How do you follow up on the most unlikely global hit pop song ever?
A song, perhaps best known for the infectious chorus, ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again’, scorched across the global pop charts some years ago. Its title was Tubthumbping and the collective responsible for it were Chumbawamba previously known only to the DIY music community.
Interrobang‽ are the new band from two members of Chumbawamba, Dunstan and Harry, yet the sound couldn’t be more different. That’s says a lot about a commitment to be creative, innovative and experimental. Onstage they are dynamic and thrilling, combining just the sounds of guitar and drums with Dunstan’s vibrant, expressive talk-songs.
Because the guitar is such a vital part of the band’s sound, yet avoids most of the clichés and limitations of rock guitar, I wanted to know more about it. It reminded me of the intensity of Fugazi and even the Ruts or the interesting bits of Bauhaus in places, so I asked the Interrobang‽ guitar-person Griff and here’s what he had to say.
Michael: For me, Interrobang‽ came as a complete surprise. I’d seen two-piece bands with a drummer before, going back to House of Freaks circa 1989, yet Interrobang‽ was captivating, even revolutionary. Musically speaking, can you recall any acts that gave you a similar feeling, overwhelming you by being original without feeling like a gimmick?
Griff: I love that feeling when you discover a new band that makes you throw out everything you previously understood, and makes you want to set sail on a new course. I felt like that when I first heard Public Enemy in the 80s. A friend leant me It Takes A Nation Of Millions on cassette and it was all I listened to for about a month, it blew my teenage mind. The noise, the words, it was something totally new to me and it seemed to make so much other music I was listening to at the time redundant.
How difficult is it for you as a musician to compose for a lyricist/performer who seems to have a very strong sense of how to perform his lyrics?
Griff: Our process for writing the Interrobang‽ material was very much a collaborative effort. The initial batch of 4 songs were created in a room as a live band, using improvisation as the main way to generate sounds. Dunstan would start reciting/shouting the lyrics at a tempo and vocal pitch that was right for him and I would respond with whatever felt right in the spur of the moment. We recorded what we did so that we could pick and choose the things that were working after the event. Even so, quite a few of the songs just came out fully formed that way. I think Curmudgeon and Billingham just happened without us having to change very much, we just used the recordings to learn exactly what we had played on the initial attempt. Obviously slight improvements and tweaks to the guitar parts happened as the songs all found their space over time, but the structure and essence of those two songs just arrived fully formed.
Geographical limitations meant that we had to find other ways of writing as the project started becoming more serious as I was in Leeds, and Dunstan in Brighton. After the initial batch of songs we moved to a process where I would record improvised guitar parts and ideas in isolation and add them to a Dropbox folder. Dunstan would then pick and choose the ideas that he felt best suited the mood and tempo for songs as he generally had a good idea of how he wanted to deliver the lyrics he had. He would then chop up my guitar ideas and put rough vocal takes on top using garage band i think? I would then get those Garage Band versions from Dropbox and then try and play his arrangements again as a song, maybe changing a few things here and there. This would then go back in the Dropbox and Dunstan would then add his vocal again, maybe moving guitars around again. We’d go back and forth like this until we had a finished song of guitars and vocals. i was always keeping an eye on the parts to make sure that it was something I could recreate live using the loop pedal, as we were very much focused on the live presentation of the songs for the first couple of years. The idea of how to record them came much later. We deliberately made the decision not to think about the recordings until we had played as many live shows as possible. We wrote 12 songs in this way before Harry joined the band on drums.
Can you tell us a little about how you actually create your sounds in the live shows?
Griff: My technical set up is very simple as far as the sounds I create, as I don’t use any pedals to influence the personality of the sound in any way, it’s just the Les Paul plugged into the amp, well… 2 amps 🙂
In the initial rehearsals I tried to do everything using a single guitar amp. I’d start looping and then would play live guitar lines over the top of the loop but it was immediately apparent that that wasn’t going to work as the drums had to follow the loop rather than the other way around. It was impossible to do that with the live guitar playing over the top, we kept losing track of where the loop was and things would fall apart.
So, I did a bit of research and bought a Radial Tonebone Twin-City Active ABY Switcher pedal. This let me send the guitar to 2 separate outputs. You can send to output A, or to output B, or A AND B at the same time. I sent output A to the loop pedal and then the loop pedal could have its own dedicated amp. Then when i played my live lines on top I could switch to output B going to a second amp and that way the loop amp was playing LOUD right next to the drums, with no live guitar obscuring the loop. Now it was possible for Harry to follow the loop without things getting out of synch. It still wasn’t easy to do, and it required a great deal of skill form Harry, especially as we drop the loop out in sections and need to maintain tempos so that when the loop comes back in things don’t fall over, but Harry managed to do it with some practice.
It wasn’t until we got all of this working that I realised that I could voice the amps in a way that would sound amazing when both amps are playing the same sounds (ie. when the loop drops out). I make sure the loop amp is quite clean, with a lot of attack, to make it easy for Harry to hear and follow, but the live amp has a bit more gain like a traditional rock sound. The result when you play power chords through both of the amps is a big part of the Interrobang‽ sound.
How did you come to fall in love with the guitar in the first place?
Griff: I was always very musical as a kid and was playing violin from the age of about 7 in primary school. My friends were always surprised how I could pick up an instrument and play any tune that they named, it was like a party trick. I started playing guitar when I was about 11 when a guitar playing friend of mine asked me to help him work out the chords for ACDC Back in Black. Once I’d worked it out I couldn’t put his guitar down, and ended up getting my own £60 Kay’s guitar a few months later for Christmas from a second-hand shop at the end of my street. I never put it down from the day I got it. I spent a lot of time working out guitar parts from cassettes I had of The Buzzcocks, SLF, Sex Pistols, The Damned and plenty of others.
I’ve read a bit about your ‘mood boards’ (I am a teacher and this is very exciting to me, as lots of my students aren’t rewarded by the standardised education system). Can you tell us more about how you use the mood boards as a road map?
Griff: The mood board was the idea we had on the night that we formed Interrobang‽
Dunstan told me that he had all these lyrics ready, and when he told me what they were about I immediately wanted to help him put something together to deliver them to an audience. I didn’t want to push my musical ideas onto him, as i knew he would have strong opinions about how he was expecting it to sound, so I suggested to him that he make a compilation CD of songs and bands that he thought we should be referencing. It was so useful for me as it was a very coherent compilation and I was inspired by it instantly, having lots of ideas about what to do. The keystone of the mood board for me was the Gang of Four and Wire songs. I knew it had to be anti-rock, brittle, insistent, and intense.
The other very important influence on there, and the one that pretty much dictated, and helped me to develop, a specific guitar style for the project was Dr Feelgood. To be honest I have stolen Wilko’s approach and style on the guitar, and then added a few inflections of my own. I decided to put a few rules in place for my parts, to try and spell out the anti-rock thing. Self-imposed rules included; NO bending of the strings, NO hammer ons, NO pull offs, NO solos, EVERY note was of equal importance so I took Wilko’s relentless up/down strumming pattern and applied it to single notes on single strings. I tried to make it as robotic as possible to emphasise the motorik nature of the sound that you get when using loops.
There were other things on the mood board which didn’t influence my playing style as much but were more influential in an atmospheric aspect. Things like Beefheart and Tom Waits.
The mood board was a great way to start the project and it was good to communicate with actual sounds and songs rather than dialogue which can leave too much room for mis-understandings and conflicting assumptions. I really think that this helped us get to the interrobang‽ sound quickly and without too many wrong turnings.
Not everyone is familiar with your past history, what parts of your music career have shaped you, and what you bring to Interrobang‽
Griff: I’ve played in a wide range of musical projects throughout my life, and it would be hard to find a consistent musical approach or thread through them all. I’ve usually been a facilitator of other people’s ideas though.
The musical project I was working on directly before the Interrobang‽ project was an improvised psych rock 3 piece that was all about the loop pedal. I’d just come out of a singer-songwriter band before that and I was sick of spending rehearsals discussing what should happen when, rather than actually playing. We were called The Other Things and we would play for 4 hours solid once a week. We’d record the entire 4 hours and then edit it into a 40-minute album, and stick it on Bandcamp. I was exploring what I could do with the loop pedal in that project, so when Interrobang‽ started I knew I wanted to put some of those techniques to use in a different context.
To me, Interrobang‽ is a form of mash-up, with music meeting a dramatic vocal performance. Can you think of any other cultural mash-ups that you admire/appreciate?
Griff: Hah, that’s funny that you use the word “mash-up” because the only other musical collaboration the I’d had with Dunstan was in the early 00s when we worked together to put out a white label of a mash up that I had created. I was in London at the time and I’d made a bunch of tracks where you take accapellas or instrumentals of popular songs and mash them together to make new songs. I’d made one that mashed together Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” with Happy Monday’s “24 Hour Party People”, basically it was Sean Ryder doing his thing on top of the Kylie groove, with Kylie singing the chorus’. Dunstan loved it and set up a little label and we made 1000 white labels of it, and then drove round London record shops selling them to shops out of the boot of a car. It was a lot of fun.
I think we also tried to do something similar using lots of post punk 7” singles that Dunstan had, but tried to add his vocals on top, a bit like the early Sleaford Mods stuff that Jason did before Andrew Fearn was on board. I can’t remember why we didn’t get very far with that project, but it didn’t really come to fruition. I think I have some recordings on a hard drive somewhere of that stuff. I might have to go and dig it out to see what’s there!
Did any punk records/groups/statements make an impression on you? Any punk records or acts that stand out for you?
Griff: I was born in 71 so was too young to get any of the first wave of the punk thing as it happened. But I did go digging through the punk sections in local record shops as a teenager in the mid 80s and loved all the big names that were available there. The first gig I ever went to was Public Image Ltd at Manchester Apollo, it was quite a daunting experience as I was about 15. Most of my friends at the time were either into indie stuff like The Smiths and The Cure or into Led Zepellin and Pink Floyd. I loved all that stuff too.
One record that made a big impact on me was Rudimentary Peni’s Death Church. When I saw the hand drawn cover in a shop in Affleck’s Palace in Manchester I was intrigued and bought it straight away. I didn’t really understand the context of that record, knew nothing about the anarcho punk scene, but it totally engulfed me. It was so dark and was like nothing else I had ever heard. Quite psychedelic in a way.
When I was older at the end of the 80s I moved to Newcastle and met a new crowd who were all into American hardcore stuff. Minor Threat totally blew my mind because of their straight edge stance and total commitment to their message. I shaved my head and tried to adopt some of their approach for a while, but struggled with the straight edge thing, haha.
One of my favourite bands that I discovered around that time, and one that I think has a huge influence on how I approach the Interrobang‽ songs was NoMeansNo. The “Wrong” album was, and still is, one of my favourite albums.