The Shadow Of Death Hangs Over It: Bomb Sniffing Dogs Interviewed

A band featuring Mark E Smith's ghost writer, an ex-member of The Fall and Bill Ryder-Jones' guitarist are genuinely great and commendably angry, says Fergal Kinney. But should they really be punching in and down instead of out and up?

Composite band image by Natalie Curtis

I’m sat in the upstairs room of Manchester’s antiquarian 18th century live music pub the Castle with The writer Austin Collings and Liam Power, guitarist for Bill Ryder-Jones and vocalist for Liverpool group By The Sea. For over a decade now, Collings has occupied a position in Manchester culture – initially as co-author of Mark E Smith’s Renegade, and more recently as a managing partner of crucial Salford nexus the White Hotel. Collings and Power – along with former Fall member Elena Poulou – make up Bomb Sniffing Dogs, a new project who are the first artists to be released on the White Hotel’s own imprint, marking a new development for the venue. In Collings’ own words, the White Hotel is "the most positive thing coming out of Manchester, or the North". That’s a statement it’s wholeheartedly easy to agree with. As one learns though, that’s not always the case with Collings, a seasoned provocateur.

Bomb Sniffing Dogs found its genesis in two particular deaths – the passing of Mark E Smith in 2018, and the passing of Collings’ elder brother at the start of this year. Poulou met Collings while he was working on Smith’s memoir; Poulou was married to Smith, and played keyboards for The Fall from 2001 to 2016, a period that included an astonishing mid 00s purple patch of wildly underrated records such as Fall Heads Roll and Imperial Wax Solvent. Collings and Poulou were united in working through grief, and remained in touch during this period.

Collings had been working on a short story – a bildungsroman gone wrong, about his own formative years, possibly set in an alternate or former incarnation of Salford. Suggesting that he was frustrated at the slow moving publishing industry (“an army of obfuscators and people whose job it is to make things not happen”), he became convinced that the story would work best as a piece of recorded music. “The timeline is relatively quick” he tells me in the Castle. After three weeks of writing, he recorded the vocal track in one take at the White Hotel’s cramped studio space, noting the “mould growing on the walls. I could see it growing as I was speaking the words.” Once his part was down, he sent it to Poulou and to his friend Power, and asked if they were interested in composing a piece of music to accompany it. They did this remotely between the pair’s respective Berlin and Liverpool homes, making liberal use of the file sharing service WeTransfer.

“It was a very sad and dark time, but we kept on sending this music back and forth” Poulou tells me down the phone from Berlin. “I think of (Mark) every day, he was so sweet. I don’t really listen to The Fall now, I don’t know, but we have to think about what Mark would have wanted. And he always wanted to move onto a new project, and I’m like that too. Next song, next lyric, next something new. We have to carry on.” She laughs, imitating Smith, "Oh pull yourself together, there‘s work to be done!"

Bomb Sniffing Dogs live by Ben Jackson

The first track on the split 12”, ‘Word Wall 2’, is the main product of that process. It apes kosmische, the side of German music that leaned more towards the spiritual – Popol Vuh and La Dusseldorf. Ritualistic, a commemoration. As Collings’ narrative continues, it spiders into motorik disco, also introducing Poulou’s vocal, speaking Collings’ text.

“It’s a revenge against death” Collings suggests, comparing the track to the 1990 Fall track ‘Bill Is Dead’. "Mark was up against it then, and I’ve always thought about that. The best way to come back is by doing something. Instead of wallowing, you come back with something.” 

“It was kind of like a director and two camera operators as far as I was concerned, and I like that” says Liam explaining his role. "I like being told what to do. It’s very much Austin’s piece this, the music is secondary to the lyrics, it compliments it but the big thing is that he’s written it. And I don’t mind that. I think it’s a great position to be in.” 

The B-side of the release is ‘The One Show’; a much more elusive, fragmented piece of work. Where ‘Word Wall 2’ makes use of structure, which builds and recedes, this is much more scattergun. Collings suggests that it’s best approached as a podcast, with Collings as documentarian. In this respect, he says, it’s not unlike Gordon Burn’s 2008 novel Born Yesterday, an experimental piece of autofiction that treated the news reports of the summer of 2007 as a found object.

“Last summer you had this barmy summer that was a bit like the film Do The Right Thing” Collings explains, “England in the World Cup, the fires on the moors on Winter Hill, the kids who were stuck in a cave. It’s a great documentary in and of itself. And a lot like Born Yesterday, it’s capturing a period of time, but not as a novel, as a piece of music.” There’s a child singing ‘Dancing In The Dark’. There’s an extended interview about the Yorkshire Ripper and Morrissey with Paul Blake, a Manchester face who performs as a ‘sincere homage’ to Morrissey around Britain. There is a sample of the words "Who killed William Doyle?" repeated on a loop. And this is where this feature becomes tricky.  

If you aren’t aware, William Doyle is the electronic artist who previously operated under the moniker East India Youth – this month, he released the solo record Your Wilderness Revisited. He is a longtime friend of, and contributor to, this website. When I interviewed Collings, I questioned him about the line but, as is his prerogative, he wouldn’t be drawn on the motivation behind the lyric.

William Doyle, it doesn’t need pointing out, is alive, so to ask the question, "Who killed William Doyle?" is implicitly unpleasant – Doyle could be justified in finding the sentence threatening. It’s clear that Collings has taken issue with Doyle at least. Feeling that I hadn’t pushed the issue sufficiently when we’d met, I emailed him about the issue. His reply was as follows: “I dropped WD’s name in it in the same way MES uses Fred The Weatherman’s name or a rapper will call out a rival. In my WORD WALL book, he is the faceless face of a type of music that exists in a smug miseryverse of fashionable puritanism. I remember seeing him ‘play live’/wallow in the non-event of his own event and he seemed so proud of his own Apple glow. Has it come to this? Had I come to this? Where was the show? Here was the equivalent of sticking headphones on somebody and telling them to look through an office window at people on their computers. In fact, that would be more thrilling and artistic.”

To which, I can only really wince. Why? Leaving to one side the anachronistic attitude toward musicians working with computers in 2019… The music of William Doyle, the writing of Austin Collings, the venue the White Hotel and the website you’re reading this on are essentially up against the same enemy. The same, utterly boring assaults that face most independent cultural outlets under late capitalism in various ways affect all of the above. Now, this doesn’t make anyone immune from criticism, but I hope you’ll forgive me for rolling my eyes to the back of my skull at the idea of Doyle being a legitimate target. And for what? The crime of puritanism? Not being sufficiently confrontational for Collings’ tastes? I’ve no idea. Collings invokes Mark E Smith in his email, and The Fall have obviously been one of the most widely discussed topics on this website, but this doesn’t equate to using Smith’s name to ask for a free pass – indeed, on these pages very recently John Doran wrote a feature that discussed in no small depth the ideas around offence and hipster racism in the work of Mark E Smith.

There’s another line in the release that deserves mention too, a reference to “LGB Tits”. It beggars the same question as the Doyle namedrop, which is, are these really the best targets we can think of? If nothing else, Collings is obviously aware of the power of words and all of the different contexts and subtle (and not so-subtle) meanings they have. There’s either an especially grubby, gender essentialist point being made in that line, or it’s a criticism of people who see themselves as LGBT+ allies. To which again I would ask, what on earth is the worst possible thing you could say about those activists, the worst crime they’ve committed? Liberalism? I did not know that the culture war had undone so many.

A digression – very recently, I took my younger sister (who lives in London) to the White Hotel. It was the first time she’d ever been, and I was genuinely thrilled by her response to being in there, she remarked unprompted on the range of people who were in the building, and how it ran counter to the majority of safe, one-off, bland cultural experiences offered in the capital. Collings knows the sheer power of that sort of thing, and that’s far more thrilling than essentially snide digs at pretty innocuous targets.

It’s frustrating too, because at a time when free speech and dangerous ideas are being used as a blue touch paper by some of the most egregious people in politics – people who actually only care about having the freedom from critique – the White Hotel has generally been pretty much on the money when it comes to hosting provocative and close to the bone programming, with an emphasis on crime and power (last year they staged a re-enactment of Princess Diana’s funeral featuring Jonathan Meades as Earl Spencer, whilst recently they’ve screened Emily Maitlis’ interview with Prince Andrew). So they know these ends can be achieved without sounding like a fusty reactionary forgetting who the real enemy is.

And it’s frustrating too, because ‘Word Wall 2’ is a genuinely excellent, inventive record, made all the more moving by how successfully it’s infused with a spirit of commemoration of people close to the artists who are no longer here.

‘Word Wall 2’ is out now via The White Hotel label

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