Back from Their Distant Star: An Interview with Animals that Swim

I discovered Animals That Swim after reading the 1994 year end issue of the NME where they ranked their top 50 albums of the year. Their debut album Workshy came in at a cool number 15. I don’t remember what was written about the album but it was enough for me to put it on a list of must get records. I was going to school in Albany, NY at the time and on my next trip down to New York I found the record at Kims Underground as well as the Pink Carnations single. I snatched them both up and was swept away in their tales of smashed car windows made into chandeliers, silent films, Roy Orbison, blood spattered sheets, and the photographer Madam Yvonde. It was a dingy, dirty riot of colors that Animals that Swim created with eccentrics and weirdos as their song protagonists, and always with an eye for melody even though the lyrics were half spoken.

Their next album I was the King, I Really was the King was even better. Great stories, great songs with even better melodies. They even had a semi-hit from it with Faded Glamour. Then record label problems reared their ugly head with their label Elemental being bought by One Little Indian. They eventually resurfaced five years later on the independent Snowstorm with their third album, the more understated but no less engaging Happiness From a Distant Star. It was a quick fade out after that and everyone figured that they had heard the last of these old English eccentrics.

A little more than a month ago the fade in to the sequel to Animals that Swim began.  There had been whispers that they had been recording but now they had a web site that stated that the first single would be released via iTunes in April and that they had at least the song titles for an entire record. I was excited about the whole prospect so got in touch with the band who agreed to answer a few questions.  A huge thanks to Hugh Barker, Hank Starrs and Al Barker for answering my questions.  It really is good to hear some new songs from them after such a long while.  After reading the interview, you can head over to the Spill to sample the two new songs. Both of which should be available in iTunes any day now.

First off, welcome back. It’s been 10 years since the third and what most of us figured was the final Animals That Swim album came out. What made you guys decide to get back together and start playing again?

HB: We always had it in the backs of our minds as a possibility. About a year ago I recorded some acoustic guitar for Hank (for a film) at Boomtown, a small studio in Acton – I left feeling that we could record Animals that Swim songs in the same minimal way there. Then Hank needed a song for the end credits of another short film and we thought we might as well give a try and see if we were happy to release the results as ATS material.

Secondly, it seems like a moment in time when it is pretty easy to record songs and let people know about them without bothering with record companies and all that palaver. There is no way I would have the patience to start traipsing round music business offices trying to “get a deal”. But since we can control it and do it how we want, it seems like a fun thing to do.

Finally, it’s nice that people like you have kept on saying good things about us on the internet. That makes us think that there really are at least some people out there who will want to hear new songs, rather than it feeling like a self-indulgent thing to do.

Can you give some background on the two new songs (Silver Rays & Tiny Lucifer) that will be available on iTunes any day now. What are they about? How did you guys record them?

HB: They were recorded at Boomtown in a day using mainly acoustic instruments. Silver Rays was probably the song that made me want to go into a studio in the first place. It’s about finding my daughter’s pink and orange bike abandoned in the middle of our street, but also about one of those moments of epiphany or disintegration that can come over you anywhere. Tiny Lucifer is a true story about a real toy bear.

Is it the same line-up? I didn’t hear any horns in either of the two new songs, is Del still around?

Hank, Al and Hugh played on these recordings, with Hank’s friend Madeleine helping out with some cello. Terry is in America, so we don’t really have a bassist unless she happens to come on holiday. Del will hopefully play on future songs – the schedule just didn’t work out for him this time.

According to your web site it looks like you’ve have enough songs for an album. Are you sort of testing the waters with the first two songs are being released as download only single? What are your plans, is an album in the offing?

HB: The plan is to see how it goes, but I’d like to record more, and would ideally like to do all those songs listed as potential album tracks. It will take a while though as we all have limited time. We will probably keep it download only for simplicity.

You guys have all moved on to different careers after the band (film, writing, website stuff). How have your careers affected your ability to get together and play as a band again? And after such a long time off has the dynamic changed any now that you’re no longer ‘poor musicians’?

HB: Obviously time is an issue, and we certainly won’t be spending weeks at a time in studios or on tour. In terms of the dynamics, it probably makes it a bit more enjoyable as there is no great pressure and as soon as we stop having fun we can stop.

AB: Playing together as a band seemed hardly different at all. If anything, we laughed a lot more this time round.

Did you guys (Hugh, Al and Hank are brothers) grow up in a musical family ? What got all three of you into playing music and were the three of you ever in a band together when you were teenagers?

Yes it was quite a musical household. Our mother was a music teacher and liked to get us to sing songs from the Weavers songbook (she was American) around the piano, our dad was a decent pianist, who played old jazz standards and Scott Joplin rags very nicely, and we all grew up learning instruments from an early age. I think we maybe played together once at a school concert but we never really played as a band until we were older.

Animals that Swim have been quiet musically for roughly the past 10 years, but Hank was on Art Brut’s Direct Hit. How did that come about? Is Eddie Argos a fan?

HS: Dan Swift, who used to play drums for us live occasionally, was producing the Art Brut Album. It turned out Eddie is a big ATS fan so Dan suggested a “Duet.” I was duly invited and sang on Direct Hit. I was nervous but Eddie was a lovely man and it was good fun.

Animals that Swim frequently get called underrated and/or underachievers, but it seems like you guys succeeded in making some great records. I remember when I heard the news about the third album I was surprised because I thought that you had called it quits. What was the general attitude and expectations of the band when Happiness From a Distant Star came out?

Things kind of faded out for us in the late 1990s as our stupid record company kept making us do more demos to persuade them to let us do another album. By 2000 we’d pretty much given up on the whole thing – so when Snowstorm gave us a little bit of money to make Happiness From a Distant Star it was just a bit of a relief to be able to draw that period to a close with a record of some of the songs we had been playing. We didn’t have any great expectations of sales or reviews etc, luckily enough.

You guys always came across as very well read, and many of your songs were like short stories out of a Raymond Carver book. How autobiographical are these songs or are they fiction? What inspired them?

HB: I’d say a lot of our songs were rooted in the city and the people around us, and some were vaguely autobiographical, but we were never that hung up on autobiographical veracity or personal authenticity. It was more important for it to be a good story and/or to have the right kind of texture and feel.

The mid 90’s were grunge and Britpop infested and it was hard to get noticed if you were something else which you guys were. This from All Music: “Animals That Swim were slightly too weird for mass consumption, but their oddball, half-beatnik/half-psychedelic pop was a refreshing response to the early days of Brit-pop”. You seemed to do ok in the UK, but the US only saw the release of Workshy and that didn’t get much attention over here. Did you guys see yourselves as too odd for the mainstream?

HB: We didn’t sell that much in the UK either, even when we were getting good reviews. I see the oddness more clearly in retrospect, though I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I just thought we were just writing pop music, from our particular point of view.

There’s an episode of the UK sitcom Black Books where Bernard and Manny try to write a brilliant children’s book. Bernard wants it to be about a lens grinder from Omsk who is going through an existential crisis, but Manny persuades him it should just be about “an elephant who loses his balloon”. I suspect we’d have been more successful if someone had persuaded us to write songs about an elephant losing a balloon, rather than car crashes, embittered ghosts, proto-feminist photographers, deep-seated urban decay and so on.

AB: Don’t forget that in the end Bernard and Manny drunkenly burn the book because they decide its success would ruin their lives…

What other bands or singers did you see as your contemporaries from that period? Was there anyone that inspired or pushed you when you heard their records or saw them live?

HB: I’d say the bands that inspired me personally came from either just before us (Go-Betweens, Feelies, early REM, Throwing Muses, June Brides, My Bloody Valentine, Madness, Pixies) or from much earlier (VU, Can, Randy Newman, Gram Parsons, Kinks…)

I probably saw bands that were around at the same time as us slightly differently (through a glass darkly). Of the Britpop lot, I have a grudging respect for Blur, especially Graham, and a genuine fondness for Pulp. Even though I like those bands, I think Britpop wasn’t good for us, first because it raised expectations at record labels who started to expect indie bands to have instant chart hits, and also because it revolved around a slightly cartoonish or advertising-cliché version of Britishness, which made our version seem weirder.

I could ask way too many questions about specific songs or lyrics, but I’ll limit myselft to one. I live in the Pacific Northwest so I have to ask, have you ever been to the Oregon State Fair and what is it you have against jugglers (both in this lyric and the liner notes to Faded Glamour)?

HS: I lived in Binghamton, NY for a couple of years in the 80’s (in a touring covers band) I went to the NY state fair. Frank Zappa played and there were a lot of annoying hippies around. My friend Chris went to Oregon state fair and we were drunk in Islington one night talking about how we hate jugglers. Why juggle? It sucks. I don’t like any acrobatic/circus based nonsense. It reminds me of the middle ages and jesters, when there was no dentistry or Codeine. Performing budgies are OK though.

(HB = Hugh Barker, HS = Hank Starrs, AB = Al Barker)

Here’s some old Animals that Swim to tide you over (or introduce you):


mp3: Animals That Swim – Oregon State Fair (from the 50 Dresses EP)

mp3: Animals That Swim – Madame Yevonde (from Workshy)

mp3: Animals That Swim – Kitkats and Vinegar (from I Was the King, I Really Was the King)

mp3: Animals That Swim – Sixteen Letters (from Happiness from a Distance Star)

One comment

  1. Pingback: Interview | Animals That Swim

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