Life Without Buildings leapt out of an art school corner of Glasgow at the turn of the millennium, and have since – passively – courted listeners who deem their debut (and only) LP Any Other City among the most precious in their collection. It’s not the sort of album to be absorbed immemorably, instead sticking like a giant earworm. The inner rumblings of singer Sue Tompkins are set against a spiky, coarse backing from the other three members of the band (Chris Evans, Will Bradley and Robert Johnston) and appeared, then, in short and mostly unnoticed bursts that may or may not have been happed upon via the release of three double A-sides and a fourth, distributed only in Australia. The internet wasn’t what it is now, so a quick blink and LwB were gone.
They’re the kind of precious secret talked about by the keen more in person than in writing, for fear of losing track of the tangible moment when Any Other City clicks. And the keen treat Any Other City as a pedestal, a faux-standard for standing out. Let us not get too into the debate of objective creativity, goodness or originality, merely revel in LwB frontwoman Sue Tompkins’ unique execution. The initial hard jolt of her vocals – which sit somewhere between director’s commentary, sub-narrative and out-of-context thought-train – is magnetic. They stand separately from their backing like a confused, obsessive mind. “Do we need order? Do we need order? Do we need order? Goodbye!” she sings on ‘Philip’, in the most coherent call out on the album. The desperation varies in line with the album’s manic changes in tempo and rhythmic density, switching the other three members of the band’s roles from reactors to comforters.
It’s an aesthetic secluded by never-obsequious code, originating from something kept at a distance. There’s visible breath and catch up between Tompkins’ syllables; the experimentalism shows no bounds, Tompkins trying out sounds to see how it feels. Its contextless mimicry is definitively tonal as much as it is timeless – not timeless in it not fitting into a situation, just impossible to place. Sometimes words are fragmented, tested and repeated until they make sense, at other times coming out of nowhere. The guitars are sharp and cutting, ruminating introvertedly without Tompkins’ vocals at times.
Any Other City is treasured by a strong proportion of its fans as a secret handshake. ‘Sorrow’ is and symbolises the bleak secretive nature of the ethos, Tompkins meta-sycophantically repeating and varying “the many ways, the many w-w-ways/ I see the many ways/ ha ha see things sure/ eyes like lotus leaves, no not even like/ lotus leaves”, with each playback revealing a belligerent child at the core of the tableau. The thoughts are disgorged, cascading and pirouetting around hardy, effervescent effects.
Why did the band break up? Did you consider doing one-off shows after the break-up?
RJ: We broke up because Sue didn’t want to do it anymore. She wanted to focus on visual art, and had never really bargained on being the singer in a band.
To put that in perspective, when the band began of course none of us really thought anyone would be interested, so there wasn’t anything at stake. As things went on, it started to feel a bit more pressurised, so we did some daft things like taking support gigs with larger bands because it would be ‘good for us’ and generally treating it more like a job than like fun (I take a large part of the responsibility for this!). If we had been a bit smarter about it we could probably have carried on a bit longer and tried to plough our own path rather than do things the way we thought they were ‘meant’ to be done. For Sue i think it turned from a laugh into being a commitment she’d never signed up for.
Having said all that, I’ve got no regrets about us splitting up. I think in a lot of ways it was the right time.
WB: I was happy with the new songs we had, and sad that we didn’t get them onto tape. But the band was never meant to last. We did everything we set out to do, and I think Sue’d already held on longer than she wanted to. On the last song we wrote, she was singing ‘Take me away from here’ over and over again. Still, it sounded great.
Would you ever consider reforming?
RJ: We haven’t considered reforming, really, or doing one-off gigs. For me that’s mainly because of the amount of work it takes to get good enough to play live — it seems a bit silly to spend months rehearsing only to do one gig! I guess never say never, but I don’t think the idea is foremost in anyone’s mind.
WB: I agree. Don’t look back. If the band worked at all it was because of what happened at a time and in a situation that has passed. Even if we reformed, which we won’t, we’d have to start again and figure out how to process everything that has happened in the meantime before we could make any useful noise, else we’d just end up as our own unwanted tribute act. So, no. Go and see something new.
What it was like playing with The Strokes at the Camden Monarch (now the Barfly) in Feb ’01 at their first London headline gig, being bumped down (reports suggested this had been the case)?
RJ: I don’t think we were bumped down, we were always going to be support, and by that point The Strokes were starting to really blow up, so it would have been silly to get uppity about it. All I really remember is breaking a string and the drummer out of The Strokes was nice (you may draw your own inferences about that last bit).
WB: We didn’t play with The Strokes in any meaningful way. It was a booking accident. Our record label were trying to reinvent themselves with an eye on the indie big-time. I remember watching them for a few minutes, then I remember leaving. Sometimes we really connected with brilliant bands we met on tour, like Ninety-Nine from Melbourne, or the Desert Hearts from Belfast, and a night became much more than the sum of its parts. But the Monarch gig was a category error. Whatever The Strokes were, in my mind at least we were a fundamentally different kind of thing to it. If we were where they were, then we were clearly in the wrong place.
Would you have played it any differently if you released Any Other City in 2009?
RJ:That’s really hard to say. Things have changed so much in terms of how music gets heard now — I suppose we really wouldn’t have needed a record company or any of that infrastructure. Certainly if there was anything I would do differently it would be to generally keep things closer to home, try to avoid the traditional music industry completely, not just do whatever gigs we got offered …
WB: I was always the one pushing the DIY ethic, reading the contracts with a magnifying glass and cursing the industry. Still, I was happy that we found a corner of the music business that gave us just enough support to record and tour, and the label fronted the cash that plugged our first record onto the radio and got it a couple of bad reviews in the music press. Without that backing – that hype, tiny as it was – I don’t think anybody outside of Glasgow would’ve known or cared, and though we had no ambition for world domination, of course we didn’t want our music to disappear without trace. So, whether we like it or not, we owe something to that system. Of course, I wish that whole system would die, that the music would win out through other channels and that artists didn’t have to sell themselves to labels, publishers and management. But, even in 2009, we’re not there yet.
Did you have any idea how well Live at Annandale would be received?
RJ: Well, we all really liked the record, so I suppose we had hopes that other folk would too. It got a nice response, but it hasn’t sold a lot! I’m pleased people didn’t think it was just a throwaway or a cash-in, because we spent a fair bit of time getting it ready and we all thought it represented something about the band that wasn’t on the album.
WB: We never planned to make a live album, and we had no idea that the Annandale gig was being recorded. But I’m glad that somebody did it.
What are you all up to now?
RJ: I’m a graphic designer, and I play a bit of music. Chris and Sue are visual artists. Sue still lives in Glasgow, same as me, and Chris is in Brussels.
WB: I’m a writer, and I also work with art. I played with a great pop-punk band called Correcto in Glasgow for a while, but I left to go and work, and play music, in San Francisco for a couple of years. And now I live in Oslo.
Is there any unreleased stuff hanging around that’s not been put out?
RJ: A bit. But things are generally unreleased because they’re not very good! I don’t think there’s anything else we would put out.
WB: There’s a BBC session, produced to make us sound like Hawkwind, and an Australian radio session where we’re jetlagged to the point of coma. A few C90s of rehearsal experiments recorded on a Walkman, and some very early demos we recorded ourselves. Nothing anybody needs to hear.
What were you listening to around the time of making AOC?
RJ: I was listening to a lot of American kind of post-rocky stuff and earlier post-punk stuff — things like Don Caballero, Mission of Burma. But we all had very wide tastes and a pretty keen ear for pop. Sue listened to TLC and lots of kind of RnB stuff. We used to put Fleetwood Mac on in the car when Will wasn’t around to tell us off. In terms of what fed into the band, it was quite a grab-bag, with a lot more classic rock’n'roll than you might think (we were quite often thinking of things like the Stones or the Who), bits of The Smiths, Fall, Krautrocky stuff, Velvets, Modern Lovers, Television. We wanted the music to have a rock’n'roll spirit, I think.
WB: Before Sue joined the band, we’d been into was happening in the techno scene – WARP, the new German records, Underground Resistance. So for a short time we even tried working with digital tools, three of us sat round a keyboard, but we soon found out that playing live instruments, and learning to play the way we wanted, was a shorter route to the feeling we were looking for. Neu!, Television, The Smiths, The Fall and the Stones were always there, but always disrupted by things like Missy Elliot and Autechre. We also got a lot from the post-rock and post-hardcore sounds of the Glasgow scene at the time, and from Sue’s fantastic refusal to be interested in anything other than the most mainstream music and the most esoteric literature. In the end, the sound of the band was shaped more by the dynamic, and the arguments, between the three of us in the rehearsal room, than by anything else. And then Sue had the final word. If she didn’t feel something when we played it, then it was out.
How did you feel about the mixed reception to the record at the time?
RJ: There was one I think by the NME’s John Mulvey which was quite personally nasty about Sue. Then there was a kind of baffling one, for a single I think, which seemed like all sense had been edited out of it. At the time we got quite a lot of “the music’s OK but the what’s with the godawful singing?” kind of reviews, which I think we were expecting to some extent, but it was still quite disappointing — that people who supposedly knew something about music could be so resistant to something a tiny bit unconventional. And we thought it was particularly lazy that a lot of the initial comparisons were to female singers with high voices by whom we were clearly not remotely influenced. Then again, I think we all thought the NME was a dishrag anyway, so we didn’t care all that much.
WB: I remember one that said only mad people could like us. I was happy with that. Not long afterwards, we seemed to get a lot of guys coming to our gigs with fresh head wounds, like unstitched lobotomy scars.
Just how stream-of-consciousness was the lyric-writing?
RJ: I think only Sue could answer that properly, but it’s probably safe to say that the writing wasn’t really stream-of-consciousness at all. It was quite careful and quite refined. A lot of it had been done without ever thinking of the words as ‘lyrics’ — Sue had been writing for years and years before the band and continues to do so.
WB: She’s a genius, but beyond that she has killer timing. She was never in the wrong place, never on the wrong beat. So much preparation and then also so many freestyle calculations. Nobody but Sue could explain how she does what she does. She wrote, or typed, with stutters and repetitions and mistakes and weird lapses already included. And then, when she started working with the music she would remake the text all over again while she was singing, not just reading but jumping and cutting and changing until at some point she’d find the right shape, the right rhythm, and then it’s a song. Often she was quoting and collaging things, but then suddenly she seemed to be saying or singing certain words for the first time. The first time we really heard it in action, recording her voice for the demo that became the leanover, it was like watching a tightrope artist performing and willing them not to fall.
Were the songs written around Sue’s lyrics?
RJ: Well, see above, but no. We usually started with music, although things could change a bit when Sue came in.
WB: Rob, Chris and me would jam out more or less finished tracks, then Sue’d come down and listen. If she was feeling it, a song could come together very quickly, with maybe a few easy changes. If she wasn’t, the only option was to ditch the whole thing and start again.
What do you think about the growing fan base since you split?
RJ: It’s great. It’s really nice to feel like people get it. For me it’s amazing to feel like I can consider what we did as something within and contributing to the musical culture that I’ve been an obsessive fan of since I was a kid.
WB: It’s great that the record hasn’t entirely disappeared without trace, but I don’t see anything you could call a fan base, and I’m happy about that.