Art Brut Plays Brooklyn After Call from UK and Talks to PopMatters

Eddie Argos discusses how Art Brut found each other and the songs he continues to write for the band.

Art Brut

Art Brut

City: Brooklyn
Venue: Music Hall of Williamsburg
Date: 2011-06-23

A while back, Eddie Argos brought a band to the Music Hall of Williamsburg before Art Brut headlined a performance there on 23 June 2011. This was back when the venue was known as North 6, “before it was cool” as he explained that night, and he played in the lobby with the Art Goblins. On stage this time, Argos led Art Brut through almost a decade of songs since they “Formed a Band,” as their first hit says. He took to tweaking his lyrics by updating them for older ages and described how modern art now makes him want to buy things from their merch table, which included comic books and an original painting by Argos himself, along with T-shirts. The increased tempo of live performance brought out the punk rock roots of the band and Argos's banter throughout the set kept things thoroughly entertaining.

The night began with “Clever Clever Jazz” off their latest release Brilliant! Tragic! Argos took center stage with his heart still firmly on his sleeve and sent the occasional trademark entreaty to his band members, “Ready Art Brut?”. This group is clearly having a blast making music with Argos as the everyman frontman. While playing bass, guitars and drums, they took to echoing the lead vocals with callbacks, freezing in place and having fun with exaggerated facial expressions to play off each other. Highlights included early classics off the first release Bang Bang Rock & Roll, “Formed a Band” and “Modern Art” to “Direct Hit” (It’s a Bit Complicated) and “Alcoholics Anonimous” (Art Brut vs. Satan). The latest single “Lost Weekend” was a solid fit while a new song “Atlanta Girls” was offered up after playing it live only a few times before. After asking it he had a curfew, Argos allowed requests so the encore included “DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake” and “Emily Kane”, the endearing tribute to the one who got away. Argos said his teen sweetheart actually “rung him up” after hearing the song, although she is now a married woman, which he simply attributed to the power of rock ‘n roll. The concert ended after midnight with “Post Soothing Out”. The crowd obligingly raising their hands up when asked by Argos, while he acknowledged the warm up bands, individual band members and the fans.

Photo Credits: Sadie Harrison

Before crossing the pond for the gig, Argos spoke to PopMatters over the phone about his life with Art Brut, which combines a love of writing, music and art.

* * *

Looking back to when Art Brut “Formed a Band” as one of your first songs says, how did the group come together?

Well it was weird, really. I’ve always wanted to be in a band. So I came to London looking to be in a band and I was at a party at a friend’s house -- I was going around and around, and saying to everybody, “Be in a band with me!” I started telling more and more extravagant lies, “Oh I can sing like Aretha Franklin.” I might have convinced one guy and he’s the guy who’s left the band, a guy called Chris [Chinchilla]. And his next-door neighbor he taught to play the bass, called Fredericka (known in the band as Freddy Feedback). I got a bit worried -- it was all of his friends -- so I got my friend Ian [Catskilkin] from a heavy metal band. Then we didn’t have a drummer for ages until a friend of a friend heard this guy [Mikey Breyer] on a bus talking about drumming. He worked in a clothes shop so we left him a note there saying, “We don’t know your name -- we know you’re German and you play the drums. Will you join my band?” And he did, which was nice. A bit later, when Chris didn’t like being in a band, he left, and my friend Jeff [Jasper Future] joined. So, yeah, it’s sort of a long complicated thing. It wasn’t through an advert or something! It’s a group of people who wanted to be in bands basically, and that’s what brought us together.

The Art Brut sound is instantly familiar yet there’s such a mix of influences. How do you like to describe it?

Yeah, that sounds about it, really. Because we didn’t really know each other when we started. It all sounded somewhat like an argument between five people, especially our earlier songs. We all like completely different things. I mean I like the Mountain Goats and Jeffrey Lewis and that kind of thing. Ian likes Lamb of God and heavy metal, Mike likes Weezer, we all like loads of different things so I guess that comes across.

The Lyrics in your songs are full of real zingers -- where do the words come in during the song writing process?

Well I can’t really play any instruments, so I’m always writing things separately. I’m writing the lyrics down ahead of time. Then we get together for a band practice and we all try to make things fit. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn’t so I have to write new words on the spot. I might have enough words for a few songs but they don’t always fit. Sometimes I’ll have too much for one verse so I can’t make it longer -- I’ll have to get rid of it. So that’s how it works.

You’re also a painter acknowledging art appreciation through lyrics like “Modern art makes me want to rock out” and of course your name, Art Brut. Have you always been interest in both art and music while growing up?

Well they don’t really teach art very well in England, so I always thought for years that art was something like drawing your shoe. You know what I mean? Here’s an art lesson -- draw your shoe. Draw a self-portrait. I wasn’t really into it. I didn’t really get into art until after I left school. I’d get books out of the library about it. I mean I didn’t study art or anything. I just liked it a lot. So when the band started, I knew what Art Brut meant and they didn’t. That was all a bit of fun. So we became Art Brut, and they were like “Yeah, we’re Art Brut.” As far as music, I just wanted to be in a band for as long as I can remember. I tried the bass, couldn’t do it. I played the guitar, xylophone, and keyboard, none of it. Just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t play anything. So I was like, ah! I’ll be the singer. That’s easy, I can speak.

Going back to the lyrics, there are so many that are written from a fan’s perspective, for example the song about only just discovering The Replacements. What bands are you a fan of these days?

New bands? There’s a band called Future of the Left, also called Mclusky. I think Mclusky is the only band that all of Art Brut actually likes. They’re a band from a few years ago and then they became Future of the Left. That’s the CD that we can all get behind. We’re all like, yeah put that one in the front! That’s the one for the band. There’s also a band called Pris that I like a lot at the moment. They’ve got a weird, late 90s band sound. Almost like Riot Grrrl but not. I hadn’t heard that style in years but then I heard this band Pris and I thought, that’s exactly what I like! They’re my favorite band at the moment but they’ve only got one single out.

You also like to reference Pop Culture in your songs -- the new release even has two songs, "Martin Kemp" and "Axel Rose", referencing celebrities in the titles?

Actually the song “Martin Kemp” is about my secondary school, which is named Martin Kemp-Welsh. It has nothing to do with the guy from Spandau Ballet, just a weird coincidence really. Maybe Martin Kemp-Welsh was the guy who made the school or something. It confused me as a child at school as well. And I think because I’ve named a song after my secondary school, which is in no way famous -- no one has ever heard of it -- that’s just really confusing.

And there’s a song “Ice Hockey” as a great escape, like a space trip?

That’s a song for my funeral. I went to a funeral last year, it was lovely really. They played “Over the Rainbow” and I was thinking, I don’t want to go over the rainbow -- I want to go into space! Like whatever… So I started writing a song about it and I didn’t want to call it “Space Travel” or something like “Funeral Song”. I thought about it and you know how you get asked a lot about what do you want to be played at your funeral? So I thought that would be good if I answered, “Ice Hockey”.

This new collection of songs was recorded in the United States -- the band went back to Oregon at the end of last year to work with Frank Black (of the Pixies). How was that?

It was good! This was the second one with did with Black Francis, so the band knows him now. It wasn’t quite so intimidating as the first one where it’s liked “Shit, it’s that guy from the Pixies!” So you spend a lot of time just going, “Wow!” But we’re mates now, so he more in tune with us as well. It was nice. We’d sit around and play guitar together -- he taught me to sing, all that kind of business. I think the songs I do sing on need it really, for example “Lost Weekend” is about being hung over when you love someone. You’re not really responding and stuff so that doesn’t need to be shouted. It’s nicer in a husky voice.

Art Brut is touring through the summer, but are you able to find time to work on any new material with the band?

Yeah, I think we’ve got three or four songs down. I get a bit frustrated with it takes two years to get another album out. I’d like to get two albums out a year but I know it’s impossible. By the end of this year I’d like to get at least an EP out with five or six songs on it. So we’ve started working on that already. When I’m back in London we write a lot -- we just did a residency in London, playing five nights in a row. So we played some new songs there too, trying them out. But I love writing so I’m always doing that.

And you’re creating postcards for every show -- how did the idea for that come about?

Well I like postcards a lot and I realized that nobody really sends postcards anymore. I mean you buy them as souvenirs in the inns and things but that’s about it. I thought about doing postcards so everyone could leave the show with a postcard but that was too expensive. Then I thought I’d make one postcard for every show and sell it for cheap on the merch stand. I make it out of canvas -- two canvases with acrylic paint so it takes a while then I sell it at the gig and whoever buys it I set it out for them. Someone called Jamie bought it last night so I put “To Jamie, You saw Art Brut a few times” since she came more than once. Anyway, I write a little story, fill out the address part of the postcard with their actual house, stick a stamp on it and give it to him. I like painting but it’s something I would like if I went to see a band, you know? I’ve been doing it for a year now so there must be at least a hundred out there somewhere. There are also dressing rooms all across the country covered in bits of paint and that’s all my fault.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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