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qx feature

by Ian Gittins


Billie Ray Martin screws up her face, looks at me and tries to tell me exactly why it is that she loves to sing.

"I get these incredible experiences when I go on stage. There was one occasion in Berlin, when I was in the audience and a Sixties revival band I knew were playing an open-air concert to 1,000 people, and they saw me in the audience and said, 'Why don't you come on stage and sing one of your favourite songs with us.' I went 'Oh My God!' but I went onstage and belted out this song and all these people stood up and applauded, cos I was just screaming out this song so passionately! And I opened my eyes and saw all these people looking at me and feeling really happy about what I was doing up there, then when I came offstage I couldn't remember a thing about it, didn't even remember where I was! It was really horrible to come back into reality, to people saying dull things like, 'Shall we go for a drink?'"

She thinks again, and smiles a splendid grin of triumph.

"It was one of the very best experiences of my entire life!"

Electribe 101 are one of the most fascinating groups to emerge out of the very last few days of the Eighties. They're a mass of brilliant possibilities. When they arrived, seemingly from nowhere, in the upper echelons of the chart with the sinister glow of "Tell Me When The Fever Ended", a great deep House shimmer with soul inflexions, a lot of people did a double-take. Here was something that was special. Here was a sound, hard and brilliant, that could go somewhere. Some kind of pop dream was clearly bubbling under the lustrous surface.

Their story partly explained it. Joe, Les, Robert and Brian, four amiable blokes and studio wizards from Birmingham, had been on the prowl for a while for a voice to complete their sonic jigsaws. Answering an advert in Melody Maker from a "soul rebel searching for a genius", they found themselves talking to a wilful, volatile, earthy German girl called Billie Ray Martin, who'd been kicking round doing God-knows-what with soul bands in Berlin. It was love at first sight and Billie moved to England.

Electribe signed to Phonogram, put out an erotic, hypnotic House murmur called "Talking With Myself" and looked on in dismay. Nothing happened. The label, puzzled by their new acquisition, didn't promote the single and it dribbled away. Nobody knew what to do with it. Only when the follow-up, the distant and divine "Tell Me When The Fever Ended" raced into the charts, did they suspect they might have a winner on their hands.

Fulsome praise from the astute likes of the Maker confirmed the promise and boosted confidence. Phonogram began to show some faith in their proteges. Electribe already had it; they knew they were good.

So that was then, and this is now, and now Electribe 101 are releasing the original, criminally-neglected "Talking With Myself" for the second time. It is, as David Stubbs noted back then, "lush and soberly entrancing, the very shadow of soul", yet it's also vibrant, tantalising, precise and icily aloof, perhaps a harbinger of a new way for House to seep into the mainstream. It's club-friendly and dance- compulsory, yet also holds itself erect with a very exact and enticing pop sensibility. It's the year's best dance equation so far. Between them, one wayward German girl and four matey musos are hitting on something very special.

The first, most evident fact about Electribe 101 is that there are two separate factions within the band. There's Billie Ray, and then there's the others. The backroom boys, and The Star. Lee, Rob, Joe and engineer/mastermind Brian aren't pop stars. They all happily admit they're at home in a studio, not on a stage, and would be delighted to go on for ever making perfect dance music in even more perfect anonymity. All you're going to catch them doing in bright lights is squinting. It helps if you can read their contributions mentally in a mournful Brummie accent.

"Were we excited about doing 'Top Of The Pops'? Well, we didn't think about it much, really. We were more concerned with getting more gear, like. And maybe we were a bit static onstage, cos when we'd finished, this DJ just said, 'Wow! Those guys really know how to enjoy themselves!'"

Without you technical geniuses, though, we'd not have Electribe's heady dance definitions. Do you go out to clubs much? Is that where you get ideas?

"No, we don't go out at all, really," says Brian. "Well, we never did. We just made our music, then we started reading that we were at the fore of British House. So we thought, 'Oh yeah?' and went to a couple of clubs, to see what it was like. And we loved it!"

They were so keen, in fact, that they started one of their own, to try and buck up Brum's sad nightlife.

"Yeah," says Brian, warming to his tale. "We came across this indian guy with a warehouse whose top floor was just empty. He was a young guy, dead into what we were doing. So we did the whole place up, painted it and put in screens, made this dancefloor like a helicopter landing-pad, got all these DJ's so if the floor cleared at any point, we could put another DJ on straightaway. The whole vibe was really brilliant!"

So what happened then?

"The pigs turned up. First of all they wanted backhanders. And then the next police who came had had backhanders from other people to close us down. Then we had all these Hells Angels come, who were being paid to get rid of us. It was the last thing we wanted."

"It was like a scene from 'The Sweeney'," says the lugubrious Ray.

Brian: "So we closed it down. And what just typified Brum was that on Christmas Eve last year there was a hall booked for a rave, from 12 noon to 12pm kid's party-time hours, and the police came along at the last minute to stop it. And on the news that night, they said that if they hadn't closed it down, there would have been loss of life!"

We all tut at the small-mindedness of the Midlands boys in blue. Yet Electribe are rugged types, not easily discouraged. Even faced with mounting debts and bailiffs at the door, as a result of their studio- obsession, they never contemplated giving up, and on getting their first decent cheque from Phonogram, rushed out to buy... more studio equipment. Now that's dedication. And what's the best thing about Electribe?

"Every time we hear our music, it always sounds stranger than anything else around."

On the other hand, the best thing about Electribe 101 may just be Billie Ray Martin. She's born to be a singer. Volatile, precocious, temperamental, maybe even a bit neurotic, she's an intense and troubled figure who slips easily from sunny joviality in conversation to sombre soul-searching. In short, she's just the sort of figure Electribe need at their fore to make their shimmers of dance totally compelling. She also sings like a golden angel.

Why sing, Billie?

"I can't quite analyse why it comes naturally to me. I never have such a thing as stage fright or nervousness or insecurity, nothing like that at all. When I was five years old, I was standing on my bed with an old sock pretending it was a microphone, doing the same thing! It's just the thing I do with my life, so I don't really analyse it. I'm just amazed most of the time by what's going on, and how come I'm doing it. And do I love showing off? Yeah, I'm the greatest poser!"

At one stage she tells me she bursts with confidence, the next minute she says, she's shy and unsure. Her childhood, spent with her grandparents, veers from the idyllic to the tragic. It's not that she's pulling the wool over my eyes; she's just casting round for a self, an identity to fit her story so far. She also has some curious ideas about a performer's lot.

"If you're an artist, then you don't think about fame," she says. "Well, I don't think you should. It's more that you're lacking certain things in life, and you want the public to take the role of filling the lack. You want to be loved, and you want to be understood. An artist expresses himself not through his life, but through his art. It may sound like cliche, but it's what it comes down to. I feel I have this upbringing which makes me feel like I want to withdraw from real life and say in a song what I want to say."

What were you like as a child?

"I was a very intelligent child, but at school I was held back by the others in my class. At five years old, I was saying all these peculiar words, and speaking English, and talking about abstract art and stuff! Because my family let me do what I want and be creative. Then when I went to school, I forgot all my creativity and became this idiot. I only started thinking again when I was 20!"

Billie Ray Martin is finding a few things she doesn't like about the pop circus. One is that she's sick of facile hacks with silly grins on their snide faces coming to her and treating what she does as a huge joke. With a Teutonic sense of dignity, she doesn't feel Electribe 101 are being taken seriously enough.

"Yes, I read these dodgy articles, and all they have to say is, 'Hello! We've got a funny-looking new band here, and guess what, they also like Throbbing Gristle, who were a Seventies funny little electronic unit, haha!' This is the style we seem to get."

You're partly a victim of the dance music syndrome. When there's no autobiography, no confessional hero figure as we get in rock, bemused hacks clutch at trivia to get by.

"Maybe, but I want the public to understand what I want to say. I don't know, maybe they don't give a shit! But the music I was writing in Berlin was very weird, quite surreal. I was the same kind of songwriter as Elvis Costello! When you write soul songs, like I do now, you tend to drift off into a certain different kind of lyric. They do become less intellectual. But I write them down, then put all these weird things in, cos I don't like to write banal old soul lyrics."

As a rule of thumb, you should always avoid artists like Julian Cope, who self-consciously proclaim their own weirdness. With Billie Ray Martin, however, it's just a matter of her being too honest for her own good. Now she's outlining her heroes.

"My biggest ever lyrical influence is Richard Butler, not because I consciously took his influence, but because it was already in me, and when I read his lyrics I thought, God, this is exactly how I think!'

So I still have all these sheets of paper with lyrics I have written. I know I can't put them all in at once, see..."

She lowers her voice conspiratorially.

"But I can put them in a bit at a time!"

In truth, Billie's words so far have carried no clues of any extraordinary inspired or oblique worldview. They've been standard love fodder with a hint of the obsessional. But what is she like, this plucky girl? Can she handle people?

"I'm two things, really. I'm this over-confident loudmouth, then on the other hand, I couldn't walk up to anybody and just talk to him."

But you can sing to a few hundred?

"Yeah, millions if I wanted to, no problem!"

Do you love being centre of attention?

"Definitely, onstage and in normal life. I have a tendency to be very dominant in conversation with groups of people. I don't know why. I went to see an analyst once, and he asked me all these kinds of questions."

Why did you go?

"Oh, I had too many problems, I couldn't cope. So I went there, and I turned out to be more clever than him, so I told him to stuff it! He wanted to put me in group therapy, which I didn't want, and he said, 'Why not?' So I said, "Because I don't give a shit for other people's problems..."

Are your emotions extreme, Billie?

"Very. I used to be a very depressed person, but for some time now I've been very happy and cheerful. But I have this tendency to just drop down into this really terrible mood as well. I'm generally coping so much better, having a great time, being much more accessible. But I'm still extremely moody."

Are you good at protecting yourself? You get very exposed up there in the charts.

"I think people who deal with me find I show them too much. I try to hide things, but I'm so... I'm always after the truth, and I don't like acting and being clever. I tend to let it all out when I don't want to, so I end up in a lot of situations that turn out bad for me cos I've said too much again, so people can get to me. I'm a bad actor."

Do you have a hunger for fame? She licks her lips.

"I s'pose everybody has, in a way. That's what I'm doing this for, not for fame or ego, just so that people out there will like me, yeah. People come up to me in the street now, and I love it, cos in my life there was a lack of people liking me, so when I'm out there, I'm looking for it. I think that's what your average person goes out to a pub or club for.

"In my case it's very strong. Ever since I was two or three years old, I have this terrific hunger to be in the public all the time! But I don't want to say it's more than the average person on the street - who am I to say my emotions are any more important than anybody else's? I can't quite analyse it, but there is something there that makes me express myself in songs.

"I get attention through dancing as well. When I go to clubs, very often people stand round and look at me and ask me if I'm a dancer, and I get offers to dance in clubs and get asked where I trained. So I get attention that way as well. It makes me very happy!"

Are you as self-centred as you sound right now?

"I think so. It's to do with being very insecure when I'm not singing. I analyse every sentence I say, because I fear someone will take it the wrong way, will not like it when I say something. Especially in this business, where all people want me to do is smile and be very uncomplicated! Now I've come to terms with being myself, and if people want me to not be, I tell them to f*** off, and they can't cope! It doesn't fit in with the scheme of the music business!"

On the evidence of "Talking With Myself" and their stockpiles of confidence, Electribe 101 will be lighting fireworks for some months yet. You'd be wise to dig in and get to know their dance shimmers and the busy mind of Billie Ray Martin. She'll have dreamt up a few more versions of herself for next time you meet, rest assured. A few new troubled roles to play. And giving up singing is not on the agenda.

"You're kidding! Give up singing? That's not going to change. It's the only thing I'm sure about; I'm going to be singing until I drop dead."

[this article was located previously at the now defunct Beautiful Darkness site]

originally in Melody Maker 17/2/90

:: 1989 ::
+ 1.0.1 Danceations > by Robin Smith >
+ Electribe 101 > by David Stubbs >
+ Tribal Funk > by Jack Barron >
:: 1990 ::
+ House to house enquiries > by Ian Gittins >
+ Take it to the fridge > by Ian McCann >
+ The lost tribe > by Tim Southwell >
+ Tribal Warfare! > by Andrew Panos >
+ I eat Smash Hits! > by Chris Heath >
+ Psychologik > by Louise Gray >
+ Tribal House > by Ronnie Randall >
+ Chaos and Control > by Paul Lester >
+ Stardust Memories > by Gary Crossing >
+ 101 Ways... > by Tony Horkins >
+ Shrink Rap > questionnaire >
:: 1997 ::
+ The Best of Electribe CD Bio > by Richard Smith >
:: 2000 ::
+ The unreleased album and the end of Electribe 101 > by J P >
[ qx feature | billie ray martin | electribe 101 ]
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