published: 27 /
Acclaimed drone/space-rockers Six by Seven announced last month they have reformed. Frontman Chris Olley talks to Richard Lewis about a new nine album box set retrospective of the band’s and his solo work, their future plans, the state of the music industry and photographing Bill Hicks
Responsible for some of the most forward-thinking music released by a British band from their 1998 debut LP ‘The Things We Make’ until their dissolution almost a decade later, Six by Seven, despite huge critical acclaim, remained a cult proposition.
Racking up five Peel Sessions, the band’s singular sound ranged from sonic leviathans that broke the eight minute barrier, bracing punk blasts, endlessly uncoiling post-rock soundscapes, as well as highly successful forays into poppier material.
While their symphonic keyboards surges put the group in the same ballpark as Spiritualized, their loping downbeat moments shared the same small-hours ambience as Portishead, underpinned by droning, mesmeric guitar work worthy of My Bloody Valentine.
Last month saw the release of a boxset of Six by Seven’s independently released albums and Olley’s solo work on the self-created SNSM Records. Beginning with arguably Six by Seven’s finest LP ‘04’ and concluding with Chris’s superb solo album ‘A Streetcar Named Disaster’, the nine CDs also take in the neo-Krautrock of side-project Twelve and a furious Glastonbury set along the way.
Following the announcement of the box set came the news that Six by Seven had reformed. After the release of LP ‘The Death of Six by Seven’ in May entirely self-recorded by Chris in his basement studio, a hook up with Six by Seven founder, organist James Flower followed with a view to re-recording some of the tracks in a band setting.
After that proved successful, the Six by Seven moniker was resurrected, with band activity beginning immediately. Stepping from the Tardis re-energized for the new decade along with Chris and James are returning bassist Pete Stevenson, guitarist Martin Cooper with the line-up completed by former Placebo sticksman Steve Hewitt on drums.
“I’ve reached a conclusion with it for now,” Chris says of his decision to stop recording under his own name. “You know, all these titles and albums and EPs, ‘A Streetcar Named Disaster’, ‘East Of Edale’, ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wade’, ‘The Grapes Of Hyman Roth’ and now the collection of them all, ‘Crap On A Hot Tin Roof?’ I need Tennessee Williams to write another book or I don't have a title! I make different music under different names so I can wear a different hat and fulfill myself creatively. I've had enough of Chris Olley at the moment and he's had enough of me. I know it.”
“I spent a long time paying money back through album sales when the record industry went tits up,” Chris explains of the decision to issue the box set. “Many shops went bust, and HMV turned itself into a DVD outlet and I got a lot of records returned. I've managed to pay everything back again. I can afford to give these records away now and I think there is a lot of good stuff on them which I would rather people heard.”
“All I did was put nine albums in a box and put a sticker on it. It is nothing fancy and it's just a fiver, which just about covers my costs and pays for the blisters on my fingers for putting them together,” Chris explains. “I'm doing it because I want people to hear the music and people buy when it's cheap or practically free. Lots of people have paid more than £5 anyway (through Six by Seven’s Bandcamp page) which is really thoughtful.”
The feeling that the Nottingham band’s work has improved with age was voiced recently as the band’s second and most widely known album ‘The Closer You Get’ (2000) was hailed by Drowned in Sound as one of the best albums of the decade late last year.
The editor of ‘Q’ meanwhile tweeted in February “Listened to Six By Seven’s ‘The Closer You Get’, one of the most barbed, brilliant, overlooked British guitar albums of the 00s.” (Olley responded on his blog acidly “Great! That means they should start getting into (recent LP) ‘The Death Of Six By Seven’ in ooh, about 2024?”)
After being released from their contract with Beggar’s Banquet in 2004, the band established their own label Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Records named after the classic Nottingham-set Alan Sillitoe play and later film.
Now in its eighth year with over a dozen releases to its name the set-up has weathered the major upheavals the music industry has been through, with the present outlook markedly different for independent and grass-roots musicians.
As the impact of Bandcamp and other sites selling music directly to fans continues to grow, the future for independent and grass roots artists is possibly beginning to brighten.
A recent blog entry of Chris’s stated that things are looking up as “the download rip-off generation is disappearing and a new culture is emerging.” Bearing this in mind does he feel things are looking more positive for grass-roots musicians at the present time? “Yes!” Chris replies emphatically. “Download sales are still only 10-20% of physical sales but at least now people are paying for it,” he says.
“I think people always wanted to but the music industry was too afraid to embrace the internet and paid dearly for that,” he ruminates. “It's easy now to pay through your phone and get a track, easier than free Torrent sites. I think the public now understand that if they like the music they should pay for it, otherwise there won't be any more music. I know in some cases that may be a blessing in disguise! I just wish I got more out of it from iTunes,” Chris says. “It's tough when you sell 16,000 songs in six months and only get a tenner for it.”
The release of ‘The Death of Six by Seven’ LP in May was flagged up by a clutch of demo EPs packaged as classic 45s with iconic Parlophone and EMI labels designed by Chris. Giving a glimpse of work-in-progress, as the songs began to take shape from their initial ideas, as well as a valuable insight at his working methods, the releases also helped fund the LP proper.
“It was an idea to do everything the other way around than what has become usual,” Chris explains of the process. “The classic album followed by the special release with the demos and extra tracks followed by the album tour, where the band play the album chronologically in its entirety.”
“I thought I would release the demos first, let the fans pick the tracks the band should re-record, so they help produce it and then play the album in its entirety right from the first gig, which is what we have done! Hopefully I can even give the album away for free to all the people who bought the special Vinyl Demos. That's the plan, if only I can do it!” Chris explains.
Chris’s solo work, with its vocals pushed high in the mix, puts greater emphasis on his lyrics, and is backed by the sparseness of some of the arrangements. ‘The Death of Six by Seven’ is an attempt to emulate Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat home-recorded classic ‘Nebraska’.
Unlike Springsteen who frequently uses characters to voice his lyrics all of Chris’s songs are drawn from his own experiences. “Yes, the lyrics are very personal,” Chris says of his material. “I had a terrible time last year and some tough decisions to make in my personal life. I'm glad I made the right decisions and I am happy again now. Is that an oxymoron?” he ponders. “I think I try to write very openly and honestly. Otherwise what is the point?”
“I never think too hard about what I am writing. I just do it. Then afterwards I try and make sense of it all,” he explains. “Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't. This album is extremely personal to me and after finishing it I listened back to it and thought ‘I know exactly what I am trying to say here’. I'm really looking forward to re-recording some of it with the band. It is going to sound amazing I think.”
Running alongside music Chris’s other passion photography has been the recipient of major praise. Undertaken between 2007 and 2010, acclaimed project ‘92 Stadiums’ saw Chris travel the length and breadth of England and Wales photographing every football ground in the first four leagues, making all the journeys on a 250cc motorbike.
Shot entirely in monochrome to give the photos greater unison by avoiding club colours, the images were captured on non-match days, showcasing the grounds in a totally different light, the stands silent, the exteriors shorn of parked cars and merchandise stalls.
After a successful exhibition in Derby shortly after its completion in 2010, the project has moved overseas to Poland, to be exhibited in the country’s second largest city Krakow.
“It’s massive, it looks amazing,” West Ham United fan Chris says of the exhibition. “It's in this huge space. Gilbert and George had a retrospective there before my exhibition. Can you believe that? I flew over for the opening a few weeks ago during the Euros. There were so many people at the opening, I almost felt like a celebrity!” the singer laughs. “I'm going back in two weeks time for the end of the exhibition and to do a workshop.”
Closer to home Chris’s photographs have been featured on two BBC4 documentaries in the past year on profiles of punk poet John Cooper Clarke and a documentary on legendary late US stand-up comedian Bill Hicks. While the BBC was perfectly reasonable about using Chris’s images, Hicks’ record label put bluntly weren’t.
“Ryko Disc (US reissues label) recently wanted to use my pictures for a four DVD box set anthology,” Chris recalls of the photos, shot backstage before a gig by the comic in 1992. “I had sent some pictures I took of him to Bill and put my name and address on the back, and they had found me because Bill kept everything, and his Mum still had the pictures.”
“I had nine fantastic shots of him in the dressing room, three live shots and two portraits I had taken of him through a magnifying glass. Universal really wanted them and sent me a contract to sign. They wanted all my pictures, to use in perpetuity, across the universe, in every conceivable way for no payment whatsoever!” Chris says disbelievingly.
“The guy who was putting the box set together phoned me up from New York and said, ‘Everybody is doing this for nothing, Chris. Even John Cleese has written liner notes for nothing’. I said ‘Fuck John Cleese! He doesn't need the cash and anyway he hasn't got a load of great unseen photographs of someone who has been dead for 17 years!”
“I mean, I don't mind giving them away for free. I even said they could use the pictures if they gave £1000 to cancer research which they refused, but I'm not going to give them away for other people to make money out of.”
“The guy who took the famous shot of Che Guevara gave that picture to ‘the people’ and there isn't a day that goes by where he doesn't regret having got all the dosh so at least he could decide who to give it to if he was going to give it away.”
“Lots of people make money out of that picture ,and I won't let it happen to these Bill Hicks pictures, even if it did make me famous.” The matter drew to a close with Chris turning down the request flat fittingly enough employing one of Hicks’ most quoted lines, ‘I just sent them an email saying, ‘No. ‘If you are in marketing, kill yourself.’”
An aficionado of axework that switches from relative calm to fuzzed out distortion that swarms like a nest of angry hornets, another venture Chris is involved in is working alongside Six by Seven guitarist Martin Cooper as guitar FX pedal manufacturer Coopersonic.
Specialists in boutique stompboxes (they presently adorn the pedal boards of Alex Turner, Jason Pierce and Ronnie Wood) last year the company dispatched a consignment of the pedals off to South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.
“We’re doing okay at the moment,” Chris says. “Coopersonic, the most awesome handmade distortion effects. Another shameless plug!” he laughs.
Of Six by Seven’s next step, the band currently have “about 18 hours of rehearsal so far” under their belts and the new configuration sounds “immense.” “We’re playing all the time at the moment and hoping to start recording at the end of the year or sooner,” Chris says. “We have a dynamic between us which I'm really enjoying and it’s starting to build up. I'm still an arsehole in the rehearsal room but at least they don't have big egos and take it personally. They just know I'm trying to get the music to sound the best we can make it.”
SNSM Records Anthology Box Set is out now at sixbyseven.bandcamp.com
Photos courtesy of Chris Olley
Chris’s photography: http://chrisolley.photium.com/