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March 3, 2008
Revolutions are rarely quiet affairs. Such epochal moments are more often accompanied by great tumult and noise, but there are exceptions. One such outlier, released in 1980 on the legendary British label Rough Trade, is Young Marble Giants' mousy Colossal Youth. A delicate and fragile affair, sparse and strange, the album presented a brave, almost silent protest in response to the harsh anger and abrasive personality of the punk groundswell.

The name itself, Colossal Youth, seemed ill-fitting, considering the simple, uncluttered sound and seemingly modest ambitions at work in Young Marble Giants, but the band's counter-intuitive cloak represented their greatest trick. As strict as Catholic school, Colossal Youth was a study in economy, a test of wills to see if the musicians could stick to an aesthetic so rigid and stoic that it felt as if a screaming outburst was always imminent, that release could come at any moment for no other reason than to break the tension.

With Stuart Moxham's trebly Rickenbacher guitar filling the album's dead-air atmospheres with trembling, the rhythmic edginess of a drum machine - cobbled together by Moxham's cousin Pete Joyce - meted out precise beats as measured as any metronome. There were echoes of Duane Eddy and Steve Cropper in Stuart's guitar, but they were distant and barely audible. Stuart's brother Philip, meanwhile, possessed a melodic sensibility on bass that was aching and beautiful. And then, there was Alison Stratton. Understated, without artifice or drama, the Stratton's voice was stripped bare and left exposed in the trio's sonic desert.

Colossal Youth demanded your attention, but it didn't have to punch you in the face to get it. The lyrics were full of anguish - the result of love gone bad - and contrasting imagery of mundane life and horrible events. And yet, despite their indifference to commerce, Stratton's vocals struck a chord with the disaffected, much in the same way Joy Division and The Smiths did. With those sensibilities the album rose all the way to #3 on the indie charts, selling 27,000 in its first year of existence. A cult following developed.

Unfortunately, after a few EPs delivered in the wake of Colossal Youth, Young Marble Giants called it a day. In the liner notes accompanying Domino's astounding 46-track reissue of Colossal Youth last year, Stuart Moxham admitted to harboring resentment toward Stratton's inclusion in the band. From the outset Stuart had imagined Young Marble Giants as Philip and he alone, whereas Philip had insisted on Stratton's inclusion from the beginning. The doomed romance of Philip and Stratton only compounded matters, and the internal strife resulted in Young Marble Giants' pained dissolution.

Domino's belated post-mortem, Colossal Youth And Collected Works, released in September, is an incredibly exhaustive documentation of Young Marble Giants' body of work. Capitalizing on the reissue, or perhaps simply seizing the opportunity to revisit their promising if unrealized potential, comes news of a rare Young Marble Giants live date, scheduled for the Primavera Sound festival, running May 29th to the 31st at Barcelona's Parc del F˛rum. Other acts who have RSVP'd include Animal Collective, Cat Power, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, and Vampire Weekend.

With the reissue and unexpected reunion show, LAS senior contributing writer Peter Lindblad recently took the opportunity to chat with Stuart Moxham on Colossal Youth and the group's brief, but influential, existence.
---

Young Marble Giants in a moment of buoyancy.

LAS: Was there a sense that Young Marble Giants was going to be a short-lived project right from the start?

Stuart Moxham: Yes, for reasons too well documented to go into again.

Were you surprised by Young Marble Giants' sudden fame?

Yes, and hugely relieved. God knows what I'd have done if it hadn't worked out.

Being brothers, when did you discover that you and Philip had a preternatural musical communication, and why did it seem like "knitting?'

The rhythm generator, or drum machine, was a harsh mistress who demanded total obedience to the beat. That made us tight. The minimal arrangements mercilessly exposed our individual performances, and so it was, while we were writing the YMG set, that we realized there was a synchronicity which seemed to go beyond the usual serendipity of the jam, man.

Yes, I've taken some stick for my knitting analogy, taken it like a man, but then you never knew our maternal grandmother, Emma, who knitted at Olympic standard whilst watching ITV and smoking 60 untipped Woodbines per day. You could see the garment growing from her needles along with the fag ash on her cigarette. It eventually curved down under the force of gravity. She was a lot more entertaining to watch than the vast majority of contemporary television programs. I mean, the tension of wondering when the ash would fall...

With Colossal Youth, did you see the bare instrumentation as being original and unique, or was it just more of a reaction to the loud sonic monoliths of punk?

We needed to have a very distinctive form of pop in order to have a snowball's chance of achieving the impossible - for a Welsh band - dream of signing to a record label. So, given that we were super-skint, minimalism kind of beckoned. It was a major plank in the philosophy we employed of going against all the grains - volume, distortion, intros, overdubs, drummers, et cetera.

There is a real pulse to the guitar. It kind of reminds me of Buddy Holly with "Peggy Sue," while being in direct opposition to the pop sensibilities of a song like that. How did you develop your style, and why was using a Rickenbacker so crucial to it?

I guess the minimalism [and] lack of a drummer demanded that both instruments provided rhythm, so the guitar [and] organ had to be choppy. My guitar mentor at the time, Matthew Davis, had a Rickenbacker, and it had a beautiful, low, fast action, partly because the fingerboard was varnished. The neck was also longer and more accessible than usual, because the body was cut away. So, when I saw this gorgeous blonde number secondhand in a Cardiff centre music shop, I just had to have it. The muted style is a standard method; check out The Cars for instance. I just love that sound, and it has the advantage of being repressed! Also, that particular model is very trebly, and I used a very hard "Sharkfin" plectrum with a serrated edge. So now you know.

Did you see Young Marble Giants, and Colossal Youth, as being the vanguard of a thoroughly modern musical construct, or was it an aesthetic that you simply found charming?

I just wanted to do something good which would get us attention, and it seemed to me that there was - is, always will be - a lot of unexplored musical territory to play around in. The music business and so much music is suffocatingly conservative because it's all about increasing profits each year for the shareholders of the multinationals which own the labels, isn't it? Maybe that should all be in the past tense now that we have the wonderful Internet, or infinite wondernet - I don't know, I don't listen to much music. Creativity is a massively subjective activity, and this type of question assumes objectivity, which is asking a bloody lot! That's for critcs, et cetera.

How did the subdued vocals of Alison Stratton fit within the musical framework you'd constructed?

Er... I don't understand the question. Alison did what she does, as did we all. We didn't fettle anything or have any discussions or grand ideas. I wrote the songs (mostly), and Phil and I worked out our parts. I sang the melodies to Alison, and she did a great job of handling them. Some of the best creations have not been designed, not had any consultative process, no focus groups or market research... just come out of native wit and cunning. Confidence is the key. I figured if we liked it, then some other people would too.

The organ and guitar interplay of "N.I.T.A." is so sly and infectious. How did that song develop?

Thanks. I write all my music by exploring the shapes my fingers make on the strings or keys; they are both seductive worlds to an untrained player with a reasonable pair of ears and virtually no concept of rules. Ignorance is bliss.

The title track is so fractured, but kind of joyous and fun as well. Was it an easy song to create and record, or was it a difficult birth?

Thanks again - they were all more or less easy births. I guess I'm quite a prolific songwriter, and if you have to struggle with something, it usually ends up sounding like it, so the simple things are the best - relying on the hairs on the back of the neck. The song "Colossal Youth" is more obvious 12-bar blues, and a good example of the humor in our stuff.

"Searching For Mr. Right" sounds urgent and has a lot of tension to release, and yet it never really does let it go. With songs like that, is there a tendency to want the song to erupt somehow at the end, and how do you fight that urge?

I live in fear of erupting. I'm addicted to frustration.

Talk about the packaging for this Domino reissue collection. It really is a complete document of the band, isn't it?

Yes, well it seemed like the very least I could do, to get all the cuttings out of the attic for this splendid project. Domino [is] really proactive and enthusiastic.

Do you think there will ever be a reaction similar to the one Young Marble Giants had to the noisy rock of its time, a sort of quiet revolution?

This music will reach a new audience because of the Domino re-release, which is good news all round.

SEE ALSO: www.youngmarblegiants.com
SEE ALSO: www.dominorecordco.com
SEE ALSO: www.roughtraderecords.com

--
Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other articles by Peter Lindblad.

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