In the first days of 2008, after three years of fairly relentless touring, The Pipettes found ourselves back in London. Three key members had decided to leave the band in order to pursue solo projects. By the end of the year, we had been dropped by our American label, and a year later our manager likewise decided that he wasn't having sufficient 'fun' with the group anymore. In those days, with a seemingly unceasing torrent of abuse coming from our own 'fan' forum, it would have been all too easy to give up, cut our losses, call it a day. In the meantime, however, we had been writing songs, and we had started to get very excited about these songs we were writing. And besides, the project was not finished yet.
The idea of a 'project' has always been central to The Pipettes. Like latter-day modernists, The Pipettes wrote manifestos, made sometimes willfully obscure public pronouncements, deliberately mythologised our own past. I have little doubt that everybody (that is, everybody else, everybody outside the group) would have much preferred us to just keep on doing the same thing as we had done before. Make cute early 60s girl pop about school boys and school girls and kissing behind the bike shed. Perhaps, had we done so, we might even still be on that big American label that financed much of our touring in the years immediately following the release of the first album. But this would have been, aside from any personal feelings of restlessness and sonic wanderlust, a betrayal of the project. We had to make at least one more album in order to make sure that The Pipettes was not just some novelty group that put out one record in the style of the 60's girl groups (at a time, let's recall, when the influence of the 60's on British music was almost entirely confined to The Beatles and other mid-late sixties beat groups - a foreign country now, post-Winehouse/Ronson/Duffy, et al).
It might be seen as ironic that the album we made in order to belie any novelty band status, was precisely the album in which we began to fully embrace the idea of novelty music and music as novelty. It had always been there, in a way. Covers of one hit wonders, like Tommy James/ Tiffany's 'I Think We're Alone Now', and so forth. But at a certain point in the promotion of We Are The Pipettes, we started to talk less about Spector and Motown, and more about Joe Meek, more about Ohio Express and the Banana Splits. For our last American tour we made a mixtape to play before we went on stage featuring bits of 50s space age pop and cold war paranoia, mixed with BBC Radiophonic Workshop sound effects and samples from old alien invasion films. There had always been an element of historiography and the writing of alter-destinies to The Pipettes - explicit in our first manifesto. It was perhaps this mixtape that made clear to us the future path we were to take.
On the 29th October, 2007, in the midst of that last American tour, I sent the following email to the rest of the band, based on certain things we'd all been talking about together:
To return brielfy to this 'space age' tip that we're on - it may star to provide a partial answer to that perennial question: where do we go next?Well, where did space go? And where did the bomb go? Funnily enough, it seems that during the period of actual space exploration & moon landings (ie the mid to late 1960s), pop music about space was comparatively rare but made a huge come back in the 70s with disco, which was full of outer space references (I lost my heart to a star ship trooper, springs immediately to mind but i'm sure a bit of digging could reveal countless other examples, a lot of artwork on disco records seems to feature space, aliens and other planets, and of course at the same period we had the astral jazz of Sun Ra who claimed he came from saturn and is most famous for the track, space is the place (later the name of a film about Sun Ra). For Sun Ra and the disco generation, space and alien life seems to be less about cold war paranoia than some concept of the post-human, a reaction to the touchy-feely sentimentalism of the hippies and the singer-songwriter movement (as well as a direct political attack on the subhuman political status of black people in America). Fear of the cold war and the atomic bomb really returns in a big way at the end of the 70s and the early 80s (think O Superman, a more terrifying, bleak no.2 record there has surely never been) but this time, derailed from the imaginary fantasy of outer space and confined to a kind of poetic realism. Outer space then rears its head once more in a big way with rave at the end of the 80s and early 90s but I don't think we should even consider dabbling in rave until everyone has completely forgotten about the klaxons (which i reckon should take somewhere between six months and a year, judging by the post-prize careers of other mercury winners and the deliberately faddish way they have positioned themselves in the market). the way these ideas keep coming back, never entirely free of the associations of their former usages is, of course, highly hauntological...
Of course, nothing is ever planned perfectly. Contingent, uncontrollable events get in the way, and people are far too interesting to be do anything precisely as planned. The Pipettes is now - in terms of its personnel - an almost entirely different band to the one we started back in 2003. But then The Pipettes has never really worked like other bands. The ontology of The Pipettes has less to do with a particular group of people (as in, say, The Beatles, who one can hardly imagine being "The Beatles" unless it was John, Paul, George, and Ringo), or even a particular sound (as in many more mainstream pop groups who change their line-up frequently but maintain a distinct and identifiable sound), but rather a sort of method, a particular way of doing things, and a particular way of thinking. A major part of that method has always involved subsuming one's own personality to a fairly large degree. I feel fairly confident in saying that no-one who has ever written songs for The Pipettes would ever have written those songs had they not been in The Pipettes. And as soon as they had written them, they ceased to be their songs, and immediately became, indissociably, Pipettes songs.
Having said that, my own personal delight in the continuation of The Pipettes has a great deal to do with the people in it. It's always been a thrill for me to write songs with Jon, who I feel has been something of a secret weapon for this band from the very beginning. And it's been a real joy to watch Gwenno and Seb, who were relatively new members when we made the first album, emerge as first rank songwriters for the band. But perhaps the biggest revelation over the past few years has been Gwenno's sister, Ani. Ani joining the band, the unique talent and enthusiasm she has brought to the project, has probably been the best thing that has happened to us since starting work on this second phase of the project. Without her, I really don't think we could have done it.
Other names deserving of mention surely include Martin Rushent, the legendary producer of The Buzzcocks, The Human League, and Altered Images, who we coaxed back into the world of (fizzy) pop with the promise that we were going to be the new Abba, and proved to have as great an enthusiasm for new technologies and earworm counter melodies, as he demonstrated so ably on Dare. And Sean Price, El Presidente of Fortuna Pop! records, who we talked into releasing the album - when no-one else seemed interested - over the course of an evening laden with over-priced margaritas and bad jokes. Sean has been something of a saint since getting on board, ever faithful. Much as I still really like Matt and Olly at Memphis, and Alastair at Unpopular is obviously deserving of some sort of OBE for services to indiepop, I'd still say Fortuna Pop is my favourite label that The Pipettes has worked with.
At the end of the day though, crucial though Martin and Sean have been in their different ways, Earth Vs. The Pipettes is very much our album. The band have project managed and effectively A&R'd the record from the start. We wrote all the songs, we plotted our own path in defiance of all advice, we chose all the people who have worked with us (from temporary stand-in bassists to press agents, video directors, and label bosses), we designed our own outfits - we even did our own book-keeping (thanks Seb!). I don' t think there are many bands around today who would call themselves a pop band and really mean it who could say the same thing.
So, now, finally, our second album is out. There were times when we thought it would never happen and I must admit it feels like a tremendous relief to know that it actually has. It's been really nice to read a few good reviews. Actually, I must admit that I rather enjoy reading the bad reviews. Coke Machine Glow slagged us off for sounding like the Venga Boys, and I was like, really? But Great! God knows how anyone could possibly think sounding like the Venga Boys is a bad thing. Of course, in a sense, none of these reviews - good or bad - really matter or make any difference. What seems like an almost impossibly great achievement at this point is the simple fact that it is out and in the shops and people can buy it. It exists. It is real. And therein lies a satisfaction, a pride in production, that will never be matched by the little *ding* that announces you have successfully uploaded something onto the internet.