Interview: Art Brut
Published on June 12th, 2013 | Theo Gorst
The day before I meet Art Brut front man Eddie Argos, his band play a BBC 6 Music session for Marc Riley. Throughout the interview with the ex-Fall guitarist, Argos constantly refers to Art Brut as a “classic rock” group. This is a classification absent from previous interviews with the band and it seems like a further irreverent statement from a man famed for his wit.
While classic rock brings to mind images of trying to reach the deepest, darkest pockets of stadiums with populist songwriting, and rock stars with egos and riders of equally gargantuan proportions, it soon becomes apparent that Eddie Argos is far from descending into either. When we meet we are taken to a small side room, furnished with bare walls, a table and solitary chair. In unison we both offer the chair, before together accepting and then declining. All illusions of classic rock excess are shattered; if this was Axl Rose (a subject of one of the band’s narkiest songs) the chair would be out of the window right now. And yet, as the Art Brut front man perseveres in explaining the band’s self-appointed title, his argument becomes more convincing.
“We’ve been around for ten years. Like the Buzzcocks; I’d say they’re a classic rock band. Actually, they’re heritage rock as they’ve been around longer.” Regardless of how Argos classifies his band, it’s soon clear that he’s no different in person than he is to the man who has charmingly narrated tales of social awkwardness over Art Brut songs for the last decade. Perhaps they are classic rock, but only on their own terms.
Looking back at their career Art Brut seem deserving of a title, regardless of how grandiose it is. This is a band who wore enthusiasm on their sleeves; their first single and the song they open with tonight revolves around the chorus “Formed a band, we formed a band! Look at us, we formed a band”. On the same record [2005 debut Bang Bang Rock & Roll], Argos declared “modern art makes me want to rock out” and professed a wish to “play eight weeks in a row on Top of the Pops”. As he later explains, his lyrics are characterised by honesty: “because I’m so sincere about things, people want to assume I’m joking.” That’s not to say he’s always deadly serious, but equally Art Brut clearly reflects Argos’s personality more than one would expect. He romanticises rock music and is thus met with derision by those who don’t.
In an earlier interview Argos explained the differences in how his lyrics are perceived across the world; indeed, as he rarely sings, his appeal is dependent on the success of his lyrics. In reference to “Emily Kane”, a breakup song intercepted with a countdown that culminates in how many seconds it has been since he saw the subject of the track, he explains, “In England, they go ‘ah, that’s really funny that song ‘Emily Kane’, hilarious! Do you still miss that girl? Haha, what a joker’.” In America, however, he’s met with compassion, beers bought as presents and tales of similar experiences about “Sarah so and so”. The English assumption of irony leads Argos to incredulously ask, “What are you talking about? That’s a breakup song.”
As he continues it becomes clear the role of irony is minimal. Art Brut write songs in the mould of a classic band setup, yet recount experiences through an unusual lyrical prism. Although coupled to a scene the NME dubbed Art Wave, Art Brut always stood aside from those they were grouped with. There’s an honesty to Argos’s lyrics that defies associations to the affected swagger of the Pete ‘n’ Carl saga, and although the band’s front man professes to like Franz Ferdinand, he later admits, “We didn’t really fit in with any of those things, really.” While Franz Ferdinand wrote “Take Me Out”, a metaphor for assassination and dance floor courtship, Argos boasted about seeing his girlfriend “naked…TWICE”.
That such an incongruous band has released a Best Of compilation more than justifies Argos’s sense that “it feels like we’ve won, in a way”. If any band deserves to spearhead ‘classic rock’, it’s surely them. Ten years ago Eddie Argos hired a band through the back pages of the NME. There was always something different about Art Brut but the way they formed has a idealism to it that’s now defunct from modern day indie rock. Bounding on stage, Argos seems to appreciate this; he sings “Formed a Band” with an incredulous smile, as if he can’t believe he was lucky enough to chance upon the band, whom he refers to as his “family”. Furthermore he seems in disbelief that they’re still going a decade on.
With their niche appeal in mind, it’s surprising that a band so idiosyncratic can continue well into an age where taste is dictated by widespread availability. Where many bands opt to blend genres, Art Brut have stuck to their punky, art-rock-indebted formula. The reason for this was seemingly explained in a blog post Argos wrote concerning how it’s become fashionable to have broader musical tastes. As availability has increased, the segregation of the musical tribes of yore has disappeared, and while Argos mentions ways in which the world wide web has positively impacted the way in which we interact with music, his points return to a longing for the past.
“When I grew up I got in a lot of trouble for liking guitar music, people punching me at school and sticking you with badges, not that I’m saying I miss that! But I don’t feel like I should concede now; I don’t like dance music, really. I’m not ashamed to go, ‘You know, I don’t want to listen to the new Daft Punk record; I like guitar music! Now you get people who seem to think they have to like a bit of everything, but I don’t.”
Adjusting the way in which he is sitting – I eventually took the chair as he perched on the adjacent table – Argos points to there being fewer physical relationships with music, and concludes that its worth as a possession has decreased as a result. “I like the fact I can listen to lots of different music now, but it made you treasure it more when you couldn’t. I remember being 14 and being like, ‘What do the New York Dolls sound like?’ and not knowing as there was no way of finding out.
“So I went and bought The Best of the New York Dolls, went and listened to it and I kind of liked half of it but I’d paid £12, so you keep listening to it. If you don’t like it, you sell it. It makes you more passionate about music, I think; it (now) feels like less of a possession.”
Throughout our conversation, Argos’s love for music is evident – he regularly mentions Half Japanese, Jonathan Richman and Half Man Half Biscuit – and the crowd shows passion in equal measures at the gig later on. With queues lining Scala’s ornate entrance two hours before the band are due to take to the stage, there’s a tangible sense of excitement. When asked who he feels the band appeal to, Argos wryly remarks, “I’m excited to find out,” going on to say, “There are lots of old punks who like us. Then there’s – it sounds cheesy because our name [translates as] outsider art – and I mean this in the nicest way, but there are some oddballs. But I’m a peculiar character, so it’s nice.”
The old punks and Jarvis Cocker look-a-likes are present and counted for, but there’s a diversity to the crowd that can be accredited to the quintet expanding their original formula, now incorporating more mature arrangements into their songs. The recently released compilation Top of the Pops shows this, starting with their early exuberance before later including “Sealand”, a lonesome and whimsical plea for an uninterrupted relationship.
Although debut LP Bang Bang Rock and Roll was a critical success, it seemed unlikely that their unique characteristics would translate into a second fruitful record, and yet Art Brut now find themselves with four long-players under their collective belt, the previous two of which were produced by Frank Black. Their rise from celebrating their own formation to working with a Pixie is staggering in its unlikelihood, and Argos himself still seems somewhat shocked, saying how he “wouldn’t have expected any of this,” before pausing, then adding, “well actually I would, because I’m mental and an egotist and an optimist at the same time.”
Of the working process with someone he openly admits to being “a hero”, he recounts: “The first time I was really nervous and we had a bet on who was going to accidentally call him Frank first, because his real name is Charles, and obviously it was me. “Frank, can you pass me the…oh, fuck!” Forename issues aside, he explains the working relationship to be a friendly and productive one, with Black’s influence persuading Argos to sing.
“He taught me how to sing, which was weird as on every song he’d be like “try this, try this”. Having taken on Black’s advice, Art Brut added greater scope to their oeuvre, with Argos’s delivery now incorporating tenderly whispered vocals that counter his usually excitable, shouted rhythmic narration. Indeed “Lost Weekend”, one such song to benefit from singing, is a highlight of the band’s set. As Argos’s bandmates play the outro, he leaves through a sidestage door, yet before it shuts behind him his silhouette can be seen, framed as he gazes at the occupied stage. In the ten years since Art Brut formed, Top of the Pops, the Art Wave scene and the NME advert section have all become defunct. Thankfully, Art Brut continue. Next stop? Heritage rock.
Art Brut’s career retrospective Top of the Pops is out now on The End.