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.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Stewart Lee

No matter what medium he has chosen to work in, Stewart Lee has been dogged by controversy. In 1998 he and Richard Herring found a cult audience with ‘This Morning With Richard Not Judy’, but the show was cancelled after falling out of favour with the BBC hierarchy. Seven years later, the BBC had forgiven him enough to televise the musical that he had written with the composer Richard Thomas, ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’. They received 55,000 complaints prior to the show even being broadcast, due to claims of blasphemy and ridiculing Jesus, not to mention profanity due to its reported 8,000 obscenities. Stand-up comedy is perhaps his most natural habitat, and his latest work combines this with his new-found love of theatre. “It’s called ‘What Would Judas Do?’ and it’s sort of me being Judas for an hour talking about the last week of his life and why he did what he did.”

Before the show, he plays down the comedy aspect “I wanted to do it in character and I wanted the jokes to be incidental to it, rather than being the bits where you ‘tick’ whether it’s worked or not.” In fact, the show is as funny as you’d expect from a winner of the prestigious ‘Tap Water’ Award, the anti-Nestle version of the Perrier. Despite the furore that surrounded ‘Jerry Springer’, it might seem that Lee has no qualms about making a joke out of Christianity, but he denies that he has explicitly set out to mock the faithful. “It’s not really about religion. It’s about hero worship, about being let down by someone you’ve idolised. This is a really good way of telling that story. I don’t set out to prove or disprove the existence of the characters involved. I thought that about ‘Jerry Springer’, which wasn’t in any way a criticism of religion, it was just the use of a story that’s very familiar in the Christian West to look at some different ideas. They don’t own the story. It’s in the public domain, so I think you should be allowed to do what you want with it.”

It is not, however, merely a story amongst others. Surely he must have expected to cause some controversy? “Well ‘Jerry Springer’ played for four years in theatre without a problem, it was only when it was on the telly and it was seized upon by a succession of right-wing gay-hate groups as a platform to get their own stuff into the marketplace that anyone gave it any thought. Before that it had got good reviews in the Church Times. The difference between its content and its supposed content was vast, really.” It is perhaps worth noting that despite the 55,000 complaints it received before going on air, it received only 8,000 afterwards.

Clearly well versed in Scripture, and a talented wordsmith, the role of preacher would seem to come naturally to Stewart Lee. Has he considered going into the Church? “I don’t even like going into the actual buildings anymore. I think the Church of England would probably be able to accommodate an atheist priest though - they seem very broad-minded. The good thing about doing a show here [The Bush Theatre] is that it’s an eighty-seater room, I’m on equity minimum every week, it’ll sell out before the loonies even find out about it. It’s on a safe level – I wouldn’t want to do anything particularly high profile again, all that happened is that I was kind of randomly picked on by mad people. You don’t make any money off it. What is the point? There is actually no point. I suppose when you start writing and you have a little idea you think, “It would be great to communicate with the masses”, they can fuck off. They can have all the shit that they want. It’s not my problem. The masses are idiots if they allow themselves to be dictated to by the Christian right, so they’re welcome to it.” Spleen vented, he smiles, “Much better to be here, in this ‘elite’ theatre, limited so that only eighty people a night can come.”

Like Lou Reed releasing ‘Metal Machine Music’, Stewart Lee has actively engaged in culling his audience. “Daniel Kitson said after the Perrier awards that he felt he had to shake off a lot of his new audience, they had sort of expectations of what he would do. I’ve largely managed to drive those sort of people away I think. You think “This’ll shake a few people off.” Also, where you perform, how you promote it, which magazines you go in. My DVD got reviewed in Nuts and Zoo magazine, but I refused to do any interviews with them, because you don’t really want those sorts of people coming to see you. I might have done ten years ago, before I was bitter, but now I just think it’ll make for a miserable night. A room of thick people, you couldn’t use irony, I’m too old to struggle.”

In his younger days, however, Lee and Herring were lauded as the comedic kings of the emerging ‘Lad’ culture. “Well we didn’t pull in much of a crowd. I think that was probably because a lot of the two million people who watched the TV show were about twelve years old and couldn’t really go out. Ironically now fifteen years later they’re journalists and promoters and things like that so there’s been a sort of weird second wave. ‘Loaded’ was different in ‘95 anyway. It used to have decent articles.”

Youth culture has certainly shifted, and student life is very different to the mid-90s. “It’s harder for students nowadays, I got a grant. I don’t think I’d become a student now. I think people were more politically active, or more visibly politically active I suppose, 20 years ago. Every day you were faced with a new challenge about what was the correct way to address a woman. Those things have just sort of settled down now. I enjoyed being a student though, I wrote for the Oxford Revue, and directed. That was amazing. There was money for student arts then. You could go to Edinburgh Festival. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but one of the best things was the opportunity to have educated, clever adults who were obliged to speak to you about things that you were supposed to be interested in. To treat that as a chore was really disgusting. Looking back, I really wish I’d done more work! The last few years, a lot of things that I’ve written have used things that I studied. ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, the framework of it was very Blakeian, with a sort of Miltonic quality, so it was nice to find an outlet for all that, fifteen years later.”

Lee’s current work is eclectic to say the least. “I’m writing a sitcom about the Norse myths, about Odin and Thor, and I’m working on a sort of folk-music musical about William Blake at the National. And I’m doing a site-specific theatre piece about DIY – someone walking you around their house, explaining why they want to sell it because they’ve done it all wrong. And then I’ll do another stand-up show in August.”

With all his work, however, he is defiantly steering away from the mainstream. “Critically, ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, was a big hit, but because of all the problems we didn’t really make anything out of it. So that’s kind of put me off commercial theatre. But ‘What Would Judas Do?’ is great – it’s cost effective and I might get a little radio drama out of it. I can’t keep doing things for nothing. Supporting the things that you want to do even if they aren’t viable. Working away at stuff that you think will make a difference.”

Music is one of Lee’s great passions. Offering him the opportunity to drive a tank, he says “I’d drive over all those Foxtons Estate Agents Minis that are made out in a kind of punk-rock livery, as if Foxtons Estate Agents had anything to do with the spirit of ‘76.” But in his new-found spirit of pragmatism, Lee finds himself accepting Murdoch’s greasy buck. “I write record reviews for The Sunday Times every week, and I do about one feature a month, and you know what? Between 2001 and 2004 that was the only money I earned, I earned about £12,000 a year, and it was exclusively from writing about music in the papers. Jerry Springer was being written, I was kind of doing that full time, and that’s really what this show is about. About being an idealist and about where you draw the line in the sand. I’m really glad to have that job. They let me write about whatever I want, and yeah…I hate Fox News, I hate Murdoch as a person, but it buys me the time to do other things. I’d have been in a lot of trouble without it.”

“I have a much more straight-forward relationship with my editor at the Sunday Times culture section than I’ve ever had with anyone at the BBC, who are the most duplicitous, lying, dishonest people. I feel much happier, much more ethically comfortable writing for a Murdoch newspaper than I would doing anything for BBC2, which to me is just so mad and chaotic and dishonest and panicky. I’ve wasted so much of my time there. There are things I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t write for the BNP paper, but no-ones ever censored anything I’ve done for The Sunday Times on the grounds of politics or taste. Whereas you run into that sort of thing all the time in the BBC. You never know where you are, or what they want. It’s not even political correctness; it’s more nonsensical than that. When people say that there’s too much political correctness I think they forget that there was a black bloke beaten to death in Liverpool last year by racists, and that the next week there were MPs standing up in Parliament trying to deny gay people the same rights to goods and services that straight people enjoy. There are still people trying to prevent the exercising of basic human rights, and using the media and the courts to do it. It’s a bit of a red herring to blame political correctness.”

Speaking of Herrings, how does Lee view his long time partnership with Richard, forged in the writing of ‘On The Hour’ and growing to fruition with ‘Fist of Fun’ and ‘Lee and Herring’, “We were diet coke visionaries, we were like the romantic poets with laudanum, except we were on diet coke. We wrote about a hundred hours of radio on diet cokes and crisps between 1994 and 1997. We were caffeine visionaries.”

“Armando Iannucci got us in to write ‘On the Hour’. It was a satire of what radio sounded like. Satire had traditionally been about personalities, but he made it about the delivery mechanism, rather than the information itself. It was something new, compared to the very retrograde world of Dead Ringers. We wrote two series of that, and loads of things that went on to become comedy staples of the nineties, but we dropped out when it went to TV as ‘The Day Today’. Patrick Marber managed to get a share of the credits for the creation of Alan Partridge, even though he hadn’t been on original creating team, and we had. We felt me should have some sort of recognition for that, which seemed fair at the time. It could probably have been handled better. Sometimes I think dropping out of that was a major career mistake, but then on the other hand, it did mean that at least we were still, throughout our twenties when you’ve got a lot of energy, we were still coming up with our own ideas, rather than becoming writers for hire. Both individually and together me and Rich sort of developed our own voice. I can’t really write for other people, and I’m quite proud of that – it means that what you do is more distinctive. Although, if I had a percentage share of Partridge like Marber does, I wouldn’t be sitting here now with this on. Swings and roundabouts.”

“I learnt that I’m in this for the long haul. Doing a show at Edinburgh, touring it. That’s the only thing that I’ve got which is a certainty. There’s no interface between me and an audience. It doesn’t have to go through the filter of people commissioning it or funding it or whatever, and it also doesn’t have to go through the filter of someone deciding whether it worked or not. It’s pretty obvious if it worked. It went well. More people come next time. So that’s really really simple. I’m not managed by anyone at the moment, because I was very reluctant to go with anyone who wanted a cut of my work, because at the end of the day, it’s kind of all I’ve got. That and writing reviews of leftfield free jazz for a neo-Nazi newspaper, is all I’ve got.”

“I’d love to do a radio show, but the breadth of things I’d want to play wouldn’t really fit in anywhere. Which, again, is their problem. It’s a problem of broadcasters and formats and producers – it’s what you call narrowcasting. I got sent a letter asking if I wanted to write for a new comedy, and it explained how it had to be a little bit risqué and blue, but be targeted at 25-35 year old women with a sense of independence but also a degree of responsibility. I just screwed it up and threw it in the bin. Only an idiot, or a person with no heart whatsoever, would write to that brief. I mean, my Odin sitcom is going to be targeted at people who believe literally in the existence of Norse Gods.”

The internet is changing the way that comics work, and, thankfully for us, the audience, reducing the importance of agents, PR and management. “I’ve just put out a DVD through a website [www.gofasterstripe.com] because no-one wanted to put out my new DVD after the controversy that surrounded ‘Standup Comedian’. They’ve covered their costs so now they’re doing loads of stuff with people who can’t get deals. Its sort of an indie label for comedy DVDs.”

“I’m not at the stage where I’m thinking about developing content specifically for the web, but to sell DVDs just through a website, with no advertising, is entirely cost effective. About 2,000 people come to my website, and there’s another 1,000 or so on a MySpace page I have, so if I alert all those people to new shows and stuff I can sell out venues with no advertising costs. I was invited to go on ‘Derren Brown’, and I like ‘Derren Brown’ but they don’t pay you anything. Three million people watch it. It’s not worth being recognised by three million people in the street, for no money. It’s not really worth being recognised by eight million people for the amount of money you get for going on ‘Have I Got News For You’. It’s quite disconcerting.”

On the other hand, there’s still people who recognise him from ‘This Morning With Richard Not Judy’ “It’s tailing off, but it’s astonishing and very gratifying the amount of very nice people who do come up and say Hi.”

At least some of the sacrifices of celebrity are worthwhile then. Stewart Lee may not be the messiah, but he’s a very funny man.