Space Monkeys release their long-awaited third album Modern Actions. Dogged by the collapse of Pledge Music, the band took the honourable route of putting their own money into finishing the project and fulfilling all of the orders themselves.
It isn’t the first time the band has been in embroiled in controversy. Release of their second album Escape from the 20th Century was delayed more than twenty years after funding was pulled during the collapse of Factory. Nigel caught up with Richard McNevin-Duff to talk about the new release.
Whilst I’d like to focus on the music it looks like you are once again battling adversity. Did you have an accident in a mirror shop or something?
Yeah let’s talk about the music, I’m sick of talking about Pledge Music so I’ll just briefly say this – they stole millions from music fans and artists around the world and only the directors and senior management will ever really know where all the money went. Karma will find whoever is responsible. We used our own money to make sure all our fans got what they ordered, we will be paying that debt off for a long time. On the positive side – it’s all about the songs and good songs always find their way into peoples hearts.
On the subject of mirrors… our song ‘Black Mirror’ is about being lost in depression, grief, addiction, heartbreak, whatever demons you have and how you can overcome them with hope and that’s the theme of this album. These days we all use our own ‘Black Mirror’ (technology/smartphone) to reflect our feelings to the rest of the world and it’s like screaming into an abyss. People laugh at the ‘U OK Hun?’ response to a cry for attention but at the heart of the post is something deeper than the message. We live in a pretty cold, heartless world sometimes so with this album we are trying to shine some positivity and hope around a bit to redress the balance.
It’s an incredibly honourable thing you have done – will the album eventually wash its face?
It’s hard to talk about money and music because it’s really not the reason any of us are doing this, never has been. You write a song, make a record and once it’s out there it’s no longer yours, it’s free for anybody to pick up and take it wherever they choose to. That’s what happened with our song ‘Sugar Cane’ in 1997. Tony Wilson played it to his friend Tom Atencio who managed New Order over in the States. Tom pressed up 200 white labels, sent them to all the US college radio stations saying ‘This is a hit’ and they believed him and played it all through the summer which made it a top 50 Billboard hit.
I asked Tom how he’d managed to convince all these different people that some unknown band from Manchester could have a hit record in America and he said ‘Well, I reminded them that the last time I sent them a white label and said it was a hit the song was ‘Don’t Speak’ by No Doubt and was Billboard number one for 16 weeks and sold 5 million copies’.
That’s how the wonderful music industry works. A few weeks later Tom is dropping his kids off at school in Hollywood and he gets chatting to another of the parents in the playground, as you do. He tells him about this new band from Manchester called Space Monkeys that he’s just signed to Interscope Records. ‘Good timing’ says the other parent ‘I’m putting a movie together and need some English bands on it; send me a tape’. And that’s how we got one of our songs on the soundtrack to ‘Sliding Doors’. The other parent was Danny DeVito.
Eminem got a free copy of the film soundtrack from his guy at Interscope and he needed a bit of music to sample for a track so he picked a track at random from the CD (‘Thank You’ by Dido) and he used that for his song ‘Stan’ which was number one all over the world. Had he picked our track instead we would have made a lot of money in royalties, and life would’ve been different. But money isn’t real, it’s never been of interest to me. I’ve never had a penny in my bank account the day before payday and probably never will. But I’ll die with a smile on my face. Probably the day before payday.
You have some incredible additional talent on board this time around, Denise Johnson and Kyla Brox. How did that come about?
Two incredible artists who I’m honoured to call my friends. We were introduced back in the day by Johnny Jay who produced our first album ‘The Daddy Of Them All’ and also managed the band Dust Junkies. There was a good little scene going on in Manchester in the mid 90’s with us and them and other bands like Audioweb. We all rehearsed at Beehive Mill in Ancoats and recorded at Moonraker Studio down in Longsight. We were the indie kids who were still kind of blagging it musically (there was only Chas our drummer who could play his instrument properly) but all of the Dust Junkies were just unbelievable players and we learned a lot from watching them and doing gigs together – top people as well, Nicky Lockett (MC Tunes) deserves more credit than he gets.
Kyla, as you know, comes from a rich musical heritage and Dust Junkies guitarist Sam is her brother. I’ve spoken about Denise many times, her voice to me is the key element to what makes Screamadelica the great record it is. She could sing me all three pages of the 2019 Conservative manifesto and it would still sound beautiful! Which reminds me, have we got Brexit done yet? (Nigel: yes! lol)
The album is unmistakably tethered to that ‘90s hip-hop groove with a very modern gloss.
That’s interesting. I think we toned down the hip hop indie influences a bit on ‘Modern Actions’ as my best mate and original founding member Tony Pipes is no longer in the band. He was the big hip hop fan in the band really, although we all loved Biggie and Wu Tang Clan and De La Soul and stuff.
The new album is more us just mixing up all the music we love and going with the flow of where it took us at the time. In the 90’s we toured the US with Smash Mouth and they were California Skate-Punks and all that and they loved the fact we had Tony on stage scratching his records and dropping Public Enemy samples into rock songs. I remember their guitarist saying ‘If we did that we’d just get people saying ‘who the f**k do they think they are’. So I told him that’s a great reason to do it.
Anyway, a couple of years later I’m watching Shrek with my 2 year old daughter and Smash Mouth are singing the theme tune with a load of DJ scratching on the record so it’s nice to have influenced that in a small way. My daughter is 21 this year and she still doesn’t believe me when I tell her that story! We had a lot of fun on tour with Smash Mouth in America. Their management actually banned them from coming on our tour bus after gigs cos we’d get them in trouble misbehaving.
Soft Machine puts you squarely in New Order/Electronic territory – is this a possible future direction?
A future direction to sound like it’s 1989? Yes please. I’ve said this many times but the whole Madchester/Hacienda/Baggy/Acid House scene was my ‘punk’. A life-changing moment. It was an unbelievable time to be 17 and in a band in Manchester which as a music city was like the eye of the hurricane at that time – hence Oasis and bands like ourselves being created from it.
I’m not a big fan of punk itself, apart from The Clash & The Buzzcocks – it was shit. Sex Pistols – three decent songs. I’ve heard loads of music journalists say ‘punk rock’ changed the world because it made ordinary working-class kids realise anyone could pick up a guitar and be in a band. Bollocks. What do they think the Beatles and The Kinks and The Who were doing? None of them were classically trained musicians, all you need is two chords and an imagination. You can tell the people with less imagination – they have to use more chords.
I’ve seen the fan video for The Outsiders – Quite brilliant – such an uplifting song and a highlight for me. How did it come about?
Thank you. I wrote the song pretty much in one go, just one guitar riff all the way through and the words came quickly, just a story, Romeo and Juliet type thing. I always loved the 80’s film ‘The Outsiders’ when I was young and love the fact the original novel was banned even though it was written by a 15 year old girl at high school. So the song was one of those that you don’t try too hard, it just wrote itself. The track was played a couple of weeks ago on a digital radio show called ‘The Britpop Revival Show’ (ironic cos we always hated Britpop and still do) and then a girl in California heard it on the radio show and put this old black and white footage of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth dancing behind it and uploaded the video on YouTube and it just works really well. Knowing our luck it will go viral and then get taken down for breach of copyright and we’ll get sued for millions off Fred and Rita’s grandkids.
What coming up tour wise?
The ‘Modern Actions’ world tour starts at about 7pm at the 200 capacity Deaf Institute on Friday February 14th and concludes at approximately 11pm that very same evening. Then we go into hibernation for a while.
Any festivals planned?
If we do then it will most probably be a one-off appearance at a festival that isn’t just a corporate money-making machine like many of them are these days. The festivals that have booked us in the past, like Glastonbury or Shiiine On or Kendal Calling, have all done so because the people in charge of booking the bands genuinely like the music and the band and because…. we always offer to play for free.
Have you considered any solo acoustic shows Rich? I saw John Bramwell recently and he was amazing. Some of the songs would really lend themselves to it.
I saw John Bramwell when he was called ‘Johnny Dangerously’ at the Met in Bury in 1990 and it had a huge influence on my songwriting. I would suggest he had the same effect on Noel Gallagher as well, with the acoustic kitchen sink stuff like ‘Half The World Away’ as the influence is pretty clear. ‘You, Me & The Alarm Clock’ by Johnny Dangerously is one of my top five favourite records of all time. I want to make a solo acoustic record before I die and all the songs will most probably be about the reason I’m going to die, I can be a proper miserable sod if you give me an acoustic guitar and a couple of bottles of Merlot as anybody who followed me on Twitter in 2013 will be able to testify.
The artwork – It’s stunning, I believe you designed it yourself.
I did yeah, thank you. I did it all on an app on my iPhone (usually in the bath cos that’s the only time I get any peace and quiet) and it took me ages and I’m still not happy with it but it’s kind of earned it’s right to be there now and people seem to like it so that makes me half happy. I designed a similar Salvador Dali/Pop Art influenced collage image in 1995 for the cover for ‘The Daddy Of Them All’ and Tony Wilson wouldn’t let me use it because he said it was shit and he begrudgingly allowed it to be consigned to the inner sleeve so I titled it ‘Don’t let them say you’re not Picasso’ as a bit of a jokey response to Tony at the time, which he loved.
So I thought it would be fun with this album to cut out an image of a Granada Reports era Tony Wilson and sticking a Hacienda yellow and black tie around his neck and having him as a feature on the front cover of the collage (there’s also an upside down Hacienda at the top with guns and butterflies coming out of a gramophone on the roof). Anyway, a week before the release date Spotify refused to use the Tony Wilson image unless we could prove we owned the copyright which we couldn’t so we had to do a quick redesign for the digital version and replaced Tony with Neil our guitarist. So, once again, Tony won the argument and had the last laugh with that one.
Finally, any chance album number four? And how about the release going smoothly?
The frustrating thing with us losing thousands of pounds through Pledge Music is that any money we raised we were planning to use to promote the album properly to get press, radio play etc. so more people could hear it. So that’s out the window now and it’s been a proper old school indie release, which is cool in its own way. We planned to use any money from sales to pay to record a new album which now looks unlikely as we have to pay off the debt first.
The only hope really of a fourth album would be if someone from a label believed in the band or someone new with a bit of money behind them wanted to set up a label with us to start a new project, the same way we did with Factory back in 1997. Sometimes, in music, that can create the most interesting stories. All we wanted to do with this album was record a collection of songs that document where the band is at this point in time. It’s hard for me not to reflect back on the past when I’m answering questions about the band but the album is about today and tomorrow and not yesterday, that’s why we called it ‘Modern Actions’ and chose the release date of 01/01/2020. Is it the end? Only time will tell.
Modern Actions is released on the band’s own independent Supercool label.
14th February – The Deaf Institute, Manchester
Deaf Institute gig tickets: https://www.fatsoma.com/mobile/products/n91trllz
Article by Nigel Carr. More writing by Nigel on Louder Than War can be found in his Author’s archive. You can find Nigel on Twitter and Facebook and his own Website. Photo by Trust A Fox© – Please note: Use of these images in any form without permission is illegal. If you wish to use or license any images please contact Trust A Fox