It’s been a decade since Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster came into being, and six years since their last album. ‘What the hell have they been doing?’ seems like a fair enough question to ask. ‘Being in the band’ comes the unexpected answer.
Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster are sat around a small pub table in Brighton, their knees cramped against the underside of it, giggling like school boys about their lead guitarist Tristan McLenahan’s search for a latte while the England vs. Germany game was on. While various camp voices mimic Tristan, it’s hard to believe that the five, greying men – bar their 21-year-old rhythm guitarist Dominic Knight – have two record deals, three albums and two EPs under their belts, especially when Sym Gharial, the bassist and oldest member of the quintet, is introducing everyone by his self-invented nicknames.
“This is Fistin’ [Tristan],” he says, grinning. “That’s Guy [McKnight, vocals], Dominique Young Unique aka Dan Sartain and that’s Shuttle Shit [Tom Diamantopoulo, drums].” They all erupt in laughter while Tristan pokes in with, “Are you bored of this?”, before Guy tells everyone to settle down. As a frontman, Guy isn’t as loud and opinionated as you’d expect. He sits at the back in his smart braces/shirt/suede shoes combo, quietly forming his words in his head before speaking, the cogs clearly turning behind his furrowed brow.
It’s been five years since the band were dropped by label giants Universal, but last month their unexpected third album, ‘Blood and Fire’, was finally released – so we’ve come to find out what exactly has been holding them back for so long. “We were re-organising and restructuring,” says Sym, leaning forwards on his elbows with his pint cradled in both hands. “Seriously, it’s like being in a battle, that’s what life’s like. It doesn’t have to be violent, it’s just hard and we didn’t want to put out some fake-plastic bullshit that’d be a radio hit.”
Soon after the guys lost their first record deal their original lead guitarist, Andy Huxley, left to pursue a different sound, and shortly after that his replacement Rich Fownes left to join US industrial rock titans Nine Inch Nails. “It was just a constant barrage of shit we were dealing with for five years,” adds Tom before Guy continues the thread. “These things are sent to test you,” he utters, his grey streaks giving him the sense of a not-quite-so-old wise man. “If you really think it’s just suffering then you begrudge it, but if you genuinely believe it’s an opportunity to get up and pull out your potential you grow beyond your limitations.
“I think that with some of the most dire points in this band I can look back on them now and say with conviction that they were some of the greatest times of my life. They made me a lot stronger and happier and I’m really grateful to everyone in the band for pissing me off so much.” He laughs and explains that “it’s the people who are closest to you who really help you to grow and there have undeniably been growing pains, but I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it wasn’t for that.”
Where the first LP (‘Horse of the Dog’) was a primitive hurricane – the kind of fast and agitated music teenagers make – and the second (‘The Royal Society’) showed the band growing into their psychobilly mould, ‘Blood and Fire’ is more mature, a little darker and more “personal” says Guy.
“I still think we’re finding the music, still trying to find the G-spot,” counters Sym as they chuckle around him. “Seriously,” he defends.
“I feel really proud of it,” beams Guy. “It’s physical proof – a testimony to our perseverance because, you know, with two guitarists leaving, splitting from the management and our publishing deal, getting dropped and all our personal obstacles, we still carried on against all odds.”
The personal obstacles he’s referring to are the year long benders and break downs they shared. “We went through far too many drugs and we were all cunted and we all fell out at some point and then in 2006 me and Guy had a massive party – seriously fucking incredible – no one wrote any songs and I basically thought ecstasy and speed were the future and then it was 2007,” Sym spews his description in one enthusiastic gust. “Time flies when you’re losing your mind.”
It was perhaps Tom who felt it hardest, however. “I had a nervous break down,” he admits. “I don’t know if it’s directly because of being in this band, but something happened and I just went mental. I was watching the TV and suddenly I started to freak out. From that day onwards it was just three years of absolute glee and joy,” he says somewhat sarcastically, the words drawn out and deadpan. “Panicking every day but still carrying on with the band, because I’d sit at home writing whilst having a panic attack. It’s a good source of inspiration.”
He goes on to describe the great sinking feeling he felt when he realised he and Guy had to make that desperate trip to the Job Centre. “It was about six months [after we were dropped], once we’d run out of money that we were in the dole office and I just thought, ‘Oh my God’. It was a mad experience because you get so used to being on tour and suddenly you’re in the dole office with some not very nice person asking what you’ve done to look for a job.”
“We had money and I had a great time for about a year,” Guy joins in “but the drugs stopped working and I wasn’t having fun any more. You just have to hit rock bottom a few times [before you’ll] do something about it.”
“But it’s not really about the money,” Sym interjects, to ensure that we understand something he feels so passionately about. “If it was then I would have probably stopped in 2004 and just got a job.” He may not at the moment, but the others still hold onto day jobs because, as Tom puts it, “money is yet to be made, six years on.”
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom as the garage-punksters worked themselves back to form. Guy played the leading role in F. J. Ossang’s French film ‘La Succession Starkov’ (Starkov’s Succession) while the band provided the soundtrack, which came about a few years after Ossang saw them play in Paris in 2003. “I went and did a bit of an experiment in Russia,” Guy explains, after Ossang contacted him. “A short film in Vladivostok and he was obviously mad enough or convinced by what I did to offer me the lead role in this feature-length film. I don’t speak French so it was quite difficult, but I learnt the script and went to the Azores and Portugal last year to film.
“I had a French friend in Brighton who went through the script with me a few times and I listened to a CD of it with another actor saying the lines and I used to put it on just before I went to sleep so it would somehow go into my subconscious and it seemed to work. All in all I had to take a few months out to get to grips with the script and then shoot the film.”
The Brighton five-piece also spent some time at Tristan’s parent’s house in Limoges in the south of France recording ‘Blood and Fire’ – a record that the band saved up for and funded themselves and from which a lot of the songs date back as far as 2005. “Tom was writing straight away from when we got dropped,” Guy informs us “and we’ve all been writing over the past five years. I guess we weren’t a buzz band any more, but we’ve been touring, we didn’t break up.”
“Basically we decided to put an album out even if we had to hand it out to people,” adds Sym. “But it was a long process, going through things like firing our manager because he was funny about money and people were leaving left, right and center, and when you don’t know which way you’re looking half the time it’s quite hard to get an album together. And of all the people I could have gone to France with and made a record that amazing with no money, no jobs, nothing – I think it’s amazing.”
At the end of 2007/start of 2008 the band supported Queens of the Stone Age, which was preceded by a System of a Down tour, before declining The Hives because they couldn’t afford it. “We went on tour with QOTSA but obviously at the time the press were talking about Mumford & Sons. What do I say? We went to some fucking incredible parties and wrote some incredible songs, we just didn’t release them, that’s the thing,” Sym clarifies.
So, it wasn’t so much that they went away, more that they stepped out of the limelight for a while. And while they were out they focused on making a real team play to pull an album together and all the writing duties were shared out. “This album is more of a collection of everybody’s efforts than anything previously,” puts in Guy.
“He tells us what to write,” jokes Tristan, his long, wavy red hair beginning to match the blush in his cheeks as he grins. I ask Guy if it’s weird having to sing someone else’s songs. “Well, if I don’t like it, then yeah, but most of the time that’s not a problem because I like most of the stuff that these people write.”
“I think the vibe is that everybody’s there,” Sym enthuses. “I was about to say if one person left it wouldn’t be the same, but…” he trails off, spotting his error just as the other four begin sniggering. “If one more person leaves it just won’t be the same,” mimics Dom, laughing while Sym ploughs on regardless. “Well, if people want clockwork they should go and see Snow Patrol.”
“They should see a horologist,” Guy timidly teases from beneath the wide brim of his big brown hat, pleased with his quick wit even though no one seems to have cottoned on.
“I read a review today that said we’re not over-rehearsed, droll…something,” Dom continues. “What did they say? That it was like a…sexual execution.”
“My son’s in a band called Sexual Execution,” exclaims Sym with a look of delight on his face.
With an air of the school room about the place, constant distractions, jests and veering off topic are unsurprising, but Guy manages to keep his head by telling us about his view on things now. “I felt too close to [‘Blood and Fire’] to really be able to look at it objectively, but when you do a tour and play it live and people really enjoy it and then someone says that it means something to them it feels really great. I think that’s when you’re able to enjoy it more, to believe in it more.”
He talks as if this light has only recently been shed on his thoughts. Perhaps they took things for granted before? “Yeah,” Guy agrees. “I heard this quote about being spoilt and it says that too many good meals at a young age spoil a man, so I think we were very young [when we were signed]. It’s very easy to lose perspective, take it for granted and become ungrateful. So I think the last five years have been a fertile ground for us to gain perspective, put some roots down and not be blown around by the winds of fame and fortune.”
As cliché as it is to say, Eighties Matchbox have had a roller coaster ride of a decade and when they hopped off to play a label showcase at the 100 Club last year, after which they were signed to Black Records, they decidedly kept their feet on the ground to see through their blood, sweat and tears of the well-rounded, third LP. “At the end of the day we’re all on the same ship, aren’t we?” Sym begins “except we’re all on the edge crapping our pants.”
By D. K. Goldstein
Originally published in issue 19 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. July 2010