The Free Zone: Liverpool techno punks make with the creativity

Monday 1st April 1991

James Attlee predicts big things for exciting Liverpool group.

The Free Zone
The Free Zone

The 80's were something of a boom-time for synthesiser-toting duos, some of whom have passed gracefully into bargain-bin oblivion, while others have remained to haunt us. After OMD, The Thompson Twins and those ubiquitous Pet Shop Boys to name but a few, isn't the whole concept a little passé I hear you cry?

Before you hang up, change channel or turn the page let me tell you three things about The Free Zone. One, they're different/unique/original (that's what they all say). Two, they're an exciting live band who read Polish novels. Three, they admit to having been influenced more by The Clash than either Kraftwerk or The Byrds. In fact they get quite heated about it...

"The biggest inspiration for me was seeing Joe Strummer with The Clash when I was 16 or something on the London Calling Tour," says singer, keyboard and everything-else-bar-drums player Tim Thwaites. "People might have said they were more exciting in the clubs and stuff, but to me it was like a religious experience, it was fantastic. The emotion - when he sang you believed he meant it."

"Getting that feeling across, that's what we want to do," butts in drummer Pete Scarlett. "It's just we don't particularly want to make primitive punk music to do it."

The release of 'Mammon,' the latest Free Zone album, proves their point. This isn't primitive punk any more than it's a standard synth-pop retread. The album's approach to technology is decidedly low-tech. Live, the Scarlett drum-sound is expanded by a machine beat, but the only drum machine on the album appears on the opening track "Let Them Eat Progress" originally recorded in 1988 and released on the Cheep Records compilation The Return Of The Beat Menace'. After the computerised rhythms of recent years it sounds wonderfully dated and, well, different.
Remember when those electronic handclaps were the sound of the moment on the dancefloor? Isn't that one of those old Roland 303 thingummies, I asked beatmaster Pete Scarlett. "Yeah, it's a 505 with some samples mixed in," he admits without a blush, before explaining a little of their attempts to take their recorded sound on the road as a two-piece.

"I think it's getting more common to do what we do live, going out with tapes and real drums. People are finding that using sequencers and midi cables and things can be a bit unreliable for gig situations - one cable gets pulled out and you don't know which one it is...808 State are basically doing what we do live, using glorified tape recorders and real drums. Obviously it's a completely different sort of thing."

Obviously. Live, Pete stays behind the kit and works the tapes, while Tim careers around the front of the stage, chasing the elusive title of Liverpool 8's Wild Man Of Rock. With a rhythm guitar slung around his neck, a harmonica stand at a crazy angle and a mike in one hand he will bash out a keyboard part with the other before falling to his knees to deliver an impassioned and decidedly strange vocal, in the honourable tradition of neurotic white boys who secretly wish they were James Brown. Good fun.

Live, some of the subtleties of a Free Zone song take second place to Tim's valiant attempts to resurrect the spirit of 77 and superglue it to the electronic 90s. This new record is a different matter. The excitement's still there, but you get more of a chance to appreciate the lyrical accomplishments of a man who wrote a song entitled "Let Them Eat Progress" - accomplishments that doubtless were a factor in encouraging a Sounds reviewer to dub their album "thoughtful, intelligent pop." Like some of the mentors he name-checks in the influence stakes (Dylan, Waterboys, Joy Division - "yes, I had a long raincoat, I was one of them") Tim's not too keen on being pinned down on the exact meaning of some of his lyrics. I wanted to know whether the album's title was a pointer to a lyrical thread running through the songs included on it - for instance, on the track "Crocodile Street": "None can buy what they can't afford/ so each one cried and with one accord/they got down on their knees and prayed/to the gods of the street where the moneys' made..." A theme, perchance?

"Yeah, loosely. We didn't ever set out to write 12 songs relating to the love of money. I guess it was just things we were experiencing in our own lives...It's not that we think that possessions in themselves are evil - I wouldn't want people to think that by calling our LP 'Mammon' we're suggesting that we should burn all our possessions or something. It's really the idea that material things and material values and money are the only currency that's valid."

He has little time for those who feel that his Christian faith should dictate the lyrical content of his songs.

"There's so much talked about lyrics and how much of the gospel do you put in them, which is stupid. You put in how much is in you! You put yourself into it. You don't write lyrics to convert people, you write to express what you want to express. I'm not interested in going beyond what would convince me - what would make a difference to people, not convert them, you're trying to get into their heads, into their hearts. That's what The Clash did, and that's what someone like Cockburn can do live...Van Morrison, there's another, what a voice."

The duet with Cliff was a bit of a surprise wasn't it...The songwriter grimaces at the dreaded name. "Cliff! ugh...Mistletoe And wine! If I was Saint Peter that man wouldn't get in."

"Luckily you're not," Pete butts in. "No, Luckily I'm not - that's someone else's job," the multi-instrumentalist concedes, apparently rendered pensive to the notion that this at least is one area he can't get involved in. A brief rundown on how Free Zone lyrics come to see the light of day lessens the likelihood still further of any cheap and cheerful propaganda turning up on a Thwaites-written album.

"I find when I'm trying to write stuff things just creep in -you start pulling phrases out of the air and sort of assembling them. A meaning kind of suggests itself - so I guess there is an underlying theme of that kind, but some of the songs are quite ambiguous, I really don't like to tie it down. I think it's quite important to realise that a song exists on its own - it's separate from my brain! I think that's a general thing about anything artistic."

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