by Stefania Ianne
The intro to ‘Unknown Harbours’ accompanies the band’s entrance on stage at The Lexington: a trendy London pub on the ground floor with a hidden live venue on the first floor. I’m surprised to see five musicians on stage. Robin Proper-Sheppard has spared no expense for his first London gig in years. Sophia is promoted as a collective, but it is actually the brainchild of one person, RPS, marking a spectacular shift since his beginnings in the nineties with The God Machine, a moody Californian band displaying a subtly powerful musicality, unheard of at the time. Now a cult band, The God Machine ended their adventure with the death of bass player Jimmy Fernandez. In the nineties, the music created by The God Machine proved that the malaise de vivre exists even in artificially cheerful places on earth. So much so that, at the time, a review of their first CD, Scenes from the Second Storey, wondered in amazement about what would be so upsetting in California to generate so much sadness.
Tonight Proper-Sheppard reminds us that, when he reinvented himself as Sophia, with an acoustic solo guitar to accompany his sadness, we, the audience, hated it. No one felt the need to listen to yet another singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, while there is always room for ‘a kick-ass band’, in his own words. The audience in the room cheers with approval. Clearly, there are many God Machine fans in the venue and they will not be disappointed, Sophia are ready to blow the place up tonight. Enigmatic, clever, nothing transpires from Proper-Sheppard’s facial features, which at times tonight appear, in my eyes, to be very Mexican, for some reason. It must be centuries since my last Sophia gig: was it the Water Rats or the Barfly in London? Probably both. In any case, it was a lifetime ago. The last image I have in my memory is that of Robin Proper-Sheppard with a few beers in his hand, charming his fans in the venue just before the gig. A few beers too many would not help him on stage that night, especially in the discordant introduction to ‘Ship in the Sand’. I remember lots of laughter on stage and an acoustic concert; a keyboardist as his only fellow musician. Tonight he seems much more focused on the performance. I catch him marching with his long strides up and down the room, probably to define the last details of the show.
And on stage? Sophia’s latest recording is a well-rehearsed blend of RPS classics with a touch of God Machine as a side dish. Tonight they start by playing As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours) in its entirety from the first note to the last. The volume? Very high. Three guitars, three keyboards, bass and drums, the space on stage is not enough for all the gear they brought. Proper-Sheppard has some roaming space around him, but the space reserved for the main guitar in front of me is squashed in between keyboards on one side, amplifiers and an infinite number of pedals fixed to the floor. As we shall see soon, freedom of movement for the guitarist appears to be critical. Throughout the evening, those of us in front of him are terrified that he will trip and fall on us as he seems to be in a trance, carried away by the music throughout. A natural talent.
The music played by The God Machine used to put its listeners into a musically-induced trance through musical repetition at very high volumes. And tonight we seem to go back in time: the new musicians that surround Proper-Sheppard appear completely lost in music, converted to the new ‘Sophistic’ creed, they all seem to be in a trance. Proximity to the musicians also helps the audience lose touch with reality. Music as a religion, faithful fans: in the venue, I see so many people who probably have not seen any gigs for a decade. There are also a couple of girls who can sing every lyric. In the venue, a silence that is almost religious. A bloke screams, from the back: ‘Amazing to have you back, Robin!’ ‘Amazing to be back’, Robin replies with a cheeky, satisfied smile.
There is a conspicuous lack of movement in the venue, but all the heads are moving in unison to punctuate the rhythm, despite the tiredness of the body. Robin Proper-Sheppard has an amazing background: he no longer has a home or, rather, he never had one. He does not consider California to be his home – definitely not – while Europe has banished him because he lived as a resident in Europe for decades without a permit. A ‘Drifter’, a person living on the edge of borders, difficult to categorise, a man in constant motion. The full performance of As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours) is over in a blip, and in the second half of the concert Sophia are back to basics, back to beloved songs like ‘Bad Man’ and (death comes) ‘So Slow’. All songs resonate as being very personal and very painful.
I must say that the performance seems all too short tonight: ‘This is London, there is a curfew!’ The legendary London curfew, at 11 pm on the dot. Robin says (I’m paraphrasing): ‘If we were in Europe, we will continue to party until dawn and you would sing all my songs, even if you wouldn’t understand a single word’. The finale is fireworks, with ‘Desert Song No. 2’ and the guitarist’s karate movements and sometimes excessive use of pedals and tremolo looking for unusual effects. All in all, I find it impossible to describe the explosive energy of the guitarist’s performance while being forced into a 50cm square space hardly able to contain his body; a contagious implosion while our veins throb out of our bodies, our heartbeat amplified in the wave of noise that is investing us. For once, the volume levels are right and the sound is not distorted by excessive amplification for the venue, as it happens far too often in the UK. The sound man does his job properly.
Having retuned their stressed guitar strings for the umpteenth time, Sophia conclude with a song among the first created under the Sophia moniker: ‘River Song’, a deceitful song, subtly powerful in pure God Machine style. We are no longer interested in the lyrics, the audience at The Lexington wills the musicians to push the volume higher and higher and the guitars grow in intensity and power by stealth. Finally, the guitarist, who stands a few centimetres in front of me, loses control of his plectrum, sent flying in slow motion towards me. It will become my souvenir for this sweaty, psychedelic evening.