SPOOKY MEN, OR DINOSAURS?
Musings on the occasion of our 20th birthday -by The Spookmeister.
So we’re 20 now. For me, it’s strangely unremarkable that we are still here. The more remarkable thing would be if we broke up. Because…try to think of any band of aging blokes, ever, that broke up. They don’t. They just keep doing it. Because…. it’s good. But there is, of course, a much greater danger than breaking up, and that is that you don’t, and instead become a kind of tribute band to yourselves, a kind of dinosaur.
In this, you may eventually resemble those trees that are taken over by strangler figs and entirely die, leaving the perfect shape of the tree as a kind of void. This is the worst of all outcomes, where the shape is familiar, but everything that matters is gone. The world of ageing boy rock bands is redolent with examples.
The problem is intensified if you have songs that are smash hits for you: you can’t live with them,and you can’t live without them. When we toured the UK in 2011, we had a few of these, like “Dancing Queen”. It was absolutely the height of spookmania. But we knew we couldn’t keep doing all these songs. It wasn’t so much the audience response, more that something would die in us if we sang that ABBA song one more time.
Eeeeeek. We had to rewrite the set….and it had to be as good as the old one, only different. When I say we, I suppose I mean….me. I was, at the time, being brutally hammered by my eczema. It seemed to, oddly, help. I was living, breathing and dreaming the material for “The Spooky Man In History”. I was humming “The Baron of Beef” on long walks. I was writing eleven songs at once. Crucial clues in the puzzle were dropped slyly in by canny spooky men, at crucial points.
So we dodged the dinosaur, at least for a while longer. The set felt fresh again. I’m always asking that, of myself. Does it still feel fresh, does it feel relevant?
There’s a lot of things that help with that freshness. One is just going somewhere new, like when we first hit Denmark or Germany, and felt the white hot roaring breath of a crowd that’s delighted by us for the first time. Another has been the way new younger spooks have joined and added their zing and musical acuity to the wise and craggy manline. They, also, have been utterly crucial.
We know so much more than what we did. At least, we can name things that we always knew were there. We can map our set in three dimensions: boofiness, stupidity, and beauty. We can see how each of these amplifies the other. We can even map the evening in terms of where the audience is willing to go, at which point.
And we found we could go deeper.
As ten years morphed into 15, I suppose we invited ourselves,and you, the audience, into a musical room that was more contemplative of matters pertaining to weightier matters, to our very mortality. And we found, in those moments, a kind of changing audience response. Not so spookybopper. Much more deeply felt than that.
It’s a journey towards ourselves,and we are as grateful to you for joining us as we are for the journey itself. It’s not a trifling thing. And if the obvious song in that regard is “Crossing the bar”, the song that I’m most quietly proud of writing is “Welcome to the second half”,and the moment in that song is “The vast bittersweetness of knowing this life for what it is”. If it’s possible in that moment to have a tear in the eye and not know which kind of tear it is, then our work is done.
Because who are we, and what are we trying to say about what it is to be a man? Unreconstructed boofery is back in fashion, singing wise. Sea Shanties are cool again. But if all we are saying is “AAARGGGHH” and beards and beer and vodka and bashing our chests, well…I don’t know. We are quite often mistaken for that. But ultimately we are trying to say a lot more than that. Is it possible to celebrate the boof and deconstruct the boof, at the same time? I think that’s what we’re wanting to do.
In 2008, we played at a slightly scary school on a regional tour of NSW. There were actually police cars outside. The kids paid a gold coin, there was 500 of them in the school hall. I felt a bit like the Blues Brothers behind that cage, in that bar. But Robin fixed us a good sound and we sang a mighty Georgian song and then something silly to announce our credentials in no uncertain terms. Then young Ryan came out to sing “Lightpole”. (a sensitive lad’s ode to a streetlight).
I said to the kids…”You won’t make fun of him, will you?” and they promised not to. They were, amazingly, totally with us. As Ryan sang, I walked to him, as I always did, and tenderly held his hand. There was something like a thrill of horror in that room, a gasp, a WHAT IS THIS? There was maybe four possible male archetypes in their minds, it seemed, and this was none of them. it was blowing their circuitry.
I still feel that that was one of the most important spooky moments ever. Because much as we love the boof, we are obliged to mock the foolishness of making this boof our prison- and the damage that means to us, and to others around us. Part of men taking responsibility, maybe the first part, is seeing that there are many ways to be a man in this world.
By that I suppose I’m suggesting that we’re implicitly political, we must necessarily be. To be explicitly so is harder. We wrote “Vote the bastards out” in 2004, and since then, things have gotten much worse. But that doesn’t make it easier to find a way, in song, to address these things, because they are not funny, they are heavy. We sang “We do not speak your name” last year during the US election. We wouldn’t dream of doing it in a live set. It would be like farting at the vicarage.
Which leaves us, I suppose, with what is implicit. What might the world be like if men engaged more in pointless grandeur and less in epic folly? If singing was respected as much as real estate chicanery and sporting heroism? If gentle buffonery overtook toxic presumptuousness in the streets on a friday night? It’s worth at least asking, and we hope that, reading between the lines, that question is seen.
And -oh yes! the singing.
Sweet lord, the singing and the sounds. There is something like a holy grail that we can glimpse from time to time, a shimmering vision of what could possibly be, especially in those extraordinary rooms like the Lady Chapel at Ely. We fall short, again, and again, but we feel it, thrillsomely, growing closer. We could not feel that we are still alive in ourselves if that was not the case.
But we are, above all, and beneath all, a community. First of all, a community of men who delight in the trivial and substantial pleasures of knowing each other only too well, secondly a community enabled to live by the loving forebearance of the partners and families who allow us the unspeakable luxury of dwelling in this musical world.
Finally we are a community which dreams of opening out and enfolding anybody who cares to be in it- you, the audience, our wonderful loyal afficionados who have followed this whole silly thing from the start or the middle, and made all things possible by coming to shows, hosting us, buying our stuff, showing your love. When we sing or dance together with you at the end of the show, we hope you agree that we are all hopeless, beautiful buffoons in that moment, and that is all that matters.