words: Noah Brown
pics: Ruth Stanley
Wild dogs. Nationality realignment. Sandman writers being “brutalized”. Punk rock. International terrorism. Soft furnishings. One of the above does not feature in the following interview. Sandman talks to LES FLAMES! as they stand on the brink of something or other.
Firstly, a disclaimer in the name of journalistic objectivity (if such a thing exists): I know les Flames!. They’re friends of mine, so obviously I shouldn’t be doing this interview because I shall have my tongue where the sun don’t shine and generally give them an easy ride? In the words of the Flames, “you’re fuckin’ wrong!” For one, Leeds ain’t that big, and people tend to know people. Better to be honest from the start dontcha think? And for two, the fact that I know ‘em means there’s no awestruck fanboy thing going on, and hopefully not too many bland generic questions. There’s been change, some would say upset, within their camp, and someone close to the source can surely get to the bottom of things better than A. Nother-Fanzinewriter. Everyone happy? Then let’s begin…
"There’ll be no gigs in Moldova. Did I tell you about that? I was looking on the Internet the other day for places to go on holiday. I was looking at the Warnings & Dangers section, and there’s loads of wild dogs in Moldova. All the men of the family walk around with a ski pole, twatting these dogs.”
There are dog issues to be addressed by singer Neil, early in the interview. It seems canines have been a constant source of irritation for les Flames!: “Cathy left because she was eaten by a dog, Whiskas went on bass and we got a lad called Chris in on the guitar, and he got eaten by a dog, and then Dave got eaten by a dog so we got Si and James in.” I assume that’s the last of the dog problems? “You would imagine so.”
Before your Black Wires and your 10,000 Thingses started garnering national praise, back in 2002 some French kids moved to Leeds, formed a garage punk band and got signed to Manchester’s Valentine Records (their national origins were subject to speculation, but more on that later). Within a few months they’d supported the likes of The Soledad Brothers, The Parkinsons and Eighties Matchbox, and were riding the garage rock explosion like it was some kind of mad horse. Their first single and early shows got rave reviews in the national press, culminating in the NME getting all excited and offering them an ‘ON’ night with Burning Brides. Then a couple more singles and an allegiance with Wrath Records, a hell of a lot of gigs, and some line-up changes. This year their sound seemed to be changing – to oversimplify, if they used to be The Ramones, they were becoming perhaps Fugazi or Shellac, but still with a satisfying edge of obnoxious stoopidity. The new new stuff though – it’s rumoured to be more complex still, and more of a departure. But where’s the album? When are they starting the world domination? Are they still French, or have they been cured? Are they still hungry? Are they gonna figure in the Leeds media/music biz frenzy that we are on the cusp of? The kids need to know the truth.
Two parts formed this interview, the initial ‘factual’ Q & A attempting to garner reliable information from these boys, with mixed results, followed by beer and smoke and a generally ‘looser’ approach, which as ever proved to be more interesting. (That’s not to mention the US Army Iraq torture-style photos taken in the absence of Whiskas, with this writer with a bag on his head, being brutalized… ahem). But FACTS are important, so a bit of both will be applied in the pursuit of truth. Neil, the frontman, takes an active role in the conversation, and the others interject. We have a full house today, comprising of Neil, Si (bass), Jeff (drums), Chris, James and Whiskas (all guitars).
les Flames! were a band known for their simplicity, but it seems like things are changing. Is there a musical progression happening here? “In a sense there is. Chris is sticking his oar in, writing a lot more now. He doesn’t like pop music”.
“I do like pop music!”
“He likes pop music where you have to count up to 7.” (Jeff)
“A big comedy element in our band is taking the piss out of Jeff in rehearsals coz he can’t count… No,
Chris is writing a lot now, and straight four-four doesn’t excite him so much”
So give us a cheap, lazy journalistic description of your new sound?
“We sound like Les Savy Fav”
“We don’t really!” (Whiskas)
“No, we’re still poppy, we just don’t sound like straight-down-the-line dumbass rock anymore” Did you get bored of that then? “No, we never really intended to be that… we were always meant to sound more like Shellac than the Libertines, but mine and Jeff’s pop influences took over.”
A bit Eighties Matchbox? “It’s always been Eighties Matchbox in there, from the first song... not intentionally there because we wanna sound like them, but that’s a lot of what we were listening to at the time”
A note: As you may have noticed, they’re not using the French names anymore - this piece will refer to them by their real monikers. Those who are curious about what they were can find out from their website, but it’s really not important now. The French thing was a clever device and a means to an end. In a lesser band it might have been called a gimmick, but (cliché time) the ‘Flames! had The Songs To Back It Up. We were after an album, but meantime there was a personnel shake-up going on, in the great tradition of The Fall (although with less cantankerousness).
Cathy the original bassist left, and concentrated on No Problems Disko, who morphed into the The Holy Terror. Chris nearly left but saw the error of his ways. Whiskas switched to bass, and Ben, ex-Spy vs. Spy, took over on guitar, did a tour and then vanished into thin air. Si from Kenosha stepped in on bass when Dave (Farming Incident) left, and Whiskas went back to guitar. James wound up the quirky, Everett True-admired Little Japanese Toy and joined the band, getting them back to the full 18 guitar strings they started out with. The line-up seems solid at the moment. Every member of the band has other musical interests, but it never hurt Josh Homme did it?
Their best moments have rivalled the best moments of The Libertines (and they have had some) – ‘Commitment To Excellence’ manages to sound both yobbish and touching, and very English – and the ‘Flames!’s more average stuff pisses on their weaker tunes (to use as an example a band not a million miles away in ethic).
This band should be bigger than they are – they got hustlin’ early on in their career and used some canny media manipulation to create a real buzz, and regardless of talent and tunes, had some damn good timing coming out when they did. We really should have heard an album by now, it’s been threatened for ages.
It should come out on Wrath sometime in the spring. Are they making a risky move by holding out? A lot of the early material may not make it to the album, as it may not sit too well with the new tracks. Is this a waste? Possibly, but bands are creative units – they need change and inspiration. And when you’ve played a song live dozens of times and it no longer represents what you’re into, you’re going to want something new. They should make sure that all their old numbers do get recorded and released at some stage though – to do otherwise would be unforgivably slack.
Things get a lot more interesting post-pub at Flames Towers. There’s an awful lot of potentially libellous (and highly entertaining) slander that goes on, which will have to remain a mystery – ha! But things get a lot looser… They’re awkward buggers, so after about twenty minutes of fairly ‘dry’ factual, if drunken, material, Neil berates the writer to “rewind the tape and get some fucking good stuff.”
OK. What is the most punk rock thing in the WORLD?
“Terry Waite” says Neil, unreservedly. “Five years, comes back and they go ‘What do you make of all that?’, and he goes ‘I forgive ‘em’. Dickhead.”
Jeff? “Karaoke.” Why? “Because I’m shit at it.”
Whiskas is hesitant to answer such a pertinent question – “It’s probably Dylan playing electric isn’t it, but that’s very gay” – but finally makes the wise choice of Roky Erikson and the 13th Floor Elevators – “the band just ended up not existing, because they’re all in jail from doing what they wanted - that’s punk rock.”
This line of enquiry stirs Neil into interviewing Whiskas himself: “So who’s doing punk rock now then? Let me fire three at you... Har Mar Superstar?”
“Queens of Noize?”
“No punk rock in ‘em whatsoever?”
“Oh, there’s punk rock in them, but... Queens Of Noize definitely not... and Har Mar, a little bit”.
“Lightning Bolt,” ventures Neil. “Is that punk rock, or up-yer-own-arse pretentious shit?”
“That’s up-yer-own-arse pretentious shit.”
James finally gets it nailed, however, with the quote of the evening – the one that gets blown up and put in a bold font. “Terrorism. The most punk rock thing in the world is terrorism.” Why, pray tell?
“Because punk rock is about destroying stuff.”
Throwing ideological caution to the wind, and straying into the hallowed ground of Bravery, Neil continues: “That’s a fucking ace shout though – y’know, you can slag the terrorists off as much as you like, but they’re all doing something to fuck up the establishment, and essentially that’s punk rock."
“It’s about changing the fucking world. The Clash, The Pistols wanted to change the fucking world. They didn’t, but they tried their arses off man. International terrorism is the most punk rock thing you can do. The most disgusting thing happened last week at that school in Russia, right, Beslan, but that is some form of punk rock. That is people who will not tolerate how their world fucking is, and they do the most despicable fucking things, but in a sense, that is punk rock”.
(Note to bands, old and new: When you’re getting interviewed, say some stuff like this and just rock out a bit. The writer likes it because it makes their job a lot easier, the reader likes it because it’s entertaining. We don’t want to hear your dull, self-important, never-seen-Spinal-Tap rattle, we want some badass conversational riffing. And if you can’t manage that, question why you’re in a band in the first place.)
In summation, it’s a transitional time for the ‘Flames!, but they seem solid and to be enjoying it. We’ll see how the new stuff works – this is a band with the potential to surprise, and they number some deceptively good musicians amongst ‘em. They’ll be out on tour shortly after you read this, and will soon be gracing the pages of a national quality broadsheet, so my sources tell me – so you shouldn’t be able to miss ‘em. Musical progression and line-up changes make no odds – the day this lot become boring still looks as distant and unlikely as ever. les Flames! are punk rock.