DAVID THOMAS: PERE UBU – WORRIED MAN BLUES
The experimental art, noise group release the next chapter of their journey following 2019’s ‘The Long Goodbye’, which waved off the band’s first phase following a grand total of 18 studio albums. Pere Ubu now begin a new chapter and, almost 4 years on from their last album, founder and songwriter David Thomas brings together a fresh lineup to tell this story. The new record, ‘Trouble On Big Beat Street’, fuses noir-style cool jazz and Southern blues with hyperactive dance-pop rhythms and nonsensical lyrics that takes particular inspiration from David’s love of Beach Boys’ collaborator Van Dyke Parks and his definition of ‘The Song’. I speak to David about Van Dyke’s influence, driving around the blues trail in America, visa red tape and what’s coming up next for the band.
How long had you been working on this album since the last one?
Not that long. I think we started it last January; probably finished it somewhere over the summer. It takes a long time once we finished it to get it out. The last album, ‘The Long Goodbye’, was meant to wrap up all of the stories that Pere Ubu has been recording that made up the albums over the last number of years. I knew that we were going to start the ideas that we would start on the next project; the next chapter.
I thought about that for a while and in the end I settled on what Brian Wilson had showed back when he was doing ‘Smiley Smile’. He had just recorded ‘Good Vibrations’, which was still considered to be the perfect rock-pop single, and he knew that he had to create the perfect album for it to go on. He teamed up with Van Dyke Parks, started on it and received a lot of derision from the other members of the band, The Beach Boys. He had some problems with drugs and emotional issues and in the end, he abandoned the album/had it taken away from him. And in that process, he had in fact created the perfect album because, along the way, he recorded countless alternate versions of the songs with sections of the songs. I have many, many, many bootlegs of all of those, or most of those sections.
So he indeed did create the perfect album because it only exists in the imagination of the listeners to all of those bootlegs – ‘you’ve put this section because, oh, this section should go with that section and oh no, there’d be a third thing here’ and on and on and on, so you the listener creates the perfect album. Now later he did record ‘[Smiley] Smile’ with Van Dyke and in that this, ‘that’s this or that’ doesn’t really enter into the picture. I wanted to go about creating the perfect way of working, which would be as much as possible to create the space in the imagination of the listener.
You’ve been influenced by Van Dyke’s work for a long time. Why did it take you 53 years to define that?
Because things don’t all happen at once: it takes time and things need to be settled on. I started in on the current project back in the ‘90s with the band Dave Thomas and Two Pale Boys. The Pale Boys were assembled as the shock troops for Pere Ubu: I would begin to prepare Pere Ubu and my working methods and personnel for what eventually came. I worked over the long term; I’m not in the pop business: I assemble things step-by-step and proceed step-by-step.
Can you explain the recording process in how the band played each song once?
We got together; we did performances over our live streaming show DPK TV. We did some shows at Cafe Oto, a sort of improv club in London and we would just get together and create – that’s how it happened. Some of the songs were pulled from the Cafe Oto sessions; many were pulled from get- togethers for live broadcasts, live concerts on DPK TV and because I recorded everything, I took those elements and corrected them when needs be and then added some things here and there. That was basically it.
The tracklist is made up of 17 parts with the CD format. The extra tracks on the CD – what’s the significance of including those and did you debate about including them at all?
We had to have the album out on vinyl. I’m not a big fan of vinyl but there you go, lots of people are. On vinyl there are time limitations: anything more than 20 to 23 minutes is really not good quality. I chose the 10 songs that would be the album, that would go on the vinyl release. Other various people in the band were concerned that the extra 7 tracks would just be lost and well, at that time, that’s what was gonna happen. Maybe one or two would show up somewhere along the way. But there was quite an impetus from everybody else to include them on the CD. Now what we did with that was that we gave the [record] company the right to put up the 7 songs on the CD, but they remain our property; they can’t do anything else with them. And they can’t charge more for the CD, because it’s got 17 songs. That was how we handled it. I didn’t particularly want to do it, but there really was a very strong feeling that they couldn’t be lost.
Did you know what the main tracks were going to be?
It took me some time. I had 17 songs and I had to get it down to 10. I knew what the times were and I figured 10 songs is generally it. Some songs are obvious; others literally up until a few minutes before I sent it to the mastering engineer, I changed one of the songs, one of the 10. It took some time to sort through it; I was interested in the 10 songs chosen specifically telling the story that I wanted to tell and it was a very hard decision for some of them.
Do you mind if we talk about some of the tracks and what they’re about? For instance, what’s a ‘moss covered boodongle’?
I’m afraid I’m not really very good on that sort of thing. When I go about writing songs, I write a series of stories or I write one story from that story. I write the songs and sometimes there’s one or two songs per story and, other times, the whole batch of them is about that story.
“I’m not in the pop business: I assemble things step-by-step and proceed step-by-step.”
‘Worried Man Blues’ – you were telling a story at the beginning of that. Is there anything that influenced you with that specific track?
Yeah, that all derives from when I would just drive around in America. When it was particularly a time to write something, I would just spin off in the car and go places. That particular event comes from hours exploring US 49 in Arkansas and [I] crossed over the Mississippi at St. Helena: US 49 intersects Highway 61 in Clarksdale and Highway 61 and US 49 intersection is the crossroads that Robert Johnson and all kinds of blues people sang about. Now at the crossroads there is a Laundromat on one corner and across the street is a Popeyes fried chicken restaurant. So I just made the story, you go into the Popeyes and Bob Dylan and Alan Lomax are behind the counter; Muddy Waters is the manager and he’s bussing tables. You pull up to the speakerphone order menu and Howlin Wolf’ “how, how, how?” [is there]…that’s the story I came up with to describe my feelings about that event.
You included jazz and blues elements throughout the album. Was that a conscious thing because of the new lineup with Andy Diagram?
Each get-together we would improvise and sometimes it came out one way and sometimes it came out another way. There’s all sorts of things that never worked out and there were 17 things that did work out. We just created.
What happened with the lineup – Andy Diagram, Alex Ward and Jack Jones?
I ran across Alex because we have this live streaming show, DPK TV: people send things in and he had sent in a cover he performed of one of my songs, ‘[The] Long Rain’, and it was really good. I sent him a message saying, “Do you want to be in the band?” He’d been a lifelong fan and he said, “Yeah! I’d like to be in the band.” So he was in the band. Andy, as you know, I’ve worked with for decades in The Pale Boys; he’s been in and out of various versions of Pere Ubu at various times and I was interested in his input. So that’s how it came together. Jack Jones is just somebody I…
…met in a pub apparently?
Well, yeah. That’s literally true. Jack Jones is a fake name for somebody who doesn’t want to be identified.
You’ve got the Crocodile and Disasto tour dates this year including London and there’s US dates with Mike Watt and FaUST. What is you relationship with Mike Watt?
Mike and I are longtime friends. We’ve done some work together years and years ago. We would run into each other on the road and I’ve always enjoyed his work, his band, his performances.
Why were certain band members unable to tour in the US?
Because of the US visa restrictions! We started the process a long time ago. We were advised that we allowed plenty of time, but the time ran out, and basically it involved me spending $10,000 on the off chance on the best-case scenario of five days’ free time at the end of the process and that was just an impossibility; it just was not going to work. We’re going to keep trying for the US ban but now instead of seven months, we’re gonna leave nine months before we do leeway time – it’s just maddening.
It’s given you the opportunity as you said to ‘make Pere Ubu outside of America’…
The quote-unquote English band is Pere Ubu and I’m not devising an American band, but I’m working with some people who lead their own bands and we’ll create something pretty cool. I’ve worked with them all before so I know what I’m doing.
Your radio show, ‘Stay Sick, Turn Blue’, you started recently and interviewed Van Dyke Parks. What else can we look forward to? Who else have you got lined up for interviews?
We’ve got Mayo Thompson coming up next talking about psychedelics and Texas in the ‘60s; I’d like to interview Henry Rollins.
You released the ‘Nuke The Whales’ boxset and also have a Record Store Day release?
Yeah, well, that was running through box sets. I think we’ve completed them all now. So yeah I enjoy the process of preparing those things. ‘Ray Gun Suitcase’ is finally gonna come out on vinyl. As I said, I’m not a huge fan of vinyl but people like the stuff so that’ll be good to have.
Is there any other news on the horizon for Pere Ubu?
We’re always working; we’re always planning and devising things. We’re getting offers in for things around Europe over the summer and into the fall, so I imagine some of those will happen. Every day I fall further and further behind and we just keep plugging away and trying to get one thing done after another really. Hopefully we’ll have some more things after June in the UK. We’ve been wanting to do some more small places improv and maybe starting to work on the next album. We’re always on the lookout for something where we can just show up and play as opposed to making a big production with all that involves, which is fine, it’s just tiring to do the big production stuff. We’re looking at putting a little show together in Margate. But again, every day I fall further behind. It’ll show up some of these days.
Pere Ubu’s new studio album, ‘Trouble on Big Beat Street’, is out now and the band play the UK in June.
Photos © Brian David Stevens.
© Ayisha Khan.
ROD ARGENT: THE ZOMBIES – HUNG UP ON A DREAM
After a three-year delay caused by Covid and illness, The Zombies finally release their new studio album, ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’, eight years on from their last release. Over half a century after their highly influential yet commercially unsuccessful album, ‘Odessey & Oracle’, the new record follows the band’s classic blueprint whilst incorporating new elements to their sound with the help of a strong new lineup and production team. Following The Zombies’ live stream from Abbey Road studios in 2021 during which they performed some of the new tracks for the first time, they play SXSW festival, also premiering a new feature film entitled ‘Hung Up On A Dream’ – a retrospective documentary of the band that leads up to its current phase. After interviewing vocalist Colin Blunstone in 2021, I now speak to band co-founder and keyboard extraordinaire, Rod Argent, about the new album and tour, recording with John Lennon’s Mellotron, constructing The Zombies’ most commercially successful single to date and what it was like being stranded in the Arizona desert for five hours.
Congratulations on the new album. You played at Abbey Road studios in 2021. What did it feel like emotionally to be playing there again 50 years after recording ‘Odessey & Oracle’ there?
I’ve got some really lovely memories of Abbey Road. In fact one of the lovely memories I’ve got is all this stuff I did with Argent my second band; a lot of that was done at Abbey Road as well. We got in touch with some of the most wonderful engineers for ‘Odessey & Oracle’: working with people like Jeff Emerick and Peter Vince was just a joy. They were very special sound engineers and the whole thing about Abbey Road is that perfect combination of old school and experimentation; certainly during the 60s, you had the best of both worlds. It felt like just being there yesterday; so familiar, because I’ve actually done quite a few things at Abbey Road. The ‘Odessey & Oracle’ album was the first time that we’d been in a situation where we produced our own album; we were in complete control of how everything should sound. So it was a very happy experience all around and the help that we got from the engineers there was terrific; they were always so friendly. Nothing was hard; it was lovely to just revisit.
And also you played some of the new album tracks, was that the first time you had played those?
It was and that was scary – really scary. Because like everyone else we’d just been through COVID; we hadn’t played for two years. I’m not sure that we could even get together and rehearse before we did it. We just walked in and played the first couple of tracks on the live show. That was very hairy. But we settled in after two or three tracks and then started to really enjoy a more comfortable experience – it was lovely.
The flowers in ‘Time of The Season’ were very strange…
It was very strange and was supposed to be a surprise for us, so we had no idea what was coming.
Can you share some of your memories of the 50th anniversary of ‘Odessey & Oracle’ tour?
Initially it was Chris White’s idea – we hadn’t really played for many, many years – that we should get the original guys back together again and do one concert at Shepherd’s Bush in 2008. We agreed to do that and we thought it was going to be quite a small, intimate affair but I very much wanted that, if we were going to do it, we should actually do it by reproducing every single overdub and note that was on the original album. We also got our current incarnation, everyone from the current band as well, working on those shows so that we could double up and use every harmony that was on the original album. We got Darian Sahanaja (Wondermints) who knows the original Mellotron that I did, better than I did, and he did the most wonderful job playing the parts; we even got Chris [White’s] wife to tape some of the high falsetto that I did on the original album, because we had more tracks than the original four tracks that we used to record back in the very early days. It was a very happy experience.
It sold out completely at Shepherd’s Bush; it turned out to be a three-day experience. But I remember an hour before we went on really getting scared: I thought this could be the worst night of my life because if it doesn’t work – we only had one rehearsal – it’s just gonna be awful and I’d want the place to swallow me up. Our manager of the time came backstage and said Snow Patrol and Robert Plant are here. Oh my God! I hope this is not a disaster if it doesn’t work. Someone said Paul Weller’s lining up outside in the queue and it’s raining. I said, “For God’s sake bring him in!” He came in and was absolutely delightful; this makes panicking worse. But I could tell within the first 10 minutes on stage that this was going to work beautifully and we had the most glorious night. So one night turned into three and then people started talking about us reprising it. Paul Weller had tickets for all three nights and bought us some wonderful champagne. I remember him saying, “That was really fantastic, but don’t keep doing it will you?” I completely agreed with that. But somehow we found ourselves doing a reprising the following year touring around the UK, and then the American management said we’ve got to mount this in America. I remember us saying we’ll do it; we’ll make this the 50th anniversary celebration. This was two or three years later and that will be it; after that year we won’t ever do that, but we’d dedicate the year to that. We did a big tour of America and Europe as well and it was hugely successful. We had this big entourage with us – 15 people on stage – because as I said, we wanted to reprise every single note from the original album and I think that we did that really successfully. So it was a lovely experience, but that was enough. That was more than 50 years ago now.
Why did you postpone your UK tour dates?
We couldn’t finish [the album] until COVID was over because it was very important to us to all be in the same room together in a way that we used to record many years ago, so that all the musicians can bounce off each other. I thought that was very, very important and that it was a self-produced album. I produced it with Dale Hanson and Mark was our live sound engineer; we had a ball producing it. So after COVID allowed us all to get back in the studio again, we got everything finished. It was a year before the release of the album because the management company had to get the right record company, do all the procedure that has to go into a record being finished off and mastered. We got that all in place. It was driving me mad that it couldn’t come out.
I also had to have a small operation on my eye. This UK tour that we’re doing now is the third attempt of the original tour. We haven’t played in the UK for so long. We just did 75 gigs last year in the US and Europe. This is just a postponed version and we finally got there. But it was because of various health things and then COVID came onto the scene as well: a couple of guys got COVID and then Colin and I got COVID. It’s just this weird time that everybody’s been through.
You’ve got SXSW coming up and you’re premiering a feature documentary there?
I’m really looking forward to SXSW, that’s where the album is going to be premiered. We’ve played there before. The first time I played it I was very worried about that as well. I thought, “Oh my God! The night we’re playing, Prince is virtually next door.” We had a great time; it went down stupendously well. What was a real factor in part of the Renaissance that we’ve recently had in America was just extraordinary. We’ve played really big places in America now. When we first went over there, we were playing to just a handful of people down south. Now places are rammed and we can have audiences of thousands, which is great. I’m really looking forward to SXSW and I’m glad the album is being premiered there.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the documentary but because we were managed so badly when we started, there’s almost no live footage of us through this, especially in those early years. I was wondering how it would turn out. The [director] was very committed though; Robert Schwartzman [is] very pleased with what he’s got. Our management was very excited about it because [SXSW] have to see the film and agree that they want to premiere it there, so they must have reacted really well to it. I’m crossing my fingers.
You were more commercially successful in America, do you see the resonance of that today?
The extraordinary thing is in America we always have a young component in the audience. It’s not people that have just followed us from the old days; we have people of all ages in the audience. Thank God for that – that’s great. The energy you get back is fantastic. Someone did an algorithm looking at all the streams we get online and unbelievably most of our streaming audience are between the ages of 22 and 37, which I thought was absolutely amazing. So we have got a young audience as well as people that have followed us all the way through.
Is it retrospective, covering your whole history as a band? Did they talk to some of the other band members from the original lineup?
Yeah, absolutely. There’ve been many, many hours of filming and us talking for very long periods of time. It’s called ‘Hung Up On A Dream’. Robert Schwartzman is an enormous fan of ‘Odessey & Oracle’. That was his primary feeling about it, but he’s also a musician and he supported us on part of a tour and took some live footage as well of some of the things that we’re doing now. He got much more interested in what’s happening now. I’m hoping it’s going to be as full a picture as possible. But yes, certainly he’s talking about the early days and a lot of coverage with Chris and Hugh [Grundy]. Sadly, Paul Atkinson is not with us anymore.
“When we first went over to America, we were playing to just a handful of people down south. Now places are rammed and we can have audiences of thousands”.
How did you get to grips with the Mellotron when you found it in the studio and how has it shaped the band over its history?
It became a very important part certainly of ‘Odessey & Oracle’. It was only there because John Lennon we believe was the guy that left it behind; The Beatles that just recorded Sergeant Pepper, walked out of the studio and a week later we were in there and I just used it. I just leapt on it really; at the time I thought this would be a great way to fill out some of the songs and we couldn’t afford an orchestra because we had a very small budget. So this would be a substitute, but it was much more than a substitute, because it has a sound of its own. In the end that was much more characteristic and interesting than a score or having someone score for us orchestral parts; it became a very personal contribution. And like on ‘Care of Cell 44’, everything was done very quickly. We didn’t have time to do an off-session set. Usually one or two passes with the Mellotron; goodness knows why it was so successful, but it did work artistically successfully. I think that some of the engineers there – Jeff Emerick and Peter Vince – were playing a big part in that because they got such a beautiful sound out of it immediately. Because we had to record ‘Odessey & Oracle’ so quickly, the tracks had a real freshness about them and all that went to add to the success of how the album was recorded and how it turned out. The whole experience was really good; the Mellotron is on half the album and I became one of the first people to use a Mellotron substantially on an album, but it wasn’t through any doing of mine – it was just because it was there.
Did you use it on this new album?
No. The whole thing about this album is that we’ve never been a ‘vintage band’. The only reason that I’ve been doing this for 20 years, this incarnation, is because I want to do things for real; I want to look forward and I want to create and go and get the energy, excitement, enjoyment and satisfaction that I get from creative writing and playing with such a great band now.
Now digitally there’s limitless tracks you can record with, but it’s interesting how you retain the same way of recording back then as a live band performance.
It’s not the question of us still doing that. I’ve produced loads of albums, for instance, I produced this album that sold four million [copies] around the world and that was done in a completely layered way. I’ve been through every form of recording and producing. But it was particularly with this album – because we were coming off that tour in America where I don’t think the band ever sounded so good and we just loved the way that the band listens to each other, the way it reacts with everything that’s going on – that we wanted to bring that approach; look back to the way we used to have to record, because there was no other way in those days, and reinvent that for ourselves. So that’s why we didn’t want to do anything remotely on this album. We wanted to wait until everyone could be in the studio together and try and capture that magic of a performance, which somehow the sum is greater than the parts.
When you work in this way you go to the old-fashioned way of recording; you’re responding to Colin’s guide vocal. He almost has always had the lead vocal, apart from ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’ where we swapped vocals. It means Colin sings slightly differently because he’s reacted to how we are playing; each member of the band reacts differently to what each person is playing. We just minorly adjust what we’re doing at the time to what you’re hearing. It’s a very exciting way to do it and a much more enjoyable way to perform and record; we wanted to get that and the band is good enough to do that. You have to have a good band to do that. We didn’t use any clip tracks; we just did things as we used to in the old days. That was a very conscious decision, to go back to that way of doing things and we found out that very often – like on the track ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’ – that was pretty much a live vocal. We kept it. We didn’t turn our back on technology at all; I’ve got all the latest stuff in my studio. And actually strangely enough, the studio was acoustically designed by John Flynn who did the Abbey Road studios. So that was a lovely association. It means that each track was recorded in its basic form in about four hours. It meant that you might do say, three or four tracks where you felt you were approaching what was really good, but it didn’t really have any sort of magic about it. And then suddenly, something will click and everyone for a few minutes is on the same wavelength; you listen back and think that’s got something special about it and you can’t quantify what that is. But it was a process that we enjoyed very, very much indeed.
“I became one of the first people to use a Mellotron substantially on an album, but it wasn’t through any doing of mine – it was just because it was there.”
There’s a track called ‘Rediscover’ where we were on tour with The Beach Boys and I just fancied writing the first part of the song – just the eight bars – as acapella vocals and do it with dissonance and some unusual voicings, because I’ve listened to The Beach Boys and really enjoying their set. I did that just for the first eight bars and then the song develops and goes into a more conventional thing. So we laid that separately, that first eight bars, because I had one to four harmonies on it. I had to tell people ‘Could you sing this?’ and then ‘Could you sing that?’ But apart from that it was live. The vocals on the rest of that song for instance – they sound really cool – were just three or four of us around one mic, going back to an old way of doing things.
When you’re songwriting, how does that relate to when you’re writing for Colin’s vocals? Does that ever come into your mind?
It always comes into my mind. We’ve been friends since we were 16-years-old and I’ve been writing my songs for Colin and his range and the characteristics of his voice; I know it so well now that I have a pretty good idea. I’m not always right: sometimes a song that I think will be so easy for him and comfortable doesn’t turn out to be and another time I think this is gonna sound great in his range. I know when he gets a certain edge in his voice; a certain pitch, I might think he’s gonna have a little bit of trouble with that and he’ll just be all over it and great. With ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’ it was pretty much one of the first takes that we did. Colin always says he grew up learning to sing my songs and I grew up learning to write for Colin’s voice. So that’s something that helps us, but it’s just as exciting. When we start the process of the song, if I can get excited about an idea, I’ll work it out in its primitive form by myself – just voice and piano – and then I’ll get Colin round and see if he likes it and if it sounds good with his voice and suits him; almost always the key is correct. We’re working from there and then we play it to the band. If it really starts happening with the band then it’s just really part of a very exciting process and very, very satisfying. That’s what we’re doing.
Can you tell me about your argument with Colin when you were recording ‘Time of The Season’?
That was quite funny. The track had been recorded with a guide vocal but Colin was putting the master vocal on. He was getting a bit fed up with it; he was looking at the clock and we’ll come to the end of the session. But I kept saying, “Can you just push that note a little bit or that phrase? It needs to be a bit like this.” And he said, “If you’re so fucking good, you come and it!” And I said, “Colin, come on.” But the whole thing about ‘Time of The Season’, when we did the main track not the lead vocal, we did what we rehearsed and the harmonies that we rehearsed and it sounded great. Jeff Emerick got the most fabulous sound out of the Tom Tom and bass drum; the “boom, boom, boom” and putting a backbeat to the side – “boom, boom, boom, clap, clap” – that was it really but it still sounded good. Then we had half an hour left on the session – and this is a typical thing that happens on ‘Odessey & Oracle’ – I said to Hugh, our drummer, “It sounds great. There’s a great sound on the drums but I can hear a clap just before the backbeat and an ‘ahhhh’ afterwards.” So ‘boom, boom, boom, clap, clap’ became ‘boom, boom, boom, clap, clap, ahhhh!’. I said, “Do you just wanna do that?” [Hugh] said, “No, you do it.” One take and Jeff got fantastic sound. We didn’t think anything more of it, but it became a sort of signature. Because we had a couple of extra tracks to what we were used to, we managed to put down everything that we prepared but then also, any momentary inspiration or an intuitive feeling, we could bung that on as well. There was a freshness because it had to be done so quickly; it often worked and it could be an extra harmony going over the top of something as it was in ‘Changes’ or it could be Chris saying to me, “Why don’t you try a bit of Mellotron on that bit?” And I say, “Yeah, I’m happy to do that.” It was all very quick. Such a satisfying experience.
The current lineup of the band, how does that compare to playing with the original lineup?
They’re different things. But I love the current band: I don’t think the band has ever sounded as good as it does at the moment but then they’re the band I’m on stage with all the time and it just feels very exciting to play with them. I absolutely love where the band is at the moment. I’m not putting down the original band – that had its own character and was great – but I do feel personally that the songs on this album are some of the best songs that I’ve written and some people are reacting beautifully to it saying it’s the best album that we’ve have done since ‘Odessey & Oracle’.
I can hear classic Zombies and bits of ‘Odessey & Oracle’ – was that intentional or did it just come out organically?
It’s never analysed or scrutinised; it’s just really taking an idea and trying to develop it in the way that you naturally feel it. That’s what we’ve always done. In the old days often we didn’t have immediate commercial success because we weren’t copying exactly what was the current hit and record company executives always said to us, ‘what you need to do is something a bit more like this or that.’ We’ve never done that and I couldn’t do that anyway; I wouldn’t want to. You’ve only got one life; you’ve got to try and express yourself. Not everything may come on but when you get to the end of it, you can look back and say, “Well I gave it my best shot.” I think that’s the way to approach everything.
You experimented a bit more on this album with the string arrangements. How complex was the production process with Dale Hanson?
It was very natural. I did the string arrangements myself except for ‘I Want To Fly’, which was done because Chris and I in 1970 produced an album for Colin – a solo album called ‘One Year’ – and that’s the record that he had, ‘Say You Don’t Mind’, with the strings. Chris found this wonderful classical composer who also did a lot of stuff for television and films called Chris Gunning. The marriage of Colin’s voice on that album and some very avant-garde string arrangements was just absolutely lovely. One of the favourite songs I’ve written over the past few years has been ‘I Want To Fly’ and we did record it before on another album. But I said to Colin, “I’d love to look back to the process where we did ‘One Year’” and we had Chris’ arrangement and nothing else from the band, just Chris and [Colin’s] voice. So I played the song to Chris and he loved it. I did the original orchestration on the earlier version that we did of it. Chris said, “Can I hear that?” And I said, “No, because you can’t unhear it. You might hate it or you might love it or anything in between. But I just an honest reaction to the song.” He did it and I absolutely loved what he did and the process of it; that’s why that particular track is on there.
“‘Boom, boom, boom, clap, clap’ became ‘boom, boom, boom, clap, clap, ahhhh!’ We didn’t think anything more of it, but it became a sort of signature.”
Dale put me in touch with Jessica Cox, who was part of The King Strings, which is a String Quartet. I did all the other arrangements but Chris did that one and we recorded them all. I did the Varner version, so the big organ is in a room that has got a very high ceiling – the strings sounded wonderful in there. We recorded them totally in-house. Dale and I had a great working relationship together; we absolutely loved working together. And again, as far as we could make it, the album came out sounding the way we felt the songs and we wanted them to sound; I was absolutely ecstatic about the result. I love working with Dale: he’s just a very talented guy and a lovely person too.
What was the single ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’ about?
It was actually triggered by a real situation. I’m not gonna say what that situation was, but it’s really about when suddenly unexpectedly, emotionally, everything is pulled. The basis of an emotional thing is just borne away without you having any idea why. It leaves you angry: you can’t explain it and you didn’t see it coming. It’s your feelings on that happening. It was a real situation – nothing to do with me I might hasten to add – but I always think that we’re all human beings and we all tend to have similar, major experiences a lot of the time; I love it when people can bring their own towards something so it’s more universal. Bernie Taupin wrote a song for Colin. Colin said, “What’s this song about, Bernie?” He said, “Whatever it means to you.” And then the other one that I remember was Bob Dylan, when someone said, “What’s this song about?” He said, “It’s about three minutes.” I love that because it’s saying ‘bring your own feelings’; if you can relate to the story, bring whatever you want to. If it affects you, that’s wonderful. It was about a particular situation that song, but it was an emotional situation. Someone was being left adrift for no reason that they could fathom.
What were you doing in the desert for five hours when your van broke down on tour in America?
We were trying to keep cool! The engine caught fire and for an hour before that there was no air conditioning because first of all it went, and then that caused the fire. We had water thank God, but we were standing outside; it could have been 112 degrees [Fahrenheit]. It was certainly in the hundreds; it might have been 108-110. I’ve been in Phoenix when it was 112 degrees so it could have easily been that. It was just horrendous. But that was the real story of what sometimes being on the road is about: it’s not all glad-rags.
The Zombies’ new studio album, ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’, is out now. The band tour the UK throughout April and May.
Photos © as credited or watermarked.
© Ayisha Khan.
KEITH MORRIS & DIMITRI COATS: OFF! – FREE LSD
A decade after their eponymous debut studio album, the hardcore punk supergroup release their new record, ‘Free LSD’, with a fresh direction and lineup change that takes them beyond their stereotypical black-and-white image. As well as seeing Raymond Pettibon’s artwork released on a coloured sleeve for the first time, the album deals with serious sci-fi subject matter like UFOs and conspiracies – drawing from Keith’s podcast on the subject – spewed through the spectrum of more expansive influences via noise feedback, electronics and metalhead rhythms to refresh their canvas. The album is also accompanied by an upcoming sci-fi feature film, written and directed by the band and premiered at this year’s Slamdance film festival. Before their London show on their European tour, I spoke to band founders, frontman Keith Morris and guitarist Dimitri Coats, about making their new album and film, covering a Metallica song for Metallica, cosmic influences and close encounters of the third (or fifth) kind – both human and alien – and how Keith doesn’t want to be the ‘nervous breakdown’ guy anymore.
How does this album differ to your previous releases?
D: We weren’t trying to communicate with extraterrestrial life prior to this album. We took a note from Sun Ra: we put our antenna out to the cosmos and we were very open to receiving music from an intergalactic source.
K: Dude you are such a fucking liar! We were trapped in a submarine under the polar ice cap and there was nowhere to go. We consciously made an effort; we looked at each other and thought, “Hey! Let’s try something new.” If you’ve noticed our album covers, the first three are black and white. That gets boring after a while. If you look at the new album cover, the unidentified flying object is passing off all of these different coloured lines or the different coloured lights in the sky. We love Stiff Little Fingers, we love The Damned, we love The Ramones, we love Black Flag…I kind of love the Circle Jerks. It was time to go someplace else. Can we? We know that we have roots amongst all of this and we normally have certain records that we go to for inspiration. This time around it was like, “Let’s listen to some different stuff.” [Dimitri’s] a closet industrial noise freak.
D: I’ve come out of the closet. I’m really excited because I’m gonna get a tour: right around [Hackney] is where Throbbing Gristle used to live. I’m excited for my friend to show me the history around here.
K: What you need to do, because he’s wearing a Bastard Noise T-shirt, is ask him what his favourite Bastard Noise song is. You see these kids wearing a Motörhead T-shirt or a Black Sabbath T-shirt or a Dead Kennedys T-shirt and they’ve never even listed to the music so he could be pulling your leg. But actually he had me listening to this stuff. I know about these bands and I have some of their records in my record library, but they’re not records that I zoom in on – it’s a special taste. You don’t eat McDonalds three times a day: you only eat McDonalds once a day. You have two other meals, so make it interesting. We went to outer space with Sun Ra; in the process our drummer [Justin Brown] had played with Herbie Hancock and I had witnessed Miles Davis play with Herbie Hancock in The Headhunters backing him in his band. Being a punk rock guy, a heavy metal guy and a hard rock guy, why do [I] listen to Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis? Well, maybe because they’re frontline jazz musicians.
You used to have a jazz drummer in Circle Jerks?
K: Yeah, that would be Lucky. We don’t talk about Lucky because [he’s] on television and a multimillionaire; his ego trip far surpasses his talents.
D: Ooh. Ouch.
K: No, it’s the truth. Zander [Schloss] and Greg [Hetson] played with him in his home studio and were horrified.
Why did you do a cover of Metallica’s ‘Holier Than Thou’?
K: They came to us and asked us to perform a song for their ‘The Black Album’ tribute – it was a big fundraiser. I listened to the album: their biggest hits are on that record, like ‘Enter Sandman’ and a lot of stuff that was on the radio. That’s not where I want to hear Metallica; I don’t want to hear those songs. I want to hear stuff off of ‘Ride The Lightning’ and ‘Kill ‘Em All’ and ‘Master of Puppets’ – that’s the Metallica that I know. But they asked us to perform a track so we listened to the album. And Autry [Fulbright], Dimitri and I, all three of us, zoomed in on one song and that was ‘Holier Than Thou’. So it was unanimous that we were going to cover this. We didn’t have a drummer at the time and it made perfect sense: let’s use Justin, who Autry worked with in Thundercat. Autry said I’ll ask Justin if he wants to play with us and we recorded the track. All of the guys in Metallica were beyond stoked. They were excited like, “This is really cool. Thank you guys.”
What about the religious theme in the video?
D: Autry had the idea of us being the church band that mistakenly got booked. Then our director Chris Grismer took that idea and developed it. It really is the song that brought the band together.
K: If you listen to the lyrics it’s basically, “Hey, don’t bog me down in your religious garbage. You know I got stuff to do; I’m a good human being and I don’t need to get caught up in all of that.”
D: And all you altar boys better be real careful in those Catholic churches!
K: If you watch the video, we were very fortunate: some of the actors and actresses that showed up to be in the video are also in our new movie.
How did the film come about and the theme with the psychedelic drugs and sci-fi?
D: I was growing tired of the black-and-white punk rock world that Keith described earlier where I would try to write certain riffs and he would start yelling at me, “We can’t do that. We don’t do that in this genre. You can only play like this. This is our target: we have to head for the bullseye.” [It] just felt so restrictive. I fooled Keith into experimenting and thinking outside the box by convincing him that our next record should be a soundtrack for this crazy sci-fi film that I wanted to make. Then he just took the ball and ran with it, especially when we drew inspiration from a podcast that he has in real life called ‘Blowmind Show’, in which he touches on a lot of things that are alternative media. It’s heavy into the idea that aliens and UFOs exist and so we had fun with that topic. What it allowed us to do is every time we hit a creative fork in the road, if we would normally go right, we would go left. Starting with how I tune my guitars, to the lyrical subject matter to the artwork being colour for the first time…everything was a conscious decision to push our creativity into a new direction. Because, much like The Beatles with Sgt. Pepper thinking, ‘Let’s filter our songwriting through these other people. We won’t be the Beatles anymore. We’ll be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ it did wonders. So we were really fortunate in that our psychedelic window that we were looking through took us into a completely new territory.
Drugs can be a major part of the creative process, what’s your personal experience of this?
D: I’m a big fan of marijuana. I could not have been more high when I wrote the music for this album. And I could not have been more high when I wrote the script for the movie, with headphones on listening to noise, experimental music, post-industrial…whatever you want to call it. I just went into another world. Yeah, it’s always been a creative friend. It’s really the only drug that I allow myself because I find that if I start dabbling in other things, I start making bad decisions and I don’t associate weed with anything else. I don’t get stoned and suddenly think, “Let’s get a bag of coke. Where’s the party?” It’s a sacred herb to me.
So what about in the film?
D: It’s not a drug at all – it’s an antidote. The music is the drug. The antidote holds the key to an alternate dimension in which the band exists. The film takes place between two different realities: one where we are ‘off’ and one where we are not necessarily musicians and we certainly don’t know each other. Our music holds the key to an awakening of human consciousness. There are two rival alien species: one which desperately needs us to make the album and one which is trying to prevent us from making the album.
K: And it’s a love story.
Can you talk about some of the album tracks and how those relate to scenes in the film?
D: There’s a whole bunch of songs from the album that are featured in the film, some of which we perform; others that just create a score for the action that’s taking place. Certain characters have lines in the film that are lyrics from the record. They are completely joined, but the songs don’t necessarily point directly to the movie and the movie doesn’t necessarily point directly to the album. Although the album is featured in the film; literally, it does hold the key to releasing the human species from the clutches of this evil alien race, which is kind of like the all controlling Illuminati.
With your lyrics, Keith, how did they relate to real life?
K: When we first started working on the album, Dimitri asked me, “What are you gonna sing about?” I was a bit stumped. He said, “Because you’re always singing about politics; you’re always singing about social climate situations. A great place for you to start is a place that you’re going to be able to get the majority of your lyrics. You’ve already written a ton of lyrics – they’re buried in your podcast. So you need to go back and listen to episodes of your podcast. You need to go and pull the most important episodes.” That’s what turned into the lyrical content. We got into some documentaries; we went deep: a lot of these conspiracy theorists, they’ll go to Google and look at the very first thing when they type in whatever conspiracy they’re concerned with, they’re thinking about or delving into, and they’re not really delving into it, they’re not really going past the first couple of posts; they need to go deeper into it. One of my best friends, Pete Weiss, and [I] have a podcast called ‘Blowmind Show’ with Pete and Keith. All we did was talk all of these different conspiracies. Do UFOs exist? Does Bigfoot exist and who killed JFK? And what about the missing 411? Why are they finding these naked kids sitting on rocks with all of their clothes perfectly folded next to them out on a mountain range; how did they get there? All sorts of really oddball stuff; we went deep and discovered some of the stuff that was going on outside of Las Vegas in Nevada and went to a place called the Archer Farms La Mesa which is a big, big military, industrial complex.
D: Watch this [shows video of a UFO]! This is my house. Look at this fucking thing! Look at that, that’s not a star; look at it move in my backyard [in Claremont, California]. There’s this one documentary that we were very inspired by called ‘Unacknowledged’. The follow up to ‘Unacknowledged’ is ‘Close Encounters of The Fifth Kind’ of Dr. Steven Greer. It’s all about being open to this idea that aliens exist and inviting them in and, when you do that, you’ll start to have these experiences. While we were working on all this stuff, I started to really become more tuned into what was happening; I started to have some of these encounters and that’s from that time and I saw other things. It’s another reason we love this project so much. There is comedy to what we do but there’s also legitimate passion behind why we went into that direction and we believe…
K: ….very seriously.
“Our music holds the key to an awakening of human consciousness. There are two rival alien species: one which desperately needs us to make the album and one which is trying to prevent us from making the album.”
How did you enjoy doing the acting and directing?
D: I’ve had some acting experience, which is why I felt comfortable directing, but there were a bunch of non-actors that we pulled in from our music world and beyond. Keith is the lead in the film and there were people who pulled me aside and said, “Hey, are you sure you know what you’re doing? He’s never acted before, you have him as the lead role in your movie.” It’s a gruelling experience to make a film: sometimes you’re up all night and then all of a sudden you have to switch gears and you’re filming in the daytime. I just had this feeling [Keith’s] gonna shine and he really did – he’s fucking awesome in this film.
K: It still doesn’t mean that I’m your friend because you’re saying these nice things about me. In the beginning, [we] threw ideas around as to, “Have you seen ‘The Monkees’ Head’? Have you seen Frank Zappa’s ‘200 Motels’? Have you seen any of these movies involving other rockstars or rock musicians?” Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. Of course, there’s the two [The] Who concept movies: ‘Tommy’ and ‘Quadrophenia’. All of these movies: they’re all fun; some of them are very serious. Some of them have extremely talented and established actors. We didn’t: our things a lot of fun. It’s ridiculous. One of my mantras, one of my thoughts towards what we were doing is ultimately when we show the movie, I want to be able to see people talking amongst themselves as they’re leaving the building. I want to see somebody scratching their head going. “What the fuck? Who allowed these guys to make this movie? What did I just see? What did we just watch?” Just as serious as it is, it’s also very playful. Some of it’s very heavy handed and some of it’s very light-hearted. It goes in a lot of directions.
Can you tell me about your label Fat Possum records?
D: Great label. Who wouldn’t want to be on a label that has everything from Royal Trucks to Townes Van Zandt…and Al Green.
K: Don’t forget they’re based in Mississippi and their whole foundation of that record label was all of the guys that nobody wanted and had never got a D-model Ford. Who’s the guy that’s missing a couple of fingers? He plays with a Ford knife. He’s really great. But there’s so many.
D: We’re label mates with Spiritualized; it’s a really eclectic roster.
K: We’re label mates with Iggy Pop.
D: That’s something we were looking for because we knew that this album was us stepping outside of the punk rock genre and we wanted to be taken seriously as a band that can do something. Like having a drummer who plays with Thundercat and toured with Herbie Hancock coming in: taking what was already really adventurous material that we had written and elevating it to this other place, doing things that no rock drummer would ever think to do. It’s a big reason why the sound is so adventurous. We played into that: we created these four interludes ‘F’, ‘L’, ‘S’, ‘D’ that are free jazz, punk noise. We have John Wall from Clay Hammer on saxophone. We’re really trying to expand.
I’ve always felt like OFF! was a quickfire challenge in terms of where I came from versus what I was allowed to do. If I was used to painting with oil paints, it was like somebody coming along and going, “Here’s a sheet of paper and a Sharpie. That’s all you get.” Okay, you can make good art like that, but now we get to re-approach what we do with all the paints at our disposal; anything we wanna try or use. It’s creatively a triumph for the kind of band that we are.
You had a lineup change in 2021 with the departure of Steven Shane McDonald and Mario Rubalcaba. How did that come about and bring new life to the band?
D: Everybody’s gone on to do other things. It’s not like we wanted the original lineup to fall apart: we tried for a couple of years to do what we’re doing now with them. But we were just stalled out on the side of the road with a flat tyre and no one was helping us, and it became very clear that their priorities were not in line with where we needed to go. We had to make a change in order to survive and move forward – it’s as simple as that. We don’t have any hard feelings towards them. Sometimes things happen for a reason and I really, really believe that this album and all that we have going on right now would not be quite as special if it weren’t with Autry and Justin. They breathed new life into us and helped us reinvent ourselves.
K: We hit a wall. We were more than accommodating. One of the reasons it took so long for us to get to where we are was because we kept stumbling and fumbling over the hurdles. Dimitri rewrote the script to the movie probably a minimum 12 times – it could have been even more – because we went through four different lineup changes. Mario saying, ‘I can’t do this because I’m not an actor.’ So we get Dale Crover from the Melvins and he’s a great drummer. We record with Dale; we’ve recorded like 23 songs with [him] and the majority of them were pretty happening. Some of them we would have had to have gone back and re-recorded. But then Mario hears what we’re doing and it’s like, ‘Oh, no. I‘ve got to be a part of this because you guys have come up with stuff; nobody else is doing anything like this.’ So now [Dimitri’s] got to rewrite the script including Mario, who was in the original script but said [he] can’t act – it just kept going back and forth.
We actually took our time working on the material for the album to allow the two original members of the band to go out and play with all of their other bands; we were more than accommodating. It was like, “Please go out and do what you need to do. You’ve got kids, families, wives, dogs and houses and you got to pay your bills.” We don’t have any money: Dimitri and I are eating soup. Our ‘Per Diem’ was a meal a day and we purposely set out on this path to allow those guys to go out and do what they needed to do and get it out of their systems so at the end of the two years, it would be our turn: “Guys, this is what we’re doing. Guys, we want your full attention on this.” And we couldn’t get it because they were still playing shows. We wanted two months in the studio to be able to record all of this different stuff and be creative as a band, rather than just Dimitri and I having written all of the songs. There was gonna be more to this; there was gonna be more creativity and it didn’t happen. It was like, ‘I can’t be in the studio today. Because I’ve got PTA; I can’t be in the studio today because I’ve gotta take my son to school and I gotta pick him up at the end of the day; I can’t be in the studio today because my wife’s tonsils need to be removed,’ or whatever. Whatever the excuses; all of a sudden there were more excuses happening.
“We were just stalled out on the side of the road with a flat tyre and no one was helping us…we had to make a change in order to survive and move forward – it’s as simple as that.”
D: There was an actual excuse, “It’s my dog’s birthday.” Do you remember that one?
K: That would have been the same kind of an excuse that Greg Hetson would have used. Remember all of those excuses that he pulled up? “I ordered a brand new computer, it’s sitting in the post office in Long Beach and they’re the most corrupt post office in the world because all the people that work there steal everything out of the back.’ “Okay, go get your computer.”
D: Anybody who’s ever been in a band, no matter how successful or how good or bad it was, knows how difficult it is to keep a band together, even under the best circumstances. That’s my friend Kevin right there [points]. He was in a band called Dandelion with his brother – these are brothers. Now you would think brothers can work it out but we know because of The Kinks, Oasis and Black Rose, that it’s fucking impossible. So even best of friends…we’re best of friends and dude, I could tell you stories of [Keith]: we’re trying to work on a song and he stands up and throws a fucking drink across the room and storms out. I wasn’t that worried about it. He came back and we continued working on the song – it ended up being a good tune.
K: We hit a lot of bumps in the road and, like I’ve said, we were more than accommodating. We were expecting something that was not going to happen and, at a certain point, Dimitri looked at me and said, “I’m not doing this anymore. I don’t want to be in a band with guys that don’t want to participate and be a part of it.” I had to do something that I did not wanna do; I’m still hurt from it and I will hurt from it for a while because he was like my younger brother, but it had to be done in order to save the band.
D: Also I’m gonna say something very important, which is Keith is a living legend, but with that comes this sort of…
D:…pressure of being this certain person. He’s always got to be the nervous breakdown guy. People are more than one thing – he doesn’t even really listen to punk rock. If you go to his house, he’s playing all kinds of fucking music, everything from Ornette Coleman to Ravi Shankar…you name it. He’s a real fan and very knowledgeable person when it comes to pop culture and art. I know from being his friend that he’s always wanted to do more than just be Keith Morris from Black Flag and Circle Jerks and yet there’s this pressure. One of the biggest accomplishments of this project is we’ve been able to shine a different light on that and I think it’s his finest moment. I think a lot of people would agree with me and that’s saying a lot because he’s done some fucking amazing shit in the past.
“Keith is a living legend, but with that comes this sort of pressure…he’s always got to be the nervous breakdown guy. People are more than one thing – he doesn’t even really listen to punk rock.”
And the anger is still there…
K: There’s too much stuff to be angry about; if you’re not angry about some of the shit that’s happening in the world, you don’t fucking live in the world. All we want to do is just be good people. We want to be able to walk our streets, enjoy our friendships, have a good time and we don’t want to be fucked with. It’s like every time you turn around, you’re getting fucked with. Our governments – the British government and the government of the United States of America – and all of the politicians…there’s probably six politicians between both countries that should live and be able to say the things that they do and all the rest of them should be fucking shot and dumped into the oceans. We could chop them up and use them as shark bait.
OFF’s new studio album, ‘Free LSD’, is out now. Their Record Store Day release, ‘FLSD EP’, is out on April 22.
Photos © Anna Marchesani/Nocturna Photography.
© Ayisha Khan.
BRIX SMITH – VALLEY GIRL
Following the dissolution of her last band The Extricated, the former Fall guitarist and songwriter releases her long awaited debut solo album, ‘Valley of The Dolls’, with a fresh, all-female touring band to accompany it. Ahead of its release, Brix Smith excitedly spoke to me about her struggles to get the finished product out amongst lockdown and Brexit chaos: from her spiritual amalgamation with producer Martin ‘Youth’ Glover who helped her find her feet, her coming-of-age journey spanning her exhilarating but often isolating Manchester days, her collaborative songwriting to fully fledged solo artist and her personal experiences along the way, from a childhood growing up in the California Valley, a recent health scare and finally owning her feminist punk rock attitude.
Why has it taken you so long to release your debut solo album?
The original idea to release it was back in 1982. When I first started writing songs, I was about 17/18 years old. I was excited when I formed a band and everyone in school was like, “What are you doing in school? You’re such a good songwriter. Just go out and do it for real.” So I took a term off, went to play in Chicago with my bandmate Lisa; [I] famously met Mark Smith, who heard those songs that I’d been writing, wanted me to come to England so that he could produce me and buy me a record deal, and I would do a solo album. But they ended up using those songs for The Fall and I joined. [The album] should have been all that time ago. Of course, it’s not the same songs anymore and a lifetime has passed, because I was so young, I was too insecure to stand up under my own name, so I put it under the guise of another band. It was kind of cool to be secret.
I did The Fall famously for a couple of stints, then played with lots of different people and for The Extricated a few years ago with some of the ex-members of The Fall, which I fully enjoyed doing – it really got me back in the saddle. But again, although it was my name in the title, it wasn’t me making the decisions. I was writing all the lyrics and all the melodies, but it was collaborative, as The Fall was as well. Before lockdown came, Nadine Shah, a really good friend of mine, just sat me down one day and, in her own brutal way, said you need to be celebrated for you. “This is not really working for you. I think you need a proper manager. I think you need a whole new team around you.” She said, “You’re fucking Brix Smith.” I started crying: although it was a little bit upsetting to hear and I was having a great time with The Extricated, I knew that she was right. And I knew that the time was now.
So she put me together with her manager, who also managed Youth, and suggested, “Why don’t you write with Youth for other people, just see what happens? It’s all about the music at the end of the day.” At this point, I just thought of myself as a songwriter. I could do lots of things but songwriting is a really important and interesting craft, which I have honed my whole life. I’ve been writing, lyrics and poetry, since a child and music. So Youth and I were meant to get together but then lockdown happened. We couldn’t meet: he was in Spain and I was here; we were stuck apart. The Extricated naturally evaporated: everyone was in Manchester and couldn’t carry on. Some of them have young families; everything was fucked up. So Youth and I had a discussion on FaceTime – we’ve never met in real life after all those years of being in bands that were just crossing paths. We talked about what music I loved, what were my early inspirations and had some fucking deep magical connection from the beginning. He sent me some backing tracks he thought might be right, and they were…my mind flew, and I taught myself how to record at home, set up a studio during lockdown, engineered my vocals, wrote the thing and we started to swap files back and forth.
“She said, “You’re fucking Brix Smith.” I started crying: although it was a little bit upsetting to hear and I was having a great time with The Extricated, I knew that she was right.”
After about the first or second song he just said, “Oh my God! This is amazing; this needs to be your solo album. You need to do this – this is your Marianne Faithful broken English moment. This is this is your moment.” I just needed to be completely competent, comfortable, fully, fully own my power and talent and stand up there and actually not give a fuck what anyone else thought; make the music that was literally the music I always wanted to make without anybody else having an input. Youth and I played everything on the whole thing; it’s just me and him, except there’s a drummer who did the drums. But really it’s just Youth and I so it’s a solo album. When I go on tour now with my girls – like Deb Goodge from My Bloody Valentine – they’re my touring band. I’m not sure what’s gonna happen in the future when I start writing again; probably because I love playing with them so much they’ll be on the next one, but it will still be under my name.
The reason my album took so long to get out was because, during lockdown, so many people were supposed to have albums out and they couldn’t tour, so they backlogged, backlogged and then when touring started everyone started to release at once; mine was pretty much ready but not 100%. Look, there’s no pressure: I don’t have a record deal yet, whenever it comes out, it’ll be the right moment; the universal will see to it blah, blah, blah. I had to get everything going in terms of building the team of people around me that I really loved, trusted and have fun working with. Never again am I going to work with people that are horrendously challenging. It’s just got to be a great flow, otherwise what’s the point? Then there was a backlog from Brexit: we could not get any cardboard to print the sleeves. And there was a backlog at the pressing plant of six months, because everyone needed to get their records pressed and cut, and there’s only so many places now in the UK and Europe that do it – it’s a dying art. So it just got put back, put back and then another bout of covid…it took ages.
Are you Brix Smith now as opposed to Brix Smith-Start?
I’ve always been Brix Smith. Smith is my last name on my passport; Start is my married name and I used that for a while, although I’ve never changed it so it’s not my legal name. When Phillip [Start] and I opened the shop, I had a breakdown and stopped writing music for 15 years because I just felt so brutalised and kicked to the curb. There was a very dark patch in my life where, after the second stint in The Fall, I broke apart and I needed to pivot, so I started doing fashion which is a passion for me and a skill set that I didn’t realise I had, but I loved it. Philip and I started these shops called ‘Start’, which was his last name, so I became Brix Smith-Start to associate myself with the fashion work. When I went back into music again my manager said, “Just go back to Brix Smith. Everyone knows you as that; Brix Smith-Start is a mouthful.” It isn’t even my legal name, although I’m still happily married to Philip Start. So I am Brix Smith – that is who I am.
How did your collaboration with Marty Willson-Piper lead to you finding your place with this album?
That was written in the early ‘90s; from ‘92 to ‘95. I was living in LA, in between my stints in The Fall. A really famous agent had put us together [for me] to write as a writer because that’s how I always have it; I made this album with Marty. It was really beautiful and lovely and very much me and very much him too; it was a duo album. When I came back here, rejoined The Fall, finished up that album in Cornwall and went to get a deal with [it], nobody would answer the phone. It was mid to late ’90s, I was already in my 30s – over the hill for them. It was a time of All Saints. I don’t even think people listened to that album, so it broke my heart because it was such a beautiful album. I really believed in it, I worked so hard on it and I put so much emotional content into it. I was devastated and that is what made me quit the music business.
[Later on] I got a new manager through Youth who heard what we were working on, called Nick Lawrence. He said to me, “Do you have anything that’s never been released? I’d like to start assembling a body of work for you. I like to make you a proper website. Let’s get a full cannon of your work.” And I said, “Well actually, I do have this album.” At the time it wasn’t called ‘Lost Angeles’ (I call it that because it was the lost years between The Fall). I have to dig back to get the DHTs by the guy that produced it. I haven’t listened to it for 15 years. I had such a devastating experience with being kicked to the curb which I didn’t realise wasn’t about the album: it was about people just not being open to listen to it – no one cared. It wasn’t like no one listened to it and said this was shit; they just didn’t listen. I took it personally but it wasn’t. Anyway, I found it, tracked it down and sent it to Nick and said, “I’m just gonna push the button. I can’t promise it’s anything.” He immediately came in and goes, “Oh my god! This is a beautiful album, You’ve got to put this out.” So that’s why it came out, however many years later.
How did you bring your personal experience into that album, laying bare your experiences in your work?
I’m laying it bare because I’m the same as everybody else. We’ve all been through so much in whatever capacity. Obviously I’m speaking from my own experiences, but I’m really hoping that my experiences are going to resonate heavily with everybody that has been marginalised, kicked to the curb, told they’re not good enough; underestimated, undervalued for whatever reason. It’s time for me to fucking grow a pair, stand up and speak for those that I can help. I’m comfortable talking about anything: I don’t have a filter, why should I? We’re all vulnerable human beings.
With the ‘Lost Angeles’ album, that was a time when I was very raw from my separation/divorce from Mark Smith and Nigel Kennedy and I’d been through the mill. I also had a very challenging and crazy boyfriend during that time in LA; a well-known record producer who was very misogynistic. I was trying to find myself as woman – as a human – and not attach myself to another man; I was processing what it feels like to be in really intense relationships and then being on your own. A song like ‘Little Wounds’, for instance, I originally started thinking about when you look at dolphins or sharks in the water – their bodies are covered in little scars. Every little scar tells a story: what bit of coral they got scratched on or what fish fight. And I thought, actually we all have little wounds; all of us. Some you can see and some you can’t, but those are the things that make us stronger. Although they initially hurt, they heal and you go on and learn from them. It was stuff like that.
What is ‘Living Thru My Despair’ about personally, was it about Mark Smith/The Fall?
It’s interesting you ask about that because I ummed and arred about putting that as the first track: it was quite a statement. Mark [Smith] famously wrote many, many songs about me after we broke up – even when I was still in the band – and I wrote songs about him because there was unresolved stuff, during The Extricated for instance. Not just about him; I had an unresolved stuff within me, not really anything to do with him. I blame no one for any choice I made in my life. ‘Living Thru My Despair’ – yes, there are a lot of Manchester references in it. I was very lonely when I lived in Manchester: I didn’t have any girlfriends. I was completely immersed in The Fall, but I was also a fish out of water. I moved to a different country, a different city and a very different way of life than I was used to and there was a lot going on. So I wanted to paint a picture, but the positive is you go through hard times and you live through [them]. Not all that was bad either. It’s a song about strength; all of these songs are about finding your strength and your power through pain and adverse situations or situations where you have to galvanise yourself. Manchester was hard but it’s not particularly about that. I always say my heart is half-Mancunian and so I love it too.
Does the album name have anything to do with the film ‘Valley of The Dolls’? ‘Dolls’ being a slang word for drugs…
Pharmaceutical pills. Yes, absolutely, yes. The original ‘Valley of The Dolls’, the book and the film, came out when I was a little girl. Sharon Tate was in ‘Valley of The Dolls’ – she’s so fucking fabulous. That was a big upbringing thing because the Manson murders happened when I was really young. It was on the TV every night in LA; it was around our neighbourhood. I remember asking my mom, “What is the Manson murders?” and it was fascinating to me. That whole sort of ’60s glamour. But really the movie that inspired me was ‘Beyond The Valley of The Dolls’, which is a Russ Meyer movie written by the film critic Roger Ebert, loosely based on Phil Spector and starring Strawberry Alarm Clock, who come and play ‘Incense and Peppermints’ at this wild party in Beverly Hills, where everyone takes acid. ‘Incense and Peppermints’ is my very first single I ever put out with the Adult Net. ‘Beyond The Valley of The Dolls’ had an all-woman rock group in it called the Carrie Nations: they played and sang wearing cool ’60s prom gowns; they were sexy, strong women that had this cool band. Not only was I inspired, but my friend Susanna Hobbs was also totally inspired. Both of us saw that movie and were like, “We want to do this.” I certainly was like, “Oh my god, the Carrie Nations!” because I hadn’t seen an all-girl rock group before, except The Supremes, but they weren’t playing their instruments. So it was that whole genre of old California glamour, ’60s Slim Aarons vibe.
“I was very lonely when I lived in Manchester: I didn’t have any girlfriends. I was completely immersed in The Fall, but I was also a fish out of water. I moved to a different country, a different city and a very different way of life than I was used to”.
You also write about the seedy underbelly of the California Valley…
For most of my life, I saw LA and California through these tainted eyes, but the more I lived there, and when I went back, I could see that, underneath this layer of superficiality and beauty, was pain and desperation. Loads of people famously come to LA or Hollywood to make it, to become stars, to become rich, to go into the movie business…but it’s all bullshit. And for every dream that’s made, every star that’s there, every person that succeeds, there’s 10 million broken things. There’s many women out there that turned to the porn industry or whatever it is that they need to do, and if that’s what they want to do, that’s fine. I’m not making any comment or criticism on that, but it is part of it. It is part of the whole underbelly, which is dark, and there’s also shitloads of poverty, crime, misery, greed and all kinds of stuff underneath the beautiful sunny skies, the Pacific Ocean waves and the smell of orange blossom in the wind. There’s this wonderful thing where you go there and you’re like, “This is paradise,” but oh, no, no it’s not. I love the dichotomy.
Was it through a feminist lens when you were singing those lyrics in ‘California Smile’?
Yes, completely. Its completely through a feminist lens. In a way it’s about me in ‘California Smile’:
I’ll be your everything, everything you’ve ever wanted;
I’ll be your anything, anything you’ve ever needed.
Watch me, I’ve played them all: the wife, the whore, the maid, the doll…
I’ve played all those roles to some extent. I exposed that I felt like that and I own it in a feminist way, absolutely. I’ve used what I’ve had to use to get what I wanted to get.
Were there any other feminist themes in the other singles like ‘Aphrodite’?
Yeah, throughout the album, those things are completely there. I think we’re actually going to re-release ‘Aphrodite’, give it a bigger shove later on. ‘Aphrodite’ was the first song that I wrote with Youth; the very first thing he sent me as a backing track. It was originally called something else because what happened was he would send me the songs with his title and then I would write the songs according to his title, because I love doing that – it’s like putting together a puzzle. It would be like how his mind and my mind gel, which is quite a hard thing to do. ‘Aphrodite’ was probably the only song [that] I changed the title. First of all, the songs are channelled for me. I don’t know how I write songs: they come through the ether and I’m sure they’re coming from non-physical energy. It comes into my head; it feels right; I don’t filter it…I tweak it. They’re very multi-layered and they’ll resonate with lots of different people in lots of different ways. We did that in The Fall too. But with ‘Aphrodite’, that’s the first thing [Youth] sent me and I absolutely loved it.
I would put on my headphones, take my one-hour walk around the park during lockdown and the words would come out as I walk. But what was going on psychologically in my mind was I had been having horrendous, pains in my body, like aching joints, and I really freaked out. I was freaking out during COVID Because I also lost my father and my brother; my brother died of multiple sclerosis. I was worried that I had an autoimmune disease, so I managed to get an appointment with the NHS; get my blood tested to look for markers. They didn’t find anything wrong with that, but they found something wrong with my liver, where an enzyme was really high. So I was like, “Oh my god, I’m really sick.” I didn’t know so, while I was writing that song, I was worried that I was really sick. So the lines are:
‘neath the microscope, drain the fibres of the rope.
See this navy blue? That’s the colour of my blood.
But deep inside me, lies Aphrodite…
And stuff like “medication”, chemical sedation”. It was fine: I got rid of it and it was nothing. I went on a diet, I lost four stone – I had a fatty liver. It was not a big deal in the end. I was being told through my head that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, lives deep inside you, in everyone, and we have the ability to heal ourselves and to think better thoughts. It’s a song about strength, love and thinking better thoughts. I was also thinking about epi-genetics, a deep way of meditation: you take your mind back to absolutely nothing into the quantum field and can re-jig your DNA and cellular stuff with thoughts. I went on a course to do that. The power of the mind and the power of what’s inside you is so incredible, and there’s nothing more powerful than love – love obliterates everything. It obliterates darkness, it obliterates hate…we are Aphrodite. We are all goddesses or gods – it’s inside us. So yes, it is feminism on the deepest, most spiritual level. I’m hoping to go to Mount Olympus to film another Aphrodite video; it’s a very important song to me.
I see a lot of contrast between dark and light in your songs. Is that something you’ve carried throughout your life in your songwriting, even in your time in The Fall?
It’s a balance, always. The Fall was very dark so I brought the light: I’m about the hooks, the riffs, the things that get into your brain. For me, songwriting is magic. When I was a little girl and I would go to summer camp on the hippie bus, up into the Malibu mountains for day camp, and they would have a radio playing everyday; I would hear like Carole King, James Taylor, The Carpenters, Janis Joplin…all the things that were hits of that day. I would hear it on the bus during the day and I would go home at night; the songs would pop into my head while I was asleep and wake me up. And I was like, “What is this magic? I can remember every note and every word, and I’m not even listening to it; it’s infecting my brain. This is the best thing ever.” So that’s what made me want to be a songwriter. In terms of dark and light, we have to have to both to live in this world! You cannot be happy all the time – I certainly am not. We talk about mental health all the time. Get fucking real! We all have serious ups and downs, some really serious. It’s just part of everything; I love the balance of dark and light. I love the fact that you can be really dark but you can find a path of light through it, which all the songs and my book have the same theme of: going through the darkness, getting through the other side and coming out better. I think that with this album that is exactly what it’s about.
The last song on the album, ‘Black Butterfly’, was different to the others; I thought that was some of your best work. Are you going to do more of that style compared to the punk tracks? I feel that’s your niche.
That’s very, very, very intuitive and perceptive; everything that you asked me is spot the fuck on. Yes, that’s exactly where we’re going: I’ve got more songs recorded that go more into that psychedelic dream stuff. ‘Black Butterfly’ is absolutely my favourite song on the whole album. ‘Changing’ is also incredible, but in a different way. ‘Black Butterfly’ is the song that I’m most proud of literally ever in my life; I ended with it because that’s where I want to begin the next [album] with.
“There’s also shitloads of poverty, crime, misery, greed and all kinds of stuff underneath the beautiful sunny skies, the Pacific Ocean waves and the smell of orange blossom in the wind.”
You also had strings on the album, are you going to do more of that instrumentation too?
Yes, definitely. I’m very open to that; we used strings as well on the last Extricated album, ‘Super Blood Wolf Moon’, on the last track, ‘God Stone’. That was almost like a stepping stone to ‘Black Butterfly’. Youth and I were talking about my love for Led Zeppelin and its big Led Zeppelin references in it in terms of a ‘Stairway To Heaven’ vibe; a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in terms of the structure – there’s no chorus. There’s also a Portishead vibe in terms of delivery; it’s very psychedelic. It’s not what you expect when you start listening to the song: it ends up very far from what you think it is, which I love because it takes you on a journey. In the live band with my girls, we finish every set with that song. It’s something I’m so proud of. The punkier stuff is definitely a part of the record – I can certainly do that – but this is more where I want to go. I’m not scared anymore. I had to start at one place, like at the beginning, ‘Living Thru My Despair’ is much more Fall-like. It’s a journey of my whole history. And then ‘Changing’ is a bit more Brix and Marty-like. But when you get to that, that is really amazing – I absolutely love that song.
You had some special guests on the album, such as Susannah Hoffs. How did that come together?
During the making of the album, most of it was recorded between my house and Youth’s studio in Spain. When we could get together finally, we got together in London and did some more at his studio in Wandsworth and then I flew to Spain to do the live drums in Spain. We wrote ‘Changing’ there; the only song we wrote face-to-face in the room together and we wrote in 40 minutes. On my way there I got a message from Siobhan Fahey. We always talked about forming a band together; she’s come on stage with me when I was in The Extricated a couple of times. She was travelling with Nick, the producer, and they were in Europe. Nick and Youth are friends too and Youth actually produced Bananarama once upon a time. Youth said, “Why don’t you invite them over to the studio?” So they came up for a few days and while we were in the studio, [Siobhan] came in and sang on two tracks – ‘Valley Grl’ and ‘Changing’. That was so great because she has the opposite voice to me; the most character filled voice. Nick said you should ask Susanna if she’ll sing something on it. I’ve always wanted to do something with Sue; she’s really busy though so I asked her, “Would you do some backing vocals on my track?” and she said, “Yeah, of course.” I thought it was quite a statement to have two women from two of the biggest women bands ever in history – Bananarama and The Bangles – on my record, having my back. It was time for us to fucking own it: we’re all at a certain age and I’m sick of the ageism. We’re all fabulous at this age – age is just a stupid number. I’m better now than I’ve ever been.
You’re working with so many females now, with the band as well. How does that feel compared to when you were playing with men?
I love it. My first band at Bennington, with me and Lisa – it’s going back to [that] for me. I’ve always wanted to play with Deb Goodge before; I played with her once with Thurston [Moore], who she plays with, and she came on with The Extricated another time. She’s so great; she’s one of the best bass players in the world and I’d absolutely kill to have her in my band. I called her first and she said, “100%, I’ll do it,” and she suggested Jen from My Bloody Valentine and Jen said “100%, I’ll do it.” Jen, I call my ‘Silent Assassin’. She is such an extraordinary talent: she plays keys and guitar, she does all the programming for me and she sings backing vocals. She’s very understated as a person. These women: they’re great players, they’ve got my back and they do not have egos. I don’t either anymore: I got rid of that a long time ago. It’s so important to embrace other people’s talents because it’s working together as a collab that makes gives you the strength. It’s not just one person and it’s really important to give people their due, to understand that I make them better and they make me better. I am loving working with the women: it’s a very different energy than the men. It feels really good, really safe, really positive. It seems some of the bullshit dynamics have been taken out of the touring life. Since that time, Vas and Ros have left and I’ve replaced them with a new woman called Lisa Lux on the drums. I’m down to a four-piece; I’m playing more guitar than I was when you last saw me. We’re switching it up a bit. Vas and Ros were phenomenal, but they needed to focus on their own band Duex Furieuses they were blowing off and my commitments were going to take too much out of them. They needed to do their own thing, so now it’s me, Deb, Jen and Lisa.
And you’ve got tour dates coming up this year?
Yes I’ve got some festivals to be announced; so far Rebellion is announced. There’s more festivals coming, I think [we’re] planning a small club tour in mid-May and hopefully an Irish tour in September, if we can swing that. I’ve also got a lot of other things going on, a lot of commitments, so it’s going to be very busy. But my priority is with this album, which I’m thrilled to be getting out; I hope it resonates with everybody and people love it.
What was it like touring with PiL?
I don’t know whose idea it was to ask me to open all the PiL shows in England and Scotland, but it was a brilliant idea because PiL’s fanbase is very heavily male and of a certain age, and it was amazing to bring the feminine energy and to go out and kick ass hard on that tour. I was a little nervous: I hadn’t met John [Lydon] before. He knew who I was; I knew who he was and he would have had the final say with who’s on tour. So it was an honour and also a little scary to be going out there, because we were given a list of ‘Do’s and Don’ts’: absolutely no pictures backstage, no pictures of John, no this, no that…so he just had his rules. I was really happy to open, I was gonna respect everything that he asked of me, go out and do my job as a professional and not get in his way. Gosh, I’ve been listening to PiL since I was teenager. We were super respectful to them and they were very grateful to us. We did a great job opening for them. People didn’t think of me as an opening up: they were like “It’s a double bill. She’s worth the price alone.” So I felt really good about that. They loved what we did; [John] was absolutely divine to me; I really enjoyed it. He was very poorly during that tour: he had a terrible chest infection. So it was good that he got through it.
I would love to see you do your own headline shows now and build a following with this new incarnation of your work.
I’m really hoping to speak to women and younger women, and be somebody that they could say, “Wow, I want to look forward to being like her when I’m her age.” I’m 60; I’m not gonna fucking lie about it and I’m not gonna fucking stuff my face full of God knows what. I’m just gonna own it now. I wish that there’d been more people like me when I was in my teens and 20s. I was somebody that had to fight, push through the glass ceiling really hard, and was very undervalued and underestimated, for a long time.
Were there any female influences on you back then?
This is a random one. The ones that I most remember hearing were by women. One of the bands I loved on the radio everyday was The Carpenters. When I was about 10 years old, I saw that The Carpenters were coming to play an outdoor festival near where we lived. I asked my mom if we could go and watch the festival; I really wanted to see them. My mom said, “Sure, I’ll take you.” I went to see The Carpenters and pushed my way down to the bandstand. I stood there with my jaw hanging down because Karen Carpenter was playing the drums and I was like, “Oh my God, there’s a woman playing the drums. She’s playing the drums, she’s playing the drums!” I got super excited. She had a glorious voice and she was playing the drums: I thought that was the coolest thing ever. Then later on, people like Chrissie Hyde, who was an extraordinary songwriter, singer, played the guitar and had this great band when I was in high school…I remember seeing The Pretenders’ albums with [her] red leather jacket and begging, begging, begging for a red leather jacket to be like her. Then there’s people like Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads (bass player), Gaye Advert (bass player), Carole King; a piano player songwriter. I was always fascinated by the stories of the Brill Building: the songwriting partnerships and turning out the hits. Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager was the major thing for me and Carol Kaye from ‘The Wrecking Crew’. There were some amazing women players and it showed me that you could do it, but there weren’t enough.
It’s still hard being a female musician…
Well last year, I was the president of the F-list. That was really great, because that brought a lot of attention to that. I went to speak at the Independent Festivals conference and did a keynote speech about putting more women in festivals. When you look at the statistics, it’s all skewed, it’s all fucked up from the top; from record companies down. There’s not enough women bands being signed and the talent is out there. At the end of the day, it’s about raising awareness because you can’t change something if you’re not aware. So I’m gonna stand up and I’m gonna scream loud; I’m gonna go out there, have the best time and take my audience with me; build a bigger audience and get people feeling fantastic when they go out, like they can do anything, conquer anything and climb any mountain…because you can.
Brix Smith’s new debut solo album, ‘Valley of The Dolls’, is out now.
Photos (except unwatermarked) © E. Gabriel Edvy/Blackswitch Labs.
© Ayisha Khan.
CONFORM TO DEFORM: THE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL WORLD OF SOME BIZARRE @ ROUGH TRADE EAST, LONDON
To launch Wesley Doyle’s new book ‘Conform To Deform: The Weird and Wonderful World of Some Bizarre’, special guest and label founder Stevo Pearce was interviewed by the author about his artwork and the history of and future plans for the Some Bizarre label, in which he colourfully displayed his frustration with the mainstream destroying independent labels and artistry.
Following the interview, Naked Lunch, one of the artists featured on the 1981 ‘Some Bizarre Album’ release, performed a short set, beginning with their track on the compilation, ‘Le Femme’, with Cliff Chapman’s wailing synthesiser. They moved onto B-side EBM dance track, ‘Slipping Again’, before the chorded A-side, ‘Rabies’, with frontman Tony Mayo’s jokeresque vocals.
The band also played from their period of reform since 2010, including the gothic tones of 2013 singles ‘Alone’, awakened by electronics, and ‘Glow’, with conspiratorial synth. They closed their set on 1981’s ‘Fade Away’, conjuring up Ian Curtis’ vocals in Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’.
B-Movie, also on the compilation, then headlined the rest of the evening: following the basslines of ‘Polar Opposites’, they also played their track from the Some Bizarre compilation, ‘Moles’, with loud, flailing organ. Moving away from the ’80s synth-pop template, they delved into gothic post-punk as seen in the elevating scales of ‘Institution Walls’, with the demented waltz of their Carpenteresque paranormal synthesiser.
Steve Hovington (vocals, bass) related the story of how he first met Stevo, who, on hearing a demo tape, thought they sounded like Hawkwind, suggesting they should “wear silver suits and fairy boots.” The band’s gothic synthscapes are observed in ‘Disturbed’, with graveyard basstones; they also performed their second and third singles ‘Nowhere Girl’ and ‘Remembrance Day’.
28/02/23: Conform To Deform: The Weird and Wonderful World of Some Bizarre @ Rough Trade East, London.
Photos © E. Gabriel Edvy/Blackswitch Labs.
© Ayisha Khan.
DOCTOR OF MADNESS – THE CURIOUS CASE OF RICHARD STRANGE
Richard ‘Kid’ Strange returns with his live, autobiographical spoken word, music and film show, bringing it to intimate venues across the country. Before the start of his tour, he spoke to me at length about his career – spanning almost half a century – in music, acting and the arts: the influences that spawned his often misplaced and overlooked proto-punk outfit, Doctors of Madness, put to death by The Sex Pistols, his commercial success as a solo artist and ‘Mr Cabaret Futura’ and all the famous faces he has met along the way, from landing an acting part alongside the Batman Joker Jack Nicholson to feeding his hero William Burroughs jellied eels.
How did you end up doing this tour?
I’ve done odd bits and pieces and it was lockdown in the pandemic that made me think about turning this into a proper multimedia show – it’s music, film, still images and a lot of chat. Then I realised how lucky I’ve been with my life: I’ve never had any formal training in music, drama, teaching or anything else and I’ve picked it up on the hoof. But my life has been so lucky that I’ve managed to utilise what talent I have, and I’m not under any illusion about the size of my talent – I know that I’m not Mozart, I’m not Francis Bacon, I’m not Bob Dylan – but what I think I do have is a fairly unique skill set in as much as I’m fearless, I’m articulate and I’m curious. And that curiosity has been the key to what has happened for the last 45 years of my life.
[The tour] is very transportable and very manageable. I’ve got a book and a guitar, that’s all I need and I can do it anywhere. So it doesn’t need all that logistical and technical guff that gets in the way. Also, I like having an audience that’s close enough to talk to; 60-70 people in a room who all want to be there. It’s the balance as well: the music, information, amusement and entertainment value of it. It’s a bit like having a look behind the curtain: what’s it like working with Jack Nicholson, what were The Sex Pistols like or what was Martin Scorsese like to work with? I think we’ve all got a certain curiosity with that, with people whose work we admire. We like a bit of gossip and ‘off the record’.
You’re also quite funny…
I use humour to make sure that I don’t get too pompous, that I know the extents of my talent and my skill set. But I’m pretty good at deflating myself if ever I try and get too grand. This exclusive, unique skill set of having worked in film, theatre, literature, teaching, music, event management, curating art events – I think that does put me in a unique place and, consequently, I’ve met a unique cross-section of people.
When I started music – I could date that to 1975 when we turned professional with Doctors of Madness – it was a very, very different world then; not only the real world but the music world as well. It was just coming into the golden age of rock music when bands could take months to make albums. They could spend hundreds of thousands [of pounds] making a video and record companies knew that they would get that money back because they’re a bit like insurance companies – they do risk assessment. I can refer this to myself when I signed with Virgin Records in 1980. If they sign 10 bands in a year and one of those bands is Culture Club, one is Human League, one is Simple Minds and one is Mike Oldfield, it doesn’t matter if the other six don’t make money because those four bands will make so much money that it wipes the slate clean of any money that the other bands don’t earn.
Virgin had the reputation of always being likely to pay you more money than anyone else ever would. That was the deal when I signed with Arista records in the mid-80s: it was the same year they signed the Thompson Twins and Whitney Houston. So it didn’t matter if I sold a single record or not – they would make big money. They would make less money if they gave a lot of money to people like me, whose records were like Shriekback for example – very good band but they never made their money back on their advances. That was how the business was back then. Now there’s no sense of a record company developing an artist. [It] wants an artist to come to the company with 5 million followers and 5 million streams on YouTube before they’ll even take the chance with them. That’s what makes it so hard now. It’s always been hard to make the record because of the cost of the studio, then that flipped when everyone got a recording studio on their laptop and could make their records at home. The problem changed: it’s not affording to make the record – if everyone can do it how do you get yours above everyone else; above all the noise? That’s the difficult bit.
The part of the tour that’s about Doctors of Madness, do you think it’s a good opportunity to learn about the band because it was quite underappreciated?
Yeah, I think so. Time has bestowed a certain respect, admiration or approval on Doctors of Madness – it would have been lovely if we had got it at the time [laughs]! But we were a band that really split opinion because we weren’t like anyone. We were in that weird little period between glam rock: [David] Bowie had happened, Roxy Music had happened, Sparks had happened. But punk rock hadn’t happened. There was just about a year or two between Bowie and Roxy Music making a huge impact and punk rock – that’s where we were.
It was a tough time to be a band because the music press was incredibly powerful back then. Principally, Melody Maker, New Musical Express and Sounds. They could make-or-break bands and they did every week. If Paul Morley and Anton Corbijn went out to interview and shoot Joy Division or put them on the cover, that album would be Top 5 the following week. It was that powerful – they were kingmakers. It was a tough time not to be one of the chosen ones if you weren’t one of the chosen ones. If someone took against you like Paul Morley or Jon Savage took against Doctors of Madness, it made it really hard to ever come back. They were that powerful. Subsequently, Paul Morley has said lovely things about Doctors of Madness, but he didn’t say them at the time and he said them long after we’d broken up. It’s the same with bands like The Damned, The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Skids, Simple Minds, Spititualized or Vic Reeves, [who] all said now what a great band we were.
It’s nice to get approval and to get the thumbs up: it’s also nice because I’m not reliant on it now. There’s no desperation, so I don’t feel embittered in any way. And in fact, I think the best thing that ever happened in my life was that Doctors of Madness did not become bigger than they were, because I would have probably only ever have done rock ‘n’ roll. That would have been the career path, like Pink Floyd or The Rolling Stones. That’s all they do and good luck to them. But to do that for 40 years for me would probably not have been as amusing, fulfilling, satisfying and challenging as what I have gone on to do, which is to diversify, to assess a problem: “I haven’t got a career anymore because punk rock had come along; [I’m] three years too old. What can I do? Think: what are you good at?” In education we call this personal reflection. It’s like going back. How did that interview go? How did that gig go? How did that recording experience go? What went well? What went badly? What can you do better? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? I got to know those things quite well. I found out that I was pretty fearless and also that I’m a good communicator, songwriter and performer. I’m not a great musician – I’ve got no illusions about that. I know the things I can do and the things I can’t, so that’s always been my guiding light.
“Time has bestowed a certain respect, admiration or approval on Doctors of Madness – it would have been lovely if we had got it at the time!”
I like the music you include in the show, like the acoustic guitar.
I think whenever I’ve written songs, I’ve tended to write them on acoustic guitar; layering them like sketches and when we would go to the studio they would become much, much bigger. I’ve always thought, like they say on Broadway, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage,” which means if the story you’re telling isn’t any good, it doesn’t matter how many lasers you’ve got or dancing girls, it’s still pretty ropey theatre. Whereas I could listen to the songs of Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan played on a one-string guitar and they’re still good. Maybe that’s because I love lyrics as much as I love music; maybe more. And that’s how you got into music: through the word.
Was there anyone else doing a similar thing to Doctors?
There wasn’t really. People sometimes said that we were a bit like Cockney Rebel, who I wasn’t a fan of, but I could see why they would say that because it was post-Bowie. They sometimes said Mott The Hoople, but they were going a lot longer than we were; [they] started in the late ’60s. So maybe it was an attitudinal thing that people saw. I don’t think there was much happening and that was why I think we found it so difficult: when you can’t say, “this is punk rock or two-tone or R ‘n’ B or psychedelic music,” it’s very hard to sell it because people have to make their own decisions rather than being told, “This is punk rock and it’s a big thing this week.” We were difficult, I’m very aware of that.
I try to be adventurous with music; I always have. So you listen to those early Doctors’ records and they don’t sound like anyone else’s records. For a start we had a violin player – electric violin player – who put his instrument through all sorts of effects and pedals and we played loud, fast and hard. We weren’t pin-up material. We were abrasive; we were confrontational; we were different; we were opinionated. We were a long way from prog-rock; [it] had been the prevailing music up until Bowie and it was still going on alongside [him].
Where did you get the idea to bring the violin in, were there any influences?
I suppose the only real example of rock music using violin had been Velvet Underground, but that was an electronic viola that John Cale played. [He] came from a very avant-garde journey into music: he was in New York in the early ’60s working with serious contemporary classical composers like La Monte Young and working on drums. It’s very minimalist music. It was the coming together of this avant-garde with Lou Reed, who was studying English at Columbia University, Nico, who was a German fashion model, and Andy Warhol, pulling all these elements together. That’s when you get a fascinating noise. It’s born out of the conflict between these four main protagonists; Lou Reed and John Cale having huge egos but recognising each other’s talent. The conflict, the sparks that fly when you’ve got two people trying to outdo each other, you see often in pop/rock music: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, [John] Lennon and [Paul] McCartney, the Gallagher Brothers, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. This conflict between at least two of the protagonists is the engine that makes great art – it’s the dynamo that produces something special.
When we were starting off, Peter DiLemma, the drummer, and myself had an idea of what we wanted to sound like. Synthesisers were very, very new at that time; they’d gotten very tied up with the idea of prog-rock. It was Rick Wakeman, YES, Genesis and bands like that playing – as it says in ‘Amadeus’ – too many notes [laughs]. I always wanted something quite stripped down, quite direct, theatrical. There’s something unsettling in the music; Urban Blitz, the violin player, was a very, very skillful musician. He could make noise and he could make music.
Was he the trained musician, who responded to the ad?
Yeah, he came through an ad! That happened all the time back then in the early ’70s, the way you would find musicians. There was no social media, no broadband, no Wi-Fi, no mobile telephones when we started playing. The way you found them was in the old analogue way: you put a little advertisement in the back of Melody Maker, “Musician wanted.” We didn’t even stipulate that we wanted a violin player. We just said the sort of band that we were or who our influences were, which was Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk and William Burroughs. We had to sit through a lot of inappropriate people before we found him and then that was the fourth part of the jigsaw. We knew these were the building blocks to use to make the music. Up until then, it was trying to find an identity really.
Can you talk about the contention between band members, particularly you and Urban Blitz?
It never really diminished. There was something about our personalities that clashed and I’ve never diminished [Urban’s] contribution to what we did. But on a personal level, I always found it very difficult being with him partly because, as I say in [my] book, it reminded me too much of my father. I felt there was always a slight undertone of aggression – the potential for violence to manifest itself – which it occasionally did. Peter I’ve known since I was at school, since I was 12-years-old and we used to play sport together. He was the sweetest guy in the world. He died just a couple of weeks before Christmas. He’d always been a really ‘can-do’ sort of guy; someone who wanted to facilitate and make things happen, however unlikely, however outrageous, however outlandish, whereas I’ve always found Urban to be the sort of person who the first thing he would ever see is a problem rather than a solution. Or rather than the fun in it or the challenge, it would be a problem, and that wears you down. It was no surprise that he was the first one to leave the band in 1977 or ’78, when we were making the third album. In a way we knew we were about to hit the buffers and he jumped ship before we did.
But I think it was because I could never see myself doing anything except what I do and what I’ve always done – which is be an artist – whereas for Urban, he wanted financial security, a family life, all of which is really difficult if you’re making it up as you go along. It doesn’t matter if you do the same job for 45 years like I’ve done: there’s no pension at the end. There’s no guarantee of promotion ’cause you’ve been in the job and the thing about the arts is they’re not fair. It’s just the fact of life. Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave; Van Gogh never sold a painting. They’re not fair! You get recognition after or you don’t get recognition at all. That doesn’t mean that what you’ve done is worthless. What we do, we do it for an audience.
When I work as an actor, doing something in rehearsal is not like doing it in performance: you do it in performance because of that energy you get from an audience. When you’re rehearsing songs before you go out and do a tour, it’s great fun: that process of development, engagement or investigation that comes from rehearsing songs, especially new songs, and you’re writing and finding an arrangement or a performance mode for them, is really interesting. But it’s nothing compared with playing those songs for an audience who’s hearing them for the first time – or for the hundredth time – and they’re in love with those songs. You make work to touch people and, if there’s no people there, you’re doing it into a void and that’s ‘art for art’s sake’. And that’s okay: a lot of work has to come out of that process – the poet in a lonely garret with a blank piece of paper. You’re not doing that to an audience, you’re trying to get something down on that bit of paper.
We were never really close friends in that band; we were never a band that hung out or had fun. We toured; we worked together. I’m not saying it was miserable or it was a drudge, but we weren’t that band who would have been hanging out together even if we didn’t have a band – the four of us weren’t mates like that. Ever. We came from a slightly different direction…it was more like workmates than social mates. If you’re mates, then you’ve got a life outside of that music that connects you. We didn’t really have that. We were all in very different places, living different lives; we’d come together to make records and to do shows.
Also, in that era between 1975 and 1978, we made three records; we’d been on the road nearly all the time and it was quite demoralising to see bands that we knew that didn’t have one tenth of our talent, our imagination or creativity, doing well. That weighs you down, not just from a professional jealousy that I wouldn’t deny that was part of, but also because you see the efforts of the record companies that have been diverted towards these bands you know are no good, so you feel yourself being marginalised. The record business is a business and so it’s all about maximising their return on their investment, of course I see that, but that doesn’t make it any less irksome or demoralising.
Bands that you wouldn’t even give a support slot to because there’s just nothing there – it’s all been copied, assimilated, cut and pasted on. Punk rock was the great example of that: there were some great bands but there were so many bands who just thought, “Oh, I’m going to do that because that looks like it’s easy.” You didn’t have to learn 20 chords; you could play 3 chords. You didn’t have to learn anything about musical dynamics because everything is played at 130 miles-an-hour. And you just shout. I get that it was exciting on a visceral level and being in a crowd. I was at The Roxy, The 100 Club, The Vortex, all those clubs in the ’70s when The Clash, The Pistols, The Damned, The Adverts, The Jam were on…it was exciting; it was a rush. But what you don’t remember is the other 5 bands on the same bill each night who just copied all those things and yet the record companies couldn’t wait to sign them.
Did you feel any pressure to conform to punk rock? What were the American bands like compared to the English bands? How connected were you to those English bands?
We’d done it before it had a name and then once it was given a name it was a case of trying to adapt what it was that we did to it – it was almost like trying to get on a train that’s still pulling out of the station. A song like ‘Bulletin’ on the third album is okay but it’s a punk rock song that has been written as a punk rock song rather than as a Doctors of Madness song. So there were elements of that, where the image of the band as well as the music, was an attempt to refocus it just so that those kids might think that’s a punk band. Even though we’d been around two or three years too long, we had so many of the elements of punk rock – I was Kid Strange, he was Urban Blitz, he was Peter DiLemma; I had blue hair. I decided when I put the band together that I wanted it to be like a cartoon strip. I wanted it to be slightly sci-fi, to be very theatrical and I wanted to do something that no one else was doing. No one else really did that; no one called themselves Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious before there was Kid Strange and Urban Blitz. The American punks didn’t really do it at all. The funny thing with American punk rock was that it was always much better educated. Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, David Byrne – they didn’t pretend to be stupid. Whereas over here, it was like, “We’re really bored and everything’s shit” [laughs]. That was English punk rock.
“I wanted it to be slightly sci-fi…and I wanted to do something that no one else was doing. No one else really did that; no one called themselves Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious before there was Kid Strange and Urban Blitz.”
Not to disparage the English bands because the good ones had incredible style, like The Clash painting their own clothes – it’s very art school. We were connected to them because they all used to come see us. Every time we played Hemel Hempstead or St Albans, Dave Vanian would be in the front row. Anytime we played Manchester, Ian Curtis would be there. Anytime we played Scotland, you’d have Jim Kerr and Richard Jobson. If we played the West Country, we’d have TV Smith. Every gig we did. And this is before punk rock, because they saw us as something outside of the rock ‘n’ roll mainstream.
So when that whole thing got finessed and defined, it became clearer and clearer what punk rock was, and that it was The Sex Pistols. The Damned, Buzzcocks, The Clash. They dressed like that, their hair was like that and they spoke like that. It didn’t matter that Joe Strummer was the son of a diplomat: he was still a west London oik because he had to be. It didn’t matter that so many of these kids were middle class, not working class. Middle class is where rock ‘n’ roll always has come from: The Beatles were middle class, The Stones were middle class…Patti Smith and Richard Hell, Velvet Underground – they’re all middle-class kids. It’s a bit of a myth to think it’s a working-class phenomenon. Sometimes you get working class kids who do it and they do it well. But mainly, Jim Morrison, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen…they’re all middle class! Maybe that is specific to white rock ‘n’ roll music, and hip hop and R ‘n’ B is a completely different thing. But certainly, historically, so much of the music that’s come through, has been from educated, white middle class kids who want to try it.
Do you have any memories of bands that supported Doctors of Madness?
Well, as I say in my book, there was something about watching The Pistols from the side of the stage, having watched them do a soundcheck because they were supporting us. They had one or two little bits written about them, but they weren’t ‘The Sex Pistols’. They were doing their soundcheck and it sounded terrible. It was all over the place and it didn’t seem to have any real defining features. It was pub rock; guitar rock. But when the audience was in – and it was our audience – [they’d] heard about them, so they’d come early to see them.
The Pistols only played for about 20 minutes that night, but there was something in the attitude rather than the music, and watching that from the side of the stage was what I found really scary, because it was like someone had just moved the goalposts. It was so palpably new and different; it was something that was dismissive of musical virtuosity of trying to please an audience. They were making a virtue of being stroppy, pretending to be bored, being ham fisted and inept and they were turning that into a quality – into a selling point – and it was what kids could identify with because a generation in pop, rock, contemporary music, is only about three years. You feel within two or three years, you might like the same thing; four years or five, forget it – you want your stuff. If their brothers and sisters had been listening to prog-rock and it’s like a fourteen-minute drum solo and the six wives of Henry the Eighth on ice, then a band comes along and they’re not doing albums they’re doing singles – this was a different thing. It had gone from the album to just a two-and-a-half minute single in your face. That was a huge diversion from the way it looked like music was going, from prog-rock, which is something your parents could appreciate even if they didn’t like it because it was too loud. Pop music is not for your parents – it’s for you. When you’re 16, you want your mum and dad to hate Phil Oakey’s haircut or Bob Dylan’s voice because that makes you love it all the more.
You had anger in your songs as well, did you have any affiliation with punk?
My earliest influences were people like Bob Dylan and protest music; the protest element is something that has been with me for 45 years. I am and I always have been very political. I hate injustice, I hate hypocrisy, I hate corruption, like anyone should. And so those early American protests, Bob Dylan and Pete Seegar made a big impression on me when I was 14/15-years-old. When the psychedelic thing happened and the bands then – The Doors, Jefferson Airplane or Frank Zappa – had the Vietnam War as a target; they could express themselves and have that rallying point where everyone could say ‘US out of Vietnam!’. Yeah, that anger I always felt. William Burroughs is a huge influence for me. He speaks a lot about conditioning, about governmental control, propaganda, corporate deceit. I just got that and that’s always been one of my big themes or a source of subject material for me…that hypocrisy, injustice, corruption of governments, corporations or the media that I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about. There’s always targets that I’ll have a pop at. I think a lot of punk rock was supposed to be political but very little of it really was – it was dressed up.
I think someone like Tom Robinson was incredibly brave to come out as a gay popstar or wannabe popstar in 1975, where nine years earlier it had been illegal to be gay, let alone a gay popstar. It was just something that didn’t happen. Pop music was sold to teenage girls. So for Tom to sing ‘Glad To Be Gay’ was incredibly important, and maybe lost in the showbiz of The Clash and The Pistols, Malcolm [McClaren] and Vivian [Westwood] and the pantomime of The Damned. If you’re looking at music having a political edge, it is undeniable that [Tom] was out there and made himself a real target for homophobia as well. In examples like that it is political. I do a big lecture on protest music to my students: the history of protest music goes back to the 17th century, but it obviously comes into its own in the ’60s with Bob Dylan, the ’70s with the Vietnam War and then into Thatcher’s Britain and Rock Against Racism. Coming up to date, R ‘n’ B artists like Beyonce or Public Enemy, are absolutely political. I think the political situation has changed a lot since the 1970s. It’s easier to be political now in music: you’re not so reliant on record companies or the radio stations banning your record because you’ll say something nasty about the Queen or the government.
That statement you made about the Brixton riots, was that televised?
Yeah, it went out live. It was a silly thing. It was 1981: I went onto BBC Pebble Mill and it was six o’clock in the evening; Prime Time. They wanted to talk about New Romantics or whatever they called it at the time; the club culture, the Blitz kids…because I had a club back then called Cabaret Futura, I was lumped in with that.
“The Pistols only played for about 20 minutes that night, but there was something in the attitude rather than the music. Watching that from the side of the stage was what I found really scary, because it was like someone had just moved the goalposts.”
Was it acceptable at that time to make political statements?
No, not at all. That’s the last thing they wanted me to do. They wanted us to talk about silly stuff while people were having their tea and I probably would have done that if I’d been up there a day early. But I lived in Brixton then and it was the day that the Brixton riots started. Police went in heavy handed on a woman called Cherry Groce; it was designed specifically to foment racial tension where I lived, and I just thought, “Do I want to be talking about the clothes or do I want to be talking about what’s happening on my doorstep?” So I made the cardinal sin of deviating from their precious clipboard scripts. I just thought I’m not playing this game and also because there were so few opportunities in live TV to say something that wasn’t edited out 10 minutes later; you could make the gesture but it would be meaningless because it wouldn’t be broadcast. So that was my first life ban on the BBC. I got a second one [laughs]!
The Doctors’ albums received mixed reviews. I struggled to see why they got bad reviews, I had a feeling it might be to do with Polydor not marketing correctly because you didn’t fit in a specific niche?
Yeah, funnily enough I had a friend called Alan Rankine and he died earlier this month. Looking at Alan on YouTube talking about the heyday of The Associates – they were signed to Polydor, they had the same guy looking after them as we did and he didn’t get them either. When you’re with a record company, you’re so dependent on a personal relationship with one or a couple of guys at the company who are going to fight for you. If you haven’t got them or if they haven’t got much spine, then Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Jam, Sham 69 come along and everyone wants to be associated with those bands, you’re dropped like a hot potato, and that’s what happened to us. There was a guy at Polydor called Chris Bohn, who was fantastic, always, and is still a supporter and now is the editor of The Wire magazine. It was like pushing water uphill for us because we’d been around for two years: we weren’t new and pop music loves discovering new stuff. It didn’t matter if we’d been Elvis Presley or The Beatles: the band had been around 20 years and we weren’t punk rock – no one really wanted to know.
Did you ever think to play shorter songs?
There was always at least two sides to what we were doing. There was one which was the huge, cinematic, 15-minute long, multi-part song which was almost prog-rock but not, because that was never the intention. It just happened to be a song that was in several parts; it could have been five different songs, but it was one song that linked up. There was something about that tension in a performance where, in a long piece of music like in classical music, you could build in effects by juxtaposing loud and quiet, fast and slow, angry and tender, harmonic and dissonant. I liked that and that’s always been part of my music, that on an album like ‘Figments of Emancipation’, you’ll have ‘Suicide City’, but you’ll also have ‘Marie and Joe’ – a tender love song between two imaginary people. Whereas ‘Suicide City’ is full-on thrash, inspired by William Burroughs and by mental health problems. So there’s always been that juxtaposition of the melodic, the tender and almost romantic, and the dystopian, hopeless, desolate landscapes.
I like not conforming to a formula or to a genre. That’s one of the reasons we weren’t successful: we didn’t fit into any genre. No music is totally original. Every musical development tends to be the product of smashing two existing forms together and seeing what the spark is that flies off. So you look at David Bowie when he finally got big, around ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’: it was when he finally pulled in all these threads of Jacques Brel, Anthony Newley, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, mime, Little Richard, showbiz…it was original because no one had pulled all those things together. But the independent or separate elements, there’s nothing that Bowie was doing that hadn’t been done before. It was only that noone had put them all together before and had them singing ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ or Jacques Brel songs alongside Lou Reed’s ‘White Light/White Heat’.
Bowie always said he was a magpie: he just nicked stuff. But everyone does that. You listen to Dylan when he thought he was Woody Guthrie; Lou Reed when he thought he was in a dance band. It’s very rare that they get it right first time; it’s an iterative process. You try something, you fail; you try again, you fail better and eventually you’ve turned up and you’ve got it. But everyone’s played guitar before and you’ve only got 12 notes in a Western scale, so it’s not new, it’s just the way you focus it. I understand these strands that they pull together – it’s that synthesis. I love that because I know where their influences come from, I know they come from Burroughs, Francis Bacon, pop art, the theatre or Tom Waits.
You supported Be-Bop Deluxe in the UK, how was that?
Be-Bop Deluxe were very much a post-Bowie, prog-rock band. Bill Nelson, who’s a lovely guy and lovely guitarist, was interested in stuff outside of music, so there was always lots to chat with him about when we were on the road. They were EMI’s big band and touted as the next big thing and they weren’t the next big thing partly for the same reasons as we weren’t: because punk rock came along. And although EMI had invested a lot of money in them – a lot more than Polydor had put into us – and they were selling records, they just suddenly hit the buffers. A lot of the same audiences who liked them did like us and certainly a lot of our fans saw us for the first time on that tour. That was a big tour: Manchester Free Trade Hall…all the big concert halls in Britain. A year before we were an amateur band playing in pubs, and then on these big, big stages. This is 1975-76; we’d only been professional, only given up our day jobs three/four months earlier and you’re learning that stage craft and performance skills on the hoof as you go along. It’s not like now where you’d go to stage school or they’d get someone in to show you how to move or how to the smile at the audience. Back then, we were just making it up as we went along.
With the European dates, how did that compare to playing to your fans in the UK? It seemed like you had a really good response in Europe.
France, Belgium and Germany were always good for us, partly because they latched onto punk rock later than they did here. But also partly because they’ve always had a soft spot, especially in France, for the avant-garde. Velvet Underground were always much bigger in France than they were here, because it was chic. They were arty and we were arty and they quite liked that in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Also, because I’ve always been influenced by European music, whether it’s Jacques Brel, Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream, Edith Piaf – that chanson I’ve always loved – and it’s always been something that has fed into the way I work.
Why do you think people liked the concept of your debut solo album, ‘The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange’?
It was arty for a start. I was travelling with a tape recorder; I wasn’t travelling with the band. The tape recorder back then was modern technology. I did it because I’d done it with a band and, when Doctors came to an end, I thought I really want to do something different that’s more manageable, more easy for me to control, where I wouldn’t have to negotiate so many things with other individuals. Also, there was an economic prerogative because it’s expensive to have a band of four people and two roadies and a tour manager on the road: you’ve got seven people, a car and a van or a coach and hotels for seven people. And if you’re not making the money on the other side of that equation to pay your rent and your food at home, then that’s unsustainable. I thought I’m good as a performer, I can work this technology, I can have a tape recorder and put these new songs that I’m thinking about into some sort of show.
So when Doctors finished in ’78, I’d already started thinking about what used to be called a concept album. It was a political fantasy in which I imagined, sometime in the future, Europe would be a confederation of states and have a president. I imagined the world in which this might exist and who that president might be: it’s someone who’s come out of showbusiness or advertising or the movie business, who knows how to manipulate people, understands the media really well, understands crowd control. He’s an orator; a rabble-rouser. This is 1979 – 14 years before [Donald] Trump. The guy off TV who’s a rabble-rouser, who can inflame people, who can make people think that they are big victims of something or that the other guy is their enemy.
My guy, Richard Strange in the ‘Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange’, goes into politics more or less as an academic exercise, not because he wants power, just for his interest in the system and the process of getting into power. And then when he’s in power, he’s given everything away to the banks and to the media companies; done a deal that, if you support me, you can do what you want. I’m not interested in capitalism, socialism or the media. I’m interested in the process of the game. Can you do it? Is it possible to do that, to get enough people to think you’re their guy? When you look at [Boris] Johnson, Trump, [Jair] Bolsonaro, [Narendra] Modi, you know that is possible, because these are horrible people who have done nothing but harm to their countries and lined their pockets while they’re doing it, and yet you’ll still find people who think Boris was a good bloke. No one who’s ever worked with Boris Johnson has even thought he was a good bloke! It’s populism: someone who watches which way the crowd is running, run to the front and says, “Follow Me!”. Populist leaders are never good for the country: they always take it from Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.
But with your album, people liked it that he became a good guy in the end.
Yeah, he’s a good guy and that’s the funny thing: he goes into it very cynically and gets politicised when he’s in there and suddenly thinks I want to do some good, and that’s where it all goes wrong for him because his backers think, “You’re not here to do good” [laughs].
Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve had my supporters and my detractors, but there were enough people to make it viable for a couple of years that I’d been touring, especially in that stripped down version with just a tape recorder. I did put a band together when it needed a band to take it somewhere else, but the bands I put together for that were made up of musicians that I’d either worked with before or people who were friends. I learned the lesson of being in a band who weren’t necessarily your friends because you’re spending a lot of time with these people. If most of the time you’re just feeling detached or isolated or unsupported, then it’s very, very wearing and I didn’t want to be worn down again. These people will be in my band when we’re on stage, but there’s not a band if we’re not performing; it’s like guns for hire and that was great. I still work like that. I really enjoyed that because it means I get to work with fantastic people, but they’re all grown-ups that I don’t feel I have to handhold all the time. They’ve got their own lives and they do what they do. We come together to make music and then we go our separate ways.
What was it like touring in America?
When I went to America with my show for the first time with my tape recorder, I was travelling with a guy called John Otway and we were going out as two English eccentrics and playing every night somewhere. I was solo; he had a band. We went from New York to LA and LA back to New York and we played every night for about six weeks – it was absolutely exhausting. And when we got back to New York we did our last show or what should have been our last show. A guy came into the dressing room after and said his name was Michael Zilkha and he had a label called ZE records. ZE were just the hottest, trendiest, coolest label in the world. They had Suicide, Was (Not Was), Kid Creole and The Coconuts, The Waitresses…they were brilliant. Michael said [he] was a big fan of Doctors of Madness and [he’d] love to make a record with [me]. So we did a live record; it was weird doing a live record when everything was on tape [laughs]! We did a live album, ‘The Live Rise of Richard Strange’, which was a lot of the songs from the ‘Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange’, but before I’d re-recorded them. This is very early ’80s. So when I came back from that I didn’t want to do this music that I’d conceived in a different way; I didn’t want to do it in a rock club, in The Marquee or The 100 Club. If it’s not there, you’ve got to invent it. What is the space you’d like to do it in? I thought of Cabaret Futura – a mixed media, multimedia club where you could mix spoken word, comedy, music, dance, video, performance art under one banner. Once a week I did it and it ran for about two years.
What was the inspiration that you got from clubs in New York?
Especially in New York, there were places like The Knitting Factory and The Pyramid that were putting on spoken word with people like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Patti Smith or Talking Heads. These were multimedia x disciplinary performances or installations and there was nothing like that happening in London. I was lucky because it coincided with two things: a big, burgeoning alternative comedy world – those comedians that came up in the ’80s, French & Saunders, The Young Ones or Keith Allen were all people who did Cabaret Futura – but also the availability and ubiquity of video. Suddenly, everyone had a video camera; MTV had just started. There was this idea of video art and people could make video – quite often they were just very bad films [laughs]. Video art was something that you could program to either have alongside the whole time on the performances on stage or it was a specific, standalone element of an evening show – a short film. It was special. It became very, very popular. I put on bands doing their first London gigs like Soft Cell, The Pogues and Depeche Mode, who’d never played before – they were 15/16-years-old.
“I get to work with fantastic people, but they’re all grown-ups that I don’t feel I have to handhold all the time. They’ve got their own lives and they do what they do. We come together to make music and then we go our separate ways.”
Were they all 20-minute sets? Do you remember what Soft Cell and Depeche Mode played?
Yeah, 15-20 minutes. Everyone got the same length of time; everyone got paid the same: a percentage of what we took on the door. [Soft Cell] definitely did ‘Tainted Love’. Depeche Mode did ‘Ice Machine’, ‘Dreaming Of Me’ and ‘New Life’ – monophonic synths.
Was there any other clubs at that time doing something similar?
Not doing the live performance. You had Blitz Club, which came more or less the same time, but that was just Rusty [Egan] and Steve [Strange] playing records. And you had the comedy clubs; alternative comedy or what they would call The Comedy Store. But there weren’t pretentious arty clubs like mine [laughs], putting on poetry, music, installations and video art, side by side. So we got a good cross-section of audience coming down; people in the media, the art world, music, film, theatre…also it became a place where bands knew that I was a soft touch: if I even remotely liked it, they got a quarter-of-an-hour slot. Shane MacGowan coming down [does impersonation]; Richard Jobson was always there doing his sort of poetry schtick – he moved on from The Skids by then and wanted to be a poet or a figure of literature. He worked a lot with us over two years. There was a label in Belgium called Les Disques du Crépuscule and they would release a lot of stuff: Bill Nelson, Richard Johnson, The Durutti Column, Tuxedomoon…a lot of edgy music and [Cabaret Futura] used to go over to Antwerp and Brussels to do shows out there in ’82-84.
The people who came were extraordinary; from every walk of life. Quite often I didn’t even see them because I was never on the door; I was always on stage or at the bar. Andy Warhol was there, Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Malcolm McClaren…but you didn’t always get to talk to them – they’d drift in; they’d drift out. They wouldn’t always stay the whole night. Someone would say, “Did you see Debbie Harry was in?” Oh, I missed that.
Did you meet William Burroughs?
I met [him] once in Brixton when he was over doing stuff at the Brixton Ritzy. They did three nights at the Ritzy with all the Beat writers: Jean Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. I was a good friend of Kathy Acker, a New York writer, who was a friend of theirs and she introduced me to William Burroughs. I was a little bit starstruck, I must say, because he was such a big one for me and I invited him to a restaurant in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, just around the corner from the Ritzy. It was called ‘Burroughs’, but it was an eel pie and mash shop. He said, “What is this shit?!” He didn’t like jellied eels [laughs]!
What else were you working on at this time?
What happened out of Cabaret Futura, which was a totally unforeseen and unpredicted development in my career, was that someone assumed that, because I was putting on live performance, I wanted to be an actor. [My friend] invited me to come and meet someone that she was working with, a director called Franc Roddam. I’d not got any aspirations to be an actor at that point, but I met him and got along really well. He’d done a film called ‘Quadrophenia’ with The Who.
We’re chatting about this film – a Frankenstein film with Sting and Jennifer Beales called ‘The Bride’ – and it becomes clear there’s no role for me. He said, “Well, you’ve got a look, you’ve got a voice and you’ll always work.” And he introduced me to an agent, who I’m still with now. I went to see this agent and she said, “Well, what have you done?” I said, “I’ve not done anything except be in a band.” And she said, “Well, okay, we’ll take you on for three months.” Like always, I was lucky. I got a silly part in a silly film, then I got a commercial. Then I got a slightly nicer part in a film called ‘Mona Lisa’, with Neil Jordan. And then the next thing I know she says, “They’re filming ‘Batman’ in London with Jack Nicholson and casting all the smaller roles with English actors. Would you like to go along”? So I went along and Tim Burton is directing and doing the castings. He’s only made one film before; he can’t believe his luck he’s doing ‘Batman’ with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton. I don’t even think they asked me to do anything. It’s just like [they’re] looking at you and how you move; how speak. “Yeah, welcome aboard! You’re in ‘Batman'”. Three months later there’s ‘Robin Hood’, with Kevin Costner – I’m the executioner in that.
In between these other things, in 1984 Richard Strange & The Engine Room did a song called ‘Damascus’. We were doing it in between anything else and it was a really exciting time for me because suddenly – I say I’m fearless – I had to put together a Shakespeare audition piece for this production of Hamlet that was going around the world for 18 months, with a Russian director called Yuri Lyubimov. I’d seen his work in London – I loved it. It was very physical, very visual theatre. He didn’t speak a word of English, so everything was done through an interpreter. I did a piece by Cleopatra just because I thought no other male actor will do Cleopatra. Anyway, after two or three returns, I got a part in ‘Hamlet’ and we went around the world.
We went everywhere to Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, Sweden. I was one of the grave diggers and the other was James Nesbitt – Jimmy Nesbitt – the Irish actor who’s now in everything on TV. So again it’s just good luck that I’ve got no training, I’ve just got no fear. What’s the worst thing that could happen? They say, ‘No thanks.’ This is what I tell my students all the time: the idea of failure is a myth; it’s a fiction. Because all art is made from a constant, reiterative process. You’re trying things out; you’re discarding things. You’re editing; you’re cutting and pasting. You’re seeing what you’re good at, what your strengths are and what works when you stick things together.
You worked with Dave Allen on The Engine Room, what was it like working with him?
David is brilliant. I love David. He’d been working with Martin Rushent on The Human League, Altered Images and all that early, very commercial synthpop stuff that was so genre defining. Dave was great and he’d been working a bit with The Cure by that time as a producer; he’d been working with Sisters of Mercy and The Mission. He just loved songs and was not too expensive. We were on a label at that time so we could get into a proper studio with a proper producer like Dave. We did that first album with him and it had ‘Damascus’, [which] became a bit of a dance-floor hit around the world.
“The people who came were extraordinary…Andy Warhol was there, Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Malcolm McClaren…they’d drift in; they’d drift out. They wouldn’t always stay the whole night. Someone would say, “Did you see Debbie Harry was in?””
You did four singles for that album, how did they do commercially?
They did better than anything else I’ve ever done commercially so that was a thrill. We were with Arista for that record. They just let us get on with it; they weren’t, pressurising us but nor were they really thinking this is going to be our next big thing. It was a time that you had to have a video as well. We did one for ‘Damascus’ and for ‘Your Kiss Is A Weapon’ – like so much stuff you look back at, it’s a little bit embarrassing [laughs]. I was just rolling along then: I was an actor, I was a musician, I had a club and I never knew what the next phone call was going to be. It was really exciting. I was getting invited to participate in a lot of stuff, because everyone likes you when you’re hot. I became a consultant to people who wanted to put on art events in rock ‘n’ roll spaces and we were talking about festivals.
Do you think your reputation as an influencer of punk rock helped your reputation as a solo artist or was it because you found your fit?
It was both because the Doctors’ music had proven itself to be influential by now: that can only be done with the passing of time. It’s only with the passing of time whether you know you’ve influenced what’s to come. But also I think people started to trust my judgement, because I’d done a club, before anyone else had, that tapped into the zeitgeist, into the spirit of the time again; then I was making music with ‘Damascus’, tapping into the idea of world music or using different influences – that was a big thing.
Looking back at your music career, what lessons have you learned from the ups and down of the music business?
I think it’s a peculiarly English thing that we hate to talk about money. And so we’re routinely cheated by people who either bamboozle us or gain our trust. I’m still paying for the contracts that I signed in 1975 with Doctors of Madness, even though Brian Morrison [my publisher] is dead! Those songs are still assigned to [him] – they don’t do anything except collect royalties. I’ve just had my first sync, for a Polish TV crime series: they’ve bought a song of mine for the credits – ‘International Language’. My publisher said, “That’s not very much money.” And I’m thinking, “Well it’s more than you’ve earned for me in 40 years for TV sync rights [laughs]!” You can never win. Yeah, I think I’m very, very bad at business. I think I always have been bad.
Do you have any regrets?
I don’t regret anything at all. I look back from my extreme old age now and think what a fantastic life – I’ve never really had to do a proper job. What I love is that because of the accumulation of experiences and knowledge/wisdom, I’m able to actually impart some of that to students and young people when I’m teaching. I know I inspire some young people; I’m from a generation, or a sub-generation, where music shouldn’t be about music. Music should be a conduit way of talking about life, not the other way around. Beethoven didn’t write about music. Lou Reed didn’t write about music – he wrote about life and used music as a medium. No, I don’t regret anything. I love the fact that I’ve done everything that I’ve done to just the level that suits me to do it. I’d hate to be really famous; I’d hate to be a celebrity – it’d be murder [laughs]. The great benefit of it all is that people answer my emails or my phone calls and that’s an achievement; that’ll do me.
Are you working on anything else right now?
I wrote a play last year which we performed in Portugal and here. I’m working on a new play – about which I don’t want to say too much – and on this live show; still making and writing music and I enjoy teaching a lot. It keeps me out of trouble. My daughter sings as well – Lilybud – she makes music on her own so I do some production with her and tell her she’s wrong [laughs]. I love working with her because she makes what I do musical [laughs].
*A final note about Julian Cope*
I’ve got a lot of time for him and he’s always been very kind about Doctors of Madness. He did a mini ‘Meltdown’ at the [Royal] Festival Hall years ago and said he wanted one of the exhibits to be called ‘The Doctors of Madness – the smallest disco in the world’. It’ll be a club the size of a telephone booth with a glass floor and lights and all they will play is Doctors of Madness music. There’ll be a bouncer outside saying, “You can’t come in [laughs].” He said, “Can I borrow the ‘Kid’ guitar? I’d like to put that in the club, but no one can get into the club, so no one will see it. It’ll be in a pink, fake fur case. [laughs].”
Richard Strange’s multimedia solo show, ‘An Accent Waiting To Happen’, tours throughout March and April. Click here for tickets: https://m.facebook.com/657079487/
Photos (except archive and album covers) © E. Gabriel Edvy/Blackswitch Labs.
© Ayisha Khan.