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Escape Velocity

A Rudderless Ship? Working For A Nuclear Free City Interviewed
Simon Jay Catling , November 18th, 2010 08:32

Simon Jay Catling wonders how much job satisfaction Working For A Nuclear Free City actually get - as well as asking about their new album Jojo Burger Tempest and escaping Manchester music clichés

Existing in Manchester's margins for most of the past decade seems to have exasperated Working For A Nuclear Free City. A frighteningly talented five-piece capable of turning any genre on its head within three or four minutes, they've found this restless, schizophrenic energy a curse as much as a blessing, with critics unwilling or simply unable to get a grasp on a band driven by a desire to constantly evolve and change. New album Jojo Burger Tempest feels like a let off of steam, a showcase of all they can do, not that co-founders Phil Kay and Gary McClure would let you believe such a thing.

Meeting in Common, an ironic setting for one of Manchester's most insular bands just a couple of weeks after the NME tried to cast a net over some of the city's hip young things here, all's not well in the WFANFC camp. That Jojo… is an album seemingly brash with confidence is soon stripped away as illusion with Kay and McClure – joined by bassist Ed Hulme – suggesting that the LP is as much a struggle of their own quality control judgement as it is a sweeping aural exploration that possesses more ideas in a track than most of the guitar bands cluttering up the same bar weeks previously could muster between them.

For some this exploration would be a thrill, an exciting endeavour into the unknown; for Working For A Nuclear Free City it's a sickness, a journey that the group have long given up finding a destination for. Whilst as a listener their output makes for a fascinating listen, for those in charge of the rudderless ship the reality is rather more uncomfortable than that.

So I hear that Jojo Burger Tempest arose from around 2,800 song ideas, despite claiming writer's block.

Phil Kay: A lot of them were shit; I think that's what that was. We tried to do things differently by working on basic ideas this time, trying to do short loops and layer them and see where they'd take us. So we did that for about three or four months. Then we went to France and started sifting through them and most of them were mental. So we scrapped that and went back to the old method; we had 2000-odd ideas there…we still haven't gone through them all to be honest.

It explains how Jojo… comes across then, a real eclectic tapestry.

PK: It was a good kind of exercise I think, just to see how many different things we could do and not really think about it. Just do it really quickly.

Well this is it; it feels like a showcase – all you can do as a band.

PK: Almost…

Do you think there's an apathy towards musical proficiency at the moment? It doesn't seem acceptable to be really good at your instrument. Would you say you're reactionary to that?

PK: I don't know if we really think about it like that…erm... Gary?

Gary McClure: I think it's just the music we like; we always try to do something technically decent with our instruments and the people who aren't really into that…there've always been crap bands…

PK: I think we're just trying to make it interesting for ourselves when we're doing it; it's just that really…

Ed Hulme: It's more to fun play, isn't it?

PK: Yeah…I think we're showing off as well maybe.

GM: But it's not a reaction.

PK: Hopefully on ‘Do A Stunt,' the first track, you can hear that we are taking the piss. It's not a serious track, it's well tongue in cheek.

GM: People take it too seriously; music should be fun to listen to. It shouldn't just all be about people with attitude.

How does the creative process work for the band?

PK: If we knew that we'd be able to have another album out next week. Just lots of ideas that we maybe think are crap at the time but then come back to and try and fit them together.

GM: We still have no idea what we're doing, there's no process really. We don't ever know if it's any good or not. We literally don't know why we do it.

PK: And that's not a pleasurable state of mind to be in…you don't know when the next song's going to come because you don't know how it came about in the first place. Doubt. Anxiety. Lack of self-belief, that kind of thing.

You obviously knew the point at which to finish the album though.

PK: Oh we finished, we just don't know how we got there. I don't know whether I like it, I don't know whether it's any good. GM: It'd be a lot harder if we were making music on our own. The only reason we appreciate some of the stuff we've made is because other members of the band have said they've liked it, but I mean we have no idea of whether we like it or not.

It must be exciting in a way though that you can just set yourself out for a course of exploration like that?

PK: Yeah…I suppose that would be a fun way to look at it if we were the kind of people who gave less of a shit.

Are you the type of group to go back to tracks over and over again and re-do them?

PK: Not really.

GM: We definitely go back much later and start listening.

PK: There's tonnes of tunes that didn't even make it on there. We listen to them now and go "oh that's alright actually."

Tell me about the 33 minute title track; how did that come about?

PK: We had all these loops and we'd not done anything with them. One day I had a hangover and I sat there with a laptop and just chucked them altogether. Just messing around really to see how they'd come out.

The recording was split between England and France wasn't it?

PK: Yeah, we didn't do much in France. It was pretty unsuccessful. We took over a couple of hundred ideas and tried to get through them, wasn't really happening was it?

GM: Well that's why we made the loops really. We were going to make them, take them over to France, and organise them into songs.

PK: I think we managed to turn one of them into a song, but yeah it was hard.

Do you find it quite restricting to base a song structure on looping?

PK: Well that was the problem because once we'd got a loop, that was stuck where it was and we couldn't take it anywhere. We wanted to make the kind of music that is loop based, but when we wanted to make songs with more structure it just…

EH: A lot of things didn't make any sense, and at the time you're just doing it and seeing what comes out of it and then when we listened back it sounded quite bizarre.

It sounded like a quick recording process then. It's been a while since the last album but did you eventually just go in do it and get out?

PK: Well, when did we start? About two years ago I think...

GM: We had our side project as well at the same time, Motorifik.

PK: Yeah and that's completely different, far more pop orientated.

Would you say that's a release away from Working For A Nuclear Free City?

PK: Erm, it's just something else to do really.

I was going to suggest that the new album has a real confidence to it, from talking to you this afternoon though it doesn't seem to be the case at all!

PK: It wasn't confident at all.

EH: It was one of those where we didn't realise we had an album, did we?

It comes out well though, a lot of the feedback has been positive and a lot of people seem to be finding different aspects of the album to appreciate – there's not been one consensus.

PK: For us it was really just a psychological thing just to get it out the way.

GM: On the first album we'd done a lot of stuff just for our own pleasure, putting it out and hoping someone might listen to it. For this one we had the difficulty of people being into us and waiting for it to come out. That's why we eventually, after so long of scrabbling around, said "we'll finish it by the end of the year, we'll just stick it out."

You could've done a lot worse. You've been quoted in the past as saying a lot of UK music is shit; has your opinion changed in the past couple of years?

PK: Not really, general radio is pretty appalling.

GM: There must be some good stuff in the UK right now…whose good?

PK: Field Music?

GM: Field Music, their last album was pretty good.

PK: Broadcast…

GM: I'm sure there is, we just forget

PK: I think it's different when you're actually making music; it makes you incredibly cynical. I'm definitely more uncertain than I used to be anyway, I don't know if it's just getting old or…something's got to be really good to interest me.

Which I guess is what you're trying to seek for yourselves in your own band, there's quite an insular drive for perfection which from the outside makes it seem like you exist in your own bubble.

GM: You're one the few people who've said that. Everyone always goes back to that Manchester thing; I mean we do like the Stone Roses, The Smiths, Joy Division and all that, but there's a lot of bands from here who like those bands who sound nothing like that. The Q review of Jojo… was ridiculous, they said it sounds like New Order…808 State was in there too…

PK: You wonder if they actually listened to the album.

GM: Or any music whatsoever.

I don't know what's worse at the moment in Manchester; there's the old guard trying to hang on to the past and then there's these new bands trying to move on yet are managing to link themselves to the past by railing so vocally against it and categorising themselves in a new scene. I don't know why people can't just allow good music to come out of the city and leave it uncategorized.

PK: It's a bit daft in the sense that it's easy to get access to music from all over the world now so you don't just get into music from Manchester and have that as your sole reference point.

Well how do you define Manchester anyway? Does that mean you sound like Simply Red?

GM: [Laughs] Yeah, M People. Take That.

Live you don't play that often, is it something that appeals to you playing live, or do you just not have a lot of time to do it?

GM: I enjoy playing live, we just struggle to get gigs…we piss people off or…

Apparently for your comeback gig in the summer, just one of you turned up and did an electronica set.

PK: Yeah that was me. We'd just cancelled so many gigs over the year I thought fuck it; I'll take the laptop down for the twelve people who were there or something. It's quite enjoyable playing again than when we did the first gigs. Then, we toured and did so many gigs that we got bored of the songs.

How long had it been between shows?

EH: We've played a couple of gigs this year…three?

PK: Didn't we do a 100 gigs in our first year? That got us nowhere.

You've been to America has well though haven't you?

PK: Yeah and that was really good. We were playing to people who, I don't know if they gave a shit, but they pretended to at least. When you play Manchester it's just…hard to impress.

EH: There's only so many times you can play here.

There's always the danger you can saturate yourself just playing around here so often.

GM: London's always been hard too.

PK: We'll play if we're asked, but no one's asked us basically.

GM: For some people we're too small, for others we've maybe been around too long.

How do you find the transfer of taking the songs from the studio and making them live?

GM: It's been easier this time round.

PK: I think we've stopped trying to disrupt the pace of the studio stuff.

GM: A lot of these songs we could play on acoustic guitar, whereas before there was a lot of layered stuff.

How much attention do you pay to outside reviews? Is it something you block out?

PK: It's tricky. Well, you tend to block it out alright.

GM: Yeah.

PK: But I've got the kind of personality where if I see a good review I'll think they're idiots and if I see a bad review I'll think that they're completely right. It kind of gets me down, I shouldn't listen to it that much. It's quite annoying when people don't get it, that's the most annoying thing. If everybody liked it though I'd be really pissed off.

What's the plan for the future then?

GM: We'll try to write a new album, we're back to where we thought we wouldn't be again which is just scrounging around unsure if anything's any good. In a couple of years we'll look back and think some of the songs on this album were well good.

Was there a specific attempt at the progression? Again, I think I've seen you say in the past that you didn't listen to the last album once you'd recorded it.

GM: I think the progression just happens naturally. We really try and do something completely out of the ordinary.

PK: It's too much of a struggle if you think of it as trying to do something incredible. You make music in the hope that what comes is decent, even if it's not a progression in the sense of….what do you mean by progression?

I mean in the sense of taking particular themes from the last album and trying to build and improve them, or have you completely cut off the last album and started afresh?

PK: Well there was such a long period of time between the albums that we'd changed as people so the music's changed as well.

GM: I think a lot of the time when people look back on great bands and see two albums back to back they like to pin down some kind of musical direction on them. I think most of the time the band just wrote new songs without thinking about the previous one too much.

PK: I think we try not to do the same thing twice really. We're doing a track and then it sounds like we've done that, even if it's just a set of chords we've done before, and we'll go on to the next thing.

Can you ever see a scenario where you might try and put a restriction on an album and try and work within those guidelines?

PK: I could see us doing that, just for a laugh maybe. Restrictions are sometimes a good thing.

I guess Motorifik fits into that mould a bit; it's a lot poppier and straight ahead.

PK: That's restricted, yeah.

Who's involved in that?

PK: We're all pretty much involved with it, and then there's a French songwriter who wrote quite a lot of it.

GM: One day we'll just give in. In a few years we'll write a ten track pop album, or maybe when Phil's had enough of the pain.

There must be some moments when you feel like being in Working For A Nuclear Free City's a worthwhile endeavour.

EH: It is satisfying when something actually comes out. Because it's been a struggle to get there that is part of the satisfaction.

Do you never look back on something and think, for example, "yeah I really enjoyed that gig actually?"

GM: Phil doesn't. He brings all of us down.

PK: Aww Gary that's not true.

G: We'll say something's really good - "no, that's rubbish."

EH: The swings of judgement after it's finished, especially from Phil.

PK: I've accepted now that I have absolutely no idea whether it's good or bad, and that I have no idea what I'm doing and just get on with it, and hopefully everything will work out.

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