing of Mark E. Smith, back in January. The world is certainly a gloomier place without him. I still can’t quite believe that he’s not out there somewhere, concocting another wonderful and frightening Fall album. But he’s not. So those left behind, like the former Fall personnel in the Extricated, are carrying on, moving on, going strong. Respecting his legend and forging their own.
Breaking State is the latest chapter in the legend of the Extricated. Ten songs, all killer, no filler, in under 40 minutes; a proper old-school album that you could fit on one side of a C90 cassette tape (ask your parents. Er, grandparents). Their first album, Part 2, contained a brace of Fall songs, and, great though it was to hear them again, the original material did not suffer from sharing disc space with such classics. Indeed, songs like Pneumatic Violet and Something To Lose are barnstorming pop/punk/rock classics in their own right. And this time, there’s ten of the blighters, ten instant classics, and to hear them is, as I’ve said, to reignite the fire and fury of summertime, to dance with multi-coloured moonbeams, and so on and so forth.
But there’s a dark side. As with everything, a dark side. Because without the darkness, how would we know light? And it’s all to do with neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
To explain, it’s necessary to skip right to the end of my interview with Brix and fellow songwriter and guitarist, Jason Brown. I’ve been talking to them for about 40 minutes in the cramped backstage area in the bows (or is it the stern?) of the Thekla, and have completed the interview to my satisfaction. The rider has arrived and I can hear the Extricated’s second drummer Elliott Barlow (standing in for Paul Hanley) testing his drumkit. Very loudly. Time to go, but we’re still talking, and I’m babbling on about how The Fall were, to me and many fans, not merely a ‘band we liked’ but an entire universe, a separate dimension to explore, that would lead us to bizarre and unlikely places. I’m talking about the ballet of I am Kurious Oranj as an example – what other band would even contemplate doing such a thing? – and I apologise to Brix for mentioning it, as I know from reading her biography that the late ‘80s was a bad time for her.
Her response is immediate:
‘Oh no, that was one of the creative high points of my career! I loved every single minute as a performer, but emotionally, I was having a hard time because my marriage was breaking up. The thing is, I could compartmentalize, and I don’t look back on it with anything but pride. I mean, we all go through hard times, but we can still have good times, a human being is multifaceted, you know. It’s like the old saying “The Show Must Go On”. You put on your game face, get out there and do the business; people paid to see you, get out there and perform, never let them see the cracks. It made me very strong, and it made me a confident performer.’
Brix has been through a lot, and she’s come through it all, a survivor, tough as nails but with a smile as bright as the sun and a positive attitude that is impossible to resist. Her lyrics, always personal, always honest, sometimes brutally so, allude to this journey, and Breaking State, as an album, takes the listener on this journey.
But what does it mean, Breaking State? Breaking state, to break state – this is where NLP comes in. As Jason explains:
‘It comes from neuro-linguistic programming, it’s an NLP term for shifting from an unresourceful state of mind into a healthier more positive state of mind. If you’re locked into a negative place, and you’re beating yourself up, and life’s terrible, it’s awful, and you need to break out of it, you need to break state. You need to break out of that place, into a better place, into a better, more positive mindstate. Which we thought sums up what we do, and what music’s all about really, for us.’
Brix adds: ‘There’s lots of ways that we can break state, for instance, if you wake up with a negative set of thought patterns, like I’m too fat, my body’s failing, I’m too poor, I’m not good enough, the way to break state is to do something completely different so that it knocks you out of that thought pattern. So you could go in the garden and focus on nature, you could stroke a pet, you could put on a piece of music, and that knocks you out of one reality into another, and it stops that process of the OCD hamster-wheel, so every time you put on a piece of music it breaks state and transports you, and that’s what we really wanted to do with this record.’
The album starts not with a blast of sunshine but with the sinister chill of Alaska. After an eerie instrumental intro, Steve Hanley’s instantly recognisable bass whacks out a thunderous intro before the main melody kicks in. It’s a slow, menacing start with a distinctly chilly atmosphere. The album closes with the incredible Unrecognisable, a Broadway show tune in which Brix exults in her transformation. The album is a journey between those two states, as Brix explains:
‘Every single song lyrically is about me and something I went through. So if you start with Alaska, that’s like when you’re trapped within your fears, you’re totally vulnerable. It’s like being in a terrifying place – like a murderer is in the house in the dark in the most freezing blackest place. It’s really about the sum of all your fears and how crippling it could be, and how it could devastate you. But then, from one song to the next, you’re taking another step, and each song tells a story or something that really happened to me, or real feelings or parts of relationships I’ve had and how I moved through it to find power. The whole album’s about transformation, breaking state, going from state A to state B. We wrote it so that it goes from black and white (Alaska) to full-blown Technicolor (Unrecognisable). By the end of it, the person I was when I started this journey is unrecognisable from the person that started. I have come out of my chrysalis and I am the butterfly. So it should have resonance for everybody, every story could be about anyone, it may have happened in anyone’s life in some form, so I’m really hoping that the lyrics really resonate, because they’re very very personal and very honest.’
Isn’t it amazing, and so brilliant, that something so simple as pop music can be so profound, can have such a positive influence, I remark.
Brix: ‘It’s because it comes from a place of absolute honesty and vulnerability from our part, certainly lyrically, and a lot of people write with their ego, because they’re not able to show their soft underbelly because they’re fearful of it. I know that by showing the vulnerabilities, it’s going to help a lot of people, because they’re going to relate to what I’m doing, which is emotional stuff for me, so it’s honest and they can feel it. It’s authentic, and there’s not enough authenticity out there.’
The second track, H.C., was originally entitled Hot Cake, the same title as a Fall track from 2010. The reason for such a strange coincidence is rather mundane, but interesting: there is a guitar effects pedal of that name, which obviously inspired Steve Trafford (and Fall guitarist Pete Greenway) to come up with the title. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that some Fall fans might seize upon to accuse Brix of ‘stealing’ ideas from The Fall. So why keep the chorus (she’s a Hot Cake?) Why not change it to avoid such paltry accusations? Brix is adamant. ‘I didn’t know there was a song with the same title because I didn’t really listen to any Fall after I left. Hot Cake was a Steve Trafford original song that he brought in, and I said “Oh, I love that name!”, not knowing that there was another song of the same name. Someone told me, so I tried to change the chorus to something like “She’s a Wild Fox, she’s Wild Fox”, but it just didn’t work so I decided to keep it and just call it H.C. so that no one would say you’re stealing a Fall title. Cos there’s gonna be a keyboard warrior out there that would have my head on a plate for that, and I didn’t want to give them the opportunity.’
As a writer, I am used to coincidences in the creative process. You come up with what you think is a brilliant, original idea, turn on the telly or open a magazine or go on the web, and there it is.
‘It’s steam engine time again!’ exclaims Brix, somewhat to my surprise. She continues: ‘Mark Smith used to say that people think of the same ideas at the same time, like when they were creating the steam engine, it just wasn’t one person, it was like five people [Watt, Newcomen, Trevithick, Savery, Stephenson] trying to patent the same thing. It’s collective consciousness and channelling, and it’s out there, and it’s beaming down to creative people all at the same time, and people open up and the stream of inspiration and comes down and if I’m open, he’s open, you’re open, we’re possibly all hearing the same thing.’
It’s like when, in the late 1980s, all those films about underwater extra-terrestrials came out at the same time – Leviathan, Deepstar Six, The Abyss.
Brix: ‘Exactly! Exactly! Someone is pushing it out there. HG Wells up there in the sky!’
No such trouble with the next track. I don’t think anyone has ever written a song called Dog Face. It’s one of the albums highlights, a catchy and somehow moving song of encouragement and empowerment. ‘Smile bright – go! Get it! Dog! Face!’ But Brix – who is Dog Face?
‘Well, the story is, Jason brought me the riff, and originally it was called Lost in Gdansk. And I just listened to the riff and the words that came out were the story of a Polish whore, of what a woman has to do to get where she needs to go. It’s about having to use whatever you have to get where you need to, and if you do it well enough you become a star. In a weird way I relate to Dog Face – thankfully I’ve never been a whore, but certainly I’ve felt like it a couple of times, and I think we all have – you know, I’ve done things to get ahead, I’m not talking sexually, I’ve done things that I had to do to go forward, so I am Dog Face. Obviously not a whore, but I took the context about how I felt, and put it into a story about someone who was.’
Brix, your voice is a lot more mellow on this album. There’s none of the histrionics as demonstrated on Part 2.
‘It’s a lot more tempered.’
And this fits with the music which is extremely melodic, the first time I heard (fourth track) Prime Numbers, it brought an instant smile to my face. The whole album is crammed with melody and harmony – it’s easy to be brash and loud, make a lot of noise, especially in this genre, but there’s a lot of craft in this.
Brix: ‘Melody goes into the head and stays there and repeats on you somewhere else, it comes back when you sleep. There are certain songs that have this thread, that is such a simple thread, which is what they you know say is an “earworm”.’
Jason: ‘For me, not having been in The Fall with everyone else, it was carving out an understanding of what my creative parameters are because there’s a lot of things I can do, and with this record, I’ve allowed more things to come in; we all have, musically. At the core of it we’ve got the Hanleys [former Fall stalwarts, brothers Paul and Steve on drums and bass respectively], we’ve got that core sound, there’s no denying that, so when you’ve got that, you can build out from there, so we can afford to put melodies and choruses in, and it’s great!’
Brix: ‘We’re songwriters you know, it’s the art of songwriting.’
Jason: ‘We’re musicians, we know how music works!’
Brix: ‘Well three of them are music teachers, so, you know!’ [For the record: Jason, Steve Trafford and Elliott Barlow.]
American Skies, which closes side one (in old money), is a respite from the full-on assault of the first four tracks, a beautiful ballad reminiscent of Moonrise Kingdom from Part 2. It has a sense of wistful melancholy that can be traced through Brix’s songs from the Extricated to The Adult Net (e.g. Waking Up In The Sun) right back to her Fall debut Hotel Bloedel.
‘It’s about the death of America, and it’s set to the backdrop of a disastrous ending to a love affair. I used to think of America as this wonderful place, with prairies and plains, where anything was possible, where you could be free to say what you want and do what you want, and achieve the American Dream, and then the whole thing with Donald Trump and everything comes along and now my idea of America is so soured, so it’s like the end of a love affair, and it breaks my heart to see what’s happening. It could change, but at the moment that’s how I feel. It’s about the loss of my country in my heart.’
The string arrangements really enhance the song.
‘Jason’s wife, Sarah Brandwood-Spencer, did all the string arrangements and played on it which is absolutely tremendous. It’s taking our music to a different level and opening it up to a very very beautiful palette of colour. It really enhances that song and the way that she scored it was so empathetic with the lyric and the vocal and the space. It really becomes emotional – strings are an emotional instrument, that’s why they say “heart-strings”.’
Jason adds, ‘Like Moonrise Kingdom, American Skies is a Steve Trafford tune, and it’s a type of song he’d describe as a “palette-cleanser”.’ Sarah’s a classical violinist so I’m exposed to this whole other world of music. She’s worked the John Wilson Orchestra, so when I suggested to her this idea of the black and white to technicolour theme of the album, she got it immediately.’
‘Side two’ begins with Vanity, a rather dark song with a breathtaking vocal from Brix.
‘It was originally called Vanity Project but when Jason sent it to me I changed it to just Vanity because, the last line is, ‘I hold the mirror up to my lovely face, my ego has died, but vanity has taken its place.’
Jason: ‘Brix had just come back in India, having done transcendental meditation with Donovan [she once covered Hurdy Gurdy Man, and spent some time with Donovan earlier this year]. We were having a band rehearsal, and we went back to mine, and I said to Brix, I’ve got this tune, and she listened to it on the headphones maybe twice and came out with these stream-of-consciousness lyrics, it was incredible.’
Brix: ‘I heard it twice and then said get the f****** microphone out, and the lyrics came out fully formed – I never wrote anything down, it was complete stream of consciousness.’
Jason: ‘It wouldn’t have happened if Brix hadn’t come back in a deeply meditative state. Writing-wise, I guess it works if you’ve got something coming through, you’ve got to capture it there and then.’
Brix: ‘It’s a recipe, really, we have a recipe that works – the boys write the music, then they’ll send it to me, and if it resonates with me, I write the words and melody.’
Sleaze Bag follows, riding on a dirty great lumbering Hanley bassline, and in contrast to Vanity, it’s a joyously nasty diss song. It is about anyone in particular, I ask Brix?
Are you going to tell me?’
Fair enough. Going Strong, which follows, is I think the keynote track of the album – though short, in encapsulates the transformational message. ‘Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going quietly – I’m going strong’, sings Brix.
The transformation is complete with the final track on the album, Unrecognisable. It sounds like a big Broadway show tune, and is miles away from the pop-punk roots of the Extricated.
Jason: ‘I wrote this almost jazz harmony bit which I was hoping to get past the Paul Hanley ‘jazz mallet’, you know, like ‘it’s gotta be barre chords!’ We’re sneaking all these musical ideas in, so our musical palette has broadened, and I’m thinking “what can I bring to the table here?” because there’s loads of things we can do. That’s the whole thing about independence in terms of the music industry, this band, this kind of art comes from the freedom we have of being able to do what the f*** we want. We don’t have record companies or anyone telling us we can or can’t do, we just we do real honest stuff that is honest about our lives and circumstances and everything.’
I’ve missed out a song, the penultimate track. Heavy Crown has lyrics which seem to allude to Brix’s life before and after The Fall and her marriage to Mark E. Smith. Is it about Mark?
‘Yes, absolutely,’ says Brix.
‘It’s interesting because Steve Hanley brought that one in, came up with the title, we worked on it on our home studios and sent it to Brix, and I wonder if something subconsciously linked between us and Brix, because that was a weird time this year, especially for you guys, when…’
‘It was terrible,’ Brix interrupts, her voice falling to a whisper. ‘When he died. Terrible.’
There is a brief silence, and I don’t know what to say. The impact that Mark E. Smith and The Fall have had on my life is massive, they have not merely been a band but a way of life, and Mark’s dedication and work ethic right up until the very end have been, still are, an inspiration. But it’s nothing compared to Brix’s experience. I am, after all, just a fan.
Jason breaks the silence. ‘We were in rehearsal when we heard… we cancelled it… Steve was in The Fall for 25 years, so…’
I start talking about my love for The Fall, mainly to fill the silence. I mention that Brix wrote the song that got me into The Fall, namely U.S. 80’s – 90’s from Bend Sinister, and many of my favourite Fall songs, such as L.A., were written by her. So maximum respect.
Breaking State is all original material with no Fall songs, so I ask, was this deliberate?
Brix: ‘We will do Fall songs live, but we’re never going to record a Fall song again.’
Call the Extricated a covers or a tribute band at your peril, they are a band in their own right, performing songs that they wrote.
Brix: ‘You can’t cover your own songs!’
Jason: ‘Does Johnny Marr cover his own stuff when he’s playing How Soon Is Now, does Peter Hook cover Transmission? How the f*** can Steve Hanley be in a tribute band with his own basslines, that he wrote? I mean, he wrote Totally Wired, you know?’
I remark that some songs, especially Alaska, are reminiscent of The Fall; without slavishly trying to sound the same, there is an unmistakable Fall-esque slant to the music.
Brix: ‘Well, it’s the same “handwriting” as The Fall.’
Jason: ‘That’s gratifying to hear, and I think it’s only right, because there is going to be a thread in there because you’ve got Steve Hanley on bass, Paul Hanley on drums and Brix in the mix.’
Brix: ‘We were The Fall, we were the sound of The Fall.’
Jason: ‘It’s not unreasonable to expect us still to shove a few Fall songs into the live set, when you’ve got a back catalogue like that!’
Brix: ‘They’re my songs too. If Mark and I were the parents, and one’s dead, why shouldn’t I then take my child, which is the song, and put it out there live?’
Why not indeed. These songs deserve to be heard. There’s no other band that is going to play them, or even has the right to play them, and hearing the material performed by the original artists is thrilling, and fulfils a need now The Fall are no more – though of course the main purpose of The Extricated is to move forward, they clearly enjoy showcasing the Fall classics, and the fans lap it up. I ask Brix for a hint of what they are going to play tonight?
‘We’re not going to play L.A. or U.S. 80’s – 90’s tonight, but don’t worry there will be something in there. You’ll be shocked Happy! Treat!’ [Read on to discover what they played!]
Discussion of album content complete, I turn to the packaging. The cover to Part 2, with its psychedelic background and geometric lettering, looked like the cover of a dance album. Breaking State, though, has imagery that really suits the music, and Brix, perfectly! It’s by Rufus Dayglo, famed British comic artist who has worked on Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog for 2000 A.D, Tank Girl, and the Gorillaz. How did this come about?
Brix: ‘Rufus Dayglo is one of the most renowned comic illustrators out there and certainly the coolest. He’s just finished working with The Ramones, he’s amazing! He’s a long-time Fall fan, and when the Extricated started he tweeted us. Jason and I do all the social media between us, we talk to everybody we answer everybody, we have complete fan engagement, because it’s really really important, so we’re very open on Twitter. I remember I was sitting in Paris and I and I was talking to Rufus on Twitter, and he said “do you know what I do” and I said “no” and he said “I’m a comic book illustrator”, and I said “oh that’s so cool!” And when he said he did Tank Girl I was like WTF! We became friends, and then one day he said he’d really like to turn me into a comic book character! That really didn’t happen, and then he turned up at a couple of gigs. One of them was All Points East in June where we played with Nick Cave and Patti Smith, and he was in the front row. After the show I asked if he would consider doing the cover for us and he was like, “It would be my honour.”
‘He basically stepped in and did the entire artwork for everything – posters, T-shirts, CD covers, the whole marketing campaign, all the merch, and we became very very close to him and now we say he’s the sixth member of the Extricated. We’re going to always continue to work with him. He’s given us a real visual identity that we didn’t have before. He’s turned me into a cross between Tank Girl, Tinkerbell and a warrioress, he’s captured my real character and he’s put the boys as amazing voodoo dolls on my back, and on the inner sleeve of the record and CD each member of the band is on their own totem pole! He’s turned us all into characters and I think eventually he’s going to do a comic book in which I might make an appearance.’
Can’t wait to see that! His style really is suited to the Extricated. That was a good connection to make, getting someone of his renown and calibre.
‘That’s what happens you’re nice to people on Twitter! The world is full of great people, his fiancée, Claire De Lune, is an amazing ceramic artist who is starring in a new BBC show called Made in Great Britain, about the history of arts and crafts and she stepped in, did our website and built a web shop for us. These are two people we didn’t know and it restores your faith in human kind, and I literally love them as if they were family.’
Jason adds, ‘There’s such a lot of goodwill, not just from collaborators, but the fans as well. We’re getting a lot of support, people are coming from as far away as Sweden, from Canada and Greece. Some have come to see us every night on this tour so far, someone has seen us 25 times in total. There’s a lot of love for it and that’s what we’re channelling. It’s a great album, a great body off work it looks great it sounds great and needs to get out there.’
I ask them if there are any plans for a third album yet?
Brix: ‘I can’t wait to start writing!’
Jason: ‘I had a productive January this year, and hope it will be the same next year when we’ve finished touring, because now I’m into live mode, and your subconscious needs room for the stuff to come out to allow you to get into the state of flow. So it’ll happen. Ideally we’ll be sitting here next year talking with the new record out. Why not? It was really important to get the album out this year, to keep going, and it’s worked.’
Brix: ‘We want to show people we mean business. We’re not just a few people doing their hobby, playing at playing music, this is what we do, this is for you and me, for sure, this is our life.’
It is about this time that the rider arrives and drum practice starts so I end the interview, only to re-start it again when Brix starts talking about I Am Kurious Oranj and time folds back upon itself because here we are back at the beginning of this article.
The rest of the band walk in and I shake hands wordlessly with Steve Hanley, overcome with awe as any true Fall fan would be. I manage to get some selfies with Brix, and then bid them all farewell.
The Extricated put on a blistering show, kicking off with the atmospheric Alaska and performing almost all the songs from Breaking State. Brix throws herself energetically into each song, living through the lyrics, a mesmerising performer with a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. At once ferocious and fey, a force to be reckoned with and a vulnerable free spirit, her personality dominates proceedings, even over the twin assault of Steve Trafford and Jason Brown’s guitars, and Steve Hanley’s legendary thunderous bass. Elliott Barlow proves a worthy stand–in for Paul Hanley, whacking hell out of the drumkit providing a solid backdrop for proceedings.
They perform four Fall songs: Guest Informant (all together now: Bastard! Stay-cog! Analyst!), Glam Racket/Star, Dead Bead Descendant, and, best of all, Totally Wired. The original is spiky, lean and thin like barbed wire, built around Steve Hanley’s mesmerizingly monotonous bass, but the Extricated take it and turn it into an almost Heavy Metal full-on sonic assault, complete with psychedelic breakdown in the middle eight. The Fall purist in me is shocked at such ‘sacrilege’, but cobblers to him and all nay-sayers. It. Was. AWESOME. I am 50 years old, but tonight, I am 19 again.
The goodwill in the room is palpable. Stage invaders are given space, and the woman with the blue hair from last year is back, and takes the stage this time to dance madly (I wish I’d spoken to her after the gig so I could include her in this piece, but it wasn’t to be – maybe next year?). One yoing lad stage-dives but non-one catches him and he smacks down onto the sticky floor like a handsome sack of spuds. But he gets up and is all right! After the gig, which finished with that titanic Totally Wired, Brix meets the audience at the merch stand to chat, take selfies and sign CDs. She signs my copy of Breaking State and we say our goodbyes and I depart, ears still ringing, out into the night, but the darkness and the cold and the approach of winter do not bother me in the slightest.
One final anecdote. At one point during the interview, I showed Brix the T-Shirt I was going to wear to the gig, a black one with the words I AM DAMO SUZUKI emblazoned in bright orange sans serif retro capitals. Brix loved it and I almost give it to her, but she politely declined, and told this story:
‘Damo Suzuki came to see us, after we wrote that songs, and he came into the dressing room. I’d been bored, so I’d taken the rider, which was a massive platter of all sorts of things including fruit, and I’d made a sculpture out of it, which was “anatomically correct”, shall we say? Damo Suzuki freaked out when he saw it and said, “I am going to take this and I’m going put it in my freezer, and keep this art forever!” So Damo Suzuki has my food sculpture in his freezer. True story!’
❉ Brix and the Extricated – ‘Breaking State’ (Grit Over Glamour GOG001) is available to buy now from all the usual outlets, RRP £11.99.
❉ Tour Dates: 10th Nov Hull The Adelphi, 11th Nov Liverpool The Loft, Arts Club ,16th Nov Oxford The Bullingdon (The Bully), 17th-18th Nov Butlins’s, Minehead Shiiiine On Weekender, 25th Nov Norwich Norwich Arts Centre.