Music Features

Miss Black America (Interview)

Bury St Edmunds band Miss Black America formed in 1999 as a three piece after singer/guitarist Seymour Glass met drummer Neil Baldwin and Bassist Mickey Smith at a Cambridge Drum'N'Bass night. Guitarist Gish completed their lineup in 2000 after Glass had an industrial accident leading to the temporary removal of a finger. I originally came across them after checking their website under the illusion that they might be Alec Empire playing Sheffield Boardwalk. After turning down a request to pen a song for the Pokemon movie soundtrack in 2000, they released their Adrenaline Junkie Class-A Mentalist EP on R*E*P*E*A*T, following it up with their Don't Speak My Mind single on Dental Records in October. Radio 1 DJ's Steve Lamacq and John Peel took notice, and they received two places on Peel's 2001 "Festive Fifty". Major British music publications such as Rock Sound and the NME, which recently proclaimed the band "your new cult heroes", have followed suit.

Since signing to Integrity records, the band have released three more singles, and an album entitled God Bless Miss Black America follows on the 16th of September. According to their website they want to be "the eloquent scream that will shock people out of their waking sleep" and want to "reclaim rock 'n' roll from those who see it purely as a commodity". They "believe that no-one is useless or stupid, no-one's head is empty... that our ambitions and opinions are valuable".

The band were kind enough to give No Ripcord an interview with Seymour. While he was doing other interviews I had a quick chat with some of the bands other members, mainly discussing the extent of Tom Jenkinson's genius with Gish, and the relative merits of Mogwai and being without an agent for a long time. Anyway, here are the results of the interview.

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What are the band listening to right now? Is there any music out there at the moment that truly excites/disgusts you?

Yeah. In terms of mainstream bands that anyone's actually writing about I like The Vines, The Strokes, BRMC, Ikara Colt - I know our bass player particularly loves Ikara Colt. I like a lot of the bands that have been coming through. It concerns me that obviously a lot of people only like them because its cool to like them this five minutes, and they're probably going to be not cared about in five minutes time, it's a shame. Like the Liars, they're a really cool band but I don't know how much shelf life they've got in them just because of the way the hype goes. In terms of bands that people haven't heard of, there's Tex La Homa from Bournemouth...

What's it been like touring with Liars after playing quite a lot of headline shows? I've read that you didn't enjoy supporting the Dandy Warhols...

Yeah, the Dandy Warhols were incredibly rude, they just had that whole "we're such fucking bohemian rock stars that we don't have to be nice to anyone..." which is a shame. It's been nice touring with the Liars, I think it's a bit of a miss-match, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's good because people get to see... it's like a cauldron, you throw everything in and boil it - and it burns. Oh yeah, we're playing big events, we'd rather play the Leadmill than keep going back to the fucker and firkin, even as a headliner, at least here people are actually bothering to come...

I was interviewing Jason from Trail of Dead in April and I was asking him about the Texas music scene, and whether he felt there was any reason there were so many good bands of a reasonably similar style (e.g. Lift to Experience, At The Drive In) coming from the same state over a two year timespan, and whether it was anything to do with Texas. On a smaller scale over here, there's a lot of good stuff coming out of Merseyside with people like The Coral and the Hokum Clones, and Sheffield with great electronica from the likes of Man Atom and I Monster. Do you feel there is a Bury St Edmunds scene, with you and the Dawn Parade making excellent 'aggravated guitar rock with a subtle pop edge'? Is this because of Bury St Edmunds as a place?

Yeah, it's the same as any small town really. It's a very suffocating environment to grow up in and I think its good in a way because it makes... people are very up for things and they actually do happen. I think what's happened with Bury St. Edmunds is that people have realized that just because you come from a small town doesn't mean you can't 'rock', and that's the important thing - the self belief that you can 'take charge of your destiny' and do something that's cool, and that you don't necessarily have to live somewhere that's cool, and I think that often comes out in our music.

Yeah, the Manic's are an easy reference point (earlier I'd mentioned the often made comparisons between M.B.A and the 'Holy Bible' era Manic Street Preachers in a not particularly eloquent way) but hey, one compares us to anyone but you can tell they came from a small town because there's just that unrestrained annoyance, and I think that's what comes out with us.

And are there any other bands from around your way you can recommend?

Yeah, loads. There's The Exiles, who are like the Super Furry Animals meets The Vines. Blue Gandhi, who are kind of like the Smashing Pumpkins and PJ Harvey. Blue Gandhi are one of my favorite bands in the world, they're amazing. They make me cry... The Dawn Parade obviously, I think they're the four strongest bands... but there's loads springing up all the time. When we started there were no bands at all, and after thee weeks we did our first gig - and there's loads of bands doing that now. My friend formed a band the other day, she'd never even played bass before, and two weeks later she played a gig. And that's a wicked attitude because that's what it should be about; just having a laugh and doing something cool while your still young enough not to look like a twat.

Do you ever worry that your sometimes aggressive political stance could be perceived as meaningless attention-seeking posturing, given that some of the best 'political' music has come out of a desire for the return to 'normality' in severely screwed up domestic situations. For example, one of our country's greatest politicized songwriters (Billy Bragg, Seymour recognized the lyrics) wrote that he didn't "want to change the world" and wasn't "looking for a new England", longing for "the peace we knew between the wars". OR Would you argue that, for example like (arguably) The Clash with Sandanista, you are trying to inspire people to believe that self achievement is possible at a time when the nature of global events could undermine this?

I'd have to say... the thing is that obviously we have very strong political beliefs, but I don't actually write about that in the songs, because I don't want to sound like some Socialist Worker Party cunt, who stands at the street corner barking at people, because the way to get through to people isn't to bark at them... and I don't bark. You have to speak to them, and that is the difference. I don't really like that kind of "agro, in your face" political thing, the whole "you don't agree with me so you're a cunt"... that's the wrong way to go about it, and that's why I think the Socialist Worker's Party are laughable, even though I agree with what they believe in, I don't agree with their tactics, and I think they're useless, and they've always been useless... because they're stuck in the eighties. We don't live in Russia, you don't call people 'Comrade'... what's that about? I was a member, for about five minutes... someone phoned me up and said "hello Comrade" and I'm like "I'm not your comrade, fuck off, don't, fucking, be a dick".

It just makes people laugh at you, and what I sing about, more than anything, is trying to convince people that they can make a difference. That's the only overridingly important thing about what I sing, because I'm sick of seeing people who've had their ambition drained out of them by the time they're sixteen, you know, because most people do. When you ask a five year old what they want to be when they grow up they'll say "I want to be a doctor, I want to be a mad scientist, I want to be a time traveler", and those things could be in your reach if you... (laughing) with the possible exception of time-traveler, if you pushed hard enough at them, but by the time you get to sixteen its like - "well I'll probably work in fucking Safeway's won't I" and that's it. I worked in Padleys chicken factory and there were people there who had been there for twenty-five years sat in the same place doing the same work and they were so bored. People don't feel that they can achieve anything and they can achieve things, all it takes is bothering. And that's the main thing I want to get across to people. I'll sit and talk about politics but I'm not fucking Bono... Bono's a dick.

You know, manifestos are bollocks because if you have a manifesto that implies dogma - when you get to the point of just spouting dogma, it's the reason politicians are useless, because they have to adhere to a strict party line - there's no allowance for human error, no ability to turn round and say "oh we were wrong actually we're changing our minds and doing it the other way", you have to be able to do that, and until a time when politics is run in a way that if you realise that something isn't working you just fucking stop doing it, instead of just saving your pride. When the lives of millions of people are in your hand it shouldn't be a case of doing things because of pride, it should be because it's good for the people. And, unfortunately if you're going to be a politician it's because you're probably too ugly to be a rock star, but you still want some attention, you still want some kinky sex in a lavatory. So you turn to politics, and get your dick sucked that way and pride is everything

How do you feel about being included in the New Marketing Exercise's "No Name" 'scene'? Placed in the light of your website's comment about hating the NME but still buying it every week, do you feel your inclusion has been useful?

Everyone hates the NME, loads of people fucking hate it. You still buy it to find out what's going on - I just hate their attitude, their attitude is just so patronising. I don't want to read about music in a tabloid way because I'm not that stupid. I can tell if something's good or not. I detest the NME's attitude more than anything. If a band is good you should write about them, that's why fanzines rule and those kind of publications generally suck. Because with a fanzine, if you like something you write about it, it doesn't matter if something isn't 'cool', or if there's an angle on it. But to write about a band, you have to create some sort of bizarre 'scene' that's going on... so they invented "No Name". And at least Mark Beaumont and Steven Wells, who have to be my favorite NME writers, admitted that they were making it up. But at the same time everyone's taking it seriously.

What do you think about some of the bands that you've been grouped in with?

Well they're all good. It's just a shame they can't be written about on they're own relative merits, as opposed to just being spouted out as a part of some scene that doesn't exist. They're all really good but I'm not so stupid that I have to have some sort of angle to get me into something.

With the current resurgence in "garage rock" and "punk", some critics have argued that it's pitiful that our generation is using the voice of it's parents (even though its probably the voice of it's uncles) - do you agree with this, or do you reckon that there's a load of really good new music out right now across a wide range of genres?

I think the answer has to be that if you're going to switch on the television, would you rather see the Hives looking fantastic and rocking out. Or would you rather see Travis whinging about the fucking weather, so bollocks...

Any major none musical influences in the band?

Julie Burchill, is my hero, I love it when she annoys me, or when she makes me angry - but I do agree with her, she's fucking spot on - yeah she's just spot on, she cares so passionately about people, and she knows how to really get up peoples noses. Every single week, I think she must be the only columnist that provokes such a reaction, and it's because she's usually right, and even when she's not right I agree with her just because it pisses me off.

And Emma Jones, from the Sun, is currently a hero of mine because she used to... she wormed her way up the horrible arse-kissing celebrity ladder, doing Smash Hits and things like that. And now she's pregnant and it seems to have made her think "I fucking hate everybody!" so she's turned around and started writing articles in the Sun about how great schools are, and things like that, about really socialist beliefs, which is amazing because she knows she is in a tabloid way writing about things to make people, you know, to write about really good things, in the Sun! This must be the first time it's ever happened - it'd be like Joe Strummer writing a column for the Daily Mail!

But... Brett Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, Mary Poppins, Tim Burton, Beatrix Potter, Larry the Lamb, Enid Blyton, and Grange Hill... Transformers... Mikes brother's got a pet hamster called Megatron...

I read that you got your name from the Curtis Mayfield song and the Alec Empire album of the same title. Presuming that's true, can we expect a new Soul/White Noise or any other new musical directions in the near future?

Yeah... We're not about to go away and start writing Jazz records just for the sake of it. But we do different things anyway, Gish has got a side project which is just Aphex Twin style horribleness and we do like to make a bit of noise. But I'm only thinking about the next five minutes, (warped incontinent granny on painkillers style accent) "I could get hit by a bus tomorrow"... so I'm not going to think about what we do three albums down the line... and I really hope we don't to be honest.

What do you think of comeback tours, I saw the Cure in London last week, (a band who I reckon have managed to maintain a reasonable level of credibility throughout their history), and I saw the overspill from the Sex Pistols 'Pistols at the Palace' gig, sponsored by Carling. Is there any chance that we'll see you guys at Bury St. Edmunds town Hall playing 90's pop standards in twenty five years?

I really hope that if anything like that ever looked like it was going to happen, someone would gun me down like a dog on the street. It's just pissing away everything that you ever worked for. I hate Johnny Rotten probably more than I hate the Manic Street Preachers now. It's like saying, "I never meant any of it... (adopts retard range-rover rockstar accent) it was just something to do, money, was all a bit of a laugh really ha-ha, did you ever believe in us?"

I think to me you have to aspire to be someone like Brian Eno or Tom Waits if you're going to carry on.

Yeah, you have to kind of do something interesting, and relevant, and not up your own arse. Well Brian Eno's a bit up his own arse, but fuck it, he's up Brian Eno's arse... It's like U2 keep going, and I have problems with Bono, but at the end of the day they're still making music that's pretty good, and they're still a good live band, but they're not really embarrassing with it. (Incontinent granny on painkillers accent) "It's all a bit of a nostalgia trip, a bit of a knees up", like it used to be in the old days, when it was all fields round here...

Did you consciously decide not to play any of the major corporate festivals or Glastonbury this summer? Are you choosing a steady build-up before exploding in popularity/profile with your September album release?

(Laughs) no we're not that sad. We didn't have an agent until two months ago. Erm, yeah, I'm glad we've slogged -it's good for the soul. There's a very strong argument that our whole thing of not signing to a major label is probably suicidal, and we'll probably end up playing toilet venues for the rest of our lives, and die bitter old men - with beer guts. But I still, yeah I still do believe it's the right thing to do. You shouldn't have to sign to a major label, and anyway, they'll make you do things that suck. The only difference is that we don't get someone like Mitch (Liars record company helper bloke, I think, apologies for not knowing his title) doing cool stuff for us, we have to do everything ourselves. But fuck it, its not hassle, its better than having a proper job...

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And that's where it ended, I went off to watch the support bands and Miss Black America went to try and sort out the fact that two of tonight's other interviewers had been (fairly harshly) refused admittance because one of them didn't have identification, despite being on the guest list...

Live, Miss Black America are outstanding, they still seem a tad incensed about the way the aforementioned interviewees were treated. On the stage in the Leadmill's other room, playing second on a five band bill impressively headlined by New York's Liars, and also featuring a promising (from what I caught of it) set from Miyamoto, Seymour greets the crowd with "Hi, we're called wank blanket", and the band launch into a cathartic version of Infinite Chinese Box, the "Deal you in, crash you out" line sounding particularly scathing in the circumstances. There's a tract on the Tex La Homa website that say's something along the lines of (apologies if its completely distorted as I couldn't find it when I looked again) "Miss Black America don't play bad gigs, they merely go through different stages of being one of the most amazing bands I've ever seen", and if they're anywhere near this good most of the time then I can understand those sentiments.

Musically they seem to use the intellect and melodies of the early Manic's (it's a cliché, but its intended the most complementary sense) and Pablo Honey era Radiohead as a template, but prevent it from sounding contrived or stale by adding the kind of raw energy found in the likes of At The Drive In , Joy Division, the MC5, The Clash, Alec Empire and Richard D James. Also, Seymour Glass has the kind of biting lyrics which impress in the same manner as (simultaneously!) Edwards, Bragg and Yorke. Seymour rolls around like a glammed-up Ian Curtis over Neil and Mickey's battering rhythm section, constantly voices his disapproval at the venue throughout the set, asking for less vocal on the drum monitors because "he doesn't like to hear me", dedicates Talk Hard to "the person who decided that if you're under age you deserve to be treated as a leper... and bouncers, who we all love". Miss Black America is introduced in a way which implies the bands heritage led to a bit of inbreeding and finally he dedicates the closing The white Noise Inc. to "friends who couldn't get in tonight".

Maybe that sounds cheesy, but this is a band that has the intent, energy and vitality of the MC5 and the songs to seriously bother the Strokes. Talk Hard is inspiring, Pub Rock Coma incendiary, Human Punk biting, and Miss Black America a song so seethingly tuneful that it might just be able to brush past music tabloid hyperbole without batting an eyelid, before running off maniacally to headline Glastonbury within three years. To paraphrase Human Punk (a title inspired by a review of John King's book) they're "unconditional... to keep the rock'n'roll dream alive". I don't agree with every view they espouse but the sheer melodic intent evident in their music and actions makes them one of my favorite bands of the moment. God might not bless them, in the end Mean Fiddler might not either, but for anyone seeking inspiration wrapped in dark, explosive music packed with killer tunes, they're a huge blessing. I'm thankful.