It was in May that I sent Adrian the questions. It was in October that he returned them. There's a few things I'd like to pursue but, frankly, I'm worried that if I was to send any more questions this interview would never see the light of day. Adrian is Adrian Shaw, leader of The Teenbeat, lyrical visionary and sometime doodler. The Teenbeat are a scratchy outfit who make rough-edged improvisational music that somehow manages to be not remotely self-indulgent and really rather listenable. Think Half Man Half Biscuit with extreme gallows humour and an autobiographical bent.
I first reviewed The Teenbeat last year when, having sent off for their tape after picking up a flyer at The Bull and Gate, I was astonished with the 90-minute assault that came by return. A series of pasted songs, Jim Reeves worship and skits in the vein of John Shuttleworth were crowned by the line "Bulimia Queen, I bought you pop and crisps from the vending machine" from an ode to a sixteen-year-old whose name appears to be Urina. Not a common name, admittedly, but it does help the rhyming scheme later on when, in a sad climax, she drinks... toilet cleaner. A further CDR followed, and I described it thus: "The Teenbeat deal with the details in life, the tiny facets of the everyday that pass most of us by. Theirs is a childlike perception of often adult concerns, but also of a childhood past with layers of grown-up reflection."
I'll stick by that. Even more so now. Adrian did this interview on the train to Liverpool for a gig with Ricky Spontane and again on the train home afterwards. His occasional comments about his location or asides on the interview are in italics.
Tell us about the band
We are from all over Britain: Finsbury Park, Birkenhead, South Shields and Barnsley. I'm from Barnsley. Me and Kevin (lead) are old friends. We met the others a couple of years ago and we all thought we could get big and play Birkenhead's premier rock club, Stairways. We haven't yet, but we will. We all met in Birkenhead. This is my Mecca. Small town is my town and my town is ME!!
You live in London while the rest of the band are in Birkenhead?
That must make practising hard?
It's not too bad. Every three weeks I go up and we have a big jam and record it and it is mainly improvised stuff. Our songs are usually just reworked jams. Maybe I'll add an extra line here and there. That's why so many different versions exist. They seem to stabilise after a while.
Yes, a lot of the stuff on the tape is obviously improvised. There's one line that sticks in my head, you just keep on spiralling around it: "Got 17 hours to work today, I don't think I'm going in.." (Here Comes Neil)
That's an extra line I added after Neil (bass player) got sacked from a night watch security job at a dockyard. On a 12-hour shift he turned up 8 hours late and left 4 hours early. The boss found out and booted him. The song was inspired by my first meeting with Neil when he handed me a plastic band and asked me to guess what was in it.
It was a bag of his dreads of course.How much of the songs do you have ready when you practice?
Most of our songs have started off as improvisations. Eventually they get knocked into shape. Songs are useful for gigs. We'd be just as happy jamming on stage for two hours. I love songs and jams. Most of the stuff on CDR that we put out is one-take stuff that we could never do again as good. So we don't normally bother. Like Hercules. But if we had time we could probably knock that into a song. I write a lot of songs that we don't play. I normally do these at solo gigs which I do quite a lot of down in London. These sometimes feed into the jams but I prefer the words to come with the moment and the night. This seems to have meaning. I don't sing stuff I don't mean. I like to do one take, get things down and then move on. I can still plug into the source (I like a bit of source) of the songs. That's what makes a song live and this comes across, I hope. If it didn't, I would give up and do the garden instead or build a dog kennel or pull my pud. At this moment in my life all these songs are about real things and real feelings that I have. Just passing Rugby. But I know things will change.
You seem to focus in on the minutiae of life. Is that what fascinates you rather than the big picture?
"Minutiae" is a nice word. I think it's true that the more specific you get the more universal you get. Nuneaton. I'm now on my way back and I'm completely wasted. The gig was good. Spontane were great. We were wasted on stage so we ended up going into sikadelic rockouts. Some people prefer to write about what they know. This kitchen sink realist stuff is nothing new but it's what I'm into. I love all that Max Miller and George Formby. This is what I know about: council houses and pit towns. I only sing what I believe in, what's real to me. I love people singing about real things even if it's collecting stamps. Empty songs are pointless for me. The human condition and all that. Love, hate, deaths, pain, pizzas, chips and beans etc. We're all connected aren't we? Like one big pylon, all wires and metal like the Eiffel Tower, underground invisible wires. None of this is new, but it's what I'm into.
I love the epic in the everyday. You only need to talk to somebody on the bus. Pain and death and love is everywhere, you don't need to go to Amsterdam with a rucksack or New York for life. Life is everywhere. Trauma is everywhere. We can only hope to save humanity by loving the man on the bus. We can save the world though love. I believe this. I believe in universal power. Basic socialism: you hurt one, you hurt everybody.
The Teenbeat sing about sick things when life is sick. Like everybody I want to kill people sometimes. Remember the love. All of our songs are love songs of some description. This is a moral debate, is it not? When we generalise with the "big picture" we conveniently overlook the fact that we're a person in a place in a real world and assume life is happening outside somewhere far away on television. At the same time, of course we should be very concerned about the global effects of these capitalist fuckers who are screwing over our brothers and sisters in far away places. We are all implicated in the West. Unless you live in a cupboard and eat your own shit. Right, off to MacDonalds.. oh oh oh
The world in your songs is quite cruddy. Is that how you see it?
Like most people when life is good you don't notice it. It's just going by and you're happy. It's invisible. When it's shit, that's when you notice it and start thinking. Unfortunately, our material is 90% songs about how shit life it. I've been contemplating suicide for the last two years and this has warped my lyrics but I think that on the whole The Teenbeat is life-affirming. The bottom line is that life's a joke. Which it is. Sometimes I get into a bit of a nihilist thing and want to wipe the slate clean and maybe let the amoebas and cockroaches take over. "Give me the button to press." God, bring on the flood. That's cos I'm a bit of a self-loather which I'm not happy about sometimes. (A lot of the time.) I hate myself and what I am. I was in a state of mental anguish when I recorded a lot of the stuff over the last two years. I had a bit of a mental breakdown in March '99 ("The Flapjack Sessions.") I broke down in the middle of recording. I thought people were trying to poison me.
There's obviously a lot of bottled-up emotion in the songs. But also seaside towns. And nonsense.
I love the sea. It's big. The noise, the smell, it's the only time I feel safe: when I'm on the beach up by Whitby or Scarborough. I have happy, melancholic memories of that freaking mass of water. The North Sea.
I love nonsense. Life is nonsense.
Did you invent the name Urina to rhyme with toilet cleaner as I suggested in the review?
Urina is the real name of a foreign girl in a photograph I saw. I mixed that with a story of a woman in the Daily Mirror who knew she was going to die through Bulimia but kept doing it like a slow suicide. This upset me. Eating disorders, in my opinion, are a symbol of the sicker sides of consumer capitalism offering us what we can't ever have. (Britain on the couch.) That's what I was on about before about having a real life and doing things that can have real, immediate effects like saying "hello" to the man next door. (Getting friendly with him, finding out where he keeps his life savings, then breaking in when he's down the boozer.) You know what I mean.
The story in Tonka Toy ("I can touch you in those places I don't even know the name of") seems very real as well. Did it happen?
Tonka Toy is real. It's about me growing up in a pit village with slag heaps, coking plants, maggot farms and sexual awakening.
With the dark humour side to your lyrics are you worried about being seen as a comedy band?
I distrust people who can't laugh at themselves. Life is a tragicomedy. Piety and seriousness aren't my scene, art has to have humour in it. I've never taken myself seriously even when I've been ready to end it all. Yet I am very serious. That's why our next single will have as the b-side I'm A Very Serious Man.
The comedy band thing is a line I'm happy to hang around now and again. People have laughed at me all my life whether I'm trying to be funny or not. If we can make people laugh that's not a band thing. People also cry to our songs and get depressed to them. This is a major achievement for me. I use music to get off on a downer, to feel the low, and if people can get all this from our music, and make toast to it or have a wank then great.
I'm thinking of Half Man Half Biscuit, particularly. A band who never seemed to get the recognition they deserved for their music because they were also funny.
Half Man Half Biscuit haven't influenced us at all. I'd never heard of any of their songs until last year. When I did, I loved 'em and was surprised at the crossover because they're from Birkenhead and they love Jim Reeves. So how surprised were we to find that we now practise in the same room in Birkenhead. As yet we haven't met but we're hoping to do a gig with them soon.
Who would you say has influenced you, then?
This is always difficult. Life is the obvious influence, but musically? I love all kinds of music from the 20s onwards. I love listening to the sounds of the sixties and radio two on Sunday. Nothing much from the 90s turned me on. Oh, I was obsessed with Paul Simon for a year. The templates I use for songs come a lot from the 50s. "3 chords, a red guitar and the truth" is what Dylan said. I love Dylan and Hank Williams is up near the top, and Elvis, of course, is someone who provides never-ending love.
Are you a country music fan, or is your Jim Reeves fascination for some other reason?
What's this fascination with Gentleman Jim? Is it a kitsch thing? With me, no. His voice touches me. Pure melancholy. It now has personal overtones. I grew up listening to country music. My Dad was a big fan. I've always loved it and I'll carry on playing it and loving it for ever. I love folk music: just an acoustic and a song. The Barnsley Bard they called me.
There's a story-telling tradition in country that you're very much part of.
I just want to be a song-and-dance man. I love story-telling. I do tend to construct my songs in that way but I've never really thought of it before.
There's some great one-liners in your songs too...
One-liners? I've written so many songs and words. I don't tend to analyse anything too much, just do it and move on. The words just come into my head and I sing 'em out. Very few are written down so it's strange to see people dragging out a line and typing it up. I did my first one-man play in Liverpool recently, written by my good self and including a few songs. Tonka Toy's about growing up in a pit village and that's interesting cos people listen to the words in a different way and context. I liked it and I'm gonna do more. It's gonna have some early Wedding Present songs in it off George Best. I met Mr Gedge the other day. He's not entirely convinced by my George Best Rock Opera ideas...
Christ. Anybody whose early life resembles that of Gedge circa George Best deserves something nice to happen to them. Why not make Adrian's day by sending a quid and some stamps for a tape to: Teenbeat HQ, 25 Redwood Ave, Royston, Barnsley, S71 4JP or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The band are also on the web at: http://www.sickhappyidle.com. Look for a split single with Baxendale in the shops now and some kind of release on Short Fuse to follow.
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