This Heat arose from the same British turbulence that gave rise to the punk movement. Founded in Camberwell, London, in 1976 by guitarist Charles Bullen, drummer Charles Hayward, and bassist/keyboardist Gareth Williams (all of whom actually played a variety of instruments), the band had an edgy intellectualism that put it in line with punk innovators Gang of Four and Wire. But This Heat never received the same acclaim as those acts, at least stateside. After a couple of essential albums and one brilliant EP, the band’s members made their individual ways to other projects.
Williams succumbed to cancer in 2001, much too soon to see the band find a new round of acclaim. In 2015, Seattle reissue imprint Light in the Attic released a half dozen LPs, rarities, and live records, which in time led to the convening of a new ensemble: This Is Not This Heat, in which Bullen and Hayward are joined by a small array of rockers and improvisers to reconsider and reconstruct their classic songs.
Last summer, This Is Not This Heat played a brilliant set at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. Now they’re back, playing a handful of stateside sets: The transcategorical post-punk champions will play (Le) Poisson Rouge March 18, followed by two nights at Zebulon in Los Angeles, and then will make their way to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN. In recent interviews for National Sawdust Log, Bullen and Hayward made the time to explain why they’re doing it, and why it matters. (Responses edited lightly for clarity.)
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: OK, let’s start with the two big questions: Why start again now, and why stop now?
CHARLES BULLEN: Some people have been asking us to play together as some sort of “this is not” for a long time. Then, when the 40th anniversary of the first-ever gig on Friday 13th February 1976 was coming up and Luis Carvajal [of Care in the Community Recordings] asked us, I thought “hmmmm, if not now, when?” Why stop? It was originally supposed to be just the 40th anniversary gig and then the Barbican, and now we’ve been doing it for three years!
CHARLES HAYWARD: We started up again in 2016, so it’s been a three-year thing. There was a lot of interest around the Light in the Attic reissues. And I’d met Luis in 2014, and he had the skills needed to deal with the management intricacies required for a project of this scale, the missing link, and then everything came together to make it possible. The situation globally also meant that if we were ever going to do the music again, we should do it now.
What global situation is that?
HAYWARD: The deliberate misinformation. The enforced divisions. The war machine. Freedom becomes slavery. Ignorance is strength. Things pretend to progress, but the truth of ourselves remains the same. Our culture is more concerned about pronouns than starving children.
A number of bands from the British explosion of the late ’70s have reformed and toured. Obviously, you guys have taken a very different approach, if nothing else in terms of lineup and instrumentation. What were your considerations in restarting the band? What were your concerns?
HAYWARD: We wanted to work with musicians younger than us, I’ve been doing that a lot since hooking up with Gnod and the Samarbeta crew to make Anonymous Bash in 2013, and it feels totally natural and sort of essential. Also, I’ve been working a lot solo using samples and recordings against live drums and voice, so I wanted to remove that way of working from what I was doing just to make a change in the process—plus, we had the musicians to be able to do that. Sometimes they play within their own orbit as a tape would do, musicians learning from machines.
A major concern was to not hold on too much to the music, to let the new players have space to make their own camera angles on the songs. Recently I’ve been vibing on cubism as a sort of political model, multiple perspectives as a reality beyond our individual senses.
What do you mean by “cubism” in that context?
HAYWARD: I think cubism dissolved into the culture away from painting and into cinema, story telling, music, and away from a static moment in space and into simultaneity and schisms across time. Parallel universe remix. Or maybe more exactly, cubism was an expression of an aesthetic and technical and political necessity, the investigation of multiple camera angles, parallel with the unfolding of relativity in physics. This needs also to move into political and social exchange, so that we integrate the diverse viewpoints into actions around sharing and solidarity, but without a center that diminishes the value of each individual point of view. In other words, replacing an organizational system that, no matter how hard it tries, will always reinforce hierarchy, and replace it with a much more fluid organism of interaction and responsibility. We will each hold and shape our material and spiritual reality in order to share that with each other and with the everything.
This Heat has been labeled a precursor to “post punk” (among many other laudatory labels, of course). What do you think of the term “post punk”?
HAYWARD: I don’t think we’ve ever understood it. Journalists need a label, it’s the nature of the job.
BULLEN: We have said it often that we actually started before the “punk” thing was happening in London, and I really don’t believe in “genre” in music anyway. I like music to be what I call “transcategorical,” but someone called This Heat a “pre/post everything” band, which I quite like!
What makes some music “transcategorical”?
BULLEN: Not all bands are transcategorical. Most bands limit and categorize themselves within one genre, do they not? Sometimes an artist or band makes certain tracks that seem to break out of their defined genre.
I suppose “trans-” would imply including all genres at once, but I also think of a song/tune/piece or body of work that “transcends” genre, i.e rises above the limits of any particular genre. I suppose This Heat was fairly “transcategorical,” and that’s why I really liked “pre/post everything” as opposed to “post-punk.”
Were there any This Heat songs that seemed particularly relevant to revive today?
HAYWARD: The songs are all inter-related, they have degrees of connection, some are about small and others are about big things, some are more ambiguous than others, but they contrast each other. So although some seem more obviously relevant to now, there’s this weird strength inside the songs that means they need each other. [Quoting their song “Cenotaph”] “History repeats itself.”
Your songs often struck me as not protest songs but a sort of political philosophy poetry. Needless to say, these are dramatic times in the U.K. and U.S.A. Is there value in rock musicians making political responses to the current times? Is it important? Is it a responsibility? Does it make a difference? How do political concerns play out in your music?
HAYWARD: I think it’s different for everybody – that’s another sort of cubism – so I don’t think imperatives work. That applies to lyrics, too: telling people exactly what to think is always the problem, we need to get beyond that sense of right/wrong. But for me it’s an absolute necessity to confront the deep social systems and structures and how they manifest between and inside us, to remove my personality from that as much as possible, to transport the exchange into song space. A space with responsibilities that floats outside of polemic and the immediate, and instead fuses history, desire, sensuality, speculative fictions, a sort of synesthesia that leaves itself open to the listener’s responses.
As far as the idea of making a difference goes, nowadays I sort of feel that as soon as anybody does anything it changes everything. Aside from that, I don’t know. We played in Philadelphia last year, and after “S.P.Q.R.” someone in the audience shouted out “They’re singing about us”.
What was the role of improvisation in This Heat. Is it the same for This Is Not This Heat?
HAYWARD: We used improvisation a lot to generate little cells of ideas that we’d then develop, either into new songs or to accommodate lyrics and vocal tunes, the processes twisting into and around each other. The space between composition and improvisation is an ongoing obsession. With This Is Not This Heat, the improvisation is less overt, it’s more inside the songs and relates to each specific performance, audience, and venue.
Can we expect an album from the new incarnation of the band?
HAYWARD: No. We’re accumulating footage to make some sort of film around a couple of live gigs.
What are your post-TINTH plans?
HAYWARD: To concentrate on the music I’m making now, which involves a number of projects, each with its own attitude and soundworld. There’s a new solo album of songs called begin anywhere and I’m very excited to be sharing that with listeners. It’s centered around the piano and has a shape I very much like. There are a couple of other albums ready to go, so I’ll be getting them out over the next year. I’ve been programming nights at the Albany and Lewisham Arthouse in London, and that’s been really good to do, keeps me connected with the constant evolution. Recently I’ve bought some new recording gear for my studio space, so that’s opened up a whole set of new possibilities as well.
BULLEN: I have been doing some solo improvising gigs playing mostly “hammered prepared pedal-steel guitar” and hammered dulcimer, so I would like to do some more of that. It’s great being a “self-contained unit.” And I have done some recording as a duo with a great drummer called Laurence Pike, which should come out later this year
I also have a lot of more composed material that I would like to finish and release, maybe under the “Lifetones” name. The Lifetones album was hardly noticed on its original release [in 1983], but seems to have picked up a lot of interest in the past 10 years, especially in the U.S., and then more so with the re-release on Light in the Attic
That’s a lot to look forward to! How has it felt looking back for the last few years?
HAYWARD: We’ve played in the U.K., Europe, the States, and Japan. It’s been great, and personally, I’ve learned a lot playing music that is already inside memory, I’ve always been moving on and not doing old stuff, and with this project I’ve learned about how it seems to work for the audience a lot of the time. But moving forward has always been deep inside This Heat’s music. So now it’s time to move on, again. The music seems to stay relevant and fresh; it can take care of itself, doesn’t need us to keep playing it. The albums were made with the future in mind, that’s what I’m still doing with new music, so I better get on with it, see you later.
This Is Not This Heat performs at (Le) Poisson Rouge on March 18 at 8pm; lpr.com
Kurt Gottschalk has written about music for All About Jazz, Signal to Noise, The Wire, Guitar Player, Goldmine, NYC Jazz Record, Brooklyn Rail, Coda, Musicworks, New Music Box, Time Out New York, and publications in France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, and Russia. He is the producer and host of the Miniature Minotaursradio program on WFMU, and is the author of two books of fiction.