Outsider pop maverick Adrian Flanagan talks physical trauma, drag queen putdowns and a shift in The Fall over an afternoon pint in Sheffield
“You find out who your friends are when you can’t wipe your own arse,” laughs Adrian Flanagan, aka Acid Klaus, as he recalls one of the many significant hurdles he’s encountered over his 20-year run of making outsider electronic pop music in Sheffield.
In this particular instance it was a bicycle accident. In 2008, after receiving his first ever PRS cheque (on the back of a single he’d released with Candie Payne as Kings Have Long Arms [KHLA]), he went out to buy a new bike.
“Ten minutes after leaving the bike shop I was to be found lying face down like a pregnant seal,” he recalls. “I was unable to get off the road, with both of my arms broken. My shoulder was so badly broken it was described by the doctor as being only seen in people who have been struck by lightning.”
Flanagan’s burgeoning music career looked to have hit a major wall. “After the first operation, I said to the specialist, ‘I play guitars and keyboards’, and he just looked at me and said, ‘Did you?’ I don’t think you’ll be able to do that anymore.’”
Ironically, the reason Flanagan had bought a bike in the first place was to get fit after spending years on painkillers, recovering after an utterly horrific car crash a few years earlier. After playing a gig in Camden, he declined a Lauren Laverne-hosted afterparty and instead hit the road to return to Sheffield.
“I took the front passenger seat and was a bit stoned, flicking erratically through the radio trying to find a pirate station,” he recalls. “I remember stopping at one station called Trauma FM then falling asleep. Next thing I hear was a ‘Shit, what’s that?’. I bolted upright and just remember seeing a car number plate flash up. Next thing I’m covered in blood and being dragged out.”
Two sisters had been to a rave, taken ecstasy and then tried driving back home. They stalled the car in the middle lane of the M1 and couldn’t get it going again, so left it in the middle of the motorway with no lights on. “Before we hit the scene of the accident a guy was driving up the middle lane; he saw their car last minute and swerved onto the hard shoulder but hit one of the sisters, which tragically killed her,” Flanagan says. “We hit their car and span around and hit the central reservation, smashing in the front passenger seat where I was sitting. My behatted head had gone into the windscreen and pretty much made a triangle of the dashboard. I broke my jaw in two places, tore my sternum, damaged my heart, lungs, legs and was covered in lacerations and bruises. I had a serious concussion for around six months. I spent 24 hours on a life support machine.”
Five nights later Kings Have Long Arms were due to perform a headline show in Sheffield and Flanagan insisted they perform. “I rang my band from a bed on the critical ward of the hospital,” he says. Half of them agreed and half said no way, he was too ill. “I got driven to the back door of the venue at 1.30am. The other half of my band – that didn’t care about me as much – and a few members of Pink Grease I roped in were waiting in the wings. I staggered up to the mic like a dead man turning up to his own wake. After that I never tolerated any musician not turning up for a gig because they’ve got a runny nose or hangover.”
These stories are emblematic of Flanagan’s years of hard work, persistence and dogged determination to forge a life in music despite huge setbacks. His work stretches across countless bands, projects and monikers. These include The Eccentronic Research Council with Maxine Peake, their semi-fictional offshoot The Moonlandingz (featuring Lias Saoudi from Fat White Family), The Chanteuse and the Crippled Claw, electro-pop project International Teachers of Pop, the basement sleaze of Adult Entertainment, and now Acid Klaus, a solo project of squelchy acid-electro. His debut album Step On My Travelator: The Imagined Career Trajectory of Superstar DJ & Dance-Pop Producer, Melvin Harris, is released on November 18th on Yard Act’s ZEN F.C. label.
The album combines two things that Flanagan has long explored: a bold, rich-in-scope concept – see that album title – and a sense of inventive playfulness. These qualities stretch all the way back to early days of KHLA, which Flanagan used as a vehicle to make wonky electronic pop that was the antithesis to the seriousness of the time. After being given access to Dean Honer’s studio, a pivotal Sheffield artist who Flanagan describes as a “synth yoda, and my sonic architect” who has “single handedly done more for me as an artist than anyone else”, he threw himself into a world of synths and electronic sounds. He managed to get The Human League’s Phil Oakey to collaborate on the infectiously pulsing single ‘Rock and Roll is Dead’ and soon things took off.
“I started getting lumped in with that awful electroclash scene,” he recalls. “I was Northern electro, trying to bring a bit of wit and entertainment to electronic music. A lot of that electroclash thing took itself far too seriously – too much frowning at laptops, flicking of fringes and PVC.” He went on a recruiting mission. “I took the piss out of all that by recruiting the biggest show-offs in the local clubs,” he says. “A group of non-musicians to back me up live whilst wearing only their underpants. I’d be headlining festivals with people like LCD Soundsystem in Paris by the banks of the Seine and encouraging mass congas with the beautiful people of Paris, whilst my daft mates would be dancing about dressed as bears or Egyptian pharaohs and Mexican wrestlers whilst pretending to play their keyboards.”
By this stage Flanagan had created a persona and look. Permanently in a hat and dark sunglasses, his stage presence became equal parts agitator and entertainer; a kind of working men’s club turn who is as interested in synths and chaos as telling antiquated blue jokes. As all musical personas often are, it became something of a front to mask the things many of us struggle with: trauma, insecurity, over-sensitivity. And even though ego and swagger, and all the things that come with being a meticulously crafted music figure, are still alive and present with Flanagan on stage and in conversation, he’s decided to open up a little more today.
We’re in a grey beer garden on a Friday afternoon in Sheffield, as hammering rain slowly fills the ashtray that Flanagan utilises heavily over pints of local ale. Aptly, he has brought a prop hat with him to symbolically burn for the photoshoot.
“When I first arrived in Sheffield, I didn’t really know who I was other than being a hypersensitive kid living in a brutalist and depressed landscape,” he recalls. “When I started working out who I was and what I wanted to do and opportunities started to arise, an element of creating a character to hide behind did come into play. To a degree I’ve hid behind that for a long time, like a protective shield. It’s not even that great a look, but it’s highly recognisable on Google Earth; it’s Poundland iconography.”
Perhaps before the hat acted as a shield, humour served the same purpose. “My dad came from a massive Irish family, 15 brothers and sisters, so from being a small child I’d always been around and subjected to that brutal Irish piss-taking humour,” he says. “Although I think my humour stems through personal consequence and seeing a lot of shit in my life… it’s the kind of gallows humour people who work for the NHS have.”
Before moving to Sheffield, Flanagan had been brought up in Salford. “I was born a hyper-sensitive sickling child with a Vimto red face, too many teeth and a lazy eye in Crumpsall Hospital, North Manchester,” he tells me. “The same ward where Myra Hindley was born apparently.” Typical of his aforementioned gallows humour, he describes his dad as “Salford’s answer to Josef Fritzl”; his parents split permanently by the time he was four years old.
School was tough and “riddled with abuse and trauma,” he says. “I hid behind humour and being the class clown. Making a whole room of people laugh was so infectious as for once in my life they were laughing with me, not at me.” He then went through an enormous loss. “My first ever best friend at school invited me to go to his dad’s work after school one day on a building site to go and play,” he recalls. “I ended up not going but he and some other kids did. They ended up fucking about on a full size JCB, digging sand, and somehow my friend ended up going under the JCB and it killed him instantly. I cried like a baby when I was told in school the next day. I hated school after that.”
Music became a solace. “I spent my early teens swimming in records by Elvis, Patti Smith, The Cramps, Nico and The Fall,” he says. “Whilst trying to teach myself how to play a guitar that my step dad gave me.” As an underage teen he played open mic nights in Manchester’s Gay Village. “I’d be playing to the bitchiest of drag queens, lesbians and gays, drug dealers, junkies and gangsters,” he recalls. “They, like me, were very much outcasts. But my god the humour, the put downs. The heckles were character building to say the least, but it was all done with an equal amount of love and loathe.”
His teenage band pushed demo tapes through the letterbox of Mark E. Smith and Smith replied and invited them to support The Fall. Years later Flanagan was even briefly a member, standing in on guitar for a handful of shows over a six-month period. “I call it my youth training scheme in rock and roll,” he says. “Mark was a complete one-off. Literally one of the greats, my Jerry Lee Lewis.”
After Flanagan’s near-fatal car crash, he carried on with KHLA, writing a song about Lisa Riley, aka Mandy Dingle from Emmerdale. “It was about someone stalking Lisa and sending her loads of videos of himself falling over with the hope of getting on You’ve Been Framed and the coveted £200 fee,” Flanagan says. “Hilariously, years later when Lisa Riley was on Strictly Come Dancing she ended up doing the big Strictly arena tour across the UK and one of her routines was her dancing to a version of my song.”
Around this time Flanagan was also collaborating with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce of The Smiths, and Denise Johnson (best known for her vocals on Primal Scream’s Screamadelica), as well as releasing music on A Certain Ratio’s label. When Flanagan joked to the local press that the track he was working on with the ex-Smiths members was called ‘Meat is Tasty’, it got reported on Morrissey’s fan site and he had death threats. “I was a bit nervous for obvious reasons, but no-one killed me,” he laughs.
Despite Flanagan’s first decade as an artist being a creatively successful one – on top of being filled with drama, pain, and more time in hospital than anyone deserves – things had never really rocketed off quite how he hoped. But it was in his second decade, from 2011 onwards, when things would really accelerate. “Meeting Maxine Peake was life-changing,” he says. “We not only got on really well and are into a lot of the same things and share the same funny bone and political views, but she really believed in me and encouraged me to write and even said I was good. She’s a great actress. Up to that point, and after breaking both my arms, I was thinking maybe it really was all over. All it took was that little bit of generosity of spirit.”
The Eccentronic Research Council’s debut album, 1612 Underture, is an incredible piece of work based on the infamous Pendle witch trials. The backdrop of eerie soundscapes and pulsing electronics from Flanagan and Honer, along with Peake’s inimitable narration created a musical style and approach that was truly unique and that would become something of a template that was expanded upon across multiple albums. Most notably is 2015’s Johnny Rocket, Narcissist & Music Machine… I’m Your Biggest Fan; another brilliant, world-shaping concept record which features fictional band The Moonlandingz. This band came to life, with Fat White Family frontman Lias Saoudi playing the role of frontman Johnny, and became more popular than any other project Flanagan had been involved with. They recorded in New York with Sean Lennon and a bunch of guests, from Yoko Ono to Randy Jones of the Village People, with the latter performing on a glam stomper of a track called ‘Glory Hole’.
In 18 months, they’d gone from playing 150- to 1,500-capacity venues, but it was a chaotic group (the drug-heavy, drama-filled exploits of the Fat White Family extended universe around this time are well-documented) and it soon came to an end.
“It was good it ended when it did,” Flanagan says. “Things were pretty dark in the background and though I was finally in a position of being in a great band, doing massive shows, getting something resembling a proper wage and seeing the world, it was important for both Lias and I to step away from it as it was a massive strain on our friendship, our minds and our livers.”
Although when pushed on some of the darker moments of the band, Flanagan would rather not go there. “It’s complicated,” he says. “There were people’s egos, my own included, drug addictions, mental health et cetera, and I just don’t want to make some kind of clickbait pull quote off the back of that. I remember my good mate, the producer Ross Orton, said to me, ‘Adrian, you have a really good knack at putting all the wrong people in a room together’, which is probably true. There were good times but the fictional live band thing was a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster.”
Two albums with International Teachers of Pop followed; there was plenty of touring, then more with Adult Entertainment, before leaping straight into this new solo album. It rounds off a pretty non-stop two decades that has faithfully continued, in its own unique way, Sheffield’s long lineage of pioneering electronic music. Surely, though, Flanagan must be exhausted.
“Though I’m physically falling apart and dying from the inside out, I still love and enjoy making music,” he says. “Some people get into music for fame, money, and groupies – and I’ve seen many big mouth lookers come and go – but I’m just a fan of music and people. You can’t beat getting in a room with some pals and making a fucking racket. That said, have I ever thought about giving up? Yeah, pretty much every 15 minutes.”
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