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Repomen - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 28 / 8 / 2011

Repomen - Interview


Denzil Watson, the frontman with Sheffield indie act RepoMen, speaks to John Clarkson about their new compilation album, ‘Occasional Sensations: A Retrospective Long Player’

A massive electrical sub-station is possibly Sheffield’s most controversial building, and has both admirers and detractors in equal measure. There are some locals who see the sub-station, which is situated in Moore Street, with its concrete slabs and lack of visible entrance, as the epitome of Brutalism, the architectural movement developed by Alison and Peter Smithson in the 1950s, and then enhanced by Le Corbusier, the always provocative French architect, in the 1960s. Others, however, see the sub-station as simply monstrous, and it has been frequently nominated as “Sheffield’s ugliest building.” Local group RepoMen have often focused on the abstract and the unusual in their choice of sleeves. Their 2002 third CD EP, ‘Save Yourself/Lauren Bacall’, had engrained on it a picture of a broken-into-pieces religious statue. Their 2006 sixth release, ‘Dietrich’, about a break-in involving a Dietrich key, had a photograph of the young Marlene Dietrich on its sleeve, and 2008’s seventh EP, ‘Star’, which was about the elusiveness of fame, that of a toddler toying with a miniature guitar. RepoMen’s new compilation album, ‘Occasional Sensations: A Retrospective Long Player’, features on its front cover a photograph of the Moore Street building. Shot at night by the group’s front man Denzil Watson, an enthusiastic photographer, and illuminated in blue, it looks oddly, enigmatically beautiful. “We were deciding upon the title, and there is a line in ‘Star’ which makes reference to ‘occasional sensation,’” says Watson to Pennyblackmusic in our third interview with RepoMen. “We thought that it fitted us quite well because, while perhaps we are bigging ourselves up a little, the occasional bit at least is right anyway!” he laughs. “We thought about what would fit the bill of ‘occasional sensations’, and this building came to mind. During the day it is a big, drab, grey thing, and now it has become one of these living art things where they light it up at night, and it comes to life in the evening.” RepoMen first formed in 1990 in their original line-up of Watson (vocals, keyboards); Ric Bower (guitar, keyboards, backing vocals); Simon Tiller(bass, backing vocals) and Jason Wragg (drums). They self-released two cassette only EPs, ‘Omen’ in 1991 and ‘Burst’ in 1992, before splitting up later on that year. Since reforming tentatively in 1996 and permanently in 1999, they have maintained a regular line-up with James Hughes replacing Wragg on drums, and “honorary Repo” Howard Price making occasional appearances on trumpet. Whilst maintaining a cult status in Sheffield, RepoMen have remained a largely elusive presence elsewhere. Their twenty odd year career has, however, seen many highlights. Their home town headline shows have drawn them consistent audiences, and they have played support dates to the Undertones, Puressence and chart breaking local indie legends Little Man Tate, both in London at the 100 Club in 2007 and also at their farewell gig at Sheffield’s O2 Academy in 2009. Alongside this, RepoMen have, since they reformed, released nine CD EPs. The first four EPs- ‘Lights Out/She’s in Love’ (2000), ‘Reel Me Cuber/Eyes on the Road’ (2001), ‘Save Yourself/Lauren Bacall’ (2002) and ‘Moonlight Driving/The Finest Line’ (2003)-had “double A sided” electric tracks and “acoustic B sides”. ‘Out of Here’ (2004) and ‘Dietrich’ (2005), which was the first to feature Price, were the last on the band’s own RepoRecords. After this and for their most recent three EPs –‘Star’ (2008), ‘Parallel Schizophrenic’ (2009) and ‘Headlines’ (2010) - they have switched to Watson’s own Phantom Power Records. There has also been a split 7” single with a local garage rock act Screaming Mimi, ‘Trophy’ (2006), the first release of Phantom Power Records, and an album, ‘Songs They Never Play On the Radio’ (also 2006). Over the years, RepoMen have moved far beyond their pop-punk Buzzcocks and Orange Juice-influenced roots, and incorporated into their sound elements of indie pop, Americana, hardcore and Brian Eno-inspired and other experimentalism. Their last record, ‘Headlines’, is a sombre brass-laden record reminiscent of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Specials that looks with desperate anger at the increasingly chaotic world situation. ‘Occasional Sensations’, which runs to twenty tracks, features songs from all of RepoMen’s releases in its present line-up. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Denzil Watson about it and his group. PB: Why have you decided to release ’Occasional Sensations’ now and at this stage in the RepoMen’s career? DW: We have done about ten years of work, and were originally going to reissue everything that we had put out via iTunes. We then decided, however, that it would be better and probably more effective to do a compilation album and a “best of”, rather than to re-release each individual EP. PB: Why did you ignore with ‘Occasional Sensations’ the material from your first two cassette-only EPs from the early 1990s, and concentrate instead on what you have done from ‘Lights Out/She’s in Love’ onwards? DW: We see the periods before and after we got back together as two different bands in many ways. Those early songs wouldn’t have sat that comfortably with the newer material. We have become better musicians and songwriters, and also have learnt to record properly. PB: You must have about fifty songs in your song book now. Was it difficult in light of that paring it down to just twenty and deciding what we was going to go on and not go on the compilation? DW: Not really. Every song on there is up to a particular standard. There are some songs that didn’t make the compilation because they are more experimental and were the B sides of EPs. There are also some songs that, while we liked them, we didn’t feel that we had done a good enough job of recording them for them to appear on there. PB: You have put an emphasis on ‘Occasional Sensations’ on your recent rather than earlier EPs. That is unusual for a compilation because most people tend to highlight the earlier material because that is what they are trying to resell. The first four CD EPs were all double A-sided EPs yet ‘Occasional Sensations’ features just one each of those A sides. Why did you do that? DW: About halfway through the ten year period and from our sixth EP ‘Dietrich’ onwards, we started recording at a studio in Sheffield called 2Fly, and everything that has come out of there we have been really happy with. 2Fly has set the standard in terms of recording and arrangements and production. Every track we have recorded there has made it onto the compilation, apart from an acoustic track here and there. We really wanted to just put together our best recordings on this album. PB : RepoMen have been together off and on for over twenty years, and permanently for the last fifteen years. Why do you think that you have stayed together as long as you have? DW: We have always shared the same goals. They have never been unattainable, so we have never felt that we have failed. We do it because we enjoy writing songs and playing live. The enjoyment factor has never disappeared. We have also not lived in each other’s pockets. A lot of bands fall out because they have been shoved in a tranny van three or four months of the year, and they drive each other up the wall. There was never that pressure. We are as much friends as we are band members really. We have also always been the tortoise rather than the hare. As we have all got day jobs, we are very much our own masters really. We are able to do what we want and how we want. Whenever we do something, we do because it we want to and because we have got the time to. PB: When Pennyblackmusic last interviewed you back in 2004, Ric and yourself lived in Sheffield, Simon was in Manchester and James in Leeds. Is that still the case? DW: Yes, very much so. PB: How do you get around that that with regards to recording and gigs? DW: We try not over gig. We pick our gigs and space them, and have a rolling practice once a week, which is always in Sheffield. We never do more than one night a week, and if one of us can’t make it - if Simon or James, for example, can’t come over - we might do an acoustic gig or rehearsal instead. We just keep ticking things over like that. PB: Ric used to write the songs and bring them to the band to develop. Is that still the way it works? DW: Ric still does most of the writing. I chip in now and again and occasionally we write things together, but it is mainly Ric who comes up with most of the songs. PB: A lot of the RepoMen’s songs such as ‘She’s in Love’, ‘Lauren Bacall’, ‘She Lies’ and ‘Violet ’are about unrequited love and love gone wrong. You are not a band that does love songs with happy endings, are you? DW: No (Laughs). Ric as a songwriter tends to write about things outside of himself. He is happily married with kids, and they are certainly not a reflection of his situation (Laughs). He tends to write little vignettes from the third person rather than the first person. I don’t write many songs myself because he is such a good songwriter. He hasn’t got many words to play with, and yet he manages to put together these really interesting tales. I think that is a real gift. PB: ‘Dietrich’ is about a burglary interrupted by a suicide, while ‘Trophy’ is about one of the victims of the Hurricane Katrina who turned abuser upon another richer victim of the hurricane. Is it true that they are both stories that Ric found in a newspaper? DW: Yes. Often newspaper stories will stick in his mind and then he will use them. ‘Headlines’, which was about Nega Agha Soltani, a woman who was murdered on an Iranian political rally in 2009, was again a news story that interested him. He often just picks upon these really offbeat stories and then adapts them. PB: Since 2006 all the RepoMen records have come out on your own Phantom Power Records. Before then they came out on the band’s RepoRecords. The first record on Phantom Power Records was a 2006 split single between RepoMen and Screaming Mimi upon which RepoMen did ‘Trophy’. Was the intention of Phantom Power Records always to release records by other people as well? DW: Yeah, RepoRecords was just a label of convenience really for our own recordings. Phantom Power Records’ aim was to act as a focus for Sheffield’s indie groups. We released records by various Sheffield groups including the Interiors, Artery and Screaming Mimi, and also did a compilation in 2007 called ‘Anthem from the Phantom’ for local acts. I have got a lot less time now, and the general public aren’t buying things in physical form, so I haven’t done releases by anyone else in a while. I won’t say that I won’t release records by other bands. It is just a question of time and place. If the time and place is right, then I will, but for now Phantom Power Records is fairly exclusively for RepoMen. PB: ‘Tonight’, RepoMen’s track from ‘Anthems for the Phantom’, was about a dying man trying to make peace with himself, but also finding new life for his loved ones. That must have quite a difficult song to perform because your own father was terminally ill at that time. DW: It is a Ric lyric. I wasn’t aware what that song was initially about (Laughs). In fact I found out about it when we were putting the press release together. We haven’t actually played it that much live because it is quite a difficult one to play. It has never really been an issue though, as much from ignorance than anything on my part (Laughs). PB: ‘Headlines’, your last EP, moved away from the narrative to the political. All three of the songs that you have chosen from that EP-‘Flicker’, ‘What We Do’ and ‘Headlines’ itself- tackle the world picture and oppressive regimes like Burma. It is your darkest and most sombre EP to date. Do you see this as a one-off or a direction that you will move further into the future? DW: What we tend to do is write a stack of songs and then we pick the best ones and put them on an EP. Ric wrote ‘Headlines’ which is about Iran. I wrote the lyrics to ‘What We Do’, which was about the protests in Burma, and as a band we wrote ‘Flicker’, which was inspired by an item on the news about the border people trying to keep people in Mexico. It was just a coincidence really. It is not going to be a new direction for us though. We have recorded the three main tracks for the next EP and they are a lot more poppy. I wouldn’t say they were lightweight, but they are a lot more light-hearted in their focus. PB: When will that EP come out? DW: Hopefully later this year. We have got the three lead tracks done. It is going to be like a mini-album in some ways. We have just got to finish off the acoustic numbers which we are recording ourselves at home. There will probably be three of those as well. PB: Do you have a title for it yet? DW: It is going to probably be called the ‘Priceless’ EP. Howard Price, who plays occasional trumpet and other instruments for us, unfortunately wasn’t able to come to the recording sessions as he was moving at the time. On the last EP he, however, featured quite a lot. Ric thought as a joke, “Let’s call it ‘The Priceless EP’. That is the working title. It may change, so we will see if that transpires. PB: Who is Howard Price? He is listed sometimes as a “honorary Repo.” DW: He is a very talented musician from Sheffield who plays in the Balor Knights. He has played on a few things for us, and plays occasionally live when it suits him and when it suits us. PB: You list some of the group’s collective highlights on the sleeve notes on ‘Occasional Sensations’. Do you have a personal favourite memory? DW: I guess supporting Little Man Tate at the O2 Academy in Sheffield at their last ever gig because it was packed to the rafters and it was the biggest crowd that we have and will ever play to. That was the biggest stage and biggest sound we have ever had. PB: You have got ‘The Priceless EP’ coming out, but you are also thinking about doing another compilation, aren’t you? DW: We have got some decent live recordings and demos. There are some tracks that haven’t got onto ‘Occasional Sensations’ that aren’t currently available for download. Later this year we are also are going to release a digital-only 10-track live LP and then next year do a 15-track mop-up compilation called 'Distant Shimmers'. The immediate paln though is to finish the EP off later this year and then start writing another set of songs for the EP after that. PB: You seem to have got no intention of stopping, do you? DW: It is getting more difficult to get four of us in the same place at the same time as we are all parents now. We will have to see what happens, but I think we’ll probably keep going for some time to come yet. It is quite funny. Yesterday we went over to Simon’s house with all our kids, and we were joking that we’ll put our instruments down when our Repo Star Juniors can take up the mantle. PB: Thank you.

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