Monday, April 17, 2006

Outsider Art

An Interview With Eddie Argos of Art Brut

By Jeremy M. Barker

"I never went to university. Everyone else in the band went to university. I went to London to start a band."

It's early evening, Saturday March 25, and I'm sitting in the downstairs green room at Neumos with Eddie Argos, the lead singer of the British rock band Art Brut. Argos is roughly my own age, but he's retained the youthful charm and exuberance that daily life usually beats out of you by your mid-twenties. With a charming little moustache that makes him look just a bit like a playful young Salvador Dali, he's an unlikely rock star. He can't play an instrument and he can't sing either, at least in the classic sense of the word, but on stage later that night he becomes one of the most charismatic frontmen I've ever seen.

"I wanted to be in a band since I was tiny," he explains, "and I've tried learning everything: xylophone, clarinet, sax...anything, and I'm like rubbish, I can't do it. And I realized when I was like seventeen or eighteen: I want to be a singer...Lou Reed can't sing...he can get away with it, and so can I."

That's an interesting comparison, because in the song "Bang Bang Rock and Roll," from which Art Brut's first album gets its name, he announces in his slightly off-key voice, that "I can't stand the sound/of the Velvet Underground." When I point that out, he just laughs it off.

Art Brut has been on a crazy trip over the last 18 months. Overshadowed in the media by the flash-in-the pan hype surrounding younger bands like The Subways and Arctic Monkeys, Art Brut sort of quietly exploded below the mainstream media's radar. Despite the fact that their debut effort Bang Bang Rock and Roll isn't officially released in the US until May 23, it managed to score number 38 on Spin's best-of list for 2005 and number 3 on's. And Art Brut, despite a hazing last year in The New York Times, has been playing a sold-out tour of US clubs for the past couple of months, ending in a show at Coachella.

Named for a post-war French art movement centered around Jean Dubuffet, Argos explains the story behind the band's moniker.

"I wanted to call the band 'Bang Bang Rock and Roll,' but no one liked that," he says. "I was in Paris, and there's an Art Brut museum there, and I was in there and I was like, 'Ah! This stuff's amazing! All this art's amazing!' And I could sort of see a thing that we were a bit like that sort of art, and I texted [...], and was like, 'We're called this.' And so for the first time, in the guest book at the Art Brut museum, I wrote, 'Art Brut, Top of the Pops,' across the top of the page."

An obsession with the celebrity of rock music pervades the band's first album. "Top of the Pops," roughly the European equivalent of "Total Request Live," crops in two songs. As does Morrissey, NME and Axl Rose. When I ask Argos whether he's criticizing as an outsider or pining to be a member of the club, he again laughs it off.

"It's funny when you find yourself saying things that you read people in bands saying," he comments off-handedly. "'Oh that's such a cliche!' And then you're in the situation yourself and you find yourself saying it."

As Argos proclaims in their debut single (which he confirms was "pretty much" written in the fifteen minutes after the band formed), "it's not irony, it's not rock and roll. We're just talking to the kids." He's quite serious about playing "Top of the Pops," and asserts that since Art Brut has done it in Germany, it counts. (It goes without saying that the competitive British music scene is much harder to come out on top of, and despite Art Brut's success, they've yet to play "Top of the Pops" in the UK.) But he assures me that the songs are all true.

"I'm just trying to be conversational," he explains, referencing both the songs "Move to LA" and "My Little Brother." "It's the truth. I really want to hang out with Morrissey. My brother really made me a tape of bootlegs and B-sides." Which leads to the obvious question: is the band's plaintive love song "Emily Kane" about a real girl?

"Oh yes!" he assures me. In the song, he pines for his teenage girlfriend Emily Kane, and, mixing both an earnestness and cleverness in a way that makes his music so distinctive, he asserts: "I want school kids on buses, singing your name!" because of his song.

"For Radio One, we played a session, and a friend of a friend of a friend found me and gave me her phone number," he explains of the song. "We used to have a game where we'd take celebrity phone numbers from people, and someone's like, 'I've got the best phone number in the world.' 'Who is it?' 'Emily Kane.' It was amazing! I had to phone her and give her a heads-up that I've written a song about you...She's like—bless her—'Is it a mean song...? No, really?'...But she's got a boyfriend and stuff, really too bad...But it's funny, it's true, I really did think I still loved her, and then when I met her, I sort of realized that I loved being fifteen and being in love, I didn't actually love her. Thße band told me all along, 'Shut up. You're wrong. You definitely love this girl. You're gonna marry her, have kids.' And then when I met her...No, just nah. She's lovely, but no."

But, true to his claim that his songs are honest, later during the show, at the point during "Emily Kane" where he recounts down to the second how long it's been since he's seen her, he digresses with a new narrative explaining much the same story he told me earlier.

"I'm quite lucky in that I write the words and I can say whatever I like in the songs," he tells me. "It's nice, actually, being in foreign countries and people knowing all about Emily Kane or ask about my brother."

On stage later that night, Argos & Co. explode. The band's tightness in performance belies their scant year and a half together. Clutching the mic and a coil of cable in one hand, Argos is all over the place, while guitarist Jasper Future, in sexy tight pants, plays rock God to Argos' left. Argos, whose vocal parts are less lyrics than spoken word pieces, frequently digresses from the album version of songs to add or correct or simply entertainment. Halfway through the band's encore, in the midst of "Bad Weekend" (which features the memorable chant, "Popular culture no longer applies to me"), the band descends into a long, slow freeform jam backing up Argos, as he leads that audience through a chant of "Art Brut, Top of the Pops!" and later, in an attempt to connect to Seattle's music heritage, "Gruge! Top of the Pops!" The fact that grunge is long dead mattered little--Art Brut's music is a mixture of rebellion and homage. They would occasionally cut into other tunes--a riff from Metallica, the drum beat of "My Sharona." For all his carping, Argos is as much a rock music lover as a hater, he just happens to have a good sense of humor. On a series of acoustic in-studio tracks the band did for French radio, he adapted a line, one of the most famous, from "Formed a Band": "Every day we're getting more and more rock and roll, and this is still my singing voice." He's the devilish child poking fun and the pretension of British rock in the post-Radiohead era, while maintaining a refreshing intellectual honesty and artistic seriousness that other jokers—like Tenacious D—simply cannot.

So keep your eye out--the American cut of Bang Bang Rock and Roll features three new tracks not on the British version (which is available online) and watch for Art Brut to return. They're not to be missed.


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9:47 AM  

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