As their cult album Fantasy Black Channel gets a 10th anniversary reissue, the band and producer Erol Alkan reflect on its legacy
With a population of just 6,416, the Leicestershire village of Castle Donington isn’t the sort of place you’d expect one of the most innovative, exhilarating bands of the 2000s to have come from. Late of the Pier were hardly a typical band, though. For my money, they were the last truly radical British group to emerge out of the mid-00s indie scene, and although they released just one album, 2008’s Fantasy Black Channel, that record remains a blueprint for a new kind of pop – one that steamrolls genre binaries, fizzes with colour and energy, and wholeheartedly believes that, when it comes to music, anything is possible. “They blew my fucking mind,” Dave Grohl said of the band in 2013. “They were 18-year-old kids who made this record that’s so good, and nothing ever happened to them. And that’s such a drag.”
In the decade since its release, Fantasy Black Channel has gained a cult following, with everyone from Mike Skinner to Jarvis Cocker singing the band’s praises. A reissue of the record, released today on Phantasy Sound (the label founded by DJ Erol Alkan, who also produced the album), acts as an introduction to the group for a new generation, packaging together both the original album and a bonus collection of the band’s older demos, a surprisingly versatile set of songs recorded when they were still just teenagers. “The record itself sounds excitable, because we were excited about life, and what life could be, and what life is,” says the band’s Sam Potter, speaking over a conference call with his old bandmates, who today are geographically spread across the UK and Europe. “It’s a nice document of what it is to be a teenager. Those bonus tracks really drum home how immature and silly and adventurous and laissez-faire we were.”
Late of the Pier were four school friends, Samuel Eastgate (vocals, guitar), Sam Potter (synths, sampler), Andrew Faley (bass), and Ross Dawson (drums) – or, as they called themselves, Samuel Dust, Jack Paradise, Francis Dudley Dance, and Red Dog Consuela. The nicknames were all part of the parallel universe they’d created for themselves, a place that was as fantastical as it was absurd. They wore gold robes and silver hoods on-stage (or “neon grey”, as they’d call it), had nonsensical song names like “Space and the Woods” and “Bathroom Gurgle”, and sang in surreal, stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“Falling over / Aeroplanes and / Wanting to be a derelict,” goes one typical line). It suited the beamed-from-another-dimension quality of their music, which gleefully mashed together every sound under the sun – a typical song might mix 80s synth pop, pompous glam rock, thrash metal, and Aphex-style IDM, all within about 30 seconds – but the band’s true origins were far more earthly in nature.
“The band started with me, Ross, and Sam Eastgate wanting to do anything – literally just anything – out of boredom,” Faley says. Potter adds that he was just “trying to get weed” when he started hanging out with the others. “You were a good fixer,” he jokes to Faley. “You were the link between the tough boys and the shy boys.”
Sam Eastgate’s father used to play in a new wave band called Smoking the Fool back in the day, and he had a lot of music equipment kicking about in his attic: busted guitars, scattered drum kit parts, and some early synthesisers and samplers. They experimented with what they had and made the most of their mistakes, whether those errors were deliberate (like playing an MPC sampler, generally used as a piece of studio gear, as a live instrument) or borne out of their youthful naivety. “Our main thing that we wanted to do was make something that hadn’t been heard before,” says Potter. “You can make speculative music. You can say, ‘This thing doesn’t exist yet. If we make it, people can imagine it’s real, and then it becomes real.’”
Eastgate, in particular, seemed to have a natural proficiency for music, able to try his hand at seemingly any genre and pull it off effortlessly. “Sam is a brilliant impressionist,” says Erol Alkan. “He really gets to the heart of how something works, and he’s able to regurgitate it in his own voice. It’s the nuances and subtleties that he’s so good at.” He also had a knack for translating some seriously advanced technical ideas into music that otherwise sounded simple and hooky. “Heartbeat”, to use just one example, starts with a bright synth riff, drops into a humongous chorus, and ends with a ridiculous heavy metal guitar solo. You probably wouldn’t notice unless you were paying close attention, but the song’s time signature is constantly flickering between a standard 4/4 and a proggy 7/8, and at the end, its bassline shifts from one bar of 4/4 to three bars of 3/4. That such an unusual piece of music became an anthem in indie clubs up and down the country is testament to the band’s confidence in their own ideas.
“The record itself sounds excitable, because we were excited about life, and what life could be, and what life is” – Sam Potter, Late of the Pier
Although cities like London and New York are often credited for producing new cultural shifts, the countryside has always had a close relationship with counterculture. Whether it’s new age gatherings or illegal raves, rural Britain has been more than just an idyllic retreat, offering young people the space to experiment creatively, free from the surveillance that governs more built-up, metropolitan areas. That Late of the Pier’s music came from Castle Donington maybe isn’t a huge surprise. “If you grow up in a place that’s inherently boring, your brain is searching for some sort of satisfaction,” says Potter. “You’re seeking these things from outside, and they’re not there, so what you do is turn your gaze inside, and you start using your imagination and you start making things. There was a thing about Late of the Pier, where we were desperately trying to leave the village, so we had to do it in our heads – through music. That’s why you had such preposterous, large-sounding, escapist, mutant pop music.”
“I think that might be why our music was more fantasy-oriented, and why we embellished so much,” adds Eastgate. “We weren’t trying to play down where we came from. If anything, we were trying to pretend there was more there. We squeezed all the mystery out of the surroundings.”
Still, it helped that cities like Nottingham, Leicester, and Loughborough were within close proximity. In Nottingham, a party called Liars Club proved to be particularly formative. Liars Club was started by a DJ called Ricky Haley, and was modelled, more or less, on Erol Alkan’s influential party Trash. Trash took place every Monday at London nightclub The End and attracted a crowd of “fashion reprobates and new music obsessives”, as music journalist Leonie Cooper memorably put it for The Guardian, tearing down the tribal borders between genres and incubating a generation of rock and electro talent in the process. Besides Liars Club, a slew of post-Trash parties existed in cities like Leeds (Nasty Fest), Southend-on-Sea (Junk Club), and Birmingham (Chicks Dig Jerks), presenting up-and-coming bands alongside DJs who mixed classic post-punk records, recent electroclash tracks, and emerging hits from the underground rock and dance scenes. “This clubnight was full of people of all shapes and sizes, all variations, just losing their shit. It was unadulterated fun. I still don’t think there have been many other clubnights that have hit the nail on the head,” says Faley. “You saw these crowds coming together that never used to come together,” adds Potter. “It gave us permission to do whatever the fuck we wanted.”
After seeing Erol Alkan play at Liars Club, the band were hooked up with the producer through a mutual friend, Dan Stacey, a former i-D music editor and A&R at 679 Recordings. By this point, Late of the Pier had already built up some buzz with their frequent, explosive live shows and the demos they’d shared on Myspace, the once-dominant social network whose music-centric interface and ‘Top 8’ curatorial possibilities made it a crucial resource for discovering new artists and building music communities. Alkan heard the band’s potential and went to see them play at Goldsmiths, University of London. “When I first saw them live, I found it remarkable that musicians so young could find a way to reference both Sparks and Aphex Twin without it being ridiculous,” he told Dazed in 2008. After striking up a friendship with the band, he went on to produce their first two official 7” singles, the Tubeway Army-referencing “Space and the Woods” and an amped-up glam racket called “Bathroom Gurgle”, before they signed to Parlophone for what would become Fantasy Black Channel.
“They used to call me their older brother. That was really nice. I felt a bit of a duty to keep them on their best path” – Erol Alkan
After recording the basics of the album themselves in a crumbling mansion they rented together in Nottingham’s ‘Millionaire Mile’, they finished up the record with Erol Alkan at Miloco Studios in London’s Hoxton Square. Alkan says they “didn’t have a duff minute” in the studio, trying to keep the raw, DIY energy of their early demos while beefing up the sonics and trying out new ideas. “The Bears Are Coming” remained broadly similar to its demo but introduced more of a hip hop swing, like it was being heard from out of a Jeep; “Focker”, on the other hand, was transformed from a riffy punk song into an electro-glam smash. Alkan encouraged an anything-goes attitude: at one point, he tried to make the studio feel like a club, filling the room with a smoke machine, which messed up the delicate microphones inside and earned the ire of the studio boss, The The singer Matt Johnson. “Being that age, in my early 30s, I wasn’t naturally hanging around with people who were 20 years old,” Alkan says over the phone. “They used to call me their older brother. That was really nice. I felt a bit of a duty to keep them on their best path.”
“We were trying to keep all the experimental stuff, but we were just like anyone else at the end of the day – we were concerned no one would like it,” says Eastgate. “If it could have benefited from anything else, it would’ve been someone coming in and being like, ‘You can be more conceptual.’”
I’d turned 18 a week before Fantasy Black Channel was released, and my naive belief at that age was that the album would signal a new wave of intelligent, daring young indie bands. In retrospect, the album was more like the end of one era than the start of a new one. Popular culture inevitably changes, and over the next couple of years, the bubble would burst on the indie scene that Late of the Pier came up through. With bands selling less records, major labels who’d already hemorrhaged money in the decade after Napster and before Spotify were less willing to take the risk on a four-person group, who required costly rehearsal spaces, studio sessions, and regular tours just to function, let alone turn a profit. Indie rock groups would slowly lapse back into genre formality, while underground dance music would return to codified styles like house and techno.
Perhaps the problems were economic as much as they were cultural. Six weeks after the release of Fantasy Black Channel, the Lehman Brothers investment bank collapsed, and the subsequent financial crisis led to a drop in real wages and a hike in the cost of living that we’ve still not recovered from. In this context, it’s not surprising that the network of small venues that allowed a band like Late of the Pier to develop have mostly since shut down. The UK creative industries followed the rest of the country’s economy by shifting almost entirely towards London, making it practically impossible for musicians located in a place like Castle Donington to gain any national prominence. Many of the records that crossed over from the UK underground around this time, like The xx and James Blake’s debuts, were racked with uncertainty and doubt, a far cry from Late of the Pier’s technicolour fantasia.
It’s something that Faley thinks about a lot today. After Late of the Pier, he returned to university, attempting to solve some of these problems through research with groups like UK Music and Arts Council England. “The network of university venues used to be really important in breaking new talent and recognising new artists,” he says. “Students were the lifeblood of this.” Potter, meanwhile, has spent the past two years living in Berlin, collaborating with Franz Ferdinand, and helping to release posthumous records by outsider musician February Montaine. Eastgate has perhaps been the most prolific, releasing an excellent album under his LA Priest solo project in 2015, a collaborative record with Connan Mockasin as Soft Hair in 2016, and co-producing Xenoula’s debut album in 2017.
Ross Dawson, meanwhile, played drums for a few other groups, including the London band Zibra. On May 21, 2015, Parlophone sent out a press release announcing that Dawson had died after being “involved in a very sudden and tragic accident”. He was 27 years old. As part of Fantasy Black Channel’s tenth anniversary, Potter and Eastgate put together a pamphlet for Rough Trade Books titled Ecstatic Data Sets: The Chorismos Apeiron Scanner (2028 Edition), an illustrated manual of speculative music technology where the human mind becomes an instrument itself. “When Erol asked us if we wanted to do a reissue, I thought, if we’re looking ten years in the past, we should be looking ten years in the future as well,” Potter says. “We started thinking about it at a friend’s wedding. We were trying to come up with a machine where we could communicate with Ross. We were talking for a while about what this thing could be, and I think we nailed it.”
The intro to Ecstatic Data Sets refers to Late of the Pier in the past tense, but the band never really came to a formal end. True to form, the question of their future is an open-ended one, too. “We had a conversation about what we should do 30 years from now,” says Sam Potter. “It’s part and parcel of being a member of Late of the Pier. Not any one member is in the same dimension as the other ones.” Sam Eastgate laughs. “We’ve used up our future, and we’ve still got our past to enjoy ahead of us.”
Late of the Pier’s Sam Potter will discuss the future of technology for music and its fans at a panel hosted by Jarvis Cocker at London’s Science Museum on January 30