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Interview with Chumbawamba By Gabriella

Eight people from Leeds, a town in the north of England, famed for football (i.e., soccer) and unemployment, have been around for 15 long years, ignored by all but the underground scene, until the tune “Tubthumping” came along – now broadcast in heavy rotation on almost every pop radio station across the globe. The band’s sound may have changed over the years, but guitarist Boff and singer/percussionist Alice Nutter vehemently deny that their extreme political opinions (i.e., anarchism) and their roots in the British punk movement have changed. For Chumbawamba, pop music is merely a vehicle to relay their lyrics to the masses.


NY Rock:

Your sound seems to be more commercial than it used to be. Does it mean your outlook has changed?

Alice Nutter:

You're putting it far too simple. It ain't so simple. We still want to change the whole system, turn it upside down! We're not stars. We're revolutionaries. We just moved our battle zones. We're fighting the system now from within and not from the outside anymore and that's even better. This way we can do far more than we could in the past. If you fight from within the lines, you're bound to be more successful in achieving your goals.

NY Rock:

Are you trying to change the world with pop songs?

Boff:

I don't think politics alone can change anything. I really believe you need good pop and a couple of good beats. You see you need the youngsters to change something. They're the people who will join a revolution and the easiest way to reach the youngsters is with pop. They all love pop and they're bound to listen to lyrics if you put them in some catchy pop songs.

NY Rock:

So being successful was sort of a revolutionary act for you?

Boff:

We decided to become a successful band. We really tried to achieve that. The reason for it is not to be on heavy MTV rotation. The reason why we wanted to be a successful band was that the more successful you are, the more people hear your lyrics, the more people might actually listen to them, think about them and if we're really really lucky, some might even get off their butts and do something. We don't really know if it will work out but it's certainly worth a try.

NY Rock:

Why did you sign with EMI? The whole underground and independent scene once hated EMI.

Boff:

EMI and Thorn are not connected anymore. We used to hate EMI too and we bitched about them. Their connection with Thorn was one of the reasons for that, but they cut the ties now. If they still had anything to do with armament concerns, then we wouldn't have signed a contract. But the way I see it now – or the way we all see it now – is that there isn't any difference between EMI and other major labels.

The most important thing for us was that we got a good distribution, that the people out there get a chance to hear our music and our message. Now our album is available almost everywhere, not as an expensive import, but as a regular album. With an indie-label that wouldn't be possible. Anyway, we needed a new label because Virgin dropped us. We sent them the tape with our new recordings and they sent it right back to us. They weren't interested anymore and we shopped around and found another even bigger label.

NY Rock:

How does a Chumbawamba song come to life? How do you write a song?

Boff:

We hardly talk about the music. That's just something that happens somehow, no big effort really. The lyrics are different; we spend nights talking about our lyrics, because we all have to identify ourselves with the lyrics and we're eight people – five guys and three girls – and it can be pretty tough to get eight different characters to agree on one song, to keep eight people happy. Yeah, the lyrics can really be some sort of horror trip.

NY Rock:

Do you still see yourselves as anarchists?

Boff:

I think the press always misquotes the words anarchy and anarchism. They only use it in a very negative way. For them anarchism is chaos; nothing really works right. Now if they're writing that we are anarchists, then the word has a new meaning, a different slant. Then it isn't in a negative context – you know what I mean? It doesn't deal with violence in some far off country; it deals with eight people who're recording and performing nice songs. Probably a couple of people might start thinking about things, but even if they don't, it was worth a try. We said it before, we use our popularity and we use pop songs to spread our message and we're not even trying to hide it.

NY Rock:

Is it possible to be in a succesful band and remain anarchists? Isn't that a contradiction in itself?

Boff:

We realize that there is a conflict between being popular and being true to the roots and the message, and we're thinking about how – even if the outside form changes – we can keep our intergrety intact. How we can protect our message. I think if we'd lose our message, we'd be just a flash in the pan, but I don't think that it will happen.

NY Rock:

What is a Tubthumber?

Boff:

It's a term taken from the anarchistic tradition. Tubthumbers stood on street corners, and before factories, on boxes to voice radical political opinions. That requires a lot of guts and we liked the idea so much that we thought we're some sort of modern Tubthumpers with electric guitars and loudspeakers.

February 1998

More Chumbawamba on NY Rock:
Concert Review: Chumbawamba Live at Irving Plaza, 12/20/97



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