In Conversation and Live Review: The Chapman Family at Sunderland Independent – 4th November 2011

By on Thursday, 10th November 2011 at 2:00 pm
 

Note from Martin: This piece is probably the most personal I’ve written for the site to date, as it touches on a number of topics that I feel strongly about, as do the band, and we could easily have disagreed on pretty much everything – you’ll have to read on to see how it turned out. I even break one of my cardinal reviewing rules – never refer to yourself in the first person – in order to be more specific about the topics that are involved and my take on them. I also apologise in advance – this is going to get political. Anyone who doesn’t care for UK politics is advised to read something else. It is to the credit of everyone concerned that a mature debate was had, something similar to which we have every right to expect from the leaders of our country as they negotiate these dangerous economic times. Here we go…

The Chapman Family are an angry band, and thank goodness there are still some of those left. One of art’s most important functions is to turn a critical eye to the prevailing opinion of the day; establishment figures should be lampooned, alternative viewpoints must be unveiled, and as for the hypocrisy of the ruling class – long may it be exposed, with all the wit and skill the artist can muster. The Chapman Family’s recent tour is accompanied by a sweary manifesto that demonstrates their anger at the country’s political leadership, the apathy of the citizenry, banality in music, government spending cuts, distasteful political parties, and the commoditization of art. Quite a mixed bag of grumbles, then, and one which deserves to be thoroughly investigated. In the pre-show calmness of a Sunderland venue that will in a few hours be shaken by countless 6th-formers furiously moshing away to heavy metal in a faint but persistent ambience of vomit, we get down to business.

It turns out that there are only two founding members of the band left: Kingsley and Pop (all the members have the surname Chapman, according to their Wiki; of course they do, they’re a family, right?). Kingsley is quieter, more considered; Pop is the source of the recent political diatribe, and is only too happy to discuss it at length.

Pop: I’m angry about the escalation of how exploited the working classes are in this country. It all started for me when I voted for the Liberal Democrats in the general election last year; I hoped they would get into power by themselves, and by going into coalition with the Conservatives they’re now seen as some little offshoot of the Conservative party. We went into recession with the Labour government, but it seemed like they had their eyes on how to sort things out, whereas the Conservatives are protecting their super-rich friends by voting against the “Robin Hood” tax. Every day I seem to hear something more horrific about David Cameron, like he’s banning gay kisses on television until after the 9 PM watershed. I think he’s a homophobe, a xenophobe, and he shouldn’t be leading this country.

Wow. Straight into the politics. Of course it’s easy with hindsight to fisk through someone’s spoken statement – so let’s go for it. The Lib Dems had no chance of winning an overall majority, and to only countenance one of the two possible coalition partners fatally misunderstands the nature of voting for the third party. Labour doubled the national debt and ran a shockingly unsustainable deficit, which is hardly in the interests of the man and woman in the street who have to pay for the profligacy long after any benefit has faded. I agree the Conservatives aren’t doing nearly enough about it – Obama is cutting more in a year than we are in 5 – and as such, the biggest obstacle to economic recovery is the government continuing to over-borrow and the consequent risk of a debt spiral like we are seeing one-by-one across Europe.

Whatever your views on the principle involved, as it stands, the so-called “Robin Hood” or Tobin Tax being proposed is only Europe-wide, so the financial institutions concerned would simply move out of Europe. Given financial services is the largest sector of the UK economy, this would be a spectacular own goal and would result in a far lower tax take for the Treasury, compounding our problems even further. For that particular tax to work it would have to be global, and there’s very little chance of that at this juncture. To even appear to be sympathetic to it would damage the UK economy at a time when we can least afford it. And David Cameron has never advocated a specific ban on gay kisses on TV – the truth is that the inquiry into the sexualisation of children may recommend a ban on certain sexual content before the watershed, and of course it will cover any and all sexualities. This is for the protection of children, and should be welcomed. There’s nothing to get so precious about.

That’s that settled, then. So, has there always been politics in the music?
Pop: We didn’t want to bring it to the forefront too much initially. Reverend and the Makers got a bit of stick for that. We’ve always been very ethically aware; all our merchandising is Fair Trade. But now I think we’ve reached crisis point, so we steeled ourselves and decided it was time to say something. It’s not just the lyrics, it’s the attitude, it’s the music. Even if your politics don’t necessarily align with our own, we want people to realise that there’s a problem in this country right now.

How would you define that?
Pop: If you ask a teenage girl what she wants to grow up to be, she’s likely to say a WAG, something as vacuous as that. Whereas when I was a kid, everyone in my class wanted to be a spaceman, something inspirational. It frightens me to think that a lot of these kids seem to have a really disposable, nihilistic attitude to society in general. They don’t seem to care about anything apart from themselves.

Now we’re getting somewhere.
Kingsley: Everyone seems so apathetic, a bit like the fat humans in (that film) Wall-E. I’ve got friends who would rather talk to someone on the Xbox than go to the pub for a football match or take the dog for a walk. I find that mystifying. Some people seem content to live a life where you have a Stella on your doorstep at ten in the morning. It just seems odd to have no ambition, not to want to better yourself.

Hear-hear.
Pop: I think apathy is the reason that the Conservatives are in power, because not enough people went out and voted and wanted their voices heard.

Are you saying that turnout was lower than in previous elections? [Turns out in fact turnout in 2010 saw its greatest increase since 1970.]
Pop: Probably not, but maybe they voted Conservative because they thought they would do a better job than Labour.

Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work? Anyway, you’ve got themes there of apathy, you mention ‘apathetic zombies’ in your press release, presumably you want to galvanize people into action?
Pop: We wanted to cause a revolution in a way, not just in society but within yourself. If you’re sat there and you have a dream, an ambition, assuming that it’ll never happen: just do it! We’ve never made any money from this band, we do it because we want to do it. I think lots of people want to do similar things, but for some reason don’t, and we hope that our music and our attitude at the very least could inspire someone to go out and do something.

The big society in action! Moving on, you mention the commoditization of music – would this be things like the X-factor?
Pop: This isn’t something unique to this decade, I think record companies have had hands in it for a long time. When a musical genre becomes popular the music industry always finds a way of bringing it down to the lowest point in the barrel. Frankie Cocozza wouldn’t get the time of day from a Sony A&R man, but because he’s on a TV talent show, he’s a rock star?

But does anyone really take those sort of people seriously? Isn’t it just a circus sideshow, a way to sell papers and advertising, don’t they get dropped as soon as the TV machine is done with them?
Pop: To me it’s indicative of the state the music industry’s in, that A&R men don’t need to go out to gigs any more, people don’t need to go out to gigs any more, it’s all beamed to your front room every Saturday night.
Kingsley: I find very little attitude in a lot of the young bands I see, it’s mystifying. Where’s that spirit gone? They all want to look like Hollyoaks extras.

There is a lot of that, but don’t you think the independent scene is, dare I say, thriving?
Pop: When we first started out, we’d end up playing gigs with other bands, one where the frontman was wearing a pork pie hat and bumping into everyone, like the Libertines; an Arctic Monkeys copy and a Franz Ferdinand copy. There were mirror images all around the country. It’s only now that we’re breaking out of those stereotypes. And another part of the problem is the downloading culture – I used to have to go down the shop, physically buy an album, and listen to it all the way through; instead now you can just download it for free, skip to the singles, then it’s on to the next thing. It’s all about buying into an artist, which you don’t have to do any more.

That could be seen as a good thing, the availability of new music on Spotify: that’s how I’ve been listening to your album over the last few days. Maybe you can answer a question: do you get any money from Spotify?
Pop: No.

So what’s in it for you?
Pop: It’s just the way the music industry is, we have to bend over and take it up the arse.

It does seem wrong that you don’t get anything from Spotify.
Pop: I think we get paid nought point nought nought one pence per play [he is spot on: the royalty payment from Spotify is 0.0012p, meaning a track has to be played almost 1,000 times before the artist earns a pound, or 4 million plays a month to earn minimum wage.] Because music has been such a commodity, if we’re not making any money, one day we might have to give this up. It’s always been a struggle for small bands to make money, but now even the medium size bands get over their first album and they’re still struggling.

So what level do you have to get to before you start making any money?
Kingsley: No idea. It depends what you call successful. There’s more people than ever being creative. You can make a whole orchestra in your bedroom. Is success quantified by how much money EMI can earn? Does that mean the ’80s were great because all the record company guys lived in gold houses? It doesn’t necessarily mean that it was great music. It just means they made a load of money because George Michael wore a cut-off top and put a shuttlecock down his pants and people bought into it.

And with that somewhat disturbing thought, ‘All Right Now’ comes blasting over the PA and formal conversation is no longer possible. We go our separate ways for a beer, but I bump into Kingsley in the outdoor area, mostly populated by very young-looking punters nervously rolling extra-long cigarettes. He reveals to me that despite being founding member and frontman, it’s Pop that gives the band its overtly political edge; he doesn’t even bother to vote, having a deep-seated mistrust of all things political. Which in many ways gives him an advantage: without any particular allegiance he takes a more circumspect view, doubting that we are all so very badly off that some would have us believe – the amount of money still being spent on alcohol and petrol is testament to that; but he is adamant that the populace needs to wake up to its responsibilities. Kingsley is very much the soul of the band, its sensitive side which converts the anger into something you can feel.

Pop is a different character altogether; very much the activist, with admirable levels of passion and drive. He freely admits to hating David Cameron with a passion, and to my mind this is clouding his judgment. He appears to believe in any half-baked twist of a simple fact as long as it fits his prejudice (the gay kisses thing is a good example) and then repeat it as if it’s gospel. This is not good practice. The band are on much more solid ground when they talk about the power of the people to change things – this is essentially the root of democracy and is a hugely important right. They are also correct in identifying the level of apathy in the country. This takes many forms – from those satisfied to let ITV be their sole source of entertainment from one week to the next, to the more extreme but sadly common examples of long-term worklessness and all the lifestyle defects that entails. So, despite disagreeing on some details, and keeping them honest in terms of the actual facts, the band and I have more in common than we had any right to expect.

With all this serious talk, it’s easy to forget that what we’re here for is a dose of quite spectacular rock ‘n’ roll. The band have huge energy, are extremely tight, and in tonight’s tiny room are ear-bleedingly loud. Not so loud as to dissuade their celebrity fans; Frankie and one Heartstring nod along approvingly from the back. The focal point is Kingsley, who roars his lyrics and stabs at a synth with an intense ferocity completely at odds with his softly-spoken offstage persona. He becomes more maudlin and tightly-strung as the gig progresses; apparently the finale of previous gigs has been him simulating his own self-hanging using the microphone cord – I could quite believe it. Most of appositely-named recent album “Burn Your Town” is on display, except standout track ‘A Million Dollars’, which apparently the band are sick of playing. This is powerful, visceral stuff; at their heaviest, imagine a cross between the Sex Pistols and Joy Division and you’re not far off. There are clear comparisons with Ian Curtis, both in demeanour and sound, and the spirit of a punk Morrissey hangs in the ether. Stockton has never sounded so Manchester.

So what is the sum total of all of this? Dabbling in politics proper is a dangerous game for bands. On the one hand they can alienate whole swathes of their support with an ill-judged comment; on the other, as happens tonight, they add another level of context and complexity to their music – the much-vaunted backstory, if you will. As the length and proportions of this article demonstrates, it’s possible for the context to overwhelm the music; to relegate it to a part of the story, rather than as an end in itself. So after all’s said and done, when the tinnitus has worn off and we look around at society, have the Chapman Family achieved anything? Have they changed minds, inspired youth, galvanised support for an alternative polity?

To put contemporary politics into context: the man in the street has been screwed from both the left and the right; nobody comes out of this smelling of roses. The capitalists let the banking system become so complex and interwoven that nobody knew where or whose the debt was, and therefore had no way of controlling the fallout when the inevitable bust came. The global nature of finance meant that any local sense of morality fell away, and worship of the money-god became the goal, to the exclusion of any thought of whether it was the right thing to do. Then the socialists came along and bailed out the banks, underwriting the bankers’ gambling debts and letting them walk away scot-free, leaving the people groaning under weight of their losses. And although it remains to be seen how the federalists’ dream of a Europe united under one currency will turn out, it’s not looking too great at the minute.

So it’s all the fault of an unholy combination of unbridled capitalism and large-state socialism? Not quite. There’s a third player here – the populace. Movements like Occupy, with their famous “We are the 99%” slogan, like to make out that the people have been buffeted about like trees in wind, and have no control over the prevailing conditions. But is that really true? The origins of the credit crunch (remember that term?) were mortgage defaults – that is, citizens borrowing more than they could afford, and then defaulting in their droves. Those people had a choice, and they chose to be greedy and irresponsible. Britain’s level of personal debt is eye-watering. People have been voting for spendthrift governments for years, turning a blind eye to the fact that it was all built on borrowed money. So the populace need to understand their role in all of this. They wallowed in cheap money, and didn’t concern themselves with where it had come from, and where it was leading them. It’s not good enough to flail around looking for other people to blame – we must look at ourselves, all of us, work out where we went wrong, and promise not to let it happen again. The Chapman Family certainly won’t let it.

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