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In Conversation

North-South Divide: In Conversation With David Peace & Luke Haines
Stuart Evers , October 4th, 2013 05:52

Stuart Evers speaks to the rock 'n' roll auteur and Faber's superstar author about the role of the outsider, the shadow history of music and mining nostalgia

For two of the most uncompromising, iconoclastic and often artistically obtuse English artists in any field, David Peace and Luke Haines are wonderful company. We meet on what seems like Haines’s turf. The backstage room at the Lexington is scrawled with graffiti from over-excited members of rock n roll bands. There is a fridge full of cold beer, guitar cases, a battered couch which still has cigarette burns through its upholstery. Writers don’t tend to hang out in such rooms, but Peace isn’t the usual kind of writer, and has fans the way musicians do rather than a "readership". Later he will read – brilliantly – from his new book Red or Dead and the audience will react with same kind of applause they give to the material from Haines’s new record, Rock and Roll Animals.

The two are emblematic of a different side of Britishness, an awkwardness born of being both insider and outsider in their respective fields. They sit outside of fashion, outside almost of the prevailing ethos of their time, and create work that feels vital and original, work that seems more substantive than many of their contemporaries. And yet for all that, they’re still wonderful company.

I was at your publisher's today...

Luke Haines: My who?

Your publisher – Heinemann.

LH: Ex-publisher. They're not doing the next one.

Did you offer them the new one?

Luke Haines: Yeah. I think there was a problem in that no one had really heard of the Pink Fairies.

Did you put it to Faber?

LH: They were pretty keen but it was too close to the Julian Cope.

David Peace: It'd be a very different book obviously...

LH: It would be, but I can see the from the layperson's point of view.

DP: What's the book?

LH: It's going to be called The Revisions.

DP: Which is a really good title.

LH: It's sort of - it's taking the accepted view of rock history, the canon, and it's rewriting it. Not in a way that's saying "this is untrue," but it's from a more personal point of view. You get all this stuff about The Shadows possibly being the first psychedelic band... it's that kind of thing.

Have you actually written it?

LH: I've written three chapters so far. It's all in my head, you know.

DP: Is it going chronologically?

LH: Well, it goes from a certain record that I bought - it starts out with, say, for example, A Collection of Beatles Oldies that I was bought in 1978, which is one of the first chapters and it goes on about my love affair with The Beatles and falling out of love with The Beatles.

DP: Why did you fall out of love with The Beatles?

I wondered if we'd get in to that...

LH: [laughter] Oh God. I... don't think I could deal with the comment section on The Quietus, with Beatles fans. If I start going below the line...

DP: That's the only bit that I bother reading.

LH: The bottom half of the Internet's got a bad reputation, but actually it's by far the superior bit.

So, would you say there's a kind of "shadow history," then?

LH: Kind of, but just from a personal point of view. Also just kicking out the idea that we never need to have another piece written about London Calling. It's a pretty simple idea, it'll be quite tangential, it'll just fly off. There's a kind of interesting bit - this meeting between Hank Marvin and Timothy Leary. Stuff like that.

In terms of the concept of "the outsider," whether fictional or not, being an outsider but looking in on things and not being fully accepted as part of those things - perhaps like Shankly is at the end of this book and certainly Clough is at the end of Damned Utd. - is there something to be said for that? Has the outsider got a different eye to someone who's already in the centre of maelstrom of things at that time or place?

DP: Well, you don't think 'I am an outsider', do you?

LH: No, you don't just wake up and think 'I'm an outsider'.

I just wonder if it's an interesting position to be in? The reason why I say that is that I often think about Orwell as the ultimate insider-outsider in that he doesn't really belong anywhere. I just wondered if that has an interesting effect - if you're writing a song or writing a book, if the position of an outsider is an interesting perspective?

LH: I don't know. I'm more a devotee of the imagination - or something like that, really. I've kind of made jokes about the outsider thing, you know, when I was doing my sort-of-amateurish paintings, which I can kind of get away with because I could say, 'well, it's like Outsider Art'. But I'm sort of cheating there in a way, because I went to art college - so it's not really Outsider Art and I'm not particularly an outsider. I did this thing, a series of albums, called Outside of Music and when we went and looked at some of the comments, below the line – the good bit of the Internet, the actual bit - people were saying 'he can't call it Outsider Music, he's been on a major record label!'

DP: Yeah, I was actually just going to say that. Back when I was being rejected by every publisher in the UK I'd have looked at someone, say, on Faber with a nice review in the Guardian and thought 'you're on the inside, my friend'. So, not to put words in your mouth, but looking back, we've both done things set in the Seventies for example. From that perspective you're outside of time and the place trying to understand: that gives you that position of 'outsider'. It's a little different from what we were talking about, but there's that. That's something that, with Luke's music and my work, that I think we have in common – that fascination with the place and time.

LH: We are rather stuck in the Seventies...

DP: But not in the spacehopper, Curly Wurly kind of way.

When I was writing a review of Red or Dead I said that it's a novel set in that nostalgia honey trap between the late-Fifties and the early-Eighties which is home to so many aspects of not just pop culture, but actual "proper" bits of culture and endlessly fascinating. But how do you mine that without reverting to kitsch or nostalgia?

DP: Like the Blue Nun thing – in Hollywood TV programmes trying to recreate the Seventies and Eighties instead of saying 'would you like a glass of white wine?' they say 'would you like a glass of Blue Nun?' which no one ever did – that's a pitfall to avoid.

LH: Or bin bags...

DP: I think it's a little bit too easy... It's much much harder, what Luke pulled off in Boot Boys or Baader Meinhof.

LH: Yeah, well, Baader Meinhof was... just the subject matter and the actual music had really nothing to do with each other. There was just a total cut.

DP: Yeah, exactly. No one thought of doing a concept album, for want of a better phrase, around that time.

LH: No concept album's good – I like concept album – I don't shy away from the concept album. When we did the North Sea Scrolls Cathal [Coughlan] was over in Cork and he was doing some festival and one of his favourite Irish singers was there. And he was in the pub afterwards, talking to these guys, and he said, 'What other things are you doing?' and he said 'I'm working on a song cycle'. He said 'It's not a fucking song cycle, it's a concept album.'

Having written The Damned Utd. straight to another Seventies iconic football manager, was there a moment when you thought 'should I even be doing this?'

DP: I wanted it to be as unlike The Damned Utd. as possible. I tend to write a bit against the last thing that I wrote.

LH: I've done that – certainly the Rock and Roll Animals album is probably a reaction to the North Sea Scrolls - the fact that it lasts thirty-two minutes rather than thirty-two fucking days. And that was deliberate: there was something about the scrolls... it was very masculine. Not in a derogatory way but it could have been seen, perhaps, as a little bit "three guys in some sort of gentlemen's club". And so I wanted the Rock and Roll Animals album to be a little bit more feminine, which is why I got Julia in on it and why Sian, my wife, plays recorder all over it. It's a much less masculine record. Maybe it's only me that notices that. But it was a reaction.

Is there a specific imaginative process of mining the factual to create fiction? Is there something that's sort of alchemical about taking elements that are, say, individually searchable, if you like, and then putting them in to a story?

LH: I think that makes it sound quite grand being alchemical. I don't know: it's difficult to talk about - if I'm really honest, I just pick up a guitar and I have an idea and I get stuff down.

DP: And I just pick up a pen.

LH: I just, I remember with the wrestling album - I think the first song I wrote was a song called 'Gorgeous George' and I just wrote it and it all just came out and I didn't have to think about it too much, because it was all just about Kendo Nagasaki's manager. There's not even that much information on him, not even in the days of the Internet when there's information on everything. There was nothing much I could find, so I just made it up really. And it was just an idea of him: it was more of a song about a very simple idea - about bullies, really. Hence there's some kind-of-childlike imagery about Gorgeous George, you know, 'Gorgeous George got a ninja to avenge all bully teachers'. It was more about this camp guy who was perhaps an outsider. Whether Gorgeous George woke up everyday and thought he was an outsider I don't know.

DP: for me, obviously, I knew I wanted to do Shankly and then I really enjoyed that run to the library every morning and going through all the papers and all the figures and fixtures all the language and politics of football reports.

You're both uncompromising in theme, in that you only do exactly what you want. Have either of you ever felt like that's held you back in any real way?

LH: I mean, no, I don't think you have any choice about it. You're just getting it to what you need it to be. It's never really been an option for me to think: 'well, I'll try and write this or that' - I've never said that thing of like, 'the next record's going to be the one, mass market.' It's not an option when you think about it. The only time I've ever thought about that was for entirely different reasons, when we did the Black Box Recorder album which had 'the hit' on it. We did it deliberately with Sarah [Nixey] because we felt bad. I've said it before and it's absolutely true - it was an act of chivalry from John [Moore] and my self: we felt bad that we'd taken her out of this world of employment that she was in, where she was making good money, and kind of forced her to be in our strange little art band and we made an album called England Made Me which didn't really sell.

Everyone I know had that record; everyone. And I thought it was like a really big record.

LH: It probably sold about 15,000. When it came out it got great reviews ... but it didn't do anything. But it set it up for the next one and we knew we could do it, that we had one chance to give Sarah that hit record and as soon as we got that it got to the point that we were being asked to do ridiculous interviews, 'what have you had to eat today' that sort of thing, and I thought 'I really can't fucking be doing with this. I don't want to do this again.'

David, have you got to that point now? I mean you have had an intensive publicity schedule haven't you?

DP: Yeah, but I haven't done it for four years, you see. So I don't see that in terms of compromise.

But in terms of what Luke's been describing do you get to a point where you think 'oh my God I might never write another book again if it's going to be like this'?

DP: I just come back. You know, I went so long with not being published and when 1974 was first published I was reading to a man and a dog. I've been with Faber now for around twelve years - I know Anna and Lee and I know how hard they work on the books and I think if you don't really go in to bat it makes their lives harder.

LH: And, besides, it's your book. If you write a book you do want people to read it and you're also aware that, you know, if I've done an album about Jimmy Pursey as a fox... I'm not a deluded person, I'm well aware that perhaps fifty-thousand people don't really want to buy that. But there isn't any point that I thought fifty-thousand people would like that - I didn't know if fifty people would like that. But I didn't care because it had to come out of my head, it's as simple as that. Otherwise it would just have been stuck there.

DP: And I think that thing about compromise and all that - being with an independent publisher, you're not really forced to do anything. We were talking about people we know that have been to conglomerate publishing. I think we've been lucky that we can do what we do.

LH: We're both very autonomous, you know, and that's good. And we're both in our forties: you kind of get harder to work with - 'I don't want to be in a band anymore' and 'I don't want to have arguments with record companies telling me this or that' - it's either my way or the highway. Ah, I was looking for that cliché.

With music perhaps it's a little more difficult, you know, David as a writer entering his glorious middle age - but if you're a pop star...

LH: I'm not a pop star! I was never a pop star.

DP: You were on Top of the Pops - you're a pop star.

LH: I'm just a rock and roller - only a rock 'n' roller. It's a weird thing, actually because you're absolutely right, but I'm writing stuff now that I couldn't have imagined writing when I was twenty-five or twenty-six. I couldn't even have gone near it. I like a lot of the old records I did, I think they're good, but lyrically I think some of it's a bit...

But aren't you also lucky in a sense also that there's a golden age for older rock and rollers?

LH: No one's expected to grow up anymore, especially in the world of the London media world, for want of a better word, because I don't really consider my self to be in media world - but then I'm doing an interview with you so maybe I am more than I think. But that kind of ageism has gone, but then I'm not sure that's a good thing either. I don't know - I'm confused about that. Occasionally I think, 'you're forty-five and you're still doing this'. That would've been quite weird some years ago but now it isn't. Everyone's fucking 45.

It's actually quite difficult to work out who is what age and who is supposed to be what - who is "young". I mean you [David] were on the Granta list – Best Young British Novelists 2003...

DP: Ten years ago.

We've just had the new one out and most of the people are pushing forty. Forty doesn't sound young - thirty years ago they were the young vanguard and now everyones evened out and we can be younger any kind of age.

I've got a quote here 'god bless the great North-South divide' … what does the North-South divide mean to you?

LH: What does it mean to me?

What I'm really getting at, I suppose, is sense of place - you both have such an amazing sense of place in all of your work... how important is that?

LH: I'm quite "placely" - constructing this, well, kind of silly mythology of Walton-on-Thames, which is where I was born and lived for a few years, just because I got sort of fed up with the endless stuff about Manchester, Liverpool - people don't tend to refer to the Rolling Stones as a Southern band, but if they came from Manchester we'd hear a lot about the Stones from Manchester. But they're a proper southern band.

DP: When I was going through the Liverpool bands, the Manchester bands and the Leeds bands - the Leeds bands didn't like the Manchester bands and then there were the Sheffield bands - but it was never "Southern bands" it was "London bands". Bands like Killing Joke would be "London bands".

LH: The North has a very strange conception of London - that London is something even more, or less, than what it is: a place where real people live. It's not entirely full of media people... there's quite a lot of real people.

I think Paul Weller said something about how all the great music started from the suburbs looking for the City...

DP: Growing up outside of Leeds we saw ourselves as very separate from Leeds. People who'd move in to Leeds would always “change”. Leeds is peculiar anyway - just the structure, the political structure of the police, you know we have the Leeds City Police and the West Riding Police, it's all peculiar to that place.

Red or Dead by David Peace is out now, published by Faber & Faber and Luke Haines' Rock and Roll Animals is out now on Cherry Red Records