Art Brut Interview

In conversation with Eddie Argos...

He formed a band, he formed a band…

Art Brut are forever linked with that furiously catchy early single, with fair-weather listeners often neglecting to look beyond that and see a group for whom humour lingers with heart-on-sleeve passion. While in Britain the music audience seems perplexed by their approach to songwriting, Art Brut have a massive fan base outside of Blighty. One such superfan is Frank Black, who was so excited to be producing the group’s third album ‘Art Brut Vs Satan’ that he picked them up from the airport in his car.

With a multitude of side projects, interests and lesser documented hobbies to talk about ClashMusic met up with ever-acerbic frontman Eddie Argos to discuss their new album – and what a little Pixie dust can bring to the proceedings.

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Art Brut – ‘Alcoholics Unanimous’

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Where did the album title come from?
I’ve wanted to call an album that for ages, but I couldn’t quite work out why. I think I’ve decided now that if you don’t like Art Brut then I don’t like you, and you’re Satan. So we’ll fight you – I realise that’s a lot of people to fight.

So is this a new-found aggressive stance?
Well no, I mean I think the first album is kind of fighty as well. ‘Bad Weekend’ is an angry song. But it is a bit more scrappy this time.

How has this effected the song writing process?
I’m always quite a grumpy man, so it’s affected things a little bit, I suppose. Again, I like so many bands that don’t get on the radio and I just get really grumpy about it. I get sick of turning on the radio and hearing Kaiser Chiefs and The Wombats; I want to turn on the radio and hear something that I like, like Jeffrey Lewis or someone.

Frank Black produces the album, which must have been a thrill for you personally.
Yeah it was amazing, I was so glad when he agreed to do it. I thought I would be intimidated, because it’s Black Francis you know? But it wasn’t, it was amazing. He picked us up at the airport in his car, and he’s just such a friendly enthusiastic man. It’s hard to be intimidated by him, really, as he’s just a good person.

He’s known for recording live. Did the new album follow this template?
Pretty much. A lot of the album is first take. That’s what we wanted it to sound like, that’s how we wanted to record the songs and he’s the expert at doing that. It’s pretty much made as a Frank Black record, but with us instead of Frank Black! I don’t think we would have had the confidence to have done that without him, if he hadn’t been there, as he sort of conducted us. All in the same room – well I was in a cupboard actually, but everyone else was in the same room.

What is it that Frank Black brings to a record?
Confidence, definitely, and enthusiasm. It was just nice to have someone there who’s written some of your favourite songs to go: “Oh I really like that bit, play that bit again”. He was immediately involved in the songwriting process. I mean there’s an eight-minute song on there, and I don’t think we would have recorded an eight-minute song if we hadn’t have been recording with Frank Black. I think he kind of turned our brains a little in our heads.

You’re renowned for your energetic brevity, so where did that eight-minute track come from?
I think we just really enjoyed playing it. I only actually wrote the words when we were there. We wrote four or five songs when we there, and that’s one of them. I don’t really see it as a planned thing, it sort of just happened. We started playing and it ended up being eight-minutes long.

That’s strange. I would have imagined that, when recording live, things would be much more rehearsed.
Well, it’s just so creative recording in that way. You want to get it right first time. You end up focussing so much. It’s such a creative environment that you end up doing different things. I think it’s working with him, it just brought it out of us.

In Britain there’s the perception that Americans don’t ‘get’ irony – have you found that to be the case?
I don’t know. I mean, we’re quite sincere really. I don’t understand why people would think we’re being ironic. Perhaps that’s why people like us. I don’t know about irony, but Americans are not as cynical as us Brits. People over here would think that ‘Emily Kane’ is a joke song, they think I’m taking the piss or having a laugh. But in America they react to it as something sincere. So perhaps the lack of irony brings that out.

There’s recently been a period of upheaval for the band, with you leaving EMI. How did that happen?
Oh, they were horrible! We signed to them, and then the week after we signed they sacked everyone. A week after we signed, which meant we just didn’t know anyone. They were making videos for songs that weren’t released, and then they released a single without telling us. It was pretty annoying. We made a video, then got told the song wasn’t coming out. Then I heard it on Radio 2 and thought, “What’s going on with that?” Apparently it was out, and had been out for weeks – which was frustrating. It was just annoying, but we left so it’s OK.

You’re on Cooking Vinyl now. What difference has this made to the band?
It’s much better. They’re brilliant, and I’ve already met everybody that works there. I never had that at EMI. So it’s brilliant, and everyone is really nice. Plus they give you records, but this time it’s records that I actually want! Like Billy Bragg, or someone.

What Billy Bragg albums did you grab?
Oh, all of them! My favourite Billy Bragg album is ‘Worker’s Playtime’, but there’s so many.

You share a sense of Englishness, but Art Brut have found favourable reception abroad – why do you think this is?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s that thing again that people abroad are less cynical than us. I definitely think that some people don’t believe me in Britain. Saying that ‘Emily Kane’ isn’t really my ex-girlfriend, or perhaps I don’t really like comics. I don’t get that abroad. I don’t understand it, and I don’t want to question it as it might go away.

You mentioned comics there – you’ve written regular columns on the medium, right? How do you keep on top of all that, as well as writing for Art Brut?
That’s what I do for relaxation. I’ve always enjoyed being in bands and writing songs, so I’d be doing it anyway, almost. I don’t watch television, really, only when I feel like it. [The comics coverage is not] a lot of words or anything, I just do it to enjoy myself. The more fun the better!

The new album has the track ‘DC Comics And Chocolate Milkshake’ – is this a tribute to the publisher?
I love DC Comics, they’re my favourite. I read Spiderman for a bit, when I was growing up but the whole ‘Clone Wars’ thing got me down. I recently read Captain America, and I always thought I would hate it. I hate war stories, but I was astounded at how good it was actually. So I like DC Comics and I like Captain America.

Did you find that American influences crept into your music while recording over there?
Oh definitely, a bit at least. It was a really creative environment. We had bits of songs when we went over, but it was such a creative environment that we ended up piecing them all together. It’s not that we wrote loads of songs over there – they were ideas we had, that were half finished. It took, like, a day to set up, so if we wanted to record it in one take then we’d got the sound right to begin with. On that first day I was playing music, and it just began to flow from there. It’s not as if it was a home from home – we were snowed in at one point. We did feel isolated, but that was kind of cool.

You mix the cerebral with the light-hearted in your music – why include so much humour?
I try and make the lyrics sound like a conversation. Like, say we were in a pub talking about DC Comics, then the lyrics would be like this. If you sit in a pub and talk then people make jokes, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. They’re not joke songs, they’re songs with jokes in them. They’re conversational. ‘Modern Art’ isn’t meant to be funny, but I’ve had people tell me it is. Then I’m like: “No, I’m genuinely excited about art”. Which isn’t a joke, I was just making a point. I couldn’t work out for ages what the joke was in Art Brut, but I think it might actually be me.

You do have a larger than life stage persona, does that take a lot out of you?
I didn’t think it did. We’ve not played in a long time, but we played in Sheffield the other week and when I came off stage I was knackered! I had to sit down for ten minutes to get my breath and I had a headache, you know? When I see bands I like it when they do that. I’m only basing my performance on what I would like a band to do.

Do you find it difficult operating in a cold studio environment?
I don’t normally like the studio. With the last two albums I came out of it thinking: “Well that’s it, hopefully I won’t have to do it again”. But with this album it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t personally enjoy recording the music that much, generally, but this time round it was just perfect.

Did having Frank Black watching put you under pressure?
I really thought it was going to. I thought I would be intimidated but, honestly, he is the friendliest, nicest person. We were just hanging out and having fun almost immediately. The first night we just sat up and got drunk. It was hanging out with friends, really, which I didn’t think would be possible with Black Francis, but he’s such a lovely fella. We’re friends now, and still keep in touch.

In the past your music has split people down the middle. How do you cope with this?
I used to hate it when I read about bands saying things like: “You either love us or hate us, that’s what we’re about”. I wouldn’t mind being liked by everybody! When I write the songs I always put in things that I like; I mean, I like DC Comics and chocolate milkshakes, for example. I always think of it as making friends, which is lovely. So if you don’t like us it doesn’t bother me because it’s not as if we’d have had anything in common anyway!

The new single is ‘Alcoholics Unanimous’. Tell us a little about it.
We wrote it in Britain. I was looking at Mike, our drummer, at the time. I mean everyone gets hangovers, so I thought I would write a song about it and Mike just looked so bad, so rough, that I felt sorry for him. The song was really an attempt to make him feel better, but after getting a bit into it I realised that it applies to me as well – if not more. It applies to both of us, really. It’s nice to have a punk song about hangovers.

You’ve also got some side projects as well. Would you mind telling us about them?
Glam Chops is like a hobby. I just like playing live, and I’ve always liked glam music, so I thought it would be fun to play glam music. We just sort of did it as a one off, but the promoter booked us more gigs and it took off. I love wearing make up and singing songs. It was demand, really, [that’s kept it going], as it was honestly intended to be a one off. Everyone Was In The French Resistance came about as my girlfriend is in a band, and we had a gap between Art Brut albums so we started a game in which we would reply to other pop songs. So instead of ‘Jimmy Mack’ we wrote something else. I hate all those girlfriend songs, so we replied to that. It was recorded and released really quickly. We did loads of songs, but they were really poppy and totally unlike Art Brut.

Was this a welcome distraction from the band?
I’ve always been in other bands, doing other stuff. I enjoy it, and I’m always up for writing songs with other people. But it was nice to come back to Art Brut after doing other stuff.

So after three albums the hunger is still there?
Yeah! I’ve already written loads of new songs, though I don’t know what’s going to happen with them, whether they’ll go on an album or whatever. After we finished recording it was such a creative environment that I just didn’t want to stop writing, so I’ve written loads of new songs. It would be a waste not to use them, so there’ll be plenty of Art Brut to come.

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‘Art Brut vs Satan’ is out now on Cooking Vinyl. Find the band on MySpace HERE and see them live at the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona this weekend (May 29). Check MySpace for numerous US dates.

Photo: Simon Plunket

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