Good Cop, Surreal Cop: An Interview With The Devil

With The Devil's seedy, bloodstained and psychotic debut album recently released, Glen McLeod catches up with the trio to talk Kool Keith and why calling your band 'The Devil' is like having 'born thug' tattooed on your knuckles

Some mornings you wake, and for the first few moments before sensory awareness of your surroundings takes hold, you can remember your dreams. You trace back through that parallel dimension you were inhabiting only moments ago – a place that seems startlingly similar to the world you spend the majority of your conscious life within and yet leaves you with the nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right.

So too is the world conjured up by the self-titled record by The Devil. Its seven songs paint a dizzying picture from what appears a familiar palette, but the sum of its parts adds up to something which hangs together slightly strangely. It has a complex topography, with a myriad of styles and ideas piled up next to each other to jarring effect. Album opener ‘My First Waltz’ springs out of the gates with such visceral energy you feel physically shaken. Hereafter you are taken on a journey down B-movie side roads, across sawdust-covered and bloodstained bar floors, driven through the night at high speed with a maniac behind the wheel, only to arrive at the final, most disorientating location – album centrepiece ‘Girls Want You’, a freaked-out cover of a Kool Keith original. His somewhat questionable lyrics are sampled and splattered against a desert-psych-spaghetti-western backdrop, lending them a whole new form and context, and dropping the listener into yet another alien environment.

So what kind of beast is it that has unwittingly lured us into its lair? The Devil, it turns out, is a three headed creature: Sophie Politowicz, James Sedwards and Ben Wallers. Over the last few years Wallers has been forging similarly obtuse yet thought-provoking pathways with The Country Teasers and solo project The Rebel. Sedwards has lent his unique guitar style to the likes of Guapo and Chrome Hoof, while Politowicz has played with excellent post-punk band Wetdog. All the while The Devil has been stewing away in the background – so why is now the right time for this unholy mess to be unleashed?

The Quietus try probing to find out, and are greeted with the old ‘good cop, surreal cop’ routine. But much like the journey the band take us on across the course of The Devil, it is only by following this fragmented trail back to its source that we can start to figure out where we really are.

Your band name and album title make it very hard to search for you on the internet. Is this a deliberate ploy to keep a mysterious aura around yourselves?

Ben Wallers: No.

James Sedwards: Definitely not. The internet was the last thing on our mind when we named the band.

Sophie Politowicz: Ben and James started playing together in our garage, long before I joined them on drums, so I bear no responsibility for the name – it came with the position. But I do like the fact that it’s quite twee-counter-twee-inverted-double-bluff/naff. Have you noticed that being in a band is pretty uncool these days and it’s so hard to be on point? If it makes the tastemakers snarl… Calling your band The Devil is like having ‘born thug’ tattooed on your knuckles, except it’s more childish.

The definition of ‘The Devil’ is ‘a supernatural entity that is the personification of evil and the enemy of God and humankind’. In this time and place, what do you believe that to be?

BW: Look in the mirror!

JS: I’m not sure about the supernatural or religious elements, but surely the personification of evil and the greatest enemy of mankind is currently mankind itself.

SP: Military dictatorships embroiled in civil war around the world? They’re supernatural forces, because no-one seems ever to be able to prove their war crimes really exist. The Devil isn’t a political band – I just watched a film on the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The band formed in 2003. Why has it taken so long to put out a record?

BW: Ham.

SP: We only started taking it seriously when we got fed up with our other bands. We did some gigs, and they went down well. And then, happily, Copy Records offered to release an album. Thanks Simon!

JS: It was extremely important to us to only put out a record that we deemed worthy of release. There is currently no shortage of available recorded music, and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t adding unnecessarily to that glut. The music on our album is the end result of a long process of democratic writing, recording experimentation and a relentless attempt to find our own unique sound. Despite all of us having cornerstone musical influences that have helped shape us, it was always our intention to try to avoid referencing them and come up with something new. We weren’t prepared to compromise.

How did the three of you start playing together in The Devil?

BW: It was like "1, 2, 3, 4, START".

JS: Our other bands used to gig together a lot. We got to know each other, and although we had a lot of diverging tastes, we also shared a lot of significant common ground. After a while we decided to write some music together and see what happened. The results were completely different to what any of us expected, but it was immediately apparent that our individual styles could work together and that the chemistry was good.

Is this a holiday from the constrictions of your other bands?

BW: NO! It’s a holiday for the constrictions of your other bands.

JS: Not at all. But it is the chance to do something that couldn’t be done in any other scenario.

SP: Personally, I have to up my game for this one. I’m probably the most amateur musician of the three of us – I don’t practice very much, partly because I don’t have a full drum kit or anywhere to practise, and partly because I tend to adhere to the belief that the more restricted you are technically, the more creative you have to be with your instrument, to hold your own. It’s an experiment, with balls. Keith Moon’s a classic example. He was always too busy getting pissed to bother practising, but he just went for it and the result was pretty unusual and effective. Saying all that, Budgie of the Banshees is probably my all-time favourite drummerm and he’s far from amateur.

Your press release spends a paragraph berating your audience. Who is the typical fan of your band?

BW: It’s a stereotype of someone who goes to a party thinking they have to pretend to be someone they aren’t, but when they get to the party they find that they are in fact the person they are pretending to be, and when they get home from the party there’s that same ghost looking back at them from the mirror, in the bath with a phone in its hand, saying: "I’m in your house, call me".

JS: We have a strict vetting process. 

SP: The audience loves a bit of banter. People go to a gig for a bit of master-servant, don’t they?

You travel through a myriad of styles across The Devil – was this a deliberate choice?

BW: Travel is nice, I love to travel. And finances are no problem.

JS: No, but perhaps yes as well. We have a lot of material that didn’t make it onto the album. Some of it is similar to what is on the album, and some of it is completely different again. It’s not in our nature to stick to a specific style all the time – we like variation and dynamics. However, the record contains the music that fitted together best as a whole and gave the album the narrative that we wanted. In a way, there was no choice, deliberate or otherwise.

SP: What comes out comes out. The songs come out of us jamming together, so they just follow the mood and dynamic of that particular day we get to play together.

The opening track on the record is called ‘My First Waltz’, the next track ‘Silent Roar’ talks about a ‘war on the dancefloor’, and the majority of the album has a propulsive danceable beat. Do you want to see your audience cutting shapes?

BW: Blatantly, my friend! All night long, Lionel rich tea cakes, all night long baby blue Barry White castle, slide, slide, slide across that dance floor.

JS: We get a lot of dancing at our gigs. To see people let loose is a refreshing change.

SP: But only if they really mean it.

How did you achieve the album’s sense of urgency and abrasiveness?

BW: A lot of hard work my laddie. All night long!

JS: The intensity is written into the music, plus it’s how we play together and we couldn’t have made a record of this material in any other way. Obviously we used various recording methods to highlight certain aspects of the sound, but the original performances definitely had a sense of urgency in the first place.

SP: We all have a dark heart when it comes to music.

‘Girls Want You’ takes Kool Keith’s lyrics, whose content tends to be acceptable in the rap world, and puts them in a different context – what did you want to highlight with this juxtaposition?

BW: That they are from the rap world. Keith seems to be the only lyricist in rap who isn’t chained down to cliché. Why is this? Dig? Anyone from rap out there want to defend their lyrical stagnation? I’d rather listen to fucking Coldplay while I read the lyrics off the inner sleve of Thom Yorke’s new solo LP.

JS: Our version of ‘Girls Want You’ was initially done purely for our own enjoyment. We all love the Kool Keith original, and the lyrics of the chorus seemed to strangely lend themselves to a folkish guitar riff I had written. So we pursued the idea and began working on the rest of the song. When we started to develop music for the verses, the lyrics began to resonate differently from the original, coming across as a sort of bizarre lament rather than upfront and sexy. It was an intriguing blend that we felt fitted in with the rest of our set, so we kept playing it even though we would never usually consider doing a cover version.

SP: Because I’m the token female in the band, "this must be a critique of some sort or she wouldn’t be endorsing it!" It’s good to play with the context of a thing. It wakes you up a bit. And Kool Keith’s lyrics are very sophisticated. They deserve the attention of a bit of re-framing.

If the three of you weren’t playing music together what would you be doing if you were hanging out?

BW: Stubbing cigarettes out on each other’s chests.

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