Innovative, and both genre-defying and strikingly original, Heist are a unique force in British indie pop. The group, a four piece from London, first formed in 1997 and have spent the last three years recording their debut album ‘Friday Night at the Trabi Races’, which, finally released in September, takes its name from an illicit set of underground Hungarian car races. Described by one critic as “like Abba sung as a James Bond theme”, Heist’s music combines the glorious, catchy pop sounds of the likes of The Lightning Seeds and The Pet Shop Boys with the strings-drenched orchestrations of Eastern European and sixties spy film scores.

With a song track listing that includes titles such as ‘Defectors’, ‘The Man who Came In from the Cold’, ‘Red Square’and ‘Cold War’, ‘Friday Night at the Trabi Races’ is a concept album, its main theme and narrative being about escape and defection, imaginary and real, from both the East and the West. Each of its sixteen tracks segue into one another and, as well as regular members vocalist, guitarist and pianist Mike Targett ; violinist Calina De La Mare ; additional vocalist, trumpet player and cornetist Allison Thomson and drummer Anthony Oudot, it also features the talents of over a dozen session musicians. Flautists, mandolinists, vibraphone, bouzouki and additional string players all too make appearances.

The group began when Targett, who had spent years working in “lots of odd punky guitar bands”, got together with De la Mare to collaborate on a set of songs that he had composed. De La Mare is a session violinist and arranger, and has worked on all four Tindersticks albums, and has also made appearances on studio recordings by Marc Almond, The Frank and Walters and Nick Cave.

“I’ve known Calina since we were kids” Targett says in an interview with Pennyblackmusic. “I wrote a series of songs about three years ago, which in fact are pretty much what you hear on the album. and Calina loved them, so we set out to find other people to record them with. ‘Friday Night at the Trabi Races’ a long time later is the final upshot of that.”

“ I don’t know whether it was intentional or not or if there was any definite kind of plan to it” he adds, discussing the band’s spy and Eastern European film sound. “I think what happened there was that I just messed around with a few ideas, and realised there was a group of melodies and musical ideas that had a common theme and from there decided that I wanted to make something like a soundtrack, a concept with a story if you like.”

After placing an advertisement in Melody Maker, Targett and De La Mare also recruited into the band’s line-up Thomson, who comes from Glasgow and who has toured as a trumpet player with both Primal Scream and The Trashcan Sinatras. Heist spent its first eighteen months as a trio, both experimenting with drum machines and also working with various session drummers, before Oudot joined the group as its fourth member in mid 1999.

Success was instantaneous for the group when just a few months after it formed it won in January 1998 a New Musical Express Great Unsigned Band Award , only ten of which are given out each year. Unfortunately though, while it resultingly attracted some media interest and entered into negotiations with several major and independent labels, “ noone was actually prepared to put their money where their mouth was”, and the band, because of its oddity, remained unable to secure a record deal. The group, therefore, decided to form its own label Super 8 Recordings, which taking its name from an old-fashioned kind of film camera, it set up both to release its own records, and also to help other acts that it admired which were in a similar situation.

Super 8 Recordings’ first release was a Heist EP ‘Defectors’ which came out in 1998, and it followed this last year with another single ‘Berlin Express’. As well as ‘Friday Night at Trabi Races’, it has also released this year two EPs ‘Raining Again’ and ‘Home’ by Copenhagen, an eight piece “jazz noir” act, which includes in its line-up former members of Jack and Soho. It is looking currently also for other bands too to sign to its roster.

“I think we’re more open-minded than other labels” says Targett about Super 8 Recordings. “There seems to be very few people who are doing stuff that is neither guitar-orientated nor commercial mainstream pop, and which isn’t dance music either. The number of labels that can offer a distribution route to bands which are doing something that doesn’t fit into those categories is surprisingly small. Our main way of promoting ourselves is through fanzines and hard working and touring. We can set those sort of things up for people, but we can’t promise that they’ll be played on Radio One. We’ve got an open mind though. I suppose we have eclectic tastes.”

The title of ‘Friday Night at the Trabi Races’ reflects both Heist’s Do It Yourself attitude, and also its struggle for success and recognition despite the adversity and indifference that it has met from the music business.

“That title is a kind of lyrical snippet which I came across a long time ago” reflects Targett. “ I liked it because it conveyed the idea of people making their own fun in repressive circumstances, which in a way sort of paralleled what we were doing at the time when we were having to put together an album which we had no backing for. I felt that with regard to our own situation in the music business we were in a way suffering from a kind of cultural oppression. That title does have an element of humour as well though which I also like. That idea of people doing things for themselves and making their own entertainment really appealed to me.”

Various influences have had an effect on the band and the album, but Targett says perhaps surprisingly that music from France especially has been a particular inspiration on him.

“ I think that personally a lot of my influences have been French and francophone” he muses. “ My greatest lyrical influence is Jacques Brel, and my greatest musical influence on this album has probably been Michel Legrand, the film music writer. He wrote the score for a terrific Jacques Demy film and musical from the sixties called ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ in which all the words and dialogue are sung, and in which there are a great series of recurring themes and light motifs that give it a real sense of emotion. It has a fantastic string score as well, which we tried to emulate. That film was a big influence.”

“I would be lying though” he continues “If I was to say that John Barry was not a major influence also. The soundtrack he wrote for ‘The Ipcress File’ is one of the few soundtrack albums that you can listen to as a record in its own right, and it is a fantastic record. As regards the rest of the band, there are all sorts of Tindersticks and Nick Cave types of influences in there. It is a whole mixed bag.”

While Targett came up with the initial melodic compositions and lyrical themes for each of the songs on ‘Friday Night at the Trabi Races’, the album was composed very much as a collaborative group effort. All four members contributed musical ideas, and De la Mare wrote all the arrangements for the album while Thomson co-wrote the lyrics. Targett and Oudot were also both involved in the album’s production. Remarkably the album, despite its epic and grandiloquent sound and its heavy use of session musicians, rather than being produced in a studio, was recorded, with the aid of new developments in technology, almost entirely at home.

“The guitars were recorded both in my house and in Allison’s flat” Targett says. “The violins were recorded in living rooms. The only thing we went away from home for were the drums which we did in a rehearsal studio. All the production side of it was done on computers. The takes that we did suffered all the normal noise and cheap equipment problems that you have with home recording. It’s been very lucky for us that you can do such amazing stuff with computer programming these days. The whole album was produced and mastered on PCs. We were able to do all sorts of reasonable sounding stuff as a result which we couldn’t even have contemplated two or three years ago.”

The album, which has met with unanimously glowing reviews, is limited to just one thousand copies in Britain, but the group are currently arranging a licensing deal for the United States and Germany, and hope soon to press another two thousand. In the latter country and in Eastern Europe in particular Heist has proved particulary popular, having received intense coverage from fanzines there from its earliest days, and it has toured there twice already this year, often selling and packing out halls and clubs simply by word of mouth. Back home the group has played support slots over the last twelve months to The Buzzcocks, Eddi Reader and The Fall, but now, with its profile developing, it is starting to play more headline shows. While Targett and the rest of the band have no immediate plans to go back into the studio, there will be more gigs and tours in the near future. It seems that the independent music world ia going to be hearing a lot more of Heist and Super 8 Recordings soon.











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