EMF's "Unbelievable" probably won't outsell "From a Distance" or "Rush Rush," but it has done far more to clarify the future. As musical distinctions blur further and once-rigid genres liquefy at the speed of sound, as rap swallows jazz instrumentals and gospel vocals sneak into speed-metal, EMF's heady fusion of dance beats and rock riffs sounds suspiciously like the Next Big Thing. For the five-piece English outfit, "Unbelievable" is not only the title of their breakthrough single, but also an apt description of the past year's shooting-star trajectory, in which EMF overtook and dominated the Britcharts before winging West for additional victories. The debut LP, Schubert Dip, has just vaulted the half-million mark, and EMF's so-new-it-hurts brashness has won them accolades from critics and industry bigwigs alike.
Amid the conspicuous hype and traditional flavor-of-the-month marketing mania - the gold record for the single, the MTV heavy rotation for the video, the prospect of boundless fame for the band - it's easy to forget that EMF is just a handful of kids from Forest of Dean. And it's even easier to forget Forest of Dean, a small cluster of towns in Gloucestershire, in the west of England. "Everyone except for me is from the same town," says Ian Dench, the lead guitarist, chief keyboard player, and principal songwriter. "They all knew each other in school. I'm from a little further away from there, about fifteen miles. I'm the honorary member." At 26 Dench is also the old man of the bunch. Vocalist James Atkin and drummer Mark Decloedt are 22, and bassist Zac Foley and second keyboardist Derry Brownson check in at an apple-cheeked 20.
In parts, such as the vaguely Eastern melody line that surges between verses in "Long Summer Days" and the more traditional hooks on "Unbelievable" and "Lies," Schubert Dip hearkens back to an antiquated songwriting ethic, one that ceased to matter eons ago, with the coming of the sequencer. But don't start thinking this is a band with reservations about stepping into the techno breach. "When we make our records, I'm using modern technology, computer technology," says Dench. "It's a wonderful way to make records sound powerful. Drums and guitars still do much of the work, but with sequencers, you can create more interesting sounds."
It's indicative of EMF's resolute modernity that the second keyboard player, Derry Brownson, would rather be known as a sample jockey. "Derry doesn't like being called a keyboard player because any regular keyboards that we have, I play," says Dench. "He plays noises, which is a wonderful way to use the keyboard."
The very fact that band members play instruments separates them from at least one of the bands to which they've been compared - Maurice Starr's execrable pop-prod New Kids on the Block. "Ecch," says Dench, sighing histrionically at the mention. "We hear a lot of that, and it's just crap, really. We're not a crafted band and we're not a teen band. It's a horribly superficial comparison. Well, we wear baseball caps. We're sorry." Dench doesn't elaborate, and he doesn't have to - it's hard to imagine New Kids closing their stage show with a torrid cover of Cream's "Strange Brew" that puts a new head on the old classic.
EMF has also done its best to shirk the teen-idol label off-stage, where the band's reputation for misbehavior and mischief has provided constant fodder for British tabloids. "Well, certainly there are people with that kind of lifestyle, but I think the press portrays it as if the only people who do are rock bands, and that's a distortion," says Dench. "Everybody gets drunk and sleeps with women and stuff. It's a very natural thing, but some of the tabloids make such a big deal about it."
When it hasn't been dropping the microscope on the band's extracurricular endeavors, the British press has tied itself in knots worrying exactly what kind of band EMF is. Critics have tried to pigeonhole the group as part of the wave of young British fashion plates that add guitar licks to a preheated drumbeat mix. Such a classification is criminally vague, comprising groups as diverse as Happy Mondays, Pop Will Eat Itself, Charlatans UK, Birdland, and Jesus Jones, and Dench dismisses it out of hand. "We're very much interested in spontaneity," he says, "and perhaps that's where we're different from the other dance bands. Sure, we use modern technological elements but there's all this spontaneous stuff. Drums and guitars. And we can heavy well rock."
In the never-ending tide of Sixties revivalism, EMF also takes a refreshing approach to the so-called classic period. Dench doesn't see the Wonderful Decade merely as an available back catalogue (The Soup Dragons' retread of the Rolling Stones' "I'm Free," for instance, or Liquid Jesus's cover of Sly & the Family Stone's "Stand") or a program of fashion/attitude cues (Lenny Kravitz, World Party's Karl Wallinger). Instead, he considers the bands of the Sixties direct antecedents to the beat-happy dance popsters that have spread like kudzu all over the contemporary charts. "My roots come from punk rock. At least that's where I locate the guitar attitude," says Dench. "A little post punk, too - Killing Joke, Joy Division, New Order. I was intrigued by the way they used sensitivity. But then I got into older bands, and I think that's when my view of things changed. It's not as if nobody danced before so-called dance music. There's all these brilliant Led Zeppelin beats. So funky. Robby Krieger is my all-time guitar hero."
However admiring they are of their musical forebears, EMF's members know that in the new pop order, acts live or die by the single, especially the remixed single, and the band has been unusually ambitious and eclectic in its choice of producers, enlisting funk linchpin Afrika Bambaata for the "Unbelievable" 12-inch and Jim Thirlwell of Foetus, Inc. for "I Believe." The B-side to the Bambaata "Unbelievable" remix, an anthemic chant piece called "Ecstasy Motherfuckers," stirred a controversy regarding the band's name, and what exactly the initials EMF stand for. "The band's name was originally the Epsom Mad Funkers," explains Dench. "Something with Epsom salts, waking you up. If Denny were here, he could explain it better; he's the one who thought it up. But we dropped it because it was a bit of a label. Then we did that song on the back of `Unbelievable.' We're fine with the song, but that's not the band's name."
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Mad funkers or otherwise, the band kicks out the jams on-stage. EMF uses its live show to distance itself further from studio-propped, thin-as-broth, rock-and-roll pretenders, to demonstrate that Dench's six-string prowess remains intact outside of the jewel box, and that Atkin's vocals, half winsome, half sneering, can hold up in open air.
"Basically it's a stripped-down tour, just the band on the stage," says Dench. "We've got a really good light show and a brilliant P.A. system. It's very loud. But no pyramids, big mummies, and erecting hydraulic penises. Not yet, at least. We'll save that for
Meanwhile, the band is writing new material - four songs so far, some of which they'll unveil on tour - and keeping their ears open for the future. Especially Dench's ears. By his own admission, Dench has enormous auditory assistants. They jut out from his head like mug handles, or saddlebags. Creem, usually quite respectful of up-and-coming stars, dispensed with the pleasantries and got right to the point, calling him "an affable, fast-talking, jug-eared kid." So how does that sit with you, Ian? How does it feel to have a head with a side order of ears? "Well," he answers immediately, having heard the question with room to spare, "it's a well-known fact that people with big ears are immensely talented. And you know what they say. Big ears, big nose, big hands...."