published: 26 /
Peter Allison speaks to iconic hip hop/rock trio the Fun Lovin' Criminals about their fifteen year musical history and new triple live CD, 'Fun, Live, and Criminal’
Huey Morgan is sitting resplendent like the quintessential Mafia Don, relaxing on the settee. Beside him are - if we were to continue the analogy - his two lieutenants: Fast and Uncle Frank. Fast is a wiry man with a quiet demeanour that hides a quick wit and an understated skill with keyboards and trumpets. Uncle Frank meanwhile, as Huey claims, won the amateur boxing match last night, and, given Frank's upper body strength from his heavy drumming, it is not surprising. The three of them form the iconic hip-hop/rock trio: The Fun Lovin' Criminals.
It has been an eventful time during recent years for these three men. After entering an extended hiatus, the Fun Lovin' Criminals exploded back onto the music scene with a party album in their own unique style, ‘Classic Fantastic’. The album was filled with such party classics as ‘The Original Criminals’, ‘We The Three’, and the title track.
Most people will remember the Fun Lovin' Criminals for their 1996 breakout hit ‘Scooby Snacks’. The song followed a trio of bank-robbers high on valium (the scooby snacks of the title) as they embarked upon a robbing spree through the streets of New York City. Their subsequent début album, ‘Come Find Yourself’, defined a generation with their cool tunes, laid back attitude and unique sound.
Despite hailing from New York, the Fun Lovin' Criminals enjoyed their greatest success in Europe, and subsequently focused their efforts here. Their tales of New York City rang true to a people who had grown up watching American TV programmes: it was a New York we all knew, and visited in our dreams.
Their following album, 1998’s ‘100% Columbian’ (which many Columbians were not happy about, given the allusions) proved the boys from New York were here to stay. What made the Fun Lovin' Criminals different to other bands was that no one sounded quite like them. Nor could anyone define the Fun Lovin' Criminals, as was demonstrated by Jon Bon Jovi who refused to have them tour with his band as he felt they were rap group!
The Fun Lovin' Criminals quickly garnered a reputation as being a genuinely brilliant live act, as they brought their own brand of entertainment to their shows. The band’s fun and sheer exuberance elevated their live performances into something far more entertaining. Their reputation as an awesome live band was proven when they emerged from their hiatus to packed night clubs the world over. It was as if the boys from New York City had never been away.
I met the Fun Lovin' Criminals shortly before the first gig of their 2011 tour to promote the band's first live album. Rumours that the Fun Lovin' Criminals are the coolest guys in rock were utterly founded, with them all standing to shake my hand, and Huey pulling up a chair to join them before offering me a beer. Despite being teetotal for many years, Huey's roguish charm and easy going manner meant I could only accept.
PB: Huey and Fast first met when you were both working at The Limelight in New York City, and from there formed the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, but what was it like recording the album ‘Come Find Yourself’?
Fast: Recording ‘Come Find Yourself’ took five days tops, as we wanted to complete the album before the record label changed their minds. It helped that we had already written the tracks we wanted to include, so all we had to do was bang them out and record the album.
Huey: In fact, we only spent a day working on the guitars. I couldn't believe that after we'd worked in the studio for ten hours they said that we'd recorded all the guitars for the album. But we sat down with the engineer Tim Latham afterwards to listen to it, and we had! Having said that, despite already deciding on the album, the label still had some changes they wanted to make, just small stuff that we were not going to argue about – mostly it was like adding a pause in the vocals, and they would offer us a grand each just for a pause in vocals!
PB: Frank, can you tell me how you joined the band?
FB: I first heard the band on a festival program called 24/7, and after that I went to the local record market and pre-ordered all their CDs. So when they came to play in town, my dad and I went to see them, as my dad loved the band too.
I used to have this little job, where I would hand out flyers for record companies to let people know what was coming out, which enabled me to have a pass that allowed me to go back stage where I met the guys. The rest as they say is history.
PB: I once heard a rumour that a representative of John Gotti paid you all a visit to extend his client's appreciation for ‘King of New York’: is that true?
Huey: When you live in a place like New York City, and you're singing about someone like John Gotti, you have got to play it safe, or you can wake up one morning and find your head in a box: literally your head in a box! So we asked somebody that knew somebody, that knew somebody, that knew somebody, that knew somebody, whose cousin knew somebody, that knew somebody, that knew somebody,that knew John Gotti, to ask his permission for the track. Finally word got back that he was okay with it, and yeah, we had a visit!
PB: My wife is disappointed that she is unable to make tonight, as we were married to your cover of ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ – why did you choose to cover this song?
Huey: We knew this guy, who got us signed at EMI, called Mike Schnapps. He now DJs as DJ Uncle Mike, and he used to take us record shopping. He'd open up the classics and say we could have anything that we wanted, and EMI owned the James Bond songs by John Barry on this double CD. The last one was ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ by Louis Armstrong, and we were just “Woah”.
We walked away and about three hours later we were sat together going - hums tune to ‘We Have All the Time in the World’- and it was, “I was just thinking those exact notes”. When we recorded the song, it was at the point when I was still not fully comfortable singing on my vocals. I was straining, but the straining I put into it added to the emotion, as I took the position of this guy who was really trying to get this girl and open himself up by singing. And what is more endearing than a tough guy singing, and trying to serenade his love?
PB: Several years later, following ‘Living in the City’ in 2005, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals enter an extended hiatus, but what was the reason behind this?
Huey: It's like a cliché, as a bunch of things kicked off, and the main thing that kept us going as was playing festivals here and there, but we didn't record anything due to the manager suing the band. Which is just bullshit. You are in no mood to make music when you're being issued deputations.
On top of that we were living our lives,which in turn was making a new chapter for the Fun Lovin' Criminals. So when you go through something like that you either stick together (Pauses to slap hands with Fast and Frank) or you don't. So we were on the court house steps, and we'd stood together through all that shit, came out together, and I think that was a good thing for the band.
Frank: It also cost us a lot of money.
Huey: The thing was his lawyer was free but ours wasn't. On top of that we also had personal stuff like making families and growing families, which is what you need to do to write songs. You need this to write about human life and the human condition, we actually have to live. Being on a tour bus, or on stage, or on a plane, isn't really living life, as you're actually putting your life on hold when you do that. I don't think we write on the road unless someone does something incredibly stupid and we make that into a song.
PB: During your hiatus Fast, you also DJ’ed as well yes?
Fast: Yeah, I DJ'ed some stuff and did some reggae stuff, and tried some soundtrack stuff. There's ‘Purple Reggae’, a reggae version of Prince's‘Purple Rain’ which is coming soon.
Frank: Yeah, we all do stuff, and have our own thing. Huey loves bluesy rock stuff, I like my comedy stuff.
PB: ‘Classic Fantastic’ has a much fresher sound whilst remaining inherently identifiable as the FLC. How did it feel recording the album?
Huey: When we first started making music, it was all about selling records, right. We played and played a lot. I mean we played anywhere that had electricity, as we figured that was the best for people to hear us. Now people don't sell records any more, but we don't mind. We don't mind that people can download and listen to our music: that's fine with us. When people come to see us they come for the live experience, and I like to think that is where we excel.
PB: ‘Classic Fantastic’ is a great track, with a wonderful explanation of your break. The music video looked like you were having lots of fun making it.
Huey: Not just the track, but the whole album was a re-affirmation of our positivity. I call it Noetics: the power of positive thoughts. These bright guys came up with it - at MIT or somewhere - and they figured people could do that if we all get together.
I think we made the album ‘Classic Fantastic’ whilst we were all thinking positive thoughts. After everything we'd been through people would have been thinking, “Shit, they've been through hell, and should be all dark like the Cure.” But we physically went through it all and came out the other end and the sun was shining. The light at the end of the tunnel was not a train, and that's how we looked at it. So we went out there and we made a record for the people. Like again, the Fun Lovin' Criminals style, like nothing had happened and we'd toughed it out.
PB: ‘The Original Criminals’ from ‘Classic Fantastic’ sounds like the spiritual successor ‘The Fun Lovin’ Criminal’.
Frank: That was the idea of it, as I kept saying, “let's put the fun back into Fun Lovin' Criminals!”, and I feel we got it, so it's cool that you think that. ‘Classic Fantastic’ was actually the last song that we recorded for the album, and that white nigger over there (Points at Fast) came up with the music, and it was great because there's always one song on every Fun Lovin' Criminals album that's like the ‘Swashbucklin' in Brooklyn’ song. I remember him saying, “I've got this beat”,and I just loved that mad straight hip-hop beat.
A lot of people think I do all the beats, but really I listen to some of the beats and then I add to it with something that's already there. Usually it's Fast, and sometimes even Huey himself will come up with sick beats. Sometimes I'll come up with a guitar beat and I'm not even a guitarist.
PB: You also have another album coming out soon, but one that is a bit different?
Fast: You know the whole reason we're here today is because we're putting out a three CD live album called ‘Fun, Live, and Criminal’, and that has been a long time coming, as you're talking about the whole history of the band! The album represents something we've all wanted to do. Putting out a new album every couple of years is a whole different monster to our show. It has fifty-five songs with three new songs.
PB: I remember when it was first announced the reaction was amazing, as you seemed to reach your target – through Pledgemusic - within a couple of weeks.
Huey: That was incredible in how many people were excited about it. There's a lot of people from places like Bulgaria who get in touch with us and say, “Oh, come to Bulgaria!”. Now we can only do so many gigs a year, with things as they are. So with this live album, ev eryone can get their concert experience.
Fast: We didn't just want to pick fifteen songs, as there's something special about every song we play live.
PB: You also tour both extensively and intensively.
Frank: We did last year! Where we had two headline tours as well as festivals last year, and it took its toll a bit. This year it's a bit more of a few club shows and then a lot of festivals, and we kinda like it like that. There are just so many festivals now that it kind of takes the sting out of it a bit. Personally, I really like doing shows like this, with an intimate rock crowd. I just wish we did a lot more like this.
Huey: This is where we live. Even though we've got the incense burning, but this is where we live. We live with clubs. We started our career opening for clubs, and our first gig was opening to a thousand people at The Limelight that was packed for somebody's birthday. So when you get into a club and you can see everybody, and you get everybody jiving, then that is where the magic happens, and that is why we like doing this shit.
We've always loved playing, as we're greater than the sum of our parts, except for him (Indicates Fast) as he's just great in general. I mean as you saw today during our sound check, where he was playing four instruments: jamming on the bass, playing trumpet, doing something else with his other hand while knocking one out on the side.
PB: A colleague commented recently that a friend of his had been to see you playing live just on your reputation, and while he liked the music it was the elements in between that most impressed him. This interaction is a signature of the band, isn't it?
Huey: It's like old-school entertainment. The people are there. I'm not going to ignore them!
Frank: On a good day, Huey is a top front man. He did one thing once that I thought was the coolest thing ever: He's a bit of a knucklehead, as he's been a soldier, and when he's had a few beers in him he likes to fight. So there was this gig once, and he was in the middle of a guitar solo, and someone threw a drink at him that went all over his suit. The song stopped. I'd seen them a bunch of times but I wasn't playing for them at the time, and I thought, “Fuck here we go. This is going to be an Axl Rose moment.” He just stepped back, looked down at his suit, then looked into the audience trying to solo out the person who did it and said ,“Ah, it was you, sweetheart,” and gave them a wink then carried on playing.
I was like, “Now, that's fucking cool”. It was a dude, but Huey deflected it, and I thought that's so cool as he could have started a big fight. So the interaction can be really fucking good, where you think you're in a Vegas show, where the interaction is a major part of it. Sometimes I feel we can talk too long between songs that it pisses me off.
Huey: What I'd like to say is that when we first started I never thought I'd be the singer as I always assumed I would be the guitar player, but we could never find anybody that would fit with us. So I became the singer and started telling them stuff that I knew about life and stories and things I'd heard. When you get in front of people, they're there, and you can't ignore them. The fact that you would include everybody in on this, like it's said we play to the crowd, rather than for the crowd.
Frank: A lot of these indie rock bands play for themselves, as it is all about what they perceive to be cool. So you create a barrier between the crowd and they're wondering if they are even part of this. You can see that at so many festivals now, where bands are playing for themselves and turning in upon themselves, and you're just like, “What the fuck?”. That is what I love about Hip Hop: in Hip Hop music they come out chanting for the crowd to “make some fucking noise.”
Huey: Our background is old school Hip Hop, which comes from New York. We have a love for Hip Hop, and were room-mates with Low End Theory. Every time we took a shower, Low End Theory was busting out. That's how you see it, as the Master of Ceremonies. If you think that way, that's what we do. We try to keep people entertained, and I know it sounds corny, but you want to do well for the people.
Frank: If you enjoy it, as three musicians on stage, they see that, so you have to go out with that precept. Sometimes it can be hard, but the more you put into it the more you get out of it.
Huey: And you get what you give too, that's the thing. If you go out there and give it your all, especially on certain material that is very emotional, you can see the people getting on down to that. Like that Louis Armstrong song. It ain't boring
Frank: It definitely ain't boring, and it's not just background music for you to take a pill and dance your ass off to, and not remember it. I like to think that when people come to our gigs, they wake up the next day and say, “That was fucking sick, man. Did you see what he did?”.
PB: Finally, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals are one of the few bands that is identified with New York City. What were your reactions to Bin Laden finally being hunted down?
Frank: I don't believe it's happened – I don't believe anything until I see it. It's just weird that they dropped this guy who they have been searching for so long straight into the sea.
Fast: They showed all the other videos, but none of that, so it's just weird. But I do feel happy for the people who feel they needed to know that.
Huey: I was in New York when it happened, and I remember a lot of things changed that day. A lot of things that were once a big deal - like religion, colour or creed – went out the window. You saw that in the people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, leaving the city. So yeah, we capped the guy that masterminded it, and if you wanted to think that we went Roman on him, then, yeah, we did go Roman on him. I know guys that do that stuff (Points at his Seal Team Six t-shirt) and write books about that stuff.
It was a good day for the people of New York City, and my heart goes out to the people who were reminded of that day, and hopefully it will be some sort of closure for the people that the man who said “Go do that” isn't walking the earth. But now it is about how the line in the sand has shifted. Now we could go all geopolitical on you, if you want, as it was once the east and the west, but now it's going to be a religious line. This line has literally been drawn in the sand where these revolutions happen. It's going to be an interesting next ten years, I'll give you that much. I mean, Israel isn't about to take no shit, and there'll be some missiles flying out of these pretty soon, if you know what I mean?
Frank: I'm chuffed that they got the prick, but every anniversary they'll be reminded of that incident. The New Yorkers who've lost family members will watch that footage every fucking year come September. Go through that same pain every year. Yet the cunt who fucking okayed it, you've not seen one little bit of his end.
Huey: For the record, Frank: the people in the senate and the Intelligence Arms Committee will have seen all those guys, all the pictures and head-cam shots from the videos mounted on their headsets.
Frank: Me and you ain’t seen it. I'm pretty sure it was him that got hit, but I'm just saying that I would have loved to have seen it for myself.
Huey: It'll come out later, right before the elections – You know how America works: Sarah Palin vs. Barack Obama – and he can say, “I got Bin Laden, and that's bad-ass.” I think the world's changed, and I think with NATO being the Police Force for the world, especially the Arab world, you don't see them talking to the Austrians who are getting pretty right-wing.
PB: Huey, Fast, and Frank; thank you very much.
The 3-CD album ‘Fun, Live, and Criminal’ will be distributed through PledgeMusic, and can be found at www.pledgemusic.com/projects/funlovincriminals
Photos by Jacquie James (www.glassrat.co.uk)