The King Blues Interviewed: "We've got this far against all odds..."

Ska-punk act The King Blues played their biggest UK show ever this week. Here they talk lyrics, playing live and German squat culture...
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“The press have stopped writing about us, the radio has stopped playing us, yet the venues keep getting bigger! Clearly there are people out there who are fed up with the Lady Gaga bullshit, who are fed up with the X Factor bullshit, who believe in real music and if we look around we’re in good company here tonight.” Proclaims Itch, frontman for The King Blues, in one of his emotional addresses to the audience at this special homecoming show in London.

The set delivered tonight consolidates The King Blues as one of the best British live acts around. I say this in a year that I have watched Arctic Monkeys, Radiohead, The Streets and Coldplay – The King Blues in a live setting are head and shoulders above any of these bands right now. There’s an excitement – there’s a buzz.

Returning from Germany just a day before playing their biggest UK headline show to date at Camden’s Roundhouse they choose to open with the 7 minute a cappella poem, What If Punk Never Happened. That’s a lot of words. Itch even confessed to me before the show that he had to run over it in the shower the morning before, as it was the song’s first outing for a while.

They then went on to draw from all three of their albums for the rest of the set from the heaviness of We Are Fucking Angry to the gentle acoustic segment encompassing If I Had A Coin and Out of Luck. A part of the show dedicated to Itch’s mum who was in attendance. They then wrapped up the gig with trademark closer Save The World Get The Girl, during which they invited the crowd to join them on stage.

Hours before this reliably raucous yet moving performance I was fortunate enough to meet Itch and lead guitarist Jamie Jazz – so without further ado I introduce this interview with The King Blues at Camden’s finest venue – where punk really happened…

How do you feel being about to play a headline show at the Camden Roundhouse?

Itch: Mad excited. We’ve been looking forward to this one since it’s been booked which is a while now. Five or six years ago we had a residency down the other end of the High Street in The Purple Turtle and I think when we did the Ballroom and Koko we were always aware that there was one more venue in Camden. And at the time we always felt this is great and it’s an achievement and we’re very proud - but to actually be doing the Roundhouse now is fucking crazy. I feel really proud that we’ve got here and we’ve pretty much done it against all odds and we’ve had a lot of bad things happen to us as a band. We’ve kind of been picked up and dropped and picked up and dropped. Even when we were with particular labels we were never a priority and always overlooked for these other acts who came and went - they got a little bit of time in the spotlight but they went because they didn’t have any grassroots and they’d never built it up properly, like the old school way of doing it and I don’t think people ever really believed in them. But with us – we’re like roaches man we just keep on surviving. I feel like at this point now it doesn’t matter if the radio doesn’t want to play us, if people don’t want to write about us – if the press and everything are completely uninterested there’s enough people now that we can keep going and do what we want to do and there’s enough people to support it that it really doesn’t matter. So, to be in a position where we can live independently of what anyone else expects of us as a band is awesome and I’m proud of that.

Is there a difference between English audiences and those abroad?

Jamie: Definitely. As it’s fresh in my memory I thought while we were out in Germany the attitude was like just play – you guys play and let your music do the talking. That was the kind of vibe that I got and in a way that’s a cool thing you, have your music to rely on to try to win people over. I remember being in Japan and it was the oddest experience – they were very respectful of you playing and if a certain person didn’t like you they would watch you anyway. And there were very short claps in between songs and then deadly silence because they wanted to hear what you have to say about your songs and about them and they wanted to interact with you. Whereas in Germany I felt it was more – keep playing songs – you’re a band keep playing songs for us and that’s how we’ll enjoy what you have to offer.

How was it playing The Ramones museum in Berlin earlier this year?

Itch: That was amazing – The Ramones museum is a cool place.

Jamie: I was kind of annoyed that we pressed for time when we were in Berlin again so I couldn’t get back over there but it was a wonderful place.

Itch: But the owner actually said something about never coming back…

Jamie: He did mention that if he saw us again he would have us arrested…

Itch: No he didn’t! He was a nice guy.

Jamie: He was really cool – we were in Berlin for a couple of days and every day he was like “come in for breakfast or if you need to use the Internet or hang out.” He was really welcoming.

There’s having music and then there’s getting people together through music and that’s the kind of further step we’re trying to take.

What are your thoughts on the German squat culture?

Itch: It’s a lot bigger than it is here. It seems to be a lot more accepted that culture is an important part of life, whereas over here the actual idea of needing culture seems to have been written off down to we need capital, we need money and it’s just whatever can bring it in. I think there needs to be a feeling here that we have enough H&Ms now – so maybe we shouldn’t close down this last venue that we have to build another H&M. But over there if feels like there’s a little more respect towards culture in general. Apparently over the past few years more places are being shut down and some of the larger squats that have been there 30 years are being closed down but I think that it’s a much slower creeping thing than what’s going on over here at the minute with the Tories trying to sneak through a legislation to ban squatting during a time when they’re making more and more people homeless – there’s a homeless epidemic – it’s ridiculous. It seems to be more of an accepted thing over there – there doesn’t seem to be a terrifying feeling that if you go on holiday a squatter’s going to come and take your house or any of that kind of Daily Mail rubbish.

How do you feel approaching the Leftfield tour with Billy Bragg?

Itch: The whole idea of that tour is to show that there are young bands out there with something to say. Billy’s been really personable and we’ve been emailing back forth and met up a few times and discussed how we can make this the best that it can be. There’s having music and then there’s getting people together through music and that’s the kind of further step we’re trying to take. I think it’s going to be a cool tour and I think we’ll approach it like any other in terms of playing but I think in terms of the vibe of it I think there’s some excitement there and for us it’s an honour to be considered by Billy Bragg. To be a band he feels is worth supporting is certainly an honour.

Is there more political music out there than people might think?

Itch: I think it’s more that there is this culture of mainstream media featuring music that I believe just puts out bad role models and further tries to justify ridiculous stereotypes. And I think that there is music made by young working class people that isn’t just about how much money you want to get, how much bling you have and how much you hate women – there’s real music and intelligent and thoughtful music being made and this tour is nice chance to prove that.

Favourite Billy Bragg Song?

Itch: Milkman of Human Kindness.

Jamie: I’m going to go with something quite boring and not very obscure but a very very well known song by Mr Bragg but I love it and every time it comes on it warms my heart…

Itch: [interrupts] Fascists Are Bound To Lose!

Jamie:…  A New England

How did you enjoy the late night Strummerville set at Glastonbury?

Itch: It was awesome man – getting our shit there was hard, we had to carry all our amps and stuff from one end of the Glastonbury site to the other through pure mud and crowds. It was real tough.

Jamie: We had guitars on our back, keyboards, amps, everything…

Itch: But we made it happen in the end and we saw the stage and thought how on earth are we going to fit everyone on there. But that gig wasn’t about us as a band it was fully about the crowd and the vibe that was there. It really felt like there was genuinely no divide between crowd and band. It sticks in my mind that one – it was special.

You’ve got to reach somebody’s heart first – you can’t just go up there and give people a lecture, no one wants to hear that and no one has any reason to want to listen to you doing that.

What do you think of the Internet as a way of communicating as a musician?

Itch: I’m not as good on computers and stuff as Jamie but I like that there isn’t this barrier anymore between the untouchable musician and the fan who keeps paying money for products. I like that there’s a genuine interaction and that people can get hold of me and I can get hold of people. Billy Bragg’s music is very urgent – his political songs are often about very specific things and so there’s an urgency with that kind of political song writing because it has to be relevant and it has to be out quick. The record he’s putting out now, Fight Songs, is a collection of all these urgent songs that he’s done and he’s releasing it quickly. Whereas I think with what we do we try to be a little more timeless – but that’s just how it is with political music – it gets disposed of quickly and you have to keep on coming up with it. But I like that it’s there to get music out urgently if you want to.

Jamie: Social network sites make us able to remove that barrier, whether it be a very simple thing. From someone asking me what type of guitar strings I use to asking my opinion on something or where I stand on a certain subject… Or asking me about my dogs which happens more often than not. Being able to communicate with people who support us and removing that nonsense barrier of “we’re the musicians and you’re the audience” is amazing.

Your show seems to have a dynamic of loud parts and quieter moments – do you have a preference?

Itch: I love the acoustic bit because it’s bang in the middle of the set and it’s like – phew - I can breathe and for a second I get to kind of rest and take it in and by that point in the show you can tell whether it’s going good or not. It’s quite enjoyable for me in terms of having a breather. But I also like it when it kicks off again afterwards – I love playing The Streets Are Ours. When there’s sing-alongs, people singing the words back at you there’s something classically special about that.

Jamie: For me it’s the whole dynamic of the set. My favourite thing about being in a band is genuinely that we get to see people’s reactions from where we’re stood. And whether that be that they open up a circle pit and go absolutely mental or when we play Underneath The Lamppost Light in the acoustic bit and you see couples cuddling up and that’s their reaction. I love all aspects of our set. And one of my favourite parts, not just because I get to have a bottle of water and sit down while he does it, is to watch Itch perform any of the poems – Five Bottles of Shampoo or What If Punk Never Happened. And when I’m able to watch him perform like that it’s amazing to see the intensity he can create with just a microphone and a set of words is a very very special thing. And seeing that empowered reaction from not the music but just the words and his performance – never does it get boring.

Do you think it’s important to balance political music with love songs and other subjects?

Itch: I can only talk about us personally and I think there’s a place for the Rage Against The Machines of this world, that definitely has it’s place and there is a place for people who just want to sing love songs. But for us – you’ve got to reach somebody’s heart first – you can’t just go up there and give people a lecture, no one wants to hear that and no one has any reason to want to listen to you doing that but I think it’s important that you get people’s hearts. Politics isn’t just about angry things – where the lines between love and politics mix is a blurred thing and all you can be is honest. If you’re a songwriter you probably want to write about more than one subject and if you’re going to push yourself as a songwriter that’s just a natural thing. You also experience more than politics in your life, you experience love, you experience despair and all these different emotions and you have to represent that. Otherwise it could be pretty boring, it could be one-sided, and it could be pretty dull. Political music I think is a very difficult thing to write because you need to have people listening to it because they enjoy it, not because they’re turned on in the head, not because they want to hear a political slogan but just because they simply enjoy it. And I’ve heard people put lectures to three-chord punk music – it’s boring and it sucks and there’s really nothing punk about it I don’t think. Love songs and life songs are vital – they’re good for the soul.

What’s happening for The King Blues in 2012?

Jamie: We’re taking a little break because I’m going to be in the Olympics…

Itch: We’re taking out the first few months and finishing off the new record in January and February. I think we’ll be back with a new single and a tour come May and we’ll drop the album around May/June. We’ve done pre-production on the album and we’re going to go in and we’re going to start finishing it off pretty much straight after that Bragg tour.

Jamie: We’ve kind of been on the road without a break for the best part of eight years so once we’ve finished the record we’ll take a break, not a long time, but a couple of months to collect ourselves, rejuvenate and then we’ll be back straight away – back out on the road.

The King Blues are playing several more dates this year, including the Leftfield tour with Billy Bragg, before finishing things up at the end of November in Stoke. They will also release their new single The Future's Not What It Used To Be on Monday 21st November.

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