photo: Martha Love
'The blend of electropop, spaced-out country and
midlife crisis remains alluringly unique' (Uncut)
'Experimental pop renegades' best yet' (Electronic Sound)
R.O.C are (L-R) Karen Sheridan (vocals, music), Fred Browning (vocals, music), Danton Supple (production, mixing), Patrick Nicholson (music).
Spanning pure noise to pure pop, R.O.C's widescreen albums have drawn praise from critics and artists including Radiohead and Orbital.
In 2019 R.O.C release their fourth album 'Bile & Celestial Beauty', their first new music in 12 years.
The album sees longtime co-producer Danton Supple (Coldplay/Patti Smith) joining as a full-time member.
The album is accompanied by eight videos by R.O.C and Oleg Rooz.
In April this year R.O.C returned to live perfomance with a show at Brixton's Whirled Cinema.
pic: Sebastian Morrison
‘R.O.C are genuinely like nothing else at all. And everything all at once.’
R.O.C's story starts in the 90s and takes in releases on major and independent labels, fans from Radiohead to Dannii Minogue, industry blacklisting, and four albums and 15 singles of experimental pop described by one critic as 'shit-faced bile and celestial beauty'.
R.O.C began with Fred and Patrick making demos on friends' floors around London, laying film dialogue over Drumatix beats and Casio keyboards. Ignoring fixed band roles, R.O.C involved whoever was there playing the nearest instrument and throwing ideas into an evolving song.
In 1993, they formed Little Star Records and released five singles and EPs. The group then was Fred, Patrick, Karen Sheridan (from Denver USA), Russell Warby, and Peter Burgess who produced the tracks in his Brixton basement. Synths, guitars, drum-machines, samplers, answerphones, tv clips, singing and spoken word were crushed together to make a series of celebrated releases.
The debut single 'Dead Step' was played on BBC Radio 1 by John Peel who rang the band to say he'd lost the record in his car and could he have another. French magazine Les Inrockuptibles said: ‘Can here, ambient hip-hop there, everything frosted and flowing, perfect for summer’.
‘God Willing’, ‘White Stains’ and ‘X-ine’ received glowing reviews and plays on UK Radio 1 and LA’s KCRW. ‘Girl With A Crooked Eye’ (a tale of domestic violence on holiday) made the 1994 John Peel Festive 50 and earned R.O.C a session on the dj’s Radio 1 show. Airing the session Peel said: 'you never know what you're gonna get next from this lot - I'm all in favour of that.'
One critic called R.O.C 'the weirdest thing I've heard in ages'. R.O.C told Time Out in 1995: “we’re influenced by everything - not just music. When you tune the radio on the FM dial, you start at the west with Radio 2, and you turn the dial through all these sounds from different cultures, and then on the other end there's Magic FM. You've come full circle.”
Attitude magazine told R.O.C: “What you do isn't exactly easy listening.”
R.O.C replied: “Everything is easy listening. You put it on and you listen to it. What could be easier?”
The group’s try-anything approach extended to live performances, with different ideas at each show. At an early gig they furnished the stage as a living room, and sat apparently listening to their own music. NME said: 'It's hard to know who's doing what. This is promisingly sexy and chaotic.’ R.O.C re-enacted the gig for a BBC2 film ‘Bliss’ made by Ken Loach’s Parallax Pictures. R.O.C played a copy of themselves, fronted by actor Saira Todd.
For the Phoenix Festival, R.O.C were a full live band. Melody Maker said: ‘R.O.C are the best band in the world. It just isn't this one. Dressed like a Californian tennis set, playing music for spoilt people in an unspoiled world, an unconcerned utopianism laced with nonchalant monologues, splattered with deliberate, irrational fuckups, and all signifying nothing, other than it's own unquestioning right to exist. R.O.C are a perfectly useless extravagance, as satisfying as a pack of Yves San Laurent cigarettes left unopened.’
While some critics viewed R.O.C as pranksters, others noticed their underlying seriousness and contrasted them with the nostalgia then sweeping UK music: “Be young, be British, watch your so-called career rise in times of chest-beating patriotism; or take the R.O.C route and visit a Britain that is a more paranoid place than the Albion of their Britpop peers. R.O.C examine the true youth stories of our time: the long-term effects of hedonism, atomised, uncertain urban lives, boredom." (NME)
The group released their self-titled debut album in 1996 on Setanta Records. By now Fred and Karen's contrasting 'devil/angel' voices had become the focal points, and R.O.C was a trio of Fred, Karen and Patrick. Russell was already a leading concert agent working with Nirvana, Foo Fighters and many others, and Pete studied at the Royal College of Art under visiting professor Brian Eno (R.O.C appear in Eno's 1996 diary 'A Year With Swollen Appendices').
Pre-production on the album took place at bassist Gareth Huw Davies' home studio in Wimbledon. Danton Supple, who had engineered for Trevor Horn and Steve Lillywhite, was hired as co-producer, working at London’s Orinoco and Matrix studios.
On the album's opener 'Desert Wind', hi-hats evoke train tracks and an organ hums in the distance, while Karen sings: 'can you hear the train, it’s coming all the way from California'. Track 2 ’Excised’, starts with a recording of a friend’s wedding in America and explodes into a funk firestorm as Fred relives his eventful weekend as a guest: 'trying to say I love you without taking ecstasy’.
NME called it: ‘an album that changes shape at each turn, that flirts with God but shags the Devil on the side. There are moments of outstanding abstract beauty, blind fury, fine off-kilter pop and much strangeness. Truly, this is a group hellbent on experimentation.’
The Wire noted: ’a willingness to smudge boundaries in pursuit of the unique. No easy listen, but all the better for it.’
Reaction to the album brought major labels waving chequebooks. As Setanta became aware of this, relations worsened and the label faxed an all-points letter to the music business warning against working with R.O.C. This didn't deter Virgin Records who signed the band in 1996 and released the single ‘Hey You Chick’, licensed from Setanta. R.O.C wanted to put Setanta’s letter on the cover artwork, but at the last minute Virgin blacked it out.
The video for ’Hey You Chick’ was shot in the band’s stamping ground of Brixton, South London, the camera relentlessly following a girl’s bottom around the streets. The video opened an edition of BBC’s Top of the Pops 2, and was voted Video of the Year in Melody Maker by prankster Dennis Pennis who said: ‘somehow it’s not sexist’. The video was showcased at a music/art event staged by Dazed and Confused magazine, themed around David Cronenberg's film "Crash". R.O.C played live alongside Radiohead and Sneaker Pimps.
Virgin rented an industrial unit in Fulham and sent Fred, Karen and Patrick back into their headspace of sequencers and samplers, tasking them with creating a new album to justify their career upheaval. Danton returned to produce, recording and mixing at nearby BJG Studios.
R.O.C’s second album is titled ‘Virgin’. Virgin offered the band their own fake 'indie' label, but by contrast R.O.C asked to have the famous Virgin logo as the front cover. The label humoured the group until just before production, and then (as with the 'Hey You Chick' cover), scrapped the idea saying it looked like Virgin corporate promo. R.O.C's logo replaced Virgin's, but the title had stuck and the album was released in 1997 to renewed acclaim.
NME said: 'something wicked this way comes. It's big, it's bad, it's 'Dada', a roaring, spluttering combine-harvester of a track, a piston disco beat driven by giggling madmen. R.O.C follow that with '(Dis)count Us In', a spring-heeled summer groove. 'Cheryl' is popped-in trip-hop with style, and the dreamy 'Ocean and England' will melt you into a shimmering puddle. R.O.C have an impeccable sense of balance.’
Q said: ‘the first album was category-defying yet highly-accessible. This follow-up treads the same pleasingly non-retro path, but with the intensity and unease magnified several times. The tracks are tighter and more focused, the rhythms harder, the situations more oblique, the emotions more powerful, and the results more disturbing....And it ends with a love song: now that is unsettling.’
At the 1997 Q awards, Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien, accepting Best Album, said he’d have nominated ‘Virgin’.
The album produced two singles: ‘Cheryl’ made 76 in the UK charts. Orbital, guest reviewers for Melody Maker, made it Single of the Week. '(Dis)count Us In’ got another celebrity review, from Dannii Minogue who said: “This has got the groove, hasn't it? And it's immediate too. Fantastic."
‘(Dis)count’ came with multiple remixes, notably from French duo Aleem and tech-house dj Nicky Holt (aka Solah) who also contributed electronics to some of the album tracks. The package also contained a techno mix of ‘Said What I Said’ by Liverpool's DJ Tempest.
The video for ‘(Dis)Count’, shot by Spanish director Edmundo, featured performance artist David Fryer walking through a sun-drenched Valencia, arms raised. Edmundo said the gesture meant either surrender or victory (Edmundo and Fryer previously made Everything But The Girl's video 'Single').
Despite the album's reception, Virgin failed to promote it to the band's satisfaction. Portishead’s managers offered their services, intent on having the album re-released, but in an executive purge R.O.C's A&R man left Virgin. Artist and label parted company soon afterwards.
Coming from an indie background, the withdrawal of major backing wasn’t going to stop R.O.C in their tracks, and they continued with a series of releases on independent labels. In 1999 they self-released the single ‘Soviva' and toured the UK supporting Sneaker Pimps. Of 'Soviva' NME said: ‘We like this because of its politely restrained sense of anger and bitterness.’ Time Out called it: 'a slow-building, twisted treasure'.
In 2000 the single ‘2000Mann’ was issued by London glitch/electronica label Spiky (µ-Ziq, Bomb 20). London's Metro paper called it: ‘as twisted and fractured as any of Tricky's worst hallucinations, about as uncommercial as you can get, and all the more bloodcurdlingly brilliant for it.’
R.O.C continued with occasional gigs, playing Alan McGee’s Radio 4 club in London, and an outdoor festival in Riga in February 2001 at -11c.
In 2002 they issued a sun-bleached 12" remix of ‘I Want You I Need You I Miss You’ (from the debut album) by long-time collaborator and dj Nicky Holt (aka Solah). The remix was picked up by club djs including Richard Norris, Chris Carter and Headrillaz. Record Collector said: ‘R.O.C made one of the best albums of the mid-90s. The track still delights, but it seems odd that such an intriguing group are tinkering with old songs.’
By 2004 R.O.C were working on their third album 'Night Fold Around Me' with longtime bassist and collaborator Gareth Huw Davies, who had leased Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound studios in North London. Danton, fresh from producing Coldplay’s ‘X&Y’, mixed four tracks for the album. R.O.C were approached by 12 Apostles, a recently-formed label based between New York and London, who released the album in 2006. The album contained ten new songs plus a new version of 'Soviva', and the '2000Mann' and 'I Want you...' singles.
Reviewing the album Q said: ‘In the mid-'90s, R.O.C, like Underworld, tapped into an interesting dance/guitar hybrid. Urban paranoia and moody melody is what they do best...artistically the trio remained an intriguing fringe concern, and this belated third album sees that continuing.’
The Scotsman said: ‘Ironically the trio have now made their most accessible album. This is a terrific collection of lush, intelligent electro pop full of beauty, tempered optimism (the quietly anthemic ‘Sink a Bite into Life’) and gallows wit.
A single, "Princess", was BBC 6music's Evening Single of the Week. Gigwise.com said: ‘Fred sings: "So let the bombs drop and all the guns shoot and the children all burn while the population loots - because that's all happening a million miles away and nothing's going to spoil our perfect day." Half light, half dark; it makes you feel relaxed and uncomfortable, reassured and disturbed all at the same time.’
In the late '00’s R.O.C went into a hiaitus. Remix offers and licencing requests came in, and a publishing deal with Cooking Vinyl music was signed in 2010, with a view to promoting the band’s catalogue.
Patrick and Gareth joined American Music Club singer Mark Eitzel (who had written to R.O.C praising a song from 'Night Fold Around Me') on a series of European tours, and recorded for his 2017 album 'Mr Ferryman'. Patrick also played on Alamaba 3 singer Larry Love’s 2015 album ‘Minesweeping’ and toured with his band O’Connell & Love.
In 2014, Sean Hocking, previously behind the 12 Apostles label, bought the rights to R.O.C’s debut album from Setanta. He re-released it on his new label Metal Postcard, including for the first time on vinyl, edited from the original 60-minute cd.
Uncut reviewed the reissue saying: ‘Even with hindsight it’s hard to fathom what R.O.C were up to. The trio belonged to Britpop like cats belong in the sea. Disco Inferno and AR Kane might have shared their experimental drive, but neither had the same pick-and-mix approach to modern pop or their habit of skewering expectation with every song. This reissue precedes a new EP; that ROC really could play it any way only amps up expectation.’
Electronic Sound magazine said: '‘ 'R.O.C’ is a huge record, packing full-formed songs against tidal waves of sonic invention. The machines pile up and up and up, forming rich swathes of bruised and swollen sound over which the trio pour traditional instruments and sublime vocals. Sometimes it sounds like wrestling a runaway truck, sometimes like having your neck kissed by angels. More remarkable is that it actually exists, all things considered.'
Following the reissue, R.O.C discussed new recordings and approached Danton Supple once again to expand on some demos. As sessions began it was decided that Danton should become a full member of the group. Patrick says: "Danton is the only person who can cope with the avalanche of sounds and the contrasting voices that make R.O.C, and make space for them. He's intrinsic to what we do". The result is the new album 'Bile & Celestial Beauty', due out March 2019. Get ready for more angels and runaway trucks.