How the Go! Team Puts the "I" in Team with 'The Scene Between'
Ian Parton, leader of the Go! Team, weighs the maturation and development of his crazed wall-of-sound schoolyard aesthetic on new album The Scene Between.
Growing up, when my mom had to work nights, I would often fall asleep with the TV on. As I stayed up later and later, I noticed a regularly occurring phenomenon: around 3AM, unless the station had a wealth of corporate sponsors, late night infomercials would just succumb to static. Simple, pure snowfall would fill the 15" screen where Ron Popeil had stood seconds before. It was cognitively and aurally jarring, but after a while the white noise becomes comforting.
Listening to the Go! Team's newest album, The Scene Between, is analogous to experiencing that shift in programming. No longer interested in being categorized by keywords like "girl-shouting", "trumpet-squealing", and "double dutch blaxploitation", The Scene Between certainly represents a change in intention for Ian Parton, the English collective's leader and mastermind. The new album's marketing materials use grittier touchstones, nodding even more deeply to a time lived in analog: "faxing a car alarm", "a Morse code pep talk", "station wagon-core".
With 2004's Thunder, Lightning, Strike, Parton quickly made an indelible mark on indie music. Whether you thought his aesthetic was gimmicky or brilliant, there was no denying that the Go! Team perfectly represented the synthesis of bubblegum pop and heavy electronica that dominated the first years of the new millennium. Living somewhere between a little tongue in cheek and a lot in the red, Thunder, Lightning, Strike brought something new to the table and topped most critic's end-of-year lists.
From there, Parton went on to build out his sound (by choice or by force of copyright laws), relying less and less on samples to provide the fulcrum of his compositions. 2007's Proof of Youth began the shift and 2011's Rolling Blackouts tried to carry it home. By then, however, the gas tank of Parton's project turned behemoth was approaching 'E' and there was talk of hanging up the Go! Team for good. The band toured in full-force through 2012. Then, silence until now.
Though this isn't a record review, I will say that The Scene Between reintroduces The Go! Team well. Much of the album achieves Parton's post-Thunder, Lightning, Strike songwriting goals, focusing on building music through melody and coloring his approach with a personal taste for distortion. The Scene Between could have easily been an exercise in retreading their definitions. Instead, Parton has found new ways to present his sonic proclivities.
Parton met with PopMatters to explain the workflow and tenets of his aesthetic, revealing the balance of darkness and light of the his new album.
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The thing that has always struck me about your albums is how grand they sound: there's a richness and depth to the final product. In the press materials for The Scene Between, there's a lot about how you return to this idea of "roots" by writing and performing and producing all the songs yourself. How have things changed for you, for your workflow, over the last four years? How has this massive sound with even less reliance on samples come into fruition?
No massive changes in the way of working, actually. I wrote the songs and found the samples always, really. I don't think anyone else had the patience to sit in front of a computer and tracking this shit down [laughs]. And I think the reason the songs sound so dense is because I never write a song in a sitting: it's always hoarding ideas, you know, thousands and thousands of things. And I try and remember bits and put them in the "greatest hits" pile and try things next to each other. I'll grab a chorus that's five years old and put it next to something I did yesterday. At the same time, I'm always torn about making things too poptastic. I always want to fuck it up some way. I'm definitely torn, sometimes. Half of me wants to record a classic pop song.
Well, your production has such a precise aesthetic. I feel like that's something you've been militant about maintaining since Thunder, Lightning, Strike. Does The Scene Between feel like it's an extension of your original impulses, like you've been chasing this sound down and this is the way you've always wanted it to be? Or does that evolve over time?
For me, sometimes I think songs [I've made] aren't Go! Team-y at all. And I thought that people might be surprised with this record, that it might not sound as Go! Team-y that they might think it would. I guess since I'm close to it I won't really recognize there's something that flows through it, which is just me, I guess. And I kind of love that about music, the way it's almost like a fingerprint. The melody choices you make, and the aesthetic.
I'm definitely obsessed with a particular kind of melody, [one that has] a curviness in it. A cleanness to the vocals and a particular kind of voice, sort of bordering on amateurish, in a way. Having a personality to them and double tracking, things like that. For me, this album is a million miles away from Thunder, Lightning, Strike. There's songs on here I would have never written [back] then. But people will always, no matter what the Go! Team do, they seem to say it's more of the same. [laughs] Whenever somebody says that, I sort of think "well, show me someone else who's doing that type of thing."
This album is picking up where Rolling Blackouts and "Ready to Go Steady" left off. One thing I knew I didn't want to do was kind of loop wicked samples and rap on top of it and call it a song. I think I wanted it to be clear of trumpets and sirens and things that people would've thought were the Go! Team "sound". I wanted to push the idea of what it was and make it harder, basically. For me, catchiness is a lot harder than just tacking a rap on something. Not catchiness in the Hit Parade sort of way, [but] just making a song worth existing, I suppose. That's what I'm trying to do. I don't want to add music to the world where it doesn't need to be there. There's too much music in the world for that.
I was really struck by the differences of this album: it's more traditionally pop driven, but there's always a fucked up kind of tanginess that is still really prevalent. The soda fizz that starts the first track ("What D'You Say?") is so opposite to where the album goes. It sets a strange precedent, because we assume the whole album will be positive and poppy. But then the "Gaffa Tape Bikini" and "Floating Felt Tip" interludes are so dark and grimy.
[laughs] I love interludes and I'd happily do an album of interludes. In fact, I'm doing a companion to the album called Between The Scene Between, which is like a cassette following that's basically an album chopped up of my best samples and the samples behind the record. I've been interested in this idea of channel-hopping and I guess it's a bit like that [with the interludes]. I'm interested in things being simultaneously nice and nasty. The idea of distorting things ... there's a song on the record called "The Art of Getting By", which is quite triumphant and opposite. It's been described as "space gospel", which could be a whole new genre [laughs]. But I had the idea of making a song about the Heaven's Gate cult: they thought they were going to ascend up to a spaceship that was following a comet and all committed suicide. So "The Art of Getting By" was to imagine from their point of view, to imagine this being their anthem as they were transitioning upwards. So, I kind of like the idea of a song being seemingly nice but also having another edge to it as well.
It's very haunting. There are these dark moments that balance the light poppiness very well. You mentioned being more melody-driven; I've always felt like you had an incredible mastery of melody, even when the music was more sample-based. One of my favorite tracks from Thunder, Lightning, Strike was "We Just Won't Be Defeated", which wasn't on the original release. And I was surprised by that, because that's the song that defines that album for me: the use of the samples to create melody. So to me, melody has always been a clear strength of yours.
I think it has, but I don't think people have particularly noticed it. There's always other things to talk about. I think a Go! Team review will often wind up like a list of things: hey, double dutch; hey, Bollywood; hey, car chases. You know what I mean?
Absolutely. Where are the samples are most integral to The Scene Between?
No song is dependent on them; they're treated as an instrument. Like, "Blowtorch" was written as a straightforward acoustic thing and I went through my geeky Pro Tools session where I had separated all my samples into chords. except I don't even know the names of the chords, so I call them all sorts of things like "1 minor" or "2 major". [laughs] And so I built the song out of different chords from different places and it wound up being pretty strange.
Nothing you'd particularly notice, because I'm just sampling guitars and stuff, but I think it does have to be the onslaught of the song: the layering, layering, layering of stuff. There are sections of songs as well, that certainly go one way in one section and then completely different instruments in another. The channel-hopping idea, again.
There's something about the duality of the Go! Team that's always struck me. There's you on your own, as a solo artist creating autonomously with a catalog of samples. Then there's this other side, the beast that is the live band: an army that helps bring these schizo sounds outside of your head. You've made a strange paradise where you can create the sounds you want for over a decade now. Was there any point, with all the changes of the last four years, when you were like "Fuck it, this project is done!" Or is it because you're the start and end point just a matter of continuing under the moniker?
I did flirt with the idea of going under different names. In fact, I went back and forth maybe four or five times. I mean, I will keep doing music somehow, just because I think I've got a lot more to do and there are areas of music that haven't been touched, really. So for me, it's kind of a never-ending quest, in a way. But I don't know if I've ever thought about packing it in. I've definitely thought about not using the Go! Team name, but ultimately, that is ... me, I guess. I was the one that started it, so it's not a big departure. I don't know where it's going to go from here.
There are a lot of references on the album to being in a transitional state. Your song titles are telling: two tracks are questions, others include phrases like "rebound", "floating", "waking", "getting by". All of that is indicative of living in the grey; not being done or beginning, but on the path. Even the name of the album is liminal. What is the overall theme of the album for you?
I think in more feeling than themes, I suppose. [When recording,] I was imagining things that you can never quite put into words, but are always there. Things like the color pink. The West Coast of America keeps popping up, though I'm English. It's a weird one.
I've bought into the California myth. There's a particular band that only ever had to make one song called K-Tel Wet Dream, and they did this cover of "Born to be Wild" and that's almost the imprint for what I want to be like, in a way. The idea of a kind of four-track, fucked up, curvy vocals and kind of simultaneously cute and nasty thing. I guess it's all things like that: it's pink, it's theme parks, it's Johnny Brown. It's more things like that. Journeys. I think of it in those sort of ways than "it's about this."
I mean, lots of the songs are about things more than any other record, I think. "Her Last Wave" is about a surfer who died at sea. "Reason Left to Destroy" is kind of based on the Hitchcock film The Birds, the idea of somebody bringing trouble to a small town. The idea of someone being cursed, in a way. "Did You Know" is about calling someone up and confessing things. So the songs are more about things than slogans. The last records were quite slogan-y and nonsensical, in a way. This album is sort of more about stuff.
Which side do you feel you create from? When you're in the process, are you much more in tune with your feelings and is that where the sound comes from as you do this collage?
It's really about playing things back and [seeing] when they jump out at you. I like this idea of getting something down and months later, it almost being like it's not you anymore. Like an out of body experience. And you try and get to the bottom of what the song wants, match up the right voice with it and use the lyrics to kind of put images in your mind. I guess the idea of starting off with the fizzy drink is kind of to put an image in your mind. To use sound effects to put pictures in your head.
Is there any kind of ethos that you adhere to when sample?
Well, I'm looking for something about the production that you can't replicate. Something about the recording that you can't quite figure out what's going on, those are the best samples. When you can't, in a million years, replicate it.
Splash image: press photo from The Go! Team Facebook page