“A spring,” he says, “that flies out and hits you in the eye.”
OK, I say. Maybe he’s misunderstood the question. I was asking what images would surmise THE PROBES if I had a pop-up book of Liverpool music, and I turned to their page. He – that is, Jack Greene, the closest thing to a frontman the band has – affirms his choice: “A couple of springs actually, and the outline of Ray’s garage. That’s where we started playing, where we still practise.” He’s referring back to 2009, when a group of high-school greenhorns lit the first sparks of a seven-year ascendency to Autonomy, their rather impressive calling card. ‘Ray’ is Ray Badger, son of ex-La’s member Mike. He is equally adamant their page would be a mix of nostalgia and cornea pain. The first part, I can get. But it’s not often an act describe themselves as literally eye-popping.
The band’s latest release is certainly smooth on the ear. Made up of half a dozen suites drenched in the fever of their dark forefathers (Toy, Echo & The Bunnymen, a wasteland of post-punk scattered over the last couple of decades), Autonomy is that rare release: a collection of songs that demand to be heard together, start to finish, without any pause for thought. Kept abreast on some scintillating accents from drummer Elliot Ferguson, the mini-album is a sinewy, lithe assault on the immersive psychedelic tradition, changing shape like an anaconda curling around a ribcage. It is mostly instrumental, but it’s a propulsive, scabrous smear on a familiar blueprint, morphing sometimes into a bliss akin to early Ninetails or, better yet, the Eastern-inflected noodles of the genre’s earliest haemorrhages in mainstream pop. It taps into a rich reservoir of spiritual mood, soaring from the buoyant Dream into the George-Harrison-esque fretwork of 8D, before dissolving into glorious krautrock on the two-part closer Komorebi. “I believe in a spiritual element that’s ambiguous,” says Ray, flashing the scarab-like ring on his finger. “People can easily be labelled crazy or something for believing in an abstract thing. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest there’s a supernatural side to the world, one that science can’t explain. I hate people saying things can’t exist when they can.”
We go on to talk about a theory I heard: that leaning on a wall for 10 years might, eventually, allow you to pass through it when the particles reach a certain alignment. It feels as if The Probes have their own version of this. Their history together has solidified their commitment to enter the Merseyside scene as a force to be reckoned with. Now that they’re breaking through – scoring a support slot with The Bunnymen, playing more shows, spicing up the bill of Bido Lito!’s Pretty Green showcase event – it’s nice to see that good, old-fashioned persistence is taking the band out of incubation, bringing their obvious chemistry to a wider audience that, at least on a local level, will hopefully treat them with the curiosity they deserve.
“Jack deserves more credit,” says Ray with a smirk, half his hair scrunched in wax, which has the effect of making him look perennially dishevelled. “He’s a diamond in the rough, whereas I’m a diamond amidst other diamonds.” Laughter breaks around the table. Jack, for his part, describes his musical upbringing “in one of the least bohemian environments ever”, the discovery of touchstones like Bowie and The Beatles, and the handy coincidence of living next to another ex-La’s man, Barry Sutton. “He’s a mad bastard – he took me to see acts like The Fall, Public Image Limited, all sorts growing up.” Fortuitous connections to Liverpool legends has gotten the band to the point where they emulate confidence and a respect for the past. McCartney, Lennon et al., as much as they’re cliché reference points, are the inspiration for The Probes’ idea of a perfect career. Each of the band has limitless admiration for the studio innovations of Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour, and maintain that the Beatles always remind them to strive that extra bit harder for glory. “Play to your strengths,” says Jack, “but use your weaknesses. It’s important to dig down deep inside of yourself and see what else is in the tank.”
Elliot (who says that, if he were a doll, he’d go “Ohh, I do like a good worry” when I pull the string) comes from a family of bluegrass musicians – his grandad made folk instruments for a living, although Elliot himself never played them, probably leading to his fondness for tearing a drum kit apart as if he’s playing catch up. Whatever the reason for their collision, all of the lads (including bassist Justin Forman) share a bond surmised by the sheer length of time they’ve spent finding their sound. 2014’s Synaesthesia EP was chunkier but less freewheeling, leaning much more towards stalwart indie than the state of the band as it stands today. There was a muddiness to those earlier recordings that boded well for future projects, and crafting something as detailed as their latest release has been cathartic for them in realising a sense of what they can accomplish. As Elliot puts it, “Songs like 8D were an absolute pain in the arse – we started practising that one about a year and a half ago – [but] playing around with different time signatures definitely helped us as musicians. It’s easy to forget that there’s a big, wide world outside the gridded area of ‘pop’ music, and it’s what we’ll definitely carry on experimenting with.”
The reality of that approach will require their next material to be even more immediate; a band like this must thrum with aggression if it’s to in any way reach above the underground milieu of psych rock coming at us from all angles. “Have people ever not taken you seriously?” I ask.
“At a young age, yeah,” says Jack. “The first gig we played was at The Zanzibar in 2009. A lot of people from our school came; half of those people were there because they thought it was gonna be hilarious. And it probably was. But a lot of them came out saying, ‘Wasn’t bad, that.’”
“We were playing poppy music, so they would’ve thought it was alright,” Ray suggests. “As soon as you get onstage, you’re either a piss take or you’re real. Loads of bands came out of our year, so we’re proud to be the latter.” What he doesn’t realise is how much they actually do take the piss, to my frequent amusement. They have a shorthand with each other that’s resulted in a steady stream of communal rituals: hosting The Ray Show (a musical, Partridge-lite radio podcast full of character skits) and taking over a New Year’s Eve party with Sunshine Underground by The Chemical Brothers, the group’s personal anthem, spring to mind. “Yeah we timed it at midnight, right at the drop,” he continues. “It’s so cool how it’s in the friendship group now, cos it reminds me of being 13 or something, going down to Cornwall.” Jack, again, is more realistic: “Or taking tablets in various urban environments.”
Whatever the associations you might have of your youth, my best bet is they involve optimism, courage and an ease around those you could rely on. The Probes are a strong representative of these central tenets. Once you reconcile their age, you get a picture of a well-kept secret building itself, piece by piece, to do all it can to be great. Let’s see if they manage it.
Autonomy is out on now Porcupine Records.