Remixing can be about a lot of things—dancefloor functionalism, marketing, homage—but one of its purest expressions is the way it builds a bridge to the past. And nowhere is that sense of tradition more apparent than in a new release from About Group and Theo Parrish.
Back in 1967 or 1968, the minimalist composer Terry Riley created one of the most remarkable pieces in his catalog when he reworked a three-minute Latin soul single by New York’s Harvey Averne, “You’re No Good,” into a 20-minute blast of mind-boggling psychedelic disco. (Never mind that disco, as we know it, hadn’t even been invented yet: David Mancuso’s Loft wouldn’t open until 1970.)
Fast-forward four decades, and “You’re No Good” turns up again, but this time as a cover version by a band called About Group, a quartet featuring Hot Chip‘s Alexis Taylor, drummer Charles Hayward (This Heat), guitarist John Coxon (Spring Heel Jack, Spiritualized), and keyboardist Pat Thomas. Their music is an unusual mixture of pop songwriting and improvisation; their new album for Domino, Start and Complete, was recorded in a single day at the legendary Abbey Road studios. Their version of “You’re No Good” would be captivating enough on its own, given the way they have translated Riley’s reel-to-reel edits for an improv context. But they go one better in commissioning Detroit’s Theo Parrish to remix their version of the song. Given the way that Parrish’s own editing style follows from Riley’s experimental methods, it feels, in a way, like things coming full circle.
We spoke to Taylor about “You’re No Good” and the making of the new album; read on for the full interview, along with samples of “You’re No Good” in various versions.
First of all, how did you guys come to choose “You’re No Good” to cover? It’s interesting how you remain faithful to the overall structure of Riley’s remix (even with the short, “ambient” intro) while still allowing lots of room for improvised tangents.
Nick Relph and Oliver Payne made a short film I saw at the Serpentine Gallery in about 2007 or something called ”Mixtape,” and it used Riley’s version of the track as its soundtrack. I became obsessed with that piece of music—firstly with some surprise that Riley had made something so different from anything I knew about him (the fact that it featured someone else’s amazing soul tune as its main component was a bit of a shock to me), and secondly just because of how incredible and exciting it is as a listening experience.
I DJed it out a lot over the next few years and also had it as Hot Chip’s walk-on music for all of the Made in the Dark tour, so I listened to it a lot over a period of a couple of years. I then suggested we cover it in Hot Chip but we never got round to it. When we started playing as About (and then About Group), this was probably the first non-improv thing we did, in that it was a cover of a song. We still improvised a lot around and within it, but it had words and chord changes, etc., rather than being improvised entirely on the spot. It seemed natural, when it came to recording our second album, to include a version of what we had been doing live. We didn’t consciously try to keep it that close to the original(s), but in some ways it did end up following the same idea of Terry Riley’s version—to start with the song itself, to set that out as the main theme, and then to build on it and expand and lock into fixed grooves on it for a while. It has changed every time we play it, but that was just the way that one take took it.
While we’re talking about “You’re No Good,” how did Theo Parrish get involved? He’s an interesting choice of remixer, as his own style of editing is in a very similar spirit to Riley’s crazy cut-up from ‘67. Do you know if he was already aware of the Riley version?
I don’t know if he knew the original, but I’d imagine he’d like it. To me, his own sound and style has a lot in common with the Terry Riley version, and Riley’s almost could be one of Theo’s “Ugly Edits,” before its time… He was the first person I thought of and wanted to do a remix of the song. I liked the idea of our cover of Riley maybe having similar treatment to the Harvey Averne tune, when in the hands of TR, helping add to or create a sort of cyclical ever-expanding cover version of the song.
The songs on the new About Group album originally existed as piano/vocal demos you recorded on your own, which were then given to your bandmates shortly before the studio date. According to the press text, “The idea was that no one band member would know the songs well enough to have specific parts, or be prevented from playing something like the first ideas that came into their head.” How did you come up with this strategy? I’m reminded a little bit of Brian Eno’s techniques—particularly his insistence upon the importance of personnel, and dynamic lineups.
The idea was less theoretical than something Eno might do, in a way—but as soon as I explained it, it probably came off that way. All it was really inspired by was the notion that if you record quickly with a group of players still learning the songs, you end up with some nice surprises in the playing, rather than something too studied.
“Like Flies On Sherbert” by Alex Chilton, “New Morning” by Bob Dylan, “Joya” and “Viva Last Blues” by Will Oldham/Palace Brothers were the things I had in mind in terms of loose-sounding, rocking approaches to song-based recordings. The songs already existed but we wanted to record them quickly—John Coxon suggested to me, knowing the material, that About might be the best group to do them, so we went with that idea, even if that took us momentarily away from the much more experimental approach of the first record.
Not having heard About Group’s previous release, I will admit that I was surprised by how traditional the group can sound, especially given the the resumes of some of your players; structurally, stylistically, it’s far more “rock” than improv. Was that intentional?
I think journalists who on the whole attack the relatively traditional sound of this record should probably listen to the first one. It might make more sense of the group. I also think that it’s not that common to take songs which might have quite “straight” elements to them, and play with someone like Pat Thomas running up against the groove a lot of the times, but that works to me because it highlights the inherent tension in the lyrical content of the songs.
Also, the beauty of Pat’s piano solos, Charles’ drumming—which is not “in your face and propulsive/experimental,” but rather totally soulful and measured—is a joy for me to hear, and I would hope for others too. I like hearing them play in a different context. I also think you’d be surprised at how much Charles and even Pat like song-based music. I’ve been surprised when first meeting Charles at how much he is a fan of certain Abba records, Beatles records and Peter Gabriel’s So album, which I also like. People can be very narrow-minded about musicians’ tastes and directions they go in. This record to us seemed interesting in that it is so far away from the sound of the first record.
How did About Group originally come together? It’s certainly one of the more unexpected lineups of the past several years.
I met Charles as a fan of his music, trying to see him once when the gig was cancelled, and he stood outside the venue explaining that to any disappointed passers-by. I’d met John when I was making a solo album, Rubbed Out, which he ended up releasing on his label, and playing on. He didn’t really know me before but seemed to be really into the songs and became a musical partner of mine over the next few years, and before we got together with Pat and Charles. The two of them played together in Albert Newton, and I’d seen footage of them playing together within a documentary about Charles. John simply phoned Pat up and said, “Shall we try to make a record together with Charles and Alexis?” We then went to Charles’ rehearsal space and recorded there.
What is the process like in the studio? Are you recording mostly first takes, and moving on to the next song? Not that it seems unpolished, but in order to finish an album in a day, you must need to move fast.
Yes, barely any second takes on this last album, and it was all made from two one-hour sessions of improvised music for the first album. We edited four pieces together from those improvisations. The process for the second album was more nerve-wracking as we didn’t know exactly what kind of record we were trying to make in a way. We had in mind a combination of improvised parts and song parts, but also had never done a load of songs in a row before, and three of us (all but John) had never recorded at Abbey Road before. Even being that far away from each other in the room, hearing mainly on headphones, and not having good sight-lines, made it a fairly stressful way to make improvised or even song-based music. And after each song we finished recording, we didn’t really hang about as we knew we only had that day to get the record done in.
We ended up not using any of the 45-minute improvised section we did on the day, as it felt a bit unfocused—Charles felt he could hear in his playing how uncomfortable he was not being able to see each other whilst improvising—so we just ended up putting together all the songs, and then that actually seemed to be a better record than one that flits between improv and songs all the way through.
Do you expect to borrow any About Group songs for Hot Chip to record at any point?
No not really. But About Group has borrowed some of my songs that at one time I tried with Hot Chip! There was a good deep house version of “Lay Me Down” that never got finished.
About Group, “You’re No Good (Remixes)” [Domino]
About Group, Start and Complete [Domino]