Despite arriving late to the venue, punk troubadour TV Smith catches up with Louder Than War’s Mark Howden in order to shed a little light on his career thus far.
I’m sat in the quiet surroundings of a pub beer garden with TV Smith, a singer-songwriter who needs no introduction to anyone who has even a passing interest in the punk explosion of the 1970s. What does come as a surprise for some is the fact that he has continued making music ever since The Adverts split in 1979. Despite the nation’s railway network having conspired to send him a couple of hours out of his way so he’s late arriving at today’s venue, he’s relaxed and amiable. Having sorted out a quick soundcheck and set up the merchandise table, he’s happy to chat about what it is to be a hard-working, independent musician in the present day.
Growing up, did you always want to be a musician?
“Yeah, I did. I was interested in lots of things, like art and films, and there was certainly a time when I thought I could have been a prose writer or a poet. I just wrote, that was the thing, I wrote. I had ideas and I wrote lyrics and I started writing songs, music to go with the words. You just take it and run with it when you’re a teenager. I did some little 8mm and 16mm films at school, and painted, and wrote poetry and short stories.
Music is the one that did it all for me. You can do bits of it with all the other forms but music is where it all comes together. You can get all your ideas in. You’re like an auteur, you’re actually putting all your ideas across. I realised that with a lot of the other art forms, like film making for example, you usually just end up doing what someone else tells you to do. You’re either a cameraman or you’re a director under orders or you’re a scriptwriter whose stuff gets taken and changed. Whereas, a singer-songwriter is someone who actually puts across exactly what their idea was in the first place.”
When did you form your first band?
“Well, the first band was at school, and Sleaze was at art college. After school I went to art college for a year ‘cos I didn’t really know what to do. I tried for universities but got turned down and so art college was like a second choice. I’d already kind of realised that music is what I wanted to do. Further education was, in those days, just a question of getting a grant. Not a lot of money but enough to keep you going while you pursued your hobby or what was going to be your life’s work, whichever way it might have turned out.”
What was your inspiration for the band?
“Around then it was the Glam scene, like Bowie and Roxy Music, and also there was the New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges, Velvet Underground. I was a big fan of Cockney Rebel. They were one of the few bands that came and played in the West Country.”
And so you aspired to be a musician?
“No, I wasn’t trying to aspire to it, no way. No way. I never thought I could aspire to being anything like Bowie, it was totally out of my sphere.
That was where punk rock was interesting and when the Pistols started ‘cos then it was a band you could actually aspire to ‘cos you could see they were people just like you. Before that, bands seemed like something else altogether.
I never thought I could make a living out of music. It just seemed like something impossible. It took four years to make any money so it was virtually impossible (laughs).”
How did punk reach you in Devon?
“I went to London in ’76. There wasn’t really any established punk rock scene at all, it was just the Pistols. I always wanted to go to London. It just seemed that if anything was going to happen to this band that I wanted to have, then it was going to be London. I’d spent a year in Torquay with Sleaze trying to get some interest in the band. They may not have been the most brilliant band in the world but it was different to what most people were doing. I soon realised that no-one was interested in someone that was doing something different and I thought if you’re going to have people with a more liberal attitude to music, it was going to be in London. That’s where anything and everything was coming out really.
It has got more de-centralised since then. There are more areas around. I don’t think it’s so bad now. The music industry is still very London based, but you don’t have to have anything to do with the music industry any more. I don’t have anything to do with it.
There are lots of small bands. They can start wherever they want. They’ve got just as much chance of getting exposure as anywhere else, but if you want to be in the music industry, god help you, I think it’s quite important to be in London.”
“I wouldn’t say there was any particular time it started happening. I’ve just been working away at it and gradually building up an audience. It’s been a long, slow… You start with nothing again, as I did when I started playing solo and it takes a long time to build an audience. I didn’t see any sudden leap along the way, just gradually, as I played more and more.
It was a lot to do with the galloping speed of the internet, so people could actually see that I was still out there and what I was doing. Then it’s up to them whether they want to come and listen or not, but at least it’s out there for people to find out about.
The problem was, in the 80s and 90s, I was still trying to do it but no-one knew. Without the internet for support, how are people supposed to know? So as the network of how you find out about music has got bigger and more open to everyone, more democratic, us small guys are in with more of a chance of getting out there to people.”
Are you talking about social media?
“Yeah, Facebook. It did reach quite a lot of people. The website’s quite a small group of people, mostly who know each other, whereas Facebook spreads it out exponentially to people who don’t know each other. It gets out to a lot of areas where people don’t come to me because of the website. Facebook has definitely increased the number of people who know about me.
The internet has been massively important. I can’t possibly over-estimate how important it’s been.”
Would you swap the experience of the punk rock revolution in the 70s for being an eighteen year old starting to make music in the internet age?
“No, no. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was great to be involved in punk rock. It was the last real movement, a real democratic youth movement where something changed. Music isn’t actually changing anything anymore.
I paid the price of punk rock. I was virtually out of the music industry for ten or fifteen years. No-one would have anything to do with me. I did pay the price of being part of that but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Do you think this is because The Adverts stepped out of the accepted punk blueprint far sooner than other bands appeared to? People weren’t ready for how different ‘Cast Of Thousands’ was to your debut.
“Yeah, but that’s what I thought punk rock was about… that you express yourself in whatever way you want to. The whole idea of punk to me was that you weren’t bound by any kind of rules about what you should sound like. That’s where it was different from the music industry which was trying to pressure you into being a certain kind of band. I always thought punk was great because you could just do what you wanted.”
The Adverts’ second album, ‘Cast Of Thousands’, receives a great deal of praise nowadays with people like Henry Rollins claiming it to be a favourite.
“A lot of Americans got to hear that one before ‘Red Sea…’. It was on RCA so it got spread in America. A lot of Americans think that it is the sound of The Adverts and then they hear ‘Red Sea…’ and think “Oh, they did that as well,” whereas in Britain everyone thinks the first album defines The Adverts and then they think “What the fuck’s that second one all about?”
You play a lot of gigs in Europe where English is obviously a second language. Do you notice a difference between a British and a European audience?
“The main reason I play a lot in Europe, and the main country I play in is Germany, is because they bought into what I was doing before Britain did and I built up a substantial audience there.
There’s a good music scene, particularly in Germany and there’s lots of places to play. They all know my stuff pretty well so I get quite a lot of excitement and people singing along.”
The language is not a problem?
“Not really. I speak German. I can talk in between the songs, discuss them and introduce the themes a bit. All the records have got the lyrics inside and most Germans can read through them and get them, so the next time they can sing along.
One thing I noticed when I started playing there was even people who didn’t understand English very well would come up and ask me about the songs. I’d never really had that in Britain. It’s not necessarily about how much of the lyrics you understand, it’s how much you’re interested in what I’m saying and the attitude. They’d come and pick out certain things and show me they were listening. I’d often had situations in Britain in the 80s and 90s where people weren’t listening, they were chatting or something, which isn’t the case now happily.
I never thought the language barrier was a problem. The problem is the attitude; how you come into a gig and what you want out of it. When I first started playing solo in Britain, people wanted a band. They weren’t really interested in a solo gig. But when I went over to Germany it was immediately accepted.”
You are bringing your Tour Diaries to an end. What lies behind your reason to stop?
“The next one is going to be the last one. It’s been an overwhelming amount of work and I think five is enough. The fifth one is going to be every single gig last year, so like, 122 gigs. Trying to keep up gigging and writing and making the new record, it’s actually… Well, actually, I can’t do it all so something’s got to go and I think after five tour diaries, that’s enough.”
So, no plans for an autobiography then?
The last album was ‘Acoustic Sessions – Volume 1’. Is this an indication that there are more acoustic albums to come?
“Quite possibly. I really enjoyed doing it and it seems to have gone down well but first, the next priority is the new album and I’ll get the fifth tour diary out. I’m closing in on completing the new album. I’d certainly hope to get that out in the next few months as well. And then I’ll see. I just might well go for another acoustic sessions album after that, I’m not sure. I never really plan things, it all depends on how much time I have between gigging. Everything’s focused on my gigs and playing as much as I can in as many places I can. I kind of squeeze in what I can around that.”
There’s no plans to ease up on the large number of gigs you play?
“No, as an independent musician it’s really, really important to get yourself out there.
You’re not ready to hang up your guitar and reach for the carpet slippers?
“No (laughs). Oh my god, that would be terrible. I just want to keep on doing this. I want to get to more people who I think would enjoy it ‘cos I know there’s lots of people out there who would like it. The important thing is, the people who are suffering all this terrible music and culture and politics that’s going on out there might actually tune into what I’m doing and I’d like to be able to reach them. It’s important to get the message over to more people.”
You’re still very driven by punk. There is a strong element of social commentary in your songs. Do you find it sad that lyrics you wrote a long time ago seem just as relevant in the present day?
“One of the symptoms of the terrible state of the world is there’s so few people bloody writing about it. It’s awful. I’ve just got to keep trying to get the message out there. I suppose it stops me having to get me carpet slippers out, dunnit?”
Later in the evening, TV plays a blistering set of songs from his vast catalogue, no setlist, just playing what feels right. New songs like ‘I Delete’ sit easily amongst his better known material and promise that the new album should be chock full of classics. Personally, I can’t wait!
All words by Mark Howden. This is Mark’s first piece for Louder Than War.