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Crass - Interview

  by Paul Waller

published: 3 / 10 / 2013

Crass - Interview


Former Crass front man Steve Ignorant talks to Paul Waller about the group's history, his new acoustic project Slice of Life and joint album with Irish punks Paranoid Visions

In brief. Steven Williams was raised in Dagenham, and lived a somewhat typical working class life until during the latter half of the 70s he met the older free thinking artist and writer Penny Rimbaud and the duo formed Crass. Steven Williams became Steve Ignorant, and the band he sang in became one of the most seminal punk bands ever. I say in brief because the life, times and musical career of Ignorant cannot be summed up in a few simple paragraphs. In fact according to the man himself an autobiography entitled ‘The Rest is Propaganda’, a lyric book and an excellently compiled history of the band titled ‘The Story of Crass’ by George Berger only just manage to scratch the surface. There are a lot more stories to tell. Since the demise of Crass in 1984 Steve has fronted many more bands, and has in recent times become a lifeguard volunteer whilst working on two new projects, the first being the joint venture with Irish punkers Paranoid Visions for a single and album. Not only this, but he’s also has been working on his acoustic project entitled Slice of Life. The man refuses to rest on his laurels; it would appear that Steve Ignorant is a man always on the move. PB: First of all, the ‘Rock N Roll and Revolution’ single you put out with Paranoid Visions sounded so great. How did it feel to have a new slab of plastic in your hands? SI: It was really great. I mean really, really great. It always is when you hold the record. You can’t believe you’ve done it. Even after all these years it is still a great feeling. PB: How did you get to join Paranoid Visions for this project? SI: I had heard of them but I hadn’t seen them or anything, and it wasn’t really until I met them that I began looking into them but we just hit it off straight away. They are a great bunch of people, and I love their attitude and the stuff that they write about. It’s almost as if they are doing a Crass angle on the Irish side of things, and I am learning from them. So, yeah, I like the sentiments they hold, and I am glad they offered me the chance to work with them; it just seemed a natural thing to do. I know that it helps them in a way because it has the name Steve Ignorant on it, but it also keeps my foot in the door. We complement each other, but there is no sense of stardom or heroism, I’m not anyone special, and what I like about it is that when I perform with them I am just another member of their family. The way they work tends to be a little chaotic, but I like that as well because it’s not my words or music which also means it’s not my responsibility, so when I do gigs with Paranoid Visions I can relax a little bit. It’s funny to say that but the pressure really is off of me. PB: So with the single being a success you joined Paranoid Visions in recording the new full length album ‘When…?’ How did that go down? SI: It all started when Peter Jones (guitars-PW) phoned me up just after we did the ‘Rock and Roll and Revolution’ thing. He said, “Steve, I have a couple more tracks here that would suit you down to the ground,” and I went, “Okay then.” So when I went over to record them I suddenly discovered there were eleven songs, and I was like, “Right, okay!” I really enjoyed doing it; I think we recorded it all in one evening. It was really quick, but what they had done previously was send over the lyrics and the backing tracks, so I had previously heard the stuff and it ended up being just a matter of me going over there and putting the vocals down. PB: Did you take any part in the lyric writing at all? SI: No, I completely left that to Deko (Dachau, vocals--w) and the other Paranoid Visions people as I felt that all I wanted to be for them is like another instrument. I didn’t want to get involved in the actual writing of it because I see it as their thing. It’s almost like I am, say, another guitar, and it was nice for me to be able to do that. Saying that, there were a couple of bits where I said to Deko, “Can I change this word?” or whatever because I thought it would fit better, and he had no problem with that at all. If I did begin to write for them, then there would be a danger of me taking them into a direction that they don’t want to go in. After all, Paranoid Visions is their project, and I am just a guest. PB: From the interviews I’ve read with them and recent ones with yourself it seems that they are pretty close to where your head is anyway. I guess that’s why for you it was almost a no brainer for you to join up. SI: Well yeah, absolutely. You hit it spot on there; it was just a completely natural thing to do. I have done the Crass and the Conflict sort of things, and I can see that with Paranoid Visions’ use of visuals and female vocalists that they are almost taking on an Irish angle of Crass, I don’t think they are trying to be Crass at all; I just have really good fun working with them. PB: The song from the album ‘Log On / Bog Off’ was recorded acoustically. Was that something that instigated the Slice Of Life project you are involved with that has come to light recently? SI: No, believe it or not I’ve been working on the Slice of Life thing for around the last fifteen years, but I’ve never got round to it properly until now. I couldn’t work out who I wanted to work with or how I wanted to do it, and it wasn’t until I met up with Pete, the guy that played bass for me on ‘The Last Supper’ tour, and Carol that did some vocals on it as well. It wasn’t until that tour that it really started taking off, and I could reformulate the project. There is new stuff that I am writing but a couple of the songs for Slice of Life I already had written down for quite some time. PB: I take it that Slice of Life will play live and maybe have a release as well? SI: Yeah, it was only last weekend that I was up in Manchester recording with them. Give it a few weeks and we will have a, what’s it called, an MP3 four track thing out there, not vinyl yet but something to let people know that we exist. PB: With your own autobiography ‘The Rest is Propaganda’ out there and George Berger’s ‘The Story of Crass’ also having been out a while now, do you think there is anything left to unearth about the history of Crass. SI: Yeah, it’s funny because that ties in with what I will hopefully be doing with Slice of Life. I think there is a lot of stuff that people don’t know about it, funny little anecdotes, that sort of thing, I’ve got lots of stories about what happened from my time in Crass. I will be slowly introducing this stuff into the Slice of Life shows. In between songs I will be doing a lot of talking, almost like a spoken word thing, and I will try and incorporate this stuff from those Crass years into it because I know that’s what a lot of people are interested in. People really like to hear it. I can’t get away from it, and that’s not a bad thing. Someone suggested to me that I should write another book that goes more in depth with Crass, but I don’t really want to do that because everyone would know it and I wouldn’t be able to do it on stage. I can say that there is a lot though that people don’t know about Crass and what happened to us. PB: There is a great Crass documentary out there and you can watch it for free on YouTube called ‘There is No Authority but Yourself’. In it you explain that you felt that the Crass legacy has been exploited by people out to make a quick buck from your logo, image and words. Do you think that with the backing from Southern Records now that the band’s legacy is a little bit safer in their and your hands? SI: Yeah, I think it has a bit. At the time the documentary was made I don’t think I was even clued into the internet, and I had just had two weeks where people were ringing me up saying, “Steve have you seen this thing on the internet where you can buy Crass merchandise?” Things were selling like Crass alarm clocks. I just thought, “For fuck’s sake!” It’s one of those things that when I looked into it I found out there were a couple of big outlets in America doing Crass T shirts illegally. If there is some guy in his room somewhere silk-screening six Crass t-shirts, then so what? Who gives a shit but when it’s a big multi-national corporation then I start getting a bit twitchy? That’s what I was on about. Around the time of that documentary I started doing t-shirts with this company called Machete, which is a subsidiary of the American band Rancid, and they managed to stop a lot of the heavy duty bootlegging that was going on, but I am pretty sure that there is still a lot of it that still goes on today. But at the end of the day you have to decide whether you want to splash out on lawyers which means spending a lot of money that I haven’t got or just wiping your mouth and moving on, getting used to the fact that you are never going to stop it. PB: Ian MacKaye from Fugazi has recently had similar issues with merchandise from his old band Minor Threat that both legally and illegally popped up. SI: Ah, right. PB: When I was researching that for an article I came across a picture of you two online hanging out together in Washington, I think. How do you know each other? SI: I met Ian MacKaye when he first came over to the UK. He was running Dischord Records, and he came over to see John Loder (Founder of Southern Records who died in 2005 -PW) in the late 80s or early 90s, somewhere around that time and he came to sort out stuff with Southern and John. Then I was in a band called Schwarzenegger and we ended up supporting Fugazi in Germany for a couple of gigs, not only that but he’s been over to the Crass house a few times. I met him again at John Loder’s funeral, and most recently I actually went around his house to drop off some spare merchandise that we had that we couldn’t carry around no more. We have always got on; we don’t write or phone each other up or anything but whenever we bump into each other we catch up a bit, have nice two hour long conversations. Yeah, he’s a good one. PB: If I can speak about your youth a little bit, the move from your home in Dagenham to Dial House in Epping with Penny Rimbaud who you formed Crass with in your teens must have taken a lot of balls. You were very young. Or was it a no brainer? SI: Again, yeah, it was a no brainer. My relationship was breaking down with my mum and my dad and I just wanted to get out, so the first thing I did was find out where my brother was in Bristol and went and stayed with him for a while, but then when the punk thing appeared I wanted to get into that. I didn’t have any close friends in Bristol and I certainly didn’t know of anybody there that wanted to be in a band, so I thought I would go back to Dagenham to see if my old mates might be interested but they weren’t. They all had wives or girlfriends and steady jobs so I though, “Well, that’s that then.“ I hadn’t seen Penny or any of the others that ended up in Crass for months and months, but on impulse I thought I’d go over and say hi to them before I made my way back to Bristol and go back to work in the hospital like I was before. So, I turned up and found out that Penny was living on his own, and he asked me if I’d like to stick around. When he asked me about what I was up to, I said that I was thinking of starting up a punk band, and he said that he had a drum kit and he would play drums for me if I wanted. Honestly, it literally started like that. PB: How did you actually record those albums and singles? Was it in the house or did you go to studios? SI: We actually went to Southern Studios. John Loder was an old friend of Penny’s and Gee’s (Voucher – Crass artist-PW), and at the time he was recording jingles for radio stations, and because we didn’t have any money at all so what we would do was barter some of Gee’s artwork for studio time. At the beginning we released a little cassette thing, but we tended to do everything in one take because time was money even though John used to give us a bit of leeway and we used to record stuff at night time to keep costs down. Then Small Wonder (Crass’ first record label-PW) picked up on it, and they paid for us to go into Southern properly and we recorded ‘The Feeding of the 5000’. and we did that maybe with two takes, just a couple of drop-ins here and there but it was all basically done in one night. PB: The Crass albums sound remarkably fresh today; there are some really unusual production techniques going on there. SI: Because I was in Crass I tended not to play any of the Crass stuff. A long time later I was in a bar in America, and someone said there, “You are on the jukebox,” and there it was between Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, so I heard ‘…Owe us a Living’ and I thought, “Fuck me, that sounds really good,” so when I got home I decided to listen to the other stuff and I thought it was amazing and I asked myself why did it take me so long to realise it. But at the time of doing them I didn’t realise it, but you know they have now been re-mastered because we recorded them onto two inch tape and it was starting to deteriorate, so they had to be digitalised. Not being restricted by the vinyl format, there is more space on there so now you can actually hear the bass a lot better and you can hear the guitars more clearly. PB: I take it these are the newish Southern CDs that came out a few years back. SI: Yeah, that’s it. But I think the reason why the records have such a unique sound is because none of us were musicians. I mean some of them could play a bit on the guitar, but they weren’t guitarists and, rather than say it has to be C, G and then D, we would say, “No it ain’t. It’s gotta be B flat, F sharp and E flat blah blah,” all these notes that don’t actually go together. And with Penn producing a lot of the time his take would be that for this song like “Can you make your guitar sound like it is stabbing somebody?” We were creating atmospheres rather than music. I was talking to Bob Butler (bass player for Schwarzenegger-PW) a couple of years ago and he said, “Steve, I’ve got to tell you that when I first heard ‘The Feeding of the 5000’ it really scared me,” and I understood what he meant because it is really rough record to hear, and I don’t think anyone has done anything like that since, punk wise. PB: With the release of ‘How Does It Feel to be the Mother of 1000 Dead?’, it showed that you were furious with the way Thatcher dealt with the Falklands War. In fact, you can still feel your frustration within the record’s grooves, but when the mainstream press called you out as traitors did that fuel your anger further? SI: Oh yeah, absolutely yes. It was just non-stop the bloody time. PB: Yet, as well as the many angry songs contained in Crass’s body of work, people often overlook the art side of things, especially as you left the 70s and ploughed into Thatcher’s 80s. SI: Because of the climate of the times and it being Thatcher’s Britain and all the yuppies making loadsa money and all that, the miners’ strike and then the Tories getting back in for another bloody five years, we had a lot to write about. It just went on and on and on, and of course what we were writing about goes hand in hand with that time. I think there was a certain time that all of us, and it feels odd to use the word, but it stopped being fun. It was no longer a bit of a laugh and it got really serious, and we all started to feel tired because there was always someone doing an album about the Miners’ Strike or the bloody Falklands War, and the arty side of it came about because we were always trying to introduce new angles for people to come at us from. What was the point of doing another boot boyish album like ‘Feeding of the 5000’ when we had already done that? PB: When ‘Penis Envy’ came out you did not feature on the album, but from what I’ve read you didn’t feel left out about it. To the outsider it looks as though there was a complete lack of ego involved for yourself and also really the other members of Crass throughout the band’s life span. SI: I thought that ‘Penis Envy’ would be a great crack after having done something like ‘Feeding of the 5000’. Why not bring out a record that has no blokes on it at all (Laughs). The nice thing about that album musically was that it was more accessible for people, and what it did was that it started people talking about sexism and people began to write songs about it. It may have failed initially, but at least we were trying. After that, a lot of bands sprung up and started to use female vocalists. It was a nice spin off from that. Even though punk was meant to be non-racist and non-sexist, you rarely saw blacks at gigs and the ratio was usually about 70% men and 30% women. We noticed that it changed a bit after that record; it became 60/40. So, yeah, I completely understood why we should have done it. PB: Finally Steve, I personally love the odds and sods compilation ‘Best Before 1984’ but you were already involved with Conflict when this came out. How did you feel about its release? Did you even care? SI: No I didn’t particularly care at that point; I thought it was a nice thing to do because it saved people from having to hunt around for these long lost singles. I knew even then that Crass would never, ever reform so there was nothing about that to do with it coming out. It was just nice to have it all there on one album. PB: Thank you.

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Crass - Interview

Crass - Interview

Crass - Interview

Visitor Comments:-
658 Posted By: Janer Ali, Ireland on 18 Oct 2013
top pic is by "Janer"
657 Posted By: Overground Records, Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 17 Oct 2013
To celebrate the release of the Steve Ignorant with Paranoid Visions album 'When...?' on Overground Records, the label is having a special launch night at The Dome, Tufnell Park, London on Saturday 9th November with support from Zounds, The Cravats and Craig Temple (Moral Dilemma) This will be only the fourth, but also the final collaborative gig this year between Steve and Paranoid Visions, so a rare opportunity indeed. Tickets are £15 and available from www.gigbox.co.uk and from All Ages Records in Camden. For more information visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/619064038112899/ or www.overgroundrecords.co.uk A limited edition 7" 'Join The Dots' is available on All The Mad Men Records http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttoYJ9YMt6c

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