Germane Ideas: The Pre New interviewed

Julian Marszalek sits down with true head Jim Fry to talk pop music, pop art and pop culture

Is this the way the future is supposed to feel? To those people whose formative years were shaped by the 70s and 80s, it can appear that certain elements of 21st century life are the living the embodiment of the very things that were satirised back then. Who’d have thought that a rock star wannabe or a PR huckster would’ve ended up as prime minister? Or how about Andy Warhol’s claim that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes? Thanks to any number of reality TV programmes, meta talent shows wherein the audition process alone can catapult contestants into instant stardom whether they want it or not, social media and the increasingly ubiquitous selfie-stick, they can. And of course, with Apple’s range of i products, the focus is very much on the self, a process that’s at once insular whilst giving one an over-inflated sense of importance that’s far from justified.

What to make of it all?

They may not have the answers but The Pre New, formed from the ashes of the mighty Earl Brutus and a lineage that goes back to World Of Twist, are back with their second album, The Male Eunuch, to cast a wry eye over the ongoing cultural developments that have come to define the opening overs of the second decade of the new millennium. Mixing pop with rock & roll, stackheel stomping glam beats and electronica with a healthy dose of one last pint before the shorts get served pub philosophy, The Pre New dissect the modern world with the precision of a cultural pathologist. Boasting song titles such as ‘100% Beef’, ‘The Mars Bar Within You’ and ‘Middle Class Heavy Metal On Anti-Depressants’, this is a frequently funny yet thoroughly absorbing listen, the laughs emanating from a grim recognition of the world that’s formed them.

For practical reasons, a proposed interview at the National Gallery has been eschewed in favour of a Westminster hostelry and over – what else? – several jars frontman Jim Fry offers tQ a fascinating and often hilarious look at the state of present day pop music and world that shapes The Male Eunuch.

It’s a strange coincidence but here we are on what would have been the late Earl Brutus frontman Nick Sanderson’s 54th birthday. What do you think he’d have thought of The Pre New?

Jim Fry: I think he would have bought into the electronics but we’re a smoother operation when it comes to rock. We’re not as brutalist, if you’ll forgive the pun. But there was an attempt to move things on and also the fact that we were working with different people. There’s [guitarist] Stuart Wheldon, or New Stu, as we call him, and he was born in the north of England but brought up in Canada and [other guitarist] Laurence Bray, or LB, was first generation Milton Keynes and then he went off and lived in America for a bit so their perspective is not northern town or Sheffield or Manchester or Stockport mentality and they don’t look at English pop music in the way that we do, so by default it’s a completely different group from Earl Brutus.

But I think that an Earl Brutus of today would’ve been a smoother operation. It’s not a question settling down but there was a massive side of Nick’s personality that liked Boz Scaggs and Weather Report, and he liked a bit of Julio Iglesias, and strange pop music and stuff like that. And so, if we’d made the ninth Earl Brutus album it would’ve been a different thing anyway. You’ve got to remember that we were Bowie heads so the point was always to change and evolve and try new things. Earl Brutus was like The Pre New; it was double-edged. It was Kraftwerk-obsessed electronics and it’s got its rock guitar and big beats but The Pre New is a completely different concoction.

What would Nick have thought of it? I don’t know. I think he’d have told me either way and I’d have to take it on the chin! He was one of the few people that I’d care about what he thought.

But yeah… 54. In the 28 years or so of knowing Nick, I’d say that the Nick Sanderson of Earl Brutus was just a small percentage of the real Nick Sanderson. Anyone who knew him knew that he was into history, bird watching and railways and travel. There was a massive side to him that he didn’t always put on show with Earl Brutus and I think that eventually that would’ve leaked out, whether he liked it or not.

Being a Bowie head there was always a sense of exploration and by now we would’ve been getting stuck into the corners of our taste. I think the adventure was only just beginning, in a lot of ways. Nick played in loads of other people’s bands and he was the ultimate band member and lots of people will vouch for that but Earl Brutus literally gave him the voice and he could become the spokesman for something and stand at the front, and I think he made a fantastic job of it.

How does it feel for you to now take that position?

JF: I’ve never been comfortable with it and I don’t intend to be. I think of things in terms of the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square and there’s a whole pool of us. From the days of Sheffield it was me and Gordon King and [World of Twist singer] Tony Ogden and Nick Sanderson. Gordon could play guitar and Tony could pretty much play the drums and the guitar and he turned into the frontman. Nick was a great drummer and he pretty much disregarded anything else, which was a typical Sanderson way of doing things, and I either took some photos or sang because I couldn’t play anything. And I still can’t! But I did always like writing lyrics. Now, here we are again, and everybody was sat around saying, ‘Let’s form a band’ and it took a long time for me to get my head around the idea; I was quite sensitive about it, to be honest. Anyway, I found myself holding the mic because I can’t play anything but we’ve always credited me as the “house singer” of The Pre New and having a house singer is like having a housewife in that it’s the one that’s readily available and won’t run out. But we do expect a good singer to come along and join in. We’ve got [former Gun Club bassist] Romi Mori on the album and last time around we had [St Etienne’s] Sarah Cracknell stepping in.

I don’t think it’s very exciting having just one lead singer. You know, Chuck D is a fucking great frontman but without Flavor Flav then they’re not Public Enemy. Chuck D delivers it all and he has these fantastic words to say with a huge personality but with Flav, that’s what makes Public Enemy Public Enemy. The Pre New is in state of flux about who is actually in it but there is a core in it. This time it’s been Stu Wheldon and myself getting together at the weekends and evenings nailing everything down and then Laurence Bray spent a lot of time adding more lyrics and song titles. Vinny Gibson is now an integral part of it and he’s another frontman; I’ve got no intention of standing there on my own. Stu Boreman will wander in and out and come up with his particular perspective on the world. And the fourth plinth is always there for Gordon King so I’m not really on my own and I have no intention of making a solo record.

Could you explain the album title, The Male Eunuch?

JF: This isn’t a concept album but there are a few threads running in there and one of them is pointing and laughing at the self-emasculation sort of blokes that wander the earth now and go to LA Fitness or Fitness First and Bannatyne’s, and laughing at the Geordie Shore male cleavage. The kind of blokes who moisturise and wax their legs and have lost sight of who they are and what they are.

The Female Eunuch was everywhere when I was kid and there was a proper and genuine purpose for that book. Anyone of that generation will tell you what a startling book that was and it was telling women to get a grip and stop reading Mills and Boon, stop believing in your knight in shining armour. Maybe The Male Eunuch doesn’t have the same accurate detail as Germaine Greer but it is saying, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’ve completely lost sight of who you are! What the fuck has waxing your legs got to do with bring a human being?’ But this isn’t a campaign for old-school blokes coming home for their tea. As we’ve always done with The Pre New, we’ve put the antenna out and have held up a mirror and have started laughing and finding things to amuse us, and that corner of society is highly amusing at the moment. You know, why is it so important to go to the gym and tan and wax? And how did that come into the male psyche and what’s it got to do with anything?

The Pre New try to stay in the present and we reference what’s around us and we’re not ashamed of being in our 50s – or, at least, some of us – and we’re not going to pretend how we used to be when we were on the dole and forming a band; we come from a different world now. We’re a bunch of media cunts and you can almost imagine the idea that some Foxton’s estate agents form a group and relax in the evening by playing rock. That’s as far as the manifesto goes but the male-ism that’s going on, it’s like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? What has this got to do with living?’ But this isn’t a crusade; it’s an observation.

If you listen to the album, we switch the genders quite a lot. In ‘Psychedelic Lies’ we’ve taken sections of Germaine Greer’s stuff and flipped the gender and it talks about the Husband’s Handbook and it’s about a woman masturbating in a burlesque sex show, and ‘100% Beef’ we did that as well and looking at it from a bloke’s perspective. The gender shifts all the time and it’s quite good fun singing in a deep voice.

There’s a moment on The Male Eunuch which is particularly interesting and that arrives in the shape of ‘MRI Classics’. You’ve got the sound of an MRI machine clicking and droning over a rendition of the anthem ‘Jerusalem’. Are you X-raying the psyche of Britain there?

JF: Yes! It’s funny. The thing about ‘MRI Classics’ is that you spend all this time re-writing lyrics and re-doing the drums and trying to get the pace right and these things become an obsession but the reality is that, flippantly, you go, like we did on ‘I Rock Star’ on the first album, ‘I know what we’ll do!’ and it came from the fact that I had an MRI scan. When you go for an MRI scan you fill out a release form in case you peg it and they ask you what your religion is and what your nationality is. I put ‘British’ because that’s what I am. I got in the MRI scan and they play some music and they put on ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’ and I was wondering that if you’re from the Isle of Wight, do they put on Level 42? Or if you’re from Scotland do they put on Runrig or play ‘Flower Of Scotland’? Or would they be more local? If you’re from Manchester do they put on a bit of The Smiths? But I was thinking that we should do a series of MRI classics. The artwork’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? You’d have a cello going into an MRI scanner. But x-raying Britain? Yes, definitely. This could be like James Last or Deutsche Grammophon where you’d have this huge institution of music and you could go and see it being performed. Can you imagine? You could get Martin Rev involved to produce it and it’d be a whole new form of light entertainment. Put that on fucking Britain’s Got Talent!

‘Flaccid Astronaut’ finds you harking back to the days of lunar space travel and you wanting to be an astronaut. Who are the heroes of these days?

JF: If you’re a Bowie head, he always used space travel as a reference point. And you could see it in design; TVs were curved, for example. I’m not as jaded about it as I was with the last record where we asked, ‘Where is our future?’ Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were total heroes and then as you get older you get into the whole cosmonaut thing.

‘Flaccid Astronaut’ is actually based on Albert Camus’ The Fall and the idea of two people sat in a bar going, ‘What happened to our lives? Where did it all go wrong? I could’ve been all sorts of things but I’m just sat here with you buying drinks and getting more and more wasted.’ So ‘Flaccid Astronaut’ is about a failed astronaut and the music comes from the great electronic pop of Human League. It’s a very democratic song in that I do the verses, Vinny wrote the choruses, Stu Boreman says a bit on it and we tried to please Stu Wheldon by writing a Human League song.

But heroes these days? The blokes from Geordie Shore, I suppose. We’ve not seen anyone quite spectacular recently, have we? When I was at school, Chris Bonington came to visit. He’d climbed Mount Everest; he wasn’t some bloke off the telly.

There was Felix Baumgartner who jumped from a hot air balloon on the edge of space. I watched that and suddenly I was that little kid again fascinated by these kinds of exploits.

JF: Yeah. Well, anything like that gets you going again. Richard Branson certainly isn’t my hero and neither is Bob Geldof. I was talking to my son about it and it’s interesting because you’ve got people like Owen Jones and young people are listening to him as he mobilses them to vote. He’s not an explorer or anything like that but people are actually listening to what he has to say and I think fair play to him. But I’m not sure that he’s a hero.

But who are the heroes or inspirational figures? I have no idea. I don’t think that young people are stupid but like with most things it’s all spread out and you can’t pinpoint things; it used to be that there were only a couple of things to like when you were young like Manchester United and Bowie and then punk rock came into the frame and away you went. And there were just three channels to watch on telly and Radio 1 and that was it. But I couldn’t pinpoint any inspirational figures now.

Given that we’re now at the stage of countless TV channels, the internet, music on demand and information overload, what sort of currency do you think pop music holds in the 21st century?

JF: I think the media thing cancels itself out. It would much easier if there were less channels because the quality would go up. I don’t mind repeats of Father Ted or the IT Crowd or Fawlty Towers because they’re really well written. I could watch a hundred episodes of Seinfeld in one go because it’s really well written. Putting repeats on isn’t a problem if the standard is really good but there’s too much junk and too much airtime to fill with any quality. That’s where you have a problem.

I think Wolf Hall was good but watching it was like going back to the 70s and it was like watching I, Claudius; it was slow and like a play with long scenes and lit with candles, and people can’t handle that anymore. There are two great things that haven’t been revived. We’ve had Opportunity Knocks and New Faces and Come Dancing, you know, all that shit, and culture in general is The Good Old Days and heavy metal revivals with Ozzy Osbourne mincing around Hyde Park like a fucking idiot, but the two shows they didn’t bring back are Top Of The Pops and Tomorrow’s World which were the two important ones.

In terms of where does that leave pop music, I would love to be part of a movement that restored pop music to all of its former glory. I think that people in their 20s think that pop is a dirty word and that’s probably because of its connection with that whole X Factor thing where people go on telly begging for approval. Pop lives strong in our heads. It’s like ‘Flaccid Astronaut’, which is in the tradition of Human League or Soft Cell. I’m really proud of that track and I hope it wins the Eurovision Song Contest.

But pop music? I don’t think it has any standing at the moment in the classic sense but that doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t a lot of good things going on but it’s all a bit splattered everywhere. Stuff like David Guetta doesn’t work for me, really; it’s background music. It’s not going to make me look at my life in a slightly different way the way that ‘Geno’ did or ‘Stand And Deliver’ did. I don’t think that’s got anything to do with being a man in his 20s who’s a bit vulnerable and working out who he is, I just think that standard of pop music isn’t around at the moment.

But maybe you don’t need that anymore? No wonder festivals are so popular. I mean, when I was kid you’d never go to a festival but I can understand why people go now because festivals are like YouTube. You know, a kid of 20 can be into Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin and he could then be listening to Factory Floor or Daniel Avery and he could then go to a festival and see Robert Plant in the afternoon and then go down some dark wooky hole and listen to some DJ that he loves. And that’s why festivals are like YouTube.

You know, this kid could be buying some abstract record that we’ve never heard of but he could also be into Kate Bush and The Cure and good for them because Kate Bush and The Cure make quality music. Yeah, look at Kate Bush. I was never really into Kate Bush and my son asked me why we didn’t have any Kate Bush in the house and that’s because there were so many other things to like. But I listen to it now and I really get it and you think about the kind of effort that went into making that music and you can’t take that away from her, whatever you think of the music. I don’t think people are missing that point and they can discern between what’s good and what’s bad and what’s half cocked and what’s rich in ideas but I don’t think they’ll ever wear the T-shirt in quite the same way.

So where does that leave people like you and me? Should we even bother?

JF: Looking back, me making music was never a career thing and I’m really proud of that fact. There were times when we wanted Earl Brutus to have a hit record and part of me does want ‘Flaccid Astronaut’ to go to Number 1; it’d be fucking hilarious! And I do want it to win the Eurovision Song Contest but it’s not an industry thing for me. My industry is photography and me writing music is like organising a photo shoot for the very simple reason that you start a spark with a sentence and we’d then invent it, and we’d work out how to get the props and what studio to shoot in and who’d be in the photo, and eventually you’d build something that was almost tangible. And the same thing happens with music. The two things are completely parallel for me. But the industry side of things is not my thing so there’s no reason not to make records. We could write something this evening and tomorrow morning 700 people could hear it. I’m really glad that we’re in this time where we can do that. We had this single out for Record Store Day and someone in New York got in touch and said, ‘Why can’t I get this record here?’ and I’m thinking, great, someone cares about us and so there’s never been a better time for making music. It’s easy to do it now. But having said that, you’ve still got to be careful about standards. There’s no reason why you do it but you do.

See, this what I love about what’s happened in the last few weeks. We’ve made 12 or 13 tracks, spent a bit of time getting a nice piece of artwork together, we thought about the titles and I think that (a) it’s fucking hilarious and (b) brilliant. It’s a pop record with pop songs on it with notes and lyrics and if anything, it’s about what was going on in our heads. We spent about two years doing fuck all and then we decided to wake up around November of last year and then we spent about five or six weeks before Christmas and a month after getting our act together and it’s all getting good again.

There’s an interesting note on the back cover of the album that reads: ‘Binary Digital Bankruptcy converts this Sonic Debris into the sound of summer. Off shore becomes on shore as British Summer Time arrives early. Shot thru the Black Hole into the hole of your heart, it’s the colour chart from hell. Foxton’s still burns. Face-sitting is banned. Froch vs Groves. Farrow & Ball. We are at War.’ Who’s at war?

JF: There are always things pulling in separate directions, hence the British Rail logo on the cover. I think there’s a war on the male eunuchs of this world and it’s our responsibility to draw attention to it but because they spend all that time down the gym and then they’d probably kick the shit out of us! But we’ll give them a good run for their money.

You can trace that writing back to the very first Earl Brutus record, ‘Life’s Too Long’, and Stu Boreman wrote some sleeve notes not too dissimilar to that and that’s really the only way he can speak. I think Nick was once trying to describe Earl Brutus and I’d apply those words here: it’s a dyslexic brain. It’s clearly very intelligent and it’s got very clear ideas about how you feel about the world but it all comes out in the wrong order. It’s like dyslexia and we’re a dyslexic pop group that can’t quite express itself in a normal way. It’s like the kid at the party who sits on the stairs and doesn’t want to play the games. I think everybody wants to be liked but there’s a real pleasure in sticking out like a sore thumb and not fitting in and that’s why I like making music at the age of 54 when you’ve got a job.

We’re not bombsite boys; we’re not on the dole. We were once but we’re not any more. It’s important to recognise who you are and not bullshit people. There are other people in that situation but we’re not it. I wouldn’t like to claim that I’m some poor, hard done by working class bloke because I’m not that anymore and neither is anyone else in the band. That’s why we close our show by saying, ‘Not bad for a bunch of media cunts’ because that’s what we are. There’s a reason the artwork is painted in the colours of Farrow & Ball’s catalogue and there are lyrical references to Farrow & Ball, and trouble in suburbia and all that kind of stuff. That’s the kind of world we brush shoulders with and we’re just observing it and making comment on it.

I’m not going to change the world and have no intention of doing so; some of it needs fixing and some of it doesn’t but I’m a pop head and everyone in our group loves pop music and that’s why we do it.

The Male Eunuch is out now on 3LoopMusic

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