CHARLIE HARPER – UK SUBS: XXIV
The UK Subs are due to release the next instalment in their A-Z album catalogue, ‘XXIV’, 34 years after their debut entry, ‘Another Kind Of Blues’. Following on from the success of their last album, ‘Work In Progress’, a production which saw the marrying of old Subs ideals with contemporary refurbishment, there’s promise of an even more exciting variation of noise that puts the band back to the beginning of a ‘Brand New Age’ of discovery. Punk rock machine, Charlie Harper, original vocalist and founder, talks album themes, artwork and the mechanics behind the UK Subs’ 35-year-old sound factory.
You’ve finished recording and mixing your 24th album in the alphabetised series, renamed ‘XXIV’. If ASIA hadn’t named their new album ‘XXX’, would you have still changed it?
We would have changed it because it was going to be three [discs] and now it’s only two. We were going to get a free DVD set but couldn’t find one suitable. Because of the ASIA album, we thought, “What are we gonna do now?” And then the guy from the record company, Captain Oi!, said, “Wait a minute. What does that make it?” ‘XXIV’ – it was as quick as that.
You selected songs from the 15 electric and 13 acoustic tracks you recorded. Why did you decide on doing a double album for this release, both electric and acoustic?
That was Captain Oi!’s idea because they’re looking for something new: the market is really hard. The last thing they did with the Subs [was] a package of singles on CDs – a boxset. They’re always looking for a new angle; something to catch the eye. I was doing some acoustic style and told the band – they were into it. The idea of the acoustic was to get everyone to sing their own songs [and] write a whole song, although it’s only Alvin who put a whole song together.
What features can we look forward to? What’s different about this album?
It’s very rocky and exciting. There’s good arranging – it’s taken a step further like a ‘maturity’ [laughs]. Everyone said [in] the last album, ‘Work In Progress’, every track was so different. We’ve repeated that [with this album] – [it’s] even more different. We’ve paid more attention to intros. Also, the UK Subs aren’t frightened of technology. When we go into the studio, we look around: “What can we use, what’s new?” We’ve used a lot of technology. It’s not state of the art; many effects are 30 years old. They’re what a punk rock band wouldn’t use.
Can you talk about the technology that you were using in the studio?
I would love to, but…[laughs]
Is it too technical?
Yeah. You know [David] Bowie, ‘Heroes’? The guitarist on that plays this Tone Bender thing – it bends the tone right out. It’s continuous tone, if you remember the song. So we’ve used one of those on a couple of tracks. Jamie’s played piano on a couple of tracks – he’s even put a choir on a track. It’s nothing new but it’s what a punk rock band would not use. Everything we done before was stripped to the bone: hardly any effects, just feedback and the guitar played with attack and aggression. Jet is more of a perfectionist, I tend to play the wilder guitars and Jamie does the heavier stuff. Jamie played some great [guitar] on the last album, so we let them go a little bit further on this one.
How many tracks are finalised for the new album?
The number is 14 [electric] and 12 for the acoustic.
Part of the acoustic album contains song covers: ‘Angel Of 8th Avenue’ and ‘Four Strong Winds’.
[‘Angel Of 8th Avenue’] is a Mott The Hoople cover, one of Alvin’s favourite songs. We all love Mott The Hoople. ‘Four Strong Winds’ is a big Canadian folk song: it’s by a guy called Mike Tyson – [laughs] not Mike Tyson…
Yeah, and Neil Young popularised it in recent years. It was written in the early ’60s. It’s a depression song: people having to go a long way to work, like us – we have to go to other shores to work and live. We identify with that one a lot.
You’ve got two covers on there that are quite inspirational to you, which you’ve chosen to include for that reason. Are the rest of them new or songs that you’ve written in the past which you’ve now decided to record?
Oh good question. There’s always something on a new album that may be a song from a few years ago. ‘Wreckin’ Ball’ goes back quite a way. ‘The Outsider’ [is] a song that I started writing a long time ago, finished in the studio. It’s about an outsider: we underground people see ourselves [as] out of art and the rock world. ‘Workers Revolution’ is so recent, from when we recorded. ‘Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind’ was written in the studio by Alvin on one of Jamie’s tunes. Alvin wrote ‘Thunders In The Rain’ this year. ‘Souls From Hell’ – that’s a funny song; a Morris dancing song [laughs].
Which ones did you write on the acoustic album, apart from the ones we’ve already talked about?
‘Higher Tide’, ‘Sleeping Rough’…’Metamorphosis’ is one of Jamie’s tunes; I wrote some of it. [Laughs] ‘Little Crow’, [which is] about this little crow that came out of the nest too early – we were trying to protect it and help it to fly. All the cats were trying to get it and we had to keep guard of it all night. It used to perch on my hand.
Which is the one you took off the acoustic album?
‘Hard Times Cafe’ – it had a silly chorus at the end: “Hard, hard, hard times cafe!”, with everybody singing and clapping [laughs]. It was very cornball, we thought.
Did you have a set amount of tracks each? I was reading that most of you had four songs each and Jamie had three. You had your own space on the album for songs and you wrote those individually – is that how it worked?
Yeah. I also say [to the band], “Out of the four songs, try and write one song with me in mind and my vocal style,” ’cause it’s quite hard if there’s some real thrashy songs and I’m singing so fast it’s difficult to get the words out. It’s meant to be a thrash thing and ended up like a poem – a dark poem. And then I say, “Try and do one a bit left field, weird and wonderful – think outside the box.” It can be noisy sounds or anything, but something that’s not been heard before.
Did you ever check up on each other’s progress when you were doing the songwriting?
No, we don’t [laughs]. If [the band] don’t wanna go by the rules then they don’t have to. They’ll roughly try and do it. When you’re writing, it’s a creative thing – you’ve just got to take what comes into your head. Sometimes I just grab the guitar, start to strum it and don’t really know what I’m doing. [I think], “That sounds good and that could be a good beginning for a song…” It’s something you have no real control over, unless you’re one of these great professional songwriters who writes it all down and plays the piano.
With the last album, ‘Work In Progress’, some of the tracks sounded like you could have written them several years ago, right at the beginning of the band – they’re fresh but still have a UK Subs feel to them.
Well thanks for that. There’s so much variation [in ‘XXIV’]. We’ve stretched the variation of it from the last album, so there are songs that go right back to the first or second album. Then it goes to an up-to-date sound. Both those things [are] there. It was difficult to piece the songs together on this one – I spent two days doing it. The atmosphere couldn’t change that much, but luckily there’s some nice intros [that] made it a bit easier. 35 years on, we like to capture some of that old feel; what people who come to the live shows love to hear. There’s always that there, not intentionally: it’s the way we play and attack the guitars. It’s a part of the Subs – the way we work. We just hammer it so it gets that energy on [record].
Were you surprised when you all came back after you had your songs completed?
No, we never have them completed. We record the stuff and I’ve got a book of songs. We go in the studio and if the words don’t fit but the atmosphere and story of the song fits the music, I tailor and cut words off/add words on and put it on that song. So it’s like pick ‘n’ mix. I go in the studio with loads of lines, ideas and titles, but rarely a whole completed song. And when I have that completed song, it has to be restructured. Mine are a lot more simplistic. That’s the secret of my songwriting – simplification. The other guys try and get more structure out of it.
You recorded at Pat Collier’s Perry Vale Studios. Did you spend 10 days doing the recording?
And mixing. We done it in eight days – both albums – and had two days spare. [We] came back a month later and mixed it.
You used Pat Collier’s production skills for the last album. Why did you decide on using him again for this double album? What does he bring to the production of your albums?
I find working with Pat is like [working with ] another member of the band. We’ve spent so many years working around him – he knows what the band wants. He comes up with great ideas; he lets me have a lot more freedom than I’ve ever had. Me and Pat will come out with an idea and it’s too crazy for the band, so they have to calm us down. I love working with Pat – he likes to take a chance.
There’s been a sneak preview of one of the tracks on the electric called ‘Las Vegas Wedding’. Jet put it on his Facebook page and it was only a few seconds. It sounded very different, like a fresh take on your material.
Yeah [laughs]. It’s one of the few happy songs on the album. A lot of my friends have flown to Las Vegas to get married. The first thing I thought of writing [was that] Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Patsy Cline were at the wedding, but it didn’t turn out that way and I just fit the words in. It’s about going to a wedding, getting drunk and having a good time. Jet wrote the music and I put the song on it.
You said you were in a “born again” frame of mind after the last album. You called this album “the ‘Brand New Age’ of today” and ‘Work In Progress’ the one before that – ‘Another Kind Of Blues’. I found it interesting that you were going back to a new slate.
On a level of workmanship, ‘Work In Progress’ was a new beginning, like ‘Another Kind Of Blues’ was a new beginning. [‘Brand New Age’] was the second one of our new age. It had more uppy numbers than the first one. A lot of people say their favourite [album] was ‘Brand New Age’, so hopefully we’ll do that with this one. We think it’s better than ‘Work In Progress’.
You’re coming to the end of the alphabet with your last few albums – are you trying to loop it back to the beginning in a circle?
[Laughs] Quite a good concept but no, I never thought of it that way. The lineup of this band [has] been going for seven years now and they’ve really got it together. We’re a rock machine – wherever we go, everything’s wild. It’s a lovely thing to be involved in. We hope to do great records as well. It’s always been a challenge for us to get the energy on record and get something different after 35 years. Not just put any old thing out there but really try our best to improve and have a money-for-value UK Subs product. Hopefully we can end on a great high – that’s what we’re aiming for.
Can you talk about the sleeve art?
My concept for the album, some of the songs, the feel [and] the stories of the songs [was] the conflict with the ancient world. Nothing’s past in 2000 years; the ancient world, the modern world – there’s still that conflict there that’s taken over the world and it’s frightening. That was one of the ideas for the artwork. I got this artist, Dale Grimshaw, who does paintings of hoodies. He had this hoodie kid with an X-box and he’s in control of zones, [which] are wiping out ancient armies. He’s zapping these armies and it’s a conflict between the ancient armies and now. And that was rejected – everyone said it was too metal.
Alvin and myself are history buffs, in fact he’s studying it really seriously. We go round castles and ancient ruin sites. Alvin went to Pompeii and took a picture of a mosaic floor. It was a really interesting picture. There’s a song on the album, ‘Momento Mori’ (sic) [“Remember your mortality”], and it’s from that mosaic – the wheel of life, the butterfly and then the death skull. And that’s the chorus for the song: “Remember your mortality, momento mori.” So [Grimshaw] has started some work on that, but the band and the record company weren’t sure – they thought it still looked a bit metal. But I love this artist and I’m over the moon that he’s doing a cover for us. He was a fan [of the UK Subs] when he was young.
Does the album fit in with the sleeve art? Is there a depressive theme?
It’s a little darker and that’s why the sleeve art matches; it’s quite a dark album. In the mid ’80s – mid ’90s we had different guitarists and were dabbling in the darker side of punk – ‘dark punk’. But we don’t plan to do that, it’s just something that we’re into at the time. We don’t purposely say, “This is the concept of the album,” because everybody comes to the studio with another idea and it’s nice to have a selection of ideas.
You originally had three discs – one was supposed to be a live DVD release. Are you still going to release that at some point and can you speak about what it contains?
I was told that every one of the Japanese tour records weren’t quite good enough, and we had some from Germany [but] there was always something which wasn’t that great (the sound etc), so we didn’t get anything together in time. This is a thing we’ll probably do when we get to ‘Z’ and make some compilations from all over the world – one song from a show in New York, Birmingham, Tokyo…as long as they’re a good sound and visual.
You’ve got the tour starting in November. Are you gonna be singing the new tracks live by that point?
No, we’re still trying to struggle with songs from the last album: people were asking for ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Whore’ and we haven’t perfected it yet. We’ll bring that one back. I said to [the band], “Choose your favourite track from the new album and we’ll try and do it.” And then we’ll see what our fans want – they’re all doable live. So there will be at least four new ones – we don’t do the whole album, just our favourite tracks.
Do you have an official release date for the album?
No, not yet. We go on tour on 2nd November, so it was [supposed] to be released by then. The record company want[ed] it released by mid-October so there [would] be a little buzz up to the tour. But we’re not just touring because of the album – we’re touring because we love it. We always tour at Christmas. We tour in England in the summer because it’s not too hot. We’re in Europe in January/March and we could be anywhere the rest of the year, perhaps Japan, Australia, the States, Canada, South America. The long hauls – we try to get one of them in per year.
Lastly, is there anything you want to say looking forward to the release of the new album?
We’re very excited about it. We’re busy making a new backdrop and getting ready for the release. And we’re looking forward to doing a tour, playing the news songs and going out and having a great party with all our fans.
The UK Subs’ 24th official album, ‘XXIV’, is available now on CD, vinyl and as a digital download on Captain Oi! records.
Photos © as watermarked or credited.
© Ayisha Khan.