“The Biggest Hits That The Radio Won’t Touch”: The Moonlandingz Interviewed

The fictional band from The Eccentronic Research Council's last album are not only real, but they're going on tour and releasing records. Two of their animating architects, The ERC's Adrian Flanagan and Fat White Family's Lias Saoudi, sit down with Daniel Dylan Wray to discuss working with Sean Lennon, masochistic video shoots and bringing back rabies

All photographs courtesy of Natasha Bright

The first time I found myself sat in a pub in Sheffield with Lias Saoudi from the Fat White Family was in 2013. I was putting on their first ever gig in the city, in a tiny, recently re-opened pub, which had previously been a favourite of the BBC, and many of them still wandered in from time to time. Not the broadcasting corporation, that is, but the Blades Business Crew: Sheffield United’s notorious football hooligan firm. After the group had sound-checked, one of the firm’s ‘top boys’ came in and was spotted trying to lift a T-shirt from the band’s merchandise table. A young lad the band had brought with them, who was responsible for doing merch, calmly and politely informed him that the T-shirts were not free and required paying for. This guy didn’t appreciate the accusation of stealing a T-shirt as he was caught stealing a T-shirt and his wired, manic eyes soon locked into the young lad’s, words escalated into shouting and pushing before a punch was thrown by the BBC chap. The situation went from mildly confusing to deeply troubling within seconds as people stepped in to stop the fight. The BBC man started flipping tables, picking up chairs and smashing them to pieces on the floor and against the wall as he paced back and forth like a caged and deeply distressed zoo animal, screaming at the top of his lungs, "I’m the fucking BBC!" as the rest of the room backed up against the walls; given the room was about the size of a slightly above average living room, there was an intensity and anger to the situation that was grossly palpable. He left after a while but then soon came back even more worked up, clearly mortified and seething with bile that anyone could dare ask him not to steal a T-shirt. More violence ensued, more table flipping, more chair smashing, threats to stab, burn, beat and murder those who stood in his path, including the bar owner, who had now returned to try and calm the situation. By this stage we had hidden the young lad doing merch in the backroom out of fears for his safety. He continued to pace back and forth with intensity and would go out into the beer garden for stretches before coming back in and threatening to torch the place or smash another table. It all escalated as he grabbed Saul Adamczewski’s guitar and yanked it out of the amp, running out of the pub with the lead trailing behind him as a group of us, bemused and admittedly scared, ran out after him into the street. Thankfully the police turned up just in time as he was sprinting down a back alley with the guitar. Five minutes later we had it back and the BBC guy had been bundled off to the cells for the night. After that it was a pretty good night.

Most people might be put off by that as a first encounter to a city, but Saoudi now finds himself calling Sheffield home, at least for now. He’s got a flat here as he’s been working on new material and tour preparation for The Moonlandingz. The Moonlandingz, if you aren’t familiar by now, are (were?) a fictional band implanted into the narrative of the superb concept album Johnny Rocket, Narcissist & Music Machine… I’m Your Biggest Fan released this year by the Eccentronic Research Council – the ouija pop project of Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer, featuring Maxine Peake. The Moonlandingz consist of Flanagan and Honer, along with the Fat Whites’ Saoudi and Adamczewski. In the context of the album, the group, primarily lead singer Johnny Rocket (aka Saoudi), is stalked by an obsessive fan (Peake) until things turn incredibly sour. Within the record, the band roamed around the fictional town of Valhalla Dale and had their own songs, and these four songs were lifted from the album and released separately as an EP.

Now The Moonlandingz have taken on a life outside of the album, with both a new EP and their own LP due shortly, most likely to be released on the Fat Whites’ Without Consent label in the UK, and on fan-turned-collaborator and soon-to-be producer Sean Lennon’s label Chimera Music in the US and Canada. Their first ever UK tour starts tonight and to get a taste of what you can expect, take a listen to their second (in four months) BBC Radio 6 Music Marc Riley session, from last night.

I caught up with Saoudi and Flanagan over – being the sophisticated gentleman they are – banana daiquiris, pale ale and rhubarb and custard cocktails. Honer and Adamczewski were physically absent, but were present in the form of paper plate heads as drawn by their band mates, whose friendship and creative partnership has mutated into a sort of comedy double act too, with the pair frequently finishing one another’s sentences with a steady flow of rib-poking.

How much do you step into your characters within The Moonlandingz?

Lias Saoudi: Once I go past Derby on the train from London I become Johnny Rocket. I position myself differently in the universe and I begin to radiate Rocket.

Adrian Flanagan: He gets his tin foil socks out.

Dale Winton inspired the name of Valhalla Dale, but how much of a vision do you have of the fictional place? How much of it have you created as a space to operate in?

AF: It’s obviously around here [Sheffield, S7 postcode: Abbeydale, Nether Edge, Millhouses and Carter Knowle] isn’t it, it’s just people who aren’t from round here don’t realise that. It’s taken from loads of different places though; Valhalla Dale could be anywhere.

LS: It could be Rotterdam…

With The Moonlandingz becoming its own thing, how much of that has been by accident and how much by design?

LS: I think by desire. By sheer attraction.

AF: I can do a lot of things for him that he can’t do for himself.

LS: There’s elements of truth to that, and there’s things that work the other way around.

AF: Yeah, he makes me look good.

LS: Yeah, I make him look good and…

AF: …I make him sound good.

Has a lot of The Moonlandingz becoming a touring project been born out of the logistical difficulties of organising a tour around Maxine Peake’s busy acting schedule?

AF: It’s more of a nightmare with this lot actually; I’m on my way to my first nervous breakdown. I’ve got tour fatigue and we haven’t even started yet.

LS: Yeah, a month or so ahead you get the night sweats, the anxiety, the occasional bout of pneumonia. It’s dedication not medication, as The Fall just said.

AF: Yeah, that’s what Roy Castle said and he died.

LS, how’s life in Sheffield been?

LS: It’s just been nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of London, especially the Queens [Head, Brixton pub and Fat White Family HQ]…

AF: We don’t mean the homosexuals.

LS: No, we like them.

AF: We’re actually trying to get one of the Village People on one of our tracks.

LS: Yeah, I met Randy in New York last year.

Which one is Randy?

Both: The cowboy!

LS: We’ve got a great tune for him, it’s called ‘Glory Hole’ and we’re going to get him to guest on that. It’s about a young man’s exploits in Hamburg who finds himself, in lots of unexpected ways.

Does the new Moonlandingz material refer to the narrative of the ERC album at all? Is there any reference to the stalker or is it something new altogether?

AF: No, it doesn’t. We expect people to get obsessive about it by being incredible.

LS: We’ve been working on it to become this kind of band that would garner that sort of erotic obsession.

AF: It’s already happening. You should see my inbox. People actually send things like "I love you, Johnny" – private messages and that.

LS: He receives these though, he cashes in.

AF: I don’t cash in, I ignore them.

LS: I sit alone in a flat… he gets me in a studio to write and record and then I go home and he cashes in.

AF: I don’t, I don’t.

The band, within the ERC album, are described as "Fuzzy Joe Meek pop" – how much of that has been a sonic template you’ve intended to adhere to?

AF: That is sort of how I imagined the band to sound like and there’s elements of that certainly, but I would say it’s a lot more modern… I mean, Joe Meek couldn’t have done what we do.

Do you get instructions from Adrian on what to do with/as Johnny Rocket, Lias? And what can we expect from him on the new material?

LS: For me a lot of the time he’ll give me a bit of a directive almost, or a brief, when working on a tune. Like on ‘Johnny Goes Truck’…

AF: Yeah, we wanted to do something kind of like a Yorkshire Ripper song. Like a prostitute-killing truck driver song.

LS: Based in the badlands of the USA though, even though he’s from Valhalla Dale and is this wildly delusional Yorkshire psych rocker.

AF: A little bit like the Yorkshire Ripper [laughs].

LS: It gives you a bit of license to explore loads of grotesque rock & roll clichés without having the pressure you might have [if it was you that was doing it instead of a character].

Did the impetus to write more songs as The Moonlandingz come from a shared desire to do so or because of the reaction to the original material on the ERC album being so strong?

AF: A little bit of both really. We didn’t expect ‘Sweet Saturn Mine’ to blow up as it did, 6 Music played it every day for months. I think for both our projects I think that did probably better than anything… considering it’s a bit rude as well.

LS: It took days to record. Well, it didn’t take two days – me and Saul were up for two days.

AF: Yeah, it took us two months and you two days.

LS: So from my point of view it was like, great, that was easy, so it was a no-brainer to come back up and work on new songs.

There are now two versions of ‘Sweet Saturn Mine’, the original and Sean Lennon’s ‘De-Mix’ version, which you have just done a new video for too…

LS: Yeah, it’s well done that song now.

AF: We’re doing a version with the London Philharmonic Orchestra next, after we’ve played Shea Stadium…the extended US EP has Sean’s version on it and it also has some extra instrumental interludes, like ERC stuff, with funny titles.

LS: Like ‘The Irresistible Toad Chorus’ – that’s a personal favourite.

How was the video shoot? It’s looks like a lot of fun.

AF: It was fun, but he [Lias] was on the arse end of a US tour.

LS: That was actually one of the most painful and traumatic days of my life. I’d just done a month of touring in the US and a month straight in the US is pretty hardcore; it’s great but it’s debilitating at the best of times. Then we went straight onto a tour in the UK for a week or two and then the shoot was the day of our very last gig – we had to go and play Leeds that night – at the end of a six-week long US/UK tour.

AF: And the day before he’d done three gigs as well!

LS: Yeah, I’d done three gigs in Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool or something like that. By that time I was gone, I was completely gone, just surviving on little chunks of speed and whatever you can drink and whatever image you have left of yourself, and that’s about all you’ve got at that point. Then it was like, right, you’ve got to do this video. I think Dean had some codeine for his back pain so I nicked that off of him and that was about all that got me through and everyone kept barking orders at me. It took every fibre of my being not to just start shouting at people and telling them that I wanted to go. In the cab on the way there I was saying to Saul, if I freak out and aren’t able to do this, you’re going to have to apologise to Adrian for me, because I don’t think I can handle this, I’m sick, I’m not well.

AF: I was getting Saul to straddle him and mock stab him with an actual four-foot sword that he couldn’t even lift up.

LS: Yeah, because he’s been on tour for six weeks as well. I was just like, "Oh, I want to see my mum" – it was fucking horrible, horrible. I hated every single minute of it but I love the result, I think it’s great.

So, how did that Leeds show turn out?

LS: It was alright, they’re always alright. Once you get up there you’re okay. It was the same thing in Oslo recently – I was being sick before the show and stuff, but then once you’re there it’s always fine somehow. I guess that’s just what utter professionalism feels like [laughs].

How was that day for you, Adrian?

AF: It was fine, it was hilarious.

LS: They were all fucking loving it. I could hear Saul giggling the whole fucking time, because he was alright for some fucking reason and everybody was having a right chuckle at my expense.

AF: I just kept pushing him and pushing him: "How about we do this Lias?"

LS: I took it like the gimp that I am, because I’m a masochist and I shy away from confrontation, but I was in agony and rage, quiet rage, all day, man, and I could tell they were getting their kicks out of it – I think that comes across in the video. I’d say never again, but that’s probably not the case is it?

Tell us about how you ended up meeting and working with Sean Lennon.

LS: We [as the Fat Whites] met him at SXSW and he saw our show and then gave us a little shout-out on stage and we became pals after the show and he took us for tacos. I got very sick around this time as someone gave me some weed – in America they don’t smoke spliffs with tobacco and weed, they just put weed in it and everyone was fraternising with Sean and it’s like, wow it’s Sean Lennon, and he’s going to take us out and I was just like [makes puking noises] – they’re all having dinner in this restaurant in Austin and I couldn’t go, I was just sat in the car vomiting the whole time, having the worst whitey of my life, thinking, oh, I’ve proper blown it this time, they’re all getting in with the Lennons and I’m out here coughing me fucking guts up.

AF: Sean’s a dead genuine and lovely geezer.

LS: He completely looked after us [Fat Whites] when we went over there [to do some recording with him for the Fat Whites’ second LP]. We’d have been on the street panning for change if he hadn’t put us up and we’re not an easy bunch of people to work with.

AF: I mean the last person you want staying at your house is that lot. They leave shoes in the fridge and stuff.

LS: Yeah, dirty boots in the fridge, contaminating all the salmon. He was really lovely to us. You know a lot of people you meet doing this are like, "great man, great man" and then you say, "Can I stay at your gaff tonight?" and they’re like, "No, man! You can have another line of coke, but no man!" and he wasn’t like that at all; he was like, I’ll let this cretinous gang of waste children into my home.

How did Sean enjoy his time in Sheffield?

AF: Oh yeah, we took him to Barry’s Bar [a pub favoured by the Jamaican community in Sheffield, with the slogan: "We’re not the cheapest but we are the best"]. Took him for a kebab. He loved it, he had a great time.

Adrian, given the tour stories we’ve just heard from Lias, how are you looking forward to going on the road with this lot?

AF: I just can’t wait to get my penis out and shit on the front row.

What else can you tell us about the forthcoming new music?

LS: It’s like an odyssey, isn’t it? Rabies is a thing in it, you know how like rabies used to be an issue?

So, you’re bringing back rabies?

LS: Yeah, exactly, we’re bringing back rabies. It used to be a thing, like not going on holiday on the continent because if you’d get bit by a dog you’d get rabies and everyone was genuinely scared of that. It’s almost a nostalgic issue we wanted to bring back.

AF: But it’s still there, a fear of something.

LS: Johnny Rocket’s fear and paranoia has been diluted down and it’s hardened like a diamond and it’s rabies, that’s how fucking delusional he is. He’s convinced that if he goes to France he’ll get rabies and he’s finding a way of celebrating that anxiety through song.

Who has written the lyrics?

AF: We work on them a lot together. I make notes and we almost go through them line by line.

LS: Then occasionally I’ll fall asleep and then Adrian slaps or kicks me a bit and says "write some fucking lyrics" and then I’m like, "This isn’t even that bad in the Fat Whites, what am I doing?" but I’m up in Sheffield by that point and there’s no escape.

One element of the project that seems to mirror that of the conceptual one is that there’s a desire to make innovative, forward-looking pop music. Is that the case? Is this a pop music project?

AF: I would say so, yes.

LS: It’s like pop music that will never be able to be played on the radio.

AF: We want to write the biggest hits that the radio won’t touch.

There was a recent quote from you saying, "Come autumn, we hope to be the most hated fictional band by Christian rednecks in the US" – how’s that working out for you?

AF: That was about the video, which is already happening a bit. When Sean posted the video, everybody was like, "You’re a Satanist, you’re this, that, how dare you do that?" It’s like nobody has been to a fancy dress party before. We’re just pushing those kind of buttons. I think it’s important, really, because everyone believes in something that doesn’t exist, we’re telling people we don’t exist, that we’re a fictional band but obviously we exist.

LS: I think we exist. I hope so…

The Moonlandingz EP is out now on Without Consent. The band’s North By North South tour begins tonight at Broadcast in Glasgow, before heading to Belgrave Music Hall in Leeds, 26, Night & Day Cafe in Manchester, 27, The Lexington in London, 28, and Picture House Social in Sheffield, 29; for full details and tickets, head here

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