LISTS Usurper’s Absurdist Journey Comes to an End By Stewart Smith · March 14, 2024
Photos by Alejandro Basterrechea

It’s a blustery winter evening in Scotland’s capital city, and the freaks have come out to bid farewell to Edinburgh underground legends Usurper. Dressed in their regulation green boiler suits, giant comic-book eyes obscuring their vision, Malcy Duff and Ali Robertson are helped onstage by their wives, Louise and Collette. Once installed at opposite ends of a table filled with sound-making junk, the pair sit silently while support acts Joyce Whitchurch and Tindegger do their thing. When Usurper finally perform, it’s as absurd, tender, and brain-bending as anyone could have hoped for. Their set is framed around a flipchart game show celebrating the city’s weirdo noise scene. Between reveals, the duo engage in nonsensical dialogue and improvise with their collection of objects: An egg slicer is delicately plucked with a guitar pick; plastic is stretched and twanged; an unplugged distortion pedal is repurposed as a squeaky percussion instrument. As the set ends, Mama Cass’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music” plays through the PA, a fitting conclusion to 20 years of DIY noisemaking.

While Duff acknowledges he found the build-up to the gig overwhelming, the show itself was “full of happiness and fun.” Robertson concurs. “I think it’s great that we were able to have a grand finale full of positivity, rather than just fizzle out after two decades,” he reflects. “We felt the warmth from the audience. You must’ve noticed how much we were sweating!”

Duff and Robertson met at Edinburgh’s Telford College in the mid-‘90s, bonding over a love of lo-fi indie rock and comics (Duff is an accomplished cartoonist while Robertson is “the biggest comics reader” he knows.) Digging deeper underground, they discovered the international community of oddballs around Seymour Glass’s influential zine Bananafish. After their noise rock band Giant Tank dissolved, Duff and Robertson debuted as Usurper in 2003. The “quiet noise” of Japan’s onkyo movement was a major inspiration. “I was blown away by Sachiko M’s super reduced sinewave jams made with an empty sampler,” says Robertson. “The idea was that Usurper were going to apply that thinking to a rock band set up—dismantled drums and stringless guitar.”

“We began with a very specific approach in mind, using the instruments we had, but taking away any safety nets, finding a new way of playing them,” adds Duff. “I played guitar so the strings were removed, meaning I couldn’t play it the same way. By doing so, other sounds were found—or as I like to think about it: The other sounds that were always there could now be heard.”

Usurper soon abandoned any semblance of being a rock band, choosing contact mics and collected objects as their primary instruments. Inspired by comics, Usurper began introducing narrative structures to their performances. Behind their apparently diffident and shambolic live show lies a great deal of thought, skill, and preparation. “The narrative sets are constructed weeks in advance with room for improvisation built into them,” explains Duff, “while the improvised sets are planned out five minutes before the gig.”

Though they’ve been compared to London free improvisation legends the Bohman Brothers, Samuel Beckett, and comedy duo Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, ultimately Usurper inhabit their own craggy isthmus. “It’s nice to feel a part of an oddball tradition,” says Robertson. “We love to laugh, and we love to make folks laugh. When the audience is silent is when I start squirming.”

“I’ve always thought of our group as a noise band of sorts, or more a noises band,” Duff says. “I’m always tapping, fondling and twisting objects,” adds Robertson. “I’m a fidget and fidgeting leads to sonic discoveries so I’m forever accumulating bits and bobs. You should hear me wash the dishes. Collette is often like ‘Can ye please just wash ‘em, Ali?!’”

While Robertson refers to his instruments as junk, he’s “pretty precious” about them: “Some of ‘em are irreplaceable one-offs. No two harmonica innards or head massagers sound exactly the same!”

Usurper’s first decade coincided with the emergence of a Scottish DIY noise scene. “Folks were high off that wave of enthusiasm around the new wave of American noise music and inspired to be playing house shows, burning CD-Rs, printing zines, and comics, and a lot of us were experiencing social media for the first time via MySpace,” says Robertson. “The Scottish Central Belt was suddenly awash with lug-befuddling audio gloop by Hockyfrilla, Muscletusk, Fordell Research Unit, Nackt Insecten, Kylie Minoise and more.” Independent promoters and state-funded festivals brought homegrown acts into contact with an international community of noisemakers. “Suddenly the din being made locally was traveling across oceans to annoy other folks’ friends and neighbors,” says Robertson. “Friendships blossomed that are still rosy today!”

This led to Usurper touring the U.S. and collaborating with several of the artists who had inspired them, including Dylan Nyoukis and Dora Doll of Scottish noise legends Prick Decay; Seymour Glass; and Sticky Foster. In 2012, conductor Ilan Volkov tapped Usurper to perform at a John Cage centenary concert alongside the likes of Rhodri Davies, Mariam Rezaei, and Michael Francis Duch. “I felt awkward and imagined that I was resented in the new music world due to being an untrained musician and having no formal education beyond high school,” Robertson concedes, “That was my mind working against me though. That is, in fact, not what I’ve experienced at all, and we’ve met fellow travelers who are deadly serious about goofin’ in these circles as well.”

Usurper may be calling it a day, but Duff and Robertson will continue to work together on the inclusive music project Sonic Bothy. While Robertson is “seeing other improvisers” including Firas Khnaisser, Duff is concentrating on his comics. Reflecting on the group, Duff offers an anecdote about watching two laborers laying tar and flattening it with their feet: “They stamped by jogging on the spot in tandem, completely covered in the soot that was rising in clouds from the tar. One of the men had stopped stamping and was now dancing to the beat of the other’s boot steps. Both of them were having a ball. This was Usurper.”

Below, Duff and Robertson guide us through several key releases from the Usurper catalog.

First Effort

Usurper’s very first gig. The promoter had booked Giant Tank to play, but as they weren’t available, Duff and Robertson agreed to “do that daft idea that we’d been calling Usurper.” Robertson remembers it as “a funny and shambolic night” where the audience consisted of his future wife, Collette, a school friend he hadn’t seen in years, and his partner. “We were buzzing afterwards, and we never looked back.” As Duff recalls, “One of us squeaked our shoe on the floor by accident, and the other squeaked their shoe back on purpose. That was really when our band began.”

Don’t Even Fucken Bother

Released on Hair Police drummer Trevor Tremaine’s Rampart Tapes, this crunchy lo-fi set finds Usurper coming into their sound. “We were so excited to have something released by an American label. It was like we’d just been signed to Geffen,” says Robertson. Rather than rope in a big-name producer, they recorded it on a mobile phone. It’s one of the last Usurper recordings to lean heavily on effects. “I quickly realized that a delay pedal was completely unnecessary,” Robertson says. “I could get a similar noise by twanging spatulas off desks.”

Booby Prize

“We actually have two albums called Booby Prize,” explains Robertson, “The first was released on Antwerpian weirdo underground legend Jelle Crama’s Zeikzak label in 2007, but a wonky translation meant that the sleeve read ‘Booby Price.’ We rectified the issue 11 years later by releasing a second album called Booby Prize in 2018. We like fucking with people, in a nice way, though.” The original Booby Prize features “You Lose,” the band’s “first move into conceptual bumf,” as Robertson puts it. “Malcy fills out a form while I have a shave. Mundanities made into music.”

Usurper & Sticky Foster

Duff considers UK underground legend and A Band member Sticky Foster “the other member of Usurper,” alongside Grant Smith of Muscletusk and Tindegger. Two of these tracks were recorded live on Usurper’s only U.S. tour. “This world-class weirdo fits seamlessly into the Usurper live experience,” says Robertson. “He’s comfortable wandering through warzones, so sitting between two harmonizing hissyfitters isnae gonnae phase him. The apocalypse could be happening, but Sticky would be stood in the path of some lava obliviously tying his shoelaces while whistling.” The remaining tracks feature Usurper jamming to recordings Foster sent them from Bogotá. “We laughed at how completely un-Usurper they seemed,” remarks Robertson. “One was moody and mournful. T’other was harsh and loud. I think we done right by him though!”

Malcy Duff, Dylan Nyoukis, Ali Robertson, & Norman Shaw
Acetate Rrobots #1

Acetate Rrobots #1 has its origins in Faded Book Spine, a comic book Duff made of folded loose sheets of acetates printed on both sides. Those acetates then became the score for a live performance with readings from Usurper, artist Norman Shaw, and Dylan Nyoukis. “I liked this way of scoring,” Duff says, “The images were changeable, multiple readings could be made from a few sheets.” Robertson recalls a disgruntled neighbor storming into the venue and screaming at them to “stop all that ridiculous shouting.” As the original recording was lost, the quartet decided to make a new recording in the same spirit. “Much like the acetate sheets would land randomly on top of one another, we each made separate recordings and then pasted them all together as they fell,” explains Duff.

Fishing For Tripe

Envisioned as a wholesome document of domestic life, Fishing For Tripe throws in the gurgling of the kitchen sink alongside vocal contributions from the duo’s partners, Louise and Collette. The overlapping voices of “Part 5” sit somewhere between a Robert Ashley opera and Ivor Cutler’s Life In A Scotch Sitting Room. “One of my all-time favorites,” says Robertson of Tripe. “A day or two sat at Malcy’s kitchen table. The sounds of domesticity flow through the album. It was recorded in 2011, which was a pretty potent year for Usurper creatively and I reckon it’s reflected here. Listening now I hear the band that we were in live scenarios experimenting with overdubs and such like.”

The Big Two

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD)

Recorded in a lush rural setting in the Trossachs, The Big Two is Usurper’s final album. “I’d dreamed about renting a place à la Trout Mask Replica (one of my favorite albums) for me and Ali to be completely engulfed by what we were doing for a period of time,” says Duff. “We finally did it in the summer of 2022.”

Opening with “A Concert for Your Home,” the results are classic Usurper: the clink and scrape of their sound-making objects, garbled vocalizing, muffled trumpet, and a series of text pieces advertising their services as plumbers. “Coincidence, tenuous connections, our surroundings and our friendship inform the pieces,” says Robertson. While the text-pieces were pre-planned, much of the album was written on the hoof. “The jamming is all free playing. We really kicked the arse out of it that weekend in terms of improvising,” he adds. “I’m happy/sad to finally have it released/see it go. It’s like our eldest bairn [child –ed.] has fled the nest. Hopefully it’ll have a good life and do right by the folks it encounters.”

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