Exclusive interview with The Legendary John Robb
We managed to tie the Membranes and Louder Than War head honcho down for a chat about Veganism, Punk Rock and his new book about the history of Goth.
Photo Credit: Mercurial Creative/Jason Kenny
ROBB IN THE HOOD
John Robb is an award winning journalist and author and just happens to be a founder member of The Membranes and Goldblade. Added to that are his roles as head honcho at Louder Than War magazine and regular pieces for all the major news papers. Even if you don't know his name, you're bound to have seen his boyish good looks or heard his voice, on one of the many music documentaries he's been involved in. A veritable style guru and straight [edge] living guy. Originally from Blackpool, he's an adopted Manc and can be often seen at gigs large and small all over town. I've been lucky enough to know him for 25 years but this the first time I've actually broken bread with him
I met John in the 8th Day Vegetarian/Vegan Café on Oxford Road for lunch and so it seemed a fitting place to start the interview by asking him about his involvement with all things vegan.
John in the past you’ve become well known as a spokesman for the vegan movement, if such a thing exists. [He writes a regular column for Viva Life, the journal of the vegan campaigning charity, Viva]
JR: [Spokesman] Sounds a bit grand!
Yeah, it does sound a bit grand. On your Wikipedia it mentions that you were planning a North West vegan festival in 2019. Did that happen?
JR: Yeah, it happened. I can’t afford to do it on my own, so I had to get other people involved. We had a vegan meal at the [Manchester Food and Drink] festival but I wanted them to make all their stalls vegan and they wouldn’t so it didn’t quite turn out the way I wanted it.
Regroup and go again or is that the idea dead in the water?
JR: Going to do it again next year I think.
With different people on board or is that proving difficult?
JR: It’s finding people who have the money, although this week I have been speaking to Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, who is vegan and an-ex New Age Traveller of 20 years. I interviewed him a while back and we hit it off. Turns out he was at Stafford Poly the same year as me and we never knew.
What did you study at Stafford Poly?
JR: Geography, but I only went to one lecture though so I didn’t learn very much!
Now that Veganism has become a bit of a New Year trend and we’re in Veganuary, the big fast food companies are embracing it. With Greggs and their very successful vegan sausage rolls, Subway with their vegan Meatless Meatball Marinara and even KFC joining the party [other meatless food options are available!!]……
JR: …..well KFC should stop cooking their fries in animal fat. That would be a good start wouldn’t it?
….are traditional dyed in the wool [probably not a great phrase] vegans likely to set foot in places like McDonalds or is that in conflict with their outright principles?
JR: Well its [junk food] not really for me as I’d never use those places. I think it’s unlikely to attract those types of vegans, but hey if it spreads the message, turns more people on to meatless alternatives and reduces the amount of animals killed then that can only be a positive thing. I like what they’re trying to do but for all the wrong reasons [profit]. If it gets people to think about exploring ‘real vegan’ food then good.
I mean you’re living proof that you can live well on a healthy vegan diet [despite fast approaching 60, he was born in 1961, the man is in great shape and never shy of taking his shirt off on stage or revealing his muscles, honed by his regular gym regime.]
JR: It’s just shit spouted by people who are anti-vegan. If you eat shit you will look shit. Plenty of meat eaters who look dreadful. It’s about eating a healthy balanced diet. That stereotype of insipid looking vegetarians, who need rocks in their pockets to go out in a gentle breeze, is long gone I think and veganism is similar.
I mean if you look around in the street you couldn’t immediately tell if someone was vegan or vegetarian but the junk food carnivores are pretty easy to spot!
Looking back to when you were a teenager, what first got you into music?
JR: Started with Glam Rock in the early 70’s. Bolan, The Sweet, Slade.
And the man we must never speak of?
JR: Gary Glitter’s music was great.
And of course there was public outrage in some quarters the his music [Rock N Roll Pt 2] was used in The Joker soundtrack.
JR: Yeah but that wasn’t even him really. It was the Glitter Band because it’s an instrumental track. It’s a great song. Should they be denied royalties because of his misdemeanours? I mean The Joker isn’t exactly family entertainment is it. It actually adds to the darkness of the film.
Morrissey has obviously come in for a lot of criticism recently……
JR: …and quite rightly so
….and people are taking their Morrissey CD’s off their shelves, those that still own CDs obviously and he’s struggling to sell tickets for his Arena tour.
JR: I don’t agree with what he says but I’ll defend his right to free speech. There have always been people, whose personal views you might not agree with, creating great music. Where does it stop if you start applying those rules to music or other culture perhaps the Royal Family. Is it Tory? What about the Velvet Underground? Mo Tucker is in the tea party so does that mean you have to listen to their songs without the drums on it? What about the Ramones? Johnny Ramone was as a staunch supporter of the Republican Party.
[In 2002 when The Ramones were inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame, he said “God Bless America and God Bless President Bush! Later when pressed on his conservatism he declared that Ronald Regan was the best president in his lifetime and that punk rock was right wing! He is also quoted as saying that ‘people drift towards liberalism at a young age, and I always hope they change when they see how the world really is!’]
JR: What about The Fall? MES said some dreadful things in interviews!
On the subject of The Fall, I’ve been talking to a lot of the young emerging bands around the Manchester scene recently, whilst putting this site together, many of whom cite them as one of their major influences. The Red Stains cover “Totally Wired” live, a song that is nearly twice as old as the band members themselves and their fans go wild for it! [John’s Louder Than War label put out a double A side single by Imperial Wax, the last Fall incarnation before MES died, called ‘Bromidic Thrills / Bloom & Wither’ available here].
JR: I think you’ll see more of that as bands revisit his back catalogue. Not necessarily covers but strong influences coming out in the music.
So then Punk came along. What effect did that have on a teenage John Robb?
JR: Well it was a continuation of glam, The Stooges etc so a natural progression from what I was already listening to. To us people like Bowie and Bolan could have come from out of space, they were unobtainable but when you heard The Buzzcocks, see them putting out their own records, that was obtainable and everything changed overnight.
Around the early/mid 70’s I was listening to my mums Elton John and Mungo Jerry records or my Dads Johnny Cash albums. My brother was into ABBA. I’d seen Slade and The Sweet on Top Of The Pops but my pocket money didn’t stretch to buying records then. In 1973 I bought my first 7” single from Woolies and I still have it today. Crazy Horses by The Osmonds, not Spiral Scratch or something equally as cool as my first single but a fucking Mormon boy band! It was just so exciting at the time.
JR: Where did that record come from? There was no warning that they were treading that path.
Almost a precursor of heavy metal in some respects perhaps. So out of context with their other work at the time.
JR: They were trying to be Elvis, with the white suits and shit. That’s the thing about music anything can become cool or go out of favour.
So if Punk had never happened what would John Robb be doing now?
JR: I think I would still done music, punk was the enabler but something else would have happened. In 1976 when I went for some careers advice prior to leaving school they said I was the most helpless case [much laughter].
We see John on the TV doing odd bits here and there. Seems like whenever they need a soundbite from our generation after somebody dies, like a post-punk Grim Reaper in reverse. At the time of the interview a documentary about Chris Packham and punk had just aired on the BBC, which John was a consultant on. I ask him how did that come about?
JR: Well I met him about 5 years ago when I interviewed him for Louder Than War about his punk origins. It was on my birthday and it turned out to be his as well. Both born in 1961, children of the revolution. He’s into conservation and a massive punk fan and avid collector, which is the reverse of me really! When the idea of the show was confirmed, they contacted me to help. It was on quite a small budget and I basically provided the interviewees for the programme from my contacts. I was meant to be in the programme originally, Chris wanted me to be in it and interview him but on the last day of filming they run out of money! Glen Matlock was lined up too so I don’t feel too bad about missing out! It was going to end with Chris handling a copy of ‘God Save The Queen’ by The Sex Pistols on A&M records, the rarest of punk rock memorabilia, with him just smiling, going ‘wow’. There’s only about 8 or 9 left in the world now. It’s value is increasing all the time. [One sold on the popular collectors site Discogs, in 2019 for over £12,000 breaking the previous record held by The Beatles – Love Me Do, which went for about £11,500 the previous year].
Didn’t Malcolm Maclaren’s son burn a load of punk memorabilia worth £5 million back in 2016?
JR: It was all fake. I wish it wasn’t. The idea that punk stuff would become valuable isn’t very punk is it. It was mean to be an idea, not someone’s pension fund, not something collectible. I’ve got friends who are collectors but I don’t understand it. I’m happy with Spotify, I’ve given all my records away.
[Earlier I tried to give John a CD by Hyde’s finest band ‘Narrow Margin’, to review for LTW. He gave it straight back explaining that he doesn’t own either a CD player or turntable these days. Strictly digital. It did strike me as odd that a record label owner didn’t actually possess the means to listen to his labels output! He explains further]
JR:……records, tapes and then CDs were the technologies of their time. Punk was about moving on. You might have a beautiful Grandfather clock in the hallway, but you didn’t drag it down the road with you so you could tell the time. That’s what wristwatches were invented for and now most people just use the clock on their phones. Things move on. Today most people want their music on the move anywhere, so it has to be more accessible, instantly at their fingertips.
I know what you mean about instant information. If I’m in the car with my 13yr old son, he’ll Shazam stuff playing on the radio rather than wait to find out what it is. He gets very frustrated if I’m listening to say, Marc Riley on 6 Music and the track is so new or obscure that Shazam’s database can’t identify it.
So when My Bloody Valentine contacted you about reforming The Membranes for All Tomorrows Parties in 2009, was that easy to say ‘yes’ to nearly 20 years after your last gig? Did you see it as a one-off?
JR: Yeah, at the time we just thought we’d play the one gig and leave it at that.
So 10 years on and 2 critically acclaimed albums later, it seems to have been a good decision to reconvene. With basically the same unit for The Membranes and Goldblade [Rob Haynes - Drums and Peter Byrchmore - Guitar], how does the song writing process work. Do you write a song and go ‘well that’s a Goldblade tune’? Does it result in some kind of musical schizophrenia?
JR: We don’t do any new Goldblade songs now! I’m not sure I even know how to write those type of songs anymore. We’ll just do a couple of Blade shows a year really. Don’t think they’ll ever be any new songs. It’s not really artful, it’s just emotional energy.
For many the GB show at Rebellion last year was one of the highlights of the festival. Are you back again this year?
JR: Yeah. That and North West Calling in June. We’re doing Minehead in February too, but that’s about it. Certainly won’t be touring.
Rebellion reaches its 13th Anniversary [as Rebellion @ Blackpool Winter Gardens] in 2020. Is it still relevant in this day? Can you see it being around in 2030?
JR: Yes I think so, why not? As long as there’s an audience for it. There’s a lot of young kids going every year. Nobody ever asks that about ATP and they had older bands and an older audience!
Talking of getting older and slowing down, The Stranglers have announced a last tour as a prelude to only playing festivals and one offs. Charlie Harper [UK Subs] is 75. Can you see yourself still playing at that age?
JR: Still playing yeah but like the Stranglers, not touring. We're actually supporting them on their Irish dates in May.
You’ve had a great few years with The Membranes and Friends gigs, fresh from an extensive European tour supporting Mark Lanegan, numerous festival appearances as well as the two albums. Is this the biggest the band has ever been?
JR: Certainly in terms of records sold.
The people who came to the early Membranes shows probably wouldn’t recognise the music today. Have you retained much of that audience as the band has evolved into a different animal today?
JR: Yeah, there’s some who have stuck with us. The music has got more expansive, darker and needs bigger venues to breathe. We’re not a bar band so festivals, tour supports enable us to reach bigger audiences than if we slogged around the UK on our own tour.
There’s some really good unsigned bands around the NW and Manchester area at the moment, with the likes of Tinfoils, Narrow Margin, The Battery Farm, The Red Stains, Cold Water Swimmers, Witch Fever and Glove. At Louder Than War you’ve released records by up and coming bands such as Glove. Have you got any releases in the pipeline for 2020?
JR: No, I’m trying to scale back. We lose money on every release on the label. We can’t sustain that any longer.
So you’re currently writing a new book about the history of Goth. Tell us more. What should we expect?
JR: Yeah, just at the editing stage now. It’s called The Art of Darkness: A History of Goth. Hopefully out in the autumn. I approached a few publishers with the idea and they wanted to call it ‘A History of Goth’ and the last publisher I approached said ‘why call it the art of darkness’ and I said it’s a pun on ‘The Heart Of Darkness’ [Joseph Conrad’s novella of the same name] and they said ‘what’s that?’
Is that when you know you’ve gone to the wrong publisher?
JR: It’s coming out with Omnibus who have published some great music books in the past.
Aside from the book you’ve been working on a couple of other projects. One with Patrick Jones [Nicky Wire’s brother and poet] and the most recent with multi-instrumentalist / songwriter and producer Rob Marshall, under the name “Humanist”. You’re in pretty exalted company with the likes of Dave Gahan [Depeche Mode], Mark Lanegan [Screaming Trees/Queens of The Stone Age] and Mark Gardener [Ride] all collaborating. How did that come about?
JR: Rob approached me about with an idea for an album of collaborations, so I went down to Hastings, where he lives. It was a stormy night, so we just set up the recording gear in his flat and he played the drums and basslines over which I added the vocals. It was such a quick process, really simple. Sounds ace.
The album is out in February and there are live dates too. Will you be playing the Manchester date at The Soup Kitchen?
JR: No, I’m away that day but I will be joining him for the London gig [on 24th March at The Lexington]. He’s got a guy called James Mudriczki, who’ll perform all the vocal parts on tour. I guess that guest performers might drop in at various dates on the tour.
Yeah, I can’t really see Dave Gahan dropping in at the Prince Albert in Brighton at the end of the tour, although you never know.
So just to wrap things up John. You’ve been credited as the person who first coined the term ‘Brit-pop’. Fact or Fiction?
JR: Yes, it was me.
At the recent Louder Than Words festival I heard somebody, possibly Steve Lamacq, say that it was somebody else!
JR: Stuart Maconie? Yeah, he coined it, just 10 years after I did!!
You can catch The Membranes on tour in the UK with Manchester legends The Chameleons, throughout September from 6th Sept @ The Cluny Newcastle and finishing on the 17th in Liverpool @ The Cavern Club. For more details and tickets click HERE.
They also play Tomorrows Ghost Festival in Whitby on 24th April along with The Damned. More info HERE