Cornershop are back with a new album, England is a Garden, three decades after they left Preston bound for world domination (starting in Leicester), and 22 years since Norman Cook’s remix of ‘Brimful of Asha’ led them to their sole UK No.1.
Not as if this London-based cult outfit has ever really been away. In fact, they’re regularly back to their old recording studio in Lancashire. In keeping with the ironic name of this treasured UK-Indian indie crossover collective, it’s open all hours, I guess, although I got the impression last time I sought out surviving co-founders Ben Ayres (guitar, tamboura) and Tjinder Singh (guitar, vocals) it’s more a two afternoons a week enterprise these days.
But judging by their latest long player, out on March 6th via Ample Play Records, their first album of new material since 2012’s Urban Turban, they remain every bit as vital as when they pressed the debut The Days of Ford Cortina EP on ‘curry-coloured vinyl’ in 1993.
England is a Garden certainly delivers the ‘full listening experience’ promised. A joy to behold, it’s trademark Cornershop, these ‘songs of experience, empire, protest and humour’ worth their weight in double digits, recorded in sessions at Sassy P in Stoke Newington, North London and on their old patch at West Orange, North Preston.
The first sign of its worth came via lead single ‘No Rock: Save In Roll’ – ‘that is to say that there is not one without the other, that rock, for all its focus on death is the saviour of life’, explained Tjinder – and its dynamic Rolling Stones-like tongue‘n’groove, magnified by tell-tale backing vocals from Valerie Etienne and somewhat reminiscent of past glories like 2002’s ‘Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III’ and 2009’s ‘Who Fingered Rock’n’Roll’.
That first 45 is seen as a celebration of Tjinder’s Black Country roots, the area that gave birth to heavy metal and arguably introduced us to the concept of dirty rock, today’s interviewee giving ‘two thumbs up to the feeling of hearing heavy metal from the back of a stage, as we all ride on and await the female backing vocals of our song to come in’.
Then we got to hear spring-like pop powerhouse ‘St Marie Under Canon’, the ‘garden gate to the album’, a breezy number that seems closer aligned to the bubblegum pop with attitude that saw the band tinker with ‘Sugar Sugar’ and their own ‘Double Denim’ last time we spoke in Summer 2018. Another corker, it praises its titular saint for ‘all of our battles that she has overseen and adjudicated, ending with the modern-day warfare of the public address sound system: amplifier, echo chamber, microphone and speaker. Music through the sound system is the weapon (or should be).’
While I was hoping to pull Ben into the conversation this time, he was soul deep in band admin, so I tackled Tjinder again, conveying my love for what could well be Cornershop’s 10th album (that’s open for discussion though, seeing as one of those was a remodelling of an earlier album and another was recorded under the name Clinton – 1999’s Disco and the Halfway to Discontent). Did it take a long time to pull the new LP all together?
“Shit-loads of time. But we’re very pleased with it, really happy to get it out, particularly in the climate we’re putting it out in – a few years ago wouldn’t have been very good, but now it’s quite right for that kind of stuff. We gauge it on other people who were out the same time as us, and compared to a lot of things we hear, we’re very happy. Ha!”
I detect a little nostalgia within, but not in a ‘wasn’t life great back then!’ sense. In the music and themes covered – not least on lead single ‘No Rock: Save in Roll’ – you’ve nailed a neat balance between looking back while looking forward. Then again, maybe you always have.
“Well, y’know, we try not to look back. We try to go forward. We do like lots of different kinds of music, so it has to be pinned down in some way and people say we’re looking back, but we haven’t looked back … ever!”
Maybe it’s just wearing your influences from way back on those denim sleeves, and it’s all the more apparent on this album.
“Erm … I don’t think it is. I think it’s a very brave album that tries to do something different. With a second track like that … I can’t see other people doing stuff like that. The interludes for instance … and ending with a local school choir. I don’t think we look back. I think we look forward, but people don’t see it as forward because it’s possibly too far forward for them! I don’t think people will look back in the future and think, ‘Wow, you can see the influences on this’.”
That second track being ‘Slingshot’, with a gorgeous rolling bass riff (from James Milne) and the feel of a glorious jam, distorted vocals, flute (Jim Collins), Hammond organ (chief engineer Alan Gregson, multi-tasking, clearly) … almost as if we’re waiting for Van the man to come in and add his own vocal noodlings. Splendid. But let’s not get distracted. I guess what I’m trying to say is something about those Stones-like moments and glam-rock sparkle here and there, as was the case in your own past.
“Well, there is that, but while you could say Stones, other people will say Velvets, while others will say it just sounds like Cornershop. And we’re hardly the same people either. But I think it’s our problem as a group that we’re not allowed to move on. It’s always like, ‘Where is this? Where can we place it?’ But they couldn’t place it when we first started out, and America couldn’t place it … which is why they liked it. It is a ball and chain. It’s just a ball really!”
I get the impression that all the reviews he’s seen so far have gone down that ‘don’t it sound like the Stones’ avenue, and he’s getting a bit pissed off with those inferences. So I try a different angle. When you listen back to very early Cornershop, I suggest, words like ramshackle and shambolic are used a fair bit, but a lot of the themes within were already there and you followed them through, politically or whatever. It’s as if you’ve just finely honed it all, carrying that same model on.
“I think so, and I think for a group that have done it as long as we’ve done it, it’s quite amicable. But I do think you’ve hit the nail on the head. In a way that’s why we went back to the first album and made it an easier listen. Because the melodies and stuff were there, but we weren’t able to put it over as eloquently as possibly we should have. But groups are allowed to develop, and I think we took that and moved quite quickly with it. And yeah, the templates were definitely there from the start.”
‘England’s Dreaming’ was one such example, and all the more relvant for this album title.
“People say to us, ‘What do you think about Brexit?’ And I say, ‘What do you think we think about Brexit? Have you not heard our songs?’ We were anti- all that as soon as we came out, and we were talking about that because of all the racist shit I got in your town, in fact!”
Hey, don’t drag me into this. I’m from Guildford, Tjinder.
“Ha! Oh, there you go.”
But I know what he means (and he laughs as he says it, I might add). Tjinder always said it was his experiences – being subjected to racism – while involved as an ents secretary with the Students’ Union in his Preston Polytechnic days (later the University of Central Lancashire) that inspired him to speak out against such attitudes through his music, the band taking a more defined political standpoint.
We spoke a little last time about how different Preston was when he first arrived, still carrying elements of the ‘50s in certain ways. That struck a chord with me, a fellow outsider. I got a similar feeling on early visits at the end of the ’80s.
“Yeah, and I don’t think you get that in a lot of places now. Everywhere’s so similar. Everyone’s dressed as if they’ve been to Sports Direct. Ha! And it’s a shame. Maybe that’s why music is where it is in terms of not having the value to it that it used to have. Because it wasn’t just music, it was the clothes, the attitude, the pubs … you lived your lifestyle through music. Nowadays you live your lifestyle through … bread … or cakes … or cafes. It’s different.”
Tjinder’s lived in Stoke Newington for just over 20 years, the band’s London HQ originally just south of The Clash’s old stomping ground, the Westway, around Notting Hill, setting up Wiiija Records from within the Rough Trade empire, the name taken from the W11 1JA postcode.
And while that label’s long gone – their output coming via Ample Play for the past decade – Cornershop are still very much an independent affair, built around regular Tuesday and Friday afternoon sessions between Ben and Tjinder. I dare say Heavy Duty, the band’s cartoon alter-ego, donned neck to flares in double denim, are practising in the house next door. But we didn’t get on to that.
Talking of headquarters, where would Tjinder say was Cornershop’s spiritual home? Was it Preston, where he met Ben and first got a band together; Leicester, where the initial band – completed by Tjinder’s brother Avtar (bass, vocals) and David Chambers (drums) – moved and started recording; or Wolverhampton, where the Singh brothers grew up?
“Well … Preston was definitely the start of it. A lot of groups just have one town where they say they’re from, but we’ve always said we’re from Preston, Wolverhampton and Leicester … even Devon. It’s good to keep it open.”
The latter link was through Ben, incidentally, who moved to the Paignton area then close to Totnes after formative years in Newfoundland, Canada, where his father was a university professor. He later took up combined geography with history and theory of art and design studies at Preston Poly, where he met Tjinder, the pair bonding over musical tastes, eyes meeting across a smoke-filled room to a Steppenwolf and Scientist soundtrack … or something like that.
David (who saw service up to 1995, and before that was with Cornershop prototype The General Havoc) has long since returned to Preston, and still occasionally plies his sticks trade with various outfits, including The Common Cold in recent times, while a later chat with Ben revealed that fellow original Avtar was back in the Leicester area, having taken a more practical trades direction, involving building and carpentry work.
Back to the new album, I saw a mention of a Bolanesque feel to the latest 45, the wondrous ‘St Marie Under Canon’. Yet – inspired by the video, with its Brighton-shot eye-catching inline-skating antics – I’m getting, imagery-wise, more of the feel of a Pan’s People dance routine on Top of the Pops. Was Tjinder, like many of our generation, mesmerised by early ’70s evenings in front of the box? And is this LP autobiographical in that sense? Well, he’s not to be drawn on that.
“Again, it’s like, ‘Is it the Stones or is it something else?’ There are elements of that, and we’ve listened to a hell of a lot of Marc Bolan in our time, so that’s going to rub off. But if you look at any group that’s tried to be anything like Bolan … they’ve failed. So, going back to what I said at the start, I don’t see it as a breakdown in those terms. I don’t know about nostalgia. We try to write about issues that are forward. But sometimes you need to go back, and that song goes back to Empire, talking about battles where someone like St Marie would come down and be able to assuage the problems those battles have created. A lot of shit has gone down and we look to St Marie for some benediction on that. And the end of that is fetching it up to date with modern technology, which is the new sort of warfare … or it could be.”
There’s no denying that. Recent elections on both sides of the Atlantic suggest technology has become a vital tool for those wanting to win over hearts and minds.
“With that technology and also with sound/audio technology. A lot of people don’t get that, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether they like it and can get on with elements of it. A song like ‘Staging (The Plaguing of the Raised Platform)’ talks about the presidents and precedence you are up against, and was written while the Bush thing was going on, and quite pertinent. But not many people seemed to get it. Maybe now though, they can get it a bit more.
“It’s about those things that are going to be hidden in there and will be there to be discovered for years to come. And in a way that’s another reason why it’s England is a Garden – there are lots of hidden things in the whole album. Because it took so long, like moving from one studio to another, or other people doing sessions …”
I butt in there, telling Tjinder that considering it took so long to put together, it works perfectly. Almost a concept album, I venture … if that’s not a bad word.
“It is a bad word! Ha! Next to prog. Come on! But we do see it unlocking a lot of what’s gone on in the past, and every album is a bit like that. The other albums are episodes, and this is another episode that makes previous episodes even clearer. Therefore, it’s part of the story where everything informs each other. There’s a lyric in ‘No Rock: Save in Roll’ that was also in ‘Born Disco, Died Heavy Metal’. There are lots of those little things.”
At the risk of over-analysing, when it comes to over-riding themes, is Cornershop’s philosophy of trying to look forward a way of maintaining positive energy? We’ve had some bad breaks and plenty of despair in recent times, but surely need to be optimistic about good coming out of all that, once people wake up to that. Because there are positive vibes coming through, not least where the younger generation are concerned, as seen in larger voting figures and all those turning out for marches on the lead-up to the General Election. And as in the sentiment behind ‘No Rock: Save in Roll’, you can’t have one thing without the other. It’s about taking the crunchy with the smooth, be that nostalgia or whatever. Not everything was rosy back in the day, just as that’s the case now. These are desperate times, but surely we have to remain optimistic about the future.
“Erm …very little green shoots, but yeah!”
I’m clearly trying to be more optimistic than you.
“Ha! I’m not optimistic about the future. Not in England anyway. I mean, for fuck’s sake! But that’s what the album title’s about. Is it about optimism or is it that there are Tesco fucking trolley carts in this garden? What sort of garden is it? I’m not that optimistic. Look what’s just happened with the reshuffle? A few choice ….”
“I don’t want to be negative about it, but that’s just how it is …”
At this point, I change direction, telling Tjinder I was on a Cornershopping spree that morning, listening to lots of tracks, wondered how old the children from Bolton’s Castle Hill Primary School who sang on 2011’s ‘What Did the Hippie Have In His Bag?’ were now, and if they were old enough to download his records yet.
“Yeah, if they were seven then … they’d be voting age.”
That was the opening track on Urban Turban, its title taken from a shelved cartoon series Tjinder was working on, later volunteering for an international festival in which the BBC invited artists to lead various projects, spending three days with Cornershop engineer Alan Gregson in that Lancashire school, exploring various topics through music and mediation, the children subsequently guesting on that track. And while I’m on the subject of that, I tell Tjinder that the line, ‘Now you carry on, ’cos I’ve just dropped a crayon’ is up there with Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky’ and James Brown deciding to ‘Take it to the bridge’.
Moving back to this album though, ‘Everywhere That Wog Army Roam’ fits the themes mentioned perfectly, that contentious word one they’ve used at least three times before. And I sense a little mischief in its use here (relating to the historical definition of ‘western oriental gentlemen’, Tjinder stresses), as if he’s willing us all to sing along with its rather infectious chorus, a little like Tom Robinson having us join in with the super-catchy ’Glad To Be Gay’.
“It probably is the catchiest track! And my nephew loves it. He’s got a friend he wanted to play it to, but his father sort of said, ‘Well, maybe not.’ He is about eight.”
I could hear The Wailers doing that song. It’s kind of disguised reggae.
“Oh, it’s very reggae. We’ve always done that. ‘Motion the 11’ (from 2002) was reggae, and with the backing vocal it’s even more towards reggae. That’s what we wanted.”
“Er, yes … one of them. ‘England is a Garden’ I think is quite mellow, but yeah … with the violins and flute and what-have-you.”
I’m reminded of a track a love, The Style Council’s ‘Come to Milton Keynes’, its rather barbed lyrics juxtaposed by a rather sweet, orchestral, easy feel …
“That’s really weird, someone did say that sounded like The Style Council, the backing vocal being part of that. I personally wouldn’t know.”
It’s also something The Beautiful South did well, an old school BBC Radio 2 feel luring in unsuspecting listeners before they take in the harder lyrics. And that flute and Hammond organ approach offers a springtime feel, something we all need right now. Also, it’s nice to have a false ending to catch out radio DJs, although you may have shot yourself in the foot, allowing them to talk inanely over the extended instrumental playout.
“That’s exactly what we were thinking. Ha! But it was nice and it was mellow, and in a way that led to that instrumental ending, thinking, ‘OK, let’s just carry it on’. We put so much effort into it, and it’s still only two and a half bloody minutes!”
‘England is a Garden’ itself certainly doesn’t hang around. I get the feeling it’s a taster for a track that may appear on the next album. I reckon you’ll go back to that.
“Well, probably not, because we just carried on working and working, went to 20 tracks, then just ring-fenced them, and that was that. There will be a lot of stuff we’ll just leave behind. But the birds on ‘England is a Garden’ are from Salwick, just a few miles away from the fracking (site) there. So that’s like the calm before the … corporate bastards.”
The birds were across the open fields close to West Orange Studios, where the band tend to start work on their albums, a link going back to the days of The General Havoc, when Tjinder, Ben, Avtar and David were joined by early bandmate and housemate Neil Milner, recording the ‘Fast Jaspal’ 7” single for Chapati Heat Records in 1991. Ben later told me, ‘We hadn’t even learned how to tune up at that point!’ But Neil also featured in Tjinder’s Punjab Rovers side-project, recording a self-titled 7” on Honey Bear Records in 1995. Described as more of a ‘roving influence’ on the band, he was working for the Civil Service back in Hampshire last time anyone heard.
Getting back to the title track, that short interlude conjures up glimpses of quintessential Englishness, or at least an England I like, with more of a cosmopolitan, open philosophy, plenty of Indian and maybe even Irish influence, incorporating a little ‘60s psychedelia. I’m getting Van Morrison’s band and Traffic, and it’s something you’d more likely hear between the tracks on a Paul Weller album. It’s certainly all in there, however short.
“That’s something else people have been saying. And someone said ‘St Marie Under Canon’ was every good song from 1965 put into one track! That I can live with. That’s great, when you can see affinity, but it’s not just that affinity, because it will change into something else. As difficult as it is to pinpoint what the sound is, I think we’ve won, because no one can really pinpoint it down. We can start this interview talking about various elements of the sound, then end by talking about other elements of the sound … and as long as we’re talking about the sound, we’re winning. Ha!”
From the title track we’re on to ‘The Cash Money’, taking the blues into the red perhaps, and again it sounds like something of a jam built around a rolling riff with real legs, James Milne’s bass still going strong at the end. Talking of cash, I was going to ask how they survive as a unit these days. Are they still making money from records, or are they reliant on royalties from Norman Cook reinventions? Maybe we’ll get on to that next time.
Then there’s out-and-out rock’n’roller, ‘I’m a Wooden Soldier’. A nod to the Faces (Small and otherwise), I reckon, but decide not to go back down that road and mention to Tjinder any retro vibe. I could see Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood taking this on though.
I do ask more about ‘One Uncareful Lady Owner’, which I see as a road song in the way I saw 1997’s tremendous ‘It’s Good to be Back on the Road Again’, albeit a few years further down the track.
“Yeah, I think you’re right. Yeah, after a few bumps down the road! Bumps being the operative word there. First, the lyric came, then everything else. I wanted to keep on that motorway. I didn’t want to move it away too much. I wanted to keep it quite streamlined, and rather than adding lots of lyrics, just changing the odd word to keep that same feeling.”
Keeping the traffic moving?
“Yep, keep motoring. But you do that, then some journalist says, ‘I imagine the one uncareful lady owner is Margaret Thatcher’. And in my mind, it isn’t. By the time this song had come out, Mrs May would have been putting her poison out as well. But that’s what songs are – you can’t control what other people think of them. They need to be let loose, then people make of them what they will. And while I don’t think of myself as a musician, in terms of making people think it certainly gives rise to that.”
There are plenty of trademark Cornershop touches on that track and elsewhere, like the manic percussion and whole Indian feel (from tamboura and sitar to the tabla and other percussive dashes). Then, ‘The Holy Name’ brings the album to a glorious conclusion, with a proper one-take live feel. The original, it turns out, was on a 1978 devotional LP by Hansadutta Swami, a prominent guru in the Hare Krishna movement. Something Tjinder had long been aware of?
“Yeah, I would have got it in the early ’90s in America. And we’ve always loved that song and we decided to do a cover version.”
I get the feeling you’re swept along by the band vibe there. You seem like you’re having lots of fun, lost in the moment.
“Ah, well that’s what we try to put over, that it’s not just a serious song. It’s anything but a serious song. It’s people fluffing lines and laughing, it’s babies playing on the floor, it’s a proper sort of … it was done in San Francisco in ’78 and has that sort of hippie, congregational feel, where people look at life a little differently, and join in a little differently. It’s supposed to be people getting swept away, seeing how that goes, and that’s why on our version we involved a school parents’ choir from just over the road (Betty Laywood Primary School). We wanted that feel rather than an operatic feel. And it was done in a canteen.”
On that finale, Tjinder’s vocal reminds me of Paul Simon, that marriage of vocals and band from his early solo years. When I put that to him, he was slightly stumped at first. I then heard a wheeze, followed by him responding, ‘I don’t know what to think of that’. I bet you’ve never had that levelled at you before, I suggested. “No, you’re absolutely right! And The Beautiful South thing too. I didn’t know what to think of that.”
I certainly think your voice has become more refined over the years. Perhaps we’re hearing the real you a few years down the line. More organic, maybe. It’s sounding good.
“Ah well, that’s great. It’s something I don’t think about, but Valerie (Etienne) – who did the backing vocals and who I know from my son’s school, added harmonies, understood the songs, and definitely got it right – loved my voice and the phrasing I use … which was embarrassing for me. I don’t think of it, which is great – that way it leaves any interpretation within a song open.”
“No, there will not. Since Judy (Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast, 2009) we’ve stopped doing live gigs. Everything we do, whether it’s a single or album, we have to re-prove ourselves, and I think that’s taken its toll over the years.”
So are these your Abbey Road years, the Shea Stadium long behind you?
“Well, we’ve had three or four albums out anyway. I don’t know about that, but it just had to be done, and I think some people understand it, but a lot of people don’t. Unfortunately, this is how it’s had to be and how it is from now on.”
Talking to David Chambers earlier, asking what I should quiz you on, he also wondered about the possibility of live dates. I think he was ready to step in, maybe on the basis of a Fall/Glitter Band/Adam and the Ants style two-drummer model. But while that seems unlikely, he did ask if – in the light of all these Brexit shenanigans – you felt your mutual friend Tolerant Molly would have remained tolerant all these years on, telling me you’d understand what he was on about.
“Oh yes … but I would doubt that Molly’s still with us. She was a next-door neighbour who ended up in one of our songs … one of Ben’s songs, I hasten to add! That was in Eldon Street, Preston. She was tolerant, but maybe only because she couldn’t hear anything. And when she could, it was a bonus. When we had parties, she told us it was nice to know we were enjoying ourselves. That’s how tolerant she was. In terms of Brexit though … who knows.
“But it’s always nice to hear from David, and that time was very vibrant, very upbeat, and anything went. We always look back at that time with David very enjoyably. They were great formative years and we all enjoyed ourselves.”
Tolerant Molly later came up in conversation with Ben too, who added, “Funnily enough, I was only thinking about her the other day. She was very elderly even then, and on occasion we had some pretty raucous parties. I remember one where the sofa ended up on the street and we were playing loud music. I spoke to her afterwards, apologising for it being noisy, and she said, ‘No, it’s lovely just to hear voices next door – you carry on, have a good time’. A lovely, lovely woman, she really was.”
Talking of saintly figures, is that St Marie on the LP sleeve, I asked Tjinder.
“Oh, it could be.”
Was she your spirit guide right through this listening experience.
“Well, with the cover, we have our friend and designer, Nick Edwards, we talked to him and allowed him to listen to tracks very quickly with headphones on, in a pub. He went away and normally takes a long time to do stuff, but when he came up with that, we thought, ‘What the hell is that?’ We left it there while we had a cup of tea, looked at the computer, didn’t say anything for about 10 minutes, then I said, ‘Right, yeah, I think it’s right’. It sort of works – the androgynous element of the face … or is it Mary from Stereolab? What about the colours? How are they seeping in? What’s the sword about? What are the fingers? Or is it a book?
“There’s a lot of psychedelia in that album, and there is even more when you open it up. There are also sleevenotes, and we’ve gone for this four-sided double colour vinyl, and the titles have their own individual graphics. We’re exceptionally happy about it, and it’s come out really, really well.”
A gatefold sleeve?
“Oh yes. Did I not mention that? Oh, and there’s a poster!”
Splendid. Maybe that will make up for the lack of live shows.
“I hope so.”
Pretty soon, I let him go, leaving the dynamic duo to order some stock and let Ben carry on with his ‘logarithms’, as Tjinder put it, although I get the feeling they wuold soon be putting on in-line skates and heading for Clissold Park in a bid to re-enact moves from the promo video for ‘St Marie Under Canon’. And with that in mind, I think I’ll go off and play that track again, willing on the spring.
England is a Garden is available for pre-orders in vinyl, CD, cassette and download formats (its vinyl version spread across four sides) via this link and all good record shops. And to keep up to date with all things Cornershop, follow the band via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.