Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Exclusive: Interview with JC Carroll of The Members on the Band's Early Embrace of Reggae & 2009 Reunion Tour of The UK
JC Carroll is best known as the guitarist and songwriter for The Members. Along with the band vocalist Nicky Tesco he formed a partnership repsonsible for a number of great songs that are part of the canon of UK punk. Carroll co-wrote punk classic 'Sound of the Suburbs' and reggae classic 'Offshore Banking Business' as well as early 80s MTV smash hit 'Working Girl'. He has variously worked with many luminaries in the punk scene, including Johnny Thunders, Glen Matlock, Dee Dee Ramone, Rat Scabies, Joe Strummer and Frank Tovey. For me though, he is a link between the liberating power of punk and the powerful storytelling inherent in reggae. Carroll and Tesco (who was a huge reggae fan) were able to mine both genres to write a number of great songs that deserved a wider audience.
Like The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers and The Ruts, The Members were one of the first UK guitar bands to assimilate reggae into their song writing and sound. Their first reggae-inluenced singles and albums were released in 1978 and 1979 and pre-date The Specials, Madness and The Police and other bands that went on to incorporate the sound successfully into their songs. In fact, Jerry Dammers was quoted as saying The Members were an influence on The Specials. Indeed, The Members incorporated reggae to a greater degree than even The Clash, who are often seen as the true punk/reggae pioneers.
Though they started life as a punk band, The Members pulled in influences across many music boundaries, particularly reggae. Neil Spencer wrote in the NME in 1978: “Of the many rock bands co-opting reggae into their act, few do so with as much love and style as the The Members.” The band's guitarist JC told NME’s Thrills, “My rhythm guitar playing is definitely reggae-based,” 'It's not the same as blasting an audience with full-on rock riffs. It gets them moving in a different way. But, having said that, we're trying to play reggae in our own style. We're not singing about Jah Love. We're singing about living in Britain.”
What made me a fan of the band as a young and impressionable suburban dwelling reggae and ska fanatic was The Members prophectic and iconic track 'Offshore Banking Business'. My introduction to the song came during a screening of 'Urgh - A Music War' while I was at University in the early 80's. My initial introduction to the band had been through their big U.S. hit 'Working Girl' which was a staple on MTV in 1982. Therefore I was unprepared for the brass and bass-driven skank of the song that featured singer Nicky Tesco toasting “a lesson in home economics.” The song was a searing condemnation of global financial corruption, based on Carroll's working experience of merchant banking. Bahrain and the Bahamas banned it, the latter’s parliament calling the band “hop heads singing horse manure.”
After The Members split, Carroll stayed active in music. Most recently he has been playing out with his own band called JC & The Disciples. Carroll recently played a short soloo tour of the US on his own in late 2008. The shows were his first in the US in 25 years. The journey back to the States has reinvigorated him and he and his bandmates in The Memebers have reformed for a series of their own reunion shows across the UK this Spring. While he was in New York City late last fall, Carroll conducted an interview with Rant & Rave TV which is a great prelude to my written interview with him below:
Carroll was kind enough to take time out from rehearsing The Members reunion tour which kicks off this weekend in Leamington Spa to answer my questions about growing up in the suburbs of London, his interest and passion for reggae music and his experiences playing in The Members.
What was it like growing up in the London suburbs? How did the experience of growing up in Camberley inform your world view and song writing? You worked in a bank right?
There was nothing to do no cinemas no nothing so all us young lads played guitars the whole time. I left school and got a job in the City of London in the Bond department of a big bank. A lot of my songs from this period were very autobiograpical. We wanted to get away from the idea that all punk banks were inner city kids. Actually a lot of really cool bands came from the burbs like The Banshees, The Jam, Tom Robinson Band and Sham 69.
Did you grow up listening to ska and reggae music? When did your interest in reggae music start?
Reggae and ska were very big in the early seventies amongst the skinheads. I wasn't a skinhead at the time but I dug the sound. A guy I worked at the bank with was a cool guy and a DJ. He said I should check out Bob Marley. I saw him the night he recorded 'No Woman No Cry' It blew me away. Then I was listening to the early toasting I Roy's "Welding" made a big impact on me then. I bought 'Screaming Target' by Big Youth....that was it, I was sold.
When did you pick up the guitar? When did you make the conscious decision to be a musician?
All the boys in the neighborhood played the guitar. My brothers, everybody.
What kind of bands did you play in before joining The Members?
I had a School Band that did Velvet Underground Covers and we all loved Bowie Ziggy Stardust Period... then I met a guy in the local pub called Graham Parker. I recorded some demos for him and he went off and became famous. He would help me later.
What did you learn from working with noted music producer Steve Lillywhite on the 'Sound Of The Suburbs' record? What are your fondest memories of recording the "Sound Of The Suburbs" LP? Do you have a favorite song from the record?
Steve Lillywhite was a tape operater or engineer when we met him he got us some free studio time... he learned the old school way of recording... secrets tips of a sealed Surrey brotherhood that I am not allowed to reveal under pain of death. He was just taking off as a producer then.... he worked as an engineer or tape op at Phonogram and Island Records. We recorded 'Suburbs' in two days then for some silly reason we re-recorded it for the album, a vastly inferior version. For many years the only version you could get on all the main Members compilations was that inferior version. The original seven inch mix was locked like the man in the iron mask in the basement of Abbey Road Studios.
The Members had a reputation as a great live band. Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable?
We did a lot of Shows and were still are a great live band.. we love to talk to the audience.... one time on the USA Tour I decided that it was getting a bit hot on stage so I used to go on stage dressed in a bath towel and a turban... the girls at the front spent all night trying to grab it off me...
The Members were noteworthy as one of the first British guitar bands to fully incorporate reggae into their music. What influenced this decision?
We were well ahead of our time... groups like The Police used to come and check out our chops. We were there very early and we sensed the punk had to slow down to survive. Check out 'Offshore Banking'. It was very early. but even our very first record for Stiff Records had a reggae B side (Rat Up a Drainpipe). Chris Payne wrote that and it was written in 1977 and recorded in '78. Its dirty reggae like... Judge Dread... like Max Romeo.
Your guitar playing and your guitar sound is very unique. You were quoted once as saying 'My rhythm guitar playing is definitely reggae-based', Tell me more about about this and your approach to using reggae to tell uniquely British stories.
The reggae vibe lends itself to didactic songwriting more... simple as that its better to tell stories to..... If you listen to some of the songs on my 'Rock Is In The Lapt0p' albums or 'New English Blues' albums, you will hear very english storytelling. I think its very important to sing about your surroundings and not pretend that you are living in some USA styled R & R theme park.
The song 'Offshore Banking Business" was amazingly prophetic. Tell me about the genesis of this song from the music to the lyrics. It was quite a detailed look at a financial practice very few people were aware of until very recently. What was it like to work with Rico Rodriguez who recorded a fantastic solo for the song?
I was sitting in the bank one day and I wrote the lyrics and I phoned Nick Tesco and he was incredibly supportive. He said we should record it. Everybody else was 'No man its commercial suicide they want another punk song!' Well Steve Lillywhite worked a lot at the old St Peters Square Island Studios. Lots of the old school reggae guys hung out there, it was his idea to have Rico play on the track. We were blown away to have him on the track. Chris was a big fan as he already had the 'Man From Warika' album. My (later) Canadian drummer (Lucky) Peter Lambert also played in Rico's band for a while. Anyway we recorded it at Island cause it was a reggae studio and they had this young engineer there called Paul "Groucho" Smykle. He mixed it with us as Lillywhite was already getting busy. He went on to do all the Black Uhuru stuff, back then he was a young buoy.
Here is a video of the band performing 'Offshore Banking Business' from the movie 'Urgh!':
Here is the 12" mix of 'Offshore Banking Business' featuring Rico Rodriguez on trombone that was mixed by noted reggae producer Paul Smykle:
Tell me about your musical journey after The Members split in 1983. You played a series of solo shows here in the US last fall right?
I gave up music for a while then I took up the accordian. I had a Balkan Band with Chris Payne for a while and played in a folk band called the Wise Monkeys(for ten years). The accordian started getting me lots of film work and I was running a clothing business and raising a family and I was too busy. I kept my hand in here and there doing odd jobs like musical director of Christmas Panto Shows. During this period I recorded with Johnny Thunders and a Guy called Frank Tovey (Both sadly dead). Then I had a Roads to Damascus moment. My mate Mark Mellor told be to buy an Apple Mac computer and start recording. He taught me how to use it and we started working on music for commercials. And then all these songs started falling out of my head onto the hard drive. Nick Cash started playing drums with me and we made 'The Rock is in the Lapt0p' and 'Modern Folk' albums. Then I began collabbing on the net with musicians all round the world and I made the 'Stangers and Fiction Album'(look it up on iTunes). Then I got back together with Nigel from The Members and he cut some tracks on 'New English Blues volume 1' (Volume 2 and three are in the works). I am very busy right now finishing off three albums and putting The Members back on the road. And yes hopefully, we will visit the States soon.
The Members have reformed and you are slated to play only your 3rd show in 25 years this weekend. What prompted the reunion, the recording of 'International Financial Crisis' and the upcoming UK Tour?
It was time to do it again. The World is in a mess we are here to save it. By the way I have a reggae tune that I am stuck on. Do any of your readers have any ideas for lyrics for this likkle riddim? Its called 'Leaving London' Its part of a project called King Dubby:
http://www.jccarroll.com/music3/leavionglondon%20backing%20mast.mp3 (featuring Nigel Bennet of the Members).
Also if anybody wants to do a mashup dub of 'Offshore' there is a version here:
Oh, and here is another riddim here:
The touring band consists of JC, Chris Payne, Nigel Bennet, Phill Legg and Nick Cash. Nicky Tesco is unavailable to tour for health reasons but is involved with recording projects and will make guest appearances at the occasional show.
UK 2009 TOUR DATES
April 26th Leamington Spa, The Assembley
May 15th Harlow, Square Essex
May 16th Sheffield, Broadwalk
May 23rd Blackburn, North Bar
May 24th Crewe
May 29th Southampton, Talking Heads
May 30th Brighton, Engine Room
June 5th Swindon, 12 Bar June 6th Bournemouth,Key West.
June 12th London Underworld
June 13th Weston, Hobbits
More information is available at The Members web site.