Suburban Guerrillas: Earl Brutus In Their Own Words
, January 28th, 2016 09:47
Jim Fry and Gordon King meet up to discuss the history of Earl Brutus and the reissue of Your Majesty... We Are Here and Tonight You Are The Special One. Julian Marszalek was on hand to take notes
King’s Cross Scala, Saturday March 20, 1999. There is half an hour before showtime and the star attraction at the opening night of the newly refurbished venue, are being barred from getting in to their own gig by over-zealous security. With tempers fraying and patience wearing thin, it’s the drunken negotiation skills of Nick Sanderson that finally get the band into the venue. Looking back, would you expect anything else from the chaos that was Earl Brutus?
And gloriously chaotic it was too. Looking like your favourite pissed-up uncles who couldn’t quite decide whether they wanted to visit an art gallery or spend the afternoon on the terraces, Earl Brutus’ glam racket was a thing of under-appreciated and undervalued splendour. The initial line-up of Nick Sanderson, Rob Marche, Jim Fry and Stuart Boreman who formed from the ashes of bands such as World Of Twist, The Gun Club, Clock DVA, If? and JoBoxers in late 1992 and set about fusing the best of Bowie and Kraftwerk with a knowing pop sensibility and a very wry and English point of view.
Their first single, ‘Life’s Too Long’, was released the following year by St Etienne’s Bob Stanley and then by the time former World Of Twist guitarist Gordon King joined the band, stage nerves had already gotten the better of Stuart Boreman. The classic line-up was finally sealed with the arrival of Shin-Ya Hayashida whose role of drinking beer and swearing in English and Japanese augmented the increasingly fearsome music being created by the band.
Their gigs were notoriously riotous affairs, characterised by pyrotechnics and a trail of smashed gear. Yet for all their reputation for chaos, drunkenness and destruction, it’s all too easy to forget just how good the music actually was. Drawing from a wide source of influences that included the electronic pulse of Suicide, the glam stomp of Mike Leander and the kind of situationist sloganeering that would regularly make its way from the art school to the dancefloor, Earl Brutus were a band both in and out of step with the 1990s.
Despite the departure of guitarist Rob Marche, who was replaced by Interstella’s Martin Wright, Earl Brutus carried on – pausing only to add Phil King on bass – until finally calling it a day in 2004 after a typically anarchic gig raising funds for Ken Livingstone’s mayoral election fund at the Hammersmith Working Men’s Club.
And now, 12 years after that final gig, Earl Brutus’ two albums - Your Majesty… We Are Here and Tonight You Are The Special One - are re-released with the full re-mastering and re-packaging treatment. Removed from their environment of time and place, the focus is sharply on the music and this is a collection of material that holds up remarkably well. You can hear echoes of Earl Brutus in both Sleaford Mods and Fat White Family, two bands that marry confrontation with an angry yet frequently hilarious intellect.
Jim Fry and Gordon King meet up with tQ for drinks in a central London pub as the capital is gearing itself up for the festive season. Over the course of several pints of pale ale and porter, a few bottles of wine and three hours, the pair tell the story of Earl Brutus…
Gordon King: Earl Brutus has nothing to do with World Of Twist; it happened completely independently. There’s a great line from Bob Stanley from when [Earl Brutus] did ‘Life’s Too Long’ before I was involved. Jim played it to him and Bob said that he underplayed it. It was a shock to him and it was a shock to me when I heard Earl Brutus for the first time. It was like, fucking hell, this is brilliant!
Jim Fry: Well, I think it is connected [to World Of Twist]. We were sat outside a pub and Rob Marche was there with Nick, Stu and myself and the key to it was that everyone was at a loose end, really. Rob had been in If? and that had fallen apart, Nick was back in London and I was moving along as a photographer but I’d always had the itch to be in a group and had been involved with World Of Twist. And I remember saying, “Why aren’t we sat in a studio instead of sitting here. Let’s do that – I’ve got a mate with an eight track.” So we went to the Rainbow Theatre where our mate Adie Hardy had this room at the very top of the building.
We’d been at Stu’s flat and had this idea for a riff and it all went very quickly at the Rainbow. We spent a Saturday afternoon that turned into an evening and when we came out, Rob made a point of saying, “Let’s make a couple of cassettes of this.” So I got home, made a few copies, sent one to Rob and he got in touch saying, “Fucking hell! This is absolutely brilliant!”
I don’t know. Maybe it came out because we were all really jaded and had been in broken groups: World Of Twist were a broken band and If? were a broken band but we gave a copy of the cassette to Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs who said, “We won’t play this in front of you as you might get embarrassed” but we got a lot of feedback straight away.
Our first gig was at this thing called Merry England which was this ravey-type night that Sean McLusky had at Café de Paris which seemed like a fitting place to start. We wore safari suits and we only came up with the name, Earl Brutus, in a pub in Kilburn the night before. There were two camps in Earl Brutus: there were the professionals who were Nick and Rob who knew what they were doing, and on the other side you had me and Stu Boreman who was throwing up before he went on stage. At that point, I was the only dad in the group so I did wonder if being in a group was a good thing or a bad thing! But we did this one gig and it’s hard to tell whether it went down badly or not but Bob Stanley rang me the next day and said, “That was one of the great pop moments of our time! What’s your group called? If it’s a good name then I’ll put the record out” so I said, “Earl Brutus” and he goes, “Brilliant! Let’s do it!”
We then played another Sean gig, I think, and someone shat in the promoter’s pocket. Pablo was a musician mate of Rob’s. Anyway, we loved Public Enemy and the idea of the Security Of The Third World. We felt we were a low-budget, white version from suburbia so we had pub security instead. Pablo would stand there with us like pub security from a pub in Blythe in Northumberland.
Then we did a gig at the Leisure Lounge for the guys who did Blow Up. The idea was at the end of the night there’d be a special guest band and because Britpop was going on, the feeling in the air was that Blur were going to turn up. The pressure got to poor Stu. He couldn’t cope anymore and stage fright got the better of him so he didn’t actually turn up. But, as luck would have it, Gordon and [World Of Twist singer] Tony Ogden were there that night and we were wearing this Nigerian leisurewear.
GK: Stu’s safari suit was there and luckily it fitted me.
JF: We certainly learned a lot from the World Of Twist experience so with Earl Brutus we had a bit more solid ground under out feet. We wouldn’t have had Earl Brutus if it hadn’t have been for World Of Twist.
There’s this great footage of Nick taking his shirt off and throwing it into the audience only to have someone throw it straight back. People were so disappointed they weren’t hearing Parklife!
GK: For the next few months we played all those Britpop clubs like Smashing. We weren’t really playing gigs, then; it was all PAs and then the new age cabaret circuit. It didn’t really become a band until Shin-Ya joined. That was the turning point, really, irrespective of the fact that he did nothing except scream and shout down the mic in Japanese.
JF: Well, he came because Romi knew all these trendy Japanese students. We then played the Dublin Castle and Nick pissed on the stage. There was this real vile band from Manchester with a girl singer on that night and she was in the pub’s kitchen going, “Steve Lamacq’s coming to see us” but we got on stage and Nick whipped his cock out and pissed all over the stage. Some people have said that that was symbolic of the death of Britpop.
GK: Others have called it their ‘Bowie Moment’.
JF: Or their ‘Sex Pistols Moment’. What a load of bollocks! I suppose it’s like all of these things, really. They’re all open for interpretation and what you make of them. And that’s the thing about Earl Brutus because no one ever really talks about the music and that’s really the best part of it.
You have to remember that Rob and Nick were musicians and they were really into doing it right; they believed that if you were going to say something then you should just say it and not in some humble, tragic way. We were very fortunate that we were built on solid ground. I was a photographer who wrote the lyrics so I’m probably to blame for the visual and conceptual side of it. I’d think in terms of, “What’s the sleeve going to look like? What’s the label going to look like?” But I’m a music fan as well - and it sounded good.
GK: Jim’s influence on how we sounded was quite strong but there was a whole mix of ideas going on. You’d have this mix of Alice Cooper with some Kraftwerk riffs and it was quite prescriptive. The thing was, that in Rob you’d have this musician who was capable of doing anything on the guitar and all this Mick Ronson stuff that we exploited a lot. Nick was a fantastic drummer and he could pretty much replicate anything we wanted from that point of view.
JF: With Nick and Rob, we had really solid ground where we could then carry off these absurd lightshows and stupidity. We never wanted to be a really shit group like David Devant And His Spirit Wife; you know, groups who were all bluster. We were already old – well, by the standards of those days – so we weren’t going to go out there and be dickheads. It was important that we had good music; a lot of thought went into it. I think that’s why the records have come out again because the music is alright. You know, you can’t really boxset an idea, can you? You can’t polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter.
GK: It’s weird listening back to these re-masters – because I haven’t listened to them in a long time – and it all makes sense. These are very coherent albums and I think to myself, yeah, this is brilliant.
JF: We came to Steve Lamacq’s attention the night Nick pissed on the stage. Lamacq had come down to see this ugly band from Manchester and he saw us instead. Later I was photographing an East 17 gig and Steve Lamacq’s wife was their press officer. We were talking about music and she said, “Oh, Steve keeps going on about this group Earl Brutus who have got this song called ‘Life’s Too Long’.” And I said, “You’re taking the piss” and she goes, “Why?” and I said, “Because I’m in Earl Brutus!” This is no word of a lie – we were sat on a table next to Peter Andre and she goes, “You’ll have a deal by Monday” and sure enough, 10am Monday morning, this bloke called Tony Smith rang up and said, “Would you like to come and see us?” By the following morning, things had come together and we had a deal.
GK: I could never work out whether he actually liked us or not.
JF: I think he did. I don’t think we were the easiest group to work with but he did say that You’re Majesty… We Are Here was the record he was proudest of.
GK: By that time, we were working every day. We tried to make a job of it and there was a good working dynamic, particularly when we were writing the second album. We had this massive floor of a factory in Wembley to write and rehearse and in. Me and Nick went down there every single day. We’d get there at 10 o’clock in the morning, sit there for four hours and do fuck all and then we’d try to put something together. It was brilliant. It’s like we were thrown into a studio and somebody started the clock and we’d have something done in a day and everybody contributed. When we all got together, it clicked.
But Nick and I worked well together and Jim and Rob worked well together.
JF: ‘Navy Head’ is a good example of that. It was one of those scenarios where we had to be out by 6pm so we did it by that time. It was a real team effort and we felt that we’d nailed it. We had a good song and the feeling was that even if nothing else happened after that point then it still would have been worth it. If you listen to it you can hear all the members and key elements of Earl Brutus in it. Shins was a great part of the live set up but he wasn’t engaged with the writing but I think he would’ve done by now if we were still going.
After ‘Navy Head’, we gained a lot of confidence and the album needed to be made. We then did ‘Male Milk’ and ‘Blind Date’ and a lot of the album really got filled out then. ‘Male Milk’ was a real standout track at that point.
We did ‘Karl Brutus’ which, for me, is the least representative track. That’s the only time we tried to write a hit record or tried to pander. It sounded like we were trying to fit in rather than stand out. It was like our equivalent of the Oasis track ‘Digsy’s Dinner’; an attempt at radio-friendly crowd pleasing. We had it removed from the vinyl version.
But there wasn’t an agenda to have a hit record and there weren’t any bands that we were jealous of. No one ever came forward and said we should be sounding like this, or we should play this, or we should have samples like this. No one was bullying anybody else. It was a bit shambolic but we sort of sounded like someone’s record collection. It was like being at a party and listening to a compilation tape: there’d be a bit of Kraftwerk, someone would want Low on, someone else would put on Thin Lizzy or a bit of Alice Cooper.
Another great thing that happened around then was that Deceptive Records decided they wanted to have a conceptual advert for the album, which was a load of bollocks, really. But one of them was of a girl with Earl Brutus tattooed on her back and the idea from the band was to take something from Romo, that shit musical movement. The idea was that we’d have model with a tattoo on his hand, dressed in a shellsuit and wearing Pierrot clown make up. So we used our friend Vinny who came down to the Royal Oak on the corner of Queensway, which was our spiritual home, and we did some shots of him. That would’ve made a great cover for Your Majesty… We Are Here because he looks like a music fan who doesn’t know what music he likes: he’s got Romo make-up on but he looks like a football hooligan; he likes Oasis but he also likes Visage.
GK: We were on the spit & sawdust circuit so it was great to take over these venues for the night. I mean, those early gigs, fuck me but we went mental! Real carnage. If we inherited anything from World Of Twist then it was the idea of putting on a show. Even before I was involved it was very choreographed. What we wore was very important, much more so than any band I’d ever been in and I always loved that aspect of it. It was very MC5.
JF: It was very Roxy Music.
GK: Something that we caught on to very, very quickly was the intimidation thing. People were very scared of us, and I loved that. All the bands that I used to love like Hawkwind and Alex Harvey Band, you were shit scared of them. Nick very quickly invented this alter-ego who was this shouting, ranting thing who was nothing like the man you went to see the football with. You’d go out for a pint with Nick during the Earl Brutus era and there was a 75% chance of being thrown out of wherever you were.
JF: This is where we learned from World Of Twist. Nick very much sorted out the going on stage armour and Tony Ogden didn’t. Being a lead singer, you’re quite vulnerable. You can be out on your own and a bit of lone striker. We were really good at surrounding Nick and sticking up for him whereas Tony had felt a bit isolated when Julia McGreechin left. Being a lead singer is hard work and it’s not something that I aspire to but I always ended up being one somewhere along the line so you can’t wait for someone like Nick to turn up and go, “Fucking drums are shit! Let’s have a go!” A band starts as a seed as it then re-shapes itself.
GK: In many ways, it was one of our biggest failings. We all liked the idea of juxtaposing this idea of being intimidating with being airy-fairy arty types but we never really got the chance to exploit that. I think that most people who’d heard of us thought we were like some sort of new age hooligans. But we were just a short step away from coming onstage wearing wedding dresses. Any chance we’d get we’d put the make up on. I know I did!
JF: More importantly, wearing make up when it did come, it was a grown man in his 40s doing it. Anyone can do it when they’re 17 but to do it when you’re in the your 40s and working for the railways, that’s when it gets dangerous.
One thing that terrified us was the Sham 69 effect. Or even Sigue Sigue Sputnik, who were a great band. The trouble at gigs was a concern and it happened on two occasions. Someone got hit over the head with a bottle at Madam Jojo’s and I remember my brother going, “Fucking hell! It’s out of control!” but that was really one bloke who started it and I don’t think he was even there for the gig. And there was the time with Gary Numan and we had bottles chucked at us because we were the support act. Apart from that there was never really bother. There was no hooliganism, it was more get-pissed-destroy kind of stuff. With Earl Brutus, it was a case of if you’re going to destroy anything then you’d destroy yourself. But there wasn’t any violence at out gigs.
GK: The worry for me, as far as the image went, was that someone would call our bluff. Actually, it happened in Hastings, I seem to remember. We got besieged in the dressing room when the locals called our bluff. We used to have this couple that followed us called Toni and Guy. Yes, really! Guy was like this 6’7” punk fan and he took it upon himself to protect us and ensured our safe passage out that night.
JF: Nick had been offered some gigs drumming with the Jesus And Mary Chain and they got right behind us. I remember Nick saying how some bands have a patron; Ocean Colour Scene had Weller and we had the Mary Chain.
GK: I remember Jim Reid telling me about Nick’s audition for the Mary Chain. He turned up really hungover with no drumsticks and they said, “Do you know any of our songs?” and he was like, “No.”
JF: He wasn’t even a fan! But they got on really well and ended up being really good mates.
GK: There was a story about Nick later on but before he got into driving trains. Nick kind of relied on them to make money. Him and Rob were the two professional musicians in Earl Brutus. Jim had his photography and I did bits and bobs to get by. Anyway, one of the Reid brothers – I forget which – wanted to stop drinking. They had a tour coming up but there was no way they could invite Nick.
JF: To be fair, that’s another reason they liked Earl Brutus; you could let yourself go. I went on Clock DVA tours with him and Nick took his work very seriously and his work was drumming. He applied that work ethic to being a singer as well. He never let anybody down.
GK: What was so weird for me was that I’d been in a band with Nick before for a long time when he was a drummer and he was a real driving force in World Of Twist. It was great having him around but he’d never really put himself forward or come up with any ideas or thought about the songs or image or anything. He went along with everything so to then be in a band where he had so many ideas where he was very forceful was great.
JF: Well, he’d been a drummer where he played in other people’s bands. Maybe not so much in World Of Twist but certainly in The Gun Club and The Jesus And Mary Chain. And Rob had played in other people’s bands. You can say what you like about Earl Brutus but it was a very democratic operation. There was never one singular point of view. If Rob had say, a Weimer electronic loop that he wanted to do, then it found its place on the record.
For me, when I think of Rob and Nick together, then ‘On Me Not In Me’ is it. Neither of them had ever said they liked Queen but Queen had a brilliant drummer and they also had a brilliant guitarist and they were mates which was why they were so tight, and the day Rob and Nick did the bit in ‘On Me Not In Me’ that they would repeat it with Gordon sorting out the sound out in the studio, it was jaw-dropping stuff! It was like, “What the fuck? There’s nothing indie or Britpop about this.”
It’s been depicted as a David v Goliath thing or Earl Brutus against Britpop but it wasn’t like that at all. It wasn’t a war against Britpop but it was, “Fuck all that.” We did our own thing. We didn’t want to be part of a scene even though we orbited that world. I mean, we went to Smashing every weekend and they played ‘Navy Head’ there.
GK: Supporting The Cramps was great.
JF: I really enjoyed that. It was over two nights at the Astoria with us and Groop Dogdrill supporting. One night they went on first and the other night we went on first. The first night I went to watch them and they were brilliant. If you’re going to support a band – and we were the support – then you might as well support a great one. And we did.
GK: You’d meet The Cramps backstage and they were really polite. But they were the sexiest couple on stage; by the encore Lux was in the nude and tearing a massive hole out of the Astoria stage with his mic stand. It was brilliant.
JF: After their soundcheck I wandered around the stage because I was bored and behind their drumkit were two huge human thighbones. Perfect for voodoo music! If Nick was alive I reckon Kid Congo would be in Earl Brutus by now.
GK: They all loved Nick.
JF: Well, Nick wasn’t one of those people who burned bridges. He never did. People never walked away hating him.
GK: But would he have been in Nick Cave’s band?
JF: No! Hmm. Maybe. I think that by now Nick would’ve been in Abel Ganz, the prog rock band from Glasgow.
I think Rob left because he’d had enough of being in a group. He was unhappy and he left. In all honesty, I have to say that I was really upset when he left. But he was right to leave if he was unhappy; you wouldn’t stick around in an unhappy marriage. At least he had the fucking balls to do it. Rob was hard to replace and I’m sure Martin [Wright] would agree.
The effect that it had on the band was that the gigs that we did do - the [music] industry-ness that had been there left at that point, and Rob was part of that industry – had absolutely no point to pleasing anyone. In a lot of ways, the gigs became a lot more fluid and exciting than they had ever been before. There were less gigs and they didn’t have a promotional angle to them.
Getting Martin in was obvious; he was a friend. You have to remember that Earl Brutus – and that includes Rob - was formed on friendship.
GK: Martin wouldn’t have passed an audition, would he?
JF: I wouldn’t have passed an audition. As I say, the band was formed on friendship so Martin was always a part of that. Martin was great. He was a bit more layered with his guitars. And then Phil King got involved on bass. Nick had always wanted a bassist and he and Phil had been roommates on Mary Chain tours. And Phil’s a lovely fella and proper pop-head. You won’t meet a better pop-head. Nick always reckoned you should put Phil King on Antiques Roadshow to see how much he was worth because he’s been in so many groups!
JF: Two important things happened. Gordon and Nick became dads, and I became an art student at Croydon. I think we kind of lost interest in it then and if you can’t be arsed then you shouldn’t do it.
GK: When I listen back to ‘Larkey’ now it sounds like a launch pad to the next step and it was really good and I’m really proud of that. I think it was one of the best things we did. I can’t remember why didn’t do anything with it but fuck it, we were all, like, 40…
JF: …and couldn’t be arsed.
GK: And that’s the boring truth.
JF: Yeah, but you’re allowed to re-invent yourself. When you think about Nick, Gordon and me, we all met on the same day, went through the same band experience and we all arrived at the same point at the same time and I think it’s fair to say that the band couldn’t be fucking arsed anymore. Things got lazy on the pop front but for good reason: people in the band were having kids. For all the gigs in the world, there’s nothing more terrifying than having a child. That journey that you’re about to embark is going to be more ridiculous than any band in the world and that includes Earl Brutus.
I don’t want to sound corny but the thing I took most out of Earl Brutus was friendship. We came out of it friends otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. The tax bills were paid and no one slept with anyone else’s wife and it was a genuine friendship.
The re-mastered and extended editions of Your Majesty… We Are Here and Tonight You Are The Special One are out now on 3 Loop Music