We almost laughed we almost cried

Everyone has a perfect summer, where everything comes together in a combination of sunshine, alcohol, friends and music. I’d had some pretty dreadful summers – see my previous posts on summer ’86 – and I’ve mentioned the summer of ’91 as my ‘perfect summer’. A few months ago I made a list of all the records I bought from that summer – in preparation to write a piece about that period – and it was a very very long list. Every few days I’d walk from Brunel House behind Cardiff Queen Street station through to HMV then Our Price then Spillers and back again holding the latest CD or vinyl, or some back catalogue I’d always fancied.

I remember one day in late July I popped into Spillers on the way home and left with two CD singles – the “Jack” and “Cool breeze” EPs by Moose. I’d read a lot in the press about the band in the music papers so took a chance on them. Moose had just been on the front of Melody Maker with an intriguing centre spread interview where the members got drunk and sang the praises of “Forever changes”, “Pet sounds”, Tim Buckley, Lee Hazlewood, Kris Kristofferson and country music. Not what the other shoegazers were talking about at all. They also made the distinction that they were working class rather than middle class like the Thames Valley shoegazers (Ride, Slowdive, Chapterhouse) which gave them an edge. And at 28 both singer Russell Yates and guitarist KJ “Moose” McKillop were both a good few years older than their noisy brethren. I’d heard “Suzanne” from “Cool breeze” on Mark Radcliffe’s “Out on blue six” radio show (that was a marvellous show, even if nobody really remembers it) and had quite liked it. What could go wrong?

Their first EP “Jack” was issued in March ’91, and was immediately lauded with high praise in the music papers. The “Cool breeze” was issued in the summer and was adored by the same papers. Live reviews mentioned how Moose were ‘the real thing’, while Chapterhouse added dance beats to get in the charts and Slowdive had reigned in their avalanche of sound…. Moose were pure, they were close to perfection. At least that’s what the papers said – while they liked them that summer. Hell, the terms “shoegazing” and “the scene that celebrates itself” were invented in Moose live reviews that Spring. It’s also interesting to note from their early press that the term “murmuring band” was used to describe these sons of the Valentines. That one never caught on, did it? Here’s Moose’s first TV appearance being interviewed by Miki from Lush and performing “Jack” live on “Snub TV”, and yes they seem to be gazing at their shoes. They also recorded a fine Peel Session in Spring ’91 featuring a strange cover of “In every dream home a heartache”, making it sound like “The thin boys” by A Certain Ratio, and “Je Reve” – a curious noisy instrumental with Letitia Sadler intoning through a telephone…

“Jack” is a typical debut EP. A chance to show their range, and a chance to make an instant impression, and it showed their wilfully naïve attitude to their own music and the recording environment could work wonders. “Jack” opens with a sharp intake of breath and Russell Yates starts singing “We almost laughed we almost cried”… And on “Laughed” the maelstrom of drums and guitars overwhelm him. It’s an odd sound, early Moose. Some guitars jangle, some guitars drone, but it’s a unique noise. There’s crashes and stops and starts and dischords and feedback surges. And that’s just one song, with Yates murmuring in the background. “The ballad of Adam and Eve” is slower but just as good, more swooning guitars. “Boy” is fantastic though. After some introductary guitar noise grace notes, everything blasts off at top speed – guitars are strummed at a high velocity like early Wedding Present, a bassline wanders up and down octaves oblivious to what’s going on, there’s one particularly brutal distorted guitar going through a wah-wah set to high treble stun which bursts in and out at odd points, and within this storm of guitars Yates – yes – murmurs about feeling young confused and in love – “You’re what I think about when the world’s falling down” (at least that’s what it sounds like – his vocal is so low I could be totally wrong), and it’s almost as ferocious and fast as “Sueisfine”. “I’ll take tomorrow” is more genteel, lightly strummed guitars and clear vocals with a strange swarm of electric mandolins appearing in the chorus. That song was compared to Nick Drake at the time. Sometimes people can be so wrong.

“Cool Breeze” starts with “Suzanne” which is probably’s Moose’s best known song. It’s a pop song but seen at a strange angle. The drums stampede along, skittering and worried. The guitars jangle in a threatening way, and in the background some white noise guitar drops in and out of the mix, while more guitars pile on. The words are a strange kind of love song, “She walks all over me and I can take it from her”. Around the second chorus the white noise guitar bursts through and takes over the song, swinging from side to side on the stereo spectrum, hitting a single note column of sound where a normal guitar solo might be, and the song just builds onwards, drums roll, guitars get more frantic, the noise increases like the blood boiling in your ears until the band crash to a halt. Still stunning now, and for me a high water mark for shoegazing. (Here’s a live version from the Marquee which is rather good – still gazing at their shoes, mind) The rest of the EP doesn’t disappoint either. “Butterfly collector” is nothing to do with the A.R.Kane song and swims through layers of guitars. “Untitled Love Song” kicks off with big roomy drums – compressed to all hell – and then those mandolins return, in waves of chords. Yates sings of love and hate, and then a huge distorted bass kicks your head in. More chords throw themselves into the song and it crashes to a halt on more drums… Then it fades into “Speak to me” and a future appears beyond the noise and guitars. The drums are still lopsided but the guitars are gentler and a piano (played by Martyn Young from Colourbox) caresses the song, and it’s not quite country but it’s not quite indie either. There’s some high keening guitar circling in the background while Yates sings of his romantic misunderstandings, and it’s a very unusual sound but quite charming in its innocence, As the drums stumble to a halt and the piano fades one voice says “Speak to me?” Then a second’s silence, then another voice replies “No”. End of EP. What the hell was that about? (A note on the sleeve of the “Cool breeze” EP which thanks Martyn Young, Tim Gane – who had played guitar live with them – and a few more people “And no other fucker”! Always liked that phrase.)

The two EPs were part of the soundtrack to that summer, along with all the other records I bought. When I sat in the toilet in Lucianos trying to escape from the noise outside in the bar and the noise inside my head, I’d stick “Suzanne” on my walkman and feel better. Moose didn’t understand love either, but they reflected the confusion I felt. Could I be friends with someone I was crushing on? This was all new to me. Let the noise wash over me.

Time passed and so did trends. By the time Moose issued their third EP in November ’91 shoegazing was rapidly going out of fashion, “Loveless” had shown up everyone else, while other albums like “Nevermind” and “Screamadelica” and “Foxbase Alpha” and “Bandwagonesque” washed away what the papers had been staunchly plugging for the previous year. (Curious quote from Moose’s June 91 interview in MM – “..And the next Primal Scream album, which will be their third, will be their ‘Pet Sounds,’ it’ll be the album they make that will make everybody go, ‘What?!’ and set them apart from all their contemporaries. And they’ll make an album that I hope and pray in 20 years time will still be great.”). It felt like a total sea-change – much touted bands like World of Twist, Paris Angels and Spirea X issued their debut LPs and suddenly the world had moved on, people weren’t interested at all. It was a similar situation for shoegazers – Lush and Chapterhouse both issued underperforming EPs, Slowdive were seen as “worse than Hitler” (thanks Richey Manic), it was time to move away from the herd. The third Moose EP “Reprise” was a farewell to their origins and pointed directly to their future. “Last night I fell again” was a more traditional indie guitar pop song with a sprinkling of noise, perfectly melodic and spritely. “This river never will run dry” was a step forward – a seven minute country song. The noisy guitars were stripped away, allowing Yates to finally sing audibly about love, while the band sauntered through a mid tempo country swing, heavy on the ride cymbal. It was utterly gorgeous. “Do you remember?” had been a live favourite – a simple two chord build up from not much to an overwhelming ocean of noise, then back again, in about eight minutes. “Reprise” was a bunch of found sounds and orchestral samples from songs on Scott Walker’s “Boychild” compilation. All three Moose EPs would fit nicely on one side of a C90 and would have made a great debut album. Or perhaps an introductory mini-LP for America? That’ll be “Sonny anf Sam” then.

(It’s worth pointing out that these early EPs were all produced by Guy Fixsen who was kind of man of the moment in ’91, he had helped engineer “Loveless” – but who hadn’t? – and had worked on the Revolver singles, and the debut Moonshake EP which was almost as good as “Cool breeze”. Indeed Fixsen continued to work with Moonshake in ’92 and ’93, adding the same “Untitled Love Song” drum sound to “Beautiful Pigeon“, then working with Margaret Fielder in the underrated Laika)

Moose disappeared for a year after that. They had a slight lineup change, losing their original rhythm section and gaining the brothers Lincoln and Russell Fong on bass and guitars and Richard Thomas on drums. Someone should write a book about Lincoln Fong – working with A.R.Kane on “69” and “I”, then helped out Cocteau Twins live and in the studio, then making records with his brother (the Polar LP “Living incinerator” is almost as good as Moose, featuring the lovely vocals of Hamish MacKintosh who made a great single “Butterfly Knife” as Fuel, again with Cocteaus connections). On drums now was Richard Thomas – another 4AD alumni in Dif Juz and on his way towards drumming on Butterfly Child’s marvellous records on Dedicated Records. Shoegazing was forgotten by the time their record label Hut issued their debut album “…XYZ” in autumn ’92. The LP was produced by Mitch Easter – of REM and Let’s Active fame – and I presume big things were expected of it, hence the name producer and a big push in the music shops. “XYZ” is a halfway house between their existing style and the country hybrid they’re aiming for. While there isn’t the guitar overload of their early EPs, there’s a casual sub-Wedding Present-ness about some of the lesser songs – “Friends” and “Polly” for a start trundle along pleasantly enough but don’t linger in the mind for long. Single “Little Bird” gets by on sheer verve alone. But once Moose get past a serviceable cover of “Everybody’s talkin'” the band are transformed. “Sometimes loving is the hardest thing” moves their ballad style on from “This river…”, adding a light string orchestration and a halo of sustained guitar notes (which would become a Moose speciality, as we’ll see) and a heartfelt vocal too, even getting away with some terrible rhymes. “Soon is never soon enough” sees Yates duetting with Dolores O’Riordian from the Cranberries (still a few months away from their own success) over a rollicking tune aided by banjo, Jew’s Harp and barrelhouse piano. Not Mumford-ish at all, thank God. “High flying bird” washes past in a gauzy mix of strings and guitars, hopeful but not too hopeful, with some heart stopping chord changes. “I’ll see you in my dreams” is a stunner. It’s a proper waltz with a lovely string arrangement and a fatallistic love lyric – “Let’s hold a knife against the throat of love”. I mentioned this song in passing in “There must be a better life”, when Autumn ’92 was a time when I actively wanted fatallistic love songs (it was the start of my infatuation with M) so that got a lot of play, as did the title track. I remember Simon Reynolds saying it was “like Eno at the Grand Ol’ Opry”, and that’s close. Vapour trails of feedback arc the sky, drums stumble and halt, and Yates morosely sighs “Why? Why? Wish I’d known before I’d got here, I’d have to go”. Five minutes of sheer gorgeous spine tingling beauty.

Hut weren’t happy though. I’m not sure what they were expecting, but they didn’t get it and promptly dropped Moose from their roster. This act galvanised Moose into producing some of their best music. They issued an EP “Liquid Makeup” on their own label Cool Badge in the Spring of ’93 and it was a great little record. Opening song “I wanted to see you to see if I wanted you” had a song title that I would have killed to come up with. It says everything in one sentence. The song is as great as the title, bright clean guitars and seemingly happy words, breezing past in three minutes. A few years ago I concentrated on the bassline and was amazed at how it is so static during the verses then gets active during the chorus and bridge, seemingly playing its own song towards the end. “There’s A Place” drifts along on a wash of acoustic guitars and mildly phased drums and cymbals, with a tiny hint of chaotic guitar in the background. At the four minute point Yates sings “When all is gone I’ll take my body home” and the song ends, every instrument fades out naturally. Silence for three seconds. And on a pindrop they all burst back in again, with that chaotic guitar slightly more highlighted. It’s a divine song, and one we’ll come back to.

Moose then signed to the Belgian label Play It Again Sam, which had specialised in harsh and noisy European music before then. They worked on a new album in the same studio as the Boo Radleys, and both “Honey bee” and “Giant steps” were issued around the same time, early Autumn ’93. Moose themselves are credited with vocals and handclaps on some songs on the Boos’ LP, and I could always push the point by claiming “Wish I Was Skinny” sounds kind of Moose-ish. But hell, they were mates. But while “Giant steps” got the plaudits and praise and ended up topping a few “Albums of the year” polls, “Honey bee” quietly went about its business of being an almost perfect guitar pop album. The LP was produced by Lincoln Fong and he gave the songs and arrangements a clear space to exist – the gauzy wash of reverb was no longer there, nor the hints of shoegazing distortion. This was pure Moose music, they weren’t aiming at country music, the influence had been assimilated into their own style. It was like a breath of fresh spring air in your lungs, it clears the head and puts a spring in your step.

For some reason I’ve struggled to find anything sensible to say about “Honey bee”. It’s not perfect – I could have happily swapped one song off it for “Tower of crumbs” (a song from the “Uptown” EP issued just before the LP came out), but otherwise it’s great. Moose sound happier for a start, it sounds romantic rather than desperately sad, melodies and phrases from songs jump out and stick in your mind, McKillop’s lead guitar work is simple yet perfectly suited to the songs. There’s little touches throughout the album – a xylophone here, a string line there – which grab attention. “I wanted to see you to see if I wanted you” gets a small makeover, opener “Uptown Invisible” revisits the skittering drums of “Suzanne” but with a new purpose. God I love this album so much but can’t find anything interesting to say about it. Sorry readers, but trust me it’s a fantastic album that needs to be heard, preferrably lying on a rug in a meadow on a bright clear day with someone you love. (Please note – this has never happened to me.)

And there’s one song…. Towards the end, the penultimate track. “Dress You The Same“. Starting with just a beautifully clean guitar arpeggio chord change, with aqueous bass and whistling. (Did I mention that Moose love whistling?). Then drums fall in out of sync then attach themselves properly as skykissing guitar feedback arcs are introduced alongside superb heart-rending chord changes. Then Yates sings intimately of little riddles and epigrams before the chorus – “Wish I was sleeping, I’m happy when I’m sleeping, and when you call. Can you call?”. Such yearning. Utterly bewitching, a very special song.

In early ’94 Moose toured the UK to support the album. I managed to see them play in Cardiff, in the small hall above the student union at Cardiff University. They must have had trouble getting to the gig as Moose ended up soundchecking in front of the audience, lazily coasting through “Sometimes loving is the hardest thing” (my friend Nigel was with me that night and claimed afterwards they hit a note during the soundcheck they didn’t come close to during the gig). Then the support band came on. I’d not heard of Submarine before, but I was very impressed. Although only a three piece they made enough noise to fill the room. They played slowly and aggressively, with whining vocals and soaring guitar solos. I picked up their LP the next day from Diverse Records in Newport and the assistant who served me had been at the gig and said “I’ve been playing it all day”. But Moose live… They didn’t have a lot of time, so only managed eight songs but I can remember the songs they did and the order they did them in (and I didn’t write them down at the time either. Or steal a set list like I tend to do now). Their last two songs were “Dress you the same” – even dreamier than the studio version – and “There’s a place”, hanging on the pause in the middle for as long as possible. Of course I would have liked them to play more songs but I was very pleased with what they did.

Moose disappeared again – they toured America with the Cocteau Twins and I bet that was a good gig – and returned with their third album “Live a little love a lot” in 1996. This was a continuation from where they’d left off with “Honey bee”. Liz Fraser drops by for a backing vocal on opener “Play God” and then it’s more of the same. Not that ‘more of the same’ is bad in this context. Each song has a distinctive little characteristic – the odd organ introduction to “Rubdown”, the Tijuana trumpet line on “The man who hanged himself”, while “So much love, so little time” has a melody figure at the end of each chorus played on guitar and piano which recalls nothing less than the theme music to “Terry and June”, there’s a peculiar mix of Farfisa organ and spaghetti western guitar lines on a number of songs. And again there’s a standout song – “Eve in a dream” – full of unexpected chord changes, those trademark arcing guitars and heavenly coo-ing backing vocals, while Yates sings again of an unobtainable ideal partner. What is unusual about this LP is how Moose could have capitalised on their associations with the Cocteaus, and with the hints of easy listening in the music – 1996 was the year that ‘easy listening’ was ‘in’ – but they didn’t. Perhaps they were happy with what they were doing, didn’t want to make compromises in their music any longer, or perhaps they knew that it was just a phase – like shoegazing – which would soon be out of fashion again. Nevertheless the album was issued, the fans bought it and lapped it up – I know I did – and waited patiently for more.

And waited and waited and waited. Eventually Moose’s fourth and final album “High ball me” was released in 2000 without much of a fanfare – I only knew of it’s existence because of a small advert in the NME – and I don’t think I saw any reviews of it at the time. I had to order it from Diverse, it wasn’t a record they were intending to have in – no demand. And when I did hear it I was disappointed. It was the first CD I’d heard with audible clipping, it sounded trebly and distorted, and it was an unpleasant experience to listen to it. I think I played it a few times, couldn’t bear the horrible mess of the sound and hid it away. It was a shame because it was a great record with some of Moose’s best songs on it. (Wiki says the LP was recorded in ’96 and ’97 but shelved while the band decided if they existed or not!). I recently located the American issue of the album and it sounded a lot better, and I can honestly say I neglected the album at the time. I had other things on my mind. “Can’t get enough of you” is a frantic bongo led groover with hilarious lyrics (“Your custom car crushed my guitar”!). “Lily la tigresse” is a mid tempo skulk around a chirping old drum machine with gypsy violin. It all sounds like it shouldn’t work but it all ends up sounding like nothing other than Moose. There are numerous highlights. “Wonder where I’ll go” starts quiet and intimate and expands into a glorious 60s style chorus. “Pretend we never met” is awash in reverb, pizzacato strings and handclaps. Even former b-side “There’s a place” finds a home on an album at last. Best of all is “The only man in town“, the kind of enormous grin-inducing pop song that most people would cut off their right arm to write. In a parallel universe it would have been number one for a month. And it’s tossed away in the middle of an album that hardly anyone noticed, let alone heard. Criminal!

After that Moose just stopped existing. As far as I can tell they went into management, using the name Cool Badge – I certainly saw a lot of promo CDs bearing that logo in the early 2000s. Around 2002 I noticed in my local newspaper that Moose were due to play that night at TJs in Newport and dashed down there, hoping against hope to see them again. They didn’t turn up. The next day I found an email address for them and asked “Was it you? By the way. I love your band – what’s happening?” An hour later I had an email back from Russell saying it wasn’t them, thanking me for my support and admitting the band was no more.

So that was the end of Moose. A wonderful compilation could be made of the many high points of their career – and that’s precisely what I did as soon as I had a CD burner. They still seem like a forgotten band – everyone goes on about Slowdive and Chapterhouse but Moose were special, not just for their early shoegazing but also their later indie- country-pop music. Please don’t ignore them. Don’t follow the herd. 😎

Next time – everyone’s got new clothes, makes me feel kinda old…

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7 thoughts on “We almost laughed we almost cried

  1. I’m certain this is the most info on Moose I’ve encountered anywhere. It doesn’t matter that it’s written on a personal level (essential reading I might add). There were newly discovered details about the band that were fascinating to read, along with your song descriptions. I love their music so thank you!

  2. Rediscovered “dress you the same” today, and I’m still breathless. What a brilliant track! You described it perfectly, I couldn’t do it better.
    Sadly, this band doesn’t got the credit it would have deserved.

  3. This is great. Live a Little has been my favorite album for years and Only Man in Town was my introduction to them (I was floored by it). If you listen closely, I suspect they sped the tape up mastering that song.

  4. I am certain I heard Jack on 120 Minutes when I was about 13 years old. It has been on my mind since then, about 25 years ago, but I didn’t the name or whose song it was. I just decided to try and google the lyrics again and I found this. I then found the video on youtube and it’s as good as I had remembered. Thank you so much!

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