Back to the Planet (BTTP) were one of the more successful of the early 1990s festival bands, with several of their releases making it into the lower end of the national charts. They split in 1995, leaving unfinished business to be dealt with. Reforming in 2006 they are now back to finish off that business. We sat down with singer Fil and drummer Henry in the car park at Surplus Festival 2015 to have a chat about all things BTTP.
BTTP grew out of the DIY squat scene of the late 1980s, and were at home playing squat parties, free festivals or proper gigs.
“We were all living in squats around 1989”, Henry kicks off. “We started as a sort of in-house band for a squat called the Dole House in Peckham, which was, as you might have guessed, a squatted Dole Office. It had been going for a few months and there were a few bands hanging around there, using it as a rehearsal space during the week and then playing parties on the weekend. We just sort of ended up part of that scene. We were a very ramshackle version of what we are now. We played very rough loose versions of songs that we had started working on at the place where we first started practicing whish was called The Planet, which was where the name came from”.
“We ended up being the fall back band for gigs there, cos I lived there and I had all my kit there. My drum kit ended up being the in-house kit”.
Punk has been going hand in hand with reggae since its birth. The Clash, the Slits and the Ruts all looked to reggae for influences and incorporated them into their music. Later on the likes of Culture Shock, Radical Dance Faction and of course the whole Two Tone movement mixed the two styles.
With the arrival of the rave scene a lot of bands started working on electronic versions of reggae, resulting in digital-dub-dance crossover, such as Dread Zone, Zion train and the Bush Chemists.
Back to the Planet managed to throw punk, reggae and dance music all into one big melting pot to create a sound that was, at the time, unique. We wondered what inspired them to throw all those things into the mix, given that nobody else was doing it.
“We have always mixed styles up”, Fil tells us, “it’s just what we do.”
“We all have similar musical tastes”, Henry expands, “but diverse as well. Guy (McAffer (aka The Geezer) – keyboards) has always been a huge influence on the direction of the band. When we started and we were on tour in the van, guy would always get his cassettes out of the various bits and bobs he was into. He was into dub and acid house and all sorts of mixes and we all got into that. We all got into like Tackhead, Gary Clail and the On-U Soundsystem through him”.
“But we all came from slightly different backgrounds. I was really into rock and around that time people like the Happy Mondays were mixing rock and dance”
“We sort of wanted a hard sound to our music, but we wanted to make people dance”, Fil continues. “We never wanted to be just a rock band, the name of the game was to make people dance”.
“But we were not into going the full dreadlock reggae route either, that was not really what we were about”, Henry expands, “we were somewhere in the middle, we wanted to make it as hypnotic as possible, with a lot of techno influencing the rhythm of the music”.
Whilst the band were big with the ‘traveller’ and free party scene, we wondered if they were ever travellers themselves, did they actually live on the road?
“I think I was on the road for about a year”, Henry ponders, “that was actually before Back To The Planet. I had been off travelling and came across Radical Dance Faction. I had been in a few bands before then but RDF really inspired me. And some of the older festival bands as well, like Ozric Tentacles were still around and we started getting the new strain of reggae fusion type stuff. At that point I was getting really desperate for my drum kit so I went and got it and stored in my truck for a bit. I just used to play on my own. Then I moved back to London and we all met up”.
“We all were travellers for a time”, Fil remembers nostalgically. “We all lived in the Somerset area for a while, but London has always been our base”
“I don’t think we would have got going if it had not been for the fact that we were all living in London together”, Henry agrees. “There was such a big vibe around the Dole House. As soon as I got back to London I went to one of the squats I used to live in and they were all ‘fucking hell man there is this place, the Dole House, you have got to check it out’. As soon as I went, I thought, ‘right yeah, I definitely want to do this’.”
All this was pre-Criminal Justice Act, when weekends would be a cat and mouse chase across the country trying to set up festivals without the police knowing where they were. Sometimes it happened, sometimes weekends would be a wash out. A very different scene to today.
“I was talking to a guy called Melt Down Mickey the other day about the old free festivals”, Henry recalls. “He was part of the old Spiral Tribe. It was funny cos we were talking about festivals that we had both been at, but on two completely different sides of the site. The ravers were coming from the city into the free festivals with all the hippies and there was a lot of friction – till some of the hippy travellers sussed they could make a few quid out of the city kids, selling them drugs. They then started to think the ravers were quite handy”.
“But it got to a point where the live music scene just shrank and shrank and shrank and recorded music and DJs were taking over. We found ourselves playing on the smallest and shoddiest of stages. Then the Criminal Justice Act was passed and things started to fall apart.”
“I think it has actually made things better in a certain kind of way. It has forced people to be more organised and made the festivals more organised and safer”.
“It was not just the festivals that were affected”, Fil chips in. “There were a lot of free parties in and around London. They were not even as organised as the free festivals and some of them were quite scary. I remember going to a few that were quite dark. They operated in a sort of no-mans-land, were there weren’t really bands playing and there were just DJs and it was really disorganised and a bit weird”.
“We played the Castlemorton Festival, which was one the last of the proper, big, organised free festivals”, Henry tells us. “Everyone bigs it up and it is famous for the Spiral Tribe Rave, but there was a very good live band area, Wango Riley’s stage was still functioning, it was a decent festival. It was after that that things started to go south”.
“There was a Stonehenge party after that, which was great for the ravers but dreadful for bands. We ended up playing on this stage organised by the Green Egg. The PA guy was wasted and he could not keep the keyboards in tune and … all very sketchy”.
Fil and Henry then have a discussion about whether or not they played Treworgey Tree Fair, which was technically a legal festival that had a licence and sold tickets, but effectively turned into a chaotic free party. “We did play there”, insists Fil, “everyone got ill”.
Around this time there was also a legal party that took place for a few years in London, the Fordham Park Urban Free Festival in London. It was a great space for the scene and there is a CD compilation of the bands that played there that can no doubt be tracked down on the net called ‘You Cant kill the Spirit’. BTTP feature on the album.
“It was kind of run by a lot of the people that were involved in the Dole House’, Fil tells us. “They were brilliant festivals, especially for city kids who did not normally get to see anything like that. There was never any grief or casualties or anything horrible happening to anyone”.
“There were two groups,” Henry expands, “one was called the Green Circus and the other was the Conscious Collective, which was run by a guy called Julian. Julian was a massive part of the original festival. He did a lot of the talking to the council and the police and so on. We were involved with them cos they were a south London Posse from Lewisham, our sort of area. There were the Dole House people themselves and the guys that now do Reknaw Soundsystem and stuff like that.”
“They stopped it in the end because it became too popular (last one was 1995). They only did three but the third one attracted 35,000 people and it’s only a tiny park. They actually did another one recently, I’m not sure how that went, it was organised by a different bunch of people”.
After all the free partying and DIY spirit, BTTP eventually signed to a record label.
“Probably a bit of a mistake”, Henry tells us reflectively through gritted teeth. “We were a bit young and not quite ready for it. We did loads of touring, but we actually re-trod a lot of old ground that we had already done. The label just could not believe how many gigs we had already played.”
“Their attitude then, was slightly different to the attitude labels have today, they just thought of tours as a way of losing money. They said ‘we are going to give you and advance and keep a certain amount of it back, in fact quite a hefty amount, cos you are going to need that for your tours’. But we have always made money on gigs cos we have driven around in a shitty van, get paid a few hundred quid and it was always just about enough to put money back into the band. We never became wealthy out of it but we never lost money and we were doing alright”.
“They were amazed that we never lost money on gigs, cos they thought that was the way of the world. As it turned out we did end up losing spectacular amounts of money cos after we signed we ended up spending ridiculous amounts of money on tour busses that we did not really need.”
“A lot of it went on recording that record as well”, Fil adds, “that ate up a huge chunk of our advance. We did not realise that at the time. Like you don’t when you are eighteen years old. But hey, it was a whirl wind couple of years”
“We managed to get some decent kit out of it, like samplers and so on. Luckily we managed to get ourselves separated from London Records just in the nick of time, quite amicably. Well maybe not amicably, but at the end nobody owed anyone anything so it was kind of alright. We came out of it fairly unscathed, which is better than a lot of other bands do.”
“It was a shame”, Henry tells us, “cos that album we did with them (Mind and Soul Collaborators – 1993) did not come out the way we wanted it to, we were not really happy with it. It was a bit nice. We were touring at the same time as recording that and with us all being very young it was a bit difficult to keep hold of the reigns at the time. It was an interesting experience, but not as good as it is now. It’s much better now.”
As we type, we can’t help read this back and think it sounds like they only made one record and did a little bit of touring. In reality they made two albums, three if you count the compilation of the early cassette only self-released material, released four singles, several of which hit the charts and on top of the free festivals, played four consecutive Glastonburys – back in the day when Glastonbury meant something. As well as being big on the underground scene, they were darlings of the music press for a while – back in the day when the music press meant something!
And then, far too early, the band split in 1995. Why was this?
“I left first”, Henry confesses, “and it all sort of dwindled off. We were all sort of at each other’s necks for a bit”
“We did a second album, after we left London Records (Messages After the Bleep – 1995)”, Fil jumps in, trying to make sense of it. “We tried to do that on our own bat. Obviously we did not have enough backing and money to do it properly, or to do it justice, and we fucked it up. We spent way way too much time recording drums”. We look accusingly at drummer Henry, but Fil laughs, “We had a different drummer at that point”. Henry is off the hook.
“Basically we tried to do it all on our own but we were exhausted, we were gigged out, we did not have any money to back the second album, and we all dwindled off to work on other things.”
“Me and Guy started doing techno”, Henry recalls, “I got stuck into doing stuff with the Liberator DJs and Stay Up Forever Records”. Henry made a bit of a name for himself as D.A.V.E. The Drummer. He still works under that name and has an extensive back catalogue of techno releases on his CV. He is also owner of Hydraulix records.
“Plus the live music scene was not really what it was. It changed massively”, Fil continues. “It nearly got wiped out for a few years. The Criminal Justice Act thing had a big impact, but all the parties were just turning into raves without live bands. Even a lot of the clubs that had put on gigs got rid of all their mikes and just bought decks for DJs. And if you put a party on with band, there is a lot of commitment and time. If the police come in and shut it down it’s a lot harder than if you just have a couple of record decks”.
“It has just started to get back on its feet”, Henry reflects, considering the current state of affairs. “It kept bubbling under for a while but we now have legal venues and festivals”.
Whilst Henry was doing his techno thing, Guy Mcaffer aka The Geezer is also a record producer on the London acid techno scene, and has written the album, Ave Some of That You Wankers. He and Carl Hendrickse (bass) have worked together producing acid techno under the name Audio Pancake. He also owns the record label RAW, plays the organ in The Birds of Prey, and guitar in the punk band Dog Shite. Carl also produces and DJ’s drum & bass under the name DJ Trashma. In addition, Fraggle is the lead guitarist of the punk band The Skraelings and is often seen working with Doozer McDooze under the guise of EFF OFF.
Fil, meanwhile, wrote and recorded a solo album. “I did me own thing for a while, I did some stuff with Ben and Jamie from The Sea. And Guy was involved in that for a while. We went out as Fil Planet. I did some stuff in the studio which didn’t really work but I’ve always been involved in music in one way or another. I joined Monkeyrush for a while”.
“I heard something very different in your voice when you were with Monkeyrush”, Henry says approvingly, “there was a bit of a soul thing coming through that I had not heard before. I thought ‘yeah’, I like that. Monkeyrush were great”.
Which brings us around to the question of what prompted them to get back together.
“Other people”, Fil tells us without hesitation. “Everyone was moaning that we weren’t doing anything”.
“I stopped playing the drums pretty much altogether”, Henry tells us. “Guy had rung me a few times and asked if I wanted to get back together and I kept saying no. Then one day he rings me and tells me we had been asked to get together for one gig for some of the old crew at the Red Star Bar in Camberwell in December 2006, and we are still at it”.
The reformed BTTP have now been around longer than the original incarnation of the band and are in much demand, regularly being seen playing festivals such as Boomtown, Bearded Theory, Alchemy, Something Else in the Dean and of course, Surplus.
“We sorted of whittled the band down to the core members from when we were bang at it and we are still here, all be it part time. Gigs have been coming in and we have written some new material. I think that is important. We were playing for ages just the same old tracks and I think it is important that we have new songs. We don’t want to be just a nostalgia act”.
Since this conversation took place their first new material has been released, the Kick Out EP, released in December 2016. Both Guy and Henry have their own recording studios now and the new material has been recorded in a combination of those.
Whilst the band would love to play more gigs, they are a bit longer in the tooth and wiser these days. “We have to sustain ourselves, put food on the table and some of us have kids to feed now”, Fil tells us. “Kids, jobs, mortgages, it’s not like when we were living in a squat, or in the back of a bus touring the country for four or five weeks at a time.”
“None of us really want to get back in that van/touring mentality”, Henry says maturely, “and personally I am just really into where we are now. We have a fairly steady number of bookings and the band is supporting itself and we are all happy with that”.
“We sort of had our time before all the on-line stuff had emerged so we now have a website and all our back catalogue is available on there and we are doing some t-shirts. I remember when we first got back together I remember looking us up on line and there was just nothing about us on the web, apart from a Wikipedia page that someone had started for us – which was accurate, all be it very brief”.
“We are getting all our back catalogue on-line now for people to download, we have never had it available in that format before. It’s not that there is a massive demand for it, we just want everything we have done all in one place”.
Obviously old gits like us who remember them first time around will be interested in the bits of the back catalogue we might be missing, but they are picking up a younger generation of fans this time around.
“Yeah, we do see a lot of young kids up front at some of our gigs. It depends where we play,” Fil reflects. “Some of our older fans are obviously my age but they are coming to gigs with their kids who are also getting into us”.
Our conversation starts to wander at this point, we discuss ferrets and tea (two of Fragle’s loves) and the merits of holding festivals next to airports before winding up. Fil and Henry then have to go and psyche them up for the gig they are about to play at Surplus Fest.
As we noted above, new material has been released since this interview took place and it brings the band bang up to date. There is no resting on laurels and no trying to go back to the 1990s. The new material is among the best they have recorded and there is no doubt that they are back to do business.