by Chris Jarvis
The Midlands have been for many years a breeding ground for the very best talents on the UK ska scene. In the 1980s, it was the pioneering sounds of Coventry’s two-tone bands – The Specials and The Selecter that led the way. Nowadays, Birmingham has a lively and burgeoning scene of acts that are fusing traditional reggae and dub music with the energy and raw anger of punk and hip-hop. Building on the reggae vibes of Brummie legends such as Steel Pulse and UB40, Lobster and their peers have built a sound and a scene that brings together the many traditions of these musical legacies. Throughout this, they have maintained a focus on politics and conscious lyricism. Because of this, we decided to talk with Lobster’s frontman Spud about his and the band’s outlook and the implications this has for their music as part of our series Music That Matters.
Keen to discover the framework that underpins his politics and therefore the political aspects to his music, I ask Spud how he would define his political outlook: “I’m very left leaning and libertarian in my outlook. I guess I’m a socialist who is sceptical of the state and has a strong preference for local organisation and devolution.”
Not content without contextualising those claims, he goes on: “Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would be infinitely better than Cameron, but I don’t have much hope for that under the First Past the Post system and with the heavy right-wing bias in most of the media. Even if he wins the next election, I think he’ll find it incredibly difficult to actually instigate much in the way of real change.”
Much of Lobster’s music, such as Not Defending Me, This Ain’t a Riot and Grip’s Getting Tighter have explicit political content. Given this, and the quite clear political outlook Spud describes above, I ask what role he sees his own politics playing in the music the band produces:
“We aren’t a specifically anarchist band, nor a specifically vegan one or anything like that. Amongst our six members there will be political differences and perhaps some of us are a bit more engaged with it than others. That said, all the lyrics are written by either myself or Joe, and politically we are both very similar. There’s definitely a cohesion in the things that write about that has come about pretty naturally.
“Personally, I just can’t write a song that doesn’t have any meaning to me. I can’t write about girls I pine after with catchy hooks. I don’t think I set out with a particular agenda when I write, but I like to write about the world as I see it as much as I can. We have songs that address certain issues, such as fascism, the environment and capitalism, and I’d like to think the principles behind our music are fairly apparent, without us seeming like we’re preaching to anyone or forcing our views upon anyone.
I don’t think I set out with a particular agenda when I write, but I like to write about the world as I see it as much as I can.
“I’ve been at shows where the band have stopped to give a big lecture about how racism is bad, which is cool, racism is disgusting. But you’d like to think most, if not all, the people in the room already hold the same anti-racist view anyway. It can seem quite hollow when you’re in a room full of white people, as well. For all the posturing, ethnic minorities and women are still definitely under-represented in the punk scene, which is a real shame.”
Spud goes on to add a layer of nuance behind the obvious political nature of their music and the specific issues he mentions their songs have previously covered; tapping into what he deems to be the inherently and implicitly political underpinnings of the music scene Lobster are a part of.
“We are a DIY band, which is a political stance in itself as far as I am concerned. We have never had anyone book a show for us, or help to promote us or anything like that. It has far-reaching implications on the way that we carry ourselves in the world and the ways in which we try to conduct ourselves.”
In light of the ‘preaching to the converted’ problem Spud alludes to above – that so often the problem with small, tight nit, and political scenes have an inherent problem of becoming an echo chamber, where the views and perspectives expressed by bands are already shared by their audiences and fans – I’m interested to discover whether he believes that political music can be a tool for politicisation and a wider method of achieving progressive change. Like so many of the musicians I have interviewed as part of this series, it is clear that his view is that music can in many ways be more effective at politicisation than perhaps politicians, the media or traditional political arguments can be.
“I think music is perhaps the most emotive and effective means of that is available to us, particularly when it comes to sparking an interest in the young. The majority of them are more likely to absorb a message and start to think a bit more critically if they are influenced by a particular type of music than if you just throw early 20th century communist and anarchist literature at them.
“Music has always reflected other things that are going on in society; there’s always been a link between musical movements, political movements and campaigns for social change. Any future step towards progressive political change will no doubt be accompanied by an era of music that people will spend decades writing about, as has been done with folk, rock ‘n’ roll, punk, hardcore, reggae, 2-tone and hip-hop.
Music has always reflected other things that are going on in society; there’s always been a link between musical movements, political movements and campaigns for social change.
“All of the best youth movements have had a certain political edge to them – communicating an energy that exists amongst the young and disaffected that is so often ignored by the mainstream media. As long as kids are still listening to music, whatever the genre, and thinking “yeah, these guys are saying the things that I’ve been feeling”, and then having a whole other world opened up to them via that route, then music will continue to be a tool of politicisation. There is no doubt in my mind that music and politics are inherently linked, and I really can’t see that ever changing.”
Tellingly, Spud signs off this response by borrowing and paraphrasing the sentiment of Gil Scott Heron: “The revolution won’t be televised, but I’m sure it’ll have a cracking soundtrack!”
Having argued that music can indeed be that tool of politicisation, has it had that effect on Spud? Did his politics come from the music that he grew up on, or was it something else? The answer is frank and clear:
“While I’m a bit older now, and my music tastes have mellowed out a fair bit over the past few years, I’m still always going to be a punk kid at heart. Despite being self-critical of my own political inactivity just now, I’m unsure whether I’d have any real interest in radical politics at all had it not been for the music I grew up on.
“It starts with the realisation that racism, sexism, homophobia, and all those other nasty prejudices are abhorrent and wrong. Those are views I’ve held for so long that I just can’t understand how anyone could think any differently. Although they haven’t necessarily come from music, they were definitely reinforced and solidified by it.
“DIY culture teaches you a lot about localised self-organisation and the capacity of humans to control their own lives and surroundings. I find it all very inspirational really. It’s something that I latched onto as a 14 year old and it still means as much to me now as it did then. I’m studying a politics degree, and I’m almost certain that I wouldn’t be doing that if it hadn’t been for punk music and the effect it had on my life. Likewise, I know I wouldn’t have read even half of the books that I have if it hadn’t been for the profound effect music had on me in my formative years.
“Punk and hardcore music might sound angry and aggressive; and at its essence a lot of the time it is, but the way it allows for you to articulate and express all that disaffected angst is a really beautiful thing. There’s so much more to it than cider, speed, diets and haircuts – and I’m sure a lot of people will tell you that they’ve learnt more about the world from music and at shows than they ever did at school or college.”
DIY culture teaches you a lot about localised self-organisation and the capacity of humans to control their own lives and surroundings
Recognising that there is a direct link between the world of culture and the world of politics for Spud and that the two are intimately intertwined, is one thing, but the second step in my mind for musicians and artists who have running through them a radical outlook, is to take action on the issues that they write and sing about. Has music directly pushed them into political activity or not?
“The sad truth is that I’m not involved in as much as I should be, but I do my best to support and take part in a number of causes. The hot topic at the moment is definitely the refugee crisis in Europe, and there are a number of people in Birmingham doing some really great work to help out. We performed at a fundraiser event for a group who were visiting the Calais jungle a few months back, and being asked to play at events like that is always very satisfying. Alongside the raw anger and energy, punk really seduced me as a teenager because of its proactive and positive outlook. I love that feeling that the music can change the world for the better, and so performing at events such as that taps into a really big part of why I wanted to even play music in the first place.
“I support the Palestine Solidarity Campaign as much as I can, and I think public opinion on the Israel/Palestine issue is definitely changing – due in large part to the massive effort of activists over a number of years.
“On a more local level, I try to do what I can to help the homeless here. The effects of austerity are plain to see for anyone who has observed the massive growth in the homeless population in Birmingham over the last few years. Particularly with the demonisation of the homeless in the media and political rhetoric, it’s very important that we continue to show support to those who are most vulnerable in society. Despite some of the vitriol you do hear spouted; it appears that most Brummies are at least somewhat sympathetic to the plight of the homeless in the city. A well-known homeless man named Danny Hackett died recently, and there was a massive outpouring of support for his family, and his funeral costs have been crowdfunded. It’s really heart-warming to see, but I’m sure there is more that just about everyone could do to help these people in life, and not just after they’ve died.
Alongside the raw anger and energy, punk really seduced me as a teenager because of its proactive and positive outlook.
“As I said though, I’m not really as politically active as I should be. I have a four-year old son, who I spend half my weekend with, and the rest of my free time generally goes towards music. Excuses, excuses! There is definitely more that I could and should be doing.”
After all the talk about the politics, we move into discussing the music scene today and the bands he sees as effectively mixing radical perspectives and musical outputs. Lobster aren’t isolated in their approach, and so influence other artists, as well as taking direction from them too.
“There are loads of punk bands who mix politics and principles with music really well, you don’t have to look far in the scene for them. I’m a really big fan of QELD, an anarchist hip-hop duo from Bristol. I find their wordplay really interesting, thought-provoking and humorous in pretty much equal measure. They aren’t just shouting clichés about hating the police and Margaret Thatcher, they make a lot of references to literature by thinkers such as Marx and Kropotkin, as well as revolutionary events from history. I’d recommend them to anyone who likes political music.”
To finish off, I delve into their plans for the future: “We launched our own club night called Lobster Shack back in November last year, and the next instalment is happening on March 19th at the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath, Birmingham. It is set to be a pretty significant event for us, as our keyboard player lost his younger brother towards the end of 2015, he was diabetic and so all proceeds from the event will be getting donated to Diabetes UK.
“We’re also extremely fortunate to have been asked to open for The Beat and Dreadzone at The Rainbow in Birmingham, that gig is happening on April 23rd and will be very big for us. Further to that, we’re sorting out a few fun things and festival appearances for this summer.
“We are very slowly working towards a full length album, but personal circumstances slowed down our progress a bit at the end of 2015. We have a few tracks recorded and most of the album material written, but getting the recording side of things sorted and finalised has been a bit slower than we would have hoped. We released a couple of tracks as the “Blotto’d” EP last spring. I’d imagine we will be put out a few more tracks in the same way this year, and hopefully the whole album can be finished by the end of 2016, but we will have to see on that one.”
Lobster are one of those bands that are so important to have as part of the scene, bringing to the table the very best traditions of their predecessors that have shaped them – the radicalism, the raw energy and the anchoring for a better world, while also pulling together a modern and exciting new sound. Their politics only makes them stronger, and gives them the drive to keep doing what they do.
But ultimately they are a product of where they are born. Like the city that forged them, they are steeped in the blending of cultures, busy and fast paced, maintaining the very best of long and strong traditions, while constantly renewing and reinventing.