As one of the founding members of Crass, Steve Ignorant is a prominent figure in the world of punk. Since they disbanded, he has played with a number of bands including Conflict, Schwartzeneggar, and Paranoid Visions. He has also pursued other projects. He currently performs with Slice of Life who will be playing Rebellion this year. Slice of Life has a more stripped back approach than some of Steve’s earlier bands, though they do still play a few tunes from his impressive back catalogue. The project blends spoken word with acoustic guitars and piano, casting a new slant on the punk ethos. I caught up with Steve to talk a bit about the influence of Joni Mitchell, his time as a Punch and Judy performer and of course Rebellion.
On the Music…
Who (or what) would you say are your main influences?
Definitely David Bowie from his really early stuff and also Joni Mitchell. I particularly like the album Hejira, although I do like the other ones, too. The Hissing of Summer Lawns has some good tracks.
Has the way they play influenced how you make music?
A long time ago back in the eighties I went and bought an acoustic twelve-string guitar. I said to the guy “Have you got a Joni Mitchell songbook, preferably a slightly easier one?”. He gave me a songbook that was incredibly difficult. You had to retune the guitar for every track, which is a lot of hassle on a twelve string. However, I did manage to glean a couple of chords that she uses that sound great and passed them onto Pete Wilson. He then went onto using them in some Slice of Life material, which gave us some nice stepping stones to creating more interesting melodies. Also with David Bowie’s early songs, something like The ”London Boys”, which has a relatively simple structure, is the sort of song we used as a template. I think that’s the direction I’ve been unconsciously going with my writing.
When you’re approaching writing something new, do you have a clear idea of what direction you want to take?
It tends to start off with me humming and I’ll think that would make a good intro and then that could be an interesting chord formation. Then I often think oh fuck it I don’t know how to do that, I’ll just play the same chords the whole way through. Once I show it to the rest of the band they take it up a notch and we work very closely together to give it shape. I basically come up with a very simple structure and it evolves from there.
You’ve been on the road with Spice of Life recently, how has that been received, are you enjoying the gigs you’ve been playing?
Yeah definitely, we were in Berlin recently playing quite a punk-rocky show and I don’t think the locals were expecting to be too impressed. They saw us sidle in and thought what’s this then, but by the end of the show they were all clapping and cheering. Quite a few people came up afterwards and said how much they enjoyed it and we sold quite a lot of merchandise. I think we’ll probably have a few reactions like that until we get a bit better known. People come with certain expectations and then when they see two guys and a woman sat down with acoustic guitars and a piano their faces drop. That’s the way it is though, I don’t really mind, I’d expected that was the response we’d get.
With Spice of Life…
Do you think there is an expectation that you should be playing a more traditionally punk set?
I don’t know, I think that’s the expectation when they first walk in but once they’ve seen a bit they get what you’re doing. It’s more of an initial face value assessment. I do slip in a couple of the old songs now and then because I think it’s a bit unfair not to. If David Bowie was still alive and I went to one of his gigs and he didn’t do “Life on Mars” or “Sweet Thing” I’d be really pissed off.
Do you still enjoy playing some of your older songs?
I do. You have to gauge when it feels right, I tend to read the audience. At some gigs, it just hasn’t needed it or it hasn’t felt appropriate. I do enjoy playing them though and it gives people a chance to sing along as well which is always nice.
How many times have you played Rebellion?
Bloody Hell, about four times now I think. The first time I did it was with Penny Rimbaud where we did a question and answer session. Then I played with Slice of Life, and then with them and Paranoid Visions, so yeah this is my fourth one.
Do you have any tips for musicians who are playing Rebellion for the first time?
Pace yourself with the alcohol, which I find very difficult as there’s not really a lot else to do. Definitely take ear plugs and if you’re playing be prepared for a weird echo in some of the rooms, which can be off-putting. In the literary space, I had an interview with Gary Bushell once and there was a very strange echo. This can happen in a couple of the venues so be prepared for that. Also once people come in don’t be worried if there are only about ten people when you’re starting, it will fill up. Finally just have a good time, go and see other bands, mill around and have fun.
Are there any bands you’re looking forward to seeing this year at Rebellion?
I’m definitely going to check out the Newly Introducing stage. I went last year and there was a great Brazilian band playing, can’t remember what they were called but they were great. I’m going to go and see the Mau Maus, funnily enough, I’m friends with the lead singer’s cousin. I’ll pop in and see Paranoid Visions play as I’m not performing with them this year. Penny Rimbaud is doing something this year with Viv Libertine so I suppose I should go along to that. I’ll mainly be sitting on the merchandise stall with Jona my wife, we’ll be there all four days.
Do you think there are any similarities between playing a gig and working as a Punch and Judy performer?
I still get as nervous and I think there are certain similarities. When I’m doing Punch and Judy I can’t see the audience but I can hear it, so I would know if the kids were enjoying certain sections, for example, the Crocodile bit. I also have to know when to end a particular part. If there was bit they didn’t like such as the hanging scene. A lot of kids now don’t know what hanging is now, so I’d often get that bit over with quickly. It’s the same as reading an audience when you’re on stage. You can see how they react and change things accordingly. If you play a slow one and it doesn’t go down that well and you’ve got another slow one planned, you can opt to play a more upbeat track instead. They’re definitely similar in that way.
Do you still do Punch and Judy shows?
No, I haven’t done for a few years now. The characters, which I made myself out of papier mache way back around 1991 are very fragile. The booth is also falling apart so I’d have to totally redo the whole thing from scratch which is a lot of work. It took me about three months to get everything set up. You have to sew the costumes as well, so it ends up taking ages.
How do you feel about how the music scene has developed since the early days of Crass? Do you still feel positive about the potential for music to affect change?
Yeah, I think so. You listen to bands now and they tend to be pretty musically talented. There’s nothing wrong with how it was when I started and nobody could really play, but it seems that now people are actually learning to play their instruments a bit more. There’s more melody and people are trying to come up with more innovative and interesting sounding music. I can still get into a band that sounds slightly like The Ramones or whatever but sometimes you get quirky ones and think, I actually quite like this. They’re doing that but the message is still there. On the other hand, you have bands like Sleaford Mods. I don’t think they would call themselves punk but they’re certainly in the right area for me. They’re amazing at what they do, using telephone technology.
You toured with Sleaford Mods, didn’t you?
Yeah, I did a couple of years ago. We also supported them at a festival over in Belgium earlier this year. That was a really good gig as well. I think what they’re doing as a band is reaching that audience that maybe punk bands don’t. We’re generally addressing an audience that isn’t that young. The texting, telephoning generation is what they’re reaching out to, which I can’t. I don’t have a mobile phone or anything like that.
What are you currently working on and promoting?
I’ve been in and out of the studio quite a bit working on recording a new album. I don’t know when that’s coming out so unfortunately, I can’t give you a date. We’re doing a bit of filming up in Bolton soon, so there will be some visual stuff up on Youtube for Slice of Life. I’m keen to do more on that side of things as that’s the way the world is going now. People don’t just listen to a record, most people watch videos as well. We’ve got to get more footage out there so that people start getting to know us.
Do you have any advice for acts who are just starting out?
Take a deep breath, stand up straight on stage and look them in the eye. If you get five people in the audience that’s brilliant, if you get six that’s a bonus. Don’t be put off by the fact that if you’re a poet, or you’re up there with an acoustic guitar people will be talking constantly. Jazz musicians have had to put up with that for fucking centuries, it’s a pain in the arse but you’ve got to deal with it. Be professional, you’re the one on stage, they’re the mugs paying to see you so let them have it. Actually, they’re not mugs, they’re the people who have the decency to come out on a wet Thursday evening to come and see you. Try and give them the best show you can.
Any final thoughts?
Yeah if you pass by the merch stall come over and say hello, you can buy me a beer if you want.
You can catch Steve Ignorant and Slice of Life on Thursday 2nd August at 7:30 pm at the Opera House.