Q MAVERICK: LUKE HAINES
Britpop survivor. Britpop denouncer. Satirist. Conceptualist. Loose cannon… David Cavanagh spends quality pub time with former Auteurs and Black Box Recorder leader, Luke Haines, mining for old-fashioned interview gold.
“I’m a ginger, I fight back,” says indie rock’s angriest man. And who are we to argue?
It’s a monolithic concrete box, one of those cryptic constructions that are known as street furniture. It stands on a patch of grass in front of a modernist tower block in London’s Highgate Road, and there’s a door in it, to which very few people have a key. “It’s a Cold War bunker,” Luke Haines explains. “They built it in the 1950s when they were terrified of a nuclear war. It was the main control centre for North London, so if it kicked off big-time, this is where all the top people would have come.” Today, most Londoners probably walk past the long-disused shelter without giving it a second thought. But not Haines. He wrote a concept album about it. British Nuclear Bunkers, from 2015, combined two of his passions – nuclear bunkers and vintage synthesizers – to create an album that had strong overtones of Kraftwerk’s RadioActivity while being somewhat bleaker and more paranoid than Haines’s usual work. It was released, as are most of his records, by the veteran indie label Cherry Red. “When it came out,” he says, “I went to dinner at the House Of Lords – this gets weird – with Iain McNay [ Cherry Red’s chairman], Arthur Brown and Jah Wobble. Iain made a speech about each of us, saying:
“Rock’n’roll is meant to be fun. I’m 50. I’ve got two kids. I get to make the records I like. I have a record company that puts them out eight weeks after I deliver them. All I’ve done is cut out the bit where I’m 25 and taking everything too seriously.”
‘This is Jah Wobble, who used to be the bassist in Public Image. This is Arthur Brown, the god of hellfire.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘And this is Luke Haines, whose new album I hate.’” We inspect the bunker from various angles, then gaze up at the tower block behind it. Haines wonders if it was built “as ballast”. The residents of the flats would have watched from their balconies, puzzled and perhaps a bit frightened, as smartly-dressed people arrived in fleets of taxis and ducked hurriedly through a doorway in an ominouslooking concrete lump. On the album, Haines can be heard hammering at the bunker’s locked door. Later, in a moment of crazy serendipity, he met the Mayor Of Camden at a party, who gave him a set of keys.
Britpop survivor. Britpop denouncer. Satirist. Conceptualist. Loose cannon. Gonzo cookery writer. Expert on German terrorist groups and all-round 1970s cultural sponge. If you had to design a viable amalgam of Chris Morris, Julian Cope, David Peace, Lawrence from Go-Kart Mozart, Gordon Ramsay and The Residents, you might very well come up with Luke Michael Haines. In the ’ 90s he was the leader of The Auteurs, a band that sang of glamour and horror and missed out on the 1993 Mercury Prize by one vote. Between 1998 and 2003 he was a member of Black Box Recorder, a trio of pop subversives prone to writing songs about sexually curious 11- year-olds and women trapped in car wreckages. Haines, smartly-suited and peroxided, appeared on Top Of The Pops the week that Black Box Recorder’s The Facts Of Life made the Top 20 in 2000. Depending on how you view his career, it was either his breakthrough hit or his last brush with fame. “I don’t have an agenda, particularly,” says Haines, a solo artist for the last 15 years. “My attitude is I can do what I want.” His local pub, where we’re now sitting, is a spit-andsawdust boozer with a pianist and “cash only” signs on the walls. He’s greeted as he walks in, cutting a jovial figure in a straw fedora, looking like a cricket-loving cleric in a Graham Greene novel with perhaps a dash of the dissolute traitor in The Fall’s Marquis Cha-Cha. There’s a common conception about Haines that he must be a jaundiced, embittered soul now that his albums no longer chart. There doesn’t seem to be much truth in it. He looks happier, certainly, than he did in The Auteurs. When he removes his spectacles and places them next to his pint of cider, you notice the pinkish lenses. Haines, a misanthrope? Why, he literally sees the world through rose-tinted glasses. “Rock’n’roll is meant to be fun,” he argues. “I mean, I’m having fun. I’m 50 years old. I’ve got two kids. I get to make the records I like. I have a record company that puts them out eight weeks after I deliver them. Y’know, when you’re 15, you aspire to that kind of stuff. All I’ve done is cut out the
bit where I’m 25 and taking everything too fucking seriously.” His most recent album, I Sometimes Dream Of Glue, illustrates how the smallest germ of an idea can take hold in Haines’s mind, and be manipulated into a universe of startling, far-fetched invention. He and his girlfriend were supposed to go on holiday to Iceland, but somehow got downsized to a day trip to Southend. When Haines saw the photos, there was one of him scowling in a carriage on the Southend Pier miniature railway. He wrote a faintly creepy song called Angry Man On Small Train. This, in turn, inspired the album’s wider concept, the Ballardian and Swiftian idea of a race of tiny humans living in an Airfix model town situated under a West London motorway bridge. None of them is taller than two-anda-half inches in height. All of them are addicted to sex and glue. “It’s my Brexit album,” says Haines. “Small people with small minds. Nasty little people living nasty little lives. But nobody spotted it except for this one guy in Russia. I put his review in Google Translate and it said: ‘Luke Haines’s Brexit album.’ I couldn’t believe he’d got it. Everyone else’s reviews were going, ‘Oh, he’s writing about his divorce.’ No, no, no! It took a guy in Russia to grasp the concept.” When the staff at Cherry Red ask Haines what his next concept will be (as they often do, apparently), he replies that he doesn’t know yet but they’ll be the first to find out. Freqs (pronounced “freaks”), the album that preceded I Sometimes Dream Of Glue, was conceived when Haines tried to copyright a musical frequency (“never been done before”) and record an album on Moog and Korg synthesizers that was based around that frequency. “It was very niche,” he says. “I came up with the concept of a ruined airport where there were no flights. An airport that people could enter but couldn’t leave. It was my other Brexit album.” Rather than present Freqs to Cherry Red – since it was even bleaker and had fewer songs on it than British Nuclear Bunkers, which Cherry Red had hated – Haines offered the album to Electronic Sound magazine, who loved it. “They pressed up 20,000 copies and gave it away free with the next issue. Technically, it’s my highest-selling solo album to date.” Before that, in 2015, he’d released Adventures In Dementia: A Micro-Opera, the story of a man who works as a Mark E Smith impersonator. One day, on a caravanning weekend in Shoeburyness, the Mark E Smith impersonator has a supernatural encounter with Ian Stuart ( 1957–1993), the deceased neo-Nazi frontman of the controversial white-supremacist punk band Skrewdriver. “Very niche,” Haines admits. “That started when I got a call from an artist friend of mine, Scott King, who said, ‘I’ve been given a German Arts Council grant to write an opera. All I’ve got so far is Mark E Smith crashing into Ian Stuart’s car. Are you in?’ I said, ‘Of course I’m fucking in.’ We went on to perform it at the Berlin Festival with a fake Mark E Smith, a skinhead covered in blood and a load of Turkish transvestites dancing to Earl Brutus. Two nights, to 200 Berliners who didn’t understand any of the references. Utterly baffled. It finished with us all chanting, ‘David Baddiel, David Baddiel’ while a backdrop showed all of the worst events in world history. Then there was total silence, and then this.” His hands make the sound of a single person applauding very hesitantly.
Luke Haines emerged from art colleges, classical guitar lessons and a glam-rock childhood in southern English towns like WaltonOn-Thames (Surrey) and Emsworth (Hampshire). Moving to London in the mid-’ 80s, he spent five years playing guitar in an indie band, The Servants, who appeared on the C86 cassette. In a sense, Haines’s life has taken him full circle – back to the indie labels, back to the underground, away from the pressure and the glare. The aberration, as he implied earlier, was the part in the middle, the part where the pressure got to him, which is why he doesn’t want it coming back. “When we started out,” Haines once said of his acclaimed group The Auteurs, “we were my dream band. Dead ropey. Very confrontational. We were not entertainment.” The Auteurs toured with Suede, recorded an excellent debut album (New Wave), ruffled feathers, lobbed a few well-aimed missiles from the sidelines and made surprisingly good money from their deal with Virgin Records. At one point, Haines had two houses. It’s not a time he likes to dwell on. “I saw the world very differently back then,” he says. “I was pretty angry and cynical. I was torn between wanting the band to do well and being very unsure of the world we were getting into.” The breaking point – literally – came when Haines fell off a wall in Spain, or perhaps jumped from it, and smashed both ankles. He was unable to walk for three months. When The Auteurs returned in 1996 with the Steve Albiniproduced LP After Murder Park, something profoundly grisly had happened to Haines’s writing. His songs had been infiltrated by missing children and dead bodies. “It’s a claustrophobic album with a high body count,” he nods. “I wouldn’t write a song like Unsolved Child Murder now.” But the bodies, in 1996, continued to pile up, because Haines’s next release – a side-project minus the other Auteurs – was a concept album about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the terror group that had blitzed its way through 1970s West Germany, kidnapping bankers and blowing up embassies. “That would seem a bit provocative now, but I had to do it,” he says carefully. “It felt like an important experiment to try. The thought that it might offend people didn’t occur to me. And anyway,” he smirks, “different times, weren’t they? Terrorism was a different game in those days. It was all about phoning up and leaving a bomb warning. They were gentlemen.” Haines’s work is a lot less murder-obsessed and terrorismfixated now, but he’s still one of the most anarchic conceptualists in music. Rock And Roll Animals, in 2013, was his long-awaited children’s album, featuring cuddly creatures such as a badger named Nick Lowe. If that sounds twee, it wasn’t. The other anthropomorphic characters in the story were leather-clad rockabilly nutter Gene Vincent (a cat) and Sham 69’ s Jimmy Pursey (a fox), while Julia Davis, Britain’s darkest sitcom writer, provided the album’s narration. As for Haines himself, he remains an awkward, at times hostile outsider who has no interest in coming in from the cold. Since settling some old scores with his 2009 memoir Bad Vibes: Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall, he’s gone to war with various enemies on social media, and so deep is his contempt for music journalists that he was banned from Twitter in May after urging a reviewer of a Black Box Recorder boxset to commit suicide. “I’ll defend the work every time,” he says defiantly. “I’ve got no one else to defend it, have I? I’ll get ’em up against the wall by the throat if I have to. I’m a ginger. I fight back. I come from a family of warmongers. My grandad fought in three wars. I once asked him, when I was about 11, ‘How many people did you kill?’ He said, ‘Not enough.’” Haines returned to Twitter in June after his month-long ban (“I’m back, muthafuckas”), profane and unrepentant, having deleted nothing.
The Regent Street Cinema has seen livelier nights in its 170- year history. There are about 18 of us spread out in the stalls for a rare screening of the documentary Art Will Save The World: A Film About Luke Haines. On an evening when 99.6 per cent of the population of London is watching an England World Cup game on TV, it’s sort of appropriate that Luke Haines is somewhere else, presenting a piece of art. The football has badly affected his ticket sales, but that’s not the point. The point is that the art goes ahead. “I’m unashamedly art-based,” he had said in the pub two nights earlier. “I still think like an art-school ponce, even though I was expelled from art school 30 years ago. And in fact, for me, it’s all about how you get there. That’s what art should be about. The journey, not the arriving. The finished product is invariably a disappointment.” Art Will Save The World is not a disappointment, but it does spend much of its 70- minute length enjoying a revisionist chortle at Britpop in order to portray Haines as the movement’s most sullen refusenik. Which, among other things, he briefly was. Throughout the film, he refers testily to the
other Auteurs (including his then-girlfriend, Alice) as his financial dependants. It’s clear that the Haines of 2018 has no desire to be the breadwinner for a bunch of needy musicians. But in the cinema bar afterwards, as a boy in a white shirt tugs at Haines’s waist – this is Fred, his young son – you suddenly realise what a tricky balance it must be to make a living, as Haines does, by putting out bizarre, wilful, low-selling albums about disused nuclear bunkers and minuscule glue freaks. He still has financial dependants, and two kids need to be put through school. Such thin margins might explain why Haines occasionally slams down his glass of red wine and tells the author of a negative review to go and kill himself. Just because rock’n’roll is fun doesn’t make it a joke. When the next concept strikes, and Haines goes into his home studio to start recording it, he can be sure of three things. Firstly, there’s nobody to stop him. Secondly, the concept is its own journey. And thirdly, for all his demented adventures, this is not a hobby.
“I’ll defend the work every time. I’ve got no one else to defend it, have I? I’ll get ’em up against the wall by the throat if I have to. I’m a ginger. I fight back. I come from a family of warmongers.”
Britpop and his part in its downfall: (clockwise from left) Haines onstage with The Auteurs, featuring then girlfriend, Alice Readman on bass, Glastonbury, 1993; Haines calls for a pop strike, 2001; Black Box Recorder, featuring John Moore, Sarah Nixey and Haines, 2003.
None more black: Haines’s history (from top) The Servants’ Disinterest ( 1990); The Auteurs’ New Wave ( 1993); Black Box Recorder’s The Facts Of Life ( 2000); Haines’s new album I Sometimes Dream Of Glue ( 2018).
“Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!”: Luke Haines – the world’s most terrifying scarecrow.