The Beta Band - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
Making their debut in 1996, the Scottish quartet The Beta Band purveyed a unique electronic-folk hybrid that earned them critical favor and a cult following throughout their ever-evolving, albeit brief, career. As was the case with many trailblazers before them, the group’s generally rave reviews never translated into more than modest sales, even as their sound grew more accessible. Perhaps their schizophrenic, half serious/half quirky tone doomed them in a late 90’s rock environment dominated by self-righteous experimentalism and earnest, emo platitudes. It could also be that they never recovered from their poorly-received debut which they themselves described as “fucking awful.” After eight years, the band called it quits in 2004, due to what they perceived to be a lack of interest from the record buying public. In the years following their dissolution, the cult of The Beta Band has grown with new legions of fans discovering the gems of their eight year career. Although the individual members have since gone on to other recording projects, the former members remain close friends and haven’t ruled out the possibility of a reunion. At the rate their cult is growing, the likelihood of seeing The Beta Band once again take the stage seems more promising with each passing year.
The seeds of the Beta Band were planted near Edinburgh, Scotland by vocalist Steve Mason and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Gordon Anderson in 1996, when the duo began writing and recording under the moniker The Pigeons. The duo quickly hashed out a winning formula built around computerized effects and an eclectic fusion of folk, indie rock, pop, and funk (often within the same song). Prior to recording their debut EP, The Pigeons added drummer Robin Jones and multi-instrumentalist John Maclean. After changing their name to The Beta Band, bassist (and lone Englishman) Richard Greentree joined and completed the line-up. During this early incarnation, Anderson and Mason were the band’s principle songwriters although eventually the group would incorporate all of the members into the process. The infectious, trip-hop/rock hybrid (which inspired the tag “folk hop”) of the debut EP, Champion Versions (1997 Regal) immediately established a buzz. Shortly after recording commenced on a follow-up EP, Anderson began to experience symptoms of schizophrenia and elected to leave the group after a harrowing experience where he claimed to see red devils rising from the studio floor. Anderson would spend the better part of the next five years in and out of mental institutions although he continued to issue lo-fi experimental recordings under the moniker Lone Pigeon in reference to his former band’s original name.
The following year, The Beta Band cemented their status as critical darlings with two more EP’s, The Patty Patty Sound (1998 Regal) and Los Amigos del Beta Banditos (1998 Regal). All three releases were subsequently re-released as one collection called, The 3 EP’s (1998 Regal) later that year.The 3 EPs successfully broke the band in Europe and The Beta Band subsequently rushed into the studio to record a proper debut album.
Their time was cut short due to their UK label’s budget constraints and the resulting album was rushed to release even though the band felt it wasn’t complete. The eponymous debut, The Beta Band (1999 Regal) received lukewarm critical reviews for its diverse but muddied sound and sales were sluggish. Of course the band’s public denouncement may not have helped their commercial fortunes.
Meanwhile, the success of High Fidelity in the fall of 2000 introduced The Beta Band to a broader North American audience. In the classic film, John Cusack’s character uttered the line, “I will now sell five copies of The 3 EPs by The Beta Band” while “Dry the Rain” plays in the background of a fictional Chicago record. The band reconvened with producer C-Swing (aka Colin Emmanuel) to record a sophomore effort. Whereas their debut album was a sprawling morass of samples and sound effects, Hot Shot II (2001 Regal) swung in the opposite direction toward experimentation that was ominous and minimal. Despite the moderate European success of the singles, “Squares”, “Broke”, and “Human Being”, the album lacked the radio friendly immediacy and inspired quirkiness of The 3 EP’s material. In America they failed to build on their cult fan base. Hoping to achieve that elusive stateside breakthrough, The Beta Band jumped at the opportunity to open for Radiohead during their massive North American summer tour.
After a short hiatus, The Beta Band decided to give their flagging career one last shot in the arm with the release of their most streamlined, radio-friendly album. Convening with former Beck and Elliott Smith producer, Tom Rothrock, the band began sessions for their third full-length in the fall of 2002. After completing a few tracks it became apparent that the creative relationship wasn’t bearing the inspired fruits they’d hoped for and the sessions were scrapped. After a costly delay, they opted to self-produce Heroes to Zeros (2004 Regal) which delved head first into pop music of the highest caliber. Its singles “Assessment” and “Outside” and garnered the best reviews of their career but sales, once again, failed to match the critics’ enthusiasm. Citing public indifference, the band announced their disbandment a few months later. After a short tour, the group played their final live show on December 5, 2004 at Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh, Scotland. A double-disc package, The Best of the Beta Band (2005 Astralwerks) was released the following year, featuring a live disc of one of their last performances at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. Mason subsequently delved into his solo side project, King Biscuit Time before moving on to a new recording project called Black Affair. Maclean and Jones reunited with a newly-recuperated Gordon Anderson to form The Aliens.