Interview with Helen McCookerybook
Helen McCookerybook may not be a name that you instantly recognise, but, she has been the driving force behind several important UK bands from The Chefs to Helen And The Horns. She is also a published and well-respected author of music related literature including The Lost Women Of Rock: Female Musicians Of The Punk Era, and, her musical teachings have inspired the musical community in the UK for over ten years.
Holding a doctorate at the University Of Westminster and being a lecturer at the University Of East London, she frequently holds musical workshops in collaboration with her partner Martin Stephenson and continues to release fine music via the Barbaraville label.
For his 100th Louder Than War article, our man Paul Scott-Bates caught up with the lady and had a little chat.
Louder Than War: Do I call you Helen or Doctor?
Helen McCookerybook: You call me Helen, unless you are trying to do a put-down when selling me some guitar strings in a music shop and say “Is it Mrs or Ms?” in a snotty voice while looking at my bag of grocery shopping. Then it’s Doctor!
LTW: How’s life treating you at the moment?
Helen: Life is treating me well, after a bumpy time a few years ago. I feel like I’ve had a second chance at everything- music, love, you name it.
LTW: Who is Tracy Preston?
Helen: Tracy used to be in a band called The Smartees that I was in many years ago. It was a big group of people with lots of songwriters and a very uppy vibe. We wrote ‘Let’s Make Up’ together, which was later recorded by The Chefs.
LTW: You seem to have connections with many people. The ones with the Monochrome Set and the Stray Cats intrigue me.
Helen: I met Lester Square through Mike Alway, A&R at Cherry Red, after The Chefs split up. The Monochrome Set had also split temporarily and I suppose Mike must have looked at a couple of people feeling sorry for themselves and suggested we collaborate.
I was a huge fan of the Monochrome Set and was slightly in awe but sang some songs on to a cassette (remember them?) and posted them to Lester, who lived on a houseboat at the time. I didn’t hear back and resumed my post-band sulk until the Notting Hill Carnival, where I was sloping about and his then girlfriend came bouncing across the road and shouted ‘WE LOVE YOUR SONGS!’.
So we started rehearsing with a guy called Mike Slocombe (who now runs the massive Brixton political website urban75.com) on drums and started looking for a trumpet player. I met Dave Jago, a trombone player) at a gig and he offered to play, along with a sax player he knew called Paul Davey. Because it’s expensive to get a drum-kit around town, I decided to rehearse with the horn players only while we learned the songs; the Monochrome Set offered us a gig at Kingston Polytechnic in that format and we went down a storm- so we kept it that way, and added a trumpet player. Helen and the Horns was born! I have worked with Lester on sound track projects too.
The Stray Cats- we ended up with their PR when The Chefs signed to Graduate Records. I got to see them a lot because of that- they were an amazing live band. And I have sat on Brian Setzer’s Harley Davidson.
LTW: I adored Voxpop Puella. What was the influence behind the album?
Helen: I hadn’t written any songs for years and I had forgotten how to play guitar (or so I thought). I used to go to the University studios and doodle about with programming in my lunch breaks; I ended up writing quite a lot of instrumentals.
Then one day I was in a shop and I heard a track that I really liked and they couldn’t tell me what it was. I felt inspired and decided to try to make a similar piece of music; at the same time I’d just hit 40 and felt that it was a significant age to look back from and look forward from- I felt like the picture of that Roman god Janus with a face looking to the past and one to the future. And I thought about the fact that nobody ever really addresses the idea of ageing in pop music. So I started to write lyrics- and then tried to make all the music sound a bit ‘big band pop’ because that’s what the mystery record sounded like; and honestly, lots of the sounds on the sound module were awful but things like the Double Bass and French Horn were great!
It was really enjoyable doing the arrangements but so much fun that I over-arranged a song and had to dump it because I couldn’t work out what to take off it. I thought of the seven ages of woman, from birth to death, and after a while I decided to contact a few of the film-makers that I’d done music for in the past plus some female friends (Joan Ashworth, Akiko Hada, Gail Pearce, Rachel Davies, Charlotte Worthington, Gina Birch and Jane Prophet) and I asked them to make short films about the seven ages – they all said yes, which was amazing, and I ended up taking it on the road and touring with Gina Birch, who also had a film project on the go, supported by an Arts Council grant!
All that from doodling in the studios with an idea about the past and the future.
LTW: Tell me about Claudine?
Helen: Claudine was the energy behind the Stray Cats’ press success. She and her colleagues Chris Carr and Gaylene Martin looked after most of the unusual artists in the 1980s- The Associates, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Birthday Party, Depeche Mode (‘depressed mood’ as she called them), Misty in Roots, Hugh Masakela… She is a very kind woman and expert at band psychology. She would collect the poorer artists together and cook us dinner or buy us breakfast and when I became ill after the Chefs split up she gave me a kitten so I’d have to look after something and therefore look after myself. She is utterly French and made us all roar with laughter once; ‘Elene, can you tell zat I am Frenshe from ze way zat I speak?’. They were all great people to be around, magical, and Claudine was very upfront about the way the music industry worked. She managed Helen and the Horns for a while too.
LTW: I’m coming round for a meal, what are we having?
Helen: Whatever you cook for me, thank you!
LTW: When you were an art student and squatting in Brighton, where did you see your future?
Helen: Well, as far as I was concerned, the punk idea ‘No Future’ applied. I lived life to the max as did everyone else I knew. There were no jobs, the art world seemed concerned completely with ripping people off and all the punks were scrambling about with no plan- or so I thought!
Quite a few people had seen it as an opportunity to become successful financially; others joined the army and some left the country. It is almost impossible to describe the general public depression that hit the country in the late 1970s. Even though we are in a recession these days, at least there is some colour in people’s lives. There was a huge level of bile and spite from the older generation who had been through the war and who seemed convinced we were just being lazy. But if there are no jobs there are no jobs! I think there is a move by some newspapers to make out that people on the dole are lazy these days but enough of my generation are around to dispel that myth.
Looking back on it, it was a blessing in disguise not to have been able to start a career at that age. I was a complete misfit and so were all of my friends. That’s what punk was about, not lots of uniformly black-clad teenagers with spiky hair.
LTW: You started out your musical career as bassist in Joby & The Hooligans. Why the switch to guitar?
Helen: Illness after The Chefs split up. I played bass in The Chefs. But I had a couple of months in bed and a friend had given me a Spanish guitar, so I started writing songs on that, just by picking out chords that sounded nice. There was a guy in the house who showed me a couple of other chords, and I had time to practice.
LTW: There’s quite a shift in style from The Smartees to Skat. Is music the food of love?
Helen: Either that or food is the music of love; I can never quite work that one out!
LTW: Your musical teachings and workshops have become very popular. What drives you to do this sort of thing?
Helen: Well, I started teaching because I had children and realised you need a regular income for that! But I have always done songwriting workshops because when I started playing in Joby and the Hooligans, the Poison Girls’ guitarist Vi Subversa acted as a sort of mentor for loads of the bands in Brighton, whether she agreed with their politics, liked their music or not.
I realised that part of being a musician or artist is encouraging other people to get the same pleasure out of it as you- it’s actually politically empowering to create music rather than just buying it. And the pleasure that I get when people feel proud of a song that they have written is amazing.
LTW: Your home seems to be out in the wilderness – any aspirations for the farm life?
Helen: Yes. Wouldn’t it be lovely to live out in the wilds and have a rehearsal studio in a barn that turns into a Sunday afternoon venue with tea and cakes, and passing bands come in and play? Not big animals though- cows are horrible (they dribble and poo all the time), sheep are silly. Perhaps some bantams – I like them because they are coloured and look like little joke hens. And peas.
LTW: Tell me about your old Jedson and Hofner Basses.
Helen: Ah the Jedson- my first bass! Cream with a white scratch plate. Someone told me that they have it in Brighton but I haven’t met them to pick it up yet! I used to write the set list on masking tape and tape it along the top of the guitar. It used to thud rather than boom like most basses do. I bought the Hofner after someone spotted it in a shop in Worthing. I starved myself for 2 weeks to buy it. It got nicked by Hells Angels after a contretemps at Sussex University and I went and stood outside their pub for weeks afterwards willing them to give it back. Then my brother was walking past the police station in Brighton and he saw a woman walking in with it to hand it in! It had been dumped in the park where she was sunbathing. He rushed to the pub with it and I could not believe my eyes- I never thought I would see it again! I have now given it to Martin as he was such a Chefs fan.
LTW: How disappointing was it that The Chefs’ album for Graduate never materialised?
Helen: I didn’t mind. I was ill and couldn’t really sing. There is a version of it but it’s very drum-heavy as the drummer got into tribal drums after hearing Adam and the Ants. I did love Adam and the Ants’ sound but I didn’t want to BE them. I think that might be why The Chefs split up; I’d always thought we thrived on being original but the others seemed to want to fit into pop fashion.
LTW: Tell me of your time with RCA.
Helen: Hmmm… We were signed by a trumpet-playing A&R who promptly left to work for the Eurythmics; our next A&R was a nice guy but he was a drummer (and we had no drums in Helen and the Horns). The plugger was amazing and got us plays on Terry Wogan at the same time as John Peel was playing us; but she left too and went to another label (she bought me a roomful of flowers as an apology, bless). Then RCA wouldn’t support our live gigs (I think we were a good live band) and when they started hoovering up other bands at our level and our lawyer also started working for the Eurythmics, I realised that a path was being cleared for the launch of a major band and we were going to be left on the shelf. So I went in and asked for a release from the contract.
The band had saved the session fees that I had paid them over the years and they got together and suggested that we should record an album on our own label, which we did, distributed by The Cartel. It was a good solution. I like independence; I am not a corporate person.
LTW: Last year you performed in Hyde on the same bill as Viv Albertine, Pauline Murray and Gina Birch. How was that?
Helen: They are amazing. We had done a gig the year before that also included Pauline Murray from Penetration, but she couldn’t do the Hyde gig unfortunately.
I don’t think any of us could have imagined getting to this point of being solo guitarist/performers at this time in our lives. We have such different styles and different songs, all pulled from that simple instrument, the guitar. It’s such a pleasure to watch Viv and Gina play; they are very good guitarists, each with a unique style and relationship with their guitar.
LTW: Was papa really a rolling pin?
Helen: Sure was, and Mama is a measuring jug.
LTW: Damaged Goods versus Barbaraville. Discuss.
Helen: Damaged Goods were very patient during the hiccups of releasing Records and Tea; the Best of the Chefs; it took a few years to come together. It’s got the BBC sessions we did plus all of the Attrix material and some unreleased tracks. They are going to release the Helen and the Horns Peel sessions later this year too. I am delighted to be on the same label as Billy Childish!
Barbaraville is for now and the future; Martin released ‘Poetry and Rhyme’ and also ‘Take One’ (which he produced) on Barbaraville and will I hope release my next CD which looks as though it will be skiffle based. And maybe a bit of ska. Skadiffle!
LTW: You have a support role coming up soon for The Nightingales soon. How did that come about?
Helen: Last year I did a gig at a venue called the Green Door Store with I Ludicrous and the Flaming Stars promoted by Spinningchilli who put on bands who did Peel sessions. I loved it – the other bands were great and they are promoters with a vision (the best sort). I am a massive Nightingales fan and when they asked me to do this one (it’s on 4th August at the Prince Albert) I wrote back to say yes almost before I’d read their email.
LTW: In your book The Lost Women Of Rock, you interviewed John Peel. Was he the lovely chap that everyone says he was?
Helen: That afternoon he did what must have been one of the hardest things ever for him to do. I got lost on the way to his house and arrived an hour late, in the middle of a Liverpool game. He actually did the interview during the game, only popping in to check out the TV screen every time the crowd roared. Now that is a very gentlemanly thing to do.
LTW: Who’s the better songwriter – you or Martin?
Helen: Martin, of course. He has a direct line in to people’s feelings that completely bypasses any barriers they might have. Not only that, but I have never seen another musician groove as much as he does. And you should hear his new material!
LTW: You played Union Chapel a year or so ago, what was that like?
Helen: I loved it! Again, five years ago if you had told me that I would be playing there, like so many things I’m doing now, I would not have believed you. Our tour manager made friends with an orange pigeon (yes, orange) who liked Doritos (maybe that’s why it was orange). I got the Horns together for the gig and we had a blast (quite literally). The place was full and there was a great atmosphere: Daintees fans are the best! The Daintees played a really good gig that night and afterwards we did a walkabout through the Chapel playing Salutation Road, Horns and Daintees together.
LTW: How was Glastonbury?
Helen: I think there were around 5000 people in that tent. Never having gone to a proper festival, I had imagined the acoustic tent as being a little white canvas marquee rather like the ones in Miss Marple where they judge jam making competitions. I was completely unprepared for the sheer scale of the whole festival and especially the size of ‘the tent’! The whole operation was very slick: unload van at one entrance, up the gantry, everything ready as preceding act finishes, on to stage, set up, play for allotted time, exit other side, down gantry and out the other door into the waiting van. Their set was short and punchy and they chose songs with a lot of impact. Martin invited me up to sing The Airship Song, an old Charlie Poole number. Glastonbury was a total success for the band and I hope they get invited back next year.
Backstage, Bill Wyman was floating around and I took his picture with Martin.
We then went to see Tom Tom Club – I interviewed Tina Weymouth last year and it was great to see the band strutting their stuff at Glastonbury.
LTW: Where does the future lie for Helen McCookerybook?
Helen: I have been setting up a little studio in my kitchen (of course) and plan to do a lot more writing and recording. I have a Stageit show on July 14th from my kitchen (that’s a live broadcast at 5.45 p.m.) and more gigs with Martin and solo over the next few months which will be announced on my Blog. I am also running a songwriting course at The Premises studio in late July with Ed Harcourt as a guest songwriter, and one with Martin in October. I’d like to co-write with some other artists. After that? Well, I’d like to play in San Francisco, New York, Paris and Japan, and carry on writing and releasing songs until the ideas run out!
You can listen to, and buy her music, on Bandcamp here.
All words by Paul Scott-Bates. More of Paul’s writing on Louder Than War can be found here. Paul’s website is hiapop Blog. Paul has been working hard to save Radio Lancashire’s On The Wire, easily one of the best radio shows on the BBC. Follow him on twitter as @saveonthewire for all On The Wire news or follow his personal twitter, @hiapop.