The frightening, darkly beautiful music of Seefeel was revelatory from its early-90s debut. And now with a set of reissues and new projects, it’s the perfect time for David Abravanel to talk to the current Seefeel group. -Ed.
Do you ever get fascinated by music that seems so mysterious as to be scary?
When I discovered Seefeel’s sophomore album, Succour, as a teenager in the 00s, the band was already well into a hiatus and presumed finished. There were no decipherable words, but haunting vocals and echo-laden, claustrophobic loops from indeterminate instruments. It was the kind of listening that worked best for me late a night. It hit the same spot in my brain as The X-Files.
For many years, Succour and its follow-up Ch-Vox have felt like beautiful secrets from almost alien origins. With Warp’s new reissues of the two albums, alongside EPs and singles from the era and a generous wealth of previously-unreleased bonus tracks, this undersung period stands poised to be rediscovered and cherished by new generations.
Some history: when Seefeel debuted with a series of EPs and the full-length album Quique in 1993, the group was often categorized as a kind of experimental shoegaze band. Lush guitar beds were frequently present, and vocals were often blurred to texture. Loops and electronic manipulation were also common, with a clear influence coming simultaneously from electronic music.
In 1994, Seefeel debuted a very different sound with the “Fracture” / “Tied” single. More sparse, spacey, and bassy, the single represented a shift in sound, and in label, as the band had just signed to Warp Records. At the time – years before successes like Grizzly Bear and Battles – much was made of Seefeel being the first guitar band signed to Warp, a label then known for having championed bleep n’ bass and the then still-nascent “IDM” sound. Here was a four-piece band with actual roles – Mark Clifford (guitar & electronics), Sarah Peacock (vocals & guitar), Daren Seymour (bass) and Justin Fletcher (drums) – though many songs such as the ambient wash-outs “Meol” and “Utreat” sounded closer to the unsettling atmospheres of labelmates like Aphex Twin and Mira Calix.
Seefeel’s Warp years were fruitful, with their second album, 1995’s Succour, remaining a high-mark in beat-based music with ambient textures and mysterious (or sometimes mystical) presences and spaces. It’s not so far removed from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. II; in fact, Seefeel’s third album, the very minimal and ambient (Ch-Vox), originally appeared in 1996 on Richard D. James and Grant Wilson-Claridge’s since-shuttered label Rephlex.
Following the release of (Ch-Vox), Seefeel entered a decade-long hiatus, before re-emerging in 2007, releasing a third album, Seefeel, in 2010, and touring on and off since. Since Seefeel ended its hiatus in 2007, Mark and Sarah have formed the core of the band, with Kazuhisa Iida (drums) and Shigeru Ishihara aka DJ Scotch Egg (bass) rounding out Seefeel mk. 2.
With the new reissues, new music in the works, and a new world for musicians, Mark Clifford and Sarah Peacock had lots to talk about (with some friendly occasional chatter from Sarah’s parrot), from their homes in Brighton and London, respectively.
Interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow
Mark and Sarah in conversation
David: I’ve read elsewhere that you’ve both talked about how Succour had a very different reception to Quique. It’s a bit more stripped-back and minimal — and darker in points. The guitar is less clear. What’s the journey been like from the initial reception to this really gorgeous set of reissues? Does it seem like it’s built up over the years?
Mark Clifford: Yeah, I think it’s probably appreciated more now because I think that a lot of that type of music has bled into more mainstream music as well. I often wonder if we hadn’t done Quique before – if Succour was our first album – whether it would have been interpreted differently? Whether it was because people wanted something like Quique again, which made Succour seem even bleaker. I don’t know what people would have made of it as the first record. It probably was a bit of a shock for those who had bought Quique in the first place.
Succour sounds more layered and edited. You can hear the work of samplers and electronic manipulation more, while Quique sounds more like a “band” record.
Sarah Peacock: Yeah, literally! Quite a lot of Quique was written in the rehearsal room when we were rehearsing for live gigs, and Succour was pretty much built up from having a studio setup at home [Mark and Sarah were roommates during the making of Succour]. There were tracks on Quique that were made in a similar way – sequenced up and made in the studio – but Succour was pretty much all done in the studio, whether it was at home or at September Sound.
Mark: A lot of the tracks started as simple ideas and then they were developed; for example, “Plainsong” developed over quite a long time, playing live and rehearsing, whereas Succour was definitely a studio album. None of the tracks were played live before the record, as far as I can remember – maybe “Vex” was? – but it was definitely a studio record.
It’s interesting, what you say about guitars, because really there’s just as much guitar on Succour as there was on Quique. In terms of layers, there’s probably more guitar on Succour.
Sarah: It’s just not always identifiable as guitar.
When I hear some of the ambient tracks like “Meol”, I wonder – is that guitar? Is it a synthesizer?
Sarah: There’s not a single synth on the whole record.
Mark: No synths on Succour.
Sarah: There is a synth on Quique, on “Through You”. Otherwise Quique is also all guitar.
Sarah: But no keyboards on Succour.
Interesting – I always pictured “Extract” being a guitar in a sampler, the way that it’s played. Was that a loop that you recorded, then?
Mark: Yeah, that was a loop. I remember sitting on the floor at September Sound, doing that track. That sequence is basically the majority of the track, that and the vocal. There are some other slight overdubs with guitar, but it’s a very simple track, “Extract”.
The bass on “Extract” is gorgeous. There’s a lot of deep bass, thinking of a track like “Starethrough”, and a lot of immersing and enveloping sounds and spaces. Compared to Quique, Succour and the EPs seemed more weighted towards the bass sounds.
Mark: Yeah, Succour is definitely a heavier album. Again, there was no manifesto when we went in to record these records. There was no sense of, “this record’s got to have heavy drums, or it needs to be darker,” it’s just the way it happened.
Sarah: I think the way the guitars are, it feels like there’s more space. So the bass cuts through more, and it becomes more of an element that you notice. Whereas when it’s buried more in layered sounds, it’s not always so apparent.
Mark: When we did Quique and the early records, we’d just been signed, and we were going to lots of clubs and all-nighters and stuff. It was a different atmosphere. By the time we came to do Succour, we’d been playing a lot. I know it’s a cliché that you’ve been touring a lot, but it definitely had an impact on us as people.
You weren’t partying as much.
Sarah: We weren’t having so much fun together as people [laughs].
Mark: It wasn’t like we were fighting in the studio or anything like that, but it wasn’t this feeling of, “we’re living the dream” any more.
Sarah: After so many years of doing everything together, it’s bound to get a little bit fractious. That was the time for us, we just weren’t getting on so well.
When Quique comes up, you’re often lumped in with shoegaze at the time, because of the beds of guitars, but there’s a lot more space in these songs. Something I also found about this reissue period: this seems like really good headphone listening.
Mark: I can’t say that we were trying to make an album for headphones, particularly, but I think it’s probably that there’s more detail. Maybe also because the sound is slightly more claustrophobic, maybe it works in a more personal environment than Quique does. It’s difficult to say because obviously, I don’t hear it in the same way that someone else hears it.
Sarah: When you’re making music, your own perception of it is all you’ve got, really. You don’t really have any ambitions for it other than getting it to sound as good as it can to yourself.
Speaking of seeing the songs differently, one of the benefits of the mastering process is that you get someone who can see the track as a whole, while you see it as the parts. How did you come to work with Stefan Betke for remastering these albums and the bonus material?
Mark: In terms of Stefan, I already know him and his music, so in many ways, I just left him to it. I sent him some vague notes about certain tracks, but I trusted his ear about how he would master the record. He has a very good ear for sound, which made him a good person to master the reissues.
Do you have any opinion on formats for these albums? Are they better in a digital vs. analog listening format?
Mark: Personally, I’m not anti- any format. I still like vinyl, because that’s where I come from personally. If I had to order them, I’d probably put CD last, because I’m not a fan of the way they look aesthetically. Primarily, I’d always want a record to come out on vinyl. I can’t imagine just doing a CD and digital release, for example.
The whole argument about whether music sounds better on vinyl – I don’t know how much of that is true or how much of it is a fallacy. I don’t know, really – it seems to me that it sounds better on vinyl, somehow, but I’m not sure whether that’s just the experience of picking up the disc and putting the needle on, which is different to putting a CD in a tray.
When you were working on this record, in the mid-90s, the music technology landscape was changing significantly. What technology were you working with in your home studio? Was it tape, samplers, early software?
Mark: The setup for Quique was like a Tascam 4-track, but ultimately everything got dumped on to 24-track when we went into the studio. So the main difference on Succour was that we had the digital 8-track and samplers, so we didn’t need to then use a 24-track machine. Everything was basically recorded using the sampler and the ADAT, and synced together using tape striping for timecode.
Sarah, in your interview with Chal Ravens in the Wire, I read that Cocteau Twins were also working in September Sound while you were there. What changed in from the home studio to September Sound for Succour? Did you bring in more musicians? Was it a better way to mix things?
Sarah: Yeah, it was definitely a way to better mix things. For instance, they had some proper microphones, so we could do better quality vocals. For example, “Ruby-Ha”, the vocals were recorded at September Sound, whereas the vocals on “Extract” were done at home. At home, we had an SM-58, not a studio-quality vocal microphone.
We didn’t use any other musicians in the studio. There were technical people there, and we used to pick their brains – Mitsuo [Tate] and Lincoln [Fong], who sort of worked in the studio full-time for the Cocteaus. They were there to help out with any problems that we had, but it was all played by us.
Mark: There were two studios at September Sound. The main studio one, the 24-track studio, we didn’t use that studio. We used studio two, which was more of what you’d call a “MIDI room” today. It didn’t have a big console, but it was well sound-proofed and it had a nice sound in there. We didn’t use tape machines or mixing desks at the studio – we basically brought our own stuff with us, and just used the space more than anything.
Some of the percussion sounds have a really primal level, and a very interesting resonance — tracks like “Gatha” and “When Face Was Face”. Was there anything unusual that you recorded to get those percussion sounds?
Mark: Not especially. I can’t remember where a lot of them came from. Most of the sounds were either sampled by us or came from sample discs. But the sounds were messed around, and the ASR-10 especially had some really nice effects on it. For example, on “Fracture”, much of the sound comes from the ASR-10 rotary speaker effect, with a slight distortion on it as well. It’s the same on “When Face Was Face”, the kind of chiming, clangy percussion sound.
Sarah: I remember that as being a Gamelan sample, so that was probably from a sample disc, but manipulated a lot from its original state.
Mark: A lot of those sounds were pitch-shifted to start with to give them a slightly different timbre, then adding some slight distortion or really dirty reverb, to make it sit better in the mix compared to the guitars and the vocals and the bass.
As you ask these questions, I’m really trying to remember!
Sarah: A long time ago!
There aren’t a lot of decipherable words on Succour. In the past I’ve spoken to Alis, who often writes songs with indecipherable vocals because of how they’re layered, but they start out with words. Did the vocals mainly start as words or as vocalizations?
Sarah: A bit of both, really. They’re mainly improvised on the spot, so I certainly didn’t go away and work on them before I went and sang them on to tape. I never used to do that much, but there’s a few exceptions. “Charlotte’s Mouth”, from Quique, I had the instrumental version on a tape, and constructed the vocals with lyrics in a more conventional way.
There are words, but I’m singing them in such a vague way that I don’t want them to be understood as words. [laughs]
How have you found that the pandemic has affected working on music?
Mark: I don’t know if I’d say personally that I’ve done more, or if it’s coincidental that in the last year I can say that I’m more comfortable with the music that I’m making. I don’t know whether that comes from external factors, that you start to appreciate things more, and it changes how you see and hear things.
I wouldn’t want to release an album and say “this is the lockdown album,” because that would not be true. The music progresses constantly over time. I guess for musicians like me, it doesn’t really change things as much.
Sarah: We can go years without doing any live gigs, and we have done. Some years we’ll do loads, and other years we won’t do any. In that sense, missing the live stuff, it’s nothing unusual for us, really. Like a lot of musicians who had to cancel everything because they were going off on a world tour – that must be horrible. All the people that you employ, all the tech staff and people that work with you, out of work as well.
For my day job, I work at a venue in London. It’s been closed now, for well over a year. That’s been pretty difficult – a lot of people got laid off.
Mark: We got really lucky in terms of playing our live shows. We did our London show in October 2019, and then we did our US tour in November, and then the last show we did was Sonar in Istanbul in mid-March 2020. Lockdown happened about a week after we got back from that, so we managed to get all our live shows in.
One last question – I’ve heard that “When Face Was Face” was named after something overheard in a club bathroom. What’s the story there?
Sarah: Yeah! It was a girl talking about somebody she knew who’d gotten a facial tattoo. She was obviously not a native English speaker, and she something like, “no, I liked when face was face.” [laughs]