Thumping in public

This lyrical celebration of indominability and English working-class drinking culture was heard behind a Fox TV profile of Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders.

You're never going to keep me down.

The song even made it into the sound track of Home Alone 3.

Outwardly, there's little more than a band with a pop hit featuring an infectious hook. But Chumbawamba is an unlikely candidate for commercial stardom. The band members, whose origins go back 15 years into the British punk movement, define themselves as hard-core, revolutionary anarchists whose previous releases contain explicit challenges to the institutions of the political state and capitalism.

The Metro Times spoke with Chumbawamba vocalist Alice Nutter, from Leeds, England, to find out how an anarchist band from Northern Britain deals with becoming an international rock sensation.

Metro Times: How does your sudden entrance into the pop spotlight affect you personally and professionally?

Alice Nutter: Personally, it's a bit of a double-edged sword, but we're really pleased to be getting into people's houses, pleased to be on karaoke machines, to be played in bars and to be played at family weddings -- places where people go that aren't hip to pop culture. That's what Chumbawamba has always wanted, really.

On a personal level, I've spent two days at home in the last three months and that's not a good thing because part of what we are rests on the fact that we have lives that are not just part of a rock-and-roll circus. We recognize that people are part of communities and a lot of what we do is be part of an anarchist community and the community we live in.

MT: The lyrics on your last album, the live Showbusiness, were overtly anarchist, anti-fascist, pro-feminist and pro-gay; none of this comes through in the lyrics of Tubthumper. Did you want this album to be less radical?

Nutter: We decided to make our writing a better experience for us; we wanted to become more poetic. But we knew in order to explain what we were talking about we needed extensive sleeve notes. We spent months producing a highly political booklet that went with the album. It was all about a community of dissent from George Bernard Shaw and Simone de Beauvoir to people involved in the anti-road struggles in Britain today. We worked really hard at explaining all of the ideas in the songs.

But when it came time for the American release, the lawyers said it would take another seven months to get clearance on every quote in the booklet. So we had to make a decision whether to wait or not. We threw a bit of a fit and said, "Why do you have to get clearance on Plato; he's been dead forever." Finally we decided to release it sooner without the booklet.

We didn't have the problem anywhere else. The album came out all over Europe and Asia with the sleeve notes. People there got the album we wanted; in America they didn't. You don't have an idea immediately what the album is about and to me, and for the rest of Chumbawamba, it's frustrating because the last thing in the world we are is lap liberals; we're anarchists.

MT: Without the liner notes to set a song like "Tubthumping" in a radical context, doesn't it come off as a glorification of the male culture of drinking at sporting events?

Nutter: It does have a crowd feeling. We wrote the chorus, "I get knocked down. But I get up again," with the idea of ordinary working-class people in mind. About no matter how difficult life is and what a struggle it can be just to get through a week, you still have moments where you say life is really sweet.

To us it's a call for solidarity, not everybody get toasted. We can't control how people use our song., but actually I don't think it's a bad thing being used at sporting events. I've been at soccer games when 50,000 people, ordinary working-class people, are singing it. It's an absolutely brilliant moment for us; that's just the way it should be.

We believe that pop music can be intensively political, but Chumbawamba doesn't want to be just a pop group. We want to be part of a radical community away from music because real life is more exciting than a rock-and-roll circus.

MT: You're going to be at a fairly large venue when you play in Detroit, but during your last visit here, in 1993, it was at a small storefront in the Cass Corridor called 404 Willis.

Nutter: Oh, yeah, we had Boff's amp on top of their stove and we had to stop every once in a while and ask if anyone wanted to go to the toilet. We were blocking the entrance to it because there was so little room.

MT: Any plans for Chumbawamba beyond your present tour?

Nutter: To be in Home Alone 4.

The liner notes missing from Chumbawamba's U.S. release can be obtained by writing the band at PO Box TR666, Leeds, LS12 3XJ, or by visiting its Web site at
Peter Werbe would much rather hear Chumbawamba than Gary Glitter or Queen. Send comments to [email protected]