1. Thank you for your time Robin, really appreciate you getting involved with the zine. I'd like to begin with how 'The Cravats' came together and what it was that inspired you to pick up a guitar and start your own band.
You’re welcome, Rob. I?had a bit of a revelation, which got me into Punk and changed my life. In November 1976, I?was on an art foundation course at Birmingham Polytechnic’s Fazeley Street department. One night I?was driving home along the dark, rainy streets of Birmingham listening to Radio 1. Dave Lee Travis was the early evening DJ. I?had a rubbishy transistor radio that I’d liberated from my aunt. It was barely audible over the noise of my transport – an ancient product of the British Motor Corporation. Suddenly, there was a brilliant tune on the radio, a really exciting track; I’d never heard anything like it. I?pulled over, grabbed the radio and jammed it to my ear: “That was The Damned with ‘New Rose’... and I certainly won’t be playing it again”, said DLT. I?was angry, excited and inspired all at once. It was a real lightbulb moment. It confirmed my hatred of daytime Radio 1 and its ancient out-of-touch DJs pretending to be young and the dross that passed for pop music at the time. I?went to a Virgin Records shop the next day and bought the Damned single. I?played it at anyone who would listen.
Over the next few weeks Shend, Martin DeSey and myself were drawn together by the new music, the early Punk singles ‘Spiral Scratch’ by the Buzzcocks, The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ and ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by the Sex Pistols. We’d all been to school together and had variously been into Roxy Music, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and The Stooges, The Velvet Underground and such like. We went to see The Stranglers in April 1977 at the legendary Barbarella’s club in Birmingham and decided to start a band. Martin could play a bit and his dad had some gear – a couple of Vox AC30 amps. Shend and I had no experience, but energy and enthusiasm to make up for it. I already had an old electric guitar, a Gibson SG copy, which I?used. We used to buy bottles of own brand cheap white wine from the supermarket and make up songs in my bedroom in Redditch.
2. The band’s first single 'Gordon' was self released in 1978. Were you surprised when Small Wonder picked up on it and gave you a recording contract?
Yes, we were. It was entirely down to John Peel. We went to see him – he was DJ’ing at Stratford-on-Avon College and we went along and gave him a copy of the single, which he subsequently played on his Radio 1 show. We had tried to play at the same gig, but the promoter wanted us to pay to get on the bill, which we thought was wrong. We did mention to Peel what had happened and I think he took pity on us. We were unbelievably excited to hear ‘Gordon’ on the radio. I can’t recall how it subsequently happened, but Pete Stennett got in touch with us after that and signed us to ‘Small Wonder’.
3. I can honestly say that I've never heard a band before, or since, that sounds like 'The Cravats'. Having had such a big input into the songwriting, I'm interested in how the sound developed and where you drew your influences from.
Like a lot of bands around then, we owed our existence to Punk. It made us realise that it wasn’t any kind of technical ability that mattered; it was all about energy, ideas and expressing ourselves. Before Punk, pop music had been hijacked by big record labels and bands wearing capes, playing a million notes a minute and singing about hobbits. Punk was like a massive explosion; I can’t state it’s importance highly enough. It gave pop music back to young people. Before Punk, we had generally all liked the more wayward, creative rock bands, including the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Captain Beefheart and The Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band. I think we drew in all that stuff, but essentially we wanted to do something new, something for ourselves. There are key elements to the sound – Shend’s bass riffs, which sounded more like strange rhythm guitar lines; Svor’s sax and his use of the a tape echo unit to create a truly unique sound; the percussive rhythm guitar style which I?evolved; and Dave Bennett’s extraordinary jazzy-rock drumming. We also used a stylophone and other toy instruments to create a unique sound. I sang on the majority of tracks, and Shend sang on a big chunk of them too. We tried to create distinct and unique vocal sounds. As the band evolved, we absorbed and reflected the influence of all sorts of stuff – early rockabilly, David Lynch films, jazz, literature. Yes, I did?originate much of the material and it simply reflected whatever I?was into at the time, whether it was Gerry Anderson’s ‘Thunderbirds’, German Expressionist cinema, the Gene Krupa orchestra, or dub reggae. The Cravats was a big, exciting melting pot and even though we were into the more arty bands who emerged just after Punk – like Pere Ubu, Devo and B-52s – we were pushing forward with our own sound.
4. How did it feel to record the first album 'Cravats In Toytown'? It was recorded in the unusual setting of a Torquay hotel basement. What was the idea behind that and did it alter the outcome of the recording?
‘Uncle’ Dave Bennett found Blaze Studios in the back pages of Melody Maker; it was the cheapest residential studio available. It was being run by an ex-BBC sound engineer called Roger, who was also running an hotel. It was a bit of an off-the-wall choice looking back, especially working without a producer, or at least someone who understood what we were about, but I?think we liked the slightly surreal idea of going to the seaside in the winter to record the album. Roger was a very straight bloke, but tried to be helpful. We found out later that TV Smith had recorded there, a couple of years before the formation of The Adverts.
The studio was in the basement of the old Torquay Town Hall, in the magistrates’ lock-up cells. It had just a performance room and control booth, equipped with an 8-track recorder. The choice of studio certainly did effect the way it turned out – the tracks, particularly the drums, were sub-mixed (because 8 tracks wasn’t enough), which caused serious problems when we started to mix the album. It subsequently had to be re-mixed, but we felt the sound quality was compromised. Nevertheless, although we were all critical of the outcome at the time, people still seem to like it, even now, which is amazing. It was exciting to record TCiT, but being hypercritical of our work, I?was concentrating on trying to make it as good as it possibly could be.
5. In 1982 the band became involved with Crass Records and the 'Rub Me Out' single was released. In the book 'The Day The Country Died' a lot of bands were critical of Penny Rimbaud as a producer. How did you find the experience and what was the response from the anarcho punk scene at that time?
I can understand why some bands would not have liked working in the way that Penny does. Producers all have different levels of involvement and Penny’s is total. He gets involved in the arrangements and sometimes the performances. We were very protective of our material and direction, but because we respected Penny and his integrity, we encouraged his involvement. We had very strong opionions about our songs, but I?can’t recall disagreeing with Penny about much at all. I don’t really know how, or even if, we were regarded by the anarcho punk scene, but I?suspect we were regarded as being too arty for it. We always resisted being pigeonholed and, much as I respect them, I?was quite happy to be seen as being different from other bands in the Crass camp.
6. The one thing that I find really interesting about the band is that you were impossible to fit into any one particular category. You were seen as a punk band even though musically, you were nothing at all like the other groups at that time and lyrically, quite difficult to understand when it came to subject matter. Did you see yourselves as a punk band?
Initially, very much so. It’s easy for people to forget that Punk was a very broad church when it started. A common energy ran through everything, but it was an explosion of a variety of creativity. Suddenly music, design and writing was back in the hands of young people; it was like wiping the slate clean and starting again, with no rules.
Our early material is more identifiably punk, although I think we were always different, even from the start, with our instrumentation, songwriting and broad interests. I?remember clearly in 1978 thinking that the first phase of Punk was over, when I?heard a particular single on the radio and realising that Punk had become a style, a formula and that what defined it had become very narrow. It was a sad day. But we were always more ecclectic and wayward anyway, and feeling divorced from what became mainstream Punk helped us kick on and develop our sound. We incorporated new and various musical influences, like jazz and rockabilly, as we discovered them.
7. Like many of the more obscure bands of the time, you recorded for John Peel and did four sessions in 79, 80, 81 and 82. There must have been a huge difference recording at Maida Vale Studios compared to putting tracks down for your first single? Was it difficult due to strict time schedules and in house producers and engineers?
By the time of the first session we already had a little experience of bigger studios, having recorded ‘Burning Bridges’ at Sound Suite and Redwood Studios, which were both either 16 or 24 track. But yes, Maida Vale was something else, light years away from Blaze in Torquay. It was just an amazing environment with incredible facilities. The history of the place is amazing too; thinking that the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Roxy Music had also recorded there made us feel honoured. We were also lucky in making friends with Mike Robinson, the house engineer, who always let us overrun on the session time and allowed us to work on tracks until we were happy with them. On the later sessions, we even experimented whilst we were recording, montaging sections of track together, spinning in tape samples and overdubbing keyboards. Recording at Maida Vale was a wonderful experience and produced (in my opinion) some of the best recordings that we made.
8. The image of the band also went against the norm and I think the armband with the ‘C’ in the middle looked pretty effective. What inspired that look?
To start with, we were very influenced by the look of 1960s beat groups, hence also the name, which was meant to be a pastiche of names like ‘The Cufflinks’ and ‘The Swinging Blue Jeans’ – the coolness but absurdity of it appealed to us. Our look quickly developed; we started to wear dinner suits for gigs, and I?had a big number on the back of my jacket, like a dance competition entrant. We wanted it to look like a mutant version of the BBC TV’s ‘Come Dancing’. I loved the idea of stealing the copyright symbol for our logo, it was about subverting existing icons – suddenly it was our logo that was appearing next to trade marks and stuff – like we were secretly infiltrating other printed material. It’s also a powerful graphic symbol. The black armbands were supposed to look a bit like black armbands worn by people in mourning, and also like the way that armbands had been used by political parties in the past. My girlfriend at the time made them. She made a great job of them; they looked really good. We extended the monchrome theme through everything – clothes, record sleeves and photos. It was a sharp reaction to all the pastel shaded pop culture of the mid 70s, making for some stark imagery, which both referenced black and white photography of the past and reflected what felt at the time like a bleak present and a bleak future.
9. Band photos weren't high on the list of priorities for anarcho punk bands but your 1977 scrapyard photo shoot displayed some great shots of the group. Was there a great deal of thought put into doing that or did it simply evolve naturally?
We were very much into the idea of creating a look for the band; it was all part of the Punk ethos, to create everything for ourselves: the music, the way we looked, the graphics, everything. My art school background gave me a special interest in creating a total output for the band. The photo sessions were largely planned, with us taking advantage of circumstances as they arose. The scrapyard session was just about the first I think and was shot by an old school friend, Steve Cull. We certainly planned that one; I remember taking big bottles of tomato sauce with the plan to splatter ‘blood’ everywhere – which wasn’t so evident in the photos, since we subsequently chose to use the black and white shots. All the photo sessions for record sleeves we quite carefully planned and considered, but happy accidents often happened. This is an extract from something I’ve written recalling some of our photo sessions:
You’re Driving Me / I Am The Dreg
The pics for this cover were taken in the tiny bathroom of my flat in Abbeydale, Redditch. We filled the bath and Shend got in with wearing shades, a battered old suit and carrying a cane (which I remember had a greyhound’s head on). I squatted precariously on the end of the bath. As Shend reclined, clouds of brown dye from the suit started to billow out into the water. I had to start shooting really quickly before Shend became obscured by the murky water. I remember shouting at Shend to put his head under water. “**** off, I?won’t be able to see anything” came the anxious reply.
I took the pics for the reverse of the sleeve (‘I am the Dreg’) directly afterwards. I put a dummy hand in the plug-hole and trailed used tea leaves along the bottom of the bath, the idea being to make it look as if Shend had gone down the plug-hole.
10. You're not involved with the latest incarnation of 'The Cravats'. What's the reason for that and what are your thoughts on the band in 2013?
No, I’m not involved. The Cravats was and is David Bennett, Svor Naan, The Shend and myself. Dave, of course, sadly died some years ago, and although Shend and I were co-founders of the band, The Cravats as a band, project, name, or whatever, now belongs to Svor, Shend and myself. I?need to go back to 2007-8 to explain the current situation. The three of us had been talking about the possibility of working on new material, which we started to do. At first I wasn’t sure about it working, but once I?started to think about it, I?grew interested in the idea and subsequently started writing material. Both Svor and Shend sent material to me which they had written and I became really excited about the the idea of a new album. There seemed to be a real opportunity to create something new and relevant, something contemporary but obviously by The Cravats, moving our sound and material further on. I?had some ideas for the ‘shape’ of the project and how it might work. At around the same time, we were discussing whether or not to play gigs – I was willing to play gigs if they were in support of new material. But then Shend changed his mind about wanting to work on anything new and decided that he really just wanted to play gigs and front a band which would play our old material. I didn’t want to do that and consequently we didn’t pursue the new project. It was eventually agreed that because it didn’t involve me (or indeed Dave), the gigging band would be called ‘The Cravats Live Ensemble’, which was Shend’s suggestion. Unfortunately, Shend’s band is still sometimes referred to as ‘The Cravats’ which causes some confusion. As I’ve said elsewhere, Shend deserves a great deal of credit for keeping The Cravats’ flame alive; his activity has made it possible to re-release material properly. Nevertheless, the confusion over the status and identity of the Live Ensemble has been aggravating. I’m very proud of The Cravats’ output and very defensive about all the band members, including myself, having their creativity, effort and ownership recognised.
11. You were recently involved in releasing the 'Land Of The Giants' and 'The Cravats In Toytown' albums on CD format. Was there any re-mixing involved with them?
For ‘Land of the Giants’ most of the tracks had to be recovered from vinyl and then cleaned up. No tracks were remixed as such – unfortunately we weren’t able to return to the multi-track masters to do that – but we were able to do a lot in terms of sound balance and restoration. It was an opportunity to restore some tracks which had previously had some pretty harsh treatment (mainly by us, particularly when we were compiling ‘The Colossal Tunes Out’ album). I was particularly pleased to reinstate the full length intro to ‘Daddy’s Shoes’ and to restore a damaged section in the middle, which had been patched over with a backward copy of a section of the track. It was a really long, painstaking job, with all of the restoration work done with my friend Tony Sherrard, who engineered it.
My involvement with the CD release of ‘The Cravats in Toytown’ was concerned with creating the CD artwork and just overseeing (overhearing?) the re-mastering of the tracks – the hard work was done by Chuck Warner at Messthetics, who sourced most of the tracks from original vinyl and then restored them. ‘Alice’s Adventures in Toytown’, the re-interpretation of the album and other tracks which features as part of the release, is all work by Penny Rimbaud. He made use of the original multi-track masters, but produced something much, much more than just re-mixes. He did an amazing job, weaving new material into the tracks, developing a completely fresh take on them.
12. What are your future plans within music?
There is talk about issuing The Cravats albums on vinyl through John Esplen’s ‘Overground’ label, which I’ll be involved in should we decide to do it. I’m busy with a long-term project, ‘silverlake’ (which has been included on ‘BBC introducing’) and a project with the working title ‘The Dallaway Family’, which includes tracks which would have been part of The Cravats’ new material. It’s going really well – it’s only in demo form at the moment, but I’m working on taking it forward and getting various people to play on the tracks to complete it. I?still get very excited when I?listen to it.
13. I'll leave it there Robin. Thanks again for doing this interview and all the best for the future.
You’re welcome, I’ve enjoyed doing it – you asked some really good questions – and I’m flattered and honoured that ‘The Cravats’ is still of interest. Thanks Rob.