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TOM CLARKE – A cornerstone of Coventry music and culture

Tom Clarke - A Cornerstone of Coventry - Underground blog

What are your thoughts on the music and subculture scene in Coventry today and what do you reckon are the greatest changes throughout the years?

The changes are massive. I mean there are so many segments of subcultures and so many subcultures full stop. Today it’s massive. Take dance, you’ve got house and within that you have so many people who are into specific types of house – technical house and deep house and commercial house. It’s kind of more divided then ever but in a way that comes together where a lot of people appreciate broadly similar music for a lot of reasons.

Tom Clarke - A Cornerstone of Coventry - Underground blog

When you are away what do u miss most?

My cats! Well, Coventry has a way of doing things, always busking it. Not quite doing things properly but making them come together. Just people bodging it and finding a way. People that aren’t industry experts coming in and thinking yeah I think we can do that so lets do it. I saw a guy put on Pete Doherty in a Coventry in a warehouse years and years ago and what an awesome way to do it! It’s like, how do we get an artist like Pete Doherty to perform? That’s how! You find a warehouse, bribe the caretaker, put some lights in, get some decent security and there you go – you’ve got a gig.

As Coventry is bidding for the city of culture 2021, how’re you doing your bit to support it?

I’ve written quite a big blog post on that that people can read (via my twitter). Also just shouting about it as much as possible. It’s a really great thing for the city and it basically commits the council to spending and investing in the arts that has got to be a good thing. For a city with as diverse and rich a heritage in art and culture, to have that level of commitment from a council to invest is how we perpetually keep being this creative city that quietly provided a lot of great music.

Tom Clarke - A Cornerstone of Coventry - Underground blog

Coventry has strong music heritage. What/who influenced you when you first started?

My influences are so varied that to just contain them to Coventry would not accurately represent it. The Specials were a massive influence because of their social commentary, not so much the music, as their thing was Ska. There are little influences and nods to that on our first album 40 Days and 40 Nights, which we like to do lightly with a lot of our references. Social commentary of a time that you could drive around in 2006/2007 and play Ghost Town or Man in C&A and just look around and think this music’s relevance is more important as time goes on. And as time goes on and the gap between rich and poor grows and it becomes somewhat more relevant. You know in terms of approach, I don’t know whether I would describe them as an influence but their blunt delivery (The Specials) was inspiring. Our influences include jazz fusion artists like Bill Bruford and classical stuff I used to play in orchestras. Andy from The Enemy was always into punk which is where our choruses came from and you know literally everything, the scope is massive, from Abba to Zappa. I think there were a lot of parallels drawn between us and The Specials I guess because of the social commentary (and that we were from Cov) you know.

Well we know you have involvement in the Coventry Music Museum. What are your interests in this and why?

Pete and his wife are founders and caretakers of the museum, which is a brilliant one. I remember in 2006/7 when they would show up to every gig and we would wonder whom these people were. It was first a little weird as they didn’t look like our other fans that were younger kids, but at the same time my appreciation for what they were doing and have been doing extremely well, grew. Pete’s been recognised recently with an MBE for the importance of his work – he’s effectively documenting the entire history of a city in terms of its contribution to music. When I went and looked around the museum there was mentions of bands I’ve never heard of that did quite well and influenced people. It’s really interesting to speak to someone like Pete with such a depth of knowledge. Everyone knows a little bit about music but Pete knows a lot about music from Coventry and you’ve got to respect and love him for what he’s doing. At the moment we are working on putting on an exhibition (starts 20th January). When we (The Enemy) walked off of our last ever show we kept the exact back line and drum kit that will be somehow squeezed into a display at the museum. It’s the exact stuff that was on stage and you know, literally my guitar I played every night for a decade that’s battle worn. I’d love to have it at home so I could play it but I think its better served there. I’m just supporting in any way I can and more people should do that. I’d love to see some serious investment from the council or an arts project somewhere to help him really grow that because it’s an important part of the cities heritage. Coventry’s got a rich heritage, we’ve got motor museums here and big museums that recognise Coventry’s history but we’ve also got a huge music culture but only an independent museum that recognises that and it’s been put together solely by a passionate couple. It’s absolutely great for bringing people into the city, but also creativity is perpetual. You’re usually most inspired by inspiring people, that are inspired by other inspiring people – if you’re aware you’re growing up in a city that has music in it’s roots, and that is your place in the world – it’s going to inspire you and the next generation!

It’s probably the knock on effect and reason why so much good music has come out of Coventry. It’s like what made Pete want to start the CMM. His friend was stopped on the street by tourists looking for Two-Tone and he was disgusted that there was nothing available to share Cov’s music history. 

That’s kind of why we started a music venue, we were frustrated. We used to tour around the UK every year and we would wish we could play in Coventry but there was only one nightclub, not a music venue, and we had played in it before. We would resort to doing warehouses but eventually, right at the end we decided to just use the old cinema. And that’s where we are now, The Empire. It’s actually the first venue Oscar Deutsch opened when he started the Odeon. There’s no blue plaque because it’s Coventry but its a pre war building which is rare around here – just another example of Coventry’s forgotten heritage. So yeah, we formed the band out of frustration and opened this music venue out of frustration. In the last year we’ve had The Libertines and Frank Turner perform here. We’ve had 9 sell out shows in 12 months and to be able to say 1000 or more every time wanted to see 9 people that they would never have seen otherwise is crazy, but again, born out of frustration. Things are selling out in 20 minutes, we get loads of students in, not necessarily on the live music side but definitely dance, grime, rap, RnB and underground electronic music. We have a night called Switch, I don’t even know what genre it is but it’s like UK bass, such a niche thing, we weren’t completely rammed but so many people turn up for such a random genre. Tonight we have an U18 night on with mostly commercial music; it’s great because it gets young people into going out. When you look back on these things you see that the music is culturally relevant as it’s what gets them up and out and into music. One of my first albums I ever owned was an All Saints album, you listen to it and you hear Red Hot Chilli Peppers influence and from that you go everywhere.

The Libertines at Coventry Empire - Tom Clarke - Underground England blog

You’re clearly very passionate about Coventry. I read something about the relationship between you and The Herbert Gallery.

Yeah, they were trying to expand and after that they were trying to survive. I mean it’s just another great place, a small gallery in Coventry that’s put on some amazing artists. They had a Turner Award winning painter in not too long ago, it was a great space and he was brilliant. It really pains me that 80% of the National Arts budget is spent in London, because 80% of the nations creativity doesn’t come from London. The capital is a brilliantly creative place and I love it to bits but it is your provincial places outside of London that need those funds look at Liverpool, Manchester, Coventry, places you’ve never heard of, but may have, if the government had just given a little more to it.

The Herbert Gallery in Coventry - Tom Clarke - Underground blog

That’s why we are so interested in going out of London and visiting places like this, the towns and cities. I remember in the 70s and 80s when bands would jump in the back of a van and go out touring in places like Exeter and Barnstable.

We did it! We went to Wakefield.

Yeah, because kids can’t all go to London.

Yeah, and we all know that London’s great. We get it. It’s fucking awesome. I’ve been down there and I love it you know, amazing galleries and museums and you do need to keep investing in that but to some extent it will be self sufficient at this point. Now everyone around the world is coming to see all that but what should be recognised is a lot of this stuff that’s being put on in London is being created outside of it. So why not go to the source, so you’ve got more of it? And you know what? When more of it’s created we can take that back to London too.

Yeah, tourists aren’t going to come to the UK and not go to London. London is ok. We should make sure the other cities have all that culture to offer so that we can give tourists more to explore.

Yeah and plus when you’ve done London, you’ve done it. I’ve been to Japan and spent time in Tokyo but now if I go back I’m going for the countryside you know, something different. So you kind of create more incentive to bring people in if you let everyone know there is more to the UK then just that city.

Well we’re working on our second edition of Into the Dirt, our take on a Grime zine. What’s exciting about it is that we’re only featuring artists from outside of London as that’s less chartered territory. Different areas breed different sounds. 

Absolutely. You have the trend followers and those who copy what they see going on, but then you have people that do their own thing and aren’t on the radar because they are different. That’s why when any good trend breaks, you have A&R’s that go out and look for what else has developed from that. It’s probably how we were found actually. Arctic Monkeys came out and did massively well but then people were looking for an Arctic Monkeys that didn’t sound like Arctic Monkeys and then Warner Brothers was knocking on the door of the Hope and Anchor Pub in Coventry.

How long were the Enemy together before they were signed?

Not long at all. I and Liam the drummer played in a blues improvisation band for years and we were, from a musical point of view, geeks. I could play the most technical stuff on the guitar and he was a third generation drummer in his family. I remember playing Led Zeppelin to him and asking his if he reckoned he could play like John Bonham, the next time I saw him he could. It’s like Frank Zappa and Terry Bozzio, some of the greatest drummers that ever lived, we would listen to their music and he would just play it. We would go around to bars and play to like 30 people who would just stand there and think fucking hell these kids can play amazing music but that was never going to sell.

Tom Clarke - A Cornerstone of Coventry - Underground blog

What were you doing?

Well, I was working for the Co-op selling washing machines, TV’s and electrical goods. It wasn’t my dream but I appreciated having a job. At that time in 2006, although London hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that we were on the brink of recession, everywhere else in the UK had. We were seeing our high streets closing down. I’d applied to 30 jobs but only gotten one and I got pretty good at it. I always wanted to do something in music, I wanted to teach it but I’d failed Maths and I needed Maths to be a teacher. I remember sitting down with Liam and Andy, who ended up in the band but weren’t at that point, and just saying, I want to write some songs that are different to what we are doing. Previously we didn’t write songs, we would turn up to a venue, pick a key and start playing in that key and so we decided to actually write some music. The first song we wrote was 40 Days, then Tech Phobic and then Away From Here and Had Enough, they were the first 4 songs we ever wrote. So that’s kind of how that whole thing started, out of frustration.

Thank God for failing Math

Well amazingly we failed Music too. Me, Liam and Andy all failed music and then the college that we failed at asked us back to give a talk! I thought it was probably best that we didn’t though.

Are you personally still playing now?

Yeah, well I became really disillusioned with the industry. I know this sounds really hipster and arty and bullshit but, the music industry used to be half music and half industry, but now it’s mostly industry. The music doesn’t matter as much, all that’s important is how cool you look, how young are you, what you wear and what your face is like. And it’s just never been what I wanted to get into. I’ve never had the confidence or been thick skinned enough to go into an industry that judges you on those things. For me, all I ever really wanted to do was make music, you know, whether improvised blues and jazz or commercial stuff and I just got really really tired of such a bullshit industry. I mean, we knew we had this big market, we signed big tours and we knew there were people who liked our music but couldn’t get to it because there’s only one national radio station truly. I know there’s DAB but I look at the average Enemy fan and wonder how many of them even have a car new enough to be able to access that. Our listeners are Mondeo owners and van men, they don’t listen to Radio 6, they listen to Radio 1. I think BBC put pressure on Radio 1 to lower their age bracket. Listeners were well into their 30s but the BBC always wanted under 18s, their approach to that was to alienate the older people and naturally bring their listener age down. A more pragmatic approach would have been to say, yeah, maybe we could be reaching a younger audience but look at this huge listener base we do have, how can we give them more of what they want? Instead they alienated people I don’t know though, I’m not in charge of Radio 1.

Tom Clarke - A Cornerstone of Coventry - Underground blog

Underground inspires and is inspired by British Subculture, contemporary and from the past, which subculture has inspired you the most and where do you think British subculture is going?

Wow, that’s an amazing question! The subculture that I identify with isn’t necessarily a musical one but more of a class one. I’ve always considered myself working class. No matter how well you do or how much money you make, you are a product of your beginnings. I feel like the class systems we have always known were -rich people, the upper class, then there were the middle class and then the working class – someone who works in a factory. But I believe there’s an entirely new class that the political elite and media aren’t aware of, a sub-working class of people that would fucking love jobs. I’ve said I did 30 interviews until I got a job that I was overqualified for and I was still so grateful for it! That (sub-working class) coincidentally is where most of the best music comes from, it’s not very inspiring living on a middle-class suburban street. It’s the real thing, it’s where there’s a struggle.

That’s why grimes so good, grime is a struggle. It has been since is started and still is even though aspects have been commercialised. I mean when we put on Grime events here we literally have to battle with the police. I have to be careful what I say but we almost have to back the police into a corner whereby they realise they are being racist and then they are like, oh shit, ok do it but we hope it doesn’t go wrong. And it’s so frustrating because this is an emerging genre and it’s just so typical of your middle class authority figures to try and suppress that culture because they don’t understand it. And its really difficult to unless you have been there and I really identify with, although its not my genre, I really identify with that struggle. About 5 years ago, when the real sort of Channel 5 absolute bashing of the working class began, it became acceptable to dislike anyone that claimed benefit. If anyone is a benefit recipient, it was okay to bash them. When that started I remember saying Chav, Chavs are being demonised now and I think they are like the new punks. The middle class, the happy culture living happily on their suburban street hate the Chavs, and it’s because they are the rebellious subculture that rebels and says no, fuck you. The places they hang out aren’t considered cool and hipster because it’s McDonalds, but when you look back, that’s what we will see. Punks are being recognised now and people are like, yeah we didn’t understand it then, but we do now and wow they were brilliant! And the Chavs who were hanging out in McDonalds, aspiring to own Lacoste and Adidas tracksuits, they are probably the subculture I most relate to. The minute Adidas were offering us free clothes it was brilliant and that’s what we aspired to own, not a Lexus, even though a Lexus would be nice. It was a culture that was demonised and wasn’t recognised but it’s where we came from, we were actually Chavs. I remember our manager on our 4th or 5th gig telling us we couldn’t wear a baseball cap on stage and we wondered why, we always wore them and had shit hair, and he got it but we still couldn’t wear them. We knew the media wouldn’t understand it and to an extent we had to cover up our working class Chavyness. I remember them trying to make us dress less Chavy and we ended up firing a guy at Warner who tried to send a stylist to us even though we were happy with our Adidas. The stylist ended up turning up with some incredibly stylish t-shirt, but it was see through and it was really expensive and we just didn’t understand why it was £100 when you could go to Topman and get one for a quarter of the price.

I think in years from now the middle class media will look back at Chavs and call them something different and say wow, that was a really important movement. I mean the London riots, if you took a snapshot of those; everyone would probably be wearing Adidas or Nikes and the middle class would probably brand them as Chavs, but image if that was the 70s and they were punks?! And it will go down in history, this is the disillusioned youth, they have no money and they are watching the gap widen. Whether or not they were politically switched on, they had had enough and they did something and its an important part of culture. Even brands like NME, they would still look down their nose at Chavs, like most of the media in London that doesn’t understand and isn’t representative of the working class. To get into the media you have to move to London, which most working class people can’t do, then go and work a free internship which means your parents have to pretty much support you. There are very few truly working class or people that understand the working class anywhere in the media and any time it pops up it’s misunderstood or misrepresented or pigeonholed. Even in the working class to a point now, there are those who just want to fit in with the middle-class and those that are proud of their working class roots, I identify with the latter. I grew up in a house where my dad worked; my mum gave up her job to take care of the kids then ended up working again, that’s pretty typical of the working class.

A working class family is a family who has worked to provide and survive. There exists this demonised sub-class of people that can’t get jobs and wish they were working class, within that of course there is a tiny percentage of people that take advantage of the system. Anyway, the good music comes from the struggle. It’s typical that the bottom of society is where the best music comes from, but it takes forever for the top of society to bloody get it. I think we will all have to die before the elite recognise punk for its influence. Isn’t it a shame that it takes a lifetime for the upper class to appreciate the work of the working and sub working class? And it genuinely stunts creativity. It’s the reason we aren’t a band anymore, it’s the reason we won’t make another record as The Enemy. We just got tired of trying to explain to Radio 1 why we exist. You’d think you wouldn’t have to, we were selling out tours and arenas, so what didn’t they understand? But apparently we did – and of course we could have explained that to them but even then they wouldn’t have understood it, maybe in 10 years when we reform! But then they’ve missed out on 10 years of creativity and we aren’t alone on that, we aren’t a special case. There are entire genres killed off by that, Punk is really lucky to have survived. It would just be great if in someway we could speed up the recognition and it wouldn’t take Grime artists so long to get recognised.

Yeah, there are only ever 3 Grime acts that are allowed to shine at the same time really.

And do you believe that Radio 1 DJs are actually going home and listening to Grime at night? These are 30-year-old white middle class guys. Are they actually listening to this music? Or are they playing what their producers have asked them to play, as their statistics require certain things? Playing it is different to understanding it and enjoying it and that’s what middle class media lacks. Media leads everything in this country but specifically public perception. If the media understood, taking Grime as an example, if DJs really loved and understood it and weren’t just playing it for its amazing views, then they might be inclined to try and explain to non-Grime fans why they love it. It’s like if you go wine tasting with someone who fux#ing loves wine, you might just learn to love it. Without that insight, which I don’t think the majority of the media has, you will never be able to translate it to the wider public and that’s a shame because that’s what slows down the understanding to the wider public.

Go see the exhibition of The Enemy at the Coventry Music Museum from January 20th to November 2017.

Underground Soundwave presents an ongoing series of reports on emerging and established bands with close-up Q&As, new release reviews and gig reports with a special emphasis on supporting diversity in music, women in music, independent labels and venues and the local music scene.

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