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Following the death of The Fall’s legendary frontman Mark E. Smith last year the final, longest serving line up to back him have re-grouped to form new outfit Imperial Wax. Denzil Watson talks to them about their acclaimed debut LP 'Gastwerk Saboteurs' and future plans.
It’s been nearly two years since Mark E Smith, the charismatic and often cantankerous lead-singer of The Fall, sadly succumbed to lung and kidney cancer back in January 2018. The only constant member over the group’s 42-year existence, Smith was a complex and uncompromising character. Despite periods of relative stability, he got a reputation for hiring and firing musicians (over 60 different musicians appeared in The Fall) and a work ethic that saw the group produce no less than 31 studio albums and never dwell on the past.
Ironically, the final phase of the band saw a period of relative stability, personnel-wise. The trio of Pete Greenway (guitars), Dave Spurr (bass) and Keiron Melling (drums) came into The Fall in 2006, joining Smith’s then-wife Elena Poulou (keyboards), following a mass walk-out by the band prior to a US tour in the same year. They remained with Mark E Smith right to the end, although Poulou left the group earlier in 2016. The final line-up represented the longest serving in the group’s history and yielded six studio albums including the 31st and final studio album 'New Facts Emerge'.
Fittingly, after Smith's death, Greenway, Spurr and Melling played their first show together as the backing band for former Can vocalist (and MES favourite) Damo Suzuki in Salford, in May 2018. With the bit back between their teeth, they recruited Black Pudding vocalist and guitarist Sam Curran to form Imperial Wax. Playing their first gig as a four-piece in January this year, the band released their well-received debut album, 'Gastwerk Saboteurs', in May. A new single, 'Bromidic Thrills'/'Bloom & Wither' followed in October on John Robb’s Louder Than War label along with a UK tour in November to support it. Describing themselves as "noise rock and garage brawlers unafraid of a psych workout or a rockabilly dust-up”, Pennyblackmusic caught up with the band prior to their Sheffield Leadmill show for a chat about life in the Fall, the current tour and the future.
Pennyblack Music: How do you look back on your time in The Fall?
Dave Spurr: With great fondness. I think about Mark every day. All of the time really. We’ve got some good stories.
PB: Of the six Fall albums you played on, which is your favourite?
Keiron Melling: Probably the last one. It’s a bit of a bittersweet one really. We got a lot of control over it in terms of the recording and making of it. Obviously at that point we knew Mark was ill, but we all thought he was going to get better.
PB: I guess you must have seen him as being almost invincible given he’s always been there.
DS: We all thought he was going to get better. There was never any doubt that he wouldn’t in our mind.
KM: We’d already booked a studio to make the next record. A big cottage. And we were going to get Grant Showbiz to bring a mobile rig and set-up in this cottage and turn it into a recording studio and take however long it takes to make the album
PB: His personality traits when dealing with journalists and the public in general was well documented, and you must have been asked this a hundred times before, but what was MES really like?
DS: He could turn it on when people came in from the outside.
KM: He’d put a cigarette out on your head (laughs). We didn’t have any bad times with him. We always had a laugh. We’re just normal working-class lads. We always treated him like our boss at the start. And then, over time, we became mates like you do at work.
PB: The death of Mark, although inevitable, must have been a difficult time for you all. I remember the gig at Bristol that got cancelled at the last minute. It all sounded pretty heart-wrenching. What were your memories from back then?
KM: We didn’t really want to play it. We knew Mark was poorly and we didn’t want to put him through it. It takes a lot out of you, playing live, doesn’t it? But he was adamant that he wanted to keep playing. We said, “Don’t do it” and he said “No, no. We’ve got to keep moving on”.
PB: His work ethic was legendary wasn’t it?
DS: Yeah, and we’re trying to keep that going really.
KM: That’s how Imperial Wax is. He’s ingrained in us now. You’ve always got Mark in the back of your head.
PB: After Mark E Smith’s death, was there any immediate plans to carry on making music together as a trio?
Pete Greenway: We couldn’t even think about it. Then we had an offer from [Manchester-based gig promoter] Jacob Brailsford who was putting together a tour for Damo Suzuki where he had a different band every night.
KM: He was on this continuous tour playing with different musicians every night so Jacob thought it would be cool to get us to play with him. Mark was a big fan of Can and Damo Suzuki. We were initially going to say “Nah, I don’t think so” but we gave it a couple of days and though OK. The whole thing is just made up on the spot. The full thing is improvised so we thought it would be a laugh and it would be a nod to Mark so that’s why we did it. But as soon as we’d done it, we got the bug again and decided to keep going. And get some numpty in to sing for us.
DS: And we couldn’t find one, so we got Sam [Curran] (all laugh)
PB: For most bands, when a member leaves or dies, there’s still an option to carry on. That wasn’t really an option with The Fall, was it?
KM: We had offers. Not to be The Fall. Offers to do other things.
PG: We had offers to go out as The Fall with gust singers.
PB: There’s a girl-group that does a similar thing.
KM: Are they called 'The Fallen'?
PB: That was the name of the book about ex-Fall members. They’re called The Fallen Women.
KM: But that’s not our way of working. Mark put it in us that you always move forward. Look to the next album. Mark was The Fall, so we don’t want to be The Fall.
PBM: So, as a result you moved forward with a new lead-singer. How did you go about recruiting singer Sam Curran?
KM: I met Sam at a beer festival in Colne [Lancashire]. It’s my hometown. You should go. It’s brilliant! I bumped into him there and he came over to give us his condolences and just got chatting. Nothing was said about working together. Then it was about a month later that we’d done the Damo Suzuki gig and we were trying to think of someone that would fit the part. Sam was already in a band [Leeds outfit Black Pudding]. So, I just asked him if he’d be up for coming in with us and doing something and have a jam and see if it works. And we got on. Half of it is if you can handle being in a room with somebody. We all agreed to start with a cover of Captain Beefheart. We did 'Dropout Boogie' [from 'Safe as Milk'] once and that was it. We all went to the pub.
PBM: It must have been daunting prospect at first for you Sam.
Sam Curran: Yeah, I was fucking pooing myself. I just tried to make it sound like how Beefheart sounded.
KM: We were just looking for a song we might all know. And obviously we didn’t want to do a Fall song because we didn’t want him to do a Mark impression. So, we thought “Let’s try that Beefheart song”. So, he came in with no guitar, just vocals.
SC: I never ever sing without a guitar, so I was stood up like a lemon, trying to make myself look comfortable. It’s weird when you feel scared because you don’t have a piece of wood in front of you.
PBM: So, with the line-up of the new band sorted out, going forward it would be churlish to turn your back on the past but equally you want to be seen as a new band in your own right? There’s a fine line to tread. isn’t there?
DS: We thought whatever we did, we wanted to see it as a bit of a progression. We didn’t want to look back on what we’d done previously and just carry on with that. And I think that’s what we’ve done with this new album.
KM: The way we recorded it was the same way we worked with The Fall. We didn’t have any ready-written songs when we went in the studio.
PG: Not a lot of bands can afford to do that these days. But we managed to do it. We booked ten days and recorded the album in eight days – all the backing tracks. All the music was done, and it was done quite easily, much to our surprise. It was quite an easy-going process.
KM: It just gelled. It’s funny when you take that time away. We just thought we were going to attack it the same way as The Fall. We just got in there and we all came up with ideas and just recorded them. You never usually just use one person’s full song. We’d use Pete’s chorus and Dave’s verse.
PG: And we didn’t get too precious about our own ideas. It was a case of put as many ideas down as possible and see what works. And it worked out that every idea someone put down we liked, and it worked so the process was quite easy.
PB: It sounds like it really worked as, for me, it is a really great album. It’s a muscular album, quite brutal in places but there’s still a melody to it.
KM: It is really what just came out. We didn’t know what we sounded like with Sam. We knew what we sounded like on the last Fall album but it’s different music now. To write a Fall song you would write it to Mark’s specification.
SC: I wanted to play guitar on it because it would change that dynamic. I’ve got a different style and approach to doing stuff. I didn’t just want to be a singer.
PB: I’m getting a garage rock feel from it with influences from both the 60s and 70s, including Led Zeppelin in places, like on ‘Turncoat’.
SC: Yeah, that was me!
PB: Did you have an idea of how you wanted the album to sound or did it just happen organically?
KM: We really didn’t know what we were going to sound like. When you have a little jam together you can’t really hear what it sounds like because it’s really loud. So, we recorded eight days straight and did the album and we didn’t do any of the vocals because at that point we hadn’t written any. We didn’t have long to come up with the lyrics. So, Sam did them in two days so he could give his voice a rest.
DS: It was funny because we’d got used to the tracks as instrumentals but as soon as his vocals went on them it completely changed them.
PB: Given how prolific Mark was as a lyric writer, was this a difficult thing to overcome? Did it change the way you wrote songs? What did you take as inspiration when writing the lyrics?
KM: With The Fall we always wrote and recorded the music first. We didn’t sit down with Mark and read through his lyrics and try to write to them. We wrote the songs then Mark would change them or say, “I want a bit more of this”. Something that we wrote together, we might think that is a great song and sounds amazing and record it and it would just get binned. He’d edit on the outside before he did his lyrics.
DS: We didn’t hear the lyrics until the album was out.
KM: Unless we’d played the track live. Apart from that, we probably heard the finished product the same time as you did.
PBM: So, what did you take for inspiration for your lyrics then Sam?
SC: I don’t know really.
KM: He says that, but they are all really heartfelt.
PB: I could imagine 'Plant the Seed' on a Fall album, given Mark’s love of old school rock’n’roll.
PG: It’s got onto the British Airways in-flight play list so from January next year you’ll be able to hear that on BA flights!
PBM: I really like the two tracks that wig out into an extended jam – ‘Rammi Taxi Illuminati’ and ‘Night of the Meek’.
PG: They were done pretty much off the cuff in the studio. They didn’t take long to get together. It was just like a quick jam really.
SM: I think that epitomised what the album-making process was really.
KM: ‘Night of the Meek’ was done in pretty much one take. Dave had a bassline and he said, “I’ve got this idea” so he played it to use and we thought, “OK, let’s try and jam it”. And the producer at the time said, “Right, I’m going to record it and catch the idea then we’ll do a proper version” but that was the first take we did.
PB: Live you’ve been throwing in the odd Fall song too, like ‘Auto Chip 2014–2016’ and ‘Senior Twilight Stock Replacer’, haven’t you?
KM: Because the people who have come to see us are Fall fans. They are our main crowd at the moment. It’s amazing that people are still coming out to see us. We really appreciate it.
PG: And it’s something that we really didn’t expect. I thought that the way that we’ve gone with this band is so different that many people wouldn’t keep with us. We feel really lucky and playing the odd Fall song in the set is a way to give them something back.
KM: Yeah, we do one or two Fall tracks to say, “Thanks for coming”. Originally, we decided we weren’t going to do any but then we changed our mind.
PB: I think Brix and The Extricated have taken a similar tack on playing Fall songs. Have you seen them play?
DS: No! They’re the enemy. Mark drilled it into us that every past member of The Fall is the enemy (laughs).
PBM: Was that in your contract then?
DS: Yeah! (all laugh)
PBM: Were you fans of The Fall prior to joining the band?
PG: Yeah, when I was a teenager, I went to see The Fall a few times but I kind of lost touch with them for quite a few years before I joined. I was in a band and we supported them. We were called Pubic Fringe so my idea of The Fall was the 80's Fall.
PB: There was a time where I fell out of love with The Fall. It turned into a circus with all his on-stage antics and fiddling with the amps.
DS: Woah, woah, woah. That’s called “on-stage mixing”! (everybody laughs)
KM: You know what, he used to do that with us, but he’d nailed it. He’d learnt his craft by our line-up. Sometimes he’d just take the bass completely out. But Dave and I made a decision not to try and alter what Mark was doing on-stage. If I was left with just the snare, then that’s what I’d play. But it worked. Nine times out of ten it worked. Sometimes he’d whack the bass up perfectly on the chorus.
PG: When I was in the band supporting The Fall, I used to watch Mark get up to his antics and I didn’t really want to be part of that. So, I made sure when Mark was on stage with the rest of the band, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. And just let him do what he wanted to do and not make a fuss. After all, it’s his band and if he doesn’t want a guitar in this bit that’s fine.
PB: That’s why you guys probably lasted as long as you did.
KM: He used to ask Dave to sing backing vocals every now and again and at Glastonbury I heard Dave, out of nowhere, shout “Greenway!”
PB: I saw footage of that Glastonbury set from 2015, where he announced his entrance by saying “Thanks for turning the volume down, cunt!”. It was the one where he split some beer down his left trouser leg wasn’t it?
KM: Ah, yes. There was a bit of a kerfuffle with Fat White Family backstage.
PB: They are massive Fall/Mark E Smith fans.
KM: Yeah. But there was a bit of a thing and it’s all good now. No problem. But at the time one of them threw a drink, and Mark threw a drink. It was all in good faith. And Mark ended up with champagne down his pants in a place where everyone thought he’d pissed himself. And then they stood at the side of the stage and watched us straight after that had happened.
PB: So, after this tour what’s the plan? You’ve just released a new single. What’s next for Imperial Wax?
KM: Finish the tour, get back in the studio and do the next album. And see where we go from there really. We’ve got a few dates coming up next year and a few festivals, including Bearded Theory in Derbyshire, in May. We’re playing at The Social in London and The Live Rooms in Chester, both in January. And that’s pretty much it really in terms of what’s in the calendar. We’re going to concentrate on the album.
PG: That’s pretty much it. Keep moving forward. Putting out new material. Bulk up the set so we’ve got plenty of choices.
KM: We’ve just got to try and work out how we can afford it!
PB: Thank you.
Photos by Denzil Watson