This story starts with The Membranes, because without that Lancashire post-punk band a singer known as Fat Mark and a lanky Asian indie kid called Ajay might never have met.
That initial meeting came sometime in the mid-‘80s amid an alternative scene of sorts around Preston, with the charismatic John Robb’s revered Blackpool outfit – by then relocated to Manchester and John Peel favourites – inspiring plenty of interest and adulation.
Fat Mark – plain Marcus Parnell these days – was a regular browser at Action Records when he latched on to The Membranes, becoming a prime mover with the Much Hooligans, a group of avid fans named on account of his village roots. Soon, he was playing gigs of his own at The Warehouse with a band called Dandelion Adventure, and in time Ajay Saggar joined him. He was was studying in Lancaster at the time, but preferred the nightlife down the M6, quickly getting to know a number of Membranes fans. And when invited to join Dandelion Adventure, this one-time drummer quickly accepted, leading to many hours of frantic self-tuition that ultimately shaped his career.
“I actually borrowed a bass from John Robb, practising madly, working on a Jean-Jacques Burnel-type sound. I went to loads of Membranes shows, making a bunch of friends from the North West. I was at Lancaster Uni in around ’84, but spent a lot of time down in Preston. I went away hoping the university scene would be buzzing, but it was rubbish, so started putting on gigs from around ’85 in Lancaster.”
Indie fans in the area may remember him putting on bands like The Age of Chance, Big Flame and Bogshed, many of those shows recorded on cassette by Ajay at the time. And music has been his calling ever since, and when I caught up with him he was in Bonn on the European leg of a tour promoting the mighty new LP from King Champion Sounds, heading through Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium back to his Dutch base, with UK dates following next Spring.
But Ajay will be back on his old patch before then, bringing his latest project, Deutsche Ashram, to The New Continental in Preston,marking the release of another new album, the gorgeous Deeper and Deeper. That appearance forms part of promoter Tuff Life Boogie’s annual indie showcase commemorating the 2004 death of John Peel, involving several acts who at one time or another recorded Radio 1 sessions for the legendary broadcaster.
That night Ajay will also be rejoining Marcus Parnell, a quarter of a century after their Dandelion Adventure ended, and Dave Chambers, who played drums for Cornershop, another band with strong Preston links, and one previously managed by Marcus, the trio billed as possible one-off project The Common Cold.
But before I got on to all that, we talked about the new King Champion Sounds offering, To Awake in that Heaven of Freedom. And judging by all the disparate music projects he’s been involved in over the years, I suggested that Ajay’s clearly not one to be typecast or advocate one kind of music over another.
“It’s never really been like that. Life’s too short. You can constantly aspire to push yourself. I try and put out at least one record a year, and it’s been two this year!”
With King Champion Sounds alone, it seems like there are a number of distinct styles at play, and in one review of the band in The Times in 2013, Stewart Lee wrote: ‘What if The Fall had garnished their rockabilly grooves with swing-era horns? What if Can played Ghanaian high-life? What if Morricone had scored spaghetti westerns in a Moroccan souk? King Champion Sounds recombine canonical influences in new contexts.’ There’s plenty of that on the new album too, which at times suggests – I put to Ajay – a band with leanings toward multiple personality disorders.
“Yeah, maybe! People mention that, but that’s not something new to me. I’ve put out so many records where it’s been like that. It’s not intentional. It’s just my love and interest in different kinds of music. And I wouldn’t put it on record if it didn’t make sense to the whole package. There’s a red line running through, and you can listen to the first track and the last and it makes complete sense. You’re taken on a journey. Kevin Shields said of one of my albums, ‘All albums should be like this, with bits of everything going on.’”
You probably already know this, but Shields is the singer and guitarist in revered Dublin band My Bloody Valentine, just one of many fans of Ajay’s work, having invited him to work as the band’s soundman before now.
I also mentioned how the new (double) album’s opening track, Mice Rats Roaches (on which Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis adds guitar), made me think of The Stranglers’ 1977 classic Down in the Sewer.
“Oh, lovely! That was the first band I fell in love with. The first single I ever bought was No More Heroes, my first album was Black and White, they were the first band I saw live, and the reason I first picked up a bass guitar was because of J-J Burnel. I caught them last year too, and they still had it.”
Meanwhile, a couple more darting runs later, the band are on to What I Mean, which suggests more of a Black Grape sound to me.
“That’s come up in loads of early reviews. The rest of the band say they can kind of see that, and I suppose I can too now.”
But then on tracks like the wondrous That *#$! Bus Again and Point Blank, I get more of the horn-laden King Champion Sounds I’ve come to expect.
“Yeah! There’s a bit of everything for everybody.”
I won’t go into a full-blown review here. Space is against me. But I will mention a song which appears to have a Lancashire witchcraft theme at its heart, Old Chattox Hides in Avenham Park, as maybe that’s something deep from the Preston past of Ajay coming back to the surface. One thing is for sure though, King Champion Sounds’ new album is certainly a winner (and you can find details of how to get hold of a copy via their Facebook page), not least thanks to Ajay’s contributions, which according to the credits include (deep breath required) guitar, melodica, piano, synth, harmonium, omnichord, xylophone, electronica, programming and production duties.
Time for a quick bit of background, I guess, and Ajay – born in Kenya, of Indian descent – has certainly seen the world, spending his first 11 years of his life in East Africa before resettling in England for the next 15, coming to the North West from across the Pennines in Yorkshire, but being based in Holland ever since, after an early ‘90s move from Manchester. What’s more, he’s also seen as an honorary son of Iceland given his work with several bands from that proud nation.
But before all that there was Dandelion Adventure, and listening back to an archived On the Wire interview with Steve Barker for Radio Lancashire in late ’88, it’s fair to say they were fresh, not least on the glorious Speed Trials, where you can tell another early influence on the band was The Fall. In fact, they could even be Mark E Smith’s little brothers, and as it turns out both Ajay and Marcus have got to know the man himself since, the latter even designing a couple of record sleeves for them. And they were clearly an entertaining band between tracks too.
“We were just friends, and there’s that gang mentality I suppose. At that age the world’s your oyster.”
That local radio appearance came on the strength of a demo tape that also led to a mini-album, Puppy Shrine, being released on Preston’s Action Records’ own label, with six-track 12” Jinxs Truck following the next year.
“Mark (Marcus) would hang around Action more or less every day, and was always a great ideas man. In those pre-internet days he was almost a step ahead of the game. At first it was all pretty anarchic, not least on stage, but after a while he decided we had to do it seriously – rehearsing, demoing, so on. Steve (Barker, for On the Wire) heard our tape and really liked it, and I already knew him from manning phones for his show while at university.
“And Action Records gave a leg-up to so many North West bands. Gordon (Gibson) put his hand in his own pocket and really went out of his way to help out. In a small community you need people like him to develop young bands, get them to the next level, give them a chance. And he still does that. He’s totally solid.”
The debut mini-album was also sent to and loved by John Peel, leading to a call from his producer John Walters, inviting the band to record a session at Maida Vale in May 1990, broadcast the following month.
“We wrote four new songs for that and rehearsed like mad, and it proved an amazing experience. Friends like My Bloody Valentine loved it and asked us to play with them several times on the back of it.
“It was the same when we played Liverpool – these kids hanging around, really into what we were doing. And one such band was The Boo Radleys, who played with us and gave me a demo. I loved the music but advised them to get a decent drummer, which they did. I then passed on the tape to Gordon at Action. He also loved it, got in touch and put out their first album.”
Another notable name from that era was Cornershop, and Dave Chambers – Marcus and Ajay’s partner in The Common Cold – goes right back with them to Preston band General Havoc, where he was playing alongside brothers Avtar and Tjinder Singh.
“The whole Cornershop thing was during one of Mark’s Warhol/Svengali mad idea phases. He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get you and the Singh boys together with Dave for this Asian band, and call it Cornershop?’ He had this whole manifesto in his head. I told him it was crazy and would never work. They went ahead anyway, and he got the whole thing rolling.
“And by the time Brimful of Asha started taking off, I was getting them shows in Holland and Belgium. I still see Ben Ayres from the band quite often. He works for Rough Trade in London.”
Dave Chambers left Cornershop in 1995, after a few singles, two albums and a 1993 John Peel session, quitting two years before the Fatboy Slim remix of Brimful of Asha took the band to the top of the UK charts. He went on to feature in several Preston bands, including Formula One, who put out several records on Oxford’s Shifty Disco label in the late ‘90s, and The Wandering Step, who put out one of the first singles on Deltasonic, The Coral’s label, in the early noughties.
Meanwhile, post-Dandelion Adventure, Ajay initially joined two members of The Inca Babies to form the neatly-named Hound God, playing ‘metal percussion’, describing them as ‘Pussy Galore meets Einsturzende Neubaten meets The Birthday Party’. But at the end of 1991 he upped sticks for the Netherlands, ‘wanting a new challenge’.
“I travelled the world as a sound engineer for loads of bands before starting at the Paradiso in Amsterdam five years ago, including Icelandic outfit mum. They opened for Mogwai, who I was working with in Scandinavia at the time. I loved them, stayed in touch, and that was before the whole Icelandic band thing kicked off. I ended up doing the sound for many more bands through them.”
His time in the Netherlands included a spell living with underground outfit The Ex and playing with the Holland-based band Donkey, with their records released on London’s Guided Missile after Ajay put the first single out. And that led to his second Peel session, in April 1995, by which time he’d learned a few studio skills of his own.
“Yeah, although that was really driven by necessity. We were offered studios but couldn’t afford engineers so I did it myself, learning tricks of the trade. From that got asked to help out on the touring side. I got asked to help out Bis, a band from Glasgow, with their sound, and before I knew it I was stood in a tent in front of 40,000 people, thrown in at the deep end. But it worked and I never looked back, working with Mogwai, Dinosaur Jr., Godspeed You! Black Emperor, My Bloody Valentine, and so on.”
There was tour management too, but now he concentrates on his production management role at the Paradiso in Amsterdam – a contact between visiting bands and the venue’s 300-odd staff – and his various band projects.
Ajay’s no stranger to North West returns though, including UnPeeled appearances in Manchester and Preston, including shows with The Bent Moustache (in 2011, at the time of their second album) and King Champion Sounds (in 2013). And this time he’ll be dividing his stage time between The Common Cold and his Deutsche Ashram project with fellow Paradiso staff member Merinde Verbeek.
The pair’s album is out next month, and certainly impressive from my first couple of spins, not least the hugely-atmospheric Ocean Is You. They’ve already been described as ‘Cocteau Twins meet Spacemen 3 in an opium den’, although I’m not convinced it wasn’t Ajay who came up with that. I’d actually say on a track like Little Matter I was reminded of early ‘80s indie outfit Strawberry Switchblade. Either way, the album’s another winner, and Ajay’s looking forward to their New Continental appearance, one of their first in the UK.
“It’s really nice to show people in a place I used to live I’m still so involved in music. That’s my world, my life, always has been, always will be. Now I’m bringing something new and fresh over, and I’m really excited about this. Those who have heard us are really digging it. And Merinde’s a fantastic singer.”
The pair got together after a chance conversation in the venue’s café where Merinde works, Ajay impressed by her initial work on the demos he lent her, inspired to take the project on from there.
“I sent her three songs and the next morning got something back. I listened with trepidation, but was absolutely blown away – a fantastic voice and she totally got it. She said, ‘I loved it. Have you got any more?’ She went on to write all the lyrics and melodies, really fast. We went into the studio and helped develop it with her with extra harmonies and more vocals, tried loads of things, build it up, mixed it and put a lot of work in. And I love it!”
Deutsche Ashram are also set to support fellow Preston UnPeeled 2016 attendees The Wolfhounds at The Islington, Tolpuddle Street, London N1, on Saturday, October 29th, with further details of that and how to get hold of the debut album on the band’s Facebook page. But we didn’t get on to that, as Ajay needed to get away to prepare for that night’s King Champion Sounds gig, before the band moved on to Hamburg the next day.
Yet later that evening I had a brief chat with Ajay’s old friend and Dandelion Adventure compatriot, Marcus. And the artist formerly known as Fat Mark started by telling me about his days following The Membranes around the UK, ‘getting on famously with John Robb then tripping around the country following his band’.
Of Dandelion Adventure’s early shows, he added: “We played The Warehouse in ’86 – the Rumble Club – with another bass player, under the same name, then again in ’87 with a different bass player again. We were a bit raucous! We had two drummers, someone describing them as sounding like they were falling down stairs while playing.
“I think our whole ethos was if you could play you weren’t any good to us! I remember asking Geoff Bird if he could play drums, him saying ‘No’, and me saying, ‘Right, you’re in!’”
Marcus, whose CV also includes – as well as that sleeve-art for The Fall – a Peel session with The Membranes and work with The Boo Radleys, also shed light on his days managing Cornershop.
“I got to know so many people through Dandelion Adventure and The Membranes, and having those contacts made it a lot easier to plug a band, as was the case with Cornershop. I stayed up in Preston, but spent around two years in and out of Leicester when the band relocated there, and also at Rough Trade in Notting Hill with Gary Walker, the mastermind of Wiiija Records.
“Gary was also involved with Dandelion Adventure’s Peel session, and manages The Kills these days. and when I sent him tapes of Cornershop, he felt it was a really good idea. To be honest, they were a bit ropey then. I joked they were the worst band in the world but I’d make them the biggest! I learned very early on that rock’n’roll’s not about being the best guitar players in the world, but having the best gimmicks or the sexiest singer!”
Was there a moment when the Brimful of Asha remix took off when he regretted letting Cornershop go on without him?
“No, I was very proud that they got to No.1. It fulfilled a big circle for me.”
A spell at Domino Records followed in the late ’90s, working alongside owner Laurence Bell at the label, which later hit the jackpot with the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand. But Marcus’s work with acts like Clinic, Pavement, Sebadoh and Will Oldham had paved the way for all that.
“A lot of those bands are still kicking around there, and very much the foundations of setting up such a wonderful label.”
Getting back to Dandelion Adventure, how important was Action Records’ involvement to the story?
“Gordon (Gibson) was like an older brother to me, turning me on to so many great records and bands. I was always in the shop at 16 and 17, and when we got the band together he saw us at The Warehouse and said, ‘I’ll put your record out’. That was fantastic!
“There were lots of little highs. We played with Blur in London when they were starting out, at the Lady Owen Arms, Islington. We were headlining but they jumped the bill to play in front of us, for what Time Out called their gig of the weekend. Brilliant memories, and I still hark back to those days. We had a really good time, even though a lot of the memories are drunken ones!”
What was the band’s finest moment for you?
“Probably that Peel session, but I still really love Speed Trials. I was also really proud of the praise from the likes of J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Gibby (Butthole Surfers) and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth). Thurston called us the best English band in an interview, when the grunge thing was really kicking off with Nirvana. We’d gone by then though. Perhaps if we stuck to our guns and carried on … but everything happens for a reason. I’d probably have run things differently now, but I never look back with too much regret.”
Tuff Life Boogie’s annual UnPeeled tribute to the much missed John Peel involves 10 acts across two stages at The Continental (South Meadow lane, Preston, Lancashire, 01772 499425) on Friday, October 28th (6pm to 12am), also starring The Nightingales, The Stupids, Datblygu, John Hyatt’s Plastic Reality, Eton Crop, The Great Leap Forward, Minny Pops, Spread Eagle, and The Spiral Room. There will also be an after-party just across town at The Ferret (11pm to 3am) featuring christ and Klute. Tickets are £12.50 until the end of September and £4 for the after-party tickets from wegottickets.com, The Continental, The Ferret, or Action Records. There will also be a bonus Saturday, December 3rd show with The Membranes, The Wolfhounds and The Folk Devils. For full line-ups, band biogs and more details of both shows, follow this link.
Meanwhile, you can expect more on UnPeeled 16 on this site in the coming weeks, hopefully including interviews with Datblygu (ahead of the lauded Welsh outfit’s first gig outside their home nation in 25 years, by all accounts), The Membranes and The Wolfhounds.
Thanks to Rico La Rocca – Tuff Life Boogie’s main mover’n’shakermaker – for some of the background material, and Greg Neate for the Dandelion Adventure pics. Incidentally, Greg penned an Ajay Saggar feature for The Quietus in 2011, linked here.