Sunday, 6 October 2013

Police Bastard: still angry after all these years, deep in Punk's underground

"I think there have been times when we’ve been in danger of disappearing up our own asses."  

Death, Doom, despair and TERRIFYING NOISE... discussed.

Mister Doom                            Mister Sampson
As a young rock DJ, I covered the decline of progressive and hard rock throughout the 70s. Pub-rock rose and fell, global forces like Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac emerged, and Birmingham moved from Monsters of Metal to cross-cultural mixes, (UB40, Apache Indian, the Beat, Ruby Turner). Oh, and let’s not forget New Romantics. On second thought, let’s.

By the end of the decade, Punk emerged, to be rapidly commoditised as product and fashion trend (Generation X anyone?), and used as a career-launching platform (Police, Squeeze and Boomtown Rats). Then the mainstream lost interest, so Punk went underground, morphing from a bunch of snotty teenagers flipping the bird at the man, into something else altogether. Above all, Punk developed staying power.

Police Bastard were punks once. Now they’re punk/metal/thrash, a set of 40 somethings with a remarkably long history, and a new album, Confined.  The dumb rebellious simplicity of the late 70s has been replaced by something more complex, more considered, even dutiful. The music? Savage as ever, of course – but now, these guys can play. Johnny Doom and Mark Sampson talk it up after the jump.

Johnny Doom The band’s started as a fun project in about 1993. Not many albums, but we’ve done lots of touring. A real mix. 
Twenty years – are you still as angry?
More than. When I was about 16 I formed Doom. They’re still going now. It was Crust/Punk. We were raised on Punk – and political punk as well. Anarchist Punk Rock. 
OK, let’s clarify some definitions. Proper Punk has always been about being snotty and challenging the establishment. I came in for all that when the Sex Pistols went round radio stations on promo tours. But Political Punk goes a lot further – as irreverent and challenging as all Punk, but with a more layered set of things to say?
We were influenced by Crass and Conflict and all these bands that were political. Yeah, we were angry then… but we lived with our parents! We were at odds with a lot of things. We lived in suburbia; a lot of people there were quite racist, traditional in their values. We were singing from a slightly different hymn sheet.  So, yeah, when we formed Police Bastard in 1993, I’d left Doom, and become a bit jaded and bored. I made a commitment to write about things that were pertinent to me and the band – fresh ideas, positive things, not spiteful and vicious things. But filtering down to where we are now, I’d still say there’s plenty to be angry about.
No argument from me on that score. The early punk bands reacted against turgid progressive rock. There’s that famous Who song, Who Are You, which tells the story of Pete Townsend having a drunken row with Johnny Rotten in a Soho pub… but all that was years before you even started Doom. So does that mean that you are bringing – gulp – an adult perspective to your punk? 
I’ve been through many different ways of thinking about things. In some ways, time strengthens your position, because you can come at things from an adult perspective. You’re not quite so quick to judge, to let things spill out your mouth. Here’s an example. When we were growing up listening to Crass and the like, people were really, vitriolically anti-religious. If you fast forward to now, there’s all these questions about what faith is, and about respecting other people’s faith; Islam for example.  All these ideas of being blasphemous and rude and in your face – you come round to thinking maybe faith isn’t the problem, maybe it’s the organisation and the power behind it. That’s something we address on the new album. 
But that early 70s/80s anti-establishment punk blasphemy was pretty much all against Christianity. Nothing else was on the radar. 
Exactly. It’s a more complex and globalised world. You’ve got to take on ideas about the whole world, not just your own neighbourhood.  The world’s got smaller. It’s easy to see a lot more problems – Syria, Russia – different issues. 
How does that play out with your audiences - from the early days to now?
Weird. It might be my cynical nature. Underground Punk exists as an entity, outside the mainstream. It’s always been a constant. But around acid house and rave culture, some people forgot about issues, forgot about being angry…
They were blissed out…
Yeah!  More hedonistic, having a good time. But those issues were still there. Things come around though. A lot of original bands came back for one last time in their fifties… Things come in cycles. Over the last five years, you’ve seen a shift back, politically and in society, to what brought people out in the seventies. People are feeling disillusioned. Feel there’s no hope, that there might not be those jobs for them. So you can see Punk growing again. 
Are you saying nostalgia for Punk? That makes it a commodity!
Mark Sampson: It’s like a dogma. If you want to be in punk band, you gotta think a certain way, look a certain way, sound a certain way, do certain things.  The idea of Police Bastard, when I joined was more attractive than the band itself. Something that had a brutal musical delivery of political ideas, with a very diverse set of individuals.  That flew in the face of the dogma of what it is to be punk or metal.  And we’re still doing that. 
Johnny: Some of our goals have come true. The major labels don’t control things anymore. So the DIY ethic, at the heart of punk, hasn’t been affected by the decline of the industry. And the web has helped. 
On the craft and musicianship front, the band now has some phenomenally good technical skills.  A thunderous attack, played with blistering skill and stamina. You just wouldn’t have had those skills twenty years ago – they come with time. Does stagecraft sort of get in the way?
JohnnyI think there have been times when we’ve been in danger of disappearing up our own asses. A few pints where we became a little bit too metally, a little bit too technical. That’s because we’re absorbing ideas for all over. 
But there’s nothing wrong with being a fabulous player…
Not at all. But you can move away from some of the areas you should be in. As Mark was saying, one of the beauties of Police Bastard is that if we want to do a dub song, a metal song, a two-minute punk song, we’ll do it. It doesn’t get in the way. 
What’s the gender split with your audience?
Fairly good. I never like to see it get too male. There was a point with hardcore where it became too violent and too macho. Everything became blokes with their shirts off, fighting rather than enjoying the gig. My experience has been good. We’ve had loads of girls dancing, and not feeling harassed or beaten or groped. I’ve been fairly happy with it. 
Mark:: We sell equal quantities of girls and boy’s t-shirts! 
So how about the album….?
Johnny: I’m proud of this album, We’d finished the band in about 98… the rest of the band was unable to put the time in. We had jobs, I went back to university… Then the band sort of reformed, and at first I felt a little bit off about it. But what they were doing was great – exactly what Police Bastard were all about. Eventually Mark asked me to come in with the band, and it’s gone from there. 
Our singer lives in Spain, we’re all doing different things, and we’ve still managed to come together and create new songs. All different, dark, aggressive, touching on new material.We’ve got gigs lined up heading to Europe next year, Police Bastard may be a   Revolving door…
Mark: but that’s partly what the band is about. John and Pid (Stu-pid) have probably come up with the best lyrics they have ever done. The new album was difficult in lots of ways, especially getting everyone together. But we got to hand it to Simon Reeves at Framework studios. John had put down umpteen tracks of guitar noise, feedback and horror. Simon sat there with his head in his hands saying 'What am I going to do with this John?' John simply said 'You’re the Producer, sort it out!’ And he did. 
We had been talking for about two hours. Now, we squeezed past sheets of corrugated iron to get out of the squat. John and Mark melted into the graffiti-strewn urban gloom, sidestepping broken glass and puddles of burning oil spilling from wrecked cars on the derelict streets. 

Actually, that’s a complete lie. We finished our lattes and strolled out into the sun-dappled and pleasant parkland of Edgbaston. Johnny Doom, as many people know, is also a DJ at Kerrang Radio, which has had some serious upheavals this year.  Of course we touched on that too, as well as on many other subjects. Some of these will certainly surface in later blogs. 

Police Bastard's new CD: Confined info page
Police Bastard's Facebook page

The Birmingham Music Network is co-ordinated by Mark Sampson. It meets monthly, and is open to anyone who works in or values the Birmingham Music scene.

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