The Brute Chorus interviewed
Things you never hear said when The Brute Chorus play: "More cowbell!"
For they rock those bells as if their lives depend on it - summoning up whatever voodoo vibes drive their particular take on junkshop rhythm and blues. Significantly rawer in the live environment than thus far captured on vinyl, frontman James Steel (vocals, guitars, harmonica and kazoo) throws more shapes than a Chinese lantern show, even when faced with an audience like this evening's, seemingly infiltrated by a gang of middle-aged women hellbent on celebrating one of their number's birthday.
With fine tracks like 'Nebuchadnezzar' and the yobbish anthem 'Grow Fins', they should find a willing audience among anyone who's ever spun a Billy Childish or Gallon Drunk tune long after the clock has struck midnght.
Fresh from recording their set at Camden's Freedm Studios for future release we found James and his colleagues - Nick Foots (vocals, guitars, keyboards), Dave Ferrett (vocals, bass), Matt Day (vocals, drums) - hungry (literally) and out of cigarettes but keen to discuss recent adventures and plans for 2009.
The Brute Chorus: Taking Care of Business.
This is the first night of this leg of your tour. Are you looking forward to these dates?
James: We've got a good gig in Glasgow tomorrow night with Broken Family Band and we're duetting with Adele from Sons & Daughters.
Nick: It's being filmed for Channel 4. It's downhill after Carlisle and Glasgow though! (laughs) We're playing a lot of places we've never played before so it's always a bit like uncharted waters.
You have a sound I think will play well north of the border.
James: It's been OK in the past. We've only played there 3 or 4 times.
Dave: I don't know if it's the sound but people seem more up for it than the stoic London crowd.
Do you consider yourself a London band? You have a restlessness that I sometimes associate with the capital.
James: We love living in London but it's really incidental to the music we make. None of us are from London: Nick and Matt are from the north, Dave's an Essex boy and I've lived all the places under the sun. It's just where we happened to meet.
But it hasn't coloured what you do?
Nick: You're influenced by where you live and what's going on around you but that's the length of it. We've not made a conscious decision to rehash The Libertines.
James: That's all so generic. Everywhere you go that kind of sound has filtered out. When you tour you see 3 or 4 different bands every night and often you can't choose between them.
Tell me a little bit about why you decided to record a live album.
James: It just seemed to suit us the best. We spend so much time gigging and so many of our songs have evolved in front of people it just felt right to record them. It's not an easy option and the challenge inspired us.
Nick: It's something massive to aim for. Nobody really makes live albums any more and you've got to ask yourself why. There aren't that many great live albums and there are not many bands who you could persuade to make one for one reason or another.
James: Certainly not their first one.
Once you get past the MC5 nothing much springs to mind. You obviously felt that something happens on stage that you wanted to capture.
Nick: We've never spent that much time in the studio so it was the natural way of relating what we do best. Someone has to press the big red button at the right time.
The day of recording must have been pretty daunting.
Dave: It was a bit of a dreamlike state for me. I wasn't nervous, I just really psyched myself up.
James: We'd spent 5 weeks rehearsing pretty heavily with the producer, going over all the parts and how everything was going to pan out. So when the day rolled around there was a zen-like calm but I was feeling really emotional. Not like when I go on stage normally: it was more the significance of it being our first record, something that we'd built towards for a long time - not just those 5 weeks. Most of my life I'd been thinking about it and it was over in a day!
I guess the crowd were willing you on, wanting you to succeed.
Nick: They were brilliant. They were quiet during the quiet bits, loud when they needed to be and genuinely appreciative.
James: And when things fucked up you could feel them going 'Go on!' There was one song where I fell over a monitor at the end and everyone was like 'You'll be alright!' You could just feel the goodwill. Better than anything we'd had before.
Matt: Because they knew we were recording there was a real feel from the audience that they'd never been to a gig like that before, so even for them it was a new experience. They were inquisitive and on their best behaviour.
You'll have had a few days to listen back to it.
Nick: It's still pretty rough round the edges.
James: But there's definitely an album there - one to be proud of.
What are your plans for putting it out?
Nick: Bit of a weird one because we've done it back to front. There are people who are interested in releasing it but until it's finished they don't know if they're genuinely interested or not! Usually a record company would say 'Here's ten or twenty grand - go and make a record and anything you've got left you can use to help sell it.' But now we've got a record and it'll be us going 'Do you want to buy into this?' Hopefully it'll be a strong position to be in once it's finished but it's all bloody academic until then!
James: If push comes to shove we'll put it out ourselves. We've done everything else that way.
Nick: We've always been firmly in control of our destiny and where we're going. That wasn't the sole motivation for doing it this way but it was definitely something that fitted into our ethos.
When I first heard about you I thought 'The Brute Chorus - that sounds like a proper band.' Not all bands have that gang-like quality: The Ramones, Dexy's ... Does it feel like four guys going out against the world?
James: Like we said earlier, we don't look to other people to inform what we're doing or be part of a scene. Those bands were determined to do their own thing too.
Playing live, you have to roll into town and win over the locals.
Nick: You have to function as a unit.
James: It gets quite tribal. We're happy to do that because we spent a long time last summer living together, sleeping in a tent for 2-3 months. This last month we've been playing music for 5-6 hours every day trying to get ready for the album so it's pretty instinctive now.
Do you have the rest of 2009 planned out?
James: None of the big festivals yet.
Nick: If we were having this conversation in a month's time we'd be a lot more sure.
James: But we're doing Camden Crawl, Live at Leeds and The Great Escape in Brighton.
You wouldn't have been able to catch Michael Jackson's press conference.
James: Isn't he doing 50 dates or something?
They didn't get round to confirming many details. He didn't actually say very much. Waved at the fans, punched the air ...
Dave: He's personally charging a million pounds for each show.
James: That's not going to be far from what he used to command anyway. What would Prince be getting paid? It'd be fucking loads - fair enough! Amy Winehouse charges a million pounds for a cocktail party!
Dave: Does she really?
James: Yeah. Let Jackson charge what he wants.
Nick: You'll never be a manager, Dave!
He's got this strange fan base. A lot of them seem really young so must have grown up with all the rumours and yet they're still down the front in tears.
Nick: He's definitely got something about him.
James: Fans are a funny beast. They get worked up into the most dreadful tizz about almost anything.
Any strange encounters yourselves?
Nick: Best not talk about them to be honest!
James: We've got a couple of superfans. They're nice in their own way but we're still trying to build a fanbase that won't be put off by them!
Have you had any interest from strange corners of the world?
James: Funny you should ask! We just got approached by Suicide Girls who want to use one of our bits of music in one of their films. They said they discovered us completely by chance on MySpace. And after our first single sold to Japan there was a spate of gigs in the summer where there'd be Japanese girls taking our picture and getting us to sign their autograph books. Didn't speak a word of English I could understand but they were very excited to be there. It'd be nice to make the return journey.
I spoke to a band a few weeks ago whose CD was available in Japan before it came out here so there are clearly opportunities.
James: I was reading about that surf band in the 60s. What were they called? (sings riff)
James: Eh ...
James: Yeah! They had three hits in the US and a 40 year career in Japan. They were treated like Elvis!
You can make a living like that.
Nick: A good living!
James: Yeah ... c'mon Japan! C'mon!
The Brute Chorus on MySpace
All photographs by Douglas Baptie