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Thieves' Kitchen

In this special we will look at brand new band Thieves' Kitchen. They have just released their debut album Head, which is reviewed later in this special. First we present an interview with Thieves' Kitchen drummer Mark Robotham. Some of you will know him for his work in the first incarnation of Grey Lady Down which came to an end almost two years ago.

Interview with Mark Robotham

Mark, how did it all start?

Well, I personally certainly wasn't instrumental (ha!) in bringing the band together - I simply got lucky. Paul and Phil, our bassist and guitarist, met at the Whitchurch festival in 1998. Paul had been planning to put together a some form of complex musical project for some time but, despite many contacts, had failed to find the sort of people he'd visualised until hearing of Phil and hearing his solo album, 'Fear Of Fantastic Flight'.

The meeting seemed to be a marriage made in heaven in terms of vision and ideology - plus Phil had long known Simon, our vocalist, so the hunt was on for a drummer and keyboard player. Paul was aware of the demise of Grey Lady Down and tracked me down. One listen to a tape convinced me that there was no way I'd EVER be able to play this stuff, which is probably why I got in quickly, before they could find an adequate keyboard player, so that by the time we did I'd be considered a permanent fixture! So far, the game plan seems to be working!

The fifth man - Wolfgang - took a hell of a lot of finding. It eventually took a lucky ad of ours in a music store to achieve that.

Thieves' Kitchen seems quite an odd name for a band. Who came up with it and what does it mean?

The name was my doing - it clearly lodged itself in the back of my mind when I took an American friend of mine, a first-time visitor to this country, for a river trip along the Thames in London. Thanks to the tide being high, we passed under Tower Bridge and swung back round to dock - at which point the tour guide pointed out the location of Fagin's Thieves' Kitchen in Charles Dickens' 'Oliver Twist' - the place where all the orphans lived and from which they practised all manner of 'arts' such as picking pockets and suchlike.

Some four months later, we were looking first and foremost for a band name that had not knowing been used before - we checked and double checked in the National Band Register before a brainstorming session led to the one name that was an easily memorable, well known phrase and yet appeared never to have been used for a band's name before!

With our tongues in our cheeks too, it was fun to choose a name that openly invites sarcasm regarding plagiarism when I can think of no less derivative band than TK, within the prog sphere, from England for some time.

The title of the CD is Head. Other than that it is a title which lends itself perfectly for all sorts of puns, what does it signify?

Quite simply a beginning of sorts... plus perhaps a degree of intellectuality which, without wishing to sound elitist, is clearly present in our music. Any connotations towards oral sex are entirely in your own mind, Derk... ;) But seriously though - it's just short, catchy, memorable, and yeah, open to lots of fun with an advertising campaign!

Can you tell us something about the (musical) backgrounds of the musicians you're working with in Thieves' Kitchen?

Aside from myself, Phil is the only one to have released material before, with his aforementioned solo album on Mellow, the Italian label. But in terms of influences - whereas I guess I'm a Bruford wannabe without 10% of the talent, Phil is a truly incredible fusion talent - so fast, so inventive, and yet full of feel. And Wolfgang compliments his jazz side perfectly - never could we have found a more appropriate player, after many false starts. This gives us a wonderful balance between the rock and jazz forms, and the ability to fearlessly dive headlong into either when opportunities permit!

Paul's roots are perhaps the most eclectic of all - he shares Phil's love of the jazzier end of the Canterbury spectrum, but also adds in-depth classical knowledge plus a perverse love of off-beats and of intense harmonies a la Gentle Giant.

Just to add to the mixture, Simon's voice is that of a full blooded rock singer - he's drawn comparisons not only to Gary Chandler, but also to Ozzy Osbourne! All in all, it's a wonderful blend that imposes no limitations on us.

Line-up: Mark Robotham, Simon Boys, Phil Mercy, Wolfgang Kindl & Paul Beecham
(left to right:Mark Robotham, Simon Boys, Phil Mercy, Wolfgang Kindl, Paul Beecham)

During your time in GLD you've often expressed a dislike of the so called neo-prog scene. What do you consider to be truly progressive music and how do you think you achieved that kind of progression with the Head album?

Dislike would maybe be too strong a word, but certainly I felt there were too many bands in the UK doing too much the same thing, with a very narrow sphere of influences. We only really began to break out of that ourselves, with GLD, with 'Fear'. I guess that gave me a taste of the possibilities that a degree of increased comfort with my own playing was presenting to me - and I was so lucky to be present at the start of such a challenging project.

Truly progressive music? It seems that the conventional structures of time signatures that you can happily tap your feet to and keys that are safe, harmonic and hummable impose great limits on a musician in any genre. We can still write great tunes, but we'll still choose the less obvious harmony or some completely outrageous time signature like 29/8 when there is the opportunity to do so!

Writing a piece of music begins with a blank page - and to immediately limit yourself to a major key, a 4/4 measure and predictable harmonics seem to deny 90% of the possibilities to that blank page...

In the first newsletter, you mention that TK's music will probably not appeal to the programme managers of Radio 2. What kind of audience do you want to reach with the music?

Quite simply, those with open ears - who are prepared to take a chance with something in which the structure is unconventional and where they truly don't know what will hit them next...

You became available for Thieves' Kitchen because your previous band Grey Lady Down called it a day in 1998, concluding their career with a farewell show at London's Astoria 2 theatre. Now it seems the band had been resurrected. What do you think of this situation and did you ever consider rejoining?

I certainly wish the new line-up of GLD every success. I was committed to Thieves' Kitchen well before such a 'rebirth' was even mooted, and therefore wouldn't have retrodden the past anyway as to me, the end is the end - you don't change your mind a few months later. But aside from that, the line-up on 'Fear' and the live album was the first and only one in which I felt truly comfortable with the abilities of those concerned including myself. With Steve Anderson returning to his commitments with Sphere (with whom we hope to do some shows this summer), it would always have been difficult for me to consider rejoining even if I'd not already been committed to TK.

Will you take the music on the road?

Absolutely, and as soon as possible. The only reason we've hesitated is that we recorded as soon as we had in excess of an hours' worth of material ready.
Clearly, we need more material for live work and to develop for the second album - so we're back to writing right now, with a view to our initial gigs being in June or July.

Head is being released independently. Why did you decide to take this more difficult road?

Putting my managerial hat on, I think the main reason was that we felt that the market outside of the UK is a little bit more open minded. I especially feel that the US will be a strong market for the album. I have many contacts over there and I was confident we'd be able to sell independently to far more of these if we weren't tied to one label over here. Malcolm at Cyclops is the most genuine, music-first guy I've ever met in a record company role, but even he admitted he wouldn't be able to help us exploit opportunities over there as well as we perhaps could ourselves. He's been so helpful as always, though, in terms of helping us avoid all the little pitfalls that can crop up when you do your very first album completely under your own power.

Yes, it's more difficult, but it's even more rewarding! And certainly more flexible.

What do you think of the role of the Internet in the future of the music business?

I think the future's already here, and the answer is - absolutely vital! There is other no way that we could have communicated cost effectively and quickly with prog aficionados in the US and elsewhere - it would have been impossible for five guys with day jobs to get our CD distributed and out into the market place in the spare time we have.

If you are thinking more in terms of MP3 - I personally remain to be convinced. The hassle of downloading from a PC when you can simply slip in a CD just doesn't work for me, particularly at today's download speeds. Maybe I'm being a Luddite, but I feel that CD is still as excellent a format as it was in 1983, and I really can't see the general public embracing anything else for a good while yet.

As a drummer, who do you consider to be your greatest influences?

I can split those into people I love to listen to and to those I maybe sound a little like. Bill Bruford remains my idol, but also Neil Peart - and more and more, drummers with a jazzier feel like the amazing Vinnie Colaiuta. But, not being in the same class as those, I maybe have some of the (still excellent) Andy Ward, ex of Camel, in my playing - to whom I listened a lot in my formative days before I understood what on earth Bruford was doing!

Of the current British circuit, I probably admire the much underrated Steve Christey from Jadis the most. He's a really excellent player.

Any specific musician you'd love to do a jam session with someday?

I couldn't wish to be challenged more than by the musicians in TK. I'm flattered that they've tolerated my imperfections, and I cannot believe that musicians of any greater talent still would be as patient! So I'd probably have to answer 'no' in all honesty!

The trivia questions. Name your favourite...
...band

Goodness, how do you weed through them all and pick just one? Erm - King Crimson - 73/74 period.

...album

Easier - 'Pieces Of You' - Jewel. By a mile.

...concert

Looking back over so many of them - perhaps my very first. Queen in Hyde Park, London, playing for free in front of 100,000 people in summer '76, not long after Night At The Opera was released. Truly astounding for a kid barely turned 15!

...singer

I'm tempted to say Jewel again, but let's stay prog and think male - I'll go for Richard Sinclair.

...guitar player

Robert Fripp.

...keyboard player

Tough - generally, I feel it to be a less 'expressive' instrument although equally vital... how about Eddie Jobson, if only coz I've never seen anyone play as fast, close up!

...bass player

John Wetton, 73/74, run a close second by Chris Squire.

...drummer

Back to Mr Bruford again....

As a conclusion, anything you'd like to add?

A couple of inches on to my... no, no, no....... ;)

Seriously, we're very much hoping to play in Holland before the year is out - and many thanks indeed for taking the time to do the interview!

Thank you, Mark.

CD Review
Thieves' Kitchen - Head
Head album cover
Country of Origin:UK
Format:CD
Record Label:Thieves' Kitchen (independent)
Catalogue #:TKCD001
Year of Release:2000
Time:63:08
Info:Thieves' Kitchen

Tracklist: Mute (16:01), Time (7:15), The return of the ultragravity (11:00), Integrity (9:10), T.A.N.U.S. (19:30)

Long before the album was released I had already been warned that it would contain something entirely different from for instance what Grey lady Down was doing before the split. Especially the use of fiendish time signatures and temp changes was stressed as being a characteristic of the music.

When I heard this I frankly didn't know what to expect. I did have a vague idea of where the music would be heading but of course I was proven entirely wrong. I expected freaky jazzrock but indeed the freakiness is woven into the songs much more subtle. A lot happens, but you'll miss a lot of it if you don't listen closely. Sixteen minute opener Mute is a prime example of this.

The first time I heard it I didn't know quite what to make of it, but on further listening I began to discover that the track had much more to offer than was apparent on the surface. For one thing, as the first recording of Thieves' Kitchen that listeners will hear, it has to make a good impression of what TK is about. The track has a leading role for Phil Mercy's (distorted) guitar. Although he's quite capable of playing fast riffs (as evidenced in Time), his real strength lies in delivering the melody with feeling. Wolfgang Kindl's (mostly) analog keyboards complements the lead guitar perfectly, while surfacing for a leading role from time to time. In any band, the rhythm section has to hold the band together. No problem here for Paul Beecham and Mark Robotham, whose drumming is as solid as ever (for some real solid drumming, check out Grey Lady Down's Fear album). Like Mark said in the interview, Simon Boys' voice is very similar to Jadis' Gary Chandler. Indeed, the comparison is uncanny, which has probably also a lot to do with the fact that some of the vocal melodies are very Jadis like.

The ironically called Time is with it's barely seven minutes the shortest track on the album. The keyboard intro of this almost poppy track spotlights Kindl's nimble fingers. He's also very evident in the gorgeous chorus, while Mercy finishes off the track with a blistering guitar solo.

Closer T.A.N.U.S. is the magnum opus of the album. Clocking in at almost twenty minutes, it showcases once more what TK is about. The interplay between guitar and keyboards in this track is absolutely fantastic. I can imagine TK's joy when they finally found their keyboard player in Kindl: he's the perfect man for the job!

Offhand, I can't think of any bands to compare Thieves' Kitchen with, and perhaps there lies their strength. The production of the album is spot on, which means it sounds quite good on my crappy speakers! ;-)

Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10  

Closing arguments
This ends the Thieves' Kitchen special. Hope you enjoyed it!
Soundclips from the Head album can be heard on Thieves' Kitchen's website.
You can also directly contact the band by e-mail.

Interview and review: Derk van Mourik
Pictures: Thieves' Kitchen

 


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