from DOGGED IMPROVISORS
by BEN WATSON
The Wire, October 2002
BARK! was founded in Manchester in 1991 by drummer Phillip Marks and guitarist Rex Casswell. The introduction of samplist Paul Obermayer, best known for his work with Richard Barrett in FURT, prompted a sudden burst of gigs and tours, plus a CD called swing on Eddie Prévost’s prestigious label Matchless. The music has a densely packed urgency which is unusual in electronica. This heat is less down to the rhetoric of volume (or “loud-sounding” sounds) than to the head-spinning timbral variety of the component sonics.
The swing CD’s booklet contains an essay on BARK! by former Wire contributor Richard Scott. In the early 90s he played sax alongside Marks and Casswell, whose other collaborators have included saxophonists Andy Spiro and Andrew Denny, and tuba player Robin Hayward. Scott tells a touching story of BARK!’s formative days, with a community of musicians “living pretty much in each other’s pockets in a dismal dilapidated housing estate” in Hulme, Manchester. As well as BARK!, this scene hatched Those Who Celebrate, Andy Diagram’s Spaceheads, and The Honkies. It also birthed Stock,Hausen and Walkman, of which Casswell was a founder member. He left in 1993 just as SH&W turned to loops, irony and loungecore. Occasional visits by London improvisors Derek Bailey and Alan Tomlinson provided encouragement. Scott points out that, having absorbed “AMM, Xenakis and all the rest” , the current BARK! have something direct, populist and punchy about them. People who reckon Cecil Taylor’s Feel Trio (whose 1990s work has recently been enshrined in a ten CD box) sets a crucial benchmark for rhythmic vitality should investigate BARK!, for Marks achieves a parallel sense of inclusiveness and energy.
Live, BARK! are tumultuous, jagged and obstreperous. The rhythmic exchanges are so quick and vicious, a diabolical cackle seems to engulf the musicians. They’ve toured northern England, Sweden and Denmark, and played two stunning concerts in London – both of them in pubs south of the river: the Centurion in Deptford and the Bonnington in Vauxhall. For these militant avant gardists the myth of unapproachability has no place. Their music is hot and fast, as well as weirdly comical.
Casswell played an important role in Stock,Hausen and Walkman. His amplified guitar – a noise machine reinvented from pickup to jack-plug – glued together the electronic shards and splinters provided by Matt Wand and Andrew Sharpley. In 1995 Casswell founded the “kosmic groove” group Lob, and then left for Copenhagen… The deliberation with which he places his sounds has a demystifying clarity. This functionalist architecture contrasts well with the dementia induced by Marks’s drumming.
Paul Obermayer first encountered BARK! when FURT were booked to play on the same festival bill. He and Barrett were so deeply impressed, they couldn’t keep their eyes off the drummer. “Phil did all his things, technically brilliant, but he also played with green rubber gloves in the middle of the performance,” Obermayer recalls. “Phil is a deeply entertaining person to watch…”
Obermayer studied maths at London’s University College and acoustics at South Bank Polytechnic. Since then, he’s spent two decades working in the printshop of a revolutionary press. For three years he lived in the Institution of Rot, artist Crow’s installation-home in north London. The inordinate time he spends locating and shaping his samples makes him sound unlike any samplist you’ve ever heard…
“I go out of my way to find unusual sounds,” Obermayer explains… “Similarly, I like pulverising everyday sounds beyond recognition. I wouldn’t want you to know what they were. The postmodern world of undigested quotation is of less than no interest to me, I hate that…”
Obermayer is co-director of London classical ensemble Reservoir. He has helped sound-project the electronic component of compositions by Globokar, Nono, Saariaho, Varèse and Xenakis. On top of this hardcore modernism, he is a Beethoven freak. All this helps explains BARK!’s explosive chemistry. His techno-materialist knowledge of musical history provides a dose of Darmstadt rigour. Marks, on the other hand, is a hardened improvising pragmatist, moving out from the Blue Note masters (Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Joe Chambers) towards Oxley/Bennink territory. In contrast to both, Casswell guns from a leftfield pop/rock angle… Live, Casswell’s fingers and effects provide a pivot between the raging physicality of the drums and the sampler’s disembodied electronics.
Two of the strongest tracks on swing were arrived at when improvising at the Kofoed School – a rehab institution for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics in Denmark – at 7am. “At six o’clock this woman kicked us out of bed: ‘Could you play that concert for us now? So kind of you…’” Obermayer shudders. “We were feeling pretty rough. Swing and swerve, the second and last tracks on the CD – they’re based on this little rhythmic thing which happened between me and Phil; we invented it that morning. Needless to say, the people sleeping there fucking hated it.”