First published in March 2013 in ‘The Ripple’, the University of Leicester student magazine, http://the-ripple.co.uk/2013/03/15/the-cribs-interview/:
Words: Aidan Rylatt. Interview: Aidan Rylatt and Alexander French.
The Cribs, since emerging with their debut album in 2004, have gradually become one of the best and most loved British guitar bands around. With five albums to their name and a greatest hits collection, Payola, having been released at the beginning of March, The Cribs are bigger than ever before. Of course, for a band as principled and idealistic as The Cribs, this presents problems in its own right – opposition to the commercialisation of music has been an abiding motif of their message to fans. The Ripple phoned lead-singer/bassist Gary Jarman at his home in Portland, USA to get his thoughts on where The Cribs stand after a decade of existence as a band.
In the Belly of the Brazen Bull, the band’s fifth and latest album, has been a talking point partly because it is the first to be recorded by the classic three-piece Cribs line-up – consisting of Gary and his brothers Ryan (singer/guitarist), and Ross (drummer) – since the departure of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr after just one album as part of the band (2009’s Ignore the Ignorant). Asked about the reaction to the record Jarman was enthusiastic, saying how happy he was with the critical reception and that it had entered the Top 10 of the charts. It soon became apparent, however, that one of the most positive aspects of the new album for him was returning to the three-piece line-up.
Did the recording process feel different as a three-piece again? “We never used to think that – when people used to ask when Johnny was in the band, “Was it weird making this record?”, we’d be like, “No, it was just like any other record.” But actually, once Johnny left, the writing of this record felt exactly like when the band first started. So I think really, what it did was to just add context to what the fourth record was, which was a collaboration record, really.
“Writing this record, it was really fast and really fun; we did a lot of it in my basement in Portland and we did some of it in Ross’s garage in Wakefield [the band’s Yorkshire hometown], and I think that just that element of writing and recording at home has always been what we enjoy the most. I like the idea of, rather than going somewhere like a studio specifically to work, I like the idea of, you all hang out together and you play when you feel like it. Between me and my brothers we’d decided we wanted to go back to something a bit more raw, but with Johnny in the band we had to allow for his vision too. He works quite differently to me and my brothers, he’s less about doing things live and more about building things up, so it felt like a very different process”.
It also quickly becomes clear that the departure of Marr re-cemented Jarman’s sense of his place in the band. He often seems to be choosing his words carefully and is clear to emphasise that he enjoyed having Marr in the band and respects him as a friend and musician – but, still, the abiding impression was that he felt liberated by the return to The Cribs as a Jarman-only line-up. His answer to a question on how the live set-up differs now is hugely revealing: “It actually has the greatest impact on me because when Johnny was in the band Ryan was set-up in the middle of the stage… [so] Ryan had this new dynamic with Johnny, which I didn’t have, because I was over on stage-left and there was Ryan between me and Johnny.
“Obviously Johnny got a lot of attention and Ryan gets the majority of the attention in the band anyway, and so for me it was such a weird situation as the lead-singer – which I am the lead-singer on at least half the tracks when we play live – I was seen as almost an auxiliary member at that point. My ego doesn’t give a shit about that, it’s more just… now that Johnny’s not there it kind-of makes more sense because I have that dynamic with my brother again. I also have, for want of a better word, my ‘status’ back within the band – I’m the singer again. With Johnny getting a lot of attention and Ryan getting a lot of attention, if I’d have been really going for it on stage it would have looked like I was a desperate child looking for attention. I felt really uncomfortable about that and because I didn’t want to seem like I was trying to get attention, I became very receptive on those tours… now it’s sort-of freed me up to be myself again a bit”.
Speaking with Jarman, it is apparent that he’s not your average rock star – more thoughtful, more erudite, and more principled than most. Johnny Marr himself recently spoke of his anger at the political apathy of today’s musicians and this is perfectly in keeping with his status as an ex-member of The Cribs. In today’s “we don’t feel qualified to talk about that sort-of thing” timidity of bands, the Jarman brothers stand apart as a band with clear principles – as well as their anti-commercialism, they have regularly spoken out on feminist issues. Asked about this, Jarman is keen to emphasise that party politics is not something the band are keen to involve themselves with. “Our politics are more to do with our ethics really. It was hard for us, particularly when the third record (Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever) came out really, and we started to cross-over. Because the style of music that we were associated with had become so commercially viable at that point, I think that we picked up a lot of fans who were…..”. At this point Jarman trails off, perhaps keen not to be seen to be criticising fans of the band, but when he elaborates, his discomfort at the views of some of the fans gained as the band has become more commercially successful is evident.
“But my issue, and I think this was an issue for all of us too, was to do with the fact that the genre, whatever the pigeonhole was, had become more commercially viable and I found you started getting people in at the gigs who were the sort of people that we felt we didn’t have a great deal in common with. We toured with a lot of all-female bands and stuff like that and I would sometimes see displays of sexism or chauvinism towards them from factions of the audience, people who wanted to show up to our gigs and get drunk and slam-dance.
“It really bothered me and the reason why it bothered me was because it was so far away from where we came from which was a very all-inclusive scene where that wasn’t even a consideration. So it seemed like such a regressive thing. You’re now playing bigger venues and you’re struggling with the idea that you couldn’t necessarily take bands on tour with you that you really liked because you were scared of what they might be exposed to. That doesn’t go away but that’s just the way that it is and it took a few of my friends who’ve been in bands for years out here [in Portland] to help me contextualise that. You do feel a degree of guilt and responsibility as if you’ve brought it on by your actions and that somehow we’d started to attract that yobbish element. The thing that we always tried to give off was a very different message to that. Even with a lot of the songs from the third record, they’re quite self-explanatory”.
Asked whether he felt that some of the band’s songs were misunderstood by fans, Jarman replies with a clear, “Definitely – and I’m not trying to paint myself as a protest singer because I’m not but there’s a certain degree of irony, like with the sort of audience I was talking about before, that would heckle a band like The Slits [which happened when the all-female punk/reggae group supported The Cribs on a 2009 tour], and then we would come out and play [2007 single] ‘Men’s Needs’ and have a chorus of these people singing, “Men’s needs are lost on me”. And you’re just like, I don’t think you have necessarily paid a great deal of attention to what you’re singing right now, you know? But the perversity of that’s kind-of entertaining in a way. It’s better than it being mundane I suppose. It keeps us from being complacent”.
These progressive principles have also impacted on the band’s sound – initially their anti-commercialism fed into their determination to record albums in as lo-fi a manner as possible. It has been remarked before that in terms of production the self-titled first album, though great in its own right, sounded a bit like it was recorded in a tin can. It was only with second album The New Fellas, and, particularly, third album Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever, that their sound became more accessible. This was actually as much to do with their choice of producers than anything else.
The New Fellas, for example, was produced by Edwyn Collins, ex-lead-singer of Orange Juice: “He was the first person that ever tried to produce us really, and he was very much the first person who tried to make us believe that we could do more than just be a lo-fi band, because a lot of the scene that we came from and a lot of the bands that we looked up to were actually very obscure and on quite an underground and small level really. So Edwyn was the first person who tried to make us realise that it’s not too bad to look outside that, because his band Orange Juice, they came from that world, and then he went on to have some kind of crossover success”.
This progression continued on Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever, which was produced by Franz Ferdinand lead-singer Alex Kapranos: “He took it further because he’s had massive mainstream success, and Alex had a great deal of belief in the band, he really loved the band and he wanted us to have the same sort of mainstream success as what he had. We toured America together, and he really liked some of the new stuff, and he liked some of the old songs. I don’t really like saying it because it makes it sound like you’re blowing your own trumpet, but he just thought we were a good pop band that hid behind noise a lot of the time, and so he tried to peel away those layers a little bit and let the songs shine through”.
Since then, The Cribs have developed into one of Britain’s best bands and In the Belly of the Brazen Bull proves that they’re just as relevant today as they ever have been. Asked to reflect on their discography, Jarman selects their debut as the one he’s most proud of, “because for me it felt like the most perfectly realised record. When we made the first record, we made exactly the record we wanted to make at the time. I feel like the second record is the one that the fans like the best and I know the third record is probably the one that’s most popular, it sold the most, but to me it’s possibly my least favourite because of that. I just got so used to the songs at that point”. But, he decides, “the new one’s my favourite one. I always feel like the new one’s the best because otherwise I wouldn’t keep doing it”.
Asked for any memories of playing in Leicester, Jarman brought up the now-defunct venue the Charlotte, and revealed that the band once shot footage for a video there. The band’s set at the O2 Academy shortly after we spoke epitomised the appeal of The Cribs, full of the band’s trademark energy, passion, and, of course, fantastic songs. That they are now a band so established that they have just released a greatest hits is a fact to warm the hearts of those who still want their favourite bands to be something they can believe in. Long live The Cribs.