Sunday, December 21, 2008

Exclusive: Interview with Madness Central Headman Steve Bringe

What a year 2008 has been for 2-Tone related band news and developments. First, The Specials announced in March that they had been rehearsing, followed by a surprise gig in September. Earlier this month they announced that they will reform (sans Jerry Dammers) to play UK shows in 2009 to mark their 30 year anniversary. Not to be outdone, Madness released a new single (NW5) and played a series of shows in London over the summer to preview songs from their long in the making LP 'The Liberty of Norton Folgate' (their first original collection of songs since 1999's 'Wonderful). Just this week they announced that they will finally release all the songs as a box set in March 2009, but that fans who purchase it as part of a pre-sale now will be able to download nearly half the songs now! It's still hard to fathom that 2009 will feature tours from both The Specials and Madness. My head is still spinning!

What's been most interesting in the case of both bands, has been the role that social media, particularly the band's web sites and community forums, have played in the way these developments played out. The web sites have provided fans with the latest news, often times from the band members themselves, and have often provided fans with access to tickets and music ahead of their availability to the general public. I've been a regular visitor to The Specials site for some time and just recently had the chance to interview Paul Williams, who is one of the site administrators and a fan of the band. I also recently had the chance to visit and spend some time on the new Madness fan site, called Madness Central, which just launched last month. In both cases, the web sites are amazing resources that can provide both the casual and hard core fan with whatever experience they may be looking for.

Madness Central was over two years in the planning and six months in the development, and included the combined talents of a commonwealth of dedicated Madness fans to bring it to life. The result is an unprecedented Madness website with such an all-encompassing spectrum of nutty information that there is really no denying it is the ultimate reference source for all things Madness related. The site serves up the goods with exclusive interviews, the largest collection of vintage and contemporary press articles around, the most complete lyrics book on-line, the most exhaustive and extensive discography of every international pressing, the"Tour Madness" project that lists every show the band has ever played, an ever-growing directory of unofficial live recordings, an outstanding pictorial library of concert photos and Madness paraphernalia, and an ever-rotating selection of audio and video downloads sure to please newbies and old-timers alike. Above all the site is also a Madness fan community where Madness fans from all over the globe are being kept up to date with what's happening. It's an incredibly impressive site.

The longer I blog, the more opportunities I have to meet and connect with people who share my love for the bands who started under the 2-Tone umbrella. We all seem to have similar touchstones for songs and live shows that have marked different times in our lives. Like me, these fans have directed their energies into web sites, blogs and fan community forums and like me, they all clearly have a passion for spreading their love to others. One of these people is Steve Bringe, who can best described as the front man for Madness Central. While Bringe may be one of the busiest and most vocal contributors to the site, Madness Central is definitely a team effort and the entire team deserves credit for bringing the site to life. They include:

Madness Central Management:Kevin Tizzard, Steve Bringe
Managing Partner:Lee "Loobyloo" Buckley
MySpace/Facebook Webmistress:Trish Morgan
Project Managers:Jonathan Young, Chris Carter-Pegg, Graham Yates, Phil Morris, Jermaine, Emma Southerby

Though clearly a group effort, Steve Bringe is the eloquent and witty mouthpiece for the operation and as the "Loud American" of this mostly UK team, I decided to seek him out to tell me more about what put him on the path to creating what can only be described as an "Online Winter Wonderland for Madness Fans".

Without further ado, here is the interview with Steve.

Can you tell me about your introduction to ska music and 2-Tone in particular?
If you want to delve into the introduction of any and all music in the formative years, you needn't look any further than KROQ 106.7 fm, which was then headquartered in Pasadena, California. The older kids on my street would bring by their Devo and Adam & the Ants lps, stuff that was totally skewed from the Barry Manilow-hyped popular stations. I asked this dude named John Fuller, who lived two doors down from me, where he was getting that music. The answer was KROQ.

The lump term for all the KROQ tuneage was "New Wave" in the early 80's, and in the playlist mix were regular rotations of British ska. Bad Manners, the English Beat, the Specials, and most importantly Madness got their airtime every day, and as I was tuning in every day, every day I got to grooving 2 Tone music more and more. I had no idea what they were talking about, be it Dave Wakeling crooning about "fighting the front or fronting the fight" or Madness carrying on about "kipping on the sofa" or "the newsagent on the corner." The music was good, so that's all that mattered. And I was reasonably sure they weren't lyrically prodding me to host a severed goat head above my bed at night, so that was nice.

What was the ska scene like in Southern California when you were growing up? What were some of the memorable shows you saw back then that set you on the path you are on now?
The whole music scene in So Cal was charged with change and raw energy in the 80's. It wasn't just ska, it was all these bands that were breaking with the sixties and seventies mainstays like Fleetwood Mac and... well, Barry Manilow. And so many of them were homegrown. I've got a really big softspot for Oingo Boingo, who I guess were ska tangentially, as they had songs like "Violent Love" and "Only Makes Me Laugh" that are mutant bluebeat creatures at their core.

The ska scene in the LA area wasn't strictly ska, it also incorporated a strong stylistic sense from the British mod scene. For the most part, they were synonymous with each other. You could be a huge Jam fan and a huge Madness fan and it was pretty much expected of you if you dressed under the porkpie and drove around on a Vespa. There were some great ska bands from the LA area like the Untouchables and Fishbone that were hometown heroes to this crew of kids. We even had our own magazines, most notably Twist that lasted all of six issues I think.

Memorable shows... man, so many to choose from. There was this gig in San Diego on the campus of UCSD where Madness and Oingo Boingo opened for The Police. The Untouchables were always playing around town. And at least 80 or 90 times a year Boingo would be doing gigs. You could say all these gigs started me on the path to loving music and loving live music even more.

Can you remember the first Madness song you ever heard? What was the first Madness show you ever saw and where was it? How many Madness shows have you seen? What was the best show?
That would be "One Step Beyond." I was hooked. I'd never heard anybody abuse a sax so beautifully. Madness had two albums out by the time I discovered them, so I was treated to other gems like "Baggy Trousers", "Embarrassment", "Bed & Breakfast Man", "Madness" and "Night Boat To Cairo" in a very short space of time, but "One Step Beyond" is the instigator.

I'm a little fuzzy on the first Madness show I saw. It might be the opening act for The Police in San Diego, it might be the Hollywood show on the same tour, or it might be the opening rumblings for David Bowie, again on the same tour in 1983. For some reason I've got this memory that I saw Madness play a charity baseball game in Long Beach before I saw them play live in concert. In 1983, and then again in 1984, Madness took on the KROQ djs and staff in these charity games. Madness won both times.

I think I've seen Madness a couple dozen times. Most of those shows were in the US, although I've had a chance to see them in their home country as well. The audiences are totally different in the UK. Everyone knows all the words. It's bizarre sitting in Wembley and hearing a contrived howl of thousands of people singing along. Fans in the US know the music, but you haven't experienced a Madness concert until you've entered an arena where it's like everyone's breathing at exactly the same time and their hearts are all beating in unison.

It's tough when you put superlatives on questions, but "best show" is actually pretty easy to pin down. It was in May, 1999, at Sonic Studios in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Madness was doing a short stint of the upper Eastern Seaboard and they'd set up this radio performance through Y100 fm. Aptly named "The Sonic Sessions", Madness played this tiny studio to an audience of about 50 people, most of whom were radio contest winners (and not necessarily Madness fans). Chrissy Boy was good enough to sneak me and the now-ex-wife in for the show. I swear, it was like having Madness play in your family room. Everyone was sitting on the floor with Madness separated from the crowd by just a white painted line. It was only five songs, but that was the greatest Madness gig I've had the pleasure to take in. And, we got to chum around with the band for a good hour after the performance, taking pictures, getting autographs, stealing souvenirs...

How did a guy like you (American no less!) end up running what is arguably the greatest Madness online resource ever? Where does this story begin?
Geez, I don't know. Next question!

Madness has been with me since 1980, thinking back on it. All my notebooks and homework had the little Madman doodled on them. I was able to get my high school yearbook themed "One Step Beyond...", featuring a picture of my 7" single and the opening lyrics to the song in the center of the book. It had a lot to do with the girl I was dating at the time being on the yearbook staff. So the dedication was there from the start, which is actually kind of pathetic.

I think I got into the Madness online community around 1997, on the Madness Mailing List which was run by this dude named Robert Hazelby, the same guy who runs the MIS-Online newsletter nowadays. It's really petty, but there was this, to use a Brit term, tosser of a man who was hazing the whole email list, and this English guy named Kevin Tizzard and I decided we could do it better in a friendlier environment and we went off and did up our own listserve. The Total Madness Mailing List is what we called it I think. We did a few interviews with the band and producers, set up industry contacts with the record companies, built it up... and then left.

A couple years later Kev and I got back together and ran the Madness Trading Ring, which was set up for Madness fans to trade bootlegs of live gigs, hopefully to keep fans from buying the boots on eBay by getting them for free instead. That didn't stay contained as such for more than a few months, and while the moniker kept for about seven years, the MTR became another successful fan community for news and interviews and fan-frolicking that went beyond bootleg distribution.

What's funny is back in 1998, when we first did up the TMML, we had the idea then of having a one-stop-shopping Madness reference site run by a cooperative of fans. It's only taken ten years to make it happen, as about a month ago we renamed the MTR to Madness Central and launched the site we always wanted to create.

Who are your co-conspirators in bringing it to life? Did you have the cooperation and support of the band and their management?
As I mentioned, my partner Kevin Tizzard and I have been working on Madness fan sites for going on ten years now. Kev does all the unsexy things for the site. Where I get to be the loudmouth, pain in the ass, Kev sits behind the scenes making the site come to life. We'll discuss what we'd like out of the site, agree on a direction, and he goes off and makes it happen. Kev's an absolute genius when it comes to coding, and the Madness Central site would not be possible if not for Kev.

Then we've got this girl Lee "Loobyloo" Buckley. She's a jackie-of-all-trades really. Technically she's the powerhouse behind the In Print section of the site, but she's got her fingers in just about every pie sitewide. She's a total doll.

Jon Young does up the Tour Madness section of the site, as well as editing the News Blog. He and I have been pals for several years now, and when he offered to help out on Madness Central I took him up on it straight away. Jon's another one of those hyper-dedicated fans. He's an editor with MIS-Online as well.

We've got Chris Carter-Pegg who generously allowed us to use his comprehensive discography for the site. Chris has arguably the best and most complete Madness vinyl/cd/tape collection on the planet, so he was a natural for this section. If you've ever bought a really rare Madness record off eBay, most likely you got it from Chris.

Graham Yates is a new friend of mine, and asking Loobs who would be good for the task of handling the Lyrics, she immediately recommended Graham. We were looking for someone to draft up the pages and reams of Madness lyrics, many of which are appearing on Madness Central for the first time online. He's got a great ear for what our boys are singing, and he's putting the talent to work on the new songs and a slew of unreleased demos for his Lyrics section.

Trish Morgan is the only other American on the team. She's friendly from here to the moon, so we asked her to take care of the MySpace and Facebook profiles for Madness Central. Be sure to send her a note and say howdy if you're on Facebook and MySpace.

The Live Recordings Directory is a late addition to the site, but it's an important reference tool so we couldn't just shrug it off. Phil Morris is doing this up for us, putting together a comprehensive listing of live recordings (aka bootlegs) so collectors will know what's available out there. We're just now getting started on this, and Phil's got an impressive and massive collection of boots to draw upon.

Emma Southerby, Chris CP's lovely wife, will be managing a Madness Shop for us, which will be coming online next year. As I said, Chris is one of the foremost Madness dealers on the 'net, and he and Emma have graciously agreed to let us host their shop.

Did the Madness management know about Madness Central?
It wasn't a closely guarded secret, but we did develop the site in secret. The only one in the band that we told about the site while it was being built is Chris Foreman. Otherwise, we kept it in the circle of the Madness Central Team. The management has been great, though. They're aware of us and have been very supportive. We do what we can to promote their efforts, too. Anything at all to prove to the world that everyone could use a little bit of Madness in their life.

You seem to be very well connected with members of Madness (Chris Foreman in particular). How did you meet them? If you had to match a member of Madness with each of the seven dwarfs how would they match up?
Chris is my good pal. I don't remember exactly how we met. I know we started emailing in the late 90's and then we met up during the US tour in 1999... we've stayed in touch ever since. He kind of abuses the privilege of being my friend, though. The guy has this habit of calling in the early hours, never remembering that England is seven hours ahead of New Mexico time.

Suggs has got this running joke, asking me crazy questions like, "If you know so much about Madness, tell me what I had for breakfast." It's funny to him, I'm sure. That he sells fish fingers is funny to me. So there.

As long as you don't ask me to explain, I'll play your game. I'm sure some of the madnoraks can appreciate where this is going.
Sneezy - Chas
Sleepy - Mike
Dopey - Lee
Doc - Suggs
Happy - Woody
Bashful - Bedders
Grumpy - Chris

How big a job has it been to bring Madness Central online and how much time a day are you managing the site and administering the community forum?
The job has been huge. However, it's been created only through the talents and resources of a stellar and cooperative team of fans, so it's been a lot fun and hasn't really seemed like work. Kev might disagree, but he's kind of a curmudgeon.

Now that the site has gone live, it's not such a rush trying to get content posted any longer. For about two months we all put a lot of time into getting the site ready. Now the attitude is we have the rest of our lives to finish a site that will never be finished, so it's really relaxed. It's a hobby, after all.

The Madness community has never been something that has to be refereed or managed to any great degree. It's always impressed me how friendly everyone is to each other. I've been part of other forums through the years, both for entertainment and professionally, and the pissing contests and flame wars I'd see on these other forums never crop up in the Madness community. This is really nice, for all that I've had to do so far is split and merge a few topics. I get to participate in the forum rather than manage it. Tres laissez faire.

Do any of the band members post on the community forum?
Pass. :)

Have you met any of the fans of the band who post on the community forum?
Let's see. I've met Jon Young at the 2005 Troubadour gig in West Hollywood. Sadly, I've never met my evil twin Kevin Tizzard before, not once in ten years. There are a few other fans who don't really post to the forum who I've had the pleasure of raising a couple pints with. I spend a lot of time talking to other fans around the world on Skype. There's something tangible about putting a voice to a name on the monitor.

What's your take on 'The Liberty Of Norton Folgate' album? Where does it fall in the pantheon of Madness albums?
I was thinking on this earlier. Musing away, musing away. It's really easy to say, "Yeah, that song sounds like it could have been on 'Keep Moving'" and be done with it. And you bet, there are songs like "Rainbows" that have that "March of the Gherkins" jive to them. I dig the way producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley have given Lee Thompson free rein to layer in his harmonizing and reedy shredding sax wanderings. That was missing on both of their last two albums, "Wonderful" and "Dangermen." Chris' guitar work is at the forefront on most of the songs, bold and angular, which best represents his live performances nowadays. The keys aren't relegated to simply the piano and Hammond this time, either, which takes me back to the "Rise and Fall"/"Keep Moving" era. Its nice to feel reminders of songs from days past, but it's more than nostalgic regurgitation, though. That's just intellectually and artistically lazy. What I came away with after listening to the album for the tenth or twentieth time today is that that "Norton Folgate" is the album they would have made if "Mad Not Mad" never existed, Mike Barson had never left the band in 1984, and the whole lot of them had taken a couple of years to find their direction again.

What do you think of the way the band are selling the album to fans via pre-purchase of a box set and digital downloads?
It's an interesting model. The band recently struck up a deal with Power Amp Music Fund, an investment pow wow with portfolios featuring several artists in the music industry. Madness funded Norton Folgate through their association with Power Amp, which allows them to try out unorthodox marketing and distribution ideas like releasing the digital download some two months before the physical release. Other bands have gone a similar route with great success, most notably Radiohead's "In Rainbows." Of course, Radiohead let fans name their own price on the digital download.

The box set... we'll see how this pans out. The initial pressing is an economy of scale endeavor, necessitating a 5,000 count pressing due to the costly nature of the box itself. A few years back Madness recorded the majority of their live tour (save the Ireland gig) for purchase at the merchandise stands after the gig. Whatever didn't sell was then offered online. I think the run on these was 2,500 units, and here we are, two years later, and Concert Live is offering them up on a 2-for-1 special. Is that related? Maybe... where was I?

Oh, I know the point I'm making! "Limited edition" releases, as the box set is being sold, don't always generate big sales. Never mind that the box set will enjoy a second pressing if the first "limited edition" reaps in the dosh. As a collector, I'm thrilled with special packages like the Norton Folgate box set. I think a good many music fans will opt out for the regular, less-expensive, non-box cd, though. I ordered my box set yesterday and it came in at $80 USD with shipping.

All said, I always want to see Madness succeed in everything they do. I think ultimately having this sort of freedom from a record company will play to their benefit. Virgin wasn't all that great in promoting the band or their releases, so being in charge of their own destiny can't be a bad thing.

It's kind of a relief, really. Just a few months ago they were talking about releasing Norton Folgate via the Sunday paper like Prince did. Yikes!

What is the most obscure piece of Madness memorabilia you own?
For a long time I would scour Chrissy Boy's trash cans on the street the night before pick-up for his nail clippings and coffee grounds. The goal was to synthesize a compound similar to vinyl where I could press my own copies of the Madness albums, making me the only fan on the planet with a copy of "One Chrissy Beyond." I don't think he was all that thrilled.

I've got these VIP passes for the Electric Factory in Philly of which there are only two. They're generic Electric Factory After Show perris with Madness stenciled on them. I've also got some reel-to-reel tapes from Geffen's mix of "Mad Not Mad." A few years back I had some fun at the expense of other collectors by putting out there that there was an Italian version of "Complete Madness" with "Crying Shame" as one of the tracks. Man, that would be quite the obscurity... so obscure it doesn't exist!

What other bands are you a fan of besides Madness?
Oh dude, the list is endless. Check out my MySpace profile for a good rundown of bands I dig. I tried composing a complete list once and then got bored with keeping it up...

Currently, I'm listening to a lot of English Beat, which typically happens around the time of a Wakeling gig. He's a gem of a man. How many years ago did Tim Armstrong's "A Poet's Life" come out? I still can't put that down. It's the best 2 Tone album since 2 Tone. I've got an advance on some of the tracks off the forthcoming Morrissey album which are really good. The Bravery's "The Sun and the Moon Complete" is in the Jeep. Jimmy Eat World celebrated the tenth anniversary of "Clarity" this year, which reminded me what a great band they are. Oingo Boingo for sure. Along with Madness, Boingo is at the top. The list is long. Check out the MySpace profile if you're truly interested. Music rocks.

Finally, is Madness all in the mind?
Socrates had this notion that's commonly referred to as "The Cave." The allegory goes something like this: You've got these dudes who since birth are chained up in a cave so they can't turn their heads, only able to look straight forward. Behind them is a fire burning, illuminating the cave and casting their shadows before them onto a flat, low wall. For entertainment, some sadistic dude stands behind a translucent sheet showing objects in shadow through the sheet, so once again the chained-up sods only see a reality expressed as rough, monochromatic, two-dimensional forms. So one day one of these guys is unchained and taken out of the cave, shown the sun, shown water and reflection, shown depth of field and more than those ethereal two-dimensional representations of the universe.

What happens when he goes back and tries to express all that he's experienced to his former cave-buddies? Naturally, they'd think he was completely mad. Is the madness based in perception, or is madness based upon the description? It's a coin-flipper, that one.

It's really more of a statement on whether what we observe is actually how the universe is truly composed, and this particular allegory by one of the earliest natural philosophers held the academic imagination on through to the Renaissance. So, I think madness is more than just in the mind, it's in the very fabric of the universe. We are limited in our interpretation of the universe by our minds, though, so perhaps it's just as well saying that madness is, at its perceptive root, all in the mind.

That's all fine and good, but what I always wanted to know is, who the hell would chain a bunch of babies up in a cave?

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