It's a great pleasure to offer an interview with the Normil Hawaiians. Their lost album 'Return of the Ranters' has received nods from Wire, Louder Than War and Record Collector amongst other worthy publications. With talk of a reissue series on the way it seems a good time to find out more about Normil Hawaiians, so here we go...
Hi! Thanks for taking part in this interview! Where are you right now? What are you up to?
Guy Smith: I'm in Wales in a community in the sticks, a long way from London......but accessible in 5 hours so not too bad. Back in ‘85 we were all living communally in Brixton, then as we started having kids first Noel then Simon moved with their families to N.E. Kent...I harboured visions of travelling overland to Morocco in a converted bus so with Viv and our 2 kids in tow hit the road in 87 learning to juggle and playing Irish folk music. We made it to Morocco and then spent a couple of years touring Europe, busking...but we needed a base and finding London too claustrophobic after all that fresh air and living for the moment stumbled across the community in Wales where we've been based since, though travelled a lot in the meantime.
You played your first show in 30 years recently at The Lexington, how did it feel to be on stage again?
GS: Great! I've done loads of different performances over the years from singing acapella in pubs in Wales to juggling fire shows in Japan and with different bands on stages in clubs and festivals. First time with the Hawaiians - but it felt like last week not last century...so easy, a lot of mutual love and respect.
How did you prepare for the show?
GS: We came up with a set list based on our favourite stuff from the albums and as Noel hadn’t drummed for years we asked the very affable Ian Button lately of Death In Vegas to deputise whilst Noel played some keyboard parts and other percussion...I wanted to do some acapella stuff too and asked Zinta Egle to provide an extra vocal presence. We then met up and rehearsed for a week in a barn in Dover adding some extra bits to some pieces...and we all stayed at Noels place as with Jimmy and mark living in different parts of Scotland, Wilf on the South coast it was great to all hang out together again.
Some of the visuals in your show made me want to ask whether you’d seen Jacques Peretti’s BBC series ‘The Men Who Made Us Spend’ last year. It talks about capitalism, obsolescence, how we part with our money and where it goes – did you see it? What are your feelings on this topic?
GS: I didn't see this, no but this is all stuff that we were aware of and debating in the squats and festivals of the 80's and singing The Big Lie (particularly) on stage at The Lexington I was reminded how relevant politically it sounded now.
Normil Hawaiians formed as a collective in Brixton in the 80s, what can you tell us about life then and what kind of connection you had to any kind of music scene?
GS: Normil Hawaiians was formed from the ashes of punk in ‘79 by myself, Jim Lusted and our mate Kev Armstrong’s 15 year old sister Janet. Jim and I were both 20 and had been at school together ...I'll never forget the day near the end of the fifth form, when about a dozen of us were all lined up outside the headmasters office at St Olave Grammar School for Boys to be told we were surplus to requirements and on no account would be welcomed into the sixth form...nearly everyone in that queue became a friend and most joined bands. That school was horrible, but we had a pretty cool education listening to Zappa , Soft Machine and Hawkwind as 12 year olds.
We formed The Tarts and with Max Splodge as our drummer, played The Roxy and wherever we could and were very much part of the second wave of punk bands formed in the wake of The Pistols, Dammed and Buzzcocks. Until the whole punk thing splintered and we looked for new directions, Siouxsie and The Banshees were mates of mates from the same part of South London/Kent border. There was a while when just about everyone we knew was in a band, I put out a compilation album of South London bands 'East of Croydon' on Nothing Shaking Records in 1981.
You could live off the dole then and they’d ask you what your occupation was and you said 'musician' so they just let you get on with it....some great places we rehearsed and hung out at, one was InterGalacticArt Studios down The Old Kent Road - a squatted pub with all kinds of freaks , actors and arty people passing through. There were squatted wooden Wharfs by the river and the Anarchist bookshop in Brixton, both inspiring, sometimes challenging and eclectic, smoky jazz gigs and squatted boat yards, squatted boats, peace convoy and travellers yards full of people living in busses and trucks passing through, welding sculptures. There were the Stop The City demonstrations, Colourful but always peaceful CND marches and north of the river we were part of Dining Outs label and did all-nighters at the Scala; film, band, film, band with 23 Skidoo, Disco Zombies, Kan Kan, Occult Chemistry . All bands who were beginning to push the musical boundaries further out.
Noel Blanden: At the same time as the Olavians demobbed I too, in a local rival school, went through a similar experience. I was hauled into the headmaster’s office and accused of theft in the most juvenile display of psychological manipulation I’d yet encountered in my young years. I lost the last vestiges of respect for my betters who were capable of behaving in such a childish way and immediately told them where to stick their school, walked out and never went back. I was already in bands by then and came to Guy’s attention via a group I played in that comprised Jim and Berlin/Bertie (who were with/in Normil Hawaiians) and Peter Fenton who had just left Siouxsie and the Banshees (and wrote Love in A Void and Make up To Break Up). It was quite an incestuous community and yet everyone was playing in group of some kind. Similarly Simon and Greenfield Leisure, with Cliff McLenehan (also of Normil Hawaiians), who was an old school friend of mine.
The inventiveness and quality of your recordings made me wonder if you were influenced by other artists to start a musical project. Or, were you turned off by everything you heard at the time and wanted to do something new?
GS: I was doing the sound for my mates band The Heartbeats at The Rock Garden some-time around 1981 and I looked around and everyone looked the same...Slicked back hair, make-up and dinner suits.....from an inspiring post punk beginning the scene had morphed into a yuppie, Duran Duran clone thing. Horrified I vowed to grow my hair long, head for the hills and start improvising musically. Of course it wasn't that simple...Jim, Nick and Brian were getting a really funky groove going on guitar, bass and drums, but it wasn't my thing. I wanted to really push the boat out and started dusting off my old Faust, Can, Gong and Hawkwind records which were big pre-punk influences. After a rather dismal gig in Camden supporting The Thompson Twins we split, leaving me with the name- and a week later a record contract with Illuminated. Simon, another Old Olavian joined on guitar, Mark appeared from the Ether with a string synth and we recruited Noel on drums. After a while we felt comfortable swapping instruments and sometimes would improvise for 4 hours at a time in darkness doing whatever we felt like doing...anything! Zoviet France was about doing some really radical stuff but no one else around us...it was factioning and genres and labels were being stuck on groups. We wanted to do our own thing, without labels.
How do you think you were perceived when you started? And do you think that impression has changed at all since 'Return Of The Ranters' came out?
GS: Hard to tell to a point...John Peel loved us at first and played 'The Beat Goes On' directly after announcing John Lennon’s death. We had a bit of a reputation as eccentrics, slightly weird - but with only the music papers and a few fanzines around it was hard to gauge. We didn't have a manager or agent so no-one with an ear to the ground. We were always railing against the machine, and politically nothing has changed. We've been pleased to receive some really positive reviews and comments regarding the album since it has been released even making For The Rabbits top twenty best albums of the year- 2015, not bad for a 30 year old recording...but it does sound fresh and relevant. But generally people seem to get it more now. We got much more stick for being different back then.
How does it feel to have 'Return Of The Ranters' finally released?
GS: Nice...it's been a long wait, but we split in '86 frustrated that the project wasn't complete, but we all needed to do different things at the time.
Why did now feel like the right time to do it?
GS: The timing does feel right, summer last year I stumbled into the cinema tent at The Green Gathering Festival where they had just shown Operation Solstice the documentary about The Battle of The Beanfield and the director Gareth Morris was there talking about the film. We chatted and I sung The Battle of Stonehenge acapella to the whole audience and that kind of started a ball rolling. Of course 2015 is the 30th anniversary of the ambush and also of the last Brixton Riots which we were also involved in the miners’ strike and all that Jimmy sings of on Slums...the 30 year thing has significance somehow.
And of course it was helped no end by a phone call from Chris of Upset The Rhythm wanting to release our recordings, the people in the music business seem much nicer now...real enthusiasts.
Importantly when we all made contact again, finding people is relatively easy nowadays of course, we all wanted to play together again.
What was the recording process for 'Return Of The Ranters', I understand you went to Wales and worked with Dave Anderson to make this album?
GS: We'd recorded nearly everything we'd done since '82 at Foel and Brian the engineer knew us well, Dave Anderson had become a good friend by then so we knew the environment too. We'd go for long walks up the mountains. We had a few half worked out ideas taken from the IGA improvisations....but none of it seemed to be going anywhere after a couple of days, so we decided to instil a bit of discipline by working on an old Eartha Kit song- something we'd never tried before. We didn't use the track, eventually and as far as I remember the entire album was written or improvised there and then over 2 weeks, but we lived it day and night.
How important is experimentation in your music? I saw you playing with hammers and trowels at the Lexington, so was curious about this element in your song-writing.
GS: Interestingly The Lexington gig was the least experimental of all as we mainly took pre-recorded pieces and effectively copied them. We also played more 'songs' than we would have done before. But then I suppose that in a way was an experiment. We also stuck to single roles more, Zinta and I just sung…though Simon persuaded me to play guitar on Big Lies and I did play a bit of bass on ‘Sally IVth’ and some keyboard on Travelling West. But generally we stuck to one thing with Simon using some samples, something we were just touching on in ‘85. As for the hammers and trowels, again this was quite toned down really from the past, though Simon makes a beautiful wail from his guitar with screwdriver jammed in the frets. We were always a bit theatrical and all of us having been involved in different musical, and circus and theatre projects over the years it was nice to put on a bit of a show and include some juggling as well as using industrial implements.
What's your favourite song on the album?
GS: It's got to be ‘Sianne Don't Work In A Factory’, my one and only love song written for me eldest daughter. The contrast between the opening womblike sounds of the birth, followed by a gentler softer....dare I say it Love Song, then evolving into industrial factory noise seems to work.
But if I'm singing acapella live- ‘The Battle of Stonehenge’ is the one.
Some of the other tracks were complete improvisations, many with a real outpouring of emotion...almost impossible to recreate....some of the sounds Simon created particularly are quite unique, but everyone played their part.
What do you hope people take away from listening to your music?
GS: A wry smile maybe, but know we really created sounds that came from within us spontaneously and lyrics a reflection of the times. I hope it moves people one way or another
As far as I can tell all of your songs are originals, would you ever cover a song? What would you cover if you did?
GS: Ha ha we actually did two covers at the Lexington gig- both acapella. ‘Heaven’ from the David Lynch film Eraserhead, though we did it differently. The other was the chant at the end of ‘Sally IVth’ which is a Hebredian mourning song originally sung whilst beating the chest with both fists to release grief. Towards the end a cover version of a Leisure song kicks in.
In 1980 we did a cover of Frank Zappa’s ‘Mr Green Genes’ as part of the John Peel session we got to the BBC studio and there was a Grand Piano and Hammond Organ. We really had to use them somehow and decided to try something quite different. Nick was the best pianist amongst us so he played both parts I think.
The record has two different sleeves, can you talk us through the decision behind that and where the images came from?
GS: The photo montage with the billboard and Stonehenge and a traveller mate of ours, Liam, was put together by Wilf back in early 86 and was to be the original front cover. But over the years the artwork was lost somehow, Simon felt we should come up with a different cover and he chose the image of Jimmy, Jim and I before a gig we did in Basle in ‘85. Wilf eventually found a copy of the original montage. Both seemed to have their merits so we went for both in the end.
'Return Of The Ranters' feels political, especially documenting your experience at Stonehenge in 1985, do you feel like you've outgrown the ideology you had in the 80s? Has your perspective shifted at all? Or do you still feel as passionately in the same things as you always have?
GS: No not at all....though throughout the nineties things didn't seem quite so bad. But now globalisation and technological developments have created a monster of corporate greed that like a truly successful parasite is not recognised by its hosts. This aggressive form of capitalism without compassion is ruining the world and its life-force, the media is controlled by tax avoiding villains masquerading as protectors and informants.
Squatting is now illegal, sleeping rough is often illegal, rents and house prices are out of reach of many...where are people to go, what are they to do?
I stood as a candidate for The Green Party in the last election to help spread awareness of the plight the power mongers are putting the planet in. The whole system is crooked, but I do believe that it can be changed with stealth and education. The banks are holding countries to ransom but with a will- as in Iceland, there is a way.
NB: The battles 30 years ago were to destroy community and collective power bases but in doing so a terrible genie was let out of the bottle. Democratic capitalism has all but consumed all other ideologies and has been so successful that the only route left for it is to consume itself. It’s now capitalism versus democracy and capitalism is winning. Global corporations are bigger than some governments and they are starting to join and merge. These tax avoiding, people hoovering behemoths pose a great threat to freedom. Governments disguise their own impotence and cling onto what little power they have by focussing on peripheral issues e.g. immigration and the unseen enemy, which is why we need to do all we can to protect and promote local, family and community alternatives to just being plugged into the mainframe. To paraphrase Guy we need to be aware of the dangers and yet celebrate hope and beauty. These are the themes of today and will I’m sure emerging in our new music.
I was wondering, now we're back in a Tory government… if your band formed today, would you say/do anything differently in your song-writing compared to 30 years ago when ‘Return Of The Ranters’ was penned? Are there new things that trouble you today in this version of the Conservative Party?
GS: With the internet now we know more about how we are being lied to and exploited, man being pitted against fellow man. Divide and conquer. Our lyrics today will be as critical of the powers that be, but also we see the beauty in so much and it's important not to get swamped by the negative. I really do wonder how Cameron, Osborne IDS (sounds like a disease) can look people in the eye without flinching...I always thought that with privilege come responsibility. HA!
How did you feel about the level of interest in Normil Hawaiians recently after such a long time since going separate ways?
What do you plan on doing with the momentum that has built up for the band now? New songs? Reissues? Touring?
GS: It was so good to get back to performing with such good friends that we can't just leave it at that. We are planning a few gigs around Easter – Brighton & London again...but we want to play interesting places, we'll see. We still all live miles from each other so we are limited with what we can do, but definitely re-issues with Upset The Rhythm if all goes to plan...then who knows, more recording- it's possible and we want to do it so....
What have been the main differences you've experienced from being in a band in the 80’s compared to now, technology has changed the game so much for example, and have you felt any part of the process is helped or hindered with the way things work today?
GS: Well the biggest difference for us was the ability to use visuals , something we couldn't afford in the 80's. A friend of Jimmy’s put them together after we gave him an idea of what we wanted and then he pinged ‘em back down to us to use as backdrops. Brilliant!
NB: We have already seen a change of approach as much of our pre-rehearsal exchanges and practice has been facilitated online. Despite this, Normil Hawaiians have never been defined by the current technology. One of the main reasons ‘Return of The Ranters’ has been well received (apart from the lyrical resonances) has been that it doesn’t sound like it was recorded in the 80’s. So much 80’s music is unlistenable now, as bands at the time rushed to embrace nascent technological developments without pausing to reflect how best to utilise them, Consequently those records are locked in a time capsule. We deliberately eschewed novelty and concentrated on performance and the dynamic interplay of our personalities to grow our sound, only allowing into the process that which added value. That is part of our blueprint. What we did know was that we did not want to sound like every other band at the time. Today, we are all aware of and use modern recording aids (there is some awesome tech out there) and fully expect to trade ideas and explore online platforms to develop new songs (out of necessity given that we all live so far apart) but the most important thing is that what emerges has worth and fits our ethos. It’s a very democratic process.
Is there anything you want to say that you feel you haven't been able to yet as a band? If so please share!
Simon Marchant: I would say that the things we have done best in the past have been our recordings. These have been honest and very much simply a record of 'what happened then'; a triangulation of political, spiritual and geographical aspects. I don't feel we've really done this live, though, and I would dearly love to do so in future. But to do this with integrity is quite an intimate thing. It's exposing and so can be quite a challenge. Ironically, I feel that in order to feel free to perform effectively in this way, to eschew rigidity and form, we have to create structures and frameworks within which such freedom can take place and this is something currently being worked on.
For more about the Normil Hawaiians and to pick up a copy of 'Return of the Ranters' CLICK HERE!