In the true tradition of punk rock Alex aka The Mighty Cougar aka Wonk Unit isn’t exactly your shy retiring type, nor is he predictable. While the rest of us are mulling over, reminiscing, debating and arguing as to what punk rock is/was, meant/didn’t mean or ever will mean, there really are some individuals out there, still, pushing the boundaries for their own satisfaction and taking the flak. When such rare individuals come my way and their anger fuelled chords loosen their grip around my neck just long enough for me to breathe, I have hope. Alex is a one off. He provokes reaction. Poet, songwriter, performer, “tortured soul”, there isn’t much life hasn’t already thrown at him. With a grip on his own self destruction he is forging ahead to nourish himself while we reap the benefits. If you haven’t already guessed I am an appreciative visitor to the places he is constructing along his journey. F**k the literature, I play those albums over and over again and I feel alive. I smile when I read his fantastical celebrity illustrations in lovemaking interspersed with motorway games and cooking recipes and am blown away that a solitary word can culminate in a physical attack. You think he’s an arrogant f**ker? You haven’t heard of him? Then dock your trolley in the bay and let’s save your life thank you.
LORRAINE: Hi Alex, first off I’ve been reading your blog “Cement, you C**t”.
ALEX: Yeah, Cement, you C**t (Laughs)
LORRAINE: You’re an imaginative and prolific writer, how long have you been writing creatively?
ALEX: I reckon…..3 years?
LORRAINE: Really? I was sure you were going to say from when you were very young.
ALEX: No, they only started from MySpace, putting out bulletins and I found I quite enjoyed writing crap and people started saying “Ah, your writing’s really funny”, so that was that and I started writing this awful poetry, builder inspired poetry and the more I wrote the more I got in to it. I wrote lots.
LORRAINE: You do push the boundaries with the sexually explicit stuff
ALEX: The Sex Manual (Laughs)
LORRAINE: Yes, which I think is really funny and a stroke of genius using your celebrity ‘case studies’.
ALEX: Yeah, did you like my celebrity……..I have got into quite a bit of grief with my sex manual I have, mainly because of people….I mean 99% of audiences love it and when I talk I always get “Sex manual”. People always ask me to read but there’s always a couple of stupid people that don’t hear what I’m saying, they just hear the language, they just come up and completely get it wrong.
LORRAINE: What usually happens, how do you deal with that?
ALEX: Well, I should have ignored it, but what happened….we got….I had a real hard time last year and it all stemmed from a gig in Swindon. I did a reading and when I came off stage this girl came up and she started screaming at me “You’re a misogynistic bigot. How dare you say you want to grab all our tits!” I didn’t say that at all, that was a poem. I should have levelled with her and said “Look, what part….?” But instead I told her to “Fuck off” and walked away and from that period on the Bridgetown West Scene there’s been a hate campaign against me. We toured with The Queers recently and we were picked on because of the Bristol Queers show, because of my sex manual. I had a dreadful…..well, yeah…..that’s crazy shit.
LORRAINE: I was going to ask if it was intentionally to shock or are you just entertaining yourself?
ALEX: Well first of all, when I tried to write the sex manual I was thinking, I mean I think on my blog there isn’t really an order, but I think if you read it in order there’s an introduction and an explanation about how I wanna inform the young, the stupid, the dumb and just all the whatever….because I’ve had 25 years of loving, all the mistakes you make, all the worries you have. I just felt, well, just tell it as it is you know. Some are easy, some are really difficult, some don’t make it, some do, blah blah blah… But I thought this is just how I would do it. Inform the shy and the stupid, that was my plan. In fact it was going really well, everything was going really well and I had some publishers getting quite excited about it.
LORRAINE: I was going to ask if you’d thought about getting it published.
ALEX: I did a few readings. There’s a thing called The Book Club Boutique and there’s quite a ….I think they’re quite in the writing scene and they asked me to come down and read quite a bit and from them there was Beautiful Books. There was one publishing company that I heard were interested but I never push, which is one of my biggest downfalls. I never push myself and I never follow stuff up. But, then, after the hate mail I started getting …..the sex manual kind of lost it’s edge a little bit. I was scared because I got attacked on stage last year. Did you hear about this?
ALEX: I got a metal bar smashed around my head.
LORRAINE: Out of the blue?
ALEX: Yeah…out of the blue .After that, whereas before, when I read the sex manual, my writing could be crude but it’s truthful and the way I would present it to people, there wasn’t really any ever doubt that my heart was in the right place, the way I was saying it. But then after I got attacked, when I done it, I think suddenly it lost its…because I was so nervous, the way I started putting it out there wasn’t the same. So I don’t so the sex manual anymore.
LORRAINE: You do have some good advice in it, like not hovering over your girlfriend in a sex shop in a bid to coerce into buying some toy or other (Laughs)
ALEX: Which one? Yeah (Laughs) But my girlfriend has kind of reversed the whole sex manual and turned the sex manual on its head. If I’d have met her at the start Id have never written the sex manual.
LORRAINE: I was getting into Transporter and Horsebox too.
ALEX: Yeah, the greatest road game…
LORRAINE: I guessed it was to lessen the boredom on tour. Do you have a low boredom threshold, do you get easily bored and frustrated?
ALEX: Erm….I have..erm… well, you know when your brain wanders, a short attention span? But at the same time I don’t get bored easily because I create a lot. I am always writing, if I’m not playing guitar I’m writing or I’m drawing , designing T-shirts or skateboarding, so I don’t have any time to get bored, otherwise I probably would get bored easily.
LORRAINE: And you cook….there’s even recipes on your blog
ALEX: The Greek Special…
LORRAINE: What do you see yourself as foremost? writer, musician or singer?
ALEX: A skateboarder!
ALEX: Yeah, skateboarder first, then I always loved punk rock, but not as in what it stands for. I’ve never even liked the punk scene, but I’ve always liked the music, you know, the sound of the music. I like to write a tune, so I’m a songwriter, that’s what I am and a performer.
LORRAINE: Punk to me is an energy. You have that energy.
ALEX: I’m an artist.
LORRAINE: So how did Wonk Unit actually come about?
ALEX: Well, the long way round, The Flying Medallions back in the early 90s, a really good punk band
LORRAINE: You were the singer?
ALEX: Yeah, and, you can research what happened, we had a tour bus crash and people died and that was the end of The Medallions. After that didn’t really do anything for a while. I messed around with a few other bands but I think Wonk Unit has been going longer now I think. I think Wonk Unit has been going for at least 5 years, 5 or 6 years. Started a band as I hadn’t made music for a couple of years, didn’t know I was going to be punk. The drummer started playing a punky beat and I was like “This sounds good”. So I just formed it because I thought ..”Ok, I’m going to do this now purely for me. I’m not going to send out any CD’s, I’m not going to play the music game, you know, I’m not going to think anything about getting a deal, just play some shows and if it takes us anywhere that’s the way I’m going to go, but I’m not going to whore my soul out or do that”. So that’s what I did, so Wonk Unit. I just wanted to do some gigs, play some songs. I’ve travelled the world man, it’s brilliant!
LORRAINE: The line up when I saw you play recently at Loz’s Beerbelly all dayer, with Adam from The Apostates on drums and Mark on bass, is that a permanent line up?
ALEX: Wonk Unit always changes. Generally I am Wonk Unit. A Wonk Unit show can be spoken word, can be an acoustic show, but at the moment, this line up, we’ve had Adam now for about a year. Mark on bass we had a few years ago and he went away and has now come back. The guitarist that played on the Wonk Unit album, he just got arthritis in his hand so he can’t play anymore. Sometimes Duncan (Redmond) plays drums. Snuff are one of my biggest ever, my favourite ever punk rock band. I sort of met Duncan through The Medallions back years ago, but just when my old drummer left Wonk Unit a few years ago I thought I’ll email Duncan and ask if he wants to do it. Luckily enough he said he would do it, so that’s that, he’s done the album and if he can do the odd show or whatever that’s great. But Duncan’s a treat. When Duncan does it it’s like a treat for me because he’s busy with all his other bands.
LORRAINE: The latest album is a split album, Trolleys Thank You and Wonk Unit Saved My Life, can you explain a bit about that?
ALEX: Well Trolleys Thank You….first of all started…the name Trolleys Thank You came from an ex girlfriend of mine who used to go out and take photos of all her friends naked in the middle of the night yeah? They’d all go out, drink cider, go around the streets and she’d take snaps of them with their cans of Strongbow and their fags yeah? They’d be in Sainsburys car park and she’d put up a blog with all her little girly mates and one of the pictures was brilliant. It was just this girl, Fiona, sitting in a trolley in just a little pair of knickers, Benson, cider and she was just underneath a Sainsburys Trolley bay that said Trolleys Thank You. I loved that. I thought that photo was brilliant and was like “That’s the name of the album”. Then literally two weeks before the album went to press I phoned her up just to make sure it was still ok for us to use that photo and it turned out that some-one had stolen those photos from the blog and made a fake facebook profile with this girl with her breasts out, so she’d got a lot of crap from it, so she didn’t want us to use that photo, so that’s why I’m naked on the front cover, because I recreated it, or tried to. That was me on the way to Sainsburys car park, in the lift. So we did half the album with Duncan and then when Tommy, Tommy who was the Wonk Unit guitarist, then he got arthritis and he couldn’t play anymore, so I just finished it off with me and Adam, just did it ourselves. So that’s that.
LORRAINE: I read a short review which described the new album as “less aggressive” than your debut album, Flying The Japanese Flag and as more “crafted”. Would you agree with that? Are you less angry?
ALEX: I totally agree with that. The first album was three years of defiance and anger in song writing. Just like with me I was….I was…I’m super strong now, alright? Emotionally and stuff, because I come from the drink and the drugs and stuff, my song writing could tend to be a little bit…like..meek? and tortured. Whereas when I was writing the first Wonk Unit stuff, my stuff’s still kind of a bit dark but it was defiant. It was a “Fuck you”! So I’ve got all those bitter, angry “fuck you” songs out of the way. Then with the new album it was kind of “Yeah”, chilled out. A little bit more chilled and a lot of old material. Some of those songs on the new album, what’s it called? Trolleys Thank You. I mean some of those songs I wrote for The Medallions like, 15, no, 10 years ago. So there’s some brand new songs and some really old songs.
LORRAINE: Do you have a favourite track on the album?
LORRAINE: I love ‘Guts’ and ‘Different’.
ALEX: Oh yeah, I like ‘Different’. Different’s brilliant. ‘Back Of The Van’. Yes, Different’s good, I like ‘Different’.
LORRAINE: You come over as a confident and ‘out there’ person but also open hearted and honest, there’s still vulnerability. Are you a sensitive soul really?
ALEX: I mean, I’m as cocky and as confident…you know…I am tortured. I’m a tortured genius. Yeah… yeah (Wry smile). I am sensitive but at the same time, you know, you wouldn’t meet a more confident person.
LORRAINE: It’s not just for show?
ALEX: No, no. Because where I came from I was so broken, because I was…. Basically, I was messed up on sniff and drink.
LORRAINE: What age did you start?
ALEX: 13? But at 27 is when I sobered up. I burst a massive artery off my heart, through my heart and my lungs through gear. I was drowning in my own blood, into my own lungs and I had to have emergency corrective surgery. So when I came out of the surgery, after quite a few years of half hearted attempts at sobering up bullshit like that, and I was a mentalist, but every year of sobriety life gets better.
LORRAINE: How old are you?
ALEX: 38. So yeah, I think sobriety for me, it gives confidence. If you’re sober and you look at the world you can’t hide. You can’t shy away from anything. You know there’s never any release from anything, so you’ve just gotta face everything and I think that gives you a certain confidence.
LORRAINE: Your own writing covers every day issues with a healthy cynicism, humour, anger, sadness even. Who inspires you creatively?
ALEX: Writing, writing wise C. S. Lewis. I love the Narnia books. And when I discovered Charles Bukowski that was amazing. But I purposely have never read any of his poetry because, like his writing, when I first read Post Office, when I finished that book I’d never felt more inspired, ever, by anything, just because his writing was so straight and simple. It was brilliant. So Charles Bukowski when it comes to writing. But I’ve never tried to imitate his style. So writing, C. S. Lewis and Charles Bukowski. Musically I love early Bowie. When it comes to punk rock, back in the day, Black Flag. The Descendents were a huge inspiration to me. I don’t now really musically. When I write I don’t really draw inspiration from others.
LORRAINE: I saw recently that a friend had commented on facebook that the more he listened to your album the more he felt he was listening to the “sound track to his life”. How important to you is it that the audience can relate to your words?
ALEX: I write purely for me. I do the music for me. Everything, the performing, the writing, I do it for me. It’s my AA.
LORRAINE: If you weren’t writing or playing what do you think would be doing to express yourself?
ALEX: Designing clothes. Yeah. I love them. I love making T-shirts, well designing them. So I guess I would be…yeah…I might be painting and drawing and making T-shirts.
LORRAINE: With so many live venues closing down at the minute how easy or difficult do you personally find it to get gigs?
ALEX: I mean, we’ve been lucky, there’s always gigs and stuff. Also I’ve got an agent who books for me now anyway, up in Nottingham. So he books my shows like around the rest of the country and I just take whatever gigs. I will say we have decided we’re going to hit up London quite heavily for the rest of the year.
LORRAINE: Are you playing Rebellion this year?
ALEX: Yeah, but not with Wonk Unit, with the 5 Shitty Fingers, which is our folk, morris dancing, punk band. I’m the front man for the 5 Shitty Fingers.
LORRAINE: What do you do to chill out, who do you listen to?
ALEX: Who do I listen to? I don’t! I don’t really listen to music. If I have any spare time then I’ll be out skateboarding or I’ll be doing some writing.
LORRAINE: Who or what, if anything, do you hate in the world right now?
ALEX: ……I hate…..erm….the punks in Bristol. Specifically this man called Ben who fronts a band called Spanner. Apparently he’s the perpetrator of all the shit that’s been coming at us. I have to say I don’t ‘hate’ anyone but that geezer’s tried to ruin my life.
LORRAINE: What makes you happy?
ALEX: My girlfriend Aoife. Skateboarding. I love it when I feel inspired by a new song and have a breakthrough, I never force writing. So skateboarding makes me happy and a good book. A nice dinner, just sunshine, simple stuff.
LORRAINE: Why are dinosaurs wankers? It’s a popular T-shirt!
ALEX: I came up with that years ago when The Flying Medallions were happening and it when Jurassic Park first came out and I worked at MCA records and the sound track for Reservoir Dogs…actually…where am I going? Yes, the sound track, no sorry, Jurassic Park came out, that’s right. The Flying Medallions were doing the rounds, we made a flyer and I said “Jurassic Park. Dinosaurs are wankers” Yes.
LORRAINE: So what next for yourself and the band?
ALEX: I think we’re going to focus on London and I’ve already written….actually the nest thing is we’re going to do a vinyl. We’re going to release an EP or maybe a 7”. Can you get four songs on a 7”? Is that how it works? I dunno, but the next thing is we’re gonna do a vinyl release which is going to be a song called ‘Elbows’, which is in honour of the ‘Elbows’ poem, which is because when I did that poem I got a bar around my head. And the ‘Elbows’ poem went like this...Elbows on the tube
Because I didn’t know that you’re not allowed to use the word “poof”. It’s nothing against…..it’s not even about “poofs”. But the American person that heard that decided to put a bar around my head because he thought I was attacking homosexuals.
LORRAINE: He sounds a nice pacifist!
ALEX: Oh yeah. He barged through two children to attack me. The Anarchists, they were the queer anarchists in San Francisco. They did a worldwide hate campaign calling for direct action against “Nazi front man Alex Johnson” Yeah…….that was good…..
LORRAINE: You certainly haven’t had the easiest of times.
ALEX: Oh last year was amazing.
LORRAINE: Thank you Alex.
ALEX: Thank you Lorraine. You know that’s the first interview I’ve ever done for Wonk Unit.