Sub-Dance Behind the Department of S

No Comments
Somewhere between hell and Woolworth’s lies Essex University and another frustrating soundcheck. This time round it’s Department S’ turn. Five young musicians struggling against the university’s impossibly high hall, trying to form musical shapes out of the messy noise.

“Can you turn down the monitors please?” pleads Vaughn Toulouse, “they’re too loud…” The sound man at the back of the hall raises his eye brows in frustration, and adjusts another dial. “I can’t hear my guitar” moans Bage. Another eyebrow raised, another dial turned. The musicians become increasingly listless as the procedure continues. Each instrument has to be individually tested, as does each musician. Finally they get to play a song. It involves using a tape of synthesised music before Stuart the drummer interrupts with his drums. The tape starts. It lasts about 20 seconds before Stuart comes in with hammering precision.

Vaughn at the microphone, waiting, turns to the drummer. “Stuart, play it like you played it in Birmingham last night”. Stuart stops. “What do you mean?”, “Sort of off-beat, you did it last night when we were playing”, “Yeah Vaughn, I was playing it wrong last night, it was a mistake”, “Yeah…. Well…. doesn’t matter. Play it off-beat, it sounds far better”.

The soundman looks up again from his desk. “Are you ready yet?” he shouts across the hall. “Yeah”. The tape starts. The off-beat (sort of) drums come in. The band start up and immediately a piercing white sheet of feedback screams through the speakers. The band grind to a halt. “I hate soundchecks” Vaughn says 20 minutes later.

Step Two: Monte Carlo or Bust

Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to Department S was the success of their first single, the wondrous “Is Vic There?”. A kind of novelty single, the band have since released two far superior songs: “Going Left Right” and “I Want”. Neither have emulated the success of “Vic”. Department S, are now, according to some, one hit wonders. In other words finished, useless. What the snipers don’t take into account is the amount of excellent material the band have now compiled. Far more accessible and weightier than their previous work, their progress is reflected in their current live show.

The first half of the set, apart from “Vic” and “Age Concern”, is too leaden, too one-dimensional. The reliance on bass and drums is overwhelming. There’s no light. No shade. Heavy Metal even. The second half is where the band really pick up. The music has flair here. There are tunes and life. Energy and adventure.

New songs such as “Tell Me About It” show off a catchy funk side, whilst “I Want” is an epic journey throwing off random images, (“Oh god I want Xmas all year round, I want a swimming pool but I don’t want to drown”) to a great dance tune.

Where the first half of the show suffocates, the second half is by far the lighter, and better for it. Consequently the band’s cold exterior on stage gradually drops as the show progresses. Depending on the audience of course. Tonight Vaughn is being heckled and enjoying it. He lets the mouths shoot off, takes it all in and then challenges back.

At one point he calls the hecklers “Hippies”. I looked over the crowd and saw he was talking to punks congregated at the front.

Step Three: Tell Me About It

In the hotel room, Vaughn and Stuart talk.

Were they depressed about the relative commercial failure of the last two singles?

“Yes and No” says Vaughn. “After ‘Vic’, that being a surprise hit…it isn’t really representative of the band. Where as I think “I Want” and “Going Left Right” are. Looking back on it, I’m glad that ‘Vic’ charted, but it’s not the Department”.

“If ‘Vic’ had got to 30”, butts in Stuart, “and not so many plays, then the rest of the numbers would have caught on. But ‘Vic’, it was as if it had been a number one hit.” “Well ‘Vic’ was on it’s own anyway” argues Vaughn.

“It didn’t matter that it was Dept S, it could have been anybody. I don’t regret it if that’s what you’re trying to say, but I was more pleased that “Going Left Right” charted at all. And “I Want” has sold really well, but because of the Xmas rush it hasn’t charted. But it is selling well, and still is, so there is interest. But where ‘Vic’ was good was that people knew about us from the first single which meant we didn’t have to plough round the grotty club circuit for years”.

Did they worry about commercial failure?

“No, because I’ve got complete confidence” states Vaughn simply. “I think you need it. If you start worrying about whether a record is going to be a hit or not…there’s more records that are really good that aren’t hits than ever there are the other way round”.

“There are so many records that should have been hits, and now “I Want” will rank alongside them, that’s alright by me. It would have been better if it had taken off yeah, but because it hasn’t it gives us time to sort things out.”

Apart from the trio of singles, did they think the rest of their music was accessible?

“Do you think it is?” Vaughn immediately shoots back. First half of your set, no, second half definitely. “Well the way we run through the set is as we write” replies Vaughn, “So that probably means we’re getting more accessible from your opinion. I think we are as well. It’s the way we do the set. ‘Vic’ was the third number we wrote as Dept S and the early ones like “Age Concern” and “Monte Carlo”, they were the early songs.”

Which brings us to “Sub-Stance”, the album Dept S have just recorded. It will be presented in much the same way as the live set, old onto new, and much of the band’s new material will have to be left out.

“It’s getting dated so fast” agrees Vaughn. “We really are moving fast now and I want that album out fast. The way we’re going at the moment we’re going to have another album of material before this album even comes out.”
It doesn’t matter that it will basically be old material on the album?

“Oh no” answers Vaughn. ” Because I want it to go more or less in the order it was written.” Department S is a great band name I say, changing the subject. and “Monte Carlo”, they were the early songs.”

Any reasons behind it?

“Because it doesn’t label us as anything” replies Vaughn. “The whole thing that we set out from the band point of view is that Dept S would not be five members full stop, but members would come and go, and as Dept S used those members up they would leave. Like Tony was basically used up and so was Eddie before him, so they left…. Or were elbowed out by the rest of us and someone else got in.”

“At the moment Jimmy (the new bass player) is good and he fits in. Say in the future any one of us might get bored and want to move on. We don’t want to be like Status Quo or Slade. The band that stays together for ten years grows old together.”

There seems to be a cold detachment about you on stage though. The audience has to work as much as you do. Why?

“Inexperience of not enough gigs” is Vaughn’s answer. “And I don’t think that we’re warm people. I don’t want to sound contrived and I don’t want to come across the same way the Banshees do. Like Siouxsie, she does come across as being really cold, but she’s also very exciting because of that”. “She does snub her audience” he continues, “but then again, I think it’s getting a bit dated, that sort of approach. But I don’t want to go out kissing with the arms open. If they can come round when we’re basically being ourselves…We’re not forcing ourselves on the audience. We’re just there and there for the taking.”

“When we go on stage” explains Stuart, “that’s exactly what we’re like off stage. Everyone plays their best, there’s no two ways about it, but you don’t go on stage and go above your station”.

Do Dept S offer an alternative to everyone else then?

“We’ve just got to try and find that out. We haven’t been given a handle by anybody (the dark side of pop?) and we’re not going to give ourselves a handle, so we’ve got to find that out. We’re still a relatively new group. We’ve only been together for 15 months which does make us pretty new.”

“But now, with the new bass player” says Stuart, admiration in his voice…”that keeps it more interesting” interjects Vaughn.

“As soon as you get into that stable routine business – from then on it’s business and boring. It gets like that as soon as you sign really. Immediately the record company wants hits, all that sort of thing. The more hits you get, the more freedom you get. Which is the main reason for having hits as I see it.” It’s about time Department S had a lot more freedom.

Step Four: I Want

Vaughn says he’s never been in love. Stuart says he had a Jack Russell dog he once adored.

Vaughn says that the ultimate love is marriage and children.

Stuart says that marriage is just a piece of paper.

Vaughn disagrees, but thinks there’s more important things in life. I don’t.

Vaughn says, “I hope there is. If I’d been waiting to fall in love for 21 years I’d be a pretty manic depressive I should think”.

What is important in life according to Vaughn is living it, and some of his songs have to get serious to reflect this. “Yeah, the songs we’ve written in the past, even the ones we’re writing now, like “Fighting Irish” and “Somewhere Between Heaven and Tesco’s” do deal with serious subject matter. But I suppose life does have a certain amount of seriousness. Doesn’t it?”

“I avoid seriousness” says Stuart. And Vaughn gives him exactly the kind of look that says please play your drums off-beat.

Just for tonight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *