Boasting gigs with the likes of The Raveonettes, The Ponys, Snow Patrol, Amusement Parks On Fire, Electrelane and an appearance at T in the Park, Scottish underground heroes Ursula Minor have crafted a sound that is their trademark; dark, thrilling, and utterly unique.
Exploring similar territory as the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3, they create beauty through white noise and find precise patterns in chaos. The release of their debut ‘Laudanum’ will introduce a new audience to their world of reverb, where Neu! always program the percussion, Stockhausen picked up a guitar, and Raw Power-era Stooges were producers. I caught up with members Scott Cain (bass), Ross Galloway (synths/machines), Mark Millar (vocals) and Mark Russell (guitars/synths) ahead of the release in April.
Is it fair to say that guys have been in Glasgow music scene (on/off) for a number of years now? What’s took you so long to get the material together – line-up changes, what?
MM: There’s a few reasons I think, one of them being that we devoted a lot of our time to playing live. We sort of went our separate ways for a while too, which took the momentum off things, and then the rest of them started playing with some other guys. Sheer jealousy brought me back…’that’s my band!’ kinda thing.
RG: Its fair to say there have been a few line up changes, but the source and core of the band has always been there.
MR: It’s taken a while to get recordings that we were happy with. Trying to get a producer/engineer to do what you want is far more difficult than you would think. I think we were a bit gun-shy after several fairly disastrous early recordings when we came away with tunes that sounded nothing like what we wanted. Mostly we’re just lazy though. We could have done all this years ago.
How did things originally come together?
MM: Me, Ross and Mark Russell have pretty much been in a band together since we were 18 or something, albeit in different forms from what we are now.
RG: Three of us were in a band previously, which had more of a basic/standard set-up (guitar, bass, drums). We got Ursula Minor together through our more diverse influences, and wanted to create a more original, even electronic based sound.
MR: The line up has changed several times. A second guitar player has come and gone. We worked with the electro punk band Hors La Loi! for about a year when Millar left. There’s the original 4 of us now, it’s probably what we should have stuck to from the beginning. Definitely the best sounding line up we’ve had.
The name Ursula Minor strikes me as being quite dark, peculiar even – what does the name mean and who came up with it?
MM: I think Mark (Russell) came up with it actually. For us, it was the first time someone had suggested something that when you first heard it, you thought, ‘actually, that’s alright that’.
RG: Ursula Minor is a dodgy pun. Ursula being a girls name, Ursa Minor being a star constellation. It looked ok in print, and made us sound like some 70's krautrock band.
MR: Yeah, it was just a bit of word play on Ursa Minor. I’d like to say it was something more interesting, but it isn’t. I thought it was quite an apt name for a space rock band, which is what we were before. The name just stuck after that.
The sound of Ursula Minor (in the new EP) obviously evokes things like My Bloody Valentine mixed with electronica (a bit of Broadcast perhaps?) – in the years that the band has been evolving, explain how your influences and sound has changed
RG: We started with quite primitive electronic/8bit sounds; like using an Atari ST for backing tracks and samples. I suppose it was more dance/electronic seven years ago and reflected a lot of music back then. We've got into more guitar led alternative stuff over the years like Yo La Tengo, but its all pretty diverse now. One idea might sound more primal and Suicide-esque, the next more cinematic, the next an electronic krautrock epic and always with considerable “heaviness”.
MR: I don’t think the sound of the band has changed that significantly since we started. I like to think we’re just better at it these days. The influences are pretty much the same as before. We did get rid of our Atari ST that used to play backing tracks and samples and never got round to replacing it. Can’t really say I miss it that much, it was more of a hassle than anything else. Since we stopped using it the music became more open to improvise on, as it wasn’t restricted by a set backing track.
RG: Shoegazing bands have always been a common influence. We like the wall-of-noise aspect, especially live.
On some of the tracks you choose to leave out the vocalist Mark Millar, what’s the reasoning behind this – what’s the process in deciding how many/ what tracks should have vocals and what ones should not?
MM: I don’t think it’s the case of leaving the vocals out really, it’s just that sometimes when we record the music for a track it sounds finished, and doesn’t need any vocal melody to lift or guide it. There’s a lot going on with the guitars and electronics, and sometimes the conversation they have with each other in a song is enough.
RG: Its just depends on the vocal idea and who comes up with it. The vocal on Sick Fuzz just suited me and Mark (Russell) better. Mark (Millar) definitely has a more potent deeper lyrical style, very Ian McCulloch/gothic at times, and a better singer to boot. Sick Fuzz sounded like Spacemen 3, hence the monosyllabic/druggy vocal.
MR: We don’t really try to write tunes to a vocal/non vocal quota. It’s whatever fits really. Some tunes need singing in them and some don’t. The instrumental tracks on this release are mostly in one chord, I think that makes vocals on them a bit more difficult, but it’s not to say we would try it in future.
The EP ‘Laudanum’ is out April 7th this year – Tell me a bit about the making of the record and how it was conceived.
MM: We recorded the tracks at 4th Street studios, a great little place owned and operated by fellow Glasgow band, Galchen. The tracks themselves were conceived through our regular rehearsals in their practice space. We usually jam ideas for a while until a coherent song structure starts to emerge.
RG: A few of the tunes had been kicking around for months/years as unfinished ideas and the strongest ones survived and evolved into complete songs. Our songs are quite simple, even infantile in structure but that suits the sound, as we've never been into virtuosity of any kind.
How does a band like Ursula Minor judge success – i.e. with the release of this LP, what will define a ‘successful’ release for you – is that different within the band?
RG: We're happy if more people than just ourselves can enjoy it.
Did you know that ‘Laudanum’ is a type of drug, long-time associated with the likes of Charles Dickens, John Keats and Edgar Allen Poe (god bless Wikipedia) – was there any particular reason you named the EP after it?
MM: Yes, I’ve never tried it myself, but it was one of the cheapest and most popular drugs in Victorian Britain. I’m sure its due a bit of a renaissance sometime. Laudanum takes up half the record. It won by majority.
What’s your drug of choice?
MR: What sort of set up is this?
MM: This is a loaded question here…I certainly don’t think we don’t do anything that normal people our age do up and down the country do every weekend, so I’d be careful about becoming a druggy band, you know? I mean, we’re not some Pete Doherty types injecting cats and unconscious party goers with smack.
SC: Do we have to answer this? Right, Laudanum then.
How do you go about creating the bands sound? (Gear wise)?
RG: The band has always had a simple electronic background. I use drum machines and a mixture of analogue and new synths to create my sound. Never glitchy or over complicated. Bands like Neu! and The Velvet Underground have always been an influence rhythmically. Mark uses two old Korg effects boards to create his massive sound.
What’s the situation regarding a full-length debut album? – Is there more material being worked on is this something on your minds?
RG: An album is definitely coming as there are more new ideas than ever. It’s beginning to sound a lot tighter, and we getting better as musicians now. I think we're more confident in our diversity of sound; we can tie it together easily and aren't scared to be compared to another band or style of music.
The bands inspiration – what is Ursula Minors main source of creativity? (Members, situations… what?)
SC: We’re not really the type of band who stand around talking about a situation or thing and write a song about it, it’s just in the studio making a noise and seeing what sounds good. Members I suppose, because we’ve had line-up changes in the past and it hasn’t worked,
MR: No idea. I don’t analyse things like that, I doubt anyone does. It just happens itself.
How do you see your place in the UK music scene, and where would you like to see yourself in the near future?
MR: Hopefully as part of a revival of kind of sounds of the guitar bands of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Maybe as an antidote to the type of music that is prevalent at the moment.
RG: There are plenty of bands in Britain right now with similar sounds and influences, maybe not in Glasgow. A lot of the bands who appreciate our style tend to be London based, or from the States. It can be frustrating not fitting into any sort of scene, as these things definitely can highlight your cause, but we're happy ploughing a lone furrow for just now.
Its been said that the band ‘needs to be seen live 1st’, buy the record later- How would you describe the live experience?
MM: Loud. I think live and on record, we’re the type of band that listeners get lost in, just with the whole noise-scapes and rhythms.
MR: To me, that’s just the opinion of the reviewer; I wouldn't let that stop you buying the record.
Ursula Minor ‘Laudanum’ is released on The Foreign Office in April.