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Interview with John MacLean of the Beta Band/The Aliens

It’s a double-edged sword for The Aliens- on the one hand they have a ready made audience with passionate fans of both the Beta Band and Lone Pigeon eager to hear their new material, especially given the abrupt discontinuation of Steve Mason’s King Biscuit Time project (although he is currently trading in under-the-counter electro under the name of Black Affair). On the other hand, they have a hell of a lot to live up to, given the groundbreaking nature of their former incarnations. But as extraterrestrial lifeform John Maclean assured the Skinny, The group isn’t just a continuation of former glories. “It feels like a completely different band because it’s different personalities, it’s a different dynamic coming together and we really are starting from the beginning; we’re touring, roadying for ourselves again, not having any money to work with. But as far as what I do in the band it’s kind of a continuation, it would be pointless to start again and do something different when I learnt so much about either sampling or working with beats and live instruments, or making videos.”

Robin Jones and Gordon Anderson are the other identities that make up the three-headed alien beast. Anderson, who left the Beta Band just after they were signed due to recurring mental health problems, has since gained a near-mythical reputation as Fife’s answer to Brian Wilson and Daniel Johnston through his brilliant Lone Pigeon albums. “I’ve known Gordon since he was about 12 or 13″ John says. “We were at school together and me and Gordon met Robin when we were about 17 at Edinburgh Art College, so we’ve never lost touch. There was always the possibility that we would get together if the situation was right, if we weren’t busy with the Beta Band and if he was well enough to work on stuff. So a couple of years ago when we started The Aliens it just seemed right.”

A real sense of fun and experimentation comes across on their epic, psychedelic new opus ‘Astronomy for Dogs’. “Yeah, because we’re old friends, we have the same sort of sense of humour so even if we’re not making music, even if we’re going to buy some fish and chips it usually ends up being a bit of a laugh.” With tracks such as ‘I Am The Unknown’, there’s also a mystical side to things, undoubtedly due to Gordon’s spiritual beliefs. “Gordon’s an extremely spiritual person. He’s got that ability to be uplifting; you can have happiness but tinged with melancholy. He’s not a dour person, he gets sad and depressed but he’s never miserable and I think that comes across in the music, you get the forlorn love but you also get the joyous celebration of life.”
In terms of recording the new album, the band applied similar cut-up techniques to those seen in John’s distinctive Beta Band cover artwork. “We start off with Gordon’s song, and he’ll have probably done a few versions by the time we even hear it. Every song is different but a song like ‘Only Waiting’ for instance, Gordon’s got a slow version, a fast version, an acoustic guitar version, a piano version. So Robin went away and worked on it and I went away and worked on it, so we had even more versions! Then the three of us tried to play it live so I had the bass, Robin had the drums and Gordon had the guitar and we just laid down a live tape, and then we do overdubs, so eventually you can kind of pick and choose between all the different bits and put them all together and choose the best parts of each version.” And what about the silly dancing in the videos John directed for Robot Man and The Happy Song? “formation dancing was a side we never really got to explore with the Beta Band, so it was nice to eventually do that with the Aliens!”

Written for the Skinny

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