After 20 years, four albums and multiple band members, FOUR LETTER WORD - one of Britain's most underrated Punk bands - split up. The split was particularly disappointing, coming after the release of the truly excellent album, 'Follow As The Crow Flies'. FOUR LETTER WORD embodied everything that is great about Punk Rock: intelligence, independence, dogged determination in the face of adversity and urgent, insistent Punk Rock that deserves the recognition bestowed upon all the greats. This is an interview - the last one ever regarding the band - with the band's founder, vocalist and mainstay (and editor of Artcore zine), Welly, shortly after he announced the band's split. Photos by Pete Zonked and supplied by Welly.
..First off, Welly, just tell us how you got into Punk and how that progressed onto discovering US Hardcore?..Welly) I get asked this all the time, so here’s something I wrote recently...I got into Hardcore kind of late circa 1983, but I didn’t know anyone else into Punk. I liked what I heard in the 70s, like the CLASH and DICKIES, but it was banned in my house, so when I got into music, I got into the burgeoning 2-Tone scene in 1979, and even this was a fight in my house. After the 2-Tone bands went pop or split up, my rude boy friends started listening to Oi! and I realized where that was heading and got out of it immediately. The kids who were into Punk listened to The EXPLOITED, and I thought that Punk was all heading in that direction and didn't bother with that UK '82 stuff.
After this, I got into The JAM for a while, then they split, and I knew there was something I was looking for that I hadn't found yet. So, I asked an older school friend if he could ask his even older brother if he knew any music that was ‘more powerful, more political,' and he came back with two LPs for me to borrow; ‘Inflammable Material’ by STIFF LITTLE FINGERS and ‘Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables’ by DEAD KENNEDYS.
I thought the SLF record was great, but the DK album literally changed everything. From that point on, I sought out all their stuff, collected all their records and picked up this little book called Dead Kennedys: Unauthorized Biography which had a discography in the back with all the compilations. It felt like years at the time, but after a few months, I found some compilations, the big one being ‘Let Them Eat Jellybeans'.
I couldn’t believe that there were all these bands I’d never heard of, and I went about trying to find stuff by BLACK FLAG, CIRCLE JERKS, FLIPPER, BAD BRAINS and the like. I was walking through town one day with my school pal Jon and I were going on and on about not being able to find BLACK FLAG records. He was telling me to ask in the record shop, and I was like 'there’s no way they’re going to have any.' So he asked, and they dusted off this box under the counter and pulled out the 'Nervous Breakdown' 7”. I couldn’t believe it. The same day we asked in another place and they dug out 'Six Pack'.
I started collecting Alternative Tentacles and picked up ‘Flex Your Head'. This sent me reeling into Dischord territory, and I still remember vividly finding the MINOR THREAT 12” and GOVERNMENT ISSUE’s ‘Boycott Stabb'. The whole thing just became an obsession. My friends in school had no idea what this music was I was listening to. I hadn’t and never have since, heard music that has the same effect on me...What made you form FOUR LETTER WORD back in the Summer of 1991? Did you think back then, even in the darkest recesses of your mind, that the band would still be battling along 20 years later, having released four albums and toured the States?
..Welly) Yeah, after a while I figured we’d go for 20 years. I didn’t think we’d do the four albums and the US thing, but had no intention of packing it in. I’d been trying to put a band together for a few years in the late 80s, and had practiced with various people in various non-starter projects. Eventually we found the right people after Kip got booted out of the COWBOY KILLERS and we took it from there...In the world of Punk/ Hardcore, where do FOUR LETTER WORD sit?
..Welly) No man’s land...FOUR LETTER WORD recently(ish) released its fourth album, 'Follow As The Crow Flies'. It was released on a split deal between Boss Tuneage Records and Newest Industry. How does that work - is one doing vinyl, the other CD or what?
..Welly) It was CD only, because CDs are cheaper to make, and the only way to get it released was to get the two labels to split the finance, as we sold such small amounts, it’s damage limitation for them, and the only way we were going to get our album physically released. Thanks and apologies to those guys for putting their money and faith into that album. ..FLW was signed to US label BYO for a while; how does the way Boss Tuneage operate differ from that of BYO?
..Welly) No contract...What does the title of the album mean? The title, and the album cover, conjurs up some kind of native American imagery.
..Welly) It’s nothing to do with that, but I like it, ha ha. ‘Follow As The Crow Flies’ as well as the old saying about traveling in a straight line, is a reference to the old Scottish term ‘Away The Crow Road’, which is basically the path to death. In that sense, I meant the title to mean following the path of life to it’s conclusion, in relation to both the personal and the band. I knew that it was the last album. If the few dozen people who own it, go back and listen to it now we’ve split, they’ll probably pick up on that. I found some great art on the internet when I Googled the title to see if it had been used already (hey kids, you can do this with your band names too!), by local photographer up there Linda Morrison, and she let her use all her work for free. I think it tied the whole thing together perfectly...The band seemingly has an almost continually revolving door of band members - the current line-up appears to be totally different (except yourself) from that which recorded the previous album, 'Like Moths To A Flame'. Is that because you are a hard task master, or that the members simply 'move on'?
..Welly) ‘Like Moths To A Flame’ was an anomaly though. That was the outcome of my holding the band together for the five years when Jon wasn’t in the band. I think it’s our weakest release. If you notice, Jon had been back on the last few releases. He was the original guitarist, so for a while, we worked hard to try and get the band back on track. After 25 members, it became easier for people to leave, as the band was viewed a bit more disposable I think. The last line-up was the best we’d been in over 10 years.
When you say ‘revolving door’, you kind of answer your own question, as that implies that people came back, which they did. I don’t know if I was a ‘hard task master’ or not. I certainly didn’t see myself as such. I certainly wasn’t some kind of drill sergeant. Yes, there were members of the band who left on bad terms, but the majority I still got on with afterwards, and still do. A lot of people move on because their life situations change, some don’t want to tour, which is usually a big issue. The one or two that did have problems, were because they had issues on tour and I was the spokesman/organiser/target whether I liked it or not.
What I did learn was that a lot of musicians think that their record comes out and they go on tour because of their awe inspiring skillz, when in reality, the record also comes out cuz someone in a band is writing letters, talking to people, booking vans, making flyers, booking venues and studios, making phone calls, doing interviews, collecting money, kicking boots sticking out of sleeping bags, standing alone on merch stalls for hours while everyone else is off getting drunk, and paying bills. There’s definitely no glory or ego in it, it’s just getting the job done. And then you end up hearing stuff people have said after the fact for your efforts when all you did was try to help get them cheap holidays in far off countries and help get their names on records. You just can’t please some people huh?..Do you feel this continually changing line-up adds or detracts from the band's effectiveness? Is the loss of continuity compensated by fresh energy and influence of the new members?
..Welly) Momentum is key to any band’s longevity, and we lost it early on. The legal problems we had that saw us leave BYO, followed by band member issues, with no label and potential legal fees, meant we were essentially cast into the wilderness in 2000. We literally went from being on a top label and playing these great gigs, to absolute zero in a six month period. I spent years and thousands of pounds fighting for the name, struggling along with a ‘revolving door of band members’, and all the while you’re not putting records out and you’re not touring. We then made the mistake of putting out some less than stellar records, and the next thing you know, you’re in the ‘old average band’ box. Besides this, the ‘scene’ had moved on. People who listened to bands like us had mostly grown up, and the ‘Punk Scene’ was interested in different things, and everything has to be brand new and the latest thing. There were a lot of issues, but loss of momentum was key, and by the time we did the last album I think we’d become perceived as some kind of 90s Pop-Punk band, which we never were...I'd just like to talk about a few songs on the album, starting with 'Bargain Bin Of History' that suggests FLW releases reside in the cut-price sale section of record shops. Is that a comment on the devaluation of music in general, and pointed toward those who download and share MP3s at the expense of purchasing a hard-copy vinyl/CD format? Or does it suggest that you genuinely feel FLW is viewed as an 'also-ran'?
..Welly) I think we come under: ‘did-they-run?’ Ha ha! Yes, it’s also a general statement about UK Punk which seems largely doomed to the reduced section, and about how our music will end up in that same bargain bin. Downloads aren’t really an issue for us, as people don’t usually even bother to put the stuff up in the first place, which is fine. ..'Kid Against The Wall' seems quite autobiographical (as does 'Street Where I Grew Up') and suggests the song's subject person (you?) was constantly told by teachers, parents etc to 'grow-up and act your age or you'll never amount to anything or anyone at all'.
..Welly) Some of the songs are kind of autobiographical, some aren’t. Even parts of songs are fictional, some aren’t. Yeah, I was told that though. There’s references on the album to things that actually happened. Like being made to sit in the cloak room outside reading class in junior school because I was ‘too far ahead’. I got lectured at home a lot as a teenager. Like every day. Everything you’ve ever done is shit and all that. Everyone gets it though right? I was hoping someone out there might empathise, but I guess people would have to hear it first, ha ha...Since the album, and in time for the UK elections, you released the download-only EP, 'An Invitation To A Hanging'. Why decide to make it a free download-only release? Has anyone shown any interest in releasing it on vinyl - would you allow it if there was?
..Welly) It was free because getting people to waste their money on releasing our music was getting harder and harder. We recorded it and got it on the 'net in a week. This served the purpose of getting it out there quickly for the sake of getting people to listen to our music. I have no problem with anyone wanting to put our music out ever. Putting it out on 7” would’ve been ideal, but we’d still have most of them here right now if we’d have done that. It just got to a point where it would be easier and cheaper to just burn a bag of tenners, so we put it out as a free demo. I always said we’d go out as we came in...There's an excellent Billy Bragg cover, 'To Have And To Have Not'. Why choose that song over many other covers that could have been suitable?
..Welly) That song worked the best out of a couple we tried, chosen because they were from the Tory heyday of the 80s, as I figured the Tories would be getting power one way or another, and we recorded just before the election. That particular song meant a lot to me as a working class kid on a council estate, who knew then that your cards are dealt to you in this country depending on your class. So, singing that now I’m in my forties felt right, because it still rings true, and my son is about the age I was then, and is a working class kid on a council estate. Everything goes full circle, nothing changes, the Tories are back in. I feel sorry for my kids...What are your views on downloading music? You of the opinion that it cheapens music - makes it just that bit too easy to find? I mean, the days of hunting through record fairs, second-hand shops etc etc, for that bargain or deleted item are probably gone and totally alien to any one under 30.
..Welly) Downloading music on major labels is fine. I’m not really interested in it, and I don’t listen to any music on major labels, so I don’t bother with it. I collect records, I don’t even care for CDs, I can count on my hands the amount of CDs I’ve actually bought over the years. I think downloading is a good example of how the mystique has been taken out of Punk music over the years. It would take me months, sometimes years to even hear a band back in the old days. I’d be waiting for letters from around the world, and you’d trade tapes, and then you’d try to find the band’s records you’d heard on tapes. Making compilation tapes was different back then, it’s not the same as downloading like people say. We didn’t just store terrabytes of stuff in one place and presume we knew everything about music. These bands were the stuff of myth and legend. The records weren’t even in the shops most of the time. I’m still trying to track down a few of those original records I heard on old tapes to this day, and yes, I still have all the tapes too. There’s still stuff I’d like to hear, but haven’t, but downloads don’t really interest me too much...And talking of hunting out records, you opened a record shop - Damaged Records - for about five years. How did you find that as an experience? Do you think the failure of making the shop an on-going success was due to the availiabilty of free downloads or general apathy?
..Welly) It was fun, socially and I got a lot of cheap records out of it, but ultimately, people have moved on. There’s no ‘scene’ to speak of anymore, and the days when there was a concept of supporting it, are gone. People want the lowest price, and they are attracted to the corporate, so if there’s a flashy website, or eBay, people naturally gravitate to it like they do supermarkets. I don’t think downloads had anything to do with it. Once the novelty wore off, the customer base fell away, and then the recession hit, and it was game over. I also made the mistake of listening to people who told me to put a webstore up, so I spent hours putting all the stuff online only to realise later that locals must’ve been just looking at what was in stock online and not bothering to visit the shop, cuz the tumbleweed started blowing in around the same time. After many hours staring at the shop wall, I figured I’d rather spend my non-work time with my kids rather than waste it trying to create something. There comes a time when you just have to face reality. I always said I would have no qualms about walking away, and I didn’t, I didn’t even announce it, I don’t think too many people noticed...Didn't FLW play at The Fest a few years ago? How was that as an experience? In what ways did you find playing that kind of festival was different from playing the usual smaller gig you had played in the States before?
..Welly) The Fest is a load of gigs going on at the same time in different venues throughout one town. So playing it was just like playing a normal gig, in a pub, although it was more packed. Luckily, all the other gigs on the Saturday had finished when we played, apart from MUNICIPAL WASTE around the corner, so the people who couldn’t get into see them, were forced to go to our gig if they wanted a late beer. So that worked to our advantage, although I think they were there for Israeli Black Sabbath band after us. I did a tour report in the zine about it if anyone wants to try and find any scandal lurking in the fine print...You're obviously still doing Artcore zine. It's good to see you sticking to the print format when many are resorting to an on-line publication - is that a direction you have ever considered taking the zine in?
..Welly) The recent 25 year anniversary issue sold out in two months or so. The last couple of issues, I’ve struggled to sell all of the press (one had a CD, the other a 7”), but because the 25 year one had an unreleased New York compilation on, it flew out. Which is great, cuz hopefully some people might read the zine who otherwise wouldn’t have. I’ll always do a print zine. Otherwise, it’s not a zine, it’s a website, no offence mate, ha ha. Whenever the print zine stops, that’ll be it. Maybe a book or something, but no content will be going up on the 'net in large quantities, that’d be missing the point for me...No offence taken fella! Tell us a bit about Creator Graphics. When doing graphics for a band, how much control over the finished product do you have - or does that depend on the band in question?
..Welly) Each job is totally different. Some stuff you have total freedom, like the latest GREAT ST LOUIS album. They only had a title, and no ideas, and I had total free reign, and I reckon it’s some of my best work. Other times, like Aston’s recent 20 years of Boss Tuneage box set, he was very specific, so he even took all the photos for it and everything, so he could get precisely what he was looking for. Some of the other stuff I’ve been involved with that has come from writing for the zine has been unbelievable. Because ‘Vaultage’ in the zine was always about writing about old bands who often get overlooked, those bands were really appreciative, so when it came their turn for the reissue treatment I got asked to contribute further, which was an honour. Stuff like the OFFENDERS ‘We Must Rebel’ LP and ‘Wanted By Authority’ CD, and TH’ INBRED CD and 2 LPs were incredible projects to work on for me. TH’ INBRED were ready to give up after the CD was originally supposed to be released by Grand Theft Audio, but I persevered with it and got them the deal with Alternative Tentacles (yeah I’m blowing my own friggin’ trumpet), and it grew into two LPs as well as the CD. Amazing really! I would’ve never have believed that would happen one day back when I was a kid...What provides you with the most satisfaction - the band, zine or Creator?
..Welly) They’re all different. Creativity is its own reward...Coming off the band and zine for a while, I'd like to ask you what you think of the bizarre state of government in the UK at the moment!! What have you made of the Conservative-Liberal alliance? Have the Libs sold out on their ideals, or pacified some of the more hard-line Tory manifestos?
..Welly) I thought it was obvious that the Tories would get power one way or another, so it was no great surprise, but it never ceases to amaze, the length they will go for the sake of their Thatcherite ideology. They are sending this country on a course to more disaster. Not only did we have to pay for the banks after their ultimate greed backfired, but now we’ve got to pay all over again while they carry on regardless? People running politics in this class-ridden society, went to the same schools as the media class. Society is isolated and manipulated by a media and political machine that works in tandem to manufacture consent, create and destroy what it desires. The whole thing is set-up. The same people who sell off state infrastructure are the ones who profit from it. It’s the 5% and all their friends applauding each time they can dupe the consumerist masses into one fraud or another. The faster this Conservative ‘coalition’ is brought down the better as class war is the only thing they are interested in, they have simply re-started the Thatcher project, which has always simply been a naked attempt at turning the UK into a mirror image of the US. Before long there’ll be no health service, no postal service, and whatever else is left they can flog for a quick buck...What are your thoughts on the global financial crisis? Just how is the UK gonna solve its massive national debt?
..Welly) The UK only paid off its World War II debt five years ago. This whole thing is mythology. The Conservatives have just done what they would’ve done anyway. The excuse is merely political opportunism. In 2011 we’re going to see a return to the early 80s, with hikes in many taxes, unemployment and inflation. The working class will bear the brunt of all Tory ideology as they always do, as that is part of what their ideology is based on. We are about to enter an era, not of austerity as is often said, but more like a depression. A war by the rich against the poor in order to diminish the state, and any last vestiges of social welfare that were put in place in the 20th century. They use that self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby you stop investing in infrastructure while imposing stifling limitations on it, and once it creaks under the unbearable pressure, you say; “Look! We said it doesn’t work. It’s too big and out-dated, we need private investment in order to save it.” Then you sell it off and you and your rich friends pocket all the short term cash, allowing something that was once for the common good to be fair game to the dogs of capitalism...What are the best and worst aspects of life in the UK?
..Welly) In terms of comparison with other places, I’d say the best is probably the National Health Service, and the worst is the class system, which still exists, however much they’d like people to believe otherwise. Oh, and the weather is shit, especially when you work in it...Have you, with or without the band, ever thought about relocating away from Wales? What have been the main reasons for staying there?
..Welly) We joked from the start that we should get a PO Box somewhere else, ha ha. I’d leave anytime, it’d be great to live somewhere else. The reasons you stay are whatever ties that bind, but the grass is always greener isn’t it? Maybe one day...How do you think the current Punk scene in the UK, and that on a global leave, is fairing? Is it too fragmentary? Do you think Punk can still be a threat, or of such power to change anything besides the individual? What do you think are the best and worst things Punk has brought to modern society?
..Welly) I don’t think the UK Punk scene has been fairing well at all on the global stage for quite some time, but that’s probably the UK Punk scene’s fault primarily. Yes, it’s too fragmentary. Too busy chasing trends. Faster and faster turnover. Everything must be brand new. It’s just a microcosm of the mainstream, always has been. Too much concentration on aping the latest thing to garner popularity, rather than just be creative and plowing your own furrow. No, I don’t think Punk can still be a threat to be honest. But it’s been like that for a long time. Individual change is the best you can hope for. I think most people figure that out by the time they’re twenty. We need a new generation of kids to kick over the tables, not just look to what’s gone before, and definitely ignore the fact that Emo ever happened...What changes have you seen in the Punk Scene since you first got involved back in the 80s? And how have you, as a person, changed and progressed over the last 25 years?
..Welly) It’s totally changed, but everything changes, and there’s no point in hanging onto the past. We have entered an unprecedented communication age, so of course, it’s ironic that we are currently having a big non-versation. Punk has largely been reduced to spectacle and gimmicks to sell records, and Punk keeps its shop open, but there’s no feedback, participation is buying. You can’t even get a review anywhere anymore. There’s just mass indifference.
Punk lost its way when its participants considered themselves merely rock fans around the turn of the century. Punk needs to have that conversation with itself again if it ever wants to progress. The commercialisation of the 90s and then the internet, pretty much finished it. It’s been reduced to buy and sell, and you have all these people shouting about themselves trying to sell, but no-one’s actually talking anymore. Competition over co-operation. ‘What’s the best?’ this and that all over the internet, but no actual debate, just people trying to appear the most knowledgeable about something or other.
Punk, especially when it became the international Hardcore scene of the 80s, had an ongoing and constantly changing debate with itself, and it moved throughout the 80s and into the 90s from stuff like nihilism and anarchy to scenes, local and global politics, nukes, nazis, environmentalism, sexism, racism and sexuality. All these things were hashed out, and then mass commercialism came along in the 90s, and then the internet, and it just kind of ended. Some zines carried on the debate, but it eventually fizzled out completely around 2000. Zines were the life’s blood of conversation, especially MRR, and until they return en masse, you won’t see much change. I would like to get some kind of debate going in the zine. With this in mind, I recently put on the ‘net’ that I was looking for letters for the zine. I got the piss taken out of me, so I gave up and deleted it. Says it all really.
Add to this the segregation of music into smaller and smaller sub-genres, and it’s just been an inevitable demise. Hardcore turned into something that isn’t Hardcore anymore, and Punk with beards singing country tunes, really? I think it speaks volumes that more bootlegs of old demos get released these days than new band’s albums. And then young bands end up copying some obscure demo from 1978? It’s not exactly moving forward is it? What the fuck? Fuck shit up!
Personally, I’d like to think I’ve changed for the better. I have tried to make a conscious effort to iron out my bad points, I’d like to think some of it has worked. I have two kids now, who are almost grown up. That definitely helped me in a lot of ways...So, it's January 2nd 2011 and you have just announced that FOUR LETTER WORD has split up. Can you tell us the reasons behind the split?
..Welly) Just had enough of flogging a dead horse. Since Jon’s return, we got the band back on track, and got back to writing some good songs, we thought. We put out an album, and I don’t think much more than 100 people heard it. More people heard our first demo. We couldn’t get gigs anywhere, so I started putting on regular local gigs so we could play. Then the feedback was that we were playing too often. The very little feedback you get from anything these days, was that whatever we do, it’s not as good as the second album from 1999. When you’ve been around as a band for a long time, if you’ve not garnered some sort of legendary status, you end up being ignored. I think people started perceiving us as middle-aged guys in baggy shorts and wallet chains. People tell me that music these days is for yourself. Well of course it is, but for me, it’s also about communication of ideas, it’s about being part of the big conversation that Punk had. That time had passed for us, and when all you can hope for is some polite applause from people getting drunk while waiting for their friend’s band to come on next, fuck that, I’m out...Even though you instigated the split, do you have any regrets already about leaving behind something that has been part of your life for 20 years? Or does it feel like a massive weight has been lifted from your shoulders?
..Welly) Total relief. I’m glad I’ve finally put it out of its misery. There was some unfinished business. I feel we concluded that with the last album etc. The split came about because it was getting harder and harder to even get a practice. Everyone has all this shit going on in their real lives, which happens when people get older. Ironically, I’m the one with kids, who was the most available, ha ha. We decided to take a break when Nick went around the world for six months and Jon had a lot on his plate. From there I said to Jon that I thought that it had run its course, he agreed, and 20 years and 200 gigs seemed like a nice place to stop. And let that be the end to it, no self aggrandizing final gigs, no slap on the back, just kill it. In years to come, someone somewhere will probably pick up one of our albums in a bargain bin somewhere... shrug and put it back. Ha ha!..Looking back on the twenty years of FOUR LETTER WORD, can you pin-point a specific highlight? And if you had to pick what you consider to be the band's greatest song and album, what would you go for?
..Welly) Oh yeah, when we did the two albums on BYO and toured the US and Canada for two months. That was rare for a UK band then, we were very lucky. Lucky for me, because BYO was one of my formative and favourite labels when I was kid. Because I’d had prior contact with Shawn, so he actually played our first 7”, which got us on the label. I have some great memories, driving endless highways with your friends. The ups and downs and the insanity. We had our fights and problems, like all touring bands, but we did something irreplaceable, like taking in the view driving down from Whistler to Vancouver, or playing alongside 7SECONDS and YOUTH BRIGADE at the Troubadour in Hollywood, things like that will stay with you. Considering we were a very average live band, who were pretty green to it all, we pulled it off to a certain degree. Everyone says the best album is 'Zero Visibility', so I’ll go with that. I can listen to that one with the least cringing. People say 'Unconditional' is the best song, which is from that album. Ironically, one of the only non-political songs I ever wrote, but I’m going to go with what other people say, because I shouldn’t be the one to judge...What would you like to see written on the band's tombstone?
..Welly) “Got any free stickers?” was the only thing we got asked on the big US tour in ‘98 so therefore must sum up the band...What are your plans now? You going to concentrate on Artcore, or graphics, or settle down in a cardigan with a cup of Ovaltine and watch Coronation Street?!! In all seriousness, is another band, or any musical venture even a consideration at the moment?
..Welly) I plan to work on the zine, and the graphics if people ask (get in touch). Thanks for the coverage, and Steve and Pete for all the support over the years. It means a lot. Watch the internet space for future projects...
If you can’t be arsed. I totally understand.