Holly Combe has a listen to Brains of Britain and talks to Ste McCabe about DIY touring, fab feminist girls in the 1990s and coping with the divisive tactics of biscuit-hogging bullies in 2015 Britain
You shop there, I shop there too
You want one, I want one too
If you say so, I think it’s true
That’s what normal people do
My introduction to the music of queercore punk Ste McCabe came in the form of the playful but scathing ‘Accessorise’ on his third album, Bad Kitty. I loved its critique of the blandness and conformity pervading British life today, while the damning judgement of aspirational values inherent in ‘Did You Really’ (“You worked your way up from the bottom”) seemed to speak directly to my frustrations about the politics behind it all. Then there was alienation anthem, ‘Harrowing Breakdown’: a reminder of the mental health impact of living under a government that values business transactions over people (and would actually sooner see disabled, unemployed, economically inactive or low-earning people dead than taking state ‘handouts’). These tirades were calling bullshit on a system seemingly intent on convincing us, the masses, to forget our dreams and put all our energy into kissing the arses of those with power in the hope that maybe –just maybe– we could grow up to one day be just like them. If they let us. If we’re good.
Recent album, Brains of Britain continues in that vein, with the following monologue from Billy Bragg:
Posh public school boys running our country
Bullingdon club bullies who make the poor pay just because they’re poor
And all the while their mates in the city of London are making millions…
…A banker, a worker and an immigrant are sitting around a table
On the table there are 12 biscuits
The banker scoops up 11 biscuits for himself and says
“That immigrant wants to steal your biscuit mate.”
As well as highlighting attempts from those with privilege and power to get us all fighting amongst ourselves, the album also touches on themes such as stuffy snobbery within political activism (“All the kids are middle aged… Sorry if I’m not WHAT enough by whatever measure you just made up”) and taking creative risks:
If I’m average then I’ll do it
If I’m genius then I’ll do it
If I’m dreadful I’ll just do it
I can feel the shame
Are people laughing at me?
Well I feel the same
I can only stay alive
If I give voice to what’s scratching at my insides
Meanwhile, Ste also addresses homophobic bullying and aptly captures the corner that bigots frequently back their targets into:
To keep it to yourself is to meet an early death
To laugh it off means you are betraying all the rest
To talk about it means you’re feeling sorry for yourself
To fight back means that you deserve just what you get
On a lighter note, I must add that the track this particular lyric is taken from, the rather catchy ‘Don’t We Have Nice Hair?’, would be perfect in a set alongside Martha and the Muffins and Those Dancing Days, while ‘Chinless Wonders’ has a great little slap bass moment that leaves me reaching for my jazz-funk collection. (Apologies to anyone who might find that icky, but jazz-funk and punk are totally compatible as far as I’m concerned; mutant disco anyone?)
There is certainly much more that could be said about the album and gigs to accompany it, but I’ll hand over to the Q&A with Ste now and let his answers do the talking…
What do you reckon are the most important things to bear in mind when it comes to DIY touring and making it happen?
My first advice to any DIY band/musician is to get out of the UK. We live close to so many countries which have incredible, supportive DIY scenes and venues (France, Germany and Switzerland are my top tips) where you’ll be treated really well and paid properly.
I got really bored of the UK scene a long time ago. I just find that many radical political scenes are very academic at the moment here and it really doesn’t float my boat. There are definitely still some incredible queer promoters and venues such as Power Lunches in London and Dive in Edinburgh though.
Always start booking a tour three months in advance, look into small towns and cities as often the scenes are better and more supportive than in big cities (e.g. in France; I’ve never even played in Paris!). Steer clear of trendy venues and look for squats and house parties. ‘Proper’ music venues are out to rip you off — whereas squats and house shows are there to support you and will bring the right crowds.
If you’re looking to be famous, then good luck with that, but I have no advice there — simply be prepared to be ripped off, feel like a constant loser and to have a terrible time. Clear your mind of the “becoming a famous musician” propaganda. Those people make a lot of money out of your misery. Never enter any kind of competition to play a festival or be on a radio show, anything like that. Keep your dignity. That’s the only thing that will keep you going. I’m always happy to give advice to touring DIY underground queer/feminist musicians, so peeps can feel free to drop me an email any time.
In an excerpt from your submission to issue #2 of the forthcoming Working Class Queers (WCQ) Zine project, you talk about how discovering purpose in your late teens was partly down to befriending “fab feminist girls who listened to L7”. Can you tell me a bit more about those pals?
I went to an all boys school and was outed as gay in the mid-1990s, which was naturally horrendous. I started going out to a bad rock club in Liverpool… with the sole intention of making friends and I steered clear of the boys. I hated all boys at the time without exception, although thankfully I’ve grown out of that now! I really connected with some of the working class rock girls who went there and found so many similarities with their experiences of sexism and my experiences of homophobia in working class Liverpool. Two of those girls are now lifelong friends — a wonderful pal called Julia and the feminist poet Sarah Crewe, who co-edited the Catechism: Poems For Pussy Riot anthology a few years back. She’s my sister-in-law now and I’m dead proud of her. We all looked fucking terrible in 1997 though, I mean didn’t we all back then? Marilyn Manson has a lot to answer for.
It seems to me that the current government’s insistence on conformity and persecution of those who can’t or won’t conform is damaging collective mental health and pushing people to breaking point. Is Bad Kitty’s ‘Harrowing Breakdown’ a reference to the David Hoyle quote about such ‘false realities’ in our lives (bad faith?), which are then painful to break away from?
Although I’ve worked with David Hoyle and am a huge admirer of his work, I don’t know this “false reality” theory, but it does sound like exactly what I wrote that song about! … This idea that if you “work hard” at unrewarding careers which give us very little sense of anything worthwhile other than making money, you’ll be happy. That by making money for huge corporations in return for a car or whatever other crap we see on TV adverts, we’ll genuinely be happy. That if you act like a “real man” or a “real woman” (whatever the fuck those things are) and have the 2.4 children, you will be happy. I despise the respectable aspirations of mainstream LGBT politics now, I just hate it. Straight cis people have always had a lot different kinds of shit to put up with too and I don’t want to incorporate that into my life. There have always been some benefits in being queer to accompany the shit.
Choosing a life as a musician or artist can be tough on the mental health if you don’t manage to reject all of the terrible messages about what a successful and respected musician is (i.e. change who you are and what you believe in to be rich and famous, something you’re very unlikely to get a sniff at anyway). Those who don’t follow that path are laughed at and told we’re pathetic, not real musicians; [that we’re] losers, wasters, people who never grew up because we followed a life of expression over working in the fucking bank. That song says, “You know what, it’s better to do what you want in life and have the occasional little breakdown than follow that unrewarding path of money and status (and eventually have a huge breakdown anyway).” Just let yourself feel like a loser from time to time, it’s inevitable — the messages are overpowering. Cry, spit it out, get their horrible messages out of your system and pick yourself back up again. Carry on being laughed at and fabulous. You’ll be much prouder of yourself when you’re older than if you forget it all to follow the respected “career”. I’m proud of what I do and I couldn’t care less if miserable people who work in offices laugh at me.
Another thing you mention in the WCQ excerpt is that you have an affordable council flat and fulfilling part-time job, running an LGBT helpline. Do you have any practical advice for other creative people, who may be struggling to find the time to create and feeling weary from the pressure to spend every waking hour either working or spending?
As I said before, I never followed a career. Getting a job running an LGBT helpline was simply the result of me only ever doing the things that rewarded me emotionally and I stumbled into it luckily. I never planned to be a professional poof. Most of the time that I was touring and playing gigs, I was working part time as a cleaner, bar person, whatever, and getting housing benefit. I’m totally aware that this is so much harder than it was five years ago though.
My philosophy has always been to work as little as is possible for enough money to just about live on (really, total breadline stuff) because I know that if you work full-time, you are often just too tired to be creative when the week is over. I have always prioritised music over holidays, breaks away, nice food, everything, the whole lot. I used to work voluntarily as a counsellor for LGBT people, because I loved to do it — I had no intention of making money from it.
Eventually, I found myself working for a great LGBT organisation part-time instead of cleaning posh peoples toilets. It doesn’t work for everyone, but really, forget the mortgage, apply for a council/housing association flat. If you live somewhere with massive waiting lists (I realise that’s how it is in most places, hence me considering myself lucky to live in one), then live in the scary part of town with other artists/musicians for cheap rent, cut down all costs, make it happen. I’ve lived in loads of so-called “scary areas” cheaply and they’re mostly fine (still be careful though). Remember that calling run-down, working class areas “scary” is mostly total prejudice. Drop the snobbery. Tell your friends that you live in a shithole with pride. Cheaper rent is the key to a better living, to working less.
My last advice is — if you have debts and don’t own a house, go bankrupt. I did and it was one of the best things I ever did. You need to pay about £600 for that (which is the biggest irony in the world) but if you can somehow get that money, do it. Wipe the slate clean. If you can’t do that, call a debt charity and give the bastards you owe £1 a month. It’s totally legal to do that until you die if you can’t go bankrupt. My life improved immensely once I got rid of debt. That’s the best I can offer, but I also realise that lots of these things I did five years ago, and the bastards have made things so much harder now.
We seem to live in an age where ‘Wham Rap’ actually sounds like a dangerously taboo anthem for resisting domination and ‘knowing your place’. This makes lines like “I’ve fiddled more benefits than you’ve eaten sushi, deal with it” (in ‘Them There Different People’) seem deliciously defiant. I’m personally at a loss to know what we can do to pull ourselves back from the disgusting divide and conquer tactics of this government. Can you offer any words of encouragement to people who might be feeling jaded?
It’s almost impossible not to be a decent human being in the UK right now and not feel completely jaded. I’m not sure how I can offer advice there, because that’s exactly how I feel. The worst divide right now for me is this thing of the working class British vs new immigrants. We’re both totally demonised, both the victims of cuts to our basic standard of living and both buy the lies that the other group is to blame. What utter nonsense. Realise that we are naturally allies in this. Make friends with the people you are told to blame. Blame the banks and the government, feel the passion of hatred for them run through your veins. I’m sure your readers are so lovely and right-on that this advice isn’t needed anyway, but I’m afraid it’s the best I can do. I’m at a loss. Drinking a lot of red wine helps me personally.
On that note, Billy Bragg’s biscuit monologue on Brains of Britain‘s ‘Cockroach’ is spot-on. What’s the story on getting him involved in that track?
Yes, Billy is the best! Billy invited me to play Glastonbury on stage with him in 2013, which was such an incredible experience. When I was writing ‘Cockroach’, I had these gaps which I knew needed someone to just tell it as it is: say exactly what this government is doing in a non-pretentious, non arty-farty way. Who better than Billy Bragg to do that? I just sent Billy the song and asked “Please say whatever you want about what the UK government is doing right now and send me some WAV files.” What I got in return was spot on and made the song exactly what I wanted it to be!
Ste McCabe (right) stands in front of a wall decorated with graffiti depicting a giraffe and a rainbow (left). He wears a white shirt with stars on, stripy braces, a rainbow tie and glasses. He lightly turns his head towards to his right and looks at the camera in a challenging and quizzical manner.
Addendum (09/03/2015): Corrected to include full title of Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot.