While his working hours are spent at renowned Amsterdam concert venue The Paradiso, producer, sound engineer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ajay Saggar remains proud of his Lancashire past, 30-plus years after his introduction to the North West indie scene while promoting gigs as a Lancaster University student.
Ajay soon became a key player on the Preston front, proving integral to John Peel favourites Dandelion Adventure, alongside Marcus Parnell, the band’s vocalist known back then as ‘Fat Mark’ (he’s not, by the way).
That spell kick-started a busy alternative career in underground music for Ajay, ultimately taking him to the Netherlands. But he was never above returning to the area where he made his name, and in October 2016 was back on stage with Marcus for the first time in three decades at The Continental in Preston, alongside former Cornershop drummer Dave Chambers, performing as The Common Cold.
They weren’t to be sneezed at that night, putting in a determined, fuelled set in the snug, letting rip on two extended kraut-rock jams as part of Tuff Life Boogie’s John Peel festival tribute, UnPeeled. While I thought at the time that might just have been a brief trip down memory lane, it appears that the project secretly moved forward from there. And now they have an LP coming, released via the esteemed team at Church Street’s legendary Action Records, whose past releases have not only incuded Dandelion Adventure, but also The Boo Radleys, Fi-Lo Radio, The Fall, and even a solo venture featuring the latter’s legendary frontman, Ajay’s recently-departed hero and close friend, Mark E. Smith.
It’s a winner too, with Shut Up! Yo Liberals! out on Friday, May 4th, The Common Cold set to play 10 shows on 10 nights to promote it, the original trio joined by second drummer Scrub (Roland Jones, formerly with Preston’s Big Red Bus) and teenage bass player Jack Harkins (who also features with Ludovico). And it’s fair to say Ajay’s excited about the prospect, as I found out first-hand when I caught him during a brief break from his day-job earlier this week. Any big-name visitors at the Paradiso at present?
“Oh, it’s never ending! We’re celebrating our 50th year as a venue and next week marks the official anniversary, with a whole bunch of stuff lined up, and the roll-call of who’s coming through is amazing – 365 days a year of huge acts, small acts, and everything in between.”
In other words, check the website and find out for yourself. But he still manages the occasional return trip to Preston.
“Last time was recording for The Common Cold, to record Marcus’ vocals at the end of last summer. We did those two shows at the Conti …”
In my review of the first of those, the UnPeeled gig in 2016 (with a link here), I suggested they were ‘deliciously under-rehearsed,’ and noted the look of fear on Ajay’s face when the crowd requested ‘more!’ But as it worked out, that wasn’t to be the end of the story.
“I just felt from there we needed to take it a notch up and do something decent with it. Marcus was super-enthusiastic about it, so I wrote all the music and got the personnel together to play on it. The two-drummer thing was really important, and I’ve always loved that idea of having that powerhouse behind it.
“Scrub was up for it, and I asked Dave Chambers, but he was away the weekend we were recording. I also asked David (Blackwell) from The Lovely Eggs, and he was up for it, but had been ill and then had to start practising for their album sessions, so Daren Garratt (from Birmingham, ex-The Nightingales and The Fall) helped us. I wrote all the bass parts with programmed drums, visited Preston last Spring and we worked our asses off in a rehearsal room.”
They’ll be back in Preston for the last night of the tour, at The Ferret on Fylde Road this time. There’s a Lancaster link too, I see, visiting his old roots there, playing The Yorkshire House.
“Yeah, I felt it was important to do as many Lancashire shows as possible (they also play Darwen and Salford). The whole idea of getting this up and running for me was to play in an all-English band again, based around my musical roots – where I first played in a band and went to see so many other bands.”
You mention recording the bass parts, and I can hear your own identity coming through on tracks like the slow-building Napoleon’s Index Finger on the album – not least with that driving bass guitar.
“That was really important, especially with two drummers. It had to really fucking drive forward! It’s basically a Paul Hanley, Steve Hanley, Karl Burns kind of axis, which was so inspiring with The Fall back in the day. I don’t want to copy or recreate that, I want to do our own thing. But it’s important all the same. It’s the driving force of your life really, constantly discovering new things.
“You can’t get sucked into that morass of constantly putting out the same kind of thing. I can get bored really easily. If I’m not challenging myself and being creative, you get on to that circuit of where it comes too easy and you’re doing it by numbers. I don’t want that. I’ve never wanted that.”
Well, that’s something he can’t be accused of. Take a look, for example, at Ajay’s last three musical projects – The Common Cold, Deutsche Ashram and King Champion Sounds – all suggesting he’s keeping it fresh – with major scope between those projects.
“Well, there is a common thread. You’ll never get away from that, but I like to keep things fresh and that’s always been the case for myself.”
Last time we spoke, 18 months ago (with a link here), he mentioned his friendship with Marcus being borne out of a love of The Membranes. But there was another band they had in common – The Fall. And he became good friends with Mark E. Smith over time.
“The Fall were the band that made me listen to music differently and really made me appreciate how the highest art form there was within the whole spectrum of art, and how it appeals to people all over the world in different ways. It ignites you and makes you excited. The Fall took that element of making music to a heightened level, with that combination of Mark’s poetic view of the world around him and his way of expressing that and keeping you on your toes when you listen.
“Then there were the musicians who stood the challenge of presenting Mark with a musical palette that would not only be a perfect foil to his voice and his lyrics but also keep the momentum going for the listener – keeping them challenged in what they were hearing. With that combination, you didn’t know what had hit your ears. This was music from a different planet, so fantastic.
“The thing with listening to Fall records, you think you know an album inside out, but every time I play Hex Enduction Hour or Grotesque, or whatever, from 20 or 30-plus years ago, I still hear new things, which is the greatest compliment you could pay to any band or musician.”
I mention at this point how so many people had different entry points for The Fall, and while, admittedly, I didn’t really get them at first, I went back and properly ‘discovered’ them via the period between The Frenz Experiment and Code: Selfish, despite that period not being seen among their finest moments in some circles.
“Well, that’s fantastic, and a great approach. Mark challenged himself and his group into where they were going with the whole thing. They never became lazy, because he wouldn’t let them. If they did, he’d kick their asses, keeping it fresh for himself and them.”
As he famously said, it could be him and your Granny playing bongos on there, and the group would still be The Fall.
“That’s it. And he’s probably with her right now, playing way up there. And that element of keeping things fresh is something that rubbed off on me. That ethic of keeping yourself challenged and on edge. If you think things are becoming too safe and you may be on to a winning formula, just break away and go in the opposite direction.”
At that point we wander off on to The Clash, and I mention how I could see that same ethos there, with the way they initially looked to a ‘year zero’ approach, however much they loved various past genres.
“Joe Strummer definitely had that going on. Whether it was their roots in West London, vibing off the dub and reggae scene or going to New York and vibing off the hip-hop and critical beats going down there, they had their ears to the ground and knew a good thing when it happened, realising the power of music in its different forms.
“They brought elements of all that into their own music, but essentially it’s Clash music. You hear it and know it’s The Clash – Strummer’s voice, Jones’ guitar, Simonon’s bass, and Headon’s brilliant drumming. It’s Clash music but with elements of all those things going on around them which they brought in. And as long as you then use that to enhance your own music, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
On to the Action Records link, and Ajay and the Lancashire store’s owner Gordon Gibson go back a long way. He mentions the importance of a Preston vibe with this new venture. Was it key to have Action involved, putting out the record via them?
“Absolutely, and Marcus goes back even longer with Gordon than I do, while Dave Chambers worked in Action. That was important, and I wanted to keep the whole project in Lancashire. It’s a Lancashire band, with Northern roots and with a Northern sound.
“It would have been easy to ask other labels to do it. There were chances of doing that. But I’ve known Gordon for eons and totally trust him, and in this day and age that’s something you need. He’s just somebody I can phone up or drop an email to ask advice on or help. He’s really honest and he’s really on it, which is why Mark E. Smith liked him too.”
As for the album itself, I was only three listens in at time of going to press, but already loving it, not least early stand-outs like The London Look, Stop the Traffic, and Half-Nelson Headlock, for which you’ll find promo video film links online, the afore-mentioned Napoloeon’s Index Finger, and the LP’s powerful closing statements, Pretty Julie and Body Language, the latter a mighty showcase for Marcus’ evocative poetic imagery. There’s definitely a Fall feel in places, plus all the frenetic energy characterising the early Happy Mondays and more recently Sleaford Mods, and plenty of that great sonic barrage King Champion Sounds provide. But don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.
So what’s the overriding message of Shut Up! Yo Liberals! then, Ajay?
“It’s definitely a call to arms, and I think it’s one of the best albums that will come out of the UK this year … and it’s coming out of the North! And the brilliant thing about working with Marcus again is that I think he’s one of the best lyricists in the UK. His knowledge of pop culture as such is enormous. In his viewpoint of a lot of things, he’s a man of the world and understands how things work and the difference between good and bad and right and wrong, and he’s not afraid to state things, with a fantastic poetic way of expressing things.”
But you best be quick, because there are only 300 copies of the vinyl, the first 100 copies including a hand-painted inner sleeve, a free badge, and other goodies via this link.
“Yeah, I said, ‘Look, let’s just make it, get it out, we’ll do a tour, then we’ll follow it up with something else in due course. The ideas are always there. This is our calling card, saying we’re on the map, we’re here, we’ve got something to offer, it’s bloody, bloody good – take it while you’ve got the chance! Then we’ll just move on.
“Art is not something that needs to be held on to for dear life. It’s always in flux. Things move and change. That’s the beauty of it, and we’re just a small element of that changing process. This is our contribution … for now, for this moment, for this instant! We’re saying, ‘Here it is, take it, immerse yourself in it, enjoy it, love it, get energy from it, and then we’ll move on. And that’s how we’re going to do the show. It’s going to be 10 shows in 10 days.”
“Jack is a massive Stranglers fan, and when I heard that, I just said, ‘Just get him, bloody get him!”
Was that the idea of hiring someone who understands former writewyattuk interviewee Jean-Jacques Burnel‘s playing?
“That’s it. The bass sound I’ve always gone for has been Jean-Jacques Burnel crossed with Steve Hanley. The first single I ever bought was No More Heroes, the first album I got was Black and White, and the first band I ever saw was The Stranglers at Bridlington Spa on that tour.
“I started playing bass because of JJ – that gnarly growl I got from him, something Steve Hanley has as well. The only instructions were to learn the bass parts and make sure you get that Jean-Jacques Burnel sound. And Jack gets that. In fact, he still follows the band around the country.”
At this point, I tell Ajay about my own Stranglers link, involving the Scout Hut in my home village in rural Surrey where they practised in the early days. But we won’t go into all that again (try this link from five years ago for size).
It’s been a year since I last saw Ajay live, performing at the Conti in Preston with Amsterdam-based outfit King Champion Sounds, providing a fantastic soundtrack for the Man with a Movie Camera film during an amazing set at the Vernal Equinox festival (with my review here). While this is all going on, are King Champion Sounds on hold?
“No, I’m busting my ass recording a new album, having worked on the bass and drums late last autumn, while Jos (G.W. Sok) recorded his vocals a few weeks ago, I’ve laid down all the guitars and loads of other instruments.”
Working towards an autumn tour perhaps?
“Yeah! I’ve got the horn section coming in a couple of weeks, and the strong section coming in at the end of April. It’s all ticking along.”
How about Deutsche Ashram, your amazing ethereal, dreamy, other-worldly project alongside Dutch vocalist, Merinde Verbeek. What’s she up to right now?
“Erm, she’s downstairs in the coffee shop, working at the moment!”
Ah, great stuff. So will there be a new Deutsche Ashram record soon?
“I don’t know … I’ll have to talk to her about it, see what her vibe is. I have loads of ideas for that as well, but really have to sit down and talk to her about that.”
Sounds like you’ve just got to catch yourself for five minutes. You’ve got so much going on.
“Yeah, but life’s too short to sit around. There’s too much to do!”
The Common Cold UK tour: Thursday, May 10 – Darwen Sunbird Records, Friday, May 11 – Lancaster The Yorkshire House, Saturday, May 12 – Salford The White Hotel, Sunday, May 13 – Newcastle The Cluny 2, Monday, May 14 – Brighton The Hope and Ruin, Tuesday, May 15 – Hastings The Palace, Wednesday, May 16 – London Aces & Eights Saloon Bar, Thursday, May 17 – Leicester The Sound House, Friday, May 18 – Glasgow 02 ABC 2, Saturday, May 19 – Preston The Ferret (tickets are on sale for the latter from Saturday, March 24 via the venue or Action Records, from whom you can also order the album via this link).