Seefeel - Biography
Bridging the gap between post-My Bloody Valentine drone-rock and the early stages of British IDM and ambient techno, Seefeel crafted an extremely unique sound that is itself responsible for as much influence as the band seemed capable of ingesting and reformatting to their own ends. More credit is due Seefeel in the shaping of current trends in ambient guitar-based electronics from the likes of Christian Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi and Keith Fullerton Whitman.
Starting life as a slightly more traditional indie-rock band in London in 1992, the members of Seefeel — guitarist and leader Mark Clifford, vocalist and guitarist Sarah Peacock, drummer Justin Fletcher and bassist Darren Seymour — quickly became bored with the standard verse / chorus / verse structure. The group began incorporating electronics, loops and extensive live effects processing into its sound. While the earliest demos supposedly have a bit more traditional song structure than anything Seefeel would officially release, the band obviously never set out to write standard songs. Within the year, Seefeel had signed with the Too Pure label.
Things moved extremely fast for Seefeel’s first full year with Too Pure. The band’s first release was an EP titled More Like Space (1993 Too Pure). The opening title track begins with swirling treated guitar samples with a dubbed-out melodic bass line and simple drum pulse entering soon after. Processed loops filter in and out of the track, creating subtly percolating polyrhythms. The delirious repetition is only interrupted by Peacock’s far-away vocal repeating its own endless, cooing pattern. “Time To Find Me” begins with an electro-inspired beat seemingly filtered through molasses, slowed down and wrapped in quietly droning guitar loops and fuzzed-out vinyl crackle. Here the vocals are much more prominent in the mix, with an intelligible one line lyric. “Come Alive” begins as a much more traditional song. A chugging rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place on a Jesus & Mary Chain record drives droning guitars and a buried vocal melody. The track eventually descends into a dub effects echo chamber, the drums and loops bouncing off one another for a dizzying close. The final track, “Blue Easy Sleep” again shows a prominent, dub-influenced bass line over a shuffling repetitive beat. The guitars are so processed here that they sound like a mass of shimmering melodicas. Its maybe the most successful track on the EP, creating a drone-groove atmosphere that somehow conjures the ghost of reggae, the late 80’s Manchester beat and Can’s psychedelic boogie, but reduced down to the most basic elements.
The Pure, Impure EP (1993 Too Pure) followed soon after. Beginning with a version of what is possibly early Seefeel’s most defining song, this short release sets the stage for the massive debut full-length to come. “Plainsong” is total bliss. Deeply organic processed guitars and vocals create fluctuating patterns which ping-pong across the stereo field, interlocking with the simple drum groove. Heavy dub bass holds it all together, allowing the single vocal line and soaring fuzz guitars to head for the stratosphere. It’s an exhilarating song, an exercise in intuitively joyous minimalism. “Moodswing” is another My Bloody Valentine meets dub-space excursion, with ghostly angelic filtered vocals. Following this is the ten-plus minute “Minky Starshine.” Eno-esque guitars slide down to meet a noisy thumping loop of industrial percussion, with hi-hats ticking in the background. It’s the sparest track on the release, morphing into a 4/4 minimal techno workout halfway through with extremely beautiful processed vocals, thumping kick-drum and more of that heavy warm dub bass. Further solidifying the electronica influence, three remixes by IDM godfather Aphex Twin end the EP.
Amazingly released that same year, Seefeel’s debut full-length record was a revelation. The EP’s had showed a band with a distinct sound and an obviously razor sharp vision, but Quique (1993 Too Pure) took Seefeel to another level entirely. Achieving maximum warmth while exploring very minimal compositions is a feat that the record pulls off with considerable aplomb.
The elements found on the EPs all return — the melodic dub bass, the processed guitar loops, the simple no frills rhythms and the abstracted vocal melodies — but return with a newly found confidence of execution. The songs themselves show a stronger sense of composition, with more focused structures and more complete ideas, but it is the pure sonic quality of the album that creates the biggest divide with the initial EPs. The processing and effects treatment of guitars, voice and rhythmic loops on Quique remains a shining example of creative production. No effect is extraneous. Nothing feels gratuitous. Mark Clifford has said that he made no distinction between the songwriting process and the creation of sounds. “With a lot of bands, they tend to add electronic or production elements for the sake of updating a traditional format. I think with Seefeel… whatever effects or manipulations we used were more like a part of the music rather than an afterthought.”
Quique’s third track, “Industrious,” sums up the direction of the band during this period perfectly. Beginning with a constant guitar drone that is soon joined by clattering processed percussion and a live drum and bass lock-groove, the track is both completely static and totally propulsive. It still sounds like absolutely nothing else. The groove continues, with elements brought in and out of the mix in a classic dub style. Peacock coos a wordless melody to haunting effect. It’s fully modern minimal psychedelic groove music, a melding of motorik Krautrock pulse, arctic disco and blissfully droning guitar fuzz. It’s obvious on “Industrious,” as on the rest of Quique, that the whole band is contributing fully. The following releases will see Mark Clifford take a more direct lead in the output of Seefeel, and this shift will mark the beginning of the band’s split.
After the release of Quique the band amped up its touring schedule. Clifford has said that during this period some tensions began to arise within the band. He’s also talked about the stress of setting up Seefeel’s technically involved live show. These things added up to a tense period for the band right before they started working on the next batch of releases. In 1994 Seefeel signed with Warp, then a young and almost entirely electronic music oriented record label, releasing work by artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre. Seefeel’s releases on Warp, with Clifford taking a more direct role at the controls, would move in a sparser, darker direction.
The opening song on the band’s Starethrough EP (1994 Warp) certainly has the Seefeel sound, but it’s colder and more dissonant. Gone are the lush melodies that marked Seefeel’s earlier work. “Starethrough” is a skeleton of a dub track with clanging percussion and a pulsing electronic kick drum where Darren Seymour’s bass would have previously been. Sarah Peacock’s vocals take a prominent role, although they are processed and filtered almost beyond recognition, sounding inhuman and icy. “Air-Eyes” features gorgeously flowing padded loops and rain-patter percussion, but it still feels frozen, a still life of motion. “Spangle” begins with a pulsing processed guitar melody that would fit on Fennesz’s classic Endless Summer (2001 Mego). The guitar is joined by more oilcan percussion and processed vocals, as well as the prominent return of a bass line. “Lux1” closes the EP on a dark note. Cavernous percussion gives way to a claustrophobic underwater drone loop, opening into a mournful lament of processed guitar and throbbing buried kick-drum. “Lux1” points the way to even darker territory ahead on the Succour full-length.
Succour (1995 Warp) was released the following year. “Meol” opens the record with six minutes of icily processed guitar swirl. It’s a masterpiece of dark ambience. “Extract” features more beautifully processed guitar texture, but also introduces electronic beats that would not sound out of place on Autechre’s Amber (1994 Warp). The album continues to combine masterfully processed guitar and vocal sounds with starkly simple IDM beats to great effect. The guitar processing in particular is very far ahead of its time, sounding extremely contemporary today. “Utreat/Tempean” ends the record with a gut-wrenching bass drone that would make Sunn O))) proud. It's obvious that Clifford had come up with some very unique techniques in the process of making Succour and it lives on as a precursor to much of the abstract guitar music that is so popular in the wake of Fennesz’s success.
Succour did not sell well at the time of its release and the band went on temporary hiatus. Clifford focused on working solo as Disjecta, releasing abstract minimal electronic music with Warp. The other three members joined with longtime Seefeel producer Mark Van Hoen to record beat-laced electronic pop as Scala. In late 1996 the band briefly reunited for what would be its final album, Ch-Vox (1996 Rephlex).
Ch-Vox is very similar in atmosphere to Succour, if a bit more subdued. It begins with a series of typically gorgeous dark ambient tracks, coming off like a minimal guitar version of Brian Eno’s On Land (1982 Polydor). Beats don’t appear until the Aphex Twin inspired fourth track, “Hive.” Ringing funeral bells and haunting far-off vocals make “Ashdeacon” alien and achingly beautiful. “Net” wraps it all up sounding like a Can groove reduced to almost nothing but soaring wind and drums heard from miles away. As on Succour there are almost no discernable vocals and no straightforward bass.
By this point, Clifford had eclipsed the other members’ contributions and moved the band far from anything remotely traditional in song structure. Both of Seefeel’s last records were largely ignored upon release. Although Quique is often considered the band’s classic moment (it was remastered and reissued with extra tracks by Too Pure as Quique-Redux Edition in 2007), both Succour and Ch-Vox are enormous accomplishments in abstract music. The legacy of Seefeel has proven to be unjustly quiet and a little fractured, but Mark Clifford should be celebrated as an important figure in the development of abstract electronic music.