Interview with The Distractors
With the release of their debut Subversiv Dekadent, Ghent (Belgium) four-piece The Distractors have hit the ground running with twelve cuts of raw, ragged no-frills garage & punk laced rock 'n' roll. In this recent email interview with vocalist/guitarist Philip Malcolm (aka Lobster Johnson) he covered everything from their history and recording during the pandemic to the Belgian music scene and more.
Can you give me a bit of history on the band?
I hadn't been in a band in 20 years after a show I promoted for some John Peel type band went bad and I ended up getting beaten up for the door by their manager. They're not around any more and I stole loads of their songs, so fuck them. In that time period I moved to Belgium, started playing again and met Yves (De Molotov, bass). I think he used to play in a surf band way back and we started bouncing ideas off each other. I was going to a lot of shows and getting really sick of a band saying "here's a song!" Playing it and then saying "Thank you! Here's another song!" and I wanted to have a kind of party band with some sort of theatrical element and really make people feel they were part of the show, not just watching us play songs like it wasn’t important if they were there or not. I think we roped in Golden Hands (Sven) and Jonah (JP9000) around January of 2019 and had our first show in June. People really seemed to respond to the idea and the way that we want to play like we're headlining some mad festival or a stadium show for 20 of our friends in a bar.
From that we got booked for a Saturday night show at Gentse Feesten, which is like a mad 10 day long party in the city of Gent, (shows everywhere, all free) in a bar and the place was insanely full, hot and sweaty. There were people outside because they couldn't get in. Now, I'm not saying that was our burgeoning live reputation, it was the start of their Saturday night of madness, but by the end I think we surpassed our own and a lot of other people's expectations and we kind of got some word of mouth buzz and respect from some people who I look up to like crazy.
The record happened because Darren who runs Trash Wax was delivering some vinyl to the Garbage Bags (check them out too!) in February 2020 and I got him wrecked on that mad 8% Guinness we have here and basically nagged him into letting us do an album.
You recorded the album in just three days in October, which was between lockdowns due to the pandemic. What can you tell me about that whirlwind process?
It was always going to be a very quick process, not least because we were skint. The cool thing about Peter Snakeboots who recorded it for us in his awesome analogue studio, is that he really doesn't like to mess about. He just said "This is gonna sound like a live, dirty rock n roll band" and he just took a listen to us in the room, twiddled the amps a bit, knew immediately which mics to use and how and then we just bashed it out. There aren't really that many overdubs on the whole thing and the ones that are there were the most painful part of the process for me. It's exactly what it sounds like, a tight-as-frog-booty live band picking up and playing, dropped notes, open strings, vocal fuck ups were all encouraged.
In the end it was like a long work-day. We all got in at 10 and knocked off about 2230. Its mad, because I'm a fucking terrible employee and have always just turned up and fucked off at the earliest opportunity but this kind of showed me that I am capable of graft. The weirdest bit was that the curfew here was 11 at night at that point, so we were all clockwatching the last two hours to get home on time not to get arrested. We also weren't 100% sure if we were legally allowed to be there as only "professional" cultural activities were permitted. That definition is as vague as it looks so I think we were half expecting a SWAT team to kick the studio door down and haul us off to amateur musician jail with a load of dad-cover bands who were still messing about in their garage that weekend: Truly a fate worse than death. I think the whole scenario gave it a sense of urgency that i think comes through in the sound.
I went back and mixed it for 2 days in December. Pete does this cool thing where he takes the original tape, puts it onto his computer, mixes it and fixes some of our more glaring errors then records it back onto some old 1/4 inch tape and bounces that onto the computer as the final mixdown. The difference in the sound from raw digital to taped is night and day. Anyway, he has this stack of about 200 reels of 1/4 inch tape and tells us that his cousin is a bailiff and repossessed it from a guy who went to jail for pimping and various other unsavory stuff. Pimp tape. Tape repossessed from a dangerous criminal. For the record, Subversiv Dekadent was taped over his copy of "Unforgettable: The Best of Nat King Cole". Sorry Nat.
Were all the songs already written when you went into the studio or were some of them written during those 3 days?
We're not Radiohead (gasp! End interview!), so writing in the studio is a luxury we, quite literally, couldn't afford. Everything was written and pretty well drilled by the time we got there. The only spontaneity on that score was that we decided not to record two songs and we dropped another one whilst we were recording it. That left us a song short, so we did “Long Live The Dead”, which I was adamant we weren't going to record out of fear that The Reverend Horton Heat would sue me. Come at me, Horton Heat.
How does your songwriting process tend to work?
I dream of being asked stuff like this!
Normally, I get an idea for a riff or a chorus and mess about with it until some sort of structure falls out. I've long since stopped worrying about originality. I'm not trying to take music to strange new places, I'm trying to take it behind the bike sheds and get it pregnant. I'm also always scribbling down little lyrical ideas. With the first lockdown I had about 20 half finished ideas and about 80 post its with these lyrics on them, so I stuck everything up on the wall and just started to see what talked to what.
So then I'll come to rehearsal with the idea, or I'll record a demo and send it to everybody, then Yves takes over. He's got this great ability to pull my songs apart, move bits about, get rid of dross, add bits in and what comes out the other side is usually different to what I began with. Jonah, our drummer, is also the best musician in the band so he always has an interesting take on things too.
Was it hard going into the studio and recording without having more time to test some of the songs live?
Climbing a palm tree is hard, recording songs you haven't played live, by comparison, is pretty swell. I think everything on the record, except “Everybody Hates Poetry”, “You'll Never Take Us Alive” and “The Night Is Young (and so are you)” have been played live. I don't think we're really in a position to be cutting material on audience reactions, given our average crowd is about 100 people. I think that's a dangerous route to go down as well: Self editing based on what you think people want from you. I am a student of pop music and as trite as it sounds, I want to make music I like. I want it to offer something I'm not getting anywhere else, otherwise what am I making it for?
Most of your songs have a solid garage and punk sound with some surf rock elements at times, but ”Evil Mariachi” has a really strong surf rock vibe to it and really stands apart from the rest of the album. What’s the story there?
“Evil Mariachi” is a Sven song, that's why it sounds different. He started coming up with riffs and making his own demos and then we went through the same process as my songs in rehearsal. He's a much better guitar player than me so his songs are normally a bit more complex or have more layers than mine. “You'll Never Take Us Alive” was the other one from him. That's probably my favourite song on the whole thing. It's funny you mention surf music as Ghent has more surf bands per capita than anywhere on earth, it's insane how many surf shows you could go to here in a month.
The band wasn’t together long before the pandemic started. What kind of impact did the pandemic have on the band?
We're still living it! We haven't all been in a room together since November 1st when we wrapped the recording. It is, to use a technical term, a fucking pain in the arse. We haven't practiced, we haven't played at all, we've had loads of cool stuff cancelled... But it's the same for everybody. We're going to have a beer on Friday (May 14) when the album comes out (digitally at least). That'll be the first time we've been able to get together with everything here being closed from early October until May the 8th.
Your music begs to be heard live, but unfortunately due to covid that has been a no go for over a year. I read that there are recordings of your last show before things were shut down. Any chance we will be able to hear that?
It's like drunken bootleg quality, I wouldn't put it out unless we cleaned it up quite a lot. There's 4 or 5 covers on there too. It's also quite confronting... We're by no means perfect as a band, tightness to me is everybody starting and stopping at the same time. But there's a load of clangers all over that recording. I think it's part of the spirit of the band though, we play hard and that means we hit the odd bum note. In my head it sounds like that Replacements live album that came out a couple of years ago. Warts n all.
Your bio says you’re “the third best punk band in Belgium”. If you are number three, who is number one and number two?
That was a lie. I made it up when I was trying to put some streaming shows together via a large American platform. It was a lie that was so banal and, at the same time, so ridiculous I assumed nobody would ever check on it. Congratulations you're the first.
For the record we probably are the third best rock n roll band in Belgium. The second and first are both Blackup.
How is the music scene in Belgium?
Ghent is kind of like a little island in Belgium of off-kilter culture. All human life is here. There's a load of cool Rockabilly type stuff (Garbage Bags, Grave Brothers), cool punk stuff like Blackup, so much instrumental surfy stuff like The Akulas and Fifty Foot Combo. You've got the daddys of the scene like Deus and Soulwax... Sioen does some cool stuff in a really interesting, independent way without much mainstream support.
In that way, I suppose Belgium is like anywhere else. It's the lowest common denominator stuff that ends up on the radio. I'm under no illusions that we're going to be on these stupid "Lets pretend we care about artists who can't work" shows on TV from the music barn in Antwerp, but as a nation we must be able to do better than Whispering Sons. Other members of the Distractors quite like Whispering Sons and I'm sure they're lovely people doing their best.
I read something about a cafe there in Ghent called Misterioso putting together an album and you will be contributing a song. Is that going to be a new song or one from the album?
Misterioso is my local bar, it's like 80 metres from my front door. We've played there twice and the owner is a good friend. The record isn't from the bar, however, it's a crowdfunding project with all the profits going to the cafe to help them back on their feet after 8 months with no income whilst the brewery still want their bit every month.
The idea was from Jens De Waele who plays bass in Fifty Foot Combo and about 73 other bands. Then his girlfriend and my girlfriend and a few others got involved and it's a whole thing. The heart of it is a limited edition record with songs donated by bands who have played there, who drink there or, like me both. Our track is “The Night is Young (and so are you)”, there's stuff from Blackup, Garbage Bags, Pauline Verminnen, The Grave Brothers and most importantly Paul Couter who died recently and was an absolute legend of Belgian music (He's best known for his 80s stuff with Arno ,TC Matic and Tjenscouter) who had his base above the bar and ran the sound for all the shows.
If people want to buy it or just contribute to helping keep open a place where a lot of cool bands started out or hang out they can get on it here: https://initiatieven.crowdfunding.gent/project/31654
Do you have anything else you would like to share with readers?
Only the unconditional love of the Distractors, and the fact that they can always get in touch for info, bookings, fabulous gifts or empty promises at email@example.com
That and they should buy the album Subversiv Dekadent, via our bandcamp or the TrashWax website.
May the Distractors be with you!