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O Magazine

A long question

A long question is a section of single-topic talks with musicians in which instead of making the interviewee dizzy with several questions about a thousand and one things there’s only one topic of conversation. Each month we will publish an interview with a musician especially chosen to discuss that specific issue.

By Nando Cruz

Art Brut
They formed a band!

Illustration by Oriol Malet

The excitement that four teenagers feel when they form a band is a feeling very difficult to describe, a wild energy about which, funnily enough, not a lot has been written. English band Art Brut solved that problem quite early in their career. The first lyrics they wrote were for a song called Formed a Band. And there’s probably no other recording in the history of music that better transmits the hysterics, a kind of mixture of fear and euphoria, felt by the members of a band during its first months of existence. For this reason only, Eddie Argos, singer of the four member London combo, was the most adequate in the world to talk about such an issue.

The question, in this case, would be: how are the first months of existence of a band lived before its first gig ever?

Do you remember how much time you spent listening to music, while young, just for the sake of it, without the intention of becoming a musician?
No, because I always wanted to be a musician. My house wasn’t very big. I shared a room with my brother and our mum kept her records there, so already at six I had records around me. There were albums by The Pogues, for instance. My mother would play them and I’d ask her: “who are they?” And we all started to jump up and down.

When did you feel that “click” from thinking you loved music to realising you’d rather do it yourself?
When I turned twelve or thirteen I asked for a guitar as a present. I wanted to be the guitar player in a band. I formed bands with friends, but I only played one string. It took me a year to realise that wasn’t my thing. Then I decided I should be the singer.

Why did you want to form a band?
Because I’m incapable of playing an instrument and sing at the same time. I need a band to play so as to be the man that shouts. I like to call for attention.

Jarvis Cocker, from Pulp, explained that at fifteen or sixteen he already knew he wanted to make music within a band because he was very shy and this way he would have a kind of protective cocoon around him.
Yes, of course. There’s a bit of that too. I’m a very shy person; I’m the typical person whose heart starts speeding when trying to talk to a girl. In contrast, jumping onstage and grabbing a microphone gives me a certain sense of security.

A shy guy who likes to call for attention, right?
Yes, it sounds quite weird, doesn’t it? But I think bands are full of people like that.

Did you express your desire in public or was it only a private thought?
I wouldn’t stop saying it to my friends! And I kept on joining different bands! Bands that never ended up playing live or didn’t even end up rehearsing. At thirteen I was in a band and we kept on saying: “on Tuesday we’ll rehearse”. We never did, but we always hanged together, so we were a band. After a year we formed the Art Goblins. Since we chose the name until we started playing two years went by. By then, I was sixteen or seventeen.

I thought Art Brut was your first band, so finding out you had played with the Art Goblins was a bit disappointing. That’s why I wanted to ask you whether forming your first band is something unrepeatable of if that unstoppable excitement can be repeated for a second time.
The success of a band is something enjoyable and with the Art Goblins wad no success at all. But, well, at seventeen, going down to a basement to scream and shout and bang things without anybody to care about what you’re doing is quite enjoyable too.

When did you find out that the Art Goblins wouldn’t be the band of your life?
When all its members went to study at university except me. I intentionally failed my exams so as not to have to go to university, but I didn’t tell anyone, so they passed their exams and were admitted. I was left alone, so I had to find new friends with whom to form a band. And I moved to London.

You moved to London only because you wanted to form a band?
Yes. I didn’t want to stay in Bournemouth. I was twenty years old. Nicky Biscuit (the Art Goblins’ keyboard player) also moved to London. I went to live with him and his girlfriend.

Tell me about that party around the Mornington Crescent area in which you met Chris Chinchilla, the first Art Brut guitar player.
I went there with another friend who was in a band. In fact, everybody at that party was in some kind of band. I was very jealous and was dying to be in a band. I asked everybody whether they wanted to join me and everyone said no. There I met Chris and I started telling him how Art Goblins had been very popular and I convinced him to form a band. I guess he didn’t believe me, but he must have found me funny. We exchanged numbers and after a few months, two and a half, I sent him a message. It isn’t that I’d forgotten about all that, but… I don’t know. In the end he was the person tat started everything. He rented the studio, he found Rika (Frederika Feedback), the bass player. And we finally met our drummer, Mikey, in the bus.

That story about the drummer and the bus is true?
Absolutely. It took us ages to find a drummer. And one day my friend Nicky (Biscuit) was in the bus and heard a German guy telling someone over the phone how good he was with drums. He also said he worked at a (clothes) shop, Merc, in Carnaby Street. Nicky told us about it, I went to the shop and left a note there saying we were looking for a German guy who worked at that shop who also played drums. I left my phone number, he called me and we met. (That would be Mikey Breyer).

Did you have a job around that time?
Yes, I was a social worker.

Did you feel you were wasting your time as months went by in London and you couldn’t form a band?
A little bit, but my job was also important because I got to help people.

What was the first Art Brut song you wrote?
Formed a Band. That’s how I proved to the others that I could sing. Up to then I’d spent weeks mumbling. Chris didn’t stop: “there’s where the voice goes, start singing now!” But I kept on mumbling. That day I started shouting instead: “Formed a band! Formed a band! We formed a band!”

Did you already have that verse in mind, that chorus of “formed a band”, as a central idea from which to build the whole song?
I knew I wanted to write a song about forming a band. I was so excited about having formed a band that I couldn’t think of anything better to think and talk about. And, obviously, for weeks I’d been telling anyone I came across: “I formed a band!” So it ended up becoming a verse.

What did you do after that rehearsal in which you finally shouted the lyrics of Formed a Band? You were finally a singer! Did you go and celebrate?
We went down to the pub, of course! But we didn’t come out of the rehearsal session as happy as that. In fact, we still had no songs. We still had to find and reject lots of verses. The thing about Israel and Palestine, for instance, we didn’t have that yet. Actually, we only had the chorus: “formed a band”.

In the lyrics you also say: “look at us”. Who did you mean?
Everyone! I was proud of us. I’d been trying to form a band for ages!

In the recording you make a strange pause when you say: “We’re talking… to the kids.” Is that intentional? What were you trying to do?
That day I had a million things in my head. Maybe I doubted about what I was meant to say. Or maybe I thought it was OK to make that pause. What I did really want to say was that thing about us talking to the kids because I thought at the time very few bands were talking to them. The Libertines had just appeared.

The lyrics include delirious exaggerations, like saying that you’ll be the band that will write “the song that makes Israel and Palestine get along” and “a song as universal as Happy Birthday”. What feeling were you seeking to transmit? The feeling of “I think I have the best band in the world but there’s no way to prove whether what I believe is true”?
Yes, it’s a bit like describing what you want to achieve but being very conscious that you won’t be able to achieve it. I’d love to get Israel and Palestine to sign the peace, but I think it’s impossible. In the song there’s a list of impossible things, but I’m an optimist and I’d love to achieve them all.

Do you remember any day in which you thought: “this time it won’t happen the same as with the Art Goblins, this time I have formed the band of my life”?
When we wrote Formed a Band I thought: “I’ve got it”. I always thought I’d leave the band and would go on working as a social worker, but when I wrote it I thought it was quite a good song. We changed our rehearsal place so as to be able to hear each other. It was a bit more expensive, but for the first time we heard each other and exclaimed: “You’re playing that? That’s amazing!” The rhythm of the drums, for instance, was very good. It was a kind of mock Joy Division.

How did the recording go? Did you get it in one take only?
More or less. When it comes to me, yes. I remember that when we went to record it at the studio and I started screaming “¡formed a band, we formed a band!” the engineer asked me whether I was feeling OK. I said: “Yes, of course I’m OK. I’m singing!” It was a demo, so there was no money for much more than that. It was a very austere recording. I think it cost 500 pounds. And that day we also recorded Modern Art and Moving to L.A. That was our first demo, the one we gave to people in clubs to get gigs. We also gave them as presents. Sometimes we sat at the back of the bus and left some copies there for whoever might find them to take.

When you started rehearsing and preparing your first gig, were you one of those bands that hung posters and stickers everywhere?
Oh, yes! Chris and I used to stick stickers. Very soon we started to play two or three times per week and the days we didn’t play we would stick stickers everywhere. We would get drunk and stick them in any place we could. And the more we drunk, the more we stuck.

Once you composed Formed a Band, and knew you were going to sing it, you couldn’t think of anything else but the band and the gig?
Exactly. If we had a gig that night, I’d spend the day thinking about it. I love what Jonathan Richman does, telling stories in between songs, so I’d spend the day thinking is stuff I could say. If I read a newspaper and saw something had happened, I thought: “I could used this!” All through the day, my head started to fill with stupid information, so at nighttime I had to get rid of it. Instead of painstakingly interpreting each song, I spent the concert saying stupid things I hadn’t even talked about to the rest of the band.

Do you remember what you did on the first day of your concert?
I remember that by noon I was already dressed up and with my hair ready for the concert, and we were playing at 10PM! It’s funny, because now I’ve stopped worrying about the way I dress for gigs. I get out with whatever I’m wearing and that’s it. But that day I really thought about it. I also remember that I spent the rest of the day walking about in the street until the time came.

You’ve made me think of the film The Commitments, which perfectly shows that excitement of forming a band.
I love that film.

How did you get to that first gig?
Playing in London is easy. You take the train, the tube or the bus and carry your guitars with you. You don’t need a van. I love walking and sometimes I used to walk from work to the concert venue. Sometimes I’d walk for hours. But then, of course, I’d get there to tired to perform. That day I took the train. I lived in Leyton and we were playing The Verge, in Kentish Town.

You didn’t go together to the concert? Each one of you went on their own?
Yes, and we hadn’t rehearsed for at least a month. Maybe two. In fact, we didn’t even know each other too much then. After the first gig we started to get to know each other better. We got drunk together that night. But that was once the concert was over, not before.

You didn’t even call each other to check whether any of you needed help to carry your instruments or anything?
That day we borrowed a drum set because ours was in Germany. I guess Chris managed to solve that too.

Who went to see you on that first gig?
Bloc Party were there, although back then they were called The Union. My ex-girlfriend was there too because she was dating Matt Tong, the drummer; although I found that out not so long ago! By the way, Carter USM attended our second gig because the second band playing that night was with Fruitbat’s label. I’m a great Carter fan and it was amazing because already during sound check I saw Fruitbat around there. “I won’t be able to sing!” I thought.

Anyone from your family went to the gig?
My brother and his girlfriend. My girlfriend couldn’t be there because she wasn’t living in London back then. But, well, my ex-girlfriend was there. And many friends came.

At the end of the concert, did you think you didn’t want to do anything like that ever again?
Oh, no! It was wonderful. I wanted to do it again ASAP. Many of my friends were there, on that first show. We played Moving to L.A. and when I shouted that thing about, “I’m considering a move to L.A.”, they would shout back the answer of the chorus: “He’s considering a move to L.A.!”. They went crazy! You know what the first gigs are like: all your friends come even if they’re not interested in your music.

Did you swear something with the band? Like: “Art Brut will never do that” or “we won’t split up until we achieve this.”
We’re a weird band. Our first single was a demo. We uploaded it onto the Internet, it was featured in an Angular Records compilation and then Rough Trade released it as a single. When we started thinking what we could do, these things were already happening. Sometimes we said: “Shit, maybe we should have some precious plan so as not to feel trapped by the turn of events.”

Was there any band back then growing in parallel to you that could inspire you to go in one or another direction? A band you were jealous of or you compared yourselves with.
My reference band was Ciccone, the band that held the party in which I met Chris. I loved that band. We were part of a thing called the New Cross scene that also included Bloc Party, Vichy Government, The Violets… We all appeared at the same time. It was like a race. And Bloc Party won the race. Obviously, that scene didn’t exist, but seeing that some of your friends were also recording made you think it wasn’t impossible. And that’s a very nice feeling.

Do you remember the first Art Brut review you read?
Yes, it came out in a Manic Street Preachers fanzine. It was a review of Formed a Band, the Rough Trade single. It said the sound was annoying and the lyrics a bit clumsy, but that it was OK. I was a bit angry, to tell you the truth.

Didn’t you have a song about the Manics called Fuck the MSP?
Yes, I hate them. But they couldn’t have heard it because we recorded it years later. (The Art Goblins recorded it in 2007 for a single).

Were there any moment in which you thought that the band wasn’t really progressing?
There were some complicated moments after Formed a Band. Rough Trade published the single and people wrote about us a great deal, but we had no deal or anything to make a record. It was a bit frustrating. Everybody was talking about us, but no one wanted to publish our album. That was tough.

And were there any moment in which you thought the opposite, that Art Brut was already making it?
When we went to play Sweden. Formed a Band had just come out and we had to play for forty-five minutes. We didn’t have so many songs, so before flying there we wrote Rusted Guns of Milan and My Little Brother to have something more to play.

Do you feel that those first months with a band are a bit like the first months of falling in love?
A bit, but one doesn’t need to be so obsessed. Those first moments are intense, but feeling that your relationship has been consolidated for some months is also a nice feeling. And when I say this I’m talking both about a band and a relationship. In fact, now is a lot better than before.

When did you feel that the first excitement had given way to a second phase more to do with craftsmanship?
When we played at the 100 Club. It’s the typical place I’ve read about seventies bands playing their first important gig, and there’s where Art Brut did our first concert as headliners.

Do you think forming a band can be as exciting as performing at Top of the Pops, playing your first gig or becoming successful?
We had a lot of fun when we first started. Now it’s more like a job, although it’s obviously the best job in the world. But forming the band, getting together to play for the first time… I love watching bands that have just been formed! Seeing how the bass player walks to the microphone for the first time and it gives off feedback, I love that!

Did you meet, at the time, anyone who also formed a band?
My brother formed a band! And they had a song that said: “He formed a band, he formed a band, but we formed a band just a little bit better”.

On our next issue, the long question will be: what do you eat on tour? And Mac McCaughan, singer of Superchunk and founder of Merge Records, will provide the answers.