Wearing the Wrong Clothes: An Interview with Punk-Hippie Alig Fodder
Front man of shape-shifting post-punk act Family Fodder talks about the early days, the songwriting process, and how an unbridled fashion sense may have kept them out of the limelight.
One could credit Family Fodder’s commercial tribulations to their being an anachronism, though that would imply some musical moment would have suited them. Perhaps circa 1968? But then they would have sounded positively futuristic, in the way the Velvet Underground only made sense in hindsight. Like the Velvets, we can look back at Family Fodder and say, “Yep, they had it exactly right.” Unlike the Velvets, however, their record sales have not yet caught up with them.
Spun out at the intersection of psych, prog, dub, and the kitchen sink, Alig Fodder and his merry band of fools have released an exceptional catalog. The bulk of their effort is concentrated around the juncture of the ’70s and ’80s, but Alig, aka John Pearce, has kept the magic alive into the present day, having created three albums in this decade alone. Though the group neither indulged in incense and peppermints nor disregarded the bollocks, they were the very embodiment of punk-hippy. With close ties to apocalyptic avant-punk group This Heat, London-based Family Fodder engages a brighter palette with lyrics that delight in ironies and idiocies. Into the bubbling brew, Fodder and co. toss a veritable medley of instrument sounds and tape loops, while still embracing pop hooks to the fullest. They often cycle through several outfits within a song, unified by driving, motorik grooves. Quirky may not be the most coveted musical descriptor, but few groups sport their quirk better than Family Fodder. (Indeed, their album titles are a dead give away—take the 1983 release All Styles or 2013’s Variety.)
When asked whether he felt part of something larger, Alig mused, “When bands started doing dub mixes of their records like, say, Bauhaus, I would feel part of that. But then pretty quickly I would feel, fashion-wise, I wasn’t part of something, basically because I wasn’t interested in clothes. Just whatever you found in the thrift shop, that was okay by me.” And this anything-goes, thrift shop mentality may account for the band’s shapeless identity. The schizophrenic professions of “Playing Golf (With My Flesh Crawling)” posed alongside the frolicking cadences of “Savoir Faire” do not tell a particularly coherent narrative.
So what kept them from going down alongside the likes of Devo and XTC? Was it the clothes, the quirk, or another other reason altogether? At some point, the question no longer matters. The Information age will continue to circulate the unremembered gems of the post-punk era, and as fans have known all along, Family Fodder deserves it as much as any other.
Alig Fodder currently resides in Crete. He recently made available acoustic solo material under the moniker Senior Model.
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You’ve been putting music out as Family Fodder for about 40 years now. And you’re still making good music. How are you doing that?
Well, thanks. It’s what I do. You just keep going. You’re a musician. The economic setup is not good for any musician, young or old, but if it’s what you do, you keep doing it. You get better, or at least you don’t get worse. Some people go off the boil. That’s for sure. But also a lot of people have their moments in the zeitgeist, in the fashion, and they are actually still producing good stuff, but nobody’s interested.
Not many people know about Family Fodder, and I think that’s a crime. Was there ever a period when you had aspirations for fame and fortune, or did you always have an artistic integrity that may have kept you from mainstream attention?
[Laughing] I don’t think there ever was a time when I wasn’t trying to be successful as a professional musician, but there’s some stuff you don’t do ’cause you can’t do. There’s other stuff you don’t do ’cause you don’t want to. But sure, I made plenty of bad career decisions.
What do you mean by that?
Well, I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. I guess if I’d paid a bit more attention to clothes and networking and going out a lot and talking to people-might have been a bit more successful, but hey, you do what you can do.
I’m curious what kind of albums you were listening to back in the day? You’re a little bit hippie and a little bit No Wave, but not quite either, really. I guess I’m just trying to place you culturally.
Well, we’d just come through the ’70s, and originally, I was a prog rock kid. In my teens, I was listening to Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, jazz-rock, Frank Zappa, and so on. And then, very early in the ’70s, I discovered The Velvet Underground, and that turned everything around for me, and I—and the other guys in Family Fodder and an awful lot of other musicians—got into The Velvets. People got into this primitive or stripped down vibe, and that changed things a lot for me. So I was no longer interested in who could play the fastest guitar solo or who was the best keyboard player, who had the best arrangements. I stayed interested in Pink Floyd but only the Syd Barrett stuff. I kind of lost interest in them after about 1971. Brian Eno was a big influence. His collaborations with Bowie made Bowie much more interesting for me, and his collaborations with David Byrne made David Byrne more interesting. Then there was dub reggae, which we first started hearing about 1973, 1974, and this idea that you could remake your music in the studio, strip it down and build it back up again—this was a phenomenal influence on me and everyone else around in terms of production. Not so much live playing but in terms of studio. And we’re still feeling the repercussions of that now. Then there was a UK experimental band called This Heat—very big influence, also close friends.
They’re insane. What are they like as people?
Complex characters. There’s only two of the three left alive. Gareth Williams died about ten years ago. You should follow it up. They’ve just re-launched their career, did some shows in London. They turned me onto a lot of different kind of music, like Steve Reich kind of stuff, African music, ethnic music in general.
I feel like they get credit as being very paranoid and having very extreme philosophies. Did you get any of that?
They had a dark side for sure. So now we’re talking about the two Charles, Charles Hayward and Charles Bullen. They had a group identity as This Heat but were totally different characters. They had a very fun-loving side as well. They were very anti-commercial, very anti-business, so anything that smacked of being audience friendly or seemed like promotion, they would draw the line.
So you came out of the post-punk era, whatever the hell that means, and I’m curious: What did this thing we now call punk look like to you?
So I’m living in London, 1976, and we started to hear about punk, and one side of that was people very much like me getting into The Velvet Underground, maybe Iggy and The Stooges, this sort of stripped down music. And then there was a fashion scene going on as well. What happened was, we’d hear about these bands that were doing something revolutionary, and you’d hear it and say, “Well where’s the revolution?” The revolution was in the clothes or something. Charles Hayward from This Heat recently said in an interview something exactly like what I’m going to say. We heard about The Clash as a completely different revolution in music, and you’d go to a gig, and it was just the same music as before. It was Chuck Berry, it was 12 bars, and the guitarist was maybe not quite as good. The Sex Pistols were a bit different because they had John Lydon at the front, and he was a bit crazy, but musically, same thing: just bad, twelve bars. So if you’re coming at it as a musician, and you know this kind of music already, nothing was happening. But what was revolutionary was the idea that you didn’t have to know your instrument, that everybody could form a band, that you could sidestep the record business and make your own indie label, that you could go into a garage and make an album in a day and do the same thing tomorrow. This was phenomenal. But most of the bands that got the credit for this weren’t doing anything different. It was just the same music with different players.
And maybe a reaction to the prog rock and the virtuosity?
Absolutely. People had had enough of Genesis’ next concept album and how many stacks of keyboards Rick Wakeman would have on his next tour, and the guitarist who would have a fourteen-minute solo where he’d play his whole collection of guitars. People were rightly fed up.
But then we had groups like Family Fodder and This Heat, and you guys knew how to play your instruments. You were not what you described as punk, but you came only a few years later, almost a synthesis of this DIY mentality with certain elements of prog rock and avant-garde music.
We were punk-hippies. Or hippy-punks.
Did you feel like you were part of something maybe not as grand as punk but a sort of scene or movement at the time?
That’s a funny question. I personally didn’t feel part of something for very long. For example, when bands started doing dub mixes of their records like, say, Bauhaus, I would feel part of that. But then pretty quickly, I would feel, fashion-wise, I wasn’t part of something, basically because I wasn’t interested in clothes. Just whatever you found in the thrift shop, that was okay by me. And whatever your girlfriend wasn’t wearing that day, you could wear. One time, I said to friend, “You know, we’re a part of the same wave as Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure,” and he said to me, “You’re crazy. We don’t have anything to do with those bands.” Siouxsie and the Banshees in particular had a very stripped down sound, but later, all that turned into goth. Everybody was interested in having black makeup and black clothes and backcombed hair. So I often felt I was part of a wave for a little while, and then I saw I wasn’t. I saw I was kind of a bit out on my own.
I wonder if, by being so eclectic, you estranged yourself from any of existing scene. Almost every old Family Fodder song sounds like it’s own world. You’re not an easy band to pin down. When I talk about you, I say, “Oh, they’re a pop group.” But of course, you’re dub, you’re art rock, you’re synth-pop. So how do you label yourself, or do you just try not to?
Well, now people say post-punk. Of course, we didn’t say that at the time. We said “new wave” or, for bands like Family Fodder that had a big ’60s influence, I would just say this is “new psychedelic music”. I generally hung around with guys who were doing experimental music of various kinds, but I just love pop music, and I love pop singles. For my generation, that goes back to the ’60s: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, and a whole bunch of other bands. I always really dug pop music, and that was a bit strange for my circle of friends. They all thought I was a bit of a sellout, that I wasn’t experimental enough.
You guys get credit for sounding like certain groups that would come decades after you. A lot of people compare a few of your songs to Stereolab, and I personally think your early hit, “Playing Golf (With My Flesh Crawling)” sounds exactly like what the Cardiacs would eventually do. So, did these bands copy you? It’s okay, you can tell me.
I’ve heard this Stereolab thing a few times, so of course I checked them out. I don’t know, I don’t think there’s that much resemblance. They had a female singer with a French accent [like Dominique Levillain of Family Fodder]. I’m sure they must have listened to the same bands as Family Fodder, but I don’t know if they were directly influenced.
Can you explain the background of the song “Playing Golf (With My Flesh Crawling)”?
Yeah, that was the first Family Fodder single, written on a Farfisa organ, which has that throbbing tremolo sound you hear at the beginning. At that time, there wasn’t a band called Family Fodder. It was just me in a basement making demos with a couple of friends or sometimes completely by myself. That was my solo project trying to get a record deal. Rick Wilson on drums, I played all the instruments and did the vocals, and Charles Bullen from This Heat as the producer. He produced that record, but he didn’t want to be associated with a pop outfit, so he did it under a pseudonym. So when you see Billy Bagg, that’s Charles Bullen.
It’s not like This Heat haven’t made pop music though.
Of course they made pop music.
I’m also curious where “Dinosaur Sex” came from? That has to have one of my favorite jams of all time. What was the story behind that song?
That was actually my composition, but it came from a period when there was a live band and we were writing most of the tunes together—Bazz Smith on drums, myself on guitar and keyboards, Ian Hill on keyboards and vocals, and Graham Painting on bass guitar and percussion. In fact, we went on tour two years ago with that band.
I notice you use a lot of unusual percussive sounds and make beats from tape loops. Would you just bang on things on the studio and find a nice segment to loop?
Yes, that’s more or less what happened. Sometimes you might actually set out to make a tape loop, but usually they’re kind of accidents. Bear in mind, in those days we really did work with tape, so if you wanted a loop, you’d cut it and stick it together. If you wanted a different length, you’d have to get a mic stand or a coffee table or something and make the tape go around that as well. On the first album, Monkey Banana Kitchen, there are three mixes of a 24-track, an idea totally stolen from This Heat. 24-track machines in those days had tape that was two inches thick, so you have tape going for about twenty meters around the studio with heavy duty mic stands and saucepans and stuff from the kitchen to get the tension out.
And how did you become interested in dub mixes?
I always had the idea that there’s no such thing as a definitive mix of a tune. You could do a version, deconstruct it, do another version, take all the drums out and overdub other stuff on it. This wasn’t normal at the time. This is completely normal now. The influence first came in from Jamaica to do versions on the B-side of the record. The philosophy’s taken hold that there’s never a fixed version of a song. You can always remix it. Forever and ever. This was my attitude already in ’76, and I had a lot of arguments with other musicians about this, and with engineers, because sometimes the engineer would say, “Let’s practice the mix.” And I say, “What do you mean practice? We’re gonna’ mix, and then we’ll do another mix, and then we’ll do another mix. And then we might glue some of those mixes together.
In the old days, we’d do a single in an afternoon and an album in a week. The studios were expensive. You want to remix it? If you’re lucky enough to have a record company, you had to persuade them to pay for that. It wasn’t like the situation we have now. Everybody’s got their stems, they’ve got their backup. You want to tweak the snare? You go in and tweak the snare. But in the old days, you just had a mix on a quarter-inch tape or and you could pay thirty bucks an hour and book the studio again, start from scratch.
It seems like you couldn’t have been obsessive given how much music you put out in the early days.
[Laughing] Some of it was done downright sloppy.
Was there a period where you were making songs every day?
Yeah, at least one song a day in those days.
You’ve remained the only consistent member of Family Fodder over this time, is that right?
Nobody else can put up with me.
Would you say Family Fodder is a representation of your personality, or is it a more abstract vehicle for different sounds and ideas?
A bit of both. I’m also in nearly all cases the major lyricist. Every song’s a story, but an awful lot of the stories I made up. A lot of the love songs are hypothetical. They’re not about real people. They’re like short stories. Of course my experience goes into that. But it’s not all true. Don’t believe what you hear in headphones.
You put an album recently called Just Love Songs that blows my mind in how contemporary it sounds. A lot of these songs could be college radio hits. Are you influenced by contemporary music?
I think it’s the other way around. I think a lot of songwriters and mixers today are looking back at earlier music, and they’re listening to the same kind of things that I was listening to. In the ’70s, we looked back to the ’60s and the ’50s, and in the ’90s, people looked backed to the ’80s and the ’70s, and that process goes on. But first of all, I’d like to say on that album, there are two much younger singers. There’s Darlini Singh-Kaul who is the daughter of the original Family Fodder singer, Dominique Levillain. Darlini lives in Goa now, and she’s doing gigs all over the place—Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. She’s wild. We had another very good singer, Mae Karthauser, who has her own band The Midnight Fairground. So I was working with twenty-five-year-old singers on that album when I wasn’t singing myself.
But about contemporary music, a lot of people have got an inferiority complex. It’s really tough for young bands. First of all, you can’t make any money at all. You can’t get any royalties. You can’t get an album out. If you do, nobody buys it. Your friends don’t want to know. You can’t get a gig. It’s really tough for those guys. It’s tough for us old guys as well. And also, people have got this exalted idea about ’60s and ’70s music, and they think, “We can’t do anything as fantastic and classic as that.” It’s not true. Everywhere you go, there’s absolutely fantastic new bands and solo artists doing incredible stuff, but they can’t get heard. This is a problem. I’m nearly sixty now, so I don’t get the opportunity to listen to new stuff as some people only because I’m working on my own stuff all the time. I’m not gonna’ mention any names, but there’s some great stuff out there. Nobody should tell you music isn’t good like it was in the ’70s. The music is just as good, but the politics are seriously fucked. There’s something seriously wrong there.
So the obvious question. What can we expect next from Alig Fodder?
[Laughing] I hope one day to get a band back on the road. The guys are there, they’re waiting, but we live in different countries. It’s hard to get gigs. The gigs pay very little. I’m still paying off the bank loan I took to do the last tour two years ago. So hopefully something will happen. But I’m always making music. This year, I’ve maybe done ten songs, and I’m working with just acoustic guitar with a very charred, present sound, very in your face. At the same time, I’ve done two albums of improvised piano, and I’ve done two albums of improvised modal guitar solos, influenced by Indian and Arabic music. I’m not by any means a virtuoso, but I’m really happy with these recordings. I guess all this stuff will get out on the net, but you put something out on the net and nobody can find it. Like I say, we’re waiting for a grassroots revolution. And I think it’s going to be live.