Candyskins Interview

By shane

The Candyskins have had a tough go at it. Debuting in 1991 with their album, "Space I'm In," the Oxford 5-piece created a sound that was Britpoppius Rex -- a wonderful pop sensibility unfortunately about four years ahead of its time for success. Mocked by the press and dropped by labels, most bands in the same boat would surely abandon ship. But the Candyskins are no Jurassic beasts -- they rode the storm to an unexpected UK Top 40 hit with 1996's "Monday Morning." Now, with the release of their fourth album, "Death of a Minor TV Celebrity," currently out in the States on the astounding Velvel label, the band are trying once again to conquer our side of the pond, drumming up grass roots support by mounting a massive tour of some less-than-massive venues throughout the US. On October 11th, the band took to the stage at Chicago's Schubas, and Excellent Online was front row center. Delivering a blinding set to a packed house of both old fans and new, this was the sound of a band in the middle of an energized rebirth, a band taking baby steps to greatness.

After the show, we had a chance to sit down with Candyskins frontman Nick Cope

Interview by Shane Brown and Stuart Forrest Reid

EO: So the third album didn't come out here. What all went on with that?

NC: Well, we were signed to Geffen and we did the first two albums. Then something really bizarre happened. The guy who signed us wanted to become president of the company, and they wouldn't let him. So, they gave him the heave-ho, and with him went all his bands. We got out fairly alright in a way, because, at that time, bands that were recording got a phone call in the studio saying, "Alright, put your guitars down or whatever, cause you're off the label." Previous to that, they had committed us to do a third album. They'd signed the contracts and everything, which means we make our third record on Geffen. They didn't want to do this, cause we didn't have an A&R man at the moment. So they had to do one of two things, which was either (a) give us the money for the album, or (b) make the album. And they didn't want to do either of those two things. So the lawyers got involved, and it took eight or nine months to get something out of it. We did get the money in the end, but we owed it all to our manager, so we weren't able to record or tour or do anything. But it didn't destroy us, because we spent the time writing and sort of thinking that we're not going to let this get us down, 'cause some how, some way, we were going to get back to America, y'know -- we knew we'd sell quite a few records over here, 'cause it was our starting point. We weren't gonna screw this up. So that's what happened with the third album. We signed to a small independent called Ultimate in London, and we just did basically a singles campaign, just putting out singles, working on a fanbase. And it just built and built. And then we had a Top 40 hit. But, in a way, that was the end of the album, because the singles campaign wasn't the best way of doing it in the end. We'd exhausted all the singles, so we had nothing left after that to really break through. So that happened, and then they gave us some money -- what money they had left -- to do this fourth album. And then Velvel picked up on it, because of "Feed It," and they fell in love with the album. And that brings us up to date, really. Velvel are just working non-stop on it. I mean, it's really nice. Going from Geffen to Ultimate was really cool, because Ultimate was a small independent, and we were like a priority. Now we've gone to Velvel, which is a similar sort of thing, but they've got the resources -- not as much as a major -- but they work so hard with what they have, and it seems to be working. Really nice company.

EO: It's obvious from what you're saying that it's not the case, but we were thinking that you guys might have a negative attitude about the States, because of the Geffen thing...

NC: No, no. It's sort of a corporate thing. When we were looking for companies back in the UK, we were meeting with the same old people that'd get us into the office because their person would like the demos or whatever. And they're sitting there, and they're not going to sign us, you'd know just from talking to them. And we'd say, "Why are you bothering us? Why are you wasting our time and your time having us here?" Because they HAVE to do it. They HAVE to see to it. Because then they can give you a phone call if they hear someone else is going to sign you and say, "Okay, we'll do it." So it's just all bollocks, and we just didn't want to do that. We didn't want to get involved with anybody like that.

EO: Now when you guys switched from Geffen to Ultimate, we remember reading something in the British press about a little graffiti incident. Do tell.

NC: Well, we were touring and promoting -- it was just before the Ultimate album came out. And because we'd had a Top 40 hit, Geffen suddenly reissued our second album, "Fun," and was putting it in the shops. And it was their right to do that, we had no problem with that. But what was happening was that we were on a small label, and it was taking a bit of time for things to filter through, so fans were coming up to us with the "Fun" album saying, "I've got your new album." We'd say, "No, it's not our new album. OUR new album is coming out on Ultimate in a couple of weeks." So this kept up, and we realized we'd got to find some way of letting people know. We couldn't pay for an ad in the paper to say something, 'cause all the money was being used for proper ads for the album. So someone had the bright idea of us writing "NO FUN" outside the Geffen offices. It was first thing in the morning, it was after a gig, we'd stayed up all night, and we went down to London. It had gone so far as us getting a special sort of paint that road workers use so it wouldn't come off. We'd gotten as far as "NO F" and we were arrested, and spent three hours in a cell. We were going to be charged with criminal vandalism, and it was going to get really heavy, until someone had the bright idea of turning the paving stones over. So it's probably still there, if you want to see it, just turn the paving stones back around. But that's what it was. To some degree, I suppose it was a publicity stunt, but it wasn't to publicize our album, it was to get across the image that "Fun" wasn't our new album.

EO: So Velvel's treating you guys pretty good? They seem to be an interesting label, all centered on the Brit stuff, with Guy Chadwick and the Pulp back catalogue...

NC: Yeah, they've got the Kinks as well, haven't they? Yeah, the guy who's the head of the company -- he's such a character. He's been in the business for years, he knows everybody and he's seen everything. He's been there and back and there and back again. He's such a good guy.

EO: Do you have a good opinion of all your past albums?

NC: I'm the last one to talk about that. The rest of the people we know on tour are like, "Oh, your records are so good," but I can't listen to any of them. It is pretty hard, because once you've lived with it, once you've written it... it's not necessarily to do with success, either. It's just like listening to your voice on a tape recorder. All you hear are the faults with it, you can't look at the good points. But at the moment, the new album's definitely our favorite. We've put a lot of time into it. It's very much "us," because we produced it ourselves. We wrote the songs in a block, as opposed to what we've done before, which was sort of bits and pieces here and there, and then glue it together and go, "Oh, here's an album." It was written AS an album, and its gotten us back together again, thinking of ways of writing and ways of recording. So to go further, if something does come of this tour and this album, it's not a rebirth or anything like that, but it's got us thinking of ways of moving forward, really.

EO: What comes to your mind when we say the evil word, "BRITPOP."

NC: I don't even think of it as Britpop. Because you've got to think, "What IS Britpop?" Because at the end of it, Britpop's just Menswear singing in a Cockney accent about castle gardens and whatnot. That's what it ended up being. You have to think where it came from. Oasis, Blur, Pulp -- even Radiohead, and they've got nothing to do with it. And then you've got people like Robbie Williams coming aboard and doing Oasis-sounding songs, then it becomes a genre, and it's just horrible. But, at that time, we were doing tours with Dodgy and some other bands around when it was all kicking off, and it was brilliant, because all these young kids were getting to gigs and their favorite music was guitar music, indie music, Britpop, whatever. And it was really good. It was really healthy and exciting. And then the NME decided these bands had run their course or whatever, they're sick of Oasis, they've seen the Verve a thousand times, and that's it. And there's not any band that's up-and-coming. No one to make you go, "Oh, I've got to see them at the Reading Festival." Because everyone has seen everything and heard all their albums, you've got two or three albums from all of these bands. Hopefully it'll come around.

EO: The two dominant camps right now seem to be (a) bands putting out "serious records," who want everybody to know that they're putting out serious records, and (b) bands making intentionally difficult records, with bizarro sounds just for the sake of bizarro sounds. Whereas you guys have created a very accessible album, with straightforward music and lyrics. It's pop, and that shouldn't be a bad word, should it?

NC: No, I think that's great. We weren't trying to make the new album sound like Gorky's Zygotic Monkey. But we WERE trying to make it a little more weird and interesting. I'm a bit sort of worried. I mean, I love Radiohead, I think they're fantastic, but that sort of supergroup -- being very musical -- is getting into the areas of Genesis and Procul Harem, which is getting me sort of worried, because if the kids are gonna go for it, that means the record companies are gonna buy into it. And then we're going to get into a breed of kids that can play who used to be doing heavy metal music, and then they got into grunge, they can do all that, and now they're getting into Radiohead and all that, and it's a bit worrying.

EO: Which brings us to the notorious "The Death of British Rock" debacle. Record sales are in a slump, they had to cancel Phoenix. Is this simply media-fueled, or are we heading into an irreversible trend?

NC: No. I guess it does need to backtrack a bit, because it was getting a bit like supergroups and stuff like that -- and they'll continue anyway, bands like Verve and Radiohead -- but hopefully everything will get a bit more underground, y'know, the independent labels will start putting some stuff out. The situation in the UK is dreadful, because to get your band known, you've got to get in the NME or Radio One. And with the alternative stations, when British pop was really good, the alternative show on Radio One was in drivetime. Now it's been pushed back. So it's all sort of altering. But hopefully people will start thinking more and making some more interesting music, but I don't know whether the record companies would invest in that.

EO: It still seems a little easier overseas to get your foot in the door as a new band. You sell a few thousand copies, you've got a chart placement. Over here, it's just vast. Your band might be very well known in Boston, but nobody in the rest of the country will have any idea who you are, at least until you get signed to a major.

NC: Yeah, it is strange. For instance, we've been listening to some underground American bands lately. And we were in a record store the other day in New York, and we were trying to get some CD's for the bus. We got to the counter and asked for Quasi, and they said, "We've never heard of that." And that's a record store? When we heard it, we got a cassette copy overseas, but yeah, stuff does filter through better in the UK than it does over here.

EO: All this talk of indie labels makes us think of the Shifty Disco compilation that recently came out, spotlighting new bands from Oxford. What's your take on the current Oxford music scene?

NC: There's a lot of good bands -- there's always a lot of good bands. Now I don't really get out all that much, so I don't really hear many of them. I dunno, I'm really not sure of what's going on. Dustball are really really good, we've played with them a dozen times or so. There's lots of really young bands, doing a lot of punk stuff, which is usually really good. But I think it's just the way they've always maintained the clubs where bands can play. There's not that many people in Oxford, and at the last count, there are over 250 gigging bands in the city, which is a hell of a lot. And there's about four venues to play at. So I think it's always going to continue. I dunno, bands keep getting signed -- we're always hearing of a new band getting signed for lots of money and everything. But the weird thing that's happening in the UK is that certain bands who you've seen on "Top of the Pops" last week, and the single's on the radio all the time, and then suddenly you hear they got dropped by their record company. And it's all been really weird. This sort of thing has just been happening while we were coming over here. It's just been bizarre. I don't know what the immediate future is. It's a bit dark in a way, really. Hopefully we'll be able to ride the storm and it'll be okay. But the NME have never been in favor of us anyway.

EO: Do you still spend most of your down time in Oxford?

NC: Yeah, all of us still live in Oxford except Nick, who's moved to London.

EO: Dave Newton from Rotator is a member of our mailing list, and he tends to keep us informed about happenings in the Oxford area.

NC: Yeah, we know Richard who runs Rotator. He's our manager, and he lives in New York now. [laughs] He's completely mad. But it works for him. He's brilliant. That's the way it is with Richard, when he was starting Shifty Disco, he just said to himself, "Oh, I'll start a singles club and we'll just see how it goes." And then he got together with the people at OMC, which is Oxford Music Central, that's Dave Newton and all those people, and the whole thing just started off -- basically just them having drinks, shouting at each other. They all had their favorite bands that they wanted to do. It's like you said, you yourself have heard of and probably own the Shifty Disco compilation -- it gets a great response, and it's done brilliantly. That's really helping the scene, stuff like that.

EO: You've worked with Loz from Ride on a b-side. What was that like?

NC: Yeah, we did a really weird conversion of "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo" by X-Ray Specs. And it's like an acoustic thing, so we got Loz into the studio, 'cause he plays tablas. He came in, and we didn't even rehearse. We just put the backing track down, gave it to the producers, and said, "C'mon down, Loz, check the sound." He didn't even bother putting his headphones on, just starts playing away. He's a really funny fellow. He's really not all there most of the time. And he was playing and playing, and we kept going, "Loz? Loz? Are you ready to do a take?" And he'd just keep on going. About half an hour later, we'd be yelling, "LOZ?!" And he just looked up and said, "One second, just summoning up the demons." It was hysterical, we were in tears. But eventually we got on with it, and it does sound quite good. I mean, he's a brilliant drummer -- really, really good. I played with him on New Year's Eve. We did this thing at the Zodiac Club in Oxford. There was Nick [Burton, Candyskins lead guitar] and myself, and a friend of ours singing, and Steve and Loz from Ride on bass and drums. We did Sonic Youth and Beastie Boys songs, stuff like that. It was a New Year's Eve hell of a lot of fun. But he's playing in a band with Mark now...

EO: Yeah, Animal House. Have you heard any of it?

NC: Yeah, we know them really well. Sam Williams, he did some work on our "Feed It" single, came it at the end to help produce it... [grinning] Actually, I don't know exactly what he did, really... he just sort of noticed that I wasn't singing in tune in the beginning, we spent hours with it, just torturous. He's a great fella. But they're doing okay, they just signed a big deal, doing alright...

EO: Two questions before we leave. One, "Feed It." Are we right thinking that the lyrics are about Heaven's Gate?

NC: Loosely, yeah. Someone was asking me today how we wrote it. It was one of those songs that just came out of chords, and I started singing it, and I got to the first line, the verse, then just skipped and mumbled the next bit, and then the chorus just happened, and I had nearly all the right words off the top of my head. But then we had to finish up the rest of the lyrics, and someone mentioned the Heaven's Gate thing, and I thought that tied up with the stuff that we'd written. So I sort of based it loosely on that. It's not doing it directly, but taking bits and pieces from it, rather than saying "this is what it's about." Cause if it were, it'd be quite literal about it. But we're just sort of using it to... dunno, really. I suppose it sounds a bit crass to be saying, "It's loosely based on it." But it's just taking a few ideas and tying it in. I mean, a lot of the times we like the songs to have a few meanings, a few different sort of things that we can dip into.

EO: That's one of things that we like about the album in general. That song's a perfect example: you take it on a surface level, and it's all positive -- but dig deeper and there's sort of a sinister undertone.

NC: Yeah, exactly, that's what it is. A lot of the time we do that. That line, "We're hitching a ride," I scribbled it out but then Nick said, "Oh, keep that in." And then seeing the documentary, then it ties in with this, and like you said, the song gets deeper or whatever. It could be cheating, I don't know...

EO: Is "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" really that depressing of a song, or is there more to the story?

NC: Yeah, the thing about that one, that's a real grim-up-North kitchen sink drama. The thing about that song, we were running out of money to do the album, and we wanted a brass band, like a real Northern brass band, and we got one, but because of the money situation, they were from just outside of Oxford and they couldn't fucking play together. They were from this real conservative community just outside Oxford, and the trumpeter was like a nine year old girl with her legs swinging off the chair and the main trombonist was a woman with one arm. We shouldn't laugh, but yeah, she had a false arm. And they kept coming up, "How's it sound? How's it sound?" And we're like, "Oh.... nearly getting there." And it was painful, cause at times they'd get it right, and we'd get all excited, like this whole idea was gonna work, absolutely gonna work. But then they couldn't hold it together. That's the one thing where money would've helped, cause it was a really good idea to do it like that. I mean, it's a song that works, but the original idea would've been so much better.

EO: Well, to sum it all up, our last question is about us, actually. Since we're a web site and all, what's your take on the Internet: future of communications or evil corporate entity that should be destroyed?

NC: To be honest, I didn't know that much about it until our last bus driver -- he was on it all the time doing stuff. It's fascinating. I don't know the first thing about it, but the way that people can write to each other and talk to each other, I think that's healthy -- the way you can get information. But I think people are going to get whatever they can out of it, and I think that's good. Freedom of whatever. Freedom of the airwaves. Yeah.