Brazen City, April 2008
1-The new album by The Vichy Government is called 'White Elephant'. Some Northern Ireland football fans have taken to calling the proposed Maze stadium project a white elephant. I'm guessing your album isn't in homage to those dismayed supporters?
No, but I sympathise. Build a bland stadium like Middlesbrough's and you'll have no more David Healy glory nights. There were lots of titles being knocked about but I wanted something pithy that would go with its predecessors. Interest in us having taken a fairly spectacular nosedive, and this being a double-album, it seemed that we were putting quite a lot of effort into something which was pre-destined to bring barely any return; a white elephant, if you will.
2-The press release for 'White Elephant' declares that "All music is free and all music is worthless." Are things really that bad?
I'm turning into an old fogey. New bands don't interest or excite me anymore. But I would be suspicious of anyone who at the age of 30, still bought into the latest bands and trends as avidly as they did at 15. I used to spend weeks saving up my £12.99, waiting for the date when Pulp or Morrissey or whoever released their new album, running into town straight after school, then finally holding a shiny CD cover in my hand and scrutinising the artwork. Now, if there's a new record I want to hear, I can hear the single whenever I want on YouTube, I'll know someone with a promo and get them to burn me a copy.
It's not all doom and gloom, it's sent me in different directions. I've developed a liking for classical music and that's opened a whole world to me. Debussy, Mozart, Stravinsky, Ligeti. More beautiful, more exciting, and more daring than any guitar band could ever be. I like the standards; Cole Porter and Gershwin's lyrics are as clever as anyone's. And as I type this, my "Windows Media Player" is playing 'River Deep Mountain High' and it sounds fucking brilliant. It's so good I'm playing it for the third time in a row. So, music can still be magical and it can give me the horn, so to speak. But the stuff around it used to be part of the magic, and now the stuff around it dampens the magic. An MP3 file is not as romantic as a tatty 7" single.
3-You wrote the song 'Orange Disorder' in 2002. It was a fairly damning assessment of certain aspects of Protestant culture in Northern Ireland and arguably sat comfortably alongside the critical slant in the works of writers such as Tom Paulin, Sam Thompson and Gary Mitchell. Does 'Orange Disorder' still provide a fair critique of Ulster Protestant culture in 2008?
The songs on the first album were the product of many years' bottling up- I was not a happy teenager. Northern Ireland gives you quite a mine of material but awkward bugger that I am, I'm sure I would have had just as much venom if I'd grown up in Essex or Liverpool or anywhere. When I was 15, our local paper got a few of us to fax questions to all the leading politicans and other prominent figures in Northern Ireland. Mine were all basically variations on "Why are you such a shower of bastards?" and I remember Gerry Adams' reply; "Politicians are a mirror of their constituents". So, blame people for being such a shower of bastards!
People are stupid the world over, but I remember times like when an Orange march was cancelled and a dozen old women stopped my family from driving our car down the street where we lived because "if those men can't go down that road, neither can you", and when the police turned up they took the women's side. I couldn't wait to leave Northern Ireland!
That brand of Paisley-ish religion depresses me and it's still there, telling people what to do. Whenever I've encountered it I have always found it crushingly authoritarian and stifling to any independent thought. You still come up against certain attitudes which to my mind, should have gone out in the dark ages. 300 years after Voltaire and 300 years behind him.
4-Many Protestant artists from Northern Ireland and even Scotland seem to have at the core of their work a degree of self-flagellation. Why do you think this is?
All the Protestant stuff is trash, I don't think stands up as a belief system, but it's in your DNA. It is the way of thinking which is familiar to you. You can refuse it but you can't refuse yourself, and you are made by your upbringing, hence an internal conflict. So you watch the Wicker Man, for example, and you think this cop is a prude and a mug, but you really identify with him too. Vichy did a song called 'Oliver Cromwell in Weimar Berlin', where I had to allegorise it into a silly fantasy to talk about something quite personal.
I read a really good book called Murder in Amsterdam, about conflict between the Dutch and Moroccan immigrants. Apparently, sons of immigrants suffer abnormally high rates of schizophrenia. They think it's the plunge, after centuries in the Berber mountains, into this anything-goes melting pot. I don't know if there's any proof for the argument of cultural memory but the idea interests me.
5-In 2005 you introduced The Vichy Government as 'The Real IRA' in the Menagerie and on the same night renamed a song 'Fade to Jim Gray' in reference to the murdered Loyalist. Stuart Bailie criticised you after a show supporting the Scissor Sisters suggesting that what he perceived to be your posturing about the 'dead hand of sectarianism' and 'thug life in Ulster' should be tried out in Maghaberry Prison or what he curiously termed an 'east Belfast supporters club'. Did he miss the point?
With hindsight, standing in front of a load of metrosexual students from Malone and Stranmillis and telling them that the IRA and UDA are drug-dealing gangster cunts isn't a particularly interesting scenario. But we never targeted that milieu, or anyone in particular. We played gigs for anyone who asked us, never knowing who'd be likely to turn up. Once or twice it got ugly. At the time our response was, if Bailie can get us a gig at a Rangers supporters club we'll gladly play it. I thought playing those songs to rich kids brought out the class element, the implication of "this has been allowed to go on for so long because it's never affected your lot very much". Hypocritical of course, I would get up there and whine about the Shankill, then head straight back to Shoreditch the next day.
6-What does the future hold for The Vichy Government?
Probably not a lot. It's not likely that our fourth album would invent the wheel, and even less likely that anyone would notice if it did. Our label has no money at all and it's a long time since we were fashionable. I don't mind, I find ambition a bit vulgar. You have to market yourself, push yourself, sell yourself, become a cardboard caricature of yourself. I'm glad Frank Sidebottom exists, but I wouldn't want to be him.
7-How has Belfast changed in the eight and half years you've been living in England?
In rather unexpected ways. I didn't realise how surreal Belfast was until I got out. As a student I divided my time between the Shankill, where people would grafitti death-threats on the walls, and Cambridge, where people would paste Petrarch sonnets on the walls- very disorientating! When I brought friends back over they would be genuinely shocked that everyone in Belfast was white. I get the impression that it's coming much more into line with the rest of the world, it means different kinds of crap to put up with but I think it's generally a healthy thing. Last month I flew with a Eastern European budget airline, and the magazine had little profiles of every city they fly to. The three recommended places in Belfast were some £80 a head restaurant, some £100 a head restaurant, and the Rex bar on the Shankill. When I was a teenager I'd be in my parents' work, and wanting to go onto the road to get lunch from Beattie's chip shop, and the road would be closed off because there'd been another shooting in the Rex bar!
8- The Belfast Film Festival starts next month. You've become something of a film buff over the past few years. What have you been watching recently?
I'm afraid I have to be an old fogey again and say that I find the standard of new films fairly egregious. Stale and middlebrow. 'The Lives of Others' was very good, but I find the cinema of the 60s and 70s is the stuff that really excites me. Losey, Bunuel, Resnais, Bergman- these people all had very particular styles and approaches, and they were given the space to try things out and sometimes mess up. I don't look especially hard, I don't go to Iranian festivals or anything, but there don't seem to be many people like that anymore. The last thing that I went mad for was Fox & His Friends, an old Fassbinder film where he's a down-and-out who wins the lottery and gets systematically conned out of all his money. It's all about the use of etiquette and unspoken rules to keep people in their place. Pessimistic in a very clear-sighted, unsentimental way, which I admire.
9-Word has it that you've been spotted adorning a Linfield shirt on the streets of London. Does this suggest a return to traditional roots or is it an act of obdurate mischief-making?
I'm starting to follow Linfield again, must be a senile, sentimental softening of my attitude to Belfast. But more importantly I think it's a symptom of my intense frustration at the brazen corruption and suffocating bling of the Premiership. I go to watch Tottenham every few weeks but it's getting increasingly impossible to avoid the fact that the Premiership is a complete con. Some betting market analysts write a blogspot called 'football is fixed', which I highly recommend. When I was back at Christmas I watched some Irish League for the first time in years and I was surprised and pleased that half the Linfield team had Catholic names; I still remember Mo Johnston being the most hated man in Belfast when I was a kid.
The Vichy Government is Jamie Manners and Andrew Chilton
The album White Elephant is released next month on Filthy Little Angels.