With a sound owing as much to the agnostic rage of 1980s punk bands like Discharge and Crass as it does the experimental noise tendencies of Killing Joke, not to mention overtly politicised lyrics to boot, Bad Breeding are a welcome breath of fresh air. Formed in the Hertfordshire "new town" of Stevenage at the tail end of 2013, their visceral social commentaries make them one of the most relevant bands to emerge from the UK underground in years. In that time, the four-piece - Chris Dodd (vocals), Matt Toll (guitar), Charlie Rose (bass) and Ashlea Bennett (drums) - have established themselves as one of the most challenging yet exciting live acts in the country.
This week (Friday 7 April) sees the release of their second long-player Divide, the follow-up to last year's self-titled debut. DiS caught up with frontman and lyricist Chris Dodd along with long-term collaborator Jake Farrell who contributes the essay 'An End To Silence' within the sleeve of the new record.
DiS: Your second album Divide comes out on 7 April less than 12 months after your debut. Was it always your intention to release a follow up as quickly as possible?
Chris Dodd: That tends to be the way we work. Writing songs is really the only outlet from the monotony of our day jobs so our spare time is spent meeting up and playing together whenever possible. It’s arguably endemic of where we’ve grown up in some ways - having limited financial access to stuff beyond Stevenage has certainly played into knocking songs together quite quickly. There aren’t that many other things to do when a 20-minute train journey into London is about £20 - a third of your day’s wage.
Six of those songs were in your live set during the band's last tour in October 2016. When did you first start writing for the second record? Which songs date back the furthest?
CD: Musically we’ve had bits and pieces tucked away since writing the first record, but it was last spring when we properly started to piece parts together and find more conceptual connections between the songs. I began to make a concerted effort on the lyrics during the EU referendum campaigns and that’s where we started to connect the dots. The way I felt when we wrote the first album saw me try to attack a lot of specific things across the 16 songs, whereas this one was written in a climate that lent itself to a more continuous, narrative theme.
How much influence did the EU referendum and subsequent fall out of the Leave result have on Divide?
CD: We recorded in August last year so much of it was formed while the EU referendum was being debated and voted on. There are some clear politically-focused songs on the record – things like ‘Whip Hand’, ‘Leaving’, and ‘The More The Merrier’ – but there are other perspectives being examined too. That period was a confusing time for a lot of people, especially in working-class communities like Stevenage, and we almost wanted to mirror some of that uncertainty by recording something that felt dense and overbearing at points. We’re certainly no political authority on any of this and much of what we’ve made has been reactionary to the hands we’re dealt. The EU debate was clouded by so much distortion of facts and particular agendas that it was hard to gain any purchase on reality. I think Divide tried to sum those feelings up too.
Is the title a reference to the state of the nation as it stands?
CD: That’s what we were trying to nod towards. Not purely a state of the nation statement either, but also something that signified the role of certain sections of the British press, along with aspects of government policy, in contributing to the confused and toxic environment we now have to drag ourselves through. In times of perceived national crisis you always get these obtuse speeches from party members about not allowing them to divide us when really the nature of a lot of modern party politics has had that exact aim.
Songs like 'Anamnesis' and 'Loss' seem to deal with how much better things were in the past pre-referendum, whereas 'Endless Impossibility’ and 'Death' suggest a state of permanence, despair, and regret. Were those the emotions you were aiming to convey?
CD: That’s probably a fair interpretation, although what I would say is that ‘Anamnesis’ and ‘Loss’ were two songs on the record where I was trying to talk about very personal things. Out of kindness to my family I don’t want to go too much into the detail, the songs do that for themselves really. I do agree, though, that there is that narrative arc running through it. With 'Endless Impossibility', it felt like a decent bookend for where we find ourselves at the moment. That song looks at the looming impact automation will have on a lot of the manual labour work we do outside of the band. Lyrically I wanted to approach most of the songs on Divide with a slight ambiguity - where things registered very directly for me as a writer, but could have more subjective meanings for others. ‘Death’ was us looking at death as a final standpoint in protest and observed a community still coming to terms with the awful case of David Clapson’s death here in Stevenage.
The intro to 'Whip Hand'. Where is the sample from and why did you choose it for that song? I seem to remember it's what you came on stage with at the show in Nottingham last year?
CD: It’s a really simple loop Charlie made on his laptop ages ago. Just a piano note chopped up and looped over and over again. We enjoy recording field notes and other bits when we’re at work and the loop intro was just an extension of that.
There's a couple of short interludes on the album. What was their significance for the record?
CD: I mentioned earlier about automation - we wanted to bed some of that narrative into the record and that’s where the first interlude came in. We work around machinery a lot and wanted to find a way of weaving it in, there’s a lot of that tucked behind the songs and we wanted to have a space on the album where that came into full focus. We gave a decent portion of our time, along with Ben Greenberg, to making field recordings and playing with production techniques that allowed us to almost create another voice beyond myself and the instrumentation that sat behind the songs.
Your first album was self-released whereas you're now affiliated to La Vida Es Un Mus in Europe and Iron Lung in the States. How did you get involved with those labels? Do you think working with a label is important for bands in the current climate?
CD: They were into the first record and had put it in their distros. From there we just ended up meeting at shows and decided to put the record out through them. With both those labels the nice thing is that there is no intrusion on grounds of taste or anything like that, if you both dig the songs then that’s all that’s needed. There’s no insistence on doing things in any particular way, we’ve been able to keep that authoritative position creatively which is a good thing once you start branching out to do things with other people. Both labels do amazing things to help out bands so we were pleased to find a way of getting the new one out through good people. I think it was important to do something that also meant the record would be accessible to everyone. We sold a lot of the first one to folks in the US, but most of the time it cost just as much in postage as it did to buy the record itself. Hopefully this way people who are into it can get the record a bit cheaper than last time.
The cover artwork is very reminiscent of what bands like Crass used in the early 1980s. What does it portray and what was the message you were hoping to convey?
CD: Our friends Katie, Nicky, and Carlos helped out doing pieces of the artwork. One of the great things about a lot of the art created during that period was the idea that the cut-up technique and collaging were both so easily accessible. The collaging I did on the first record was just newspaper cut-ups stuck down and run through a scanner. For the new record, Katie took a lot of photographs of Stevenage and Nicky put together this collage of the town and its architecture. Stevenage has always been a place of inspiration for us and the artwork is a continuation of that.
The prose and essays that accompany your records are a vital part of the band's identity. Were these written before the songs and therefore influence them, or are the essays added afterwards?
CD: They’re often an on-going conversation between Jake and I. We’ve worked together for years on a number of different things so we’ve always had each other in mind when setting out to write. We tend to just meet up and talk in the pub and branch the ideas out from there. Usually, he’s working on something while we write. Once the writing is in a good place we then just go back and forth editing with each other. We’ve always tried to be as collective as possible when putting the record packages together, whether that be with artwork, essay writing or meeting up to stamp the covers.
How much of an influence and inspiration is Stevenage in the way you write? Do you think Bad Breeding would exist in this format if you came from anywhere else?
CD: I think it’s definitive for sure, but it’s by no means restricted to this one town - there are a lot of towns across the country that are misrepresented, misunderstood, and at the fag end of people’s political and cultural agendas. We’ve sometimes toyed with the notion of Stevenage as this bleak no-go dump, and it can be a tough place to live sometimes, but it’s home to us so we’re careful not to present it too much as this one-dimensional place that you might easily pick out of a trope-laden TV sitcom about "normal people". I think its proximity to London is interesting in relation to the band - we’re close but can’t quite afford the rail fares so we’re sort of forced to do whatever we can with the outlets we have here. Often that means just getting together in a room and writing. The main point of inspiration is that the town serves as a flag bearer for the failures of continuous governments and the negative connotations of a neo-liberal agenda in the UK. Stevenage used to have such an intrinsic relationship with the state, but its subsequent retreat over the last 30 years has made things difficult for a lot of people living here. We need affordable housing, yet land is now sold off to private development schemes at the drop of a hat. People doing 40 hour weeks are still on the poverty line living out of food banks. If you’re unemployed or can’t work you’re hounded out in the press as a "chav" or a "scrounger". It’s a town that is consistently demonised one way or another.
What would you say is the main difference between the two albums in terms of the overall sound and songwriting?
CD: The songwriting hasn’t changed too much between the two. It was still the same process of working on bits individually and piecing them together in our rehearsal unit. Obviously, the main difference is that Divide has a more coherent narrative running throughout. Like I mentioned earlier, we tried to bring a new language to the songs through the production and we spent a fair bit of time experimenting with how to create that density and machine noise underneath the record. It was mainly put together on a boat so there were some odd spaces to run microphones through and plenty of room to experiment with recording on the deck outside. We sent a lot of recordings out across the water towards the dock wall and then tracked the affected noises that bounced back. That came in handy when burying things under the recordings and adding to that sense of claustrophobia.
The first record dealt with a wider range of topics and issues. Religion (' A Cross'), nationalism ('Burn This Flag'), unemployment ('No Progress'), the war in Syria ('Venerable Hand'), austerity ('Shame') and the Conservative government ('Corrupting Fist', 'In Abundance') being just a few. Was it your intention to address as much as possible with the first album but stick to a single concept with the new one?
CD: Yeah, I think I was pretty wound up when writing the first record - basically just scatter-gunning all over the shop with it. The new one came together in a slightly different context with an overarching narrative playing out around us, which gave what we were trying to talk about more shape. On Divide we’re discussing a lot of personal things too, it’s just that the climate lent itself well to threading songs together under what turned out to be a stifling rendering of the EU debate.
In the essay 'What Is A Lasagne?...' you reference Shelagh Delaney's 'A Taste Of Honey' several times. Do you think there's a lack of working-class literature in post-millennial Britain? Why do you think that is?
Jake Farrell: There's undoubtedly a lack of working-class voices being represented in all forms of media, not just literature and drama. I think there are a variety of factors that contribute to that under-representation, but first and foremost economic conditions are to blame. You can go into more esoteric areas - for instance, it is still true that the patrician, upper-class gatekeepers of British media only want to tell certain types of working-class stories about certain types of working-class people and that is an issue - but ultimately it comes down to the fact that artistically speaking we are a generation blighted by the radical neo-liberalism inflicted on us by numerous governments. This outlook has made maintaining a creative life, whilst still putting food on the table, all but impossible for everyone, apart from those who are independently wealthy. Rent and transport costs are ludicrous and it’s hard for creativity to thrive in the face of these profound pragmatic difficulties. When those issues are coupled with a massive lurch to the right in terms of the cultural atmosphere around work – the atmosphere that says you should be grateful to work twelve-hour days, eat lunch in a meeting and take phone calls from your boss at the weekend – I think we are unlikely to see people with the time, resources or connections to create work like Delaney's. There is immense latent creativity out there in working-class areas and it is being stifled by the intentionally created climate of precariousness that touches people in low-earning communities.
There also seems to be a distinct lack of politicised bands and musicians around at present compared to the Thatcher decade for instance. Why do you think that is? Do you think it's down to apathy or acceptance?
CD: There are still a lot of artists making political statements and discussing important issues, but most of this seems to happen at a smaller community level now. With the growth of the internet and proliferation of content available, certain sections of the media are free to determine their own cultural narrative so many of these vital conversations remain under the surface or confined to certain groups of people. I used to think it was down to this lamentable idea of apathy, but the Stand Up To Racism demo drew 30,000 in London the other weekend, while there was also an immense turnout for the Women’s March on London back in January. The naysayers will say the numbers are comparatively small, although I definitely believe that we are entering a time where people aren’t prepared to simply take it on the chin without a challenge. In terms of music, you’d think that you’d get a similar reaction to some of the movements during the Thatcher decade, but despite there being comparable social and economic problems to that time, the period in which artists now exist is defined by entirely different ways of experiencing and interacting with culture. The internet has undoubtedly done incredible things to democratise debate and educate people, but taking that education into communities and making a difference is where the hard work is at. Jake’s point about economic conditions is pertinent here too. Working and being able to function creatively is a difficult thing to balance, especially when money is so tight. I had this conversation with my old man about the role of the dole in working-class areas thirty-odd years ago. He has this idea, and I’m not too sure how sound it is, that changes to the welfare state have made it harder for artists from lower-income backgrounds to function. Collecting dole was arguably less bureaucratic back then, whereas now you’re forced into employment without a care for your health or any of your own professional or creative interests. If you want to collect JSA, you spend all of your week applying for jobs or ultimately taking up positions that are really of no benefit to you other than the fact they put a minimal amount of money in your pocket. If you’re claiming unemployment benefit now, there’s no time to be creative other than filling out forms, proving your search for work, or writing applications for jobs you don’t want or that you’ll never get.
Do you see Bad Breeding as more of a live concept than a studio one? Which do you prefer? What direction do you see yourselves taking in the future?
CD: We’ve only been in the studio proper on a few occasions because of the cost, but I think it’s something that we’re slowly working out how to do. The sessions are pretty short and you can often spend quite a bit of time bricking it about how much you can afford. We’re definitely improving, although I think that’s something that comes with time - learning how to use everything you have at your disposal in decent studios. I’d like to think the two different concepts lend themselves to each other. Our live performances have always tried to put what’s recorded into a bit more context. In terms of what we’re trying to do – and considering the way most music is now consumed on a wider scale – seeing things live is important. Being able to witness what people put into their performances brings a whole other context to what you might have otherwise garnered through a pair of headphones.
Are there any other bands out there currently you'd recommend to Drowned In Sound and its readers?
CD: Uniform, one of Ben Greenberg’s projects, released a completely necessary record the other month. There’s another incredible band called Mommy on Toxic State Records who released a really unnerving debut LP last year too, it’ll make you think about childhood in ways you might never have done before.
What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
CD: Look after each other. Mental health is a really difficult thing to balance from personal experience and it’s an issue that often slips under the rug. Also, try not to give too much of a shit what people think of what you’re making.
Divide is out on Friday 7 April via La Vida Es Un Mus. For more information on Bad Breeding, visit their official Tumblr page.