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A Quietus Interview

There Is No Perimeter: John Robb Of The Membranes Interviewed
John Doran , June 8th, 2015 08:22

John Robb met up with John Doran in Manchester recently to talk the Higgs Boson, trilobites, dub, death, love and the spectacular rebirth of the Membranes

“You can hear what an album should sound like in your head before you even record it… I wouldn’t have put this album out if it hadn’t ended up sounding like it did in my head. Because at the end of the day, it’s nice if everyone else likes your record but you have to like it yourself. That’s the most important thing. If you put a lot of time and effort into it and you don’t like the end result because you’ve run out of time or money, it’s heartbreaking. It has to be right. Other people think you’re mental. They’ll be like, 'You’re insane. You haven’t got any money… why are you spending even more cash on this project?' Everything about this record is ludicrous, it’s a double album about the history of the universe made by a band from 25 years ago. It’s not had EMI crawling over hot coals to put it out. It’s a bit like a painting. You make the painting. It has to be a certain way. It has to be exactly as you want it. Then you put the painting in your attic and get on with your life. And if you’re lucky, in 100 years time, someone might find it and like it. [LAUGHS] It’s the insanity of creation… [SIGHS]” John Robb

Whatever you think of chiselled motormouth and snappily dressed, hardworking gentleman of punk John Robb - I would defy anyone to try and prove that he doesn’t do things for the right reasons. Essentially anyone attempting such a foolhardy task would be on a hiding to nothing. Part human, part guided missile of DIY righteousness, he’s showing no signs of veering off course even though he's now into his sixth decade on this planet. An average day might see him championing the kind of underground bands that most urbane, fly by night critics would baulk at evening mentioning let alone supporting, working on a music book, running his website Louder Than War, gearing up for the release of a 7” on his record label of the same name, planning acts for his spoken word festival Louder Than Words, appearing as a pundit on television and fronting one of the two bands he plays with regularly, punk and soul rockers Goldblade and original square peg in round hole post punks the Membranes.

Of course, none of this protestant busy-ness is necessarily any indicator of talent or quality. And on paper, it’s hard to see how he fits all of this effort into his working day, before we even consider if he makes a good fist of any or all of it. However Robb simply puts a lot more effort into what he does than nearly any other person I've met. (Joking about the amount of time he spends working each day he says, “I hate having to sleep. Just think of all the other things you could do if you had those extra four hours a day.”)

So when it was announced that the Membranes were releasing a new album - some 26 years after their last studio record To Slay The Rock Pig - the news generated a mixed response. The band formed in Blackpool in 1977 and by the 80s were releasing forward facing, indignant, riotous post punk and experimental noise rock but never really got the kind of record label support they deserved, meaning some short lived popularity, a hell of a lot of promise and notoriety in the mid to late 80s was never capitalised on and they kind of fizzled out of existence by 1990.

Inevitably they reformed.

Their old mate Kevin Shields asked them to get back together for ATP’s Nightmare Before Christmas festival at the end of 2009. Robb insists the decision was an easy one to make, albeit a counterintuitive one: “ Most bands eventually reform don’t they? I had that mindset where I would say, 'I’m never going to reform.' But then I ended up thinking, 'I wouldn’t mind doing it actually.' And then we were offered some good money… because My Bloody Valentine asked us to do their ATP. We thought it would be a pretty good gig to do and it was nice of them to ask. So there was enough money to set the band back up again. Because it costs a bit of money to reform a band. We thought that we would only play four gigs a year and just do it as a little thing. But then I thought, 'I don’t want to be in one of those bands that just goes around doing the old songs.' Which panicked us like mad at first. But we don’t really have any hits so it didn’t matter. And it was a great opportunity to go and make music. It was completely free form, there weren’t any rules or restrictions. I think if a band reforms it should be the spirit of the band that are reforming - and it wasn’t in the spirit of the Membranes to learn a load of old songs. It’s easy for bands to drift into being really standard but the idea of the Membranes was that it should be pretty free form. When we play songs they tend to change every time. This was what we were trying to do in the first place. So once we reformed the spirit of the band the whole idea made sense and writing news songs was dead fast after that.”

So far so standard. But the thing about Dark Matter Dark Energy - which is out on Cherry Red now - is that it’s a great LP. It should be shouted from the rooftops that it is much better than a Membranes LP in 2015 has any right to be. But also it should be shouted that it’s much better than the vast majority of post punk, underground, noise rock albums I’ve heard this year and that’s regardless of how old the groups are or whether they’ve been away for any amount of time or not.

Despite its title, Dark Matter Dark Energy is corruscating with light and rattling with ideas; it’s thrillingly bizarre in parts - sounding as much in thrall to Gong, Steve Reich and Chrome in some parts as much as it is to Shellac, the Stranglers and Bauhaus in others.

But in the paragraph above from Robb (he’s a quote machine - it’s a pleasing trait of some of the few souls who work extensively on both sides of the musician/journalist fence) I’ve spotted what I will politely call a white lie. I don’t actually think the album is essentially about the history of the universe at all. Don’t get me wrong, the lyrics (and even some of the music) do ostensibly concern the Higgs Boson, dark matter, the big bang and other such issues but really this is just a metaphorical framework for an album about love. Love for his father who died during the recording of the LP, love for his partner Maria, love for his band and love for punk and rock & roll itself.

I meet up with John Robb in the palatial bar of the Palace Hotel near Oxford Road station in Manchester. He’s there before me - he’s always early, he’s never late. He looks up from his tablet where he’s tapping away, no doubt working away on some brand new venture… plugging every free last minute of the day with work. He looks great of course. The bastard. His suit jacket may have only cost £5 from a charity shop but he looks as much at home in this bar as he would do in the dingiest of Manchester’s gig venues. But then, as one of his many maxims has it: “Sharp clothes, sharp mind.”

Dark Matter/Dark Energy is a title that is open to numerous interpretations - what are the key ideas that you’re trying to get across with this title?

John Robb: The idea developed from when I did a TEDx Talk in Salford three years ago after I met Joe Incandela from the CERN project. He said he was a big fan of the Buzzcocks and wanted to know about them and in turn I asked him to tell me about the universe. It was a trade off conversation. And he told me about the whole thing in 20 minutes. The beginning, the middle, the end.

But what’s more mind-blowing? The story of the Buzzcocks or the story of the universe?

JR: [LAUGHS] To him? The story of the Buzzcocks. He went to school with Laurie Anderson in this small town outside of Chicago and she ended up writing a theme song for CERN. It must be a town of high achievers. What intrigued me most out of what he was telling me was about new developments in the theory of dark matter which I already knew a bit about. He said that when he started at CERN they thought that dark matter made up about 8% of the universe and now they think it’s about 85%. So it’s gone up quite a lot. The phrase he uses which I really like is, “The more we find out, the less we know.” Fuck. That’s such a great phrase. When you think about the edge of the universe - whether there is one or isn’t one and what it would actually be like is actually more psychedelic than any experience you can have taking drugs I think. The conversation we had is what I would regard as truly psychedelic. We thought a discussion of these kinds of ideas would make for a great gig. So we did the Universe Explained gig at [Manchester venue] Gorilla. Joe couldn’t make it so he sent another scientist, Professor John Ellis. And as soon as this guy turned up with long silver hair, long silver beard and T-shirt with the Higgs Boson equation on the front, I said to myself: “There’s a scientist.” He looked like a Fleetwood Mac roadie. So I interviewed him about particle physics before the gig and he told me he was really into The Beatles and The Kinks. But after the gig - and this is the coolest compliment I’ve ever had - he bought all of our CDs and got us to sign them all saying we were the best band he’d ever seen. And I thought, “Does it get any better than that?” A CERN scientist liking your band, it’s the ultimate five star review.

So how did this show become the album?

JR: At first I wanted to do an album called The Universe Explained but then I thought that Dark Matter would be a pretty good title because the music was pretty dark and melancholic. A lot of Northern music is like that isn’t it? All the great Northern bands have that streak of melancholia to their music. The Stone Roses are quite melancholic in a weird way and Joy Division are obviously. Although Joy Division by the same token can be quite euphoric. I think a lot of people in the North saw Joy Division as being just a great rock & roll band like The Stooges. They didn’t mope around to it. You know the score - you’re from round here. You know what it’s like, it rains all the time and everything looked crap in the 80s. And then my Dad fucking died half way through the recording and that cemented that side of it.

That must have had a massive impact on the way you were working.

JR: Yeah, it did because it took a year [for him to die] and he had to go to a nursing home; we had to watch him decay. It’s kind of weird because everyone goes through it and the older you get the easier you think it’ll be... and he was 94. A lot of my friends had lost their parents - some of them in their 40s not in their 90s and that’s far worse but it doesn’t make it any easier. It’s hard watching someone who used to be a big massive bear of a guy shrinking down until you can almost put him in your pocket. He became this tiny little thing. One day in the nursing home he was watching this cartoon, Scooby Doo, saying what a nice dog it was… I was like, “It’s not a dog, it’s a cartoon.” I was just thinking when we were kids he wouldn’t have let us watch Scooby Doo. It’s ironic really that he ended up fascinated by this dog. He had dementia which I guess when you’re that old is the best thing that can possibly happen. You haven’t got a clue where you are. But his long term memory was brilliant so I’d ask him about growing up in the East End. I’d get the iPad out and show him old pictures and he’d remember every building on every street. His memories of the war were spot on but he couldn’t remember ten minutes ago. He’d be like, “How come your mother doesn’t visit me.” And I’d say, “She’s here now. She was sat with you ten minutes ago. She visits twice a day.”

What did your dad do?

JR: He grew up in Poplar in the East End. A lot of people call it the Milwall Estate or the Scottish Estate. His father was a Canadian who worked on the cable ships. He was in England for three days and shagged my grandmother. [LAUGHS] It’s amazing really, when you think about all of the stuff you’ve done in your life, it’s nothing compared to what your grandparents have done. She had more sex than everyone else in the family put together. [LAUGHS] But because she was Catholic and this guy was a French Canadian Protestant they weren’t allowed to marry. So that was that and he never met his dad.

Tell me about the sample of your Dad on the record?

JR: Well I was recording him when I was going into the nursing home because I kept on thinking, “This could be the last time.” So I wanted to keep a record of it. So one day I just recorded an entire conversation like this for about an hour long because I wanted to have a record of his voice and we just talked about the universe. So I thought it would be really cool to put a little piece of him on the last track on the album ‘The Hum Of The Universe’. But the idea of the song is that everything goes back to the dust of the universe in the end. The song is about dying. The album opens with the creation of the universe and ends with end of the universe. It sounds like a bit of a proggy concept but I like the way it kind of goes round in a full circle. I’m not bothered if anyone else notices that or not; I only did that to keep myself entertained. But that’s supposed to be how the universe ends… with everything collapsing in on itself. However Joe Incandela isn’t quite sure how the universe will end because the collapse theory actually changed while we were recording the album.

The idea that there will be a big collapse doesn’t hold water any more does it?

JR: Yeah, gravity isn’t strong enough to hold the universe together.

So it just keeps on going outwards?

JR: Yeah, it just keeps on going. And if we were still here in a billion years - say if the sun didn’t expand and then collapse itself - there would be no stars in the sky any more because they would be too far away to see. But really, a lot of the stars we can see aren’t there anyway. They ceased to exist ages ago but the light is still travelling towards us.

It hurts my head thinking of that many stars all travelling at different rates that literally none of them will be visible to one another any more.

JR: That’s not even the most interesting thing I talked to him about. He told me that they’re pretty convinced now that this is just one of a very large number of universes - that the multiverse theory is actually likely. Of course, they’re not saying that this is true because that’s not how they operate. They come up with an idea and then spend ages trying to prove it’s not true. It’s the absolute opposite of music journalism where everyone’s 100% sure that they’re right with little in the way of proof. I think you get two camps of scientists - the long silver haired, philosopher types who probably took acid in the 1960s and dream up ideas and the practical scientists who try and prove them wrong.

I bet it always kicks off at the scientists Christmas party.

JR: You can say these theories are bananas but the laymen - us - are usually thinking of them in the wrong way. So you can ask an astrophysicist about the edge of the universe but he’ll just say, “Why are you thinking of this in terms of edge?

I was with British Sea Power at CERN and they asked a scientist what was at the edge of the universe and did it have cushioning properties, like jelly.

JR: It’s hard to get your head round the idea but it bends round into itself. You’ve taken acid John, you can probably imagine it.

Well yeah, that’s the problem I have with this stuff… it makes just about enough sense to be terrifying but not quite enough for me to fully understand it. But really the jelly question isn’t that daft is it? I believe that Professor Stephen Hawking grinds his teeth in frustration if someone asks him what happened before the bang but any scientist I’ve spoken to said it’s fair enough to ask. It might be gauche but it’s fair to ask these questions I think.

JR: Yeah. You know what’s great about scientists? They love explaining really complex ideas to people who don’t have a clue. They’re really brilliant at explaining things. When we did the Universe Explained shows after the scientist had explained the Higgs Boson and particle physics. And at the end of it, this girl put her hand up and said, “Is that the same as meteorites?” And you could hear everyone in the room go, “Oooof.” [WINCES] But he explained it to her beautifully and succinctly. And he didn’t patronise her at all. And everyone else in the room was like, “Thank god she asked that question because it made us feel slightly less ill-informed.” [LAUGHS] And anyway, I can help you with the before the big bang question. Time comes out of the big bang so there simply is no “before” the big bang because it was the big bang itself that created time.

While we’re getting the science out of the way, can you explain succinctly what the Higgs Boson is?

JR: It’s the smallest particle they’ve found so far.

They get a massive cob on if you call it the God Particle don’t they, because they’re all atheists…

JR: Not as angry as Richard Dawkins gets.

He’s only angry it’s not called the Dawkins Particle. OK, so obviously you already knew a bit about particle physics before you did this album but was the most psychedelic and mind-expanding thing you learned?

JR: The idea that infinite is actually infinite. The more you learn the weirder it keeps on getting. But the whole album isn’t just about the universe, that’s just the framework for it. The whole band is really fascinated by this stuff. It’s not very rock & roll when the Membranes play. It’s not like we’re ever back stage going, “Phwoar! Birds!” We’re usually talking about the universe. Or trilobites.

Musically, the album both is and isn’t what you’d expect from a new Membranes album. So it kind of is a post punk album and there are other reference points that you might expect like Fugazi and Shellac or Amebix, Fudge Tunnel and the Butthole Surfers… But on the other hand there are a couple of really far out pieces on there. How difficult is it to marshall all of these different styles together and have it not be a mad man’s breakfast?

JR: Well, it took ages to do because I was a real perfectionist about it. I was driving myself mad. I would hear it all in my head - I knew how it had to go. Some of the songs were made to fit gaps that suggested themselves. It was a back to front way of making it. But some of the stuff was purely jammed. Because the band were so hot, it just happened like that. Some of the tracks are the first takes. I know there’s that stigma about bands jamming in the studio but that’s only for bands who can’t jam. If you can it’s amazing though. It’s kind of the opposite of punk rock really. We have an innate understanding of what the parameters are. So it’s not messy and self-indulgent. We all understand what it has to sound like ultimately. Everyone knows when to drop in and out. It’s quite a beautiful thing if you can do it. And some of the words were straight down as well which was good. So I guess to some people it might sound like a mad man’s breakfast but it doesn’t to me.

I don’t think it does sound like that. I think it sounds of a piece. It fits together.

JR: Yeah. I know it sounds pretentious but it almost sounds like a classical record, where it ebbs and flows, and becomes loud and violent and quiet and instrospective.

Have you made one of those pre-punk rock records that’s obsessed with space? Have you made a Space Ritual type of record?

JR: That would be a real high compliment because that’s an amazing record. I love Krautrock but I hate the way that Hawkwind have been written out of that equation when they’re the British Krautrock band. Hawkwind were innovators and they’re still great live now. But the Lemmy period was the best. He won’t play the intellectual card because he’s a self-taught man but he’s very clever. But we are tainted by punk. Punk is very important to everyone in the group… we’re part of that community. And if people say it’s not a punk record, well who says it’s up to them to define what it is?

I remember when you opened your set at Christmas at the 12 Bar with that track ‘Do The Supernova’ - and that’s a punk song isn’t it?

JR: I guess you can say it’s in the punk idiom although it’s probably more of a post punk song in that it’s built entirely round the bass guitar. to me the key instrument was the bass guitar. When I was a kid I didn’t even understand what a bass guitar was but after punk and especially post punk it became the key instrument. It’s the easiest instrument to write a song on. But once you get the hang of it and know what you’re doing it’s amazing. The pure sound of it… so jagged… so heavy. It’s a key definer of my favourite bands - from The Fall to the Stranglers to Public Image. And dub reggae as which we used to listen to endlessly.

Does the technique of dub creating sonic space help push the idea of physical space across?

JR: That’s a nice way of putting it. A lot of dub was about space or at least it felt like it was. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry always seemed like he’d come from outer space. There is a dub influence on the album even though we don’t play reggae. I like the space it offers. That’s the thing about punk, it’s very claustrophobic and cluttered and everyone’s playing all at once. But we wanted the space for instruments to drop in and out. And another thing about post punk is that every instrument is playing lead. You can follow all the main instruments at the same time in post punk. But when I talk about post punk I talk about the wider version of it – so Gang Of Four and The Fall of course but also Bauhaus and Killing Joke, the bands who get written out of the equation. I’m actually writing a book about this because they were very experimental bands but because they dressed up a bit they tend to get overlooked. When I meet young students now they don’t know about those bands. Simon Reynolds’ book [Rip It Up And Start Again] is fantastic but it’s only half the story. I love what he writes about and what he says but I just wanted to say there’s industrial music and goth music as well. I don’t like the term goth but it’s shorthand for something you understand.

It needs to be said. I like Gang Of Four and really rate Entertainment as an album especially and I love tracks like ‘To Hell With Poverty’ but there is no way they were more sonically progressive than Bauhaus. No way at all. Even the most cursory examination of both bands will reveal this.

JR: ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. What a song. They wrote that song three weeks before they recorded it and they only formed four weeks before they recorded it. They went into a studio, recorded it, pressed it up, Peel played it… It was amazing how instantly it happened but also how developed it was. The sense of space that song has. What a weird bassline. It’s like a dub reggae bassline but just slightly off. And Daniel Ash is such an incredible guitarist but because he was pretty, wore make up and had loads of hair, he never got taken seriously.

If only Daniel Ash had looked like an employee of Foxtons on dress down Friday then perhaps people would have taken him more seriously…

JR: [LAUGHS] I guess some people simply assume you can’t be both things.

OK, to act devil’s advocate for a second – of what practical use is it to know about the multiverse? I sometimes feel like the more I read about this stuff the more full of anxiety I am. Isn’t it probably better not to know about it?

JR: Of course! Wouldn’t our lives be simpler if we were only interested in getting drunk? But it’s not like that is it? I want to know everything. I want to know what every brick in every building is made out of. I want to know what everything is built from. The most frustrating thing is they’re never going to come up with all the answers before I die. When I was a kid I remember reading about the idea of us going to Mars in 1975. I remember thinking, “I can’t wait that long!” But that was 40 years ago and we still haven’t been… I wanted to go to Mars. That was my dream. That’s what I wanted to do in 1985. Now you just have to dream it up in your head.

But that’s for the best isn’t it? We all know now that Mars is actually like Rhyll when the sea is all the way out. Just a massive beach.

JR: Well it’s also beautiful as well. It has the highest mountains.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see those ten mile high canyon walls with the really fast winds travelling down them… but from a safe vantage point.

JR: I like the idea that it’s covered in rust because of the oxidisation and that it was definitely covered in water at one point. They’ll find weird fossils on it one day. It makes me laugh that people think just because we’ve looked in an area of about ten feet squared and not found any fossils that means there are none. That’s the thing about planets… they’re planet sized.

I’ve only ever found one fossil on this planet and that’s after spending ages looking on beaches that are famous for their fossils.

JR: Where was that?

Ravenscar. It’s a tiny beach in North Yorkshire. You have to cross a golf course to get to it. In Victorian times before they put steps in, there was no access and it was a shale beach that had trilobites infilled with iron pyrites. So imagine being the person who found that – a black beach with golden trilobites.

JR: Are there any there?

They’ve long since gone. I found a tiny bit of a trilobite - but in stone, not in fool’s gold.

JR: I buy trilobites. I’ve got about 20. It’s actually another band obsession. The Membranes is really just a bunch of middle aged guys who read National Geographic too much. Trilobites were one of the most advanced creatures on the planet. They lived for 30 million years and were one of the first creatures that could see with their weird compound eyes.

And yet, despite the clear, slow progression in trilobite evolution over such a considerable amount of time, you still get people who believe that the Earth is only 10,000 years old. Even if you only had one different type of trilobite per month elapsed, that would still make it older than 10,000 years…

JR: Why do people still hold on to that crap? It’s clearly just some bullshit that someone made up two thousand years ago. And all the evidence proves that it’s wrong. When I was speaking to Joe Incandela it got quite spiritual at one point, even though he says he’s an atheist. He said that for life to happen on Earth and for the universe to even exist about 100,000 unlikely things all had to happen in exactly the right order because without that it would collapse in on itself. He said it was almost as if there were a hand moving things around and it almost made him spiritual thinking that. So if you wanted a spiritual get out clause as a scientist that would be it.

I’m not an atheist. But I also don’t believe that there’s a god up above making animals and throwing them down to Earth and I don’t believe we were created - especially in anyone’s image but I do see enough order in the universe that I can't explain to comfortably call myself an atheist. I’m a pantheist. Or a sexed-up atheist as Dawkins would call it.

JR: There is no order though is there? It’s just chaos. Or if there is order it’s an uncomfortable and short-lived order. It’s like a cease-fire in the Middle East… it never lasts for longer than a few days.

So the album is yet more proof – were it needed – that you don’t see punk and psychedelia as mutually exclusive things.

JR: I think punk was psychedelic. I’ve tested this theory with magic mushrooms to try and find the greatest psychedelic band of all time, which ended up being the Beatles weirdly. It’s such an obvious one to say. I know some people say Roky Erickson… and I love Roky Erickson… but it’s garage rock it’s not really that psychedelic. He wasn’t a very well person because of psychedelic drugs but the music was more exciting rock music than psychedelic. Never Mind The Bollocks is an amazing psychedelic album. It’s like having your head set on fire. It’s so well produced. Rotten’s vocals are psychedelic. They wanted Syd Barrett to produce the album. The original demos had loads of castanets on them and backwards guitars and things. They actually made a rudimentary psychedelic record and the link between the two things is not as obscure as you’d think. And the hippies and the punks weren’t as far apart as you’d think. Johnny Rotten was selling acid to Lemmy in the Roundhouse in 1973.

I like Simon Reynolds’ point that in order to make that T-shirt that said: “I Hate Pink Floyd” Rotten originally had to own a Pink Floyd T-shirt. I asked him where he got the shirt from and he said he stole it from a market stall but I don’t believe it.

JR: He probably loved early Pink Floyd and hated what they became though – except that’s not quite as catchy on a T-shirt. But I’ll tell you what one of the worst albums to listen to on acid was: Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart. It’s one of my all time favourite records. We had to get it off the turntable after half an hour, it was doing our heads in. It was like having your head tied in knots because it was so complicated. The Stranglers are great on psychedelic drugs.

Well The Stranglers are quite proggy aren’t they really so that makes sense. Musically they were so much more sophisticated than nearly all of their contemporaries weren’t they?

JR: They were older, came from different background and had been playing for longer. But they were also a genuinely aggressive malevolent punk band. They weren’t putting it on. I think they’re the most underrated band ever. It still blows me away how odd their records are. You think, “How did that get into the top ten without anyone noticing how weird it was?”

The earliest song I recognise off the album is the track ‘If You Enter The Arena…’ which doesn’t really sound like an old Membranes track because it doesn’t have rudimentary electronics and samples and stuff like that but by the same token it’s also a link to your past. You made a video to go with it really cheaply didn’t you?

JR: Yeah, it was £30 to make that video. It’s not the same song because we re-recorded it for the album. Like with most of the stuff we do, it was DIY. We’ve got no money so we had to do everything for nothing. It’s got a loose theme of gladiators about it but really it’s about if you go out in public you’ve got to expect… it’s almost like being on stage is a type of gladiatorial contest. It could go badly wrong and you could get mauled by the lions. So it’s a song about picking yourself up really. That’s another thing we’re all interested in is Roman and Greek antiquity and Neolithic stone circles. We have to do everything cheaply because we’ve got no money. Cherry Red put the record out but they don’t pay for me to go into the studio - I had to save up for the whole year to do it, I’ve never been so skint in my life. Luckily someone in America heard the demo and liked it so much they gave me an advance. Most people hear how much I got and say, “Oh, is that all?” But to me it was like… “Shit!” So from that I’ve almost paid myself back for making the record. Luckily for me Maria [his partner] is a very patient woman. [LAUGHS] I actually live like a 16 year old. When you’re on telly all the time people think you’re loaded. When people see me at the flats that I live in, they say, “What are you doing round here?” And I say, “I live here!” They think you’ve got a massive house in Cheshire just because you go on BBC Breakfast for one minute every so often.

You muddy the waters by dressing someone who has a few quid though. It’s the opposite of a band like Blur who are millionaires and yet still dress like they’re skint students.

JR: Well, my jacket’s pinstriped but it only cost a fiver. It’s another hangover from punk. Punk was all youth cultures at once. So there was a hippy strand but also there was a mod strand as well which meant you had to dress sharp. It became synonymous with a scruffy look but initially all the bands dressed well. All of the bands in 1977 looked great.


JR: ... is the number of stars you can see in the sky. Well, according to my friend Kerry McCarthy MP anyway. But it’s such an interesting idea that I didn’t mind if it was true or not. It’s actually a romantic song… it was about one time when I was standing there with Maria and she was saying, “Look at the stars.” So it’s a love song… but a bit warped!

This song’s quite progressive… what did you make of that mad panic that everyone had three years ago? All middle aged music journalists all flipped out at the same time - ‘Oh my God! It’s all been done before! What are we going to do?’

JR: I’m so lucky I don’t live in London. I don’t ever have these conversations. I just wander round in my own world. I mean, yeah, you never hear anything so utterly brand new that you don’t know what it is but there are still microshifts the whole time and that’s what punk was, a microshift. Punk wasn’t much different from the the Dolls and the Stooges who weren’t that much different from the Kinks and the Stones. I think it’s harder to make an impact now because so many people are making music but you still hear stuff that makes you go, ‘Wow.’ I still get that feeling: ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ Also, this argument comes from a very North American, British, Jamaican perspective. All the people who complain about this stuff are never usually referring to African music, Middle Eastern music or the weird edges of black metal are they? Just dance and guitar music from America and the UK.

So tell me about the lyric, “I’m an unapologetic, middle aged, fucked up, 21st century man.”

JR: It’s my autobiography! You wrote a whole book John but I’ve condensed the same idea into one sentence. Essentially it’s saying why should we have to apologise for who we are. Also, it’s an answer to people who say, "Why don’t you do this or that?" This is how the music comes out; we’re not going to apologise for it. Also it’s saying that we’re fucked up - all artists are fucked up. So what? We put that song down in five minutes. The whole thing. One go. It sounded great, we recorded it and that was that.

Membranes are playing a special Dark Matter/Dark Energy launch gig at Deaf Institute on June 19 along with Evil Blizzard, Faerground Accidents and Kill Pretty