INTERVIEW! Jim Bob talks about Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine legacy and his current tour
An article in The Guardian last month rightly suggested that the band Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine be both re-evaluated and valued, and so Louder Than War decided to do just that by visiting Jim Bob on his sold out solo tour to find out “What’s it all about? You know what I mean?”
In the early nineties Carter USM were the darlings of the music press. Jim ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison and Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter USM were a two piece with a drum machine that combined punk, pop, and samples and trawled the world with their riotous brand of stage show that demanded audience participation. They spawned four top ten albums (including the number one The Love Album) and twelve Top 40 singles and seemed unstoppable (ahem), but then the music press seemed to turn on them for reasons best known to themselves. Carter USM initially split up in 1998 but performed sporadic re-unions up until their glorious swansong, suitably entitled ‘The Final Comedown’, at the arse end of 2014.
With no album since 2013 and no tour since 2012, Jim Bob the singer/songwriter of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine has been very quiet of late and the music world has not been better for it. On the other hand, author J.B. Morrison has been very busy during that period; publishing three acclaimed books, Driving Jarvis Ham, The Extra ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 and then the one short of a triumvirate Frank Derrick’s Holiday of a Lifetime. Other than the final ever Carter gigs in 2014, Jim Bob has been concentrating on his writing. Thankfully for us he has decided to return to his first calling with some under-heralded gigs that sold out almost immediately.I have always admired Jim Bob’s way with words and so curiosity killed this cat, and I arranged to meet up with him over a cuppa (me) and a beer (him) in the surroundings of Manchester’s Deaf Institute. I said Deaf Institute.
Jim Bob in person seems shy and nervous and he is supported by a tight and uber-friendly coterie of friends in his manager Marc Ollington, Mr. Spoons and support act Chris T-T all of whom are charm personified. I began by asking what had inspired a tour after the self-imposed hiatus.
“That’s a good question… it’s a question I can’t answer! I think initially I was asked to do the Indie Daze festival in London. I’ve been asked to do a few of those 90s type gigs and I’ve always said “no”, maybe because I was writing a book and doing other stuff and I didn’t know whether I wanted to do that, didn’t know whether I wanted to…it’s weird playing with other bands of from the era in a funny kind of way because it’s like you’ve resigned yourself to do that, like ‘that was when you were good’. But it’s the wrong theory because when I did Indie Daze it was brilliant and you realise it’s the right audience to play too. The promoter of that festival was going to promote another gig in Brighton and so it slowly grew and then it started selling which was a bit of a shock to be honest with you. Quite a few of them have sold out and that has not happened before, not with the solo thing.”
How was the Shiiine On Weekender?
“I haven’t done that yet, its next year.”
Is that the ferry thing? (the plan is for bands to play whilst being ferried over to Holland).
“Yeah, I’m trying not to think about that (laughs).”
So how many dates have you done so far?
“Two but I feel like I’ve done about twenty, I’m getting old! It feels like we’ve been away a lot longer. So far it’s been really good, two different gigs. The first night was really, really good, everything great about it, the second night was really good but there were some negatives with some of the people. It’s not a big issue but you don’t need many people down the front of a gig turning their back and talking loudly during songs they don’t know. Even though we have only done two gigs, there are more and more Carter songs creeping in because I am quite eager to please! So if I am doing a quiet song you might just get three people having a loud chat. Then in Middlesbrough somebody tried to steal the t-shirts and punch Marc (Carter USM and Jim Bob manager) when he tried to stop him. It’s not even really a quiet gig and some people gave Chris (T-T) a hard time too. Like I say it tends to be five people out of two hundred but that’s what you remember, but hopefully tonight will be perfect! I’ve been to see a lot of Laura Marling gigs and it’s weird and almost creepy! Not a word, perfect silence then noise between the songs, it’s bizarre!”
At this juncture I mentioned that I was going to see Bill Ryder Jones on the following Monday night and that a few of his gigs I have been to previously have been disrupted by noisy chat during the quiet moments. I also suggested that Bill, like Carter USM and Jim’s solo work, is a consummate social commentator focusing on the minutia of everyday life which makes both somewhat unique as very few people write lyrics that say something “to me about my life”.
“Music tends to be…Carter USM music is never used in films or anything. They stick out because they’re about things that aren’t going on in the film. If the film is something to do with that era, you can play Primal Scream or The Stone Roses and you don’t really notice, but with our songs it’s like “What’s he on about? Sherriff Fatman? Safeways?!”
It has always seemed to me that Carter USM is the epitome of the ‘much maligned’ band from that period. Considering they had a Number 1 album they seem to have been written out of the history of that period. I asked Jim if he considered the burgeoning grunge scene/Britpop to have played a role in Carter’s demise and indeed the music press amnesia towards his band.
“No, we were kind of finished by Britpop really. In the words of Noel Gallagher we’d “never been so over” or something (laughs) and he was probably right. By that point we were already sort of self-destructing to a certain extent I think. I don’t think grunge…I remember it all happening at the same time. We had the same press people as Nirvana and Soundgarden and all of those Sub Pop bands. So I kind of knew all those people although it was admittedly before they were huge, so I think of grunge as being about the same time, but definitely not Britpop, we’d already had it by then (laughs).”
So what happened between having the The Love Album reach Number 1 and Post Historic Monsters which didn’t seem to get as much of a push?
“We were quite angry about everything by then, probably being more difficult too! The record label had changed as well, the people who had signed us had all gone and they sold Chrysalis to EMI so that probably had something to do with it. They probably didn’t want to promote it in the same way as they did the others.
Are you still angry? There is still plenty to be angry about with the state of the world but not a lot of angry bands.
“Not really, no. Some of the same things I guess. I suppose there is the Sleaford Mods and that’s it! We don’t seem to be exposed to music in the same way now. It’s terrible because I sound like “In the good old days…” but there’d be four T.V. channels and you’d just hear music on the radio whereas these days you have to hunt it down and then it’s all shrouded in adverts and stuff. There is also a theory that there are less working class bands than there used to be so if all bands meet at University, I’m not saying that is true (laughs) and they are all very nicely spoken and they all play really well because they’ve all been taught, I don’t know…where are the people who can’t play? I don’t think X Factor is to blame because I don’t think it affects indie music so much, do you? Someone spoke to me the other day; they were trying to make a film about bands who have headlined Glastonbury who had started out in small clubs and pubs, but now with clubs closing down will there be a point where headliners are either heritage bands like the Rolling Stones, people in their seventies, or American or Hip Hop artists”.
The thing I always liked about Carter USM and it’s the same with your solo stuff was the wordplay. Not just the puns but the clever and humorous wordplay. There doesn’t seem anybody doing that kind of thing now either.
“I’m sure there is… (long pause)…yeah. I mean I do like things like Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes. His lyrics are really clever but maybe not in that way, but here in the U.K. I don’t know”.
Given your lyrical skills, was it an obvious choice to move into writing?
Not really, only after starting it I can say that with hindsight because I wrote the Cater book (Goodnight Jim Bob: On the Road with Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine which is brilliant by the way) and then started to write a novel. Storage Stories started out as a semi fictional sequel about what I did after that, mostly made up, and then it wasn’t really working so I changed it and that was how it really began. The downside is trying to get it published every time. You get one book published every time, they are not long deals really so you have to go through that each time, wondering if I’ve just wasted three years or however long it’s taken. That’s one thing that’s different with writing a song. Firstly I always know straight away whether it’s good or not whereas with a book, well first you have to write it and then a couple of years pass and if you ask if someone can take the time to read it and they are like “mmm I don’t know whether that will get published” I think ah well I’ll just go and kill myself or something (laughs).My daughter who is a teacher is a good sounding board and my agent is really good too although she is brutal! If there’s something wrong with it she will just tell me. I am working on a book at the moment about a bloke who is researching his family tree and he thought his Dad had died twenty five years ago and he finds out that he actually died six months ago, so he starts to find out where his dad has been all those years. It’s a simple idea. It stemmed from an incident with an Aunt of mine. My second cousin had heard I was researching the family tree and she was doing the same so we compared and on her version my Aunt was dead, just a few months before and so it was a shock because we were really close growing up, so it was a strange way to find out and all the other relatives just presumed someone had told me. So it’s kind of based on that. She was living in Australia so I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years. People always find things out from their family tree, something like your mother had a brother you didn’t know about because he’d died as a child and they just never mentioned it.”
Back to the music, how is tonight’s show going to pan out?
“Well I’m doing a mixture of solo songs and Carter songs, about seven with piano which makes it more interesting than just banging out songs an acoustic guitar for an hour and a half. I’ve been changing a few songs around every night. With Carter USM songs I kick out all the instrumental stuff because I’d been playing them for a while before Carter USM reformed and then when we’d reformed I’d forgotten them because I had all these shortened versions because I had basically got rid of Les’s (Fruitbat) bits. I put a few in, maybe two songs, that I might not have played if it wasn’t for what’s going on particularly in America…well, the world, such as The Music That Nobody Likes because it’s relevant at the moment.”
Did you see the guys doing the Nazi salutes at a Trump rally? That really brought home the seriousness of what is happening over there to me.
“It’s terrible but it maybe appears worse than it is because the video shows a room, and it could be the back room of a pub and normally you wouldn’t know about it but it could be going on all the time and now it’s on the Internet and is shared a million times and it appears to be more terrifying than maybe it is, but it’s the fact that people think that’s acceptable again. That whole idea freaks me out and it’s like here with people who are supposedly very patriotic but in an old fashioned sort of way as though they wish it was 1940 and the way they show that is by celebrating Adolf Hitler. It’s just mental isn’t it? It’s like racists getting into Ska music.”
Well this is part of the reason I feel Carter USM are missed. You were always such brilliant social commentators. I remember Bobby Gillespie suggesting that if you wanted to know what was going on in the year 2000 you just need to revisit Eminem’s lyrics to get an idea. I feel the same holds for your work. Who writes songs about homelessness, food banks etc now?
“I think it was a very unpopular thing to do especially in the music media. People really didn’t like it. There was a snooty attitude towards it. Those writers probably write for the Guardian now and are asking “Where is this social commentary?” That’s maybe why they don’t do it, I don’t know. I think some people now see music as a career; I don’t think I ever saw it as a career it was just something I wanted to do. There’s no getting away from it, it was easier to be in a band in the 1980s than it is now because you could get away with being on the dole for quite a long time and you could just about survive on that, and you could live in a bedsit but now you wouldn’t be able to do any of that, “I’m just going to live on the dole and be in a band for five years and I am just going to live in this bedsit in London that’s about £1000 a month”. That kind of gives you time to do all of that. All of those bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash; they weren’t bands to the best of my knowledge that had day jobs so it’s easier to dedicate yourself to it. Me and Fruitbat met in a rehearsal studio and pretty much everybody there was on the dole and it was a bit of a social club atmosphere and everyone used to play in each other’s bands and so he used to play in a band I was in (The Ballpoints) and lot of bands didn’t do much…maybe rehearse, a couple of gigs in local pubs and then change to another band and then kept developing and then we became Jamie Wednesday and then Carter USM.”
And how do you look back at the legacy of Carter USM now? There was a good article in The Guardian recently wasn’t there?
“Yeah, that was brilliant, a total surprise. I didn’t know that was going to happen. It seems there’s a certain bit of musical history that doesn’t exist. On BBC4 you get documentaries on Joy Division, The Smiths and then it’s Acid House and then Nirvana and then Oasis vs Blur… and there’s a jump. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it doesn’t fit the narrative? It’s quite convenient to say “Oh everybody was out of their minds on Ecstasy in the clubs and that led onto the rock and dance crossover, then the Americans came and then there was a backlash to that which was good old British Britpop” and it spoils it to say “But then there was all this other stuff which was a bit vague” (laughs) so maybe that’s why they do it. There were successful bands there; The Wonderstuff, Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, bands that were in the charts, some were big in America but they don’t get mentioned which is a bit weird. Maybe there is someone out there who doesn’t like us (laughs).The Guardian thing was nice because it was complimentary and I was half expecting “nowadays it’s laughable because really they were crap”, they didn’t do that sort of thing.”
Now you are back on tour might it become a regular thing?
“It’s four years since I last did a tour. I don’t know. I am playing just an acoustic guitar and I don’t know if it’s exciting enough to do it for a long time, especially if I’m just playing inferior versions of songs (laughs). For instance last night some people came up and said they thought it was brilliant but then someone said to me “It was really good but when are you going to do it properly?” How do you answer that (laughs). People are obsessed these days with anniversaries. They’re like “it’s the thirtieth anniversary since you played The Bull & Gate for the seventh time…when are you going to get back together!” so next year is the thirtieth anniversary of when Carter formed originally, that’s what people have been telling me, so logically…but only if you think that ten, that decimals, and fives are important, we might like things in thirteens and seventeens. Funnily enough my daughter is thirty now, that’s frightening, she is on the inside sleeve of 30 Something and it just occurred to me that she’s now old enough to wear the shirt. She is the same age now as I was when that photo was taken. My daughter likes Carter USM music…my wife less so!”
How many more dates have you got on this tour?
That’s a bit of a slog.
“It is at my age”.
How old are you now?
“35. It might be the first time I have said it because it was my birthday last week. I am 56. It makes me feel quite ill. I’m terrified of dying. I really am, I really am. I was going to say it’s an irrational fear but I think it’s quite rational! Actually, really, if I think about it, if I let myself think about it, it makes me feel, almost heading towards a panic attack. I can’t think about it!”
Really? I’m the opposite.
“Looking forward to it? (laughs).
Well, to an extent, yes. I tend to think “It’s been alright, but nothing special”. I think I have the Buddhist outlook.
I’d like to be like that, but I’m quite keen to live forever really. I think I’ve got a lot to offer the world (laughs) I’m joking; I was going to say something really stupid then.
Conscious that time was running out and there was still some fine tuning to be done before the gig I decided that for the final question I would do what they do at job interviews and ask Jim if he had anything to ask/add.
“Then I’ll say what I always say”.
Do you know, I haven’t been for a job interview since…this will probably tell you why it’s difficult for me to answer…I would say since 1977. I’ve had jobs but they were the type of jobs that didn’t require an interview. That was when it was easy to get jobs back then. I left school at sixteen, think I had a week off, then went to two interviews and got both jobs. It was just easy wasn’t it? There was a lot of jobs, even though people might say “Oh the 1970s were terrible… unemployment”, not like now. It was a piece of piss to get a job. So that’s what I’ve got to add. I was thinking this week of changing career. I’d like a job in demolition or something you don’t really have to think about. It would be nice to just get up, go somewhere, knock a wall down and come home”.
Hopefully Jim Bob will not go into demolition and will continue crafting his clever way with words into both books and music. The sold out signs across this tour suggest that people still want to hear his songs, both as reminder of their youth but also to hear where he is at now, and to “have a good time all the time”.
The audiences in Manchester and Darwen certainly did! I was lucky enough to get to both; the first of which was an all standing and riotous affair, the latter a sit down gig that was a slow burner before people got a little more oiled and started to relax. The sold out crowds ranged in age from teens to fifty somethings and they were given a rollicking good time. The stage was set by the wonderful Chris T-T, another act with a social conscience who, unlike Billy Bragg, walks it like he talks it. Promoting his 9 Green Songs album and with a wonderful back catalogue to delve into he entertained both audiences with a wonderful cornucopia of music and wit.
On both night’s a plaintive cello wailed a familiar refrain as it accompanying Jim Bob’s stage entry as he strummed into Prince In a Pauper’s Grave. Suited and red Doc Martens booted, Jim Bob proceeded to make the gigs as riotous as is possible for an acoustic show to be. The equally familiar Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere followed before we were treated to a couple of his solo works in Breaking News and Battling the Bottle (Fighting the Flab At War With The World). Perhaps the first thing to note is the seamless nature between Carter songs and Jim Bob songs. The Carter songs work surprisingly well in an acoustic fashion and alongside his newer material they segue neatly, partly because the same fiery wordplay is at hand. Midnight on the Murder Mile is spat out at 100 mph whilst Back to School and the hilarious Mrs Fucking MacMurphy (Teaches Food Technology) saw both Darwen and Manchester loosen up.
Jim Bob’s between song repartee and off the cuff witticisms are fabulously funny. In Manchester when he was explaining that Marc and Neil had gone for a jog that morning whilst he sat in bed eating crisps, he was keen to assert his rock n roll credentials by claiming they were “heroin flavour”. He told tales of when he and Fruitbat completed the Live Aid/Sports Aid Everybody Wants to Run the World challenge and then spent the sponsor money down the pub (although he did later give the addendum that they had both bought the t shirt! Whilst he played in Manchester, Fruitbat was playing down the road at the Academy in support of the Levellers, and so Jim Bob kept asking “Is Les here yet?” Introducing the song Victim, he once more asked “Is Les here” claiming it was relevant because he had once been mugged and whilst he was happy to oblige the muggers with everything they wanted, Fruitbat’s “Fuck Off” retort meant he spent two days in casualty. At the Darwen gig Jim Bob was ruminating on the spate of deaths that 2016 had ushered in and wondered who would have gone whilst he was on stage that night (it was Andrew Sachs fact fans).
A wonderfully quirky Is Wrestling Fixed and a chaotic Let’s Get Tattoos allowed the audience to proffer their full participation, and given the spree of lyrics that imbue most Carter songs it is astonishing to see how word perfect many of the fans are. In Darwen Jim Bob played The Music That Nobody Likes (a personal favourite of mine) whilst in Manchester the astonishing Angelstrike! was aired in all its striking, celestial glory.
Chris T-T returned to the stage to offer wistful piano accompaniment to the beautiful Cartoon Dad, Johnny Cash, Glam Rock Cops, the aforementioned Victim and one of Carter USM’s finest hours, Falling On A Bruise, the painfully sad spoken outro of which always means it gets very dusty when it is aired.
Back to the acoustic guitar and some fiery crowd pleasers including Come On Smart Bomb, Billy’s Smart Circus, Shopper’s Paradise, The Only Living Boy in New Cross, and God’s Blog, by which time both audiences had let all their inhibitions go and were behaving like they were at an early nineties Carter gig, save for the stage diving. At Darwen Jim Bob took the opportunity to walk into the audience as he delivered the Carter show closer that is G.I. Blues before Mr Spoons arrived with a bubble machine whilst the suitably upbeat Touchy Feely closed the show.
Jim Bob is a great performer and next year he is already lined up for some festival appearances where you really should try and catch him. Carter USM were a unique band and Jim Bob is a unique artist but if you are a hermit or a recluse and you don’t want to leave the house you can still revel in his wordage wizardry in his guise as an author.
Out for a fag…homeless guy
Everybody wants to run the world
Bottle of wine
Audience word perfect.