Throughout the 90’s, British duo Ultramarine released a string of albums that blended electronics with traditional instrumentation and elements of jazz, folk and progressive rock music. Comprised of Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond, the group was part of several high-profile tours, such as an opening spot with Bjork and a traveling version of NYC Limelight club night Communion. On their 1993 album “United Kingdoms,” they collaborated with the legendary Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine. But after their 1998 release “A Users Guide,” Ultramarine went into hibernation for over a decade, not releasing anything new until 2013’s “This Time Last Year.” They are currently at work on new material, and performing the occasional live show. In an email interview, Hammond discussed the return of Ultramarine.
There was quite a gap between “A User’s Guide” and “This Time Last Year.” What were the reasons for the period of inactivity, and what made you come back with new music?
Ian and I stopped working together after the “A User’s Guide” album in 1998 and restarted in about 2010. We’d been working pretty much full time on Ultramarine for most of the ‘90s and we gradually got ground down by the business aspect of it. We were signed to Warners for a few years and that gave us some great opportunities but ultimately demoralized us; we didn’t have much commercial sense or a strategy for making it work long term at that level. It’s a shame because I think in retrospect we could have found a way forward but I don’t think anyone had a clue what to do with us!
It was quite a casual idea to start working together again a few years ago. We liked the idea of seeing how Ultramarine would work out using newer technology as so much had changed in that respect since we’d last been active. We restarted with the intention of working on a live set but that got sidelined and we started writing and recording again.
Were either of you involved with other musical projects during the break?
I started a small record label in 2002 called Real Soon, mainly intended to release records by other people but also for some of my own productions. I’ve done records on Real Soon under the name Further Details and Iken and also released a Further Details album in 2008 on Andy Vaz’s label A Touch of Class. Real Soon was intended for House-influenced music on vinyl; some DJ-friendly records and other more abstract stuff that interested me in terms of the production and feel of the tracks. I’m very proud of the output of the label and enjoyed working with some very distinctive producers. The early-2000s were a good time for that type of micro-label but it became increasingly hard commercially what with the rise of downloads and the decline of physical record stores. Real Soon is currently only used for the new Ultramarine material – I don’t really have the time or money to keep both projects active unfortunately.
“Every Man And Woman Is A Star” was recently re-released. Looking back, what are your thoughts on that album? How did the re-issue come about?
I vividly recall doing the initial work on the record, making the original demos, and remember how it came together so effortlessly. We still feel great warmth for the record and for the period it was made in. The late-‘80s and early-‘90s were a great time for dance music in London; hearing House and Techno coming through, which for us linked back to a lot of electronic & experimental music we’d been into in the early-‘80s, and starting to work with samplers which in itself opened up other musical areas to us. I think you can hear a sense of playfulness and joy in the album which reflects the time.
Geoff Travis (Rough Trade) proposed the reissue. We’re great admirers of Geoff and have we’ve kept in touch with him on & off over the years. He gave us some nice feedback about “This Time Last Year” and I presume that’s what prompted the idea of the reissue.
I saw that you did some in-store performances to promote the re-issue, so I assume you’ve been performing the material live (but being in the US haven’t been able to see you play lately!). Do you feel the music from “Every Man And Woman Is A Star” comes across differently at all now, either due to your intentionally wanting to make it fresh, or simply that fact that time has gone by?
Yes, we did a few gigs in 2014 including a couple of in-stores and played tracks from “Every Man and Woman Is A Star” and “This Time Last Year”. Our live set-up is designed to allow us to improvise as much as possible and I think that keeps the old tracks sounding quite fresh and raw. In some ways the recent live versions are in the spirit of the origins of the tracks; we use the original samples and some of the main tunes but there’s quite a lot of other newer stuff woven into them.
Since “This Time Last Year” was done over a decade after your last release, are there any particular ways your creative process or approach differed? Have advances in music technology changed the way you work at all?
The basic workflow of how we write, arrange and produce the music is essentially the same but the technology has helped massively and I think has made the whole process more enjoyable and more creative in a way. Achieving the mix of electronic and acoustic material we had on our earlier albums was incredibly labor-intensive. We didn’t have access to digital audio editing – everything was run live in the studio from an Atari 1040, recording some parts to ADAT and mixing live on the desk. It was quite a revelation when we finally bought a Mac and started using Logic and Ableton; we were years behind everyone else so it took a while to catch up! We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about how we write and record and making the workflow part of the creative process. We concentrate on getting the source material (our instruments) sounding as good as possible and then try to capture ideas and performances as quickly as possible. We don’t spend much time programming parts but concentrate more on the performance, arrangement and production. Technology now allows us to do what we were trying to do twenty years ago with much cruder tools.
Do you feel that you each have defined roles within the band, in terms of writing types of parts or instrumentation, or is it more organically collaborative?
We tend to have defined roles from a technical point-of-view in the studio but the writing process is collaborative in that we’re constantly consulting each other on what we’re doing in terms of parts, sounds, arrangement and production. Ian uses the guitar a lot, I play bass and we also have our favorite instruments & machines, so there is a kind of ‘band’ dynamic in the studio. We do a little bit of work remotely but most of what we do happens when we’re both together in the studio. And, more and more, it’s about us playing live in the studio and recording things as a performance as much as possible.
What was the timeframe of making “This Time Last Year”? Do you feel you had a clear idea as to where you wanted to go with it, or was it more a case of just starting to do music together again to see where it would take you?
We had quite a long build up to the record. We wrote and recorded four songs in 2010, trying to feel our way back into it again. We were quite pleased with those tracks but the palette wasn’t quite right and we hadn’t quite worked out a technical workflow we were happy with. We then did the “Find A Way” 7” single in 2011 and I think that kicked off things properly for us – we felt that we’d found a way of working. We made “This Time Last Year” over about a year and were quite focused on what we wanted. It was written and recorded as an album and was deliberately conceived to work as a 40-minute vinyl LP.
Do you feel there were any new musical influences this time around?
Difficult to say; our influences are always changing and stacking up and they come from all sorts of different styles and periods. Ian and I listen to a lot of different things, all of which feeds into what we do to one degree or another. We’ve used the guitar a lot more recently so I think that’s a new influence that has crept in – we used to be quite anti-guitar! We’re always digging back into styles or periods that we’d half forgotten or missed first time around… so we’re constantly recycling influences and stirring this big soup of ideas about sounds, instrumentation, atmospheres and production ideas.
The music industry itself has changed quite a bit in the time Ultramarine was away. What changes do you think have had the biggest impact on you as a band?
In some ways, it feels like a very good time to be making and releasing music but it’s much, much harder to get noticed or to make it work commercially. Self-promotion is obviously much easier now, which is great for us operating at a much more self-sufficient level than we did previously. I like the feeling that nowadays, because of the relative low cost of making and releasing records, we can be self-sufficient (if we want to be) and have an outlet for the music. But getting noticed is another matter altogether!
What are your future plans? Are you working on more new material? Any chance of you performing in America?
We’re working on new material now and want to concentrate on writing and recording this year. We have a couple of live shows planned this Summer; one is an event on a small island for which we’re writing site-specific music and the other is an Ambient Festival in a forest in the middle of Estonia. We spent quite a lot of last year working on a live set and working out a live technical set-up – we’d like to play more but we don’t have any kind of representation so only really do shows if people ask us directly. We’d absolutely love to play in the US again – nothing planned at the moment but we’d dearly love to make it happen.
For more info, visit the Ultramarine website.