John Robb has made a name for himself as an outspoken music journalist over the past few decades. He interviewed Nirvana before their global success and discovered the Stone Roses before the rest of the music industry could catch up. In the 90’s he was the first to coin the phrase ‘Britpop’. But John is also the front man of punk bands The Membranes and Goldblade, he does spoken word, has a record label and wears many other hats! We turned the dictaphone around on one of Britain’s best music journos to find out more…
Paula: So we have John Robb with us, editor in chief of Louder Than War Magazine, frontman of The Membranes, one of the founding members of Goldblade and one of the nicest guys in punk!
John: Well yeah, they don’t always say that!
Paula: It’s funny because I was watching a documentary about The Cure recently and you popped up! It must have been filmed in the 90’s, do you remember doing that?
John: Errr, no! But Robert Smith is originally from Blackpool! He got out when he was 4 though. He’s got very faint memories of it. They’re a great band but they seem like a really southern band. The way they make their music is quite different from say, how Joy Division did it. Not in a bad way, just different. So I was surprised when I found out he was from Blackpool but he wasn’t there long enough to have a northern thing. Even when he was 10 years old he still had a northern accent because of his parents accents at home. It’s a nice connection because you don’t get many people coming from Blackpool. I still really love those records especially the fourth one ‘Pornography’ which is an incredibly heavy, dark, mental record. When you think of The Cure now you think of a cool, quirky pop band and you forget how dark and heavy they were. I saw them on the Pornography Tour in 1981 and it was an incredible gig. I go to a lot of gigs and see all types of stuff but even all these years later, that was one of the heaviest gigs I’ve been to, just because of the atmosphere around it.
Paula: So you got to interview The Cure, that must have been pretty cool?
John: Yeah they were dead nice and that, it was quite a long time later that I interviewed them when they released the single ‘Friday I’m in Love’. I went down to interview them when they were making the video for it. I don’t think it’s their best video, they’ve made some pretty good videos but I think they had to make that one quickly. It wasn’t like they were getting locked in a cupboard and thrown off a cliff like all those kind of videos. I like those quirky pop videos they do and over the years I’ve got to like the pop records too. It’s just that after ‘Pornography’ when they did ‘Let’s Go To Bed’ and all those singles it was like I couldn’t believe it was the same band! I just wanted them to get heavier and heavier. Now when I listen to it, because I love Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd I see they are doing that psychedelic, ‘taken too much acid’ pop. And I like it from that angle, it’s just that it was such a shock at the time. They swerved so much from that heavy thing. But I guess they couldn’t have continued doing that heavy stuff because it was probably killing them at the time. They split up after that album.
Paula: Yeah they had a massive crisis with drugs, depression, hating each other and all that sort of business!
John: Haha, yeah yeah it was a pretty mental period, they actually had a fight didn’t they? I can’t imagine him fighting!
Paula: So I know you as the frontman of the membranes, you’ve got this rockabilly look about you but you’re big in the punk scene, you’ve had a 30-year long career in journalism so do you just love it all?
John: Yeah, punk was the music that changed my life. I work out of a punk attitude with
everything I do but I don’t just listen to punk records. You go to Rebellion and a lot of people you meet are the same as well. The festival is great and you see loads of great bands but it isn’t all that everyone listens to all the time. Originally punk was a really broadminded thing. I love Joy Division… to me they are a punk band really. I like psychedelic music, I like dub music, I like all different styles. At the time the main guy was John Peel and his shows were really eclectic. Those shows were a reflection of what people were actually listening to at the time. I don’t really trust people who only like one type of music. To me that’s weird, to feel like you have to be loyal to one type of music. We all listened to John Peel. He just played what he liked and a lot of bands he played never went anywhere. I can listen to music played by someone who really likes it and let them tell me why they love that piece of music. To me that’s a great conversation. I hate playlist radio and being told what to like. I like people who talk about it and explain why they like it because then you reflect and think, “Yeah I never thought of that”. The first time I heard reggae I couldn’t stand it because I’d never heard anything like it. Before the internet you genuinely hadn’t heard stuff before. So when someone said “just listen to the bass” I realised “oh God that’s total genius, I never thought of that!” So you do get those unique moments. I have an eclectic music taste and I listen to everything.
Paula: Speaking of John Peel favourites, The Nightingales are a band he really liked and you released their album on your label recently?
John: Yeah they have their own sound and they know what they’re doing. Fliss is amazing I think she’s an incredible drummer. She’s like a force of nature as well. Rob Lloyd is a great singer and lyricist but what really drives The Nightingales is Fliss’ utter determination. In the DIY world I always zone in on those people, I’m fascinated by the people who keep things going because it’s tough being in an underground band that plays leftfield music, it’s always an uphill battle.
She totally drives everyone in that group and on top of that you just watch her live and think “Fuck she’s a great drummer!” Incredible drummer!
Paula: Yeah she’s an amazing drummer! So back in the day, tell me what it was like to interview Nirvana?
Yeah there’s actually a book coming out. I think it was a local fanzine interview in Seattle and I just did a tiny little phone interview. I didn’t think they were gunna be big I just thought they were great. I had no idea they were gunna be the biggest band in the world. My mate had the record in his shop before it came out and I just thought the singing was amazing. Everyone else was saying “This is the worst thing that sub-pop have ever done!” but I loved them and thought they were a great band. There’s something about Kurt Cobain’s voice, it’s so haunting. He sounded like an old man when he was 20! I phoned him up at his mums house am I still have the number on a piece of paper actually. His mum answered the phone like I was just ringing a kid in a band. Then 6 months later I went to New York to interview them and I went to see them at Maxwell’s bar. There weren’t many people at the gig. That gig is actually on YouTube I found it a few months ago. On YouTube it looks quite busy but it wasn’t at all. I stood at the back and it was a tiny room. There were about 20 people up the front and that was the whole crowd. They were incredible, they trashed all the gear and played a really intense set. Apparently they’d been on tour for 4 days and we all slept on the floor together. It was so hot at the time and Kurt was curled up in the corner a lot. I didn’t realise he was on drugs but he was probably on a heroin comedown or something. He looked pretty rough. I actually found the cassette of our whole interview the other day – the second interview and from the whole interview I only used 4 quotes from it. It’s quite an amazing interview and I keep meaning to put it up online sometime. It’s weird when you listen to it now because instantly I remember being in the room. I feel like I’m there. It’s really weird how an interview can take you back to that moment.
Paula: Did they have Dave Grohl on drums then?
John: God no it was Chad Channing! They were a four piece with Jason Everman on guitar. I know Jason he’s a very nice guy. He joined Soundgarden. Then he joined the marines and he’s in Afganistan! Really bizarre because he’s such a gentle, long haired guy. I looked him up and he’s been in the marines for 8 years, hard-core, on the front line. Fuck, that’s a career change isn’t it?
Paula: So let’s focus on you a bit! You’re often on tour with The Membranes or Goldblade, so what do you love about playing live?
John: I like playing to an audience. I think most people will say this as musicians but it’s that instant connection. When you play music, if one person gets it, it’s an amazing feeling. Especially when you’re making music like The Membranes where it doesn’t really fit in anywhere. You always have to persuade people that the music does actually make sense!
When people get it, it’s a rush. All the energy is coming off the crowd and it’s coming off the band. It’s such an amazing feeling and it’s really hard to describe unless you’ve done it. It’s not an ego thing it’s just a thing of being in the eye of a hurricane. Everyone’s connecting, everyone’s on the same thing at the same time. That’s quite an amazing feeling.
Paula: You mentioned in one of your cover letters for Louder Than War that it’s difficult to tour America because it costs a lot of money?
John: It’s a nightmare, yeah! It’s just got harder and harder. Each band member costs a few hundred quid but you have to pay a visa agent £800 to book you in to the America embassy and you have to pay someone in America to pass the form. And then you have to go to the American embassy for an interview so that’s another £90 each for the train. Then you have to go at 8am in the morning so you have to stay in London. You can see how things start to tot up. It’s such a big shambles the whole thing. No matter how early you apply it’s always late and you always have to move everything at the beginning of the tour, rebook all your flights, cancel all your gigs and start again It’s very disorganised and very expensive. It cost £3-5000 quid for the band. Noone can afford to pay it anymore. Some bands sneak in under the radar but what they do now is stop you at customs. If you look like a band they get their laptop out and google you. If they find your tour dates you get busted! Banned from America for life, it’s not worth the risk. It’s getting stricter and it will get worst now Trump’s in. The current nightmare is, with Brexit this could all happen with Europe as well. We may all need visas to tour Europe which we haven’t needed for years. Because it’s gunna get tight, Brexit’s gunna be bitter. I don’t think they’re gunna make it easy for us. We’re in danger of this country becoming a cultural backwater because Europeans aren’t gunna be able to come here and we’ll find it hard to go to Europe. Already people in Europe are asking what’s going on. They seem offended by what’s happening. I understand that people have their reasons for Brexit but I’m just talking personally. Some people don’t care because Europe is not a part of their lives but the touring and music world I live in, it’s just making it a nightmare.
Tax as well in America – even when you get all your tour money a third of it’s gone to the American tax man. I don’t even live here! They’re saying that could happen in Europe as well. Looks like the future for up and coming bands is to tour round and round in circles in England. For most people they might sit there and say “So what? Who cares? It’s not important.” And it isn’t in the grand scheme of things. But somewhere down the line you think people from other countries play in my town, our bands should go and play in their towns. I live in Manchester, it’s a fallen city. People from all over the world come here. I’m sat in a bar now and there’s people from all over the world in this bar. People from all over the world play their music here and I like it when things get mixed, it shakes things up. Music is mixed up already, the music people play is a mixture of styles from all over the world. It’s cross-pollination. There’s no such thing as pure English music. It’s always come from somewhere else and I like that.
Paula: What are some of your favourite places to tour?
Ironically America is great to tour! The audiences like you before you’ve even started. It’s for you to fuck up really! Rock ‘n’ roll music is so much part of their culture that they want you to be good. You can play in the middle of nowhere in America and people will turn out. We played Phoenix which bizarrely is the 6th biggest city in America but there’s no music scene there. There was about 30 people at the gig but people were in tears saying “We thought you would never come!” It takes 12 hours to get there it’s in the middle of nowhere and it’s the hottest place I’ve ever been, it’s like playing on Venus! It’s about 120 degrees!
It’s so different for a British band used to being damp and cold all the time. I’m amazed anybody could relate to what we were doing there but there was a bunch of fanatics there.
We’ve driven from one side of America to another in 5 days and then back again. It’s like 18 hours a day on the road. But I completely love it. Looking at the cactuses out the window, touring cities you’ve only ever read about. It’s an amazing experience.
Paula: So you grew up in Lancashire and Blackpool. You became a vegetarian in your 20s, what was that like?
John: The idea came from punk. It’s a mixture of things I went to college in Stafford for about a year before I got kicked out. I used to live next door to an abattoir and the cows would look at you. In those times it was a bit more brutal I think. You didn’t really think animals had thoughts, they were just there. But you could see the cow’s eyes looking at you as you walk down the street thinking “Fucking hell he’s looking at me.” And they looked scared so I thought “Jesus, they know what’s happening”. Of course they know what’s happening! I know that now. But at the time it hadn’t occurred to me so that was at the back of my mind. Also people like Crass talking about it.
Paula: Yeah Crass switched me onto it and I’ve been vegetarian for a few years now.
John: Yeah and it’s not like you’re thinking “Hey, Crass are cool! I’m going to be a vegetarian.” They introduced the idea and it wasn’t hectoring and I’ve never been into pushing views on people. I do talks about veganism but I’d never tell someone they had to convert because it turns people off. I just say I’m not your typical vegan, no sandals or beards. We’re all different shapes and sizes and different types of people. Bodybuilders are now becoming vegan because they’re interested in diet and realise it’s actually a really good diet. I do a lot of weights and training. People ask me “How does that work?” and I say “pound for pound, the strongest animal is a gorilla and all it does is eat grass and leaves” (laughs). They’re pure muscle! They’re gentle animals.
I was in America once and met a man who looked after gorillas in the forests and we didn’t have enough time but we planned to go up there and see the gorillas. And they stand up and stand in a circle around you. He said they’re big, about 8ft tall, they can crush you with one arm – they’re strong. All you have to do is look down and then they know you’re not dangerous and they just carry on eating bits of grass. If you go there and they sense attitude or danger they can kill you. I think that’s fair enough.
Being a vegan doesn’t make you a push over. If someone has a go at you, you stand your ground. In those days it was emerging in the culture. It’s weird in punk because a lot of people are vegetarian and vegan. I’ve been a vegan over 8 years so I’ve got rid of all my leather and stuff now. But I don’t think I’m better than anyone else. If people eat meat that’s up to them. I hate the cliché of being vegetarian/ vegan that you invite them to a dinner party and all they talk about is food. I never talk about it ever – I’m only talking about it now because you’ve asked me! I’d never go to someone’s house and tell them not to eat steak.
Paula: Exactly and I get lectured by meat eaters sometimes and I think “let me eat in peace!”
John: Exactly we don’t need to lecture because we know we’re right!
John: But there’s a few things, it’s health obviously first. And all the things that get shoved into a cow to make it big enough to kill and eat, it’s ridiculous. You could actually spread that food over hundreds of people instead of compressing it into one cow. It’s simple mathematics.
Paula: They pump the cows full of steroids and it goes into a human diet and also they’re saying antibiotics won’t work in a few years time because of a superbug created by what they feed the cows.
John: It’s hard enough to avoid all the crap that’s in the air and the water without shoving more into your system. What I think is weird is that disconnect between someone opening a tin or eating a piece of brown stuff and they never think about the animal or the killing of it. They couldn’t get an axe and go chop it up themselves in a field could they. They’d be sick. I think that’s weird. I don’t have any problem with people living in a forest and killing and eating their own animals for survival. But buying in the supermarket is so disconnected from the source.
Paula: They say if slaughterhouses had glass walls no one would eat meat!
John: Yeah very true! I think they should take kids on trips to slaughterhouses just to say “Here it is, you know where it’s coming from, you make your own decision!” Present all the facts and let people decide.
Paula: So you mentioned earlier that you got kicked out of college. Punk and journalism don’t exactly go hand in hand…
John: Punk and journalism go very hand in hand! The fanzine culture got me into it. Sniffing glue made me realise you can just write it all down and photocopy it. I never realised that so I just started my own fanzine. That’s how I ended up in the music papers. We didn’t do courses in journalism we just wrote about music.
Music writers have always been in two different camps there were the people who went to college and learned to be writers and there’s the others who came from fanzine culture. They sit slightly apart from each other and there were definitely two sides in the 80s. There’s still a sense of a bit of that now, people telling me my punctuation isn’t right. I think “I don’t care I just have to tell you about this record!” you know “This record is so genius you have to hear it!” That’s our world innit?
Paula: Yeah definitely.
John: When I write, sometimes I want to pull something apart and put it all back together again and other times I just want to go “Fuuuck yeaah.” (laughs)
Paula: How did Louder Than War begin and how did you team up with Vive Le Rock?
It all started when I used to write for a website called The Quietus which is a great website. But I was bombarding them with ideas because I just wanted to write about so much. You can’t write about everything on someone else’s website because they haven’t got space. So I just started my own. They were great, they helped me set it up and gave me loads of tips. They pushed a lot of my stuff to get me off the ground. Some websites are really protective and have rivalry and will do anything to fuck you over. But The Quietus aren’t like that – were still friends and still tip each other off on bands. We’re firmly fans of music.
Eugene at Vive Le Rock had the idea of doing an indie magazine and he wanted me on-board. It made sense because we were cross-pollenating and I had the website, he had the magazine and we could push each other in a sense. So that’s how it went. It started off very difficult because we were competing with loads of other magazines like Q, even though we’re not very like them or MOJO, that’s a good magazine. The market is saturated with people writing about the same bands. That’s why Vive Le Rock is a genius idea because people aren’t writing about punk. No one writes about that music so he’s got a whole scene to himself there. It’s a great magazine as well. Both those magazines work on a high quality of print. The layouts are great, Jim Sharples is a wizard at doing that. Eugene as well is really cool, I don’t envy him it’s an uphill battle, back in the day everyone bought magazines, it’s much harder now. Both our magazines would be selling 100,000 copies each 20 years ago. These days a magazine that sells 20,000 means you’re doing really well in the magazine world. There’s an audience for it.
Paula: What was it like doing the song with Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex) and did you know her well?
John: Yeah I did a TV series about punk about 20 years ago now and I interviewed Poly. We got on really well and stayed in touch. Then we became really good friends and she’d ring me up nearly every day just to have a little chat. She’s a really interesting woman so she’d talk about loads of things from Hare Krishna, hippy music, everything. So she became a good friend. I have a lot of women who are friends. There’s no agenda I just like having pals who are women. So I’d go and see her in London, she’d come up to London from Hastings and we’d go to Hare Krishna cafes and we’d see each other quite a lot as mates. I persuaded her to start doing music again. So I booked a studio and asked her to sing and record a duet with me. She hadn’t sang since the X-Ray Spex records. She said “How do you want me to do it?” I said “Like, just really belt it out!” so she did one take and wanted to do it again. But we said “Fuck no, that sounds amazing you don’t have to do that again it sounds amazing.”
Then she did a gig at the roundhouse and that was fucking amazing. She got depressed and she would go up and down all the time. Doing the music was good for her but she found it very stressful as well. It was good and bad at the same time. I remember we went to this punk festival and got her to come down to it. She turned up and all day people were coming up to her saying “Wow, Poly Styrene!” People hadn’t seen her for 20 years and she looked like a normal person, wasn’t dressed up as Poly Styrene. People knew who she was and appreciated seeing her. She was really touched. Like middle aged punks saying “you were such a great band!” And she never realised people loved her so much. So that was nice that she got to come back and experience that. She was supposed to come and do an interview with me at a festival and she couldn’t come because she had a bad back and she went to the doctors. They said “that’s not a bad back you’ve got cancer.” What the fuck?! That came out of nowhere, she had a quiet lifestyle. You wouldn’t expect her to get cancer. Then she just faded away. The last time I spoke to her was on the phone when I was on an American tour. I said “I’ll come down and see you in three weeks when I get back, down in Hastings.” And she said “I don’t want you to see me I look terrible.” I said “I don’t care”. And then she died the day I got back. I went to the funeral in Hastings and it was really sad. I’m still friends with her daughter who is really similar to her, looks like her, and she looks after all Poly’s stuff now. She wasn’t really Poly Styrene in the end. She did X-Ray Spex as Poly Styrene but Marianne was a different person from that.
Paula: So you’ve done so much in your life, bands, spoken word, written books, magazines. I feel like you live by a DIY ethic which is quite engrained in punk. What did that ethic mean to you in 77’ and how has the scene changed now?
I think for a lot of people like me, DIY is a way of life. We don’t have a lot of choice really. EMI don’t want to sign a bunch of people making weird music. But you have to go “OK I’m gunna do this myself. Punk was great for that. Everything was homemade. You could put your own record out, you didn’t have to get anybody’s permission to be creative. That’s the most powerful, revolutionary thing that came out of punk. To realise that anybody could do anything they wanted. It’s not about being successful it’s about doing it. That’s a really important thing. If you’re a girl you didn’t have to be a singer, be a drummer! You don’t have to be pretty! But the thing about punk was everybody looked amazing.
I talked to Jordan recently who’s a great example of punk for me. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood made it slightly easier to look good because it wasn’t easy. You had to be so creative if you didn’t have the money. Then dressed up like that you’d get the train to London and people would want to beat you up. Jordan made her own look up. That’s the definition of punk for me. It was 24/7 we didn’t go home and put a tracksuit on. We dressed like that all the time, all day. You are a self-created piece of art. Your music, your look, your attitude. Every aspect and every detail is created by you. The mirror is your only judge. If you play your music and someone says “that’s not a good piece of music it’s all out of tune” you go “it sounds great to me, fuck off.” And that’s punk! The only judge is yourself and you can’t let everybody else dictate your art. That’s why the best punk is that pure, it can sound like anything. One of the best gigs I went to in the last few years I saw these two fourteen year old girls play in Norwich they’ve got a record deal and are doing quite well now. They looked really nervous onstage and nothing worked it was all broken and after about ten minutes the strap broke on the bass, she couldn’t even work out how to put the strap back on. I was totally intrigued it was amazing. They actually got onstage and I thought they were gunna play some thrashy DIY punk which
would have been great. But then they started playing some really morose miserable droning song. And I didn’t expect it. I thought “Where did that come from?” and it was completely hypnotic and captivating. They could barely play it but what they played was so fucking genius. I thought to me that defines punk. Their band spirit. People try to define punk but everybody’s got their own version of what it is. But nobody’s right! People think I’m an expert on punk and I’m no more expert than anyone else. I know what I think it is but I don’t expect anyone to believe me. What I love is the power and energy of it. Me and my friends could make art. No one ever told us before that we could make art. It was empowering, do it yourself, doing it together. People working together from all over the world. But it’s also the Sex Pistols. One of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever but with this weird singer. You forget how bizarre Johnny Rotten was as a singer. He obviously was very nervous but sharp, original, and really “Fuck you” as well. And that’s inspirational. His voice was original. And The Clash as well, a brilliant rock ‘n’ roll band with that spirit in them. Even Green Day started off on the DIY scene and every time they play a stadium, 20 kids go home and make their own music so it goes back to DIY.