Popping back t’ Cornershop – the Tjinder Singh interview

There’s a brand new single out from indie-dance favourites Cornershop, a band Mojo have dubbed ‘the quintessential 21st-century pop group’, The Independent labelled ‘cultural critique you can dance to’, and The Guardian reckon are ‘clever and engaging, happily detached from the mainstream’.

As far as I’m concerned, this latest offering from a much-treasured outfit with Lancashire roots deserves to be all over the airwaves, and could go someway towards the success of their 1998 tribute to Indian singer Asha Bhosle and their sole UK No.1, ‘Brimful of Asha’, coining the sound of summer two decades on. Wishful thinking maybe, but why not?

The new 45 pairs the laid-back, feelgood dance groove of ‘Double Denim’ with a cover of The Archies’ 1969 bubblegum chart-topper, ‘Sugar Sugar’. There’s also an extra helping of promo video to go with it, and in the animated ‘Double Denim’, featuring fictional band Heavy Duty and seen as director Ian Viggars’ ‘homage to Hanna-Barbera and Peanuts’, the band are apparently celebrating ‘denim as a way of expressing one’s love for music with badges, patches or spray paint’. And more power to their jean-jacketed elbows for that.

The ensemble responsible are now 27 years into an impressive career, with co-founders Tjinder Singh (vocals/guitar/bass/dholki) and Ben Ayres (guitar/keyboards/tamboura)  still at the helm. They’re also currently working on a new album – their 10th, just the excuse I needed to track down Tjinder and quiz him about the band’s past, present and future.

Usually, I’d then hone that and add in the odd nugget of back-story as we went along. But having read back Tjinder’s entertaining responses (put my way via the wonders of electronic mail in this instance), I felt I should just print our Q&A as it came, with the bare minimum of add-ins. So here goes, starting with me carelessly flouting every rule I’ve ever learned about trying to get off to a friendly start, half-suggesting I couldn’t work out why they would go anywhere near that annoyingly-catchy cover version.

So, first off, ‘Sugar Sugar’ – was The Archies’ 1969 version not enough for all time? You do realise that’ll be the song I hear first thing in the morning and last thing at night in my head for a few months again now. Please explain yourself, Tjinder.

“That cover came about from a tweet that endearingly said ‘Cornershop are the real life Archies.’  However, this comparison needed a few months of detailed analysis under laboratory conditions, after which we decided the tweeter was most correct. During such time, a lot of information came to light on the studio recording sessions on the making of ‘Sugar Sugar’, so I decided to do our own version based on these volts of information. We love the original a lot so have been surprised that so many people have taken our version to heart.”

Were yourself and Ben around when that track first topped the charts? I was barely two, but it clearly made a deep impression on me from continued radio rotation in the following years.

Derek Randall: Retford’s finest is believed to be a big fan of Cornershop, possibly

“In those days all we cared about was chess, cricket and awaiting for someone like Derek Randall to enter the field.”

Now I’ve got that out of the way, I feel the need to stress how much I’m loving ‘Double Denim’ (and no doubt I’ll grow to like the other side in time). By rights, this should be the sound of late summer 2018, getting as much airplay as songs like Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ and Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. Might we finally see your first top-40 hit since 2002’s ‘Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III’?

“Again, we have been taken aback by how well ‘Double Denim’ has been received. Mainly because we released the single in the reduced action of holiday season. Maybe it’s because of the ‘It ain’t half hot mum’ weather that the summer sound tag has been put to it, but in any case thank you for your very kind words here. One forgets that it was so long since being in the charts, but one is comforted that songs like that mean even more nowadays.”

You suggest ‘Double Denim’ is a reminder that music is still the key to many of our woes. With the dire political landscape here and over the Atlantic right now, we need that, don’t we?

“Politics in music have always been a key meter for us, even if like Double Diamond here we talk about attire and escapism it mentions the start of work on Mondays morning too.  Further, as many northerners know, denim and the doubling up of such material is a political stance relating way back to Mods and the Dirty Rockers.”

Double Diamond, eh. Now we’re going back. It seems to be the early ’70s again, with that song on the radio. But moving on … What have yourself and Ben been up to since 2015’s Hold On It’s Easy album? Do you get together fairly regularly, or just in creative spurts now and then?

“We have met every Tuesday and Friday at 2pm for the last eight years. Nowadays we don’t work as hard as we did, but we do keep up the Lancashire tradition of cream teas and extremely clean language.”

Quite right too. And there’s a new album on the way, yeah? Are these two tracks a good indication of where Cornershop are at in 2018?

“There is a new album out there. However, like the next Derek Randall, these things take time. I don’t think the album is anything like these two tracks, less spank. We try to keep things different and can’t be sure.”

Band Substance: Cornershop’s first press shot, taken at West Orange Studios, Preston, early 1992. From the left – Ben Ayres, Tjinder Singh, Avtar Singh, David Chambers.

The ‘Double Denim’ video features fictional band Heavy Duty. Is that a nod to your Preston roots in the band, General Havoc? And while I get the Archies inference with the cartoon style, how do Heavy Duty compare to more recent animated ensemble, Gorillaz?

“In terms of influence, many – even academic circles – have said Gorillaz was taken from the blueprint of our side-project Clinton due to its music direction, and as we were the first to use producer Dan the Automator in the UK. Those papers put aside, Heavy Duty are neither Gorillaz nor The General Havoc. They are more of an Olympia, Washington State type group.”

That’s cleared that up then. Taking you right back to your Lancashire years, were those fun days, or was it just a slog to get heard around then?

“It was a most enjoyable time, mainly because there was no slog to be heard. It didn’t become a slog until we got signed to Wiiija Records, which gave us the chance to either stay in a band if we worked hard enough or go back to being unemployed. Preston was always about what you made of it. When we arrived, there was still a hint of the ’50s about it in people’s dress and the music of Glenn Miller and Jo Stafford in the second-hand shops, which was all great to have taken in. Then there were places like Action Records, Ribblesdale Club, and live music at The Lamb.”

Have you strong memories of the first General Havoc gig? And where exactly was that?

“I think I speak for all band individuals in saying ‘very strong’. So strong that even the hint of a Double Diamond transports us back – I can’t however remember where the hell it was we played.”

How about that very first Cornershop show at O’Jays in your next musical base, Leicester?

“That set in store a series of venues we played at which folded soon after our performances, so we were soon refused gigs. O’Jays was a really great gig though – the North was taken, now the Midlands had fallen, and we felt it only a matter of time ‘fore the south to capitulate.”

Pressing Matters: Ben Ayres and Tjinder Singh in 2000 at the Damont Audio record pressing factory in Hayes, Middlesex, where Ben used to work

What were you studying in your Preston days? And is that how you got to know fellow Cornershop bandmates Dave (Chambers, drums) and Ben?

“I studied Business Information Technology, and Ben was on Heavy Geography, at what was then Preston Polytechnic. At that time the town was divided between students and local Prestonians, but we always got on with whoever we liked. It was also a violent town centre, a situation that was bettered down the years, chiefly by investment and by the aid of music.”

Rumour has it that as the social secretary of the Poly (these days the University of Central Lancashire) you very quickly blew the budget through booking bands like The Wedding Present, Mercury Rev, Spiritualised, and so on. Is that true?

“As I said earlier, Preston was what you made of it, so as Social Secretary I tried to have more bands and comedians play. Being so well placed between Manchester and Liverpool or prior to bands going up to Scotland, it seemed a waste of the Polytechnic’s venues and resources not to book bands that were touring. So more gigs took place instead of bad discos, and more local community was welcomed in. In fact, I also set up a free festival at Avenham Park in the summer third term – not something you could do without a budget.

“Truth is, I had two votes of no confidence within my first three weeks, I had racial resentment throughout my tenure, it was very stressful but exhilarating. I was then re-elected as Social Secretary, a role which I then declined. It was this experience in a so called educated arena that made the band change name to the racially-charged Cornershop, and adopt an even more political direction overnight.”

Did you always believe in the band’s chance of striking it big? I get the impression it was more of a winning concept than a happening musical unit at first.

“We only believed in the band’s ability to meet from time to time in different cities as some of us exited from Preston. However, right from the start we had David HB Chambers join us on the basis that he thought we had something. We always had the support of Marcus Parnell or Gaynor, and later John Robb and Tony Wilson, and when we got to Rough Trade, Portobello, there was Pete, Jude and Nigel. So there was always encouragement, but there was never an aim to strike up anything.

“Upon getting signed, everything changed, and no group has ever worked as hard as we have to get somewhere. We started going to Europe’s mainland to keep things going and eventually that led to America, which responded to us in a very open manner, a manner which made it reasonable at that time to deem it a great forward-thinking country.”

Ford Perfect: The first Cornershop EP, from 1993

Something that seems to have deserted the US in recent times, unfortunately … at least for now. Going back, those early days of Cornershop were prime post-punk indie DIY days. Was there a proper community feel among acts from the North West, and something of    a similar philosophy (with assistance from the likes of the afore-mentioned John Robb and Marcus Parnell)?

“There were certainly acts around Preston that had a similar philosophy as each other, such as Dandelion Adventure, or Bogshed, or Stretcheads, but we had not developed enough ourselves to fit into any of it at that time. The live band scene was healthy though. Sometimes you could see three or four events a night and still have time to be arrested. As well as the town pubs and venues, there were Labour clubs in Deepdale and Ribblesdale, which with the help of Action Records got a healthy anti-major label sentiment going.”

It’s 25 years now since legendary broadcaster John Peel introduced you to a wider audience and spoke of ‘the first poptastic band from Britain’s Asian community’ and those first two Cornershop EPs on Wiiija (In the Days of Ford Cortina and Lock, Stock and Double Barrel). Was that exciting, hearing yourself on the national airwaves? And do you remember much about recording that first Peel session in 1993 (more followed in 1998 and 2002, the band having five entries in Peel’s Festive Fifty overall, including a No.1 with ‘Brimful of Asha’ in 1997)?

“John Peel was a catalyst for many a band to get together, and his sentiment was the same as Preston’s circuit. It was wonderful to hear him announce our records, and even better to see him at our gigs. In fact, we became quite close to him. We spent hours in conversation about people like Marc Bolan and the way the industry and technology was going. His favourite song of ours was ‘Staging The Plaguing of the Raised Platform.’ We do remember the first Peel Session. It was a little daunting, as BBC technical engineers were all around us, and it was on the back of a heavy duty night. Marcus Parnell, whom became our manager for a while, was asleep on top of the grand piano, and John Robb, who helped produce our first records, popped in towards the end.”

The powerful ‘England’s Dreaming’, from that first session (voted No.17 in Peel’s 1993 Festive Fifty), seemed to set out your stall as a musically creative force. I’m sure you and your brother (Avtar Singh, bass guitar, vocals) had to put up with prejudice, but you seemed to take that all head on, not least with the band name, challenging the clichés.

“That song was all about working at the Union in Preston, which I talked about earlier. It also uses The Smiths’ line, as at this time we had already been burning Morrissey posters due to his dubious move towards the far right.”

With regard to where we’re at politically right now, the time’s ripe for a Cornershop revival, surely?

“Politically, we are in a hot-pot of course, but the time is really ripe for other Cornershops to say something of the situation. Unfortunately, politics seem to have been taken out of music again and we are back to songs that don’t represent the hard political situations we are having to deal with. The youth seem more set on singing about meeting someone in a car park than why they can’t afford to buy a car.

“I grew up in Wolverhampton, in the rivers of blood that Enoch Powell wanted to magnify.  So our songs were always about what may go wrong, and the way we see it, since the start of this century they have gone wrong. Austerity made things much worse for no conceivable gain, and we are here with (Boris) Johnson thinking he is an Enoch Powell Johnson. Maybe we did what we did as a group because we could see a Derek Randall that was unfortunately more right wing. There is nothing better than that to be perennially proud of.”

Chart Success: The third Cornershop album, from 1997, was the most commercially successful

It’s now been 21 years since Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Brimful of Asha’ remix took you to the top of the charts. How did Norman get involved with you? Are you still in touch?

“No, we have never been in touch. He approached us. We love both versions, it’s strange to hear it all the time still. In its original form it represented the band most closely, being avid record collectors, praising the plastic 45, having disdain for governments that don’t work for us, and showing appreciation for a shopping list that does.”

What did you make of the BritPop movement? Was it good to be associated with, just a happy accident, or part of a true coming together of like-minded bands with a wide selection of influences?

“BritPop never existed, it was just what the papers and magazines put together to give the upturn in optimism a name – fake pop. The only movement that we were happy to be associated with was the Riot Grrrl movement.”

I could mention several more Cornershop tracks from down the years, but was always particularly taken with ‘Good to Be on the Road Back Home’ on your best-selling LP, When I Was Born for the 7th Time. Was that a further nod to the Velvet Underground? And what’s guest co-vocalist Paula Frazer up to these days?

“We didn’t intentionally nod to The Velvet Underground, and that song we saw more like country music or a Lee (Hazlewood) and Nancy (Sinatra) type duet. For me, all the old boys and girls at my local Irish pub still sit around the bar and sing and cry to it. It also has that Irish ‘away from home’ feeling about it, and has certainly brought me many a free drink.

“When Paula Frazer came to do vocals for it, she was perplexed by it. She doesn’t normally sing like that, but when she moved it more towards Nashville, it became clean as country water.”

According to the band’s website, Cornershop have been making a film about London’s independent music industry since 2003. Is that ready for release yet?

“That is true … no it’s not ready yet. The idea was to record as many things as we could about what we were about to lose of the music industry as possible. We got a Peel Session and interview filmed, footage of a record pressing plant, Rowetta singing ‘Wop The Groove’ at a time when she was much more reserved about being in front of a camera, Everett True talking about the demise of music magazines, and so on. It will be finished and come out one day – I hope so.”

Finally, will there be a tie-in tour for the album release? And might your past collaborators the Mike Flowers Pops be joining you for that?

“There may well be a tour when the next album comes out. Mike Flowers won’t be joining us though. Nor will Allen Ginsberg, Larry Cornell, Paula Frazer, Soko, Dan the Automator, Noel Gallagher … not even Preston’s own Bubbley Kaur.”

Double Diamonds: Tjinder and Ben, back at work on a new Cornershop album (Photo: Roger Sargent)

You can find the video for ‘Double Denim’ here, and for ‘Sugar Sugar’ here. For details of how to get hold of new single, ‘Double Denim’/‘Sugar Sugar’ (Ample Play) and all the latest from Cornershop, head to their website.

  • With extra thanks to Marcus Parnell for a little insider knowledge from those formative days on the Preston scene.
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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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