If one recent album sums up the state of the nation in late 2016 more than any other, I reckon it’s The Wolfhounds’ Untied Kingdom (Or How To Come To Terms With Your Culture).
This treasured Greater London outfit’s latest long player, released in the autumn, is the band’s first stand-alone LP since 1990’s Attitude, and comes on the back of mighty 2014 comeback compilation Middle Aged Freaks, their first Odd Box release featuring the clutch of singles that followed their 2012 return and put out around the time of the Optic Nerve label’s reissue of their 1986 debut Unseen Ripples From A Pebble.
While some of the songs on the new album may have been kicking around front-man David Callahan’s front room or a while, I put it to him that it all seems very ‘of the now’.
“A few were written at the beginning of this year, but most have been around for the last two or three years, but with the general feeling of the surroundings of those last few years. I think you’re right though. It’s fairly sad that barely anyone but a few grime artists and maybe Sleaford Mods are in any way singing about people’s lives. Maybe Richard Dawson too, in a kind of abstract way. I mistrust artistic statements about the state of the nation, but there’s no one really addressing that. Particularly with guitars … apart from us.”
The Wolfhounds certainly cover a lot of ground on their latest offering, the canvas spread across a number of key political and social issues, the music inventive yet somewhat in line with all that came before, those de-tuned guitars reminding us who we’re dealing with here.
As the accompanying press release put it, the album incorporates ‘sample mangled dub, freak-beat protest punk and late-night unplugged lo-fi along its 50-minute plus journey’, and ‘musically and lyrically goes pretty much everywhere all other underground bands can’t or won’t go’.
I might as well carry on there, adding, ‘The album summons sometimes dystopic, sometimes frighteningly dysfunctional hallucinations of desperate working life and insecurity, while at the same time being as raw and hardcore celebratory as danceable blues. It’s as modern as any young band could hope to be, but as wise and disturbed as any alert adult has to be. It conjours up demons of the fiercest rock’n’roll along with the unfettered experimentation of singer Callahan’s past band, Moonshake, as well as even the occasional pop hook, to form an expansive whole with surprises around every spin of the turntable.’
Slightly hyperbolic, maybe, but pretty much spot on. All a long way from the chief songwriter’s day-job, you might think, writing about birds and conservation (mostly for Birdwatch magazine). But Walthamstow-based David (‘Isn’t that East 17? I ask, to which he replies, ‘Yes, but no relation’) and his band have never been easy to categorise.
Take for instance the movement they arguably hitched a lift on the tailcoats of, having appeared on the NME’s near-legendary C86 compilation 30 years ago. Track four, Feeling So Strange Again, only sticks around for one minute 42 seconds, but their inclusion was enough to widen the scope of their support.
I’m not quite sure what I make of that song today. It’s clearly them, but that same year’s wonderful Cut the Cake and Anti-Midas Touch singles were more an accompaniment to many a fan’s cup of tea, and closer to their own considerable live presence. In fact, David reckons that debut 45 and following indie hit were about the only times they felt they properly got to grips with translating live passion to recording tape early on.
Don’t let him talk down the appeal of the first album though, the record that got me hooked on the band. It could have done with a cash injection in recording terms, but can’t be knocked for me. I’d already seen them live and was suitably impressed. But hearing that 1986 Pink Label debut platter made me realise there was a lot more about them, the melodic moments every bit as compelling as the more raucous ones.
And listening again last week made me realise I still love that LP, from wondrous opener Me right through to buzzsaw closer Handy Howard. Yet in an interview I did with the band in early 1988 – backstage at Aldershot’s West End Centre – they were largely dismissive of it, not least David. Does he still feel that way?
“It sounds a bit better than I felt then. The recording that was more like we wanted to sound was Bright and Guilty. We already sounded like that live, but couldn’t catch it in the studio, even though we had on Cut the Cake and The Anti-Midas Touch.
“By the time the LP was done we were all floundering with the pressures of having to live up to our reputation and not having any money. Some in the band thought we had to be more poppy to make money, others said they hated that kind of music. There was a lot of tension.
“The results are patchy in my estimation. But there are three really good singles there, and a couple of other really good songs, so my toes don’t curl too much when I listen back.”
We’ll have to agree to disagree. They came on with the later albums but I honestly believe it showed their worth as proper songwriters.
“It’s nice to have done that, but I really think what we were doing musically – especially with the guitars – was not captured at all. At the time I found it extremely depressing.”
I first saw The Wolfhounds at the Hammersmith Clarendon’s Klubfoot, third on the bill to That Petrol Emotion and The Mighty Lemon Drops on Valentine’s Night ’86, shortly before their first John Peel session, and before both C86 and that first album surfaced.
Later – as an 19-year-old – I wrote in the second edition of my Captains Log fanzine that ‘listening to their album you’d expect this lot to be a bunch of boys next door playing jangly pop, but with an out of place vocal’, yet ‘it all seemed to make more sense’ and ‘it’s easy to see the album doesn’t represent their live performances’. There may have been lashings of hindsight benefit there though, as by the time my review surfaced, the NME cassette and debut LP were out and they’d released two more cracking singles, Me and Cruelty.
I had to wait until November ’87 until I saw them again, this time at the iconic 100 Club on Oxford Street. And what a top night. By then we’d had a second Peel session, and I only had four months to wait for my next fix in March ’88, the year of the Son of Nothing single, just over the Surrey/Hampshire border at Aldershot’s Buzz Club, on a night David remembers well. He had little recollection of the interview I did with the band earlier that night (one I intend to upload to this site very soon), but certainly remembered the ‘near-riot’ that ended their set prematurely.
“It’s fairly clear. It was a rather abrupt end to the evening, and in mine and a couple of other people’s cases a bit bloody.”
So what did he make of that interview, having read it for the first time 28 years on?
“It’s always an amusing time capsule. Those kind of interviews were more about the repartee between a bunch of mates who just happen to be in a band. There’s not so much chance for that to happen these days apart from in the back of a van or in a green room. We’re distributed over Essex and London, so it’s pretty hard for us all to get together.”
They next surfaced – as far as I was aware – at the tail-end of 1988 for a third Peel session, one including Happy Shopper and Son of Nothing, and within two months I caught them at Drummond’s in Euston, although I seem to recall that third-on-the-bill Lush grabbed the music press attention. The future was theirs, while The Wolfhounds’ own bumpy ride would be over within 18 months (* interestingly, just a few weeks after this Romford outfit proved their worth on vinyl again, Lush played their final show, at Manchester Academy).
So, back to Untied Kingdom, and it’s an album of many parts, yet works so well, with plenty of surprises but enough classic Wolfhounds moments to remind you who you’re listening to. And it’s intriguing from the start, a capella opener Apparition proving a major curve-ball. I get an image of an Isambard Kingdom Brunel figure there. Am I off the mark?
“That’s pretty much spot-on, really. I sang that straight into my phone about a year and a half ago, and was trying to capture the atmosphere just from that. All the backing vocals were done on my phone as well, with all the extraneous noises from me walking around Alexandra Park – birds singing and trains going past. But it has a vaguely ghostly effect.”
That sets us up nicely for Now I’m a Killer, which for these ears is pure Wolfhounds, not least because of that trademark ‘skewiff’ guitar sound. Did I just write ‘skewiff’? That’s a word you don’t often see, but I was making notes on my second listen, and somehow came up with that. Then a cursory look at the band’s Wikipedia entry described how the band ‘began as a slightly askew indie pop rock band’. So maybe I’m not the only one who sees it that way.
“I guess so. It’s kind of half way between Wilko Johnson and Winged Eel Fingerling (Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention). It has pop and rock chops but also flies off at angles all the time. But that’s what we wanted. Our early influences were things like that. We bonded over a mutual love of something between The Who and The Fire Engines.”
Then we come to track three, and in an ideal world (which it clearly isn’t judging by this past year) My Legendary Childhood would be a hit. I love the brass and backing vocals and their blend with David’s voice. Who’s responsible for those factors?
“It’s always a collaboration between you and the people who record it, in this case our house engineer, Anthony Chapman (ex Collapsed Lung), a really good engineer and producer. We record a lot at home but often with his assistance, rather than hiring a studio, with a laptop and record stuff in bedrooms, halls, and front rooms. You can hear from the results how it works so well – way better than most of those we did in expensive studios in the ’80s. Also we have Terry Edwards’ horns on there, who I’ve known since I was 15, and we collaborated when I was in Moonshake.”
Terry seems to have been making quality contributions to great records for as long as I can recall, off the top of my head from working with The Higsons in the early ’80s right through to The Everlasting Yeah last year.
“The same guy, and he plays with PJ Harvey and Gallon Drunk, and sometimes Mick Ronson and David Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti.”
And who’s the female vocalist?
“There are several, but on My Imaginary Childhood it’s Elin Grimstad, who plays in Norwegian psychedelic pop band Je Suis Animal. And I’m on their album when it comes out. We also had Katherine Whitaker, who plays in Evans the Death, another really good band, and Astrud Steehouder, who plays in Paper Dollhouse, a kind of gothy/electronic/ folky band. I go out and see bands a lot and make mental notes when I see good singers!”
I won’t go into every track here, but will finish by mentioning The Stupid Poor, which fits in neatly with the idea of the album being so 2016.
“That was my attempt to try and catch the neuroses of the way middle class people seem to feel about the underclass these days. Half say how terrible it is, and the other half say, ‘Don’t touch me, keep away from my car and my TV!’ This is me trying to summarise that.”
And is the album selling well?
“Record sales for everyone – no matter how small or big they are – are low.”
So it’s only ever going to be a hobby really?
“As far as putting vinyl records out. There are other ways of getting your music across, but that kind of physical entity is very much a niche interest these days. But so far it’s had the biggest advance and is the largest-selling on the label. So on that level that’s quite good.”
The LP was officially launched with a special show in Islington, with support from another band recently featured on these pages, Dutch duo Deutsche Ashram, who incidentally played the last Un-Peeled event the previous night. Any more dates being lined up?
“We’re booking more, and Cardiff and Bristol are coming in January, with a view to another that same weekend.”
As for The Membranes, Saturday’s Preston show is The Wolfhounds’ last of 2016, with David looking forward to returning to this part of Lancashire after a mid-’80s visit.
“We drove to Scotland for some dates, but one was cancelled and we ran out of money. We needed to pay for petrol and had just enough to get to Preston, where a friend was. We just about made it, kipped on the floor and had to figure out a way of getting back to London.
“We went busking in a shopping centre and booked a couple of impromptu shows in pubs, handing out fliers someone did in their office, managing to get enough people along to get us home. It took about a week, being stranded in Preston rather than Glasgow, having to use all our talents and abilities to get back.”
Is he looking forward to catching up with (my previous interviewees) The Membranes?
“Yes, and again I’ve known John since the mid-80s, when a friend booked them to play in Romford. I’m also friends with Nick Brown, the guitarist. Our paths often pass through gigs. The Membranes are another good band, and again having a bit of a renaissance.”
Are Moonshake, the band David formed after his original band went their separate ways, on indefinite hold while The Wolfhounds story continues?
“That project’s been on hold since around 1997, although there’s a whole bunch of electronic stuff – at least an LP‘s worth – I’ve been doing, something I’ll work on next year. I also have a solo LP, more acoustic, even closer to being finished. I just need to mix and add a few things.”
David was behind a petition this year in a bid to get Warner Chappell to hand over copyrights and back-date royalties for their early catalogue, citing a breach of contract. The band asked the publishing company to reinstate the songwriting credits of David Callahan and Andrew Golding from The Anti-Midas Touch and six other songs. So where are they up to with that campaign. Is the money flooding in?
“Of course not! But it was really great that it got such a nice response, and I have draft documents handing the rights back to us from Warner Chappell. It’s not much money, but it’s the principle really, and it’s 27 years’ worth, so should have paid for a holiday or something.”
“I don’t think it’s that similar. Kurt Cobain knew who we were. I met him in Seattle when we were there with Moonshake. But that’s how pop music works – it’s largely people attempting to emulate other songs and failing! We’ve done it too. You try to copy things and it comes out completely different. This whole thing about Marvin Gaye is bullshit really. I’m not sure how lawyers managed to convince a judge there.”
I was half-joking, but do you think maybe you were passed over in the past while others pushed past? The likes of Blur spring to mind.
“I did see a really early Blur gig though, as Steve Mack from That Petrol Emotion said they really sounded like The Wolfhounds. But when I went I was very insulted, actually! Actually, there was another Preston connection that night – they were supporting Dandelion Adventure, who I thought were way better.”
Do you think you could ever have been more of a commercial success – or would the financial excesses have gone to your head, the money spent on yachts and women?
“Yeah, but that’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? I do feel we were passed by a little, but probably because of our snotty, aggressive attitude. They were much more likely to snap up nice middle-class boys than people who take the piss and misbehave all the time. The Sex Pistols were let through once – they weren’t going to let anyone else through like that … although Happy Mondays managed it in the end!
“We probably would have ended up how they did … if we were still alive. We were young, and ‘caners’ to varying degrees. With money and unlimited success It would have gone horribly wrong. On the other hand, I was more than happy to figure out if that were true!”
The band’s story began in 1984 in Romford as a teenage five-piece, their geographical roots at least giving me a chance to ask David if he grew up hanging out with Five Star.
“I didn’t even know they were from Romford until later.”
Also, I read somewhere that the town’s former export John Bull Bitter – as brought up in my original interview – has recently been relaunched via Charles Wells. Should we be scared?
“That was just horrible generic bitter, wasn’t it. Anyway, everyone in London now is a ponce – they drink IPA. Every pub has its own, every railway arch has a brewery under it!”
“Yes, but apart from the drummer that was true anyway when we broke up. And we would have got Frank (Stebbing) involved if he didn’t live in Dubai. We’re still in touch to varying degrees, not least due to these contractual issues. There’s the occasional reunion, but we’re distributed all over the globe. Martin, who played bass, is in Chicago, with the rest of us scattered around the Southern end of this country.
“That Aldershot gig was Martin’s last, and Dave from Belfast’s first. He got the job because he was handy in the fracas afterwards! He wasn’t afraid to get stuck in. There was often a bit of trouble at shows. But that’s just what happened then. Things are much more civilised today. Actually, one of our mates who roadied for us got employed by Primal Scream and The House of Love after he took on a rugby club at York University after a show we played with the latter.”
Then there’s Pete Wilkins on drums and Richard Golding – a younger brother of Andy – on bass.
“Yes, and Richard used to roadie for us, so it was a natural progression.”
This time at Preston it will just be David and Andy though, for a special one-off acoustic set of old and new Wolfhounds songs, after Pete was ruled out at the 11th hour due to a back problem.
Having recorded three John Peel sessions for BBC Radio One with The Wolfhounds between ’86 and ’88, plus one with Moonshake in November ’92 and another with Miss Mend in June ’99 (‘a band that became the Project. I played guitar and synthesiser with them.’), did David ever get to meet the inspiration behind Saturday night’s event?
“No, he very rarely came down to sessions. Occasionally he would write you a letter though – a personal note. Mostly it was all done through John Walters and the BBC office. Your manager would get a call to be there at a certain time. I think you were allowed eight hours, with no breaks. We’d virtually play live, with a few vocal overdubs or whatever. Often we played the songs a bit too fast, particularly because of nerves or reasons you’re not allowed to publish! But they gave a fairly accurate representation of what the band was doing live at the time.”
Fast forward now to 2006, when Bob Stanley of St Etienne curated a 20th anniversary event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London to mark the release of that initial NME C86 cassette, marked by a special exhibition and two nights of live music featuring bands on the original album, plus an enlarged triple-disc reissue, CD86 – Still Doing It For Fun, with The Wolfhounds among those involved. Back under the microscope and the bacterial kaleidoscope, you could say. So what had changed for the band to return?
“We got together as a one-off, for the hell of it when it was 20 years since Cut the Cake came out, We did one show and it went quite well, but then I was off to Madagascar for seven weeks. I used my savings to buy myself on to an expedition, while working in a warehouse and doing a degree at night school.
“But the following year Bob Stanley waved the ICA at us, where we made a horrendous racket which more or less divided the entire audience! Around half walked out while the other half thought it was the best thing they’d seen for years … kind of ideal really!”
I should put it on record that the original compilation wasn’t just a collection of wishy-washy guitar bands. There were plenty of abrasive and off-kilter moments too. Did David feel that being on that compilation along with all those other emerging indie bands did his band more harm than good?
“It was a double-edged sword. Five albums after that, there are still people who think we’re still some twee, jingle-jangle pop band, which we never were really. But it also means the people interested in all that come and see us. And it’s younger people as well, so that partly gives us a new audience – a lot of people in their early 20s come along now.”
You don’t strike me as someone to dine out on the past, with regard to the anniversary circuit (he asks, without irony, just before they play the latest John Peel tribute night). Is that what My Legendary Childhood is about?
“Well, it’s looking back on those days with jaundiced specs! But we looked back in the same rose-tinted manner on the days of ’60s garage as younger people look back on the mid-‘80s with rose-tinted specs. We’re saying it was quite tough in those days, but we’re also saying it’s even tougher now, so you shouldn’t give up – still do it!”
I guess my life had moved on, so while I loved a lot of the 1989 Midnight Music albums Blown Away and Bright and Guilty, not least the singles Happy Shopper and Rent Act, I can’t recall much about the following year’s Attitude, their fourth critically-acclaimed long player and what turned out to be their last for more than 20 years. Was my ignorance on that count the general way of things, sales-wise?
“It was diminishing returns, really. We felt the better we got the less we were selling, at least in Britain. When we were touring Switzerland, Germany and France we were getting good crowds and people were buying the new records. But over here people had lost interest. I still consider that to be the case really – we were improving continually but no one was interested.
“In retrospect, it’s quite hard to consider how tied up the scene was with the music press. They called the shots, and if you didn’t get a prominent review you were done for. Also, John Peel wasn’t really into the later stuff so much, so we couldn’t get a session there. Our whole lifeblood of the radio and the press was cut off apart from in Europe. Over there, we’d still get sessions, reviews, publicity, interviews, so tried to tour there as much as we could.
“But we were hitting 30 and completely skint, half of the band still living with their parents, rehearsing in front rooms. Also, I’d fallen in love with the idea of sampling by then, as was used minimally on a couple of the later albums. I could see massive potential yet knew the band weren’t going to be into that.”
Hence Moonshake. The die was cast.
In more recent years, David has certainly moved on, having gone on to complete a Master of Science degree in taxonomy and biodiversity at London’s Imperial College and carving out a career in conservation. He’s also published a well-received book, A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects. And since I’ve known that, I’ve looked back on at least two of those early songs in a different light. When I hear about Cruelty‘s ‘scientist in research’ I see David in a white coat (albeit as an ethical, animal-friendly scientist, of course), while that ‘dumb advertising’ on In Transit has me thinking of the songwriter as he ‘swans around Greater London’ or ‘ducks and dives around Dartford’, probably on some exposed bit of estuary, a pair of binoculars in his hand.
“Well, it has been known!”
And seeing as David’s a father to 11-year-own twins, I felt I should ask if his children have been known to go around whistling Happy Shopper or Sandy from time to time?
“Err, no, but they have been known to inspire the odd song, but not in a namby-pamby kind of way. They have a knack of saying quite surreal things that sometimes seem quite apposite. They have barely any interest in music, although my daughter likes Little Mix and they sometimes come with me to matinees or see me perform acoustically, and normally cringe with embarrassment or say something non-committal!”
Despite that vote of non-confidence, since their return The Wolfhounds have carried on from where they left off, not just making cutting-edge recordings but in the last few years playing some happening venues and events too, such as the New York and Berlin Popfests, and the Scared To Get Happy box-set and afore-mentioned C86 reissue launch nights.
There have also been dates in Paris, Madrid and Norway, plus several John Peel tribute bills and their own headline shows, while back in March, comedian Stewart Lee invited them to play the final ATP (All Tomorrow’s Party) event in Wales, where they also went down a storm. Then came Untied Kingdom, and I get the feeling there’s plenty more where that came from in 2017. Watch this space.
At time of going to press, a few tickets (£12 plus booking or £14 on the door) remained for Saturday, December 3’s Un-Peeled Xmas Party (7.30pm-11.30pm), starring The Membranes, The Wolfhounds, The Folk Devils and Vukovar, with details on the Un-Peeled Facebook page, via the bands, or this WeGotTickets.com link.