When Life Without Buildings split up in 2002, it was barely noticed until it was too late. Without the Glasgow based 4-piece’s short but perfectly formed three-year lifespan, however, chances are the most interesting by-ways of the current musical landscape would be a very different place. Across a mere three singles and a solitary album, the sublime Any Other City, the quartet of vocalist Sue Tompkins, guitarist Robert Johnston, bassist Chris Evans and drummer Will Bradley managed to transform a melting pot of post-punk influences from The Slits to Wire to Talking Heads into a deliciously crisp mix of angular art-rock that predated the most recent new wave of guitar based bands by two years.
Both Maximo Park and Bloc Party, young shavers who’ve taken a similarly inspired sound into the mainstream, have declared themselves Life Without Buildings fans. Maximo Park have even gone on record to declare LWB the inspiration behind them forming. In a climate where quirky female vocalists such as Joanna Newsom and Bjork have also captured the zeitgeist, Life Without Buildings wide-eyed urgency sounds utterly current.
Gargleblast Records’ posthumous release of Live At The Annandale Hotel, then, launched tonight at a free playback at Mono in Glasgow, is a crucial historical document. Recorded in Sydney, Australia, for anyone who never witnessed the Life Without Buildings experience in the flesh, the album gives a taste of what a thrilling live proposition the band could be.
“There’s something about this recording I always preferred to Any Other City,” Johnston says half a decade later as he and Tompkins, now the only two band members still living in Glasgow, take stock. “Not that I’m not still proud of it, but whenever any of us got together the live tape would always end up getting played, just because it’s nice to hear us as a live band.”
Tompkins, whose euphoric, hyper-active vocals set against the band’s crisp musical backdrop gave it such a unique personality, concurs.
“I’m more attached to the live thing in a way,” she says, “because it reminds me in a very personal way of that particular time, and how we did things then. I suppose it leaves me with a load of what ifs.”
One such what if might be how Tompkins dealt with the unprecedented attention a savvy Australian audience garlanded with. One gentleman even asked if Tompkins, would autograph his arm. The singer then proceeded to engrave his flesh with his own name before walking away, leaving both fan and band somewhat bewildered before returning to write her own name down.
Beyond such decidedly un-rock and roll behaviour, what comes through most on Live At The Annandale Hotel, which features one unreleased song alongside Any Other City classics, The Leanover, Juno and Let’s Get Out, is a band at their peak thoroughly enjoying themselves.
For a quartet who were already active in Glasgow’s autonomous artistic underground, a split was inevitable, and a tour supporting Belle and Sebastian saw them lose confidence as, in the face of indie puritan hecklers, the prospect of a difficult second album loomed.
As Johnston observes, “I think we were a band who maybe didn’t get our dues at the time, but then, I can’t see us being in the back of a transit van for much longer and getting on that whole touring treadmill.”
Tompkins too acknowledges an increasing self-consciousness as a front-woman.
“I never ever thought about what we were doing,” she says of LWB’s initial formation. “We were having a good time, but if we’d continued, I’m not sure we would have.”
Since the split, all four members of Life Without Buildings have come to the fore in other fields. Tompkins has been short-listed for the Becks Futures Prize for her artwork, and Johnston is a graphic designer, with work produced for Chemikal Underground Records among others, who this week took part in a discussion with Factory Records designer Peter Saville as part of The Six Cities Design Festival. Evans, now resident in Berlin, is a curator and artist. Bradley too, having already co-founded The Modern Institute, is a writer, curator and artist working at the cutting edge of the art scene.
Johnston and Tompkins have, though, kept a hand in music. Johnston’s record cover designs are an obvious link, as are Tompkins’ performances as part of her art practice. This was broadened out at her recent Modern Institute show, when she sang versions of Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, David Bowie’s be My Wife and Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark. At another opening, all four ex LWB-ers found themselves thrust onstage for an impromptu mini-reformation.
“We could barely remember the songs,” says Johnston, “Sue was the only one really keeping it together.”
Despite such a slight return, however well Live At The Annandale Hotel is received, Johnston and Tompkins insist Life Without Buildings categorically won’t be tempted back into the fray. This despite a trend set by Fire Engines, The Gang Of Four and now even Kurt Cobain favourites Young Marble Giants, who similarly only ever released one album.
“I’d like to think, though,” says Tompkins, whose recent purchase of a keyboard and vocoder suggests she may yet be lured back onstage, “that – even though it won’t ever happen – there was some way of doing something. I don’t know what, but it’s never going to happen, anyway.”
Johnston is even more unequivocal. “There’s no songs left,” he says. “It’s not as if we’ve got loads of unreleased stuff in a vault somewhere. I’d like to think Life Without Buildings has had some kind of influence, and we achieved everything we set out to do, but this album is about putting a full stop on what was a brilliant experience.”
Life Without Buildings launch Live At The Annandale Hotel, available on Gargleblast Records from June 11, at Mono, Glasgow, May 30.
The Herald, May 29th 2007