January 9th, 2012 | Interviews

luke mcgarry

John White has been UV POP since the 80s, and he’s gone from being a gaunt youth hunched over a guitar with only backing tapes behind him to being in a full band that has his wife as a member, but he’s never stopped. The first two LPs go for over $100 on Discogs, but John doesn’t see any of that—he’s just a humble boy from the small mining town of Doncaster who repairs guitars, eats weird stuff and plays what he wants how he wants to studio audiences in his kitchen. Sacred Bones reissued the first UV POP 7” from 1982, and will be reissuing the first LP, No Songs Tomorrow, early this year. This interview by Nikki Normal.

Tell me about your first foray into music—the I Scream Brothers.
John White: We were a three-piece working from Sheffield. I’m from Doncaster—which is fifteen miles away—an industrial mining town on the outskirts of Sheffield. … The I Scream Brothers were guys I’d met just from being in local music scene. We got together to make some tracks and we did a recording for the Pax record label from Sheffield—an anti-war track and something else for them. They were really a punk record label, but they put out our first single, ‘Tree Growing Wrong’/‘Avoid the Surgery.’ We went in different directions very early. We broke up after about nine months. I was going in an experimental direction, where they wanted to make sort of pop music.
What bands were influencing you toward the experimental direction?
JW: Bands like early Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, and the German bands—the Krautrock bands. The Sheffield scene: Clock DVA, and friends of mine called In the Nursery. They were experimenting with marching drums and industrial rhythms and film music.
Did you feel like part of that ‘Sheffield scene’?
JW: Definitely. I was playing in Sheffield in the early 80s. The bands around that were playing at the time were In the Nursery, and Pulp, who went on to do great things in the U.K. pop scene, you know. And lots of small experimental bands. I was heavily influenced by Cabaret Voltaire, and they produced the first UV POP single, which is the one coming out on Sacred Bones. I went in to their studio and they put plenty of input into the single. They encouraged me to do what I wanted to do but they didn’t try to mold what we were doing. They said, ‘What do you want to do?’ and they recorded it, and they made it sound exciting. They wanted people to be themselves in their studio. They weren’t a commercial studio. They didn’t do it for money, they were encouraging people who wanted to be creative. … While we were there they were showing films constantly while we were recording. They were showing things like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
What about Texas Chainsaw Massacre can you hear in that single?
JW: Me screaming, probably.
And then you started work on your first LP, No Songs Tomorrow?
JW: Yes. I bought some equipment with the money I made out of the first single, and decided to record it in my own home. I bought a 4-track tape recorder because I heard that the Beatles had done their album on 4-track, so I thought, ‘Well, anybody can do that then.’ So I put my gear up in the kitchen and recorded it in the house on my own. I played all the instruments. It was just the way to be. You could do what you liked, spend as much time as you liked doing it, and you weren’t paying somebody else to do it. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so No Songs Tomorrow was a very homegrown product.
There seems like two very different angles on that record: the experimental, abrasive sound and the more songwriting-ish stuff.
JW: At the time, I was definitely torn between two sides. I enjoyed listening to the post-punk/pop music of the day—bands like the Psychedelic Furs and the Cure. And then on the other side, I was listening to Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Einstürzende Neubauten, DAF—people like that. I like all kinds of music so I wanted to be involved in everything, really. I didn’t really know what direction I was going to follow in the end. I was trying to be creative and not have any boundaries. If I wake up today and want to write a jangly pop song, that’s fine. And if at 12 o’clock at night I wanted to start making noise with a drum kit in my cellar and scream into a microphone, I didn’t feel like I had to be restricted to one kind of style. I was making it for myself; I wasn’t making it for an audience. … When the thing was finished, I split it into two halves and put the jangly pop stuff on the A-side and the more experimental, industrial-sounding stuff on the B-side. It sounded better being presented in that way, that’s all. I would have happily just put it in any order, but people do like to categorize things. It’s better to have something that you can put a label on sometimes.
I read that you wrote ‘No Songs Tomorrow’ after killing a bird?
JW: When I was a teenager, I used to go out with a bunch of lads, we were into motorbikes and, you know, hanging around. A few of them had air rifles and we’d go out and just shoot at targets—tin cans and things, and one day a couple of us were shooting at pigeons and I shot a bird in a tree. I wasn’t very good at shooting, but I hit this bird and there was a big thwack and this thing just fell off its perch and fell on the floor. I was really upset, you know. I couldn’t believe I’d done it afterwards.
So safe to say you’re not a hunter now?
JW: If I was hungry I might kill a rabbit or a chicken, but I don’t go around shooting defenseless sparrows off of people’s garden fences anymore.
Are you a vegetarian?
JW: I was a vegetarian in the 80s, but I didn’t sit with it very long … I got over it meself. I’ll eat anything. I went to China last year and I was eating chickens’ feet and fishes’ eyeballs. I will eat absolutely anything. As long as it’s got a label that says ‘some kind of food’ on it, I will try it. Christ, I can even eat olives. If you can eat olives, I think you can eat anything.
What’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever eaten?
JW: Probably a plateful of tripe—raw tripe. In England, it’s a bit of a Northern working-class thing. It’s sort of dying out these days. Vinegar and pepper, and you just eat it raw. It’s foul.
In those early days, were you playing a lot of gigs around town?
JW: I was playing in Europe—Manchester, London, Sheffield—probably playing two or three times a week. I was making my own backing tapes. I was playing a drum machine and a bass guitar and a keyboard into a tape recorder and then using that as a backing track, and playing guitar and singing live. … I played with Hula, In the Nursery, Culture Club, Nico …
Did you hang out with Boy George?
JW: Yes! Not in a sexual way. We did have a bit of a natter in the day. He was a really lovely guy—quite a big guy—and he looked after me at the club, helped me with the soundcheck. He was a really nice guy—a genuine sort of bloke. … [Culture Club] weren’t really famous at the time. Although they were number one in the charts the week that I’d played with them, prior to that they were virtually unknown in the U.K. They almost came out of nowhere.
Was fame something you were after, or something you could take or leave?
JW: Something I could take or leave, really. All I wanted to do was be creative and please myself. I’m quite selfish in that way. I make music for myself—that’s what I’ve always done and I still do to this day. I’m not saying I’m not interested in an audience, but I make things to make me happy.
What’s the most interesting interaction you’ve ever had with an audience member?
JW: I played at Bath University one day, and somebody pulled me off the stage. I’m quite keen on photography so I was showing slides on the back of the stage and the audience was shouting at me, telling me that I was being self-indulgent and conceited and I got really annoyed with them. I mean, I’m at a fucking art college and you’re calling me self-indulgent? And this guy got a hold of me hand while I was singing at the front and pulled me down to the floor and we were wrestling on the floor. … Just students having a go. Which is what you want. If you don’t provoke any reaction at all, you’re not leaving an impression, are you? If people don’t respond to you in any way whatsoever then you’re not doing anything positive, are you? An aggressive reaction—I like that!
What was the recording process like for your second full-length, Bendy Baby Man?
JW: Bendy Baby Man was recorded in my daughter’s bedroom while she was at school. We programmed the drums with a computer, and then we played our instruments over the top. … We had neighbors on both sides, so we couldn’t use a drum kit—we had to use a drum machine. I demoed all the songs previously, so people were playing the parts that I’d written. It was just an extension of No Songs Tomorrow really. It didn’t go down as well as the first album. … It did get quite a negative response, that album. I think, at the time, the songs weren’t given the production they needed. We play some of those songs now, and they’re really strong songs, but when I recorded them in the house, it probably didn’t bring out their full potential. … My first album got really positive reviews everywhere, and the second album basically bombed, if you like. Many a mickle makes a muckle, as they say. … The album was done on a very low budget. It cost less than 200 pounds to make. And the album reviewers, they were comparing it to the Cure album and the Psychedelic Furs album, and the Talking Heads album, that were probably costing half a million pounds. We were spending peanuts.
What is a bendy baby man?
JW: The song was about a friend of mine who was having an affair with a woman called Wendy. I wanted to write a song about his affair without blowing his cover, or anybody else’s. So I called his girlfriend Bendy Baby Man, and then we wrote a song around it called ‘Turkey Bones.’ … He was a businessman, and people who knew him regarded him as a bit of a turkey, a bit of a no-hoper. A turkey is like a loser.
What is that first song about—‘Music to Yeah To’? I think of it as one of UV POP’s ‘hits.’
JW: It’s about dreaming, and me being in charge of things. It’s about me being in control of my band, and it’s about things you see in your dreams. Combined imagery. The thing about turning black is about—you know those dreams you have where you become somebody else, and you become, say, Afro-Caribbean, and you’re seeing things from the other side where people are treating you a totally different way because you look differently, even though you’re the same person? That’s part of the song, and the other one is I was having a bit of dissent in my band at the time and the ‘captain’ part of the song is me trying to assert my authority. … That was Mark Smith, Rob Jeffrey, Neil Bonsall and Colin Vale. It was probably the first full band.
Tony Nicholson (bass): A band is not a democracy, it’s like a benign dictatorship. … If you have a democracy, a band tends to not really work that well. … I think you have to agree—you know, somebody has an idea and everyone’s kind of like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’ And then, within the realms of them agreeing with the idea—you know, you can make suggestions, but ultimately one person has to make a decision whether it goes or not.
So John is like the Margaret Thatcher of the band?
JW: Adolf Hitler.
TN: I think you missed out on the benign dictatorship part.
Who’s a worse model?
JW: I don’t think Margaret Thatcher exterminated six million—that would have to be the worse one. But I would say she’s a close second.
On their website, Sacred Bones sort of touts you as a political band. Does that fit?
JW: There was a definite period in the 80s and 90s when there was a lot of political unrest in the U.K., and we wrote about the government at the time. Songs like ‘Ghost Bloody Country’ was about Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 80s, and how she sort of wore the working-class down and fought the trade unions with the army and the police. And we wrote an anti-war song called ‘Just a Game.’ I wouldn’t say we were heavily political, but we have had our political elements, because you write about what you know about. If I wake up and I’m seeing the news and the miners are being beaten with clubs by the police, then I’m going to write something about it.
What’s the sexiest UV POP song?
JW: I don’t think we do sexy. Maybe ‘Do What You Like.’ That’s quite sexy. Or ‘Anyone For Me.’ You can work that one out, I’m sure. Looking out the window, fancying your neighbors, the women in the street. That song was me looking out the window and eyeing up the local females. Bringing all sorts of political elements into the song as well.
So checking out girls and making it political?
TN: Looking at girls and singing about power stations.
JW: Huge chimneys, there you go.
So what was going on in the 90s? UV POP suddenly got quiet …
JW: What happened in the 90s was I became a family man, and I took a little bit of time out to bring up my children. I worked in a power station, I was a lorry driver, I worked in a music shop. I build guitars and I’m a guitar repairer now—that’s what I do for a living. I’ve had proper jobs all my life, really.
What did you do at the power station?
JW: I was the bloke in charge of operating the boiler and the turbine.
Did you ever have the temptation to just pull some switch and have the whole thing malfunction, so that your local people could have some peace and quiet away from technology?
JW: No, I’ve never been inclined to wreck the public services or utilities that we have come to rely on. The world leaders, governments and capitalists are more than capable of doing that without any help from me. Technology has put fantastic creative tools into the hands of ordinary people—I can do things at home now with music and film that would have cost tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of pounds—but at school we were told that technology would free the working classes from manual labor and the 48-hour week and we would have more leisure time and money to spend—now we have 10 percent unemployment, first-time buyer’s housing that no one can afford, and banks that won’t even lend mortgages to people who are in employment. Do the banks really have our money? You can still have a guy with, say, a £100 million yacht alongside someone with no food, running water or sanitation. Doesn’t really make a lot of sense does it? So much for progress.
What’s the smallest number of people you’ve ever played to?
JW: Seven people. I drove 350 miles to Exeter on the south coast of the U.K., and there were seven people there. And there were bands on from Exeter at the same time and there was nobody there to see them at all. So we didn’t do bad, really. … I’ve done soundchecks in my house for people who wanted to see the band, but couldn’t make a show for some reason or another. If you came here now and said, ‘Play me a concert,’ I would play you a concert. … The podcasts we do, we always have a studio audience in my kitchen. We get between 15 and 30 people in there. It’s quite a small kitchen so it makes for a good show.
Have you ever been to Los Angeles?
JW: I’ve been to Houston.
So your impression of the States is based on Houston?
JW: Where’s Hollywood? Is that in Los Angeles? I don’t know. It’s just a place where people live. I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other about Los Angeles. Sounds like a nice place to live.
What would someone come to Doncaster for?
JW: I’ve never lived anywhere else. We live where we were born. It’s a mining area—heavy industry. Sheffield steel is made just up the road.
What would be the best UV POP song to have to listen to over and over again if you were trapped in a mine?
JW: I think most people would rather be trapped in a mine than be forced to listen to one of UV POP’s songs over and over again.
How do you deal with fans who still want to see you on stage by yourself with some backing tracks and a guitar?
JW: The release coming out on Sacred Bones is 30 years old, and the upcoming podcast we are going to recreate that sound with synthesizers, drum machines, saxophones. But these days we go out as a band and people generally accept what we do as entertaining. We still play some of the old songs, but they’ve been developed over the years into a band format, and people are happy to listen to that. The songs are good. It’s not a question about the songs, it’s the way we deliver them now. … We always go down well wherever we go, so we don’t even think about it these days. The people who want the old stuff, the people who were into the band in the 80s—the dark wave/industrial scene—they’re still fans, it’s just, I wouldn’t say they are locked in the past, but they enjoy what they liked when they were teenagers, and cling on to that. We’ve sort of moved on as performers, because I’m not 20 anymore. I can’t behave like a 20-year-old, it’s just a ridiculous concept to me to be trying to recreate what I did 30 years ago.
What is it you think you ‘outgrew’?
JW: At the age of 21, I was married with a son. We tried to find some common ground for a five-year period, but we didn’t even know about love. My wife left me. I was 25 and had just started playing guitar. Our break-up gave me something to write about for the first time in my life. I’d been in a couple of bands, but was never confident or pushy enough to contribute to the songwriting. Eventually I started to record my own ideas and then decided to have a go as a solo act. I was terrible at first, but I was developing as a person. Gaining confidence in my own ability and starting to make important decisions for myself. So the decision to become a solo artist wasn’t optional, there was nothing else on the table. I did improve, then people wanted to come on board so I let them. I was being accepted and I felt good about it. I went on a solo tour in Holland in the early 80s, had a great time and went down really well at every show. It was a little bit lonely but I think it was a big part of my cure. … These days I’m happy, confident and not bothered at all about what anyone thinks of me.
What’s the most ‘science fiction’ experience you’ve ever had?
JW: I regularly see people in my bedroom, say if I wake up in the early hours or the lucid period as you’re dropping off. I can sit up and they don’t go away—your stereotypical ghost-like figures, kneeling, praying, standing around in groups … I don’t believe in ghosts and I’m an atheist as well, fortunately, so I’m not scared as such. I imagine that people who do actually believe in ghosts must be having the same hallucinations—if that’s what they are. … Wait a minute though, what if they are visitors from the future?
Do you watch ghost shows on TV?
JW: I don’t watch TV ever. I watch films. I like quirky, left-field stuff, you know. Things that you don’t necessarily have to know what it’s going off about. … Also, anything with Paddy Considine in it.
Given a Venn diagram containing Boy George, Paddy Considine and John White, what would be the label of the area where all the circles intersect?
JW: The male rape scene where everyone ends up stabbed to death?