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Punk Singer Steve Ignorant (Finally) Brings Crass to America: Interview

Steve Ignorant and band
Steve Ignorant and band
photo by Damon Allen Davison

Crass, the commune-living, hippie anarchist punks whose DIY way of recording and promoting had as much an impact on the genre as their brand of boot-in-your face hardcore, disbanded more than 25 years ago, having never toured the U.S. beyond New York.

Without his mostly-retired band mates -- including drummer/founder Penny Rimbaud and singer Eve Libertine -- frontman Steve Ignorant has put together a new group for his Last Supper tour, performing Crass songs from 1977-1982 (including the entirety of the band's classic 1978 debut, The Feeding of the 5000) for the past year.

Prior to having postponed his L.A. gig in March (now rescheduled to April 29 at the Fox Theater in Pomona and April 30 at the Glass House) due to Visa problems, we spoke with the singer over the phone in England about Crass' legacy, Lady Gaga and David Beckham:

Youtube credit doobyscoo2

How did the idea for the tour come about?

I did two nights at Shepherd's Bush [in 2007], and that was meant to be a one-off. Then, a week after I got back, I started getting calls from various people asking me to do that particular show in different countries. I had to refuse because I couldn't go back on my word. The Feeding of the 5000 was a unique thing, never to be repeated. But I thought about it and realized that there was a lot of interest globally in people wanting to hear Crass songs performed. So I started setting up a tour. I called it the Last Supper because I wanted everybody to know that this is the last time.

And what was the reason for performing the entirety of the first album?

I had just moved to another area of England and the phone rang, and it was a guy who said there was a punk festival at Brixton Academy. I wasn't really interested. I didn't want to do the same old thing that I'd always been doing. I thought the only way I'd do this is if it's exciting for me. Something that I've not done before. I thought that the record lasts 35 minutes. So I'll just go on stage unannounced and I'll do The Feeding... as it is on the record. That had never been done even by Crass. So I phoned the guy and said, 'I wanna do The Feeding... in its entirety,' and the phone went dead. He called me back and said the Brixton Academy gig is off, but you are now headlining two nights at Shepherd's Bush and everybody is really into it.' That is how it literally came around.

Are you including other material apart from Crass' debut record?

I've put in "How Does It Feel to Be The Mother of A Thousand Dead?" because its a great anti-war song, and I think it's still relevant. And yes, were doing material from Penis Envy. That was the first time a punk band like Crass had tried to do something like that. The Feeding... was all men shouting and being tough. And the next record is just women singing about women's issues.

You've chosen to tour without Crass' original members. What's been their reaction?

The only reaction I've had is from Penny Rimbaud, [the band's visual artist] Gee Voucher and Eve Libertine, and they've all said 'You have our blessing, have fun. '

Did you approach them about joining?

I couldn't do that. If I had asked Eve or someone else to come along, then everyone would assume that we are reforming. And I'm afraid that will never, ever happen.

 

Talk about the band you've assembled.

We've got a new vocalist, Carol Hodge. She's from Manchester. She's really, really good. She doesn't sound like Eve Libertine, but we didn't want that. On drums, we've got Spike Smith. He's performed with Morrissey and a band called Conflict. On bass, I've got Bob Butler, who was in a band called Schwartzeneggar with me. And on lead guitar, we got a guy called Gizz Butt. He worked with Prodigy.

It's been a long time since you've performed a lot of the material. Do you have a different perspective on the songs now, especially with a new band?

The songs are over 30 years old. So I thought, 'Are they still gonna be relevant?' But once we started performing them, I realized in a strange way that they're very timeless. Gizz has a very different take on the guitar. So I suddenly realized how musical and really intricate those songs are. With Crass, it felt like we were performing them 1,000 miles an hour. It was just white noise. Spike had to re-learn to play the drums because Penny Rimbaud has such a bizarre way of playing. In a way, it's almost jazz-like.

Did Crass extensively tour North America, and have you ever spent time in L.A.?

Way, way back, it think it was 1978, we played four of five gigs in New York, and that was it. That's why I'm really looking forward to bringing this material to America. It's the first time a lot of people will get to hear and see it live. I've spent time in Los Angeles when I came there with a band called Th Stratford Mercenaries.

Speaking of Morrissey, I always thought The Smiths nicked the lyrics to Still Ill ("England Is Mine/It Owes Me Living") from Crass' "Do They Us a Living?"

I'm not familiar with that song. But it's a nice thought, isn't it? I tend not to meet people like Morrissey. But every now and then someone mentions something like that and I think, yeah, Crass were a big inspiration to a lot of people.

And speaking of British transplants, are you aware that the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones and John Lydon both live here? Jones even has a successful radio show.

I'm afraid I won't be living in Los Angeles, and I don't think I'll get me own radio show. Once this tour is finished, I shall be back in my local pub washing dishes.

 

Are you disillusioned with bands today and their lack of political awareness?

There are still bands out there that are trying to do it. Problem is, they play small venues. They'll never be famous. Would be nice if Lady Gaga, this new phenomenon that's appeared (and apparently she's punk), used all that exposure she has to make a political statement, rather than just freshening up in different clothes. Something that means something. So yeah, I get a bit annoyed and disillusioned. But hey, if Lady Gaga wants to support Steve Ignorant at one of the shows, I'll give it some thought (laughs).

To hear you say those three words -- Lady Gaga and punk -- in the same sentence is like a dagger in many peoples' hearts.

I think she's a load of rubbish. When people like that are labeled punk, you're right, it's like a knife in your heart, and it twists and it really hurts.

Last year the band began releasing The Crassical Collection, which includes remastered versions of all Crass albums.

Each package includes a booklet with writing, and it gives the inside story. There's a poster of the original albums as they were in vinyl, new artwork, unheard tracks, out takes and extra tracks.

You've had to answer this countless times, but how do you ultimately feel about celebrities like David Beckham and Angelina Jolie being photographed wearing Crass T-shirts? Do you think they at all get the irony?

The David Beckham thing is really hilarious and very ironic. I saw that picture (I think it was done by Jean-Paul Gaultier or somebody like that) and the actual symbol was made up of sequins. I can't imagine him knowing who Crass was. Or maybe he did, I don't know. Although, now we're trying to copyright the Crass symbol to stop this sort of thing from happening. David Beckham has actually copyrighted his own image. So me and Penny were talking about putting out a Crass T-shirt of David Beckham wearing a Crass T-shirt (laughs).

Crass never produced its own merchandising.

No, what we used to do is hand out leaflets explaining to people how to make it it yourself. And that's what I'm bringing on this tour as well. I'm giving away leaflets and you can cut out the stencil and make your own T-shirt. If you don't wanna pay for one, make your own.


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