Dream POP, they called it. Given AR Kane’s Alex Ayuli once worked for advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, it’s no surprise that he and collaborator Rudy Tambala invented their own genre before critics could stick their oar in. It was a canny move, but more importantly, it was accurate: the music of AR Kane was made for dreamers, by dreamers, and its languor and longing made it particularly bewitching listening; their music is often smeared and blurry, happily lost in its own indefinable pleasures. “We wanted dream pop,” Tambala says, “that feeling of a dream where the rules are different. Dream logic.”
The AR Kane story is one of experimentation and enterprise, of unexpected developments, of willing the future to accord with one’s bidding. It’s also one of smart moves and headstrong independence, bordering at times on intransigence: Ayuli and Tambala were full of cocksure youthful energy, something you can hear across the material compiled in this AR Kive boxset. Collecting three of their six releases across 1988 and 1989 – the “Up Home!” EP, debut album sixty nine, and double-album i – the music contained in AR Kive is swarming with great ideas, wild juxtapositions and brilliant pop moments, where AR Kane’s songs overflow with melody. The key to everything here, though, and the reason why it all works so well, is the near-telepathic communication developed, over two decades, between the group’s core members.
Ayuli and Tambala grew up in east London, the children of Nigerian and Malawi-English parents, respectively, meeting at Park Junior School in Newham when eight years old. Their shared experience as outsiders with keen creative interests, and their grounding in soundsystem and jazz-funk club cultures, granted them the confidence of the misfit, but seeing the Cocteau Twins on The Tube was the moment their switches flicked. After the performance, they called each other via landline, marvelling over what they’d seen, convinced they could do something similar.
Soon, Tambala met Ray Shulman, an ex-member of Gentle Giant who’d moved into production; when Shulman’s wife asked what Tambala did, he bluffed that he was in a band, though AR Kane barely had any songs. A hastily arranged demo landed the duo an audience with the One Little Indian label, whose Derek Birkett said, “You’re shit. Let’s make a record.” That first EP, 1986’s “When You’re Sad”, led AR Kane to legendary indie 4AD, where Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins produced the following year’s “Lollita” EP. They also collaborated with Colourbox on a dance record, M/A/R/R/S’s “Pump Up The Volume” – no-one expected it to hit No 1 worldwide. The resulting legal and inter-personal complexities torpedoed their relationship with 4AD.
Those first few EPs hinted at AR Kane’s capabilities. “When You’re Sad” had them tagged in the music press as the ‘black Jesus & Mary Chain’, but “Lollita” and “Pump Up The Volume” proved there was a lot more happening in AR Kane’s world, and in interviews, they feigned ignorance of indie, claiming their influences were Weather Report and Basement 5. But “Up Home!”, their third EP and first for new label Rough Trade, is where everything comes together. Originally demoed for 4AD, those recordings convinced Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis to sign the duo. It’s no surprise, given the ambition of the four songs – there is, quite simply, so much going on here.
Everything on “Up Home!” is bigger, richer; the guitars are huge, as though they’re being played through the clouds, massive gusts of blue-green noise that move across the stereo spectrum like weather systems. “Baby Milk Snatcher” is built around face-flattening dub bass, with glinting piano and shards of guitar ricocheting through the song. “W.O.G.S.” is delirious to the point of expiration; “One Way Mirror” is their attempt at weird, lopsided ‘anti-funk’, the song’s melody crushed by avalanches of six-string interference. And the closing “Up” is AR Kane’s masterpiece, a disembodied thud pulsing at its heart as a six-note guitar melody spirals ever onward, Ayuli’s voice lost in its own reverie, hymning escapism via references to Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey’s ‘black star line’.
Indeed, one thing that makes AR Kane stand out from many of their peers is explicit politics. While other guitar groups of the time, like MBV and Dinosaur Jr, embraced vagueness and the unreal, Ayuli and Tambala’s experience as black artists in whitewashed British culture granted them political smarts. “Baby Milk Snatcher” collapses sexuality and Margaret Thatcher, its title referencing her early 1971 decision to eliminate free milk for junior school students. The eroticism was lifted from reading JG Ballard, who once daydreamed about “the arch of [Thatcher’s] nostrils and the sheen of her lower lip.”
Collapsing the sexual and the political is part of what made “Up Home!” so unique. By the time of their debut album, sixty nine, though, AR Kane’s music changed, yet again. Here, the duo have gone astral, pointing to the outside world (“The Sun Falls Into The Sea”), but they’ve also internalised, exploring psychological states. That inward focus makes sense, given the LP’s recording sessions, the duo hidden away in the basement of Ayuli’s mother’s house. There’s something hermetic about sixty nine, and it is the purest expression, perhaps, of Ayuli’s and Tambala’s vision.
There are great pop songs throughout, beautiful melodies like “Crazy Blue” and “Scab”, but the LP is most powerful when AR Kane push the boat far, far out. “Suicide Kiss” dissolves midway into a fury of punch-bagged drums and overloaded amplifiers; “Sulliday” lets go of structure, mapping chaos via feedback and muttered come-ons. But the album’s centrepiece is a triptych on Side Two, where their songs dissolve together. The drift song of “The Sun Falls Into The Sea”, with its guitars that refract and shiver, a burbling clarinet wandering through a heavenly landscape as Ayuli murmurs, descends into the troubled “The Madonna Is With Child”, a stark piano-led mantra shattered by ice-pick guitars.
Listening back to sixty nine, it’s striking how important the bass guitar is to the music’s engine, from the slippery ECM-warble across “Crazy Blue” to the thrumming pulse through “Spermwhale Trip Over”. If AR Kane made the guitar mysterious again, they also situated the bass at the core of their music, its lifeblood. You can also hear that through their 1989 double-album, i, where AR Kane shift into another gear. If sixty nine was a cloistered, covert collection of songs, i is its opposite – 26 tracks, ranging from five-second snippets of guitar feedback to the six-minute penultimate dub-scape, “Catch My Drift”.
i suggests AR Kane could have been pop contenders, if they’d been more focused, but its lack of attention span is its eventual triumph. It flicks through genres like a child impatiently thumbing a kineograph, from the Sun Ra-inflected dance pop of “A Love From Outer Space” – a song so ecstatic, Andrew Weatherall later named a club night after it – through the drowsy dub confusion of “What’s All This Then”, the pop confection of “Miles Apart”, the languorous soul of “Sugarwings”. They return, on occasion, to the guitar-scapes of their past – the lagoon of drone that is “Down”, the featherlight amble of “Honeysuckleswallow” – but the gist is making everything brighter, clearer, more curious.
After i, things started to fall apart – there was a remix EP in 1990, and then, four years later, a third album, New Clear Child, on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. More poised and direct, peaceable where its predecessors were unpredictable, it has its own charms, and is perhaps the most underrated of their albums. But an attempted fourth album stalled, and the duo splintered, Tambala working with sister Maggie firstly as Sufi, and now Jübl, while Ayuli, resident in America, released two solo albums as Alex! before retiring from music. But perhaps what we have here is all we really need – two years where AR Kane dreamed for us all a new pop music, an alchemical vision of what dream pop really could be.