Less a breath of fresh air and more a musical hurricane, the Loose Tubes’ anarchic, genre-defying sound was one of the hallmarks of British jazz in the 1980s and their influence continues to this day. Members of the F-IRE, Loop and Chaos collectives all cite them as a source of inspiration and former Tubes are quick to acknowledge the band’s role in shaping their subsequent careers.
“I was the youngest in the band at the time,” recalls baritone player Julian Argüelles. “I was quite impressionable and it had a huge influence on me. I think I joined when I was 20. I was into Kenny [Wheeler], John Taylor and John Surman, but I was also hugely influenced by the American tradition. Then I joined a band that had some of those influences but also others, like the South African thing, groove and classical music. Composition was also more than just a vehicle for improvisation, which wasn’t new, but it was influential on me to be in close proximity to a different way of looking at things.”
For saxophonist Iain Ballamy, a Tubes member from start to finish, the band’s eclectic repertoire was similarly inspirational. “When Loose Tubes finished it coincided with me realising that what I actually wanted to be was a musician rather than just a jazz saxophone player,” he tells me. “I felt the idea of being a musician in a macro sense was a far greater thing for me to aspire to. Collaborating and finding things that you could do with other musicians seemed much more relevant than trying to recreate American jazz history from 60 years ago – something that was long ago and far away, that I loved but that was never going to be really mine.”
The Tubes went their separate ways in 1990, but last year, almost a quarter of a century after their final performance, they announced their return, with a sell out run at Ronnie Scott’s (“the best week of my life for God knows how long,” in the words of Tubes trombonist Ashley Slater) and appearances at Cheltenham and Brecon jazz festivals. “My best description was that someone let the genie out of the bottle and it was still there,” says Ballamy. “As soon as the banter started it was like nothing had changed.”
That Brecon gig was billed as their last, but on 12 April this year the band surfaced once again, at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival (reviewed here). So are the Loose Tubes here to stay?
“As time goes on the list of places to play will become shorter and shorter,” says pianist and founder member Django Bates (pictured below). “There are 21 people in the band and logistics state that there aren’t that many gigs available to us.” But with the proviso that each performance might be their last they plan to plough ahead. An appearance at Herts Jazz Festival and a second Ronnie Scott’s residency are already confirmed for September of this year and they’re pushing hard for a joint concert with the reformedJazz Warriors, their 1980s big band equals.
July will also see the release of Arriving, the last of three recordings from a farewell run at Ronnie’s back in 1990 and the first to feature new material. “When we played there again last year we had four new compositions,” explains Django Bates, referring to a suite of pieces commissioned by the BBC to mark the band’s return. “Those were recorded on one of the nights and three of them [Eddie Parker’s ‘Bright Smoke, Cold Fire’; Chris Batchelor’s ‘Creeper’ and Django Bate’s ‘As I Was Saying’] will be on the album. At a certain point you’ve got the old Loose Tubes and the old audience going nuts and then that just fades and you have the sound of a harp, then Ashley’s voice… Fast forward 24 years, bringing us up to date with the last three tracks.”
For trumpeter Chris Batchelor the band’s successful return has come as something of a relief. “When the idea of reforming first came up I was probably one of the most sceptical,” he recalls. “I was saying, ‘what if it’s not very good’, which turned out to be unfounded of course. The thing that turned it for me was new music. It’s great for people to hear the band playing old repertoire but you wouldn’t just want to keep going on the hamster wheel of 30-year-old music.”
“If you want to see how the band’s moved on you really need to look at those tunes,” says Iain Ballamy. “I think the writing has got more sophisticated in some cases and in others it’s got more conceptual. They’re exactly the sort of thing that keeps a band moving forward, something hard and rewarding.”
New compositions by Bates and Batchelor both fall into that conceptual camp. In ‘Creeper’ the trumpeter used a single pedal note to subvert other elements in the piece (“you hear them in a different way because of the tension against the tolling note”), while Bates took the last few bars of his final composition for the old Loose Tubes and continued on from there. “That’s why I called it ‘As I Was Saying’,” he tells me, “as if I’d been interrupted in the middle of a conversation for 24 years.”
But concepts weren’t the only things on their minds as they wrote. Both composers gave careful thought to the musicians. “Always with Loose Tubes you were writing for the individual players,” says Bates, “which is not always the case when people are writing large scale works for an orchestra or a big band. Often they don’t really know who is going to be playing third trumpet. But with Loose Tubes all the composers knew the band back to front.”
“People talk about the Ellingtonian principal,” continues Batchelor. “He was writing for Johnny Hodges. It’s a natural outcome of working with people over such a long period of time… The new piece that I wrote was a feature for Julian Argüelles and his baritone sound. There’s a written solo at the beginning, but when I was writing that I was imagining what he would improvise. His improvising has directly influenced what I’ve written for him.”
For Ashley Slater, bespoke parts were always a big part of the band’s appeal. “That was the nice thing about Loose Tubes,” he says. “You were encouraged to display your personality as a player. It wasn’t just any generic part; it was ‘I’ll give that to Ashley because I know he’ll fucking give it one’. We’re all egotistical creatures as musicians. It appealed to us to know that.”
As well as keeping their fellow band members sweet, the composers had the pad to consider. “When I started writing I had perfectly good ideas but I thought ‘that’s one of those and that’s a bit like that’,” says Batchelor, who confesses to throwing many of his early efforts away. “I was trying to find another niche, something we don’t really have.”
That’s easier said than done with a band like Loose Tubes, renowned for the breadth and diversity of their repertoire. As if to prove the point, the trumpeter cites influences as wide-ranging as New Orleans marching bands, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and work with Congolese groups when discussing the inspiration behind his early Tubes work. Slater, who grew up playing in high school stage bands in the United States, hears echoes of Maynard Ferguson and Nelson Riddle and most of the band agree on the influence of Weather Report and its offshoots. “I remember the Jaco Pastorius Word of Mouth big band,” says Batchelor, you had steel pans and there was a choir on there and strings and a harmonica. It made me think differently about what was possible with a big band.”
I tell Bates that the swaying chords in Tubes classic ‘Like Life’ remind me of Jaco’s ‘Three Views Of A Secret’ and he smiles knowingly. “When I first brought that piece to the band I didn’t have that in my mind. Then a few people said, ‘hey, that’s a bit like that’. Around about that time I was living in a house with [Tubes bassist] Steve Berry and he was really into Weather Report. He was always playing every single album from his room as soon as it came out. Every time I was making a cup of tea I could hear these wonderful folky and yet rocking tunes. But there are other things in that tune that come from other places. There are these chunky chords going along in groups of six or twelve and that’s reminiscent of a certain Earth Wind and Fire track, ‘Wait’ from an album called I Am.”
As for the latest raft of Tubes compositions, Bates cites bassist Robin Mullarkey’s band, Brotherly, as an influence (“they’re catchy and popular but also very cheeky, they play around with rhythm even in that environment of pop music”). Batchelor finds ‘Creeper’ more difficult to unravel, however. “It’s hard for me to unpick what’s in there because it’s been on the hob for 20 years. The individual influences aren’t so tangible,” he explains.
So do they plan to write any more for the band this time around? “It depends what happens in the future,” says Bates. “If somebody were to come up with the idea of a tour and make that feasible I’m sure that lots of the band would want to write. The funny thing is that since the old days even more of us have become composers.”
The pool of compositional talent isn’t the only thing that’s changed since Loose Tubes were last on the scene. There’s also been a shift in the band’s following, something they’ve found pleasantly surprising. “When we played at Cheltenham Ashley asked the audience ‘how many of you have seen the band before?’ and it was half or less than half,” says Bates. “I was thinking we were going to see a lot of 60-year-old white men and that would be about it,” Slater scoffs.
For many, it may have been their first Tubes experience of any kind as, prior to these new releases, the band’s music was notoriously difficult to get hold of. “Our first two records were released on vinyl on our own label and never came out on CD and the third… there was some record company coup and it got deleted,” Batchelor explains. “People knew about our music through our other projects but Loose Tubes stuff wasn’t really around. That’s why the live records coming out has been a really good thing. They were laying up in a flat for twenty years. It’s like the dead sea scrolls!”
The striking thing about those recordings is just how fresh they sound today, something Batchelor and Slater attribute to the standard of the writing and the band’s ability to ‘lift things off the page’. “All the best things are impossible to write down,” the trumpeter tells me. “Like Louis Armstrong breaks, it’s really all in the cracks. There are qualities of it that are intangible. In a good band that happens in the playing and the development of the repertoire and that’s something that happened with Loose Tubes.”
“If I listen to old recordings where the people are doing things for the first time in an uncompromising manner they usually have that feeling of freshness for me,” says Julian Argüelles, and refusal to compromise is the key in Bates’ eyes too. “When we were making that music we weren’t trying to be commercially successful,” he tells me. “We did want to shock people, to make them laugh and to make them think, but we never wanted to sell a load of albums. That was a time when quite a few people got deals with record companies and jazz was the new hip thing, maybe for half a year. All of the big record companies jumped on the bandwagon and we didn’t really get involved in that.”
“I sometimes think some of the decisions we made were odd,” he continues, sounding more than a little rueful. “For instance, we would be asked to feature a special guest [he won’t say who], who would have been quite useful for the profile of the band. We’d have a meeting about it and we’d all sit around and say ‘ok, from a musical perspective what’s the point of doing this’? And everyone would go ‘there is no point’. So we’d say ‘right, we’re not going to do it then, decision made’. We were so purist. It’s funny, I don’t know how you can make 21 people all be like that, it was just a coincidence of the people who ended up in the band.”
They claim to have mellowed a little since then and, in the interests of efficient rehearsals, have even relaxed their famously democratic approach and appointed Django as MD. Yet Slater (pictured above) is still very much attached to his role as the band’s politically incendiary master of ceremonies (“it’s in my contract that I have to do some of the announcing,” he jokes) and when it comes to more general matters of political principle Loose Tubes are still not afraid to speak out.
Bates reminisces about the band playing ‘Säd Afrika’ outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square as a protest against apartheid (“it felt totally natural to roll up there with all our instruments, blast that out and make a statement”) and both he and Slater lament the seeming decline of politics in music. “We were known for making statements,” the trombonist observes, “but, dare I say, it was almost fashionable to be like that. Just like it’s not fashionable to be like that now.”
I ask if they plan to do anything about it, but Slater scoffs at the idea: “I don’t think anybody who comes to see us would say, ‘yeah, I’ve gotta get involved in life, man’. I think those people would come along and go, ‘fucking hell, that was pretty nuts’, and it is pretty nuts. That’s the great thing about Loose Tubes. It’s like the weather here: if you don’t like it, hang around for five minutes and you will.”
Yet it’s clear that this reunion is about more than simply making music. Despite the widely acknowledged influence of the Tubes and the long line of jazz collectives formed in their image, when it comes to their legacy, the band still feel they have something to prove. “We felt we’d been written out by some sections of the music press,” says Django Bates after a pause. “There was a thing called Jazz Britannia, a television programme and a big gig in London and we weren’t mentioned and we weren’t on the gig. A lot of the band would say ‘what do you think about that’? It’s a massive wind up, but what can you do? Then a few years later we realised that we can do something. We can come back and set the record straight.”
– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees
– Photos by Tim Dickeson (Loose Tubes at Gateshead International Jazz Festival)
Loose Tubes will appear at Herts Jazz Festival on 18 September and at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho between 24 – 26 September 2015. Arriving is due for release in July 2015 on Django Bates’ Lost Marble Records.