This interview took place last year a few days before Billy Childish and the Buff Medways came to America to play two dates, one in Long Beach, California for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, another opening for Modest Mouse at Radio City Music Hall.
Believe that at the height of Modest Mouse’s recent popularity, at a concert heavily promoted by K-Rock, the Medways put the zap on a lot of young minds.
NP: This is the Buffs’ second or third time here, right?
BC: I think it’s only the second, I’m not quite sure. We used to come quite often but then our bass player couldn’t do much, and we’ve got a new bass player who is a fireman who can’t do too much. You know, because we’re not a professional group, which is sort of like our saving grace but also causes a few problems, because we don’t do touring really, even in the Headcoats we didn’t used to really do touring, I don’t really sort of like see much sense in it. Its usually to make agents a load of money and sort of like promote yourself and seeing as we’ve never ever promoted ourselves, you know, we actually play to earn some money, and to enjoy it, but most groups just do things to become, to promote themselves, and we’ve never done that.
NP: It seems like these one offs that you do, to come over and do a couple of shows in a couple of weeks or a week are a lot more healthy than a regular touring schedule.
BC: Well yeah, really, for those reasons, people do it because they’re promoting themselves; we don’t do promotions because it’s boring. We’re not in music as a career. It’s something we do because we enjoy it. And when we don’t enjoy it we don’t do it.
NP: What sort of memories do you have of touring the states? Are they pleasant?
BC: Yeah, generally speaking. I like America and I enjoy it. Apart from sort of like the traveling. It’s always been pretty easygoing. I don’t do drinking and late night sort of like, I don’t do partying or drinking. Even when I was drinking I don’t do partying. You know, because we don’t do social rubbing, and we don’t sort of like do pop star things, because it’s sort of like demeaning to the spirit. So, like, we don’t get involved in that, get a chance some times to look out a bit. I’ve been in America quite a bit, my wife’s from Sacramento but she lived in Seattle for about ten years. I used to come to Seattle to see her before we got married. And, um, you know, have a little romp about, have a look around, and I like it because it it’s a bit easier life than England, America. Everything’s cheaper, and there’s more space, and you’ve got more choice. It’s a bit more austere life in England, if you don’t have money, and we basically don’t have money, so I don’t have to do a job if I don’t want to, but I don’t have–we don’t own things.
NP: Are you still on the dole?
BC: No. I’ve been self-employed as a painter, writer, musician for about six years. It’s nearly impossible to live on the dole now in England. It’s really difficult. I did fifteen years, and but now I live off painting, writing and music, and you know, its sort of like hand to mouth really. Especially since I don’t do what other people want. It makes it a bit difficult sometimes, and we don’t have money coming in from doing car adverts and things.
NP: Unlike the band you’re playing with?
BC: Oh, they get car advert money? I’m going to have a word with them to see if they can cover one of my songs and get it on a car advert. I don’t mind other people doing car adverts, but we don’t.
NP: Is “Lie Detector,” the single, is that the song you played before?
BC: Yeah, it’s actually by the Mighty Caesars. We dug that up for this generation. It was first released on that album about fifteen years ago. We redid one of two songs on each album especially for the youngsters.
NP: “Demolition Girl,” that was on a single.
BC: Yeah, me and Hol [Holly Golightly] did that before. The last three albums, we did “Troubled Mind” on Steady the Buffs, and that which was an old Headcoats number, and there’s a brother song of it, which is almost the same chord, “All My Feelings Denied,” which we did on the next album as the first track, so it sounds like its almost the same song, and on this new album, “Medway Wheelers,” we do “I Don’t Like the Man I Am,” which is the third in the trilogy, so we like people to have a sense of familiarity when they listen to the records [laughs]. We want people to know that they’ve landed on our planet. We think familiarity is good. Other people try to make their albums sound different; we try to make our albums sound the same. The idea is to not evolve, because we don’t believe in novelty.
NP: How much work is done on Medway Wheelers? Is that almost done?
BC: Yeah, it’s finished, it’s recorded.
NP: Will there be any of the antique recording like “Stille Nacht” [on the “Merry Christmas Fritz” single]
BC: No, this is a bit more straightforward. It’s all recorded on half track revox, so the backing track are all done on 1959 reverbed halftrack, so the bass and drums are in one channel and guitar on the other and the vocal put on top in the studio. Pretty old technology, but no different than normal.
NP: How did you guys get linked up with Modest Mouse?
BC: They wrote. We never get linked up with anybody, people contact us. Beck contacted me, the White Stripes contacted me, Mudhoney contacted me, Modest Mouse contacted me. They try and find us, and then we talk to them. If they get through the minefield, then they have a chat. So they just try and find us and ask us to do things.
NP: Are you familiar with their music?
BC: No, I’ve never heard of them. I thought they were called; I was calling them Mild-Mannered Mouse for the first week before someone corrected me. But they’re not Mild-Mannered Mouse, but it might be a better title. I don’t know Mild Mannered Mice. Maybe I could sell that title to them for a new album. I’ll tell them when I see them. That way they’d do a couple of covers for us for General Motors.
NP: What have you heard about Radio City Music Hall?
BC: I’ve never ever heard of it. Because I’ve never heard of anything. I don’t get newspapers, television or radio. My wife knew of it, and everyone I’ve spoke to knows of it, so I know it’s an art-deco movie theater that’s sort of like the middle of pretty swish, and it sounds nice, but I’ve never heard of it I’m afraid. We’re hoping they’ll get some bad, some of our sort of old gear, so we can do what we normally do. That is one thing that’s a problem with playing in America, is we usually don’t have off-stage mixing and we use a very old vocal PA, so we’ve got to try and sort of like somehow find our sound, because we’re not a rock group, but we’ll work it out. We’ll make some sort of noise.
NP: Have you played any more hallowed, posh type of places in the UK?
BC: We’ve played the Queen Elizabeth Hall a couple of times, which isn’t very hallowed, its sort of like a concrete bunker on the South Bank, which is considered quite posh, but it’s not very nice, it was made in the 60s. I’ve not been allowed in any theaters as such, but I prefer to play theaters.
NP: Why’s that?
BC: Because I don’t like rock venues. I don’t like black box rooms. I don’t like black box rooms and white box rooms for galleries. I find it; I think people lack imagination and taste. I think the Victorians win hands down, and we’ll let the art-deco mob let them in as well with their music hall, music theater thing. I understand its art-deco, your one. Which is OK, they can just about still do things, that’s just about the last period where they could make things look alright. After that it nosedives. Architecture, the ability to make public statues, art basically. Art and culture was well on the slide by then. It’s all a downward slope then. When people start thinking they’re getting very witty and original is when they’re doing the exact opposite. They’re going for novelty. Architects start building buildings with flat roofs in countries that have two feet of rain a month. They get confused.
NP: Form trumps the function?
BC: Yeah, form over function, definitely, which can be fun, but roofs are important on buildings. And also I don’t mind, I can live like, Victorians did quite a lot of form over function, it looked like it, but the thing functioned and it had form. If you can get both together than that’s the ideal. You know, get something that someone cares about making, essentially. Because it gives people something to do. People get awful bored, it’s better if they know a few crafts, like making shoes rather than getting children to make them on the other side of the world. I don’t buy shoes that you can’t resole, personally. Because I think it shows ignorance.
NP: Are the Buffs moving into that Victorian way, at least looking at the cover of “Merry Christmas Fritz.”
BC: That’s a bit of a thing on the Christmas truce of 1914. Really that’s the end of the old world and the beginning of now, because that’s the end of the Victorian Era, but unfortunately we threw out a lot of the good things Victorians had, like the maybe having soles on their shoes, and kept up with the employing children, well, we’re not employing children, having children, child labor. Apart from we don’t do it in England, we do it on, we let these savages do it. So you know, I think we kept a lot of the negative and got rid of some of the positive. It’s the idea of I think the Victorians hands down might be materialists over consumers. We’re consumers now, I don’t think materialism is the height of evolution, but it beats over consumerism. At least you care about the material, itís a step up the rung.
NP: Is that just the compulsion to hoard and buy?
BC: It actually just means caring about what something is made of. The next step to that is maybe not caring, but you’ve got to actually have it and not care. You know, so you do it properly and then you can go into a more spiritual plane, rather than the instantaneous spiritual plane of not caring about anything, just sort of like, its got very sort of like bankrupt, people want to have this feel-good, the simulation of the spiritual experience.
Which involves lots of tat and gorging all their senses at once with a load of mediocre, it makes them feel like they’re little gods. It makes them feel like little gods for the minute, but actually not bothering. It’s a hollow, fake spirituality based in consumerism.
NP: Do you feel like your voice as a patriarch of independent artists and people that still believe in handmade things over store-bought things, do you think that gets louder as you grow older, or do you think people just become more used to you being around?
BC: A lot of people don’t know I’m around and don’t know what I think, so, I think that it definitely, as I get old and my views sort of become clearer in my own mind, then I can better express them as well. So, you know, I mean, even when we were doing just a rock and roll group in the early days our aim was to get other people to do the same. We don’t think people should be passive observers. We think people would be better off doing stuff. So, but know I’m a bit more clear on that, a bit more specific, so yeah, hopefully, well, I know, that some people. You can only say things and if people are ready to hear them and they agree. It’s like when you read books. You don’t actually; all you do is recognize truth in yourself, its all within anyway. You don’t actually find out things in the outside world, they just echo a truth, and if someone comes along and helps that happen then obviously you’re grateful towards them, like that’s happened for me sometimes, but you do realize it’s all within really. If you can make a few points that resonate with people, good.
NP: So art exposes the spots that are already kind of there?
BC: Yeah, well, it can be. Often it doesn’t, but art’s not the biggest deal on earth, none of itís a really big deal, most things are overrated. Especially the practitioners of art and music, because a lot of people do this stuff because they feel they should own more houses than somebody else, not because of any thing. You can use any tool, you know, butter knives can be used for murder. You can get it wrong. You know, the idea that art is best or it helps is really a difficult thing, because you get on a public high doing stuff, and really the best thing that art can possible do is bring you in a sense of your true self, but you’re much more tempted to sort of aggrandize yourself and think you’re really bloody smart, because other people are saying what a hot shot you are, and really that’s why I believe in amateurism and people doing things, you know, like we happen to play music and when we don’t we don’t. I don’t think artists are particularly special, and very often the opposite. I always say that the poets are the worst scum on the earth, quickly followed by musicians and artists. And then maybe you get the real estate people and dentists.
NP: You’ve been painting quite a bit lately, I assume?
BC: I’ll always paint; I paint regularly because thatís always been a thing I enjoy a lot. I like trying to make things that look nice. [laughs]
NP: How did the Van Gogh show go?
BC: That was quite successful, the “Handing the Loaded Revolver to the Enemy.” The enemy declined to pick up the revolver, which I thought they might do. They don’t pick up the revolver because, in the old days, they used to pick up, you hand a loaded revolver to the enemy, you know, like the establishment, and they would tell you how bad what you did was, and they now realize that only gives you air. So what they do is they ignore the loaded revolver. But, you know, some people came along and enjoyed it, and I sold a few paintings, which kept us in food for a while, and it was very successful, I really enjoyed doing the paintings, I really enjoyed having the exhibition, and I really enjoyed working out the manifestoes, and what was going on there. For me, everything’s a project or a game, like when you’re a kid you think ‘well, what should we do this summer holiday? We’ll build a tree house.’ For me it’s all a matter of working out games for the summer holidays, we’re always well I’ll write a novel, or I’ll do this.
NP: When you’re in the States do you ever make any side trips to museums or galleries?
BC: No, I don’t like museums or galleries much. I don’t mind if I run into one, but I find them, they make me feel tired if I go into museums or galleries. I get that real, I sort of like feel like I’ve been walking around all day. If I go to look at a picture I, well, when I was in New York they had an exhibition of Pollack on, when we played there with the Headcoats, and an old girlfriend took me around that. I think we did, it might be in the Museum of Modern Art there, and we did the whole exhibition in about seven minutes, because I’m a very fast walker. And that’s not any disrespect to the alcoholic ravings of Mr. Pollack. It’s just because I don’t like crowds and I don’t like galleries and I don’t like looking at things in unnatural situations. So I just whisper and I’ll stop in front of one, ‘oh, thatís interesting.’ Usually if I go somewhere, like if I go for a walk in the countryside, I just look around until I see the reason I’ve come there and then I go home again. So yeah, you walk up a mountain and you think ‘What am I doing here,’ and then you see a woodpecker or something and say ‘Oh, I came to see that woodpecker, I’ll go now.’ You realize what you’ve come to do and then you leave.
NP: Unfortunately, I saw in the paper the other day one of your country people, Sam Taylor-Wood has a show here, photographs of actors crying.
BC: Oh, that must be fascinating for you. How very moving. But then, it seems like it’s about something, so people like that. Modern art’s great achievement is to make people realize that anything can be interesting. Well, not anything, but anything they look at can be. But the same effects can be achieved by looking at a wood louse. Because anything is interesting. Interesting isn’t interesting, is the truth. If something’s interesting, that’s not good enough, because I’m sitting here in front of a turned off Mac computer, and I can see the little speakers in it, and they’re interesting. There’s a little light on there, that’s interesting, there’s a stand that works, that’s interesting. If you look at it, or the wire of the telephone. Anything, if you actually look at it, is interesting. You know you say, ‘ooh, what’s in there then, let’s have a look, how does this work.’ And these artists choose anything they fancy and think that they’re some sort of like, crying ‘Eureka’. They think that novelty is genius. You see, people with genius, its very important thing to, I’m not genius, originality. They think originality is incredibly important, but they actually can’t distinguish between originality and novelty. They thing novelty is originality. I mean, they like to call something that isn’t art art, and they think that’s genius, but actually its novelty. And actually, itís a very very very very shallow novelty at that. It’s because they lack grounding and sense, and because the worse things for an artist is the thinking they’re smart, or that they can have ideas. The best sort of artists don’t have ideas. Ideas are very dangerous in the hands of idiots. Look at Hitler or a lot of contemporary art. Ideas, well I suppose are not so dangerous in contemporary art as in Hitler’s hands. The idea of contemporary art is to call something that isn’t art art, and it’s not much of an idea, is it? But they think it is, they think theyíre incredibly, they’re like five year olds that think they’ve discovered the word ‘fuck.’ They don’t realize that it’s just very ordinary.
NP: What’s news on your writing? Do you see yourself coming back on the novel anytime soon?
BC: I’ve just published one. Just did a new exhibition called “Sex Crimes of the Futcher” and the novel I wrote I started it eight years ago, and I’ve just finished it off for it. It was just published. Sex Crimes of the Futcher. And there’s another one I’ve been working on for the last eight years which is called Idiocy of Ideas, which I’ll try and finish off as well.
NP: Do you go between prose and poetry as you feel?
Yeah, just when I’m bored. I just do things when I feel like it. I don’t really have a work thing. The only thing I work at regularly is painting. Because I find it best to do that each week. But the other things I just do it when I fancy.
NP: Do you paint in Chatham?
BC: I paint at home here a bit, and my mother lives in Whitstable about twenty miles down the coast and I paint in her front room in a front bedroom.
NP: What authors are you interested in?
BC: My favorite is Dostoyevsky, and I’m reading House of the Dead at the minute, which is one I’ve not read, I’ve read most of them, and I’ll probably start reading them again soon, so I like Dostoyevsky. What other stuff I’ve been looking at? There’s a bloke a German I’ve been reading last year a lot, Fallada, Hans Fallada, not-so-famous geezer, but quite good.
Sex Crimes of the Futcher is available on hardback with a screen-printed dust jacket online. Medway Wheelers is out on Damaged Goods in early 2005.