Here’s my chat with vocalist Dave Cooke and keyboardist, bassist, and vocalist Steven Morricone about the origins of both the band and their latest project, Amoeba to Zebra, a concept album about natural history and evolution inspired by the trio’s passion for science and the Life on Earth book and television series popularized by David Attenborough.
Rob Levy: How did Being 747 form?
Dave Cooke: After leaving Landspeed Loungers, I started doing some acoustic gigs as Being 747. The original idea was to do gigs with a plane on my head thus milking more mileage from the pun, but the plane was a tad cumbersome, and not a lot of fun to play in! I already knew Steve and Paul from doing lots of gigs with The Scaramanga Six. They offered to join in and to continue the plane metaphor, adding twin jet engines to the Being 747 project.
Steven Morricone: The idea for Paul and me was to try something out of our comfort zones, hence me on keyboards and Paul on the drums. It soon became clear that the sum of the parts was going to be hyper-productive.
RL: You have taken up the challenge of resurrecting the rock opera concept album. What made you decide to do this?
DC: One of my favourite albums ever is Jeff Wayne’s War of The Worlds. We used to listen to that album over and over when I was little, and it really left its mark. I like the idea of an album having a grand plan and clear vision. Although concept albums usually become preposterous, self indulgent, and overblown, they still have a place. There’s still room for more!
RL: How did Amoeba To Zebra come about? Describe making the record from the germination of the concept to the completion of it.
DC: I wrote the song “Microscopic Universe,” and at the time I was reading David Attenborough’s Life On Earth (the book from the classic TV series Life On Earth). It is another thing that left its mark on me as I was growing up–I really loved the progression from week to week. I remember the excitement that the following week it would be time for the dinosaurs. After I’d written the first chapter (“The Microscopic Universe”), kind of by accident, it made sense to do the rest, and so the project evolved naturally.
SM: Its potential as an educational project soon dawned on us, but honing it into fully-fledged multimedia show with total relevance to the science curriculum was a massive undertaking. We all chipped away at it for a few years, constantly re-evaluating and revising until it resembled the behemoth it is now.
RL: Describe your creative process: what is it like in the studio?
DC: In the rehearsal room, I usually turn up with some ideas to work on. Sometimes Paul’s got a tune to present, but his creative juices usually pour into The Scaramanga Six. I used to present the new songs cold, but now I’ve learned that its better if they’re a bit forewarned and so I do a rough version of what’s in my head and email it to them. This saves a bit of time, and then they can get cracking on pulling the song apart and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
SM: It’s so different to the process in The Six. The songs are so much more malleable and it’s ace fun to see where we can take them to as a band.
RL: How is Amoeba To Zebra being presented live?
DC: Live, we play to DVD backing, which allows the lyrics to sync with the visuals. We have lots of stage props and costumes, and now that we’re so familiar with the show, we’re able to goof about and add visual gags.
SM: It’s an assault to all the senses (though we try not to add too many smells). The idea was to make it a spectacle, but this also means that you can pick up on different aspects and still get the messages. Lyrics are reinforced by the visuals, etc. It’s a very regimented fifty-five minute show. Performing discipline is something none of us were used to, but as Dave said, we’ve got so good at it that we can extract even more enjoyment out of it!
RL: Your website says the band transitioned into a “theatrical production team.” How much has performance art been an influence on you?
DC: I’m not too familiar with performance art. I don’t get out much, you know, and I tend to live in my own bubble.
SM: We tend to ignore all outside influences really. None of us are into performance art, but our show most definitely transcends your standard indie-rock shambles. The term above is far more appropriate for the way we go about things. Every time we go to a school, we are a self-sufficient unit with all our own sound, lighting, visual equipment and a menagerie of ridiculous props. It’s a touring show rather than a gig. It’s amazing how much gear you can squeeze into the back of an old ambulance, too.
RL: I hear a lot of ELO and They Might Be Giants at work on the record. Is this intentional?
DC: We don’t intentionally sound like anyone. We do really like ELO and They Might Be Giants. We’ve only recently discovered They Might Be Giants’ kids projects, and when I first heard Here Comes Science I was a bit down, as I’d spent two years writing the history of science, and thought that people would now think that we were copying them. It’s a clear case of convergent evolution!
SM: That’s right. Just because a hedgehog has spines, it doesn’t mean it’s been influenced by a porcupine!
RL: All of your previous records have a complete shape to them in terms of packaging, style, sound and look. Is it wrong to assume that Amoeba To Zebra is just a more intellectually organic progression for the band’s development?
DC: I do think it’s an organic development, and it’s leading us into new areas and creating new opportunities. It’s led to us being commissioned by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) to do a show for them. That’s the current project, but that also led to me writing a show about Global Warming. We’re very excited by the territory that we’ve ambled into. It’s inspiring.
SM: We’re very proud of our past output but you have to find ways to keep challenging yourselves. There’s no doubt Amoeba to Zebra stretched us immensely, but it is also like a fresh start on a tantalizing and rewarding new journey.
RL: With the album you brought back concepts that modern rock has shelved, namely a concept album and the idea of framing songs with a narrator. Where has the cleverness gone in rock and roll?
DC: I don’t think it’s gone. I think that for a while it was unfashionable to be seen to be too clever. Fortunately fashion has never influenced us in any way and we’ve been able to just get on writing what we want to. The problem that we’ve had in Britain over the last twenty years is that the music scene has been far too influenced by fashion. It should be the other way ’round.
SM: Amen to that. I suppose we are carving ourselves a niche that exists outside the regular trappings of music industry rules and protocol. The narration part was great fun to do too. My chance to ham it up thesp-stylee!
RL: How has it been working with educators and scientists on this project?
SC: Very refreshing. The first thing is that we’ve been amazed at how seriously the academic and educational sectors have taken us and how helpful, interested and positive people are in these areas. A world away from the fickle music industry! We did things in a slightly odd order in that the show was written first, and then we got comment/feedback from a variety of teachers and scientists. Amazingly, we were not pulled up on any of our facts. We did a very early show for a bunch of PhD boffins at a convention on deep-sea vent systems. During that, we invited them to hurl elements of the buffet at us if we got any facts wrong. Not a single sausage roll came our way (much to mine and Paul’s dinnertime disappointment). We survived the trial by pastry and continue to reach out to the academics.
RL: What research was involved with the new record?
SM: Lots and lots of fantastic Attenborough DVD box sets have been consumed. But that’s not really “work,” is it? The subject of the Earth’s natural timeline is one that pops up again and again in science and there are loads on it in the most simple and understandable terms out on the Internet. The tree of life is something that has held an interest for all of us since we were kids, so again it wasn’t really that hard to grasp. Most of it was
already ingrained. The real challenges are going to be tackling new, less-familiar subjects in the future. Thankfully, our Dave has an uncanny ability to digest fact and excrete wonderful and engaging songs. I learn a hell of a lot from Dave’s research via the process of osmosis.
RL: You are playing a lot of Science Festivals. What is that scene like?
SM: We’ve just started on the Sci Fest scene. Our first was the hugely prestigious Cheltenham Science Festival a few weeks back. We went down in a storm. I don’t think they expected anything as elaborate as that! It was great to rub shoulders with real boffins when we’re actually just a bunch of musicians. Word seems to get around though. We have the Wrexham Sci Fest in a couple of weeks and the National Sci Fest in Birmingham later in the year. I think we may get a lot more next year. They are much more fun to play than the usual public shows in pubs/toilet venues.
RL: Can Dave talk about his new solo record, Slide Under The Microscope?
DC: That album is a collection of songs that I can’t see us having time to work on as a band. I wanted to do a project working predominantly with virtual instruments, and so the drums are samples and there are lots of keyboards on it. They’re good songs, it’s just that at the moment with Being 747 we have a very specific brief.
RL: What other projects are you involved in?
DM: As mentioned we’ve got a show in development for the RSPB, there’s the one on global warming and there’s a huge one on the history of science.
SM: Then after those minor tasks, we plan to re-paint the Humber Bridge using only one toothbrush, create an art installation that represents a map of the human genome in spaghetti and play a show live from the Earth’s molten core.
Amoeba To Zebra marks a maturation for Being 747 from an “off-kilter pop group” into a burgeoning player in the up and coming scholar rock scene. Without compromising their indie rock roots, they have emerged as one of the UK’s most sophisticated, melodically snappy and inventively sharp bands. Fasten your seat belt; Being 747 is ready for takeoff.
Check out the website for the new album here.