Recorded in the dead of winter 1991 at middle-of-nowhere Minnesota studio Pachyderm with engineer Steve Albini, Seamonsters was a noisy left turn for The Wedding Present, a UK band that had previously been known for manically jangly guitar pop featuring frontman David Gedge's lovelorn lyrics and full-sentence song titles like "Give My Love to Kevin" and "Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft." The band had begun to adapt a harder sound after releasing their second album, Bizzarro, which coincided with their first collaborations with Albini, who they admired because of his work on Pixies' Surfer Rosa. A few non-album EPs with Albini signaled their new direction but few saw the sonic assault of Seamonsters coming.
The romantic angst was still there -- and more raw than ever, actually -- but now the music matched the emotions, going from under-the-breath mutterings to rip-your-heart-out wailing and pathetic, desperate phone messages, with guitars and drums howling and crashing along with Gedge. Albini's recording aesthetic, which he would become even better known for with PJ Harvey's Rid of Me and Nirvana's In Utero (both also made at Pachyderm), was perfect for the band's new direction, giving the album lots of headroom for the wild mood swing dynamics of songs like "Dalliance," "Blonde" and "Octopussy." In particular, Simon Smith's drums on Seamonsters are a revelation, sounding absolutely massive and alive after suffering years of '80s production.
Released on May 28, 1991, Seamonsters was a divisive record on release to say the least. "I've got to be honest with you, it wasn't that well received in general," Gedge says. Steve Lamacq, in his 5/10 review for NME, wrote that listening to the album was like "having sandpaper rubbed over your ears." Select was far kinder, giving in 4/5 stars, calling it "naked and vulnerable" but also noting that the vocals are kinda low in the mix. (Fair.) Seamonsters gained stature fairly quickly, though, especially when it was finally released in the US in early 1992, after Nirvana made loud-quiet-loud-and-angsty more fashionable. Three decades on, with a lot more competition since, Seamonsters remains one of the best Loud Quiet Loud albums of all time. "It was probably the first to be honest," says Gedge.
Now considered an indie rock classic, Seamonsters turns 30 this week and to celebrate The Wedding Present reissued the album on vinyl with a second disc featuring the band's other Albini EPs -- Dalliance, 3 Songs and Lovenest -- which make an album that's almost as good as Seamonsters, plus a 1991 Peel session. David and the current lineup of The Wedding Present are also celebrating the album's 30th anniversary with a livestream performance of the album on May 29 (tickets and details are here).
I chatted with David Gedge via Skype about making the album, working with Steve Albini (and why he's misunderstood), Seamonsters' legacy, the new reissue, the livestream, and lots more. Read that below.
What's the first thing that comes to mind of when you think of the album?
The first thing I think of is a snowy, Minnesotan scene, really, because we did it early in the year, 1991. I think it was January or February and we were 50 miles south of Minneapolis, I think. And it was very deep snow. It's a really nice studio. I don't know if you're familiar with it, it's called Pachyderm. I think the story was that basically somebody had inherited a lot of money from their parents because one of them was the person who invented the desktop organizer -- those plastic things that you put in pencils and rulers and erasers and all that, on the desk. And so they made a fortune and I think one of the owners basically inherited all this money and decided he wanted to have a recording studio. So they bought this '70 mansion in Minnesota, and then they built a studio on the side of it. So that's what I think of really. I've got fond memories of going there and recording. I like working with Steve Albini and that was a great place to do it all really.
As you said, it's 50 miles outside of Minneapolis, out in the middle of nowhere. There was no nightlife to distract you. What did you do when you weren't recording?
Well, to be honest, when you work with Albini, there isn't much downtime, because as you may know, one of his things basically is that the band should record live. So on the previous record, Bizarro, we had a major label so we had a budget and we had a nice studio and we did it in the system of doing the drums first and then putting the bass down and then putting one guitar, then the other guitar, then the vocal. And spending a long time over it and each performance in each track was meticulously done and played and corrected and stuff. And that is one way of doing it. Obviously it takes lot longer and it costs a lot more money, but with Albini, his advice is to basically have the band play in a room and it's all recorded pretty much live apart from the vocals.
So we just went in there and maybe spent a short while getting warmed up, getting everything mic'd up, getting the room sounding good, et cetera, et cetera. And then we just played, really. I did the vocals as an overdub and then we went straight into mixing and he's very fast at that as well. So, I mean the whole thing, I think we were there for 12 days. So yeah, there was no downtime, really. I think the NME came over to interview me. And that was towards the end of the session. I think we'd finished actually because I think we played them the final mix and we went to a bar with them to do the interview.
The great thing was that we actually...when we met Albini, he said, "How long do you want to spend recording it?" And we said, "Well, the last one, Bizarro, took six weeks." And he said, "There's no way it's going to take six weeks." (Laughs.) And we said, "Well, what do you think?" And he said, "Well, The Beatles used to record albums in a weekend, finished, recorded and mixed." And we said, "Well, we're not the Beatles, to be fair, however, we do take your point about recording it live and stuff." So in the end, we compromised on two weeks. And we actually booked the studio for two weeks and then we had a little tour starting in Minneapolis, I think, and then traveling. Ended up in New York where you are now and then flying home from there. Because we only took 12 days to record it, we had days to spare at the end. It might have been more than two weeks. Maybe it was three weeks, but I don't know. But anyway, we had time leftover at the end. So, weirdly, the rest of the band flew home and then back out again for the tour because obviously it was too late to cancel the tour, but I actually stayed over there. My girlfriend flew out to meet me over there. So we stayed in America for a while. So basically, any leisure time was after the whole thing was done, really.
So in prep work for the record, you had practiced all the songs, everything was written, you came prepared to record?
Yes, definitely. We've always done that in the group really. I'm not a great fan of wasting a lot of time in the studio with half finished songs, really. I mean, for one thing it's expensive. So I've always been very keen that all the songs are finished and arranged and well-rehearsed, so we just go in there and do the job really. I mean, obviously things do change because of the nature of the art. You have ideas on the fly sometimes, and songs do end up changing, but I would say 95% of the stuff is prearranged. And we did a lot of sessions with John Peel for the BBC in those days. Peel was always very fond of the work in progress idea. So I remember the last session we did before the Seamonsters recording sessions in Minneapolis -- it was a session at the end of 1990, where we did four of those songs that we ended up recording there. So, in a way, we already had good class demos of what we wanted and what we envisioned the final thing to sound like anyway. So yeah, we're quite particular with planning, or I am, to the point of obsession sometimes.
I know that you'd done a couple EPs with Albini before the record. How did you first come to work with him? Did you just like what he did with the Pixies and the Breeders?
Exactly. I was familiar with his band Big Black, too. The previous albums, George Best and Bizarro, I think those records were okay and I'm proud of them and I'm happy with them and the songs are good and everything, but to me, they never really sounded like the version of the Wedding Present which I knew in my head and which I'd heard at concerts, for instance, or rehearsal rooms. They all sounded a little bit, I don't know the word, but maybe slightly disappointing or slightly flat. And then I did actually hear Surfer Rosa by the Pixies, which straight away blew me away. I know the Pixies are an amazing band and the songs are fantastic, but the sound of that record really appealed to me. It sounded very natural, but at the same time otherworldly. It sounded a bit odd really. And so obviously then we realized that Albini was the engineer and we just decided that maybe he could take The Wedding Present to a different place than we had with the previous two records. And so we mentioned it to RCA, the label that we were on at the time, half thinking they would probably say no. There's this expectation that you would probably get more commercial and sell loads of records and possibly someone like, at that time, an unknown engineer from such an alternative background might not be the most appropriate choice. But to their credit, they said yes, or the A&R department agreed.
So yeah, they flew him over to a concert we were doing in Manchester, I think. And he came to that. I'm not sure if he was even familiar with the band before that. I don't know, but we met him and got on well with him. And so we decided to do those two EPs [3 Songs and Corderoy] as a testing ground to see how the working relationship was. And straight away, it sounded like The Wedding Present to me. It sounded a bit more three-dimensional, a bit more textured. I'm not certainly hinting that Albini was the magic key to make all our problems go away or anything. I think the band had evolved as well. So we were looking at changing the way we write and arrange and record as well. So I think basically he was just the perfect choice at that time for us. I think we all clicked together very well.
It seems like his style, what he captures best, seemed to magically fit with the evolving sound of the band. Before it was that sort of manic jangle sound, whereas Seamonsters has much more dynamics.
Exactly. I think we were at that point, I think it's that kind of third album syndrome. The first album's probably just all the songs you know at any point, and there's no thought behind it. The second album for us was a more refined version of the first album where our signature sound was that a hundred miles an hour, super fast, jangly guitar, Velvet Underground gone crazy kind of sound. And then, when it came to album number three, there was that feeling of, well, let's see what else we can do. Let's broaden the palette. And introduce more in the way of dynamics. So it wasn't just full on all the way through like it had been previously. And obviously tempo changes and stuff like that. So yeah, we were kind of expanding at the same time as he came in, really.
Were the songs written in a different way than the band had worked previously?
No, I don't think it was particularly written in any different way to be honest with you. I think from the outset really, it's always been the same way, which is somebody will have a guitar riff or something and a few chords and then it'll start off from there. Usually me working with the guitarist or me writing the guitar parts, and then we just knock it around as a band until it sounds right, really, which sometimes is very quick and sometimes it takes a long time, a lot of arguments. But no, I think it's always been like that throughout... I mean, it probably sounds more like a band because of the Albini way of recording. I think, as I said before, with the Bizarro, we didn't record that as a band. And George Best, we didn't record it as a band either. It was recorded in the system of doing each instrument at a time. And I think maybe, to paraphrase Albini, you miss that ambiance of people playing in a room together and hitting off each other and interacting. So there's probably more of a band feel to it.
There's definitely more of that ambience and you can really hear the room. There are so many loud and quiet parts, the dynamics. I know there's a lot of competition, but I would argue that Seamonsters is for sure, is one of the Top 5 "Loud Quiet Loud" albums of all time.
Well, thank you. It was probably the first to be honest. So I don't feel like we were copying anybody. We just had these ideas and were breaking away from that, both guitars firing away all the way through a song. And one of the ways out of that was some of the dynamics of the guitar stopping, slowing down and getting quieter. And we started to look more at overdrive pedals, and second amplifiers coming and making everything bigger and stuff. And that sound really appealed to us. Albini was the perfect person to capture that. I mean, a lot of it is... It sounds really boring, but it's where you place microphones in the room and which microphones you use and how you apply EQ so that, and compression and all those boring things. But that is what creates a lot of that atmosphere and those ambient sounds and the big dynamics. And that's his forte really, the sound engineering, I think.
You were the first band that Steve worked with at Pachyderm, too. He made a couple of well-known records after you, of course.
At the time I'd never heard of the place, obviously. And it was before he had his own studio. Because we recorded the 3 Songs EP in Chicago, because he lived there. And I think we were on tour at the time and we just popped into the... I think it was called the Chicago Recording Studio and we just did the EP there. But then when we were talking about arrangements for the album, he did suggest that studio. So we just said, "Okay, if it's good for you, it's good enough for us," kind of thing.
What did RCA think of the album when you brought it to them?
I'm not sure I ever asked really. I've literally no memory of anybody commenting from RCA. I mean, I've got to be honest with you, Bill, it wasn't that well received in general. It's hard now for me to say this because obviously with 30 years of hindsight, people saying things like you just said a few minutes ago about it and it's become quite an iconic and quite an influential album. But at the time, A, the fans didn't like it particularly because... I think it sold about half as many as Bizarro. And then B, I remember the reviews not being particularly good either. I remember the NME being quite scathing about it. And people who had supported the band up to that point in the music papers, in the UK anyway, suddenly there was a feeling like they didn't like the new direction, kind of thing. But I think time has healed those grievances to be honest. I think people acknowledge it now a lot more.
So, so you weren't heavily A&R'd at that point? You didn't have somebody checking in on you and saying "the vocals need to be louder," that sort of stuff?
Absolutely not. No. That was one of the conditions that we made. When we did George Best, it was a very successful record over here, on an independent label. And so we literally spoke to, I think I'm right in saying every major record label in Britain came to us at one point. I think they came to a gig or had us for lunch or we went to their offices and we talked to everybody and there was this all pervading attitude of, "Okay, you've done very well, lads, so far at this..." Slightly patronizing. "You've done very well so far, but if you sign to Polygram or whoever, we will get the big name producer in and we'll get the stylist in and this and that and the big press people. And we will take you to the next level and you're going to be U2 or REM," or something, and we didn't like that. We hated that kind of conversation. And then we met this person, he was called Korda Marshall, and he was at RCA. And he said, "Okay. Sign onto RCA and just carry on what you're doing in the way that you've been doing it so far, we will just sell the records." And we said, "Well, if you really mean that, it could go in the contract." We spent a long time on this contract and a lot of money, but basically what he said, it was enshrined in the contract. So they had no input, no control. I mean, he came to gigs and said, "Oh, I like the new song, David," et cetera, et cetera. But no, he was never anywhere near the studio. Nobody was, really.
I would say all credit to RCA for being so free, and if I'm honest, it was because Korda was a very successful A&R person. So I think he'd signed the Eurythmics right before and people like that. And so he was making a lot of money and then he became head of A&R. And so I think that what he said, kind of went, really, regardless of the politics in the company. So we were very fortunate to have that deal and have him in place. And then of course, when he left the company in, I think it was 1992, we were dropped. That was the end of that really. But in those years we did Bizarro, Seamonsters and the Hit Parade series. And I'd say we had as much freedom, If not more, than most bands on independent labels because as well as the artistic and creative freedom, we had this financial freedom because obviously, there was money there, which independent labels didn't have. So it meant that we could fly to America and record with Steve Albini if we wanted.
Or have your first release for RCA be a bunch of a bunch of Ukrainian folk songs.
Exactly. I mean, I think that in itself was a feather in RCA's cap, if that's the right term, just because they allowed that. Because major labels, the whole idea of the major label thing is to get something and then nurture it and sell a lot of records from it. And there was never any way that that was going to sell a lot of records. So, but as I say, it was because we were lucky to have that kind of A&R person.
RCA in America, not quite as supportive.
The first LP, Bizarro, it came out on RCA and I think it did okay. And I remember having a meeting with them and I remember one of them saying, "Yeah, you should get your drummer to back off the beat a little bit. I mean, he's over complicating it." I don't know. And I think that was the first time that anyone from a record label actually tried to influence what we've done musically. Obviously we just ignored it, but maybe that was a telltale sign or a big sign because obviously, they didn't want to release Seamonsters on RCA in America. They licensed it to another label called First Warning, which was fine with us really. I mean, it was a smaller label and they were probably more in keeping with our mentality anyway.
They were part of BMG too, right?
Were they? I'm not sure. [They were - Ed.] I think it was that time, wasn't it, if what you're saying is correct, because major labels here, once they cottoned onto the fact that indie was quite cool, they kind of had these fake labels, didn't they? It was so-and-so records, but it was actually owned by Warner Brothers or something. So yeah, maybe it was something like that. It seemed pretty small to us. It seemed like we were dealing with two or three people, very nice people. And the press officer, I still know to this day, Doug Schoemer, over there. They were probably more supportive than a normal major label would have been to a band like The Wedding Present.
It came out about nine months later in America, right?
Did it? Yeah, you're probably right. So maybe it came out in Europe and RCA passed on it over there or something and then eventually decided to license it to First Warning. Because I remember the First Warning version came with extra tracks, didn't it?
It did. And a different cover art too.
Different sleeve, yeah. Better sleeve, actually, I always thought.