Catching Up With Art Brut

Music Features Art Brut
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Several years ago, Eddie Argos formed a band. He hasn’t looked back since. Art Brut’s debut single “Formed A Band” seemed to portend the arrival of the either the snarkiest group of hipsters to ever roll their eyes while playing their instruments or a merely the soon to be forgotten authors of an ingenious novelty tune. As it turns out, neither of those early assumptions of the UK group proved true. Art Brut—which also includes guitarist Ian Catskilkin and Jasper Future, bassist Freddy Feedback and drummer Mikey Breyer—have since gone on to record four albums of catchy, shouty punk tunes, including their latest release Brillant! Tragic!, and Argos has revealed himself to be one of the most straightforward and sincere vocalists working today. He’s also one of the funniest, and often one of the most humane, willing to zero in on his insecurities and foibles with exacting detail and winning self-deprecation.

For those first few albums “vocalist” was the correct term, as Argos talked delivered his hyper-detailed screeds about comic books, booze and romantic mishaps in his dry talking voice. But for Brillant! Argos tries his hand at singing for the first time. As with their third album, Art Brut Vs Satan, the group recorded live in the studio with producer/lead Pixie/band hero Frank Black in his Salem, Oregon studio, but this time Black pushed Argos and Feedback out of their vocal comfort zones. Paste caught up with Argos just after band practice, and talked to him about learning to sing, Axl Rose and feeling sexy.

Paste: You’ve told interviews before that your lyrics are not ironic, even if people think they are, but are actually very sincere. So, I’m surprised to discover that Axl Rose is your favorite singer.
Eddie Argos: That song is a little bit of hyperbole, really. People forget that those first few Guns ‘N’ Roses albums were really solid, they were a really good rock band. The idea of a rock singer really is someone who makes you go, “Yeah, I’m going to be a singer in a band and go out and be a rock star do what I want and tell people to fuck off.” Maybe not in real life, but Axl Rose definitely personifies that to me. He’s definitely someone I would want in my corner. My brother would get in trouble in school and come home and put Guns ‘N’ Roses photos all over the house. It was a way for him to channel his anger, by listening to Guns ‘N’ Roses.

Paste: Were you a Guns ‘N’ Roses fan also, or was that more his deal?
Argos: It was more him, really. The lyrics for that song are almost a conversation we had verbatim, really. We went to go watch Guns ‘N’ Roses at Reading, and that was a bit of a let down because Axl Rose didn’t finish his set. He went to get a megaphone to apologize to the audience. You could see him with his megaphone but you couldn’t hear, and my brother tried to get the crowd to chant “hold the button down when you speak!” About a hundred people started shouting, but Axl couldn’t hear them.

Paste: Was your brother really impressed that you did a gig with Axl?
Argos: At Reading? Yeah, it was the same festival but a different stage.

Paste: But still, you can say you played with them.
Argos: We were backstage listening to all the Guns ‘N’ Roses people talking. Axl Rose likes to have a lamb shank in his dressing room before he plays, apparently. I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but we couldn’t work out whether it was a lamb shank or if he was having a wank. Is that slang? Is he having a lamb shank or is he having “a lamb shank?” But I do genuinely love Axl Rose, but I did feel bad singing “I want to give the world the finger / with the exception of my favorite lead singer” when Frank Black was producing the record. He’s my favorite lead singer.

Paste: I think Frank Black knows how much you care.
Argos: It was funny having that conversation with him, because he was like, “If there’s one thing you can say about Axl Rose, it’s that he tells people to fuck off.” And that was true.

Paste: On this album there are no songs where you have song titles that are also song titles for very well known songs.
Argos: Yeah, I did that on the last two albums. I guess I had grown a bit bored of it. Llyod Cole has a song called “Lost Weekend.” I didn’t know I was doing it. But I wrote about a song called “Good Weekend” and “Bad Weekend,” so “Lost Weekend” is both a “weekend” song and someone else’s song title. It’s my two favorite games to play.

Paste: Tell me about making this album. It’s not as polished as your second one, and it’s not as stripped down as your third. It’s still pretty raw, but there is more shading and texture on the guitars and melodies. What were you aiming for this time?
Argos: That really. I loved the last album. I wasn’t really a fan of recording before, so I loved the fact that we just went in and started playing and Frank Black just recorded it almost on the spot. I love that way of recording. This time we had a bit more time, and we’re more comfortable with him now. We’re like friends almost, or we are friends. It felt like the sort of way to do it—it was a combination of the two, like trying to get it right on the first time rather than recording it straight away. It was kind of fun this time because we started playing around with his ideas too. It came out the way I liked, really, the best of both worlds with just enough attention to detail for me not to get bored.

Paste: Now that you’ve worked with him before, is it easier to go back and forth and not just do things his way?
Argos: Yeah, the last record was us just getting to know each other. It was a little bit weird for us because we’re all Black Francis fans and Pixies fans. We were a bit more treading carefully around each other last time; this time we were able to have a proper debate like he was part of the band. It was weird because we’re both quite obsessive, I think, and we would be in the studio all day and we would both get home to where he lived and where we were staying and we started texting each other like “how about this idea?” I would get texts at eight in the morning like, “Who’s this? Oh it’s Black Francis and he has ideas. Cool.” It was a lovely sharing of ideas, and not just us but the whole band.

Paste: How has your songwriting changed on this one? It feels like some of the songs are connected, but not all of them.
Argos: For the last couple of albums I was enjoying writing about mundane things. I really like bus journeys and comic books, but I can see not everybody finding those things as romantic as me. So for this album I thought I would try a different tactic. A friend of mine uses this style of writing called “backwards casuality.” Where most songwriters begin by having an idea of what the song is about and writing about it, which is what I used to do, for this one I would start writing it first before I knew what it was about and I would find out what it’s about at the end. That sounds pretentious, I’m sorry. When I started writing “Sealand” I realized it was about meeting my girlfriend.

Paste: So are you a big football fan in addition to being a big comic book fan and a big music fan?
Argos: No, not really. That song “Martin Kemp Welch Five A-Side Football Rules” is because I was thinking about…it’s an American cliché isn’t it, how the pretty girl always goes out with the football guy or the basketball guy? I just thought the only difference in the UK is that it’s a different sport. I was thinking about that, really. I went to quite a rough school, really, and it wasn’t a very good school. All I learned from that school was that everyone likes football but me.

Paste: Was reacting to that what led you to finding an escape in comics and music?
Argos: Oh definitely. And I couldn’t admit to reading comics at my school, it was like a secret really. I have friends that I went to school with he know about the band who say “I never knew you read comics. You made that up!” I was doing it secretly, reading them all at home or in the woods.

Paste: So people wouldn’t make fun of you?
Argos: Yeah, it was quite a tough school, really. There was a period of time where you can’t read comics. You can read comics until you’re about 11 or 12, openly. And then from 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 you can’t really read comics when you’re growing up. Then 19 it’s fine again. They don’t really care anymore. So for those years I read Batman comics in secret.

Paste: I know you’re a big Replacements fan. Is the opening song your version of “Talent Show”
Argos: Yeah, a bit. I was thinking about that song and there’s “Joe’s Garage.”. I’m not really a Beatles fan—I like them but I’m not like a massive fan—there’s the “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” sort of like a “welcome to the album!” So all those things were in my head, and there’s also the true story of the first time I played in a band. I still find it very exciting when I go to see new bands play, just that memory of “this is so important!,” even when you’re just 15 and playing in front of your mom and your friends. I remember that feeling, and I’ve written about it before. “Formed A Band” was more of an idealized version of what I wanted it to be, what you’re thinking in your head. I thought I would write a true story this time of how it actually is.

Paste:   Frank Black  taught you how to sing on this album, right?
Argos: Yes. And it was a bit scary. The first day when we were recording “Lost Weekend,” he said “everyone go home, just me and Eddie are going to stay here.” And I though “what’s he going to do to me?” And he said, “Now we’re going to do it. Give me your lyrics.” And I gave him my lyrics and he said, “Now how would you sing them?” I said [in flat voice] “I’m a bad comedian.” I said it to him and he sang it back to me. I copied him. It was really quite nice being taught to sing by him. I gained a lot of confidence, really. I never thought my voice could be an instrument, it was just a way for me to say my lyrics. We recorded “Lost Weekend” and went and listened to it, and I really thought he tricked me. I thought “that’s not me!” I didn’t know that’s what I sounded like! It was three or four days intense like that, and then it became second nature.

Paste: Had you tried to sing before you were in this band?
Argos: I think when you’re in school they put you in the choir if you can’t act. “It’s the nativity play! You’re the shepherds, you’re the Wise Men, Eddie and this guy in the back are the choir. Stand in the back.” But I’m proud of it. We’re writing new songs and I’m singing on them a bit also, it’s like a door’s been opened.

Paste: When I first heard “Lost Weekend” I was confused, and wondered if you had been fired from the band.
Argos: I felt the same way. “Did they fire me? That’s not me.”

Paste: Did your newfound vocal confidence inspire you to write “Sexy Sometimes?”
Argos: Yeah! That was the last song for the album. Maybe that was the backwards casuality again, because I was writing words and they had a nice feeling and when I looked back at them I thought, “Oh, that’s about singing.” It kind of snuck up on me, I think the idea was floating around. And I like to feel sexy sometimes. I have all these songs about impotence and clumsiness and sexual shenanigans, it’s nice to have one that’s a bit sexy.

Paste: You’re allowed the one after all the others.
Argos: I don’t want people to think I’m not a sexy guy.

Paste: So this is your fourth album. You’re not a flash in the pan, and you’re not the hot buzz band anymore either. How does it feel to be settling in to this as a career?
Argos: It’s nice. You never want to feel content, but it’s nice to know now…when we first started, I knew Ian, Christian I met at a party, we found Mikey randomly and Chris left and we got Jasper blahblahblah but we didn’t really know we were friends when we met each other. So one, now we’re really good friends and we think we write good songs together, and we really enjoy doing it. Our friendship has grown with this band. That is very nice. I don’t want to say content, but it’s a solid feeling that we’re not this ramshackle collection of people.

Paste: You’ve gelled over time.
Argos: Yeah, we didn’t know each other when we first started, we all just met randomly and we all wanted to be in a band really badly. That was the one thing we had in common.

Paste: Do your band mates share your love musical interests and love of comics?
Argos: We all have pretty different interests. Jasper likes comic books a little bit, everybody else is just amused by it. Freddie and Ed our tour manager bought me some comics for my birthday one year. They were people I like, like Spider-Man and stuff. It was nice, they didn’t know anything about comics so they were like, “Here, we bought you some comics.” It was nice. We all like very different music; I think that’s why when we first started our songs sounded like an argument between the five of us: “Aaahhh I want to do this.” Ian likes…a lot of stuff actually but he likes Lamb Of God and metal. He was in a metal band when I first met him. Jasper likes Duran Duran and pop music. Mikey likes Weezer. Freddie has the good taste, she likes Big Black and The Pixies. I like Jeffrey Lewis and The Mountain Goats. I don’t know, maybe that’s all similar music, I’m not sure. We’ve all gotten in to each other’s things now, which is kind of cool.

Paste: Who are the artists you can all agree on?
Argos: Uh, I don’t know. The Pixies obviously. There’s a band called mclusky we all like. I think over time we all got into similar stuff. We all like The Replacements now. I think just sharing dressing rooms and buses it all rubs off. I like Metallica now; I never used to like Metallica. One band we do all like is Guns ‘N’ Roses, we like them more than the average person. Mike and Ian weren’t impressed with Chinese Democracy. I didn’t mind it.

Paste: So tell me about this collection of artists you got illustrating the Brillant! Tragic! companion book.
Argos: I write a lot about comics online, and people get in touch with me. On the last album Jeff Lemire read a review I did of one of his comics and got in touch with me and this one it was Jamie McKelvie. You know the Phonogram comics? He draws for Marvel at the moment. And we all became friends, and I became nervous about asking him, “Would you do the art work for our album?” But he was happy to do it. I like comics so much I get a bit nervous around those people. We’ve got this book coming out. Brian O’ Malley is in it—he did Scott Pilgrim. Hope Larson did one, Jeffrey Brown. Amazing comic book artists, loads of them. And I’m a coward, really. I have all their details, and I give them all to our manager. “Can you speak to these people? I’m too shy.” I thought that maybe one or two of them would say yes, and they all said yes. It’s amazing, and I’m really proud of the comic we have coming out. It’s pretty much all my favorite comic artists contributing to it, and they all did a song each. Brian O’ Malley did “Clever, Clever Jazz,” and I thought about it as a companion piece, but the comic is so good it’s almost taken on a life of it’s own.

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