Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Howard Davies

A lot of students seem to know who you are without knowing exactly what you do – what does the role of Director entail on a week by week basis?

I sometimes wonder as well! Roughly, I would say about half the time is management. The Director’s management team meets every week, which makes all kinds of decisions about all kinds of routine, daily things. Then I chair the Academic Board, the APRC, which is the Resource Allocation Committee, the Promotions Committee, and the Appointments Committee. Then there are others that I don’t chair but that I still go to, like the Council, the Court and the Finance Committee. This is an organisation with a turnover of about £150 million, so you have to have good management control and financial control.

Another quarter of my time is on a combination of fundraising and external representation, which merges together, because if you’re talking to an alumni group, they want to know about the School, but also in the long run they are probably going to be financial supporters. Fundraising for a university isn’t “Give me money”, it’s explaining what the School is doing and talking about interesting people within the School.

The other quarter of the time is activities within the School. Some teaching - I lecture on the Law and Accounting programme and others. Also, some student things, for example I’m currently rehearsing for ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Also some research that I do myself - I don’t do a full scale academic job but I’ve published one book since I’ve been here and I’ve got another one coming this month, and quite a lot of articles as well.

Your public profile, whether it is chairing the Man Booker Prize or appearing on Radio 4 to discuss the World Economic Forum, is relatively high. Is this something that you feel is beneficial for the school?

If you look back at the LSE tradition, the distinctive feature of the school is that it has always been an engaged academic institution. Some people like to claim that it’s had a particular political leaning, which I don’t really think is true. If you look at the combination of people here - you’ve had the likes of Hayek and Popper at one end to people like Laski and the Webbs on the other. But whoever it’s been most LSE Directors have been actively engaged in political policy. Giddens clearly was, in a different way from me, and certainly Dahrendorf and Beveridge were. That’s the tradition of the job, and I think people like that. Many of the students here are interested in what’s going on in the outside world, and the fact that the School is engaged in that debate seems to fit.


We reported last week that the School has a surplus which it is using for capital investment. What difference will the various redevelopments make?

First of all, about this surplus. If you look at our finances the core activities of the school, the teaching, research and degree programmes, is about the break-even proposition. Where we make surpluses is on executive education, the summer school, Enterprise LSE, residences in the summer and things like that. That’s where the profit comes from. If you look at our balance sheet, we’re relatively highly indebted for this sector. Oxford and Cambridge have basically got no debt because they were sort of given their land. Most of what we’ve got we had to buy. We don’t get much Government support. We get about £3 million a year for capital, and since the New Academic building is costing £70 million, you’ve got to make the money yourself.

My view when I arrived here was that the facilities of this place did not match its international reputation, so I thought we had to go for a major redevelopment project. The first stage is the New Academic Building, and then we have to redevelop St Philip’s. That will be a brand new Students’ Union building. The Students’ Union facilities here are, in my view, poor. I mean, they’ve got character. The Underground and the Quad are fun places to be, they generate good events, but they’re not great. Clearly the sports facilities are poor, so the only way you’ll do significantly better is with a new building.

So we’re doing that next, and then in about 2011 we can empty the Students’ Union and the towers above it, and redevelop it. That’s the tricky bit, because it’s right in the middle. Nobody can hide the fact that that will be quite disruptive, and that’s why we need to do the other thing first.

The one thing that I think we’ll be able to do sooner is the sports facilities. So I think we can refurb the gym as a temporary solution until the new building in four or five years.

Won’t the ever-increasing student numbers place a strain on facilities while work is going on?

We shouldn’t have a problem maintaining the numbers we’ve got. I don’t think we’d be able to expand and I don’t want to expand any further. 9,000 is what we planned to do by 2011-2012. The new building gives us an extra 125,000 square feet, and almost doubles the teaching space in the School.

You’ve said that the School should be aiming for a first on People and Planet’s environmental performance league. Are we on course this year?

I think so. We’ve increased the amount of green energy, and also there were various technical things that hit us last time, like not having a travel plan on the website. In fact our travel is not a big deal. I was at a meeting of international university leaders, and the guy from Yale said “I think we should commit to having low emission vehicles in all our fleets”. So I said “We don’t actually have a car.” He just laughed; it never occurred to him that we could have a whole university and not own a vehicle at all. So on things like travel we’re very good actually, because almost everybody comes in on public transport. We haven’t got a car park. We have a bike scheme that a load of people use, so I think we’ll do well on that – we just didn’t have a policy stated on the website.

We’ve also set up a new sustainable LSE partnership, which I chair, which met for the first time just recently, and various workgroups below it, so I hope we’ll do better this year – but the bars always going to be raised.


You have said in that past that it is important to ensure MSc Courses offer value for money. Do they?

Well, it really relates to the teaching taskforce. Value for money in education is a tricky concept. On the one hand, if you look at demand, there’s not an issue. Demand has gone up 23% this year for Masters programmes. If you were just a business, you’d say “Well what the hell! They all want to come.” The second aspect of value for money is what people do afterwards, and there you wouldn’t say there is a problem, I think we’re the highest starting salary on graduation. One reason that people come here is that it does improve their market value.

On the other hand, I don’t think that’s all we should be doing. There is evidence that people’s satisfaction with teaching here is not what we would like it to be. That’s what the teaching taskforce has been looking at, in terms of contact hours, class sizes, use of graduate teaching assistants and everything else, and I hope that we can put more into that. Obviously this is something that you have to bring the academic community along with, because it’s largely their work. So we’re going to be taking a set of proposals to the Academic Board in the Summer Term, and I hope that we can get agreement on it, but we’re still debating it at the moment.

You are now two years into the five-year planning process to renew the curriculum. How instructive has that been, and how much change should we expect to current academic programmes?

Well, the planning process here was what I call ‘decibel planning’. He who shouts loudest, gets most. We thought that this was not ideal, and given that we had an extra 1,000 students to share around we started a process to look at what sort of degrees we didn’t have. We’ve now brought in an MSc in Finance, an MSc in Financial Mathematics, which has got an absolute mountain of applications, an MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and others. So it was a good process that has produced a set of new degrees. There will be a continued roll out because you have to refresh the degree portfolio. For example, the European Institute had a degree on the growth of Europe to the east. Well that’s kind of happened now, so courses get revamped. Also, a big chunk was the new Management programmes.

Students’ Union

What are you expecting from the new Sabbatical team?

The students’ union plays an important role in the management of the school. What we need is a good sounding board on the issues that are of interest of us running the school. We’ve had a good response on athletics. We’ve said we are prepared to invest some money in this, what do you want? I can guess what a 19-year-old girl wants to do with her spare time, but I don’t know. It’s much better if the Union can intermediate in that way. You need Sabbaticals who care about that part of the job. I’m not stupid and I’ve been here for five years and I know that there are other things that student politicians want to do. They want to debate the state of the world, and that’s fine. I hope that they don’t spend all their time on that, because the reason that they are paid to be full time sabbaticals is not for that. It’s because they have a role in the running of the school. What I hope is that you get people who do care about the school as an institution, who are worried about the basic stuff about how we teach and facilities. Because that is an important element of decision making process. That’s what I hope for every year, and I am sometimes disappointed!

But this year for example Ruhana has really thrown herself into that. She’s been to every meeting of the teaching taskforce, she’s surveyed people, and she’s held focus groups. That’s what we want.

Any other thoughts on the outgoing Sabbaticals?

Fadhil has been a very assiduous attender of things. He’s certainly never shirked the job.

You occasionally have to push and prod about issues in relation to the School, because they can get distracted on to other issues. It seems that the Union’s finances have been soundly managed. I have no complaints about the Sabbaticals this year.

You are presumably aware of the new General Secretary from his time campaigning against the appointment of Peter Sutherland. Firstly, did you ever expect the protests that arose following the appointment?

No I didn’t really, because there were students involved in the selection process. I was surprised because normally here, although people may have different views about things the School’s got fairly painstaking decision-making processes. Sometimes I think extensively painstaking, but it does. Unlike many places the students are heavily involved in decision-making. They were involved in decision-making on my reappointment, which is unknown elsewhere, and in the appointment of the Chair, and I don’t know of anywhere else where that is the case. Normally, once a decision is made here – one of the advantages of painstaking processes is that when a decision is made, people say “Okay, I’ve had my say”. In this case, I thought people would say “Well that’s the decision. He may not be the person we’d have chosen, but that’s what it is.” They did not, and that was I think disappointing. Anyway, he is chairing Councils, so they’ll just have to live with it.

Do you foresee any problems with the two working together on Council next year?

I presume he wouldn’t be prepared to be General Secretary if he didn’t know what it involved. Not attending Council meetings would be rather curious, so I presume he’ll turn up!

Much has been made in the press of the Israel Divestment motion. Considering the School-backed proposals for a forum on the Arab-Israeli conflict, are you concerned about anti-Semitism on campus?

There are three dimensions to this. Firstly, the Students’ Union’s right to engage in these issues. I’ve no problem with that and I am prepared to stand up for that and do so when pressed on the issue. That’s fine.

The second thing is the implications for the School. As far as the divestment is concerned, I think there’s a lot of confusion. The LSE does not invest any of its students’ money in anything, actually, except short term deposits. We are net debtors, asking me about my net investments is like asking how I invest my overdraft, it’s meaningless. The idea that there is money coming from student fees that we are investing in arms companies is just not the case. Now we do have an endowment, that’s money that’s come from other people, effectively all of which is hypothecated income for scholarships or Chairs. That’s the money that we invest, and it’s almost exclusively invested in index funds, usually Charitrack. We have about £55 million. This is compared to Harvard’s £30 billion pounds. £55 million across the whole of the world’s investment markets is trivial.

That said, we do think it is reasonable to debate whether the School should have more of an active investment policy. We have typically been passive investors. With £55 million, some of which is in boxes and little pots with specifications from individual donors, there’s a limit to what you can do, but we are discussing whether we should have a responsible investment policy and say there are some things we will do and some things we won’t do. That’s still under debate.

The third point is that it is the case that some of the student societies, the Israeli society and the Jewish society, did approach the school to say that they were concerned about community relations, and they felt that this was spilling over into a degree of hostility which was not a good thing. They asked if we would support a kind of dialogue process within the student body. We said yes, and there are one or two people here who have experience of conflict resolution, so we offered their assistance. So far, I don’t believe this has started. There have been proposals and societies have come back and said they don’t like this or that. They are still engaged in a debate, and I haven’t seen the latest terms of the debate except when I see it in letters to The Beaver. But I am concerned that the school should not be seen as a place which is hostile to students of any particular community, whoever that might be. I think so far we’ve managed to achieve that. I think there are people who are concerned that it has been a hostile environment and that I don’t like. That’s why we were prepared to support this dialogue.

There are people out there who have thought that the School has passed motions as opposed to the Students’ Union. There are people who thought the Students’ Union passed the first motion, which had the more inflammatory language in it. I get emails congratulating me on passing a resolution as Israel as an apartheid state, and have to point out that I haven’t passed any resolutions and furthermore the resolution that did get passed did not actually use that language. There’s a lot of misunderstanding.

The Future

Your term runs until 2013, what are your remaining ambitions for the School?

First of all, the big plan for the campus. To get that done, without getting in to more debt than we can manage, is obviously the big thing that I have to do. The other thing is to keep the LSE relevant.

For example, the economics of climate change. We will be the big British centre for the economics of climate change. I’m trying to raise some money to build a bigger research programme and I’d like to think that people around Europe will say, the LSE is the place to go for the economics of climate change. That’s why I persuaded Nick Stern to come back to the school to build that. I also think there is a gap in the market for an academic institution that is engaged in diplomacy. I continue to hanker after having a proper Middle East centre here, and also I would like to develop further our urban work, because I think that the big social and environmental issues will all be addressed in the big cities.

Those are not ambitions I can personally achieve on my own; they depend on gathering together groups of academics who want to do them. At a school of this kind you’ve got to be fleet of foot and be able to develop new centres and degree programmes. For example, I’d like to have an MSc Economics of Climate Change which meant that you were training people who could go into governments and corporations and would have a tool kit so that they could understand what makes sense in terms of investments to reducing carbon emissions. I think that would be our best contribution.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Joseph Stiglitz

For a man who has just uncovered the simply vast amounts of money his country is squandering on a war he describes as “stupid”, Joe Stiglitz is surprisingly jovial. He is quick to laugh and engages with a wide smile, and doesn’t strike you as either a bookish Nobel laureate or as the “green eye-shaded accountant” that the Bush administration attempted to dismiss him as.

Bush now has another reason to dismiss Stiglitz, following the publication of ‘The $3 Trillion War’; named for the true cost he believes America will pay for its decision to invade Iraq. Standing on the brink of that day’s fifth anniversary now is the time to assess what Stiglitz points out is “the second longest war in America’s history, after the Vietnam War, and the second most costly, after World War II.”

Stiglitz provides many examples of what could be bought for a fraction of the price of the Iraq War – the USA’s spending on autism research equates to four hours in Iraq, ten days fighting costs $5billion, which amounts to total American aid to Africa each year, and one sixth of an Iraq War would pay the United States’ social security needs for the next half-century.

Of course, despite its cost, World War II was famously credited with lifting America out of the great depression, and has helped to promulgate the cliché that war is good for the economy - a misconception that Stiglitz aims to correct. “Wars use resources that could have been used to promote economic growth, and the fact is that since Keynes we know how to stimulate the economy in more constructive ways. This war has been particularly bad for the economy because of the impact that it’s had on the price of oil (oil prices per barrel have risen from $25 before the war to $100), and because it was totally deficit financed. Even as we went to the war we had large deficits, but then the Bush administration actually lowered taxes for the rich. The symptoms didn’t show up because they were hidden by lax regulation which flooded the economy with liquidity which was buoying the economy as these other factors were depressing it. We were in effect living on borrowed money and borrowed time, and a day of reckoning had to come, and it’s now come.”

Stiglitz believes that the actions of the regulatory authorities have had a direct impact on the current financial crisis. “The monetary authorities thought they had to do what they needed to do to keep the American economy going. The high oil prices and the war was having an adverse effect on the economy, and they simply did what they thought was right, but in a very myopic, short-sighted way – and it worked, in a very myopic, short-sighted way. The symptoms of what the war was doing, of what the high oil prices were doing, were not evident. They now have become evident. But the problem is, by postponing the cost we have increased the cost. The cost the economy is going to have to pay, not only the American economy but the global economy, will be a multiple of what it otherwise would have been.”

There can be no doubting Stiglitz’s determination to keep the issue of the war at the forefront of political debate at this crucial time for American politics. As far as he is concerned, it is the biggest issue there is. “My work focuses on the economics of the public sector, and you might say that the Iraq War is the single largest public project that the United States has undertaken. Typically when we begin a project like building a bridge, we do a cost-benefit analysis. We certainly don’t undertake a large project without looking at the cost. This was a war of choice. But we began the war without thinking about the cost.”

For Stiglitz, however, there is more than just the financial cost to consider. There is also the cost to the idea of democracy. “This was a war that, in part, was allegedly to spread democracy. Democracy means that citizens ought to be able to participate in decisions, and meaningful participation means that they have to know the consequences, and among the consequences are the costs. It seemed to me that if we are going to be talking about democracy then it was important for the American citizens to know what this particular project was costing. The Bush administration did everything it could to hide the costs from the American people. I’m testifying in congress on Thursday, and one of the points I’m going to make is that we should not have had to write this book, and if we did have to write the book it should have been a lot easier.”

Stiglitz explains how the Freedom of Information act was required to uncover even rudimentary information about the number of people injured in the war. In the course of the investigation he also turned up more alarming discoveries, such as the fact that the military were denied a request for MRAPs (Mine-resistant ambush-protected armoured vehicles) which Stiglitz argued would have saved a large fraction of lives, at a short term cost which will now be far outweighed by caring for the injured.

With a war this badly managed, it seems to me that those in charge must be either highly incompetent or highly corrupt, I ask Stiglitz which he sees. “There are elements of both. The Bush administration deliberately tried to obscure what these costs were and has continued to try to obscure it. Particularly the way the money has been appropriated in 24 separate bills, including emergency appropriations five years after the war started. When you go to war it’s an emergency, but five years later you should be able to plan. The way they have deliberately hidden information clearly shows an intent for people not to know. But there’s also an element of what you might call self-deception. The bureaucracy has been created to have a whole set of checks and balances, because you realise that people like to please their superiors. The Bush administration short-circuited many of these checks and balances, and the predictable consequence is that the quality of information was lower than it otherwise would have been. Then they said “How could we have known?” So they were responsible in part for the low quality of information, and many of the specific things they did predictably raised costs. For example, the behaviour of the contractors that were hiring people from Nepal and the Philippines rather than hiring Iraqis, fed the unemployment, while the failure to safeguard the weapons caches, meant that you had an explosive mixture: unemployed young men with weapons, and that explosive combination exploded. Now that was predictable.”

He points out the $19.3 Billion that Halliburton have received in contested contracts in Iraq, and describes current defence spending as “corporate welfare.” He bluntly observes “weapons don’t work against enemies who don’t exist.”

Looking to the future, it is hard to resist wondering how Stiglitz views the upcoming presidential elections. He is blunt about the differences between the candidates. “What is clear is that McCain’s policy, saying that we may be there for 100 years, is not the right policy. If you extrapolate what 100 years would cost, it’s huge. If you ask what the benefits are, it’s hard to ascertain. Obama has been quite forthright in saying he’s not against wars in general, but he is against stupid wars. And this was a stupid war. He was aware of the kind of divisions that existed, and therefore the difficulty of obtaining a sound outcome to the war, and he’s called for a quick withdrawal. I think that those are all policies that are consistent with prudent actions.”

How does he rate the chances of seeing Obama in the White House? At this question he smiles and nods, a look of real excitement in his eyes. And would this mean a return for the man who spent three years as chair of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors? “Perhaps”, he laughs, but maybe a different job this time. At least Obama has already expressed a desire to have Stiglitz as an advisor. The current administration’s response to Stiglitz’s appearance before Congress was derisory. “People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can’t even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9/11,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "It is also an investment in the future safety and security of Americans and our vital national interests. $3 trillion? What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented? Or doesn't his slide rule work that way?"

Whoever wins in November, the world should listen to Stiglitz. Whether or not Joe can catch the ear of the next administration could have a serious effect on the cost the globe is forced to pay for Bush’s most spectacular folly.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Frank Dobson

Frank Dobson has become one of the Labour Party’s defining MP. A constructive critic of the New Labour experiment, he is a former Secretary of State for Health as well as an LSE graduate. He says he studied Economics, “In theory anyway. I know enough Economics to know when someone else is talking bollocks and that’s about it really.”

“I think LSE has changed, I think more attention is now paid to undergraduates than used to be. Certainly at the time I was there, my impression was that there wasn’t a great deal of attention. In the past I’ve caused offence by saying that I don’t think I really got very much from the academic staff there. But I gained a lot from talking and listening to my fellow students, who were from all over the world. It was a remarkable change for me coming from an all-white grammar school in the north of England.“ Dobson says he enjoyed student life immensely. “If you don’t enjoy yourself for three years of pretending to be an academic, you’re never going to enjoy yourself are you?”

Perhaps surprisingly for a man who is now in his 28th year as an MP, he was not involved in SU politics. “I didn’t particularly like student politics, and I still don’t. I think it’s certainly a way of learning the ‘dark arts’ of politics, but generally speaking, it never appealed to me. I was involved in other political campaigning but that wasn’t done through the Students’ Union, which was fairly tedious and a lot of willy-waving, and whatever is the female equivalent of willy-waving.” I told him that it hasn’t changed much, and he leant back in his chair, laughing heartily.

After leaving LSE Dobson became a local councillor. “I was a member of the Labour party throughout that whole period. I lived in Passfield Hall and then in a flat in Bury Place, near the British Museum, and continued living there when I ceased to be a student. I got heavily involved in local campaigns, basically related to stopping the residential population being driven out, and houses and flats being turned into offices. That was how I got involved in campaigning and the local Labour party, and in many senses that was why I stood for the council in 64. I didn’t get on, but I then stood for the council again in 71, and was elected. That was very heavily to do with trying to make sure that there remained a normal, ordinary, resident population.”

Dobson has now been a member of the Labour party for almost half a century. I asked him how he has dealt with the changes that have occurred in that time. “It was frustrating – I spent eighteen years in opposition, of which I think sixteen were on the front bench. Also, playing a part in - being close to Neil Kinnock – saving the party from ruin, really. Gradually strengthening the party, and after 1992, when Neil decided to pack in, I was a strong supporter of John Smith. I was very saddened by his premature death. Then supporting Tony Blair.”

I asked him what he thinks of Martin Bell’s recent assessment that New Labour got a lot of things right but threw them away with an illegal war. “The bulk of our election manifesto in 1997 was an up-to-date Labour manifesto. Most of the things that were introduced then were a modern version of a fairly traditional Labour approach to things. Things like the national minimum wage, actually getting people back to work or tax credits to ensure people actually got a decent wage. The last time John Smith spoke at the TUC he asked me to help with the speech, and I think I contributed two phrases. One was ‘A Britain on work, not a Britain on benefits’, and we wanted to make sure that when “people worked for a living, they were paid a living wage”. The Labour government in the first few years delivered on that, and continues to deliver on it, which is a dramatic assertion of timeless Labour values. Quite a lot of the things that we did in health, and in education, were along the same lines, and most of the things that have worked fall into that category. The things that haven’t worked are the fancy Blairite ideas, this obsession with choice and diversity. A certain elitism, and a belief that the best way to improve local hospitals is to have one supremely wonderful and the others will aspire to be like it. Similarly with schools, which is clearly claptrap. If you want to improve the worst performing institutions, you attend to the worst performing institutions. It is an obsession with elitism and management-ism, if you see what I mean, because if you look at it from the point of view of the patient, or the pupils, then you should be addressing the needs of the people who are getting the worst deal. Not marginal improvements for the people who are getting the best deal.”

“As far as the war’s concerned, I don’t think the fact that it’s illegal is of much consequence one way or the other. Combinations of powerful nation states make up international law, and it may have been an illegal law or not. But it was stupid. That’s the main offence. We’re in a worse position now than if we’d not got involved in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The first duty of any government is to ensure the safety and security of the country and it’s citizens at home and abroad. No one could possibly argue that we’re safer either at home or abroad. We’re infinitely less so. I used to carry around the page out of Hansard which was my speech in the February debate about a month before we actually went to war. My only criticism of myself in there was that I think I give the Prime Minister too much…I don’t doubt his intentions at that time. Also, I understate the things that I predict will go wrong. They’ve been worse than predicted. That continued and continued, and it was what led in the end to him going as soon as he did. Because my impression is that the absolutely craven, stupid position we got into over the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon, when we were the only country in the world, apart from Israel and the US, who weren’t saying that they should withdraw. That was the pits. I think a lot of people who’d given him the benefit of the doubt up until that point decided that there really wasn’t any doubt any more. He was just getting it wrong, wrong and wrong again, because we were tied into the United States. I think Iraq has also restricted our capacity to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons if they want to. I don’t want Iran having nuclear weapons, and I can’t see any sensible person who does, but Iraq has made it more difficult to do anything about that. Also, I think action would have been taken to prevent what’s been happening in Darfur, apart from the embarrassment of you can’t have a go at another Muslim, another Arab government. It has been a total, unrelenting disaster.”

There have been successes of course, Dobson mentions the “phenomenal” investments in the NHS, Gordon Brown’s work on overseas aid and cites John Prescott as an unsung hero for his work on the Kyoto agreement. He even singles out Blair for “a huge amount of credit for the settlement in Northern Ireland.”

However, he retains his belief that Labour can do better. He points out that NHS improvements have been undermined by costs spent on consultants and lawyers, and the private sector currently receives 11% more per operation than the NHS.

As a former London Mayoral candidate, I asked Dobson for his thoughts on the position. “My view on the mayor’s position has always been that I think this total singling out of the mayor is not the best approach. I’ve always preferred what might be called the ‘Barcelona Model’ which was that each political group would have councillors elected and they would say which of theirs would be mayor if they won, but the mayor would not be so separate as is the case in the United States and now here, but would remain part of the ruling group.”

And as for Boris Johnson? “Were, by some freak of fate, he to become Mayor I don’t think he would succeed. But I doubt he will do very well. You never know because there is this sort of “oh, well he’s quite funny on TV” “He can’t be as stupid as he pretends to be”. I think in some aspects he is as stupid as he pretends to be. Well not quite as stupid, very few people could be as stupid as he pretends to be and still be able to ride a bike.”

“More bothersome is trying to combat the BNP. With our current electoral system there is a significant danger that the BNP will get some members of the Greater London Authority this coming year, which would be very harmful for lots and lots of people in London.”

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Paul Oakenfold

“I never said that. That’s the last thing I’d want to do. Fuckin’ Ell!”

Paul Oakenfold reacted with amusement and seemingly genuine shock when I mentioned a rumour that I’d read online about him planning to sing on his new tracks.

“I don’t even sing in the shower that’s how bad I am. That’s the last thing I’d want to do. Fuckin’ Ell!” Well, I suppose that’s what you get for using Wikipedia for research. Let this be a lesson to us all.

We were sat in the Ascott Hotel, an exclusive Mayfair hotel just off Hyde Park. It is not one of the grander, showier affairs on the park itself, but its discreet entrance indicates an understated elegance. We were in the basement, in a conference room where Oakenfold had spent the day answering questions, apparently mostly about the Big Brother theme - the only cultural context within which Middle England understands him. His assistant left us alone, and despite the size of the room we squeezed ourselves into two chairs close together at one end of the mahogany conference table.

He asked me whether I wanted a cup of coffee, and indicated a pot on the far side of the room. Without thinking I said ‘yes’, and a moment of awkwardness followed. I wanted a drink, but I couldn’t get to the coffee without squeezing uncomfortably past him. Either I asked a man who’s sold over five million albums, without including his countless remix sales, to go and get me a drink, or I stick my ass in his face.

Noticing my hesitation, Oakenfold rose to get me my coffee, apparently without thinking anything of it. Thank fuck for that, I thought, but then realised I’d have to say something to break the silence before being waited on became too weird. “Sorry to come at the end of a day of interviews – I’ll try and think of something original to talk about. ”He flashed a wide grin back at me from across the room. “Good Luck!” he chuckled, with the air of a man who has been dealing with the attention of journalists for twenty years.

In that time he’s gone from playing tiny provincial clubs to selling out the Hollywood Bowl. But now, strangely enough, he’s going back. “I’m really looking forward to the tour. I left the UK five years ago, so it’s been a long time. I’m excited to be going to the likes of Swansea or Hull, and playing small venues in Manchester.”

It was in Manchester, of course, in which Oakenfold first made his name producing the Happy Monday’s seminal ‘Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches.’ I ask him whether this tour feels like a homecoming. “It doesn’t at the moment, but it will. I’ve got bunches of friends all over the country, so I’ll be meeting up with them, going to dinner – I just spoke to a friend from Liverpool who tells me they’re tearing up the city at the moment – road works and that. You always notice the differences. I haven’t played in some of these places for 10 years.”

By his own admission, Oakenfold is not the sort of person to spend time looking back. He describes his biography, on which he collaborated with Richard Norris, as a “long process”. “I’ve always thought the past’s the past and you can’t change it so let’s move on. I’ve never kept a diary. But people are interested. The question I get asked most is ‘How do you do it?’ So the book tries to answer that. I went back and spoke to people, and I think we’ve built up a pretty good timeline of how it all happened. Maybe it’s not the specific day when I did this or that, but its close enough.”

Even without his music, Oakenfold has a presence which fills the room. His tattooed forearms are in perpetual motion, and he has an expansive grin, especially when he’s talking about having a point to prove on the forthcoming tour. “I love it. I’m playing to a whole new generation of kids who’ve never seen me DJ. They maybe know the name, but they’ve never heard me play so it’s like ‘Who the fuck are you?’ I enjoy that challenge.”

You get the impression that it is also an opportunity for Oakenfold to prove to himself that he’s still got what it takes. More than anything he hates the idea that living in LA, where he moved when he scored 'Swordfish', might have taken his edge off. “DJing isn’t my main job any more. I’m living in Hollywood – which is the last place I thought I’d be. I never thought I’d move to the States. But I was offered the chance to score a film and I thought, ‘A door’s opened here, and if I don’t take this opportunity I’ll regret it for my whole life.”

As well as the DJing, the film scores and the remixing, Oakenfold has produced two of his own studio albums. His most recent album, last year’s ‘A Lively Mind’ featured vocals from the likes of Brittany Murphy and Pharrel Williams, but his debut, 2002’s ‘Bunkka’, featured an even more eclectic mix of guest vocalists, ranging from Perry Farrell to Ice Cube.

Crazy Town’s Shifty Shellshock featured on the single ‘Starry Eyed Surprise’, which was omnipresent upon it’s release, but surely the strangest collaboration was on the track ‘Nixon’s Spirit’, featuring the excess scarred growl of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. How on earth did that come about? “Well, I was a big fan of Hunter’s work, so I approached him and said ‘Look, I know you’ve never done anything like this before, but I can introduce you to a whole different demographic to the people who read your books.’ I got the idea from the fact that three or four different clubs were using his quotes on flyers at the time. He agreed to it and so we got together for a couple of nights, two sessions of six hours. We became friends, we drank a few beers and partied. But I learnt a lot. I learnt a lot about American History. And the idea for ‘Nixon’s Spirit’ came from talking about growing up. The younger you are the stronger your dreams are. And that’s where that twisted lyric came from. The fact that we had both grown up with these dreams and that we were both living them. And with Hunter you were never going to get a straight message from him, a ‘Believe in yourself and you can achieve your dreams’, but we wanted to do something that would connect with young people, because it was dance music, and that would say that if you wanted to be a fireman or whatever then you could be. And that’s where Nixon’s Spirit came from.”

At this point I asked Oakenfold about the connection between drugs and dance music. Moving from Hunter Thompson to recreational drugs seemed to me like a natural segue, but Oakenfold curled up defensively in his chair, sliding a foot underneath his thigh, and that illuminating smile switched off. I feel I have stepped onto a subject that he is bored of discussing. “Drugs are society’s problem, not dance music’s. You don’t have to take drugs to listen to dance music and you don’t have to listen to dance music to take drugs. I think it’s a shame if you associate the two, and its plain naïve to blame drugs on dance music.”

What he is happy to associate with music is his love of travel. From the journeys to India which produced the ‘Goa Mix’, his 1994 set which was massively influential in the rise of trance, to his more recent sojourns in Ibiza, Oakenfold has always been adept at selecting the best of what the world’s music scenes have to offer.

“If there’s anything good, then share it. The whole idea is to share. That’s what DJing is all about. But not just DJing; the internet, travel. I mean, I’m dyslexic, so I suffered at school. Everything I’ve learnt I’ve learnt by experience. It’s about giving something back, smiling at people, opening doors for people and giving two pounds a month to charity. The society you’re in is the whole world and you’re a fool if you don’t think you are. I used to believe, wrongly, that one person couldn’t change the world. But I saw this television programme about a National Geographic photographer. He was off taking photos in Bumfuck somewhere, I dunno where he was, somewhere in Africa. But the government was oppressing its people. This one guy took photos of what was happening, and they put these pictures on the cover of National Geographic. It brought all this awareness to the situation, and so the UN put pressure on the government and they stopped fucking with their people. One guy did that. One guy changed the world. So hopefully I can do my little bit. It’s just laziness otherwise.

People used to think things weren’t their problem, but times have changed. It is your problem.”

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

The Only Ones

You can say a lot of things about The Only Ones, but you can’t accuse them of not being original. Too psychedelic for the punk scene, they were at the forefront of New Wave in the late 70s with their anthem ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, but their star burnt out in the white heat of touring and heroin addiction.

Singer and lyricist Peter Perrett, drummer Mike Kellie, guitarist John Perry and bassist Alan Mair went their separate ways in 1982, but this year sees the four back together for a short UK tour and a slot at the Nick Cave curated All Tomorrow’s Parties. Mair has been the driving force behind the current reunion, but he tells me that it was actually another long awaited reunion that proved the catalyst for getting The Only Ones back together. “A few years ago my first band The Beatstalkers’ singles were finally released as an anthology, and to mark the occasion we got back together for a gig at the Barrowland. Playing with them really got me thinking about how much I loved playing bass and how that’s really what I do best. Sony wanted to put a ‘Best of The Only Ones’ out, and I helped with the liner notes. After that I spoke to each of the other guys individually. Kellie said he’d do it, and John said he would but warned me that people had tried before and that I didn’t have much hope. Then I went to speak to Peter, and at first he was reluctant. He went out of the room for a bit, and after a while he came in and said, “Are you sure people want us back together?” I just laughed, and said “You need to get out more, Peter!”

Sony said they’d put up some money for us to get some rehearsal time if we were offered a gig and by the second day of playing together we sounded like The Only Ones again. When ATP got in contact it really happened. We’ve got a healthy musical appreciation for each other this time round, and Peter’s not a little spoilt boy any more. All the rumours about him collapsing are fallacies; he’s rehearsing four or five hours a day now.”

I get a clear impression that Mair is delighted to be back making music after the long hiatus. It should be no surprise, as he has been a rock star, on and off, since he was a teenager. “The Beatstalkers were kind of my school band, but the press called us Scotland’s first real pop stars. We dominated the Scottish pop scene at the time, but we didn’t get that much press attention until the riot in George Square in Glasgow. A few bands had put on open air concerts there, but they were quite serene affairs. We’d built up such a following during our touring that when we played thousands of fans turned up. The police were totally unprepared - I think there were two policemen there. The stage started to collapse and we had to abandon the show after a couple of songs. After that we were front page news in Scotland. Newspapers were asking “Who are The Beatstalkers?” so the major labels started to get interested and we moved to London. We got a residency at The Marquee Club, and I became mates with David Bowie, who at the time was a struggling songwriter and wrote three track for us.”

It was not to be for The Beatstalkers, however, and when they split Mair took an unusual career step – he became a clothes designer. “It began when The Beatstalkers were touring Germany and we ended up staying at this whorehouse. We didn’t realise what it was at first, but it was a lot of fun! The owner was a very trendy woman and she had this amazing pair of unusually cut leather trousers. You couldn’t get clothes like that anywhere, especially not in Scotland, so I made my own pair – it was Rock ’n’ Roll with a sewing machine! When the band split up, I started up my own business from my old manager Ken Pitt’s office. I thought Ken just wanted me there to answer the phones, little did I know that he fancied me! He looked like Clark Kent, I was so naïve I had no inkling he could be gay.” Pitt famously also managed Mair’s friend David Bowie. “Yeah, I became really good friends with David at this point, and he wrote ‘Little Bombadier’ for my son, Frankie, who always used to be with me around the office.”

Meanwhile, business was thriving. “A friend suggested that I get a stall at Kensington Market, and I did and it became very successful. There was a great atmosphere there, it was like the fashion side of the music industry. I met Freddie [Mercury] and Roger [Taylor] who ran a stall opposite, and as I became more successful I got Freddie to watch my stall, and then employed him when their stall had to close. Despite being hopeful that they’d be successful, Freddie was very self-effacing. That was one of the nice things about him. A lot of young songwriters are too eager to say that they’re great. I saw them play at their first gig at the Kensington Estate management halls. At the weekend we all used hang out at the Greyhound pub, which was a great haunt, everyone from Santana to Hurricane Higgins used to hang out there. This was back when Queen were still called Smile, and they were just…okay. I didn’t like to tell Freddie, but I wasn’t sure about them. Then I was driving to work one day and on the radio they played this fantastic single called ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’. When I got to the stall I told Freddie, “You won’t be working here much longer, you’ve got a hit single.”

Living in London, Mair was never far from the music scene. “London was an incredible place to be, I really pushed to move here when I was in The Beatstalkers. The music scene here meant that you could see amazing bands every night, like Hendrix or the Stones. The first gig I saw in London was The Who at the Marquee, and it was the most brilliant and mental night I’d ever seen, but to my astonishment they were smashing up their kit and I was just thinking, ‘No!! Our instruments were so precious to us! Over a period of time I lost touch with the music scene for a bit while I was working at the market, but one night a few of the guys from the market said they were going to go and see this guy called David Bowie. I was like, ‘How do you know who David Bowie is?’ I hadn’t seen him in about a year at this point. I went down to the show with them and talked my way backstage. I was walking along and heard David singing so I walked into his dressing room and there was Ziggy Stardust! I was just like ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ All my mates were shocked that I knew him, because by this point he’d become big. His show that night was inspiring. It was like ‘Fuckin’ Hell, a star is born!”

“Punk was fantastic, it got rid of all those super groups who were terrible. But I still remember the punks thinking we were hippies and the hippies thinking we were punks. If we were to fit into any definition then I suppose it would be New Wave, but really I think we were around at the wrong time. I think we’d have fitted in in the early 90s, when bands like Radiohead and the Stone Roses were coming through. We were never mentioned in the 80s, when people were playing ironing boards and weird stuff like that. It all changed from the nineties.”

“The best times for me were making the first record. The first single was ‘Lovers of Today’. The record companies weren’t interested so we put it out ourselves and it was record of the week everywhere. Then the labels got interested and we went into the studio, I remember when Peter wrote ‘Planet’, which is still such an exceptional song. Also, headlining The Roundhouse and playing festivals in places like Holland were fantastic.”

“For me, we split up because there were too many drug addicts in the band, but we were still having an amazing time musically. The last album was harder to make, and I almost quit after that, but then we got the chance to tour the States with The Who, and I thought, ‘A goodbye present!’ It was fabulous fun, but there were too many females giving the other guys drugs, to get that power over them. It seemed like everyone was on hard drugs, even the road crew.”

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Gerald Scarfe

"If Scarfe was in the newspaper when it arrived on the breakfast table it would be just as if the family dog had shat on the table. It was an outrage within their little world." There is more than geography that seperates Gerald Scarfe's rooftop studio from the "homes around the Shires" that he is referring to. The difference is in the mindset, an almost pathological mistrust of authority and those who wield it.

Examples of his latest works of irreverence adorn the wall behind him, huge caricatures of Tony Blair and George Bush, waiting to be sent off to the pages of The Sunday Times and The New Yorker. Next to them, amongst printed emails is a smaller cartoon, with the word FAITHLESS printed above it. "Have you heard of them?" he asks, "It's an old cartoon but one of the band's a fan, apparently, so they want to use it for a single cover." The room is littered with memorabilia amassed throughout his career, a gold disc of Pink Floyd's The Wall, which he designed the artwork for and provided animations for the film, a mug with Disney's Hercules on it, for which Scarfe designed all the characters, videos of Yes Minister, for which he famously drew the opening sequence. On his desk, amid the paints and the vast sheaves of papers, sits a copy of his book, 'Drawing Blood' which collected some of his most famous political cartoons alongside uncensored drawings that his employers had refused to print.

Unsurprisingly, there are no shortage of these drawings, as Scarfe has never been afraid of tackling taboo subjects. "I thought, being an artist, I should be able to draw everything, you know? I can draw life and death and love and sex and whatever." he says. However, early in his career Scarfe was shown that there were limits to what even he could draw, when the Daily Mail sent him to Vietnam. "The Daily Mail didn't know how to handle me, because the stuff I'd been doing in Private Eye was fine for a cult audience, but for the general public it was too much. So they sent me off to Vietnam. I suppose they thought, "cruel, grotesque artist, let's send him to a cruel, grotesque situation". It was my first experience of war, I'd only seen war on television up till then, and I was drawing it symbolically, I was drawing President Johnson shitting bombs on Vietnam, and that sort of thing, but I hadn't actually realised what it was really like, young guys who'd been pulled out of college and flown to the other side of the world and told to kill these people, told to 'shoot these gooks', as they called them. I had great difficulty in Vietnam really, drawing it, I found it too much to stand, the blood and guts of it all, and the incompetence of it all and the sort of stupidity of it all. I went into the morgue in Saigon. I went in there and I was just shocked by what I saw, because it hadn't struck me that there'd be bits of bodies, heads without torsos and torsos without heads and torsos without limbs. Some were just like lumps of meat, and they were all being cleaned up by American medics. Some of them were whistling, because to them it was just a job, they were whistling and doing a daily job, in their white coats spattered with blood."

The Mail refused to print some of the drawings he sent back, particularly those that showed Americans in Vietnamese brothels, but Scarfe has never regretted working for papers that don't share his political views. "There's no political censorship at all. I'm often against what the leader page in the paper is saying. I think it's just that sort of sexually overt drawings are not acceptable in a 'family' newspaper, but I've never had any political, touch wood, interference at all. I've obviously been against the Iraq war, I've been against the Vietnam war, but I enjoy preaching to the unconverted. There are some newspapers who hold my point of view completely, and I'm therefore just doing the party line within that paper, really. The idea of a cartoonist is like an opinion writer on a paper, you're there for your opinion, even if it is opposite. The great thing about this country, I guess, is that one can do that. It's very healthy. There are different points of view in the same newspaper. When 'Drawing Blood' was printed in China, they wouldn't print the pictures of Chairman Mao. I had to go to Hong Kong, which is still China but it's kind of capitalist China, to print. So there is censorship. They even censored - there are some very large willies in here, some erect penises, and they said they wouldn't print them, I said 'Why not?', and they said 'Oh…too big', so I said, 'That's the way we are in Britain.' So there is a lot of censorship around the world, and I do appreciate that we have a huge ability to print freely."

Totalitarian control was one of the central themes of The Wall, which Scarfe worked on with Roger Waters. "Roger came here with his Wall tapes which he'd done with a synthesiser himself, and he said at that time, "We're going to make a film, we're going to make a record, we're going to make a show out of it." Which, to his credit, all three happened. The show part was fun. That was travelling around from LA, the rock'n'roll stuff with black limos and helicopters and all the stuff backstage that you can imagine. But then when it got to the film, it got more difficult, because the director Alan Parker was brought in, and Roger and I had worked for say three or four years before Parker even appeared on the scene, but being a director naturally he wanted complete control, and Roger and I were not about to relinquish control, so there was a lot of pulling and tugging and angst there. I found myself at the very end, when we were doing post-production at Pinewood Studios, driving there at nine o'clock in the morning with a bottle of Jack Daniels on the passenger seat, and I had to have a kind of slug to go in and meet what I knew was going to be an onslaught of misery. But it's very good because it keeps me in touch with a younger audience. My sons and their friends know about the Floyd, so I know it has applied to your generation as well as my generation at the time. God knows what it was in it that somehow struck a chord, about something that was happening at the time, I don't know what that chord was but we all hit it. I don't know what that magic ingredient is."

At the time, Scarfe expressed a fear that certain aspects of the film might strike too much of a chord with far-right groups, and indeed a now defunct American neo-Nazi group, calling themselves the Hammerskins, adopted his crossed hammer design as a logo. "I was worried, yes, because when you're railing against something, it means that you have to depict it, and there might be those that enjoy that depiction. They might enjoy the violence in the drawing. What I'm really saying is I am against violence, and I think some people mis-state that and think I'm advocating violence, which is the last thing I'm advocating. When we filmed the sequence a lot of young guys came along and they had shaved their heads, and shaved the crossed hammers mark into their haircut and I thought 'Shit, this is a bit worrying' because the last thing I wanted to do was start some kind of pseudo-fascist movement. It was the complete opposite of what we were saying really. What we were saying was that these are bastards. These are horrid people, not how wonderful they are."

Irreverence is a key theme of Scarfe's work, something that he traces to his bedridden childhood. "I think I very much mistrust authority, and I think that comes from relying on doctors. I've had some dodgy treatment. There was an osteopath who used to rabbit punch me on the back of the neck because he thought my vertebrae were out of line. I think I mistrust people. I mistrust politicians, obviously, and I think we're all fallible. I mean, I'm part of it. I'm often talking about myself in my drawings when I talk about fallibility. We're all here not quite knowing why we're here, what we're doing or why we're doing it. Really, its all very mysterious, the whole question."

I ask Scarfe about the impact technology has had on his work. "I'm an artist and I think you can't beat hand drawn. When I was working on Hercules with Disney they did a whole sequence with the Hydra, which was perfect to computerise because as you remember, with the Hydra when you cut off one head, two heads grow, and you cut those off and four heads grow. So it was perfect computer stuff, you just regenerate. I did one Hydra drawing and then they made a model from that and computerised it. I think it took about six or seven months to do this whole sequence, which was probably only about half a minute, and it just looked computerised when you'd done it. It's like computer games, they are brilliant but they look computerised. My sons play football games, and there's the atmosphere and so on, but they're still slightly inhuman, as this sequence was. They then had to spend a whole stash of money to redo it graphically. To make it look graphic like my work, and I said to them at the end, "Wouldn't it have been quicker to do it in the old Walt Disney way?" and they said, "Yeah, probably, and cheaper too." The ultimate result of the film, I thought there was some of me in it. There were 900 of them, and one of me, so I didn't do too badly, considering the odds. But it was a great experience, and I would say it's the nearest I'll ever get to being Tom Cruise."

Technology has also aided his ability to work internationally. "I used to have to send my New Yorker drawings on Concorde. It used to arrive before it left, so I could work all night. If they rang me on a Wednesday I could work until five in the morning if I wanted to, then a courier would come and take it to Heathrow, and put it on Concorde, which left at nine and arrived in New York at eight, so it was there at the start of day. But now of course it goes electronically, it's brilliant. But also I can alter things electronically. If I do a drawing of Bush and Blair, and Bush is ok but Blair I didn't like, then I can do another Blair on a separate piece of paper and marry them on a computer. Certainly some of the drawings don't exist, as an entity, now."

Another aspect of Scarfe's work is his theatrical designs. He has designed stages for productions of The Magic Flute and Fantastic Mr Fox, and is currently working with Jim Steinman on a theatrical version of Bat Out Of Hell. "That's great. It's collaboration and being an artist is a lonely life, but when you're working in the theatre you're working with a director and all sorts of other people. But it's a collaboration so you do have to listen to what other people say, whereas I as an artist, whatever I want to put on paper, appears on paper."

"I think the people who employ me know the kind of stuff I do, they don't expect me to do normal theatre but people giving you their opinion, of course someone as experienced as Peter Hall, who's spent his life in the theatre, can help. I upset a lot of people at the ballet, I did 'The Nutcracker' three or four years ago, and the ballet critics really didn't like what I'd done to their darling Tchaikovsky. So I did a drawing of all the critics up one another's arse, Critic's Circle, I called it. But, as I say, most people when they employ me, I think assume that I'm going to do something a bit weird. That's my job. I wouldn't do an orthodox production."

Finally, I ask about his remaining ambitions, but he replies contentedly that it is "Only to go on". Fittingly for someone whose work has spanned artistic mediums and insinuated itself into popular culture, he says he has no more burning ambitions. "I've been very, very lucky, considering where I started, as a timorous, asthmatic, anxious child in the war; I've done what I wanted to do for years, and still feel incredibly privileged to be able to walk up here in the mornings and draw."

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Eugene Hütz

“Now really isn’t a good time,” says Pavla Fleischer. In the background I can hear a man’s voice, shouting questions for her to relay to me. “Where is he from? Who publishes his paper?” I answer his questions for her, and she tells me to call back in another couple of hours. This is not the most typical nor the most auspicious start to an interview and I am already beginning to sense bad vibrations lurking in the ether. I have a horrible suspicion that the man’s voice was Eugene Hütz’s.

Unfortunately, Pavla has made me promise that the interview will focus on the new documentary that she has made about Hütz, and the fact that he will be performing in London with the traditional gypsy band The Kolpakov Trio. I’m not allowed to mention his day job, which means that I can’t tell you that he is the lead singer of notorious New York gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, famed for their riotous live shows, or that he is a talented actor, as seen when he portrayed Alex alongside Elijah Wood in the adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Everything is Illuminated’.
What I can tell you is that after meeting the documentary maker Pavla Fleischer in 2004 he agreed to let her make a film, The Pied Piper of Hützovina, about his trip across the Ukraine in search of the traditional gypsy music that he loves. Adding intrigue to the tale is the fact that she proposed the film in part as a way to spend more time with him, having found herself falling into what she called “a strange sort of obsessive love” following their initial brief encounter.

I ring back and Pavla answers. She sounds much more positive this time around, and passes me over to Eugene quickly. With a certain amount of trepidation, I begin the interview by asking him how he is finding London. “Well, what can I say? I’m back again. I like it.” So far, so brief - Mr Hütz is obviously not one for small talk. I hurry on to my first proper question: would he have made the trip to the Ukraine if the film had not been being made? “Absolutely! It’s not the first time I’ve done the trip, in fact I do a similar trip every year. There’s going to be another one in May. The film is just of one of them.” But would you ever have thought to make a film out of your experiences if you hadn’t met Pavla? “Maybe not” I pause, hoping for elaboration, but he refuses to fill the silence and I press on regardless.

The film shows a number of older gypsies who react badly when Eugene plays them his music, because they believe that the traditional folk music should not be bastardised into the punk version that Gogol Bordello play. I ask whether he was surprised by this negative reaction? “No, I’ve always seen a clash. With my music, some people love it and some people hate it. It’s a big community, so it can be like hot and cold. But I will continue on that path because it’s the only path I feel. Hopefully through my own search I can help other people to find their paths. For example, I met a lot of people who were Romany kids who were taken away from their families in the 70s and relocated to places like Switzerland and Austria, and those are the people who are my fans. I also work with a lot of young gypsy kids, well, young and old. But 80% of the reaction I meet is very positive. Conflict is very rare. But there will always be some conflict, you know? I mean, there are so many different kinds of gypsies, it’s like night and day, I feel like I’m part of a swirl of finding out what a gypsy really is. But there is one man who everyone agrees about, and that is the man sat next to me now.”

That man would be Sasha Kolpakov, a legendary Romany musician who has long been the star attraction at the Theater “Romen” in Moscow, the only Roma theatre in the world, and has toured North America with his Kolpakov Trio. “Sasha is one of the artists who can settle down the controversy. It’s such an honour for a musician to become a band mate of your hero. But also I think he saw elements of what I can bring in, in a refreshing and organic way. But even within The Kolpakov Trio there has always been an organic mix. One of Sasha’s old band mates, who unfortunately is now dead, was actually a Carpathian gypsy, so he was much more Hungarian, but they all share a love of the raw folklore, so all types of gypsy music can be married in an organic way. It’s all Eastern European.”

Eugene moved from the Ukraine to Burlington, Vermont after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. He was a refugee aged 14. I ask him whether he thinks his music would be more traditional if he had remained in the Ukraine, and to what extent being exposed to punk music in America affected him. “Actually, I think I would be more of a punk if I had stayed. I was already exposed to punk music in the Ukraine, but being in America made me crave what I was missing. I think as an artist you are always trying to fill the void with what you lack. I’ve always been attracted to the super-raw, exciting forms of music. When I moved to New York I was in a number of different bands – punk, industrial, metal – and I was always trying to bring it into a more traditional setting, sometimes literally. But the influence of what I was lacking grew over time, it’s been how I feel for decades now though, you know?”

On the film’s website, Pavla writes that Eugene did not like the original edit of the film, and that even after re-editing he told her that there was “no fucking way” that the film could ever come out. I ask whether he feels that now, attending a major screening of the film, he feels that he has grown to accept or even enjoy it? “I think so. I have a very directorial mind, so it can be difficult for me, but I’ve been an actor before and experienced being directed, so I have some experience of having to allow other perspectives. And while it was painful at first I am learning to let go. Also, you know, while it is nice to be told that you are doing well, I don’t get bent out of shape by crazy critics. Some people just get paid to write bullshit.”

Bad vibes all around. Hütz’s voice is getting accusatory, and I have little doubt that he suspects that I am a crazy critic getting paid to write bullshit. Fortunately, the moment passes, and he continues. “But yes, I have grown from the experience and grown to love the film. I actually think that some of most mind-blowing stuff is stuff that I wasn’t involved in. For example, the performances of the musicians that we managed to capture when we were stumbling about were incredible.” The film is described in it’s official press release as chronicling Eugene’s search for gypsy music, do you think you found what you were looking for? “I don’t think that I was searching. I have been there before and I knew exactly what I wanted. I crave it. I can’t let go of it. I don’t know what the fuck it is, but it always draws me back to the Ukraine.”

Eugene seems to be warming to his subject, but I make a mistake when I ask him whether he would ever move back to the Ukraine permanently? “Absolutely not. I never belonged there in the first place. What the fuck?”

He pauses.

“Listen, I am never moving back to the Ukraine.”

The line goes dead. Did I touch a nerve? Should you never ask a gypsy musician whether he’d consider settling down? Or did I just catch him on an off day, stressed out by press commitments the day before the premiere of a documentary which lays bare his incredibly personal trip across his estranged homeland and the intimate nature of his relationship with the film’s director? I attempt to ring back, if only to apologise to Pavla for offending Eugene, but the phone goes straight to answer phone. So that’s that.

Interview over.

What have we learnt from this debacle? Well, we’ve learnt that punk musicians are not the most amiable conversationalists and that going into an interview with a long list of offlimits topics makes for unsatisfying questions, but perhaps what has also been demonstrated is that it is often the most passionate and angry of individuals that make the most challenging and provocative art. Eugene Hütz, the Pied Piper of Hützovina, is certainly doing that.