Marc Heal talks about the return of Cubanate with “Kolossus”

Cubanate Marc Heal and Phil Barry
Photo by David Hindley

Having returned to live performance in 2016, Cubanate have now put out “Kolossus,” their first new release in over two decades.  Founding members Marc Heal and Phil Barry have managed to update their aggressive electronic-rock sound while remaining true to their 90s musical output. The “Kolossus” EP contains five new songs, as well as remixes by Rhys Fulber (Front Line Assembly, Delerium, Conjure One) and DROWND. 

Cubanate was formed in 1992, initially as a four-piece. Their 1993 debut album “Antimatter” contained the single “Body Burn,” which was heard years later in the final series of “The Sopranos.”  The single “Oxyacetylene,” off their second album, “Cyberia” (1995), was one of several Cubanate songs used in the PlayStation game “Gran Turismo.”  Cubanate released two more albums—”Barbarossa” (1996) and “Interference” (1998)—before going on hiatus. 

Could you discuss how you came to start working together again as Cubanate, first with the live shows and now with “Kolossus”?

Marc Heal: After the last Cubanate album “Interference” came out on Wax Trax / TVT in 1998 we just let things fall apart. I didn’t want to make music at all. We made quite a lot of money and I wanted to do something different with my life. When you’re in a band your identity can sometimes get eaten up. It’s unhealthy, you know? You need to find space to breathe or you go mental. I think Phil was sick of me and I can’t blame him. So, I dried out, set up some studios, ran a couple of businesses.

Phil and I got together and recorded a track in 2011, just for old times sakes, but it was just a one-off. I moved to Singapore the next year anyway. Phil had been prolific with his band Be My Enemy, but it was only after I wrote my book The Sussex Devils that I felt fired up again. I made a solo album when I was in Singapore. But after all that time we’d both had enough space to think about Cubanate, why not?

We were cautious and didn’t know what to expect. But we felt that we’d not left things in a good place and at least it would be a better footnote to do a quick victory lap and show everyone we were still alive. Medically speaking, anyway.

So, we played our first live show in the 21st century in 2016 in Chicago at Coldwaves. I was nervous. I hadn’t been on a stage in any capacity since 1999. But it felt perfectly continuous, just a fold in the fabric of time.

You had put out the track “We Are Crowd” in 2011 but did not continue with new material then. What made you decide against more new material at that time?

Marc Heal: In retrospect, we needed to play live again before thinking about new Cubanate material. it’s harder than it looks to just get into a room with someone after a decade away and to start making music again.

“We Are Crowd” is a funny thing. It was pretty much the last idea I put down before I quit making music altogether, sometime in 2004, I’d say. Raymond Watts was working on “Pigmartyr” in my studio, I remember. Bryan Black was there too. It was just a jerky little groove at that point, and it was left unfinished. Anyway, when Phil and I got together in 2011 we hadn’t seen each other in over ten years. “We Are Crowd” was all I had to start us off. The song came out OK, but it sounded like we felt – a little uncertain.

Anyway, a year or so later, in early 2012 I ran into Raymond again, who I hadn’t seen really since that time making “Pigmartyr.” He’d been out of it a long time too. Raymond wanted to make another album but wasn’t quite sure where to start. So, I gave him a pep talk, which was a bit rich, since I’d been as silent as him. Anyway, I said, let’s just go into a studio and just see what happens. That turned into the “Compound Eye” EP.

In retrospect I feel that release was very important. First, although Raymond and I both felt very rusty and the results were a bit cock-eyed, the sessions fired both of us up again, creatively. I think we proved to ourselves that we could still do something good and that making it was pleasurable. I mean, ever since then, Watts has been absolutely unstoppable. And I started writing again, though I got distracted by my book for a couple of years.

Also that release came out on Armalyte and although the label had been going for some years, it seems to me now as if “Compound Eye” was pivotal. Raymond and I found we liked working with Giles and Jules. So that after that more stuff came out from me, PIG and then more and better people signed on. Now Armalyte has a serious roster.

Finally, Raymond nabbed “We Are Crowd” and eventually twisted it into the PIG single “Prey And Obey,” which sounded huge. The song finally got the treatment it deserved. So my little jerky groove from all those years back worked out in the end!

I’d interviewed you around the time of “Antimatter,” and I remember you talking about how limited studio time affected the process of making it. I’d imagine things are quite a bit different these days, with musical and recording technology being more powerful and accessible. How has the evolution of music technology affected the creative process of Cubanate?

Marc Heal: Yes, there’s no doubt that the technology affects the process, which affects the art. This can’t be helped. The superstructure is a reflection of the base. Marx pointed this out.

I prefer making music with modern tech. Nostalgia is too easy. The effect of digital technology is not all positive, but It suits me to be able to make music anywhere. And because I live in the US and Phil is in the UK, that’s essential for Cubanate. We’ve learned that equipment doesn’t matter much. The will is far more important than the gear you use.

I do love old technology though. Not just synthesizers. There’s a magnificent sadness about machinery that served faithfully and has been discarded due to fashion or convenience. For me it’s always redolent of ghosts and possesses a certain ju-ju.

I suppose the danger of the digital world and the modern world generally is an illusion of choice. All around you are a million apparent options. Have it your way. Choose one of 50 compressors! 100 soft synths! Dry skin or oily, delivered to your door. A million colors and configurations. Corporations like to baffle and confuse you with these false dichotomies. Forcing yourself to limit your choices is mentally healthier and leads to stronger action. Same with art.

When starting to make new Cubanate music again, were you consciously thinking about what the Cubanate sound is (and potentially how it should be updated)? Or do you feel Cubanate to be whatever organically emerges from your collaboration?

Marc Heal: The second one. We talked about it but “Kolossus” just came out in a splurge. We were hesitant at first because we were self-conscious after so many years. About two songs in we suddenly realized it was good and then we relaxed.

One thing now is that we’re too old to be chasing a particular fashion. Cubanate is about an energy, not a style. Anyway, I’ve been making electronic music since 1981. No one’s going to tell me I can’t do whatever the fuck I like.

When you began recording new music, did you initially conceive “Kolossus” as an EP, as opposed to possibly making a full album?

Marc Heal: Yes, because like I say, we were cautious after such a long time. We desperately wanted to finish something. We didn’t want to get stuck in the weeds of an album. So, we thought let’s do three tracks, just to get things moving again. But at least we’ll have broken the silence. Anyway, we managed five and I was tempted to keep going to a full album, but we thought, no. Stop now. Get it out there.

Photo by E Gabriel Edvy

How did returning to live performance influence the new music?

Marc Heal: Important. First, I suppose it confirmed that it was enjoyable for us both. I have to say that the old songs still sounded relevant. I guess when you’re 20 years ahead of your time, you can duck out for a couple of decades. And I didn’t mind playing a few retrospective sets, especially to promote “Brutalism.” But after all that was behind us, we wanted to make some new music.

After such a long time away, you do to have to re-learn a few things that are buried in your musical muscle memory. Playing live teaches you that you have to give everything. Or why bother?

I must admit I was curious about the new stuff. I’m not sure if it sounds the same or not. It’s like when you see someone again after a long absence. They change, yet they don’t.

What is in the future for Cubanate?

Marc Heal: If I could tell you that, I’d be god. But life is full of surprises. Especially as you head into the endgame.

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