Interview: John Robb (Goldblade, The Membranes, Louder Than War)
Published on June 20th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
John Robb – front man of Goldblade, bassist of The Membranes, editor of the Louder Than War website, biographer to The Stone Roses and The Charlatans, author of surely the best titled decade-hugging book of all time in The Nineties – What the Fuck Was That All About – is, as you can see, a busy bloke.
His recent The Terror of Modern Life album with Goldblade is one of the most thrilling blasts of noise we’ve heard this year, a righteous, riotous rabble-rouser of a rock record with no little musical and sonic ingenuity to mark it out from your more run-of-the-mill punk bands.
We fired Robb over some questions pertaining to his various projects and received back the following, entertaining set of replies, amongst which he assures us that he “has the bass porridge in his fingers”…
Congratulations on a tremendous new album. Was it all written in one burst of inspiration, or do some of the tracks date back further than others?
Thanks for the kind words, its the best received album we have ever done and the press has been amazing and we have had so many great reviews which surprised us! People have been calling it not only punk album of the year but one of the albums of the year which is really flattering.
It was written over a couple of years with the bulk of it arriving in one go. We knew what we wanted it to sound like and took it from there. We thought our last album, although really well put together by the producer, was too slick and hi-tech for us and we wanted to make something that sounded rawer and darker and more dangerous – the kind of sound we like.
We didn’t use much modern stuff on the record, stuff like click tracks and Auto-Tune and all the shortcuts. We are not against those for other people but they don’t suit us and we like the idea of songs speeding up towards the end as the adrenalin rush kicks in!
What do you mean by “porridge bass”?
That heavy bass sound invented by JJ Burnel of The Stranglers, perfected on the Black and White album and appearing every now and then like with Chuck Dukowski on the Black Flag demos on Steve Hanley in early 1984 Fall, mid-’80s Big Black and then Shellac and, not to blow my own trumpet, but on 1983/84 Membranes records when I used to play bass. It’s that porridgey, heavy sound of a lead bass – it’s sticky and violent but always playing great riffs and cranking the bass up to lead instrument status. We also call it bass science: that meticulous study of the dark and heavy sound.
When I played bass writing the songs or on album I can get the sound from the amp – I think my fingers naturally have the bass porridge in them but sometimes we would also use my trusty old Rat pedal which I have had for thirty years which I bought in Chicago shop with Steve Albini, who is another lover of bass porridge.
Who did the album artwork, and was it to spec?
It was Chris, the singer from Crashed Out, who is also a really good tattoo artist. There was a long story behind it! I wanted a gladiator scene because playing music is like being a modern gladiator in a sense, and I got fascinated by gladiators and Roman sports and the barbaric cruelty that seemed so normal at the time and also the way that the modern empires are like the fall of ancient Rome – so there was a lot tied into it!
I found a great piece of artwork on the internet and the artist was into giving it to us but the artist and the then label we were on, Southern Records, could not see eye to eye over a contract so they got it redrawn by a tattoo artist they knew and he did a great job, but we fell out with Southern so had to redraw the artwork again when we rerecorded the album over Christmas…pretty mental, really.
A pedant writes: shouldn’t it be “The *Shamen* are Coming”, as opposed to Shaman?
This has been a moot point from day one…Shamen sounded right to me but people insisted the correct way of writing it is, is Shaman…I dredged around the internet and it seems like it is Shaman but it still looks wrong to me…maybe I could change it round again when the single comes out in August, which will be a ten inch vinyl with a massive remix of “Shaman” on it…
To what extent do your journalistic commitments clash with your music-making? It’s ridiculously early to be asking, granted, but do you have material in mind for the next Goldblade album?
It’s just a question of time but with modern technology everything is possible…I see it as all part of the same thing, really…writing about music, playing music, designing sleeves, running a website, running a label and all the other stuff, it’s all a creative rush. When I started, it was rare for musicians to do other stuff but everyone does lots of stuff now, which makes sense really.
We have a few ideas for the next album but we need to sell this one first! Record labels are really struggling because of the pirates and the recession and it’s getting harder to record and release music, and even if this album is doing well there are less and less labels releasing this type of music in the UK. It’s hard to get heard on the radio and get your music out there, there are lots of alternative stations but they don’t play our kind of music because it’s too noisy, which is weird and hardly alternative is it?!
In 2010, Goldblade became the first western rock band to play in Algiers for twenty-five years. Did you get a big crowd?
Yes! There were about 500 people there and they knew some of the songs because they had checked us out on YouTube. It was a great gig, if a bit strange. I had met this amazing woman from Algiers at a music conference in Morocco and she had asked if we wanted to play Algeria and I said yes, I had sort of forgotten about it when she emailed back a few months later. I said there’s a civil war going on out there and she said, “Are you a coward?” so I had to play then as I could not back out the challenge!
The night before we went we were playing in Dublin and it was all touch and go whether we were going or not because the embassy had fucked up the visas. So we stayed up all night after the Dublin gig while the promoter got the Algerian government to specially open the embassy on the Saturday morning…we flew to London and the band went on to Heathrow while I went to the embassy, got the visas and went on to meet them. We got on the plane and the airline forgot to put the guitar on so when we got there the promoters had to ring around to get us another guitar.
We got to the gig and went straight onstage without eating anything and the gig really was wild with a great audience. That night they gave us a guided tour of Algiers City which is a beautiful place, like an old French town, and then we finally went to bed!
What is the “really off the wall Membranes gig” you mentioned to The Quietus?
We are going to play a gig called The Universe Explained where we will do just that with interviews with scientists, experiments, weird art stuff and then finish with The Membranes playing along to a film of the universe. It came about after I met the head of the Higgs Project and became friends with him.
How do you feel when you see the term ‘punk’ attributed to, as you say, “Americans in expensive brand shirts and tattoos”? Could the likes of Green Day ever truly be described as ‘punk’ in any way, shape or form?
To be honest, punk is a broad church and everyone has their own version of events. Green Day are a great pop band and have some great songs that carry the same message as The Clash, I have no problem with the way that for some people it has become about expensive shirts and trendy tattoos, that can be a great look, the only problem is when that becomes the only definition of punk and excludes everything else! It’s not for me to define punk for everybody else but I can define what it means to me personally…
Has Wilko Johnson been an inspiration to you over the years?
Of course, I even own a telecaster – which is, for me, the punk rock guitar, and played by Hugh Cornwell and Joe Strummer. Wilko was punk before punk and their stripped down rhythm and blues and gangster suits were so important in influencing what was about to come. I always go and see him when he plays and I’m thrilled to hear that he is going to play a few more shows…
Have you seen the Spike Island film yet? If so, what do you think of it?
I’ve not seen the Spike Island film yet but the Made Of Stone film is great and Shane Meadows was a great choice to make it – being an ex-skin/scooter boy, he understands the real background of the band which is far more punky than people imagine. Someone was saying the other day that Ian Brown had wanted the Cockney Rejects to support the Roses at Finsbury Park which would have been great and he always loved that period of bands like the Angelic Upstarts as well as the Sex Pistols.
What did you think of The Stranglers’ Giants album of last year?
It’s great…as soon as the bass comes in you know you are in business, the bass defines the band and it’s not just the sound but the prowling Rat Walk vibe it has that sends a shiver down your spine. The Stranglers were always going to be a band that had no problem with being old and they are proving this with their last three album being the best they have ever released. Giants is their best album since the Raven and is as quirky and belligerent as a great Stranglers record should be.
Steve Albini once described Pixies as “moderately entertaining college rock”. Any thoughts on this?
Ha ha he is kind of right in context. The Pixies have made some great records but when they were treated as harbingers of noise rock they paled when compared to Big Black – but then who didn’t? I remember when he was recording the Pixies album he was doing the Membranes Kiss Ass Godhead album at the same time (we would have been the first album he recorded outside his own stuff but time and money made it tricky for us to get together).
When we were doing our album he was talking about going to work with the Pixies and saying that sort of stuff about them. He seemed to be a big fan of the Membranes though and when we went to his house to record the album he had copies of our records and even a bunch of our fanzine, Rox…
Tell us about your workout regime, if you feel at liberty to (you don’t have to, of course)…
I go for a run every day – great when you travel a lot, it’s like getting to see a city in fast forward…on tour I can do a one-hour run, come back, shower and get ready and packed and most of the band are still not out of bed! When I’m in Manchester I do my weights four times a week, I find it relaxing in a weird way, and I do yoga as well because I don’t want to creak stiffly when I get out of a chair! Yoga is the toughest of the lot and our teacher is far from a trendy yoga teacher and it’s pretty deep and hard!
Do you ever wonder where you’d be/what you’d be like now if you’d succumbed to the rock star’s lifestyle?
A sad relic staggering about? It suits other people but doesn’t suit me, I’m into energy and doing stuff and keeping the sharp and angular all day long – that’s the way I want to live, everyone is welcome to whatever gets them through the day. I prefer not to be off my head and stay up late and get up early and do stuff, that’s just the kind of person I am. I’m attracted to extremes and this is my kind of extreme!
What music form 2013 have you been enjoying, and/or is there anything yet to be released that you’re particularly looking forward to?
Loads of stuff but i tend to write it down and move on so you will find it all on louderthanwar.com
John Robb, thank you.
The Terror of Modern Life is out now on Overground Records.