Citing The Clash and Stiff Little Fingers as major influences London based Slow Faction have been around in their current incarnation since 2012. Their first two releases The Shopping Malls and The Brixton Tapes came out in 2014 followed by This Machine Kills Fascists in 2016 and Under Heavy Manners in 2017. The latter elicited widespread praise with one reviewer describing it as ‘music…so spot-on and tunefully perfect-punk that this is simply a great mini-album (1)’ and another commenting about the songs that they have ‘a rare songwriting craft about them (2)’. I caught Slow Faction in Nottingham a few weeks ago where I spent their entire set grinning to myself at having stumbled over such an outstanding band (a subject me and a mate keep returning to!) and then saw them again in London where they confirmed what I had suspected-they’re a musically and lyrically exceptional band who can do it in the studio and on stage where their convictions are palpable and their energy impressive!
At the London gig, that John (Youens) had also helped organise, we had a chat about getting an (email) interview together and lo and behold here it is!
Could you give us an overview of Slow Faction, how long have you been going, how did you get together?
If truth be told, Slow Faction is a lifelong project for me, albeit an intermittent one. I first used the name Slow Faction in 1986/7 when I was writing songs with a friend at University in Exeter. We went our separate ways but carried on writing songs by correspondence – I got into 4 track home recording and he sent me lyrics or I sent him themes to go with tunes I had. He moved down to London in 1993 and we put the second incarnation of Slow Faction together as a gigging band. 4 years later we split in acrimonious circumstances. I and the other musicians limped on for a year or so under a different name but the impetus had gone. After the split I continued down the home recording path and writing new songs and this time lyrics – I posted the songs under the name Suburban Armchair Paranoia and always got good feedback so never lost sight of the fact that these songs should one day be played live. I never lost touch with Umbi, the bass-player in 93-99, and we used to see each other every couple of years, but he was always in bands doing this and that…then in 2012 we met up and he wasn’t in a band anymore. It might seem strange that I waited 13 years to play live again but I always had the feeling that Umbi and I would make music again and it felt that this time around, the time was right. We recruited Zen (drums) and Lee (rhythm guitar) through Gumtree and worked up a live band and started gigging again in Feb 2013. Zen left in Dec 2016 and Kit joined us on drums. Since Kit joined us I feel that we are more musically complete than at any time and the gigs are getting better and better.
Did the band come together out of a shared politics or shared music? Which was the main driver behind Slow Faction? Could Slow Faction have been a band who sung about getting pissed?
To be in Slow Faction you have to have a broad sympathy with the politics but the music has to come first. My idea for Slow Faction was always the best possible tunes & melodies which rocked but allied to lyrics that had substance. I always wanted Slow Faction to be a literate punk rock band that quickened the pulse. I feel there are enough bands singing about getting pissed already.
Had any of you been in bands before? I would guess from the level of musicality that you have!
As I said above, for me Slow Faction is a lifelong project and I have grown musically over the years through improving my musicianship, teaching myself about recording and sound engineering and trying to find a lyrical voice. Umbi, Kit and Lee have been in multiple bands before. But, just as important, we are all massive music fans and listen to a broad range of music – we don’t sit around listening to just punk – and within our music there are different influences at play which come out when we play live.
What bands are you conscious of being an influence on your sound? You describe yourselves as being influenced by the first wave of punk and people have mentioned The Clash but I was also thinking about The Alarm and The Levellers, I think it’s because the songwriting is so ‘musical’!
Thanks, yes for me the Clash and early Stiff Little Fingers were a prime motivating factor to pick up a guitar and write songs. Later on I became a big Rancid fan – I think Tim Armstrong is a very interesting story-teller lyricist. I have also followed the Manic Street Preachers from the start until now – I love the way that even 29 years into their careers they can still pull out a big exciting melodious song.
Was Slow Faction’s sound a deliberate decision, or is it the combination of the component parts?
I always had a vision (if that’s the right word) for how I wanted Slow Faction to sound. Of course, like everyone, we went into studios a few times but it was always an unsatisfactory experience. In the days before digital, there would always be the pressure to mix quickly so the studio could wipe and reuse the tape. This led to hurried mixing and we never came out sounding how we wanted to. Now, we record ourselves and each recording comes closer to how we want to sound. The reviews for Under Heavy Manners (Sept 2017) were outstanding – and no one mentioned the DIY production so we must have been doing something right!
How does a song come about in Slow Faction? Is it a collaborative process or does there tend to be one main songwriter?
Because I have spent so long writing and recording myself, it is not a collaborative process. I tend to have the song completed in terms of lyrics, structure and guitar riffs and present a drum machine demo to the band, which we then work out into a band version.
My writing has always come about from an acoustic guitar or electric guitar on a clean setting. I focus very much on chord structures and melody lines…I live with this for a while until the right lyric starts to form and then I will start to think about arrangements, riffs, solos…but it always start with the melody lines…
‘Can’t you see, there’s a war going on out there?
It’s a fight for survival now
But you don’t really care
You think it doesn’t affect you
Two million children live in poverty
And they say we’re a civilised land
The social contract’s been rescinded
As a million queue for food banks’
(‘There’s a War Going On’-Heavy Manners)
One of the things that marks Slow Faction out is the relevance and quality of the lyrics, they stand out for their sophistication and intelligence. What sort of resources do you draw on? I’m guessing a lot of time reading is distilled into three minutes of singing!?
Thanks – yes, this was always the long-time aim of Slow Faction to write relevant, literate songs which mean something and it hasn’t exactly come about overnight. Like most people my sort of age, I am a synthesis of everything I’ve experienced, read, listened to and this has come together to form my lyrical voice. If you want to boil it down to a few ingredients – punk rock, left wing politics, German 20th Century Literature, Eastern Philosophy and meditation – my wife is a Thai Buddhist and we go to the temple regularly and I have studied Taoism and meditation for over 25 years. I have also travelled extensively for my job and have experienced many different countries and cultures. In the broadest sense I would describe my views (as Heinrich Boell did of himself) as humanitarian liberalism. I am from the left but not dogmatic about it…I am more concerned with equality and fairness and balance and, certainly in this country life has become far more unequal, unfair and unbalanced. There is a war going on in this country and as I write in the song Under Heavy Manners, it’s one that’s being waged by the rich upon the poor…
You released your first EP The Shopping Malls in August 2014, The Brixton Tapes later that year, This Machine Kills Fascists came out in 2016 and last year you released Under Heavy Manners. That’s quite a stream of creativity! What sort of subjects have preoccupied you over those 20 or so songs?
The overarching themes are the abuse of power by the rich which is used to control and subjugate and destroy the poor, aided and abetted by the complicit people in the middle who unknowingly allow it to happen while being fed a diet of stultifying drivel by the media. If you look at just the song ‘Under Heavy Manners’, this contains most of the major themes in its 3 verses: closing down the cities and ordinary people’s way of life, distracting people with cheap reality television, lying politicians leading us into unjustified wars while all the time taking from the poor and giving it to the super rich, surveillance and CCTV spying on our lives while we sit at home satisfied by what the media provides as a distraction…and all the while we are more and more divided and there is no motivating factor to unify us to take to the streets and say enough is enough…those of us who seek to offer a different viewpoint are lone voices in the wilderness as I conclude in the song ‘Clear Channel’…
In your song ‘Poundland Society’ (Under Heavy Manners)..
‘Now in this world of demagogues
They stir up hatred to unite
So you rally one more time
Behind your flags of ignorance
I’ll leave you now as you celebrate
The hollowness of your victory
Your aim was so wide of the mark
You’ve handed power to the enemy
– and you’ll always have nothing Poundland Society
– I see the desperation
– of this divided nation
– enjoy the independence
– of your bargain bin fucked existence
– you’ve got your sovereignty now
– say hello to penury now
– wave your flags that’s all that you’ve got left’
..you’ve nailed Brexit completely ‘You’ve handed power to the enemy’, is a succinct analysis of the class dimension that seemed to be missing from most working class peoples’ thinking. Did you find that a particularly frustrating time?
Personally, I am horrified by Brexit. I have lived and worked across Europe and I view (and backed up by European friends) the EU not as some globalist, fascist state, but rather more as a well-meaning but obviously imperfect social democratic institution which, by necessity, is seeking compromise across many countries’ interests. Sometimes they get some issues very wrong, but on overall balance, I see the EU as more positive than negative. I see Brexit as a very negative step that’s been sold to the British public by unscrupulous politicians from the far right and by tax-avoiding media enterprises. Also there is definitely something behind US and Russia interference both of whom would benefit from a weakened EU. People in this country have been left behind by the rich NOT because of EU policies but because of policies pursued aggressively by our own government. If the EU was a neoliberal plot then how come the gap between rich and poor is much narrower in Germany (which has had a conservative president for most of this century) than it is in the UK? It is entirely down to domestic politics that we are so unequal and so much has been taken away from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. If people who voted Brexit seriously think things will become much fairer in this country in a government led by Johnson, Gove, Raab, Fox, etc, supported by Murdoch, Dacre, Viscount Rothermere, Richard Desmond and the Barclay Brothers, then I think they might well be in for a nasty shock…
You are a political punk band, whereabouts would you place yourselves politically or is there a continuing evolving of thought? Is there a spectrum of positions within the band?
We are a band of mature individuals who all have our own life experiences which form our own thoughts and opinions. Having said that, we are all left of centre to varying degrees. Personally, I view myself as more of a European-style social democrat but on the social issues (fairness, equality, race, the abuse of power, etc) very much to the harder left of the spectrum.
How did your politics develop? Were there any significant experiences or influences?
Punk rock was very much my first music, being 13 in 1977 and growing up in the Midlands, but it was very much the Clash and Stiff Little Fingers who sparked my interest in politics in the broadest sense. When I was 18 I lived in Germany working in a hotel and, for what was then a very prosperous country, saw homeless people for the first time. At the same time I started reading Heinrich Boell (Boell had been a leading liberal voice of reason in Germany at the time of the Baader-Meinhof gang and the public reaction had led to extreme measures against anyone with a leftwing background). His views were very much ones of the politics of the everyday – how we relate to people, our thoughts when confronted by people less fortunate or different than ourselves, how sharing a conversation or a coffee or a cigarette could be interpreted politically or even take on an almost sacramental value. At the height of the terrorist paranoia he described the feeling of Beruehrungsangst (fear of contact) and how the clampdown on freedoms, supported by media distortions, was making society more atomised and people less willing to have anything to do with people different from themselves. In this country from Thatcher through to today we have seen this happening – we are more remote from other people, we live outside communities and society is very fragmented and this is supported by a media full of stories designed to make us look down on or fear our fellow human beings – the fear of contact that Boell was referring to 40 years ago, has come to fruition in the UK.
Slow Faction are very involved with the DIY punk scene in London and with the South London Punk Collective, how do you think grassroots punk is doing? Is it encouraging to be part of?
Grassroots Punk is very healthy in terms of the number of bands out there writing and playing amazing music – the songwriting talent and musicianship is incredible. In London, however, you are always chasing the 200-300 people who are regular gig-goers and if there are 4 or 5 punk gigs on the same night (very common) then the audience gets very fragmented.
Yes, it is very encouraging to be part of as certain bands really contribute to the feeling of community, that’s so lacking elsewhere. However, the frustrations are the ones of bands everywhere and live music in general – some bands are only in it for themselves – they message me for SLPC gigs but never see them at a DIY gig unless they are on the bill themselves. Even if they can’t make a gig, they could help share and promote the DIY gigs on Facebook but even clicking on share is too much effort for some people.
The other frustration is that there are people who will pay to see ‘name’ bands – particularly on the punk nostalgia circuit – but wouldn’t walk to the end of the road to check out a free entry gig of local bands.
Has involvement in grassroots punk grown again in reaction to the imposition of neoliberal class war inspired cuts aka austerity? Have you seen more young people looking to punk as a site of resistance?
I’m not sure about that. Punk feels very much a niche music genre these days and London is a very big city which has always been home to people of alternative outlooks, attitudes and lifestyles so it’s very hard to tell if the ranks have been swelled as a response to austerity. Also, although we are a political band, there are some who state firmly that punk is not and never was about politics – and those views are not confined to age groups or genres within punk.
I feel that anyone drawn to politics or resistance of whatever form of protest, will do so regardless of whether they see themselves as punk or not.
Over the years has the numbers involved in punk tended to move in waves or is it fairly constant?
In terms of making music and active punk groups I would say we are currently at a peak. In spite of venue closures, there is always a choice of gigs every weekend in London. Recording technology is cheap and people can make their own music at reasonable expense and the internet means you can distribute it to a potential audience.
The problem is that the audience for punk both as music consumer and gig-goer is very limited. Punk remains a niche genre.
Do you think punk has generally developed in a positive way? Has it fulfilled your hopes for it?
Personally, yes – punk is in my heart and in my head and informs how I live my life – not just in the music scene, but how I approach my relationships, my work, my family – this is also combined with my interest in Buddhism, Taoism & meditation – through these I try to live my live with honesty, integrity and transparency and punk values inform this approach to life just as much as the Eastern values. I also know many people in the punk scene who I would trust 100% to uphold these values.
But, but, but – being a punk is not an automatic pass to the higher plain. Punk is a microcosm of society and there will be racists, sexists, selfish people, users & abusers within punk just as much in society at large.
In your own experience has it managed to stay as a counter to consumerism as identity, to offer positive community and creativity as alternative resources for the construction of self?
Once again, for me, personally, punk embodies many healthy values which I subscribe to and which have informed my life. Yes, punk has made me less susceptible to consumerism and selfishness. It has engendered a sense of community to me, my band and the bands we most closely associate with. ‘Ignore Alien Orders’ still informs my thinking and leads me to question everything. This in turn leads to the desire to keep on exploring ideas which then come out in the form of new songs – and yes, always being questioning does lead to an exploration of self, if not a construction – that happens with every thought, experience, action, not necessarily just through punk or punk attitude…Hermann Hesse described those who explore through questioning and self-examination as Morgenlandfahrer and with my combination of punk and Eastern philosophical values, that is how I view my own personal journey
What are Slow Faction’s plans for the rest of 2018? Are there plenty of opportunities to see you playing live?
We’ve still got a run of gigs through May/June/July and August. Umbi, our bass player, goes to Japan every year around October time so we’ll be out of action for mid-autumn but gigs always come up and we’ll no doubt organise some SLPC gigs in London. I would also like to take some time out to write new songs. Each year our set changes and we want to keep moving forwards – writing new songs, exploring new ideas…
What bands and writers have you been enjoying lately? Who should we keep an eye (ear?) out for musically?
Writers – I’m re-reading at the moment a novella by Boell as I had a discussion with a friend about a month ago and she inspired me to pick something up by him for the first time in 20 years. My other favourite writers are Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. I would also recommend reading the Tao Te Ching – reading this 25 years ago literally changed my life.
Musically, I love so many DIY bands that if I mention some, then I will only leave someone out….but special mention goes to my SLPC comrades Stone Heroes and Mindframe plus the wonderful bands we toured Germany with recently: The Phobics and Proud City Fathers. Favourite CD of 2017 – the debut EP by the utterly wonderful Backstreet Abortions.
Photo by Frau Mony courtesy of Slow Faction.
(1) Babey, G. (2017), Louder Than War, https://slowfaction.bandcamp.com/album/under-heavy-manners
(2) Whyte, J. (2017) https://slowfaction.bandcamp.com/album/under-heavy-manners