An exclusive interview with co-founders Charles Hayward and Charles Bullen about the band’s dynamic catalogue
Here’s a helpful tip for any ahead-of-its-time, innovative band who wants to have an unlikely reunion: Negate everything.
That was the wise strategy of This Heat when the surviving members regrouped in 2016, dubbing themselves “This is Not This Heat.” The rebranding made sense. In their original run (1976-1982), they were unclassifiable. They were somewhat of art rock origins (drummer Charles Hayward worked with Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera) though no prog rock ensemble up to that time sounded so fierce, horror-struck and unbound to tradition. They played in the howling rage style and doomy outlook of punk and post-punk but were never part of the scene (much like Pere Ubu).
‘Experimental’ might be an accurate tag for them but it describes a process, not the specifics of the music itself. Hayward, bassist Gareth Williams (who died in 2001) and guitarist Charles Bullen really did create something one of a kind. To their credit, their non-reunion wasn’t dragged out endlessly until we were tired of them again, instead disappearing last year once more, remaining a mystery and an aural puzzle.
Luckily, they’ve decided to keep their legacy alive with a digital reissue of their brief but potent catalog: their self-titled 1979 debut and their grim classic 1981 release Deceit, along with their striking 1980 EP Health and Efficiency and subsequent live and studio goodies that came out later, including the epic, hypnotic Repeat/Metal record and the rabid Live 80/81 album and their Peel Sessions (Made Available). If that wasn’t enough, the EP track “Graphic / Varispeed,” which was recorded at different speeds is offered in three variations, related to the old-school record player formats, as a 16 RPM version, 33 RPM version and a 78 RPM version (sorry, no 45 RPM version). If you’re not impressed already, maybe name-dropping fans of theirs like David Bowie and Animal Collective might help. If not, maybe there’s no hope for you or us, just as the band predicted.
AUDIO: This Heat Health and Efficiency EP
To commemorate the rebirth of their extraordinary catalog, Hayward and Bullen did separate interviews via e-mail. Bullen started his responses off as such: “Did someone say ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’? Or is that a misquote? (and perhaps the ‘architecture dance’ could be an interesting dance?)” That’s some prime negation right there. And yes, they do ding back at some of the questions below but if their music proves anything, it’s that they never thought to be pleasantly accommodating. We should all be grateful for that.
What were some musical influences of This Heat when you started?
Hayward: We always managed to find a way to avoid saying anything too specific because we wanted to let the audience make their own connections and decide how they approached our music, not some shopping list. Influences? Forget influences, we were trying to break free.
Bullen: Breathing, eating and living mostly… and sounds and music from various places and times.
Though the group sprang from Roxy collaborators, the band sounded nothing like them. How did the connection happen?
Hayward: I was in Quiet Sun with Phil Manzanera at school. Phil joined Roxy Music, while I joined Gong. This was all between ‘68-’72. It was later that Charles Bullen and I met and made music as a duo, Dolphin Logic and other groups. In 1975, Quiet Sun got back together just to record the album Mainstream. That’s the nearest the two bands connected. Then Charles and I met Gareth. I don’t think Charles Bullen or Gareth ever met any of Roxy Music.
AUDIO: Quiet Sun Mainstream (full album)
Did you feel that the band fit into the punk/post-punk scene at all?
Hayward: We went to a gig at the Vortex or some such archetypal punk club and we were already too old to be anyone’s idea of a punk- they were all 17, 18, 19. But basically, this question is for music journalists to answer- they invent these boxes, the musicians just get on with making stuff.
Bullen: Someone said This Heat was “pre/post everything” which I quite like. We started before the punk thing really got going in the UK so we definitely were not “post-punk.” I’m not really into “genres” of music. I like music to be “transcategorical.”
Did the fact that you recorded within a former factory shape your music/work, in terms of the sound or the whole idea of being in such a place?
Hayward: It definitely shaped the sound. The studio was in a huge freezer lined with metal and that had a really distinctive acoustic. It took us 2 weeks to get the blood-encrusted dust cleaned away, so that built a stark feeling before we had even made a sound. The other thing is, everybody else with a space there was a visual artist (painters, sculptors, video workers), so that had a totally different vibe from regular rehearsal studios.
Bullen: Not really- it was just a space where we could play and a base where everything was permanently set up and ready to go.
Which other bands at the time did you feel a kindred spirit with?
Hayward: I thought The Raincoats were fantastic. I feel a kindred spirit with almost all musicians ever, past, present and future.
Bullen: One of This Heat’s best ever gigs (I think) was at The Clarendon in Hammersmith with Young Marble Giants (maybe in ‘78). It was a very hot night, the place was very crowded and part of why the night was so special was that there was such a huge contrast between us and them! There wasn’t really a “scene” that we were a part of.
Charles H. had once said that the first two albums were informed by the group’s dread about nuclear war. How did that manifest itself?
Hayward: I think we said that the first album was an unconscious dread and the second was conscious dread, and the way songs and lyrics took a central place on Deceit is the best illustration of that statement. Nowadays, I would probably take fear itself more seriously as a threat to progress and our autonomy alongside the material threats, the ecological, the out-of-control corporate control system, the hierarchical distance between the poor and the rich, the endless celebration of greed-as-power.
Bullen: Well, it was just “in the air” at that time! London would have been an early target in the “limited battlefield nuclear exchange” which American strategists and generals were seriously making plans about having across Europe!
How did mixer Martin Frederix shape the sound of the second album (Deceit)?
Hayward: Not that much. I only remember him being at one session for an hour or so. He was our live sound engineer for a couple of European tours and brought his ears to the gig sound but he was doing other stuff with other people too at the same time. He was the Raincoats’ engineer when I played with them for 9 months or so. This Heat had 3 engineers over the years. Our first one was a beautiful maniac, Jack Balchin, who worked with Henry Cow, Swans, Test Dept. Our last engineer was Steve Rickard- later on, he designed and played the tape switchboard with Camberwell Now [Hayward’s band after This Heat].
Bullen: It was “Cenotaph” that I remember Martin having the most to do with and probably “Independence,” but the main contribution I think Martin made was in mixing our live gigs in the last couple of years.
Supposedly, a lot of time was spent in rehearsals arguing before any music was even made. What were the discussions/arguments about?
Hayward: “Why music?” “Why this Music?” “How to let it be more itself, to let the sounds be themselves and to let the sounds lead the work?” “How can music offer new shapes that are useful in everyday life?”
Bullen: Well, our three personalities were all very different and there would be a lot of debate about everything! There would be a lot of “playing,” improvising, rather than actual “rehearsing.”
AUDIO: This Heat Deceit (full album)
Who did you think would be the audience for the band?
Hayward: I remember someone asking me “who was the target audience, who was the core market?” This is a question that is really best directed to people selling soap or breakfast cereal, not to real musicians, we don’t think like that- we make music for anybody, for everybody.
Bullen: We hoped to play for all open minded, open eared beings.
Related to the shows that are included in the reissues, what kind of audiences did you get for those ‘80/’81 concerts?
Hayward: It changed from gig to gig. Some gigs, the audience was hipsters who had heard us on John Peel’s show or read about us in one of the music journals, but often it was a club’s regular audience, a local scene, [a] bit like the one where I live now. It depended on the venue and the town. It was a great experience and privilege sharing This Heat’s music across Europe night after night to people who mostly had never heard us before. It was a big learning curve.
It’s said that after he died, Gareth had left some notes about how he’d want to collaborate with the other band members after he had left the group. Have you ever been tempted to take up on those notes to create music?
Hayward: Gareth, Charles Bullen and I played together for a few days, about 3 weeks before he died. Gareth wrote me a very beautiful email a week or so later, sort of reconciled some stuff between us, and after his funeral, I went back to the house and there was a folder someone had put together of stuff from his life, a sort of photo album but also with writing and stuff, the letter I wrote asking him to make music with Charles and me, gig flyers, notes he had made about This Heat. I wouldn’t want to do anything with them, the moment has passed, would feel like going backwards now. They weren’t a policy statement or manifesto or anything like that as far as I remember.
Bullen: I have never heard of that!
Have you heard subsequent bands who you thought took up the mantle of This Heat?
Hayward: I’ve heard some bands that excite me and make me hear in a new way. But This Heat was always about finding your own sound, so if they sound like This Heat, that’s not really an interesting idea to me. ‘Mantle’ is a very amusing word, don’t you think?
Bullen: People have often told me about a surprisingly wide range of bands supposedly being influenced by us.
Did This Heat’s work manifest itself in your subsequent work?
Hayward: Yes, absolutely. Everything is connected to everything else, sometimes in stark contrast to the previous thing I made. Things change heavily in response to who I’m working with and I’ve tried to keep learning and gathering deeper and wider experiences in music, so the music has changed and developed for me but it definitely grows out of all the work already done. Especially in the songwriting, my songs all interrelate- I always want them to be cutting across each other.
How successful did you think that This Is Not This Heat was in maintaining the legacy of the original band?
Hayward: Very successful. It was an amazing bunch of musicians, they could all really play fantastically well, all of them imaginative and distinctive players. My favourite line up was the 7 piece with Daniel O’Sullivan, James Sedwards, Merlin Nova, Alex Ward, Frank Byngplpp and us right pair of Charlies. The vocals were much much stronger and the whole thing felt like it reached out unselfconsciously and loved the audience more.
AUDIO: This Heat This Heat (full album)