Dirty Water Records
Louder Than War’s Nathan Whittle sits down with founder of Dirty Water Records, PJ Crittenden.
In the North London suburb of Tufnell Park, a stone’s throw from the dying baggy Britpop celebrity hub of Camden, a new underground rock n’ roll scene was being born, one that would see the poster boy and girl of the new garage revival, The White Stripes, play one of their first UK gigs (hailed by Mojo Magazine as one of the ‘world changing events in music’), and stage then up-and-coming garage-psych chameleons The Horrors. Alongside riotous gigs from The Parkinsons, numerous shows from garage legend Billy Childish, and a whole host of stellar acts from across the world of underground rock n’ roll, Dirty Water Club fast became the place to play.
From there, there was only one natural step – Dirty Water Records. This month the avid devotees of dirty, stripped-back rock ‘n’ roll will start to throw a spotlight back on some of the releases that made them the label they have become today, one that pulls in and puts out some of the best garage acts in the world.
Louder Than War: Okay, so as you’ve decided to run a spotlight series on your earlier releases, let’s go right back to the beginning. How did you guys get started with Dirty Water?
“Well, back in the 1990s there wasn’t a lot going on if you were into garage punk and stuff like that. There was the fantastic Frat Shack nights once a month or so for a period, and there were the More Than Vegas nights at the St Moritz on Wardour Street, the Zombie Club had some good bands on, and occasionally venues like the Dublin Castle or Hope & Anchor did something that I liked.”
Louder Than War: Anywhere that was always a draw for you?
My regular go-to venue, though, was the Wild Western Room at the St John’s Tavern near Tufnell Park tube (now an overpriced restaurant that pretends to still be a pub). The promoter was a mysterious chap who went by the moniker of ‘Slim Chance’. No one knows his real name. He put on garage bands every Thursday (and other styles of music on the other days of the week). Billy Childish’s then band The Headcoats played regularly. And other UK garage, punk and beat groups, including some original sixties bands like the Downliners Sect and Pretty Things came to play. Once in a while there was even a touring band from abroad.
Louder Than War: So how did you get into putting on shows?
“Around that time, mid-1990s, I tried to help a friend’s garage punk band to get some gigs by posing as their manager. It was a difficult and thankless task. So few venues would give that sort of thing a chance. Though somewhat misnamed by the NME, the ‘garage rock revolution’ [sic] of 2001 changed things entirely. The promoter of More Than Vegas was the first person to have me play records somewhere. The DJ that had been booked was ill and she knew I had a decent vinyl collection so she asked me to come down and fill in. The Frat Shack then booked me a bunch of times. And in the late summer of 1996 Slim asked me to be his regular DJ at the Wild Western Room.
But around that time, Slim and the manager at the St John’s weren’t seeing eye to eye so he moved his gigs down the road to the Boston Arms. Slim named it the Dirty Water Club – “Boston, you’re my home” sang The Standells – and after six months in the driving seat, with me as DJ and flyer designer, he called it quits, for good. I remember saying to the sound engineer, Professor Blinding, ‘Shall we carry on with the six weeks’ of gigs he’s got booked up and see how it goes?’ The Professor was my partner in putting on the gigs until 2009 when he decided to concentrate on his business. I might have had a fatter bank account if I’d done the same. I’d have had a lot less fun and friends though!”
Louder Than War: I bet! Over the years you’ve put on shows by some now big names. Have you seen any band play and just know they were going to go on to something much bigger?
“If I booked a band it was never because I thought they were going to go on to be a big name. I remember when Jack White came up to me at a Billy Childish gig and asked if his band could play. I had no idea that anyone else really knew them. I’d bought their first two albums on Sympathy (from the Rough Trade shop in Notting Hill) because I’d heard good reports about them on an internet garage-punk message board. I wasn’t listening to John Peel. Radio? No, I was going out to gigs. I had no idea what Peel was playing at all.
Sometimes I played a demo tape or CD and thought that they sounded like they might do well. Bloc Party, for instance. Although they were called the Union still back then. I thought their demo tape sounded like something that might get more popular. But they didn’t really sound like a DW band so although I met them, liked them as people, I never put them on. Russell from the band was making extra beer money by dishing out flyers outside clubs and gigs. I was the only promoter who pulled him indoors when it was raining and let him flyer inside.
Mostly, I figure that if I like a band then there’s no chance of them getting big! But we do what we do. We don’t chase trends or jump on bandwagons. At least not on purpose.”
Louder Than War: And, if you had to choose, what would be your one favourite Dirty Water gig?
“With apologies to the so many bands who have been fantastic, I have to say The Monks. They were a bunch of American GIs based in Germany in the 1960s. Anyone reading this who doesn’t know them should go online and check them out. There are some great clips of them from a German TV show on YouTube. They started out as a basic covers band called The Torquays but then discovered feedback, figured out that they needed to write their own songs – with titles like ‘Shut Up’ and ‘I Hate You’ – then shaved their heads and dressed like Monks.”
Louder Than War: How did you get them to play?
“I first heard about them from my German friend Michi, before anything they recorded had been reissued anywhere. For years they were more like a myth to me than a real band. Eventually, the LP was newly available and the reality was as good as I could ever have hoped for. They finally reformed in 1999 and I went to New York to see them at the Cavestomp festival. They were so amazing that I spent the following seven years trying to persuade them to come to London. And when they did – bass player Eddie Shaw said to me, ‘You know why we’re here? Because you persevered!’ – well, you had to be there to know just how special that night was.”
Louder Than War: So, what made you make the jump from being a club night to a record label?
“After the club night got a bit more generally well known outside of the hardcore garage-punk crowd because of the White Stripes and all those ‘cool’ Detroit and Scandinavian bands playing, some friends who were in local bands suggested that if I release records for them on a Dirty Water label they might sell a few more than if they just did it themselves. So the label basically started as me doing a favour for some mates.”
Louder Than War: You’ve come a hell of a way since then. How did the rest of the Dirty Water gang get on board?
“Well, another regular at the club night who became a friend, Paul Manchester, who was originally from Boston, USA, but had been living in London for years already by then, loved the idea of being part of a record label. He also desperately wanted to see a 1979 single by Boston band Lyres re-pressed (which became DWC1003). And I figured that without a helping hand or two, I’d only get around to putting out two, maybe three, records a year.
At his suggestion, pretty much straight away, Deigo Dominguez came on board too. And more recently, two or three years ago, PR & publicity supremo Matt Hunter joined us. All of us come from very different backgrounds and our varied skills seemed to fit together quite well, while our similar, but not completely overlapping, tastes in music sees us all doing a bit of A&R, discovering bands that another of us might inadvertently pass by or never even come across in the first place.
Without the huge input from the other three guys I’d probably just be doing two or three releases a year. It’s a big job to do by yourself. Especially as I was still doing weekly gigs when the label started. With a team like this working together we’ve made amazing strides, I think. They’ve helped to develop the label and make it into something bigger than I could have ever done by myself.”
Louder Than War: When you hear a band, what makes your ears prick up and think ‘This is a Dirty Water band’?
“When Paul and Diego joined the label we had a talk about this. And the main criteria is that the band makes us want to jump up and down, drink beer and go crazy. That was the original idea. Of course, we’re a bit older now. But the same is true pretty much now. The main thing is that the band has to have both rock and roll. We’re not much interested in having either one without the other.”
(The Parkinsons rocking Dirty Water Club in 2011)
“Obviously, having Diego on the label helped us to get to know more Spanish bands than we might have done otherwise. But, the simple fact is that out of everywhere on the planet, in recent years, and right now, the Spanish know how to have a good time, they know how to put on a party, and that spirit and attitude comes through in the music, whether live or in the grooves.”
Louder Than War: It looks like you’re getting more and more collaborative as well, working with FOLC Records (Spain), Lolipop Records (USA), Heatwave magazine etc. In fact, with FOLC you’ve put out a fair few joint releases. How’s that working out?
“These are people who are on the same kind of wavelength as us. Their heads and hearts are in the right place. We all respect, like and admire each other as people and for the work they do putting the music out there. We are all on the same page, working towards the same goals, so it works out very well for all of us.”
Louder Than War: About ten years back, you told me that Dirty Water was ,not intentionally, going down quite a pure garage route. Now, with releases from the likes of Playboy Manbaby, do you feel you’re shedding that idea a little? Will we see a Dirty Water folk series in the future?
“I guess that at that time – which was…how long, a decade, ago perhaps? – there were a good number of amazing bands around who were doing things right and whose sound was trying to be more authentic sixties garage or attempting to consciously continue the essence or spirit of the original sixties garage bands. The club night, though was never about being purist. Quite the opposite, in fact. Strangely, the one magazine that put that ethos into print was one that was least expected. The Face, in 2002, wrote that, ‘Dirty Water is the club where mods and rockers finally kiss and make up, where old school punks dance creases into their leathers. It’s the place where anyone can feel at home who doesn’t feel at home anywhere else.’
So, although, a kind of retro-influenced garage punk sound is what we’re best known for, I think that most of the bands on the label, whether garage or not, are actually quite different from one another already. So putting out a band like Playboy Manbaby, who have the attitude and who most definitely rock and roll, isn’t any great departure.”
Louder Than War: If back when you started someone had told you that you would be where you are now, what would you have said?
“I certainly didn’t think I’d still be doing this 20 plus years later. But then again, if someone had told me that I wouldn’t have been surprised either. I got into listening to rock’n’roll as an infant, when I discovered my mother’s Jerry Lee Lewis, Larry Williams, Little Richard, etc 45s. I bought my first seven inch single with my own money, a re-issued 1958 rockabilly record, when I was 14. Discovered the Cramps when I was 15. And even then I was sure I knew that rock’n’roll would always be a part of my life”
Louder Than War: One last one. Looking forward, what are your tips for the next 12 months?
“My tips, always, have to be the latest releases on Dirty Water Records. Which is the aforementioned Playboy Manbaby, all-female Arizona/California rockers The Darts, and New York band Dirty Fences. And not forgetting The Cavemen, who are currently working on new material and touring as much as they can manage. And, I’m sure, there’ll be one or two bands that I don’t even know exist just yet.
But outside of our own coterie of acts, I’m really enjoying The Fuzillis right now. The Jackets, from Switzerland, are awesome in every way. And bands like Suicide Generation and the Blue Carpet Band are currently killing it on the local live scene for me. Oh, and I am really looking forward to the new album by Wild Evel & the Trashbones. I’ve heard a rough mix already and it’s already sounding great.
On top of the three US bands mentioned, there may well be more American acts coming up in the next 12 months and beyond because we’re currently about to expand into the USA in a major way, with a full-on American branch of the label being set up. Exciting times! A new future of rock’n’roll will be coming very soon. There’s a lot of good stuff going on out there right now. Other labels like Soundflat, Groovie, Screaming Apple, Goner, In The Red, and many others too are as busy or more so than us. Rock’n’roll’s past is glorious. It’s future is never ending.”
Louder Than War: The spotlight series from Dirty Water Records will bring back to the fore some of the label’s earlier releases and shine a light on their formative days. The first in the series brings us Thee Vicars. So who were they and what were they all about?
“Thee Vicars were four small-town teenage tearaways from Bury St Edmunds who formed with the intention of kung-fu kicking the typical, run-of-the-mill indie bands in their area into orbit. With a manic energy they shot out three minute jolts of raw, visceral rock ‘n’ roll – exactly what you should expect from a bunch of 17-year olds.
During their six years they became one of the hardest working bands in the UK, travelling Europe and the US, opening shows for The Horrors and The Black Lips. While in no way reinventing the wheel, Clash magazine said that “Ironically, in displaying barely a drop of originality, Thee Vicars actually sound fabuously fresh when set against the current crop of synth-pop bunnies…glorious tunes and a sense of mischief. Mindless, and endless, fun.”
After a few line-up changes the band came to a sad and early end following the tragic passing of Chris, their guitarist at the age of 23. Replacing members who fled off to further education is one thing, but a death in the family is something else. Every year, in December, the band reform to celebrate Chris Mass, a rock ‘n’ roll rememberance for their departed friend.
Thee Vicars bore a torch that, while it didn’t burn for long, certainly burnt brightly and they left us with a legacy of timeless garage-rock, providing good times and never getting old or boring.”
Don’t Try To Tell Me / Why Have You Changed? (7″ single, download) 2008
Back On The Streets (LP, CD, download) 2008
You Lie / Gonna See Me Again (7″ single, download) 2009
Psychotic Beat (LP, CD, download) 2009
Every Day / Don’t Wanna Be Free (7″ single, download) 2011
I Wanna Be Your Vicar (LP, CD, download) 2012