A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE
They rode into town from the wastelands of Stevenage, five mean hombres with a burning thirst, preaching the prairie gospel of goth. They called themselves Fields Of The Nephilim and the folks locked up their wives and daughters and got on down. Steve Sutherland joined the posse in Spain to discover why these dudes are wanted, Dead or Alive.
When we was on tour with Zodiac Mindwarp, I thought it was gonna be all whores and knickers on me 'ead every night but it wasn't like that at all. They may have put empty Jack Daniels bottles on the speakers but backstage it was all 'Can I have another cuppa tea please?'. Paul grins his drunken cheeky urchin grin. "That's just it you see - there is no such thing as the rock'n'roll lifestyle. It's all just a myth."
"Yeah, but that's okay," says Pete through blocked synuses. "That's okay, innit?"
"Oh yeah, that's okay..."
Right, in 1988 there's "That chart crap", there's MM's hip alternative to "That chart crap" and now, out of nowhere, out of the wastelands, unheralded, uncelebrated in print or occasionally ridiculed, there's alternatives to the alternatives. These people's champions, these grand unwashed have become popular, even adored, without hype or help from any aspect of the industry. These outsiders have entered our awareness uninvited, they've gained access the hard way, the old-fashioned way. They've played to people and people have repaid them with astonishing allegiance.
Where have they come from, why have they come, these hillbillies, these embarrassments, these blights on the great pop plots and plans? We writers don't know. We can't comprehend. We shrink and shudder at our own unimportance in the whole damn thing. But you, the readers, you know. You voted for all About Eve in our Readers Poll and most of us hacks looked at each other aghast. And you voted for Fields Of the Nephilim too and we hid our fright behind our snobbery and one or two scoffed and a few said Fields of who?
So term came to an end and we broke up for Christmas and, when we came back, the clever ones had arrived at a theory to explain away this troublesome phenomenon. They said the Eves and the Nephs were mere security blankets, something for the mascara hairies to suck while the true monsters/masters of Goth indulged themselves. They said Eldritch won't tour and The Cult have sold their souls to the States so it's little wonder the deserted masses have flocked to these substitutes.
All About Eve we talked to last year, but the Nephs ... Sisters clones, Midnight Cowboys, surely comedians. Dungpunchers from Stevenage with shaded eyes on the mainchance. See that gap and stampede straight through it. Their debut album 'Dawnrazor', topped the 1987 indie chart and yet everything you or I have ever read about Fields Of The Nephilim has found them on the defensive, denying preconceptions, defying their many critics with a cult resolution. This gets us nowhere. This will not do.
Consequently we took a red eye to the sleepy one-horse town of Zaragoza, Spain, caught them on the job in Spaghetti Western country and approached with caution on our bellies bearing gifts. We decided it was time to tilt in from the positive, to suspend disbelief, unburden ourselves of petty prejudice and, doubts dampened down, attempt to get close enough to brand this critter through trust and affection rather than bludgeoning brute force.
It's three in the morning and everyone's pissed.
"We lie nowhere," says Tony Pettit, the big-boned, cheerful bass player with the gormless friendly grin who wishes they hadn't once joked to a journo that what they play is Spaghetti Metal. "We don't fit in with any of your things. I think we are just Fields Of The Nephilim, I really do. The reason we did so well in your poll is that the people who buy Melody Maker are gig-going type people, right and we do a f*** of a lot of gigs. We gig more than a lot of bands, seriously, and we appeal to people who are interested in music just for music's sake."
The Nephs reckon they do what they do primarily because they enjoy it - that's the top and bottom of the whole damn thing.
What we want to know, then, is whether or not the joy is qualitative and discriminating? Does enjoying what they're doing imply a critique of their contemporaries?
"I dunno," says Carl McCoy, the bellow-throated singer who wears translucent lenses, once took a pig's head on tour until it started to sweat and stink in the carrier bag under the seat of the van and who has just had his bullets confiscated at the airport. "Since we've been in this band we've not been in touch with any other new music at all so it must fulfill something in our lives which is needed."
Commitment and work is readily used as an excuse for their lack of time/energy/inclination to assess their surroundings. Perhaps these blinkers are, as they claim, purely instinctive. Perhaps, though, their insularity runs deeper.
We should investigate the live phenomenon. Why, in an era when live music is patently dying, are the Nephs such a live attraction? What is it about the live situation which suits them?
"All serious bands play live," says Carl.
"You can get a feeling off one live gig which you'll never ever get again - that's part of it. And it's the same being in a band as being in the audience," says Pete Wright, the skinny guitarist with a bad bout of flu. Earlier I gave him my bottle of cough medicine, good and speedy like Do Dos, and he poured it into a jug of sangria and quaffed the lot. Good stuff.
"I've so often heard a good record and then been disappointed because the band couldn't pull it off live," says Paul Wright, the other guitarist who likes the drink a little too much, has cultivated a sort of Bobby Charlton oversweep without the bald bit and apparently has a mole on his ass like a hairy map of Australia.
"And that's only been recently. Going back a few years, bands used to play live," says Carl.
"Going to see the band is the big thing, the big night out," says Tony.
We should start fishing again. This implies some value judgment surely. "All serious bands" - that's a loaded phrase if ever there was one. It suggests a desire for attitude, it demands pop to be more than just chords and rhymes.
So what's their attitude or, if it's easier, what is lacking the zeitgeist?
"It's difficult," says Paul's brother Nod, the pugilistic little drummer. "We never use the word 'attitude', we never think of it like that. It sounds like something put on. We have a feeling between us and we've only gotta go slightly wrong before one of us knows."
"Not having an attitude implies bands that are fun bands: bands that aren't there to play exactly what they want to, bands that conform to something, cabaret acts. There aren't that many serious bands about," says Carl.
"There are a lot of bands around at the moment who are parodying themselves already," says Tony, "and we don't wanna do that, we don't wanna make a joke out of anything."
Earlier in the day, the band are supposed to be soundchecking at the En Bruto Club, Zaragoza - a neat little mini Marquee that holds around 500, (80 eventually turn up) where the bands have to be offstage by 10.00 because an old couple live in the flat upstairs - but the equipment, such as it is, isn't ready so we drive out to the hills in search of some desert photo locations. Winding up a precarious track we discover an ancient mission church and a ruin. Sheehan fiddles with lenses, the sun makes a bid to sink behind the horizon before he can get snapping and... where are the boys? I peer around the other side of the van and there they are, covering each others' duds in flour.
"You didn't see that," says Tony.
I didn't see that.
Coming from Stevenage, dressing up as cowboys, dirty cowboys, cinema cowboys, Seventies anti-heroes must surely detract from any attempt or desire on their behalf to be taken seriously.
"It makes us easy targets, yeah," says Nod.
"People probably look at us and think straightaway that we're just another indie band with an image," says Carl. "And, to be honest, bands with images have always put me off! But, looking at us, I can see we've got this image and yet we feel like it's different. Every band will probably tell you the same - that they feel comfortable in these clothes and that's why they wear them. I really do though."
"But why have Kerrang picked on us? Why have they stuck a full page on us in this years book? Because we look like one of them bands although we're nothing to do with heavy metal or heavy rockers."
It is important for the Nephs to be different, to sound original? Indeed, with their deliberately traditional rock line-up (which, again, they won't justify other than to claim that's what they like) is it even possible?
"We don't go out of our way to be original," says Carl, "because if we did, we'd play chainsaws and cement mixers, know what I mean? I think we have quite an original sound but that's just natural."
"I think it's honest," says Tony. "It's an honest sound because all everyone's doing is playing exactly what we wanna play."
The Nephs' insistence on naturalness leads us into an elephants' graveyard of opinion - it's too flip, too easy, too convenient, too bland. Surely they must have some verbal notion of what makes a good record?
"An atmosphere," says Tony. Another big, meaningless, all encompassing word.
We've tried empiricism and failed. Time to get stupid. The Nephs are Goths, or they appeal to Goths. Given 10 minutes with a new song to write, they veer towards the darkness rather than the light.
"I don't find our music particularly dreary," says Paul. "We can see we appeal to a Gothic audience..." says Carl. Yes, but I'm here talking to five funny geezers who adore Steve Martin and tell some bloody dodgy jokes and yet on record, up there on stage, they become something other, something else, How? Why?
"It's a different language," says Carl. "It's fluent to us and, between us all, we create this sound and this atmosphere." Yes, but is it important that pop is something other? Is that what it's for? Is that what it does best?
"I don't think Joe Public wants to come and see Joe Public on stage if that's what you mean," says Tony. "They want a bit of escapism."
Yes, but the Nephs go beyond this - with their Morricone worship and their sound symbolic of wide open spaces, they surely suggest pop can attain the heroic and that, through pop, the human can become superhuman.
"Yeah, it's approaching epic," says Nod.
What does it mean and why do they inspire to it?
"'Once Upon A Time In The West' is epic," says Paul.
"Epic, to me, is like a feeling," says Pete, "it's not something you can put into words, it's something you can personally feel."
"I imagine it as wide and saturated with atmosphere," says Carl. "When I think of an epic, I think of something really massive..."
"Like the pyramids of Egypt," says Paul.
"Something awe-inspiring," says Carl.
Aha, attaining something beyond what you'd imagine man could attain.
"Yeah," says Carl. "It's gotta have some definite mystery behind it."
So, instead of being greasemakers or doleboys, the Nephs through music can be anything they want to be. And they have chosen their certain type of music. Why?
"That makes it sound deliberate but it's not really been like that," says Nod to our unbounden surprise. "It's just evolved, we haven't aimed at it."
Isn't this all so easy? Certain chords suggest, through familiarity, certain emotions and certain structures induce certain Pavlovian reactions. The rock'n'roll language is now so fully assimilated that only genius avoids or reinvents cliché.
"We're aware or all that," says Paul, "but we just go through moods. Supposing we're practicing in a barn in midsummer, we're gonna be all light and fluffy and come out with a few powers and good chicken-lickin' riffs right? But, as soon as we're back in Camden, in a place that's all dark and gloomy, then we're gonna come over all like that. It's totally relevant to where we are."
"When you're writing," says Tony, "you don't think 'This is gonna move someone else,' you think 'Yeah this moves me!"
"But we are conscious of corny chord constructions and things like that," says Carl, "and we steer clear of them."
Hm, steering clear seems to be one off the Nephs' favourite pastimes yet their many fans are prone to attributing things to them which, wriggle as they may, they can't avoid.
"I don't think any of them know what we're saying," says Carl. "It's totally a feeling they all get off on. They don't understand the lyrics. They don't know what I'm saying - I can see that. They get off on the total atmosphere and I use my vocals more like an instrument anyway so it's not what we're saying that they come to see us for."
Perhaps, then, it's what they stand for.
"What we actually stand for," says Tony, helpfully, "is for people to come out and watch us and have a really good time."
"We don't have any political motive or anything," says Nod. "We're just there and people can get off on us."
"Yeah, but they can delve further into the sort of music we play. It's not just face value because you play our records again and again and get something from them whereas with a lot of pop bands, you listen to them it's snappy, you like it, it's great but, after that, you can't delve any further."
So what do the Nephs write about?
"I think everyone's got different ideas in this band," says Carl. "I write the lyrics and a lot of them are my feelings towards my life totally. It's a hard thing to talk about."
"Well, I don't sit around for ages with my thinking cap on. The songs just come really fast."
"My underpants!" This is Paul. Witty bastard.
"I dunno, I don't write love songs as such. I sing about things that really fascinate me," says Carl. "Some of them are really odd and bizarre."
Again vague, deliberately?
"I am probably being deliberately vague, yeah. I don't know what it would mean to people if they found out exactly what I'm thinking. It seems really corny the way I think. If they saw it written down on paper they'd probably think 'Shit, the geezer's on acid," or something.
"I don't really want people to know what they mean to me. A lot of our songs are written so that people can get their own picture in their mind but what they mean to me, in my mind, is completely different probably. It doesn't bother me whether people know what I'm singing about or not really but I'm sure they can sense the feeling of the song."
So when the Nephs perform a song, they all have their own private movie going on?
"I wouldn't say it's a movie," says Carl, "because that makes it sound like total fantasy and I don't think all of it is fantasy. There's a couple of songs like 'Reanimator' or 'Dust' which aren't really totally from inside me - they're triggered off by watching a couple of films maybe. But most of the lyrics are from what's inside me, what I think."
"I don't think anybody in the band apart from Carl, knows what the lyrics are about," says Pete.
"That's not fair," says Paul. "Over three years now, I've got to know what the words are..."
"Yeah, what the words are," says Tony.
"...But my interpretation of them is completely different to his," says Paul.
"It's a funny thing that some people really like to read into music," says Tony, "and I think sometimes you can go too far. Like, when you was at school and you was all reading 'Kes' and y'know, you done a page a lesson. F***king you went into that page man, d'you know what I mean? And the geezer who wrote it. I don't think he was intending that, he wasn't intending you to pick apart every tiny little thing. He wanted you to just read it as a whole."
These are the vague popspeak clichés all journos dread. To proceed any deeper into the appeal of the Nephs, we must employ more specific tactics, we must isolate and examine. For example, how important to a Neph song is humour?
"There's probably some black comedy to some of them," says Tony.
"Some of the songs you could find quite amusing I suppose but I don't think there's a lot of humour to the lyrics," says Carl.
"I think the last thing I've ever done about our music, man, is laughed to be honest," says Nod.
"I don't think humour can move you in the same way as getting serious about something," says Pete.
I disagree but let's try anger.
"We're quite snappy with each other before we go on," says Carl. "And, deep down, I think we quite like it. I don't think our music works if we're not in that frame of mind."
"We need the energy that anger f***ing gives you," says Tony.
This is anger in performance. What about anger in the attitude of the songs?
"There is an anger in the attitude of the songs, yeah," says Carl. "I feel like I'm totally standing alone with the anger I'm speaking about really. I don't think a lot of other people would create anger from my subjects."
What about rebellion then?
"There's quite a lot of rebellion in our music," says Carl. "We've always been against the grain. We've never been accepted, we've never been a hip band, we've never fitted in, we don't even know most of the indie bands. The others seem to know each other but we've totally stood alone."
"I reckon there's rebellion in the community we've got around us, the people who come to see us, sleeping on train stations 'n' that. We can probably boast a 50 strong bunch of people that all know each other and they've got their own community around us. These gigs are the first ones we've done for over three years where we haven't had any of them with us and that's basically because we've skint' em doing Europe and England. We've blown out their money," says Tony.
Does this mean the Nephs feel responsibility?
"Well, they know there's no way we're gonna f***ing shit on 'em," says Paul. "We look after them the best way we can," says Tony. "The hard core of 'em who've been there for over two years know never pay to get into a gig, they nick half our rider, we put 'em up in our hotels in Europe.."
"And then we f*** half of 'em," says Paul to everyone's annoyance.
"No, really this bunch of people are only young and they're solid and sound," says Tony.
"And the thing is," says Carl, "they don't look up to us like stars or gods or anything like that. I mean, they just push us out the way to get to our rider. They're totally into our music but, as people we stand totally equal with them."
At the moment the Nephs enjoy the suffering of the underdog and elicit the sympathy lavished on the runts of the litter..
"That's a bit cruel innit? Runts of the litter?" Paul's upset.
But when they one day climb onstage at Madison Square gardens, they will no longer be due that affection. And, assuming some outsider symbolism behind those dusty duds, won't success turn their image into a pantomime?
"It depends on the sort of attitude we give off," says Carl. "If we walk around with our noses up and ignore all those people that we've always respected and needed to get us where we've got then we're gonna lose our following. But if we're still normal people we'll be alright, we'll still keep 'em."
"If you talk to these people," says Tony, "you'll find that some of them used to follow The Mission and the reason they got the ass with 'em is because the industry swallowed 'em up and, instead of being there they were f***ing over there man. D'you know what I mean?"
"So many bands lose it because they're there, they've made it and they don't try as hard. They've got where they wanted to be and they're comfortable and it's all one big giggle whereas us, we're still working our bollocks off and I hope we always have to do that."
Yet, for all their espousal of the dignity of labour, the Nephs also rely on an absurd contradiction - they function through a familiar mystery. They distance their music from the didactic through a cultivated vagueness and it's accumulated symbols of threat and weirdness are comforting to their audience. It's almost as if the Nephs justify their audience's hopelessness and inability to deal with society on any other level than that of the cartoon rebel. Most of these kids probably live at home with their parents yet they dress like creatures from Hades. Isn't this constructing lives around an act? Isn't this in some ways fake?
"It's a bit like having a hero or a heroine, someone you look up to, and meeting them and finding out that they're never that person because I don't think they ever are," says Tony.
"We don't represent day to day life at all," says Carl. "We take it a lot further, we take it away."
"It's pure escapism and I've always liked that," says Pete, "even if it's only a bit of heads down rock'n'roll."
But what we trying to get at here is isn't the rock ethos accepted and even sanctioned?
"That's like someone going up the Amazon and talking to a load of other people who have been up the Amazon," says Pete. "Someone who's been up the Amazon is obviously a lot more exciting and escapist than playing in a band, really, when you relate it to life or whatever."
"It all comes down to we like the noise we make," says Tony "Even Carl's vocals. We might not know what the f*** the geezer's going on about half the time but it's a f*** of an alternative to being an electrician, man. That's what it's all down to - it's a good alternative to being a motor mechanic. D'you know what I mean?"
The press considers Goth so quaint these days, though, that we're unprepared to deal with it unless it's garnished with lashings of irony, (which, incidentally, more often than not is a sad disguise for a lack of imagination). That the Nephs play it so utterly straight, that they're dumb-headedly sincere, that their tongues are nowhere near their cheeks, and that they're stubbornly impervious to theory, poses a threat to us journos. It renders our bleatings and breast beatings redundant in the face of their popularity. Who's out of touch. Who's thick - us or them?
"I think irony is the biggest cop out of all, I really do" says Tony. "If you can't stand by what you say and say you mean it, then you're taking the piss."
The Nephs don't want to subvert anything. They don't even think about it. After all, the bloke at the garage doesn't subvert your car.
So what are the Nephs' ambitions?
Carl: "I'd like to go down in history, to be put on a level with some of the older bands that I admire like Roxy Music and The Doors. Them bands are lasting, they still create a feeling. There's no attached date to their songs and I'd like us to be in that category where our songs just don't date."
Paul: "On my 34th birthday, I'd like to dress up as a nun."
Tony: "Success on our own terms."
Pete:" We set short term goals, we never really set long term ones. It's not an ambition to play Madison Square Gardens or anything like that."
Nod: "I'm not exactly 100 percent sure what I want out of it yet. I'll answer you in about eight years time."
Pete: "We all want success but I don't think we'll ever cop out for it. We don't do the f***ing crappy Cult syndrome."
Tony: "We've already seen about four different fads come and go. I mean, when we started out there was all these f***ing psychedelic bands around..."
What would be the worst thing that could happen to the Nephs?
Paul: "For me, or any one of us, to know exactly what the LP's gonna be in another years time because that wouldn't be inspired, it would be thought out."
Carl: "I think if one person left the band, that would be it. I don't think we could play with any other musicians."
Paul: "The second worst thing would be meeting you again, I reckon. Want some of this vodka?"