Sounds Of Silence

24 March 2012 | 9:55 am | Doug Wallen

More Electrelane More Electrelane

Just two years ago you wouldn't have put money on seeing Electrelane anytime soon, let alone in Australia. The great English quartet went on hiatus for “the foreseeable future” at the end of 2007, capping off a decade together and four starkly unique albums. But early last year Electrelane resurfaced, confirming summer festival dates in the UK and Europe. While their future remains less than assured, thanks to members split between continents and the usual obligations of personal and professional life, a second-ever Aussie tour is something to cherish.

Before coming our way, Electrelane will have only played about a dozen shows in their second incarnation. While the band saw their share of roster changes since forming in 1998, the current line-up is the same as before the hiatus and solidified in 2004. That's singer/multi-instrumentalist Verity Susman (who has played everything from clarinet and sax to guitar and keyboards), guitarist Mia Clarke, bassist Ros Murray and drummer Emma Gaze. Talking by phone, Susman seems appreciative of the band's second lease on life, however fleeting.

“It seems that, having gone away, we got a warmer response,” she says. “It was more fun to play, because we weren't used to it and we missed it and we were playing for [some] people who had never seen us before. We got into a really good, happy atmosphere. We're in the nice position of playing songs from all our albums. Songs people know. It's not like when you go out and play new material.”

Formed in Brighton by Susman and Gaze, Electrelane released its mostly instrumental debut album Rock It To The Moon in 2001. Three years later came The Power Out, which featured singing in English, French, Spanish and German. Although their debut and Power were both recorded in Chicago with Steve Albini, 2005's Axes swung back to the more instrumental side of the band. Recorded between Berlin and Michigan, 2007's No Shouts, No Calls then shifted again, this time towards more vocal songs. But fans and critics alike stayed along for the ride.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

“I feel like every time we finished an album,” muses Susman, “we wanted to do something different. We got bored with what we'd been working on and playing live, and we wanted to change. So I'd put the first and the third albums together, and the second and the fourth. Each one was a reaction against the one that was done before. Rock It To The Moon and Axes are probably my favourite albums.” But aren't those the one where she sings least? “Yeah,” she confirms. “I used to consider myself primarily an instrumentalist. As a band, the instrumental stuff is where we all really connect and it's the most fun to play. I know other people think differently about that. But having made the first record and the third, I can understand why we wanted to do something completely different and challenge ourselves and experiment with more traditional song structures and lyrics.”

If there's a through line between the four albums, it's a clear-eyed sharpness of melody, a kosmische-worthy rhythm section and, yes, an instrumental interplay that was always the true constant. For all the beauty of Susman's singing – in whatever language – Electrelane seemed to wield vocals as one more instrument.

Between her vocals and that studied kosmische influence, it was all too easy to line up Electrelane with English acts such as Th' Faith Healers and Stereolab, who had also once been signed to the band's eventual label Too Pure. But if there was anything in common between the three, it was a burning interest in never doing what's expected. That said, “It was a great label to be on,” Susman recalls. “We definitely knew the heritage, and certainly that was important to us. It was nice to get an offer from them, and be on the same label that PJ Harvey had been on.”

There's no label involved with the band today, which is part of the reason the possibility of new songs and recordings looks a bit iffy. Coupled with the fact that Clarke lives in Chicago and Gaze in Los Angeles while the other two remain in England, not to mention all their day jobs, it's a tricky situation. “I think everybody would like to,” says Susman, “but whether it will happen I don't know.” They've talked about sharing music with each other online, and certainly doing another record together would mean “thinking about some of those ways”.

All four members have kept busy since Electrelane's first lifespan. Clarke is pursuing a degree in English and Psychology and works as editor of the classical and opera section for Time Out Chicago. Gaze was training as a scenic painter – she was responsible for most of the band's album art – but Susman says she might be working as a music supervisor now. Murray has just finished a PhD on the French surrealist Antonin Artad, and Susman's been working for the London children's charity Kids Company and working towards a masters in International Politics. And there have been assorted music projects in the wake of Electrelane – Trash Kit, Follows, Vera November, Ray Rumours – though none as high profile.

The decision to reform was easy enough: “We were all free in the summer and missed playing together,” she says. “We just decided to do that, with no real plans to do anything else. But then when the chance to come back to Australia came up, of course we wanted to do that.” Their previous tour here was in 2005, during which Susman recalls they crammed about four gigs into four days. This tour should give them more room to breathe, as well as put them in front of an audience that's learned about them in recent years through online word-of-mouth. “It seems that way,” agrees Susman, “from reading stuff that people put on our Facebook page and meeting people at gigs.”

Even as the 2006 collection Singles, B-Sides & Live confirmed the band's breadth as much as any of the four albums, it obviously also cemented a live portrait of Electrelane as well as documenting such unlikely cover choices as Bruce Springsteen's classic I'm On Fire and Roxy Music's somewhat cheesy More Than This. “We don't do More Than This anymore,” updates Susman. “We still play I'm On Fire. Last time we started playing a cover of Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy.”

So there's plenty to look forward to. “I think you get one chance to do a tour like that,” Susman concludes. “After that, you need to get some new material.”