Steve Lamacq comes to Liverpool with 6 Music and Banjo talked to the much loved DJ about festivals, gig etiquette and snogging couples.
Steve Lamacq was in Liverpool for the 6 Music Festival and I was lucky enough to have been invited to speak to him beforehand.
Wanting to take him somewhere cool and quirky, we arranged to meet him at the wonderful Hobo Kiosk at lunchtime.
When we found this closed, we got a message to say that he has found another pub and is waiting for us at the Love Lane brewery.
So we headed there and see one of the country’s foremost tastemakers sat outside in the mid-day sunshine, enjoying a cider and reading a book. This is not going to be a case of diva behaviour.
We get ourselves a drink and start to talk. He immediately puts us at ease through his sheer likability and affable nature. As we talk, people want to come and shake his hand, say hi or pass him their albums.
He takes it all with grace and good nature, seeming flattered by the attention and the fact that there is such a lot of love for him out there.
After we’ve got acquainted, I take out my recorder and the interview begins.
I thought we’d start with some quickfire questions.
“Well if it’s anything to do with memory it probably won’t be as quickfire as you’d like. [laughs]”
Well we’ll give it a go. So firstly, first single, first gig, first festival?
“First single was Tiger Feet by Mud. And when I was writing for the one man show I was touring, I thought I’d better have a look what else was in the charts when I bought that, and I could have bought records by The Faces, Roxy Music, David Bowie or Slade. And I bought Mud.
But I go back over things and I think I over analyse them, but I think one of the reasons I liked Mud was that they were the uncool band of Glam Rock really. They’d been incredibly unsuccessful for about 5 years until they signed to RAK Records and Mickie Most put them with Chinn and Chapman and all of a sudden it starts happening for them.
They were the least cool looking out of all the glam bands, they were a lot less cool than Sweet and the more grown-up glam of Roxy Music or Bowie. They looked like four lads who’d just stumbled out of the pub.
But there was something about that that I kind of liked, and I just thought the song was amazing.”
You can say that about some of the things that you’ve championed over the years, the outsider and the underdog, people on the fringe of cool.
“Well maybe. And I’m not saying that the first thing you buy informs your musical taste for the rest of your life, but a lot of the bands I like are underdogs. And even now with say Catfish and the Bottlemen who were also unsuccessful for five years until something happened for them.
Even if you look at someone as huge as Coldplay, they were turned down by 21 record labels by the time I first saw them. In a world where Limp Bizkit were the great alternative hope, what chance did Coldplay have? No-one was interested in them.
But I think that’s part of the challenge, there are a lot of people who deserve a break but they aren’t in the right place at the right time and I think it’s our job to put them in front of people.
So that was first single. First gig was the next band I fell in love with, and again they were one of the unfashionable bands around at the time, was a band called The Lurkers. They were from West London, once described in Sounds as Britain’s answer to The Ramones. But only once described in Sounds as Britain’s answer to The Ramones. [Laughs]
The Lurkers released a single called Ain’t Got a Clue, which at the age of thirteen seemed to embody all the frustration that I felt as a teenage kid living in a tiny little Essex village. So I went to see them at the Chelmsford Chancellor Holl, September 1978, about four weeks away from my fourteenth birthday.
I thought it would be like a football match, so when it said get there for 7.30, I got there for 7.30! What did I do, I must have just stood there looking at people until the band came on.
But it was amazing, they only played for about forty minutes tops. Pete Stride,the guitarist, was wearing a lurid pink drape coat and they were so bright, so loud and so visceral that nothing had come close to that in my experience.
And I think that was the night, I know it sounds ridiculous to say it changed my life but it actually did. All I wanted to do after that was go to gigs. And that’s what I’ve done.
The only bad thing about it was not really being able to tell anyone about it because no-one at school was interested in the same sort of music. But that was the start.
And my first festival was…. Well, I didn’t go to festivals when I was a kid.”
They weren’t cool in the punk days though were they, that was what hippies did.
“Not at all. I mean I read about Glastonbury and Reading, but I never went. I remember a friend of mine saying that his brother had just got back from Reading and a French heavy metal band called Trust had just walked on and said [adopts French accent] ‘Allooo, we are Trust’ and just got battered with bottles of piss. And I thought I’m not sure I want to be involved with this.
So I never really went to a festival until I started working for the NME, so probably Reading in 1989.”
1989 was a good year for Reading though, it was when the indie bands took over?
It was, when the Mean Fiddler took over. It was a good time to go. Before that I had two rules in life, never go south of the river and never go to outdoor festivals. I ended up living south of the river and I went to 21 consecutive Reading Festivals.“
And then, perhaps foolishly clinging to my notion of quickfire questions or icebreakers, I move on to questions 2, although in truth the ice has been not just broken, but finely chipped and added to a Sheppy’s cider.
Nevertheless, I plough on.
Best gig, best single, best festival?
“For best single I always tend to go back to White Man in Hammersmith Palais by The Clash, for various reasons, partly the way it looked, partly because it was my introduction to reggae, which became an important part of my musical taste and partly because it sounded so brilliantly punk and London, which were all the things I suppose I aspired to.
The village where I grew up had a population of just over a thousand people, one pub and a village green, and that record just brought the music papers to life.
Best gig… it always used to be when I was working for the NME I got sent to one of the new music seminars in New York at the start of the 90s, and the bill was My Bloody Valentine, Superchunk and first on was a new band called Pavement.
I still have the Pavement t-shirt that I bought that night. Just watching My Bloody Valentine creating that noise and watching the Americans squirm at the noise was unbelievable.
But now I think the best gig was Billy Bragg at the Camden Dublin Castle, 6 Music Festival 2009. I put on the gig in this pub and it holds 200 people I reckon, and there were three bands on. I phoned Bill up and said ‘I don’t suppose you fancy playing the Dublin Castle for old times’ sake do you?’ and bless him Bill said yes.
It was one of those nights where all the things that go into making a brilliant gig are there, the audience is great, you’re standing in a good place, the artist plays all the songs you want them to play. And he was so brilliant, even his talking between the songs.
He was saying that for the record he’d just released he was trying to get TV exposure, but he couldn’t get anything apart from the Andrew Marr show. And when he was shown into the green room, the only other person in the place was Alastair Darling.
So Billy said hello and Alastair Darling said ‘Hello Billy, are you still gigging?’ To which Billy replied ‘Yes I am Alastair, are you still Chancellor of the Exchequer?’
And then the door opened and George Osbourne walked in, looked at Bill and started singing A New England. and George Osbourne knew everything about Billy Bragg, he knew his songs, he knew where he was playing, everything about him!
I’m not sure I have a best festival though. They all blur into one to be honest. I’m sure there have been some brilliant ones, but I can’t pick one particular one out.”
And so, fifteen minutes after the quick fire questions I look at my notes for my first proper question. But all this tells us a lot about Steve Lamacq, he has a wealth of stories that have come from consistently being in the right place at the right time, he has a world class memory and he still has passion for music by the bucketload.
He is a great conversationalist, so much so that the questions are all but abandoned and we just sit in the sunshine and talk.
Going back to something you said earlier on, about not knowing anybody else at The Lurkers’ gig, do you think this is perhaps what gave you your love of the outsider bands?
“It was partly that, because you just sort of did things on your own and I think that’s possibly why I ended up railing against certain things. I think it was also shaped by the attitude of the music press at the time, and I guess John Peel.
When I first started listening to Peel when I was around 14 or so and it just felt like you were in a slightly different world, a world where you didn’t have to put up with the mainstream that you were being fed all the time.
I think anyone who listened to Peel understood that even within alternative music at the time, he had something of a maverick taste, he would not necessarily champion the things he was probably supposed to but would champion things that were more in line with his own taste in music, his own outlook.
So I think in the end you form an outlook based an all these things.
But the reason I started a fanzine when I was 17 was essentially because I thought the music papers were doing a bad job. And I started a record label in the 90s because I thought the record labels were doing a bad job.
If I had enough money I’d start a radio station because I think radio is sometimes doing a bad job. But fortunately someone invented 6 Music so I don’t have to. [laughs]”
That’s quite a punk attitude. Nobody is saying what I want to say, so I’ll say it myself.
“Yeah, it is. I feel really lucky to have grown up in that era, there was a lot of DIY stuff going on, from the Buzzcocks first EP onwards. It was all about go and do it yourself.
So I thought I’d so a fanzine, cobble together some money and just go and do it. If you don’t have a lot of people you share your musical taste with at school or college, you’re looking for a group of friends. And I found that through the fanzine, I made friends that I’ve known since those days.
The fanzine was called Pack of Lies and I was talking to a guy in a record shop in Ipswich, trying to get him to take 30 copies, and someone else in the shop asked what it was.
So I told him it was a vague rip off of another fanzine called Harsh Realities, and he said ‘I wrote Harsh Realities!’, so we got talking and it was Lawrence Bell, who now runs Domino Records and we’ve known each other off and on ever since, we still go to gigs together now.
So that saved me from the life of a loner really.”
Going back to John Peel, you say he introduced you to new sounds and then you did that for a lot of people as well, is anybody doing that now?
“Yeah I think so, you’ve got Huw Stephens now and probably somebody will come along later. A lot of the BBC Introducing DJs are starting that, they’ve got a range of ages and people from across the country and some of them are pretty good and will eventually pick up the mantle.
Or I hope they do, because otherwise where do we all go? It’s so noisy out there, there’s so much stuff going on.
And I think you trusted Peel, even when what he was playing was shit, you knew that if this one was bad, the next one would be good. One of the reasons I spend so much time listening to new stuff is that you’ve got to do your job properly, try to get it right.
And if you find something, go and see it live before you start raving about it, otherwise you end up like these people who tell you that everything is amazing.That’s not being a tastemaker.
I have certain foibles and there are certain bands who I know are never going to appeal to a whole load of people, so I usually prefix what I say about them with “This is not for everyone but…” But then you come across a band where you’re convinced it’s utterly worthwhile banging your head against a wall.
I remember when we first played The Streets, and we were into the email era of Radio One here, which was a big deal because people were instantly telling you whether something was good or bad. And when we started playing Has It Come To This, every evening we were getting emails saying “get this shit off”.
And Peel said you just had to persevere with it, which we did. And by the time Original Pirate Material came out, all those people who were telling us we were wrong and that this was a disaster for music you saying “you know what, that’s alright”.
I sometimes think that DJs are too quick to see a bad reaction to a record and think that it isn’t working for them so we’ll play something they do like. You have to stand your ground I think, which again is probably something born out of that punk rock upbringing.“
John Peel said that there are only two types of music, good and bad. Is that something you agree with or are you more concerned with genres?
“Yeah I think so, although I do like to quote that band China Drum, who had a t-shirt that said ‘We play both kinds of music, punk and rock’.
But I’ve got no real boundaries, it can come from anywhere. I’ve ended up specializing in guitar music purely because there aren’t enough hours in the day to listen to all the other genres.
I’d listen to shed loads of Jungle if I had the chance, but I feel that it’s my job to listen to all the guitar stuff and find the bits that are right.
I only went to Peel Acres on one occasion and John gave us a tour.
And right by where his record player was he had a typewriter, a record player and a swivel chair. And then right behind him he had a rack of records. So I said “what are those then John?” and he told me it was all his Fall albums.
And he said that when he’d been listening to music for a few hours and he’d forgot what a good records sounds like, where the bar should be, he took a Fall album and put it on to remind himself what a good record sounds like.”
Tell us about your book.
“Well I wrote it in 2000, because it was the 10th anniversary of the Evening Session, there’s lots of anecdotes from the bands that I’ve met, and stories from before these bands made it big. I interviewed Nirvana before they signed to Geffen, in a bed & breakfast in Shepherds Bush and they had three beds in the same room.
But it’s not just a history of pop music, the reason I wrote it and the reason I thought it was worth putting out again is that although the stories in it are pretty good stories, it’s also about life as a music fan, how music can thrill you and at the same time break your heart.
99% of bands will let you down at some point, and after all the time and the effort and the emotion that you’ve put into them, that feeling of being almost rejected by a band can be overwhelming. And sometimes we’re just in denial about it, I followed The Stranglers all the way through, even when they put out Bear Cage I was still buying their records.
I listened to it again after a few years and the scales fell from my eyes and I thought “This Stranglers’ record is rubbish!” And then I went back to the record before that and I found out that that was rubbish as well. For years I could not stop standing up for them, because I was the guy who liked The Stranglers, and they’ll get better one day.
The book is about our relationship with music and going to gigs. And gig etiquette, you know, how many times you’ve got a really good spot and some tall man will come along and stand in front of you.”
“Well at least you’re not the snogging couple! When a couple come and stand in front of you and snog relentlessly [laughs].
So it’s really about all those things. You don’t even have to know a lot about the music, if you’re a fan of any type of music you’ll be able to recognise yourself in there.
Going back to my first gig, The Lurkers, I remember I sent off for a ticket and I put it on a shelf by my bed and then I looked at that ticket first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. And on the day of the gig I spent three hours trying to work out what to wear. And I think a lot of people who like music will recognise that kind of thing.
And a lot of it is sort of taking the piss out of myself and making the point that although I’ve worked for the NME and been on the radio, I am still an utter fan fuckwit the same as anyone else.”
Do you ever get starstruck when you meet your heroes?
“No, but if Dave Grohl was walking down the street I’d probably hide in the doorway, but walking into a hotel room to do an interview is different. Growing up through punk, you didn’t really think of heroes in the same way. So I don’t think there was anyone I felt starstruck by.
When I was young I had a bit of a crush on Kirsty MacColl and then I had to interview her for the NME and that was…uncomfortable [laughs].
But the strange thing is, if you were to introduce me to any member of the Colchester United glitterati and I’ve got no words!
I’ve been nervous, but not starstruck. I’ve never been a huge Springsteen fan, and the year Springsteen did Glastonbury, 6 Music asked me to interview him. And I said “can’t we get somebody else to do it, somebody who actually likes Springsteen?” and they said “Well, they’ve asked for you.”
So they sent us to Bergen in Norway. And I didn’t know anything about Springsteen. But bless 6 Music, they gave me two days off, so I went home via HMV where I bought a Springsteen biography and The Best of Bruce Springsteen.
So I was nervous walking into that because I didn’t know much about him really and you don’t want to waste the artist’s time.”
What do you think the term ‘alternative music’ means these days?
Yeah, that’s difficult isn’t it? I think it’s anything that’s not in the middle of the iTunes mainstream.”
Do you think it still exists or do you think that with the likes of IDLES selling out big venues that the term alternative has lost its meaning?
“It’s hard to capture in a phrase, but I think it’s something about the attitude as much as anything else. I think it’s about how you live your life. The Sex Pistols would still be alternative wherever they were in the charts.
It’s more about your natural approach, the way that music has been created and the reasoning behind why it was created, the motivation to make that music. Aphex Twin could get to number one, but it would still be an alternative record.
But when we started getting compilations of alternative bands, you’d look at the tracklisting and think that a lot of the bands weren’t alternative and that they saw it as kind of a career. You’re not an alternative band if all you want to do is stand on stage and have people applaud you. I think it’s needing to do it rather than just doing it.”
And that seems like the perfect place to leave the interview, with Steve Lamacq perhaps inadvertently summing up his own approach to life, music and his way of life.
What has emerged in all of this is that he is still as committed to alternative music, whatever that means these days, as he was when he went to his first gig on his own all those years ago.
After the interview, with the Zoom recorder stashed away in my bag, he doesn’t feel the need to head off and seek better known company, but is instead quite happy to stay for another drink and carry on chatting. As we talk, he turns my questions around and asks me about my first gig, favourite records…
He is a music fan through and through and, as such, is happy to sit and talk with other music fans.
Eventually he has to head off to interview IDLES for 6 Music. We part as friends, having bonded over our mutual love of music. Steve Lamacq is one of the good guys.
That he is one of radio’s most important and influential DJs is beyond question, but today, he is one of us made good. It seems that sometimes good guys can make it to the top.
- Steve Lamacq‘s Going Deaf for a Living is out now via Omnibus Press.