As Britpop petered out and the late 90s charts packed with bland pop, a new self-referential and singular noise was emerging from the Lancashire hills.
First as Element, and then as Transelement, Jay Stansfield, Karl Eden and Mark Tattersall spent a decade creating truly experimental, indefinable and unique music.
Despite a large underground following, the love of John Peel and critical acclaim, Transelement is a band largely lost to the echoes of time.
Transelement is, was, an enigma. A creative force at odds with itself.
The band, like so many others started with school friends and their combined love of music, in 1994. As Karl Eden explains, “[We were] Three school friends united by the common thread of dads with slightly disparate record collections. The planets aligned with the purchase of ‘The complete Beatles songbook’ and a second-hand drum kit. Phase 1 of the band was a live rave group – two keyboards and drums (primitive Add N to X) called Yoghurt.”
“”Our first song was ‘Bingo Rave’, I do recall,” adds Jay Stansfield.
These early dablings in rave sounds, set the band on a career-long fascination with genre-hopping within their music, at times, encompassing electronica, psychedelia, classic pop, alt rock and hip hop all with a definite Lancashire twist.
This regional twist set them apart but also meant local music fans found an affinity with them. The Fall’s final drummer Keiron Melling recalls what he liked about this band that emerged from his local area.
“They had a very mature sound to my ears with intelligent, unexpected arrangements that you’d never hear from a bunch of kids their age. I always thought they were Lancashire’s Cardiacs. I really liked how Jay would sing in our regional accent and not try to hide it. They seemed to be acutely aware of how to use light and shade and are all great players.”
They honed their skills at their local youth club where they found a space to rehearse and develop.
“At the local youth club – we had keys and full autonomy to use the space every Saturday morning. It was truly liberating for a bunch of teenage boys to have their own weekly club house. We rehearsed religiously every week and subsequently honed a very tight live sound. On one occasion Fred Dibnah popped in to use the toilet as he was doing a steam rally nearby. That was a very exciting day,” says Eden.
Stansfield adds, “It was a sad day when we were too old to use it anymore and had to hand the keys back. At least we had Karl’s garage though. That’s where we started getting all math-rock, probably because of the massive spiders in there.”
Playing live at school and local parties acted as the platform for finessing their live performance skills en route to being one of the most underrated live acts of the era.
Venturing out into the wider world Transelement were already competing but also at odds with the system, never fitting in and always confounding expectations.
Eden explains, “Our first real gig (not school based, not party based) was the finals of a national battle of the band in Leeds. We played in front of a huge 1,000 plus strong audience. The night before the gig we saw one of our competitors performing on Blue Peter. We knew at that point it was futile!”
This formative period for the band cemented their DIY and multimedia ethic with home-recorded demos, being released as locally distributed tapes, and self-produced music videos doing the rounds.
I first discovered the band through Dan MacDonald, known to the band as ‘Dan The Fan’ who made me cassette tapes at university featuring bands like Faust, the Beach Boys, Trans Am and a local band he loved called Element/Transelement. As their biggest champion and promoter Dan played an important role in distributing the bands multimedia material in different formats.
Dan explains, “When I first met the band, none of them had a CD burner like me. They were still quite pricey at the time so I transferred a bunch of their early EPs and demos onto CD and did the same for the Peel sessions a couple of years later as I had recorded them onto MiniDisc when they were broadcast on Radio One. Having both John Peel and the band give me a shout out on both their Peel sessions remains one of the proudest moments of my life.
“I also fondly recall introducing the band to MP3s and they returned the favour by having introduced me to the joys of analogue synths.”
In the age before Youtube and ‘vlogging’ the band’s creativity also stretched into the video realm, with them producing weird shorts, animations and documentary footage of gigs including one of their second session for John Peel. Savvy fans were able to grab a collection of these on a video collection called ‘From The Video Incubator Phenomenon’ created by Dan.
Today the only widely available music ‘release’ from that early period is RR-01 originally released in 1998 on the band’s own ultra DIY label Regent Records on cassette tape.
Raw and uncompromising in its eclectic take on alternative sounds the mini-album illustrates the trio’s penchant for dragging stunning melody through the mess of ideas and noise. It also combines youthful humour and bombast with an old head that revels in musical past.
In those early stages nothing was sacred and the band pushed boundaries with ‘far out home recordings’ and experimentation in sound.
This promise was picked up by Glasgow label Creeping Bent (home of The Fire Engines, Adventures in Stereo, and The Nectarine No. 9).
“We sent a bunch of demo tapes out to lots of small record labels – cast the net out and see what came back. Doug (MacIntyre) was picking up on lots of musical references that we hadn’t heard of at the time – Morricone, Axelrod, Sun Ra, Neu!.. he even sent us a few mix tapes of these artists. Unfortunately for him, he offered us a deal before he was fully aware that the live sound was very, very different to the recorded sound! Our first release was a 7″ single called ‘Lord Aparts’ – a Faust-tapes style musique-concrete cut up collage of bits of home recorded material with a vague narrative tying the piece together,” says Eden.
“I fell in love,” explains Creeping Bent Head Honcho Douglas MacIntyre.
There was a whimsical otherness, in part Soft Machine, like a reimagined Northern Canterbury Scene. I listened to a batch of tapes that had been sent to the label, and the raw beauty of Element (as they were then known) was quite magical.
The period in cahoots with Creeping Bent put the band on an upward trajectory and briefly into the mainstream spotlight. ‘Lord Aparts’ received critical acclaim as did 2000’s mini-album Sourblaster which DJ Mag called, ““Lo-fi, high-spirited party music.”
The acclaim was mirrored by legendary DJ John Peel who on hearing ‘Lord Aparts’ called it, simply, ‘weird’.
MacIntyre says Peel was on the band’s wavelength from the start, “John Peel totally got Transelement, started playing the single and got them down to Maida Vale.”
The band would record two separate Peel sessions.
“They were a result of Doug’s connections from his Creeping Bent label and all the great bands coming out of Scotland at the time, with lots of respect and admiration for Postcard Records and the massive indie scene going on. Peel had been playing bands from the label for a while because he was a big fan. God knows how we got involved in all that because we’re hundreds of miles from being Scottish, so we were lucky I suppose. The first session was a live 30-minute-set for Creeping Bent’s fifth birthday celebrations and the second was an invitation to record a more studio based session,” says Stansfield of the sessions.
He calls this period of the band his proudest moment, which is understandable considering how much attention a band producing such indefinable and strange music was getting.
These releases remain some of the most interesting and engaging of the early noughties. Sourblaster is a mind-bending exploration of experimentation in pop and a confusing listen, even to the label. Karl Eden’s story of their booking on Scottish TV show The Beat Room highlights this.
“We featured on a show with Chicks on Speed and Peaches/Feist/Chilly Gonzales but unfortunately didn’t get to actually film the show with them. We’d just agreed a record deal with Creeping Bent records based on some demos we’d sent (of the far-out home studio experiments) and turned up to film the show in Glasgow as a rock band.. I think poor Doug (Mr Creeping Bent) was expecting an electronic performance more in line with the Kitty-Yo Berlin electronic sound of the other artists, not a loud proggy type show. Sorry.”
Shortly after this period the band departed ways with Creeping Bent and were forced to change their name to Transelement.
“There was a Death in Vegas solo project touring the festivals one year called Element – he ‘asked’ us to change our name. After much pontification we changed. Apparently Transelement refers to changing elements or transmutation. It seemed appropriate,” explains Eden.
But rather than confusion this new name brought forth a new focus and consolidation of sound leading up to 2001’s Ouaqui Paetes, a collection created specifically for MP3.com as the music format became more popular. Ironically, and in true Transelement fashion, despite the new format orders still came on CD through the post!
The album is a further exploration of the band’s potential and full of surprises, weaving the summery pop of the Beach Boys into the already overflowing mix of inspirations. Its tracklist comprises of big alt-rock tunes like ‘Naughty Thingz’, electronic darkness with ‘Loxit’, haunting instrumentals like ‘Chongo’s Haunto Pengo’ and psychedelic folk with ‘God In A Courtroom’. Over it’s 14 songs it journeys through innumerable ideas and also, by creating early versions, laid the groundwork for their next release proper.
Alongside the recorded successes the band had been developing a growing reputation as a brilliant live prospect, taking their penchant for experimentation to venues across the UK. Even to small crowds Transelement brought showmanship from stage décor to specially recorded video projections that fit with the set to add another layer to the performance.
In their time, the shared the stage with The Fall and opened for kindred spirits Oceansize at the launch party for their debut album Effloresce.
It is during this period, with my then housemate Dan The Fan, I was involved in putting the band on at the Bivouac venue in Lincoln with Birmingham’s Misty’s Big Adventure in February 2002. The band stayed at our house and we spent the night talking about music and introducing each other to new sounds.
The set was recorded directly through the venue’s sound desk. As one of the highest quality bootlegs doing the rounds at the time, the live album Live In Lincoln gained an international underground following and several radio plays.
A year later the band, now working with Soviet Union Records, finessed the songs from Ouaqui Paetes and their live sets to create the critically acclaimed Pendletones. Receiving an eight out of ten review in the NME, the magazine called it “a bright burst of leftfield creativity.”
With the addition of Alan Whitham on bass, Pendletones had added depth and further explored pastoral pop and the epic sounds of bands like Love to create a truly beguiling and modern psych album.
The artwork on the adorning cover was a sculpture of Pendle Hill created by Mark Tattersall.
The following year the band called it a day, but not before releasing the mesmerising two-part travel concept album 8 Songs About Travel on Eli Records. These two records combined showed the band’s potential to weave the experimentation into something more commercially palatable.
At, what could be considered the height of their powers, why did one of Britain’s most interesting underground bands call it a day? For Karl Eden it was the same push-and-pull of creativity that made them a success that ultimately killed them off.
“Artistic differences… no really! The Transelement collective was very insular and self-referential and had been for nearly a decade so something had to give. There were different agendas for the band – ultimately I had accepted the nature of the furrow we were ploughing was never going to be commercial or financially viable but was happy enough to keep going and use the band as a vehicle for further sonic exploration and experimentation. However, this could no longer become a priority over ‘growing up’ and getting our shit together. The alternative argument for this is that, similarly we weren’t going to financially sustain ourselves with the style we were playing so, why not hone this sound into a far more commercially viable package. This dichotomy ultimately drove an unresolved divide.”
Could the band have ever made a commercial dent? As they fizzled out they were in the process of completing (_____) is Missing!, an album that in the emerging world of music blogs and specialist radio channels like BBC 6Music surely had a chance?
“We were done before the record was really finished and finalised and who would be interested in releasing an album with no existing band to promote?”, explains Eden.
Jay Stansfield adds that it just wasn’t going to work in the band’s climate: “We wanted it to [release the album] but circumstances just made it impossible and by that point the band had pretty much broken up.”
Tracks from the album appeared on compilations and interest in the band gave this unreleased Transelement record a near mythical status amongst fans of leftfield rock. Was it as good as the snippets suggested?
This was answered in 2010 when the album was finally made available digitally for free on Bandcamp alongside the band’s whole catalogue.
(_____) Is Missing! is undoubtedly the band at their very best, a prog masterpiece woven with the influence off all their aural explorations to date. It deserves to sit in the collection of anyone interested in the more leftfield of the rock spectrum.
Listening to their music today it seems strange they didn’t hit the heights of success, as Douglas MacIntyre explains, “All three members were incredibly talented, their youthful disregard for norms was incredibly appealing. I think their music will be rediscovered and re-evaluated one day, and if by releasing their first recordings Creeping Bent did anything to help, then I will have belatedly achieved my mission.”
But something, despite all this talent, must have hindered their rise? Keiron Melling has some thoughts.
“I don’t think people were ready for it back then. If I think about those days, people were listening to shite like happy hardcore and some muppet on a Live at Wigan Pier tape, trying to think of words that rhymed with ecstasy! I think it was hard to find the right platform for alternative music aside from John Peel. Much like the world of Jazz.
“There seems to be a much bigger alternative scene these days, or at least more accessible with stations like 6Music willing to give unknown artists a shot and how easy it is to listen to KEXP in Seattle or Henry Rollins Show on KCRW. The internet has changed the game on how easy it is to get your music out there, but I’d say social media such as Facebook is a great way to connect to the people interested directly. Transelement would have a much better chance with success now.”
With the vast majority of the band’s material available for free on the internet and several whole mind-blowing albums sat on the shelf having never received the full physical release it must be time for the nostalgia engine to kick into gear for Transelement!
They certainly deserve a renaissance.