To DIY For: The most self-sufficient band in the country
A little more than a gentle nudge was needed for Seymour. Insisted by Andy Ross – the then chief A&R for Food Records – that name had to go for starters, and the newly christened Blur couldn’t continue down this sloppy noise-punk route either. Their live shows were embarrassingly incompetent; their songs void of charm and tune in equal measures. So 19 years ago Blur ‘went baggy’, wrote ‘Leisure’ and today Damon Albarn travels the world first class to promote Chinese operas that feed his monkey fetish.
The Libertines needed a push too. As The Strokes arrived it was out with skiffle and in with leather jackets and Clash sensibilities – a smart move by their pushy management, without whom Pete and Carl would have never signed a deal, even if Doherty has now sloped back to his Steptoe yard to play ‘Roll Out The Barrel’ on a rusty radiator once more.
Back to The Sex Pistols and even The Beatles it stretches: our great bands being sculpted by greater businessmen and businesswomen, experts in PR, convincing artists to alter their sound for the greater good. And now Video Nasties have gone through a sizeable change, from a perfectly average indie band to the five-piece that resurfaced at the end of 2008 with the brilliant ‘Albatross’ EP. Except no Malcolm McClaren has frogmarched this band to their bold new sound, because if Video Nasties are interested in impressing one record label it’s their own.
“The one lesson we’ve learnt is that no one will ever say ‘no’ to you,” explains keyboardist George. “No label or manager or press person will just say ‘no’ and give you a straight answer.”
“That’s why it’s nice putting our album out ourselves,” adds guitarist Harry. “There’s a lot of bullshit in the music industry with just the way people talk to each other, like the fact that A&Rs are professional friends who are employed to befriend you in order to sign you, but they’re not your friends, they’re just telling you what you want to hear. There’s way too much of that, so it’s nice to be working with just us.”
Video directors are quashed (drummer Max takes care of that, having created ‘Albatross”s promo film), producers are redundant (frontman James is responsible there, producing the band’s debut album himself), artwork and merch designers are worthless (blame bassist Joe). Unless they desire it, Video Nasties needn’t speak to anyone outside of their close camp, so when this band returned in December ’08, sounding like we never thought them capable, there can’t have been any pre-conceived thought behind it from higher echelons, just the players that have “been evolving behind the scenes.”
“I’ve always thought that we were always this band,” says chief songwriter James “but from the stuff we’ve released it hasn’t always seemed like that. For me, we’ve always been that, we’ve always had this side to us.”
Harry: “I think we all agree that the ‘Albatross’ EP, and how the album sounds, is all how we should sound but before that we were always finding our way a little.”
“Yeah, we’ve always been a little confused,” interjects Max. “It’s never felt as natural as this but we just went ‘bang’ in three or four weeks and didn’t worry about it.”
A turning point for Video Nasties came just before the band started to write their album, due for release this April, entitled ‘On All Fours’. Between touring with Late Of The Pier and battening down the studio hatches for the summer, as Harry puts it: “There was a point where we collectively thought, ‘right, we don’t care about outside influences anymore, we’re just going to write what we want.'”
Seemingly, what the band wanted to write were tracks more dynamic, more unpredictable and more ambitious than ever. Until ‘Albatross’, their most assured boast was their limited single ‘Karl Blau’ – a straight-up, charging indie-punk joint about being friends with the little-known folk minimalist. Today, it’s a snarling number that rages with hardcore tom drums and desperate, delusional cries that reference an impressive sea bird, followed by a polar opposite middle section, musically akin to The Charlatans circa ‘the good days’, vocally all slurring, half spoken and meandering home for a sob.
“There’s a lot of desperation in it,” confirms James, the song’s author. “And there is in the album too, definitely in some of the vocal deliveries and song content. There’s a lot of darkness. I think the album’s quite dark.”
“But it’s not all two-minute punk songs,” offers Joe. “Y’know, there’s that louder side to each song but they’re all a lot more developed and a bit more mature maybe.”
Max: “We always meant for ‘Albatross’ to be quite fun, but the rest of the record isn’t quite so‚” quirky.”
These less-quirky tracks include the heavily distorted, down-tempo ‘Old Flowers’, which must have been what The Killers were trying for when going through their Cure phase, and the sonic ‘Teenage Celebration’, morphing from fuzzy Ramones punk into a punch-drunk Joy Division chorus that speaks of radio waves, only to have its life snubbed out by theatrical funeral organs and final pleas of James rasping, “won’t you come back to my house?”. Certainly not the work of a ‘perfectly average indie band’.
We meet Video Nasties 24 hours before their Helvetica tour of the UK. In 16 days time they’ll have played 14 nearly consecutive shows with touring partners Swanton Bombs and The Threatmantics. In Brick Lane’s Vibe Bar, before our photo shoot calls for us to trudge the winter streets of east London – we’re not alone, countless others are being simultaneously snapped for fashion and music articles outside bagel shops – James, Max, Harry, George and Joe are fine company to keep, relaxed if clearly eager to get back to playing live again, consistently.
“We’re very excited,” enthuses Max from beneath a blonde mop of curls. “It’s been a long time since we played any consecutive dates.”
“We were recording pretty much the whole of the summer last year,” adds Joe “and have since been mixing and mastering, and all of that. I’d be happiest if we weren’t always on tour but were always playing gigs.”
Max: “You get a bit lost in the studio. You start to forget what playing live is like, and what the whole point of being a band is about. And it’s going to be great,” he nods to each of his band-mates “It’s going to be really fun.”
Previously, Video Nasties have completed laps of the British Isles in tow of Late Of The Pier. But Helvetica is different. Playing forums with electro bands to electro fans was never meant for a garage (read as ‘shed’, seeing as the band practice in James and Max’s parents’ wooden garden shack) band like this. Rotating running orders with touring partners, between Barflys, established cubbyholes and bars, is far more fitting, and yet the band are confident that they may have impressed enough neon faces in their past to pull worthwhile crowds in certain towns.
“It’s kinda funny,” says Joe “because we have certain towns where people seem to really like us and then others where people definitely don’t. We played a gig in Oxford last year that was really good for no apparent reason. Everybody was really into it‚””
“Tunbridge Wells is always good,” remembers Max “Newcastle’s not so good.”
And are you playing Newcastle on this tour?
“Oh yes!” chuckle the band in unison, defiant in the face of being proven wrong by any major city in the country.
Now, you might fancy Newcastle’s chances as the victor in this battle – 3 million Vs 5, an’ all – but when Max and James formed Video Nasties they did so with one month to play their first gig – think feel-good Justine Lee Collins project without the face foliage.
“It started with me and my brother playing in our parents’ shed,” explain James “and then we kinda got a gig before we had a band, because we said we had a band to this venue. So we thought, ‘right, we need to get one together’. So then we wrote some songs and got George and Harry, which is how we played our first gig. We went through periods of either not having a bassist or letting someone else play bass, and then Joe joined a year later. We had a month. I’d written some songs before, so we had a few songs, but we didn’t have a band.”
Max hadn’t particularly taken the drums seriously until then either, but the pair – soon a four – managed, simply having known some friends in bands and deciding “we could do that, that’d be fun.”
But within this crusade against an unconvinced northern city, or any crusade for that matter, what really swings the odds Video Nasties’ way is Dead Again; the record label that the band have forged themselves, a reminder of the band’s commitment to making their music and making it heard.
“We definitely wanted to have complete control over it,” says Max of why the label exists, perhaps hinting at why a once-planned single with Parlophone never happened. “We want to record it ourselves, do artwork ourselves and it kind of made sense to go on from that. James produced and then we thought, ‘why don’t we release it?'”
“It was a natural thing to form a label for ourselves,” continues Joe. “It’s not like we want control because we think we can do everything the best way, it just feels more normal. There’s no people saying, ‘oh, you have to release this song for radio’, or that we have to write songs in a certain way. This way we can release an album, and then another album, and have a career, instead of releasing an album and if it doesn’t sell well you get dropped, which is happening to a lot of bands at the moment. So we want a career, not an album. And, especially on a debut album, I think it’s a big statement. This is our album; we’ve made all of the decisions. If it sucks, we suck. If it’s good, maybe we’re good, but at least people will know what we’re about from this album.”
“I think how we’re doing it is how other bands will start doing it now,” says James, prompting conversation to turn to the current state of the music industry, an issue that Max feels optimistic about‚” providing you’re any good.
“I still think if you’re a good band and you make good records you can do alright and make a career for yourselves,” he says with an adamant tone. “I don’t think you need to lose you integrity by things like Guitar Hero or whatever. Y’know, if you’re a good band you’ll be successful. It’s as simple as that.”
“Metallica doing Guitar Hero, I’m not that surprised by it,” says an unimpressed James.
Max: “They sued Napster, didn’t they. I find that pathetic!”
Lars Ulrich, your short rump is on the list, directly beneath Newcastle and one space above female singer/songwriters (“They’re all so boring,” says Max “and the thing is that they think they’re quirky, but they’re not, because they’re all quirky”), all in need of the emotional yet heavy new sound of Video Nasties. Lad-Rockers would be on there too if they weren’t already dead in the water (“It can be hard to make guitars sound interesting,” says James “because these lad rock bands are definitely having trouble with it. Hammering chords to make them sound different is hard to do”), which is where Video Nasties halt their irks, even if they do struggle to list what they favour in the current musical climate.
“We’re feeling slightly bleak about [current music],” confesses James. “We’ve been thinking about putting on a gig and thinking about what bands could headline above us and what bands could support us, and we’re drawing a blank.”
“There’s a struggle for British bands at the moment,” winces an agreeing Max. “I mean, I think the best music is coming out of America at the moment. I hate to say it but it is.”
Harry: “It feels like in a year or two there could be a wave of angry, disillusioned groups but it hasn’t really happened yet. Everyone’s saying that British music is shit, and it is, so what would be a great thing this year is if we break through into the right peoples’ heads that want to be in bands. That’s the best type of band to be.”
A snappier summation will be needed for people to band around whilst praising, slating and discussing Video Nasties though, and indie punk sounds about right. Or new wave. Or, on account of the emotions and insecurities found within James’ lyrics – often swathed in distorted walls of guitars and subtle keys from George – post punk maybe. Or post post-punk.
“People always call us lo-fi, which is a little bit‚” y’know,” grimaces Max once more.
“If people could stop calling us a teenage band, that’d be nice,” says George “because we’re all in our twenties now.”
“I think the album does sound quite lo-fi,” counters James, adding “I don’t think DIY is the right word but it’s how we sound live.”
And then Harry wades in to put an end to this pondering: “People hearing [the album] will think that it sounds likes a debut album, but in the best possible way. Like when bands make their first record and they just have to put it all down, and it sounds really exciting. I think that’s what it sounds like.”
James’ denial of a DIY tag may well seem unjustified coming from the leader of a band so heavily involved in everything they create, but Harry’s right about how exciting Video Nasties sound these days, and how much ‘On All Fours’ sounds like a debut album. Urgent and desperate, it’s got a sense of want shared with ‘Definitely Maybe’, and that record turned out okay.
“Last night we played the best gig of our lives,” grins George, supping at the pitiful rider that’s welcomed Video Nasties’ back to London. “There were four girls at the front that really liked us.”
Unfortunately, at this Shea-Stadium-of-a-show, in Wolverhampton, these four girls were the entire audience. Not that the band care. Tonight’s Cargo stint, a stop in Brighton, one final hurrah in Kingston, and the Helvetica tour is done. And it’s been “a hell of a lot of fun”, firmly bonding Video Nasties with splitter-van brethren The Threatmantics and Stanton Bombs as all three bands have entered combat in PS2 tournaments and raved to the flickering strip lights of their vehicle.
On Cargo’s merch table, amongst t-shirts, badges and the last remaining copies of ‘Albatross’, is a black and white fanzine, pieced together by Joe, a reminder of just how productive and self-sufficient this band are; Video Nasties’ headline set beneath the east London venue’s arches, a recap of their new sonic sound.
At points there’s hints of the na√Øve Nasties that were, the instantly excitable ‘Jellybean’ aiming for early Strokes and not falling too short as James’ vocals drawl from the overdriven PA. At other times Phil Specktor walls of sounds arrive; grandiose, theatrical statements that soundtrack Joe wrestling his bass (that’s how it seems when he achieves his goal of playing as fast as he can), Harry striking guitar hero poses and James arching his head, cockerel-like to the crows he lets out. When not leaping from his monitor and bashing his keyboard, George is found knelt beside Max, barking lyrics in his face, as if the motivational boxing trainer to a fighter slumped in the corner between rounds.
The aggression onstage couldn’t be further from how Video Nasties appear around a picnic table, huddled in a circle of Vibe Bar sofas or trudging winter streets of east London on photo shoots. “So what that there were only four people at last night’s show,” they notably think “it’s better than three.”
Joe: “Hopefully on the next tour a couple more people will come and we’ll play to more than half empty rooms.”
Max: “To be fair, I think we’ve all been quite happy with half empty rooms.”
Joe: “I’ve enjoyed this tour much more than having been on tour with Late Of The Pier and playing forums. I’d much rather do this again than that again because it’s just difficult to play what we play to a bunch of electro fans.”
Klaxons, you’re on the list.
Originally published in issue 3 (vol. 3) of Loud And Quiet. February 2009