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Cornershop - Interview

  by Sarah Maybank

published: 27 / 8 / 2009

Cornershop - Interview


One of the great British bands, Cornershop are back after with their first album in seven years. Sarah Maybank speaks to front man Tjinder Singh about the new record, 'Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast', and why there has been such a prolonged absence between albums

It’s half six on a balmy Monday evening and Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh is strolling around Clissold Park, in hippy/trendy Stoke Newington, North London, chatting on a crackly mobile phone line to Pennyblackmusic. It’s the day after he’s finished a tour – the band’s first dates in more than half a decade - and he’s chuffed with the reception: "We did a few dates and finished it yesterday. It was a great show. The reaction we’ve had is lovely - it’s touching in a way that’s completely unexpected." Tonight, the pressure of pulling off a live comeback has evaporated, the sun’s on his back and he’s standing in front of a nice, sparkly duck pond. What could be better? Er, his fellow strollers, maybe. Formerly a working class area – the Krays’ manor wasn’t far from here – ‘Stokie’ has been colonised by trustafarians, priced out of posher areas like West London’s Notting Hill. You know the types: dads wearing Crocs, mums sporting white-girl dreads, both with parents boasting vast land holdings in the shires and seats in the House of Lords. And they chatter in mockney accents about their right-on credentials while policing toddlers with names like Tilly and Hugo. How thrillingly alternative - if it weren’t for undesirables like pesky Anglo-Asian musicians wandering around and making them feel uneasy. "I’m scaring people. They’re not used to seeing Asian faces," muses Tjinder in his defiantly un-trustafarian Wolverhampton accent. "They’re not used to seeing wogs. I can tell by the look in their eyes." Ornery, contrary and outrageously creative, Cornershop have been rubbing people up the wrong way for years now. Their embryonic days in the mid 90s were spent as a critic-unfriendly, riot grrl-ish noise outfit who could barely play (a recent 'Guardian' piece remembers their "aggressive incompetence", concluding "compared to the racket Singh and co made on a rough night, the Slits and the young Banshees probably sounded like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra"). And they made a name for themselves releasing singles on "curry-coloured" vinyl and baiting Morrissey for his alleged anti-Asian prejudice by ripping up photos of him outside his record company offices. Fast forward a few years, a radical change in musical direction - feedback out, song-crafting and sitars in - plus a Norman Cook remix of ‘Brimful of Asha’ and success in the States beckoned while triple-A listers such as Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp queued to pay their respects: "Johnny Depp liked us? Oh, I think I might have met him once," reminisces Tjinder un-starrily. What followed could have been a U2-style worldwide consolidation of success followed by a life spent sunning themselves on gigantic luxury yachts. Instead, promotion-induced burnout followed the success of their 2002 album ‘Hand Cream For A Generation’, resulting in the band scattering and trying everything from bee-keeping to forming acclaimed dance off-shoot Clinton. Then, when they finally got it together to record something new as Cornershop, record company meddling almost resulted in them calling it a day for good. Until they decided to go it alone, formed their own label and, seven long years after ‘Hand Cream’, released ‘Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast’ an audacious marriage of glam-era stomp, noise collage and soaring gospel. Tjinder Singh, 2009-version is dry, funny, opinionated and not one to suffer fools gladly. And he’s not one to be boxed in, musically or otherwise. You’d think the man who’s happy to rib Stokie’s poshos for their odd approach to integration, would have found it heinous living in racially homogenous Cheltenham a while back. He spent a year working in the middle class Gloucestershire town renowned for crusty retired colonels and the 1993 defeat of black Tory candidate John Taylor in a safe Parliamentary seat. And you’d think it would result in him harbouring a coruscating hatred of the place. But no. He remembers the time only as "good fun" and the people as "nice. Really friendly. I never had any problems." Typical. Back to the present day and, with ‘Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast’ getting them all sort of critical and DJ love, the band are finally back in gear and ready to go. We grabbed an hour with Tjinder to find out what it’s like to be back in the ‘Shop and found out that ‘hiatus’ really does mean sitting staring at the wall for days on end (sometimes), there’s no way he’d vent his considerable spleen on ‘Grumpy Old Men’ (and doesn’t even think he’s a genuine candidate), and exactly why he’s got it in for Kasabian. PB: Hi Tjinder. You’ve been doing tons of interviews for this album. What question have you been sick of hearing? TS: "What have you been doing for the past seven years?" I think other than that it’s all fair game. PB: We know what you’ve been doing. There was Clinton, you worked with Jeffrey Lewis and you’ve been making a film about the misery that is the music business for a start… TS: Yeah, I was spent after touring ‘Hand Cream’. I just had to do something else, so I did the film. I’ve learned how to do the editing myself and I had a few breakdowns while I did it. It’s a hand-held lo-fi sort of thing. [Laughs] It’s not a great Hollywood production. It’s not Ken Loach either. PB: Most bands get forgotten if their public profile dips for more than five seconds. Not with Cornershop, though. TS: It’s been a great response [from the media]. We never thought people like 'Uncut', 'Mojo' and 'NME' would be interested. When we started out, it was the journalists we were against, but in terms of being good to us… We’re very humbled by all of it. Who would have thought that journalists would be the saviours of a band like us? But they are. PB: Were there any specific inspirations behind the new album? TS: Musically, this album is like the missing link between ‘When I Was Born’ and ‘Hand Cream’. I don’t think it’s a good idea to put a finger on any sort of inspiration, though. We - Ben [Ayres] and me - are both avid record collectors. We’ve got lots of nice old varied vinyl. That keeps ideas new and exciting and fresh. There’s not much better than that. If you had to go back through this decade, though, and listen to it for ideas I’d think it was rather sad. People now are going back to the ‘80s, but some of it was great. Dexy’s were brilliant - they were so inspired and varied. It would be all quiet, then explode into something really loud. Or someone like the Human League. I was listening to them recently and their music hasn’t aged at all. Even stuff like Duran Duran. They weren’t as good but ‘Planet Earth’ is a really good album. PB: Record execs played a big part in the delay of the new album’s release. What happened? TS: [Tersely] We were severely demoralised by people who were stupid. You’ve finished the record and people are saying they’d like to have the album when it’s "further along the line", and you think, "What the fuck are you here for then? Why do you think I’m here for?" They don’t deserve to be in the job. They’re using the perks but they’re not doing the job, just like bankers. The album would have been unfinished if we didn’t have the faith in it ourselves. PB: Did you ever feel like giving up? TS: Quitting has always been an option – it was even about three months ago. Ben’s kept his marbles working for Rough Trade. For me, working from home, it’s not as nice as it’s made out. Working out your own day… It’s a privilege but it gets fucking boring at times. I certainly nearly lost it. If I had the discipline of a nine to five or a milk round… There’s always the idea you can do something more useful with your life. But when I get around to it I work hard and have a lot of attention to detail. PB: Was the huge delay between albums as hard for the others? TS: It’s been harder for them, even for Ben. I haven’t had to wait for anyone. All the waiting’s been done for them. I’ve gone at my own pace and I think they gave up the enthusiasm - they got bored with trying to get me enthused in the end. They thought we’d never get on stage again. PB: Writing songs, is it harmonious? TS: All the songs have an element when they jar. When that’s not the case it’s not going to be a good song. Someone described the album as like De La Soul’s ‘Three Feet High And Rising’ because it’s got lots of varied songs. To get that variety you need to layer on a lot of stuff and it’s difficult to break it down. We could have stopped and come out with an album like Kasabian’s but we carried on. In a way we look for that difficulty. Otherwise there’s no blue water between you and the other bands. You look at what a lot of people do and it’s something we’ve already done. We did that all when we started. PB: What current stuff do you like? TS: Now, there’s not a lot of stuff around. Saying that, there’s always something out there. The Fleet Foxes album is great. It’s very emotional stuff. MGMT have an energy. Someone like Jeffrey Lewis, or SoKo who’s the French version, has a lot of attitude and energy and good delivery. [Sniggers] Rather than something like Kasabian. PB: Okay, Kasabian, what’s the problem? Is it true, as one journalist said, that you’re having a feud with them? TS: [Laughs] No, I haven’t heard of a feud. But… Well… These bands like to think they’re so original and revolutionary… Come on! They’re using The Automator now - we used The Automator 10 years ago. PB: So you don’t think they’re any good? TS: [Sarcastic] Well, it’s quite obvious isn’t it? Is it not etched on a tablet? Is it not sealed for eternity? Saying that, there are a lot bigger targets than Kasabian aren’t there? PB: Isn’t that the most insulting thing you can say about them? They’re not big enough to be the biggest targets? TS: Mmm [contemplative]. I didn’t think about it that way, but now you say it… I just don’t like groups that come on stage and wear waistcoats and start clapping. What the fuck’s that about? It’s not a football match. Music has become a bit of a football match. PB: So you don’t like footie either then? TS: I’m not anti-football at all. I’ve got more vehemence about cricket, because I used to like that. When they stopped going out in their white flannels… PB: You’re quite proper, aren’t you? TS: Ha ha! I was brought up on ‘Monty Python’ and ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’. That’s the sort of humour I like. That’s probably why you think I come across as sounding like an old colonial. PB: Comedy was the new rock ‘n’ roll a few years back. What stuff do you like? TS: I’m not into a lot of new comedy – apart from ‘Psychoville’. New comedians don’t seem funny. They seem like they’re on drugs and that’s not the same as being funny. Most go and have secondary careers in something else too. They get the jobs because they know how to talk to a camera. PB: You’re a dad now. Has fatherhood changed your song-writing? Like how great it is to have kids? TS: Oh God, no I hope not. I think I shouldn’t be doing it any more if that was the case… If it ever did, it would be time to give up. There needs to be an element of saying something. I don’t want to sing about love all the time, that would be boring, I prefer to use music to say something. There’s a lot of musicians who can sing about love better than me. PB: Were you musical as a kid? TS: I didn’t show any signs of being musical at all. I’d wheel out the old cassette player in the school hall and play the Spinners [ancient folk outfit]. "The ink is black, the page is white…" That was about it. My kids are more musical than I was. My eight-year-old has started playing drums and it was his own idea, which is good. The three-year-old can break down a song and then sing it with new words. PB: What bugs you? TS: Bad interviews. I recently did an interview that my eight-year-old son could have done better. What’s the point of an interview when no one’s done any research and they want to get on to the next band? That’s a little depressing. There’s going to be a level of rudeness when they’ve done no research whatsoever. PB: You’re very matter of fact. We can imagine you on ‘Grumpy Old Men’ grumbling along with Will Self. TS: [Adamantly] No. I’m pragmatic and practical and speak a lot of sense! They [Grumpy Old Men] complain, but then go off and do things like adverts for car insurance. It defeats the object. I do have a bit of a reputation, though. It’s unfortunate - I don’t deserve it. I don’t think I’ve been rude to someone who doesn’t deserve it. PB What’s the plan from here? TS: We just take it from day to day. We always have done. We haven’t operated as a band for a very long time. In 2002 we played big festivals, lots in Japan and America, so we want to do some of that. We’re slowly getting some radio. The main thing is getting back out there and making it move again. There’s a lot of people on holiday. Hopefully they’ll remember our album when they get back. Either that’ll happen - or we’ll wait another seven years to put out another one. PB: Come on, it won’t really be years till the next album? TS: We’ve got the next album pretty much sorted. We’re very excited about it. We’ve got other off-shoot albums coming out too - a reggae album in a ‘70s style. We’re very big reggae fans – ‘74 to ‘84, before the drum machines. We’ve got an album of more dancier stuff ready. A single with SoKo, we want to get that out before the end of the year. It’s a bit difficult to do your own label and your own music but I’m just glad I’m doing it for myself. There’s not a lot of money to be made but I’d rather be losing money than making money for someone else. It’s been refreshing to get the response we’re getting too. We’ve just done some gigs and we’ve got a very good reception. But, you know, even if this was the end it would be a lovely end. PB: Thank you.

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Cornershop - Interview

Cornershop - Interview

Cornershop - Interview

Cornershop - Interview

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Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast (2009)
Magical first album in seven years from the ever unique Cornershop, which merges guitars with sitars, Punjabi MC noises and sksa-style keyboards
Topknot (2004)

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