To The Future Or To The Past: The Strange World Of… The Rebel

Oliver Cookson sits down with Country Teasers frontman Ben Wallers to discuss ten points of entry into his extensive discography. They also talk "shit production", Kool Keith, Pink Floyd, fear of nuclear annihilation and his infamous 'Spakenkreuz' symbol

Still taken from the Spakenkreuz film

"Politics is beneath the plankton". This was one of the many rules of the White Feather Club. A "piss-taking" drinking society formed by Ben Wallers and his Edinburgh University cohorts in the early 90s, of which he was appointed Club Secretary. His job involved taking minutes by hand as he got progressively more intoxicated, then reading out the typed-up transcripts at the following meeting. At first glance this rejection of politics may seem juvenile and facetious. It was. However, it’s also a rule that effectively captures the complexities and contradictions inherent in the music and attitude of the Country Teasers frontman, better known these days by his solo moniker The Rebel.

His music, like all forms of art, is inherently political. It deals with issues of racism, homophobia, misogyny and morality. Yet, he approaches these subjects not by belting out earnest protest songs with supposed sincerity. Instead, Wallers assumes the character of the racist, the sexist or the homophobe, satirizing these abhorrent attitudes from the first-person perspective of the perpetrator. His music is politically charged but at the same time almost apolitical. The character he plays as The Rebel is ‘above politics’. He works from the starting point that he, the artist and we, the listener are in agreement over the unacceptability of the attitudes he is mocking. Put simply, "we all know racism is bad". Therefore when he, as The Rebel character, uses certain language or seemingly revels in the distasteful elements of his lyrics, he does so with a view to undermine and ridicule human folly, and to shock the listener into taking notice.

As a white man from a privileged background (Wallers attended the independent boarding school of Harrow) his gleefully provocative lyrics and the comedy he derives from politically incorrect subject matter could easily be interpreted as insensitive, vulgar and by some people, as indefensible. However, in his mind, he is within his rights to do and say these things because his satirical intentions are noble (at one point during our conversation he takes out his dictionary and reads aloud the definition of satire to me). He is undoubtedly convinced that his deeply entrenched sense of morality and equality, his disdain for (yet fascination with) white culture, and his sincere desire to "smash the patriarchy" justify his use of bigoted language within his art.

However, the point at which the fictional viewpoints he adopts intersect with his own personal experience and social commentary is where his work becomes particularly interesting and potentially problematic. There is often an uneasy blurring of the perspectives he hijacks and of those filtered through the privileged prism through which he views the world. This means that the listener is not only forced to question their views on ‘taboo’ subjects but also the limits of satire, humour and provocation through art. His lyrics take the audience right up to the line of what is considered socially or even artistically acceptable, forcing them to confront and cite for themselves the boundaries of artistic expression and navigating both their own moral maze and ethical stance in the process. 

Having studied the great satirists of the 20th century (Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks and William Burroughs) from an early age, he tells me: "Everything should be looked at with an ironic eye" and suggests that good art has a kind of in-built morality to it, regardless of its creator. In fact, he argues that the personal flaws of some of rock & roll’s greatest innovators (Lou Reed, Mark E Smith, David Byrne, John Lennon) were in fact integral to the creative process. "The more unpleasant the person, the better!" he tells me with a glint in his eye. "I think there’s a watertight argument for ignoring the fact that these guys are bastards because the art we like as a culture is a reflection of the fact that we’re all bastards. We’re a bunch of wankers but we have this great thing, art, which reflects who we are. Look in the mirror! You’re evil yourself!"

When the "cleverest boy in school" turned Ben onto The Fall via John Peel in the mid-eighties, he (like many of his generation) was hooked. Religiously recording Peel Sessions during ‘prep time’ at Harrow. His discovery of obscure, esoteric music like that of Pussy Galore, The Shadow Ring and the criminally underrated Datblygu led him to a lifelong obsession with 4-track recording and ultimately inspired him to play in a countless list of similarly unusual bands. To name just a few, these have included Country Teasers, The Male Nurse, The Stallion, The Company, The Devil, The Beale and his now-solo project The Rebel.

Wallers started recording his own music in 1989 but wasn’t entirely happy with the results. He describes it as "bedroom, downer music". Upon hearing Tammy Wynette and The Carter Family he says: "I felt country music would lend to discipline to what I was doing. You had to have verses and choruses that rhymed and scanned. It was a good platform to pervert. If you spill out your guts over this template, it’s not quite as indulgent". Country Teasers’ sound and concept was fairly simple. It used a template of discordant, twanging country riffs as the foundation for Ben’s bitingly satirical spiel. "I think I kind of decided to get into country because it was like the most obnoxious angle you could have and I would be the coolest guy in Edinburgh. Which I was!" he says glibly.

Ahead of his upcoming Australian tour, under the glow of a McDonalds sign on the wall of the basement of his current east London studio, I sat down with The Rebel to discuss his albums, the use of satire in his lyrics and the misanthropic anger much of his music seems to be venting.

Country Teasers – The Pastoral – Not Rustic – World of Their Greatest Hits (1995)

After forming in 1993, their debut LP was Country Teasers at their most raw and primitive. However, the title was Wallers’ attempt to distance the band from the garage-punk "oiks" they were increasingly associated with.

Ben Wallers: The pastoral in literature is man conquering nature, whereas the rustic is the wild and the romantic. So the ‘rustic’ in the title refers to the punks and the ‘pastoral’ was us, the sophisticates. It wasn’t really an album with a concept though. It’s definitely simplistic and I wanted it to sound a bit ‘hick’ but I wanted to make everything as confusing as possible too. That’s really important in art. If everything’s really obvious and you get it straightaway you get bored with it, so you have to make things difficult.

I can’t let you get away without discussing ‘Bitches’ Fuck-Off’. How much of those lyrics come from genuine anger towards women and how much of it is satirical?

BW: It’s impossible for me to give an accurate answer because I wrote it so long ago and my lyrics come out quite automatically. I don’t know if I was satirizing anything. I think I was just capturing how I felt when I wrote the lyric. I don’t care about the people that might take it completely at face value. You shouldn’t take anything at face value. The whole point about being ‘woke’ is that you’re aware of all the angles. I could be a misogynist but the problem is I’m a feminist too.

Country Teasers – Satan Is Real Again (1996)

On Satan Is Real Again Wallers’ lyrics began to encompass broader issues of race relations and morality as he saw it.

BW: This is the best Country Teasers album ever made, although I hate it because it sounds really thin and tinny. We only had one day recording and one day mixing and I think we all thought it sounded shit. That illustrates the point that the artist is the last person you should ask about their music. It’s okay to hate your record because your opinion doesn’t really count.

I can’t remember why I wrote ‘Black Change’. I never try to address specific issues. The Mike Tyson reference would have just been something in the news at the time. On the title track I’m being open about having bad thoughts and being into them. I remember writing that in a stream all at once and being quite pleased with myself.

The point at which your own opinions and those of the characters you create intersect is always interesting.

BW: Hopefully you can’t separate the two and that’s why it’s pleasurable and confusing. If I’m able to do it well then yeah, I’ll throw you off line by line. You’ll think I’m horrible then you’ll think I’m really good. Sartre said if you believe in your morality then you’ll want to prescribe it and be evangelical about it because you think that’s the way we’ll all get on best. So obviously I do think I’m a good person but what’s really interesting and good fun to write about is all the horrible things I think about.

Country Teasers – Destroy All Human Life (1999)

Their first studio album after the death of Country Teasers/Male Nurse guitarist Alan Crichton, this was the band at their most melancholic and mournful.

BW: Another album I’m very dissatisfied with the sound of. Left to my own devices I would have made them all sound bigger and heavier. Like Elastica or something!

I wrote the song ‘Hairy Wine’ about Alan before he died. I remember gleefully playing it to rest of the band and us all having a laugh at his expense because, you know, he was a miserable junkie! He was intolerable. But he was a brilliant guitarist and in a parallel universe it could have been great because he was such a strong character and he was really funny.

It is a sad record but that wasn’t really a deliberate thing. Alastair and Lawrence were in the band and perhaps we were more like a real country band on that album. Alastair’s like a kind of American rock hero, you know? Like a sexy man? ‘Golden Apples’ is our "hit". Millions of people have covered it. I don’t really know why everyone loves that song so much.

The reason I called the album Destroy All Human Life was because I was playing cricket one day and it was boiling hot and we were going to lose the match. My anger and misery crescendoed until the only way I could be satisfied in that moment was if all of humanity was destroyed by a nuclear bomb. All because of this cricket match.

Country Teasers – Science Hat Artistic Cube Moral Nosebleed Empire (2002)

In 2002 Country Teasers compiled a selection of previously hard to find or unreleased material, as well as a number of Wallers’ own 4-track recordings.

Why did you feel the need to compile those songs at the time?

BW: Sorry but it wasn’t my idea. It was Larry’s from In The Red. He wanted to release all our difficult to find singles and 4-track stuff that I thought would never see the light of day. I much prefer the sound I get on my 4-track tapes because I work really hard on those so obviously that’s what I like. I was really happy that he wanted to release that stuff. There’s lots of stuff on there that I wasn’t attached to at all though.

There’s an Ice Cube cover on that record. How into hip hop are you?

BW: I always feel guilty when I talk about being into hip hop because I feel like a white tourist going out on safari in my jeep. I believe the rap I like is the best but I hate all these cunts I see in the fucking newspaper like fucking Jay-Z! I fucking hate him! Almost as much as some of those white motherfuckers! When I heard Ice Cube’s The Predator I was like: "I can’t believe how good this is!" There are lots of discordant sounds and the drums are so good. But Kool Keith was the real thing for me.

The Rebel – Prawns (2005)

After a handful of self-released tapes and CDs under The Rebel moniker, Prawns felt like Wallers’ first real mission statement outside of the Country Teasers’ brand. Its cover is emblazoned with his infamous Spakenkreuz symbol, a defaced swastika with a "broken arm".

BW: I’m so proud of the Spakenkreuz. To me it means an identity. I used to draw swastikas everywhere, as we all do, because it’s so fascinating and it’s kind of a sex thrill isn’t it? It’s evil and it has some intrinsic beauty to it. I’m an anti-Nazi but I love the power of the swastika as a symbol. Not the Indian peace one but the horrible one. When punks were going around wearing that, I agree with that attitude. It’s like: "Fuck you granddad, I’m a punk! Your society is shit!" So, being able to subvert it like that is like a trick where I get to be able to draw something like a swastika but it’s a broken swastika. It’s like I’ve got the Nazis and I’ve broken their arm, so there we go, fuck the Nazis. But it also looks like someone running in terror so that’s me and that’s humans as well. It conveys everything. I can’t believe someone hasn’t offered me a load of money for it!

The sound on Prawns is very distinctive of The Rebel. It’s touching and sentimental in parts but completely deranged at times.

BW: I can do that more with my solo stuff. When it’s a band there’s no time to do that. When I get a really nice sound and a vibe, it happens through the long and very involved process of recording on your own, when you get into that mini-universe in your headphones. The great masters (men and women) can do that in the studio because they’ve got the confidence, know-how, time and money. We never had that in Country Teasers.

Country Teasers – The Empire Strikes Back (2006)

The Empire Strikes Back is Country Teasers at their most refined and polished. Lyrically and musically it feels like a crystalisation of their manifesto and ethos.

BW: The masterpiece! I think we were all at the peak of our game then. I play ‘Points Of View’ live now which proves that I must think it’s a good song. The beat is from ‘She’s Lost Control’ by Joy Division and I must have worked quite hard on the lyrics. The opening line is definitely an example of me not knowing what I was writing. I’m just lucky that I happened upon that lyric instead of the really bad ones I wrote the first time around. I do believe in God in a way because I didn’t make all this happen on purpose and I make lots of mistakes. It’s all just luck. Sometimes I feel frightened of a parallel universe where I made another set of decisions and Country Teasers are a really popular, crap band and I’m really happy and rich and able to take as many drugs as I wanted to and have prostitutes everywhere. You can’t see this readers but this gaff is just made for drugs and prostitutes!

The ‘Empire’ in the title is the British Empire. At the time it was obvious to me that that was what had caused the world’s problems. That book on the cover is a real book. It was about English people objecting to immigration in the 70s. I’m obviously a huge Star Wars fan so I couldn’t believe it when I found it. The anti-Englishness on the album is me expressing my guilt about being English and being at the centre of the empire that’s caused all these problems.

The Rebel – Northern Rocks Bear Weird Vegetable (2008)

BW: I think this is a good album to talk about because it was like the next Country Teasers album. It was recorded in the studio with the band playing live. That tracklist would have been a Country Teasers live setlist if we’d been active at the time but we couldn’t keep doing it because we weren’t all living in the same place anymore.

Nuclear annihilation is a topic that crops up on a lot of your records. Is that something you fear or do you welcome it with open arms?

BW: That fear was very big for people of my generation. It’s funny though because I don’t feel it now. I do sing about it gleefully on ‘Iran’s Nuclear Threat’. The glee is in saying to the human race: "HA! HA! You got what you deserved! You’re all dead now. You blew yourselves up, you dicks!" When I was a child I was really scared of the human race ending. I’m semi-serious now when I say it would be better if the human race ended because it’s not all about us. When we’re gone the earth is going to really flourish. So, I am semi-serious when I say: "HA! HA! We’re all going to die!" But when I was little I really earnestly didn’t want there to be a nuclear war. I didn’t want the human race to end and was very sentimental about that. At the time I would have given Threads a fucking wide berth!

The Rebel – The Race Against Time Hots Up (2010)

With Country Teasers temporarily shelved, Wallers focused on his work as The Rebel more and more.

BW: I tried really hard on that one. On the album before that I was deliberately going for really obnoxious, long songs and stupid tricks and making it really difficult to listen to. On this album I wanted to do nice proper songs with proper lyrics that scanned and rhymed with good production. In those days I was recording in the garage of the flat where I lived and I had a drum kit. I could do a beat and loop it on a mini disc. Then I would go to Scar Studios in Camden and record it kind of nice. I was trying to be honourable and make a proper record with proper songs!

You’re known for lifting melodies or lyrics from other songs and sources. On ‘To The Future Or To The Past: Greetings!’ the lyrics are all readings from George Orwell’s 1984. Do you share Orwell’s bleak view of the future? A boot stamping on a human face forever?

BW: I identify with the feeling but I don’t think I’m as cynical as Georgie. Out there there’s a lot of humanity stamping on each other’s faces but look at this right now, you and me. George Orwell was very political and passionate and I’m not. I am sometimes but mostly I’m just chilling, man! Building Lego and listening to The Fall. Most of the time I’m just fascinated with life as I’m living it so I’m not as cynical as Orwell but I know what he’s saying there is true.

The Rebel – KROT (2014)

BW: I’m very proud of KROT. Monofonus Press wanted me to do another record with them so I said: "Make me an offer I can’t refuse." They put me up in a shipping container on their lot in Austin and I gave them a shopping list of everything I wanted. I had bass guitars, 4-tracks, drum machines, keyboards, everything! I lived there and recorded 24/7. There’s bits of KROT where I’m not really hitting the notes vocally but I really like the album. It’s got a nice drum sound.

That sounds like an ideal situation for you but on the album you sound really depressed and yearning.

BW: Things were really bleak and confused in my life at the time. Although I’d stopped drinking and taking drugs, everything else was really difficult for me. I don’t know if I should go into my personal life or not. Is it private or what? My lyrics have got more personal over time. There’s a thrill about being honest in music and exaggerating your life and being clever with it and codifying it in certain ways.

The Stallion – The Dark Side of The Wall (2017)

In recent years Ben and fellow Country Teaser, Alastair Mackinven set out on the herculean task of covering Pink Floyd’s epic concept album The Wall in its entirety.

BW: Alastair and I started The Stallion in about 2000. We were DJing country music at The Red Lion in Shoreditch. We were drinking a lot and having lots of fun. Then we started playing live at The Mother Bar. We had rules like we’ll only play acoustic guitars and only do covers of the Carter Family or Leonard Cohen. It was suicide! Just totally wrong for that crowd! Then we’d DJ afterwards, which was the relief. Like: "Thank fuck we made it through that!"

Then a couple of years ago Alastair said we should cover The Wall. He’s an artist and that’s the kind of leap he’d make, from being in this country band to covering The Wall. Obviously I love The Wall. I could listen to it for the rest of my life. Take the needle off and start again. We had GarageBand on his computer and some mics and guitars. I wanted to do it quite faithfully and Alastair wanted to really fuck with it. In the end we just did whatever the hell we wanted.

I can’t speak for Alastair but I don’t think I’m poking fun at the pomposity of that album. The Wall for me is burned into my hard drive. I can’t not like it or look at it objectively. People tell me the lyrics are embarrassing but I find them hilarious and angry. When I got into it I was 13 and I didn’t know anything about anything. I mainly liked the humour. Part of our whole approach to life is taking the piss out of things. Nothing is sacred and Roger Waters is good to take the piss out of but I don’t think we’re taking the piss on that record.

Any parting words?

BW: These are the wrong questions, Ollie. Why don’t you ask me what my favourite colour is? Brown. Or why I think that Seven and the Ragged Tiger is such an underrated Duran Duran album?

The Rebel will be playing his second annual residency at Brixton’s Windmill in June this year. He is currently on tour in Australia

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