The Chap: Nobodies Do It Better, Interview & Mix 59
, March 8th, 2012 07:04
The Chap have kindly stepped up for Mix 59, which features Ivor Cutler and Fishing With John... and the likes of Ben Goldacre step up to explain just what makes this band so great
They've done it again. Only this time it's different. We're still no closer to solving the enigma of The Chap, but we can tell you they've reined in their more berserk tendencies and made a record anyone could love. We Are Nobody, their fifth full-length, is a sunny, breezy suite of (in their own words) "NON-IRONIC super straight pop songs" for grown-ups. The Chap are too mercurial to play it totally straight, of course; imagine a nimble Gaucho or a subtly scrambled Steve McQueen and you're getting warm.
Over the course of ten songs about love and panic they glide through 60s West Coast harmonies, gentle motorik and sweet funk with a new-found ease. The terminal, august slow jams will floor you: 'This is Sick' disarms like Sparklehorse at their purest, and 'Look at the Girl' is a boldly spare, celestial melodrama (that rare treat, a death disc). Everything's curiously arranged; music boxes, sequencer pulses and discordant guitars somehow fit but keep you doing double-takes. The Chap still make the kind of sense you can't finally get at, but this time more people should get it.
To celebrate, they've kindly answered our questions and made us an intriguing mix. But first let's hear from other admirers who've been wondering: why aren't The Chap huge?
Ben Goldacre (champion of peer-reviewed good sense)
It's hard not to sound pseudish when you're talking about music, but my love of this band is so deep that I'll risk it. [Welcome to our world, Ben – Ed] I think I love The Chap because they sound like they got bored with how good they are at music, like Stewart Lee got bored of comedy, and decided to make it more interesting, but effortlessly. So ‘We Work in Bars' takes the banal everyday comments that people make, with the intention of aggrandising their daydreams, and serves them up with the epic backing they kind of deserve. At least, in my head that's how it works.
Wendy Melvoin (Prince and the Revolution, Wendy & Lisa, Girl Bros)
"My favourite band alive right now . . . they play the coolest, freakiest ironic rock"
Rhodri Marsden (Scritti Politti member, columnist, Mr Twitter, tech hack)
I wish I was in The Chap. Not for the screaming fans, not for the substantial cash revenue streams, not even to closely examine Panos's collection of mini-shorts. I'm just desperate to find out what the hell is going on. The same question hovers in my head whenever I listen to or watch any of my favourite bands: "WHY?" If music doesn't make me wonder about how it was born, how it grew and eventually blossomed, I've got no interest in it. (And the reason for most bands making music is depressingly obvious – to emulate other bands, to express trite sentiments, to feel a sense of pride at having made a loud noise in a room. Whoopee-do.) But The Chap have always kept me wondering, kept me puzzled, baffled, befuddled. And as states of confusion go, it's a joyous one. Nothing makes sense – nothing – but The Chap dish it out with such panache, élan and, um, other French nouns, that I figure there must be a really good explanation. But I can't work it out. The only way I'll ever find out is by being in the band. But I'm not in the band. I wish I was.
Egyptian Hip Hop (the voice of relaxed youth)
I've never had the opportunity to see The Chap live. But I dreamed I went to see them once and that was great, so I'm inclined to say they're an incredible live act. Although the humour and irony in their music is somewhat silly at times, it also seems like it aids them in making whatever kinda sounds or songs they like without getting too deep about it. After all, they do have an incredibly diverse sound and I guess that's why we, and so many others, love them.
Its experimental yet accessible, dark yet playful, light, clever and stupid all at the same time. They're geniuses really, but the reason they probably aren't one of the biggest acts around is because people just cant suss them out and it scares them. Bands like Devo and Gong wouldn't have been half as entertaining or compelling without their playful side. They both turned a few people off, but at the same time had huge followings. These days people are generally less open to bands doing something genuinely funny and odd, yet essentially pop. People are more reluctant to like music that challenges them. We enjoy the challenge. Long live the Chap!
...and finally, The Chap
Dear The Chap, your new album is a masterclass in grown up pop. Why aren't you more popular?
Many years ago, some guy high up at Universal realised we were about to prove their entire catalogue is defunct and out of date, so he put us on some blacklist. That's why we've never had any serious press and no interest from the corporate festival scene. Sometimes a little light gets through the curtains, like when we played Denmark's Roskilde Festival to 4,500 people. That rocked.
I used to think of The Chap as the jabbering id of the indie scene. But you've headed in a sunnier, smoother direction on these last two records. What happened?
It's a pretty good analogy, but we're the kind of band that can't stand still. We got seriously bored with the indie scene and wrote some songs about it and then got bored of writing songs about how bored we were with the indie scene. We started taking more cues from Steely Dan, Supertramp and Fleetwood Mac whom we've always loved. The results sounded nothing like Steely Dan, Supertramp or Fleetwood Mac. They did, however, have a smoother quality, particularly on the new album.
Is it more or less difficult for people aware of experimental/weirdo music to write simple pop songs?
It's generally difficult to write new music when you know quite a lot of music already. If you only spend your life listening to Ramones songs you're more likely to just come up with three-chord ideas. Equally, if you only listen to Wagner you're more likely to come up with 34-chord ideas and nine-minute long melodies. We think it sucks and it's very boring to just listen to stuff from one era, genre or format. As a result we find it equally as difficult to compose for both complex and simple forms. But it's very interesting, and sometimes fun.
Now regarding this "experimental/weirdo" label: We know many "experimental" people and they are the least "weirdo" people ever. The opposite can be said about a lot of "pop" people, who literally give us the creeps with their vacant Lynchian gaze. Now they're fucking weird.
Some band members have written music for TV, adverts and corporate videos. Has this influenced the creative process of The Chap?
Primarily it's helped to fund the creative process of The Chap. It's also helped to feed our lyrics with corporate speak, and given us a new niche of music to analyse and make jokes about. (e.g. 'The Premier At Last' from Ham and 'Well Done You' from Well Done Europe).
Have people been put off by your reputation for irony because they don't understand what the word means?
There's a modern confusion about "authentic". People demand "authenticity" in the art they consume, but what they usually get is some corporate constructed cliché delivered with no true feelings whatsoever. Whereas we deliver discourse on this point, bringing attention to it in an extremely personal, committed and devoted way. And people say it's "arch", "ironic", "distant", but certainly not "authentic".
It's easy to understand why people would find this unpleasant, of course. But it's still depressing that people consume so much shit and then moan when you point out what they're eating.
It's unusual to hear received pronunciation accents in pop. How posh are you really?
In the new musical economy bands are paid in free breakfasts and ungrateful comments. Has this helped you to keep it real in terms of subject matter?
What has helped us keep it real is that bloody blacklist we're on. We sacrifice our lives making and performing this music, and in response, the world goes "Meh". This gives us focus to carry on and prove that "Meh" is the incorrect response.
Of course the satisfaction of being the best band in the world, and being pretty much ignored is an extraordinary feeling. When our (few but lovely and dedicated) fans say stuff like "Please, don't stop doing what you're doing!", because they can see the utter pointlessness of it all, it just seems funny. What on earth would we do if we weren't doing this? As Michael Jackson said, "This is it". This is our purpose, our calling.
Our only concern is being taken off the blacklist. Then we'd be fucked. (Haha only joking, please take us off the blacklist, we're really poor and want to play your corporate festivals!)
Panos shows a lot of leg onstage. Has he ever popped out?
He has developed complex preparations to prevent this outcome. Sometimes people try to encourage it, but he has lightning reactions, and they don't live to regret it. Those tuning keys on his bass are razor sharp.
There's a lot of driving in Chap songs, and motorik seems to be your default beat. What are your favourite songs about driving?
The Cars - 'Drive'
Deep Purple - 'Highway Star'
Willie Nelson - 'On The Road Again'
Kraftwerk - 'Autobahn'
'Look at the Girl' sounds like a death disc in the Shangri Las tradition, only narrated by a JG Ballard character. Why don't more people write songs about death?
They have professional management.
Quietus Mix 59 - The Chap
(Notes by Keith Duncan, Chap drummer)
Ivor Cutler – 'I'm Going in a Field' (from some old Peel Session)
Chris Lucey – 'That's The Way The World Has Got To Be' (from Songs of Protest and Anti-Protest)
Man makes great album, gets screwed by record industry, bitterness festers seemingly forever.
Country Teasers - 'Panic Holiday' (from The Empire Strikes Back)
The countryside is frightening.
Hildegard Knef - 'Ich Brauch Tapetenwechsel'
A famous German actress sings a song about a tree that decides to leave the countryside for pastures new. The tree realises this was a big mistake when it ends up as a chest of drawers. Lyrics translated into English
Grampall Jookabox - 'We Know We Might Be Fucked' (The Chap remix) (from Ropechain)
Pale Saints - 'Kinky Love' (from the Flesh Balloon EP)
Seminal 80s UK band cover Nancy Sinatra. Not ugly.
Nik Kershaw - 'Save the Whale' (from The Riddle)
He mixed fusion jazz with pop and became successful. Very ugly. Ugly is good.
Pete Um - 'Africa as a Fridge' (from The Old Album)
Pete explains the facts about Africa.
Egberto Gismonti - 'Canção do Carreiro' (from Trem Caipira)
More beautiful ugliness. The album is amazing, full of music from another universe.
Flash and the Pan - 'Waiting for a Train' (from Headlines)
A hit from Australia.
Paulo Moura - 'Carimbó do Moura' (from Confusão Urbana, Suburbana e Rural)
Family Fodder - 'Primeval Pony' (from Classical Music)
Macha Loved Bedhead - 'Believe'
The Flaming Lips - 'There You Are - Jesus Song No. 7' (from In A Priest Driven Ambulance)
From (by far) their best album.
John Lurie - 'Fishing with John' (from the Fishing With John soundtrack)
From one of the best TV shows ever.
Ivor Cutler - 'Beautiful Cosmos' (some old Peel Session)
Catch The Chap on tour:
15 March – Winchester, The Railway
16 March 2012 – London, The Lexington
17 March 2012 – Cambridge, The Portland Arms