Fruitful Tension: Working Men’s Club Interviewed

Syd Minsky-Sargeant may only be 18 but he's working hard at making Working Men's Club a success, says Fergal Kinney. As well as the interview we also have the premiere of the band's new 'White Rooms & People' video

Working Men’s Club’s new single ‘White Rooms & People’ is out today on Heavenly, and you can take a gander at the video directed by Kieran Evans, above

“It was too early, I think everyone in the industry knows that” says Sydney Minsky-Sargeant, about the signing of his band Working Men’s Club to Heavenly Recordings last year, “but with that, we’ve had a lot of help and we’ve really found our feet – meeting Ross Orton who is now our producer is a big thing, he kicked the shit into us.” A pause. “The nice thing that’s happened this year is that it’s ended well, it could have ended with us breaking up. There’s a silver lining in it. It’s been fucking stressful, but we’re still here having this conversation, which is nice and I feel grateful for that.”

Todmorden’s Working Men’s Club began 2019 playing to no more than a dozen people at Manchester’s Night And Day Café, having formed in the middle of 2018. When I first encountered the band earlier this year, I thought they were an alright guitar band – fine, but no more impressive than any other guitar band playing the Peer Hat or whatever. I also had a slight bugbear about the band’s name, something I’m still not sure on (there’s a whole article to be written about indie fetishisation of WMCs, but you’ll be fucked if you think I’m going to put two ideas in one article, not in this economy.) Suddenly, by July, the band had signed to Heavenly. By October, half of the band had left. So how, then, did they end up releasing the genuinely thrilling single ‘Teeth’ – a gurning, throbbing indie techno attack. Just what happened?

I’m sat with the eighteen year old Syd over pints of Guinness at the Golden Lion pub in Todmorden – alongside the Trades Club in neighbouring Hebden, this pub forms a crucial part of an emergent Trans Pennine underground. A smattering of stone houses beard the ascending hills, hills that cause unusually dark winters throughout the valley. In common with much of West Yorkshire and East Lancashire, the town centre is resolute Victoriana, with an outdoor market that just about still exists. There’s a healthy interplay going on with Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Manchester at the moment – far enough from one another to feel separate and healthily antagonistic, but close enough for West Yorkshire acts to gig regularly in Manchester, and for Manchester punters to head easily to the region for gigs.

It was in Manchester that Syd saw his first gig in 2014, on the NME Awards Tour. In common with many guitar acts of their age, the arrival of Fat White Family was galvanising, even if he didn’t fully understand it at the time: “He was rubbing duck fat on himself and shit. I didn’t know what the fuck I was seeing really.” (If you’re one of those boring people who strain to misunderstand Fat White Family – perhaps even, God forbid, throwing in a hilarious joke about flat white coffees – then do try to understand how important that band’s mix of puerility, DIY ethics and genuine menace would sound to ears reared on an unhappy diet of Palma Violets and the Vaccines. Approaching the end of the decade, you can look at the Fat White Family as a bomb going off, and a lot of the good British guitar music we have now is the debris from the blast).

The nascent Working Men’s Club formed at BIMM music college in Manchester early in 2018. “I feel like it’s gone from being teenage music” Syd offers, “I never wanted to be in a post-punk band, this is the project I wanted to do that was going to be weird, and that I didn’t give a shit whether people liked it or not.” The band released their first single, ‘Bad Blood’, early in 2019 – in interviews at the time, Syd already seemed to be distancing himself from the track. A conflict was opening up – after signing the band, Heavenly boss Jeff Barrett listened to some of Syd’s electronic home demos, and suggested that one of those, ‘Teeth’, be recorded as a single. “It’s progressed from being a guitar band to not being a guitar band” says Syd. So that now aligns with your initial vision? “Yeah because they were good songs, as a songwriter it works. After line-up changes we’re much more confident doing that.”

“There was a lot of arguments about what artistic direction it would take. Bands innit” he shrugs, “there’s a lot of artistic rivalry.” Those issues led to the departure of Jake Bogacki – guitarist Guilia left much more amicably, and Syd is keen to praise her solo project, performing as Julia Bardo. Speaking with Syd, there’s the strong sense of a young man – eighteen! – who has had to make far more difficult decisions than someone at his age perhaps should, but that also speaks to a striking sense of purpose (think of young, furious Kevin Rowland and you’re not far off the money.)

Making up the new lineup of Working Men’s Club is the Moonlandingz’ Mairead O’Connor and Drenge’s Rob Graham, alongside bassist Liam Ogburn. The real catalyst, however, was working with Ross Orton – the Sheffield producer who has worked with MIA, Arctic Monkeys and Tricky.

Over the phone from Sheffield, Orton tells me that the initial sessions with the band were fraught with "teething problems" over the band members’ differing visions of where the group should go, but is praising of Syd. “I don’t like using the word genius” he says, “but he’s at that time in his life where this is all so exciting for him and he’s just trying to fill his boots. It’s like there’s free food and drink and he’s starving, and he’s just going for it. He comes up with ideas like lightening, and they’re waiting for him.”

The first time Orton saw the group, he describes them as “a sort of guitar, post-punk Joy Division thing” but by the time he’d got them in the studio, Syd was already moving well away from that. “It’s definitely Syd integrating himself much more with dance music. Mairaed and Robin now are quite experienced with that kind of music.”

Working Men’s Club’s shift to the dancefloor echoes Syd’s own interest in dance culture. “We went to Berlin this summer and the first thing we did is go to a techno club, I didn’t have a pill or anything, just got off the plane and went basically sober. It was brilliant, it works in the same way. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been a raver but I do find it interesting, the resurgence of it will be interesting because politically – the state the world’s in – it’s escapism innit. There’s a guy who puts on raves up on the hills around here and he’s just doing it off the back of fuck all. Cheap speakers on a hill and 300 people turn up – great. That’s interesting and I find that impressive.”

For Syd, Manchester’s current music scene is “boring as fuck, just not very interesting” and he points to the Golden Lion as an example of a venue acting as a spur for creativity. On new bands, he rates Squid and Lazarus Kane – “I’m glad we didn’t work with them but Speedy Wunderground are constantly putting out interesting music” and social media Syd finds “useful and destructive in equal ways”.

Live the band are excellent – Syd, generally topless onstage, is a combative onstage presence, aggressive almost. They take seriously the job of being serious. Having no drummer is hardly revolutionary, but the group’s use of programmed beats does mark them at a curious juncture between 6Music indie rock and genuine dancefloor music – it’s a tension that’s fruitful. They sound in turns like the Human League, or Suicide, or the Fall circa ‘Extricate’; that moment when club sounds and electronics collided with the Fall at their most bold-brush and hooky. Forthcoming track ‘White Rooms And People’ is a fantastic piece of Talking Heads funk pop – like life in a small town itself, it sounds hemmed in, brittle, agoraphobic.

‘Cook A Coffee’ (“Turn on the radio, cook a coffee / tune into the BBC and watch me defecate”) deals with the BBC’s squat brillo-haired, Politics Live anchor. “Saying something political isn’t shocking” says Syd, “but calling someone a cunt is maybe a bit more. The lyrics to that song are terrible, but it’s funny. He deserves to have his head defecated on.” Syd, who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the word ‘SOCIALISM’ in the band’s press shots, has an uneasy relationship with politics and music. “When I talk about politics, I’m not really talking about politics. I’m just saying what I think. And people don’t say what they think, they say what they know will please people. I will vote for Labour but I don’t endorse anyone, that’s not my job." He looks away, out the window into the darkening Todmorden high street. “I do think there should be a revolution though.”

Working Men’s Club tour the UK this month and Europe during March and April

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