Smiley & The Underclass – interview
Smiley & The Underclass, an Urban, Tribal, Punk, Reggae faction, are on a quest, seeking the answer to the query, ‘Are There Any Rebels Out There?’, an anthemic track from their release, Rebels Out There, an album screaming to be heard, and easily one of the most listenable albums of the year. The record challenges sensibility, while defining it, with a sound and a message for the people, in the most musical way possible. It was recorded with Mick Jones. Of The Clash, and U.K. Reggae pioneer, Nick Manasseh.
It’s All England, is accompanied by a video displaying a scenic and descriptive journey through the U.K. to the sounds of a cool half punk, half reggae message, integrated with the raspy, rawness of Smiley’s voice, and melodic rap. The entire album is phenomenal, sounding similar to The Ruts. Probably the best way to describe this band is the way they describe themselves on their website, so instead of disturbing perfection, “Think Bob Dylan meets The Clash and King Tubby down a dark alley with razor blades.”
I spoke with Smiley, frontman of the Underclass, whilst he nervously rolled a variety of cigarettes, and drank black tea, proclaiming the fact that it was only the second interview he had ever done….He was not only brilliant, but incredibly funny, especially cool, and the most positive rebel I’ve ever met…Smiley & The Underclass is the world’s new destiny…
Louder Than War: So, you’re like the best band ever!
Yeah, some people have said that, mainly one person in New York. We’re trying really hard. I just found out we might have a booking agent, the person who looks after The Ruts, which would be really exciting. The Ruts are a legendary UK punk, reggae band sort of like our grandparents in a sense musically. Musical grandparents.
Why don’t you introduce your band?
Well I’m Smiley, lead singer of Smiley & The Underclass.
Is that your Real name?
It’s my real surname. My first name is George. There is a spy in UK fiction by a guy called John le Carre, called George Smiley, and I don’t know why my parents fucking named me this way. It’s fun until your English teacher starts making fun of you at age 14. So we started in about 2014. I am the lead singer and I play rhythm guitar, James Shepard is the lead guitar player, he’s a genius. He works with reggae artists all over the world, but this is the one band that he’s got a creative steak in. We’ve got Jay Hirano, from Japan on the drums. He is sort of like the Terminator. We just got a new bass player called Derek Daley, who is replacing a guy called Ryan Windross who is brilliant, but had various other commitments. I think he wants to go into session work. The cool thing about Derek aside from his striking personality is he can play amazing, and he’s got sort of a pedigree. His dad wrote the baseline for this song, Hot, Hot, Hot, which I think is really strange and cool. I really like the make-up of the band. It’s a positive, multicultural 21st-century band. You’ve got me whose a skinny white dude, you’ve got a Japanese dude, who’s been living in England. There’s not many Japanese playing in English bands at the moment, and he’s getting some weird celebrity bounce back from his home country which is cool. We’ve got a Caribbean heritage bass player, and we’ve got a white Rasta on guitar. So it’s a really weird but beautiful kind of vibe. So I’m very pleased with the make-up of the band.
Who writes those cool rebellious songs?
It’s a mixture. On the first album, which is the only one that’s out, most of the songs were written by me, before I even hooked up with them. It’s All England, which is the first single and the first video we did came out of a busking session on Camden High Street.
I love Camden.
You know the river, the canal where everybody sits and plays guitar? They’ve fucked that up massively. They put up scaffolding all around it and there’s nowhere to sit. They are building some sort of evil monument to Neo-capitalism instead. But, I spoke to some police man there who said there will be some green space so people hopefully will still be able to sit there.
I love London.
London is beautiful. It’s a confused, crazy, weird, unequal place, but there’s something about it that’s good. In Brexit world where we live now, you just have to be a bit ashamed of living in London.
Speaking of ashamed, how do you think we feel here in America?
I think he’s insane… I don’t think he believes in anything either, it’s really weird. I think he’s just completely self-serving. He changes every single day, he seems like a real freak, like a Nazi version of Bob Dylan. It’s good what’s happening in a way. I mean Trump is a bastard and the spine of a deep sickness in American politics and democracy, but he’s made America look in the mirror. That’s good. People have said it so I’ll just repeat it, Brexit and Trump was a big F U to everything, from people that didn’t live in big cities. I mean there are exotic ways to bring back industry. We live in the time of climate change, which is terrifying and hideous, but it presents many opportunities for industry. If we treat this problem like it was the Second World War, rolling out solar panels as if they were tanks or planes, people could be employed, and communities could have meaning again. Also it gives idiots like me something to sing about. Everything is on fire but there are loads to sing about.
So do you consider your songs to be extremely political?
I think people in the band think different things. I think some of the songs are overtly social. I’m not sure if the word political is right. There is a line in Rebels Out There, “Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right”. I don’t think it is political because I don’t think the left wing works and I don’t think the right wing works, not in its extreme forms and apparently not and that’s moderate forms. So I don’t know if I would call the songs political exactly. We live in 2017 and I’ve been making music since 2014, and everything’s been kind of unravelling and realigning throughout those years. So, it would be foolish for us to not sing about it. There is a lot of people doing that now.
Music is funny today, it’s either really good or really bad.
Yeah, that is true. A couple of years ago it wasn’t like that. I’m sure there really were some great bands around but they were harder to find. I suppose it was because we were all still asleep. Do you know everyone uses that phrase now, “I’m Woke”? I don’t really like the phrase because it’s grammatically confusing. There wasn’t such a healthy punk scene in the UK a few years ago. There was a punk scene and it’s been rumbling along 20+ years, but there’s been an injection of youth. That’s because of these fucked up things that are happening. So no, I wouldn’t say we are political band, because you can’t call climate change political.
If you could have your ultimate stage fantasy, what would you need to happen?
That’s a mad question. It would be really nice if everyone in the audience decided to form a band afterwards. That would be cool. Or if we inspired someone to take environmental issues more seriously. That sounds boring.
Come on, think out of the box because I think that you might be a genius.
I’ll be sure to write that down and show it to the rest of the band.
I’ll put it in print.
Ok, but make a note that I was extremely embarrassed, and not entirely in agreement. I don’t know what my ultimate stage fantasy would be, just for a gig to go really well and for everybody to feel it in there soul, for it to be real and not contrived. I love doing this job, I think it’s the best job in the world, but there are times when you are sick or something, and you just don’t want to do it. When you just can’t, you haven’t eaten enough, or you’ve eaten too much, so a gig that had none of those problems would be awesome. It would be really nice if lightning struck the stage and everything was illuminated, but it’s not going to help anyone in the long term. Something that would help someone in the long term would be cool.
Do you have a favourite song that you like to perform live?
I love Jump The Barrier. That is James’ song. I love that song. We have a bit at the end where everybody jumps. I love singing Babylon is Spiralling Out of Control, which is our kind of an Arco-punk two minute song. We always encourage sweat to drip from the walls, and it’s really nice when that has been realized. The first time we ever had a mosh pit was to that song.
What do you hope for musically with the band?
This is the ideal course for this band: somehow we get big enough to play big shows where we can still try and put a positive message across about environmental issues and social issues, and maybe make the younger generation despair a little bit less. There’s hope but we’ve been pounded by despair from everywhere. That’s quite a good lyric.
I hear a song in that.
I’d like to be part of the transition going on, in literal terms, but also there is some kind of psychic human battle going on. Like we are engaging with our worst selves to try and become our best selves. That’s some real hippy shit right there…
If you could say anything to your fans and followers, what would you say?
Just be kind to one another and don’t get sucked in to social media because you’re capable of changing the world. But you mustn’t look inwardly and fight with your friends and family over things like presidents, newspapers and assholes the world over wants you to obsess about. You’re free and awesome and please come listen to our music because we will make you feel that way, even when you don’t really want to. The main thing is I know we sing about, even if it’s in veiled terms, overtly political stuff, but how could you not in this fucking politicized times we live in. You know I can’t be on Trump’s side. At the same time I do want to empathize and I do want to communicate and transmit love to people who voted for Brexit and Trump. I don’t hate them, unless they are Nazis.
Well you are very talented in any case.
Thank you very much. We are blessed. James is one of the best guitarists, probably in the world, although he doesn’t show off. He’s a fucking talent. Jay is a machine with love in his heart and Derek, well I don’t know how Derek is yet because we haven’t even played a gig with him. He makes me laugh so that’s a good start. He can fucking play as well, I just haven’t heard him do it.
All words by Eileen Shapiro. More of Eileen’s writing can be found in her author’s archive.