Room For Another Slice: Russell Smith Of Terminal Cheesecake Interviewed
, November 15th, 2016 10:05
On the eve of the release of their first record in over 20 years, Matt Ridout speaks to Terminal Cheesecake guitarist Russell Smith about the band's long strange return trip
Terminal Cheesecake live shot by Jose Caamano
Piecing together Russell Smith of Terminal Cheesecake’s musical resume is like compiling a who’s who of seminal British noise rock. His CV includes time spent in AR Kane, God, Skullflower, and of course as a founding member and guitarist of Terminal Cheesecake itself. Combine that with his central role in the AR Kane/ Colourbox collaboration M/A/R/R/S, who released the number one single ‘Pump Up The Volume’, and you have all the elements for a pretty damn compelling biography.
Talk to Russ and you discover a shy and unassuming man, who is hesitant to talk about these achievements in any grand way, preferring to put it down to just being in the right place at an incredibly creative right time for British music.
Terminal Cheesecake have been a resurgent force over the past few years. After a nearly 20 year hiatus their reappearance at a point when the musical landscape was primed for their mind-melting space rock could not have been more timely. Following the band laying waste to Raw Power, Eindhoven Psych Lab and Supernormal as well as releasing a live album culled from shows on their last European tour, they are finally poised to launch their first studio recording in over 20 years Dandelion Sauce Of The Ancients - out on Box Records this month. We speak to Russ about the path he has travelled, and how the first Terminal Cheesecake studio release since 1994 came to be.
When you first started Terminal Cheesecake was the landscape for a musician in the UK quite different to how it is now?
Russell Smith: When I started you basically were in a band and signing on the dole, that’s how it always was. Anyone who had a job was likely to have lost interest in doing a band long ago. Terminal Cheesecake first started as I was frustrated that I couldn’t have an input into the songwriting for AR Kane. I joined AR Kane because I was into a lot of the same type of music, mainly the Jesus & Mary Chain and 4AD stuff, but I was also into punk and hardcore and wanted to make hellacious noise. I could have just stayed and played with them but I thought it would be more fun to do my own thing, and introduce all this noisy psychedelic music that I liked.
After the M/A/R/R/S Pump Up The Volume record a lot of the guys involved in AR Kane fell out anyway, so it seemed like a good time to do something else.
Prior to joining AR Kane you were in the US though right?
RS: Yes, I was in California in the early 1980’s before I moved to London, I did a few things out there, some garage punk bands but nothing serious. It was just about fucking about and creating a racket. That’s where we were coming from, if you had a guitar at the time, you just wanted to smash things up and be loud and against the norm. While I was doing AR Kane I wanted to get back to that spirit, I’d seen the Butthole Surfers and some of the other bands coming over from America and that was motivating me to do something less polished, more noisy.
I knew Gary Boniface (vocals) as he was in a great band called the Purple Things, and when they split up we just decided to make some music together and that is how Cheesecake started. We managed to go into a garden shed in Mornington Crescent which doubled as a recording studio, and played a few tracks that we had gotten together. Wiija records heard those recordings and said that if we recorded some more they would be keen to put it out and that is how the first 12’’ Bladdersack and the first LP Johnny Town Mouse came about.
Did it sound like Terminal Cheesecake had come from outer space, considering you didn’t have much in common with the music of the time in the UK?
RS: I suppose compared to the British bands at the time, yes. I think some people were perhaps a bit disappointed as Gary’s other bands had been quite well liked and popular [laughs]. We were pretty mad, I think people knew that we were off-the-wall and a bit bonkers. I mean there were some great bands about in the UK but few of them were mining the same psyche as The Butthole Surfers over here.
We’d seen a lot of the American bands, I remember seeing Sonic Youth in 1984 in the US with the screwdrivers in the guitars and everything, they were brilliant. We were really influenced by things like that, much more than anything in our own country. There wasn’t anyone getting really wigged out to that level.
Speaking of America, why did you move there in the early 80s?
RS: It was boring in Britain at the time, and Thatcher was making it a horrible place to be. I was getting in trouble with the police, I used to attend demonstrations and you would get into conflict with the police, and I just got sick of it. You would just get hassle all the time, so I just left and went to the West Coast to stay with a friend of mine. It was great. Early 80s hardcore was happening. And there was so much space compared to where I was from.
When I got back from my travels I had been here for just about three weeks when I landed in my first proper band.
That was AR Kane?
RS: That’s right. I was jamming on a guitar in the corner of a flat after moving into the East End and a friend of mine asked me if I could play the bass, I said I could and he suggested I speak to his brother as he was looking for a bassist and that’s how I got together with AR Kane.
So during your time with AR Kane you managed to experience something that is quite rare for an underground rock musician, a number one single. How did the whole M/A/R/R/S thing come about and what was the experience like being involved in Pump Up The Volume?
RS: Well it was AR Kane and Colourbox, that was the idea behind the collaboration. We didn’t really hit it off it would be fair to say, they were quite competitive. It seemed like they [Colourbox] set out to rub people up the wrong way deliberately. Our side of the single is a good AR Kane track in my opinion, but I don’t really feel that ‘Pump Up The Volume’ was that great or groundbreaking. That track has very little input from us at all, perhaps a tiny percentage, but barely any input. It did really well as it was of it’s time, it’s a cheesy disco track isn’t it?
We earned some money from that record eventually, but we had to go to court with everybody over it. I had to get legal aid. The track was at number one and I was still signing on.
That must have been annoying.
RS: It was. I used to go down the pub and people would say, “Oi Russ I’ve heard you on the jukebox” and I’d say, “Fuck off” [laughs]. By that time I had left AR Kane and I was just getting Cheesecake going.
Your time in Cheesecake came to an end in the early nineties, why was that?
RS: I wanted to go to America to get my head clear. I had been paid the money from Pump Up The Volume and I was getting involved in a lot of dodgy stuff, a lot of class As were consumed. I just wanted to get away from it and sort myself out. I didn’t want to play any gigs as I just wasn’t feeling well enough to do it. We’d recorded Angels In Pigtails and I just wanted to get out of it and visit my friends in the West Coast of the USA. Our music by that point had gotten so complicated that it worried me, it was hard to play live with just one guitar player and have it sound like it should, and that really stressed me out.
So I went to the States and I was promoting the record out there, I had only been away a few months at that time, and the band gets a gig offer. Gordon (Watson, bass) rang me up and told me that they wanted to do the show and wanted to know if I could do it. I didn’t want to do any gigs at that time so I just told them to get on with it. I wasn’t going to fall out with them over it, they were my really good friends and why should they have to say no to things. Gordon switched to guitar and then I knew that I’d really fucked up things. That’s what happens, the band was popular and I wasn’t about so they carried on without me.
Is that when you started playing in God with Kevin Martin (The Bug)?
RS: Yeah when I got back Kev invited me to come do some God stuff as Justin (Broadrick, Godflesh) couldn’t always make it. We did a couple of shows where Justin and I were both playing but then Godflesh were getting very popular and he was too busy to do it. Kev’s a good old mate, but I think he was a bigger fan of my playing before he was in a band with me [laughs].
Shortly after that Matthew Bower of Skullflower was asking Kevin if he knew any good guitarists and he recommended me, so then I was doing Skullflower and God. Although I was still really out of it personally, I had gotten myself together a bit but there is still loads of stuff from that period of time that I cannot remember at all.
I played with Skullflower for about three years, and we did a lot of stuff in that time, we recorded loads of material. By the end we weren’t doing much though, and there weren’t many people coming to the shows. Both God and Skullflower just sort of called it a day.
And you stopped doing bands altogether at that point?
RS: I got a chance to promote a club in the East End at a pub called The Pigeons. I could put on nights, play records, get my friends bands down to play and walk away from a night with money in my pocket so it was great. So I just did that for a few years and didn’t bother playing in bands, there was no reason to.
When did you first get the desire to do Cheesecake again?
RS: We were trying for years. No one could convince Gary to do it. I kept pushing and Gordon was always up for it we just couldn’t get Gary to commit to it. It went as far as booking a rehearsal but Gary didn’t show up, he said he couldn’t find the practice room. We had a rehearsal anyway which was good and then we had Mat Rowlands down from Alien Sex Fiend for a rehearsal and that was sounding great. That just made me want to do it even more, but it still took another year before we had another rehearsal. By that time Gary was a bit upset that we were continuing, but he didn’t want to be a frontman and play gigs.
We just decided that we were getting too old not to give it another go.
I guess you picked quite a good time to return, with the noise rock scene in such a healthy place thanks in no small part to promoters such as Baba Yaga’s Hut and Cosmic Carnage, and labels like Box Records?
RS: Yes I guess we are pretty lucky. I mean at the end of the nineties particularly with Skullflower there weren’t really that many left-field bands you could play with, so you just didn’t get many gigs. With the exception of playing with bands like Godflesh or getting on the occasional festival. From 1994 to the end of the 1990s the music scene changed dramatically. Many of the people moved into music production and even Terminal Cheesecake were sounding very different, they were still making great records but they were using a lot of drum machines and adapting with the times.
With Gary not wanting to be involved again we got Neil Francis, who had been in Gnod. He’s an incredible performer, he really engages with the audience and never lets you down. We also brought on Dave Cochrane who had been in God amongst others, and brought back John Jobbagy (drums), and the rehearsals were really incredible. We weren’t sure if we were ready to play but then Anthony Chalmers (Baba Yaga’s Hut) pushed us, there’s really no way to say no when he is keen to do something is there [laughs].
If it had sounded like a poor version of before we wouldn’t have kept doing it, it had to be as good as what we did before. It’s difficult when you lose your frontman because you know it’s going to sound completely different or it’s going to be someone doing a poor version of someone else. However Neil brought his own thing to it, and brought new life to the old songs. I was shitting myself at the first gig but everyone was so keen, then we played at Supernormal and there was no way back. It’s been a crazy trip the last three years and I am glad to be a part of it.
Dandelion Sauce Of The Ancients Is Out Now