At birth, Imperial Wax was overshadowed equally by a blessing and a curse. Despite being very much their own entity, they were never going to be able to avoid the connection to Mark E Smith.
Three of the Imperial Wax players had served in the longest line-up of The Fall, under the direction of the legendary rabble-rouser Mark E Smith. On Smith’s untimely death, Keiron Melling (drums), Dave Spurr (bass) and Pete Greenway (guitar) were left in limbo, but with the addition of Sam Curran on vocals, they emerged with the fractious post-punk, garage and rock n roll noise of Imperial Wax.
Spurr explains the shock of losing the lifeforce of their musical unit and what made them carry on. Did they always intend to continue on Smith’s death?
“Absolutely not, no,” explains Spurr. “We were all certain that Mark was going to get better and there were plans in place to get into a studio and work on a new album. When Mark passed away, we weren’t ready for it at all, and for me anyway, there was suddenly a massive void in my life where Mark and the Fall had been.
“I couldn’t even think about music for quite a while after he died and I didn’t play a note for months. It was a great comfort having Pete and Keiron to talk to though and us reminiscing about our adventures with Mark really helped. This is probably the reason we decided to carry on making music with each other. We’d had such a fantastic time and learnt so much that it felt right to carry on.”
There can be few void’s as “massive” as the one left by Mark E. Smith, but the remaining members still had the connection and the creative urge to make noise. As often happens, a chance meeting between Melling and Curran at Colne Beer Festival completed the puzzle to create the full Imperial Wax picture.
“He came over to offer words of condolence for Mark and we ended up having a good chat,” says Melling.
“It was months later when we decided to get a singer after initially thinking of being an instrumental group. I remembered talking to Sam and thought his voice and style could fit well with what we do. We had one jam together and decided he was in. The next time we played together was in the studio recording the album.”
And debut album Gastwerk Saboteurs has the vital air of a band trying to prove something, not dwell on what has been but plug in and unleash hell. There’s the angular fabric of the Fall, but the repetition is dropped in favour of fuzz, riffs and bombast. The anger and frustrations are less sardonic and much more visceral in Curran’s hands.
Greenway explains Curran’s dynamic with the band. “We all agreed that Sam would be a good front man, with a voice that fits our style. He’s also a very cool guitar player which has helped expand our sound and made us a very loud band.
“We were after someone who could influence our music and take it away from the driving repetition that we used in The Fall. Imperial Wax is very much a meeting of two minds, Sam and us.”
With the new unit in place, while the Fall connection immediately got people’s attention, leaving the shadow of a legendary band was also a challenge. Greenway sees the positive to come from their devastating loss.
“It’s a privilege, as a new band, to have the exposure and coverage that we know is all down to our history. Journalists mostly found us invisible when there was a Mark E Smith shaped object in the room. We don’t mind talking about it now,” he says.
Spurr flips the coin, stating that they don’t want the past to dictate the future, “I don’t want to be perceived as some sort of Fall tribute act or anything like that. We were approached to do something like that early on and it was a definite no-no. That’s never something any of us were interested in. The name is a nod of respect to Mark and what he did for us, but we are a completely different animal. We just want to make the music we want to make and hopefully, people will want to listen and enjoy it.”
“Mark Smith was our boss and the leader of The Fall. Imperial Wax has no leader,” adds Greenway touching on an important point Fall fans want to know about this new band. Without the “dictator” figure of Smith, how was approaching this different?
Greenway dispels some myths about the Fall frontman, “We approached our new LP the same way that we did with every Fall LP that we worked on, it’s the only way we know. Contrary to popular belief, Mark gave us a lot of freedom in the studio, as could do what we wanted, pretty much. Mark would then control the end process, ending cuts and twists and turn it into a fall record. He had a knack of retaining the unproduced sound of the session, leaving it raw. Gastwerk Saboteurs is a more polished stone, in contrast.”
And while Gastwerk Saboteurs retains the raw edge it is a different beast. A tightly wound and polished condensing of the best and most vital elements of rock n roll. Lyrically, Imperial Wax is a different beast, as well as Melling, explains.
“Sam writes most of the lyrics, which are concerned with mental suppression in relation to how the artifice of social media/current society is used to suppress thoughts and emotions by reducing human life to an image/caricature. We have all become voyeurs and objects, we are the subjects of our own voyeurism.”
Take the album track ‘Saying Nothing’ which on the surface appears to be an attack on the modern phenomenon of the keyboard warrior. Are the band taking on a problem, here?
“It’s not a problem, more of a fascination of what a person will do behind the shield of anonymity. The only way to deal with it is to laugh, get a little bit depressed at the human condition, then move on,” Greenway explains.
“We didn’t set out to be any particular thing, let alone a political band, although in these polarised times the political can sometimes be personal. I find that a lot of people nowadays can get highly emotional when talking politics, ask anyone after the fifth pint. A lot of people are very angry about things they know very little about.”
Everything was slotting into place, and legends kept coming into the band’s orbit. Their first live excursion was backing former Can frontman Damo Suzuki.
“There couldn’t have been a more perfect way to start Imperial Wax,” remembers Greenway. “His improvisational style suited the way that we work, a lot of our music comes from extended jams and having an invitation to play with someone who had influenced Mark and The Fall was too good an opportunity to pass on.
“He told us before the show, by way of instruction, that he made “anti-music”, we were up for the challenge.”
Since then their live shows have been rapturously received, with a groundswell of support from Fall fans and people checking out this band new band, alike. With very little recorded music out in the world to date, these live shows have been Imperial Wax’s promotional ground.
Their connection with record label Saustex also came from connecting with the legendary, this time through a chance meeting between Melling and Jeff Pinkous of Melvins at one of the band’s shows.
“I got chatting to Jeff who suggested Saustex as a good home for Imperial Wax. He’s a friend of Jeff Smith, the frontman of Hickoids, who is the big boss man of Saustex! SHOUT OUT TO HICKOIDS,” he says.
And that’s it, the rest, as they say, is history! From loss, Imperial Wax have renewed themselves and are about to release a record that would have got Smith’s stamp of approval and will get that praise from any fan of rock n roll. Live and recorded this is a (old) new band ready to create their own history.
As new memories are made, we end by discussing strange occurrences from their time in the Fall. Melling has one particular story to tell, weaving yet another legend into the narrative.
“I remember one particular weird moment when we were on tour then went straight in Konk Studio. I was wearing a Fall t-shirt with a picture of Mark on it from the merch, due to Dave spilling whisky down my shirt in the van.
“I jokingly challenged Mark to a game of ping pong which he took me up on! So Mark E Smith is at one end, I’m obviously at the other but wearing a t-shirt with Mark on it, Pete was the referee and Dave’s fashioning me a shaker from a pot noodle packet as a sorry present for the whisky mishap, when, (Sir) Ray Davies walked in to say hello and was a true gent. He even gave us Kinks records each. It’s the first and only time I think Mark was a little star struck. I certainly was!”
Gastwerk Saboteurs is out via Saustex Records on 17th May 2019
Catch Imperial Wax on tour:
Thursday 30th May – Huddersfield, The Parish
Friday 31st May – Manchester, Night People
Sunday 2nd June – Brighton, Prince Albert
Monday 3rd June – Bristol, Rough Trade
Thursday 6th June – London, The Islington
Friday 7th June – Cardiff, Clwb Ifor Bach
Thursday 13th June – Glasgow, Broadcast
Friday 14th June – Newcastle, Think Tank? Underground