Jason Pictooth: "Inside Film have recently used your track Mr Engels Says in a trailer for a documentary for their production of Condition of the Working Class in England? It looks like an interesting project. What's your involvement?"
Nick Duke: "We'd heard about the production through word of mouth. So we contacted them. We'd love to get more involved."
JP: "Their website states that they're trying to use Engels' book to draw parallels between then and now. Would you say that was the reasoning behind Mr Engels Says?"
Nick: " Actually no. It was more a reflection on what was happening across the world in response to the global economic crisis. It's as if governments were saying to banks 'Okay you've fucked the system up. Your reward will be hundreds of billions of taxpayers pounds'. I don't know if they said that specifically, I'm using my artistic license."
JP: "You're latest EP 'Fire' has a cover of Neil Young's 'Ohio'. Is this a continuation of the political/social commentary theme?"
Nick: "Neil Young's song is the perfect balance of lyric, music and politics. You can't listen to the original without getting angry. Sam Cooke's 'A change is gonna come' is another. They capture a spirit of struggle and have an enduring appeal. Oppression still exists. Given what's happening in Palestine, Bahrain which is largely ignored by the media and events in Syria, I'd say Ohio's still relevant today."
JP: "Would you say Mr Engels Says is an attempt to reassert the grand narrative?"
Nick: "The death of postmodernism and all that? I suppose you could say that. I wouldn't because it'd make me sound like a pretentious twat (Laughs). It was our way of injecting some form of political discourse back into music (in a feigned pseudo-intellectual southern accent)."
Lozz: "In nuts and bolts terms, Mr Engels Says helped to establish a kind of work ethic for the band. It set a template for the way we began to write and arrange. It combined our love of history, our politics and social commentary with our love of what Steve Davis calls 'interesting music'. In that one track alone you'll hear influences like Earth, Wind and Fire, Syd Barratt, Queens of the Stone Age, Mick Ronson, Robert Wyatt, Tears for Fears, King Crimson, Yes, Captain Pugwash... it's all there. Engels is our attempt to re-establish a tradition of radical critique in music but with a large dollop of humour."
JP: "You say 're-establish'. Where does that leave Billy Bragg?"
Lozz: "It's a tradition that's been smothered. You might be better asking where's this generation's Joe Strummer? What's happened essentially is that there's been a sort of coup d'etat in popular music. The so called industry's been colonised by bands and artists drawn from the British public school system. If we're looking to the sons and daughters of the ruling class to provide us with a critique of the system, God help us! It'll be a long wait."
JP: "Hasn't the music industry always attracted public schoolboys? Genesis spring to mind. They were an important part of the progressive scene... let me qualify that statement - in their pre-Collins years."
Lozz: "Yes. However, in defence of Genesis who I'm not a massive fan of by the way, they produced music which was clearly experimental. They hardly went into it as a 'career path' like so many do today. Today you get acts that call themselves 'folk' or 'folk influenced' but ideologically and politically have nothing to say or hold quite dodgy right-wing views."
JP: "You see Trojan Horse as part of a continuum then of experimentalism?"
Nick: "Yes of course."
Lozz: " It's a brilliant example of how the system imposes its ideological hold over us. This way the ruling class continue to impose their cultural norms on us. in order to dominate culture with ruling class ideas. At the very worst, it eviscerates music - drains it of all its potential for radicalism. It's the corporate dumbing-down of culture."
Nick: "It pisses me off that prog is continually used to provide an example of an art/musical form that became stale, overblown and moribund in order to show why punk was radical, dynamic and necessary. Punk was radical for a while. Until the corporations gutted it and repackaged it for a mass market. The irony is that it's now bands in this emerging prog movement who are at the cutting edge, pushing at the boundaries that the record corporations are imposing on the public's ears."
JP: "What are the chances of a latter day Bohemian Rhapsody beinge released today and getting to number one?"
Nick: "It's unlikely it'd be played on Radio One or Radio Two."
JP: "From a creative perspective, you earlier referred to Mr Engels Says as a defining moment in the history of the band?"
Lozz: "Definitely. It all seemed to click into place with Engels."
Nick: "Eden (Eden Duke - keyboards) began experimenting with some old Mellotron samples. I had and old FX unit called a Watkins Copycat which used to belong to my grandad. It's from the late 60s or early 1970s. Using this cobbled-together approach we built the album."
JP: "The songs and production have this expansive style. I was quite taken aback by the bottom end (lower bass frequencies) on the album."
Nick: "(Laughs) They're very bottom heavy recordings. We try and get right across the audible spectrum and away from the horrible tendency towards emphasis on high end mixing which is consistent with mixing for mobile phones and laptop speakers. Everything should have its space."
Lozz: "It was written in the same sort of style as Stevie Wonder's 'Superwoman, arranged in several distinct parts. Disciplining the Reserve Army is the same. Stevie Wonder wrote 'Superwoman' as a way of breaking from his 'Little Stevie Wonder' past in a period when he was politically radicalising. The Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers and the anti-Vietnam War protests in the US had a huge impact on him as they did Marvin Gaye. It set the parameters for his subsequent albums. Mr Engels Says was a marker for us to say 'right, you're not gonna be able to turn out any old meaningless shite in future."
Nick: "We used to live just up the road from where Frederick Engels had a factory. It was just outside Eccles in an area called Weaste. Lozz, Eden and me walked past the spot every day on our way to school. Later, it dawned on me that apart from having a solitary block of flats near Patricroft named after him, there was no generic 'Engels lived here' Blue Plaque located anywhere in Salford or Manchester."
|Eden (far left), Nick (centre) and Lozz - the brothers Duke in full flow|
Nick: "Well not at first. I was struck by the fact that if you travelled to a European capital like Paris, you could visit the site of the Paris Commune. The French celebrate this sort of thing. In the birthplace of capitalism, there was no visible record of two of its greatest analysts and critics - Marx and Engels."
JP: "Why do you think this is?"
Lozz: "I think it's fear."
JP: "Marx and Engels have been dead for well over a century. What threat do two dead philosophers present to the class system in the UK?"
Lozz: "There we have it. Class exists. Class struggle exists. And it don't look like it's going away soon"
Nick: "We wanted to say 'we do have a history y'know'! We're proud of our roots in Salford. It might be hidden and but we should be proud of it. Ewan MacColl was born in Salford. The Victorian gasometers on Liverpool Street on the 'gaswork croft' are his memorial."
Lozz: "That sounds a bit lofty but in a way I suppose it is. He deserves much more than a single name on a block of flats. His ideas and those of Marx changed the world."
JP: "Hardly for the best given the tens of millions that died under Stalin's dictatorship?"
Lozz: "I think Engels and Marx would see Uncle Joe as the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution, not its heir"
JP: " I recall a comment you made in an interview a while back about a Christmas single for SYCO. So, what are the chances of a Christmas single being released at some stage in the future?"
Nick: "(Laughs). In fact, we're working on something along those lines now."
Lozz: "We don't want to sound po-faced about music. I love the attitude of the Manchester School of Painters. It was a kind of Victorian 'fuck you' and 'fuck your current ruling art ideology'. Their attitude to art and to the prevailing 'common sense' was in tune with our own ethos."
JP: "You'd class yourselves as contrarians then?"
Nick: "More like 'conts' (laughs).
Lozz: 'Contrarians'. You make us sound like a gaggle of Christopher Hitchi (laughs). Nah... not really. There has to be a clearly defined purpose. It has to have meaning or its little more than posturing. For any cultural form to move forward - to progress - it has to embrace revolutionary ideas or immerse itself in the current of an existing revolutionary movement, which means rejecting the prevailing wisdom so to speak."
Nick: "The sort of music that flowed out of the Prague Spring or the events in Paris in May 1968 defined the late '60s. It gave a massive injection of political adrenalin straight into the heart of what was a well-intended musical movement represented by psychedelia and flower power. Flower power sort of represented the passive non-violence movements. It was a movement that was in danger of descending into travesty and farce. French students and workers changed all that. The barricades on the streets of Paris gave us The Beatles' White Album, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Black Panthers, and later Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. There are countless other examples of bands who were inspired by this mass social movement."
Lozz: "So much of every thing we love as a band about the best of progressive music from the 60s and early 70s flowed form this movement with the exception of Rick Wakeman on ice (laughs). This movement provided us with amazing artistes and writers who began to form bridges between lyrical imagination, complex musical forms, and social movements. It also gave us some truly revolutionary album artwork. We love the albums designed by Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis."
JP: "(To Nick) I noticed your middle name is Wyatt. Are your parents big fans of cowboy films or Soft Machine fans?"
Nick: "(Laughs)... It's not my real name.Volume Two is one of my favourite albums. I'm going to have my vinyl copy of it stapled to my chest just before I die. My dad switched me on to The Soft Machine. It was one of those seminal moments when the scales fall from your ears - in fish terms that is.
JP: "Lyrically, how do you top Mr Engels Says? It's such a huge track in every sense of the word. It deals with revolution and critiques contemporary consumer culture."
Lozz: "Aye. I'd say it's a magnificent example of the Marxian dialectic at work."
Nick: "It's was a labour of love. It took about a year to record and mix it. We were pushing digital technology and an extremely limited recording budget to the very extremes of the possible. I think there are something like twenty five to thirty guitar tracks on the finished recording. Maybe more. Well over a hundred and twenty tracks of instrumental audio. In the end we had to do a Brian Wilson and mix it all down onto two tracks and splice together the final version from several mixes just to get the instrumental backing track ready for harmonies and vocals. And then I couldn't get the lyrics. We had the melodies and la..la..la-ed the vocal lines onto the backing track. The words just wouldn't come. I was devoid of the creative juices."
JP: "The songwriter's bane: sounds like a classic case of writers block?"
Nick: "It was more down to our recording schedule which was largely insane. It's the way we work. Almost every song will have something like a hundred plus individually recorded tracks. We lay down track after track and build up a metaphorical block of sound-granite which we then chip away at with nail clippers until we're left with something that pleases us."
JP: "It sounds like an extraordinarily long and laborious process. Steely Dan spring to mind. They were notorious for laying down several version of a backing track with a variety of musicians. Have you ever tried just working out a specific arrangement and then laying that down?"
Nick: "I'm a huge fan of Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil who produced the four great Stevie Wonder albums of the early 1970s. You should check out Tonto's Expanding Heaband. They really are unsung heroes. They were masters of sound layering and hugely innovative with synthesizers. Disciplining the Reserve Army is a sort of paean to them both. Using ELT (extensive layering technique) means that we can add unique little events throughout the entire track that make each few seconds completely different from the last few seconds. It's the complete antithesis of how pop music is produced which is mostly blocks of verse, bridge, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus and so forth. By its nature it's a voracious consumer of time."
JP: "And drummers? Guy (Crawford) is your third drummer in as many years."
Nick: "He's a phenomenal drummer. And guitarist. Guy played quite a bit of the acoustic on Ohio. He's helped lift the band to a whole new level live and in the studio."
Lozz: "From the perspective of the words, it was a combination of not enough time to read what we wanted to read and process the little we were reading in order to write lyrics that had some meaning to us. It was such a huge sounding track that it needed a lyric that reflected the geographical space it occupied."
JP: "So what changed?"
Lozz: I was trying to finish the lyrics for 'Ballad of the Swell Mob'. I'd been reading Mayhew's 'London Labour and the London Poor'. It's brilliant... so descriptive. Mayhew brings the characters he interviewed to life in a way that Dickens never could. They're real people with really shitty jobs. They jump from the pages. I wanted to find out a bit more about Salford and Manchester during the industrial revolution. I used to walk round Patricroft on a Sunday morning while all the piss-heads were still sleeping off their Saturday night overindulgence. Patricroft is a largely working class area. The 'Talk of the North' used to be there, right next to the FBU** on Liverpool Street. I ended up with the basic idea for Patricroft Way instead. A friend suggested I read Engels' 'The Condition of the English Working Class'."
JP: "In what sense?"
Nick: "For me it was a real eye-opener on two levels. His descriptions of Little Ireland are brilliant. I was fascinated by this apparent contradiction - here was a man who had been sent to England to run his dad's cotton factories. He was essentially a member of the capitalist class. Engels and Marx ended up as capitalism's chief critics. He dedicated his life to its revolutionary overthrow."
JP: " One last question. If you had to sum up Trojan Horse in three words, what three words would you choose?"
Nick: "Sellotape, glue, valves."
JP: "Thanks very much."
*Will Fall - Manchester three piece described at the time as 'Progressive Metal/Punk' and very loud - Justin Turnbull (Drums), Nick Duke (Guitar, vocals), David Cain, (Bass, Vocal)
** FBU - Fire Brigades Union
Mr Engels Says is culled from the album Trojan Horse (LTTR001) available from Listen To These Records
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