Vanguard: This Heat

After four decades, the pioneering, iconoclastic London band is back via a trio of vinyl rereleases.
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this heat

There have been few musical entities like This Heat since the band disbanded in 1981; there were even fewer in the years prior to the London combo's formation in 1976. Born of equal parts audio experimentation and antiwar furor, their sound—an exploratory blend of avant-rock, musique concrète, primal electronics, dub and a general toss-away-the-rules attitude—helped the trio to create a space within the British progressive-music scene that was shared, at best, only by fellow iconoclast outfits like the Pop Group. A box-set CD retrospective of the band's work, Out of Cold Storage, released through Chris Cutler's ReR label, came out in 2006. But now, to mark 40 years since the This Heat's beginnings, Light In The Attic has put together a vinyl rerelease of the the group's studio catalog: 1979’s subversive debut, This Heat, coproduced by David Cunningham of Flying Lizards fame; the 1980 EP Health and Efficiency, equal parts buoyant and bleak; and 1981’s Deceit, the most traditionally punk of the bunch (relatively speaking, of course).

A bit of history: This Heat sprang to life in 1976 when Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward, who had been playing together in Dolphin Logic, hooked up with the technically untrained but musically and lyrically insightful Gareth Williams. Eventually rehearsing and recording at the fabled Cold Storage space located in the then (as now) percolating Brixton neighborhood. Gigging almost immediately, This Heat found an early supporter in John Peel; the band's sessions for the DJ-tastemaker were released in 1996 on the Made Available LP. But perhaps reflecting the unit's anarchic tendencies, it was another three years before This Heat hit the shops; upon the completion of Deceit, Williams left the band to study kathakali dance in India (and, sadly, passed away after a long bout with cancer in 2001). Bullen and Hayward soldiered on for one last tour, but that was largely that—at least until now.

this heat

Coinciding precisely with the 40th anniversary of the band's debut gig, Bullen and Hayward—joined by a complement of fellow audio explorers—with be performing live under the This Is Not This Heat banner at London venue Café OTO on February 12 and 13. Even after four decades, the power of This Heat's legacy is such that tickets sold out within hours of going on sale; the music will undoubtedly still come off as mesmerizing, strange and utterly amazing. XLR8R recently had the honor of speaking with Hayward and Bullen from their London homes via phone and Skype; the results of those chats are below. And we strongly urge you to pick up the Light in the Attic vinyl rereleases—they're brimming with weird, wonderful and important sounds.

This Heat was undoubtedly at the time making its music for immediate effect—is it surprising that people are still interested in the music so many years later?
Charles Bullen: To tell you the truth, back then, we often wondered if we were a bit ahead of our time.

Charles Hayward: For me, it feels like a weird vindication. I’m not sure if it’s actually very intelligent to be ahead of your time. You’re constantly Michael J. Fox playing that guitar solo. I do think we did make the music to last, though—not just for what was happening in front of our eyes. It’s like, when I was a kid, I buried a box full of my toys in the garden so that some kid in a hundred years time would dig them up and enjoy them.

And you know, there are people who go panhandling for gold, and they’ll let most stuff go through—but every once in a while, they’ll find something and go, “Oh, there’s a nice one.” And those people are the ones who know about us. They’re the ones who have kept the candle burning.

As I was preparing to talk to you, I realized that it’s difficult to simultaneously listen to This Heat and work on anything else. It’s music that demands attention.
Bullen: That’s true. Except for "Graphic/Varispeed"—you could probably have that one in the background.

Hayward: I see different music as having different functions. One of those functions is just to be playing when I’m here working on the keyboard, checking e-mails and stuff. That doesn’t mean I don’t really like it, just I’m able to coexist with it that way. But then there’s other music that I really like that you really do have to listen to—and I think that’s what we were trying to do with This Heat. We were really trying to get people to focus.

You were mainly working in Brixton, right?
Bullen: After the first year or so, yeah. Before we got Cold Storage, we actually were playing in a room at the top of Charles H's’s parents place.

Hayward: I was in Deptford—I’m actually still in Deptford—so, actually I was experiencing things like Alternative TV, and even bands like Dire Straits and Squeeze a bit later. But in Brixton, the reggae thing was really happening there at the time. Cold Storage was really the only studio that was able to deal with the sort of processes that people wanted to start using. I’m talking about using distinct spaces; it was a very large space, which enabled people to have different ways of working. And, of course, it had a very amenable hire rate. There was this interface, a totally affable one, between guys like us and these heavy reggae dudes. That was part of the atmosphere at the time. I think Brixton is still bubbling.

John Peel was an early supporter, right?
Hayward: Yes, and once he got on board, it became possible for people to know that it was okay to like us.

Bullen: We had sent our demo tape to John, and he gave us two sessions, both in ’77. That was before the first record had come out, and the fact that we had those two Peel sessions within the span of a few months got us quite a lot of press. We had a three-page centerspread in Sounds, for instance, and we were covered in NME and Melody Maker. There was quite a lot of buzz at that point, you could say—but then it was another two years before the first record even came out.

You recorded that first album in bits and pieces over the course of those years, right?
Bullen: Yeah, and some of what we point on the record was a bit of the actual first gig. That was nearly 40 years ago—February 14th, 1976. “Rainforest” is a song from that gig.

You were fairly well received critically early on, but I’m curious about the reaction you got at your early gigs. Were the crowds receptive to your music?
Sometimes they reacted with a lot of enthusiasm; sometimes with bemusement; sometimes with coldness.

Bullen: It varied. That first gig was pretty small, and I think most of the people there half-knew what to expect. But once we started doing…less arty gigs, let’s say, and more rock gigs, we might sometimes end up in front of an audience who had no idea what to expect. The most extreme example, which I think was in early ’77, was at the Chelsea College of Arts. I think it was supposed to be a school dance. I think the guy that acting as the entertainments manager was acting a bit contentiously, I think; he was probably supposed to book some kind of mainstream dance band, but he goes and books This Heat. About 15 minutes into the set, half the audience were screaming at us to stop. And because of that, the other half decided to scream at us to carry on.

When you formed This Heat, were there any bands that influenced or inspired you? Or were you trying to consciously avoid that?
Bullen: We actually had this slightly tongue-in-cheek motto: "This Heat was formed from the collective desire of its individual members not to be in other peoples groups." If anything, we would have wanted not to sound like anybody else, though obviously everyone is influenced by something.

Hayward: Because there had been ten years of youth culture—or really, more than that—we took it at face value that you weren’t supposed to follow leaders. That’s all it really was. Plus, I think we were all sort of knocked out by meeting each other.

How so?
Hayward: We could sit around and listen to Todd Rundgren’s A Wizard, a True Star, and then we could listen to some gamelan. That wasn’t seen as a problem. I think for me, there were really two formative experiences. First, I can remember Pete Townsend talking about Albert Ayler, Debussy, Stockhausen, Monteverdi and Brian Wilson, all in the same interview, which really impressed me. And the second one was the selection records that were at the Camberwell Public Library. I heard Miles in the Sky within a week of it coming out; I could go and get Bartók string quartets.

"We were never quite sure what the rules of the game were, and that enabled us to do what we did."

Therefore, I didn’t really see the difference, and when I met Charles, he was in the same place. And then when we met Gareth, he was in the same place, too. We were never quite sure what the rules of the game were, and that enabled us to do what we did. There are even rules about the way you listen to music; there’s a hierarchy to the sound and to the structure. And what we liked to do was to make it so that the audience didn’t know what set of rules you were supposed to be using. We junked the rules. It’s almost like the art of Bridget Riley—it’s very structured, but your eyes are dancing like crazy. Is it her telling me what she thinks? Or is she just setting things up so I can walk around it it? That was a model for the music, I think.

The music does seem to inhabit its own universe. There certainly weren’t that many antecedents for what you were doing.
Bullen: For about two years before This Heat, Charles H and I had been in this duo called Dolphin Logic. That band was completely improvised, and in some ways, the genesis of This Heat was when Gareth joined us and we became This Heat. We basically just started incorporating a few more composed, written things into what we were doing. But still, most of This Heat’s music was born through improvisation.

What was the reaction to the first album when it finally did come out?
Bullen: If only it had come out in late ’77 or early ’78, right after we had all that press, it might have been better. There were some reviews of the album that I think were pretty good, but there weren’t any three-page spreads or anything like that. At that point, we were touring in Europe more and were getting more of a response there than we were in England. They liked us in Japan as well; we never made it over there, but there was a lot of interest in our records.

Hayward: We did get a lot of friendly letters from North America—mostly from New York, and a little bit from San Francisco and Seattle. The reviews were actually very good. Vivien Goldman had a very nice one in Melody Maker.

By the time Deceit came out, it seems like you have both more overtly “rock,” but also more overtly political. Was that a natural evolution?
Bullen: Yeah, I think so. It certainly wasn’t consciously planned. I think that just from the fact that we were doing more gigs, we were forced a bit to improvise a bit less than we had been. But we did still improvise; right up to the end, we’d always leave a slot in the middle of the set that was devoted to improvisation.

Was the political aspect of the lyrics a reaction to Thatcherism, which was in full force by then?
Bullen: Certainly, among other things. A lot of it related to the nuclear threat, and we played a a number anti-nuclear-war rallies. In London, and all across Europe, the nuclear threat was a real day-to-day presence; it was on everyone’s mind. People today might think that sounds melodramatic, but that’s really how it was. There was a real fear underlying the whole culture, and that’s what some of This Heat’s music was about.

But there’s also something of a timeless feel to the music as well, as if it could have been made 40 years ago, ten years ago or last week. When you were making this music, were you also thinking about a legacy at all?
Bullen: I doubt it. [laughs] There was this bit about a dim footballer where they ask him, “How did you manage to score that goal?” And he say, “I just kicked the ball, and there it was in the back of the net!” I’m joking—but that’s kind of what it was like with This Heat.

Gareth left This Heat soon after you finished Deceit. You still toured when that album came out, but was his departure the impetus for ending the band?
Bullen: We were committed to that tour, and all the while we were doing it, we were half-hoping that Gareth would come back. And he didn’t. So that was that. The shame is that there is no video footage that I know of from when Gareth was in the band; I still hope that someone, someday, comes forward with something. I think there’s a bit of Super 8 footage that somebody in Holland got, but there’s no audio.

 This Heat inside Cold Storage

This Heat inside Cold Storage

Weren’t you going to reunite with Gareth at one point?
Bullen: There was a promoter who was trying to encourage us to get together in 2001, and we did play together for a couple for a couple of days—but Gareth was very ill at that point, and he was dead within a month after that, sadly.

Even though you might not have been thinking about a legacy, there have been artists working in the outskirts of popular music who would probably cite This Heat as an influence, at least to some degree.
Bullen: I’m always surprised when I hear that. “Oh, you know so-and-so is really into This Heat.” I’m like, “Oh really?” I wish more of those people were around in the first place. But we have been persuaded to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that first gig with two nights at Café OTO, which is this really nice small venue. We’re calling it This is Not This Heat. Some of those people who have grown up listening to those records will be there, I think; both nights sold out within 12 hours. And hopefully these gigs will be recorded.

Hayward: The records and these dates are exciting on so many levels. Reconnecting with the material; looking back and yourself and learning from what you did then, which is completely different than what you do now; and trying to reconcile all that. That’s really, really enjoyable.