En Garde

Anton from En Garde fanzine (antongustavsson@spray.se) interviewed me for issue 9. Here’s the lengthy, very rambling result:

1. The reason I think your story is very interesting is partly because I have understood that you had to overwin some personal/political ideals to sign for EMI when they wanted to release your “Your Woman”. For someone with Trotskij, Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg as heroes, it has to have been a difficult step. Did you personally find it difficult signing to a major label and thus agreeing to raise money for its owners? How did you think about this at the time?

It wasn’t my own personal politics that much. After all, everyone who has a job is working for some form of capitalist, big or small. There’s no difference between being in a band being signed to Sony or working as an assistant in a Sony shop: both are cogs in the corporate machine.

My problem was that I didn’t want to abandon Parasol, who’d supported and released my records for years. But when my record got onto Radio One, it went crazy, shops wanted to order tens of thousands of copies. I had perhaps fifty? I tried to make Parasol understand that this record could be a big hit and to invest in pressing thousands but they just didn’t understand. Understandably, they probably thought I was exaggerating and if they pressed thousands they wouldn’t sell and they’d be left with a huge debt.

So then I had to think, do I let my record die and miss maybe the one chance to get my songs out to millions of listeners? This is the chance I’d been waiting for since 1982, when I first started writing songs. I knew that if I signed to a major, they could take the already successful song and spread it round the world. Plus, I could get a chunk of money that would set me up for a long time and make me musically independent. I wouldn’t have to scrape by, doing shitty jobs to try and afford recording gear.

I had a few days of pretty anguished thinking and then I decided to go with a major. It was the best and worst decision I’ve made in my life.

2. I have understood that your experience from the major companies is pretty bad. Do you have any specific, exceptionally bad experiences from the time on EMI/Universal?

Hah! Where do I start?

…forcing me to have single cover work I hated for ‘Undressed.’ I protested that I had creative control in my contract. The label replied, “Certainly, have the cover you like. But we won’t release it for a year…” Bastards.

…constant unending mind games. One minute they’re praising you, the next they’re tearing all your songs down, making you feel like shit. It’s all part of the method they use to de-stabilise artists. Like Moonies…

…forcing a second single choice on me that I *knew* radio wouldn’t like. Come the day, I was right, radio hated it and then we had to scramble round to release the track I wanted originally. This pretty much fucked-up the momentum from the number one single. So the follow-up tanked.

Basically, I could go on like above for about two pages. By the time I’d been on EMI for three months, I would come home from London and just go to bed and cry for hours. It was so draining, fighting over every tiny fucking thing with this label who hated me even though I’d just got them an easy number one record.

2b. I presume there were some aspects from which it was better to be on a big label as well. Which ones?

It automatically opens the doors to the mainstream media. I got access to newspapers and TV stations who’d never give me the time of day before. Therefore, you can reach a much bigger audience, you can break out of the indie ghetto. Which, for me, was a relief since White Town has never been trendy in those circles anyway.

3. Let’s talk, just a little bit, about your big hit. In an interview, the (superbe) Swedish band Radio Dept. said, roughly, that they found it bizarre when they understood that as many as 500 people actually owned their debut 7″ and played it at home. What was it like realising that millions of people all around the world were buying your music? Didn’t you find it absurd?

I worked out one time that I must have sold around 1.5 million records. That’s combining single and album sales. I know that the single sold 400,000 copies in the UK alone (and it was number one in 8 countries). And the album sold at least 350,000 in North America.

How does one grasp those figures? It’s insane!

I’d been happy to sell maybe a thousand records before. That would have been excellent! And then to jump to that does send one crazy…

I still don’t think I’ve completely recovered now.

3b. At the time, did you think it was worth its sales?

Oh yeah – it’s a catchy tune. 🙂

But there are so many catchy songs! If I could get ‘Black Cab’ onto a Levis’ advert or something, I’m sure that would be an international number one. Or The Lucksmith’s ‘Camera-Shy.’ Or The Sprites’ ‘Do It Yourself.’ Or Maritime’s ‘Some One Has To Die.’ Or… Well, you see my point.

3c. Listening to the song today (if you ever do, that is), 8-9 years after recording it, how do you find it?

I remember recording it in my little bedroom so I guess I hear it differently from the average listener. I hear all the bits where I was being silly or going wrong.

For me, each one of my songs is me, a part of me. I know exactly what I felt when I wrote it, it’s like a diary entry. ‘Your Woman’ is partly about my first love affair and how I couldn’t reconcile my grand Marxist posing with real love: with fucking, blood, tears and betrayal. Partly…

That’s what the song means to me, it’s totally personal.

4. In 1997, you left the major circus, right? What was the strongest reason for that?

I didn’t have any choice, I was dropped! 🙂

But I do admit I’d been being naughty for quite a while, throwing worse and worse ‘tortured artist’-type tantrums at EMI till I became a liability. And they didn’t like any of the rest of my songs anyway.

4b. You say in an interview on your website that “I was always suspicious of majors but that was based on prejudice, I had no solid experience to back that up with. Now, having dealt with both Universal and EMI, I can say that I directly know that two major corporations are run by idiots who have no knowledge of music and little understanding even of basic bourgeois economics.” Hypothetically, if you in 1996 would have known what you know now about the majors, would you still have signed to one of them? Why/why not?

Yep, I would have signed. Despite it all, my whole life has been aimed towards connecting with people. Whether it was in my political campaigning days, with music or now with blogging and photography, I want to connect. Specifically, I want to ask questions and to make people unsure and puzzled.

EMI gave me the chance to bewilder millions of people. I know, because I’ve got their confused emails…

…are you a woman?
…why are you singing about being a woman when you’re a man?
…are you gay?
…what the hell is that song about?

To have created such mass confusion is one the best achievements in my life. To make people rise out of their normal approach to pop songs and actually *question* the lyrics, question themselves and perhaps their own gender/sexuality.

And I got *so many* emails from women and girls, saying that the song must have been written specifically about their experience. For a songwriter, that’s the ultimate compliment.

5c. In Sweden during the last few years, the majors have been pretty quick to sign indiepop musicians to their labels (since they have seen there are money to make on that kind of music as well, I suppose). On that background, do you have any words to say to people who get the “opportunity” to sign to a major?

Think very, very carefully. Here’s some important questions:

1. If you sign to a major, will you be upset when all the hip indie kids who used to like you start slagging you off and calling you a sell-out?

2. If you’re a band, are you prepared for money issues to tear the band apart (especially true if there’s only one writer – writer’s get much more money)?

3. How will you feel when the label forces you to release a record / cover / interview / remix that you hate? Remember, creative control is a total lie.

4. How will you cope when people in your home town who used to hate you now suddenly want to be your friends? And vice versa?

5. Are you prepared to sacrifice your relationships, your normal life and even your sanity in order to promote your music?

There’s loads more but that’ll do for now.

6. Looking at the current situation and the future rather than the past: you now run your own label/blog, Bzangy Groink. What’s your ambition with it musically?

It’s fallow at the moment. I’d love to re-start it and release music both by myself and other bands I love. Perhaps if I can find some more money from photography, I’ll re-start it.

6b. What’s your ambition with it in a social context?

I’m 38 now and I want to do exactly the same as I wanted when I was 28 or 18 or 8: I want to change the world.

I’d love to see a united humanity, free of the cancer of religion and the crutches of drugs/drink etc. I’d love to see a rational, mature humanity. A human race that can feed and house all its children, give everyone the right to live and love and learn. Where art and science can blossom because there are no wasted resources, no babies dying of starvation in fields or being blown to bits by liberating bombs.

I’d like to have a house on Mars. Or at least the Moon.

But it’s now 2004 and nothing is as it should be. 2001 was wrong, Space 1999 was wrong, all those old sci-fi films were wrong. We haven’t even been to our moon for the last thirty years.

Instead, we hurl bombs at each other, exploit each other. Men exploit women, the rich world exploits the poor world, the bosses still exploit the workers. Only now, those workers don’t even call themselves working class, they’ve been fooled into believing they’re middle class. It’s still simple for me: if you labour, mentally or physically, in order to live then you’re working class.

I give the human race no more than another 100 years. Unless we can become rational, some loony will blow us up before then. And I guarantee, whether it’s a Bush or a Bin Laden, they’ll destroy the world in praise of their “god.”

7. What are your plans with White Town? Do you have anything specific planned?

Funny you should ask – I’d actually like to come and play a gig in Sweden! I’m planning to do some DJing in Spain (through Elefant Records) and I want to go round Europe more, playing gigs and DJing. Not in the UK – I can’t be arsed with this country’s music scene.

I’m just attracted to Sweden. Since it’s your home, it’s probably very ordinary for you but because of people like Komeda and Lekman, it’s a romantic place for me.

So, if you know of any promoters who’d like me to DJ / play some kind of low-key gig, please put them in touch.

I don’t want to do big-ass gigs (not that I’d have an audience of thousands now anyway). What I do is basically electronic folk music so I’d love to do some intimate gigs, with no more than 30 or 40 people, all sitting down. I’d like to be able to look each person in the eyes, to sing to that person and see them smiling. The opposite of a rock gig. I hate rock.

Apart from that, I’m working on the next album. It’s very angry so far, I’ll have to calm it down or it will be too extreme and people will just switch off. Since I want to subvert people, I have to sugar-coat the bitter pill better 😉

October 12, 2004. Interviews.