At a time when so many of us are suffering withdrawal symptoms from missing live music at our favourite venues, it’s odd to think back to a time when we more or less took for granted the fact that there were always a couple of bands we could find time to catch on the circuit every week.
I can’t see that happening in the future. When things are finally – safely – up and running again, I reckon many of us will make the most of just what’s on offer out there. And if I had a quid for every band I’ve missed out on down the years – in some cases while I’m inside the venue – I might even be troubling the taxman when it comes to declaring freelance earnings.
I often use the example of my brother and his mates having another pint in the White Horse ahead of a 1979 Buzzcocks apearance in my hometown venue, Guildford Civic Hall, realising all too soon they really should have nipped in a little earlier to catch support act Joy Division.
In more recent times, in Lancashire, my base for the last quarter-century, the sheer amount of acts Tuff Life Boogie organiser Rico la Rocca put on at John Peel tribute shows in Preston, often meant I’d be having a chinwag outside venues while some bands were giving their all. Among those I missed, with regret, were the Folk Devils at The Continental in December 2016. And when I now contemplate the fact that guitarist Nick Clift came all the way from New Jersey to honour that commitment, that seems somewhat rude.
As it was, not all was lost on that occasion, with someone good enough to film their set so I and many others could catch up on it later, on a night when headliners The Membranes, a stripped-down version of The Wolfhounds, and local lads gone awry Vukovar mesmerised the assembled. But my point remains.
Veterans of three sessions for legendary BBC Radio 1 broadcaster Peelie in 1984/85, this was Folk Devils’ first Lancashire show in more than 30 years and only their second gig back together. While initial singer/songwriter Ian Lowery died in 2001 (gone far too soon), fellow original members Kris Jozajtis (guitar) and Mark Whiteley (bass) in time decided to reform with the afore-mentioned Nick Clift (guitar) and John Hamilton (drums), who featured in a short-lived 1987 version of the band, the new-look band fronted by new singer (and old friend) Dave Hodgson.
Taking their name from Stanley Cohen’s academic text on social scapegoating, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, this ‘fearsome foursome’ formed in Ladbroke Grove, London in 1983, County Durham native Ian (formerly of The Wall and Ski Patrol) initially joined by Mark, Kris and Alan Cole (drums), and soon blazing a trail across the UK independent music scene with their particular brand of post-punk energy.
Best known for acclaimed indie singles ‘Hank Turns Blue’, ‘Beautiful Monster’, those three Peel sessions, and live outings with the likes of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Fall, The Gun Club, and Screaming Blue Messiahs, they also toured extensively throughout Europe, the second incarnation of the band (1986-87) seeing Ian joined by Nick, John, Robert Mune (bass) and Saul Taylor (saxophone). During that spell, they released one 12″ EP of new material, ‘The Best Protection’, for Beggars Banquet imprint Situation 2, and an anthology collecting all their earlier material, Goodnight Irony.
As for the latest version of the band … well, they soon discovered they’d ‘created a well-oiled twin-guitar juggernaut brimming with the same restless, twisted blues that characterised the first and second iterations of the band’. And as I put it in my Continental show review, ‘They make for a mighty punkabilly five-piece – think Johnny Cash with the Bad Seeds and you’re not far off’.
I caught up with Nick last week at home in Jersey City, where he told me more about the band’s first new recordings since 1987’s “The Best Protection” EP, first mentioning that Conti appearance, and other gigs around then..
“We’ve now played 15 shows as Folk Devils 3.0, only made possible by once or twice-a-year reunions because of distance and career obligations. I work in music marketing, Kris is a schoolteacher, Mark a mental health professional, Dave a graphic designer, and John a transportation specialist. We’re all busy with our respective careers yet a few times a year when the stars align we forget our receding hairlines, bulging midriffs and doctors’ orders, and jump in a van and go on a music adventure.
“Preston was a great evening, and we’ve been impressed at how co-operative our touring partners have been. Back in the day other bands were snotty and competitive and would try to steal your gear. The good thing about maturing is you’re safer in the knowledge of what you do and who you are and more respectful of other musicians. Unless the support act is spilling a pint on your amp … in which case it’s on again!
“Since 2016 we’ve played in Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, Brighton and North Wales, and obviously London is always special – it’s where most friends and family are. They usually turn it into a knees-up.”
And now we have brand new three-track ‘Forever’ EP coming our way, set to land on 10” vinyl and in digital format this Friday, September 18th via Preston-based indie label Optic Nerve Recordings, featuring two new compositions – the title track and ‘My Slum Soul’ – plus a new version of old live favourite ‘Ink Runs Dry’.
You say these new songs were inspired by the reaction to the band’s 2016 career retrospective Beautiful Monsters and the reaction at subsequent UK live shows with kindred spirits The Membranes, Inca Babies and The Cravats. Will there be more live shows when we’re all back up and running again?
“For sure, we’re itching to play, like everyone else is. We had shows lined up for 2020 which had to be indefinitely postponed, including a John Peel night in Brighton with The Wolfhounds. Hopefully there will be more in 2021 though … maybe even a festival slot or two, which we haven’t done yet.”
Dare I ask if there’s an LP coming too? Are these the first of many new songs to surface?
“There’s a lot of new material in embryonic form. Because of the way we work it’s not really possible to do it over the internet, better to knock it into shape when we all convene. If Kris, in Scotland, and I, in New Jersey, still lived in London, where the others reside, it would be a lot easier to write and record. But there’s an album brewing, and it promises to be a … beautiful monster.”
Mark Whiteley describes title track ‘Forever’ as a song about isolation, betrayal, anger at a lost love and a world of venal greed. That seems particularly apt right now. We could say the same regarding the sentiment of ‘My Slum Soul’, which Mark labels its ‘thematic twin … a kind of fever-dream apparition that may well find the core of its neurosis in the modern day political climate’. In fact, he adds, ‘Both songs wrestle with the erosion of trust, shattered lives, consumed and excreted by a world that’s forgotten its soul, a world that patently does not give a fuck’.
As for the re-recording of ‘Ink Runs Dry’, Kris Jozajtis added, ‘It’s a classic Folk Devils song with a brilliant lyric by Ian. So it’s an acknowledgment of the debt we owe him, a nod of respect to one of the great unsung talents of rock’n’roll. It always felt like a ‘BIG’ tune to us; yet despite there being two pretty decent radio session versions of it available, there’s always been a sense of unfinished business because ‘Ink’ had never received the full studio treatment the song deserved. I think the new, turbo-charged, twin-guitar version puts that right.”
The band clearly see themselves as relevant all these years on, I suggested to Nick. You clearly still feel you’ve got a lot to say, 30-plus years after initially folding.
“Many of the issues we faced in the ‘80s haven’t really been addressed or have only got worse. Folk Devils was never an overtly-political group. Ian Lowery wrote all the lyrics and his outlook was more from a personal artistic perspective than a polemical one,with songs about tragedy, spite, guilt, sexual frustration, drugs, trashed hopes, and universal human themes.
“However, as we’ve inched into middle age and had families, it’s impossible not to be affected by environmental and political calamities, and we are living through one right now … on both side of The Atlantic!”
The new EP was recorded at the famous Konk Studios in North London, set up by The Kinks’ legendary frontman Ray Davies, with the songs mixed and co-produced by Grammy Award-winning engineer Rik Simpson. Was that a thrill in itself? And was there any sign of Ray?
“It’s a cool place to record, with lots of character. There’s a massive old-school reverb plate mounted on the wall as you load in, practically a museum piece from the ‘60s. Ray was there the day we recorded, doing business in the games rooms, but he gave us a friendly wave. Should have asked for a backing vocal! It was the first time we’d recorded using ProTools, so it was not as we remembered, but a great experience all round.”
How did you end up getting in touch with Ian Allcock at Optic Nerve? Was he a fan?
“I was looking for a label to release the recorded works collection I curated, we’d already paid for digital transfers and remastering and knew it was a great sounding set. Dave Callahan of The Wolfhounds tipped me off to Optic Nerve, who had released some of their catalogue.
“I contacted Ian, and he didn’t really even hesitate. He knew the band’s history and subsequently it was a very quick deal and very favourable to both parties. He’s a genuine music fan, especially of the British ‘80s scene.
“Our style is a bit more aggressive than a lot of his catalogue, but it’s a good fit nonetheless. He works tirelessly to promote the music, and his mail-order operation is excellent, which is critical in these times of shrinking distribution channels for physical products.”
I see you studied in Sunderland, but originally hail from the Midlands. And while you weren’t with Folk Devils from the start, you worked with Ian before in Ski Patrol.
“Sunderland Polytechnic, as it was in 1977, is the genesis of it all really. There was a great art school there and the punk explosion reverberated through art schools around the world.
“Ian Lowery was a local lad making a name for himself in a pub-rock band called The Prefabs. He fell in with the art school crowd and they formed punk band The Wall, who got their music released through Small Wonder, the revered London indie label and record shop that released Crass, Bauhaus, The Cravats, Patrik Fitzgerald, and others.
“They all relocated to London to take advantage of their new success, but after a time Ian fell out with his bandmates and was asked to leave. Since I and others from the Sunderland scene had also headed to the capital, we all ended up living in squats in Clapham and Brixton. That’s how Ski Patrol came together. It was time for him to move past the punk sound anyway, so it was fortuitous.”
What were you up to when the Folk Devils took shape? Is that right you worked for Rough Trade? I guess you were closely following Ian’s work, live and through John Peel?
“After Ski Patrol folded in 1982, I landed a job in sales and despatch in the Rough Trade warehouse, a fantastic and chaotic place to work, nestled in a side-street off Ladbroke Grove. Ian lived just up the road. I remember budding musicians loved to visit, it was like a sweet shop.
“Ian and I were a bit like brothers, we would fall out and not speak for months but then patch things up and get over it. Of all the things he had tried to do since his first foray into music, Folk Devils was the truest to his interests and ability, I thought.
“He loved Dylan, The Velvets, Stooges, MC5, The Fall, The Birthday Party, all those building blocks for a credible anti-establishment rock group. When they recorded ‘Hank Turns Blue’ I went to the session and thought they were capturing something primal and idiosyncratic.
“I suggested to their manager, Ray Gange (leading actor in The Clash-centred 1980 film, Rude Boy), that he come and talk to some people at Rough Trade I knew and get a distribution deal for his new label Ganges Records. That’s how the first single took off, with some support from John Peel of course!
“So Ian and I were always in each other’s orbit and I took a keen interest in helping him move the band forward. It was great hearing them on the radio, especially the Peel sessions, which got better each time. They did three in all, and the last one features the mighty ‘This Traitor Hand’, a favourite in our current set. That could have been their next single if they hadn’t split up in 1986.
“It was wonderfully produced by the BBC engineers and would have been worth releasing as it was. I worked closely with Beggars Group to get the BBC sessions released five years ago, and they’re available on all the streaming services now, for posterity … definitely worth a listen.”
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Ian’s passing. Is he often in your thoughts?
“Of course. I think we all wonder what he would be doing now, and more so what he would make of our new version of Folk Devils. Apart from a few sarcastic asides, I think he’d be impressed by the new material.
“’My Slum Soul’ is based on one of his unused lyrics from 1983. His brother David has meticulously kept all Ian’s hand-written records (you can find examples at www.ianlowery.com) and emailed me these lyrics to a song called ‘Slip and Slide’, which I vaguely remembered.
“Our new singer Dave Hodgson and I took some liberties with them and turned it into the beginnings of this new magnum opus. The whole band knocked it into shape, and it sounds pretty immense, with all due credit to our mix engineer, Rik Simpson.”
Were there concerns it wasn’t right to resume without Ian? Or was this your way of paying a tribute to him?
“Not at all, his extended family was very supportive and all came to the first reunion gig. It was initially only going to be one show, a tribute to Ian and a way to launch the CD compilation, and given that I live in the USA and can’t just pop over whenever.
“But we all vowed to keep doing it after that gig, because it was clear we all wanted to keep playing those songs and revisiting that spirit. But we also resolved to not be a mere nostalgia act, and the promise of writing and recording new songs was always a motivating factor.”
You’ve got original members Kris and Mark, and yourself and John have been involved a long time. What was it about latest arrival Dave Hodgson that fit the bill as frontman?
“Dave is a full-on Geordie, a Jarrow lad. He’d known of Ian from our Sunderland days and formed a band called Parting Shots with Joe Hammond, the original guitarist of The Wall. I’ve known him since 1981, when he was a skinny youth with a sly grin!
“Because of social media it became easier to catch up with people after years apart, so I just got his contact details and emailed him out of the blue when we were looking for a singer for the reunion gig. He was the natural choice for me, because he knew Ian’s style and knew some of the material.
“He was a bit shocked at first, hadn’t sung for years, but agreed to give it a go and powered his way through, learning the songs in a few months. And believe me, some of those lyrics take some getting used to.
“I’ve often referred to Ian, rightly or wrongly, as a gutter poet. His strength was his inventive use of metaphor and wordplay and a grimy view of existence, so you have to be on your game to get them all out seamlessly and with the right intent.”
Incidentally, Mark Whiteley complemented Nick’s thinking when writing about the band’s decision to reform. He wrote, “After a few decades apart we decided to do one gig to celebrate the release of our anthology. It went well, we enjoyed revisiting our old material and the addition of a second guitarist gave the whole thing a raw, visceral, well-crafted energy. Dave fitted in well, taking on a monumental task of filling Ian’s shoes and smashing it out the park.”
How long have you been US-based, and what took you there? Is the Definite Gaze label the day-job, and how much of your time is spent managing and playing with the Folk Devils?
“I’ve been in the New York area since 1991, I lived through the ugly collapse of the Rough Trade organisation, and was looking for a new adventure, and by chance had fallen into a relationship with a girl from New Jersey who had landed a job in New York and wanted us to be together there.
“It was a big decision, but one I don’t regret. That relationship didn’t last, but I’m now married with an adult son, living in Jersey City, across the Hudson river.
“I worked as a project manager for a very respected label in New York for 20 years and I’ve now experienced the music business from both sides of the pond, so like to think I bring that experience to how music is promoted in the modern era.
“I do consulting work for labels and musicians who work in my area of interest. That keeps me busy. Folk Devils work is about crazy bursts of energy for a few months, organising gigs and promotion, and then back into daily life.
“I think the band is very fortunate that each member brings his skill-set to the project. Dave is a very talented graphic designer who’s made three very interesting videos for the songs on the new EP.”
Meanwhile, Kris also elaborated on what the future might hold for Folk Devils, writing, ‘The songs will hopefully still speak to malcontents like ourselves, who are both fascinated and appalled by what we might encapsulate as ‘the human condition’. The dark humour and mordant wit that characterised Ian’s lyrics is still intact, I think, and despite the inevitable encroachments of age we haven’t really lost the dissatisfaction and anger that we tried to articulate in words and music back in the ‘80s. So we’re likely to continue making a mighty and righteous racket, both live and on record, as long as anyone cares to listen.”
But how does it work with regard to geographical dilemmas, getting the band together, I asked Nick. For one thing, you seem to have somehow been ahead of the curve when it comes to social distancing.
“I tend to think of Folk Devils is a diaspora of old friends. It’s hard to plan anything in advance, because ultimately decisions get made in the rehearsal room. We’d been social distancing for 27 years!
“Now the scenario is a little more sobering, people are getting impatient and letting their guard down. We’ll only reconvene when it makes sense for ourselves and our supporters. I don’t think anyone really took The Who at their word when they sang, ‘Hope I die before I get old’.”
For details of the new Folk Devils EP and their Beautiful Monsters singles and demos (1984/86) compilation head to this Optic Nerve link. And to keep in touch with the band, you can follow them via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.