#1: Jacob’s Mouse
Jacob’s Mouse were a three-piece rock band from Bury St Edmunds. Between 1990 and 1995, they released three albums, one compilation and a string of EPs, earning high-profile fans in John Peel and Kurt Cobain. For the first in our new series celebrating Fallen Heroes of the local scene, Features Editor Seymour Quigley takes a guided tour of the band’s discography.
Back in the 60s and 70s, Bury St Edmunds town centre was, by many accounts, a little bit rough. Bury had its own musical dive bar, the now partially-demolished Griffin, (which stood half-proudly on the narrow strip of land between Cornhill and St Andrews Street South now occupied by Officers Club and Karooze), where local bands could “cut their teeth” and where on weekend nights and market days, mods and rockers, juiced to the nines on booze and cheap speed, would spill freely out into the marketplace, merrily beating seven shades of intoxicated shite out of each other, the Police and anyone else who happened to be standing around.
When the first wave of punk arrived in 1976-77, with bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash pushing an agenda of Total Freedom to Express Yourself, it unwittingly helped encourage its weaker-minded disciples to take acting like a total prick in public to its logical conclusion and made punk a cause célèbre for the frothing right wing. So when The Clash visited the Corn Exchange during the Out On Parole tour of 1978 (in the face of strong opposition from the Council), popular legend has it that Bury’s punks, teds, mods and rockers were out in force and that the ensuing carnage saw blood on the streets, property destroyed, general indecency and the overall erosion of society. Whether this was the case or not – by several written accounts, there was no trouble whatsoever, The Clash signed a few autographs and everyone went home happy – so began the start of a Council-imposed 19 year ban on gigs in any public buildings within the town (Conservative towns have a long memory – until 1997, when Councillor Jackie Smith finally broke the embargo with a tentative inaugural BurySound gig, well-meaning promoter after well-meaning promoter found themselves turned away with the mantra, “When The Clash played here in 1978…” ringing in their ears).
So the big names stopped coming to town, the scene dried up, the rougher pubs were shut down, and – as is time-honoured fashion in places where creativity is stifled – Bury became a pub rock bore. Throughout the 80s, a small resistance movement of Goths, grebos and metallers kept the flame of DIY alive with local bands like The Never Never and Cutting Edge trying, but never quite managing, to lift the local scene out of the doldrums of endless cover band hell.
Then, at the dawn of the 90s, something miraculous happened. A group of KEGS students (that’s King Edward VI Upper School to you non-Bury types) – twins Hugo Boothby and Jebb Boothby on guitar and bass respectively, and singing drummer Sam Marsh – inspired by the rumblings of US alt-rock and proto-grunge (Fugazi, Minor Threat, Big Black, Pixies, Hüsker Dü) and the nightly clatter of Radio One’s John Peel show, released a 5-track, 12”-only EP through Liverish Records, an imprint set up especially for the release by much-missed second-hand record shop and local institution, The Record Pedlar. The Dot EP – with its iconic “big black dot” sleeve – didn’t set the World alight, but its mixture of new wave-meets-exploding guitar-meets-shitkicker drums-meets-screaming rage plus violins pricked up the ears of indie (which, in the early 90s, was still short for “independent”) types all over the country. Jacob’s Mouse had, in their own small way, arrived.
The Dot EP was followed in 1991 by the band’s first CD release, 8-track mini-album No Fish Shop Parking. Released on the band’s own Blithering Idiot label, and named in tribute to a chalk-drawn sign outside the Elephant & Castle pub, No Fish Shop Parking still sounds, even by today’s standards, absolutely furious. Recorded, like all their output, in a shed in Norfolk, No Fish Shop Parking perfectly encapsulates what it feels like to grow up, burdened by intelligence, in a town like Bury St Edmunds, with all the rage and frustration and inertia perfectly summed up in every seething groove of every twisted song. From opener Tumbleswan, which sees mournful violins collide with triumphant guitars while incomprehensible lyrics spill higgledy-piggledy over themselves, through She Is Dead (only lyrics: “She is dead… now!”), to the syncopated, nonsensical dub-jerk-guitar-aargh of Carfish, to the actually-quite-frightening Justice and, best of all, on the truly phenomenal Twist (written and recorded months before Nirvana unleashed Smells Like Teen Spirit), No Fish Shop Parking perfectly demonstrates what can be achieved when newly-tapped talent meets genuine, simmering anger, and when Sam screams, “I’M SO CONFUUUSED!” in the dying moments of final, blistering track The Vase, you know exactly what he means.
No Fish Shop Parking earned the band a mountain of hype, a string of high-profile supports with pretty much every big indie band of the day (from the Manics and Suede, to Swervedriver and Th’ Faith Healers, to Babes In Toyland and Nirvana, whose singer – I forget his name – went on record as stating that Jacob’s Mouse were one of his favourite bands), Peel Sessions aplenty and, best of all, a record deal with influential, London-based Wiiija Records (home to Therapy?, Cornershop and, later, BiS).
The band’s first release for Wiiija, 4-track EP Ton Up, was a curious affair, with the band seemingly determined to take relatively straightforward pop songs – Motorspare is pure frantic Hüsker Dü punk, This Room carries a reggae shuffle underneath semi-spoken vocals, Oblong manages to be both obtuse and catchy – but subtly warp the edges, tempering their more rockist tendencies with avant-garde flourishes (most effectively on closer Fridge, which follows a full minute of white noise with a gigantic drum fill and none-more-Sabbath guitars). A minor triumph.
And then came I’m Scared. Their first “proper” album in that it contains 11 songs, I’m Scared marks the moment where Jacob’s Mouse began to decisively sever their ties with the outside World, and began doing exactly as they pleased. So whilst Kettle opens proceedings with a barrage of metallic angst, and album highlight It’s A Thin Sound applies dub grooves to shoegaze guitars, elsewhere things get really weird, really fast: Deep Canvas Lake is ushered along by urgent mandolins; Box Hole contemplates the nature of mortality via ear-piercing treble-shredding guitar; and Coalmine Dig eschews conventional percussion for what sounds like an army of schoolchildren employed to dispatch the contents of the music cupboard with hammers. Take that, woodblock!
If the music press – who generally gave I’m Scared baffled but appreciative reviews – weren’t quite sure what to make of Jacob’s Mouse by this point, the band’s next run of singles did nothing to help press relations. From the point of view of sheer creativity, 1993-94 was a good era for the ‘Mouse, and three EPs (the band having long since decided that nothing appearing on a single should also appear on an album) followed in swift succession: the deceptively poppy, 60s tinged, bass-led and thoroughly splendid Good, followed by the unsettling, down-beat, reverse-guitar semi-folk of Group Of 7, followed in turn by the splendidly-titled and genuinely odd Fandango Widewheels, the verses of which feature the band’s (clearly amused) neighbour reading random nonsense over angry grunge, before an unexpectedly anthemic chorus sees Sam screaming, “Ban the human being! / Kill the bastard!” Decidedly not Oasis.
Although the three EPs seemed, in isolation, somewhat disparate, when collected together and re-released by Wiiija as the 10-track Wryly Smilers compilation, their jointly fractious nature gave the songs a context and some kind of sense. It’s doubtful that there was any kind of masterplan – and, speaking many years later, Sam Marsh has indicated (in an unpublished interview for Mmmmm, Juicy! fanzine) that the band were literally throwing every idea they had down onto tape just to see what happened – but the sheer scope of Jacob’s Mouse’s creativity at this stage was truly astonishing. So whilst, on one hand, Palace – arguably the band’s finest punk moment – is an almost-unbearably exciting barrage of noise, Sag Bag sees dark subject matter (a first-hand account of a road traffic accident ending with the calm observation, “I can see there’s a bone jutting out of me”) grinding against unusual chord progressions and unexpected recorder outbursts, whilst Keen Apple – an impassioned diatribe against an un-named misogynist – comes across like gypsy psychobilly.
And then it all went really weird. In 1995, with Britpop in full swing, UK Indie Nation found itself gripped by a new-found, half-baked nationalistic desire for all things British. Blur and Oasis went head-to-head for the Number One slot as part of a pointless flesh carnival to prove absolutely nothing. Terrible bands called things like Sleeper and Powder were elevated almost overnight from backroom toilet venues to gigantic arena supports, simply on the strength of their hair. More than ever, indie labels were snapped up as credible fronts for the majors and along with the salivating A&R men, the stylists swept into town, dictating a “look”, a “sound”, an “attitude”. And did we mention cocaine? A blizzard of the stuff. A mountain of it. Well, it takes the edge off the smack.
As the music biz types of London and Manchester left their souls in a taxi somewhere between a maelstrom of outrageous fortune and an orgy of self-congratulation, a newly-received wisdom spread through the indie World: That pre-Britpop, everything had, in fact, been shit. All those records you thought you’d like at the time were, it turned out, rubbish. So unless you subscribed wholesale to the notion that only bands pushing an agenda of “Britishness” – Union Jacks, 1966, fish ‘n’ chips, The Beatles, Mary Poppins, cup o’ tea – were any good, and wore the exact clothes sported by Liam, Damon, Louise from Sleeper or one of Menswear, you were, quite frankly, dead in the water. Overnight, mighty bands who’d helped shape the sound of things to come, from Pop Will Eat Itself (who, in the mid-80s, had dared to combine metal riffs with clumsy hip-hop and creative sampling, in the process inventing The Prodigy) to Carter USM (Glastonbury-headlining indie giants whose mixture of clever-clever lyrics, Kylie arrangements and rockabilly guitars influenced misfits like Art Brut, The Indelicates and the Arctic Monkeys) were all but written out of the equation in a Stalinist putsch/proto-New Labourite misconception that the only way to learn from history is to pretend it never happened. There was, literally, no place in the World for a band like Jacob’s Mouse, and Jacob’s Mouse reacted by retreating from the World entirely. And so it was in these jingoistic times that Rubber Room, the band’s 2nd (or 4th, depending how you look at it) and final album, landed to universal bemusement in 1995.
Rubber Room is the sound of a three-piece band falling apart. It makes no sense whatsoever. Every beat of every drum, every distorted vocal, every skewered noise, every incongruous bleep and blatter and skronk that roars out of the speakers is the sound of three people gone completely insane. In terms of pop-gone-wrong extreme mentalness, at its most deranged it makes fellow artistic masterpieces of the era like the Boo Radleys’ Giant Steps and the Manics’ The Holy Bible sound comparatively tame. It is, needless to say, incredible. Of the 12 tracks on offer here, only two – unlikely single Hawaiian Vice and reasonably conventional US alt-thunderer Blither – could reasonably be described as “commercial” in any recognisable sense, but still see their vocals fuzzed up and mixed down so low as to be near-indecipherable. The rest of the album takes in looped keyboard jazz terror (Poltergeist), psychedelic dub grunge (Public Oven), unsettling acoustic/electric guitar trade-offs (Domestic) and, in general, jarring barrages of noise and confusion. But the absolute and inarguable album highlight, suicide note and distillation of all that made Jacob’s Mouse such an intensely wonderful band is Foam Face. Essentially the sound of three people playing three different songs at the same time, Foam Face is, simultaneously, a trance bass groove, a metal guitar workout, a softly-intoned paean to God knows what, and a full-on noise whiteout, culminating in the sound of a lawnmower committing suicide. To this day, no other band on a reasonably large indie label has released anything quite this unique.
By Sam Marsh’s estimation, Rubber Room sold less than a thousand copies; the band called it a day shortly afterwards, and as the 90s rumbled towards their tiresome conclusion (The Verve without Nick McCabe, Stereophonics everywhere, Turin Brakes, the much-vaunted “death” of guitar music as Fatboy Slim conquered the globe), Jacob’s Mouse were all but forgotten. In recent years, whilst one-time peers (and fellow early 90s Peel favourites) Th’ Faith Healers have reformed and found themselves embraced by the ATP set as returning heroes, Jacob’s Mouse have been seemingly happy to let rabid dogs lie. So while Sam has continued to write, record and release music (firstly solo as The Machismos, later with hardcore legends The Volunteers and short-lived dub types The People’s Choice and Zen Reggae Masters), Jacob’s Mouse have remained, for the most part, a footnote in John Peel’s autobiography.
But their influence is out there. The first hints could be seen, 10 years back, in the NME’s tenuous “No Name” scene, with the 80s/90s alt-rock influenced likes of Ikara Colt and, in particular, the mighty Mclusky sporting a distinctly Mouse-esque line in seething bass-propulsion, abrasive guitars and off-kilter lyrics. And on a purely empirical basis, your correspondent has been bowled over in the past few years by the number of music-loving types from all over the UK who, at the mention of Foam Face or No Fish Shop Parking in any kind of “favourite songs/albums” discussion, have responded with some variation on, “Oh my GOD! Jacob’s MOUSE! They were fucking INCREDIBLE!!!” The love is out there, and the love is strong.
Jacob’s Mouse mattered. From a musical point of view, they were a phenomenal band who released a string of incredible, genre-defying, increasingly deranged but always brilliant records, without ever sounding like they were trying too hard. But from a personal point of view, they were important because they demonstrated, single-handedly, that a band from Bury St Edmunds could achieve some degree of success, and make records than truly, genuinely, speak to you about how it feels to be in a certain place at a certain time in your life, with all the uncertainties of what the future might hold. Jacob’s Mouse may never receive the recognition they deserve; but they made the records they wanted to make and, for those who took the time to notice, they made a difference.
The Jacob’s Mouse Wiiija back catalogue is now available on iTunes.
Formed in the late 80’s in Bury St Edmunds, disbanded in 1995.
Hugo Boothby – guitar
Jebb Boothby – bass
Sam Marsh – drums/vocals
The Dot EP (5-track EP, Liverish Records, 1990)
No Fish Shop Parking (8-track album, Blithering Idiot, 1991)
Ton Up (4-track EP, Wiiija, 1992)
Company News (2-track single, Rough Trade, 1992)
I’m Scared (11-track album, Wiiija, 1993)
Good (3-track EP, Wiiija, 1993)
Group of 7 aka Chocolate Cake 100 (3-track EP, Wiiija, 1993)
Ton of Scum (2-track single, Wiiija, 1993)
Fandango Widewheels (4-track EP, Wiiija, 1994)
Wryly Smilers (10-track compilation, Wiiija, 1994)
Hawaiian Vice (1-track single, Wiiija, 1994)
Rubber Room (12-track album, Wiiija, 1995)
Unofficial MySpace: www.myspace.com/jacobsmouse