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Chumbawamba - Guest Editors - 22 February 2010


To kick off the Chumbawamba guest editorship of the good ship Spiral Earth we have a short interview with them. There are some real treats in store for you this week, from a description of how Chumba work together to their take on the eternal subject of 'What is folk music?'.

You always pull in a great array of friends to play on your albums, is the recording process as enjoyable as it sounds for you?

One of the joys for us of working more in the folk scene is the ease with which you can get people to play on your albums. There’s none of that rock’n’roll, ‘I’ll get my people to talk to your people’ nonsense, you just phone them up. In fact, I had an initial chat with Jon Boden on his mobile when he was walking back from the pub, we sent him some music files, he recorded the fiddle and sent them back, Neil did his studio trickery and there you have it – three wonderful tracks of fiddle without us ever being in the same room together. Perhaps not quite in the spirit of the folk session, but invaluable for people leading busy lives.

It’s not always like that. Chopper carted his cello up the spiral staircase to the studio in the attic, in between gigs in Derby and Sheffield with the Oysterband, and gave us some haunting harmonica as well as the instant gravitas cello. Jo Freya stayed overnight between gigs and rattled off a sax part one Sunday morning. So it’s all pretty low-key.

There’s a lot of hype about the agony of recording. Radiohead said they weren’t going to record another album because it would kill them – I just laughed and made the sandwiches for lunch then nipped upstairs to do a backing vocal. Having the studio in the house obviously helps – we can fit in around the other stuff we have going on in our lives. It takes the pressure off if you haven’t gone somewhere for two weeks knowing you’ve got to finish an album in that time.

Can you tell me a bit about the No Masters Collective?

No Masters has been an absolute lifesaver for us. Even at the height of our popstardom, EMI in the UK weren’t very keen on us. Giving away a CD single about Tony Blair in 1999 probably didn’t endear us to them. It was frowned upon by head of UK EMI, who wrote to tell us that 'Tony Blair's a nice chap', before confiscating office copies. Anyway a few years down the line we found ourselves in the bizarre position of being signed to a record label in Germany and virtually unable to get any interest from anyone in the UK.

By the time we were recording Singsong and a Scrap, we decided we needed to sort it out and approached No Masters. We knew Coope, Boyes and Simpson by then – we’d sampled them on Readymades and they’d sung on Singsong, but we also knew No Masters wasn’t a record label in the normal sense of the word. If you become part of it you’re essentially joining a co-operative, and you’re expected to take on some responsibilities within it. Obviously, that fitted in pretty well with the way we work anyway – we like to be involved in what’s going on rather than just having someone do it on our behalf. So we were perfect for each other. And in fact our joining coincided with Jim and Georgina Boyes wanting to hand over a lot of the responsibility they had for the day-to-day running of the co-op, so we’ve taken a lot of that on – and there’s now an in-house engineer/producer, graphic designer, and website designer. And it’s twenty years old this year, and still out there doing interesting stuff.

Metallica seem to have got right up your noses since their (unintentionally) hilarious Some Kind Of Monster documentary, do they sum up everything that's wrong with music as showbiz, or is that Simon Cowell?

I don’t know if it’s music as showbiz that they epitomise, so much as music driven by monstrous egos and a belief in their own hype. You look at them and think – have you actually seen Spinal Tap? Did it not give you even the tiniest pause for reflection? They have no sense of their own ridiculousness, which is probably not a charge that could ever be levelled against us. They speak out so vehemently on things that they really haven’t thought through. Lars was genius with the whole lawsuit against Napster – he mouthed off so much about how it wasn’t about money that everyone assumed that it must be. A classic case of protesting too much. (In fact, what he actually said to Rolling Stone magazine was “F**k you - it wasn't about money. It was about control.”) Obviously we immediately had to sample them.

The gaffes just keep coming with Metallica: illegal downloads, the documentary, the most recent album being too loud and over-compressed and then James Hetfield comes out and says he’s proud their music has been used to torture Guantanamo prisoners “It represents something that they don’t like—maybe freedom, aggression… I don’t know… Freedom of speech.“ Although he thinks music and politics don’t mix – obviously. So writing a song about torturing James Hetfield with Chumbawamba’s music was irresistible. Having said all that, they are at least a proper band unlike what Simon Cowell’s been responsible for foisting onto the world in recent years. (Over to you Boff …)

Chumbawamba means vastly different things to different people, a voice of common sense and reason to some and anarchists destroying society to readers of the Daily Mail... Has that sometimes distorted profile hampered your careers do you think, or conversely aided it?

We used to get so many terrible reviews that were basically just slagging us off that we had an entire page on the website dedicated to them. Within some sections of the music press in the UK there is still a huge prejudice against us. And you’re forever known for being the band that had the hit single and threw the water over John Prescott, both of which we’re proud of, so some people never get past that. We’ve got friends who think we might be heading towards national treasure status, but I’m not sure, I don’t think we’re cool enough for that.

ABCDEFG is your 17th album and its theme is music, or more specifically the ideas and feelings that music engenders. Across the range of musical scenarios that you explore, what are the most significant ones for you?

Well the main thing about these songs and about how we think about music is that this is an incredibly intense and loving relationship we have, ie us and music. A relationship not without its quarrels and fights, but essentially full of passion and love. We didn’t start playing music to have a career, we started because we loved to play and sing. And from the very beginning we knew that this ‘music’ was much bigger than chords and notes and melodies, it was also about context and history and politics and ideas. When we started to put this band together our soundtrack was Elvis Costello, Crass, Dick Gaughan, Robert Wyatt, The Fall, The Slits, John Peel every night for two hours playing Misty in Roots and Viv Stanshall – all this incredible British culture which was so varied and inspiring and so full of ideas. So I’m hard-pressed to say what’s a ‘most significant’ musical scenario; we love the whole kit and kaboodle of it, the why and wherefore of it, the ups and downs and bloody out-of-tunes of it.

How did you come up with the concept for the album, or did it just emerge from the writing?

Oh no, it didn’t just emerge – our albums never just emerge, they come out of talking and banging out ideas and suggestions and changing our minds and writing lists, and it’s not until we have a fully-formed idea and shape and direction that we actually sit down to start to write. The idea is the main thing for us. Something which propels the writing, which gives the whole thing form before we’ve even picked up guitars and opened our gobs to sing. We sit round at meetings with an agenda full of the usual business stuff but then at the bottom of the agenda there’ll be ‘Next album’, and it’s always the last item because we know it’ll be a long, long item! We discuss what other people are doing, what we’ve been listening to, how we want things to be different from the last album. I think with this album we probably had about ten or so ideas, and the fact it ended up being about music wasn’t easy – there were still doubts about it until the last minute. But once we’re agreed on the idea then the writing and rehearsing and recording have at least got structure and purpose. I have to say, this was a really enjoyable thing to work on, despite panicking because we were also doing a theatre tour when we were supposed to be recording the album …

Over those 17 albums you have seen the music business change out of all recognition. In many ways it now favours the individual and smaller labels, what are your views on the failure of the corporate labels to keep up with events?

F*ck ‘em! Apologies for the language, but that’s a succinct way of saying it. The corporates rip off the public with new technology again and again, and suddenly the boot is on the other foot. How delicious to watch the company bosses and their idiot puppets (Madonna, Metallica etc) suddenly demanding that the public be ‘responsible to the artists’ and pay full whack for music instead of downloading it for free.

Two things: Firstly, I remember growing up with cassettes, taping songs from the radio, swapping them, taping them for others, making compilations; taping John Peel every night was done with a religious fervour. It shaped me and made me obsessive about music, made me love it for life. It didn’t stop me buying it or supporting the artists I loved; it fed my habit, made it even more intense.

Secondly, I remember how the big companies jumped on the CD reissue train, knowing that people were going to have to replace their entire record collections with this new format; a cheaper, more easily-manufactured format. They had the chance to pass on this new cheap manufacturing cost to the public, but they didn’t do it – instead they sold CD’s for a vastly-increased profit margin. How and why are we now supposed to feel sorry for them? I don’t buy the argument that this is about the poor, struggling artist; it’s about record company shareholders.

Download culture has spawned loads of successful new bands and artists. Nowadays people swap URL’s like they used to swap tapes; have you heard of blah blah, he/she’s a singer-songwriter from Ireland, here’s a link to their YouTube video, check out their MySpace site … and blam, you’re hooked, a new artist is discovered and loved and bloody hell if I don’t go buying everything he or she ever releases.

How would you like Chumbawamba to be remembered in the history books?

Ha! As I’ve said before somewhere, we’ll be remembered as a footnote; the band who chucked water over the Deputy Prime Minister; the band who had a hit with song about falling over and getting up. And I’m happy with that, to be honest. Of course we’d like to be remembered as being part of British culture, as having played a part in talking about the changing world around us. But let’s face it, Falling over song will win in the end.