Exclusive Interview: Pete Honkamaki from The Vibrators
We’ve just run a live review of The Vibrator’s live show at the Barwon Club Hotel, Geelong South, Australia. After that show, Pete Honkamaki of the band joined our reviewer to discuss the gig, The Vibrators and life in general. He starts by asking Pete about Vibrators members past and present…
“There are 19 ex-Vibrators bouncing around the world, including founding singer Ian ‘Knox’ Carnochan who has come and gone over the years … No guarantees here about how this will sound, but it’s only $10 and maybe worth a gamble.” * This pre-gig copy from a recent Boston gig seemed an appropriate introduction when this review morphed into an interview, for, while pondering the long drive home, bassist Pete came across for a chat about the gig and life in general. Seizing the day, Pete shared many insights about himself and the band, but only after I put my ‘foot in mouth’ when mistaking his Finnish accent for a Welsh one. Thankfully, people from Finland have a good sense of humour, and the interview went off perfectly thereafter.
Backtracking, Pete officially joined the band in September 2003 after Robbie Tart had resigned to pursue a regular income. Previously he was playing in Finnish three-piece No Direction, who blended classic 50s rock ‘n’ roll sounds with melodic punk and power pop. Pete takes up the story from here, “I always knew I wanted to be a musician, especially after watching Hanoi Rocks. I knew I wanted to play an instrument, mainly guitar, from my school days, and in my second class year photo I was caught posing with an air guitar. That set the scene toward the real thing, and my entry into music. In Finland I played in a band called No Direction, and we moved to London around 1998. We decided to do something with our lives, we had a good band going on, we toured a bit around Finland, but back then the local music business was quite harsh. It was harder to get a deal as a band, but after we moved out, and a couple of years later, Finnish bands started to gain recognition, and it became better for bands to get recording contracts. But we missed out.”
“We toured around London quite a bit, and interestingly Charlie Harper became one of the first known musicians to take an interest in our band. At one gig, The Dublin Castle, he came to see us, and the guy who booked our gigs and managed us (at the time) came over and said ‘Charlie’s just bought a t-shirt and two single’s, you should go over and say hello’. I did and he said ‘you’ve got a f**king great band, what are you drinking’ and bought me a drink. We became good friends after that gig.”
“We kept in contact and did some mini tours together. At the time I had a shit hot Chevy van, which I used to drive other bands around, including the UK Subs. You know I later found myself playing for them when their bass player left. I played a few gigs at short notice (sorry folks, that’s a story I’ve kept back for another project I’m working on).”
“Interestingly, it’s also Charlie I have to thank for my introduction to The Vibrators. I played two shows with the UK Subs where The Vibrators were the opening band, so Knox and Eddie saw me play. Afterwards they (The Vibrators) needed a bass player for a US tour, and Eddie called Charlie to see if he knew any bass players, and he recommended me. When Eddie called I said give me 24 hours to talk with my girlfriend first. She said you’ve got to do this, for everyone wants to go to the States and tour. Personally I’d never been, but for a four day trip, so I called back and said Eddie, I’m in, let’s do it.”
So what became of the driving gig and your Chevy van? “The van I had to sell, because I had no use for it. Once my old band split up I drove around some other bands, but it was not solid work. Then the van started to play up, the engine was becoming problematic and it was rusty, so I sold it for 500 pounds. My old band played our last show in February 2003, and it’s then I got the offer from Eddie for a US tour in September. In between I worked odd jobs, and started to learn the songs around June or July. They just sent me tapes, and notes on paper, and I learnt the songs at home. We then had one acoustic rehearsal, a show in Nottingham, and that was it. We left and toured the States.”
During the interview Pete and I talked about the fabulous Scandinavian bands that emerged during the nineties – The Peepshows, Glucifier, The Hellacopters, Turbonegro, The Retardos – and this led to a question about Pete’s vocal style. How does his Finnish tones influence or change the delivery of songs that are quintessentially London sounding by design. It seemed a logical question, given my musical knowledge of The Vibrators was limited, and held no preconceived idea of what their songs sounded with Knox at the helm. “I don’t know (he laughs), I’ve never thought about it. I can sort of mimic accents a little bit, and Knox’s accent is not very harsh when he sings, it’s quite clear to me. So the difference isn’t something I’ve noticed, or anyone has commented on before. I think you are the first Marc. My singing style is what it is. I don’t try to sing the same way as Knox was singing, which is very different to mine. The only one I try and mimic is Automatic Lover, there’s a funny way of singing that and it’s not a strong vocal song, but that’s it.”
“But that’s also why Eddie is singing a lot more songs. His vocal style suits them better, and I need to focus on the bass lines on certain songs, which are very hard to play when you are singing at the same time. You really need to concentrate on the bass lines, so when Eddie sings, I play, but then we change the vocal duties around. The songs today are also played faster than when originally recorded, almost double speed, so if I’m trying to sing and play at the same time, the songs sound won’t be the same” he said.
I asked Pete to share some insights into Knox’s departure, and what happened after the bands previous Australian tour. “Knox left four years ago after that (Australian) tour, after he said something like ‘I’m done, f**k this’. Basically, beforehand we went to Canada for three weeks, which was f**king hard work and so badly organised, full on with no breaks. We only had five days off before we flew to New Zealand, which was relentless with no f**king sleep, and then we came to Australia. I never get tired on the road, but I was absolutely shattered after New Zealand. So I thought if I’m that bloody tired, how tired must Knox must be, knowing he had a heart and shoulder problem. He looked in a bad way, and I knew he was going to pull the plug on the band. It wasn’t a surprise when he called after a week back home, and said he was out. He couldn’t cope with the manic touring schedule anymore. Even I was knackered at that stage, so imagine what it must be like for Knox, at that age and having to manage a heart and shoulder condition.”
Didn’t Knox injure his shoulder before that tour? “Yes, Knox hurt his shoulder really bad in Spain. He fell in this club, the ligaments came off his shoulder blade and he was out of the business for a year and a half. After that we had to cancel quite a few shows, which means as a musician you make no money. You end up sitting on your arse wondering what the f**k do I do now. We were hoping he’d be okay, but his condition went on and on, and then his heart started acting up, so by now he’s in a bad medical way. Knox wasn’t going to come back anytime soon, and so we had to make a decision about the band” he said.
“The Vibrators had some big gigs in Norway, and some festivals, and it was good money, so we decided to continue without Knox. He was in favour of this, and I think we only had one rehearsal to get the set together, to see who could sing what, before we flew over to Norway. For me it was very hard, because it takes a long time to memorise and remember the lyrics. That’s a funny thing, I can remember songs and notes on the bass, but it’s harder for lyrics. You know for new songs I need to have the lyrics written down on a piece of paper, taped to the stage as a back-up, so I can remember them. When we were playing in Norway I’d have ten songs on paper, all taped to the floor, but playing and singing isn’t a natural thing for me. In Norway the lyrics were becoming a blur while we are playing, and often I’d be playing and making up the lyrics as I went along. Singing anything that came to mind (he laughs), and I’ve no idea what I was singing (laughs again), but it seemed to go down very well with the fans.”
Often the sound through the PA is distorted or muddled, and vocals are never clear, so did this help him out? “Oh yes, absolutely, absolutely, especially festivals, where the sound is hardly ever that good. It is what it is. We played like this for about a year and a half until Knox came back. We never had any problems from the fans, they seemed to know and appreciate what was going on, and kept supporting us. The same thing happened after he officially quit, we just carried on and everything seemed to go on fine. It was still nerve racking for us, but we came though and we only knew it worked through trial.”
“I think we only received two emails from fans wanting their money back, as Knox was not there, and my response to that is you’re obviously a fan of the man and not the band. This band is not one man’s solo project, it’s about the band, and we are not just his backing band. He carried on when he could, but the band’s now playing without Knox, and I think most fans accept this now.”
How did the fans adjust to the bands new vocal styles and tones? “All the time we get new fans saying we sound great. The older loyal fans say the change is like an injection of adrenalin shot into the band, noting we sound different and recharged. We are playing faster, and the new songs we play have helped move us forward. Because Eddie and I have different vocal styles, the songs today are fresh without changing the way they were originally intended to be played. I think it’s been a big success for us. If we had failed, then I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now.” That’s a good point, given the breadth of material that’s been released lately featuring Eddie, Pete and even Darrell on vocals. The material takes the focus away from the fact that Knox is no longer singing, and helps push the band forward, especially with their new take on the old classics to extend the live set list.
Holding no musical connections and associations per se, I’m always intrigued by the rock and roll lifestyle musicians enjoy – or endure – in support of their cause. Despite their reputation and long standing associations, The Vibrators (among others) continue to tour using a variable cost-profit philosophy, open to borrowing amps and instruments from tour promoters and opening acts to reduce costs and improve profits. In some countries, like Australia, touring essentials like accommodation, riders, meals, taxi’s, record company support and PR often won’t exist for bands like The Vibrators. Making Australia the poor musician cousin to the hospitality, tour and label support they receive and enjoy in Europe and the UK. Pete explains the current situation faced by the band. “Well (for us) it’s only possible (to tour) if we keep it affordable. We play wherever people want us to play, there’s no limit for us. We recently played in Russia, and there’s talk of Brazilian dates next year. Maybe China, so if the people want us, and we can, we’ll tour. As I said, there’s no limit. In Europe, Scandinavia and the UK you usually get to use your own equipment, drive your own van and band around between countries, and find things like food, drink and accommodation are provided or included. Sometimes we stay in posh hotels, but you know if the crowd is low someone is losing money, but you are still staying in a posh hotel. While this is quite nice, especially if you have a room to yourself, we’d rather stay in a two star hotel, share rooms and make sure there are no losses. We are only staying in hotels for a few hours, and while it’s nice to stay in a posh hotel, it’s not often a necessary expense for a band like us.”
“We also play festivals, large venues and undertake joint tours with other bands, like the (UK) Subs. This means we can play bigger gigs, draw larger crowds and make the kind of money that covers our costs and supports our livelihood. Usually this makes everyone happy. In the UK we often drive home from the gigs, or stay with friends, so the hotel costs are saved. The States are usually good, they have many festivals and bands you can connect with, but here (down under) it’s harder. Don’t get me wrong Marc, we love coming here, and the fans really love the band, but it’s different and often harder than other places.”
Can you share some insights into the difference between the UK and Australia? “Oh, well coming here we left London on Wednesday and got to Melbourne 18 hours later, so now it’s Friday and 5am in the morning. We lost Thursday completely. Once we landed in Melbourne we had to wait two hours because Darrell was grilled by immigration, and no sooner had we cleared the airport our promoter had us driving 8 hours to Adelaide to play that night. Life can get pretty f**ked up and hectic as a result. Then we drove back yesterday from Adelaide to play The Tote in Melbourne, which was sold out, and now today we are in Geelong. Tomorrow will be our first day off, and first day without travel in five. We’ll stay in Geelong for two days, and then play a radio gig in Melbourne on Wednesday, before driving to Canberra and beyond.”
“To make the tour work we have to make it low budget. My bass and amp is borrowed, and we are staying with the promoter’s family here in Melbourne and Geelong. There are so many expenses, and we don’t pull thousands of people to our gigs here, so we have to budget and stay with people or we’ll make no money, which is not an option because we are musicians and this is our job and livelihood after all. There are so many expenses that you face a large cost before you arrive and play, so the only way to make this tour viable is to borrow everything you can, stay with friends and tour on a lower budget than say Europe or the UK” he said.
Finally I ask Pete if he held any regrets as a musician. “No, there’s nothing I can tell you. I’ve been playing bass with the band for some ten and a half years now, and I’m officially the longest running bassist in the band’s history. I wanted to make music my profession, and I’ve been lucky to do this with the band. Touring and playing is a way of life, and playing in The Vibrators has made that possible by turning it into a profession. So no, no there’s no regrets.”
Pete’s exceptional insights conclude the interview just as the band’s van driver threatens to leave without him, and I endure some drunken woman’s verbal tirades about who knows what. I’ll conclude the article with a comment from former Vibrator Nigel Bennett, about low budget touring and borrowed equipment. “It’s absolutely frightening. It reminds you how much you take for granted having your own gear when you play back home. Here (the USA), I just hope for a good amp every night, and it has been hit and miss. But that’s part of the thrill—being able to make it happen with strange, often ill-maintained gear and no idea whether the monitors are working or not. You plug in, you play—no excuses.” ** Tonight in Geelong, that’s exactly what Pete, Eddie and Darrell did for us punters down under.
*Quote taken from Boston arts and entertainment writer Jim Sullivans eclectic website.
**Interview comment taken from Nigel Bennett’s interview published on the Guitarplayer website.
If you haven’t already seen the review of the gig this interview followed on from go here.
To hear another contribution from Melbourne, listen to the bands blistering live studio set and Eddie’s later interview on our exceptional community radio station PBS-FM, via their radio on demand service here: pbsfm.org.au/node/36422.
All words by Marc Brekau, find his Louder Than War archive here.