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A Quietus Interview

This Is War: John Robb Of Goldblade Interviewed
Ged Babey , May 20th, 2013 08:10

As Goldblade prepare to unleash their ferocious sixth album, The Terror of Modern Life, Ged Babey asks mob orator John Robb why the Punk Rock Wars will never be over. Contains a stream of four new Goldblade tracks

Main photograph courtesy of Melanie Smith

John Robb probably never sleeps. If he’s not touring the world with his punk rock hooligan soul band Goldblade, he is writing. His books include the official Stone Roses biography, an Oral History Of Punk Rock and others on Manchester and pop-culture. He also lectures, appears on TV as a talking head and is involved in various campaigns, not least the Justice Tonight tour. Famously he coined the term Britpop and was the first UK journalist to write about Nirvana.

He runs Louder Than War a music culture website with a broad remit, but founded on the punk rock principles he sets out in the site's manifesto .

Like Henry Rollins he works out daily and like Adam Ant he don’t drink/don’t smoke and abstains from drugs. Now over fifty he shows no sign of slowing up. He is quite possibly the hardest-working man in punk rock. He seems to be driven. His writing retains a fanzine-writer’s foaming-at-the-mouth zeal and he seems to have an unwavering, evangelical passion for music as a force for good. On top of all this, last year he found time to reform his noisenik 80s band the Membranes to play ATP and a few Euro-dates.

In the interests of full disclosure I am one of a hundred or so unpaid volunteer contributors to his website Louder Than War. But I’ve never actually met the man in the flesh, or indeed fully clothed.

How old are you now John?

John Robb: I'm 51 and 52 in May.

What does it say on your passport, under occupation?

JR: Journalist. Sadly putting down ‘musician’ causes too many problems with the clichéd idea that you might be some sort of drug smuggler because you play music. They should search the bags of the so-called respectable people instead!

Brazil, Russia, Algeria (the first rock band to play there for 25 years) Goldblade certainly are globetrotters. Do you make a point of venturing where other bands fear to tread?

JR: Ha ha, that much is true. Algeria came about because I met this woman at a music conference in Morocco and she was from Algeria and she took us round record shops and got me loads of great music to listen to. She was involved with a culture magazine and introduced me to her friend who was in a black metal band from Algiers City. I got pretty intrigued by it all, especially when she said no western rock band had played there for years because of the civil war and I said, "Cool, count me in." A few months later she emailed and said, "Are you coming?" And I said, "Hmmm there's been a lot of bombings there and I worry about my band" and she said, "Are you a coward?" which sealed the deal.

It was a lot of hassle to play there, I went to London to get the visas three days before the gig but the embassy had fucked them up. The night before we were playing in Dublin, still not sure if we were going or not and she rang up and said the government had forced the embassy to open up on Saturday morning to sort our visas. So we played Dublin, got straight on the overnight plane to London. I got the tube to the embassy, picked up the visas, got to the airport and met the rest of the band, flying out with ten minutes to spare. And after all that, the airline forgot to put our guitar on board. We arrived in Algiers airport and there was no one on the customs, someone had to go and find a customs guard!

Amina, the woman who sorted the gig out had to make frantic phone calls to find a Les Paul in Algiers. Not as easy as you think.
The gig was in a 600 capacity jazz club and we went straight there, deranged with exhaustion by this point - we'd had no sleep for 40 odd hours - but buzzing at the insanity of it all. There were cops with machine guns on every street corner. We got to the gig and there was one bottle of water and some dates for us, we were so hungry that we could have eaten the table! But when we hit the stage it was great, the audience knew our stuff from Youtube and were really energetic, jumping around everywhere. We made loads of great friends.

That night Amina and her friends stuffed us full of pasta and then drove us around the deserted city with its grand French Colonial architecture and we looked over the bay deep into the night. Now that's a fucking gig!

The slogan on Goldblade's website is Still Fighting The Punk Rock War. Surely the war is over, aren’t you the equivalent of those Japanese soldiers deep in the jungle who don't know the armistice has been signed?

There is truth in what you say but we really believed in some of the stuff we got from punk rock. We were the punk rock generation and it did affect us but didn't rule us. I don't spend my whole life listening to punk rock, it's not a musical style anyway, it's the idea of DIY and making and doing stuff and being empowered enough to believe you can make a difference. It's working without limitations and it’s about the energy of ideas, it's as much about writing a two minute rush of sound to me as running the Addis Ababa marathon this autumn or acting in a film next month because punk rock taught me that there were no barriers and no rules. That's the punk rock war we are fighting.

Look, we are the sort of band that when it has problems getting visas for America will then start a successful campaign to change the rules that ends up with a high powered meeting at the American Embassy. This is a band that does not fuck about and is certainly not entrenched in some mythical past. We are probably closer in spirit to bands like Killing Joke who were certainly a punk band but had their own version of what was going down which set them on a path that they remain on or the primetime Stranglers; awkward fuckers who made up their own rules but could also write melodic songs. For some punk rock is now cardigans and warm real ale, for some it's sex, style and subversion, for others it’s Americans in expensive brand shirts and tattoos, for others it's none of these things and for others it doesn't matter.

Goldblade undeniably put on a rabble-rousing show, and have written some great anthemic punk rock, but there is a core to the songs which is basically the UK Subs–style, generic, ramamlama, monosyllabic shouty chorus – the lowest common denominator…

For a start I'm not ashamed of being compared to the UK Subs, they are a great rock & roll band and Charlie Harper is one of coolest people you will get to meet on the live circuit, with so many great stories (he was the first ever fan of the Rolling Stones and friends with Brian Jones). They have put out loads of albums, changed their line up endlessly and not changed their sound much, but then so have The Fall and they get patted on the back for it.
We do write punk rock anthems but that is only part of our sound, we also do lots of other stuff and the songs are full of things that are not so obvious, the new album has songs like 'The Shaman Are Coming' or 'Someone Stole My Brain' - neither of which could be described as clichéd punk rock songs and the title track is us making heavy dark drones with our e-bows. Equally there are fast and furious punk rock rushes which, if we were an American band, we would be on the front page of Pitchfork for doing and getting told how clever we are!

Lyrically we are far, far from monosyllabic and don't follow any rules. We are doing our own thing but that gets overlooked because our type of music is treated with disdain by some people and we don't look 'poetic' - you know the media idea of great word writer - a beery looking bloke (always male - women are never allowed in the genius club and if you look like a rotund version of Brian Wilson you are definitely in) with sub Fall lyrics. Our lyrics are clever and complex and darkly funny and we know that and that's enough for us really.

I listened to [Goldblade debut] Home Turf the other day. A magnificent, over-ambitious flawed masterpiece. You were very into Iain Svenious’ The Make Up around that time I guess and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?

We are always over ambitious. That album was very varied and way beyond the Make Up and Jon Spencer. We liked those bands but in many respects they were contemporaries of ours as well. It's not like we had just started playing in bands at that time and looked to whatever was hip in America to copy! We were also into punk rock, hardcore, free jazz, dark soul, psychedelia and onwards, I'm not that easy to pigeonhole!

I have to say that the eight minute title track on the new album stands out with its sludgy drone rock intro and outro.

Some people will love it, some people will hate it, but it had to be done and it's my favourite track as well, along with the album opener 'This Is War'. It's a very dark piece but we live in apocalyptic times and that has to be reflected in the music.

It is certainly the darkest, heaviest of Goldblade's albums, but retains a positivity and uplifting energy. It has a distinct Membranes feel to some of it sonically and production wise. It could almost be an Albini co-production with the late Vic Maille.

Reforming the Membranes infected the music with its dark DNA. The Membranes are like a virus that infected a lot of people in the 80s and now they have infected me. 
I started playing the bass again for the Membranes and it made me force the poor bass player in Goldblade into playing the heavy bass porridge style, which I have always loved. This is the bass science that me and Steve Albini spent all night chatting about decades ago, discussing the Stranglers' Black And White album, which quite possibly has the best bass sound ever. Once we got the bass sound back for Goldblade, the whole album fell together - Pete the guitar player is playing out of his skin on this record. I'm in awe of his guitar parts; it switches from power to plain weirdness to great little licks to sing along with. Rob's drumming is great as well, really inventive but you can still dance to it. But it’s certainly no straight 4/4 and again underlines the fact that we are a punk band that doesn't play trad punk. Albini is a great recorder of sound and that first Shellac album [At Action Park] is one of the best sounding rock records ever. When I first met him he told me he really liked the Membranes from years before and I realised that what he had done was take our noisy scratching and turned it into science in Big Black and into perfection with Shellac. With the new Goldblade album we have made a record that is nearly equal to that.
 It was a tough record to make, we had to record it twice after falling out with the original label which meant we had to spend the whole of the New Year period recording it all again, but that worked to our advantage as the band was really hot by then.

The guitar playing is indeed top-notch. I assume you realise Pete adapts Holst's 'Mars The Bringer Of War' for 'Someone Stole My Brain'?

JR: Of course. It's called a quotation. If you hate a band it's called a rip-off and if they are cool it's a quotation! We have always loved the darkness of that piece of music and it fitted into this jam we were having when I was playing a heavy bass line getting some real bass porridge together with brother Rob on drums and Pete made the guitar fit, it all took about ten minutes to come together and the words came fast, but not in a knocked out kind of way of course. It just sounded great, really dark and ominous and it all fitted together and helped set the mood for the whole album.

I can't place what he re-arranges for 'This Is War'. Is it some kind of old film theme or a Gene Pitney song, like 'Town Without Pity' done Dick Dale style?

JF: That's not a nick at all, it just fitted the song perfectly and bounced off the bass line that I had more than anything, not everything is second hand! Quite a lot of the stuff is actually made up but it's great if everyone comes up with a different reference point.

Bands like Wire, PIL, the Stranglers, the Bad Seeds, Nightingales, Subway Sect & Goldblade too, are all in their fifties, as are newer bands like Kill Pretty, the Fallen Leaves, yet they are still making, arguably their very best music. The punk generation simply will not lay down and die. Do you feel a sense that they are raging against the accelerated passing-of-time, its a one-last-attack on culture or whatever before its too late?

JR: I think it's fairer to say that there are also lots of great young bands out there as well: Bluebottle Veins, Velveteen Saints, Fawn Spots are three great young bands straight off the top of my head and there are many more, we write about them all the time on Louder Than War. What’s interesting is your point about the punk generation not lying down to die. I was thinking this as well when I watched the Stranglers on their recent tour. They are sounding fucking great and are defying all the odds and have turned themselves into something special deep into their career. All the bands you mention are doing their best work and we personally believe that this Goldblade album is the best one that we have done. It's the darkest and meanest sounding and the bass is the sound we always wanted. There is definitely a sense of raging against the dying of the light and maybe for my generation rock & roll is still central to our culture and the way we express ourselves. We still believe we can change the world with a bit of noise and we know that we have done already. There is no backing down and no compromise.

Your work-rate is astounding. The amount of written material you put out as well as touring, recording and lecturing. I guess the laptop and wi-fi on long train journeys is essential? (Not like the hefty old secondhand typewriters we had In our bedrooms in the 80’s.)

Ha ha! iPad power! I get criticized for bigging up Apple and they are frustrating in that they are losing their edge and they act like a typical corporation in many respects, but I don't know anyone who can make me something similar that I can write and do my creative stuff on and carry around the world! I'm actually answering these questions whilst sat on a train returning from Parliament after a big meeting with the unions about putting together some big shows this summer. I travel all the time and live on trains because I can't drive! I hate keeping still, I hate being stagnant, I get bored really quickly and have to be permanently transfixed by beauty and madness.

Do you have time for relationships, what with your work & travelling?

JR: Of course, I've been going out with Maria for twenty years and she is amazing, putting up with this kind of life and that's one of the reasons I love her.

I wanna get to the point John; what makes you so insanely driven… have you tried to analyse it, get to the root of the… I was gonna say problem, but its not a problem is it? Were you ever diagnosed with ADHD as a kid? Is it Manic depression without the lows and just the mania?

I think [I'm] fringe bipolar, I do yo-yo sometimes but creating keeps the dark stuff away, I'm sure a lot of people feel like this, the creative high is so amazing that once you are there you don't want to let go. When you feel inspired you glow with the energy and you want to share it and that feeling can last for months and years on end. You can hear loads of music in your head or you start writing and it pours out, it’s a superb mania and is coupled with an impatience with the slow lane.

Do you ever self-edit or do you just write in one continuous splurge and re-read once before publishing? Also, you always seem unerringly ‘positive’ in your criticism, always looking for the good in everyone, no matter how objectionable or arrogant they may be…

I do actually edit loads but time gets in the way, I like writing that is a rush of ideas though, rock & roll cannot be analysed and boxed away. It defies compartmentalisation endlessly, that’s its beauty. You don’t have to be an academic to make great music, the light could just pour out of you. When you read academic writing on the magic stuff it always misses the point, it never gets the sex and danger does it? There have been some negative pieces on the site but I only write about stuff I love. I don't have time to slate the millions of records I don't like, I just want to hear the next great thing. I also don't care what the people are like who create the stuff. As much as I love the righteousness of Crass I can equally like music made by people I would not want to spend five minutes with. The whole idea that musicians have to fit a check list that you have to agree with is pretty strange to me and the goal posts shift endlessly. Band A is discarded because they are sexist but Band B can be even more vile to women and that's ignored.

There have been some petty criticisms of LTW; too much bias towards Manchester & the same bands again and again (Roses, Adam Ant, Stranglers)…

There is a bias towards Manchester because I live there, that's quite funny actually. no-one goes on about a bias towards London on every other site even though there is one! Manchester also has a very dynamic music scene, perhaps the most dynamic in the UK with almost 40 venues that have gigs most nights. In the long run it’s unimportant as we cover music from all over the world, we are not regional and we are certainly not provincial, as we hate that term, we are not anyone's province!

I'm not apologising for covering the Roses, Adam Ant and Stranglers a lot - those bands are great and do lots of stuff, we also cover other bands a lot as well. It's a website people can pick and choose what they want to read and no one has to pay for the content. I believe in democratic writing and I also would never delete comments that slag me off even the ones that make stuff up and lie under made up names!

Is it true that when you were hosting some event in Westminster an MP said to you “You have the worst mohican I’ve ever seen!” or something like that? Weren’t you tempted to deck him? Why mix with these people?

Ha Ha! There's a bit more to that story. I introduced the MP's band and said they looked like dads dancing at a wedding and that was their reply, which I didn’t hear them say as I was talking to Tom Watson about the Clash. Later on someone told me and I thought it was funny but they were serious. You can't really say that MPs are 'these people'. They are all very different from each other; one of my best mates is Kerry McCarthy who is the MP for Bristol. She is vegan like me so we bonded over that and she has great music knowledge; better than most music journalists, and she had been a very big help in the visa campaign and several other things we are working on at the moment. MPs like Tom Watson, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham are good people and genuine as well. It’s not all moats and birdhouses in there. A lot of anarchists I’ve met can be really selfish; a lot of these people simply offer an ineffectual chattering class critique of the system that they're part of!
I want to change things and not sit around moaning, I have an opportunity to change things and I will take that opportunity.

What have you got planned for the rest of the year (and beyond)?

There are these big gigs in the summer, more will be revealed soon… There is a really off-the-wall Membrane’s gig coming if we can get the funding, the Goldblade album and tour and festivals. I can’t wait to play the album live - that's where it's really at. Louder Than War will expand, there's a book about the Justice Tonight tour coming out and a couple of other book ideas on the go. A conference in Istanbul and one in Ethiopia, a big Louder Than War festival that's getting planned, some music that is not Goldblade stuff... I feel a creative surge coming on...

For more information on Goldblade visit their website, their facebook page and their MySpace

The Terror Of Modern Life is out now