On their latest album, “United Kingdoms,” Ultramarine truly bridges the gap between two musical generations. The group has always been known for creating a sound that combines very synthetic electronic sounds with traditional instrumentation and elements of jazz, folk and progressive rock music.
But this time out, the group has collaborated with one of the legends of the later genre — Robert Wyatt. The former Soft Machine drummer/vocalist shows up singing on two tracks of the otherwise instrumental album.
Ultramarine is a duo of Paul Hammond and Ian Cooper who hail from Essex, England. Friends since they were 14, they were originally part of A Primary Industry before starting up in 1988. The group’s first release was 1989’s “Wyndlam Lewis,” a project that used the spoken words from 1940 recordings of the artist/satirist of the same name.
A year later, Ultramarine released their first proper album, “Folk.” At that time, the group was a quartet and the paring down of the line-up led to them using more samplers on the follow-up, “Every Man And Woman Is a Star.” For the new LP, the group continued to use the technology but also made more extensive use of session players.
“We kind of get the basis for a track together on the sampler, and what we did for this album is we got a few people in to play live stuff and worked a lot of live stuff around the framework that we had,” explains Cooper, adding that much of the session playing was then sampled and manipulated to create the final recording.
Though the bulk of their music does not have vocals, Ultramarine see themselves as creating “songs,” as opposed to instrumental pieces. The group uses verse-chorus structure and says that they are influenced more by singer/songwriters than other forms of music. This is particularly evident on the new album, as the music is very tight and focused.
One track on “Every Man and Woman Is A Star” contained vocals, which were supplied by a friend of the band. For the new album, Ultramarine got the chance to have an idol of their handle the vocal duties.
“Unfortunately, it’s not a very glamorous rock-and-roll story, it’s very simple really,” explains Cooper on the collaboration with Wyatt. “Rough Trade released ‘Every Man and Woman is a Star in the UK and Robert records for Rough Trade, so when we were thinking about a new batch of stuff, Rob was a great hero of ours and we thought, yeah we,’ll have a word with him and see if he’s up for it.”
Ultramarine and Wyatt exchanged tapes and idea for a while and then they spent two days in the studio together. The end results were the tracks “Kingdom” and “Happyland.” Cooper and Hammond say that it was inspiring to get to work with Wyatt and that “he really put a lot into” the collaboration.
Although “Kingdom” has been part of the live set as an instrumental, Ultramarine have no plans on bringing along someone to sing on the few songs that have vocals. “Kingdom” is not going to be a big part of the live set now that it has been recorded in a different form, and “Happy Land” will never be performed as an instrumental, the band says.
“I think the only time we’d do that would be if whoever sang the original version would be willing to play live with us,” explains Paul “Unfortunately, that doesn’t arise with Robert Wyatt because he doesn’t want to play live again. He’s very limited obviously because of his disability. It’s a great shame, I’d like to see him live with us or without us but it’s not going to happen, I don’t think, so we just have to put that out of our heads.”
Last year, Ultramarine traveled around the country as part of the Communion tour, and they just went on the road with Bjork. The group performs as a five-piece so that many of the parts can be played live. A new addition to the live band is a member who plays many of the melody lines on the flute and other wind instruments. Ultramarine run all the sequencers live off of floppy disk and have an on-stage, 16-channel mixing console so that every element can be affected live.
“It’s quite a complex thing to get to transfer across,” says Hammond. “It’s quite complex musically what we do, there’s a lot of different elements in there. We really had to go through each song in depth and work out what was going to work live and what wasn’t.”