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JOHN ROBB: DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF ROCK N’ ROLL? - INTERVIEW BY MEL

 
Although a Manchester resident for many years, John Robb, is a man proud of his roots, born and bred in Blackpool where the seeds of punk rock were firmly sown as a teenager in 1977. His is a name most music aficionados will recognise as one of the busiest journalists in the industry, renown as the first man to interview Nirvana in 1989 for the music paper Sounds, a popular and down to earth, no bullshit kind of Guy. When not checking out bands in Manchester and beyond he is writing passionately about them, he's also interviewed the likes of Liam Gallagher, Ian Astbury, Gogol Bordello, Adam Ant, Patti Smith, Alan McGee, Billy Bragg, Steve Ignorant and many more. He’s a voracious writer, up to five times a day, for his latest music culture web site Louder Than War, providing interviews, reviews, features from the world of music and worldwide news stories. On top of this he is also an accomplished author of music books, Dead To Trad Rock, Punk Rock: An Oral History, and The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996.  He’s appeared on TV music programs, debates, news, documentaries, chairing panels and conferences. Of course not forgetting a musician with his punk band Goldblade, who are still keeping the hot flame burning with their feisty, brand of super charged energetic shows.

I met with John last Sunday in Manchester’s Victoria Bathhouse, for a photoshoot, [the photos shown in this interview] a session that had been in  planning for months due to his intense schedule.  With camera firmly gripped in hand, John’s friendly banter throughout, we had a lively hour or so traipsing through the architectural magnificence of the building.

John you missed your calling, another string to your bow - John Robb the male model!

MEL: I'ts been a while since our last interview, to be precise it was Sept 2008. I thought it was time we checked in with you to find out what you've been doing since then. You’re a Guy who is always active, always busy, and still find time to keep yourself in good shape, running and cycling. How do you manage to juggle everything, what's the main priority in your life at this current moment and what do you get the most enjoyment from?

JOHN: I'm on a mission! Time is short and there's lots to get done. I get bored quickly and don't plod along. Punk rock was about making your own culture and not being a soggy sack of potatoes flopped out on a Settee rotting away! Down with tellytubby culture! There's also a lot of things I hate doing! Watching the X factor is hell for me, so are soaps, so is most TV. Not doing that frees up a lot of time. Simon Cowell is the work of the devil. Watching someone raking in millions whilst laughing at fumbling freaks on the TV is one version of pop culture but it's not mine. There's so much great stuff out there to write about and communicate, the world is full of great music and ideas and Louder Than War is an attempt to get hold of this flow of ideas.

The one thing I really love doing though, is being on stage and playing music, it's the only time in your life you ever feel free, it's animalistic and wild, it's an insane flow of energy and tribal. It's an ancient part of the human psyche. Every now and then we remind ourselves of the power of music, the power of rock n roll. Everyone spends a few years letting it slip, allowing the music biz idea of gurning pop stars or plodding dustbin indie to drone away with no life in their music, then with something like punk or one of the many mini revolutions since then we remind ourselves of the real freak power of music and it's an amazing experience. In some ways this is what goldblade are doing, sometimes on our own, sometimes with loads of help. We are the loud, visceral, cranked up, fuck power of loud electricity, some people get it, some people don't, that's just they way it is. It's not easy. The type of music we make is still frowned on after all these years. For example, if we make a single and give it to the so called alternative radio stations like XFM they tell us it's too noisy! That's because alternative doesn't mean alternative, it means bands who don't walk the walk, but do the talk - I'd argue even we have this problem, our records have never matched our live feeling - yet! But we are lumbering up for something pretty special at the moment. The problem we have is that, like many bands of our scene, we are pushed to the side and patronized. But this makes us kick back harder, it's great that round the rest of the world people are really listening.

MEL: Louder Than War is your music culture web site, and amassing a huge audience. How did the web site come about, and why did you create the site? Where did the idea for the title come from?

JOHN: I've always written about music all my life. When I was 16 I edited a fanzine called Rox in Blackpool, then I wrote for Sounds and the music press. It was all part of communicating ideas, trying to get people to listen to stuff. I was shocked to find out that you actually got paid for it as well.

The website is a continuation of this process. I'm into so much stuff and loads of stuff that you are never allowed to write about that I had to start a website to get the music out. Most mainstream media only covers white indie rock, ok in its place but I'm also into punk, industrial, rock, loads of world music, freaky electronic music and loads of underground stuff, I needed an outlet for it. Louder Than War was what Fidel Castro said to the Manic Street Preachers when they played in Cuba. When he went backstage to say hello to the band before the gig Casto looked like a real rock n roll star compared to everyone else in there. Someone said it's going to be very loud and he laughed and replied, “loud? Louder than war!' I just thought it was a funny and cool reply and really fits a website. Everything is louder than war, maybe Fidel was wrong - music is louder than war, and if we play loud enough maybe they will listen...

MEL: You have a wide range of contributors who appear eager to write for your site. What qualities do you look for in a writer, are they selected carefully, do you have any criteria, are you happy to have amateur writers, alongside the more professional writers such as yourself?

JOHN: One of the strands in the website is writing about new bands, so it follows that I want new writers as well. I'm into discovering new talent and there are lots of writers very young and also older who are looking for a break to get into writing, if I can provide that break, then great. It's not that easy to get into music writing but once you get started, and you have ideas, you learn to communicate, then you will find a space. Like everyone I'm looking for writers with ideas, there's nothing more pointless than writing to me and asking if I have anything to write about! If I had my own good ideas then I will already be writing them...

Some of the writers are very young and are still learning, I try and help them, but most are pretty well fully formed. I try and give them advice and tell them where to go. Some other writers are musicians, who have never written before, and some are people who write on smaller blogs, and want their stuff better read, and some are really young people who have never been in print before...it's a great combination.

MEL: Many people think the industry is on its knees and has a short shelf life. What’s your view of the UK’s music scene currently, where do you see it in say five years time?

JOHN: What the music biz was when I started is disappearing fast, and that's a good thing - I like change, and if you want me to shed a tear for the coke snorting, limo driving, piss takers in London who never really helped all the music I ever liked then I won't.

The Music business has always changed. In the 1950s the people making wax 78s would have been losing work when vinyl took over, people who made vinyl struggled when CDs took over, pop culture is so tied in with technology that it's pointless to resist. Pop music reflects technology, its part of its DNA. Vinyl may sound better and it still exists, and my new label will release vinyl because we are all like antique collectors now- musical Lovejoys! But you can't carry 60, 000 singles around in your pocket! That's why iPods are great.

It's impossible to get bored in the 21st century, infect is criminal to get bored in the 21st century. The music industry is a chameleon and it changes. The record labels are dying but the gigs and merchandise people are making loads of money, it's weirdly easier to scrape by in a cult band outside the system, because there are more festivals and people will buy your t shirts. The model may change but the music can stay the same. The underground cult bands have more space to exist, if they don't get press or played on the radio, then they get smart on the Internet, you don't have to rely on music lovers, titter, like Chris Moyles to like your music, you have your website/social networking which is your own media. It’s a place where people can find out where you are playing, what you are up to. In the old days people would buy the music press hoping the bands they liked would be mentioned somewhere, and if they were pushed aside they would never know where they were on or what they were now sounding like. YouTube, Facebook, Soundcloud are all great....Don’t fear the future it belongs to all of us.

MEL: You promote so many new bands from all genres on your site, what makes a great band and how can they stand head and shoulders above the rest in these hard economical times?

JOHN: The bands I like are the ones I instinctively like. I can only trust my instincts. I don't care for genre, or fashion, that's all irrelevant. I don't care if people say 'you can't like that', or 'is that a guilty pleasure’, I listen to something and if it sounds great then I'm having it, and then I will write about it. It's a simple formula.

MEL: You’re always spotted at gigs in and around Manchester and beyond. What's the best gig you've been to in the last 12 months? And which new bands do you tip to be the most exciting and promising acts this year?

JOHN: Best gig I've been to recently is the primavera festival in Barcelona – Spain. Grinderman, Shellac, Suicide and Einsterzende Neubaten, and loads of noisy others - pure genius. Best small band I've seen recently are Ball And Chain, who are the people that used to be in Nation Of Ulysses. I'm also really looking forward to Rebellion punk festival- it gets better every year, and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who ever liked punk music. I've seen some really good young bands. There are loads of exciting and promising young bands; most of them are written up on my website.

MEL: So, from the new to the old. There’s been a resurgence of older bands reforming and touring again, Adam Ant, Iggy Pop And The Stooges, Magazine, Blondie and the list goes on – what’s your feeling on this?

JOHN: Speaking as an older musician I have no problem with older band's playing. What I think is that it is really weird when a band that have had a flash of glory in their youth then it all goes wrong, they get dropped, and then they give music up completely! What were they in it for? celebrity? If the music is in you, it’s always in you and you will find ways of playing. Of course all this museum rock is a bit suffocating, but if you really love an old band and they reform and they are brilliant like the Stooges or Adam Ant then why not enjoy it? I saw Adam Ant recently in Manchester, and he was amazing, his voice was so good and his new album, which he is not playing live yet, is fucking great.

MEL: Recently you lost a good friend in Poly Styrene, one of the original ’77 punk rebels, who influenced many female singers down the years, the impact of her passing could be felt across the whole social network spectrum for days. Who if any do you see today making the same impact on the music scene years down the line?

JOHN: There are so many great people making music now that in thirty years time will be legendary. The revolutions keep coming and the life changing musicians keep coming.

Poly was a one off, an amazing woman but I think there are always iconic figures. I grew up with punk, and I love that genre, but I’m not saying that it is everything for ever, and music nowadays does not have the same impact, that's just a stupid thing to say. Poly was amazing, I always loved her records when I was growing up; she created a new type of woman singer which was just as inspirational for men like me. She was smart and funny, and lived life by her own rules. She dropped out to become a Hare Krishna and was always questioning life, she never stopped thinking and her final solo album released as she was dying is a great record. She became a good friend over the last ten years and we would speak on the phone all the time, and I would sometimes go to the Krishna Restaurant with her in London, and I really miss her.

MEL: Recently Goldblade were transported to the USA with Steve Ignorant, supporting him on tour. How was this jaunt, any interesting tales aboard the good ship Goldblade? What differences did you note in the audiences, from the English counterparts?

JOHN: The American tour with Steve Ignorant is my favourite ever Goldblade tour, we had a great time and the audiences were amazing. It was a lot of work getting into America because of the stupid visa situation, which is very expensive and unworkable, a lot of bands can't get their permits but we were determined and finally got ours. The drives were huge, we were doing ten hours a day on an easy day, so we put in the legwork. It was worth it because Crass are big in America, and they are treated as legends over there which meant great crowds every night, and every night we had a great reaction, loads of people in the pits and lots of great people to speak to afterwards.

I wish I could give you a list of great rock n roll stories and detail all the abusive, arrogant behaviour that people bizarrely demand from bands, but I have no interest in that sort of world and just love doing the music and hanging out afterwards The rock pigs who hang out in rock n’ roll use the gig as the vehicle to the party, but for me the gig is everything. I remember one in the UK some people getting upset once because we wouldn't let them smoke dope in our dressing room. They claimed we were acting like rock stars even though they spent the whole night in the dressing room and we went in there for five minutes to change our trousers. When we were changing they said we were weird...like it was their smoking room!

MEL: It seems you’ve done an awful lot in your life so far, but is there anything you'd like to do this year, or in the future which you haven't yet achieved - any person you’d like to interview? or maybe a TV program you’d like to be involved in?

JOHN: There are loads I'd like to do and I'm also thinking of lots of ideas. There's lots of talk about TV stuff so who knows? There's a new Goldblade album to record which we are putting together at the moment and hope to record in the autumn and there are some gigs by my old band, the Membranes.

I've got a collection of my old interviews getting released as a book in Brazil and my ‘Oral History of Punk Rock’ book is finally coming out in America, where it's going to do really well. My Louder Than War website is really taking off and there is loads of stuff to do there, for example like setting up a louder than war record label. I'm thinking of running a marathon and upping my running - it's so peaceful and relaxing! I'm also travelling the world chairing music panels for music conferences, trying to get the idea of DIY on a worldwide level, in the last three months I've been doing this in India, America, Holland and Norway and will be going to Argentina, Iceland and maybe China - music is international and goes beyond boundaries and we are trying to encourage this.

I've got a meeting with the British Government next week about the visa situation, I'm going there with an MP friend of mine, Kerry McCarthy who has been brilliant in sorting out the meeting with the minister of culture, she breaks all the clichés of MPs, she is really into her music- growing up on the Luton punk scene and hanging out with UK Decay. She works really hard and is into music and pop culture and is old fashioned enough to still care about people.

MEL: What about writing an autobiography?, have you ever thought about it? If so what might you call it off the top of your head - and no I don't mean that should be a title?

JOHN: I have been writing bits and pieces of an autobiography over the years, there's lots of stuff to cram in there, there is one title but I'm not saying what it is yet...I may need to use it!

MEL: And finally I probably shouldn't mention this [but will do all the same] you recently hit the BIG 50 mark and I wondered if it had made you reassess your life in anyway?

JOHN: Being 50 was great, it was in the middle of the American tour and we had a day off so we all went to New Orleans and hung out there. Could it be more perfect? Being on tour, in New Orleans and hanging out? And being 50?

All I'm conscious of is that time is running out and I've got to squeeze more stuff and more experiences in, there is less time to fuck about and waste now! Apart from that I don't care about what age I am, I'm too busy living. 

What a positive motto to end the interview, thanks for your time John, you are such an inspiration and you look fantastic for 50! When can we do another shoot?

John Robb's music culture website www.louderthanwar.com   
Facebook: www.facebook.com/johnrobb1977

Interview & photos by Mel 05/06/11 (Full set here)
Thanks to Tomm James for sneaking a candid photo of Mel & John in action.