By Philip Runco
It feels as if Ian Parton has always heard the sound of children playing in his head – banging on cheap toy drum kits, chanting nonsense, jamming the square peg into the circle hole – but on an afternoon in early January, those sounds are audible to the rest of us.
The Go! Team mastermind is at home in Brighton, England, where his two children are making a ruckus somewhere above. “I can hear them playing in the room next door right now,” he shares with dry amusement. It’s not raining for the first time in what feels like a month. It’s a good day.
Soon, Parton will be crossing the Atlantic with his recently recalibrated pep squad for a snappy U.S. blitzkrieg in support of the Go! Team’s fourth record, The Scene Between. Ten months have passed since the album’s release, but this will be the band’s first trip stateside to play the material. There have been shows in Europe, of course, but after almost a dozen years, it’s a reflection of where Parton’s former bedroom project – kitchen project, to be more accurate – finds itself.
“We had a meeting as a band and it became clear that it was becoming really hard to carry on performing,” Parton said this spring, recalling discussions in the wake of the Go! Team’s Rolling Blackouts (2011) touring. “There were some new babies, there were side projects going on, there were jobs… So, basically, we decided to stop performing as a band. The Go! Team kind of shrunk back to me and this Thunder, Lightning, Strike way of doing things.”
Returning to the “Thunder, Lightning, Strike way of doing things” meant writing and recording on his own. While Parton downplays the first bit – noting that every Go! Team record essentially starts in isolation – it’s still striking that these are the songs he wrote knowing that he wouldn’t take them to the band: They’re his best since Thunder, Lightning, Strike and also the most different. Across nine proper tracks (plus the usual interludes), Parton gives full close-up treatment to the fuzzed-out, girl-group indie pop that he’s only previously briefly visited, and the results – particularly the penultimate The Art of Getting By (Song For Heaven’s Gate)” – are often stunning.
As some have long wondered, perhaps the Go! Team is at its most wily when it’s just Parton and the noises in his head.
Back in 2005, you attributed this project’s creation to essentially filling a void: No one else was properly making the music that you heard in your head. Now, almost twelve years since Thunder, Lightning, Strike, four records in, what keeps it going?
I don’t think it’s quite the same mission statement as I had back then, but I felt as though I had kind of earned the right to move along from that. In the beginning, I imagined the Go! Team like a pick ‘n’ mix. It was quite self-indulgent in the way that was very personal to me – I was mixing Blaxploitation with “Charlie Brown” with girl groups with Sonic Youth. But after a while, it turned into a list of things for some people. When you read reviews, it was like a checklist of things that equaled the Go! Team. I thought, “I’ve always been obsessed with particular sorts of melodies and curvy vocals.” I felt as if that was the side of the band that no one really talked about – the “Buy Nothing Day” and “Ready to Go Steady” end of things. So, I wanted to put the focus on that more.
In my book, it’s a lot harder to write melodies and catchy songs; putting a rap on top of songs is comparatively easy. If you take a sample and put a rap on it, lots of people will call that a song, but I wanted to move away from that idea of sampling. I wanted to make it much more song based. I’d write a song and then try to fit the samples to it, rather than the other way around.
A byproduct of that is that the Go! Team become less unique, in a way. Singing alone is less of a hallmark than double-dutch chants; it’s less recognizable. But that was a price that I was willing to pay to move on from the traditional Go! Team sound.
Did recording alone allow you to hit the reset button? Were there things that had become entrenched in the Go! Team that you could root out?
The reality is that it wasn’t a million miles away from how things were already. I’ve always written the music. I’ve always hunted the samples down. It was only during the recording stage that I would get on the hotline and get the rest of the band to come in and play bass or whatever. Even then, sometimes I did that, as well. So, it wasn’t a massive departure, to be honest. It was written in the same way that I’ve always done – I’d gather a bunch of ideas and over time the best ones would rise to the top, and I’d use those, and it would grow outwards from there. It wasn’t as radical a departure as might you think.
You’ve remarked that you’re “always singing and tapping,” but you don’t sing on your records. There’s rarely even an English voice on them. What attracts you to comparatively more exotic voices, and female ones at that?
I just try to think of what the song needs. Normally, I’m looking for some personality and a slight edge of amateurishness. [Laughs] Not complete amateurishness, but sort of a bedroom-y feel – that’s often what I’m looking for. I don’t why that is.
I’ve always loved females voices. From the outset, it was kind of a mission statement for the Go! Team to not have any male voices on a song. It was partly an anti-NME indie fantasy. When you’re in Britain, the music press is always wanking off about the latest boys with guitars. I’ve always tried to kick against it.
Lots of it is personal taste, as well – Riot Grrrl, Roxanne Shanté, Kim Gordon. I’ve always liked bands that had mixed sexes. You know, Nico and the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, all that kind of stuff. I can’t particularly explain why.
The earlier Go! Team records played on a contrast of styles and sonics in overt ways. Now it’s less in your face. What’s guided that progression? What are your thoughts when you hear Thunder, Lightning, Strike?
You’re basically asking why I’ve gotten less lo-fi, but I don’t know if I particularly have. [The Scene Between] may not be as lo-fi, but I don’t think you could get any more lo-fi than Thunder, Lightning, Strike. It was pretty low on the bottom end. If I listened to it now, maybe I would think, “I wish I had beefed it up more.” But there’s no doubting that it’s really intrinsic – it’s not just a recorder, it’s a distorted recorded, you know? [Laughs] We did master it onto a reel-to-reel tape and deliberately put things hot. The way I’m distorting stuff these days is a bit different, but the urge to fuck things up is distort things is still there. The frequencies may be a bit wider – there’s bottom and there’s top rather than just middle. V=But there’s no graph that’s going to end up with me becoming hi-fi. That’s not how the Go! Team is going to end up. It’s not a progression in that way. I’ll never like clean production – it gives me the creeps, to be honest.
It’s almost political, in a way. It sounds a bit melodramatic to say, but I like the idea of doing things under your own steam. I like hearing that you’re not throwing money at things. Anyone can make things sound posh these days, even at home. I like the idea of making do with what you have. That’s kind of an aesthetic that flows through everything from the videos to the artwork to the music. It’s anti-throwing-money-at-things, basically.
It’s also an excitement thing for me. It’s not as if I’m just trying to sound retro. I think humans subconsciously like distortion. There’s a reason why when you’re at a wedding and Motown comes on, you like it more than other stuff. The distortion on that snare drum is the sound of excitement whether you know it or not.
Thematically, there’s a different sort of contrast found on “The Art of Getting By”– a mix of euphoria and morbidity. What drew you to the story of the Heaven’s Gate cult?
With that song, I was imaging a new genre called “space gospel.” It was the idea of a group of voices in space with laser beamy effects. For some reason, I kept coming back to the image of people singing in space, and then, like a flash, the idea of Heaven’s Gate hit me, because it’s kind of a combination of both things. There’s the group, and from their point of view it’s euphoric; when they were committing suicide, they were going to transcend to something better. It wasn’t tragic from their point of view.
I like the idea of taking the edge off things so they’re not so super cute. That’s always been a balancing act with the Go! Team – the whole cute-nasty trade-off. For some people, it goes too far with the cute thing. For others, it goes too far on the noise thing. I’m very aware that it’s a balancing act.
It’s a very unusual song. It’s probably the most original song on the record. I can’t think of anyone that’s written one like it, particularly. It’s really section-y, but it builds and goes somewhere. It’s quite a complicated song, really.
Transitioning songs from studio creations to the stage has been another balancing act.
We have a new line-up in the band now; there are three new girls. Maky [Angela Won Yin Mak] is really cool – she’s got a really nice voice and can play guitar as well, so we can basically play everything off all four albums if we wanted. When we do those sort of super singy ones, we have four of us singing. We do what we can, really. Save getting a gospel choir on the stage, it’s the best we can do. It’s still a big sound, you know.
What do your kids think of your music?
I have a nearly seven-year-old, and occasionally I’ll catch him singing one of my songs, which is always a nice barometer. I’ve got this theory that kids are hit detectors. When one of my songs comes on the radio, it’s always interesting to see what he thinks. I think he thinks I’m famous. I’ll have to break it him one day that I’m not.
I saw a questionnaire where you joked that you were “delaying re-entry into the world of work.” Is there sense with the Go! Team that you’re on borrowed time?
I don’t know, I’ve lasted this long, and it’s not particularly drying up any time soon. I’m going to look at doing other stuff in the future – maybe write songs for other people. I’ve got another project going on with someone in America with choirs and things like that. It’s kind of early days, but if it pans out, it will be cool.
Amazingly, I have managed to survive this long.