The immediate pre-history of BARK! is very much tied up with my early involvement in learning how to play and improvise with the other musicians I was lucky enough to run into in Manchester from the mid-1980s.
My first encounter with those who shared a spirit of musical adventure (including a love for Ornette Coleman, free jazz and the stranger musical byways generally) was in 1985 in a short-lived band with ex-punk DIY musical life force Dave Tucker and unsung Manchester saxophone hero Paul Baylis, among others. We did a lot of rehearsing and very few gigs until Dave and Paul both moved down to London the following year.
Although we continued doing gigs now and then in Manchester and London, and still do, their moving left me in a kind of limbo for a couple of years until I could find a new set of like-minded souls in Manchester.
In early 1988 I met tenor saxophonist Andy Denny and we started playing as a duo. Soon after we were joined by alto/soprano saxophonist Andrew Spiro. The usual difficulties in finding bass players for that sort of music left us as a trio for some time, until we began playing with guitarist Rex Casswell in late 1989. He was then playing in a band called I’ll Show Harry (later renamed Those Who Celebrate). This was all centred around Hulme in Manchester, an especially fertile environment in those days for playing and organising improvised music. Stock, Hausen and Walkman also emerged from this scene at about the same time.
It was immediately obvious that Rex was just the spark we needed to move the music to another level, and he and I immediately developed a mutual language and energy in our playing that created something very sharp and dynamic over which the horns could do their raucous free jazz thing – although the splintered fragmentation Rex and I were moving towards took the band sound further from the original free jazz preconceptions we had in the earlier days.
Andrew Spiro’s involvement gradually faded amid other commitments and as if on cue, in 1990, soprano/alto saxophonist Richard Scott moved up to Manchester from London and joined the band the following year. All the band names we’d been using before were inadequate and makeshift and something better was plainly needed. We were all either living at or hanging around Bark Walk in Hulme and eventually the name BARK was suggested. The exclamation mark was quickly added to make sure it was more an energetic woof than trees and mulch.
While one could hear in early pre-BARK! rehearsals and gigs the direction the music was taking, it was on Richard’s arrival in the band that things really began to coalesce. He and Rex brought a critical focus (especially an awareness of the importance of space in the music) that led to enlightenment and personal tensions in equal measure but which served to accelerate the rate of development greatly. They were also gradually breaking down my misplaced free jazz stubbornness by bringing in ideas and ideals from sources such as the Spontaneous Music Ensemble with which they were more familiar.
The music at this time seemed to exist and thrive on these tensions and crises to maintain its edge, but an identity quickly emerged: the early band was self-consciously aggressive – the horns, guitar and drums combining to make a very fragmented, broken kind of free jazz, filtered through the influences of punk, the SME, John Zorn and others.
We quickly recorded our first release, “Celibacy”, at the start of 1992. Rehearsals seemed to be more prevalent than actual performances but we did get abroad for the first time to do at least one exhilarating and for us breakthrough gig in Krefeld in Germany at the end of 1992. This was where we first really knew we could grab an audience and take them with us on a wave of sheer nervous energy while still remaining focused on the very tight group interaction we had been developing for so long. The gig was documented on the cassette-only release “Harmfulodics”.
This first version of the band existed until mid-1993 when tuba player Robin Hayward, who was studying at the Music Department at Manchester University at the time, replaced Andy (who unfortunately had to leave the band for personal reasons). In this group a more compositional, lyrical aspect took its place alongside the trademark velocity and spikiness. This version of BARK! recorded “Our Traditional Values” in the winter of 1993.
Richard left in 1994, so BARK! was now a close-knit trio. Whereas before, concise structures and compositional elements had predominated, the band now crossed over for the first time into completely open-ended improvisation. What the tuba may have lacked in mobility and speed it made up for in the great variety of unique moods and textures we now had at our disposal.
This trio lasted two and a half years and toured several times around the UK and Europe, then broke up in early 1997. We never got around to any sort of official release but made some great music. Eventually, Robin began to diverge more and more from Rex and I musically to become part of the ultra-minimal so-called reductionist movement that swept the improv world in the late 1990s – a fundamental conflict when trying to play music as dynamic as BARK!’s.
As luck would have it, at the very festival where our differences with Robin reached a head, Paul Obermayer and Richard Barrett of FURT were in the audience. (We were supporting Evan Parker, who was performing solo.) Paul approached us straight after our set, and suggested we try out some playing together. We then heard FURT for the first time the following evening and also realised there could be some sort of musical symbiosis. Paul pretty much joined the band that night. The potential after just one initial day of playing was obvious, although it took almost a year for the “groove” that we were eventually to achieve to completely come together. Before Paul’s arrival there was always a split between the horns and guitar/drums, but now the band was functioning like one big electronic rhythm section.
Our disparate musical backgrounds added to the chemistry that makes the band work. My influences are mostly from the great jazz players on through to those who extended those concepts into freer territories, Paul came to improvised music from a more classical/Modernist angle, while Rex has a more diverse pop/rock background. BARK!’s free improvisation seemed to be all and none of these things.
In 2001 the first release with the new line-up, “swing”, appeared on Eddie Prévost’s Matchless label. The band had already been in existence in one form or another for ten years by then, and that release seemed to be a culmination and confirmation of our belief in the special qualities of the musical partnership of Rex and myself. The two of us had been the constant through several changes of line-up and now for the first time in Paul we had someone who was able to fully participate as an equal in the velocity, rhythm and micro-detail of the music. It all felt new and exciting again – smashing musical atoms with a greater energy and exhilaration than ever before!
Concerts were infrequent but usually thrilling. Eddie also released a BARK! set from London’s Freedom of the City festival on Matchless. At the same time, we wanted to explore this music in the studio too. With the help of Evan Parker and Martin Davidson we released a second studio album, “contraption”, on psi in 2007, taking our abstract groove music to another stage. And now there is the recording you hold in your hand. The music keeps evolving, and it is one of the great pleasures of my life to have been there with these guys creating it.