Running around my soul – talking Working Men’s Club with Syd Minsky-Sargeant

Three months after its initial release, Working Men’s Club’s cutting-edge second album, Fear Fear, returns in a deluxe edition next Friday (October 28th), this fast-rising Heavenly Recordings act having reached No.11 in the UK LP chart on its release, amid glowing reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. 

And having sold out both Manchester Ritz and Brixton Electric last year, the band are stepping up again, all set for their biggest UK and Irish tour to date, those shows on the back of triumphant appearances at this year’s Great Escape, Tramlines, Bluedot and Primavera festivals, intimate performances at key UK independent record stores during release week, and last weekend’s successes at further festivals in Leeds and Sheffield.

The new Fear Fear package includes the five-track Steel City EP, featuring various remixes of its tracks from South Yorkshire-based producers Toddla T, Charla Green, Diessa, Warp originals, Forgemasters, and Ross Orton – who recorded, produced and mixed the latest LP – the EP previously only available on CD for those who bought the album via Bear Tree record shop in Sheffield.

Talking about the LP and how they’ve moved on from their self-titled debut album, released after a four-month pandemic-related delay in October 2020 and itself reaching the UK top-30 LP chart, the band’s ever-present singer/songwriter Syd Minsky-Sargeant explained, ‘The first album was mostly personal lyrically. This is a blur between personal and a third-person perspective of what was going on. I like the contrast of it being happy, uplifting music and really dark lyrics. It’s not a minimal record, certainly compared to the first one. That’s because there’s been a lot more going on that needed to be said.”

It’s certainly been a busy couple of years for the band, named after the wood-panelled, community-run venues an under-age Syd sneaked into in his hometown of Todmorden, West Yorkshire, those formative years providing much of the subject matter for the first record. As he put it at the time, then just 18, “There’s not much going on, not much stuff to do as a teenager. It’s quite isolated. And it can get quite depressing being in a town where in the winter it gets light at nine in the morning and dark at four.”

That initial eponymous collection of songs was seen as ‘equal parts Calder Valley restlessness and raw Sheffield steel,’ as it was across the Pennines that Working Men’s Club’s hard-edged electronic sound was forged under the watchful ear of the afore-mentioned Ross Orton (The Fall, M.I.A., Arctic Monkeys) – ‘guitars locking horns with floor-filling beats, synths masquerading as drums and Minsky-Sargeant’s scratchy, electrifying bedroom demos brought to their full potential by Orton’s blade-sharp yet sensitive production.’

In the space of a year, their label reckons they went through more than most bands do in a lifetime. Two original members lighter and three new ones the richer, Fat White Family took them under their wing, two singles receiving love from the likes of BBC 6 Music, the NME, The Guardian, and Q, while tours with Fat White Family, Mac De Marco, Bodega, and a sold-out headline tour culminated in a 600-capacity rave-up in Manchester.

And while lockdown curtailed plans, the band made the most of the situation, streaming a 21-minute ‘Megamix’ of album tracks which they subsequently performed live, including one at YES in Manchester, becoming one of the first acts to play a full-band virtual show in those testing times. 

The band was formed in mid-2018 by Syd (vocals/guitar), Giulia Bonometti (guitar) and Jake Bogacki (drums). But after the release of debut single ‘Bad Blood’, they evolved somewhat towards a more electronic sound, with Bonometti and Bogacki leaving, replaced by Liam Ogburn (bass) and multi-instrumentalists Mairead O’Connor and Rob Graham, the latter leaving prior to the release of the second album, his replacement, multi-instrumentalist Hannah Cobb, also playing in Preston-founded, Manchester outfit Dream English Kid with Liam,

Considering the story so far, you’d be forgiven for thinking Syd might have now left his hometown for that there London, or perhaps Manchester or Sheffield. But he told me he’s still based on the West Yorkshire side of the Pennines, sticking with his Todmorden roots.

It’s been an amazing couple of years for the band, post pandemic lockdowns, hasn’t it, Syd?

“Yeah, it’s been interesting.”

Just seeing the places you’ve played – with festival and regular gigs all over the UK, mainland Europe and America – would suggest you’re having the time of your life.

“It’s been wicked, and I’m very grateful.”

Ahead of this interview, I returned to Robin Turner’s …Believe in Music, 2020’s 30-year celebration in print of the Heavenly Recordings label, launched around the same time as the first Working Men’s Club LP, wherein both the author and label founder Jeff Barrett – who also introduced the band to Ross Orton – rave about Syd and the band.

Robin writes, ‘Working Men’s Club are a group who fuse the energy of the dancefloor to the ecstasy of a rock‘n’roll gig, and they do it very, very well … they are a lifeline thrown from the north of England just when it needs one.

‘At a point where music appears to have fractured and rearranged into algorithmic playlists, where no one knows anything but pretends they know every damn thing, and nostalgia remains the strongest currency, along comes a group to make you dance, sing … anything. A group to fall for, to follow, to believe in.’

As for Jeff, he adds, ‘Working Men’s Club are without doubt one of the most exciting groups that have ever landed in my life. And that precedes Heavenly. They’re one of the most exciting groups I’ve ever worked with, I’ve ever liked, I’ve ever seen. Syd is one of the most talented kids I know. He’s got a strong work ethic, a vision and a total belief. He’s so beyond his years.

‘That first time I watched Syd perform, I could tell that he had it. He looked great, like a young Tim Burgess or a young Billy Mackenzie. A pin-up pop kid. They hadn’t been going very long – a matter of months. They obviously weren’t anywhere near fully formed, and I didn’t realise just how un-fully formed they were. There was something special there though. I left that show with a lot of people saying, ‘Bloody hell, that was a bit good, wasn’t it?’ But that wasn’t what I got. There was something I couldn’t put my finger on, but my instincts told me there’s something not just really good in there, there’s something potentially really amazing.

‘I came home and I slept and they were on my mind. I woke up, they were still on my mind … I said, ‘I think I’m going to work with them.’ I just had a feeling, and you don’t get that many like that.

‘The thrill of working with Syd and with his band is extra special for me because 30-plus years on from getting the buzz I got when I started out, seeing the Mary Chain and Primal Scream in the mid-’80s, then East Village and then Flowered Up at the start of this journey – the same buzz I got hearing Andrew {Weatherall) DJ – I’m having it again. And you know what? After all this time, how good is that? I’m still believing!’

Jeff Barrett certainly gives the impression that you were always driven, having that work ethic from day one. Arguably, lots of us have that push and belief. But to actually do something with that and fulfil those dreams, that’s perhaps something else.

“I guess so. It’s a combination of a few things, really. A lot of people work very hard and do a lot of really good things. Whether they get heard or seen is another matter.”

Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to do from the early days? Only it sounds like it was something that evolved as time went on.

“Yeah, I still don’t have a clear vision … I think. The thing that excites me the most is what hasn’t happened yet … if that makes sense. Music that hasn’t been made, or records that aren’t finished yet. And I was trying to stay in that mindset.”

Is that sometimes about listening back to the first rough recordings of new songs or something that comes into your head? Is it coming off the stage and seeing the elation from bandmates and your audience? Or is it a mix of all that?

“I guess it’s more about creating something that’s not finished, thinking, ‘I’ll go and finish it properly.’ Sometimes, not even that – not even having anything a template, going into the studio, working on something … it really depends. That’s definitely what excites me the most though, creating the tunes. Playing them always tends to be a completely different thing.”

You’ve explained that this album, in comparison to the debut LP, carries more of a blur between the personal and the third person perspective. You clearly felt you had a lot to say, coming out of that first stage of the pandemic.

“Yeah, there was a lot going through my mind. I just didn’t feel like I fully said what I wanted to say on the first record and wanted to follow it up fairly quickly.”

And is that still the case? I’m not putting the pressure on you, but, well … how about what Billy Bragg would call that ‘difficult third album’?

“Yeah, again, I think it’ll just be different technical stuff. I think enough was said on that second album, to be honest.”

I wonder if there’s a part of the first LP telling the story of this lad growing too big for Todmorden and the second one about this lad breaking into the bigger world. And that’s not meant to sound patronising, but all those influences are out there. For example, you’ve mentioned working with Ross Orton, and now we have the Steel City EP included with the deluxe edition of Fear Fear, something else signposting how Sheffield remains influential for you.

“I guess so, to a point, but it still felt like I hadn’t really seen much of the world. So it’s, I guess, an insight from growing up through technology, a big part of it for me. And one of the talking points within the tunes is the shift in the way that society had to operate, being a young person within that. I think that was quite a big topic within the record, but it was tied up within an emotive side of that as well. So yeah, I was just trying to make it slightly conceptual, in a way, but also try and keep it personal in another sense.”

I’m not sure if this has ever been put to you, but maybe due to the geographical aspect, I see something of Neil Arthur’s on-going work with Blancmange in you with Working Men’s Club, albeit with him 40 years ahead (and still making great music, I might add) and with his formative years being on the Lancashire side of the border. Could you see yourself going down that road he has in four decades?

“Yeah, I’d like to. That’s the dream. We’ll see.”

On this second album, from the moment we head into opening track, ‘19’, I get the impression we’re getting a call to arms, your intentions all there, setting the premise for what unfolds. And there are elements on this record of lots of ‘80s and ‘90s outfits I appreciate, from A Certain Ratio and Depeche Mode to Gary Numan, New Order, even the Pet Shop Boys, and yet you straddle between genres to the point where maybe you’ve created your own (read their Discogs bio and .

“Yeah, I guess so. I think going forward, even more so. And without sounding arrogant, I just try and stay in my own lane. That’s why I like working with producers without necessarily immersing myself with other artists too much. That’s nothing against people, it’s just kind of trying to stay on my own track.”

Were you listening to a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s electronica, growing up? I know you’re younger than that, but …

“Not really, I mean, it was kind of just listening to what most of us were – pop music and my parents’ records – lots of Bowie, Pixies and I guess a lot of guitar bands as well.”

Was that where your parents were coming from?

“Yeah, but loads of stuff, including jazz … quite an eclectic taste, but mixed in with what kids listen to at school.”

Were you picking up instruments at school? Or did that come later?

“I’ve played guitar all my life, and kind of faffed around on piano … which seemed to sound a lot more cohesive when I got hold of synthesisers.”

You’ve just had those Leeds and Sheffield shows, the tour following next month, including Manchester Academy, whereas last time it was the Ritz, and in the capital there’s The Forum in Kentish Town, whereas last time it was Brixton Electric. These are significant steps up. And while we’re on that, what was the first venue you played in Manchester?

“Err … Night People. A sick gig.”

Those are the kind of nights that makes you, aren’t they.

“Yeah, definitely.”

I’m guessing that while you’re keeping that upward momentum, you still strive to retain that feeling of intimacy with an audience. I don’t see you as a stadium outfit.

“Ha! Yeah. I know what you mean.”

If you had to pick one amazing post-pandemic moment when you realised this was definitely going where you hoped it was going, is there anything that jumps out, be it in America, mainland Europe or wherever?

“I think going back to France, playing there, is always really nice for us, because people seem to really get it over there, playing in Paris and doing French festivals, stuff like that. It’s great. And we had a really good show in New York. Moments like that are really nice when it resonates with people that are far enough away from where we’re from.”

For me, ‘Widow’ and ‘Cut’ are the tracks that really jump out at me from this album. In fact, I see ‘Widow’ as Gary Numan at his more recent best, and that comes through on ‘Circumference’ as well. But ‘Cut’ is a really good example, I think, of where you seem to be at, at least in my head. It starts as kind of early OMD, then the guitars come in and it’s more resonant of New Order, then you’ve got that A Certain Ratio feel. At the same time though, it’s distinctively Working Men’s Club. And I’m guessing that’s where it needs to be.

“Yeah, I guess so, but I think that’s the last time we’ll do a song title like that. But it was a nice place to leave it. It’s an extension, just showing the mixture of stuff we can do on that second record. For the third, we’ll have a bit more creative freedom for a more experimental side of it.”

I guess that thinking shows on numbers like the title track, a brave song to put out front, really.

“Mmm, yeah.”

Heavenly Recordings have something of a reputation for taking leftfield suggestions and moves on board. I’m not so sure bigger labels would for a band at your stage of the game. With that in mind, have you still got that close working relationship with Jeff Barrett? Do you talk to him quite a bit … or do you just deliver the songs?

“Err … I just deliver records. Yeah.”

Because I mentioned your Todmorden roots, I get the impression that – as with your music – you straddle those county lines, and that helps define you – you’re not Manchester, you’re not Sheffield, you’re on the outside of both scenes, with your own identity. Was that how it was for you growing up too? Were you part of a gang or were you your own man?

“Mm … yeah, I guess so. I mean, I’ve always written my own tunes and I’ve found going from place to place is a lot more exciting than staying in one spot. The reason I like Todmorden is because you can get to a lot of places, but it’s also a very nice place to stay when you’re really tired out!”

And, with no pressure from me, when do you think that next album will land then?

“I’ll have an album out next year … but whether it will be Working Men’s Club will be another thing.”

Working Men’s Club UK and Irish tour dates: November – QMU, Glasgow ** (18); Boilershop, Newcastle ** (19); The Mill, Birmingham * (20); Chalk, Brighton *** (22); SWX, Bristol* (23); Academy, Dublin * (25); Academy, Manchester * (26); Junction, Cambridge * (27). December – The Forum, Kentish Town, London (25). * with Scalping ** with W.H. Lung *** Stephen Mallinder DJ set. For tickets, head to www.workingmensclub.net.

For more about the band, you can check out their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram links. And to pre-save the deluxe edition of Fear Fear, head here.

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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