There are not too many great venues in Birmingham. The Carling Academy seems to attract any band on their way through town, the NEC pulls in the big hitters like Britney and Elton and then there are the usual pubs attracting ACDC cover bands. And then there is the Custard Factory.
An old converted Birds Custard Factory, the buildings there collectively house design agencies, DJ and retro clothing shops, a gallery – a little pocket of cool in the east side of the city. The music venue is the Medicine Bar, and unsurprisingly, the musical styles match the Custard Factory’s overall ‘trendy’ vibe. This could be a bad thing but most of the time, they seem to hit the mark, with bands such as MYCODENAMEISMILO, Lightning Bolt, Kid 606, Techno Animal and DJ nights including Warp and Rephlex superstars.
Tonight though, local promoters Capsule have invited Birmingham’s own Pram and To Rococo Rot, and the location unusually moves across the open public square to the Theatre Space and adjoining bar. The theatre itself is like a small, art house cinema, with around 200 pitched, velvety seats in the dark. The stage is covered in keyboards, stands, wiring, pedals, chairs, microphones, guitars, drums, mixing desks, live-mixing equipment for the projected visuals and cine projectors’ and ah yes, amongst all that, some musicians.
In the eleven years since Pram’s ‘breakthrough’ post-rock masterpiece, The Stars Are So Big, The Earth Is So Small (Too Pure), it could hardly be said they have made it to the big time (this is no stadium we’re sitting in) but like many others (Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada), they have crossed over into the world of advertising. So it seems only right they should open the set with ‘that tune from the VW Golf advert’ followed by ‘that other tune, you know, the one in the BT 118-500 advert’. Incidentally these tracks have names – the first is actually a Pram remix of an LFO track called Simon from Sydney and Track of the Cat, respectively.
The set continues with little of the vocal ‘songiness’ I remember of the band, but then I probably haven’t heard anything any later than 1999. I’m sure I remember them playing Moogs before, which are now replaced by Yamaha’s, although this may just be an assumed memory based on their slightly kitsch, analogue sound – it doesn’t seem to make any difference either way.
The sound itself is not too easy to define – twinkly samba one minute, soothing, lulling drones the next. The kind of music you can close your eyes to without feeling too pretentious. Clarinet, flute, guitars, keyboards, samples, loops and various recordings – but the total effect is more impressive than the sum of the parts. They would make the perfect soundtrack (and yes, they-ve worked on soundtracks as well I believe) to a Sunday afternoon children-s circus sideshow.
After a short break, it’s To Rococo Rot. The band formed in 1995 from an arts background – the Lippok brothers, asked by a gallery owner to record some music for their exhibition, got Kreidler-s Stefan Schneider in to perform bass duties, and the rest is post-rock history. And you can hear the art influence in their music. The instruments, as a three-piece are unusual but work well together – a small, minimal jazz drum kit, often played with brushes; electric bass; electronics, played from a bewildering noodle of wiring, hardware and laptop arranged precariously at centre stage. The overall effect ranges from rhythmic, syncopated jazz to the straighter, repetitiveness of electronic dance – but always with a certain German precision engineering. Which may sound a little cold, but it isn’t. Squelches and blips from electronic equipment, but almost as natural or warm as human voices in places.
The bands’ art roots shine through when they describe how some of the music has come to fruition. As remixes, or remixes of their remixes, or live renditions of their remixes of remixes – it gets a little confusing, and their stilted take on the English language makes the explanations even more enjoyable. One piece, which evolves and turns through many directions, was commissioned by an architectural firm, to accompany a new, modern ‘pod-living’ model of housing – and it seems they asked the right people. To Rococo Rot’s music is a nod to the stereotype of clinical, harsh German techno, but with a soothing warmth that satisfies, instead of grating.
Pram & To Rococo Rot
Custard Factory, Digbeth, Birmingham
(10th October 2004)