Chumbawamba – Interview

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Chumbawamba

They knocked you down with their hit single, “Tubthumper”, and now they’re back with a brand new album, WYSIWYG, full of pop that will invite and incite. I had a chance to speak with Dunstan Bruce, lead vocalist and one of Chumbawamba’s eight members. Read on about all things political and find out how we managed to compare marriage to anarchy!

How are you?

Fine, thanks.

Enjoying New York City?

A bit. We’re going to be pretty busy.

I wanted to say that I really enjoyed the album.

Thank you.

I’ve been listening to it a lot lately, and now I’ve been trying to see what you are actually saying. Rather than just hearing the music, now I want to understand what the words are really saying. This album has a lot to say.

Did you get the album with the sleeve?

Yeah. I’ve been trying to absorb it all. I’ve only had it for about a week. Then I really started to wonder about the album title, WYSIWYG, because what you see isn’t what you get at all. Was that a play on it?

The title is that what you see is what you get is bullocks because it isn’t true at all. In most things in your life, what you see isn’t what you get. Like with Chumbawamba, you get this album, and it’s like on the surface it’s sweet pop music, but it’s laced with really vitriolic lyrics and stuff like that. It doesn’t quite add up in the world of pop. We use pop music to say stuff. Most pop is about falling in and out of love or solitude. It’s quite interesting that quite few bands use pop to say anything of any kind of value.

Right. Usually a message only comes with music that makes you depressed or pissed.

A lot of what we do uses humor as much as possible. We always get accused of ramming politics down people’s throats. We do take pot shots at people, but we try to make it funny or ironic or sarcastic although we do feel angry about a lot. But doing music that is angry isn’t necessarily the best way of doing things.

The funny thing with music is that if you are political, there is this big stigma, but if you are a comedian, it’s perfectly alright.

That is true. I’d like to marry the two somewhere. People want to listen to music without the conflict and as a means of escape, which I love the music I listen to and I listen to a lot of music just for the sake of it.

That is why I have a problem with radio today. I listen to mostly oldies when I have to listen to the radio. I mean, the Beatles are my favorite band of all time, but they are also a perfect example of music with a message, yet no one under a certain age even realized it. You could enjoy for the music alone.

You are right.

I think I’m as guilty as the next guy for listening to, say, “Tubthumper” and enjoying the melody and being blind to anything else within the song.

In a way, it is absolutely fine if people just like it for what it is. For me, that is great that people enjoy our intelligent pop music compared to something that is totally vacuous.

I was listening to the new album and I’m like, ‘Damn, these harmonies are amazing.’ It’s like The Mamas And The Papas or something.

(laughs) Yeah! Didn’t know we had it in us, did ya?

Nope. (laughs) And I didn’t know you guys have been around for so long either. What was the music like ten or fifteen years ago and how did it evolve to this form of intelligent pop?

When we first started out, we were totally righteous and angry, so we used to submit music that was very angry. I love Rage Against The Machine, not because I like the music, because it does nothing for me, but love them for their attitude and because they do music that is so full of energy. We as a band come from a totally different place. Our roots come from the Beatles, they had a massive influence on me as I was growing up, and then punk exploded. It has always been the idea that we were doing music very angry, same as Rage, but we realized that wasn’t what we were the best at doing. And we wanted a wider audience, so it was a combination of what we could do best and what we liked rather than thinking that if you want to do something angry you had to do angry music.

I was just like ‘Whoa.’ The songs sounded so sweet and smooth. It was almost Disney-like.

(laughs) I was To me, that is the beauty of what we do. You think it’s a song about Bambi, but it’s really a song about the killing of Walt Disney.

How do you write the tracks? Is it melody first or the message?

There is no set way of doing them. On this album, the lyrics are a real mishmash of people’s lyrics. They’ve been more or less mixed in a pot and mashed around. So three or four of us were writing about different things and then it was fit into what the music was doing, so a lot of the time the lyrics were collected up, and if stuff fit in, it would be welded together. It was quite an involved process.

I think a lot of the tracks were dead on with their messages, but I thought in particular “Dumbing Down” was right on. I think now it seems instead of Generation X it should be Generation D. But then again, the kids today aren’t the only ones who’ve been getting dumber.

(laughs) I know. Who was it? I think it was Paul Weller who said, “The public gets what the public wants.” And it is true in a way. For example, we had to change the cover of the album in America because the record company thought people wouldn’t be able to recognize the brand in a way. So we had to change the lettering so it was more like the “Tubthumper” album. So if you treat people that way, then they’ll act that way. And the bad thing is that you are appealing to the lowest common denominator, and what that usually means is that you are just patronizing people and treating them in a way that is totally dumbed down, and you can’t operate in any other level than that. It’s interesting that it’s been prevalent in the United States, and now obviously it’s been embraced by the UK as well.

I know. We get emails sometimes from readers that ask, ‘Can you give me *NSYNC’s home address and phone number?’ I mean, am I the only one that thinks this is ridiculous?

(laughs)

Then another thing that “Dumbing Down” touched on was the Giuliani (Mayor of New York City) fiasco over that art show last year. It bothers me when government officials try to decide what is art or isn’t. (We are talking about Chris Offili’s piece where a piece of elephant dung was made out in the image of the Virgin Mary and exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum of Art)

That is another example of people in authority thinking they have the right to tell us what people should be able to see and what is offensive or isn’t offensive. That exhibition was in London and the only way you can judge something is by seeing it yourself. Like A Clockwork Orange has just been re-released in England after like twenty-five years because [Stanley] Kubrick (the film’s director) passed away, so they decided to put it out now. For so many years, because people haven’t been able to see it, everyone has drawn their own conclusions about what corrupting effect it might have on society, when in fact it’s a fantastic indictment of the state rather than wayward youth. It’s book burning by any other name. It’s frightening.

That is exactly what I was thinking.

The idea that we aren’t allowed to see other people’s art because somebody else decides that we are going to be corrupted by it is bizarre.

The thing that bothers me is that we learn all the mistakes made throughout the world’s history on things they destroyed, like book burning, and now we look back and say, what did we destroy? What are we missing now? And yet so many people haven’t learned that lesson.

Right. It’s scary.

Maybe we are all too smart for our own good and we should join the dumbing down of the world and just skip through life.

(laughs)

It’s like, just tell me where the line is drawn and we can just give up.

I know, right? Well, it’s like pornography. I mean, it’s like a hot potato. It’s the idea if the law is brought in to ban some types of pornography, then you know that is just an excuse to ban other types of pornography. Laws are brought in and they say it’s to protect a certain section of society, but there are so many clauses in that policy that anything left wing will be attacked next. So it can be really dangerous.

For me, as a citizen of the US, what I’m scared of most is that we have people over seventy deciding laws. How can they possibly know what is best for me?

It is scary. They have no idea what it’s like.

What I liked about your website (www.chumba.com) is that you have all these links to different causes without you guys being biased.

Because a lot of the time what we do is more or less act like a conduit for other people. We’ve got a really good platform now, and if someone has something good, it’s important for us to use our position to expose people to a lot of other things.

Well, that is the other difference between music and comedians. Comedians, people don’t take them seriously, but with music if you are saying something, then they’ll listen a little more.

Yeah. (laughs)

I know if I like a band and they have something to say, then I might look into it, but if you hear a comedian, then you’ll be like, ‘What does he know?’

There are a few comedians that are total political campaigners as well, like this guy named Mark Thomas who has a program on the tele who is influenced by Michael Moore. He has his own series. It is brilliant what he does because it’s totally political but it has humor as well. He did this thing where he went to this arms fair and made out like they were a PR company. They met up with this big cheese from Indonesia in there and they got him to admit that they did torture people but that it was for the good of the nation. They were showing this on the tele and it was absolutely brilliant.

Political stuff like that never comes off well here. People seem like they’d rather see some crap like Jerry Springer.

Yeah. Dreadful, isn’t it?

I know. Another funny thing was that I was setting up the interview with you and it was like, ‘They are this, that, and they are anarchists,’ like you had a disease.

Yeah. (laughs) It is like that a bit. Like we were going on Rosie O’Donnell a couple years ago, and for like three or four weeks before we went on she was obsessed with the fact that we were anarchists. She brought it up every day with her guests and then the day we were on she showed up with a shirt that said ‘anarchist’. And then still weeks later she was still going on about anarchism. It was really bizarre. She was like terrified that we were going to tear the place apart.

Like you were the Sex Pistols or something.

Yeah.

And then I was more curious myself about what the definition of anarchism was.

Yeah. Yeah.

I was on the site and read the lyrics and you are obviously intelligent.

I know, because people think that it’s associated with chaos. They have this idea of what they think it should be, and because we work in an anarchist way, I feel as if we are more organized than even other people we work with. We work in the world of capitalism and it just seems like a big mess to me.

Well, a perfect example is record labels. They have the biggest pyramid with the big guy on top and all these people trickling down, and if you need someone to make a decision, they have to consult ten people. The thing I read about Chumbawamba that I dug was that instead of voting like a democracy, you sit and work something out until it’s decided and everyone is happy.

Yeah.

Sounds an awful lot like how a marriage is supposed to be.

Yeah. (laughs) You’re right. It is a bit like that.

+ charlie craine

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