Alive and kicking: Luke Haines interviewed

❉ Luke Haines discusses his solo anthology, midlife crises, Nick Knowles, Lou Reed and luncheon meat.

Luke Haines, the acerbic singer of The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder and, for the best part of two decades, an often-eccentric solo artist, has just released Luke Haines is Alive and Well and Living in Buenos Aires – a 4-CD, 79-track box set bringing together the best of his solo work from 2001-2017, from pastoral acoustic balladry to squonky Protect & Survive electronica, alongside a bunch of rarities and previously unreleased songs.

We Are Cult chatted to him about compiling the box set, his Delia Derbyshire film soundtrack, and how he almost resurrected Gareth Gates’ career…

Hi, Luke. So why did you decide to do the box set now?

“It was the label Cherry Red’s idea to do it, and I thought ‘Why not?’. I almost didn’t realise I had so much stuff. Time has kind of got away from me. 2001 still seems like about three years ago, and I’ve done about 12 solo albums or something since then. I reckon a lot of people missed out on a few of my solo albums – they come out at quite a rate, and some people have been put off by the concept albums, so this is a good way for them to catch up with what I’ve been up to. Also, there hadn’t been a proper collection, apart from a cheapo Auteurs one a few years ago, that I had nothing to do with.”

Looking back at your solo work, which of the albums are you happiest with?

“The wrestling album Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early ’80s – is good, as is British Nuclear Bunkers – but, weirdly, a lot of people don’t seem to like that one. The reviews of it on Amazon are amazing. People were saying ‘What the fuck has he done?! I used to love this guy, but this record is SHIT!”.

There’s another fantastic review of Black Box Recorder’s England Made Me where the guy who wrote it gave it two stars. He said he didn’t much like the album, so he decided to make a new sleeve for it. Why go to the bother of doing that for an album you don’t even like? I love Amazon reviews. There should be no other reviews. It’s like under-the-line comments – they’re better than the actual pieces. The Guardian shouldn’t even bother with features. Just publish the comments.

But generally I don’t listen to my old albums. If I were to listen to The Oliver Twist Manifesto now I’m sure I’d think ‘Wow – what was going on there?!’. There’s a Black Box Recorder box set coming out on One Little Indian next year, so I had to listen back to the albums again. With the last Black Box Recorder album, I thought it was rubbish at the time we were making it but, listening to it again, it’s amazing! One of the best albums ever made – an extra-additives, artificial sweeteners version of pop with way too much irony.”

How did you decide which tracks to include on the new compilation?

“It’s easy really. When you write songs, you kind of know which are the better ones. Looking at the tracklisting, maybe I should have had more from Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop on it. I’m sure The Walton Hop was going to be included at some point but it probably just fell off. It’s easy to get a  bit weird about it all when you’re choosing the tracks. I should maybe have put the entire wrestling album on there, as the whole thing is less than 30 minutes long, and it’s unavailable now, so it would have been a good way of putting it out again.”

Why does the Cerne Abbas giant appear on the cover?

“Well, I needed a priapic figure, which is basically what I am! A potentate, with 12 solo albums, unleashed from my loins. That image seemed very much where I am at the moment. It was either that or a midlife crisis – take your pick! What would a midlife crisis look like? Maybe the Cerne Abbas man on a Harley-Davidson. Actually I think I had a midlife crisis when I was about 20 anyway, so I’m well over those things. It’s all crisis with me. It’s an all-life crisis!”

You mentioned elsewhere that Dinos Chapman originally designed the sleeve for your Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry soundtrack LP, but you rejected it. What happened there?

“Dinos came up with a design which was just a screengrab of flames from the film, with some words. I thought it was crap, so I did my own version. I took a photo of me standing in my back garden with a sign reading “Art will save the world”, stuck it over Dinos’ artwork, and added the credit ‘Sleeve by Dinos Chapman, vandalised by Luke Haines’.

He went nuts. Understandable really, as obviously he’s never vandalised anything in his life. Goya’s Atrocities Of War, for instance. He then threatened to sue Virgin Records, so we had to do another sleeve. The night before the album went into production, there were still about three different designs floating about: his version, my vandalised version, and another made just to appease him. It’s a wonder anything was put out at all really. The double irony is that his screengrab was actually quite a clever ruse, and probably would have worked better, as it looked much more like a soundtrack album.”

You seem to be obsessed by TV presenter Nick Knowles at the moment. What’s that about?

“He’s made an album of cover versions, where he sings in this weird low voice. I find it really funny, in a good way. I can still only think of it as being something by The Residents, if they’d invented a TV presenter who made an album. It reminds me of their concept album God in Three Persons.

I did the Round Table thing on 6Music recently, and gave scores for the records based on what Nick Knowles might think of them. Nick Knowles heard it and responded to say I’d got it right about most of them, so he’s clearly a guy with a sense of humour about himself. He’s gone up quite a bit in my estimation. And now we have an insight into the mind of Nick Knowles.”

If Nick Knowles covered one of your songs, which would it be?

Satan Wants Me. He’s got the right kind of vibe for it. It would suit his ‘all-purpose DIY man’ persona, and I’d like to hear him singing a song about demonic possession. It’s his next logical move really.”

I heard you soundtracked a film about Delia Derbyshire…?

“I did the soundtrack for a 15-minute short film about Delia Derbyshire that a friend of mine, Caroline Catz, made. It’s been around a few film festivals and she’s hoping to get it funded as a proper feature. The production company, Rook Films, have worked with people like Ben Wheatley. The soundtrack is just me hitting pots and pans and de-tuning kitchen sinks. There are elements of the Radiophonic Workshop in there, but I was also trying to imagine what Delia Derbyshire would be doing if she was around today. We’ve spoken about releasing it as a limited edition vinyl, but who knows?”

You recently tweeted political journalist Paul Mason to ask if you could do a musical version of his play, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere. Was that a serious suggestion?

“It could be entirely serious if he wanted it to be, but he’s not been in touch. Have you seen his play? I was almost hospitalised laughing at it, collapsed on the floor in uncontrollable fits. You can only imagine how many times the term ‘Brechtian’ was used in rehearsal! There’s this strange thing happening with all these middle-aged guys who’ve suddenly gone nuts, like Nick Knowles deciding to make an album, or the food critic Jay Rayner with his jazz career. And then there’s Paul Mason – the Ernie Wise of political satire. The poor sod. But he can do whatever he likes in my book. He’s great!”

And apparently you’re playing yourself in a film…

“Yeah, it’s a French art film. I don’t even know what it’s called. They just contacted the record label to ask ‘Would Luke or Lawrence [Felt/Denim/Go-Kart Mozart] be up for playing themselves in a film?’. I’ve no idea if Lawrence got back to them. I play this ‘whale whisperer’ guy, who stands on the banks of the Thames, talking about mystical whales. The English in the script they gave me didn’t make any sense, so I wrote my own lines. It’s a very short scene, so no stretch at all for my acting prowess…”

You’ve recorded multiple one-off versions of your Outsider Music albums, and you’ve repeatedly painted almost-identical images on canvas. Does it not get boring?

“No, it’s actually kinda Zen-like. I liked doing the paintings of Lou Reed the most. Doing them over and over again seemed like a very Lou Reed or Velvet underground thing to do, and obviously it’s very Warholian. When I did the track Lou Reed Lou Reed, I wanted to release it as a single with four versions of the song that were exactly the same. The repetition of the thing would have been conceptually perfect. Unfortunately it was around the time of Record Store Day, which fucked everything up because all the pressing plants were busy, but I get to share the idea with you instead. I was told by a third party that Lou Reed got to hear the song before he died, and he said it was dumb, but great.”

Have you read the novel Truth And Lies In Murder Park, based on you and your songs?

“No, I haven’t. I was given a copy, but I gave it away. I couldn’t really begin to read a fictional book about myself. If someone had written a biography of me I wouldn’t read that either.”

The box set sleeve-notes mention that you once wrote some songs for Gareth Gates. How did that come about?

“It was through Richard X. I really liked the Sugababes/Numan thing he did and the sounds he was using, he liked The Facts Of Life, and we got to know each other. He got a call from Gareth Gates’ management asking if he wanted to write a couple of songs, so we worked on them together. He actually recorded both of them. One was a hugely ironic electro song that eventually ended up as the tune for Wot A Rotter on my own album 21st Century Man. 19 Management were incredibly excited about the recordings, but somewhere down the line people clearly got cold feet about the idea of Gareth Gates doing this weird electro thing, so they did an album of sappy ballads instead. It stalled at number 90 or whatever. I wouldn’t want to write for other people again. It’s somewhat dehumanising for everybody involved. But I could have been the man who re-launched Gareth Gates’ career! So it’s probably good that it didn’t work out.”

What does ‘cult’ mean to you?

“To me it would mean the people I liked as a teenager: Kevin Ayers or John Cale. Without saying that I’m anywhere near as good as those people, that’s sort of where I’m at. They seemed like they did whatever they wanted to do and weren’t particularly bothered about where they ended up. Not like that Nineties thing of trying to sell as many records as possible – that correlation between rock and roll and sport, which I never really got. Football is all about win or lose, and there’s no philosophy in that. The Nineties mentality was very much that you had to be as big as possible, and if you weren’t selling millions then you were a fucking loser. That seemed to be missing the point of rock and roll. I think it’s probably going to get to the point where everyone is a cult artist.”

So is it possible to make a living as a musician these days?

“Yeah, it is. You get paid less than a dinner lady, but then what you’re doing is probably of less value. With me, the time I’ve had with Cherry Red has been better than any other period. Obviously they’ve not got the money that Virgin had, so it’s all a bit hand to mouth, but I still get to make records, but also not work – so that’s success of some sort.”

Do you have any projects in the pipeline?

“I’ve recorded a new album that’ll hopefully be out next year – around March or something. I don’t want to say much about it at this point, but I’ll give you the title. It’s called I Dream Of Airfix Glue.”

You published a recipe book a few years back, so what would you suggest I have for dinner?

“Luncheon meat. You seem like the kind of guy who could use some luncheon meat. And perhaps some salad. Out of a tin.”

❉ ‘Luke Haines Is Alive And Well And Living In Buenos Aires: Heavy, Frenz The Solo Anthology 2001-2017′ is out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £19.99. It’s great, and you should buy it.

Luke is also touring the UK this month:
Oct 6 – Ramsgate…
Oct 7 – Nottingham…/29939429-nottingham-indiepop-alld…
Oct 12 – London
Oct 13 – Brighton…/a…/brighton-railway-club/1121650
Oct 15 – Manchester…/…/the-night-and-day-caf-/1116489

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