John Lennon said that “avant-garde is French for bullshit”. That’s rich coming from the husband of the artist who once plastered Church Street with tits. Also translatable as ‘vanguard’, it has military connotations, as if the Symbolists were marching forth on the battlefields of the art world. For veteran Liverpool band A.P.A.T.T., music isn’t such an act of war. When I meet their top brass, General MIDI and Colonel Legno, I get the impression that it’s more of a day’s paintballing to them. They stretch 40 instruments over a line-up of (currently) eight players. There’s no guarantee you’ll catch them promoting their new release until September. They’re going (even deeper) underground, but what are they doing there? How does a band survive 15 years of anarchy? What keeps a.P.A.t.T. the same?
“Not being the same!” shoots back the General. “We do take in waifs and strays and we do have a quite busy turnover of members. We never jam, we’re not a commune or any shit like that. It’s a free-for-all, not a one-in-one-out scenario. There’s also a larger ensemble [the a.P.A.t.T. Orchestra] who occasionally play.”
This loose association with their very nature is perhaps a.P.A.t.T.’s one consistent trope, allowing them to flex their muscles across a variety of different setups. The word ‘band’ hardly seems adequate for them, but do they see themselves that way? “It’d be ridiculous not to, given that we encompass those tropes, but we’re not really,” says the General. “I do use the term ‘we’: we do feel like a unit with core members. We adopt some of the instruments and styles of being in a band, so we don’t deny that. But sometimes it’s using the [band] framework as a platform to experiment. We definitely work collectively, but also we don’t. We are still just musicians who have an interest in other mediums, but we pivot around music.”
There’s a certain type of stasis attached to a.P.A.t.T., in that they seem to have been around forever but don’t play for months at a time. I’m intrigued as to how one starts a band that isn’t really a band in the first place, and the General is happy to enlighten me. “Most of our members were in bands, rejected what you do in bands, then tried to create something which is the opposite of all those acts. It started as a recording project, because that was the easiest way to experiment. Then it became, ‘Should we try to play that live?’ and we did, and we realised that was interesting, then we realised that was a different deal entirely to what we’d been developing.” “It’s been really organic all the way through,” Col Legno chips in. “Sometimes you wanna do something organic, and sometimes you wanna fight it.”
“We tend to burn out people, until they don’t want anything to do with us for as long as possible,” continues MIDI. “Then we might speak to them after a bit longer and they want to do things with us again, they think, ‘Eh, it was all right that’. Mark E. Smith does a different thing, he just gets young people in. I watched a documentary about this; he said, ‘They’re really good, what you get out of them’. I’m watching and thinking, ‘Get out of them’? Use them up and throw them in the bin?”
If the title of the group’s new album, Fun With Music, sounds like a manifesto, that’s probably because it is. “Our album titles were always self-evident. EP, LP, etc. This time, the name summarises what’s in the box,” says the Colonel. “It’s definitely our most focused piece,” the General suggests. “Normally it’s a frantic collection or a conceptual thing, whereas this was always going to be a 10-track on vinyl, which made it product-led.”
The fact that the album is coming out on a notoriously prog label in Italy (Altrock), opens up another of a.P.A.t.T.’s identifying characteristics. It’s easy to label something that sits slightly outside our structured view of ‘normal’ music as prog – especially when the people making it seem to be walking to a different beat. “People say that,” responds the General. “I say it’s prog-pop, but in a Steve Reich sense as in a popular act who control everything. Using the broader sense, we’re a modern-day pop band. We just demand an active listener more than a passive listener sometimes.” “Probably 80% of the time,” adds the statistical Legno, as MIDI continues: “It was a key objective to annoy the audience from the offset. And it still is. Though we might do it more… seductively. There’s nothing better than watching people enjoy your music but not know what they’ve just seen; like a room of fazed chaps going, ‘You fucking idiots’.” The General holds his head, a look of mortification on his face. “They’re absolutely shocked that we’re wanting to do that, never mind actually doing that. If we don’t get that kind of response, I’m usually bored out of my head.”
When checking out their YouTube channel (which is well worth it, if only for their sombre meditation on Donald Trump’s love of China), you might not believe that one band could make such different tracks. The same bewilderment awaits Fun With Music’s listeners; opening track Yes… That’s Positive is Devo-flavoured, but without Mark Mothersbaugh’s rebellious conformity, and, despite its real-world references, Give My Regards To Bold St is an astral voyage with descant recorders. Sometimes it comes across as articulate prog, and other times as music for scatter-brained misfits.
There’s clearly quite a punk attitude that runs through the whole a.P.A.t.T. ethos, but not in the blunt three-chord way that most people would assume. There’s more of a deconstructive approach, which is led by the General. “We’ve all got backgrounds in quite ‘edgy’ music and the punk ethos is for me more about DIY – having a go without going through a school. Playing instruments you don’t know how to play, having no manager, having a cottage industry, that type of thing. To keep that connection is super-important. I think Zappa led the way on this.”
It’s likely that, even after all this, you’re no clearer to knowing ‘what’ a.P.A.t.T. ‘is’. And that’s kind of the point. They’re an antidote to bands in the conventional sense. Of course, they’re not really ‘one band’ at all – they’re the seductively annoying a.P.A.t.T. Vive la différence!
a.P.A.t.T are looking for new members, specifically for drums and keyboard. If you are interested in getting burned out, leaving a band, and re-joining at a later date because it wasn’t all that bad really, get in touch on Facebook. Fun With Music is out now on Pickled Egg Records/Altrock.