When the classic line-up of UK crossover heroes English Dogs reconvened for a raucous U.S. tour a few years back enthusiasm went straight through the squat roof. And yet a rumored new album, even the band's most ardent fans would likely admit, seemed a much dicier prospect.
After all, the 2011 jaunt focused on To the Ends of the Earth and Forward Into Battle -- releases that dropped in '84 and '85, respectively. Capturing lightning in a bottle is one thing, but looking for a charged remnant of the bolt two or three decades later? That's just crazy, right?
The Thing With Two Heads is a blistering triumph of a comeback record featuring vital and adventurous songs informed by the celebrated English Dogs sound of yore rather than imprisoned to it. (The record is available today on CD, LP, and via Bandcamp.)
Decibel recently caught up with drummer Andrew “Pinch” Pinching and lead guitarist Graham “Gizz” Butt to chat about punks, monsters, and the different ways the flame still burns thirty-plus years on.
So...how’s it feel to have a new English Dogs record coming out in 2014?
GIZZ: [Laughs] We've done it at last and who would have believed it? It's a bloody miracle I tell you! There's a colossal sense of pride that I feel between us all. We've managed something which is absolutely worthy of attention when only a few years ago we couldn't imagine us ever even sitting around the same table.
PINCH: Bit of a surprise, really. We were only ever dipping our toes back in the water to see if anybody gave a shit any more and were pleasantly surprised to find out that not only the old heads remembered, but the kids had done their homework and were pretty excited to see us as well...It’s a tough place we put ourselves in -- allegedly being too metal for punks but not metal enough for metal heads. Thankfully, we were never afraid to just release what we believed in. This record sounds like '84-'85 era English Dogs. And for that, I am relieved and proud.
Before we get back to the future, I wanted to delve a bit into the past: English Dogs originally slayed right smack dab in the middle of one of most seminal moments in punk rock. You were label mates with GBH and Discharge. I’m curious, what do you think the biggest misconception is about that time? And how do you think those days compare with the scene you’re storming back into now?
GIZZ: I toured with and hero-worshipped GBH and we hung out together and had a lot of fun. But the early '80's weren't always like that. What happened back then was partly a product of pain and misfortune. They were violent times -- I remember once in 1980 being beaten right outside my front door by three guys. I was a thirteen year-old punk. These were two skins and one punk.Thatcher and Reagan evoked a fear of nuclear threat and this was 1984. We had all read George Orwell. It was heavy going and not long out of the 70's when it was normal for fully grown men to beat the hell out of teenagers, maybe something they had picked up from the ways of the SS or the NF! Our parents did what they could but our gear was substandard and we couldn't afford music lessons. We tried to imitate our heros by using our ears and our memory. Our songs were a reflection of our times. Our pain. Now it is a similar story. War everywhere, and who to believe? The muggings have started again and the safety we felt for a while has gone...because there is so much hate out there. Not long ago I was attacked, head-butted by a random guy for no reason, without warning. No one helped me. Once I'd cleared the blood from my face and went to look for him he had gone and nobody would tell me who he was. So once again we are able to write great songs, maybe because once again we are going through the pain. 1984. 2014. A thirty year cycle -- same fears and life is still cheap.
PINCH: I’m not sure there were any misconceptions about the '80 to '84 hardcore punk scene in the UK. It did what it said on the label! The biggest tragedy to me was the fragmentation of an already small scene. Bands were suddenly split into categories -- hardcore, crusty, anarcho, etcetera. It was stupid, really, as there were great bands in every scene and we were being fed bullshit that none of these scenes could mix. I was a huge Rudimentary Peni fan, but never saw them. I loved their music and their message was powerful, but did I live my life by their writings? Fuck no! Did it make them less attractive because they were a Crass band? No, but would they ever consider playing with a band like us? Unfortunately not. There was definitely an air of snobbery around some bands back then, which was hard to come to terms with, as we were all on the streets fighting the same fight about working and living conditions and dealing with the same dickheads who wanted to fight with you everywhere you went. Fortunately, it seems like most of the violence has gone from shows and there is a real spirit of camaraderie, where it is ok to like multiple forms of music and just be who you are. The world seems like a very different place to the 80s now, but really, is it?
How'd the 2012 reunion for the classic line-up's first North American tour since 1985 come about? GIZZ: Pinch and I met over a curry in Peterborough and discussed the idea of a Forward Into Battle tour which at first though remote, once the agent Dan Rozenblum and his endless energy came into the picture it made it more logical to Pinch. The tour was never gonna happen without Pinch being not only involved but a driving force. Having worked with him in the past in many guises, I know that many great things come as a result of his one-hundred percent commitment. I'd been asked as far back as 2002 by Scooter Buell of Malt Soda records to make this happen but back then me and Pinch couldn't even make eye contact.
PINCH: That was all Gizz. I just kept saying No until I finally said Yes. I think he persuaded me that we never did the brief time we clicked in the 80s real justice, and now we could all actually play a bit, it might be worth going out and making those records sound like they were supposed to. Back in the day, our ideas were much bigger than our talent, and while it is cute to hear youthful expression, I just wish we had the chops to pull it off along with the production to make it fierce. Now we have both, so why not stretch yourself and do it?
GIZZ: Me and Pinch had toured throughout Europe in various English Dogs line-ups and various battered vans through the 90s. I'll never forget a particularly desperate and starving tour of the Czech Republic back in '94. We released an album -- All the Worlds A Rage -- Then a miracle happened and I joined The Prodigy and for the first time in my life had enough money to buy a round of drinks and take friends for a meal. It also made me very impatient and later on take certain things for granted and in time it put a strain on mine and Pinch's friendship. We morphed the English Dogs into "Janus Stark" and we released a mightily fine album Great Adventure Cigar. But me and Pinch were struggling to get on and I must admit that I was stifling Pinch's creativity. He won't dig the album as much as me and I don't blame him because I was limiting his ability but I firmly believe Pinch still works well this way though it's not for him. Eventually things came to a head at the 1999 Kerrang awards and we had another fight. I made an enormous error and told him I wouldn't work with him. In time I realized that I missed him, his playing, his writing, and his spirit. By now though he was in The Damned. Why should he need a loser like me? I'd been fired from The Prodigy!
PINCH: I have to admit, me and Gizz were worlds apart for the longest time. Both of our faults really, but you have to grow up and move on. He is an extremely talented guitar player and songwriter and you don’t get many shots in life at really connecting with someone like that. I was glad he kept bugging me. This record proves his persistence paid off.
Were you surprised at all by how well the tour went down?
GIZZ: There was a love for the English Dogs and the Forward Into Battle album that swept me sideways. It came from the amazing musicians/brothers-in-arms in the band, the bands we toured with, it came from the wonderful people who came to the shows. I've played the Red Square, Moscow in front of a quarter of a million people before. This experience was better.
PINCH: Shocked, relieved, amazed and proud. We had a lot on the line for that tour. Completely self financed, with no help from anybody and no idea how things would go. If we didn’t do the numbers, I personally would have been on the hook for a pretty large chunk. The line up that Dan Rozenblum put together for that tour -- along with guidance from Ron Martinez of Final Conflict -- was quite frankly inspirational! I had no idea who Havok were before that tour, but thirty seconds into the first show I knew I would never forget them. Everything right about the spirit of a band oozes from those kids. I can’t say enough good things about all the bands on that tour. Toxic Holocaust had a tough act to follow every night, as did we following the Casualties, but we were all up for it. Not one band on that tour let their foot off the gas for a second and I really believe it was one of those tours that people will talk about for years. It was that special. There was an electric atmosphere at every show, with people wondering if the punks and thrashers would fight or just get down. Boy, did they get down and get on with it! It was absolutely what we hoped for and something we tried to do back in the day, with mixed results. The kids in America have no blinkers and just totally get good music.
How long into the tour was it before the band started thinking about writing new material?
GIZZ: Havok shared our tour bus. What a bunch of guys! Such great guys and musicians. They hail from Denver and when we stayed at the Havok band house we started seriously admitting that we wanted to write new material together and coming up with our hopes and expectations we already began to work out some riffs. We were on our way. After the tour had finished Pinch and I went for a meet in a great place where Marilyn Monroe filmed Some Like It Hot and spoke very seriously about this album. It was going to happen.
PINCH: I think we were all inspired by the energy of Havok and the overall feeling that we were actually worth a shit. So many people, from fans in the crowd, to band members we met on the road, telling us we actually meant something to the scene. It was both humbling and eye opening. I think me and Gizz got a bit high around the Havok band house and jumped into their rehearsal room and started knocking ideas around. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Just to see if we had any of the old vibe left now that we could play a bit. Even then, we didn’t know if it was worth pursuing, but we rode high on the good tour vibes and just went with it.
Did those first writing sessions feel awkward at all? Or to slightly modify a cliché was playing together like pulling on an old leather jacket?
GIZZ: When I got home, back in the studio, I recorded a crude demo for Pinch. I cannot emphasize enough the enormous smile I wore when he sent the track back with the Pinch signature drums -- as flamboyant and fucking crazy as ever.
PINCH: Obviously, I knew Gizz was an incredible player and hoped that anything I put in front of him he could do the business with. The whole point was to try and recapture the naïve belief we had as kids, writing To The Ends Of The Earth and Forward Into Battle. But with our decades of experience playing with other bands, to actually do it right this time. It was important to me that the record be lean and mean with no overblown arrangements or the stupid song lengths that Where Legend Began suffered from. I was not surprised when we almost immediately fell into a groove of song swapping that held all the right ingredients.
GIZZ: "Ghost Note" [came first], then "Planet Of The Living Dead" which Pinch and I debated over -- I admit a strong Casualties influence, though the chorus riffs had been written in 1979! "Gorgonized" reached a peak and Pinch was buzzing, but I was suffering from block and needed an answer. Pinch came up with it by recording an entire drum track -- no music just insane drums -- and emailing them to me. Those drums, after a time, suggested riffs to me and got my brain working again. We were back on track, bouncing back and forth. Once more the album began to write itself with our new system. That's when the real originality came forward.
PINCH: It came together, for the most part, very quickly. Like, two weeks quickly for the bulk of the record. Initially, Gizz sent me the music to "Planet Of The Living Dead," which I felt had good riffs, but was surfing dangerously close to NOFX territory with a bit of Casualties influence. We had been there before, with the All The World’s A Rage album and it was a sound I didn’t want to revisit. I asked him to immerse himself in To the Ends of the Earth and Forward Into Battle and ask himself what it was about those records that was good and try and condense the feel into three minute songs. I guess he scratched his head for a bit and I wasn’t enthused with the next batch of ideas coming through, but then he sent me the music to "Gorgonized." It was a hallelujah moment. He had captured all the great [original English Dogs guitarist] Jon Murray riffage of Forward Into Battle and modernized it, and -- most importantly -- kept it short! I was totally onboard from then on and the ideas started flowing thick and fast. He sent me the music to "Ghost Note" next and I was totally digging that too, but had an inkling I had heard it before. I wrote the lyrics to it and sent it back to him and Adie, only to discover it was an old Desecrators song of his called "Enemy Mine" -- which I had actually played with him previously but couldn’t remember it! Nothing wrong with ripping yourself off, but again, it was not my idea to reinvent riffs. I wanted our songs to be classic, but new and fresh. After that song, it seemed like he dried up a bit and I was exploding with ideas, so I just laid down a bunch of drum templates -- intros, verses, breakdowns and endings, the whole shebang -- and sent them to him as fully complete songs. The music was flowing through me and I just recorded what I heard in my head. He came back almost immediately with "Turn Away From The Light" and I knew we were onto something. He was finding it easy to write to a template rather than sit in front of a blank recorder and everything he sent me from then on was real quality. To say I was relieved would be an understatement.
GIZZ: [F]inally we built this empire of a song called "Down With The Underdogs." That song brings tears to the eyes, it is so fragile and honest and builds, builds, builds some more, keeps building...then it explodes. I actually don't care if I ever write/co-write another song. That one is so perfect.
The band seems to have maintained its sense of outrage. But I’m curious if, with the passage of years, that anger burns for you in a different way? Is there anything different about the way you express it?
GIZZ: In thirty years you get to read a lot of books. I'm amazed at what horrors people can commit to each other and how cheap life can be. Pinch can come up with some outrageous themes. Mine may be more traditional. Between all of us we make the balance -- Adie being the great humor-filled tough guy that sits between us. We need the three of us to make it work. It's such a good energy. Sometimes my realist attitude finds the platform for Pinch and we're away making magic happen. We couldn't be without Adie and we couldn't be without the Christy twins.
PINCH: I guess the only thing that changes is the date. The world is just as fucked as it ever was -- potentially more fucked. I didn’t really want to write a political record. I didn’t have any idea what to write about, really. The lyrics just came to me in great phrases, where I would ask myself, Is this something worth writing about? And also, does it fit the music? I guess as we grow older, we look at things with different eyes and can express them differently. I could write songs about my take on things without just saying Fuck this or Fuck that. I wanted to craft mini-stories that would take a little reading to understand what they are really about. I learned that from playing with The Damned. Their lyrics, whilst appearing somewhat simple on the outside, have a hidden depth that keeps you guessing throughout the years and can mean different things to different people.
Was there any particular theme or set of ideas you were attacking lyrically on this record? I note, for example, a real monster/horror motif -- "Gorgonized," "Ghost Note," "Up From The Depths," "Planet of the Living Dead"...
GIZZ: When Pinch came up with The Thing With Two Heads title, I was reading a book about Ouroboros -- the eternal cycle depicted by the lizard eating its own tail. I'd not long come off a world tour playing Crass songs with Steve Ignorant -- The Last Supper tour -- and the mystic symbol used by Crass is the exact same creature and it made total sense but I could envisage the two heads open mouthed as if to eat each other.
PINCH: This goes back to what I was saying about not being lyrically obvious. I actually wrote "Gorgonized" about the power that women hold over men and our inability to learn lessons from our caveman instincts. "Ghost Note" is based on my wife half joking that if ever she disappears mysteriously, I am the culprit! I just hope she never disappears mysteriously! "Up From The Depths" was just meant to be a sea shanty that introduced "The Thing Will Arise" and ties in the cover artwork. I like that kind of break from the intensity and thought it was fun to do. I wrote the tune and lyrics with my dear old Mum one afternoon around her house and created all the effects by doing things like rubbing plastic bags on the kitchen table for the wind and clanking chains from a light fixture for the ship effects. It was real fun to do! "Planet Of The Living Dead" refers to our culture of Electronic Ostriches, endlessly isolated in their iPhones and headphones, not communicating in any other way. I believe we will have a real problem when this generation grows up and doesn’t know how to interact personally. Fictional movies are becoming reality faster than we think. Pretty frightening, but seemingly inevitable.
What’s the title refer to?
PINCH: Many things. The Christy twins -- our bassist and rhythm guitarist -- play in a band with that name, I guess, referencing that they are a wacky pair of twins. I thought that the name really said a lot about English Dogs historically, too. We kind of had two separate careers, with the early, GBH-inspired punk stuff and later with the more adventurous thrash records.
GIZZ: The two headed beast -- one a punk head, one a metal head -- is a depiction of the crossover movement that we set out to encourage.
Would you like to expand a little on “Royal Flying Corpse”?
GIZZ: There was a saying that somebody came up to me and said that you actually die twice -- once when your body physically dies and a second death when your name is spoken for the very final time. Every battle has its heroes that are remembered. And then there are the forgotten battles; the ones that are only a footnote within that forgotten battle. To be that is something indeed and I set about putting that into verse, the first ones who go down, no name, no grave, no glory -- just forgotten. "Royal Flying Corpse" is for them.
This is an album that really does manage to place a new twist on your classic sound. How important was that to the band?
PINCH: For me it was essential. Jon Murray was an inspirational riff writer who had a high quality control over his output and, in a way, I didn’t want to let him down. It was really important to me that when -- or if -- he got to hear this record, he would nod wisely and say, That’s my boys! Fortunately, I have been in touch with Jon recently and that is exactly how he hears it. I am so proud that we could recapture that.
GIZZ: It was inevitable. We've all found out what piece of gear does this and that; what drugs not to use; how far to push something. I get what Pinch says about Jon Murray as he was a real master riff writer and working alongside him made for really healthy competition. I wrote a lot at that time and had to step up to the mark. Some of my stuff was turned down and I used it for another band, The Desecrators. An eighteen year-old weighing in at 133 pounds can have various confidence issues that a forty-eight year-old finally can overcome. The combination of technique, practice, experience, and expectation have made an album that sounds complete and rounded off the edges.
So when the songs proved to be so solid the vibe was kind of like, Thank God, we can actually still push this English Dogs sound forward!
PINCH: If it had turned out to be anything less than it is, I would have jumped ship in a heartbeat. It is not worth repeating your mistakes when you have the ability to do something about it. Not sure God is to thank. We all have our own gods, usually inside us, driving us forward. Thank internal human engines if you like.
GIZZ: I keep wearing a mile wide grin! We were even more relieved when we had the album mixed so well.
PINCH: Initially, we thought of a self release, as we did the whole thing totally DIY. We all wrote and recorded in our home studios and pulled in favors from old friends for mixing -- thanks to Dean Pansy in particular for the time he gave the project. I think he made it sound killer. At last! Technology caught up to how we always envisioned an English Dogs release to sound. Adie had to go into a studio for about ten minutes to record his grunts, as obviously, he lives in a cow shed up North somewhere and doesn’t have running water or electricity, but apart from that, the record owes us nothing, so it was entirely up to us what we wanted to do with it. I was pretty happy to get the offer from Candlelight, as we have worked with Steve Beatty before and he is a machine when it comes to getting things done.
We chatted earlier about that original reunion tour. Obviously, you've since come across a lot of younger bands that have considered English Dogs an inspiration. Did any of those bands you discovered that way become an inspiration to you as well as you set out to record The Thing With Two Heads?
GIZZ: Yeah all of them were! We even included one of them on the record! Dave Sanchez of Havok. I stay in touch with all of the guys that toured with us in 2012 and have been out to see them live in the UK. It's special to know there are kindred spirits out there. Musicians that make it known that they were fans of our crossover material -- Arch Enemy, Paradise Lost, Stone Sour, Sepultura, Machine Head, Napalm Death, Exodus...even Metallica!
PINCH: See my answer regarding Havok for that. When we first met them in Baltimore for the first show of the tour, they were a bit stand offish, but we soon learnt that they knew exactly who we were and were just a bit blown away sharing a bus with us. I was blown away with them and we shared a mutual respect all the way through that tour and beyond. I asked David Sanchez to sing on The Thing Will Arise and was extremely pleased when he agreed. I sent him the lyrics and made sure he recorded his parts first, before Adie. My idea was to have them sing alternate lines and just leave it at that, but when Adie heard what he had done, I know he upped his game, inspired by the young blood, and we just allocated the lines, or even words, on who had done the best job. Their voices are so similar on that song, I’m not sure even I can tell you who sang which part, and I was at every minute of studio time for the comping and editing!
Finally, what’s next? How far are English Dogs planning to take this debauchery?
GIZZ: I'm eager to hit the road, beginning with the USA first and then to see what ripples take place from that to see where we ride to next. We can't slum it, though: Me and Pinch saw a lot of shit in the 90's and without his one-hundred percent enthusiasm it would feel all wrong. He just wouldn't take a lame offer and do you think we'd do it without him? No way! An English Dogs without Pinch isn't English Dogs at all. The album is really well received, getting great reviews. That's really rewarding. Now I want to see a good tour offer come forward .
PINCH: It seems that people get this record completely, with some great reviews and really positive enforcement from some of our musical peers. However, I am not desperate to jump in a van and slog endlessly around the world. Been there and done that. I hope we get the chance someday to do with this record what we did with Forward Into Battle. I just hope it doesn’t take another twenty-five years for that to happen.