Starting From Square One: Cornershop Interviewed

The forgotten survivors of the 90s explain to Jonny Garrett why they were never Brit Pop and deserve better than they get

20 years in the music business is enough to make anyone jaded, and there is a mature edge to Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres that sometimes comes across as cynical. Yet this apparent cynicism never shows in Cornershop’s music. Last year’s Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast is not the sound of tired musicians, but a complicated and layered record.

Since 2002 the band have been signed to their own label, funding, producing and marketing their releases. Whether they like the situation is hard to tell, probably even to them. But partly because of their independence, and partly though design, everything happens slowly for Cornershop – Judy has only just come out in the USA. Therefore we thought we might as well have a chat with Tjinder about the inner working processes of this finest of English groups.

Judy Sucks a Lemon For Breakfast is much more focussed than your eclectic 2002 album Handcream for a Generation. Was there a conscious decision to reign it in?

Tjinder Singh: No. It’s weird to look back on it and analyse it. There’s no real choice in what we do, other than what we feel when we’re doing it. If something works we’ll persevere with it and that goes for every track.

I’m still quite gutted about Handcream for a Generation because I thought it was top. Top rupee. And in a wsaZ\ay Judy… probably should have come before that album, but things don’t work that way. It would have meant that it was easier to assimilate something like Handcream…. Judy… is the crowd[pleaser] to make sure that Handcream… does well. Handcream… isn’t even ours anymore, it’s on our old label but we’re gutted. It’s still there, and the Clinton album [their side project] is there too and people do go back to them. Even the really early stuff still goes down well in America. And that makes it more interesting for us: to have stuff that doesn’t completely disappear. It’s still there, it has a life and it takes people time anyway. With Handcream… it’s taken a good seven years for people to come around to what it represented.

If I said Judy… was more of a 90s Britpop record than Handcream…, is that something you would want to hear people say?

Ben Ayres: No, not really. We never liked the term really, or felt that were actually Britpop. If anything we were more Riot Grrrl. A lot of the bands we were playing with and shared similar thoughts with were other bands on Wiiija at the time, and bands like Bikini Kill. We did play with Blur, for example, but we didn’t feel that much affinity with them.

Thinking about those kinds of bands, there can’t be many that are still going.

TS: Well, there weren’t many bands like us and I think that’s why we’ve found it so hard. Every time we put something out we have to start from square one and it’s of much regret to me.

BA: We’ve never been an easy band for people to get their heads around in terms of what to expect.

TS: We don’t even know what to expect. We find it so boring if we had to. If someone had said ‘Right you’ve done ‘Brimful of Asha’, now come out with an album of ‘Brimful of Asha’s” we couldn’t have done that. And we haven’t done that. It’s the last thing that we’d want to do, so really we can’t control what goes out or tell you what we feel when those processes are going on.

You’ve said that maybe you should have packed it all in by now. Is the success of ‘Brimful of Asha’ a reason you haven’t or a reason you still might?

TS: I think it’s unrelated. When ‘Brimful of Asha’ was big here we were in America touring, when we came back over we were rather surprised. We’re really proud of the song because it does reflect us, it’s praising plastic.

BA: It’s all about the vinyl record.

TS: I think we’re judged a bit too harshly because after that we came out with the Clinton album which is still doing very well, then we came out with Handcream…, after that we had babies and after that we came out with Judy…. That’s quite a lot I’d say. Where as someone like Norman Cook, after that what did he do? Fuck all. Absolutely nothing, and became an embarrassment to his whole backcatalogue. But that song is still going, and I think we’ve been judged a bit harshly myself.

Do you write in the studio or do you finish an album and then go and record it?

TS: Both. Everything and anything. Anywhere an idea can come and anyway in time it can be. It used to be writing stuff on beer mats, now it’s over the phone. Another handy weapon. I write all the lyrics and sort of…pass them on. Slowly. Again, if something’s done and its built if its good we carry on with it. Song structures have completely changed because lyrics have changed half way through.

If it was a case of doing the same kind of song we could be, like, ‘Lets do that song, and do it again only slower and do it again only…backwards’, but it’s not like that. I wish it was sometimes. I wish it was that easy but it’s not. It’s quite the trick.

One of the things is, we’ve always had control of everything, we’ve been on big labels, small labels and our own one. We weren’t too happy with them were we, our own label? But we’ve seen groups that we really liked move onto other labels and sounded shit because they haven’t had the budget or they’ve been produced by no one and need a producer. We controlled everything. I was producing for us within the first EP, and certainly within half of the first album. So that’s a way of not sounding like anyone else, but in that respect we try too hard to make every album its own.

Is making an album a daunting prospect for you then?

TS: It is. The last one was very daunting because at the time we’d done the bubbly kaur stuff, we’d done the Rowetta stuff and we were just about to start the new album and the music out there was all guitar based and drums. We did fit into that and we didn’t even want to when we first started out. So we’ve had to wait to put it out. We had the album finished and we waited before it was dropped. By parachute. Very slowly. If this album had come out two years earlier it would have gone down like a lead balloon.

So what changed that made you think last summer was the time?

TS: I think music has gone a little more diverse in where it’s looking. Look at Lady Gaga – not that I like Lady Gaga – but the ideas that are there in one song are a lot more varied than something like Franz Ferdinand have done in one album.

BA: It’s hard to define exactly what made us think it was the right time, it was just a lot of disparate things.

TS: I think I was off crutches by then. Mentally. I was being wheeled about before. Mentally and physically its been a hard trek and like I say everything has been started from square one, every time we put a single out, or an album out. And that’s just not good enough for us. That’s why we persevere. We should have given up years ago.

BA: For example, our percussionist is a story unto himself. He started off getting into bees and being a beekeeper, and he was a shaman.

TS: He left the band to go to America and came back before his luggage got there.

BA: And now he’s a nurse. Watching open heart surgery on a daily basis.

TS: He still plays with us. Not every gig though.

BA: But it’s good to have a medic around.

TS: I wouldn’t trust his hands though.

Reigning it in for a second, is the next album already done?

TS: Yes, it was done a year ago. We are waiting in the bushes, for a change in the calendar year. We were going to put it out in the summer, because it’s a very summery album but we’re going to put it out next year because Judy… has done much better than we thought it would do and it makes no sense to move on. It was out in June, and we got it out in America less than a month ago. Interest hasn’t really waned and for that to happen with an album nowadays, it’s pretty good. Its been nine months and people are still interested, so we’ll concentrate on that and then drop a totally different album next year. It’s fusion for a start. Every track is different within itself and what other people do. Its got Punjabi vocals and is very different to what the Asian network play… it’s not RnB.

Before then we’ve got ‘Operation Push’ [the new single, taken from Judy…] which we all really like. We like the politics of it and think it’s really different. We’ve got a video for that which will come out next. That’s quite a few singles. It’s why the album’s done so well, because there are quite a few strong songs on there.

So what did you expect from Judy… when you released it?

BA: We released it ourselves, without any marketing basically, on our own label. A lot of our efforts were put into researching how to release it in a way that we were happy with and using partners we were happy with – the distributers and aggregators. That was the hardest bit actually. So to have actually achieved the success with the press reception and sales means we’re really pleased.

TS: In terms of what we thought we were going to get, there was no real thinking on that. We’re not like Paul Weller. We can’t just come out with an album and everyone think it’s great even if it’s a bit crap. That’s just how it is.

BA: It had been so long since the last album that the music industry was very different to those days. The markers of success are just unrecognisable now, but we’re really pleased with how the record’s done. I think we’re our own harshest critics when we’re working on songs and sometimes it does take a while until we’re completely happy with what we’re putting together. We want to make sure that it can at least be better than the last one.

TS: I think it goes back to the start. If you start independently money is a problem and your only critics are yourself. Unfortunately that’s stuck with us. We wouldn’t mind if we went into the studio and did something in six months, or six weeks like Daft Punk did, and that was a terrible album, then they deserve it. They know they deserve it. If we’d put an album that we did in six weeks we’d be more than happy to take the consequences, but we try to put a lot extra in and being harsh on yourself is part and parcel of that.

As an independent band you must rely on the internet for marketing. Do you think its the way forward for music?

BA: I think it’s one of the few ways that music can actually make sense. Although a lot of attention is drawn to people stealing music, or being given it for free, the other side of it is that you can reach a bigger audience without spending a huge amount of money on marketing and other stuff.

TS: We’ve been selling stuff on our website for over a year now, not through an aggregator, just ourselves so I think we were quite quick with that. We’ve got to augment our website, which is what we’re doing now, and make it better. In a way things like Twitter are so fast websites need to be amended that fast as well.

And what are your views on legal streaming like Spotify?

TS: Well I think they’re cunts. I don’t give a shit how fucking groundbreaking it is, they will be talking about how great it is for artists but really it’s how great it is for the people who own the records, not the artists. The artists don’t get anything. Artists are as marginalised as we were in the 50s and its ridiculous. There was a thing in the Guardian talking about figures with Lady Gaga downloads. She was given £850 for a million record downloads. I just feel sorry for the young artists because they’re being trodden on and trodden on and trodden on.

We’re on Spotify because that’s what our aggregator Orchard does, but we advise people go to our website and listen to music there. But that’s not what Spotify’s about. Spotify’s about having a disco in your own house free of charge. That’s good, but it’s also nice for the people helping you with the disco to be paid. And I don’t think they are.

And can you see a way out for artists?

TS: No. There are so many of them but they’re so sporadic, whereas unions like the Musicians Union, who are a bunch of cunts, are more compact people. ISPs are compact. Artists are so sporadic that they can’t get it together to do anything and the bodies that are there to help them are really just middle men to the bodies that aren’t there to help them.

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