Music with a message: Interview with Chumbawamba
- Published: 15 May 2010
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In their almost 30-year history, British band Chumbawamba have created songs that inspire social change. No topic is off limits, with domestic violence, facism, war, homophobia, boy bands, consumerism, class politics and social media all featuring among their 15 albums in a variety of music styles from anarcho-punk through to pop, folk and acoustic. Perhaps best known for their anthemic song ‘Tubthumping’ (also known as ‘I Get Knocked Down’), they caused a stir in 1998 by throwing a jug of water over then deputy prime minister John Prescott when he attended the Brit Awards. The band was protesting the Labour party’s refusal to support the Liverpool Dockworkers Strike. Never taking themselves or the concept of celebrity too seriously, Chumbawamba are an activist band who like to have fun.
Vocalist Boff Whalley – who also plays the ukulele and clarinet – spoke with Katrina Fox about the band’s latest album ABCDEFG, their distaste for Simon Cowell and Metallica’s James Hetfield, and other little things – like changing the world.
Chumbawamba is synonymous with delivering music with a message. When you’re making songs about issues such as homophobia, domestic violence and the rise of fascism, what are you hoping to achieve?
On one level, we’re hoping to be part of a general, worldwide, cultural, social and political move toward change. But on a realistic and personal level we’re hoping to be a band that says things, a band that makes you wonder what we’re on about. That makes you ask questions, even just a band you don’t like because we refuse to be bland.
And to be honest we want to be a band that avoids making ‘dry’ politics, being po-faced. There are enough boring politicians around without us adding to that mountain of sad-sacks; we want to urge debate and ideas and change but we want to love and laugh too, often at ourselves.
Following on from that, what are your thoughts on whether music can be a tool to change the world?
Oh I think it can, at least as part of bigger cultural change. I think that (for instance) in my lifetime I’ve seen how kids in my country have changed their attitude towards black people because of the influence of black music – soul, dance, hip hop, disco, all this amazing groundbreaking music taught a whole generation to respect black people, even idolize them.
I was a racist, homophobic idiot when I was a teenager, and listening to music taught me about these things, made me realise I was stupid. Seriously I was a real teenage bigot. Music was the way I learned about the world before I was aware of politics.
When I first heard Tom Robinson singing ‘Glad to be Gay’ I was appalled, thought it was ridiculous. But gradually I worked it out that all the cool people making the best music were with Tom, not with my Neanderthal bigotry.
I mean, how could anyone see the Specials and The Clash without grasping the inclusive politics of it all? Music saved me!
You’ve been critical in the past of Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, accusing albums like this of profiting out of starvation and not addressing the real causes of world hunger. They’re still making these charity albums, most recently for Haiti. What are your thoughts on this?
Well I know Bob’s heart is in the right place of course. Our problem with the whole Live Aid thing (and similar) is that they’re great for raising money but do very little to raise awareness; and that ultimately it’s how we think that has to change, not just where we throw our money.
Buying things, trading in commodities (including pop records and pop concerts) – capitalism – isn’t a long-term solution. It props up the same power structure.
Starvation is easiest to explain as an example; at a very simple level, many countries around the world export cash crops (coffee, sugar etc) to the richer countries instead of using their land to grow their own food.
The money goes to the top end of their hierarchies who live in relative luxury. The people who pick the coffee beans (coffee is the second most lucrative commodity in the world after oil) get hardly anything. When there’s a drought, the rich leaders in those countries don’t suffer.
Instead of changing the structures, we just throw charity money at the problem, which sometimes makes for an easy fix. Multi-millionaire Pop stars playing at Wembley Stadium don’t raise any questions or debates, they just postpone the agony.
Haiti is different of course but still, like we saw in New Orleans, there’s a rich/poor divide and charity isn’t addressing that. The places most in danger from earthquakes are the poor, of course.
Anyway it’s our job, we think, as a band, to talk about this, rather than to get people to just throw money at the problem. Charity is too often a way for ordinary people to show they care (and I’m not belittling that, I give money to these things too, and we’ve had a lifetime of playing benefits for things) instead of questioning why these things have such an effect on people and how we can construct a world where natural and man-made disasters don’t have to always victimize the poor.
When was the last time we saw a flood, an earthquake, a famine, affect the rich of a country? The infrastructures are set up to protect the rich and victimize the poor.
I’m sorry that that answer sounded more like a political commentary than something about a pop band, but sometimes it’s impossible to discuss situations light-heartedly.
It’s your fault of course – we just want to talk about the chords we use and which special effects rack we used for the reverbs on the last album. So we blame you!
In addition to your lyrics being political, you also engage in actions such as the 1998 John Prescott incident and donating $100,000 from General Motors to anti-corporate activist groups to use against GM. Yet you turned down $1.5 million from Nike. Why?
Because some things are just going too far, and sometimes we can’t find a way to turn the situation to someone’s advantage. We’re not very consistent with these donations, our ideas change from example to example.
We talked a lot about donating the Nike money to anti-sweatshop organizations but in the end we decided we just couldn’t be associated with that brand. There are some brands that we just wouldn’t have dealings with, like Nike and Mcdonald’s.
We talk about these things individually, sometimes we’re wrong in our decisions. The Nike offer came during a football World Cup and we thought that any donations/actions/words by us would have been swept away with Nike’s use of the song in their advertisements.
We also had Fox TV/Rupert Murdoch as someone we’d never have dealings with, but then we buckled when asked if Homer Simpson could sing his own bastardized version of ‘Tubthumping’ in a Simpsons episode. We sold out to the man just so we could one day tell our kids that Homer sang our song!
How much control do you have nowadays over the use of your songs?
We have pretty much total control. All use of our songs goes through us. And I do mean us, not a manager or agent or someone. No company can license use of our songs on an advert/film/TV without our permission. So if you hear a song by us, we’ve OK’d it.
If you hear our music advertising a car company, we may have given the money to a local pirate radio station. If you hear our music advertising potato chips, we probably spent all the money on our luxury holiday homes in South Australia, where we spend six months each year avoiding tax and hanging out with Mick Hucknall and Bono in Tiki bars drinking fine cocktails.
You’ve gone from small, indie labels to EMI, to running your own label and now with No Masters. Why all the moves? And what are the benefits of being with the co-operative No Master collective?
Well, we just move when we’ve had enough usually. Or if there’s trouble. If a big label starts to dislike us and our politics and ideas, we move along. We don’t work like many bands – we don’t make demos for the label to hear, to see if they want to release our music. We finish an album, artwork and all, and present it to them “here it is”. Some labels don’t like that, they want more control.
No Masters is great. It’s a collective, so all the artists meet and discuss what we should do, and who should do it. We all play a part in the label, and control everything from the websites to the production to the advertising. It’s practically perfect, in fact.
In Germany and some parts of Europe we have a record label called Westpark, which is more like a normal record company. But they are great too because they trust what we give them and don’t ask us to change this or alter that or remix this or change the logo on that.
Back when Alice Nutter was part of your group, she advocated fans stealing Chumbawamba CDs from chains such as HMV and Virgin if they couldn’t afford to buy them. How do you feel about people downloading your songs for free and about illegal downloading in general?
I absolutely support downloading our music for free. I would love it if people downloaded our music and then decided that, yes, they’d like to hear the album in better quality and with a sleeve that the band designed for the album, and to support us doing what we do, of course that would be great.
But if people just find our music and download it for free and enjoy listening to it, then I’m happy with that. It’s how we discover what we like.
When I was a kid I used to tape songs from the radio. Used to wait for the latest John Peel session, The Fall or Joy Division or Slits, taped it and passed it around, we all listened to these tapes. Eventually when we could afford it we went and bought the albums by those bands because we loved them.
It’s no different nowadays – the only people I hear complaining seem to be the record companies and their superstar lackeys, the millionaire puppets with their heads in the sand of corporate business … Metallica, Madonna, Eminem, we salute you.
Remixable media or mash-up culture is becoming the buzzword of the day: the idea that there’s no such thing as originality anymore and concepts of copyright are becoming outdated. What are your thoughts on this and the issuing of artistic work under ‘creative commons’ licence?
We spent half our recording lives sampling and re-working other people’s sounds. I love it and support it.
Copyright is, however, not to be taken for granted. I want the right to stop certain people using our music for the wrong reasons – I reserve the right to prevent fascist politicians from playing ‘Tubthumping’ on their website, for instance.
And if we have to use copyright law for that, then fine. So I do support legal and definite entitlement over our music. But sampling… one of my favourite albums at the moment is a mash-up of Beastie Boys and Beatles called ‘The Beastles’. Brilliant. music’s there like art to be re-worked, re-invented.
Unlike many groups you aren’t defined by any one musical genre, but instead revel in mixing it up from punk to pop to folk and acoustic. Why?
Because it’s boring when bands do the same thing over and over and over again. Don’t you think? The Beatles defined the decade they were in, by reflecting culture and society through the way they changed. ‘Please Please Me’ is three years from ‘Revolver’, is three years from ‘Abbey Road’. You can tell a story of the decade through those changes.
We’re not saying we’re like that, but we acknowledge that there’s a template there for bands to challenge themselves, keep moving, keep it interesting for themselves and for the people who listen to them.
I love change. It’s possibly the single best tool for an artist. The audience doesn’t always agree. People are taught to be conservative and want to be repeatedly hit over the head with the same hammer-shaped blancmange. But like a drug, the hit wears off – so move on, look for a different way of doing things.
Our influences range right across the board, but bands who dare to change are often at the top of my personal list, stuff like The Clash, Frank Zappa, Eliza Carthy – for having the guts to keep moving, keep challenging themselves and surprising the audience.
Do you think this has been a positive or negative in terms of your fan base?
Both. Negative in that we’ve lost a hell of a lot of people over the years because we “don’t do the old stuff,” or “what happened to the nun?”
But also positive because we’ve retained the affection of people who understand what we’re doing and who are willing to watch us change. Who might not always like where we’re going but know that it’s interesting to watch anyway!
Was the decision to sing issue-based songs such as ‘Homophobia’ in a very old-fashioned happy clappy sing-along way, instead of the usual hardcore punk/metal way a deliberate attempt to make them more appealing to the ‘masses’? For example, I can imagine my working-class, politically-incorrect old dad of 83 tapping his feet and clapping along to this at the local working men’s club for the tune alone!
In one way yes, it’s very calculated – we do want to make music that can work across the board, which can appeal in various ways, which isn’t limiting itself by being (for instance) loud and aggressive-sounding.
But on the other hand, we make music a certain way also because we enjoy trying that way of doing it, enjoy melodies and harmonies. We rarely make ironic music, music which is tongue-in-cheek. It’s almost always stuff we enjoy singing/playing.
I love the idea of your Dad clapping along to ‘Homophobia’, that’s perfect. We once played a big festival in Germany which was a ‘Rock Festival’. I put that in inverted commas because I’m emphasizing the idea that in Germany, ‘Rock’ is very specific.
Motorhead were on after us. Everyone backstage other than us was wearing black leather and strutting around as if in some Nazi Biker movie. None of the bands involved women, obviously. So we had a quick meeting and went on stage and opened with ‘Homophobia’, acapella.
We knew we’d get laughed at/slaughtered/ignored anyway, so what better way to open to a crowd of 10,000 drunk male rockers? I can’t remember the rest of the gig. Just that bit!
You’re advocates of communal singing, not just listening. Why? And what are your thoughts on the spiritual significance of music?
We don’t advocate everyone singing together in some ‘let’s get together as one’ way, but we love the power of people’s voices together.
It can be so unifying to sing with other people. It’s a very basic and natural thing. As for spiritual significance – it’s hard to talk about spirituality without getting into much deeper discussions about what that means. Suffice to say I think that singing with other people is natural and organic and age-old and a brilliant way of connecting to other people.
One of the beauties of your albums isn’t just the songs themselves, it’s the wonderful stories and facts about hitherto unknown people or incidents you unearth: like Klaus Renft and the George Melly anecdotes on your current album ABCDEFG. Where do you find all this stuff?
We find it just by looking around, in life! Digging through conversations and asides. Watching the news or having a chat in a pub. Talking in the car on the way to a gig. The world is littered with these great stories, it’s just that we get the chance to write them into songs!
It’s like when someone tells you a story about something, and instead of just going “Oh, that’s interesting,” you have the presence of mind to remember you’re in a band and that you need to write some songs – and oh, that story could make a good song…
Plus obviously we read a lot, and follow our noses to the places where great stories are being told. The George Melly story, for instance, I heard a long time ago – in the early 1980’s, when I briefly went to art school and found out about Dada and Surrealism – and it’s kept cropping up for three decades until it fitted a song.
What are your thoughts on music as an educational tool?
Oh definitely that it’s a great tool. In lots of ways. Culturally (I talked earlier about how I learned about racism and homophobia through music) and in terms of understanding how to work together, co-operating and creating and letting your ego take second place to a sense of communication and sharing. Seeing (listening) to the whole, instead of just to yourself.
In addition to different musical styles, the various band members also do more than one thing – ie play different instruments or do voice and an instrument, again unlike many groups that have a ‘frontperson’ – why?
When the band was just starting we had an idea to swap instrument around for every song. We did just one concert doing that, but it was unwieldy and silly and time-consuming.
But we always believed that you don’t have to stick to the accepted formulas for being in a band. We were lucky because punk taught us this; British punk at the beginning was very amateurish and full of people trying lots of different things rather than being experts – the Raincoats, the Slits, The Fall, TV Personalities, all amateurs seeing what they could do with instruments.
We got together as an idea, not as musicians. So we’re always open to that amateurish spirit. All having a go at something. Often songs are tried with different vocalists to see which could work best.
The ‘lead singer’ syndrome is weighing heavily on pop and rock music. It’s good to dismantle it a bit.
Why is history and what’s gone on before important?
If you don’t learn from history, you’ll end up repeating the past. If you don’t learn from history, you’ll end up repeating the past. If you don’t learn from history, you’ll end up repeating the past. If you don’t learn from history, you’ll end up repeating the past. (etc)
Yet as a society we don’t seem to learn from the past (wars, classism, racism etc all still exist)?
But (being very very general here) things in society are getting better. Yes there are still wars and isms to fight against, but we’ve gradually changed our society so we’re not burning women alive as witches and hanging black men from poplar trees.
Things are still horrifically bad in some parts of the world. But the wholesale slaughter and slavery of the past is slowly changing. The cotton mill just down the road from where I live used to be the biggest working mill in the world – it was worked by children as young as 8 who worked 15-hour days.
Some people spent their lives campaigning to change this situation, writing and petitioning and lobbying and arguing. We have to celebrate those people who worked for that change, so that 8 year-old kids can now go and visit that mill (now a museum) with their school classes rather than running around under the machinery all day for a pittance, dying pitifully young from factory-related diseases.
So, I think we are learning, slowly. Still plenty to fight for, but I certainly don’t think it’s all hopeless.
The internet: A good and useful tool for bringing people together and effecting social change, or something that keeps people from forming real-life friendships, interactions and street protests? Discuss.
Both! You know that’s the answer, which is why the question is framed like that. Just take the question mark off your question and it’s a good enough statement of fact.
It’s like TV – a great tool for learning about the world, if you use it wisely. Or books! When the printing press was invented, the Church shat itself that ordinary people would suddenly understand the word of God without hearing it from a preacher – oh my, we’ll all be damned into eternal damnation.
I don’t know if the internet ‘brings people together’. Hmmm. But I like how it’s a fantastic source of information and ideas. Incredible. And yes of course, I’d still rather meet up with someone for a drink in the pub than ‘interact’ with them on Facebook.
Have you had any contact with John Prescott since the incident in 1998? (Do you know if he’s forgiven you? Do you care?).
No contact at all. We wouldn’t want it, it would just be someone’s publicity opportunity. I’m sure he’ll never forgive us, and likewise we’ll never forgive him for being a sell-out caricature oaf. A modern-day Falstaff, ape-like and apeing, dancing around the shiny shoes of ‘his betters’. A servile, idiotic yes-man who was used and abused and then thrown away by Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell.
Who would you like to pour water over today and why?
Oh the list would be endless. Really. Every day I read something in the newspaper and get angry. I like the idea of having a secret red button underneath my desk that I can press to eliminate people. Nobody knows about it. One twitch of my finger and bang, there goes another lying, self-serving millionaire politician.
Tell us about the new album ABCDEFG – why the title?
It’s the seven musical notes. Without the sharps and flats of course. Do-Re-Me-Fa-So-La-Ti. A whole world of ideas and stories in those seven notes.
Why the theme of music?
Because music is a good enough metaphor for life, for the world. And because music is what we do, and we haven’t really talked about it properly before. Not at length. We love it, love it, love it. And hate how it’s used, too. And it’s full of stories, full of history.
Only Chumbawamba could write a song like Torturing James Hetfield, on your latest album ABCDEFG. Hetfield, who is part of Metallica said he was glad the band’s music had been used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. What response if any have you had from Metallica or Hetfield?
We’ve had no response, of course – it isn’t in their interest to acknowledge things like that. Actually they’ll probably never hear it.
Hetfield is another Prescott, a dummy to be hoisted by those around him – the real villain with that band is probably Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich, who isn’t actually a very good drummer (he’s not quite in time but has good producers to help him out) but is a gobby idiot who’ll gladly take his own fans to court over the Napster case.
But in this instance it was James who gave a quote supporting the use of their music as torture. Such patriots!
Why don’t people who make non-political music keep their mouths shut when asked political questions?
So James Hetfield was an easy target, in some ways – if only because we were so angered by his response about the use of their music in Iraq and/or Guantanamo. But it would’ve been too easy to write a song slating James (and it would’ve been boring, too); better to write something humorous which also pokes fun at ourselves.
What’s wrong with the music business today? (And conversely, what’s right with it?)
The music business is much the same as it always has been. A hierarchy with businessmen at the top earning millions and lots of musicians at the bottom earning very little. With a few super-rich stars licking the boots of their bosses. Wasn’t it always like this?
What’s wrong with music, that would have been a much harder question to answer.
What do you think of Susan Boyle and the whole shooting to fame scenario?
Sad, sad, sad. Those desperate people in queues at the auditions, waiting to get their chance to be a star.
What I hate the most is how it’s sucked the creative energy out of being a musician – the way to fame and fortune isn’t to be creative, to write songs, to come up with something original, to show your amazing idea to the world by touring in a van for ten years because you love it and because it’s in your blood – no, the way to do it now is to wait in that queue for a TV Talent Show and see if Simon Cowell appreciates your version of a Robbie Williams song.
I’d love to see Cowell confronted by real genius eccentric artists, people like Viv Stanshall, Kevin Coyne, Patti Smith, Captain Beefheart, Bjork, Frank Zappa, Johnny Rotten, Mark E Smith. He’d have a heart attack. Good. Then we wouldn’t have to look at that ridiculous haircut.
Finally, when I interviewed Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders a couple of years ago, she said she didn’t like the whole celebrity status but could see the benefits of having a platform to talk about important social issues and that people wouldn’t have listened to her she was a waitress. What are your thoughts on this, given that you have lots of messages to get across and could arguably be described as ‘celebrities’? (That’s not meant as an insult!)
I don’t think we’re celebrities – Chrissie is a celebrity! That’s proper famous. I agree with her as it happens. Being Chumbawamba gives us a way of talking and shouting and making a point that we just wouldn’t get as individuals.
It’s a privilege to have that access, to have a way of getting on stage and singing about the world. It’s a privilege and it shouldn’t be take for granted; it’s our duty to advertise ideas and issues that get ignored in most areas of culture. Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys said, “Art is not a mirror, it’s a hammer.”
Any other comments?
Not right now. I’m commented out! But can I just say, I sometimes think that answering interviews can make us sound like we’re a bunch of self-righteous politicos.
When people interview Coldplay they ask “How was it making the last album?”, and “Are you still into macrobiotic food?”, “What kind of yoga stretches do you do, Chris?”, but with us they ask, “Do you think we learn from the past in terms of racism and homophobia?”, so naturally people think we’re possibly one-dimensional automatons.
It’s not true! We have fun too!
Images courtesy of Chumbawamba website.