Thursday, 29 August 2019

Henry Cow: An Interview With Chris Cutler.


One of the most innovative and visionary bands of the 70s Henry Cow are almost as renowned for their politics and practice as their extraordinary music! Henry Cow pushed the boundaries of what was possible within a European musical framework between ‘68 and ‘79 with a collection of albums that experimented with form and sound. Their Marxist informed, truly progressive, process of egalitarian, democratic musical production still stands as a benchmark for bands seeking to break free of the myth of neoliberal individualism.

The embryonic Henry Cow emerged from Cambridge University life in 1968 around founding members Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson. After various personnel changes a settled line up took shape when bass guitarist John Greaves joined in 1969, with drummer Chris Cutler joining a couple of years later. In ‘72 they recruited Geoff Leigh on woodwind and in 1973 released their first album Legend on Virgin. In 1974 Lindsay Cooper replaced the departed Leigh and they started work on Unrest. The same year Henry Cow and Slapp Happy started work together on Slapp Happy’s second album (Desperate Straights) and the following year on Henry Cow’s third, In Praise of Learning, which featured the Slapp Happy-soon to be Henry Cow-vocalist Dagmar Krause. 

Too complex for Britain and not commercial enough to sustain Virgin’s interest, Henry Cow found their musical home in Europe where their music and politics found an enthusiastic response. With similar bands they went on to form Rock In Opposition, a collaboration of groups who operated outside the mainstream music industry. In 1976 they released live album Concerts, and were joined by cellist Georgie Born who replaced Greaves on bass. Their final album Western Culture was released in 1979, the band having announced their decision to bring things to a close the previous year.

With a belief that ’radical politics demand radical music’ and that ‘Art is not a mirror-It is a hammer’(John Grierson quote on the cover of In Praise of Learning), forty years later Henry Cow’s music still sounds like messages from another place; reminding us what could be, what should be, of lost futures and still existent possibilities.

Post Henry Cow the various members have gone on to have long and respected careers as musicians working with a variety of bands and other musicians and in new configurations of erstwhile Henry Cow members. In addition, Georgie Born, Tim Hodgkinson and Chris Cutler have also authored books, with Chris Cutler also running Recommended Records.

In 2014 members of Henry Cow regrouped for several concerts to celebrate the life of Lindsay Cooper, who had died the previous year.

This September sees the release of The World is a Problem a book on Henry Cow by Benjamin Piekut with a book launch at Cafe Oto, London on October 13th. To accompany the book release ReR is releasing the complete works of Henry Cow: 18 CDs, a DVD and 250 pages of recollections, commentaries, documentation, unpublished photographs and substantial notes written by members of the band (due Oct). 

I can still recall the first time I heard Henry Cow as a teenager, when a friend put on Concerts, and can still remember the realisation that I had never heard anything like it before, and very little like it since! So I was extremely excited when Henry Cow's drummer Chris Cutler agreed to an interview for Echoes and Dust on all things Henry Cow! 

In the book Future Days it comments that the German bands that became collectively known as Krautrock were unable to draw on their cultural history, unwilling to draw on American musical history and therefore had to innovate and experiment to find new forms and styles (1). Was that something that Henry Cow very much related to at the time?
Well, I’m not sure I agree with David Stubbs about that. After the nazi period of course German folk music had to be avoided, but still, the so-called Krautrock bands took as their jumping-off point something equally ‘German’: electronic music, which they fused with the vocabulary of… American rock. What we related to most, I think, was this bricolage of different musical languages; that and the casual disregard for distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art – which I’d say, all the rock experimentalists at this time held in common.

As a working definition ‘A grass roots DIY artistic expression of progressive politics’ seems to sum up all that is good about punk. Does that make Henry Cow the first punk band?!
These are troublesome definitions. Some punk bands did-it-themselves, and some were politically progressive - but all were musically mono-cultural, rejecting not only jazz, classical and contemporary music, but also the catholic experiments of their immediate predecessors; such as us. Punk was arguably more about attitude than culture - in which it differed markedly from the more ambiguous New Wave bands that rode in on its coat-tails. So I think it would be a hard sell to pitch Henry Cow as proto-punks. While Punk rejected mainstream culture - until it became mainstream itself - Henry Cow embraced capital C culture with both hands and tried to integrate its fringes into a new mainstream. We didn’t just want to speak to our peers or our own generation. We were inclusive and directed our music at anyone prepared to listen; Punk, on the other hand, was culturally very tunnel-visioned.

There were five studio albums between 1973 and ‘79, one a collaboration with Slapp Happy, looking back is there a sense of the releases having a continuity, being a body of work or are they more a series of stand alone artefacts, documenting your responses to certain sets of circumstances?
Continuity. Our musical language evolved in a pretty linear way. The snapshots taken on that road – the studio albums – were different from one another because we constantly found new problems to solve or new questions to ask (and sometimes, new technologies to explore). But you are right, our circumstances changed, global politics changed and the problems we faced - both artistic and professional – changed; we were just trying to keep up. So, where Legend was cheery and Dadaistic, Unrest was pessimistic, dark and deliberately experimental. In Praise of Learning was optimistic - and in-your-face political, while Western Culture swayed between precision and organicism, and was steeped in narrative. I think it would be easy to make the case that they track the political events of their time - as well as the evolution of our own aesthetic thinking. Desperate Straights and Hopes and Fears, in their different ways, explored our roots in pop, and short song form, which was, in a way, our natural language. But, of course, everything we did precipitated out of the interplay of our world and the world, and I don’t think it’s hard to follow the threads that bind them. It’s the story of a time, and a collective mind at work.

I’ve read a couple of books recently about the Russian Constructivists (2) and Post-Punk (3) and both groups explored cultural production and form around the question of ‘What does a socialist process of production look like?’ Egalitarian democracy? The evidencing of production as a socially dynamic process? What did the process of production look like in Henry Cow?
We weren’t messing about and we did operate collectively. That is to say, there was no leader or main composer: Henry Cow wasn’t somebody’s group. In addition, we controlled our own affairs: we had no management or concert agency to answer to and we were wholly self-sufficient, with our own lorry, bus, PA system and lights - usually around 10 of us on the road: 6 in the band and four road-crew. Gender balance was pretty equal; we had female drivers, sound engineers and technicians as well as musicians. And all decisions were made at minuted weekly meetings at which a no-majority rule was imposed: that is to say, nothing could be done until everyone agreed to it. A majority couldn’t override a dissident voice. So we talked until we found a better solution. That could be grueling, but we did that all the way through. It’s why we ended so positively.

The associated question was/is ‘What form and content does the object/cultural product that is a comrade in the struggle for socialism look/sound like and how should it affect the individual and society? Was that a question you were exploring with Henry Cow’s music?
Well, top line; we were musicians. We were concerned with the music. But, as political people working in a highly politicized environment we could hardly - nor did we wish to - separate our musical lives from their social and political contexts. Mostly, our politics were practical: for example, as I said, all the other bands we knew were dependent on managers, concert agents and record companies; we controlled all these functions ourselves – as well as how, where, for whom and in what context, we played. That gave us a freedom more or less none of our peers had. Overt politics only came into the music after Dagmar joined and we had to write texts.

Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain (3), Resilience and Melancholy (4) and File Under Popular (5) all explore the importance of musical form and the concept that certain musical forms can convey particular ideologies (values and worldviews) due to either the structure mirroring political values or via socialised associations. Did those sorts of ideas feed into Henry Cow’s practice at the time?
We constantly discussed these sorts of issues but I don’t think we believed that certain musical forms could convey particular ideologies. Plato believed that; we were more Aristotelian - more of the opinion that ‘progressive’ meant things like stimulating thought, not acting in bad faith, addressing our public honestly, trying not to propagate oppressive social relations, discouraging the unquestioned acceptance of dominant narratives....

And did you therefore seek to create music that would disrupt and challenge that hegemonic representation of society, be an artform that gives dissident expression, pointed to what could be rather than reproducing what ‘was’?
Yes, I think we would have agreed with that.

In 1977 you set up Music for Socialism (6), could you tell us a little more about that, what it involved, what it’s aims were?
We were partners in the setting up; it wasn’t our project. Its aims were, like R.I.O.’s, to put up a flag and bring the question of the relation between music and socialist politics into a public forum; to share proposals about what a Socialist music might sound like in the form of debates and concerts. We didn’t come to any conclusions, but we did manage to instantiate a climate of comradely tolerance, more or less. Some experiments - the women-only music room, for instance – were more interesting: that was a room full of instruments and amplifiers closed to men. That caused controversy. But, in the end, like the festival as a whole, although it made a brave attempt to face up to a difficult question, it came to no useful conclusion; probably because the premiss itself – that there might be some kind of music that is intrinsically Socialistic - was just wrong.

You were also involved with the Italian Communist Party for a while (6), did the members of the band have a similar politics at the time?
We worked a lot in Italy when it was hard for outside bands to go there - largely because the PCI adopted us as comrades. After our free concert in Rome with Robert Wyatt and Gong, we parked our bus in the Piazza Farnese and just hung around. After a day or so, someone from the PCI found us and asked if we were free to play the next day at one of their Festa d‘Unita - huge free fairs they ran all over Italy throughout the Summer. That concert led to five or six more and by the end of the week we had become politically persona grata in Italy. We were invited back every year after that; not only by the PCI but also by the Partito Radicale and other left groups. I can say we felt very at home in the Italian left of that time.

In 1984 you initiated a benefit EP, The Last Nightingale, involving several members of Henry Cow to raise money for the striking miners (7), which is a good example of the John Grierson quote on the back cover of In Praise of Learning ‘Art is not a mirror - it is a hammer’. How did that idea play out in Henry Cow and has it continued to inform your own practice?
Since I had a record company, releasing a record to raise money for the miners was just an obvious thing to do. Although Henry Cow had broken up four years earlier, we were all still in touch and most of us were still working together, on and off, in different combinations. The Grierson quote was something I added to the cover of In Praise of Learning to tie the whole thing together, though I think it’s a sentiment we all agreed with. It’s certainly what we tried to do in our lives: to be active not passive; positive not neutral.

In Lipstick Traces Marcus connects Dadaism, the Situationists and early Punk as movements that creatively disrupted and exposed society as construct (8). Would Henry Cow be happy with being included in that lineage?
I don’t think so. We weren’t alienated from ‘society as a construct’ and we weren’t trying to make any such point, although it was fashionable then. Marcus is someone, I think, constantly carried away by his own rhetoric. Of course, there’s a whisper of truth in his analyses - because he’s no fool - but he seems incapable of contextualizing. For him everything is hyperbolic. Yes, in a tiny fringe of punk - the bit run by poser Svengalis like Malcom McCLaren - a vulgar form of Situationism was played out. But on the ground…? Punk was a money-spinner for the record industry and for most of its constituency a way to avoid facing the problems of Thatcherism. Of course, there were genuine actors mixed in, but they were overwhelmed by the commercial machine and its consumer constituency - which was, as ever, the dominant constituency. Grassroots stayed at grassroots. Breaking things is easy but building something that can resist the power of a dominant ideology is hard. Punk totally failed on that score. So, no.

Towards the end of File Under Popular you run through the history of innovation and progressive practice in modern music. The book was written in the mid eighties I think, and I wondered if there have been any movements that you would now include in that history? Post-punk? Early Rave?
That’s a very interesting question. There was certainly innovation after 1978, some in the so-called New Wave, some in Techno, some in Hip Hop, mostly in the new category of bands that sprung up between the genres (like the Necks, Ground Zero, Biota, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, areas of metal, &c.), but I’m not sure any of that counts as a ’movement’? We’re still waiting for the next movement, going round in circles in a fog of revivals and imitations. One is coming. It always does, eventually. Rave was certainly political, but hardly musically innovative. There’s no space to develop this here, but there’s a very dangerous aspect to the replacement of human entrainment with machine entrainment that has characterized much of music in the last 40 years and which is the very opposite of politically progressive.

Henry Cow’s cultural legacy can be seen in the continual re-emergence of similarly independent, collectivist, politicised art practice in music with bands like Crass, Test Dept, Gnod. Have there been any bands post Henry Cow that have particularly excited you? Any contemporary bands?
That’s always a hard question, not least because I have a terrible memory and it doesn’t work that way. Also, much recent innovation hasn’t come from bands but composers, individuals, mavericks… but there are still bands I like and admire because, at a certain level, there are always great musicians around with great ideas. Sometimes they become visible and audible; sometimes they are lost in the noise and disappear. It’s a lottery, especially when nobody very much cares. Innovation was looked for and rewarded fifty years ago because music was important to my generation as an alternative mythology – more than just a commodity in a box. Now music is on tap and the industry is firmly in control, and what’s alternative is no longer mainstream but hidden on the internet or at small local concerts that are hard to find. The present climate is not conducive to innovation, which is neither recognized nor supported. But it exists. The way tigers exist, as an endangered species.

In 1978 Henry Cow set up Rock In Opposition which had its tenth festival in France a couple of years ago. Could you tell us some more about the organisation and the ideas behind it?
First. I should say that there were five Rock In Opposition festivals, run by members in the UK, Italy, Sweden, Belgium and France, which all took place in the first two years. After that RIO quietly ceased to operate. The new festivals that use the name have nothing to do with the original bands or their ideals.

As well as being perpetually relevant musically Henry Cow can also be a resource in contemporary political and cultural struggles. What specific aspects of Henry Cow do you think we should be re-examining and learning from?
Self sufficiency. That’s what protected us and enabled us to pursue the music that interested us. Eclecticism. That’s what made our music unusual: we mashed together whatever interested us from all available forms of music, thereby expanding the vocabulary and the range of possible hybrids. A dialectic of improvisation and through-composition. That’s what constantly pushed us into new ideas and the evolution of new techniques, radically altering our relations of production and expanding our available models of musical thinking.

Are there any Henry Cow plans for the future? There is a book out in September, isn’t there? Anything else planned at all?
There are no plans. Henry Cow broke up in 1978 and never reformed. Nor did it wish to - although we did all come together to organize a memorial concert for Lindsay Cooper, at the Barbican in 2014, where we played her compositions. Otherwise, ReR has kept the records in print and, in 2009, released a 9 CD and 1 DVD box of previously unreleased material. The book you mention is not a Henry Cow project, it’s the work of an American academic. Otherwise, we all keep in touch – and as individuals continue to work with one another. But there’s no desire to turn back the clock. Henry Cow belonged to its time and that time has passed. We moved on.

Watch Henry Cow here.

Much thanks to Chris for time and answers.

Bibliography.

(1)Stubbs, D. (2014) ‘Future Days; Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany’, Faber and Faber, London. 

(2)Kiaer, C. (2005) ‘Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism’ The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

(3)Wilkinson, D. (2016) ‘Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain’, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

(4)James, R. (2014) ‘Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism’, Zero Books, Winchester UK and Washington, USA.
(5)Cutler, C. (1985)File Under Popular:Theoretical and Critical Writings on Music’, RER Megacorp, London and Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia, New York.

(6)‘Henry Cow’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Cow

(7)‘The Last Nightingale’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Nightingale

(8)Marcus, G. (2011) ‘Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century’, Faber and Faber, London.

’Henry Cow’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Cow,
‘Tim Hodgkinson’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Hodgkinson and
Martens, M. (1996) ‘Henry Cow’ Perfect Sounds Forever at https://www.furious.com/perfect/henrycow.html referenced for Intro.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Beyond The Noise 3: Girls In Synthesis.



Photo by Bea Dewhurst.
About 100 years ago the Russian Constructivists attempted to engage with the questions 'What attributes/characteristics should an object produced in a socialist economy include? What differentiates it from the object under capitalism? What form and content should the object/cultural product that is a comrade in the struggle for socialism have? (1) One of the answers was that embedded in the object should be evidence of the process of production, evidence of the exciting, empowering, socially dynamic process of human interaction and creativity. Objects under capitalism thrive on blackboxing and disconnection from the process of production so that they can be fetishised, filled with meanings that suit the interests of capital. That’s why the radical potential of the DIY (DIT-do it together) ethic of punk shouldn’t be underestimated, it includes within it possibilities of oppositional creativity and empowerment, the undermining of capitalism’s grip on the means of production and the loosening of its grip on the imagination of the individual or collective.

Beyond The Noise 3, the latest collection of lyrics and poems by Girls In Synthesis members Jim Cubitt and John Linger manages to answer those questions posed by the Russian Constructivists. ‘What form and content would the object/cultural product that is a comrade in the struggle for an egalitarian democratic society have? In this case, the form and content of Beyond The Noise 3! It answers that question because in a world of corporate, anodyne, anonymous objects whose productive processes are hidden Beyond The Noise 3 revels in its authenticity, its honesty, the painstaking labour intensive process that started with a blank piece of paper, people’s incisive literary creativity and an old school typewriter!

Beyond The Noise 3 turned up this morning, number 29/40, reading it is like listening to GIS with the sound turned down! You can hear them in your head, you know these are going to be awesome songs: those pounding drums, the core around which everything else is constructed; the bass played as lead, driving forward; the exhilarating guitar snaking its way in and out, sometimes leading, sometimes adding/interjecting texture and colour. Listen to ‘The Mound’, Nicole counts in, then an adrenalised shout as the song takes shape; ‘Solid Effect’ the request for a change of guitar sound, no attempt to hide the creation of an artefact. In fact like the French New Wave filmmaker Godard they draw attention to the form as construct- confronting you with reality in both form and content.

Beyond The Noise 3 starts and finishes with visuals of the band by Bea Dewhurst, the photos capture two of the most important aspects of GIS; the exhilarating, transcendent experience of their live shows where everything blurs into adrenalised immediacy and intentional community, forty minutes of communal hope and focussed solidarity that recalls being in the eye of a demo more that a gig! In contrast the collage on the inside back cover is a reminder that 2019 is a difficult, tiring, tense time for the working class that while our solidarity is built primarily on a shared economic position it is also built on a shared experience of insecurity, anxiety, precarity. The three band members are collaged into one knackered, composite figure; an articulate representation of the modern British experience for so many.

The poetry and lyrics in Beyond The Noise 3 continue the eloquent articulation of the neoliberal working class experience that GIS excel at. Poetry is always open to (mis)interpretation, 'the death of the author' as Barthes put it, but GIS are brave enough to risk it. The honesty and vulnerability (and therefore universality) of their writing is maybe more apparent in purely written form than it is in song as they engage with the disempowering, reductive experience of being ignored, overlooked, of no consequence in an instrumentalist system (My Request/They’re Not Listening). Lack of social mobility in Britain, that the socioeconomic strata you are born into you will probably die in (2) is addressed, ‘the state in which I’m born will be the state until the end...All I want is to be treated as an individual’ in ‘My Request’, as the next piece puts it ‘WE CAN’T GO ON THIS WAY...NO!’

‘Tirades of Hate and Fear’ explores the rise of provincial, reactionary politics and reminded me of How To Lose a Country by Ece Temelkuran, who writes that nationalist populism tends to emerge in the provincial towns away from the urban centers (3). Suburban Hell?

‘Bored of what scores of people still adore, holding up the ceiling whilst falling through the floor, Scraping down the walls until my nail beds rub raw, Settling for less, screaming out for more more, more’. (Set Up To Fail) Describe it as Utopian if you want to but that knowledge, that sense, that things can be, will be, better persists despite capitalism’s attempts to convince us otherwise, We can still imagine the end of capitalism, we can still envisage a better world, we cannot reconcile ourselves to the dreary shit of recycled culture and ‘just about getting by’.

‘We Reform’ seems to talk of how the new is, in part, constituted from elements of the past, that there is a continuity, that the future will include components already present. There are no Year Zeros, we draw on the glimmers of hope and the positive resources already present in any construction of the future. ‘So Called Home’  talks of a nation(al elite) unable to face its past, denying its history, repeating its mistakes, perpetuating the status quo. We need to start building better.

Last up is ‘Human Frailty’, and it's a poignant reminder of the importance and complexity of relationships and their embeddedness in time, ‘Relent human frailty’.

Beyond The Noise 3 is a collection of writings and photos that say more about modern life and politics in Britain than a thousand tabloid newspapers. It’s pissed off and angry but never self indulgently dark, its anger is a response to the deliberate construction of suffering and immiseration and as such its an important part of the move towards a more egalitarian, compassionate society. 
   
           
Bibliography.
(1)Kiaer, C. (2005) ‘Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism’ The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.
(2)Britain’s Dying Dream Of Social Mobility (2018) https://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/britains-dying-dream-of-social-mobility/
(3)Temelkuran, E. (2019) How To Lose a Country; The Seven Steps From Democracy To Dictatorship, 4th Estate, London.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Exiled: Bad Breeding.

Artwork by Nicky Rat.
I was alerted to Stevenage art activist collective Bad Breeding about a year ago by John of Girls In Synthesis, in an interview he commented ‘ I love Bad Breeding, they’re the best group I’ve heard in years. They’re a lot more hardline than us, both musically and lyrically, but I’m from a similar suburban area of Hertfordshire as them, so I identify with the way they project their frustrations’ (1). Obviously a man who knows his music! Bad Breeding released their first album, S/T, in 2016, then Divide the following year, an EP ‘Abandonment’ followed in 2018 and their eagerly awaited new album Exiled is out on 21 June. The band made three tracks available on Bandcamp pre-release, each track part of a statement of resistance, but more than than a statement of resistance, ‘a call to arms’ (2) in the continuing class war being waged by the rich against an already battered working class.Taking elements of hardcore punk and making it fit for purpose Bad Breeding are not about reproducing punk’s posturing; they know the difference between rebellious and revolutionary. Approach Bad Breeding as a radical art collective rather than conventional band, more in the line of Henry Cow, Crass, Gnod and the aforementioned GIS. Their releases are multidisciplinary art(efacts) not just albums, constructed and presented to facilitate the reader/viewer/listener in their political journey, a wakeup call to those lulled by the soporific effects of late capitalism’s ‘spectacle’. Neoliberalism’s greatest trick is its anonymity and its excluding of discussion of alternatives from the mainstream, to quote Mark Fisher (quoting Jameson/Zizek) ‘It’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism’ (3)...except Bad Breeding can! Their releases are structured to be both material for, and an avenue into, meaningful political conversation and action around radical left alternatives to ‘what is’.
Exiled lands in a UK that, to quote Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil, is in ‘interesting times’, I'd say ‘interesting’, is a euphemism for ‘shit’. Like Thatcher on speed the last nine years of Tory government has seen increases in poverty, inequality, homelessness, child poverty, the underfunding of public services and, according to the UN, systematic breaching of the human rights of the disabled (4). In a recent interview Chris Dodd, singer with the band, commented about the new album, “Exiled is very much a document of the impact of neoliberalism on a working-class community. It was written during a period in which calculated austerity measures have continued to bite with a prolonged intensity - you think of reaching a ‘breaking point’ but it never comes, we just keep hitting new lows of poverty and degradation and sucking it up...Our town (Stevenage) is a real victim of a global, systematic inequality - the rule not the exception. Lyrically it’s blunt in its description of material working-class concerns and is something that spells out the impact austerity has had on our community, as opposed to where the individual fits into the stifling mess of late capitalism” (2).
Exiled is 12 tracks of compassion fueled fury, anger at the deliberate construction of suffering and immiseration but it’s never black, there is always hope and optimism laced though, born of the bands involvement with grassroots activism, resistance and solidarity. Recorded by Ben Greenberg of Uniform (who Bad Breeding tour with in July) the album starts with ‘Exiled’, a ferocious hardcore track,

“Exiled, but choked for all to see
And I used to dread the thought of trauma, now it circles every day
Waiting in the wings, prowling like a stalking horse
See nature knows of hardship… at least it has its use
This is suffering as a construct - man’s longest-running gag”.

Next track up ‘Repossession’, chilling. Somehow the combination of music and vocals communicates the sense of fraught anxiety that pervades the lives of those pushed to the edges of precarity.

‘Raking Through the Screed’, is hardcore at it’s best as Dodd confronts the condescending pity of liberal poverty tourism;

“Shallow badges squeeze my plight
Preening tourists line the sides
Damp in the ceiling
mould spored and grey
Raking through the screed”.

OK, did I say ‘Raking Through the Screed’ was hardcore at it’s best? This is equally good! Good partner track to Test Dept’s ‘Landlord’ as Bad Breeding go for private landlords and their exploitation of those forced into the private rented sector in ‘Clear Blue Water’.

“It started with a shake down, one-up sport
Now I do my work with faux cross in hand
spend my nights laughing at the blighted flats
Shine ‘em up and flip ‘em around
A quarry blessed by blinkered fools,
our prize the labour of provincial scum
from stove, to mattress, to grave…
Swimming in the clear blue water”.

Next track up is one of the pre release tracks ‘Whose Cause?’. Chris Dodd commented that the track ‘explores political misdirection in the media and its role in sowing seeds of division, suspicion and distrust in our communities by using identity as a means of fear’ (2). The video is worth checking out too. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FC6mc7UFAb8

Precarious work, zero hours contracts, the devastation of war, homelessness, (with both ‘Theatre of Work’ and ‘A Rag Hung Between Two Trees’ shot through with intense unsettling saxophone from Lewis Evans), police brutality in 'Breaking Wheel';

“One more head to the pavement
Keeper of nothing but yourself
When pressure fails, call on the boot
Distrust cloaked by just pursuit
Approval in only the thin and blue
Keeper of nothing but yourself
Violence and intimidation
the only measures of your control”.

The album ends with ‘Tortured Reality’; intense, exhilarating, anxious.

“Thinning walls part sense and hysteria
The tired cling to the gloss of nostalgia
There is comfort in the spectre of nation
Gather the weary running blind
No war pure enough to peel the wool from their eyes
But for all your books built on blood
have you ever had to count the bodies?”.

If you can imagine G.L.O.S.S fronted by Paddy Shine with lyrics by Mark Fisher you won’t be too far out; Exiled is an extraordinary piece of work.

Exiled is out on One Little Indian Records on 21 June! 

Bibliography.
(1)http://musicculturevision.blogspot.com/2018/06/girls-in-synthesis-interview.html
(2)http://musicculturevision.blogspot.com/2019/06/bad-breeding-educate-organise-agitate.html
(3)Fisher, M. (2009) ‘Capitalist Realism: Is There Really No Alternative?’ Zero Books, Winchester, UK and Washington, USA.
(4)Butler, P. (2016) ‘UK austerity policies’amount to violations of disabled people’s rights’ https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/nov/07/uk-austerity-policies-amount-to-violations-of-disabled-peoples-rights
also referenced Division Promotions PR by Gardner, N.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Bad Breeding: Educate, Organise, Agitate.

Artwork by Nicky Rat. Image courtesy of BB.
More left wing art activist collective than conventional punk band Stevenage based Bad Breeding released their first album, S/T, in 2016 with Louder Than War giving it a massive 8/10 thumbs up (1). Keeping up a work rate as intense as their music Bad Breeding released Divide the following year and have their new album Exiled out on 21 June. The band have made three tracks available on Bandcamp pre-release; ‘Exiled’, ‘Whose Cause’ and ‘Theatre of Work’, each track part of a statement of resistance against the continuing class war euphemistically termed ‘austerity’; the Tories final eradication of the material/bureaucratic legacy of post war social democracy. Taking elements of hardcore punk and making it fit for purpose in 2019 (‘Theatre of Work’ includes some extraordinary saxophone), Bad Breeding eschew the empty posturings of ersatz rebellion instead constructing and presenting their releases as both material for, and as an avenue into, meaningful political conversation and action around radical left alternatives to ‘what is’.
With excitement building around the release of Exiled later this month and a tour with Uniform at the end of July, Echoes and Dust talked with singer Chris Dodd to find out more about the band, their motivations and their music.


Your first release S/T came out in 2016, you then released Divide in 2017 and the EP 'Abandonment' in 2018 with Exiled out this June. Have you found the subject matter you engage with has changed over the releases?
Divide stands out as the record that was more conceptual than the others as we sought to challenge the narrative surrounding the nature of the EU referendum - not really in terms of ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’, but more in opposition to the political misdirection and self-interest that hung over much of 2016. Lyrically I’ve always felt I’ve been writing about the enduring issues that have dogged working-class communities ever since Thatcher, and have been significantly more apparent in places like Stevenage since austerity measures crept in under Blairite guidance and continued to become ideologically more pernicious under the Conservatives.

Is there a sense of the four releases having a continuity, being a body of work or are they more a stand alone documenting of a period, of your response to a certain set of political/social events?
Apart from the S/T, which stood as a collection of ideas and songs we’d been building up when we first started out, the other three releases were written in fairly short timeframes and were always responses to the material realities we’ve had to contend with in Stevenage. Divide stepped beyond that to discuss a very particular point in time, whereas Exiled is very much a document of the impact of neoliberalism on a working-class community. It was written during a period in which calculated austerity measures have continued to bite with a prolonged intensity - you think of reaching a ‘breaking point’ but it never comes, we just keep hitting new lows of poverty and degradation and sucking it up. The record is a portrayal of a town at the fag-end of bourgeois concerns. People only tend to talk about this place through a patronising liberal lens focused on pity and preening poverty tourism. We wanted to make a record that stood in defiance of the virtue signalling that tends to infect so many discussions about towns like ours. This is a real place. Not a distant invented trope in the armoury of shallow liberal gesturing. Our town is a real victim of a global, systematic inequality - the rule not the exception. Lyrically it’s blunt in its description of material working-class concerns and is something that spells out the impact austerity has had on our community, as opposed to where the individual fits into the stifling mess of late capitalism, because we need to be blunt. This isn’t a request for sympathy, it’s a call to arms.

I’ve read a couple of books recently about the Russian Constructivists (2) and left Post-Punk (3) and both groups explored cultural production and form around the question of ‘What does a socialist process of production look like?’ Egalitarian democracy? The evidencing of production as a socially dynamic process? What does the process of production look like in Bad Breeding?
The early work of someone like Vladimir Tatlin is a decent starting point for the idea of art with a social function in that it rejects the notion of individual pursuit. I think in a lot of cases we’re now facing similar battles in the conflict between class and identity in contemporary times. Our early releases were put out off our own backs with the help of close friends. I think that focus on a small community self-producing has been a guiding principle ever since. Capitalism has infected, poisoned and contorted all that we do nowadays and confronting that is a constant ideological and practical concern at the forefront of our minds when writing, recording, making artwork and also releasing records.
At the heart of it all there needs to be a focus on community and social purpose, whether that be in artwork designing or doing fundraising, collecting and organising work for local groups in conjunction with shows or record releases.
Of course any kind of social event can be recuperated by capitalism and sold back to us. Look at the transition of rave culture from the national tabloid scandal of young people getting together to open their hearts to each other with the help of restricted substances to the super-clubs with VIP areas, celebrity DJs, where you’re charged an hour’s wages for a drink and working-class clothing is banned at the door. Obviously we don’t need to chart the journey of punk, which even more than rave, held the seeds of its own capitalist caricature within itself from the start. But assemblies of people remain dangerous to capital, and if the sedition being conveyed by the organisers is real - and in our case it is - it can be infectious. A sense of belonging and being self established outside the logic of profit, if even for a few hours, can stay with someone and blossom or explode at unexpected moments.

The associated question was/is ‘What form and content does the object/cultural product that is a comrade in the struggle for socialism look/sound like and how should it affect the individual and society? What effect do you hope a Bad Breeding song has?
The main focus is on resistance. Not necessarily in the commodified kitsch idea of punk, but instead representing an alternative to the conversations that are so often had about places like Stevenage. Art that reflects the working class is far too often centred purely on stale victimhood and sentimentality. Lyrically I want to produce things that run counter to that. Songs that may sometimes seem knuckle-dragging and overbearing in their depictions of the town, but that stand in defiance of our material conditions instead of bowing to them with art that is essentially accepting of our noxious political and economic climate. The concept of being “punk” isn’t enough, there has to be some sort of collective element to what you’re trying to achieve: paying to go to a show as an individual pursuit, purely to satisfy your own identity, feels like a political dead end. There is no radical resistance in simply consuming music and adopting a disobedient identity. Simply saying “I don’t consent to this” with a t-shirt of a hashtag, is not enough - yet so many of us have swallowed it as being the epitome of rebellion. Action is derided, but performative angst is universally acclaimed. To break out of this trap you need organisation and direction. If you can provide that then there is nothing more productive than a live show full of people committed to the idea of collective power and unity. Shows can become powerful environments that promote solidarity and community-driven inspiration based around the endeavour of the collective. Secondly, alongside side this, there is also the aim for us of using the records as a means of contributing to conversations. Partly the reason why there have always been essays and other pamphlets that come with the physical release of the records is to serve as an entry point for people to read up on towns like Stevenage, while also providing points of debate and argument for others.

In 'Resilience and Melancholy' Robin James seems to be saying, if I understand her correctly, that certain pop music structures parallel values of neoliberalism (4). Has the form of your music been shaped by the concerns of the band, by the subject matter of the songs, kind of ‘form follows function’?
That’s a good question given that the endpoint of what we create musically still sees us take part in a capitalist exchange. You make something and it gets sold on and with it so does the agency and notion of resilience that you’re trying to demonstrate. However pure you feel your intentions are, punk and the idea of opposition have been commodified to such an extent now that it makes little sense to be doing it without wider, organised political aims and objectives. The very notion of rebelling through art is arguably a commodity in itself, long appropriated by neoliberal forces to become just another selling point for a financially lucrative cultural identity, which is either peddled for monetary gain or worn as a means of moralistic gesturing. The petty-bourgeois student rebels of 1968 who captured the imagination of their era went on to use that same efficiency in sloganeering, battle-worn competence in communication to sell us their capitulation and personal freedom for the following decades. You constantly have to be aiming beyond cosmetic subversion if you want to have meaningful political conversations to reach genuinely radical alternatives. I am not saying ‘don’t make music because it’s completely redundant', but I feel like we have to always be thinking about ‘and what else, where is this going and what are we attempting to achieve with it’. That’s why the idea of collective power through shows and politically organising around music is crucial. If you can focus on community and the collective element of bringing like minded people together in a room you can attempt to strip away the dominance and power that capital holds over artistic expression.

The video for ‘Burn This Flag; is really powerful and reminded me of Martha Rosler’s art, in 'The Gray Drape' and 'Cleaning The Drapes' she juxtapositioned American domesticity and the Vietnam War thereby drawing attention to the interconnectedness. In the ‘Burn This Flag’ video you very effectively do a similar thing, was that the intention?
The focus for that video was exploring a way of mirroring the distortion and misdirection carried out by the instruments of a ‘mainstream’ media largely backed by boundless capital and the intentions of a select few. We worked with Roger Sargent to find a way of commenting on that neoliberal trap of confused storytelling, deflection and false narratives, while the complex issues of our time are played out as peripheral events that we are believed to have very little grasp of and can supposedly have little bearing on.

The video to ‘Whose Cause’ is also a really powerful collage of images, could you talk us through it?
That song explores political misdirection in the media and its role in sowing seeds of division, suspicion and distrust in our communities by using identity as a means of fear. We wanted to create a video that touched on the nefarious ties between capital and a pocketed media class and to do that we tried to collage certain elements of working-class struggle and set them amidst examples of capital and state control. The video also tries to hint at the implications reactionary storytelling has on propping up late capitalism and the patrician outriders it funds and protects.

Barthes wrote about the death of the author, that the meaning of a cultural artefact is constructed by the viewer/listener. As an artist is that ever a concern, that people may misunderstand or misinterpret your music?
Not particularly. The intention in this band is to write as a means of resistance against the increasingly suffocating grasp of the conditions we have to navigate every day. The lyrics are measured and come from a very particular place. For me, once they’re finished and put out there that’s me done. They’re presentations, descriptions and reactions to systems that are constructed for the benefit of a small number of self-interested individuals. The point is to be blunt and direct in the face of a world confused and coerced by political distortion.

Capitalism would socialise us into constructing our sense of self from consumption, John Holloway talks about our sense of self being able to emerge from acts of collective creativity (5). Do you experience that tension? Have you found music has helped you derive your sense of self from creativity and community?
The band started as a release from the monotony of exploitative work and we found our grounding from there on, but that’s not to say an interest in community came purely from starting to write music. It has been shaped by the material conditions around us too. To suggest that our sense of self came solely from music would be slightly too individualistic. I don’t think we term this band as a collection of individual pursuits. So partially, yes, forming this band was a direct result of finding a collective release from the confines of abstract and concrete labour that someone like Holloway would be likely to discuss, but I’d also say we have left that era of nebulous ‘anti-capitalism’ well behind - not as a band, but as a society. That turn-of-the-century scepticism towards capitalism that led to slogans like ‘One No, Many Yeses’ and the come-as-you-are concept of a ‘Movement of Movement’ looks quaint and twee from our vantage point. Since then we have had unbelievable imperial carnage in the Middle East, the bursting of the credit bubble that had masked Thatcher and Reagan’s savage attacks on our class, and the final revelation that beyond any shadow of a doubt, the planet is being murdered by our economic mode. People like us will be the earliest victims of all of that. We live in a time of war.

You also emphasise that ‘place’ has played a part in your development as people and as a band, that the band and its music has emerged from a certain set of circumstances. What aspects of Stevenage have been particularly affecting?
When we first started the band we ran with this idea to engage people with what it means to be from a New Town. We put up statements that people had made about Stevenage as being sort of a ‘nothing’ town and wanted to see what kind of descriptions people went with when discussing the music. They essentially ended up being those same statements – excluding a few writers – without any other opinions being offered. It felt like that identity of the town, popularised in the press and in a lot of TV writing, was simply accepted. Stevenage is a difficult place but it’s also a town that shines with a defiant pride in the face of neoliberal destruction and ideological policy designed to punish the most vulnerable sections of our communities. That sort of endurance is something we’ve always been keen to mirror, both on record and when playing live.

I was reading the essays on your webpage (here), in the late 70s/early 80s there was a false dichotomy propagated by Garry Bushell that authentic working class identity excluded higher education (3), the reductive idea of working class identity as excluding education and therefore astute politicisation. Perhaps there is a bit of that in recent criticisms of Idles? Have Bad Breeding had to deal with that sort of nonsense at all, that if you’re intelligent, educated and articulate you can’t really be working class (punks)?
Yeah I think that’s bollocks. We’ve had that happen on one or two occasions but you do what you need to do and tell people how it is. What I would say, though, is that the notion of working class people becoming ‘intelligent’ smacks of liberal condescension. The kind of unidirectional university debates we are told are radical are conducive to the kind of conditions we find ourselves in at the moment, whereby working communities are preached at to the extent where material conditions are ignored at the expense of patronising sneers and dismissive intellectualism from the liberal, predominantly middle-class left, who very rarely have any immediate experience of what they’re commenting on. But at the same time, a lack of university - or any kind of education - is not something to be celebrated. The English working-class tradition is deeply grounded in radical and revolutionary thought that was absolutely self-taught. Marx and Engels formulated theories of socialism based on a pre-existing socialist movement that was led by manual workers who had learned to read by candlelight before heading back to those dark satanic mills before daybreak. They would spit in the face of anyone who claimed intellectual inquiry ran contrary to the identity of the working class. ‘Intelligence’ isn’t simply borne out by a university education. Politicisation may happen at an institution like a university, but it needs a grounding in material realities. You could even argue that universities seem to increasingly be a place where the pursuit of radical, anti-systemic ideas are neutered and nullified into a quest for self discovery and making peace with the status quo. Anything radical that is truly potent must shaped by experience and participation.

Would you identify as a political band, whereabouts would you place yourselves politically or is there a continuing evolving of thought?
I’d like to think this band has the ability to either introduce listeners to certain issues or contribute to arguments around them. Personally I would describe myself as a socialist, but I can’t speak directly for the others involved. As you can see by the work we do and shows that we play around Europe, there is an outwardly antifascist element - playing gigs and fundraising for communities to help stave off the divisional motives of fascistic forces both in the UK and in Europe. Political motivations often get worn as a badge of identity in contemporary guitar music, as well as in liberal politics at large, with very little actually being done on the ground in terms of organising and putting in work at community level. That’s where the battle will ultimately be won against the tide of the far right: by the organised working class on the streets and within communities that are pinned as targets for manipulation.

Your new album is out in June, can you give us any clues about its feel maybe relative to previous releases?
We recorded Exiled over the course of a week in the winter of 2018 having just come back from a month-long tour around Europe. It came together over the course of a month or so and was recorded by Ben Greenberg (Uniform), who did Divide and the ‘Abandonment’ EP too. We took a slight step back from the electronic padding and digital effects on Exiled when compared to Divide and instead tried to capture the nosier elements more naturally - more so by ragging the amps and using natural feedback to create layers in the songs. Thematically, Exiled focuses on the impact of neoliberalism on places like Stevenage, where I think large sections of the community have been ignored, but also punished as a matter of ideological course. The piece of writing that accompanied the announcement of the record provides an idea of what’s explored lyrically throughout the record. (read here).

Looking forward to seeing you for the first time at Electrowerkz in July, how did the tour with Uniform come about?
We’ve done some shows with Uniform before, sharing festival bills in Europe just after we released Divide in 2017. We’ve known Ben for years having made three records together so it was a fairly easy choice to decide to play together when they were next over in the UK.

Are there any bands or writers you are enjoying at the moment?
Subdued are one of my personal favourites. State Funeral are great too. Sound people with great songs. I’ve not long finished Michael Parenti’s To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia, which is a brilliantly fierce attack on the reach of US imperialism and the role of NATO in the bombing of Yugoslavia. Parenti strikes me as one of the very few Marxist writers who remains dangerously revolutionary amidst the wash of celebrity socialists that dominate popular academia. Having said that, one of the most touching and thought-provoking things I’ve read in recent years will always be Exiting the Vampire Castle by the late Mark Fisher. Anybody who perceives themselves as being on the ‘Left’ needs to read it and take a good hard look at themselves in respect of how they’re really contributing to solidarity and comradeship in the face of late capitalism. (read here)


Thanks to Chris and to James Sherry at Division Promotions for organising interview.
Interview by email.

Bibliography.
(1)Whyte, J. (2016) Bad Breeding: S/T-album review. https://louderthanwar.com/bad-breeding-st-album-review/

(2)Kiaer, C. (2005) ‘Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism’ The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

(3)Wilkinson, D. (2016) ‘Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain’, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

(4)James, R. (2014) ‘Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism’, Zero Books, Winchester UK and Washington, USA.

(5)Holloway, J. (2005) ‘Change the World Without Taking Power’, Pluto Press, London and New York.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot. Vivien Goldman.


Vivien Goldman has certainly packed alot into her life so far! Musician (she was in The Flying Lizards and has an album coming out later this year), journalist, an adjunct professor of music, author of five, no make that six, books, talking head on TV and radio and I’m pretty sure, when I was at an exhibition in Brixton recently, I heard her in a trailer for an upcoming documentary I Am a Cliche about Poly Styrene! Her recently published book Revenge of the She-Punks is as energetic and full of life as I imagine the author must be!

Revenge of the She-Punks races along; entertaining, invigorating, informative and, if I’m honest, at times a little frustrating, it is a book on a mission! It’s stated aim is to present ‘A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot’ and it pulls it off. Structuring the book thematically around identity, money, love/unlove and protest enables Goldman to join the dots up between a multiplicity of artists across time and space, seeing the similarities in struggles for equality, community, safety and freedom at various times and in various places

The book starts off each chapter with a playlist along the theme of that section, first up being ‘Girly Identity’, songs listed include ‘Identity’ by X-Ray Spex and Big Joanie’s ‘Dream Number 9’. Dominating the first few pages of the chapter proper is the insightful, inspiring Poly Styrene of course, at a recent exhibition of art(efacts) around Poly an introductory text included ‘she questioned her own identity, how the world saw her, how she saw herself and the ways in which identity labels would affect personal freedom and self expression’ (1), this book explores some of those questions in and through the life of Poly Styrene. Next up is Debbie Harry, before a section on The Raincoats including the intriguing comment ‘...the Raincoats were so good at answering that primal question ‘What might women’s music sound like, if it were different from the bloke’s?’, fast forward to Riot Grrrl and Bikini Kill in particular. Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Tamar-kali and Big Joanie are up next tackling issues of race, gender and class. Delta 5, Bush Tetras, Fea, the book never takes a breath as it charges on! But I had to, and when I did I wondered ‘Was the quote above essentialist? Does music created by women come from a different place from music made by men? Probably, due to different social experiences, so how would class/ethnicity impact on that? If we understand and express ourselves through the cultural resources available to us, what would the biggest influences on music be…?

Next section up is entitled ‘Money’ with a playlist ranging from 1975’s ‘Free Money’ by Patti Smith to Pussy Riot’s ‘Kropotkin Vodka’ (2012). The chapter starts with Goldman shopping with Patti Smith who has come into some money due to the success of Horses and treats her friend  to a new jacket. Goldman laces the book with anecdotes and her own conversations with some of the musicians who feature, but this never comes across as name dropping or egotistical as their inclusion always serves the purpose of the book. The chapter continues like the first, on a whirlwind tour of female musicians and their relationship to money and material life more generally. German band Malaria!, ESG from USA, Shonen Knife from Japan, then over to the UK for The Slits and then fast forward in time to Pussy Riot and then the UK again for Maid of Ace.

Revenge of the She-Punks’ third section is titled ‘Love/Unlove’ and of all the chapters is possibly the least well defined as it ranges over questionings of bourgeois constructs of romantic love, sex and sexuality. The chapter also touches on sexual violence and this is where it could possibly have done with a little more thought, after including a controversial comment from Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography a page or so later Goldman writes ‘The whole Riot Grrrl movement began because of a home invasion and the rape of Kathleen Hanna’s roommate. With men ever less sure of their place in society, violence against women only increases…’ (p.104) an (in the book) unsupported and odd comment especially as forty pages later, when writing about a Kashmiri band, Pragaash who had a fatwa issued against them, she writes ‘Indeed the Mufti thundered about ‘westernization’ and accused Pragaash of being part of a process of liberalization, which he claimed had led to the sharp rise in abuses ranging from mass rapes to acid thrown in women’s faces to the trafficking of child brides in the mountains of Pakistan. The Guardian reported, ‘(The Mufti’s accusations) outraged many who believed...sexual violence is the result of deep rooted cultural misogyny’ (p.145). I am still struggling to see clear water between Goldman’s comment and the Mufti’s, both seem to be claiming that cultural and societal changes (that impact on relationships between sexes) have led to an increase in sexual violence, although she clearly views the Cleric’s views negatively. Maybe I’m misunderstanding her. The chapter features sections on Crass, Indonesian band The Dissidents, Alice Bag and Grace Jones. Plus a playlist including Tribe 8, The Au Pairs and Neneh Cherry.

Chapter 4 ’Protest' is, for me, the most important section of the whole book. Starting off with Pragaash and Vinyl Records the chapter highlights the struggles of female musicians in oppressive  patriarchal societies. ‘Punk is still on the barricades’ Goldman writes, using Indonesia and Russia to illustrate that ‘... authoritarian regimes understand that punk’s quintessential raw primitivism is a threat to their control’ (p.148).  She goes on to write about Sleater-Kinney, Czech band Zuby Nehty amd Spanish punks Las Vulpes. Also included are Pauline Black and the Selector, Jayne Cortez and a section on the intriguing, wonderful Vi Subversa and the Poison Girls. The chapter ends with a final piece of global time travel as the book moves between seventies Nigeria (Sandra Izsadore), contemporary London’s Skinny Girl Diet and Columbian band Fertil Miseria.

Revenge of the She-Punks pulls off its stated remit of educating the reader about the rich and diverse history of feminist and female musicians from Poly Styrene (and Lora Logic) of X-Ray Spex to contemporary bands like Skinny Girl Diet. Vivien Goldman’s encyclopedic knowledge of punk and global music plus (I imagine) a lot of research and hard work has produced an exciting, inspiring and thought provoking book that should be an important weapon in women’s ongoing battle for equality, space and freedom.    

Bibliography.
(1)Identity! A Poly Styrene Retrospective. 'Curators Intro' by C. Bell and M. Loyce.
Quotes from Goldman, V. (2019) ‘Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot’. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas USA.  

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Where is The Disco in This Town?

Photo courtesy of SSATM.
Formed in 2014 after Semeli Economou and Haraldur Agustsson met while working on a short film, Santa Semeli and the Monks are an eclectic, impossible to pigeon hole band! Having seen them live a couple of times they veer between European avant garde and punk, with echoes of early Bowie, Nick Cave and 'Cabaret' sitting alongside full on rock! Full of honesty and warmth their eponymous album came out in 2014 confronting and engaging with the human condition, the real lived experience that each of us uncomfortably recognizes, dealing with hope, disappointment, love and our own inconsistencies-like listening to the soundtrack of you life-not your Facebook life, your real life-evoking memories that make you smile and wince.
Their diverse songwriting has resulted in an intriguing collection of work that, while being coherent, contains plenty of surprises, the latest being the release of disco track and accompanying video ‘Where is The Disco in This Town?’. Instantly catchy and keying into half remembered hits from the 70s the song/video is a full on postmodern collage of disco.

Your eclectic song writing gives you a lot of options, why did you decide to go for a disco homage release?
I was actually literally looking for the disco when the concept of the song was conceived. A place to go where you can dance and have fun. It was a Saturday night when my friend Aisling came over for us to dress up and go out. I asked her ‘Where is the disco in this town?’ and after a night of adventures and misadventures we came back to my house at 4am when she said to me: ‘You do realise that WE are the disco in this town.’ We met a lot of freaks that night, drunks, people high on drugs telling me they were poetic geniuses, some strange group in a Chinese restaurant etc hence the ‘freak’ middle section in the song.
From a personal aspect, I come from a generation where we used to go out to discotheques. Dress up and dance, often to impress the boy we fancied and then hopefully make out in the corner or during the slow dance section before the club would close. It’s kind of romantic in my mind.
But from a social standpoint it’s an homage to an era where life was more carefree. People would let their hair down and just enjoy themselves. I feel that’s what’s missing in today’s life and as an artist and a storyteller you contemplate what message you want to put out there for the world to hear. I feel that at the moment people need to have their worries unloaded. I can’t do it through changing legislations or solving poverty and other social or personal injustices, but I can maybe cheer people up and make them forget their woes for four and a half minutes.
I wanted to create a song that everyone will hear and feel happy when they do. A happy hit!

I ended up revisiting Sylvester's 'Mighty Real' after listening to 'Where is the disco in this town'! Were there any artists that you felt particularly inspired by when you were writing and recording the song?
I don’t think anyone in particular. It’s probably an amalgamation of many people I like, like Earth, Wind and Fire, the Jacksons, Chic, etc..I wrote the song in one go, words, music and all. We haven’t changed a line or a chord. It’s funny how these things happen.
And the fact that we recorded it in Bryan Ferry’s studio was perfect. You know being surrounded by all these glamorous women on posters on his wall. It gave us the disco seal.

The song and video are light hearted and fun in a time that feels neither, was that a deliberate decision?
Yes. I am a pretty joyous person and I have the ability to convey that joy to my friends and other people I come across in life, so I wanted to extend that embrace to a wider audience. I am a healer and as much as it may sound hippy-dippy or pretentious, I am aware of my abilities and not afraid to use them for the good. I recently read a Picasso quote that brought me to tears. He said: ‘The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.’ It struck such a chord with me because that’s exactly how I feel.  In a world where people are concerned with Instagram followers or asking me what my PR angle is…it’s hard sometimes you know…keeping the discipline and focus intact to retain your purity. That's 98% of the work I do. The 2% is just the execution of it. Shed the light!

Was the 'disco vibe' hard to capture for the video?
Again, it took a lot of mental effort to prepare but then it all came together very quickly and effortlessly. I invited some friends who were available at the time to take part in the music video and there was a spirit of celebration throughout the shoot. Apart from my musicians who are in the video, the rest of the cast all have an interesting background and story. It’s a coming together of people party. So many friends of mine were jealous that they weren’t included in the shoot but I had a time frame and many of them live abroad or weren’t around. I was lucky to have a great team of three cinematographers and a brilliant editor who instinctively always knows what I want and is needed. The wardrobe was mine. If I think about it really my life is not that different from the video. Haha!

Do either of you have a background in drama and dance?
I studied acting and directing but my first love was dance. I wanted to be a ballerina. I nearly went to Moscow as at the age of ten to study under the guidance of legendary Russian prima ballerina Maja Plisetskaya, who was a close family friend but my parents were against it.  In hindsight I think they made the right decision for me. It’s a hard life to be a dancer and most of them retire in their thirties. Looking back, all my idols and crushes as a kid had always been dancers. Never actors or rock stars or whatever. To this day I still have a crush on Bob Fosse who was an incredible director and choreographer. A genius and quite the rascal. My ideal type really.
Haraldur also studied acting and in all fairness he steals the show in the video. The dancing Disco Elf!

The video is very pan European, was that a message you wanted to send? A reminder of how fun things can be when we work and relax together?
Yes I wanted to convey a spirit of unity and collectivism. We are not so different from each other as human beings. We all want more or less the same things in life. It’s things like the news or the media that like to fragment and find PR angles because it sells more. But what’s to sell and for what purpose? You can’t sell peace of mind.

Early Discos were a safe space for black and gay people in a hostile 1970s America. Was the cultural importance of early Disco something you were conscious of when writing the song?  The idea of Disco's historical role as a cultural resource against prejudice?
I don’t think I went that far in my thinking but I had a feeling that Disco was going to make a big come back for the simple reason that there’s not much current music out there that’s made for dancing. If you look around even fashion has caught up now with sequence and glitter and general disco glamour. The disco era wasn’t around for very long and to think that they were burning all the records at some point. I invited someone to our launch from a well known punk band who told me that he was a punk and would not even get through the door past the disco bouncers. I told him that this was punk too but in a different way. He didn’t get it but that’s OK.

How did the ‘on-location’ bits of the video go, how did people respond?!
It was great fun walking up and down Old Compton Street blasting out ‘Where is the Disco in this Town?’ Everyone was filming us and watching the shoot. And then of course there were the alleyways in Soho where we shot the scenes with Phil Dirtbox and Andrjezek playing the freaks. It was very funny because if you put them next to each other, they look like chalk and cheese and yet they’re both great raconteurs and entertainers. And  great mates of mine.

Does the change in the lyrics from 'Where is The Disco in This Town' to 'We are the disco in this town' reflect a realisation that fulfilment is not found in consumerism of the spectacle but in co-operative creativity and community?
When I wrote the song, and I don’t know if people notice it, I wanted to write a song that starts in a minor and ends up in major, i.e hope and resolution. Kind of like a Bach prelude. So yes, WE ARE the disco in this town means that the fun is within us and that there’s no need to seek for outside gratification to find fulfillment. It’s a very yogic approach.
The power of music is awesome and I wanted to create a mantra: WE ARE THE DISCO IN THIS TOWN. Imagine everyone repeating that over and over in their heads and aloud. Imagine the impact it would have!

Check out the song/video here. 
and the single is available here on their website: http://www.santasemeliandthemonks.com/