It all adds up for math rockers 65daysofstatic

Math rockers 65daysofstatic have evolved a sound and an independent spirit that keeps them free of mainstream industry conventions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 6:46pm

They don't sing and they don't dance, yet they love Girls Aloud; they are punk and reject rock orthodoxy, yet they have been labelled as progressive rock; and, while their live performances can gallop along at heart attack-inducing speed, their songs can last anything up to 10 minutes.

For British band 65daysofstatic, concepts such as genre and style have little currency. They have been called everything from post-rock to math rock to new progressive, but no label has ever really captured the band's essence, according to multi-instrumentalist co-founder Joe Shrewsbury. Even he has trouble describing the collective that has taken up his creative talents since the group's creation 13 years ago.

"We're a pretty strange and radio-unfriendly band," he admits, speaking from their rehearsal studio in Sheffield, the northern English industrial city that has been the group's base since the three original members - the other two are Paul Wolinski and Iain Armstrong - met in late 1999. "But we've stuck with it."

The one thing that definitely can be said of the band is that they are defiantly independent, preferring to record without the help of studios or session musicians and more recently, even raising money to record an album through online crowd-sourcing.

Eschewing rock and pop's traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, 65 (the preferred shorthand of fans) play music that is undeniably rock: guitars howl, synths wail and drums propel complex arrangements through ever-changing time signatures that can slow to a crawl one minute before accelerating to drum'n'bass velocities the next.

True to the template of so-called math rock, 65's tracks are intricate pieces of music rather than songs, which swoop between tempos, keys and even styles. Math rock shares progressive rock's love of space and texture, but doesn't give in to extravagance or indulgence. Also unlike prog, there are no solos, no jams and - thankfully - no Tolkien allusions. Instead, the music is tightly knit and disciplined, but no less expansive in its aural ambition.

65's sound - as fans and first-time listeners will be able to witness when the band play in Hong Kong for the first time, at Kitec in Kowloon Bay on Friday - is informed by punk and electronica, but there are also classical and jazz strains lurking in the background. It's not easy listening, but it is incredibly rich.

"We wanted to mix the excitement of guitar music that was around at the time we formed - things like At The Drive-In - with the more interesting new electronic music that we liked, things like Aphex Twin," says Shrewsbury, referring to the Texan hardcore punk band and British dance specialist Richard James, highlighting the wealth of divergent influences 65's members brought together at their formation. "We wanted to mix the two together to produce that visceral feeling you get with live guitar music."

That was in 1999, when Shrewsbury was trying to put a band together. Through a flyer posted by Wolinski similarly seeking someone to make music with, Shrewsbury teamed up with the Mancunian, who was then a student at Sheffield's university. Armstrong, who left in 2003, and the various musicians who have since supplemented the duo met through mutual friends. The current line-up includes Rob Jones and Simon Wright.

After three years of gigging and remixing tracks for other artists, including unlikely collaborations with pop stars such as Justin Timberlake and Natasha Bedingfield, 65 released their first piece of original work in 2003, the EP Stumble.Stop.Repeat, whose staccato title was a clear indication of the sort of music they were playing at the time.

Their debut album, The Fall of Math, was released to critical acclaim the following year.

"We didn't set out with the intention of being a math-rock band and I'm not even sure I would describe us as such," Shrewsbury says of 65's initial reviews. "I guess we got that label because we have odd time signatures and we don't have any vocals. We actually love pop music - people like Aaliyah, who we remixed, made great pop music that serious music fans could appreciate. There's still a lot like that - I shudder to admit it, but I even like Girls Aloud. It's well-crafted music."

That such an experimental and unclassifiable band should hail from Sheffield should come as little surprise to students of pop geography. The heart of Britain's innovative electronic music revolution in the early 1980s, the city spawned the chart-dominating acts of the British Electronic Foundation - Human League and Heaven 17 among them - as well as industrial pioneers Cabaret Voltaire and smooth-soul revivalists ABC.

"I'm not sure why this city inspires the 'strangeness'," says Shrewsbury. "Although it's a big city, it's off the beaten track. It's definitely not within London's sphere of influence."

Nonetheless, he sees his band as ploughing a lonely furrow. "We don't really feel that much a part of the electronic music scene. We set our sights outside of Sheffield - we looked further afield - and didn't really play in the city to begin with."

After five studio albums and a slew of charting remixes, plus a fearsome live reputation to boot, 65 find themselves in the enviable position of being an acclaimed act with a sufficiently big fan base that allows them to indulge their creative whims without having to satisfy record label demands for a hit.

It's a position the band feel many new upcoming acts will be unlikely to achieve - or even seek.

"We formed right at the end, or just before the end, of the music industry changing, when alternative music was still fairly DIY and when journalists were writing about underground music. Bands these days have more of an infrastructure around them. Many are geared towards image. Back then we were still part of the remnants of the '90s, a more naive era," Shrewsbury says.

Part of the problem, as he sees it, is the lack of adventurousness among radio stations, which he believes are paying attention to commercially lucrative mainstream bands at the expense of left-field, underground groups.

"Things changed when John Peel died," he says of the influential presenter on the BBC's premier Radio One station who championed new and challenging bands.

"On Radio One in the '90s and the Noughties, weirder stuff used to get played. It was also before the internet had as much of an impact on music. Now you just don't hear that music on mainstream radio," he says.

"Bands now seem to be really calculated and savvy. We were just naive kids searching for a noise and an identity that we couldn't find in mainstream music."

As an established act, 65daysofstatic now have room to develop musical ideas and take on demanding and unusual projects, such as the recent composition of a soundtrack for the '70s science fiction movie Silent Running.

That was a commission from the Glasgow Film Festival, which wanted an alternative backing theme to the 1972 ecological drama and was paid for with the proceeds of an online crowd-funding effort, which had sought US$7,500 and eventually raised US$27,000 from fans eager to hear fresh material.

"We used to feel pressure to sell records. We've reached a point now where that's not a priority. We've achieved that through working with independent-minded people - people who don't have that commercial mentality - and not with people who will feed us a lie."

Shrewsbury and Co are now taking their time with the next release. "The older we get, the more minimal the music has become. We are getting better at producing the music we want."

The Silent Running experience has inspired 65 to move even further away from the traditional reliance on label funding to produce new material. "The great thing about the next record is that nobody will be able to tell us that we are going too commercial," Shrewsbury says.

"On the last record we tried to put the music into a more popular template, but we couldn't really do that because the music always takes on a life of its own once we get into the studio. We now say 'f*** it' - we are what we are."

65daysofstatic, Fri, 8.30pm, Music Zone, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$480 (advance), HK$520. Inquiries: 2111 5333