Interview: Chumbawamba

When the Brits thing happened, I think we all kinda realised that our days were numbered. We stopped getting invited on anything. People became scared of us 'cos they thought what would we do next?

A while ago now, back at the end of the 90’s, a most peculiar thing happened to Dunstan Bruce. Somewhat unexpectedly, the band of anarchist troublemakers he was a part of found themselves with an absolute monster, worldwide, hit single. While it’s not entirely true to call Chumbawamba one hit wonders, for the wider world it makes no odds, ‘Tubthumping’ is the only song they know, and it’s a song that everybody has heard. Still popping up in surprising places all the time, its celebration of working class resilience resonates on a universal frequency.

Something of an aberration in what the band would probably shy away from calling their ‘career’ it had a profound affect. A few years ago Bruce decided to make a film to sort through his conflicting ideas about what had happened and what he was supposed to do now. The result, I Get Knocked Down, wrestles entertainingly with the problems of entering the bright space of the mainstream with subversive intent. It starts with Bruce asking himself, and us, a series of questions and it keeps on asking. Available in the US since last October it finally arrives on UK and Ireland streaming services this month.     

“It’s weird it’s taken us this long, we got that American deal and then on the back of that this UK deal happened and then there’s an Australian one and a Scandinavian one so it’s slowly, slowly getting out there. Really, painstakingly slow.” When I speak to Dunstan he’s just back from fabulous Bognor Regis having shown it at Rockaway Beach. “It’s a good little festival. Butlins is shit, obviously, but the guys that organise it are really sweet and they get good line-ups on those things, I saw a few things I really enjoyed.”

As for how the film went over, “Alright yeah. It was weird actually ‘cos they show it in this big, cavernous space, there’s no intimacy or anything and there’s people just passing through. But it’s a good thing to be involved in I think.” Throughout last year he toured the film in cinemas with a Q+A afterwards but with it now out on DVD and streaming he’s stopping. I ask if it’s weird watching it. “I don’t watch it. Last time I watched it was at Stockton in the summer and it just really frustrated me ‘cos I just wanted to change things and think how I would have done some bits different.”

 

We’ll return to things that got left out, but the film really doesn’t need any tweaks. Watching it again I was struck by how it moves from one strong section to another, rarely dragging its heels and avoiding the usual pitfalls of rock-doc formula.

“That was a really important thing for us, that it wasn’t like a typical music doc. I’ve watched thousands of music documentaries and I can’t even watch them now, they’re so formulaic. So to come across one that’s structured a bit differently is always an absolute pleasure.” He cites Stewart Lee’s Nightingales film King Rocker and Anvil! The Story of Anvil as two particularly enjoyable breakers of the mould but…

“I just watched that Hipgnosis one, Noel Gallagher’s in it! For no reason! He doesn’t bring anything to it, what’s the point of that? The two guys who started it are fascinating and you want to know more about them. I don’t give a shit what Noel thinks about record covers. We tried not to use talking heads just for the sake of it. Tried to talk about universal subjects and things that people could relate to who had never been in a band.”  

It’s true that you wouldn’t have to care about Chumbawamba or even have heard ‘Tubthumping’ particularly to find yourself drawn into the film. It’s also noticeable there’s not that much talk about music in it.

“No, there’s not. It’s a really good point that actually, and I think that’s because I’ve never regarded myself as a musician. An entertainer at best, somebody who wants to make a difference in the world and say something of value I suppose. So, it was never of any interest to me to talk about the music, we skim over our musical development really quickly because that’s not what the film was ever going to be. I started off with the idea of making a film about what can you do when you enter the mainstream? Y’ know, as a political band can you make a difference, can you change the world, can you influence anything?”

“In about 2000 I made a documentary with a director Ben Unwin called Well Done, Now Sod Off and that was more a potted history of the band and talked more about the music. We didn’t want to go back over all that stuff and repeat it, make a glossier version. We weren’t interested in doing that. We wanted to do something different. Also this time making it with Sophie (Robinson) was like a completely different experience because she’s an experienced documentary maker.”

I mention that Bruce has now made a few himself (including This Band Is So Gorgeous, with Sham69 in China, and A Curious Life about The Levellers) but he laughs it off  “I have yeah, but she’s like, she’s fucking proper, yeah, I’m just a charlatan. (laughs) she’d be like talking about five act structures and stuff like that and I’d be like “OK, yeah.”

In the sense of dramatic structures, the climax of the story is the jump into the mainstream. The band run around making a bunch of trouble and it’s not clear how long they thought it could be sustained or if they knew it was a smash ‘n’ grab moment and they wouldn’t be asked back.

“Yeah, yeah. A lot of people in the band hated it. Hated being in that position. Whether that was just that it felt like we lost control of a lot of things or that it was a really punishing schedule for everyone, or that people didn’t like being in the public eye to that degree. There were a lot of different opinions on how we all felt about the experience. I really enjoyed it because I was in the limelight all the time and I quite enjoy that role, I had a purpose. I’m the man who sang the song. Even though anyone could have sung that song, but it just happened to be me. I still get asked to do it now. When the Brits thing happened, I think we all kinda realised that our days were numbered. We stopped getting invited on anything. People became scared of us ‘cos they thought, what would we do next?”

This is mostly to do with singer Danbert’s dowsing John Prescott in ice water later in the evening. An event which overshadows The Brits performance in fading memory. It is nonetheless a remarkable and stirring showing, particularly within its context.

“That whole process was weird because we got courted for months to perform at those Brits, we made a whole film especially to show behind us. That was one of the conditions of us doing it, it’s all about protest around the world and it is on but you hardly see it to be honest, which was a real shame. So for us to change the words and that, that was a bit of a ‘fuck you!’ to the organisers in a way I guess.”

The section on the Brits features the whole band reunited and discussing things, the chosen story from hours of conversation. Bruce recalls another he regrets losing “I asked ‘Do you think we made a difference?’ to everybody and Alice was really strident about it and she said “Well we can’t answer that, how can we answer that? All we can say, is that we tried. And that’s the only thing we can measure things by is that at least we tried, y’know? There’s nothing concrete to say that we actually changed anything” and I thought that were a really good point.”

Alice is also great in an early scene where she’s doing the ironing, she gives an answer you hear often but puts it eloquently, that her involvement gave her self confidence and allowed her to do other things. It made a difference in her life. That’s not the same as expecting an outcome in terms of a policy result or something.

“Exactly that. So it wasn’t about the idea that we joined a particular campaign and it had all its goals met, it was a lot more abstract than that what you can do as a musician. We do these Q+ A’s after the film and people come up and tell you about the work they’re doing with refugees and re-housing the homeless and work in a foodbank and stuff. And I just feel humbled by that ‘cos I just think ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ Y’know? I’m just going around blahhing on about wanting to change the world. I can beat myself up about that but at the same time I think I just worked out that what I’m good at is being some sort of clown or entertainer or what is it … a conduit for stuff. I think that’s valuable.”

Late in the film some younger bands (Dream Nails, Downtown Boys, Petrol Girls) appear carrying on the torch of righteous punk rock anger. As for whether a similar cross over moment for them is desirable or even possible now

“Well, I think the way that we communicate with each other has changed massively since then anyway. I had this conversation at a Q+A recently, where they were like ‘When you had your hit single we didn’t want anything to do with Chumbawamba anymore, that was it.’ You’d signed to major labels and all that. What was interesting is they were saying ‘I’m really glad I came to see the film because I didn’t realise you were doing all that other stuff’ and it really made me think about how we were so obsessed with talking to the rest of the world, we didn’t have twitter or instagram or any of those media to talk to people on a regular basis to tell them what we were doing and why we were doing it. We sent out a newsletter once every three months to a mailing list and that was it. It was a much slower world so you couldn’t explain on a day to day basis. Nobody knew what we thought, because we never thought, ‘Oh! We better explain why we signed to a major label.'” 

There’s an amusing scene where an abundance of Dunstans talk through the band’s arguments for and against the decision. Signing to EMI has been a stick used to beat Chumbawamba endlessly, even now. “People thought we were being hypocritical about it.” Sean Forbes (Wat Tyler, Hard Skin) turns up waving a copy of the ‘Tubthumping’ 7″ about and amiably calling them a sell-out disgrace on behalf of aggrieved punks everywhere. But by that point irritating punk rock gatekeepers was already a habit for the band.

“We had to get out of that anarcho-punk world in the 80s because that just became too limiting. That was crazy. As soon as we started to change our musical style you know, we pissed off a lot of people then. We always thought it’s not a good enough reason not to sign to a major because it might piss off some people who were into us. You can’t be beholden to those people. You’ve got a responsibility to push yourself all the time and find your own level of creativity and it’s us that’s got to live with it and sleep at night or all that sort of bollocks.”

Looking back it’s one of the band’s great strengths that they kept changing and never stood still but at the time it really annoyed people.

“Oh yeah, it totally pissed people off. People wanted us to be the same. They wanted us to be consistent. Sometimes it felt like they wanted us to be a crutch or a spokesperson for everyone just to make life a little bit easier or something. I remember I went through that whole thing with The Clash in the late 70’s early 80’s when they went to America and all that and I just thought, what’s happened to them? What it means is you’ve got to go off on your own and do your own thing and find your own balance and take responsibility for yourself.”

“The weird thing is I really, really admire Ian MacKaye. I love Penny Rimbaud for all his perceived faults, I love those people ‘cos they’re doing it in a different way and I think there’s room in the world for us all to do stuff in a different way. So, for me, a lot of it is ‘get over yourself’ y’know?”

Dischord records founder and stern overlord of punk principle, MacKaye was interviewed for the film but didn’t make the cut, “He served the same purpose as Penny Rimbaud, it was really similar. He sort of told me off for an hour and a half (laughs)” I guess that MacKaye wouldn’t dance naked so Penny was the one who made the final cut. “Hah! yeah, he wouldn’t take his clothes off. I love that Ian MacKaye exists and I suppose I want Ian MacKaye to love that I exist. That’s all I want. In that Penny Rimbaud scene where he goes “I absolve you” or whatever it was and I’m really pleased. That’s because you can’t help but want some people’s approval for what you’ve done or tried to do”

Punk professor Lucy Robinson tells Dunstan off in a more sisterly manner for believing ‘the doom story’, then she reframes it as part of a worthwhile, ongoing, endeavour and sends him off looking confused and chastened. Does he think she’s right?

“Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s why its in the film innit (laughs). We wanted to make me as relatable as possible, we didn’t want to set me up as, he did this or that, or for me to be aloof or just be a rockstar or something… So, there’s a lot of times where I feel like we’re making a fool of me …”

There’s a lot of shots of you pissing in toilets in it

“Hah, somebody else said that! That is a metaphor for getting old. I’m surprised there wasn’t one where I get up in the night”

The incontinent anarchist. So has he finally made peace with his past?

“The film itself really helped me realise that it’s alright, it’s actually alright. You’re doing alright and you’ve just made a film that a lot of people are getting stuff out of so you’re doing the thing. The thing that you were worried about not doing. By making the film, I did the thing. I hate myself for saying this, but the film helped me get back up again.”

I Get Knocked Down is now available to rent/own in the UK on Amazon, Apple and Google

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