Anti-fashion punk from south London. No, really!
In a vast six-bedroom house in Lewisham, five guys in their early twenties are shuffling around looking for enough mugs for a tea round. As far as students go, they submit to stereotype in their dimly lit, cluttered dwelling with beer cans scattered around the drum kit, amps and wires that are sprawled across the floor. The search is successful for all but one so Tommy Simpson, one of the frontmen of this dual-vocal quintet, resorts to a washed out tin can with a tea towel wrapped around it.
Having migrated to London from all corners of the country, the guys eventually met through a political direct action group at university. “Just sticking it to the man,” Simpson smiles. But it was while occupying Deptford Town Hall, part of the grounds of Goldsmiths College, for two days during the Gaza war that they really got to know each other. “Because we had to spend every waking moment together,” Rory Porter, the other singer of the band informs us “we decided we may as well spend every waking moment together drunk; it was an intense bonding experience. And we wrote a chant and that became pretty much our first song.” Everyone laughs at the in-joke and I can’t resist asking what it was. “It was about scholarships for the Palestinian students to the tune of ‘Ooh Aah Just A Little Bit’ by Gina G.” And then they all erupt in laughter again before singing it.
Now at just over a year on they’ve accumulated an albums-worth of lo-fi garage-punk songs about not fitting in, “but not in a bitter way – not fitting in can be as cool and as liberating as much as it can be oppressive and shite,” Porter is quick to assure us before Zak El Tanamli, the bassist, interjects. “I think we try and make them somewhat humorous,” he says “but not in a ‘Vindaloo’ sort of way. ‘I Beat Obesity’ is obvious and ‘Cameron Youth’ is a straight up joke in a lot of ways.” Of course the humour is difficult to pick up on when the vocals are so fast and loud, which seems to be the running theme in all their tracks; of just playing as though their lives depended on speed, accompanied by simple, catchy riffs.
“The tagline is, ‘I want you for the Cameron youth’,” Porter continues, regarding the song. “Imagine if one of the young Conservatives tried to pull a girl in a bar using David Cameron’s buzz words that he’s been using on his campaign? And in ‘Other Shoes’ there’s the line, ‘Come on man, I don’t like Bryan Adams’ – it’s quite a whingy song, but if you just catch that bit you’re like, ‘Ooh’. Because I don’t think anyone wants to hear us go on about how hard it is to be white, lower-middle-class and study something you’re really interested in while getting loads of money from the Government, but if you put it in a character maybe you can get away with it,” he jokes and they all join in laughing again.
And the jokes don’t stop there because even their name was born of humour. “Why are we called Athens Polytechnic?” Tanamli asks, as curious as we are.
“Because Athens is the centre of classical knowledge and polytechnics were shit, so I thought it was a funny juxtaposition,” Porter enlightens us before Ben Levy, the quiet guitarist speaks up. “Polytechnic is the Greek word for university, so there is an Athens Polytechnic. It’s not a funny juxtaposition at all.”
“No, but it is in English. In translation it gains something,” persists Porter. “It just kind of happened, it is a shit name.” But Tanamli disagrees: “I don’t think it’s a shit name because so many people ask what it is. What else are we gonna be called? The Shits?”
You wouldn’t know it to listen to their accelerated Damned-ness slash Cramps jives, but Athens Polytechnic are a band who are serious about their Kraftwerk, among other influences such as The Clash, Motown and The Housemartins. “So much Kraftwerk,” Porter ponders “because where Kraftwerk were growing up in a cultureless post-war Germany where everything had been obliterated they could do whatever they wanted, really make themselves.” Which is channelled into AP when they go about making music. “It’s a very organic process,” says Allan Crocker, the drummer who has been slouched in silence in the corner of the sofa up until now.
“Someone writes a song and plays it at practice, and then in two weeks it’s a completely different song,” explains Tanamli.
“Because everyone’s so wary of everyone else’s ego,” Porter defends “you can’t ever call it a bit shit, you’ve just gotta make incremental changes. We started jamming them out recently but it’s really frustrating because it’s hours and hours of going, ‘No, that bit. The bit that we played 17 minutes ago. Put that bit after the bit that we just played.’”
“The amount of times someone’s said, ‘The pre-chorus, the pre-chorus!’” cries Tanamli in frustration. “I don’t know what you’re on about!”
“And the lyrics are influenced by stories and weird witticisms,” Porter carries on “like Waits and The Streets or Jilted John.”
“I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Springsteen,” adds Simpson while Porter keeps talking: “We’re really interested in cultural references that Americans won’t get. Singing songs about BBC4 and how it should not have to close down during the day because some people are unemployed and still want to watch quality programming.”
A quick glance at the band’s Myspace page (wearefashionable), compared with a think back to the meaning of the tracks and a mention on their blog about the ‘cool bands’ in London, would suggest that Athens Polytechnic have a collective chip on their shoulder about this whole fitting in business. “Well, we were never very good at it,” Simpson states.
“I think ‘we are fashionable’ is just a catchy few words,” adds Crocker.
“And it’s a little bit of a taunt at the whole London band scene,” says Porter “where you don’t have to be good, you just have to be fashionable. I don’t think that we should record with the guy from the Test Icicles and then put out a seven on his label, get picked up and write the fucking soundtrack to the summer. I just want every single show we play to be the best show yet and you’ve gotta do whatever is necessary to do that.”
“We don’t really know what we’re doing, we just play songs that we think sound cool,” puts in Tanamli before Levy tells us that they rarely engage with anyone else at shows. “Sometimes we just play our set and leave,” he says as Tanamli laughs about the fact that he really doesn’t know why people like them.
“None of us can really play our instruments,” Crocker establishes “so that limits us in what we can do, which means that we have to rely on good songs.”
“If people like it I’m really pleased,” Porter joins in. “If people don’t like it we take strength in that, the five of us pulling together for something.”
“It’s the Blitz Experience,” Crocker grins.
“Yeah exactly,” Porter enthuses.
“There is no plan,” he concludes. “We don’t wanna make friends or make money.”
But then why should people bother listening? “Because we’re giving it our all, all the time,” he answers before Simpson justifies that: “It’s just high octane rock‘n’roll with a bucket full of choruses.”
By D. K. Goldstein
Originally published in issue 17 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. May 2010