'Launch Online Interview' - 1997
By Mara Schwartz...
"The symbol 'X' is one of the most abused symbols in 20th-century culture," muses the Sneaker Pimps' Liam Howe. He's pondering the title of his band's debut release on Virgin, enigmatically titled Becoming X, and what exactly it would mean for someone to do so. It doesn't sound like the most clear-cut course of action. "'X' is a variable in mathematics," he notes, "meaning that it's a substitute for whatever you like. So there's that instant ambiguity. And when we were in America, someone said that it could be a cross. Then someone else said it was a kiss. Plus there's Generation X, and Malcolm X, and on goes the list..."
It's quite understandable if the members of this British trio plug in a few unknown quantifiers when discussing the future. The young group are just getting used to their present, having put out their first album and begun the gruelling whirlwind of international touring. The band members, all of whom are age 25 or under, grew up in small towns in Britain and hadn't really travelled much before Becoming X put them on the musical map. That's all about to change, as the group's first American single, "6 Underground" (with its dense remix by Soul II Soul's Nellee Hooper), is rapidly becoming a club and video-channel hit.
All three Sneaker Pimps had been raised in the suburban shadow of the big city; keyboardist Howe and guitarist Chris Corner came of age together near the then-hot Manchester music scene, and decided to collaborate on home-made basement tapes around 1992. They met up with sultry vocalist Kelli Dayton a few years later, who had been gigging around with various Birmingham bands since she was a teen. The three soon began developing the Pimps' signature sound: a smooth, languorous groove with Dayton's almost-torchy, almost-new-wave vocals floating atop. It's tough music to categorise: dance-able yet not techno, catchy but not pop, and soulful but not soul.
It's easy to try to lump the band in with the happening trip-hop/electronica scene, but Howe notes that the Sneaker Pimps always emphasize the song amidst the keyboards and beat --something that's not usually foregrounded in dance music, but is necessary with Dayton's crisp, strong voice in the mix. "You would be foolish," Howe insists, "to indulge [in electronics] to the extent of forgetting about the whole songwriting aspect. Even if we have really complicated electronic production, or if we've interpreted things in a very electronic way, the songs can still work in the simplest of scenarios: with acoustic guitar. But it has to work as a song, and, if it does, then you can progress to the electronic domain."
Fairly typically for such a synth-based, musically sculpted unit, the Sneaker Pimps had honed their skills sharply in the studio but had only played a few live gigs at the time of their signing to Virgin. One of their biggest adjustments was having to perform music in front of an expectant, judgmental crowd, instead of comfortably noodling at home in the privacy of their bedrooms. "I like to have things under control," admits Howe. "When you're playing live, you have to give up a lot of responsibility to other people, and to the moment as well." He acknowledges, though, that he's since "warmed up to it," and now he's enjoying touring, especially when it means he gets to experience new cities and people.
But, even with their recently-acquired big-city outlook (all three have relocated to London), that stifling suburban influence still lingers in their lyrics, such as those to "6 Underground": "I've got a head full of drought down here/So far off losing out 'round here." Like the disaffected kids who invented late-'70s punk, creative types raised in a repressed environment often make that the topic of their art once they manage to burst out, and the Sneaker Pimps felt this impulse strongly.
"'6 Underground' is about the claustrophobia," says Howe, "of not being able to creatively express yourself in a very small town. It's enormously difficult to have your say, or any effect from what you say. We compared it to existing in a coffin, or being restricted to the point of being buried. So it's a reference to being 6 foot underground."
Many of the songs on Becoming X reflect similar yearnings; the trio of lyricists like to stand back and take a hard look at youth culture's role at the end of the millennium. "It's not about criticising," says Howe, "but about having a laugh or a cry or a kind of smile about it. It's a wry excursion through the various opinions of the '90s."
And one they have strong feelings about is what Howe terms a "fashionable" angst and depression among well-to-do young people, which he feels is encouraged by pop culture. One of Becoming X's more controversial tunes, "Tesko Suicide," is about how the media tends to glamorize self-inflicted death. Howe lists off examples: James Dean's cliff-hanging finale, Kurt Cobain's shotgun blast, and the David Bowie tune, "Rock And Roll Suicide."
"Tesko in England is a very popular nationwide supermarket," explains Howe. "Me and Kelli were having an argument one night in the local pub, and I was suggesting, in my drunken state, that everyone who thinks suicide's dead cool should have the choice of going down to their local superstore and buying a suicide kit that would cost two pounds fifty. And then they could go home and kill themselves. It was kind of a flippant remark, but it was about these people I know and the whole designed rot which affects youth culture."
But the three band members themselves, while they may not be completely free from unwarranted moroseness, probably don't have much time to drum up extra worries. They're too busy enjoying the unexpected attention that Becoming X's release is bringing them. "We didn't anticipate any of this at all," marvels Howe. "We wanted it, but we never expected it or demanded it. It could have easily been a very underground studio project, but luckily things have gone well."