ALIG PEARCE INTERVIEW
A band from the 1980s who we think were a bit neglected. Ed and Harley explain why…
ED Family Fodder’s music was a comfort to me at a difficult time. The single ‘Playing Golf/My Baby Takes Valium’ somehow articulated the hollowness of life for me in 1981. Everything I had valued seemed false; but I found balm in the charming voice of [Alig Pearce] running breezily through his own fictional catalogue of futility: ‘…when I didn’t want sex I wanted something else…and now I want to be dead’ and it spoke of my own despair.
I also had a tape of the first This Heat album, to add to my sounds of anguish. The irony was that these tapes were linked to the cause of my despair; the college friends who had compiled them for me were having a bad influence on me (which would later get even worse) and this ‘new’ music was in my mind inextricably linked with the alternative views of life they stood for. But my values survived, and grew stronger; after I came to London, I sought out all the Family Fodder records I could, although not one of them came close to providing that bittersweet thrill of anguish found in the eerie sounds of ‘Playing Golf’: that Rip Van Winkle snoring and the hideous rush of the [? backwards-taped] ‘DEAD’ vocal. However they were still musically inventive and full of ironic humour. So I passed on the disease (via cassettes) to my good buddy Harley in about 1987…
HARLEY This was at a time when I had recently discarded U2 and Simple Minds, New Order and the Sugarcubes in favour of the Fall and the Butthole Surfers. It seemed like my horizons had suddenly expanded beyond all my expectations — there was a world of wild and exciting music out there and I wanted to experience as much of it as I could. I’ve since realised that such music is more rare and special than I then thought. Family Fodder now seem to me to be an anachronism, where they should be typical, their attitude to creativity a world away from the tunnel-vision posing that masquerades as self-expression and forms most of what we nowadays know as ‘alternative music’.
Rock and dub predominated amongst the many styles Family Fodder employed, but their work includes daft spoken word pieces, demented use of unusual sounds and instruments, chants, and a twenty-minute piano and drums number. And if all that sounds like the work of an embarrassing avant garde outfit, don’t be fooled. Hookwise they may not be the Beatles, but then again the Beatles never wrote as beautiful and joyous a song as the Fodder’s ‘Film Music’.
Ed and I decided to spread the word to you Sound Projector readers. However, background detail on this mysterious band is thin on the ground, with only an unenlightening entry in the Guinness Book of Indie Bands to help us get to know them. Family Fodder were all the more curious for the fact that not one of its twenty-plus members and associates appeared to have gone on to do anything else within the music industry (or so we thought), a rare occurence in the incestuous world of indiedom. Ed and I figured that a good place to start would be with Dominique Levillain (the most frequent singer) and Alig Pearce (occasional vocalist and co-writer of most of the songs) and, thanks to Mike from These Records, we managed to track them down. Dominique was living in France, well beyond the reach of a Hairy-Hi-Fi expenses account, and Alig in the more convenient Brixton…
Date of Interview 03 April 1994
HARLEY So tell us about Family Fodder then.
ALIG Well, what don’t you know? Where does Family Fodder start for you?
ED 1979. We’ve got a partial discography which we’d like you to complete if possible.
ALIG Yeah I probably can. I haven’t got any Family Fodder records except one. I’m terrible at keeping things. I ended up sending them off to people for a gig or a radio interview or something and it was always my last copy.
ED What were you doing before Family Fodder?
ALIG I was doing the same thing, just messing around with a four-track in a basement near the Barbican with various friends who I knew at the time, some of whom became members of Family Fodder and some of whom didn’t. Family Fodder wasn’t really a group. It was more just recordings with various different people which did turn into a group at various times, most recently about five years ago. But in 1979 I made a demo of a few songs with various different people playing on them, myself playing a lot of the instruments, and I took them round to a couple of people I knew. At that time it was so easy to get a record deal and in no time at all I had two records out. There was also Frank Sumatra which came out at the same time which was from the same stable of recordings.
ED Frank Sumatra? I didn’t know about that.
ALIG Frank Sumatra died without trace. It was a record put out on a label called Small Wonder. They put out three twelve inches at the same time. One was the Cure’s first record and another was Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead. These three records came out at the same time and Frank Sumatra sold about fifty copies and the others did pretty well for themselves. But it was actually Family Fodder under a different name. It’s a twelve inch called Te Deum. There must be plenty of copies around because nobody bought any.
HARLEY Had you had any musical training before starting Family Fodder?
ALIG Yeah. I had a classical training as a pianist from the age of six till about twelve and then I started getting interested in pop music and jazz and stuff and it kind of petered out.
ED Is the idea with early Family Fodder that you were the nucleus, bringing together these other talents?
ALIG Yeah. There was a group of us around about 1978 who were sort of trying to put a group together and we didn’t really know how to go about it. We played a lot together and if we had have had a group I think it would have been called The Sheep’s Pig’. That was the nucleus of the people who played on the Family Fodder records. There was Martin Harrison who’s since become an engineer. He was specially into reggae. He’d worked on some Lee Perry stuff, that kind of thing. There was Mick Hobbs who went on to play with The Work and also Jad Fair. And Rick Wilson who was the drummer for The Work as well, a bloke called Ian Hill who is an accordianist now, plays in Tangos. There was Felix Fiedorowicz who still lives in Southall and plays the Bassoon and does weird music.
ED And Dominique Levillain?
ALIG Dominique was my girlfriend. That nucleus was together for getting on for two years and then Dominique and I split up as a couple. It carried on for a little while but got a bit more awkward. It was only after that time that a group called Family Fodder started doing some gigs but that was no longer with Dominique. We did two or three tours abroad which I guess would be in 1981-1982.
ED And then…?
ALIG Well some people in the group didn’t get on very well with other people in it. It disintegrated. I carried on for a while and then there were a couple more releases.
ED That would include All Styles?
ALIG Yeah. Well, All Styles was basically the death of Family Fodder. I was working on another group with some friends of mine which we called Music for Spooks. We were trying to get the band together and we were organising a tour and writing material and to get a bit of money I just proposed to the then Family Fodder record company, Fresh, to do a compilation of home recordings which we’d got. I proposed to them that they give me some tiny advance like Â£500 which they did, so we spent it on getting the other group on the road and the record was not seen as up to standard. It was very much a home-made thing and it was very patchy and that was basically the end of Family Fodder’s recording career. I think it sold about 100 copies.
ED Oh dear. So that was the last real release then?
ALIG I think it might have been. But I’ve been doing the same thing ever since. I’ve been constantly active. I was playing for two years with a group called Lo Yo Yo, a sort of cooperative group with two girls and two guys, and we were touring around Europe a lot until about 1986. Then I took up the accordian and I started busking all over Europe and moved to Switzerland for three years.
HARLEY Busking Family Fodder songs?
ALIG No, I was playing Irish Folk, Tangos, Waltzes, Classical, Jazz, Hungarian, Russian, everything. I’ve been a professional accordianist for the past seven years. That’s how I’ve earned my living. Like tonight I’m playing in a restaurant. I’m playing three or four nights a week. Restaurant kind of music.
HARLEY How do you enjoy that?
ALIG Sometimes I enjoy it a lot and sometimes I don’t. It depends entirely on the people. Where did I get to? I reformed Family Fodder in about 1989 for a couple of tours. This was with Dominique, the singer, and Mick and Rick who’d also been in the band and a couple of other guys who hadn’t. But still people didn’t get on with each other, so we packed it in. And since that I’ve been doing a solo show with a computer which is called Johnny Human. And that’s basically what I’ve been doing for the past four years. For a couple of tours there was a band called ‘Johnny Human Expedience’ which was the same kind of thing but with some other guys doing their songs as well. In the last two years I’ve probably done twenty gigs in London as Johnny Human, always in small pubs, kind of bottom of the bill, four other acts or something, y’know, a few friends coming along and that’s been it.
ED I get the impression with quite a few independent bands that some of them tend to do better in Europe than in Britain.
ALIG Well the music scene’s much healthier in Europe, I mean in terms of bands getting paid. In a way the music scene is really healthy in England, just ’cause there’s so many really good musicians. They just seem to keep on coming. I don’t think there’s a very good standard of music around at the moment but there’s a good standard of musicians. There always is in London. I don’t know why. Maybe because we do have it a bit more difficult than people in some other countries.
ED But in terms of making a career and getting paid regularly you’re slightly better off in Europe?
ALIG Yeah well I mean the indie scene at the moment, the whole way it’s set up is that you put out a record in England, you lose money doing so, you try to get a place in the indie chart or to get an interview or a review or whatever and on the strength of that you sell records to Germany, Japan, Holland and the USA, France to a certain extent — the markets that are more healthy. And everybody does that. Every indie band that thinks in any way at all about business, that’s what they do. They use England as a showcase market to sell records abroad. And everybody’s doing it.
ED I see.
ALIG And it’s been working towards that for about twenty years.
HARLEY So have there been any Johnny Human records?
ALIG Well, I did a single which I put out myself when I was living in Switzerland and selling is not my strong point so I made a small pressing of singles and I think I gave most of them away and sold one or two at gigs. I had a few in shops in Switzerland and Germany but it certainly didn’t make a great mark on the world and I haven’t got a copy so I can’t even show you one.
ED Something else for us to collect!
ALIG In the last six months I’ve been recording at home. I’ve hired some equipment and basically I started off doing my Johnny Human show which is a computer based thing but, having said that, it’s not like any computer based music you’ve probably heard. It’s a bit like folk music or sixties rock or something.
ED Not Howard Jones?
ALIG It’s not like Howard Jones and not at all like the techno stuff that’s happening at the moment. I started asking more and more friends to come in and play this and that instrument and then eventually to start writing their own songs on top of things I’d done and doing stuff without the computer with percussionists and so on and there’s a whole body of 16-track recordings. There’s about 25 tracks which are all mixed that I’ve done in the past few months at home. And, not having found anyone to put them out, I’ve borrowed about five hundred quid and I’m forming a very low budget record label which is called Aligator Records. We’ve got three releases scheduled. The first one is a single coming out by Professor Zoom. Professor Zoom was here only a half an hour ago. He’s singing a couple of songs that I’ve written with him and then there will be another Johnny Human release which is a Lou Reed cover version. And then there is a CD which we haven’t quite decided the name of but I think the group’s going to be called Vox Humana. So that’s what I’ve been doing basically and this is all coming out, hopefully.
ED Does this strike you as a good time to be forming an independent record label?
ALIG No, it’s the pits. It’s the worst time that there has been in the last fifteen years but I’ve been in the wilderness for ten years. I’ve been writing songs. I’ve been working all the time. I’ve been touring, I’ve been making demos, I’ve been sending them to record companies and nobody wants to put stuff out so all I can do is borrow bits of money, work hard doing gigs and various odd jobs so that I’ve got a bit of money in case the records don’t sell and I’m just going to keep pumping them out every month. I’ve got albums’ worth of material. In terms of recording demos I’ve done one or two albums a year for the past ten years, although some of them are the same material.
ED Did you always work at home on four-track facilities? Or sometimes in the studio?
ALIG You can hire out a kind of minimal studio set-up at home and it does work out a lot cheaper, especially if you hire from friends and get friendly prices, but I’d love to go in the studio and have someone else do the engineering ’cause that’s a bit of a burden. You’re split between trying to perform and engineering as well.
ED Right. I was going to ask you about the influence of dub on Family Fodder but from what you say that was due to another band member, or were you interested in it as well?
ALIG I think everybody was around that time.
ED Reggae was very popular, wasn’t it, a lot of it on Peel and so on?
ALIG Yeah, well, dub has totally shaped what everyone’s listening to at the moment, all the dance music. The style of mixing comes from dub completely. It’s probably gone in a direction that people wish it hadn’t but…
ED You studied it from records I take it?
ALIG Yeah. I mean I personally didn’t work with anyone well known. I played some accordian for Lynton Kwesi Johnson but I’ve never met him. I was in the studio at a different time. Yeah, from listening to records and basically just messing around in the studio. In Family Fodder Martin Harrison was the one who was most into that and he went on to work with On-U Sound. Yeah, we were all coming out of the punk scene and dub was a big thing around. But also at the same time a big influence which didn’t catch on so much but looked like it was going to was African guitar music. It came in a bit later, around about 1980 or something, all these groups like King Sunny Ade and all the things like that, they were very big at the time. It was sort of as influential as dub. But it kind of went out a bit.
HARLEY How were Family Fodder songs composed? Straight onto tape?
ALIG Most of the Family Fodder songs were my songs, but not all of them. Some of them came from improvising, some of them were written onto tape, not usually in the studio but at home, and some of them were songs that I wrote either with the piano or with the guitar. There’s other things that were complete collaborations like the Schizophrenia Party which was a slightly different style but that was much more to do with what the group was jamming at that time. But for people who are interested in that sort of thing, they were usually written tune first and words afterwards. Nowadays I tend to write the other way round, the words first and the tune next.
ED I was going to ask a bit about the lyrical content, without getting too pretentious I hope. Playing Golf had quite an effect on me at the time when I first heard it – the kind of witty, ironic debunking of very bourgeois values.
ALIG Yeah, I suppose that was what was at the back of my mind. Most of my lyrics I write pretty much on automatic pilot and then I look at it later to see what it means or I don’t even. Sometimes people tell me you wrote this song that’s about this that or the other and I say ‘what?’ There was one of my songs that somebody told me was about cunnilingus. That was total news to me. Yeah, it’s sort of stream of consciousness things and for better or for worse that’s more or less what it is.
HARLEY Do you edit much?
ALIG Yeah, a little bit. But I generally like the way they come out. Sometimes I write something that someone else in the group finds offensive or silly or they suggest improvements. That’s happened a lot with the people I’m working with at the moment, particularly when there’s been another singer. I give them a lyric and they change whole lines out of it and that’s fine.
HARLEY How closely do you stick to the recorded versions of the songs when you’re playing live?
ALIG We play the songs, but not exactly the versions that were on the records.
HARLEY It’d be pretty difficult in some cases, I guess.
ALIG Yeah, there was speeded up tape and backwards tape and stuff like that, as well as out of tune and out of time playing that we tried not to reproduce as well. No, the funny thing about Family Fodder at the time was I thought it was quite a heavy band and people didn’t see it like that at all. They thought it was a very whimsical, fluffy, English sort of thing and, in fact, if I ever listen to the stuff now, I hear it’s not heavy at all. The stuff with guitar does sound a bit thin and not very loud, but I saw it as quite heavy at the time.
ED Have you any idea how were you perceived in the music press?
ALIG No, there were a few interviews, but we never really caught on. The first record, Playing Golf, sold three and a half thousand, which in those days wasn’t particularly fantastic, although it was better than respectable. If you sold a thousand you’d think about doing a follow-up and if you sold two thousand you’d definately do a follow-up, because it made a very tiny profit. But that sold quite well and all the records after that didn’t. It just got worse and worse. People, especially abroad, thought that Family Fodder were a cult group in England, but basically we were unknown, apart from a few John Peel appearances.
HARLEY Did you ever get to do any Peel sessions?
ALIG No. John Peel really loved the first record and then he sort of went off us. I think he played one or two of the later singles once. Playing Golf was on about eight times, but I made a big mistake by sending him an acetate before the record was out, and he actually played it a lot when the record was not available. But John Peel’s great really, isn’t he? Some of the stuff he plays I think is absolutely crap but he’s out there, y’know, doing something.
HARLEY Who did the artwork? There was some strange stuff on some of the covers, especially Playing Golf.
ALIG That was my sister Sally actually who did that. She’s designed the new Aligator Records label. I did some of them myself. I’m a bit of a painter and a cutter and sticker. This [referring to the cover of Monkey Banana Kitchen] was two photos of different walls, one of which was just a wall in a bedroom which was painted a bit psychedelically and the other which was totally rotten and peeling. We just had a friend take photos of the walls. It was when commercial color xerox machines were just coming out. It was about two quid a shot and if you really sweet-talked the girls in the office they’d let you come in and do it yourself and wiggle the things about under the photocopier.
ED Laurie Rae Chamberlain was doing a lot of that at the time, wasn’t he?
ALIG Yes he was. You know of Laurie Rae?
ED Yes, through the second album by This Heat.
ALIG At the time Family Fodder came out, This Heat were around and we were in awe of them.
ED Yeah, that’s a period I’m interested in. I thought punk rock was a good idea but I thought the music that came after it was much more interesting. It seemed to open a lot more doors for people to experiment.
ALIG Yeah, punk rock was obviously a good idea. I don’t know, it seems there’s always a lot of waves in rock which are just basically promoting the same thing.
ED Especially now.
ALIG I think after the early eighties I hardly ever heard any pop music until recently. I just didn’t listen to it to the radio. It’s funny. I’m a terrible listener. I’m not very interested in records at all. I was up until I was about seventeen and then I just got less and less interested. There’s whole movements of music that have passed me by completely. I’m not much of a music fan. I like a few people though. I’ve always liked Lou Reed and I’ve always liked John Lennon.
ED Is there anything in the classical field that interests you?
ALIG Yeah, a bit. I quite like early music where it crosses over from folkloric music.
ED Very early?
ALIG Well when they say early music they mean thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. I like Bartok and Beethoven in certain moods. I like music generally. I don’t have too much problem with most kinds of music. I have a problem with some people’s attitudes. When music is pretentious, I don’t like that. I even like country now which I always hated.
ED What strikes you as pretentious music?
ALIG Well I don’t think music itself can be pretentious. I think it’s more the attitude of the people doing it, the words and the way you behave to get publicity and things like that, but mainly the words. Just thinking yourself important, thinking yourself highly important.
ED That’s the kind of thing that gets the attention though, unfortunately.
ALIG Yeah, well good luck to them. Everyone thinks of themselves as important, don’t they, in some way? It’s essential for survival. But you’ve just got to balance it. I suppose at heart I’m a Beatles fan basically.
HARLEY Any period in particular?
ALIG I think all the periods, but I especially like the psychedelic period. I just think it was a great time for music generally. Obviously we see that through rose-tinted spectacles and there’s been a lot of better music before and since but I think the bands around that time were pretty lucky to be in that environment.
ED I’ll go along with that. Especially in America. American psychedelic music is astonishing.
HARLEY How about Beefheart?
ALIG Oh yeah. I think he’s a genius. Strangely enough, the album I like the best is not the one I used to. It’s called ‘Clear Spot’. He was given a name producer, or an up and coming producer and the record company were really bugging him. They wanted something with a bit more of a reliable sound and they got this guy called Ted Templeman who did Rush and stuff like that and that record, in a way, is his most mainstream thing, without being very commercial. It’s quite gritty. It’s the most closest to rhythm’n’blues. It’s very good. My influences, especially at the time of Family Fodder, were the same as a lot of people’s at the time and still now – Lou Reed, Syd Barrett and, me personally, the Beatles and the Kinks and folk music. I was one of those guys. I just thought of another record for your discography. Do you know who Hermine is? She’s a terrible French singer who was around and still is to this day. I wrote a song for her. Her record was called ‘Torture’, y’know, the Everly Brothers song, and I wrote a song for the b-side.
HARLEY Have you ever heard any Bongwater? It’s always struck me that the spoken word stuff they did was kind of similar to some Family Fodder things like ‘Film Music’.
ALIG Yeah well that’s a thing lots of people were doing at the time, most obviously David Byrne and Brian Eno. Basically they set the blueprint for what’s happening today on the dance scene where everything is found material. There’s, say, three different movements going on in the early eighties which have basically spawned the monster we know and love as dance music: dub/reggae, industrial Test Department-type things and this found material movement coming more out of the avant garde scene and basically those are the three movements which have spawned what is popular culture at the moment. I think. Musicians who are now 30 something are looking back to that time, 1980-81, and saying it was a golden time. All those musicians were like ‘we were fighting for these things to become acceptable’ – the use of sound, the use of things that you hadn’t previously played yourself, found material, the use of the mixing desk as an instrument and all that. And these same people are knocking the dance music of nowadays which has basically taken all those things to their logical conclusion. So, y’know, you can’t really grumble. At that time we saw all those techniques as revolutionary and they’ve been turned into everyday Knees Up Mother Brown, How’s Your Father, I Won’t Say My Mother-In-Law’s Fat But…
ED That’s a fair point.
ALIG And we were responsible.
ED But you could argue that what we have today is just technique in the service of nothing else but more technique, whereas before it was technique in the service of trying to say something.
ALIG It’s also the punk idea of you don’t have to be a musician to make a record. Oh…We’re being invaded. [Enter Alig’s girlfriend]
ED I think that’s our cue to finish.