Rail Replacement Rock – Jim Fry Of The Pre-New Interviewed

Jim Fry, formerly of Earl Brutus and World Of Twist, talks to John Doran about his new band The Pre-New, pop art, rock music made by estate agents and the horror of Banksy...

In the early days of the 18th Century, randy 20-year-old peer of the realm, Lord Robert Petre cut a lock of hair from the head of celebrated beauty Arabella Fermor, in a feverish fit of lustiness. This act caused a veritable froth of indignation amongst the chattering classes of the day and a violent divide to open up between the two, powerful families. The poet Alexander Pope had a decent stab at defusing the situation by writing a mock epic poem called The Rape Of The Lock, which described the relatively trivial action and subsequent fall out in the highly elaborate style of a Homeric odyssey.

“Then flash’d the living Lightnings from her Eyes,

And Screams of Horror rend th’ affrighted Skies.

Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,

When Husbands, or when Lapdogs breathe their last,

Or when rich China Vessels, fal’n from high,

In glitt’ring Dust and painted Fragments lie!”

From ‘The Rape Of The Lock’ by Alexander Pope

In the early years of the 21st Century, a similar non-event happened in the heartland of chattering class London. A team of painters working for Hackney Council, standing on a cherry picker started painting over the gable end of a row of houses half way down Church Street, Hackney. They were covering over some (piss poor) graffiti of what appeared to be a clan of Moomins waving from a balcony, like the Royal Family, with a thick coat of appropriately calming dark blue paint. But it turned out that some people believed the ‘piece’ to be an ‘original Banksy’ and had descended on the site of the supposed cultural atrocity. Such turmoil had not been felt in N16 since Nando’s opened a branch down Church Street. Grown adults were wailing and gnashing their teeth, ululating: "Please don’t paint over our Banksy!"

All of this made me think – where was our Alexander Pope? Where was the person to point out, with relative good grace, the short comings of all this flat pack, MDF modern culture and the tiresome debate we have to have in its wake?

In the early days of April, 2012, when talking to Jim Fry – a photographer, former member of World Of Twist and Earl Brutus and current member of The Pre-New – unprompted he brought up the mysteriously popular stencil artist and then uttered the following statement: "Ugh, I just hate Banksy. We needed our own equivalent to New York graffiti, I guess, and we got Banksy in the same way we got Cliff Richard instead of Elvis. We’ve pulled the short straw on several occasions over the years. Just think, we could have had [Jean-Michel] Basquiat but we got Banksy instead.”

And I thought, "Cometh the hour, cometh the man."

The Pre-New formed two years ago in order to play Glastonbury and to pay tribute to fallen comrades Nick Sanderson and Tony Ogden. The group featuring Jim, Gordon King, Stuart Borman and Shinya Hayashida from Earl Brutus as well as ‘New’ Stu Wheldon and Laurence Bray, are now their own, fully formed entity however.

Fans of Earl Brutus won’t be disappointed with their new album Songs For People Who Hate Themselves and its combination of glam rock, neo disco, synth pop, post punk, EBM and psych but as Jim explains, over the course of two caffeine fuelled hours, this is new music. The only time the Pre-New look back is when they revisit a time when people looked forward. The Pre-New are modern not post modern. They are a sonic snapshot of 2012 in all of its glorious mundanity. Resplendent in Polo Ralph Lauren yellow and pink, taking potshots at civic art, Foxtons The Estate Agents, text conversation abbreviations and Susan Boyle. They are rock stars. They eat Mars Bars. They are a band for our times.

What’s the state of play Jim?

Jim Fry: I’m 50. Gordon and Stuart are 50. Nick would have been 50 if he were still with us. But we’re ok. And I look at people who are 19 or 20 and they’re ok as well. My daughter’s into drum and bass. My son’s big into sampling. They’ve got lots of stuff going on. But I feel sorry for people who are 30 something now.

How come?

JF: They had their whole Blur and Oasis thing in the mid 90s and now they’ve grown up and they’re a bit lost really. These 30 somethings will never own houses, they’ll never pay off their students loans and they’ll never even have the magical musical moments in the same way as the rest of us. It’s all being recycled now and you can tell that Britpop generation missed out. There’s loads of good stuff going on now. And it’s never been easier to find music. It’s never been easier to reach people and to put music out. We’re finding that now with The Pre-New. But the fucking 30 year olds… all they do is run marathons and listen to Oasis. It’s not good enough. Bless ‘em! I feel sorry for them. What do they do after work? Buy a Star Wars box set and sit round waiting for a Blur reunion? It’s not good enough!

This is the thing for the Britpop people isn’t it? I guess they could find themselves trying to work out what exactly was so magical about that Menswe@r and Echobelly gig at the Town and Country club that time in 1996.

JF: [laughing] Well, to be fair Earl Brutus were around in that era but I just don’t see why people can’t make new records. We’d never do it [reform Earl Brutus] because Nick isn’t here but even if we could do one of these gigs and pack out the Town and Country Club we’d turn it down because we’d only do it if we had a new record out. It’s a bit like the remake of Brighton Rock. Why? What a great film that was originally. What a great book that was originally. Why hasn’t someone written a new story instead? I think age is going to play a big part in this discussion… [laughing]

Why don’t you tell me about the name The Pre-New. Is it to do with Jeff Koons the artist?

JF: Yeah, it is. The name comes from The Jeff Koons Handbook and that’s how we operate. Jeff Koons said that if John Lennon was making art he would make art like his. And I agree with that. He would have made massive cuddly toys with giant eyes or hideous ornaments. He would have made pop art. Jeff Koons is very British in a weird sort of way. He loves chintz and kitsch. He is very pop art in a Sgt. Pepper’s kind of way. I think he’s very good at doing something that we aim to do – which is to gather stuff up and to throw it back at them. The art world despised him because he was a dealer who became an artist. He puts a suit on to go to work. I love those photographs of him hanging round in his suit with a hard hat on with some construction workers, scaffolding and some plans. It made people sick! And then the next page it’s him licking out his wife on some rocks. Just fantastic.

What pop art do you like?

JF: You’ve got Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and now you’ve got Jeremy Deller. I mention Jeremy not because he was very pro-World Of Twist and very pro-Earl Brutus but because he’s fantastic. I went to see his show the other week and it was astonishing. It’s our generation put in an art gallery. But The Pre-New name just sat perfectly with what we are. There’s no point in us denying or being ashamed of all the really brilliant wonderful things we’ve lived through and witnessed. Also it would be foolish to pretend that we haven’t got baggage or a past. Most of it is good but there are a couple of things that shouldn’t have happened – losing Tony Ogden and losing Nick Sanderson. So whatever we do we have to reference the past but at the same time we should always be plunging forward. The Pre-New is about feeling sorry for the Star Wars generation. They get excited about and nostalgic about Star Wars and not the actual moon landings.

Did you watch the Moon landings?

JF: Yeah I did watch them. We had the day off school and it was really surreal. Well, I didn’t know what the word surreal meant then but it was really weird. You looked up at the moon that night and you knew there were people up there. And then I saw Concorde flying as well and we were witnessing these modern things but then at some point it all stopped. But I work with people who bang on about Star Wars like it’s some kind of revelation. It’s just a fucking film. It’s not worth getting upset about. It’s a good film – you can enjoy watching it like you’d enjoy watching a Western but it’s not worth the fuss.

When you use symbols like the British Rail sign and Concorde, is the idea that you’re looking back to a time when we had an exciting future to look forward to – to a time when the future seemed viable?

For those who don’t know, can you explain what the connection between Nick Sanderson your old Earl Brutus bandmate and the British Rail sign is?

JF: I met Nick 30 years ago. He was a drummer and I was a lighting guy for Clock DVA. We formed a group with Dave Ball, who had just left Soft Cell, we put out one silly record. It was good. We moved down here. Then Nick joined World Of Twist, a band that I’d been in. Nick, Tony, Gordon and me were one little pack who did everything together so we formed Earl Brutus. It was time for the lighting guy and the drummer to have a go and get up front but it worked. Nick was reticent to get up front and be the singer at first but it worked. He was the most tornado-like character in the band and as it went on he simply embraced this fact. Nick and me went through the Earl Brutus thing. Nick was rock & roll he played for the Jesus And Mary Chain and The Gun Club but not only that he came from a railway family. He was also into rail travel. He became quite jaded about rock, he became a railwayman, he became a dad. He figured that using his skill as a drummer – his reactions – he could become a train driver, driving trains out of Victoria for Southern. And that was what he did until he got ill and died four years ago.

And is that colour scheme a nod of the hat to Jamie Reid and Never Mind The Bollocks?

JF: No, that colour scheme is from Ralph Lauren. We wanted to bring it into the 21st Century. Another obsession of the Pre-New is Foxtons. If Earl Brutus in your mind’s eye was the Metropolitan Police Force’s rock band, then we wanted The Pre-New to be as if Foxtons The Estate Agents had formed a rock band. And if you listen to the album there’s a direct reference to them on ‘Cathedral City Come Down’ but also on ‘In A Perfect Place’ [which features Sarah Cracknell on vocals] which is about a business woman being shown round an apartment. I hoped that people would think about the colours to Never Mind The Bollocks when they saw the album art but it’s actually Polo Ralph Lauren’s colours for this season. We did some pictures at the weekend like we were Windsor boys playing rugby. They are the most revolting pictures you’ve ever seen. I guess we want people to look at this album in ten years’ time and think that it’s very much of its time. Laurence came up with the idea of calling it Music For People Who Hate Themselves which we immediately jumped on but we were originally toying with the idea of calling it Rail Replacement Rock and this was to do with the fact that you can end up spending half your life on buses even though you’re supposed to be taking trains.

It’s interesting that you’ve got the BR logo on the front of the album during the months when the NHS is being led out onto the killing floor. And I know it’s hard to talk about this stuff without coming across as a Morrissey-style little Englander but I was wondering to what extent you think the Britain you grew up in has irrevocably changed?

JF: Well Britain has definitely changed and I guess a lot of it has changed for the better. You didn’t eat courgettes until you were 32. [laughs] The Common Market brought all these new vegetables in. In suburbia, you couldn’t wait for change. Now, with the internet, there’s never been a better time to stay in. Obviously I love the NHS and don’t want it to go and I love the welfare state – one of the best inventions in the world. So I want that to stay the same but in other ways change is good. Britpop was all about looking backwards and in Earl Brutus we didn’t want any part of that. To borrow a phrase; nostalgia is a denial of the future and if you spend too much time looking over your shoulder you’ll never get anything done. I don’t want to rubbish anyone and it’s in us all to like The Beatles and The Sex Pistols but to build a career on it is just poor. It’s not very futuristic. And it’s not very modern. It’s very old fashioned.

Why don’t you make like James Brown and introduce the band?

JF: The current line-up that represents the album is Shinya on bass. Since our show at Glastonbury he’s moved to Sweden so we rely heavily on Skype to stay in touch with him. You’ll hear him on the album reading the credits out at the end. Gordon King will come and go and he’s responsible for all the samples and loops. Stuart Borman comes in and out. In classic style he wants to be in a band but doesn’t want to get on stage so you’ll hear him doing his spoken word bit on ‘A Song For People Who Hate Themselves’ and at the end of ‘Cathedral City Comedown’ talking about roundabouts and Letraset. The new people who have probably put most work into the group are Laurence Bray and ‘New’ Stu Wheldon who play guitar. They like West Coast psychedelic rock. They’re not bothered about the music that we’re into. Laurence is brilliant he’s like the driving force behind it in a way and Stu is like the brains of the operation. He’s one of those people who if he touches something it just works. If I touch something it tends to break. They’re the bedrock of this album and they’re why it’s different to Earl Brutus.

Well, if there’s one clear bridge from the Brutus through to the The Pre-New it’s the song ‘Teenage Taliban’.

JF: Yeah, we did that in Jim Reid’s front room. We used his Portastudio when he invited us over. We used to play this song live with Brutus but it was very raw. We didn’t really know the words to it, so I had to write round it. I went to Spain and I was sat on a balcony drinking beer one night and I wrote some words that were more cohesive. ‘Teenage Taliban’ was the last Earl Brutus song, written well after we left Island.

How was it starting The Pre-New after going through all the grief and pain of losing Nick?

JF: We didn’t know how it would be received. It was a funny thing to do this because we didn’t really know… When someone dies everything is done posthumously. Earl Brutus were a good band and we loved doing it but we were all in shock when Nick died and didn’t know what to think. But when we read the obituaries written by people like Bob Stanley and Roy Wilkinson and stuff written in the Guardian it made me think, “I wish Nick could read this.” Because people said some astonishing things. And another thing is, people always say they’re going to do stuff at funerals. And the Mary Chain said that they would do something for Romy [Nick’s wife] and the kids. But they booked it [the Traindriver In Eye-Liner benefit] and did it, despite the friction that there is in their group. So it just shows what truly warm and kind people they are to show that amount of commitment to a friend. Hats off to them.

So I was getting lent on by a few people who were saying, “Come on we’ve got to get a band together before we turn 50.” And I was thinking, it’s got to be handled perfectly. To be honest, it would have been much easier to do nothing. To be careful of the memory of Nick and Brutus and just look back on it from afar, saying, “Those were the days.” But we haven’t done that and you’re making a rod for your own back but people have been nice about it. Nick wasn’t the sort of person who would have stood in our way or anything like that but it would have been much easier to do nothing.

Is The Pre-New more art than rock & roll?

JF: No, but the thing that has changed is that in between being in Earl Brutus and being in The Pre-New, I had nothing to do so I went away and did a fine art degree at college. I went for an interview at Croydon College and found out that Bowie went there. It was a case of, “If it’s good enough for David Bowie, it’s good enough for Jim Fry.” Jamie Reid went there as well. It was a top notch place in its day but it was a shithole and falling apart when I went there. That said, you end up making this amazing work there. It was exactly the right thing to do when I was about 40 and my band had fallen apart. So now the art college is the difference. It teaches you how to be organized and how to express these ideas that you have like British Rail and Ralph Lauren. It teaches you not to be scared. You don’t have to go to art college. I didn’t have to go. I just went because I was at a loose end and otherwise I just would have just got drunk each afternoon but it was fantastic and it taught me discipline. And that’s where the Jeff Koons thing comes from.

Feature continues after sleeve art

JF: I didn’t get much out of going to school, I thought it was boring. What was important to me when I was at school was having all the right Buzzcocks badges. And I’d like to think we’re as arty as the Buzzcocks. The Linder Sterling artwork which references John Heartfield. Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell used to deface library books which was a work of genius. They put them in prison for that but when Islington Library was faced with closure they had to auction off some of those books to save it. It’s only round the corner from here. Maybe someone could do something like that to save the health service. We’d be laughing then wouldn’t we?

We should send Jake and Dinos Chapman into Great Ormond Street to start sewing genitals onto children’s faces.

JF: Someone described me and Nick as the Jake and Dinos Chapman of rock and it doesn’t get any better than that. But if you mean are The Pre-New trashy pop art then yeah we are. I don’t mind admitting that. If I think about all the people I admire in music, they’re all arty. David Bowie. Pete Townsend. The only person who isn’t is Bruce Springsteen. He always avoided it. I was thinking the other day that if Townsend smashed up guitars then The Pre-New would be the sort of band who would smash up iPads.

What about the lyrics. There are some hilarious lyrics on the album and I found myself laughing quite a lot when I was listening to it. Do you abbreviate when you’re texting?

JF: No. I make a point of not doing that. We were going to write a song where all the lyrics were wrong because of predictive texting. It’s another modern world thing. ‘Albion’ was written to be played at the Royal Wedding. We were going to record CDs of the track and throw them over the wall of Buckingham Palace before the wedding. So ‘Albion’ was going to be written for the first dance. But then Stu came up with these other ideas that imagine if a really nice alien came to Earth and just started looking round at Susan Boyle and Easy Jet and was like, “What the fuck is going on?” And also I shamelessly nicked Kevin Roland’s line from the end of ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ – “There’s no beauty any more.” This alien would be looking at a Banksy and going, “What the fuck is this?”

I’ve got more time for Su Bo than I have for Banksy but I know what you’re saying.

JF: I’m sure she’s a very nice lady but that’s not the point. Maybe she’s Banksy…

That would explain a lot to be honest…

JF: Banksy. Give me a fucking break. It’s just shit.

The council nearly painted over a Banksy near where I lived a few years ago and there were grown adults in tears wailing, “Don’t paint over the Banksy!” It was pathetic.

JF: There’s something really new wave about him. He’s like the Bob Geldof/Boomtown Rats of art.

I think it’s the public art equivalent of an Athena poster from 1985. You know like, “A Hard Man Is Good To Find” or a baby in a boot with spaghetti on its head.

JF: Urgh, I just hate it. We needed our own equivalent to New York graffiti I guess and we got Banksy in the same way we got Cliff Richard instead of Elvis. We’ve pulled the short straw on several occasions. We could have had Basquiat but we got Banksy. ‘Cathedral City Comedown’ is a very autobiographical song. Probably the only sensible thing I’ve ever done in some ways was to try and earn some money so me and this guy we bought this house and tried to do it up and we got shafted by so many builders and idiots and so-called friends – it was around the time that Nick died so it was a bad time anyway – and after two years, I made about £1,000. I should have worked behind a bar. It would have been a lot easier.

‘Do You Like My New Hair’ is quite pop.

JF: That’s one of New Stu’s and his West Coast thing coming through. There’s a line in there by Stuart [Borman] that says, “Transform me. Lipstick on me.” Near to Euston there’s a shop called Transform that allows you to dress up as a woman and after the process you go to their bar and you sit on a sofa and sip tea or have a cocktail. You’re allowed to be a woman for twenty minutes. Gordon had this idea that for his 50th we were all going to go and do that. They probably wouldn’t have let us in but it was in keeping with the great rock & roll idea of dressing as a woman, the Rolling Stones, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’. ‘Transfer’ doesn’t have any lyrics but the idea to that was we were originally going to do a song called ‘Transfer Your Affection’, which means that eventually you have to shake off what has happened to you. You have to get out of grieving and get out of mourning. It’s not disrespectful. Eventually you have to shift your focus and put your energy elsewhere and that was what became ‘Transfer’. And really we just wanted to say thanks to Tony and Nick because we’d dined out on them. We’d been to Glastonbury. That was our way of saying that we respected them.

How do you feel about having strange stage sets these days?

JF: You said earlier that the album made you laugh. And I’m pleased about that. I’m glad it’s not a witless piece of work. But there’s always been an element with all the groups I’ve been in which is more ‘Why can’t we do it’ than ‘Do we dare do it’. In the past this attitude has been discussed as pub rock made real. Which is to say, these are the ideas you come up with sat around in the pub but made real. So why can’t you have a revolving sign that says Piss Off on it? Once you have the idea, all you have to do then is just make it happen. What’s more important is how it is received. I’m of the opinion that it’s not enough to just stand there on stage. Me on stage, a guitarist stood there, another guitarist stood there. That’s not enough, and I don’t expect other people to find it interesting either. It takes a very special person – called Iggy Pop – to do that. So when we discussed playing live recently we talked about having a pylon on stage with us receiving information. What we do now is the same thing we’ve always done, which is to look around us and to notice what’s going on. I’m a photographer by trade so I look at things. With the group we look at things around us and then throw them back at people. Just throw it in people’s faces.

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