Techno pop rock team AS IF. have gained a growing following. Now they've added a radio friendly sound to their musical armoury. Tony Cummings went to see them.
Anyone who heard 'Forget Me Not', the debut CD by As If...will know that this trio from Oxfordshire sport one of the freshest sounds in CCM, an intriguing techno pop brew where impassioned lyrics are anchored to usual rhythmic ideas. But now a new larger audience is about to be dazzled by the band's 'Strange Blue Thing' due for release on November 1st. To the band's experimental eclectism have now been added radio friendly hooks and dance music influences to make it, to my ears, one of the best new albums of the year. For my talk with the band I journeyed to the Fenn country where the band's lead singer, guitarist, producer and engineer Phil GOGS operates Appletree Studios in the village of Ludgershall situated in a farmhouse owned by his parents.
As well as the As If recordings, Phil produced albums by the likes of Skellig, Phil Overton and Phil Kingham. I began by asking Phil where he'd learnt his technical skills. "Well it's quite strange actually. I went over to Alaska of all places and trained out there in quite a big studio, Northern Lights. It was up in shanks. It was a 32 channel, 32 track recording set up but it was mostly Eskimos that were recording."
An American visionary, Michael States had started a gospel label, States Records, who released a series of -recordings from black gospel choirs to rock gospel. Phil, who'd left school in 1988, was asked whether he'd like to come and work with him. Phil had had quite a traumatic year. Having recently become a Christian he was asked to play a game of football with the church, been struck in the face and temporarily blinded with a brain haemorrhage. "It got me thinking about what I was going to do with my life. Going to Alaska seemed to be the right thing to do"
In the unlikely setting of the frozen North, Phil learnt the rudimentary crafts of studio engineer. "My biggest project was the Eskimo singer Herbie Vent - he's a big Christian singer out there. So that was my biggest claim to fame!"
When Phil returned to England he began Appletree Studios in Ludgershall, the village where John Wycliffe had made the first translation of the Bible into English. "I started in a broom cupboard-quite literally. It was very humble to start with. I could just do acoustic guitar work. It just grew."
Gradually recording projects came in, a local blues guitarist, an international skater who wanted music set to a video of his skating. It was an 8-track facility until '92, then a 16 track and finally the 24-track facility, which today makes Appletree one of the best-equipped Christian studios in the country with £100,000 worth of high tech gear.
The genesis of As If... is distinctly complicated. "We were originally called The Upper Room" explained Phil. "The three of us, me on vocals and guitar, Steve Rothwell on bass and Phil Heard on drums are the only three that have remained through the years but we've had loads of other members. When we were The Upper Room we were a jazzy fusion kind of band. We'd got a saxophonist, jazzy kind of chords..."
After a couple of cassette albums, 'Grey Skies' in '91 and 'Time Of The Signs' in '92, the band changed their name. Explained Steve Rothwell. "We came across a Catholic Society called The Upper Room and that started to cause confusion when we were getting gigs. We realised a name change would be needed, it was a case of putting some names down on a list and Strangely Normal got the nod. It wasn't my choice, I didn't like it. But that's what we became at the end of '92."
As Strangely Normal the band gigged around even playing the Cross Rhythms Festival in 1994. But the band were continuing to metamorphose explained Phil. "Two members of Strangely Normal left because they were into jazz and we wanted to bring it more into a dance direction, more of a modern sound. We got a new girl singer so I stopped singing for a while. Just playing the guitar and not singing was kind of strange but that didn't gel. Then when she left we brought in a lot more technology and we became As If... just the three of us."
With a studio at their disposal As If... recorded an 8 song cassette 'Flame', remembers drummer Phil Heard "We were jamming around with some ideas. 'Flame' was a song Phil had written a few years earlier and we rejuvenated it. One or two of the songs on 'Flame' made it onto the 'Forget Me Not' CD.
I asked drummer Phil whether there was a tension for him in the band moving more and more into a dance-orientated sound with the necessary dominance of drum computers. "At one time I was a real purist but gradually I've come to terms with it. On the new album there's a lot of loops and programme drums and it's nice to have involvement in coming up with those things. It has come a long way since those Roland Five O drum machines. Now you can sample real drums and actually sort of link them together."
In 1996 the band were signed to Spirit Music, a brave new independent founded by Rob Hillman who were endeavouring to challenge the marketing stranglehold exerted on British CCM by the big Christian labels. The resulting As If...CD 'Forget Me Not' attracted rave reviews and the band were finally launched into the national arena. "We were really pleased. The album didn't get a bad review. We had been given a vision by our local vicar, who'd said, while we were still in The Upper Room, that in four years time we would have gone through the gears and we'd go from first up to fifth. And that's really what happened. It was like we were suddenly in a different league."
I asked Phil Goss what he believed were the strong tracks on 'Forget Me Not'. 'To me the strongest two are 'Sample' and 'Together'. They happened very quickly. Both of them were recorded and mixed in about three hours. So they were very fresh. We didn't even write the lyrics out. We had rough ideas and I sang them down and we put loops down quick and played. There's a freshness about those two tracks."
Despite 'Forget Me Not' establishing the band on the national festival circuit, fans struggled to find the album, or indeed any other Spirit Music releases in Christian bookshops. "Rob Hillman was the first person to really believe in us. Without him I don't think we would have got that initial push. But Spirit Music were running into all kinds of difficulties-it's always difficult for a pioneering company."
Now with the new album, 'Strange Blue Thing', As If.... have moved to another independent, Brian Taylor's New Dawn Music. This time with distribution assured by ICC, no fans should have difficulty finding it in the shops. I asked Steve Rothwell about the 'Strange Blue Thing' title. "It's a very cosmic album concept. Basically the strange blue world is the shape of the world seen from space. We've started to explore some of the mysteries of the universe in some of the lyrics. But we've done so in a very accessible kind of way."
Phil Goss takes up the story. "It's a bit more dance orientated, probably slightly less experimental. On the last album we were taking a lot of songs from the past because there was a big backlog of songs that we could use. This one we've written all from scratch. I'd say it's more consistent"
I asked Phil to highlight a few of the songs. "There's a song called 'Area 51'. It's actually about Hell. We all go to the same Church (Longcredon Baptist Church) and the minister there did a fantastic sermon on Hell. You don't often hear about that much in sermons today. It was an amazing sermon about how we will have a conscious mind down there. In the writing process we threw in weird words to spark off ideas and one of them was Hangar 51 to do with the American conspiracy about space travel. So this song emerged about this place called Area 51 which is Hell and how someone who never actually believed in it's existence is trapped within it."
If that sounds a bit dark, 'Strange Blue Thing' has plenty of sunny optimism. There's 'So loved by You', for instance. "It's pretty straight forward and if you didn't know the backing it could be a hymn. Lyrically though it's still challenging. One of the nicest things we've ever had said about us is that the lyrics challenge rather than patronise."
The infectious rhythmic drive of 'Lost And Found' will also immediately attract listeners. "Lost And Found is a song about looking at other gods. We actually tried to make a few radio friendly songs because it's all very well to be experimental and weird but if nobody's understanding it all then it's a bit pointless."
'Strange Blue Thing' really does seem to be the album with the
potential to lift the band further up the CCM ladder of success. As I
pick up my bags and move past Appletree's floor-to-ceiling effects
rack to the door I ask Phil whether he thinks it will sell well. "I
hope so. The bottom line is to be honest. God has taken us this far
and we're going to continue to trust Him. I know it's easy to say that
but we've really felt that the Lord has been behind us. It's been
quite a long road, He's been moving in His time and things have
happened. Two years ago none of us could have guessed that we'd be
playing the Scottish Exhibition Centre in front of thousands. We've
had a brilliant year. God's taken it forward. We're just trusting Him
for the future."