The Albums of 2013 (#9): Future of the Left – How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident (Prescriptions)
The end of a short tour is a mixed blessing; or, as Andrew Falkous puts it, “very sweet but kind of fruity”. It’s saying goodbye to weeks of constant motion, upright napping and, occasionally, the sad necessity of expelling disinterested audience members “with threatening facial expressions alone”. But ideally the cheek-huffing singer would be on the road more often. “Most of the offers we get to play are derisory,” he explains, “and would have us sleeping in parks between shows. Which... well, for a start, the equipment would be damaged by rain, most likely. Which rather puts a nix on that plan.”
If accommodation hasn’t much improved, there’s at least been swelling public support since Falkous folded synco-punk trio Mclusky in 2005. Acerbic and bolshy, the part-Welsh, part-Geordie group had accrued the endorsement of John Peel and Steve Albini to become one of the Isles’ most critically revered cult bands, their intent as pure as their humour was rare. The band’s demise fetched much remorse but little fanfare, while their self-deprecating hits collection, Mcluskyism, compiled curios and concert recordings that – like Future of the Left’s live album, Last Night I Saved Her from Vampires – amply displayed Falkous’ kvetching wit, lampooning bad humans and terrible hecklers with equal ire.
“I increasingly feel that [hecklers] are a little bit half-arsed,” says Falkous. “But a lot of people you meet at shows, probably because of the size of band we are, I like a lot of them. You don’t generally get some guy in Northampton whose two favourite bands are U2 and Future of the Left, who goes to three shows a year. But I’ve seen friends’ bands play to one and a half thousand people, and there’s maybe a third of that crowd are music fans, and the rest are people who consume music in the same way they consume their new Talk Talk internet package.”
"I’ve never wanted to be a part of any fucking gang" – Andrew Falkous
Retaining sensible occupants of the group’s fanbase, Curses – the first output of Mclusky progeny Future of the Left – rewired Falkous’ and drummer Jack Egglestone’s electrifying punk into the juddering bass of Jarcrew’s Kelson Mathias; then, following the trajectory of Falco’s heroes Wire, they introduced yappy synths for good measure. But it wasn’t until second album Travels with Myself and Another that FotL outstripped Mclusky’s shadow. Live shows at the time suggested that if Falkous was souring with age, it was doing his craic wonders, a theory furthered when Pitchfork’s baleful review of third record The Plot Against Common Sense elicited an amusing blog diatribe from the singer, which even – occasionally – hinted at something meatier than his proclivity for healthy argument.
Latest effort How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident covers new ground aplenty. Avoiding label trouble by Kickstarter-funding the album, the group admitted rare feelings of human warmth and fuzziness after swiftly acquiring the record’s £10,000 goal, fuzzy feelings likewise explored on melodious album centrepiece French Lessons. Last month saw a victory lap that spanned their biggest ever UK shows, which, says Falkous, constituted a welcome opportunity to settle back into van living.
“Somebody wiser than me said, ‘Most of a man’s troubles originate from not being able to sit in a room by himself.’ And having enforced downtime – ‘living in the van’ – is not always pleasant: sometimes you want to walk around in the style of a functioning biped, and you can’t. But I find it, conversely, incredibly liberating. Because there’s nothing else you can do, so you may as well embrace whatever alternative world you’re reading about or dreaming about. I have, over the last five or six years, discovered the ability to slip into sleep, with the help of an iMac and an mp3 of rain, at almost any opportunity. It’s probably a sign of age, but the ability to have a mid-afternoon nap – preferably with a cat – is the height of luxury. I used to think it would be owning a house, but it turns out I was wrong. The mid-afternoon nap is the status symbol for a new generation.”
Is it fair to say that certain socio-political attitudes inform your music?
I’m not sure it’s as consciously constructed as that. The lyrics tend to be written at the last minute, just before recording them. But they aren’t just written in the moment that they’re put onto the page. It’s part of an ongoing, almost unconscious process. And then, with a little pressure involved, [you think] ‘Shit. I’ve got to record this vocal, and if I’m just singing vowel sounds it probably won’t quite pass the test’. But societally, there is one quote I’ve always enjoyed. I’m not entirely sure if it could be applied to our music, but I’m gonna fucking tell you it anyway.
It’s a Voltaire quote: “History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes going up.” Having read a lot of history, that is a sentence which fills you with wonder at how quickly it sums up the fact that: the more comfortable people are, the more complacent they become, the more they slip into their self-reliance. And how the quote-unquote “underclass” come to the fore, because they have to. Because they assume the mechanisms of power. But it’s very important to me not to have an expressly political agenda for the band, because when that happens, the bands nearly always end up being really prescriptive pricks.
Is there a danger that your music will breed resentment, without encouraging the activism that alleviates it?
I don’t think so. I think our music can be part of a balanced diet, you know? A lot of political bands of the punkier persuasion inspired a lot of people to sound exactly like those bands, to take on those political attitudes, almost as a weak facsimile of the original. What kind of fucking artist – and I use that term rather generously – is interested in that? I’m certainly not. I’ve never wanted to be a part of any fucking gang or movement or scene. It repulses me.
I like the left, but I detest any kind of politics of any sort. I would never with good conscience be able to be a member of the Labour party, because, you know, at times, the touchy-feely liberalism, I don’t believe on a personal level is the way ahead on particular issues. I’d say, economically I’m very left wing. Socially, in some ways I’m quite right-wing. I believe criminals should go to prison, you know? And as a result, if you’re more explicitly political but you’re just allying yourself with yourself, what’s the point of that? You’re doing that anyway.
French Lessons seems a sly admission on your part – you know, ‘People talk shite but they’re easily ignored, things are alright sometimes.’ Was that feeling always there?
I think it was. I’m a very competitive person, and obviously I have what could be described as a short temper. But obviously I’m not a psychopath – I’m quite reasonable, and I get through a succession of day jobs of a temporary office based nature. But a song like French Lessons, it’s difficult for me as one of the songwriters to analyse it in the way you just did. It doesn’t make what you said any less valid. But for me, it was about writing a song about the common narrative of love, as people slip into middle-aged relationships. And by middle-aged I’m not referring so much to the age of the people involved as the mindset of the people involved. And people tell you how these relationships play out – ‘Oh, you’re married now, welcome to your wife not listening to you for the next 35 years’ – in a jokey way which suggests a greater underlying truth. And it’s funny to see people repeat those ideas to you, even when you can tell they don’t exactly believe it themselves. ‘Oh, that Beckham’s got no pace.’ ‘I can’t... believe I’m having this conversation.’
It’s a thing people say. In the same way the British refer to the weather. ‘It’s raining again’. Of course it’s fucking raining again, you live in Wales. Shut your fucking mouth’. But that song is about how the mundanities of relationships can be beautiful, but also, they are what you make them. You still get to go out drinking until seven in the morning if you’re in a long-term relationship, if that’s what you want. You still get to exist in whatever form you choose to, as opposed to then putting on the parent or husband or 46-year-old man cap, and then being restricted in your thoughts or deeds as a result.
In your music there’s still humour, which, in the field of rock, seems very scarce.
It seems that humour, in terms of a wider understanding of music, always has to be binary. It’s very complex for rock audiences – particularly younger rock audiences – to understand humour in rock music, because it’s so rarely given to them, except in a really explicit, over the top form. It’s either fucking clowns and guys running around in their pants – or there’s no humour at all. Certainly there’s plenty of smaller bands circling the mainstream who have elements of subtle humour in their music. But the sad thing about those bands is they’re heading for as much of a cul-de-sac as mainstream bands. There’s no glory in deliberately limiting your audience in that way.
Future of the Left and Mclusky never sought – because we didn’t want to, but also because it wasn’t realistic – to be some sort of arena rock band. But we’ve never deliberately aimed for the underground either. That’s just as much of a compromise, as far as I’m concerned. If you play to the old Touch and Go audience, or if you aim everything towards a particular subculture of people – don’t get me wrong, that’s absolutely fantastic and it’s exactly what people want – but for me that’s as artistically limiting as some guy from Sony asking you to double up on the chorus there because they want a big radio hit. It’s exactly the same – it compromises the musical aesthetic. With Future of the Left, what you’re meant to say is you prefer the really sweaty little shows. I’ve had some amazing sweaty little shows, I’ve had fucking hundreds and thousands of them. But we played in Heaven in London the other night, and altogether there were about 900 people, and let me tell you – that was pretty fucking wonderful.