published: 16 /
Denzil Watson talks to Kirk Brandon about his forthcoming acoustic tour and second album with cello player Sam Sansbury and his career with both Spear of Destiny and Theatre of Hate
The terms ‘national treasure’ and ‘legend’ get bandied about far too easily these days. One person who such titles could, however, justifiably sit with is Westminster-born musician Kirk Brandon, arguably one of the most photographed post-punk musicians of the 80's. Cutting his musical teeth with London-based punks The Pack in the late 70's, Brandon shot to fame as the frontman of gothic new-wavers Theatre of Hate in the early 80's. After establishing a reputation as a blistering live band with their highly original mix of gothic rock, punk and Brandon’s distinctive operatic vocal style, the band disintegrated after a handful of well-received singles and their Mick Jones-produced debut album, 'Westworld'.
Finally splitting in early 1983, Brandon re-grouped with Theatre bassist Stan Stammers to form Spear of Destiny with its more anthemic and accessible sound. It would prove to be a far more durable proposition. Thirty-four years and thirteen studio albums later Spear of Destiny are still going strong, alongside a reformed and rejuvenated Theatre of Hate.
Few post-punk musicians can claim to be a prolific as Brandon. Not even his contraction of Reiter’s syndrome in 1987, preventing him from walking for a year, nor heart surgery in 2011 could stop him. For over four decades he has repeatedly released new material while setting the song-writing bar for others to aspire to. On the eve of his latest musical project, an acoustic duo formed with cello player Sam Sansbury, and the forthcoming second studio album and tour of the UK, Pennyblackmusic caught up with Kirk for a chat about now, the future and the past of one of the UK’s best singer-songwriters.
PB: You've done acoustic material in the past but how did this collaboration with cellist Sam Sansbury come about?
KB: He was running a family business, and he kind-of-retired from that, and wanted to go back to his first love which was playing music, being a cellist. He used to be a cellist in an orchestra and he just wanted to get back into music. And a mutual friend said, "Why don't you guys get together and see what happens?” and that's exactly what we did. I think it came at the right time in his life. His business was folding and he wanted to get back to playing music, so it was great. Really great. So. that's how it came about.
PB: You've just been in the studio to record a brand-new album entitled 'Cello Suites (Due)' to tie in with the tour. How did you go about selecting from the many, many songs in your vast back catalogue?
KB: Well, there's three actual new songs as I didn't want it to be facing the past too much. Too retro. But there's also other various songs on it that people say are the Spear classics, so to speak. So that's cool.
Also the other thing is that with Sam doing the cello on it is that quite a lot of the parts on it are parts that he has made up. It's not just replicating the lead guitar or the themes. He's come up with a couple of things that are very interesting on it. It just keeps it kind of fresh for me. It's his take on it as much as it is mine, I think.
PB: I guess some of the songs move in different directions and directions that you probably didn't consider when you originally recorded them as a band. Do some of the songs take on a new life when they are recorded in such a fundamentally different way to when they were recorded as a band?
KB: That's correct - yeah. I don't know what you call it. There's a bit of classical in there. There's a bit of medieval in there. There's some funny stuff in there. It's interesting.
PB: Were there some songs in there that surprised you when you did them in this new format?
KB: Yeah. 'Harlan County' [from 1985’s 'World Service' album] is on it which is an old Spear classic. I originally wrote it on a guitar and recorded it with Spear on a piano. Now it's gone back to the guitar and Sam has, I don't know what you would call it, put a kind of a south-of-the-border cello on it. It's really difficult to define exactly what he actually did, but it worked. It sounds like something from 1865. That's what it sounds like.
PB: Did you find that Spear of Destiny songs work better than Theatre of Hate songs in this format, or is it more subtler than that?
KB: There's just one Theatre of Hate song on the whole album and the rest of it is Spear, and the three new ones. It was just something that kind of happened. We were just jamming and this riff came along. When I was a lad I started out playing blues and this 1930's blues riff turned up. And we jammed it and it just kind of evolved into a song in about half-an-hour. So we put that on there.
PB: Whereabouts did you record it?
KB: It was all done in Manchester, Salford.
PB: You are about to go go on a eleven-date acoustic tour of the UK next month with Sam. What can the fans of Kirk Brandon, Spear of Destiny and Theatre of Hate expect?
KB: Plenty of different stuff. A lot of the classic Spear songs will be in there. Some Theatre of Hate. A couple of new ones. Some of the songs are 25-years-old and people say. "Why are you playing the new stuff?". But 25-year old-songs aren't that new (laughs). But there's a couple of new ones just for them!
PB: One thing that amazes me and I don't know how you do it, is how you find time to juggle some many projects and find the time to do Spear, Theatre of Hate, the akoustik project and Dead Men Walking?
KB: The Dead Men thing is basically when the guys have time to do it. They all have lifestyles, bands and touring commitments. It's when everyone says, "Okay, we're free three weeks in November," and that's how that happens, or doesn't.
PB: I guess it's also a challenge with respect to Theatre of Hate with John 'Boy' Lennard and Stan Stammers both residing in the Americas.
KB: Yeah, Stanley's in Pennsylvania.
PB: I guess you have to block-out time to do Theatre of Hate stuff too?
KB: Yeah, we have to be really "Yeah, we're going to do this". Committed to the date, committed to the time. It's a very definite thing. People don't live here anymore. People have moved abroad.
PB: I caught Theatre of Hate recently in Leeds and I have to say that it was one of the most powerful performances I've seen you play.
KB: Brilliant. Thank you very much.
PB: One thing that really struck me was how vital and urgent Theatre of Hate still sound. Personally, I think you sound better now than you did in 1981 or 1982.
KB: Funnily enough I agree. It was such a rocket. It went up to the moon and crashed, all in the space of eighteen months. And with all those volcanic personalities that were in it, it had to really. And the people surrounding the band and the manager [Terry Razor], it was such a mad-house.
But we're a bit steadier now. Stanley and myself and John. Much steadier. And Chris Bell on drums. He's played with us on a couple of previous occasions. He was on 'Loadstone', the album that everybody thinks is the best post-80's Spear album. I just said to Chris, "What are you doing?" because Danny [Ferrani] couldn't do it. Chris came on-board and it was just brilliant and we haven't looked back. Danny plays with the Buzzcocks. That's his full-time thing and he just found the time when he could.
PB: You've just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of 'Westworld'. It's a weighty album to follow up after all this time but I was also very impressed with 'Kinshi'. For me it was an excellent second album. Were you please with how it turned out and how it was received?
KB: Yeah, very happy. We could have used more time in the studio on the mixing side of it. But yeah, 95% fantastic.
PB: And the thing that really comes across is that chemistry between you, John 'Boy' Lennard and Stan. I don't know how you describe it but that Theatre of Hate vibe is still very much there.
KB: It is, yeah. There's kind of an internal mechanism which it works on and I don't even understand it myself, but it's there. I wish I could describe it but I can't.
PB: What were your personal favourites on the album?
KB: It's difficult. Mine and Stanley's favourite is 'Triumph'.
PB: Following on from the box set re-release of 'Westworld', Cherry Red will shortly issue an up-dated live anthology of 'He Who Dares Wins'. Were you closely involved with the reissue?
KB: Yeah, I was involved with that. I thought it was time things came out. As a set of recordings, it's like a time capsule of that period in time. I think it's brilliant. If you want that, that is what this is.
PB: There are three concerts from the early days and two more recent gigs post you getting back together. Do you hear a change in the sound or is it fairly consistent?
KB: Obviously this isn't the 80's and all those studio sounds and lexicons of effects we don't use. We get a more dated sound that goes back to the 60's. I think intrinsically people like Stanley and John are unique to the way they sound and, no matter how you dress it up and no matter what you do to it, it's still there. You can't change them.
PB: I've listened to all five CDs and with the second most recent gig, the one in Manchester from 2007, there was something slightly different about it and I looked on the sleeve notes and it was the only one of the five gigs without Stanley on bass. There was something just subtly different about it. I think it was Spear of Destiny's Craig Adams on bass for that show.
KB: They're really great pals so there's no animosity or anything like that. They have wives. They have lives. They have children. This isn't 1981. For the last album and tour we managed to pull back together again as we have got a commitment out of everybody and Chris is on-board, so we have got something that will work. If we can just get everyone on a plane and in the same room together.
PB: I thought what was really interesting was the Belgium gig from 1982 when you were moving towards the second album and playing some of the songs that went on to form part of the first Spear of Destiny album.
KB: It was all a good time but things were evolving like 'Omen of the Times'. And the addition of Nigel Preston, RIP I'm afraid, on drums. He was a phenomenal drummer and he was the self-same guy who did 'She Sells Sanctuary' with Billy [Duffy] and Ian [Astbury] of the Cult. That was his swan-song.
PB: I remember buying the Berlin version of 'He Who Dares Wins' when it first came out for the princely sum of £2.99, and I was amazed at how good the sound of the album was. The band sounded colossal.
KB: It was a big gig. I don't know how many thousands of people where there. It was just a fantastic gig. Everyone was on such a high. The whole place was on such a high.
PB: It has to be one of my favourite ever live albums. I remember listening to it and being completely blown away by it. That was me hooked.
KB: (Laughs) I'm sorry!
PB: It reminds me of the epic Spear of Destiny gig I saw back in October 1984 on the 'One Eyed Jacks' tour at the former Nelson Mandela building in Sheffield.
KB: Yes, I remember it. It was about 100 degrees plus up there. I remember there was a circular staircase from the dressing-room up to the stage. We were sweating like pigs down below. And as you went up the spiral staircase to the stage area it got hotter and hotter. And we were going, “Fucking hell, is there a fire or something?” And when we got on stage and I walked out to the centre I was dripping and I hadn’t even sung a note. It was literally ridiculous. We stood there and I remember saying to someone, I think it was Stanley, “How are we going to do this, man?” And he said “Just keep going”. You know when it [sweat] runs down your arms and on your fingers when you play a note. That’s how hot that place was. I’ll never forget that.
PB: Coming back to the present and all the stuff you are doing, you seem to be at the peak of your creative powers and your voice is sounding as good as it has ever sounded. How do you manage to maintain this level of creativity and energy?
KB: How do you maintain it? I don't know. Music is your passion basically. And you are hooked and you are addicted to it basically. That’s what you do and you are always looking for something new, a new way of doing it or new chord sequences. I don’t know. Basically it’s passion. That’s what it is.
PB: If you look at the days when you first started off with The Pack up to now, there have been very few years that have gone by that have seen you fail to release new material.
KB: Yeah, every three years something new comes out.
PB: But if you look at your peers, picking three at random – The Cure, the Sisters of Mercy and the Specials – they haven’t released any new material for years. Would you find it unfulfilling if you weren’t writing and releasing new stuff?
KB: Yeah. I think I would get very frustrated if I wasn’t doing that. It’s part of what you do. You write, you create. You always are in that process even if you are not aware of it. You’re taking on-board everything you see, hear and feel and down-loading it into your mind. And it’s just a constant process. So to have to not let it all come out would be strange.
PB: When you write songs do you pen them with either Spear of Destiny or Theatre of Hate in mind or do you write a song and then see which band it fits best with?
KB: No. My process is that I’ve got a Heim amp, a little Gibson Skylark from about 1960 and a WEM Copycat from 1969 and I put the guitar through there. And I constantly see riffs I want to record so I just record the riffs and then if I’ve got any lyrics or singing ideas I will just marry the two up and record that and build it up like if it’s going to be that way. Sometimes it’s just the music and that goes on the iPhone and I can just bang it out.
I’ve actually been writing with Phil Martini who’s doing the drums for Spear of Destiny and we’ve just done about five or six new songs. We’re trying to record a new Spear of Destiny album at the end of the year to release, I don’t know when. But that’s the kind of process that’s been going on. I’ve got a couple of songs from just writing riffs and I thought, “There’s only one band in the world that can play that and that’s Theatre of Hate.” When they turn up I just leave them alone. I put it down, leave it alone and come back to it much later. That’s a Theatre of Hate thing. They’re kind of unique songs. I’ve got two on my phone now that are just Theatre of Hate. There’s nothing else they could be.
PB: And I’m guessing in the current climes you’re not short of things to write about?
KB: No, I’m not. One of the new songs on this acoustic album with Sam is called 'Medievalists' and it was just a bit of automatic writing in that it was about Manchester and London and the bombings. What I consider is that it takes us back to the sixth century. That’s not medieval times, that’s the thirteen-hundreds, but as a term ‘medievalists’. It’s pretty much just an honest insight into what I felt and thought. I didn’t have to think too hard about this one. It was just there in my mind. And the riffs, the music was there. And it was all married up in about an hour. And I came back to it and wrote the lyrics and went into the studio and that was it. I played it to Sam and he started playing these fantastic, simple cello parts. It sounds like a train coming. And it just worked.
PB: That’s the signature of a real musician, isn’t it?
KB: Yeah, I think if you are able to translate things pretty quickly, from the actual world into the communication world of music then, yes, it is.
PB: It’s a real gift, isn’t it?
KB: Yes, it is. I’m a very, very lucky person. Unbelievably lucky. To still be able to do it and not have been burnt out. Or allowing yourself to be burnt out by the industry.
PB: Okay, just a few quick throw-away questions. What’s your favourite Spear of Destiny song?
KB: There is no such thing! Err, who knows? I could pull any one out of the bag. Okay, 'Grapes of Wrath'.
PB: Okay, favourite all-time Chelsea footballer?
KB: (Laughs) Fucking hell. You’re asking me some hard ones here. I could say Peter Osgood or Eden Hazard.
PB: Favourite Spear of Destiny album?
KB: Difficult. I’d say 'Lodestone'. I think the songs really caught something involved at the time.
PB: I’ve seen a bit on the social media channels about people citing this album as their favourite album.
KB: Yeah, they started a thing about it.
PB: And finally, favourite Theatre of Hate song?
KB: Fucking hell.
PBM: That’s a bit easier than the Spear of Destiny question
KB: (Laughs) Is it?
PB: Well, there’s less to choose from.
KB: 'Omen of the Times'.
PB: Thank you very much for your time.
Kirk Brandon will be playing 'Akoustic Live' dates with Sam Sansbury across the UK in late August and early September.