Billy Childish and Thee Headcoats: Art Brut

Interview by Patrick Baillargeon
Genres and styles : Blues Rock / Garage Punk / Garage Rock / R&B / Rock

Additional Information

To call Billy Childish (Steven John Hamper) a prolific artist would be an understatement. A painter, writer, poet and musician, the Chatham, Kent native co-founded the Medway Poets literary movement, founded the Stuckist art movement and the Hangman Records label. A fervent defender of amateurism and free expression, the tireless musician, singer and songwriter has (re)defined garage lo-fi punk, under names such as The Pop Rivets, Thee Milkshakes, Thee Headcoats, The Buff Medways, The Chatham Singers, The Spartan Dreggs and Wild Billy Childish & CTMF. Not only does he have one of the longest discographies in the history of music with hundreds of albums and singles, but he is also the author of more than 40 books of poetry and nearly a dozen novels, has made several films and photographs and painted more than 2,500 pictures, often under the name William Hamper. 

In recent years, music has become less important than painting. Hamper makes a living from his paintings, but Wild Billy Childish is never far behind. Having recently recalled his two old accomplices Bruce Brand and Johnny Johnson for the Tribute to Don Craine EP (the late leader of the British R&B band The Downliner Sect) under the name of Thee Headcoats Sect, a short-lived band that also produced the 1999 album Ready Sect Go! Recorded last year at Ranscombe Studios in Rochester, Irregularis (The Great Hiatus) features 12 tracks of pure Headcoats, with perhaps a more pronounced blues and R&B bent.

The trio’s last album dates back to 2000 (I Am The Object Of Your Desire), so a chat with the undisputed king of garage rock and punk was in order. Captured in his home town of Chatham, Billy Childish kindly gave us some of his precious time to answer a few questions (we would have asked him thousands!). A meeting with a larger than life artist.

PAN M 360: You recently got back together as Thee Headcoats Sect to make the Tribute to Don Crane EP. Did that lead to the reformation of Thee Headcoats?

Billy Childish: Essentially. I saw it as a good excuse to do a 45 for Don. And then Johnny, our bass player, would have to come out from Sicily. And since he was coming and the other fellas were keen to do it, I saw it as an opportunity to record an album. Which is a normal thing with me: if we bother getting the canon out and loading it, then we might as well go one step further. So I said to the lads ‘’do you fancy doing an album?’’ and I had a few tunes in mind. They seemed keen. 

PAN M 360: Two birds with one stone then.

Billy Childish: Yeah, essentially, the same thing happened with the Singing Loins. A friend of mine died a year ago he was in the Singing Loins. I recorded their first two albums 30 years ago. They’re a folk group, and we did a folk variations of an album of mine. And then Chris Broderick died last year, and I said to the two lads, ‘’why don’t we do a 45 for Chris?’’. And we did it. And I said, my usual trick, I said ‘’well, we’re recording the 45, might as well do an LP!’’ (laughs)

PAN M 360 : So there weren’t any rehearsals? you just spontaneously jammed around?

Billy Childish: Johnny came over on the Friday, we met in the studio, I showed them the tunes… It’s actually how we record most of the stuff these days cuz we don’t really rehearse. I often work out a tune and then show the other two and we do a run through and then press record. And you know, first, second, third take. and we go to the next one and the next one and the next one. 

PAN M 360: It’s kind of a trademark; since your first albums, you seem to favor a simple and spontaneous approach to recording. 

Billy Childish: That came about because in the Pop Rivets, where I was the singer in 77, I knew nothing about music or how to record it, and I still don’t know much of the technicalities of it. But I go by the sound I like, and we were told what we could and couldn’t do. And things were not sounding as exciting as the records we heard when we were kids. I was brought up on rock and roll music, 60s music, and I couldn’t work out why it sounded worse. So we did have an old ReVox… well, we still got it, we use it sometimes, it’s a ReVox half track, early 60s tape recorder, and we used to record ourselves on that and found out that recording things very simply and straight sounded a lot more exciting and a little bit more like the records that we liked, with a bit more performance involved. So then, by trial and error, we managed to translate that into recording into a studio as well. And even in a digital studio, we’ve been able to get enough good equipment between us and the digital recording to make it sound like real music as far as we’re concerned.

PAN M 360: You have always claimed a more authentic approach to rock and roll with a more raw and direct sound and concerts in small, human-sized venues. 

Billy Childish: Yeah, well, it’s a funny thing because I’ve been accused of being lo-fi. But music is incredibly snobby in that way. If you consider that a rough charcoal sketch could be in the highest Museum but a cassette recording of a tune couldn’t be on Top of the Pops… it’s very strange. It’s like a very strange snobbery this idea about what raw is, or what they call lo-fi. And I don’t try to sound lo-fii. I’m not interested, strangely. I mean, even when we were in the Milkshakes, people talked about garage music, and we always referred to it as rock and roll essentially. And one of the things I liked about the Clash, very early on with their first album, was that they referred to it as rock and roll. There’s a strand of punk rock that came through, which may be with Joe Strummer, slightly with the Damned and the (Johnny) Moped, which came from a rock and roll background. A lot of the other stuff in punk rock, which I was unaware of at the time, came through the glam channel, which I’d call pantomime dame rock and roll. And I hated glam music when I was a kid. I actually used to listen to Buddy Holly and people like that during the early 70s, whereas my friends were listening to David Bowie. So to call it raw, it’s sort of a fair enough description, but it’s got this sort of pejorative thing to it, you know. It’s a bit like talking about indigenous art, or primitive art. It’s trying to put something into a ghetto to make it less viable in a way. I mean, it’s okay for people like us to like, for a better word, to like the rawness of it. But the thing is, it’s not really the point. It’s like, trying to categorize it into a subdivision. Whereas really, I would think it should be, in a way, the mainstream. For me, it’s like, do you want to see the Rolling Stones at Wembley, or do you want to see them at the Eel Pie Island in 1963? And the idea that the sound that the Stones had in 63, or the Downliners had in 63-64, is somehow inferior to high fidelity now, but the things you hear on stage through these mixing desks is absolutely diabolical and tinny, and it’s got all this horrible top end all this horrible bottom end. I mean, the Jimi Hendrix Experience wouldn’t even be able to play now. Because they wouldn’t be able to use feedback, the sound isn’t in the control of the group. It’s like some sort of homogenized sound. We just played in Berlin, and we still use a vocal PA. And we don’t go for off stage mixing. The reason we don’t do it is because you have all this bass end that you get through these massive PA’s and all this weird high top end… You know all this boom and bottom, and then all of this weird scratchy top end. And then the drum sound completely inauthentic. Whereas we go for how a jazz drum sound like. If you listen to classical stations, which still record jazz groups, some of them still have the drum kit sound like a drum kit. I mean, regardless of what the music’s like… So really all we want is the drum kit to sound like a drum kit, a Selmer amplifier, a Vox amplifier that sound like a Vox amplifier. And the vocal to sound like it’s going through a PA, which is part of the the suite if you like, of what music is meant to sound like. I mean, you’ve got all this snobbery about people wanting to use a Vox amplifier but they don’t want to use the drum kit that goes with it, or the PA that goes with it… It’s a bit like having a Georgian house with plastic windows in it. I will tell you that the amount of times I talked about sound and music on interviews in the past, and how uninterested anybody is in it is quite incredible, because they believe that the technology is advancing continually. We’re in a situation now where we’re at the height of digital technology, but people try to masquerad it as old technology. You know, can it sound like a tape? can it emulate a tape record, and valve audio equipment, everything’s trying to pretend to be valve, when all of that plus stuff was put in a skip.

PAN M 360: Do you apply this method, or philosophy, to your other projects? For instance when you paint?

Billy Childish: Yeah, because I don’t like plastic. I like oil. We use charcoal and use linen, like the finish. There’s a quality and integrity in material. And a you know, it’s a bit like having a whole grain bread rather than a Mother’s Pride,  something that’s actually made of wheat. You know, or meat that comes from an animal that lives in the sun and grass, and not in a barn and injected with all sorts of stuff, you know, or a good example would be like an apple that you picked from your garden, which might have a worm in it, and might be irregular, but tastes twice as good as the factory farm apple. I think people are so used to a modernized lifestyle that they react very badly to what they think is dirty or unclean. I think it’s all part of that modern world, to have this sort of like germ free adolescents, to quote X-Ray Specs.

PAN M 360: Getting back to the new album, would you say it’s maybe one of your more bluesy or more rhythm and blues record yet with Thee Headcoats?

Billy Childish: With Thee Headcoats? Mmmm… Well, possibly it’s a little bit more that, in the sense that there might be slightly more blues and R&B encapsulated on one record. But we certainly did a lot of bluesy or R&B stuff over the 15 or so albums, I don’t know how many albums we made… But you could make probably a few R&B albums out of what we did. If you’ve put those pieces together, you can make a couple of punk rock albums out of what we did, and a couple of maybe rock and roll albums out of what we did too. But as far as it goes on one album, it’s feasible, without me knowing because I don’t know what we’ve recorded, It’s a bit more R&B. But we did do a blues group called the Chatham Singers, which is obviously a lot more bluesy.

PAN M 360: And you have a great version of ‘’Cops and Robbers’’ also on the album…

Billy Childish: Yeah, I was unaware of the doo wop version of it when we recorded it. I wish I’d listened to that sort of early 50s version before, which is a quite strange version. I thought it was by Bo Diddley. It’s really quite good and it rhymes right away. It makes sense when you hear it. Bruce found it and he sent it to me after we recorded. It’s quite interesting. Well, it’s like ‘’Have Love Will Travel’’, it is originaly a doowop song, isn’t it? You know the version the Sonics do? The original to that was sort of a doowop number. Ba bum ba bum ba bum ba ba ba ba ba bum…

PAN M 360: Tell us about the closing song ‘’The Kids Are All Square’’. Usually it’s the kids who accuse the adults of being squares. Now, its more and more the other way around it seems.

Billy Childish: Well, you know, we did an album called The Kids Are All Square with Thee Headcoats many years ago and I often thought ‘Oh, well, I need to write a song about that.’ So I think I wrote it about four years ago, or five, maybe 10 years ago… But the album was probably 20 years ago. But the reason we did The Kids Are All Square album in the first place was because I always thought about “The Kids Are Alright” by the Who. I thought it was a very patronizing title. So we were already well aware, 25 years ago, or 20 years ago, that the kids were square. Because, you know, no one wanted to know what we were doing or what we’ve done. We were so outside the mainstream of culture with what we were doing and what we believed in. And I just updated the lyrics a little bit for this version. I think we’ve got Billy… is it Ilish? Billy Eilish? Billy Eilish, or she’s called, I don’t know… she’s got some name a bit like mine. And then Beyonce I think has an appearance on the song, in the lyrics. Yeah, we’ve mentioned these style icons, Billy Eilish, she’s some sort of girl with blue hair. Beyonce, some sort of lady with a large buttock.

PAN M 360: Where Bruce and Johnny hard to convince to get back with Thee Headcoats?

Billy Childish: I never bother convincing anybody, you know? It was like a suggestion. And if they’d have not been interested, I’ve got other things to do.

PAN M 360: So does that mean it’s an official reunion of Thee Headcoats? Should we expect more albums? Or maybe shows?

Billy Childish: I don’t know. The difficulty is John living in Sicily. And I don’t really like reunions much. But it would be possible if it was good fun. I mean, we’ve been asked to go to Japan. But although we’re sort of like respected, don’t forget, I still don’t have a manager. We don’t have management or agents. So no one looks after our corner. I mean, Thee Headcoats album is recorded because I paid for it to be recorded. You know, and no one else asks me to do things. I mean, when I said to Damaged Goods I’m doing an album, they said ‘’great, we’d love to have that’’ and they gave me an advance to cover the costs of two or three days work, And then giving Johnny some airfare and we get a bit of spare. But it’s like, we don’t have a machine behind us, or a management or an agent. Even when we’re in Berlin, with CTMF, my current group, we’re playing a little bit, we like playing small venues. We like using local PAs. And we like nobody telling us what to do or how to do it. And it actually makes it much more awkward using the equipment we do. And also people would prefer it if we use modern equipment, which is the big irony. So we’re sort of like doing something that no one else does. And also, when you do it, the way we do it, you’re much more exposed. And you can’t hear what’s going on so well, the holes are more apparent, the mistakes are more apparent. So you’re laying yourself open for a lot of problems using the gear we use. But for me, the whole thing is the sound and the feeling. And if it can’t be the sound and the feeling I want. I’m happy to stay indoors and have a cup of tea instead.

PAN M 360: You have to find a venue that will fit your standards.

Billy Childish: And also someone who will lend us the gear if we’re going abroad. Yeah, we’re playing with CTMF in Reno, or near Reno, in Nevada in July. We’re doing one show in the States. People who are fans got a Vocal Master PA, we use a real drum kit, and we use use amplifiers, so that we can have the sound that we like. I mean, we’ve just been asked to go to Serbia, but who’s got the crap we use in Serbia? Or what promoter understands what we do? They don’t understand, because everyone would prefer if we’d play a big venue with the modern equipment. Even in the Milkshakes people said to us, in the early 80’s in Germany, ‘’if you use the big boxes, people would like you’’. Because we used to take a vocal PA with us and do it the way we want it. But for us, it’s the homegrown. It’s a small corner shop, not the supermarket. And it’s the analog sound, it’s the way we want it.

PAN M 360: It would be great to have you guys in Montreal. I think you’ve played only once, many years ago.

Billy Childish: We did that with two amplifiers, I think, because you can get that sound there. We flew over, we did it as a weekend. We flew one day, did the gig the next night and flew home the next day. Julie (his wife and partner in many projects) found it a bit intense.

PAN M 360: Is it going to be the same thing with the Reno show? 

Billy Childish: Julie is American and we’re gonna visit the family and California. So we’re gonna be out there. It’s actually a family holiday. Because I haven’t been there for a long time. And then someone roped us into doing a show in the middle of it, which I agreed to.

PAN M 360: You do a lot of stuff. You’re a musician, you’re a poet, you’re a writer, you’re a painter… What are you working on right now?Billy Childish: I published a novel in secret, like in chapters, last year. And that was part of a double novel that I’ve been writing for 12 years. So I’m writing this novel on the punk rock period, which I work on every day. I’ve done about 32 drafts of that over the last 12 years. And then I started a quarterly magazine, small press poetry. People just subscribe. I’ve got an exhibition opening in England in July with my English gallery. There’s a couple of other things but I can’t remember… I’m working on a couple of films of some of the concerts we did recently… What else do I do? I do quite a lot of things. I’m writing and painting, doing the poetry. There’s some other things I do, but I can’t remember. I’m working with about three or four different groups at the moment as well. And the painting takes quite a lot of my time, it is my main job, being a painter. There’s an art fair in Hong Kong, I mean, at the minute. And then there can be Art Basel, which is another big art fair, which is coming up as well. But I’m not signed to any art galleries either. You know, we just did a big show in New York.

PAN M 360: And what are these four other groups? 

Billy Childish: The Chatham Singers, which is the blues group, the Singing Loins, which is the folk group, the William Loveday Intention, which is sort of like another strange group, the Guy Hamper trio, which is with James Taylor, which is like an Hammond organ instrumental group, CTMF, Thee Headcoats, which we’ve just done… I think that’s it. 

PAN M 360: Well, that’s quite prolific. Thank you for your time!

Billy Childish: It’s a pleasure. Oh, and if someone’s got a vocal PA and the right gear in Montreal, we might consider coming over!

(Photo: Alison Wonderland)

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