Juplicity: strong, warm, wild and free – the Phill Jupitus interview

Looking Back: From his Porky the Poet days onwards, it’s all been happening for Phill Jupitus

It was ‘early doors’ and stand-up comic/actor/performance poet/cartoonist/radio presenter/TV stalwart (perm any two from six there) Phill Jupitus was in Leeds, preparing to head to his next gig, 230 miles south in Tunbridge Wells. But he was at least set for a stopover at his Mum’s in Essex after his Kentish date.

I was going to ask if – like his friend Billy Bragg – he’d be taking the A road (the OK road that’s the best, remembering of course to turn off before Shoeburyness). But that seemed kind of obvious.

Phill, doing the rounds for his Juplicity show, was until recently based in Leigh-on-Sea, but home is Edinburgh these days. Was that move inspired by his many annual appearances at the city’s internationally-renowned festival?

“It’s just one of those things. My children have grown up and left home now and I’m at that point lots of parents get to in their lives, thinking about where they really want to be. You get to an age and time where the options broaden out, and I’ve always loved Scotland.”

It’s been a gradual move north of the border for Phill, whose daughters are now 27 and 24. Not as if he’s set to see too much of his family these next couple of months, you’d think. I made it more than 50 dates in all between South Molton’s George Hotel in early September and Milford Haven’s Torch Theatre three months later. Is it a case of ticking off engagements as he goes?

“No, there’s no point. Each gig is treated in isolation and the tour is a complete, evolving thing. And I like seeing the shape of the show change with each city. When you do stand-up, it’s about the energy of the room and the ability of the crew to adapt. When you’re travelling on your own, your ability to control your environment is less.

“It’s not like with Lee Evans, who takes his own people – sound, lighting and catering crews. His gigs – apart from the shape of the room – are identical every night, working with people doing all that for him. I start from ground zero every show, with a new crew to talk to and get things sorted out with, a new half a dozen people every day.”

Chorley Little Theatre is one such fine example, a voluntary-led venue I know fairly well (as featured here in January 2016), manned by volunteers. And he’s happy to return there.

Stained Class: Chorley Little Theatre, where Phill’s Juplicity show is set to play to a full house

“I’ve played there once for Ian (Robinson). There are a couple of theatres like that, such as in Richmond, North Yorkshire – the Georgian Theatre Royal – I did the other week, an absolutely extraordinary theatre run by volunteers – like Chorley.

“There’s a different energy in a room when it’s run as a labour of love, a different feeling about a place. There’s a very similar vibe at City Varieties, where I was last night, with real knowledge about the venue from the people there.

“Alan, their front of house, has been in that role since I first played there in 1998. I’ve been bumping into him nearly 20 years there. That’s something that grounds your experience – it’s not only you as a performer in the business so long, but the people at the venues too – like Ian at Chorley, Alan at the City Varieties, and the crew at the Georgian.”

You may think of Phill foremost for TV work, not least 19 years as a Never Mind The Buzzcocks team captain, plus regular appearances on further BBC 2 success QI, and Alan Davies’ As Yet Untitled for the Dave channel, plus a brief role in Mike Bassett: England Manager, small screen credits for Doctors and Holby City, and various voiceovers.

Then there are the BBC Radio 4 shows, such as I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and The Unbelievable Truth, and past presenting for the BBC’s GLR (1995/2000) in London and BBC 6 Music nationally (2002/07), the station’s first breakfast show host, as chronicled in 2009 memoir, Good Morning Nantwich.

But theatre work has loomed large for an entertainment giant who started out as Porky the Poet, and not just in stand-up, as those who saw his Bottom in the Bath Theatre Royal production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream will testify.

He’s appeared in touring productions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (as Baron Bomburst and Lord Scrumptious) and The Producers (Franz Liebkind), both alongside fellow comic Jason Manford, and in Spamalot (King Arthur) too. Then there was Urinetown (Caldwell B. Cladwell) and Hairspray (Edna Turnblad) in London’s West End. So was drama ever considered a way of life when he chewed over options with his school careers officer?

“I always enjoyed it, and had a propensity for it, but it was never on the radar. That’s the thing, it’s very much drummed into you that the arts are somehow only a luxury. As proved time and again, they’re much more important than people give them credit for. Yet we live in a time where the arts have been downgraded possibly to the most minimal extent ever in my life.

Poetry Corner: Regular board-treading thespian and jack of various trades Phill Jupitus muses on life

“It’s weird talking about it in a global sense, but it’s that whole ‘Hollywood elite’ thing Trump keeps saying – people involved in the arts have a voice, and that’s why he doesn’t like them. The achievements of a society are not measured by its financial acumen, but the culture of a society, with the arts, literature, visual arts and theatre a part of that. And comedy – recently, the Arts Council finally agreed that comedians are artists too.”

In a parallel sense I know you got behind the campaign to save BBC 6 Music when it was up for closure due to funding cuts, something you passionately fought.

“Yeah, although that was more an accident, having a friend of a friend at The Guardian who knew I was no longer there and wanted my take on it as no one at the BBC was talking. Whenever there’s a leak like that, the BBC goes into an immediate shutdown. But as I wasn’t tied to the Corporation I could talk.”

I was thinking back to when I first saw you, and it was when you supported Billy Bragg at my old local hall, Guildford Civic.

“Oh right … that would have been March 1985.”

When I checked later I was impressed – Phill was spot on. But at the time I couldn’t confirm that as my computer had frozen, losing my prompt questions in the process. And his response?

“Well, don’t worry about that – improvisation will get you a long way!”

I had another pre-Buzzcocks memory of Phill, from my Captains Log music fanzine writing days in the late ‘80s, receiving a compliments’ slip with something shipped out from the Go! Discs label, signed by a certain ‘Porky’. I’m not quite sure where that ended up, I told him, but it must be around somewhere, having survived a couple of house moves over 30 years.

“Ah right. I’m a bit of a hoarder myself! But it’s odd looking back when you’ve done so many things. A guy at a gig the other night in Cambridge came up after the show, asking me to sign a copy of West Ham fanzine, Fortune’s Always Hiding, for whom I was cartoonist. I hadn’t seen one in 15 years.”

Celebrating Sexuality: Billy Bragg and Kirsty MacColl in Phill’s Brits-nominated 1991 promo video

When Phill was at Go! Discs, the label’s roster included Billy Bragg and The Housemartins, and he went on to be the latter’s press officer and compere, also appearing in the 1986 promo video for Happy Hour. And while Phill left Go! Discs in 1989 to concentrate on the comedy circuit, there were many music-related dream moments still to come, not least directing Bragg’s Brits-nominated video, Sexuality, and Kirsty MacColl’s All I Ever Wanted in 1991. And later he appeared live with Madness at Wembley Arena, worked with Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads (for their 30th anniversary tour) and even The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (part of their 40th anniversary celebrations).

“If there was one area of the arts that had the most powerful magnet for me, that’s it. I’ve worked on the fringes but in quite an involved way, and via that got into all this – in at the deep end. As it was, I worked in the music business for five years and toured with six bands, sang and played in bands, appeared on albums.

“I think it’s something I didn’t do properly, but when I look back I did a lot. What I wish I’d done was write a proper album and have a band. I suppose the comedy suppresses that need to be in a band. You’re on stage in a similar sense, you’re just not playing songs.”

When Phill got involved with the Red Wedge musicians’ collective in the mid-‘80s, he said he did so 20% because he believed in the cause, 30% because he loved Billy Bragg, and 50% because he wanted to meet Paul Weller. Did it meet his expectations?

“It did. The ideology pulls you in, but having worked at close quarters with the day-to-day functioning of politics, you realise you need so much commitment. I also found that everyone who works for a political party has an agenda they’re pursuing. When people talk to you or interact with you, they’re looking at you not for your views, what you’re saying or your hopes and dreams, but how much you as a commodity will help their agenda.

“That’s why I don’t really get on with politics. There are so few people who do it with a good heart, and you have to interact with people where you’ve got to really tip-toe around them. It’s just exhausting.”

Then again, a public soundbite from someone in the public eye like yourself is perhaps worth more than from some hardened activist prepared to knock on 200 doors, isn’t it?

“Maybe that’s what they see. Again, that’s why the Labour Party climbed on board with Red Wedge, which was really just a very elaborate, glamorous, brilliant to listen to, leafletting service.”

Before your career properly took off, you worked for the Department of Health and Social Security for five years. Was it anything like Mick Jones’ experiences, as chronicled in The Clash’s Career Opportunities?

“Well, you did get memos about being aware of certain things, such as ‘Can you smell almonds?’ ‘Are there wires?’ ‘What’s the postmark’ …”

Career Opportunities: Phill has kept busy since his first live date in ’83 (Photo: Andy Hollingworth)

I didn’t mean the danger of opening letter-bombs so much as that feeling of being trapped in a job you don’t want to do for the rest of your life.

“Well, I used to sing that song, and you’d have seen that. Obviously that resonated with me, and I’d add a line live about the Youth Training Scheme, which the Government were pushing at the time. But you don’t really known until alternatives present themselves. If my life had taken a different path I could still be with the Civil Service, thinking about retiring now. You might not be talking to me.

“Life’s built on a sequence of such infinitesimal accidents. What if I’d not met Billy (Bragg)? What if I’d not gone to see Attila (the Stockbroker), Joolz (Denby) and Benjamin Zephaniah that day? What if I’d never seen John Cooper Clarke?”

While working at the DHSS, Phill was writing political poetry and drawing his cartoons, going on to leave the day-job in 1984 to concentrate on his big dreams, working alongside organisations such as Anti-Fascist Action, making a name on the ranting poetry scene, approaching bands, offering himself as a support act.

Subsequently, he toured all over, with the likes of The Style Council, Billy Bragg and The Housemartins, supporting Bragg once more on that Labour Party-backed Red Wedge tour in 1985, before getting a chance to help out at Go! Discs, which by then had the latter two acts on board. So, can he tell me more about the very first Porky the Poet performance?

“I think it was October 1983, at a pub on Portobello Road I can’t recall the name of. I was cartooning for that fanzine and happened to have my folder with me. I’d carry all my work around – doodles, cartoons and poems. Attila saw the poems, and said, ‘You’re going to perform these now. Go up before me and do those!’ That was it. For the first time ever, I stood up and performed them … because of Attila. And it was nice to reconnect with John (Baine, the past writewyattuk interviewee also known as Attila the Stockbroker) for the first time in a very long time this year at Edinburgh Festival.”

Skipping forward a dozen or so years, I guess when you took on Never Mind the Buzzcocks in 1996, you couldn’t have imagined it lasting so long.

“When I got that show I remember a comedian I worked with, Mickey Hutton, phoning, saying, ‘I’m so happy for you’ then telling me, ‘Here’s a word of advice from one friend to another.’ He told me, ‘It’s just a bit of telly – don’t think your life’s changed,’ and told me about a comedian he knew who got a TV show, went and bought a flash house and car, spent all the money in one go. Then the show didn’t get picked up again, and he was screwed.”

Phill’s ‘non-showy’ approach certainly came over in his spell as a presenter at GLR then 6 Music. And in Good Morning Nantwich he mentions the influence of ‘less is more’ late great broadcasting legend Sir Terry Wogan, and imagining you’re talking to a few mates rather than a vast, adoring nation.

“Yeah, and every evening I try to remove the showbiz from my stand-up. If you come along you’ll see for yourself the structure – I’m just Phill, not a brand. It’s very anti the normal structure of a stand-up gig.”

At the same time there must be moments when you get awe-struck by the company you keep, not least when you’re sat in the company of Graeme Garden or Stephen Fry, or in a lift with Terry Wogan.

(Please note, dear readers, that lots of name-dropping follows during the next couple of Jupi-quotes. Look away now if you feel you can’t handle that)

“Well, when you’re working with someone you idolise … and when I look back at people I’ve worked with and now count as friends – like Graeme (Garden), Weller, Billy, Kirsty was a mate, Jo Brand, Alan Davies …

“Eddie Izzard too, one of the reasons I started doing stand-up again. After Hairspray, I felt maybe I was more cut out for something like musicals. Then one day I was in a Waitrose car park, the phone went and it read ‘Eddie’. I assumed he’d pocket-dialled me, but then he asked (cue a rather accurate Izzard impersonation), ‘What’s this I hear about you giving up stand-up?’ I told him I was thinking about it and he proceeded to berate me about why I shouldn’t.

“Within a couple of months I was interviewing Chris Rock for the Paramount channel and said I really missed stand-up, and he said, ‘You do realise it’s what you really do, don’t you? Rather than all the stuff you do around it, telly and radio. You should do it again’. Then I had a chat with Stewart Lee and told him if I did it again I wouldn’t know where to start. And he said, ‘Book a room for the Edinburgh Festival, then you’ll write a show. Trust me.’

“That was it. I committed to Edinburgh that year, eight or nine years ago now, for Stand Down. I realised that’s what I do, but you need to step away from stand-up to see things differently. I like to go away and do other things, and focusing on Buzzcocks was no bad thing – it doesn’t demand much of you other than your own speed of thought and energy.”

Isn’t that what stand-up comedy is anyway?

“Well, it’s like being out at a dinner for me, being at a dinner party where you’ve got two mates and you meet three new people – that’s what Buzzcocks was like.”

As music’s played an important part in Phill’s story, I reprise the question I asked fellow ex-Buzzcocks regular, Noel Fielding two years ago. If he could go back in time and appear with one band above all others, who would he choose?

“The thing is … I’ve already done that! Go on to YouTube, type in ‘Jupitus Madness TFI Friday’ and you can see me. And there’s something about being up there with a band – be it with Weller, Costello, Billy, sharing a microphone with Kirsty MacColl, or singing Drop Down Dead on the last Housemartins tour.”

Seeing as you mentioned Billy again, I’ve a complaint – I can’t hear the wonderful Sexuality now without thinking of your spoof version, Bestiality.

“Ah, now someone told me the other day they were at a gig where Billy did my version for a laugh … and after I first did it for him, when he played Sexuality live he’d often get the words wrong, sing mine instead. The audience are often a little bemused, especially if he’s on tour in America, as he sings, ‘I look like Johnny Morris, I love a penguin and her name is Doris.’

Essex Symbol: Phill Jupitus is heading to a town near you … probably

Phill Jupitus’ Chorley Little Theatre show is sold out, but you can book for Saturday, November 11 at Southport’s The Atkinson (8pm, £15 plus booking fee, 01704 533 333), with details here

For further information on Phill Jupitus and his full tour details, try this linkYou can also follow him on Twitter.

Footnote: a few days after speaking to Phill, news broke about the passing of his friend and fellow ex-Never Mind the Buzzcocks captain Sean Hughes, aged just 51. I had the pleasure of seeing Sean live at Preston Guild Hall in 1994, also regularly catching his shows on GLR and BBC 6 Music during the same era Phill was there.  This feature is dedicated to his memory.   

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Jason Byrne – Southport Comedy Festival

Maddest Shite: Jason Byrne looks for a way out at Southport’s Ramada Plaza

For the first time in a long while I went to a gig and didn’t get the pen and jotter pad out once. There seemed to be no point. I’ve regretted that in the past at comedy shows. Getting home late and trying to re-tell some anecdote to your sleep-deprived better half – probably missing out a key line – you realise you can’t recall much else, sloping off back downstairs, leaving them to think about what time that alarm’s going off in the morning. A couple of pints on the night – and hats off to my driver on this occasion – may play a part too.

Then the next morning, with that episode only partly forgotten (if at all) you’re asked – possibly with a hint of sarcasm – ‘Have a good time then?’ and you get set to enthuse about the act but struggle to recall anything that sounds at all funny in the cold light of morning to those who weren’t in the audience. The fact that any such recollection would probably involve poor regional accents and a bit of swearing to get the mood across, also rules out most of what unfolded, your children sat with their toast. You know what comes next – that defeated line, ‘Ah, you had to be there, really’. And with that you reach for the cereal and move on with your life.

Just off the Prom at Southport on Wednesday night, in the rather unlikely setting of the Ramada Plaza, it seemed right not to bother scribbling anything down though. Besides, what could I have written? I’m pretty certain Jason only told about three stories the whole night. Not jokes either – he’s no joke man, and why would he have to be? Those are for crackers and pub bores, largely. He’s above that. Genuinely funny, naturally so, and highly personable. And while there was an engaging, vivid tale of him going for a vasectomy in a private house, that took forever to get told, by which time there was certainly no call for a punchline.

You know that tired line sports people use about the importance of the 12th man (or 14th or 16th, depending which code we’re talking, the latter including Gaelic football in Jason’s case)? Well, the crowd played a blinder at this festival outing, with at least a dozen – intentional and unintentional – guesting roles from audience members. That made it really, and while the fact that this particular gig was held in a conference room on the first floor of a hotel worried me at first (not least having to walk past loitering serving staff in the restaurant to reach the desk), I shouldn’t have worried. This was no ‘chicken in a basket’ lay-off from comedy’s past.

There was none of that tired spin on ‘comedians picking on latecomers’ either, except maybe the woman who tried to sneak back in at one stage, Jason wondering if she was a sleep-walking hotel guest. It did cross our minds he was right too. I noted however that when he mentioned her again later that evening, she was beside herself, offering up a real belly laugh. She clearly loved it.

Jason told me a couple of weeks ago (with a link to that interview here), when asked about this particular two-night stand, ‘a lot of time I’ll head round and I’ll have the show in my head, and I’ll think I’ve got to do that and I’ve got to do this. At Southport you might as well get the whole gig and fuck it out of the window, because you’re not going to be able to do it. It’s too much fun talking to them. They tell you the maddest shit, and they heckle you … in a nice way. There’s no nastiness … It’s one of those gigs I don’t have to worry about … It’s very much like, ‘Off you go, Jason, let’s see what happens for the next two hours’, you know.’ And he was spot-on. That’s exactly how it all panned out – the ‘maddest shit’ going down.

I’ll mention one part of the set that really got me. It was inspired by a woman celebrating her 40th birthday, who worked at Starbucks, Jason asking if the Christmas beakers were in yet, then going off on one about the days when his Dad would lift him on to his shoulders to get into the loft to get the festive decorations down. None of that modern loft-ladder shite – just a push-up hatch, then the scariest ‘on your knees’ wander across the beams (never between the beams) to find what you’d gone up there for, the bedroom lamp stretched as far as it would go to add the tiniest bit of ghostly light for you (no extension cables in those days). It was like he’d opened a window on my past, yet talking to my mate on the way back he said he felt the same. Brilliant.

Jason loved it too, so much so that he took up the locals’ suggestion and visited the nearby British Lawnmower Museum the following day. And even if you can’t manage to get to this year’s Southport Comedy Festival finale, there’s always next year. A great atmosphere, and highly recommended.

For the same reason as I mentioned before, it’s pointless talking you through any more of Jason’s routine, but for the benefit of those who turned up on Wednesday (and I say that knowing just how different the Thursday set was likely to be), I’ll quickly mention varying Irish and Merseyside accents and their erotic pull; relative merits of parts of the Wirral; domestic hassles, age and virility; the loneliness of the hotel room and the sounds you hear; Bagpuss, Fingerbobs and Bod; Jason’s magic metamorphosis box; and a first-hand retelling of the night a fella in a wheelchair crowd-surfed to Coldplay at Croke Park. I’ll have forgotten a lot more, but can already see you guffawing. It’s only a matter of time before someone in the vicinity asks why, and you’ll try to explain. Good luck with that.

Grass Roots: Jason Byrne and Bagpuss get to see Eric Morecambe’s lawnmower at the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport

Jason’s latest The Man With Three Brains dates run through to a Southend Cliffs Pavilion Palace Theatre show on Sunday, December 3rd. Ticket prices for all venues are £19.50 or £22 for London shows. For tickets, head to   www.ticketmaster.co.uk or www.jasonbyrne.ie  You can also follow Jason  via Facebook and Twitter

This year’s 18-day Southport Comedy Festival finishes this Friday night (October 20th) with a show at at Bold Hotel, Lord Street, starring Mike Gunn and Nina Gilligan, hosted by Brendan Riley, then on Saturday night (21st) with a sold-out Jason Manford show at Southport Little Theatre. That was set to be followed the next night by another Jason Manford ‘work in progress’ date, but that’s been rescheduled for Sunday, January 21st. For more details and tickets visit the festival website or follow the action via Facebook and Twitter.

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The continuing climb of Clean Bandit – in conversation with Grace Chatto

Flowered Up: Clean Bandit are back, with a clutch of live dates and a brand new album on its way

Few pop bands would be so bold as to fuse string arrangements with electronica and house music, mixing classical and dance elements. But Clean Bandit are no run-of-the-mill chart outfit.

Built around a nucleus of Grace Chatto (cello, percussion, vocals) and brothers Jack Patterson (bass, keyboard, vocals, piano, violin) and Luke Patterson (drums, percussion), they’ve always prided themselves on being a genre-defying collective. And what started as a club night project in Cambridge in 2008 has led to major record sales, plenty of industry accolades, and three UK No.1s in the past three years.

When I tracked down Grace, she and her bandmates were honouring PR engagements before flying to Los Angeles, having been working on a video for new single, I Miss You, out next weekend. That’s the follow-up to their Spring No.1, Symphony, having also worked with Marina and the Diamonds and Sam Smith recently, those songs all expected to feature on a forthcoming second album.

They’ve always made their own promos, via Grace and Jack’s film production company Cleanfilm, producing videos for other artists too. Another string to this cellist’s bow?

“In the beginning there wasn’t really another option. We didn’t have any money, so it wasn’t like we could pay someone else. But then we got really obsessed with it. Now we spend as much time on the visual side as the music, really.”

That seems to sum up Clean Bandit’s ‘full-package’ approach. They’re with a big label, Atlantic, but I can’t imagine them being dictated to by some demanding record company mogul. Their 2012 debut single A&E was on London indie label Black Butter, and they’ve stayed relatively independent in approach since day one.

“Kind of, but it’s getting harder, the more it grows. It’s about control, everyone wants to be involved.”

Thinking they know what’s best for you?

“Yeah.”

But I get the feeling you’re quite strong-willed between you, although you must be torn on that – wondering if it’s best to let go and just concentrate on the music and the videos.

“I guess I’m quite controlling. I really find it difficult, I’ve worked so hard and for so long, starting the band about 10 years ago. I can’t really trust other people to just take over.  Having said that, we are very collaborative, having worked with loads of people on the music, with different singers on every song. We don’t always write the lyrics now. We used to, but tend to write with lyricists now, and that’s been really amazing.”

Collaborations have been a big part of the band’s success story, the singles alone featuring luminaries from the world of pop, soul and rap such as Elisabeth Troy, Love Ssega, Jess Glynne, Sharna Bass, Stylo G, 2015 X-Factor winner Louisa Johnson, Sean Paul, Anne-Marie, and Zara Larsson, and those afore-mentioned unions with Marina Diamantis and Sam Smith. So who’s next in the frame? Who’s top of Grace’s collaborative ‘wants list’?

“I’d love to do something with Lana Del Rey. That would be amazing. And Bruno Mars I love.”

The stats alone are a bit scary. By last year they were up to 12 million singles and 1.6 million albums sold, associated mega viewings on YouTube and streamings via Spotify.  Then came 10 million-selling festive chart-topper Rockabye, the longest-running UK No.1 in 22 years (nine weeks) and this year’s Symphony, selling more than six million worldwide. It’s been quite a journey, to say the least, their seven UK top-10 hits so far also including fellow chart-topper and global hit, Rather Be, with Jess Glynne in tow, as she was for further hit, Real Love. 

Not bad for something borne out of a club night project in Cambridge (Grace and co. booking the likes of James Blake and Joy Orbison in those early days). where Grace first met fellow university student Jack. But I guess they’ve not veered too far from that original premise either. That aspect seems to remain at the heart of it all.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

Their recent LA trip coincided with the trio unveiling various dates for an extensive Spring tour of North America, while – now they’re back – this Sunday, October 22nd, they’re set to be part of the BBC Radio 1 Teen Awards at Wembley Arena, where the band are nominated for Best British Group. And then come seven UK dates, starting at Glasgow’s Barrowland on Sunday, October 29th, threading through to Manchester Apollo on Tuesday, November 7th, including London’s Hammersmith Apollo on Thursday, November 2nd. Is Grace excited, nervous, or both?

“I don’t feel nervous yet, because it still seems a while away, but I am excited. We’re not actually touring in America, so those dates will be the next performances we do and the first time we’ll be performing our new single, so that’s really exciting. We’ve been touring all year really, playing a lot of the old stuff, but this will be really …”

You want to share the new material with everyone, really.

“Definitely. Yeah!”

Those UK dates include Cambridge’s Corn Exchange on Monday, October 30th. Is that a homecoming of sorts?

“It is, I’m from London, and Jack and Luke are from Liverpool, but I met Jack and started the band there, and it will be really emotional to go back.”

Considering your respective roots, the stars had to align somewhat for this to all come together.

“I guess. I don’t really believe in fate, but yeah, so much has to align … always. Things have developed in such an amazing way these past few years. If I hadn’t found myself living next door to Jack …”

There was clearly something there – you seemed to have clicked and realised you were on the same page.

“Yeah, he was always so creative and had all these kind of crazy ideas, and all kinds of projects. I just found that really exciting. I started the string quartet first, then built up a bit of a student audience in Cambridge, and then we decided to add the electronic beats. On paper, it sounded like it could be a bad idea, but come the club nights, there was this really electric atmosphere and we knew from that moment that we wanted to do something!”

There weren’t so many people doing that at the time, fusing electronic and classical elements. One prime example regularly featured on these pages is the multi-talented Hannah Peel, but few other contemporary acts spring to mind.

The ex-Royal Academy of Music student – who still performs with a band of singing cellists, formed with her father, the Massive Violins – was reading modern languages (apparently, she speaks Russian and Italian fluently) at Jesus College when she met Jack.  She already knew fellow founder-member Neil Amin-Smith, another academic high-flier and part of her initial string quartet, and with Jack they added electronic and reggae beats to classical music. Jack’s brother Luke, then 14, joined on drums, the older bandmates putting potential high-flying careers on hold.

The concept must have raised eyebrows top their peers – highbrow and otherwise. Apparently, Jack put an architecture degree on hold to study at Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, the oldest film school in the world, and was on the brink of taking a job at the St Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts. Meanwhile, after years of study in Russia and a degree in Russian literature, language and history, trilingual Grace Chatto also had a perfect academic CV, as did Neil. Yet they put that all to one side to fulfil a burning ambition to get their home-made music videos shown on MTV, and haven’t really looked back.

There have been other projects along the way, Grace teaching cello at a school when Mozart’s House was released in 2013, until her appearance in the music video in her undies – a violin covering her chest – prompted her to be fired after a parent complained. But by the time the following year was out, Clean Bandit had gone global, the success of Rather Be opening many more doors, even if I struggle not to equate that with the annoying Marks & Spencer ad campaign utilising the song’s main hook.

While string quartets and pop don’t obviously meet, Clean Bandit were always about crossing perceived boundaries. What’s more, Grace was never squeamish about the classical world, the two going hand-in-hand for you.

“Definitely. I mean, they all come from classical music anyway. It is all the same thing. I’ve always been a fan of dance music and reggae as well as classical music.”

As we mentioned the club scene, I feel I should ask, are you one to hover awkwardly at the edge of the dancefloor, out there going for it in the middle, or happier hiding behind the nearest woodwind instrument?

“Ha! Erm … usually in the middle of the floor.”

Ah, that’s you, is it?

“Yeah!”

As she left this morning, I asked my 15-year-old daughter, who was extremely excited at me actually getting to speak to someone she actually recognised as a fully-fledged somebody rather than some ageing rock star, what I should ask. I then had to point out ‘she’s so cool’ and ‘I love her style’ weren’t actually questions.

“Ah, that’s lovely!”

But she did tell me to ask when that next album’s finally arriving.

“I think it will be next year now. We’re releasing this single soon, then …. we’ve got so many songs. We’re just trying to decide which should be on the album.”

And will this new single be on there?

“Yeah.”

What are we likely to get, style-wise? Is the more recent material more in line with something like Tears – something that went from a simple piano tune to a mighty dance track – or have you moved on again since?

“I’m not sure about Tears. That was a bit of an anomaly, I think, a bit of an outrageous stomp! I think Symphony and Rockabye are more in that kind of style. Again, I don’t really know, we’ve got so many songs, and all in quite different styles. We’ll just have to decide. I imagine it’ll be kind of similar to the first album, where the songs are very different, although we didn’t actually set out to do that.”

It’s fair to say that 2014 debut LP, New Eyes, has received plenty of airplay around this house, mostly in my daughter’s den, and appearances on Later with Jools and from Glastonbury Festival made me sit up and take notice too. Retrospectively, I discovered the wonder of 2013 second single, Mozart’s House. But … how can I put it … you’ve moved into more poppy territory since.

“Yeah, we have. I was actually listening to some old songs last night with some friends, our song Dust Clears, and kind of thinking, ‘Oh God, I kind of prefer this.”

Grace laughs at this, perhaps a little embarrassed at admitting that, even though she’s perhaps thinking along the same lines as me.

“I hadn’t really realised how different it was … until last night!”

I’m pleased she thinks that way, although … who am I to judge? The more recent singles have sold by the bucket-load. What do I know? But having made my stand, albeit subtly (hopefully), I carry on. In a sense you were a little more underground then, and I’m kind of hoping you head back that way … however happy I am for you to be selling so well.

“Yeah … interesting … I guess it’s difficult not to get swept away.”

The journey’s not been without tensions, you’d think, not least with last year’s departure of Neil Amin-Smith (violin, piano), something time didn’t allow me to get on to. Yet having spoken to her, I get the impression Grace definitely has her feet on the ground, in spite of all the commercial success so far.

She’s also not reticent to speak her mind, as expressed in her grass-root support of Jeremy Corbyn of late. And I’d like to think a political endorsement from the likes of Grace would  make more young people sit up and take notice of the bigger picture. Pop music should always be part of the bigger picture, not just some fad and escape from reality. It’s a responsibility being a spokesman for a generation, I put to her, but she seems to express her own philosophy and emotions well in that respect.

“Oh thank you. I hope so. It feels really amazing to be able to be part of that. I was at the (Labour Party) Conference last week, and in the run-up to the General Election just talking to people online was really interesting. It’s such an important time, I think. We’re going through such a big shift, which is really exciting.”

Other notable moments along the way – again taking in that bigger picture – have included Grace playing cello and ex-bandmate Neil adding violin for charity group Band Aid 30 in 2014, among various other high-profile British and Irish pop acts, the latest version of Do They Know it’s Christmas? raising money for West Africa’s Ebola crisis.

So what means most – the Grammy Award (Best Dance Recording, 2015), the UK No.1s, Jack’s Ivor Novello Awards, the BRIT/Billboard Music Awards and 1X BBC Music Award nominations, the Band Aid 30 single, performing with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, or selling out Alexandra Palace?

“Probably the Alexandra Palace. I grew up literally at the bottom of the hill of the Ally Pally. I’d go there when I was little, to the ice rink. Performing there felt really special.”

And what do you see yourself as primarily these days – cellist, percussionist, vocalist, or activist?

“Erm … a cellist probably, and also a music video director. That takes up most of my time. A producer as well. Jack’s the primary songwriter and writes for piano and voice, then we produce the songs together, and think about all the sounds.”

Of course, the world of pop is notoriously fickle. If this somehow falls spectacularly away – and I can’t see any reason why it should as long as they play to their strengths – can you just go back to playing in your string quartet?

“Yeah, maybe. That would be lovely. I want to try and start doing more string quartet stuff now, and try and integrate that back into the band. It kind of worked quite well, and I think now the strings are becoming a bit more of an afterthought, because we’re so focused on everything else. It would be good to get that back into the core of what we’re doing.”

Well, if that ever happened, as a nod to your dance roots and pop past you could always resort to turning out in your underwear with the string section again, proving you’ve still got that edge.

“Ha! Yeah … that would be great!”

Missing You: Grace Chatto with the Patterson brothers, heading back out on tour again real soon.

Clean Bandit UK tour: Sunday, October 29th – Glasgow Barrowland; Monday, October 30th – Cambridge Corn Exchange; Tuesday, October 31st – Bournemouth O2 Academy; Thursday, November 2nd – London Hammersmith Apollo; Friday, November 3rd – Birmingham O2 Academy; Monday, November 6th – Newcastle O2 Academy; Tuesday, November 7th – Manchester O2 Apollo. For ticket information, details on the new single and all the latest from the band, head to the official website or keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Taking art and science into insanity – the Robin Ince interview

Monkey Puzzle: Incidentally, it’s BBC Radio 4 asking this question, not me (Photo: Richard Ansett / BBC)

Robin Ince, described on his website as ‘comedian, writer and that sort of thing’, was on his way to the Tate Modern for a meeting ‘about an idea’. He wasn’t letting on what, but added, “My life is filled with strange opportunities, very few of them in any way financially viable, but artistically interesting.”

He was between ‘kind of events’ at the time, one for a philosophy organisation that evening, then a Gerald Scarfe art launch the following day, back into what he labelled the ’home is an occasional attic’ scene. To tell the truth, the mobile reception wasn’t great, he may actually have said ‘acid’. After all, the acid house scene was better publicised. Rave on.

When he is home, it’s in Berkhamsted, a Hertfordshire market town ‘best known for being where Graham Greene’s father was a headteacher’, apparently ‘its alibi for having a festival’. He enlarges upon this, telling me, ‘these days every town has to have a festival’ and ‘imminently, the Graham Greene Festival will be rearing its head, the festival of Catholic guilt and Russian roulette’.

Whether you’ll find him there is another matter. He gets around, here and overseas, mostly doing radio shows – BBC Radio 4 and BBC 6 Music primarily – and live shows, be they with Professor Brian Cox or other comics, such as his friends Josie Long and Michael Legge, or on his own. For instance, last I heard he had an engagement at the National Botanic Garden in Carmarthenshire.

“I take part in a festival in Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas had his boathouse, and one year was asked along to help attract more people there. It’s a lovely place and appeared in Dr Who (The Waters of Mars, David Tennant era). We put on a mixture of science, comedy and mucking around, with various forestry experts and particle physicists – the normal way variety is nowadays. And it’s nice doing a gig where now and again you can go into a hothouse to see what grows in Western Australia, before stepping back into the rain.”

Sounds like perfect research for a comedian due back Down Under with Brian Cox – on the back of a 70-date record-breaking northern hemisphere tour that concluded at Wembley Arena – in November?

“We are! I was out there touring with my mate Josie Long in April and this time I’m with Brian, and I think I’m back in February for the Global Atheist Convention, with Salman Rushdie and various others. I’m very lucky like that. At the beginning of January I’m off to Canada to do some stuff with an astronaut, then I’m off to Oslo to fall on my arse continuously, because in January in Oslo the ice is packed and as we know, British people’s ability on ice is very fawn-like.”

Your namesake Robin Cousins might disagree, but you’re probably right.

“Well, there are blokes who are classically trained in their ability, but many of us genetically have not been made for this.”

Tour Mates: Robin Ince, Professor Brian Cox, and an infinite monkey, yesterday

If you’ve somehow missed out on Robin Ince so far, it’s worth mentioning a few awards that have come his way in recent years, including a Sony Gold and Rose d’Or for BBC Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage, a Time Out outstanding contribution to comedy, a Francis Crick science journalism award, and three Chortle awards. Yep – comedy with extra lashings of art, philosophy and science. Hardly Little and Large. But whether it’s with Brian Cox, his other comedy stage-mates or as a solo act, he’s trodden the boards many times these last couple of decades. Incidentally, how do Brian Cox and Josie Long compare as stage entities?

“Well, I don’t have to interrupt Josie because I think the audience are no longer understanding her. That’s one of the things. There’s Josie, my friend Michael Legge, and Brian, and that strange mix where I have a very solitary performing and creating system, but also various different adventures, impromptu double acts. You don’t even realise they’re double acts until others tell you. People talk about the relationship Brian and me have, but it’s something I’ve not really thought about.

“As long as all of you have your ego under control, it seems to me it’s down to naturalism. It’s the antithesis of the Mick Fleetwood/Samantha Fox Brits relationship, or any award ceremony where Tom Selleck would come on with Heather Locklear and compliment each other. As long as you can get away with impromptu and you’re united by different fascinations – artistic or political. Brian’s far smarter than me, but we’re united by certain kinds of philosophical ideas about how the earth should be.”

Do you ever forget where you are and who you’re with, maybe asking Josie about atom particles by mistake?

“I do that all the time, but very consciously! And she was in a lovely show, All of the Planet’s Wonders, on Radio 4. I think that’s what unites all the people I work with – they’re fascinated by a lot of stuff. Brian is to some extent limited to particle physics and show tunes – he loves a show tune – but Michael, Josie and me have no level of expertise and no expectations of being able to change the world, so can dabble in whatever we want.”

Ever tried to work out how many miles you clock up a year through live shows?

“I haven’t, but a few years ago I started to see new stand-ups knowing exactly how many gigs they’ve done. The year before last was probably the most extreme in terms of American and Australian tours, and with Brian doing the Arena tour and European and Scandinavian legs. I was in a hotel the other day thinking I hadn’t toured for ages … then realized, ‘Oh, apart from the beginning of September last year through to the Edinburgh Festival.

No Expectations: I’m not convinced Robin Ince and Josie Long attended the same photo-shoot for this publicity image, but what the hell.

“I had to fill in a form for a visa today and was asked who my employer was. I said, ‘I’ve never really been employed’. I’ve been self-employed since ’93. I’m constantly employed, but don’t know what I’ve done. There’s a moment of blankness, then you explain that you’re working every day of the year. Years ago, to be self-employed – especially in my world – was seen as very precarious. But the rest of the employment world now is so precarious that being a show-off for a living appears to almost be a very pragmatic choice. What do you do? ‘I dick around for a living’. ‘Well, that sounds a very secure job’.”

Was there ever a ‘proper’ job?

“I briefly worked in a children’s bookshop in Kensington. That’s it really. I’d just left uni, saw an ad, but I’d already started toying around with stand-up, knowing that was what I wanted to do. If I compared my expectations in 1992 to what I’ve actually done … I probably just wanted to be famous.”

You were in a band then, weren’t you?

“That’s right, but not everything it says on Wikipedia is entirely true. You presume there’s some path that’s best – needing to do crappy television and all these different things. Then you realise that arsing around, making the things you want to, is possibly the best way. In fact, the very thing that led to The Infinite Monkey Cage was a series of ideas that led people to ask, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I just felt it would be fun and interesting. Certain things I’ve done, like doing a musical with Su Pollard and Ted Rogers, or working with a bluegrass epi-geneticist and Alexei Sayle, have been seen as very strange career choices.”

Now there’s your Pragmatic Insanity tour, which I’m guessing isn’t just some take on the old office maxim, ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’. Your press release mentions the show being about ‘a clash of two cultures, a joyous romp through favourite artists and strangest scientific ideas, 90 minutes fizzing with ideas about creativity in science and art.’ Tell us more.

“It partly came out of a great line by Philip K. Dick, echoed by the psychiatrist R.D. Laing, that ‘It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane’. But it’s become two shows, one in each half, one about art, approaching it in the same way I have science – not to be fearful of whether you have the correct reaction or know the correct terminology. So I’ll look at art by Georgia O’Keeffe, Stanley Spencer, all manner of strange pieces of contemporary art, with stories of going around galleries.

“The other half involves a certain amount of politics and a look at the nature of hypocrisy, because one of the hardest things in the world of social media is that people are shut down so quickly after doing one thing wrong. I’ll also look at certain ideas of physics, and probably talk a bit about death. And the two shows do mix.

“I’ll probably start talking about art and the two years I was off doing scientific endeavours, involved in psychology and meeting psychotherapists, trying to learn more about the mind. And some will be about political experiences and how in stand-up it’s easy to be hypocritical – how you say you stand for something then you’re offered money to do something contradictory, and have to work out an alibi for why you’re suddenly advertising Strawberry Chews on Channel 4. Or indeed why it was so easy to turn down a show I was offered that would have involved working with Katie Hopkins. So I’ll have moments when I declare my heroism and others when I declare my villainy as well.”

Busy Schedule: Robin Ince mentally checks his itinerary, trying to recall if he’s flying out from Heathrow with Professor Brian Cox later that day.

You mention Stanley Spencer, known foremost for paintings of Biblical scenes transported to rural Berkshire. Having done so many years on the road, full-on at times, have you found many examples of heaven on earth?

“One of my favourites is a very simple one – Camilla’s Bookshop in Eastbourne, which almost seems to be teetering under its three-storey weight of second-hand books. I find it in many places, such as looking out of the window on a beautiful piece of railway on the way from Swansea to Carmarthen, or between Exeter and Newton Abbot, sat in a tea shop having a piece of cake with my new Oxfam purchases, and in conversations you end up having.

“You see the horror and see the delight of it all the time. Immediately after Brexit, I found myself in certain towns where there seemed to be a little extra level of violence and violent thinking, overhearing conversations. Luckily, because I travel around a lot I actually meet people who aren’t an avatar and have fleshy faces and can conduct conversations beyond 140 characters, and that helps dilute some of the unhelpful illusions we get between the current political divisions. But I also get to see towns that are just made of chipboard and are really struggling.

“I also get quite a broad audience. People always imagine a Radio 4 audience – who have just taken off their Marigolds and mowed their croquet lawns – but I get a lot of teenagers and a few elderly people, a lot of people who go back to that generation that built workers’ libraries in the towns they lived in. And when I was doing my art show in Edinburgh every afternoon someone else would come up with a different story of something they’d seen or someone they knew. That’s part of the delight of it. And working on the scale I work on, fortunately I like most of my audience. I’m never going to be playing the arenas – unless I’m there interrupting Brian Cox – it’s always going to be about the theatre sizes I play to now. I can’t imagine getting any bigger, nor do I want to.”

Was there a lightbulb moment one day when you thought, ‘I know what hasn’t been done before – you never hear Peter Kay talk about quantum theory’. Or did things just naturally gravitate to this format?

“I notice a lot of rather cynical television, and think audiences and human beings generally are constantly underestimated for their ability to understand and approach creative ideas. The National Gardens of Wales gig was a good example, with a very broad audience and people from lots of different backgrounds. And what they wanted to talk about and ask was so broad, and they had such an interest.

“One of the weapons politicians have is to try and persuade people they haven’t got the intellect. I’ve done shows where I’m told not to use certain words because of this horrible idea that ‘our audience’ wouldn’t go for it. I was told that at one science show and told them that two days earlier I played Reading Festival, in a tent with 4,000 drunk students, talking about evolution and quantum theory and dicking around with other stories. And these people have minds that are a lot more open.”

Talking of contrasting styles and deliveries, when you’re at Southport Little Theatre for the town’s comedy festival, Jason Byrne will be performing at the nearby Ramada Plaza. The local comedy fraternity seem spoiled for choice. I’m guessing the advice is to get along and see him the following night instead.

Close Quarters: Robin Ince gets up close and personal with Michael Legge

“Oh, definitely. Count me as his warm-up act and as the one who’s had the correct medicine that will mean you get the full benefit of seeing Jason. I love Southport. It’s so interesting. I first went there to go to the Lawnmower Museum, doing a piece for Richard and Judy, many years ago. I think those sort of seaside towns have an interesting history when you scrape the surface a little.”

That took us on to Barometer World, somewhere myself and a mate always said we should visit, which Robin reminded me was in Okehampton. Consequently, I asked its relative merits.

“Um … it’s no Pencil Museum”

Now I do know that’s in the Lake District.

“Yeah, and I love all those. Sometimes you think they could be just too specialised, but then you find out when they deal with the minutiae it can become quite enthralling.”

I see that argument, but am painfully reminded of a time in the early ‘90s when I visited the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, feeling self-conscious as my better half and I were the only visitors … and she wasn’t a L&H fan.

“Well, I can’t see how that relationship’s lasted more than 20-odd years. Laurel and Hardy for me would be a make or break deal. Actually, my wife’s also not keen on Laurel and Hardy, and I don’t understand that. When I do things like the Slapstick Festival in Bristol I get the chance to see them projected on to a big screen at Colston Hall. And if it’s good enough for Kurt Vonnegut, it’s good enough for me.”

At this point, Robin’s off on one, quoting lines from County Hospital, but soon we veer on to music and gigs we might both have attended when I was in Surrey and he was attending Royal Holloway College, Egham, taking in The House of Love, Lush, Fields of the Nephilim, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and The Cropdusters in no time at all. So what was Robin’s band, The Reg, like?

Six Appeal: BBC 6 Music presenter Steve Lamacq leans on Robin Ince for a little psychological profiling

“They were quite ‘now’. It was around the time of Bleach, the first Nirvana album, but we’d split up by the time of Nevermind. We’d do Adam and the Ants’ Never Trust a Man (With Egg on His Face) and a raucous version of (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)

Sounds like you may have been cheated out of world fame.

“Oh no. One now works in the city, and another’s in the financial industry in Australia. I bumped into him in Brisbane. I kind of joined late and left early, and think that was best for us all, artistically. I wasn’t cut out to be the front-man of a band.”

Weren’t you supposed to be giving this stand-up malarkey up a couple of years ago?

“I did stop and did very well, but then Brian asked if I wanted to come on tour and thought that would be a laugh. Then I thought I might as well go back to it. There was a point where I realised that as much I loved doing stand-up, I just wasn’t enjoying it, although I’d just toured America and Australia. If you can’t be happy when you get a chance to go to LA and have dinner with Steve Martin, something’s not quite right and you should go and sit in Berkhamsted for a while and think about what you’ve done.”

A good place to contemplate, no doubt. For one thing, I gather they have a Graham Greene Festival.

“That’s the thing. It’s got a canal, a castle, herons, and an art deco cinema.”

Did you say ‘herons’, or is it this phone line again?

“Definitely herons. And it’s lovely to see a heron when you’re coming out of the train station at one in the morning on the way back from a gig.”

Rather than via BBC Radio 4, my route towards the curious world of Robin Ince came via Steve Lamacq’s BBC 6 Music show, hearing your psychological profiling of listeners.

“Steve and me would see each other at places like Reading Festival and decided to come up with an idea. It’s been six years now. It’s not quite as regular as it was, as I’m away a bit and Steve has occasional celebrations of disco or whatever. And I’m not really disco enough.”

Old Dutch: Barry Foster as Van Der Valk, an early influence on Robin Ince, sort of.

With that radio feature in mind, what was the first song you remember hearing?

“It would probably be something like Eye Level. My Mum was a huge fan of the Van der Valk theme tune.”

Ah, the Simon Park Orchestra.

“Yeah, and there was a vocal version by … what’s he called, who did Amarillo?

Tony Christie? Actually it was Matt Monro, called And She Smiled, but I only sussed that out after looking it up later. Honest. I do recall a rather inspired advert for Oranjeboom lager using that tune though. Anyway, moving on, how about a song that’s never off your mp3 player?

“It would be a Nick Cave song. The last thing I listened to was Red Right Hand. Generally it’s a mix of Nick Cave and Savages … but it was not Morrissey’s new single.”

Fair enough. Finally, your next book, Erm … I’m a Joke…and So Are You, sounds like it could have been a Morrissey single. Is that title the best way to lure readers?

“I suppose not, but hopefully the fact that I accuse myself first, then merely make them complicit … Actually I’m finishing that now, as the Infinite Monkey Cage book is about to come out.”

Is that How to Build a Universe – An Infinite Monkey Cage Annual, your ‘celebration of the great and the good of British science’.

“Yeah, I’m now doing the final version of I’m a Joke … then it’s back to the psychotherapist for me.”

For all the latest from Robin Ince, including forthcoming live dates, radio show details, his books and links to his blog, head to http://robinince.com/

Busy Schedule: Robin Ince catches up on his reading, ahead of his latest live dates.

Busy Schedule: Robin Ince catches up on his reading, ahead of his latest live dates.

This year’s Southport Comedy Festival is billed as the ‘biggest and best yet’, extended to 18 days and involving more TV names, more venues and more events. It includes the return of the festival’s somewhat unique comedy pub crawls and its Children’s Comedy Festival, plus a star-studded line-up.

As well as Robin Ince, there are new shows from Paul Sinha from ITV’s The Chase, Jo Caulfield, Rich Hall, Gary Delaney, Jason Byrne (with an interview right here), Tom Binns (aka Ivan Brackenbury), Tom Stade, Patrick Monahan, Andy Askins, Mike Gunn and Britain’s Got Talent finalist, Daliso Chaponda. There’s also something of a scoop as long-time friend of the festival, Jason Manford, plays – like Jason Byrne – two nights, closing the festival with a ‘work in progress’ show as he prepares for a 2018 national tour.

From shows in restaurants (meals included) to those in marquees, comedy workshops, comedy bingo, family and children’s events, there’s plenty to savour, also including the Nando’s New Comedian of the Year heats and grand final. And many good causes benefit, the organisers raising money for Community Link Foundation, When You Wish Upon a Star, Friends of Bridge Inn and Duchenne UK. For full line-ups, more details and tickets visit the Southport Comedy Festival website and follow the action via  Facebook  and  Twitter.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Comedy & Theatre, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Renewable Power in the Darkness – back in touch with Tom Robinson

As I may have mentioned on these pages before, few TV shows of yore hold as much magic as Top of the Pops re-runs for this nostalgic, and recently I was digging among the online archives for the October 1977 debut appearance of the Tom Robinson Band.

It’s difficult in this era of endless channel hops to explain to later generations the pull of such a seminal BBC Thursday night show. But when there were just three buttons to press, TOTP was king. And you can see just how important it was to today’s interviewee, checking out that lop-sided grin of his as he tries to catch guitarist Danny Kustow’s eye while they belt out debut hit, 2-4-6-8 Motorway.

“I was over-acting outrageously. I cringe a bit looking at it, I’m just so fucking pleased with myself!”

Mind you, it seems that Mark Ambler on keyboards didn’t get the school uniform dress code memo.

“Ha! That was much too close for comfort for him. He’d only just left school, so didn’t want to dress up as a schoolboy again. He was actually thrown out of the pub where he came to play his first gig with us, for being under-age. Thankfully he got back in, saying he was in the band.”

Mark looks somewhat downcast actually, at least in comparison, as if he’d already heard that track too many times.

“That was his habitual manner. He was taught piano by Stan Tracey and was a jazz-wiz on the keyboards, so I think he felt he was seriously slumming it with our three-chord songs. Actually, in many cases they were two-chord songs. I always thought, ‘Three chords good, two chords better’.”

And can punk rock’s foremost gay activist turned successful solo artist and esteemed radio broadcaster Tom recall what that triangular badge was he was wearing?

“That’s my ‘Gays against Fascism’ badge. It was before the Anti-Nazi League, but at that time a reminder of the death camp triangles. I thought even on Top of the Pops there would be a few people out there who knew what it meant and would pick up on it.”

Truckin’ On: TRB on TOTP, late ’77. From the left –
Mark Ambler, Danny Kustow, Tom Robinson, with Dolphin Taylor beyond (Copyright: BBC)

As a snapshot of time, Abba, Queen, Quo and Baccara were above TRB in the charts when that single made the top five in the UK, with fellow punk scene acts the Sex Pistols (Holidays in the Sun), The Jam (Modern World) and The Stranglers (No More Heroes) all below. Wings were just around the corner too, Mull of Kintyre about to crash the charts and hang around for what seemed like an age. What I guess I’m saying there is that in the month I turned 10, the charts at that time truly resonated with me.

2-4-6-8 Motorway was produced by Vic Maile, chiefly known around then for his work on the first two Dr. Feelgood albums. But apparently he wasn’t the first choice.

“Vic got us out of a hole. We had this song that was going down really well and we were closing the set with it each night, and it was an obvious choice for the first single. We’d had two cracks at recording it, with the producer of our choice, John Miller, then with the Who’s live soundman, but neither of them really worked. Then EMI had this idea that Vic would do a quick and dirty job, because of his work with Dr. Feelgood, and would take that song right down to its essence. And so he did.

“We recorded it in one morning. The only thing he changed was the bassline, and suddenly the whole thing just kind of pulled into place. Up until then it was done like a country song, which gave the guitar part a swing to it. All Vic did was get me to play one to the bar, like Free, from which Danny did his part, and we did it in just two takes. The only overdub was to double-track the rhythm guitar and put some hand-claps on there.”

The next Tom Robinson Band single, February ’78’s four-song Rising Free EP – recorded live at London’s Lyceum Theatre in November 1977 – was also a UK top-20 hit, but was always unlikely to get such prime-time coverage on account of the subject matter of track two, (Sing If You’re) Glad to be Gay. Yet Granada TV came up with the goods via the Tony Wilson-fronted So It Goes three months earlier, featuring a live rendition of that and fellow TRB crowd favourite Martin, filmed at Middleton’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, north Manchester. And with total understatement, I tell Tom that was a brave move getting that song out there, perhaps one of the greatest examples of kicking against the machine, punk-style. Away from all the posturing of many of his new wave contemporaries, you could argue that he had something to properly rebel against in those testing times.

“It’s funny, it was the time of punk but I was too old to actually pull off the punk look even then, but it’s odd that the song I had that was my flag of rebellion was actually a jazzy cabaret style late-night smoochy singalong! Some people hated it, but with any worthwhile song some people are going to hate it.”

But you hit the nail on the head there – it’s eminently sing-able. In fact, let’s face it, it’s probably harder to not join in.

“That was the funny thing. After it was a hit you could always spot the closet gays in the audience. All the heterosexuals would be singing along at the tops of their voice, having nothing to prove. But you’d always see people with very firmly zipped lips! ‘Nothing queer about me!’ A dead giveaway.”

Past Masters: The Tom Robinson Band, at Tower Bridge, back in the day

An earlier version of shoe-gazing, maybe. Now, I hate to be rude, but you more or less said it yourself then – surely at 27 you were considered an old fart by the likes of John Lydon.

“Lydon was alright. I don’t think the other Sex Pistols liked me very much, but he took me off down to the Speakeasy.”

A rather accurate version of the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten follows from Tom.

“We met at the Music Machine, and he said, ‘Tom Robinson – don’t give up! Don’t ever give up! Don’t give in to the bastards!’ And then he was sick on my shoes!

“About 10 years later I bumped into him at the Britannia HoteI, Manchester, wearing a Mambo suit that must have cost the best part of a thousand quid, his hair in knots on his head, dyed orange, with a pair of Woolworth’s sunglasses. He said, ‘Tom Robinson! You’re with that Red Wedge, ain’t ya!’ I said ‘Yeah’, and he said, ‘Fackin’ champagne socialists!’

“He always managed to annoy everybody. He never conformed to one viewpoint or doctrine. He went his own sweet way. And I love him for it.”

I guess he appreciated the fact that you had something to rock against.

“Yeah, and age-wise, Joe Strummer wasn’t much younger than me. And Jet Black of The Stranglers was about 10 years older than me. Charlie Harper of the UK Subs too. But I didn’t think I could pull it off and be believable, so had this kind of older brother prefect vibe which I felt I could pull off better.”

Yet with a little irony perhaps, here you are now, out on the road playing Power in the Darkness again, 40 years on.

“Yeah, that’s interesting. For many years I’ve fought the whole nostalgia thing, and I’ve never played those ’80s festivals. Towards the end of the ’90s I was grinding out the same six songs to a dwindling audience of people just vaguely remembering the dim and distant past. There was no dignity to it. So it was good to get into radio and move into helping other people get heard and appreciating the wealth of music that was coming out.

“For 15 years I’ve been immersed in that, then two years ago decided I’d make an album of my own after playing the English Folk Expo in Bury, meeting producer Gerry Diver there. He made me a killer album, and once I’d done that and established I could do songs that people who’d never heard of me would like. I felt comfortable enough to be able to go back and say, ‘Right! Let’s honour the past,’ without feeling it compromised me.”

To mark the 40th anniversary of 2-4-6-8 Motorway and the album that followed, Tom (bass and vocals) has put together a new band for a celebratory 15-date UK tour, namely Faithless drummer Andy Treacey, Richard Ashcroft guitarist Adam Phillips, and Jim Simmons (keyboards).

After a less successful toe-dip into the music business with Café Society in 1975 – under the wing of The Kinks’ Ray Davies at Konk – punk changed everything for Cambridge lad Tom, who was soon charged up and making his name for real, starting to gig in London in 1976 and by the end of the year deciding on a permanent band, with old friend Danny Kustow his first recruit.

“I’d known him since he was 15. He came to Finchden Manor, where I spent my formative teen years, arriving the same night Alexis Korner came to visit.”

I should add a few lines there, Tom having suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide at 16, hence a move to a centre for teens with emotional difficulties in Kent, where he spent the next six years. And that was the setting where Tom got hooked by John Peel on pirate station Radio London, that afore-mentioned visit by blues legend and  broadcaster Alexis Korner helping him realise where he might be heading from there. As was the case for Danny Kustow, it seems.

“He was so impressed with Alexis that he wanted to become a guitarist. All that time Danny was going around pestering people, saying ’show me an A-chord’, and stuff like that. So I knew him as a younger person and a bit of a guitar bore. When punk came along and I came to form a band I needed someone who could play guitar, and he was calling, saying, ‘Can I be in your band?’ I relented and it was only when the band started playing that I realised, ‘Bloody hell! He’s really good!’ It suddenly dawned on me how great Danny was and what he brought to the party.”

Running small ads in the music papers looking for a bass player and drummer, he then found drummer Brian ‘Dolphin’ Taylor then Mark Ambler, the latter only revealing after his audition his keyboard prowess, Tom – on hearing him play Hammond – deciding he’d have to play bass himself. Pretty soon the four-piece’s live shows were receiving favourable reviews and A&R interest, the band-leader going in nine months from signing on to Radio One, Top of the Pops, an EMI Records deal, and the front cover of the NME.

Those first two singles were followed by next 45 Up Against the Wall, the first release from Power In The Darkness, that debut LP released in early 1978 and reaching No.4 in the UK chart, in time going gold at home and in Japan.

As it was, Mark Ambler quit after the first long player, session player Nick Plytas drafted in before Ian Parker became a permanent replacement. A second album, TRB Two, recorded in late ’78 at Rockfield Studios, South Wales, with Todd Rundgren producing, followed in the spring of ’79, further personnel changes following as Dolphin Taylor made way for Preston Heyman before Charlie Morgan took over on drums. And by the time of the second album tour, in-fighting had taken its toll, Danny Kustow’s decision to leave marking a fairly premature end to the initial story.

“Danny got the punk thing and the Rock Against Racism thing straight away, and we’d go on anti-National Front demos at Wood Green and Lewisham – he was a real supportive soulmate. But because we’d both came from a place we’d been sent because of our emotional fragility, shall we say, the band contained the seeds of its own destruction.”

He continued to feature at various points with you in the solo years that followed though, didn’t he?

“Yes, he played on War Baby (Tom’s memorable top-10 single in the summer of  ’83), but again the emotional edge to the whole thing was just so destructive. We reformed the band 10 years after the break-up, by which point I’d been through 10 years of psychotherapy, so was in a different space and I’d sorted myself out a bit.

“I’d also found the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with … which astonishingly turned out to be the wrong sex! So I thought, ‘Let’s go back and see if we can do it properly this time, make good and achieve the potential we should have achieved at that time.

“I was approaching it in the mood of reconciliation, but neither Mark Ambler nor Danny Kustow had been through 10 years of psychotherapy and were approaching it in the spirit of vengeance – they wanted to get their own back on me! And they did.

“It was the worst year in my entire working life. A horrible experience, and it so dented me. It took me two years before I could write any more songs. I was completely wiped out by the emotional side of it. It wasn’t about playing music but about some unspoken battle going on. If I said ‘black’, they said ‘white’. If I said ‘yes’, they said ‘no’. So destructive.

“I had a 24-track studio at the time but we didn’t manage to complete a single master recording in the whole year we were back together, because we couldn’t even agree on paying an engineer to come in and do the recording. God, what a waste of energy that was. And it took me ages to realise what was going on. It was all going on behind the scenes. We were going out and playing these gigs and yet it didn’t feel very good.

“I always came home feeling slightly in the wrong. And every move I made to move us forward somehow turned us back. Yep, never have a picnic in the same place twice.”

Have you been back in touch since?

“Oh yeah, socially, but I swore to myself I would never take to a stage with them ever again. But now I’ve got a really good line-up and we’ll do our best to honour what the four of us achieved and pay tribute to them.”

By the end of the old century, Tom was seeking a new direction, and soon re-established himself as a broadcaster, working on shows to this day with BBC 6 Music, where he hosts up to three shows a week. He’s also a member of the Ivor Novello Awards committee, and last year was awarded LIPA fellowship in recognition of support for new music artists through BBC Introducing’s talent initiative.

Two years ago he returned to live performances too, in support of celebrated 14th studio album Only the Now, featuring guests such as Billy Bragg, John Grant and Ian McKellen.  And now he’s out there again, but not before looking back on his TRB breakthrough moment with me, four decades on.

“It’s anniversaries all the bloody time these days. The whole world’s looking backwards!”

I tell him that my brother’s Power in the Darkness cassette ended up with me when he left home in Surrey in the early ’80s, and it’s now somewhere tucked away in the eaves of my house 240 miles north, a tape I played many times over the next few years. And listening again in recent weeks I can confirm that while it’s a snapshot of that era, it’s definitely stood the test of time, with plenty of stand-out tracks.

“Oh good! The hardest thing about putting these shows together with a bunch of modern, really good musicians who can play anything, was getting up to the tempo we recorded that album at. At 67, playing that fast really takes a bit of practise!”

That first TRB album was recorded at Wessex Studios, North London, by Chris Thomas, who’d already turned heads with the Sex Pistols’ debut LP. Seeing footage from around then, Tom’s outfit were truly a happening live band. Does he think his producer got the essence of that live feel in the studio?

“Well, we made two albums with TRB and the Chris Thomas album took three months, a really torturous grind. He’s such a perfectionist and took everything down to the nth degree of detail to get it right. On Up Against the Wall I think there’s 10 guitars on there, to make it sound like one. It was the same with the Sex Pistols, where he put a guitar on straight away, did most of the album with Paul Cook in about an afternoon, but then the overdubs make it sound like it would out of the speakers as you’d experience it at a live gig.

“That was what took the time. And people said, ‘It sounds just like you’re live!’ We then made another album with Todd Rundgren in six days, and that was live. We went in the studio and played it, then he took it away and mixed it, yet everyone said it was really over-produced!”

Maybe it was just more about the feeling of that first album.

“I think the songs are just better on the first album. We had four years to write the songs on that album and four months to write the songs on the second album.”

History tends to repeat, and at the time we seem to have a minority Government on the way out, their propping-up pact with the Liberals behind them. Then again, in that example darker shadows were forming, with Thatcher on her way in. So how close were you to the truth in the winter of 79?

“Nowhere near. The SAS only came and took people’s names in Northern Ireland. But on that front, there are two things I’m still really proud of after all these years of what we did achieve back then. One was that we played the Rock Against Racism card in Victoria Park, Hackney, and helped make an important statement that helped mobilise people against the National Front. And the other is that I’m really proud we went and played Belfast so early on, and went back to Derry several times too.”

When you see the history of visiting punk bands in Northern Ireland, the popular misconception seems to be that The Clash visited first.

“They didn’t play. They turned up and used it as a photo opportunity in front of all the graffiti and barbed wire and soldiers in uniform, then went back to London. We were there in ’77 and went back and played the Ulster Hall, then got Stiff Little Fingers to support us in the UK, the first band to get them over.

“I’m really proud of that, because there was a lot of attitude, posing and posturing about the politics of Northern Ireland, but … it was lovely how the kids from both sides of the divide would turn up to gigs, the punks hated by both sides!

“And there was another really proud moment for me, going down the Falls Road and seeing a Power in the Darkness stencil among the graffiti.”

Was that from the stencil included with the album, which memorably contained the warning, ‘This stencil is not meant for spraying on public property’?

“Yes! We had some replicas made actually, and we’ve still got a few. But going back to all that, The Clash got to write the history, as they did in the carnival against the Nazis, where they were on before us and fuming that they weren’t topping the bill. But the organisers said TRB have played lots of shows for us and their songs are about what we’re about and we want them to close it. They’ll have the right vibe, rather than be about the greater glory.

“As it was, The Clash over-played and wouldn’t come off. After they’d over-played by 10 minutes and we could see our set-time dwindling away because of the curfew, my manager got the roadies to pull the plugs. But in the revisionist history version, we got jealous of them and pulled the plugs, almost provoking a riot.”

Fast forward four decades, and you’re back at the 100 Club on this tour – for a three-night run, and two of those already sold out. I’m guessing you featured there early on too.

“Oh, absolutely we did, just as that first single was breaking. Good memories. We did go back and play there with the reformed band for a 10th anniversary show, so I can’t see why we can’t go back with a different band for the 40th anniversary.”

And have you got the school tie ready, for old time’s sake?

“No. Absolutely not. I’m 67 years old, for fuck’s sake! I’m going to wear a Paul Smith suit and a t-shirt.”

Just wondered. The perennial schoolboy image never seemed to do AC/DC’s record sales any harm, after all.

“Ah, I’m no Angus Young.”

Live Presence: Tom Robinson has his latest TRB line-up all set for the Power in the Darkness 40th anniversary tour

For a look back at a previous Tom Robinson feature/interview on this site, two years ago, celebrating the release of the Only the Now album, head here.

last TRB’s October tour dates: Cardiff, The Globe (10th); Milton Keynes, The Stables (11th);  Cambridge, The Portland (12th); Bewdley Festival (13th); Nantwich, Words & Music (14th); Wakefield, Unity Works (17th); York, The Crescent (18th); Nottingham Rescue Rooms (19th); Sheffield, Leadmill (20th); Manchester Home (21st); London 100 Club (24th/25th/26th); Newcastle, Riverside (28th); Glasgow, King Tut’s (29th). The Manchester Home date is followed by a Glad to be Grey ‘in conversation’ show the next day (22nd), all part of Manchester Folk Festival. Try 0161 200 1500 or this link for more information. For tour ticket details and more, check out Tom’s website. You can also follow him via FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

 

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Stepping back into Daylight – the Pauline Black interview

You need only take a couple of listens to the new album by influential ska favourites The Selecter to be convinced this is not a band content to sit back on past endeavours.

What’s more, vocalist Pauline Black doesn’t do things half-heartedly, and latest offering Daylight – out this Friday, November 6th – suggests there’s still plenty of life yet in an outfit that formed an integral part of that initial late ‘70s 2 Tone explosion.

Reunited around the nucleus of Pauline, fellow original Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, and producer-writer-arranger Neil Pyzer (formerly with Howard Devoto and Spear of Destiny), The Selecter are firing on all cylinders, and you can believe the hype when you hear they’re offering ‘their most urgent, politically engaged and purely uplifting music’ since their early ’80s long-playing statements of intent, Too Much Pressure and Celebrate the Bullet.

The new album was recorded in London against a familiar backdrop of political foment, anger at austerity policies and the emergence of a revitalised left wing vying for Government, the time seemingly ripe for the return of a band led by one of the first British female pop stars to shake up gender and racial stereotypes. As their latest press release has it, ‘Cropped and cool, Pauline was the girl who looked and moved like the sharpest rude boy. She flipped the Tonic suit and porkpie hat into a feminist statement.’

Many faces have moved through the line-up since The Selecter’s emergence in Coventry in 1979, the current mix of ‘four white and four black’ deemed ‘very 2 Tone’. And when I got in touch, the band were amid a successful Stateside tour with US punk bands Rancid and The Dropkick Murphys, with Pauline ‘fulfilling a bit of a dream’ at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, the band playing to a sell-out crowd, their best-known member on a high in a ‘fantastic outdoor amphitheatre with a marvellous acoustic’.

That was the band’s 14th date of an American visit taking in various West Coast venues, going on to complete 19 shows in 21 days. Time constraints and other deadlines meant that I didn’t get chance to share her response – you’ll probably suss from some of the responses that this is a rare example of a writewyattuk email questionnaire rather than a face-to-face or at least a phone-to-phone encounter – straight away. But hopefully it all still makes sense (with the help of a handful of post-dated tweaks).

And now they’re all set to start again this side of the Atlantic, their ‘co-headline tour with our labelmates and good friends The Beat’ opening on the day of the LP’s launch at a sold-out London Roundhouse. So are their fellow 2 Tone veterans good company on the road? I guess Pauline (and Gaps) go back with them a fair bit.

“I first met Ranking Roger on the doorstep of Jerry Dammers’ house in 1979.  I think he was about 15 then. So yes, you could say that we go back a long way.”

Ska Walker: Pauline Black, out with The Selecter again (Photo: Dean Chalkley)

Could you have imagined all those years ago, first getting the band together, that there would still be such a big appetite for The Selecter around the world?

“In 1979, we didn’t even imagine that we would have a hit single and appear on Top of the Pops. When you’re young, you don’t spend most of your time imagining what you will be doing in 40 years’ time. But it’s an absolute honour that so many people worldwide still find the message of 2 Tone worthwhile, particularly in these troubled and divided times.”

The UK tour starts in style with that sell-out show at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London. Ever play there back in the day?

“The Selecter have never played The Roundhouse before, but we did shoot a video for our single Celebrate The Bullet in the tunnels underneath the building in 1981.”

You’ll also be visiting Manchester Ritz (October 13) and finish at Liverpool Olympia (Dec 23), my excuse for speaking to you. Have you got good memories of past visits to the North West of England?

“We love the North West and have a lot of fans in Manchester and Liverpool.”

Where’s home when you’re not on the road these days? Do you get back to Coventry often? And what were you missing most about home while in America?

“Gaps Hendrickson, my fellow lead singer and I both still live in Coventry, the home of 2 Tone. And after a few weeks on a tour bus, albeit a very comfortable one, I probably missed my bed the most!”

Have you still got a pristine copy of the Gangsters vs The Selecter on 7” tucked away somewhere safe?

“No. I’m not a desperate completist. I feel no nostalgia for what is past. The future always beckons more brightly.”

The band may have dropped the tempo a couple of notches, but judging by the latest live reviews, you remain a sight to see, and the audiences haven’t slowed down much either, have they?

“You haven’t been to a show recently then, if you think we’ve dropped the tempo a couple of notches! Live shows are our natural habitat.”

When did you first meet ‘Gaps’, and could you have ever imagined you’d still be out there playing live with him all these years on?

“I met Gaps in 1979. We have never had a cross word with each other and each of us thoroughly respects the unique artistic capabilities of the other.”

Has the current line-up given you fresh momentum then? And do the younger members of the band tend to keep the rest of you on your toes, or does it work the other way around?

“We all keep each other on our toes. Everybody in the band loves the music we perform and more importantly like each other. That is often a rare combination in bands. And our mainstay is our producer/tenor saxophonist/MD Neil Pyzer, whose musical expertise in the studio makes everything possible.”

Have you kept in touch with many of your original bandmates … and members of The Specials?

“Funny you should ask that, as Lynval Golding from The Specials joined us on stage at the Greek Theatre for a rendition of Too Much Pressure.”

Are you still in touch with The Selecter co-founder Neol Davies (who has had his own version of The Selecter out there since 2011, having served in the first two spells for the band) after the issues over the use of the band name?

“There were no ‘issues’.”

While you’ll still get old favourites like Too Much Pressure and their biggest hits, On My Radio, Three Minute Hero and Missing Words, The Selecter are no ‘heritage act’, their message as key today as it was in ‘79, in this similarly turbulent era. And with the way things have gone these last few years, it seems that they have as many issues to write about now as in the early years.

After just a couple of listens, I was already loving Daylight. Both Frontline and the title track deserve to be hits, and there’s plenty more to love, not least The Big Badoof and Mayhem, among the other tracks that jump straight out. As a whole, I’d say it’s a politically-engaged statement of intent, but one carrying an upbeat message of hope for a brighter future, preaching positivity and empowerment. Am I right, Pauline?

“Of course you are right! The Selecter has shone daylight on to the thorny subjects of racism and sexism for nearly four decades, but still so many choose to remain in the dark, perpetuating the same old hoary aphorisms and tropes. The Frontline is now the internet. It’s where people interact for good or ill.”

In America, the band dedicated a live rendition of Frontline to Heather Heyer, after the 32-year-old civil rights activist was killed while protesting at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. We live in scary times. I put it to Pauline, taking on the LP’s uplifting vibe – not least with the few months we’ve had with Trump in the White House – that I hope she was still seeing cause for optimism and ‘daylight’, both there and back in the UK.

“We were spreading our Daylight message wherever we went in the USA, and many fans and newcomers to our music were responding very positively. Heather Heyer paid the ultimate price for raising awareness of the emboldened fascist threat which is taking to our streets. She was brave enough to stand wholeheartedly on the Frontline, which is what many people continue to do on a daily basis all over the world, in order to keep some semblance of humanity among us all.”

The Selecter’s initial spell was explosively short, lasting barely a couple of years. After a decade doing their own thing, what had changed by 1991 to bring about the band’s re-emergence?

“The third wave ska movement in the early ‘90s in the USA gave some much needed impetus to 2 Tone music, and we decided to jump back into the fray.”

Then, 15 years on, you stepped away again, this time chiefly to write your Black by Design autobiography. Did that prove a cathartic experience?

“I’ve always performed in multiple ways, either TV, radio presentation, writing or theatre acting. I like to practise a lot of different disciplines when it comes to performance. Each then complements and helps develop the others. That way I’ve managed to constantly move forward and not get stuck in a rut.

“Writing Black By Design was a defining moment in my life and took me 18 months to complete. I’m very proud of the story I told and I hope that some of my insights might help other adopted people who had to come to terms with the inherent racism in our society. And if all goes as planned, it looks as though a film about 2 Tone based on my book will soon go into production with Molifilms.”

In 2001, Pauline got together with fellow writewyattuk interviewee Jean-Jacques Burnel (The Stranglers), Jake Burns (Stuff Little Fingers) and Nicky Welsh (with The Selecter from 1991-2006 and also Bad Manners) to create 3 Men & Black, doing acoustic versions of various songs they were famous for, and talking a little about how they came to write those tracks. The line-up changed now and again, at times involving another writewyattuk regular, Bruce Foxton (The Jam, Stiff Little Fingers, and these days From the Jam), Eric Faulkner (Bay City Rollers) and Dave Wakeling (The Beat). An album, 3 Men + Black, Acoustic, featuring Black, Burnel, Burns, Foxton and Welsh followed in 2004. So, any plans to tour again with a version of that combo, Pauline?

“No, although I did very much enjoy working and recording with Jake Burns and JJ Burnel.”

Are the TV and acting offers still coming your way? Or do you plan to keep this all going a while longer?

“I have no other interests other than The Selecter at the moment. It’s a full-time job.”

If you could name just one highlight from your time with the band, what might that be?

“Our first performance on Top Of The Pops with our first single On My Radio is always a defining moment in my mind.”

Bands like yourself and The Specials had the finger on the pulse from the start, politically and culturally. Are you seeing any evidence of a new breed of bands following your example?

“Many young bands are starting to talk about what’s going on in the world, both socially and politically.  The only problem is that most of them don’t make the playlists on the radio stations. That is a pity, but I fully expect that to change given time.”

Finally, you’re seen as one of the first British female stars to shake up gender and racial stereotypes. And the 2 Tone movement as a whole seemed to carry that torch, extolling the values and virtues of multiculturalism and equality. That’s something to be proud of, isn’t it, as far as the band’s, the label’s and your own legacy go?

“If my contribution to the 2 Tone movement has done anything to improve perceptions of race and gender equality, then of course I am proud of that. And it always feels very rewarding when I meet young women at the merch stand after a performance. who tell me that our music was an empowering influence on their lives.”

For tickets for the tour, contact the venues or head to The Selecter’s Facebook page, where you can also find out more about getting hold of new album Daylight.

Team Selecter: Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson, coming to a town near you (Photo: Dean Chalkley)

UK dates for The Selecter and The Beat: Friday, October 6th – London Roundhouse; Saturday, October 7th – Leamington Spa The Assembly; Sunday, October 8th – Southend Cliffs Pavilion; Friday, October 13th – Manchester 02 Ritz; Saturday, October 14th – Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall Theatre; Thursday, October 19th – Bury St Edmunds The Apex; Friday, October 20th – Worthing Pavilion Theatre; Saturday, October 21st – Lincoln The Engine Shed; Friday, November 10th – Leicester De Montfort Hall; Saturday, November 11th – Exeter Great Hall; Thursday, November 16th – Inverness The Ironworks; Friday, November 17th – Glasgow 02 ABC; Saturday, November 18th – Newcastle 02 Academy; Friday, November 24th – Bournemouth 02; Saturday, November 25th – Wrexham William Aston Hall; Friday, December 22nd – Guildford G Live; Saturday, December 23rd – Liverpool Olympia.

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Revealing the Byrne identity – the Jason Byrne interview

Brain Man: Jason Byrne, coming your way this next couple of months (Photo: Steve Ullathorne)

It’s been a mad-busy few years for Jason Byrne, the Irish comic currently heading back around the UK in his guise as The Man With Three Brains show.

In addition to extensive worldwide touring, you may know him from appearances on shows such as Live at the Apollo (BBC1), The Royal Variety Show (ITV1), The John Bishop Show (BBC1), Father Figure (BBC1), of which he is creator and star, Just a Minute (BBC Radio 4), and a self-titled BBC Radio 2 show now up to three series and awarded the UK radio industry’s Sony Radio Gold Award for ‘best new comedy ‘ in 2011.

Then there’s his studio-based comedy chat show, Jason Byrne’s Snaptastic Show, for TV3 in Ireland, and his co-hosting of Sky 1’s popular entertainment programme Wild Things, while past credits have also included more than a decade of Edinburgh Festival shows, scooping a Forth One Fringe Award there in 2004, his Phantom FM and RTE Two comedy panel show The Byrne Ultimatum roles, being a finalist on So You Think You’re Funny as far back as 1996, with a Perrier Best Newcomer Award nomination two years later, and another Perrier Award nomination in 2001. Oh, and Father Ted in 1998.

Recently, the 45-year-old from Ballinteer, Dublin, also launched a new series for the Dave channel, Don’t Say It, Bring It, an on-location game show filmed around the UK, loosely based on a scavenger hunt, and described by Jason as, ‘the best indoor, outdoor gameshow I’ve ever worked on’. What’s more, he’s just landed a role as a judge on Ireland’s Got Talent, more of which we’ll get on to later.

All in all, I guess I was lucky to track him down, but it may seem like I’m underselling this interview when I tell you I missed out a few bits because of the quality of line between Lancashire and the Irish border.

I’m not sure that was down to the distance between myself and Jason – on the road between Belfast and Dublin – so much as the fact that he was ‘patched through’ by an agency in London. My intermediary down South could hear us perfectly and Jason reckons he could hear me, but after two attempts I was still struggling. Yet I persevered and strained my ears later, trying to listen back.

And now I’ve got my excuses out of the way, I’ll press on, having first ascertained my interviewee’s whereabouts.

“We were in Belfast. North of Ireland … sorry, Northern Ireland. You can’t say North of Ireland, that’s Donegal and all. You have to say, ‘I’ve just left Northern Ireland and we’re in the Republic of Ireland right now’. You’re basically listening to a little bit of history there – you’re interviewing me in two countries.”

Maybe that’s why the line’s not so good.

“No, the line’s not so good because the British Army are listening in.”

Stood Up: Jason Byrne checks the copy for swear words.

I winced and waited for a response at that, at least a cut line, but there was none, so I cracked on. Where’s home for Jason these days?

“North of Dublin, out in a little village, an hour and half away from Belfast. Also, I travel over to Britain a lot. It doesn’t really matter where the fuck we live, it’s just that I decided to stay in Ireland with my family and kids. I could have lived in Britain. I could have lived in Scotland. I could have lived in fucking France. There are comics who actually live in France and fly in at the weekend to do the Comedy Store, then fuck off back to France. How good is that? We’re fools, Malcolm. Fools!”

Jason swears a lot. Thought I’d better just mention that, in case it’s not already apparent. I may have left out a few swear-words here and there (mostly the same ones, to be honest), but you’ll get the idea. Of course, I could add that if that offends you, you know what you can do.

Anyway, Jason, I believe you were at Croke Park recently, for Gaelic football’s All-Ireland final?

“Croke Park? Oh yes, though hang on – this is a little bit of a sore point. I was at Croke Park, but before the fucking All-Ireland. I was doing a corporate, charity gig for Temple Street Children’s Hospital. That’s why I was there, wearing my Dublin jersey the night before the match. But that night I had to fly out and go and do Sunday Bloody Brunch on Channel 4, the day of the fucking final!”

Sunday Bloody Brunch? The Channel Bloody 4 show with Tim Bloody Lovejoy and Simon Bloody Rimmer? Can’t believe I missed that. I’m normally tuned in. A sickener for Jason all-round.

“I know. I’m flying over, and who’s going the other way? Fucking John Bishop! I’m going, ‘John, you don’t even know fucking GAA.”

So you had to make do – like me – watching the TV highlights (for the uninitiated, Dublin clinched a slim victory over Mayo, their third successive All-Ireland win)?

Brunch Time: Jason Byrne missed out on Dublin’s latest Gaelic football triumph

“Yeah, I went home. The plane landed in Dublin and I could just hear everyone around me going, ‘Fucking yeah!’ and I was going home to watch the highlights. They absolutely fucking battered each other – a great game to watch. I was trying to explain the game on Sunday Brunch, how you could punch the guys in the head, as long as the ref doesn’t see it, it’s totally legal. And they’re going, ‘What?’”

It certainly seemed an exciting match, from what I saw. And while we’re on the subject of your home city, how close to the truth was Roddy Doyle with his Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments and so on)?

“Oh, that’s something he did absolutely bang on!”

Was that the Dublin you grew up with?

“No way. I didn’t grow up in that Dublin. That Dublin was fucking dog-rough, that was fucking horses put into lifts and that. That’s a real thing. Very rough areas of Dublin. Not right now though. They’ve been totally redone and refurbed, but you’re talking the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“I grew up in – as in Adventures of the Wonky-Eyed Boy – a working-class area, but we weren’t poor. A lot of people near me were definitely poor, but I didn’t grow up like that. I was in an everyday housing estate where all the Dads had jobs and the mothers ran the household, with all those funny fucking stories. A lot of my stand-up comes from there.

“Bath-time in our house was very funny. My Mum would only half-fill the bath with water, then fill it with children, then the water would come up to the full level. For ages there was me and my two little sisters in front of me, and my bigger brother behind me with his fucking cock on my shoulder, asking what I was looking at. Yes, I lived in a very small house.”

By the way, Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy is his 2016 publication for Gill Books, a comic but highly evocative memoir of what it was like to grow up in a working-class Dublin suburb in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, its title making sense to anyone who’s seen him open up on stage about his ‘lazy eye’ as a kid. And when it comes to words, he can certainly paint a picture, can Jason.

That brings me to his current domestic arrangements, starting to ask about his wife putting up with being brought into his live routine. But at that point we lose each other. The last I hear is him shouting, ‘Malcolm!’ in the distance – which I’m guessing was directed at me rather than some Gaelic insult you shout at other drivers using the N1. Consequently, I had to be connected again, my interviewee returning a minute or so later, muttering something related to that earlier concern about military organisations listening in.

In a low, slow voice, he tells me, “Do not tease the fucking British Army. They totally disconnected us that time.”

You’d think they already had a good enough file on you.

“Ah yeah. I go through borders and airports … Do you know what, I do a lot of shows in Australia, and I arrive there now and get, ‘Ah, Jason. How are ya?’’

Getting back to family, before we’re cut off again, I can’t help but think of your poor wife getting a few run-outs in your material. He mentioned during one TV appearance how he’d best make sure he wasn’t sat on the sofa with his beloved when it was aired. I get the feeling he was only half-joking too. Are there elements of truth in all that?

“In the stuff about my wife? No, basically I have a fictional wife and my real wife, and they kind of cross over. A lot of the stories definitely come out of my wife for a start, and I just fucking jazz it up. People who have met my wife will say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t look like your wife’. I say, ‘What are you talking about?’ and they’ll say, ‘I always imagined this very stout woman with really bad hair, waving her fingers’.

“My wife’s a very attractive, skinny lady, who does a lot of training. But she does come out with some cracking lines. I recently got a new show on Dave (Don’t Say It, Bring It), which was recorded and ready to go, and I was launching it, and the day after I got a phone call asking me to do Ireland’s Got Talent. Well, I got loads of congratulations from family, friends and colleagues, and then I got a text from my wife, and all it said was, ‘You could have put that fucking bin out before you left’.”

At least she’s keeping your feet on the ground. You should be thankful. How old are your lads now?

“They’re 17 and 10, a great pair of lads.”

Dave Rave: Jason Byrne takes to the streets for Dave TV’s Don’t Say It, Bring It

Will you get to see them a bit over this tour? You have a lot of live dates ahead of you (37, I understand).

“It’s all managed very carefully, mostly runs of three days, occasionally four days in a row, with the others spent in Dublin, bringing them training and dropping them off here, there and everywhere, and going out with them. After two days they get the idea, and remember how much of a jerk I am. They have their friends and school, and they’re very busy. My 17-year-old is highly mature and totally understands. He’s only seen that kind of life, me going in and out all the time. And they have each other.

“When I spoke to the headmaster, he said, ‘Actually, on paper you’re here more than any Dad’, because a lot of them work nine ‘til five, don’t get to bring their kids to school and can’t collect them or do after-school stuff because they’re travelling home. It actually works out better for me … although I’d like my wife to comment on what I’ve just said. ‘Oh yeah, that works out really well for you, the way you fuck off out of here ….”

My main excuse for speaking to Jason was his forthcoming double-appearance at the seventh annual Southport Comedy Festival, having been crowned ‘The King of The Festival’. It’s his fourth visit, and he’s built up a massive following there. This time he turns out on Wednesday, October 18th, and Thursday, October 19th, with tickets still available at time of going to press, and festival organiser Val Brady told me she was particularly looking forward to his appearance.

“That gig’s a great craic. A lot of time I’ll head around and I’ll have the show in my head, and I’ll think I’ve got to do that and I’ve got to do this. At Southport you might as well get the whole gig and fuck it out of the window, because you’re not going to be able to do it. It’s too much fun talking to them. They tell you the maddest shit, and they heckle you … in a nice way. There’s no nastiness. Yeah, I know what Val is talking about – she may be looking forward to watching the crowd, but I’m not sure if I am!

“But it’s one of those gigs I don’t have to worry about. I look forward to that. It’s in a comedy club rather than a theatre. It’s very much like, ‘Off you go, Jason, let’s see what happens for the next two hours’, you know.”

The show’s called The Man With Three Brains, apparently because his left brain scans the audience and room looking for improv. moments, while his right brain collates stand-up material and stunts, poised to ‘dish out the funnies at speed’, and the centre brain is Jason’s coach, pushing him to the limit. I think that makes sense, although I had to wade through some typical comedy press release clichés about how ‘hilarious’ and ‘extremely funny’ he is, and mentioning his ‘famous warm and generous stagecraft’, which sounds like one of those things people my age thought we’d all be riding around on now we’re in the 21st century.

“Well, you have to name your show in January, one that’s not even written, so they can put it in the brochure at Edinburgh. But it’s connected to the fact that someone said it looks like I’ve got three different heads on my shoulders when I’m up there, because I do a lot of improv. – it’s like I’ve got three brains on the go.”

Surely, Mrs Byrne would just suggest that was mild multi-tasking in her world.

“Well yeah, and someone said, ‘You don’t have three brains, just different streams of consciousness’. And I said, ‘I’m not putting that on a fucking poster! No one will go!’ Only Derren Brown.”

Last time you were doing the rounds was for 2016’s Propped Up tour, strangely enough involving lots of props, like giant ducks, rubber hands, owls, and big wooden pegs. That kind of reminds me of Tommy Cooper back in the day, going out of his way to walk through a gate in the middle of the stage for no apparent reason during a live show. I don’t really know why, but that was funny.

“Ah, do you remember that? My parents saw him do that in a cabaret set here in Dublin. He had a white picket fence, and … did you see this yourself?”

I didn’t, but my big sister and brother mentioned it after a performance in Surrey many moons ago. My sister was in pain from the laughter by the end, Tommy making it worse every time he looked at.

“Yeah, all he did was … he couldn’t get through the gate, because he was supposed to push rather than pull, or something.”

And he never mentioned it all night.

“I know! That is brilliant! Except I remember Eric Sykes saying that kind of annoyed Tommy when he was out, being himself. He’d ask for a drink at the bar and the barman would just laugh at him. He’d get annoyed and say, ‘What are you laughing about?’ Eric would have to explain, ‘You just sound funny, Tom’. I think that just tortured him.

Father Figures: Jason in his guise as football ref, with Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan) and Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O’Hanlon) in 1998 (Image: Channel 4)

“I don’t really have that. I certainly have funny bones and I like messing about, and I do bring an air of funniness on to the stage with me, but I would never walk on with a picket fucking fence. Can you imagine? ‘What are you fucking doing, Jason?’”

It’s 20 years that you started performing, and it’ll be 20 years next year since your Father Ted appearance as a football referee. Did you think you’d made it there and then, or is that something that became more special in hindsight?

“Well, Graham (Linehan) and Arthur (Mathews), the writers, are good friends of mine now, and I felt I’d made it. But then I did a gig with Simon Pegg and they came along, asking, ‘Who’s that guy?’ I said, ‘Who?’ and said I didn’t know him, although I did. But they sat down with Simon and a couple of months later he was doing Hippies, and he did Big Train, then he did Spaced, and then … and then … and then. So yes, in answer to your question, when I did Father Ted, I definitely knew Simon Pegg was going to do well!”

Finally, I see the team at Ireland’s Got Talent were on the hunt for performing priests and nuns recently. Is that the prime difference between that show and Britain’s Got Talent?

“The difference between Britain’s Got Talent and Ireland’s Got Talent is that everybody in Ireland thinks they’ve got talent. So you’ve got a vast amount of that coming, everybody thinking they can sing or dance, and there’ll definitely be singing priests and dancing nuns and parrots reciting fucking ballads and all sorts. My friend, the producer, texts me now and again, going, ‘You won’t believe what I have coming towards you!’”

Jason’s latest The Man With Three Brains run opened in Aberdeen on October 1st, and runs through to a date at Southen’s Cliffs Pavilion Palace Theatre on Sunday, December 3rd. Ticket prices for all venues are £19.50, and £22 for London shows. For tickets head to www.ticketmaster.co.uk or his www.jasonbyrne.ie websiteYou can also follow him via Facebook and Twitter

Brain Teaser: Jason Byrne gets into character ahead of his latest UK tour.

This year’s Southport Comedy Festival is billed as the ‘biggest and best yet’, extended to 18 days and involving more TV names, more venues and more events. It includes the return of the festival’s somewhat unique comedy pub crawls and its Children’s Comedy Festival, plus a star-studded line-up.

As well as Jason Byrne, there are new shows from Paul Sinha from ITV’s The Chase, Jo Caulfield, Rich Hall, Gary Delaney, Robin Ince (with an interview to follow here within a couple of days), Tom Binns (aka Ivan Brackenbury), Tom Stade, Patrick Monahan, Andy Askins, Mike Gunn and Britain’s Got Talent finalist, Daliso Chaponda. There’s also something of a scoop as long-time friend of the festival, Jason Manford, plays – like Jason Byrne – two nights, closing the festival with a ‘work in progress’ show as he prepares for a 2018 national tour.

From shows in restaurants (meals included) to those in marquees, comedy workshops, comedy bingo, family and children’s events, there’s plenty to savour, also including the Nando’s New Comedian of the Year heats and grand final. And many good causes benefit, the organisers raising money for Community Link Foundation, When You Wish Upon a Star, Friends of Bridge Inn and Duchenne UK.

For full line-ups, more details and tickets visit the Southport Comedy Festival website and follow the action via Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

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