Interview by Mark Bayross
Chumbawamba surprised everyone, not least themselves, when they scored a worldwide number one hit with TUBTHUMPING a few years ago. When the album from which it came, TUBTHUMPING, was rejected by their record label, One Little Indian, the band signed to EMI and Universal, convinced major labels would promote them properly. The album went on to sell five million copies.
Then, after a brief stint in the tabloids courtesy of John Prescott, an awards ceremony and a bucket of water, Chumbawamba seem to have disappeared. Of course, you can’t keep a good anarchist collective down, and, having finished a film about life in the group called “Well Done, Now Sod Off!”, they premiered it at this year’s Leeds Film Festival.
In addition, the band have produced a song called “Pass It Along (MP3 Mix)”, comprising illegal samples of some of the most vociferous opponents of file sharing on the Internet (Metallica, Madonna, Dr Dre, The Beatles and Eminem) which is freely available on their website.
I had a chat with vocalist Dunstan Bruce about raging against the machine.
What was the inspiration for making WELL DONE, NOW SOD OFF!?
It basically started with the idea of releasing a collection of our videos. We had the idea after all the madness surrounding TUBTHUMPING, thinking that would be a good time to release them. However, we soon realised that our videos were not particularly good. We had seen documentaries about other bands and we thought it would be much more interesting to follow that route, like Fugazi or Radiohead have done. So we decided to make a film about the history of Chumbawamba, if only to show that there’s much more to us than a band making records; we’re multi-faceted.
You showed it at the Leeds Film Festival. Was it well received?
Yes, very well received.
Was it fun to make?
Yeah, I mean, we made it on the cheap. It took over a year, collecting footage and editing it together. It was fascinating seeing what dodgy haircuts we’d had over the years…
Were you tempted to make it a bit “Spinal Tap”?
[Laughs] There’s always a danger that will happen. Really, we started off with the agenda of showing we weren’t just a serious, politically-motivated band. We wanted the film to show us enjoying ourselves, having fun.
How did it feel to sell five million copies of TUBTHUMPER?
That was a bizarre experience. The thing was, we knew it was all down to a cynical, but very clever marketing ploy. I mean, that’s just the kind of thing we would possibly have rallied against. It was so strange selling millions of records off the back of one song. When we made the decision to sign to a major record label, we wanted to see what having a powerful marketing budget behind us would do. We thought we’d have a go, just to see what it would be like. The funny thing was, we had already written the song before we signed; we didn’t write it with “hit” in mind.
Do you worry that you’ll be remembered for one hit single and the odd act of subversion, rather than two decades of music?
Yeah. That’s always going to happen. That’s how popular culture works. I’ve always thought that to be remembered for one hit single is one hit single more than we ever thought we would be. We never expected to have a hit like that. I’m not worried about stuff like that, really. If people say we were one hit wonders, at least we had a hit, you know? But we are not obsessed with being seen as artists who have to be taken seriously. Having your 15 minutes of fame is all part of popular culture, really.
How do overseas audiences react to what must appear to be very Brit-centric messages?
It’s funny, we seem to be popular in some very unlikely places…We’ve always done well in Poland and Hungary for instance.
Maybe you share a certain spirit of revolution?
Yes, maybe that’s true. Maybe Eastern European audiences have a more open approach to bands that combine politics and music. Mind you, we’re very successful in Italy too, and the mentality is totally different there. I guess it varies from country to country.
How about America? Do audiences there “get it”?
I think the reason that song [TUBTHUMPING] was so successful over there was that there was no obvious political message. I don’t think we’d have had a hit with one of our more political songs. I think they understand that we are a bunch of British anarchists, but that’s about it. The great thing about that song was that it crossed all divides – from sports fans to kids of all types and their parents. Other songs of ours wouldn’t have worked; they wouldn’t have had such a wide appeal.
You’ve jumped head-long into the MP3 debate. Are you at all worried about taking on some of the richest, most litigious people in the music industry? Are you not worried that Lars Ulrich will be round your house with a large stick?
I hope he does come round my house with a large stick, I’d show him…[laughs] I can’t believe that bands like Metallica can be so out of touch with the zeitgeist. I mean, some of the absolute bollocks that man’s been coming out with, I’m surprised he can show his face in public…
But what do you hope to gain by provoking these artists into some kind of public debate?
We want to show what side of the fence we’re on. I hope they do take us to court, you know? It’d be hilarious. What they are saying is so stupid and hypocritical. It’s so stupid to say that the Internet will destroy the music industry. Music is becoming more and more bland, more anodyne, and taking fewer risks than ever these days. I mean, record companies may as well be selling tins of beans or cornflakes… That’s not why I got into music. It’s getting harder and harder to hear good music these days and the only real place you can hear it is on the Internet.
So, would you say that, rather than threatening music, the Internet could actually be saving it?
Yes. When punk happened in the late seventies, people reacted like this too, but many of them did rather well out of it. It’s the same with the Internet. People are having such a luddite reaction to something that can change the industry for the better. It’s so stupid to think you can stop it – you can’t – you have to catch up with technology. The Internet is also championing new bands, many of which can now find an audience, whereas no-one could hear them before. And anyway, downloadable music won’t stop people buying records – Radiohead have proved that…I guess another reason we got involved in this debate is we like winding people up…[laughs]
When was your last album out? Do you have a new one coming?
The last album was out six months ago. The whole thing has been a complete farce, total ineptitude on EMI’s part. We wrote a really good album and the record company has done absolutely nothing to promote it. We always knew it would be difficult if we didn’t have another hit single on the record.
Finally, do you think you’ll ever be invited to another awards ceremony?
[much laughter] One reason we’d like to have another hit single would be just to see what happens… We played a festival in Germany years ago, before we’d had a hit, and it was broadcast on German television. The show was being headlined by the Smashing Pumpkins, and bands like Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill were playing. Anyway, when it became time for the Smashing Pumpkins to come on stage, we all had to clear out of the corridors for them to pass through. They had this huge drum kit, the size of my living room, I mean, ridiculously large. The whole thing was absolutely stupid, especially when you consider where these guys had come from.
So, halfway through their set, we managed to persuade Danbert [Nobacon] to walk onstage naked with “They’re punk” written on his chest…and this was being broadcast on TV. Everyone went nuts, the organisers went nuts, security went nuts… actually the Smashing Pumpkins seemed to find it quite funny…but Danbert was carted off the stage, still naked, and we were told that we would never, ever appear on German television again. Anyway, when we had the hit single, there we were again…on German television. So you never know, if we have another hit single, we may just get to do another awards ceremony…