Severed Heads \ Biography
where's ya drummer? a brief history of severed heads by bernie maier
Severed Heads are one of the few bands to actually justify being called a multimedia band. Their brand of electronic music defies categorisation, veering playfully between pop and experimental, the dance floor and the film score. But they also make their own videos, do their own graphic design, maintain their web site themselves and design virtual worlds. They have been published, and publish themselves, on a variety of media (audio, visual, print and online) and continue their search for new ways to present their ideas. From the pub to the TV and radio studio, from the gallery to the outdoor festival, from the internet to the night club, while the world may not necessarily be blessed with their fame, Severed Heads have made their mark.
Though they have flirted with commercial success, their underlying philosophy has always been experimental, and has seen the band adopting many new technologies (though not always the fashionably expected ones) well before these technologies became popular in the mainstream. From an early usage of computer graphics in their live shows, live video (featuring a custom-built video synthesiser) and video releases, a CD-ROM release, through to downloadable songs and videos, and custom releases on recordable CD and DVD. In fact, Severed Heads were so far ahead of the MP3 fad that at one point they released a CD-R containing almost their entire back-catalogue compressed using MP2.
A common misconception is that Severed Heads now, and for many of the recent years, been a one-man show. While it is true that Tom Ellard has been the sole songwriter since 1985 and is essentially the sole recording member of the band, the truth of the matter is that the band's activities encompass more than just recorded music, and so many of the band's extended activities have been collaborations. These range from having the band supplemented by a varied roster of additional members for live shows (including members from other well-known Sydney acts such as Single Gun Theory, Itch-E & Scratch-E, Boxcar and Drop City), the long-running remix/production collaboration with Robert Racic, video collaborations with Stephen R. Jones and many others, and now the band sees its web site as a band activity with Seattle-based Jones as a collaborating member.
But that is skipping ahead...
Severed Heads are one of the longest surviving bands to emerge from the Australian post-punk independent music scene. They began in Sydney in 1979, during the initial heyday of this scene. Due to their early experimental nature and their provocatively punk-era name, they quickly became categorised as an industrial band, Despite the band's dislike for ghettoising music into narrow genres. In fact, early and long-term band member Tom Ellard has commented that it seemed ridiculous for a band featuring members who grew up in Sydney beach and harbourside suburbs to be labelled industrial.
So it surprises many people that the band name was essentially a joke: a ploy to gain enough attention to get early releases played on radio. For people closer to the Sydney scene of the time, this should be no surprise, as a strong sense of humour was underlying many of the bands at the time, and many of the band names. Indeed, Severed Heads actually grew out of a band called Mr and Mrs No Smoking Sign featuring Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright. Fielding had chosen this name as a complete antithesis of an acceptable rock'n'roll band name.
Tom Ellard joined in 1979 and the trio recorded a few cassettes. Wright left at this point, although his contributions would appear on the first Severed Heads album. Fielding decided to change the band name to Severed Heads when they had a demo to send to Peter Doyle at Sydney radio station 2JJ (Doyle was known to be amenable to experimental music). He deliberately picked this name to be simultaneously memorable, fitting in with the style of the times and a send-up of names such as Throbbing Gristle and Surgical Penis Klinic. While it was a successful ploy, the name has stuck.
Their early music was heavily based on tape loops and found sounds, augmented with the occasional playing of more conventional instruments. Drum machines and sequencers would not becomepominent in the Severed Heads sound until later. Even if they hadn't counted on being part of the underground scene, music as far from the mainstream as this was unlikely to gain the attention of (and advances from) major labels. And so much of Severed Heads' early work was home-recorded and self-released, in a way making them much more independent than most of the bands adopting that description.
The first Severed Heads release appeared in 1980. It was one half of an album called Ear Bitten and was recorded, as the insert states, "entirely on cassette recorders in bedrooms and kitchens." It featured a variety sources, including short and medium wave radio, a broken microphone, radio interference caused by a program run on an early home computer and various looped recordings. The costs of pressing the album were shared with a band named Rythmyx Chymx, who featured on the other side of the album. Both bands also hand-made one side each of the cover for the album, and split the pressed copies to sell or distribute themselves.
Ear Bitten also featured a precursor to the later technical manuals that Severed Heads published. The insert to the album featured a brief description of how each track was constructed, which is certainly a great hepfor those writing histories of the band two decades down the track. In fact, Severed Heads have become notable for their generosity with information. Later, an important theme for the band would be trying to break down the barrier between the band and its audience.
Another aspect of the independent scene was theppularity of cassette releases, at least amongst the artists. These had some advantages over vinyl in that they were cheaper to produce, and certainly easier to ship over larger distances. Severed Heads made several cassette releases in the early 80s, both under their own name and various solo offerings from members. They also becameprt of a subculture of groups that traded cassettes with each other.
While Wright had quit Severed Heads because he was interested in a more "musical" direction, Fielding left in 1981 for completely the opposite reason: he felt that Severed Heads was becoming "too rock 'n' roll" by dividing up records into individual songs, venturing into melody and engaging with an audience. Fielding's immediatepst-Severed Heads work was to become a roadie for The Nobodies - a band consisting only of equipment, not pepe. The idea was that he, the roadie, would set up the equipment, start it going, and then leave the venue. Later on, Fielding would become a founding member of The Loop Orchestra (who would also featurepter Doyle, the radio announcer who played their demo tape).
This left Tom Ellard to be largely responsible for the second album by Severed Heads (excluding various cassette releases). Clean was released in 1981, and marked a shift from the very early Severed Heads material in featuring more melodic elements and muted singing amongst the tape loop material.
Garry Bradbury joined Severed Heads in 1982, triggering important changes in their approach. While they had already played live in 1980 and 1981, these shows were in overtly avant garde venues. Bradbury encouraged and organised Severed Heads to play live both more often, but also in venues such as nightclubs that had a larger audience reach (not to mention better PA systems). He also had a strong sense of the nuances he wanted for the sound of the band. Tom Ellard has told a story of this period, where he would be furiously playing the notes for part of a song, while Bradbury's role was to tweak the sound every bar or so. Bradbury also has a surreal sense of humour, and it was perhaps with his influence that some of the song titles started becoming more and more ridiculous. Bradbury's push for Severed Heads to play live to audiences would, while not immediately apparent, eventually lead to a substantial shift in direction for the band.
Early live shows drew mixed reactions. Despite the early 80s being a hotbed of musical experimentation, Sydney was still largely a city dominated by pub rock. Line-ups not featuring guitar / bass / drums / vocals were often frowned upon. Whilst not the sole band to have heard this, shouts of "where's ya drummer" from the audience were common enough for this to have become a running joke with the band over the years. Interestingly enough, psychedelic guitarist Simon Knuckey also joined the band in 1982, though his contributions to Severed Heads were not the sort of guitar work that pub rock audiences would appreciate.
After being financially burnt by atteping to release vinyl albums, the third Severed Heads release was a cassette release. This should have been chepto manufacture, except that Bradbury hit upon the brilliant marketing plan of packaging the cassette inside disused television innards. This is the legendary Blubberknife cassette. The material on this marked somewhat of a turning point for Severed Heads. While it featured some live recordings and new recordings of heavily loop oriented and challenging material (tapes of F-111 fighter jet engines anyone?), it also featured material such as Umbrella, Adolf a Carrot? and Deano's Couch that could be more readily identified as songs.
It was also in 1982 that the first collaborations occurred between Severed Heads and experimental video artist/engineer Stephen Jones. Jones had built a custom video synthesiser and had been invited to demonstrate it at the "Future Imagery" seminar at Metro Television, a Sydney public access video centre. He thought that a good demonstration would be to work with a live band and present their music with his visuals. As he had been in the audience at the very first Severed Heads show in 1980 and a second show in 1981, he decided that Severed Heads was an ideal fit for this demonstration. So the band and Jones set up their equipment in the Metro Television studio, with Jones' video synthesiser patched in with Severed Heads' audio gear, and they played and recorded two versions each of three songs. Two of these tracks were eventually released on Severed Heads' first VHS video release.
The trend towards songs continued with Severed Heads' 1983 release, Since the Accident. This again was a cassette release. While tape loops were still a very important element of the Severed Heads sound, they were starting to become more the rhythmic base around which songs were built, rather than being the sole or most upfront element of the songs. Although present for most of the recording, Bradbury left the band before it was completed. Ellard added a throwaway track at the last minute to fill out the cassette, not wanting to leave an unseemly gap on a C60 tape. This track, Dead Eyes Opened, has been both a curse and a blessing for the band. It was catchy enough to get a lot of airplay on the main non-commercial radio station in Sydney. But, to some extent, it misrepresented the band as it sounded at the time, yet it has become so well known and liked that audiences tend to epct it to be played at the live shows.
By this stage, Severed Heads had developed some initiatives to reduce the barriers between performer and audience. Releases stated a direct contact address for the band, with Tom Ellard being the recipient and principle correpnder. Also, Ellard had started producing what would become a series of booklets, initially sent gratis and later with a nominal charge to cover reproduction and mailing costs. These booklets featured technical information about how tracks were made and other technical essays. Some of the live shows and radio broadcasts featured their own technical manuals (Severed Heads treated radio broadcasts as an opportunity to make more ephemeral works, using material that would not necessarily appear on a more formal release).
exploring the Secrets of the International Underground
Since the Accident reached Dave Kitson in the UK, who had formed Ink Records, a subsidiary of Red Flame (in turn a subsidiary of Virgin). As well as many derivative bands, Australia had produced some utterly unique music in the early 80s, and there was some interest from British labels to look for new acts to sign from Australia. In 1983 Severed Heads signed to Ink and, in 1984, Ink re-released Since the Accident on vinyl. In the meantime, Virgin was setting up its own Australian subsidiary, and was in the process of signing some more pop oriented Australian bands. However, Despite the local subsidiary chasing a more mainstream market, they followed suit with theprent and released an Australian pressing of Since the Accident, so that Severed Heads was the first local act released by Virgin Australia, pipping at thepst some more popular choices. But Severed Heads were already subverting their local label. Being able to be more closely involved in cutting the vinyl master, the Australian copy of Since the Accident featured two amusing locked grooves, providing an epicit reference to the importance of loops to Severed Heads' music. Side one featured the final track, Golden Boy, running into a locked groove at the end of the side, while side two opened with a locked groove, causing confusion to many an unwary listener. Apparently Virgin Australia were not amused.
Before the actual re-release in 1984, Knuckey followed Bradbury in leaving the band and Paul Deering joined. Deering brought a darker, grittier sound to the band as he actually did have more of an industrial influence. Deering and Ellard recorded most of the City Slab Horror album in 1983 and 1984, with Bradbury returning briefly to provide guest vocals and co-write the Goodbye Tonsils single with Ellard. The actual release of the album, however, was delayed until 1985. To make matters worse, Ink used an inferior mix in the actual release.
Despite the delay in releasing City Slab Horror, this album represents the high point of the early, underground, years of Severed Heads. The Australian music industry still looks overseas for inspiration to a large extent, and so there was a great deal of prestige in Severed Heads signing to and releasing new material on a UK label. This album also saw the first use of the new-fangled digital sampling technology. Contrary to popular opinion at the time, Severed Heads were not using the Fairlight CMI (they could not have afforded one), rather a cheaper and quite effective digital delay. Of course, sampling as such was not new to the band, as their usage of tapes in thepst was simply a form of sampling but with older technology.
However, personality clashes continued within the band, leading to a teprary compromise where they continued to share equipment, but Ellard remained as Severed Heads with Bradbury and Deering working on their own projects. But when, in 1985, Severed Heads were invited to do some performances in the UK, Ellard decided to only invite Stephen Jones to perform with him on video synthesiser. Since then, the musical composition aspect of Severed Heads has essentially been Ellard on his own.
Jones was invited for the UK shows because the collaboration with Severed Heads had continued after the Metro Television seminar. He and the band edited the Metro Television material down into tapes that were played as backing to live shows. Later this these backing tapes were replaced with running vision live through the videosynthesiser. This, taken to its logical conclusion, led to Jones becoming a live performing member of the band. Unlike most other bands who incorporate visuals into their show, Jones' contribution was very much a live performance. Rather than just projecting images with maybe some cross-fading and other simple manipulations, Jones with his videosynthesiser was able to do much more sophisticated image manipulation, such as changing key levels governing how images were overlaid and, perhaps more significantly, the videosynthesiser (as its name implies) generated moving patterns, often triggered by the audio. So no two performances would have the exact same visuals, even though they used the same base visual material.
These 1985 shows in the UK received an ambivalent reception, however, as rather than performing existing material, Severed Heads presented a single extended ambient piece. In any case, once again the audiences were probably expecting a more traditional band line-up, not two fellows and a bunch of equipment. The UK visit did have some important outcomes, however. Both Andrew Penhallow from Volition and Mark Jowett from Nettwerk were visiting Dave Kitson to discuss licensing of their respective labels' bands, which ultimately led to Severed Heads signing to Volition for Australian releases and Nettwerk for the North American market. This was a stroke of luck, not only because it took the prestige of being signed to a UK label for Severed Heads to gain these further signings, but because between Volition and Nettwerk Severed Heads gained a much higher profile, even thought the deal with Ink was soon to founder.
Axis All Areas
Severed Heads returned to Australia via Vancouver. With the backing of Volition they and label-mates Scattered Order started touring together throughout the rest of 1985. This was a comprehensive tour of Australia, bringing both bands to a much wider audience rather than their usual inner city venues. They also had a new album (Stretcher) to promote, a strange hybrid that was part compilation and part new material. In fact, this was the first hopeful manifestation of what they described as the Ink / Volition / Nettwerk Axis, though in retrospect some hint of the future stability of this "axis" could be derived from the fact that the three labels all issued different subsets of the same group of material, and in a couple of cases different mixes of the same tracks. Perhaps also of relevance was the fact that both Volition and Nettwerk had a strong sense of a consistent style for the label, making them more closer in philosophy to a label like Factory than Ink. As it happens, Volition was actually closely related to Factory, with Penhallow holding the Australian distribution rights for Factory releases.
The Stretcher material, now featuring Ellard as the sole musician, was notable not only for featuring a greater proportion of tracks with lyrics, but also Ellard's singing was mixed much more prominently to the front. Ellard has explained this shift as an inevitable result of Severed Heads moving out of the bedroom and becoming a band that played live. Live audiences like to focus on a singer, so this became an aspect of the live shows, and so then Ellard started writing more material with lyrics. Perhaps also a confidence factor started to come into play, and with increased exposure and a shift into more commercial territory, structured songs with lyrics have become a staple aspect of Severed Heads' work.
However, this shift to songs and singing was not without its detractors. Somepople felt that Severed Heads were selling out by producing music with some more commercial sensibilities (Despite the fact that a lot of the underlying material was still based around tape loops). In response to this, Severed Heads released Clifford Darling, Please Don't Live in thepst, a double album of archival material (or, as the band cheerfully described it, four sides of sheer hell). The title has led to a long-running joke within the Severed Heads community: anyone who claims to "only like the old stuff" is referred to as a clifford. Although, as often happens with jargon, the meaning has since shifted subtly with members of the community adopting this term as a reference to themselves, and it is now almost a badge of honour.
1986 was a prolific year in terms of new releases. Along with a number of singles was a new album, titled The Big Bigot. This was almost (but not quite) consistent across the Ink / Volition / Nettwerk axis. The new material marked the beginning of a long-term collaboration between Severed Heads and Sydney DJ/producer Robert Racic. The musical relationship between Ellard and Racic was different to that with the former band members. Ellard would continue to be the sole songwriter and performer, but Racic would remix selected tracks for the dance floor market, along with continuing his production and remix work with other bands (including a remix, via Volition's Factory connection, of New Order's track Paradise). By now Severed Heads felt that the new area of experimentation was in dance music. This was because much of that audience was more willing to entertain experimentation compared to the traditional rock/pop audience, Despite the fact that the genre did impose its own constraints. Severed Heads saw these constraints as merely a challenge to subvert.
The public profile of Severed Heads increased further in 1986. The Australian national broadcaster, the ABC, was showing a programme named Rock Arena. This was intended to be more than just a music video clip show, aimed at an adult (rather than teenage) audience. Despite the aim, much of what it featured was in fact video clips, albeit with a wider selection than charting singles. However, the show was amenable to some more adventurous programming, and Severed Heads negotiated a remarkable media event: the opportunity to air their live show from the TV studio, with a strong emphasis on Jones' live video synthesis. Arguably, presenting a band live in the studio is not that revolutionary, however such performances often featured a studio audience, whereas the Severed Heads performance, with its emphasis on live video, didn't need an audience as a prop, and was eminently suited to the broadcast medium. This show also introduced what was to become a new tradition for Severed Heads, which was to supplement the recording band with an extra keyboard player for live shows. These were often recruited from other Volition bands, and so featured a who's who of the Sydney commercial electronic music scene. The Rock Arena performance (and subsequent tour) featured Pete Carnac, from Single Gun Theory.
With this increased public profile came interview appearances, particularly on matters regarding music technology. Being well-known, and something other than a traditional rock band did have some benefits, after all. It meant that the band could continue to get epsure even outside of the usual promotional rounds when there were new releases, and such interview appearances have continued down the years.
Another Australian tour followed, kicked off by sell-out performances at the Chauvel Cinema in Sydney's historic Paddington Town Hall. These were a feature of the first Australian Video Festival. Audiences were treated to the comfortable seating of a cinema and a big-screen projection of the show. The Australian tour was followed by a trip to North America and Europe. The overseas tour turned out to be a catalogue of disasters, with equipment theft and other mishaps, and it seriously depleted the momentum of the band.
Recovery in 1987 took the form of the ultimately frustrating Bad Mood Guy album. With money from Volition, Severed Heads broke with its tradition of home recording and recorded the album in a major studio. However, it was an album produced by committee, and not without its own disasters, with master tapes being lost in a taxi and the whole album having to be mixed again on the final day in the studio. The Ink part of the Ink / Volition / Nettwerk axis had also fallen by the wayside by this point (although Ink did later attempt some unauthorised CD reissues), finally allowing an album to be released in the same form by both remaining labels.
The year did finish up on a more positive note with a second sell-out season at the Chauvel Cinema, and another local tour. The new videos included in theseprformances included a video for the track Canine directed by Garry Bradbury, opening a new avenue for collaboration. Other videos started incorporating computer-generated elements, via animations rendered on an Amiga.
1988 was a relatively quiet year for new material from Severed Heads. The Greater Reward single was released. With Racic's influence, this was much more overtly dance oriented, and achieved significant chart success in the US (top ten in the Billboard Dance charts), though at the height of its popularity it was only available as an import from Canada. This release introduced "Sevcom" (Severed Communications) as a logo on the back cover. Sevcom was also mentioned in the cover notes for the Bulkhead compilation of singles tracks, also released in this year. Sevcom was to provide a way for Ellard to retreat from the name Severed Heads for activities he undertook that were peripheral to the band itself.
But Severed Heads had not neglected the experimental aspects of their work. They rubbed shoulders with the art world by producing an installation for the Sydney Biennale. Titled Chasing Skirt, it was a small room with video cameras in the ceiling aimed at the floor. The floor was divided into zones, and people moving through the zones would trigger events that controlled a MIDI keyboard. This was accompanied by a TV running a tape featuring video images manipulated with Jones' video synthesiser. It captured the Severed Heads theme of breaking down barriers between audience and performer by allowing the audience to be the performer. The installation was so successful that later Severed Heads were invited to reproduce at other international exhibitions.
The next album of new material, Rotund for Success, was released in 1989. This was a much more cohesive package than Bad Mood Guy, Despite including an older mix of 1988's Greater Reward and an excep from the Chasing Skirt installation. It merges the pop and the experimental aspects of Severed Heads more effortlessly than other releases, and Racic's edits were more subtle and less grating than on Bad Mood Guy. While this cohesiveness may reflect the commercial pressures Severed Heads were now facing after having charted in the US, with both Nettwerk and Volition seeking follow-up singles success, it does represent the peak of the band's relationship with Nettwerk. A second North American tour followed in 1990, with Severed Heads headlining this time and much less trauma than the world tour of 1986.
Local Label for Local People
The commercial imperatives were most evident in the respective budgets of the Rotund for Success album compared to the singles from this period: the singles cost almost five times as much to record as the album itself. However, relationships with Nettwerk were starting to become strained, with that label's increasing focus on a more mainstream, non-electronic sound. They were not enthusiastic about Racic's remixes for the Big Car single, and 1991's Retread, a repackaging of the remixes of the singles from Rotund for Success, was only released by Volition and the European subsidiary of Nettwerk, and so missed a North American release.
It appeared that the quantity of new material from Severed Heads was starting to diminish. In part, this reflected the fact that Severed Heads (and Sevcom) were involved in more activities than recording music. Their videos were starting to involve computer-rendered animations which, given the home computer technology of the late 80s and early 90s, were quite time-consuming. They were also becoming involved in bulletin board systems. However, what was also happening was that the labels were starting to demand more revisions before releasing the albums, therefore slowing progress. The Cuisine album, released in 1991, featured tracks recorded over the period 1989 to 1991. It was actually bundled with an additional five tracks from 1988 and 1989, collectively titled Piscatorial. (The title Piscatorial was actually mentioned as an upcoming release four years previously, in the 1987 version of the Severed Heads booklet!)
Cuisine was a deliberate change of direction away from long form dance floor tracks into short, snappy pop songs, while the Piscatorial material provided an outlet for experimental instrumentals. Indeed, the explicit split of the two sections of material represents an admission from Severed Heads that the attempt to merge the commercial with the experimental on Rotund for Success was not entirely successful. They felt that pepeprceived that album as being unsure about what it wanted to be, and left both the experimental and commercial audience feeling short-changed.
However, Nettwerk's direction was continuing to drift away from Severed Heads, with Cuisine being deleted shortly after its North American release. This drift wasn't a case of the band's changing direction not matching the label's, as it is unlikely that the Nettwerk of the early 1990s would have released any of the older material had it been presented to them then. Severed Heads produced two major revisions of their next album, Gigapus, in an attep to satisfy Nettwerk, but ultimately the deal folded. Gigapus was released by Volition in 1994, having reached version 2.7. It wasn't until 1996 that Severed Heads could negotiate another North American deal to release Gigapus, but this deal ended up being short-lived.
Although the Nettwerk deal was souring, Severed Heads' profile in Australia was reaching a peak in the early 1990s. Following the release of Cuisine was a high-profile Technopop tour with other Volition acts. The success of presenting electronic bands in a live context led to Severed Heads being one of the headlining acts at a bold new initiative for Australian outdoor music festivals. The Big Day Out had been running for several years showing the usual mix of overseas and local rock acts on multiple stages. In 1993, after much lobbying from Volition, the promoters of the Big Day Out agreed to add an extra room, called the Boiler Room, to the roster. The Boiler Room was aimed at the dance crowd and was highly successful, becoming a standard fixture at the Big Day Out to this day. For these later shows, Severed Heads live consisted of Ellard and a guest keyboard player from the roster of Volition bands, along with projected videos (Stephen Jones having resigned from the band in 1992 due to full-time work commitments) and Stacy Glasier dancing.
To coincide with the Gigapus album, Ellard convinced Volition to allow him to publish an interactive history of Severed Heads on CD-ROM, titled Metapus. Whilst lacking the polish of some other band CD-ROMs (most of them produced with far bigger budgets by software professionals), Metapus stands up well against many of the gimmicky Flash-based multimedia extras that continue to be bundled with CDs today. And CD-ROMs were still very much a novelty at the time Metapus was released.
The commercial high point for Severed Heads came in 1994 when Volition decided to get Robert Racic to remix the now more than 10 years old Dead Eyes Opened for a contemporary audience. The result was a track that was played on Australian commercial radio stations that had steadfastly ignored the band over the years. Perhaps they viewed it as a novelty song. Perhaps the influence of dance clubs was now being felt in commercial radio playlists. But, for whatever reason, after 15 years of existence, Severed Heads made the top 40 charts in Australia.
But just as things were coming together commercially for Severed Heads, the wheels fell off Volition. The label overreached itself in marketing, leaving many of the bands out of pocket and causing a mass-exodus from the label in 1996. Following this was an awkward period where it took some time for the band to negotiate back the rights to their Volition material.
However, in the meantime the march of technology continued, and Severed Heads were well ahead of thepck on several fronts. Admittedly some of the technologies turned out to be duds (CD-I, CDTV), but the successes more than make up for that, and the knowledge gained is rarely wasted. Well before the widepead public availability (and subsequent mass-commercialisation) of internet access, they started exploring online access. Bulletin board systems and Fidonet were both popular with non-academic computer enthusiasts. Ellard became involved with the Twister BBS. On Cuisine, Severed Heads included a Fidonet email address for contact, and by the time Gigapus was released they had an internet email address.
Contact with the audience became much more two-way with the establishment of a Severed Heads mailing list, originally hosted on the Twister BBS, and then sponsored by Next Online (the ISP division of a publishing company for which Ellard was writing articles). By the time Next Publishing decided to retreat from the online services market, Sevcom had registered a domain name, and was ready to launch its own web site in 1996. So, it was natural for the mailing list to migrate the new domain. The sevcom.com domain was (and still is) hosted in the US by Stephen M. Jones, who runs a large public-access network. The coincidence in names has caused much confusion and mirth, with Stephen M. Jones occasionally being referred to as Stephen No Relation Jones. The Severed Heads mailing list is quite different to most other mailing lists dedicated to specific bands because Severed Head's active involvement in the list means the discussions range much more widely than about the band itself, and is clearly the most successful manifestation of the band's aim to reduce the separation between itself and its audience.
The creation of the website led to Severed Heads exploring a range of new technologies, particularly those involving streaming and downloadable audio and video, but also branching out into virtual environments such as VRML. Also, recordable CD drives were starting to become available. With the wider international communication reach offered by the mailing list came increased requests for the difficult to find Severed Heads back catalogue. Severed Heads hit upon the inspired idea of supplying almost their entire back catalogue on a CD-R using MPEG I, layer 2 compression. This CD-R, titled Severything, was first made available as a beta release in 1996.
In the following years it may appear that the activity of Severed Heads had diminished, if activity is solely measured by album releases. However, in addition to all the technological explorations described above, Severed Heads were recording new material under their own banner and under the guise of a multitude of side projects. These side projects filled different roles. The Coklacoma sidepoject (which won't be described in detail in this history) was important for injecting a freshness into Ellard's music-making. Severed Heads can be considered as a well-established brand name and, as such, comes with a certain amount of preconceptions in the audience and the industry. Coklacoma was free of thesepeconceptions, and so could embark on gigs and recordings on a smaller scale than Severed Heads could. Another sidepoject more closely related to Severed Heads was the Sevcom Music Server series. These were intended as a series of ambient (in the Eno sense, rather than the new age whale song sense) recordings that could be licensed for further uses, eg film soundtracks.
Also, as CD-R media prices continued to drop and CD-R technology became more mainstream, Sevcom embarked on a program of re-releasing much of the Severed Heads back catalogue. This superseded the Severything CD-R as an actual release, although Severything continued to live on in an online form. This latter was helped by bandwidth and disk space becoming cheaper, and so Stephen M. Jones was able to provide more space for Sevcom, resulting in the contents of Severything becoming available as a free download. While this was far more generous than most of the established music industry, and so was the complete antithesis of the line established industry bodies were taking, this did not necessarily mean that Severed Heads condoned rampant file sharing. Their attitude is that it should be a matter of choice for the artists whether or not to make their songs available for download, and customers ripping CDs and sharing the files was not about artist choice. Severed Heads have now stated their most clear and explicit policy on this issue, and theplicy is a pragmatic one that the music industry could well learn from. Severed Heads' policy is that they provide music under the shareware model, similar to the software world. They freely provide, via the Sevcom web site, downloadable audio files for people to decide whether or not they want to buy. They can then purchase the full-fidelity version of the albums on CD-R. This makes a clear distinction between the inferior quality of compressed audio (MP3s) and the actual physical artefact of a CD release, complete with cover artwork.
Thus, in 1998, Severed Heads tired of trying to negotiate a deal with an established label and decided to release their new album (Haul Ass) the same way they released their Sevcom Music Servers and their back catalogue: self-published on CD-R. Interestingly, the album title reflected an aspect of the all-important connection between the band and the audience: a member of the mailing list suggested that Severed Heads next album should be called Haul Ass, and so it was.
As well as album reissues, Severed Heads being an audiovisual band did not neglect their video work. In 1999 they released a video CD (on CD-R) featuring a cross-selection of their videos over the years. More recently, recordable DVD technology has become affordable, and so they have released both new and old material on DVD-R.
Severed Heads continue to strive to redefine the nature of their releases. Taking the shareware model to its logical conclusion, they see an album as not being a work fixed in time, rather as a body of work that can continued to be refined and perfected over a longer period. Thus in 2002 they released version 1.0 of a new album called Op, returning to more of a pop song format (though intermixed with instrumentals). They quickly followed this up with downloadable upgrades freely available to purchasers of Op. These came in two batches, Op v1.1 and Op v1.2, each update consisting of six new instrumental tracks. All of Op v1.1 and two tracks from Op v1.2 becameprt of Severed Heads' live set, with accompanying videos. These upgrades were formally released in 2003 as both an audio CD-R release and as a DVD-R titled Robot Pephow, which also featured videos for selected Haul Ass, Sevcom Music Server and Op v1.0 tracks. Severed Heads then reworked much of the original Op v1.0 and added some new material. This new material and a snippet of the reworked material was made available as a downloadablepeview (known as Op v1.9) and in 2004 Severed Heads released the complete Op v2.0.
This approach has confused and alienated someprts of their audience, who desire more stability (ie releases to not change over time), but it actually reflects the band taking advantage of current technology and their own philosophy of how to relate to an audience. Basically, the audience is privy to works in progress much earlier than would be the case in the traditional music industry, with the price paid by the audience being that the works will evolve with further time. This is not to say that Severed Heads release any old half-formed idea but rather they have a flexible approach to the nature of their releases and they seriously consider these to follow a software development model, with alpha and beta releases, shareware purchasing and upgrades.
A further highlight came in 2004, with Severed Heads completing their first soundtrack for a feature film, The Illustrated Family Doctor. While arguably such a commission has been long overdue, it does represent the success of the strategy they put in place in producing the Sevcom Music Server series, as those recordings formed an important basis in getting the commission and for the soundtrack itself.
Old School, New Tech
Whilst not abandoning the DIY ethic, recent years have seen Severed Heads realigning themselves with parts of the music industry. Partly this was due to the sheer workload of releasing everything themselves becoming overwhelming, but also it allowed them to once again reach a wider audience, beyond those who had remained in the know during the internet years. This trend started with the re-release of Rotund for Success on LTM in 2004 and continues now with many back-catalog title available as downloads for purchase from the iTunes store.
2005 saw the release of the official soundtrack to The Illustrated Family Doctor on the Australian specialist label Mana Soundtracks. This was a double release, containing both the soundtrack on CD and an accompanying DVD of videos for several of the soundtrack's tracks titled The Animated Family Doctor plus the complete set of Sevcom Music Server tracks accompanied by slideshows. This release won the Australian Recording Industry Association's ARIA award for best soundtrack album in 2005; arguably representing some long-overdue recognition from the Australian music industry for such a long-lasting band. Also in 2005, a new set of videos also appeared on the Robot Pephow 2 DVD-R. The year ended with the band's first overseas show in many years: a one-off appearance at the 4th Belgian Independent Music Festival, in Antwep
Severed Heads started experimenting with creating video specifically aimed at mobile platforms such as the PSP and video iPod. This crossed over with some themes arising from the Sevcom Music Server slideshows, where the videos work as a kind of peripheral image that does not require the full attention of the viewer. Severed Heads also continued their experiments with live VJing, taking snippets of late night TV and its accompanying low budget advertising and reassembling these as an artistic commentary and the state of contemporary popular media.
The two-pronged release approach of label and self-releases continued in 2006, with LTM releasing a live retrospective titled Viva! Heads! and Sevcom releasing Under Gail Succubus, a new collection returning to pop sensibilities with closing instrumentals. Under Gail Succubus again demonstrated a commitment to producing a physical artifact worthy of collection, by being packaged in a attractive metal box. Included in the box was an additional CD titled Over Barbara Island, which was a one-off live instrumental performance evoking a tropical island mood. The CD also included the ambient visuals for playback on mobile video devices.
2007 will see the release of a number of retrospective Severed Heads releases, including the comprehensive career-spanning ComMerz compilation on LTM. Thus, in typical fashion, Severed Heads then started the year with a quick series of new tracks, freely downloadable, under the title Op 3.
While recent years have seen some well-known influential and experimental bands stagnate under the weight of their own history, Severed Heads continue to find ways to innovate. By aligning with LTM they are freeing themselves of some of the burden of maintaining their own history. Free of the expectations of labels for them to follow the latest saleable fashion, they continue to follow their own quirky path and remain true to their ideals.
For more details of the current activities of Severed Heads, visit their official web site at: sevcom.com
This history of Severed Heads does not attep to document every single release made by the band or related side projects. For such information, refer to Kevin Busby's comprehensive Severed Heads Discography at: severed-heads.co.uk
This unofficial but endorsed site also contains a great deal of other historical Severed Heads information. Thanks to Tom Ellard providing much of this information and assisting in its publication, and thanks to Kevin Busby for collating and hosting it all.
Bernie Maier, September 2004 and May 2007
Copyright (©) 2004 Bernie Maier. All rights reserved. Reproduced by LTM by permission. No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means without the prior permission of Bernie Maier.