Urusei Yatsura
Photo: Andy Willsher / Rocket Girl

We Are Urusei Yatsura: The Oral History

Scottish indie rockers Urusei Yatsura describe their rise from local heroes to John Peel favorites and a debut album setting their ramshackle and delightful vision in sound.

We Are Urusei Yatsura
Urusei Yatsura
6 May 1996
Ché Trading Records

This spring saw the re-release of classic indie rock/noise pop album We Are Urusei Yatsura by Urusei Yatsura, including a comprehensive oral history zine documenting the band’s lo-fi journey from 1993 to 2001. In this exclusive extract for PopMatters, Urusei Yatsura describe their rise from local heroes to John Peel favourites, to a professional band with a first album setting forth their ramshackle and delightful vision in sound.

Ian Graham (Drums): In Glasgow, the world we moved in musically, everybody was very supportive. There was a big clique of musicians who played the 13th Note, then Alex Kapranos would organise a night at King Tuts, and we’d all go do it, then someone would invite us to play somewhere else, and we’d go play with them, or we’d invite them, and they would come play with us. Everybody supported everybody, and you built that rapport. There were a lot of venues of just about the right size that you could get people to come down. It was a very open city back then, a good time to be playing music because there were actually opportunities to play. No one ever said that a band had ‘the Glasgow sound’, there were lots of bands coming from Glasgow, but it was multifaceted, and there were so many different styles.

Elaine Graham (Bass): We were getting played on Radio Scotland quite early on, there were a couple of shows like Beat Patrol, and they were giving us good support. So we were being contacted by promoters around Scotland in places like Dundee and Edinburgh. A lot of it was other bands getting in touch, and we would do gig swaps with them, we’d go play somewhere, then we’d put them on here — so there was a Scottish circuit.

Ian: Things evolved. Sound in the City started: BBC Radio 1 went around to cities and promoted the music scenes, so they were in Glasgow, and that’s when John Peel came down to see us. There was a joke at one point about “is there something in the water?” because there were so many bands coming out of Glasgow. I think that Sound in the City thing must have helped it, having a spotlight so people noticed what was going on. We weren’t aware John Peel was coming down, Alex had written to him, then we had to delay and delay because they were late, but we didn’t know why we were delaying. That was a big deal, the fact that John Peel showed up! That was how we got the first Peel session not long after.

Graham Kemp (Guitar/Vocals): Alex had gotten in touch with him and invited him over, but we were on stage and had done most of our set when Alex said to us, “he won’t be here for another 15 minutes, so just go off stage then come back on just as he’s coming in.” When he came in, we went on and did a couple of songs, one of which was ‘Road Song’. John came up to us after we’d finished and said it sounded really good and that he needed to get us to do a session.

Ian: Because we didn’t have anything, we did the recording in Cava in Glasgow. We’d been invited to Maida Vale, but we didn’t have any equipment, and we didn’t have any way to get down there. It was almost like, “thank you very much…We’re declining.” It was like our dream thing, being on Radio One, but we had to say, “I’m sorry, but we cannae do it!” Thankfully that was ironed out.

Elaine: The lack of money was a big thing for us back then with the economy the way that it was, and we were all just out of uni. Just to get invited to do a Peel session was amazing. The fact that John Peel arranged for us to record in Glasgow was a big thing for us and — in retrospect — still is, that they didn’t just tell us that their usual approach was that we had to come down to Maida Vale or we weren’t going on. But they saw something that meant it was worth thinking outside the box and making a special arrangement for us.

Urusei Yatsura
Photo: DAISKE / Rocket Girl

Graham: We’d gone into this little studio in Maryhill a couple of times, and the guy from Hipster got in touch with us. I sent him a tape with a whole bunch of stuff, and he said he wanted to do something a bit bigger than a single, maybe six songs, so that’s why All Hail ended up as a maxi-single — the weirdest format possible for a first release.

Ian: All Hail happened after the Peel Session, we got contacted by Duncan Dinsdale saying he wanted to put a record out. If Duncan hadn’t gotten in touch we’d probably have put out a record another way, but we were just lucky we kept getting these phone calls. The guy who recorded us up in Maryhill, I don’t think he wanted to use his real name because it wasn’t his sort of thing. We said we wanted to put feedback on “Road Song”, and he said no, we couldn’t. Our first time in a recording studio, and someone was telling us we couldn’t do it! Still, John Peel liked that record too, and so Ché got involved and wanted to put out a proper album.

Graham: Me and Fergus were, nominally, at university, so you could sort of disappear, no one made us go to classes, so we could really squander our education! Fergus might have been on the dole, but so long as you were there for your signing-on date there were no more questions asked. Two years doing lots of gigs and coming up with a new set of songs every few weeks — it was all really fast. After All Hail, I wrote letters to three or four record companies and sent them tapes asking if they were interested — Ché were the first ones who got back. We really liked them because of the 18th Dye album Steve Albini had produced, so we thought they were doing good things.

Elaine: Signing with Ché was the first input of any money into the band. It was a shambolic approach, we’d make it up as we went along, picking equipment up in charity shops. Because we’d come from a place of no money, we definitely felt you shouldn’t have to have top-of-the-range equipment just to make music — it shouldn’t be at the behest of anybody else. The energy to make music was more necessary than the equipment…

Ian: It wasn’t until we signed with Ché that we got our own backline, until then, I didn’t have a set of drums. The drums I recorded We Are with and that I kept all through Slain By, was a set of drums bought off a guy called John, who was on the music publishing side of Ché. Once we were with Ché, it was only then that Fergus could buy his Fender Twin, Graham could buy his Marshall and get his Trace Elliot amps, and I could get a drumkit.

Graham: Fergus had a RAT pedal, and I had a Boss distortion, and that was pretty much the range of effects we were using. We couldn’t fathom why bands had millions of pounds worth of equipment when we wouldn’t have known how to turn it on. It’s why we were focused on being so simplistic in our approach. All of my guitar sounds were basically a 1970s Woolworths starter guitar with the tone and volume turned up full, then stick it in a cabinet and make it sound nice.

Our first idea was to do everything ourselves: put our records out, promote our shows, set up gigs, do the fanzine… We did it to a limited extent, but we never turned into what Stereolab were doing. There was only so far we could go with that, especially as we didn’t have the connections or skill set. Glasgow is quite cut off from the music industry, everything really was in London, but by the time we were spending more time in London, we couldn’t really do much more in Glasgow. We were hardly ever there, so a lot of things fell by the wayside.

Elaine: The sad bit of any band is when you have to think of it as a business, it maybe brings in tension. A lot of the fun was stumbling between all these happy accidents, from one thing to the next. Recently I was listening to “Siamese’” and thinking: “why are Fergus and Graham singing different lyrics at the same time? That makes no sense!” But it made absolute sense at the time. It would eventually get knocked out of us, you’d want the lyrics to be heard, the tune to always be the same speed, always play the same thing each time. Once you realise that you’re going to be asking people for money — which you are as soon as you sign a contract — you need to deliver what they’re wanting to sell.

Graham: The first named writer is the person who came in with the lyrics or idea. It was a stumbling block, how to credit songs on records, but that’s what we came up with: whoever wrote most of the tunes or the lyrics would get the credit, then the rest would be split four ways because everyone made up their own parts. Either me or Fergus would come in with a near-complete song and teach it to everyone so that felt fair as a way to divvy everything up.

When we were putting the singles out in 1995 we were always saying, “what’s the best song we have right now?” Then we’d work out which songs we had as B-sides. So, we didn’t really plan for an album though I knew I wanted those singles on the record because it’s a document of something, who you are, where you are: We Are Urusei Yatsura, here we are.

Ian: The wheels started rolling to get We Are made. Because we’d already been recording in Cava and in this place in Maryhill, we would have been gunning — first off — for somewhere in Glasgow so we had somewhere to stay and could commute to the recording studio. Why Leamington Spa, John River’s place, Woodbine Studios, was picked, I think that came from the Ché side? Somebody had recorded there with John previously, so they had a working relationship. That gave Ché a sense of what the recording quality was and what the recording costs were. We weren’t music networkers, so if they suggested it we’d just be asking how long we had and about getting equipment there. We didn’t have an idea about producers, we didn’t know what a producer could bring to the table.

Elaine: We weren’t writing anything new or from scratch when we went into the studio for We Are — most things had been in our set for a good long while. I was surprised looking at the track listing today because there were songs I thought of as later songs that are on it. It amazes me that we did it in the time we had — we weren’t that intentional, so the idea of playing the same thing twice, on purpose, was new to us. It’s a testament to John Rivers that he was able to coral us to achieve this.

Graham: We were quite keen to be in the practice room a lot at the time, twice a week, three hours a time. It wasn’t a massive long time compared to some bands, but we’d been doing it regularly, so we’d worked up a lot of stuff over the preceding few years. All the singles leading up to the album, we’d pretty much been recording from our backlog of songs. We had the idea of recording an album that was basically our ideal set, something that had a good flow of songs that were different but sounded good together. We just didn’t want it to be a boring record! We didn’t have many quiet songs because we were just too energetic and annoying to write them. As it was almost like documenting a live set without being a live album there weren’t many down songs though a couple came close.

Ian: We stayed in Woodbine Studios, and that was probably another reason we went there: it was a bed and breakfast. We’d come downstairs into the basement, and that’s where the recording room was, so we’d play our bit and then go upstairs to watch Ren And Stimpy. It was a cozy place, I had a box room that was painted yellow. It was like a holiday cottage, and they’re always slightly weirdly set up because they’re fitting as many rooms in as possible. It was good fun, just the four of us and John Rivers left to our own devices. We had our set, the core of it, and that was what we recorded. We did rehearse a lot, and we were playing a lot as well, we had a work ethic, so when we got there we just set up and played it.

Urusei Yatsura
Photo: Rocket Girl

We would take John’s advice on recording, he’d done proper records and knew how it worked. That was just a case of “what are your ideas?” and he would enable us to record them. We preferred to play together, so it was never just a case of playing the drums by themselves. Coming from always playing live, a studio is a different way of doing things, going part by part, but I’d have been gunning to get everyone in with me for the backing tracks.

Graham: I’m not sure things massively changed from the rehearsal room, we were always trying to capture our ideal sound, so played pretty straight. The way the album was recorded, we all set up and played the song with a guide vocal then that was the music, and we overdubbed the vocals for separation then added any other bits and pieces to it. A lot of bands do it that way, but it seemed to make the most sense to us to get the right feel. John was very up for that. Obviously, getting a live vocal is really hard unless you’re going to get your guitarists in the control room and everyone else in their own sealed-off areas so we did the vocals later with everything else straight down onto tape apart from things like the coda to ‘Phasers On Stun’. For that, Ian put down a drumbeat, then I had a completely untuned guitar, jammed something along with it, and made up some lyrics, and built it up that way. It was because we had one-minute, five seconds of tape left, so we just played it until the tape came off the capstan. That’s one of the things I enjoyed the most, it delights me when something like that comes together.

Elaine: I think that until we recorded with John, none of us had ever heard our own playing because we were so loud that we had a sense of what was coming out but being in a professional studio for a bit of time meant we could each hear, “oh, I’m playing that, but I could change it to improve it…” Once you could hear it, you could have a bit more control over it. There’s a good collision in our output: a mixture of control but also the chaos and lack of control that really worked for us. Right from the early days we knew what we wanted to do, but going we don’t know how to do this so we’ll use whatever we can to get it — but it won’t ever be what we hear in our heads, we’re just going to go for it anyway. There was definitely something about accepting that and enjoying that, that’s what I learnt in the band.

Ian: John knew exactly what we were about and wanted to facilitate the recording. He was up for any stupid thing we wanted to try. He was subtly producing the record, it wasn’t a matter of changing the songs, it was more about how to get this recorded, how to shape the sound after it had been recorded. He would listen to what we wanted and try to make it that way. He was really good at the little things too, like: “don’t have a cup of tea if you want to do this vocal take, what you want to do is tea with lemon in it to sort your voice out.” He would take us into local pubs for lock-ins which was new to us, they don’t really do lock-ins in Scotland unless you work behind the bar — the police look quite dimly on that but it’s tolerated in small places in England.

Elaine: A lot of it was done live with overdubs and the vocals done later over a couple of days. That was relatively new to us — we’d not done it often before this. I think we recorded most things live, we wouldn’t have had the skill to do an individual part so the full backing track was done then possibly overdubs. A lot of time was spent on if someone had made a mistake and whether we could get away with it or if something needed to be done. The likelihood of us going in and playing it again with the same energy was low so if John could get us to get it together on a first or early take and if he could splice things to get us a full song, I think that was the approach we took. Finding out you had to master a record was a big surprise to us, these types of things; how to get artwork printed, learning as we go.

Graham: The last song written for the album was ‘Velvy Bood’ and everything else was something we’d been playing for at least a couple of gigs. The only thing we didn’t get on that we wanted to was ‘The Power Of Negative Thinking’ which we finished a little bit later and which became one of the B-sides of ‘Phasers On Stun’.

Ian: It was a really nice period because we really couldn’t believe we were doing it. Getting the opportunity to record these tunes, getting to stay in the place too, it was all a dream come true. Looking at the track listing, that was pretty much our set, plus we had a few B-sides. ‘Plastic Ashtray’ and ‘Siamese’, they each had three or four songs on the singles. That drum machine on ‘Burriko Girl’ was a kids toy, it looked like a wee boombox, and Graham played it.

Urusei Yatsura
Photo: DAISKE / Rocket Girl

Graham: The last word on the record was a Talking Tina doll saying “I love it.” It couldn’t have worked out better! Later on, when we were going abroad, our guitar cases were always full of ray guns and Barbie dolls, we always had stuff like that so we’d get questioned when we went through the x-ray machines. We’d play them by holding them up to the pickup and running them through the distortion pedal into the amp — lo-fi. Ian came up with this little walkie-talkie with a speaker, you can see on the cover of We Are. It was this thing he had on his bike as a kid but when you shout through it you get this walkie-talkie noise and through the pickup and distortion pedal it sounded even more messed up. We’d do all that on stage for a laugh. Some people were taking rock ‘n’ roll far too seriously while we had that wry sense of amusement.

I remember me and Fergus stayed down to finish things off, then Ian and Elaine came back down from Scotland to get us to do a gig in London. Alex Kapranos drove down to pick us up but it was one of the worst snow storms ever so they came in white and shaken while we were sat drinking lemon tea. These guys had the most horrendous journey!

Elaine: By the time the album was coming out and we were doing our first tours, it was like the album launch was happening somewhere else while the gigs were happening around us. We spent a lot of time in London that summer and quite a lot of time doing press stuff and photos. Graham was always very hands on with the artwork so he was dealing with that. We were all in each other’s pockets for a few years and wherever we were we’d be making band decisions.

Graham: My trips to London would involve wrapping myself in a sleeping bag and lying on top of a 4×12 cab, maybe swallowing a couple of Dramamine and a miniature bottle of whisky. It would take us about nine hours and we’d get in late to Vinita’s house in Snaresbrook. She’d put in the latest VHS she’d gotten from her mum with all The Simpsons episodes recorded, and we’d watch that and laugh ourselves into hysteria, then plan whatever we had to plan ready to do the gig the next night. Vinita was really good putting up with us staying in her front room — and her flatmate was too, god help her! Every night there’d be a new band in her front room. These people were so kind and helpful, beyond what they really should have been. It was such a good laugh hanging out with them.

Elaine: We were staying with Vinita Joshi from Ché and would hang out with the people who were part of the label. There were a lot of Glasgow and Scottish bands breaking out at the time so, even in London, we were as likely to be hanging out with The Delgados as anybody else. It felt like an unusual place to be but we were enjoying ourselves, enjoying the bands we were touring with — Backwater, Mogwai, Eska, Superstar Disco Club — all people we were really good friends with and all part of the same ‘non-scene.’

Graham: Around the time of We Are it really was like all our non-sexual dreams were coming true — it was just fun! Gigs were getting bigger, we’d meet the other bands around at the time, we toured with Mogwai — it was a laugh. A lot of the other Glasgow bands started touring too so we’d often take folk with us or meet them on the road.

Ian: The trajectory, we were just presented opportunities and took them. The general excitement, we got a thrill out of doing them. We never had ideals about being career musicians, it was about the joy we were getting from doing what we were doing and from each other’s company. Gaining the knowledge of how things worked and people were coming along and buying it — that was a really good vibe. I remember seeing the first copy of We Are on glitter vinyl, and it had the ‘geek rock’ temporary tattoo included. We were always thinking what we would enjoy owning as a record, or ways to make it different that we would find exciting. We weren’t coming from a marketing background “if people like this, they’ll buy that,” we were coming at it from the perspective of “that looks great! Let’s get that done!” We enjoyed it.

Elaine: We just built it into our armour because we were comfortable in this underdog punching up position. These journalists just kept referring to us as sounding like this or that, we just subsumed it into ourselves, made it a punchline or a catchphrase amongst ourselves. The idea of taking lots of influences and smashing them together was part and parcel of what we were doing whether it was Japanese imagery, things we’d seen, the American music we were loving but with that Scottish sensibility and underdog chippiness…You couldn’t get that combination unless we were there choosing to put it together. None of those bands did what we did: what we did was unique to us.

Urusei Yatsura

Republished with permission from “Urusei Yatsura: The Oral History”, Rocket Girl Records. March 2023.