Growing up in Pittsburgh, I got into punk at a very early age, and remember a group of boys hovering over a cassette copy of the Misfits’ Walk Among Us as the spark. But getting deeply into the Subhumans (U.K.) albums EP/LP and The Day the Country Died in junior high was my first education vis-à-vis music that meant something more than love, hate, rage, or horror.
With songs like “Waste of Breath,” Subhumans singer-songwriter Dick Lucas (who also fronts Citizen Fish and Culture Shock) artfully and existentially entered the minds of young punks quixotically trying fit into in a culture of non-conformity, and described the twin terrors of Cold War hysteria and cold-blooded capitalism on “Parasites,” “Human Error,” and many more hardcore classics. My introduction to Lucas’s lyrics—and the band’s rebellious, unrelenting energy in general—was my introduction to questioning everything and everyone.
The Subhumans, which formed in Wiltshire, England, in 1980, broke up in 1985 after four full-length albums and reformed in 1998. When the band’s reunion tour that year hit Pittsburgh, I was a freshman in college, playing in numerous local punk bands, and attending the Subhumans gig at Club Laga—with Submachine serving as the opening act and seemingly the entirety of the Pittsburgh punk scene in attendance—was one of the great concert experiences of my life.
Now fifty-eight, Lucas’s passion for political punk and very loud, very energetic performance has not slowed whatsoever. Despite the very peaceful messages in Lucas’s lyrics, the Subhumans gigs I saw at Slim’s in San Francisco in 2005 and 2007 are still the only shows I’ve seen that had multiple ambulances parked outside waiting for mosh pit victims. The visceral, forthright group seemingly never stops touring, though its last studio album was 2007’s Internal Riot.
During an unforgettable trip through parts of England and Scotland this May, I not only got to see a Subhumans show at a small club in Glasgow called Audio, but also interview Lucas where a teenage Subhumans fan would’ve no doubt imagine British punk bands do interviews—in the wind under a bridge as trucks and buses rolled past.
Adam Perry: When you started the band, what were you—nineteen?
Dick Lucas: I was about nineteen, yeah. Trotsky (drums), he was, like, fifteen when he joined.
Adam: What’s it like to play with the same drummer for so many years?
Dick: Great! I mean, we’ve had the same lineup since 1983, when we changed bassists, from Grant to Phil. We’ve grown up with each other. There’s differences in character that can wind you up, or make you happy, or both. You just get on with it. We basically tend not to argue about much… details about mixing songs or something really slight, but there’s never any fights or anything like that. Some bands say they have fights. It’s like, “How on earth do you ever survive as a band if you’re fighting?”
Adam: When you started the band did you think you’d still be doing this almost forty years later?
Dick: Well, I sort of hoped so, but you never really sit down and think, “What am I gonna be doing in the future?” Is it worth worrying about? It’s not really worth worrying about. If you’ve got this week or next month planned on, then you just keep going on a near-future basis. Things, as it turned out, tended to work out. I mean, if people stopped liking us we’d be all screwed up. People still turn up at shows. People still like it. We still like doing it. And that’s the two vital things to keep going, really.
Adam: Were there bands in the ’80s that you thought would never last and are still around, and bands you thought would keep going for a long time that burned out too fast?
Dick: Again, I hate to disappoint, but I never really got into that perspective of “How is this all gonna pan out?” It was just, like, what was going on at the time, and when bands split up it was a disappointment. Most of those bands reformed eventually. A lot of them are still going. Flux Of Pink Indians is a big gap in bands that’s still going. They tried. They reformed for a couple of gigs a few years back but weren’t tempted to do it for any longer—just a one-off thing. Operation Ivy would’ve been good to keep going. The Skids played at the Rebellion Festival a couple of years ago. Really almost everybody is back unless they’re dead, you know? [Laughs]
Adam: If there’s enough money it seems almost anyone will get back together.
Dick: Well, some bands unfortunately do reform for the money because it’s hung under their nose, I guess. Perhaps the Rebellion Festival, in particular, because they seem to do that and it’s not like they’re on tour for the rest of the year or anything. But most bands that play the Rebellion Festival are together for the rest of the year. It might be something like that which pulls them back together, because they enjoy it and then they just carry on doing gigs, keep it going and maybe do another record.
Adam: Now are you still writing a lot of Subhumans material?
Dick: Not at a lot, but we have recently been in the process of mixing the last few songs of a new LP, or the engineer is, because we totally trust him. But yeah, we recorded it all last month, and this month has been mixing it, as the time allows, between gigs. We hope to get it out in October on Pirates Press, at which point we’ll be doing a tour on the West Coast, preceding that with a split single with the Restarts, is the plan—also on Pirates Press—to come out for a September tour on the East Coast. It’s a long break since the last Subhumans record—Internal Riot was 2007 and our last record was twelve years before that—but the fact is our drummer lives in Germany and we don’t get to practice; we don’t get to form new songs except very slowly. Sometimes we go over there for a week between shows and spend three or four days at his place getting what we can get Together. Over the years we’ve built up to ten songs. But yeah, really slow process.
Adam: What’s it like to write Subhumans songs in the age of Trump?
Dick: Oh, there’s plenty of the same old shit to write about, if not more of it. The whole world is getting split down the middle. The right-wingers and all the racists and xenophobes have almost been given a free license by Trump and Nigel Farage and the Tory party to assume it’s all okay to be fucking racist because our leaders are. They’re setting the tone and it’s a really bad, divisive tone. Things are gonna get a lot fucking worse, the way things are going. There’s a lot of what they call “nationalistic” parties, which is basically racist, fascist, discriminatory parties coming out throughout Europe in Hungary and Holland and Italy and various places.
It’s a horrible rising tide of sludge coming up from the really nasty side of humanity and getting into positions of power because politics these days is now entirely run on emotional reaction and not facts or logic about economy or housing or how people are living. It’s entirely about personality, and personalities like Trump or Teresa May, they just poke at people’s underside and get ’em riled up about imaginary enemies. It just brings out the worst in people. It’s just a basic split in society between people who do care and people who don’t. Those who care about other people, like nurses and teachers, get paid the worst wages of the whole lot. But they don’t complain about it enough to make a difference, because their primary motivation is caring, and their secondary motivation is having enough money to live on, to get to work, and stuff like that. Whereas, people who are running the place, their prime motivation is profit and money at people’s expense, and they just don’t care about those people, and they have the two sides of humanity loosely split down the middle.
That’s the situation we’re in—those who care get shat on, and those who do the shitting on don’t give a fuck. It’s almost like the people who care should start giving a fuck about their situation more… but then you reach the point… do you want them to get more violent about it? Because, some people think the only way to beat the fascists is fucking get as violent as the fascists and get as nasty as them, but then they’ve won the fucking argument, where violence becomes the only method of getting any consensus. And that’s fucking so wrong it’s unbelievable.
On the other side of the same coin, it does seem that talking to the fascists and trying to persuade them out of their mindset is a really tricky place to go, because the nuance of arguments and words is not their forte. They just want what’s around them to be mirror images of themselves; they don’t want anyone around them to be different from them—different skin color, different religion, whatever. Find an enemy based on visuals and then use the dumbed-down language that they do to persuade people who liked being persuaded into that gang mentality that theirs is the right politics to support at the polls. It’s a fucked-up situation, and you could say it’s human nature, but the whole point of human nature is it should be evolving along with its achievements. If we can invent computers and iPhones, we can feed the fucking world and live in fucking peace.
Adam: What’s it like to see a song like “Parasites” maybe mean different things in different decades since you started the band?
Dick: Well, the political perspective when you’re nineteen is really quite immature. The government were bastards, and the next government were bastards; all politicians are shit. There’s no sort of debate amongst those ideas— politics is boring and dull, and they’re responsible for us having no money. It’s an easy stance. Later on you start to think more about the nature of different parties representing different sorts of politics. You still know that the whole thing is largely a game where there’s people who control things and the rest of us. But when you get into Trump and Teresa May being in charge you have to start thinking beyond “All politics are shit. I’m an anarchist. Anarchy now. Fuck politics. Don’t vote” to thinking, “Well, maybe if I do vote against what’s going on now, it’s the lesser of two evils.” That mindset starts to set in out of desperation.
Adam: Do you feel like more people vote in the U.K. than in America?
Dick: It’s hard to get more than fifty percent of the people out to vote for anything. And the other fifty percent aren’t all raging anarchists who refuse to vote out of principle. They’re people who just don’t know and don’t care about politics at all. They don’t see it as a part of their life. Their lives are sport, television, entertainment, their kids, family, local stuff—and they don’t want to or like to look into the larger things of they way society is run. So we like to put a bit of politics into the songs, because if you’ve got a space to sing in you might as well fill it with something thoughtful.
Adam: I can honestly say that as a teenager in Pittsburgh, growing up with parents who hadn’t been to college or lived anywhere else or really questioned much of anything, your songs had a huge effect on how my friends and I started to care about larger issues, and maybe even saw right from wrong. Do you think about your impact and your legacy in that way ever?
Dick: It’s continually surprising. It’s good, obviously. It’s not really the intended effect. The intended effect is really just to spill everything out of your soul onto a record or into words, into a song, because it’s fun to sing, and it’s nice to sing your heart out and write about stuff that you think matters. If as a consequence of people getting hyped up by it and involved in the thought process behind it, then fantastic, and I totally appreciate that happening. Sometimes people give more credit than I’m worth, because I basically think the nature of influence with songs and lyrics on people’s headspace is just to wake up what they were already thinking, and put some words to they way they’ve been thinking.
People give credit to the writer of the words, but the credit should be shared with those people who just realize they’ve got a sense of affinity with what they’ve just heard or read. That sense of affinity comes from what was already inside themselves, so I think people should give themselves more credit and their so-called heroes a bit less. Punk rock never was supposed to be about heroes and hierarchy, ideally at least. That’s the way it came about, because the nature of music before punk rock was very hierarchical; you didn’t know how to get into the music scene. There were rock gods and sort of things like this; it was all so pretentious, and punk rock took the legs out from that completely and woke up a lot of people, myself included, as teenagers to go and do something. So if we’ve done the same thing to current-day teenagers or whatever, or those who came after us in terms of years, then ace—all well and good. But yeah, the strength to carry on the mindset is within the people who are hearing it.
Adam: Have you ever had a time where you just wanted to write a song about your girlfriend?
Dick: [Laughs] Well, I’ve written poetry towards my girlfriend and given it to her, but it’s not going out on record. I mean, that’s for her. There’s enough love songs in the world already—way too many, in my opinion. Definitely enough. That’s up to every singer and what they want to write about, and it might top the charts. But to me, that’s your deal, mate, and the way they express it is “Oh, poor me. My girlfriend’s run away.” It’s like, well…whose fault is that? Keep it to yourself. Go work it out. Phone her up. Don’t tell me about it. [Laughs]
Adam: One last thing that I’ve wanted to ask you since I was fourteen years old. What’s your reason for existence…?
Dick: …and do I believe in anything? [Laughs] That was me just questioning myself. A lot of songs are just self-questioning put on paper. Um, what’s my reason for existence? Good question. Just to keep questioning things, oddly enough—to keep wondering, to keep being surprised by things, both negative and positive. I like being surprised by positive things, like nature. My reason for existence is to make the most of what time there is and not settle back into anything I’m not happy with.