Post-Rocktoberfest 2009: The Delightfully Confusing World of Papa Sprain
Papa Sprain was perhaps the most mysterious of all the first-generation UK post-rock bands. Memorably, a poster on the I Love Music forum once voiced an opinion that the band was merely a figment of some Pitchfork’s writer’s imagination.
But Papa Sprain existed and some of the recorded evidence is scattered throughout this post. The band was based in London but – as far as one can tell – all the members originally came from Belfast. They were proteges of dreampop legends A.R. Kane and released two E.P.s on their mentors’ H.ark! label. Additionally, they were very closely linked to Butterfly Child – also from Belfast, also involved with A.R. Kane.
Papa Sprain didn’t necessarily make the most original, eclectic or experimental music to emerge from the early post-rock scene. But the Papa Sprain sound certainly was eccentric and confounding – a peculiar mix of literate singer-songwriter pop with experimental noise-rock, feedback drones and primitive electronics. And it was very much centred around the fragile voice and self-consciously modernist lyrics of the group’s leader Gary McKendry.
During its short life, the band only had three official releases. However, since McKendry’s disappearance from the world of music, a few additional tracks have found their way onto the Internet and Papa Sprain’s small (but international) band of admirers lives in hope that more is yet to come.
Early Demos (recorded around 1991)
These lo-fi home recording recently emerged when a mysterious source passed some MP3s onto Joe Morris of The Blackened Air. Tracks like “Shake Your Foot” and “Toppled King of the World” are clearly the work of a band in the earliest stages of its development.
Still, McKendry’s stream-of-consciousness lyrical style is in place and the guitars are already being mangled by all manner of effects-pedal excess (not to mention the low-technology recording equipment).
Flying to Vegas 12″ (H.ark!, 1991)
The only song from the demo to make it onto an official release was “Flying to Vegas”, the title track from the band’s debut E.P. for H.ark! This tune is an odd mix of semi-spoken vocals and electronically altered guitar melodies – coming off like Lloyd Cole produced by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins.
The rest of the tracks point more clearly towards Papa Sprain’s future development. “Spout”, in particular, is a limpid grotto of sound worthy of Sixty-Nine era A.R. Kane. Here, an anthemic chord sequence is gradually swallowed by guitar feedback and dub effects.
May 12″ (H.ark!, 1992)
The band’s second (and most immediately appealing) official release marked a slight step back from the slide into abstraction hinted at on tracks like “Spout”. May has a starker, more electronic sound. It also features some of the band’s finest and oddest pieces of song-writing, notably “I Got Stop” and “U Swell”.
Again, you can download the whole thing via The Blackened Air.
The Peel Session (recorded 1992)
By the time of Papa Sprain’s one-and-only session for the John Peel Show, the band was pretty much a solo concern for McKendry. For the session, he was backed up by Joe Cassidy of Butterfly Child and Rudy Tambala of A.R. Kane (a Butterfly Child session from around the same time featured an identical line-up).
The session drew half its material from May and the BBC versions were not noticeably different from the ones that appeared on the 12″. However, the two new songs suggested that McKendry was taking a sharp creative left turn. The gorgeous “Cliff Tune” may represent his most impressive attempt to balance melody and abstraction.
“You Are Ten Million Needles Pierce” (aka “You Are Ten Million Needless People”), meanwhile, represents a huge leap into the void – a wild cascade of free-form guitars and vocals, disrupted by Tambala’s stuttering drum machine noise. This bizarre track forms a real cornerstone of the Papa Sprain mythology – particularly as there is some disagreement over its correct title (perhaps due to Peel stumbling over said title when he announced it on air). “You Are.. ” was also a vital foreshadowing of what little future Papa Sprain had.
And, once again, you can download the whole session via The Blackened Air.
Tech Yes 7″ (Rough Trade, 1993)
Somewhere along the line, McKendry had entered into a relationship with Rough Trade – a label that had also released albums by A.R. Kane. The only official fruit borne by this relationship was Tech Yes, a three-track 7″ released as part of the Rough Trade Singles Club series.
“Tech Yes” itself is like nothing else the band had previously recorded – a glitchy drum machine pattern overlaid with rumbling feedback and detuned spoken word vocals. The MP3 presented here was ripped at 45RPM, as specified on the record. So it really is supposed to sound like that!
On the B-side “See Sons Bring Some More Out Tomb We Enter” is rather more accessible – basically a droney, tonal organ improvisation, featuring McKendry’s looped voice intoning the title phrase – presumably a phonetic reconfiguring of “seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter”. This simple linguistic game hinted at McKendry’s growing interest in modernist literature (particularly the work of James Joyce), something which was to be a significant part of his undoing.
The Mysterious Full-Length Album (unreleased)
There are those who claim to have heard the full-length album that Papa Sprain allegedly recorded for Rough Trade. But these claims are hard to verify.
The story is that an increasingly eccentric McKendry was taking his sweet time recording Papa Sprain’s full-length debut when the folks at Rough Trade demanded to hear some work in progress. McKendry brought them a cassette of freeform guitar feedback and the irritated label people demanded that he produce something a bit more substantial – and soon. A week later, McKendry returned with the same recording, to which he had added his voice intoning the first word from every page of Ulysses.
That’s the story anyhow. And that was pretty much the end of Papa Sprain. McKendry returned to Belfast, where he started a short-lived band called Roo Nation, before dropping off the musical map for good.
The only Gary McKendry from Belfast to have made any noticeable waves since then is a director of American TV ads, as well as one Academy Award-nominated feature film. Could they possibly be the same person? Apparently, he’s currently working on an action flick that will star Jason Statham.