Think of The South West of England beyond Bristol and you probably think of cream teas and bumpkins who, recently, might be stamping their little green wellied feet in protest at plans to stop them from being allowed to kill things for fun. Thinks of the South Wets and you think of bearded blokes and their tanned chick friends with surfboards strapped to VW camper vans. Think of the South West and you probably think of sleepy villages populated by either aforementioned bumpkins or tie-dyed shambling hippie types blasted on whatever assortment of drugs they can lay their hands on and living in holes in the ground. Which is fair enough. Think of South West and you probably don't think of rock'n'roll, which is of course a good point in itself, except that the area has in recent(ish) years offered up some fine examples of sonic delights. Go back ten years to the late 80s and you'd find a mean gang of rabid teenage Claim and Jasmine Minks fans called The Devon Contingent. Based around the Tory stronghold of pensioners in Rolls Royces that is Sidmouth and surrounding towns and villages, The Devon Contingent plotted and planned like the best of them. They put on early shows by the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Loop, as well as their beloved Claim, McCarthy, Jasmine Minks and Emily in Exeter's Arts Centre and College, whilst also conspiring in a Pop group called the Visitors. The Visitors made stabs at the actuality of being sixteen, rolling political indignation and personal desperation and alienation together with barbed guitars and acid wrapped vocals. Pure Pop. Their classic song 'Goldmining' made a mockery of whimsy of The Magic Shop on the final flexi released by the massively influential Sha-La-La organisation, and promised much. Sadly the group disintegrated with age, experience and geographical movement, metamorphosing into the harder edged Bristol based Hope and then into the ether altogether, although one went chasing on the road of Pop dreams with the Pulp-esque Telstar.

At the same time, in Penzance, Cornwall, one Harvey Williams was crafting sublime gems of Pop with a knowing nod to Brian Wilson, retaining a sense of unervingly gentle pessimism. Under the name Another Sunny Day, Harvey Williams released records on the ultra-unfashionable but nevertheless hugely influential and successful (outside of the UK) Sarah record label, whilst also moonlighting with Bob Stanley in the original incarnation of Saint Etienne. Staying in Penzance, but moving forward in time and sideways in style and you hit the likes of Richard James, whose Aphex Twin incarnation catapulted him from similar bedroom obscurity into national, and thence global infamy on the back of the Rave explosion. Similarly thrust into spotlights, Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard, techno head bods that popularised the rise in ambient technoid soundscapes with their Global Communications incarnation, on the back of money made from dubious cash in Rave novelty hits. Recording under various nom-de-plumes, they were able to cover a lot of ground in the techno landscape, and started their own Evolution label, home to, amongst others, Exeter's Mat Herbert. Herbert similarly recorded (and continues to record) under several different names, but was most noted for his releases as Wish Mountain, in which guise he made recordings composed entirely of sampled everyday objects. Thus, 'The Book', and the great 'Royal Wedding' which splices together samples taken from the TV of the marriage ceremony between Charles Windsor and Diana Spencer. Spooky stuff.
Staying in Exeter, and coming up to date, there is currently a refreshing core of artists in the city making interesting noise. Best known are Appliance, who coalesced in a fledgling form whilst still in primary school in Torquay, and who in the past five years have matured in Exeter into a marvellously rounded and imaginative band. Moving from their early preoccupation with guitars (guitarist/singer James Brooks played in the live Drugstore band for a while) and a sound that veered too often too closely to the rock landscape of Spacemen 3 or Stereolab in their rockier moments, Appliance now make sounds with bigger and better spaces, underpinned with textural throbs and drones and overlaid with peculiar assaults of sound from bassist Koo's intriguing home made tone generators. Keeping all this together is the groove of drummer David Ireland, whose drums are in places augmented by the blast of drum machine staccato beats, weaving echoes of classic Suicide into the mix. Many who have already written about Appliance have mentioned Stereolab and Krautrock in their reviews, and although these are relevant points of reference, there are other, more subtle influences coming into play. For instance, the developing groove is taken as much from repeated listening to Funkadelic and Parliament as to Can and Neu, whilst the textural embellishments owe as much to Stevie Wonder as to Spiritualized or Tortoise. It's the post Post-Rock axis that Appliance inevitably occupy at present, however, and their current and forthcoming releases on the impossibly hip Earworm and Enraptured labels make this occupancy one that draws much favour. Already playing regular shows in London at such events as the Kosmische club, and supporting the likes of Prolapse and Salaryman, Appliance are gaining interest from the record labels that count. The future looks promising.
Still with the Appliance connection, their own label, has been the source of other interesting sounds, both on vinyl with their own release (their first 10", 'Organised Sound') and by Harmony 400 (a 7", 'In Flight'), and by their tape releases by the likes of Brett Ashley. Harmony 400 is essentially Stuart Christie, one time bassist with Appliance, and, like James, a student of Fine Art. It's this prolonged interest in painting and Fine Art in general in fact that informs much of Appliance, Harmony 400 and Brett Ashley's work, and it's what moves their sound away from simply being to do with traditional song structures. Texture and spatial tension abound in the work of all three, and although Appliance and Harmony 400 (with a record due for Enraptured soon) are both moving into more clearly defined areas of groove and space, neither appear ready to jettison their art school leanings. Long may it remain to be so.
Brett Ashley is a more resolutely visual based project. Named after the character in Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises', Brett Ashley is the solo project of The Duke of Harringay, a self-confessed musical illiterate. As such this is sound that is entirely collage based, assembling extracts of recorded music (the bass refrain from Ui's own remixed 'Sexy Photograph' for example), television and radio, and found dialogue. Occasionally a spoken word piece is dubbed on top, as in 'Pink Flag', which marries a short story of the same title with a sound collage made up entirely of warped samples lifted from the classic Wire LP. With the Scottish accent it might sound like Arab Strap, but the history of spoken word pieces is long and varied, and Brett Ashley remind us as much of Magazine's 'the Book' or VU's 'The Gift' as of 'The First Big Weekend'. Assembled using a PC and two tape decks, the approach is hi-tech lo-fi and thoroughly in the tradition of tape culture.
Aside from the label, another binding factor in this Exeter scene has been The Living Room club. Begun in March 1997 as an outlet for visual installation and a place to hear the sorts of eclectic electronic and post-rock/hop sounds that went un-played in the traditional night clubs, the Living Room ceased to function in April 1998 after a final show that witnessed the return of Jasmine Minks' Jim Shepherd to an Exeter stage. Frustrated by the lack of interest shown by established venues to allow anything but a Sunday night for their eclectic and artistic events, the Living Room organisers, the loose community of artists, DJs, musicians and writers called The Independent Group are now moving into areas which parody the already stale and 'traditional' club culture. Inevitably entrenched within the cultural geography of their city and yet determined to remain elusive and challenging, The Independent Group are committed to promoting artistic endeavour through means that avoid the established routes. As such they are, like Appliance and Harmony 400, seeking to build their own unique place within contemporary Pop society. That only a few will apparently care will be testament not to their failure but to the success of the established apathy.

The South West then: a hot bed of surfers, hippies and bastards who kill things for fun, sadly, yes. But also a hot bed of artistic endeavour, with souls passionate about making challenging and diverse statements. Why not come down and check it out? Just leave your surfboard at home.

Alistair Fitchett. April 1998.

Ten from the South West

Reload: Birth of a Disco Dancer
Global Communications: 76 14
The Visitors: Goldmining
Appliance: Rev A
Aphex Twin: Analogue Bubblebath
Another Sunny Day: You Should All Be Murdered
Brett Ashley: Sexier Photograph
Wish Mountain: Royal Wedding
Harmony 400: In Flight
Jedi Knights: Science Friction