One half of British Indie Pop legends CARTER THE UNSTOPPABLE SEX MACHINE is about to tour Australia with Pop Will Eat Itself.
In 1989 a weirdly unusual single came out. Sherriff Fatman starts with a determined marching beat it was a compelling, urgent, shouty, chanty. Sequenced bass and drums, heroic synthesized string and horn sections and driving guitars. Two guys, Jim Bob and Fruit Bat, and some tech. It was a song about a notorious London slum lord property owner, I didn’t know that at the time, I just knew that this noisy, driving racket was for me. It was alternative music which sounded futuristic, full of punk attitude that you could dance to. It was my introduction to Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine.
Carter quickly became one of my most favourite bands, and on high rotation both at home and the clubs I was DJing at in those days. Songs like The Only Living Boy in New Cross, After the Watershed, Young Offenders Mum, Let’s Get Tattoos, Do Re Mi So Far So Good and the epic Bloodsport for All.
They were lumped in with other bands with long hair, dreads and big shorts like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Wonder Stuff, Jesus Jones and notably Pop Will Eat Itself under the banner of ‘Grebo’
They often dropped Carter-ized covers of songs by other indie bands (Inspiral Carpets, Smiths, Sugarcubes) on b-sides of singles, along with songs by The Jam, Pink Floyd, Pet Shop Boys, Kraftwerk, Wire, and even did a version of Trouble by Shampoo. At one point they released a straight cover version of The Impossible Dream from the musical Man of La Mancha as a single.
After ten years they decided to other things. Fruit Bat started making records under the name Abdoujaparov (after a cyclist from Uzbekistani called Djamolidine Abdoujaparov) and was a regular visitor to Australia for a while. He’d work out when the Grand Prix was on and come out, do some gigs with a pick up band and help pay for his trip to see the race cars. Jim Bob started making his own records under the brilliant name Jim’s Super Stereo World. Quirky and probably a bit more ‘pop’ than Carter, they released stuff like the delightful Bubblegum.
Jim then started recording under his real name James Morrison and his material became longer narratives, and the releases more long form or concept albums. No surprise as he had also started writing novels (four so far plus an autobiography about his time in Carter). There are eight solo albums the latest being 2016’s Jim Bob Sings Again.
Jim Bob is about to tour Australia for the first time since Carter USM played on the Big Day Out in 1993. He is supporting Pop Will Eat Itself and will be doing an hour of Carter songs at each show. He is snowbound at home in the UK when we talk on the phone.
The first time I got to see Carter was at the Adelaide Big Day Out in 1993, it was a blisteringly hot day and the two of you looked like you were going to keel over from heatstroke. What do you remember of that show?
If it’s the one I’m thinking of, it was too hot to touch the microphones and they were hosing down the audience. I don’t know how many gigs in that was but I think by that point we were trying to see offensive we could be? (Laughs). I think by then we were just coming on and insulting everyone. That’s my memory of it. Affectionately obviously.
I used to play Carter records an awful lot as an Indie DJ and the two of you made such a unique sound. That was sort of an accident wasn’t it? You did a gig were the rest of the members of your previous band didn’t show up?
It was entirely accidental. We had previously been a more traditional band called Jamie Wednesday, which was kind of ‘cow punk’ like The Pogues or The Men They Couldn’t Hang. We knew we wanted to do something completely different. Fruit Bat was really into hip hop, but I was listening to Tom Waits and the band Holy Duo. So those things came together, but the accidental part was we had this gig and we didn’t have the rest of a band so we thought we could do it with a drum machine, but we ended up with tapes because we had the bass on it as well. We found a cheap studio in the paper and we wrote the songs, recorded the backing and did the gig in the space of two weeks.
I always thought that was interesting, because all those elements in a blender probably shouldn’t have ended up sounding like you did.
We probably didn’t end up sounded as much like Public Enemy as we wanted to, but that is just where we were from I suppose.
It was so unlike everything else at the time and you found an audience really quickly and before too long that audience got pretty crazy big. How did you guys handle going from doing one little gig with a backing tape to headlining festivals and playing huge headline shows? The last time I saw Carter was at the Phoenix Festival in the UK in 1994, you were playing the mainstage and there was 20,000 people cheering you on.
It’s a long time ago now, but I think my memory of it was that the early part of it was more fun and enjoyable. By that stage we were already becoming a different band, veering away from what we had started out doing. Or the times were everything was new. We’d put out a record and that was exciting. And we’d get in the Indie chart and that was exciting. Or when we sold out a gig. But when it became expected it was slightly less fun. We got a number one album and it was nowhere near as exciting as it should have been, because it was sort of expected and planned. The record company planned on that happening, which is ridiculous when I think about it now. So we headlined Glastonbury, but we spent most of the time moaning about it.
Is that because when you start to get some success there gets to be a machine depending on you?
Yeah. There are more and more people working for you and it’s hard not to turn into a bit of an arsehole. That tends to happen less when you are all in the same boat and just jumping in a hire car together and sleeping on floors and whatever. And things become a chore. Like doing days of press seem like the worst thing in the world to do. Were as before we’d be like ‘Oh great we are doing an interview’. It wasn’t all awful, but it is a shame we didn’t enjoy the success more than we did the chase of success.”
You have done a bunch of reunion things with Fruit bat over the years, have they been more fun because they are occasional and it’s on your own terms.
Yes they have and because we and the audience is there for the same thing. So we don’t have to prove anything. We don’t have any of that ‘we are not going to play the hits, we are just doing the album, like it or lump it’. There is none of that at all. Everybody knows what they are getting. And without it being just entertainment, it’s more about entertainment than it was in the past. I did feel a bit guilty that we were not giving it as much as we might have done. If you watch somebody like Nirvana at their peak and it’s dangerous. And the early Carter gigs seem very dangerous and crazy, whereas maybe now it’s a bit more controlled.
Everybody is older I guess, you guys and the audiences. And if Kurt was around these days I doubt it was be as incendiary as it was at their peak. Every time I heard you were doing another round of shows I hoped you might get to Australia, but it never happened.
I don’t know why we didn’t. We didn’t really get many offers outside Britain. We had some, but they weren’t worth us doing. One thing with us is that we always wanted to put on a big show. Even though it was technically just two people, it was still expensive to put on. We didn’t want to just play, so there was always a lot of other things going on. We wanted to have a big lightshow and the rest of it and all that cost too much money. Or maybe we couldn’t have pulled a big enough crowd I don’t know.
Those reunions have finished now, but is the door open to do more in the future?
I don’t think so. When we did the last two we made a big deal about not doing it again. It got to the stage were the question was coming up every year, were we going to do something next year. Then we’d have to decide if there was a reason for doing it. Were we just doing it to pay off mortgages and stuff. Because that does come into, not that you ever want to admit to it, but money is a big part of why any band gets back together, there is a financial element but we didn’t want it to be just that. So we said we wouldn’t do it again, but over the last year we’ve started getting offers again and there for the kind of amounts of money that would…come in handy if you know what I mean? More than we would have ever got before. So it’s tempting, but you have to think would it be worth it? Would we be going back on our word? So far we’ve said no. At some point dignity comes into it. There are a lot of bands still going and some of them, don’t look so good. I have a problem looking at those bald fat punk bands I loved when I was sixteen. I see pictures of these guys and think ‘Is that what I look like now?’
I am always in two minds because I never got to see a lot of the bands I loved when I was younger, especially the UK punk bands that just never made it to Australia. In the past few months I’ve seen the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers and they were both brilliant. It’s a struggle when they lose the front man, but even From the Jam, (the two members of The Jam that aren’t Paul Weller) who I was expecting to not be great were fantastic, with 600 lead singers in the audience.
The Jam are my all-time favourite band, but I have not seen From The Jam. I kind of don’t want to participate in that. I’m sure if I went I’d like it, because I love those songs so much but, and this is a ridiculous thing for me to say considering I’ve been doing Carter reunions for ten years but, I don’t really like it when bands do reunions (laughing). I’d prefer it if they didn’t. It’s alright if they keep going, but the ones that reform it’s different. Obviously I’d be massively hypocritical if I did have a problem with it. I just don’t want to buy a ticket and go and see bands like that myself. In a way I’d prefer if they didn’t do it so I wouldn’t feel tempted. I mean everybody’s done in now anyway. People talk about Oasis reforming, which I don’t really care about, but it doesn’t seem like that long ago that they broke up. Now people are reforming that only broke up like four years ago. If bands do it right a reformed band can be a hundred times more successful than they were originally. The Stone Roses were a much better band when they came back, they were never as big back then as they are now, and they never played venues that big. Not that they have ever interested me it may surprise you to hear.
After Carter you did two records as Jim’s Super Stereoworld and one of those Could You Be the One I’ve Waited For featured in my wedding and was the song I got asked about the most afterwards. (*It contains the brilliant line ‘I’ve met vicars that have shown be Jesus, I’ve tried Snickers and Maltesers’).
Was doing Stereoworld a big change from Carter the stadium monster.
Well it was, because it was all me on the records. Apart from the live thing it didn’t exist as a band. And we only did a handful of gigs with a live version and half of them were amazing and other half were a disaster. Is it exciting not knowing which way the mop is going to flop at gigs like that? Not at the time, to be honest. (laughing). We had a lot of technical issues. A lot of arguments with sound guys because we had two keyboards where the drums usually go and a drum kit at the side of the stage. The drum kit on the side of the stage and we only used for the last half a minute of the last song and that really annoyed sound engineers.
With your solo records you seem to like going with the long narrative, with the song linked into a bigger story, so kind of concept albums without each record being Quadrophenia.
With the later ones especially I found that it was the only way I could write songs. I wasn’t deliberately doing it, but I found I wanted to do it that way. I did an album about a school and I couldn’t write anything at all. But once I got one, I knew what I was doing. Same thing happened with my last one. It just made it easier to write. I haven’t written many standalone songs for ages. I felt like I had already said everything in a way. We said a lot of things about the way the world was in Carter and things haven’t changed so I’d just be repeating myself. And there was a bit towards the end of Carter where the songs were not really about anything, which is my least favourite phase of songs. You get songwriters who will never tell you what their songs are about because it spoils the magic or whatever, but I think that is just bullshit. I think the people who say things like that are just making words rhyme. Songs should be about something surely, even if it’s just getting up and dancing. I like to know what I’m singing about?
The shows you are doing down here with The Poppies will you have a band?
It’s just me and a guitar and I’m just doing Carter songs. I don’t always do that, but it feels like a good fit for these shows. I find unless I am doing a long gig, I don’t like to mix up the songs too much. I did a bunch of shows last year that were kind of all-day things with Indie bands from the 90s so doing Carter stuff works well and hopefully that will work in Australia too. I hope there won’t be people yelling ‘Where’s the new stuff’.
Interview by Ian Bell
Catch Jim Bob with Pop Will Eat Itself on the following dates…