After a turbulent few years, Bristol based Gonga are back with their first release ‘Transmigration’ in over 4 years, and after the shock announcement that long standing vocalist Joe Volk called it a day right before its release, new recruits Peter Theobalds of Akercocke fame on bass and Matt Williams (Crippled Black Phoenix/Team Brick) on vocals join Tom and George to once again give Gonga a stable line up they’ve been craving for.
With a few successful gigs already under their belts, I caught up with Drummer Tom to get the lowdown of how things have been with Gonga over the last few years and what we can expect from them in the future.
Hi Tom, hope your keeping well, as usual we’ll start at the very beginning by giving us a brief history, your current members and what their role in Gonga is?
Ok, current (and hopefully permanent) line up is: Matt Williams, vox; Peter Theobalds, bass; George Elgie, guitar; Thomas Elgie, drums. It’s been a long hard road to get to this and I really think that this is a strong group that is going to write some good music.
I’ve tried to keep this as concise as possible. George and (original bassist) Will started jamming together when they met at college and at some point I joined in. When me and George moved to Bristol in ’97 we started to jam every weekend. Will would come down and we’d get heavily stoned and make noise in this static caravan that had been turned into a rehearsal space. Around this time I met Joe (original vocalist) and he would come down to the jams, along with alot of our mates. We started playing a few live shows, made a record and did a few tours. At this point everything started to go a bit wrong. Will didn’t like touring and left, Hugo (The Heads) joined and then left, Hallam Kite joined and left, we had a few stand in bassists including the awesome Chris West (Taint) and Chris Naughton (Atavist), but obviously they have other commitments. Then out of the blue Pete contacted us. We all got on really well so he signed up, and then about a month after that Joe left… A mate of ours called Matt – who does solo stuff under the name Team Brick – said he was interested in having a go and surprisingly it worked out. It’s obviously a different beast now but I’m really excited to hear what this band is going to produce and I haven’t felt like that for ages.
You’ve just unleashed ‘Gonga II: Transmigration’ which is actually only your 2nd album since your debut back in 2004, so where have you been and why did it take 4 years for you to get it recorded and released?
I guess I’ve partly answered that in Q1. We really felt that we wanted a band – not just a machine, or a means to an end, so in the times when we were without a bassist we felt kind of lost and incomplete. I know that bands like the Melvins go through bass players like nothing else, but there is no shortage of people who want to be in the Melvins. This wasn’t the case for us and the few people who replied to our ads were generally pretty poor musicians and more importantly didn’t seem to understand us or our music. This was born out when we met Pete who we immediately clicked with. It probably wouldn’t of mattered if he could play or not – just so happens that he plays like a fuckin’ fiend. Ultimately, I love that environment; sweaty rehearsal rooms, travelling to gigs, being an impregnable group which you get with your band mates, and that was missing for a long time but it seems to be back now. I think that it hasn’t taken us four years to record and release this album; it’s taken us four years to get a band together.
Musically it’s also made quite a progression since your debut album, but how would you describe the current sound of Gonga to those that have yet to hear you?
Yeah I guess we are better musicians than we were and have learnt more about song writing. I definitely agree that the music has progressed. I also think that it has been shaped and affected by the experiences we’ve had; it’s been a turbulent time and I think this is evident in the music and the overall feel of the album. At times I love this record and at other times I think it sounds a bit all over the place. It’s partly because it’s hard to have a group focus when the group is constantly changing so I think the songs are sometimes heading in different directions. Having said all that I guess our sound would have to be heavy rock with progressive intentions. We get labelled with the stoner/kyuss wannabe tags but we have always tried to be forward thinking and our influnces are far more widespread than just stoner/doom/metal.
And although it’s only early days, what has the initial reviews/feedback for it been like?
The response from the public has been really good on the whole and that is what counts more than some magazine review. The last mag I saw it reviewed in it got 7/10 which is great, but it sounded like it was written for a different band. I think the reviewer listened to the first and last tracks so I try not to pay too much attention to reviews.
Geoff Barrow’s Invada Records once again released this latest recording, but how did you hook up with them in the first place? Did being from Bristol help and more importantly, are you a Portishead fan?
The first batch of songs we wrote was because a mate asked us to play a festival he was organizing, before that we just played for ourselves in the rehearsal room. We got a good response at the festival and enjoyed playing to people who hadn’t heard us before so we started getting some shows in Bristol. We also took a (very) rough demo to Simon Healey (one third of Rocket Records) to see what he thought. He said it was the worst quality demo he’d ever heard but he did come to our next show and brought his mate Fat Paul who was in the process of setting up Invada with Geoff Barrow at that time. They were both into the sound and the songs and at the next show Paul turned up with Geoff and they asked us there and then if we wanted to release something on their label.
Yeah, we were all Portishead fans to some degree. I’d only heard the first album at that point but it really appealed to me, being the melancholy kind of person I am. Heaviness can manifest itself in alot of ways – it isn’t purely about loudness or aggression. For me Portishead are heavy.
You also used SOA Studios to record this album, as its also owned by Geoff Barrow is it a contractual agreement with Invada Records that you have to record there, or are you actually free to record wherever you want as long as you deliver the goods on time?
I don’t think we are obligated to record at SOA but obviously it works out cheaper which is good for everyone. It’s a good studio too. Stu is a great engineer and he knows that studio so well he can translate virtually any ideas you have into the sound/effects. Saying that, we have considered recording the next album somewhere else. Our mate Latch has converted a tiny rehearsal space in to a studio and has recorded alot of bands there including Taint. We’ve heard of a few places that sound really good that we’d like to try – just got to get Invada to hand over the pounds.
Staying on the subject of Geoff Barrow, he’s also cites Gonga as being an influence on Portishead’s latest album ‘Third’, so how do you keep your feet on the ground when you hear comments like these? It also must be a great incentive to carry on pushing and developing your sound?
Me and Geo were on tour with them (doing merch and drum tech) when that Mojo article came out. We were minor celebrities for several seconds there – it was crazy; living the dream…selling their t-shirts…oh. It was actually a real surprise and quite an honour: one of the biggest bands of my generation citing our band as an influence. As for keeping our feet on the ground, that’s been fairly very easy. We’re still broke, in debt to the label and selling not that many albums. And we’re not getting invited to any A-list parties or banging supermodels, but I’m still hopeful. I don’t think we ever needed more incentive to push what we’re doing than our own desire. It’s been amazing to be recognized by someone like Geoff but we want to be doing this and we want to push what we do forward rather than finding a nice spot to sit and look at how good we were as we get bored and die.
Vocalist Joe Volk actually features on this album but left just before it was due to be released, how did his departure affect the band and how easy was it for you to find the right replacement in the form of Matt Williams?
Yeah that was shit. We spent so long trying to find the right bass player and then a month after Pete joined Joe decides to leave. Me and George always took it badly when people left the band but Will and Joe were the worst – original members and close friends and all that. Joe’s timing was really bad though and nearly spelled the end. I think one of the saving factors was the speed with which we got it together with Matt. Knowing what his solo stuff can be like we were a little unsure to say the least (although his soon to be released debut album sounds fucking great from what I’ve heard so far), but we had a couple of really promising jams followed by a gig that we were really apprehensive about, and the response was really good. People saying he was as good as or better than Joe and that’s been consistent up to now aside from the occasional voice. We do miss Joe but I’m happy, not to mention fucking relieved, that we found Matt.
And this brings me nicely on to lyrics; what subjects/themes do they cover? Did Joe have a lot of input on them in the past and with his departure, how will this affect the lyrical side of Gonga?
Up to this point Joe has been solely responsible for the lyrics and most of the time I don’t know what he’s singing about. The times I have seen lyric sheets they don’t make alot of sense to me and I feel that they are often personal and I’d only ask him about them if he wanted to talk about them. It remains to be seen how it will affect the lyrical aspect of our music. Matt is an intelligent and (dare I say it?) witty kind of chap and I’m sure he’s going to have no shortage of things to rant about. I’ve also witnessed his ability with melody first hand with his solo stuff and what he added to Crippled Black Phoenix when he was involved with that. He’s still fairly young but he’s a really talented musician who can play just about any instrument put in front of him, so maybe he’ll just start playing a bit and vocals might revert to being almost an afterthought like in the old days. Like I said earlier I’m really excited to see where this line up goes musically and vocally – we’re aiming to start writing new material as soon as we can all get together for a decent amount of time.
And how do you think ‘Transmigration’ reflects your sound against your new line up which also includes Pete Theobalds (ex-Akercocke) on bass?
I think Transmigration is quite different from the first album, and as I’ve said it is a product of the turbulence the band has gone through, so at this point maybe we are in a position where we can move to new territory (new for us anyway), and the next album with the new line up is going to be a bit of an unknown entity. I guess to answer the question, I’m not too arsed. We like the songs and we play them well, but Pete and Matt weren’t involved in writing them so the sooner this line up starts writing the better – it’s definitely time to move forward and there is a chance that our “sound” could change quite significantly. Pete and Matt bring a huge range of influences with them and part of the reason for both of them joing was that they wanted to do something different from what they were or had been doing, which to me sounds like we’ve got a blank canvas. Nice.
In the past you’ve also had a lot of support from Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe so what did you think when he made your track ‘Stratofortress’ single of the week and for a double whammy, your debut album, album of the week? Do you think this exposure help you pick up fans that might have otherwise overlooked you?
Yeah that was a real surprise. Stratofortress just seemed to strike a chord with people, and with virtually no press or promotion it got picked up on by some really unlikely people, which then happened with the album too. I think the fact that it was on Geoff “Portishead” Barrow’s new record label didn’t hurt but people could still have said it was shit. It definitely got us to the ears of people who normally wouldn’t ever hear a band like ours. We haven’t done ourselves any favours by not releasing anything for 4 years though and I think alot of people just assumed that we’d split up – I think we’ve wiped out any of the positive stuff that that brought to us.
And has he heard ‘Transmigration’ yet?
Yes he’s heard it. I think he’s played a couple of tracks off it on his show, but the time I heard him he made it sound like it was a favour to a friend more than something he actually wanted to do – or maybe I’m just being pessimistic.
You’ll also be playing ZXZW Festival in Tilburg, Holland later in the year, this looks like an amazing festival which takes place over a week, featuring over 200 ‘artists’ from all walks of life in 29 different venues, so how did Gonga get asked to play this event and are you looking forward to what certainly looks like a crazy few days?
Yeah we actually did that last week, which goes to show how long it’s taken me to finish this – sorry. It is a great festival and had a good line up this year but we didn’t get to see anything really as we had to drive from Bristol on the day we played and back early the next day. I actually just emailed them and asked if we could play and they said yes. The organisers were amazing and really helpful, as were all the staff and volunteers. Thanks to Ruud and Coby for putting us up too.
What about other gigs, are there any in the pipeline you can tell us about?
Yeah we have a few good ‘uns coming up: the next show is in Switzerland with Colour Haze and 3 other bands which is looking like it’s going to be alot of fun. Then we’re playing with White Hills on the 11th Oct in this little barn in Trowbridge, then supporting Nebula on the 12th Oct at the Cooler in Bristol, 26th Oct is an all dayer headed up by Grand Magus at the Croft in Bristol and then on Nov 1st we’re playing with Taint and Art Of Burning Water at the Loiusiana in Bristol. It’s been a long time since we had more than the occassional one-off gig here and there and this is still a new line up – we’ve done less than ten shows together – so it’s good to be doing some stuff, even if there are alot in Bristol.
And Future Plans? Anything on the horizon you care to share with us?
Basically we are all really eager to start writing new material and the plan is to start doing that in October. We want to have something ready for release early next year – there’s no way we’re going to waste anymore time. I’m also going to start booking some shows for next year with the aim of making a full Euro/UK tour which is long overdue. The other thing I can think of is not definite yet but has been discussed on a theoretical level. Beth from Portishead was at our launch night and watched us play and she has expressed an interest in doing some kind of collaboration; maybe one of their songs and one of our songs with her singing – nothing has really been decided on yet, but it would be interesting and it’d be cool to hear Beth singing a Gonga song, or Gonga playing a Portishead song.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview Tom and please use this space for any final words…
No problem Lee, thanks for your support.
More info on Gonga at: www.myspace.com/g0nga
Interviewed by: Lee Edwards