INTERVIEW

The new political voice of recession-era grunge.

Photography by Suzie Blake

Photography by Suzie Blake

THE NEW POLITICAL VOICE OF RECESSION-ERA GRUNGE

During a crisis, there are two routes for artists to take. One involves making something that people can use as an escape mechanism in the vein of the ‘bread and circuses’ school of thought. This, to an extent, is what artists such as The Vaccines and even James Blake are doing. With their intensely personal music, listeners can drown out the clamor of the harsh economic reality we live in. This is an important way of coping with the conflicting demands of the state, the job market and the education system, as well as finding respite from one’s own personal issues. The other approach is to meet these contradictions head on, to reference and to address them directly. While it’s fair to say that Young Legionnaire have chosen the latter route, it’s also important to mention they still do things their own way.

The three-piece was formed a bit more than two years ago, when guitarist and singer Paul Mullen found himself at a loose end after engagements with cult post-hardcore outfit Yourcodenameis:Milo and indie rockers The Automatic had run their course. Mullen had, three years previously, overseen the ‘Print is Dead’ project (where twelve musicians were invited to his Newcastle studio to write, record and mix a song in one day) and had struck up a rapport with Bloc Party bassist Gordon Moakes, with whom he wrote ‘Wait a Minute’. When the two collaborated on another track (for a tribute record to the underground rock band Cable), the idea of making music together was “cemented.” Moakes muses: “I probably stayed in touch more with Justin and Adam (Mullen’s YCNI:M bandmates), but I did have Paul in mind to harness his skills at some point.”

Towards the back end of 2009, the two wrote some songs together and, after a first few shows in early 2010, roped in permanent drummer Dean Pearson to replace Will Bowerman, (formerly of I Was A Cub Scout, now of hardcore math rockers Brontide).

Mullen remembers: “He was already drumming for La Roux at the time, and we were looking at the charts and La Roux just kept going up and up. So we could tell it would take priority over this band.”

So here’s a thought – the way Young Legionnaire’s members have moved around in between bands mirrors the way people move in and out of jobs a lot more frequently these days. So, is there no such thing as a band for life anymore?

“That’s an interesting idea”, says Moakes. “I mean, right now (with Bloc Party on a break) the opportunity presents itself to do this full-time. But a lot of our favourite bands were comprised of people who moved around and played in other bands. The classic case for me is Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. Sebadoh came out of Dinosaur Jr, but to me, they were the better band.

“This is the second band I’ve ever been in, so this is a big deal, you know? Before, I didn’t even know if I could play in another band. But as you get older, that changes. As my old boss would say: there is more than one way to batter a fish.”

Despite its title, the band’s debut album, ‘Crisis Works’, isn’t a protest record that wears its anti-corporation sentiments on its sleeves. The sound is dominated by thick, gnarly guitars inspired by bands like Future of the Left (whose producer, Rich Jackson, oversaw the album’s recording), but the main sonic influence is 90s rock and grunge bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Mudhoney and The Jesus Lizard. There are riffs as big as anything on Soundgarden’s masterpiece ‘Superunknown’, but there are spaces in between the drum fills and the slightly distorted vocals that draw the listener in. One of these moments is a recorded quote at the end of the catchy post-hardcore song ‘Youth Salute’. This, Moakes says, was inspired by another great record of the 90s: “It’s a reference to ‘The Holy Bible’ by the Manic Street Preachers, which is, collectively, one of our favourite records and has a lot of spoken bits on it. In the end I went with an interview with Anne Sexton [American poet and writer who killed herself in 1974], who I love. She wrote about sex and death, and in that interview she was saying that death was the one thing she couldn’t explain.”

‘The Holy Bible’ also inspired the bigger idea behind the record, says Moakes: “I always liked the idea of referencing what’s happening around you rather than being in a bubble outside of it all. In a general sense, the record is about being aware that the world is going wrong, without really knowing why or what you can do about it.”

And the title – does that hint at a conspiracy theory that there is someone benefiting from everything that’s happening?

“It’s very easy to turn it into a conspiracy theory, but that’s too specific,” replies Moakes. “I read a book called ‘The Shock Doctrine’ by Naomi Klein, and that set my brain alight about a few things. It’s about how, in times of crisis, there’s a system that comes in and lets certain people take advantage of times like these. And that’s definitely how the world is right now. Obviously there are many people who aren’t benefiting from the crisis at all, but there is a minority who are…”

“…Raking it in, yeah,” Mullen chips in. “On the record, I’ve taken observations about these things to the extreme,” he continues. “Relationship breakdowns are a big topic as well – I mean, if you look at the coalition government, you can hardly even call that a relationship. The crisis is definitely not working for the Lib Dems.”

We talk a bit about the Barnsley by-election that took place that day, and how Nick Clegg, despite seeming like a “stand-up guy” (Moakes) has dug himself into a hole he can’t get out of. “I’m really into quantum mechanics at the moment,” says Moakes, excited by the topic, “and I’ve learned that, on a subatomic level, things don’t happen in a scientifically describable way. When you analyse them, you see that they’re not actually doing what it looks like they’re dong, you know? That, to me, is like the Lib Dems – you look at what they’re trying to achieve, and you see that they’re not actually getting anything done.”

The lyrics on ‘Crisis Works’ aren’t overtly political, however, and – on a couple of songs – barely audible over the thundering drums and guitars: the vocal is just one of four equally weighted instruments. Mullen says he usually starts singing nonsense to get the melody right, and then builds lines out of words that fit the mood of the song. “With ‘Blood Dance’, it was just a conversation other people were having,” he remembers. “The electricity in my building went down, and there were these two guys outside trying to fix it. They were using a terminology that I found quite interesting, so I picked out random words and sentences and put them together, like a Dadaist poem.”

Since Young Legionnaire have seemingly found a set-up that combines political theories with a sound that, despite its retro feel, goes against the lo-fi aesthetic prevalent at the moment, it would be a shame if this was just another temporary side project.

“Well, this band came about precisely because we’re not musicians exclusive to one thing,” says Moakes, “and there’s some vague stirring in the Bloc Party area – probably later in the year we’ll work on some actual songs. We’ll take it as it comes, I guess.” Something tells us that, once the time comes, Young Legionnaire will not be a project either of them wants to drop. Right now, the crisis is working for them.

By Matthias Scherer

Originally published in issue 26 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. March 2011

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