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Red Monkey

Red Monkey was borne from the ashes of the legendary Slampt empire, almost five years ago. Pete and Rachel (the Slampt founders) had previously played together in a number of bands including Pussycat Trash and Avocado Baby while Marc had spent time drumming with Newcastle post-hardcore heroes Kodiak.

Three albums and countless live shows later I’m still no closer to accurately describing this band. ‘Politico post-punk’ seems like a tidy enough summary, but I’ve never really felt it does the band nearly enough justice. Sure, their music is largely inspired by anti-corporate, feminist, and anarchist political issues, and yeah, they play edgy material in a Gang of Four-esque vein. But for me, Red Monkey is far more important than being just another earnest punk rock outfit. They play incredibly structured, urgent songs that defy pigeonholing. And lyrically, they don’t so much illustrate a grave socio-political climate, as they do invite the listener to think positive, to get involved, to get out there and do something. And they do this while neatly sidestepping the patronising tone that’s often considered synonymous with overtly political music.

Perhaps more importantly, certainly for me as the interviewer, Red Monkey are really nice, friendly, funny people. They’ll talk at length about pretty much anything you care to throw at them, whether that be the relative ethics of lifestyle veganism or the pros and cons of prog rock.

I’m invited to join the band in Rachel and Marc’s downstairs Newcastle flat (Pete lives in the upstairs flat with his partner and daughter). The newest member of the band, Joe, lives in Leeds and so can’t be there. Marc is stood cradling his 5-week old child Faye, while Pete and Rachel are sat cross-legged on the floor. Two mutual friends, Adam and Barry sit in on the interview.

J- Can you think of any reasons for why you’re fairly well known in US underground, but relatively obscure in the UK?
R- Cos people don’t like us! Well, back in the day we used to tour lots and nobody used to come and see us. So we got bored of waiting around for people to watch us.
M- As soon as we went to the States people were more excited.
R- Of course, in American we have ‘quaint English’ appeal.
M- Yeah, the novelty.

J- Are they more receptive to the music?
M- If it’s unusual to them, then yeah, they’re definitely more receptive to the content and the form of the music.
P- I think that some people do like us a lot in the UK, so it’s not true to say we’re completely unliked over here. But there’s a certain scene who just don’t accept us. For example we were voted the most irritating interview of the year in Fracture which indicates that there must be some people out there who dislike us. Or it might just be a dislike of what we said. But I kind of get the feeling that certain groups ignore us. I mean, at hardcore all-dayers, there’s quite a lot British bands that sound very closely aligned with American bands. Bands of a more American style do seem do go down really well. And we tend to clear the room. We really do. I mean, we played in Joseph’s Well in Leeds and we arrived to see a band with a drummer getting his bollocks out while they were playing. And the crowd was really applauding this. A couple of hundred, punks or whatever they call themselves, saw this as some kind of exciting statement, y’know? The music to my mind was quite turgid but the room was packed. And when we started playing, I guess only about 50 people were watching, all of whom I think were really into it. And I do think we played quite well even if I do say so myself! So I think there is a genuine amount of people who do like us, even
if they are a small in number.
M- The interesting thing about that gig was we were in Reason to Believe or maybe Fracture and a week before they’d given us a genuinely positive review of the album (2001’s ‘Gunpowder, Treason and Plot’). But this live review was a crazy, personal rant about how she couldn’t bear to be in the same room as us because it was too intense. Basically, she though it was…
P- Too confrontational.
M- Yeah, too in your face. And the other thing was that stylistically it wasn’t something she wanted to hear.
P- Too weird musically. People don’t like to hear awkwar dness. And in America groups like the Dog Faced Hermans and The Ex are regarded as very important bands. The Hermans are a band we got compared to quite a lot early
on. All three of us are really into those bands and others like that who we could mention. But in Britain, people either haven’t heard about them or don’t seem to be interested in them. Even though the Dog Faced Hermans were
a British band they eventually moved to the Netherlands. A band doesn’t seem to get the respect in Britain as easily as they do in America. They’re regarded as an important band. And in a certain circuit we’re also regarded as quite an important and interesting band.
R- I think the other thing is that when we started out, we were very outspoken about political things and British people really don’t like that. Americans seem to have an overwhelming sincerity where British people seem to have this irony thing where ‘I’m too cool to express anything’.
M- If we go back to what Pete said about the Fracture article, my own feeling is that the people who voted for us weren’t so much speaking out against the music, but against the tendency we had to go into high profile punk zines, probably be in a position that a lot of bands would envy, and then do nothing but criticise the scene. For them this is just unforgiveable.
P- I think that’s a fair criticism. But possibly we’re being too critical of the British scene. I always try and say in interviews that actually, things like the 1 in 12, Fracture, Reason To Believe, and certain bands are really exciting.

A- So would you say you’re a firm believer of ‘talking over people’? Of just ignoring the unfavourable reactions you sometimes get?
M- Yeah, but you’ll find in that situation…
R- …you’ll not make friends!
M- We have a hardcore of loyal supporters if you like, the rest are just indifferent.
P- But also you know, we play and use Eastern-European rhythms such as 7/8, 9/8 and you can’t tap your head to it. You really have to concentrate. And a lot of people don’t want to make that effort in listening to it. And I don’t
blame them really, because a lot of music I listen to is very easy to consume while a lot of music I listen to is quite difficult to consume. It depends what you’re in to. With a band like us, we’ll never have mainstream appeal.
R- Even in the underground.

J- So would you say the fanbase you’ve amassed now…would you say a large part of it is to do with the fact you’re so outspoken and overtly political? Is this something that they’ve embraced?
M- Partly. There are a lot of people who like Red Monkey who actually don’t engage explicitly with the politics. There are people who just get off on the way in which we play.
R- A lot of women like us. Because they’re aren’t actually many women in bands.
J- Going back to the album that was released just last year (‘Gunpowder, Treason and Plot’) there seems to be some kind of progression from the previous two. What with all the different instruments that you used and all the different styles. Would you say there were any real motivations for this change?
R- Well, I suppose we just started to listen to different music.
M- It wasn’t a conscious thing, was it?
P- I think it’s just the way we play together has evolved. The album just sounds the way we were playing at that time of writing.
R- And I’d personally say Led Zeppelin were important!
(much laughter)
P- Yeah, these two got really, really into Led Zeppelin between the second and third album!
(even more laughter)
M- Come on, Led Zeppelin are just so intense! But, I think partly the album shows more confidence in the songwriting. Being together long enough now, we’ve tried to calm some of our earlier styles down.
R- And a sometimes sad fact, a sometimes good fact, is that the more you play your instrument, the better you get. The more you play with the same people, the better the musical relationship is and the easier it is to
P- And more and more we seem to lay down the groove in practice.
A- (to me) You were scared to use that word today!
J- That’s cos it’s a scary word.
R- Grooove!
M- Yeah, but drummers can use that word though.
(big laughs)
P- Whereas in the past we’d have been writing songs very quickly, particularly on ‘Make The Moment’ (the first album), we’d be getting six different riffs that might all be quite different and we’d just quickly be shoving them together.
M- The weird thing about that way of working is that, looking back, it sometimes seems to have a patchworky, collage feel. And now with confidence in songwriting, it does kind of flow.
P- I mean, the first track (‘Jazz Step Forwards’) stays in 5/4 time for the whole of the first half, and then stays in 6/8 time for entirety of the second half. Which doesn’t mean anything to most people, but the point is, it stays in this fixed rhythm and always stays around an E tonally. But when we first started writing we’d always be looking to build on the structure of a song. I’m really happy with the record. It’s the most coherent album we’ve done.

J- What’s your relationship like with Troubleman Unlimited? (New Jersey label, who put out their records during and after the demise of Slampt)
R- Very good relationship.
M- Mike (Simonetti- Troubleman founder/head guy) has done loads of work for us. Particularly our second tour of the US, where he drove us around for two months.
R- And he never tours.
M- Basically, he’s a friend who’s worked hard for us for a long time. And we trust him.
R- Our relationship with Mike started because he wanted to put out Pussycat Trash stuff (early-to-mid 90s Slampt band featuring Rachel and Pete) and then Pussycat Trash split up. So he said he’d put out stuff by our next band. And luckily, he liked us!
P- I’ve known him for years before Red Monkey started. One of the things I really like about him is he’ll put out anything he thinks is good and he will try and allow the bands to do whatever they want to do. With ‘Gunpowder, Treason and Plot’ he asked if we’d want to do it just on cd. Cos we normally only sell 2,000 albums which are all on vinyl. But we really wanted to do it on vinyl, and that wasn’t a problem for him.
R- We hate cds as well because a certain percentage of all manufacturing costs go to Sony. That’s something we’ve been very principled about in the past.
P- So yeah, he’s a cool guy and very easy to work with.
M- If you look at the things he puts out, it’s of quite a wide variety. And he likes to put out side-projects by bigger bands.
P- Like Sea Tiger. They’re excellent.

J- Are there any records you’re into at the moment?
M- Well, not to be too predictable, the last Fugazi album. And some hip hop…
P- I really liked the last Karate 12”.

(At this point my RUBBISH RUBBISH dictaphone breaks AGAIN and I’m left with a load of fuzz for about 30 seconds. I think they listed a host of bands they liked that I’d never heard of).

J- Would you say that there are any short or long term plans for Red Monkey, now that you’re all tied up with family and job commitments? (Pete has a young daughter and is training to become a teacher while Rachel has just a few weeks ago given birth to her’s and Marc’s first child.)
R- In the short term, I’d probably say no. But in the long term…well, if any of you want to come on tour with us and baby-sit, that’d be good!
P- I think we’ll definitely play together whatever. But this year with everyone doing stuff it might be a bit much.
R- Also with Joe Mask (Leeds DIY scenester legend. Also in Bilge Pump, Polaris and a billion other bands. Famed for his extraordinary inability to stay sober) joining the band we’re gonna need more time to interface properly.
J- (laughs) That might be quite tough from the state I saw him in last week!
(Big laughs from the band)
R- Where was he?
J- We were down at Joseph’s Well watching Le Tigre. He definitely seemed to be enjoying himself.
M- He does like to enjoy himself!
R- I wouldn’t like to see his liver.
P- Originally, Joe used to just come on tour with us and drive us around.
A- You let Joe drive?!
R- Oh, he’s an excellent driver. He won’t drink when he has to drive.
P- And he can fix guitar strings in about 10 seconds. And he’s got a great knowledge of amps, so he’s a really excellent person to have on tour to help you out. Because he was such a good guitar player he started playing with us.
R- Really good.
P- But as a band it’s gonna be a while before get ourselves sorted.
M- What is quite mad is that we’re really tied up now but a load more bands are offering us shows and support tours. Fugazi….
R- Q And Not U, Nomeansno. A lot of American bands.
P- Erase Errata.
J- They’re on Troubleman Unlimited as well, aren’t they?
R- Yeah, we toured with them in America.
P- They had a lot of interest from other labels. I know Kill Rock Stars were interested, but they chose to go with Troubleman. Which says a lot about Mark’s reputation. But anyway, when we started, from about summer ‘96 to probably summer ‘99 we were playing and practising once or twice every week, doing every gig we could get our hands on.
R- Didn’t we play 5 months out of every year?
M- We were playing a lot for a small band.
P- ‘98, ‘99 we toured three months out of the year while holding down part-time jobs. And some people have implied that we’ve never bothered to try and get more popular in Britain, but it’s not true. Y’know, we’ve played London three times, Leeds a million times, we’ve gone to Ireland, we’ve played in Manchester twice, Glasgow twice…
R- We’ve played loads. Everywhere. We should play with you!
J and A- YES!
M- I mean, we’ve played in fucking York.
J- York?! Where can you play in York?! (sorry to anyone from York. But you know what I mean.)
M- And Sunderland. Although Sunderland is the happening place to be right now. It actually has good bands.
(one or two sniggers can be heard)
A- Sunderland is not happening!
M- I mean, you can have your opinion but Sunderland has never had good bands.
J- The Toy Dolls? (crap faux-punkers who did ‘Nelly the Elephant’)
M- I don’t wanna get bitchy, but there are certain Sunderland bands that have been revered, that I’ve not really understood.
P- The Angelic Upstarts?
(more laughing)
M- My lips are sealed.
J- Leatherface?
A- Leatherface?
M- I’m saying nothing! But anyway though, when we played Sunderland we always got antagonistic audiences.

J- Musically, what’s your opinion of Newcastle at the moment?
R- Quite nice! Little, young bands!
P- Yeah, I think there’s a load of really good bands around at the moment.
R- What I really like is that bands are doing things for themselves. When we started Slampt, people didn’t want to do things for themselves very much. A lot of people were like “oh, let’s get a manager, let’s go to London, let’s get signed”. Weird.
P- But the bands around here are great. Skip Day Toner, even though they’ve split, This Ain’t Vegas, The Futureheads. All absolutely brilliant.
M- I think it’s good that another generation are coming through, organising gigs themselves, creating a lot of energy, trying to make things happen. Making contacts and assocations with different bands, scenes and
P- If the bands that are around now in the North-East had been around three years ago when we stopped Slampt, we’d have carried on. Just at that time, there was nothing I wanted to release locally.
R- Can’t flog a dead horse, can you?
P- Exactly.
J- Before I left for university I wasn’t that taken with the place.
P- Are you from Newcastle originally?
J- Just down the road a bit, yeah. I studied for three years and when I came back I was really surprised. Maybe, I wasn’t going to the right places before I left but now I’m finding it all quite exciting.
M- Yeah, there was a quiet phase during that time.
R- We were just waiting for you to come back!
M- Yeah, everybody. He’s here now!
J- (tongue firmly in cheek) That’s what I thought. So then, Newcastle for European Capital of Culture 2004? (Newcastle has put in a bid. Ha.)
Everybody- 2008!!!
J- Sorry.

M- Hmmm. Well, it really is important that there’s stuff happening out there. I mean, we’ve all been going for years now and I’m seeing different bands starting up, different people coming to gigs. And I’d say that we’ve now come to the point where we’re appreciated by…
R- Young’uns.
M- Definitely, it was getting to the point where we were playing mostly to our friends.
R- Yeah, and our friends were getting bored of us!
M- It was just getting worse and worse. And all of a sudden, people started to take an interest.
P- That’s why I think we can always keep going and we’d always play together anyway. I get the feeling that there’d always be a handful enough of people at our shows to make it worthwhile for us. Which is the important thing. Even if we find it impossible to go on tour much we’ll always carry on playing Newcastle.
R- I think we’ll always keep going, just because we all know each other so well.
M- And I’d say a real reason for why we’d keep going is that it’s actually fun.
(Rachel starts laughing at him)
M- No, but when we started we were a political band who was so earnest, with so many links to different organisations. And now you’ve come to realise the main reason to play in a band is that you enjoy doing it. If it’s just about the politics, why be in a band? Why not go and organise something else?
P- Yeah, I think that ties in with the changes we were talking about with the new album. Lyrically, it’s more…(to Rachel) well, your lyrics are always more interesting, to be honest!
R- Yes, I’m superior.
P- Ha, but anyway, all the lyrics on the new album are more introspective. We’re less likely to shout “pro-choice” or “fuck cynical corporations” or what have you. It’s more interesting really. That’s why I’d like to keep recording and writing. If it always interests you and stimulates you, you have to keep going, don’t you?

It seems fitting to round off the interview here. Pete has to nip back upstairs to look after his daughter, Marc and Rachel have to do baby stuff, and my dictaphone’s about to explode. And just as ‘goodbyes’ are being said, the lovely Red Monkey folks each hand me a load of old Slampt releases that have apparently been “knocking about the place”. What a band.

photo from Yelvy’s Red Monkey fansite
Slampt Underground Organisation