"We've just spent two days in the van shitting ourselves, hoping we're not going to meet all these tornadoes flying around," Loop leader Robert Hampson says with a nervous chuckle over the phone from Louisville, Kentucky. "We were in Iowa when a big storm hit there. We've been really lucky that we seem to have channeled through everything that's going on with the weather. Who knows what we're going to hit tomorrow? Athens just got hit with some freaky weather, and we're on our way there. It might be the end of Loop as you know it—gone in a puff of smoke from a lightning hit."
That might not be an inappropriate way for this British psych-rock group to go out. Their music has always been tinged with elemental danger and an almost apocalyptic fury. (One of their greatest songs is titled "Burning World" and is also, paradoxically, one of their most sonically blissful.) Now Loop are in the midst of a reunion/farewell tour, 24 years after releasing their final album, A Gilded Eternity. If you're a fan or simply curious about the revered band who basically were the Stones to Spacemen 3's Beatles in England's 1980s head-music milieu, this is your last chance to catch Loop in the flesh.
During their 1986 to 1990 heyday, Loop forged three albums that followed in the Stooges/Hawkwind lineage of creating powerful riffs that you want to go on forever. Loop's music often flaunted a brutish, earthy strength, but it also had aspirations of rocketing into deep space. Hampson and Scott Dowson's guitars both shimmered like mirages and gouged like tunnel drills. The tension between these opposing forces resulted in some exhilarating psychedelia.
There are many peaks in Loop's catalog, but if you want a quick intro as to what all of the fuss is about, check out "Soundhead," the opening track of their debut album, Heaven's End. "Soundhead" is at once a mantra (see: Hampson's concluding chant of "I go for the sound") and a thrusting gush of pure rock id, an '80s analogue to the Stooges' "Loose." Loop's songs were hell-bent on taking you to the other side and leaving you dazed and contused.
For years, promoters and fans have pleaded with Hampson to re-form Loop. In 2013, he finally gave in. "Suddenly, I couldn't find any more reasons to keep saying no," Hampson concedes. "There were interesting offers coming in to be able to curate the ATP [All Tomorrow's Parties] festival in England. So I thought, 'Let's tentatively dip our toes back in the pool and see what happens.' And it's been good."
About five years ago, Hampson moved from England to France and found an accepting community at the INA-GRM, a Paris institute that's incubated several avant-garde electroacoustic works since 1958. They appreciated the abstruse experimental music he was making under his own name for Austria's Editions Mego label, whereas it just met with bafflement in his native country. "I can't get arrested in England with my music," he says. "Loop is different, but with my music, nobody cares. So I went to Europe, where there seems to be a lot more of an appreciation of what I'm doing. I can't even get a gig in England. Experimental music for most English people is Autechre or Aphex Twin. It's very much based on that post-rave scene, Boards of Canada, stuff like that. If it's anything more finite than that, it seems to confuse everybody. They don't even understand the concept of multichannel diffusion or anything. If I ever do a concert in England and I have more than four channels, I'm a very, very lucky man. I get work elsewhere. It's a real shame, but what can you do?"
Hampson's relaunched Loop endeavor hasn't been without its hitches, either. Drummer John Wills departed early on in the comeback phase because "it just all felt a bit too nostalgic for me," as he told louderthanwar.com, and he wanted to focus on his other band, Pumajaw, too. Wayne Maskell has replaced Wills. Then there are the venues that lack the PA strength to handle Loop's massive sound, so they have to adjust their set lists accordingly. Hampson vows to keep each show slightly different and to perform cuts from every release, including the singles. (He regrets that the tumultuous "From Centre to Wave" has been chopped from the repertoire because it just wasn't working out.) You can also expect covers of either Can's "Mother Sky" or the Pop Group's "Thief of Fire." "You have to give people what they wanna hear," Hampson charitably says.
When rock groups reunite so many years after their peaks, sometimes their songs can strike their writers as juvenile. I asked Hampson if any of his lyrics make him cringe now when he sings them. "No. I never really considered myself a lyricist, anyway. For me, the vocals were always just another instrument, another texture. I'm not particularly picky about anything. What I was thinking 25-plus years ago, I might not agree with now. At the same time, I'm not gonna dissect it. Anything I've ever done, there's always a moment where I think, gosh, I wish I'd done that better. If you're going to lose sleep over something like that, you'd might as well give up."
Considered a legend by many psych-rock fans, Hampson is very realistic and un-diva-like about his status in the music industry. "You can't expect to come back and get the red-carpet treatment. Maybe if you're My Bloody Valentine or something. We're more of a cult band. It's almost like starting all over again—playing in smaller clubs, dealing with the on/off relationships with promoters."
Nevertheless, Loop's ephemeral comeback has so far been mostly upbeat. Hampson never thought that people would be clamoring to hear the band live nearly a quarter century after Loop split. "The reaction's been so positive to us coming back. It's taken me by surprise. Also, we're meeting people who never had the chance to see us before, because they were too young at the time and they discovered the band a lot later. There are lots of old fans and lots of new fans. It's all been incredibly sweet, seeing so many people show their love for Loop."
Loop's only previous US tour happened in 1990 and covered a mere dozen dates. On this much more extensive jaunt, Loop have been treated like heroes taking a final victory lap. "Every night, without fail, I get someone coming up to me, almost breathless, and saying that they can't believe we're anywhere near them," Hampson says.
Loop's music and lyrics always possessed a rather bleak essence, but I wondered if Hampson was feeling more optimistic about life now compared to how he felt during Loop's original run. "No," he replies, laughing. "We're lucky that there's still a human race here. We don't know how to deal with the environment, we don't know how to deal with each other, we don't know how to deal with life. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Politicians are just fucking thieves, lining their own pockets. What else can I say? The whole world is getting more corrupt as we speak. But I don't want the destruction of the human race. I just wish we'd all wise up a bit more and start living for everybody. We need to look at what we're doing to this planet. We're destroying everything. It's only getting worse."
Enjoy Loop while you can.