Northern Picture Library \ Biography
So here it is, and for what it's worth it's probably a punk rock thing. It subscribes to the theory that bands should make one album, a clutch of singles, and then move on. Of course, it could be argued that Northern Picture Library were no such thing. All three members were in a band called The Field Mice previously, and all went on to be in other bands afterwards. Besides which, punk rock albums don't normally weigh in at just under an hour, as the original version of this one did. But then again, the brief history of Northern Picture Library is littered with confusion and contradiction. As is Alaska, their only album.
In the spring of 1992, a few months after The Field Mice split, NPL was born in the shape of a home demo containing rough ideas for songs written by singer and songwriter Bobby Wratten and his partner Annemari Davies. NPL were contracted to record an album for French label Danceteria, but unfortunately the company folded before a note had been recorded. Drummer Mark Dobson was so impressed he sent copies off to a couple of other labels, with no details bar his own address and telephone number. Amazingly, the trio were offered a deal by Vinyl Japan on the basis of that simple home demo alone, even though they didn't even yet have a name.
NPL had little ambition for their new project. In an interview given while Alaska was being recorded between November 1992 and February 1993, Dobson offered: "It would be nice to make an album we'd be happy with in ten years time, though it may disappoint a lot of people who just expect us to be The Field Mice."
Davies added: "We're not taking ourselves too seriously. It would be nice to make a living out of it, but not very probable."
The band went on to reveal their desire to reflect a wide range of musical influences, and took as their starting place the extreme points The Field Mice had touched. As a result, Alaska served to alienate a lot of people involved with The Field Mice and their old label Sarah, some seeing the album as an aberration in Wratten's songwriting career with The Field Mice and Trembling Blue Stars, the band he formed after the demise of NPL. Yet this is not the case. You only have to look at the Skywriting mini album The Field Mice recorded in 1990, which could almost be Alaska's baby brother. On Skywriting, Wratten displayed a wide range of influences and on one track (Humblebee) experimented with the then still innovative idea of using bizarre samples and psychedelic language over ambient sounds. Other artists such as The Orb and the KLF were also concocting similar hybrids and Alaska is littered with these weird soundscapes. Many years later bands such as Lemon Jelly and The Avalanches used similar ideas to attain huge commercial success.
However, NPL were not content with releasing an album of ambient dance coupled with bizarre samples, and wanted to challenge the listener by combining these strange creations with more straightforward pop songs. Wratten and producer Ian Catt went to great lengths to create an album on which the tracks seemed to flow seamlessly into one other. These days this technique is commonplace and experimental bands such as Godspeedyoublackemperor! and Sigur Ros have taken the formula to extremes not heard since the dying days of the prog rock concept album.
To some members of the Sarah cognoscenti, NPL appeared to be deliberately trying to alienate people. Wratten himself declared his influences at the time to be Talk Talk, Codeine, Phil Ochs, Yo La Tengo, Brian Eno and the current wave of ambient-meets-dance artists. Dobson was considered a bad influence on Wratten by the less open-minded among The Field Mice following, for they shared a love of 60's psychedelia as well as late 80's bands like My Bloody Valentine, Loop and Spacemen 3. The pair viewed Annemari's hypnotic sighs as a perfect foil for their more extreme soundscapes, and felt a large proportion of the people who had bought their music in the past had more catholic tastes than the music press gave them credit for. They were also desperate to shake off the tag of being just another fey, jingle-jangle Sarah band, something they always felt was undeserved and a product of lazy journalism.
As a result, the first NPL ep Love Song for the Dead Che (the title track being a cover version of a song by 60's psychedelic band The United States of America) and Alaska sold moderately in comparison to previous Field Mice records. They were however, remarkably well received by the music press, Simon Reynolds, describing the ep as "pretty delightful" in a glowing review of the single in Melody Maker. Elsewhere Mark Sutherland in NME hailed Alaska as "one of the debut albums of 1993", and praised the band as "state of the art, post-ambient electropoppers who write some of the most beautiful songs in existence."
NPL went on to record another single for Vinyl Japan (Blue Dissolve), and a final single on Sarah (Paris), released as two 7" singles and an EP, all later collected on the Postcript CD. But the band were soon to implode. As in their previous incarnation, they were hampered by a lack of finance to buy the sort of equipment needed to create a live sound to match their ideas. Furthermore Davies was still suffering from the social phobias that prevented her singing live. All three band members suffered from bouts of insecurity and depression. On an ill-fated tour of France in June 1994, Dobson indulged in a dangerous cocktail of valium, prozac and alcohol, and took to slicing his arms with any sharp implements he could find. Davies remained at home.
Lyrically, Alaska is a very dark album. It deals with the breakup of bad relationships, including that of Wratten's parents, and the sometimes obsessive nature of love. It poses the dilemma of giving of yourself completely, and then having to cope with the insecurity such love engenders in those without the self-confidence to believe they deserve such feelings. Ultimately NPL ended suddenly in the autumn of 1994 when Davies and Wratten split up. Shortly afterwards Dobson separated from his own long term partner. The aftermath is explored in the lyrics written by Wratten and Dobson for their next respective projects. Wratten went on to pen some of the most painfully honest lyrics ever written with Trembling Blue Stars, although thankfully he and Davies remained friends, and she later appeared on the albums produced by that band.
Dobson formed his own band, Picture Center, and like his old friend wrote some painfully frank lyrics to accompany some bleak songs. Although all three of them have subsequently found happiness in their personal lives, their latest recordings still bear traces of the dark moods conjured up by Alaska.
Alaska is precisely what the band wanted it to be: a difficult but ultimately rewarding experience. You'll wait eight minutes for any easily decipherable lyrics, and it ends with Monotone, an epic soundscape which bears more than a passing resemblance to the song Spectral Mornings, recorded many years later by Cornershop and Noel Gallagher. It's still one of my favourite albums of all time, and I hope you can find time every once in a while to play it from start to finish.
Northern Picture Library discography:
Love Song for the Dead Che 12"/CDS (September 1993) Vinyl Japan
Alaska (LP/CD) (October 1993) Vinyl Japan
Blue Dissolve 12"/CDS (June 1994) Vinyl Japan
Paris 2x7"/CDS (September/October 1994) Sarah Records
Postscript (CD) (October 2005) LTM