In any relationship, difference is the dynamic that makes magic happen. In musical partnerships, it’s often the crucial friction that makes creative sparks fly but, a fraction too much friction, and everything’s likely to go up in smoke.
Lou Rhodes and Andy Barlow understand difference more than most. They’re the first to admit that when they got together their diametrically opposing aesthetics – Lou’s devotion to The Song, Andy’s obsession with all things beats-driven and electronic and his complete disinterest in vocals – created problems. Often, the very glue that bound them together nearly saw them come unstuck. But those differences also bred a mutual respect and resulted in one of the most genuinely genre-bending dance albums of the mid-90s. In 1996, when drum’n’bass ruled, Lamb’s eponymous debut LP up-ended the rigid idea of that form by warming its distinctively chilly, tacheometric chatter with injections of jazz, classical, blues, techno and hip hop and giving it an intensely personal, highly emotional charge. The sweetly stuttering ‘Cottonwool’ and divine ‘Gorecki’ singles showed that drum’n’bass could do much more than just make feet move quicker – it could make hearts beat faster, too.
The album ‘Fear Of Fours‘ followed in 1999, the title a sly reference to its avoidance of pedestrian beats and conventional time signatures. It was a texturally dense and often darkly intense record, a complex layering of massive, baffled breakbeats, juddering, technoid pulses, sweeping strings and disturbing electronic ambience, offset by Lou’s haunting vocals. Its striking sense of otherness peaked in ‘Alien’, for which Andy sampled the foetal heartbeat of Lou’s son Reuben, who she carried throughout the writing and recording of the album.
In 2001 ‘What Sound‘ was released. It’s Andy and Lou at their most relaxed yet vitally re-energised, an open, easeful and self-contained, freshly charged expression of all that is characteristically Lamb, but with some surprising new voices. For the first time ever, the pair decided against doing everything themselves in the studio and employed not only a co-producer (Guy Sigsworth on 2 songs), but also invited in a host of guests for various sessions, including guitarist Jimi Goodwin of Doves, Michael Franti, Me’ Shell NdegéOcello, Scratch Perverts, Will Malone and Arto Lindsay. Letting go of the reins a little wasn’t planned, but it turned out to be a stroke of accidental genius.
‘With “What Sound”, we noticed the simplicity and the less-is-more aesthetic that seemed to be coming out as we went along,’ Lou explains. ‘It was obviously happening naturally, but we decided we wanted to make that a central thing with the record. It was about us as individuals and egos getting out of the way, letting the music do its thing and not trying too hard.’
Fourth album ‘Between Darkness and Wonder‘ followed in 2003. It was the sound of Lamb exploring a wild dark spark and through all the painful soul-searching a kind of peace and solidarity emerged. Gone was the tussle between delicate, tremulous vocals and contrary electronics. Whereas once Andy impatiently chased the bass determined to get Lou out of her head and onto the dance-floor, now he helped her articulate a swirling mass of emotions. The production revelled in the warmth and detail of the songs and was lush with harmonies and angelic orchestrations. Genius samples lent it a timeless, dreamy quality. But this was not easy listening – it was what music’s all about – it gets under your skin, takes hold and lingers long after the last track has faded.
After touring to support the release of ‘Between Darkness And Wonder’ the band then decided to take a long-term break in order to concentrate on solo projects.
During this time Lou released 3 acoustic solo albums, including the Mercury Music Prize shortlisted ‘Beloved One’. All 3 albums, ‘Beloved One’, ‘Bloom’, and ‘One Good Thing’ showed a stripped-down, uncomplicated & emotive side of Lou. She toured the world solo (and sometimes with a band) in support of all the albums.
Andy worked hard as well. After a fair bit of globetrotting—’regaining a few lost years’ after the nonstop commitments stemming from Lamb’s major label tenure—he spent time remixing and collaborating with other artists and honing his skills as a producer. He also wrote and recorded a solo album under the name LOWB. The, mainly instrumental, debut LOWB album ‘Leap And The Net Will Appear’ was released in 2010 (and re-released in 2012). It secured three high profile ad campaigns and major exposure on CSI.
In 2009, after a 5-year break, they reformed Lamb to play a handful of summer festival dates. To say the reunion was a success would be a gross understatement. By January of 2010, the band had played 33 shows to hundreds of thousands of fans in 29 different countries.
It felt good to be playing together again and the creative spark was once-again ignited. They decided it felt right to record another album and immediately started to write and record ‘5‘, their fifth album.
What used to be a process of building up and peeling off layers of sound and texture became a focused, less is more approach. Andy was no longer, as Lou puts it ‘a kid in a sweet shop’, but a veteran producer and engineer. Furthermore, most of the studio’s digital gear had been replaced with a host of warm, tube-driven analog hardware, with each signal hitting three or four valves before it goes anywhere near a computer. ‘Lamb has always been about the interplay between the rugged “real” thing and the technology around it,’ says Andy.
’5′ was released late 2011 and the band spent 2012 on the road.
In early 2013 the band was asked to play a short five-city tour of Holland with The Amsterdam Sinfonietta Orchestra. It was a unique collaboration. Together with the band, the 24-section Sinfonietta played orchestral arrangements of Lamb songs written especially for the occasion.
The rest of 2013 saw Andy return to the studio to produce and write with other artists. He produced and mixed the new David Gray album ‘Mutineers’ – an album that garnered spectacular reviews – and co-wrote and produced the debut album from alt-rock band The Ramona Flowers.
Meanwhile Lou wrote and recorded her, as yet unreleased, fourth solo album mixed by Noah Georgeson. She also became a children’s author and saw her two beautifully illustrated children’s picture books ‘The Phlunk’ and ‘The Phlunk’s Worldwide Symphony’ published.
And so to 2014. Earlier this year Andy and Lou returned to the studio to write and record the sixth Lamb album ‘Backspace Unwind’. Most of the record was written and recorded at Andy’s studio ‘The Lookout’ – so named because of its panoramic views over the South Downs. They also spent some time at Distillery studios near Bath and took some gear to Goa, India for a little self-indulgent writing in the sun.
‘Making this album has been a journey of discovery in so many ways,’ says Lou. ‘After making music together over a period of almost 20 years (with a 5-year hiatus to take a breath) it’s reassuring that new routes and approaches seem to abound. Over those years I think we’ve learnt that this journey needs no map; in fact tearing that map up, at every twist and turn, has become our regular gleeful practice.’
‘Title track Backspace Unwind was one of the first songs written for the album,’ she continues, ‘and listening now the words seem to describe the beginning of that process. In reality I don’t really know where they came from. I guess it was all about the feeling of starting a whole new venture; taking what had gone before and making something new. Our Fear of Fours-selves would’ve been terrified by the unashamedly dance-floor high-hat but these days it’s all about breaking even our own preconceptions.’
Opening track ‘In Binary’ was one of the first songs Lou wrote in a new-found exploration into free-association lyrics. ‘I guess it’s a form of meditation; letting yourself be a conduit for thoughts and images that pass freely through. “In Binary” flowed from there.’
‘Shines Like This’ takes the free-association a stage further. ‘I was looking out of the studio window writing this, watching trees and birds and clouds. I love the way the lyrics conjure up a sense of atmosphere despite their abstract nature. Makes me wonder whether, in searching for meaning, we can sometimes miss its essence; often the space between the words evoke their own truth.’
‘We Fall In Love’, the first single to be taken from the album, is about the chance intersection of two lives and the notion of stars aligning. Together with ‘As Satellites Go By’ and ‘What Makes Us Human’ the song plays nicely into the album’s planetary theme.
‘Nobody Else’ is visceral and heavenly all at once. ‘Doves & Ravens’ is a story of letting go in the hope of return, and ‘Only Our Skin’ is about the beauty of holding a loved one so close their soul is separated only by skin.
The album contains 10 new songs written by Andy and Lou with four featuring string arrangements by Tom Trapp, who also conducted the string section for the recording session at Air Lyndhurst Studios in London.