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Interview

Hopes Are High | A Conversation With Alison Shaw of Cranes

In mid-2023, one of the UK’s most beloved bands reactivated on social media, hinting at greater things to come. The band in question is Cranes, a legendary band formed by siblings Alison and Jim Shaw in Portsmouth, England in 1985. Over the course of their career, the band has carved out vast microcosms of sound, including flirting with avant-garde textures on their debut LP Self Non Self, embracing dark dream pop on 1991’s Wings of Joy and 1994’s Loved, and exploring delicate electronic lullabies throughout much of the 2000s. No matter what sound is on display, Cranes are unified by Alison’s trademark vocals, which soar high above their musical cacophony. Cranes’ vast body of work, which never fit comfortably in any particular genre, is timeless in itself, and the band has remained a forever favorite amongst their devoted fanbase. Their latest recording, a self-titled record, appeared in 2008, and the band continued to play shows until 2012. While Cranes had remained near-silent ever since, much-needed vinyl reissues of their earlier works appeared regularly via Music on Vinyl, including the first-ever vinyl pressing of 1997’s underrated Population Four LP and La Tragédie D’Oreste Et Électre, which was recorded in 1994, released in 1996, and saw the band returning to their experimental roots, taking deep inspiration from Jean-Paul Sartre’s works as well as the infamous Greek myths.

However, 2023 saw a flurry of new activity from Cranes, straight from the source. Firstly, the band released a string of radio sessions recorded for the late, great John Peel in 1989 and 1990, many of which had never been circulated previously. Additionally, the band announced two shows, one in hometown Portsmouth and the other in the heart of London, both of which sold out immediately. Both shows were meant to celebrate the 30th anniversary of 1993’s Forever, one of the band’s most beloved recordings that also earned them a slot opening for The Cure’s celebrated Wish tour, which alongside a single remix of “Jewel” remixed by Robert Smith himself, helped usher in a new legion of fans. These new gigs reunited the Shaws with original guitarist Mark Francombe as well as Paul Smith, who began recording with the band with 2001’s Future Songs album. These shows were special occasions through and through, with fans (including myself) traveling far and wide to attend. While the band was originally unsure what would be in store next, they seem to have rekindled the spark and reclaimed their stake in today’s robust scene. More live dates have been booked for 2024 in Leeds, London, Brussels, and Rotterdam, and a new reissue has been announced – this time unearthing Fuse, the band’s very first release and one of their deepest obscurities. Originally released on cassette in 1986 via Bite Back!, Fuse has been lovingly remastered at Abbey Road and will be reissued via the band’s own Dadaphonic imprint on April 5th of this year. Like the Peel Sessions release prior, this new edition of Fuse features artwork by Chris Bigg of V23, who originally helped design much of 4AD’s classic artwork over the years. To sweeten the pot, this beautiful new edition features “New Liberty,” a song recorded during these early sessions that has not been heard until now.

We had the immense pleasure of speaking to vocalist, guitarist, and bassist Alison Shaw about all of this activity. Check below for our conversation, as well as a full list of upcoming tour dates and Fuse reissue details…

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Firstly, I just have to say it: WELCOME BACK! It’s really great that all these new gigs are popping up on the horizon. After years of radio silence, it really was so exciting to see this flurry of activity. What, what was the catalyst for getting back together? What got you thinking about it and what’s been fueling the fire so far? 

I guess it was the end of 2022 when, quite by chance, Jim and Matt (Cope) met up. Around the same time, Jason, who was our manager throughout the Dadaphonic years also got back in touch and told us that if there was any chance that we wanted to do something again, he’d help us. For the last ten years, it was the last thing on our minds, you know? We were all just doing other things in our lives. Somehow, things just fell into place. We all thought that we wanted to take it slowly, to see what happens. When we announced that first London show, we actually weren’t quite ready in our minds. We weren’t sure if we were able to do it, or if we really wanted to do it. But it went on sale and it sold out really quickly in a day and a half, and so we were like “oh my God, we’ve got to do it, we’re committed now.” It really was a good experience though. You were at the show, right? The audience was amazing! For us, it was a very happy show and it made us think that we might quite like to do some other shows.

Yeah, EartH is such a gorgeous venue and there was so much great energy in the room. It was a perfect fit! 

Yeah, exactly I think that was kind of a special evening for us all.

There aren’t a lot of bands out there like Cranes, so it’s great that you’re back in that sense. There was a big gap left in the scene when you left…

Yeah, our last record was in 2008. And I think our last gig was about 2012 or 13. So there’s been a long gap!

It seems like you just went dormant and life carried on for you all. Had people been asking for shows or for new material over the last decade? 

Well, when we went dormant, I also wasn’t connected to any social media at all for about ten years. I just couldn’t deal with it for one reason or another. I was vaguely aware that somebody out there was reissuing our records. It was the Music on Vinyl company in Holland, they’ve become good friends now and they’re really big fans of the band. They’ve reissued all our albums and they make really lovely vinyl editions. At the time though, I was only vaguely aware of this, but now I’ve kind of clipped my brain back into being doing Cranes stuff. We’re much more in touch with everything.

It’s been brilliant being back in touch with Mark (Francombe) again, because he was, as you know, he’s the original guitarist from the late 80s and early 90s. He’s been living a totally different life these days, because he lives in Oslo, in Norway. We’ve remained friends over all of these years, only seeing each other maybe once a year or something. But now we’re in contact every day, on the phone, or messaging or talking. He’s a very creative person and he helps with all the social media stuff.

So really, it’s weird. We’re just slowly motioning back into being a band again after such a long break, taking it at our own pace.

Cranes at EartH Theater on 10/14/23 – Photo by Tara Kennedy

That’s great! And it’s great that Mark is so invested and so involved as well. So, these next batch of shows in the Spring, can you tell us a bit about those? 

Actually, we just announced another one in Brussels! It’s part of a really lovely festival called Botanique. We just announced we’re going to play there on April the 30th. There’s been a good response already for that one!

Will these upcoming shows still be part of the Forever anniversary celebration, or will you be doing a more varied set? 

To be honest, we haven’t decided yet! I think we might do more of a kind of a mixture, maybe a few songs from the Loved album, but we’re not quite sure yet.

Right, and Mark played on Loved as well, yes? That first era of the band with Mark and Matt on guitar and Jim on drums had quite a groove going throughout the nineties. But then you changed lineups and your sound evolved from there…

Yeah, Mark actually first played with us in 1988, I think. And then he left in 1997/1998, soon after the Population Four album. We did a long American tour for almost every album we did up until that point, but I think the last time we were there was for Future Songs in 2002.

Yeah, I was supposed to go to the NYC show back then, but I was nineteen at the time and couldn’t get in, sadly… I should have snuck in! So, I’d love to talk about the upcoming Fuse reissue. I was curious to hear about any great stories from the era. I’ve read a lot about the early days, recording in your garage and how Martin Hannett was one of the first people to have heard the Fuse recordings. It seemed like things really ramped up quickly for the band from there… 

Well, the Martin Hannett thing, that was kind of an isolated incident, because Fuse was only a cassette. It was the first thing that we released. Jim and I spent months working on it, literally day and night. We used to do it in shifts, and I would work in most of the daytime, and he would work most of the night. We were still developing our sound at that stage and we weren’t quite sure what we were doing! We were kind of experimenting and trying to find our own path. We did what we could given the time constraints. We weren’t sure, to be honest, if it was any good. We’d never released anything, we’d never had a review or anything like that. For some reason, we also decided that we didn’t want to send the cassette out to anyone. But Ian Binnington from Bite Back! heard that Martin Hannett was looking for unsigned bands, because there was potentially going to be a new TV show up in Manchester. So Ian sent him a tape with a lot of local Portsmouth bands on it. When he called Martin back a few weeks later, Martin wasn’t sure who he was, or who any of the bands were, but then he remembered our song from that demo tape. We were very, very honored.

Alison Shaw from Fuse-era. Photo by Kevin Dunford

Yeah, you never know who hears things or how music travels around, especially in the cassette culture days…It’s amazing you got that kind of feedback early on.

Yeah, after that we kind of went back to the drawing board for a couple of years. We weren’t playing live at that stage, it was just me and Jim in my dad’s garage that we turned into a little tiny studio with the drum kit and everything in there. It took us a good two or two-and-a-half years to come up with the Self Non Self material which, at the time, we felt was more our identity, our real identity if you know what I mean.

I tell you what, literally dozens of people have asked us to reissue the Fuse tape, and we’ve always said no because we just thought that it was just our very early thing – that it was just a tape and we were happy to let it stay that way. It’s taken us decades to consider it, and it was really because of Jason (White), who is also the manager at 4AD. He’s so in tune with music and has very good instincts. He said “listen to it again Ali, would you just listen to it again for me?”

Do you often listen back to your music, or? 

Not often, no. But I listened to it with fresh ears and I could see what he was talking about. It was so early for us, listening to it now I’m kind of taken back – how did we produce those sounds with such basic equipment!?

Well, that’s exactly what I wanted to ask you next! How DID you produce those sounds with just the bare bones guitar and drums setup that you had back then? There was a lot of sonic experimentation taking place in those early days. 

Yeah! Well one of the key things that we were we were using very early on was a tiny sampler pedal, which was a similar size and shape as a distortion pedal. It was one of the very first sampling instruments that you could buy that didn’t cost a zillion pounds, you know? Jim used that for some of the drum sounds and we also used it on the voice as a delay and echo thing. Other than that, it was just guitars and the way we played. Jim always dreamt that his first instrument would be the drums, but he also plays guitars and bass and cello and keyboards, and, you know, whatever else. He’s kind of a multi instrumentalist, I guess.

Great to have that in your back pocket!

Yeah that definitely helps! So, I think everything we’ve ever done emerges quite naturally. We just make sounds and then see if it elicits a response in either Jim or me. The things that we both instantly connect to – that’s what ends up being a Cranes song. If one or the other of us doesn’t get it, then it gets left behind.

So I guess that leaves it pretty wide open to create whatever feels right and whatever comes to mind. I can’t imagine the two of you back in the day carefully selecting and mimicking records over the years, trying to carve out your sound that way, as some bands do. It sounds like this has always been a very organic process for you.

Yeah. It was quite important for us not to sound like anyone else directly. We used to edit ourselves. Jim’s kind of obsessed with the idea – if anything sounds remotely like someone else he’ll get rid of it. We were fans of other people’s music at the time of course, but it was a key thing in Cranes, to choose our own path…

Jim Shaw from Fuse-era. Photo by Kevin Dunford

Well, that’s certainly what’s always appealed to me about your music – that you’ve done your own thing. There are definitely bands that you’re peers with, like Slowdive, who you played live with in the early nineties, or Chapterhouse, who you were label mates with. But really, when I got into the band in the late nineties – I had never heard anything like your music. It was so singular, so different, so eclectic, and I haven’t heard all that much out there that I feel the same way about. I’ve always appreciated that. With that in mind, from the early days of being in the garage to the electronic material you’d produce in the 2000s, how did your writing process evolve over the years?

Well, I guess there were two big musical shifts for us. The first shift was, when we first signed to Dedicated. We were able to buy some new equipment, and we bought keyboards, which Jim had always wanted. Up until that point, we’d never had a keyboard that could make string sounds and orchestral sounds and piano sounds. So that was a big shift for us. On Fuse and Self Non Self, there were no keyboards. Wings of Joy, Forever, and Loved were all recorded in the same studio in London, called Protocol Studios. It was the same studio where everyone at the time recorded, including The Sundays, or My Bloody Valentine, who were recording Loveless at the time. So many bands who were recording in the early nineties recorded there, and that place felt like our home, just off Holloway Road in North London.

The more electronic stuff that you you mentioned, that was our third phase, after the year 2000. The old version of Cranes had finished – we ceased to be around 1998. Mark left in 1997 and got married after we did that last tour in America, and we pretty much stopped for a good three years. We weren’t sure what we were going to do or if we were going to record again. But then Jim and I just got together, I guess because we’re brother and sister, it’s hard to split up completely…  I had been living in London at that time and during that break at the at the end of the 90s, I’d been doing some other stuff. I had a couple of ideas for some songs and I came back down to Portsmouth one day, and Jim had couple of ideas for some songs. We basically just started to write and we felt that there was the basis for some new material, and that’s when Future Songs started to come together.

I recall that you considered changing the name of the band, but at heart, it was still just you and Jim, so it still felt right to be a Cranes record. Is that the case?

Yeah, that’s kind of right. They are quite two sort of distinct phases of the band, I guess. But it’s still Jim and I at the center of it.

I mean, it’s not like the electronic material came out of the blue – there were hints of that direction on Population Four, La Tragedie D’Oreste et Electre, and a lot of the EP material from that era. Some more delicate moments, electronic touches, and so on. So while the early, chaotic nature of the band wasn’t present on Future Songs, it wasn’t a total 180, in my opinion, minus the lineup changeSo now that the original catalogue has been reissued, is there any talk of reissuing the most recent trio of records, the ones on Dadaphonic? 

Well, we haven’t started on that project yet. But people are asking, you know, especially because those records weren’t originally released on vinyl. It’s a bit early for us at the moment, but it’s definitely possible!

Going back to the gigs you’ve been playing – once you were committed to doing the shows and were back in the rehearsal room, was the focus really just on the older material? Did you happen to do any writing, whether it was accidental or intentional? 

To be honest, it was a lot of the focus was on the Forever songs, because quite early on, people asking if we were going to play the entire album. There are several songs on the album which we’d never played live before..

Yeah! I remember you mentioned at the EartH show that one of the songs had never been performed before, though I can’t remember which it was…

It was “Sun and Sky” – I don’t think we’d ever played it before and I’m not sure why we hadn’t… It’s not a difficult bass line, but I guess because I’m playing it and singing at the same time, I guess we just didn’t have enough time back in the day to rehearse it properly. But this time, I had months to practice it, so I did, and it eventually came together. I think when we first met up to rehearse after not having played together with this lineup for thirty years, our first song was “EG Shining.” And you know, it sounded the same as it always did all those years ago, which was kind of nice.

That’s one of the first tracks Mark had played on, right? 

Yeah, and it was it was one of the first songs we ever wrote, to be honest. Even though it didn’t come out until we were signed, we did it early on at a Peel Session. It was written a couple of years before we recorded it and released it on the Espero EP. It was an original Cranes song, that was one our earliest moments together.

It was great hearing such an intense response to songs like that, as well as “Inescapable” and “Starblood” when you played them. Do you still feel a connection to that material, or was it just something from the past that you exhumed for these shows? How does it feel to play those songs again?

So, that’s the weird thing, if you’d asked me a year or two ago, I’m not sure if I could have played those songs or if it would feel right at this point in my life. That said, there’s something that happens when Jim’s on the drums. One of those key moments in our past was when Jim decided he didn’t want to play drums live at that stage, so he changed to guitar. We had two or three different drummers in the years from 2000-2008. They were all great drummers, but the drumming style of those later albums were different, and of course these drummers used more electronic drum kits and pads and things like that where you can have more control and make more interesting electronic sounds. The earlier tracks were all oriented around Jim’s drum sound. For me, playing these early tracks needed to have Jim Shaw on the drums in order to feel right. That’s what made authentic and believable for me – Jim on drums and Mark on guitar, with Matt joining us for early rehearsals. It really made me connect to the material again. Something was there that I can’t quite describe but makes the songs come alive again.

I hate to jump the gun or anything, but do you think you’ll do any writing together – or are you still taking it one day at a time?

Well, you never know, you never know… There’s some writing going on but I can’t really elaborate! *chuckles*

Well, since we’re hinting at some vague things here – what’s the scoop on returning to America? Is that something we can look forward to in the coming years?

Ahh, well, I can’t say much at the moment, but I’ll give you a hint. Just recently we have been offered something in America and it’s looking very positive…

Well, I accept that you can’t tell us more, but that’s very promising news! We’ll stay tuned for some more details on that, if and when the time is right! So, here’s a more open ended question – do you have a favorite moment throughout all the years you’ve been together as a band? 

Favorite moment? Well, I mean obviously the tour with The Cure was completely awesome for us. I remember especially on the American leg of that tour, I remember just being happy every day, like every moment of every day, driving from city to city and playing these incredible arenas and auditoriums and stadiums, even…

How did that come about – how were you first approached by the band?

Apparently, Robert, and Simon had heard the Wings of Joy album, and they liked it. We had an agent at the time, and I think that’s how they approached us. We met them around that time, they did a few warm up shows before the tour, playing in much smaller venues in the UK. They played in our local town hall, which is called the Guild Hall in Portsmouth. We were invited to the show, and that’s where we met the band and that’s when they invited us on the tour.

Well, it was a perfect match, and obviously they’ve invited you back regularly since then, for the Trilogy shows and some other one-offs over the years. It seems like the door is always open!

Well, they’ve been so amazing to us over the years. Every few years we’ll get a call. I’ve chatted to Robert a few times recently, over email, and he’s really supportive of what we’re doing now. They’ll always be a really important part of our journey.

I’m so glad it’s still be so positive over the years. It seems like it’s a lifelong friendship with the two of you, and some of the other bands they’ve been friends with over the years, like And Also the Trees… 

Yeah, he’s pretty amazing…as you might imagine.

So what else are you planning with the back catalogue at the moment? It was great to see you bring the Dadaphonic brand back into the mix…

Yeah, the Peel Sessions release that came out last year was also under Dadaphonic, and Fuse is going to be on vinyl and CD as well. We weren’t sure if people would want a CD, but people are still requesting it. We won’t do a huge amount of them, but it’s there if people want it.

Yeah, people come back around again when it comes to physical media. I mean, after growing up in the CD era, I’ve switched fully to vinyl and digital. I don’t miss having to pack and carry a CD wallet to take things with you, and really like having a lot of music at your fingertips these days, through all kinds of mediums and services. It’s great to see the back catalogue has been well cared for after all these years… How has streaming treated you? 

I think most of our catalogue is now streaming, which helps for people who haven’t discovered us or heard most of what we’ve recorded, even some of the more rare things like La Tragedie… For many years, we didn’t think anyone would be interested in all that stuff. But Jason’s really helped us to find that focus again.

What about the Inrain single you did with Rudy of A.R. Kane? Is that something people still ask about? 

Yeah, and actually, Rudy and I have stayed in touch over the years. Every few months we get together on the phone. We’ve had several people offer to reissue it for us, and I suppose we’re just waiting for the right moment there as well. He just did a really great A.R. Kane reissue box set and has a few other projects in the works, so perhaps we’ll see an Inrain reissue in the near future!

I love seeing bands reactivate on social media, to come out of a long slumber and just poke their heads out on social media, like you or A.R. Kane and maybe even Catherine Wheel are doing at the moment. As a fan, I always get extremely, almost scarily excited when this happens. I feel like Cranes were one of the last bands from my youth that I never had the chance to see over the years, and I’m glad you’re back. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say, and with so many bands reforming and having a second victory lap, so to speak. I hope it’s been great experience for you. 

Yeah, it certainly has. We’re taking it slowly but we’re really, really happy that people seem to be receiving the idea of us in a such a good way. We’ve always been flattered when people ask after all these years, but it never was the right moment until now. But really, we’re glad to be here! §

Cranes – Fuse LP/CD
1. Pillow Panther
2. Fuse
3. Valentine
4. Gas-Ring
5. Things That I Like
6. Wrench
7. Fracture
8. New Liberty (previously unreleased)

Order via Bandcamp (UK and US) and via Linktree

Cranes 2024 tour dates: 

Header photo by Phil Nicholls

Frank Deserto

Bassist of The Harrow, curator/writer at Cherry Red Records, and blogger at Systems of Romance.

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