UNCUT INTERVIEW: Interrobang? | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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At the close of 2014, I became pretty obsessed with Interrobang?, a lyrically whipsmart, musically whippet-lean trio featuring Dunst (vocals) and Harry (drums) from Chumbawamba and Griffin from Regular Fries, seeing them three times in various cities supporting King Champion Sounds. I caught up with all three of them before a London show and got them to summarise how they got where they are and what they’re planning to do about it. I started by wondering about what seemed to be Dunst’s decade-long absence from music (during which time he’s made a number of documentary films). Did he think he’d left music behind forever when he left Chumbawamba back in 2004?

“For me, that was it. I thought, ‘Right. I’ve done that. I’m going to do something else now.’ Like be a film-maker? “Be a film maker, yeah. I saw what Daisy (Asquith, his partner and an established documentary film maker) did and I said to her ‘That looks really easy, I think I’ll try that!’ and she was fucking furious! Being in a band was never on the agenda and I didn’t have the confidence to start up something myself. I sort of dabbled a little bit with doing some stuff with Mark Chadwick of The Levellers so some of the lyrics we do now I wrote years ago but that didn’t work out because he thought I could sing… Obviously I can’t sing so it sort of just petered out. And I always felt there was a bit of a barrier, because of Chumbawamba still existing. So when Chumbawamba came to an end, me and Griffin started talking about the idea of doing something.”

After Regular Fries came to a halt in 2001, Griffin also turned his back on music for a while. “My son was like 1 or 2 then so I became a stay-at-home dad. I didn’t have any desire to do music after that so when he went to school I thought I’d get a job. I knew I’d do bands, but not on the scale, or have the ambition that, say, Interrobang? was attempting to have. Just bands with mates that would play a couple of local gigs.”

Former Chumbawamba drummer Harry Hamer (who quit the band when Dunst did in 2004) was constantly involved in music (and other arts ventures) in the meantime, and initially Dunst thought he’d be too busy to be involved with Interrobang? and there were some false starts with some other drummers. “Me and Griffin carried on writing stuff together, just like over the internet, passing stuff back and forward, and then I just said to Griffin ‘Look. (long pause) I’ve GOT to ask Harry!’”

Being in a band was never on the agenda and I didn’t have the confidence to start up something myself

The Interrobang? sound is steeped in angular, lean post-punk sounds and I wondered how deliberate that was. The answer was surprising.

“We actually had a mood board, didn’t we?” laughs Dunst, “Wire, Fall, Dr Feelgood, Gang Of Four, a lot of post-punk, stuff like The Sonics… tUnE-yArDs were on there. Just a mixture of pretty left field stuff really” “Dunst already had the lyrics and he had an idea of how he wanted us to sound, so I said just give me fourteen tracks to capture how you’re hearing it in your head…” adds Griffin.

Chumbawamba were renowned for operating as a collective and I wondered if it was much easier getting things done as a trio. There are nods and laughs all round, and Dunst quotes an Interrobang? lyric. “I’m so taciturn I’d nod to answer a question on the radio”, clearly wondering how indiscreet he should be. Harry sounds pained at the memory. “Meetings used to last forever, didn’t they? To decide on really tiny things.. the minutiae… it was painful… painful..” “So it’s incredibly liberating, yeh”, Dunst continues. “All that ever happens is that me and Griffin get a bit shirty with each other and Harry steps in and tells us to calm down.” “This is all done virtually, on the internet”, adds Griff.

Since writing lyrics for Chumbawamba must also have involved somehow representing the entire band, I was curious about the freedom that being in Interrobang offered Dunst to express himself.

“Interrobang? has given me a chance to say what I think and how I feel, whereas Chumbawamba was always a place where you could say something politically or about something, and channel those sorts of ideas, but it was never a place where you could complain about not being able to get to sleep at night”

“I’m embracing adventure with comfortable shoes and a clean place to shit. Yeah, that’s it”

Many of the lyrics confront middle age – both its problems and its hard-won wisdom – seen through a still revolutionary mindset, and I asked Dunst to expand on this.

“From my perspective what I’m trying to say is that I’m still really angry about a lot of things, that hasn’t changed, it’s just the way that you channel that… your whole perspective changes as you get older anyway. And having children changes the way you look at things a lot. I think about stuff that Chumbawamba used to say, the flippant stuff that people in the band would say, in interviews or whatever, that we maybe wouldn’t say now.. I can see how everybody has changed over the years.”

“Remember when we tried to turn the world upside down?

But then we got ironic and sardonic messed around

The world keeps on revolving and nothing’s really changed

But here I am still passionate with a bottle full of rage”

You refer to ersatz rebellion. What, for you now, constitutes a real one? “That’s more of an idealistic call to arms.. I read (in the book The Truth of Revolution, Brother) about Iceland’s Jon Gnarr and Einar and their Best Party. And just reading that was MASSIVELY inspiring, what they did, how they managed to take over Reykjavik and how they went about politics and set up the party. That, to me, is revolutionary. I don’t think, in this climate, there will ever be a revolution in the UK, I can’t imagine it ever happening, as much as I would love it to happen.”

But presumably at points you believed it was possible?

“Yeh, totally, when I was young and idealistic, in the early eighties, we honestly believed in it..”. “During the miners’ strike, you were meeting up with different people, from the working class, and thinking, ‘shit, there’s a movement here, against what is going on in this country’”, adds Harry. “Certainly there were times in the eighties that I thought “this could change things, this could shake things up”. “…and also, the late eighties, early nineties. Being off your head, when everybody got into drugs,” continues Dunst, “I think there was a feeling then as well, like ‘shit, something’s happening here’. And the poll tax riot! That felt like a really important move. So there were times then when you felt anything could happen. Now it feels as though we look to other countries to see it happen… the Arab Spring stuff, it’s all happening there, not in northern Europe. Other than maybe in Iceland.”

“This is a love song to Billingham. God, how I hate you, I hate you”

Tell me about Billingham, Dunst.

“I was thinking about that song this morning because I thought, ‘he’s bound to ask about it’. The nub of the song is the end bit, where it’s saying ‘But no matter how hard I still try, we’re not so different, you and I!’ It’s a song about accepting who you are and where you’ve come from and how where you’ve grown up moulds you. That’s what you always go back to.”

During the miners’ strike, you were meeting up with different people, from the working class, and thinking, ‘shit, there’s a movement here, against what is going on in this country’

Was it a tough place to grow up?

“Yeh, it was. It was either football – Middlesbrough or Sunderland – and you’d get attacked by one lot of supporters or the other. Or when punk happened, it was getting attacked by skinheads or whoever. There was a lot of that malevolence in Billingham. It was a place I couldn’t wait to get out of, and I don’t regret leaving as soon as I could, but I also know that that’s where I’m from… so it’s really about accepting who you are, it’s not about a hatred of Billingham. It’s like saying, ‘I’m a 52 year old man, I don’t need to do that anymore’, and feeling comfortable with that, not worrying about what other people might think or say. Unfortunately Billingham got the brunt of it really. There were some people from Billingham at our Newcastle gig and I warned them beforehand, ‘look, there is this song about Billingham that’s not too kind…’ and afterwards I spoke to them – they all live there, they’d moved away and moved back – and they were all like, ‘Yeh, we know what it is’, but there’s something about that pull of going back to where you grew up, a lot of people do that.”

Perhaps the most affecting song in the Interrobang? set is Do You Remember, which deals with the death of Dunst’s father. I wondered how writing that affected him. “It was cathartic, it was all part of a process, a healing process I suppose. When my dad died it was sort of a relief because he was really, really ill so his death came as a relief. We never got on, he was completely different to me, in all his jobs he always wore a uniform. We never had anything in common, he never approved of anything I did. But then when me and Daisy got together, there was something about Daisy’s inquisitiveness, as a documentary maker I guess, she started asking my mum loads of questions, and my mum told Daisy loads of stuff about herself and about my dad that I never knew. So that was really, really interesting. I’d been in counselling about my dad but that was like a year or two after, it was a long process, and I think this song was just an attempt to put a full stop at the end of it all. There was a point where I realised I was turning into my dad, and wondered if that was a bad thing, and realised it wasn’t such a bad thing. He just tried his best, all he was doing was trying to be the best dad he could be. And when my mum explained about HIS upbringing, he did a magnificent job with us, even though he never thought so…”

it’s really about accepting who you are, it’s not about a hatred of Billingham

Interrobang?’s lean, urgent sound is due in no small part to Griffin’s guitar set up and its interplay with Harry’s unfussy but powerful drum sound. He’ll create a loop on the fly, letting that run through one guitar amp while playing over the top. It’s an impressive technique that he started working on in a previous improv outfit he was a part of. “My familiarity with what I could do with a loop pedal came out of that, and then because I wanted to have a sound like Wire or Gang of Four, it was a question of working out how to apply these tricks to that sound and get it right. It’s mainly the timing. The two amps thing came much later, initially it was all going into one amp – the loop and me playing – but it became technically hard to maintain.”

Despite varying degrees of success in their previous bands (which for Dunst and Harry involved big US tours and their own dance routine on Top Of The Pops), Interrobang? are starting at the very bottom again. I wondered how that felt: frustrating, refreshing, depressing? Dunst is unequivocal.

“It’s invigorating and challenging and amazing. Documentary makers always talk about a ‘journey’; this is what it feels like. I’ve got back on the rollercoaster. Thing is, the first time round I didn’t really make very many friends within the music business; I was always too suspicious and mistrustful of those types, so starting a new venture means I haven’t got loads of music biz mates I can use to piggyback our way back to international popstardom. It’s a struggle yeah, but you know, meeting old faces again who are still doing it, still got the passion, still believing in a brighter tomorrow, still inspiring is far more rewarding than walking into the offices of a multinational record corporation to meet some lizard who ‘really digs what you’re doing!’ We were really lucky and privileged to support the mighty King Champion Sounds last year; they embodied so much of what we all, as a band, admire and they were massively inspirational. Ajay and Jos are old friends who I identify with so much. I love that band. For so many reasons. They have the best rhythm section I have ever witnessed too. I’m going off topic maybe but the bottom of a ladder isn’t such a bad place to be: we are loving every minute of it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?x-yt-cl=84503534&v=Ni65j4KW2Ew&x-yt-ts=1421914688

I am immensely proud of my Chumbawamba past; I am very happy for the world to know I used to be a part of that. I’m not going to hide it

And of course, Chumbawamba had a fairly divisive effect both within the music industry and in their own anarchist milieu, especially when they were accused of selling out around the time of Tubtumping. A recent London show supporting Hard Skin saw Sean “Rugger Bugger” Forbes commenting from the stage, ‘I get knocked down and I end up at the bottom of the bill’. I wondered if that bothered them.

“Sean Forbes is an institution. He hated Chumbawamba getting massive; he even appeared on an anti-Chumbawamba 7 inch called “Bare-faced Hypocrisy”. I think his track was called “New Labour, new Chumbawanka” or something like that.  But he came to see Interrobang? last year and sent us an email that just said ‘Nice’. Griffin, who didn’t know Sean, was offended! Me and Harry had to explain to him that this meant that Sean had really loved us.

When we were out with King Champion Sounds we would take bets on how we would be described on the poster and whether Chumbawamba would be spelt correctly. I am immensely proud of my Chumbawamba past; I am very happy for the world to know I used to be a part of that. I’m not going to hide it. Some people will be put off, some people will be drawn in. I happily live with it.”

After much debate about how to proceed (Should they add a bassist? Should Steve Albini produce the album?, that sort of thing), 2015 is taking shape for Interrobang? They’re kicking off with three 7” singles, to be released through Levellers-affiliated label On The Fiddle in Brighton (Dunst’s home for the last few years). “It’s independent, it’s DIY and it’s working with people I know and trust. It feels like we’re entering the “next stage” and it feels good.” explains Dunst. “We still have plans to re-record everything to get an album out by the autumn, ideally. We are still open to anyone approaching us to be involved, offer us free use of Electrical Audio for a month, take us on tour, whatever. We are happy to work with anyone as long as they feel as passionate and excited about the band as what we do. Steve Moore at OTF and Mark McQuillan at Republic of Music have both been incredibly supportive because they love what we’re doing. That’s all we ask for. Passion and commitment. We hope to have the first single out by the Sleaford Mods support slot in Stockton in early March. It’s all forward motion!”

Ah yes, Sleaford Mods, who have a lyric that goes “Chumbawamba weren’t political, they were just crap”. Having heard that another former Chumbas member, Boff, had confronted Jason from Sleaford Mods about this, I wondered how Dunst felt about it.

“I love what Sleaford Mods are doing; absolutely love it. I’ve only seen them once – Griffin was an early adopter and has seen them a few times and in fact it was Griffin who insisted I go to see them and they absolutely blew me away. The visceral power, the attitude, the lyrics, the stance; the effortless simplicity of it all makes me think they’ve worked really fucking hard to get it so fucking good. It’s so absolutely bullshit-free it’s what we need. Nothing is touching them at the moment; good luck to them. Everyone has an opinion on Chumbawamba; love or hate usually with not much in between. I don’t mind that. There’s nothing worse than indifference.”

“But nothing’s gonna stop me growing old disgracefully”

Interrobang support Sleaford Mods at Stockton Georgian Theatre on Wednesday 4th March.

 

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