Chris Guiton interviews jd meatyard, who describes himself as a left field artist much favoured in his Levellers 5 and Calvin Party days by the late great John Peel, with albums such as ‘Lies Lies & Government’ and songs such as ‘Tell Me About Poverty’. June 2017 saw the release of ‘Collectivise’ the 4th album in his current guise as jd meatyard - featured on BBC 6 Music’s Gideon Coe show.
CG. Can you tell us something about your new album, Collectivise, and how it builds on your previous albums?
JD. Collectivise is a return to guitar, bass, drums…lo fi as a production bonus. The previous album ‘ Taking The Asylum’ was influenced by ‘songwriters’…like Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’… Jonathan Richman…Elliot Smith. For Collectivise the mood was different, darker, christ just walk out in the streets and see the despair…and the recording of the new album coincided with a family bad thing, a dreadful loss…with the personal and political in such a state the ‘tone’ of the recording added much to the songs themselves…‘songs I’d play everyday with songs painful to listen to even though I share the politics’ says one. So all in all, the songs on Collectivise reflect of course the crazy place we are now in - the horror show that is the every day for so many people… and the personal to, as ever. I couldn’t have an album with such a narrative lightened around the edges with mandolins and such - ergo guitar, bass, drums.
CG. You celebrate a diverse range of influences. Can you tell us a bit about how your music has evolved over the years?
JD. Well, with Levellers 5 (NOT Levellers!) back in the early John Peel days it was just pretty much a manic rant at times, 'like drunk kids let loose in a music store' said the MNE (true, as in we were like drunk kids…) held together by a great band. Then with Calvin Party we played the indie style of big guitars n' stuff…hey, all in all a pile of Peelie sessions n album releases, it was all a life to live. I headed over to live in Holland and packed in the ‘band thing’ as I wanted to just write songs - not songs for a band, just songs, any which way they came. So started jd meatyard…Ralph Eugene Meatyard was a photographer whose work I liked, interesting stuff for sure, and I needed a ‘name’ to be a solo singer songwriter sort of guy. It worked, we formed a 3 piece in Rotterdam, me and Johan and Nina, sparse - two guitars, a floor tom and snare…but what it opened up was the variety of song - the light n' shade maybe, loud quiet loud. It’s worked well on the albums, the eponymously titled sort of nervous solo debut, then ‘Northern Songs’ with the much demanded ‘Jesse James’ song on through to the new release…we got many indie radio show's support, and plays from Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music…the new Peelie, which really helps!
CG. Brecht famously said, 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.' How relevant do you think this is now as we face a continued neoliberal assault on the 'cultural
commons', those elements of art and culture that rightly belong to all of us?
JD. ‘Art is all’, I used to believe. Problem is ‘culture’ is now a tool that we’re controlled by, there’s no argument to this…Edward Bernays pioneered such control of the masses at the behest of the New York/U.S elites early 20th Century. 'The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society'… keep us all in the mall whilst they go about screwing the planet. I do think that there is hope, the dumbing down of all culture, the collapse of the popular into little more than corporate funding is I think coming to an end…gotta say, social media has had a big part in this loosening of the reins, there is now an emerging culture of radical attack, of questioning, of challenging that hasn't been around for a long time…social media, the great channel for leaks that they can no longer control…the other day with the Paradise Papers tax stuff…no wonder they’re so frightened of Jeremy Corbyn!
That I get hammered, and I do, for my tiny contribution - songs for Palestine, ‘4 Kids on a Gaza Beach’, for the left, ‘Jesse James’, ‘Blow it Out yr Arse’, 'St Peter at The Gate’, ’Collectivise’… people in Sheffield walking out of the show, others rolling their eyes ‘oh not more politics’, underlines the problem…the attacks I get are pretty severe at times.
CG. What are your thoughts generally about politics at the moment, in particular the hope offered by Jeremy Corbyn and the dramatic shift in the position of the Labour Party?
JD. JC has done something that I’d completely given up on, he’s energised so many people - people that had given up hope - many on the left/humanists that had walked away following Blair's band of closet neo-libs…the feeling now that there is a real possibility of success for a centre left government is astonishing given recent history. We now have a Labour Party fit for the name, a leader that matches many of us in historical choices - aye, we did play anti-apartheid shows, and shows for the miners and he/we never wore ‘Hang Mandela’ T shirts like some of the tory toffs. Yes, there is a wee political frisson about now with JC attracting crowds like never before…just as the Tories are chewing themselves up with the tax dodging and abuse charges ripping round the ether - good times…hopefully great, honest, progressive times on the way. There needs to be big changes globally. The corporate governance of the planet, profit is ALL, has worked for the elites but it has, no doubt, fkd the planet. The poor and the immigrants haven't fkd the planet the rich have.
CG. There’s a lot of heartfelt anger and honesty in your music. How do you combine the personal and the political in your songwriting?
JD. Thanks. Its easy, no? What’s the old one - ‘the personal is poltical’? I don't know how songwriters can avoid being political! Of course I get it, Ed Sheeren and the like are ‘business’ artists - they write flatlining songs for a flatlining audience - formulaic, high production and a marketing plan to suit. We don't expect anything from such artists…however, I am surprised that so few ‘serious’ artists that have the opportunity to comment don’t bother to do so - each to their own. However, for Morrissey, Radiohead and the rest who play the ‘non political’ card as an excuse to pocket the Netanyahu $$$…well, what can you say, sick. It’s my naivety I guess, I expect more from artists. For me, what else is there? The pain, the tragedies, the loves and losses…fk, it's all there in the everyday of life, to seperate politics from personal is to artificially divide reality. So, for me, there’s no contrivance, it's life.
CG. At Culture Matters we are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies that reverse the impact of austerity, make the link between progressive art and progressive politics, and support culture for the many not the few (to coin a phrase!). What are your thoughts on what a socialist arts and culture policy should offer us?
JD. Financial backing for creatives, right now there’s little or no support unless you’re already making $$$…I beg PRS now and again for support - nada, nothing, nunca. We need targeted support for those with a catalogue of, let's say, meaningful music. Sad thing is that in music particularly there’s a real dumbed down practice - the mainstream now is the aural equivilent of Enid Blyton, kids read EB, no probs, however adults listen to the aural equivalent. Little from the left field gets through…Sleaford Mods bravo. Support for ‘alt’ venues would help, this would include ‘hands on’ support in terms of creating a culture of arts/music clubs aimed at that very real alternative audience…funding for progressive ideas is what we need.
CG. What's it like working in the music scene at the moment? How has it changed over your life? What do you think of other bands and musicians these days?
JD. See above, ha. Since John Peel left us its been a struggle for many bands, JDM is lucky. I get support from many independent radio shows and Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music has played songs from all my albums as JDM. But when Peel was around it made a difference with others who used him as a marker - so we’d get better gigs then and plays from other network DJs - it's noticeable how so may doors shut when the great man died.
CG. The DIY culture that emerged with punk still appears to be going strong. A grassroots approach to music is a great way of empowering people who might otherwise feel excluded. What are your thoughts on this, and how might the labour movement best support this?
JD. Like many, music was my door to everything else. The house as a kid revolved around C & W, played on the record player and also live by my ma n' da, brother and sister …great singalongs until the dreaded introduction of Lanliq - those days ‘buckie’. Then dub and reggae got me asking how come so many Scottish names…slave history and nasty empires entered my vocab, Lou and the Velvets blew open my eternal love of New York, and introduced me to Warhol and 3 hour long screenings of looking at the Empire State Building - the very notion of ‘alternative’ in the arts and of course in life too. Punk was such a break, the sheer bravado and ‘fk you’ attitude was so liberating and yes, empowering, as it blew away so much deadwood in music and beyond, for a moment it terrified the establishment. This is what I mentioned before - the government can, if it wants to, fund street level creativity through music and the arts by encouraging people with ideas to create spaces, small venues with real spirit, progressive places that encourage participation with artists and the public. Such activity is critical in fostering a ‘knowing’ public rather than a shopping mall mass taught only to, well, shop and little else. We need a mass of people with a critical, intelligent mindset if we are to break the corporate ruling of our lives, our world. The arts, music is central to the creation of a better future for us all - nearly said ‘for the many, not the few’ - phew! Painting, music, photography, all creatives have a critical role to play in saving the world from a
toxic culture that will see this planet drained to an empty shell - as long as they make $$$$$$…we can change the everyday from one of banal consumption at best to something more vital, a life worth living.
CG. I see you’re about to tour the Netherlands, and also live abroad part of the time. How do you find foreign audiences react to your music and does spending time abroad give you a different perspective on life?
JD. Aye, back to Rrrrrrrotterdam, what a place. I never realised the toughness of the Dutch until we moved there for a couple of years and Rotterdam, port city n' all is as tough as it comes. Holland was cool for the music, my music. They got the punk thing, shared like most northern European countries a liking for ‘alt’ stuff - so you get such acts touring these places…unlike Spain, Malaga city where the kids are into either 80s Bronx beats or the most insipid pop you’ve ever heard - ‘rock’ ground to a halt here with Duran Duran, punk never happened down this way…I get back to the UK for recording and gigs, see family. I love being back for the first few days…Pogues Irish bar in Liverool, up to Glasgow to see a game..recently discovered the wonder that is Bristol, recording the new album there...what a great city, now there’s a place that seems to be getting good culture to the centre of things. But after the first few days I’m sort of looking for my return flight…different perspective, for sure, back to the calm of El Palo.
“Some People is an epic track – If there was still a Peel Festive 50 it would be in the Top Ten this year”, Louder Than War. For more info and to buy his CDs go to jd meatyard
Chris Guiton is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters, and a freelance writer and project manager.