Interview: Steve Lake - Zounds

The name ZOUNDS will always be linked to the early 80s UK Anarcho scene via its connection with CRASS. But 30 years on from 'The Curse Of Zounds' album comes the follow-up, 'The Redemption Of Zounds', that's been released on Overground Records. It's a strong album that tackles issues relevant to today's society and observed from that customary ZOUNDS perspective. This interview is with the band's founder, vocalist and mainstray, Steve Lake.

..Before we start, can you just tell us what made you want to play in bands? Did you come from a particularly musical background?
No musical background other than coming from a family of avid listeners. My dad ran a Jazz club and my mum was a dancing teacher. But nobody played or wrote. My thing has always been writing songs, not being a musician. I can barely play four chords and have a poor sense of timing. But I have always been compelled to make things up, especially songs. Since no one else was playing my songs I had to form a band to do it.

..How did you discover and get into Punk?
..Steve) It was the other way round really, Punk discovered us. We met CRASS and they offered to put out our records. At that point I had never heard a CRASS record or seen them play live.

.. I believe you were playing music before ZOUNDS – is that correct?
Yes it is.

What differences between that scene and the Punk scene that ZOUNDS became a part of were immediately apparent?
ZOUNDS started in 1976 and we were playing on the ‘Free gig’ scene. Mainly it was ZOUNDS, THE MOB, THE ASTRONAUTS, HERE AND NOW and some others. Then ATV, PATRICK FITZGERALD and a few of the early Punk bands joined in. It was a bit more bohemian and loose than the Anarcho scene. More colourful, and imaginative, more joyful. And certainly more radical. Too radical really, unrealistically utopian.
That made it more diverse than the developing Anarcho scene where everything was a bit uniform and policed.

..Coming up to date, ZOUNDS has just released its second album, ‘Redemption Of Zounds’. What does ZOUNDS, or yourself, require redemption from?
All the sinful and bad things I have done in my life. Deceive my friends, cheat on lovers, frighten infants, glorify my ego, shoplifting, lying to my children, faking a marriage, and drinking Pepsi Cola on stage at the Feeding Of The 5000 gig.

..Why choose now to release a new ZOUNDS album – especially considering the band has been active, in some form at least, since the original split back in 1982?
All the right elements were in place. I had the songs and I had the Pauls and I also hooked up with Gary Durham, a great engineer/producer who kindly made the album for free in a printing factory.

..The album stays faithful to the original sound and vision of the debut, ‘Curse Of Zounds’. Was that the plan, or something that happened naturally?
Everybody says it is faithful to the original sound. I was surprised because I play all the guitar on it, and I am the world’s worst guitar player. One of the album's great achievements is that there is not a single guitar solo on it. On 'Curse Of Zounds' there are lots of guitar solos and really good guitar playing by Laurence. I’m flattered by the comparison really.

..In what ways would you say the new album is a progression from the debut?
..Steve) I don’t know if there is any progression, either in ZOUNDS or in any guitar based rock music. All the sounds and approaches were exhausted by about 1984. The only thing that is important is the songs. The songs on the new album reflect my current state of mental health, just like the songs on ‘Curse...’ reflected my mental state then. I know more words now so the rhymes are a little less clumsy, that is the main difference.

..The artwork has a certain continuity about it, with the ‘Curse Of...’ cover subtly appearing on the cover of the new album also. What inspired this continuation?
The unkind might see it as lack of imagination on my part or a cynical attempt at brand recognition, rather like CRASS or Nike. To me it reflects a certain emotional continuity that is present in all the things I do as ZOUNDS. Plus, the world is superficially different now, but the deep power-plays and fuck ups are still firmly in place.

..Tell us a bit about the new members, bassist Paul O’Donnell and drummer Paul Gilbert.
They are a brilliant rhythm section. They are funny, imaginative, clever, sexually ambiguous people who are as freaked out as I am. Paul OD is a tortured soul with music pouring out of every cell. His parents lived in the Brecknock on Camden Road, he was actually born there while the CLASH were onstage downstairs. Paul Gilb is much more cerebral than me and OD. A deep thinker who is very sensitive to the sadness and terror that stalks the world. He plays drums like an orchestra.

..What happened to the live band that was gigging for sometime that included Protag (ex-ATV and BLYTH POWER) and Stick (ex-DIRT and EXTREME NOISE TERROR)? Any reason you didn’t record with them?
I did record an album with Stick and Protag but it wasn’t very good, my fault, so I refused to let it be released. When they joined the band they were very good friends. When they left they were completely estranged from each other. I hope it wasn’t my fault, I don’t think it was.

..Were the original members considered for the album? I know Josef’s in BLYTH POWER, but what happened to original guitarist Laurence Wood?
No, they were not available. Josef writes historical, fantasy novels that are quite unique and brilliant. Laurence never really liked playing in groups, he sold his soul to Satan to work in the television industry. I am still in contact with both of them, but sadly the deep and bitter resentment they feel towards me keeps us from being as close as we use to be.

..The album’s been released on Overground Records – how did you hook up with John at Overground? How does the way Overground operate compare with Rough Trade back in the 80s?
Overground was recommended to me by a mutual friend. I was advised that the guy who ran it (Jumping Johnny Esplanade) was an honest and dignified person who cared about music. Which he is, in that way he is exactly the same Geoff Travis at Rough Trade. But the landscape has changed. In those days people bought records. Now they mostly download them for free. John has to work very hard and nobody makes any money. Which actually is the same as the old days. Only three groups ever made money from records, The Beatles, Abba and CRASS. Though I believe that The Beatles and Abba did pay royalties to the bands on their labels.

..I’d like to ask you about a few of the songs on the album, starting with ‘Follow The Money’. In some ways, it seems to be a rewriting of ‘Subvert’. It’s a cynical look at employment success and how you can "Scratch each other’s back and start to advance your career," while warning that "Everybody’s complicit with the big lie."
‘Follow The Money’ is just a blatant rip off of the TV series ‘The Wire’. Even some of the lines come directly from the dialogue. I was very impressed with the way it drew parallels between the criminal world and the so-called legitimate worlds of big business, the law and politics. Well, not just draw parallels but show how they were all absolutely connected and part of the same thing.

Obviously you are still opposed to big business; do you still believe that subversion in the corporate work place is justifiable?
Subverting the work place is unavoidable if you are a petulant malcontent, as I seem to be. But anyone can justify anything. As my friend Ian always says, even serial killers justify what they do. Subversion comes in many guises though. Just being fair and honest can be subversive.

..What about opener ‘Cry Genie Cry’. That highlights issues of personal identity crisis. A lot of the themes the lyrics talk about could stem from the media, schooling, peer pressure and simple compliance in a bid for approval – what do you feel is the greatest challenge that faces anyone trying to find their own identity?
All the things you mention. Combined with the sheer overpowering bewilderment of suspecting that in the great cosmic scheme of things, it all means nothing. To feel a sense of identity in a universe that is unfathomable is the great challenge for me. Terrifying in fact. What’s the point of making a record, healing the sick or putting up new wallpaper when the world is destined to burn up and crash in to the sun anyway. Still, you carry on and try not to grumble.

..Do you face any kind of identity crisis between your Steve Lake, singer in Anarcho band ZOUNDS guise when compared with your Steve Lake, University Lecturer guise?
The thing about me being a lecturer was just a straightforward lie. I was cited in a paternity case and had a bit of trouble with the authorities. When I went to court I had to pose as someone with a ‘respectable life style’. Anyway, it all came to nothing and I am now off the hook now. I am not clever enough to lecture at a university. Those people are very brainy. I am lucky in that I made a considerable fortune on the horses and am now independently wealthy, thankfully I no longer have to engage on wage slavery.

..More often than not, your lyrics make pointed, political observations not by screaming about the inadequacies of the system, but by observing and challenging personal politics. That put you at odds with many of the Anarcho bands you got lumped with. Is that something you resented, or – especially with hindsight – are you thankful that that scene embraced you?
I never resented it, I am happy for anyone to listen to our music. It can be strange to play with some of these bands that go on about the system in a vaguely sexless and unattractive way. Though generally the people in that scene are very nice. In some places our association with those bands means other people don’t really check us out. But in many places, Greece for example, we are seen more as a Post-Punk group, more like JOY DIVISION or THE CURE. I am just eternally grateful that anyone at all listens.

..What do you think may have happened to ZOUNDS had CRASS not released that debut single?
We went with CRASS because we liked them. At the time Virgin and EMI were trying to sign us, but we were young and naïve and wanted to stay independent. Had we signed with a major I fully expect they would have plied me with drink, drugs and easy women in an attempt to get me to write hit singles. In all probability I would have become as big an arsehole as Bongo from U2. I would now be a self important, decaying wreck addicted to drugs and bizarre sexual practices in a vain attempt to derive some unobtainable pleasure in life. In all probability I would be on that celebrity in the jungle programme.

..Were the songs on the album amassed over the years since ‘Curse...’ was released, or did you have a bout of sudden creativity?
I wrote half of them for the aborted album with Stick and Protag. Mainly while watching the bombardment of Iraq on television. The others I wrote just before recording. I write all the time, but most of the stuff I do is not appropriate for ZOUNDS, which has a particular sensibility. I’ve got millions of songs but only a handful of decent ones.

..Going way back, the band originally formed in Oxford – what made you relocate to London? I’m guessing this would have been just as Thatcher came to power. How noticeable was the change in society when comparing Oxford with London and, more specifically, as Thatcher’s term progressed?
Yes, I remember when I moved to London I was living in a van outside a church hall, which was used as a polling station in the 1979 election.
London just seemed more vibrant and had more opportunities to play and have fun. It was very liberating after Oxford. I had suffered a lot of police harassment in Oxford, which stopped when I moved to London. Primarily because at the time the Metropolitan Police were so racist that all they did was hassle black kids using the suss laws. I was glad of the anonymity, but obviously saw the injustice for what it was.
In London you had a great sense of solidarity and resistance, so many people gravitated towards the place that there were always enough people to get things going, whether it was music, art, politics, parties, anything. It was a sea of possibilities. And the massive stockpile of empty houses meant there were places to squat. I think it’s much harder for kids today, everything is much more tightly screwed down and under surveillance. That, of course, is a lot to do with what Thatcher put in place, sadly continued by the Labour Party.
The divisions in society became sharper as Thatcher’s reign progressed. The world of corporate greed, yuppieism, P.R. bullshit, mobile phones, surveillance, materialism and entrenched power structures became more intense yet more subtle.

..Tell us a bit about the Brougham Road squat in Hackney, an area you squatted with THE MOB. What has been written about it suggests it was quite artistic, inspirational and even bohemian. That correct? Do you think such an area could exist today?
..Steve) It was all those things, but it was also petty, confusing, frustrating and destructive. Those sort of places must still exist, but I have no idea where. I don’t think they can exist in such numbers. Everywhere in London had these groovy squatting scenes, now the property developers have their greasy mitts on everything and there is just not the physical or psychological space.

..You mentioned the aborted second album, ‘The Wounds Of Zounds’, some tracks from which appeared on a 2005 EP. Can you tell us about that album? Why was it aborted?
Yes, that was the album I did with Stick and Protag. Laurence played on it too, and mixed it with me. We put out three tracks on the ‘Go All The Way E.P’. They were the only ones worth releasing. The playing on the whole was too loose, it was badly recorded, mainly by me, and I fucked up the mixing. I played it to quite a few people and they liked it. But the best songs I did again for the new record, ‘Waiting For The Clampdown Honey’, ‘Deportee’, ‘Damaged’, a couple of others.

..You also recorded a couple of solo albums I believe. In what way were they different from ZOUNDS?
..Steve) The main differences were in the approach to instrumentation and arrangement, which ZOUNDS had started doing with ‘Knife’ and ‘Dancing’. I did the first one with a producer called Brian Pugsley who has since produced Bjork, The Shamen, Bryan Ferry and various others. It was like taking my songs and doing them in the ‘gay disco’ style of the day. Very melodramatic, a bit dancey.
The other one was a very down album called ‘So Cruel’. Adrian Borland produced it not long before his tragic suicide, all the guitars were by ex-ZOUNDS guitarist Nick Godwin. It sounds unfinished because we ran out of money and just left it like it was. Needless to say I was fucked up when we did both albums and I am something of a passenger in someone else’s vehicle.

..Since this latest reformation, the band has played a couple of high-profile shows – the first being Steve Ignorant’s initial Feeding Of The 5000 show and, more recently, a gig with your old mates and recently reformed THE MOB. What differences have you noticed between the gigs you were doing as ZOUNDS in the 80s and those now?
The audiences are bigger now and more generous. They also don’t come just to hear ‘Subvert’ and 'Can’t Cheat Karma’. These days the most popular song is usually ‘Did He Jump Or Was He Pushed’, the slowest, most psychedelic thing I have ever done. Obviously quite a few people from the old days turn up, but some gigs are mostly people in their teens and twenties. Sadly they still find it relevant to their lives.

..What was the reception to the band at the Steve Ignorant show – was that pivotal to ZOUNDS becoming more of a full time band again?
Very good reception. Though a few unkind people on the Internet have suggested we are sell-outs, and wanna-be rock-stars. Ridiculous, I’m a wanna-be cult figure. The Punk police were dominating the message boards suggesting anyone who played that show was a filthy, running-dog laky of the bourgeoisie and probably a child abuser. I didn’t plan to do any other ZOUNDS gigs after that, but then I got asked to play at a community centre in Reading where I came from. I decided to do it because ZOUNDS had never played in Reading. It was one of those un-together gigs where you play on the floor, have a barely functioning P.A. and the dancing of the audience is so frenetic that they keep knocking the amps over in their enthusiasm. It was so wild and invigorating I just started accepting more and more gigs. Now I have decided that ZOUNDS will never split up and we will keep rocking unto Armageddon.

..Coming off music a little, what is your perspective on the recent UK riots in London and elsewhere in England?
I’ve been out of England for a few months and have only caught it on the news so I am really in no position to comment. It reminded me of the cover of the new album though. England is a fairly violent and brutal country, it often scares me. From the television news coverage it looked like looting was the main aim of the participants, but I am always suspicious of the news media.

..Thoughts on David Cameron’s Tory alliance with the Liberals? How much of the blame for the aforementioned riots can/ should be placed with his policies? What differences and parallels can you see between this Tory government and that of Thatcher in the 80s? And, come to that Blair’s Labour?
It’s all so depressing. The Tories are the party of the rich and act in the interests of the rich. The Labour party is the party of workers and also acts in the interests of the rich. The present disturbances have been caused by centuries of inequality and brutalisation. Thatcher, Blair, Cameron, Clegg, they all share blame. But then, we the people also share the blame because we let them get away with it.

..If you could change one thing about British society, what would it be and why?
I would change the colour of police uniforms. I would make them dress in pink and wear flowers in their hair and bells on their toes.

..Haha!! Did Punk Rock change anything?
I think Punk Rock was the end of something, not the beginning. It was the last time that youth felt part of a generational movement that was exploring an alternative way of being. Since then the yuppies and the corporations have taken a much firmer grip on the world. Punk just became another consumer style-choice. It was inevitable, that is the way that capitalism works.

..How does the Steve Lake of 2011 compare – in terms of positives, negatives and ideals – with the Steve Lake of 1980?
I used to be stupid and ugly and opinionated, now I am stupid and ugly and opinionated with poor eye sight. I am still bewildered, but I am sad where I used to be angry. I am still committed to enjoying myself but am less hopeful that the world will become a gentler, kinder place.

..So, what’s next for Steve Lake and ZOUNDS? I believe there’s an extensive US tour very near. Can we expect another album quite quickly, if at all?
ZOUNDS will just keep playing until no one is listening anymore. There is no career goal or master plan. We do some big gigs in rock palaces and we play in community centres, youth clubs and squats. The U.S tour will not happen. The disaster area that is my personal life has interceded and prevented it from happening. I am currently living in the States and doing some solo gigs with guest musicians. I like it here, but I will move back to England at some point. It will probably be many years before I record a new ZOUNDS album. But we will be putting out a series of vinyl singles. I realised while doing this record that it is no longer possible to make a great album, I think it is possible to make great singles though. I’ve never made one but I want to give it a go.

..Anything you wish to add?
Please love me, keep it together and up the Pinks!

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