...you know what; every time I walk into the stadium and I walk up the steps and I hear the crowd, and see the first blades of grass, my heart's just like... arrrgh! And the same is like walking into a gig. I'm so fucking psyched! Because you get energy from it, you can't pay for that it's your lifeblood.
(All photos courtesy of Thierry Laroche)
I'm sat with Ajay Saggar in the Pieper cafe on the corner of the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, a spit and a stride away from the Paradiso where Ajay is the production manager. It's raining. Typical Lancashire weather; it could be Accrington, or Preston. We feel at home. We talk of the brilliance and tragedy of Space Siren, whose sound Ajay recently had mixed at the Patronaat. The radio blares out something from Radio 538, or Veronica or whatever. Simply the Best, Eye of the Tiger, Born to Run. It matters not. After a while, just like Homer Simpson when he's speaking to Marge, we blot it out. If this country's mainstream deejays want to perpetuate a myth of the Dutch being perma-tanned, bedecked in stonewashed denim and users of hairspray and white sox, let them. They will meet their Maker and there will be a Terrible Reckoning; I am sure of it.
Anyway we're here to talk about Ajay's latest band, King Champion Sounds. Ajay's always involved in something since, well... the year dot. We can name a few. The Bent Moustache, Donkey, Dandelion Adventure, a new project called Deutsche Ashram with old members of Prolapse and which he'd been busy with the day before we met.
But, as I've said, we're here to talk about King Champion Sounds, who have made a brilliant new record, Songs For The Golden Hour. Truly one of the best Dutch releases in a year where there are some pretty strong contenders for that particular crown. I take a swig at my beer and switch the tape on.
IN: So here we are, sat with Ajay in the pub... I wanted to talk to you about how you came to create this new record? I'm wondering where this new thing with King Champion Sounds came from? What was the impetus? Because it IS different to what you have done before.
AS: Yeah... I get you. It's weird because it's people have said that they have been surprised by where this has all come from, where it originated from. And the direction it's taken. But I don't really see it as a separate entity from what I've done in the past anyway. I see it as an extension of everything I've ever done in the past. Whether it was Dandelion Adventure or Bent Moustache... And it comes down to one thing really; in terms of making music it's always been a case of keeping yourself thrilled. I'll admit I'm always the first one to get bored. I hate playing the same songs after five gigs! I'm ready then to move on and to do some new stuff.
And thinking of the songs from the last King Champion Sounds album (Ed - Different Drummer) and the current album, thinking about what made me want to go in this particular musical direction, maybe the first thing was writing songs in a constricted amount of time. The only time I've ever had to do that in the past was with Peel Sessions. Where you had to do things a month before. And instead of turning up to Peel Sessions with four old songs you wanted to give four new ones. And then you really had to work hard. And the King Champion Sounds thing, and the ideas behind it, hinged round a similar kind of process.
I already had the ideas of doing something creative with horns and originally wanted to have strings in the live thing. That never quite materialised. But I have managed to put strings on the new album. The musical background was more about being concise, I wanted something that was really driving, and had focus. Repetition was really important to the whole thing. Building up on musical themes and then letting them grow, and having something beautiful and organic round a core idea. And erm... getting the musicians round that was one thing. But who could I get to build up the lyrics round this idea? And Sok (Ed - GW Sok, late of The Ex) was an obvious choice. And what started as a one-off became a bit bigger in our lives!
IN: The two albums are very different. I was listening to the first again, as a precursor to sorting out the questions for this interview and I could hear the difference is massive! So in a way the soundscape you created for the first album gave you the freedom for the second!
AS: Yeah! Well, I'd already decided to write the songs for the second one - even before the first one came out - I was getting ideas ready for the second one. And I had a time scenario in my head for how and when we would do the second. I had already said to the rest of the guys, "this time next year we'll have another record out". I already demoed the ideas and got everyone to come in and do their parts; because I know how long that process takes. But that was fine because you kinda want to build and make things grow properly, in a musical way.
And certainly, speaking for the musicians here they are all delighted and surprised in the way the new one sounded. At first they were all, "woah, this is a bit left field" but now they really, really like it. And the next one... we're going to do it organically; get everyone in and over a really long weekend, just the musicians, no Jos (Ed- GW Sok) to begin with.
IN: It's an expansive record. And given that, I want to know how you manage to keep focussed on your music. As you've worked with so many musicians over the years. Now... I take it for the latest King Champion Sounds record it's still the same people?
AS: Yeah it is.
IN: OK, so in contrast with what I know of your bands, seeing you live over the past seven or so years, this is the first time I've seen you with a line up that is...
IN: That's it! You're able to continually adapt to a lot of musicians.
AS: Do you know, Richard, that's.... that's the one thing I've found really problematic in the Dutch music scene. Because when you were in England you were in a band, and ONE band only. Your heart and soul belonged to that band. But every Dutch musician I've come across and worked with up to now, not including my current band, have just been totally mercenary. They are just looking for the next paycheck and use their current position to catapult them to a bigger stage and a bigger audience. And as to the actual work... I find they have less affinity for sticking to an idea of a band, the gang mentality, the idea of really going in and working for a record, hard work, locked up in a rehearsal room and drowning in a sea of noise and ideas. And people sadly just want things handed on a plate to them. They'll do it for a short while and they'll enjoy their little tours to England and then it'll be... "oh sorry I've got to go to my job... I've no time..." or; "someone else has offered this". As to the group mentality, sticking together with one group, regardless... that is an alien concept here. You know Richard there's absolutely no point in being in a band if you don't push the whole thing to the limit. Lots of Dutch musicians just don't have that in them.
IN: I can only really think of The Ex and Rats on Rafts who have that total "one group" mentality thing. A gang. And The Ex have had their changes but...
AS: ...their core has settled and there's this oneness and dedication about them. Maybe The Kift too. But to take it back to King Champion Sounds. It's weird because it's the first time.... (silence) I'll give you an example. We went playing in the UK recently. A bunch of old friends came to see us and they loved the live show and they loved talking to the other musicians in the band and my friends found the band to be really open and generous people. And my friends said, "you're onto a great thing here". And I said, "this is the first time I've played with musicians where I've felt that I'm in a proper group, both onstage and offstage!"
But I think that's also because the dynamics within the band are so lively and varied. You've got a kid who's 18 on drums and is getting a chance to really express himself without the restrictions of what college tells him or what his schoolmates' bands were like, so it's like a clean palette for him. And you've got wise head old Sok, who's given an open canvas on which he can paint his picture on. And the guys in the horn section; middle aged guys with families who have never experienced playing music with this power and aggression and playing to such a diverse range of people all over Europe. And Ollie and Danielle, you know they've seen it before and they just love doing this. In that respect it was a happy accident!
IN: I did note the cohesion of it when I've seen you live. I also really loved the fact that you played in a line, which to me is important as well.
AS: Do you know I think that's crucial. The live thing. Because nobody buys records if you don't play live. People need to see it and hear it. In my experience bands survive by playing live. It's the bottom line, it really is the bottom line. Bands can put out records as a hobby and you can do it for a bit, but you can hold your bed up with the unsold copies. If you want to get a decent bed you'd better get out there and play. Bust your arse. Twenty people or two hundred or two thousand. It really doesn't matter. Anyone who tells you it does is an idiot. And I can't understand people who don't wanna do it as playing live is the best thing in the world.
IN: Another Dutch thing, being reticent about playing live much? Even now there are such good facilities for playing live compared too the UK say. I mean there are so many hobby bands around the country. Who just practise. You can walk into any rehearsal room and you hear loads of bands, go to Qbus in Leiden; you can hear a bagpipe band next to a heavy metal band in a rehearsal room.
AS: There are hundreds of them. I think a lot are weekend bands, playing in the pubs. The level of really original, good and proper bands with a real vision in Holland, you can count on one hand. At first when I moved here I thought the whole subsidised thing in music was killing creativity, because it was so easy to be in a band. Being given a hand out for doing a tour abroad. You know, the challenge wasn't there to make the real thing, really move people. You have to be really good to move on, to progress. That was my view back then; it's changed now because that whole subsidy system doesn't exist.
So the people, the Space Sirens, the few bands like them who do it they have a visions and ideas. Those are the kinds of bands that we should cherish in this country. We should be saying, kids, this is what you need to see and hear. It's so vital. But it's interesting the whole Dutch music scene, we could talk about it's problems for hours!
IN: Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about the imagery in this new record, as it's quite different from the last. I know it's Sok doing it, but I thought there was a lot of Manchester in there. It DID remind me of driving round Manchester in 91-92.
AS: Yeah... I remember when we were riffing ideas at home... and I remember getting in the van and putting on Neu! and listening to Hallogallo because that would keep me going, whilst the rest of the band were asleep. That grrrr.. going and going on... I thought it would be great to make a record like that, which you could just stick on and drive to and get your energy from that. And Jos I think, I think he came up trumps again with his lyrics because there are some bleak things in there but some uplifting things in there too. He's one of those unique characters who knows... he can look into the soul of ordinary folks, he knows what ordinary folks feel, and he has a way of encapsulating what's in your mind and in your heart. He gives a working man's viewpoint on dark and complex matters around the world that affect us all. But he does it in such a way that means he doesn't bash you over the head with his ideas! He does it with tenderness in my view.
IN: A lot of 20-20 vision in the way he writes.
IN: And it fits perfectly into the music; these huge nightscapes, driving round a grimy city. And a lot about the past as well it seemed. The cover IS redolent of the 1970s too.
AS: Yeah... okay... if you're going to look at it as a complete package then I think, yeah. But but musically I think, even though there's a foot in the past I really do think a lot of the music is looking forwards.
IN: I'd like you to tell me about that then.
AS: Something that has always been... Ach, start again. Maybe the past for me has always been very easy... to step into a formula where your influences ARE so obvious you can't hide them. You can't deny it. But now it really was different. Of COURSE you can hear these references, but there is something so unique and forward thinking about this record, because no-one else has done it like us. A mix of Can, with the Smiths for example, but sort of new. I put the track on I can hear Johnny Marr guitars with a Liebezeit drive to it. But in the whole - treated as a whole, the record isn't easy to pin down.
IN: Well, this matter of pinning this new LP down; we had this whole conversation online about it didn't we; where we were both saying that the record had different roots or ideas behind it; and that I was second guessing and hearing things that you hadn't thought of, such as Seabear or Benni Hemm Hemm! So it's a very suggestive, "filmic" record. You see it in film stills maybe. Maybe it's core strength. I must say now that it reminded me of late Stranglers; Aural Sculpture in places.
AS: Well, JJ Burnel was a huge influence on me - the main reason I picked up the bass was because of him. A lot were. The Membranes Mark 1, John's bass style (Ed - John Robb) was totally taken from Burnel's riffing and sound. And that is one thing I pick up in the recording process, right at the beginning, nail the bass sound down in that Burnel way.
IN: I can't wait to see this record played live. The last time I saw you was opening for Wire, and CAB03 in Leiden. But only one Dutch show, the 18th October, in Wormerveer?
AS: Yeah we deliberately chose to do it locally. We got asked to play Amsterdam but I thought it was important to keep it local, not just because it's where most people in the band are from, though that is a bloody important reason (laughs) but also a lot of people there picked up on it from a year ago, when we started. And a lot of local people have been keeping tabs on us, neighbours of mine you never ever see at a gig came because it was like a token of respect (laughs). And they all left with the record!
IN: Tell me about the whole set up going on up there in Wormerveer.
AS: Well that whole Zaanstreek thing's been going on for a long time, the music side has been going on for years. When I used to first come in the mid 1980s then we'd always stayed in the villa in Wormer. And there was a slew of bands there who we'd play and hang out with. So we already knew the existence of that place and we thought, "oh this must happen everywhere in Holland, hundreds of scenes similar to this one", not realising that that was it and really unique! And that energy and vibrancy has spread through the area. The Groote Weiver was a squat that had existed for over 25 years until the Gemeente shut it down. We fought to get another place whcih is just across the water - technically in Wormerveer. But there's still a very active scene in all the old guard, lots of new kids who are really active in organising lots of activities. Musically, there are a whole diverse bunch of bands, and you've got The Ex and the Kift who are the bedrock. I've got my own studio space there where you can just work work work without someone telling you your time is up and the next cover band wants to practise... (laughs)
IN: Let's talk about provincial matters. I'm a strong provincial, and as you know I'm a big fan of Leiden, very happy to live there. I'm not a big fan of Amsterdam say. But you get more cohesion in a place like Leiden...
AS: That's definitely true; you can achieve a lot more, do a lot more because everybody knows each other very well; and because it's a small community the dirt can get out quicker too, and you've got to keep your head low! (Laughs) But the point is, you can mobilise people to action way quicker than you can in the city. And it's vitally important that arts and culture are not the sole properties of the bigger cities and the bigger Gemeentes. Because those kinds of things are the things that can stimulate communities and help broaden horizons.
Which is why I am so involved with the Groote Weiver things. We have to bring things into the smaller places and actively get people into gigs and to see new things and participate. And gigs; we organise Kosmos Klub once a month, which you can hate it or love it, but it's there and it's totally unique. I did it last Friday and people loved it! Sometimes you go on a journey as a deejay and people pick up on it. And we played the most obscure... well it's not obscure to me, but we'd give them the sleeve and we'd talk about it, and you know, just spreading the vibe. It's all about sharing, and the basis is bringing the community together. In fact it's the basis of anybody's life. That's what makes getting through your life easier; the obvious stuff of knowing your neighbours, knowing your mates, doing stuff together, sharing things. Act locally.... you know the rest.
IN: So tell me about this curry club as well!
AS: Yeah! Friday 17th October is the next one.
IN: It looks great.
AS: It's another part of that Groote Weiver scene. Every Friday was the buurtmaaltijd. It was a way, once a week, of providing a fantastic three course vegetarian meal for - cheaps as chips - 6 euros. The idea was again to bring people together and to eat really great vegetarian food. And to show that the vegetarian option is a viable option, with products that are eco friendly. And I love cooking anyway. I always cook Indian because of my background. And it's something again because of the provinces, because we don't really have Indian food here!
But I already have the menu in my head weeks before. So I'll get all my herbs and spices. I cook once every three months; four times a year and it's a full, full Indian meal. We start with pakoras and samosas and salad courses with coriander and poppadoms and then we move onto the main things with Dals and Aloo Gobis ...and really do it properly with chapattis and rice and we do the pickles! But the point of it is to bring the community together and sharing.
IN: That sounds great! The thing I really love about Holland is the fact that you can know your local town and pull people together.
AS: Because it's never forced, people go with the flow, you're not there to impress anybody. People are more giving and open. No pretensions. No look at me...
IN: So how do you put up with working at the Paradiso then? (Laughs)
AS: Ah no Richard, that's great! Now that is like a total community. I feel blessed working there. It really is a community of like minded and lovely sympathetic people. The bottom line is that everybody there has Paradiso in their hearts. And everybody there pulls together. It's a truly special organisation. It's a unique place. The people who work there make it for the audience. There are some real characters there too! (Laughs)
IN: I'm going to change the subject. You are representative in a way of things I thought would be staples of my life but recently I've been doubting them. Football, the idea of independent music. I'm hitting a midlife crisis maybe, but I thought all the things I loved as a kid or a teenager, going to the match, buying indie singles... they were something different and apart, things you could revel in. And they're swamped in this gunk of money...
AS: But do you not get excited by those things anymore? The reason I ask is that I've asked this a few people in the past, when you go to a gig do you still get excited?
IN: Of course, but what I mean is back then it was a worldview that enveloped you. I remember thinking OK I'll go and watch Stanley and then watch the Plastic Spearmen in Colne! Or go to St James' Park and then go to the Broken Doll. You'd carved that out for yourself, you'd chipped out your own bit of social grafitti if you will.
AS: Oh God the Broken Doll! But yeah...
IN: But what I want to say is, you still go to Manchester United and Ajax. You're a flag bearer for this stuff. And it's never changed for you, you probably still remember Michael Knighton kicking the ball about on Old Trafford.
AS: I do! (Big laughs) What a poser he was! I think those things are like.... people say to me do you still get a kick out of going to another gig, do you really want to buy another record, do you really want to go to the football, and you know what; every time I walk into the stadium and I walk up the steps and I hear the crowd, and see the first blades of grass, my heart's just like... arrrgh! And the same is like walking into a gig. I'm so fucking psyched! Because you get energy from it you can't pay for that it's your lifeblood. It keeps you going and it helps you in your life! I mean it gives you energy if you see a great game. And you are so happy to see something really beautiful happen.
IN: I do get that but maybe I am questioning this whole thing in the abstract. I still get that even going watching Stanley, and even Newcastle United... it's sort of... I was talking to David from Rats on Rafts about this the other night. And he's similar to you but in a totally opposite camp football wise. He's Feyenoord and Liverpool believe it or not.
AS: He's off my Christmas card list right now! (Laughs)
IN: And even he was questioning the way the football business is going. Football is in danger of losing something.
AS: But that is a process that has been going on for years! And you can keep referencing the current direction sport and music is taking and always comparing it to the past. Thing is, things are always moving on and liable to change. People will soon be looking back to our time period and saying it was great; the golden era for the Premier League etcetera. Same woth bands. Point is mate, it's still going on; the bands and football have moved on, why don't you? And I'm as guilty as anyone in doing that about music. People say to me how come you find out so much music? Where do you get your sources from. Thing is there are so many sources. Especially now. I mean "talking about our time", Richard, you had to switch on the tranny, but there is no excuse for finding new stuff.
I mean, same with the football. I went to United last week and I still got the same thrill, and yes you have got to get through the bullshit... but ultimately you've sat there for 90 minutes and you've been to the pub with your mates beforehand and you are there to watch the match. And you forget what a player's salary is, or your woes at home or your bills. It's escapism, pure and simple.
IN: No I wanted to ask you that because you're one of the few people who openly promotes going to the match for a big club. You never really whinge about it either!
AS: It's good to let go. And there's always next week!
(Both laugh and start talking about the tribulations of Newcastle United. Ajay wants to start a new soap called "Gallowgate; what happened when Byker Grove grew up? Gallowgate...")
IN: Anyway back to the music. You seem to hold up a torch for passing music about. And even though I listen to a lot of things, you really do!
AS: If you really look, and you are really interested, then you will do anything. That gets fed through other Heads who know what your passion is and they tell you about stuff and you just pass it on. Personally, I have always listened to so much music growing up in England, after coming there from Kenya. And the first thing that I really listened to was Peel. And he never had a set agenda about what you should listen to And thereafter the older I got the more open minded I got about stuff. I was exposed to loads of different kinds of music from my peers. I was really into jazz. And when I moved to Holland I had loads of records in my collection. And I remember Terrie from The Ex going through my records when I first came here, and going, "what, you have this stuff?" But that came from having lots of peers who were into music. And Terrie from The Ex started taking me down to the Bimhuis; the old Bimhuis. I remember thinking, "Jeez these people are more punk rock than the punks", and it was great.
So learning from those kind of people... and going to record stores on the road. Buying loads of vinyl in America, sending boxes full of records home, cos it was way cheaper over there. But through touring a lot you get to learn a lot and hear a lot. And when I was living in Lancashire I'd work on The Wire and learn a lot...
IN: Steve Barker! He's my hero,Steve Barker.
AS: Now, he educated me, he put me on the trail for so much stuff. It's still a ritual for me when I go to work on a Monday to listen to his Sunday night show and tick off anything I want to hear more of. You've got LOADS of really cool stations like WFMU, and I read all the blogs.
So... if you're really into something and you want to know... or hear new things, there's plenty there. I always want to move forward. And in that respect, ideas of genre go out of the window. When you hear something that really moves you, something in your brain somehow gets stimulated.
IN: Steve Barker, Andy Kershaw, John Peel. All people from pretty much the same area tapping into weird stuff.
AS: Absolutely! You also had Roger Eagle.
IN: Mark Radcliffe did a big thing on Roger Eagle on Radio 4 recently, of all places.
AS: Really? Wow! But you had a whole network of people round there back then who knew what it was all about. And had wide knowledge of music. And knew where to dig great new music out. What a job! Imagine it!
IN: All these Heads in their 40s and 50s I know, all from Lancashire... when you think of it, must have been tuning in and turning on to Steve Barker. I put my love of dub down to him.
AS: You and me both mate! Peel started it, but Steve took me to a totally different planet. My dub collection is totally out of hand, and that is totally down to Steve Barker. His knowledge and love of that genre of music is unrivalled. Seriously he knows so much. He can put on a record by an artist from, oh I don't know, 81, and you think it's an original, but Steve will tell you that already a version of a song from 73, and he will know who made it, produced it, the original label... and it's like (here Ajay throws back his arms and rolls his eys) What? What? How! He is amazing in that respect.
IN: Here we are talking about Lancashire... I wonder if that still forms the bedrock of your music.
AS: Well, no! (Laughs) It used to be very Lancashire-based because people in the bands I was playing in were all from Lancashire. And we all loved The Fall, a big Lancashire band. So we had that grit that was very, very Lancastrian grit. Lancashire music made by Lancastrians!
And when I came over the Dutch kids I played with didn't get it, but they brought their own thing into it, and I let loose a bit. Sometimes you can wear your influences on your sleeve a bit too much, so it's good to let go. And with the new record, it's the most international. Two people are from the North East. Jos is international, so the band is a bit of everything really. And the record reflects that.
IN: OK, last thing! You know Holland longer than me and you know it well. As you know I have my theories on what should happen here. So I'm going to ask you, if you had total control over the entire music scene, what would be your fantasy changes? Ajay the benevolent dictator!
AS: (Long silence) There's a lot of good stuff going on. Let's start with that. A lot. A lot of great programming going on in venues, some very open minded festivals, Incubate is a great example. Sonic Acts, Le Guess Who to another extent. Venues are bringing loads of diverse acts. Erm... But if I COULD change stuff, I would...
There is so much middle of the road mediocre crap going round, and there's a hankering for old times, and always looking back. If I could I would say, if you, bands are not making new music... Let's say if the band is older than 10 years old and hasn't made a record in the last 2 years, you can't play the podiums you expect to. You know... Actually lets call it 5 years; but I think it's criminal to spend 5 years making a record.
I'd also give loads more space to young and upcoming bands, but that also has something to do with the programming. And I would be totally dictatorial about the bands that were coming through. Because there is so much great stuff coming through but gets missed. Steve Gunn for example. He played for us when our first record came out. And I organised some shows for him, including one at the Paradiso, when 30 folks showed up. And now he's selling out... the point being there is so much stuff around and the Dutch public at large, whether in Dordrecht or Alkmaar or Nijmegen, should get a chance to see these artists.
Oh, and no restrictions on the amount of shows these people can play in Holland. And don't let the Mojos of this world bully you into playing a one show one city policy.
I'd get ticket prices down for a lot of acts. Because a lot of people are being priced out of shows.
Oh, and the bigger acts, I'd be a lot more choosy about who we should get in. Of course Heineken needs to pay their bills.
Let's have more platforms for left field, electronica and world music. And send it out to the rest of the country. Because over time that left field music will find a market. It will.
IN: That really annoys me about the Netherlands. It's the idea that you can't put on dangerous acts and that filters down to programming in medium sized towns. And certainly the flow of stuff could be less top down and hierarchical, driven by a perception of "why go to Assen?". Oh and get rid of headliner fever!
AS: With you there bud!
IN: On that Utopian note let's call it a day!