published: 26 /
Dave Goodwin talks to Stuart Avis, the keyboardist and main songwriter in new Brighton-based band Servants of Science, about his band's debut album 'The Swan Song', which is a concept record about an astronaut witnessing the end of the world from outer space.
Stuart Avis is the brains behind the Brighton-based outfit Servants of Science whose debut album 'The Swan Song' came out in January. Heavily influenced by Pink Floyd, Sparks, Grandaddy, the Flaming Lips, Science Fiction/fantasy author Ray Bradbury and vintage horror film director Val Guest, Servants of Science are a proggy, electronic and occasionally noisy musical collaboration, involving as well as Stuart (keyboards), Andy Bay (guitar), Neil Beards (vocals, guitar), Helena DeLuca (vocals), Adam McKee (drums) and Ian Brocken (bass).
'The Swan Song' was largely recorded at Black Bunker Studios in Brighton, which Stuart has owned for the last five years. Formerly an underground Victorian toilet, the band rehearse in what was formally the gents' lavatory. The Bunker serves as Servants HQ and Stuart's main source of income as he hires it out to other bands, primarily as a rehearsal room but also as a recording studio.
We caught up with Stuart in a scarce quiet half hour at The Bunker whilst he was sitting in the ladies' toilets.
PB: Congratulations on a superb debut album. It has received all round good reviews, hasn’t it?
SA: I was amazed really, considering it was just two mates mucking about.
PB: Two mates mucking about? Really?
SA: Well I had a couple of keyboard ideas and I invited my friend Andy Bay down who I was in another band Guitar George with. He knows every guitar chord there is. So, I said, “Strike a few chords and make some sense of it,” and it all came from that really. It was just me and Andy playing around, and together we came up with the idea for the album from something which was only ever meant to be a laugh and us mucking about. Of course, it was good then to get Neil Beards from the Amber Herd and the others involved too.
PB: What was your first experience of music?
SA: Well, that would have been a Sparks track called 'A Big Surprise'. It came from their 'Introducing' album in 1970. They have been a massive part of my life since as far back as I can remember. My uncle is to this day still a big Sparks fan, and that is where I inherited that from, I guess. I remember in his car he had a little portable tape recorder because in those days they didn't fit cars with tape players, and he played ‘A Big Surprise’ on it, and he would get me to sing along to it and other Sparks numbers when I was probably about three years old.
Sparks were responsible for everything really. I first started buying records when I was very young. I bought my first record with my own money when I was five, and it was another Sparks record called 'When I'm With You' which came out after ‘The Number One Song in Heaven' in 1980. It did absolutely nothing here but went massive in France.
I am still a huge fan now, They have built this core fan base, and I went to five of gigs on their ‘Hippopotamus’ tour last year. You see so many of the same faces at Sparks’ gigs and it is like catching up with old mates. You can go on your own and bump into twenty or thirty people that you know!
PB: Did you study music at school or college?
SA: When I was about nine or ten, my nan had a piano in one of her rooms, which I was seldom allowed to use in case I damaged it and because of the racket I caused on it.
She had this beginner’s book for piano which was pretty basic, but which had songs in there by The Beatles and Abba and a few other standards like ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. I ended up sitting down with the book and within two days I had worked through it from one end to the other. I am not saying I did it well but I ploughed through it. I suppose that is when I started playing music to any kind of level.
I always wanted a synthesizer because I was into electronic music and Sparks and when I was ten I got my first one, which was a Yamaha PFS450. It was very much a starter keyboard with small size keys. You could play along to Samba or Mamba or Bossa Nova! You couldn't sit down and sound like Gary Numan with it but you could at least start working things out. It actually took a long time to learn because I was listening to people like Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode and all their music was sort of one-fingered and pretty basic. I was a bit late coming into chords really. I am still not that proficient with them now.
PB: You started recording the album in 2016, didn’t you?
SA: The first ideas were laid down in March 2016, and the main track recorded then was the last one on the album, 'Burning in the Cold'. It all started when I invited Andy Bay who I have known for more than twenty years now into the studio with me. As we were recording, he said, “Do you mind if I write a vocal for it?” and I said, “By all means.” I don't usually write lyrics. I have tried before and it’s always come out very cringe-worthy and probably best incinerated.
PB: You are doing yourself down quite a lot – “I can't play this chord and I can't write this lyric.” For somebody that has created this album you're not doing too bad really.
SA: It is strange, I can sit in front of a keyboard and play it but without any technical or theory side to it. There are members of the band that can though. Between us all we all have the capabilities we need, I can sit in when the band are jamming and I can join in, but I wouldn't know the technical stuff that goes with it.
PB: You are in Brighton and Neil lives in Chesterfield. What about the other members?
SA: They are all Brighton-based, but we are from all over really. Adam is from New Zealand, Andy is from New York, Helena is from Poland and grew up in London and Ian and I are actually from Brighton.
PB: How does it work for rehearsals and recording with Neil being up in Chesterfield? Does he come down to Brighton regularly?
SA: Yeah, he comes down here quite regularly. Initially when we had the acoustics to do, he had got the record up there so he could play along to that. We got the bass parts and the guitars and drums right and, rather than him come all the way down all the time, we would practice those parts and then once we felt that we had nailed them we would all meet up down here and give it go. It was probably more difficult for the band in that respect because, as Neil wasn't there, they had to put up with me singing instead, and that is not a pleasant experience.
PB: So did Neil record the vocals up North?
SA: We actually went into the studio up there for Neil's vocals. The Amber Herd were playing one weekend, so we thought we would make a weekend of it andgo into Sirex Studios in Nottingham and do it. When you are running a studio yourself, you don't get that many chances to get away.
PB: Do you run the studio as a full time venture then?
SA: Yes, I own and run the studio Black Bunker in Brighton. The rooms used to be toilets so the band that is rehearsing now as we speak are in the gents and I am sitting in the ladies talking to you.
PB: The album is a concept record which the story of an astronaut witnessing the end of the world whilst floating in space. Whose idea was that?
SA: It is weird because I'm sort of dark and enjoy sinister music whereas Andy is the opposite and when he asked to do a line of vocal we did it and it surprisingly worked. It fitted the music. Driving home that evening I was thinking how I could make it more sinister and I thought back to the old Val Guest film ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ and thought, “That's it. Maybe we could do something like that,” and formulated the lyrics from that without the words ‘you’ or ‘me’ in it for some reason. I wrote lyrics for the first time that I was proud of.
I wrote most of that album after that apart from bits by Neil and Andy. The second song that was written was ‘Kaleidoscope’ which was based on a story by Ray Bradbury from ‘The Illustrated Man’. I read it years ago about a shuttle that was torn apart by a meteor shower, and the conversation the spacemen inside have as they drift off to their impending doom. They are essentially arguing with each other as they go.
‘Another Day’, the first song on the album, is loosely built around the theme of mental health issues. You've an astronaut drifting off to the annals of space which sparks a schizophrenic element to it. So, that's how the concept came about really. We turned what we had got into a story.
I also had a morbid fascination in nuclear war as a kid growing up in the Eighties. Bands like Frankie doing ‘Two Tribes’ and Ultravox! with ‘Dancing with Tears in My Eyes’ were a big influence. It was pop music that made me aware of it, but what really shit the life out of me was when I saw the 1984 programme ‘Threads’ which was about the apocalypse. It was a BBC docu-drama, which centred on Sheffield after the bomb had dropped.
PB: How did you discover Helena’s vocals worked so well with Neil's?
SA: Helena was a customer of mine in the studio and I had obviously heard her sing before. She came in wearing a Depeche Mode shirt one day. I went to see her band play once, and they also had another singer with them called Cat Black who is also on the album. They did these wonderful dual vocals and I invited them down. Helena was keen and it started from there. Their respective vocals worked in the sense that Neil's was the voice of the astronaut and Helena's was the voice of the person left at home on Earth, and they were singing the same parts but miles apart in tandem with each other. I knew they were both great singers, but to be honest I did not expect that when we put them together!
The song ‘Peripheral’ upon which they appear together still get to me every time. I still get goosebumps from that. That song started off from a Kraftwerk/OMD style sound, a bit like ‘Stanlow’ or something but turned into something else but much bigger.
PB: Are we going to be able to witness Servants of Science on stage any time soon then?
SA: Well, there is not so much of a tour but a few gigs are lined up. We have got some good dates actually. We have got a bit of a fan-base too now coming off the back of the album. Our first is at 229 in London and then we are at Fusion Prog Festival, although we are not essentially a prog band. We are also playing with The Filthy Tongues here in Brighton.
PB: Will there be a second album?
SA: Yeah, we have ideas for another album. We were delayed in putting out the first album by customs with the space suit we used on the sleeve getting held up there. There's not many bands that can say their album release was delayed by a space suit . They have been put aside for a bit because we want to concentrate on ‘The Swan Song’ and I want Neil to write a bit more for it too. We will have to wait and see…
PB: Thank you.