The DJ legend on the past, present and future of guitar music
Ahead of the next leg of his ‘Going Deaf For A Living’ tour of talks around the UK, DJ and veteran music journalist Steve Lamacq has spoken to NME about his decades of discovering bands.
With the title taken from his book of the same name, the Going Deaf For A Living tour sees Lamacq discuss his 30 years of adventures from meeting legends, making history, and breaking new bands – from his early life as a local journalist, to the pages of NME, before hosting the iconic Evening Session and appearing on XFM and 6 Music.
Whether it’s the tale of Manic Richey Edwards carving 4 Real into his arm in front of him, his first rendez vous with Nirvana or his thoughts of the future of indie music, Lamacq promises to ‘tell you the truth, through the eyes of an avid music fan’.
“People come up to me at gigs and say ‘what was it like when the Gallaghers came on and started swearing on Radio One?’” Lamacq told NME. “So I just thought it was time to tell the stories to more people in the same room. It saves time if nothing else.”
Which stories from your early years have been landing the best with audiences?
“Meeting Nirvana, I think. I don’t know if it would be different if Kurt Cobain was still alive, but there are a lot of younger music fans who are influenced by and in awe of the Nirvana story, and what they left behind. When you say ‘I interviewed Kurt Cobain sitting on a bed on a hotel bed in a bed and breakfast in Shepherds Bush just before ‘Sliver’ came out’, they look at you slightly agog. It’s the personal element of the story. There are a lot of history books about the bands I’ve covered over the years, with the Manics, Nirvana and Blur, but there’s still a hunger to know what people are like. That’s the one key thing about music journalism: you need to convey what a pop star is like. You need to colour in their characteristics and their approach.”
So it’s those key 90s bands that people obsess over with you?
“People always ask about Nirvana, Manic Street Preachers and the early days of Blur. There’s a part of the show where we play three demos. People want to know what you look for in a demo or a debut single, but it’s hard to describe. So we play the demos. People guess who they are and then we talk about what was good about them and what they made different. While I do talk about all the Britpop war stories, ending up in a five-a-side team when Robbie Williams threatened to re-arrange my face etc, it’s also about what we all go through as music fans. It sometimes overtakes your life and defines who you are, from the playground onwards. Everyone has followed a band way past the point when they were good, and then stood up for them after they’ve gone bad.
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“We talk about that and how irrational it all makes you. If I’m standing at a Catfish gig, and I’ve seen Catfish & The Bottlemen 14 times, and there’s a guy in front who has only seen them once but he’s reading texts on his phone while they’re on stage, I should be standing in front of him. It’s this irrational possessiveness we have about pop music.”
Have you found yourself revealing any personal stories or trade secrets that you haven’t previously?
“I generally tend to like a band who are the underdog or not fashionable. There’s a wilfulness about championing something that seems harder to break, whereas the easy thing is obviously going to happen. I’ve found out that I’m a bit of a curmudgeon or a very small time revolutionary. It’s all about saying ‘I’m just like you – I’m a chump. Some of the bands I’ve found are good, some of them have turned out to be quite terrible’.”
What kind of bands spring to mind, when you’re talking about ones who’ve gone down the shitter but you remain loyal?
“The Stranglers I loved for ages. I can’t remember what single it was, but I think it was ‘Bear Cage’. I took it home, I put it on, and I just thought it was rubbish. Then I went back to the previous single and realised that was rubbish as well. I think it’s the blanding out that certain bands go through – either because they’ve run out of ideas, or they’re becoming more pedestrian. Some bands go safer sounding because they’re less hungry for it. Some bands get worn down by the repetition and it all just becomes a process. When a band first starts, they’re excited by all the firsts: their first EP, their first review, their first radio play, their first sell out hometown show, first tour. Fans and journalists feed off that, when a band gets somewhere. It’s hard to keep that momentum up so bands just start treading water and start slowly rotting.”
Has the way you discover new music changed, or are you still going to countless toilet venues and seeing what happens?
“I still don’t like shouting about a band until I’ve seen them live. There are a number of times when you hear a great record, but then you go see them live and realise they’ve only got two good songs and very little presence. I get annoyed sometimes by bands who rely on ad-libs and horrible Americanisms like ‘how you guys doin’?’ Come on man, you’re from Woking – you’re not Dave Grohl. Either don’t say anything and be enigmatic, or build a rapport. Don’t fill the gaps with platitudes, I’m not interested.
“While the manner in which we’re sent music is different now, the manner in which we fall in love with a band is pretty much the same. I saw Idles and Shame live before I’d heard any music. Idles at The Thekla in Bristol were just terrific. The singer looked like he wanted to kill everyone in the room, not least his band – but the whole place is full of a sense of community. Then I saw Shame at an all-dayer in Brixton just before they left school after their A levels. They were a bit baggier at the time and reminded me of early Blur or a little bit Mondays, but with a more angular feel. They had that thing you look for in a band: they looked like a gang, they looked like a unit. They don’t look like somebody who’s eventually got a band together by putting ads in places. This is chemically a genius thing. Following those two bands has been really heartening and reassuring. That’s what we do it for.”
How do you feel about the platform that guitar music has in 2018?
“I agree with the Manics and Noel Gallagher, who have both said in recent interviews that guitar music has very little presence in the mainstream. I don’t know why that is. Some of the dictators of sound haven’t been championing that scene with the enthusiasm that other music is being championed. For us, I still think there’s a great romance in following a band on tour, but I think some arbiters of taste think that’s a symptom of trad rock and unfashionable. That’s why we’re seeing this North-South divide in music. Everywhere has a distinct character. When I would DJ, Liverpool would always be rockier while Sheffield were more into indie.
“Now there are a lot of guitar bands going the old way of just gigging to people. There’s a physicality to just playing your songs and moving the people in front of you. With bands from the South, it just doesn’t happen as much. That may just be economics. It’s cheaper to be one person on a laptop in your bedroom. It’s very expensive to be a band. A lot of bands in the South East only tour for three weeks a year because that’s all that they can afford off work. Take a band like Black Waters. They’ve moved to Sheffield because if all they live in a house, they can survive without jobs and pursue the band.”
Those Arctic Monkeys, Nirvana and Oasis moments, where a whole generation come behind one band and cause a sea change in culture – do you feel they’re still possible in 2018?
“I don’t know if one band could do it. If there was a scene of sorts, then that could work. But I don’t even know what the glass ceiling is for bands like Shame. Even someone like The Sherlocks who’ve had a top 10 album are not perceived as being a huge band, but they play to loads of people. We live in an age where Courteeners can play absolutely massive gigs in Manchester and break records at The Ritz, whereas a lot of people that I know in the industry don’t see them as that big a noise, but they’re looking at it from a different angle. If you can play to 50,000 people and it still feels like you haven’t changed mainstream music culture, then you’ll struggle to find a band that will.”
Do you think we’re missing a taste-making radio show like The Evening Session?
“I think so. We’d go to gigs, and if we liked what we saw it go in the show the next night. If we liked something we just played it and played it. You need dominant taste-making forces. In the old days, you had the NME, Melody Maker, the Evening Session and John Peel. If you got two of those on your side, then you’re probably going to be able to sell out the Marquee in a week. If they kept on supporting you, you’d be at Brixton Academy in two years. Now people have so much choice of where to get their music that power isn’t central any more. Maybe Radio One doesn’t even hold that position of power as it once did. To be fair, they still try to do things that no commercial radio station would ever touch. They’re still trying to find out where the youth are going musically.”
Lamacq and Jo Wiley doing ‘The Evening Sesssion’
The upcoming dates for Lamacq’s ‘Going Deaf For A Living‘ tour are below.
8 May – COLCHESTER, Arts Centre
9 May – OXFORD, Jerico
10 May – READING, MacDevitts
11 May – LEEDS, The Brudenell
12 May – LEICESTER, The Cookie
15 May – LONDON, 100 Club