Catching Up With The Incredible String Band
This fall, almost exactly 30 years after their September 1974 breakup, the
Incredible String Band reunited to tour the U.S., Britain
and Europe with a lineup that features original members Mike Heron and
Clive Palmer (but not Robin Williamson), and keyboardist Lawson
Dando. Heron, interviewed by phone in Atlanta recently, said that
concerts have focused on what he calls "the strong core material" from the
band's first six albums, for the first time ever.
The reunion kicked off at a New Year's celebration in Edinburgh in 2000,
when festival promoters signed up Williamson and Palmer for a
show, then asked Heron to join them so that the band could be billed as the
Incredible String Band. Heron agreed, and the concert was scheduled. However,
when the three played the traditional country and jug band music that brought
them together, fans hungered for classic Incredible String Band tunes like "Chinese White," "Ducks on a Pond" and "A Very Cellular Song," all tracks that hadn't been played consistently since their
heyday in the 1960s.
Heron began adding his older songs into the set lists during a series of
UK concerts that spanned 2000 to 2002, but bandmate Williamson
refused. "In the latter stages, it got to the point where I was doing all
my old songs, and he was doing all new songs," remembered Heron. "So it
was kind of hard, when people would travel hundreds of miles to hear 'The
First Girl I Loved' and we just wouldn't do it." Because of that difference in direction, coupled with Williamson's family obligations, Williamson left the tour in 2002, and Heron and Palmer continued.
While Heron admits that he misses Williamson's contribution, he says that
the experience of performing older Incredible String Band songs has been
uplifting and novel. "In the nine years we were going, we made 13
albums. It wasn't unusual then. People did that kind of thing," he
explained. "So every time we played, we were doing the new material from
the new album on Warner Bros. or Elektra or whoever we were signed to at
that time. So the strong stuff didn't get played that much, maybe five or
six times. So it's been great to be playing the strong stuff in a chunk. A solid hour and a half."
All of the songs in the set have been rearranged for the current, smaller
configuration of the Incredible String Band, with just Heron, Palmer and
Dando touring (for UK dates and the upcoming record Nebulous
Nearness, the band expands to include a violinist and a bass
player). In addition, they've been slightly adapted to avoid the staleness
that sometimes comes from revisiting old songs.
"It Could Be," for instance, now strides a banjo cadence, which serves as the rhythmic underpinning of the song; other familiar songs have been similarly reinterpreted. "We play what the fans want to hear, plus a little bit more," Heron said. "It's the material they want to hear that could have been done in a kind of churned-out way, but it's done in a fresh way with new ideas in there."
These core songs were mostly written in the mid-to-late 1960s, during a
fruitful and exceptionally experimental period in psychedelic music. The
Incredible String Band began with roots in traditional country and jug band
music, and their first album, 1966ís The Incredible String Band, was heavily
influenced by these styles. The band broke up briefly afterwards, as banjoist
Clive Palmer traveled to Afghanistan and Williamson to Morocco. Williamson returned
with a collection of exotic instruments and a fascination with world music, and
when the Incredible String Band resumed, they became far more
"At that time, the climate was such that adventure in music was really
expected," Heron recalled. "Our manager ran UFO, a club in London, and
they had bands like Pink Floyd and the Move and sitar players and modern
classical quartets all kinds of music were accepted. And out of this
climate came Sergeant Pepper and Her Majesty's Request and
Pink Floyd. We were right in the middle of that whole psychedelic
thing...which was great for creativity and for trying new things."
Heron says that he and Williamson, fresh from the country, were once
invited to an apartment in London, where several young men sat playing
guitars. One musician asked them to jam, and attempting to be "cool,"
Heron turned them down. "It was Eric Clapton," said Heron. "We felt a bit
silly about that later."
With their second album, 5000 Spirits, the Incredible String Band
began to explore the fantastical childhood narratives and subtle mood
shifts that became their signature style. "I was interested in creating the
kind of journey when you took acid...'Cellular Song' is like that, where it
goes through these slightly dark moods and comes out at the end with a
goodwill prayer to the world."
During this period, the Incredible String Band shared stages with bands
like Pink Floyd, Cream, and many others. They appeared at Woodstock in
1969, a performance many fans found disappointing. "By the time we got to
Woodstock, we were doing fairly obscure tracks from our later albums, and
we didn't do anything from our first six albums at Woodstock."
In the late 1960s, both Heron and Williamson and their respective
girlfriends became involved in Scientology, a shift that many people
believe signaled the end of the band's most creative period. Also, as the
music industry became dominated by large-scale stadium tours, the
Incredible String Band found themselves an increasingly poor fit with the
zeitgeist. On their last tour, they opened for Three Dog Night in a series
of football arenas, a setting that neutralized their traditionally strong
communication and connection with fans. Yet long after their breakup in
1974, the Incredible String Band continued to influence musicians, and
today many of the people involved in the psychedelic folk movement
Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Espers, Jack Rose and the members of the
Animal Collective draw inspiration from it.
Bobby Matador of the band Oneida, which once named a song "Rose &
Liquorice" after two female members of the Incredible String Band, says "No
band has more failed imitators than ISB in the indie world. I mean, they
really invented the world of psychedelic folk, and originally pulled
it off in a way that nobody has approached in 35 years, except
maybe Animal Collective or Tower Recordings."
He added, "Personally, I discovered them by buying a bunch of one-dollar LPs at a library book
sale, just out of curiosity, and having my mind blown. I immediately went
on an ISB rampage, and fortunately this was at a time when it was easy to
find their records for cheap in any record store. I got obsessed, turned my
bandmates on to them, and we went ahead and wrote/recorded our Anthem of
the Moon album under a serious ISB haze. They're basically responsible
for all the weird acoustic songs that have cropped up on our albums since
then, as well as for my growing collection of odd acoustic instruments."
More cryptically, but with enthusiasm, Devendra Banhart added this tribute
to the Incredible String Band, "Happy Birthday! not noodlemisters but Epic
lizard man songs traversing the new universe holding sarods, our old hopes
tightly, fiddles, chimes, udes, bagpipes, baby boars, banjos, mead,
invisible ropes and on and on OH in this sweetcheese pond lies a perfect
reflection of trueTRUE love! Happy Birthday Old Baby!"
The Incredible String Band are touring the U.S. through the end of
October, before moving to the UK in November and Spain in December (for a
complete list of dates and venues, see www.incrediblestringband.com). In
conjunction with their tour, the Incredible String Band have released
Nebulous Nearness, their first official live album ever, on Amoeba
Recordings. Recorded in Peter Gabriel's Real World Studio in front of a
live audience of 200 people, the album like the current show pulls
together many of the band's most popular songs. In addition, Clive Palmer just released a new solo album called All Roads Lead to Land on Communion Records on October 12. Jennifer Kelly [Monday, October 18, 2004]