No Sleep 'Til Notting Hill: The Moonlandingz Interviewed
, March 14th, 2017 09:53
As The Moonlandingz prepare for the launch of their debut album, Patrick Clarke tracks down Valhalladale's finest to the depths of the Yorkshire moors to talk fact, fiction, and the end of the world
Johnny Rocket (All photos by Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer)
'I'm wearing black fishing hat, black glasses… big green parka... Meet you by the pianos…' reads a text from The Moonlandingz' Adrian Flanagan as I arrive at Sheffield train station. After a few minutes I spot him stood with his feet shoulder-width apart and arms behind his back, a knowing grin stretched across his face. He looks, it must be said, a little unnerving. He's charming and affable, however, as we walk out of the station, I assume towards a suitable pub in which to meet the rest of the group for our interview, and the small talk does much to allay my nerves. That is, until he leads me to an old, slightly battered looking Vauxhall Corsa and asks the driver, his bandmate Dean Honer, if he's brought anything that he might use as to blindfold me.
"We're gonna kidnap you and drive you out to the moors, no one's gonna know," he laughs, as I squeeze into the back with a nervous laugh and take my seat next to Lias Saoudi, also of The Fat White Family. It's hard to tell if they're joking.
For half an hour we drive somewhat aimlessly around the city, each pub suggested by one of the three knocked back by another for various reasons until, worryingly, we do indeed end up drifting further and further out onto the moors. We're soundtracked by manic electronic squalls from the car stereo, which I'm informed is 'early Kraftwerk' as any hope of escape dies along with my phone reception, and discussion turns to an argument over whether or not there's a pub with its own herd of llamas nearby.
Lias is in contemplative mood as we get out into the sticks. He's just moved to Sheffield along with other members of The Fat White Family, and this is his first opportunity to explore the wilderness beyond the city limits. "I might escape to Algeria…" he ponders aloud as he stares out the window. "Find myself a wife, become a goat herder or something… maybe I'll buy a pub out here and just retire…"
There's a strangely stilted atmosphere in the Corsa as we meander through the hills, each of the three seemingly feeling the effects of a late night prior to our meeting, but as we begin to descend one peak in particular and a sudden break of light through the clouds illuminates a quite staggering landscape, it feels like a weight is lifted. "God's country…" mutters Flanagan from the front as the rest of us share an intake of breath.
Escapism is clearly on Saoudi's mind when we eventually settle in an isolated country pub, where he orders the pâté to a derisory 'you've-changed' glance from his bandmates. As frontman of The Fat White Family, one of the last British bands bestowed with a genuine, uncynical air of notoriety, after years of hedonism he's been saddled with something of a reputation. As the band last left things, for the time being, they'd just headlined Brixton Academy, just metres from their old London squat, returning home triumphant if somewhat bruised by the ride. "The wolves had set in, like 'here's a bunch of idiot drug addicts with money coming in and going out'" the singer remembers. "It was a feast for those cunts and we didn't care because were so fucked. We did all that work and now we're skint, while the press are just waiting for one of us to die; it makes a great story, doesn't it?
"I don't regret being explicit about that stuff, that was the world I was in and the people I was surrounded by were in," he says. "If anyone pretends there isn't a heroin epidemic in London its doing the community a disservice by not mentioning it, but it's not the song and dance to sell yourself on that people turned it into."
Collaborating with the more experienced Honer and Flanagan became something of an escape, the pair's particularly strong artistic drive a welcome sense of structure to an existence that had turned somewhat chaotic. "After every festival we played I'd go back to London on Monday, get high until Friday, go back out again and achieve nothing in that time. I'm a terrible procrastinator, so it was nice to come up here and have these two knocking on the door in the morning, to be obligated to discipline myself. We'd start at 10am, which is when The Fat Whites would usually go to bed."
The Moonlandingz, and Saoudi's alter-ego Johnny Rocket, to which he's escaped, were first spawned from Flanagan and Honer's 2015 record as the Eccentronic Research Council, Johnny Rocket, Narcissist & Music Machine... I'm Your Biggest Fan, a concept album featuring (third ERC member) Maxine Peake playing the central role as obsessive fan and stalker of the titular group. A separate, self-titled EP by the fictional Moonlandingz appeared alongside the record two years ago, for which Saoudi and fellow Family member Saul Adamczewski were enlisted, and has continued to develop into a project in its own right, with their debut LP proper, Interplanetary Class Classics due on March 24.
The role of Johnny Rocket is a chance at a release of sorts, says Saoudi. "A lot of my job in this band entails wearing meat on my face, so I'm not sure if it makes me look like a serious artist, but it was nice in a way. It's a break from the other project, it's nice to spend some time with… normal's the wrong word, but reasonable people."
"This is his rehab, dressing like a cock sandwich," adds Flanagan, only half-joking.
"Johnny Rocket is a chance for me to be the most puerile version of myself possible and get away with it," says Saoudi, and it's a role he inhabits to perfection. I ask Flanagan what made him think he'd fit the bill when he first approached the idea of actually casting The Moonlandingz. After mentioning Fat White Family's debut Champagne Holocaust among his favourite albums for a Baker's Dozen feature with tQ, the band had invited him to see them at their show at Sheffield's Harley Hotel, at a time when Honer and Flanagan were first floating the idea of turning The Moonlandingz into a real band.
"Well he was covered in his own poo," he says of the moment he know Saoudi was the frontman he had in mind, as the middle-aged couple sat at the table behind us turn round and fix us with a look of utter disgust. "They invited me down to the gig and all the band were really furious or pissed off. I think the venue had only given them six cans of lager."
"I'd been boshing speed for days," Saoudi clarifies. "I think I'd actually wept when I looked at the schedule, I sat down and cried at the prospect of doing the remaining shows, then there's these cunts saying you can't have a fucking beer. Bastards! Give us a break!"
"Anyway the long and short of it is that he did a dirty protest on stage because he didn't get a beer. It was just dead funny, he had his trousers off and he dipped his fingers in it then gave himself a shitty war stripe."
"My own band wouldn't go near me!" says Saoudi. "It's the only time Saul's been genuinely afraid of me. Though Adam was so off his face that I put my tongue down his throat and he didn't even notice…"
"The best part of that gig was there was a lad in the audience and Lias had his pants off with a shit stripe across his face and jumped on his shoulders."
"I had my belt off and I was whipping him like a horse, no one wanted to come near me! It was fucking hilarious!"
"Anyway," says Flanagan, "Everyone stepped back 20 feet and I stepped forward. I was the only one that gave him a hug afterwards while all the bouncers were trying to beat him up. I just said to the manager, 'this time next year you'll be wanting to put these on again because everyone's gonna be talking about this.'"
Mairead O'Connor, Adrian Flanagan, Ross Orton and Dean Honer
There was no one else who could've assumed the role, says Flanagan, apart from perhaps George Michael, and after such an auspicious introduction, there was little doubt in his mind that Saoudi could live up to expectations. "We know what he does, and he's the best frontman in Europe," he says. The intent was originally simply to record, but after a Radio 6 session for Marc Riley, belief began to swell that the band could form something of an outstanding live outfit too.
"After one rehearsal I was really pushing it, I really wanted to do it live, I could tell it was really gonna go off," says Saoudi.
Pursue it they did, along with Mairead O'Connor and Ross Orton on instrumental duties and Sean Lennon on production, plus Yoko Ono and The Village People's Randy Jones (the cowboy) in tow for guest features, and the reception to the band has been nothing short of ecstatic. Every gig has been 'riotous... feral', they tell me, while early reviews mark their upcoming debut as one of the year's sweeping critical successes, with the likes of 6music A-listing their singles.
It's the first time in an established career with the often acclaimed, though less commercial likes of The Eccentronic Research Council, Kings Have Long Arms and even a very short tenure in The Fall, that Flanagan's seen such immediate mass appeal. I ask how it feels to see the project take off as it has done. "It feels expected. I knew it would, I really did. Because we've been doing it for such a long time we know how to do that kind of music. We knew if we wrote some really good songs, then the rest will be a piece of piss."
Beyond the irrefutable aura of sheer talent that The Moonlandingz boast, there's something about the dynamic between the two factions – the younger, feral energy of the Fat Whites, harnessed by the experienced hands of Honer and Flanagan – that makes for such a thrilling end product. Our interview is peppered with teasing at each other's' expense – 'they bring age, I bring ageism,' jabs Saoudi; 'everything he says and does is scripted by me' retorts Flanagan – but there's a fierce creative drive quite clearly shared between them, and an intense, if rarely admitted, sense of mutual respect. "As someone whose main currency is writing... It's nice to work with someone with the same commitment," is as much as Saoudi will admit to out loud, while when Flanagan calls Saoudi the 'best front man in Europe', it's clear that he means it.
Flanagan affects a flippant air of mock-braggadocio when he discusses what future successes he expects. "When we get top ten, fuck me, I'll be right off. I want to be a proper Notting Hill twat, I'm gonna get a Chelsea season ticket and everything. No sleep 'til Notting Hill!" he announces with relish. "I think we're better than most other groups, full stop. In fact, I think we're in the top one," he proclaims later on, and in previous interviews has waxed lyrical about his desire to have Jools Holland play 'Moogie woogie' on their surely inevitable Later appearance.
Yoko Ono in the studio for The Moonlandingz
Yet however frivolous his tone, it's clear that Flanagan's confidence is no joke. He, more than anyone, is aware just what a special project the band have on their hands. "I'm not very confident in a lot of other ways, but I'm absolutely cocksure that we've got a really good album, the best album we could make now, it's a record for these times," he says. This is not, he makes clear, the way he always feels before a new release. "Not at all."
Although 'semi fictional' in construction, and often occupants of a Dadaist stylistic realm that verges well toward the comic – one has only to witness Johnny Rocket strutting bewilderedly around the streets of Sheffield in his silver cape in the vvideo for 'Black Hanz' for example – The Moonlandingz are not, in any way, a 'comedy' outfit. "It's absurdist, and I think we crank it up in terms of taking the piss, but I don't consider it a joke. It's well written, it's not a comedy band," says Saoudi.
Furthermore, Johnny Rocket's gauche make-up and hyper-theatrical stage presence makes for a strong statement about modern masculinity in pop. "It's a piss take of this idea that if you adopt an androgynous bit of makeup then all is forgiven, as if you've shaved your shameless, brutal clumsy masculinity in one fell swoop, that you put on different coloured lipstick and use flowery art school language to talk about your music and suddenly all is forgiven. I don't think it adds up to that much, not like it did in the 70s. It's so old hat yet the corpse still gets rolled out over and over again and everyone applauds."
"Music is just so far behind. It's so formulaic compared to film or literature," adds Honer. "Indie bands and rock bands are so conservative. It's always five lads with guitars. I think most indie rock bands are laughable. They're just really funny at this stage."
It's notable, therefore, that the group made a point of booking only female fronted groups as support on their upcoming tour in support of the record. "To a degree I feel embarrassed, that I, as a man, needed to stand up in 2017 and say that women are still not treated as equals when it comes to billings at live shows," Flanagan explains. "It's still a largely male dominated area, which I find totally arcane. You've just got to look at something like Reading & Leeds festival with their largely male dominated line ups, or rock up to your local band nights and you're guaranteed to see 4 Fred Perry wearing, skinny jeaned, sweaty-bollocked half-wits with not one original idea between them. I've always been suspicious of 'all male' groups, they're animals and I honestly feel they are missing out on a far more interesting dynamic by not having a woman in their band.
"Since I was a child I always gravitated to the female voice or musician, Ronnie Spector, Patti Smith, Nico, Poison Ivy from the Cramps, Delia Derbyshire, Wanda Jackson, Karen Carpenter, Nancy Sinatra, Bjork, Trish Keenan, PJ Harvey, M.I.A. all of whom are very different artists with their own thing going on, all inspiring, all as cool if not cooler than their male counterparts. The only people who have taken umbrage to my stance are male musicians."
Outside, on the moors, it's begun to snow, and heavily. Stepping outside with Saoudi for a cigarette, and to admire the bewitching Yorkshire landscape against which he stands ruminating, looking somewhat Heathcliff-esque with his dark, keen stare and long brown coat, talk returns to escapism. "If you're in a position like I'm in, when you've got a little bit of money but not a lot, it's just a really good place to be," he says of Sheffield. "I've got a studio here for £25 a week, it's even got windows. You can't get a sweaty rehearsal room for four hours for that money in London. The idea of making music here for a long stretch of time and just working on the music… maybe it's different if you're just starting out, but it's just… better. I've just got to the point where I've got more than one pair of trousers and I'm feeling quite good about that."
He's said before that as soon as he gets past Derby on his way north, he's no longer Lias Saoudi, he's Johnny Rocket. Does that feel like an escape too? "I mean, I'm not Johnny Rocket now, not in this outfit. I don't go to the pub as Johnny Rocket," he says. "I do like that whole idea of method acting though. I was in a film once, a no-budget independent film made by Robert Rubbish and I played a private investigator. We'd meet up two nights a week and he'd give me a bottle of whiskey, and my job was to go around Soho and just wear a suit and get shitfaced. That was method acting, apparently. I thought that was great, it was a nice way to escape things."
Back inside, and on the subject of method acting, one uncertainty still hangs over The Moonlandingz. Just how long can they still refer to themselves, as they have done throughout their career thus far, as 'semi-fictional'? When first created on the ERC's Johnny Rocket… album, they fit the description as inhabitants of a purpose-built fictional setting, 'Valhalladale', and ran their course within the narrative. However as the band stretch further and further away from that realm, into acclaimed albums and European tours in their own right, at some point will they have to admit they're as real a band as any other?
"I'm still gonna stick with it being semi-fictional," says Flanagan somewhat bluntly. "We can get away with a lot that way. With it being a fictional thing, we don't have to come across as too approachable, like every other band. Up to now that's kind of worked for us, but now people are demanding us to talk to them." Does he, like Lias, have an alter-ego like Johnny Rocket in mind when he performs with The Moonlandingz? He's evasive on the subject. "Well sometimes I'm Norris McWhirter."
"And I'm Brian Eno," offers Honer.
"Well that's not gonna come across very well, is it?" interjects Saoudi. "Come on Adrian, say something clever! You're never gonna get that flat in Notting Hill at this rate!"
They're a little reluctant, too, to pin themselves down as a 'Sheffield band'. It's easy, I suggest, to see them as an antidote to the lad-rock reputation the city's been saddled with of late in the wake of the Arctic Monkeys, as a successor, perhaps, to the more stylish, lopsidedly sexy benchmark set beforehand by Pulp and Pink Grease. "But we're not from Sheffield," Flanagan answers. "We're from Valhalladale." He's half-right, of course; none of the core group are actually from the city originally. As for why they all ended up here, it's little more than the lay-lines, he says. And of course, adds Saoudi, the cheap rent.
As the snow outside begins to subside, it's time to head back into Sheffield. Another journey soundtracked by bizarre electronic squalls follows – 'it's like a toaster having sex with your CD player' offers Saoudi – the moors now dimmed both by the effects of an afternoon's drinking and by the setting sun. Honer says his goodbyes, he's got family duties, while us remaining three duck into the Picturehouse Social bar, the band's 'local'. Conversation, by now a little slurred on my part at least, turns to politics.
"I was on a beach in Cambodia when Trump got in, and I was really happy about it. I thought it was hilarious!" declares Saoudi, with a sudden burst of intensity. I ask if he's serious. "You can quote it, yeah. I think I'd rather take all the suffering and misery in one go rather than have it drawn out across eight years of Hillary, that fucking cyborg. I think Trump is the president that people deserve, because they've been viciously apathetic for years. It's the culmination of years and years of shitty, shitty attitudes."
He lets loose on the coming apocalypse with morbid glee; it's as animated as he's been all day. "The way they criticise Trump now is pathetic, and all it does is serve to invigorate the side that already vote for him All this shit like Lana Del Rey going out and casting a spell on him, all these comics going up with their little skit about Trump. All they're doing is ensuring it'll be eight years instead of four. It's easy, it's like shooting fish in a barrel, why bother? How about we get on with rebuilding a viable alternative? Because Hilary wasn't it. I'd rather have a quasi-fascist. And all these cunts at the Washington Post and the New York Times saying there's gonna be an awakening on the left, well there was five minutes ago and you cunts jumped on the wrong side of it! I'm quite happy to watch these people burn up, and to stand there and laugh at them in a press conference and give them alternative facts, because it's the same shite they were all spouting for the last 12 months. So when I saw that Trump won I thought it was fucking hilarious! It's a great bit of entertainment."
I ask Flanagan if he shares in this nihilistic delight. "What gets on my nerves is you have a million people marching outside Downing Street and they're just chanting 'oggy oggy oggy!' You need to be ripping these fuckers. Protest is cynical man, they take to the streets and they say nothing but they get a selfie to prove they were there. It's not like the French when they throw cows and sheep at the parliament building. Now that's positive. You need to let 'em know!"
But does he not worry for the very future of humanity? That Trump has his hands on the nuclear codes? "Sometimes I have hope, like when you've had a pint and a line of coke that three Bolivians have died for. That little pocket of Zen just after you've had a wank but before you reach for the toilet roll. But no. It's fucked anyway. I don't believe there's any hope. We're living in an era that's death by a thousand cuts. It's over. I think we're finished. There's a part of you that can try to resist but it's foolhardy and it won't get you anywhere. I think the analysis is in as far as the science is concerned; we've reached the point of self-harm that's irreversible. There might be some hyper-elite race of humans that lives on, but you've got to get to Notting Hill to join that lot."
"And we will!" proclaims Adrian Flanagan with a defiant. morbid flourish. "With this album!"