Twenty years ago rocktronica outfit Pitchshifter released their fourth album www.pitchshifter.com (a canny title in those relatively early days of the internet).
Their major label debut, it saw the Nottingham-based band continue its increasing embrace of electronica and drum and bass while never stinting on the riff-heavy guitars.
It became the band’s most commercially successful album, and while never quite breaking them into the big time, it is something of a cult classic.
Their sixth and last studio album to date, PSI, came out in 2002, and while there have been occasional hints of work on new material, the group hasn’t played live in a decade.
Until now. There is a six-date UK tour that kicks off here in Portsmouth and finishes in their legendary hometown venue Rock City.
But what have they been up to in the interim? Frontman JS Clayden, who now lives in LA, filled in the blanks.
‘I had been a professional musician since the age of 18 pretty much until the age of 30. And so, although I was, and remain, grateful for the experiences I had, and that I was afforded the opportunity to live from my creativity during those crazy years, I had a pretty hard crash to real life once I stepped off the music industry carousel.
‘I took a while to "find myself" and realised that I naturally gravitated towards education. So I've been helping other career-switchers like me go back to college to take graduate degrees and move into new chapters of their life.
‘Pitchshifter was always about being aware and educated enough to make informed decisions and so higher education was a logical progression of that mentality. I ended up in LA because that's where the love of my life lived.’
JS still appears to be pinching himself that it is two decades since .com came out.
‘Can you believe it? 20 years! Luckily, I was still a teen when the band started and so I can still walk without a cane, but the real mind-blower is that we actually started 29 years ago. It'd be cool to do a Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon-style full run through of .com on the shows; but with so many albums and fans from different eras, I think that we'd upset a lot of people if we didn't add some other stuff in there. So, we've picked a setlist that favours .com, but that we hope that the fans can enjoy and share the energy of with us.’
The band’s early albums were released on the famed heavy music label, Earache, which was also based in Nottingham. But as JS explains, by the time they left the label, ‘there was no real love lost’ between them, calling the label owner ‘petty and vindictive.’ By way of elaboration JS tells a story: ‘I was once at Rock City and the Earache guy walked by. A kid, maybe 18 at most, ran up to him and kicked him in the butt from behind. He didn't even turn around to see who it was.
‘I don't think any amount of money is worth knowing how disliked you are to an entire scene to the point that you don't even look behind you to see who's kicking you in the butt.’
They joined Geffen Records, which JS dubs ‘a dance with a different devil.’ As he puts it: ‘We had much more financial support and much more creative and understanding support staff; but it was about the numbers. We just treated it all like Sex Pistols' EMI days and smiled and nodded in meetings whilst creating as much havoc as we could away from the conference table. There were some really great times and we couldn't have made that album, hooked up with the producer Machine, or hit Ozzfest, and so on, without that support.’
The current line-up is now completed by JS’s brother MD Clayden on bass, Si Hutchby on drums, and more brothers Dan and Tim Rayner on lead and rhythm guitars.
The group always had a strong social conscience and political themes are a constant in their material. Did they ever feel the need or pressure to temper that while on a major label?
‘Actually, no. We stuck to our guns no matter what. They were more interested in blurring our people's faces in live photos so that people couldn't sue for a slice of album royalties than our off-stage political proclivities.
‘We used major-label money to license the Pope/queen mashup pic on the [.com follow-up] Deviant album that got banned in Poland. More chaos!’
After their last studio album, JS set up PSI Records, which released a live/remix album and licensed the band’s music to video games, TV and film trailers. ‘It had a good run, and we had some awesome placements in promo campaigns for some big movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, James Bond, Harry Potter, Star Trek, and so on, but I needed to take a step away from it.
‘I needed to move into the next phase of my life as a dad. Working for yourself can be great; but it's a non-stop carousel, and, although I had that time for that as a younger man, I wanted to do the dad role justice and be available for my kids.’
Since they announced the autumn tour, JS admits to doubts over whether they still had an audience.
‘You know, we didn't know for sure. We'd get offers for this festival or that gig throughout the years and we just ignored them – the time just wasn't right. However, we just seemed to naturally coalesce around the 20-year anniversary as a band and that seemed like the right time for a few gigs.
‘We've already done some healthy ticket sales, one of the London shows is already sold out, and so it seems that some fans have been in cryo-stasis with us!’
Among fans, a unreleased album has reached mythical status, but as JS confirms, they never got past the demo stage.
‘We recorded some demos that we never finished or released. I've recently been in touch with some peers from our era about us finishing those up as collaborative efforts, and so you never know what might become of one or two tunes…’
Since announcing the tour some of those demos have been released online.
But are they still writing music?
‘I'm not writing music at this time; but I have finished the first draft of writing a book based on Pitchshifter. I don't know what will happen to it; but it was an important creative project for me personally.’
How does he feel about the continued relevancy of songs they wrote 20-plus years ago?
‘I think that we, as a race, keep making the same mistakes – boom/bust, populist demagogues, pointing the finger at "outsiders" and the pendulum swings to the right, workers’ rights erode, the one per cent get richer, and on it goes. Because Pitchshifter wrote about that – among other things – the lyrics could retain some relevancy in any era experiencing those issues.’
And that original domain name?
pitchshifter.com is now a Japanese website hawking vitamin supplements, which tickles JS enormously.
‘We carried the website for such a long time that it felt like a burden being lifted to let it go. We have no plans to create another website. With the advent of social media since the time we launched our website in 1997, websites are kind of superfluous these days.
‘I think you are right that some Japanese firm has taken the name selling vitamins – which I think is awesome and only adds to the Sex Pistols chaos and confusion when people try to look us up. EMI!’
They are supported by Earthtone9 and Portsmouth’s own Seething Akira.
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Monday, November 19