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In Extremis

It's A Dirty Job: Workin' Man Noise Unit Interviewed
Matt Ridout , October 21st, 2015 08:35

With their debut album Play Loud due imminently, Matt Ridout talks to the Reading four-piece about embedding hooks within the noise, Julian Cope and potato grading, and we premiere their video for Yeah, I Was Hypnotised

All photographs courtesy of Julie R Kane

I first saw Workin' Man Noise Unit at Julian Cope's Copendium book launch. As he discussed his book, compiled from articles he had written on his popular Head Heritage website, Cope waxed lyrical and tangentially about his passion for underground music. Whether it be his love for The Pretty Things or The MC5 or Ramesses, Cope's enthusiasm for the underdog is evident, and Workin' Man Noise Unit being the group that he chose to perform at the event underlined that. Formed five years ago in Reading, England, Workin' Man Noise Unit have released four cassettes, a 7'' and now an LP called Play Loud, set to hit shelves next month via Riot Season. With the release date imminent and a UK tour under way, we grabbed a few minutes with Sam Clarke (guitar), Jamie Hobley (feedback/noise), Dominic James (bass) and Jon Cornwell (drums) to talk about the LP, being a band in a provincial town and the jobs that shaped the Workin' Man.

The first time I saw you was at Rough Trade East in Brick Lane, appearing as part of Julian Cope's book launch in 2012. How did you come to his attention?

Sam Clarke: We sent him a tape of our first release, Drinkin' Stella To Make Music To Drink Stella To. We'd sent tapes out to press and people whose opinion we respected and he was one of the only people who actually wrote back. He was really positive about it and included us on his Head Heritage Drudion column. Subsequently he got in touch and asked us to play for the book launch. He was playing in Reading around that time and invited us down and we were able to have a good chat when we met him.

What did you end up chatting with him about?

SC: We chatted about pretty much everything but music, mainly about writers. He's a really nice guy, but it took a while to get past the intimidation of talking to Julian Cope. Myself, Jamie and Dom are all fans of his writing, both on the website and in books like Japrocksampler. He's really enthusiastic and positive when you're talking to him. It was a bit embarrassing though, as we were talking about the writer Colin Wilson for some time, but I kept calling him David or something, and Julian was looking at me with this blank expression until we got to the end of the conversation and I realised, "Oh wait, he's called Colin isn't he"!

Going back to that show at Rough Trade East, that was a bit of a stressful gig really. We've been a band for five years and are used to playing shows in the back rooms of small pubs rather than in that environment. That, combined with the fact that we were in the midst of a transition as we hadn't had a drummer for a long time. We had about two practices with my brother on drums then we did that gig, so it was a little rough but still really good fun.

How did the band start?

Jamie Hobley: Sam and myself are from Lincolnshire originally, and I went to university in Reading. He moved down here and we came up with the idea of forming a band. Originally the idea was to do a noise project using tools and contact mics, just a stupid idea basically. Some friends of ours promote shows locally as doubledotdash!? and they do a one-day festival every year. We managed to convince them to put us on the festival but by that time we'd abandoned the idea of using the tools and contact mics and simply did an improv set with some riffs that Sam had.

SC: We were originally called Workin' Man as a bit of a parody of lad culture. I mean, I'm from Lincolnshire and I've done a lot of terrible jobs - I was a potato grader once, for example - and in the process we'd encountered lots of lads. I guess we are probably arty knobheads and as a result we thought doing something called Workin' Man and wearing hi-vis jackets and reading The Sun was quite funny. Before we'd even played our first gig we realised it wasn't really funny so we did that once and dropped it. We added Noise Unit to the name quite quickly after that.

JH: Noise Unit came about because people thought we were a Rush tribute band! We had fun doing that first show so we continued and managed to get Dom involved.

Dominic James: I'd seen the original gig with the hi-vis jackets and the megaphones and I was taken aback by it.

JH: We had a drummer named Ben but he moved abroad to live with his girlfriend. After a period of different people filling in, we managed to get Jon to join on drums permanently.

Jon Cornwell: Workin' Man was the only band in Reading that I'd seen that did something to me - I wasn't sure if it was good or bad at the time, but it was such a visceral response. So I was keen to join.

Did you have an idea of what you wanted the band to sound like?

JH: We never really set out with a sound in mind, or that we wanted to sound like this band or that band, it was just we had these riffs and just wrote around that.

DJ: The first handful of reviews mentioned things like Killdozer and we didn't really know who they were. We checked them out and they were a great band, so we were happy with that. The first time I saw the band, before I joined, I just thought it was a load of riffs with a lot of noise on top of it and that is what I loved about it.

Listening to the new LP Play Loud I can understand that it would be difficult to find a comparison for the Workin' Man Noise Unit sound. Part Chimp pops to mind, not because you sound like them but because of the combination of really catchy hooks in amongst all of the noise.

SC: Very few bands will write a better riff than Part Chimp. 'Trad' is probably one of the best songs written by a UK band.

JC: I can see what you're saying - there are enough hooks there for it to not just be noise.

What impact do you think living and playing in Reading has had on the development of your sound?

JH: Most people know Reading because of the festival, which doesn't really have anything to do with the town at all. For many years outside of that there wasn't an awful lot going on. I studied here at university and the few shows that happened were things like Biffy Clyro and The Ordinary Boys or whatever. I tried to start putting on shows myself and the doubledotdash!? guys were doing shows as well in places they found, like the Kings Tavern, which was just a pub with a space in it. The doubledotdash!? shows were for bands I really liked, and at the shows I met a lot of other people who liked the same things and it really made me realise that there was a good community of people here. I didn't really need to go anywhere else. I think it would have been different six or seven years ago but now Reading is quite a bit better.

DJ: There are certainly more like-minded bands here now than when I first moved here in 2007. Which means that we can get gigs with good local bands rather than being the awkward band opening up for two blues rock bands.

JC: I grew up in Reading and there has always been little scenes that are active, whether it be techno or metal or noise or whatever. I mean if you compare it to a mainstream offering, there is fuck all in this town, but if you know what you like then there's always been pockets of things happening.

SC: Now Jamie and I both do a lot with doubledotdash!?, and helped them put on shows after they wanted to become more of a collective. The main place doubledotdash!? put shows on is the South Street Arts Centre, which is now under threat of closure from council budget cuts. There is a petition going to prevent this that has about 8,000 signatures [the petition can be signed here]. Without doubledotdash!? and the South Street Arts Centre, Workin' Man Noise Unit wouldn't exist, and I'm sure a number of other local bands wouldn't either. So it's really important to us that people are aware that the centre is at risk and do something to help try and save it.

Play Loud is being released in November on Riot Season - your first LP after a number of cassettes and a 7''.

JH: I was so excited when Riot Season got involved - to be on the same label as so many other great releases is really flattering.

DJ: Andy at Riot Season is far and away one of the easiest people I've ever dealt with in music.

JH: We recorded the record in a day and we weren't really sure what we were going to do with it. Joe Thompson from Hey Colossus encouraged us to talk to Andy about putting it out and he pretty much straight away said he was happy to do it.

And Tim Farthing (Hey Colossus/Henry Blacker guitarist) did the cover art for the LP?

SC: I think the cover art he did for Hey Colossus' Cuckoo Live Life Like Cuckoo is amazing and when we had an opportunity to play with Colossus for their record launch, I talked to him about doing artwork for our record. I didn't guide him in any particular way, I just told him what some of the songs were about and he went off and came up with the Play Loud cover.

Hey Colossus have been quite key in encouraging a lot of underground bands in the UK in the past few years.

SC: Joe has come to a lot of our shows and has always been very supportive. It's like when you mentioned Julian Cope earlier - not because he is Julian Cope, but because he is one of the people that has been very encouraging and enthusiastic. Joe has been the same.

So what's next for Workin' Man Noise Unit?

SC: Well we've got a UK tour that is supporting the upcoming LP. Hopefully after that we will try and do some shows in Europe.

JH: We've been talking about doing a split with Sly & The Family Drone for a long time, so hopefully that will happen.

SC: They are from a similar area and Jamie went on tour playing with them in Europe recently.

JH: I had a great time in Europe with Sly & The Family Drone, so I'd love to go back out there. We played with a band at the Incubate festival called FCKN Bstrds who were great. They play high-pitched noise and throw rubbish around. It sounds like the shittest thing when you describe it, but it's great. I walked into the venue room and there was rubbish everywhere. This pink shoe flew through the air into me, knocking into me and I knocked over some guy's drink. Next thing, a wheelie bin is being crowd-surfed through the venue, then it appears again later with a guy sitting in it! I thought I'd throw the pink shoe back as it had hit me so I hurled it toward the front and the next thing you know, almost in slow motion, I see this glass bottle coming right for my head. It hit me and instantly there was a massive lump on my head. I thought it was amazing.

SC: He got flattened and he thought it was amazing.

JH: I got bottled during a show and it was the best thing that happened that night.

Sam mentioned earlier that he worked as a potato grader - what was that about?

SC: Like a lot of people, between us we've worked a lot of shit jobs in our lives.

DJ: I used to bag washers.

SC: Well I did potato grading in Lincolnshire, so we can have a fight about which is worse.

DJ: You know how you get washers in bags? I used to go into work and would have 10,000 washers that would need to be put into bags of ten.

SC: As a potato grader I worked from dawn till dusk and I had to stand in a production line. Tractors would get the potatoes from the fields and then dump them on this conveyor belt and it was my job to pick out rotten potatoes. It wasn't really the work that was the worst thing about the job, it was that we had to listen to Lincs FM the whole day. It wasn't the potatoes that were whizzing by or your fellow employees, many of whom were really interesting people, it was listening to this local radio station for ten hours straight with ads for local businesses and whatnot, it was unbearable. If anyone offers you a job as a potato grader, tell them to fuck themselves.

Play Loud is out on November 13 on Riot Season; pre-order the record here. Workin' Man Noise Unit play Maguire's Pizza in Liverpool tonight, before touring; for full details and tickets, head here

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