Remembering how it was: The life and resurrection of Symposium

Last month, ’90s Kerrang! faves Symposium returned for a one-off gig to launch their new Best Of. To celebrate their re-appearance, here they look back at the show, their history, and hint at what’s next…

Remembering how it was: The life and resurrection of Symposium
Nick Ruskell
Scarlet Page

Between 1996 and 1999, Symposium were everywhere. In the pages of Kerrang!, the London quintet felt like an almost weekly fixture. On the back of a killer run of perfectly-formed pop-rock singles – Drink The Sunshine, Fairweather Friend, Farewell To Twilight, to name just three – and with a reputation for gloriously rowdy gigs which would usually find singer Ross Cummings in the crowd before they’d even got to the first chorus, they were a joyous, wide-smiling explosion of fun in a time of often far-too serious Britpop and post-Nirvana grunge loose-ends.

When they appeared on Top Of The Pops, playing Fairweather Friend, Ross became the only artist ever to stage-dive on the show. Because this wasn't enough, they additionally joined an exclusive club numbering themselves, Nirvana and Oasis, as bands who'd had stage invasions during their performance.

Symposium also had a fiercely independent streak. Having signed to indie label Infectious Records (home to, among others, Ash), they revelled in having the rare mix of label money and ultimate artistic control. One idea was to make a video with now-legendary photographer Rankin, for the Average Man single. When the label sold to a major, the band went it on their own, rather than go with them. To mark it, Ross appeared in K! wearing a shirt with the words ‘Corporate Rock Sucks’ emblazoned on it, to explain why they were passing up such an opportunity and doing things themselves.

In 1998, they made their sole full-length album, the masterful On The Outside, awarded 5/5, just as their One Day At A Time mini-album was. With heavier songs and a growing songwriting confidence, it was a truly brilliant work. The band headed to Warped Tour in America, opened for Metallica at Milton Keynes Bowl, and opened for then biggest-band-around No Doubt (where Ross would fall onstage at Brixton Academy and annihilate his knee).

As 2000 dawned, the band fractured and split suddenly. With no farewell gig or proper send off, it felt like an inglorious end for one of the best British bands of their time. Guitarist Will McGonagle and drummer Joe Birch formed the successful Hell Is For Heroes, but for years, you couldn’t even find Symposium’s music on Spotify. Earlier this year, that changed. The recordings were put up, a Best Of was announced – Do You Remember How It Was?, a line from Farewell To Twilight – and best of all, on November 17, for the first time in 23 years, Symposium played live again, a one-off show at Islington Assembly Hall.

It was incredible. Not just to see Ross, Will, Joe, bassist Wojtek Godzisz and guitarist Hagop Tchaparian together again, but because that energy of youth gone wild hasn’t dimmed. The excitement and fun that fuelled the band’s brilliant songs remains as energetic as it was when Blair was still Prime Minister.

“I'm still on a high,” says Wojtek, analysing the night. “I’ve still not come down yet. Maybe I never will. Hopefully never will.”

We caught up with him and Ross to look at what happened the night Symposium finally came home, their rise and rise in the ’90s, and being told to record in bathrobes by Killing Joke…

The show was incredible. It felt exactly as it did the first time. How was it for you?
Wojtek: “I don't think any of us have really processed it properly. I mean, I couldn't process it for days, like, ‘What just happened?’ And beforehand, we were saying, ‘What are we actually about to do?’ And then during the gig, we were like, ‘What are we doing on here?’ And then afterwards, ‘What just happened?’ It's still bit like that, but we know that it was amazing. It was just mainly the overwhelming feeling of kind of warmth, and love and happiness and kind of shared stuff between us.”
Ross: “It was probably the most important gig of my life, to be honest. It's been 20-odd years since I've been on a stage, so it was just releasing all of this energy. I thought about the band more or less every day for the past 23 years. So for me, it was the whole experience was really cathartic. Just meeting up with the four other guys and just spending time with them as people was lovely.

“I knew it would be good, because most of the people that came to see us, they're all a similar age to us, and we were just teenagers anyway, you know, back in the ’90s. So our core audience had a kinship with us. And nothing's changed. People went crazy. It was like a mass therapy session. It was almost like a ’90s time machine. The whole gig totally encapsulated. What Symposium was, what a Symposium gig is. We've got a few more responsibilities that were a bit older and stuff. But that's about it. Nothing's changed.”

You didn’t make it through the first song before you stage-dived, Ross…
Ross: “Yeah! I remember when we got there thinking, ‘This stage is massive, it's too high, and the gap’s massive – there’s no way I'm going off this into the crowd.’ But then we got halfway through the first tune, and it was like, ‘Let's just do it.’ It’s a Symposium gig. I was getting away with things that as a 43 or 44 year old man, you know, you wouldn't normally have the gall to do…”
Wojtek: “It was completely uncontrived as well. I remember you vividly saying, just before we went on, ‘I'm not sure I'm gonna go in. During Drink The Sunshine and the next one, I think I'm just gonna stand there.’ And then you couldn't keep yourself on the stage!”

Whose idea was it to get back together?
Wojtek: “Everyone was asking us why our stuff wasn’t on streaming services. So when Cooking Vinyl approached us and said that they'd be happy to reissue all our old stuff, we were like, ‘Oh, fantastic.’ Then they said, ‘Why don't you just do a gig?’ We weren't really going to do anything, but we thought that would be pretty good. I remember talking to David Riley from Cooking Vinyl, who’s now our manager, about it. Then I went into the garden and sat on a deck chair, and rang, everyone to suggest it. I remember Will’s words were, ‘Yeah, none of that sounds too offensive.’”

How did it feel to have Symposium in the diary again?
Ross: “I just didn't think this would ever happen again. And for me it was just the best thing, knowing that I was getting back together with my old friends to do this show. It meant so much to me. I’d buried it, totally buried the whole thing. For my own mental health, I had to bury it, and say, ‘Oh, that was just something I'd done 20 years ago,’ and just try and forget about it. I loved the band so much, and playing live, it meant so much. Even if we don't do anymore, that one was great.”

Let’s talk about the ’90s. You got massive really quickly. It felt like you were in Kerrang! every week…
Wojtek: “Someone said to me it was like a firework – it shot up very quickly, exploded with a lot of colour and noise and energy, got everyone's attention, and then just very rapidly disappeared into the night sky, never to be seen again, just a lingering smell of gunpowder left in the air maybe… The glory years were ’97, ’98 in terms of being in the charts. And as you say, you couldn't open a music paper on any given week without reading about ourselves in it. Which is crazy when you think about it now. And we did Top Of The Pops, TFI Friday… I'm so grateful to have them to look back on, especially Top Of The Pops, as that was done live. Loads of people mimed, but we always thought you're not a proper band unless you're all playing your instruments and doing it properly.”

You always had a pretty punky, do-it-for-real approach…
Wojtek: “Yeah. One of the defining aspects of that whole time for me was that we had such creative control and freedom. That's one of the reasons we signed to Infectious Records, because we had freedom – what was on the cover, what singles would be released, what would be the tracklisting, what videos… Which was unheard of, and I only appreciate that fully now. Back then I think part of us thought this was just how it is, so that was strange. It was almost too much power – we've got to make video. What video do you want to make? I dunno. So we’d just pick a video director we liked, or we picked a video we liked and said, ‘Can we get that?’ And the label would say, ‘Yeah, we'll ask him.’ Same with producers, we’d just ask people. Butch Vig said no, so we had to make do with someone else…”

One of whom was Martin ‘Youth’ Glover from Killing Joke, who also produced U2. No pressure…
Wojtek: “Yeah, Youth did Bury You and Paint The Stars. But we had a real patchwork of producers, for better or worse, and the main ones were Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who did Madness. Youth is amazing. He would sketch us. Just constantly sketching. He didn't plug a single thing in or touch a single switch, engineers did all that, and he would just chill. He was either skinning up or just drawing us are just asking us the most random philosophical questions. There was there was a time when something wasn't quite working in Olympic Studios, we weren't quite getting the take we wanted. They’d randomly brought down these white, fluffy, branded bathrobes for us all. Youth insisted that we all take our clothes off and do another take with the robes on. And it worked!”
Ross: “I remember walking about the studio and bumping into that band Mansun. DJ Shadow was in there as well, and Massive Attack. We had a few awkward conversations with various people in the kitchen area, going, ‘What are you all in bathrobes for?’ ‘I dunno, but it’s working!’”

What was it like having that kind of rise?
Wojtek: “Imposter syndrome is a new thing, but there was a bit of that. Our first gig after being signed was supporting Red Hot Chili Peppers at Wembley Arena. We didn't know which way the audience was facing, you're blinded by lights, and there's a bit of feedback, and you just sort of plow into your set as best you can. Because you have no experience of this wildly alien scenario. ‘What the fuck are we doing up here and what's happening?’ And it was pretty much like that throughout our career.”
Ross: “Symposium happened at the right time and the right age for us. We were young and we definitely didn't know what we were doing. And we didn't really think about it. All we knew is that we had some songs. We just wanted to play them and play live and have fun.”

You were one of the first British bands to do Warped Tour. What was that like?
Ross: “That was a good thing. I loved that whole tour. You’d just go onstage for half an hour at any random point during the day, come off, go skating with Deftones, have a barbecue, go and watch some other bands. And then you just do the same thing every day. Personally, I could have stayed on that tour for a good few years. It was like going on holiday.”
Wojtek: “On that tour, we were going into Canada, and we all got turfed off the bus, they were searching for drugs. We had to go through passport control with NOFX at three in the morning in our pants. It wasn't a pleasant sight for anyone.”

The band ended really suddenly, with no final show or anything. What happened?
Wojtek: “I had to sort of unplug myself. There were just too many separate events happening that I didn't know how to handle or cope with or deal with. So I said no to it all, and took a step back and unplugged myself from it. I have some really sad memories from around that time. One is Will and Joe being at my doorstep, and me explaining myself. I said to them, ‘If there's anything you want me to help with or do going forward, let me know.’ And I think Joe said, ‘Well, how about you write a few songs and starting a band with us…’”
Ross: “We were all pretty burnt out. We’d been on the road with each other since we were pretty young, for years on end, touring, doing all this insane stuff and having all these amazing experiences. I think it took its toll a bit on us, maybe. But to me, it was almost like a bereavement. It was like, ‘I've lost something that I’m never gonna get back.’ It was not a good time for me personally, because I didn't have any plan B. I just had a plan A, and that was doing this band. That's it. I was like, ‘I'm not doing anything else. I can't cope in the real world. I can't even I can't even get job. I don't even have any bloody qualifications.’ So I was really up Shit Creek when the band ended. Luckily, a friend got me a job in IT, and I stuck at that.”

Having had it end without a proper full-stop, did the reunion gig feel like you’d tied everything up?
Ross: “It was the most emotional show that I've done, and the most important show of my whole life. There were points where I was so overcome with emotion, looking at the people in the audience singing and people going crazy, and I had to just pull myself together.”
Wojtek: “Afterwards, a friend called Tom McShane, who actually did the photography for a lot of our stuff – he did the cover of One Day At A Time and Drink The Sunshine – asked me how it felt. One of the words I used was that it felt like a victory of sorts. And he said, ‘Oh, come on, man, saying it's a victory makes it sound like there was some sort of battle.’ But it has been a bit like a battle. What we're battling with, what I was battling with, I still don't really know. But it does feel like I've won some sort of war in myself, if that makes any sense at all, which probably doesn't.

“Whether it was the final gig, a farewell, or whether it's the first gig of a new thing definitely still remains to be seen. Either way, it was just a wonderful celebration of either an end, or beginning. Or both…”

Symposium's Do You Remember How It Was? 1996 – 1999 Best Of is out now

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