Pop Will Eat Itself can boast a discography of brilliant electronic tunes, each one as infectious as the next. Def Con One with its overload of samples; Everything’s Cool with its ‘she’ll be right, mate’ main message; Ich Bin Ein Ausländerwith its militant multicultural bent, and Can U Dig It? which of course ardent fans do dig.
I’m driving, rushing to get home in time for my interview with PWEI’s frontman Graham Crabbe. Funnily enough, I’m listening to a mashup on the car stereo that blends Pet Shop Boys The Pop Kids with ’70s disco boffins M’s Pop Muzik.
It occurs to me that pop really is eating itself.
I settle into my driveway, step inside my house, pick up the ringing phone and, of course, a lot of my questions to Graham from the get-go have got to be about cunning technology and the self-devouring state of pop…
Interview by Antonino Tati
Hi Graham. Technology has come a long way since you started out in the’80s.
It’s great, really, although it’s hard to keep pace. The fact that everything is so small and downloadable now, and so portable, just makes everything so much easier.
How about all the information overload? Is there too much choice now – of music and effects and samples readily available online?
Yeah, I think so. When you’re looking at music software alone, the options are endless. You could go on spending and spending. I mean the digital field has opened up so much now.
There were plenty of samples and pop cultural references in your early music. Was this all part of the cultural zeitgeist at the time?
I think we were really into that idea of information overload that you first spoke about. I suppose it was at a time when TV satellite channels were evolving, and so the choices were opening up. We had plenty of free time to indulge in our love of movies and TV shows, and things like that, so all of that was pulled into our music.
Did you ever get into trouble from the original creators of the commercial artworks you were sampling?
Yeah, some of the more blatant ones we had to admit to and had to pay for upfront. But most of them we got away with, because we’d put them through a lot of sound processing where you wouldn’t really recognise them. A couple of things were spotted, so we had to pay for them. But these were the early days of sampling, so we kind of got away with a lot, which you couldn’t nowadays.
What about the riffs of the ‘Twilight Zone’ theme, and of ‘Funky Town’ that you sampled on ‘Def Con One’? Did you get permission to use those?
We had to pay for the Twilight Zone. Marius Constant, I think, was the guy who wrote that [indeed he was, and would have loved receiving all the royalties from it]. There was just no way of getting away with using that one and not paying for it. Lipps Inc [who wrote Funky Town] haven’t made a claim yet, so let’s just keep that one quiet. [Laughs].
What about when you were throwing commercial references into your songs? Case in point: “Big Mac, fries to go” from the classic McDonald’s ad campaigns. Were there listeners who didn’t get the joke or irony of that?
Yeah, I think there were people who didn’t get the irony. That’s one of the pitfalls you have to deal with in this industry, really. If you go around explaining yourself to the Nth degree, there’s no real substance to what you do. You need to rely on a certain intelligence on the part of the listener. But I think most people ‘get it’.
Your music has become the subject for academic thesis papers, or at least the band’s name has. Have you been flattered by this high-brow interest?
Kind of. Of course, as you’d know, we didn’t come up with the phrase [Pop Will Eat Itself]; that came from [English music journalist] David Quantick. We’d just read an interview of his and liked those four words there. They just leapt out of the page, and I thought, “Wow, that would be a good name for a band”. We didn’t expect all the kerfuffle that followed about where the name came from. Our original intention was to just be unusual, sonically. But the band name did encapsulate our approach to music: taking riffs and twisting them… things like that. Our whole ethic has always been about the recycling of music, really.
What are your thoughts on the current state of pop? Are you surprised at how much sampling and cross-referencing is going on in the charts?
It was kind of inevitable, really, when you think about it. How many notes are there? How many different sequences? How many different ways can you arrange and rearrange things? You can disguise these limitations by using different textures and different techniques, but essentially all sound is out there, and sooner or later it becomes a recycling exercise.
Turning now to your forthcoming Australian tour; is it a challenge to translate your studio sound for live performances?
We have backing tracks, which we obviously need to use. Other than dragging Lipps Inc or members of The Osmonds on stage [laughs], you’re not going to sound exactly like the original track. Trying to recreate too perfectly is going to take away from the essence of what the sound is. We’ve had problems where backing tracks have been destroyed on hard drives, or whatever, and we’ve had to seek out the original samples in those cases.
Making sure you don’t lose files while you’re touring must get overwhelming…
Well, one of my hard drives with an entire set-list went down once. It’s a case of checking in with the other band members to see what they have on their computers. There’s still a lot of stuff unfound, to be honest. That’s the downside of recording and touring with so much digital content.
What happens when things go wrong on stage? Does it just become part of the show; a kind of organised chaos?
There are always going to be mistakes. And we try to make our live shows as innovative and exciting and entertaining as possible. We’re not about being perfectionist musicians. That’s not us. It’s about getting the right vibe and getting the audience to latch on to that.
You’ve got Carter USM joining you on stage for this tour. Ironically, it was Carter who the article was written about in which you spotted the phrase ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’.
Yep. It’s all come full circle! But Carter don’t do gigs as an outfit anymore, although we’ve got Jim Bob [from Carter USM] with us on this tour. And I’m looking forward to having him perform on stage with us.
After all these years, what keeps you excited about making music?
The trick is to keep things fresh for yourself. The last album we did, you’d almost have to place it into the ‘rock’ or ‘alternative’ category. We’re always mindful of making sure we don’t make an album like the last one. The next album is probably going to be more electronic, more varied. We want to keep things interesting for ourselves. And I think our fans expect that.
Do you think politics is eating itself at the moment?
[Laughs]. It’s good to see so many changes, but are they changes for the better? At the minute, it’s looking like this may not be the case. I think it was the case two or three years ago, where you could see that people wanted new ways of doing things. As for right now, the jury is still out…
To round off this interview, Graham, I’d like it if you could give me a one-word or phrase response to a few prompters. Are you ready?
The sudden surge of natural disasters in the news.
The current state of pop.
Luckily, I’m oblivious to it; in fact, I think I’ll put my head in the sand and ignore it altogether.
One final one: Graham Crabbe. Where’s he at the moment?
I’m just happy to still be doing this. Music has been a constant theme in my life, and I’m happy that people are still interested in listening to my music.
Pop Will Eat Itself tour Australia in March 2018, bringing with them Jim Bob from Carter USM. Dates and venues as follows:
Thursday 8 March – Brisbane – The Triffid
Friday 9 March – Melbourne – Max Watts
Saturday 10 March – Sydney – Factory Theatre
Sunday 11 March – Perth – Rosemount Hotel
Tickets available through www.metropolistouring.com/pop-will-eat-itself/.