1999 may not go down in history as one of the great years for music – its top selling singles are a miscellany of sugary pop, limp boyband ballads, irritating novelty hits and Cliff Richard, while its biggest albums mix some of these acts with remnants of the music industry’s reluctance to let the doddering, worn-out beast of Britpop die.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom however, as away from the increasingly turgid and derivative mainstream indie sound that had dominated the front pages of the music press for the second half of the decade, a fertile underground had developed, even breaking through to the surface every now and again – the previous year Pulp had befuddled expectations with the glorious comedown album This Is Hardcore and Mansun had unveiled labyrinthine concept album Six, and behind the scenes Radiohead were working on Kid A, a record that was released the follow year to howls of betrayal from indie purists and rapturous cheers from those looking to expand their musical horizons.
In the midst of all that came Ultrasound, and their debut album Everything Picture – a sprawling double album wonder that raised a middle finger at the, frankly ludicrous, idea that they might become the ‘next Oasis’. Uncompromising, epic in scale and outlook, poignant and not afraid to rock the fuck out when the mood took it, Everything Picture was an important record for me on my own journey from the easy thrills of bouncy chart-bound guitar pop to music that demanded more of me as a listener but gave that time and effort back many times over. Without it and others that gave me that thrilling shove out of my Britpop comfort zone at that time, you probably wouldn’t be reading this now.
21 years on, the album recently received a deluxe reissue on One Little Independent Records, featuring an eye-watering 37 tracks including b-sides, rarities and live tracks alongside a 26 page booklet and poster. We caught up with Tiny and Vanessa from the band to reflect back on the time of the original release and what has changed in the intervening years.
How did the reissue of the album come about?
Tiny: Ben Knight from One Little Independent approached us a couple of years ago and asked us for our involvement in the project, which meant a lot of searching through old boxes for archive material and original tapes, leading eventually to compiling artwork (thanks Fei) and remastering (Dick Beetham at 360). There were delays along the way thanks mostly to covid and various political disasters but we got there in the end.
How did it feel revisiting the album and sifting through recordings and other materials for the booklet?
Tiny: Obviously none of us had heard most of this material very much over the years so it was quite a revelation hearing just how good it sounded, especially the remastered versions of a lot of the tracks featured on the extras discs. I have tried my best to keep some sort of archive of old photos and press cuttings etc, and much of it has got lost along the way, however there is still more that can possibly be utilised for the 50th anniversary box!
Looking back to the album’s original release in 1999, what do you think made the album stand out amongst the other guitar bands of the time?
Tiny: I find it a bit weird differentiating “guitar” bands from every other kind of band out there. The fact that bands have or don’t have guitars seems irrelevant. The problem is that most record companies don’t have much imagination and are scared of risk so when Oasis got big the country was scoured for other bands that fit that particular bill, hence a plethora of bands like Northern Uproar, Embrace, Stereophonics etc… lads with attitude, all falling over themselves for that 4 minute slice of Britpop glory. Along with the more esoteric acts out there like Pulp and Cardiacs, we were the antithesis of all that, and I think that is probably why we were remembered to a select few, and destined to become a bit of a cult.
Vanessa: If you are one step ahead you are a genius, if you are two steps ahead you are mad. We just followed our hearts.
Where there any bands back then that were on a similar wavelength or that you felt a sort of kinship with?
Tiny: At the time I definitely felt a kinship with Super Furry Animals and Dawn of the Replicants, who were approaching a more psychedelic vibe, and of course everyone was pretty much hanging on the coat-tails of Radiohead, with whom we shared a booking agent. Although it never happened at the time unfortunately, I would still love to support them. We hung around with Warm Jets, Arnold, Libido and Kenickie a fair bit, and I listened to Clearlake and Sunhouse a lot at the time. Many of our fans were also fans of bands like Manic Street Preachers and Mansun, and I can kind of see why, as they also had a tendency towards big epic sounds with glam/prog elements.
What do you think the album’s legacy has been?
Tiny: I guess the most important thing, certainly as far as our fans are concerned, is the freak flag. Music is our domain and it’s very often all that we have, and it constantly gets taken away from us by careerist bullies, and so every now and again us weeds peek up through the cracks and hold hands for a short time and shine in the sun, before being stamped back down underground, while cynical hacks laugh through their perfect teeth and ask themselves how the hell did that happen. Us and people like us light a little flame that burns brightly in the hearts of those who believe and give us knowledge that we’re not alone, and hope that one day we too might take our place among the honoured and shine for others.
Vanessa: Fitting in is overrated. Bang your own drum no matter what. Everyone is terrified of difference. We are to rock and roll what Grayson Perry is to masculinity. It’s the future.
You also made your live return recently – what was it like being back on stage together, and indeed at all given the hiatus of live music in general during the lockdown?
Tiny: We made our live return back in 2011 and have pretty much played every year since, including a tour of Scandinavia supporting The Darkness, not to mention with differing line-ups and with another two albums under our belts. Obviously the current tour was rescheduled twice due to covid, and we ended up only doing two shows, the first of which in Manchester was strangely normal and all the more enjoyable for that. There was very little social distancing and it felt great. However one of our crew did come down with covid after the tour, reminding us that it was probably wise to have cancelled the rest of the tour, so hopefully we can make amends next year.
Vanessa: It is absolutely right for us to come together to do this. Almost feels like the missing key or something. Like in Indiana Jones, when they have to play the right melody to unlock the door.
Thinking of the musical landscape into which the album is being reissued, what has changed since its original release?
Vanessa: It is more democratic now because of tech. However it is also a flooded market. The skill nowadays is to be a curator with music and find good algorithms for filtering. I think our generation find it a bit overwhelming but young people just don’t stress about it, they seem comfortable with fluidity and have less inclination to want to store and collect things. One day music will just be like water, flowing into our homes on a monthly payment – I remember reading that in the 90s and thinking wow, sounds cool. However it has not quite worked out very well for artists. I’m sure once the kids are our age they will have worked it out, sadly there’s a whole load of us still essentially working for free most of the time.
Tiny: I think what we did then has become more accepted now. We were always conscious of writing for future generations. I grew up getting into music from my past largely, so was aware that discovery often takes time, and given the amount of people I meet now who never knew of our existence at the time, not forgetting those few people who weren’t even born, then I think we have entered a world which looks more kindly on our past foibles. At the time we were considered mad for releasing a double album… commercial suicide they said, but now no-one bats an eyelid when people release box set versions of albums… like us!
Who are the current bands that you admire? Are there any in which you can hear or feel a similar spirit to what you were trying to achieve with Everything Picture?
Tiny: I would like to give a shout out to Caleb Landry Jones who has released two sprawling magnificent psychedelic meanderings (the first of which is a double), and Crayola Lectern is quite simply a genius, who has also released two fantastic records. I had the great fortune of doing guest vocals with him on a couple of shows, and would love to work with him in the future (he has actually recorded some piano and sax on some of my solo recordings). I saw a couple of videos of a band the other night who have a similar fiery attitude towards live performance and that was Avalanche Party. Obviously Black Midi aren’t afraid to “prog” out and venture into the avant-garde, and Yard Act are very clever lyrically, but I wouldn’t say there was very much in common musically. The Dears held the flame for a while. I hear stuff all the time that reminds me of us, because we did a lot of different things, so it’s inevitable I guess.
Vanessa: An old pal from the Newcastle days Kelly Munro seems to have a load of cool stuff going on at the moment. Exciting new bands. Jekyll supported us once and they were fantastic, I would sign them too. The right balance of epic, pop, noise and coolness. Our house has gone all Francophile recently. We just keep buying YeYe records. Rum Buffalo are amazing and Jake who is the charismatic front man and visionary was my pupil in the early 2000s. More than just a pupil though, he was a huge part of the music dept, my tutor group and many trips and concerts. I am bowled over by their music, cross arts, visuals and very much conceptual experiences they provide live. Definitely one to watch out for.
Can we expect more shows or any new material from Ultrasound in the near future?
Vanessa: In a world where everyone has enough and the work life balance is perfect, then we would be as prolific as ever, currently the desire is there but life, jobs etc seem to be determined to take ALL of who we are, rather than a healthy amount. People do best when they feel valued, have autonomy and a sense of relatedness. If there’s 7 days in a week, what would be a work/life balance? I’d take 4 days work 3 days personal projects. Even better the other way around. For the same income obviously! To be honest the “man” gets value for money with me anyway. More than.
Tiny: Yes of course. It’s the 10th anniversary of our second album “Play For Today” next year so it would be nice to do something for that. Perhaps a vinyl re-issue and a tour, then after that I would like to do another album. It’s probably about time I reckon.
Find out more on Ultrasound’s official website
Interview by Paul Maps