Interview: Flea

A lot of our songs addressed mental illness or the glossy packaging over the shit we really get sold. It does seem that democracy is suffering from some kind of mental illness in 2018 and we are still being sold the same overpriced shit dressed up as gentrification, or must have consumable. Flea have still got traction.

Originally active between 1987-93 Manchester band Flea carried forward the energy of punk reinterpreting it for a different time in a way that prefigured their (briefly) contemporaries techno punks ATR and Prodigy. Their angular industrial post punk ‘take no prisoners’ vibe seems to point to the future, kindred spirits to the ‘let’s see where this takes us’ experimental energies of the fragmented post punk scene of the early 80s. They are in many ways the antithesis of the cobbled together rock by numbers deployed by Oasis, another Manchester band from the same period. Flea, comprised of Art Carbuncle (bass and vocals), Boz Vile (guitar and vocals) plus a drum machine named Sissy, despite (/because of?) their spiky inventiveness and originality were somehow overlooked at the time as Madchester took shape followed by Britpop but…

It’s 2017 and Art is putting together a gig for The Cravats and wondering about a third band on the night when the idea of a Flea reunion gig occurs to him, Boz agrees, they get hold of an old drum machine and go for it! In the audience that night are German Shepherd Records and they like what they hear offering to put out a Flea release, the album, parasitic insects teach us humility, coming out in November 2018! The 8 track album consists of songs originally written and recorded between 1989-91 and like so much great music they transcend time. Intense, uncomfortable Flea sound like a band whose time has come.

Excited by an album that reminded me why I listen to music I contacted Flea to find out more about the band who refused to die, Art kindly answered some questions.         

(((o))): Could you run us through the story of Flea!? How did you get together? Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to sound like from the start?

Me and Boz were living in the same deck access block, Charles Barry Crescent, in Hulme around 1987. Although, initially, we didn’t know each other, I guess we were united in the fact that we seemed to be the only two people who weren’t in a band in Hulme. We had similar tastes in music: The Damned, The Stranglers, and we had both played guitar and written songs in previous bands during our teenage years. I didn’t have any musical gear left in 1987 having had to sell it all to survive. I think it was Boz who approached me saying that he had a few songs half written and would I be interested in putting some bass to them. The songs comprised ‘Glam Sham’, ‘Death with a Vile Smile’, ‘Pacemaker’ and ‘Comfort Cracks’ (I think). Drummers were in short supply in Manchester at that time, so we borrowed a drum machine off our mates, The Slum Turkeys, and began rehearsing in the bedrooms of our respective squats.

(((o))): Why a drum machine? Did it shape your music or fit best with what you were already doing?

The drum machine seemed to fit, naturally, into Boz’s unusual, angular approach to songwriting and also worked well with my penchant for creating space using thundering, repetitive, melodic, bass lines. The relentless rhythm forced us to tighten up our playing too. If you bear in mind that we lived a few doors away from the infamous studio/ illegal rave The Kitchen (on the top floor of Charles Barry) where the fledgling 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald were honing their craft, a drum machine didn’t seem quite that unusual. Plus, it was a lot easier to manage than humping a drum kit around.

(((o))): parasitic insects teach us humility sounds like it has its roots in post punk, it brought to mind bands like Cabaret Voltaire, early Human League, DAF, what were your influences?

We were both highly aware of these bands but our real influences lay in bands like Big Black, Public Image, The Cravats and, for me, dub producers like Scientist. I like artists who bend things out of shape a little.

(((o))): Flea coincided with the Madchester scene, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, James etc (1) but I’ve started reading K-Punk by Mark Fisher and in the Foreword it mentions an early 90s Manchester band he was in, D-Generation, who described themselves as ‘techno haunted by the ghost of the punk’ (2). Alongside the Madchester thing was there a more punk influenced scene going on as well that you were part of or were you out on your own?

There were lot of scenes going on in Manchester in the late eighties/ early nineties: Crust, Grunge, Rap, Avant Garde, Anarcho, Reggae, Indie, to recall a few. Madchester became the dominant one probably more from external Manc influences rather than any of the popular bands making a conscious effort to be part of ‘Madchester’. On a personal level, I worked as a roadie and sound engineer for bands that played with the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays and know that their members were heavily into Public Image, The Sex Pistols and Crass. We were all influenced by punk and we all knew each other in some small way and we all endorsed the spirit of punk to keep creating new things.

I think that a lot of people found Flea’s music hard to take and we were at the bottom of the pile but a lot of bands and good people had our backs. Dub Sex, Community Charge, The Inca Babies, and, particularly, The Slum Turkeys were all very supportive. A lot of American and Canadian bands started touring England in the early nineties, on the back of Rage Against the Machine and Nirvana’s popularity. Flea (and the Slum Turkeys) were able to slot in quite nicely in support of bands like No Means No, The Holy Rollers, and Fugazi in our local venues.

(((o))): Britpop is sometimes dated as 1993-97 (3), did that influence your decision to call it a day or did life just move on?

I don’t think that either of us paid much heed to the influence of Brit Pop or any other scene. I think the last year of Flea was probably a difficult one for both myself and Boz. I was getting more absorbed into a career as a live sound engineer and Boz was playing more and more with The Inca Babies new incarnation; Houndgod with a Tumour. We both wanted to expand the Flea sound, but couldn’t agree if we should use a drummer or develop on our basic drum machine programming, perhaps with the use of a synth. We spread ourselves to thinly and this impacted on our ability to gel and compose with each other. That, for me, was when we called it a day.

(((o))): In 1991 Baudrillard argued that the first Gulf War ‘did not take place’, he was pointing out that the reality of what happened and what was (mis)represented to the public via the media were two very different things (4). When I was watching a Youtube video of you playing live this summer (1) you introduced ‘Golf Show’ as being about the TV coverage of the first Gulf War comparing it to golf coverage, were you spinning off Baudrillard?

Well Baudrillard was right in his concept that the Gulf War was a product of, and driven by, the media. The media does promote war and the ways or actions in which wars are fought are consequently media influenced. It’s obvious when you hear populist war related soundbites like ‘Boots on the Ground.’

I think Baudrillard was writing that at the exact same time Boz was writing the lyrics for ‘Golf Show’. Let’s call it spooky coincidence.

(((o))): Are you surprised how relevant that song still is with the increase in concern over ‘fake news’ ?

Surprised and disturbed.

(((o))): Could you run us through the subject matter of some of your other songs? What informs and inspires your lyrics?

Paranoia about what is really going on behind Government closed doors – ‘Sick Bake’ ( as yet unreleased)

‘Banal’ – Is a kind of visceral scream and a rejection of personal events that were happening at the time.

‘Pacemaker’ was a conversation I had at a bus stop with an old man telling me how his whole life is now geared to whether his heart pacemaker will keep working. Apparently, he’d had a few blips. I’d like to think that modern technology has sorted him out now.

(((o))): Flea ran from 87-93, did you carry on being involved in music afterwards?

I continued to be fully involved as a sound engineer for various bands while also writing lyrics and music for planned projects that never quite happened. I was in no rush to return to the stage until a few years ago with current band Dead Objectives.

Boz had his ‘There’ll Always Be Diseases’ (TAB-D) project and then after bass player Bill sadly died ten years ago, he directed his energies to various anti-folk style incarnations and film music.

(((o))): There was a Flea reunion gig in 2017-how did that come about?

It was a kind of very last minute/ might never have happened thing. Boz and I had already discussed once or twice the possibility of having a Flea reunion but I didn’t expect it to progress further than the rehearsal room.

I had wanted to put The Cravats on in Manchester as they had never played here in their 38 year career. I also wanted Dead Objectives to support them. I’m not really a promoter, it was more a labour of love. Having set the gig and venue up, I was conscious that people might expect more than two bands to play. I didn’t really have any more money and was considering options when the possibility of Boz and me knocking out a few Flea classics, albeit a bit unrehearsed, sprang to mind. I contacted Boz and he was up for it. We had to borrow an old 8 bit drum machine, which was pretty basic compared to the HR 16 we used to use, but Boz managed to get about 4 drum patterns working on it and off we went.

(((o))): You opened a Facebook page for Flea in 2014, about 20 years after the band had ended, to act as a collection point for all things Flea. Did you have a feeling that Flea was a band whose time was still to come, an idea that refused to die!? Or was it more of a response to ongoing interest in the band?

Boz did a Flea myspace in the mid 2000s too. We were both fond and proud of what we had done and it always felt to me like we never completed Flea. We both agree that we’d like to revamp the songs a bit and perhaps unveil the one’s we hadn’t quite completed such as ‘Banal’, ‘Sick Bake’, ‘Words’ and several others.

(((o))): People have compared this second decade of the 2000s with the 80s as another decade of unrelenting neoliberal class war being waged by the Tories; impoverishment, abjectification, the running down of public/health services, the final dismantling of the post war settlement. Against that backdrop does the eventual release of a Flea album written in 89-91 seem particularly appropriate?

A lot of our songs addressed mental illness or the glossy packaging over the shit we really get sold.

It does seem that democracy is suffering from some kind of mental illness in 2018 and we are still being sold the same overpriced shit dressed up as gentrification, or must have consumable. Flea have still got traction.

(((o))): How did the German Shepherd Records release of parasitic insects teach us humility come about?

It was that Cravats gig. Bob and Ian from German Shepherd Records were there and liked our stuff and offered to put Flea out. We’re very thankful for that.

(((o))): Have you carried on writing-any chance of a second Flea album?

There is every chance of a second Flea album.

(((o))): You’ve starting playing live again! How does it feel to be playing songs you wrote nearly 30 years ago, are they still a ‘good fit’? Do they still feel like an expression of yourselves?

I’m surprised how the weirder stuff we did like ‘Head Shrinker’ and ‘Panic Button’ are now being enthusiastically received compared to the pleasant applause we used to receive when playing them back in the 80’s.

(((o))): What has the last few weeks been like!? It must be amazing to have the album come out!

Great. Gotta thank German Shepherd Records for that.

(((o))): Any plans for 2019-some more gigs?

We are both reprogramming Sissy (SR 16) the drum machine with some fresher sounding takes on the old songs and hope to record and play these live in 2019.


Photo by Richard Davis (1990)


Bibliography.

(1)Madchester, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madchester


(2)Reynolds, S. ‘Foreword’ in Fisher, M. (2018) K-Punk; The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), Repeater Books, London.


(3)Britpop, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Britpop


(4)The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gulf_War_Did_Not_Take_Place

Also referenced, Louderthanwar, (2018) ‘The return of Flea ‘German Shepherd Records release long-awaited debut for industrial techno-punk combo’ https://louderthanwar.com/the-return-of-flea/?fbclid=IwAR3mciO_SllOp5_MHXYDSmJosCL3snYmjxzjLBcAhNDdpOkA4xK12f7Q20Q

and, WithGuitars.com (2018) ‘Flea to release ‘parasitic insects teach us humility’’ https://www.withguitars.com/flea-to-release-parasitic-insects-teach-us-humility/?fbclid=IwAR2bMJ0ptwqzzFWZqAiv9P83KTZT1CXsR620P9JRIB8KwlCT_wH_iYhwEi4

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