Butcher Shop of Horrors
With an “almost crippling sincerity,” the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy take the low road to success.
by Michael Macrone
Just like a clever cleaver-man at the corner deli, the Jazz Butcher packages every cut “prime.” Northamptonshire, England’s Pat Fish (a.k.a. “Butch”), 29 and a vegetarian, is actually anything but a jazz butcher. Rather, he plies his trade within a wide range of rock styles, applying the loving touch of someone who prefers to deliver the living thing rather than mere cold cuts.
Just back from a European tour when he called on Christmas Eve, Fish was still on a high. “What a concert is for the people in the group is a subsidized night out,” he explains. “You get to show off, you get to play music, which is what you like most, you get to talk to people—and they pay you for it. On top of that, I haven’t done any washing up or changed my own sheets in six weeks!”
Fish and his fluid ensemble, the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, have a smashing time both on stage and in the studio; enjoying what they do is much more important to them than some abstract notion of success. Yet gradually success has come despite Fish’s quirky eclecticism. Well-established now on the Continent and at home, the JBC got a foothold in the U.S. with a tour in the summer of 1986 and with the release of Distressed Gentlefolk, the Butcher’s fifth LP, and the compilation album Bloody Nonsense, their first domestic releases (both on Big Time Records).
It would be difficult to categorize the sound of Distressed Gentlefolk, which thematizes the joys and jolts of love, touring, and digestion in a slightly skewed way. Fish (guitar, sax and vocals) and company (Max Eider, guitar; O.P. Jones, drums; and Felix Ray, bass) dabble in pop styles, locomotive drive, soft tetrads, chants, and even “crass country & western American noise.” Yet there’s a sensibility behind this profusion that helps make a certain odd sense of the associative and expansive variety. While it’s become a rock-critic cliché to cite Fish’s romance with the Velvet Underground and to compare the JBC to the VU, that’s inaccurate; on the new LP, only the wistful “Still in the Kitchen” shows traces of the Velvets. The Bonzo Dog Band has been cited with slightly more precision, but perhaps a little better would be a cross between Robyn Hitchcock and the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg.
After fooling around with the neo-psychedelic styles of The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen in the late Seventies, Fish decided to “pack it in” and take a job as a typist in a law firm in 1981. Soon, he had his ears tuned to two other sources. “[Ex-Velvet] Maureen Tucker’s version of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ was a big, big influence on Jazz Butcher stuff,” he recalls. “At the time, I was leaving a group I’d been in, I heard this and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, she’s playing all the instruments, and it sounds great. It sounds shabby and it sounds brilliant.’ And I wondered if I could do that. And of course, there began all the trouble. In the law office I would turn up every day and play Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places by Kid Creole. Those two records were big influences—one because it was possible, and the other because in the face of all the doom and gloom, there was someone making jokes.”
Taking the hint from Tucker, Fish began producing homemade tapes using his collapsible guitar “Lenin” and all sorts of found instruments, including utensils. After teaming up with old Oxford schoolmate Max Eider, the Jazz Butcher caught the ear of England’s small Glass Records, for whom he recorded Bath of Bacon in 1982. The Butcher was back in the business, but, taking the hint from Creole, decided not to take it all too seriously. He never even really expected people to listen. “I never set out saying, ‘We’ll have a group, we’re going to do this, we’re going to revolutionize that, we’re going to get this audience,’” he recalls. “I just started writing stupid songs.”
Fish’s often patently ironic material has earned the JBC a reputation as a “joke band.” But Fish protests: “People always go on about our being humorous and that. I think possibly it’s more a case of their finding what we write humorous, rather than our intending to be humorous. We do complicate the matter by writing ‘joke songs’ now and again. But if you’re having a conversation with someone for, say, the 40-minute length of an album, and he didn’t tell a joke, you’d think he was a weirdo, right? You’d move away down the bench! Yeah, we tell jokes—but that’s just a part of our almost crippling sincerity.”
Sincerity, for Fish, means standing up to received opinion—”things the television or the ghastly English newspapers will give you”—and saying, “Look, it’s them that’s balmy, not me.” Of course, this can quickly earn one a reputation for eccentricity, “but I get satisfaction out of it anyway. Once I had trouble with this bloke from Melody Maker whose main thing was constantly, ‘Yes, yes, but aren’t you fed up with being a figure on the edge all the time?’ And I said, ‘Well, you might think that because you don’t read about me much in your paper, but I’ve been working solidly now for two years, and I’m not worried.’ He just couldn’t understand that I regarded myself as doing quite nicely, thank you very much.”
With success, however, have come casualties. Somewhere midway through their American tour in ‘86, bassist Ray and the group decided their alliance wasn’t the most comfortable, so Ray split and has been replaced by Richard Lohan, who, according to Fish, “fought in the Nicaraguan Coffee Brigade.” (In the last three years, the JBC have had five bass players. “We can’t help ourselves,” Fish sighs.) And on the most recent tour of the Continent, after a particularly bad “Tour-in-Hell” night in Zurich, guitarist Eider decided he’d had enough, got on the train to London “and that was that.” Luckily, with the talented Lohan and the support of Alex Greene (“another Northampton beatnik”) on saxophone, the JBC carried on quite well.
Today, Fish sees Gentlefolk as a sort of “culmination of one particular thing that began with Scandal in Bohemia [the second LP].” Now, he’d like to experiment with new sounds, and at the moment, he’s intrigued by the current hybridization of hip-hop with heavy metal. (“It struck me that if people were going to start fusing white electric noises with hip-hop, it would be great fun to see what would happen if you started mixing those noises with extremely loud Velvet Underground-type tinny noises.’’) And another tour of America should happen this spring.
But that’s all Fish will promise: “If I say now that there could be surprises when we come back to the States, you’ll probably find out that Max is back in the group and we’re playing all the songs off Scandal in Bohemia. I’m not going to commit myself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t a bit different.” The only certainty is that the Jazz Butcher is going to keep going. “I’ll just carry on whether people are listening or not,” he promises. “If they want to stop me from making songs, then they’re going to have to chop me hands off.”
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First published in Music & Sound Output magazine (March, 1987)