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Article Status: Shorter version of article appeared in the Dec. 10, 1997 Metro Times.
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Will Success Spoil Chumbawamba?

by Peter Werbe

I get knocked down.

Chumbawamba's anthemic, ubiquitous, “Tubthumping,” has become an overnight, worldwide CD hit and a staple at sporting events, bigger than Queen's, “We Are The Champions.”

But I get up again.

Their lyrical celebration of indomitability and English working class drinking culture was heard behind a Nov. 30 Fox TV halftime profile of Detroit Lions running back, Barry Sanders.

You're never going to keep me down.

The song even made it into the soundtrack of Home Alone 3

Outwardly, there's little more than a band with a pop hit featuring an infectious hook that we'll probably all be sick of real soon. But Chumbawamba is an unlikely candidate for commercial stardom. The band members, whose origins go back 15 years into the British punk movement, define themselves as hard-core, revolutionary anarchists whose previous releases contain explicit challenges to the institutions of the political state and capitalism.

Peter Werbe spoke with Alice Nutter, Chumbawamba vocalist, in Leeds, to find out how an anarchist band from the north of England deals with becoming an international rock sensation.

Peter Werbe: How does your sudden entrance into the pop spotlight effect you personally and professionally?

Alice Nutter: Personally, it's a bit of a double-edged sword, but we're really pleased to be getting into people's houses, pleased to be on karaoke machines, to be played in bars, and to be played at family weddings—places where people go that aren't hip to pop culture. That's what Chumbawamba has always wanted, really.

On a personal level: I've spent two days at home in the last three months and that's not a good thing because part of what we are rests on the fact that we have lives; that we're not just part of a rock and roll circus. We recognize that people are part of communities and a lot of what we do is being part of an anarchist community and the community we live in.

We trying to make sure we have our feet completely on the ground. We're not at each other throats; we're getting along fine. We have loads of meetings to try and control what's happening to us, and we're not just whisked along.

PW: If you have such strong criticisms of the music industry and capitalism as a whole, why are you interested in having a hit record?

AN: We don't want to just get our pop music into people's homes, but get anarchist ideas along with it. And, they're not just our ideas, but part of a whole history of anarchist ideas and people who struggled against the state. There's a lot of ways to organize away from capitalism, which is such a ruthless ideology and if people had access to these ideas, they wouldn't scared of controlling their own lives.

We think the work we're doing now is worth it, because our ideas are going somewhere. The cost to us is that we have meetings every single day and the last thing we want is to go through another agenda when when you're knockered and you'd rather be sitting down with a cup of tea. But we want to keep a handle on things.

As to the ultimate question, “Will success spoil Chumbawamba,” as soon as it starts to spoil us, we have to give up what were doing.

PW: The lyrics on your last album were overtly anarchist, anti-fascist, pro-feminist and pro-gay; none of this comes through in the lyrics of the songs on “Tubthumper.” Did you want this album to be less radical?

AN: We decided to make our writing a better experience for us; we wanted to become more poetic. But we knew in order to explain what we were talking about we needed extensive sleeve notes. We spent months producing a highly political booklet that went with the album. It was all about a community of dissent from famous people to everyday people; from George Bernard Shaw and Simone de Beauvoir to people involved in anti-road struggles in Britain today. We worked really hard at explaining all of ideas in the songs.

But when it came time for the American release, the lawyers said this will take another seven months to get clearance on every quote in the booklet. We didn't record this for a major label. Universal took a finished album and it had been ready a year since we recorded it. So, we had to make a decision on whether to wait or not. We threw a bit of a fit and said, “Why do you have to get clearance on Plato; he's been dead forever?”

We didn't have the problem anywhere else. The album came out all over Europe and Asia with the sleeve notes. People there got the album we wanted; in America they didn't. You don't have an idea immediately what the album is about and to me, that's frustrating. And for the rest of Chumbawamba it's frustrating because the last thing in the world we are is lap liberals; we're anarchists.

PW: Without the liner notes to set a song like “Tubthumping” in a radical context, doesn't it just come off as a glorification of the male culture of drinking at sporting events?

AN: It does have a crowd feeling, you know, the chorus, “I get knocked down. But I get up again.” We wrote that with the idea of ordinary working class people in mind. About no matter how difficult life is and what a struggle it can be just to get through a week, you still have moments where you say, life is really sweet. To us, it's a call for solidarity, not everybody get toast.

We can't control how people use our song. Actually, I don't think it's a bad thing being used at sporting events. I've been at soccer games when 50,000 people, ordinary working class people, were singing it. It's an absolutely brilliant moment for us; that's just the way it should be.

We realized we've been writing treatises in songs for years and decided we wanted to write better ones, which meant we had to get rid of the theses. If you look at our album “Pictures of Starving Children,” the way those songs are written, they're just rants. Each song has at least 32-lines, none them repeated, and no chorus, because we were trying to get in as many words as possible.

We realized the songs we were listening to had choruses and hook lines and were constructed like ordinary pop songs. We decided if we really want to touch people, we had to stop writing theses, and put them somewhere else.

PW: What's the history of Chumbawamba?

AN: We've been friends for absolutely years; the band's been together for 15 years and we were friends before that. We all came from a punk rock background. We wanted to be in bands not because we wanted to be huge like U2 or Simple Minds (I can't imagine anything worse than being in those bands), but because we had the idea we could create something together. We liked the punk rock idea that you don't have to be able to play; all you have to do is have the guts to stand up and do it.

We were all in different bands and we found a house big enough for all of us to squat and we became squatters. It just seemed like common sense that if we were living together, we might as well be a band together. We were influenced by bands like Crass with the idea that pop music could be intensely political. They introduced us to the idea that songs didn't have to be about love and they called themselves anarchist. Chumbawamba doesn't want to be just a pop group. We also want to be part of a radical community away from music because real life is more exciting than a rock and roll circus.

PW: It must have been a surprise to see coverage of you in papers like USA Today and The New York Times. Why do you think there's been such intensive attention paid to your band? Is it because of the popularity of your hit song or the fact that you're rather a curiosity to the mainstream being an anarchist group?

AN: I have no idea, but we just try to take advantage of it. We made a decision to take as many interviews as were offered because there isn't a lot of dissenting voices that come back into the media. This is a bit hard on us because it means even less sleep for us, but we have to carry on in the way that we started. We had to instruct the record company not to ignore the zines.

PW: The circumstances surrounding your last album, “Showbusiness,” that you recorded live in 1994 at a Leeds pub are interesting. Can you tell us about it?

AN: We wanted to make a live album, but we'd had quite a lot of trouble from the fascists in the West Yorkshire area. They were targeting independent record shops in the area that stocked our records. Basically, windows were going through every night, with accompanying phone calls say, as long as you stock Chumbawamba, you're going to be a target. We decided to do a two-night benefit for Anti-Fascist Action and record a live album. It was quite good because lots of anti-fascists gathered to make sure that the fascists couldn't do anything. However, they turned up in the middle of the night and put the pub windows through, but were prevented from intimidating people and the gig went on anyways and Anti-Fascist Action got the money.

PW: Now that you have a standing in the mainstream pop world, your audience has to confront the fact of your anarchism, but to most people that philosophy is synonymous with violence and chaos.

AN: The media has an interest in making it sound like chaos and violence. If people actually control their own lives and are organized, they are quite nice to each other. The reason we're alright with our next door neighbors and look after their kids and that kind of stuff is not because [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair or Bill Clinton is telling us to; it's because that is our natural instinct. They're always telling us, this is an insecure world based on fear and paranoia—you might lose your job, your neighbor might get it, you have to look after yourself, it doesn't matter about anyone else, this is a ruthless world—go for it. But I believe people's instincts are opposite to that. Left to our own devices we do live peacefully in communities. The problem is, once people are ground down, and they have lost their jobs and they are living in a climate of fear, then we're not disposed to be good to each other.

If people could make decisions in smaller groups, we'd decide things for the good of the community, and to me, that's anarchism. It's the idea that we are all equipped to decide the course of our own lives, and won't all become demented serial killers. Half the crimes that go on are poverty based. There's absolutely no reason for the dire poverty. 83 people own 35 percent of the world's wealth—that's an unbelievable statistic.

PW: The governing mythology says that poverty exists because of flawed individuals.

AN: I hate that. Yeah, that somehow they're not good enough to survive, that if you failed it's because you failed as an individual, not because if some people are richer, you have to get poorer. People carry the burden for everything that goes wrong on their individual selves. It's not their bloody fault. The class that you're born into determines your lives, and I'm not talking about working class, middle class, upper class because classes don't determine whether or not you eat in some countries. What country you're born in can determine whether you get a meal every three days. It's ridiculous to suggest capitalism or state communism is a good thing for people's lives when they're both run in the interest of a few powerful individuals. A society should work in the interests of the people that live in it.

PW: Any plans for Chumbawamba beyond your present tour?

AN: To be in Home Along 4.

Chumbawamba's liner notes missing from their U.S. release can be obtained by writing the band at PO Box TR666, Leeds, LS12 3XJ or by visiting their website at www.chumba.com.

The live”Showbusiness” is a double CD release with a 1995 speech by Noam Chomsky, “Capital Rules,” on the other disk. It is available from AK Press, PO Box 40682, San Francisco CA 94140; www.akpress.org.

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