Leeds Experimentalists Chops Explain Why They Cut The Mustard
, March 12th, 2009 02:52
The Quietus talks to Leeds-based trio CHOPS about suckling Chuck Berry and their love of Prince
There's a certain school of thought, alas one that these days carries rather a lot of currency, that independent music is still to be found hanging out in the hostelries of Camden and Shoreditch with a fiery right nostril, and dressed in jester's pointy shoes. But over the past few years the excellent Upset The Rhythm organsisation has injected the London live music scene with a desire to showcase some of the best in experimental, or just plain weird and fun, music out there. While they might have become best known for promoting early UK shows from American acts like Health, No Age and Lightning Bolt, Upset The Rhythm have been ardent supporters of a fertile scene of groups from the UK, from Cleckhuddersfax to bass boogers Pre and Trencher. The latest group to receieve their commendations are CHOPS, a Leeds-based trio who use spasmodic brass, frazzled electronics and peculiarly discombobulated rhythms that, in the likes of 'Chop Of The Pops' create a sound akin to earnest discourse in an alien tea shop. The group will shortly be releasing new material via Upset The Rhythm - the Quietus got in touch to ask, what's up, CHOPS?
"CHOPS is fine today, thank you very much. We're enjoying the first signs of spring, sat in Leon's kitchen with the back door open to let in the fresh air, and we're about to eat a tomato, aubergine and polenta oven bake for lunch. Just had to google aubergine to check we hadn't spelled it wrongly! Turns out the aubergine is a close relative of tobacco and nightshade. Tasty though!"
Please introduce yourselves:
"Hi there! Hello! Howdy!"
How long have you been playing music together?
"We have been sprawled across the cobweb of incestuous DIY musical activity in Leeds since 1998. CHOPS began in January 2007."
Are you CHOPS as in to remove a noggin via the swift downward deployment of a sharpened instrument, a rib-sourced cut of pork or lamb, or facial decoration of the hairy sort? Or perhaps something entirely different?
"Or CHOPS as in the short, irregular, broken motion of waves.
Or CHOPS as in the land at each side of the mouth of a river, harbor, or channel.
Or CHOPS as in a ship's port clearance.
Or CHOPS as in a particular stroke of a cricket bat or tennis racket.
Or CHOPS as in the delivery of a short downward blow in boxing.
Or CHOPS as in the mouth, and also as in the jaw of an animal.
Or CHOPS as in the embouchure necessary to play a wind instrument.
Or CHOPS as in the ability to play a musical instrument with natural exhuberance and flair.
Or CHOPS as in either of two pieces clasping the end of the suspension spring of a pendulum.
Or CHOPS as in the weeding and thinning out of cotton with a hoe.
Or CHOPS as in ground grain used as animal feed.
Or CHOPS as in to exert yourself.
Or CHOPS as in to turn, shift, or change suddenly.
Or CHOPS as in to vacillate and change one's mind.
Or CHOPS as in to annoy with nagging or criticism.
Or CHOPS as in to await with pleasure, anticipation and relish.
Or CHOPS as in to seize or devour greedily.
Or CHOPS as in to reason or dispute argumentatively and draw unnecessary distinctions.
Or CHOPS as in the obsolete Middle English, meaning 'to barter'.
Or CHOPS as in an official stamp or seal for a permit or clearance, especially as formerly used in India and China.
Or CHOPS as in the signature mark of an artist, printmaker (etc), testifying to the authenticity of a work.
We are definitely not CHOPS as in a Christian group against homosexuality in the music industry, or CHOPS as in the US rap producer (two years and still no lawsuit!)."
Where did you earn your, er, CHOPS?
"Leon undertook a five year extensive butchery qualification and has the scars to prove it. As a democratic unit, the official CHOPS voice does not condone his slaughterous history, and we do our best to tut at him disapprovingly every once in a while, though we commend him with encouraging pats on the back for not completing the diploma."
What music did you listen to during your formative years?
"After suckling on Chuck Berry as a toddler, Moz won accolades from conservative broadsheets for his jazz sticksmanship, before anonymously pounding the skins for a stadium indie rock band. Dom's first musical fascination was less salubrious; his parents instilled a long lasting fondness of Neil Diamond, which he is still gradually growing out of... each hair on his chest is one less Song Sung Blue muttered under his breath. Leon grew up copycatting his brother listening to happy hardcore until his 13th birthday, when he formed a punk rock band called Kidsbelly with his friend Dicko (of the Chinchilla collective, Tigers!, Beards, Cissy, etc)."
And what tickles them now?
"Current UK bands - Bilge Pump, Cowtown, a.P.A.T.t., Mucky Sailor, Cleckhuddersfax, Action Beat, Gareth S Brown, Gay Against You, Beards, Printed Circuit, Trencher, Please, Poltergroom, Man Aubergine, Fulborn Teversham, Triple School... lots of jazz like Mingus, Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, or minimalist stuff like Steve Reich and Philip Glass... plenty of no-wave like Talibam!, Ex Models, Fat Worm Of Error, Neptune... recordings of old BBC radio 4 programmes - hours on end of Nicholas Parsons and Clement Freud... tasteful acid and minimal techno like Phuture, Africans With Mainframes, or something more recent like Eats Tapes - they've got such a brilliant mastery over all their live electronics... loads of prog and Rock In Opposition type stuff like Aqsak Maboul, The Residents, Yes, Kluster... early synth experiments by the likes of Roger Roger (a.k.a. Cecil Leuter), Nino Nardini, anything from the Bosworth, KPM or Chappell music libraries... compilations of pop music from Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, Egypt..."
What are three non-musical influences?
"Peace, love and harmony.... making friends, having a laugh, helping people - it's not all idealistic hippy shit!
Not sure that it counts as an influence, but we've got an Usborne Bird Spotters Guide in the van. We like to count how many buzzards and hawks we can spot on a journey - the record is 27 buzzards and 35 hawks between Paris and Nantes."
Tell us a bit about your new record...
"We were totally over the moon when Upset The Rhythm asked us to do a record... we're really happy to be part of a label involving so many friendly, celebratory people making interesting music. The record is a split 12" with Helhesten and the vinyl looks like a rhubarb and cream lollypop! We recorded with John Hannon at No Recording Studio in the summer of 2007. We'd been together for five or six months and when we set up all our gear in the studio, we ate some cake outside in the sunshine. Moz put the kettle on, and we had a little panic that we hadn't talked about what we were going to do or play. Leon suggested we start with something that goes 'der dun dun', and after a couple of false starts, we kept an eye on the clock, played around with it for a few minutes, got carried away, played for another half an hour, and ended up with three songs. It was the first time we'd had to play at anything less than deafening volume, and the resulting cleaner tones took us all by surprise. We used five other improvisations from various practices and gigs, recorded on a shoddy stereo-condenser microphone from the bargain bin at Maplins and a crappy laptop that might have fallen off the back of a lorry in 2002. There wasn't a masterplan, and we didn't know how it was going to work out, but we think we managed to create a reasonably cohesive twenty minutes that led to us take some new ideas on board, and playfully represents the vibe of our early gigs."
Would we be right in saying you were previously more of an improv group, but have moved to a more structured approach of late? Was that a difficult progression? How do CHOPS formulate a song?
"It was more of a slow realisation than a difficult progression - it took us months before realising we could re-create some of the improvisations from the record to play them live, and those turned out to always feel like the best bits of gigs... it made sense to start writing songs out of the improvisations. In theory, the structure keeps the whole thing more condensed, immediate and danceable... less head-scratchy, but hopefully still with some of the energy of not always knowing where it's going - we don't necessarily have the concentration span to play things the same all the time. We've just booked some days in March to start recording a full album for Upset The Rhythm - it'll be good to go back to the countryside with John now that we've got songs and ideas to make the most of, rather than just keeping our fingers crossed for the best."
To these ears you sound like a fairground ride operated by madmen. What is your preferred fairground ride, and how would you rule it were you given charge for a night?
"Analogy! Perhaps a free-for-all joyride of the entire fair... climb the fence, hop on the funicular railway, scenically working it's way up the hill through the misty forest to the pterodactyl themed souped-up wurlitzer log flume hybrid, eat a barrel of sugar each, straight onto an interplanetary space mission high speed roller coaster with several different manually operated shuttles, and a track full of figure 8's, loop the loops, nervous climbs into the skies, steep drops, meteor debris, neck straining corkscrews, dangerous bumper car intersections, and (literally you are) dead end black holes. If any of us make it off alive, then we can ride the tea cups to recuperate before walking into the cowboy ranch centrifugal barrel, spinning around so that we're stuck to the walls, but this time it's a barrel that rolls freely around the park, cruising around amongst the flower beds as you struggle to move your arms into a more comfortable position, heading towards the haunted house, not being able to slow down, crashing right through the middle of it... broken vampires, ghosts and demons pinned to people, impossible to remove as the barrel goes hurtling down the hill, launching itself off the cliff, and splashing down in the middle of the lake. Heads spinning, we'll swim over to a crocodile pedalo, and float around until just before dawn when we have to run home soaking wet and never talk about it in magazines in case we get busted."
Chop Of The Pops is a fantastic song title. Do you lament that you are unlikely to ever be on the television programme that inspired the name?
"It was taken off-air before we even started playing together! Perhaps it'll make a comeback and we can kick things off, condemning the relaunch into immediate commercial failure."
What's your favourite pop record?
"There's absolutely no way the three of us are ever going to agree on a favourite, so we're going to have to do this individually... Leon has plumped for 'Wichita Lineman' by Glen Campbell and Dom has just started singing 'If we cannot make babies, maybe we can make some time, thoughts of pretty you and me, erotic city come alive, We can funk until the dawn, making love til Cherry's gone', which means he's chosen 'Erotic City (Make Love Not War, Erotic City Come Alive)' by Prince. Moz has become engulfed by silence - his eyes are like a window to a fruit machine, hundreds of songs bouncing around his around his mind... but he can only muster a disappointed shoulder shrug."
Dom, a small bird tells us you have all sorts of stories about being a rock & roll driver for the likes of Sun Ra and Chrome Hoof. Do you have any tales from the highway to hell that are fit for print?
"I started driving tours in 2004 and quickly realised it was better than settling down to reality... being in the bubble, avoiding the hassles of regular existence. My first tour was with The Murder Of Rosa Luxemburg, who were still in school - we had to drive back to Worcester every night so they could sit their mock exams in the morning. It was gutting when my first van was stolen from a garage forecourt that I'd taken it to for a minor electrical repair, but looking back, I consider myself lucky because it was pretty much knackered anyway. I recently worked out that since May 2006, I've driven the equivalent of going around the world 6.4 times! I knew I'd been busy, but that just seems ridiculous! I've never kept a diary, and it only took me a month to break my one and only digital camera. I'm sure that I'll regret not documenting any of it for my own personal memories at some point in the future, but I know I'd rather spend that extra half an hour a day enjoying myself rather than writing down where I am and what's happened. I know I'll never forget moments like seeing two golden eagles flying low across the hills and over the M74 in Scotland on a bright, moonlit night... or the puppy-dog innocence of George Chen's face when he booted a trolley out the door of a Tesco's in Birmingham to test if the magnetic anti-trolley theft device worked, only to see the trolley roll right across the street and stop in front of two cops who immediately barked him over... my most vivid memory is the beads of sweat on my forehead and the thumping in my stomach when the rear passenger wheel literally fell off my van in a freak accident on the M1 when I was driving Daniel Johnston, Dick Johnston, Jad Fair (Half Japanse), Scout Niblett and her drummer Kristian, plus the tour booker and a writer from Plan B Magazine! All the sparks flying up off the tarmac, and then a huge skid which I managed to control as we came safely to a halt on the hard shoulder. There's definitely something to be said for hours of Mario Kart practice, but it doesn't prepare you for the FEAR!"
How do CHOPS wish to be remembered?
"Is that entirely necessary?"