After manoeuvring her way onto our red leather booth, Maxine Peake is saying sorry to Dean Honer and Adrian Flanagan. Not for her dramatic late entrance or for her frighteningly efficient breakfast order of boiled egg and soldiers, but in apology for calling her two band mates “her freaks” in a national newspaper. Flanagan, who had read the article in the Telegraph two days ago, is the first to react. “We can’t walk the streets in Sheffield now because of you!”
“I took it as a compliment,” says Honer.
Peake settles in with a lung-busting cackle.
Not so long ago Maxine Peake the actress was yet to meet Flanagan and Honer the musicians, and their daringly original Eccentronic Research Council were yet to play one note. They came together – these three freaks – via a Chrome Hoof gig in Manchester.
“Back in the day I was on Facebook and one evening I had been to see a gig and I put on how fantastic it was,” explains Peake. “Well, I got a message back from Adrian saying if you like Chrome Hoof you will like my band and that’s sort of where it started really.” She dips her first soldier.
Flanagan’s band, The Chanteuse and the Crippled Claw, were an electronic duo from Sheffield and they needed an actress.
“I said: ‘Would you dress as a bunny rabbit and have a water pistol fight with me,’” he says. “I offered her a Thunderbird and a pickled egg and she still hasn’t got them. She emails me twice a week saying where is this Thunderbird?”
“And then I got paid in a rockabilly LP and a signed Pat Phoenix picture, which was OK by me.
“The band evolved from there,” continues Peake. “We found we both had a mutual interest in the Pendle witches [a historic witch trial from Lancashire, 1612], so we decided to have a field trip to Pendle in my little car to sort of find witches. We didn’t find any although we saw lots of strange people. We came away from that and said we’d write something. Within a week Adrian called me and said I’ve done it, so that became our first album. Then we went to Dean’s studio to record it.”
What came out of Dean’s studio was ‘1612 Underture’, a witch’s haven of analogue sounds and the band’s first concept album, it’s propulsive synth groove reminiscent of Radiophonic Workshop or Bruce Haack. Flanagan provided a rocktronica-tinged influence from his time with Kings Have Long Arms, and Honer brought with him production expertise harking back to All Seeing I, a diverse late ’90s dance act responsible for pop hits ‘The Beat Goes On’ and ‘Walk Like A Panther’.
“I write all the dialogue and Dean does all the production. Maxine just comes in and raps. She’s pretty good at reading!” says Flanagan with some comedic authority.
“There isn’t much input needed with me,” she says.
“No, you’re right, it’s all about the output.”
Used to seeing Peake in BBC dramas like Silk and The Village, now the actress was fronting it out as a musician.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I had only gone round my friends to do a bit of voice on a record. Oh my god, those first gigs were chaotic. My partner joked: ‘I bet this was what it was like watching the first Velvet Underground shows.’ If something goes wrong on stage [when acting] you know it’s a disaster, but I didn’t realise a gig doesn’t always work like that. Adrian was screaming at the sound guy and it was all going a bit mental.”
Last soldier finished and more tea ordered, we discuss how weird it must be, going from promoting something like Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange to ERC’s forthcoming album, released May 18. “It is a bit strange, but the pressure is off and it’s nice to let Adrian and Dean have a say – they’re more interesting anyway. Some journalists want to ask you about how you researched your character but sometimes, very rarely mind, I think I didn’t research at all; I just turned up and read my lines!’
From witchcraft to stalking, ERC’s new act is perhaps their boldest vision yet. ‘Johnny Rocket, Narcissist & Music Machine… I’m Your Biggest Fan’ is the year’s first and last album about a fictional band called Moonlandingz, their frontman Johnny Rocket and his unnamed stalker, played in convincing spoken word by Peake. It’s set in a place called Valhalla Dale based on, well, Flanagan’s life, really. “I thought of me when I thought of Johnny Rocket,” he says. “Valhalla Dale is Abbeydale in Sheffield, very clever isn’t it.”
So everything is real, down to the very last detail?
“I was writing a story about being stalked and having that claustrophobia of someone watching what you do and following you around and it’s all from personal experience. When you’re at a certain level, playing to a massive amount of people then maybe there will be twenty odd fans who are quite obsessive. When you get that on a smaller scale and it is just one person then yeah it is frightening.” Flanagan is deadly serious.
“This is the Adrian Flanagan memorial album.” Peake laughs her fantastic laugh to lighten the mood.
Heard on face value, ‘Johnny Rocket…’ is a startling album, almost a radio play, shot through with black humour, striking melodies and towards the climax even political satire. Yet with Adrian’s admission that everything is grounded in reality, it becomes a remarkable piece of art. “Pretty much word for word it’s true,” he says. “I think if you give too much away on social networks people can gauge where you live, people can gauge where you hang out, they can ingratiate themselves with your friends all that kind of stuff, you know. It is very easy to do – it’s shocking but it’s happening.”
I ask if Flanagan used to wear tin foil like the character Johnny Rocket and if his stalker ever wrote to him commending him on his jumper, a memorable line delivered so well by Peake. “Yep, right to the detail pretty much, even to the tin foil. I used to wrap my head in tin foil before my gigs, just walk on stage covered in tin foil. I did a gig at the Manchester Deaf Institute, the email just said, you were amazing tonight, I really loved your jumper. It was a shit jumper, but a nice shade of blue.”
This rampant attention to detail is evident throughout ERC’s work. They’ve dealt with concept album’s before but this one takes aim far beyond their previous efforts, so much so that Johnny Rocket’s fictional band Moonlandingz are ably brought to life by The Fat White Family’s Saul Adamczewski and Lias Saoudi. With their help the Moonlandingz have made an EP. They’re even being played on the radio. “We like to make an effort,” Flanagan rationalises with a smile.
“The band didn’t exist but the idea existed so we thought why not ask Lias and Saul to get involved,” says Honer. “They were really up for it and that kind of made it more of a thing really, rather than me and Adrian tinkering away with it. We just gave it more depth.”
As if on queue Lias saunters up to our table, offering up a wave and generous smile, his shirt untucked, his hair awry. “Breakfast is it,” he says as the table gets up to greet him.
“We’ve had two boiled egg and soldiers.”
“The soldiers have nothing to do with breakfast,” manages Flanagan.
The bond is immediate, not least because ‘Johnny Rocket…’ will be released via Fat White Family’s own label, Without Consent.
He settles down to await his sausage sandwich and tells me about their unlikely relationship. “Yeah it was a very easy decision,” he days. “I really like what they do so it was a no brainer for us. It took practically no persuasion to be in the Moonlandingz too. You got us on the train instead of a Megabus; that was about all it required. A train ticket, that was a deal breaker.”
Flanagan, as ever, has the last word. “Luckily, Megabus do trains as well.”
Whilst Flanagan readily admits Johnny Rocket is a character based upon himself, it seems Lias has relished the chance to embody his creation. “Well, once I get past Derby I am Johnny Rocket,” he tells me. “Right now, in London, I am Fat Whites – I shift. Usually, I am just shitting it myself with a Fat Whites gig. It’s always a bit nerve wracking but with Johnny Rocket I guess it would be fine. Some of the skills are transferable, that’s why I got asked to do the job… either that or my good looks I don’t know!”
Listening away through the breakfast debris is Flanagan. “You remind me of a younger version of myself,” he says. “The Fat Whites played in Sheffield a few weeks back and he walked on stage and declared, good evening I am Johnny Rocket.”
Lias, looking pretty pleased with himself, continues: “It’s difficult to be two people but I can deal with it. He’s not too far removed from my Fat White identity, he’s a little bit more dangerous, a little bit more sexy and a little bit more elusive.”
In a climate where politics is pushed under the table, a music industry taboo that’s more business than everyday life, both the Fat White Family and ERC are refreshingly open in their opinions. “You can’t help but be political when you come from the north,” says Flanagan. “Growing up in Salford and living in Sheffield, witnessing the decimation of families and towns, it still exists, there are parts of Sheffield that are ghost towns. We’re coming up to the second year of Thatcher’s death and there is an election.”
Thatcher’s spectre hangs heavy on both bands’ work, and for Lias in particular Thatcher’s death marked a pivotal moment. “When we came out, and still now, there was so little of the music industry politicised or even talking about that kind of thing so we thought we needed to wave that flag. When she did die we had that death party down in Brixton and we were in the paper the next day so it kind of became our break in a way. Thank god she bit the dust as it gave us a platform to express ourselves. For us it was a vehicle; you get asked about that kind of stuff all the time. I wouldn’t say we’re a really political band – we’re not Billy Bragg – but it’s just more of an unspoken thing between a lot of like-minded people.”
At this point Peake, who notably has been an active communist in the past, speaks up.
“I find a lot of younger bands find it hard to express an opinion and we grew up as Thatcher’s children and we have strong views on things. I was ten at the time and I grew up with communists so you look back to the ’80s and you see a movement.” There is a stir around the table as waiters buzz around, perhaps wanting to brush such vital discussion under our spotless white tablecloth. Adrian pointedly ends the debate, this time more emphatically than ever. “There might be more awareness with the Internet and social networking, but there is definitely more apathy too. You just click a button now and people who come on marches or usually make an effort can’t afford to come to London and march, it’s like a hundred and fucking thirty quid for a train ticket, do you know what I mean, unless they come down on the Megabus.”
Peake rises, there is a clatter of cutlery as she exclaims: “Bring on the Megabus revolution!”