Isn’t it great when, by some devious strategy of the universe, something new and unexpected finds its way into your music collection?
Recently I discovered that a chap who sells me records on a regular basis has another life as an active and productive Goth musician. In fact his band, Subterfuge, recently released an album.
In my ignorance, I always associated Goths with white foundation, eyeliner overuse and none-more-black clothes. Oh, and an absence of smiling. But I bought a copy of Blind To Reason out of a mysterious blend of loyalty and curiosity and discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that I enjoyed it. Very much.
Like Joy Division or parts of the Ultravox catalogue, this is downbeat music, sometimes relentlessly so, but the implication of a flat sameness across the genre could not be further from the truth.
Blind To Reason opens with mid-paced rocker “This Long Hour”. Powerful drums, synth underpinnings and an impassioned vocal from singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Clifford Ennis really demand attention.
The ensuing songs maintained interest right through to the religion-thumping closer “Guilty By Association”.
Along the way, my favourite tracks included “Unhinged”, evoking Ultravox’s classic “Vienna” but with more urgency, the title track’s melancholy piano and guitar, the horror movie (synth) strings in “Jealousy”, and the righteous anger of the afore-mentioned closing song. But I think the track I enjoyed most was “Vow”, a slow pulsing song of lost connection and anguish infused with simmering rage. I really like Ennis’s voice in his upper register; there’s a commanding presence that is complemented in this piece by the subtle keyboard work and a brilliant drum sound.
All-in-all, I’ve found Blind To Reason a thoroughly satisfying journey into anguish and ire. So much so that I inveigled Clifford Ennis into an interview. He consented, on the condition that I washed off the make-up.
Thanks for talking to Vinyl Connection, Clifford.
I read a review of the new album Blind To Reason that made so many references to niche genres and other bands I ended up utterly bewildered. How would you describe the music of Subterfuge in 25 words or less?
Dark, alternative, guitar based goth rock with a semi-discrete synth coating. Saturated in melancholy both musically and lyrically. Moody as fuck.
Excellent summary, and with words to spare. But what does it mean to be a goth band in 2017? Was it different when you started in the early 90s?
The arrival of the internet has made a huge difference for the better. It’s made the world a much smaller place. Though as a result fanzines have fallen by the wayside, which is sad. They were a big part of the 90s scene. Most of the better ones didn’t take themselves too seriously yet provided decent exposure for bands via reviews and interviews. There are similar zines online but I miss the physical articles, some were very DIY in appearance but you could tell they were lovingly made by people with a passion for the music.
On a personal level, we had high hopes initially. Goth bands were few and far between in Australia in the early 90’s so we felt there was a gap to be filled. We achieved that… to a point. Our first CD came out in 1994 and it did well but we failed to capitalise on the momentum by not following up that release with an album. I blame laziness and lack of cash. These days I’m more realistic about what I’m doing and where it may lead. I’m no longer aiming to “fill a gap” but simply trying to please myself. One strange development is how the lyrics are more melancholic and angst-ridden now, despite me being much older. Guess I’m turning the idea of teen angst on its head.
Middle-aged angst. Sounds familiar. How did you come to align with this particular sub-culture/music?
Many moons ago in the 1980s, myself and school friend / original member Brendan started talking about being in a band. We liked all sorts of music but really wanted to be a punk band. We wrote some songs and they were catchy but not very punk at all. Then I heard The Sisters of Mercy and it became clear I wanted to play that sort of music. I don’t even think we were even aware it was called goth when we first heard it; as far as we were concerned it was all “Alternative”. Then, when I started to go out to clubs in the late 80’s I was gradually drawn to the dark side.
The Darth Vader effect, eh? Clifford, let’s get even more historical. Your Dad was in a Liverpool Beat group in the early-60s…
He was indeed. Even made a living out of it. Imagine that! He was in a number of bands but it was with The Cyclones that he released a 7” single (VC: listen here, it’s great!) and toured extensively around the UK. They also played the Star Club in Hamburg in 1964; Ray Charles, The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino and The Searchers were also playing. In 1964 he played a staggering 250 gigs! His bands toured alongside some well-known artists who had Top 10 Hits. The Cyclones shared the bill with many famous bands, including The Rolling Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and The Hollies.
And yes, he saw The Beatles play a few times back before they released their first album. On one occasion John Lennon and Paul McCartney came to see one of his earlier bands play, back in 1962 or very early ’63. The story goes that Lennon & McCartney bet his band five pound they couldn’t play a particular song. Dad’s band nailed it but Paul didn’t have money so wrote an IOU. So if your reading this, Sir Paul, you owe my Dad a fiver plus interest.
What did your Dad make of your musical tendencies?
I’m honestly not sure what Dad made of my musical tendencies. Back in the early 80s he bought me a guitar for my 11th or 12th birthday. I was hoping to get Space Invaders and was rather disappointed, but it turns out the guitar I got that day was probably the best present I’ve ever had. It seems parents sometimes do know best. I hope my pursuing a life in music has been pleasing to him, though he hasn’t really voiced an opinion on the type of music I play. My parents tended to let me get on with my life and never tried to push me in one direction or the other, apart from telling me to work hard and do well at school.
Sound advice. Did you follow it?
I ignored it entirely.
What music excited you as a youth?
The first song I truly loved and just had to go out and purchase was the single “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie in 1980. I was 10 years old and every time it was on the radio I sat there with my ear to the speaker taking it all in. Eventually I mustered the 99p to go out and buy the record. Since then there have been numerous songs and bands that have excited me but if I were to narrow it down to a few I’d say PIL and Sex Pistols were significant obsessions; I also had a Smiths period, before I went all dark and moody with Joy Division and The Sisters of Mercy.
Tell us a little about your instrumental palette and recording process for Blind To Reason.
The album is guitar based (the songs were mainly written on guitar) but there are also plenty of synth sounds rearing hydra heads throughout the album. Most songs have real bass guitar plus synth bass on a couple. Acoustic guitar even makes an appearance on two tracks. I recorded as much as I could in my home studio but some of the finishing touches and all the vocals were done at Toyland Studio. I still use the faithful old Yamaha SY77 synth at home. And the same drum machine from the 90s (DR-660) was used to programme the drums, however the drums were greatly improved by the engineer at the studio.
The bottom end is massive, it really fills the room. Were powerful bass and drums part of your original vision, or something that developed as you mixed the songs?
Initially I concentrated more on the actual content of the songs as opposed to what I wanted the overall feel of the album to be so the tone is something developed in the studio. Most of the credit goes to the engineer at Toyland Studio, Adam Calaitzis. He knows what he’s doing and understood what I wanted. With the mixing, I largely let him get on with what he does best. I couldn’t be more pleased with the finished product and Adam voiced that he was proud of the outcome too.
The lyrics throughout Blind To Reason are pretty downbeat; not much about rainbows or being lucky in love. Themes of betrayal and disenchantment abound. Personal statement, or are you channelling universal angst?
A bit of both. There is a fair chunk of “personal” on this album. Over the years, across 4 different bands, there has been more than 5 albums worth of lyrics. Blind To Reason is probably the most personal I’ve been to date. The half that is not personal is aimed at organised religion.
The themes of betrayal and disenchantment are most certainly there but if you delve a little deeper you’ll find moments of enlightenment and realisation. The drive to move on to better things while learning to discard whatever or whoever is a waste of time and energy.
So most definitely no songs about “rainbows or being lucky in love” but quite frankly, if you look around at what’s happening in the world at the moment, I don’t really see much to sing joyously about.
True enough. We’re bound for hell in a (black) handbag and no mistake. Now, someone once observed that the entire goth sub-culture could be wiped out by a course of anti-depressants. Cruelly unfair or a reasonable mental health initiative?
I believe I’ve heard that before, was it a comedian said it? Actually, it could apply equally to comedians!
It is probably an unfair perception—not every goth mopes around all day—but it was said in jest so I wouldn’t label it “cruelly” unfair. I don’t believe any goths were harmed in the making of that joke.
A more serious version of that question might mention catharsis and the channelling of suffering into art…
Talking about art, tell us a little about the album design.
The first task was deciding what to call the album. Initially I didn’t want to have one of the songs also be the album title but I succumbed because “Blind to Reason” fitted perfectly. It connected the personal songs and those taking a swipe at religion. Having decided on the title, I thought long and hard about what to do for the cover and came up with sod all. I wanted to avoid going for the stereotypical graveyard shot but it was looking more and more likely as the album inched closer to completion. Then one day I chanced across the image which eventually became the cover. The more I fiddled with the image, the more it grew on me. I enjoyed doing the artwork, or at least as much of it as my abilities would allow. The whole process was quite satisfying.
With a new album comes the inevitable question about performance. Any plans?
Considering we last performed in the 90s, I think playing live would take far too much time and effort for this not-so-young luddite to bring to fruition. Even if I wanted to, Rick the guitarist is currently off the grid, making things extra tricky. Any live performances involving me will be with another band I’m in called Ikon, where I play guitar. Ikon have toured overseas a few times, but I can’t see Subterfuge playing live. I’m happy for it to remain a studio band like Razorfade, yet another band I’m in.
Not much time for moping with that many projects on the go! To finish, let’s talk merch. Where can folk get hold of the LP/CD?
Outside of those cities, best to visit the Subterfuge website
There’s our bandcamp page as well.
What about the rest of the world?
Well the webshop has no borders, of course (VC: And prices in Euros too!). Some of the distribution partners in Europe also supply the USA but I’m not sure which outlets are stocking it. About 90% of sales are to Europe so that’s the focus. In the UK, it’s available through Resurrection Music. I really should try harder to build sales in America but I’d rather be moping than marketing.
Thank you Clifford, main man (in black) of Subterfuge.