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Repomen - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 22 / 7 / 2015

Repomen - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to Denzil Watson, the front man with durable Sheffield indie act RepoMen about 'Occasional Sensations', which is a documentary film about them, and their recent album, ‘I’m Only Doing This Because I Like Your Robot’

Somebody once described us in a review as a terminal support band,” says Denzil Watson at one point in the recent documentary film ‘Occasional Sensations: A Short History of RepoMen’, which follows his band RepoMen over the course of a year. He pauses for a moment in thought. His mouth spreads into a wide grin and he explodes into laughter. “And guess what? We are. This band is a terminal support band….” Watson (lead vocals, keyboards) formed RepoMen, who are now officially Sheffield’s longest-serving indie rock band, with the group’s main songwriter Ric Bower (guitar, keyboards) in 1991 after the two met when Watson placed an advert about forming a band in a local music shop window. They were joined shortly afterwards by Simon Tiller (bass, vocals) and then, after original drummer Jason Wragg had quit, in 1998 by James Hughes (drums). RepoMen have never attracted much attention in the music press, despite playing support slots to well-received bands such as the Undertones, Six by Seven and Little Man Tate and also several of their own headline shows each year in their native Sheffield. Even in Sheffield they remain a small cult act. Yet since 1999 they have self-released, usually on Watson’s own label Phantom Power records, twelve EPs; a 2011 compilation also called ‘Occasional Sensations’, and two studio albums, ‘Songs They Never Play on the Radio’ (2006) and last year’s ‘I’m Only Doing This Because I Like Your Robot’. They have also expanded far beyond their early punk roots, incorporating elements of Americana, pop, folk and post-rock into their music. The sixteen-track ‘I’m Only Doing This Because I Like Your Robot’ highlights this diversity. There are eight songs from their previous three EPs, ‘Priceless’, ‘My Fantasy’ and ‘Vapour Trails’; four brief ‘Interludes’ and short instrumental tracks composed by Bower, and four new songs. Amongst the new songs there is clever wordplay on the alternative rock of ‘Lewis, Lewis’, a tribute to the late Lou Reed (“I took a shock/I took a cue/I took my aim at the city and the underground”), while ‘King of the Tunnel’ is a menacing and creepy-sounding post-punk number. ‘Dry Land’ is an epic-in-length, scorched number heavily dominated by keyboards. It tells of the battle between two neighbouring landowners for the ownership of a river between their properties, but acts as a wider metaphor for the selfishness of the capitalist world (“I kneel and I drink with cupped hands/I empty bottles on hot sand/I love my neighbour’s dam.”). ‘Swamp’ in contrast again is a savage-paced and breathless surf number which barely lasts ninety seconds. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Denzil Watson about ‘I’m Only Doing This Because I Like Your Robot’; the ‘Occasional Sensations’ film and the longevity of his band. PB: You have all got families and day jobs. Is it tough sometimes keeping the band going on top of all your other commitments? DW: It can be really, really difficult sometimes, not just me but for everyone. You have got to configure yourself with three other individuals, two of whom aren’t in Sheffield. Simon lives in Stockport now and James is between Leeds and Bradford, so it can be really, really difficult. PB: The ‘Occasional Sensations’ documentary implies that friendship has been the main reason why RepoMen have lasted so long. Do you think the fact that you have always had modest rather than spectacular success and, therefore, have been allowed to develop at your own rather than a record company’s pace has also been a factor? DW: It is that thing, isn’t it? If you set off with very high and unrealistic objectives and don’t meet them, then seen yourselves as a failure and you think, “Well, let’s give the band up.” Our objectives have always been very modest in that we want to enjoy playing live and recording and making music, and we still enjoy both of those things. We set objectives which are, to a certain extent, within our control. We see being able to play eight or ten shows a year to more than a man and his dog and to have produced all the EPs and albums that we have done as a success. Of course, we would love to play the O2. Of course, we would love to sell loads of the album, but for most groups that doesn’t happen. We are all in the same situation. We all have at least two kids each. We have this sort of unspoken agreement that we do stuff when we can. We try to get together once a week, but that doesn’t always work out and it probably ends up being every second week. PB: How did this idea of the ‘Occasional Sensations’ documentary come about? It is a very well-made film. DW: During the Christmas of 2013 I had a text from Andy Brown who has taken pictures of the band and is a friend of the group, and he said, “How would you feel about us making a documentary about you?” And I replied and I went, “Sure, if you want to make a documentary about four 40-somethings living out their pop dreams, yeah, great (Laughs).” He is a photographer and he was looking with his friend Nathan Gibson to get into making films. It is their first feature. PB: How long did it actually take to make? DW: They followed us around for the best part of a year. They came to our practice room. They came to the studio when we recorded. They came to various gigs. They got a lot of footage. God knows how they managed to get it down to fifteen minutes. PB: Why did you decide to call your album ‘I am Only Doing This because I Like Your Robot’? It is what might be described as an unconventional title. DW: Yeah, it is. It is, isn’t it? We always tie the title in with the picture we use on the sleeve. I am a keen photographer, and we often use one of my photos. I came up with one that I really liked. I had this really great aerial picture that I took from a plane over Iran, and I wanted to call it ‘Iranian Terrain’. It may well resurface, but the rest of the band vetoed it as being too pretentious (Laughs). ‘I am Only Doing This because I Like Your Robot’ is a ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ reference. It was Ric who came up with that, and he said, “Well, find a picture for that,” and I was like “Well, funnily enough.” There had been this fair in Sheffield, and they had all these fair rides including this really quirky one with robots on. I didn’t even have my professional camera with me. I just took it on my camera phone, never intending it to be used for an album sleeve. It fitted the resume though and the quality was good enough. PB: You did the ‘Occasional Sensations’ compilation in 2011. Other than that, this is actually the first time that you have done an album since ‘Songs That They Never Play on the Radio’ in 2006. Like that album, it consists of several new songs and then some old songs from previous EPs. Why did you decide to do an album this time instead of what would have been your thirteenth EP? DW: Sometimes EPs fall in between the cracks, don’t they? A lot of bands don’t tend to release anything for three or four years and then they record an album, but we obviously release something every year. The old songs all come from the three EPs, ‘Priceless’, ‘My Fantasy’ and ‘Vapour Trails’, all of which we had recorded since the ‘Occasional Sensations’ compilation, and we just wanted to give them a second airing. All the tracks were recorded at the same studio, 2Fly Studios, in Sheffield, and we thought that that we could get the four new songs to hang together with the old songs and that we would do an album on this occasion. PB: Eight of the tracks come from those three EPs. There are several other tracks that appear on those EPs as well. What was the criteria for settling on the tracks that you did end up choosing? DW: It was just what worked best for the collection. We looked at the four new tracks we had recorded, and fitted the old songs around them. Ric also had these ‘Interludes’ knocking around, these tiny little instrumental pieces of a minute or so, which he wanted to use. He thought that they would be a way of segueing one song to another, and we chose four of them and tried that, and those seemed to work as well. PB: ‘Lewis Lewis’ is a tribute to Lou Reed. How long after his death was that written? DW: He died in October 2013 ,and we were writing material shortly after that to record the following June, and decided to do a tribute. Luke Haines did one called ‘Lou Reed, Lou Reed’, and it was very much “Lou Reed, Lou Reed, Lou Reed,” and so we decided to go to the opposite extreme. Ours is very wordy with lots of obscure references. Both Ric and I are big Velvet Underground and Lou Reed fans. The whole band is really, but Ric is particularly knowledgeable. He really took up the challenge. They are his lyrics. There are so many references in there. If you are Lou Reed fan or connoisseur, there is a lot of stuff that you might spot in there. It is lyrically one of Ric’s best works. It is very, very clever and very quirky. PB: A lot of your songs are narrative in tone. What is the story behind ‘King of the Tunnel’? DW: There is a big Victorian culvert under the River Don. A couple of friends and I got our waders on and we went under there. It is pretty amazing. I was showing Ric some photos of it, and that inspired him to write that lyric. That is where he got that from. PB: ‘Dry Land’ absolutely breaks new ground for you. It is like nothing that you have done before. DW: You try and be modest about your own songs, but I had no expectation that it would come out that good. It is our ‘Riders on the Storm’ in a way. It is very different. It is very bluesy. It is very laid back and it is very long, one of the biggest pieces that we have done. PB: While Dry Land’ is epic and lasts about five and a half minutes, ‘Swamp’, the final new song, in contrast is very short. It lasts barely a minute and a half. Was the aim of doing that to balance out ‘Dry Land’ by being as different as possible? DW: No. It just came out like that. It is very much a surf number. It is about a guy on amphetamines getting in a car and driving around like a maniac. It is all about an artificial, quick high and, therefore, needed to be short. PB: What are you working on now? Is it an EP? DW: Yeah, it is an EP, a four track EP. We tend to take it a year at a time. That is why usually do EPs. The lead track is going to be called ‘Path of Least Resistance’, which is quite Pop Group-ish and has a punk tempo. Then there are a couple of almost waltz-like songs (Laughs). One of them is about growing old and your mind going and trying to make conversation when the memory is starting to go. It is pretty melancholic really. The last track is this manic assault jam, which we managed to tie down in the studio when we recorded it the other week. PB: Are you still enjoying doing RepoMen as much as ever? DW: Yeah, very much so. You do think, “I have put all this energy in and only forty people have turned up to this gig.” Then you think, “If I wasn’t doing this, I would really miss it,” and that is more the mindset that you need to be in. Some of us are approaching fifty now, and that is old in terms of the indie genre in which we are working. We are not trying to be famous and we are still enjoying it. I always remember getting to my fortieth birthday and thinking, “That is it. I am not going to do it anymore. Forty is an age that I should be retiring from this”, and then I thought, “Well, that is stupid. If you enjoy it, just keep going.” We work to our own terms and at our own pace. We are not big by any means, but I think that people still respect us and those people who do come to the gigs and buy the EPs and albums do seem to like them. The main thing is that you enjoy doing it and listening to your own music. If you don’t enjoy listening to your own music, how can you expect anyone to? PB: Thank you. The top photograph was taken by Jodie Booth and th middle photograph by Denzil Watson and James Hughes.

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Repomen - Interview

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