Tuesday, 5 December 2006
David is clearly enjoying his return to the theatre. “It’s really good to be on stage again. You feel like you can shout and ham it up a bit. You can’t really do that on television. On stage it’s not just that you can shout, you actually feel like you should!”
However, he can’t help sounding a little like his Peep Show alter-ego Mark Corrigan when he mentions some paranoia about the upcoming dates. “The shows we’ve had have gone really well. Everyone’s laughed. We haven’t had any awkward silences yet, where there’s been a car crash outside the venue that we don’t know about and the whole audience is still traumatised.”
It is of course starring in Channel 4’s cult sitcom Peep Show that Mitchell and Webb have garnered the most attention, but they have been working together since meeting at Cambridge’s legendary Footlights society, of which Mitchell became president. Footlights is a veritable production line of comedy genius, and the presidency has previously been held by the likes of Peter Cook, Eric Idle and Hugh Laurie. “Footlights was a great experience, it’s like a drama society but it only puts on comedy. We did three main shows a year, including a pantomime, and then also lots of little informal shows as well. There’s an ongoing show called ‘Smokers’ where you can go along and try out new material every week, so it’s a really good place to just be creative and come up with fresh ideas. It’s somewhere where you feel like you can just have a go at it.”
I ask how much influence he feels the ability to join Footlights had on his career. How would he have fared, for example, if he had ended up at the LSE? “I’d probably have still have had a go at comedy. Do you have a drama society? I would definitely have joined that. Without Footlights I would probably have become a serious actor or something like that. Or maybe an economist, who knows?”
I ask whether he was ever tempted to go it alone as a stand-up comic. “I much prefer comedy that’s sketch based. I think you tend to start off doing what you like, and I’d got into comedy through watching TV. My heroes were people like Monty Python, Fry and Laurie, and shows like Blackadder. I didn’t grow up watching Lenny Bruce, or Billy Connolly. Even though they’re very funny, it’s not what I wanted to do. Also, I don’t think stand-up comedy works that well on TV. My goal was always to get into television, and to me that meant sketch-based comedy.”
After graduating, Mitchell’s partnership with Webb continued, as they began searching out their niche in the comedy mountain, stuffed full of vivid dreams of television superstardom. Inevitably, however, their first work was less glamorous, and away from the cameras, and indeed the limelight. “Our first jobs were writing for other shows. We were writing for Armstrong and Miller, and lots of other places, for television and for Radio 4. At first it was just exciting to be getting properly paid, to be able to see your jokes on actual television shows was great! At the same time we always knew that we really wanted to be doing something for ourselves. That’s why we kept doing live shows, and kept going and playing the Edinburgh fringe. In the end, it was actually a bit of a surprise that we eventually broke through with a show that someone else had written for us. For a long time we thought we’d break through with something we had written for someone else.”
That show, of course, was Peep Show. Since its humble beginnings in 2003, the show went on to win the inaugural sitcom Rose d’Or in 2004, had more than a million pairs of eyes peeping inside the heads of Mark and Jez in 2005, and in 2006 if you piled up all the DVDs they’ve shifted, you’d have a pile over half the size of Mount Fuji, and eight times more explosive. A fourth series was commissioned just a minute ago. “Yeah, we start shooting series four in January, so that should be on TV sometime next year, Spring I guess. We’re incredibly proud of the show. But we’re also very happy with our own show that’s on BBC2 at the moment.”
That would be That Mitchell and Webb Look, in which the duo stop satirising the foibles and neuroses of thirty-something men, and instead start dressing up in silly costumes, putting on funny voices, and generally farting around pretending to be game show hosts, posh waiters or superheroes. I ask David about the contrast between Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, and about how challenging he finds it to be funny in two very different scenarios. “I really like the fact that I have that mixture. Sometimes when we’ve been shooting for seven weeks I can hear myself moaning on and on, as Mark does, and realise I’m starting to get bored of it, and worry that other people will as well. But I suppose they just get it in 24 minute bursts. They don’t have to live with it for seven weeks. At the end of that it’s nice to be able to put on a funny beard and a silly voice and pretend to be a superhero. On the other hand, after a few weeks of that you get sick of all the make-up and just want to go back to playing someone who looks a bit more like you!”
The success of Peep Show means that next year you’ll be seeing a lot more of Mitchell and Webb in the New Year. As well as the new series of Peep Show, they’ll be stretching their faces by a factor of 1000 in order for them to appear on great big cinematic silver screens in a proper moving picture about a pair of competing magicians. David is excited. “We’ve just finished shooting ‘Magicians’, which will be out next April. It was written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the same guys who write Peep Show. It’s really great to be working with them again, not only because we respect their work and enjoy working with them, but they’re also both really funny! Shooting the film was very similar to shooting Peep Show, except that we were all aware that it had to look even better, you have to kind of justify the use of the much bigger screen. It was also great to have the time to go back and do things in different ways. When you’re shooting for TV, or doing a theatre show, you’re always working against the clock, but with the film you have the extra time to go and try things from different angles and in different ways.”
While on this form Mitchell may seem inseparable from Webb, they have in fact worked separately on a couple of recent projects. Mitchell has a small part in the forthcoming Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle I Could Never Be Your Woman, and Webb played a lead part in last year’s Confetti, with Mitchell relegated to a fleeting appearance. As anyone who has seen Confetti will testify however, it seems that the two do their best work together, and David agrees. “I still love working with Robert. Having time working on separate projects was really good though, as it meant we were able to give each other some much needed space, after we’d been working in such close proximity to each other for so long. Also, when we started working together again we were able to come back with fresh new ideas.”
In that case, rejoice merriment-seekers! Mitchell and Webb are together again. Next spring, they will be on your television sets and in your cinemas. But wait! Put down those pills and forget about sedating yourself until next year, for this very week they are playing a great big show in London, and, like some sort of mirth-orientated Justin Timberlake, they’re bringing funny back.
Tuesday, 28 November 2006
MOTHERFUCKER!" begins one of the most incendiary tracks of all time, from the debut of MC5, a Detroit band who, whilst not widely feted in their time, are now recognised for their unique inventiveness and influence, especially within the American Punk movement.
Originally the band were together for just eight years, from 1964 until 1972, when they caved in under the pressure of their individual drug habits. Bassist Michael Davis was the first to leave the band, but I'm surprised when he tells me the scene of his departure. "I missed a gig at the LSE, and they kicked me out. We were really excited about playing there, we'd heard about the Stones playing the LSE, and it was only the third time we'd ever visited Britain. But I got busted at the airport with works in my bag, and I had to get a later flight to London. By the time I got there I'd missed the gig and the other guys kicked me out."
Original members Rob Tyner and Fred Smith both died in the 90s, and Davis and Kramer had an unusual reunion in prison. Davis tells me "I was serving time for drug offences, and Wayne sent me this letter, saying that he was facing similar charges, and asking for my advice. I told him to say that he was serious about rehabilitation, and he was then sent to the same prison as me."
However, it wasn't until 2003 that Davis would play live with Kramer and Thompson again. "The reunion actually came about because of Levi's. They were launching a new range of clothes inspired by that era, by the punk attitude, and apparently their marketing people told them that the band that best represented that music was the MC5. Can you believe that? So put out a line of t-shirts featuring old MC5 artwork, and they invited the three of us to play together again. There's a British link again here, because our first gig was at the 100 Club. We really enjoyed it, so we toured after that, under the name DKT."
The MC5 were famed for their overtly political lyrics, and their campaigning stance. I ask Davis whether he still thinks that music can change the world. "Absolutely, I think it's the most nonviolent thing you can do, to be creative, and to play music together with other people. That's why I set up a charity, musicisrevolution, to get more money for schools to have live music classes, to give more kids the chance to play instruments together."
One of MC5's most famous political moments came when they played for over eight hours at the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, but at the time no-one could have guessed at the carnage which was to follow. "I don't know if I was in a Marijuana world or something, but when we were loading up the van, it just felt like going to play any other show. We just thought, we're going to play for a load of political campaigners, and the Democratic convention just happens to be on at the same time - that's why we're meeting there, y'know? We weren't prepared for what happened. We were playing to this field full of people, and we just saw the back of the crowd start to go crazy as the police closed in, and everyone start to surge forward. That wasn't even the worst riot of the day. It was later in the evening that the police really started kicking the shit out of people."
Tuesday, 24 October 2006
He has campaigned for greater corporate responsibility, against the dam in somewhere, and for the removal of third world debt, but in his new book As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela, and on his current UK stand-up tour, he has his sights set firmly on the arms trade. “All the old lines that get wheeled out, “If we didn’t do it, someone else would”, “It’s good for British jobs”, “It’s good for the economy”, they’re all wrong, and we need to prove that they’re wrong to a wider audience. I mean, the arms industry is one of the most protected industries in Britain, these are companies that sponsor conflict, that sell weapons to the sorts of regimes and the sorts of individuals that sane people wouldn’t even invite round to their house for a cup of tea, and I really think they’re a cancer, a cancer in our society and a cancer at the very heart of our government. So really, my aim is to get people to engage with the arguments.”
Thomas’ campaigns have seen him doing extensive undercover journalism, posing as a pr specialist for aiding repressive regimes deal with amnesty, to setting up gun smuggling rackets in order to expose the loopholes in the current arms system. In light of his experiences, I ask him what he thinks of the LSE UGM’s recent decision to boycott donations from arms companies. His answer is less straight forward than perhaps one would expect. “Well, I would say that it does depend on the details of the companies, it not as easy as saying all companies ever involved in the manufacture of arms should be boycotted. Just to give an example, Land Rover have been involved in various arms deals over the years, but if they wanted to fund research, let’s say to develop a truck that could transport groups of people over large areas of difficult terrain, aiding the movement of refugees. You shouldn’t say, ‘They’ve been involved in arms in the past, we shouldn’t work with them’.” However, when I cite BAE Systems by name, his answer is slightly different. “I do think there is a very real ethical issue, with anyone, especially any university, accepting money from a company that has time and time again proven itself to act unethically. I mean, this is a company which has bribed, which has hidden information from investigation, which specialises in the most secretive of deals, which supports repressive regimes and that has the Labour government in its pocket, so I would definitely support a refusal to be funded by BAE’s money.”
It is a mark of Thomas’ nous as a campaigner that he does not see the world in a simple world-in-opposites reality. There is such a thing, for example, as a “good” arms company.
“The thing is, I do know some moral people who work within the arms industry and the arms trade, and people within the industry who support tougher laws and international treaties. These people will tell you that there are “good” arms companies and “bad” arms companies, and that you can distinguish between the two. Now, its fairly easy to see what a “bad” arms company is, I mean, even people within the arms trade will say that someone gunrunning to Zimbabwe is a “bad” arms company. The confusion comes when you try to work out exactly what a “good” arms company is. But it’s not as black as white as some activists seem to think.”
For Thomas, one of the failings of the arms control movement up to this point has been a lack of education, a simple ignorance of the facts. “I mean, some activists just haven’t done their homework. For example, you tell them that the Labour government has done good things, and they’re shocked. The Labour Government has brought in extra controls on the proliferation of torture equipment. That’s fucking brilliant! I mean, yes, it should go further, it should apply to all small arms, but it is a step in the right direction, it’s better than nothing. I always say that if the last Conservative government got 0/10 for arms control, then Labour is getting maybe 2 and a half/10, but that’s still something.”
The idea of a “good” arms company, I suggest, is perhaps a bitter pill for many activists to swallow. “Well, look at Liberia. The people of Liberia really deserve peace and safety. I mean, considering the things they’ve been through, the horrible atrocities, child soldiers and human rights violations of the worst kind, they really deserve some safety now. If that means that there has to be an armed police force, then arms are playing a positive role. It shouldn’t be assumed that all arms are bad.”
In this context then, support for stricter arms control does not need to infer a support for pacifism, and indeed Thomas refuses to sign up to what he refers to as “The Gandhian Perspective”. “There’s no point in adopting a pacifist strategy if the people attacking you are dropping Napalm on you from thousands of feet in the air. Non-violent resistance only works by eliciting shame in your attacker, but burning to death with your human dignity intact is still burning to death. Everyone has a right to life. That is the single most important human right. Article 2. It’s only natural that along with that right you have a right to defend your life. That’s just stunningly obvious. You have to be able to defend your own life against an aggressor.”
Thomas avoids being pigeon-holed into a neat category, and perhaps the same could be said for his career as a performer. He has worked in stand up, radio, television and written articles for publications such as The New Statesman, but As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela is his first book. I ask him if he found the experience of writing it. “In a way it was daunting, and in a way it wasn’t. A lot of comics have written books, the likes of Alexi Sayle and Jo Brand, and I think the reason for this is that all comics are egoists. We all think we can do anything, and the sort of thing that people would regard as a challenge, the sort of thing to be approached with care and precision, we think is a piece of piss. But I’ve been working on issues in and around the arms trade for years, and basically I really saw the book as storytelling, a chance to fill in the gaps. When you do a television show you get about 24 minutes, once you’ve taken out ad breaks and the opening sequence and that sort of thing. If you want to really engage the audience in an issue, and present them with all the facts, that isn’t really long enough.”
One area his career has never taken him is into the realm of conventional politics. I ask him whether he has ever been tempted to become an MP, and also about his friend Tess Kingham, who is mentioned on several occasions in his book. Kingham was a Labour MP between 1997 and 2001, but she retired after a single term citing disillusionment with the political process. “Tess is an incredibly passionate person, she’s a friend, and she didn’t fuck about when she was an MP. I mean, before she became an MP she used to go out and do body counts, and collect other data on human rights violations. But her experience as an MP meant that she resigned because basically she felt her position had become untenable. She felt as if she had become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. I think that’s what puts me off conventional politics, but also that I’m not disciplined enough to be an MP. I mean, I don’t think I could follow a party line! My skill is in offending people.” Indeed, his uncompromising style has hardly endeared him to the targets of his campaigns, but I ask him whether his humour is useful in the often dangerous situations he finds himself in, or whether the comedy only comes out later. “A bit of both, I guess. I do find myself in situations where I come away thinking, that was a bit scary, or that was a bit weird, or that was a bit horrible. I think anyone after an experience like that tries to rationalise their actions a little bit, tries to understand why they did what they did and said what they said, and I suppose humour comes in there.”
One story that Thomas details in As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela is his uncovering of an illegal deal by Dheeraj Hinduja and Anders Spare to supply military trucks to the Sudan. Thomas worked on the story for BBC2’s newsnight, but the show was never aired following pressure from the Hinduja’s lawyers, a decision by the BBC which obviously disappointed Thomas. “I think that the moment they decided to pull the program will live on as a moment of ignomy, really. It was a shame to see a broadcaster politically cowed, and I think that it made the corporation seem very timid. The BBC has a special role to play. It’s remit is public broadcasting, and I think it has a duty to stand head and shoulders above other news broadcasters, and really hold people to account. That’s really what democracy is all about, holding people to account, and I think they failed on this occasion.”
However, his work was not without reward. “A lot of very positive things did come out of it. The committee report came out of it, the show I’m touring at the moment actually features it substantially – we’ve actually printed off copies of the final report and we distribute it at the end of it show, and of course the deal did fall through. Although a Chinese company did eventually come in and fill the order anyway, at least my actions did have some effect and proved that forcing the issue can produce results.”
Thomas’ campaigns over the years have brought many successes, but, as with any campaigner, the extent to which he knows how much personal influence he has had is unclear. “I think with anything in life you sometimes know the influence your actions have had, and sometimes you don’t. There’s a famous story about Kissinger advising Nixon not to nuke Vietnam with the words “Beware the hammer blow of the peace movement”, so while they may not have ended the war immediately, perhaps without even knowing it the peace protestors prevented nuclear bombs being dropped. To give another example, there was a strike in Colombia, and the military was called in to sort things out – it was getting very nasty, so solidarity protests were called outside the Colombian embassy in London. Now at these protests you’d get 10 people, maybe 20, maybe even 30 if you were really really lucky. However, when the Colombian government called off the military and began to negotiate, one of their non-negotiable demands was that they “call off the pickets in London”. So even relatively minor actions can have a major impact.”
But some important tangible changes have occurred. “But as for my proudest moment, I think getting real changes in the law. The thing I did with furniture disclose tax was a lot of fun, and getting the law changed. Finland also introduced a new law to restrict arm sales after one of my programs, and we’ve got Nestle to change their packaging and that sort of thing.”
“The next big aim is an international arms trade treaty, but really the aim before that is just to get as many people as possible engaged in the debate. It may seem complex, but, for example back in 1992 I was talking about reducing world debt, and people were incredulous. If you told them the facts they simply wouldn’t believe them. If you told them that some of the debt had been created by the Americans funding a nuclear power plant in the Philippines at the foot of an active volcano and in an earthquake zone, people wouldn’t believe it, but its true – a fucking active volcano. But now, some 14 years later, the removal of world debt is a large and popular debate, which shows that the public can get behind quite complicated arguments and movements. The same can happen with arms treaties.”
Thomas’ message, like his body of work, is a rallying shout, a call to arms if you will, for each of us to get informed and get engaged with the debates that will shape the world for years to come.
Tuesday, 17 October 2006
Thank God. For a moment there I thought that Ashton Kutcher was going to beat the living crap out of me. The truth is, he probably could. For his latest film, The Guardian, he has become, to use his word, "built". "I'm the fittest I've ever been in my life" he says, "I started training for the movie before I knew I had the role, I was training for about eight months. Demi [Moore, Kutcher's wife] went through a similar training program for GI Jane, and she said to me, "Just go all out". So I did. I feel like when you're doing a film the idea is that you do all the work before you get there. Everything that you're going to do in a scene, everything that you're going to have to do physically, you have to have the work already done before you get there, because there's going to be enough problems once you get there that you're gong to have to solve. If you haven't already figured out what you're going to do you're not going to... win." Kutcher's speech is dogged with these kinds of pauses, Kutcher-isms almost, as he flails around for a suitable expression. His tweed suit, complete with waistcoat, is a far cry from the slacker garb in which he became famous on That 70s Show and which saw him launched onto the big screen in the cultural trainwreck which was "Dude...Where's my Car?" Today, as he name checks Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, one thing is abundantly clear. Ashton Kutcher is trying very, very hard to be taken seriously.
The film itself puts Kutcher in a more serious role than he has typically been seen in before. Kutcher plays a Rescue Swimmer, one of an elite Coast Guard team whose job is to rescue people from the most dangerous conditions the sea can whip up. While Kutcher was keen to get the role, it did present one major initial worry for him. "I hate the water. Hate it. I didn't like taking a bath really, never mind swimming" So if one good thing came of this film, at least it improved Ashton Kutcher's personal hygiene by getting him back in the water.
Removing his overpowering personal odour and cleansing his stinking pores was not the only way in which the role benefited his friends. "I was on holiday recently with Demi and some English friends of ours, and this guy – we call him ..'Dickie Doc..', he..'s like 80 and a doctor, anyway, he..'s been drinking all day and then he decides to go for a swim. He gets about 10 feet from the boat and then starts going under, so I dove in and brought him in. I wouldn..'t have been so quick to get in the water before we did this film.
"The Guardian" also helped Kutcher kick the rabid nicotine monkey from off his back. "It's hard to smoke and swim at the same time" admits Kutcher, smiling, "But seriously, it is difficult when you finish a length of the pool and you're thinking about a cigarette when what you really need is oxygen. I suppose I traded the nicotine for the oxygen. I read this book by a guy called Alan Carr, "The Easy Way to Stop Smoking", and it really worked for me – I enjoyed it because I got to keep smoking while I read it. The last page was like ..'Smoke your last cigarette now..' – so I did."
His co-star in "The Guardian" is Kevin Costner, a man who could perhaps be forgiven for not wanting to go back in the water after the now infamous debacle that was Waterworld. Kutcher is passionately defensive of an actor whom he says he "reveres", "What's interesting about "Waterworld" is that it actually made some $200 million, it was actually a financial success. But because it didn't perform well domestically in the United States it's assumed it didn't do well for him. I even assumed that myself."
"The movie Field of Dreams was filmed in Iowa, and so I grew up with a cornfield in my back yard, and I always thought baseball players were going to walk out of it. The mantra "if you build it they will come.." becomes a way of life. I'm very fortunate to have met a lot of my acting heroes, those people that you get to sit in little dark rooms and watch on a little box. They really become your heroes, they become your teachers and your team-mates. They're your bodyguards, or your authoritative figure. Now Kevin is my friend."
"It's hard, you could probably name on the fingers of maybe one hand the number of people who've been able to have a successful career for as long as Kevin has. You look up to those people when you..'re trying to do the same." "Dances With Wolves is one film he won an Oscar for as a director, I think it won seven Oscars, and if you're a young actor and you don't respect that I think you're kind of ignorant in some ways."
Unfortunately for Kutcher, and Costner, it is difficult to imagine "The Guardian" troubling the Oscar committee. The film is a by-numbers action film, modeling itself on genre-defining films such as "Top Gun", but offering little new on the tried and tested formula. In defence of the film, it is at least positive to the formula taken out of a conflict-fuelled, war-time scenario, and Kutcher explains that this is one of the things that drew him to the film. "I liked the fact that the film focuses on a branch of the military that they train to save lives, not to take them. I think that that's a noble thing." Kutcher is perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, expressing the influence of director Andrew Davis when he says this. Davis, who describes himself as a "good leftist", talks of his time learning his trade at the infamous Democratic convention of 1968. However, while making heroes out of life savers should be applauded, some of the politics of the film itself are questionable, particularly the way in which it seems to apologise for the debacle that was the US Government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina. In one scene of the film, a character talks about their training allowing them to be "so successful during Katrina". While the disaster certainly shot the Rescue Divers to a prominence that they had not enjoyed before, painting the disaster as a success in any terms seems controversial. Work on the film had in fact started well before Katrina happened, but it is impossible now to view the film outside of that context. With this in mind it is perhaps surprising that there is a merely token effort at racial diversity. Kutcher's 'team' in the film is made up of one black male, one mixed race female, one white female and about ten white males. Watching from Britain, the film seems to be at heart an all-American tale which one would expect the average cinema-going deep-south bible-belter to be proud.
Cliché-ridden and painfully over-sentimental, 'The Guardian' cannot be taken too seriously. Taken on its own terms, the film is a partial success, but it has little to distinguish it from generic Hollywood blockbusters. Firstly amongst the problems, is the not inconsiderable obstacle that Kutcher is.. how can I put this?.. not the most convincing of actors. While his star quality and charisma is not to be doubted, at crucial points in the film Kutcher is asked to convey what he calls his "emotional revealment", another Kutcher-ism, but his anger comes off as little more than petulance. Tellingly, he says he felt nerves shooting that scene, particularly during the constant re-shooting that Andrew Davis demanded. Kutcher says that it was at those points that Costner's mentorship was most useful. "Kevin took me to one side and said, "There's only one difference between me and you. I'm more confident because I'm more relaxed, and I'm more relaxed because I've been doing this for a lot longer than you have. Don't try to do anything, and you'll do everything."
While Kutcher is earnest and eager to be liked in person, he doesn't seem to have too much trouble playing a character so conceited that he has a "2" tattooed on his back so that "The other guy knows what position hes going to finish." Kutcher will no doubt continue to make big budget films for some time to come, but he thinks that 'The Guardian' will be his calling card to more serious roles, I fear that he may be severely dissapointed.
So finally, the one thing everyone must wonder while in the vicinity of Kutcher: Are we about to get Punk'd? "I don't guarantee immunity, when I'm working with someone I'm not going to break that trust that you have to have. You have to be able to look across to the person that you're working with and trust them, and trust that they're going to give it everything they've got. I can't break that trust in my work. So if they do I hope that they know while we're working together that nothing will happen." "When you're hanging from the wires you have all this concrete, if something's going wrong you don't want the guy going 'are you punking me?' 'No, you're really going to die!'. You don't want to get caught in that situation, so I would never do that." "But now we're finished...who knows?"
Tuesday, 3 October 2006
Perhaps the same could be said for Steadman himself, dragged out of his ordinary surroundings by his unstoppable talent. His career has taken him places that he could barely even of conceived of as a schoolboy growing up in North Wales. Born in 1936, Steadman’s artwork took him from the confines of the London College of Printing and Graphic Arts to working for the foremost satirical and cultural publications of the era, including Punch, Private Eye and Rolling Stone.
Described by Will Self as “Britain’s foremost post-war satirist” Steadman has forged a niche for himself with his instantly recognisable artwork that unflinchingly mocks and undermines the major political players of the day. However, as Self explains, he has not always achieved the intended offence; “Ralph eventually had to give up drawing politician’s faces after he discovered that no matter how disgusting, corrupt and venal he made them look, they’d still ring him up trying to buy the original prints.”
Self continues to work with Steadman on his regular Psychogeography column for The Independent, and speaks fondly about having Steadman as an illustrator. “After he gave up drawing their faces, he would just draw their legs. I used to get reams and reams of faxed politicians legs sent to whichever hotel I was staying at while I was writing the accompanying articles, which would utterly bewilder the hotel staff who received the faxes. I ended up just screaming at them ‘Have you got the legs??” Self states unequivocally that “Receiving a brand new Ralph Steadman print every week has been one of the greatest honours of my life.”
Steadman is currently in town to promote his latest work, a memoir of his late friend Hunter Thompson, entitled “The Joke’s Over”. Specifically the book focuses on the time the two spent working together covering such events as the Kentucky Derby, the Americas Cup and the Honolulu Marathon. Thompson wanted him to capture in his drawing ‘absolute evil’, the face of the decadent America that Thompson was pursuing. Steadman says he failed, and was only able to draw certain shades, certain types of evil.
He describes writing this memoir as a cathartic experience, which helped him to deal with the loss of a companion of was not only a great friend but also a constant inspiration. “I think we sparked off each other”, he says. Steadman now possesses a number of items of Thompson memorabilia, such as a distinctive hat, pair of aviator glasses and a cigarette holder. During the promotion of the work, he has begun donning these items to recreate the character of his lost friend, something he says he only feels comfortable doing now that he is dead. “When I used to go to Hunter’s house in Colorado, there were lots of people trying to be Hunter when they were with him. I could never do that.”
Steadman was always an outsider, and cursed with a naivety which at some times it seems Thompson took advantage of. He shows me a fax from Thompson, which begins with pleasantries but is soon down to brass tacks; “What I really need is $50,000 dollars. Keep your advice and send money.” Thompson was notoriously unwilling to share the credit he received for his work. Indeed, Steadman says that Thompson always regretted one of their deals when they did end up splitting the royalties. “For “The Curse of Lono” we agreed to split it 50-50, but afterwards he was never happy. He would say to me ‘Ralph, couldn’t we change that deal? Make it 51-49 in my favour?’ but I always said No.”
However, despite their differences of opinion, and of character, Steadman played an integral role in the forging of Gonzo journalism, Thompson’s great literary legacy, and Steadman delights in explaining the phenomenon. “What is Gonzo? Well, there are two concrete events in his life which I would point to and say “That’s pure Gonzo” The first would be, quite late in his life, when he had had a hip replacement and surgery to his spine, and he insisted on smoking inside the oxygen tent. The second would be his habit of turning off his lights and driving very fast down the wrong side of the road. We could see the other cars coming, but they couldn’t see us. We’d go past like ghosts, and they wouldn’t be sure whether they’d seen anything or not. The police had no idea. There was nothing to report. How could they know that some maniac was speeding down the wrong side of the road in pitch darkness?”
Thompson revelled in danger, and claimed that he wanted to drive fast enough that the “thrill of speed exceeded the fear of death”. Bearing this in mind, I wonder whether Steadman was surprised by Thompson’s suicide? “I say in my book ‘I have always known that at last I would take this road, but yesterday I did not know that it would be today.’ I always knew that he’d do it someday, but I wasn’t ready for it when he did. I understand his reasons for it. He was sick. He hated not being able to do what he loved, he hated not being able to do what he’d always done, and he hated the idea of going to an old people’s home. He used to say, “Ralph, the thing I worry about is being in an old people’s home, being strapped into a chair and some woman coming along and playing with my balls – and not being able to do anything about it.” Arthritis and illness had crept up on Thompson in later life, a man who had always been larger than life. Steadman mimics Thompson’s peculiar ambling gait, so ably reproduced by Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Well he had one leg shorter than the other due to an American Football injury, so he always ended up with one foot just off the floor” Steadman explains “He would walk into a room and everyone would look at him. They had to; he was right in their faces.” He talks about Thompson fondly, but without deifying him, as so often happens after the death of a public figure. “He was a bastard” Steadman smiles, “but he was a lovable bastard.”
Speaking of bastards, Steadman is back to ranting about Blair. “He’s claims to have achieved everything he dreamt of coming to office – presumably that means bombing the shit out of Baghdad.” As I leave, Steadman is approached by a fan who asks him to doodle on the cover of the day's Guardian. He willingly obliges, and sets about defacing the grinning image of Tony Blair with devil horns and other demented features. I suggest that he’s getting closer to absolute evil. He laughs, “I think you’re right”.
Tuesday, 14 March 2006
Wolfmother are a band in demand. My interview with them before their sold-out show at the London Scala tonight is delayed and then cut short as their late arrival means cramming my demented inquisition in alongside my better paid but clearly inferior peers at the NME and several representatives of the international press. Whilst bassist Chris Ross has seemingly baulked at the gruelling schedule of interviews, playing truant at today’s proceedings, the band should be no strangers to attention. They are already superstars in their native Australia, where their debut album has garnered massive success which has been reflected by critical praise. Influential Australian radio station JJJ awarded them their ‘album of the year’ award and the band also had an unprecedented six songs voted on to their annual top 100 list.
When drummer Myles Heskett and Andrew Stockdale, the band’s impressively afroed lead singer and guitarist, finally arrive they are both laid back and happy to chat away, although this could be to do with the fact that they both seem very very stoned. Indeed, some critics have attempted to pigeonhole their sound as ‘stoner’ rock, but they tell me that they’re ‘not that absorbed’. To my ears, they are ‘everything-but-the-average’ rock, drawing influences from countless genres. They say ‘We want to take elements of stoner and mix it in with elements of punk, or take the finger plucking from country and mix it with straight out rock. We take things from hip-hop or anywhere else. I wouldn’t want to designate one scene.’ Myles cites Kyuss, and his subsequent discovery of Pink Floyd as key influences, whilst Andrew seems to naturally draw influences from anywhere he can find them, saying that even at school he could socialise with any scene, and listened to anything and everything from Black Flag to the Blues Explosion. This openness to eclecticism has made for an album with some unusual highlights. ‘I don’t see why people freak out over panflute solos,’ says Andrew, ‘I think for our next album we’re gonna get an entire flute orchestra together.’ Their debut LP was recorded in Los Angeles with Dave Sardy, a big name producer who’s worked with the likes of Oasis, The Dandy Warhols and Marilyn Manson. Andrew tells me that their openness to his ideas helped the band to progress, and to move on from the level they had already achieved after the years of jamming and rehearsing which had led up to the EP they self-released and which brought them so much attention. They are coming towards the end of this tour, and feel triumphant that their work has brought fresh recognition.
It’s been a far cry from the nightmare gig that followed their last visit to London. As Myles recounts the tale, Andrew seems physically pained, wincing “I feel like we shouldn’t even talk about it, I don’t wanna go there” Apparently a hectic departure from London, en route to New York, involved a very stoned Andrew and Wolfmother’s tour manager breaking into his old flat in order to retrieve his passport, then flying half way around the world to a photo shoot which involved sitting in the snow for several hours. By the time they played their New York showcase Andrew had lost his voice and Myles was suffering with flu and finding that his rented drumkit disintegrated mid-show. As their PR shuffles them off to sound check, I hope that the Scala will be kinder to them. By the time I next see them, striding onto the Stage to an exultant roar, they are changed men. Gone is the laid back, not a care in the world attitude, and in its place is classic showmanship. The show is pure foot-to-the-floor rock. Part Zeppelin riffs, part Sabbath howl and part Floyd psychedelia, they unite a diverse audience of hairy head-banging AC/DC fans, huge sweaty skinheads apparently on loan from Millwall riots and skinny girls with blonde pigtails, awakening an initially lethargic Tuesday night crowd. They roar through a crowd pleasing set, with Apple Tree, Another Dimension and Mind’s Eye particular standouts. Be sure to catch them at the Koko for their final British date next month, because as they exit stage right, world domination surely awaits.
Tuesday, 7 March 2006
'If Tony Blair was in front of me, I’d fucking lamp him.’ Benjamin Zephaniah is back, and he’s angrier than ever. His new album ‘Naked’ is his first since ‘Belly of De Beast’ a decade ago, and he begins our interview by explaining that he never gets himself tied into a record or book deal, so you know that if he’s got material out then it’s because there’s something he needs to say, not because he’s fulfilling a contract. However, he tells me that there could be another record not too far away, simply because there’s so much going on in the world that he feels the need to speak out about. He may be best known as a poet, but his albums allow him to combine music with the performance poetry that comes naturally to someone who favours the oral tradition over dull textbooks. ‘Naked’ sees him at his very best, ‘undressed’ and ‘looking at the truth’.
Despite his righteous anger, I get the feeling that Benjamin Zephaniah is something of a reluctant radical. He’s as laid back and easy going as they come, and happily tells me that he’d much rather be ‘writing comedy and having lots of sex’. Unfortunately for the Tony Blairs of this world though, he’s the sort of person who couldn’t live with himself being apathetic.
On the title track of his new album he says ‘I hate dis government as much as I hated the one before it and I have reason to believe that I will hate the one to come’. It’s a powerfully delivered statement, but I ask him if he ever feels depressed about the lack of difference his message, and those of people like him, has made. ‘Yes, in a word. One of the most frustrating things is that there are no alternatives.’ He tells me about his experiences in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid, where he experienced the rare phenomenon of people actually being excited to vote for someone, rather than voting for the lesser of two evils. The end of Apartheid in South Africa was an issue that was close to Zephaniah’s heart. In the early 80s he recorded a protest song for Nelson Mandela with the Wailers, becoming the first artist to record with them after Bob Marley’s death. He tells me that the issue of South Africa brought them together, and the song was heard by Mandela, who asked to meet him when he was released from Robben Island. Zephaniah cannot help but remark at the way Mandela’s image has transformed in the West ‘You have to remember that at the time, the ANC were Al Qaeda, and Nelson Mandela was Osama Bin Laden, except that he’d been caught!’
Africa remains a central theme in Zephaniah’s writing. On ‘Rong Radio Station’ he says ‘I waz trying to convince myself that I could ease my conscience, If I gave a few pence or a few cents to a starving baby in Africa, Because African babies need me so, Because African babies needed my favours, Because Africa is full of dictators, and oh yeah, Globalisation will bring salvation. I’ve been listening to the rong radio station’ I tell him that while I agree that giving money to charity may not be the long term way to solve inequality, it must have an important role to play for the people suffering right now. Anyone who received the Kenyan Society’s recent urgent email regarding the drought that has hit the Horn of Africa will know that it has been estimated that eleven million people there will require food aid, but is the urge to give them our loose coins any more than middle class guilt? Zephaniah thinks that charitable giving is short changing African nations ‘If you have a stab wound, you don’t try and cover it up with a plaster do you? I’m not saying that people who give to charity are bad people, I’m saying that they should get political. Too often people give to charity and think that that counts as being political, because they’re scared of being revolutionary or radical.’ He compares the difference to that of not being a racist, and of being actively anti-racist. ‘If you’re walking down the street and you see a guy getting beaten up by a racist, do you walk on and say ‘That’s bad, I wouldn’t do that’ or do you actually get involved and do something to stop it? It may not be directly confronting the racist, but just anything to actively stop it happening. The same applies to charities. There’s more to stopping inequality than putting money in a tin.’
Issues of inequality are never far from Zephaniah’s mind, which is hardly surprising given his personal journey from spending time detained at Her Majesty’s Expense to being invited to the palace to meet HRH in person and collect his OBE, an ‘honour’ which he famously declined. He wrote at the time ‘Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. No way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen’ He rejected it on several grounds, not least the fact that an Order of the British Empire would be an unwieldy honour for someone who is ‘profoundly anti-empire’. Today he stands by his decision, describing those who accept one as ‘getting into bed with government and monarchy’ He says ‘I mean, I got a letter from Tony Blair inviting me to Downing Street. If Tony Blair was in front of me, I’d fucking lamp him. I’m a vegan, and when I was offered the OBE it was like someone who knew that offering me a steak, I’d fucking hit them, y’kno?’
He tells me that the years he spent in prison were formative for him. He says ‘Prison gave me time to think. Screws always have this thing where they’ll be like, ‘I’ll give you a year, you’ll be back’ When they said that to me, I said, ‘I’m not saying I won’t be back, but if I am it’ll be political.’ I realised that stealing off of the working class guy wasn’t achieving anything, but political activism could.’
Honours that he has been happy to receive are the honorary doctorates that have been bestowed on him by various Universities scattered across Britain. He counts ten proudly displayed on his wall, and tells me that for someone who left school at thirteen, being told your work is influential is an especially great honour, and one with some unexpected privileges. ‘After the first one I went to give a talk to some school kids and they introduced me as Dr Benjamin Zephaniah. I said, ‘Oh No, You don’t have to do that’ but the kids seemed impressed. I told them that I had had it put on my drivers licence so that every time I get stopped, the policeman has to call me ‘doctor.’
Freedom of speech has always been a key issue in Zephaniah’s writing, but he says that he thinks the recent uproar over cartoons published in a Danish paper highlights the ‘responsibility that comes with the right’ to free speech. Furthermore he tells me that he believes portraying the prophet as a suicide bomber perpetuated the negative stereotype that all suicide bombers are Muslim. He tells me that when he was in Palestine there was a suicide bomber who was a Christian, but ‘the media reported that he was a ‘Palestinian suicide bomber’, and never mentioned the fact that he was a Christian. It just fits in with this blinkered view that all suicide bombers must be Islamic.’
Musically speaking, ‘Naked’ is Zephaniah’s most diverse album. Every track stands out as an experiment in a different genre. He switches effortlessly from drum’n’bass to hip-hop and from garage to reggae dub. He tells me that whilst previous albums have been mostly reggae orientated, like ‘Belly of De Beast’ which was produced by the legendary Mad Professor, the new album ‘experiments with any genre of music that will enhance the words’. This openness to experiment has seen the involvement of a couple of talented collaborators. Preceding the release of the album is a remix EP by Rodney P, a friend of Zephaniah’s who ‘demanded’ that he got involved after he first played him the album. The album itself, unlike so many of the cheap and mundane CDs on the market, is physically a work of art. It is presented as a mini book of poetry, something Zephaniah says was intentional to ensure that the poems could stand alone from the music, and features the artwork of genius graffiti artist Banksy, whose work has become notorious worldwide and is ‘displayed’ everywhere from Palestine to LA and in several places close to the LSE campus. Zephaniah praises the alternative viewpoint that Banksy’s art provides. ‘He’s subversive and gives you another way of looking at the issues, which complements my poems.’
You sense that whilst he is very much a performance poet, he is at heart a wordsmith. I ask him how he sees himself. ‘I describe myself as a ‘Griot’. It’s a West African term which has no exact translation in English. Probably ‘Troubadour’ or ‘Bard’ would be closest. It’s someone who travels from village to village. Maybe they’ll tell a story in one village, sing in the next and perform a poem in another. Sometimes they aim just to entertain, but sometimes their aim is to get people off their asses and ready to storm the government.’ At a time like this, we need Griots like Benjamin Zephaniah more than ever.
Tuesday, 14 February 2006
On the eve of their debut British tour they talked exclusively to The Beaver about making records on the road less travelled:
Kevin: How did the band first come together?
Roger: It all started when I got Dave to perform a solo set as support for a punk band that I was in at the time. I was really impressed with his psychedelic guitar work and decided that that sort of sound was what I really wanted to be doing as well. The punk band split shortly after and I joined forces with Dave.
Phil: I was still in the process of moving down to London at the time, but Dave, who I knew from Blackpool, got in touch and we had our first rehearsal in April of 2004.
Dave: Phil just nailed that krautrock beat, which allowed me and Roger to experiment with our sound over the top of it.
Kevin: How did the first gig as “The Early Years” go?
Phil: Our first gig was just a month later, at Pleasure Unit in Bethnal Green. I’d say we had about 15% of our material prepared, and the rest of the show was improvised.
Roger: We were still kind of finding our feet as a band, but as our rehearsals improved we booked more and more gigs.
Dave: We decided to play one gig a month for a year, and then see where we were by the end of it. At the time London was full of bands trying to sound like the Libertines, so we were doing something different. We made music for ourselves, stuff that we’d like. We had nothing to lose so we didn’t give a shit whether it was what we thought people wanted, just what we thought sounded good.
Roger: As we started to find our sound through gigging, we decided to record a couple of demos.
Dave: I mailed them off and of course totally forgotten I’d done it. Then a week later an email appeared in my inbox telling me that we were going to be on John Kennedy’s XFM show. He apparently loved our first demo, “Things”, and kept on playing it.
Phil: Then Huw Stephens on Radio One played our second demo, “All Ones And Zeros”, which became our first single.
Dave: The DJs just ping-ponged off each other. Huw Stevens passed the track on to Steve Lemacq, who subsequently invited us to do a session at Maida Vale.
Roger: Of course, when John Kennedy heard about this he felt like he was going to miss out, so offered us an XFM session at the same time.
Dave: We ended up recording them one night after another!
Kevin: Was this the point when labels started getting interested?
Roger: Yeah, a couple of labels were interested. But when ‘Beggar’s’ got involved we knew they were the label for us, for a start some of my favourite bands have been on this label!
Kevin: You recorded your first single with Tim Holmes, of ‘Death in Vegas’. How was that?
Phil: It was a fantastic experience. “The Contino Sessions” is one of my all-time favourite albums, so to actually record at The Contino Rooms was incredible.
Roger: They have all sorts of rare equipment there. They could open a museum with their synthesisers alone!
Kevin: Were you worried that with such a big name producer involved you would sacrifice artistic control and end up with a ‘Death In Vegas’ record rather than an ‘Early Years’ record?
Roger: No, not at all.
Phil: The anticipation was a little nerve wracking, because you realise that you’re going to be working with someone who you’re a big fan of. But by the second day we went in it was like popping round to see a mate.
Dave: Tim was fantastic to work with. We were relaxed as soon as we started jamming and chatting about music, and while he got very involved with the single it was always a collaborative process. The tracks we came out with are very much our own, although there’s maybe a little nod to Death in Vegas on “I Heard Voices”.
Kevin: “I Heard Voices” creates an incredible soundscape, did you use sampling to create that?
Dave: No, the whole thing was recorded live in one take; the trick was playing the live vocals through the effects pedals.
Kevin: Is it more difficult for you to re-create your sound live, compared to say a garage rock band?
Phil: Our live sound is definitely different to how we sound on record.
Roger: Our gigs are a lot rawer.
Phil: The problem is we’d need twenty people to recreate the sound of our record live. We only have three pairs of hands!
Dave: Yeah, we’re actually looking for another member to join us live. Another pair of hands would help us recreate that rich sound that people have come to associate with our records.
Roger: The live show is definitively a lot more punk!
Kevin: What’s your favourite live memory?
Phil: Our most memorable show was probably at a festival we played at in Hertfordshire. “Do Me Bad Things” were headlining, but when their set finished the organisers had arranged for a load of fireworks to announce our show on the “secret stage”.
Dave: Everyone thought the night was over, then they were like “what’s that noise?”
Roger: It was about 3.30 in the morning by this point, so we were all completely wasted. We started playing as the fireworks ended.
Phil: I’ll never forget watching hundreds of people coming down this path from the main stage to see us.
Kevin: How about in London?
Phil: Most of our gigs to date have been here in London. We’ve played everywhere from 93 Feet East to ULU.
Roger: Yeah, ULU was a great gig. One of the biggest audiences we’ve ever played to and a lot of people hearing us for the first time.
Dave: We got a really good reaction. I think we won them over.
Kevin: Has it ever all gone horribly wrong?
Roger: When we played Upstairs at the Garage, everything that could go wrong did. Phil was away anyway so it was just me and Dave playing an acoustic set. My amp pedal broke at the beginning of the show and from then on things just got progressively worse. I just left Dave to it in the end.
Dave: We were gutted when we came offstage, but we still got some really good feedback. It just goes to show that your perception on stage is very different to how the audience perceive you. As we’ve got more and more live experience under our belt, we’ve got better and better so we’ve raised our own expectations as to how we should be sounding. Each show is better than the last. That’s the key.
Kevin: Looking forward to touring?
Phil: Definitely. It’s going to be a step up, at the moment we’ve mostly been playing in venues that we already know well, whether as fans or performers. The tour is going to put us in unknown environments which will be a challenge.
Roger: The singles had a brilliant reaction and we get emails and feedback from all over the country, so it’ll be great to meet those fans.
Dave: Also it’s a chance to play our music to people who haven’t heard much of it before, if at all. It’ll get a much more pure reaction.
Kevin: The London shows are at the beginning of the tour, right?
Phil: Yeah, we play the Barfly with Calla tonight (14th) and the Tatty Bogle Club on Friday (17th). We’re really looking forward to it.
Kevin: So am I! See you then!