From Bark Psychosis to Boymerang and Beyond: Graham Sutton’s Move from Post-Rock to Drum ’n Bass (and Back Again)

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Randall Roberts
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Bark Psychosis

Space and silence are the most important tools you can use in music.

In 1986, high school mates Graham Sutton and John Ling, both then 14 and attending the same school, united to form Bark Psychosis in East London. It took them eight years, countless practice hours and a series of transcendent, ignored-at-the time singles before they issued their debut album, Hex. True to its name, Hex was bad luck. It broke up the band.

As outlined in release notes to the new Hex reissue, “Bark Psychosis’ sound was born out of their improvisations at makeshift studio within St John’s Church in Stratford. Taking a year to complete Hex left the band on the brink of collapse and by the time of its release they had dissolved.”  

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Hex was mostly missed when it first came out. Grunge, Britpop, hip hop, techno and indie rock were thriving, all of which injected mountains of youthful energy and rebellion into the sound of the 1990s. Hex, on the other hand, was a pensive, deep, reverbed, dub-inspired collection of songs that opened with a gentle piano line that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Windham Hill record.

That year, principal singer songwriter Graham Sutton gave an interview to a US zine called Audrie’s Diary in which he outlined the evolution of Bark Psychosis’ sound.

Me and John had been doing it a couple of years before then started in 1987. When I was 14, I was into Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black and those hardcore bands. Swans … It kind of has quite an impression on you when you’re at that age. When we started it was just a complete sheet of noise. We were like a hardcore band more than anything else. In 1994, right now, I feel like we’re a hardcore band, but hardcore it terms of attitude.

Sutton called 1989 “a hard time” — he was 17 — explaining that “I was turned onto all these great bands. This really loud guitar stuff. But for some reason I just flipped one day, and I realized silence could have a much greater impact than loud noise. I’ve been into dub stuff for fucking ages. Space and silence are the most important tools you can use in music. I just got really obsessed with that. Sonic Youth I was always realty, really into. Mostly their early stuff.” Early Bark Psychosis sets included Napalm Death covers. That changed the band’s direction.

To The Quietous, Sutton added more context about his listening habits: “We were also listening to stuff like Miles Davis, Nick Drake, John Martyn, The The, The Blue Nile, Eno and Budd’s The Pearl, Public Enemy, NWA, Can, Prefab Sprout’s Swoon, Happy Mondays, Talk Talk, James Brown, Parliament and Funkadelic, Lee Perry, Upsetters, Augustus Pablo, dub and sound systems, Psychic TV – obviously accompanied by long sessions of staring at inter-channel TV interference – Kraftwerk, The Sabri Brothers, Steve Reich, David Sylvian, and on and on.”

Bark Psychosis issued their first two EPs in 1990.

Sutton added in the zine interview: “I don’t listen to indie music. I don’t like it and I never have, apart from a few bands. I have always been into more jazz and classical stuff. It’s weird that you mention AR Kane and Talk Talk because I’m really into them…I’ve been into Talk Talk since I was 14 years old.”

Thirty-five years later, Bark Psychosis’ early singles are epiphanies that predicted not just post-rock — critic Simon Reynolds coined the term “post-rock” in a 1994 review of Hex — but connects Talk Talk founder Mark Hollis’ to the nascent shoegaze movement that would thrive a few years later.

You can hear that influence on Hex; a patient record that luxuriates in sound and the absence of it, on the album Sutton’s voice doesn’t come in until 1:45, and when it does, it arrives with a sleepy sigh.

Aside from a set at the 1994 Britronica set in Moscow, the band never played outside of the UK. They disbanded that same year. Below, one of the only live video documents of Bark Psychosis performing live.

“I had very strong ideas about where we should head,” Sutton says of the band’s breakup, “and about how we should approach stuff, and I guess those became stronger and more bloody-minded over time. By the time of Hex, it felt like an all-consuming mission that was to the detriment of mental, physical and financial wellbeing. I can understand how the others might not have wanted to share wholeheartedly in that, but I was passionate and lost in it. If you had a very clear idea of the way something should be, and you couldn’t be persuaded otherwise, why would you acquiesce to just make someone happy?”

The timing was notable. By the mid-1990s, the drum ’n bass movement had consumed England — and Sutton’s creative imagination. Alongside producers including Ed Rush, Optical, Goldie and dozens more, Sutton started making tracks as Boymerang. Featuring frantic 160+ bpm rhythms, tracks like “Soul Beat Runna,” “Urban Space” and “Mind Control,” were as urgent as Bark Psychosis’ music was languid. The deep cut “The Don” is a ringer for Bark Psychosis, in fact.

One excellent connection: Boymerang’s only album, Balance Of The Force, features former Talk Talk and O’Rang percussionist Lee Harris. Also notable: Boymerang’s first release was on a young label founded by Tony Morley called Leaf, which is still putting out records and has issued work by Susumu Yokota, Four Tet, and Caribou.

Sutton, who owned the rights to the Bark Psychosis name, returned to the moniker in the late 1990s, releasing Codename: Dustsucker in 2004. Fire Records just reissued it on 2XLP, and we’re taking preorders on it now at our shop.

Here’s Fire Records’ info on it: “Arriving ten years after the band disbanded, the long-awaited and criminally overlooked follow up brings with it an evolution of their sound. Their experimentations are layered with blissed out electronics, shoegaze, post-rock and jazz are still at its fore as are Sutton’s crystalline vocals. Languid and brooding, the soundscapes are dark and sustained while their ‘trademark cocoon of limpid, rippling guitar figures and jazzy adornment is buffeted by sharp leftward turns’ (Uncut).”

The album was recorded in Sutton’s East London DustSuckerSound studio between 1999 and 2004, and features drummer Harris “and ‘found drumming’ from ex-band member Mark Simnett.”

Because live documents of Bark Psychosis are so rare, here’s a brilliant cover of the band’s track “Street Scene,” from Hex, performed by Chinese experimental artist Dou Wei.

As mentioned, we’re taking pre-orders on the new Fire Records pressings of both Hex and Codename: Dustsucker. Get them while you can, as they’ll go fast.

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