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Buzzcocks - Interview with Steve Diggle

  by Denzil Watson

published: 26 / 11 / 2022

Buzzcocks - Interview with Steve Diggle

It’s been a testing few years for Manchester punk veterans Buzzcocks. After the sad passing of co-frontman Pete Shelley from a suspected heart attack at his home in Tallinn, Estonia back in December 2018, Steve Diggle announced that Buzzcocks would continue, post-Shelley, in a new era for the band. A year later, just after they’d found their feet, returned to touring and released their double-A-sided single ‘Gotta Get Better’/ ‘Destination Zero’, COVID struck in Spring 2020, bringing everything to an abrupt halt. Lockdown saw the band’s remaining original member, guitarist and co-frontman, Steve Diggle writing for the new album ‘Sonics in the Soul’. With the album just out and a full UK tour to follow, Pennyblackmusic caught up with Steve to find him in a very positive frame of mind to discuss, amongst other things, the album’s realisation, the impact of losing his long-time bandmate and the problems deciding on a Buzzcocks’ set list. Pennyblackmusic: I noticed that they just unveiled the Pete Shelley memorial mural in his hometown of Leigh, Lancashire, yesterday. Do you still feel as though the ghost of Pete is with you, looking over your shoulder? Steve Diggle: I think it's a wonderful thing. I mean, it's a difficult thing because it brings back a lot of emotions as we were together for 43 years. But I think it's a wonderful tribute and he deserves that. PB: And it really caught the lightness of him well, didn't it? SD: Yes, they've done a good job doing it. It's been four years now. It was very emotional the first two years and then you kind of have to move on a little bit, you know? It feels like he’s still there somewhere. I mean, we spent both of our lives together really. So it’s very sad, but you can't keep dwelling on the past as you’ve got to look to the future as well. PB: Did you ever talk about if one of you passes away, whether the other person would carry on with the band? SD: Funnily enough, at one of the last shows we did, he came to my room and we were having a drink out on the balcony and he said that he was thinking of leaving [the band] as he has a house in Tallinn and retiring. And then a few shows later, he said the same thing. And I said “You’re not leaving yet, we’ve still got a lot of things to do.” There were two shows after that and then we all went home for Christmas. And then I got the telephone call from our manager telling me that he’d died. It was almost like he was saying his blessing and then leaving. PB: Looking at the band, with Chris [Remington] on the bass and Danny [Farrant] on the drums, you've been together as a unit since 2008, with Pete. Was it really an easy decision to carry on? SD: Well, we had the Albert Hall booked for a Buzzcocks gig and Pete died a few months before. We had some other shows booked too, so we played the Albert Hall gig as a memorial tribute thing for Pete and then we played the other shows that were booked, so it was kind of a knee-jerk reaction to it all. We were just all shocked. So we thought “Let's just put our heads down and carry on”. It was difficult to make a decision. We weren’t thinking of anything like that because of the emotional thing of him dying. So we thought, “OK, we’ll do these gigs”. We also had a wonderful gig on a boat, so we did that too. It was like a rock’n’roll boat. PB: You know, it's funny you mention that boat gig as one of my friends went on that cruise and met you and talked to you and told me what a wonderful bloke you were. SD: I loved everybody on that cruise. We got to know everybody and we spent most of the time at the bar and not much time in the cabin. PB: I think my friend said he locked you out on deck at one point by mistake! SD: [Laughs] It was a wonderful atmosphere on that boat. You know, it was just so wonderful. From memory, nobody wanted to leave and go home. We were like one big family and we knew each other. After Pete’s death, my manager said “Do you want to do the Steve Diggle solo thing” and I could play my solo albums and The Buzzcocks songs too. But because we had those two shows already booked, we did them as Buzzcocks and we went from there really. Then we booked a tour, pre-COVID, and we did eleven dates. PB: I saw you on that tour in Sheffield. If I'm being honest with you, I was sceptical as to whether it would work without Pete Shelley, but I thought it was absolutely fantastic. SD: Yeah, well, people tend to forget there were two sides to The Buzzcocks; what Pete was doing and what I was doing. PB: I think it may be partially down to the fact that Pete sang the band’s two biggest hits, I don't think people quite appreciate that. But if they look at the writing credit for your albums it’s Shelley/Diggle, Shelley/Diggle all the way through. SD: I mean, I wrote ‘Fast Cars’. Pete wrote the verse, but I wrote the music and the chorus. ‘Promises’, I did all that and the likes of ‘Autonomy’, ‘Harmony in My Head’ and so on. ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ was my chords and groove, so without me doing that, that song wouldn’t be here. So when you go through them, I was always there. PB: People's perceptions aren't always the right perception, are they? SD: That’s right. Some folks think it’s all about ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ and Pete Shelley wrote that and that’s the end of it. It was always a team effort and wasn't a battle or anything like that. Whoever had a song, we went along with it. And I’d been co-fronting the band as well. Plus I fronted my own band, Flag of Convenience, for eight years in the 80s. I was singing all the way through that and was travelling all over Europe. PB: So you then drafted in multi-instrumentalist, Mani Perazzoli, on guitar. How has he fitted in? SD: Yeah, he’s good. I thought that we’ll need another guitarist and then I phoned a friend of mine down the road and they said “I've got just the guy.” I thought I’d have to audition about five or six people at least, but from the first phone call, I knew he just lived down the road from me, he joined and he fits in well. He's not on the album, but he’s done good for ‘live’. PB: So it's the first new Buzzcocks album since ‘The Way’ which you released back in 2014. We talked about the song writing, which was pretty much split 50-50. So how did you approach the song writing for ‘Sonics in the Soul’? Was it you predominantly writing the songs or did you bounce off the other two? SD: No, I wrote them all at home. It was COVID times. Back in the old days, you’d be on tour, you’d write a song then you'd be in the studio and you’d go “That will do”, you know, that kind of thing. You never seemed to have much time. But with ‘Sonics in the Soul’, there was nowhere to go, so I had time to consider them a bit more. So then I was three or four songs in and then I remembered the past and remembered Pete and all that. And I remember being in the room and a little flashback came to me and I thought with the lead track, ‘Sense Out of Control’, I needed something that sounds a bit like ‘Spiral Scratch’. PB: Yeah, I picked that up from the track. It's quite urgent and immediate. SD: I could have done something that sounds like it was off a later Buzzcocks album but it was a nostalgic thing and about remembering where you come from, so I tried to make the album sound like the 70s Buzzcocks albums. If you listen to the full album, it makes sense. It’s a bit like reading a book. If you don’t get to the end, you don't know what the book’s about. Instead of cherry-picking certain songs, I tried to make it a whole experience. PB: I know it sounds a bit of a cliche, but it really does sound like a Buzzcocks album. Within ten or twenty seconds of a song starting, you know it's a Buzzcocks song. SD: Yeah. I tried to make an album that is moving on and looking forward, but you can’t go too far. I took a lot of the elements and hallmarks of past albums. I couldn’t listen to the old albums because of Pete’s voice. It was too emotional. But I know all the workings of the guitars, so I tried to bring these elements together but with one eye on moving forward. PB: Obviously, given you know Pete's guitar style so well, did you consciously play Pete’s “bits” within the songs? SD: No, I just played my bits. When you are in the studio, you get the basic rhythm tracks done and then you just go “roll the tape” and then “roll it again”. I like the adventure and the danger of that. And I'm pretty good at those simple riffs, you know. Not taking anything away from Pete, but I played a lot of riffs of The Buzzcocks songs, so it's just an extension of that really. PB: It made me chuckle that you’ve written a song about the Mancunian weather. I really like ‘Manchester Rain’, especially the high-pitched guitar at the start. SD: That stuck out as a single. We started with ‘Senses Out of Control’ but that will probably be the next single. On that last tour I talked about earlier, we had the single ‘Gotta Get Better/Destination Zero” out and we were playing in Manchester. It was a Sunday night and it was raining. I was just going in the stage door and there were some young kids there waiting so I signed their records for them and they said “We're starting a band”. I kind of looked at them and I thought “That was me all those years ago”. Young kids with their hopes and dreams of starting a band. And we’re stood there in the rain in Manchester and that was me as a kid. So ‘Manchester Rain’ came out of that. More metaphoric rain really and that can apply to anyone’s hopes. It could just as easily have been called ‘Newcastle Rain’ or ‘Glasgow Rain’. It’s having that self-realisation and trying to find your hopes and dreams or something that makes you happy, or whatever, in life. So it’s not just about getting wet in Manchester! PB: And on the flipside to that, on ‘Bad Dreams’ there’s some really nifty guitar work going on there. What inspired ‘Bad Dreams’? SD: It's probably COVID, really. It's got a little shadow of COVID. It made us all take a look inside ourselves. We almost had to find out who we are again. So there’s that little element, I wanted that internal thing about the record and about the songs, rather than just the external tune. So a bit of COVID and a bit of everything, if you know that I mean. I probably was having a few bad dreams but as the line in the song says: “But now they’ve gone”. But it’s got a classic Buzzcocks chug, is fairly hypnotic and almost harks back to our Krautrock influences and stuff like that. Really, it’s the artist holding up a mirror to the listener so they can go into a trance-like state and go inside yourself. Reflect yourself on your bad dreams. You can search inside yourself. And then there’s all the off-the-wall guitar work in there. PB: What's your favourite track off the album? Which track were you particularly proud of? SD: All of them really. When we looked at them all, it was like “How the fucking hell are we going to choose a single off that?” ‘Manchester Rain’ stood out. ‘Senses Out of Control” because it sounds like early punky Buzzcocks. And I love ‘Bad Dreams’ and ‘Nothingless World’. But most of them really. They’re all your babies, in different ways. “Just Got to Let it Go” I like as well. I was talking to some journalist in Canada and they really liked ‘Venus Eyes’. PB: It’s a nice way to close the album, for sure. SD: The original album closer was going to be ‘Can You Hear Tomorrow?’, which seemed to make sense, you know, to end with that. But then I had two spare tracks to put on the B-side of ‘Senses Out of Control’ that were not on the album, which were really good as well. One of them was ‘Venus Eyes’ and we decided to put that on the album. The thing I like about ‘Venus Eyes’ is that there is a bit of ‘1984’ about it: “Got a note from Julia” and that kind of thing with Winston Smith: “Thought control reality in a crystal golden shower, turn around and looked at your Venus Eyes”. In ‘1984’, Winston Smith’s in a corridor walking along when Julia hands him a note and in ‘1984’ you’re not supposed to fall in love, engage and things like that. So I like the middle-eight in that. I had a massive hangover at the time as foolishly I went to the pub the night before. But I sang it straight up and thought “That will do it and maybe that’s how it should be,” so I just left it as it was. The whole journey has been a bit of a roller-coaster. You've got the three songs at the start, which are ever so lively, including ‘You Change Everything Now’ which I like as well, because that is kind of like classic Buzzcocks and then it goes into ‘Bad Dreams’ and ‘Nothingless World’ and ‘Don’t Mess with My Brain’, so each song's different. I didn’t want to go “Look, you’ve heard the first two songs, now you’ve heard the whole album”. PB: Yeah, it’s about getting variety within the songs, but making sure that they all hang together still as an album, isn’t it? And if I'm being honest, I think that you have really achieved that. For me, the production is quite “straight” and I think I can imagine how these songs are going to sound live when you go out on the road and play them. SD: Yeah, I mean, it's kind of a bridge album in a way as we’ve taken all the hallmarks that The Buzzcocks are known for while moving it forward into some other areas. You can’t leap too far as you might leave the old uns behind, so it’s a case of “Here’s a gentle bridge”. And then we can take it other places for the next one. PB: There's a lot gone on in the last eight years. SD: Absolutely, so I'm now thinking about the next album and looking at different ways to do it. But going back to the songs on this one, we've been doing quite a few gigs this year and I've been playing three of the songs in the set, sometimes four if we've got time in the encore. We've been playing ‘Senses Out of Control’, ‘Manchester Rain’ and ‘Bad Dreams’ in the set. So you get the regular fans that know everything and it’s a nice surprise for them and you get a lot of young girls and guys who’ve probably never seen us and maybe don't know the whole back-catalogue and they’ve gone down well with them too. Normally people go to the bar when a band plays the new songs but here the new songs are fitting in well with the old ones. In fact, the new songs are feeling fresher and more lively, to be honest, because they are a bit more “now” and it's been amazing playing three songs in the set they’ve not heard and they go down just as well as any of the other songs. PB: In terms of deciding on a set-list I guess it gets harder as you get more albums under your belt as you've got increasingly more songs to choose from and it can be a bit of a problem. SD: It can, as we’ve got such a massive back-catalogue and you kind of think you’ve got to do the classic singles, which is fair enough. And then the regular punters want to hear some obscure tracks. Even with Pete, we didn’t do as much changing as we could have done because he was in Tallin and we didn’t rehearse as much. So I’ve started digging out one or two more obscure songs. I like playing ‘Third Dimension’ off ‘The Way’ album to make a bit of noisy guitar in the middle and all that stuff and it’s a nice groove, too. With the new tracks, it’s like a three-tier set. When you sit down and put the set together, it’s quite a complicated thing to do, because in a lot of places, you can only play for an hour and ten or fifteen minutes. On occasions I’ve gone over the time and some promoters have not been happy because people have got to get the bus! But all the crowd want more and even when we’ve gone over time, they’ve still wanted more. But sometimes it’s a licence thing and they’ve got to close the bar. So yes, it’s really hard to know what to leave out. PB: I suppose you have got the advantage that you are not Pink Floyd and your punk-pop missives are only two or three minutes long, so you can pack quite a lot of songs in there. SD: Oh absolutely, but when you start looking at it, you are still having to leave some of the old classics out and, for me, you've got to do the new stuff to justify why we're doing it, that makes us relevant. I don't want to recreate the past as I'm trying to create the future. I don’t want to be one of those bands who play the same old bloody songs for the rest of their life. I'm still as excited about it as when I first started and I want people to come on the journey with me. PB: Yeah, I mean, if it’s interesting for you that comes across and makes it interesting for other people. SD: Yeah, it should be interesting for the listener. It’s no good coming along wanting to hear the same old songs. That’s fine to a certain extent, but let’s try some other things. Growing up with The Beatles, Bowie and Bob Dylan, their albums were different every time and I always thought that’s the artistic thing. Like Picasso, for example. He did the ‘Blue Period’ and then ‘Cubism’ and all that stuff. And I could have written another classic ‘Singles Going Steady’ album but what’s the point? I think most people have heard the [new] album and they've been surprised, and they are getting it and when we do the next one, we're going through some kind of journey and moving into unknown territory, which is exciting. With the new fans, many haven’t seen us before so they don't know the difference anyway. PB: I've had two or three listens to the new album and it's really immediate and I really like it. One thing I noticed when I saw you down at Sheffield University just before COVID was that there were quite a lot of young fans in the crowd. SD: Yeah, everywhere. It's a bit like Shakespeare and these young kids still do that. It comes down to songwriting and we've always had good songs, I think. We kind of span three generations now, I guess. People bring their kids to the gigs and then the young kids go “Oh, I’ve heard of The Buzzcocks. I’ll go and see them”. And they sing along to the words and it still feels relevant and vibrant and alive. PB: If you look at the topics of the songs, they are the eternal ones and they never really go out of fashion. SD: We’ve always sung about the human condition and the complexities of life and all that. And it’s things that perhaps some people have had experience of somewhere along the line. Sometimes it’s like me and Pete talking in the pub. We’re not bullshitting you with some sort of mythical thing or putting us on a higher platform. There is a reality there and I think the human complexities and all that are the sort of thing that people can relate to. And with ‘Sonics in the Soul’ we are trying to get it a bit “internal” so it’s got warmth and you can dig into yourself, so it’s thoughtful and considered underneath the noisy guitars and everything. PB: My mate [Simon] who’ve I've just had lunch with wanted me to ask you a question. And he said “Have you ever considered doing a one-off Buzzcocks gig with Howard Devoto”? SD: Erm, no. PB: [Laughs] Okay. SD: I mean, he only did ten gigs with The Buzzcocks PB: And the myth has become bigger than the actuality. SD: Yeah. And to be honest, it wouldn’t work. It would be fucking terrible. He joined us for two songs on the 30th Anniversary Tour. We’d just finished a massive tour of America and it was like “What the fuck’s this”? We were a well-oiled machine at that point and getting people on-board who have been out of the picture for a long time is difficult. And there's no point in it for me. You know, the odd person thinks that but it's more of a romantic idea than reality. He wouldn’t even come to the Albert Hall for the Pete Shelley tribute gig. I invited him to come on as a guest then, but he didn’t come. I love Howard and he’s an inspiration, but I haven’t seen him for years. He left the band. It’s only me who has never left. All the others have left, one way or another. Even Pete Shelley left. I’m the only one who’s never said “I’m leaving”. PB: We've been talking about the future. I'm guessing there's going to be a pretty extensive tour to support the album release? SD: Yeah, they are just sorting the tour out now. And I’d like to do a show where I play the whole album. Some fans suggested that. I’d actually finished the album just before Christmas and it was slated for release just after Christmas but there was a massive queue for vinyl and it was put back to March, and then September. So now I just want the fans to hear it. I'd like to get it to a point where it's like in the old days, with a single every three months. There's a new sense with this album and new possibilities, and the band are on fire now. I know you said you saw us in Sheffield but that was some time ago now. That was early days for the band, post-Pete. With some of the gigs we’ve done recently, now it's really happening, you know. Sometimes it takes a while for a band to gel, but the band’s on fire. PB: Coming back to the forthcoming tour, you could do two sets; a Buzzcocks classics set then play the new album. SD: Yeah. It would be nice to play the whole album. PB: It's a bold statement that says “Look, it isn't just about the past. It’s also about this new album and I’m going to play it in full.” SD: And it would work, you know, I'm sure it would work. As mentioned, we’ve been putting three or four songs in the set but I’m always looking to squeeze more in. You’ve got to leave room for the other classics, but we’ve rehearsed some of the other new tracks and they are sounding good. I wrote the album on my own, then rehearsed for two days with the bass player and drummer. Then we went into the studio for two days while we put down the bass and drums, the rhythm guitar and my guide vocals, then I didn't see them for months. PB: Well, I will look forward to seeing you play when you come to Sheffield. SD: Yeah, I’ll get onto my agent to make sure we come to Sheffield again! PB: I’ve just checked your website and it’s got your summer festival gigs on currently, so I’ll keep my eye open for the album tour when it gets announced. I’m out of questions now so thank you for speaking to me, it’s been a pleasure. And good luck with the album and forthcoming tour. SD: Thank you. You’re very welcome. PB: Thank you.

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Buzzcocks - Interview with Steve Diggle

Buzzcocks - Interview with Steve Diggle

Buzzcocks - Interview with Steve Diggle

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Buzzcocks guitarist and vocalist Steve Diggle talks to Denzil Watson about their new album ‘Sonics in the Soul’ and why he has decided to carry on with the band after the death of his co-frontman Pete Shelley in 2018.

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