SORE TONGUE PARADE
PAUL HAMILTON: Have you got a list of querios? Have you prepped for this interview jaunt?
JOHN HIND: Initially I read your album’s title, ‘Seconds’. So I was going to ask if this is a reference to it being your second album. Or to your second marriage, second wind, or your liking for puddings?
All those reasons but, more than my obsession with wedding cake and my chronic obesity, it's mostly because of the John Frankenheimer film 'Seconds' - 1966, Rock Hudson, a paranoid classic. Frankenheimer also made 'The Manchurian Candidate'. It was Si who pushed for 'Seconds' as the title because it has a certain significance for him. The film's about a middle class business executive, tired of his life, tired of his wife, who learns of this organisation which, for stupendous heaps of boodle, will give him a new face, a new home, new friends, a new life. I'm not saying Si wanted rid of his family, but he's been suffering physically for three years - in tremendous pain constantly, daily, hourly, and he wants out of it. The songs on 'Seconds' seem to be relevant to him in that many of them are about facets of the human condition, about getting old, about adjusting, about how tough life can be.
The song 'Five Little Monkeys' is nursery rhyme flufferation, though?
Yes, but it fits the bill because it says 'If you carry on enjoying yourself in that naughty manner you're gonna wind up dead'.
The song 'Looking For Carl La Fong' – is that about the human condition too?
It's a homage to W.C. Fields. You've seen his film 'It's A Gift' -
- so you'll know all about Carl La Fong. A funny song. But why does everything have to be so serious and morbid all the time?
There seems to be little wit – lyrically or musically – in rock music generally. Why do you think that is?
Well, The Who, for ten years, always had room for a lighthearted, funny song. Even Kraftwerk were funny in their way. But it is all terribly sincere now. I thought The Mighty Boosh were going to usher in a new age of Silly Rock. I hope it happens but it probably won’t, because groups and singers don't want to be thought 'uncool' - whereas Bisonics are The Men From Uncool. Most bands feel that droning navel-gazingly on about the woes of the world and their broken fucking hearts indicates their artistry, maaaaaaan, and dignity. Maybe they don't see comedians as cool and sexy. But I do. Peter Cook, Noel Fielding, Fred Emney... And the coolest of all, John Cooper Clarke, bestriding the worlds of stand-up, poetry and rock'n'roll -
That's three-ish legs.
That third one isn't a leg. But it's bizarre, this hankering for 'roots' and 'authenticity'.
Does Bob Dylan really think he's a cowboy?
And Van Morrison - The Belfast Cowboy? When did you last see a herd of cattle in Belfast? Or Van on a palomino? You can see him, instead, in Holland Park, walking his dozen Pomeranians and poodles, with his pointy shoes with the big shiny buckles. People will accuse Joe Strummer of being a hypocrite, because his father worked for the Diplomatic Corp or whatever it was... but I suppose it’s not down to Where You Come From but Where You Want To Go.
My gist is that your songs have hearty humour in them, despite being about miserable things.
Well, I don't work very hard at lyric writing. I'm not one of these bods with notebook permanently in hand, writing down everything I see and hear. When it is time to make a record I go into the kitchen, away from the computer and other distractions, and sit there for a day or two and scribble down stuff. To keep myself interested, entertained, I play around with words, turn things upside down, pretend I'm a character - because that gives the freedom to address the usual subjects from different angles. It's like if Mick Jagger went onstage and said, "Call me old-fashioned but I believe that black women are put on this planet to dance on my tongue", there would be disturbances in the streets, people would drop toffee wrappers in the sink. However, by putting such sentiments in the mouth of a scarred old slave-ship captain and then turning that into 'Brown Sugar' he can celebrate trez kinkoid behaviour in a most delightful way.
The song ‘Keeping Mum’ – is that a reference to your mother being a kept woman?
Definitely. That was me in the kitchen, fag on, staring at the net curtains, thinking, 'Oh God, what can I write about? What can I say that hasn't been said before? Man alive, there's nothing to say about anything!' And then the phrase 'Keeping Mum' came to mind - meaning 'Say nothing, keep shtum' - and the song arrived there and then.
It wasn’t written with the tune in mind?
No. What happened there was Doug...
...yes, he recorded an instrumental which he called 'Motown In Zaire' - which, if you hear it, doesn't sound remotely like Motown and has nothing to do with African music. I thought it sounded like a 70s BBC sitcom theme - 'Terry & June On Safari' - so the lyric I wrote for that tune was 'The Gnomes Of Bromley', a get-off-my-lawn NIMBY character piece. When we came to put to vocal on, we realised that the lyrics didn't fit the metre at all, so we dug out 'Keeping Mum', which fitted perfectly.
There's a strange middle-eight section which Big Dougie recites. It's strange because it seems to be making a philosophical point but stops just short of revealing itself.
That whole 'Above the rooftops of London' section was in fact from a chorus to a lyric about my Nan and Grandad. That song, 'Mary And Jack', wasn't very good, except for the chorus, so we simply took that and slotted it in. It doesn't pay to be precious about things. What we make are improvised collages in sound, really. There have been moments when we've had to discard quite nice fragments.
Do you usually present your scads to Doug and Si and together build a tune?
Nope. Well, on this occasion, Si wasn't there because he was stuck in Australia and Doug and I were in Norway. He came into the frame afterwards to add keyboards and produce, get the soundscape established. The process for this record was to improvise a series of instrumentals and then see if any lyrics fitted on top. It's a random procedure, almost totally reliant on chance. For the last track on the album, 'Seconds Out', our starting point was 'Let's play as though we are actually allergic to the instruments, let's not listen to each other, let's just fight our instruments all the way and then the storm passes and there's a rainbow'. This is what you hear on the track. When it came to adding the vocal, the quiet part at the end finished before the very last verse - which is just as well, maybe, because the conclusion you do now hear - 'You floor me' - is much better.
Working in this format, which we've done for three albums now, we're trying to be immediate and unselfconscious.
What was the cue, or clue, for the music to 'Soft Afternoons'?
Literally nothing. 'Let's play nothing. Let's have no drum fills, no bass frills. Let's just plod along at an even tempo.' I asked Doug to add a piano part which sounded like raindrops on a window pane and he improvised a musical figure which he played throughout the track. It was very nice but a bit boring so I hacked out huge chunks of it, not listening to the song, and when we played it back the piano part would float in and out unexpectedly, which gave the song its floaty feel.
Tell us about 'The Sore Thumb Parade', while I pop to the water closet.
Well, the music came about from Doug warming up on bass. He was doing these hammer-ons, which is an exercise for the left hand. I said, 'Ooh!' - as I do - 'Could you play that for three minutes?' - 'Well, I'll give it a try.' And what you hear is what we did. Again down to chance, the moments when we both laid out, stopping from sheer exhaustion, was precisely where the lyric middle-eight fell. Lyrically, though, this was a rare writing experience in that it was done while not sitting in the kitchen. What happened was I had split up with my wife and she wanted all her stuff back, so I made a list of all her things as I was packing them up. From that list I added some biographical data - 'The Swiss Air t-shirt given to you in Madrid when our luggage was in Nepal' - and a chorus addressed to her sister and husband who collected it all: 'Take it away, boys, take it away'.
Sorry about that. Is the following true – ‘The chunky Rothko leg-warmers knitted by your mum/The pale blue cardigan that still smells of cum'?
Yes... 'There's always something there to remind me'.
'Salmon Pink Raincoat' is sexually graphic. ‘Re: Union' has you trying to get off with someone you used to worship at school. 'The Block' incorporates your demands for whores to come in and soothe you. 'Keeping Mum' has a verse where she's masturbating to the sound of the neighbours copulating. 'A Karaoke Version Of Myself' is set in a topless bar. 'Invitation To A Beheading' mentions the Gay Gestapo and has a segment depicting gang rape.
I didn't notice that sex was such a prevalent subject. Does this paint me as some hairy-palmed pervo? Well, this is what comes from writing straight off the bat, and not censoring oneself.
What have Si and Doug said about this?
Doug said, 'Oh, you're very brave, letting your feelings show like that' - regarding 'Salmon Pink Raincoat'. I had never considered it as 'revealing' for a moment. In my mind, it's about - well, I'd spoil the punchline to the song if I said it. Si never discussed the lyrical content with me. He's more into the nuts and bolts of music production. But if either of them voiced objections to a lyric, then I'd cut it. Maybe…We're pretty close, philosophically, politically. We laugh at the same rubbish, more or less, but, in terms of work and speed, there are difficulties. I like to work fast and I'm not overly bothered about bum notes, dropped beats and flat singing. We could have Autotuned all the vocals, gotten drum loops, fixed all the sloppiness, but you lose the humanity. Si likes to take his time, deliberate, try various options, tinker endlessly, whereas I'm more write-it-in-the-morning, tape-it-in-the-afternoon, release-it-in-the-evening. The videos I made for the songs are indicative of that phaser-to-the-balls approach. The only video I've taken a long time over was 'Keeping Mum', for which I had to produce a couple of hundred drawings - but even then I did them all in a non-stop 36 hour burst over a weekend.
The film to 'Re: Union' is very touching while not particularly relating to the lyrics. What brought that particular marriage about?
Well, I've got this lovely little Flip HD camera and I was wandering around Brixton, just shooting blind - turning the camera on and filming anything. The idea is that later, when it's on the McMac, you can cut and muck about with it. My intention had been to find footage for 'The Block', so I'd filmed amongst crowds of shoppers - marching feet, glum faces. It all looked pretty dull, actually, apart from a dead fox in someone's driveway. But there was 40 seconds of three old black guys sitting on a bench jabbering away. I was thinking, 'Oh, they could be Bisonics', but in the corner of the frame there were some children running through a fountain, so I zoomed in on that, slowed it down, cut it about, and the finished piece came in at just the right time as 'Re: Union'. What was brilliant was the appearance of a white car right at the end which tied in with the last verse of 'Re: Union' - 'After three more gins I said "Let's go for a spin, your knee-high boots I long to fill. If your husband doesn't get us, then only cancer will".'
Just like the songs themselves, it came about by sheer serendipity, pure chance. When the components are there, with a bit of mental application one can achieve anything. Like the Castle Camelot in 'Monty Python And The Holy Grail' thing - it was just a photo with a Zippo lighter out-of-shot but placed between the pic and the camera to give it the sense of reality.
But you’d like a major record company backing you?
I'd love our records to be widely available. I'd love not to be scuffling along, looking for a pot to piss in. I'd love an end to this age apartheid in pop music, this utter fanny that says that only 20-somethings have something to say. They've got nothing to say except the same old shit in new toilets.
You've got something new to say?
Bisonics have something different to say. It's not enough to say 'Life sucks' or to paint yourself as the betrayed party, the victim, in a love gone wrong scenario. We actually see, with the benefit of hindsight...
I have a chill in my bladder; carry on while I have another tiddle.
We can take the blame for certain situations. We sing about our imperfections - such as 'A Karaoke Version Of Myself', where what's being addressed is male pride, ego taking a fall, admitting to one's faults: 'There are visions of beauty that can make a heart melt/Mine will neither thaw or bend/I take drugs to remember to drink to forget/Situations I can't wreck or mend/I sidestep sorrow, misery misses by miles/I'm out to lunch should you call for help/These tears are pure crocodile/I use coat-hangers to smile/I'm a karaoke version of myself'.
(Distant:) I can't hear you! But carry on!
There aren't many songs like that. It's rare in Song to admit to being a shit. There's not many songs about marriage break-ups like 'The Sore Thumb Parade' where on one level it's a silly list of clothes but on a deeper level it's about how all that heartbreak and hurt, the emotional cost, comes down to a couple of boxes of ephemeric possessions.
It could be so easy to write to a formula and then to play predictably and have a run-of-the-mill production - which nowadays means engaging in The Loudness War, where music is actually sacrificed on the altar of noise, digital squee - and housed in a CD decorated by moody band pix, gazing at the horizon. But we don't. We like to go a bit deeper.
But you know what I mean, don't you? Where's the joy in doing what everyone else is doing, or repeating what you’ve done before? It sounds solipsistic and egocentric but if I can't bear these songs, why should anyone else? I wouldn't have spent all my money on something I didn't wholeheartedly believe in. And I know music-making is self-indulgent to a vast degree but I believe that someone else out there might get a buzz from it as well. We were never contracted to make this album. No-one forced us to do it. This isn't some obligation that we had to fulfil. We made it – and this sounds so Romantic and ludicrous - because we had to.
Why was it recorded in Norway? Was it the trousers?
That's where the microphones were. My drumming isn't so loud that they'd pick up my paradiddling in Brixton. And Norway’s where Dougie lives and it's only 35 sheets to get there by Ryan Air. It was good for me to get away, and good for him, I think, because his marriage had fallen apart and he needed someone to talk to and also something to distract him from matters of the old jam tart.
Your marriage had ceased too. What’s going on?
We're a couple of sausage jockeys clambering out of the closet. The original plan for the album was for Doug and I to begin recording songs for Si to finish - him replacing my vocals - and then, in early 2011, for us to join up with Si in Queensland - yes, you see, it's all coming out now; the marriage break-ups, Queens-land, ooh yes, we see it all now! Anyway, we were planning on joining up with Si and recording some songs of his. But that never happened. It all went extremely wrong.
Hold on a brief mo. If you were to go to Oz in early 2011, that means ‘Seconds’ was made in 2010. So where does that album by you and Doug, 'Only Two Can Play', come into it?
What happened was - Si, who was already in pretty poor health, he took a turn for the worse. And when you're bedridden, doped to the wig on valium and morphine to ease the pain, the last thing you're going to be able to concentrate on is writing songs. So the Oz trip was cancelled for better or worse. And his condition slowed the production side down to a crawl - a crawl by an ant with no legs. As you can guess, this irritated me no end - it's not Si's fault, this is all down to me being impatient and a monomaniac.
To take my mind off the delay, Doug was good enough to nip into a studio in March 2011 and we made 'Only Two Can Play'. Jason Emberton engineered it and was totally on the teste, bags of swank. It was he who we turned to when Si couldn't complete 'Seconds'. Using the template of what Si had done, Jason and I mixed the remainder sort of 'in the spirit of Si'. I had a few chats via Skype with Si, discussing what he wanted done, and I defy you to spot who mixed what. But that decision was not easily reached. There were some ugly episodes along the way, some tearful moments - like when Doug and I were Skyping with Si and he was so raddled with pain, saying, 'You could pay me a million pounds but there's no way I can physically finish this record.' It was heartbreaking and I felt like a man bereft of any shred of compassion for putting him under so much pressure.
Was the title of you and Big Doug’s record, 'Only Two Can Play', rather pointed?
I never even thought of it like that. What happened was that the original title was 'Two Days In Another Town', and the album sleeve was to be like a film poster, but there was one small but telling detail I wanted made to the picture, and the designer refused to cooperate. Anyway, big row, idea scrapped, change the name - but what to? There was a film called 'Two Weeks In Another Town', made in 1962… 1962… film… Oh yeah, Peter Sellers film, 'Only Two Can Play'. That was just a last-minute, up-to-the-deadline decision. There was nothing snippy or bitchy behind the title at all. In fact, Si played a part in that record, giving ideas about mixing '168' and the instrumental augmentation for the finale to 'The Ancient Britons', a song which he should have sung. The shouty harmony vocal was done by me but in the kind of style in which he would have sung it - a declamatory Ian Hunter mode.
Which songs on 'Seconds' does he play on?
That's irrelevant. Ringo Starr doesn't play on 'Eleanor Rigby' - or 'Back In The USSR', come to that - but it doesn't stop it from being a Beatles song. Roger Daltrey is on barely half of 'The Who Sell Out' but it's still a Who album. A few songs on 'Seconds' has Doug playing everything, near enough, but they are still Bisonics songs. They were conceived for Bisonics, played by Bisonics and produced by Bisonics.
And God love them. Who's playing that xylophone on 'Looking For Carl La Fong'?
That's me. Doug was engineering in the studio and was playing the bed track back - bass and drums - and I was trumping around on this enormo xylophone and he pressed the 'Record' button. There it is, one take, deliberately hitting all the wrong notes. You will also notice a crowd shouting away on the choruses - this was Doug's obsession: Anyone who popped in to his home had to sing 'La Fong!!!!'
Why are there no photos of you all on the cover?
Because there aren't any. There are a couple of grainy snaps, of all three of us, from the 'Play For Today' recording session, but otherwise there’s never been a camera about. I haven't got a porta-phone or whatever they're called. I had hoped to catch Doug and me on the Flip camera, recording 'Only Two Can Play', but it died on me. There’s no chance of a documentary incorporating rare formative footage on the 94th anniversary 2000-disc box set.
Are there any outtakes from the 'Secs' sessions, or did you include everything that was recorded?
There are bits and bobs. Ari Up of The Slits had died the day before a recording session, so we made up a brief tribute -'aRI uP'. The hope was that Si would develop it, add dub effects and pianos, but that fell by the wayside, what with his illness and everything. Then there was a straight-ish love song, called 'Eternally' but the vocal was wretched. And then I fell out with the person it was for and so it had a new lyric and was retitled 'Diary'. I can't remember why now, but there was a word in the song that made me sing in that Ian Curtis alien doom voice and I just couldn't lose it. Er… Yeah. 'Permanent', that was the word. Plus Doug was playing in that Peter Hook lead bass manner.
'One Or Two Things I Know About Her' was the third outtake. A strange hybrid of electro and Irish jig.
Yeah, 'Seven Drunken Robots'. But it didn't make the cut because it was stylistically at odds with all the other material. It was difficult enough trying to sequence a running order that could accommodate 'Broken Pencil', 'Invitation To A Beheading', 'Sore Thumb Parade', 'Shark' - it's all over the place, musically. Sometimes you've got to bite the bullet and leave the little lady at the station. Sorry, I don't know what I'm talking about.
How did you arrive at your running odour?
There is an art to getting songs sitting pretty, so that each one is illuminated and enhanced by the others rubbing their shoulders. Two slow ones together can really bring the album to a grinding halt. In the end what we did was plot a path from darkness to light. The opening song is nihilistic, jaded, beyond despair - attending a beheading for entertainment. From there we travel through the poisoned worlds of hate, self-destruction through booze and drugs, porn addiction... but slowly we get through that and begin to connect with the world and other people, to care, to give. 'Broken Pencil' is saying, in its way, that - despite all the hurt - life is worth living, and 'Seconds Out', which had the working title of 'Living Is Giving, Denying Is Dying', is a shedding of all the bilious baggage one is burdened with.
What's the line in 'Seconds Out' about 'rainbow tea'?
The image is of a rainbow reflected in a cup of tea. No more tempests in the teapot. For now, anyway.
Paul Hamilton, put the kettle on.
John Hind is the author of 'The Comic Inquisition' and regular columnist for The Observer.