Featured Stories I by I 10.07.15

A Godawful Racket: Loop’s Robert Hampson on alienating the audience

In April 2013, Robert Hampson released a public statement announcing the reformation of the band he started in 1985, Loop.

They were to perform “a limited number of shows,” and the reformation, he went on to insist, was “not going to be around for long.” It would be a case of “blink and you miss it.” When pushed, in interviews around that time, he tended to give the reformed Loop a life expectancy of about a year.

It’s now over two years later, and after several dozen shows, with tours and festivals throughout Europe and North America, Robert Hampson is sitting opposite me in a Soho pub to talk about the group’s new record. The EP, called Array 1, will be the group’s first new material in more than a quarter of a century, and there are two more records planned in its wake. So what changed?

“The original idea was, reform what’s considered to be the classic line-up. We all knew it was going to be short term. I went into it with my eyes open, thinking ‘well, that’s it, we’ll do some shows, we’ll play old material, do it for as long as people want us’. But gradually, things started changing. I really was starting to feel like I wanted to do something else with it – which was as much of a surprise to me as other people.”

“I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Robert Hampson, Loop.

Loop had split up in 1991 after the release of their third album A Gilded Eternity. At that point, Hampson felt quite simply like he had “exhausted all the ideas of what we could possibly do.” But even he concedes that the split was abrupt: “It just came. I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Back then, his instincts were pushing him “towards stretching out a lot more and becoming a lot more abstract.” The result of which was Main, a duo (initially) who set about “pushing guitars to the point where it really was like, well, we don’t know whether that was a guitar or not.”

Had things happened differently, and Loop had recorded their next release in the early 90s, straight after A Gilded Eternity, Hampson suspects, that it “would have sounded much more like the earlier Main releases.” But as it happened things went the other way. Main became more and more abstract, finally abandoning the guitar altogether. “I genuinely don’t even think I looked at a guitar for probably 15, 16 years,” Hampson tells me, “I sold everything.” The only thing he hung on to was his fuzz pedal.

But over the years, things started to gnaw. People kept asking, “would Loop ever reform? Would we ever do anything ever again?” There was, Hampson began to accept, “unfinished business.”

As recently as July 2012, talking to FACT’s Kiran Sande, Hampson continued to insist that he still wasn’t interested in a Loop reformation. But already he had started thinking about guitars again. By that time, Main had been put to bed and Hampson was concentrating on solo material, producing commissions for the French musique concrète studio GRM, and releasing records on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego imprint.

Then, Main reformed. Next, Hampson started using guitars again on his solo records and finally, in the spring of 2013, came the return of Loop.

“I found myself thinking, ‘well there’s no reason why we can’t do it again,’” Hampson tells me. “But it wasn’t until after we’d played a few shows that I genuinely felt I was inspired to start thinking about writing new material, trying to make it progress a little and try and find that thing that was maybe missing at the time when we split up. It kind of just washed over me over the course of a week. And I spoke to Barry Hogan from ATP and just said, listen, if we wanted to try something else would you be interested in releasing it? And of course he was very interested.”

Watching Loop perform at the Roundhouse, a few days after meeting Hampson, I was struck by his manner on stage. They were preceded by Rhode Island noise duo Lightning Bolt and during the interval between the two acts my attention had been caught by Antony Gormley’s sculpture of a male figure, overlooking the Chalk Farm Road from the roof of the venue.

Gormley’s statue looked oddly fragile and somehow exposed to me up there and when Loop came on stage I found myself comparing Hampson’s posture to Gormley’s figure outside. It’s not that he looked like he wasn’t enjoying himself, more that it seemed to come at some personal emotional cost, as if there were some internal struggle going on not to simply panic and run away. It presented such a different image of masculinity than Lightning Bolt’s cocksure swagger.

“I love being anonymous and that was something that I always struggled with, with Loop,” he had admitted to me in the pub a few days before, “I always hated being the frontman. Still to this day. I do it because it’s a necessity but I’m not comfortable with that.” Hampson is happiest, he told me, in the studio – “that’s my environment” – and one of the things he most enjoyed about his GRM commissions is that he doesn’t “have to stand on stage.” He can “just hide in the shadows at the back and literally produce the sound. Nobody’s focusing on a visual context. They’re not looking at me.”

““I don’t think Loop would ever work if it just became a studio project.”
Robert Hampson, Loop.

I find myself wondering why he does it. Why, when the option is available to simply compose music, record it in the studio, and never go near an audience, does he put himself through it?

“I don’t think Loop would ever work if it just became a studio project,” he insists. “I think people would have expectations. We still have a reputation from back in the day. It’s a very visceral experience compared to just me, standing behind a 32-channel mixing desk, and doing an acousmatic performance.”

There’s something unconvincing about the way he couches his response in terms of audience demand and other people’s pleasure. I think he likes – needs, even – that “visceral experience” and I tell him so.

“Of course!” he responds, immediately recalling his time with Godflesh in the early 90s, eagerly telling friends how he “can’t wait to stand there and just make this godawful noise.”

“That physical side of it, I’ve always loved. I’m standing there and I can feel this power behind me – which obviously I would never get with my experimental music. So, yeah, there is that. But if there was a way of doing that but you’re in a completely different room to the audience I would definitely go for that.”

Loop may have started with a few four-track recordings made at home, but it was always intended to be a band. With those very first tentative steps towards the group Hampson made in the mid-80s, he was always “trying to get the high energy of bands like The Stooges or the MC5” whilst taking influence, equally, from what he calls the “orchestral-type guitars” of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham.

But then Hampson had always wanted to be in a band. As a child he would pile 7” singles onto his grandma’s turntable and hand out plastic instruments to whoever was in the room. “It was a sort of cacophony of trying to play along tunelessly to whatever was playing” – at that time, mostly Motown, the Walker Brothers, Ben E. King, and Don Gibson, but it didn’t really matter what. “I’d just throw them on there.”

“Even when I was in school I was in a lot of bands. You know, sometimes you’d last a weekend but you’d get together and make a load of noise. It was all so disparate. It never really had any focus. So after a while it was important for me to, instead of joining a band, I had to take the direct route and form the band myself because that’s the only way I’m ever gonna get vaguely close to the kind of things that I was trying to think about.”

Crucially, the reason he still wants to be in a band now, with the reformed Loop, is the same reason as ever: “Physicality. That delight in standing there and just making this godawful racket with a very, very loud guitar.”

So if two years ago you were saying this would just be a short-term thing, I ask, how about now? Are you starting to look towards a longer future for Loop?

“It wouldn’t be safe for me to say either way really. I’m very excited about it at the moment. There’s a lot of possibilities that I’m really looking forward to working with. I’ve always wanted to feel like something’s moving forward. Never wanted to rest on my laurels. It took a lot for me to push myself to even think about reforming Loop. I was quite prepared to just walk away. If I hadn’t had the feeling to be inspired to go and make new material then that’s exactly what I would’ve done and we wouldn’t be talking now. There’s no other reason to keep Loop alive other than pushing it to where I think it needs to go and seeing what happens. Never be scared of pushing something further than it needs to go. If you alienate your audience, that’s just something you’ve got to accept.”



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