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Cometh the hour, cometh the band.
The fantastically named Bob Vylan has been around a couple of years with their flamboyantly brilliant mash up of grime and punk rush. The core due of Moby and Bob13’s low level festival activity from their breakthrough performer at the 2018 AFROPUNK London Battle of the Bands has seen them garner a following that has been amped up this year with many of their key themes brought into sharp focus by BLM’s storming of the mainstream.
Bob Vylan have form, their rapid fire series of releases from their 2017 debut detailed the UK with that kitchen sink sense of detail and their punk grime mash perfectly captures the sound and fury of times and full of righteous ire that haas come into sharp focus in a key political social and cultural moment.
Many people have tried to fuse the two genres but Bob Vylan makes it feel so effortless and the snarling yet groove heavy tacks are anthems for the times. The charismatic singer also talks an eloquent wisdom that is much needed in these incendiary times.
‘It’s about focus. It’s kind of good and bad obviously that people are listening but one of the things that has frustrated me personally is that we have been talking about these things for ages with our music and there BLM have been talking about with their campaigns and not many people wanted to pay too much attention to what we were all saying. Now it seems that certain companies can’t afford not to pay attention and we have found ourselves the subject of much talk and found ourselves on playlists where we were not before.’
If you wanted a snapshot of the cultural mix that makes pop culture so vital in the UK Bob Vylan provide it. As ever it’s the music that creates a new kind of England? Reinventing the notion of the nation?
This is what England looks like in reality. That kind of idea that it’s like Britannia – the weathered and strong and sturdy old lady has gone. That’s not England any more. Maybe it was once but I never saw it. That’s not England any more and people would do well to accept that notion haas gone. I don’t know what it means to be what people call English. On the other hand, I know certain things and happen to enjoy such English things like The Office or the Peep Show – there are nuances that American or German audiences would not get. They may laugh at those shows but not get the subtle nuances and the grungy moments or the deadpan sarcastic English dry wit.
I think that’s the same with the music. You can enjoy it outside of England as a view in to what it’s really like here. You would be able to hear that what he is saying is that this England is not that place any more. It’s not the great empire. It’s this place – this genteel island smog that suffocates all of us. It’s not a statue. It’s not its history – none of that. I am a version of England and that’s very much how I feel. I’m very much English whether I like it or not – even if some days I don’t feel at home in this country. That’s hard to come to grips with after spending my whole life in this country. It’s hard to deal with and some people don’t have that problem because they can afford the luxury of ignorance.’
Your music seems to celebrate or document a 21st century England that is a stark contrast to the one that old white men venerate – that mythical past that never embraced them anyway.
‘Yes, exactly, isn’t that such an English thing to hold onto the past – very fucking English, but that’s not what it is anymore. It’s a very narrow narrative. What is England without the Windrush generation? What is England without its curry houses? What is England without Brick Lane? What is England without all of these things and many more? Even if you stripped everything away that the far right racists are angry about it still wouldn’t look like this romantic idea of England that they have. A place that as you say, never embraced them anyway. It left them homeless and without their unions and it left their roads filthy and closed their minds. Ultimately we have more in common with eachother than they even know.
The recent BLM protests and the counter protests through up a stark contrast in the visions of the nation apart from the iconic photo of the white man slung over the shoulders of the BLM professor and being carried to safety. It was an iconic photo that showed that even in the middle of this tension there is a humanity. For the main being carried to safety it could well have been the first time he had been embraced in his life.
Ah god yeah and look who it is doing it! That photo was a very sad thing because that photo should never have to had to happen. Why do we have to end up having to protest to get what we should have anyway? but it was very beautiful to see how forgiving and embracing people can be and that photo also captured what our protests where about in terms of marching for equal rights for black people and their allies and a protest of solidarity with our brothers and sisters across the pond facing these awful injustices.
It shows what these protests are about – we’re not there to crack your head open. We are not there to drink a couple of cans of Stella of Fosters and to start getting lairy.
We are there for real change. This is an ongoing thing. We want real change. This is not a weekend warrior trying to find some black person to pick on. We are there for real change and that photo shows that. We are not here for that mate because if we were you would not have made it out of that huddle that bust your head open in the first place.
We are here for real change and you don’t get change from kicking the crap out of a racist prick who had one too many cans to drink. That’s not how we achieve our change. It might feel satisfying but it’s not how you get change. I saw a brief interview with the guy who carried him out who was very humble about it being a joint effort. I would love to see an in interview with the guy who was over his shoulder – I would love to see his take on it all! I bet he feels a right fucking idiot. It wasn’t what they expected and they were fighting the police – the same police they say the BLM guys were harassing the week before! Their aims were confused. Did you see that one picture of the guy pissing on the memorial ? That was disgusting. When you see these images it becomes very hard to say that this is what Britain should be. If that’s their Britain then the general public won’t want it.
The lost a lot of public ground. They are nothing like the threat any more. They were aiming their anger at us for a second instead of our Muslim brothers and sisters and we will take that and give them a break because god knows they deserve it!
Does it feel that music is the frontline where changes can be made and the idea flux helps to mix culture and society.
I would argue that pop culture is very much is black culture. It’s the parts of black culture that the majority is happy to take part in. These days there are hardly any white guitar bands in the charts , maybe you get one cropping up here and there but for the most part what you would term urban which is black music, R’n’B and rap music or music influenced by that music is the charts. I think pop culture, at the moment in 2020, is black culture. It’s the parts that the white majority is happy to take part in and don’t see as threatening and see as fun.
Interestingly you fuse cutting edge black culture like Grime with the very white culture of punk rock – a fascinating symbiosis. Is this cultural mix due to your upbringing which saw you grow up in Ipswich and the East End of London.
My roots or in London – Stepney, Barking and Bow. My family dynamic saw me sharing my youth there and with some family in Ipswich. My time in the East End was mainly weekends and holidays. It was part there and part in Chingford and Walthamstow near the dog track. It was a contrast in a sense from the big city to the smaller town but then Ipswich is a weird place, for one – for its size it has got a high crime rate which is strange. It also had quite a spectacular drug problem in the town. I don’t now what other word to use. It really is a thing to behold when you look at it. I saw very hands on how it was. The underbelly of the town that they prefer didn’t exist had deep problems and there is very little help to get them off the streets.
The music scene is also a strange one because the Adicts are from Ipswich and they are, obviously, an incredible punk band. Ed Sheeran is from round there and Extreme Noise Terror might be from round there as well. It’s a weird place and my connection between the two was pretty direct. When I was growing up someone would come and pick me up and I would shoot down the road on the one hour journey to East London which is the first part of London you reach off the A14. It’s very close after you cut through Essex, once you’re past Romford you are there in East London. Going there helped shape my view because many people never leave Ipswich and have an Ipswich state of mind. I’m lucky to experience both and see how things work differently in different places.
Did the cultural impact of living in east London and Ipswich cross pollinate your music and style creating a unique hardcore punk Ipswich and pirate radio grime of East London hybrid?
Maybe to a certain extent Grime music was the sound of the time. It was the moment where it get away from garage and made that move. So Solid Crew were on TV, then it was Wiley, Kano, JME, Giggs and Ghetts. It was this explosion. I feel like it was country wide especially in youth culture. It had such an influence on me. I was lucky I was in East London because it’s the home of grime really – all the references in the music are very East London specific with the road names, bus routes or landmarks. That music was first played on the pirate radio stations and I was listening. As time went on the music was in different areas. The hybrid of sound, for me and what I do, comes from being interested in lots of different musical genres. There is no romantic moment or anything where I decided on a new style it’s just that I like all sorts of genres and once that mashes up then this music forms.
When other people have done it, it can sound kind of glued together. I think they have taken the obvious parts of one genre and stuck them to the obvious parts of another genre and it sounds stuck together and I hear it and I think it sounds incredibly cheesy. I don’t why it sounds cheesy to me and why it does not work when certain other people do it. To a certain extent, I live and breathe both genres and have done for a long time. There was punk music and grime and rap and singer songwriter music in my house growing up. I have always been exposed to everything through one household or the other, because of that I was fortunate and if I mix the music it comes across genuine and not trying to combine them to be really cool man. I learned to play guitar and make that kind of music and brought it all in from there.
My parents brought all that music in and I’m an inquisitive person. I had a vast record collection that was a thing of fascination. The same with comics and books, I always loved diving into things. That is one thing about me, I always went head first into music finding out about production techniques in every style and in every way Even the details like looking into different compressors on the market even if I could not afford them I would rip and torrent them instead. I would get the virtual plug in, it was very nerdy in that sense because I want to know everything there is about the music I listen to because, obviously, this is a life long journey. It takes one person to play something I like and I lose myself in it for a year!
Down the rabbit hole!
Yes, quite…if I hear Irish folk music then all I will listen to ever again is Irish folk music. That is what happens to a certain extent all the time to me. I heard garage music and that was all I wanted then I heard the Clash or Bad Brains and I was like, fuck! what the fuck is that and that is all I want to listen to then I heard Wu Tan Clan and I then dedicated my whole life to listening to every Wu Tan album, every solo album and affiliate album – I was consumed for ages then I found something else and dived head first into that! A psychiatrist would have a field day with me because I completely feel the need to explore and lose myself in things.
It’s this intensity of immersion in two such diverse and yet such English styles as Grime and Punk that is the core of what you do.
It does come from that wider experience of growing up in the town and the city. A lot of people have one or the other and I had both. It was a kind of well rounded Englishness. I don’t think it sounds too one or the other. It has a nice mix of both. It’s definitely extremely English but that doesn’t mean it can’t be appreciated outside the UK just because it concerns itself with Englishness and the struggle of who we are as a band or as people in England and the kind of labels they put on you whether it’s ‘black’ or ‘working class’ or ‘free meals’ and it concerns itself with that and in a very genuine way. Someone at some point in history said write what you know and that’s what I know – it’s not Hollywood, nothing is glorified or Hollywood exaggerated. I say this thing happened because it happened.
Classic English observational kitchen sink snapshots of life…a staple in our pop culture. What do grime scene think of you
It’s a hard one to kind of judge because we don’t play many. The live aspect of grime is very different to punk music because of our live requirements we don’t play many of those shows but when we play grime shows it’s embraced as something very different and respected. They respect what we are trying to do and where it is going. That audience has shown us a lot of love and continued to support the direction we are going in without questioning it or thinking it’s weird. You have got to remember that some of the things that we do or some of the things I wear on stage are quite alien to some of the people on that scene. You won’t see a man in a kilt at a grime rave often! But it’s quite an embracing community with a very open kind of attitude.
That genre has been around for a long time and it has seen a lot of change. A lot of the artists go through many different periods from their roots in pirate radio to their debut album to their cheesy one hit kind of things and then they come back to Grime and back too the raves. The people on the scene have seen it all, they have seen many cycles and we are just another cycle!
When I first heard Skepta I never thought he would be who he is today. I’m sure he didn’t either! Who then thought they would be successful in a genre called grime music for fucks sake. It was not the most marketable scene but they made it work which was a beautiful thing for where some of us came from.
Interestingly whereas Grime is very black, Punk is very white – but there are many crossovers and, in a sense, you are taking punk back to its real roots !
Being a black punk and a black fan of metal music is like Russian roulette! I’m just waiting for one of the bands I love to flirt with right wing imagery a little too much or say something that is not necessarily ok to say when I go to these shows.
It plagues certain genres and the old Britain boys won’t let it go but we have to move forward with the music. Hopefully we can be part of that movement for the punk scene. We don’t have to hold on to the hinge from yesteryear the old bands were great but there is a bunch of great new bands we can enjoy as we all embrace the change.
A friend of mind, one of bredren is in an oi band which is one sub genre of punk that is very kind middle aged white working class male and you don’t see many black fancies in there and I would go and see him play a lot and there could be occasional tensions there but mostly nothing. The band were called Crown Court – great band man. They are on a bit of a hiatus now. They were very English. I would go to a lot of their shows and it could be a bit weird sometimes but then I grew up realising sometimes I am the other in the room! But it’s breaking down now especially with the younger generation. What we are doing has helped also you see punk rappers, trap metal and Sio on and this mixing of genres is becoming the norm. When we played New York the crowd of people there was so mixed and diverse – punk kids side by side with rap kids and everybody was there for this music and you see that more and more and that idea of it being an homogenous culture will die out. We seem to be embraced by people that are punks through and through and we seem to have been embraced by members of Crass and even someone from Amoebix.
We got a couple of mentions recently from Shirley Manson from Garbage who posted our songs. It’s great when she says I stand with this and it’s the same with Penny and Steve from Crass saying the same thing. I don’t know these guys but Penny sent me a very heartwarming message a little while ago.
You should tour with Sleaford Mods!
I’ve never any direct contact with Sleaford Mods. I didn’t want to push that. I think he must be sick and tired of hearing our name to be completely honest. His personae is quite scary and I get that . It’s part of the aesthetic. Obviously they are that very English ‘everything is shit’ attitude! I saw an interview on Louder Than War and they asked him about us and he said he knew us.
With his charismatic looks and sense of stylet was inevitable that Bob was going to get notice – he was (like myself in 2017) the face of a Doc Martens campaign…
They are a cool brand and I wear them anyway so I had not problem with that. I was putting in work that day. It was not all standing around looking pretty!
Punk music has this very old attitude of stick it to the man! down with capitalism! which is cool and might have been easier in the seventies, so long as I got bills and rent to pay we will have to talk about the money. We control what we do and I will only do what I choose.
These must be frustrating times for you – just when everyone starts talking about you the virus shuts you down.
This has been a hard year man. We are usually out and about travelling. We do pretty well out in the Netherlands and Germany. We get out to Europe and we had so many cool things lined up but like a lot of bands now the dates are not lined up. They are just in the air somewhere for 2021. People who are now just getting into us are not being able to meet us face to face is sad…