Groove Is From The Heart: Cornershop Interviewed
, April 11th, 2011 11:09
Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayers meet up with John Doran to talk twenty years of beats & pieces in the life of the UK's biggest cult band
At some point during the first few months of this website in 2008 I commissioned an article under the working title of Are Cornershop The Greatest Cult Band Of The Last 20 Years? It got lost in the upheaval caused by the youthful separation from our parent company. (That and the much mourned Billy Holiday - a bank holiday’s worth of content featuring pieces on only Billy Childish, Billy Bragg, Billy Idol and Billie Piper.) On listening to their two releases since then; Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast in 2009 and this year’s Cornershop And The Double-‘O’ Groove Of, however, it was obviously even more of a missed opportunity because that title feels less like challops and more like the stone cold truth.
Of course the literalist or the pedant would argue that they were never a cult band to begin with. Just a year after forming in 1991 in Leicester, they were already featuring prominently in NME for the clear-sighted and media savvy situationist stunt of burning pictures of Morrissey outside of EMI’s headquarters. Like a lot of notable bands, they arrived as a conceptual whole but were, to put it politely, sonically a bit of a shambles. But like Primal Scream, The Fall, Manic Street Preachers, Nirvana and many others they learned their craft on the hoof. Then of course there was that Norman Cook remix and the album When I Was Born For The 7th Time and follow up single ‘Sleep On The Left Side’. Add to this the warmer critical reception they were given in North America and Australia and the fact that they were originally signed over the Atlantic by David Byrne and any concept of them being a cult concern begins to look fanciful indeed. Until you consider what happened to them after the 1990s.
In the last decade, Cornershop have released three world class albums and a string of great EPs and singles all of which have – in relative terms - sunk without a trace. Handcream For A Generation in 2002 succeeded sonically where Primal Scream failed so many times in producing a convincing mix of late 60s/early 70s rock with more modern dance rhythms - a combination of cross-generational Anglo and American urban vibes. As Robert Christgau stated it was a lesson learned in “how to be conscious and happy at the same time”. If the commercial failure of the album affected the band (and my guess is that it most certainly did), it appears to be something they’ve put behind them now.
They followed their brilliant reinterpretation of late 60s/early 70s soul and funk with a brilliant reinterpretation of late 60s/early 70s rock & soul on Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast. This 2009 LP simply swaggers. It’s so low slung it always puts me in mind of Gilbert Shelton’s cartoon character Freewheelin’ Franklin who is always so relaxed his head is practically on the pavement. It mixes country rock, Southern boogie and gospel into an already piquant stew of Anglo-Asian-American ingredients. And now we have The Double-‘O’ Groove, which appears to take up where their 2004 Rough Trade single ‘Topknot’ left off (but more on this later).
From the first break the album is audibly Cornershop, which is odd given that it doesn’t feature frontman Tjinder Singh on vocals once. Up front instead is Bubbley Kaur, an old friend of Singh’s whose lyrics are delivered entirely in Punjabi. The New Delhi-born, Preston based housewife was introduced to the singer by a taxi driver friend. On meeting, they realized that they’d met at a party some years previously and discussed their mutual love of Punjabi folk music. Kaur a mother and launderette operative hadn’t heard much in the way of Western pop and rock music, let alone anything by Cornershop... something that probably made her ideal for this project. The first song from this partnership was ‘Topknot’, the sublime John Peel favourite, which, in any sane world, should have given them another globe bestriding hit. They realized the combination was a good one however and have been working on Cornershop And The Double-‘O’ Groove Of pretty much since.
I meet Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayers in a tea shop in Hackney. They’re both lovely coves and well turned out to boot. Due to getting annoyed about Howard Jacobson (damn that haggard Peter Hook lookalike windbag) I forget all the questions I was going to ask about Bubbley Kaur and her lyrics. This is not her real name, and there would probably be a tight limit on what the band would tell me about her anyway, as it’s still uncertain how people in her close knit Lancastrian community would react to the knowledge that she was now a ‘pop star’. The album is an embarrassment of riches. ‘United Provinces Of India’ is thrust aloft by a one note Tumbi riff and driven home by a Bonham- esque breakbeat. ‘The 911 Curry’ delves further into sampladelic territory and reflects certain methodologies they share with fellow conspirator Dan The Automator, whose time working on When I Was Born For The 7th Time probably went on to influence his and DJ Shadow’s Bombay The Hard Way: Guns, Cars And Sitars the following year. Singh’s decision to remain the band’s producer for the last decade or so continues to pay sonic dividends. Despite featuring such disparate elements as Fred Neil style 12 string and 18th Century-style harpsichord, the album feels more like a unified whole than anything else they’ve released to date. They now sound like one of the many groups that they’ve been digging in the racks looking for over all these years. This album is begging to be sampled itself… I can imagine ‘The Biro Pen’ as a track on Blue Note’s fantastic Blue Juice compilation, nestling up next to Ananda Shankar’s ‘Streets Of Calcutta’, Lou Rawl’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ and ‘You Never Come Closer’ by Doris.
I read a piece this morning that I felt that almost made this interview redundant. It was a blog post on the Movies On My Mind site called Killing In The Name Of Good Music which traces the acceptance of Cornershop’s music among UK Asian people in general. The author talks about why he feels that in the past your music hasn’t always been clutched to the heart of the community and lists a number of possible reasons before concluding that your music seems to be bigger with British Asian people now more than ever. I was just wondering if you felt that this was the case?
Tjinder Singh: I certainly think so with this album. I think the Asians who have been into the earlier stuff have mainly lived in the US, Canada and Australia. There wasn’t any conscious decision to make headway with the Asians but obviously with this album we have because it’s sung in Punjabi. But when we started out we were anathema to most [young] Asian people and what they liked musically and as time went on most of them just stuck with R&B and we’d already got out of Luther Vandross by the age of 13... so we’ve never really tried to pander to the Asian community. But with this album we’ve tried to go more with the Asian Digital Network and Desi Music which is a big organization.
Obviously the language the lyrics are delivered in will play a big role in which radio stations playlist the singles but I was wondering if it signalled any kind of wider sea change in attitudes in the Asian community? I mean you’re being played quite heavily on Sunrise FM for example, I believe...
Ben Ayer: I don’t know about that. If we are getting played on Sunrise FM - and it feels like that may be happening a little bit - then maybe the next generation of Asian youngsters have grown up with so much more music surrounding them that they feel that what we are doing is slightly more palatable to them.
TS: Someone described it - again on a blog - as an album that, speaking as an Asian, you could play it in the car in front of your parents and open a discussion about it. It stood in that middle field. I think that’s a lovely way of looking at it because that’s what we were doing really with the amalgamation of those two types of music; Western music with Punjabi folk music. It’s what we set out to do.
I know you’ve got a relatively lugubrious pace of work and that you’re not really renowned for being prolific or anything like that but was this album a struggle to get out because it was self-released wasn’t it?
BA: It has taken a lot of time and outwardly it probably looks like we’ve taken a lot of time between albums and stuff although this album is only two years after the last one but we are constantly meeting up and working on tracks. And we effectively recorded both albums in tandem for a while. So we’ve been doing a hell of a lot of recording for a while. In fact The Double-'O' Groove was started before Judy Sucks A Lemon. The first track on the album ‘United Provinces Of India’ we started in 2003 and ‘Topknot’ came after that. Which is why we included it. If we’d left it off it would be like leaving a significant part of the puzzle out.
TS: Also, talking about listening to stuff after years, ‘Topknot’ is probably more well known now than it ever was [on release]. Again it’s justification for doing an album like this and it was a big gamble when we first started on it. It was very good of Geoff Travis to put it out - as soon as he heard it he wanted to release it. It’s just that as a song it’s carried on and more people know it and have got into it now. I think we think that about our whole back catalogue - our songs don’t just go away, even though people might want them to. Even our early stuff is doing well in America now. It’s all about our albums. We’re avid record collectors, we like to see stuff in a complete form like an album and we’ve always concentrated quite hard to make sure can do the best for every album we can. When we first started we were signed to Wiija and we didn’t really have the budget for that and if we didn’t hurry up and finish it, it wouldn’t get released anyway because they might fold...
BA: ...or they might change their mind about us at any moment. Going back to ‘Topknot’ and when Geoff Travis was so good about putting it out even though there wasn’t an album to go with it, which was quite a big thing to be honest, it was a massive encouragement to us at the time, to proceed with it.
TS: Yeah, he’s been very good about it. And then when Rough Trade moved to Beggars Banquet and it was our old record label and we didn’t really want to go down that route again so we asked to be taken off the label and he gave us the recordings back to his credit. In fact, we should have thanked him on the album! There was an error! Well, we’re thanking him now...
The Double O Groove is instantly recongisable as a Cornershop album as are all of your albums, but this one’s a bit different as it doesn’t have the immediacy of Tjinder’s voice on it. Can you break down for me, who does what on this?
BA: I think the whole album is soaked in Tjinder’s sensibilities, especially in the production on the drums and bass and how the instrumentation is worked out. That’s a massive element to the record.
TS: It started off with perhaps getting the vocals down and then maybe getting a bass line and toughening the vocals up. As Ben said, we’d meet up quite regularly, so then he’d come in with some ideas, and basically every track is like that.
BA: It was a very long, drawn out process, so it’s probably been the longest album from start to finish that we’ve done.
From my point of view it has the tightest focus of any Cornershop album. Given how long it took to make, did your core idea for the album remain constant all the way through it?
TS: Yeah. Yeah, because it was from those initial recordings with Bubbley Kaur, that we knew how the songs were going to go. We didn’t mean for it to have too much focus... in fact we tried to include a lot of different elements.
Yeah, and that comes through, but there is a unifying vibe to it. There are a lot of stylistic changes between the tracks but it works together as an album so well. And it’s all held together by this underlying hip hop aesthetic.
BA: That’s interesting because we left the order of the tracks right to the last minute.
I don’t think any of the songs sound like each other - although ‘United Provinces Of India’ and ‘Topknot’ are in a similar vein to one another - but it does lend itself to an album experience. It doesn’t feel like a random selection of tunes.
TS: That has been a criticism of us in the past. Like with Handcream For A Generation people did say they liked it but that it covered many different areas. And we don’t mind that. It makes it interesting for us to finish. It’s my theory that when that album gains in popularity that it will finally click for a lot of people because we put everything we could into that album and I still feel slightly aggrieved that it never really took off. But that certainly contains the most sporadic elements in one album.
Do you think you suffered from some kind of post-Britpop, post ‘Brimful Of Asha’ hangover - because it was a genuine surprise not to see it take off.
TS: [long pause] I don’t know what it was suffering from. I don’t want to go on about our record label because it was a long time ago but this was one of the reasons why we lost favour with our old record label and I think it was the right time for us to move away. When we moved to Rough Trade and that was excellent for us - really good and then that changed again. So we’ve constantly had to re-evaluate our position. With this album we’ve actually got to some sense of stability because we released the last album this way on our own label as well.
On the beat side of things, I thought it was quite interesting that there were some songs that I couldn’t tell whether it had been played live or if it had been played live, sampled and looped. I think on ‘The 911 Curry’ it has a very sample collage feel to it but I wasn’t sure about the other tracks.
TS: Well, some stuff was played live then cut up and a lot of it was sampled as well. It’s strange that you say hip hop as we don’t really look at it like that.
I guess I’m using hip hop as short hand for something wider about beat making.
BA: We do love hip hop but more 1970s to early 1990s rather than modern hip hop.
TS: Yeah, we’ve worked with Dan The Automator a lot in the past but I guess you could say hip hop for making beats and that’s essentially what we’ve been doing with all that vinyl. We spent a long time getting into that. Sampling is a technique that takes a long time to refine.
Well what it reminded me of really was when I’ve been to see Edan DJing and he does a set that utilizes the breaks on a stack of Turkish psych records, so the breakbeats don’t feel like stone to the bone, American funk breaks and it gives his mix this whole other dimension. Likewise there was a mix album out done by Cut Chemist using Afrobeat vinyl called Sound Of The Police.
TS: We nearly had a mix from Cut Chemist but we ran out of time which was a shame. Such a good DJ. Long-haired! You would never think that he was going to be long haired...
Good on him! So can you tell me when and where you first met Bubbley Kaur?
TS: Well, I was introduced to her through a friend of mine who is a taxi driver who said that he knew someone who could sing. Then when we met we realised we’d already met once before at a party - she’s born in Delhi but lives in Preston. Preston seems to crop up quite a lot and it’s odd to have a link there but we’ve had people from there directing our videos.
Preston’s a pretty tough place right?
TS: Hmm. It can be.
Talking of which - I read something in The Guardian recently that made me very angry. The writer Howard Jacobson was talking about how he was down on his luck and doing this job that was so beneath him - i.e. he was a polytechnic lecturer in Wolverhampton. Now not that I feel Wolverhampton needs defending by me - in fact in some ways it’s relatively indefensible - but just the sheer snide insinuation that this was pretty much as bad as it got for someone like him. Now I know you’ve had some harsh things to say about the city before now but do you ever feel the need to argue devil’s advocate for the place, to defend its honour?
TS: [long pause] No! I think he might be right! In Preston we were a bit older and you had to make of it what you could and mainly that meant going out in Liverpool or Manchester but we had quite an enjoyable time. When I was in Wolverhampton there was absolutely nothing to do... especially liking the sort of music that we liked. After a while there was the Lord Raglan that played good music and J.B.s in Dudley and Junction 10 but it was too little too late and for me Wolverhampton for me was rough. And if anyone talks to me about Wolverhampton it’s always about football which doesn’t interest me and if that’s the common denominator then there isn’t much going on. It has the World Of Glass...
BA: Talking of J.B.s in Dudley, you were one of a handful of people to see the Stone Roses play live there.
TS: They played at J.B.s, then Junction 10 and then they played in Preston so I saw them three times in two weekes in 1989. In fact me and my brother DJ’d at one of those gigs.
They were definably The Stone Roses by then right - I’d been to see them in Widnes or Warrington maybe a year before that and they were like a Cure tribute act with big hair and paisley shirts. Squire’s guitar sounded the same though.
TS: I thought they were phenomenal. Even before they got on stage, the swagger and they way they carried themselves, you just knew something good was going to happen.
Spiritually you have something in common with them - a similar interest in 1960s and 1970s forms of euphoric, psychedelic rock music.
TS: Yeah, I think so. They were an influence on early Primal Scream and we were really into them. It was interesting meeting Ian Brown because he was the only person who dared to pronounce my name Tjinder [Tjer] but he does have an Asian in the band so... that was quite nice. I just thought they were very fresh and after that nothing in the Manchester scene quite lived up to them.
I was reading the new Simon Reynolds book Retromania this morning and he explains the etymology behind the word nostalgia. In the late 17th Century the Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer coined the term “nostalgie” to refer to the extreme form of home sickness suffered by some of his countrymen on long tours of national in service in the lowlands of France and Italy. This longing to get home led in some extreme cases to anorexia or even suicide. When the British borrowed the term in the 1920s to become ‘nostalgia’, the thing causing the sickness switched from being distance to time. I’ve always felt that there was a fundamental yearning to the music of Cornershop - not in a I <3 1974 way - but in a very fundamental yearning for a past that is unobtainable, forever just out of reach.
TS: [very long pause] I suppose it is. I do get weirded out when people say it’s all very upbeat. The last album was very difficult to make so I think that comes out in it a bit. But we do find that if we try to really think out and plan how to get what we want, then it becomes even harder to achieve so we try not to think about it or talk about at all. We just try to do the best we can on that particular track and then move on to something new.
BA: I do think it’s there as a subconscious thing though. Even on the ‘Days Of Ford Cortina’ it’s alluding to the past as a good thing.
TS: Yeah, and the thing is my parents never had a record player or even when they did, they only had a handful of Asian devotional albums and a few 7”s, so I’ve always collected and tried to fill that gap of things that I never got to know about at the time. My brother was pretty good at that and has introduced me to a lot of stuff from the past so I’ve always just carried on delving back into the past. I actually find very little solace in keeping up with modern music. [laughs] I can’t really get with a lot of modern music. One, it’s maybe because a lot of it is a recreation of the past and two, it’s the production - people can do a lot more stuff for themselves, which is good in some respects, but it doesn’t necessarily make it sound that good. I started doing the production on our sound out of necessity because no one else wanted to do it. It wasn’t really something that I wanted to do.
BA: As we developed we didn’t want our sound controlled by an outside producer.
TS: One thing I did notice watching bands who were around at the same time as us was if they moved label, they would often sound shit and we didn’t want that to happen. We wanted that lineage and continuity in there even if we were going to get chucked off a label. I guess it was one of our fears. [laughs]
You’ve said before that a significant proportion of your success has been in North America; when you do something like The Battle Of New Orleans is that like a “tip of the hat” to your fans over there or is it more because you just happen to be listening to a lot of country rock at the time?
TS: That was done for a Peel Session.
BA: He asked us to do a Lonnie Donnegan song and 'Houston Hash' wasn’t written by him but it was taken to the top of the charts by him. It’s also one that we quite like. And we liked the history of it; it was a huge hit in the States, possibly the first country hit there. That EP is definitely a nod to the support we’ve had from America.
What’s happening with the Cornershop film?
BA: It’s in the can. We just don’t see that there’s any point in rushing with it. The longer amount of time that passes the more historically interesting it will become.
TS: There are Routemaster buses in it.
BA: And John Peel.
Paul Morley said you were perhaps the 'most underrated and/or unfairly neglected and/or misunderstood and/or award starved group of the last 20 years'. I’ve often thought of you as either the UK’s biggest cult act, or a cult act hiding in plain view. You’ve already hinted at the answer to this, but are you still hungry to break through to a wider audience after this amount of time?
BA: I think it would be nicer if it was a bit easier sometimes. We do feel like we’re running up a hill. But then again, we’ve grown up liking a lot of bands who are really respected over time who might not have had chart hit after chart hit... I don’t think it’s entirely necessary to us. Success like that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good music.
TS: We’ve been going for nearly two decades and our sporadic nature has helped us not slip into any scene and to keep the longevity going. Also, damn hard work has helped us but yes, it would be nice to have things slightly easier but I don’t see that coming.
Watch Cornershop live
Islington O2 Academy 2 June
Wychwood Festival 3 June
Lounge on the Farm 8 July