“Realising there’s no truth will set you free/As in the cryptic work of JMB…”
Sometimes survival depends on reading the codes. A square with a trailing edge, interlocking circles, a dot in a rectangle. Cryptic glyphs drawn from hard-earned wisdom, advising the desperate – hold your tongue, be on guard, get out fast.
Andy Bell saw the codes. Dots and dashes and strange geometries, hidden amongst the landscapes of New York City stretched across the Barbican walls. He left the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition Boom For Real early in 2018 with his imagination fired. “I was really inspired,” he says, “not just by the artwork but by him, the way he worked, the way he thought, his quotes. Arty, ‘80s, New York, music, post-punk, that was the backdrop of a lot of thoughts.”
Those thoughts became a statement of intent. A “splurge” of songs designed to prove the worth of his band – “it was a manifesto of what Ride was before any outside influences came in.” And one particular code he’d seen spoke to the noise and static surrounding the band loudest of all.
Three diagonal lines.
This is not a safe place.
Ride have always been a band capable of seeing hidden depths others couldn’t. When the world was going baggy, they floated out of Oxfordshire art schools in 1988 on a sound like scorched clouds. It would become known as shoegaze, but Ride’s primordial blaze of noise, like Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and The House Of Love, had a savagery and elegance that transcended the Home Counties waftiness that would emerge from their vapour trail. Their early run of EPs and Top Twenty debut album ‘Nowhere’ made them the alternative sensation of 1990 and Creation Records’ first major success story; its Top Five follow up ‘Going Blank Again’ (1992) – featuring the monolithic ‘Leave Them All Behind’ and the head-spinning ‘Twisterella’ – was a celestial torrent of noise and imagination like none other of its era. Even though Britpop blindsided Ride and the band split acrimoniously after two more albums (1994’s psych rock ‘Carnival Of Light’ and 1996’s scattergun ‘Tarantula’), their standing as leftfield sonic giants remained undiminished.
Ride reformed in 2015 to play Coachella, Primavera and a package of other high-profile festival dates, welcomed like prodigal sons. The comeback tour grew from those few dates to a global victory lap. The technology of recording and performance had caught up with Ride in the intervening years, allowing their full sonic vision to flourish, and they also found they had something to say (“Ironic, eh?” Andy grins). Shocked and depressed by the rise of the right wing, the Brexit vote and the darkening shadows of Boris and Theresa, the songs they began constructing via email for a potential new album spoke to the sad and perilous state of modern society.
“You’re gonna write about things that affect you and we were all affected by it,” says singer Mark Gardener, recalling the night he came home elated from the “heaven and ecstasy” of an Ennio Morricone show at Blenheim Palace only to be devastated by the EU referendum result the same night. “I remember thinking ‘how ridiculous, why would we ever even think about leaving the EU?’ Not that it’s a great union but you’ve got to be in things to change it for the better. I felt very European myself, living in France for four years. I felt really depressed, and I tried to turn that into some kind of anger and expression. ‘Lannoy Point’ was a reaction to that, I felt that whatever I did or however I voted or whatever I want, this was out of my control. In some ways people were apathetic for ages about politics, but with what’s going on it’s there all the time now, sadly – as an artist you do try to turn that into some kind of positive so that people can relate to it.”
Over six months off at the end of the initial reunion tour, Ride turned that helpless anger, frustration and ennui into a collection of rich, evocative and re-energised songs they called ‘Weather Diaries’, a record “looking out into the world”. Recorded in the adventurous spirit and attitude of the ‘Going Blank Again’ sessions – when, according to Andy, the band “felt like we were all putting ideas in and everyone was feeling quite fulfilled with it all, we were quite open to experimenting” – the album revisited, revised and reinvented the full range of Ride’s oeuvre with the help of producer, Ride fan and “musical encyclopedia” Erol Alkan introducing them to all manner of fresh musical threads. “I never knew there was so much Turkish psychedelia!” Andy chuckles. “Almost too much. He was born to produce Ride and we were born to work with him. It feels like a really good match. He brings energy.”
“It’s got some of our best stuff on it,” says Steve. “On reflection it probably does sound like the whole catalogue of Ride on one album. There’s some ‘Nowhere’ bits on it, there’s some ‘Going Blank…’ style stuff on there.” “The real challenge was to bring something that works now and was creatively something we could feel really good about,” Mark adds. “I felt really good about the way that it worked and the way we worked on it, which was very much a group effort. The start and the end of the album are up there with some of the best things we’ve ever done.”
A critical and commercial hit, reaching Number 11 in June 2017, ‘Weather Diaries’ put the winds in Ride’s sails. An EP, ‘Tomorrow’s Shore’, followed in February 2018 expanding further into motorik, synthetic and electronic textures and climaxing in ‘Catch You Dreaming’, a New Order-like portrait of the last two people on a dying earth. “It’s a really good format for us,” Andy says, recalling the band’s enigmatic early EP releases, full of symbolism and hidden codes all their own, and promising that another EP will similarly compliment the new album in 2020. “Over four tracks you have this symmetry.”
The new tracks brightened the corners of Ride’s live shows, but as it reached the far east, darker clouds gathered over the ‘Weather Diaries’ tour. Behind the scenes the band were dealing with backroom irritations from ghosts from their past, and this combined with the inspiring ‘80s art aesthetic of Basquiat to set Andy off on a songwriting frenzy, infusing his new Ride manifesto with determination and defiance. These were songs of splintered trust (‘End Game’), mistakes that shatter lives (‘15 Minutes’) and a post-truth world (‘Repetition’),bristling with the post-punk art wave tension of The Fall, PiL and Siouxsie And The Banshees.
“I ended up putting down a whole ton of material,” he says. “About half of it got used for the album. I had thought of going into it, from a lyrical perspective, ‘it’d be good if this album was really personal and really centres in on an inward-looking thing’.” So a mercurial future-Lennon ballad like ‘Dial Up’ directly confronts Andy’s anxiety issues: “It’s about dealing with anxiety attacks, trying to do the right things,” he says. “You learn all these techniques of what to do with mental issues you might have – fresh air, exercise, positive thinking – but really it goes away of its own accord and you don’t really know why it’s come or gone. It just feels like you’ve gone onto dial-up internet for a while, that’s my analogy for it.”
Mark’s contributions were deeply personal too. ‘Shadows Behind The Sun’ reflects on some personal challenges . “I had to clear my old family house after the loss of my mother which was very difficult,” he says. And while Mark claims “we felt there wasn’t much more to say politically because certainly none of us had changed our minds”, the wider world issues creeping up on us all naturally edged their way into the songs. The glacial drift of Mark’s lyric to Steve Queralt’s ‘Eternal Recurrence’ is a response to the horrors of the Bataclan, Mark picking out quotes from survivors from a harrowing Netflix documentary on the attack. “A few things that really touched me about the people who went through that experience. Also, we were doing shows at the time and you come out and realise we are putting ourselves in a pretty vulnerable situation. We were in the States and they’ve got a lot of guns going around, it only takes some total nutters to come in and suddenly something that’s a celebration, a gig, music, art, brilliant, can turn into an absolute horror show.”
References to the rise of AIs appeared in ‘Jump Jet’, a space-groove ode to life in a touring band. The effervescent ‘Repetition’ could, if you so wish, be read as a treatise on the slavery of modern society’s treadmill (“they just want you just to repeat and stay the same”); the metal REM ‘15 Minutes’ as the terror of the Twitter takedown (“this was your fifteen minutes… you’re basically done now”), and in the brutal post-punk ‘Kill Switch’, written by Loz Colbert, sources of poison are shut down. Ride found that, in their new, mature music, the personal was intricately interwoven with the political. “The songwriting splurge was very personal,” Andy considers, “but having written all those songs a lot of them can be taken as the next stage of the Brexit debacle.”
Over five days at London’s Assault And Battery studios in September 2018 and two weeks in Vale in Herefordshire, with Erol back at the desk and Alan Moulder primed for mixing (“that was a totemic thing,” says Andy, “if we’ve got Alan Moulder then it’s gonna sound like Ride”), the band concocted their most confident, expansive and relevant album since ‘Going Blank Again’. A record that updates Ride’s sonic signature for the modern age while tackling contemporary issues with a measured wisdom and flaming enemies with a righteous snarl.
“’Weather Diaries’ had a little bit of relation to ‘Going Blank Again’ in terms of how we approached it,” says Andy. “This is more of a step towards our essence, even closer towards ‘Nowhere’.”
“It is quite brutalist, concrete, bleak,” adds Steve. “It’s got to be moving forward and for tomorrow and reflecting what’s going on now,” says Mark, “otherwise, what’s the point? Nostalgia scares the hell out of me to be honest because I see it as a complete dead end creatively. I find it quite difficult playing some songs a lot from the ‘90s, but with new sounds and new places we go it’s like a blood transfusion into the works of your body.”
From its opening statement of intent – an introductory track akin to The Prodigy playing early MBV, entitled ‘R.I.D.E.’ – to its monumental finale on ‘In This Room’, via oceanic eddies, savage assaults and one all-out euphoric love song (first single ‘Future Love’, “a breath of fresh air”), it’s a record for our times, with a title that could define them.
‘This Is Not A Safe Place’.
You don’t need to decipher any codes to know that Ride are back in full creative flow, more relevant and raging than they ever were. Basquiat would be proud.
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