POSTAL interview alert! Another one from the photocopied, poorly laid-out pages of Airstrip fanzine, this time with the archetypal mid Eighties Hulme combo, Inca Babies.
Think quiffs and stubble, swampy blues and murky rock’n’roll, nasty drugs and bad housing (117 William Kent Crescent to be precise) and you’ll be in the right kind of area, more or less.
I never got to see this lot live for some reason but for a time I liked their records a lot. However, that didn’t stop me from putting together a list of hopelessly naive and ridiculous questions for guitarist Harry S to answer.
What can I say? I was just emerging from a scene where everything was very black and white and transparent lyrics and cheap admission to gigs seemed to be very important indeed.
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DOES it annoy you to be continually compared to the Birthday Party? Do you sometimes not do stuff because it sounds too much like them? Are there any bands you’d like to be compared to?
“Comparisons are a form of lazy journalism and are easily made. We had a song we wrote called Swampland which we dropped for obvious reasons when the Birthday Party came along. It can be limiting to cut good material because it may sound like another band.
“The predictability of the press in these matters is quite astonishing and so we would avoid falling for that kind of trap. I can’t think of any bands it would be advantageous or complimentary to be compared or linked with because generally it would set a precedent which we would be measured by.”
Are songs like The Judge and Big Jugular hard to understand by design? Isn’t it important that people know exactly where you were coming from when you wrote a particular song? Are you wary of giving away too much of yourself?
“Lyrically, The Judge and Big Jugular may not be easy to follow. I could have written: ‘The Judge is directed towards Jimmy ‘the Weasel’ Frattininamo, an ex-gangster. And Big Jugular is about Elvis Presley. Both songs are inspired by biographies and other sources.’
“The reason we didn’t put this information on the sleeve was to see what images appear in the mind of the listener/reader. Big Jugular is an odious character but when he sings, all is forgiven. The images are simple, using words as more than narrative or description but to give images of actions or attitudes.
“I don’t think it’s important to spell out the meaning of lyrics as that is secondary to the individual’s own understanding of the whole, both musically and lyrically. In this way I don’t believe I do give too much of myself away.”
Do you think you’ll be able to keep your ‘small band values’ – integrity if you prefer – when all the money starts to roll in?
“Our recent diabolical press in Sounds means that we’ll probably remain a small band forever. A real step backwards by somebody who once raved about us. Ah well, such is careerist journalism (Raise ‘em up! Drop ‘em dead!”). If the money starts rolling in, we’d probably be approached by a major record company which would be damaging to our artistic credibility … Hmmm. And we could be pressured into making a really crummy record. Something we would avoid.”
What’s your attitude to the music press? Could you see yourselves falling victim to the ‘build ‘em up, knock ‘em down syndrome’?
“I’ve touched on this already, but I don’t want to get bitchy because that’s one of the tricks they get up to. We are in the position where we are to be reckoned with but no one is quite sure on what level. Very few of the journalists who review us haven’t actually heard us and so don’t really understand how to approach us.
“We admit to being difficult listening, and often it works against us but then again, I think journalistic taste has become a lot more conservative and there is a search in music for an ideal almost impossible to realise.
“I read in one of the big music papers a journalist say words to the effect of ‘why can’t our pop stars write good songs any more?’. A statement like this is depressing, especially as the support of the independent labels last year was atrocious, very few of them actually making the singles review page.”
Have you reached the stage where you do so many gigs that they become a bit of a chore? Are there any bands you would refuse to play with? Would you pull out of a gig if the admission price was too high?
“Gigs can still be fun although we do regret playing some because of the terrible audience reaction. Once you arrive at a venue, have set up and soundchecked, it’s usually too late to pull out on hearing that the entrance is £2.50. We can’t really pull out because we’re bound by contract and if only one person really enjoys it, it’s worth it.
“We would play with almost anyone – you can’t preach to the converted all your life. We expect a lot of new people at each gig.”
Do you agree with Robert Wyatt when he said, “There’s way too much arrogance at the supposed abilities of musical spellbinders to change the balance of power”? Can music ever change anything?
“There’s been a lot more talk recently about the importance of politics and music. The Redskins have showed it’s possible to do both very successfully. However there’s nothing worse than a big pop star spouting Bolshevik revolution whilst brandishing their wealth in a ‘I’ve-earned-this-I’ll-keep-this mentality. It happens too often.
“Most often it’s just embarrassing, other times they put their foot so far in it, it disappears up their own arseholes, it’s funny but worrying.
“Music can’t really change anything – strongly political music works on too narrow a minority audience. How often will people listen and remember pop lyrics if the kind that has a sickly, catchy hookline that gets drilled into your head by sicko DJs. I also refer to the kind of song that captures an audience of millions and has the political clout of a mint humbug.
Do you think you have an image? Don’t you think it’s unfortunate that bands not only have to sound good, they have to look good too?
“Our image is no new idea. It’s a very ordinary ideal of our music and to create as much din as we can before someone pulls the plugs. It is secondary to the music, but you have to remember that moist audiences look but don’t hear. You’ve got to make them listening by looking listenable and make them hear by what your movements tells them. Difficult huh? Well, it can be done.”
For some people, reading this interview will be the first contact they’ve had with the Inca Babies. Why should they take any notice of you?
“Because they’ve been listening to too much rubbish lately. No. I’d like to think that bands should be aggressive with their music, too often they don’t really sweat it out. If you’ve seen us live a couple of times you’ll see that we put everything we’ve got into it. Our records are great as far as I’m concerned, but I can’t explain taste. If you watch us live though I hope you’d buy a record out of morbid fascination.”
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Though they did well enough in Europe, big success always eluded the Inca Babies in the UK and they split a couple of years after this interview came out. Inevitably, they got back together in 2006, although recent plans for a new album were put on hold after the death of stalwart bass player Bill Marten in 2008. The last I heard, Harry S was working with Vince from A Witness and the lovely Rob Haynes from Goldblade.
I’m pretty sure it was around this time that I met Harry Stafford at a party at my crazy old landlord’s house in scenic south Manchester (this kind of shit, running into semi/formerly famous people, happens all the time in Manchester. You get used to it after a while). But it was probably stupid o’clock in the morning, I was almost certainly profoundly shit-faced, and it’s unlikely I made any sense whatsoever.
I have absolutely no recollection of what he said to me or I said to him. Sorry.
One final point. As I’ve been typing this up this morning, I listened to the Big Jugular EP and some old early Birthday Party 12-inch back to back and weirdly enough, it turns out that Inca Babies actually sound more like the Birthday Party than the Birthday Party did. Who would have guessed?
[This interview was first published in the fanzine Airstrip*2 in June 1985]