In the late ’90s, musical genres that once felt as separate as continents began to shift into each other like tectonic plates, the great unifier being electronic music. Pick any genre or scene and you’ll find it taking hold due to an increasing interest in technology, which was growing more accessible (and affordable) than ever. This is usually remembered in albums that hit like earthquakes: the landscape-changing rock of Radiohead’s OK Computer, the dark fusion of hip-hop and electronica that was Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Madonna pushing underground rave music into the pop spotlight with Ray Of Light. There are few artists of that era, however, that managed to be as simultaneously revolutionary and modest as the Beta Band.
Over three EPs — Champion Versions, The Patty Patty Sound, and Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos — core members Steve Mason, John Maclean, and Robin Jones fused rock, folk, trip-hop, ambient, house music, rap, and more with an effortlessness and humor that still makes them easy to overlook. Their most high-profile fans were Radiohead, who later solidified electronic music’s assimilation with Kid A, a landmark release they once described as their “Beta Band record.” Though the Betas went on to open for Radiohead and release three vibrant albums, they disbanded in 2004 never having fully outgrown that cult status. Speaking to member John Maclean about the breakthrough compilation The Three EPs, released 20 years ago today, and recent reissue of their airtight Best Of compilation, that underdog quality doesn’t feel like the hinderance it’s often framed as. Rather, it’s an extension of what made them so special in the first place.
A frequent DJ, Maclean’s use of sampling and electronics were groundbreaking, but answering questions about it, he’s able to make those ideas sound as natural as everything the Betas did. “We started to try to make electronic and sampled music sound organic and human, while trying to make guitars and drums sound futuristic,” he says, trying to describe The Three EPs, while inadvertently alluding to the countless albums released in its wake over the following decade. Later he describes their 2000 self-titled debut album as an attempt to “make a digital album but without a computer,” a sentiment that encapsulates LCD Soundsystem’s burgeoning career a few years later (a quality that becomes strikingly clear on that album’s highlight “Dance O’er The Border”).
Years after leaving music behind, Maclean’s work directing many of the Beta Band’s best music videos has put him on the path to greater success as a filmmaker. After winning a BAFTA for Best Short Film in 2011, he released his first feature in 2015, the Michael Fassbender-starring Slow West which earned the World Cinema Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Below you can read our conversation which covers everything from the Betas’ humble origins to playing packed stages to that iconic scene from High Fidelity.
STEREOGUM: The Three EPs is best remembered now as an album, but Champion Sounds, The Patty Patty Sound, and Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos were all extremely distinct sounding releases. Were you guys setting out with a specific idea for each? How did the idea of putting them all together and simply calling it The Three EPs come about?
JOHN MACLEAN: Champion Versions, the first EP, was basically the four-track demo we made to try to get signed — we re-recorded half of it for the release and half was lifted straight from the demo. There wasn’t really a concept other than it was the first four songs we ever worked together on.
We were signed without having played a gig. So the second EP [The Patty Patty Sound] was very much about playing together. Songs like “The House Song,” “Inner Meet Me,” and “She’s The One” were tunes we worked on to be played live. With the third EP [Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos] we got more interested in the studio, we had the chance to rent different instruments, start using plate reverbs, it really was a chance to experiment in a studio which we hadn’t done before.
The idea to put them all together was, like the title, a bit of an obvious choice. We worked that out from the start so we came up with artwork with three symbols that we would swap round for each EP.
STEREOGUM: What was the environment like in Scotland and then later London when you guys were starting out? There were so many exciting things happening throughout the UK from trip-hop to IDM to rock music to everything growing in Birmingham from techno to Broadcast. What drew your interest at the time?
MACLEAN: We felt we were on our own, there was no scene we identified with — there was trip-hop, which was more rap based, there was the embers of Britpop that had become pastiche, there were musical divides — pop, indie, rock, hip-hop — and our record collections were all so eclectic. We loved the Velvet Underground, the Beatles, the Who, but also Santana, Burt Bacharach, [Ennio] Morricone, but also Wu Tang Clan, De La Soul, Beastie Boys, KRS-One, but also Brian Eno, KLF, Primal Scream. So we never thought about scenes or styles. We started to try to make electronic and sampled music sound organic and human, while trying to make guitars and drums sound futuristic.
STEREOGUM: You guys managed to tie together so many different sounds, but everything always felt strongly integrated into the songwriting. What was your process like bringing together all these influences?
MACLEAN: Starting with the song. You can do anything with a great song, stretch it out, bring it back, reduce it to one sound or build it into a cacophony, and that’s what we aimed to do.
STEREOGUM: You were involved in a lot of sampling too, which was clearly more associated with electronic music at the time, and every album employed really fascinating samples.
MACLEAN: I collected vinyl and DJ’d a lot so I had a backlog of samples, some obvious, some very obscure. There were a couple of albums that I loved that I thought they used the samples amazingly and had never been bettered – Chill Out by the KLF and Paul’s Boutique by the Dust Brothers/Beastie Boys
The great thing about those early samplers were the limitations — you could only sample up to nine seconds and then you laid it to tape as there were no computer programs at the time. Also the EMU sampler had a very warm sound — and then when we played live, I had a loop on each key which I hit and triggered every bar, so I could keep the loops in time with the drums. These days drummers have to try to stay in time with sequenced songs and that sounds a lot less organic to me.
STEREOGUM: Hearing “Monolith” as a teenager was almost like discovering “Revolution #9″ again. It’s such a memorable moment on that album, especially when you start sampling other Beta Band songs. How did the idea of doing a 15-minute sound collage develop?
MACLEAN: Again probably my obsession with Chill Out, but also every song we ever did with the Band we started with this thought, “What have we not done before?” So “Monolith” was that. We haven’t done a song where we record in one take and whatever happens happens.
STEREOGUM: There’s an infamous quote associated with your self-titled album where you guys called it “fucking awful.” It’s interesting because many Beta Band fans I’ve talked to over the year and told me how much they love it. What was the context for that quote back then, has your opinion changed about it?
MACLEAN: Robin [Jones] said the best thing. He said, “We’ve just made an amazing EP!” I think there was four songs that would make a super strong EP — but I’ve no regrets, there are so many different experiments on there, we were not lazy, it’s not a lazy album. We were trying to make a digital album but without a computer, so there was a frustration when we were making it, especially editing it. Some songs perhaps go on too long, it’s got a sound and it feels like a time, which is all you want from an album.
STEREOGUM: “Dry The Rain” in the film High Fidelity obviously gave that song a great deal of exposure back in 2000 and has really evolved to be a truly iconic music moment in film. What do you feel about that looking back?
MACLEAN: Great! Now that I’m [working] in film, it’s great to have that early crossover.
STEREOGUM: What was your tour like with Radiohead before Hot Shots II came out?
MACLEAN: We knew we could, we had already had some great Glastonbury sets playing to tens of thousands, so we were very confident. The Radiohead guys were very supportive, watched us every night, it was a great experience.
STEREOGUM: One thing people overlook with the Beta Band is that you guys had really great music videos, many of which you directed. You’ve seen success as a filmmaker in recent years — was filmmaking something you were always drawn to before the Beta Band or did those videos spark your interest?
MACLEAN: I had always been interested in film. While I was at art school in Edinburgh, I worked in The Cameo Cinema late-night double bills and watched all the cult classics on the big screen. When the band started I knew I wanted to do the videos, that would be my film school, and during the band I started trying to write short films. But it took a long time to try to convince the film industry I wasn’t just a guy in a band that fancied directing, that I was very serious about it.
STEREOGUM: Looking back on the anniversary of The Three EPs and with the Best Of reissue, do you hear these songs differently?
MACLEAN: I’m surprised at how good they are! I never listened to them after we did them, apart from learning to play them live. So I’m surprised at how much consideration went into them, the sound of each instrument, the reverb on Steve’s vocals recorded to tape in the middle of the night.
STEREOGUM: Do you think we’ll ever get to hear the Beta Band play together again some day?
MACLEAN: Sadly, I don’t think so — maybe not, sadly — we did it and we moved on, Our mantra was never to repeat ourselves and I have another movie to make, I hope.
The 20th anniversary remaster and reissue of The Three EPs and The Best Of The Beta Band reissue are now now via Because Music.