Working Men’s Club are ambitious and angry. They swear a lot and they’ve got a song called ‘John Cooper Clarke’. It’s no wonder their debut album is being touted as one of the best records of 2020
Sitting in a room high above Old Compton Street in London’s Soho with the coolest new band in Britain, I’m trying to explain the concept of Jive Bunny. I’m not having a great deal of success. Sydney Minsky-Sargeant and Liam Ogburn from Working Men’s Club are wearing thoroughly blank expressions.
I’d suggested that Working Men’s Club’s 21-minute ‘Megamix’, released ahead of – and in temporary place of – their long-delayed eponymous debut album, might be a case of reclaiming the form from the Jive Bunnies of this world. Lack of recognition turns to sheer disbelief when Syd and Liam realise those 1980s megamixers actually scored three Number One singles.
“I’ll check ’em out, man,” offers Syd, with far more friendly generosity than the subject matter truly deserves.
It’s only to be expected. Syd and Liam weren’t even born in 1989, although they’re far from ignorant about musical history. When I mention that their new album’s production brings the late Martin Hannett to mind, they’re quick to compare and contrast the techniques of the Factory legend with those employed by their producer, Ross Orton.
That said, it’s also true that part of WMC’s appeal is the palpable freedom with which they operate. From the album’s thrusting, throbbing opener ‘Valleys’ (with its soon-to-be-classic first line, “Trapped inside a town / Inside my mind”), onwards through ‘AAAA’ and ‘John Cooper Clarke’ to the single ‘Teeth’ (released in November 2019) and closing track ‘Angel’, they introduce us to a musical landscape where prodding techno basslines and machine-made electro beats rub shoulders with stream-of-consciousness vocal narratives and guitars that switch from scratchy funk to heavy power chords without missing a beat.
It’s a world where the grooves of New Order, the sonic confrontation of Cabaret Voltaire, the vocal abandon of The Fall, and the psychedelic haze of The Velvet Underground and Television collide head-on to make something that’s utterly 2020. When I remark on the very natural way they blend electronic and rock influences, Syd thanks me with the kind of warm politeness that you wouldn’t expect if you’d witnessed one of his intense stage performances.
“A couple of years ago on Facebook, you would see people saying we’re ‘a fusion of indie and dance’ or ‘if The Chemical Brothers met Foals’ or something like that,” he says. “It’s so synthesised. Fuck that, man!”
Syd writes the lion’s share of WMC’s material at his home studio. Despite the limitations of his resources there, his ambitions are high and unfettered. The dogmatic restrictions of dance music culture and its carefully sectioned-off genres are not a consideration.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing making any sort of electronic music,” admits Syd. “I kind of dabbled in it. That’s why I was quite taken aback when Jeff Barrett wanted to put ‘Teeth’ out as the first single on Heavenly. He properly kicked me up the arse and said, ‘Do that!’. When we did ‘Teeth’, I thought it was one of the most ridiculous things I’d heard – you know, ‘nur-nur-nur-nur-nur-nur-nur-nah’. I genuinely laughed out loud when I wrote that. I had it on this synth part and I was flicking through some really shitty sounds. The first version was quite slow as well.”
If the evidence of the newly released and devastatingly accomplished ‘Working Men’s Club’ album is anything to go by, Heavenly were onto something. Label boss Jeff Barrett had signed WMC on the strength of their funk-fuelled but altogether more guitary first single, ‘Bad Blood’, issued in February 2019, when Syd was just 17. The subsequent attention, which turned them overnight from just another group of Manchester indie wannabes into scene darlings, caused a schism in the original three-piece line-up.
Having formed the band when the trio met in music college, guitarist Giulia Bonometti left to focus on her blossoming solo career, while drummer Jake Bogacki departed because of the shift towards a more electronic direction. Syd at least had Liam, one of a Spinal Tap-sized list of bass players, who was initially enlisted to play a show he’d somehow blagged supporting The Brian Jonestown Massacre in Newcastle. The pair bonded over a love of krautrock, with Liam’s professionalism winning him extra brownie points.
“He’d learned all the songs before coming to meet us,” recalls Syd. “So when we got to the practice, he was better at playing our songs than we were. I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s a keeper’. And here we are. He’s the only one left!”
Meeting the two of them in person, it’s easy to see how they click. Syd is passionate, forthcoming and opinionated, Liam more reserved and reasoned, but they are united in their common cause to make great music and change the world while they’re at it.
One exchange in particular seems to sum up the dynamics of their relationship. After an especially vehement but erudite tirade about societal brainwashing, the monarchy and the class system in Britain, Syd suddenly says, “What do you think Liam?”, and then adds, “I’m going to stop talking”.
“It’s fine,” replies Liam, smiling reassuringly. “I’m enjoying listening to it.”
The line-up of WMC now also includes Mairead O’Connor from The Moonlandingz and Rob Graham from Drenge, who they met through Ross Orton. Orton’s CV stretches as far back as working with Sheffield bleep legend Parrot and cult synth heroes Add N To (X), writing songs with Pulp guitarist Steve Mackey and drumming on two Jarvis Cocker solo albums, and that’s even before we get to his production work with Arctic Monkeys and M.I.A..
It was after the original band split that the tracks forming the meat of ‘Working Men’s Club’ were transposed from Syd’s home set-up in Todmorden, near Manchester, to Orton’s Sheffield studio.
“I wrote the album on a couple of synthesisers, a guitar, a bass and one drum machine. I think that’s why it’s quite minimal in places, because I had what I had and I got on with it. For me, it’s one of the best ways to make music, as it strips away all the distractions.”
After the personnel ructions WMC had gone through earlier in the year, Liam describes the final recording session for the album, which took place in December 2019, as “the best two weeks of the band in general”.
“It was a really happy experience,” agrees Syd. “I feel very privileged to have had the time in Ross’ studio.”
“We were listening to the record and making it sound as good as it could be,” adds Liam.
“I think that’s what made it such a great time,” says Syd. “It was nearly Christmas, no one knew we were there, no one cared we were there. We were just getting on with it.”
Both of them are full of praise for the role Orton played in the realisation of the album.
“I felt very out of my depth, working with someone who was a pioneer of underground electronic music,” admits Syd. “I wasn’t that familiar with Ross’ history when we started. I knew who he was through our friends in The Moonlandingz, but I hadn’t understood how far he was into all that. But as soon as we did ‘Teeth’, I was like, ‘Fucking hell, this guy is amazing’.”
I suggest that a little inability to follow a formula might be beneficial when it comes to originality.
“That’s a good point, man,” says Syd. “When we were in the studio, we weren’t talking about any other bands. We weren’t referencing anyone or saying, ‘Can you make my guitar sound like such and such, or can we use the synth sound they’ve got on that?’.
“All the songs were written, all the arrangements were more or less done, and the first thing Ross said when we got in there was, ‘We’re going to focus on the sonics, so that every sound we make is perfect for that tune.’ So the bass on ‘Outside’ or the synth on ‘Valleys’ – I think it’s those fine details that make it a good album.”
Some bands, particularly those on the cusp between electronic and guitar music, can get a little squeamish about using the studio as a tool in its own right, particularly if they feel they might not be able to faithfully reproduce the results live.
“I used to think that way,” says Syd. “You can get comfortable playing live, it’s your space. Then when you go into a studio you’re like, ‘I want this song to be as exciting as it is live’. I think the thing I’ve realised now, especially through this pandemic, is you can reach thousands of people you might never play live to. Your contribution to something that stays in the world forever is far more relevant and important than a 30-minute set.”
I have a few questions about the lyrics of ‘Working Men’s Club’. Syd is initially reluctant to talk about them, though.
“I want to write about what I know, what’s around me,” he says. “I think you’ve got be honest – it’s documenting feelings, it’s an outlet. That’s the only reason I wrote those songs, as an outlet for emotion.”
But when I begin to ask about the ideas behind the track ‘John Cooper Clarke’, I discover a little more of the politically-minded Syd, who can often be seen sporting a ‘SOCIALISM’ T-shirt (replaced by an NHS version in the ‘Megamix’ video).
“It’s taking the piss out of the fact that John Cooper Clarke is going to die eventually,” he says.
“Like all of us,” adds Liam.
“But he looks brilliant, he’s a proper trouper” continues Syd. “The song is about the fact that, in this capitalist world, despite the money and power that people have, they’re all going in the same hole, the same furnace. You can have as much wealth as you want, but everyone dies. Even John Cooper Clarke’s going to die.”
Beyond what Syd and Liam dismiss as parody – while admitting sincerely that the amount of death around at the moment is “not a light-hearted thing” – a bigger meaning starts to emerge.
“I think you should make the most of your fucking life, instead of banking a load of money,” says Syd. “Someone like Jeff Bezos could literally solve world poverty with a fraction of what he’s worth. The fact we have homeless people in the UK is a joke when we’re a wealthy nation. The fact we have a class system is ridiculous. And no one seems to want to do anything, they only want to talk about it.
“The thing I find most repulsive about this country – it’s ingrained into you, it’s brainwashing – is how you’re taught to blame the immigrant down the road, but to love the royal family. We’re in a country that’s had the empire and gone to other countries to reap what they’ve got, and then left them to fucking rot. Look at India. Look at Ireland. All these famines. You don’t get taught that.
“You’ve got your Sky subscription, but at the same time Murdoch’s telling you lies about socialism and the left, and telling you the only answer is to vote Tory. So you’ve got these working-class people in society voting Tory and worshipping the Queen, the monarchy and all this patriarchy. It’s fucking vile.”
Somewhere between that brainwashing and the conservative-with-a-small-“c” restrictions of political correctness, Syd feels we’ve lost the art of debate and discourse. Or rather, it’s been deliberately, systematically destroyed.
“On the train today, there was an argument going on about whether or not someone should have been wearing a mask. I was thinking, ‘Why is our society so divided?’. People don’t have conversations. They’re only shouting at each other because they have their own grief, their own problems going on.
“I think, right now, everyone’s socially awkward when it comes to speaking out. If you have an argument in the street with someone for being racist, that’s exactly what they want you to do. They want normal people to be divided and fighting among themselves.”
Working Men’s Club may still be finding their feet and adjusting to being the best new band in Britain, but it feels like Sydney Minsky-Sargeant and Liam Ogburn have already got more to say for themselves than vast swathes of the pop world. They’ve got the musical firepower to back up the impressive polemics too. It’s going to be a lot of fun having them around.
‘Working Men’s Club’ is out on Heavenly