As we discovered from our chat with The Agitator, politics and music often go hand-in-hand as ideal creative ingredients. But what about anarchism? The notion of an ‘anarchist band’ initially seems to be a volatile one that wouldn’t last – but you’d be wrong for thinking that. With just shy of 30 years of visceral, satirical and often catchy music under their belts, Chumbawamba are by no means a rabble – they’re practically an institution. And while many of the issues they’ve highlighted – homophobia, apartheid and globalisation, to name but a few – have altered over the decades so too have they and their sound, as the band’s Boff Whalley tells So So Gay.
SSG: There have always been conflicting reports over the years on where the name ‘Chumbawamba’ originates from. What’s your say on the subject?
Boff Whalley: It came from the first gig we played under that name, at a venue called the Dole Q Club in Leeds – a place where you got in free with a UB40 (unemployment or dole card). We helped out there a little bit. The bloke who ran it was an old-school activist called Dave Bash. He was a legend, frankly – a small man with a scraggy beard and a black-and-red striped jumper. He came up with the name because, he claimed, it meant ‘revolution’ in some language we can’t now remember. But later we realised we’d misheard it because we couldn’t find it as a translation anywhere. Several years later we asked Dave and he just said, ‘It means revolution to me. That’s the important thing.’
Would you still describe yourselves as anarchists? Has your definition of what that is altered since you first formed?
We’re anarchists in how we organise – on that very practical level. It has changed, of course, but possibly not as much as you might imagine. Sometimes I think of the things that attracted me to radical ideas in the first place and realise how similar they are to how I think now. One of the first things I learnt from reading Malatesta and Kropotkin was the basic idea of ‘I won’t order you around. You don’t order me around. And we’ll get along just fine.’ I still believe in that.
Anarchism is a huge, unruly, slithery beast, and that’s part of its relevance; it can change with the times. It isn’t stuck in 19th-century political ideology. Unlike much of the old left, it embraced feminism, anti-racism and environmentalism very easily because it accepted that both we and the world have to change; and also it was (and is) radical enough to avoid becoming a stepping-stone to pretend-radical politics, the politics that sees Jack Straw, David Blunkett, John Prescott, et cetera, shifting seamlessly from Trots and Marxists into capitalist powermongers.
What do you think has been the secret of your longevity?
Having fun, and changing. Those two things. If it’s not fun to do, then don’t flog it as a business. In art, it shows through; people can tell your heart’s not in it. Every two or three albums or years, sit down and discuss where to go next. Confound yourself and your audience. Challenge yourself. Don’t repeat yourself over and over. It makes it exciting and a bit scary – I would imagine it gets deathly boring presenting the same ideas in the same way, year after year.
Looking back, how do you feel about the vast commercial success of ‘Tubthumping’? It must be irritating at times to be regarded by many as a ‘one hit wonder’ when you’d been around for over a decade by the time it was released and have carried on strong since.
No, it’s not really irritating – I’m happy we had that one song. It was interesting and strange and exciting and funny. Then when it got too much, it was definitely time to move on. I like that people at least know one song, because it can be a lead-in to the rest of what we do. We played in two prisons the year before last, and we were glad to have that song – it connects, simply because it’s immediate and well-known. And then you can go on and do other stuff and people will take you seriously, people will keep listening. You know, if the drunk bloke in the corner of the pub is singing some old Irish tune really badly, you’ll carry on talking over him; but if you know it’s Shane McGowan, you’ll listen.
Do you have a personal favourite Chumbawamba song?
I have a few, I think. They’re probably really obscure though. I love ‘Georgina’ and ‘This Girl’, which we never play. And ‘Torturing James Hetfield’, which we do. I love old stuff with Dan and Dunst, Alice and Harry, because it reminds me of how good a time we had. And I love the recent a capella stuff because singing together is always a joy, to me.
When the band is on hiatus what else do you all get up to?
Well I just spent ten months in America, because that’s where my partner’s family live. I wrote a book about wild running (the history, philosophy and poetry of re-connecting with the earth by running, away from the roads and the marathons) and I wrote the first draft of a musical that Chumbawamba will be part of next winter. It’ll be a two-week residency at a theatre in Leeds, and it’s set in Edwardian Music Hall England – lots of swearing, singing and putting the world to rights.
When we’re not doing the band everyone has other things they do. Lou is finishing a counselling course, Phil is doing an MA in art history, Jude has several other bands (orchestras, brass bands, et cetera) and designs websites, and Neil does production and engineering on other people’s records. And then there’s all the family stuff going on, too. But I won’t go into that, because I always think it’s self-indulgent talking about your family in interviews.
Do you see the folk-orientated direction that you’ve moved in as a reflection of you growing older as a band or more of a natural evolution of musical development?
Both, but possibly more ‘natural evolution’. I say that with some conviction because we did the same thing in 1987, when we recorded an album of a capella traditional music. The next album won’t be the same at all. Very different.
But I know what you mean – I’d feel uncomfortable making an album of loud rock, knowing that a live performance would entail jumping up and down like an 18-year-old. It’s not the physical thing that bothers me, just that it can look bloody stupid. I really wouldn’t want to be Mick Jagger having to strut like a plucked chicken across the stage, pretending he’s still young. It’s strange, because off-stage we’re all quite physical, running and exercising, et cetera – but then I see Madonna pumping her biceps on stage and wish she’d stop pretending she’s a young sexy thing. What’s wrong with being an older sexy thing?
Plus, there’s the added thing about music and where it’s going. It feels as if music is re-treading old water now, that there’s nothing new and exciting coming along. Recycling without reinventing. So we’re just moving through music like we always did. And enjoying it!
For those unaware of your tribute to Margaret Thatcher EP, elaborate.
Margaret Thatcher is going to pop her clogs sometime soon, and there’ll be a country-wide media and political blitz on her wonderful legacy. And that would be so wrong.
So we decided to record an EP called In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher which is available to buy – but even though you pay your £5, you don’t get the EP until the day she dies. It’s recorded, pressed, sleeved and ready to ship. In amongst the predicted BBC obituaries and the pompous, gushing state funeral, it’s something to look forward to.
It’s available from our website but, as I say, don’t expect it by return of post. Single as concept. The Society of the Spectacle. If she hangs on for a long, long while it could become our biggest-selling single! If she actually doesn’t die and is in fact immortal, as some people believe she is, then you get your money back.
Have you recorded anything new recently or have any plans to do so soon?
We’re recording a new album’s worth of songs very soon. When we’ve finished writing ’em. They won’t be gentle and folky, they’ll be sing-along and in-your-face. State-of-the-nation songs set in a style of a century ago. Knees up David Cameron, etcetera. We thought it was time for some pub singing and a bit of laughter. It should be ready and released around Xmas this year. Or early New Year.
Chumbawamba are performing across the UK from July 23. For more information visit www.chumba.com