Pretty tunes with sour, disassociated lyrics: a conversation with Jazz Butcher and Gentleman Adventurer Pat Fish

First let me say I’ve been a fan since Bloody Nonsense came to my attention as a teenager in 1986. “Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present”, in particular, made a huge impression. An album called Big Questions ended up becoming my favorite, and your latest, Last of the Gentleman Adventurers was a real work of art and greatly appreciated by this listener. I don’t know how it did in any charts, but I hope you made millions or broke even.

“It’s funny that Big Questions should mean so much to someone. It was very much a final scrape of the barrel in terms of the stuff that we recorded for Glass. I can’t even remember being involved in the track selection. Yet Glass Supremo D. Elvis Barker, with his impeccable taste, managed to turn this grab-bag of out-takes, contributions to one-off compilations and ill-advised cover versions into something really rather listenable.

“I’m glad you like Last of the Gents. I’m quite proud of that one myself. We made it to mark the band’s thirtieth anniversary and we were incredibly lucky to have our friends Richard Formby, Tim Harries and Jonny Mattock for that session. They are all busy men and I could not believe our good fortune when we found a window to work with all three of them. We raised the money for that project with a crowdfunding campaign. People were incredibly generous and before we even entered the studio there was enough money to cover recording, travel, accommodation, mastering and manufacturing. When we did the deal with Fire Records for the re-release of our catalogue we made it conditional upon their doing CD and vinyl versions of Last of the Gents, so it continues to sell.

“For a small band like ours, there’s not much money to be made from record sales. The money, such as it is, is in the writing and publishing. That said, I’m proud to be able to say that none of our albums ever made a loss.

You’ve played in David J.’s band(s), and he in yours, and I heard you met at art school, is that right? How’s it been working with him and being friends through the years of changing music trends? What were your teenage roots, musically speaking?

“David was at art college here in Northampton, whereas I went to university in Oxford. Although I had seen Bauhaus a few times as a paying punter, I didn’t know David at the time I met his brother (Bauhaus drummer) Kevin first, just socially, when I moved to Northampton and we got on well. I finally got to meet David at Kevin’s birthday party on a canal barge in the summer of 1983, just after Bauhaus had split up for the first time.  The night was remarkable for one of the very few live appearances by the Sinister Ducks, David’s more than partially demented collaboration with Northampton’s own Alan Moore.

“I have never actually played in a David J. band as such, though we have played together on stage a few times as guests at each other’s solo shows. Both Max Eider and Owen P. Jones have toured with him, however, and we all crop up here and there on his recordings. He’s been known to turn up and join in at Jazz Butcher shows too.”

Is this the Watchmen guy or a completely other Alan Moore? That’s an interesting connection.

“First off, yes, it’s that Alan Moore. He’s good friends with David J and has done a number of interesting collaborations with him over the years, including an EP based on Alan’s V For Vendetta, which has recently been re-released by Glass Modern in a luxurious new expanded format. The Ducks were Alan, David and Alex Green on sax, with artwork by Edwin Pouncey aka Savage Pencil. They released one 45 on Situation Two Records, probably in that very summer of 1983.

“Alan has lived all his life in Northampton and doesn’t much care to travel anywhere else. He has written two books (not comics) about the town: Voice of the Fire and the enormous, mind-boggling Jerusalem. He’s far from being the grumpy recluse that he is sometimes said to be. As his sleeve notes on Last of the Gents demonstrate, he’s always willing to help out a pal, but if anybody is struggling, Alan will be there for them. He is, in his own way, a proper pillar of the community. I love him.

“At the end of 1982 a very, very early manifestation of the Jazz Butcher had opened for Bauhaus at the Hammersmith Palais in London. After the show I thanked Kevin for the opportunity, only for him to deny all knowledge of how we had come to be there. It turned out that David had been observing us from afar, and it was he who had us added to the bill.

“Over the autumn of 1983, Max and I opened a run of shows for David in his capacity as a solo artist and we got on well. There was talk of his producing our second album. Things became complicated and by March 1984 David was our bass player. He stayed for two albums and a European tour before going off to start Love & Rockets with his old compadres. His studio experience with Bauhaus was invaluable; he taught us loads of useful things; not least how to get concert promoters to give you free drinks.”

“At the time we met, David and I were into some very similar stuff. Obviously, we shared things like the Velvet Underground, Bowie and Eno, but there was also a shared enthusiasm for simpler, more classic singer-songwriters like Dylan, Peter Perrett, Nick Drake, Roddy Frame and Martin Stephenson. We used to trade cassettes all the time. I recall the wonderful moment where I sent him a ropey home recording of the Velvets’ Stephanie Says. It was only available on some grungy bootleg in those days and David hadn’t heard the song before, which led, delightfully, to his thinking that I had written it! A similar thing had happened when he brought John Cale’s Rosegarden Funeral of Sores to a Bauhaus rehearsal. All the other guys in the band thought David had written it; and for the longest time, he let them continue to believe that.

“I think, deep inside, that we both just wanted to be Cale.”

Can you say more about your appreciation of John Cale—what did you like about him especially?

“I think I probably came to Cale when I was about sixteen, through the fact that Eno produced his album Fear. Of course, I loved that record and I’ve followed Cale for the rest of my life. I was enjoying his solo stuff long before I “got” the Velvet Underground.

“I’ve never really taken a moment to ask myself why I like his work so much. I guess that it has something to do with the fact that although he loves to experiment and ‘push the envelope’, as they say, there always seems to be a strong, beautiful musical base to the work. HisMusic for a New Society is a fine example: the performances are deconstructed, fragmented even, as though blown to pieces by a cluster bomb flung casually through the studio window, but deep underneath, buried in the wreckage, are really strong, beautiful songs. Somehow, the fact that this beauty is poking up from a heap of smouldering rubble seems to amplify the emotional impact of the tunes.

“Cale has a very nice take on a sort of dignified, world-weary resignation: ‘Back in Berlin they’re all well-fed…but I don’t care. People always bored me anyway,’ he sings on Paris 1919’s Half Past France” over a stately, disassociated drone of strings. Not bad for a young man still in his twenties. He even wears a white suit in the cover photographs. Impeccable!

“Another thing that I enjoy about Cale is that his songs are so good that they can be presented in even the simplest acoustic format and still have the impact that they might have had with a live band or an elaborate studio production. Obviously, I’ve seen him perform live on many occasions and with many different musicians, but the shows that have really reached me are the ones where he has performed alone with a guitar or a piano. As things turned out, I was lucky enough to open for him at one such show at the Forum in London in 1993.

“Great songwriting, beautiful music and paranoia teetering on the very brink of overt hostility: what’s not to like?

Photo by Philippe Dufour, Paris 2019.

“Tale out of school: one evening in September 1983, not long after Bauhaus had split up, I wandered into my local dive bar to find David J doing an unadvertised solo performance in the back room. It was the first time that I had heard my new pal playing solo and I watched, fascinated, as he worked through tunes from his first solo album The Etiquette of Violence. After a few numbers I remarked to a friend “Well, it looks as though Dave’s going for the ‘John Cale of the Group’ ticket.” With that. I headed out to the lavatory. On my return, I walked into the room to find David halfway through a cover version of Fear is a Man’s Best Friend. Oh, how we laughed!”

Where are you these days, creatively? What impression would you most like to be making these days, as a creative exponent (to include social commentator, musician, and any other chosen themes)?

“Oddly enough, having just written that stuff about Cale, I fell to thinking about this question and realised that I do rather seem to be trying to follow in his footsteps to some degree. Even in the days when our stuff was considered borderline comical (and there was the occasional joke, I have to admit!) a lot of the songs were about disassociation, rejection and ‘walking away’. More recently, the lyrics have become more overtly ‘dark’ while the tunes have become simpler and more melodic. I’m on record as saying. ‘What I do is not entertainment.’ People can take that as they will.

“Because there is very little work out there for an act like mine, and therefore very little money, I can’t currently afford to keep a full-time band, so the vast majority of my live performances are solo affairs. One ends up with a single elderly, not very photogenic gent with a guitar, playing pretty tunes with sour, disassociated lyrics. Top ten material it is not.

“The Cale influence, then, is still very much in effect, as is the lingering influence of his old band mate Lou. I love classic soul music (as did they) and that is becoming more and more of an influence on my songwriting too. My guitar sound owes much to both John Martyn and Syd Barrett. The attitude that I hope to convey owes much to the languid insouciance of Kevin Ayers, whose appearance on children’s tv singing Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling in Love Again” with a bottle of Champagne and an exploding piano blew my teenage mind.

“Grace under pressure? A warm heart in a cold world? Or the sound of an enormous steel door in Hell clanging shut forever?* It’s really not for me to say.”

I understand this lockdown is making people who live in part by public appearances rethink their next steps. I don’t really dig the virtual thing as a substitute for live stuff, but I’m about to shoot some vids of me reading shorts and link to a Patreon page to see what happens. What are you gonna do next as a performer?

“Just as the “lockdown” started, I saw some bloke with a guitar advertising his “live” gig on Facebook. There was a photo of this unprepossessing geezer with an acoustic guitar and, behind him, a large, home-made poster screaming ‘PAYPAL ME!!!’ I shuddered at the grasping vulgarity of it.

JBC live, the Living Room, London ’84 by J.C. Brouchard.

“So I’m having trouble going down the route of “virtual” shows. I have, however, been very taken with Max’s way of doing things, which is simply to record a number at home, then park it on the YouTubes and let people watch it for free. I intend to do something along similar lines over the next few days. Not that it will be in any way liable to cheer people up in their time of isolation. That’s just not where I’m at these days. (Insert evil cackle here.)

“It’s pretty frightening to think about the immediate future. To be honest, I have already depended much on the kindness of friends and strangers over the past year or so, but one cannot decently rely on that being an endless resource. I’ve no idea as to when it will be safe to go back to work (I think that live arts events are likely to be the very last things to come back), but when I do emerge, I think that I shall probably head straight back into the recording studio. I’m lucky enough to have people still interested in releasing my shit, so that would seem to be the best plan. And yes, there are songs.”

The Brian Wilson references in the beautiful song, “Shakey”, on last of the Gentlemen Adventurers caught my attention, as a fan of his—what inspired them, if anything particular?

“’Shakey’ was one of those songs that came really quickly. I think the lyric was pretty much a question of free association. I was, I think, trying to explore a landscape of personal devastation. Brian’s horrible childhood and the resultant misery and paranoia of his later years seemed a good fit. His wife really did find him chopping out powders with his two school-age daughters one Christmas morning. It don’t get much more devastated than that. Of course, the trick then is to point out in the chorus that for us mere mortal types, even this desperate nadir is way beyond our pay grade. ‘Let it go, boy. You can’t afford it.’ Bleak.

“I never really identified with the ‘social commentator’ thing, any more than I did with the asinine ‘Monty Python of rock’ label with which some deaf people tried to saddle us back in the eighties. I do like songs about real things that are expressed in simple, colloquial language, stuff like the Waiting album by the Fun Boy Three, or, of course, Dylan. I suppose that this does mean that an element of ‘social commentary’ is inevitable much of the timeand, obviously, I do have my own opinions about things, but the social commentary thing is not what drives my songwriting. I’m not Billy Bragg, even though (fact fans!) he and I were born in the same city on the very same day.

Photo by Pierre Guillaume, Paris 2019.

“As I have watched my musical and (counter) cultural heroes die off over the last decade, I have come to feel that there is a certain responsibility upon those of us left behind, however mediocre we might be in comparison. It’s simply not good enough any more to have a laugh and a knees-up while the adults take care of the serious shit; like it or not, we (that is to say: our generation of writers and artists) are the adults now. I feel that if one’s not prepared to take on a little of that responsibility, then there’s not much point in trying to make art. I suppose what I’m trying to say is this: if you’re not doing shit that moves people and means something, sit down and be quiet.

“A quick shout out to some of my other favourite artists who are still out there doing it right: Bob Dylan; Peter Perrett; Dave Kusworth; Patti Smith; Chuck D.; Tom Waits; Sonic Boom; Tinariwen; Vic Godard; Phil Parfitt; Rolo McGinty;  Steve Savale and the Asian Dub Foundation; Tim Keegan; Robert del Naja and the Massive Attack collective; Micky Greaney; Mavis Staples . . . and, of course, John Cale and David J. Haskins.”

*: Thanks, Harlan Ellison! x

Photo by Philippe Dufour, Paris 2019.

by Zack Kopp

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