Soulbossa: Brutally Sexy Racket By Graham Russell

Mar 18, 2001

Mean. Moody. Magnificent. After five years of cranking out a brutally sexy racket, Soulbossa remains London's best-kept secret. Their newest album, "Love Amongst The Stars," should hopefully make amends. The trio typically take charred pop songs and rip them apart with blasts of feedback and crackling distortion, while the soaraway wails, hiccups and yelps of leader Peter Jones recall emotive 1950s falsetto singers like Gene Vincent and Billy Fury. Comparisons, perversely, he will probably loathe). They describe themselves - in tones of withering Northern sarcasm - as sweet and nasty at the same time. So what're you waiting for? Come into Soulbossa.

Interview by Graham Russell. Photos by Johnny Volcano

Peter Jones: vocals/guitar
Michael Ford: drums
Tracy Bellaries: bass

Graham: My earliest memory of Soulbossa is when you first moved to London and started playing gigs here opening for Delilah Jacks and playing at Sparkle Moore's club, More Than Vegas, and being so impressed how your tension-driven and contemptuous) gigs would end abruptly with the three of you stalking offstage and the feedback still ringing. (They still do.)
Michael: It was just us getting all excited, and then wanting to get off. And, in my case, be sick.
Peter: Michael used to throw up a lot.
Graham: You'd vomit after gigs?
Michael: Occasionally. If I hadn't eaten well. I'm quite healthier now than I was. And there wasn't much point in hanging around, anyway.
Peter: So they could throw stuff.
Graham: The three of you moved here about four, five years ago from Ribchester (Michael) and Burnley (Peter and Tracy) in Lancashire (Northern England). Give North American readers a sense of what these towns were like.
Peter: Shanty towns. Mmm. You've got to be careful, don't you?
Tracy: No, you don't have to be careful!
Peter: Basically, it just wasn't the right place for us. We stuck out like a sore thumb. When we did gigs down there it was more terrifying than it is here.
Michael: They're just very small places. Not particularly in terms of size, but mentality.
Tracy: Small-minded.
Peter: And all the other bands were cock.
Michael: It would just be whatever the fashion was for covering stuff. Or heavy metal, which was always knocking around for some reason. And everyone knew everyone's business. It was a small town community.
Peter: But I'd lived in London before so we all moved down. Not necessarily for the band, but because we like it better. More stuff to do. And it's not as territorial here.
Graham: How did the three of you hook up in the first place?
Peter: I knew Tracy from school. And when I was at college I met Michael. God, that's really dull, isn't it?
Michael: So through education - Peter went to college the year before me and I went a year after - so I was a bit staggered. And then Tracy kind of went, and didn't do it, and then went home. So we kind of picked up after that.
Tracy: When we all came back we started the band.
Peter: We were disillusioned.
Graham: What made you think the three of you would be good together?
Peter: They were the only people I knew.
Tracy: That's nice!
Michael: Charming.
Graham: Had any of you been in bands before this?
Peter: No. Nobody had been in a band.
Tracy: It was all from scratch, basically. I didn't know what a bass was.
Graham: What was the sound you had in mind, that you had in your head, when you were forming Soulbossa?
Peter: Just something really sweet and nice.
[Everyone but Peter snorts with laughter]
Peter: It was, though! That's what I wanted: a good singing voice and something sweet, but something nasty at the same time.
Tracy: Sweet, my arse.
Graham: You put out your first single ("Jinx"/"Carol Ann") yourselves, on your own one-off record label Chicken Bone Records, in 1994. (The single - a frantic burst of amphetamine frenzy is an awesome debut. The cover features Tracy wearing a skimpy Playboy boy bunny outfit and Bettie Page haircut and Peter twisting.)
Michael: We did that when we were still living in Blackburn (Lancashire). We did that all ourselves, from the cover to everything. Stamping them all and everything.
Peter: I don't know what was going through our minds at the time. I just wanted to be on a record! We were really naive. We were also really confident. That's where the arrogance comes from. We thought we were better than everybody else.
Michael: It comes from thinking we're better than everyone back home. Because we were. Which is true. So we used to piss everyone off back there. That's why we pissed everyone off down here initially. They'd think, "Who the fuck do they think they are?"
Graham: The first single was recorded at Toe Rag?
Tracy: No.
Michael: The second single. The first single was recorded when we were still in Blackburn.
Peter: By some fat, awful bloke.
Michael: No, but he wasn't, though, because he did exactly what he was told.
Tracy: He was the engineer. We produced it.
Peter: And it will be the pinnacle of his career.
Graham: In 1996 came the single "Sore Loser"/"Big Hurt," your debut on Dishy Records. (The "Jinx" single had brought them to the attention of Guy Sirman of one-man DIY label, Dishy Recordings, and the hugely influential DJ John Peel, a sort of UK equivalent of Rodney Bingenheimer. Particularly notable is the B-side, a heartbreak ballad on which Peter yearns like Ricky Nelson on "Lonesome Town.")
Peter: That was a success at the same time - recording at Toe Rag and that kind of rock'n'roll-y stuff - gets you into that niche with rock'n'rollers.
Michael: Which is all right. I mean at the time.
Peter: But we kept getting lumped in with other bands in reviews and we were always better than them. (In particular, Gallon Drunk, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Penthouse, comparisons they bitterly resent.) People weren't listening to us properly.
Graham: But why does this wind you up so much?
Peter: Because it's so fucking male and rubbish.
Michael: It's not because of that. We see it as a step back. It's like going five years. Mainly because we were very close to rock'n'roll rock in the beginning. We're not now. We're not a garage band.
Michael: Or fucking Gallon Drunk.
Graham: Well, your sound has evolved over the years. Your early stuff did have a more overtly bluesy/neo-rockabilly feel.
Peter: I didn't notice that. 'Cause when you're writing it, you're totally wrapped up in it. I didn't think I was singing like Elvis.
Tracy: But we were listening to stuff like that, so obviously we were picking up stuff.
Peter: That's another thing about the attitude thing: we were so close, in being outsiders in whatever situation, that you're kind of blinkered. I was thinking I sounded totally different. I was so influenced by so many other things, as well as rock'n'roll, but everyone picks out the rock'n'roll.
Graham: In some ways your stuff is harsher now...
Peter: What, the earlier stuff?
Graham: No, now. A lot of the earlier stuff had an almost soul or rockabilly feel, but with weird time changes and blasts of feedback.
Peter: That's my Jesus & Mary Chain influence.
Graham: But you're certainly not an indie band.
Peter: But what is indie music?
Graham: Jangly guitars and big choruses and harmonies.
Tracy: Well, we've never been that!
Michael: We kind of went from hardcore and then to pop, but never to anywhere in between.
Graham: In 1997 came the "Malcontent"/"Tintorera" single and the 6-song EP "Come into Soulbossa." ("Malcontent" makes atmospheric use of gospel singers and hints at their future directions. The B-side is a great punk rant, with Peter screaming, "I shot a man!" over and over).
Peter: [Confesses unhappy with the EP]. We don't play anything off it. It sounds like "Pinky & Perky"! (American readers: "Pinky & Perky" was a British children's TV program starring two helium-voiced piglet handpuppets). I just listened to it again the other day. That is fast and that is high-pitched!
Graham: So that wasn't deliberate?
Peter: I don't know what was going through my mind at the time. I was very confused! But I like the cover. (The EP's ultra-sexy cover is Soulbossa's tribute to Janet Leigh in Psycho, with the trio naked together in the shower).
Graham: [To Tracy] That was taken in your shared bedsit bathroom.
Tracy: Yeah, while there were people trying to come in and have a shower. (There followed a two-year gap between the EP and the new single "In the Wrong"/"Clean & Non-Scene" and their debut LP, "Love Amongst the Stars." The brooding, churning new album is their most ambitious and accomplished work yet.)
Peter: I was thinking, What the fuck were we doing? It was time for a change, to do something more concentrated. We've all changed, anyway: Michael got married and moved out of London. Tracy split up with Guy. Everything's totally different. Through that came this LP. It's so much better now. It felt very strange when we all came back together to record it in the studio. We make a good record out of bad situations half the time.
Graham: The new record's not necessarily indicative of your live sets. (The album makes varied, nuanced uses of extras like keyboards and backing vocals.)
Peter: I don't even care what we sound like live. I just think of it more as a spectacle. And when things fuck up, it just makes it more funny. Or whatever kind of mood we're in, we play it for that.
Tracy: Usually people either really hate us or really love us. There's nothing in between.
Peter: That's why I'm so narked - half the time: playing in some pissy cellar to a load of twats. I look at the audience's faces. I look the at the fashion, obviously, first. What people are wearing. And I think, "Is that the kind of person who comes to see us?"
Graham: So what should the audience be wearing, then?
Michael: Tight shorts and a crop top, probably. It should be a good, varied audience.
Graham: And you're not getting one?
Michael: You can't chose your audience! Just like we didn't chose it when they all showed up in quiffs and big boots and dancing like that (makes odd, lunging "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein" gesture to imitate rockabilly dancing). I think you should just be grateful for whoever you get. Or that you get anyone at all.
Tracy: Exactly.
Graham: Soulbossa's always felt more like an American band than a British band. I don't hear a British influence there. I know you like all the post-Pussy Galore American school of bands. (Soulbossa bears a vague family resemblance to Boss Hog/Jon Spencer Blues Explosion/Royal Trux).
Peter: More Royal Trux than Jon Spencer. But each of those bands sort of typified what they do by a certain record. Just the general kind of American scene: they've got one thing. Then it's, like, dull. Jon Spencer just became dull. Sonic Youth - dull. Royal Trux are brilliant because they're inventive.
Michael: Royal Trux constantly reinvent themselves. There's loads of bands who we used to like but they haven't done anything different for the last five or six years. You can't respect anyone who hasn't managed to do anything different or better themselves, who's still into the same old thing. Bands like Royal Trux are always going to do well, and bands like us should always do well. You get someone who's a prolific songwriter like Peter, the songs are always going to come out. It's rare where you get a band who's always going to come out with new stuff, good songs, continually, over the years. There's not going to be a big fuck-up where they've done a fucking fantastic album and shit, we've got to wait five years to top that. We can top it a week later.
Tracy: There's not going to be a difficult second album with us.
Graham: I get the impression from going to your gigs and hearing some of your radio sessions, you have a big back catalog of unrecorded songs. (Great Soulbossa tracks that never made it to vinyl include "Cutting," "Live It" and "The Ground.")
Peter: Yeah, there's lots of stuff. We've got out 25-30 songs. We never pander to the audience. We know the ropes now, but we were naive. I always wanted to play what I was excited by. We toured that 6-song EP and didn't play one fucking song off it!
Graham: What direction do you see yourself going in next?
Peter: I've kind of got a different thing going at the moment. I'm going to do another band. "Clean & Non-Scene" is the direction I want to do. (The track is the new LP's biggest surprise: Soulbossa goes electronica and features Peter's most autobiographical homoerotic lyrics). The new band's called Vibration White Finger. Kind of black American R&B, but from a totally faggot-y perspective. So it's going to be noisy, but really sweet and really fucking original. The first single's called "No Kissing." It's about straight - not! - people.
Graham: Your lyrics are getting more personal and explicit.
Peter: Maybe because before there were no lyrics - I just used to make noises! It's just absolute bollocks. (This is strictly true: at the beginning of "Jinx" he wails, "It's a shame ..." and from there the words are incomprehensible). But now I write lyrics and make it more interesting. That's why I think Vibration White Finger will be really funny and clever and have something to say. Which is why "Clean & Non-Scene" is totally hilarious.
Graham: What are you trying to say in that song?
Peter: It's about homosexual paranoia. So-called straight men who I fancy to death. Unfortunately, I really fancy straight people. I don't fancy remotely camp people. It's a terrible burden!
Graham: That's where powers of persuasion come into it. That's where alcohol comes in. But your lyrics have been rude in the past. (On "Live It" he sneers "They can suck my dick" and on "Lovers Lane!," from the EP, he instructs someone to "wipe the come off your thighs."
Peter: But that impresses me. Totally. I like any kind of swearing. If it's clever and in the right context.
Graham: And it always is.
Peter: Absolutely. And that's why there's loads of "fucks" on it. There's a "cunt" on it as well
Michael: Cunts are always good.
Peter: But that's a criticism at me. ("You act like a cunt/And you sing like a girl"). I'm just finding my feet, lyrically. I'm probably more aggressive lyrics-wise as I was music-wise a long time ago. I can do it with lyrics now. It feels good. I think it improves the performance as well.
Graham: It's pretty amazing the three of you have stuck it out all these years. The lineup's never changed. That's an accomplishment in itself.
Peter: People come up to me and say, "You need another guitarist," but there's no way I could bring another person into the band. Because when we're learning new songs, I have a tolerance level of ...
Tracy: Of zero.
Peter: So if anybody else came into the band, they'd just be [waves goodbye]. Or hit me.

Soulbossa Discography:
1994: "Jinx"/"Carol Ann" 7" single (Chicken Bone Records)
1996: "Sore Loser"/"Big Hurt" 7" single (Dishy Recordings)
1997: "Malcontent"/"Tintorera" 7" single (Dishy Recordings)
1997: "Come Into Soulbossa" 6-song EP (Dishy Recordings)
1999: "In the Wrong"/"Clean & Non-Scene" 7" single (Dishy)
1999: "Love Amongst the Stars" LP (Dishy)

For more info on Soulbossa, write to Dishy Records, 74 Gibson Gardens, London N16 7HD, UK