Close Lobsters

Originally published 17 July, 2020 in The Agit Reader

Though their jangly guitars and penchant for pop melodies bore some of the hallmarks of the so-called C86 sound, more than anything else what united the Close Lobsters with the other acts on the NME’s legendary cassette compilation was an ethos of self-made ingenuity. Born in the Scottish town of Paisley (about 10 miles east of Glasgow) in 1985 out of a surprisingly thriving punk scene, the Scottish five-piece—singer Andrew Burnett, drummer Stewart McFayden, bassist Bob Burnett, and guitarists Graeme Wilmington and Tom Donnelly—followed the C86 inclusion of “Firestation Towers” with a series of releases for (appropriately enough) London’s Fire Records. Their debut album, Foxheads Stalk This Land, won accolades on both sides of the pond, with Rolling Stone describing it as “first-rate guitar pop from a top-shelf band.” Such attention and airplay on college radio won the Close Lobsters a deal with EMI-backed Enigma Records, who released their second album, Headache Rhetoric, in the States and brought them over to tour. The band seemed poised for bigger and better things.

Sadly, it was not to be. With the ’80s turning to the ’90s and the future seemingly laid out in front of them, the Lobsters called it quits, partially due to exhaustion, but also because Andrew and Bob Burnett needed time to cope with the recent death of their brother. Even with Enigma shutting down around the same time, the question of what might had been was left hanging in the air.

That answer has finally been answered, at least somewhat. All five original members regrouped in 2012 for Popfest in Madrid. More shows and a couple of EPs followed, revealing that it wasn’t just a one-off. Finally, in February this year, the band released its first new full-length in 30 years, Post Neo Anti: Art Povera in the Forest of Symbols (Last Night in Glasgow/Shelflife Records). To say it lives up to the band’s past would be an understatement. It bears the band’s signature blend of buoyant guitars and fetching melodies, while still sounding very much like the next chapter and not simply a retread.

Unfortunately, the Close Lobsters’ timing couldn’t have been much worse. Like all of us, the pandemic forced the band had to put its plans on hold, with tour dates to promote the album cancelled before they were even firmed up. I caught up with Andrew on the phone to see what the future does hold for the band and to take stock of the past.

How have you been doing with the whole pandemic and the lockdown?
Andrew Burnett:
It’s very, very strange, isn’t it? We had been planning to play a couple more shows to promote the album, which was released at the end of February. It was bad timing in that within about a month the entire world was in lockdown. As you know, the situation accelerated really quickly, and we didn’t know how it was going to develop. So it affected our plans greatly.

But you did sneak in one show in Glasgow before the lockdown, right?
AB:
We did. It’s weird because now it seems like a million years ago and it was just a few months ago. A lot of people have reflected on it like, “My god! Is that the last gig I’ll ever attend?” It’s all very weird, but we’re all in the same boat, aren’t we?

So you had plans for more shows?
AB:
We had hoped to play some shows in Europe and the US, as we’re still quite well-received in the US. But with the profound crisis of contemporary capitalism and its symptoms, i.e. Trump, I don’t think we’ll be setting foot in the United States until some semblance of sanity re-establishes itself in North America.

Have you taken any creative approaches to promote the album in lockdown?
AB:
We have a new remix of one of the key tracks about to be released digitally. It’s “Let the Days Drift Away,” which has particular resonance for lockdown. It’s almost scarily prophetic. I don’t know if it’s the same elsewhere, but the sunsets we’re enjoying in Scotland are spectacular, partially because there’s very little air traffic. There’s a notion in the song of living in end times. In the absence of being able to get together and make new music, we thought this track could do with an enhancement, so that’s coming out at the beginning of August.

The title of the album is quite a mouthful and refers to the Arte Povera movement, so I wanted to see if you could shed some light on that and how it relates to the songs on the record.
AB:
The title refers to the idea about the pathos of completion, the idea that we’ve been living in the end times for quite awhile now. Prior to this pandemic, there’s been this crisis of contemporary capitalism in terms of ecology and economics. So it’s a statement about that, but also a self-referential thing about Close Lobsters and their reformation. We’re “post” and “neo” at the same time, and we’re looking for some kind of new path, and this is the “anti.” The “anti” refers to the idea that we’re living in a state of madness; what we’re seeing with the pandemic is that it’s shining a light on this issue. We can’t go back to normal because the normal we existed in was insane. “The forest of symbols” is taken from Charles Baudelaire’s notion of modernity, where we are bombarded with signals, which we largely filter out. And do we filter out the most prescient and telling things or do we retain those? And “Arte Povera” finally was a tongue in cheek reference to the fact that we didn’t have a lot of funds to make this record. We didn’t have a wealthy benefactor. The record was brought together as a documentation of the reformation of the band, but also as a means of making do with what we have.

What instigated getting the band back together?
AB:
That’s a good question because it’s a difficult one. The planets were in alignment—that’s the best I can do. It was just the right time. We split up because of exhaustion and because great tragedy struck. A period of reflection was required and that period went on for some time. The tragedy is expressed in the song “Johnnie.”

That was somebody in your family?
AB:
Yeah, he passed away. So there was an accumulation of things. We had gone to the States, and there was the idea that maybe we should stay in the States and press on. It was a very difficult decision at the time. We came home as it transpired. But there’s almost this idea, do you take the right paths in life? Maybe we should have stayed in the States and persevered. Maybe there was unfulfilled potential.

It seems like you made some real headway in the States, so I guess you were considering trying to capitalize on that?
AB:
It was certainly a consideration. Who knows what would have transpired? But as it was, we were exhausted. We had been on a couple tours and we were very, very tired. That kind of made the decision for us.

Did you feel like you more well-known in the States than in the UK?
AB:
Very much so and that precipitated the decision to go there in the first place. We always considered ourselves better received in the States than in Europe and the UK.

Out of curiosity, did you ever play in my home state of Ohio?
AB:
Yeah, we played in Cleveland. Were the Dead Boys from Cleveland? I have it in my mind that Cleveland is exactly like watching the Dead Boys play “Sonic Reducer.” I’ve been trying to get the band to do a cover of “Sonic Reducer” for some time.

Tell me more about Paisley. Were there other bands there when you were starting out?
AB:
We half-jokingly refer to Paisley as Glasgow’s outer suburbs because in effect it’s connected to Glasgow geographically. It’s like an enclave. Many of the group members are of Glaswegian stock. But there’s kind of a local controversy because some people fiercely believe that it’s an independent town and others think of it as a suburb of Glasgow.

But what’s interesting about Paisley is that because it’s a separate town from Glasgow, during the punk rock era, when punk was banned from Glasgow, a lot of the early punk rock gigs happened in Paisley rather than Glasgow. The hysteria reached Glasgow and the authorities decided they didn’t want these zombies playing their shows there, so they came here. That then produced a really good punk scene in Paisley, and we came out of that as a post-punk offspring, if you like. There was a whole range of groups that we played with and referenced. Defiant Pose, X-S Discharge, The Church Grims, The Living Room, Urban Enemies, and The Muldoons are all Paisley-ish.

Did you feel a connection to the other stuff going on at Glasgow at the time?
AB:
Not particularly, no. The only band would be the Clouds, who became Teenage Fanclub. We had a better connection with the June Brides in London. Tom and I used to run a webzine called Ferocious Apache, and we interviewed the June Brides. We went to London and saw them play a few times, built up a friendship with them, and eventually did some shows together in London and Glasgow. But other groups of the era that we liked were the Go-Betweens, the Wedding Present, and especially for me personally, the Big Flame from Manchester.

I’ve seen you make reference to “The Sound of Young Scotland,” so did you feel like you had more in common with the Postcard stuff?
AB:
Oh definitely! We really loved Orange Juice and Josef K. We were really big fans of Orange Juice, and they had an impact on the development of the group. In a fey, camp way, Orange Juice challenged the stereotypes of the punk rock identity. So they drew us away from that and towards a more pop ethos. So yeah, Orange Juice was hugely influential; the first album was particularly monumental. Prior to that, in the early ‘80s, we were finding a new thing, a post-punk idea that wasn’t sure where it was going. There were several different factions emerging. Soft Cell was a big influence for us as well; we did a cover of “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.” We were finding where we were going and it was unsure before then.

Did you have a epiphanic moment when you felt like found your sound or your voice?
AB:
I think the key point in the development of the group is when I enlisted Tom as guitarist. Prior to that, we were a four-piece and were more rocking. We used to do covers of things like Flesh for Lulu and Nikki Sudden. When we got Tom in, it opened up new avenues, and it developed into a fusion of Neu and the Go-Betweens. From that, the band developed its own persona.

Getting back together, did you feel like you picked up where you left off or did it take you awhile to get your footing again?
AB:
It was very strange in that it was very immediate. The first show we played was in Madrid in 2012, and it was phenomenal. We couldn’t believe how good it was, and we knew it was the right thing to do. It was almost like the outpouring of all that unfulfilled potential. So it was very easy. We knew what we were doing and what we wanted to do.

Did you feel any trepidation like you had to live up to your past?
AB:
No, not at all. The crown does not weigh heavy, if I can be so pompous. We weren’t particularly well-known; we’re very niche, very obscure, so we don’t have a lot of expectations on us.

But do you feel like your reputation had grown in the intervening years? Having the boxset must have surely raised your profile a bit.
AB:
Yeah, it did. When we were referred to at the Popfest as “the legendary Close Lobsters,” we realized this was a possibility we could explore. The idea of that prefix, “the legendary”—terrific! There was this opportunity to play the Popfests, so we played Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, Milan, New York. But we never felt any weight on our shoulders or expectations.

Did you have it in the back of your mind that this might happen some day, like there was unfinished business that the Close Lobsters needed to take care of?
AB:
Yes, very much so, and how it was going to be expressed was the only real question. Like many bands, we’re music fans, just like our fans are. It’s a love of music so it had to be expressed somehow.

I read that “All Compasses Go Wild” was a song from 1991. Did you have other material left over when you guys called it a day?
AB:
Yeah, there are a few of them that have metamorphosed from where they were then. As I said, the band was interrupted by tragedy so it’s almost like a ghost ship where everything was just left as it was. The band just kind of stopped. It’s interesting doing that with a song, updating it. You retain some aspects of it, but give it older and wiser nuances. “All Compasses Go Wild” used to be called “Steel Love” and it had a humorous late-80s sensibility. Now, “All Compasses Go Wild” speaks to this current malaise we’re in, like lost direction, and I think it’s much better as a result. “Now Time” is also a track from wayback. We originally recorded it in a studio in Glasgow and the building that the studio was in burned down. We were still doing some stuff then—I think we played King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in 1990—but then things just stopped and there were all these threads left dangling, some of which we’ve picked up.

As far as the new songs go, do you think your songwriting is much different either in approach or thematically?
AB:
We pretty much go about it in the same way, but personally speaking, as the lyricist, I think it’s developed enormously. There’s much more depth and resonance, whereas before it was more surreal. When I was younger, I was influenced by William Burroughs’ cut up method. Now it’s more structured and has more depth of meaning. For example, the first album is called Foxheads Stalk This Land. We wanted to call it “Fuckheads Stalk This Land” because they do! But that would have barred us from any exposure. You know The Fall song “No Christmas for John Quays?” He’s saying “no Christmas for junkies,” but instead said “John Quays.” So were influenced by that. These days the song titles are much more explicit. The second album, interestingly, we were going to entitle “These Scottish Bastards Should Have No Human Rights,” which is a direct quotation of a conservative MP in the late ‘80s. Instead, we decided for the more sober Headache Rhetoric. Now, I think the lyrics are much more expressive.

Apparently, you started the album in 2014. Was there any real reason it took five years?
AB:
It was partially the Arte Povera, but to be honest the album itself didn’t really crystallize as an idea until 2019. When we finally got around to it, it seemed natural and fitting to include the material we had recorded until then as a kind of document of the Post Neo Anti Close Lobsters from 2012 to now. That was the rationale behind it: necessity and what we wanted to produce as an album. Given that it’s been 30 years since we last released an album, we wanted to make it as coherent as possible. I hope we’ve achieved that.

Assuming that we go back to some sort of normalcy, what do you see in the future for the Close Lobsters?
AB:
Ideally, we’ll return to Europe and produce more stuff. We’ve written some new songs, so there are some things in the pipeline, but it’s really difficult to see how things are going to be in the future, particularly in the realm of live performances. So who knows?

Stephen Slaybaugh Written by: