Anarchy Is OK
Dunstan Bruce, a member of the eight-person anarchist collective and pop group known as Chumbawamba, is pressing the flesh with various music-industry types at a sports bar in Milwaukee on a recent Thursday afternoon. Though Chumbawamba has been on a world tour since last October, Bruce is still not quite used to these schmooze sessions.
"They're always a bit strange, doing meet-and-greets," Bruce admits, speaking into a phone in a quiet corner of the bar. "It's like you're there as a special person, but you're just thinking, 'Well, I'm really normal.'"
In fact Bruce is fairly unusual. For the last sixteen years, he and his bandmates have been fighting for left-wing political causes, recording stridently political rock 'n' roll songs, and eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in their native England. But last September, Chumbawamba's catchy, anthemic single "Tubthumping" began racing up the Billboard charts and eventually peaked at No. 6, about halfway between Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997" and Jewel's "Foolish Games." The album, Tubthumper, rose all the way to No. 3. Almost overnight the members of Chumbawamba found themselves answering questions from Rolling Stone and USA Today, booking appearances on The Rosie O'Donnell Show and The Late Show With David Letterman, and organizing a tour that will take them through England, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.
"Here, we come over and people are treating us like we're a new band," Bruce says of the United States. "It's like, 'Oh, you're not a new band, you've been going for sixteen years?' It's great. It makes it feel really fresh that you can come from somewhere and now you're trawling through your whole back catalog. So it's new and interesting to people -- rather than in Britain, where everybody's totally fed up with Chumbawamba and think we should have died years ago."
But Chumbawamba has survived, which is more than can be said for most radical, idealistic, sociopolitical collectives. Bruce credits the band's survival to its democratic decision-making process. Chumbawamba does not make a move unless agreed upon by all its members: Bruce on percussion, Lou Watts on keyboards, Harry Hamer on drums, Paul Greco on bass, Jude Abbott on trumpet, Danbert Nobacon on vocals/keyboards, Alice Nutter on vocals/percussion, and Boff on guitar. Despite being thrown into the fast-moving machinery of the mainstream music industry, the band continues to function as if it were a small government.
"We still spend hours and hours stuck in rooms having meetings," says Bruce. "We're just always emphasizing to management, agents, and record companies that things must be channeled through us. We've always worked in a defensive and collective way, and we don't want to lose that control."
Of all the highly political punk bands born during the Thatcherite '80s, Chumbawamba is perhaps the only one left standing. It owes much of its politics and pranksterism to the seminal band Crass, which helped popularize the notion of punk rock as a viable platform for anarchist politics. Crass was nothing if not committed. Its core members -- who took absurd names such as Steve Ignorant and Joy de Vivre -- formed their own record label, lived communally, adhered to strict veganism, and managed to live almost completely untouched by any vestige of capitalist society. Other bands of the period -- such as the Poison Girls, Conflict, and Disorder -- typically released albums in sleeves that unfolded into broadsheets covered with the addresses of various political coalitions and detailed information about nuclear disarmament, the Falklands War, death squads in El Salvador, and the ecological impact of cattle farming.
At the time, the musical medium of choice was dissonant, primitive punk rock with vehemently antiestablishment lyrics. The band Flux of Pink Indians may have summed up the movement's bitter tone with its 1983 album The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks. But it soon became apparent to Chumbawamba that releasing noisy albums through small labels meant reaching only a small audience of like-minded listeners.
"When we first started out, I think we believed that we could operate outside of capitalism," says Bruce. "You could have this band that was a pure entity, that produced its own records, put out its own records, and sold a couple thousand copies. But it wasn't making a dent on anything."
Chumbawamba came to that realization slowly. In 1982 the band -- basically a group of squatters in the working-class city of Leeds -- released its first demo tape, a chunk of noise that ended up on a compilation album put together by the Crass collective. Chumbawamba later formed its own record label, Agit-Prop. In 1986 the band released its debut album, a response to the Live Aid concert, titled Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records. The band then bemoaned the general election of '87 on Never Mind the Ballots... Here's the Rest of Your Lives. In 1989 Chumbawamba radically departed from its punk roots with English Rebel Songs 13911914, a collection of fourteenth-century antitax songs, all sung a capella.
In 1990 Chumbawamba released Slap!, which seemed directed at the faces of the punk dogmatists in England. The album's lyrics were as venomous as ever, but the music was -- of all things -- bona fide dance-pop, complete with keyboards and catchy hooks. In 1993 Chumbawamba signed with One Little Indian, a label run by Derek Birkett, a former Crass collaborator, and released two more albums. But when Chumbawamba recorded the radio-friendly songs that would eventually become Tubthumper, One Little Indian balked. Chumbawamba promptly left the label.
The "Tubthumping" single landed on a compilation album that passed through the hands of Lee Chesnut, a programming director at VH1. With its working-class chorus ("I get knocked down/But I get up again/You're never going to keep me down") and nifty trumpet riff, "Tubthumping" caught Chesnut's ear. He phoned the folks at Republic Records, who reportedly took one listen and immediately made Chumbawamba an offer. Chumbawamba accepted and now resides under the aegis of Republic/Universal Records. It's certainly no indie label: It's affiliated with Universal movie studios.
"There was a time when Crass did sell a lot of records," Bruce recalls, perhaps a little wistfully, "and it seemed as though there was a possibility that an alternative society could exist, or an alternative means of distributing records and reaching people. But now the music industry has sucked all that in, and it has adapted. So that way of working can't exist anymore. I think what we're doing is accepting that now, in 1998, things are a lot different."
Bruce realizes that Chumbawamba has put itself in a tricky position: It's an anarchist group funded by a capitalist bankroll. "But if we didn't do that, nobody would know about us," he explains. "We're not ostriches with our heads in the sand who think we can affect change without reaching people. We realize that the most important thing is that we're obsessed by popular culture, so we want to be a part of popular culture. We want to influence it and have some effect on it. We don't want to be on the outside trying to get in. We want to be on the inside, kicking outward."
Tubthumper offers twelve terrifically catchy pop tunes that take flying kicks at various targets such as slumlords ("Drip Drip Drip"), corrupt union leaders ("One by One"), and, appropriately enough, the vacuous nature of pop music ("Amnesia"). On "The Big Issue," Chumbawamba addresses homelessness by making a rousing refrain out of the lyrics, "This is the girl who/Lost the house which/Paid to the man who/Put up the rent and/Threw out the girl to/ Feather his own sweet home." For the most part, Tubthumper sounds like the hook-heavy, sample-laden stuff that briefly whisked Jesus Jones and EMF to the top of the charts in the late '80s.
In the apolitical '90s, anarchy is pretty difficult to take seriously. The key to Chumbawamba's success is that it's quite earnest about its political beliefs, but never serious. This is the band whose lead singer, Nobacon, once "assassinated" the Clash in midconcert with a paint-ball gun and last year got himself arrested in Italy for walking the streets wearing a dress. During the band's recent American TV appearances, members wore shirts emblazoned with self-critical messages such as "One Hit Wonder," "Sold Out," and "Shift Units."
"We're just enjoying our fifteen minutes, really," says Bruce.
And the money? It's split evenly among the band, and its road crew. According to Bruce some will go toward repaying old debts, some toward a financially secure future, some toward "unfashionable political groups who can't get money from anyone else." Some might be used to build a studio (though the group has yet to vote on it).
"People think, 'God, it must be great. You've had this success, and you've been playing small clubs and not selling that many records,'" says Bruce. "But for us, we've had a great time anyway over the last sixteen years, regardless of this success. We've been able to survive as a band. So this is not something that we've been striving for. This is like a happy accident, really."
Chumbawamba performs at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 1, at the Cameo Theater, 1445 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Call 305-532-0922.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.