ANIMALS & MEN: I ALWAYS KEPT MY CLOTHES ON
Courted by Adam Ant—a relationship from which they politely withdrew when he suggested hiring a studio band to re-record their songs—and noted by John Peel, Animals & Men were positioned to take whatever version of fame and fortune the first wave of U.K. post-punk had to offer. But when the big boys came calling, they turned around and walked back to their tiny mining town in the grasslands, where they stayed with their unreleased tapes until good ol’ Hyped 2 Death re-presented them to the world. Encouraged by the release of retrospective collections, A&M have not only reunited but restarted as a working band, releasing brand new, extremely ferocious songs like “John of the Sword.” They’ll play their first-ever U.S. shows this month. Founders Ralph Mitchard and Susan Wells speak now from their living room, where they play in war paint with the door open while the neighbors marvel. They will perform at the Smell Thursday. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
As young punk kids, you had a zine called Stranded in the Jungle and you got to meet Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. What’s the first thing you say to Screamin’ Jay when you’re six inches away from him?
Ralph Mitchard (guitar/vocals): We basically bribed our way into the dressing room. There were these Welsh teddy boys in there and they kept saying things like, ‘Screamin’ Jay! Screamin’ Jay! Have you ever met Jerry Lee Lewis?’ I asked him if he was back playing R&B now and he went crazy and said he’d never stopped playing R&B! He sort of chewed me out.
So could you say that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins … screamed at you?
RM: Well, yeah—that’s true. He made me feel about three inches tall. I sort of went exit stage left—pursued by a bear, you know?
When you started the band, you said you deliberately wanted to be obscure—like the 13th Floor Elevators or the Velvet Underground. What’s so attractive about the rock ‘n’ roll netherworld?
RM: I don’t know. It’s funny because the very first song we ever recorded was the song ‘Render Us Harmless,’ which is complaining about the music industry. We started out with this idea that we were going to be abused. We were quite cynical—but we were actually quite right because record companies that were interested in our first single saw us as being like Altered Images or the Undertones. It’s not like we hate those bands or anything, but it suddenly became evident that we were going to become caricatures of ourselves. Unless you’re really desperate, that’s not a very interesting possibility.
Why did you already think you’d be abused?
RM: We just spent a lot of time beating ourselves up. When we’d play gigs we’d beat ourselves up afterward. It’s just part of our nature. We’re not comfortable having praise heaped on us. We basically turned down a Peel session. He called us and asked if we’d like to do a session, and we told him we’d prefer he listen to our new stuff before saying yes or no to that … but he didn’t really think it was any good! If we’d just shut up and taken the thing and run with it, we would have had a Peel session.
What was the most important thing about the band to you? The thing you’d never let get watered down?
Susan Wells (vocals): We always kept our integrity, I think. I always kept my clothes on.
Didn’t one magazine offer you coverage in exchange for sexy photos?
SW: Yeah—we could have gotten on the cover of Sounds if we’d made some comment or done some photograph. I think the fact that Ralph and I are in a relationship always gives us a backing. We just say, ‘No, we don’t want to do this. We don’t have to and we don’t want to.’ You just realize if you’re not going to play the game, you’re not going to get the exposure, so you think, Well, is it worth playing?
You convinced a bank to give you a loan to put out your ‘It’s Hip’ 7”. How do you get a banker to pay for a punk record?
SW: In those days, they were just keen to get you signed up for loans and things. If it looked fairly viable, they’d do it. I mean, they got their money back.
SW: Well, we paid the loan back. Whether we actually made the money back, I don’t know—but we definitely paid the loan back. I mean, you have to.
So when the record didn’t sell, you threw almost all of them in a dumpster?
SW: Well, yeah—quite a few of them. We needed the room.
Everybody who reads this will be spasming in pain because they’d love to have one!
SW: That’s real life for you.
RM: There are so many stories of people tipping their life’s work into a dumpster. At the time it didn’t really seem like anything because it was kind of a failed record, really. John Peel only played it, like, the once. We got to see Yo La Tengo do a cover version of it a couple of years ago. That was pretty weird. In a massive auditorium where people sat down. It was very surreal. At the time it just seemed like a bad idea that had been received badly. Having this suitcase full of unsold singles was like having something laughing at me.
Did you miss the suitcase ever?
RM: No, we brought the suitcase back. Just the records we got rid of.
In your liner notes, you say the band was based on exploring interesting combinations—like Chicago blues with punk or Link Wray and the Shangri-Las. What ideas did you have that you never got to try?
RM: The last thing that Sue and I recorded in the early 80s was with a local rockabilly band. We got this idea that we wanted to do rockabilly so we recorded ‘I Ain’t Never Worryin’’ and ‘The Man With the Spiked Toed Shoes’ with a rockabilly band. We were called Red Hot and the Sans Culottes. The idea was that we would all dress in French Revolutionary fashions and have a guillotine and things like that. We were going to make a video with the guillotine and people roaming about in Revolutionary gear. It was the mid-80s, I suppose. We got as far as recording the record.
Did it ever come out?
RM: No, it’s still knocking about. One day it will see the light of day.
How many of your ideas have been proved correct by now?
RM: The idea of mixing punk and blues was one of our ideas, and it’s kind of slightly to our sadness that John Peel didn’t really like it—but he really liked the White Stripes. Kind of in a way we could have done that … but on the other hand, we didn’t. I think we were definitely some of the earliest people to think about the idea of mixing punk and blues.
What’s something that seemed like a mistake or missed opportunity then? But you realize now you dodged a bullet?
RM: The whole Adam Ant thing was best that we didn’t do it. At the time he was sort of manipulating us—saying we should be called something else and that we should do this and that we should do that. We were desperate but we weren’t that desperate. That was kind of a good near miss.
So what made you say, ‘No, we’re not going to do it!’
RM: It goes back generations, really. That’s a funny thing. My grandfather was a miner and in a general strike they had to go back and he said he’d rather eat grass than go back and my father was a Labour politician and he had all these crazy principles about never wanting to be in management. We always had this thing ingrained in our family history. It’s the same with Sue. Her father’s always been very eccentric in his work choices. It’s part of our heritage to be sort of awkward, I suppose. There are lots of incidences in our family history that show people turning away from licking the lollipop.
Did you see that mirrored in punk? Is that part of what brought you to it?
RM: Yeah, of course. Initially it seemed like a really great grassroots thing. We used to organize our little punk evenings and everybody would come from the surrounding towns and villages. We’d play records and pogo and talk to each other. Everybody would bring their records along and be, like, ‘Yeah, you should play this one.’ That was fun. And you’d sort of meet the types of people from the neighborhood that you’d normally be fighting—but because you’re sort of unified by punk, you’ll be friends.
When did that seem to disappear?
RM: There was sort of this element that a certain amount of our original punk friends got into—that sort of violence, wearing the Nazi armband … It was originally a unifying philosophy but it became, like, ‘These people over there … ’ Factions started to happen. And then things like mod came along and two-tone and it became subdivided factions of factions.
I feel like you were always looking for something independent but still somehow unifying and diverse at the same time.
RM: Part of my musical background is that if somebody’s doing something really good, eventually someone will come and knock on your door and say, ‘Yeah, we think that’s cool. Can you play this university?’ Taking the long view, we’re pretty happy with the way things have been. We thought that might happen, you know?
You thought that even back in the 80s?
RM: Yeah, I think so. Before punk I was a mad blues aficionado and it was all about field trips and recording things and obscurity. That was part of our ‘what we mean’ sort of thing. If we’d have moved up to London, which would have been the obvious career path, we think we would have become just another band, I suppose. In some ways, it’s tempting to do that—to become metropolitan like everybody else. But on the other hand it’s also quite tempting to be the band that didn’t go to London and get put through the sausage machine. In some ways it’s a risky business, but obviously it sort of helps us. I mean, we used to go to London quite a bit when we were being our most musical but we never, ever really wanted to live there.
Is there a lasting, positive effect of punk that’s still around? What good things were accomplished from 1979 to 1982?
RM: Personally, I think it’s the idea that it doesn’t have to be technically brilliant. It’s sort of bad to be doing something that’s two-thirds brilliant. If you take poor old Poly Styrene—you know, we’ve been mourning Poly Styrene—‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’ … you can’t polish that. It’s like a moment of genius. If people can avoid trying to polish things that don’t need polishing and just get them out there and have fun with it, I think that will be the thing. Sometimes it’s nice to see the stitching and the construction lines because it shows how you do it yourself.
In that live video of ‘John of the Sword,’ is that your own living room you’re playing in?
SW: It is. It’s our front room where I am now. We were going to play on the patio but it rained so we all had to move indoors. We lived in a long row of houses with gardens in the front so people were in the gardens. They were watching but they were standing under the trees in the gardens so they couldn’t really quite see us. They could hear us.
Do you have war paint on?
SW: Face paints, yeah. It’s the opposite of putting on a lot of fancy makeup and thinking, ‘Look how gorgeous am I.’ Now, I realize I’m not a pretty young thing. I am who I am—so I just let myself look a bit more interesting sometimes.
Have your kids ever complained that your band is too loud?
SW: No, no—they wouldn’t dare.
L.A. RECORD PRESENTS ANIMALS & MEN WITH WOUNDED LION, DUNES AND KIT ON THUR., JUNE 30, AT THE SMELL, 247 S. MAIN ST., DOWNTOWN. 9 PM / $5 / ALL AGES. THESMELL.ORG. ANIMALS & MEN’S NEVER BOUGHT, NEVER SOLD IS OUT NOW ON MISSISSIPPI AND ANIMALS & MEN’S SELF-TITLED EP IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM CONVULSIVE. VISIT ANIMALS AND MEN AT MYSPACE.COM/ANIMALSANDMENTERRAPLANES.