Dr. John Cooper Clarke: “Get Me While I’m Alive!”

He’s the Bard of Salford, a punk-performance poet par excellence whose influence has trickled down from sharing stages with Joy Division to collaborating with the Arctic Monkeys. Ahead of his show on April 28th, Mike McGrath-Bryan chats about poetry, stagecraft, and the legacy of punk with Dr. John Cooper Clarke.

John Cooper Clarke is in very good form at the other end of the phone, a midweek presser interview happening on a sunny afternoon. Personable and honest, his Mancunian-accented voice resonates warmly down the line, spoken deliberately but with good humour and a wit you’d expect from a performer whose way with words and non-traditional influence led him to a legendary career, culminating in a doctorate from the University of Salford. He mulls over a line of questioning he’s been sent in advance. “We’ll talk about it like gentlemen”, he chuckles. It’s almost disarming, coming from a man of his stature.

Growing from a young boy in Manchester with the gift of a turn of phrase, to the artistic contemporary of bands like The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, and Joy Division, rock ‘n’ roll mythologists might be slightly surprised that his body of work began with a very brief stint in folk clubs in his home city. It’s a dichotomy that didn’t quite sit right with him for a few reasons, and set the tone for how he’d proceed. “I give ‘em a wide berth, to be honest. Maybe once or twice. But if you grew up in 1950s England, you’ll remember that enjoyment of folk music was rigidly enforced, to counter the perceived Americanisation of popular culture, which I was in favour of. I always saw folk as some creepy, state-sanctioned f*ckin’ brainwashing technique. I’m not talking about Christy Moore, Dylan or the Pogues, more Morris dancing and that anti-American rubbish. I wanted to get into show business. I’d determined I would take it up as a profession, and the only way I knew of, really, given that there weren’t any venues, or any chance of anyone from my background getting a publishing deal right away, was to drag it into the world of showbiz!”

Poetry had scarcely been reaching non-traditional audiences up to the point of Clarke’s youth, reaching his family via Pam Ayres’ recurring spot on ITV’s postal-vote talent show Opportunity Knocks. In a world of YouTube poetry videos and shortform content, the idea of poetry topping the billing on such a television show today is nearly astounding, but for Clarke, it was what he needed to win his family over on his calling. “When I became interested in becoming a professional poet, I didn’t get much encouragement. They were only thinking of my welfare, I’m sure, but my parents pointed out that to their knowledge, no-one had ever made money out of it (laughs)… I’d mention famous modern poets like Philip Larkin, and they’d say ‘he’s a librarian’. Things like that. They were trying to be kind and discourage me from an ill-advised avenue of wealth.”

As mentioned, Clarke earned the moniker ‘The Bard of Salford’ by sharing stages with greats of the punk oeuvre across the late seventies and early eighties. While his live run and recorded work placed him firmly in that genre’s performance-art pantheon, to Clarke, it was a means of getting out and expanding his range. “Let’s deal with that moniker. After getting lumbered with that label, my first priority was to move to London. Who wants to be a local eccentric? F*ck that. The world of punk-rock provided a ticket for this, it only lasted two years, I think, but it provided an intense personal connection for the fans. For me, it got me out of Manchester and around the world, several times. It provided an opportunity for this kind of thing. It only lasted two years, and very few people were involved, but its effect on the cultural world, and in the UK, was disproportionate (chuckles). It shows you the power of mythology! It’s developed its own mythology which has intensified over time. And a general “anti-hippieness” that was so intoxicating at the time.”

A long-form poetry film is something that is just not seen anymore, much less given the opportunity to reach any sort of audience. While formulating a question on his memories, or current thoughts, of the creation of his own masterwork, ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’, he’s quick to issue a correction that’s shown up in this very parish lately via the festival rounds. “I’ll give you one – Cyrano de Bergerac, with Gerard Depardieu. Blinder! It’s got swordplay as well! ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’, I haven’t seen it in about thirty years. It hasn’t aged very well, I imagine. I watch my films once, and once only. Why suffer more?”

Salford returned the favour to its Bard in 2013 with an honorary doctorate from the University of Salford. Given his feelings on the discrepancy between literary academia and non-traditional forms nowadays, it must have been quite an experience to receive that recognition. “Why not me? At first, I thought, ‘why me?’, but then I read somewhere that Benjamin Zephaniah has sixteen doctorates from as many universities. ‘Thank you’, that was my response. Anything that entitles me to call myself Doctor, ‘thanks very much’. You don’t see him using them, though, he doesn’t call himself Doctor, and he’s entitled sixteen times over, whereas me, I won’t let people forget about it! I’m not wearing those ridiculous clothes in daylight and not call myself Doctor!”

His legacy in music continues to this day, including collaborations with the Arctic Monkeys and Reverend & the Makers, and regular live appearances reciting his own work at music venues around the world. When asked for his thoughts on the influence of his work on younger musicians, poets and performers, however, he’s happy to let that with those he’s influenced. “You’d have to ask somebody else, really, Mike. I’m glad of all the interest that I’d been shown, by Alex (Turner, Arctic Monkeys frontman) and Ben Drew, who used one of my works in the movie ‘Plan B’. I’m very grateful for this mass-media attention, obviously? What’s a poet if nobody knows about it? Without glamour and/or money? A schnorrer, a beggar (laughs). Anything that brings me closer to financial security (laughs louder).”

Clarke is playing Live at St. Luke’s on Sunday April 28th, with Mike Garry and Stephen James Smith, as part of an extended run of Irish dates he’ll have been on, including a big show at Dublin’s Vicar Street. He readily offers a message to the gig-goers, word-speakers and general culture-vultures of the Leeside city. “The last one I did in Ireland was three weeks ago in Vicar Street, which was fabulous. There’s no reason to suspect that St. Luke’s won’t be every bit as good. All I can say to the people of Cork is: ‘no pressure, but get me while I’m alive!’.”

John Cooper Clarke is playing Live at St. Luke’s on Sunday April 28th, with Mike Garry and Stephen James Smith in support. Tickets €30 on sale now via uticket.ie.

Autonomads: “Write About It, Document It”

Ahead of a headline show in Fred Zeppelin’s next week, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Porl, drummer from Manchester anarcho-punks Autonomads.

Living by a strict code of do-it-yourself ethics is constantly getting harder for musicians. The net is tightening on independent labels and artists in light of the ongoing changeover in habits to paid streaming, and questions of how the money trickles down persist. Meanwhile, city centres are changing all over Europe, and gentrification has seen to multiple city centres’ DIY spaces. Against all of this in the back, Mancunian dub/ska punks Autonomads continue to plough their own furrow, with fourth record ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ releasing in February of this year via the Ruin Nation label. Drummer Porl talks about how it came together. “We wrote the songs for this record over the year or so before recording, with a couple of the tunes only really coming together just before we went in to the studio. We recorded most of it over two days in the Lake District, about a year before it was released. We used the same engineer as our last album, ‘One Day This Will All Be Gone’. The house belongs to our mate, she let us have free run of the place, so had cables trailing around the house, micing up guitar cabs in cupboards. We built a ‘vocal booth’ out of some mattresses that were lying about. If you listen closely you can hear the sound of the fire crackling on ‘Babylon Rock’. It was all pretty relaxed, and easier doing it away from a professional studio where time is money and it can feel a bit clinical.”

The band is currently dealing with being split between three cities, and working away on other musical projects at the same time. Touring and releases stay co-ordinated and organised, but with the effort of the whole band, staying connected while occupying different roles. “Once upon a time, most of us lived together, so booking a gig was as easy as walking around the house and knocking on a few doors. These days it’s WhatsApp and emails! On the surface it might appear organised, but most of the time it’s like a pan of spaghetti on the back burner (laughs). I do most of the booking and gig listings, Eliot handles the orders. We all feed ideas in and meet up when we can. Usually about an hour before we play a gig! The plan is to meet up for a few days at a time at a mate’s pub, and practice on blocks like that. Being in Bristol, Manchester, Windermere, Stratford and having other projects takes some juggling, but it happens because we all want it, I guess. If we weren’t all best mates it would be hard!”

Aside from a 7″ release of the EP, ‘All Quiet…’ is also finding its way out on tape this summer – what’s the continued appeal of a tape pressing now that the novelty factor of the tape revival is all but done away with? “A label from Manchester called Prejudice Me are taking it on, along with an American label, No Time Records, and Hamburg’s Uga Uga tapes. All people we’ve met over the years. I guess it’s another format that people still like, still collect, et cetera.”

Leadoff digital single ‘All Roads Lead to Hulme’ sets the tone for the record, an impassioned response to gentrification in their hometown and the cultural changes wrought by ongoing property speculation and poorly considered urban regeneration programmes. “The photo on (the front cover of the 7”) was taken by (band member) Iain. Hulme, Manchester. Hulme is significant for the travellers, squatters and wrong’uns. The development of this area was the focus of most the record, and the high rent prices & new builds are forcing people to move on.” It’s easy to draw comparisons to what’s happening here in Cork, with arts centres being cleared out of the city centre for offices and a Celtic Tiger-style property bubble pricing longtime city-dwellers out of their homes and communities. Porl has advice for artists, activists and workers dealing with displacement in the wake of gentrification. “Write about it, document it, it’s a people’s history that needs telling. Future generations can end up standing in the shadow of these buildings and developments, alienated from their environment and not knowing the history of an area. Hulme has always been home to the punks, hippies, crusties and anarcho types, and with that comes a creative and diverse force. The tide of gentrification that attempts to wash this away can leave people feeling alienated, and it’s important to tell these stories, resist high rents, squat and occupy space.”

Political music is everywhere, and more accessible than ever thanks to streaming. And yet, whether through a growing concentration of media ownership and interests, or a lack of curatorship on the part of streaming services, there’s a dearth of social/political music in the ‘mainstream’ or even relatively broad musical conversation. It’s a tough one to discuss without the threat of co-option, as Porl posits. “Do we want our music and that of our community co-opted by the same machine we’re singing against? So many bands with integrity and a voice enter the mainstream and get their art watered down into a pallid and consumable gruel, with nothing but the image of ‘social conscience’ left. An image that is sold back to us at too high a price, even though it was one that we all helped to create with love, hope and hard work. It’s very hard to penetrate the media sheen and come out smelling of roses. The mainstream music industry is a charade. You get into the magazines and the radio shows and TV by paying an agent to pay the agents of such institutions. All the romance and beauty of this industry that we believe as kids getting in to it is false. The reason so very few bands with integrity and a message reach the dizzy heights of the NME and Radio 1 is because they aren’t prepared to pay.”

Autonomads heading for Ireland in the next few weeks with tour support from solo side-project Captain Hotknives, and local support from alt-rock-informed punk rockers Audible Joes. It’s new territory for the band, but they’re ready to take on the red room upstairs on Parliament Street on the 10th. “We’re all really looking forward to coming to Ireland, as none of us have been before, and we have heard lots of great things!” It’s the relative calm before a storm of festival dates and touring for the record, suitably chaotic amid the rest of their lives. “We’ve got a few gigs dotted about in the UK. Manchester, Kelburn Garden Party, Swinefest and some others, then we’re off to Germany for a few festivals in July. Fire and Flames – a good anti-fascist crew putting this together. Then in September, we’re going to the Netherlands, Belgium and about again… between all of this, we are fitting in other tours and working precarious jobs to fund it all (laughs). We’ve all maintained pretty flexible jobs in order to carry on doing music. It can be tricky, but it means our creative stuff can keep its integrity and not be about the dosh!”

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is streaming and available for download at autonomads.bandcamp.com

GNOD R&D: “Leave the Bullshit at the Door”

One of the UK’s most transgressive and experimental bands, GNOD, are on an ‘R&D’ excursion next week, including a stop at An Spailpín Fánach. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to co-founder Paddy Shine.

Since coalescing in 2007, Salford, Manchester-based collective GNOD have taken to casually chipping away at such dated restrictions as genre, medium of presentation, and so forth. Their music has traversed over the years from space-rock and heft through psychedelia and spacier sounds, and over the course of their decade-plus of live activity, have seen over forty musicians take the stage as part of an ever-shifting, amorphous collective of improvisers and disruptors, playing gigs, open sessions and providing the backdrop for artistic installations. The move by co-founders Paddy Shine and Chris Haslam to scale back for a while, then, comes as a surprise, especially off the back of some of their most aggressive material yet. But as Shine attests to, the ‘R&D’ wing of the band is about getting back to exploration. “Stripping down, simplifying, opening it all up again. The last couple of years have been fairly riffy and tight. We wanted to blow it wide open again, and also jam and learn from some new people, and R&D is the perfect platform for that.”

In aid of that objective, the band are taking on a quick round of Irish dates following some solo appearances from Paddy on Irish gigging bills late last year. On February 11th, joined by freak-folkers Woven Skull and noise band Sioraí Geimhreadh, GNOD (R&D) will have what’s being referred to as an open stage, for other performers and creators to interact with proceedings. It’s worked for the band thus far, while on excursion around the UK. “We have had some killer shows: a fourteen-piece ensemble in London, which was the first time we ever played with a bassoon on stage; lots of shows with free jazz drummers, which is super-exciting and a killer show in Bristol, where (techno innovator) Surgeon showed up, and kicked it with us. Lots of tension and awkward silences, we love that stuff.”

Last year saw the release of most recent long-player ‘JUST SAY NO TO THE PSYCHO RIGHT-WING CAPITALIST FASCIST INDUSTRIAL DEATH MACHINE’ in March via Rocket. The title says it all about the sociopolitical modus operandi of the band, and as an album, it positively bristles with disdain and discord, but when questioned on the creative and recording/production processes for the LP, Shine holds his cards close to his chest. “Spontaneous, heartfelt, one take vibes. We can’t give too much away on our process I’m afraid.” The record released amid the onset of some frankly horrid world events last year – Trump, Brexit, etc. It’s falsely claimed in some quarters that there’s ‘no political art’ to counter what’s being presented in some mainstream outlets, a fallacy that the record confronts. After a long 2017 that saw the band get very vocal in interviews about world events, Shine is looking toward GNOD’s art and music as rest and recuperation. “I personally have dropped out of paying too much attention to these things right now. I just want to make my bubble as self sufficient, welcoming and full of love as possible. Everyone’s invited, just leave all the bullsh*t at the door. On one hand, the world is a f*cking mess, on the other it’s paradise. I wanna focus on paradise right now.”

The bubble in question extends also to GNOD’s wider ventures: their Tesla Tapes label has been helping circulate music from kindred souls to the band, including Irish outfit Divil a’ Bit. What is the climate like right now for running a DIY label? “Same as it always has been. We are not in it for the money or the accolades, that’s for sure. It’s just a nice way to keep things moving for all involved. Keep the juices flowing.” An aside of an aside, Tesla Tapes co-curates the Onotesla show on UK community radio network NTS Radio, and features Irish music regularly, including recent play for Woven Skull and Crevice with the former being invited on as selectors. It speaks to the strength of the Irish underground. “It’s so strong, and nice, and warm, and varied, and unconcerned with being cool. The underground here is way more than just being about music or art. I’m only scratching the surface of it here, ask me again in ten years.”

For those following an outfit marked out by their seemingly unending graft and self-direction, news of a packed schedule for the rest of 2018 following this excursion will come as no surprise. Shine is prepared either way. “Lots of tours, collaborations, and four albums getting released in 2018. Same as always: noses to the grindstone.”

‘JUST SAY NO…’ is available now from gnod.bandcamp.com.