“Rock is dead. It did not die of old age. It was murdered.” When Gene Simmons of Kiss spoke those words in September 2014, he echoed the concerns of many within the music industry. So we assembled the lead singers of four very different British bands for a Britpack 2015 round table, to examine whether rock’n’roll really is still alive and kicking in the 21st century.
Represented by Russell Marsden, Southampton’s Band Of Skulls formed more than a decade ago and have released three albums, headlined Shepherd’s Bush Empire and appeared on Later With Jools Holland. Their brand of rock’n’roll has a garage-flavoured edge.
Though still in his mid-twenties Chris Turpin of Kill It Kid has experienced the gamut of the highs and lows of the life of a professional musician. The Bath-based band meld rock, blues, Americana and punk. At twenty-five years old, Purson’s Rosalie Cunningham has an old head on young shoulders. Based in Southend and newly signed to Spinefarm Records, Purson cite The Three Bs (The Beatles, Bowie and Black Sabbath) as inspirations. Chris Georgiadis speaks on behalf of Bristol band Turbowolf, whose eclectic blend of rock’n’roll, psychedelia, heavy metal and punk rock also adds a dash of electronica.
Some of the things they said were worrying yet also somehow faith-affirming. Read on……
Your four bands are very distinct from each other, but have any of you ever met before or been on the same bill?
Rosalie Cunningham: Chris [Turpin] and I know each other from way back when I was in my old band, Ipso Facto. We had the same management and used to play together quite a bit.
Chris Turpin: One of our first gigs in Manchester was with them.
Rosalie: We were very impressed and felt schooled by Kill It Kid. You guys were really good when you were younger.
One thing you have in common is that you’re all more or less in that ‘middle strata’ of bands that have paid their dues, made some good records and find yourselves ready to take the next all-important step up.
Russell Marsden: Once you’ve formed your band and played your first show, I think just about everyone is in that category.
What is it like being a rock band in 2015, given the dominance of pop music now?
Rosalie: It’s hard work, that’s for sure.
Chris Georgiadis: I don’t know anything different, really. I wasn’t alive in the 1970s. It’s tough, because people aren’t buying records any more.
Chris Turpin: Even in the six or seven years since we started it’s really different. I used to go to HMV and spend sixteen quid on an album and now I turn my nose up at spending six quid. More and more the UK is becoming obsessed with brand new music, so the lifespan of our bands ends up diminishing.
Does everybody supplement their income with a day job, or is music a full-time job?
Rosalie: It is for me [there’s general agreement around the table].
Chris: Yeah, just about. In diversifying you risk diluting your potential. You’ve got to commit fully – if you can. I used to be a care worker, looking after adults with learning difficulties. I did that for around ten years. I’m stopping it now. But that’s okay, everyone has bills to pay.
It must seem heartening, though, that a band can come almost out of nowhere – Royal Blood, for example? Two years ago, nobody had heard of them.
Chris Turpin: Yeah, we’d all like to have a debut album that’s really well received, but we’re now coming from a culture in which people want a new product – a brand new thing – every six months. So it depends on what kind of ride you’re after. I’m sure what all of us are after is the long haul.
Is there still anything that could legitimately be described as a scene in Britain any more?
Russell: I believe so. All of our bands play shows, and people come along. I believe that rock music as an art form will always have an audience, people that don’t want to listen to mainstream music or what’s easily available. They’d rather take a journey and discover for themselves what they like. It might not be a huge audience, but it’ll never go away.
Rosalie: Scenes, as in tribes, don’t really exist any more. Not at our gigs, anyway. We attract a broad spectrum of people, and that’s a good thing. You get teenagers and middle-aged men – lots of middle-aged men [giggles] – but they come from all walks of life.
Chris Turpin: We’ve always found it difficult to find bands that were relatively similar to us, that we could buddy up to. I liked the idea that back in the seventies Free would tour with The Who. But it doesn’t exist any more in the way it did back then.
Is it good to be part of a scene, to derive strength in numbers, or can it be counter-productive to be lumped into one big mass?
Rosalie: Being tagged with a label is counter-productive. What happens if you want to go in another direction? And it provides no security whatsoever.
Chris Georgiadis: To feel like you’re part of a group is quite a human thing, though, isn’t it? As much as I don’t want to belong to a particular scene, it’s only natural. Even though at our shows you’ll find quite a wide mix of the other bands that people are into. They meet at our shows, and that’s what I find really nice.
Decades ago, magazines would often try to spearhead the nation’s bands into a movement. That turned out to be quite harmful – you were no longer a fast-rising band, you were a fast-rising British band, which somehow rendered you inferior.
**Chris Turpin: **Yeah. But if you’re serious and have the necessary quality you can out-exist those kinds of terms anyway.
Rosalie: People like to invent movements, yeah.
And when the time is right those same people like to destroy them, too.
Rosalie: Exactly. That’s why they’re so pointless.
Russ: One thing I do like is that when we play overseas people will always come and check you out because you’re British. That gives you an extra level of interest. It’s incredible.
Chris Turpin: [laughing] We went to Belgium, and an interviewer asked: “How would you dare to pick up a guitar when there are so many iconic bands from Britain?”
Chris Georgiadis: That’s brilliant. Don’t you dare to come from Belgium and make chocolate.
Chris Turpin: We’d never even considered it. It’s a rite of passage: when you’re in the sixth form you get a Strat and you start a band.
Russ: As long as that continues we’ll be alright.
We’ve spoken about the financial toll, but what of the spiritual effect? It must be tough to work that hard, make those sacrifices and not attain the results?
Russ: I think they call it ‘character building’, don’t they? If you are a in a band there are so many knock-backs and difficult moments. When you see people around you fail… no, ‘fail’ is the wrong term. But when things go wrong they don’t want to put themselves through the pain [of starting all over] again. If you can survive nowadays, you’ve got a fighting chance. But you must want to really love it.
Chris Turpin: Pete Townshend described it as throwing yourself into the fire over and over again. But it’s peaks and troughs. One night you’re playing in Stuttgart to twelve people and the following day there are five thousand on a festival stage, or you have an opportunity to meet one of your heroes. That’s what’s so cool about it.
Rosalie: And it’s better than having a real job.
Russ: As long as long as there are some kids that want to form a band, take that stupid risk – to piss off their parents and just about everybody. It’s a sacrifice. Along the way you will lose girlfriends, boyfriends and partners, also friends and the respect of your peers. Habitually you will alienate everybody. If you are still in a band and making music, you must really love it. It would be a terrible thing if, in five years’ time, no one in this next generation could afford to do it any more. Imagine if you could only afford to be in a band as a hobby? Affluence isn’t a qualification, and rock’n’roll shouldn’t be something you do in a gap year.
Have you ever considered chucking it in and getting a proper job?
Russ: No. I burnt my bridges at a very young age with some grand statements. I’d look foolish in going back, so I’m going to hold on for as long as I can.
Chris Georgiadis: I couldn’t do anything else.
Which are the older bands that you admire, not necessarily for the music they’ve made but for the way they’ve shaped a career?
Chris Georgiadis: What you must consider is that those bands now at stadium level grew up in a very different environment. When they were on their first, second or their record they were living in a completely different world. So it’s very difficult to base what you’d like to do on their achievements, because times are so completely different. We cannot identify with those bands and, with all due respect, they probably couldn’t identify with what we are facing. I don’t know how many from that era would [prosper in the same circumstances].
Chris Turpin: As a young band when Radiohead said [in 2007 for their album In_ Rainbows_] it was okay to make a donation to buy their music, I remember thinking: “What on earth are you doing?” It’s all right for you, Radiohead, but what about valuing the artistic statement of a record?
Along with the four of you sitting around the table, which other bands might have deserved a voice in this debate?
**Rosalie: **Electric Wizard. They’ve had a long and fascinating career and stayed true to what they believe in.
Chris Georgiadis: I’m going to name two, both from Bristol: the St Pierre Snake Invasion and Idols.
Chris Turpin: I really like Temples. They live in a world of their own and go completely against the grain. Oh, and Broken Hands.
Russ: I was going to say Broken Hands, too.
Do you think there’s enough raw talent out there for you to be optimistic?
**Rosalie: **Oh yeah. Sometimes you’ll see a band on the same bill as you and you’ll think: “Shit, these guys are incredible. Why haven’t I heard of them before?” But, like we discussed earlier, they all have day jobs and can’t afford to give them up. They’re a weekend band. There’s so much lost talent that just doesn’t get seen.
Russ: People would rather watch a tightrope-walking dog [on Britain’s Got Talent]. That’s the water-cooler moment in most households.
So how difficult is it to get noticed? Obviously, there’s YouTube, but you can’t survive on viewing hits alone.
Russ: No, but you can use it to break in. If you have a great live show, if you look incredible or your music is interesting it does help. It doesn’t make you any money, but at least you get that exposure. It can be a plague if there are loads of people filming a gig. You can ask them to stop, but, really, if that crap’s out there at least you’re making a wave of some kind. If you fall over or something stupid happens it’s bound to be filmed.
Chris Turpin: In a way that’s what annoys me. There are no more filters any more. Fifteen minutes of fame can turn into your own TV show. I hark back to times when people followed record companies. You would use the fact that an album was on Island Records. Now, there’s so much out there it’s harder to rise above the noise.
Chris Georgiadis: It’s disappointing that with so many outlets, there are not those champions of bands that there used to be.
A modern-day equivalent of John Peel, you mean?
Chris Georgiadis: Yeah. Nobody has that same kind of power any more. Not the magazines, not in the record companies. I suppose that’s probably good in some ways.
Rosalie: With the internet, people can do their own research now. They don’t pay so much attention to what they’re being told to like.
Would it have been easier to be a band back in the 1990s, with the benefit tastemakers, loads of magazines and MTV?
Rosalie: Yeah, because there was a lot more money in the industry. I have friends who are a generation older than me who still talk about how they were on a living wage; even when their bands didn’t get anywhere and their records flopped they were still well treated.
Chris Turpin: I agree. You could give success a complete swerve and still afford to buy your mum a Mini Metro or whatever.
What are you views on the rise of Spotify? Is it a good or a bad thing? People can hear your music more freely, but…
Russ: It’s another way to not make money. Yet another hurdle.
Rosalie: It needs to be sorted out. We need another system. It can’t last like this. There should be something like a TV licence for online media. Everyone that uses it should pay a fee. On Spotify you make no money. [To the rest of the table] You’ll have seen your PRS [Performing Rights Society] statements… you make no money. They pay just pennies for thousands and thousands of plays.
It’s making the situation much worse.
Chris Turpin: Yeah. The floodgates have been opened and there’s no way of shutting them now.
Russ: It’s like watching a movie you’d downloaded; that movie still cost fifty million to shoot. The way things are going, in the future will there be movies?
So here’s the elephant in the room: are you guys guilty in your own way? Have you never downloaded music for free?
**Chris Georgiadis: **[with a smirk] No. We’re in bands, we make our own music. We don’t do that shit.
**Rosalie: **I don’t want to say yes because people might think it’s okay. But yes I do, and it’s not okay.
The record business has become almost unrecognisable. Kill It Kid began on an indie, One Little Indian, were signed to EMI and are now with the Warner Brothers imprint Sire. Chris, what can you tell us about your experiences of those more corporate situations?
Chris Turpin: In some ways our development was quite old-school. We made two records for One Little Indian before we were courted by various majors. And then we were ignored for a year before being picked up by Seymour Stein [who signed Madonna, the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Pretenders, among others]. So we snuck in the back door, because Sire is a shop-front for Warner Brothers. Our record is completely untainted by any major record label involvement. We have none of those terrible pressures.
Were you ‘courted’ as in taken for expensive meals, etcetera?
Chris Turpin: Yeah. We went to New York and had helicopter trips over the city. RCA and Columbia wanted us.
Rosalie: Helicopter trips? So that’s where the money goes.
Chris Turpin: Yeah. And within a year I was back in a guitar shop working cash-in-hand, and doing that for the next twelve months [laughs and shrugs shoulders].
That must be surreal?
Chris Turpin: Of course it was. And another of the acts that were signed to Warners had a three-year development deal. It was an entirely different world.
Are they still out there?
Chris Turpin: Yeah, but they still haven’t released anything.
Band Of Skulls and Kill It Kid seem to have spent a fair bit of time in the US. Have Purson been out there yet?
**Rosalie: **Yeah, we did the Kiss Cruise. And we’re going again in September.
And what about Turbowolf?
**Chris Georgiadis: **We went to South By Southwest [an industry gathering for up-and-coming artists] in 2009, and there are plans to return at the end of this year. So our American journey is only just beginning.
Despite its sheer size and the remote possibility of genuine traction, do British bands still look at breaking America as the Holy Grail?
Rosalie: Yeah, I think so. Because it’s such a big place and the people that live there really love rock music. And they love British bands, so if your do manage to grab their attention you can carve a decent career.
**Russ: **There’s a rich history of music, and they respect bands that can write original songs and play their own instruments. But you can play in New York or LA at a fashionable party, which is one thing, but then you also have to play in Texas, where you look at someone the wrong way it can be a life-and-death thing. You need a very diverse skill-set. [Everybody laughs]. The good thing is that the history of American music is as rich as our own, and there’s a sense of respect for that. Rock’n’roll isn’t seen as the unfashionable, frumpy aunt, as it sometimes is in this country. What people don’t always realise is that America has many of the same problems, only on an American scale. There’s a band called The Whigs [from Athens, Georgia] who should be playing the biggest venues in America and in Europe. They’re a great, real band. But there’s no justice. We have one or two bands a year [deserving of more attention], but every US city has fifty great bands.
In Britain the grass-roots scene seems to be in a perilous state, and venues are closing all over the place.
Russ: That’s very depressing. Each of us will have our home-town show, and many have closed.
Chris Georgiadis: The Croft [in Bristol] is no longer there. It closed three years ago and is now a craft beer emporium.
Aren’t they trying to shut another Bristol venue of many years standing, The Fleece?
Chris Georgiadis: Yes, due to neighbour noise.
Russ: They’re building flats nearby. It has nothing to do with art and culture, it’s about money. Ours [in Southampton] is the Joiners Arms. We went back and did a show for them last year which was fantastic. The neighbours definitely heard that one.
Rosalie: We’re lucky in Southend because we still have a good place to go. The Railway is a fantastic place.
Are tribute acts strangling real creative talent, or could we take a positive from the fact that they help to keep the remaining small venues ticking over?
Rosalie: To me they play a part in keeping things alive. People want to see them. I want to see them, too. If someone’s going to do a really great impression of Jim Morrison I’m going to be there.
Russ: They definitely keep the venues busy, but they also take a night that could be filled by an original band. To me it’s a hollow victory. There are now festivals of tribute acts. In years to come are we really going to be talking about that great tribute band? I think not.
Can it be seen as part of the whole process of dumbing down?
Rosalie: I don’t think so. It’s good fun. They’re really not meant to be taken seriously.
Russ: My view is that they make those of us that do make our own music stand out more. Hopefully that’s true, at least.
**Let’s try to end things on an upbeat note. Gene Simmons has been on his soapbox, telling everything who’ll listen that rock is dead. Is he right? Or have the rules changed and it’s up to the new breed to either mutate or die? **
Russ: Things are back in the hands of the people that really care. Nobody’s doing it for the glory, it’s about the love. And to me that really shows. The audience gets that, I think. We are living in a fast-moving world. If an audience grows up with a band, there’s a chance they’ll stay with you in later years; you’re not just whoever won that thing on the telly.
Chris Turpin: It’s harder now than ever before to get your foot in the door, but rock music – guitar music – will never die. As you grow up it’s so vital.
Chris Georgiadis: I agree with that. The world has got so many issues, so much negativity going on. It will always inspire people to turn around and say: “Fuck you.” So long as the world remains a horrible place, we will always have noisy, aggressive music. If the world turns into a peaceful planet, maybe rock music will die and everyone will start playing lutes instead. That’s not going to happen.
Rosalie: It’ll never die out, because it means too much to too many people.
Chris Turpin: At the end of the day, the life of a musician isn’t something you choose.
Rosalie: There’s the sex and the drugs, and they’re alright, but nothing else makes you feel the same. Rock’n’roll is always the best one.