Lose yourself in Creep Show’s Yawning Abyss
There’s a very specific laugh that, as an interviewer, signals, more often than not, the fact that you’ve just struck gold. When your interviewees do that slightly nervous “shall we tell them?” mutual giggle, you know you’re close to being let into a secret.
In this case, it was a relatively innocuous enquiry about the title of Creep Show’s superb second album Yawning Abyss that elicited the sound of possible confidence-sharing. The name seemed perfect for the summer of 2023, what with World War 3 brewing away in Ukraine, climate change lapping at our shores and fear of the next pandemic never far away. But – as it transpires – it was nearly so very different.
Mal – or Stephen Mallinder, formerly of experimental electro pioneers Cabaret Voltaire – is the first to crack.
“I’m laughing,” he admits hesitantly, down the Zoom line from his studio in Brighton. “Benge knows why I’m laughing.”
Benge, the analogue studio wizard famed for his production jobs for John Grant, Hannah Peel, Blancmange and many more, smiles back enigmatically from his base, the now famous Memetune Studio Complex in the wilds of Cornwall.
“I wanted to call it Steak Diane” he says, hindsight allowing him a glimpse of the ridiculousness of the suggestion. “Benge was like ‘We can’t call an album Steak Diane.’”
“Well, we could have…” adds Benge, “but it would have undersold the album. The title would have started dominating the album.”
“It felt like the most appropriate out of the titles,” says Benge, “It feels like a leading track, there’s a brilliant hook on it.”
There’s certainly no denying that. With the Creep Show line up completed by the almost universally acclaimed John Grant and Benge and Mal’s comrade in the band Wrangler, Tuung’s Phil Winter, the title track is a fantastic example of what they’re up to. As the lead vocal from Grant invites the listener to join him on a leap into the abyss, teasingly adding “you’d have to be a crazy person to assert you never wanted this”, it’s teased along gracefully by a delightfully sugar-sprinkled synth riff and vocodered backing vocals.
If there is a definite ‘imminent apocalypse’ feel to the album – “Let’s play twister with your sister while the rivers dry up” the track ‘Yahtzee!’ suggests – then it’s not what Benge had in mind when Yawning Abyss was named. Rather, he says, it reminded him of the artist Francis Bacon’s more extreme pictures, where disembodied mouths stretch open in anguish.
The album’s haunting sleeve – a painting on collage by Paul Burgess, go-to-guy for Wrangler and Benge and also designer of the first Creep Show – adds the final layer. “Our music is a bit collagey,” Benge says, “with two very different vocalists it feels like we’re using that aesthetic, so it fits in really nicely.”
Was the process of making Yawning Abyss similar to the debut album, Mr Dynamite?
“On the first album,” explains Benge, “John came in later. But the second album was a bit different because of Covid. Well, it started the same way with this one – me, Mal and Phil got some tracks together and then the plan was for everyone to come down here for a two week session about a year ago. But we all got Covid. We only had couple of days working out of the two weeks, it really threw us.
“Me and Phil managed to do a few more sessions and get the backing tracks sorted out, and then Mal took them over to Iceland.”
A trip to Iceland, where Grant is based, was no problem for Mal. “It was done out of adversity but it was brilliant because I’d never been to Iceland before and it gave me a chance to go. So the first one was spread out over quite a long time but all done in one place but this was done in a concentrated period but in two different countries.
“It meant John and I were in our own little huddle, which made it spontaneous and that really worked out. Although we have an ideal situation in Cornwall – I’m not knocking it – it gave it a little twist. It might have been exactly the same but we’ll never know. We were sat at opposite ends of the couch with our feet up just throwing stuff backwards and forwards and then jumping up and doing something on the mic. It was real freestyle.”
The more socially interactive way of working may well, we suggest, have been the impetus for the injection of dark humour into the mix alongside the horror.
“You need both for it to work,” says Benge, “They kind of play off each other. For me, anyway, it works when there’s the horror and the humour.”
“It’s how we are as people anyway,” adds Mal. “We’ve got lots of different influences lyrically. John and I both write in a spontaneous way and John’s got such a personal way with his words, they throw up images that are very relatable for him. I tend to write more socially. But it’s nice that we’ve started to blend the two sides, the objective and the subjective – I mean, you can’t ignore the state of the world right now, so that’s in there, but also the humour is in there as well.
But ultimately, as Mal points out, there’s little point trying to examine the motives and reasons for this and that too closely. “We can package it in all kind of semnatics and paint around it – sometimes it’s better to just hit the nail on the head with kind of machine gun words that come at you. John’s very poetic whereas I’m more percussive with my words, but we were chopping and changing. In fact, after the live show we did in Brighton, a couple of people said this is is really weird, compared with the first labum, John’s become me and I’ve become him!”
It’s an entertaining thought – the various members of Creep Show slowly but steadily assimilating and morphing into each other until they’re virtually indisitinguishable. While that might be pushing matters a bit far, there’s a nugget of truth in there at the same time. Whereas the band’s first album was treated as somewhat of a curio, the result of the unlikely union of John Grant and Wrangler, Yawning Abyss feels like the work of a single unit working very much in tandem. Long may that continue – and with the band’s recent string of UK dates to be followed by an appearance at Rockaway Beach festival on January 5, and more to follow, it looks like the Creep Show is set to continue for a good while longer.