Mixmag Vol. 2 Issue No. 16, September 1992
by Miranda Sawyer
Miranda Sawyer visits the Sunscreem studio in sunny Chelmsford and finds out you can get away with a lot more when you’re grinning.
Take a right turn off A12 at bustling Chelmsford, trundle leafily through Little Baddow (one shop, two pubs, high shrubbery content) and it’s the first right after The Rodney. Turn left at the sign for Retreat Farm, bump past the teeny camp site, slalom round the ducks and there it is. A 400-year old cow shed with al fresco facilities. Sunscreem studios.
Inside, four of the five ‘Screemers (bassist Rob is still in bed) are having elevenses. Filter coffee, with dodgy milk and no biscuits. “There’s no shops near here,” apologizes Lucia, she of the white dreads and infamous tartan trews (sadly not in evidence today). Not to worry. The sun’s out, the ducks are looking cheerful – and there’s a huge bottle of Vladivar vodka in the studio fridge. A nice day out.
Sunscreem are poised for dance domination. After a year and a half of touring their eye-openingly energetic live set round British raves, their third new single, the soaring Love U More crashed the Top 40. And quite right too. A fine slab of sunny house with intense, intelligent lyrics and a pop chorus that put Kylie to shame, it followed the excellent Pressure single and launched Sunscreem into chartland. And it doesn’t look like they’ll be going home from there. The next single, Perfect Motion, comes complete with Leftfield remixes. And their fabulously upfront LP, O3, out next month on Sony offshoot, Soho Square, offers a blistering combination of good time house and sophisticated melodies – and at least two more top singles.
And then there’s the live act. Described by the band themselves as “energetic, raucous, chaotic, and er, uncoordinated,” its enthusiasm, its attack and, yup, its guitars put Sunscreem in a completely different category from the usual anonymous ‘three songs and off’ club PA.
“Sometimes we think it could be so much easier,” sighs Lucia. “We could just arrive, plug in the DAT and do it. This way it’s a lot harder.” But it definitely plays off in atmosphere. No miming matches Sunscreem live. Back in the studio, perched on variously sized seats between a humdinger of a mixing deck and a notice telling you how to use the sampler (“Switch on the generator and away it goes”), sit our four interviewees.
Meat Sean Wright, 24, drummer, crap joke teller and dead ringer for Madness’s Woody. Singer Lucia Horn [sic: Holm, not Horn], 26, prone to wild giggles and off the wall comments, small, pretty, less crusty looking than in photos. 25 year old Darren Woodford, flared hair guitarist with bovver boots and ‘Trust me, I’m mad’ eyes. Paul Carnell, 26, lanky, over bleached keyboardist with a grin that could swallow Australia. Relaxed, honest, enthusiastic, double friendly, they’re all lovely, lovely people. Every home should have one.
The Sunscreem story begins when Lucia moved to Chelmsford from Maidstone in 1988. She put an advert in the local music shop, extolling her self-taught talents on bass and cello, and Paul phoned her up. “She couldn’t play bass, but she was a nice person,” he says now. “So we took her on.” Paul, Lucia and a bloke who’s since left, took to rehearsing their “keyboard-orientated – okay, Depeche Mode-ish” stuff in a local school hall. They recruited Darren in ’89 after he returned to Essex after a stint playing dubious rock covers to US marines round Europe. “Not quite cabaret, but everything I despised in music. And I was doing it four hours a night.”
The three of them started going regularly to clubs, particularly The Chicken Shed, so called because it was held – surprise – in a chicken shed, and The Barn in Braintree where fellow Essex man Liam ‘The Prodigy’ Howlett could be found lurking and where The Shamen’s Mr C regularly DJed. The band talk somewhat wistfully now of a real cross-section of people dancing to a great variety of music. They were anyway thus inspired to make dibbly noises themselves. They named themselves after their favourite synth sound and then they decided they needed a bassist.
“We said to ourselves,” recalls Paul, “ideally the kind of bloke we want would have a van, come from somewhere really lairy, like Canvey Island, definitely have tattoos and a massive grin. We’d had a couple of people down and they was good bass players, but a bit straight. Then this van came hairing round the corner, screeched to a halt outside the studio. The window winds down and this bloke looks out and gives this huge grin…”
Rob had got the job before he’d even found the studio door, Sean completed the lineup, and in 1990 Sunscreem decided to launch their first gig by putting on their own rave. 200 people turned up to the warehouse in Hackney, “but no one realised we were on,” says Lucia. “There was so much smoke.” Perhaps not such a bad thing, as not all the band made it on stage. “Rob was in his van, interfering with a young lady,” reveals Darren, delicately. Fair enough.
Then began the long slog of touring. Determined to offer more than just a PA, Sunscreem would hire small clubs or rooms above puts and turn them into complete audio visual experiences. As well as the band members themselves the ‘Screem brought DJ Dave Valentine, mad dancers Tony and Baz, and their own lighting people, equipped with mirror ball and laser “held together with sticky tape.”
Having signed to Sony Square [sic: Sony Soho Square] in February 1991 (“we bought a huge bottle of champagne but ended up drinking all theirs instead”), the never-ending Sunscreem tour continues, trekking up and down the country in their van, playing Sonic The Hedgehog (natch) and listening to Bird FM, the chirping, tweeting test transmission for the new classical station – “so much more relaxing than real music.”
Aren’t you sick of touring yet? Paul: “Sometimes all the effort does get to you like when you’re playing with another PA, and they say things like ‘How many gigs you done tonight?’ And you say ‘One’, and they’ve done three or four in one evening because all they have to do is plug in the DAT and go.”
Lucia: “But we were always determined to do it live. You can get so much more energy coming across to the audience that way.” Paul: “There’s so many of us that if one of us is having an off day you’re guaranteed that someone else is really going for it. Anyway, our band before just used tapes, and the worst thing about it wasn’t like the great moral principle of playing live, but just that the tapes became such a drag. Once you’ve recorded your backing you can’t change it. You can’t get excited about a piece of the tape, whereas if you’re actually doing it, you can change it an hour before and actually get excited about playing.”
Sean: “We did that the other night.”
Lucia: “Yeah, it was terrifying, everyone was going, ‘We’ve gotta do that acapella bit at the beginning of the Slam mix of Love U More,’ so we programmed it in just before we went on…” Paul: “And then you sang all the wrong words.”
This will-they-won’t-they-pull-it-off spontaneous disorder is a large part of what makes Sunscreem so explosive on stage. “It is a bit chaotic. Even our dancers can’t clap in time.” Still, with influences ranging from “noisy noise” through The Jam to Polynesian rhythm music, taking in all houses along the way, it’s little wonder that occasionally it’s hard to keep things under control. Mostly it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the band agree that trying out and developing songs by playing them live is the best way to find out if they’re any good. It’s also led to a confidently emotional style, both musically and lyrically. Lucia’s frustration scorches out of The Pressure [sic: The correct title is Pressure] like she’s swopped her dentures for a blow torch, and if you listen carefully to Love U More, you’ll find a lot more than the starry-eyed love-pup dribblings of, say, Opus III.
“Yes, I do say ‘Have sex hung, drawn, and quartered’,” admits Lucia gamely. “It’s about being crucified. I also say fathers rape their daughters as well, ha ha. It’s a love hate song. People think it’s a sweet, nice tune, but I’m really saying I can’t love you anymore.” Sunscreem don’t have a manifesto, but they do have an attitude. Typically, they find it hard to define.
“It’s sort of…” struggles Paul, “we were inspired by the whole scene two and a half years ago – the idea of a club as a melting pot. Different styles, different people and it didn’t really matter. That may sound a bit daft but clubbing sure as hell wasn’t like that before, and whatever that represents it was incredibly powerful. I mean, it’s the only popular movement that’s inspired a Private Members Bill.”
“And it’s lasted, despite the media right across the board slagging it. I mean, the NME has a constant anti-danceness about it. That’s really interesting – I mean, the media embraced punk. They say that there’s no personalities on the dance scene, well, the idea of a pop personality is purely a media thing anyway. If they went out and met everyone who has a good record out they could easily find the personalities.”
He pauses for breath, “But in the end people vote with their pockets don’t they? And dance music is the only thing that sells. There’s a quiet revolution going on.” And what will the results of this revolution be?
Sean: “Darren for President.”
Darren: “I shall run an extremely tight ship…”
Sean: “Free Jack Daniels in every household. Compulsory nudism.”
Time for a tour of the studio. Although there’s three large-ish rooms, only one is used fully. The other two are littered with equipment, drills, wires, screws, a drinking trough and an unused workout machine. The band are convinced that the middle room is haunted, and tell of two horrible people that moved into the nearby farmhouse who were eventually frightened off by all the strange knockings. “They thought it was us, but it wasn’t.”
In the main recording room, the walls are decorated with a wide range of “art.” There are a lot of club flyers, a huge picture of an impossibly curvy Marilyn and a still of Malcolm McDowell from Clockwork Orange because Darren used to wear a bowler hat and his eyes are the same. Round the corner, and there’s the script for a Sunscreem spaghetti western video – “we see a lone rider approaching through the heat haze, the figures abstracted” – Paul says he wasn’t comfortable about being abstracted.
Darren’s community charge liability order for £343.32 is penned up with the single word ‘Bollocks’ scrawled across the bottom. In the fridge resides the huge vodka bottle, half full, plus three Pils and some nearly-melted Dutch chocolate ice cream. There’s one of these violently large, fluorescent pump-action water pistols hanging up by the door. And on the opposite wall there’s a handwritten note awarding Sean “Mister Flakey 1992” – signed by all the others. Plus the record company direction for Top Of The Pops. “Lucia – go to bed early. Darren, Paul, Rob, Sean – don’t. So Lucia looks radiant.”
Despite their obvious talent and patent pleasantness, there are a few things that nag about Sunscreem. Their utterly vile Heavy Metal logo for instance.
“There’s a lot of people that really like it,” says Darren defensively. “Yeah,” jests Sean, “[Iron Maiden’s] Bruce Dickinson was saying to me just the other day…”
“It’s like the name,” says Paul, “some like it, some don’t. If we’re really successful, maybe all heavy metallers will have to change their logos.” And what of Lucia’s retro tartan trolleys, as featured in the Love U More video? What brought them on?
“Um, I thought they looked lairy, loud,” she says. “Anyway, didn’t you see his trousers?”
“Mine were really disgusting, true,” admits Paul.
“They weren’t a taste statement,” insists Lucia, “they were just the loudest thing I had. They’ve retired to the wardrobe now.”
And finally, what on earth makes you so enthusiastic? You’re always bloody smiling. “That’s the one thing that really unites us,” claims Paul, “our hatred of people looking grumpy in an effort to look cool.”
“You’re only on the planet so long,” notes Sean, “you might as well have a good time.”
“Plus,” adds Paul, “you can get away with a hell of a lot more if you’re grinning. You can get away with lines about fathers raping their daughters on Top Of The Pops without the BBC even noticing! If we were The Jesus And Mary Chain, we wouldn’t have stood a chance.”