Not to be presumptuous but if you met Russell Walker in person, you probably wouldn’t pick him for a front man. Hidden in the corner of a King’s Cross pub, with a pint of ale in one hand and a novel in the other, the singer, songwriter and engineer behind London-via-Brighton six-piece The Pheromoans is an image of bookish introspection. Neatly dressed, though slightly frayed, you might be less surprised to learn the poet-come-performer is a librarian by trade and a husband and father to boot but there’s much more to what meets the eye. Obviously.
Releasing their second long-player since 2011’s It Still Rankles, The Pheromoans new album Does This Guy Stack Up?, out on Upset the Rhythm September 3, is dripping with sarcasm. If it isn’t the title riffing on an absurd figure of speech, it’s an imaginary conversation with journalist and book show host Mariella Frostrup asking “what do women want?” in ‘The Final Sugar Rush’ or an amusing though deeply troubling portrait of English snobbery in ‘Don’t Mention It’.
Needless to say, the album is a derisive epithet to life on the British Isles, delivered through the chaos of its almost obnoxiously unhurried performers. A mess hall of guitars, drums and a recent keyboard/violin addition in new member Dan Bolger, Does This Guy Stack Up? offers an unstable, though not entirely intentional, trip through the country’s post-punk past. From the chilly shambles of Swell Maps to the snarling misanthropy of The Fall and the awkward anti-fashion of The Raincoats, it’s easy to see why The Pheromoans’ considerable US fan base hold them up as the embodiment of English eccentricity. But that doesn’t mean The Pheromoans are in any way retrospective. Instead, Does This Guy Stack Up? is a deeply personal account of modern life in all it’s disappointment, as observed by an incurable romantic.
aqnb: Why did you start a band in the first place?
Russel Walker: [laughs] I think, initially, to be sort of abrasive, I suppose. Ever since I was young, that was my main mode of expression. I love bands and I didn’t really buy any poetry. I’ve read books but I can’t write a novel so it’s the nearest thing that I can do. Even when I was 24, it still never occurred to me that I could do it, until I discovered bands like Swell Maps and The Fall. That’s a cliché but it’s just that cold feeling that puts you in a pretty specific place.
aqnb: Are you into spoken word?
RW: I would never dream of going to an open mic poetry night.
aqnb: Wasn’t that how you got started as The Pheromoans?
RW: I used to write stories and give out pamphlets with all my short stories and poems and things. James [Hines], our drummer who just left, was the promoter for Sex is Disgusting. He asked me to do a poetry reading one night when The Rebel was playing. That’s where I met James [Hines], the guitarist. His band played, called The Sticks, and we sort of chatted, thought we worked well together. Then we just asked James because he was the one who put it on [laughs]. I don’t know if he drummed at the time but he started drumming. Alex [Garran], I used to work with him in Brighton. He didn’t seem to like any music but had long hair and a guitar. He used to bring a guitar to work and go to practice with another band but he was just, like, completely oblivious to any music. I thought he would be good because he didn’t have any preconceptions. Rather than someone who was into Black Dice or Sonic Youth or something, better to get someone who wasn’t following the trend.
aqnb: Would you call yourself more a poet or a musician?
RW: Neither, I can play piano and keyboard on some of the records but not the live stuff. I’d also hate to try to pass myself off as someone who does poetry. I don’t read much of it either. I remember one night I was on the tube and I took Howl out from the library. It’s the sort of thing Johnny Depp would say in an interview but it just felt like my life had changed. I read it and it was incredible.
aqnb: When I was in New York recently, I saw your previous record was being pretty heavily promoted at Academy Records Annex. I don’t know what your connection is with them…
RW: I think some people in America sort of championed us because we were a throwback to the DIY English thing.
aqnb: Like The Raincoats or something?
RW: Yeah. That was something we never deliberately tried to do, that ‘shambolic’ thing. It’s just because we’re not good musicians but I think they saw a lineage of bands, like Swell Maps and stuff. I think Arturo –who works at Academy –he put out our first album so that’s why they probably championed it. We also seem to get more orders from America than England.
aqnb: I think that happens a lot though. Whatever is across the pond always seems far more interesting.
RW: Yeah. If they saw us for who we were, that’d be awful. But I’m not really that comfortable with that either, being pigeonholed as a ‘weird English DIY band’. Then you get locked in with some dreadful punk garage bands. It’s probably my least favourite type of music, that adolescent garage band thing.
aqnb: Not like The Stooges?
RW: Oh I love them. No, less ambitious than that. Retro bands that hark back to a certain time, like garage riffs. We have that element of that to us too but…
aqnb: But you don’t sing about hot rods.
RW: Yeah. The bands we get put on bills with are just in fucking dreamland, like ‘the shopping mall’. Who says ‘mall’ instead of shopping centre in England? Why? I’m not remotely patriotic at all but all you can do, really, is try to have some sort of self-expression. For me, the only way I can like something is if I feel like someone is talking from their own experience. But then a lot of people are going to dislike it because they don’t understand where you’re coming from either.
aqnb: Have you got any plans for touring?
RW: Playing live isn’t a big thing for me. I think the others enjoy it. But I like doing one gig now and again to play new songs. We’ve tried to tour a few times in England but the thought of playing the same songs, as a singer, is just boring.
aqnb: How do you record?
RW: We just write the songs straight away, really. The Pheromoans is all live. In terms of my year, the amount of time I’m actually spending with doing the music is so small and I’ve still, sort of, managed to record loads of stuff. I’ve never quite understood why most bands don’t manage to get many songs out [laughs]. It’s weird.
aqnb: Do the lyrics themselves take longer?
RW: I write them at home. I do them and I guess that gives you something to work from. I think ideas take a while to ferment, musically. It’s quite good to hold back for quite a while and then go to the studio and start recording because there’s all this pent up stuff.
But I think if you did it every week, it would be sort of depressing. So many bands have their sound and they don’t manage to ever move away from it. I guess if you leave it a few months, your mind’s sort of meandering into other things and when you get back, it’s sort of a new band again, really. That’s why all the records sound a bit different.
aqnb: It feels like you’re singing a bit more on this album.
RW: Yeah, but that’s just confidence. I’d never sung a song before [the band] so the first records were a shock, really.
aqnb: Do you feel at all like you’re a part of any movement?
RW: No, no. That’s finished really. A lot of the bands in the charts went to a specific schools and stuff. There’s one called the Brit School in Croydon. When I was growing up people were talking about major labels and if your favourite indie band signed to a major label, they’d sold out or whatever. But I think what we’ve got now is far worse. Do you know the program Dragon’s Den?
aqnb: [indicate to the affirmative]
RW: They present business plans for a panel. I think the only rock bands now are like The Vaccines. They’re kind of a ‘Dragon’s Den’ band. It’s like these guys went to a sort of private school or whatever and they formed a business plan and did a Dragon’s Den-type thing. I think it comes back to the ‘Cool Britannia’ thing when we were growing up. These guys are probably a bit younger than me but that was how Tony Blair used rock n roll and coopted it, with Blur and Oasis and stuff. People could see, finally, that rock n roll is actually redundant. And these guys, The Vaccines or whatever, they came after it. They didn’t want to become accountants so they did this instead.
The Pheromoans’ album Does This Guy Stack Up? is out on Upset the Rhythm September 3, 2012.